* Scriabin: The Complete Piano Sonatas (Laredo) (Nonesuch 2CD)
* Stefan Prins: Fremdkörper (Sub Rosa 2CD)
* Cecil Taylor & Tony Oxley: 26.Jazzfestival, Saalfelden, Austria 8-28-04 (FM CDR)
* Cecil Taylor & Tony Oxley: Teatro Communale, Modena, Italy 10-11-07 (FM 2CDR)
* Cecil Taylor & Tony Oxley: Auditorium, Strasbourg, France 10-02-09 (AUD 2CDR)
* Anthony Braxton: GTM (Iridium) 2007 Vol.3 Set 1 (New Braxton House FLAC)
* Anthony Braxton: GTM (Iridium) 2007 Vol.3 Set 2 (New Braxton House FLAC)
* Terje Rypdal Trio: Sendesall, Bremen, W. Germany 4-04-73 (Pre-FM FLAC)
* Ingrid Laubrock Anti-House: Moers Festival, Germany 5-26-12 (FM FLAC)
* Grateful Dead: Spring 1990 (selections) (GDP/Rhino 18HDCD)
* Pink Floyd: Animals (Pinkfloyd/EMI CD)
* Pink Floyd: The Wall (Pinkfloyd/EMI 2CD)
* Genesis: Three Sides Live (Atlantic 2LP)
* U2: The Unforgettable Fire (Island/Universal 2CD)
* New Order: Power Corruption And Lies (Factory/Rhino 2CD)†
* Talk Talk: Laughing Stock (Verve/Polygram CD)†
* New Order: Power Corruption And Lies (Factory/Rhino 2CD)†
* Talk Talk: Laughing Stock (Verve/Polygram CD)†
* Helios Creed: Galactic Octopi (Transparency 2LP)
* Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts (Matador CD)†
* OM: God Is Good (Drag City LP)†
* OM: Advaitic Songs (Drag City 2-45RPM LP)
* Steven Wilson: Grace For Drowning (KScope BD)
* Opeth: Still Life (Peaceville CD/DVD)(†)
* Opeth: Blackwater Park (Legacy Edition) (Sony/Universal CD/DVD)†
* Opeth: Deliverance (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†
* Opeth: Damnation (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†
* Opeth: Ghost Reveries (Roadrunner HDCD)†
* Opeth: Watershed (Roadrunner CD)†
* Opeth: Heritage (Roadrunner CD/DVD)
* Storm Corrosion: Storm Corrosion (Roadrunner CD/BD)
* Katatonia: Last Fair Deal Gone Down (Peaceville CD/CDEP)†/‡
* Katatonia: Viva Emptiness (Peaceville CD)†/‡
* Katatonia: The Great Cold Distance (Peaceville CD)†/‡
* Anathema: We’re Here Because We’re Here (KScope CD/DVD)
* Anathema: Weather Systems (The End CD)(†)
* Baroness: Yellow & Green (Relapse 2LP)
* Holograms: Holograms (Captured Tracks MP4)†
Commentary: "Composition vs. Improvisation: A False Dichotomy"
On Thursday, September 6, I will be playing improvised piano/drums duets with my friend and former bandmate, Sam Byrd, at the opening Indeterminacies event at Zeitgeist Gallery. This will be first time I have performed in public since the dissolution of UYA in 1995 and the first time on piano since…when?...1984? I can’t remember. I’m a little bit nervous—not so much about the music (Sam always inspires me to play beyond my abilities—which is why I insisted he travel from Richmond to join me)—but more concerned about the discussion segments, which will be led by Vanderbilt professor, Stan Link. Stan is a good friend and I’m sure he’ll go easy on me, but he is a brilliant and articulate composer with deep suspicions about the whole notion of improvisation as a legitimate artistic practice. Of course, this is what makes Indeterminacies unique: these are not concerts per se; they are investigations into the phenomena of performance and reception, critical thinking and audience participation. The result is unscripted, deliberately indeterminate and always challenging. We will be required to explain and, perhaps, justify and defend whatever it is we’re doing from rhetorical attacks from Stan and a potentially hostile, disapproving audience. Maybe not, but I’d be disappointed if we weren’t.
Consequently, I’ve been reading and re-reading some of the foundational texts regarding improvisational music in order to buttress my argument that improvisation is not only a legitimate practice but the basic expression of our innate human creativity. In Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Wesleyan, 1998), Christopher Small helpfully insists that “music” is not a noun, but a verb. “There is no such thing as music,” he writes:
Music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do. The apparent thing “music” is a figment, an abstraction of the action, whose reality vanishes as soon as we examine it at all closely. This habit of thinking in abstractions, of taking from an action what appears to be its essence and giving that essence a name, is probably as old as language; it is useful in the conceptualizing of our world but it has its dangers. It is very easy to come to think of the abstraction as more real than the reality it represents, to think, for example, of those abstractions we call love, hate, good and evil as having an existence apart of the acts of loving, hating, or performing good and evil deeds and even to think of them as being in some way more real than the acts themselves, a kind of universal or ideal lying behind and suffusing the actions. This is the trap of reifications, and it has been a besetting fault of Western thinking ever since Plato, who was one of its earliest perpetrators (p.2).
Small concludes that this kind of thinking is what led to the “privileging of Western classical music above all other musics” (Id. p.3) and the denigration of improvisation. But, as Derek Bailey points out in Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (Da Capo, 1992), it is “musicking” in its purest form:
[M]ankind’s first musical performance couldn’t have been anything other than a free improvisation...it is a reasonable speculation that at most times since then there will have been some music-making most aptly described as free improvisation (p.83).
In the context of human evolution, the development of notation and the arrival of the sovereign composer is a comparatively recent event. Bailey explains how idiomatic improvisation was a vital skill cultivated by musicians of the Baroque era, where the continuo parts were generated from skeletal notational symbols, the figured bass functioning like the chord symbols of jazz or the "Nashville Number System." He also reminds us that the virtuoso soloists of 19th Century were expected to improvise their own cadenzas or deliver an off-the-cuff set of themes and variations as an encore. These skills were gradually lost in European tradition with the rise of the “heroic composer”—yet improvisation remains an essential element of Indian music, flamenco and, of course, jazz, rock and every other form of “popular music” around the world. What we call “classical music” is no longer an integral part of a living culture—something people do—it is the realm of professionals: trained specialists who administer the “great works” of long-dead composers for a passive audience of self-selected elites. The truth is: improvisation—especially free improvisation—is something anybody can do, a concept antithetical to “professionalism” with its concomitant barriers to entry. As Bailey points out:
Its accessibility to the performer is, in fact, something which appears to offend both its supporters and detractors. Free improvisation, in addition to being a highly skilled musical craft, is open to use by almost anyone—beginners, children and non-musicians. The skill and intellect required is whatever is available. It can be an activity of enormous complexity and sophistication, or the simplest and most direct expression: a lifetime’s study and work or a casual dilettante activity. It can appeal to and serve the musical purposes of all kinds of people (Id. pp.83-84).
It is the “dilettante” or “amateur” that is necessarily disparaged and devalued in a musical culture that is administered from above by elite professionals and specialists. But I proudly accept my role as an amateur—that is, a lover of music—and an improvising dilettante. I do not hold myself out as a “musician” but rather “musicking” is simply something that I do—whether it is “good” or worth listening to is beside the point. And I celebrate the fact that, yes, anyone can do it—they are just discouraged by a dominant culture that tries to tell them can’t unless properly vetted and credentialed. Like Small, I believe “musicking” is an innate ability, like speech, but it is deliberately suppressed by the gatekeepers of “professionalism”:
[I]f everyone is born capable of musicking, how is it that so many people in Western industrial societies believe themselves to be incapable of the simplest musical act? If so, and it seems that many genuinely are, it must be either because the appropriate means for developing the latent musicality have been absent at those crucial times of their lives when the nervous system is still in the process of formation (those who are deprived of speech opportunities at that crucial time also never fully develop their speech capacities) or more often, I believe, because they have been actively taught to be unmusical (Small p.210).
The metaphor of speech or language goes only so far with regards to music, but the absurdity of our musical culture is obvious: it is as if only professional writers and paid speechwriters were allowed to speak and be heard. Like the child who abandons the joy of finger-painting when told by teachers and other authority figures that her drawings do not resemble their subjects, “[i]ndividuals are assumed to be unmusical unless they evidence to the contrary” (Id.)—that is to say, willing and capable of channeling their innate creativity to meet the demands and needs of professionalism. Everyone else is rendered illiterate and mute. It could be argued that this “de-musicking” of our culture is partly responsible for (or at least reflective of) society’s larger ills.
Now, don't get me wrong: I am not suggesting that Stan Link, as a professional composer and credentialed academic is an agent of oppression—far from it. His pedagogy focuses on advanced 20th Century compositional techniques and the critical analysis of film soundtracks while his electroacoustic music is radically subversive of the musical status quo; frankly, he is barely tolerated in a conservatory culture that worships Beethoven above all else. But his suspicions about improvisation are sincere: improvised music oftentimes lacks the rigor and formal coherence of a thoroughly planned composition. However, improvisation is, for most improvisers, not an ideology: there is not an inherent conflict between composition and improvisation. Some of its greatest practitioners are also fine composers, from Duke Ellington to Andrew Hill to Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton and they bring a highly developed sense of structure to their improvisations. Moreover, even in free improvisation, a structure or form, however rudimentary or amorphous, is the inevitable result of performance. A common criticism of improvisers is that they are only capable of recycling familiar material. That is true enough, but you can always add new words to your vocabulary. As Joe Morris puts it in his new book, The Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music (Riti 2012), “you can only play what you know how to play, but you can learn something new instantly in the process of making it” (p.40). Morris lucidly catalogs an ontological array of techniques and methodologies available to the improviser and describes how “synthesis, interpretation and invention” inform the processes of improvisation. At its best, free improvisation eschews schema and clichés to create what Jack Kerouac called, “deep form,” a spontaneous composition.
Theodore Adorno’s vicious attacks on jazz may appear wrong-headed on the surface, but a close reading shows that his real disagreement was merely with its false declarations of originality and its failure to live up to its own promise. In his 1941 essay, “On Popular Music,” Adorno gets at the heart of his criticism:
Even though jazz musicians still improvise in practice, their improvisations have become so “normalized” as to enable a whole terminology to be developed to express the standard devices of individualization…This pseudo-individualism is prescribed by the standardization of the framework. The latter is so rigid that the freedom it allows for any sort of improvisation is severely limited. Improvisations…are confined within the walls of the harmonic and metric scheme. In a great many cases, such as the “break” of pre-swing jazz, the musical function of the improvised detail is determined completely by the scheme: the break can be nothing other than a disguised cadenza. Hence, very few possibilities for actual improvisation remain (quoted in Peters p.78-79, emphasis added).
In The Philosophy of Improvisation (Chicago 2009), Gary Peters rightly points out that this passage “is not a rejection of improvisation any more than it is a rejection of individuality.” He goes on to say:
Indeed, the issue for Adorno is precisely that the language or jargon of free individuality alone cannot be actualized when it is spun around a standardized framework that gives it the lie. No, the above amounts to a defense of “actual improvisation” (Id.).
Adorno’s criticism was, for the most part, accurate, at least up through the Bebop era, which, despite its harmonic sophistication, continued to base its improvisations on the cyclical chord changes of standard show tunes. But while he might have been loath to admit it, the music of Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton clearly allow for “actual improvisation”—and contemporary free improvisation, with its reveling in the hyper-chromatic, dissonant counterpoint of his heroes, Schoenberg and Webern, should be seen as the realization of his dream of an autonomous, dialectical music, the actualization of true freedom in an un-free world.
For me personally, composition and improvisation are simply different means to different ends. Sometimes they work together and sometimes they are in conflict. But, as an amateur—a lover of music of all kinds—I embrace them both equally. I love to listen to classical music and play it on the piano for fun. I love abstract, difficult music as well as the joyful release of a perfect pop song. I love the visceral thrill of loud electric guitars and the ecstatic tribal beat of dance music. I love the loose improvisations of the Grateful Dead and the tightly controlled fury of Opeth. “Horses for courses,” as they say down here. As for what Sam and I will be doing on Thursday, it is, in essence, music as seismograph: what Vyacheslava Ivanov would call the “cryptogram of the ineffable,” or the “hierograph of lived experience” (quoted in Leeman p.35). Our long shared musical history has built up the trust and affection which allows us to telepathically communicate our most personal, inchoate thoughts and feelings in an unmediated, free improvisation. The results may or may not meet the criteria of “good music” as conventionally defined, but the “musicking” will be intimate and honest.
For Small, the meaning of music is about expressing ideal relationships:
The act of musicking establishes in the place where it is happening a set of relationships, and it is those relationships that the meaning of the act lies.They are to be found not only between those organized sounds which are conventionally thought of as being the stuff of musical meaning but also between the people who are taking part, in whatever capacity, in the performance; and they model, or stand as a metaphor for, ideal relationships as the participants in the performance imagine them to be” (Small p.13).
In the band, we used to talk about going to “that other, better world” which was only accessibly via improvisation. We hope go there again on Thursday—you can come too! Please join us on September 6 at Zeitgeist Gallery, 1819 21st Avenue, Nashville from 6:00 to 8:00 pm. The event is free and open to the public--who will be encouraged to challenge us with probing questions and insightful comments. Indeed, an ideal relationship as I imagine it to be.
Special thanks to Steinway Piano Gallery of Nashville for generously providing the gorgeous piano.
You can download music Sam and I have recorded over the past few years in my home studio over at The Internet Archive.
* Derek Bailey: Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (Da Capo, 1992)
* Richard Leeman: Cy Twombly: A Monograph (Flammarion, 2005)
* Joe Morris: Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music (Riti, 2012)
* Gary Peters: The Philosophy of Improvisation (Chicago, 2009)
* Christopher Small: Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Wesleyan, 1998)