Sunday, April 2, 2017

Notes on some new solo piano music

I have been committing some new music for solo piano to recorded documentation. Eventually some of this will be a full album, a selection of which, Townsend Detective Agency, I covered in the previous post. 

It is hard for me to write about my process and the final result. I really enjoy thinking about music in both musical and philosophical terms and I remain, thankfully, most passionate about it. But as far as translating that into nonmusical terms is concerned isn't always easy.  The difficulty, if that is the correct formulation, consists in trying to clarify what was or is important in a particular musical project.

If I had to come up with a formula of my "hard listening" style it would go something like this: start with the formal and modern rigor of concert music, that is, longer forms. (I map out my scores with many sections. The instructions can be quite loose, involving improvisation, but the content for the improvisations can also be very strict.) Then, after the larger formal idea, I draw on an array of disparate languages from American popular music history. Finally I improvise over these frameworks much like an improviser taking choruses. But I always use lots of structure. Themes appear and reappear and develop. Speaking philosophically, I aim to create a kind of time travel in my artistic practice. My friend Amanda Williams Galvin spoke about coming to own one of her grandfather's button down shirts from many decades ago. My music is like that.  I want the listener to be reminded of, say, a hit song that would have been playing on a radio at the time when the grandfather had originally put on the shirt, and then for the listener to be jolted to yet another time period, perhaps thirty or forty years later.

The result is to violate the ordinary, linear sense of time, and to call into question and subvert the one-to-one association of a particular music with the time of that music's creation or popularity. I am also interested in durational or "slow" filmmaking (Andrei Tarkovsky, Chantal Akerman, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Abbas Kiaorstami, Frederick Wiseman) and applying some of those ideas to music making. I agree with Miles Davis that art, music and life are all about style.

A good example is my MTM piece. The attitude of the piece is very much like a classical piano work for the concert or recital hall. (Indeed all of my music is like that in a way). It is a piece a pianist is to perform in a concert setting, But the content of the work is partly gleamed from some of the most commercial gestures and stock arrangements found in the writing of background music over many decades. Thus, some of this content is not from the concert hall at all, but from film and television. To make matters more complicated, I approach them the way a jazz improviser would, with that kind of freedom and interest in a richer color palette than you would ever find in most commercial music.

Finally, the piece changes styles radically in a short compression of time. One example of this is the use of jagged and repetitive lines in the opening only to be followed by resting chords with greatest possible contrast. I have developed my own system of doing this over many years. One of the ways I am able to do this is through that tonality system I ranted about on my previous post. My concept of tonality combines modality as well as traditional harmonic relations with the free tonality found in a lot of music of the 1960s and 70s. In this piece I use very opposed and separable languages. On the one hand there is the open and "minimalist" (I hate that word and its connotations since it tells us so little ultimately about what is being done) use of suspended chords or punctuated chords you found in a lot of Broadway, film and television writing in the 60s and 70s. On the other hand there are traditional stock figures of dense harmonic sequences. I use these things simply because I really like them.  

Major influences for the particular projects are composers normally associated with what is considered commercial musicianship and arranging. I love the writing of Patrick Williams and Allyn Ferguson and Jack Elliott.

One inspiration for my recent work in general, not just MTM, was the score to a 1978 made for t.v. movie called  GUIDE TO THE MARRIED WOMAN, by Ferguson and Elliott. Of particular note is a long credit sequence, featuring a both comic and bittersweet visual montage of the passing time of a couple's early married life. But the audio is essentially a mini jazz suite for studio orchestra, with lots of motivic development and top flight playing from Los Angeles players like Bud Shank and Bill Watrous.

Though the following clip is not from that particular film (which appears commercially unavailable), the clip shows what Ferguson was like in the studio - leading a recording of one of his own compositions for the great Freddie Hubbard. Notice above all, the harmonic language which is a once simple and relatively uncluttered, non busy, and yet still filled with color and dramatic interest. The harmonies are similar to the kinds I described above.

Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach, Henry Mancini, and Claus Ogerman are large influences. This is partly one of the reasons I utilize their languages. If I didn't like the languages I would not do it. It would be the greatest mistake for a listener to assume that I mean such references or influences as an ironic commentary or have any reservations about their work.  Indeed, I consider these kind of writers of the highest caliber and believe it to be only a function of fashion and sociology that they are not taken more seriously.  Now that is not to say that there aren't figures in the music that aren't "amusing" because they might feel or seem from a distant time but that is part of their charm and I purposely want to invoke similar feelings in my listeners.

And of course in keeping with my "hard listening" tag, these elements were critical in light or "easy listening" music in some earlier eras. I especially like to have very long sections with a minimum of harmonic change: again, a device that has been critical to so many forms of American popular music. Conversely, since one of my rules is that when I go in one particular direction for a time the music must therefore go in an opposite direction at a later time in the music, I always intersperse some colorful changes when before I have had stasis. It is built into the whole piece from the beginning.  I believe it is rare for any composer to change styles like this. The exception would be a composer who makes such change itself into their style.

Since this piece is called MTM and is in memory of the late Mary Tyler Moore, it also helps that some of this language would have been heard as the background to the projects in which she was employed as an actress.  During this piece I also break into an earlier stride feeling in rhythm and I can never resist an opportunity to bring out some bebop things, or some of the things that I gleamed from my studies with Stanley Cowell so long age in the late 1980s: the conceptualization of the piano as an orchestral instrument and the necessity of treating it accordingly.

I remember when reading John Adams' memoir Hallelujah Junction, being very inspired and feeling a sense of vindication by my personal commitment to tonality. I consider him a masterful composer. My music is not designed to be free of such influences as if the absence of said influences made for a purer artistic music; rather it is designed to be full of such influences. But one quote that stuck with me from that book was his insistence that every composer must find their own language  in which to work and stick with it or develop it. I took that to mean something like finding your calling. You have to choose the language and really commit to it and go all the way with it. I think it matters less what the language in question is, and matters more your love and faithfulness to that particular language when you write.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Why Tonality? A Manifesto in Aphorisms

Since I have developed a style of music that I call "hard listening" I have had to use "easy listening" figures and gestures to form the foundation of this music. That is the dialectic of the situation.

This past month I recorded some solo piano music: all but two are original compositions. Much of it is about half sheer spontaneity, half rigorous restraint. It is an enormous amount of work, creating music on solo piano, using the fullest range of the instrument, and consciously attempting to draw on a widest variety of American popular music, with references to high art classical music. It requires hours of practice of course, but it also requires spiritual meditation upon musicians who have come before me and to whom I am most indebted. I figure if the style and language they used was good enough for them; it is good enough for me, and I want to honor them and their styles somehow. Every note I play or compose is completely indebted to heroes or icons of the past who have come before me.

I am a modernist to the core. By modern I mean simply that my music is music that has something to do with the modern and contemporary world in a most general sense. What makes me modernist is that my music is for music's sake. Art for art's sake is very unfashionable now since we live in highly politicized times. My music is in the interest of no group in particular except for those groups of musicians to whom I am most indebted and continue to inspire and elevate. I create music not to save the world, to improve or elevate consciousness, to ferment political revolution, or to defend any status quo. My music has no messages other than the message that listening to music can be entertaining and a source of highest joy.

There is a lot of emotion in my music but it is not specificity. This is why music is the highest of the arts, this lack of specificity. It is a tragedy that contemporary musicians revel in music's attachment to the specificity of a cause, or a scene, or an identity. They are giving up one of the very things that makes music, well, musical.  What makes me not a classicist is my ideal of liberation and freedom  in the creation of music. Perhaps my aim is really close to Tarkovsky and I create music to prepare people for death. When people are getting ready to die you kind of want to have some kindness towards them.

 My music is closer to David Raskin that to Pierre Boulez, which is why I am always slightly puzzled when I am linked with the so-called avant-garde. The avant-garde as a rule has not been very kind to me. Indeed a fellow pianist in the avant-garde camp actually walked out on a concert of mine. This after he had the audacity to ask me who the pianist was on a recording from Pandora. I told him Earl "Fatha" Hines and he was impressed that I knew this from just a few measures. (Just those octaves spoke for themselves.) But when my set started he and his entourage simply fled.  But I have been most generous with the avant-garde, perhaps to a fault.  That is what I have to deal with. Thus this manifesto.

 I have studied and played avant-garde music. I took master classes with John Cage. But I believe you should follow what you love most. I ask myself, when I create music, would Cedar Walton have done  this? Of course I have to reckon with the fact that I live in a world where lots of people would say Cedar who?

Recently on Tony Bennett's 90th Birthday I listened to the duos he created with Bill Evans. If somebody were to ask me "why tonality?" I would refer them to those recordings. All the fundamentals of music are there in that recording. It is like the perfect crystallization of what music is. Bill Evans plays a version of David Raskin's The Bad And The Beautiful.  For me it all about the sound. It sounds good. There is nothing more to be said about it. That is basically what I hold up in front of me in everything that I do.

 I can tell you that not too many composers (outside of film and television?) try and copy David Raskin. It just doesn't interest them in the slightest. And if they are classical composers I can tell you than none of the lines written by most composers sound anything like Bill Evans' lines. I kept waiting to hear a string section play those lines in symphony and I never heard them. I heard lots of highly chromatic lines that had a flattened effect, but you know Evans outlines seventh chords for crying out loud. He did this because it worked.

On the director's commentary for Three Women, Robert Altman commented on the "atonal" score for his picture. He was curious and bemused by this score. He said it wasn't really his thing even though he liked it for the film. In his own words. "Well I like Gershwin!" He delivered this line in a manner of defeated helplessness as if to say, "Gershwin wrote music that just makes me feel good and better than other things."

So when the song goes "I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?" it is a way of referring to a kind of common practice or consensus.

Really, in my music I am not trying to reinvent music, or overturn it, or overthrow it, or create some unprecedented music that nobody has ever heard before. Quite the opposite. I just want to get better and better at what others have done who came before me. The emotions I end up expressing are my own emotions, and the amount of improvisation I insist upon ensures that it is personal.

But the foundation is adamantly not my own. I am of the school of thought that says if something is not broke you don't fix it. I don't think any musical language has an expiration date on it. The whole idea that at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, you change your musical style like you discard a wardrobe of clothes that is no longer in vogue and change into a new suit of clothes that matches the mood of the new year is actually a complete misunderstanding of art. Artists can create new things but often those new things have deep, unconscious connection to very old things even if the connection is wanting to destroy that old thing in an agonistic way akin to Bloom's "anxiety of influence." That is it is an irony. The attempt to demolish something in the past chains you nevertheless to that same past. But the past is still here with us, it isn't past, because all the arts involve an awareness that time in the usual sense is an illusion.

Indeed, I want my music to remind people of things they have heard a million times somewhere but can't quite place it. I want it to be familiar somehow to them. I want to make the past alive, the distant past too, not just the recent past. I want my music to make people feel as if they've traveled in time in a cyclical, rather than linear direction. I want the the 1970s to become the 1930s, to become the 1890s, then forward to today and around again. To do this I use lots of cliches. I use every musical cliche in the book and run them into the ground. Sometimes I use these cliches and then transcend and transform them so that the cliche is left behind and something else emerges in place of cliche. But what emerges is also not entirely original. This is why my music is tonal.

In the terms of Adorno's binary, contra Adorno, I chose Stravinsky over Schoenberg. I made this choice sometime in my teens and I have never looked back. I was punished severely for it I must say.

I make only two demands on my listener, and this really is the hard part of hard listening. The first is for the listener to relinquish all attachment they may have to musical styles and gestures of, oh, the past twenty or thirty years. You are going to hear things older than that, maybe not much older. It might be 1975, it might be 1955, but you won't hear much 1995 or '85. I am sorry about that. As an artist you have to know your limitations. The second demand is that listeners accept the kind of temporal demands you get in classical music, that is, lengths longer than the usual size of popular music.

Pauline Kael: "If art isn't entertainment then what is it? Punishment?"

Yet I am so not the populist. There are so many things wrong with populism. For one thing, you place yourself at the mercy of the populace. I sincerely hope the populace enjoys my music. The fact that at one time my style of music was the popular music gives me hope. But every artist has to live and work in their time, alas and alack.

I don't want to define what tonality is. I mean the avant-garde crowd tried to come up with a word - pantonality - to try and conceptualize all music as tonal. This is either overreaching or disingenuous. But all forms of tonal music - and the virtue of tonality is the widest diversity of styles found therein - have some kind of hierarchy of pitches. They are organized based on the sonorous qualities of thirds and perfect intervals and so on. You can do anything you like after that, but that is the root, as it were. It is what unites Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Sly Stone, Beethoven, Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, The Beatles, Bobby Short. All of these names are doing their own form of that. Without a kind of tonality their considerable achievements would not have been conceivable.

I will break from tonality, for color. I will do this a lot or a little depending on the emotional makeup of the music, but it always comes back to some kind of tonal center in the end.

I close with a quote from George W. S. Trowe: "you can't help who you love."