11 October 2008

Write It Down So You Don't Forget It

I'm not embarrassed to admit that at one point in my life, I was one of those people for whom there were two kinds of music: classical and jazz. Everything I was involved in could be placed in one of those two categories, and mingling them or going outside of them didn't seem particularly important or interesting. Today, while I've broadened my horizons a little bit, as well as found productive ways of blurring the line between the two areas, I still have a tendency to see my musical world as a dichotomy, albeit a slightly different one. Rather than classical-versus-jazz, it has become notated-versus-improvised.

I think this has much to do with the music scene in Minneapolis, or at least the ostensibly non-classical part of it that I've inhabited for the last few years. We seem to have quite a bit of improvised or mostly-improvised music and a paucity of the more heavily notated or through-composed stuff. There's nothing inherently wrong with this; it's the results that matter anyway. Nonetheless, I can't help the sneaking suspicion that this condition represents a mere end run around the more logistically challenging process of putting on a concert-length presentation of fully notated music.

In no way do I wish to suggest that improvised music does not require individual or group practice, although I do think that it can be done well by a group that has never played together before, and that playing in the same configuration over a long period of time can lead to the formation of habits that may come to inhibit "real" creativity. There is, however, a certain flexibility present in that the instrumentation of the group, the duration of the performance, and the precise amount of rehearsal time required are infinitely more malleable than they are with notated music, which essentially dictates these things to us with few other options. And though I've been fortunate to work with a lot of really talented and genuine improvisers, we all know that there are people out there who are attracted to improvised music for all the wrong reasons.

Forgive the cynicism, but it seems to me that as a function of our eminent adaptability, us musicians have now figured out that when creation, rehearsal and performance take place simultaneously, it saves time and money. Hence, while I'm skeptical of the death of classical music per se, I do fear for the health of notated music to some extent. I've been giving some thought lately on how to bring more through-composed, mostly notated music to the ostensibly non-classical areas that I work in simply to provide a counterbalance to all of the improvisation. There's good reason to think that such conceptual diversification would be healthy for the performers and for the scene; it would also be good for improvised music, which I fear is becoming perfunctory without a foil.

The same would certainly be true of notated music were we in the opposite situation (hang out around classically trained string players if you don't believe me). As a teacher, my highest priority is to develop in my students both a firm grasp of notation and the ability to "play by ear." It is astonishing and disappointing to me the extent to which most musicians possess only one of these two skills, even when they are exceptional at the one they have; it is equally frustrating that the preferred method of working breaks down along stylistic lines, sometimes making collaboration difficult if not impossible. This is not surprising: a musician will not develop a given skill if their chosen musical endeavors do not demand it of them. By demanding it of students, we can give them the tools they need to have fulfilling musical lives in whatever stylistic area they wish to explore.

For those of us whose musical interests are broad enough that working entirely with or without notation is simply not possible, necessity is the mother of invention, and hence, we tend to be motivated to become equally comfortable with and without a piece of paper in front of us. However, since the two skills tend to benefit each other, even specialists would undoubtedly benefit from at least dabbling with the alternative (and let's face it, unless you have ultra-perfect pitch and can score-read Schoenberg orchestral pieces like a computer, there's room for improvement).

No comments: