Thursday, April 13, 2006

Embracing Dissonance

Classical musician starting to improvise? (And we are back here to “improvise” in the common-sense view of improvising notes and rhythms.)

Go ahead and, if you feel like it, make music as ugly as all hell. As David Darling and other Music for People folks like to say, embrace dissonance. Make all the ugly, even brutally ugly sounds you want. Play a minor second and play it for a long time. Revel in those tritones. Blast out those major sevenths. And unless you really feel like it, don’t resolve anything.

As I’ve written about in an earlier entry, my first improvisations were inspired not by jazz idiom, not by the French organ improvisation tradition, but by the 20th-century post-tonal tradition. What I was most conscious of in my improvisational impulses was the kind of aleatoric music that became popular (well, at least in academic circles) in the 1970s.

How to describe this music? Several terms come to mind: freely atonal is one. Another is more amorphous, but nevertheless a frequently used catch-all: 20th-century atonal music. A flutist I met at a Music for People workshop described much of what she did as 20th-century gestural music. I liked that one. It brought to mind comments Robert Suderberg, the composer who was Chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts when I was a student there, made in a talk I attended. As a matter of fact, I believe Suderberg’s compositions had titles like “Gestures Going Up.” Or at least that’s how he described his some of his music. Gestures. Up, down, sideways.

Don't get me wrong. I like tonal, triadic harmony as much as the next guy. I love the common-practice tonal language with its emphasis on harmonic tension and release. I love, well, beautiful music. But I don't want to be its prisoner.

What’s strange in some ways is that classical music students are trained first not in the music of their own time, but in the music of the common-practice period, especially Bach through Brahms. Virtually every music theory sequence starts with “part-writing” rules based on practices exemplified in the four-part chorales of J.S. Bach. You get marked down if you write (horror of horrors) a parallel octave.

Sure, there is much to be gained from learning to do this. But the way we teach classical music theory is so totally rooted in common-practice tonality that post-common practice music is studied as a kind of afterthought, just as it is often performed as a sort of unpleasant duty.

And it all reinforces the idea that there is a way music is supposed to be and that the are rules that must not be broken.

And so we poor would-be improvisers often find ourselves intimidated in an almost overwhelming way. For heaven’s sake, it is hard enough to follow most of these rules when one is sitting with manuscript paper, a pencil with a good eraser (I remember one that one of the most important things to my first theory teacher at Julliard was that we have a proper eraser), and a piano. (Well, now it’s a good music software program and a midi keyboard).

The breakthrough for me was to go ahead and make ugly sounds. Sounds that didn’t have to make sense. Sounds that were freely atonal. Gestures—up, down, sideways, backwards, forewords, just as Suderberg spoke to my class so many years ago.

The experience had two profound qualities. First, it was emotionally cathartic. (I even came to think of this as my music of emotional catharsis). Second, it was liberating and even healing: fuck the rules. A liberation from the intimidation of all those theory exercises.

And just seven or eight months of starting this, I went to my first Music for People workshop. Embrace dissonance they said. I think there was even a sign up on the wall saying this.

I knew I was in the right place. I knew that in some important way, I was home.

So go ahead. Play freely atonal, gestural music. Don’t worry, be, well, if not happy, be what ever you are. Fell what you’re feeling, and express it with the sounds you can make.

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