Monday, September 17, 2007

improvising coherence

Just read a review: I’m apparently less “coherent” than the next musician. Should I be insulted? After all, I’m not the biggest fan of coherence.
…Or at least the pursuit there of, for, in a sense, there might be no such thing as coherence. And that’s the thing—there’re discourses, and there’re discourses—if the terms ‘coherence’ and ‘incoherence’ don’t describe reality (whatever, and wherever, that might be), but construct a dichotomy (present / not-present; have / have-not; coherence / lack-of-coherence) through which we make value judgments, then, back to my first question: should I be insulted?

And is coherence something that you can hear?

Friday, September 14, 2007

the worst gigs of my life

Having put a downer on that event, maybe it’s only fair if I recount (confess) my least enjoyable and endearing moments. A set of snap-shots into the life of a musician / performer / improviser, I humbly present to you, in chronological order, the worst gigs of my life.

attack of youthful, humorless megalomania

AMC and I have been roped into a segment of a larger event by B.
Let me describe B as ambitious and far-sighted… but B is also overreaching and a perfectionist; a problematic combination that means hardly anything gets finished. In fact, I never heard any of B’s finished projects / pieces / compositions, only the proposals and pitches.
On this occasion, B had proposed a grand, bells’n’wistles composition / piece, but (surprise) it didn’t get finished in time. So B decides to rope in some improvisers so we can, like, jam, man.
AMC and I manage to persuade B out of the B’s original plan—one 30 minute improvisation—and propose several shorter improvisations.
No rehearsal.
Soundcheck takes far too long. I feel we’re pissing-off the sound engineers; not good, I think, not good at all.
The performance is a disaster. Humorless, shapeless, disaster.
AMC—even AMC—cannot inject any humor or lightness into the proceedings.

I fear that even our friends in the audience are ready to pretend they don’t know us.

I’m ready to pretend I don’t know us.

Recorded for posterity, I play this recording to myself (although I can very rarely sit through all of it) whenever I feel like reminding myself of my own mortality. (Maybe I’ll play this to my students.)

the stink

We’ve been invited by K to this ‘guitar and computer’ showcase (high-concept: let’s, like, get some guitarists paired up with laptopiteers, and, like, they can all jam, man).
I arrive at the venue with MK, the laptopiteer I’d been working with, and two friends. The venue is a dive. I speak as someone who loves dusty venues with an interesting vibe, colorful clientele, and a good PA system, but this place—let’s call it The Stink—has no vibe, no clientele, shit PA (and, I swear, a crack-head sound-engineer). It’s the end of summer, and The Stink has no ventilation—it’s hot and dusty in there—no windows, very little lighting, no bar. I just hope that the wiring in this place is good (I subsequently acquire a habit of carrying a power outlet tester, and wiring my gear with RCDs).
Nightmare. This is not why I became a musician.
There’s a guitarist plus computer-operator pair (I recognize them as K’s friends) who have decided to start their warm-up by doing a whole performance there on the floor. Noodling away. It ain’t pretty: it all looks (and sounds) very amateurish.

I go up to K. “Where do you want us to setup?”
K doesn’t make eye contact. “Oh, I don’t know.”
“Are you in charge?”
“I think we should wait for [the Big Stars] to show up….”
“Well, if you know where they’re going to setup, we’ll just stay outta the way—setup elsewhere.”
“Yeah?” K looks distracted, looks away. (Looking back on it now, I wonder if K was stoned.) “But we should check.”
Check with who? I think we’re running late here.
I propose a tiered setup—last act near the back of the stage, first act at the front—that way as the evening proceeds, we can just hop out of the way of the next act. K thinks that’s reasonable, but, in a moment of anxiety, adds, “but we should check with [the Big Stars].”
The big Big Stars are nowhere to be seen!
We’re scheduled to start within an hour. I try to make eye contact: “Are you in charge?”
“We should wait.”
“Okay,” I turn away, “you’re not in charge.”

MK and I setup on what appears to be the stage. If we need to move later, we can move later.
Because K’s prevarications, we start a whole hour late. The Big Stars, being Big Stars, of course do not turn up until their start time and K has delayed the setup and soundcheck until then.
I didn’t sign up for this: this is not why I became a musician.
The two noodlers who were warming-up for an hour, dutifully open the ceremonies by doing exactly what they’d been doing for the last hour for an audience that had been (unbelievably) patiently waiting, having heard it the first time around (thankfully, they only play for twenty minutes).

I cannot believe how patient and forgiving the audience was on that night.

At the end, as we exit The Stink, we get paid cash—pocket money—pennies. Deduct transport, deduct the meal before hand….
On the journey back home, I loose it, and scream that we’d been fucked, and that the audience had been screwed and taken for a ride. This is not why I became a musician.

Thankfully, there is no record of this event. (Although, prior to the actual event, it got listed as, if I remember correctly, the Jazz Event of the Week in the local free tabloid. Hahaha.)

free labor

New place, new people. Not getting paid, but the new place might offer future possibilities. (I’m being the optimist; you’d think I’d learned by now.)
I turn up. Nice venue (an art gallery), and the curator’s very friendly (although the initial phone call had rubbed me the wrong way: “Yes, I must have your music”).
Set-up is smooth—I get carte blanche on how and where. Meet the artists (I’m playing for an opening). Interesting people; we banter without doing too much of the odious networking stuff.

Then the moment It Turns.

The curator calls to me. “You know about computers, don’t you?”
“Er…um, well….”
“Well, let me show you….” The curator invites me to the office. “I need to lay this out in a nice way.” There’s some page layout that needs to fixed for the evening's festivities. “You know how to do this…?”
“Well, uh… maybe… um,” I can’t quite believe what I’m hearing. “Are you going to pay me for this?” I remind the curator that I’m not being paid for the performance, that the performance is already a Big Favor.
The curator is pissed.
“I’ll show you,” I add, “talk you through what to do, but… but I’m not going to do this; I won’t do this unless you pay me.” I still can’t quite believe what’s happening.
Bad feelings all ’round for the rest of the evening, but I still don’t understand why the curator was pissed.

On the other hand, I think my anger was justified.

No more freebies (I wish I could say that with a little more conviction).

Thursday, September 13, 2007

thoughts from another concert

This one is a bit of a contrast to last time.


Er… where is everyone?

Uh-oh. I hope this isn’t going to be one of those gigs that starts an hour late because the ‘star’ is not here yet.

Great. It is going to be one of those gigs that starts an hour late.

Correction: it’s going to be one of those gigs that starts an hour and a half late.

Audience demographics: about 50/50 male-to-female, fairly broad age range (again, not many below their twenties, however), predominantly white.


What the hell? Is that the best you can do?
Maybe it’ll get better.

Points out of ten:
enthusiasm: 9
skill: 3
awareness of improvising traditions: 1…

…That last one might have to be downgraded to 0.5.

…Maybe zero.

That was lame.

This is lame.

I’m reminded of my college days when, punch drunk on (re)discovering ’6os/70s Miles, a bunch of us tried to recreate the vibe of In a Silent Way. That was, in retrospect, lame, lame, lame (not to mention silly, silly, silly). I had though, until now, that the only reasons you’d do this was because you’re young and stupid and/or high on psychotropics. This night’s lesson: apparently I was wrong on both counts.
…And, anyway, that vamp-on-one-chord really doesn’t work without the formidable ego—a Miles—at the center.

Don’t show-off. Please, don’t try and show-off. You’re not fooling anyone except yourself (at best).
I can be a big a fan of muscular, machismo virtuosity as the next person, but if you’re going to do a mindless physical workout, why do you have to handicap yourself with changes (and we’re not talking Coltrane changes here)?
…And, if you had Miles—the ego—there, there would be no point in showing-off (in fact, you’d probably get fired for showing-off).

And why is everything in four?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

upside down zawinul

No, I’m not going to do an obituary here, but (via Night After Night)…

Here’s footage of ‘Black Market’ in which you can clearly see Zawinul’s keyboard with the reverse pitch-mapping. I’d heard that the piece, and that twisty, meandering, unusual melody, had been devised/written on an upside down keyboard, but I hadn’t realized that it was also performed that way (although, a little disappointingly, Zawinul reverts to the right-way-around for his solo). A pretty interesting example of a deliberate physical de-familiarization, and maybe an unusual instance of a body-conscious, technologically mediated gesture decoupling.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

warmup: comments and responses

Now that all that paperwork is done (at least for the moment), I can get back to this much neglected blog. (I haven’t posted anything here in about three weeks!) Thanks to those still reading this despite the sporadic posts.

…And thanks for all the comments (which I’ve also successfully, and with admirable consistency, failed to respond to).

In answer to my question about warming-up, David Ryshpan responds by listing some musical (“a major scale… that you go through different subdivisions of the beat”), borderline-musical (“first few exercises of Hanon”), and some extra-musical (“stretches I learned when I used to play tennis”) activities.
Another pianist Alex Hawkins picks up on the mention of Hanon, but finds that “the patterns [are] too ‘conventional’… they beguile… into complacency…”.

Incidentally, way back, when I did play the piano, my choice of warmup came from Brahms’ 51 Studies for Piano. Some combination of the position shifting exercise:

Brahms exercise no. 5.

and changing hand shape:

Brahms exercise no. 8.

There’s also the thumb pivot exercise, but this would be a riskier warmup since it could lead to injury if you over did it (it’s number 46, if you’re curious).
The position shifting exercise maps onto the guitar reasonably well. It corresponds to the one string melodies I’ve posted here—Jim Hall makes a similar suggestion in Exploring Jazz Guitar—or some upright bass intonation exercises that can be adapted to the guitar. There’s no real equivalent to the second exercise though (unless you subscribe to a Holdsworth-esque extended position). What’s interesting comparing the Hanon and the Brahms is that the Hanon is a little more mechanical—there’s an assumption that just physically following the tasks will lead to virtuosity—while the Brahms exercises won’t work unless you know what is being exercised.

…My teacher CL, however, swore by the Hanon. Go figure.

David’s reason for warming-up is

…not for any technical or musical reasons—it’s purely physical, to get the muscles primed, to avoid injury, and to get used to the instrument.
Seems reasonable, but does anyone disagree? A question might be, do the technical, musical and physical fall into neat discrete chunks? Let’s just say for the moment that they do not. If that’s the case, and warming-up is a combination of all three, what’s the difference between a warmup and a (public) performance? I mean, I’m assuming that none of us would warmup in front of an audience.
Well, as it happens, Alex finds that, “as a working musician”, he gets “from gigs all [he] would otherwise get from Hanon (i.e. a bit of a muscle workout).” This isn’t as strange as it maybe sounds, and I have on occasion integrated the warmup into the opening of my performances. (On the other hand, Peter Breslin, yet another pianist, notes the possible consequences of this no warmup approach.)

Pat, being a horn player, has a totally different take on the warmup process. There’s a part of me that envies wind players (and vocalists) in their approach to warming-up, but it’s an approach that doesn’t translate to a guitar or piano—we just don’t breathe in the same way.
That raises questions about the ‘character’ of instruments and the effect on the instrumentalist. Jeff (I assume this was Jeff Albert) remarks that
…extravagant and extrovert come out of a trombone much more naturally than subtle and introspective. That's does however open the issue of do we chose it because we are the way we are, or does it makes us the way we are….
Yes, it does raise that question, but maybe the answer lies in Jeff’s first sentence. What if I reworded it a little: the trombone rewards extravagant and extrovert playing. What I mean by that is that the electric guitar, for example, generally rewards (despite rock machismo theatrics) the delicate touch, maybe even “subtle and introspective”. There’s a kind of rule of diminishing rewards with electric guitars: playing with, say, broader gestures (e.g. picking harder) doesn’t necessarily translate sound-wise—something that guitar pedagogy sometimes neglects. As I’ve said before it’s often better to, turn up the amp, and pick lighter.
Which is not to say that instruments don’t come with culturally encoded expectations. Take, for example, the various possible identities encapsulated in the pianoforte. The instrument associated with Keithy-poo Jarrett’s tantrums, and consequently the debates about whether to read it cultural-semiotically as an enactment of class differences, or as a consequence of the ideology of genius.

It’s good to be back.