On Performance

 

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When I think about the word performance I often think about musicians, actors, dancers, even teachers putting on some kind of show. There’s a spectacle aspect to most performances though: they involve some degree of put on, some level of acting, some amount of fakeness. I say this even though I myself perform as a musician six days a week. But maybe performing isn’t the problem. Maybe the problem is focusing on its superficial aspects rather than the other, more substantial demands it makes our concentration, problem-solving, and attention?

Lately I’ve been thinking about some of the redeeming and compelling qualities of performance that have little to do with spectacle. One quality that interests me is how performance can bring out the best in us by urging us to surpass what we already know. In my experience, this quality often manifests itself through improvising in situations in which I have a rough idea of where I’m going but don’t know exactly how I’ll get there, or how I’ll get out of where I’ve gone. I compose this way, formulating a vague melodic game plan, along the lines of I’ll start here, then go higher, linger there for a while, then I’ll come back down. Flying without a net, basically, but just having this simple game plan is enormously helpful. I’ve used it enough to be convinced that its utility is due to it being simple enough to remember in real-time (I often play slowly and leave space, which helps), and also because it’s an open-ended constraint. I haven’t put any limits, for instance, on how long I’ll linger once I’ve moved to a higher register, or on how long it will take me to make my return descent. What does this have to do with performance? Performance is what brings the game plan to life and dares me to play with its constraints; I perform within the game plan by almost going beyond it.

I do something similar with writing. Here I don’t think in spatial terms exactly, but work along analogous lines. Let’s say I want to write about the idea of melodic game plans. Immediately I have three possible conceptual launch points: melody, games, and plans. How are melodies like games of planning? And off we go. It could be that a first paragraph will be all about melody, leaving aside games and plans for the moment. And maybe in the course of that paragraph the word moment stands out as a new connector. Maybe moment deserves its own paragraph to explain how melodies are moment connectors, architectonic plans in the form of pitched games? Once again, what does this have to do with performance? Two things. First, I’m trying find the performative potentials in my materials–which in this hypothetical example is a mere three words. Second, my playing around with my materials is both my performance and also a finding the direction in which my materials will ultimately take me. In other words, in improvising music and riffing on ideas my performing is a way of structuring, a way forward, a way of thinking through, a way of building outwards from a rough plan, one note or word at a time, to reveal some kind of path. Simply put, performance is at once a rising to an occasion and also its creation.

One final thing about performances is that they are deeply time bound. When a concert begins, the ensemble doesn’t make a false start and then say So Sorry! Ignore that. We’ll start over. The musicians just keep going despite how they began–no turning back now. The clock is ticking and the audience have come for an experience that can’t be turned back. These realities lend the proceedings a sense of urgency. Whether you’re performing, composing, or writing, the magical thing about a bona fide performance runs deeper than mere spectacle. A great performance feeds off of time in the most productive, imaginative way of which the performer is capable.

On The Ergonomics Of Music: Reflections On Flow In Steve Reich’s “Drumming”

“But how the paths sounded to me was deeply linked to how I was making them. There wasn’t one me listening, and another one playing along paths. I listened-in-order-to-make-my-way.”
-David Sudnow, Ways of the Hand (MIT Press 2001, p. 40)

Every once in a while warming up before a show I noodle around by playing a bit of Steve Reich’s Drumming on the marimba. Composed in 1971, Drumming is over an hour of continuous percussion music entirely built on just a few pitches arranged in a constellation of eight beats over twelve pulses. This is the core melo-rhythmic pattern:

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As I played Reich’s pattern I thought about what makes it so idiomatic for the drummer’s hands. First, there its short-short-long-long rhythm whose composite sounding has the feel of a three against two polyrhythm. Next, the truncated scale: four notes of a minor one, but without the other three notes that would tell us more about specifics. Finally, Reich’s pattern on these four notes bring my left hand on an out-in-out motor pattern, moving from the g-sharp (out or away from me), up to the b-natural (in or towards me), and then from the b-natural down a semitone to the a-sharp (in to out). Simply put, while the right hand stays perched up on the c-sharp, the left hand motor pattern traverses a small in-out path that flows like crazy!

As I played and enjoyed the flow of the pattern I wondered how it would sound and feel in different keys, so I transposed it downwards one semitone at a time to try it out on eleven other starting pitches. But none of these transpositions felt nearly as natural as playing the pattern on g-sharp. Interesting. In fact, some of the transpositions–starting on b-natural, for instance–were seriously awkward to play. Now I wondered: Would Drumming have worked had it been done in a different key? Had it been tried in different keys? Was motor pattern flow a factor in deciding on its key? (So many questions.)

Playing the core pattern of Drumming had me thinking about some other matters related to composing and playing musical instruments. Had the pathways of this pattern, in this key, on this instrument (and not the tuned bongo drums that are featured in the piece’s opening movement), been the impetus for Drumming? I also reflected on how it is that a piece of music that works so well–that sits so well in the hands–can help define a lexicon of movements that are possible along the terrain of an instrument. If you write music for marimba, it’s difficult to ignore the enduring influence of Reich’s distinctive syncopated patterns on your understanding of the instrument’s idiomatic potentials and expressive sweet spots. Even if you’re just noodling around, warming up before a show by playing bits of Drumming, the fact that the piece continues to sound and feel as good as it does as ergonomic percussion music is enough to make you reflect anew on how closely writing and performing music are connected.

Here is part two of Drumming:

On Hiromi’s The Trio Project

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This past Sunday I went to see the jazz pianist Hiromi and her Trio Project play at the Blue Note Jazz Club. The pianist’s bandmates were Simon Phillips on drums and Anthony Jackson on electric bass. The musicians’ playing was virtuosic and as an ensemble they were super tight–almost telepathically so.

I sat behind Hiromi and couldn’t see her two bandmates–until I realized that if I looked towards the mirrored far wall across the room I could see the head of Jackson and Phillips’ hands–but nothing else, obscured as the drummer was by his giant cymbals. Not bad, but who knew that seeing makes listening to live music that much better? I wanted to see what the musicians were thinking with their faces. So it goes sometimes.

Given my interests, I was particularly moved by Phillips’ drumming. Playing matched grip, his sound was at once booming and crisply articulated, moving easily and instantly from rock time feels to double time swing. His cymbal work was a highlight here. From jazz time on the rides to the symphonic crashes, the cymbals sounded pristine every time he struck them–like important events marked with panache. It was hard to imagine this trio’s music functioning at all without Phillips’ rhythmic verve and presence. It’s in this regard that good drummers are so much more than steady “timekeepers.” The good ones can slice and dice time to the point that the drumming becomes the time.

Unfamiliar with Hiromi’s music, I wondered while listening to the trio perform their airtight set just how much–if any–of their music making was improvised. It sounded composed. Most of the pieces had numerous clearly demarcated sections that dictated exactly how long anyone’s solo might last, ever-shifting odd meters marked by repeating piano riffs, as well as three-way unison flourishes, stops and starts. The grooves were without seams, and downbeat accents were never missed. Indeed, the set seemed a performance of pieces pre-worked out in their details, giving the trio a commanding ability to bring the audience on a calibrated musical trip.

A day after the show I listened the group’s recent recording, Alive, and realized that the music was exactly the set I had heard at the Blue Note. One of the standout tunes is the angular and odd-metered “Dreamer”, which begins and ends with a moody four-chord piano sequence, accompanied by a delicately brilliant drum pattern that evokes Steve Gadd’s “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover” rudimental gear shifting. Like Hiromi’s Trio Project show at the Blue Note, “Dreamer” and many of the other pieces on their recording is an organized, fully thought through adventure that keeps changing and packs a wallop. In jazz does it even matter anymore if the music is composed or improvised?

Here is the trio performing another powerful piece, “Alive”, in the studio:

On The Music Making Of Jon Hopkins

“My general view is just to have absolutely no planning in place at all and just to let my instinct kind of run wild a bit.” – Jon Hopkins

Lately I’ve been enjoying the music of English composer Jon Hopkins. His recording Immunity (2013), shortlisted for last year’s Mercury Prize, is a tour de force in affect, groove, and sound design. Hopkins has his own organic techno-ish sound as well as a kinetic way of performing his intricately crafted music live.

One of the pieces that captured my attention was “Abandon Window,” a decidedly beatless five-minute ambient piano piece. The music is built on a sequence of nine chords that move glacially and repeat. After a few repetitions the piano begins developing a tail of ghostly reverbed resonance behind it. This tail gradually grows in thickness, becoming a chordal wash. By 3:30 the piano is all but gone and only the reverbed resonance remains, repeating and fading, the nine chords of “Abandon Window” having left their trace. There is a clarity to this music–its process is simple to discern, yet its sound still engaging to behold.

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There’s also a clarity to Hopkins’ thoughts about how he makes his music. In one documentary video we learn about his views on improvisation, making his own sounds, synesthesia, and music-induced altered states of mind:

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In another video we see Hopkins performing his music. What is noticeable here is how kinetic Hopkins is while interacting with his tools. His musical system incorporates several touchscreen Korg Kaoss Pads that allow him to improvise changes to the music in real time. Seeing this lively physical interaction–Hopkins throwing his fingers down like darts onto the pads–gives us the sense that the music is truly in the moment. Above all, Hopkins is deeply into his material and this is what holds our attention:

On Musical Systems And Four Tet’s Good Musical Sense

“I don’t want to sound like anybody else.” – Kieran Hebden

I have written previously on this blog about the music of Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet). Hebden not only has good musical taste but also a thoughtful and unique approach to using technology to create his work. In this video from Red Bull Music Academy, Hebden explains to students his electronic gear set-up and how he uses it in performance.

What is interesting here is how Hebden uses a combination of software (Ableton and Cool Edit Pro) running on two computers and other bits of hardware such as loopers and MIDI controllers to re-create his compositions live. This musical system reflects specific performance goals and also illustrates Hebden’s admission that he doesn’t even know some of his software very well (“I don’t know much about Ableton at all and the sorts of things it can do…”). This is key, because it frees him to pursue a quite unique-sounding creative path.

Here is the video:

On The Influence Of One’s Musical Teachers

In his New Yorker piece “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, pianist Jeremy Denk reflects on taking piano lessons from the time he first took up the instrument at the age five through his college years. Denk’s teachers helped him learn to better practice, interpret and think musically. “Learning to play the piano” says Denk, “is learning to reason with your muscles.” Denk’s most influential teacher was the great Hungarian pianist György Sebők (1922-1999) who spent many years teaching at Indiana University. Sebők was a master who made “the concepts behind the notes” come alive. Sebők could conjure worlds from the piano that felt “like music was escaping from the boring necessity of sound.”

Sebők’s playing a dual role of “spirit guide and physics teacher” in Denk’s life is something that any of us who have closely worked with a music teacher will recognize. Sebők aimed to “bridge the gap between boring technical detail and the mysteries of the universe.” Denk expands on the subtleties of Sebők’s approach as it relates to the complexities of the piano:

“He would make you focus on the myriad hinges of the arm and wrist, sometimes looking for the arm to resemble a sewing machine, with up-and-down linear simplicity, other times looking or curves, circles, spirals. The mechanism of bone and muscle brought to bear on the piano is very complex; the hidden responding mechanism inside the piano is also very complex; and the interaction of the two is a lifetime’s study.”

Particularly interesting for me is Sebők’s belief “that matching one’s motions to the gestures within the music was essential to unlocking the emotions of the piece.” Sebők considered it perverse “to play a phrase with body language that was opposed to the musical idea itself.” Denk’s essay also conjures the deep value of masterclass sessions with Sebők, describing them as “beautiful acts of attention, in which the revelatory detail is cherished for its own sake, freed from the narrative necessities of performance.” Reading this I recalled some of my own practicing during college, but also realized that there are everywhere opportunities for beautiful acts of attention. The  key, I suppose, is learning how to really notice things.

After Denk had finished his studies with Sebők and moved to New York, he did some teaching himself and got some sense of what Sebők may have experienced with his pupils. “When you give ideas to students, they tend either to ignore them or to exaggerate them. The first is distilled futility, but the second is grotesque.” Which leads Denk to reflect on the nature of one’s identity–musical or otherwise: “what if this really is you, and that only through the imitation of the struggling student do you see what you’re really about.” Whatever the case, Sebők’s teachings have remained with Denk. Having dinner with another one of his former teachers at, of all places, an Applebee’s in Florida and reminiscing about Sebők, Denk is surprised that twenty years after his lessons with the Hungarian master he still carries with him memories of how Sebők played Bach and made it feel like music was escaping from the boring necessity of sound.

Here is a video of Sebők discussing the relationship between feeling and music followed by a riveting performance of Bach:

On Negative Achievement: The XX Perform In New York

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“The creation of a style often begins with a negative achievement.”
– Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose

If you are a fan of musical minimalisms, atmospheric indie rock, and electronic beats, there was a lot to like about the xx’s poised and elegantly understated performance at Hammerstein Ballroom last week. The young Mercury Prize-winning trio from the UK is Romy Madley Croft on electric guitar and vocals, Oliver Sim on bass and vocals, and Jamie Smith on electronic percussion and keyboards. Theirs is a stripped-down, austere and moody sound that relies on just a few echo-y guitar chord progressions, a handful of sliding bass notes and spartan beats to conjure deep feeling. Against this musical backdrop is Croft’s and Sim’s deeply affecting singing–a singing that is only possible with close mic’ing and serious amplification. Many xx songs feature Croft and Sim taking turns singing the lines of the songs which has the effect of making the song sound like voicing shared secret stories between them that we are listening in on. In concert, the quiet singing sounds powerful and intimate and the minimalist musical textures richly transparent.

While Croft and Sim sing and play at the front of the stage, it is percussionist/programmer Smith standing behind them who is most interesting to watch. (I plead guilty here to a percussion bias.) Smith had an array of electronic drum pads and sample/sequencer machines set up at three different stations across the stage. On most songs you could see him doing something I have only recently thought about as a bona fide kind of musical activity: electronic finger drumming. Standing in front of a hardware controller, Smith used his index fingers to slam out sampled kicks, snare drums, hi hats, hand claps, and other percussive shards in real time. On one song he even played steel pan–though I couldn’t see an actual pan. (And does this matter if Smith used real pan mallets and the sound was real enough?) The pleasure of watching Smith was that you could see him truly controlling the percussion parts–playing little fills, leaving silent spaces at the end of phrases, and, most importantly, keeping his own perceptibly imperfect time that didn’t ever sound quantized (save for a few pre-sequenced patterns he would trigger here and there while busy with something else). Thus, even in those moments where a song had a four-on-the-floor kick drum part you could hear Smith’s small imperfections. Smith also had a single crash cymbal set up at one station center stage. On one song, the percussionist’s right hand held a stick to play a ride pattern on the cymbal while his left hand index finger drummed away kick and snare patterns on tiny rubber pads. What a striking contrast between the acoustic and the electronic! But thanks to Hammerstein Ballroom’s powerful amplification, it all gelled together. If Smith’s finger drumming skills weren’t enough, he also played  keyboards here and there. Hats off to his heavy musical lifting.

With the xx, less really is more. The band can extract drama and maintain musical interest from the most seemingly threadbare of materials, and their songs rarely follow popular music’s verse-chorus-bridge conventions. The xx will repeat parts and stay in a place for a while, letting intensity build by other means. It turns out that those threadbare materials–cycling around the notes of a minor triad, say–are anything but. And while I sometimes found myself wanting a little more –a few more strange chords, or maybe some denser rhythmic stuff–the xx make music their way, and theirs is as much about all the things they choose not to do.

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“Angels”, the opening song on the xx’s recent album Coexist, is effective for reasons both musical and sonic. Musically, there are just four sound sources: Croft’s voice, electric guitar, electric bass, and drum programming. By the standards of multi-layered contemporary pop, it’s a simple instrumentation, but the music fits together in a powerful way. Each part itself is simple too: the guitar plays a 2-note riff that moves around, plus a few chords; the bass slides over a few notes, first in the upper range, then in the lower; the drum programming eschews pretending to be a conventional kit and alternates between sparse scattershot snare drum rolls and concert bass drum hits; and Croft’s voice rarely gets beyond whispering a melody within the tight confines of the first five notes of a minor scale.

“Angels” is also sonically striking. Each instrument inhabits a distinct space in the mix. The guitar is deeply reverbed to sound distant–distant as if off in a far corner of a cathedral; the bass is in a drier and closer proximity to sound like its amplifier is but a few feet from the mic; the drum programming is surreal: the concert bass drum so huge that it momentarily obliterates the other instruments each time it’s sounded, while the snare drum swims in a long tail reverb yet still sounds closer to us than the guitar; finally, the Croft’s voice has a super close-up and dry sound, as if Croft is whisper-singing with a hoodie on and her mouth an inch from the mic. On the one hand, “Angels” sounds like a realistic recording: like four musicians located at varying locations around a single microphone. On the other hand, the song also presents an impossible listening perspective that places the listener at the center of each sound. “Angels” is a simple song, but its arrangement and its recording give it reams of deep resonance.