Tag: music education

An Education in Jazz

I always try to stay in San Francisco for at least an extra week after I work there. I get to visit old school chums and family and catch up on the local news, which the rest of the nation finds fairly unimportant. I grew up in this fine city during a tumultuous time, socio-politically speaking. There was the Summer of Love in Golden Gate Park, a seemingly endless procession of anti-war demonstrations that turned San Francisco State College (now University) into a militarized zone, the start of Ronald Wilson Reagan’s political career as Governor of California, the possibly not-coincidental decline of the state’s education system, the tenure of Joseph Lawrence Alioto as Mayor of San Francisco (reputed to have been related to members of San Francisco’s mafia because of his family’s fish-mongering business), the rise of the Black Panthers as a neighborhood development organization in Oakland, the kidnapping of Patricia Campbell Hearst, the birth of Keystone Korner, etc., etc.

In my wanderings around the city during the days after Jazz Camp West, I was disheartened to hear how so many people like the Haight-Ashbury district more, now that the look and feel of the Summer of Love has been incorporated into a thriving tourist attraction industry that supports it. But I was crushed to hear that the Sword of Damecles now hangs above the temples of the City College of San Francisco.

The reasons given by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges are that the institution doesn’t have an effective administration and doesn’t make enough money to support its programs. At first glance, I applaud an institution of higher education that has managed to keep administration costs down (ostensibly to facilitate a healthy teacher/student ratio) vis-à-vis a reduction in size. But the choices made by CCSF seem to have been to the detriment of its programs, including cutting 700 classes from this year’s roster. But why worry about a two-year community college in a metropolitan area that hosts at least 90 institutions of higher education, and well over 100 if you include extension campuses?

Possibly nostalgia. I used to attend the concerts presented by the music ensembles of City College while I was in junior high school (as well as a few at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music). The jazz band, led by trumpeter David Hardiman, Sr. (his son leads it now), was the first place I saw the charts of Oliver Nelson and Gil Evans and the concert band was a concertizing group led by ex-NY Phil trumpeter Joe Alessi, the father of trombonist Joseph Alessi, Jr. (who teaches at Juilliard) and jazz-trumpeter extraordinaire Ralph Alessi. One of my fondest memories was of tuba virtuoso Floyd Cooley playing the piccolo obbligato from “The Stars and Stripes” as an encore at one of CCSF’s performances. This was during a time when a college education was considered important enough that it was guaranteed. If one couldn’t afford to go to a university, one could earn an associate’s degree from City College for free. While the institution wasn’t prestigious, it was sound and one could extract a quality education there if one wanted to.

I’ve noticed something about two-year colleges over the years that I’ve performed and taught clinics, master classes, and the like at them: while the standards for achievement in these small institutions aren’t as stellar as at a conservatory, the teachers are dedicated and the students are motivated. Granted, the talent pool for music students is limited, but the creativity displayed by the professors in order to help them make good music is fervent and often heroic. I’ve seen band directors bring in their own arrangements of Ornette Coleman pieces to play and include modal and pitch-set analyses of them for those who need to know. The amount of information offered can be voluminous and the student-teacher relationship is often the best. But CCSF’s music program isn’t small at all; it currently employs 28 faculty members (Michael Shahani, Wilma C. Pang, Madeline Mueller, Gerald A. Mueller, James L. McFadden, Charles J. McCarthy, Rebeca Mauleón-Santana, R. Wood Massi, Benedict M. Lim, Joshua T Law, Pamela M Kamatani, Charles M. Hudspeth, Judy Hubbell, David A. Hardiman, Jr., Tod N. Fleming, Lawrence Ferrara, Brian S. Fergus, Richard C. Fenner, Franz J. Enciso, Helen Dilworth, Kwaku Daddy, Lap-Yan Chui, Lennis Jay Carlson, John W. Calloway, Robert P. Bozina, Anthony Blea, Harry Bernstein, and Mary A. Argenti). The college actually has the largest student population in the country, so the failure of this one could be catastrophic.

Sadly, it comes down to a matter of style, I think. The two-year college is an institution where “oddball” education thrives and San Francisco, a city with clothing-optional zones, is a traditionally oddball town. (And jazz education, a recurrent subject of these monographs, has been an oddball field of study for almost a century.) The teachers and administration of CCSF aren’t the type to get along well with the largely right-leaning organizations that are giving the big bucks to higher education. I know this sounds out of step with the San Francisco blues, but a company that I think is part of the undoing of what used to be an effective educational system, Jossey-Bass, makes its home there; a wolf in sheep’s clothing, if you will. They espouse a traditional dog-eat-dog business world model to run educational institutions, even though this has proven to only hurt the outcomes of American higher education. This is because education is an art, while business is usually just business.

And art is part of culture, which is not something that relies on profits or a paradigm of perpetual “improvement” to survive. Culture is expression of the masses, not what an elite sells to the masses by lowering academic standards until it is believed that TSP is good to eat. While jazz may have been invented by the music industry, its successful marketing relied on its identity as an American cultural artifact and, while advances in technology have made recordings sound almost as good (and, indeed, more perfect) than live musical performance, what it sells is not culture. It is a temporal facsimile, a photograph in time. I learned this as a nascent “adolescent” while talking to students at San Francisco’s City College. (I might have both early and late onset adolescence, which might be perfect for an improvising musician!) SFCC, and institutions like it, are the places where culture is examined and expressed, not codified and commoditized. I hope we don’t see it close.

Notation Creation

Sample from Scroll by Will Redman

Sample from Scroll by Will Redman

“How much information does a composer working today attempt to convey to musicians through a written score?”

This is a really great question, asked by some students (non-musicians) in a course covering the history of music notation. A neighbor who teaches the class stopped over to ask me my opinion on the matter last night (being the only composer on the block can be fun!), and I’ve been tossing the question about in my head ever since.

Although my answer, which was basically “it depends on the composer,” was completely not helpful (because apparently her students, mostly engineering majors, wanted actual numbers), I’ve been pulling together some writings and examples of different notation styles for her to share with the students to help illustrate such an open-ended response. There are tons of options, but some favorites of mine include scores of George Crumb, Witold Lutosławski, Eleanor Hovda, Brian Ferneyhough (for a shot of jaw-dropping disbelief mixed with anxious butterflies), as well as Baltimore local, Will Redman.

I think that the majority of composers are simply aiming for clear and accurate communication through musical notation that will result in a performance that sounds similar to the music they hear in their imaginations. Obviously what that unrealized imaginary music is like, including how much detail it holds, also varies from individual to individual. Some strive for 100% accuracy, maybe others are comfortable with 60%, and some, as in the case of improvisation-heavy works, might have relatively few preconceptions about the sonic outcome. Kyle Gann has some opinions on notation issues, which are important reading for every composer (and a great read in general) whether or not you agree with the ideas presented.

My professor friend is also doing some fantastic exercises with the students, in which they pair up and one has to figure out how to communicate a sound—using any sort of “notation” they can come up with—for the other student to produce, like the sound of a train whistle, or waves crashing on rocks. It’s like musical Pictionary! I want to sit in on this class.

Sometimes, even the clearest and most detailed score doesn’t relay absolutely everything, and that’s when the phone comes in handy:

“Hey! So, this fast section at the end of your piece? We’re not totally sure how you want it to be played. Can you give us some more info?”

“Ummm…. like a drunken gypsy wedding band run amok.”

Ooooh. That’s it! We get it!”

Being able to talk with the composer (again, depending on the composer) can be a blessing and/or a curse of new music!

Cage Will Set You Free

Piano Planter

Near the entrance to the Cité de la musique in Paris I spotted this remarkable planter in the shape of a grand piano and I wondered what music John Cage would have made from it.

Readers of these pages are already quite aware of my deep appreciation for John Cage. I have voraciously studied his music for many years and now have about 100 CDs devoted exclusively to his compositions as well as numerous scores. Cage’s oeuvre and his approach to the making of it have deeply influenced how I listen to everything as well as how I approach my own creative work (despite my not using indeterminate procedures most of the time). However, I think I might have outdone myself in my devotion to John Cage over the past week. My entire trip to the Côte d’Azur region of France was actually bookended by John Cage experiences.

Music on the Move

The Paris Metro zipped me around town during my 14-hour layover there, too fast to attempt to figure out the music implicit in this photograph.

Thanks to a 14-hour layover in Paris en route to Nice, Paris’s very efficient commuter railroads, and massive amounts of coffee, I spent an entire day meeting with various people in Paris. You might recall that I decided to devote a substantial part of my time in Paris to learning more about the Russian-born, France-based microtonal pioneer Ivan Wyschnegradsky, and I wound up spending nearly an hour with Wyschnegradsky’s son, Dimitri Vicheney. My final meeting of the day took place at the Roissy Charles De Gaulle Airport minutes before my departing flight. Pianist Martine Joste, who is the president of the Ivan Wyschnegradsky Society, was unable to meet me in Paris during the day, but she agreed to meet me at the airport (since she lives nearby) in order to bring me some recordings and scores. During the course of exchanging emails about Wyschnegradsky and trying to figure out how two total strangers would find each other in one of the world’s most heavily trafficked airports, I realized that in addition to her advocacy for Wyschnegradsky, Joste is also a leading interpreter of John Cage’s solo piano and chamber music, and that I actually have her recordings of Cage’s music on Mode. In fact, one of my all-time favorite Cage pieces, Two6, which proved to be his penultimate composition, was written for Joste, who premiered and recorded it shortly after his death in 1992. So after we talked about Wyschnegradsky for a while, I thought I’d ask her to talk a bit about John Cage. She said a lot of fascinating things, but I was particularly moved by her comments about the importance of teaching Cage’s music to younger musicians.

My 40 hours without sleep on the way to Nice (except for about 2 hours of partial dozing on the flight from New York to Paris) ultimately trumped my only 24 hours of awakeness on the return trip home, but I was also staying awake for John Cage. This past week Juilliard devoted the entirety of its free annual contemporary music festival, Focus!, to John Cage because 2012 marks the Cage centenary. I was very disappointed that I would not be able to attend all six concerts since they started while I was still in France, but I was determined to attend whatever was happening once I returned. So I went straight from Newark Airport to Juilliard, not completely sure how I’d store my piles of luggage. And I was so glad I did—the vigor that these Juilliard students brought to most of the performances I witnessed proved Martine Joste’s assertions that Cage’s compositions can provide extremely valuable learning experiences for younger musicians.

The concert I attended on Wednesday featured Cage’s zany solo organ piece Some of “The Harmony of Maine”, a re-composition of music by the early American hymnist Supply Belcher. I was only familiar with this piece from recordings; it is completely overpowering live. It was also thrilling to watch a group of players interact with each other in order to make notes not sound—the purpose of the piece is, by chance operations, to play only partially the music that Belcher had written, and in so doing create a completely new piece. But perhaps even more thrilling was rehearing something I had heard countless times before, the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. Han Chen only performed a selection from this hour-long work, but his account was both highly dramatic and deeply nuanced. If I were in charge of the universe, this music would be as mandatory for keyboardists to learn as J.S. Bach’s preludes and fugues and Beethoven’s sonatas.

Thursday night featured the bizarre Child of Tree in which a performer is required to make sounds on various amplified plants. It was quite a contrast from Cage’s early song cycle on poems by E. E. Cummings for contralto and piano and the Six Melodies for violin and piano from 1950, both of which came across feeling almost like standard rep. Friday night also contained some sonic moments I will always treasure, particularly the simultaneous performance of the tender vocal duo Litany for the Whale and the late bowed piano concerto Fourteen (albeit with sampled bowed piano sounds so as not to disturb yet another Juilliard piano after others had been “prepared” in various ways). I’ve long known and loved both of these pieces, but hearing them performed together (which is totally acceptable performance practice for Cage) made me hear details in both works that I had not previously focused on when hearing them individually. I actually imagined I was hearing cadential progressions even though Cage’s harmonies exist in a realm far removed from functional tonality. After all, in his music anything can be followed by anything else without causality. And yet ironically, the flow from one chord to the next so often feels purposeful anyway. In fact, I guess that it is a perfect metaphor for being at peace with whatever happens in the universe. It is a lesson worth learning over and over again.

John Cage once famously suggested, “If you’re bored listening to something for five minutes, listen to it for ten minutes; if you’re bored listening for ten minutes, listen for twenty” etc. What I didn’t realize—and this is sadly not the case for all music (I have nodded off a few times during some really wonderful concerts I have attended over the years as a result of jetlag)—is that John Cage’s unique way of manipulating sound in time actually completely erodes one’s personal clock. If you are truly focused on it and can experience it on its own terms as it is happening, it is possible to completely forget what time it is and it will keep you from falling asleep. At least it worked for me.