Music is not just something created by musicians; someone must perceive it in order for it to be. While this fact is obvious to most (… will someone say, “Well, DUH!”), an entire culture of music making is dedicated to rendering this into a shortcoming to be overcome by attempting to reify music as notation. While this practice is not limited to (and actually predates) Western civilization, the forms of notation most widely used to direct musicians about what to sing or play are modeled on its five-line stave and assortment of iconic shapes, esoteric terms, and abstruse abbreviations. That most improvising musicians can read standard Western music notation isn’t any great news, yet many music fans perceive a dichotomy between reading music and improvising it.
Of course, this is a fallacy. Playing music interpreted from even the most detail-oriented notation includes elements of improvisation (especially when sight reading). So improvisation is ubiquitous; it always comes down to a matter of degree. But we live in a world where things are most easily explained or taught in relation to binaries, such as: good/bad, high/low, left/right, or right/wrong. This either/or paradigm of acceptance and intellectual digestion profoundly shapes how the performers’ actual reification of music is perceived by their audience (which represents a binary). The comparison of pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Glenn Gould is one of the most classic examples of this. Richter’s stoic performance style is the near antithesis of Gould’s flamboyant mannerisms at the instrument. Gould retired from the stage for the last half of his career, performing almost exclusively in recording studios, while Richter recorded mostly in live performance. Richter championed the music of Schubert while Gould felt that its non-contrapuntal aspects weren’t part of serious music making. Gould played mostly from memory while Richter, who supposedly had a photographic memory, often read from the score in performance. Though both are among the most iconic musicians of the 20th century, there are those who insist that one was better than the other. While some of both camps’ detractors (and supporters) cite issues gleaned from the purely audible aspects of their performances as the sole criterion for these judgments, others point to what they perceived when watching them perform: Richter’s stoic style seems “uninvolved,” Gould’s mannerisms “detract” from the music.
This binary-based approach to music critiquing (which is part of what we do when we listen) influences how artists approach and present their music. One of the persistent myths about early jazz is that it was mostly group improvisation. This was reinforced by the fact that many, if not most, early jazz artists memorized their programs and didn’t need to read onstage. This allowed for another myth: that jazz musicians were unschooled and had a “genius” for music that could only be explained by a cultural heritage based on racial identity. The image of musicians playing from memory is powerful to a Eurocentric audience’s infatuation with literacy and the pre-jazz concertgoer was used to seeing musicians reading “serious” music. Musicians who didn’t read at these concerts were the soloists, “geniuses” who were playing concertos of the masters while the orchestra read the accompaniment. Closer to the truth might be that jazz musicians were trained differently than non-jazz musicians—whatever that means for musicians who were playing this music that wasn’t yet called “jazz.” For example, the difference between the enharmonic intervals of a dominant seventh and an augmented sixth didn’t get drummed into the jazz caste, so the traditional rules of their voice leading were effectively combined. This approach is now a part of American music. While this seems subtle on its face, the effect on melodic and harmonic development is clear even to the untrained ear.
Of course, almost anybody can memorize things, especially music. It’s like the ABCs and, for most, fun to do. I’ve taught music in middle school programs and have been surprised at the hefty repertoires of popular music that 12- to 16- year olds commit to memory. To boot, they knew when I made a mistake in my part and could, with very little prompting, sing the harmonies and/or antiphonal back-ups of their material. (We are definitely hard-wired for music and should take better advantage of it in our educational institutions.) But it’s still considered a sign of extra-special talent when jazz musicians play from memory. Maybe this is because the craft of reading music forces one to engage memory to different purposes when performing. When I read music, I concentrate on remembering fingerings, clef assignments, default key signatures and the like and, because I don’t have to remember the melody that I’m playing, I’m flexible; I’m guided by whatever notes and indications are on the paper in front of me. When I play from memory, I’m more rigid and tend to play the same things that I believe belong in an idealized performance.
This is something that I didn’t realize by myself. I first heard it described by guitarist-composer-philosopher Omar Tamez when I was playing at the festival he curates in Monterrey, Mexico. I had been researching jam-session culture at the time and we were talking about our experiences playing at them. He brought up an experience he had where he went to sit in at one (in New York, I think) and wanted to have the sheet music for a blues that was going to be played. He said that the person calling the tune thought it was ridiculous that Omar should need the sheet music for a blues, but Omar insisted on having it. When I asked him why (I usually don’t bother with sheet music at jam sessions, unless I’ve never heard the tune and don’t think I can learn its chord progression in one or two passes), he explained that when he reads from the page, he’s constantly seeing new ways to approach the tune, rather than relying on what he’s already taught himself about it. I imagine Richter, playing a Schubert sonata for the hundredth time, letting the page show his eye a fresh or deeper understanding of the music that he memorized long before the third time he performed it. I wonder, is that insight something that a member of the audience who was familiar with the 99th performance might have been able to perceive?
Omar’s music is designed to send its players into a very open improvising space. Even when he writes music over a repeating formal template (like the 32-measure AABA song structure), he prefers that everyone is willing to abandon it if the performance is better served. When the structure is abandoned, which happens often, the challenge becomes how to craft a group improvisation that “remembers” the tune. It’s very different from the standard approach where the form reigns supreme and the challenge is for the composer to write something distinctive that transcends the improvisations. I’ll be performing with Sarah Jane Cion’s trio tomorrow at the PAC House Theater in New Rochelle. Sarah is a pianist whose formidable technique has led her to write music that does just that. In this case, the challenge is to make one’s voice compatible with the vision that the composer (who is also the performer) has been able to transmit to paper.
I’ll be playing with Omar tonight in pianist Angelica Sanchez’s quartet at IBeam in Brooklyn with Satoshi Takeishi on drums. Omar’s performance style is much like Gould’s; highly animated with nearly every musical gesture articulated by an obvious physical one. Sanchez offers the antithesis: a performance that uses little motion other than what is needed to play the piano, no matter how virtuosic she gets, and her compositions are similar to Tamez’s in terms of open-endedness. Satoshi’s performance style is somewhere in between Tamez and Sanchez’s, but I’m absolutely unqualified to discuss my approach. We all played together at Konceptions at Korzo on Tuesday and we’ll be playing a lot of the same music that we did then. Although nearly everything that we’ll play in tonight’s performance will be improvised, I’m still going to try to see if I notice how the printed page influences it.