Author: Patrick Zimmerli

Interviewing the Interviewer: A Conversation with Ethan Iverson

Who will interview the interviewer? I’ve always wondered at the asymmetry in interview situations. As a cussedly un-hierarchical thinker, I find myself asking why one person’s opinion matters more than the other’s. This sense of discrepancy was heightened last summer when I was interviewed for Ethan Iverson’s blog, Do The [email protected]. Ethan is, of course, in addition to his role as writer, interviewer, and general chronicler of the music of our time, a very widely regarded jazz pianist and a composer in his own right, so it felt awkward that my personal history and opinions were receiving such marked emphasis.

Luckily Ethan and I have an ongoing relationship (unfortunately not a feature of most interview situations), so I had plenty of opportunity to ask him if he himself had ever been interrogated in a similarly in-depth fashion. Sure enough, it emerged that he hadn’t. Since I knew I had a guest-blogging run at NewMusicBox in the offing, I thought that a great way to top it off would be to interview the interviewer, to take the occasion to learn some things about Ethan’s history, development, and interests that I hadn’t known before.

As NewMusicBox is geared towards composers, we thought we’d take as our subject Ethan’s passion for classical and contemporary music, from the jazz-eyed perspective. If you didn’t know it already, you’ll see that Ethan has an extremely interesting and idiosyncratic take on new music based on years of serious study and experience from which I think we can all both be entertained and learn quite a bit.

Ethan Iverson walking across a roadblock in the middle of a street. (Photo by Jimmy Katz)

All photos by Jimmy Katz.

PZ: You were raised in the jazz tradition. What was your first contact with classical music? With contemporary music?

EI: These days everything is accessible. But back when I was a teenager in small town Wisconsin, it was so hard to get any information.

I was determined to become a jazz pianist. However I also could sight-read pretty well and played Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart at an amateur level. I didn’t have a piano teacher. I just went for it. There wasn’t much 20th-century music around, but when I could find it I read though the easier things of Bartók, Robert Starer, Kabalevsky, Tcherepnin, Flor Peeters, and Khachaturian.

In jazz I developed a real love of Paul Bley. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his great work of the 60s has the ambience and texture of modernist European classical music. It’s abstract, and his two in-house composers, Carla Bley and Annette Peacock, had a modernist sense of flow.

PZ: It’s amazing that you had no piano teacher at all! Could you mention some specific Paul Bley albums for readers who might not be familiar with his work?

EI: The one I knew best at the time is Ballads. Closer and Mr. Joy are two other classic works.

When I moved to New York in 1991 to go to college, one of my first connections was you! You showed me Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, Arnold Schoenberg. You probably don’t remember this, but I gave a little recital at NYU of the Bach E minor Partita and the easiest atonal music I could find: Schoenberg’s Op. 11 and Op. 19, the Webern Variations, Babbitt’s Duet and Semi-Simple Variations.

PZ: I do of course remember that concert! It’s funny you considered those pieces easy, because in fact it’s a very ambitious program.

EI: Well, you are right, it was certainly too ambitious for me! I definitely didn’t play it well.

The Babbitt piece I really liked was Three Compositions for Piano. As you will remember, Babbitt was at all the new music concerts, especially if his music was programmed, which was all the time. Never lacking for gumption, I introduced myself and told him I had just purchased the score to Three Compositions. He gave me his phone number: the next day I called him and he gave me several corrections to the score. Sadly, it was way too hard for me to really work on back then, although I kind of learned the notes to the first movement at a slow tempo. Sometimes I wonder if I might get back to it someday.

Around that time my girlfriend got me the job of rehearsal pianist for the Gregg Smith Singers. The first day was Stravinsky’s Mass with Robert Craft guest conducting. The Sanctus movement of the Mass has an exposed slow quintuplet that used to be a serious rhythmic challenge to the average oboist. In rehearsal with Craft, I somehow kind of nailed that quintuplet the first time (probably a mistake as much as anything). Craft looked over at me and muttered, “Not bad.”

That tiny exchange was an extremely helpful inspiration: almost an injunction to keep learning about classical music.

PZ: That’s amazing that you worked with Craft! Do you have any other impressions from that experience?

EI: I was the rehearsal pianist for Craft just that one time, and I’d never worked with a conductor before. However the whole Gregg Smith Singers experience was great. Gregg loved all sorts of music, and in addition to a steady diet of modern choral composition he would give masterclasses in the Monteverdi Vespers. I asked a lot of questions, and he was always very kind. Gregg must have liked my enthusiasm for learning; he suggested I play Hindemith’s The Four Temperaments with orchestra at his music festival in Saranac Lake. I refused, thinking (quite rightly) that it was beyond my capabilities.

Through that job I briefly met many composers, including several that have gone on to be important in my more recent studies: Hale Smith, Louise Talma, William Duckworth, and Leo Smit.

PZ: So what direction did your continued investigation of classical music take?

EI: There used to be a dusty and overstuffed music store on Broadway just above Houston called (I think) Lee’s Music. Lee had piles of sheet music at discount prices, and I bought much of the standard piano repertoire there. Stravinsky’s Serenade in A was a key purchase. I vividly remember reading the opening pages and thinking, “This is my future.” Eventually I listened to every Stravinsky work. The other composer that had such an impact was György Ligeti, whose complete work is relatively easy to acquire and listen to.

PZ: Before your career took off with The Bad Plus, you worked for many years as the musical director for Mark Morris. Can you tell me how that came about?

EI: One thing that was clear to me in the 1990s was that I needed to keep working on my ideas. I was still planning on being a jazz pianist, but I was in no rush to try to crack the secret of how to have a career in that music. To make money I did a lot of stuff, especially playing in a tango band with Pablo Aslan and Raul Jaurena and accompanying dance classes at Martha Graham.

The dance class work led to playing for Mark Morris’s company class in about 1995 or so. Eventually Mark asked me to be the rehearsal pianist for a full production of Rameau’s Plateé. At the first rehearsal Mark played everybody the complete opera on the stereo. To my surprise, when I checked something against the piano, the piano’s A was more like an A-flat on the record. I had sort of heard that Baroque performance used a lower tuning than modern A=440, but this was my first time encountering it in a professional situation.

At the end, I went up to ask Mark about the discrepancy between piano and the recording. He was changing, and I accidentally caught him between dance clothes and street clothes. Indeed, he was entirely naked when he got interested in my question and offered a learned and extended disquisition on 440, 415, and the varieties of contemporary interpretation of Baroque pitch.

I listened carefully. When he finally finished I said, “You know, Mark, I’ve never discussed intonation with a naked man before.”

Mark gave me a wicked grin and replied, “Stick around, baby!”

Which I did: Not long after the premiere of Plateé, I became Mark’s music director [and stayed] for over five years. This is when I really learned something about conventional European classical music. Mark Morris has an incandescent mind. I have often said, “I didn’t get to play with Miles or Mingus, but I did work for Mark Morris.”

I didn’t get to play with Miles or Mingus, but I did work for Mark Morris.

In addition to watching his work every night, I got to play in the pit, and sometimes the other musicians were big stars. Somehow the very first chamber music from the standard repertoire I really worked on was Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style with Yo-Yo Ma.

Later I met Mark Padmore through Mark Morris and we performed Schubert’s Winterreise together a few times. To this day I don’t know why I got to have these kinds of profound experiences, but I assure you I took detailed notes while they were happening.

I have several more fun stories about famous classical musicians from that time with Morris.  Simon Rattle came to a gig in Philadelphia, where were touring the marvelous dance V to the Schumann Piano Quintet. Afterward Rattle was standing around waiting to talk to Mark, and there he was, stuck next to the musical director. Rattle smiled at me and said, “Nice rubato in the Schumann!”

Of course he was just being nice, but it’s also true that we had played the piece many times and that I (along with the other musicians in the pit) had shaped a fairly unusual version of the score that really clung to the choreography onstage.

By the way, by this time I had figured out I needed a steady piano teacher and was working intensively with the brilliant Sophia Rosoff. When the [Mark Morris Dance Group] went to Florida that gave me the chance to take a lesson with Sophia’s friend Robert Helps shortly before he died in 2001. I hacked my way through the Roger Sessions Second Sonata in front of him. I thought this was a good idea because Helps was a renowned interpreter of Sessions; indeed, I was at a Merkin Hall concert of “Helps plays Sessions” that was also attended by Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Garrick Ohlsson, and Alfred Brendel. After listening, Helps asked, “How long have you been working on this?”

A couple of months.

“I’ve been working on it since 1946.” He closed the score. “Let’s look at the Chopin études you know instead.”

It went on to be a great lesson and post-lesson discussion. Helps is still an underrated composer. His recording of Quartet (not the more familiar Piano Quartet, but the solo work from a hard to find Desto LP) is one of the finest documents of a composer-pianist that I’ve heard.

PZ: What do you think is the relationship between jazz and contemporary music? Of what value is contemporary music to you as an improviser?

EI: Many major jazz musicians know a lot about European classical music, then and now.  I treasure the liner notes the great Herbie Nichols wrote for his first 1956 Blue Note LP, which begin, “Sometimes I burst into laughter when I think of what the future jazzists will be able to accomplish,” before going on to cite Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Piston, and Bartók as inspirations.

These days I think there can actually be too much “classical” sounding stuff in jazz.

However these days I think there can actually be too much “classical” sounding stuff in jazz. In a master class I heard Paul Bley warn about this. Bley thought it was better for young jazz musicians to study Louis Armstrong than Alban Berg.

Indeed, it is important to remember that any Dexter Gordon record has so much more meaning and validity than most modern nerdy music-school jazz connected to formal composition.

Taking that a step further, in no way do I feel that the greatest jazz is lesser than the greatest 20th-century composition. Indeed, I’d argue the reverse. The best of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman with their most sympathetic collaborators is clearly the greatest 20th-century music.

Back to present day jazz: The Bad Plus recorded a faithful arrangement of The Rite of Spring, which in our rendition sounds like a lot of modern jazz except that the pitches are better. I can’t speak for Reid or Dave, but for me part of that was a little tweak to some of my contemporaries: “Look, if you want to jump in these waters, why don’t you hang out with these kind of masters, too?”

At any rate, Paul Bley’s warning be damned, I am committed to some kind of blend and can’t stop now. I certainly appropriate Stravinsky, Ligeti, Richard Strauss, Alfred Schnittke, and Thomas Adès in my improvisations.

As an American musician, I’ve developed a strong taste for the pillars of American classical music: Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow. It is astonishing how bad some of Copland is, but his best stuff remains essential. (In jazz we mostly reference Copland through the prism of Keith Jarrett’s appropriation.) Ives is kind of a must: he’s also an easy resource for the improviser. Nancarrow is a similarly obvious musician to spend some time emulating. (On YouTube there’s a version of James P. Johnson’s “The Charleston” à la Nancarrow. I thought that made sense because James P. was also a master of the piano roll.)

A more recent American master is Frederic Rzewski, and several years ago I created a series of “improvised” arrangements of folk songs inspired by his North American Ballads. On my recent recording The Purity of the Turf, I improvised a noir-ish “Darn That Dream” that has clear overtones of Adès and Rzewski.

PZ: What excites you the most about written contemporary music?

EI: In all the art I admire, there’s some kind of voyage of discovery. After a first hit of intoxication, you open the door and explore the work or the genre further.

On the other hand, I don’t want to work too hard. Obviousness can be a virtue, not a sin. Perhaps some professional composers regard Ligeti as “too easy,” but he’s just about perfect for my speed.

My tastes in atonal music have evolved. Now I like stuff that is chunky and theatrical. I don’t listen to much Babbitt or Carter any more, but I do listen to a fair amount of Aribert Reimann, Harrison Birtwistle, and Ralph Shapey, all of whom offer more discernible narratives than Babbitt or Carter.

Of course it is still very hard to absorb this music the first time through. It’s best to pick a single piece and listen over and over again. For Reimann, I’ve heard Neun Sonette der Louize Labé many times; for Birtwistle, I know The Triumph of Time very well (and also wrote it up for DTM); for Shapey, my standard is Sonata Profundo. After repeated listens the harmonies become old friends and the story becomes clear. This is a very rewarding process.

A lot of it comes down to piano music. I haven’t heard everything yet, but by the time I’m done I’d like to be aware of all significant 20th-century piano music. The dimensions of this marvelous repertoire are simply extraordinary. If the piece at hand isn’t too hard, I might be able to play through the simpler sections, audit a recording, then sight-read it some more. Of course I don’t understand everything about all the music I survey casually, but for my general output I don’t need to. It just sinks into the subconscious.

In my way I’ve tried to shine light on neglected corners. I produced a concert of three major mid-century women composers—Louise Talma, Miriam Gideon, and Vivian Fine. I have interviewed George Walker and Alvin Singleton, and am working towards making an album of piano music by composers who interacted with jazz on a deep level. That project would include not just great black composers like Walker and Singleton but also Benny Goodman’s pianist Mel Powell and Thelonious Monk’s arranger Hall Overton. Ron Carter told me I had to be aware of Noel Da Costa. I chased down Da Costa’s Extempore: Blue, an obscure piano piece that is like a slower and bluesier Cecil Taylor. I love it!

The point for me, really, is to simply keep learning. Repeatedly playing Talma’s Alleluia in Form of Toccata or Overton’s Piano Sonata in concert has been great for me in every way—great for my chops, great for my focus, great for my imagination. In this category I must put our recent adventure with your new composition Clockworks, certainly a great learning experience!

PZ: What schisms in your mind exist in 2016? Do you hear any music coming from the younger generation of composers that you find striking? What do you think of “alt-classical,” if anything? Of the music that follows on the heels of any of the above trends?

EI: I’ve always wanted to stand out of the crowd, be someone different. Most jazz pianists love French classical music, especially Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen. I have rejected that influence. I’d rather get my added-tone harmony straight from Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Red Garland, musicians who prioritize the blues.

I don’t listen all that much to many young American composers.

So bear my contrary nature in mind when I say I don’t listen all that much to many young American composers—although recently I was exploring the work of Scott Wollschleger and Jason Eckhardt, two authentic and inspiring American composers who couldn’t be more different.

PZ: I’ve known Jason for years, and I agree his music is very heartfelt, full of passionate immediacy and poetry. I don’t know Wollschleger as well, though I remember being moved by Music Without Metaphor, which you played at your solo set at the IN/TERSECT Festival.

EI: Neither Wollschleger nor Eckhardt is alt-classical or indie-classical though.

Indeed, I’m not entirely convinced that the influence of Philip Glass and Steve Reich—both of whom certainly are geniuses—is always benign. The phrase “alt-classical” suggests to me adding an overt influence of rock to minimalism. These are tricky waters that might end in unconscionable banality.

It’s actually hipper for actual rock musicians to appropriate minimalism. Radiohead and Sigur Rós are perfect examples, not to mention any pop, rock, or hip-hop producer worth their salt these days. For that matter, The Bad Plus album Made Possible has some of those references, especially in the pieces written by Reid Anderson and David King. (Anderson’s “Seven-Minute Mind” offers kind of a Glassian bassline meeting the dance floor, with my piano improv being rather Lisztian.)

Jazz is American. The best jazz has usually been made by Americans. There is great fully notated music everywhere, but those born overseas have the richest heritage to draw from, especially in terms of romantic harmony. I already mentioned Adès, Reimann, and Birtwistle. Among the other living composers I wish I had time to explore thoroughly are Poul Ruders, Lera Auerbach, Hans Abrahamsen, Alexander Goehr, Magnus Lindberg, Wolfgang Rihm, York Höller, George Benjamin, Georg Friedrich Haas, Kaija Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Tristan Murail, Benedict Mason…I feel like the more names I add the more I’m going to leave out.

Most of those fabulous composers went through the crucible of high modernism before setting into a mature and comparatively accessible style. They all also operate within their tradition. For the Germans, the ghosts of Brahms and Bruckner are blessedly present. For the Russians, the French, the Nordics, whoever, there’s a connection to an internal tradition of masterful formal scores and at least some kind of general audience attuned to that national language. For example, there’s a superb new album by Gavin Bryars, The Fifth Century, which builds on the heritage of earlier English composers John Dowland, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Herbert Howell.

It is harder for contemporary American composers to navigate personal identity, especially faced with so much indifference and lack of government support.  At this point our general audience “great composer” is John Williams. One step down in popular recognition but one step up among the cognoscenti, John Adams has been awarded keys to the kingdom and status as “our great American composer.” I mean, I like listening to both John Williams and John Adams sometimes—at their best they are awesome—but neither interface with the hopes and dreams of classical music like any of the living European composers on my above list.

The late Peter Lieberson impressed me as someone who found a charismatic voice while remaining true to the highest standard of esoteric compositional craft. After he died, I wrote a survey of his complete recorded work. Getting to know Alvin Singleton’s output was a revelation. Next up for my interview series on DTM is James Newton, whose formal scores are astonishingly beautiful. Singleton and Newton share a deep love for Mahler. I’d usually rather listen to Strauss or Bruckner, so their perspective broadens my worldview. There’s always something to learn!

Through Mark Morris I heard a lot of Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, Colin McPhee, and Harry Partch. Compared to conventional classical music, that’s all outsider art, and it’s great music, too. No one writes a prettier tune than Lou Harrison, although I admit I have seldom used him as a resource for my own purposes. The current composer making the most of that tradition is John Luther Adams, and I support the wide acclaim given to Become Ocean.

PZ: How does all of this relate to your compositional practice—specifically, what is your catalog of compositions written for non-improvising ensembles? What are your future plans as a composer?

EI: I haven’t written much for non-improvising ensembles. Truthfully I doubt it would be a valuable use of my (or anybody else’s) time for me to work on becoming a professional formal composer, although it’s pretty easy for me to sit and write something when there is a good enough reason for the piece to exist.

I doubt it would be a valuable use of my (or anybody else’s) time for me to work on becoming a professional formal composer.

I did write a short string quartet for Brooklyn Rider, Morris Dance, dedicated to my old boss, and there’s a piano suite without improvisation for Dance Heginbotham, Easy Win. A long time ago there was Kolam with Zakir Hussain, Yo-Yo Ma, and the Mark Morris Dance Group. I have a suspicion I’ll be working on something for Mark Morris again soon. Looking ahead to 2018, the American Composers Orchestra has asked me to write some kind of modest piano concerto.

My style in that world is somewhat neoclassical and dance-based. I write at the piano by ear, and only use some mathematical system for generating pitches when a lot of notes are required. A good way to get a classical group to groove is by writing some fun polyrhythms.

My piano technique keeps improving as well. Sophia Rosoff isn’t teaching anymore, so now I am enjoying a continuous stream of revelations from John Bloomfield.  Later in 2018 I will be playing the Schnittke Concerto for Piano and Strings with A Far Cry in Boston. I was reading the piano part last week. While five years ago I would have thought it was too hard, now I think it is perfect for me. At the least I certainly understand the style. Indeed, playing it feels like I’m playing in The Bad Plus.

In my daily piano practice I’m still working on the blues and rhythm changes with a side helping of Bach and Chopin; 43 is a bit old to feel like I’m not settled into a total groove yet, but I’m still taking in what is possible and making up my mind about what really works for my personal aesthetic. Mark Turner told me something once that I found helpful: “It takes us longer to be great now, since there is so much more to learn.”

Anyway, while I won’t rule out writing formal scores for others, I don’t see that process as a requirement to accomplishing my tasks. If a little ways further down the road I achieve some inarguably valid synthesis of jazz and modernist European classical, I’m reasonably certain that my own piano playing will be at the heart of that success.

Jazz and Classical—Musical, Cultural, Listening Differences

Early next year a CD will be released featuring my compositions on Nonesuch Records. I’m very excited about the recording, which features Joshua Redman, one of today’s greatest working jazz musicians, as well as Brooklyn Rider, one of today’s most brilliant classical string quartets. (The equally brilliant jazz bassist Scott Colley and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi round out the ensemble.) This project marks a high-water mark in my work of genre blending, and offers an occasion to reflect on the differences and similarities between these two ways of making music. I’ve had sustained and rich experiences in both musical styles over the years, so I’ve had a chance to observe some general attributes of musicians who have been trained in each genre, and compare and contrast the two. For me the differences can be boiled down to a difference in musical culture.

The more of the rules you know, the deeper your understanding of them, the more you have the impression of belonging to the tribe.

Musical culture is something that is acquired gradually over a long period of study and practice within a given genre. It comes along with a set of dos and don’ts that become quite deep-seated. The more of the rules you know, the deeper your understanding of them, the more you have the impression of belonging to the tribe. Fractures and variations on these rules can occur at the level of the sub-genre. If jazz musicians think fundamentally differently than classical musicians, it must be said that “fusion” jazz musicians think quite differently than “straight-ahead” or “avant-garde” jazz musicians. The same goes for classical—world-class Mozart interpreters can stumble when tackling, say, Ravel. And the gulf between new music interpreters and more mainstream interpreters of the classical repertoire can seem vast.

It’s an obvious metaphor for political division—and I do think that stylistic preferences in music are a kind of politics played out in the abstract. People align themselves with one or another musical culture, and, though they may spend hours rationalizing their preferences, the basis for such adherence involves something much more primal. For someone who is into swing, something that doesn’t swing according to their definition can offend their sensibilities in a way that totally and completely bypasses the intellect.

Violinist bowing on a violin in standard classical music playing position (under the chin)

So the problem of merging musicians from two genres that seem far apart is in fact a diplomatic challenge, not that different from the problem of merging sensibilities within any group.  It starts with a really clear, non-judgmental understanding of the differences, both musical and psychological. Here are six areas in which classical and jazz musicians vividly differ:

1. Rhythm. There is no more marked area of difference between classically trained players and players trained in jazz than the domain of rhythm. Jazz musicians prioritize above all else a kind of steadiness of pulse, a consistency of rhythmic placement. They worship at the shrine of the eighth note, the sixteenth note. You can call this an orientation toward groove, or a metronomic approach—though, even if it begins from a principle of total evenness, it ultimately transcends the metronomic and goes to the realm of feel, that is to say each person’s own individualized approach to this evenness, to subdivision.

Very few classical musicians I’ve worked with have even heard of this idea of feel, and even the ones with good rhythm don’t obsess over it to the point that jazz musicians need to in order to obtain an expected level of competence. So to a jazz musician, the classical musician’s sense of rhythm can seem bafflingly substandard.

But in fact this needs to be understood in a completely different way. Classical musicians simply look at rhythm differently. They see it as an expressive element. By stretching the pulse one way or the other, they can support the longer musical line, which to them is of highest importance. The irony here is that jazz musicians’ use of rhythm is in a way LESS expressive than that of classical musicians. That expression is re-injected on the subtle level of feel—and indeed the best jazz soloists do make expressive use of time, by laying back against the beat or floating over it, but these effects work precisely because they create tension against an underlying pulse that is unchanging. Actual tempo fluctuation is strictly to be avoided. This is why, while it may be very difficult to get classical players to groove, it’s equally challenging to get jazz players to effect a convincing rubato.

2. Dynamics. When shading a phrase, when injecting drama into their performances, classical musicians obviously make frequent recourse to dynamics. Jazz musicians, uh, not so much! I remember in one of our rehearsals that Colin Jacobsen asked Josh Redman what dynamic he was playing at a certain passage. Josh grinned sheepishly and said, “Jazz musicians don’t really use dynamics.”  He wasn’t far from the truth—many jazz players, especially horn players, play at a fairly static volume. There certainly isn’t any established tradition of crescendo and diminuendo, outside the world of big band.

The overall dynamic of jazz is much louder than that of classical music, at least at the chamber music level. This is probably because of the prominence of the drum set in jazz, which is extremely loud compared to any chamber instrument (and has gotten considerably louder with the advent of rock music) and tends to play at a fairly consistent volume. To compete with this, other jazz musicians have gotten accustomed to playing at louder volumes, as well as becoming habituated to electronic amplification. Jazz saxophonists play at or above the volume of a classical trumpet, so when they suddenly have to play with a string quartet, they have to play around 1/8 their normal volume to blend!

3. Tone and Intonation. Jazz musicians can be obsessive about their sound and their tone quality, but overall I would say it’s less a priority than it is in the classical world. Sometimes jazz musicians also go for bigger rather than better in this regard, for the above-stated reasons.

In this category perhaps should be included things like vibrato. For a string player, vibrato is at the core of their playing, and vibrato practice is an important part of their musical development. Jazz musicians practice vibrato much less, and consequently have much less control, far less variety of speed and amplitude. It’s simply not as much used as an expressive element.

Intonation is much less of a concern in the jazz world than in the classical world. There’s the tradition of classical musicians tuning before the concert begins; many jazz musicians just hope to be in tune by the end.

In fact, I see intonation as a kind of inverse of rhythm. For classical musicians it’s a subject of years of true obsession, and like rhythm in jazz, classical musicians view intonation as a grid. You could think of jazz musicians, conversely, as having a more expressive approach to intonation. It’s not necessarily even conscious, but with saxophone players in particular a kind of idiosyncratic intonation can become an identifiable feature. I’ve seen classical musicians listen to Coltrane from his quartet period, for example, and actually burst out laughing at the intonation. But as any Coltrane aficionado with some technical understanding would agree, that sharp, almost pinched quality in the high register is an integral part of the surging angst of the Coltrane sound.

4. The Page. No discussion of the differences between jazz and classical musicians would be complete without touching on their respective approaches to the written page. Nothing tells you more about the brain structure of a musician than watching them try to negotiate written music.

Classical musicians tend to automatically inject expression into music they read. They understand well that written music is meant to be interpreted, and tend to be comfortable doing just that. I’m often amazed at how a classically trained musician can bring a page of written music so vividly to life, often without even understanding it! Their instincts in this regard tend to be highly developed.

Jazz musicians, by contrast, who are not as accustomed to reading, treat the enterprise with trepidation, and they can be really uptight about just getting the right notes. With fear and anxiety as their jumping off points, their interpretations of written music can be astonishingly leaden, played with all the joy and verve of a high school student who’s just been sent to detention.

This has to do with the relationship between theory and practice. For the jazz musician, theory and practice are inseparable—to be a successful improviser means to have integrated the two, there can be no other way. As such it’s very difficult to play anything without understanding its theoretical meaning.

On the other hand, you can be an entirely competent classical musician—I’ve seen this on many occasions—without having the slightest idea what is motivating the music you’re playing from a theoretical perspective.

This divorce of the theoretical from the practical does have the benefit of encouraging a more literary, imagistic, extra-musical approach, which can be a good thing—since after all, music really does have emotive, personal, narrative, and ultimately cultural meaning, beyond notes and rhythms, and that meaning is arguably even the most important of music’s qualities. But it also raises issues of legitimacy—anyone can give any interpretation to a piece of music, and since this is a very subjective quality, it’s harder to assess.

5. Improvisation. If classical musicians excel at rendering a written passage in musical fashion, their stumbling block tends to be improvisation. In the inverse situation to jazz musicians reading, classical musicians tend to be uncomfortable when asked to improvise. And they should be, because to improvise really well takes a lot more work than is generally understood.

In the inverse situation to jazz musicians reading, classical musicians tend to be uncomfortable when asked to improvise.

Improvisation is not merely a set of rules or precepts, or even a feeling of freedom—it is, again, a specific culture. It’s like a language. If I asked you to speak Chinese, you might try to do so with passion and vigor, but that wouldn’t really get you anywhere unless you studied it seriously for quite a while. In fact, it would take years to learn to speak it, and depending at what age you did so, you might never sound credibly like a native.

In jazz, performance and composition are organically intertwined. It’s the soloist’s voice that makes the music unique, whereas in classical music a good piece played by a less-than-stellar musician can lead to at least an intellectually interesting, if not aesthetically satisfying result, much more often than a less-than-stellar piece played by a great musician can. Technical flaws recede because, after all, the performer is simply the medium through which the composer imparts the musical message. It’s like listening to music on a great home stereo vs. cheap computer speakers—the difference may be glaring to the sensitized few, but for the most part the music comes through.

6. Shared References. The other thing that’s palpably different between jazz and classical musicians has to do with specific musical references. What did you play 1000 times in high school to the point that you now roll your eyes every time you hear it—Beethoven’s 1st Symphony or “Blue Bossa”? Those shared references, even as we may mock them, form a cultural substrate that actually plays a surprisingly big role in how we interact on a day-to-day basis.

Side view of a saxophone

Differences in Listening

If practicing these two genres entails basic differences, there is also a fundamentally different way of listening to them.

Since my early training was in jazz, for me listening to jazz is easier—and takes less mental strength—than listening to classical music. Listening to classical music, as so many introduction courses tell us, requires a basic understanding of form and sub-genre. Form—sonata and rondo, minuet and scherzo, and so forth—needs to be understood before the music can be properly ingested. Key relations also play an important role, so knowing exactly which pitches are being played is helpful in following the compositional narrative.

In jazz, by contrast, forms are based on the chaconne-like repetition of a series of chords, over which improvisations are played. The improvisations create the variation, and so in some sense the music is not travelling; it always comes back, again and again, to the same place.

I’ve noticed that the underlying repetitive structure of jazz can be really difficult to hear for people who are not initiated into its language. Traditional jazz, which is based on 12- or 32-bar forms and archetypal harmonic sequences, is something that the seasoned jazz musician, by dint of working in these forms over and over again, comes to hear intuitively. I can be at a jazz club listening to a group play standards, and I can be conversing with someone while simultaneously knowing exactly where I am in the form of whatever tune is being played. This process of listening becomes very natural, and then it becomes the basis of the assessment of how the soloist is playing. How is the soloist’s sound? How are the ideas—are they original, are they spontaneous? What is the level of interaction between soloist and rhythm section?

Even with new jazz composition, this formal repetition most often remains. The forms may be exotic, but they’re almost guaranteed to repeat at some point, to form a basis for improvisation.

Even the idea of repetition is different in classical music and jazz. Whereas in classical music a repetition tends to be strict, in jazz even a repeated melody is constantly varied both in the melody and the accompaniment. Thus jazz is both more repetitive and more flexible in its means (although this strictness of repetition in classical music has been challenged of late by early music specialists).

This compendium of differences between the cultures of jazz and classical musicians is a source of ever-increasing fascination to me. I used to feel frustrated when a violinist couldn’t play a groove, or when a jazz pianist froze up in front of a written passage. But really these are just manifestations of differences in brain structure, differences in training, and ultimately differences in culture. When you incorporate people with such differences into your music in an adroit way, you can—instead of losing something—augment your resources to create an art that’s tremendously multifaceted and rich, that celebrates and even thrives on difference.

A Composition Competition and the Quest for Standard Repertoire

A few years back I entered a pipe organ composition competition. I have a brother who’s an organist and have written a bit for the instrument, so I’ve seen enough to know that the organ world is a world unto itself, with its own idiosyncratic concerns and ideals. So I was particularly struck by the fact that the competition required an accompanying essay asking the composer to explain how the proposed piece would consist of an “important addition to the repertoire.” I had to wonder whether this question had produced the desired results in the past—or whether, indeed, it would do so in the present, no matter who won the commission!

In fact, the more I pondered the question, the more I felt like it got to core issues regarding what music was about. Is music meant to be ephemeral or enduring? And indeed, are those two goals consonant with one another, or at odds? For those who take as their mentors, our sources of inspiration, and our measures of quality long-dead Germans like Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven, perhaps the ultimate goal would be to write, like they did, something of value that transcends our era. But can one write a piece with the goal that it become “an important part of the repertoire”?

The overwhelming majority of music that’s being created today is, of course, being made with an entirely different goal in mind—to create a hit, catching fire with the broadest possible listening public in the moment, with no concern or regard for any kind of historical endurance.

On the other side of the continuum, though, is concert music, written for a very small, elite audience, a subset of an already-small classical music listening public. I have a feeling that every composer of concert music harbors a secret desire that their work have a life beyond its original premiere, that it be labored over, loved, interrogated, and admired by future generations. And yet most enduring works are very grounded in the specific circumstances of their origins (very few have been born from composition competitions!), and if the phenomenon of 21st-century concert music is going to be regarded at all from the rearview mirror, it too is almost surely to be seen through the lens of the peculiar circumstances from which it came into being.

Be that as it may, there is surely some kind of a continuum between the impulse to write a work that will be effective for a specific occasion and the impulse to write something that will stand the test of time. There probably are composers who only swing for the fences, who write for history exclusively, but most of us fall somewhere in the middle.

I often write for jazz musicians, and in jazz one writes for a specific player or set of players, for their unique personalities or voices. When I perform myself, the music is that much more localized, as I strive for a kind of unique sound in my playing that’s not intended to be replicated. So in that sense the music is not necessarily intended to have a life beyond the musicians for which it is written.

But when I write for a strictly classical instrumentation, I confess that I do somewhat indulge my more grandiose tendencies. After all, if you’re writing for string quartet or orchestra, you’re writing for a medium whose core repertoire is more than a century old. You’re automatically entering into a dialogue with the past, and have enduring works as models. So it’s natural to give some thought as to what it might take for your piece to become something that speaks to a broad variety of musicians and music lovers over a span of cultures, places, and even epochs.

Organ Console Remnants. Photo by Brownpau (

Organ Console Remnants. Photo by Brownpau (

That Elusive New Piece of Organ Repertoire

The desire to write a piece that would enter the organ repertoire is particularly apposite since, despite the tireless efforts of musicians such as Carson Cooman who proselytize for contemporary organ music—and notwithstanding noteworthy contributions by eminent composers of the last 50 years as diverse as Philip Glass, David Lang, Milton Babbitt, and Györgi Ligeti—contemporary works simply do not figure prominently in the organ repertoire.

It may seem difficult to define precisely what the standard organ repertoire does consist of, but I think a survey of organists would yield a broad consensus around a group of works all of which have existed for at least a hundred years. As varied as the pieces in that group may be, they tend not to avail themselves of any particular extra-musical theme, program, or “concept,” but rather are pieces that succeed as pure music.

What features would a piece that could make its way into the organ repertoire have? Again, perhaps a difficult question to answer definitively, but one can arrive at some at least preliminary answers, some necessary if not sufficient conditions for a piece to have a chance for lasting success.

For a piece that is at the center of the organ repertoire, in terms of its ubiquity, I cannot think of a better example than the Widor Toccata (originally composed as the finale of Charles-Marie Widor’s 1879 Symphony for Organ No. 5 in F minor, Op. 42, No. 1). The piece may not possess the depth of the organ music of Bach, Brahms, or others, but it has acquired a permanent place in weddings and other services as the quintessential recessional and is frequently heard in concert programs as well.

A series of Organ Levers. Photo by Rex Roof (

Organ Levers. Photo by Rex Roof (

Based on a close look at the Widor, as well as a reflection on many other pieces that are widely performed, I have identified seven necessary conditions for a work to enter the standard organ repertoire.

1. Style and Stylishness. Works in the repertoire traverse a broad swath of styles; a piece apparently doesn’t have to be written in any particular style for membership. On the other hand, inasmuch as style, in the sense of stylishness, is the essence that makes a work stand out, that reaches out and grabs the listener, that commands instant attention, it is of crucial importance. Stylishness bespeaks self-confidence. Canonical works like the Widor, soaked through with neoclassical triumphalism and grandeur, are brimming with stylishness.

2. Substance. As important as stylishness is, a piece has to have substantive ideas, or better, one overriding idea that unites it through multiple transformations—the Schoenbergian grundgestalt—for it to endure. Schoenberg regards the idea, and the working out of the idea, as the highest objective, much more important than style, but I think this is overstated. Nonetheless a unity of thematic, harmonic, and melodic means is essential.

3. Integrity. Pieces that have entered the repertoire tend to have been written with a great seriousness of purpose, a fervent desire.

4. Craft. Exquisite manufacture is essential, from the micro scale of melodic construction and counterpoint to the macro scale of formal structure. There must be a kind of perfection to each event, and a perfect equilibrium in the flow between events. The work needs an inner propulsion that carries the listener forward from start to finish. This can—indeed must!—include surprises and the unexpected, but the “long line” of the piece cannot abate. In addition, it must wisely deploy the forces at its disposal and be effective for its medium. And finally it should be as idiomatic as possible, intelligently written for the instrument; it should be at least somewhat challenging, but never unreasonably so.

5. Simplicity. At the heart of every canonical work there is a simplicity. Strong, simple, iconic ideas abound. The Widor Toccata, with its repetitive keyboard pattern and very simple scalar chorale melody in the pedals, is the essence of simplicity.

6. Complexity. There must also be an element of intricacy that balances the simplicity and that creates intellectual interest. Simplicity has its limits; there needs to be subtlety and sophistication as well. In the Widor Toccata, the complexity inheres in the surprising modulations and asymmetric phrase structures, the form beautifully molded to create a satisfying sense of a musical journey.

7. Contrast. Also important are contrasting ideas that create a kind of intellectual tension. The Widor Toccata has less contrast than many pieces, but still there is dynamic contrast and certainly plenty of tonal contrast—causing the listener to wait with bated breath for the final return of the F Major.

Organ Pipes-photo by stevesnodgrass (

Organ Pipes-photo by stevesnodgrass (


I’ve outlined seven attributes that are prerequisite for a work to enter the standard organ repertoire. Looking at the issue through the lens of the organ, and the Widor Toccata in particular, gives focus to a topic that’s already potentially too broad to be meaningful. If you look at standard repertoire in classical music generally the variety is unmanageably immense—it’s hard to talk about the attributes of the Widor and, say, Wagner’s Ring Cycle in the same breath. Then again, the very fact that both of these works are still widely performed more than a century after they were written argues that things like scale and instrumentation are completely irrelevant to the discussion.

But, in attempting to dissect elements of works of the standard repertoire, I’ve ignored a factor that is less reducible, yet has perhaps more weight than the rest of these factors combined. It’s the idea of inevitability or need, a difficult-to-articulate but much-discussed sense that a piece must exist.

The ancient Greeks had a term for this—Ananke, a goddess who personified the need, the compulsion that leads to existence. Beethoven, that quintessential manufacturer of standard repertoire, had his own expression: Es muss sein.

Whatever you call it, this sense of inevitability may indeed have to do with forces completely beyond the control of the composer. How does one come to be a composer in the first place? For most of us, the origins that lead to our dedication of a great portion of our lives to an arcane art are shrouded in mystery. We all train, study, and prepare in innumerable ways in the hopes of making a strong, and ultimately a lasting, contribution. But ultimately the confluence of factors that lead to the enduring popularity of a piece like the Widor Toccata—which extend to matters sociological, political, and circumstantial—are beyond any mere mortal’s power to comprehend.

In Defense of Jazz

Jazz, once revered as America’s classical music, has come in for a beating lately at the hands of popular culture. A music with its origins in the poorest enclaves of American society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, jazz rose to become a symbol first for a kind of celebration in the face of oppression, then a renegade cool, and—increasingly—an intellectual richness and artistry. How did it go from that august status to one where it exists in the imagination of American popular culture simply to be mocked?

How did jazz go from its august status to one where it exists in the imagination of American popular culture simply to be mocked?

The trend may have begun with The Simpsons, whose creator is a musician himself, and whose portrait of jazz is, if often critical, nonetheless loving. One of the main characters, second-grader Lisa, is a baritone saxophone player and jazz aficionado. One episode features a scene at a record store, complete with detailed renderings of jazz album covers in the background from Coltrane, Dolphy, and even Carla Bley. Yet in that same episode (wherein Lisa’s mother has to pay one of Lisa’s friends to go listen to jazz with her), and throughout that series’ long life, there have been many barbs directed at jazz, from comments like Bart’s grumbling “no one actually likes jazz that much—even the guy playing it had to take drugs” to the motto of the local jazz station: “154 Americans Can’t Be Wrong.”

A somewhat harsher reproof came on September 20, 2006, with Stephen Colbert’s parody of John Zorn. Zorn had just won the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and Colbert played a clip of one of Zorn’s more abstract flights on saxophone, followed by himself trying to make some sounds on the horn. Finding (as one would) the results not dissimilar, Colbert defiantly holds out his hand and, looking squarely at the camera, says “Genius Grant, Please!”

Some years later there came the out-of-nowhere broadside on an episode of the TV series The Office, in which one of the characters is sitting on a park bench with another, a woman who is upset and feeling stupid. Her sympathetic co-worker, trying to assuage her, ventures a non sequitur: “You’re not stupid…jazz is stupid.” To which she responds, “I know. Jazz IS stupid!” Sobbing, she continues, “Just…play the right notes!”

Even the comic genius Jack Black, married into jazz royalty as the son-in-law of storied jazz bassist Charlie Haden, got in on the act, devoting an entire album—an entire album, released on Columbia records no less!—to a humorous takedown of jazz. The two 20-minute tracks feature Black’s guitar noodling over an up-tempo rhythm section while he sort of sprechstimmes an absurdist rant about jazz, along the way mocking the emptiness of aimless improvisation and the genre’s inherent unpopularity.

In the blogosphere things have not been much better. A wickedly sarcastic blog appeared not long ago called jazzistheworst, intending to expose the current state of the music as one in which supposedly deep but actually intellectually arid musicians with an overly inflated opinion of their cultural worth are awarded grants of great financial magnitude, so that they might play for a vanishingly tiny audience of mostly music students. The blog is not as far from the jazz mainstream as one might think/hope—it is avidly followed by such important figures of today’s jazz world as Christian McBride, who seem sympathetic to its ideas.

Things really came to a head with the 2014 New Yorker piece entitled “Sonny Rollins: In his Own Words,” wherein Sonny Rollins, supposedly speaking for himself, regrets his wasted life, saying that he hates jazz music and that Miles Davis felt the same, among other things. “Jazz is the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with” is among the lines.

This strange, not-very-successful satire really got the juices flowing among jazz lovers. Much to the surprise of the writer (a part of what one might call Generation Onion, who take for granted a subgenre of spoof written from the perspective of a public figure imagined to be saying things they would never actually say), there were many jazz fans who simply didn’t get the joke.

So The New Yorker later published a disclaimer stating that the article was a work of satire (indeed, the piece being not that funny didn’t help the confusion).  Various pundits weighed in, some supporting the article and saying that jazz had lost its sense of humor, some saying that a Great American Art Form had been gratuitously slandered.

These may seem like isolated incidents, but they are not the only examples in an alarming pattern of offhand derision and dismissal of jazz in popular culture. Why are these media denizens suddenly picking on jazz? What does it mean?

Jazz-man by Enrique Domínguez (a porcelain figurine of a tuxedoed musician playing a double bass)

“Jazz-man” by Enrique Domínguez

1. What’s Wrong with Jazz?

Jazz has been an art form in perpetual evolution, since its most embryonic appearances in the late 19th century. However, things changed significantly in the genre in the late 1960s, for three principal reasons: first was jazz’s growing awareness of itself as a capital-A Art form and the concomitant rise of an avant-garde wing of the music; second was the beginnings of jazz education, from play-along tapes to university programs, which marked the entrance of jazz, formerly a music taught through a kind of apprenticeship system, into the academy; and third and not least was Beatle-mania and the ascendance of rock ‘n’ roll, which precipitated jazz’s traumatic loss of cultural dominance.  The rise of jazz fusion, an attempt for jazz to regain its footing in the popular imagination, which, despite generating some interesting music, was overall not a wholly successful enterprise.

Avant-garde jazz, whose formation was nourished by the political changes and general freedom zeitgeist of the ‘60s, did not, by and large, share the intellectual substrate of much avant-garde classical music, where freedom was nonetheless constrained and wholly governed by invisible and inaudible—but no less real—compositional techniques. An effort to find freedom through emphasis on improvisation and tonally exotic playing was created and then sustained by some immensely strong musical personalities—first mavericks like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, then more centrist, galvanizing figures like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. With Coltrane’s death and Miles’s departure into fusion, and then from the scene generally, there was a vacuum at the top that was too often filled by epigones who profited from their associations with these masters to purvey what often amounted to a brand of musical snake oil.

With Coltrane’s death and Miles’s departure into fusion, and then from the scene generally, there was a vacuum at the top…

Meanwhile, jazz fusion and its commercial descendant smooth jazz, occasionally rising to the levels of popularity that were unknown since the days of Armstrong and Ellington, met with derision and scorn from the jazz establishment itself. This backlash was itself not sufficiently interrogated, as Columbia jazz scholar Chris Washburne has noted. After all, Miles Davis himself never went back to acoustic music after his initial experiments with jazz-rock in the late 1960s. But it’s difficult to argue that most smooth jazz has the musical sophistication and nobility of spirit of the greatest jazz that came before it.

As the ’70s rolled on into the ‘80s, a neo-traditionalism also emerged as a reaction to both electronic and avant-garde jazz, wherein musicians like Scott Hamilton and Harry Connick, Jr. would unabashedly attempt to re-create the jazz of an earlier time. This contributed to the perception in some quarters that jazz was a thing of the past, strictly nostalgic. And while this style of jazz continues to produce artists who are able to have strong careers (Gregory Porter and Melody Gardot would be examples), it often struggles to capture the “je ne sais quoi” of the great masters of the past that it strives to emulate and, whatever the case, it doesn’t really contribute to a sense that jazz is a vital art form, relevant to contemporary society.

A more “modern” but still ultimately traditional group of musicians worked in the aesthetic space opened up by Miles and ‘Trane in their acoustic, mid-‘60s avatars—the Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams on the one hand, and the Quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. These musicians worked at codifying and building on the intellectual facets of their visionary progenitors’ work, and it was this strain that was taken up so wholeheartedly by the academy. But in the absence of the volcanic presence of its creators, the music began to feel less like a unified whole, thus more easily broken down into technical features that, in isolation, did become mockable—the way-too-long solos, the formal and harmonic obfuscation in the name of freedom, and the cascades of theory-inspired, virtuosic, but ultimately self-involved and uninteresting improvised lines that began to just sound, indeed, like a bunch of wrong notes.

The music began to feel less like a unified whole, thus more easily broken down into technical features that, in isolation, did become mockable.

As a musician coming up in jazz music in the 1990s, I was extremely sensitive to jazz’s genre-wide issues and had many more qualms than most of my peers regarding the music. Long before these pop-culture parodies emerged, it was vividly clear that jazz was not moving in a direction that would lead to broader cultural relevance. And indeed, the genre continues to thrive in largest part thanks to its increased presence in the academic context, a radical increase in foundation support, and the benefits accorded to specialist forms by the web and narrowcasting.

There are numerous reasons for this decline, socioeconomic factors perhaps foremost among them. But the jazz community does tend to treat its artists with a lack of critical distance. The great legends can do no wrong. There’s an odd defensiveness behind jazz lovers’ insistent idolization of their favorite players, as if they need protection from something. I’m convinced that this lack of critical distance has played a part in jazz’s decline. If we aren’t willing to see things as they truly are—if we aren’t willing to treat our greatest jazz musicians as human—how can the art form move forward?

Porcelain statue resembling Louis Armstrong playing a trumpet and wearing a cap that says "jazz"; image by jbarreiros

“Jazz” by jbarreiros

2. But What’s Even More Wrong with Pop Culture Itself?

Okay, so we can all agree that jazz has problems. But does this justify the attacks to which it’s been subjected in the popular culture?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what exactly has made me so uncomfortable with these critiques. It feels to me that in order to be critical of something you have to have something better to offer.

In order to be critical of something you have to have something better to offer.

I looked up the definition of “profound.” What makes something profound? gives as its first definition “penetrating or entering deeply into subjects of thought or knowledge.” I doubt if the well-paid writers of commercial comedy shows such as those mentioned earlier, for all their talent, consider such thorough explorations of their subjects to be a goal.

This is manifest in the critiques’ lumping of jazz’s various and diverse strands under one umbrella. They necessarily gloss over the fact that there are so many varieties of jazz, each with its different strengths and foibles. Underpinning this is the idea that it’s okay to mock something one doesn’t understand. That encourages a complacency that’s completely at odds with any kind of spiritual or intellectual growth.

What all the snarky attacks on jazz have in common is a cleverer-than-thou nonsensicality. When the goal is to be nonsensical, any thought or idea is defensible. Down that path lies nihilism. Disconnected from any higher goal, unwilling to assert positive belief, much of today’s pop culture surrenders any claim to a deeper significance.

Jazz even at its worst is aiming for higher goals.

At least jazz—indeed, even at its worst!—is aiming for higher goals. Jazz music springs from a rich tradition, it is rooted in the best work of the past, and is tasked with somehow encompassing and expanding on that enormous intellectual and spiritual tradition, in a way that resonates with a culture of ever diminishing attention spans, of ever diminishing ideals.

Jazz by Lynn Allen (

“Jazz” by Lynn Allen

3. What’s RIGHT About Jazz?

If even the worst of jazz seeks depth and meaning in a way that quirky pop culture is at pains to avoid, the best of today’s jazz can be transcendent.

I’ve had the pleasure to work with some really wonderful artists from the jazz world, and the most successful among them—people like Luciana Souza, Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, the great drummer Jeff Ballard, Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus—all evince an acute day-to-day concern over the pitfalls of jazz. These are not, by the way, the musicians that come in for a mocking at the hands of blogs like jazzistheworst. They take it for granted that engagement with an audience is paramount. But they also are daily trying to better themselves musically, to make the best artistic statements they can muster.

These musicians subscribe to the idea that the best art is born from a true humility, a constant opening of the senses, a constant attention to the reports of everyday experience, a constant striving for excellence, an obsession with not only craft but with wit, pathos, humor, charm, and ultimately with the highest artistic goals.

Let’s pay attention to what’s outside ourselves, and not just play for vanity.

So let’s heed the call of these pop-cultural armchair jazz critics. Let’s play shorter solos, and yes, let’s play the right notes! Let’s pay attention to what’s outside ourselves, and not just play for vanity. Let’s take a stand for what really matters, what’s really most important, let’s give only the very best of ourselves to our art. But in doing so, let’s know that we’re aiming to go way beyond those who are content to take others down by a kind of weak cynicism and a cowardly hiding behind absurdity. All of us, jazz artists and critics alike, can do better than that.

Time Is Flat

Last Friday, my new CD Shores Against Silence was released on the Songlines record Label. I’m very proud of this recording, which features some of the finest musicians working in the jazz field today: pianist Kevin Hays, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Tom Rainey. The music integrates contemporary classical compositional techniques with a fairly traditional jazz approach in a way that’s fresh and novel.

The catch? The music was recorded on June 16, 1992—almost 25 years ago!

That means the music had been created even earlier, because we certainly didn’t just go into the studio and record the day after the music was written. Its gestation took place over the several years preceding, when we rehearsed, developed, and performed it. Which means I wrote the pieces when I was around 21 years old.

The day-to-day life of a young, aspiring musician in 1992 was very different from what it is in 2016. This project was created and executed before the internet age. No one in the band had email or even a cell phone. We communicated with each other largely through good old-fashioned landlines.  Digital recording was in its infancy—Shores was recorded live to two-track DAT tape, if anyone remembers that format.

Even writing an article like this one would’ve involved an entirely different process. I would’ve gone to multiple libraries (at Columbia University in New York, where I still had library privileges), had books and CDs spread out around a desk I’d claim, and probably be scribbling a draft into a notebook that I’d later type out. Now I’m writing at a café in Paris, watching the sun rise over the Seine, all the information I need to draw on conveniently arrayed in Safari tabs that require only screen space.

Looking back at music that I wrote so long ago has provided an occasion to reflect on the changes that have occurred since. How does a composer’s body of work change and develop over their lives? And how have our very responses to this kind of question changed over time?

At earlier points in intellectual history, a teleological response might have seemed self-evident—a composer’s work would increase in complexity and ambition over the course of his or her career.

It feels like the answer itself is in a state of transition. At earlier points in intellectual history, a teleological response might have seemed self-evident—the idea that a composer’s work would increase in complexity and ambition over the course of his or her career; that the work would assume more technical assurance, would integrate its influences and show with increasing clarity the unique voice of its author; and that it would retain some stylistic commonality, based on the composer’s immutable, indivisible identity.

But in the 21st century, in the internet age, can any of these things be taken for granted?

An image of a spiral clock found @ ffffound via cea+(

found @ ffffound via cea +

Some of the music that’s been in my “playlist” recently (which is to say either on my computer or my piano stand, or a combination of both) dates from 1717 (Lotti’s Crucifixus) to 1749 (Bach’s B minor mass) to 1878 (Dvorak’s A minor Sextet) to 1907 (Schoenberg’s Freide auf Erden) to 1911 and 1915 (Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite) to 1960 (Hank Mobley’s Soul Station) to 2006 (Lisa Bielawa’s Song of the Lay of Love) to 2016 (Dan Coleman’s Third String Quartet).

Perhaps (following the theory that all art is political) these pieces are all rooted in time and place, express something about the events that were happening around them, or even embody the political circumstances of their creation. But I don’t think those circumstances, interesting though they may be, are what bring the modern listener to the pieces. After all, there are many uninteresting works born of perfectly interesting political circumstances. What’s more important is the fact that they are all relevant to contemporary experience. They have something to say in 2016. They have something to tell us now.

One could, of course, call into question the relevance of these particular pieces; it’s true that each given piece may have very little meaning to a given person’s life, musician or otherwise. No artist or work is relevant to EVERYONE, and yet perhaps relevance to ONE person (myself in this case) is insufficient proof of relevance generally. So perhaps any claim to relevance is no more than an unprovable conjecture.

Perhaps any claim to relevance is no more than an unprovable conjecture.

If one did want to be so bold as to seek ways of putting relevance to the test nonetheless, one metric might be number of YouTube views. Though not remotely scientific—after all YouTube viewers represent a very specific cross section of the listening public, the figures alone wouldn’t take into account the relative fame of the performer, nor repeat views, and would moreover be dependent on random, non-comprehensive uploads—they might nonetheless give us a very rough index of the current interest in a given work. A quick search for each piece (taking the video with the highest number of views for each piece) yields the following table:

 PIECE/PERFORMANCE/DATE UPLOADED/VIEWS: Lotti Crucifixus/Cambridge Singers/3.26.10/547,241; Bach B Minor/Proms/3.21.12/2,056,376; Dvorak Sextet/Amici Ensemble/2.15.11/12,039; Friede auf Erden/Accentus/1.2.09/32,652; Valses n et s/Danmarks RO/9.1.10 /72,686; Scythian Suite/Ukrainian SSO/10.13.08/272,433; Soul Station/Mobley/7.22.13/362,501; Song of Lay of Love/Bielawa/Not on YouTube; 3rd Quartet/Coleman/Not on YouTube

(Note, since Song of Lay of Love is not available on YouTube, I chose her most viewed piece Chance Encounter, which was uploaded on 1/15/08 and thus far has had 8,173 views. Dan’s not represented at all on YouTube as far as I can tell, but trust me it’s a cool piece!)

If this table contains several surprises— who would’ve guessed that Soul Station was so frequently YouTubed?—the only thing it might be said to demonstrate conclusively is that far more than one listener considers these pieces still sufficiently relevant to be at least listened to; and that there is no correlation (or, if anything, an inverse one) between the year a piece was written and how broad its current relevance is, at least to YouTube listeners/viewers.


A thought experiment: Let’s take two pieces at random, say Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître and Brahms’s B Major Trio, written more or less a century earlier. Of course these are both old pieces, but one is supposedly contemporary music, and one is much more traditionally romantic, complete with a four-movement form—scherzo, adagio, and so on.

But suppose, in our new internet world, one has connected to the Boulez in one’s teens, but only discovers the Brahms much later, in one’s 30s. It might seem much more unlikely for someone steeped in the oeuvre of Boulez to be ignorant of Brahms or the romantic tradition generally than the converse, until one considers the many Boulez fans that must’ve come to his music through his Frank Zappa collaborations, or the influential Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s well-known interest in his music.

Both the Brahms and the Boulez pieces provide revelations, insights, unique ways of looking at music and the world. But in the case of my invented listener, by her 30s the Boulez would have grown familiar, while the discovery of the Brahms would be completely fresh. So which is the piece of new music? For this listener, wouldn’t the Brahms be serving all the functions of what is new—providing new material, adumbrating new paths, suggesting previously unheard, even exotic, ideas?

But if that’s the case, is the idea of “new music” still relevant, still interesting—even still possible?

The idea of newness is completely relativized, and utterly personal, at this moment in cultural history.

It seems to me that the idea of newness is completely relativized, and utterly personal, at this moment in cultural history. With the amount of music flooding onto the internet from all corners of the world, it’s incredibly easy for even the most dedicated fan of music to stumble upon something amazing from the past that they had never heard before, even while being steeped in the music of today.

Jazz educators that I know have confirmed this phenomenon in their students, who may have discovered and absorbed the playing of a current jazz musician without having any idea who his or her precursors were. In this case, the flatness of time is a liability to be remediated, but in any case it’s clear that now more than ever it’s common to have revelations in reverse.

As the physical space required to house knowledge is being reduced asymptotically to zero, then, the moment of impact of a work has ever less to do with when and whether it was written and ever more to do with when it is perceived or appreciated as “new.” Increasingly, rediscovered old pieces stand alongside contemporary creations as providing fresh material for the masterwork-saturated classical music listener (think Venetian opera). This should also be a consolation to composers who feel like they have created something interesting, unique, and significant that may not yet have gained visibility in the current thrum of culture.

A photo of a digital time display with backwards numbers by Kenneth Lu

Reverse Time by Kenneth Lu

The sum of these observations bears heavily on the story of Shores Against Silence.

The music on the CD represents a very intense period in my creative life that was never thoroughly documented, but the development of my music since Shores has hardly gone from simple to complex. My artistic path has inverted that teleological trajectory, which had been the province of composers from Mozart and Beethoven through Schoenberg and Carter. Similarly, my music has in the intervening years arguably gone from more to less “original,” and has definitely abandoned any pretensions to stylistic unity.

In the catalogs of numerous composers working today, pieces don’t necessarily build on each other from one to the next, but rather provide contrast with each other.

Nor would this be particularly interesting if I were an isolated exception, the sole composer to have undergone such an unpredictable stylistic trajectory, but I find it not uncommon among my contemporaries, particularly among composers who came of age at the end of the academic vogue for serialism. I am hardly alone in having simplified my style as I matured. In the catalogs of numerous composers working today, pieces don’t necessarily build on each other from one to the next, but rather provide contrast with each other. Many composers these days pursue careers in contemporary classical music and pop/electronica simultaneously, and no one bats an eyelash.

After all, what matters in art has nothing to do with when and where it was made, or when it comes into the world. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had it right: Eternity is the depth of a moment. Which is to say, Time is flat! A great piece comes to you when you’re feverish with ideas, when you follow them to their limit, not when you’ve attained x and y technical ability or z maturity. And it comes into the world, if it’s sufficiently worthy, when it will and in good time. Let the quality of afflatus be our sole guide to what is good in what we do, regardless of where or when we do it.

Concerts in the Park and Modes of Listening to New Music

An outdoor audience listening to Andy Akiho performing on steel pans along with double bass, harp, piano, mallet percussion, and drums in Bryant Park (Photo by Ryan Muir, courtesy Bryant Park Corporation)

[Ed. Note: Through the summer, composer/arranger/saxophonist Patrick Zimmerli has curated a series of free outdoor concerts in New York City’s Bryant Park. “Breaking Boundaries,” the final concert of the 2016 series which takes place on Friday, August 26, 2016, from 5 to 10 p.m., will feature cellist Inbal Segev, harpist Bridget Kibbey with violinist Kristen Lee and percussionist John Hadfield, the Kenari Saxophone Quartet, the Dan Tepfer Trio with SEVEN)SUNS, and Zimmerli’s own quartet. We asked Zimmerli to share his thoughts on why outdoor concerts are the ideal entry point for people curious about adventurous music.–FJO]

As a composer, I’ve had occasion to think a lot about how to listen to all kinds of music. I’ve pondered ways of hearing Bach fugues and Mozart sonatas and Schoenberg rows and Babbitt superarrays. As a teenager, I also transcribed lots of jazz solos— Bird, Coltrane, Miles, et al.— straining to hear the most fleeting nuances in their improvisations.

I taught ear training and musicianship courses at Columbia University for several years, watching students whose natural aural abilities—as well as their means of taking in and understanding organized sound—were about as singular as their fingerprints. And I’ve seen and heard audiences in concert halls of every shape and size react to all kinds of music, familiar and unfamiliar. Through all this experience, I’ve developed a sensitivity to the problems of listening to music in the 21st century.


Problems of Listening

Some problems of listening to contemporary music were poignantly outlined by Maia Jasper White in her soulful piece on NewMusicBox. Maia touched on the central problem of simultaneously satisfying people with wildly disparate levels of listening experience.

This is something that many composers really don’t sufficiently take into account. The divide between the new music connoisseur and the average person is larger than ever, and the vast majority of people just have no context or experience to be able to deal with music that’s on the knife-edge of contemporary composition. (I kid you not—there are music lovers out there who are so far from the fine distinctions in which we traffic as to not know what a piano is!) While those listeners may seem so far from our target audience as to be irrelevant—especially in this world of narrowcasting—it’s worth taking stock of the great distance contemporary music has travelled from the mainstream.

The split began gradually, as what we now think of as “classical” music grew away from its traditional base, took on the weight of a “tradition,” and ultimately became an academic discipline. Sonatas, rondos, and scherzos, originally organic outgrowths of popular dances, are now forms to be learned in school. With classical music’s increasing departure from its roots in popular culture came modernism. Twentieth-century composers, building on the past, wanted to transcend their predecessors, they wanted their increasingly complex notes and sounds to be heard and absorbed, their winding narratives taken in and comprehended in their entirety. In their search for purity, they wanted their pieces subjected to contemplation rather than applause—to the point that the practice was even entirely banned in Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances.

A similar trajectory has been followed in jazz, where what was once a dance/entertainment genre has ascended to the realms of high art. Simple forms like the rhythm changes and blues have come to be played in such an abstract way that even listeners with a very sophisticated understanding of classical music often have no idea of their underlying repetitive structures.  At the same time places like the Village Vanguard, once smoke-filled venues where music was played over a constant thrum of background chatter, have become churchlike spaces, where listeners take in the music in reverent silence.

More recently there’s been a backlash against the imposed silence of the art-listening experience. With the opening of spaces such as (Le) Poisson Rouge nearly a decade ago, venues began to be created where classical music could be re-positioned and re-connected to its past in an informal setting, where people could applaud freely and even chat, much as at a vintage jazz concert (though at the performances I’ve been at, they mostly don’t).

Instead of one view prevailing or holding sway, we now have a situation where a small number of incredibly knowledgeable experts coexist with a sprawling field of listeners whose level of commitment and knowledge is in inverse proportion to their numbers. How on earth can all these people be satisfied simultaneously?

Endsley and tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel during an outdoor concert in Bryant Park

Trumpeter Shane Endsley (left) and tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel (right) of the Ben Wendel Group during their performance at Bryant Park on June 8, 2015 (Photo courtesy Bryant Park Corporation.)

An Outdoor Solution

These thoughts were occasioned by the first concert I curated for New York’s Bryant Park this summer, as part of the IN/TERSECT festival. The idea for the series is to bring together new music from the jazz and classical domains. Each concert in the festival features five ensembles, either jazz or classical based or related, each playing new music, including for each evening one ensemble that had recently been granted a Chamber Music America New Works grant in either the jazz or classical categories.

I was quite enthusiastic when Ethan Lercher, the visionary behind IN/TERSECT, contacted me to curate the series, as I’d always loved Bryant Park. It’s so centrally located in Manhattan that I felt the concerts couldn’t help but attract attention, and indeed they have been exceptionally well-attended for new music events, drawing crowds of up to 2500.

The park is directly behind the New York Public Library, between 5th and 6th avenues and 40th and 42nd streets, and the stage faces a large lawn. There are chairs set up on the part of the lawn nearest the music, and the rest is free for blankets or for people just to lie down or play. The greenery, while manicured, manages to be totally welcoming—the low trees surrounding the lawn give the feeling of shelter from the urban streets. And the park is encircled by the most awe-inspiring urban architecture—look to the west and you see such storied 21st-century skyscrapers as the Bank of America building and the newly completed 7 Bryant Park, with its fabulous conical cutouts; the Grace building to the north, with its seductive outward curve, is a late-20th century precursor; to the south is the magnificent Radiator Building, designed by Raymond Hood, futurist architect of the ‘20s and ‘30s; and of course the New York Public Library, designed and completed over the first decade of the 20th century, sits in Beaux-Arts grandeur to the east. The buildings form a veritable compendium of aesthetic ideas of the last century, and thus provide an interesting context for hearing new music. It’s certainly an auspicious mélange for a festival that looks to bridge styles.

A Rich Sonic Experience

The concerts are necessarily amplified, which might dampen the enjoyment of those who think of classical music performances as one of life’s last pleasures to be completely unmediated by electronics. But Bryant Park has taken great pains—and has incurred great expense—to ensure a natural, rich sound in all areas of the park. They’ve invested in a very good mixing board, new speakers, and other equipment, and rent the best quality microphones available.

In addition, they took the step of hiring the legendary Tom Lazarus as an audio consultant for all three evenings. Tom is a recording engineer who worked for Sony Classical in its heyday, but he also has a sophisticated knowledge and understanding of jazz. Tom’s fantastic intuitive sense for sound, combined with a very high standard, has been hugely helpful in ensuring that everyone from the very front row to the back of the park had a completely naturalistic listening experience, with a full, well-blended sound.

In the second concert, for example, The Westerlies, an outstanding young brass quartet of two trumpets and two trombones that plays original music as well as covers of composers like Ives and Machaut, played with a gorgeous, velvety sound; their extremely nuanced, detailed performance came through the speakers immaculately. Even the notoriously-difficult-to-mic string quartet sounded very natural—the Argus Quartet’s passionately committed performance of Eric Guinivan’s String Quartet, and their exquisite rendition of Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 2, hit the public’s ears with a warm, full sonority.


Varieties of Listening Experience

I wanted to emphasize the quality of sound at IN/TERSECT to make the larger point that, for sophisticated listeners, the intense, focused concert experience remains available. True, there is ambient noise from the surrounding streets, but the amplification pretty well offsets that. On the first evening, we featured violist Andy Lin (of Amphion Quartet fame) and his sister Kelly, who played a somewhat intricate piece by Korean composer Alvin Tam; its every detail was available for connoisseurs to ingest.

On the other hand, you could just pass by and take in a few notes, listen from afar on the lawn, chat with a friend or wander off if you were getting bored or there was a part you disliked. With most new music concerts at destination venues, it’s very unusual to be able to dip your little toe in like this.

Andy Akiho performing on steel pans along with harp and double bass during the June 10, 2016 IN/TERSECT concert in Bryant Park

Andy Akiho and The Foundry performing during the June 10, 2016 IN/TERSECT concert in Bryant Park. Photo by Ryan Muir (courtesy Bryant Park Corporation).

Modes of Listening

New music has been as much about challenging modes of listening and perception as anything else. Schoenberg created his Society for Private Musical Performances out of a dissatisfaction with the traditional ways that audiences approached music. Schoenberg had a much higher standard of listening—in Style and Idea he disdains those who cannot easily take in both a main and subordinate theme simultaneously, and famously derides composers only familiar with half of Brahms’s complete output. Schoenberg’s concerts were places where a small but highly cultured, knowledgeable, and devout audience could gather and bring a tremendous, hitherto-unheard-of level of focus and intensity of listening to the concert experience.

That focus and intensity has gradually been institutionalized within classical and new music culture. Today there are any number of new music concerts where small audiences go to inspect music in great detail (based on an abundance of prior knowledge) that to the uninitiated would carry little meaning. And indeed, in so lifting the standards of listening, Schoenberg and his descendants have left huge swaths of humanity entirely behind.

What was most wonderful to me about the park experience was that all modes of listening were available simultaneously. Sure, you could sit in the front row and scrutinize Sandbox Percussion’s performance of Johnny Allen’s Sonata, with its multiple interpretive modes; you could revel to the minute details of Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet stylings or hang on every note of Chris Potter’s soloistic flights.

But at the same time there was no pressure to do any of the above. The ambient noise from the surrounding city streets is at a level that makes chatting with a neighbor not feel out of place in the back rows of the seating area, and there are many people who are spread out on blankets on the lawn, or even playing frisbee, as the music washes over them.

I guess Brian Eno beat me to this observation by a couple of decades, but—as someone who’s spent so much time on focused listening—I still believe there’s something really amazing about background music. Indeed—there’s something amazing about new music as background music. One of the most memorable moments during the first concert came for me when I took a full loop around the exterior of the park during the performance. Sandbox Percussion was playing a lovely piece by David Crowell, a very interesting young composer hailing from Alaska. As I was walking through the park, I thrilled to the sound—as did many seated on the lawn—of Crowell’s rhythms pinging serenely off of the surrounding buildings in stereophonic splendor. The content of the music was interesting but it almost didn’t matter; it was the simple fact of mallet instruments playing in concerted rhythm—mixing into and civilizing the chaotic sounds of the city—that was so sublime. The music that we often so minutely scrutinize, that we routinely talk about at levels of detail elusive to the everyperson: can it be that it all boils down to “Ahh, nice mallets pinging into the night air”?

I guess the answer to that is, “It depends.” It depends on who you are. It depends on your level of musical experience, on what you bring to the occasion. It depends on what you expect, what you want, what you think music could or should be. And, unlike almost any new music concert I’ve attended, the IN/TERSECT festival offered a rewarding experience for people with an amazing variety of those levels, those expectations, those desires.

Patrick Zimmerli

Patrick Zimmerli (photo by Maxime de Bollivier)

Patrick Zimmerli is a New York and Paris-based composer and musician. He has written and performed numerous works for jazz and classical musicians, among them jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, the Escher String Quartet, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, the Paris Percussion Group, and Bralizian vocalst Luciana Souza.