Once a week I put on the hat of journalist and begin what, for me, is the painstaking process of focusing my thoughts on something long enough to be considered a topic and then writing a few paragraphs on it. Fortunately, I submit the manuscripts of my labor to the virtual hands of a team of veritable authorities on the subjects I write about. I say fortunately because, left to my own devices, punctuation, spelling, and rhetoric become the inventory of a china shop that I run through with bovine grace. I’m actually twice-blessed because when errors about historical record enter my monographic treatises, Team NewMusicBox gives them their sorely-needed reality check and delivers me from the jaws of debunkery. With that said, I now confess that I feel sorry for the composer who was left out to dry by The Huffington Post when trashing the legacy of John Cage earlier this month. While I will not deny Daniel Asia’s, or anyone else’s, dislike of Cage’s, or anyone else’s, music—provided, of course, that the opinion is based on a piece-by-piece assessment and not on a blanket one (if one hasn’t listened to a piece of music, one shouldn’t pass judgment on it), I admit that I agree with Isaac Schankler and Dan Joseph’s condemnation of Asia’s article, but for a different reason.
When I read Asia’s description of “harmony, and thus counterpoint,” as “central to Western music for over a thousand years,” I found myself almost as angry at Huffington’s editorial staff as I was at the New York Times when they let an Andrew Solomon interview of Keith Jarrett include comments by Wynton Marsalis, whom Jarrett had disparaged in the interview. Although I cannot say with any authority exactly when harmony became the distinctive property of Western art music, I’m pretty sure that harmony as we know it wasn’t practiced in 1013. Zarlino and Palestrina notwithstanding, harmony as an independent field of study didn’t occur until the 1600s, with Rameau writing the first treatise dedicated exclusively to the subject in 1722. Pushing the practice of harmony—and “thus” counterpoint—to the time of free organum is like pushing the practice of jazz back into the 19th century, when the word probably didn’t exist. Besides, if the idea of harmony as a way of establishing a tonal hierarchy is being invoked, then counterpoint, the practice of creating simultaneously voiced independent voices, should probably not be.
This is all a preamble for a discussion of a topic that was suggested by a few readers of last week’s post; that writing a part for a performance that is largely improvised is not out of line with the idea or the practice of improvisation. I’ve pointed out several times that Louis Armstrong copyrighted his entire part to “Cornet Chop Suey” years before he recorded the piece. Similarly, the practice of transcribing and even memorizing solos from recordings of the masters is a necessary part of learning to play jazz. So when I was confronted with putting together an hour-and-a-half long accompaniment to a one-person theater piece last week, I knew that I would have to not only learn to play the sketches that the previous bassist had supplied to the play’s author, but that I would have to be able to reference the entire recorded performance to make artistically viable choices. I admit that while I’m not a great memorizer (although I can do so if the situation demands it), I’m pretty good at taking musical dictation. (I haven’t developed perfect pitch, so it goes slowly.) I took the script that the author sent to me and inserted a transcription of the accompaniment into it. I then took out any long stretches of text that weren’t accompanied and used that result as a score to reference for my improvisations. The excerpt below covers about fifteen minutes of the performance. Music notated on traditional staves shows a starting-off point (six measures followed by “(etc.)”) and five motivic elements that are introduced as the improvisation leads to the final major-10th diad. The number “30” in brackets is the page number from the original script that didn’t get deleted. (The entire script is 36 pages without the musical cues inserted.)
Because I was expected to improvise my part, I was able to take liberties with the original score. I could develop what I considered motives and themes, as long as it didn’t interfere with the flow of the action; something that was discussed in rehearsals. In a way, the music for Looking for Louie is a continual work-in-progress. Each time it’s performed, new material is introduced and some old material is discarded. When (or if) I perform it again, I know I’ll change much of what was done. Some of this change is programmed into the score; I have no expectation of repeating verbatim what was improvised during the “Dirge.” Some I might re-notate (and, thus, “recompose”) with more, or less, specific instructions. Indeed, some of what was played while I was reading from the part shown above had little to do with what was on the page. My sole guidance for future performances will be the reaction from my collaborator.
This type of collaboration is pretty common in jazz performance. Musicians will get together to rehearse for a concert, gig, whatever, and work things out. Sometimes “things” can be pretty specific and the pencils, and sometimes music paper, come out to write down what the performers need to know to do what they need to do. What is interesting is that the lines between what would be considered “jazz” and what would be considered “aleatoric” improvisation are becoming increasingly blurred. When I performed earlier this month at ABC No Rio with Ingrid Laubrock, David Taylor, and Jay Rosen, I knew that everyone was familiar with free-improvisation, improvising over chord changes, and improvising inside generic frameworks. As a result, I used a combination of notated music that was to be played as correctly as possible and written directions. Another approach that crossover jazz/avant-gardists deploy is using graphic notation with symbols that might or might not be legended for interpretation in performance. This might, or might not, be accepted as real jazz playing, but it’s important to remember that the musicians who played the music that was originally called “jazz” rejected the term, sometimes vehemently. Max Roach, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong all went on record as wishing the term wasn’t used for their music and artists like Nicholas Payton are calling for their music to be re-labeled as Black American Music. I find myself leaning more towards using “jazz” to describe the huge amount of music created by improvising musicians—especially, but not limited to, American improvising musicians—who negotiate chord changes, even when there are none to negotiate, and trans-genre groove-oriented musical styles. The artists who started creating music this way were bringing a new way of listening to the Great American Culture Machine’s consumer class, a class that was largely bored to tears with what the GACM had been offering. The trap that needs to be avoided is the one where the same performance is repeated over and over again.