Tuesday, July 15, 2014

You're improvising wrong

Or so says blogger, and composer Aaron Gervais. I thought he was mainly into trolling artists on economic issues, but then I saw this post, “Most Artists Don’t Really Get Creativity”, and I thought, OK, guy, tell me about it. 

The myth of free improvisation 
by Aaron Gervais

OK, I can dig it. If you really want to get philosophical, I think freedom in music is a little bit of a false concept. You are always a servant of the music, and you are never really free to do whatever you want independent of that. You can be, but it's bad practice— it causes bad music. All the word free really means is that you're making the whole thing up on the spot, and not playing a pre-composed piece in the traditional sense. It can also be a matter of degree— taking more or fewer liberties within a style. Philosophical questions like what is musical freedom? and how free are we improvising, like, really? are somewhat academic, and I and the players I know don't dedicate a lot of energy to them.

Certain types of free improvisation also have a tendency toward substituting actual creativity for mysticism. When people say they’re doing free improvisation, most of the time the thing they’re actually doing is not so much free as it is habitual. Unless forced otherwise by some structure, we have a tendency to do what is most comfortable. Non-improvising interpreters put effort into learning music that pushes them in new directions and leads to self-discovery. Similarly, more traditional improvisers work within boundaries that force them to stretch themselves, again leading to self-discovery. Free improvisers, on the other hand, are at much greater risk of falling back on clichés.

To say that free players (if we're going to treat them as a distinct group) are at a much greater risk of relying on clichés than someone who improvises within traditional structures— like, say, a blues saxophonist. Or even a bebop saxophonist. Or a non-improvising musician, who never creates anything— is absurd. You don't want to just barf up pre-packaged licks all day, but clichés, learned material, and favorite ideas are part of the terrain of music with any degree of improvisation; their presence is not a bad thing.

I don't know what he's talking about in re: “self-discovery”; since when is that the major purpose of a musician?

This is why so many free improv performances sound essentially identical. Yes, they’re technically all unique little snowflakes, but the human mind does not have an infinite capacity for appreciating shades of grey. You could say that, in actual practice, there are a handful of “pieces” in the free improv repertoire that are known collectively and interpreted, with minor variation, by the vast majority of practitioners—there’s probably less variety in free improv than in a jazz fakebook.

There's a lot of variety in a jazz fake book, so that's not as minimizing a thing as he's trying to make it. Like, there are hundreds of tunes in there, in many styles, by many dozens of composers— composers like this guy is supposed to be. I find it highly strange that a composer would speak so dismissively about some of the greatest people of the last 100 years, in his own field.

I'm also wondering how he figures that these improvised pieces all sound “identical”. Do they all feature the same instrumentation, the same players, with the same textures? Are they all played in the same key (or no key), the same meter (or no meter), the same defined or implied tempo? With the same overall structure? Same emergent melodies and accompaniment? That shit is supposed to matter. The specifics. And even if the music did all sound kind of the same, is that not also the case with, say, any random selection of late 18th century Viennese string quartets, or British Invasion songs, or Delta Blues 78s, or American Songbook tunes? What am I supposed to make of a composer who talks about music in such stereotypical terms?

Continued after the break:

This is not to say there aren’t some great free improvisers. I have met a few truly amazing ones in my time, and these artists go through elaborate mental gymnastics in order to get beyond their habits. Pianist Craig Taborn has described his routine in detail to me, and we’ve had long conversations about improvisation and creativity. His improvisatory practice (as I understand it) consists of a series of mind-clearing exercises that prevent him from being able to call on his habits. He plans nothing prior to performing. He actively distracts his musical thought while playing. It’s all about keeping his mind in the immediate present, detaching from the human desire to plan, to make goals. In a way it’s very zen—and the 8-12 hours he spends at the piano every day, year in and year out, makes for an equally monk-like routine.

Craig Taborn is one guy, and if that's his process, more power to him. He's a great musician. Seeing what else our blogger has written, I'm not sure I trust him to understand Taborn's ideas, and represent them accurately, but we'll assume he has. So, when playing, I try to think as little as possible (though not less!), but I also don't believe there's any inherent musical value in totally unplanned music over spontaneously-planned music, over totally preplanned or programmed music. What's supposed to happen if you succeed in purging all knowledge and intention from your performance? Are you going to invent a new way to crescendo? Is the keyboard going to sprout some new notes for you? Are you going to make a song that's never been heard? And what's the difference if I make a creative decision instantaneously, vs. a few seconds, or a minute, or six months, in advance of playing it? Like I say, if that's Taborn's process, fine— we're all trying to play in the moment, and get beyond our learned stuff, and into pure creativity. But for an obvious non-player to say that this seemingly ascetic process is the way to do it, is BS.

That said, Craig is an exception, one who lives a certain type of life in order to be able to play the music that he loves. Most free improvisers come to the tradition focusing primarily on how it makes them feel.

I don't know where he got that “most” statistic. I guess he did a study...

Of course it’s a wonderful rush to get up on stage and play your instrument to the best of your ability with a bunch of other musicians, listening to each other and crafting your lines in real time, never knowing what comes next. It feels liberating and magical, and certain musicians therefore see free improv as a more direct, communicative mode of performance.

That's not it, that's not what it is. What it is is just another form of playing, that's slightly different.

The mistake is in believing that the way you feel when you play music has any relationship to the way the audience feels. I’ve been to countless free improv sessions where the performers were obviously having fun but the music coming off the stage was a boring, unoriginal mishmash of clichés.

No other type of music is ever a boring, unoriginal mishmash of clichés, more fun for the musicians than for the audience.

You know what the word is for an activity that is pleasurable to do but not as much fun to watch? Masturbation.

Ugh. Leave it to this guy screw up masturbation. OK, since he raised this... specter... what the hell. We're all grownups:
1) SEX ED 101: Masturbation is a normal, healthy thing, which virtually every human being on the planet, ah, partakes in at one time or another. It's entirely positive and good, so I don't get why he's presenting it as an example of a bad thing you should not want to do the musical equivalent of.
2) Is he really going to make me point out that, in fact, a lot of people like to watch other people do that? Almost as many as actually do it themselves. They like it so much that there's a whole media industry based on those people paying a lot of money to see it.
3) My real problem here is about how hackneyed the comparison is, coming from someone who wants to teach us how to be creative.

If you want to put on a great performance, the audience comes first—it doesn’t matter how you feel.

Actually, the work comes first. Or some might say the process comes first. Unless you're doing commercial work, the music's effect on the audience is a by-product of this.

[...] Creativity in free improv does not stem from “just feeling it,” from tearing down the boundaries of structure so you can communicate more directly with the audience—those approaches are no different from speaking in tongues. Creativity in free improv requires endless practice, monastic devotion, and the hardcore determination of an ascetic aspiring to overcome his or her ingrained proclivities. As far as artistic disciplines go, it is probably one of the hardest paths to creativity the human mind has yet devised. Done wrong, you’ll spend your entire life circling the same ground over and over, all the while fooling yourself into believing that you’re some kind of daring explorer.

I don't actually know any musician who thinks playing free is about getting emotional and “feeling it.” And although it requires a lot of dedication to play any music well, it doesn't require you to be a damn monk. To paraphrase Bob Moses— a very religious guy: “It's like shitting.” You just play.


Todd Bishop said...

Oh God! Let's have a look...

Ha, you know what, I think that's written by a friend of mine-- I have a rehearsal with him this evening. It's a put-on...

Louis said...

His twitter account is particularly funny also.

Just don't get him to review your next release..!

Todd Bishop said...

I was wrong about that-- my friend is just a fan of him.