Turns Out My Improvisation is Composition After All

Why I no longer call my music improvisation

For nearly two decades now I have been campaigning for the virtues of improvisation. Actually, I have been doing it most of my career, but since 1998 I have been putting my music where my mouth is and turning out albums of solo piano improvisation.

combo portrait2It is important to me that my music is created spontaneously, but for many others, it is of no consequence. Many musicians misunderstand what improvisation is, especially at the compositional level. Even such a creative icon as Miles Davis was quoted as saying he had “no idea” what Keith Jarrett was doing when he performed his solo improvisations. I have heard people say improvisation is “real-time composition” or, one of my favorites, “composition in motion,” but this is not really the case. Many people have said to me, “Well, at some point, all composition is improvisation.” Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Composition is about ideas. It is about the methodical construction of music directly from those ideas, whether the ideas are musical or non-musical. Sometimes the ideas are subtle and seemingly unimportant, sometimes they are the whole point of the music. The ideas can be motivic or harmonic, or they can be philosophical. They can be a self-driven process, or they can follow a script, film, play, or dance. They can be about social comment or be completely introverted. Or they can be all of the above. And all of these ideas guide the choice of musical material, how it is developed, and what happens to it. Emotion and expression come into play, of course, but they are nearly always part of the overall plan. Composers develop musical plans, structural plans, and emotional plans. It is the same with writing a book or creating a movie, it is about “constructing” a work of art. Naturally, there are many moments of inspiration, some of them you never hear, but mostly the process falls into the category of Edison’s “one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

But it also turns out that improvisation is difficult to define and almost impossible to discern. If a musician is not playing from music, he could be playing from memory, or he could be playing by ear. Even if he is improvising, how much of what he is doing is spontaneous and how much is planned or familiar. It is impossible to tell. I’ve heard that Louis Armstrong worked out and practiced his solos in advance. I have played with several jazz soloists who played the same or nearly the same solo every night. I’ve talked with other musicians who have said that even during free-improvisation sets, the group will, over time, revert to those things that have worked before. This was true for me as well when I tried to do free improvisation gigs early in my career. So the only real way to tell whether a performer is improvising and truly creating new music on the spot is to ask him!

Most people consider improvisation to be a technique of performance. Often the standard by which to judge the quality of an improvisation is to decide to what extent the music does not sound improvised. But this means that the improvisation must sound “familiar,” which has a tendency to be rather inhibiting. Many suggest that improvisation is merely “stream of consciousness,” and some I have heard certainly is. But good improvisation is no more stream-of-consciousness than meditation is sleeping. Improvisation takes intense concentration and focus.

Improvisation differs from composition in that it is spontaneous. It is not “about spontaneity” (an idea); it is truly spontaneous. So what difference does that make? Primarily it means that you are listening to an “experience” instead of a presentation. It means that the focus and depth of the music is happening right now, and has not been reflected upon, perfected, and polished. This much is clear enough, but how does that make the music itself different? I had only a partial idea until I started transcribing my improvisations many years ago. Improvisation, indeed, handles the music differently. Instead of the music being “deduced” from another musical idea, it evolves within itself. It uses material that is actually played rather than referring back to material that was chosen beforehand. The focus of the music changes as the music evolves. The improviser “discovers” his or her material, and memory is not always perfect. Ideas, musical or otherwise, are induced and synthesized from the actual music itself. This suggests a different philosophical concept of time, cause and effect, specifics, and abstracts, and it also suggests the idea that change, relation, and juxtaposition is more fundamental than any abstract idea. As a performer, improvisation appeals to me primarily as a vehicle for expression. Music that is conceived in real time is as honest as it gets.

In the sample below, (“Place of the Butterflies”, from my album Night Drift) listen to how each musical phrase draws upon the previous phrase and feeds the one that follows. In Japan, there is a form of oral poetry called “linked verse” in which new stanzas of poetry (such as haiku) are linked to the last stanza in some way.

Though how my music is created is very important to me, it does not mean that I am haphazard or casual about how I treat it. Though every single note is spontaneously conceived, that does not stop me from editing the MIDI files or adapting them to different piano samples. I don’t use the same sounds while recording that I do when I am mastering so I must adapt my MIDI files to the samples and to the response of my keyboard. But I not only edit for my equipment and software, I edit to make sure the music is exactly what I want. I am a composer, and this is my only shot at the material. This has involved me making two (or more) shorter pieces out of one longer one, starting at a more interesting spot than I did originally, or even making cuts within a take (cutting 10 seconds can make a world of difference). Though these techniques are all common in both classical and jazz recordings, I have drawn heat from many improvisation purists for using them. To me, it is not about the performance, it is about the music. But I have finally decided that instead of trying to change the world, maybe I should just try to get people to listen to the music for what it is, and not for how it was conceived. So I no longer am going to call my music improvisation.

The final tipping point in my decision came not from the improvisation or jazz world, but from Classical composition. New Classical Music now readily accepts music that only exists as a recording. Many composers put out recordings with electronics, samples, field recordings or samples from other composers, real world sounds, etc. Some composers write site-specific works, even site-specific operas, and the imagination for what is included in music these days is vast. Improvisation in New Classical Music, with certain limitations, has become rather commonplace. My concern about the acceptability of my piano improvisation within this genre has become almost silly.

I mentioned before that I have transcribed my improvisations and performed them live. I have also transcribed and adapted them for other instruments, including orchestra. At that point, these works can no longer be considered improvisations by any stretch of the imagination. I have also come across other works that have been conceived as strictly for recording but have also since been adapted for live performance. One of my favorites is Steve Reich’s Violin Phase (1967), which was originally done with two tape recorders playing the same violin melody on two slightly different length tape loops, but the piece has been adapted and is now often done live. Here are two versions, one done solo with a computer Steve Reich, Violin Phase (solo violin with computer), and a second done with four solo violins Steve Reich, Violin Phase (four solo violins).

Music and Emotion

How the research of Manfred Clynes inspired and refocused my musical career

I was helping a friend of my son’s with her music theory. She was a first year theory student and her assignment was in figured bass. She was a sharp girl and seemed to have no problem with the material, but was obviously distracted. Finally, she shut the book and sighed. “I don’t care a thing about figured bass,” she said, “what I want to know is why, when I play Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, it gets me EVERY SINGLE TIME?”

Clynes picSometime in the late 1970’s, I was in my doctor’s waiting room looking for something to read. I thumbed through a copy of Psychology Today (slim pickings) and discovered an article by Manfred Clynes. He had been doing research on emotion by asking subjects to think of situations that would cause them to feel love, joy, anger, etc., while recording their reactions as pressure on a finger sensor. I was struck by his intuitive knowledge that emotion was a timed phenomenon of tension and release. I later discovered that besides being a psychologist, neurologist, inventor, and computer whiz, he was also a concert pianist!

Subjects were able to generate emotions at first by visioning and later on their own, and Clynes was able to identify specific waveforms for a number of different emotions. These waveforms were the same among all of the subjects. Clynes then was able to secure a grant to test subjects of completely different cultures (Central Mexico, Japan, and Bali). His results were still the same. His research led him to presume that these waveforms, or sentic forms as he called them, were innately human and a part of the central nervous system. (Here is an article he wrote on sentic forms, with some illustrations.)

Being also a musician, he decided to play recorded music for his subjects. He found that the listeners responded emotionally to the music all in basically the same way, at the same points in the music, across different cultures. OK, now he had my attention.

As musicians, we know that we respond to music emotionally. It is part of the natural camaraderie between musicians. But it was news to find out that everybody responds to music in the same way, with the same emotions!

When Clynes first started experimenting with his finger-pressure device (sentograph), he had musicians “conduct” (on his device) while imagining different pieces of music silently. His first subjects were Pablo Casals and Rudolph Serkin, so he was not fooling around!  He soon found that a specific composer’s music generated a unique waveform that permeated all of his works.  A different composer, however, would elicit a different waveform. It was almost like a fingerprint. For a composer, this is very interesting!  For a performer, this helps explain why musicians can identify most composers after only a second of two of listening to their music.  Later, while doing his emotional research Clynes noted the interplay of the emotional waveforms with the previously noted composer waveforms and noticed some interesting results. In Middle-period Beethoven, for instance, which is often angry, the emotional waveforms usually ran counter to the composer waveforms; while in Beethoven’s later works, which can be nothing short of transcendent, the waveforms tended to run concurrently.

Clynes found these sentic forms, being biological, to be exceptionally specific. An expression of an emotion in music that wasn’t quite precise, would be perceived as less strong. If it is off a little more, the expression would be perceived as false or fake. Off even more and the emotion isn’t perceived at all. This speaks to the difference in “musicality” between performances. Musical expression turns out to be a very specific skill. Predictability also seemed to diminish the strength of the emotion. This speaks to the difference in skill among composers. Even emotional expression can become tedious! Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, after probably 200 career performances, doesn’t get me “every single time” anymore, but it is still surprisingly affective even though I know exactly what is coming!

While working at the University of California at San Diego, Clynes developed a therapeutic discipline for emotionally disturbed patients that involved expressing a whole cycle of emotions with the assistance of his sentograph over a period of about thirty minutes. These sentic cycles are essentially both biofeedback and therapy. Learning to recognize, control, express, and develop intimate knowledge of these emotions, as well as allow patients to express and release these emotions in a safe environment, had a significant effect on patients. (These therapies are now readily available on the Internet.) Though the patients seemed to be getting better, however, the research ran counter to other research at the institution funded by drug companies and his funding was not renewed. After which, he was offered a position and lab in Sydney, Australia, where he concentrated more on music, emotion, and electronics.

At any rate, I was lucky that day in the doctor’s office that the doctor was quite a bit behind schedule and I was able to finish quite a bit of the article. I was so excited that I stole the magazine! A few years later, Clynes’ book Sentics – The Touch of Emotion was published and I ordered it. But I kept the magazine for many years, through a number of moves, and I may still have it somewhere.

No John, it’s not the sounds that are making love! Words and pictures don’t make love either, but they can break your heart!

As a professional performer, I have always known that it is emotion that makes music tick. Without emotion, there is no reason to listen to music at all. John Cage scoffed at the idea of emotion in music. He joked that some people thought the sounds were making love. No John, it’s not the sounds that are making love! Words and pictures don’t make love either, but they can break your heart! Music is sound, but it is sound in motion, and it’s the motion that is important. It is the ways that those sounds change which trigger our biologically wired emotional impulses. It is the verb, not the noun, where the action is.

Clynes has done some composing, but his musical interests are primarily interpretive. His later work involves programs that analyze music for its emotional content and shape the intonation, vibrato, and metrics to conform to that content. He wrote a program called “Superconductor” that allows someone to conduct a piece and alter it according to not only the tempo, but the emotional content contained in the conductor’s motions.

Though I can understand his excitement about how his work relates to musical interpretation, I am more interested in his theories from a creative standpoint. For me, he confirmed that emotion was the language of music. Emotional forms are very specific and unforgiving, but they are hard-wired into all of us so we already know what they are! How to create those forms in music takes a little skill, but whether or not the music is expressive takes more intuition than knowledge. Considering his research showed that composers are leaving an emotional record and a personal inner pulse within their music, it seemed to me that the most important characteristic for a composer to maintain should be honesty. At a time when music was being flooded with the importance of Ideas and Processes, it became clear to me that to keep an intimate knowledge and identification with the music I was creating was the only way to insure its emotional integrity.

I don’t think that the sound of the music is the only way music can have an emotional impact. Juxtaposition of style, texture, placement, social concerns, stark contrasts, and innumerable other techniques can all cause emotional involvement of a different sort by suggesting situations which trigger emotional memories, fears, or responses. But even by just manipulating the sound, I think there are still vast untapped resources for emotional expression.

As for that first year theory student, I was able to give her some hints about what was going on in the music, but mostly I just reassured her that she was on the right track. She had discovered the magic of music herself. Dr. Clynes has shown us the mechanism with which it gets us. It is up to the creative ingenuity of performers and composers to devise methods with which to deliver that magic to us all.

Of the Bells Bells Bells

My most recent album of piano improvisation reverberates through some literary terrain.

Of the Bells Bells Bells has a somewhat different and more complex history than most of my albums. For most of my albums, I have used tracks that were recorded at roughly the same time.   Sometimes, they were recorded within a day or two. In the case of Night Drift, they were recorded all on the same night. But for Of the Bells Bells Bells, I took tracks that were recorded more than a year apart.

of-the-bells-cover
Clicking on the album cover will take you to CD Baby where you can sample entire tracks.

One of the realities of improvisation is that once it’s played, it’s gone. If something I play is bad, luckily it’s gone; if something I play is good, well, it’s gone too. Good news, bad news. Dealing with this situation is one of the lessons of improvisation, and helps alleviate any stress that might surface about not knowing what you are going to play next. After a while, it becomes pretty easy to keep a low-key attitude, and that leaves me free to relax and play on the edge of my imagination.

However, this all changes when it is time to record. Recording can become quite stressful because I can easily allow a judgmental attitude to creep in and divert my attention from what I am doing. I can’t fool myself; I know it’s not gone. Several years ago, I realized that I couldn’t record something and then go back and listen to it, as it would haunt me when I returned to record again. Unlike a Classical recording, I couldn’t go back and re-record it to play it better. And it’s not really about my playing anyway, it’s about the music. But the temptation is always there.

So I have developed a number of habits that allow me to continue to play recording sessions over the course of a few days or weeks. One of my recording habits is to play when I am not working. I need to be able to devote my full attention to it. My work schedule naturally has holes that I can use for this, but many of them are filled with other activities. So I have found that the least stressful time for me to record is during the summer, as I have about three months off. If I have a week or two during the season sometimes I will go to my cabin where I can be in seclusion, which has also worked, but usually I record in the summer.

I will record for a few days, or even weeks, but only about once a year. Recording is quite exhausting, and after a while I feel “played out.” I don’t listen to my takes for about a year afterward. I don’t want to be able to remember playing them. I need to make a fresh assessment. This is one reason why my albums were recorded a few years before I released them. The process takes some time.

On a whim I googled “five bells” and found a poem of the same name by an Australian poet, Kenneth Slessor

So when I was done editing tracks done in the fall of 2009, I had three good tracks left. In the summer of 2010, instead of recording, I had to work on a commission for an orchestral piece. I usually use an improvisation as the basis for my written pieces, and since I had these three good improvisations left over, I chose one of them as a model the orchestra piece. As I was transcribing and editing the music for the commission, I noticed that two climax points featured five bell-like strokes. On a whim, I googled “Five Bells” and found a poem of the same name by an Australian poet, Kenneth Slessor. The poem discusses time and memory in reference to the death of the poet’s friend. I had already noticed that the end of the piece made a passing reference to Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration, so I gave the piece a tentative title, Five Bells (that stuck) and finished the piece with that in mind.

I didn’t get back to improvisation until late that fall with, for reasons mentioned above, mixed results. When I edited the tracks a year or two later, I realized that there were only two tracks of the first few sessions that I thought were worth keeping. Since those two tracks did not have any other good tracks recorded in close proximity, I decided to combine them with the three tracks from 2009.

About the same time, I discovered another poem, “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe, and thought it made a good outline for an album. (I’m not the only composer to think this, Sergei Rachmaninov wrote a choral symphony on a Russian adaptation of the same poem.) Poe wrote the poem about the times in our lives that are punctuated by church bells, other than when the bells are calling the congregation to worship or just keeping time. Three of the four sections deal with moments in individual lives: birth, marriage, and death. The other section deals with the times when bells were used to call the community to action, such as a fire, or flood, or even warfare (as in the 1812 Overture for instance). Poe arranges the sections so that each event is darker than the last, placing the call for action between marriage and death. The bells jingle and tinkle for a birth, while they moan and groan for a death.  I preferred to arrange my album around just the individual life events, so I have transformed Poe’s call to action into something more akin to work or vocation. Also I did not wish to dwell on the darker aspects of aging. Poe wrote the poem near the end of his life and was already infirm. He was already thinking a lot about that last bell.

I wanted to use the improvisation I had used for Five Bells, and work the title and program into the album plan. Poe had given me four stages of life; to that I added “Coming of Age.” The resulting improvisations are: “One Bell” about birth, “Two Bells” about coming of age, “Three Bells” about marriage, “Four Bells” about vocation, and “Five Bells” about death. I tried to choose the improvisation that best represented the subject matter.  The three earlier improvisations from 2009, each roughly ten minutes long, are the first, third, and fifth tracks. The second and fourth tracks, which are shorter, are from 2010.

One of the special features of Poe’s poem is his use of the sounds of his words, including the word “bell” itself, to give the sense of their ringing

One of the special features of Poe’s poem is his use of the sounds of his words, including the word “bell” itself, to give the sense of their ringing. The improvisations include many types of bell sounds themselves, which are a sound that I like and a sound that is very characteristic of the piano.

Of the Bells Bells Bells was released on Jan. 20, 2017, and is my fourteenth album of piano improvisation. It was recorded partly in Phoenix, AZ, and partly in my cabin outside of Ash Fork, AZ.

Points of “Arrival”

Two or three weeks ago, now, I went to see the Science Fiction movie, Arrival. It’s definitely a movie worth seeing – insightful, intelligent, and surprisingly emotional. Without giving away too much of the movie, I can say that a sub-plot of the movie revolves around a rather obscure theory of linguistics, of all things, that says, “The languages we learn tend to shape the way we think.” I had run into this theory before in reference to translations of Chinese texts, especially older ones. The pictograms of Chinese are much more versatile than words in Western languages, and can be used as nearly any part of speech. This tends to lead to more verbs than nouns and more verbs as nouns. It tends to give the language more sense of process than a noun-rich language such as English, which emphasizes things.
arrival-pict

What struck me most about this theory was how similar it was to one of the axioms of the philosophy of Marshall McLuhan, that the tools with which we learn shape how we learn and think. (Or as he so famously stated, “The medium is the message.”) Language is, of course, a major tool but it’s only one of many.

McLuhan’s main interest was how the print-based society ushered in by Gutenberg was being supplanted by the electronic age emerging in the twentieth century. He claimed that a print-based culture was very linear and logical because written language, as printed, was very logically organized. He claimed the electronic age, where we learn from electronic media, presented many ideas and sensual data at once and therefore promoted a more intuitive but emotionally connected mode of thinking. His first book of many on the subject, Understanding Media, was published in the 1950’s and made a splash on the pop culture of the 1960’s. It had a very real effect on me and made me acutely aware of how I was thinking as much or more than what I was thinking.

McLuhan was a favorite philosopher of mine in my early twenties, as he seemed to help explain the social and especially artistic turmoil that was taking place at the time. Though he was not a reason for my interest in improvisation, I was quite aware that improvisation, as a methodology, was more associated with the electronic age and that written composition was more associated with the past.

In 1999, I wrote an orchestral work around one of McLuhan’s notions, that at the intersection of these two distinct cultures would be a seminal generation or two of thinkers who would be influenced by both cultures. As an example of this supercharged cultural hybrid, he pointed to people like Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Galileo, and Monteverdi who were able to combine the newly unleashed logicality of the Renaissance with the old intuitive sensibilities of the Middle Ages. The piece, Millennial Opening, simulates gates at the opening and closing of the era. The piece itself was a compositionally written work that was based on an improvisation, both in its musical material and its structure. It was truly a hybrid of the two creative modes of thought, stimulated by this intersection between cultures.

I had started to combine composition and improvisation in this way in 1993, and felt that I was onto something. I wrote several works during this period, but what I didn’t anticipate was that my own hybrid opening would also close. As I was writing compositions on my improvisations, I was also becoming more comfortable with improvisation. As my improvisations affected my writing, so my resulting compositions also affected my improvisation. The way I manipulated the improvised material worked its way into the improvisations to the point where I found myself as a composer trying to manipulate the manipulations

.Around 2003, these two trends met head-on. I wrote a couple of pieces that were not manipulations but variations on improvisations, and then I wrote a couple more pieces that were not much more than adapted transcriptions. I had reached a point where what I wanted to do compositionally and what I was improvising were similar enough that I no longer saw the point of filtering them through any sort of compositional process. I didn’t see the point of writing them down. Technically, aesthetically, and musically, they were basically the same.brush-portrait3-fb-banner-copy

Of course, I improvise on the piano, not string quartet or symphony orchestra. However, I could always base a work for another medium on an improvised piano transcription, and I have continued to do so. Certainly adapting and modifying improvised transcriptions is less trouble than composing from scratch, if less engaging, but the creative spirit will always find a way to affect just about anything it’s allowed to touch.

Beyond all else, a creative act is always a learning experience. You always remember the stuff you make up yourself. If how you learn is how you think, then how you create is an even more convincing inculcation. My improvisation has, in a sense, assimilated my compositional hybrid experience and become a hybrid of its own. When the linguistics professor in Arrival found herself being able to catch glimpses of her own future, it did not change how she experienced time, only how she thought about it. Improvisation has not changed my experience of music, but it has changed how I think about it, how I think about its creation, and how I see it’s role in my future.