I’m afraid no one understands my music. I’m no musician, in the straight and narrow sense. I am an improviser.
O, I try to sight-read music, but it’s an ugly process, for the most part—its best results come when I can play a popular song and sing along—because I’m familiar with the song’s piano accompaniment and its lyrics. The main pleasure of the classical stuff is that I get to sit in the cockpit while I remember the great recordings I’ve heard, and I touch the actual keys and hear the same sound from the recordings—it’s rather like being inside of something, or being a part of it—something like that.
Nevertheless, I enjoy sight-reading as a private pleasure and I don’t see asking people to listen as a luxury I can afford. My sight-reading includes frequent dead-stops for mistakes or page-turnings. It also includes a lot of missed notes—and their deadly after-shock, the striking of the correct note. With my memory problems, only Skinnerian behavioral training takes hold—I can’t let myself play a wrong note without correction, or I’ll unwillingly play it that way forever.
So I can say, without any sense of false modesty, that my sight-reading is a pleasure only for me and any of my acquaintances lax enough to enjoy my ‘walk-throughs’ of beautiful piano works in the same sense I do, as the guts of a great recording brought to semi-life, live in the comfort of our living room.
That said, I’m of quite another mind concerning my improvising. It began as a way to play like a real musician without having to read any sheet music. As I became comfortable with a certain chord progression, a certain figure or phrase, I would become unsatisfied. I would try something new, something I wasn’t comfortable with. I would look for a new sound or rhythm and play it in different keys and at different speeds, etc. I would then go back to my comfort zone to get my ‘faux-musician’ fix—but I would play the new thing over and over until it osmosis-ed itself into my comfort playing.
Eventually, I reached a saturation point with chords, figures, and patterns—and I was forced to look at the more subtle aspects of music—melodic lines, key changes, blues chords, rock chords, base-line and so on. And over forty years of this, my piano improvisations have become more versatile, more under control of my extrapolated intentions, and slightly more subtle. However, it still isn’t music in the normal sense.
First of all, the beginning is always the worst part—if a listener has little patience, he or she will never enjoy my improvs. I can’t just explode into a full-blown improvisation—by their nature, they must be approached gently.
I will often doodle on the keys, stretching and cycling a musical phrase or type of chord—and allowing myself to start and stop, to go back over something I liked, that went by too fast. It’s all a horrible travesty of ‘normal’ musical performance, but it is the only way to get from a purposely-blanked mind, sitting on the piano-bench, and touching a first keyboard key at random—to a temporal flowing of the wrestling match with the twelve tones as represented by the keys of the piano, and the soul of the wrestler. Like water-fowl, I start off ugly and have to get well aloft before I can be relaxed and graceful.
Unfortunately, while such aimless scattershot is flying everywhere at the start, it never really dies off completely—the rhythm can still change drastically and even stop completely. Plus, there can be a lot of comfort-music repetition hiding the good parts (if any) inside a long-drawn-out exercise of musical ‘Om-chanting’.
Here is my rational: music is sometimes expected to ‘drill through’ ambient noise—the subtleties of the concert hall experience of a century ago are rare and usually private at present. Pop music is meant to accompany dancing, or fun of other sorts. Clubs will require people to shout into each other’s ears to communicate over the din of, say, metal, or rap. Car radios, too, have always added aural challenges to music-lovers.
My personal un-favorite is the classical-channel broadcasting a lush, luxurious piece of paradise-soundtrack but is cut-off every few minutes by a short cross-transmission of a seedy, made-for-the-ignorant preacher program. The vile slatherings of this Babylonian Whore of Rationalization-in-the-name-of-Faith come loud and clear, just a second or two—but just enough to get his current, fear-mongering, money-grubbing gist—and then back to the beautiful, beautiful music. That is my own personal hell.
But cable-TV viewers have seen the 21st-century version of this maddening techno-glitch—the screen that freezes into a blur of pixels, with no sound, for ten or twenty seconds during the best part of the movie, right at the end—and it’s fifty-fifty whether it will let you off with a few final lines unheard or it will light your main fuse by turning to black and staying that way. Turning black is the only indication one ever gets of a cable-feed break—there is also the ‘channel temporarily unavailable’ screen, but that only prevents one from starting to watch a movie and is, therefore, lower on the fuse-lighting scale.
These beat my old ‘radio days’ peeves by an order of magnitude—they come right into your home; they don’t just stalk you on a driving trip. And, these feed-breaks disappoint so much more, when the whole audio/video/storyline gets yanked from under ones feet—it’s almost painful.
Smaller blips, like an actor’s voice doing a ‘digital-strobing’ for a moment, whenever his or her voice hits a particular register—or the pixel ghosting that sometimes leaves brief, pixelated trails of the outlines of the moving objects on the screen. I think of this type of glitch as a ‘cable brown-out’, which means watchable but not reliable.
Ordinarily, these failures and frustrations are few, and have little impact on news-channels and TV shows. But I find them unacceptable when the subject is musical performance. Those little bleeps and blops don’t matter a bit, until they are interrupting a Tchaikovsky ballet, a Beethoven symphony, or a Verdi opera. And while such randomization ‘fits in’ better with pop music, it can still ruin a classic rock or blues concert.
So, I see watching music on TV as a sorry substitute for either a good recording or a live concert. The camera-folks often lack the knowledge to anticipate the soloists in an orchestra—and generally overdo their camera work, otherwise. It makes no sense to render the video more franticly than the musicians are playing their music! I also find that filming the orchestra is arguably the least interesting video with which to accompany the performance—haven’t these people ever seen a music video?
As for iPods, there is the hopeless choice of higher fidelity versus greater storage space when choosing the quality of the uploaded mp3s & -4s. In many ways, we have gone far beyond the traditional ‘spoiler’ with a bad cough who sits obliviously in the front row, competing in volume with the performers. We can anticipate a wide variety of interruptions, glitches, and aural-strobing in the course of our digital-music-scored days.
This being the case, I have decided that my piano improvs can afford to be imperfect in musicality, so long as they have a strong dose of self-expression. Pop music is what it is—if people ever get past that and start listening to some more fragile experiences, such as Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations—for instance, they may decide they’d like to hear someone’s musical meditations that are more about the person playing the music, and sound itself, and would be a modern-day equivalent to the ‘stillness’ of good Classical pieces.
I’ve noticed when listening to playbacks of my improvs that the apparent speed at which I felt I was playing seemed much faster than the actual speed I later heard on the recording. This is due to the busy little machinations of a mind attempting to do something complicated in real time, and at a steady rhythm, that involves all ten fingers and a hopefully creative mind.
In those moments, one feels a rushing along of all the motions and choices and anticipations which, in the ear of a leisurely listener, are simply plinks on a piano, proceeding at a less-than-breathtaking tempo. I’ve been frequently disappointed by lack of the frisson I’d anticipated. But this is not normal music—and any attempt to enjoy it requires a generosity of standard that includes my mental process (and physical limitations) as parts of the show.
One of the easiest ways for me to ‘show’ this to listeners is to produce a YouTube video that runs 50%—100% times faster than the original. This sped-up recording highlights the phrasing and rhythm, while minimizing the various imperfections of my playing—it sounds almost as good as it did in my head when I played it. I fear I will always feel some disappointment when comparing the experience of improvising with the play-back listening experience afterward!
In other words, only by listening very closely and non-judgmentally can I enjoy my recordings—and I assume the same is true for anyone else who cares to try. Sometimes, when I miss the beat, or slur a note, I think it sounds good that way. Am I just making excuses for ‘bad’ music—yes, in one sense I am. But I wouldn’t bother going through all this explaining if had never gotten any pleasure from hearing my own music.
As mentioned above, I get a lot of pleasure out of playing the piano, mostly due to my refusal to criticize myself in the context of a musical performer. The physical and emotional pleasures are only part of the satisfaction. Think of it—how many of you (Glasers, Wainwrights, and Marshalls excluded) have your own music, your own sound? Mine is not a very good one, but it is a nice thing to have. My family and close friends could recognize me from around corners, if I’m in a room with a piano—that’s kinda cool, isn’t it?
Yes, I can well imagine what you’re thinking—it’s all very marginal and self-indulgent, isn’t it? Vanity music, I dare say. I don’t expect anyone to read this and suddenly be convinced I’m some kind of artiste. I’m just saying some of my stuff isn’t bad and some people like it and I get something important out of doing it and sharing it. So I’m really writing this in the unlikely case that you wondered why I bother.
Then there are the applied uses—for reading, rocking a baby, writing a term-paper, going to sleep and other, similar activities, my music is the least intrusive way to break the silence. Other music is more striking, it almost demands to be heard, and can be distracting. My music almost resists being listened to, which can come in handy at times when there would otherwise be a deafening silence.
One of my biggest flaws is the single sound I’ve always used. I think that some of my improvs, had I been able to capture the MIDI musical notation, would make for some interesting experiments in music producing, orchestration, and, of course, the recreation of the piece in a steady rhythm, as I would have played them if I could. Then I could just tell my PC to play it back, even using different sounds from a synthesizer, or leaving it as piano! I would love to do that.
Because I believe that some of my improvs were close calls that, had I not been rushed, would have been some pretty nice tunes. I could have written a few songs, given some of my better, passing ideas a permanent home on paper… stuff like that. To attempt to work in music without the physical ability to properly keep time is a very limited arena—some would term it idiotic, I’m sure. But I go where I’m lead. What choice do I have?