22 August 2012


I recently attended Phase I of the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute and was asked to write a wrap-up of sorts for New Music Box, which you can read here.

03 August 2012

Toward a New Isolation (iv)

The previous discussion of tone production is really a microcosm of my experience with all issues of traditional versus extended techniques. Despite having spent much less time perfecting the few that I use regularly as an improvisor, I find many extended techniques much easier to mold into an unaccompanied musical presentation on the spot. The equal-tempered pitch grid remains the greatest challenge for me, both technically and conceptually, despite both a decent helping of natural ability in this area and my disproportionate investment in it. Jacobs' admonition to "become a singer in our brains" is easier said than done, and there simply is no tougher test of the degree to which a brass player has achieved this than melodic/harmonic improvisation in a particular temperament. (Sorry to break it to you that way orchestral folk...you really should try it sometime!) Hence, though I've occasionally defended heavy use of extended brass techniques against charges of charlatanism, I readily confess to a certain irreverence for their technical challenges in comparison to traditional classical and jazz demands. I raise all of this not to claim some kind of moral-technical high ground, but rather to begin to sort out some of the implications for the present endeavor.

In one sense, this has not been the happiest realization I've made throughout this process. I've felt for a while as both a player and composer that in the grand scheme of things, I'm overdue for an infusion of recent musical innovations in extended techniques, notation, temperament, and technology, and thus that any excuse to remedy these deficiencies would be a welcome one. The inhibiting factor is that I tend to feel as if I have too much unfinished business in the traditional areas, which will remain important me and are also notoriously needy. There's no threshold in brass playing beyond which you can simply check tone production off the list of things to work on; rather, it sometimes seems as if you have to reinvent it on a daily basis. Conversely, I can name (though I won't) quite a few accomplished/high-profile drummers and bass players who I've heard relate quite the opposite story (and always in front of a room full of students, since that's where the question gets asked): they practice for many hours a day for several years as teens and young adults, and then essentially replace that practice time with rehearsal and performance for the rest of their careers. Some of them purportedly never "practice" again! It sounds awfully suspicious to a brass player, that is until they start to play; we then hear for ourselves that that (a) their technique hasn't eroded the way ours would under those circumstances, and (b) their ensemble sensitivity is positively off the charts. I don't know how we replicate this, but we had better find a way if we ever want to be able to sit at these cats' lunch table. It's no wonder we get so far behind: we're off by ourselves playing long tones and lip slurs while they're applying and integrating their technique with a live band of similarly accomplished players.

I now play more jazz and know more about it than I do classical music, which was not the case for quite a while, and whether as a cause or effect of this, I slowly realized that I'm also much better at it. I peaked as a classical player at 22 when I made it to the finals of the WAMSO competition and in my mind have never quite gotten back to that level, even while surpassing it in another style. The thought of abandoning classical technique completely occurs to me all the time, but I just can't; there's too much I still want to do with it, too much that it's good for in the music I like. What I'd really like to abandon for good is classical music culture: for all the foibles of the jazz world, the incredible difficulty in securing even minor opportunities from classically-oriented institutions, the vicissitudes of dealing with classical musicians, their spectacular lack of artistic proaction, and the incredible stylistic inertia they exert all add up to a jive scene. But all of that aside, I've had to admit that what they do is harder for me than I originally thought, or at least on a consistently high level, and also that my own disillusionment with the culture of orchestras and orchestral audition preparation clouded my view of these players' true skill for some time. Of course, the vast majority of them would find what I do to be nearly impossible as well, but that's no comfort: my vision has always been to cover all the bases, which seemed more doable when I was being forced by classical music school to specialize in the things that have turned out to be the most difficult.

In any case, I think that the greater accessibility of extended techniques in improvised settings, whether real or imagined, is ultimately just another reflection of that old trope about the "primal" nature of rhythm versus the "intellectual" nature of pitch, and I think it's also indisputable that brass players and singers, whose bodies themselves rather than some external object are the source of vibration, face a particular challenge in this regard. I have always had an excellent ear, but pitch remains the most difficult musical parameter for me to truly control when playing, both in terms of successions of pitches and of their individual fine tuning. I have an awfully hard time spontaneously realizing interesting successions of exact pitches, but substantially less trouble when working in a blurrier pitch grid, as when half-valving, playing with a loose seal on the mouthpiece, or playing with a tuning slide removed. For one thing, this would figure to free up any mental "bandwidth" that is otherwise tied up in fine adjustments of lip pressure, choice of alternate fingerings, and accounting for differences in response and the intonational tendencies of partials. There is an enduring conceit that great performers don't really think about those kinds of things on stage which I've never found entirely convincing, but in any case, even the smallest amount of bandwidth can be awfully valuable.

Truthfully, the techniques I listed as examples above do sometimes strike me as too facile. I say that not out of some obstinate self-denial impulse, but rather because I just don't think that the sound of a tuba or a trumpet with the main tuning slide removed is worth an entire set or album. No matter how fluent, personal or expressive the removal of the pitch grid barrier enables the music to be, fighting the instrument for a sound it was not designed to make can be just as inhibiting, and further, the tendency to accept a sound as essential simply because it is available is, I think, actually a danger. It seems to me that there is little unique or essential about most of these sounds, and also that this is entirely predictable given the painstaking design and construction of these instruments for entirely different purposes. If anyone out there just adores the sound of hitting the mouthpiece on the bell, I've got nothing for you; that one in particular has always baffled me, though I admit to having resorted to it myself in a few moments of weakness over the years. I realize that if you're an improvising tuba player, you walk out on stage with a tuba and see what happens, and this means that if a piece develops which at some point simply demands a metallophone and your bell and mouthpiece are the only ones on stage at the time, then you are to cooperate with the spirits and provide said metallophone(s) as only you can. That being the case, I suspect that there are any number of easier, cheaper, more portable, less risky, and to boot, far more attractive potential sound sources we might experiment with if the soundworld of extended brass techniques is to comprise the core of our musical identity. Going after them directly means the opportunity to find Just The Right One, this as opposed to merely settling for the closest thing you can coax out of your main axe simply because it's what you're stuck with at the moment. And really, how many improvising percussionists have you heard using an old trombone bell and mouthpiece as part of their setup? Certainly not enough to make me wonder if I'm missing something on that front.

It's not lost on me that, like "learning on the job," making due in this way is verging on a traditional process at this point in Improvised Music history, just one of many consequences of the unpredictability that those of us true believers insist is this music's best quality against those who would argue the opposite. And yet there is an equally rich history of multi-instrumentalism in this music which I think speaks to the realization by many great masters that if anything could happen, they had better be prepared for it. I have occasionally heard performances by instrumentalists who use no traditional tone production whatsoever, and while the music is often engaging, it can also be exceedingly generic (not "derivative," but "generic" in the sense that the sounds could have been obtained many different ways besides the way they were obtained in these particular concerts; that is to say, with instruments other than those which were used). I rarely feel that such music could only have been made, or made best, by the tools that the musician(s) chose to bring on stage with them that night. I think that's the crucial question for all of us to ask ourselves. When the exponents of a particular field of artistic endeavor where "anything is possible" begin to converge rather than diverge, it's time to change our underwear.

If I'm going to put up with the vicissitudes of being a tuba player, it's going to be in exchange for something that only the tuba can provide; otherwise, there's no point in suffering through all of this. The only valid reason for using the tuba to get the sound you want is that you can only get that sound from the tuba, and by definition, this is less likely to be the case the further you stray from traditional tone production and more likely the closer you hew to it. There surely are many more sounds hiding in the tuba than most of us have thought to use, and I don't begrudge anyone the right to avail themselves of them; I would, however, argue for a very high standard of uniqueness, one that suits our postmodern condition and oversaturated musical landscape. It's important to realize that the kind of music I'm discussing, unfamiliar or alienating as it may remain to many, is in any case not new anymore. These pieces need something else to distinguish them from other forms and from each other. (That goes double for all you tuba missionaries: there's plenty of low-hanging fruit right under your nose here in Newmusicland if you ever get tired of playing opera overtures and Journey covers.) For my part, the fact that I generally use pitch-blurring extended techniques sparingly has more to do with my strong predilections for harmony and the traditional tuba sound than anything else. I've basically accepted a hierarchy in my music whereby the further the "extension" of technique required, the more sparingly that sound is used. I've always been much more interested in finding Just The Right Note than Just The Right Sound, which is why extended techniques have remained peripheral to my work to this point.