Sunday, April 29, 2007

bailey & lewis

No particular reason to post this other than it’s a pleasure to see two of my models (would it be presumptuous to say elders?)—one in regards to the instrument, the other in regards to tactics and strategies—captured together on video…

…although I can think of few improvisers who differ so much ideologically and politically.

Friday, April 27, 2007

comments and responses

Just got back from outta town (a trip that, as always, was a learning experience) and I find the comments have been pretty active…. Thanks to all for the feedback, and apologies for not responding sooner.

On ‘training (the) quartet pt 2: network topologies’ both Devin Hurd and Daniel Melnick address the question of whether the results of these exercises are ever ‘musical’. Devin points out that ‘pre-determined intent’ can ‘open up a range of composed improvisations/interactions’ (a line of reasoning that, perhaps, informs the composer-improviser practices of, say, the AACM). The effort required to make these exercises musical, I think, makes it training for the stage; for when you may be called upon to make-the-best of a less-than-optimal situation. A tactic that might be applicable to all improvisations, and maybe to all performances (perhaps to life in general).
Dan makes many of the same observations, but adds a note of caution that treating these exercises “as a systemic ideal” can lead to problems. I think this has to do with the purpose of engineering such ‘constraints’. The hazards that Dan sketches out are very real: it’s all too easy to turn such strategies into a “Demonstrations of Limits”.
Yet, on the other hand, responding to ‘practicing: the journey (and the destination)’ Herr Adorno (mediated by sjz) makes a cameo appearance to apparently plead for a more ‘abstract’ or ‘free-floating’ sense of ‘musicality’ (of material and approach).

Not sure, however, what to make of the statement of skepticism (other than to say, well, try it and see for yourself)….

Anyway, thanks again for your thoughts, and thanks for reading.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

training (the) quartet pt 2: network topologies

Before we delve into (re)engineering the protocol, let’s have a look at some simple combinations and topologies. We’ve already been introduced to the clockwise arrangement, so it’s a relatively trivial matter to come up with variants.alternative network topologies(Incidentally, there are 6 possible ‘closed-loop’ networks in which all members of the quartet are sharing affinity with one other and none are orphaned.)
Now, recalling the subgroup formations of a quartet(re)grouping a quartet…we can now begin to implement these.implementing subgroupsIn your experiments, you are likely to come across further possibilities; take each possibility and see where it leads you. (A simple variant is to individually select your source of affinity without sharing this information with the group.)

some (unanswered) questions:

Same question as last time: can interaction ever be so simple?
No… but why not?

Do we ever use these schemes in ‘real-world’ performance?
Yes… no… well, maybe. My guess is probably not, but why the exercises? How might they be useful? What might they be articulating?

Are the results of these exercises ‘musical’?
Possibly not, or at least not without a lot of work. Given that these schemes do not lead effortlessly to musical ends, and given that we’ll probably never use these schemes on stage, why might this training be of use?
And never mind if the results ever approach ‘music’, does it ever make sense—are they culturally decipherable?

How do we start?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

practicing: the journey (and the destination)

Is practicing (as in ‘exercising’, ‘training’ or ‘preparing’) improvisation a peculiar concept?

It’s a topic that fascinates me. What do you practice? That question elicits a spectrum of answers from improvisers. Take a couple of drummers: as far as CC’s concerned improvisation has no place in practicing. Rudiments and exercises, sure, but improvising? no. On the other hand, EK only practices by improvisation (no rudiments for EK).
My practicing is a little closer to CC’s (although I probably admire EK’s more). My current practicing ‘regimen’ is arranged as a four-day cycle. A lot of it, actually all of it, consists of exercises to followup on technically curious (there really isn’t particularly good terminology for this) gestures and structurings. By ‘curious’ I mean that there seem to be possibilities even if the gestures and structurings are, at the moment, musically incomprehensible. Additionally, these exercises evolve not through some grand plan, but by adding kinks and extra complications.

sjz, via a (mis)reading of Adorno, asks if “musicians who play repertoire” and those who do not, share the same musicality? Perhaps, in regards to practicing, the two musicalities are very different.
Here’s the deal: if I were a repertoire based musician, I would have some kind of known outcome—a destination, a goal—in mind as I practice and as I design exercises; but as a musician that has, at best, a very irregular relationship with repertoire, the possibilities, implications, or outcomes of practicing are never clearly evident. I’m not so much going on a hunch (which would at least imply that I had some vague notion about a goal), but mostly just interested in the journey itself. The journey ends when these gestures and structurings become musically comprehensible (at which point it’s time to abandon it or add another complication or two).

As far as uncertainties in this line of work goes (and I have no sympathy for those who glamorize the financial precariousness of a musician’s life), this one can be exciting and productive. Most of the time this journey (and the destination) was worthwhile…

…and that’s good enough for me.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

great fools’ minds differ alike, seldom think

There must’ve been something in the air. Check out the following:

Or…Almost like I’ve discovered my doppelgänger from a parallel plane… ;-)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

playing in position pt. 10a: spanning a third

Remember these?descending major scale patternthree corresponding hand shapesWe first encountered these in ‘playing in position parts 7a’ and ‘7b’. It was in the latter article that I said that “the three patterns that we marked A, B and C (and the corresponding hand shapes) recur. There’s nothing particularly magical about this, it’s simply a side effect of how a major mode is constructed…”. Well, there isn’t anything magical about the patterns and shapes, but they do not come about purely by chance. As we cross the fingerboard, we’ll be encountering more and more of these recurring patterns, so to understand them, let’s have another look at the fingerboard hand.

Question: what is the distance between the first and fourth fingers?
Answer: three or four frets.

In other words, the fingerboard hand spans either a minor third (= 3 frets = 3 semitones) or a major third (= 4 frets = 4 semitones). Imprint this in your mind-body: the distance between the first and fourth finger is, in the case of the ‘finger-per-fret’ shape, a minor third or, in the case of the ‘extended’ shape, major third.
Keep this in mind, and many recurring patterns you’ll encounter on the fingerboard will make better sense. We’ll continue this in part 10b.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

technological dramas pt. 0: piano mobility

I came across this story (via Sequenza21/, via The Overgrown Path) of an accident while moving a Bösendorfer (‘Viennese Culture of Sound since 1828’) grand upturned 9 foot grand pianoMLM and I could not help wondering if dropping a 9 foot grand sounds like those Tex Avery cartoons. The Guardian report, tantalizingly, seems to suggest that it does:

As its [the piano’s] wooden casing splintered, it gave a death rattle described by Ms Adie [artistic director of the Two Moors Festival] as “a deafening noise like 10 honky-tonk pianos being hit by mallets”. Her husband John, the festival’s manager, said: “It made an incredible racket—like something from a cartoon.”
You don’t get images that are this overdetermined—overloaded with meaning—very often; simultaneously tragic and comic. For all its mundaneness, it’s nevertheless a fascinating story ( flags up 49 articles).
What’s happening here? The tragedy seems self-evident, the comedy is obvious, but how are the two operating together? What makes this so much more fascinating than any other dropping-a-heavy-piece-of-hardware accident? Why is it so goddamn (guiltily) funny?
And why does Tex Avery drop pianos, not pipe organs?

Perhaps no other musical instrument encapsulates the middle-class dreams as does the pianoforte. I certainly cannot think of another instrument that acts so clearly as a carrier of the desire for socio-economic mobility.
This story really has a little bit of everything: (neo-bohemian?) cultural aspiration (a startup music festival), redemption and rebirth (a regional economic initiative in response to an agricultural crisis), not at all straight forward class issues (does anyone outside rural Britain understand these dynamics?), the distant glamour of aristocracy (The Countess of Wessex), individual/familial heroism (Mr. and Mrs. Festival Organizers), Buster Keaton-esque buffoonery bordering on farce (G&R Removals: ‘the longest established piano carriers in the UK’), and a cautionary tale of cost-cutting (the instrument was not fully insured).

Incidentally, in the various articles, the Bösendorfer (‘Viennese Culture of Sound since 1828’) is alternately compared to a Stradivarius or a Rolls-Royce (‘Design without compromise’). I’ll return to these particular tropes later….

According to Bryan Pfaffenberger, technological artifacts, such as the piano, are “discusively regulated by surrounding it with symbolic media that mystify and therefore constitute… political aims” (Pfaffenberger, 1992, p. 294). If mythologies are being performed in, via, through or by the piano, let’s see if we can catch some of these semiotic fingerprints in action: let’s do a little name and marketing line survey.
  • Bösendorfer: ‘Viennese Culture of Sound since 1828’
  • Steinway & Sons: ‘For over 150 years, Steinway has made the world’s finest pianos—and inspired the artists who make them sing’
  • Yamaha: ‘Over 100 Years of Tradition and Innovation’
  • C. Bechstein: ‘C. Bechstein gives a voice to great musicians’
What is being sold here is not just the artifact; these companies are in the business of selling dreams and aspirations: they each have a brand of myth and narrative. I’m intrigued, in particular, by Steinway’s and Yamaha’s stories.Steinway bannerTake a little trip to Steinway & Sons. At the bottom of the page is a banner.the steinway collectionClick through the banner, and, via a linking page, you can get to The Steinway Collection (‘The Name Says It All’):
For over 150 years, Steinway & Sons has been dedicated to the ideal of making the finest pianos in the world. Handcrafting each Steinway requires up to one full year—creating an instrument of rare quality and global renown. Not surprisingly, Steinway remains the choice of 9 out of 10 concert artists, and countless pianists, composers, and performers around the world—a name synonymous with the highest standards.
It is in this spirit and tradition that we proudly present The Steinway Collection—Classic Casual Sportswear, available in a vibrant melody of styles and colors—and a select assortment of famous Golf Accessories. Whether you are a Steinway piano owner, professional artist, student, or enthused listener, we recommend that you experience The Steinway Collections.
The Name Says It All.
Corporate myth making doesn’t come much clearer (and less imaginative (although it hits 190 on the surrealometer)) than that.
However, who is the target for this corporate myth making? Do you believe that the Rolls-Royce (‘Design without compromise’) owning classes will purchase the $45.00 Executive Putter Set? or are these Steinway branded balls for those who aspire to be chauffeur-driven?

To be continued…


Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1992), ‘Technological Dramas’, Science, Technology, & Human Values (vol. 17, no. 3, Summer).

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

the art of persuasion

There I am, at the far end of the venue, listening to members of the class performing. It’s (more-or-less) a public performance, and the group is a little nervous—a little on edge. They’ve also been pushing themselves a little hard; everything’s a little longer, a little bit more complex. They’re sometimes loosing concentration; momentarily, but I can hear it, and I think they can too.
Inexplicably, four of the five performers drop out, leaving EC in solitude.
The quartet executed a textbook ending; except, well, it was a quintet on stage—one got left behind. You know how it goes: the texture—the density, the noise level, the information concentration—goes from 100% to 20% in a blink of an eye. If you’re left behind, you can feel vulnerable; if you’ve stopped, you feel like you’ve goofed up. (The key to this is that you cannot be left behind, nor can you have goofed up, but that’s a story of another post.)
I’m there willing EC to go on—go on—do a solo! I’m willing the rest (in rest) to resist the temptation to jump back in. Show some backbone. Come on, people, I think, I’ll give you As all ’round if you pull this off.
Unfortunately they don’t. The four join back in, and not even abruptly, but gently—tentatively. I’m left unconvinced (as I guess is the rest of the audience). It takes nerve; nerves that this group is a little too exhausted and nervous to call upon.
I realize, then, that so much of teaching improvisation is akin to teaching rhetoric—the art of persuasion.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

listening with our bodies…?

A little while ago Chris Chatham at Developing Intelligence listed ‘10 Important Differences Between Brains and Computers’. I hope Chatham will not mind me quoting item 10 in full:

Brains have bodies
This is not as trivial as it might seem: it turns out that the brain takes surprising advantage of the fact that it has a body at its disposal. For example, despite your intuitive feeling that you could close your eyes and know the locations of objects around you, a series of experiments in the field of change blindness has shown that our visual memories are actually quite sparse. In this case, the brain is “offloading” its memory requirements to the environment in which it exists: why bother remembering the location of objects when a quick glance will suffice? A surprising set of experiments by Jeremy Wolfe has shown that even after being asked hundreds of times which simple geometrical shapes are displayed on a computer screen, human subjects continue to answer those questions by gaze rather than rote memory. A wide variety of evidence from other domains suggests that we are only beginning to understand the importance of embodiment in information processing.
This strikes me as potentially relevant to the business of theorizing an embodied, or corporeal, listening….

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

solo: primary territories

Given that my lexicon is so pared down, what do I do—what can I do—with, or within, it? I could atomize theses elements further, but I prefer to see these as regions in which I have a certain amount of mobility. Here again is where the language metaphor breaks down: to borrow (admittedly out of context) a term from Anthony Braxton, these three elements—harmonics, clusters, and ‘touch’ playing—are primary territories.
I can get a certain amount of movement within each territory. Natural harmonics can be, for example, melodic or rhythmic, concerned with intervalic color or timbre.


Clusters and ‘displaced’ clusters (pseudo-clusters which I’ll explore in more detail in future posts) can be approached, say, pianistically (à la Tippett), or more guitaristically (à la Frith).


Circular-breathing wind players (e.g. Parker, Mitchell) get incredible creative milage from constructing illusions of polyphony and lines that are impossibly long. And while, I admit, it’s strange to bring these tactics to bear on a polyphonic instrument that doesn’t need to breathe, two-hand ‘touch’ playing nonetheless gets me within, maybe, commuting distance of this neighborhood.
In addition, since, without radical techniques that are alien to me, I’ll never be able to deploy clusters to approach the complexity, density or noise-level (I’m not talking about loudness, you understand) of pianists like Taylor or Crispell, a variant of ‘touch’ playing is maybe as close as I can get.


But none of this gets me very far, certainly on stage. Time to perhaps renegotiate boundaries….

[BTW, the audio recordings were made quickly, so apologies for the quality (or lack there of).]


04-05-07: Use the XSPF Flash Player. Please let me know of any problems.