Composer or Improviser?

When I was around ten-years-old, a new occupant arrived in our home. It was an old brown upright piano from Germany. I had been drawn to playing music before that. I’d strummed my Dad’s guitar and probably had to play the ubiquitous tin whistle while at school. I have no doubt there must have been a little casio keyboard knocking about too. Nothing though could compare with the full length 88-key piano. The wonder of that. I would spend hours ”messing around” on it. Just coming up with stuff. I’d had no formal training so my musical vocabulary was limited but I definitely enjoyed the exploration and it seemed, even within the limitations of my knowledge, to be a tool for personal expression. I could in a very basic way, put my feelings into music.

A few years later, perhaps by my own request, I started piano lessons. This put me on the track of practicing up classical pieces and doing some grade exams. I went through the grades quickly. Well, my teacher thought I had talent and skipped half the grades. She thought it was a waste of time doing all of them. I am not entirely sure this was right. Although I showed an affinity for music, I still needed the hours or months of regular practice to really get the playing into my hands. The more practice, the more limber and the more tonal and dynamic variance possible. Having said that, I am sure I got to bypass a lot of boring music.

I enjoyed learning some of the pieces. I could at times be very strict, repeating phrases over and over until they came fluently to me. I wouldn’t say ”perfect”. I don’t believe there is a perfect way to play Mozart. Otherwise one style or even one pianist alone would suffice and 99 percent of the professional performances and recordings in history would become redundant. Interpretation at the least highly obfuscates the notion of perfection in music. Notice I am also intentionally using words related to language. I mentioned vocabulary and fluency. That is because music does share quite a lot with language.

I did my final piano when I was 18, but by then, I had also been playing the cello for two years so I didn’t continue with grades. I later sold my cello and bought a concert flute. Most people react to that with shock. The cello being as it is one of the most attractive-looking and sounding instruments you could think of. I was getting into jazz though and found a wind instrument to be far more suitable. I had discovered jazz flute players like Eric Dolphy, Herbie Mann and Roland Kirk. The latter’s over-blowing technique and singing into the instrument had a quintessential 70’s sound to it that I was really keen on. Think of the music to so many American TV shows from that decade and films like Dirty Harry.

Anyway, in my second year in university in 1998, I started to compose music. I had done a little before. Actually, I submitted some original work as part of my entrance into the university so it was something I was interested in. I did a composition course and started to compose. I produced a lot of music over the next twenty years. Some of it guided by various tutors when I was in university but mostly done off my own bat. It is important to point out that some people are actually unaware classical music still exists. They think it is the pop music of the past. This is absolutely not correct. Classical music as we know it, from Bach to Beethoven to Stravinsky, has continued into the present day much like modern art. It’s true that a plethora of genre cross-overs exist but there is still a history that contemporary composers feel a part of. Most contemporary classical is rarely heard by the general public though some small amount of film music does get a wider audience. Contemporary classical music’s home is university music departments and academies. This is where most composers now find themselves too.

Composing is not easy. It involves being able to come up with musical ideas and then put them together to form some logical whole. Most people overlook the latter part of this. If you are writing a pop song, then, in most cases, the form is very straightforward. You don’t have to give it too much thought. There is a refrain and verses. There might be a solo too in the middle over the same chords as the verse. There might be a linking bit between the verse and the chorus. That formula accounts for virtually all Western popular music songs. The exceptions are extremely few and far between. Classical is more complex. Generally speaking, when we look at the classical composer of the past they tended towards more complexity of form. In the case of full-blown symphonies, the complexity and intelligent design can be staggering if you pull it apart.

There is also another hurdle when composing. Style. Now you might think that style is something personal. You are right, in a way it is personal or ought to be but the 20th Century saw a massive amount of variety in classical music. This made composing in that tradition very difficult. Where does one begin? Who are ones influences? Initially I followed a style called neo-classicism. It’s like Mozart with weird bits. I then progressed to minimalism or post-minimalism. This is often highly-repetitive and overtly simple music, designed more to entrance someone than take them on a musical journey. For me, the idea of minimalism is more non-Western. It is non-goal oriented. Almost all Western Classical music after 1600 is goal-oriented. The very musical systems being used contribute to this. There is a home key or home chords and there is a desire to get back to them backed up by a need to resolve any dissonance a long the way. At its core, the music seeks resolution. Many other traditions outside Europe and America do not have this way of looking at music. Indian and Chinese classical music, for example. It is more like saying: ”We are here. We are not going anywhere. Let’s just take a look around at all the beauty for a while”.

As a composer, you don’t have to follow a style or a camp but it is harder if you don’t. Besides, if you like something you will imitate it. At some point. So if you just play what you like the sound of, it will become not just your style but align itself with a pre-existing style. There is no totally unique-sounding music anymore. It is all variations on a theme. Full of borrowed bits with varying degrees of transformation. When composing more complex music you obviously need some forethought. There is a romantic notion that you can sit down at a piano and make up a song or piece of music from nothing that is uniquely you and the form just takes care of itself. In fact, classical music is much more like what an architect has to do. Have an overall plan and then add the details which will make it all work. There is a micro and macro level.

At the beginning of my second year of undergraduate studies in uni, I discovered Miles Davis. I loved Kind of Blue, one of the greatest Jazz albums of all time. My love for two other musicians on the recording came from there and have surpassed Miles in every way. Two giants: John Coltrane and Bill Evans. Jazz has had a massive impact on my life as a musician and composer. Whether imitating certain jazz chords or actively using improvisation within the context of a fully-written out composition. As a person, I can’t measure the importance of both of these guys on me.

In 2001, I became increasingly obsessed with Coltrane. I would listen to his music over and over. Particularly the albums Ole Coltrane, My Favourite Things and A Love Supreme. I found the music to be really beautiful, melancholic and transcendental.  At the time I was losing interest in pre-composed music since I saw in Coltrane that something utterly compelling could be achieved through improvisation. I took a stab at jazz piano but maybe didn’t have the discipline for it. The books back then were not too approachable either. I guess I could have done with a jazz piano teacher.

My minimalist phase was coming to an end. I was simplifying things down to the point where I was composing for single instruments. I believed in total objectivity. No descriptive titles. Almost all my compositions were called ”Music for … ” (followed by the instrument names). Now, you might interpret that as me being detached from the emotion of music. It’s not quite like that. Yes, the music was not freely expressive but, as a result of my minimalist music explorations, I had learned that total objectivity and repetition can produce a very powerful effect. On the right ears, that is. I had been moved to tears by Steve Reich’s six pianos. I knew about the ecstasy that this music could produce. I had followed suit. I have always been spiritually-inclined so music that was in some way transcendent was of great interest to me. I planned that my very last minimalist composition would be a work for solo bell. Can’t get much more basic, or perhaps Zen, than that.

So, I acquired a lot of interest in improvisation as heard in Coltrane and, it must be said, in the music of minimalists who used improvisation like Terry Riley. In the spring of 2000, I came up with the idea of a work called Seven Hours. It was to be a solo piano performance lasting seven hours with only a very basic outline of what form the music should take during that time. I don’t recall the guidelines, but I do think one hour might have been playing in one particular scale only, for example. There are many many non-Western i.e. Major and Minor scales to choose from that can open up a whole other world of sound. I was full of excitement for this idea. To come up with new music which would belong to that time and place only. Whatever happened that afternoon would remain only as a memory. I don’t think I even had the plan to record it. One of the lecturers just laughed when I told him about the idea. It was never performed in full but I did sit and play for about 3 hours that Friday afternoon in May and a few other students, expecting there to be a ”concert”, did show up. I had grown up with playing to myself, something that Bill Evans talks about the value of, so I could sit there happily alone for a long time too.

What happened next was kind of strange. I found myself back-tracking and composed a set of solo piano pieces. Very simple in character but I wouldn’t call them minimalist. I performed them in November of 2001. I suppose a part of me liked the discipline of composing music still. It was at least very familiar ground. Fully writing it down. After Christmas I decided to apply for a PhD in composition abroad so I did a complete turn about and started to compose much more complex and in many aspects classically-conventional music. The music was an odd mix of styles. I am not sure I knew what I was doing in terms of my own voice. I got accepted for the PhD and studied for three years. It was not a good time for me and in the end and no PhD came of it. I won’t get into that here but I would say that I had trouble being myself musically and I had some objection to analysing my music and the music of the past with a fine tooth comb.

I think it was in 2008 or so that I discovered Keith Jarrett and now I can easily say that he is as important to me as Coltrane in terms of his musical impact on me as a person and composer. If there is one musician who totally nailed what I had been trying to do with Seven Hours, it is him. During the 70’s and 80’s, Jarrett arranged a series of concerts where he would improvise for long periods of time with only a very basic outline of what the music would be. His music is categorised as ”jazz” but many jazz aficionados have begged to differ. To my ears it is a kind of ”open-genre music”. It is simply piano music. There are elements of different styles of jazz from boogie-woogie to Bill Evans but there are also elements of other strands of popular music and a lot of classical music too. What do you end up with if you can shift through styles and make them somehow work as a whole? You end up with a very distinct voice.

At the core of Jarrett’s playing is a tremendous awareness of the spiritual potential of music. The Koln Concert, The Vienna Concert and La Scala are the three albums that have had the most impact on me. It is not just about mixing styles of music but about taking a path as varied and meaningful as life. We go on this path with him through many different states and moods and arrive where we started with fresh eyes or, we reach another plain completely. I have gone on and on in the past to people about a melody that appears in The Koln Concert. One of the most beautiful creations I have ever heard emerging as it does out of this prolonged journey that I just spoke of. I don’t know if he improvised it on the spot. If he did, then the moment is transcendent and is surely one of the greatest moments in music history, let alone Jazz. If this melody was preconceived, it is still a masterful approach to and departure from it.

I would highly recommend The Koln Concert. It is one of those albums you should listen to before you die. Sadly, a lot of people don’t have the patience for this much solo piano music and worse still, to some it might just sound like background music. That’s the nature of music and culture now. It is also not that accessible. When I heard it first it kind of went over my head. As with most good things, the more you put in, the more you get out.

Time and place are so important to Jarrett and to what I had tried to do with Seven Hours too. Most music we hear is recorded in a studio. Time and place makes very little difference. It comes into play in a different way when we associate a time in our lives or even a very specific moment with that music. Something which can remain with us for years. I am not talking about that even though it is powerful in its own right. I am talking about the live event. The fact that this moment in musical can never be repeated. It is special. Now, it is one thing to have a live concert of pre-composed music that is followed to the letter and something totally different when the music is actually being creating on the spot. Rock sometimes finds itself midway between these two points. A lot of folk music too. Incidentally, even some of the great classical composers like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven regularly improvised at concerts to great adulation of the audience. To be there at the inception of the music is something very significant, I feel. Something you can’t over-value.

I also don’t want to forget to mention the power of ”the jam”. I have jammed with other musicians and that can also be very rewarding. If all the musicians are improvising and they hit upon something. They get some good groove going. Great things can happen. So much of what makes rock music what it is comes from the starting point of the jam. Half the great guitar solos were invented on the spot too. Just play and see what happens. That’s can be a door to some amazing things.

Other musical traditions are rife with improvisation too. It is a fundamental part of Indian Classical Music among many others. Despite there often being a lot of rules to follow, where you take a piece is in many ways largely up to you. Since so much music is not notated, improvisation has become a fundamental building block of music all over the world. This immediate intuitive approach to music-making seems to be something very human.

When you compose music. When you write it down. There is one jarring obstacle. You are removing yourself from the finished work. You are after all only writing down instructions for someone else to play it. Even if you play it yourself you still have to write down those instructions and then you must perform it or get it performed by others. This is also not easy unless you are already in some kind of musical group that wants to perform your stuff. There is, in any case, an immediate gap between your notes on a page and actual music. Live improvisation bridges that gap and negates the role (and the rule) of notation from removing it completely from the equation.

Now do consider though, in Jazz and in the improvisations I do, it is inherently impossible to ”play blind”. You are always imagining what will come next. There is therefore also an element of pre-planning. As in jazz, there is very much a preconceived idea such as a particular melody or sequence of chords that can be used as the basis for improvising. It’s like language again. It’s all very fine having a great command of grammar and vocabulary but you also need to know what you want to say.

Over the years, I have met a number of musicians who are not able to improvise at all. I don’t know if it has something to do with confidence or using a certain part of the brain when making music but it is very interesting. I was also once friends with a composer who thought that improvisation was always inferior to fully-notated music. I find that to be an incredible assumption. If the purpose of music is to communicate to you, to move you, to transport you to another place, then writing something down is really not necessary at all. The need for writing it down, other than a convention, would be largely due to the complexity and the desire to have something sound as close as possible to the same every time we hear it. It also serves like an instruction manual that can be easily given to others to play. Perhaps giving up notation is like giving up perceived control. The composer would need to take a step back from total control of the result of their music and not a lot of people like the idea of letting go of any control at all.

Having toyed with the idea of recording my improvisations and done a little of that in 2010, I have never really explored the possibilities as I should. It does involve a good degree of courage. You see, it’s not just about sitting down and playing. Jarrett had this whole education in jazz and classical piano playing. He hand it in the hands.  You need to know the vocabulary and the grammar and the more rich these are, the greater command of the language. These days I am thinking a lot about what I let go of when I subjugated my intuitive approach to musical creation in an effort to conform to some notion of contemporary classical music. I still will sit at a piano and just play and this in itself can be a complete experience. No less than if I played Bach. It’s not because I am equal to Bach. It’s because one is great music that I am interpreting within a very narrow scope and mainly just ”reading into sound”. The other is me. It is entirely my own musical knowledge and experience. It is not even so planned as to thwart that element of spontaneity. It’s almost like dreaming the music. The ideas come when they want to as if out of nowhere yet have tales to tell about the human they come through. Not pre-conscious or fully conscious but perhaps subconscious too. It seems to me that this is a profoundly more satisfying a way to engage with this most captivating of the arts.


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