Saturday, April 16, 2016

Playing and Making

Music performance and composition:

Lots of us play musical instruments, or sing. I play adequately, and I sing well (albeit not this week, thanks to pneumonia). But I was not a performance major, practicing several hours per day. I was a composition major. My urge has always been to Make, rather than recreate.

I do believe you have to be able to do both. I can read music like a sonofabitch, and I could do so even before I went to music school. I've been musical since I was 4 or 5 years old. I started piano at age 6 or 7, and I started singing in choir and chorus at that age, as well. The Lutheran church in Ann Arbor that my family went to had a music staff who were at the University of Michigan, and we did a lot of ambitious music in church choir: before age 24 I had sung probably a third of all the Bach Cantatas, some more than once. So I have some pretty good performance chops.

But I'll never be as good a Chapman Stick player, or bassist, as several of my friends are. I don't put in the practice time. (I'm not a slacker. In fact, for most of my adult life, I had an undiagnosed chronic illness that sapped my strength and willpower, and which I will spend the rest of my life recovering from.) There was a period in my 30s when I was in several bands that focused on improvised music; so you could say I was composing on a weekly basis, and playing spontaneous music. But most of that went direct to recording, and was never notated. It's only in the past five or six years that I've begun seriously notating written music scores again, and I've been prolific throughout this period. (Within the limitations of chronic illness and post-illness, always.) When I was in my 30s I did not suck as a player, but in fact I'm a better player now, even though I play gigs less often: time and experience do that, no matter what age you begin. I don't have as many opportunities to play, which sucks, but on balance I'm musically satisfied because I'm writing more.

My focus was always on Making. On writing music. On composing. I have been reading a biography of Wayne Shorter, which made a comparison between Shorter's meticulous writing of music and Joe Zawinul's habit of improvising a piece, then transcribing it, and declaring it done. Actually, I do both. Both of those methods work for me. Most of the music I recorded in my 30s and 40s was never notated, but it WAS recorded, and stands as pieces. I did on occasion transcribe music I had recorded and made it into a score others could play. ("Night/Fire" on my album The Western Lands was done this way.) If I had enough energy, or an assistant, I could transcribe most of what I recorded in those years, and give you a score you could play from. (But I don't. If I have any regrets about surviving chronic illness, it's that I never had the energy to do what I wanted to do, and so much never got finished.)

You see, that's been the trade-off: I will never learn to play as many songs as many of my friends do, and I'll never play them as well as they do. (Mostly. I do have my moments.) But most of them don't compose as much I do, either. That's the trade-off I observed way back in music school, where I was majoring as a composer: what your emphasis is, is probably what it will in future. Bruce Cockburn, the great songwriter, once said something that really stuck with me: "I don't know many songs that I didn't write." (He then said, "But this is one of them," and launched into Monty Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." A song, I might add, that I also know, that I didn't write.)

In music school I focused on making new music; all of us music school students who were not performance-track were required to play or sing, and have declared instruments, but even then in my piano and percussion minors I preferred to focus on new music. (Or music so old it was new all over again: hence my minors in Medieval and Renaissance music.) In music school, and after, I was involved with a group of composers and performers who presented concerts of new music several times a year; some of us were both performers and composers, and traded hats as needed. It was a very fertile ground upon which to write and have performed new music scores. It was also the time in which I began to learn to play jazz, and improvise.

Im not sure why I wanted to write about this, today. Maybe it's because I never stop thinking about music, no matter what else is going on. Maybe it's because I see some of my Stick playing pals and other musician pals having all these minor and major successes in their musical lives that make me want to stand up and cheer. And I do cheer! And then, sometimes, I think about how the touring musician life was never one I could take on (undiagnosed chronic illness, for one; opportunities, for another). It makes me very happy to see some of my friends out there on the road, and to get to their concerts as often as I am able (energy permitting: I'd go to a hell of a lot more concerts if I had the strength).

I genuinely enjoy hearing my friends make their music. I love hearing what they do. I'll never play as well as they do, and I'm okay with that.

And then I go home and go back to writing. It's just what I do.

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