It can be difficult to write about what we do as improvisers. Perhaps it’s easier to explain it through a series of questions we’ve been asking, ourselves:
What is composition?
What is chamber music? Is it repertoire, or rather an approach to creative collaboration?
What is musical time? Is it linear? Cyclical?
What is jazz when you remove its canonized instrumentation and approach?
What are the essentials in the musical language we like to present?
What are the styles and ideas that motivate us? Abstract art? Schumann lieder? Eliot Carter?
How do we evoke these ideas without mimicry?
What do you call this music? Is it chamber music; is it jazz? Is it Mahler? Is it free improvisation?
It’s everything we love.
Does Music Matter?
Around age 14, I decided wanted to be a professional musician. My mother warned me it wasn’t a stable path. To some extent, Mom, you were right. (There. I said it.) Since I graduated from Juilliard in 1992, the music profession has suffered debilitating changes.
These days, we blame two familiar culprits – technology, and the economy – but to me, it’s really the same old story: telling us that music belongs at the margins. That music doesn’t really matter, at least not as much as the stock market does.
I teach entrepreneurship classes at Mannes, and in these classes we challenge this story. I argue that we need new language to talk about what music is and what music does in the world.
In the introduction to Gulag: A History, historian Anne Appelbaum observes a brisk tourist trade in Soviet paraphernalia springing up on Prague's Charles River Bridge in the immediate wake of the collapse of the Soviet monolith. Western tourists who would be sickened by the thought of wearing a swastika snapped up pins, hats and T-shirt emblazoned with the hammer and sickle. "It was a minor observation", she writes, "but sometimes it is through just such minor observations that a cultural mood is best observed. For here, the lesson could not have been clearer: while the symbol of one mass murder fills us with horror, the symbol of another mass murder makes us laugh."
Apropos of class discussions at Mannes and NEC this past week, here's a clip of actor Kevin Spacey giving advice to a younger actor on Inside the Actors Studio in 2000:
"There is no prize out there. The only prize is this one [points to self], and what you feel, and what you want to accomplish... I mean, to want and to be ambitious, and to want to be successful is not enough. That's just desire. To know what you want; to understand why you're doing it; to dedicate every breath in your body, to achieve... If you feel you have something to give, if you feel your particular talent is worth developing, is worth caring for, then there's nothing you can't achieve. You're going to grow up with your colleagues. You're going to watch them have success and watch them have failure, and you're going to watch how they deal with it. And they can be as much a teacher for you as anyone here, or anyone who's privileged enough to come here and speak to you."
Thanks for an enjoyable and productive session Tuesday morning. This email is to remind you that you have a little assignment for next week's rehearsal: to make a sketch of an idea for a composition.
A few reminders:
- A sketch is just that --- some marks on paper that outline an idea. It is the seed of a composition; the start of a process.
- An idea can come from anywhere. It can be anything. It does not have to first be musical notes.
- Don't over-think this. Whatever you write will always and necessarily be only the outline of the music you will eventually make. It might help to think of there as being an elastic tension between the text (what is written) and the music (which will be sounded when we rehearse, develop and perform the music).
- Don't judge your ideas just as they're being born. Treat them with kindness and curiosity.
OK, that's the short version of this message. For more information, I invite you to read on…
My program notes for upcoming performances with Huw Warren, Mat Maneri and Peter Herbert, in which retrospection solves the problem of what to write about a program of improvised music.
This project was born out of my frequent collaborations with Huw Warren at the Summer School of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Huw was a friendly presence my first year, a decade or so ago. Idon’t remember how it was that we came to perform together at the tutors’ concert, but I think I might have angled for it.
Years before that, while I was still an undergraduate at Juilliard, in the heydey of ‘alternative’ music, I had toured with an acoustic trio called the blackgirls. In the long hours driving between Midwestern college towns, we listened to music. We’d all fallen in love with 'Some Other Time', a 1989 recording of jazz standards by the great English folksinger June Tabor. Huw, Tabor’s longtime collaborator, played on that record, and I recognized his name from the liner notes that I’d unfolded and folded into the cassette case many times.
Five years ago today, on January 23 2009, I was hit by a car while riding my bicycle. I was lucky. In the instant when impact seemed inevitable, I turned the front wheel of my bicycle some crucial fraction, and I survived with nothing more complicated than a fractured pelvis. Still, my injuries changed the scale by which I measured physical fitness. Fitness became getting out of bed, then walking with crutches, then walking with a cane, then hopping and squatting, then gradually forgetting that anything had ever happened.
The students and faculty of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music arrived in New York this week. After performing to sold-out houses at Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall, they’ll cap off their tour with a three-day residency at the New England Conservatory in Boston.
ANIM opened in June 2010 with a mission to rebuild Afghanistan's shattered musical culture. The school offers music and general education to some 150 students, many of them orphans and child workers. Significantly, a third of the students are girls.
For the past three years, NEC and ANIM have been joined through a growing network of interpersonal relationships. NEC alumni Robin Ryczek and Derek Beckvold have taught as full-time faculty at ANIM, and eight visits to Kabul by five NEC faculty, students and alumni have created a kind of dynamic, person-to-person diplomacy.
November and December passed quickly and with some difficulty in my part of the world. When Hurricane Sandy visited New York my neighborhood, Red Hook, was among those badly hit. Although the storm passed swiftly through the news cycle, many of my neighbors are still living in its aftermath. So it was with special pleasure that we observed the passing of 2012 earlier this month.
The storm was a tear in the fabric of everyday life. I spent the first week on the ground floor of my friends’ house, salvaging books and belongings from the destruction of six feet of sewage and seawater. During that time the features of ordinary life became precious. Each salvaged book was a world of ideas; a good dry glove, a treasure; a table of food with friends around it, a universe.