September 29, 2012

Playlist Week of 9-29-12

802D2 (rear)
* J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concertos (AAM/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2SACD)
* John Cage, et al.: John Cage Shock Vol.1 (Omega Beat/EM CD)†
* John Cage, et al.: John Cage Shock Vol.2 (Omega Beat/EM CD)†
* John Cage, et al.: John Cage Shock Vol.3 (Omega Beat/EM CD)†
* Miles Davis: The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (selections) (Columbia/Legacy 4CD)
* Miles Davis: We Want Miles (Columbia 2LP)
* Henry Threadgill: The Complete Novus & Columbia Recordings (selections) (Mosaic 8CD)
* Sonny Sharrock: Black Woman (Vortex/4 Men With Beards LP)
* Sonny Sharrock: Monkey-Pockie-Boo (BYG/Actuel LP)
* Paradoxical Frog (Kris Davis/Ingrid Laubrock/Tyshawn Sorey): Paradoxical Frog (Clean Feed CD)
* Veyran Weston/Ingrid Laubrock/Hannah Marshall: Haste (Emanem CD)
* Ingrid Laubrock/Olie Brice/Javier Carmona: Catatumbo (Babel CD)
* Tom Rainey Trio: Camino Cielo Echo (Intakt CD)
* Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: Zeitgeist Gallery, Nashville, TN 9-06-12 (CDR/24bit WAV)(†/‡)
* King Sunny Ade & His African Beats: Bobby (Sunny Alade LP)
* Mandingo: Watto Sitta (Celluloid LP)
* Royal Band de Thiès: Kadior Demb (Teranga Beat CD)†
* Shakti: A Handful Of Beauty (Columbia LP)
* Tabla Beat Science: Tala Matrix (Axiom/Palm CD)
* Merl Saunders & Jerry Garcia: Keystone Companions: Complete 1973 (Fantasy/Concord 4CD)
* Emerson Lake & Palmer: Emerson Lake & Palmer (Deluxe Edition) (d.3) (Razor & Tie 2CD+DVDA)
* Emerson Lake & Palmer: Tarkus (Deluxe Edition) (d.3) (Razor & Tie 2CD+DVDA)
* Black Sabbath: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Black Sabbath: Sabotage (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Patti Smith: Banga (Columbia CD)
* Bad Brains: I Against I (SST LP)
* Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts (Matador 2LP)
* Lee Ranaldo: Between The Times And The Tides (Matador LP)
* Yoko Ono/Kim Gordon/Thurston Moore: YOKOKIMTHURSTON (Chimera MP3)†
* Robert Pollard: Mouseman Cloud (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Robert Pollard: Jack Sells The Cow (GBV, Inc. LP/MP3)(†)
* High On Fire: Death Is This Communion (Relapse CD)†
* High On Fire: Snakes For The Divine (Relapse CD)†/‡
* OM: God Is Good (Drag City LP)†
* OM: Advaitic Songs (Drag City 2-45RPM LP)†
* White Hills: White Hills (Thrill Jockey CD)†
* White Hills: H-p1 (Thrill Jockey CD)†
* White Hills: Frying On This Rock (Thrill Jockey MP3)†
* Dusted: Total Dust (Polyvinyl CD)



No comment.

September 28, 2012

Royal Band de Thiès @ Spectrum Culture

While I have not been writing much on the blog, some stuff has appeared over at Spectrum Culture. My review of The Royal Band de Thiès: Kadior Demb can be found here. This one was particularly difficult: while I love African music I am in no way an expert. A delightful record, anyway.


In addition, my pick for the "Monthly Mix Tape" is "Sinai" from OM's latest album, Advaitic Songs. I've been meaning to write about this record for a while, but haven't had the chance. You can read my 200-word blurb here.

September 22, 2012

Playlist Week of 9-22-12

SanDisk Cruzer 16G>Oppo BDP-95

* Scriabin: Complete Symphonies, etc. (selections) (Deutsches Symph-Orch/Ashkenazy) (Decca 3CD)
* Cage, et al.: John Cage Shock Vol.1 (Omega Point/EM CD)
* Cage, et al.: John Cage Shock Vol.2 (Omega Point/EM CD)
* Cage, et al.: John Cage Shock Vol.3 (Omega Point/EM CD)
* Feldman: Crippled Symmetry: At June In Buffalo (Feldman Soloists) (Frozen Reeds 2CD)†
* Herbie Nichols: The Complete Blue Note Sessions (d.2-3) (Blue Note 3CD)
* Henry Threadgill: The Complete Novus & Columbia Recordings (selections) (Mosaic 8CD)
* Henry Threadgill Sextett: You Know The Number (RCA/Novus LP)
* Mary Halvorson Quintet: Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12 CD)
* Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: Zeitgeist Gallery, Nashville, TN 9-06-12 (CDR/24bit WAV)
* John McLaughlin: Devotion (Douglas LP)
* Mahavishnu John McLaughlin: My Goals Beyond (Douglas LP)
* Mahavishnu Orchestra: Visions Of The Emerald Beyond (Columbia LP)
* Royal Band de Thiès: Kadior Demb (Terranga Beat CD)(†)
* The Pyramids: Otherworldly (Disko B CD)†
* Isaac Hayes: “Shaft” (Original Soundtrack) (Enterprise/Stax 2LP)
* Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced (Experience Hendrix/Sony LP)
* Jimi Hendrix Experience: Axis: Bold As Love (Experience Hendrix/Sony LP)
* Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland (Experience Hendrix/Sony 2LP)
* Jimi Hendrix: First Rays Of The New Rising Sun (Experience Hendrix/Sony 2LP)
* Yoko Ono, Kim Gordon & Thurston Moore: YOKOKIMTHURSTON (Chimera MP3)†
* Grateful Dead: Road Trips Vol.2 No.1: MSG September ’90 (GDP/Rhino 2+1HDCD)
* Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Van Morrison: Moondance (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Roseanne Cash: King’s Record Shop (Columbia LP)
* Robert Pollard: Jack Sells The Cow (GBV, Inc. MP3)†
* Earth: Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light II (Southern Lord 2-45RPM LP)
* OM: Advaitic Songs (Drag City 2-45RPM LP)†
* Opeth: Blackwater Park (Music For Nations/Sony CD/DVD)†
* Opeth: Deliverance (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)
* Opeth: Damnation (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)†
* Katatonia: Brave Yester Days (Avantgarde 2CD)†
* Anathema: Weather Systems (The End CD)†
* Animal Collective: Centipede Hz (Domino CD)†
* Russian Circles: Empros (Sargent House CD)†



Sorry for neglecting the blog lately—it’s been a busy couple of weeks and I just seem to get busier.

I’m still buzzing from the performance on the 6th and last Saturday Brian and I spent all day mixing the thirty-four minutes of music. The plan is to put out a CD and pursue more performing opportunities. Why not? I think the music is good!

What little writing I’ve done has been for Spectrum Culture (blurbs for “Best Books About Music” and “Best Songs Over Ten Minutes”). Not surprisingly, I’m falling a bit behind on some record reviews due not just to my busyness but because—well let’s put it this way: I need to be more careful about what I choose to review. I have to hack out a couple of, um, challenging assessments before getting to some really juicy stuff, including a couple of fairly high-profile interviews.

Oh, and I was just asked to photograph an event next month—for money! Now, isn’t that a kick in the pants?

So, yeah, I have a lot of work to do—on top of forty-plus hours per week at my day job (and five more of commuting). There is only so much time in a day and I have to admit: I’m having a hard time balancing it all—particularly the writing part, which is a long and arduous process for me. Playing, recording and listening to music is fun; writing about it is not.

Obviously, the blog has been the first thing to go by the wayside and it will continue along like this for the time being, as I pursue these other opportunities. But I do hope to resurrect Sun Ra Sunday and write more substantive pieces on the playlist in the near future. I may not enjoy writing very much yet I still feel compelled to do it anyway—I just need to be more disciplined about it. So, please stay tuned; there’s exciting stuff ahead!


About the photograph: Listening to the mix-down in high-resolution 24bit/48kHz via SanDisk Cruzer 16G thumb drive plugged into my Oppo BDP-95—sweet! 

September 16, 2012

Playlist Week of 9-15-12

* Schmelzer/Muffat: Sonatas (London Baroque/Medlam) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Biber: Rosary Sonatas (Manze/Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Rebel: Violin Sonatas (Manze/Egarr/ter Linden) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Miles Davis: Kind Of Blue (Columbia/Legacy SACD)
* Miles Davis: The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions (Columbia/Legacy 3CD)
* Miles Davis: Bitches Brew (Legacy Edition) (Columbia/Legacy 2CD/DVD)
* Herbie Nichols: The Complete Blue Note Recordings (d.1) (Blue Note 3CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (Willisau) 1991 (d.1-2) (HatArt 4CD)
* Mary Halvorson Quintet: Firehouse 12, New Haven, CT 5-18-12 (alt.) (AUD FLAC)
* Rodger Coleman & Sam Byrd: Zeitgeist Gallery, Nashville, TN 9-06-12 (mixdown)
* Bob Dylan: Tempest (Columbia 2LP/CD)
* Grateful Dead: From The Mars Hotel (GDP/Rhino/Friday Music LP)
* Grateful Dead: In The Dark (GDP/Rhino/Mobile Fidelity LP)
* Grateful Dead: Built To Last (GDP/Rhino/Friday Music LP)
* Deep Purple: Machine Head (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Deep Purple: Stormbringer (Warner Bros./Friday Music LP)
* Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Black Sabbath: Paranoid (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Black Sabbath: Master Of Reality (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Black Sabbath: Vol.4 (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Shellac: Terraform (Touch & Go LP)
* Shellac: 1000 Hurts (Touch & Go LP)
* Shellac: Excellent Italian Greyhound (Touch & Go LP)
* YOB: The Illusion Of Motion (Metal Blade CD)
* Opeth: Still Life (Peaceville CD/DVD)†
* Opeth: Blackwater Park (Music For Nations/Sony CD/DVD)†
* Opeth: Deliverance (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)
* Katatonia: The Great Cold Distance (Peaceville CD)†
* Katatonia: Dead End Kings (Peaceville CD)†/‡
* Anathema: We’re Here Because We’re Here (KScope CD)†
* Anathema: Falling Deeper (KSCope CD)†
* Anathema: Weather Systems (The End CD)†
* Agalloch: Pale Folklore (The End CD)†
* Agalloch: The Mantle (The End CD)†
* Agalloch: The Grey EP (Agalloch/Bandcamp FLAC>CDR)†
* Agalloch: The White EP (Agalloch/Bandcamp FLAC>CDR)†
* Aglloch: Ashes Against The Grain (The End CD)†
* Agalloch: Marrow Of The Spirit (Profound Lore CD)†
* Agalloch: Faustian Echoes (Agalloch/Bandcamp FLAC>CDR)†
* Mastodon: Leviathan (Relapse CD)†
* Mastodon: Blood Mountain (Reprise CD)†
* Mastodon: Crack the Skye (Reprise CD)†
* Baroness: Yellow & Green (Relapse 2CD)†
* Pelican: The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw (Hydra Head CD)†
* Pelican: March Into The Sea (Hydra Head EP)
* Pelican: City Of Echoes (Hydra Head CD)
* Pelican: What We All Come To Need (Southern Lord CD)†
* Animal Collective: Centipede Hz (Domino 2LP/DVD)
* Astra: The Weirding (Rise Above/Metal Blade CD)




September 8, 2012

Playlist Week of 9-08-12

Zeitgeist Gallery 2012-09-06

* Uccellini: Sonatas (Romanesca) (Harmonia Mundi CD)
* Schoenberg, et al.: Piano Concerto, etc. (Cleveland Orch./Boulez/Uchida) (Philips CD)
* Messiaen: Trois petites liturgies…, etc. (Orch. National de France/Nagano/Loriod) (Erato CD)
* Boulez: Répons, etc. (Ensemble InterContemporain/Boulez) (Deutsche Grammophon CD)
* Boulez: Sur Incises, etc. (Ensemble InterContemporain/Boulez) (Deutsche Grammophon CD)
* Cecil Taylor: Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within) (Enja CD)
* Cecil Taylor: In Florescence (A&M CD)
* Mary Halvorson Quintet: Firehouse 12, New Haven, CT 5-18-12 (AUD FLAC)
* The Beatles: Beatles For Sale (2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)†
* The Beatles: Let It Be (2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)†
* The Beatles: Abbey Road (2009 stereo) (Apple/EMI CD)†
* Grateful Dead: Workingman’s Dead (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Grateful Dead: American Beauty (Warner Bros./Rhino LP)
* Grateful Dead: War Memorial Auditorium Rochester, NY 9-02-80 (d.3) (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Civic Center, San Francisco, CA 12-31-84 (SBD/FM 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Spring 1990 (selections) (GDP/Rhino 18HDCD)
* King Crimson: Live In Argentina 1994 (d.2) (DGM/Inner Knot 2DVD)
* Talk Talk: The Colour Of Spring (EMI LP/DVD)
* The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros. HDCD)
* Radiohead: In Rainbows (TBD CD)†
* Radiohead: The King Of Limbs (TBD/Ticker Tape CD)†
* Porcupine Tree: Lightbulb Sun (KScope CD/DVD)
* Porcupine Tree: Recordings (KScope CD)†
* Porcupine Tree: In Absentia (Lava/Atlantic CD)†
* Porcupine Tree: Deadwing (Lava/Atlantic CD)†
* Opeth: Deliverance (Music For Nations/KOCH CD)
* Opeth: Heritage (CD/DVD)†
* Katatonia: Brave Yester Days (Avantgarde 2CD)
* Katatonia: Night Is The New Day (Peaceville CD)
* Katatonia: Dead End Kings (Peaceville CD)
* Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam (Domino 2LP)
* Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino 2LP)
* Animal Collective: Centipede Hz (Domino 2LP/DVD)
* Six Organs Of Admittance: Ascent (Drag City LP)
* Mastodon: Remission (Relapse 2LP)
* Baroness: First & Second (Relapse LP)
* Baroness: Red Album (Relapse 2 45-RPM LP)
* Baroness: Blue Record (Relapse 2 45-RPM LP)
* Baroness: Yellow & Green (Relapse 2LP)
* Pelican: What We All Come To Need (Southern Lord CD)
* Holograms: Holograms (Captured Tracks MP4)†



Thursday night was AMAZING! We were written up as a Critic’s Pick in the weekly Nashville Scene—and a standing-room-only crowd showed up! Sam played his ass off (as usual) and inspired me to really go for it. At one point, I looked up to see interpretive dancing going on in front of the audience. How interesting, I thought, and kept playing. I had no idea this was going to happen—part of the whole Indeterminacies thing, you know, "expect the unexpected"—but it was very, very cool and added a whole other level of artiness to the proceedings. Stan Link asked great, probing questions which prompted quite an outpouring of insightful comments from the audience. An older, rather conservative-looking woman said that she was at first “scared to death” but as the music went along, she could start to appreciate that we really were playing together rather than against each other—and almost came to enjoy the experience. Nearly brought me to tears, it did. Many folks had never heard anything quite like this, but responded really positively. It was possibly the highest musical moment of my life and an affirmation that this life-long obsession with music has been worthwhile.

Huge thank you to Lesley Beeman and Lain York of Zeitgeist for inviting me to do this; to Sam for driving nine hours each way to join me (I couldn’t have done it without him!); to Steinway Piano Gallery of Nashville for generously providing the instrument; and to my nephew, Brian Totoro, who professionally recorded the event—I can’t wait to hear it!

September 7, 2012

Holograms @ Spectrum Culture

My review of Holograms' self-titled debut album is up over at Spectrum Culture. You can read it here. Frankly, I didn't care for it.

September 6, 2012

Stefan Prins @ Spectrum Culture

My review of Stefan Prins: Fremdkörper is up over at Spectrum Culture. It's another screed about improvisation and composition and you can read it here.


The Monthly Mixtape is also up. My choice? Storm Corrosion - "Drag Ropes."

September 1, 2012

Playlist Week of 9-01-12

Piano at Zeitgest Gallery
* 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)†
* 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 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)