Lessons learned from transcribing improvisations

The limits of music notation and the structure of spontaneity

Despite serious reservations about the merits of transcribing my improvisations, I have nevertheless done so, off and on, for forty years. These days, because I usually record to a MIDI file, I am able to easily access all the notes that I played and I have a good picture of the music in what’s known as a “piano roll” representation on the computer. But because I do not record with a click track, the notational algorithms of the various recording programs are rendered nearly useless. However, I have been transcribing my improvisations since before there were computers to capture them. My early efforts at transcription, from reel-to-reel tape recorders at half speed, taught me many things about both music notation and myself that I don’t think I would have learned otherwise.

The first thing I realized was that nearly all music that is notated was conceived that way. Composers are taught to write music deductively; that is, they are taught to derive more music from smaller bits of music whether it is motives, sets, sounds, or whatever. This process is carried out on paper (or more often on computer these days) and is done using music that is already notated. Even though music notation has been greatly expanded and enhanced these days with graphs and other formats, it is still an expanded use and development of ideas that are already in written form. Music is also taught in this written form, and so composers naturally have been conceiving of music in this way for hundreds of years.

I began to understand that, like mathematics, rhythm and pulse, though very useful tools, were not real in themselves.

When I first started to improvise, I used the ideas that I knew. I played in keys, meters, tempi, etc., but soon began to realize that that wasn’t really necessary. I found I didn’t need to think in a meter, I could think in phrases. I used a concept I called “macrometer” in which I thought of the focal point of the phrase as the “downbeat” and the rest of the music as leading either toward or away from that point. When I tried to transcribe these pieces, I found that putting the music back into traditional metric structures was difficult. Not only was it difficult, but it also could be done a number of different ways! I found that meter was a very fluid concept and not the musical foundation I thought it was. I began to understand that, like mathematics, rhythm and pulse, though very useful tools, were not real in themselves. They were concepts, but do not actually exist outside of the music that defines them. The pulse is defined by the music and not the other way around. This has been a very helpful concept to understand in ensemble playing as well. Members of an ensemble are not following the pulse, they are following each other! Collectively they are defining the pulse and the rhythm, not the other way around.

Tempo is also quite fluid. While transcribing improvisations, I found metric modulations, rubati, multiple tempo referencing (referring back to previous tempi) all turn out to be common and make the music quite complicated to notate. Because I conceived of the music using phrases instead of meter, tempo rubati happen often and are difficult to deal with. I still have not worked out a very good way to transcribe rubati. Recently, I tried transcribing all the rhythm against a fixed pulse so that different tempi were notated as tuplets or different note lengths. The method is more accurate but it is complicated, and the internal logic of the music becomes obscured. The difficulty of transcribing abstract rhythms and tempi has been a continuing problem and has caused me to return to the drawing board many times. I am beginning to think maybe I should be looking somewhere else.

I have heard conductors tell me to play exactly what the composer wrote my whole life, but a computer really does play what is written and it sounds terrible.

When I started using a computer and used a software program to play back my notation, I began to realize how very generalized music notation really is. I have heard conductors tell me to play exactly what the composer wrote my whole life, but a computer really does play what is written and it sounds terrible. There is no tempo inflection, no dynamic shading, no phrasing, no balancing, no shading or coloring, nothing other than the notes on the page, some articulations, and six or seven volume levels. To get the program to play my written notation so that it sounded like my improvisation took so many tempo markings, articulations, and dynamics that the music became hopelessly complicated and over-marked. I then would try to back off and leave some of them out, but where do I start? Classical music performers, especially pianists, interpret music by adding these things to the more generalized representation that a traditional composer writes. It is very difficult to try to make a recorded performance less specific and more generalized! I must try to imagine how much notation a performer would need to make what I actually did as an improvisation a legitimate interpretation. This is not music – it’s psychology!

Some of the most interesting things I learned from doing transcriptions were about structure, musical material, and memory. It is perhaps not very helpful to say that improvisational structure is “organic,” but that is the best word for it. The way the music is organized is not hierarchical but “linked.” New phrases both react to previous phrases and borrow material from them. Musical ideas seem to hang around for several phrases and then give way to newer ideas. Sometimes older ideas would be referenced, but not regularly. A new idea would be like throwing a stone in the water; it would ripple strongly for a few phrases and then peter out, giving way to newer material. There often seemed to be a subconscious attempt to balance new material with old material, though that pendulum would swing in either direction from time to time. “Organic” in this sense means a gradual unfolding of new material mixed with and as a reaction to older material.

Before I went all in on improvisation, I went through a period in which I would use an improvisation to craft a larger composition. What I tended to do with my improvised phrases, when I used them in my composition, was to stretch or extend them into larger phrases or sections. In the meantime, when I wasn’t composing, I would continue to improvise. However, the work I was doing in my composition slowly worked its way into my improvisation to the point where I no longer felt that lengthening or extending the phrases was necessary. It was at this point that my improvisation became my composition.

However, this “organic” structure was not just one continual process. There were sections and larger sections that were identified by texture, cadential syntax, or other distinctive changes. I never am aware of the larger structure while improvising, though I am aware of the changes, which I often identify as opportunities. I do often have a certain “feeling” about where I am within a structure, somewhat analogous to the feeling of direction you get when hiking in a forest. Of course, sometimes I end up wandering in circles, but I don’t transcribe or even save those improvisations!

When you are composing and building your musical structure with motives or other types of material, that building-block material doesn’t change. Any alteration that is done would be inferred as deliberate, which implies “with good reason.” Even if you did decide to “transform” the material, it almost always would remain recognizable. There is little reason to not do it that way. When you are improvising, however, you must rely upon your memory, and memory is fickle and impressionable, especially when distracted by the constant act of creation. What you remember from what you have played may not be its most distinctive characteristic, or maybe you don’t remember all of it. You may get the intervals right but not the rhythm, or vice versa. And when improvising, the music is much more likely to be altered by context, not to mention an occasional accident.

As a result, the musical ideas change. The ideas that do appear seem to “evolve” out of what comes before. Sometimes, referencing that material is identifiable, but sometimes it is not. It is a little like the childhood game of Pass The Secret, where you whisper something to the next person and they to the next until it returns to the original person completely changed. [A fun variation on this game is to copy a phrase or story (a joke is especially good) into a translation program and take it through several languages before translating it back to the original language!) When we retell or reference something, we often tell it in a different way. In music, I have come to the point where I think this type of development is more natural. The music grows, instead of being constructed from identical musical bricks. To me this feels more honest, while constructed music feels somewhat affected. Nowadays, I grow weary when I hear composers using the same material all the time. When you do a lot of improvising, composed music sometimes begins to sound rather “contrived.” Such is life.

A Change of Heart

The prevalence of literal thought in society and music sublimates imagination

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a video on Facebook about education. It was about how recent education had stopped stimulating imaginative thought through content testing, etc. The point was that imaginative thinking was more common, more interesting, and more useful than just facts. It rekindled an idea I had pondered many times, about how modern culture and technology has fostered a “cult of the literal.” How access to, even bombardment by audio, video, and constant information has suppressed abstract and imaginative thought and somehow made it seem less important.

Our culture used to be brimming with stories, oral or written, with which you became involved. The stories taught as much as they entertained. They would exist in your mind as abstract images. They meant more as ideas than they would as literal people and places. I took my first trip to Europe this summer, and I saw places that I had heard about my entire life. But by themselves, these places were unremarkable. It’s the stories and my imaginative extrapolations that made them come alive.

I first noticed this trend several decades ago when digital watches were introduced. You would ask someone for the time and they would answer, “3:43,” where before they might have said, “It’s almost a quarter to four.” Digital watches had suddenly made precision important.

The society now has instant access to a thousand times the information that it did when I was growing up. But so much of it is a passive access. It is either video, or a search engine, or stuff roboted to your email. We don’t have to work for it or even think about it. It’s here; it’s gone. It used to take patience and skill to find things out; now if you can’t Google it, it’s not worth searching for.

The culture has changed enormously in the past couple of decades, and I suppose we really have no choice but to roll with it. But I have lived long enough to experience this immense change in my lifetime, and if I step back, I can look at how it has changed me. Because of all the tools I have at my fingertips, the role imagination plays in my work has become limited and temporary. Composers used to carry an abstract aural concept of a piece in their head for months or even years with larger works. Now our computer plays whatever we write as soon as we write it. On one hand, we don’t make big mistakes anymore; on the other hand, we don’t take any chances.

The innovation of the Suzuki method was that it taught Classical music by ear . . . Most Classical musicians at the time thought this was “cheating!”

When I was just learning music, the teaching method of Sinichi Suzuki was just becoming known in America. I can remember that my teachers were horrified. The innovation of the Suzuki method was that it taught Classical music by ear, which is the way most music is learned throughout the world. Most Classical musicians at the time thought this was “cheating!” My piano teacher advised me to not listen to any recordings of the pieces I was playing. He thought it polluted the process of creating my own concept of the piece. Today, listening to a recording is the first thing that a musician does. The Suzuki method has become standard practice. When I started my orchestral career, conductors were expected to have different interpretations of even standard repertoire. Alternate interpretations now often strike my orchestra colleagues as “wrong.”

Classical music has always lived through the imagination of its performers. Classical notation is just an approximation, and was not intended to be very precise. I didn’t think this was the case until I started using computers. Nothing alerts you to that fact more than having a computer play music from your own notation. A computer just plays what it sees – no imagination, no extrapolation. It’s dreadful. When I started recording using MIDI, I found that the computer would record the touch of my keyboard with 128 different volume gradations. It makes the seven or eight different dynamics of written music seem pretty meager. I looked at a graph of my volume values and realized I had used every one of the 128!

MIDI Screen shot
A screen shot of a (condensed) keyboard MIDI file showing pitches and note lengths above and volume (key pressure) in the pinkish area.  The pink areas are places where the sustain pedal is depressed.

But it is exactly that generalization of music notation that has continued to regenerate Classical music throughout the centuries. A musician can always imagine a better performance, and can always imagine improving his or her own performance. The imagined music is what makes the real music come alive; it is just like all those famous places I saw this summer.

Several weeks ago, I wrote on this blog about transcribing from my piano recordings. I had decided that the music was better represented if I transcribed it against a steady pulse, allowing the music to ebb and flow around what amounted to a stationary grid. Though I have been able to do this, and the music on the recording matches well with the music played by the computer from my notation, it does not embody the imaginative spirit that entices a pianist to sit down and play it. It creates the music with smoke and mirrors. If you play what I wrote, the music appears out of nowhere; not because you imagined it and brought it to life.

So I have gone back to notating the music rationally, by showing the rhythms and tempos in a clear fashion that gives a pianist something to re-imagine. Though I must show changes in tempo, I am not showing every rubato. I use the notation to show the structure, and let the pianist show the music. This is what musicians have always done, and what they do best.

Introducing Suites from ‘Floating Leaves’ and ‘Night Drift’

The first two suites of transcriptions from my solo piano albums

I am now able to offer written transcriptions (sheet music)of selections from two of my solo piano albums, Floating Leaves and Night Drift. I transcribed most of Floating Leaves in the summer of 2016 and all of Night Drift this past summer (2017). Both suites have been transcribed using the “irrational” transcription method described in my last blog entry, “Transcribing My Piano Improvisations.”

Sheet music for both suites can be ordered from the American Composers Edition and for a while I am including a .pdf of the score with the download of the recording of the either suite from bandcamp.

FloatingLeaves NewCover 14MFloating Leaves was my fifth solo piano album. It was recorded sporadically during 2005-06 and was released in 2013. During that period of time my music was undergoing a shift in style and substance. It was the first album I recorded after I went “all in” on improvisation, and at the time I still wasn’t completely convinced. One of the favorite mantras I would focus on at the time, while improvising, was to imagine that I was floating in a glass sphere, being tossed this way and that on the ocean, in a river, or just floating on a lake. It was a way to channel my oscillating inner intensity into shifting musical gestures. It became a unifying theme for an album that was recorded over a fairly lengthy period of time. The idea also came from my readings in Chinese philosophy. The suite includes the album’s first five tracks, though not in the same order.

night drift coverNight Drift was my thirteenth solo piano album. It was recorded on one magical night in the fall of 2009 at my cabin in Ash Fork, AZ. The albums I recorded in 2008 and 2009 were all done alone in the woods at my cabin during several days of intense sessions. Normally, I am a morning person, but that day I went back and recorded for a while at night until I was actually starting to nod off! The music I recorded, which remains the only session I have done at night, is dreamier and more wistful than usual. It is hard to put my finger on what makes it that way, but I definitely feel it when I listen to it. Included in the suite are tracks 1, 2, 4, and 5.

Floating Leaves did not receive a review, but Night Drift received a nice review from Darren Rea at Review Graveyard.

Transcribing my piano improvisations

Working around the confines of traditional music notation

When I was first drawn to solo piano improvisation, about forty years ago, it was because the kind of music I heard being improvised was not available in written form. It wasn’t the style that got my attention, it was the freshness and spontaneity and the way the music unfolded. Though I spent quite a few years trying to mimic improvisation with my composition, I was never entirely successful. If I recorded some improvisations and then transcribed them, I thought maybe I could get a result that approached the feeling of the original improvisation.

R2R tapeI started in the late 1970’s with a reel-to-reel tape recorder that made transcribing them no mean feat! It took weeks to transcribe each improvisation with some passages having to be played at half speed over and over again. Getting all the notes was difficult sometimes, but making a decision on the rhythm was sometimes ridiculously hard. At least the notes were real; rhythm is an abstract concept. Deriving beats, figuring the meter, and deciding where in the meter the music went are all decisions that became very difficult. This was especially true when I was playing freely, which was increasingly the case. It’s harder to find the beat when the beat keeps changing.

When a performer does not conceive of his or her improvisation as following a particular tempo or meter, transcription becomes nearly impossible. I would try to derive a sense of strong or weak beats through groupings and emphasis, see if there was consistency, and count beats through the long notes. Even after deriving the logic of what was played, all I could do was to show the groupings and write “freely” for the tempo. For a solo piano, this would be all right, but if I were to arrange it for even a small group, I would have to be a lot more definitive. I ended up making a lot of compositional decisions that didn’t relate to the original at all.

When I began to record using MIDI, it became somewhat easier because all the notes were there, but the rhythm was still a problem. People have asked me why I didn’t just let the computer transcribe my improvisations. The reason is that if you don’t play WITH a computer, (i.e. a click track); the computer doesn’t know what you are doing. It often doesn’t know anyway.

Music notation programs started becoming available about 30 years ago. They were rather basic at first, but after about 15-20 years, they had it pretty well figured out. The programs can now notate and play just about anything you can write, and can read and play slurs and articulations, dynamics, and a number of instructions such as pizz. and col legno. They can alternate between 20 or 30 different samples per line and they sound great. They all have mixing boards and notating music has become an instant recording studio. But transcription, other than easy rhythms, is still a problem, and you still have to play with the computer. Though they can change tempo on a dime to the hundredth of a metronome marking, they cannot follow what you are playing, other than rounding to the nearest eighth or sixteenth note. If you are playing freely, they are no help at all.

I was not able to get transcriptions of my improvisations to sound anything like my originals without a ridiculous amount of markings and tempo changes. I felt I needed a better way to transcribe them. At first, I thought maybe I should allow the performer more freedom and try to capture the feeling I had when I improvised them. I tried more abstract notation systems. I tried spatial notation. I tried graphic notation. I tried a more generalized form of regular notation without all the intricacies of my original. But all of these attempts had the same problem – you couldn’t practice them! All the pianists who tried to play them, including me, had to alter them to practice them. The pianist would end up deciding how they were going to play them and then change the notation to accommodate their decisions. That was not the intention.

I spent a long time, several years, on this problem. I mentioned it to Gina Genova at the American Composers Alliance (my publisher). She told me about some late piano pieces by Earle Brown where he just improvised freely on a keyboard and let the computer transcribe them. She had had a pianist clean them up and perform them and thought they had worked out fine. She suggested that I try doing my transcriptions that way. I balked. A computer transcription of my music was not only illegible it wasn’t very accurate. The computer would “round” the value of the notes off to the nearest sixteenth or whatever you chose, and make it sound really choppy.

A computer transcription was not a good choice, but what the computer was trying to do was to transcribe the music against a steady pulse instead of trying to convey the imagined pulse of the music. That particular concept became increasingly more intriguing. It would be like drawing a grid of squares across a photograph and reproducing it square by square in a painting, much like the procedure for painting billboards. Using triplets, quintuplets, and syncopation to convey the differences in meters and tempos would smooth things out and could be made to work if I was careful about it. Transcribing against a grid would capture much more of the original improvisation than using instructions and tempo changes would. The more I thought about it, the more I was tempted to try it.

p05
A portion of a free piano improvisation captured in MIDI and displayed as a “piano roll.”

My recording program displays the MIDI information on a graph that looks like a piano roll for a player piano, but it does so against the background grid of a chosen tempo. In my case, that tempo is rather arbitrary because I don’t use it to keep a beat. So I tried transcribing a few improvisations against this rhythmic grid to get a feel for what was involved. I had to be careful, I discovered, to not make the transcription too complicated. If the original was consistently just a little off from the grid, I would find a way to align it better. I was happy, at that point, to have the notation software play the transcription back faithfully for me because I could compare it with the sound of the original. I discovered that some rhythmic subtleties are difficult to determine visually when looking at the screen, but much easier to hear when I played the transcription back. Generally, it worked out much more smoothly than I would have guessed. I ran into a tough measure or passage every once in a while, but I was able to work through them and get it done.

To test the result, I practiced and learned to play the pieces I transcribed, and the results were very interesting. The transcription was different than the rhythms I had imagined when I listened to the improvisation, but as I practiced the music, my conception of the music changed! I remember this having happened with a number of other pieces I had played where I had heard a recording first and imagined the rhythm as different from what the composer had written (usually the composer was Stravinsky.) But I just re-conceived the piece once I saw it notated. Once I saw the rhythm, I was OK (usually).

Notating the music “irrationally” was not only much more true to the original, it actually brought out relationships that I didn’t realize were there. Though the process was not like clicking a button and letting the computer do it, it was not really that difficult. I could make good progress and finish a transcription of a five-to-seven minute improvisation in a few days, which was generally faster than most methods I had tried. There certainly are some tricks to it, but the process gets easier the more I do it.

Click to see the same passage in Rational (Traditional), Spatial, and Irrational Notation 

The end result is that I am more than happy doing my piano transcriptions this way. I think the clincher came when I realized that the concentration level I used when performing the transcriptions was close to the same level I needed to create them in the first place. Of course, I was concentrating on completely different things, but the feeling was very much the same. A performer needs to be able to concentrate on enough detail to properly provide an involved performance. The level of concentration achieved by a performer is an important consideration in determining how much a performer enjoys the experience. And a happy performer makes for a happy composer!

So I am now in the process of transcribing some “suites” from my albums. The transcriptions are actually true enough that I can use the original recording as an example. Having a written version of the music available is of no consequence to the casual listener, but if you play piano, it is always considerably more enjoyable to play through the music yourself. Being an improviser has been very rewarding musically, but it is a little lonely. People either like or don’t like what you do, but it is all on a surface level. When your music is written down, musicians get to know it better and thereby, get to know you better. It is more rewarding for everyone.