Tag: music interpretation

Delay Is Denial

While it is a fact that most of the discussion on NewMusicBox is about composed music, the subject of improvised music isn’t new to its readers and one that shouldn’t be avoided or ignored. A well-rounded musician should be able to improvise as well as compose and/or perform music; it’s a matter of being able to speak as well as listen! So, in short order, I’d like to offer my observations on the subject by first coming to an understanding of what improvisation is and isn’t.

There is a philosophy of looking at the performance of ornamentation as a kind of improvisation. But I don’t believe that choosing between historical examples of mordents and appoggiaturi can really be called an act of improvisation. (But I do think that the practice of performing a passage as written once and repeating it with free ornamentation can meet the requirement for being, or at least including, improvisation.) So, while Yo-Yo Ma’s interpretations of J. S. Bach’s Suites for Solo Violoncello are noticeably different from those of Pablo Casals, neither can be called improvisations.

The New Harvard Dictionary of Music (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1986) says that “[i]n Western art music, which is heavily dependent on notation for transmission, improvisation includes phenomena such as the addition of extemporized ornaments as well as special improvised genres.” So, to me, an ornament, to be improvised, cannot be taken from a list of historically accurate referents. (A truly improvised mordent would be one that is performed “incorrectly”; the closer one comes to playing them right, the farther away from improvisation it becomes.) I think that Harvard hits the nail on the head in the opening sentence of its definition of improvisation: “The creation of music in the course of performance.” This offers a difference between “performing” music and “creating” it as well as a context for improvising.

Probably one of the hardest things to accept about improvisation is that learning how to improvise is done by improvising. One doesn’t learn how to do it, only how to do it better. So the first step is simply to decide to start improvising. Singers can do it as soon as they wake up, instrumentalists have a little more preparation to do: pick up, or sit down at, their instrument. One just starts.

With this in mind, the next step is to decide what it is one will be improvising. This sounds almost antithetical to the idea of improvisation. Certainly, if improvisation is the extemporaneous creation of music in performance, how can one decide what one will create beforehand? But improvisation, for the most part, occurs inside a framework of genre, form, harmonic/melodic content, and context that make it vital to preconceive not necessarily what one will play, but necessarily what one will not play. To illustrate this, imagine a trumpet player who only plays jazz and doesn’t know what any of the elements of Indian music are (e.g. raga, tala, or shruti), yet is improvising in a group playing traditional Indian music, say Raag Bhairav. No matter how closely our trumpet player listens to the rest of the musicians for guidance during the performance, his or her improvisation will not be in sync with the intent of the music. (Unless, of course, the intent of the performance is to juxtapose the trumpeter’s lack of ability to perform the music that the rest of the group has mastered.) Conversely, a sitar player thoroughly versed in the Hindustani classical music tradition, but with no knowledge of the blues form will not be able to improvise a convincing solo on Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave.” These two examples illustrate, in the broadest terms, what one should not do in musical improvisation.
A large part of what to improvise on in the jazz genre is tunes from the Great American Songbook. So the most important—albeit tedious—thing to do is to listen to a lot of jazz artists perform specific tunes, as much and as often as possible, with the goal of being able to at least identify any of what was heard on subsequent listening, if not recreate it. One has to be prepared to agree that this is something that one would have to do for as long as one wants to improvise jazz. This never-ending step informs the rubric of what one will do in musical improvisation. It doesn’t matter what genre of music one applies this step to, and it doesn’t matter how many different genres of music it’s applied to; one can compartmentalize according to genre. What does matter, though, is that one does this step a lot.

Next comes an even more tedious, but rewarding, step: practice. One must practice improvisation. But practicing improvisation is not the same as improvising. One practices major and minor scales, but rarely does a performance consist of major and minor scales (and improvisation is done “in the course of performance”). So one practices repertoire, the tunes from the Great American Songbook one has been listening to others perform, while trying out ideas that come to mind. Maybe change some of the notes, or fill in the spaces between phrases. But, this must be practiced critically. If a phrase or fill is done incorrectly, stop and do it again correctly. And then do it again until it isn’t done incorrectly at least ten times in a row. While this can be frustrating at first, it gets better with practice. I think the hardest part of this is making the time to do it; but, once it’s done, it’s done. And it’s like riding a bike, you never really forget. You just get out of practice. So, practice! There are many ways to practice and one should use as many of them as possible: One can practice alone, to an imagined accompaniment. (Accompanists can practice to an imagined soloist. One can practice with a metronome, using its click as different beats. One can play or sing along with what one is practicing. One can practice with a recording or with ambient music, such as the radio or TV. Finally, one can practice with others. The last offers a great way to get critical feedback about one’s progress.
Practice for 8/5 - 8/9
Then there is the taking of lessons. While listening to someone else’s performance is studying and can be a lesson in itself, setting up a session with someone where teacher-student role-playing is agreed upon can save a lot of time and offer valuable insight into what one is doing. The role-play can go on for as long as one wishes. There are several individuals who, even though I might have only taken one lesson from them, I will always consider as my teachers. But there are also some whom I don’t consider as such so much, even though I might have taken several lessons from them and the information they imparted to me was invaluable. Generally, though, I find myself revisiting the lessons I have taken in the past and still gain new insights from them. I still go to lectures and workshops whenever possible and still take a private lesson when the mood strikes. Of course, one can improvise a lesson when the situation is right, but I’d have to teach you how to do that!

Then comes the scary part: creating music in performance. Some teachers will want to control that. But my belief is that when it’s time to do it, do it. Otherwise, you could find yourself in the same situation as this:

The first time is nerve-wracking, but it gets better every time.

What the Herd Heard

I was recently engaged in a discussion on a popular social networking message board that focused on whether or not rap music is primarily inclusive of messages of socio-political dissent. For obvious reasons, I won’t link to the board or reveal the identities of those who I debated, but I’m sure it will come as no surprise that it was I who argued that the socio-political messaging is there. I even went as far as to suggest that this messaging is similar to that found in the music of Woody Guthrie. I tried to invoke the research of Michael Eric Dyson on the subject, but he was pooh-poohed as “a member of a ‘non-underclass culture’” (a term I introduced earlier in the debate) who “may not be the best authority” on the subject. The debate, which is several days old now, has slowed considerably; not the least of the reasons being that I’m currently involved in the commendable (so I’m told) process of jury duty. One of the things that the debate confirmed for me, though, is that there exists a group of very creative musicians who believe that rap music is devoid not only of melody and chord changes, but of socio-political messaging as well.

I don’t think I can agree less with either thesis. Rap music and most hip-hop-based music uses bass lines, background riffs (often sampled from old jazz recordings), and melodic “hooks” that are inclusive of chord progressions as well as melodies. While I’m not very experienced in hip-hop culture, I’ve noticed that the bulk of the music is poetry backed by drum beats (often vocalized) and non-pitch specific “scratching” on vinyl LPs, and I keep hearing overarching tonal movement and structure that gives each song a subtly unique sonic identity. There are introductions that set up pitch centers (that might include microtonal relationships between sampled materials) and present non-textually inclusive melodic themes that recur, like Baroque ritornelli throughout a single work. The music is also loaded with culturally-specific coded messaging of socio-political dissent that incorporates anti-social themes, such as: gun-related violence, misogyny, irresponsible and perverse sexual behavior, and the overly conspicuous display of material goods or “bling.” Make no mistake, I do not condone the use of guns, murder, beating and/or humiliating woman, child pornography, or making the display of expensive items more important than feeding the hungry. But these themes are not specific to rap music. They are, however, traditionally part of the American Culture Machine’s output in movies, books, and television that has been shaping the minds and mores of generations.

Be that as it may, I have come to the conclusion that the difference in opinion between myself and “them” is that I listen to rap music differently than they do. Maybe it’s because, as a bass player—and, since the bass, along with drums, is the instrument primarily used to carry the identity of genre and subgenre in American music—I’m constantly analyzing the structure of music from cultures other than the one I grew up in (mostly classical, rock ‘n’ roll, and jazz). So I find myself paying attention to bass parts, and how they interact within a “rhythm section,” with an analytical ear long before I pay attention to textual messaging. This indicates to me that act of listening is related much more to one’s personal agenda than I had heretofore believed. The point was underlined for me by another essay that appeared earlier this week on NewMusicBox. While the essay’s author focused on the problem of music that is inappropriately (or even dangerously) loud, I was struck by his concept of “listening as an act of [non-selfless] submission,” by intentionally suspending the personal critiquing of what is heard. This is what improvising musicians strive to do when they interact in their performances; with as little critical listening done as possible, instead trusting in their ability to play what must be played. One of my debaters is a saxophonist, an instrument that is traditionally used to play melodies and melodic improvisation. Not many saxophonists are involved in “the groove” (although notable exceptions are found, principally in baritone and bass saxophone playing), and find themselves misidentified as the identity of the music being played. (Even though the sound of swing is absolutely reliant on what the bass and drums play for its identity, the name Lester Young is more known than Walter Page—and the word “bebop” usually conjures the name of Charlie Parker, but if Bird were playing with Bootsy Collins, the music would no longer bebop, no matter what Parker played.) Maybe that’s why I’ve found many saxophonists to be critical, or even hypercritical, of what is played by “their” rhythm sections; their musical voices are actually defined by their accompaniment.

So, this has me wondering to what degree music listening is “agenda-ized” by the players of different instruments. I know that when I go out to hear music with other bass players, we tend to react to the same things. It’s not that we only listen to the bass—we don’t, but I think we might hear what the other instruments are playing with a different “filter” than what might be employed by different instrumentalists, vocalists, and/or composers. I’d be curious to know what you think of that. I’d also be curious to know how rap music fits into your understanding of American music.

Talk About Sound: Austin New Music Coop and Cardew’s The Great Learning

Written over several years in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning was performed over two evenings by the Austin New Music Coop in the spring of 2011. Terabytes of high definition audio and video were recorded during those performances, excerpts of which appear throughout this podcast. (They have been made available as individual listening samples below, as well.) Also included here are extremely detailed and comprehensive program notes and examples of reductions of the score created by the ANMC which were used by the section leaders and conductors to communicate Cardew’s performance concepts to the performers.

Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning

I was joined by Steven Snowden and Ian Dicke in a conversation with ANMC members Brent Baldwin, Nick Hennies, Brandon Young, and Travis Weller about their experiences putting together this massive work. My thanks to all the participants for their time and contributions to this podcast, and in particular to Travis Weller for compiling the additional material.

(Musical excerpts in the podcast appear in the following order: Paragraph 3, Paragraph 1, Paragraph 2, Paragraph 7, paragraph 5, Paragraph 6, Paragraph 4.)

DOWNLOAD Talk About Sound: Austin New Music Coop and Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning


Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning

About Cornelius Cardew and The Great Learning
(from the ANMC website)

Cornelius Cardew was born May 7, 1936, in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, England, and killed in a hit and run automobile accident in London, December 13, 1981. He taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London as well as other schools. With Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton he formed an improvisational ensemble, The Scratch Orchestra, which premiered the entire cycle of The Great Learning. He was active in the seminal chamber ensemble AMM with Eddie Prevost, Keith Rowe, John Tilbury and Christopher Hobbs. Cardew’s concern for human rights and economic justice led him into Marxist politics and renunciation of his experimental music during the 1970s. Instead, he pursued popular styles of music-making. At the very end of his life (and after Mao Tse-Tung’s death), he appeared to be open to reclaiming aspects of his earlier broad approach to sonic art.

Cornelius Cardew’s 1970 masterpiece The Great Learning is a work in seven parts or “Paragraphs” based on translations of Confucius by Ezra Pound and is composed for trained and untrained musicians. The piece instigated the formation of the experimental musical ensemble The Scratch Orchestra, who also gave The Great Learning its premiere. Now, four decades after its completion, Cardew’s obsessively constructed 5+ hour composition has become an often recalled and imitated masterpiece of counter-culture avant-garde. The influential piece, one of the earliest pieces to be called “minimalist” by composer/critic Michael Nyman, conjures at once Ligeti’s clouds of sound, Webern’s pointillism, Reich’s phasing cycles, and Cage’s conceptual provocations. This feast of varied sound-theater events includes a pipe organ with whistling chorus, cascading waves of percussive sound, loud and soft laughter music, an orchestra of droning contra-basses and large brass instruments, and swirling clouds of a cappella voices. Sadly, a complete presentation of The Great Learning is exceedingly rare, due largely to its demands of 50+ performers, several unconventional instruments, a pipe organ, and necessarily open-minded interpreters.

When I Say Forte…


In September 2010, the fantastic violinist Matt Albert posted to Thirteen Ways, the blog of the peerless new music ensemble eighth blackbird. In Albert’s post, “How Loud Is Loud,” he posited a framework for interpreting the dynamics found in musical scores.

In Albert’s system, everything begins with the mezzo-forte mark, which he perceives as meaning a “full sound” with “no extra effort.” From there, everything increases to fortissimo, or “max intensity” and decreases to pianissimo, or “intensely soft, like a scream from a mile away or a locked room.” He conceives of fortississimo and pianississimo as special markings, which necessitate sacrificing sound quality for effort so that, for example, in the quietest sections we accept dropped notes as the price for a line that approaches inaudibility.

I keep returning to Albert’s definitions, because I find that they accurately reflect my personal predilections as a composer. As I first began having my music performed by musicians outside of my immediate circle of friends, I invariably would ask them to exaggerate the dynamics. As I began coaching student and peer chamber ensembles who were learning my scores and those of my colleagues, in my attempts to make their interpretations more lively and dramatic I returned over and over again to this advice until it began to feel like a mantra. When performers apply Albert’s methodology, I no longer need to ask for this sort of exaggeration and can immediately turn to more subtle aspects of interpretation.

I’ve shared Albert’s post with many of my classes, and I find that the student performers can be surprisingly resistant to the idea of sacrificing tone quality for dynamic contrast. The students often declare that they can produce sound at higher decibel levels only through the purity of their timbre. Not only are they are afraid of their teacher’s responses, but they also worry that creating less than beautiful sounds might lead to poor habits and infiltrate their general musical style. In response, I argue—perhaps unconvincingly—that sometimes the physical dynamic level matters less than the perceived effort and that ugly sounds can be an important tool in our expressive repertoire.

I’ve become intrigued by this divide between the will of the performer towards beautiful tone and of the composer towards expressive variety. Certainly these two goals can coexist and even can enhance each other in order to create music that approaches the sublime; however, at times they appear incompatible. It’s when I’m in these latter situations that I can find myself at a loss. While I carefully choose all of the notes and rhythms within a score, I would happily sacrifice a few of the black dots and lines in service of enhanced expressivity. If asked to choose between two performances of my music where one is flat but accurate while the second interprets the score in an original way (derived from an analytic reading) while flubbing some details, I will prefer the more expressive performance every time.

As a composer, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work nearly exclusively with musicians who want to delve into my music in order to pull out the expressive qualities latent within the score. As an audience member, I’ve found that each year brings what seems like exponential growth in the number of ensembles and soloists who are prepared to create dramatic performances of brand new works. I believe that the influence of consummate professionals like Albert and the current members of eighth blackbird (among many other phenomenally gifted and intelligent musicians devoted to new music) has been a major factor contributing to this heartening trend. Thanks to these people, more and more musicians implicitly understand what I mean when I say forte.


I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate fellow Peabody faculty member Kevin Puts, who learned yesterday that he has been awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his opera Silent Night. Kevin shared a video of the Minnesota Opera production with the Peabody Composition seminar and I found the music to be incredibly beautiful, effective, and moving. I’m very happy to see that his incredible work has been recognized in this fashion.


I’m one of those odd ducks who got into composition without ever studying instrumental performance. I took some piano and guitar lessons as a very young child and then eschewed all music study until I discovered my high school synthesizer studio. I found that I thoroughly enjoyed working with sound as a physical element, and this led me towards composing my own works for electronics. Encouragement from Jerome Margolis, my wonderful teacher, allowed me to write down some musical thoughts and begin the process of becoming a composer. My unusual background means that I’ve been able to make a career in music without ever thinking of myself as a performing musician.

I mention this history because last week I played a solo set as part of Phyllis Chen’s wonderfully exotic UnCaged Toy Piano Festival. I began by improvising on toy piano with looping pedal, and over time a structured piece of music emerged out of these explorations.

I was surprised to find that my relationship with this music is very different than my typical emotional response to my own music. When I compose, I reach a point at which I determine a final version of the piece. At that point, I either believe that any further revisions will begin to disintegrate the good ideas present in the music or I find myself up against the wall of a deadline, and the composition as scored at that moment becomes the artifact. Performers generally then bring that dormant seed to life, adding their own personal vision, but my work is (for the most part) done.

I found that as a performer, the piece is never completed. The more time I put towards the performance, the more I discovered about the music. I never reached the point of diminishing returns, or even the sense that I was approaching an asymptote. Instead, I realized that my response to the music I was creating was going to continue to change with each additional hour I was able to spend thinking about playing it. The process of learning the music would never stop.

The best performers I know are also inveterate perfectionists, a fact that surely creates a great deal of emotional difficulty. Before they would agree to venture onto the stage, they have a clear picture of their ideal performance, what they intend to convey. Paradoxically, our human frailty will never allow any of us to achieve that singular vision. Adding to the difficulty of the musician’s life is the fact that their view of exactly what constitutes the Platonic ideal performance will inevitably shift as they continue studying and returning to the same works over time.

I imagine that this paradigm­—especially the aspect that allows for them to continue approaching the same works in new ways—is central to most musician’s love for music. I also imagine that this pursuit of an unachievable Utopia must be eternally frustrating. As a composer, I remain ever hopeful that the next piece will be the one that expresses exactly what I would like to hear. This (perhaps vainglorious) hope allows me to continue putting pencil to paper. Were I fully cognizant and emotionally resigned to a certainty that my compositions will never reflect my ideal vision, I wonder if I could continue creating new work.

Having walked a short distance in performer’s shoes—which actually were, in my case, bare feet due to the necessity of pressing small buttons with my toes—I’m left with even greater awe for those perfectionists who can somehow find the generosity to allow us to listen to them as they work towards their unachievable ideals.