Thursday, At Dusk, in Spokane Washington was written as one of four pieces, each featuring a member of the Seattle Chamber Players (SCP). These works were originally composed to compliment the composition Otis Spann, a piece commissioned by the SCP. This commission was the first fully notated piece I had written in many years, and re-ignited my interest in writing for musicians trained it what I now call the European conservatory tradition. Since that time, I have composed the music presented on this program, along with three orchestral works and others. I owe the SCP a debt of gratitude for the spark they ignited. Along the way I have also grappled with finding a suitable place for improvisation within this music.
For better or worse I have often been classified as a jazz musician. If I present music with a rock rhythm that utilizes blues and pentatonic harmony primarily, like the music of, say, James Brown or the Rolling Stones, it is called jazz because my version is instrumental. If I use electronic devices to create soundscapes that refer to no particular harmonic or rhythmic language, it is called jazz because it involves improvisation or, even worse, a drummer. And if I write a string quartet it is called jazz mostly because my previous work has been called jazz.
Not that I have anything against jazz. Jazz music may be the single greatest invention of the 20th century, far surpassing in elegance the internal combustion engine, the A-bomb, plastics and, in my opinion, the laptop computer I am writing this on. But the word “jazz” is like another invention of the 20th century: antibiotics. Absolutely brilliant when it’s the right choice, but far too easily misused.
The term “classical music” contains many of the same pitfalls. The words Baroque, Romantic, etc. are far more accurate and descriptive, and in many ways we have analogous periods in the history of jazz. Like the Western canon, we have essentially an early period, a classic period, be-bop, a “modern” period, and now what some might call a “post-modern” period (but I would rather describe it as a bloody mess).
One of my goals as a composer is to create the right music for the right players. Attempts to make string quartets “rock” are often as disastrous as “progressive” rock bands re-working classic symphonic works. What may seem full of potential on paper is often negated by the physical realities of how music is made and absorbed. The physical relationship of Jimi Hendrix to his guitar, and the nature of the electric guitar itself, is fairly essential to his genius. Conversely, there is much to be said for using an orchestra, or a chamber ensemble for what they do best, and most of what they do best does not need a drummer or an electric organ solo.
As mentioned above, I prefer to think of “classical” musicians as “musicians with a conservatory training and a European performance practice.” I am often critical of “improvising musicians” for bringing so little structural and compositional sensibility to their performances. Conversely, there is an entire school of academic and modernist composers who create pieces so arcane and physically complex that the music becomes uncomfortable to perform and, not surprisingly, to listen to, too. The question then becomes, When is notation the right language, and when is it not? When it comes to advanced extended techniques and sonic innovation, it is often the improvisers who have the upper hand, having spent their lives developing their own unique languages on their instruments.
The music this evening, I hope, reflects this philosophy. These Hills of Glory certainly does not suggest anything revolutionary; it is simply a work for string quartet plus soloist. The only difference is the soloist is improvising. Carla Kihlstedt represents for me an ideal choice for this role because she has such a solid background in contemporary music of all sorts, has the skills to play in a string quartet, and at the same time has been developing her own voice as an improviser for years.
Improvisation per se is not involved in any of the other compositions, but it does inform some of them. The work for solo piano, premiered this evening by Cristina Valdés, is in some ways an attempt to re-negotiate my own improvising language at the piano in a way that makes sense for someone with Cristina’s training. Also, given her prodigious technique, it allows me to write some things I simply wish I could do at the piano but can’t!
Finally, when we consider the language we use to describe music, we cannot ignore the social, political and cultural constructs that determine how we create, acquire, disseminate and teach music. I am always astounded that Mozart and Stockhausen are still described as “classical music,” Britney Spears and Sonic Youth “pop,” and Kenny G and Cecil Taylor “jazz.” Clearly these definitions have less to do with the literal sound of the music itself than the social assumptions about how they are presented and received. If we analyze a Charlie Parker solo, the language we use to describe his melodic devices is exactly the same as we would use to describe Mozart’s melodic style. This is clearly not the case with Sonic Youth or Stockhausen; how we analyze Britney Spears is probably beyond the scope and ambition of this essay. I hope you enjoy the music.