22 November 2006

An Awkward Silence

The phone rang late last night. It was a musician friend of mine. Get this: someone had given him an iTunes gift certificate and he wanted to know if I could recommend a piece by John Cage! I haven't laughed that hard in a long time...but then there was a pause. While I've read and been tremendously influenced by Cage's writings, I had to admit to almost complete ignorance of his actual compositions. In order to circumvent this inconvenient and embarrassing fact, I just told my friend that the more indeterminate a piece is, the more the performers (rather than the composer) will influence the perceived quality of the music. Perhaps it is fitting that Cage is the recipient (or non-recipient) of many backhanded compliments ("more a philosopher than a composer"?). After all, he aimed to destroy the very mechanism by which accolades are bestowed. Nonetheless, he had enough impact that years after his death, people are still going to iTunes to download his, um...I had better be careful here...recordings of sonic realizations of his scores. I will say this: I have heard two of his pieces performed by top-notch ensembles/performers. Both were highly indeterminate and I tremendously enjoyed them both. That might say more about me than it does about Cage (or at least that's what he would have said), but I think the man deserves some credit; he deserves to be listened to; he deserves to have a piece OTHER than 4'33'' associated with his name; and I had better put my money where my mouth is and pick up some recordings. So...uh, can anyone else recommend ME a recording of a piece by John Cage?

07 November 2006

The Difference Between Composition and Improvisation

Gunther Schuller caused quite a stir when he published his analysis of Sonny Rollins solo on Blue Seven. His point (ostensibly, that a jazz performance can make use of motivic development both as extensively and effectively as a classical piece, and therefore deserves to be taken just as seriously) needed to be made, remains valid, and is well taken by this writer. I do, however, want to offer a slightly different perspective based on my intuitive reactions as both a listener and a player, which is that while motivic development is (usually) nice when it happens during a jazz solo, I believe that jazz (and all improvised music) stands on its own as serious music even in absence of this device. In fact, I actually think that it is important that it is not overused, and that it does not dominate one's approach to improvisation.
The reason I say this is that improvisation is, well, improvisation. You could call it "spontaneous composition;" indeed, there are many famous and infamous quotes from jazz legends about the extemporaneous nature of soloing. The most incisive, however (from Steve Lacy if I'm not mistaken), is the one that acknowledges the most important consequence of this distinction between composition and improvisation, namely that improvisation does not allow for revision after the fact: once the music happens, it is out there and then it is gone, whether the players realized their musical intent(s) accurately or not, and whether or not anyone listening is even aware of this. This is the challenge that those of us who improvise (in any genre) accept each time we step out, but it is not a challenge to create the same thing spontaneously that we would create through composition and revision. While we may work at perfecting our technique and approach, it would not be worth the trouble to attempt to truly become spontaneous composers. If we so valued the opportunity to revise and perfect smaller details of the performance, improvisation would probably be the wrong medium for us.
Of course, one must draw the line somewhere. By this logic, even technical proficiency could be labeled a mere "detail" and thrown out the window. Obviously, this is not quite the point I'm trying to make. Of all the various challenges faced by the improvisor, effective motivic development is probably the hardest for the musician to create spontaneously (and in some sense, also the hardest to create with much forethought and revision; just ask a composer). In a sense, in puts the player in the same position as the listener in that they must perceive and follow the progress of such development in music they are hearing for the first (and perhaps last) time. In this age of home recording and internet distribution, perhaps it is more valid than ever to value motivic development in improvised music; nonetheless, it simply cannot become the be all and end all of improvised music because that is not what improvised music is. It is a question of choosing the right tool for the job: one does not use a hacksaw to cut down a large tree because the hacksaw is needlessly cumbersome on account of being too small and not sharp enough; similarly, to choose improvisation as one's medium for creating profound motivic development akin to that traditionally valued most highly by European classical music is, while not fruitless in every case, certainly a more cumbersome way to go about it.
In this sense, motivic development taken to extremes in an improvised context is essentially another form of empty virtuosity, just like playing high or fast simply for the sake of playing high or fast. I have always felt (and this is, of course, an opinion and not a fact) that the traditional jazz approach of improvising on the harmonic structure of the tune lends every such performance a sort of inherent claim to motivic development. And of course, the possibilities for developing the melody are more numerous than most players (myself included, shamefully) are willing or able to explore in the heat of the moment. Where does further development of melodic cells, contours, or pet licks fit into this picture? For me, it is mostly as a composer and less as an improvisor.

04 November 2006

Smoke and Mirrors

I really hate the way solo tuba CD's are recorded. It would guess that it is an effort to recreate the sense of space and reverberance from a recital or concert hall, but instead, what you get is a recording where you have to turn the volume way up just to be able to hear it, and where the piano is, if not louder, than at least clearer and "closer" sounding than the tuba. I have personally always been partial to the sound obtained from placing the mic much closer, about a foot above the bell of the tuba; that point, however, brings us to the real issue here, which is that the closer one mics the horn, the more audible every little mistake becomes. I think tubists are sacrificing that more "immediate" sound that I prefer in order to appear "perfect." With digital editing and what not, the pressure to eliminate any perceptible mistake in the performance is indeed high. Add to that the fact that these recordings are going to be heard by lots of other tuba players, and one almost has no choice. Nonetheless, I'd like to see that change. In the end, it is futile to try to appear perfect; it is equally futile to try to create the impression of space on recording. That, I would argue, is not the point of recording anyway.

Against The Gesture

To refer to a passage or a piece of music as a gesture is to insult its distinctive characteristics and autonomous nature. As mere gesture, all crescendos are alike, as are all diminuendos, all fugato passages, and so on. To delight in gesture is to hear the music without really listening. An attentive listener comes away from the experience with an impression that defies the very concept of musical gesture as it is impossible to ignore those unique characteristics which lend each piece its engaging (or not) qualities.