Minimalism in Jazz

To celebrate Steve Reich’s 75th Birthday, Jazz on 3 (BBC Radio 3) ran a special feature this week on minimalism in Jazz (available for re-listening for several days).     This feature includes an interview with bass player Lloyd Swanton of The Necks.   First hearing the music of The Necks about a decade ago was a revelation, as it is the closest music to that in my head in my own improv playing.

Biedermeier Orientalism


Listening to Mendelssohn’s Auf Flugeln des Gesanges (“On Wings of Song”), a setting of a poem by Heinrich Heine, I am reminded of the composer’s orientalism.    The poem expresses a deep interest in orientalist thought; indeed, the words are quite remarkable for their cosmopolitan and surrealist flavour.

Mendelssohn was well-read in Asian thought, particularly Hindu and Sufist philosophy, and was close friends with Friedrich Rosen (1805-1837), an orientalist and first Professor of Sanskrit at University College London (appointed at age 22).  In his letters, too, Mendelssohn recommended to his brother Paul a book of Eastern mystic aphorisms by another orientalist, Friedrich Ruckert, saying this book, (“Erbauliches und Beschauliches aus dem Morgenlande” – Establishments and Contemplations from the Orient),  provided “delight beyond measure” (Letter of 7 February 1840).    (At roughly the same time, of course, Thoreau and the other New England Transcendentalists were also being strongly influenced by orientalist ideas and literature.)  Mendelssohn was well-read in theology and philosophy generally, and particularly influenced by the ideas of Friedrich Schleiermacher. There is something more profound here in Mendelssohn’s thought and music than is usually noticed by people who dismiss his music (and often Biedermeier culture generally) as being lightweight and superficial.   That an activity is inward-focused does not make it light or superficial; indeed, the reverse is usually true.

Among the more there that is here, I believe, is a relationship between Sufist ideas and Mendelssohn’s love of repetition, something one soon hears in his melodies with their many repeated notes.  A similar relationship exists between JS Bach’s fascination with Pietism, and his own love of repetition, as in the first movement of the D Minor Piano Concerto (BWV 1052), or the proto-minimalism of, for example, Prelude #2 in C minor, in Book 1 of the 48 (The Well-Tempered Clavier).

Those dismissing Mendelssohn for being superficial included, famously, Richard Wagner, whose criticisms were certainly motivated by anti-semitism, jealousy, and personal animosity.  But I wonder, too, if Wagner – that revolutionary of ’48 – was also dismissive of what he perceived to be the inward-focus of the Biedermeier generation, a generation forced to forego public political expression in the reimposition of conservative Imperial rule after the freedoms wrought by Napoleon’s armies.    But not speaking one’s political mind in public is not evidence of having no political mind, as any post-war Eastern European could tell you.  While visiting Paris in the 1820s, Mendelssohn attended sessions of the French National Assembly.  While in London in 1833, he attended the House of Commons to observe the debate and passage of the bill to allow for Jewish emancipation, writing excitedly home about this afterwards.  (Sadly, the bill took another three decades to pass the Lords.)

In July 1844, while again in London, Mendelssohn was invited to receive an Honorary degree from Trinity College Dublin, and hearing that he would be going to Dublin, Morgan O’Connell, son of Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, asked him to take a letter to his uncle, then in a Dublin prison.  (As it happened, Mendelssohn was unable to go to Ireland on that occasion.  See: letter to his brother Paul, 19 July 1844, page 338 of Volume 2 of Collected Letters.)   One wonders how O’Connell could ask of someone such a favour, without first knowing something of the man’s political sympathies.  So perhaps those sympathies were radical, anti-colonial and republican. In an earlier letter, Mendelssohn described standing amidst British nobility with his “citizen heart” in an audience at the Court of Victoria and Albert (Letter of 6 October 1831).  As these incidents reveal, there may have been much more to this Biedermeier mister than meets the eye.

Music as thought

I have remarked before that music is a form of thinking.  It is a form of thinking for the composer and may also be for the listener.  If the performers are to transmit its essence effectively and well, it will be a form of thinking for them also. Listening recently to the music of Prokofiev,  I realize I don’t think in the way he does, and so I find his music alien.

But what is the nature of this musical thought?
Continue reading ‘Music as thought’

Documenta IX

The first documenta I attended was documenta IX, in 1992.  Only two artworks there moved me:  a minimalist piece by Jean-Pierre Bertrand, and a work of conceptual tropicalia by Cildo Meireles.
Jean-Pierre Bertrand (1937-, France) presented a wide rectangle hung on the wall, divided into 10  narrow vertical panels.  Each panel was filled with organic materials mixed together and cooked  (honey, fruit juice, cooking-salt solution) to make a smooth paste, which he then glazed.  The panels were of two different colours:  reading from the left, panels 1 and 9 were red, the others off-white.  They shone quietly on the wall, their simplicity and timeless calm an antidote to the breathless featurism of the rest of documenta,  a thousand artworks each shouting “Me! Me! Look at Me!”.
A later work by Bertrand, Bright yellow green no. 1,  was acquired by the Art Gallery of NSW, described here. As with many post-war artists and composers, his art is profoundly concerned with the materiality of the medium he uses, the actual and specific physical attributes of the oils and paints, and the ways in which these attributes influence the visual image they are part of.    This concern by visual artists goes back at least to Turner.
Cildo Meireles (1948-, Brazil) fitted a square room with 2000 loudly ticking clocks on the walls, all set to different times, and hung 7600 yellow folding tape measures from the ceiling.  To walk through the room, one had to push through the tapes, unable to see more than a step or two in front at any time.  Nothing so evoked a tropical jungle as this installation:  unable to see much, having to push vines out of the way, and assaulted by an insect cacophony.
documenta 13 will be held in 2012, details here.

What is music for?

What is music for?  What purposes do its performers achieve, or intend to achieve?  What purposes do its listeners use it for?  Why do composers or song-writers write it?
These seem to me fundamental questions in any discussion about (say) the public funding of music performances and music education, or (say) the apparent lack of knowledge that some people in Britain have about some types of music, or (say) how to increase audiences for particular types of music.   But no-one seems to debate these questions, or even to raise them.  As a result, there seems to be little awareness that aims and purposes may vary, both across cultures, and over time.   (I am reminded of Alfred Gell’s anthropological theory of art which understands art as the creation of objects liable to be perceived by their audience as objects with intentionality, that is, objects carrying some purpose.)

The philosopher John Austin once said that every science begins with a classification.  In that spirit, I have tried to list some purposes and functions which I have understood to be intended for music by composers, performers and/or listeners (in no particular order):
  • To entertain, to give pleasure. The pleasure may arise from the sounds themselves (eg, elements such as the sound qualities, the melodies, the harmonies, the overtones, the timbres, the beat, the rhythms, the combinations or interplay of the various elements), or the performance of the music (the skills of the performers may provide pleasure), or the construction of the music (eg, repetition or novelty, contrapuntalism or other structural features, the composition or improvisation techniques evident to a listener), or allusions to other sounds and music.
  • To express some emotion or mood in the composer/writer, or in the performer.  Indeed, music may be a form of encrypted communication, with messages able to be understood by the target audience but not by any others who hear it.   According to Larry Todd, Fanny Mendelssohn wrote lieder (art-songs) to communicate to Wilhelm Hensel her feelings about him; he was later to become her husband, but at this time her parents had forbidden them to meet or to write to one another, even on occasion intercepting a letter he had had written against this order.
  • To evoke some emotion or mood in the listener.  The sturm-und-drang movement in the mid-18th century, for example, led symphony writers to imitate thunderstorms and other effects, often seeking to frighten or surprise listeners.
  • To express solidarity and communality, whether by performers or by listeners.  See, for instance, Mark Evan Bonds’ great book on how Beethoven’s symphonies were perceived by their audience as expressions of and occasions for communality.  John Miller Chernoff’s observation that African people express their opinion of a musical performance by joining in (themselves performing, singing, beating time, or dancing) is an example of this particular aesthetic of music.  Other examples include the playing of the US national anthem at the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, London, on 13 September 2001, and the programming of music by American composers for the Last Night of the Proms in London that same week, both acts of solidarity with the USA after the 9/11 attacks.  Given the fact that the US had to fight a war against the British crown to achieve Independence, and indeed had fought a subsequent war with Britain, these were very strong statements of solidarity.
  • To inspire listeners to action, as, for example, with the music of the 19th century nationalists such as Verdi, Chopin, Dvorak, Smetana, Sibelius, Hill, etc.   Such nationalist aesthetics may be very powerful:  The white minority regime in South Africa, for example, banned the singing of the hymn, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (“God Bless Africa”), because of its association with the movement for majority rule. (The hymn is now the national anthem of South Africa.)   Similarly, although Japan’s illegal military occupation of Korea ended in 1945 and both countries are now democracies, Japanese pop music is still banned in the ROK (South Korea).
  • To induce altered mental states in listeners, for example, as an aid to entering a trance or to prepare them for some other spiritual experience.  In words of Indian musician Gita Sarabhai (1922-2011) that influenced John Cage, for example, music’s function is “to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.”
  • To facilitate some other activity, such as dancing, singing or the recital of poetry, or the ready memorizing of secret espionage codes.
  • To think.  Contrapuntal music, in the North German tradition that reached its peak in the middle of the 18th century, used fugal writing as a way of articulating the possible mathematical manipulations (eg, overlay, delay, inversion, reversion) of the theme.  These manipulations may be viewed mathematically as group actions on a musical space.  Similarly, the tradition of western art music from the mid 18th century through to the present day has focused on the articulation of the musical consequences of a theme or motif.   Beethoven, who was never very good at melody-making, was perhaps the best composer ever at development, with Mendelssohn a very close second.  Chopin, by contrast, was good with melodies, but not at complex development.   The development of musical material during improvised performances of modern jazz, of Indian ragas, or of Balinese gamelan scales are further examples.  See, for instance, Paul Berliner’s account of his learning to improvise in jazz.   Likewise, much minimalist music forces performer and listener to pay careful mental attention to aspects of music ignored in the dominant uptown tradition, such as rhythm and metre, and how these vary, concatenate and interleave with one another.  Similarly, the focus, particularly by composers in the American experimental tradition this last 100 years (eg, Cowell, Varese, Cage), on the materiality of sounds is another form of thinking; it is the intelligent exploration of the features of sounds and sound-generating mechanisms, and the consequences of these features.
  • To facilitate thinking. I have a computer scientist friend whose attempts to prove mathematical theorems is greatly enhanced if he listens to Bach fugues while doing so.  Likewise, many large corporations transmit low-decibel, high-frequency white noise through their office speaker systems to facilitate work in open-plan offices.
  • To come to know oneself.   Using music (or any form of human expression) as a form of thinking, one learns about oneself:   how one thinks, about what one is thinking or obsessing, and what one perceives.  Many visual artists draw or paint to know themselves better, with the resulting drawing or painting a mere by-product of the process.  The same is true of musicians and composers and listeners, and it is why people may be drawn to life as a musician (or artist) despite the consequences.   (I am grateful to conversations with Patricia Cain for this insight.)
  • To enable one to seek mastery of the skills and arts involved in composing, performing and/or listening, to train oneself in these arts, to undertake a practice (in the Zen sense of that word)
  • To pray.   Much western religious music is expressed in a form of supplication or worship to a deity.  Composing, performing or listening to music may also be understood as acts of piety in themselves, akin to the copying out of sacred texts which some religions, for example, Nichiren Shu Buddhism, consider to be pious actions.
  • To channel messages from the spirit world, as Zimbabwean mbira players are aiming to do when playing.   Jazz pianist Craig Taborn has said that he believes “creative endeavours are informed by the interaction with metaphysical forces” and that “Music functions as a means to ‘call down’ those spirits [the spirits of the black improvisational music tradition], so in a very real sense I am not doing anything when the music is truly being made.  It isn’t really me doing it.”
  • To communicate with non-material (ie, spirit) realms. Much prayer, indeed, perhaps the overwhelming majority, is not intended to be entreaty or worship of a deity, but communion with spiritual entities.  Music can be a form of such communion.
  • To provide soteriological guidance to performers or listeners. Composing, playing, or listening may help one achieve or progress towards salvation. Jazz pianist Craig Taborn again: “All the things people say when they talk about music have to do with entertainment, or some kind of aesthetic advancement.  Yet when they talk  about how music moves them, they talk about other  things:  feelings, times of life, etc.  So I  suppose that for me, music is one of the things we use to get ourselves through life.”
  • To provide an unobtrusive background to other events, as Muzak seeks to do, and as much film music appears to be seeking to do.
  • To pass the time.  It is true that time would have passed anyway, but one’s perception of the duration and speed of its passage may be altered.

These goals may overlap.  For instance, music may entertain by providing an opportunity for musical thinking.  For musics such as modern jazz improv or classical Indian ragas, the composers, performers or listeners may gain considerable pleasure from the thinking they undertake in order to write, to perform, or to listen to the music.  A listener to music may gain intellectual pleasure by discerning and re-creating the thinking that the composer undertook when writing a piece, or that was undertaken by a performer engaged in an improvisation.  Such pleasure at thinking, in my experience, is similar to the pleasures which people gain by doing crosswords or doing Sudoku puzzles; it may also be a form of mathmind.   This is (writing, performing or hearing) music as thinking, in exactly the same way that drawing is a form of thinking.   As with drawing, the cognitive abilities required to think via music, especially on the fly, should not be underestimated.

Paul F. Berliner [1994]: Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago, IL, USA:  Chicago University Press.
Mark Evan Bonds [2006]:  Music as Thought:  Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven. Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press.
John Miller Chernoff [1979]:  African Rhythm and African Sensibility:  Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms. Chicago, IL, USA:  University of Chicago Press.
Allen Forte [1977]:  The Structure of Atonal Music.  New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press.
Kyle Gann [2006]: Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice.  University of California Press.
Alfred Gell [1998]: Art and Agency:  An Anthropological Theory.  Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Spiderwoman RIP

The death has occurred of artist Louise Bourgeois, aged 98.   I can’t say I liked or appreciated her art at all, most of which I found unsettling, sinister and off-putting.   Her art did not communicate anything pleasant or subtle, at least not to me, but perhaps that was her intention, or else I was not in her target audience.   Her art was also obsessive (all those spiders, for goodness sake!) and very literal-minded (every one of them with exactly 8 legs).  Somehow we expect our artists, of all people, to have more imagination than this.    Bourgeois appears to have been true to her own vision and to her own self, but that does not mean she was someone I would want to spend any time with.
Perhaps I was not the only person repelled by her art and the personality it revealed.   In gallery Dia: Beacon, upriver from New York City,  Bourgeois’ art is placed in a small upstairs room on its own, hidden away from the other work like some Mrs Rochester of the art world.  Perhaps the curators thought her work would infect the wonderful minimalist and conceptual art for which the gallery is rightly known; her work certainly seems out of place in this gallery.  As elsewhere, I found her art there unpleasant, and a whole room full was overwhelmingly repellent.  Indeed, the one great work in that room you only see as you descend the steps to leave, and is not by her or by any artist.  In this former printing factory, the wall next to the steps is the original external red-brick factory wall, covered in some places with a white dust, and left as it presumably was when the gallery took over the building.  This subtle, spiritual wall with its geometric pattern of red bricks overlaid with random splotches of white is the only interesting or pleasant artwork in the Bourgeois room at Dia:Beacon.  It says something about Bourgeois’ art (or perhaps about my taste) that the packaging here is much better art than any of the objects inside it.

Carpenter in Cottonopolis

Being a traveling organ recitalist has its own challenges.  All pipe and most electric organs are unique.  A recitalist needs to practice beforehand on the organ he or she will perform on, to get a feel for the instrument’s capabilities, to know its sounds and colours, and to become familiar with its physical layout.  Thus, deciding what music best fits a particular organ and how best to voice that music on that organ requires the organist to spend some time alone with the organ.  Organs are one of the last remaining examples in modern Western life of the primacy of the local, the particular, the here-and-now,  over the universal and general and eternal (in the analysis of Stephen Toulmin).  It is not surprising that the art of improvisation remains alive in organ recitals, alone among current classical music performance practices.

For this reason, American organist Cameron Carpenter tries his best not to decide recital programs in advance of seeing the organ.  Last night in Manchester, playing on a large cinema-style organ in the Bridgewater Hall (not the Hall Organ), he gave an outstanding performance of the following works (as best I can recall):

  • Bach’s Toccata in F minor (though played in F#)
  • One of his own Three Intermezzi for Cinema Organ
  • Bach’s Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, in C minor, C# minor and D major
  • Schubert’s Erl-King, in Carpenter’s transcription for organ
  • Two Chopin Etudes for piano, in Carpenter’s transcription for organ.
  • Bach’s Prelude and Fugue for Organ in G major (with an inserted cadenza improvisation, cinema-organ style)
  • He ended the concert with two improvisations.
  • The audience then recalled him three times for encores, which including a cinema-organ version of Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turk (famous as the usual music for the chase scenes in silent films) and (I think) a Prelude and Fugue by Mendelssohn.

What a wonderful, thought-provoking performance this was!  Before the concert even began, Carpenter spent 20 minutes in the lobby, greeting members of the audience as they arrived, something unknown in classical music (at least since Franz Liszt, who, in addition, chatted to the audience between pieces and even while playing).   Carpenter’s performances then likewise played masterful havoc with the fusty organ recital tradition!   But not arbitrarily – the guy had thought intelligently about the music and knew what he was doing.  For instance, in Bach’s proto-minimalist Prelude in C minor (WTC, Book I), the left-hand part was taken by the feet, and the subtle melody which emerges from the leading notes of the right-hand part was played on a different keyboard (and thus with different tone colours) to the notes from which it emerges.  Pianists often foreground the leading melody notes while pushing the other right-hand notes into the background; Carpenter did not do this, which I think better matches the minimalist tenor of the music – ie, it is the background here that is really the foreground.   His was an intelligent and reflective treatment, and showed an understanding of the ideas in this music.  (In case the mention of Bach and minimalism in the same breath surprises you, I think there is a close connection between Minimalism and Pietism, a relationship which deserves its own post.)
Would old JS have liked this treatment of his music?  Of course, he would have!  The man who imported colorful Italian and French musical styles into the moribund North German church music tradition and wrote a cantata in praise of coffee would surely have loved it.  And one only has to listen to Bach’s Piano Concerto in D minor (BWV 1052), with its humorous flourishes and its repeated notes (more minimalism!), to know that this was a man who liked to play the keyboard.
And Carpenter’s delight and enthusiasm at playing the organ was evident throughout.  Hands stretched across two, three and even four keyboards, or jumping back and forth between them, along with feet playing 4-note chords or impossible contrapuntal parts (such as the opening voice of the D Major Fugue) or imitating the wild horses in the Erl-King, all showed a man enjoying himself immensely.   Even when a technical problem caused one keyboard not to sound, he remained enthusiastic.    The hall was only about half full, and all of us who heard him were lucky to have experienced this superb combination of enthusiasm, black-belt technical mastery, and intelligent musicianship.  Life has been better ever since!
POSTSCRIPT (2010-08-10): Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for Carpenter’s organ-playing.  I note that the writer and reviewers quoted in that review are themselves organists (or the children of), and wonder if Carpenter’s messing with tradition is what really upsets these folk.   For some reason I think of Karl Marx’s dictum that tradition comprises the collected errors of past generations.
Cameron Carpenter web-site.  Edition Peters page.
Guardian preview here.  Pre-concert interview with BBC In Tune here (limited time only).