Thursday, January 19, 2012

To Read (Music) is to Not Know?

Late yesterday evening, jazz critic Nate Chinen posted a rather innocuous tweet. He wrote, "Sometimes I think jazz musicians underestimate the appeal of a band performing without music stands."

Cue firestorm.

I'm not going to report on everyone who said what, just that it touched a lot of nerves across various musical communities. Drummer Matt Wilson chimed in with remembrances of Dewey Redman. Sara Kirkland Snider and Judd Greenstein spoke from experience in the world of alt-classical. And of course the prodigious tweeter-cum-trumpeter Nicholas Payton had to get in on the action this morning ("It ain't the tool, it's the fool using it," he said).

So I responded as well with the following tweet. "[I]s it that there's less tune-learning by ear now & jazz people refer to selves as composers not songwriters?"

Chinen responded by noting that this is definitely a factor, but then noting the impressiveness of working bands that play complex music without charts - Vijay Iyer's trio and the Bad Plus.

So now I will try to answer why this set off such a firestorm, what I really meant in my tweet, and what I think about Chinen's response.

What's the big deal?

Jazz people always love a negative opinion. The oft-repeated jazz is dead meme, Kurt Rosenwinkel's modern jazz sucks rant, Nicholas Payton's post-modern New Orleans-jazz as a word has no meaning thing. Stuff like that catches on. Chinen's tweet certainly has enough snark to catch on with jazz folk, and it gets an entire idea across within the 140 character limit, so all the easier to respond to.

But it can't just be the negativity thing. There were those classical people getting in on the threat too. The great thing about Chinen's tweet is that it gets at a fundamental issue of how to teach and learn music. If a small jazz group is reading music on the bandstand, it probably hasn't rehearsed the music much. The group hasn't had time to internalize it. Written music allows for quicker uptake of more music, but the problem is that there is so much more to a piece of music than what is on the page. Chinen seemed to be speaking to an apparent epidemic in jazz where bands use seemingly use gigs as rehearsal time (even affects the best of us, like Ravi Coltrane) and aren't putting forth a strong, fully-baked product.

Which leads me to my tweet

I remember hearing guitarist Mark Stewart of the Bang On a Can All Stars (and Paul Simon's music director) talk about rehearsing a piece for the group by Ornette Coleman. Stewart said that Coleman said something to effect of, "We've had notation for hundreds of years and all it does is give us more problems." Coleman has a point in that notation as we know it isn't the best way of communicating many kinds of musical gestures. Transcribing jazz solos (especially Coleman's) can many times be an exercise in futility because everything that makes the solo great - the particular character of the rhythmic feel, the pitch bends, the tone quality of particular notes - are impossible to completely encapsulate on paper.

When one is truly "reading" a piece of music, one's focus is devoted to playing the correct notes at the correct time, and maybe getting the correct articulations and dynamics too, if the notes and rhythms aren't too hard. Any of the "music" that actually comes out is the result of the pre-programmed instincts physically encoded into the muscle memory of the player. The performer doesn't really have time to think about musical character and inflection. Seeing a group of musicians read music they're not particularly familiar with in front of an audience is like seeing a show where all the actors carry their scripts around. The latter happens, but it's definitely not standard operating procedure.

If a musician learns a particular piece of music aurally, he or she has to learn the notes and rhythms in small chunks (based on the whole 7 +/- 2 bits of information that one can hold in short term memory at a given time), but doesn't just learn the notes and rhythms in abstract. The musician learns the qualities of each note, and how they're supposed to go from one note to the next in the phrase. By the time the musician finishes learning the piece, they have already gotten inside it, internalized all of the nuances.

However, this process is time consuming and so usually only works for short pieces, i.e. songs and tunes. Which finally brings me to the point of my tweet. (Prepare for un-backed sweeping statement). Until the mid-1960s or so, jazz was primarily a tune-based idiom. Jazz bands would play versions of pop tunes of the day, having learned them from ubiquitous radio-play or what not. When jazz musicians would write their own tunes, they would be based on pop forms (sometimes explicitly, stringing a new melody on a popular tune's chord progression) or traditional forms like the blues. (Digression: big bands needed notation to coordinate many instrumentalists, but that leads to another part of the argument). When beboppers came together for a jam session, there was never a need for charts. The players just picked out tunes they all knew.

Most jazz musicians have gotten away from this mindset. Young players trying to "get with the tradition" play songbook standards out of fake book and lose all the nuance that makes a tune good. The impulse to art-ify the jazz led most musicians to write more and more complex charts with shifting meters and through-composed solo sections. There's a shift from an aural, vernacular idiom to a written, art-oriented one (America's classical music anyone?).

It's no surprise then that jazz people refer to themselves as composers rather than songwriters. To me, I feel that a lot of post-bop falls for a fetish of complexity that only a few musicians (David Binney as the prime exception that proves the rule) can pull off. My guess is that Chinen was at a gig with one of these kinds of bands when he unloaded his tweet.

There are still a few jazz musicians that work in a no-notation, tune-oriented environment. Lee Konitz comes to mind, with his pick an arbitrary standard and hope the band catches on game. Then there's Bill Frisell and his trio, who have a unique shared vocabulary of tunes across generations and genres. And then there's the whole folk/traditional/fiddle circuit where written charts would be even more out of place. It makes sense then that a lot of the bands I've been getting into lately that seem less reliant on charts come from this folk-ish sense of tune (Jeremy Udden's Plainville, Jenny Scheinman's Mischief and Mayhem).

Chinen's Response and Complexity Without Charts

I definitely agree with Chinen in terms of the impressiveness of groups like the Bad Plus and Vijay Iyer trio that can pull off tricky pieces with hardly a piece of paper music in sight. That's true with groups that play highly-complex classical music too. It's nuts seeing So Percussion rock John Cage's epic Third Construction completely memorized. And then there's Steve Reich's original group that read pieces like Music for 18 Musicians off little cheat sheets that hardly got in the way of anything.

When I perform any solo percussion piece, I always have to do it without music, just from a practical standpoint - I have to watch where my sticks are flying in order to hit the right marimba bar, or the right part of drum. Having to memorize pieces also helps me really internalize all aspects of the complex music. Having a written chart to read from may help the learning process at first, but by the time I memorize it, it's in the same performance state it would be if I learned it aurally bit by bit.

In this regard, I don't feel that the Bad Plus and Vijay Iyer playing without charts is any more special than a folk group playing a series of traditional tunes they learned by ear. The concept of "tunes" being "simple" is definitely blown up by this album by Crooked Still's Brittany Haas and composer-fiddler-laptop maven Dan Trueman (Go to track 5 for prime example). It's certainly possible to learn a lot of Vijay's and the Bad Plus's music in this way (I've done it with "Prehensile Dream" on piano). And Vijay's complexities are rhythmic rather than form or harmony-based. If Norwegian Fiddlers can learn the uneven springar meter (see the last track "Hangdog" below) by ear, it's possible to learn Vijay's crazy rhythms that way as well.

In the end, I feel performing without written music and music stands is the result of knowing music in a deep, subconscious, programmed-into-the-muscles way. One can get to this deep knowledge by learning music aurally and capturing the entire essence of each short phrase, or by memorizing a written work over a long period of time, and gradually adding more and more nuance through practice. In a performance context, it becomes more than just showing the audience you know the music so deeply, it takes on a sense of performance art. Without worrying about the mechanics of reading music, the players have the opportunity to actually look at each other and interact, move more freely and expressively, and translate the essence of the music in a more unadulterated way. It takes on a more ritualistic bent, and a greater sense of humanity. Watching someone read is boring. Watching someone speak well is fascinating. (Maybe they can make musical teleprompters?)

I'm now led back to the first part of my entry - why this tweet set off such a firestorm. Based on the amount of word vomit here, Chinen's tweet touches on huge issues that are very central to what makes a piece of music good - the what (the notes) or the how (the character). Pretty impressive for something less than 140 characters long.

Either way, I do think we can all agree on that if you're going to get up in front of an audience to play music, you better know that music damn well, music stand or no music stand.


  1. I only wish that I could afford to play the same music with the same musicians often enough to ditch the stands. For a working musician, that's a luxury that doesn't exist for many.

  2. Real good point there. I think this points to Ethan Iverson's support for a band aesthetic in jazz, not just for musical reasons, but for practical ones as well - share the load getting gigs and writing press kits and doing tech riders.

    So Percussion definitely has this kind of "band" thing going in the classical world. They always come out knowing their music well and each member takes some practical role such as talking to arts presenters or applying for grants/commissions.

    Time can be quite the luxury.

  3. I agree, Jeff. With using music stands, 9 times out of 10 it's a money issue not a proficiency issue. Some of the best performances I've ever heard were from behind a music stand.

  4. Let's not also forget when juggling improvisation with a notated score is just as impressive as playing from memory-- or when the two are melded. I'm thinking of Marilynn Crispell furiously turning the pages of a 'primary territory' while weaving in secondary and tertiary compositions AND improvising on top in the Braxton Quartet. His compositions and how they are performed tend to explode the standard model of playing off a sheet.

  5. wait--where was the 'another part of the argument' about the big bands?

    also, i LOVE this