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28 February 2010


dave chisholm

i love that you used the word "storytelling" in that last paragraph. i have never been drawn to showboating sport-jazz...the works of composers/improvisers more interested in telling stories (whether abstract or literal) always attracted me so much more.
thanks for writing this, man. this is great, thoughtful stuff that this community needs to hear.


they say one choice is a psychosis, two is mere neurosis, and it seems to me John Cage clearly demonstrated how 'improvisation', like tonal gravity, is a continuum of liberties.

It is simply not possible to play the notes as written because it is not physically possible to play the same phrase or even the same note twice -- Cage was a founder of the first electronic music laboratory and one of their early findings involved recording a performer and then doubling the recording with the second playback shifted minutely from the other, the resulting phase-shift cliche effect is all too familiar to those of us of the Rock Generation, but dig, try as they might, they were unable to record the same line of music played twice and have the recordings line up enough to show any phase-shift effect. In (I think) A Year From Monday Cage reprints the lecture he gave during his European tour where he denounced Beethoven and Bach (or rather European music's obsessive striving for 'perfection' of repeatable performance) much to the chagrin of everyone ... except Stockhausen.

So clearly, unless the music is played by robots improvisation, ie the performer's personal and idiosyncratic input into the storytelling, is always present, so isn't it only a matter of degree and of the particular dimensions allowed to flex? Isn't the un-free aspect merely a network of do not cross lines that is placed (sometimes arbitrarily) by the concertmaster/composer as they take their shot at re-invigorating the piece?

And a question that fascinates me: At what point of flex does the piece cease to be 'true' to the composer's intention?

That said, I applaud your article for reminding us that arrangement and discipline are vital to the creation of powerful music, and I cannot help but relate your observations here with Andrew's Tale of Two Chickens in http://uglyrug.blogspot.com/2010/02/life-is-short.html a cautionary tale for those who would strive for liberty beyond their concertmaster's limits :)

matt field

sort of in line with what mrG says-

"improvisation is fast composition and composition is slow improvisation."

this seems like a really good way to begin to talk about the "differences" between these two armies(heh).

either/or (no more) indeed.

Andrew Durkin

Thanks for sharing this little glimpse into how you think about your own compositions, Darcy.

"But see, the thing is, what matters to me is music, not process."

Is it that process doesn't matter to you, or that you are interested in carefully using specific processes toward musical ends (as opposed to, say, using them out of habit)?

For instance, when you talk about the beginning of "Phobus," and how the improvised cajon part was "absolutely" the best (only) way to start the piece, isn't that an example of how the process and the music it enables are, in effect, entangled?

In other words, if there was no other way to begin the piece, then the process, at that moment, mattered to you a great deal. No?


Hi Andrew,

As a composer, I care deeply about my process. But listeners don't (and shouldn't... or at least shouldn't feel obliged to) care at all about any of the sausage-making. What matters is the result.

Vikram Devasthali

I enjoyed reading this. Your opening paragraph reminded me of Ideology, Burgers, and Beer, a piece Brad Mehldau wrote for Jazz Times that addresses some of the issues you discussed and is every bit as funny as the title would suggest.

One point of friendly disagreement. You write, in the comment thread:
"As a composer, I care deeply about my process. But listeners don't (and shouldn't...or at least shouldn't feel obliged to) care at all about any of the sausage-making. What matters is the result."

Results matter to me as well, but I have often wished that listeners would care more about process--and that composers would care about it less! Your referencing to "sausage-making" is interesting in that the phrase is usually applied to politics, an arena that suffers from the same dysfunction: policy wonks discuss a lot of good ideas that never get implemented while Yeatsian villains, full of passionate intensity, take the woefully misinformed electorate for a ride.

More extensive thoughts on the process/results divide here.


Hi Vikram,

Thanks for linking to that Mehldau piece. Thelonious Monk vs. Bud Powell is actually a perfect pairing for the Two Kinds of People game.

(Tipping my hand: it make a big difference what you understand the question to be. If it's "Who would win in a cutting contest?" or "Who contributed more to the development of bebop language?", those questions are both very different from "If you could only listen to either Monk records or Bud Powell records for the rest of your life, which would you choose?")

Jason Guthartz

"from how I view music... any indication of ANYTHING to any musician that causes that musician to respond in any way other than what he would were it not so indicated, IS notation. And since I define composition as 'the assembling of musical materials, generally accessible to every musician, into a NEW order' and improvisation as the INSTANTANEOUS realization of composition without the benefit / or demerit / of being able to change or alter anything for ME, all music is both composed and improvised."
--Bill Dixon


Andrew Durkin

Hey Darcy:

But listeners don't (and shouldn't... or at least shouldn't feel obliged to) care at all about any of the sausage-making. What matters is the result.

I guess I understand this as a response to artistic movements that seem to foreground process above all else. But clearly, in jazz, listeners do care about process. Just look at the responses to your process-oriented posts! And as long as that doesn't interfere with a listener's experience of the musical result (but instead enhances it), I don't see why it should be something to downplay.


Hi Andrew,

As a listener, I have to say I kind of resent musicians who use the stage as their personal practice room/composition studio/loft space, etc, and then justify it in the name of "process." I want to hear the good stuff, dammit. I don't care about your "unmediated and undiluted creative flow," or your composition that consists of a collage of every last little thing you came up with during your pre-compositional work, or whatever.

If the shit is good, then yeah, maybe then I'm curious about how you did it. And I'm happy to talk shop about my own work if people ask. But I hate hate hate it when people fetishize process like it's end in itself. It's not. It's a means to an end.

Andrew Durkin

Hey Darcy:

As a listener, I have to say I kind of resent musicians who use the stage as their personal practice room/composition studio/loft space, etc, and then justify it in the name of "process."

Ha! Can't say I disagree with that. (Can't say the last time I witnessed it, either, but maybe I'm just going to the wrong shows...)


alas there was a time, not long ago, when Your Average Listener really could care about the nuances of the technical assemblies in the music. Audiences knew music, they sang in church from psalmbooks, sang in the choirs as children, played in the school bands, the senior bands and later in the Foundary or Company or Town Bands, there were instruments in many homes and more than one player for each.

And then ... along came Those Infernal Machines, and what did John Philip say would happen? And it came to pass, within a generation, just as he said, nary a home would know the music of their culture.

So I find it deliciously ironic that your music, who takes Sousa's quote to title your (fabulously successful ;) debut album, should also perhaps be the first Jazz composer in a sadly long time who does challenge the listener by olding out one or two choice little nuances that, for them that has the nous can take some deeper meaning, and deeper enjoyment, and who knows, may yet lead one or two of them to dust off great-grandma's old baritone horn and learn a thing or two about how these sausages are really made!

Jeff Smith

When it comes to larger jazz groups, your approach to the music doesn't appear to be very different from the others who chose to work in that format. Isn't that really the point behind having a larger group? Instead of the improviser "showboating", we know it's the bandleader's "show".

In the end, I think all serious jazz musicians, not just composers, want to tell a story and serve what's best for the music. In this case even improvisers are doing some serious editing while creating solos.

I think people who listen to larger jazz groups are looking for the structure element you are talking about. I don't mean that in a bad way. I find the composition/orchestration/arrangement factor in large jazz groups to be some of the most thrilling jazz. Keep up the good work, few have the will to overcome the many challenges of working in this larger musical format.


Really thought provoking.

I was actually thinking about this myself, in reference to free jazz. I tend to like to listen to small bands and lots of "out" stuff, but I realized after listening to Dave Holland's Conference of the Birds that perhaps the central thing making that album stand out as Great - with a capital G - to me was the composition. Perhaps from the perspective of "the solo should only happen when nothing else can happen", that type of album might be too open, but all the same the compositions are key, what separates it from anarchy or musical masturbation.

On further reflection it came to me that this was true of a great deal of jazz I consider Great, not just in free jazz - the composition creates the space for the improvisation to occur in. Name a player and what comes up is tunes/pieces linked to that player, whether composed by them or as the best vehicle for what they have to say.

So I agree with you that there is no "either/or" of composition/improvisation. I came to it from the other side of the equation to some extent, but I think I reached the same conclusion.

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