Thursday, April 23, 2020


Beyond the sand is the sea
and beyond that who knows?
Books say Africa and Europe
and places further that
I’ll never get to.
Beyond the end of the day
lies night, lie poems,
lie thoughts that sleep
                          throughout the day.
Though why this should be so,
books do not say.

Beyond the sound of song
is the voice of one who,
singer knowing,
still is not known,
and yet the words still come,
gifts as they are,
to surprise singer and listener alike:
and yet, you know
we still don’t know
                           where they come from.

After all this time,
all this music, 
who cares?

Deep within the trees,
folded within soft leaves
lie beautiful lives as yet unseen.
But if we take the time to hold
and open, leaf by leaf,
what lights there are exposed.
What beauty in leg and claw
What spots
in colors we never expected.


    During the course of its relatively short history as a science, anthropology has developed a number of specialized branches: there are cultural and physical anthropologists, medical anthropologists economic anthropologists, etc.  When anthropological researchers began to turn their attentions to music in its ethnologic context, and its place and function in the structure of a culture, ethnomusicology was born.  It follows naturally, then, that as a child of anthropology, ethnomusicology has always been dependent on its parent for ideas and direction.  Let us explore how anthropological theory has shaped the course of ethnomusicological research and influenced the ideology behind it, and how ethnomusicology has in turn provided data to support at least one of those theories in anthropology.

    Ethnomusicology has gone through a number of definitions over the years.  Towards the end of the nineteenth century, when the first comprehensive ethnographic collections of musical data were being made, it was called comparative musicology.  It was concerned solely with non-Western music, all of which was then considered “primitive”.  It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the definition began to broaden.  Willard Rhodes called ethnomusicology the study of music of “the Near East, the Far East, Indonesia, Africa, North American Indians, European Folk Music and popular music and dance” (1956).  It was the inclusion of popular music and dance that separated this definition from all that came before.  Jaap Kunst further expanded the horizons of this definition when he called ethnomusicology the study of “the traditional music and musical instrument of all cultural strata of mankind, from so-called primitive peoples to the civilized nations” (1959).  Merriam broadened and simplified the definition further, saying ethnomusicology is simply “the study of music in culture” (1960).  I like this last definition best.  It effectively removes any vestiges of underlying ethnocentric prejudices and allows for the study of all music and its relationship to its respective culture.

    The early ethnomusicologists—those who laid the foundation of the modern science—all came from upper middle class, urban families from central Europe.  These included Robert Lach, Jaap Kunst, Marius Schneider, Curt Sachs, Herzog, Hormbostel and Wachsmann.  It was with these people that the first serious scientific collections of musical data began, between about 1880 and 1910.  Though they considered themselves comparative musicologists, it was one of them, Jaap Kunst, who coined the term “ethnomusicologist”.  Prior to this, the only music that was studied seriously was Western art music and, indeed, it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that musicological data was put into any kind of orderly historical context.  It should also be remembered that at this time anthropologists were just beginning to conceive an understanding of the idea of culture as we do today.  Boas had just added an “s” to the end of “Culture” at the turn of the century.

    Having turned their attention to non-Western music, early ethnomusicologists developed a strong interest in origins, from which it was hoped the development of mankind’s music could be plotted.  This of course was due to the pervasive evolutionism that was dominating anthropological theory during the nineteenth century.  Thus we find numerous studies that search for the origins of different aspects of music: Adler on polyphony (1909), Bucher on rhythm (1896) and Sachs on instruments (1929).  This evolutionist mode of ethnomusicological research was going on while great changes were altering the theoretical conceptions among anthropologists.  By the time of Sachs’s study on the origins of musical instruments and the progression of their development, many anthropologists were going on to becoming diffusionists or structural functionalists.  This is typical of the relationship between anthropological and ethnomusicological theory—the latter always lagging behind the former—and is an indication of just how dependent ethnomusicologists are on anthropology to supply them with research criteria. 

    The trade in ideas did, however, began to go both ways.  Early twentieth century European evolutionist ethnomusicologists that were influenced by German Kulturkreis diffusionism began to engage in ethnomusicological studies using diffusionist methodology, which in turn wound up playing a reciprocal role in contributing to the further development of Kulturkreis diffusionist theory.  Hornbostel’s use of diffusionist principles to trace the history of musical instruments in Africa (1933) and Sachs’s use of the same to trace instrumental lineages throughout the world (1929) have been acknowledged as major contributions to Kulturkreis anthropological thought.

    The inroads of advanced anthropological theory had its limits, though. Evolutionist theory remained a key element in ethnomusicological thought and methodology throughout the first half of the twentieth century, continuing to have a strong influence up until the 1940’s.  Even when Radcliffe-Brown and Ralph Linton held sway over the anthropological community in the late ‘40’s, with their emphasis on structure and function, the ethnomusicologists of the time still held tight to the historical aspects of their research (Nettl, 1986).  Nettl states that this is most probably because Western ethnomusicologists were brought up at a time when musical tradition add an intense interest in the origins and history of the art.  As most of them were devoted amateur musicians, it is not surprising that they applied this to their research.  It was only when they began to take a more musical, as opposed to a musicological, approach to their research on the ‘50’s and ‘60’s that the emphasis on the historical became less important.

    Diffusionism, however, has left a lasting mark.  As late as 1986, Leanne Hinton published an essay entitled, “Musical Diffusion and Linguistic Diffusion”, in which she discusses the diffusion of linguistic elements such as phonemes and onomatopoeia across linguistic boundaries, through song.  In other words, she discusses the role of music in linguistic diffusion.  Using Native Americans as her study group, she cites as examples of song diffusion the presence of song types from neighboring tribes in the musical tradition of the Havasupai.  They sing songs from the Hopis, Paiutes, Chemehuevis, Navajo, Walapais, Yavapais and Mojaves.  While the Walapais, Yavapais and Mojaves are all in the same Yuman language family as the Havasupais, the rest belong to the Athabascan or Uto-Aztecan families.  Among the examples of foreign phonetic elements she has found, she has traced the occurrence of certain onomatopoeic utterances and voiceless nasals in the Havasupai language to words in Paiute songs and the unique singing techniques they utilize.  Because of the fact that sound is important for its own sake in song (my italics), the tendency is for songs to retain their original phonetic elements even when sung by speakers of different languages.  Foreign phonetic elements are retained in diffused songs and onomatopoeic utterances, due to the foregrounding of sound for its own sake, which consequently allows for the subsequent possibility of the development of a foreign segment in other aspects of language.  (Hinton, 1986)

    Here we have an ethnomusicologist presenting conclusions that are primarily anthropological in character, using classic anthropological theory and sound ethnographic methods to support her ethnomusicological research, all of which in turn support and reaffirm those anthropological theories that she used in the first place.

    As the twentieth century progressed, diffusionism did not remain the only theory in operation among ethnomusicologists.  Mantle Hood, for example, in his book, The Ethnomusicologist (1982) takes a structural-functionalist stance by asking questions that try to place the music, especially musical instruments, with in their respective cultures.  He asks: Is the instrument reserved for players of one or the other sex?  What is its value to the performer, or to society as a whole?  Is it believed to have some sort of magic power?  Is there a ritual connected with its manufacture?  Does it have an indispensable role in the life cycle of man?  Marcia Herndon asks the same type of questions on a more general level, dealing not so much with the place of a particular instrument in society, but with the place of music in general.  In her book, Music As Culture (1980), in the chapter entitled “The Relations of Music to Social Institutions”, she states that there are three main social areas in which music acts: economics, politics and religion.  She concludes that cultural institutions limit musical expression and provide organizational models for musical groups, and that music functions within a culture as a means of personal awareness.  Though this is clearly a functionalist view, it is, as indicated by her statement on personal awareness, operating on more of a psychological level than, say, Hood, who was almost exclusively interested in how music fit into the structure of society.  It is also of interest to note that she spends much more time in her book on the roles of musicians themselves than does Hood.  All this points to a more pronounced culture and personality viewpoint on her part.

    Bruno Nettl has given us a comprehensive account of the directions that ethnomusicology has taken.  He seems the most historically aware of all those I’ve read and has written much on the subject.  That being so, he is much respected and quoted by other authors.  In his The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-nine Issues and Concepts (1983), he presents four models with which ethnomusicologists approach research.  The first is a structuralist approach, in which the researcher desires to study a culture and its individual components, the idea being that culture consists of a large number of parts that are all interrelated, but separable into self-contained domains.  He traces this idea back to Boas. (Lowie, 1937)  The second is a functionalist approach to the relationship of music within its respective culture and how that relationship affects said culture.  Third is the reverse of the second: how a culture affects its music.  The last approach studies how each of music’s three components—concept, behavior and sound (as described by Merriam, 1964)—relate to their parent culture and how they interact.  He also cites three issues that apply to all ethnomusicological research: 1. the emic-etic dichotomy; 2. determinism versus functionalism; 3. the comparative/particularist controversy.  It appears to me that all four research methods are closely related, each differing in the details of where one’s starting point is and the direction taken from there.  Among the issues, the emic-etic and the comparative/particularist are the most interesting…and the stickiest.  It is something I hope to investigate further.

    Except for Leanne Hinton’s unique diffusionist contribution, it seems that as the twentieth century progressed most other ethnomusicologists were dealing with trying to find out music’s place in the structure of culture or how it functioned in that culture.  Though manifesting itself in numerous different ways, the structural-functionalist approach in ethnomusicology reigned supreme at least throughout the ‘80’s.  Unfortunately, this study doesn’t go beyond that date, any further developments would have to be addressed in a future paper.  Unlike diffusionism, structural functionalism, as applied to ethnomusicological research, is parasitic in that it draws off anthropological theory and applies it within its own parameters without giving anything in return.  I could find no evidence of any feedback; certainly none providing the contributions that ethnomusicological diffusionism gave to Kulturkeis anthropology.  The only other prevailing current of thought affecting ethnomusicology was not so much anthropological as it was philosophical.  There are those who deal with the study of music in its cultural context, and there are those who are interested only in musical matters such as melody, meter and rhythm.  It all depends on whether you are coming to ethnomusicology as an anthropologist or a musicologist. (Nettl,1983)  While the anthropologist is an expert at dealing with the interaction of various domains of culture, the musicologist has the ability to make complex analyses of musical artifacts.  The two schools are constantly battling each other, each claiming to be the most important.  The reality, though, seems that one cannot do without the other if they are to produce any kind of valid research.

    Ultimately, though, it begs the question of what an ethnomusicologist is.  One could argue that it’s what a musicologist should be, but isn’t.  One could also argue that it’s a musician turned anthropologist. I can only vaguely see the possibility of it being the other way around; that is, an anthropologist who takes an interest in music and studies its development and function, its place, in culture, and arrive at a comprehensive understanding as such.  Somehow, I can’t accept this.  Music is not a discipline that one can just fall into and totally absorb spontaneously (or at least very rarely so); it is a way of life with a language and symbolism that takes a lifetime to understand.  While the cultural nuances among musicians are myriad, the basic creative impulse cuts across cultural barriers.  Only someone consumed with the making of music, of performing it and of seeking out its deepest meanings could truly understand its place in society.  It would take a musician, properly educated in ethnographic technique, to produce an anthropological study of music that would have intrinsic value for both the scholar and the world in general.

Saturday, November 28, 2015




The moving calligraphy of snow
snatched by the wind and swept in little scrawls
snakes across the black asphalt plaza.
For now, it is a gift of space,
empty of apple crates,
and unwashed girlfriends
with bad teeth, selling books.
No smell of pickpockets in the market.
No spilled hot cider or frozen fish.
Crowds of steamy-breathed shoppers,
bundled up, squeezed between pavilions
are now only shadowed thoughts, only
sliding astral shifts trailing passing cars.
The nannies pushing
white babies in carriages are gone.
Flower stalls are only a memorial smudge.
The fields are picked over and frost hardened,
and well beyond an easy day-trip drive.

Now the cold snap explodes, renewed,
the tip of a wet towel iced up, howling,
hurling welts on the municipality.
It drives snow into the doorways,
under the cardboard walls of bums
whose shaking hands hold tea and spread popcorn
beneath the torn furniture blankets
where the sparrows scavenge.
Cubist thought processes bubble:
Real Life Drama, fractured among personalities.
Displayed collages of torn and multicolored
Bits of easy-art psyche.
Blind hawks under drawn hoods
making collective sense only on
the other side of economic independence;
to those with hats, gloves and mufflers,
and on their way to work:
the heated cubicle,
the sightless fluorescent light
warm, yet sterile, staring down
from the hung ceiling.
Cold in the mind’s eye
and still no escape.
On the outside, perfection in
multiples of billions flashes cold
around the corner stone,
it’s frozen heart the tomb
of fossils, the remains of
an earlier, warmer age.

To walk in deep snow,
a traveler in the night blizzard;
to bear witness to the blowing crystals
as they curtain the way
concealing my meandering progress:
There is a sort of safety among the shifting drifts,
a serenity amidst the appearance of expanding space:
security beneath hood and overcoat,
economy in the blank blowing white.
Vision is obscured and background obliterated.
Only clean smooth line remain.
Sound is muffled, subdued;
muted, discrete units of sonority’
dimly broadcast and distant
sift through the falling snow.
Those others encountered in the landscape
are draped in virgin white, are children,
shoulders layered in laced frost’
picking their way among their first steps
along the unsalted side of the street,
its sins not yet manipulated, their feet dry,
the contents of their stomachs
held tight and comfortable,
solid and warming, fuel for the walk.
Protected, we all plow the frigid softness
only to have our trails quickly covered.
We are blind to what lays buried and unseen,
absolved, for the moment, of obligations.
With a renewed wonder of What It Is
the journey extends beyond the present,
beyond dimension and ending,
counting the cold sting of each flake and
vindicating the voyage of the sailor through
storm and sea, as the ship is moored
fast to the dock on a wintry night.
Journeying past the unprobed,
through gas and solid in suspension,
taking comfort in knowing
I will arrive quietly, unannounced.

The young are unaffected.
Stationary, they burn away the hours
like idling, freshly primed engines
immune in a elsewhere existence.
Few have yet learned to become invisible
and pass, enfolded, from tree to tree
a Lover in the embrace of the icebound park.
They still wish for summer.  They still burn,
beacons at the cliff’s edge while the cold sea
churns among the rocks around them.
They are well mortared, vigilant,
searching for the strange ship,
the cold too new to be of use,
their few memories aching for repetition.
They are consumed in the violence of growth,
the taut snapping of expectation,
and warmed with stretching experience.
the stillness of the glazed matrix between
jutting trunks holds no fascination for them.

Blowing night pulls covers
on sleeping bodies, back to back,
fetal, sucking at life with each frigid breath,
on cardboard pads and soaked moving blankets
in box houses shuddering in the
fluttering roar, camouflaged
along the walls, tucked between pillars
in the derelict side entrance between avenues.
Belongings stored in plastic garbage bags
serve as windbreaks instead of ilex.
A restless night of sleep cut with
counting winds and constant tucking.
Checking.  A wait, primarily.
A conservation of energy until
in its turn, as is its nature,
dawn illuminates the knife of the blizzard
in blue-gray monochrome.
Juncoes forage beneath the shrubs.
Feathers puffed, safe on the lea side of a drift,
they find the hidden seeds.
The slicing cold plumbs human pores;
it freezes forehead taught and stiff.
Cheek and larynx tingle.
Stone structures emerge and pass
making all that was solid, fluid.
The séance of blowing snow
calls shadowed images, one after another
faded, fading, ephemeral, and finally
gone again into the grayness and quickly forgotten:
the propelled flickering of the solid,
the transience of nuclei,
the space between flakes.

Vibration condensed.
It takes the wiping out of snow
to swallow all and reduce it
to steam at the river’s edge,
where the effluence from the power plant
mixes with the salt tide and warms the fish.
The heavy metals in the mud below
gain activation; the creosote log
rolls against the concrete bulkhead.
Pintails and Scaups bob in the current,
sweeping them out to sea with snow on their backs.
Their mating colors are yet months away,
stowed safe in treeless tundra
where mice burrow under the crusty snow
unseen by the fox or gyrfalcon.
A section of sidewalk blown bare
connects two steaming sewers,
catch basins choked with accumulations of slush.
Briefly, there is a naked exposure,
a pornography of squashed bodies hurrying
to certain dissolution in the grey swirl
past glowing storefronts, windows opaque.
The slick danger of the lurking cellar door
goes unnoticed until it’s too late.
The Slip.  The Fall.  The Hospital.
There is the manufactured warmth of the
adrenaline rush, then the return
of steadiness and Reason.  Thought is lost;
it is the last of the coins
fallen beneath the snow.

In the stillness of the wooded ravine
the partridge lies buried, insulated
beneath a small mound of snow
wintering the frigid days unseen.
A pair of deer push through the drifts
in the blowing sun on the side of a hill,
across the submerged pasture,
making for the cover of naked shrubbery
on the far side, again hidden, jewelry safe.
Precious visions, briefly witnessed.
Satyr and Nymph seen through the scratched
plexiglass of a face mask and muffled
under the foam helmet liner;
coarse whine surrounding,
tread and runner slicing.
The pervasive smell of gasoline precludes
any perception that the trees are empty.
The rabbit’s silence has been shattered.

Briefly, there is dread in the coming of March:
in late February the frozen crust,
softened by the sun far too soon
reveals an archaeology of waste:
broken bottles and the slop of feces,
flaccid strips of soggy cardboard.
The corpse of a dead pigeon.
Big Toms in matted winter coats
pick their way along the curb,
sneezing and hacking,
contemplating assassinations.
The low afternoon sun
cannot cancel the long nights.
Cold weather viruses accumulate.
Intestinal parasites drain the body,
wielding dysentery and hunger.
How easily the smooth labels
slip off the cold wet bottles
leaving only a sticky vacancy.

Again comes the muzzle of a cold front
and all is put in suspended animation;
all is meat for the freezer and cold containers.
A blizzard rolls a new layer of fresh snow
over the flats along Wyalusing Creek.
There is serenity of form, fluffed over
with a myriad sifting of crystals:
the perfection of fractals speaks,
intuited only through the language of advanced calculus,
or the scratching of turkey and crows
for the fallen cobs along the corn rows.
The tales the tracks tell are only hinted at,
static radio programs left to the imagination,
to be guessed at through a cloud of frozen breath
the fear of snow blindness tucked away
behind the memories of a slitted bone mask
worn by the Inuit seal hunter crouching at the blow hole.
The predator’s stalk along the horizon
facilitates the clear suspension of time, eliminates
all projections at the moment of the kill;
and the prey, once taken, leaves only angels’ wings
pressed into the thin crust, lit in gold by the low sun.
The solvency of Innocence in Virgin blue,
are treasures, intricate transparencies,
a clean laser, cut of crystal and unobstructed
in its circuit of the continuum.

The plain purity of snow is ultimately,
superseded by the new Spring.
All the dead rise, stiff corpses made pliant,
veins pumping with renewed ambition
with the Druids’ juice of a new equinox
in a mad scramble for the sun.
For now, though, there is the solitude between the hills,
the clear echoes of the woodpecker hammering,
hammering for the cool soft fatted grubs beneath the bark.
Having reached the end of the flats behind the houses,
a doe leaps and flies across the corn stubble,
kicks up sprays of snow as she heads for the
hill across the road, risking all at the pavement.
She hesitates at the double yellow line
then is down over the other side
safely, in a cradling cushion of snow
passing into the shadows in the dimming light;
leaving, once again, a silent landscape of rolling winter.
I let the skis push of the track and into the deep drift,
into the deeper part of the woods at dusk,
out of sight of the road, the traffic.
I plow its crust for secrets and dare its twisting trails
deep in the tight ravines, through the snow covered Hemlocks.
I the last light, with the wind from behind,
I stride straight north across the open evening.
Home is at the other end of the smooth fields.
White, softened to blue, smoothes the slide,
the kick and glide over the cut cornstalks buried.
Across the creek and the danger of ice
is the warm kitchen, the safety of the vestibule
with its lines of wet shoes and gloves.
The husk of snow plastered to the back of my legs
can be shed and the pink calves rubbed warm.
there is the security of the hot shower,
the insulation of immediate family,
the narcosis of domestic life.
Outside, still the anti-freeze lies preserved under ice,
the dead opossum lies buried and unseen at the side of the road
and the pigeon falls silent and stiff in the stillness of
the subzero night and the wind blows across the plaza
in the empty early hours, awaiting morning’s dim illumination.

Saturday, July 26, 2014


All artists are chasing after perfection, in whatever medium their version of perfection exists.  Be it the visual artist, the novelist or poet, or the musician, in the back of their mind they’re hoping that their next creation will be the clear, unobstructed expression of the artistic vision they hold locked deep in their Heart of Hearts.  It’s not easy to come by.  Somehow, it always seems one more step removed from what you’ve accomplished.  We come close, sometimes close enough to experience some of the ecstasy of true perfection; it is this experience that drives us to try harder, spending long lonely hours honing our craft that we may become the vehicle: the open conduit through which our Muse may speak.  Perfection, however, is a concept.  When you get down to it, although it may start with an idea, in the end art is really about doing (this is something I brought up in the post on improvisation and composition).  It is experiential; consequently, conceptual hang-ups only get in the way of the creative process.  Strange as it may seem, it has been my experience that only by forgetting about perfection do I come closer to attaining it.  Indeed, this is truly art: the intuitive application of craft.  Intuition is pure experience. Conception plays only a small part in it; one doesn’t think about what one is going to do intuitively.  One just does it.  The conduit is open.  The vision is clear.

Agnes Martin had some interesting ideas about art and perfection.  In Writings/Schriften (Hatje Cantz, 2005), she writes that art is not perfection, it is about perfection.  Art is the product of Humanity and, as such, can only be as perfect as people are perfect. She also says that, if you’re serious about making art, you’d better be prepared to spend a lot of time alone working at it.  This brings us back to the old Francesco da Milano story about the nature of musical performance, in which he states that there are three things essential to its make up: first, you study technique and learn to play you instrument; second, you practice, refining your technique until you are able to say something with your music.  The third is something beyond your control.  He called it the “Gift”.  It is what separates great art from all the rest.  All you can do is work on the first two aspects to the best of your ability, in the hope that you will leave yourself open to receiving the third, the Gift.  This brings us back to doing it; art is all about doing it.  It takes a lot of doing.  The last I heard, Yo Yo Ma still practices six hours a day.  I would suspect that, at his level, he’s given up hoping for perfection; he is what he is (which seems to be perfect enough on listening to him).  One last eloquent musical voice:  Pat Metheny.  In his most recent Downbeat interview (Dec.2013) he said he wishes he could play better, write better and be a better musician.  This is Pat Metheny we’re talking about: twenty-time Grammy winner, Downbeat Hall of Famer, has made more recordings than any one person could remember, let alone name.  What’s implicit in his statement is that he doesn’t say that he wants to be the “best” of these things; he is just working to improve them.  Being the best would imply perfection and Mr. Metheny knows better than that.  He’s still on the journey.  Though he still feels he has a way to go he feels blessed just to be able to travel that road; that he has never reached a stage of “Perfection” and that he never will.  And (the best part) wanting to say you have reached it is irrelevant.

While the popular idea of the performance of composed music as an expression of perfection is elusive at best, the concept of the perfect in improvised music is even more ephemeral.  It is a constant seeking, testing and exploring; it is a quest for that perfect phrase that is, most amazingly, spontaneously expressed and a pure product of intuitive direction.  It is the ultimate expression of Milano’s principles.  The improvised performance is probably the most thrilling way of seeking the unattainably perfect in music.  Conceptual thought operates on the sidelines while the bulk of the expressive work is accomplished simply in the doing. The very spontaneity of the act raises the level of excitement to ecstatic heights, and it seems that the closer one gets to perfection, the greater the ecstasy.  Each new phrase comes as a surprise and serves as an instant jumping off place for the next line.  Indeed, while mistakes in performance are perceived as compromising the perfection of a composed work, mistakes in improvised performance can push the music in a new direction and actually contribute to the perfection of the whole.  As such they take on new meaning and aren’t necessarily viewed as mistakes, they are considered more like opportunities when approached properly. The proper attitude and reaction are of the utmost importance when responding to a mistake, and will determine what direction an improvisation will take and the degree of success one will have traveling that new road.  Considering this, I find a “mistake” may be more constructively viewed, within the context of improvised performance, as a “surprise”.  Ultimately, the performer is, in effect, manipulating the concept of what perfection is and spontaneously giving it a new definition to fit the circumstance.  He or she may even be manipulating circumstance.  It all blends together to produce the ecstasy of the quest; and in the final analysis, though actual perfection may never be attained, the perfect pursuit of perfection may actually be its closest manifestation…which, really, is just plain wonderful.  

Sunday, March 9, 2014


The last post is from last year.
No water on the horizon this year, just snow and ice all the way out.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Looking west out onto Lake Michigan in February.  The double line of ridges behind the figure walking the dog on the beach is actually an ice shelf created by wave action...the waves don't break there anymore, though, because the lake is frozen for quite a ways out.  The thin blue line on the horizon is where the ice ends. 
A rare bit of winter sun to light up the beach (and a better view of the ice shelf).

Sunday, August 26, 2012


I recently had the pleasure of spending a fantastic week at the end of June attending the Lute Society of America’s biannual seminar in Cleveland. The performances were drop-dead beautiful and the lectures, workshops and classes where fascinating. What was particularly dear to my heart, though, was the general trend of much of the discussion, among students and faculty alike, which was focused on the nature of improvisation and strategies for approaching it, and its relationship with the compositional process. Of course, this was as applied to music in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. To my delight, though, we found that there is basically no difference between how improvisation was approached in the past and how it is approached today in jazz, blues and popular music. Sitting among some superb musicians and some of the leading scholars in Early Music, I found that many of the issues under discussion were exactly the same as what we used to hash out decades ago, as improvising blues musicians, over bottles of cheap wine in a basement studio in Brooklyn; indeed, we found the answers to some burning questions back then and I was able to take many of the conclusions we had come to and offer them as constructive contributions to our discussions in Cleveland. There were a number of surprised nods of agreement among some very learned heads on the observations and solutions I offered. We discovered that as musicians, regardless of academic background, we all face the same challenges when improvising and composing and are all equally creative in dealing with the concepts associated with the two, and their application. Where can the fine line between composition and improvisation be found? Can it even be found anywhere at all? It’s a fuzzy line, seemingly more of a messy smudge that obliterates the end of the one word and the beginning of the other (and vice versa). I’m not sure if they are as much two distinct forms of expression as they are just dual aspects of one primary creative process. The answers to questions like this are never easy to sort out and more often than not, if not being impossible to answer, turn out to be a complex mess. I don’t expect to find all the answers here, but I do hope to explore some avenues of inquiry (...and to add to the confusion it pays to remember that things are not always as they seem, nor are they otherwise).
There are "compositions" that, as documents, may very well be no more than a record, a snapshot, so to speak, of an ongoing creative process of improvisation. This is a view shared in the visual arts by abstract expressionist painter Wilhelm deKooning. DeKooning felt that his paintings were never really finished, and that those canvases taken from his studio and exhibited publicly were only documenting a stage, a thin slice, of what was going on from day to day in his creative process. He felt that his life—spent in a constantly evolving act of painting—was his true artistic statement. The paintings, as documents, were incidental. It’s almost as if he viewed the whole concept of "the work of art" more as a verb than a noun. Ornette Coleman seems to share the same point of view: in the liner notes of his 1959 recording, Change of the Century, he states that, "In a certain sense there really is no start or finish to any of my compositions. There is a continuity of expression, certain continually evolving strands of thought that link all my compositions together. Maybe it’s something like the paintings of Jackson Pollock". It’s interesting to note that Coleman, the consummate improviser whose recorded works are largely improvised, refers to his works as "compositions". Apparently the line was pretty fuzzy for him, too. This begs to question as to when does one stop calling the process of creating "improvising" and call it "composition"?
As far as the documentation of an improvised performance, Derek Bailey—that arch-improviser—in his book, Improvisation: It’s Nature and Practice in Music, adds this to the discussion: "Essentially, music is fleeting; its reality is its moment of performance. There might be documents that relate to that moment—score, recording, echo, memory—but only to anticipate or recall it." On the basis of this statement we can conclude that music, by necessity, has no choice but to be experienced as an ongoing endeavor, in the flux of time, from performance to performance; it, puts the real experience of music in the forefront and squarely in the "Now". This is fertile ground for the performance of improvised music. Bailey also says that improvised music is best heard live and then forgotten as soon as possible, the implication being that the more you listen to a recording of an improvised performance, the less you’ll get out of it. While I don’t deny that there are real benefits (and real pleasure) to be derived from listening to the recording of a hot solo by your favorite performer, over and over, it’s also true that the overall artistic value of recording such performances can indeed be a hit-and-miss thing (eg. "Emergency", by Tony Williams & co.). Often it is most valuable solely as a reference document of or for the performer.
Be that as it may, the practice of documenting improvisation is not a new concept and goes back a surprisingly long way. We can catch a glimpse of it with the recercar. Recercars are written records of improvised performances that occur most commonly in the lute repertoire of the 16th century. In 1508, Joan Ambrosio Dalza, published a number of abstract, free form recercars that play primarily as improvisations. By mid century, Francesco da Milano was publishing recercars that, while still retaining a loose feel, come across as being much more organized. As time progressed the form of the recercar became formalized to the point where it morphed into the fugue. It, in effect, became an established compositional form and virtually unrecognizable from it progenitor.
I believe there is a direct correlation between the recercar, as it appears on the printed page, and, say, an ECM recording of Ralph Towner playing a live concert of improvisations. They didn’t have audio recording equipment in the 1500s and couldn’t catch everything, but what they did was write down is what they remembered of an improvised performance. They wrote down their best licks. To take it a step further, they may have strung some of their best licks together, in a pleasing way (and in a satisfying way, possessing a greater measure of internal rhetorical coherency), to form a composition. In my own experience, blues solos that began as improvisations in performance eventually, after playing them literally over a thousand times, were edited to the extent that they became composed solos. I could very well have written them down and called them recercars. There is a clear connection here that spans centuries. Examining the evolution of the recercar throughout the 16th century nicely illuminates the close symbiotic relationship that improvisation and composition share; it serves as an archetype of what goes on within the mind of the individual musician. The process of thoughtful organization of spontaneous musical ideas, as illustrated in these works, is probably the clearest link I can find in the fuzz between the two disciplines.
Crawford Young, being the genius that he is, approaches the issue from the opposite direction, saying, " Improvisation is really only memorized composition". Seab Meador once told me that he learned how to play guitar by listening to as many records as he could and stealing as many riffs off them as he was able. In this fashion he eventually built an aural library, a lexicon of licks that he could draw from when improvising. I believe every improvising musician can relate to this as we have all done the same thing. The really fun and creative part is when the moment comes, usually in performance, where you morph those riffs into something else: something all your own. These are the moments that you eventually find and develop your own voice, where you find ideas that you want to preserve, where you may have the urge to compose a vehicle with which to preserve them. Thus we have moved from composition to improvisation and back to composition; we’ve come full circle, and the process will renew itself when someone hears our riffs and adds them to their own improvisational vocabulary.
I’ve also heard improvisation referred to as "spontaneous composition", but I believe this may be stretching it a bit too far. Composition implies intent; it implies a desire to preserve a specific musical idea for duplication in future performances. A purely improvised performance expresses no such intention, it functions completely in the "now". True, ideas born of improvisation–truly inspired ideas–that make a deep impression remain to become parts of possible forthcoming composed works. But in this capacity they are not spontaneous, they are willfully manipulated. Anyone who has improvised an inspired solo knows that doing it is not a conceptual thing, it’s an experiential thing. The thinking is peripheral; it’s really a matter of doing. It’s spontaneous. Is it composition? I don’t think so. It’s a matter of expressing something else, and what hat that something else is, is a matter for an essay all by itself.
This little excursion has the potential to quickly turn into a book–or at the very least a series of posts. I’m just getting started. Every time I put down an idea it generates three more. As far as I can tell, improvisation and composition are intertwined in the ultimate symbiotic relationship. Although it often appears that one cannot exist without the other, I won’t go so far as to say that all composition is the product of improvised ideas; there are always exceptions. I’m not yet satisfied as to whether they exist as two independent entities, or as two aspects of the same creative principle, or both. There are too many factors to consider to come to any immediate conclusion. So, for now, I’ll leave it at this.