11-06-09: Regret

11-06-09: Regret

With a title like that you’re thinking another Character piece á la Schumann, and you’d be right. I never played much of his music, but Schumann, who practically invented the musical version of the morose, seems to be showing his influence in several of the more morose pieces here. (Though after much troubled rhetoric, this ends with a happy major key cadence.)

At random moments on random days, I stop whatever I’m doing (practicing the piano, business work, making calls, writing emails, etc.),  load up Pro Tools, and record one or several takes of improvised piano music. What inspires me to stop whatever I’m doing and improvise a random piece of music is a question that I probably shouldn’t delve into too deeply—a key to the success of the whole venture, after all, is the element of surprise. And I mean surprise for myself. I don’t want to know when it’s going to happen, or why it’s going to happen.

Nevertheless, I do understand something of the impulse that leads me to stop doing something I’m supposed to be doing and instead do this. Indeed, it is my very rebelliousness against what I’m supposed to be doing, against the outwardly or self-imposed structure of my days that gives Piano Diaries its raison d’etre. Piano Diaries is my protest against all that order—wake up, perform morning ablutions, feed kids (make sure they perform their morning ablutions) take kids to school, some days go downtown to teach, other days come back my studio and take care of emails and morning calls; practice the piano (an incredibly ordered little sub-system itself); lunch, more business, write reports, grade student assignments, more emails, pick up kids from school, take daughter to softball practice, maybe help with dinner, maybe put daughter to bed, maybe do the dishes, read news on iPad, read a book, go to bed.

All of that order is, of course, necessary to survival, and a necessary part of putting oneself in the position to be creative in the first place. For one thing,  if I didn’t have a regular practice regimen, I certainly couldn’t perform the music on this album.

But it is also true that I would never be able to perform this music if didn’t occasionally flip the finger at all of the order. The initial creative impulse itself is not about order and discipline—it’s about throwing all of that away. Destruction is an essential part of the creative process (just ask Pete Townsend; just ask the Big Bang.) Of course, we need to bring all of that order and discipline to the the fore again to make something tangible out of the initial creative impulse, to keep it from devolving into an unintelligible mess. But art without that careless instinct is soulless.

On the other hand, these unintended improvisations are a part of a larger, somewhat ordered process that I continue refine over time. They are, in that sense, very much planned unplannedness by virtue of the fact that I allow them to happen at all. The process works, to the extent that it works, this way:

Whenever I get the urge, I load up my recording software, hit record/play and just go. As I said, I may do one or many takes, sometimes on one theme that is working its way through my synapses, other times on a bunch of unrelated themes. When I’m done (and let me tell you, deciding when I’m done is a topic worthy of one or many chapters), I do a quick evaluation: is this worth sharing with the world or not? And, in keeping with the spirit of the whole venture, that decision must be quick, and really only involves three criteria:  1) Is it interesting? 2) Is it not quite like anything else I’ve produced (written or improvised)?  3) Is it reasonably well executed? If yes to all three (and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a resounding yes to all three), I do the following:

Bounce the track down to a wav or MP3 file, e.g. something that can be consumed by civilians. When you bounce, of course, a file naming dialog pops up on your Mac and you have to give the track an appropriate  name. My Piano Diaries names follow a simple convention you’v seen here: date, followed by a pithy sub-title in parentheses, e.g. “November 17, 2012 (Not Doing what I’m supposed to…” I’ve already described my method for naming the tracks in August 13, 2009 entry.

And yes, if the track is otherwise worthy but there are a few ugly mistakes, I sometimes go back and clean up the naughty parts.

1/9/2009: Sad & Sweet

1/9/2009: Sad & Sweet

This is such a sweet little theme that I’m inclined to clean it up, develop it—you know, make it into a real composition.  But that would be a mistake: the essence of it’s sweetness and sadness is that it was thrown off like a tattered old shirt you love. It’s full of holes, but it’s also bursting at the seams with history. Mending it would only conceal the history. So you hang it up in the closet and let it be.

Yeah, only this is not your damn shirt, it’s a piece of music, and the shirt was almost certainly not improvised into creation. As such, this number, perhaps more than any other piece on the album, illustrates both the power and peril of improvisation vs. prepared composition.

The power of the medium always reveals itself in the form of the unexpected. In this case, it’s a beautiful melody, full of regret and hope. Now I instinctively know how to write beautiful, searing melodies, but I’ve never written, to my knowledge, anything quite like this one. Part of what makes it different, I’ve discovered after a somewhat casual analysis, is it’s expansiveness: it takes almost a full 40 seconds for the first complete melodic sentence to unfold before the second, responding phrase begins. I’ve written hundreds of songs, with many fine melodies, but most (again, based on very casual analysis) are built on short declarative phrases.

What happened here? As far as I can surmise, this just happened on it’s own accord, unwilled by any conscious choice on my part. And therein lies the true power of free improvisation. If I tried, at least at that point in my life, to write such a melody I may not have been able to do it. But when I wasn’t trying, it just happened. More likely than not, I was thinking about something mundane or even technical—I may have been thinking: “I need to play something in a romantic Bill Evans style to balance out all of the dissonant stuff I’ve been playing lately”. I actually do remember thinking something along those lines as I played this, even though this doesn’t really sound like Bill Evans at all. The more I try to sound like other people, the more I end up sounding like myself.

So where’s the peril? Well, it’s almost as if, because it was kind of new to me, I wasn’t prepared to develop this type of melody.  I don’t want to ruin your experience of the  piece, but for my ears, I start to get lost around 1:35 or so. There are still some wonderful little moments, but it’s otherwise rather rough going until the abrupt end.

So what does all of this tell me? In retrospect, it now seems like “Sad and Sweet” was a message from the future—as in, “as you grow older, you’ll be using more melodies like this, so start preparing for God’s sake.” And that may be the most powerful thing we gain from improvising freely—a glimpse of future possibilities. My subconscious is apparently telling me that I’m going to have to develop new techniques as a pianist and composer. I’m going to have to learn to weave together more complex strands of melody.

I’ll keep this old shirt hanging in the closet as a reminder of the work that lies ahead.