Sunday, May 28, 2017

Getting Personal


Over the next few months I am going to be making a most dramatic move. After about twenty-seven years in the big city on the East Coast I am moving to a much smaller town down South quite close to Asheville. One of the main reasons is economic. For those who might not know, from the time I was born until about two years ago ( I will be fifty in October), I was involved with a family business which shall remain nameless for the purposes of this piece. Unbeknownst to me, around the time of my father's death, many complications surrounding the condition and financial well being of this business emerged such that it was necessary to essentially sell it off to a large company that specializes in saving businesses in trouble.

Most unfortunately, a condition of that transfer was that I would no longer be in employment, even though I was one of the only people associated with the business who was there from the very beginning and at one time or another had done just about every job that had been associated with the business, including assembly line work in the factory, shipping, bookkeeping in the office, opening a couple of new accounts on the road, and attending industry conventions.

For a period of about thirty years I also wrote a regular arts and culture column that was associated with the business and interviewed a number of prominent figures including Jacques Barzun, James Ellroy, political activists, musicians of all kinds, and other kinds of artists. Many of the major artistic events of the later 1980s and through the 1990s were ones I reviewed or covered in some way. This newspaper was an opportunity for me to keep in touch with was going on culturally and gave me institutional support for my journalistic duties.  The newspaper was canceled sometime in 2011. Speaking of the company as a whole, from what I understand, the company will go on but in an altered form and with a largely new group of people constituting it's staff and personnel.

For about fifteen years I had no knowledge of some of the problems present in the business as I had no authority in managing or running operations. My knowledge was restricted to matters such as how the product was selling (and it did have a steady and loyal following) and some changes in product design. An enormous amount of information was unknown to me, leaving me with the impression that things stood on far sturdier ground when the ground had actually been something like a sinking quicksand. Only over time was everything presented to me. There is a quite universal human interest in safeguarding people from bad news of any kind, or to avoid conflict. Also because I have not lived in the physical location of operations of the company itself for a few decades, I was not a part of the daily culture of the work environment and cannot in any way comment on the nature of that.  One of the things about journalism of course is that you can send in articles from a destination far from the physical office and this was practically as true in the pre-internet days. And most of my musical projects were on the East Coast as well, for a time in the 90s, in Europe as well.

In 2015 I sold my home and tried to live life as a renter which, to put it in a most understated fashion, has not been easy, the rental market being quite overcrowded, volatile and unstable. From 1999 to 2015 I had lived in a two bedroom home in the greatest location in a thriving city. I was able to do my musical work anytime of the day or night, as I lived over a garage and thus shielded all my neighbors from the sound. For two decades I enjoyed this setup, thinking it would not end.

Currently I have found a place where I can do my musical and writing projects at far less cost and in relative peace and that place happens to be in another geography of these United States. If you must know I will be living alone as I have done for some thirty years. A lot of my decision making is based on the fact that I am not planning - for the short term anyway - to live with anybody.  My traveling 1970s museum will be coming with me though it is much smaller than many would think.  Most importantly of all, I will finally be reunited with the magnificent Steinway on which I leaned to play back in the late 1970s and early 80s and which, for various reasons I was separated from due to my decision to live on the East Coast and the inability to find a home to accommodate a grand. Happily, my mother preserved and saved the piano for me, keeping it in top condition. I have played pianos  in Lincoln Center, and other places around the world and when I say this piano is one of the greatest I have ever touched I would not be in any sense exaggerating.

One of the first items of business for the new year, aside from finally creating a digital software score for my collaborative trombone and piano concertino with Sanifu Al Hall Jr.  I am very excited to do a double concerto with Hall. He is an extraordinary musician with not only full knowledge of music itself but also aspects of musical production, technology, and engineering. And of course the trombone is an instrument that can always use more utilization and the combination with piano, strings, brass and a popular rhythm section is a good idea.
But as that double concertino is already written my next quite big project is to write a second piano concerto for myself, a second concerto for improvised piano and orchestra. The last one I wrote was in 1997. I feel it is time for another one. I have already begun collecting themes for it. It will have many styles in it, a lot of which will be quite romantic as well and rhythmic, with lots of room for good old fashioned improvising over the all important changes. But more on that at another date.

The point of all of this biographical summary is for me to reflect on the nature of radical change in ones' life. I have been meaning to write a philosophically inclined post on the subject for close to a year now and I am taking this "life event" as an opportunity do put a few thoughts down on the nature of change.

Now one of the things we are constantly told in the contemporary or current epoch is that change is the only constant in life. One recurring meme (the word meme being of the more unfortunate of the new jargon that infests our life, whether it is imported from the humanities or the sciences) is this slogan, common in advertising, "it's what you do." Never before has there been such slavish conformity as during our current internet age.

One of the most profoundly anti-democratic events of the past thirty years is the fact that we replaced an entire way of life, based on things like telephones, retail stores to which we travelled to buy the things of life, and all the tiniest habits that we could call physical and three dimensional, with our current internet/computer based life. When being normative in my description I have called it the age of politicization and moralization (that is, a world of moral and emotional disapproval or praise of all human action and a division of the world into parties based on whether it is a like or a dislike). If I were being more descriptive I would call it the Age Of Simultaneity, an age whose main feature is that you can call up in seconds visual documentations or copies of every piece of visual or audible culture humans created for much of the twentieth century up to the present.


I call this decision anti-democratic because not once were the millions or billions of people really asked to reflect on whether any of this was a good idea, nor were they given an option to opt out. A few engineering geniuses simply decided we should live like this, mainly because it reflected their tastes or sensibilities, or specialized knowledge. There were no public forums of significance, except to announce what it was and how it was supposed to work, which by definition is not any kind of forum, and certainly no public deliberations about the pros and cons.

There was much serious critique among intellectuals, by Sven Birkerts, Jaron Lanier, and others, but this was never a public forum involving real-life decision making. We all sort of woke up one day and found we had to live this entirely new kind of life wherein we have to walk around looking at these portable objects all day, since it is has been decreed that these little objects are to be used for everything we do. I must say that though democracy is many times the right way to go, it is not always the best policy. That something is done in an anti-democratic fashion is not necessarily a case against the thing done. It seems to me, however, that when it comes to matters mandatory for social and private life,  a little democracy might be in order.

One of the reasons for this enormous cultural revolution is that the form the revolution took was in keeping with some of the oldest intuitions of most of the world, particular religious traditions: that the world and all people in it are at bottom one and the physical manifestations of separation are unreal, backwards and exclusive and are to be overcome if we are to progress. In that sense the internet is a mass market, literalist form of the oldest perennial philosophy.

The problem with this of course is that we can't really know for sure if we are all one: it is just a mystical feeling that a lot of people have always had. Of course a scientist or mystic can prove to us that is the case, and in this sense we are one; physicist and mystic seem to converge on this. When I question the proposition of oneness what I mean is that we can't know for sure how we are supposed to live in consequence of the fact.  Moreover, life consists of both oneness and separateness: our physical embodiment after all,  siamese twins notwithstanding, is singular (and this is important even if physicality is one sense illusory in the sense certain religions assert).

We also can't be sure that the destruction of separation or distance of time and space is either necessary, salutary or vindicatory. And the ability to reproduce or recall every record of all the stuff humans have created in the past in an instant in the present raises many more issues than mere copyright. There are questions not only of monetization of course, which might be the most urgent, but also sanity, and possible limits in human psychology. If one is to invoke incipient AI, there is the additional question of the "Turing Test", labor competition, joblessness on a mass scale, and all the rest of it.

It is, in my mind anyway, highly more likely that we aren't one in a literal sense or can't achieve oneness, at least without a fight - the kind of fight that might make such achievement pyrrhic: our differences are significant and profound, maybe inevitable and permanent. Maybe humans need to be as separate from one another, if only to keep the peace, as together with one another.  And there is the crucial issue of necessary difference. But it is important to note that we never had the debate or discussion of whether it was ever a good idea to have everything in one place as we now do. And as I said, if we were to have the debate, the bias would have always been towards anything that smacks of unity or togetherness, especially since so much of the evil of previous ages appears to us chiefly as a matter of  false or malicious separation, a violation of our essential and underlying unity.

There was much talk, back in the anxiety filled 1990s, when talk of togetherness and community was just getting started, of how the once much needed "differentiation of spheres" had gone too far, resulting in the fragmentation and isolation of spheres and loss of some kind of integrated unity. It appears, however, that ever since we have gone as far as we can in the opposite direction. The values of opacity, of privacy, of exclusion and differentiation have been under the greatest assault. And we have to live with the result.

I digressed into all of this reflection upon technological change because the past two years have been years of wrenching change for me personally, all of it unforeseen and unbidden. (I will not get into public or political change which as we all know is as dramatic, volatile and unstable as you can get). That is, I want to make clear not only that not all change is the same but that change has differing and different meanings depending upon one's stage in life, one's numerical age, one's temperament, one's abilities, customs and a whole host of other quite individualized things. You simply can't make  the word change into a synonym for a kind of normative account of progress.

 I think the day as a society we begin to start from and with the individual, and the individualized profile, will be the day we begin to make collective decisions that allow for real diversity. Given current trends, concerned as they are with conceptualizing human life in terms of large groupings, that day appears far off. We could create a world that works for both the shy and anxious as well as the outgoing and domineering, while reigning in the negative side effects of anybody who goes to the farthest extreme, all the while with compassionate understanding of what are the inevitable temperament and leanings.

Music for me is one of the greatest of the arts, but all the arts share a family resemblance. One of the things I love about music is its abstraction. But that is but one of several possibilities, I think any art form, however troubling the content, especially if the content is troubling, if, to name a prominent example, it is representational about people in less than desirable circumstances, is a means for humans to create a big school for themselves. Art is really this big school, and in this sense no difference whatsoever than what used to go by the name of religion, where, by absorbing or experiencing the art object, you can reflect in a neutral space, a partially disinterested space, and try to figure things out. Whether you see art as a means for increasing knowledge or, in Andrei Tarkovsky's more rigorous, but possibly superior formulation, you see art as increasing preparedness for death and salvation of the soul, such differences of emphasis matter less than the sameness of all art in its almost religious necessity. Art and life are one in that art is an expression of what is going on in our life. Art and life are separate in that art is a time out from life and thus, a meditation upon life.

Well I have said enough I think for this post. Time to write some more music.

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.

https://mitchhampton.bandcamp.com/track/mtm

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.