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.

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.