Imitation, Improvisation, and I

You know you're in a picture just like this one.

What could that cute-as-a-button baby have anything to do with this?

Notice the girl passing notes...

Or what does that cute-as-a-button baby have to do with this?

Did you know that babies will imitate facial expressions within hours of birth? (No one has proved that they do it immediately, since they’re usually busy crying and getting power-sprayed). What these activities have in common is imitation. Learning jazz involves extensive time not spent playing, but listening. Imitating other musicians that are admired is key until different elements from all those artists are chosen to create a unique sound. In the classroom, students are imitating more than we probably want them to. A their teacher’s attitude, their peers’ behavior, even speech patterns.

Humans, particularly children, learn naturally through imitation. It is one of the many traits cute-as-button babies get from ancestors. Darwin’s theory of natural selection at work: new generations are more capable of solving the problems that plagued those that came before. This is typical of basic tasks such as communication and movement.

The sciences of mind can provide a sounder conception of human nature, which ultimately underlies all educational policy. What is the mind of a child inherently good at? What is it bad at? ….An emerging view is that the human mind is impressively competent at problems that were recurring challenges to our evolutionary ancestors – seeing and moving, speaking and listening, reading emotions and intentions, making friends and influencing people. It is not so good at problems that are far simpler but which are posed only by a modern way of life: reading and writing, doing mathematical calculations, understanding the world of science or the mechanics of a complex society. We should not make false analogies that assume that children can learn to write as easily as they learn to speak, that learning math can be as fun as learning to run and throw, or that children in groups will learn to do science as readily as they learn to exchange gossip. On the other hand we can try to co-opt the mental faculties that work well (such as understanding how objects fall and roll) and get children to apply them to problems for which they lack natural competence. (source)

This information came at me while I have been learning how to improvise and play popular music on saxophone. I have only been, one might say, “classically trained.” Making music on the spot, without inhibitions, is a difficult procedure for me. A few days ago, I was given a new jazz chart in the university jazz band I play with, and it gave me a good startle. There was a solo. I stared at it. It stared back. Unabated. More frightening than the most complicated classical composition was the lack of any notes at all. Our relationship began there, and I let my eye contact fall to my baritone saxophone lying across my lap. No help came from that. All it was saying was, “I just do what you tell me to do.” The solo had won this round.

Learning to play jazz is a lot like picking up the speech patterns of your friends. I listen to other musicians that I want to emulate, and then listen to myself to see if it’s working. This usually involves playing my saxophone straight against a wall. I probably look like an imp.

“Who do you like to listen to?”
“A lot of Chris Potter.”
“Yeah, I can tell by your sound.”

But, it’s encouraging to read the above quote and think that my hours spent trying to imitate are bridging the gap between inherent abilities (imitating, listening) and complex problems (improvising over a Giant Steps progression. Not on your life, by the way).

I find Indian music very funky. I mean it’s very soulful, with their own kind of blues. But it’s the only other school on the planet that develops improvisation to the high degree that you find in jazz music. So we have a lot of common ground.

John McLaughlin

On the other hand, learning a new language is a lot like listening to jazz musicians. (See what I did there?) Last week, a former Spanish professor asked if I would be willing to record my voice reading a few paragraphs in Spanish. She is researching the depth of accents that both native and non-native speakers have when speaking Spanish, especially those who have spent time in Spanish-speaking countries. Her questions inquired about how much time I had been learning, where I had traveled to, for how long, etc.

“Where did you go?”
“I was in Chile.”
Nods. “I can tell by your accent.”

I am interested to learn about more of her findings over time. Am I some kind of anomaly, picking up an accent after only 7 weeks, while other American students who were with me clearly did not?  Or am I just a musician? Is it all just improv?

Learning through imitation is not cultural, it’s biological. As animals, we’re geared up to learn from day one, literally. Our environment and our genes is what does the teaching.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.

Nelson Mandela

Just as a thank-you for reading, I present you with some Balkan-flavored improvisation. Enjoy!

An American Idol Safari: Musical Language

You might believe there to be two universal languages: math and music. I had always thought this was true since I first heard it, and have used it for my own purposes to justify music education (yes, in my teaching classes we learn tactics to save our jobs. Sad). But recently, a friend of mine brought something new to my attention. There are musicians who often cross cultural boundaries — ethnomusicologists and such — that claim music is not a universal language whatsoever.

Wait, what?

Music as a universal language seems like an easy enough idea. We believe it to be so globally understood because melody and harmony illicit physical responses that do not require the weight of words. We can listen to Spanish pop, Italian opera, Mexican mariachi, or Canadian folk and understand the emotional message. So there’s your background. Moving on.

Music is a language, and as a language it evolves, degrades, blends, expands, etc. etc. I think a great example would be American Idol. For the last ten years, it has been at the peak of popular culture in our country and exemplifies — if not pioneers — the way we listen to popular music and popular music’s changing culture. So, rewind to when you were a pre-teen and listen to Kelly Clarkson’s winning performance in 2002:

Mm! Such good memories. Now it’s time for observations. We’re going to act like ethnomusicologists now. Ready?

This American Idol concert is now our “field,” so let’s make some field notes. Start simple.

She sang in English (duh), she was emotional (again, duh), she interacted with the audience, the backup band was a recording (either that or they’re very sneaky), the audience made noise verbally and non-verbally in support, and they were fairly well lit. Let’s stop there.

Make sense? What we’ve observed are “cultural codes.” According to author Mat Schwarzman,

All communities have cultural codes to signify their most important shared agreements and values — “I will cross at the crosswalk because that’s where drivers agree to stop for pedestrians,” “I will go to school because I believe it leads to a more fulfilling career,” etc.

These codes include many things, from team mascots (Go, [Gophers]!)  to historical community incidents (Were you around when…) to maps (That’s where the [Mississippi] river is) to well known individuals. Cultural codes can be expressed through a song, a statue, a phrase, or any image that sparks strong feelings and associations.

Cultural codes are powerful. They shape our thoughts, our dreams, what groups we identify with, everything down to our most basic sense of reality.

You might not realize it, but any concert audience you’ve been a part of has gone through steps that are culturally specific. We know the appropriate moments to applaud, the appropriate way to applaud, the appropriate action to take when the lights dim, etc. (I did lights at an all-Somali high school graduation recently, and realized that very little of the audience had any sense for what to do when the houselights dim. Suddenly, my entire job had no purpose!). The concert-going atmosphere becomes our tiny “reality” and most of us don’t think about how anything else could be different.

Okay? Okay. Now we compare. Here’s Nevena Covena’s winning performance in the first Bulgarian Idol of 2007:

Did you “get it”? If not, that’s okay. We’re talking about music as a language, and if you haven’t grown up hearing Bulgarian music, you just listened to a foreign language.

Field Notes: She sang a Bulgarian folk song in Bulgarian; there was a live bagpiper, positioned equally onstage with Nevena, though not lit equally; the audience’s reaction was non-verbal; only a specific section of the audience was standing in the beginning, and the rest was sitting (did you notice that?); the seats were not positioned in a way that would let the Nevena interact with the audience, and they were poorly lit; outwardly, Nevena’s emotions were in check.

All of these fall under “performance practice” that make up the structure and exercise of a performance, which goes beyond what the musician is doing. It would seem that the Bulgarian Idol focused more highly on the accompanying instrument and less (very little, actually) on the audience’s reaction. Does this mean that Americans are more interested in critical response?

There are other cultural codes that are at work also. We could also talk about the stage, the lighting, the camera movement, the specific audience members seen on camera, the use of the microphone, and Kelly’s clothes, not to mention the actual music they sang.

Maybe music isn’t so universal as we thought. Maybe music is like a language, and it needs patience and practice to understand, both as the performer and as the listener. So, what do you think? Is music still a universal language to you, or not? And is that good or bad?

Happy Weekend! Tall Men and Wailin’ Women

I once heard a musician say that a lot of folk dribbles into the music of Minnesota. I, a homegrown Minnesotan no less, have taken notice of the dribble and its satisfying sound. The voices of musicians and their guitars, like a thick powder, fell from the small radio in the corner of the kitchen while dinner was being cooked on Saturday nights both dreary and sunlit. I’ll spare more words so you can hear more music.

The Tallest Man on Earth, a soloist originally from Sweden. I will always practice my instruments, listen to others, and try to sing, so that one day, maybe, I will be as tall as he is.

This is a recording of the Wailin’ Jennys, a female trio, as they sing in Portland, Oregon. As pure as music comes.

Steve Reich: “the restless search of exploring new ground”

See this article in Deceptive Cadence via NPR.

There is no reason to think that creativity and musicianship is dying. Composers still composes, perform, premier, and scandalize. Enjoy.

Steve Reich At (Nearly) 75


Steve Reich takes a bow at his 75th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall alongside members of the Kronos Quartet and So Percussion.

Steve Reich takes a bow at his 75th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall alongside members of the Kronos Quartet and So Percussion.

This October, composer Steve Reich is turning 75 — an age that for many other artists, especially ones as widely adored as Reich, wouldn’t be marked by much more than a few valedictory laps. Instead, he continues to make innovative music and is still one of the most important and influential voices of our era.

That fact became vivid reality this past Saturday evening at Carnegie Hall, when Reich was feted with a concert that was not at all a retrospective. Instead, it was comprised entirely of works Reich has written only within the last four years, performed by artists who have become Reich colleagues as well as fans: the Kronos Quartet, longstanding partners of Reich, all the way back to 1988’s Different Trains; the downtown denizens of Bang on a Can; So Percussion; and the sextet eighth blackbird.

As much as any other contemporary composer, Reich has become an icon to mainstream music fans and musicians like Thurston Moore or Sufjan Stevens. At the same time, though, a number of audience members stalked out of Carnegie angrily mid-concert. Here’s a composer who still wields the power to infuriate some, just as he did when his Four Organs was booed at Boston’s Symphony Hall 40 years ago.

Idol though Reich is, however, his music of the past few years has posed more questions than answers — and maybe that’s exactly what makes his voice so relevant in our own age of anxiety.

The early birthday celebration began with Reich’s Mallet Quartet, a piece for two vibraphones and two marimbas. As with Reich’s previous music for percussion, I’ve been drawn to the nearly pointillistic quality of the rhythmic play, as you can hear in this performance by So Percussion:

So Percussion plays Reich’s Mallet Quartet.
Source: YouTube

But the acoustics of Carnegie Hall revealed other qualities in this piece entirely. The slow middle section — a meditation on space and stillness — offers a real contrast to the kineticism of so much else of Reich’s work. The warm, low woods of the marimbas played in canon against the ringing of the vibes, which in the resonance of Carnegie’s Isaac Stern Auditorium pealed as brightly as church bells.

WTC 9/11: A piece that Reich calls addressing “unfinished business” — the business, perhaps, of being human, of struggling mightily through personal and communal loss. Unlike, say, John Adams‘ On the Transmigration of Souls — a piece written in the year following 9/11, and which movingly memorializes the astonishing toll of lives lost and lives shattered — Reich’s WTC 9/11 distills the existential issues of the past decade: What is to come now?

The Kronos Quartet plays Steve Reich's 'WTC 9/11.'l

The Kronos Quartet plays Steve Reich’s ‘WTC 9/11.’

Reich’s piece crystallizes some of the anxiety and searching that characterized not just the chaos and pain of the attack and its immediate aftermath, but the great unknowns that have characterized the last decade for all of us, last night’s Osama bin Laden news notwithstanding.

WTC 9/11 weaves in the voices of NORAD workers and NYFD firefighters as well as interviews with some of those who, like Reich himself and his family, lived and worked in the shadows of the Twin Towers. (Reich and his wife, video artist, Beryl Korot, were in Vermont on September 11th, but their son, granddaughter, and daughter-in-law were at Reich and Korot’s apartment four blocks away from the WTC on that dazzlingly bright September morning.)

In WTC 9/11, Reich returns to a form that he has long used so effectively in such pieces as It’s Gonna Rain and Different Train,blending recorded and manipulated speech with music. One of the most effective instants of Reich’s textual interlaying of spoken word and music comes in the moment we hear a man, recorded eight years after 9/11, recounting the day. His voice strained and tight with emotion, he says, “It was chaos,” against frantic, harrowing close intervals played by the strings rubbing up against each other. We can hear the anxiety in the man’s voice as he relives that terrible day; the experience is still so close and real — both to him, and to us.

Reich opens up a second meaning of the initials “WTC,” as the World to Come. He draws in the voices of some of those who attended to the Jewish obligation of shmira in the days after 9/11: sitting near the bodies of victims before their burial, reciting and singing Psalms and other Biblical passages ceaselessly. In Reich’s treatment, shmira is almost is an act of willing a new reality into being, though none of us is sure what actually is to be: “The world to come,” as one of Reich’s interviewees muses, “I don’t really know what that means.”

The second half of the concert opened up another channel of Reich’s output, one that again belies any hoary Grand Elder Statesman aura. The piece 2X5 places two quintets of electric bass, piano, drums, and two electric guitars against each other; its world premiere in 2008 fixed Kraftwerk up with some of the Bang on a Can musicians.

There’s often a lot of talk about how Reich marries classical paradigms to pop and rock aesthetics. Some of that crossover is quite real — one of the musicians playing in this performance of 2X5 was Bryce Dressner from The National, and another was Mark Stewart, who on other nights directs Paul Simon‘s band; a third was Glenn Kotche of Wilco.

In pieces like 2X5, however, you hear Reich using the musculature of the electric guitar in a very different context than most rock or pop artists. It’s in the service of techniques like hocketing, the “hiccuping” effect of instruments trading playing and silence to create one bigger musical line. The result is ten musicians bobbing up and down and swaying together that might, in high-handed terms, be called a joyous communion; in simpler terms, it’s ten artists just totally rocking out.

The Carnegie Hall concert ended with Reich’s Double Sextet, which earned the composer a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Written in 2007 for eighth blackbird (who originally played against a recordings of themselves, but here faced Bang on a Can musicians), Double Sextet is a tightly coiled thing that positively vibrates with an inner energy, yet has lyricism at its core, and a sense of space and line thanks to harmonies that constantly shift and are reshuffled within a larger form. Such lacunae and harmonic movements are rather new in Reich’s music, but that’s such a large part of the pleasure of his recent work, the restless search of exploring new ground.

Running, Intergalactically

So we’re back to the three guys we know nothing about fighting each other in a scene we have no interest in. Their flawless choreography lacks all humanity and emotion. But then something happens. Qui-Gon dies, and Obi-Wan is pissed. Hey! Hey maybe this will finally get good. Maybe I’ll get emotionally involved. You see, Obi Wan is pumped. He really wants to kick this guy’s ass. And then, Bam — ! Oh. That’s right. Back to highly choreographed fighting. It’s like all this was planned out ahead of time.

Hey, remember when Luke Skywalker got really pissed and snapped when Vader was taunting him? Remember how worked up and emotional he got? He just started wailing on Vader. There was no grace or complex choreography. He was just pounding him into submission, filled with rage. When you’re worked up with emotion, you begin to loose your composure and control. You exposed your humanity a little…

I gotta really stress this point that lightsaber duels have less to do with the fight itself, but more so with the internalization of the characters. So if you ever said that the duel and the end of A New Hope was the worst one because it had bad fight choreography — there was, like, an old guy and a guy in a mask who couldn’t see what he was doing, so they were just kinda, like, awkwardly hitting with swords — well then I’m afraid you’ve missed the point entirely.

So it says in Part 6 of the The Phantom Menace Review found on YouTube (see below). Keep this in mind as I compare life to Star Wars.

At one time, putting on running shoes gave me dread. For an individual who spent his days more mentally active than physical, I feared the strain and exhaustion of physical activity that was all-too tangible. Mental strain and exertion, however, was an exercise I was comfortable with. Even though I was always aware of how frail I was, I soon came to understand that it prevented me from going further with my mind’s interests. Playing music effectively and with endurance was one of them. Dating was another.

So I ran. Years of playing tennis and running The Mile in gym class came in handy.

“Doesn’t that just make you burn calories and lose weight? Do you need to lose weight?”


I heard tales of runners who felt better, more alive, more energized, blah blah blah. I pondered them like a distant religion and desired to discover what it meant. The desire was often too strong, and I pushed too hard or ran too fast. Why wasn’t this faith in physical exertion bearing any fruit but the fruit of frustration?

“At your own pace take it,” I thought to myself — like Yoda, for whatever reason. “Proving yourself to anyone you are not.” I decided that any effort I make, no matter how small, was good. Luke wailing on Darth Vader? Case and point.

In many ways, the rule of the Dark Side has been like the dead of a Minnesota winter. It comes after the climax of our Hallmark holidays, when people enjoy snow as much as puppies. But soon, snowfall is like a bad joke, and those who want to run free in the warm air that they complained about during the summer are sequestered to the daydream of spring. When the melt comes — as quickly and violently as the first snowfall — running takes on a new personality among Minnesotans. The Dark Side is nearly defeated, and the only way to make sure it goes away for good is to persist with raw emotion. Runners are like Spring’s weapon: unleashed in the hundreds when the temperature hits 40º to fight back the snow like Jedi Knights against the Clone Army. And I heeded the call.

Oh, it hurt. The air was cold in my chest, and the snow was slopping into my shoes. But I was anxious and packed with emotion, like Luke when he finally has the opportunity and the skills to attack Vader in Episode VI.

It is a bizarre thing when discomfort and exhaustion are so satisfying.

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