Jazz is fundamentally a searching music. So if you feel like you're always searching, you're probably doing it right.
• 1 •
Here’s a problem with Banff: how is a guy supposed to get anything done for the rest of the day after experiencing a lecture by Lera Auerbach first thing in the morning? She spoke about her music, played several excerpts of different works, and then most unforgettably played her Third Violin Sonata with the equally remarkable Stanislav Pronin who, we were later informed, first saw the music a week ago.
A morning like this gives one a whole lot to work through. For me, it’s always a trying thing to have an experience that reminds me concert music is not in fact dead or pointless. It forces me to revise or at least question many of the thoughts I’ve been posting on here for the last three years.
Auerbach’s music has a historicist element, which leads to the facile comparison with great Russian composers like Gubaidulina and Schnittke. But unlike Uncle Alfred, her music doesn’t refer so much as it integrates the music of the past. It doesn’t feel stylistically radical, nor does it strike me as conservative. The style simply doesn’t draw attention to itself.
Here at the Banff Centre there is a brand new building called the Kinnear Centre for Creativity and Innovation. Quite the name, right? There is a cafe and bar there, and the new home for the library. They also use it for lots of meetings and conventions for corporations and organizations that come through. The building just opened in July, and you get the sense that they’re still figuring out how to use it. It’s a beautiful space with lots of light and many wonderful pieces of the Centre’s art collection on the walls. But a building’s blueprints in two dimensions are ultimately much different than the building itself in three (and especially in four, as it ages). The imagined functions probably don’t correspond to evolving daily exigencies.
I thought of this when Pronin talked about the well-worn approaches one faces playing the music of Beethoven or Brahms versus a Violin Sonata that was written five years ago. Similarly, this is a new building we’re dealing with. It hasn’t been lived in yet. We have an idea how it should function, but you don’t really know until you have dozens of people walking around in it for a few years. You don’t know to what uses it will be subjected, to what demands it will have to bend.
I like this metaphor because it suggests people living inside a piece of music, which is basically what we do. It’s just the classics have had so many thousands of people living in them for so long, and a new piece of music is so clean and empty by comparison. Dealing with it becomes an opportunity, but also a responsibility and a puzzle to work through.
• 2 •
The latest addition to Luke’s post-everything musical landscape is the Nels Cline Singers, none of whom are singers. Guitar-bass-drums. Nels Cline is most famously the current guitarist for Wilco, and is generally a guy who has his hands in a serious panoply of musical projects.
Genre-bending and boundary-breaking are very much in the news these days, but much as I love the idea on paper the results are not always convincing. Contortions of style have a way of drawing attention to themselves. This is not the case with Cline’s band, who just play, and don’t really seem all that concerned with how they’re going to tag their album on Myspace.
If style and genre don’t matter, it is not because they ever held real creative musicians back. It’s not that they don’t matter “anymore”; they never meant anything to begin with. Genre is not a creation of artists. It is a creation of marketing professionals.
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To quote John Corigliano, a musician to whom I rarely refer: “Anyone’s personal style is usually not apparent to them, because style is made up of the unconscious choices you make, not the conscious ones.”
Today we’re awfully conscious of style and our stylistic choices. It’s easy to get into your head so much that you feel you need to make these choices before you start writing the music. I’ve dealt with this a lot. But it’s best, if you can, to suspend these worries far enough into the process that they manage to resolve themselves -- because freezing your style before the fact is probably futile, and definitely means hobbling yourself, closing yourself off to possibility.
OK, I haven't written about this place yet, so let's have a little Banff vignette, hey?*
(*Many Canadians seem to have added an introductory "h" to their traditional "eh," evidently to make it more palatable to general audiences.)
The Director of the Fall and Winter Music Residency program is Henk Guittart, an extremely impressive musician who is actually across the coffee shop from me at the moment. He was violist for the Schoenberg Quartet from 1976-1999, has taught chamber music all over the place, and now is enjoying a career as a conductor. Our weekly schedule offered a Thursday night "movie with Henk" at the oddly specific hour of 9:15pm. So we all turned up, a bit in the dark since Henk refused to tell us the subject of the film beforehand.
So he reveals to us, at last, that it's a documentary about a friend of his, Dutch drummer Han Bennink. I knew Bennink's name only from reading Derek Bailey's Improvisation book, and had not to my memory heard him play.
I was impressed.
It was so pleasing to watch a music documentary that didn't spend tons of time interviewing the subject, getting him to philosophize and offer lots of ideas. Bennink speaks to the camera basically only in the context of reading old journal entries from when he was coming up. The majority of screen time is dedicated to performance excerpts, lots of them, which is a perfect choice for this musician.
See, it's not that Bennink has no ideas about music; on the contrary, he is absolutely overflowing with musical ideas, but they are just that, they are sonic ideas, not verbal ones, and they come out at extremely rapid rates when he plays. You can't take your eyes off the man. He's a wellspring of musical energy, mercurial, witty, technical, incendiary. He doesn't seem to play music so much as he actually is music.
But anyway, about 2/3 through the film, we arrive in the year 2007 and are shown a shot of a wooded valley with some tall, craggy mountains... wait just a minute? That's BANFF on the screen. Sure enough, the movie documents his time teaching at the Centre, walking around in the woods talking to squirrels, playing with about nine other drummers in a small room in which he has permitted each player only a single snare drum. Fantastic stuff.
A conversation is shown taking place outside the doors of Bentley Recital Hall, roughly fifteen yards from where I am sitting watching the film. I look to my right out the window to ensure that the subjects are not, actually, there.
The next scene is a concert filmed in the same room in which we are watching the footage.
And that's Banff for you.
Bennink was so impressed with a couple of young players he met at Banff -- pianist Simon Toldman and reedman Joachim Badenhorst, who were twentysomething participants in the program -- that he took them on tour with him as the Han Bennink Trio. The man was 65 at the time, and this was his first group as a leader. With two students. They cut an LP last year. Incredible.
When Henk first met Bennink, the drummer was traveling around Europe in a van full of percussion equipment, and in the movie he does drum on all sorts of things, including, frequently and memorably, the floor. Evidently he tired of this kind of excess, because later in life he took to touring with nothing but a snare drum and two sticks. What a musician and performer. But okay, enough, enough.
• 1 •
On the subject of books titled Improvisation, I've just finished Mildred Chase's, and it's wonderful. The author is an outstanding classical musician and teacher, a student of Josef Lhevinne, and her approach to improvisation is warm, accepting, all about the accruing the sort of self-knowledge that informs playing of all types as well as the general living of life. She makes lots of specific suggestions for ways to approach improvisation for players of different ages and types of experience, several of which I've already tried out.
Particularly remarkable is her chapter called "Creativity for Survival in a Computerized Society." This was written in the 1980s, when these guys were still crawling on the floor. I know personal computers were starting to happen at the time, but I still find this chapter prescient.
"We need to be on guard against unwittingly being deprived of experiencing our own existence, and not be willingly manipulated to the contrary." (8)
Which reminds me of Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the above-linked film, and said that socializing on the internet is to socializing what reality television is to reality. Maybe an overstatement; still an important thing to say.
One more Chase passage, if you will.
"The buoyant force that is the energy of creative effort may be the only thing that will preserve individuality in an increasingly highly prescribed society with its noise of machinery and piped music, its crowded living conditions, and standardized amusements." (10)
I provide below a minor edit of this bit in case you want to use it as a toast.
May "the buoyant force that is the energy of creative effort...be the...thing that will preserve individuality in an increasingly highly prescribed society with its noise of machinery and piped music, its crowded living conditions, and standardized amusements."
• 2 •
I haven't re-located this passage and so can't quote it directly, but in his extremely important book Effortless Mastery, the extremely generous Kenny Werner notices that jazz musicians are always looking to expand their vocabulary, play something more hip, play more out, whatever it is. He suggests that new toys won't help you if you haven't learned to play effectively with the old ones.
This is really great advice.
And if you need some evidence that it's true, by all means purchase his record Lawn Chair Society and listen to "The 13th Day." Kenny plays an unaccompanied piano solo out front, over a minute, 1:03, in which he does not leave the F Major scale. Every single melodic statement is just the freshest, most buoyant and lively idea you've ever heard, and he doesn't need spiffy chromaticism to do it, in fact he doesn't need a single accidental at all. What a powerful lesson.
• 3 •
I'm in the third-to-back row, listening to an excellent pianist. He's playing some badass, difficult works by Chopin and Liszt, and he's doing so beautifully -- I'm admiring his phrasing and time, his understanding of the syntax.
And I notice a few people in the front of the audience who are, during the more difficult passages, shaking their heads in amazement.
This is precisely the problem with 19th-century warhorses, or with the way we use them in the 21st century. These people were amazed with the pianist's fingerwork, which is superb, yeah, but it's not the point. Boatloads of pianists graduate every year playing impossible Etudes and big Concerti and the Wanderer Fantasy and Gaspard. The ability to play the notes is not important. It's making them mean something that's worth talking about.
When an audience member shakes his head at a show of pianistic chops, he is really trying to justify a lack in himself: wow, look what she can do. I can't do that. She's this talented genius-person, and I am not. This praise of virtuosity is essentially a statement of jealousy and fear. Whereas at its best music, like poetry, like art, like love, is never about emphasizing difference. On the contrary, it's about opening up to shared fields of experience. It's about feeling that life is remarkable and humanity is something worth giving a shit about. Impressing people is a lowly aim by comparison.
This isn't the pianist's fault, of course--we can't be held responsible for how people react to what we do, so if they want to be "impressed," I can't stop them. But I wish they wouldn't. Being impressed by classical music is a polite way for people to say that it isn't an important part of their lives.
I want music and art to make me not shake my head, but nod it. Not to make my say no, but to make me gasp and say YES, yes yes yes to art and life and experience and this whole game we're playing. Yes, he caught something there; he's right about that. Yep. Yes.
How often is the last track the best track? I went through my iTunes and discovered a lot of great albums that fizzle a bit by the time track six or so rolls along -- and even a piece that’s strong all the way through can fail to present a last track, or a last movement, that really brings it up to the next level, provides a punch, or makes you want to start at the beginning again. So I catalogued some collections that do have this feature, where the last track is actually my favorite, and I tried to categorize them. What are the approaches that make for a memorable last track?
This all started with a trip through The Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I, the underrated 1999 album that actually manages to subtly dramatize twenty-something life in such a way that you don’t immediately notice that’s what they’re doing. I’m crazy about the last track, “Back and Forth,” which is nothing but a gift at the end of the road. Just an irresistible groove and the best white-man indie-rock band rap you’re going to hear, with terrific lyrics -- a poetic highlight but certainly not a locus of intensity. It’s just fun.
A composition teacher once told me that the last movement should be cake. “Back and Forth” is an example -- we’ve worked through some knotty stuff, some angst, some funny time signatures, and now it’s time for a four-minute party. The classic example of this approach, from a totally different tradition, is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. We start off with fate and thunderbolts, and it all builds not to the very end but to the transition into the last movement, where we hit C Major all at once and BAM -- cake and punch. Party time.
1. The last movement should be cake.
This idea of a smooth ending section following a more dense and intense journey runs through a lot of my discoveries. There is a similar category in which the last movement serves to contextualize the journey, to shift the listener’s perspective on what came before.
My favorite examples of this effect come from recent classical music. I’m thinking of George Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening, a long piece with lots of thorny bits and tons of silence, and then suddenly after like twenty-five minutes you get the “Song of Reconciliation,” a long coda that recontextualizes all the dissonant ideas, all the silence and distance, into a warm and inviting ostinato that slowly draws the music to a close.
Perhaps even more dramatic is the final movement of Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, a piece that starts off thornier than the Crumb, with microtonal scratchings that sound like a swarm of wasps and dances of death and all that until it crashes into the last movement, Moderato pastorale -- another ostinato, a Beethoven quotation, warm and limpid music that nonetheless keeps you on edge, largely because of where it came from. It completely changes the way you think of the first four movements.
The White Stripes are also practitioners of this strategy -- check out “It’s true that we love one another” at the end of Elephant and, to a lesser extent, “Effect and Cause” and “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)”, from Icky Thump and Get Behind Me Satan, respectively. The first one especially casts the first part of the album in a new light. They all lighten the proceedings a bit, streamlining the style of the record into a little digestible package, smooth, calming. Not necessarily cake; more like an after-dinner mint.
2. The last movement should recontextualize what has come before.
These last examples lead us to a separate category of simplification, streamlining; of capping things off with a pop explosion. Beck does this a lot: look at little old two-chord “Debra” at the end of Midnite Vultures, reining in the musical and lyrical experimentation a bit and telling a funny story instead. The same with “Atmospheric Conditions” on One Foot in the Grave and even “Ramshackle” that quietly brings Odelay home.
3. The last movement should be a simple package of pop.
Or there’s the opposite approach, building to an intensification of meaning. The Beatles were great at this, swinging for the fences with album-ending experiments like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “A Day in the Life,” towering achievements both. Then of course there’s the second-side medley on Abbey Road, an album I find overrated, but the intent is the same. Get your “Here Comes the Sun”s out of the way first and then hit them with the big ideas, the brain-expanders.
Or how about Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight? Tons of fun, catchy driving music, and then at the end you get “Vittorio E”, abstract, repetitive, open-ended; “I took a river and it wouldn’t let go/I want you to stay and I want you to go/I took a river and the river was long and it goes on.”
Another impressive example is the one-two at the end of Source Tags & Codes, by And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead. The first half of the album is full of catchy but shallower tracks that pull you in by sheer visceral punch. Then they draw up to “Relative Ways” and the title track at the end; not as heavy, but nonetheless they leave you with that feeling that something just happened.
4. Any piece should build to an intensification of meaning.
Incidentally, the best one-two closer I can think of is surely that of Led Zeppelin IV, right? “Going to California” and “When the Levee Breaks”? Perfect balladry followed by stretched-out kickass blues explosion with the hugest drums ever? Terrific stuff. A combination of a couple different approaches there.
Some others that don’t fit into any of my categories? How about “Train in Vain (Stand by Me)”? Definitely my favorite from London Calling, which is too long and stylistically diverse to be easily parsed. Also “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” from Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, not necessarily my one and only favorite tune from that stunning record but definitely a strong statement, bold for its personal topics, poetic exploration, and sheer length. I guess you could call that an intensification of meaning, and it certainly draws together a lot of the strands from earlier on the album.
Not a comprehensive list even among my favorites, and of course it’s clear to see that these strategies are interrelated. But isn’t it interesting to realize how many albums don’t give you that memorable last track? These are my guesses as to what’s going on with a few albums that do. Any additions or revisions?