Thursday, November 30, 2006

solo: alone together


Well, I’ve been trying my hand at the solo guitar improvisation context for a few years now. It’s still, when I stop to think about it, terrifying, but it is getting a little easier every time, and, although I have yet to leap off the edge in this context, I’m beginning to find the geography a little easier to navigate—a little more comfortable. In fact, it feels as though the my most recent solo performance (just earlier this month), was the first time it came together in any semblance of a musical way.

Let me kick-start this thread on solo improvisation by outlining some themes and topics I want to return to.
Once upon a time I played the piano, and it was with that particular instrument that I first tried my hand at solo improvisation. Under the guidance and tutorage of CL, I studied strategies and tactics of pianists such as Paul Bley, Cecil Taylor, Keith Tippett, and, under my own steam, Marilyn Crispell. And it took years to figure out how to translate and transplant these pianistic techniques and strategies onto the guitar(ist). The process was, not just convoluted, but sometimes, well, backwards (realizing that existing guitar(ist) techniques could be redeployed as pseudo-pianistic ones).
The approach of creating and defining a vocabulary of boundaries and areas of exploration is something that probably warrants several posts to itself. This lexical approach to improvisation is associated with players like, say, Anthony Braxton, but in (very) different ways I can also discern in playing of musicians as diverse as Taylor and Pauline Oliveros.
The way I finally cracked (or at least allowed me my first steps into) the solo context was by listening to what the guitar had to suggest. The strategy I found was maybe more a very body conscious cyborg diplomacy than, perhaps, anything to do with personal expression.

Solo. Is that alone together, or is that in partnership by myself?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

playing in position pt. 7a: learning the geography (again)

Last time we took steps to learn the geography of the fingerboard, we were only using the ‘finger-per-fret’ shape. Let’s now go and try and apply the extended shape we learned last time to this task.

Within reason, you should be able to use whatever scalar pattern you want, but I’ll use the run-of-the-mill major mode here if only because its general familiarity. Most of the procedures covered in learning the geography last time are still applicable so I won’t rehearse them here. Needless to say you should be able to play the scalar pattern (major mode in this case) with the first finger with no problems.
One you do that, all that’s apparently left to do is add the other fingers (as before, the position of the first finger is marked my the diamond notehead):descending major scale patternThe corresponding hand shapes are as follows:three corresponding hand shapesThe first two hand shapes will be familiar by now, so shifting from A to B should be logical and straightforward. Shifting from B to C, on the other hand, requires you to shift, and think of, your first finger while simultaneously changing hand shapes. Keep in mind what I’ve said about this. Specifically:

…as you shift up [or down] the neck of the instrument, you’d be getting your bearings from the first finger, and be thinking in terms of two positions with two corresponding hand shapes….
I wouldn’t rush this—there’s a lot of information to be encoded and absorbed into your mind and body—so I’ll leave it there and continue in part 7b.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

what’s in a name: non-idiomatic improvisation

Is any improvised music really idiomatic?

I’ve already remarked on the label ‘non-idiomatic improvisation’ in connection with ‘pan-idiomatic improvisation’, and, in addition, in examining the term ‘free improvisation’, I’ve stated that ‘free improvisation’ could denote an “assortment of overlapping or unrelated things”, and to some, perhaps lesser, extent, this is also the case with ‘non-idiomatic improvisation.’ Also, in the same way that we can read the ‘free’ to denote an aspiration rather than an achievement, ‘non-idiomatic’ could denote an (unachievable) aim.
Having already iterated the corresponding problems and pitfalls, I don’t want to rehearse them here in the context of this new term. I do, however, want to ask whether improvisation can, under any circumstance, be idiomatic. I am not asking if non-idiomatic improvisation is possible (analogous to the question of whether an improvisation can be truly free), I’m asking if ‘idiomatic improvisation’ is a misnomer.

According to my computer’s online dictionary, idiom is “a characteristic mode of expression in music or art.” Hmm… not sure that helps here. So, beyond definitions of idiom that assume communication or expression (thorny parameters that likely end up in the ‘I-know-it-when-I-see-it’ domain), what might be a pragmatic, workable definition of ‘idiom’? I’ll propose, for the purposes of this discussion, that idiom is the mechanism via which the intricate and contingent nexus of expectations play out through performance. Listening to a performance, if expectations are met, we have something that is idiomatic, perhaps even stereotypical.
Fine, fine, fine… But in practice, how is an audience member processing, and judging, these chains and chains of probabilities? In practice, how are you even to know which set of probabilistic archetypes—which idiom—is in operation? And how does this all play out in the practice of improvisation?
Take a guitarist, an improviser. Just that choice of instrument comes with so much cultural baggage that an audience member, for all I know, is immediately calculating clouds of probable scenarios. Again, fine, fine, fine… but does this mean that the audience member cannot be surprised? That they cannot have their expectation confounded? (Incidentally, I think the problem with our reasoning here is that we’re assuming, and implicitly positing, intentionality as knowable, and as a significant (perhaps primary) ingredient in thinking about expectations; we’re to some extent still thinking about communication or expression.)
I’d argue that all improvisation must, by definition, at least allow the possibility of the redefinition of idioms. That the act of improvisation negates, kicks around, or opens up, the black box of the idiom. Although I think a performer can be idiom-conscious and improvise at the same time, I don’t believe they are bound by it. I like to think that audiences of improvisation don’t come to be spectators at an authorization ceremony, but are witnesses to a, at a bare minimum, mild shakeup.

What’s surprising is not that improvisation can confound the chain of expectations, but that, for example, Pulitzer Prize winning neo-classicists can consistently fulfill them ;-)

Derek Bailey, himself probably the best known proponent of the ‘non-idiomatic’ moniker, remarked that the difference between free and idiomatic improvisation depends on the former’s ability to “renew and change the known and so provoke an open-endedness which by definition is not possible in idiomatic improvisation” (Bailey, 1992, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, London: British Library National Sound Archive, p. 142). Yet, in earlier in the same book, acknowledged that improvisation in general is “the sap through which music renews and reinvigorates itself” (ibid. p. 28). Does this mean that even Bailey saw that idiomatic improvisation could be, at times, free?; that it might, on occasion, not be idiomatic at all?

Friday, November 24, 2006

an application of the principles of canon formation

Things I’ve learned from The Cambridge History of 20th Century Music:

  • In post-World War II modernism, Boulez, Cage and Stockhausen ruled the world. The effect of Berio, Brown, Nono (oh, what a problematic Marxist composer), etc were less significant.
  • There were two divisions of neo-classicism. One was a one-man movement that included Stravinsky. Everyone else was in the other movement.
  • Free improvisation was invented by European Concert Music composers.
  • Live electronic music was invented by John Cage.
  • Which, by the way, like almost all music in the 20th century, was a guy thing.
  • Free jazz was invented by Coltrane (or was it Coleman).
  • Cecil Taylor got his music from the conservatory.
  • Almost all developments in modern jazz were initiated by Miles Davis.
  • Anti-semitism was devastating, but the plantations were only a minor inconvenience for the slaves. (Although the really disastrous thing, apparently, about anti-semitism was having to leave your home.)
  • Musicologists can decide to discuss a limited set of historical actors on the following grounds: “…the pre-eminence of those discussed here was not, and has not (so far) been, seriously challenged….”
  • Apparently the phrase “hierarchic organicism” means something.
  • After Darmstadt, and a few false starts, there was only pre-minimalism, minimalism and post-minimalism. (A bit like pre-classicism, classicism and post-classicism?)
  • Vinko Globokar is a composer and performer, but not an improviser.
  • White people do not have race.
  • Misha Mengelberg is a composer, and Ornette Coleman is a jazz musician/improviser.
  • Women composers teach (e.g. Boulinger), are taught (e.g. Saunders), or just follow trends (e.g. Oliveros). This is in contrast to Boulez/Cage/Stockhausen, etc who come to the world as fully formed autonomous individuals. (Somehow Gubaidulina is an exception to this.)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

playing in position pt. 6: more physiological compromises

If you’re relaxed and comfortable with the tasks covered in the last entry on position playing, you should be secure with the shape colloquially known as ‘finger-per-fret’. Although this hand shape is fine up to a point, if you tune your guitar intervals larger than major thirds, and that’s the case with all but one adjacent pair of strings in standard tuning, then the whole chromatic scale is not available in a single position. In order to cover the chromatic scale, we need four fingers to span five fret positions.finger-per-fret and extended shapesAbove, left is the shape we’ve covered so far, as above, right is the extended shape (I’ve heard this referred to as ‘extended-finger-per-fret’ which sounds to me like a klugy designation at best). From now on, the bulk of our position playing will be shared between these two hand shapes; shifting from one shape to the other.

A question you may be asking is, conceptually, do you (a) shift the first finger while keeping the rest of your hand stationary, or do you (b) shift your hand while keeping your first finger stationary. Since you’d be only moving one finger (a) seems to be more efficient, on the other hand, given that you should be getting your bearing from your first finger, (b) seems more in line with the reasons for playing in position. The image below shows the ‘finger-per-fret’ shape in the center, with movements (a) and (b) represented on the left and right respectively:shifting first finger and shifting hand except first fingerThe simple answer to this query is both (a) and (b); the more complex answer is neither (a) nor (b).
Simple answer first: When shifting up or down the neck, you still get your bearings from your first finger, thus, in such situations, (b) describes better the mental processes involved. However, once you have shifted into position, (a) describes better the processes involved since the first finger may occupy two fret positions. Let’s illustrate this with two ways to approach a scale fragment:scale fragment played in single and two positionsThe first of these, you’d be thinking in terms of a single position in which the first finger occupies two fret positions—thus (a). In the second example, as you shift up the neck of the instrument, you’d be getting your bearings from the first finger, and be thinking in terms of two positions with two corresponding hand shapes—thus (b).
Now the more complex answer: Eventually, you should not be thinking about macroscopic gestures (the position and movement of the first finger/arm/etc), and the microscopic gestures (the shape and orientation of your finger/hand/etc) as separate phenomena with corresponding independent mental processes. This should come with study, time and practice.

Incidentally, some of you may know of a technique in which the fourth finger occupies two fret positions (in which case a single position spans six fret positions). I am not going to cover that here primarily because I don’t use this fourth finger extension at all frequently, and thus I feel unqualified to talk about it.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

keith rowe: an appreciation

When I meet, on occasion, a younger, or relative novice, improvising guitarist, and we talk about their models or gurus, I hear the usual suspects (or, should I say, white men?)—Bailey, Frith, etc; never Rowe. Yet, in numerous ways, many of these relative rookies to this practice/tradition are following in the footsteps, not of these more ‘guitaristic’ improvisers, but of Keith Rowe.
Maybe it’s because he is not one of my own models, maybe because I admire his tactics and methodologies from a distance rather than using it as a bounce-off point for my own work, maybe because I find his approach to the instrument so alien, that I find Keith Rowe’s playing (which seems like so much the wrong word for what Rowe does) fascinating and disconcerting. Rowe’s approach borders on what I might, in my most dogmatic moments, consider, well, just plain wrong ;-)
I don’t want to make it sound like my fascination is akin to watching a car crash, but there is something unnerving about all of this. I almost feel like I should not appreciate his playing (there’s that verb again). Something gets to me, for instance, as I watch Keith Rowe - Prepared Guitar (a YouTubified Subsonics ep.):

…Pollock for example, laid the canvas on the floor which meant he broken the link with European easel painting in one swoop—in one move. I could of figured that if I did the same with the guitar—if I laid the guitar down—I would achieve a whole number of things that were my objective at the time: A break with the past, the possibility of developing a completely new language, a sense of detaching yourself from the immediacy of the instrument, and creating a gap between you and…
Then there’s that expression:
…the essential material.
Whatever that means.
I feel nearer, more a part of the paining… literally be in the painting. …There is pure harmony [between painter and painting], an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.
Jackson Pollock quoted in Ellen G. Landau (1989), Jackson Pollock (London: Thames and Hudson), p. 168.
When I think of, say, Lavender Mist, I don’t see the result of detachment from the material/media; I see gestures, the body, the canvas in some kind of impossible hybridity that problematizes the apparent frozen state of the canvas and the movement of the body.
I approach paining the same way I approach drawing, that is, direct…. No sketches / acceptance of / what I do—. …the more immediate, the more direct—the greater the possibilities of making… a statement.
Pollock quoted ibid., p. 169.
Although the final outcome may be paint and canvas—that distilled materiality—this non-representation is a consequence of embracing “the immediacy of the… essential material.”
With the guitar in its conventional and normal position against your stomach, it’s very much an expression coming out of your stomach about yourself: The ‘I’; who I am; my person; experiences transmitted. And it was really to do with expression—the expression of sentiment. Whereas laying the guitar on the table; it was much more reflecting something about the world rather than a personal view point. So, therefore it became, in a sense, more industrial, more mechanical.
I do have the guitar against my stomach (well, by my ribs anyway), but I don’t agree that this is necessarily about an expression emanating from myself. I disagree, as I think Row does, with this notion of the guitar as a medium through which the message is transmitted. I also disagree that the source of this transmission is the guitarist, as I think Rowe does too. However, while I’ve rejected these ideas in favor of a performative social metaphor or a cyborg model, Rowe is interested in material in a very sculptural sense.

Something gets me and it’s not so much I disagree with Rowe (which, well, I do), but that I can’t imagine being able to have an argument with him. I don’t think we even share the same vocabulary. I’m not sure I have the words to describe, in terms that Rowe would understand, my reasons for finding his approach problematic, and I have a feeling that I would not comprehend his description of what he, no doubt, would find problematic in mine.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

playing in position pt. 5: one string melodies (again)

Having taken our first steps in integrating the small-scale and large-scale gestures in position playing, let’s revisit those one string lines, but, this time, instead of playing the line with the first finger, this time play it with the fourth. Again, this could be any scale, arpeggio, or melody, but, as the example, I’m still taking Morricone’s music from Cinema Paradiso:melody played with fourth fingerThe first finger’s position is marked by the diamond notehead, and, in tablature, with the number in square brackets.
What we’re doing here is shifting the ‘finger-per-fret’ shape up and down the neck. As you shift this shape, you should be thinking of the position of the first finger (and only thinking of the fourth finger in terms of the ‘finger-per-fret’ shape relative to the first). Remember, in position playing the guitar player gets their bearing from their first finger. The fact that the note three frets above the first finger is the one that you hear should not be your primary concern, just target the appropriate fret with the first finger and the rest should fall into place.
As always, try different strings, and different lines/melodies.

If you’re having difficulty keeping in mind the position of the first finger, try a variant like the following:ornamented with alternating fourth and first fingersExercises like the one above allows you to sound the fret at the first finger to aurally remind you where you are.
Once you’re comfortable with these, try, for example, playing the line alternately with the first and the fourth finger:melody played alternately with fourth and first fingersBy alternating sounding the first and the fourth finger in such cases, we’re psychologically and physically constructing a non-linear relationship between sounding/fretting actions (and the corresponding aural feedback) and macroscopic gestures.

Incidentally, I hope I don’t need to, at this stage, remind you to relax and take your time….

Sunday, November 19, 2006

‘art’ as a term for exclusion

‘Art’ is a term of exclusion.

There. I’ve said it.

To say one thing is art is to deny that that other thing (right over there, elsewhere, whose? well, not mine) is not. There cannot be such a thing as inclusive art.
I leave it up to each of us to decide whether that’s a good thing or not. (I’ve laid down my cards already.)

Friday, November 17, 2006

playing in position pt. 4: what about finger independence?

You may be wondering why, in these discussions of position playing, that I’m not talking about finger independence. If you’re used to those rigorous and exhaustive compendiums of fingerboard calisthenics (or s&m exercises), you may be asking what the reason for the relative simplicity of these exercises is.
Finger-to-finger independence is one of those things that you come across in keyboard pedagogy (and even there it is not quite as useful as sometimes made out). One of the things that differentiates the keyboard from the fretboard (excepting instruments such as the clavichord and the Ztar) is that the former has random access (you can, more or less, press any combination of keys) while the latter, in comparison, has significant restrictions in degrees of freedom (only one note per string). While the former is conceptually a set of non-latching pushbuttons, the latter is a set of single-pole, multi-throw switches (in the case of the guitar, this would be something like six SP20T switches). Nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that very, very little of a guitar player’s repertoire of gestures requires, or draws upon, the finger-to-finger independence of movement.
Generalizing for a moment, I would not recommend that any budding guitar player work specifically on finger independence unless their particular technique demands it (e.g. touch/tap playing or contrapuntal fingerstyle). Furthermore, unless you know what you are doing, unless you are mindful of your physical/physiological parameters and constraints, it may be best to take your time and approach this at a later date, and with caution. It does not help that many of the published collections of exercises range from useful, if approached properly, to pointless, and possible sources of injury.
My two cents….


11–18–06: Correct the conceptual guitar fretboard switch from a 6P20T to six SP20Ts.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

endings: or engineering serendipity

How do improvisers, in an open, group context, know how to end? How do they manage, on occasion, to stop on a dime?
If, as a performer in such contexts, you’ve yet to experience such a moment—that knock-your-socks-off coda—please, come back to this post at a later date: There’s no substitute for discovering the phenomena yourself.

Yeah, go away, do some playing, come back when you’re done.

Okay, you’re back. Now you know that it is possible to create satisfying endings—maybe heart-stoppingly dramatic, or maybe subdued and elegant—spontaneously. You’re perhaps asking self-conscious question such as, what is the underlying mechanism behind these endings, or whether there are steps to maximize the chances of such endings (and minimize the probability of damp squibs and fizzles).
A solution that less experienced improvisers sometimes suggest is the cue. However, should just one performer in the group miss the prompt, you’re not only back to the original quandary, but you’ve now got yourselves in a situation which a skeptical audience may view as a goof-up (well, ’cause it was). Cues are useful things, particularly in time-constrained, large group settings, and in settings where there is an escape hatch (I’ll maybe talk more about such things in another post), but as a control signals for (more or less) instantaneous, collective, group behavior, it has, I think, far too many pitfalls.
I’m also distrustful of pre-agreed (or stereotypical) musical gestures (e.g. cadence like shapes) as markers for potential endings. Although an audience is less likely to notice a goof-up, you’re still stuck with some of the same problems as cueing. In addition, if part of the point of improvisation is to take us to the unknown, then there’s no guarantee that pre-agreed gestures will make any kind of sense when we get there. And there’s no way you can plan for every single eventuality in such an open context.
How an improviser approaches endings in a group context may be the best kept secret in the practice of improvised musics. Well, it’s a secret in so far as it’s seldom discussed or theorized, but the mechanism itself can be as simple as you want it: See a potential exit; just take it. Should the rest of the group not follow, that’s fine, the performance continues without you, at least for the time being. Should all but one of the performers ‘end,’ well, that wasn’t and end was it? It was just the point at which that person started a solo. That solo might directly lead to an end, or maybe it segues into another section which, maybe, then ends.
Do you see the pattern here? As improvisers, we are spontaneously, and retroactively, justifying what is happening and has happened. You are avoiding the “reflex of trying to make it into something you think it ought to be, rather than letting it become what it can be.” The significance of a gesture is not written in stone, it’s up for grabs and, in all probability, will be recursively defined and redefined as the performance continues.

…There’s a certain amount of anticipation and tactical considerations which help make the bigger shape. But on a detail for detail level, it’s not done by adding one thing to another, it’s done by… instantaneous is the wrong word because you’ve done it before you’ve thought about it. You can only listen to it… after it’s happened. But you’ve done it before you’ve thought of it.
Evan Parker quoted in Graham Lock (1991), ‘speaking of the essence’, Wire (issue 85), p. 32.
The character and function of every element in the performance is generated performatively rather than preordained. Is that the ending coming up ahead? Well, maybe, but we won’t know for sure until it ends.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

playing in position pt. 3: learning the geography

Seems like a long time since my last entry on position playing, and even longer on natural harmonics. So, let me get back to these…

These are the simplest exercises. They’re not, well, even really exercises. These make passable warm ups, but, you know, there are much better stuff you can do for that purpose. Think of these as stepping stones towards playing (and thinking) in position.
If you’ve managed the tasks on playing in position pt. 1: don’t get lost, you should have no problem playing, with the first finger on the fretboard, a chromatic scale (or any other set of intervals for that matter). Find a comfortable point on the guitar (say, around the neck’s mid point), and, just stopping using your first finger, play a descending chromatic scale on the treble E string:chromatic scale, descending, treble E stringNow lets add the other fingers.exercise, descending, treble E stringThe position of the first finger is marked in each case with a diamond notehead. Your first finger should remain at this position while fingers two, three and four land on the fingerboard for the upper notes. Relax, don’t use excessive force: you don’t actually need to press down the string with anything other than your fourth finger, but the other fingers should nevertheless rest approximately at the fret positions. The result should be that archetypal ‘finger-per-fret’ shape.
This is important: The point of these exercises is to get you used to feeling your location on the fingerboard with that first finger while simultaneously getting comfortable with the distribution of fingers down the frets (the finger-per-fret shape). I reiterate, you should not have to press down hard with all fingers, but at least rest the non-fretting fingers (second and third) gently on the string as the fourth finger comes down.
Stop when it starts to become uncomfortable. As you play these, it is entirely reasonable for you not to go all the way down the neck of the instrument. As you repeat the shape towards the bass end of the instrument’s neck, as the adjacent frets become more distant, you may find that your fingers, hand, arm, etc. become less comfortable. Stop and take a break.
You got the idea? You can now do the same on this on the other strings.exercise, descending, B and G stringsAnd ascending:exercise, ascending, bass E stringOnce you get this under your belt, try using a metronome, vary the rhythms, articulation and phrasing, add a little swing, etc. Be creative.
Remember, these are transitory exercises, once onto the next step, you’ll probably never play these again (maybe except to demonstrate to your own students), so don’t dwell on, or over play, these.


11–18–06: Correct a few errors in the notation of the exercises.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

the score, the authority of

By the way, some weeks ago I saw the damnedest thing. One of the best things I'd witnessed in a while, and one of the worst… on the same bill. The second act was so baaaaaaad that MLM and I just packed up and left after barely three minutes. I mean, it was lame, lame, lame… lame.
Well, okay, we've all been spectators to lousy performances, so why am I writing about this one? It brought out something interesting in the audience’s reactions, illustrating something about our desires and expectations of music and performance in a way significant to those of us who practice improvisation and not-one-hundred-per-cent-idiomatic performance practice, and, in particular, those of us who sometimes perform for skeptical, unversed, and/or hostile audiences.
During the first act (the one that MLM and I thought rocked), the audience in general was unruly, loud, boisterous. Actually, I didn’t mind too much (I’ve played clubs with worse), but for MLM (who is more familiar with concert audiences) it was a major distraction. But, like I said, I really did not mind the audience’s general unruliness. However, here’s the deal, come the second act…


Well, actually the silence followed several “shhhh” noises (from, as far as we could tell, some of the the same loudmouthed individuals from the first half), which in turn followed on from comments such as “this bodes well: They have a bass player.”
So what triggered this self-imposed, self-policed reverent silence? What cued these individuals—who were more than happy to mumble, talk, laugh and shuffle ’round during the previous act?

I think they were responding to the music stands.

Both acts, IMHO, displayed a certain lack of presentation skills and theatrical know-how. The second act was certainly not more ‘professional’ or ‘serious’ (for starters the guitar player spent the whole of the setup time noodling away with the amp turned up)…

…but, hey, they at least were (apparently) ready to read from parts.

I’m not about to do a ranting piece of ‘the state of culture in our society.’ I don’t believe that this audience was stupid. I might be persuaded that they’re not fully conscious of what they were doing and why, probably unaware of the implication of their actions and behavior, but I don’t believe they were acting out of ignorance per se. Our little cultural economies put enormous value on texts, scores, parts and notation, and put enormous value on traditions and practices that employ these texts, scores, parts and notation (however much that may be a pantomime act). The audience that night were responding to this. They knew the second act had greater worth.
They weren’t dumb, they just weren’t thinking.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

from the road: novel social structur(e|ing)s

Not quite a road story, but….

It’s in novel situations that you often find out what your dogmas, habits and prejudices are; when playing somewhere you’d never been before, with players you’d never played with, or for an audience you didn’t already know. The place in question was, looking this up, less than a hundred kilometers away from the nearest town than I have some experience of, but the socio-musical interactions were as unfamiliar as any I’d encountered recently.
There I was, playing (improvising, in fact), and I note that, musically, there was a little more literal interaction—verbatim imitation—between musicians than I’ve been accustomed to, and I was aware that there was much less distinction between, let’s say, foreground and background voices than what I expected. Admittedly, the former—this less ambiguous interaction—may have been the result of having a couple of horn players (single reeds in particular) who were familiar with each other’s sounds, and two players are hardly representative of the whole scene, but the latter—the lack of foregrounds and backgrounds—says as much, I think, about my own assumptions and expectations as it does about the place I was in.
And, looking back, I notice how much of a surprise this was, that I was there, fumbling around trying to understand why certain things—things that should have been ‘sure-fire’ tactics—fell flat, while certain things, apparently without effort, floated right through the mixture.
It’s probably the (semi-literate) aural diffusion and transmission of improvised musics that results in this strong, localized, regional character. The distance that separates the familiar and the unfamiliar in this case, those ninety-odd kilometers, is not an unimaginable commute in our mass-transit condition, but, for traditions heavily dependent on practice and by-example coaching, it is quite a leap. Somethings transmit across those distances with little problem—the raw sound of the music, for instance—other things are more likely to stay put. Playing that evening, for example, I could hear a little bit of Evan Parker in BC’s playing, but I was still bewildered by the local musical customs and protocols of interaction.
Like I say, it’s always interesting and instructive to find out exactly what your prejudices and lazy dogmas are.

A little side note: It was very nice of be.jazz to include improvising guitar on the jazz and blogs list. Cheers.

Monday, November 06, 2006

what’s in a name: non-idiomatic vs. pan-idiomatic

I’ll write about this in more detail in the future, but I’d just like to briefly explore the terms ‘non-idiomatic improvisation’ and the more recent ‘pan-idiomatic improvisation.’
The term non-idiomatic is, at least to me, more strongly connected with improvised musics from West Europe, particularly England (and I don’t mean the U.K.). It’s a term that I link to a certain generation of players that seem to self-consciously engage with a take on experimentalism and improvisation (the same group that might also use the term ‘free improvisation’). One player associated with that term is, for instance, Derek Bailey. It strikes me that to claim freedom from idiom, and, perhaps, by consequence, also from culture and tradition, was a particularly post-War, post-colonialist, European desire: A dream to purge yourself of history, maybe, or a dream to rid yourself of colonial complicity. Now, to say that you are free of idiom, is that analogous to saying that you are, for example, colorblind? That this is a desire to erase your identity because of what it stands for—what it stood for?
If the desire for the ‘non-idiomatic’ is akin to the desire for color or gender blindness—to not see the cues of oppression—and has its ideological roots in multiculturalism, then the ‘pan-idiomatic’ has its ideology rooted in diversity and difference. It’s no particular secret that, say, Eugene Chadbourne’s playing is explicitly idiomatic, or that John Zorn’s music is a snap shot of his record collection, that their music is, to some extent, a celebration of personal and social histories rather than the denial of it. And though this term—‘pan idiomatic’—may be relatively novel, the ideas embedded in it can also be found in the rhetoric and work of, for instance, members of the AACM. It seem to me that when Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith talks about ‘creative contemporary world music,’ he’s aware of difference and diversity and is very much embracing personal and social histories.

Anyway, I may not get a chance to post another entry for a few days, but when I get back, you never know, maybe I’ll throw in a few road stories… ;-)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

structur(e|ing): towards a music(ology) of verbs

I’ve briefly touched on the subject of ‘structure’ (October 11th and October 3rd). In regard to structure imposed from outside, as I said in limits and boundaries: wikiality that

I don’t believe that this particular understanding of ‘structure’ is helpful to the practice of improvisation. Nor do I have much affinity with the desire for this ‘structure.’
We tend to see structure and form as things—as objects.

Head to your library and look up musical structure or form and you are likely to come away with ideas of a framework around which the musical ‘surface detail’ somehow sits (although why it should generally be that way around, I’ve never understood). ‘Surface detail’ is noise to be filtered out by the analyst out to excavate the essential; never mind that the details might contain, in the terms of the vernacular, an iconic lick, the hook, swing or shuffle. It’s appropriate that traditional analysis, stemming from West European orthodoxy, should gravitate towards glorifying the inanimate musical skeleton, rather than tendons and muscle, seeing everything else as extraneous fat. This is, after all, a reductive tradition of scholarship and pedagogy with a hegemonic commitment. A tradition that is suspicious of the body, of real-time movement, and of the possibility of creation taking place during performance or reception. Structure and form, in this context, can only be teleological, it cannot exist either retroactively or in real-time. Traditional analysis sees objects; it has difficulty seeing processes.
John Law describes this difficulty. Here’s my paraphrase:
Perhaps it is obvious that the musical is a process? Perhaps it is something that we knew already? It sounds obvious, but I’m not certain about this, for large parts of musicology have found it difficult to handle processes. Perhaps this is a symptom of the desire to cleave to the purity of order and avoid the uncertainties of ordering. For one way of putting the point is to note that musicologists, like many others, tend to prefer to deal in nouns rather than verbs. They slip into assuming that musical structure is an object, like the scaffolding round a building, that will stay in place once it has been erected.
my paraphrase of Law, 1994, p. 14.
John Law was in fact talking about the social. Substitute ‘social’ for ‘musical,’ ‘sociology’ for ‘musicology,’ and ‘sociologists’ for ‘musicologists,’ and you’ve reconstructed the original text. (He is also defining sociologist broadly to encompass all of us who have a stake in how society functions (or not) and, here, I use musicologist in a similarly broad manner. We are, in a sense, all musicologists.)
Let me return to this idea of group improvisation as society in miniature. Traditional macro-sociology tends to see a top-down, ideology or system driven society. But is this the best way of accounting for social forces? Can we, for example, hold on to this top-down, monolithic ideological drive as being responsible for the recent anti-war demonstrations in which disparate groups including white bourgeois liberals, radical socialists, disenfranchised black activists, left-wing jewish pacifists, secular feminists and conservative muslim groups temporarily and uneasily made an alliance?
Similarly, traditional musicology tends to see a top-down, composition-centered structure. But is this the best description of the musical? Do the assumptions underlying this view point hold up to scrutiny? Are interpreters neutral? Is performance transparent? Are audiences passive? Is the composer the creator? Is structure pre-ordained? Can we hold on to this top-down, monolithic composerly process as being responsible for collective music making practices such as group improvisation (or the relationship between instrumentalist and instrument)?
Leaving aside, for the moment, whether this form of analysis—looking for the essential structure (object) in a piece of music (another object)—produces valid results, what are the political implications of it? If structure is unified, monolithic, has a single source—the composer or the score—and is located in the discorporate, non-real-time ‘music itself’ (Cusick, 1999, pp. 480–482, 491–496)—then difference and dissent can only express itself as noise (that should be filtered out by the analyst). Or, more likely, the other way around: West European orthodoxy assumes that dynamic, heterogeneous, interactive social networks cannot be structured, and thus concludes, I believe erroneously, that the only kind of structure must be unified, fixed, consistent and uni-directional.

We tend to see structure and form as things—as objects. But there’s another way to understand these words. Instead of seeing them as nouns, we can think of these as verbs; we can think of structuring and forming.

Thinking about structure as something we do has implications for the idea of group improvisation as society in miniature. Society (and structure) is, as Bruno Latour argues, “not what holds us together, but what is held together” (Latour, 1986, p. 276). There are some interesting possibilities in thinking about difference, dissent and resistance in this model (as well as some worrying libertarian implications).
Thinking about this bottom-up impulse in improvisation, this performative structure, it’s interesting to revisit the quote I started this blog with: “…Avoid the reflex of trying to make it into somthing you think it ought to be, rather than letting it become what it can be” (Frost and Yarrow, 1990, p. 3).

There are racial, colonial, and gender dimensions to the orthodox West European approach to analysis, but that will have to wait for another post….

I may be shot down in flames for this, but… I sometimes wonder if the difference between composerly and performerly notions of structure are analogous to, say, how Creationists and Darwinists view biological organisms and ecosystems. The former observes the commonality and diversity, simplicity and complexity, and sees design, and concludes, well, yes, of course there is a Creator. The latter observes the same commonality and diversity, simplicity and complexity, and finds the results of natural selection. The former posits a top-down, engineered world crammed full of authorial intent, while the latter assumes a bottom-up, performative world teeming with emergence.


Cusick, Suzanne (1999), ‘Gender, Musicology, and Feminism’ in Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist (eds) Rethinking Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Frost, Anthony, and Ralph Yarrow (1990), Improvisation in Drama (London: MacMillan).
Law, John (1994), Organizing Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell).
Latour, Bruno (1986), ‘The Power of associations’ in John Law (ed) Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge? (London: Routledge).


11–13–06: Patch in Cusick (1999) reference.
11–30–06: Correct editing errors from the last update.
02–05–07: Correct a reference.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

art or entertainment? possibilities of dissent

I have, for various reasons, rejected the labels art and artist. Ask me what I do, and beyond the more specific monikers of guitarist, musician, improviser and performer, I’m likely to respond that I’m an entertainer: What I do is entertainment. Well, for the last ten years or so, that’s been the story, but recently I’ve begun to look under the hood of these terms. I’ve again begun to question if these particular terms—entertainer, entertainment—also come with unacceptable cultural, political baggage.
The label of ‘art’ signifies many of the problems of… well, the art world, and the ‘New Music’ world in particular. Stuck-up, cloistered, reclusive and exclusive, ‘New Music’ is a subculture with a rapidly diminishing audience outside its own ivory towers. ‘Artist,’ in this context, stands for those who are unable or, more worryingly, unwilling to engage with audiences. Certainly, while in academia, I found it useful to symbolically (if not materially) reject these trappings by embracing the role of entertainer, the task of entertainment.
But that was years ago. Although I don’t believe ‘New Music’ has changed much, I can’t assume that the political situation in general remains the same. Whilst I remain skeptical as to whether the term ‘art’ can be resuscitated, I’ve become troubled by the implications and connotations of the alternative label I have been using. I worry that when print and broadcast news aspires to spectacle and diversion, that by claiming entertainment as purpose, I am sidling up to CNN and News Corp. Is dissent and resistance possible from the position, at least lexically, shared with Murdoch and Berlusconi’s grand smokescreens? I wonder if the recent voices of protest from Hollywood cannot change the political landscape because they are hampered by the ‘entertainment’ label. I wonder if Michael Moore is too easily dismissed as a clown?
Yet, on the other hand, I know the transformative, political power that clowns can have. That clowns can tell (create) truths, and though they may never topple rulers, they can shakeup the status quo. And I cannot help wondering about the rhetorical power of figures such as The Coup (who, in fairness, probably call themselves artist), Bill Hicks, Paul Verhoeven or Frank Zappa (who situated himself in the entertainment industry). All entertainers extraordinaire, yet, in their own ways, powerful political voices of dissent and resistance.

Friday, November 03, 2006

playing in position pt. 2: physiological compromises

Because “everyone’s bodies are different, and guitars vary in shape and size,” I’ve expressed skepticism that playing in position was a “more efficient or comfortable playing technique.” Let me elaborate on that (not at all straightforward) relationship between position playing and physical comfort here. Also, keep the following discussion in mind for when we return to looking at natural harmonics.

My usual disclaimer. Specifically:

I have no knowledge of your physiology, your particular instrument, or your posture. Please, please, please, note that the following may not be applicable to your situation, and, at best, should be adapted to fit your your needs. Be careful and listen to your body: If it hurts, or it’s uncomfortable, stop and review.
However, in very general terms, in approaching this material, your whole fingerboard-side arm should have mobility. If your elbow cannot swing around comfortably, you’re probably not doing this right. A common mistake is to make these fingerboard shapes while attempting to keep your forearm frozen, resulting in having to twist and contort your hand/fingers.

The orthodox shape of the fingerboard hand at rest is colloquially described as ‘finger-per-fret.’ The shape corresponds roughly to that of a hand holding a pencil.pencil in hand(Incidentally, note that the thumb is not opposite the first finger. Contrary to some accounts of how the guitar’s neck should be held, you may find it is uncomfortable if the thumb directly opposite the first finger.)
That should be reasonably comfortable, but unlike a pencil, the guitar strings are not as freely rotated or positionThe orientation and location of the fingerboard hand will depend on multiple factors. Even at best, the result is to some extent a compromise: Trading off the comfort of your fingerboard hand and arm against your picking hand/arm, your back, legs, etc. Before you go and radically rethink your posture, it’ll be instructive to think what might be the most comfortable fingerboard shape.relaxed and diagonal shapesIn practice, the most comfortable position for the fingerboard hand will likely resemble something like the shape above, left. Or, clearing-up and abstracting a general shape, something like the above, right. This is a diagonal fretting pattern that, from first to fourth finger, moves bass to treble across the strings, and bass to treble up the frets.
Even if you’ve never explicitly encountered this oblique fingerboard pattern, it lies at the root of both the ‘chord’ (perpendicular to the strings) and ‘finger-per-fret’ (in-line with the strings) shapes.perpendicular and in-line positionsThe shape that is perpendicular to the strings (above, left) is under theorized, but will be familiar if you think about the fingering of chords. (The algorithm for finding the fingering pattern for chords is, from first to fourth finger, (a) move bass to treble up the frets unless you need to stop two or more string on a given fret, in which case (b) bass to treble across the strings. Does this resemble anything we’ve already covered?)
If we consider the diagonal fingerboard shape as the rest position, we can consider these others as extremities. From the diagonal shape, we can rotate the fingerboard arm about the first finger to achieve, in one direction, the in-line shape, and, in the other, the perpendicular shape.
If we understand these as the extremities, we can also understand why the reversed diagonal shape (below), for example, is, depending on your posture, difficult (please do not over do this one):reverse diagonal shapeOkay, why all this information? Understanding what shapes are more comfortable and what is less, helps us understand why certain patters are easier to play than others. Specifically, when we return to natural harmonics, when we start discussing clusters, or two handed touch/tapping, we’ll come back to these ideas. In effect, becoming aware of the physiological-physical interface and its pressures and compromises, we are taking our first baby steps towards becoming consciously engaged in the cyborg relationship between humyn (guitarist) and artifact (guitar).


11–19–06: Fix orientation of the images (they were accidentally mirrored).

Thursday, November 02, 2006

learn something from your students

I learn from my students all the time, of course, but every once in a while they come up with something that you’ve never thought of, or, as happened this week, they come up with something you, for whatever reason, never tried before. Funny thing is, I'd dogmatically (in a lazy fashion) assumed, without realizing that I had, that the student proposed socio-musical scheme would not work. (So I learned about my prejudices, too.)
Would you know it? The scheme worked beautifully….

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

why improvise? the leap off the edge

I started this whole blog out by asking why we might practice improvisation (and again on October 7th). In addition to the social dimensions of improvisation, in both posts, I mentioned the idea of improvisation as a leap off the edge into the unknown…. Here’s the Steve Lacy quote that I was thinking of at the time (the quote also touches on strategies for getting to the ‘edge’):

I’m attracted to improvisation because of something I value. That is a freshness, a certain quality which can only be obtained by improvisation, something you cannot possibly get from writing. It is something to do with the leap. And when you go out there you have all your years of preparation and all your sensibilities and your prepared means but it is a leap into the unknown. If through that leap you find something then it has a value which I don’t think can be found in any other way. I place higher value on that than on what you can prepare. But I am also hooked into what you can prepare, especially in the way that it can take you to the edge. What I write is to take you to the edge safely so that you can go on out there and find this other stuff. But really it is this other stuff that interests me and I think it forms the basic stuff of jazz.
Steve Lacy quoted in Bailey, 1992, pp. 57–58.
I suppose some might see this as an affirmation of the notion of leadership. Well, they probably have a point, but I read this statement as a celebration of change, contrast and diversity, and an invitation to differ, dissent and contradict.


Bailey, Derek (1992), Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (London: British Library National Sound Archive).