Memory and Conversation in Music

As the new year approaches, I’ve been feeling a musical re-orientation creep up on me and on my group.  Once you’ve been doing something for awhile, you realize that a few things are never going to change:  So Percussion is always going to play difficult pieces written by other people.   And why not, when it’s so fun?

It’s been nagging at me for many years that I’ve been so focused on that very thing.  The tradition of writing down music as text and passing it along to trained performers is so well established that you can spend your whole life devoted to it.  Again, why not?

Every musician improvises: it is impossible not to, if you were ever curious about exploring what your instrument could do.  I had a conversation the other day with Fred Frith – a wonderful composer and improviser who has just finished a piece for So – where he told me that his Masters program in improvisation at Mills College is the only non-jazz degree program in improvisation in the country.  I thought this was kind of astonishing.

Since then, I’ve been questioning my assumptions about all of these cubby holes that we inhabit:  composer, improviser, interpreter,  etc.  I’m fixated on the analogy of language, where a written-down piece stores information in a collective memory, and conversation is a type of improvisation. The two flow into each other: a score or text is often the working-out of spontaneous ideas, and conversations can be highly structured and directional.

Think of how language functions in contemporary society: we must form thoughts and communicate spontaneously every day, and we must also be able to read and write.

The rock stars of classical music  (Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, etc.), were not really specialists in any one of these dimensions.  They simply made music.  We idolize them for what our collective memory still has of their legacy: the written (and lucratively published) scores.  By all accounts, most of them were also phenomenal performers and improvisers, free and willing to change elements of his own music from performance to performance.

Regarding jazz, perhaps it’s just a younger art form.  Walking around Jazz at Lincoln Center, you can already see the classicizing impulse taking shape.  The walls are lined with posters promoting shows that recreate the exact set lists of old Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis sessions.  From what I understand, there is also a very strong pull in many jazz programs towards learning and adopting the tools and aesthetics of these specific periods as well.  This comes almost exactly on schedule, if you compare it to the Romantic Bach revival of the early 1800’s, which elevated a marginalized composer to cult status almost exactly 100 years after his peak.

Since I’m a history dork, I can’t help but digress into these topics.  But the truth is,  I simply realized that a healthy part of my musical life was underdeveloped.

As So Percussion wades into our next big project of original music, we find that the lines between dictation, inspiration, and communication blur when you work with the same people over a long period of time.  Jason frequently starts rehearsing his pieces with a few sketches on napkins, but we all understand his shorthand.  People say that this is working like a “band,” but it’s actually quite ancient, I’m sure.

So I find myself starting from square one…standing in front of some instruments, having ideas about stuff.  Some of these ideas are good, so I keep messing around with them.  But I try to keep inventing them, and slowly my creative terror is ebbing away.  

In the meantime, we have formalized the idea of Memory and Conversation as a theme for our next Summer Institute.  I’m looking forward to exploring it with some other folks.






3 responses to “Memory and Conversation in Music”

  1.  Avatar

    You did your doctoral studies on Xenakis, so I am sure you have heard this quote, but your post made me think of it. “Music is not a language. Any musical piece is akin to a boulder with complex forms, with striations and engraved designs atop and within, which men can decipher in a thousand different ways without ever finding the right answer or the best one…”- Iannis XenakisI agree with you and am revitalized almost by the notion of the performance and creation of music to be so inter-penetrated. This quote is just the first example I have ever seen in opposition to the language idea. Food for thought. Hope all is well,Nate

  2.  Avatar

    Thanks Nate,Yeah, this is a great quote. I don't think I could defend my music-as-language musings in a philosophical sense. There are two many variables, and – as this quote illustrates – music is often too fuzzy.I'm more interested in how, when we use and teach people how to use language, we offer equal weight to spontaneous dialogue, written composition, and textual interpretation. A person isn't considered educated if they haven't developed all of these faculties to some degree. My only rebuttal to Xenakis would be that spoken and written language have just as much potential for varying interpretations and shades of grey as music does. Acknowledging my own limitations on the subject, I think that has been a major concern of 20th century philosophy and criticism.

  3.  Avatar

    What a great group. And you live in Brooklyn too.

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