Wednesday, June 12th, 2013 3:57 PM

Spotify and comparing performances

Go to Spotify or a similar music-streaming service, choose a standard work of the classical repertoire and then compare the performances. Try a violin concerto, for example, and just listen to the first 10 seconds. Make up your own mind which one is best. What I've found is that many of these recordings - especially the ones made in the last 50 years - sound pretty much alike. Why keep on recording a work if you have nothing new to say? Why perform a work without trying to bringing a creative dramatic tension to it? And I mean to the music itself - not by means of an accompanying display of installation art or through wearing risque clothing and makeup. Legato, legato, legato and loud - that's how string playing has developed. The Budapest String Quartet played so much more quietly than the Emerson Quartet and added to the notes in an intelligent way. And I mean added. There's rarely anything compelling about just playing the notes and following the composer's directions.
Monday, June 3rd, 2013 10:29 AM

Why I like HIP (Historically Informed Performance)

To regain the style of a past era means that you have to improvise, ornament, add notes - skills that are hardly recognized in mainstream conservatory training - and phrase and articulate quite differently than you learn to do in such a conservatory. As a result, you can creatively rethink how to play. Even better, especially if you play music about which there's little or no evidence regarding performance style, you can construct your own style more or less from scratch.
http://www.bsherman.net/IEMintro.htm
An Atmosphere of Controversy
the introduction from the book Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers by Bernard D. Sherman
Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013 6:19 PM

Performing the work of dead composers

I like this quote from Piers Adam, the recorder player and leader of the Red Priest baroque music ensemble:
 
 

It is important to remember that the idea of a performer separated from the creative process is unique to our age and culture, and would not have been recognised in Vivaldi's day; thus there is a paradox at the heart of the whole "authentic movement–the very act of re-creating some hypothetical past performance is in itself "inauthentic."  ....Surely if music is to remain a living art then the concept of performer as arranger/co-composer must be revived.





 
When I perform other composer's works, I want to put my own personal stamp on it. I am singularly not interested in acting as if my relationship to a composer is that of a ventriloquist's dummy. I base my interpretation on several factors:
 
1) an examination of the musical phrases, especially in seeking what passages to bring out and what notes to emphasize. In chamber music, composers do not typically mark which is the main line and which, the subsidiary. It is the performer's task to figure this out. While orchestra conductors spend a lot of time working these distinctions out, unfortunately this doesn't seem to be the practice of chamber musicians. The audience is presented with a bland running together of lines. This lack of clarity results in bland performances. Again, this is in marked contrast to orchestral performances. A melody line must be played a little - or even a lot- louder than the other lines. 
 
2) An examination of rhythmic structure. It seems to be a mystery to many musicians that the music of the Mozart is full of metrical disturbances with complicated overlays of rhythms. The start of these overlaid meters cry out for an initial accent. Violinist Paul Zukofsky wrote an article in the late 1990s in which he illustrated how much of Brahms' music is in 5. By this he means two things: that Brahms writes phrases consisting of 5 measures instead of the usual 4, and that much of his music has passages which could be rewritten in 5/4. He concludes that if Brahms is performed with his many rhythmic devises brought out, "the composer that emerges is not the usual bombast but rather one far more subtle, and far more complex who, in his intricacy, pacing and perfume, almost approaches the Proustian." http://www.musicalobservations.com/publications/brahms.html
 
3) Taking a closer look at notation. As Malcolm Bilson pointed out in his DVD on performance, a quarter note in Mozart is not always twice as long as an 8th note. Jazz musicians know this to be true. When you're playing a jazz arrangement - any arrangement - you have to decide which notes should be played short and which, full value. In Mozart, when there are running 8th in the right hand and a single quarter-note in the left, that quarter note should probably be sounded for just a half-beat so it matches the right-hand notes.
Notation of triplets: Until World War II, triplets were not notated with much exactitude, and a dot following a note did not always indicate an exact addition of half the value of that note. Sometimes, a a pair of dotted 8ths followed by 16th note indicated what jazz musicians call swing 8ths: the first note is played with a rhythmic value of 2/3rds of the beat and the second note, 1/3 of the beat. In piano music another notational bugaboo occured with some frequency: one hand plays triplets while the other hand plays 8th notes. According to some interpretations, the 8th notes are "assimilated" to the triplet as swing 8ths, with the second 8th note lining up with the 3rd triplet. In the jazz world, music from the first part of the 20th century is likewise replete with similar conundrums about swing 8ths, but despite the notation - whether it is "even 8ths" or dotted notes, the correct rhythmic interpretation is nearly always swing 8ths. 
 
4) Experimenting with added dynamics. Composers don't mark in all the dynamics and rely on a performer to bring the music to life. Sometimes the composer's own dynamics aren't the best guide - especially when all the instruments in an ensemble have the same dynamics, but one line has to be brought out a little louder.
 
5) Trying out different tempos. Tempo decisions are based partly on a historically informed opinion, but also on my comfort level. In playing dance suites, for example, I think it's important to stick to the tempo indicated by the dance. Some musicians like to play things as fast as possible, but fast tempos just don't do anything for me if they stifle my ability to bring out the articulation (always a little slow on a saxophone) or play with a wide dynamic range. I have found that in solo performance that making breaks between sections brings out phrasing. In group settings, I tend to prefer strict tempos - especially in a jazz context. 
 
6) Adding my own embellishments on the fly. Why not add ornaments - turns and mordents and glides - to notated music? It makes for a less rigid interpretation. This was the practice from Bach's time to Mozart, and it makes sense to alter repeated sections the second time around.
 
Now that I've spent a couple of months reading about historically-informed performance practices, I have developed a strong notion of what I want to hear in chamber music. Too much chamber music is performed legato even when the composer has indicated staccato. Extra-fast tempos tend to mask the nuances, and extra-slow tempos quickly destroy momentum. I want to hear deeply nuanced pieces based on a thorough musical analysis. I want to hear contrasting dynamics to emphasize the counterpoint in a single line. I want to hear linch-pin notes given more emphasis. I want to hear variety on repeated sections. These are just a few of the items I look for. I'd like to say that I don't care what the results are as long as the performer is trying to make a unique performance. But this isn't how I feel in 2013 (I could change my mind!) I don't like music based on bad judgement, and I believe that there is sometimes a right and a wrong way to perform a particular piece of music. But I have a confession to make: I value my own musical judgement and aesthetic desires enough that I don't really care what people think about my recreating or recomposing the works of long-dead composers such as Mozart.  
Thursday, April 18th, 2013 3:48 PM

Historically informed performance

I have been deeply inspired by reading articles by Robert Levin and Malcolm Bilson, who are both excellent pianists as well as scholars. Their subject is Mozart's music, and their topics are how to read the music properly and how to perform it. They back their claims by referring to historical sources. Reading the music means following the indications of the composer - something that surprisingly few musicians do. This is especially true of short notes which are often lengthened. A staccato marking - dot or wedge - means the notes are to be played short and crisply. A slur indicates an accent on the first note and cutting off the final note under the slur. Meter is a clue to accentuation. 4/4 indicates more of an on-every-beat accentuation more than cut time in which the emphasis is on beats one and three. A series of quarter notes are to be played in a detached manner, with each note being played for half of its full value. The Alberti bass figures are customarily played softly, allowing the right hand to be played cantabile. Not so, says Bilson. The music was written for the keyboards in existent during Mozart's time, and these instruments are incapable of this effect. With quiet left-hand figures the music loses much of its energy.
 
Mozart's music is full of repeated sections, but the music was not intended to be performed the same way twice, according to Bilson and Levin, who wrote an article for Early Music (1992) called "Improvised embellishments in Mozart's keyboard music." The repeat provides the performer a great opportunity to make the music his/her own. More opportunities for self-expression come when there's a fermata at a half-cadence. At this point the 18th century performer knew he or she needed to add a lead-in to the next section. Mozart even made up a term for this fermata embellishment - eingang. Mozart's music is replete with notated eingänge. Levin suggests that the 18th century performer knew that he or she could choose to play their own instead of Mozart's own, which was simply a fill-in to give the performer the general idea. 
 
The music of Mozart did not have to be played metronomically. Bilson tends to make short ritardandi and change tempos during his performances of solo keyboard works.
 
All these are great ideas for a composer and jazz player. At the least, adding embellishments keeps the performer much more involved in the music. It can turn an ordinary melody into something deeply affecting. 
Saturday, March 9th, 2013 7:25 PM

Composer of the Month 2013

From Washington Square Winds website:
CHARLEY GERARD

This month we will be featuring Charles Gerard as our November Composer of the Month. Charles is also a saxophonist and director of the Broken Reed Saxophone Quartet (www.brokenreedsax.com), author of several books on jazz and Latin music and co-partner of Gerard & Sarzin Publishing Co., publishers of jazz instructional material. We asked Charles some questions and this is how he responded:


WSWs: When did you start composing?
CG: I began composing as a teenager before I had any idea what I was doing. I understand that this is typical of many composers. In other words, it came before compositional studies that, perhaps, would have discouraged me by making clear my lack of ability.

WSWs: Who do you think your composing style resembles the most?
CG: My composing style seems to be influenced by Thelonious Monk for harmonic sensibility and melodic lines, Jimmy Giuffre (my saxophone and composition teacher from the age of 17 to about age 25) for the idea of mixing jazz and 20th century compositional techniques, Frank Zappa and Cuban popular music for orchestration and rhythm, and Mozart for sonata form. My woodwind quintet, Hangin' Out, makes clear that I was listening to a lot of Martinu's music when I composed it. Currently I have been listening to George Handy's music, a student of Aaron Copland who also played piano with Charlie Parker whose music was recorded in the 1940s and 50s. 
 
WSWs: What is your biggest challenge when composing?
CG: My biggest challenge is working over the material until I am dead-set convinced that the work is done. Even for a short piece this can take hours of work. Although years ago I wrote music by page and occasionally write a sketch by hand, I have found that the computer is the perfect composing machine. I use Finale to move a phrase around and then audition it. After I start with a sketch, I find myself inserting phrases and expanding by repeating elements later in the piece. It's possible but needlessly difficult to do this by hand.
 
http://www.washingtonsquarewinds.org/composer-of-the-month.html

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013 6:09 PM

Compositions

Carl Banner is performing my Godfather of Soul Trio for piano, violin and cello in Takoma Park, MD on Feb. 16, 2013
 
Washington Square Wind Quintet is premiering Hangin' Out on March 10 at Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, NY and will perform it again on April 20 at Cornelia Street Cafe in NYC.
Thursday, October 18th, 2012 11:22 PM

Artist statement

I have chosen to compose, arrange, and perform music that is tonal, rhythmically vital, and dramatically effective. I do not consider my music to be following in a particular jazz tradition. While 21st century jazz often puts off the uninitiated listener with its complex harmonies and rhythms and rough tonal palette, I hope my listeners can fit right into my unique musical world and enjoy themselves. That is why I prefer to call my music alt-jazz (alternative jazz). I hope to avoid confusing the listener with unclear textures and amorphousness and extensive improvisations. Instead, I want to grip my listeners as if they are following a well-paced play, amuse them with unexpected comedic touches and excite them with dynamic instrumental shifts.
Tuesday, October 9th, 2012 9:13 PM

Review of Randy Sandke's book

Comments on a review of Randy Sandke's book, Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet: Race and the Mythology, Politics and Business of Jazz." From http://news.jazzjournalists.org/2010/12/book-reviews/
 
In the Greek myth, Procrustes was a son of Poseidon with a stronghold on Mount Korydallos, on the sacred way between Athens and Eleusis. There, he had an iron bed in which he invited every passer-by to spend the night, and where he set to work on them with his smith’s hammer, to stretch them to fit.” Wikipedia
The creation myth of jazz is as follows: 1) it is a music developed in New Orleans by African Americans. 2) it developed from a peculiarly black ethos based on African traditions in which group identity was paramount. 3) This group ethos is reflected in the musical tradition of group improvisation, and it continues to bear a strong influence on jazz even a century later 4) White musicians took to the music very quickly, and the musical result was an unsatisfactory melange based on aesthetic misunderstandings. 5) The white musicians gained fame and financial success at the expense of its black creators. 6) White businessmen took advantage of black jazz musicians for their own financial benefit. 7) Racism has guided the development of the music in small and big ways.
All of these points are, at the least, worth considering and I believe that in general they are true. Unfortunately, jazz critics and historians have willfully ignored or reinterpreted any facts or events that contradict any interpretation of jazz that point to a more nuanced view of black culture and American life. Sometimes it is because they cited secondary sources that have proven to be without merit (see Randy’s section on the music in Congo Square) or rely on self-proclaimed experts like Gunther Schuller who famously put African music (as interpreted by A. M. Jones) into his own Procrustean bed so it fit his own idea of New Orleans jazz. Jazz historians tend to ignore the greater American culture that has always existed around black culture. The tendency is to place musical innovations within black culture that really occurred in a broader American culture first. In some instances, the real innovators were whites, but over and over black musicians succeeded in elevating it into a more powerful artistic statement. The tendency is to denigrate music made by whites or speak of their music in a patronizing fashion. Often forgotten is that the proper critical response is to evaluate the music with different standards than one would use with contemporaneous jazz. Jean Goldkette isn’t Louis Armstrong, but so what!
Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s a reaction has occurred among several white critics and jazz musicians that is just as disturbing as the Procrustean bed of black essentialists that they wish to expose. These writers begin with a praiseworthy goal: to bring back into prominence the music of brilliant white musicians whose music stopped getting the attention it deserves and to emphasize the multiculturalism of American society. This group of musicians and writers oversteps itself and wishes to overturn the entire jazz pantheon. James Lincoln Collier, please take a bow! Now that the jazz world has in Wynton Marsalis a tastemaker and powerhouse with dark skin, he becomes the embodiment of a situation in which theoretically speaking, the tables could be turned against white musicians for good. As I point out in my book (written in the 1990s when Jazz at Lincoln Center was still new), at a time when the NY Philharmonic had zero blacks in it and very few Asians, Wynton chose to make his band mostly black. Is this bad? Speaking as both a musician and scholar, I, for one, don’t care who Marsalis wants to put in his orchestra, and I’m not sure how significant the black-to-white ratio is in this instance. [p. 10 in my book Jazz in Black and White:] “How obligated is Marsalis to give a race-neutral program? Should he be required to follow standards of hiring adopted by trade unions? Should these standards be required by the sponsors of all cultural events? Should James Brown have been required to hire Korean musicians before permitting him to perform at the Apollo? Should the Juilliard String Quartet have been mandated to add an African-American cellist when their cellist retired from the group several years ago?”
So ends my diatribe of the day. I hope you get around to reading my books! (Jazz in Black and White: Race Culture and Identity in the Jazz Community, Salsa! The Rhythm of Latin Music, Cuban Musicians in the United States- Charley
Thursday, July 26th, 2012 8:47 PM

Jazz Jews

My response to Jazz Jews by Mike Gerber:
 
I just got my copy of Jazz Jews. I am looking forward to reading it! I wanted to thank you for quoting me in the book (p. 38) and including my book in the bibliography. So far, I read the introduction and I'd just like to say that Sudhalter's book didn't impress me a bit for several reasons. He failed to discuss two artists whose work is important. Raymond Scott's music failed to get a mention. This is understandable simply because most jazz books neglect him, too. He doesn't discuss Charlie Barnet at all. By itself, this is bad enough, but omitting him by reasoning that his work is just imitation Ellington and Basie is just plain stupid or lazy. 

Making negritude a primary factor in jazz studies is problematic in the face of several musicians whose racial background is itself problematic. What do you do with George Russell, Jackie McLean, Josh Redman, Etta James and Charles Mingus? What about white musicians like Johnny Otis who are so often described as African American? Keith Jarrett with his afro?
I read online about Jews like Gilad Atzmon who refuse to consider their Jewishness as a factor in loving jazz (I just like the music and it has nothing to do with who I am). I recall that my recently departed German-Jewish aunt used to tell people that she didn't consider herself Jewish, as if being Jewish wasn't the central factor in her life! She failed to recognize that before becoming a refugee all of her family and their friends were Jews and their world was quintessentially German Jewish - in Germany as well as Austria and Czechoslovakia. That makes her Jewish in ways that are more important than whether she attended a synagogue or not or celebrated the holidays. 

Keeping popular music - and even classical music - out of jazz history makes no sense when you're describing the music between the World Wars. George Gershwin's music is profoundly important to American music and more advanced conceptually than most anybody else's. In this era before improvised solos became the defining attribute of jazz, a performance of a Harold Arlen song, say, by an instrumentalist might even be perceived as an interpretation rather than "a jazz performance." Songwriting and composing influenced by jazz might even have reached its height in sophistication outside of the USA. What about Kurt Weill and the Czech Jaroslav Jezek? In some ways, they were better songwriters than Irving Berlin. 
It seems that you didn't ask Artie Shaw and other musicians the right questions. Jewish culture in the United States doesn't have much to do with klezmer or even synagogue music, as many of your interview subjects point out. In the first half of the 20th century, jazz was three things at least: music that celebrates urban life, music of rebellion, and music appreciated by musical sophisticates that was open to experimentation and cross-cultural exploration. Jews were fascinated by all of these in different degrees. Some of your interviewees like Jane Ira Bloom and Stanley Crouch understand that. Why do Jews get into music? Because there are so many Jewish musicians to model oneself after and, more importantly, because artistic expression is a strong element of American Jewish culture - an aspect which has its roots in German Jewish culture probably more than in Russian Jewish culture. Why are Jews so intrigued by foreign and exotic cultures - such as the music coming from black ghettos? (Remember that black culture was not in the mainstream before the Civil Rights era.) Jews seem to have a love of marginal culture, and that's why Jewish Americans become blues musicians and Latin musicians, and why ethnomusicology has attracted so many Jews, too. 

Great book! - Charley
Wednesday, July 25th, 2012 10:35 AM

Michael Gerber's response and more

Hi Charley
 
I'm responding to your very welcome feedback on my book from my main email address. I'll respond to the points you make in both your emails in one go
 
Crouch did make a very good point, didn't he, about blacks and Jews embracing the possibilities inherent in urban life? Jews had little or no reason to look back with affection on lands they had come to America from: by comparison, the New World was a release despite the bigotry they had to contend with. Young 1st generation Jews such as Gershwin had every reason to embrace modernity, which in America was very interconnected with jazz or at least people's perception of it
 
Why are Jews so intrigued by foreign and exotic cultures? Hmm, perhaps because in the last 2000 years Jews  have been a diaspora people, assimilating middle eastern, east European, southern European, Balkan, Gypsy, western European, Latin and American and African-American influences, in many case fusing that with Jewish cultures. 
 
Kurt Weill - I may do a special edition of my Kosher Jam radio show dedicated to him and  by jazz interpretations of his music. I've already done one on Gershwin, and also want to do one on Arlen, and also a more general edition on Jewish songwriters. Picking up on the theme of your book about entitlement to play jazz, I think the fact that the vast majority of jazz standards were composed by Jews, and I think it can be argued had a role in the way jazz evolved, including other jazz standards based on the chord changes of those songs, means that  Jews perhaps more than any non-black group surely can claim some title.
 
Also, if much of black music, while dealing with life's blues, is also a life-affirming way of exorcising them, then Jews as a historically outside and much oppressed and racially reviled group can certainly associate with the music in more than just an intellectual aesthetic level
 
Also, as David Izenson, one of Ornette's white bassists put it, “I have a few thousand years of tradition to contribute myself. Since I’m white and Jewish, perhaps a Jewish guy is going to realise when he sees me up on the stand with black musicians that this new music has something to do with him.” And if we move it to blues music, Peter Green said something along the lines that, "As a Jew, you can put a lot of your own feeling in"
 
The way I see jazz, pretty much from its inception, is, as I've put in Jazz Jews, it's "a coat of many colors, the dominant thread of which is black". Most of the greatest jazz innovators have been black, in terms of the musicians that have radically moved the music on, that doesn't always mean that they are always the greatest musicians. I mean, my favorite tenor saxophonist is probably Getz, awesome technically but much more importantly, also expressively, but he's nowhere near the influence on jazz that Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young or Coltrane are. All of whom are of course fabulous, but Getz is my pick. And I would reject any suggestion that that's got anything to do with me being white, or because Getz was Jewish. I mean, I've seen  a lot of blues/R&B gigs in my time, and listened to a whole lot more, white and black, and the greatest musicians in that genre - Howlin Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Professor Longhair and so on - to my ears are definitely black 

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