An album examining impermanence and the process of healing
This album is about healing, it’s not intended to be able to heal. Music can be soothing, and many aspects of music can be therapeutic. I participated in a music therapy project a couple of years ago with Alzheimer’s patients, and learned first hand the kinds of effects music can bring to those suffering and struggling to maintain their basic humanity. But that is a different subject and not what this album is about.
By comparison, my musical intention is more mundane. It deals with everyday recovery from everyday loss by everyday people. Impermanence is a fact, but it is the fuel upon which life (and nonlife) sustains itself and moves on. Being attuned to the impermanence of beauty, happiness, and peace is a gift, and it teaches valuable lessons for dealing with ugliness, sorrow, and conflict.
Song of Longing. Loss is difficult; it always leaves a hole that takes time to fill. Though it brings emptiness, it also brings a flood of memories that are often beautiful. Loss does not bring happiness, but the sorrow it brings is the result of happiness.
3am, Wide Awake. Recovery can make sleep difficult, even frightening. When I am awake in the middle of the night, it is more often from anticipation than reflection. But this is not the case with everyone, and for some, sleep brings no peace. That doesn’t mean they don’t get tired.
Underwater. Recovering often seems like you can’t breathe.
Death of a Bumblebee. (Apologies to Rimsky-Korsakov.) Living in the desert, most of my homes have had either a pool or, in one case, a fishpond. Bees come to the water for moisture, and sometimes they end up going for a swim. Not a good idea. I save them if I can.
Just Not The Same. A friend told me this once after a terrifying event with one of their children. What we miss was sometimes not there to begin with. That doesn’t make it any easier.
Just Suppose. Guilt.
Sleeping Dragon. Sometimes the best we can do for a while is to put the dragon to sleep. We tiptoe around and try not to wake him up. Woe to those who wake him up for you.
Sleeping Princess. Where there is a sleeping dragon, there is also usually a sleeping princess. We may try to ignore everything for a while, but closing up to sorrow and ugliness is also to ignore happiness and beauty. She can awaken too, and she is not always happy about being ignored.
Confession. More guilt.
Bounce. The lessons of impermanence are patience and timing. Peaks and valleys are part of everything. On the way down, knowledge offers resilience, and we bounce instead of crash, usually.
The album was recorded at my home in Phoenix AZ in November 2010. It is Album #20 and was released on June 25, 2018 by SMS Recordings SMS021.
This album of spontaneously composed piano music follows the unfortunate trail of worry through several different situations. It is usually the worry and not the situations that make things uncomfortable. Whether obsession, jealousy, phobia, or guilt, the formula never seems to end well. Often tinged with love, wrought with fear, and infused with a distinct lack of self confidence, the reaction usually causes more pain than the original action.
The music is somber and often sad but not melodramatic. It also has a number of moments of elegance and beauty, as much of the subject matter it touches is meaningful. Personally, worry has not played an important role in my own life, but I have seen enough of it in my friends and loved ones to know its pain and consequences. I tend to worry more about my own abilities than the actions of others.
1. Obsession. The first track explores the poison of obsession. Though I tend to think most good musicians tend to be rather OCD anyway, a real obsession is cancerous. The track starts with some passionate sweeps of inquiry, but quickly becomes infatuated with a descending fourth and will not let it go.
2. Waiting Into the Night. The title track takes us through the daydreaming, insecurities, fears and anticipations of waiting alone. The longer you wait, the worse the result, which is often much worse than the reason you’re waiting.
3. All is Forgiven, Don’t Do It Again. This is probably the most volatile track of the set, but also has some of the most touching sequences. Love, when accompanied by fear, makes for some difficult moments.
4. Woulda Coulda Shoulda. Worry can also extend into the past. If only . . . It tends to make you feel that you have already doomed yourself to disaster. A healthy dose of the present is the only cure. “A journey of a thousand miles begins beneath your feet.”
5. The Monster Under the Bed. In a book of vignettes about music practicing, I remember a short image by Itzhak Perlman. He said those passages that you have not fully mastered are like monsters under the bed. They come out to get you at the worst possible time. The same could be said about any ignored problem.
6. Romance and Regret. Nothing is sadder than worrying when things go right! Falling in love is one of those moments.
This album was recorded at my home in Phoenix, Arizona in the autumn of 2010.
Many times I have realized that my thoughts and hopes about life, happiness, my career, and many other things have turned out to be innocent fantasy. Innocence comes in many forms, from simple naivety to outright delusion. Sometimes the effect is inconsequential; sometimes it permeates the core of our existence. This album explores innocence through the metaphor of a magic garden. From the Garden of Eden to the “Primrose Path,” we have all been there! Quaint, surprising, enchanting, mysterious, even charming, this garden is an extravagant diversion for some, and a dangerous intoxication for others.
Strolling. The joys of a garden are in the details. A big picture doesn’t do it. The opening track explores these little intricacies as it works its way in deeper and deeper. At the end, it realizes that it doesn’t know where it is.
To the Right. Tracks 2 & 6 start in the same place but go in different directions. The piece actually works its way back to the opening chord several times in the interim, but it’s where it goes in between that is the most interesting.
Intermezzo No. 1. What distinguishes this intermezzo is how it proceeds. It uses an idea from Japanese oral poetry called chained verse, where new verses (or in music, phrases) borrow something from the preceding verse (phrase) to create a new idea. This can make for subtle changes or wholesale shifts, depending on the idea and inspiration. The Japanese used to use haiku and other syllabic poetry forms, and would chain them together at parties, with a different person inventing each verse. It would be like taking turns singing improvised verses to “Frankie and Johnny,” and often just as racy.
Oven Mitt. All pianists sometimes sound like they forgot to take their gloves off. On this track, it sounds like maybe I forgot to take off an oven mitt.
Bluebells. Bluebells chime in a magic garden.
To the Left. We return to where we started in Track No. 2, but it’s not the same. Awareness is not sin, but it does take the sheen off a little bit.
You Can Never Return. Innocence, like ignorance, may indeed be bliss, but once it is revealed, it can never be reacquired. Paradise Lost is usually more instructive than harmful, however, and there are many other gardens to explore.
This album is a bit softer and gentler than some of my albums, and tends to be rather good-natured. It’s not that innocence doesn’t resort to delusional ranting every once in a while, but that doesn’t happen here. This album was recorded at my home in Phoenix during the fall of 2010.
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!
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.
I’ve always had an interest in time, but now that more of it lies behind me than in front, I’ve come to savor its quirks and subtleties. Though time is often measured in ticks and tocks, it usually passes silently and unnoticed. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” applies to time more than anything else. I’m still not sure I know what I had anyway.
My new solo piano album ponders the nature of both time and memories. I have chosen three silent or nearly silent clocks and three groups of memories, but the album is really about the endless patient passing of time. It seems ironic that this notion, when portrayed properly, is often referred to as “timeless.” Memories, though caught in an ever expanding and receding universe of reality, can seem to be fixed, as if forever yesterday. Though the details can become blurred, they are always emotionally vivid. The truly memorable events are always just beyond our reach. They are like bench players, always ready to substitute for the real players that become increasingly tired or flawed. This duality of how time is and how it is remembered provides the tension for the whole album.
Sundial. I can remember the first time I heard of a sundial, growing up in Seattle. “What use is something that only works when it’s sunny?” I thought. Now that I live in Arizona, it doesn’t bother me nearly as much. A sundial only works in the daytime, and it is different every day. That doesn’t make it unreliable; it makes it organic. It is tied to the motions of the earth and stars. Time is real, but it is not mechanical. It is punctuated by overlapping natural cycles, but is it in itself cyclical? Nobody knows.
Old Flames. Considering my wife and I are approaching our fortieth wedding anniversary, these memories are very old indeed. Memories are most impactful, however, when they are new, and we always remember our first stirrings of passion. Of course, when we truly allow ourselves to remember, these thoughts are not always pleasant. Embarrassment, conflict, relationships embody more yin and yang than just about anything else. And after all, these are relationships that didn’t last.
Hourglass. An hourglass measures a set amount of time. Then it measures it again. And again. It is good for timing a soft-boiled egg, or a Boggle game, or a fluoride rinse. But it is an illusion; there are no little bits of time, just as there are no little bits of space. The Eleventh Century Japanese Zen Monk Dogen had some very interesting things to say about time and cause and effect. He said that when a log burns; there is wood, then fire, then ash. The wood did not cause the fire, and the fire did not cause the ash. They are separate, and yet, all one thing. Time is a dimension, like space. It would be like watching a passing horse through a cardboard tube. First you would see the head, then the body, and then the tail. The head did not “cause” the tail; it is all one thing, but you experience it sequentially.
Young Children. Memories of young children bring back oceans of love, joy, wonder, and pride. They also bring back anxiety and fatigue. Young children have boundless energy and are always more resourceful than you think possible. I was wondering why it didn’t occur to me that this would have been a good reason to have my children at a younger age! It was, however, worth every moment!
Water Clock. Flowing water has been used to measure time for millennia. Ancient Persians would figure allotments of irrigation water by filling a ceramic vessel with water. As the gates were lifted, the irrigation officer would lift his finger from a small hole in the vessel. When the water had all flowed out, he closed the gate. The Greeks built a more elaborate mechanical water clock, the clepsydra, which measured time using a continuous water source. It had a refillable tank or could be run by a stream. The slow return of water to the sea is also a continuing metaphor for life itself.
Old Friends. One of the other realities of aging is that you begin to outlive some of your friends. When I first heard Queen’s song, “Who Wants To Live Forever?” my first reaction was, “Not if it means I have to keep getting older!” At some point we all become memories. The longer I live, the greater the number of memories I acquire and, like an old computer, the smaller the space for new experiences. I’ve always tried to live in the present; certainly this is the healthiest way to be mentally. But I’m not convinced this is how we are programmed to age. Maybe the accumulation of memories gradually makes us more obsolete than wise. I suppose that depends on the society in which you live. At any rate, the memories of old friends, especially those friends who now only exist as memories, are some of the fondest.
I alternate tracks of time with tracks of memories, but really, they mingle freely throughout. And after an entire album of timeless contemplation, the end of the last track finally gives in to tick and tock, and runs down. Though time is silent and seemingly unending, our own lives are measured in breaths and heartbeats.
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.
Floating 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 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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.