31 December 2012

Toward a New Isolation (v)

The blessing and the curse alike of improvisation is that what goes in tends to be what comes out. I would define improvisational technique as the degree to which one is able to control "what comes out," not only through real-time decision making but also through the suspended-time working out of ideas and weighting of exposure (i.e. "what goes in"). The relationship between the preparation and the performance is muddier than with physical playing technique, and there's no "reinforcement" of good habits to which one slowly acclimates and eventually ceases to be conscious of; the only "good" habit is the one you can turn on and off at will. Even so, there absolutely are purely conceptual ways that improvisors can purposefully enable certain possibilities and disable others based on their aesthetic, and I would argue for understanding this process as a technique of sorts, albeit one dealing more with probabilities than assurances.

This is the main reason I haven't earnestly practiced scales or scale patterns since high school: I think they sound terrible as part of an actual performance. That almost no one seems to disagree with this value judgement and yet almost everyone overuses these patterns in precisely the way we all seem to agree they are the least useful leaves me to conclude that we simply are not in sufficient control of ourselves these days to meet our own standards. There are literally endless licks, etudes, vocalises, excerpts, saxophone solos, Bach movements, guitar riffs, and on and on that are available to us should we need to address the purely technical challenges posed by scales, and so there's simply no excuse for spending so much time with something you loathe that you're literally helpless to prevent yourself from playing it in the middle of an improvisation (in other words, precisely the way a sizable majority of our contemporary musical polity seems, by their own definition, to be).

I think it is crucial to understand the process of choosing and weighting these influences as a matter of technique in the sense that one's degree of control can be quantified, if not only in one's own mind: the same way I might choose how long to spend on long tones or lip slurs each day based on a dynamic understanding of my current conditioning needs, I might choose to invest heavily in blues-based material or avoid Charlie Parker licks if I feel that my frame of mind and upcoming obligations demand one or the other. In other words, intent becomes a yardstick against which outcomes are measured. The difference, then, in aesthetic between this kind of improvised music and pre-composed music is slight, and the reason for choosing improvisation over composition becomes less about "freedom" per se than it does about achieving (more like enforcing) a certain frame of creative mind driven by the urgency of real time, ostensibly because one deems the potential results to be (a) somehow perceptibly different from the alternative, and (b) worth the trouble.

Of course, the less specific the intent, the cloudier the issues of improvisational technique become. I've certainly enjoyed listening to much improvised music which I have to assume springs from a less overwrought conception of improvisation, and will even give myself over to working this way for the sake of a colleague's project; it is not, however, my default setting. The improvised music world is rightfully infamous for its practicioners' specious disavowals of having been governed by anything in particular, including their own tastes (so much for "just playing for themselves," huh?), often a not-so-innocent maneuver aimed at escaping responsibility for poorly prepared and executed performances by claiming that criticism to this effect somehow misinterprets their music. Such is the birthright, I suppose, of the "non-idiomatic" schools to which I, admittedly, aspire to belong most of the time; hopefully it is more agreeable, though, that in stylistic improvisation, more specific intent can be assumed a priori, and thus, that technical questions in the sense I am arguing we must understand the term (i.e. questions of "how") become paramount.


Despite being disproportionately fluent in classical playing when I first got serious about improvising, no classical music, ensemble or teacher I'd ever encountered had so much as uttered the word "improvise," and so it was that a wall was constructed between my two musical worlds. I've yet to succeed in tearing this wall down completely and I'm not sure I ever will. One thing this ensured, though, is that I never fell into the trap of trying to be classically perfect in my jazz solos. That seems to me to be among the most important lessons for the legions of classical folk (all of them, apparently) who "really like jazz stuff too" and are also "totally down for getting together sometime" to go over some things (usually just once). Most classical players play scared when they first try to improvise, terrified as they are of making what an orchestral audition committee would identify as a mistake, even while it's quite likely that whatever jazz they're basing their feigned interest on was executed with a substantially higher degree of abandon.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that someone with my background and predilections really should be able to improvise in the style of Bach. When I tried it and found that I couldn't come close, I had to ask myself some tough questions, for there was clearly more preventing me from doing this than an inadequate internalization of the style. My bebop playing has never been squeaky clean, and as I say, that's not entirely by accident, but if I had perfected a cleaner approach, I certainly would be ahead of the game when it comes to improvising in traditional classical styles. As it stands, my musical mind still hasn't completely developed the ability to isolate "improvisation" from "jazz," and turning around and coupling "improvisation" with "classical tone production, articulation and intonation" has proven more challenging yet.

I actually had already encountered a related problem within jazz when I finally got serious about functioning as a bass instrument: besides the paramount challenge of finding the groove in a rhythm section, I had to face the reality that the lapses of focus I'd always gotten away with as a horn player simply won't fly if I want to be taken seriously as a viable bass instrument. This means knowing what to play next and being able to play it, always, not sometimes, and carrying on this way with little rest for up to an hour at a time. People always ask me about my chops and I tell them not to worry since I'm playing in and below the staff so much of the time; breathing is, of course, also a challenge, but there are many more constructive ways to let this direct one's personal style than I first would have thought; rather, I am more than anything mentally fried after a set of bass playing because it is so unforgiving of mental lapses. The same goes for improvising in the style of Bach: it's hard enough to play Bach cleanly as written, and so making it up as you go along demands a kind of focus and conditioning that has always been elusive to me. That's a big reason by itself why I've endeavored such an absurd thing at all, but the more I thought about it historically and aesthetically, the less absurd it seemed after all, and it has become, along with the kind of non-idiomatic solo improvisation I've discussed previously in this series, a focal point of my desire to develop an identity as a solo performer.

I see glorious opportunities for a merger of aesthetics and some creative anachronism in treating Bach movements as structures for improvisation the way jazz players treat songforms. Understand, though, that I am most decidedly not talking about playing Bach compositions in a jazz style, but rather subjecting them to the procedure jazz players use with standard material. This concept has several interesting aspects:

(1) Embellishment can go far beyond traditional Baroque ornamentation to include wholesale melodic invention over a particular harmonic structure with a particular meter and time feel. In fact, I've found it particularly fruitful to isolate particular phrases and come up with as many traditional embellishments as possible before attempting a whole-cloth improvisation; this provides a starter vocabulary for navigating this phrase, and also burns it into one's mind in just the way that is necessary to really "own" it once the training wheels come off.

While I started out "journaling" these ornaments as a way to make sure I remember them, I soon realized that this was of little value. I had a similar anxiety about jazz styles years ago, but it turned out that no matter how long I took away from jazz, it all came back remarkably quickly, I assume on account of some short but intense periods of immersion in my formative years. Those years are gone, of course, and my brain is undoubtedly substantially less plastic at age 30 than it was at 20, but Bach has been in my ear almost since birth thanks to my father, and so my aspiration here is to merely connect the skills I already have developed through jazz improvisation, classical training, and lots of time spent playing the cello suites as written. Predictably, I got much better very quickly, but it was a short honeymoon period and I now find myself in the thick of a quite arduous process of refinement. There is only added motivation in the possibility that my jazz playing could improve immeasurably this way as well.

(2) The style of Bach should prevail throughout, and "authenticity" of style (if not of gesture) should never be in doubt. However, rather than simply cataloguing a bunch of things that Bach did and limiting ourselves to them when we improvise, what if we permit ourselves to extrapolate from this material? To take some of those beguiling harmonic events precipitated by his beguiling counterpoint and make them central to our vocabulary rather than simply reducing them out of our analyses the way we're taught to in theory class? To seek our own voice within this style the way Cannonball sought his within that of Charlie Parker or Lee Morgan within that of Clifford Brown?

Classical music culture is prone to the view that this is not authenticity at all, but I disagree. I think one of the strengths of the jazz aesthetic is that imitating another player's style too closely is tolerated without being venerated; it is viewed, by some at least, as a necessary intermediate step in the learning process, but not a noble end in itself. Historically, to gain the full respect of the jazz community, there needs to be something unique and identifiable about your playing, even if it is very subtle. In classical music, we take this view towards performers but almost never toward compositional styles: a near-knockoff of Stravinsky is a full-on knockoff of Stravinsky and generally will be derided in the professional world. Conversely, Cannonball can almost be mistaken for Parker on occasion, but never beyond a shadow of a doubt, and by the time of "Somethin' Else," he was playing things that Parker, at least in his own era, never would have played. No one in their right mind would think to call this inauthenticity, but nor would they remain oblivious to these stylistic extrapolations and merely identify Cannonball as just another bop stylist; he clearly is more than that. That's my desired relationship with Bach stylism: no one could ever improve on Bach, but we can extend him through the lens of our own voices.

When this all works is when the new material "fits" with the derivative material. Of course, no such judgment on "fitting" original material within an historical style can be considered absolute, which I think explains the classical conception of authenticity as slavish recreation, i.e. as a mere evasion of this question. Imagine, though, a classical music culture that knew Bach as intimately as jazz players know Parker or rockers know Hendrix; that is, knew him not just well enough to play him with the right tone and ornamentation and tuning, or to be able to tell where all the roman numerals and non-chord tones go in an analysis, not to work towards merely being able to regurgitate material but in fact to follow that material wherever it leads you. Slowly, universitory music programs are moving towards more composition-oriented theory curricula that emphasize "owning" certain significant historical styles through the study of primary documents rather than memorizing dry theory; in fact, the Graduate Theory Review class I assisted with last semester at CalArts was taught entirely this way. We are late to the party, though, as this quite simply is what jazz players have always done by virtue of being "instant composers." Classical musicians will tell you this is a highly specialized skill, that it's "nice and all that" but that they and their little world are just fine without it; actually, it was a near-universal skill among professional musicians through at least the end of the eighteenth century which, to hear some tell it, only eroded when the bourgeoisie began demanding inclusion without making good on the high standards court musicians had previously established. Now that classical music has become hyper-bourgeoisified, one figures there's little hope of getting it back, for learning to improvise encompasses a kind of vulnerability that is the very antithesis of bourgeois comfort. The more I think about it, though, the more I'm convinced we should try.

In pursuit of this ideal, I anticipate that a severe limitation of material is necessary. It is well-documented that master improvisers the world over generally exert true mastery over a relatively small amount of material; there also are not more than a handful of solo Bach movements which are technically realistic for brass players. The thought has certainly occurred to me to pull things out of larger pieces, but for now, I'm limiting myself to movements from solo instrument suites, starting with the Minuets from the first suite in G major. The structural possibilities just with this pair are fascinating: you could state both as written before improvising on either; state and improvise over the first before moving on to the second; play the second in the relative instead of parallel minor, or even pivot in mid-stream, as in A(par)-A(rel)-B(rel)-B(par), which sounds surprisingly smooth; add free cadenzas as intros, interludes and finales; and who knows what else.

I've been working on developing all of this since last March and feel that I'm barely scratching the surface of what is possible conceptually. The technical barriers, of course, are also severe: these movements are certainly playable but are taxing nonetheless, and the improvisations are even more so. All of that notwithstanding, I'm in this for the long haul. I think that improvising over Bach in this way might be my last best chance at doing the music justice on tuba. I say this because despite no small effort, I don't feel that I've ever really mastered any of the movements I've worked up previously: they are too difficult, too unforgiving and too high maintenance. I would respectfully venture that most of the tuba players I've heard perform them in person are in the same boat, and I've been told by an accomplished teacher that the next tubist to do justice to Bach would be the first. As challenging as improvising this way might seem, I sometimes wonder if I don't stand a better chance of mastering it than I do of giving a convincing verbatim interpretation of an entire suite, the way I twice attempted as a callow undergrad. Improvisation, as intimidating as it can be at the outset, can also be subtly tailored to highlight one's strengths and cover one's weaknesses once a sufficient technical grounding is established. In this sense, what I'm really doing here is playing to my strengths, and finding a way into music which never really loved me back until now. In my opinion, nothing could be more authentic.

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