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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Grunge and Me

I remember going clothes shopping with my mother in the early 90’s. There was a shop I can’t remember the name of that had this upstairs section for ”young people”. The boom of MTV filled the warehouse-chic surroundings and somewhat bedraggled teenagers wandered around zombie-like. Too cool to look like they cared. On the prowl for some new item of clothing two sizes too big for them. Jeans that went up to their armpits and giant pullovers that went down to their knees. I hated going there. I guess I didn’t feel remotely like I was one of them. Plus, being a young teenager with your mother in the presence of others of your species can feel like that scene in Game Of Thrones when Xerxes is publicly humiliated. Shame! Shame!

It’s safe to say I was neither Beavis or Butthead but neither was I a skinny guy who wore sunglasses indoors and a smiley t-shirt in winter. That was the main alternative. To become a raver. Ecstasy use was the terrorism of the day. Parents up and down the country were ringing into afternoon chat-shows, up in arms that their kid was running off to some as yet unnamed destination, to dance like an idiot and take these pills that were probably going to kill them. The papers were full of headlines about the cases of teens who took the drug and died. It sure made it seem like most people who took them didn’t make it. At the same time, alcohol was directly and indirectly killing a hundred-times more people. The problem is that Mammy and Daddy also drink alcohol so let’s just concentrate on the ecstasy.

I went to an all boys school. I know, a nightmare. It was situated on a hill in my hometown with the girls school was at the bottom of the hill. All we had in common is that we were supposed to be Catholics. There were paths downhill through the briars for daring young men to take during school hours to catch a glimpse of one of these otherworldly beings. Probably having to slay some dragons on the way. I actually had music classes in the girls school. What a fantastic mixture of excitement and embarrassment I discovered going to those. Long before that though, I came to know that our class was divided by musical taste and musical taste ruled the fashion. The boys had the names of bands scribbled on their sad-looking bags with poorly imitated logos of the said bands’ names.  This helped as much as anything to tell who was who. Plus the ones with the oversized clothing were into grunge and the ones with two many conflicting colours were into electronic music. Not to forget the ones at the gates of tie-dyed hell either.

I certainly didn’t fit into any camp. I spent my afternoons lying on my bed in the afternoon sun listening to Beethoven or writing about Bach in class cause I was bored. I gave up on popular music around the time that ballads were taking over the airwaves in the late 80’s. I didn’t like the new electronic sound but neither did I go for the Seattle sound not being a fan of rock to begin with. It doesn’t mean I didn’t hear grunge music. It was everywhere. On my first date, I remember the song ”About A Girl” and the guitar sound in the verse of ”Smells Like Teen Spirit” still takes me right back to that time. A kind of timeless trigger. My cousin was into the Nirvana and I heard a lot about them from him. The day Cobain died he was visiting my house and talked about how the girls in town were walking around crying and everyone was in disbelief. It seemed like something really big had happened.

As for Pearl Jam, the other massive band of the time, well there were two guys in my class at one point. One of them was nicknamed ”Bird” and the other one was nicknamed ”Pigeon”. I remember one day saying ”There are actually two birds in the class and one of them is a pigeon”. It got a laugh from a couple of the guys but the ”pigeon” was not happy. In return, he kind of payed me a compliment by calling me ”Jeremy” after Pearl Jam’s most played song. I guess he thought we were alike. Up to the point where Jeremy spoke in class today, of course. I was very quiet most of the time but more than a few of my fellow students must have thought I had a dark side. I guess I was a nerd before their was a group name for these people. I saw myself and a couple of friends I had at the time as ”outsiders”. Later, I hung out with the cool kids. I moved about between groups a lot. Nobody knew what group I belonged to in the end. Maybe cause I belonged to none.

So time passed and the music too. Of course I heard the music of Nirvana in particular on and off over the years but never took to it. I guess I was put off by the enigmatic lyrics and the thought that Cobain probably had no idea what he singing about half the time either. How this changed was interesting. I had a girlfriend who was into rock and I started to see more and more documentaries about popular music history and culture on TV. The BBC went through this phase of bombarding viewers with show after show about different musical periods and styles. This ignited my interest and understanding of the music. Mix this with increased nostalgia I was feeling as I was getting older and I started to like Nirvana more and more. I got to hear their music as if for the first time.

Pearl Jam however were my favourites and still are. I knew the song ”Jeremy”. Who didn’t? I remember I found their CD buried behind a sofa in a student flat I was living in outside Dublin. Amazingly it still played too. I took it with me to Slovakia along with my trusty portable CD-player and none other than their seminal album ”Ten”. One of the most solid debut albums ever. Like Portishead’s first album ”Dummy” from the same decade, an album that hasn’t a single weak song on it. I associate Pearl Jam with Slovakia in particular. The story-telling lyrics, the searching for some kind of spiritual catharsis sets them apart from Nirvana who, for me, inhabited a cloudier and more toxic world.

I don’t want to ignore other bands from the time. Soundgarden’s album ”Superunknown” helped me through one of the darkest times in my life. It was suggested by a friend at the time to serve as a kind of therapy. Rage Against The Machine, although not really grunge, were also very big back then and I rediscovered them as recently as last year. Their eponymous album is a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned.

It happened to me many times that I missed the boat initially when a style of music was trendy and discovered it later. I am the reverse of the cool kids who try to say they were into a band when nobody liked it but now they don’t like the band cause too many people like it. Even though the music is the same or better. It is crucial to continue to explore new musical horizons. There is so much out there to be found and the rewards are not something you can even really measure.

Opera Is Boring, Right?

  I have always loved music and it was just natural for me to also love classical music. It wasn’t forced on me and I was definitely not trying to be part of some social elite. Being four years old and all. That is a valid argument against classical and opera especially. Most people do associate it with rich people wearing fancy gowns, a kind of high societal clique where the general public are not welcome. A world where the average Joe or Josephine might feel intimidated or looked down upon. That world of the upper classes reminds me of the opening of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholy. A stifling, preening and cold place to inhabit. No wonder Kirsten got depressed!

In order for opera to survive, of course, the general public needed to be embraced. The so-called ”masses”. An expression I hate. I imagine an army of zombies when I hear that. The increasing gap between popular culture and the world of opera needed to be narrowed, I suppose. Good and bad has come from that.

So, back to the title of this post, is opera boring? Honestly, it really really can be. They tend to last at least 2.5 hours and often very little happens. A few words needed to move the story forward can be a scene lasting half an hour. Many repetitions doesn’t help this either. However, looking for a fast moving experience is kind of missing the point. We are supposed to savour the music. The music is after all, the core. Opera is like a world you can enter, perhaps more so than most other music because of its length and the visual element. It is in many ways like cinema and we all know that films can be boring too. Length again often the issue there. We live in an impatient world and it is difficult for people to slow down and take in something like opera. It’s a pity because there is, no doubt, some treasure to be discovered.

I would say the next most common problem people have with it is the ridiculous style of singing. OK, don’t get me wrong here, I do love some arias but this way of singing with a massive vibrato voice can be hard to take sometimes. It has not always been the preferred method and neither does it exist in most other cultures. I personally hate heavy vibrato such that you can hardly even hear the note the singer is trying to produce. There are of course good and bad singers and lots of different voices. Don’t imagine they all sound the same. Also, there are some operas from the Baroque era which feature singers that sing in a much purer style. You can go with those if you wish too.

What else can be said of opera. Well, another pet peeve of mine is the casting. Recently I started to watch Puccini’s La Boheme on Sky Arts and when I saw who was in the role of Mimi, the lead actress, I turned it off in seconds. It made it unwatchable. No matter how good her voice may have been, she looked totally wrong for the part. Mimi in my mind had to be somewhat of a waif. A slightly sickly petite girl from the Bohemian quarter. Not someone who who looks like they could beat you in an arm wrestling contest. That is one example, where the look is not right but the producers don’t seem to care much. The other applies to age. What on earth would possess someone to cast a 50-year-old soprano in the role of a 16-year-old Juliet? It is wrong in so many ways. Sadly, again, it is often something that is overlooked. Times are changing there though. This is the advantage of larger audiences. The general public who have grown up on films and very little theatre simply don’t have the stomach for that. So change is good in this case.

When asked if I like opera. I have mixed feelings. I went through a phase of listening to many many operas. This was typical of me. It was a challenge and that motivated me. I sat through some very boring productions. The only thing keeping me from jumping out of the nearest window was the music. That indeed is the most important element to focus on. I have amazingly only seen one full opera live. It was La Traviata in Prague and it was truly memorable. Don’t underestimate the theatrical elements either. Relating to the characters as you would in a film. It is a hugely important part also.

As a listener to opera on CD I got to know some arias that to this day really affect me. The specific performances being as important as the arias. Maria Callas singing ”Si, mi chiamano Mimi” from La Boheme is a solid favourite. It is a mono recording. Apologies for not knowing exactly which one. There are, I guess, a few. It is her mixture of innocence and that moment of passion 2/3rds of the way through when we realise the quiet unassuming girl Mimi has this deeply passionate side to her. The music that accompanies this is enough to make a grown man cry, as they say. Puccini was a master of expressing emotion in the most unashamedly romantic way. The other example is Giuseppe Di Stefano singing ”Nessun dorma” from Turandot. Puccini again. This is one of the most popular arias of all time. The three tenors are largely responsible for that. Interesting though, I was never moved by Pavarotti singing it but Di Stefano…

To finish up, opera is not just one thing. There are many different worlds to visit. It’s not all loud overly-zealous Italians either. Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande is like venturing into someone’s dream (or beautiful nightmare) and Berg’s Lulu has a modernity and an unfamiliar musical language to most that I was really taken by when I saw in first on TV. Styles of singing vary, productions can be amazing or dire. Keep an open mind. Also, as arias are popular and easy to download, consider not just the aria but the opera as a whole. For me, listening to one aria from Tosca rather than hearing the whole piece, is like looking at one scene from Goodfellas and not getting to watch the whole movie. It’s the definition of missing out. So, I guess I am encouraging you to try an opera and if it is crap, don’t assume anything.