Saturday, July 28, 2007

On Improvisation 2: Provoking Judgment

In societies where music is not written down, informed and accurate listening is as important and as much a measure of musical ability as is performance, because it is the only means of ensuring continuity of the musical tradition. Music is a product of the behavior of human groups, whether formal or informal: it is humanly organized sound. And, although different societies tend to have different ideas about what they regard as music, all definitions are based on some consensus of opinion about the principles on which the sounds of music should be organized. No such consensus can exist until there is some common ground of experience, and unless different people are able to hear and recognize patterns in the sounds that reach their ears. —John Blacking

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

—William Butler Yeats, Among School Children

It’s not enough to just play music. It’s not enough to play only other peoples’ music. (Put your Instant Music in your Mr. Coffee and the Java Jive comes out.) It’s also not enough to only write music. Scores, compositions, notations of all kinds, are a visual/literate representation of the sounds intended/created/evoked in performance. No, to get the full experience, you have to do it all. Play, write, reproduce, recreate, create, play. You have to be music.

Musical improvisation can be thought of as spontaneous composition. But: jazz improvisation is not purely constructed: like any coherent musical tradition (structured system), it has rules of thumb, tendencies, and stereotypical behaviors. The soloist relates notes and patterns vertically to the harmonic chords of the tune: the “changes” are actually the things that don’t get changed. Jazz is (traditionally) a highly structured musical system, with its own stylistic idioms, genres, and stereotypical expressive devices. All musical traditions are like this. (Learning these things well gets you “inside” the tradition.)

No musical tradition is inherently superior or inferior to another, no closer or further from some absolute standard of musical/sonic reality. Non are intrinsically based on purely acoustical/physical phenomena. Every human culture seems to articulate an intrinsic human need to make music (humanly organized sound)—but there are so many kinds of music.

We must be careful about how we judge other musical systems than the one(s) we most associate with. We tend to be snobs. Many “jazz musicians” tend to be as precisely elitist and purist as the Western “classical musicians” often put into aesthetic opposition: beat/square, hip/straight, cool/out-of-it, relaxed/uptight. (Freaks/conformists. Do you wear “weird” as a badge of honor?) Well, baby, I’ve got news for you: jazz too can be square, uptight, conformist, and all that, too.

I have a dream.

I have a dream of an improvised music without constraints. Without judgment, without ego, without editing to conform to personal taste. I am searching for a pure form, if you will, of improvised music, freed of cultural inheritances and any judgments about what music is supposed to be. Improvised music existing in a value-free domain. It’s hard work; I may spend my whole life in quest of it, and never achieve it. Why? Because I too am a bearer of learned culture.

I am constantly encountering, recognizing, and identifying assumptions about music that I carry within myself—and then doing my utmost to explode them. Blow ‘em up, leave ‘em behind, discard ‘em like used food wrappers. I keep finding new layers of assumption in myself: raze one, only to encounter another underneath. They appear to recede endlessly.

But: I’ll let you in on a secret: I’m not doing this just in my musical life, but in my life as a whole. It’s a huge, worthwhile challenge, and in the end it will kill me.

Life is an improvisation.

Life is an improvisation where you don’t know the rules, the conductor is too far away to see, half the keys on your ax don’t do what they’re supposed to, the score is illegible, and your hands seem to dissolve and reappear with a will of their own.

Isn’t that wonderful?

Recommended Reading:

John Blacking: How Musical Is Man? University of Washington Press, 1973.
John Cage: Silence, Wesleyan University Press, 1961.
Nikos Kazantzakis: The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, Touchstone, 1960.

Recommended Explosive Listening:

Paul Schütze: New Maps of Hell, Extreme Records, 1992.
John Cage: Indeterminacy, Folkways Records, 1959.
Nicky Skopelitis: Ekstasis, Axiom/Island Records, 1993.

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