Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Performance Empathy

There is a reason I like to play in ensembles, in musical groups, more often than I like to play as a solo artist. It's not that I don't play as a solo musician, but I do prefer working with at least one other musician. It's hard to articulate, but I ran across a good way of thinking about it in the liner notes to a recent CD:

Music is fondly called a universal "language." When we make music and listen to music together, the musical code necessary to this end usually seems self-evident. But how does such a code arise and proliferate? How does dialect or slang emerge from a language? What gives rise to characteristic phrasings, embellishments and rhythmic alloys shared by an entire group of musicians? And how do rules of style take hold? . . .

When five musicians play together, ten different paths of communication open up between them—a challenge to deft, accurate interaction and mutual attention. The only way to find and share these paths is with a large degree of empathy, which enables us intuitively to reflect our partners in ourselves, immediately and reflexively. In addition to criticism (the other form of constructive reflection), empathy is a key prerequisite for creative collaborations. It is a co-operative survival strategy, as old as time itself, and thus deeply rooted not only in our thought but in our bodies. That is what makes this gift so valuable and productive for our interaction. Joint phrasing, after all, cannot be captured in notation. It can only be gained through training and patience, through mutual respect and interest, through the ability to resonate with each other.

Then familiar phrases, curious and vivid turns of phrase, verbs of ghost notes and rhythmic punch lines will arise as if by themselves.

—Nik Brätsch, liner notes to album with group RONIN, Llyria

The reason I like to play in ensembles of like-minded, empathic musicians is that I'm addicted to making music the way that Nik Brätsch describes here. It's my favorite way of playing music, in groups of musicians who genuinely listen to and feel and respond with each other. It's almost magical at times, and one of the very best natural highs available. By comparison, many solo gigs, while they are rewarding in other ways, don't challenge me, don't push me as hard. In groups, I play better, I go further, I am challenged to be at the very edge of my game, and to spend as much time as possible "in the zone."

How did I get this way? Well, I can relate to the music that Nik Brätsch's group RONIN makes, and how they do it, and why, because I was for a long time in a very similar group.

I played for twelve years or so in an improvising band called Dangerous Odds with a core group of four musicians accompanying two core performance poets. We played more than one open mic poetry slam gig, and for several years had a monthly radiobroadcast on local community radio.

Dangerous Odds was based around the idea of spontaneously improvised music accompanying poetry performance. We built a specialty of being able to play in all styles of music, being able to change on the instant in response to the poets' words and directions. We never rehearsed, we just got together for gigs and recording sessions. We talked about what we were going to do before a gig, but at a recording session, sometimes we would just point at each other and say "Start something," the music would start, and the chief poet would pick a text that worked with what we were doing and join in. Often no key center was agreed on beforehand, we just dove in, and started playing in the Key Of X. A mood or concept might be agreed on beforehand, in response to a poem, and sometimes a key was chosen in advance. But not always. There were also times when the musicians would just play, without words or texts or poets. We tried to mix it all together for most live gigs.

When I say "all styles of music," I mean it. That includes classical and folk, as well as more typically improvisatory genres such as jazz, fusion, rock, and blues. For example, one evening we were joined by some Irish traditional musicians, and came up with Foggy Foggy Dub. On other occasions we came up with more experimental, soundscape-oriented music, occasionally quite unusual and minimal; for example, Clocks in Chaos. A lot of choices depended on the poem.

In this band I usually took the bass role in the ensemble, letting the flute and viola play melodic functions. I usually played either six-string bass guitar or Chapman Stick. Occasionally one of the poets would perform one of my own poems, too, while I played my musical role. For example, Begging Bowl. In later bands I took more of a melodic role, being a second "guitarist" even though I was playing Stick. For example, as with fUSE.

Dangerous Odds regularly invited guest musicians to sit in, and occasionally guest poets. We were very picky about who we invited, however. It had to be someone we liked, and got along well with. We had all been in bands in the past with overbearing front-row musicians (rock & roll guitarists being the most notorious Big Egos), and we made a point about equality amongst the musicians and poets. This was no one person's band. Our rule was, if you got us the gig, you got to say what you wanted to do; and we all set up various gigs at various times. So each of us was occasionally bandleader-for-one-gig, but not much more than that. As for guest artists, we usually asked them to give some direction as to what they wanted to do. Otherwise it was very equal, very give-and-take.

(Some more samples of pieces by Dangerous Odds can be heard on my Music page on my main website; just scroll down.)

We all learned to listen, to really listen to everything going on all the time, and to respond on the instant. The group became almost telepathic after awhile. Even if we hadn't played together for a month, there was rarely ever any hesitation. It all evolved quite naturally and intuitively. The enforced equality among all the musicians also led to mutual respect, which in turn improved our ability to listen to each other. Sometimes it took one song at the beginning of a recording session before we were all "tuned in" with each other again; but usually only one tune was needed, and for the rest of the night we were telepathic as usual.

As I mentioned earlier, we had all been burned by egotistical guitarists in previous bands; so we only rarely invited guitarists to sit in with us, and they had to be both great players and good friends. We were most often an entirely "guitar free zone." At one memorable gig, for one poem we used drums, keyboards, flute, poet, and three bass guitars. To have three bassists all going at the same time requires a lot of careful listening and respectful playing, and we made it work.

Getting back to the topic of musical empathy, playing for so long in Dangerous Odds spoiled me for playing in other kinds of bands. I got used to playing improvised music near-telepathically with other musicians. It's still my favorite way to make music: improvise together, without any road map, and without a safety net. Totally open and free. Most people, even most jazz musicians, think free jazz means cacophonous noise; but it doesn't have to mean that, it can mean subtle beauty, too. And I also like to improvise on a known pattern, or over a groove, or a set of chord changes. A little bit of structure can take you very far, as for example with 12-bar blues, possibly the most familiar and clichéd chord pattern around but still capable of infinite nuance and revitalizing freshness. It's all in how you approach it.

Spontaneous improvisation is still my favorite way to make music with other musicians. In Dangerous Odds I got addicted to playing with musicians with a high degree of empathy and intuition, and most importantly the ability to listen to each other.

I write composed, notated music, and I still play jazz, rock, the occasional blues, and folk gigs. I write songs to be sung, and I write them both for other people and myself to perform. I write concert music. I create soundscapes for art gallery openings. Even my notated music begins in ideas that all start out as natural improvisations. The music only becomes fixed as I begin to write it down. Even then, I like to leave some breathing room in a notated piece for the performers to be able to make some choices. I like indeterminacy.

Yet there remains something almost magically alive in spontaneously improvised music, where you don't know what's going to happen next, and you have to be alert and aware and Pay Attention at all times. Dangerous Odds spoiled me for more traditional jazz ensembles. I don't really like playing standards from the American Songbook, and so with a few rare exceptions I don't really know or regularly play any standards.

I'm attracted to the more avant-garde edges of improvised music. My favorite record label for over 30 years has been ECM. That is a label filled to the brim with this kind of music, host to many musicians who have influenced both my playing and my thinking. Some of my all-time favorite musicians are ECM recording artists. I still discover new artists through the label, because I trust their choices to be interesting to my ears.

Collaborative music is more thrilling to me than is solo music. As Nik Brätsch says, empathy is a key prerequisite for creative collaborations. I could not agree more. It is in fact, I would say, the central and most important key.

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