This Is How We Do It

When you go hear a band, do you want them to sound just like their recordings or do you like them to change things up? What if you are on stage instead of in the audience? Do you try to play your songs the same way every time or do you like to go with the flow?

One of the most fascinating aspects of music is the degree to which it is intended or allowed to change from one performance to the next. We can imagine music on a spectrum running from the completely fixed to the completely free. In fixed music, the ideal would be for each performance to sound completely the same. In free music, the ideal would be for every performance to sound completely different. In reality, there is little music that is actually completely fixed or completely free. Most music exists somewhere between the extremes and has both fixed and free elements. Music anywhere on the spectrum may or may not be written down or notated in some manner.

(photo below: free jam with brother Keale

in Tennessee, Flute Tree gathering)

Recording technologies have been the big game changer. Allowing for differences in playback systems, music that has been recorded will now always sound the same. It doesn’t matter whether it was free or fixed while being recorded. It doesn’t matter whether the recording is of a live performance or is a many layered studio production. The recording freezes it. Re-mixing, mash-ups and similar activities create a new recording, which is also entirely fixed. The only flexibility left to recorded music is in the variety of playback environments and the differing responses of listeners. Humans can’t be as repetitive as machines. So before there were recordings, no music was entirely fixed.

Still, there are many bits of music, ranging from short, simple songs to elaborate sonic structures that are essentially fixed. There are bits of music that exist as recognizable “sound objects” in our imaginations, apart from any individual performance or recording of them.

(photo below: daily ritual improv with Helen Yee and Angelika Sheridan at Music Omi, New York)

Here is a simple example. Many of us have a mental sound image of a song called “Amazing Grace”. It has an identity that makes it distinct from all other songs. Whether we learned it by ear or by reading notes on the page doesn’t matter. We can call it to mind, think about it and discuss it without physically hearing it. When we do hear it performed, we recognize it as just that song. We accept, perhaps even desire, a certain amount of change in the details of the song from one performance to the next. Speed, feel, phrasing, instrumentation, even the notes themselves might change, but the identity of the song remains. The song is fixed, no matter how malleable or changeable the details of the song might be as one performer, then another, “makes it their own”. Some music allows for more change before it loses its significant identity, other music allows less. But it is surprising how even seemingly fixed music can be treated with great flexibility without real damage to the “sound object”.

(photo below - Classical, Jazz and Native Flute musicians all

catch a groove together at Artscape Baltimore)

On the other end of the spectrum, there is very little music making that is, in fact, “totally free”. A typical example is 12-bar blues, which is usually thought of as very free music making. But the essential structure is fixed. The harmonic content is largely fixed either by tacit agreement or by a pre-existing tune that is the focus of a particular performance. There is a tradition of what fits that guides the musicians’ choices. What remain flexible or changeable are things like tempo and feel, the moment to moment musical material of the performance and the length of the performance, since a performance may involve any number of repetitions of the 12-bar structure. Aside from any particular style or genre, even in spontaneous performances that seek to be “totally free”, some aspects of the music are set by the nature of the instruments being used, the experience and desires of the players, etc.

It sometimes seems that musicians can imagine themselves to be playing very freely when they are actually bound by convention or habits of thought. I have heard entire weekend long festivals of “free” music making where every phrase played was four bars long. Of course, at some level this made the music extremely fixed and predictable, even though there were dozens of fine musicians doing really amazing things. Predictable four bar phrasing is largely a leftover from 19th-century Euro-Classical music. Few if any of the musicians I heard that weekend were “Classical” musicians. Were they all simply unaware of that habit of thought? Or were they unwilling to challenge it? Or did they accept, even feel comfortable within that strict limit?

When we start thinking about how notation fits into this picture, the potential for misunderstanding is great. For example, because Euro-classical music is often carefully notated, we often think of music in that tradition as being totally fixed and inflexible. We even speak of music “recitals” as though the musician’s task is simply to play back the notes on the page as accurately as possible.

The misconception that Euro-Classical music is totally fixed may have arisen partly because there has been an emphasis on notation in “learned” European music making since the middle-ages. However, the notation has continuously evolved to fit the needs of the music making. This is because the notation is not the music. It is a recipe for re-creating the music. Like any recipe, it requires interpretation and flexibility to create a flavorful dish. Notation may seem to “fix” a piece of music, but it does not do so in the way a recording does. It is not meant to do so.

Historically, the greatest musicians in the European traditions, from Josquin to Beethoven and beyond, were celebrated for their ability to invent music on the spot, during performance. In the last hundred years or so, training in that skill has largely been ignored for most students working in this tradition. Too often, current Euro-Classical music training is inflexible and relies too much on mindless and unmusical reading of the printed page. But in the hands of a great interpreter, this music can be brought to new life with each performance, just as great actors re-create the beautifully notated character MacBeth.

(photo above: look at all those music stands! with great interpreters

Paul Barnes and the Minot Symphony Orchestra)

For practical purposes, we are left with a spectrum that has idealized extremes and the reality that most music performance takes place somewhere between those extremes. As a basic stance, some musicians and listeners prefer music that is more or less “free”, others prefer music that is more or less “fixed”. Many musicians move across the spectrum depending on factors ranging from the performance setting to who they are playing with tonight to what kind of relationships they want to explore in their music making.

If you are a musician, where are you on this spectrum? Do you like to move around on it or have you basically staked out your turf? As a listener, do you like to think the musicians are making it up as they go? Do you want it to sound “just like the recording”? Do you want to hear a song you recognize played in a new and different way? If the music moves you and makes you want to move, do you care how we did it?

NOTE: I have intentionally avoided using words like “composition” and “improvisation”. These are loaded words and the way they are used often obscures what’s actually going on.

For great insight on those words and some of the assumptions behind them, see Bonnie Wade’s book Thinking Musically (Oxford University Press), chapter 5 – “Thinking About Structuring”.

Derek Bailey’s classic book, Improvisation, is also worth a read for his thoughts on the habits and patterns that drive lots of improvisation. (photo above is Chinese music notation from c.1425)

Used copies of both can be found inexpensively online in the usual places.

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