Tuesday, February 27, 2007

solo: my humble lexicon

Having critiqued the music as language metaphor, I’m now about to talk about lexicons.
Let’s be clear here: by lexicon I don’t necessarily mean a kind of musical building-block—the atoms by which a performance/piece is constructed—although, interestingly enough, atomizing tends to be the first step in creating a lexicon (but that’s a discussion for another time…). I find lexicons—vocabularies, palettes or classifications of gestures, relationships, tactics or sounds—are useful not so much for generating material, but as a “temporary acknowledgment of one boundary [that] allows for [the] renegotiations of others” (Devin Hurd made a similar comment in regards to two-note scales).
My vocabulary has changed significantly over the years, and substantially over the last four years or so during which I began to seriously explore the solo context. And although there’s a kind of (irrational) logic to my vocabulary, much of the choices are arbitrary and ad-hoc—it’s what I can practice and train practically.
My vocabulary is also, for lack of better expression, non-formally multi-dimensional (but more on that in the future). However, in its bare-bones, ‘flat’ form, in the solo guitar context, I have only three elements that make up my improvisative vocabulary: open strings plus natural harmonics; chromatic and ‘displaced’ clusters; and two-hand ‘touch’ playing. Never mind Anthony Braxton’s hundred or so ‘sound classifications’ (Braxton, 1988, pp. v–x), ‘impoverished’ does not begin to describe my lexicon (it’s a small part of why ‘lexicon’ is entirely the wrong word for it).
I’ll take closer looks at these elements from various angles in future articles; discussing some of the (irrational) logic behind it, and exploring some of the implications of it.


Braxton, Anthony (1988), Composition Notes, Book A (distributed by Hanover, NH: Frog Peak Music).

Sunday, February 25, 2007

sexuality ≈ the improvisative?

It’s been a little while since the last paraphrase, but here’s a potentially provocative one:

First, the improvisative can be understood as a drive, an impulse or form of propulsion, directing a subject toward an object. …Second, the improvisative can also be understood in terms of an act, a series of practices and behaviors involving bodies, organs, and pleasures…. Third, the improvisative can also be understood in terms of an identity. …And fourth, the improvisative commonly refers to a set of orientations, positions, and desires which implies that there are particular ways in which the desires, differences, and bodies of subjects can seek their pleasure.
As a concept, the improvisative is incapable of ready containment: it refuses to stay within its predesignated regions, for it seeps across boundaries into areas that are apparently not its own. As drive, it infests all sorts of other areas in the structures of desire. …As a set of activities and practices, it refuses to accept the containment [of place and context]…. It is excessive, redundant, and superfluous in its languid and fervent overachieving. It always seeks more than it needs, performs excessive actions, and can draw any objects… any number of subjects… into its circuits of pleasure.
paraphrase of Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. viii.
Replace ‘the improvisative’ with ‘sexuality’, and you’re back to the original text.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

the closed laptop pt. 0: a cautionary tale of performance practice

I’m taking a little detour from the bread and butter subject matters of this blog, and having a look at laptop computers in the context of live, and, in particular, improvised, performance.

Before I start, as my position is partial, and by no stretch of the imagination ‘objective’, let me sketch out a few background details. I’m a guitar player—an improviser. Nine times out of ten, that’s my identity (function, assignment, designation) on stage. On the other hand, I have worked around, from, and within, the loosely defined field that enrolls laptops for live, music performance. I’ve intersected with these practices long enough to witness various monikers and prefixes—‘plunderphonics’, ‘EAI’, ‘new media’—come onto the scene, and others—‘live’, ‘real-time’, ‘interactive’, ‘new media’—fall out of favor. I’ve performed several times with laptopiteers. I’ve even sat behind a laptop on stage a few times, although not recently (and if you think I have an axe to grind, maybe it’s in my self-conscious abandonment of that last position).
However, I feel alienated from performances with laptops on stage despite (or maybe because of) my background—my prior experience, my prior contact, with these practices.

There’s two issues I will be hovering around in my discussions (I’ve already posted a version of these, and they originally started in discussions with AF):

  1. The laptop interface encourages a narcissistic attitude.
  2. Significant fraction of laptop performers are interested in computer science issues at the expense of issues of culture, tradition, stage presence, or the body and the corporeal.
Okay, let me unpack these a bit….
  1. That clam-shell interface was designed to create a virtual, private office space in, say, a semi-public airplane seat. That's not an inescapable or inevitable position, but very few laptopiteers are either aware of this, nor are they actively deconstructing it. Which is related to point B.
  2. Okay, this is a caricature: you cannot neatly separate the technical, on the one hand, from these other issues. This dualism, however, underpins much of laptopping. And, although I'm very much interested in the technological, to simply transpose that into performance space (the concert hall, the club) leaves a lot to be desired.
Combining, A and B, I find, as an audience member or performer, the whole experience problematic. I don’t believe laptopping to be a unique case, but I think it is an example that starkly demonstrates the problems of performance practice and audience engagement. As a cautionary tale of technological music practice, it's interesting and instructive.

To be continued…

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

some observations i brought home

Things I’ve learned from, observed during, and affirmed by, my recent excursion:

  • Your best performances are not necessarily when you feel most confident, positive or focussed.
  • Nor are they necessarily when you feel most relaxed or comfortable.
  • If there’s one person in the audience, that’s the most important person at that moment.
  • Improvisation gives you enormous scope to interact with the audience.
  • Maybe all interactions between audience and performer are improvisative.
  • Maybe all interactions are improvisative.
  • It’s a difficult skill to accept praise gracefully.
  • Electro-acoustic improvisation is performed by, on the whole, young-ish, white men.
  • Laptops are the instruments of the socially inept.
  • The quality of an electro-acoustic improvisation is inversely proportional to the number of laptops visible on stage.
  • The rhetoric that supports much of live computer music remarkably resembles that of post-Reaganite, free-market capitalism (e.g. ‘choice and freedom’).
  • A significant fraction of experimental musicians (“we’re artists, dammit”) refuse to take into account, or learn from (the mistakes of), the vernacular (“we’re avant-garde, dammit”).
Right now I’m just glad to be home, but I’m sure I’ll return to look at some of these issues in depth….

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

music ⊄ language?

Talking about music as language isn’t something I’ve heard much since my college days, so it came as a little jolt, albeit not an unpleasant one, when I came across ‘The Semanitcs of Music’ at Musical Perceptions. I left a question there which asked:

…Why are we consistently looking for links between language and music?
Exactly when did we start to theorize music as a subclass of language, and under what circumstance? Why is this hypothetical relationship so much more compelling and durable than others (e.g. in comparison to a hypothetical link between dance and architecture)?
I don’t think I’m the only musician who’s come to believe this ‘is-a’ relationship is not particularly helpful, or, some quirky scholarship aside, illuminating.
I have no idea how, or when, the link between language and music was initially postulated. Some musicians have managed to get significant mileage out of this postulated link, but I have, on the whole, found it less than advantageous.
As an exercise, let’s take some of the minimum requirements of language and see how music shapes up. Does music have syntax? Well, yes, sorta, except apparently having no discernible syntactical structure does not stop you from ‘understanding’ something as music. How about a lexicon? Well, er, under certain circumstances it might. Semantics? Hmm… Hard to say, maybe only when you find something analogous to a lexicon, and the lexicon seems to have some sort of associated… er….
Conclusion: music is sorta, kinda, maybe, almost, sometimes language.frame from Bill Griffith’s Zippy 12-19-06Perhaps the confusion is to do with the ‘is a’ relationship. Thus, if I were to make a link between music and language, I might be tempted to formulate it the other way around: Music is not language, but language is a very limited and specialized form of music. (Or, taking a leaf out of the cladists’ book, I might say that music and language share a common ancestor.) Whatever the criteria that could conceivably bound music, whatever common denominator that could possibly define the multiplicity of musical acts, language can easily be accommodated within it. Really, compared with the range, diversity and variety of music across cultures, language is, by comparison, oddly homogeneous.

Anyway, I’m off-blog for a few days, but, you never know, I may bring back some wondrous (or not) traveler’s tales when I get back….

Monday, February 12, 2007

training (the) quartet pt. 1: protocol of mirroring

Having specified the quartet formation, let me introduce the protocol in the context of this ensemble: mirroring. Well, I’ll be calling this thing ‘mirroring’, but when one is mirroring another, it can, for example, mean any of the following:

sharing affinity with
creating similitude
corresponding with
correlating with
This is the elemental behavior within these exercises. When one improviser mirrors another, the improviser modifies their behavior to correlate in some way to the behavior of the other. Mirroring may be implemented as imitation or impersonation, behavioral or stylistic equivalence, etc. Don't get too dogmatic about this, improvisers will find various (creative) ways to implement this idea.
A simple arrangement of the quartet is in a circle in which each improviser mirrors the behavior of the improviser on one side (behavioral information is passed in the opposite direction).message-passing in a quartetThis sounds simple, and it is, but we’ll be developing and twisting this idea as the training continues.

some (unanswered) questions:

Does the concept of mirroring hold up to scrutiny?
Given that improvisative interaction may encompass juxtapositions, contrasts and contradictions, how can we engineer, or justify, such simple affinity? Mirroring is somewhat an arbitrary protocol, but I find it easier that others to explain and implement. I’m, however, very interested in hearing of alternatives.

Is the dualism embedded in this protocol (similar OR different) culturally restrictive?
Yes, it is, and this will come to haunt any ensemble, particularly those composed of inexperienced improvisers. Does anyone have any solutions?

Can interaction, under any circumstance, really be thought of as unidirectional?
Of course not….

Friday, February 09, 2007

mob behavior and the hegemonic impulse

I remember, vividly, my first encounter with the mob. Afterwards I was an angry, upset and, most of all, confused (novice) improviser. Licking my wounds, I was attempting to piece together what exactly happened; trying to figure out exactly why I was angry.

…People who use anarchy of collective improvisation will interpret that [‘freedom’] to mean ‘Now I can kill you’…. …Any transformational understanding of so-called freedom would imply that you would be free to find those disciplines that suit you, free to understand your own value systems; but not that you would just freak out because ‘the teacher’s not there’.
Anthony Braxton quoted in Lock (1988), p. 240.
Let’s get a few things out of the way. By the mob, I don’t mean noise. Noise is that super-saturated, information rich, contradictory musical experience—really, I can’t get enough of it. Nor do I necessarily mean ‘playing as fast as you can, as loud as you can’—another standard complaint against improvised musics. Velocity and power are things that… well, that’s a story for another time.
No, what I mean by the mob is, to put it ineloquently, the moosh. You want the evil mirror image of contrasts and juxtapositions? Well, there it is: We are all the same, we are marching lock-step, we never ask why, and if someone does, we won’t hear them and we’ll make sure that they can’t be heard.
Mob behavior, in improvised contexts, is a strange thing. Sometimes I think that it shouldn’t exist at all, other times I’m surprised that it appears so infrequently. It’s as if the twin, seemingly incompatible, rhetorical ideals of improvisation (at least among many ‘part-time’ improvisers)—of individualism and collectivism—collude together to construct the mob.
So, do we want to be leaders, or do we want to be sheep? Maybe these are not as distinct as may appear. Maybe to be seduced by the notion of leadership is to become unquestioning followers.
You’re either with us, or against us….
George W. Bush, November 6th 2001.
What happened that evening of my first encounter with the mob? Those that could blast out, did; those that could not, had their voices taken away.
So I’m watching, for example, a couple of brass players who were, by day, straight laced orchestral types, now ‘free’ from the discipline of the idiom (score?), ‘free’ from the command of the ‘teacher’ (conductor?), were doing their best to drown out others whose instruments were not as capable of such volume. The irony being that I couldn’t make out what they were playing either.
After that bruising and disorientating experience had finished, an excited percussionist came up to the instigator of the event. Many mutual congratulations were exchanged. The percussionist talked about the symbolism of the group playing with one voice, and drowning out—indicating my little amp—the symbol of power. (I was too angry to say this at the time, but, oh, man, you couldn’t hear me ’cause I wasn’t playing. And anyway, you know I had the volume of my amp at the one quarter mark—I could have drowned out every single one of you easily: as easy as turning a dial, as easy as pushing a button—boom.)
All this was for a ‘consciousness raising event’ to stand against, I kid you not, the mob in Bosnia. How’s that for irony?
How many sins have been committed in the name of political purity?
…How often have we heard that Communism, or Socialism, or free-market economics, or cost-benefit analysis, or monetarism, would bring the good life (for those who remained) if only they were systematically imposed and all the deviant elements were rooted out?
Law (1994), p. 6.
We’ve been trained not to like difference or contradictions, or at best to keep it safely bound and fenced off. We may desire to be the same (we want coherence). We may desire societies composed of the like, rather than the different, because we believe that a heterogeneous society is no society at all. If we start believing that, we might just start to act like the mob. We’ll become sheep or (mythical) lemmings because we cannot, or will not, take responsibility for our actions. But that’s a subject for another time….

some (unanswered) questions:

How does Taylor do it?
Is it just me, or does Cecil Taylor’s larger scale performances fly close to mob behavior? How does he manage to navigate clear of it? Or does he? Is it that there is such a charismatic figure in the middle of it that prevents it swinging out into that moosh?

What can you do in the middle of that mob?
In subsequent encounters with the mob, my solution was to walk off stage. That never seemed to me to be an entirely satisfactory solution. It always felt dishonorable….

Does the lack of an explicit idiom act as a catalyst towards mob behavior?
Just informally, I’ve encountered this mob in the form of orchestral players and/or neo-boppers (exceptions in both cases of course) more often than others. Is it that they, more than others, feel that, when the safety-net of the score or idiom is taken away, the ‘teacher’ is out? Alternatively, does this become a collective therapy session to let loose and (primally) scream? Is it then unfair of me to say that this becomes ‘freedom’ for people who take freedom for granted?


Law, John (1994), Organizing Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell).
Lock, Graham (1988), Forces In Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music (London: Quartet).

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

huh? did i read that right?

If you get beyond the corporate-speak, this is surprisingly radical (for a corporate ramble that is).

Sunday, February 04, 2007

playing in position pt. 8b: one string melodies (yet again)

In part 8a, we looked at playing our melody with variable hand shapes in a diatonic context. Despite the variable shapes—‘finger-per-fret’ or ‘extended’—depending on the underlying intervals, those exercises were not much different in principle from our previous work.
Now, for this part 8b, let’s try something different. Same melody (from Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso), same idea (shifting position for each tone), but in this case, we’ll be sounding the fret under the middle fingers (i.e. fingers 2 or 3).melody played with second or third fingerAs in previous examples, I’ve indicated, in each case, the position of the first finger with the (lower) diamond notehead. However, in this case, I’ve additionally indicated the notional position of the fourth finger with the (upper) diamond notehead. By ‘notional position’ I mean that, were all the fingers of a given position be placed on the strings, this would be the position of the fourth finger. Simply put, by notating the positions of the first and fourth fingers, I am notating whether the ‘finger-per-fret’ or ‘extended’ shape is applicable to a given situation.
You may get this one straight away, you may not—this is certainly one of the trickier exercises we’ll be covering—either way, take your time and make sure that you continue to keep in mind that in position playing the guitar player gets their bearing from their first finger. However, in this case, not only should you be thinking of the position of the first finger, you should also keep in mind the (notional) position of the fourth finger.
If you’re having difficulty with this, try variants like the following:ornamented with a 4-1-2 or 4-1-3 fingering sequenceA little like the second example in ‘playing in position pt. 5: one string melodies (again)’, the above should aurally remind you of the positions of the first and fourth fingers in relation to the melody tone.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

an application of the principles of canon formation II

This is nowhere near the same league as the other case, but I have to admit to some ambivalence to the Behearer project.
Okay, I’ve been sitting on this for a few days, wondering if I should post this: I am not here to diss Behearer, or discourage the project, or preach from on high. I’m mostly just trying to examine my own responses—some of it irrational, some of it, perhaps, not. If I frankly interrogate my own reaction, I’m not sure I can honestly say that there isn’t more than a little exclusivity about my reaction. I hope not, but it’s possible. I certainly hope it’s not sadness about leaving the cultural ghetto.
Nevertheless, there is something else that worries me about this: that we are not only creating a canon, but very much following the established models of canonization. We love these musics, these practices, these practitioners. We love and value them for, among other things, their iconoclasm, for their resistance to the norms of dominant culture and ideology; but are we now doing exactly the opposite? Are we now adhering to, giving into, dominant culture and ideology? It’s right that this (semi-fictional) transnational tribe of musicians should leave this cultural ghetto, that we should be seeking escape from marginalization, but I worry about the public face that is being constructed.

So I was reading John Fordham’s blog entry about Behearer (I got to the article via ‘samiland is my land’ on be.jazz so thanks to Mwanji Ezana):

"Multiplicity" is the key word, and it may help explain why the 70s was such a black hole for informed jazz commentary about all the fascinating stuff that was really going on. Taking their lead from the American free-jazz movement… jazz musicians around the world realised they could make their own music, with their own local materials, without necessarily having to copy the licks….
Well, fine, but….
…I, and a growing band of like-minded writer-fans…came in.
‘Like-minded’? Hey, wait, what happened to ‘multiplicity’?
…The story finally begins to take its proper place in the cultural history of the late 20th century.
What would a story’s proper (rightful?) place in history be? And by whose reckoning? And by what process of judgment? Perhaps (at this time and place) the entries in the canon are not conventional, but is this not the rhetoric of the (conventional) construction process of a (conventional) canon? Does anyone else smell a hegemonic impulse?
Not for the first time, Dave Douglas has made a big difference.
Uh-oh. Did Fordham just reduce the work of the many to the one? Do we really want to be in this synecdochic business in which the whole is boiled down to the most easily identified appendage?

We need a context, we need a history, and we can’t always trust others to write it for us—we desire self-definition—but if the practitioners and practices of these musics were as diverse as we are making out (and I think they were), I worry that any historiography (no matter how well intentioned, how well researched) will not capture that diversity: canonization has, in other cases, led to an ever diminishing number of ‘greats,’ not the celebration of a community. …but I’ve got no answers, and I have no solutions.