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19 December 2008


cbj smith

Wow, that Ethan Iverson post is FANTASTIC! Thorough and detailed, and the recorded examples are presented in a way that one could only get this easily from the InterWeb (I knew it was good for something!) Nice find, and kudos to Iverson and of course Marsalis for being so articulate about a subject that is too easy to be inarticulate about. (Sorry for that last sentence!)


I would love to hear your take, Darcy, on this part of the interview (when you've got a moment...):

EI: I feel a certain anxiety about people knowing something about jazz and the jazz tradition. I’m a white guy born in Wisconsin in 1973. Everything I know about jazz is just because I had this passion for it for some reason – but no culture. Jazz culture wasn’t part of my upbringing.

WM: Yes, it was. You're an American. You heard the blues somewhere.

EI: I don’t think so, man. Only modern country and radio rock, that's all I knew, or would have known if I didn't go get it myself.

I feel tension about how little people know and respect some basic shit about jazz. And, compared to someone like you, I’m not even involved! I can only imagine the tension and frustration you feel sometimes about trying to get the message through.

Personally, I think WM is spot on and EI misses it. Modern country and radio rock are totally underpinned by the blues; it's almost weird that EI glosses that over. But as a white girl classical composer who grew up in suburbia with the same kind of commercial culture, I sympathize completely with the "what's my culture when the things that move me the most seem to be outside my culture?" or even that everything feels outside one's culture in the existential ennui that is American suburbia. Thoughts?


Hey Andrea,

That's a big question! Perhaps worth a post in itself at some point, although you will have to give me a while. But to respond to a small point:

Modern country and radio rock are totally underpinned by the blues; it's almost weird that EI glosses that over.

You are right, but only to an extent. Imagine (it's easy if you try) that someone interested in Brazilian music was growing up in a community where the closest thing to authentic bossa nova they heard was the Sonny and Cher cover of "Girl From Ipanema."

Ethan is saying that in the community he grew up in, there was zero interest in or exposure to the black American musical tradition, except by very distant proxy. And (I think) Wynton is correctly pointing out the black influence on American music is pervasive and inescapable, and even highly diluted versions of that tradition can prime your ears for the high-proof stuff once you encounter it.

David Adler

Listen to the audience response on Wynton's Amongst the People: Live at the House of Tribes. That's what Ethan means by "jazz culture," I think. Indeed, you don't get it from rock radio in Wisconsin.

It's also the furthest thing from "museum" culture, the thing that everyone tries to lay at Wynton's feet.


Hey Darcy,

I'm a big fan of your blog and I rarely comment, but I feel obligated to stick up for Corigliano here, as Ted Hearne is simply not correct re: Circus Maximus.

As anyone who has even glanced at a Corigliano score since about the mid-70s knows, he uses a LOT of aleatoric notation, and the passage that Hearne slams is just that: there it is in my score, on p. 55, clear as day: "Jazz feel, hi-hat, brushes, qtr = 92" That, along with about two beats of the tss-t-t-tss pattern followed by a reaaaaallly long black line and "ad lib.," is all that exists in the score. Pretty loose notation, right?

(Side note: the rest of what the trap set plays in that jazzy movement is actually pretty "classical": highlighting motives and the like.)

So Hearne is simply not right that that's what Corigliano wrote. He wanted the player to improvise ("ad lib.") around that pattern, while remaining in a jazz idiom. Whether the Percussion 1 player in the performance Hearne saw/heard did that adequately is a performance question, not a composition question.

What Corigliano DID do is give the player a few parameters (instrument, tempo, style, dynamic) to improvise within. That Hearne should rail against that with such force strikes me as a bit odd, given that he spends the whole previous paragraph talking about how notating a drumset part is folly since it's an oral instrument (which I largely agree with--my own drumset parts are marked "ad lib." as well).

As for the drumset's association with rock and jazz, well, duh. I mean, it's been used pretty much exclusively in those two genres for nearly a hundred years now; of course it's going to have genre trappings akin to what the saxophone, the electric guitar, or even French horns used to have. If he feels that the drumset is limited by those genre trappings, he should write music that solves that problem rather than attacking other composers over things they didn't actually write.

There, end of rant.

Chris Becker

But "jazz feel, hi-hat, brushes..." is REALLY vague. I don't know a drummer who wouldn't ask the composer for much more direction than that.

And maybe in early performances of the work Corigliano provided that additional direction to whoever was playing the kit? And a "dated" very straight ahead approach is what he wanted in his collage?

I appreciate Ted's larger point which is that these instruments (drums, electric guitar) generally associated with rock, blues, and jazz - all very vague terms :) - have undergone over many many years an evolution in performance techniques. And as a composer, you shouldn't denigrate that history by bringing a musicians a vaguely articulated concept of what you want (i.e. "Jazz feel..." It's lazy and speaks to ignorance about...uh...well, music.

And it takes time to build such a rapport doesn't it?


And as a composer, you shouldn't denigrate that history by bringing a musicians a vaguely articulated concept of what you want (i.e. "Jazz feel..." It's lazy and speaks to ignorance about...uh...well, music.

First, I think this statement is quite a stretch.

Second, what's wrong with denigrating history?

Third, when I hear drumset in a classical piece, my problem is always with the classical drummer who is playing the part. I know that if Ted Poor was playing it, it would be sick.

Fourth, what's wrong with music from the 1930s anyway?

Chris Becker

Hmm. I guess "jazz feel" isn't denigrating, it's just vague - and that written instruction may speak to a lack of experience the composer has with some types of music.

Not exactly the end of the world though. Composers often have to talk with their musicians to further articulate what it is they want. My guess is that is exactly what Corigliano does with his musicians. And that the very drum performance Ted heard was what Corigliano wanted. The score is just a guide.

And in my experience, in rehearsal, a good musician will make an effort to pull out more detailed instruction from the composer. Some of my work consists of very few written instructions accompanied (maybe) by a scale, a short chord cycle, or even a photo or drawing. With such a chart, the musicians I work with obviously have to "go off the page", but at the same time, there is a compositional gesture in the music. And if they need more direction to realize that gesture, they're gonna ask me.

One chart I created for an evening length dance performance called Like Dirt included a copied photo of Blind Willie Johnson, another photo of a broken violin set on top of a cracked expanse of dried clay, and a D natural notated in bass clef. Kinda vague, right? Was I denigrating Blind Willie? Well, no. In rehearsal, his recorded performance of "Dark Was The Night Cold Was The Ground" became the reference for myself (on laptop), a vocalist, trumpeter (Flip Barnes - William Parker's trumpeter), and a guitarist. I asked Flip to use breath and his effects pedals heavily. My guitarist and vocalist laughed when they heard the Blind Willie recording as the "key" of the song was "whatever key his guitar was in when it came out of the box." I chose a D natural for a drone and we went from there! I also asked for a really subdued very ambient texture up front (inspired in part by Blind Willie's humming on the recording) - the sounds I played via the laptop were like radio or vinyl static and maybe hums and crackle of electricity. The piece itself began that way, but blossomed each night into a very Gospel inspired climax with our vocalist freaking out everyone in the theater.

So an entire piece of music was birthed from a handful of instructions, some visual images, and open conversation among all of the players with me the composer.


Great discussion!

Jeremy, I do not think think that Ted's complaint was about Corigliano's notation. The point about the drum set being an oral instrument means that it is not possible to capture the most important aspects of drum set performance on the page, no matter how you decide to notate it. Some classical percussionists have respect for and are conversant in this oral tradition -- most aren't. So odds are it's going to come out sounding like a pastiche (and a lazy, obvious one) not matter what is on the page.

Of course, there's nothing (necessarily) wrong with pastiche if that's what's intended. But if the hihat part is supposed to come out sounding like Jo Jones rather than some stilted, awkward parody, that's not something most orchestral percussionists are going to be able to pull off.

The point is that composers need to take some responsibility for who is going to be performing their music and how it's performed, something Ted does extremely well in Katrina Songs. I don't think you can segregate such things into "performance questions" and "composition questions" -- composers need to be involved in performances of their works. They can't just wash their hands and walk away, saying, "well, it's a 'performance question' and that's outside my jurisdiction."

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