The "music as language" metaphor roars into the 21st century unabated. In the last few days I've made references to sentences in music, music's syntax, and even -- here's a dangerous one -- its "vocabulary."
This is a big subject in jazz, where people transcribe recordings, listen and repeat to pick up vocabulary, much the same way people use language tapes. I remember saying at a jazz piano lesson that my goal was to become "conversant" in the style.
This is especially injurious for jazz. Many critics of recent jazz decry its reliance on traditional idioms, don't see much forward motion. For the record, I don't think this is at all globally true, but it's plain to see how the practice of transcribing great players of the past runs the risk of inculcating new ears with older styles.
But the problem is deeper than this. I talk to people who don't like jazz and they usually express some variation on the idea that these musicians are just doing it for themselves and for fellow musicians; they aren't communicating with the audience, they're just trying to be clever in their idiom.
These listeners sense a musical expression based on language, not on sound -- and if it's not a language they know, they have little to gain from the experience. Going to a jazz club becomes as satisfying as listening to a group conversation in Urdu.
Of course, some of us were drawn to the music before we "spoke the language," and that's what moved us to study it. And some listeners just aren't. I don't know whether a simple attitude change can be sufficient to change this; freer improvisational styles, more based on pure sound, are even less popular than traditional jazz. But unless we believe a listener can understand the music without studying the theory (the syntax, the vocabulary), they'll continue to see that they aren't supposed to.
What happens here
• 1 •
Today's high temperature in Banff: -6. For the next two days it's -2 and 4. I think Canadians prefer Celsius because it dramatizes their outrageous weather--in C these numbers become -21, -19, -15.
Really, people. It's November. At least now I see why Thanksgiving is in early October here; in the old days people had probably run out of pumpkins and resorted to eating boot leather by this time of year.
• 2 •
Concerts, concerts, oh God, the concerts. I premiered two new piano pieces two Fridays ago, and this week had the opportunity to play some pop piano and a Dylan cover with string trio. This Tuesday I'm hosting an informal studio hang to present a few new tunes for violin, piano, and drums.
It's been an interesting foray into jazz composition these last few weeks, preparing for this show. I should really say "jazz composition" and "show," the latter because it's so informal, more like a workshop, the former because there's not much that separates this approach from any other composition of mine besides the fact that there are improvised solos and I feel justified using lazy notational practice.
From a psychological standpoint, though, there is a difference. I've never been comfortable with the assumption in classical tradition that it's all in the score; I understand it, I appreciate where it came from, but it's never felt appropriate for my music. In "jazz composition" the role of performers in shaping and fleshing out the composition in the moment is expected and integrated, which feels more natural.
Nonetheless I've learned some notational lessons, particularly regarding meters. To be specific, I'm moving away from long meters such as 11/8 and 13/8; I used these in one tune and they're just obfuscating, because what it really is in this case is 3/8 + 4/4 and 3/8 + 5/4. It isn't very helpful to write 11 or 13 when no one is feeling that number of beats. You don't feel 3 beats in 3/8 either, but there the implication is clear that you feel one large beat.
I also broke a personal rule recently in one of my solo piano pieces and, for the above reasons, used a 1/4 bar. I normally abhor 1-numerator bars and still feel slightly dirty from the whole experience.
• 3 •
I'll retreat from technical talk, but must also mention that Dal Segno is back and better than ever. Players seem really thrown when I use it, but I dig. D.S. al Coda flies in the face of recent composition in a kind of lovely little way, providing as it does direct recapitulation and recognizable material. It's a gesture to the listener as well as the player. There's something humble about using a D.S., and besides, it saves paper.
I'm still honing this "jazz composition" thing and what it means for me; but the cool thing is, while these pieces are not totally successful or refined, I'm still on my biggest compositional tear in about three years, and it feels good.
• 4 •
To the cool people list I add Sarah Rothenberg, NYC and Houston-based pianist who puts on these fascinating concerts that draw connections between classical music and contemporaries in other art forms, also in collaboration with stage design people, lighting people, video artists, etc etc. We only saw still images of her recent show on Kandinsky and The Blue Rider, but I can see how this approach could really make traditionally unapproachable early 20th-century music come alive for people who don't have doctorates in music (and for those who do, as well). She also played us a bunch of Schoenberg and Berg as well as Scriabin's Vers la flamme, which was totally awesome.
• 5 •
Maurice Ravel's String Quartet. ahhhhhhhhhhh. The Piano Trio, too. I'm absolutely stunned by the way the man used rhythm and meter. Time seems so freely malleable in this music. In the first movement of the Piano Trio the music is always slowing down, but it just keeps floating forward. There are large chunks of music where the meter never changes and yet the accent is always shifting, resulting in this incredible time texture.
• 6 •
The music residents had the pleasure of a personal introduction by Vancouver-based artist Geoffrey Farmer to his ongoing piece here on campus, God's Dice, which he calls a "sculpture play." It's on for four weeks and continuously evolving. There's a stage in the gallery with, right now, big tall mirrors and other props from the theatre department. Our day there was a live performer, whose role is also in flux. There were musical instruments in the corner. So there's this visible process, assuming you leave and come back, of the piece's development. Farmer even said he might "rehearse" with the performers or make changes while visitors are in the gallery.
At one point during our visit he decided to take on such a rehearsal with the woman on stage, so he started to make sounds with some of the instruments in the corner and let her react to them (previously there had been audio of Merce Cunningham speaking). It was funny to watch all of us music people stop and suddenly treat the proceedings as a concert; we all got quiet and stood respectfully still, just by habit. For me, when he started playing suddenly the whole experience and their interaction became jazz music, which was fascinating. I look forward to visiting this piece frequently for the next three weeks; I'm intrigued by the role of improvisation in the whole thing. Farmer seems to have only a vague idea of where it might go. It's like an extremely long-form improvisation using space as well as visual and audio elements… cool stuff. It helps that he speaks convincingly about his work, conceptually, but avoiding empty jargon. The whole conversation was very illuminating.
It's great for musicians to talk with contemporary artists. The sort of expectations and constraints they place on themselves are so different, and always help me move through my blocks and hangups.
• 7 •
Where else do you get to eat lunch with outdoors writers who are working on book proposals about their homemade boat, their cabin on an island in northern BC, their two-month solo Arctic river trip, and then the same day witness a workshop of a brand new musical with legit Broadway performers and directors? Banff is ridiculous.
Cleaning the mirror
Shortly before arriving in Banff I read a post on NPR's jazz blog that asked, "What's the first John Coltrane album you fell in love with?" Now Coltrane's status, by this point, is so indisputably canonic that it's kind of funny we have to ask this question. We could ask it regarding Miles or anyone else with a big varied discography, but if you read the post, the implication is different here. There is this idea that you probably had to hear more than one Coltrane record in order to fall in love with him; the music isn't easy, you need an entry point. That's what the author says, anyway -- that he heard the usual starter albums, the famous titles like Blue Train and Giant Steps and A Love Supreme, but it wasn't until he heard Live at Birdland that he was truly hooked.
This is also my experience. I have had the classic Coltrane albums for a long time, but have never fallen in love with any of them--despite having done so with a couple later albums by McCoy Tyner which, I now see, were clearly (heavily) influenced by close connection to Coltrane's ideas. Interesting, I thought. I got Live at Birdland and liked it a lot. Particularly "Alabama" made a strong impression -- the NPR post embeds a video of the tune that is stunning to watch.
It occurred to me that maybe I'd found my way into the Coltrane repertoire with this disc -- but I remained relatively unaffected.
Then I heard Crescent.
I remain caught between bitterness at the universe for not exposing me to this incredible piece of music earlier and gratefulness for receiving it now, during this specific chapter in my life.
Obviously, it happened. This was the album that made me love Coltrane's music. Now I've returned to the others that have floated in my iTunes ever since I've had iTunes and heard them differently as well. Crescent is an absolute masterpiece of musical atmosphere. I've rarely heard any piece that so personally and vulnerably explores such dark and moody territory while maintaining such steely, hair-raising strength. The whole band seems to have come through the same journey; each one is featured and each speaks with the same voice.
Reading a review of Live at Birdland I encountered this fairly common accusation--original author unknown--that Coltrane is perhaps "jazz's most boring genius." I nodded and entertained the thought for some time. It resonated with my experience; I had been impressed by his music, I recognized its technical greatness and influence, but it never found a place in me until Crescent. I feel immensely grateful.
I just finished a fairly average book about Coltrane. The author, who was around during the sixties, seemed preoccupied with dragging through the mud any critic who ever said something nasty about Coltrane, in spite of the decades gone by and the sax man's now unshakeable stature. But the book did offer a few genuine and touching revelations about Coltrane's musical conception, his studies, and his personality. Most memorably, the author mentions photos of Coltrane--in which he always wears an intense and dour expression--and suggests that they don't represent his personality. Actually, he was an introspective, soft-spoken and unassuming guy. Supposedly the reason he never smiled in pictures is because he was self-conscious about his bad teeth. (He had a lifelong addiction to sweets, especially sweet potato pie.) Doesn't that just break your heart?
There was also this quotation from Coltrane, a truly beautiful statement about what it is to live an honest artistic life:
"There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we discovered in its pure state. So we can see more clearly what we are. In that way we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of who we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep cleaning the mirror."
The last section of the book is a typical lament on the state of jazz since the late '60s, cataloging the shortcomings of fusion and lambasting the conservatism of everything that came after, using Wynton Marsalis as the scapegoat. I'm normally dismissive of anyone who fails to look deeper and find the interesting music occurring (in any place, at any time, in any genre) below the surface; but I actually found this narrative of '70s and '80s jazz a bit convincing and at least touching, worth consideration. Luckily I also, at around the same time, ran across this list of favorite jazz records from 1973-1990 by Ethan Iverson, pianist of the Bad Plus, an excellent corrective to anyone claiming nothing worthy was going on during those years.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues