Hold That Thought

Hold That Though cover2


Many of my albums have been organized around a specific idea, such as time, innocence, worry, recovery, or loss of self. This particular album focuses more on the ideas themselves. There are many different methods of composing spontaneously, even when not starting with any preconceived musical material or purpose. Aesthetic quality in spontaneity is achieved through depth of experience, and, as a rule, that is achieved through focused attention. It is similar to meditation, and just as there are many different ways to meditate, there are many different ways to proceed with an improvisation.

Focused attention seems to be often mistaken for trance. Trance is where listening or some other experience occupies space in your mind but doesn’t demand your attention. If you are playing a repeated pattern, for instance, your attention can become detached from the process (mental auto-pilot) and your mind will actually wander sometimes. This is almost the antithesis of focused attention. I have had students, for instance, who have thought that the point of practicing is to reach a point where you are just listening to what you are doing and not thinking about it. Actually, the point of practice is to allow you think in ever-greater detail. Practice allows you to think about how you are going to play every single note!

When you are focusing, you must focus on something. When you are improvising, you are focusing on what you are playing, of course, but you are also creating and managing the direction of the music. This means that you are using the music you are hearing to create new music. You can repeat the “old” music, vary it in some way, or react to it with something either complementary or contrasting. With the piano, there is also the element of musical space and texture so that you have the option of moving things around from one hand to the other or varying the accompaniment, harmony, or context of the original idea.

This sort of spontaneous compositional methodology tends to result in musical pieces with certain characteristics, some of which occur on this album. The most commonly occurring structure is what I like to call the “Spring” and is related to the Linked Verse technique used in Japanese (group) oral poetry. It is where older material is always being varied and reacted to so that the music moves forward while referring back at the same time. Since the older material is being continually revised, the whole structure moves forward. The circling back is like a spiral, but because the whole thing moves forward it is more like a Spring. The first, third, and fifth track of Hold That Thought conform to this sort of structure while being completely different types of pieces.

  1. Prelude is also focused on melody, and is akin to a soliloquy or opera recitative with a minimal accompaniment. The melody emotes plaintively or with flourish but always refers back in linked verse fashion.
  2. Intermezzo is a complicated and varied track whose references to older material are interspersed with impetuous flourishes and extreme shifts of register. Older material does not mean vanilla.
  3. Rhapsody is also somewhat impetuous but is more like a sung epic poem with an ending more like Ulysses returning home rather than Caesar returning from Gaul.
  4. Sequenza developed a little differently. The material I begin with just happens to be simple, distinctive, and easily remembered. Its chromatic nature lends itself easily to variation and transposition, hence it becomes like a huge sequence. I use the term “sequenza” with apologies to Luciano Berio who used the title for a whole series of virtuosic solo works for different instruments. Instead of moving like a spring or spiral, the piece seems to move like a rogue planet that keeps swinging next to the sun and getting thrown off in a completely different direction.
  5. Emergence also focuses on a single melodic idea, and though the idea can be heard in the early portions of the piece, it doesn’t become prominent until about halfway through the piece. At that point, it is repeated and sequenced in a manner reminiscent of Richard Strauss. Hence, it is as though the musical idea was discovered in the middle of the piece, much like all of a sudden becoming attracted to someone you’ve been working with for quite a while.

All of these different approaches require focus and, of course, imagination to be effective. An improviser learns that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But you try to choose the ones that work for an album.

This is my 22nd solo piano album and was recorded at my home in Phoenix, Arizona.

Changing music from events to processes

It changes the way music is organized and experienced

I first became aware of the role of emotional oscillation in music sometime around 1980, through the work of Manfred Clynes. (See my blog post on Music and Emotion.) His research suggested emotion was expressed through music using very specific oscillations of intensity and release. After becoming acquainted with his work, I challenged myself with the question of how this was accomplished in music.

Oscillations, or waves, form the very basis of music through sound, but how the music is performed or created to convey a specific emotional oscillation is a little different. Sound by itself does not possess these qualities though, of course, the voice, for instance, is very inflective. I had to examine the relationship between sounds to find the amount of motion necessary to express waves of emotion, which can vary from less than a second to over five seconds. To express these relationships you need at least two dimensions. One is of course time, but the other would need to be a musical field or parameter which has defined polarities, i.e., high and low registers or loud and soft dynamics. Oscillations could take place on single notes (i.e., crescendo/diminuendo or a glissando) but would primarily take place through the comparison of the relationship between separate events. This is not usually perceived consciously by the listener, and often falls more into the realm of performance rather than composition. But still, there are oscillating parameters that are commonly manipulated by composers. In fact, once I started to look for them, I found so many that it quickly became apparent I would not be able to keep track of them all at any given moment.

I began to think about the possibility of creating music using verbs instead of nouns.

Music is traditionally analyzed and organized according to its identifiable items: Keys, chords, motives, rhythms, etc. These items are given status or function (i.e., primary, secondary, cadential, etc.) and are often organized into hierarchies. Some hierarchies are traditional and enveloping, such as tonal and metric hierarchies, and others are set forth by the composer relating directly to the structure of a specific work. But my search for oscillating parameters had me now looking for processes instead of items. I began to think about the possibility of creating music using verbs instead of nouns.

If you are organizing music around specific items, you must of course play and use those specific items. Oscillating parameters, however, are in use all of the time. Sometimes they are prominent, sometimes they are more neutral, but they are always available! A structure using these parameters would consider which ones are being used prominently and when. It would also keep track of the types of emotional content being expressed. This is not only a very broad spectrum of possibilities; it is also a very different kind of spectrum. The expressive parameters will be changing quite a bit, but the structural parameters will likely be those that remain static for a while (i.e., upper register, very soft or loud, all the same articulation, all the same color or chord or scale). In a structure of this type, the actual items of musical material carry less importance, though they can be organized traditionally, if that is preferred.

I also turned to improvisation because it is honest! The music I am playing, and emotions I am expressing, are actually being experienced.

My interest in musical processes eventually led to my exploration of process in both philosophy (i.e., Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne) and Eastern Religions (Buddhism and Taoism). I don’t profess to have learned a great deal about any of these subjects, but my inquiries did turn my artistic activity in a different direction, namely, toward improvisation. Improvisation, being a realtime activity, allows for a much more acute awareness of these emotional oscillations. In fact, they are a constant source of inspiration. It also allows for continual exploration of identified oscillating parameters. The realtime free flow of ideas itself is the epitome of process and the artistic antithesis of constructivism. I also turned to improvisation because it is honest! The music I am playing, and emotions I am expressing, are actually being experienced. Not every musical listener will be necessarily interested in the emotions I am expressing, no matter how well they are expressed. However, I am much more comfortable expressing real emotion than conjuring up a contrived feeling through the manipulation of a musical magic show.

Listening to music as a process allows you to focus on small-scale momentary expression and yet make a note when new parameters come into play. You become more aware of increases and releases of intensity and their interplay, expressed often simultaneously in different parameters. In fact, music allows for multiple expression of the same parameter in different voices. There is never a lack of things to listen to, but it is not the same kind of listening. It is not a matter of keeping track of ideas and their manipulations; it is a continual unfolding of expressive creativity. It is not the usual intellectual exercise; it is a sequence of emotional experiences. It does not always have a point, but it is often well worth knowing.

The process of improvisation

The value of nonthinking

Even for experienced improvisers, the process of improvisation is somewhat of a mystery. Riding the edge of creation, which is what the process of improvisation feels like, is not something to be questioned too analytically. It is a bit like the centipede that was paralyzed by the question of which foot comes after which; thinking too hard can throw you off completely.

The centipede was happy, quite,
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”
This worked his mind to such a pitch,
He lay distracted in a ditch,
Considering how to run.

I usually tell people that you play one note, then another, and then another. Anything more than that often results in a mess. You make each decision based on how you “feel.” You react in accordance with how you feel the phrase should go. You can’t really think too much about the music specifically, thinking takes too much time. I have personally always felt that thinking was overrated anyway.

Nothing ever goes exactly the way you expect, and even a small change can alter the direction, scope, and effect of your original idea.

About twenty years ago or so, I ran across a scholarly article about the process of improvisation and how it works. It had diagrams and flowcharts and feedback loops with options and conditionals, etc., etc. I figure it was meant more to help someone program a computer with an improvisation program rather than to actually help someone try to improvise. It was not very enlightening, but it did get some things right. It emphasized the reactive nature of improvising as opposed to that of following a plan or focusing on an abstract or musical idea. It is a process, not a production. This is an important part of improvising that an improviser needs to fully digest. At any moment while improvising, a performer is reacting to what he or she has just heard, trying to take it where they think it should go. But before they get there, they must react to the new music. This is true, even if you are improvising by yourself. Nothing ever goes exactly the way you expect, and even a small change can alter the direction, scope, and effect of your original idea. Playing one note softer than expected changes the emotional course of a phrase, and provides (or sometimes necessitates) the opportunity to go in a new direction. Improvisers learn that no idea is sacred, and it is more practical to just avoid thinking too much. You can have the most magnificent vision and insight into the next eight bars, but by the time you’ve reached the eighth bar, you have already altered that plan at least three times. Vision wasted.

This phenomenon of continuous reaction can become a joyous experience when improvising with others. The music can be constantly enhanced by the inspiration of multiple minds, and it can also be thrilling to be part of many uniting as one in a common inspiration. Musical interaction can be thrilling when you know what everybody is doing, as is the case with Classical music. But that interaction can border on nirvana when everybody is improvising. The music is always, however, on the verge of chaos. It is only through collective effort that it stays alive. This fact enhances the thrill you receive when it works.

A dear friend of mine, who happens to also be a composer, asked me a question after I had played seven or eight chords in quick succession upon which you could have wasted fifteen pages of analysis. He asked, “Do you know what you are doing when you play those chords or are you just moving your fingers?” The simple answer was, “Yes.” I am just moving my fingers and know what I am doing. The more useful answer was that I am not doing a theoretical analysis of each chord, but I am listening hard to what I am playing and reacting accordingly.

Any improviser will say that when he or she is playing well, the music seems to be “playing itself!”

It is important, too, to not separate your brain from your fingers. Playing any instrument is a physical process and we relate the motions we make to the sounds that we hear. Any improviser will say that when he or she is playing well, the music seems to be “playing itself!” The process is flowing freely without the stifling interference of any intention. There is an unfortunate concept in classical music called “muscle memory,” which can supposedly happen when you practice a passage so much that you can play it without thinking about it. This can sometimes have unintended consequences, ostensibly because the performer is not in control of his or her fingers. This fosters the idea that one’s fingers are both untrustworthy and separate from one’s brain. The brain’s job seems to be to whip the fingers into shape and then lord over them to make sure they don’t go astray. This is nonsense. There is no way you can “think” your way through scales, arpeggios, or any other passagework without trusting your fingers to do the work. The true danger is not that your muscles will betray you, but that your mind becomes lazy. Paying attention is the foundation of any skill, and listening and guiding are attentive skills demanded of any musician. While improvising, the listening is more open and creative, and the guidance less rigorous, but it is still the fingers that do the work. When improvising, control over how you play your instrument needs only a very loose tether because there is no planning to be done. You are simply listening and reacting, over and over. I don’t think, therefore I improvise.

Spontaneous Composition?

Improvisation that aims to create rather than vary, elaborate, or derive

My music is spontaneously conceived, but it is hard for me to call it “spontaneously composed.” It meets the broad definition of improvisation, but because it is neither haphazard nor flighty, using that term tends to give people the wrong impression. One reviewer described my music as an “intriguing (and, at its best, also successful) exercise in instantaneous composition,” but, to me, that phrase is essentially an oxymoron. Gregory Hall, a composer/improviser friend of mine who also finds himself in this situation, calls his music “compositional improvisation,” which is maybe only a little better. My favorite description of music of this sort is by the composer and clarinet wizard William O. Smith, who calls his improvisation “composition in motion.” The problem is that “composition” implies something almost antithetical to improvisation because the music is usually reworked and reimagined until it is barely recognizable from its original inspiration. However “improvisation” alone is not enough as it implies a carefree, almost careless attitude. The term “improvisation” is also so broad as to be used for everything from playing by ear to sonic chaos.

But if I use the term “spontaneous composition,” at least it conveys a certain serious attitude about what I am doing.

But if I use the term “spontaneous composition,” at least it conveys a certain serious attitude about what I am doing. And since compositional procedure is nearly as broadly defined as improvisation, I must resign myself to the idea that my music is located somewhere within the intersection of the two disciplines. I remember my children bringing home math problems in set theory. They would have diagrams of two overlapping circles and they would have to color the little section where they intersected. That little section is me.

Earlier in my career, I tried to capture the structural aspects of improvisation (as I saw them) in my composition, but despite many different approaches, I could not replicate the process. There is a spiritual component to improvisation that simply cannot be recreated. Even when I transcribe the improvisation faithfully and re-perform it, it is a different experience. When you know the end of a story, you tell it differently. And when a listener knows the performer knows the end of the story, they listen differently. A recording, I suppose, is the most authentic re-creation, but even so, it is not the same, and it is listened to in a different way.

I can understand those who decide to only improvise. Improvising becomes a way of life; it is in the moment and free. Relationships developed while improvising seem to be cemented forever. But I have never been able to truly make the transition from composition all the way to worry-free improvisation. I realize this could be considered a psychological hang-up or philosophically “impure”, but it’s just the way it is. I prefer to emphasize the benefits of “hybridization.” More specifically, even though my music is spontaneous, its creative impulses seem to be inevitably aimed at recording. I am too much of a composer to continually throw away the end product; I see the reality of spontaneous conception, conversely, as my only opportunity to work with specially created musical material.

I consider my music in the same light as that of an electronic composer. It is music created in sound and manipulated as such. In the 1960’s, electronic composer Morton Subotnik envisioned magnetic tape as the new score paper. Today, the computer has supplanted tape, but the idea is basically the same. My music is created and organized directly as sound. Sounds can be altered with effects, reorganized, stacked and juxtaposed with other sounds, but they are not abstract. Any attempt at notating sonically conceived music would not be any more than a rough approximation. As it is already recorded, its preservation is not in doubt. The only convincing reason to transcribe this type of music would be demand.

I choose spontaneity because of its special characteristics. It is organic, it naturally flows from one idea to another, and it is always on the creative edge of discovery. Earlier in my composing career, I sometimes found myself writing what is known as process music, that is, music that unfolds through an underlying consistent process. I tried to create a compositional process that mimicked improvisation. In a sense, I now consider improvisation to be my compositional “process.” Technically, I guess I have just gone “wholesale” and eliminated the middleman.