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.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts