Wonderful piece in today’s Guardian about Jazz 625, a TV show from the 60’s that survives mostly on Youtube. It featured many of the greatest jazz musicians of the day.
It’s safe to say: Jazz 625 eventually will become an important item for jazz historians, it’s THAT good.
Here comes the improvisation-at-the piano sermon
Prior to 1850 or so (was that general time frame a golden age for the piano and those who wrote for it?), improvisation was expected as one among many skills musicians had. It. But despite expectations, improvisation got lost along the way. It got lost to the point where a friend of mine discussses its as
Improvisation: The Lost Art
Improvisation as a truly lost art just isn’t so, of course. But improvisation isn’t something that only some can do and it’s not limited to certain styles.
That last sentence is a common enough thought. Or maybe I should say I come across it commonly. Your experience may vary. Point being: improvisation is good and more pianists, I think, should be improvising. END OF SERMON. PROBABLY GIVEN HERE TO THE CHOIR.
My recording project and improvisation
I like to think audio files I’ve been posting lately from my ongoing recording project are demonstrations of limitation, in a way I can’t quite articulate. I say that because all of the pieces themselves began, very literally, as solo piano thingies that I recorded at home on my piano. The quality of the recordings aren’t great—there are no recording engineers or studios who’ll lose sleep over them!
I simply used two pretty good microphones attached to an excellent digital audio interface which fed what it captured from the microphones into my iPad. And, then, when I recorded, I prayed so that my dog or intruders wouldn’t make noise that would maim or kill the recording.
But. What the larger process was and is, the way out unfolded is I recorded everything into my iPad and then began playing around with improvisations, re-arranging them, adding electronic sounds, and audio processing to them.
So those the limitations under which I worked: My own project, my own recordings, my own re-compositions and re-improvisations. With the further limitation that whatever I ended up recording reflects things I know and don’t know.
And to be complete, there’s the stuff I know I don’t know and the stuff I don’t know that I don’t know. It’s the latter one that we all wonder about when we make music or choose music? Is that so?
Improvisation? Composition? Improvisition? Comprovisation?
As regards the recording project I re-composed, or I re-improvised, on all of my initial improvisations. Or I did both. None of the recordings were made in any specific order. Sometimes I captured one or two or three a day. Sometimes weeks went by without a recording.
It be nice to have completely uninterrupted time for creating things. But that’s a reality only every now and again.
But that’s a process that’s also very different from recording and then editing—editing in the sense of removing what I didn’t like or redoing or overdubbing to fix or repair imperfections and gaffes. Although it’s inevitable that there imperfections, gaffes, and mistakes have to be repaired! At least so it goes for me.
Maybe A better, more direct way to describe how I’ve been working on all of this is say I built each piece as if it were musique concrète.
Music concrète comes directly out of the western art music tradition. Yet my influences and thought processes about what I was doing had more to do with the Beatles and Miles Davis—all of whom put musique concrète techniques to good use when and as they needed them.
From the beginning there was technology
As I think now about what I’ve learned from all I’ve been working on much of the lesson comes from realising that an iPad or an iPhone, or, really, any portable device into which one can record is an essential part of learning how to play the piano.
Now, there’s nothing new to that idea of recording oneself and listening and critiquing and adjusting. But I also think it’s a process that we do when we’re ready to do it and not a second before. I define when we’re ready as meaning when we realise we have to do it because it’s the only way forward! I don’t know—there’s no universal prescription there, just my own thoughts about my own learning process.
And to be sure, and to say it again slightly differently, the recording device itself doesn’t have to be a new gizmo from a fruit company or whatever. An old portable cassette player can work. The point is
The more we hear ourselves play, the more then that we see what needs to be fixed or brought out or clarified or whatever.
But, still, that iPad and apps and higher ends
There’s the reality that apps for iPads and stuff mostly cost about as much as a cup of coffee, a sandwich, or in rare instances, a full dinner. What that means is it’s easy to equip an iPad with enough software gizmos and gadgets such that, with a microphone or two and a digital audio interface, we can all now have a recording studio available on call—and a studio, at that, that can easily rival the capability of studios in bygone years.
Cognoscenti may disagree with that because there is and always will be high-end equipment in a recording studio that pianists don’t typically have around the house or in their practice space. I can think, in some instances of microphones for example, that could set one back to the order of a four-digit number or mixing desks that require five-digit fees.
Yet, there’s also the example of the Synclavier, a legendary synthesiser used years ago by everyone in the pop music industry. Or we could just name Frank Zappa, who in the last years of his life was working from time to time, within Pierre Boulez’ IRCAM Centre in Paris. Frank Zappa was an enthusiastic Synclavier user.
In his day a Synclavier that easily could very easily cost well over a six-digit number. But now they now runs very faithfully on iPads for much less coinage than something measured in six digits. Cognoscenti may disagree—on the quality of the iPad Synclavier versus the real thing, that is.
Or a Moog 15, a synthesiser which is still in production and available for those want to part with $15k for it, exists in the form of a software emulation, an app, that runs on iPads. Cognoscenti who review such things on Youtube and elsewhere often say the sound the app produces is just about, if not completely, indistinguishable from the real thing.
But, as with the Synclavier, some cognoscenti will say, no, there are major differences. But whether or not there are differences a fundamental point holds, which is technology that once cost more than some cars and houses now goes for less than coffee, sandwiches, and beer.
What am I talking about?
In this post I’ve moved from improvisation in jazz as captured on UK television in the 1960s to recording to technology and on to opinions.
Have I advocated for technology? Or do I advocate for technology. Well, yes, I do and have. And the piano, of course, is one wonderful instance of a very complex technology. Especially considering it has almost ten-thousand moving parts.
I mean, who would design such a thing? Who could design such a thing?
What am I learning?
And there are skills I picked up and am picking up from all just described. But, there’s still another common point of view. To be honest, I was going to say something like
Pianists should just play the piano! It’s hard enough, the instrument, the piano, as it is!
A philosophy or an aesthetic that includes technology and gizmos?
On the other hand, f we understand the nature of the recording technology we might use at home or in a professional studio we’re that much further down the path of learning. In particular, we’re further down the path of in terms of how recording in a studio is a different experience than playing for an audience in a concert hall.
For some, knowledge of the difference between studio recording and concert performance will lead to better music making in both of those circumstances. For others, knowing about the difference between studio recording and concert performance will lead to knowing more about a something which in turn will lead to something else.
In the latter case, the idea that something leads to something else is a very round about way of saying learning for it’s own sake is a good. In my own experience and I know many others have found the same thing, learning for it’s own sake often leads to destinations we didn’t initially foresee.
Emergent or generative learning. Perhaps those are words that apply?
Every story has an ending
In the TV series Game of Thrones many characters, actually only those characters who speak high Valerian or know a few phrases from it, say
Definitely look that phrase up on the internet. And I’ll leave that there.
So, yes, if you’re reading along and you just have to know what Valar Morghulis means and if you want to know the proper response to valar morghulis then Google will serve as the useful tool, Serve, that’s an interesting word? Bob Dylan wrote a song about serving? So did Leonard Cohen?
Every ending has a beginning
Had I not studied music composition—formally, in the Western art music tradition I should add—and had I not spent quite a bit of time learning about technology in music and how to code and program and, well, there was working with Lego robots for year in Denmark. And then there was learning how to play the piano and playing jazz and improvising day after day and night after night—um, like all skills, the ones we want to improve require that we commit to them. Yes?
Here are some links to a few of the recordings on which I’ve been working. I’ll just add if anything sounds unfinished, well, it is! I’ll also say that these tracks and others on which I’m working all reflect different things or projects on which I’ve worked.
So there’s that idea that the music we make reflects who we are. Not only do I like that idea, but several of my mentors—piano teachers—reiterated that basic fundamental idea to me all the time:
The music we make reflects who we are.
Here are some of the tracks, again, almost entirely finished, to the degree of 98 percent or so.
But, as I’ve already said, none of the links represent finished work. There’s a final 2 percent waiting to be done. In this case, to finally, at last, once and for, finish things, I need to go into a good professional studio with a wonderful professional engineer who understands my intent almost as well I do. Who know, maybe an engineer who understands more about my intent than I do. Those people—they exist!
Actually, I know such a person and a studio for this. That’s because this particular individual, ensconced within his studio, in the business of recording and mastering recordings, which means finishing them off so they sound as good and professional and perfect as they can. And this individual is VERY GOOD at what he does. And he works almost entirely with piano recordings.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you but between takes the engineer whom I’m discussing will fix unisons on the piano and otherwise make sure everything is as perfect as it can be. So, just to be clear, and I’ve already said it, the piano in my recordings was recorded in my house with my microphones and I didn’t fix unisons between takes!
Every ending has a beginning
I had a wonderful composition teacher with whom I studied at the Hart School of Music. He had taught at Eastman for a while and he wrote his share of composition for major orchestras. But his most famous piece was called The Last Double Bass in Las Vegas. Probably better to look that up somewhere than for me to describe it.
Eugene spent most of his time in Paris working for a music publisher and then composing as he could. He was an interesting guy … among other things, he annotated many of his scores in English, Italian, French, and German. I think it’s fair to say, as a composer who believed in detailed expression, he wanted to convey his intent clearly.
The big lesson he left with with me, however, came on the day I asked, naively, “How many pieces a year should I be composing in a year if I wanted to call myself a composer?” His wonderful answer:
How many good pieces can you compose in a year?
How much good, solid work can we do in whatever time frame we’ve allotted for the task or project of job, whatever at hand. Thats’s a follow-the-breadcrumbs kind of thing that requires acceptance. The acceptance of knowing in advance exactly how things will end up isn’t really in our control.
One of my judo instructors said it a little differently. When talking about different judo techniques and throws—judo is a martial art where one upends their partner or opponent and then drops them on the ground—he used to say
We don’t choose the techniques we do best. Rather, the techniques choose us.
That’s apt enough for music making, too, I think.
But, about getting somewhere: the somewhere, for me it’s an arrival, hence there had to be a beginning. And a middle.
And the beginnings, middles, and endings all had their own beginnings, middles, and endings. And so on. Or there’s Vico and the eternal return, an idea that Nietzsche latched onto, I think. It’s also the idea on which The Matrix, the film, was built. I think.
A name for the project and just a little more information.
I almost forgot! My project has a name! But names have a way of changing until we finally really know the name we want. So right now, as regard my recording project, it’s:
Mark Polishook: Compositions for the electric things, iPad, and piano.
It’ll have eight or so tracks on it. Actually, as I complete it I’m looking forward to what’s soon to follow. What’s more to follow in the sense of
Music making leads to more music making.
And then there’s also the wry fact that I’ve titled my project with the word Composition yet just about everything, really all everything, on the recordings, is improvised.
I’ve never been sure about the difference between the two. So now, I’m even less sure.
That’s good. In any case, in the coming months, I’ll announce when and where the whole project is but I do know it’ll be at the Apple Store, Spotify, on CD, on Youtube, and elsewhere. Actually, the Youtube versions may have accompanying videos. But that’s a whole different thing in of itself.
If you have comments about any of the recordings to which I’ve linked I welcome your comments …