Thursday, June 19, 2008

Fighting Straw with Straw

There's a really stupid series of radio commercials for UPS in which an announcer asks, "what do UPS and basketball have in common?" - the clever answer is that "they have nothing in common," but of course the point is to get basketball fans to be interested in the great shipping services UPS provides. The commercials will probably stop running now that the NBA playoffs are over, but that's not going to stop me from asking, "what do classical music and basketball have in common?" I've been thinking about this for awhile after reading something really odd in the promotional materials for a book called Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians.

First, let me be clear that I think this sounds like a great book. I learned about it in a Greg Sandow dialogue about the need for classical musicians to know more about how to create music. Fair enough - I certainly wish my training had included more emphasis on improv and composition. Still, it's a shame that the book's author, Jeffrey Agrell, feels the need to take the worst possible view of what it is that classical musicians tend to do. The press material breathlessly declares : "Agrell draws a startling analogy with sports that illustrates the absurdity of the traditional approach to classically-oriented music performance."

Here's is Agrell's startling analogy: "Imagine if basketball were played the way we perform music today. The greatest games would be recorded and aspiring players would be required to learn a pro’s every move by reading a description of each move from a written chart. Nothing unplanned or unknown would be allowed to happen. No invention in the moment. No individual expression of ideas. No risking a series of less-than-perfect moves for the sake of imaginative play." Yes, it's a startling analogy - startlingly bad. Since Agrell is apparently a professional horn player, I can only hope he understands that there are many perfectly good reasons to perform from an existing score. The basic fallacy is to think of a score as being substantially the same as a written-out improvisation, just as the acting-out of recorded basketball games would be recreating what had first been unscripted. If that's all composers had to offer us, we'd only want to study and perform scores in order to get ideas for improvising, but obviously a score can be so much more.

It's true that many of the great "classical" works were written by composers for whom improvisational skills were part of basic training; we can further assume that a Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, etc. would often embellish on the spot when performing from scores, but they clearly also valued the advantages of putting musical ideas together in a permanent form. The primary advantages would be the greater structural complexity that planning allows and the sophisticated coordination of ensembles large and small. Not everyone finds these the most important of values, but it's safe to say that they undergird much of the classical music aesthetic. So, maybe the tradition has gone a little overboard in worshipping at the altar of the score - but that doesn't mean the experience of performing from a score involves "no invention in the moment" or "no individual expression of ideas" or "no imaginative play." This I know both from my experience as a performer and encountering all sorts of performers and teachers, both world-class and less than world-class.

This sort of strawman-ing of the classical musical experience is what tends to drive me most crazy about Sandow - I agree with him that there are some dead spots in the classical music culture, but he's prone to exaggerating them and and underestimating what makes it so worthwhile to return again and again to prefabricated musical creations. I've already mentioned this Sandow statement: "The classical music business, as we know it today, is among much else a glorious basking pool. We can love that, if we want, but we shouldn't confuse this with art." I agree with his oft-made point that we need to be much better at communicating about our art, but that needn't involve belitting the kind of aesthetic experience that many of us treasure.

So, I could go on and on reverse strawman-ing Sandow and Agrell and suggesting they understand nothing about art - but that doesn't really further the conversation. I'll be honest and admit that Agrell is really saying it's our method of training that is too much like a basketball reenactment, not the practice of performing from scores. I assume he believes that better improvisers will do a better job reenacting when that's the task at hand. Agreed. I can just say that as someone who watched (and thoroughly enjoyed) every second of the NBA finals, it's just not even close to being the same thing as listening to Bach or Stravinsky. (I'm not saying one thing is better or worse - just that they're completely different.) Bach and Stravinsky have survived because, for many, their works become richer upon multiple rehearings. Notwithstanding the success of ESPN Classic and the like, I can safely say that the best games are never as good on tape as they were live, and there's only a minor novelty interest in reenacting them.

Curiously, while I was working on this post, I discovered via the Omniscient Mussel that The Guardian recently sent a golf correspondent to cover an evening with Yefim Bronfman and the San Francisco Symphony. I can more easily excuse the Guardian's Lawrence Donegan for the unfairness of the following:

My attention remained fixed, tangentially at least, on what was going on inside the concert hall - which is to say I spent most of the night pondering why it is I would much rather have spent it watching sport - any sport. The answer, I think, is this: uncertainty. The essence of sport, and therefore of sports writing, is the unscripted nature of its narrative and the uncertainty of its outcome. Yefim Bronfman is a genius, no doubt, but he didn't write his own script - Brahms did - and the ending hasn't changed in the last 150 years, and won't for another 150. Tiger Woods, on the other hand, writes a new concerto every day, each one better than the last.
Never mind that the progression of the Brahms concerto could hardly have been certain to Mr. Donegan, since he doesn't know the piece. His sense that it was all too certain confirms something that Sandow often talks about - the way that a typical classical concert can feel like a curatorial handling of an aged artifact, especially to the unitiated. We need to work on that, partly by helping people understand that listening to Brahms is not supposed to be the same thing as watching the Celtics and Lakers. Perhaps Donegan can be forgiven for not getting that, but Agrell should know better.

P.S. By the way, being a Boston sports fan these days is starting to lack that feeling of uncertainty. Since 2002 we've had three Super Bowl champs, two World Series winners, and now the Celtics returning to glory. If it hadn't been for that Greek tragedy that played out on Feb. 3 (which I'm still not prepared to discuss), we might well be wondering if losing is actually an option.


Jeffrey Agrell said...

I just stumbled across your comment - sorry it took me so long. Thanks for your thoughts. If you didn't like my sports analogy, that's ok. I was just trying to get your attention. There are no doubt better analogies. Better yet would be to abandon all analogies and sample the activity itself. Then we could talk about it instead of its stand-in. But since very few classical musicians have any experience in creating their own spontaneous music, sometimes analogies are useful as a first bridge to understanding. I am happy to abandon this one and talk about the subject directly.

Your arguments against my enthusiasm for classical musicians getting back to their roots and learning to "think in music" and create once again (as they did up until the Romantic Era) assume something that isn't true: this is not about choosing one or the other (the literate read-from-the-page approach vs aural inventive playing). We have a wonderful tradition and great literature and may it always be thus. What interests me is adding to that tradition and traditional study the ability to have a voice of your own, of being able to create on your own and with others.

Forgive me one more analogy. It's more like having a house with two big wings on it. You have always spent all your time in one and have never visited the other wing. The doors to it aren't locked. You haven't been there and are trepidatious of trying. One day, for some reason, you open the door and go in. It's different there, but it's wonderful. You get over your fear and wonder why you never came here before and are a bit wistful about all those years you missed. You still have the rest of the house. You didn't give up anything. You just enriched yourself.

As a musician, you feel completed. The other half of your music soul has just shown up [isn't it interesting that many or most of the famous names of composers whose every note we revere now were improvisers: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Lizst, Chopin, on and on]. As a classical musician, if you redefine improv as being making your own choices and not having to be a jazz musician, whole new worlds open up. It feels really, really good. It's fun. It's easy. You don't have to give improv performances, although if you do, you and audiences are in for a treat. You can use improv simply as a way to enrich, extend, and enliven your technique - improv is a great learning tool.

I spent many decades doing only "literate" classical music. I still do - I play in a symphony, give recitals, give lessons, teach classes - every day. It's great, I wouldn't give it up. But it's not complete. The two sides need each other. I came to it late, but I am delighted to have the chance now to introduce classical musicians to this new/old way of doing music. Many student evaluations in my Improvisation for Classical Musicians class say it's the best music class they ever had, and why isn't everyone required to take it? Although the NASM and MENC mandate improvisation in curriculum, almost no one does it because the standard definition of improv is jazz (which I also love but don't play). We don't get training or encouragement to do improv. Until my book (Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians, 354 p., GIA Publications), there was no guide for training in it, no model for a semester course. It will take a while for classical improv to become more widespread. It's happening, slowly but surely, but it will take time for change to come.

[continued in next comment]

Jeffrey Agrell said...

In the meantime, if you'd like to hear some samples of what classical improv might sound like, I'd be delighted to send you some recordings. I've done three CDs of it, all utterly different from each other. What might interest you the most, however, is a recording of a live concert. There were five musicians (3 faculty and two students [from my class] and a lot of instruments [we all played several instruments each - horn, tuba, trumpet, percussion, viola, voice, piano, accordion and more]). The concert was 48 minutes long. On the stage were dancers, who improvised their dance, as they took inspiration from our improvised music. The entire program was improvised by us as we took inspiration from the dancers. Every one of us agreed (as I also heard from the audience) that this was the most amazing and fun music-making (plus dance) any of us had ever done. You won't get to see the dance part, but the music stands well by itself removed from the original inspiration.

Just send me your mailing address and they'll be on their way.

Best regards,

Jeff Agrell


Hi Jeffrey,

Thanks so much for the very thoughtful reply. (Wow, this post is from a long time ago! I'm glad you stumbled on it.) I agree with pretty much everything you say here, and suspect our areas of agreement are much broader and more important than any issues on which we disagree. I'm maybe oversensitive to unfair characterizations of the "classical way," and my complaint is not at all with your advocacy of more improv skills, only with the dim picture your analogy paints of how traditional classical music works. This subject of "traditional classical music culture" is one that interests me greatly, and I hope to start blogging about it soon. (Yes, I do have hopes of resurrecting this poor blog.) By no means am I a defender of all aspects of this culture.

For now I'd just say that, while it's easy to poke fun at what's wrong-headed about traditional practices, there's no point in making things sound worse than they are. I think Greg Sandow does that a lot, and in the end, I don't think it really advances his agenda that much; please bear in mind that I think his agenda is basically a really good one, and that he's a voice that needs to be heard - as is yours.

On a more personal level, I'm very interested in tapping into my improv side. I've made a lot of my living being a really good sightreader who can "follow directions" very reliably, but there have been experiences from the past few years that have made me want to "enter the rest of the house." As it happens, I'm in the middle of a collaboration with an artist who wants me to explore ways of "interpreting" some of his abstract drawings in musical ways. It's both exciting and intimidating...