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Jazz Forum No.1 June 1946 0006

Jazz Forum No.1 June 1946 0006

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“. . . and I spread it out broader and clearer, and at last it gets almost finished in my head, even when it is a long piece, so that I can see the whole of it at a single glance in my mind, as if it were a beautiful painting or a handsome human being; in which way I do not hear it in my imagination at all as a succession—the way it must come later—but all at once, as it were. It is a rare feast 1 All the invention and making goes on in me as in a beautiful strong dream. But the best of all is the hearing of it all at once."

Quoted in William James’ Psychology, Vol. I,

p. 255.

On the notated page of music, art appears to be all on one level. For the average non-professional interpreter, and many professionals, a printed page presents a flat surface, that is, it presents no problems of what is basic or what is superimposed material. Without knowledge of harmony, or benefit of a facile technique, the music comes off the printed page flatly levelled; everything comes equal, harmonic progression, melody, superimposed harmony, the tune itself

or the embellishments. It takes a player with both emotional and judicial capacity to see into the printed page of music. Moreover, even a player of outstanding technical and emotional ability, will run after a vision of the written composition as a whole and, in so doing, leave out of his interpretation all the necessary justice due its smaller units. Especially will the matinee-idol conductor run after visions—and there is almost nothing to stop him.

On the other hand, with the folk (or near-folk) improvisors, their special creative process keeps every element naturally balanced and in its place. Theirs is a complete creative process, validly allowing them through emotion to change a good or bad piece into something else. It is in trying to recapture this creative surge that interpretive instrumentalists and conductors forget, what the creator-musician never forgets, the actual values of the small unit. They lose it in seeking the excitement which lies behind it all. Virgil Thomson brings this out very clearly when speaking of Toscanini;

“. . . .when one memorizes everything, one acquires a great awareness of music’s run-through. One runs it through in the mind


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constantly; and one finds in that way a streamlined rendering that is wholly independent of detail and even of specific significance, a disembodied version that is all shape and no texture. Later, in rehearsal, one returns to the texture; and one takes care that it serve always as neutral surfacing for the shape. ’ ’ ;

and in another place :

“Poetry and nobility of expression are left for the last, to be put in as with an eyedropper or laid on like icing, if there is time. All this is . good, because it makes music less esoteric. It is crude because it makes understanding an incidental matter. ...”

How well both the theatre and the “pops” concert hall understand this ! The current theatre is designed for ready reception. Not much more cultural preparation is needed at our “pop” concerts. Thomson continues:

“Like Mendelssohn he (Toscanini) quite shamelessly whips up the tempo and sacrifices clarity and ignores a basic rhythm, just making the music, like his baton, go round and round, if he finds the audience’s attention tending to waver. No piece has to mean anything specific: every piece has to provoke from its hearers a spontaneous vote of acceptance. This is what I call the ‘wow technique’ ”

“The Toscanini Case” by Virgil Thomson, New York Herald Tribune, May 17 th, 1942.

As in classic music, this same situation obtains when jazz or popular music is theatrically presented. If the music wavers, the rhythmic lapse is filled by the gusto of the conductor’s baton ! A lagging situation may have been saved but in so doing the more lasting satisfaction of a constant tempo has been irrevocably lost.

Obviously, there are two distinct attitudes towards music. One the creative attitude, the other the interpretive. Broadly speaking, these two attitudes represent two great developmental periods. The first period covers folk and advanced-folk creation—a period in which notation is a side line, something not vitally important. Notation, in this first period, is extra to the period’s musical experience. If possibly useful as an occasional reminder, it seems completely superfluous as a device for making music. Later, whether contemporaneously considered vital to creation or not, it is the success of adequate notation (usually achieved at the end of the first period) which determines thé vitality of the succeding period. The second period, for the creator, involves the immediate notation of every musical thought, the lining up of every fragment which can contribute to a composed work. His musical life depends upon print for presentation of his musical ideas. Moreover, in this second period, the conductor-interpretor emerges as a separate entity, resting his whole musical life upon the reading and interpreting of notated music.

The conductor-interpretor’s musical self-expression seldom finds inspiration outside the printed page. A derire to see beyond the printed page, more often than not, leads to a distasteful boldness in the altering of tempo and dynamic


indications, (although the printed note values, since the interpretor cannot express himself creatively, remain obeyed to the last letter 1) In direct opposition, a folk, improvising within its own period, will adjust its whole musical thought to a tempo ! The music created is in perfect relation to this tempo. The pulse of an established tempo sets up a form into which is poured all folk musical thought and, when conditions, are right, it is poured full and poured to fit. How different from the interpreter, who, although feeling the urge to create, is thwarted by lack of inventiveness and, since he must finger his way through the notes as written, will alternately rush and hold back, swell and subside, simply out of an impetuous desire to express himself. His emotion may come from as deeply within as that of the creative improvisor, but the music is already set, and his only recourse is rhythmically to torture and twist it in'o a new shape. This new shape may somewhat express his emotions, but the expression is an exercise in distortion rather than the substitution of a new identity. Because of his loss of understanding and of outlet in the art of improvisation, emotion only prompts him to mutilate that which he could never have written himself. Our most famous performers in the classic field speed through notated music without replacing their lack of creative ability with anything save their personal emotion, artless and generally unsuitable. It even seems as though they feel the art of music fetters them. The greatest music provides, and should provide, full enjoyment from measure to measure; it only needs enough future, or progressive activity, to keep moving. A great music is not a viaduct for anxiety sensations, a push rewarded by a climax.

Over a long period of time, two musical elements have crystalized themselves; harmonic progression and melodic progression. The folk musician, playing for dancers, improvises with both these elements well fixed in his subconscious mind. He acts upon them with varying intensities of conscious feeling. That is, he adds to this historical structure of definite harmonic and melodic progressions his personal emotional expressiveness and mechanical habits of musicianship. The phenomenon of a steady beat makes possible the perfect correlation of these diverse elements. The roots of musical improvisation reach far into the emotional, mechanical and cerebral consciousness of man.

It is our good fortune, now, to be in the presence of the mystery of bonafide creation-jazz improvisation. Later on, when the jazz period is over, our whole concern will be in reverting to records and the printed page, studying them, trying to find out how all the things there got there; unless, of course, those competent to formulate some idea will formulate it now, while jazz is still in its creative period and susceptible to immediate observation. Primitive and advanced spontaneous folk art creation, mystery that baffles critics and philosophers, is now accessible for critical and philosophical observation. Even those who wish simply to enjoy it should not take this music for granted. They, too, should realise that the creative process that produced Christians’ solo has re-appeared after a very long period of idleness. They should realise that once this present activity is done we may not be exposed to it again for an even longer time.