Monday, January 6, 2014

The Process of Making Jazz - A Metaphor: “Seeing is Forgetting The Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin”

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.




“You're telling human beings that they can trust their intuitions to create forms, rather than need forms in which to create intuitions….”


We're talking about a lot of personal work, rather than taught, or learned, work. We strike out for unknown territory. That's what improvising is all about. If the territory is known, it's not that interesting. That's my bias.
- Paul Bley, Jazz pianist


VOICE: “Why do they call you ‘Mr. Joy?’
MR. JOY: “Because I’m unhappy about a lot of things.”
VOICE: “What are you unhappy about?”
MR. JOY: “I’m unhappy about trying to get music to sound the way I want it to sound, about trying to get life to go the way I want it to go, and generally unhappy about the whole thing.”
- Insert notes to Play Bley’s Mr. Joy [Limelight LS 86060]


The human mind incorporates two systems: an intuitive “system one,’” which makes many decisions automatically, and a calculating but lazy  “system two,” which rationalizes one’s ideas and sometimes overrules them.


“System one” prizes emotions over information [“system two”].
- Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize [2002], author of Thinking, Fast and Slow


“There is a danger in spelling these recollections out so lucidly that your reader gains the impression that at the time I knew what I was doing and where all of this was leading in some sort of intellectual way.”
- Robert Irwin, artist


I never saw it coming.


The tune was Gerry Mulligan’s Freeway which had been transcribed from an issue of Downbeat magazine by the pianist in our quintet that was fronted by a trumpet and alto sax.


The trumpet, alto sax and pianist had soloed on the line [melody] when suddenly the pianist pointed to me and held up four fingers to signify that I was going to trade four bar breaks with the horns.


I was terrified. What do you play?


Drums don’t play notes per se: no melody, no harmony. It’s a rhythm instrument.


What do you base the four bar breaks on? There are no chord progressions to follow.


Do you just play four bars of drum rudiments and sound like a marching band drummer?


How do you improvise on nothing?


It’s just an empty space.


Talk about challenges.


And then it hit me; whatever I did, it couldn’t interrupt the momentum. What I played had to keep the swing going.


So I felt it … impossible to explain in words, but that’s what I did.


I internalized the feeling of four bars, drop my hands on the drums [the feet would come later … still later would come the integration of hands and feet] and sounded out on the snare and tom toms what I felt [more than likely, it was some sort of combination of what I had been listening to - Joe Morello, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones - not bad company, eh?].


It was all about process - the process of learning how to improvise short drum solos.


Yet to come were eights, twelves, sixteen bar solos and full 32 bar choruses - more and more emptiness that I somehow had to fill with interesting music played on drums.


As Robert Irwin cautions in one of the lead-in quotations to this piece: “There is a danger in spelling these recollections out so lucidly that your reader gains the impression that at the time I knew what I was doing and where all of this was leading in some sort of intellectual way.”


What was actually happening in my drum soloing was that I was learning the process of how to play them, which is essentially what all art is  - a process that leads to self-expression whether the basis for it is music, painting, sculpting, writing poetry, et al.


And as psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggests in another of our lead-in quotes, the process of learning artistic self-expression largely consists of two brain functions or, as he calls them, systems:


“The human mind incorporates two systems: an intuitive “system one,’” which makes many decisions automatically, and a calculating but lazy “system two,” which rationalizes one’s ideas and sometimes overrules them. “System one” prizes emotions over information [“system two”].”


Perhaps the further parallel here as to what goes on in Jazz improvisation is that “system two” involves the technical aspects of learning to play one’s instrument, something which must be mastered before one can enable the self-expression on it inherent in “system one” of Dr. Kahneman’s theorization.


At some point in the process, I learned to feel or sense the span of time involved in Jazz drum soloing [rather than counting it in my head] and transmit to my hands and feet, almost automatically, what I was hearing in my head.


The drums were no longer there, they were just a vehicle for self-expression.


But when one tries to explain this process, it makes the process sound more fluent and coherent than it actually is.


Ultimately, [in my case] the improvising drummer has to get to the point as expressed by Paul Bley “ … that they can trust their intuitions to create forms, rather than need forms in which to create intuitions…. We're talking about a lot of personal work, rather than taught, or learned, work. We strike out for unknown territory. That's what improvising is all about. If the territory is known, it's not that interesting.”


And until I did learn the process of trusting my intuitions by putting in the necessary personal work, I played it safe by mimicking what other drummers played. I copied licks from all the great drummers but as Mr. Joy [aka Paul Bley] states in another of our opening refrains, it made me “unhappy about a lot of things.”


VOICE: “What are you unhappy about?”


MR. JOY: “I’m unhappy about trying to get music to sound the way I want it to sound, about trying to get life to go the way I want it to go, and generally unhappy about the whole thing.”


I, too, was unhappy about not being able to get my drum solos “to sound they way I wanted to sound.”


Eventually, I realized that I had to push beyond merely copying others and venture into the “unknown territory” that was what I had to say on the instrument - I had to find my own voice or I would never be satisfied with my playing.


I had to put in a lot more “personal work” to find that voice so that I could really become “Mr. Joy” and not merely a facetious one.


The subtitle of this piece is derived from a book title by the same name written by Lawrence Weschler which I purchased when it was first published by the University of California Press in 1982.


Here are some excerpts from the book that could be applied to the process of creating Jazz; a metaphor, if you will.


“‘You know,’ Irwin, advised me one morning as we began talking about his movement toward dot painting, the works that would command his attention between 1964 and 1966, “you have to be careful in taking these things I’m saying and working them into too clear an evolving narrative.”


There is a danger in spelling these recollections out so lucidly that your reader gains the impression that at the time I knew what I was doing and where all of this was leading in some sort of intellectual way.


You have to make it very clear to anyone who might read your essay, especially any young artist who might happen to pick it up, that my whole process was really an intuitive ability in which all the time I was only putting one foot in front of the other, and each step was not that resolved.


Most of the time, I didn’t have any idea where I was going: I had no real intellectual clarity as to what it was I thought I was doing.


Usually it was just a straight-forward commitment in terms of pursuing the particular problems or questions which had been raised in the doing of the work.


Maybe I was just gradually developing a trust in the act itself, that somehow, if it were pursued legitimately, the questions it would raise would be legitimate and the answers would have to exist somewhere, would be worth pursuing, and would be of consequence.


Actually, during those years in the mid-1960s, …, the answers seemed to matter less and less. I was becoming much more of a question person than and answer person.’


There is a strain in the Jewish mystical tradition that asserts that there exists question larger than the sum of their answers, questions all of whose possible answers would never exhaust them. Irwin’s concern was drifting into questions of this sort, although he himself would bridle at any imputation of mysticism,” [pp. 85-86; paragraphing modified].


Analogies, cross-overs between the arts and parallel thinking are always dangerous as a source for metaphors because there is a tendency that such comparisons may misrepresent things.


On the other hand, such juxtapositions can be helpful in leading to a larger understanding of the artistic “Act of Creation.”


“Had one asked Irwin in 1965 how he viewed the relationship between his activity and that of a scientist, he might well have replied that he saw none whatsoever, or that he saw the two enterprises as diametrical opposites. By 1970, however, after spending several years working with scientific researchers, he had developed a rich sense of the interpenetration of the two endeavors.


"Take a chemist, for example," he elaborated one afternoon. "He starts out with a hypothesis about what might be created if he combined a few chemicals, and he begins by simply doing trial and error. He tries two-thirds of this and one-third of that, and marks down the result: that doesn't work. He tries one-third of this plus one-third of that plus one-third of something else; and then he tries one-quarter and three-quarters; and he proceeds on that basis, a sort of yes-no trial and error.


"What the artist does is essentially the same. In other words, what you do when you start to do a painting is that you begin with a basic idea, a hypothesis of what you're setting out to do (a figurative painting or nonfigurative or whatever). Say you're going to paint a figurative painting that's going to be about that model over there and the trees outside behind her and the oranges on the table. It's just a million yes-no decisions. You try something in the painting, you look at it, and you say, 'N-n-no.' You sort of erase it out, and you move it around a little bit, put in a new line; you go through a million weighings. It's the same thing, the only difference is the character of the product.


"Let's say at a particular point the scientist gets what he set out to get, he arrives at what he projected might happen if he mixed the particular right combination of chemicals in the right way. But the same thing is true of the artist: when he finally gets the right combination, he stops, he knows he's finished." [p.137].


Paul Bley more directly explains the process for achieving originality in Jazz improvisation in these excerpts from his interview with Len Lyons in The Great Jazz Pianists, [New York: DaCapo, 1983, pp. 163-165.


“You know, I made a practice of never making records of things I knew how to play, but only of recording things I hadn't yet worked out, the point being that the recording can serve as a learning tool for me. I've never done anything long enough to popularize it. With that methodology, I've spawned a lot of spin-off bands, spin-off players, and influences. …


Doesn't that kind of movable identity make it hard to develop your career? It seems the public would find it hard to know who you are or what you do. Has that made things difficult for you professionally?


Definitely, absolutely. But in the end you're left with your playing, not your public. An artist has to choose his terms, and my terms are that the next record won't sound like the last record. My audience likes that and the fact that when I play in person, each piece won't sound like the last piece. Ultimately I think one's style-in quotes-does come clear, but it comes over a longer period of time, not by repeating albums.


Where do you see your style historically? Do you have a vocabulary to describe yourself, the kinds of terms that are generally applied to jazz piano—stride, bebop, tonality-based playing, impressionism, or something along those lines?


Well, look at the end of that road for a keyboard player. These styles you named lead up to purely atonal and electronic music.



What makes you say that?


These are the end points of acoustic music in terms of complexity. That was the case in classical music, where you have romanticism, impressionism, and atonalism following in cycles of thirty, or fifty, years. At the end of that, pure acoustic music ceases to be as meaningful. Now how do you retain the jazz flavor when you're dealing with atonal music? By being a jazz musician, I guess. The whole point of all of this is to play without any givens, without any compositions.


You see that as the goal of the jazz keyboardist?


Absolutely. It's a quantum leap forward. You're telling human beings that they can trust their intuitions to create forms, rather than need forms in which to create intuitions.


Back to Keith Jarrett, that's exactly what he claims to be doing. Do you think that's what he's doing?


That's between a musician and himself. The audience won't always know. The musician may even prefer to make it sound as if he did have a composition.


Some jazz composers like to work with form itself. Will that become obsolete in your opinion?


No, but there's not that much difference. The improviser works with forms that may sound as if they had been planned. They'll wind up with just as much form because the brain just refuses to go into a random mode. You have to organize. Improvising is also a good exercise to push yourself and your mind to its limits. Then, when you come back to more traditional material, you can inject things that make it a richer experience.


I was recently talking with Jaki Byard, who is probably at the opposite end of the spectrum from you. He starts and ends with established forms, and he keeps to them pretty rigorously.


Jaki has a wonderful opportunity to preserve the heritage intact, so to speak. He can play the piano the way people have for the last forty years, and he gets very close to how it was actually done. To throw that heritage out the window in order to play "free" would be wasteful. Better for a younger person to go forward. Let an older person play what he knows best. I've played five genres of music, and I guess I'm trying to make it six.


Are you trying to preserve these genres in what you do?


I'm trying to preserve the jazz element in quite random material, whether it's atonal or electronic. I'm trying to find out what is the jazz element. How do we differ from Karlheinz Stockhausen?


American musicians have proved two things. First, if you're going on a trip, you don't necessarily need a map. Second, this music could only have been made here. For one reason, academia is much stronger in Europe than it is in America. It was because Buddy Bolden didn't know there was an extra octave on the trumpet that we extended the range of the trumpet. We're talking about a lot of personal work, rather than taught, or learned, work. We strike out for unknown territory. That's what improvising is all about. If the territory is known, it's not that interesting. That's my bias.”



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