23 December 2012

On Writing It All Out

Trumpeter and blogger Stephen Haynes writes this of the late Bill Dixon:

"The landmark mid-sixties recording Intents and Purposes was primarily a through-composed/scored piece of music. 'At the time,' Dixon remarks, 'this was the only way to be sure to get what I wanted.' Just recently, Bill told me that if he knew then what he knows now he would have written a lot less. During the summer of 2007, in preparation for the work that became 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur, Dixon produced over one hundred pages of material for the orchestra. As the dates of the rehearsal approached, he was faced with striking a delicate balance between the amount of calligraphic notation he had created and the modest amount of rehearsal time available. Bill did what he has done with increasing frequency in similar situations: he reduced the quantity of written material and concentrated, during rehearsal, on direct composition/ communication of intent."


When I read that someone of Bill Dixon's stature feels that "if he knew then what he knows now he would have written a lot less," I can't help but wonder about my own journey in the opposite direction, roughly from this (2004)



to this (2005)



to this (2012)


I further wonder if "the modest amount of rehearsal time available" isn't too often a greater mediating factor than strength of conception. There certainly is a fair amount of pressure exerted on developing composers to hone in on the essence of what they're after and excise the rest, to be practical first and imaginative second. I hasten to quote Professor Gann in lengthy dissent:

In his notation, Feldman rammed with his full force against one of the great sacred cows of the late 20th-century composing world: professionalism. Many, many composers today, and especially those who teach or who get orchestral performances, are obsessed with the notion of professionalism. The imparting of professionalism is how a composition professor justifies his or her position in academia alongside the more easily validated fields of the sciences and social sciences. And the essence of compositional professionalism is notation. Composers in academia, myself included, constantly harp on students to make their notation as simple and clear as possible, to line the notes up right, to avoid ambiguities and complexities that have no effect on the sound.

...in reality, efficiency is only appropriate to things that are ultimately unimportant. We want our garbage taken out efficiently, we want our drivers’ licenses renewed efficiently, but someone who advocated efficient child-rearing – eliciting maximum good behavior for a minimum of parental care – would be a beast. In the same way, Feldman’s notation drives home a principle that we forget at our peril: that, however necessary the evil may sometimes be, efficiency in the pursuit of music-making is no virtue.


To piggyback on these comments through the lens of Jazz and Creative Music, I would point first and foremost to the irony that charts which are more thoroughly notated are generally seen as less efficient means of working with creative musicians, who may or may not have the inclination, training or chops to deal with such material. In my humble opinion, we have collectively accepted this division of labor far too easily, both in Creative and Concert music, and in spite of all the complaining (and a little bit of praise) about the ways in which jazz has become more like European music, it seems to me that there was actually a much stronger incentive to read when this skill had a greater social significance (i.e. as a matter of pride and dignity among early African-American jazz musicians), as well as an economic one (big bands, after all, employed an entire generation of "Creative" musicians). I have even argued that when musicians today point to the Ellingtonian dictum that writing for particular people is a richer form of expression than writing for nameless, faceless abstractions, they actually are appealing, in part, to efficiency as a virtue in just the sense that Gann (rightly in my eyes) dismisses it.

Of course, those are fightin' words in the jazz world, because frankly, efficiency rules today's jazz world, and this should give us quite a bit more pause than it ever does, more than any supposed European influence, loss of "relevance" to youth culture, or any of that other bullshit. The reasons it doesn't are too fraught and numerous to explore here, but suffice it to say that my work has only come into greater conflict with these tenets of efficiency as it has evolved and that this is a significant source of alienation for me. So, when I read a statement like the one above, given, as statements to this effect almost always are, without adequate context or explanation, and at that, from a musician who was exceptionally capable of offering both, I can't help but bristle a little bit. (Blame the scourge of efficiency again, I suppose, for the lack of clarification, since the given passage appeared, of all places, in a liner note.)

My intent here is thus not at all to level criticism at Bill Dixon himself, who I have to assume had good reasons for working the way he did and, given the opportunity, was more than capable of explaining why. I simply want to insist that efficiency, virtuous or not, is relative, that we (musicians) exert willful control over it by the skills we choose to develop or neglect to develop, and that there's still far too much work which remains unrealized, marginalized, stigmatized due to a lack of players who are truly equally comfortable at all points along the notational-improvisational continuum. I'm certainly not arguing that we impose this on everyone through conservatory training; that would be the worst course of action. People should make good on what they want out of music, theirs' and others' alike, and if there just aren't very many Creative musicians who really truly want and need to work the way I work, fine. That's the front, but I've never believed it; not for a second.

It will always be more efficient to simply wind up the players and set them off doing Their Thing, but it only becomes clearer to me with time that this is not My Thing. I don't believe that composition is superior to improvisation, but I do believe that they yield different results and that this difference is not negligible. I think I can defend the bulk of what I write out in painstaking detail on the grounds that it could not be improvised, which means that efficiency is then beside the point in yet another sense. I've also worked happily and fruitfully with many, many other musicians who work in quite the opposite fashion, and intend to continue to do so. Variety is both the spice of life and a lot of work.

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