Monday, January 18, 2010

Another view on composition

An ongoing theme of this blog is the nature of a musical work, especially in light of the radical modifications to that concept since World War II. Most of the musicians I've discussed in this context so far have come from the classical tradition, with its strict dichotomy of score and performance. Jazz comes from a completely different background, yet its contrasting compositional practice has approached a parallel that has much in common with Cage and Wolff, despite obvious differences in musical language and instrumental techniques. Graham Collier's recent book, The Jazz Composer: Moving Music Off The Paper, acts like a frame for a consideration of classical open form works, a boundary between two completely different traditions that reveals an unusual perspective on graphic and open scores.

One shared characteristic is that compositions are written with specific performers in mind. Jazz band leaders starting with Duke Ellington (Collier's pioneering example of a jazz composer) wrote their music with the individual characteristics of their players in mind. Similarly for the classical avant-garde, many composers had performer-muses whose unique musical talent contributed to some kind of virtuosic breakthrough (Cage and Tudor, Berio and Berberian). We wouldn't have anywhere near the amount of piano music from the avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s without David Tudor. But the downside was that the composer wouldn't always get the imagined and desired results. Stockhausen wrote his open works in the 1960s with his ensemble in mind, and complained when his intuitive music was performed badly by others. Morton Feldman reportedly quit writing scores on graph paper because they were so often poorly interpreted.

Feldman's experience is a reminder that music is created by the people playing it, that it can be played well or poorly, but it must be performed to be experienced. While this statement may be a tautology to a jazz fan, it's one of the biggest differences between jazz and classical composition; the latter grants compositions an independent existence and generally higher value than performances thereof. It's true that classical compositions have an intricate set of relationships that can be expressed notationally, and studied both as a compositional example and for spectator appreciation. Open form compositions are often closer to the jazz perspective than the classical one, where the audible results are all there is, without some imagined ideal creating the shadow on the wall. The classical paradigm permits these scores to be published and thereby made available to other performers, who may have no direct connection to the composer. Having improvisation at its core, jazz has not progressed down the publication path, so our only examples of jazz scores are those that the composers choose to share, generally on his or her website. Transcriptions of jazz performances are very common, but not to be confused with the original compositions, and meaningless for an understanding of the nature of the work itself.

Collier states at the outset that for jazz composers, all that matters is the performance. Some classical open scores are beautiful pictures in and of themselves — I have pages from Cage's Concert for piano framed and hanging in my studio. But despite admiration for visual scores like Takemitsu's Corona, the whole point is to inspire the performer to create a performance that could not be obtained any other way. Cage deliberately composed so that he could be surprised by the results, accepting the risk that the surprise might not be pleasant. We're also distracted by looking for form in open scores, when the form is what is audible in the results. In jazz as well as contemporary classical, the target audience of an open form composition is the performer, who must put his own substantial creativity and vision into the results to create a meaningful statement for an audience (even if the audience is only the performer himself).

Some of Collier's other elements, such as appropriate space for musical events, and levels of interaction that divide the listener's attention, are applicable to a lot of the music on my shelves. Markedly, they don't apply to testosterone-laden bop solos, always in the same order and over an unvarying rhythm section, designed to show off instrumentalist's technical chops. He has considerably more sympathy with classical composers than a jazz language that was surpassed definitively in 1959 when Miles Davis released Kind of Blue, epitomizing what Collier calls "the revolutionary decade." Gil Evans, Ornette Coleman, and Charles Mingus are the other stars from this seminal period. Collier acknowledges their influences for his own compositions, which he uses to illustrate some of the specifics (with audio examples at the book's website). Paralleling his disdain for most contemporary mainstream jazz figures, few other living composers other than Coleman and himself get more than a passing allusion.

In addition to the technical material, The Jazz Composer is entertaining because of Collier's polemics. He despises the reactionary jazz stance taken by Wynton Marsalis and others connected with the uptown Lincoln Center version of "Jazz," and anyone who wants to put jazz performances in a museum. He tackles jazz education as one of the primary culprits in maintaining bop in its privileged position. He confronts many of the jazz prejudices head on, addressing biases against Europeans, gays and women. Amusing sidebars aside, Collier writes as a practitioner, from the inside, addressing musical topics beyond the insular world of jazz.

1 comment:

maready said...


Thank you for bringing this book to my attention, in your usual eloquent way. The relation of composer, score and performer is one of my major preoccupations, and a subject I have been writing on (privately) for the last few years. I am sure I have read something by this author before, but nothing I see on Amazon looks familiar, so it must have been articles ...

So I'll be ordering this right away – much of the bibliography on this subject (or these subjects) is rather disappointing; this sounds like a solid piece of work. Thanks.