Listening to the Silence
I wrote in Following the Lines about the rails upon which our lives run. They tell us the right way to go. They're always visible if we know how to "see".
And playing Music also means following the lines, and LISTENING to the silence for it to unfold into a meaningful series of sounds.
There are hundreds of thousands of instrumentalists alive right now. They can play lines. But playing a line is not following one. Hundreds of thousands of individuals who can play instruments.
But there are only a very few musicians here among us.
When you attend a concert given by an improvising musician, you will never ever know what to expect. How can one say with certainty WHAT WILL COME FORTH when one relies on the moment to supply the material?
When you listen to an improvising musician, it could change your life. Maybe not always for the better. It may jar you out of your complacency. It may upset your world-view. It may make you VERY uncomfortable.
[Great visual art and literature is similar to improvised music in this regard. Anyone who's seen Picasso's Guernica or read Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning is aware of this great power of creative thought.]
How can one KNOW what to expect when another human being becomes absolutely REAL before their eyes and ears? SO REAL! Even the musician has no idea what the next note or the next piece might be!
Set lists. Many instrumentalists write out set lists. "I will play this. We will play that. Next we will play this. I will then play that."
How? Doesn't the Music rely on what we HEAR in our own silence? How will we know what we will hear when a piece ends? I almost always hear another piece, and seem to have a certain knowledge of what the next piece should say and what key it needs to be in. Three slow pieces in a row? It doesn't matter, if I truly HEAR them. And it's important to remember that a piece never ends or begins the same way twice. A piece that I play with a tonal center of Eb major could end on a dark chord like Db minor. As this chord hangs in the air, another chord reshapes itself in the most magical way. If I'm listening to the silence closely.
So, if I wake up hearing Charles Mingus' Theme for Lester Young, I will play it first when I go to the piano in the morning. And if I hear something that I have never heard before, I will play it (sometimes imperfectly, as it is the first time it is being played... no, birthed... into this reality) and NOT Theme for Lester Young. Picasso said that "the first is always the best, and the also the ugliest" and it's true to a great extent. I've found that when I'm in the recording studio, I may do 3 or 4 takes of a piece, and each usually gets more perfect, cleaner, more focused. But very often, I choose the first take because of its freshness and newness and raw audacity.
Miracles materialize when allowed to expand from nothingness. They are not planned. Plans are meant to go awry... destined to do so. Things I try to plan usually "turn to hash."
I carried set lists onto the stage for forty-five years! I stopped just recently because I realized that I had never followed one of them, not once. It was just a ritual to make me feel secure.
One should bask in the blessed feeling of insecurity that can come with total immersion in improvisation. It's like diving into an ocean. You never know the direction or the strength of the currents until they take you away!
I don't need lists anymore. Insecurity is what I need now. I need to feel the wildly helpless feeling of NOT KNOWING what will happen. As I take the stage now, I want to be completely "blank", or at least FREE from any expectation or "plan." Only then can I hear what I need to hear so that I can play what I NEED to play at that moment in my life and in your life.
The need to create spontaneously is the need to exert one's will in this reality by bringing something of wonder back to it from ANOTHER PLACE. This is a LOCAL ZONE of time and space. Into it, the true improvising musician pours sound like a liquid: molds it, scapes it, shapes it, redesigns it, bungles it, mangles it, fixes it, perfects it, loses it and hopefully finds it.
Glenn Gould was known for saying "performance is dead." He was alluding to his own subjective evaluation of his own experience. But just think of the word. Performance. When we perform, aren't we replaying something already played by many people, played many times? Something PRE-FORMED? And when we do this, do we do it for the ART or the AUDIENCE or the COMPOSER or the CRITIC or the MICROPHONE or our own sense of EGO? And when Glenn Gould REALLY played (in the studio, with the recording equipment running) he reached heights of magnificence that were undreamed of! He sometimes spent months seeking that ONE PERFECT VISION. That was HIS way of following the lines. He was dealing with pre-written, composed material, but he dealt with it like a true improviser. He played Bach like Gould. No matter how angry the producers and engineers got at him, he wouldn't bend a bit! Sure, it may have been written by Bach but it was pure GOULD in the end.
It was COURAGE.
"Performance" is not a failing. We must compose and play our own compositions. When the time and the mood is right we must play other people's compositions. There is a place for performance just as there is a place for practice and even a place for set lists (I suppose...)
And there is a NEED and a TIME for the freedom and the will to CREATE that many of us have LOST or MISPLACED.
As children we possessed it and we let it take hold and possess us.
We must take possession of our ability to lose our selves again. As musicians, we must remain determined to hold on to our VISION and not bend it a bit. We CAN NOT CARE how we are judged.
If we are judged for the will and the courage to create, it is the judge and the act of judgment that is at fault.
We "hear" too much with our ocular segment (our eyes) and that fools us.
[An individual who recently interviewed me for a major music magazine is writing a book about the difference between men and women musicians: he firmly believes that only men can play authentic jazz (whatever THAT is), that women can't ever really "swing" (his word), and that the divide is so great that "he can always tell if it's a black or white musician, a man or a woman, even blindfolded." (As long as he's told first who is playing!)
I told him that this was the exact reason that most all of the symphony orchestras in the world now hold auditions for orchestral positions by placing the musician BEHIND A CURTAIN when they are being listened to. The use of this CURTAIN is the reason that there are now so many women and other minorities in symphony orchestras all over the world. But his "theory" will not change: he believes it with all of his heart and he will take it to the grave with him. Our interview ended with a crash as he became vehement and explosive over this issue. He isn't ever going to believe the Truth because he needs the security of his own fictions. They serve him in some way unknown to me. But he has judged an issue with finality, and, in the judging, he has lost the ability to truly HEAR. Like the scientist who begins an experiment by wanting to achieve a certain result, he will always GET that result because that's what he'll ALWAYS LOOK FOR!]
We are absolutely unevolved apes when it comes to judging others. When Keith Jarrett sings or sobs (from ecstasy or pain or joy or great sadness) during his intense firestorm of creative WILL, many people JUDGE him. "He is not a singer. He is a pianist."
NO, that is just the result of muddled thinking. He is neither singer NOR is he just a pianist. He is a true musician. And he is being swept away, IN FULL PUBLIC VIEW, by a FORCE that is by its very nature INCOMPREHENSIBLE and UNCONTROLLABLE. It's his job to direct this force and give it meaning by applying his own will and his considerable pianistic skills to enhance it, to interpret it, to translate it into meaningful sound.
When it comes through me, it costs me everything I have and everything I am to bring this moment forth. If it only happens for a few minutes in an entire concert, it is something that neither YOU NOR I will ever forget. We are, together, getting closer to the infinite in those moments. That supercedes every negative input and negative idea that we may have or have ever had. It is an antidote and a roadmap to the "lost reality" of what "could have been" for us, together as bodies and spirits, on this planet in this local zone of time and space. It is a moment of BALANCE. It is also a moment of DRAMA, and of TENSION and RELEASE.
In my own experience as a musician, these moments are not about ME. They are not about how good a "pianist" I am. Sometimes I am good and sometimes I am not so good. I am in search of and seeking after those moments. That is why I fly thousands and thousands of miles to play for people. I am obsessed by a NEED and a WILL for those moments.
In those moments, there in no war or petty conflict or illness or depravity or immorality or senselessness or selfishness or hostility. Racism and sexism and xenophobia and "emotional plague*" thinking becomes absolutely unintelligible under the spell of this POWERFUL UNIVERSAL FORCE, THIS HEALING AND REDESIGNING of our short lives. If one feels personal fear or anxiety before an act of such gravity, it means very little. It means we face that fear and embrace it. It's a trick of the mind and will evaporate as the spirit becomes more and more REAL.
When Mozart improvised, he reportedly did so with such abandon and clarity and COURAGE that even his sworn enemies, his detractors, were moved to tears of joy. He was probably no more prepared for what he was playing than I am, at those times when I ALLOW myself to be REAL.
It took me over a half-century to get this far along. A full half-century to be able to attend at those moments without (much) fear!
Now, I must have more and more of those moments. I must dedicate myself to following the path and the lines and the whisperings in the silence that will bring those moments forth.
I've never been able to tell what my next musical move will be. More than anyone else, I'm in the dark. I am now following my instincts.
I realize that I do not possess the power to bend the Music to my desires. I can't say "now it's time to get electric and use synthesizers", and I can't say "I'm going to make my Music more accessible to people by doing this or that", because the Music makes those decisions for me. And it's only through playing that I find the direction. How will I know what I sound like if I don't hear myself play?
[And here's the reason I can't play in a noisy nightclub. How can I meet this Truth when there are people listening with half an ear, drinking alcohol, eating sushi, and making "small talk"? Also herein lies the reason that I can't play a bad piano or one that's out of tune or one that's missing notes or in bad repair. It can physically hurt me.]
Not too long ago, I was too young and insecure to believe that I could fully open myself to this POWER. I perceived it as a DANGER. And yes, it is dangerous, I guess. But when you follow your TRUTH, you may alienate a world but you will not lose your way. And I believe in this, I have FAITH in this.
I will follow these sounds and these lines to my death, and I won't stop until then.
And who knows about that? Maybe not even then.
We KNOW so little. So we need to feel.