Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What Are You Really Listening To?

I've been reading some of Lydia Goehr's books recently. Here most well known one is The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. After reading that I started The Quest for Voice. Music, Politics, and the Limits of Philosophy. I have almost finished this one. I wish I was a faster reader.
In the Museum Goehr discusses the concept of a "work": how it emerged and came to regulate the production and performance of music in the Western Art music tradition. I'm not even going to try to relay all she covers in the book, but after reading it I felt like I was able to better understand how 'classical' music exists in the terms it does. Beethoven is used as the exemplar in this study.
In Quest, at least so far as I have read, Goehr explores the battle between formalism and transcendentalism. One of the backdrops for this exploration in the idea that music is essentially a social/political activity. From my limited reading this idea stems from Adorno. My understanding of this (please correct me if I'm off) is that music is created at a time and in a place that is unique. It reflects social and political concerns. Music changes through dialectical evolution (Geohr uses the term "doubleness"), i.e. it takes parts of various ideologies and combines them in such a way as to produce new music that is the another step forward in a continuing tradition. Beethoven is used as the exemplar in this study.
All of this has got me thinking about how we listen to music. Being an improviser who's main point of reference in the jazz tradition, do I share the opinion that what I create is part of a dialectical evolution? It seems to me that Jazz is most often taught in this way. i.e. learn the tradition and out of that we'll find our own thing.
But that's not really my main concern. My main concern is this idea of a regulative concept. While in the jazz tradition the 'work' concept is not regulative in the same way it is in the 'classical' tradition. I think there is something that is similar.
So, with that in mind, have a listen to the following clips and think about who it is you are listening to.....

3-01 Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 I. Allegro con brio

01 Aria

03 Moose the Mooche

01 Looking In Retrospective


Chances are you heard Beethoven in the first clip. That seems to be the most likely response.

What about the second? Did you hear Bach? Did you hear Glenn Gould? Who is it that is coming out of your speakers? Does the 'work' travel through time and maintain its identity that whole way? Or is Gould indispensable in his role as performer? Is it Gould you are listening to because without him, you wouldn't be hearing Bach. The matter becomes complicated further if you're at all familiar with this piece, or indeed Bach's keyboard writing and generally accepted performance practices. Gould is eccentric, to say the least. Given this, are we also hearing the music in relation to what is also negates?

And the third? Most people would say that they aren't listening to Gershwin. Instead, they might say they are listening to Charlie Parker. But aren't they also hearing Lester Young? On one hand in terms of the profound influence he had on Parker, but also in terms of what Parker developed as an evolution of the music? It doesn't stop there: we are also listening to the other members of the ensemble, who are all playing in a way that is functionally creative. Each member also brings with him a tradition, in terms of the musician and in terms of the instrument. There is balance of 'old' and 'new.' One of the questions that pops up at this point is, "If I don't know about the background of a person, or a piece, do I hear those things that are being developed upon and/or negated?" Perhaps this a reason why Adorno always stated audiences should be educated; in order to 'unlock' the mysteries of the music.

By the time we get to the fourth one, matters become extremely complicated. Not only are we hearing everyone with in terms of what I discussed above, but we are also hearing a composer play his own work. We hear others play his work while he is present, indeed, involved with them in the performance. Take for example a moment where someone other than the pianist (who is also the composer of the piece) is soloing. Not only are we hearing everyone with in terms of what I discussed above, but we are also hearing a composer play his own work. This music was also made quite recently, given that, are we also hearing the extraordinarily complex pantheon of music in the 20th century that has enabled these people to make music this way? Maybe a better question is, why do there people do things are certain way.

In Jazz and improvised music, it seems, there are regulative concepts that exist that allow others to formulate a judgement about the said performance. Whenever we come to make music, we are bringing with us a set of limits as to what we want to hear. Some may immediately point to 'avant-garde' movements in music. As long as those movements define themselves in terms of negation, i.e. rebellion, they is a regulative concept in place.

Now I am in no way saying that these are bad things, these regulative concepts. To imply that music could exist without them is idealist. I just think that, given the complex times we live in regarding contemporary music making and its connection to place, time and people, it's worth being aware of what these things are, and how they exist in our creative lives. By becoming more aware of these things I hope to be better in touch with what really matters to me in music, because I have a feeling making music is not about fulfilling the regulative concepts I bring to the table.

Just for fun, here are some more clips for you to ponder.....

05 Round About Midnight 1

04 Everything I Love

02 The Healer

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Recital Program notes

As part of my masters program at V.C.A.M. I will give a 45 minute recital on December 2nd at 6.30pm, at Federation Hall, Melbourne.
Unfortunately I cannot exceed my word limit of 1000 for my program notes. Hence I am publishing the 'extended version' here. Enjoy!


Marc Hannaford - piano

Scott Tinkler – trumpet

James McLean – drums

* * * * *


90+ - Elliott Carter

Anda Two {trio version} – Hannaford

More (than Nothing than Ever Before) – Hannaford

Rumination - Hannaford

Anda Two {solo version} – Hannaford

90+ {modelised version} – Carter/Hannaford

To do, having learned, is an intellectual prejudice. To learn, having done, is an absurdity. What is real is the synchronism of to learn while doing and to do while learning.”[1]

Jankelevitch’s perceptive passage regarding improvisation demonstrates the circular nature of this art form. Our own artistic development relies on the synchronised interplay between ‘doing’ and ‘learning.’

By coming into contact and beginning to play with Australian improvisers Scott Tinkler, John Rodgers, Ken Edie and Elliott Dalgleish, I realised my “doing” was not sufficiently developed to have what I felt were meaningful music discourses with them.

In 2006 I was introduced to the musical language of American composer Elliott Carter (b. 1909). Firstly, I feel that my analysis and implementation of many of Carter’s compositional techniques has allowed me to develop a musical language whereby I can improvise with these people with probity and conviction.

Secondly and more recently, Carter’s rhythmic language as used in 90+[2] and Two Diversions[3] has led me to create frameworks for improvisation that are dually related to the notion of form in the jazz tradition and the notion of structural polyrhythm in Carter’s music. Thirdly, using some of Carter’s scores as a reference, the variety of ways these rhythmic frameworks may be realised in a performance in relation to the traditional roles of those instruments in an ensemble (particularly in relation to the jazz tradition) has led me to question, re-evaluate and develop my own attitudes to ensemble playing.

The structural basis of Anda Two (Marc Hannaford) is the juxtaposition of two polyrhythmic pulsation streams. The pulsations are at intervals nineteen and twenty-three semi-quavers, respectively. This composition grew out of my investigation of mid-range polyrhythms in Elliott Carter’s music and his choice to often avoid prime numbers in the generation of polyrhythmic streams. It is interesting to me that, while non-prime numbers provide a greater number of discrete realisations of a single polyrhythm in terms of simultaneous primary pulsation (what most people would call ‘the beat’) division and grouping, polyrhythmic streams containing prime numbers have only one realisation; that is, each polyrhythmic stream is generated by grouping a common primary pulsation division. The coincidences of these polyrhythmic pulsation streams provide the beginning and end of the form on which to opening melody and subsequent improvisation is performed.

In this program, this piece is presented twice, once for solo piano and once for trumpet/drum kit/piano trio. The reason for this double-presentation is two-fold. Firstly, I hope it will give the listener a chance, if they so desire, to hear the rhythmic framework of the composition. In my experience as a listener, hearing multiple realisations of the same work may result in the active listener perceiving common motifs. In this case that motif is the underlying rhythmic framework mentioned above. Secondly, each realisation presents challenges in term of improvising what, in the musicological terminology used to analyse Carter’s rhythmic language, is called the surface rhythm. While there is some continuity between the challenges in solo and group realisations, the different orchestrations of what is essentially a similar musical vocabulary result, in my experience, in unique challenges. Playing solo allows the performer to make all choices regarding musical material, but burdens them with the responsibility of being the sole maintainer of the larger rhythmic structure, resulting in the need to balance improvisatory freedom with compositional structure at a high level. This is a theme I will return to in this essay at a latter stage. The trio realisation presents challenges that also balance freedom and structure; whilst some trio members may maintain the large rhythmic framework others are able to improvise without the inhibition of the possibility of losing track of where in the framework they are, but also means that individual’s improvisations may introduce unexpected materials, possibly resulting in the other member’s disorientation regarding the improvisatory framework. This problem has been ‘solved’ in my research by developing the materials for improvisation as a group in rehearsal, ensuring a kind of clarity improvisation that allows for more improvisatory freedom.

90+ (Carter) is built around a stream of ninety, evenly spaced polyrhythmic pulsations. This stream provides a structural framework around which shorter polyrhythms and surface rhythms of various speeds are composed. A great variety of character and speed is achieved by the use of metric modulation, which alters the speed of the primary pulsation whilst maintaining the polyrhythmic pulsations at a constant speed of 18 b.p.m. . Carter’s magnum opus in this vein is Night Fantasies written in 1980. Using a systemised approach to rhythm and harmony, Carter creates a ‘series of continuously changing moods’ that ‘capture the fanciful, changeable quality of our inner life at a time when it is not dominated by strong directive intentions or desires – to capture the poetic moodiness that, in an earlier romantic context, I enjoy in works of Robert Schumann like Kreisleriana, Carnaval, and Davids-bündlertänze.”[4] 90+ is demonstrative of the trend in much of Carter’s later music being less systemised than the works composed around the time of Night Fantasies. However 90+ maintains the sense of interplay between foreground and background: “Its foundation is rigorous and regular; its musical surface is improvisatory and changeable.”[5]

This sense of the musical surface being improvisatory in character creates an obvious connection with my own study of improvisation. Indeed, one main challenge in my performance-lead research has been the aural assimilation of the local polyrhythms and surface rhythms Carter composes.

What may not be so obvious, given Carter’s obvious rigor in constructing compositional frameworks and developing a harmonic language, is his connection to a time in western art music when improvisation was still considered a valid form of artistic expression.

The polyrhythmic streams Carter generates in his works are orchestrated in such a way as to emphasise polyphonic texture; multiple voices sounding simultaneously that develop linearly.

This reference has been extremely useful in my analysis of Carter’s works. Roeder used this technique to analyse the rhythmic streams of Schoenberg’s music.[6] In his paper, Roeder is able to parse Schoenberg’s music into rhythmic parts and offer an analysis, in terms of pulsation streams, of each. "Pulse streams are considered to be distinct continuities, not levels or groupings of each other, so this approach does not involve meter in the exclusive and hierarchical . . . Rather, it analyses an irregular surface as the sum of several concurrent regular continuities . . ."[7] The only difference in applying this method to Carter’s music is that the pulsation streams become polyrhythmic, whereas in Schoenberg’s they generally are not.[8] Roeder’s comments are perceptive and useful in understanding the role this rhythmic structures play in this music: “In music that deemphasizes traditional harmonic or linear processes these pulse streams may integrate the accents of local rhythmic figures synergistically into compelling large-scale continuities. The nature and the interactions of these continuities -the synchronization of pulse streams and rhythmic motives relative to each other-create rhythmic form in the music."[9]

My program contains 90+ in its fully notated version, as well as a modelised version. In discussing the multiple realisations of a single piece of music in the central African music tradition, Simha Arom states: “While the score of a work of cultured music is the link between the abstract thought of the composer and its materialisation, the score of music from an aural tradition is the link between living musical reality and an abstraction of it. In both cases, the score links a message with a code, but in one, its purpose is the reproduction of the message from the code, while in the other, it is the discovery of the code through a study of the message or set of messages; and after the code has been determined, the score remains indispensable for showing the relationships between the code and the multiplicity of messages it is capable of engendering. In most music from aural traditions . . . there is no definitive text. Two performances of a given piece will differ, often considerably, even though the users treat them as identical. There is a text, but not a univocal one."[10] A modelised score represents this underlying “code” and can be used to generate multiple realisations of the same piece. The modelised score of 90+ contains only the ninety evenly spaced polyrhythmic pulsations that form the structural foundation for Carter’s improvisatory surface rhythm and local polyrhythms. For my realisation of the modelised version of 90+ I will improvise this surface and local polyrhythmic activity while maintain the ninety polyrhythmic pulsations. While Carter may not be easily linked with the music of central Africa, the connection between Jazz and African music is well known and documented. My connection to both the Jazz and western art music traditions facilitates this exchange, then, as I am able to use the ethnomusicological approach to analysing central African music to relate to Elliott Carter’s music through improvisation.

More (than nothing than ever before) (Marc Hannaford) is an exploration of local polyrhythmic materials used in Carter’s Two Diversions.[11] The various polyrhythms composed for the piano and drum kit intersect sparingly, roughly once every few bars, and consist of orchestrations of polyrhythms at various speeds, using a common primary pulsation division. The trumpet melody weaves through these two parts, remaining linked to them through a common primary pulsation, but utilising different and changing primary pulsation division so that it never coincides with either of the parts. The form on which the group improvises is a simplification of this idea, using a series of pulsations that gradually speed up and slow down in relation to the primary pulsation. Carter uses this notion of polyrhythmic speed in constructing each of the two voices in Two Diversions. In movement one, one voicing maintains a regular speed while the other articulates various polyrhythmic speeds around it (much like 90+) The opening of the second movement presents two polyrhythmic streams that are similar in speed. As the piece progresses one gradually speeds up while the other gradually slows down.

While at first glance Elliott Carter may not appear to have very much to do with the broader concept of developing an approach to playing Australian contemporary improvised music, closer inspection reveals some interesting philosophical links. While it is not at all my aim to imply that the American composer’s (whatever that may mean) socio-economic landscape at that time is the same (or even similar) to my own, I do feel that, in surveying Carter’s examination of the challenges he faced (faces?) in finding his own artistic identity, I may use some of the issues Carter raises to answer questions I have of my own situation.

Carter, in discussing the American composers’ landscape circa 1961 makes three particularly interesting statements:

“Paralleling the experiences of many Europeans, Americans have recently come to feel that this musical heritage does not furnish answers to many important new questions, necessitating a search for new answers outside the traditional approach."[12]

The “traditional approach” Carter mentions here is referring to the pedagogical/historical continuum of the European art music tradition.

"On the other hand, in large part because of the heterogeneous character of their country's heritage, American composers over the past fifty years have studied one European school of composition after another with great care, in their desire to express themselves truly and effectively. As a result, there can be no simply defined American tradition or style, and it is entirely possible that there never will be one."[13]

"To an American musician, the post-War European trends seem to have been directed toward the disintegration of the routines and formulae that characterised the highly accomplished techniques of all previous, great European composers. To us, this appears to have been undertaken in a spirit that is very thoroughgoing, even to the point of denying the fundamental reasons traditionally put forth for writing music. A definite break with the past on every level seemed urgent to the younger European composers."[14]

Each of these statements demonstrates a different aspect of the challenge Carter felt was facing him at this time. Seeing a generation of European composers develop personal approaches to music making that, through careful study of tradition, were able to question the role fundamental compositional techniques such as tonal harmony and rhythm played in creating ‘new’ music, perhaps Carter realised he too had to question the traditional approaches to music making so that he might develop a music that, while informed by tradition, was reflective of their unique cultural and geographic situation.

Faced with the established tradition of American Jazz that is itself embedded in the complex socio-economic-political framework that is North America, many Australian improvisers, in my experience, look for a way to adapt this language to reflect their own cultural and geographic situation. In light of this, and reflecting back to my first encounters with Scott Tinkler, John Rodgers, Ken Edie and Elliott Dalgleish, I can now infer that the solution I sought was not only related to my want to creating music with these people, as I described above, but was also part of a larger concern to develop an artistic voice, that, while informed by tradition(s), was my own. Indeed, it was this very process my mentors has gone through in their own lives.

In light of this is it is only natural that I should turn to traditional jazz forms as part of the process of assimilating Carter’s rhythmic materials. Lennie Tristano (b. 1919) provides an interesting case study in this respect. Firstly, he would often record standard jazz repertoire without stating the primary melody, instead using the underlying harmonic form as a point of departure for his own improvisations. This process is not unlike the ‘modelised score’ concept expounded by Arom above. Secondly, Tristano was keenly interested in developing rhythmic variety in his improvisations. The recording I am drawing on: Deliberation[15] demonstrates both of these concerns. It is based on the traditional jazz standard Indiana. While it was common practice for be-bop era musicians to compose new melodies on existing chord changes (Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm being adapted by Parker to form Anthropology, for example), Tristano’s realisation of this chord progression is improvisatory. Tristano creates rhythmic tension mainly via displacement; effectively he conceals the traditional points of emphasis (the start of the bar, major points in the form) for extended periods. My performance, Rumination, places the same harmonic form in the time-signature 7/4, and draws upon the local polyrhythmic language of Carter to create oblique gestures over the form.

* * * * *

“The musical universe, not signifying any particular meaning, is first of all the antipode to any coherent system. The philosopher who reflects upon the world aspires at the very least to coherence in attempting to resolve contradictions, reduce the irreducible, to integrate the necessary evils of duality and plurality. Music ignores such concerns since it does not have ideas to line up logically with one another. Harmony itself is less the rational synthesis of opposites than the irrational symbiosis of the heterogeneous. Is it not harmony that, in Plato, causes contradictory virtues to reconcile and agree among themselves? The experienced simultaneity of opposites is the daily regime, incomprehensible as it might be, of a life full of music.”[16]

The notion of contrast in music is not a new one. Although Plato saw music as a danger to the level-mindedness of man, it harkens back to his notion of an object/body split[17]. It’s realisations in music are well known: melody/harmony, content/form and text/music, to name a few. Jankelevitch, however, sees this notion of contrast as the very thing that gives music its charm. It is the thing that results in the ineffability of music; music reconciles elements that would seem irreconcilable. Jankelevitch gives the example of polyphony as the only instance where multiple melodies can he heard simultaneously, on more or less equal footing. This notion of polyphony, then, brings us back to Carter, and in the case of my program, the notion of interplay between the contrasting elements of structure and improvisation. While this is a commonly excepted paradigm in the musical world, these two terms are not mutually exclusive, especially for someone, like myself, who pursuing developing a language for improvisation through structured concepts like those in Carter’s music.

My process of coming to terms with a new (for me) language for improvisation that is based on Carter’s rhythmic language has been via a gradual building up, in complexity, of rhythmic vocabulary. Starting with the very basic ideas of primary pulsation, primary pulsation division and grouping, and utilising a strict methodology involving the exploration any number of combinations of these factors, I have gained an intuitional aural understanding of enough of Carter’s rhythmic language to improvise using it as a basis. The challenge has then become to maintain this language while also adding a ‘higher’ level of rhythmic structure, so that the improvisation may still develop organically (from the creators point of view) whilst also having some reference (Carter’s scores were used in this regard) to the overarching, form-giving rhythmic structures. This method of mixing the improvised with the structured, or, as is becoming more apparent in these notes, the mixing of various kinds of structure, is exemplified not only in this recital, but is currently my mode of considering all of the performing I do, no matter what the points of reference are (Jazz, Carter, etc.). This technique of building from the ‘bottom, up’ is in stark contrast to the musicological way of analysing Carter’s large scale rhythmic structures, which, citing the idea that the meaning of music is not contained in it’s details, takes the largest structures first (in the case of Carter, structural polyrhythm and the length, in time, of the work), and, using mathematical calculations, derives the notation for the smaller structures. This method, although a valid method for analysis, is practically useless for anyone wishing to adopt Carter’s rhythmic language to use in a creative way. As Hofstadter demonstrates in his investigation into intelligence and creativity in ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach’[18], building a complex model up from smaller, cellular ideas is not only an effective methodology in teaching and learning, but also mirrors the model we have of intelligence itself.

My notion of interplay between structure and improvisation, therefore, is one that is not only natural and engaging in the realm of music (Jankelevitch may even say that this is how I might give meaning to my music), but is also in line with a greater notion of what intelligence is.

In conclusion, I am not under the impression that any of this information in my notes conveys the meaning of any of the music contained in my program. Jankelevitch states in his book that it is impossible for the performer to convey any particular meaning to his audience, but that it may mean anything to anyone. It is an open system, “not signifying any particular meaning ”[19] and therefore, according to Jankelevitch, ineffable. Similarly, I believe, Carter is saying something similar when he talks of the composer: "What he is aiming at, after all, is a whole in which all the technical workings are interdependent and combine to produce the kind of artistic experience that gives a work its validity and in so doing makes all its procedures relevant."[20] While I am concerned with details in the sense of using them to develop a language, in the end, the ‘meaning’ or any piece of music can only be determined on an individual basis.

[1] Vladimir Jankelevitch, Music and the Ineffable (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003), 28-29.

[2] Elliott Carter, 90+ (New York: Hendon Music, Inc., Boosey and Hawkes, 1994).

[3] ———, Two Diversions for Solo Piano (New York: Hendon Music, Inc., Boosey and Hawkes, 2005).

[4] ———, Night Fantasies (Associated Music Publishers Inc., 1980), program notes.

[5] David Schiff, The Music of Elliott Carter, Second ed. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1998), 213.

[6] John Roeder, "Interacting Pulse Streams in Schoenberg's Atonal Polyphony," Music Theory Spectrum 16, no. 2 (1994).

[7] Ibid.: 232-33.

[8] Ibid.: 233.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Simha Arom, African Polyphony and Polyrhythm, First ed. (Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1991), 173.

[11] Carter, Two Diversions for Solo Piano.

[12] Elliott Carter, Collected Essays and Lectures, 1937-1995, ed. W. Jonathan Bernard (Rochester, New York: University of Rochester Press, 1997), 63.

[13] Ibid., 66.

[14] Ibid., 70.

[15] Lennie Tristano, The New Tristano (Atlantic/Wea, 1956).

[16] Jankelevitch, Music and the Ineffable, 18.

[17] Richard Kraut, "Plato," in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (The Metaphysics Research Lab, Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University 2009).

[18] Douglas R Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Basic Books, 1999).

[19] Jankelevitch, Music and the Ineffable, 18.

[20] Carter, Collected Essays and Lectures, 1937-1995, 214.


Arom, Simha. African Polyphony and Polyrhythm. First ed. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1991.

Carter, Elliott. 90+. New York: Hendon Music, Inc., Boosey and Hawkes, 1994.

———. Collected Essays and Lectures, 1937-1995. Edited by W. Jonathan Bernard. Rochester, New York: University of Rochester Press, 1997.

———. Night Fantasies: Associated Music Publishers Inc., 1980.

———. Two Diversions for Solo Piano. New York: Hendon Music, Inc., Boosey and Hawkes, 2005.

Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid: Basic Books, 1999.

Jankelevitch, Vladimir. Music and the Ineffable. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Kraut, Richard. "Plato." In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Metaphysics Research Lab, Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University 2009.

Roeder, John. "Interacting Pulse Streams in Schoenberg's Atonal Polyphony." Music Theory Spectrum 16, no. 2 (1994): 231-49.

Schiff, David. The Music of Elliott Carter. Second ed. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Tristano, Lennie. The New Tristano: Atlantic/Wea, 1956.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Having just returned from touring around Australia with the Antripodean Collective, the question I've been asked often lately, is "How was tour?" or "Was it fun?" etc. I thought I'd say a few things about my experience being on, and organising this tour.
Playing improvised music with people you admire and like hanging out with is an absolute blast. It seems it's the best way to get the music happening, and both times this group has toured I've felt I've reached heights playing I have almost never been able to reach playing runs of two, three or four gigs locally. There is also something to be said regard the nature of the music of this group; what most people would term playing 'free'. This music is two sided in that it seems it can be difficult to determine whether performances were 'successful', and, if they weren't, what was lacking. However in my experience it is this very 'temporality' (there's not 'head out' or 'coda' to get right) of this music that allows for unexpected and confronting moments of absolute pleasure, at least for me. There were times during some of our performances were I experienced what I can only describe as joy such as I've only felt in the best moments of playing music.
Another aspect of this tour that was enjoyable was meeting various younger musicians who showed a keen interest in what we are developing. Between the university workshop environment, one-to-one lessons and post-gig conversations, I came away from this tour thinking that there are musicians/students (aren't we all students?) who are serious enough about learning to show overt interest in finding out how this music is made. It can't be easy for a student to grasp the idea that a communal language for improvisation is developed through rigorous study of rhythm and harmony (among other things) only to be applied in such a way so as to not resemble its sources. We are dealing with abstract, open concepts that are usually de-centralised in such a way so as to seem mysterious, almost magical.
That said, travelling around a country as geographically large as Australia is difficult, physically and financially.
Needless to say, flying, no matter the distance, is pretty much always a pain. This is one of the few bands I'm in that, due to the absence of a bassist, could physically fit in one car. However the distance we need to travel to just get from one city to another makes this more trouble than it's worth.
More important to my mind, though, is the financial aspect of touring. We recieved a modest amount of funding to support our tour which, in the end, did not cover the costs of flights. That the body that awarded us funding has been dissolved by its more powerful administrator points, at least to my mind, to a continual trend for most, possibly all, funding bodies to disregard contemporary music (maybe even music altogether) as worthy of receiving such support. To put it bluntly, musicians are into this music, not just because it's interesting intellectually but because it's highly engaging, but funding bodies do not. It seems that music, on its own, is receiving less attention. Instead, it is being packaged with something and sold as some sort of 'important' product. Has the role of music in contemporary Australian society become so abstract that it can only generate a livelihood for its creators when packaged (compromised?) with something else?
Perhaps creative musicians must find a way to generate an income from their music independent of funding bodies. Given my point above that music is often compromised in order to appeal to the funding boards, it makes sense to find a way to become more self-sufficient.
We are past the times where physical CD sales help cover costs. Piracy has taken care of that. Various online services make it easier for a musician to be exposed to the world. However if we were to somehow weigh up that increased exposure against the general public's tendency/need to ignore more and more advertising, how much promotion can a niche genre such as improvised music achieve in this way.
These are complex questions in confusing times. To me it seems as if many things are in a state of flux, not in the least of which is how much is given value and consumed in out culture.
Returning to my original point, I am not sure how to judge whether the time I spend organising this tour (two grant applications, 12 gigs, a two-week artist-in-residence program plus all accompanying details) was 'worth it'. It's not really my aim. All I can do at this point is acknowledge the great things as well as the issues, use both areas to continue to develop my outlook on life as a 28 y.o. contemporary improvising musician in Australia

Monday, September 20, 2010


An interesting debate is bouncing around the interwebs at the moment regarding the standing of the Australia Council for Arts (Ozco). Rather than write anything of my own here yet, I'll post some links to articles I've read:






Maybe I'll write something interesting soon......but in the meantime, let me know what you think in my comments section....

P.S. and Five

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Lately I've been reading "Music and the Ineffable" by Vladimir Jankelevitch. I came into contact with this book after a particularly interesting class I attended at the V.C.A.M.
In it, Jankelevitch states that (instrumental) music does not express anything in and of itself, rather, it is the listener and performer who project meaning onto a work.
Vocal music is discussed slightly differently, obviously due to it's link with poetry and a language that, for us, has a much more direct and unambiguous meaning.
While I don't profess to be an expert on every aspect of the philosophy in this book, a few things have really leapt out at me that I feel express ideas I had but never knew how to put into words. Namely, the idea that music may be like many things to many people, but can never be the same thing to everyone. This is, in fact, one of the characteristics that makes it so enjoyable and so unique. Therefore it's futile to compose or perform music with the idea that you are somehow communicating the same, deep message to all of human-kind. This stance flies in the face of many of the Romantic era composers, where one of the prevailing philosophies, as I understand it, was that music connected with the human 'soul' on such a deep level that it transcended cultural, generational and socio-economic divides and therefore expressed the most universal, and deeply 'human' aspects of all human-kind.
Therefore music expresses nothing, as well as everything: it becomes nothing to everyone, but something deeply personal to anyone who cares the become involved in it.
Also, Jankelevitch cites improvisation as a prime example of the 'circular causality' that pervades musical forces, that is, that in music, nothing can exist without effecting and being effected by, other things. Therefore, idea an action cannot occur following on from one another. True music is made with both of these events occurring simultaneously. "One deliberates by choosing or one thinks by saying."
There are many more passages I have read so far that struck a particularly strong (all-note, -all interval) chord with me, but one of the things this has really got me wondering is why so much jazz is so romantic in approach. It seems that it has been part of the jazz tradition (possibly) since it's inception. This may have something to do with jazz's beginnings being so close to the 19th century in terms of years.
While teaching an undergraduate student today, and demonstrating the phrasing of the like of Bud Powell and Bill Evans and their use of accent and dynamics, I was met with something along the lines of "it's so full of emotion". What is it about these musical techniques (dynamics and phrasing) that induces such an immediate and self-assured response? At the time I responded with something similar to the third sentence in this blog post, and then hypothesised it could have something to do with the fact that the opposite never occurs in nature, that we are most often surrounded by sounds that are in a constant state of flux. Now I'm not so sure if this is a valid argument, even though it may be true.
I must confess, I'm only halfway through the book, but I'm enjoying thinking about it quite a bit.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A brief note on language

Recently I was asked to contribute some text to the Bennetts Lane Jazz Club weekly email.
In case you didn't see it, here it is:

Improvisation is often viewed, rightly so, as dealing with elements of the unknown. While that’s not the whole story, it remains clear that the idea of musicians ‘making it up on the spot’ often puzzles, even terrifies listeners.
However, when we consider our existence in the world: our actions, interactions, thoughts, conversations, we can see that improvisation is something we do every minute of every day. It is, in fact, the antithesis of improvisation, the faithful reproduction of a musical archetype down to the smallest detail, that is a much more alien concept when compared to how we lead our day-to-day lives.
Don’t get me wrong: our lives have structure. We go to work, buy food, hang out with friends, head out on the town. What I am talking about is much more closely related to our existence: it’s how we speak: with a learned language we assemble to communicate to others, how we walk on the street: constantly adjusting to navigate the ever changing landscape ahead/behind/to the side of us, it’s why many of us enjoy sport, or films, or books: we love the unknown, the unpredictable, the fact that anything can happen.
Really, all of us, improvising musician or not, deal with improvisation all of the time in our lives; it is not only how we live, but also why we live.
Language is still one of my favorite analogies for improvisation. A child learns to speak by imitating others. We speak everyday using a language that allows us to express ourselves to others. We have developed this command of language through countless hours of practice and performance. As adults we are (hopefully) no longer at a stage of learning phrases verbatim, relying on faithful reproduction to communicate some banal idea (“the dog has a bone”, “the weather is nice today”), we throw language around, using complex concepts as puns, pop references, irony and double entendres, all in the name of fun and communication.
Substitute the language of music for words in the above description, and this is my understanding of how musicians learn, refine and use the art of improvisation in performance. It is what fascinates me about music. I am forever eager to expand and refine my vocabulary, and trust you’ll be there to bear witness to adventure.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Things to do/not to do

Mainly coming from reading this book recently, here are some guidelines for the aspiring jazz/improvising musician. I think my intended audience here is really musicians who aspire to have something to do with jazz and it's tradition. I'm also not intended to get up on the soapbox, these lists are more a compilations of things I've learnt in the short time I spend taking improvised music seriously....

Do not get into this if:

- You don't feel like doing a lot of work, for a long time

- You expect to become famous

- You think wealth gives meaning to life

- You are not resilient

- You take things personally

- You think some people are born with 'it' and some aren't

- You are concerned primarily with image and fashion

- playing music is about playing things correctly, or 'well', or even, how you expect it to be

In my experience talking to improvising, creative musicians who have been creating for what seems like a significant amount of time, they have most, if not all, of the opposite of these traits in place, to varying degrees.
If you haven't read Shenk's book, I highly recommend it. If you are at all interested in doing something well, and better than well, it offers a variety of studies and guidelines for the aspiring 'genius'.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

I say...Pt. 2

So, Mr. Marsalis has clarified his point in an essay you can, and should, read here.
I have to say, that I agree with most of what he has to say. It's a shame that the rave that was uploaded was such a mis-representation. He really shouldn't have been at all surprised that a Marsalis raving about the state of Jazz today received so much attention.
As I mentioned in my original post, and Marsalis clarifies in this essay, the main issue is not odd-times, or whether the music is straight or swung, the main issue is about knowledge of a broad range of the history of music. Marsalis says:
"There’s information in Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Cecil Taylor, Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Weather Report, Michael Jackson, Public Enemy, Genesis, Nirvana, Common, John Legend, just to name a few."
Personally, I agree with the notion of listening to music as diverse as this, so that you can be better informed in creating music.
Another interesting point here, though, is that I know musicians who are influenced by (comparatively) very few musicians, and make music that is just as strong, considered and powerful as anyone else.
Here we stumble into the debate, which many students seem to ask themselves, of "when do I just start to concentrate on developing my own thing?". This really a question without an answer, and one that borders on the irrelevant. You, simply, just do what you want to do, work on what you want to work on. If you're doing something you don't feel like doing, stop doing it. Back to the topic at hand though....
In his conclusion Marsalis makes two points. The first brings into the equation his personal bias. It has a place (he is a performing musician after all), but in as essay that seems to have been conceived to produce a kind of clearing-up-of-an-argument effect, it sticks out as unnecessary, and, similarly to the orginal video, political in motivation.
The second point he makes is that there needs to be an overhaul of the music education system. I'm sure it's more pronounced in the home of Jazz than here in Australia, and this is really a discussion for another time....
so long

Some links

Now there's no excuse for not knowing more than the Monk tunes contained in the real books....

A great, small, audio clip of Allan Browne, I love hearing this guy speak, about pretty much anything.

Here's some really great music by a guy who doesn't make enough records of his own...

Here's a link to some great resources, by a guy who definitely knows what he's talking about...

Here are a bunch of recordings you should definitely check out

Have fun.....

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I say.....

It is unfortunate when someone who at first appears quite articulate (visually and audibly) allows there argument to degenerate into generalisations and accusations at anonymous parties. Furthermore, the emotional intensity to which Jason Marsalis' diatribe builds to only serves to make him sound like an upset toddler who hasn't gotten his way. This results in an argument that is disjointed and ineffective. Granted, this video seems to be shot off the cuff, and without rehearsal (and maybe even without a clear thought process), but, seeing it seems to be doing the rounds, I thought I'd write something about it.
As an introduction and conclusion Mr. Marsalis emphasises 'playing for the people'. According to his argument, playing 'for the people' means playing 'standard tunes' that 'hundreds upon hundreds of people have.....sung along...and learned', say 'George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer' etc. etc.. It also means, at least I'm surmising this from what he goes onto say, that it does not mean playing in 'odd times' or playing 'straight rhythms' or 'playing chromatic solos'. At the closing of the video, Mr. Marsalis paints the picture of someone playing all of these things to (presumably) some lamen that is not 'getting it', and a bunch of other J.N.I. members who are cheering him on because of the technical achievements in the music.
Unfortunately for Mr. Marsalis, this argument is dealing with unsubstantiated generalisations. In the case of audience, it is unrealisitc and even arrogant to assume what audience members want to, and should, hear. An artist's job is to respect his craft. To explore and refine his or her conception and methodology. The artist should not allow himself to be affected by what he perceives to be consumable and fashionable. When we follow this road, we end up as people playing functional music and nothing else. The most obvious example of this in our society is the 'D.J.', who plays hits from whatever era that they know almost everyone will sing along to.
Rather, audience members are free to make their own mind up about a set of music, free from politics and competing ideologies. In fact, if I have a stab at some of the musicians who Mr. Marsalis is referring to, I know J.N.I. members are open to many, many different kinds of musics, (unlike, seemingly, our orator), who only wish to create music that is informed and highly crafted. They understand that experiencing music is just that.
When we consider this approach to music making, we can see how it contrasts with arrogance and bigotry presented in this clip.
What this speech really highlights for me though, is that some people's experience of creating music is about labels and politics, and others are concerned with something greater. It takes all kinds, from Art Blakey, who played the same style of music his entire career, to John Coltrane and Miles Davis, who were never willing to be bound but what 'should' be done. The key thing to remember here (and probably what Mr. Marsalis should be reminded of) is that it is not our place to judge peoples tastes, it is out place to make what we consider the best music possible.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Lately, due to the influence of my incredible piano teacher, Donna Coleman, and some reading of this book, I've been considering Schenkerian analysis and the way if could effect my thoughts on and approach to improvising.
For those of you unfamiliar with this method, Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) proposed that all western music could be analysed in terms of it's "structural framework". This framework can be reduced to a I-V-I progression. Therefore, all movements within this framework are merely moving towards to next one. They may seem like an arrival point when analysed using conventional harmonic analysis, but Schenker argues that this method is really losing sight of the forest for the trees. Veiwed as part of a larger structure, they are merely or prolongations of passing chords between these larger points. Herein lies their true structural function. There are many excellent examples in the book, from a variety of composers, that illustrated this point extremely well.
Schenker was not without his predecessors in this way of thinking, what he really did bring to the table was the potential this way of thinking had for interpretation.
Therefore, unlike some other, more traditional, methods of analysis, Schenker's method is really geared towards performance, and specifically, hearing music of long periods.
Jump forward to my masters study, which revolves around improvisers hearing large-scale rhythmic frameworks, and consequently how surface rhythm interacts with these. If we think of Schenker's tonal concepts and replace them with rhythmic ideas, we can see how this suggests that this 'structural hearing' approach could be used as a means for someone (such as me) to deal with large rhythmic structures while improvising. This doesn't do the work for me, of course, but it sure gives an insight into the type of thinking that may be needed in preparation for, and during it.
Think now of jazz ensembles, what sort of percentage of players in those groups (or even leaders) would be concerned with tackling these sorts of ideas? I'm not talking about doing anything as specific as what Schenker/Salzer expounds, but I am interested as to how this way of thinking and hearing could effect people's approach to making spontaneous music together.
Think of Miles' 60's quintet in it's final stages (this anyone?). One of the things they were really able to do (that to the best of my knowledge not many other groups have really touched) was structure an entire performance of a piece so that it could encompass solos by most of the members of the group while still having an arc that wasn't just a series of ups and downs that corresponded with each member's solo climaxes. I'd argue that this approach could yield a much more satisfying performance, on a much deeper level.

Friday, April 16, 2010


In my last post I discussed some of the ideas I'm exploring for my Masters research. I also mentioned more would be coming. I have been working hard on my research, and have come with some incredibly interesting ideas, concepts, and re-conceptions relating to my practice. Unfortunately the head of my course has advised I document these ideas in a private forum, lest someone takes my developments and pass them off as their own. This is no slight against you, dear faithful reader, but we all know the interwebs is full of all sorts of people.
If you're insatiable interest really becomes too much contact me and we'll hang out sometime.
Coming up, some Eric Dolphy charts, a Lennie Tristano transcription and some ideas about jazz education.
Fun times.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Practice Diary Pt. 2, 3-part polyrhythms/easy long-range polyrhythms

As promised, here's some notation of different groupings between hands in the same subdivision.
This is the first page of a document that is shaping up to be quite large.
The 3-4-5 describes the three groupings used in this family. This can be organised as:
4's (semi-quavers) grouped in 3 and 5 simultaneously,
5's (quintuplets) grouped in 3 and 4 simultaneously, and
3's (triplets) grouped in 4 and 5 simultaneously,

So far in my practice I've been playing them over common forms: rhythm changes, blues etc, as well as through various transpositions of some of Carter's 12-note, all-interval chords (see the Elliott Carter harmony book of John Link's dissertation on harmony in "Night Fantasies").

I have been playing these rhythms as they are presented here, as well as swapping the groupings between hands after a full cycle (when the groupings end up on the down-beat again). Once I'm feeling comfortable I've been swapping the parts between hands when they hit together part-way through a beat. These points are shown with accents in this picture. The second line of semi-qauvers shows this, with the 3's and 5's swapping between hands at each accent. I haven't written this out for all of them, as it's reasonably easy to figure out how that will work.
If I can do this last step and keep a form, I know I have the rhythm under my belt.

Here's an audio snippet from about a year ago. It's me with the Anton Delecca quartet playing a tune in 15/8, obviously this is too-good an opportunity to miss to play the 4's and 5's grouping.

You may also notice these are called '3-part polyrhythms', well, that's because we count the underlying pulse as a rhythm. This is probably near impossible to do on any other instruments expect the piano and drums, but by playing the pulse and these two groupings you get three speeds happening simultaneously. These is, then, 12 different ways to play these grouping between two hands on the piano.

where x=3, y=4 and z=5

x/y in RH and z in LH, and vice-versa
y/x in RH and z in LH, and vice-versa
y/z in RH and x in LH, and vice-versa
z/y in RH and x in LH, and vice-versa
x/z in RH and y in LH, and vice-versa
z/x in RH and y in LH, and vice-versa

I will expound on the 'easy long-range poly-rhythms' part of this post later, as with every new investigation I do, I'm finding more a more interesting properties.
However what I will say is this: the methodology of writing out 11/13 or 19/23 is the same as these ones above: writing out groupings using a common division. The difference between them and these however is that they are much harder to grasp aurally. I am currently working on breaking their resultant rhythms (more later) down into a small formula that will be easy (easier) to follow mentally, making large poly-rhythms more useful for improvisers.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Practice diary Pt. 1

As part of my masters study I am going to begin keeping a log/journal of what I am practising that relates to my research.
My research is revolves around the idea of becoming familiar with Elliott Carter's rhythmic techniques so that I can use them in improvisation.
This first post will be more about what I have been working on in this area recently, and then future posts will be more about how they (and I) develop.

I started writing this, but then it became apparent the explanations would be better served with notation. Once I get to doing this I will post in much more detail.

Just quickly though,

5's and 7's grouped in 9

increasing and decreasing grouping of divisions of 5 and 7, ie, groups of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2

in 3's, grouping 4 in one hand and 5 in the other, grouping 4 in one hand and 7 in the other, moving between them
in 4's, grouping 3 in one hand and 5 in the other, grouping 3 in one hand and 7 in the other, moving between them
in 5's, grouping 3 in one hand and 4 in the other, grouping 3 in one hand and 7 in the other,
moving between them
in 7's, grouping 3 in one hand and 4 in the other, grouping 3 in one hand and 5 in the other,
moving between them (I'm finding this quite hard)

Playing around with the 9 beat cycle, with 4's grouped 5, 5, 5, 6, 5, 5, 5

Like I said, notation plus thoughts coming soon......

Friday, February 12, 2010

Links galore....

This fight happened twenty years ago today, with Tyson in his prime:

Also, here's a video of my latest project, dealing with some of the concepts expounded on in my blog post "Speeds".

You can now follow me on twitter, if you aren't already.


I have a FB fan page, where I put up alot of interesting things.

Thursday, January 14, 2010



Ever since I discovered Elliott Carter's music I've been interested in the 'speed' of certain rhythms. What I am talking about is the rate at which a poly-rhythmic pulse moves across the regular 'crotchet' pulse.

For example: if you play dotted crotchets over crotchets you get the rhythm 2 over 3, 2 'hits' over your crotchet pulse, or 2/3. This poly-rhythm moves by at a rate of 0.67. That is, one and a half 'hits' for every 1 crotchet.

What I'm interested in is finding different poly-rhythms that are close in speed. Alternating between these gives the sense of speeding up and slowing down ever-so-slightly, without actually playing rubato. They're not easy to do, and even harder to do over a given structure like a tune, but hey, that's what practice is for.

So I finally got around to figuring out the numbers for most of the poly-rhythms I like using, and organised them from fastest (the rate of 'hits' is high) to slowest (the rate of 'hits' is low).

Above is the poly-rhythm, and below is the rate.

Table 1

7/2 5/2 7/3 7/4 5/3 3/2 7/5 4/3 5/4 7/6 1/1-------------------->

3.5 2.5 2.34 1.75 1.67 1.5 1.4 1.34 1.25 1.17 1

5/6 4/5 7/9 3/4 5/7 2/3 3/5 4/7 5/9 4/9 3/7

0.83 0.8 0.78 0.75 0.71 0.67 0.6 0.57 0.56 0.44 0.43

Obviously rhythm is not finite, and there are plenty of other rhythms I could add here to make this movement much smoother. I have just done it with the poly-rhythms I am most familiar with.

So if you're unsure on how to play these. If we have a poly-rhythm of x/y, x represents the divsion of the beat, and y represents the grouping of that division. So 5/7 is quintuplets grouped in lots of 7:

1 2 3 4 5, 1 2 3 4 5, 1 2 3 4 5, 1 2 3 4 5, 1 2 3 4 5, 1 2 3 4 5, 1 2 3 4 5

The highlighted numbers are you 'hits', the numbers 1-5 represent the 5 quintuplets in the pulse, and the number 1 represents the crotchet pulse.

Obviously in my table of speeds there are some rhythms that are so close the movement between them is almost imperceptible. From 4/9 to 3/7 there is only 0.01 difference, for instance.

Even if this seems un-realistic for your level of playing, you could examine the raltionships of speed from keeping your division of the beat the same, but changing the grouping.

Table 2

4/1 4/2 4/3 4/4 4/5 4/6 4/7 4/8 4/9 ------->etc

4 2 1.34 1 0.8 0.67 0.57 0.5 0.44

This pattern is much obviously much easier to play, as you don't have to change the division of the beat (going from septuplets grouped in 4 to quintuplets grouped in 3 is not very easy). Although I haven't worked it out mathematically, it looks like this way you get an exponential curve when graphing the relationship from one poly-rhythm to the next. This would obviously happen no matter what the division. So in 'Table 2', the rate of acceleration is increasing at an even rate, whereas in 'Table 1', I'm trying to get the acceleration to remain constant. The problem wth that is the number of poly-rhythms I'll need to get that to happen approached infinity.....oh well. I'm content now with my first efforts.
Now, to the practice room!

Thursday, January 7, 2010


This is pretty good.....


Rather than write a 'best of 2009' blog like everyone else seems to around this time, I'm going to use this opportunity to talk about my plans for the next few years, namely in my development as a musician.
I love playing and listening to many different kinds of jazz/improvised music (Jazz from here-on in). Some of them I can come back to again and again, in both playing and listening. Some I need only a small fix. My point is, there are very few, comparatively, that I can come back to over and over again and never be sick of. This is by far more true of the jazz made in the last 20 years or so. I don't see this as a negative thing, as a slight on the music that has been made during this time, all it means to me is that I need to fill that void for myself. I need to create that music that I want to hear, to come back to over and over.
This music is rhythmic, it deals with phrases, it deals with texture in a polyphonic way.
It is not completely improvised (if that is even possible), but is based on a developed language amongst the band members, and hopefully, a whole community of players. It will probably have an element of formal composition, but these compositions will rarely dictate an entire, maybe not even the majority, of a piece. They are points of departure, that are not so contrived that they seem sonically separate from the act of spontaneous group composition. In fact, these compositions should be created using the exact same tools we use for improvising.
Lofty ideals maybe, but what else can I have when trying to create the music I want to hear?