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    29 Sep 2011

    QIMHAMAD

    Download the QIMHAMAD (PDF)

     

    Q: So this is strange!

    A: Not really, considering the solo nature of everything I do. Why shouldn’t this be a part of that? 

     

    Q: Feels very schizophrenic to me.

    A: Well, lie down until the feeling passes.

     

    Q: Ha ha.

    A: Let’s start.

     

    Q: O. K. What is this all about? 

    A: It’s choices. What you do with from what you’ve got.

     

    Q: But what about other musicians? And listening to them? While you’re playing?

    A: There aren’t other musicians.

     

    Q: And you don’t miss that?

     A: That’s not the point. I don’t have other musicians. So if I want to make music, I have to do it myself.

     

    Q:  But in the end, you don’t miss it?

    A: I don’t know if I miss it or not. I’ve made that adjustment. Would I enjoy better the presence of other players to collaborate with, bounce things off of, react to each other? Sure. But not having that doesn’t stop me. It’s not useful to think about what might be or what might have been!

     

    Q: So how have you made your ‘adjustment’? Your word.

    A: When first I play, while I’m playing, I listen to everything I play and I try to play things I don’t know—that I’ve never heard before. Sometimes I play things I’d rather not have heard before(!), but that’s all part of it. It’s recorded on my system as a midi file. Then I add the drums and adding texture and excitement. And then the bass, holding it all together. There usually are extra midi instruments—extra keyboards, two basses, and a myriad of drums.

    And I evaluate the result. Sometimes it takes off and sometimes it sounds like a lot of effort with no grace or worse, no swing.

    I try to find perspective, can’t take it too seriously, have to laugh sometimes, but the stakes are high, it’s very hard work to make it happen and life depends on it!

     

    Q: But people don’t make music like this. What about the immediacy of the moment. Feeling the audience respond?

    A: Can’t help that. That’s not what this is about; it’s just a different path I’m on  and I learned a long time ago, you can’t compare paths!

     

    Q: But where is the humanity? It’s all ‘you’—only ‘you’.

    A: So what? Is a game of solitaire less than a game of chess? Is the high-jump less than football? If you play tennis, your biggest opponent is not on the opposite side of the net. Just listen to what is there. Does it delight you? Anger you? Put you to sleep? If it does, enjoy the nap. If it doesn’t put you to sleep… Look—I really want to put this line of questioning to rest. Glenn Gould made the point that there are other ways of making music, performing music, even that go beyond the traditional performer/audience one you’re so hung up about! He gave up public recitals for many years and never went back to them. What I do is another way of making music. I’ll let the listener decide if it’s any good for himself. I know it’s good.

     

    Q. O. K.! How come when you were a working musician, you never did any of this stuff?

    A. I didn’t know how. It wasn’t until roles changed from professional to amateur that my head got freer. But the seeds of these developments go way back at least 30 years. I don’t know. It’s got its own gestation. It really doesn’t matter. It’s good that it came out whenever it did. Now I hope to continue until arthritis really makes things impossible.

     

    Q. Any evidence of this earlier development?

    A. Actually, I did a CD in 1996 called ‘Out Of Our Way—Three Middle Aged White Guys Comin’ Through!’. A trio with Linc Milliman on bass, Tony Tedesco—both great musicians and good friends. It was recorded in my home town, Port Washington, New York. There were problems with the CD duplication and distribution which became legal which didn’t get resolved for several years. I never released the album. It was probably stupid on my part. I’ll put it up on this site. It is actually pretty damned good! Some of the things I do now I started then. There is just a lot more now.

     

    Q. What’s the point of trying to recreate live instruments on a synthesizer?

    A. Good question. It’s what we know, what we’re used to. If you are only listening to recorded music, your visual brain has nothing to look at, such as a performer. One needs a reference for the listening. Something that sounds like a trumpet or clarinet gives us that reference. Not to say that we aren’t now used to a much wider menu of sounds that have come into existence even in just the last 20 years! But nothing equals real instruments for not only expres-sive power, but acoustic complexity as well. Strings are the hardest, but new sampling inroads have changed that dramatically.

     

    Q. So if real instruments are the best, what are you doing monkeying around with electronics?

    A. What all this is would hardly be referred to as a commercial enterprise.

    I don’t have the resources to hire musicians. Also, in a selfish way, I would spend alot of time hiring, rehearsing, dealing with music parts, scores—things that take away from the creative act.

    I would rather make more music than produce it, if you know what I mean. All the music however is created with software that has a notation component to it. In other words, all the music could be printed out and played by musicians.

    There would have to be a lot of tweaking to make it work. The software records exactly what you play. And if there are rhythmic nuances,  the software will dup-licate those so that it looks very complicated in notation. All that would have to be edited.

     

    Q. You don’t think it sounds too mechanical at times?

    A. Perhaps. But, so what?

    My concern is not to have something that in the music pulls you, the listener out of the experience. Just like in a movie or play—if  something is inconsistent with the reality that’s been established, like something out of sequence,out of place, improbable—it pulls you out of the experience and you’re now commenting to yourself.I don’t want that and try to avoid it as much as possible. Frankly, it isn’t all that mechanical.

    There are lots of phrases, sections, that are a little off—kind of like they would be if played by people.

    Some of that I’ve done deliberately just for that purpose.

    You may not hear it, because it sounds natural, and it certainly ain’t mechanical!

     

    Q. It seems to be counter-productive to create music electronically or digitally and imitate acoustic instruments. How do you defend this contradiction?

    A. Defense unnecessary. There is a Luddite trend among music fans for whom the manner of producing the music is more important than the music itself. If a note is heard on an electric instrument, it loses all validity to them. Kind of a stupidity, masquerading as purism. Music is sounds in the air and in time. That’s all it is. Throughout most of its history, music could only be recorded on the page. How it made its way into sound wasn’t crucial. For Bach, the clavichord, organ, harpsichord were often used interchangably. Of course Bach wrote specifically for the organ, the clavichord in particular, but the point I’m trying to make is that the concept of an absolute sound wasn’t as important as the notes. For me today, obsessive concern about specific sound is a misplaced concern.  It’s like writing poetry only for women with soprano voices to read!

    Now I will contradict myself! The advent of recorded sound has perhaps achieved further evolution in our hearing. Imagine that in your lifetime, if you lived in the 19th Century, you might get to hear a Beethoven work, a Mozart work, etc., maybe once or twice, unless of course you were one of the musicians in the orchestra. This situation had all kinds of influence on the way music was composed, in particular the evolution of musical form. Form is nothing more than an idea about how musical ideas are going to repeat, when, and by which instruments and so forth. Composers wanted to make sure that their music would be remembered, so repetition became necessary since it was more than likely that the work would never be heard again by the audience—at least not immediately. Recording changed all that. It put music on a par with visual art, which has no absolute time component to it: you can look at a painting for a long time, a short time, your eye movements create the form in which you experience it. Now with recordings, we can replay, listen to parts, listen to beginnings, middles, endings. This is a revolution not only of technology, but of the very basic nature of music itself. It made it now possible to listen to the sound apart from the music. And as recording got better, you could become aware of different concerns: the synth really doesn’t sound like a violin, piano, clarinet, etc. Concerns with sound have become a musical quality sometimes equal in importance to what that sound produces. Miles Davis primary concern in his playing (he says) was his ‘sound’. Once he got the sound, everything else fell into place. I don’t quite buy that, but it’s an idea that has spread into musical consciousness.

     

    Q. You didn’t answer my question.

    A. What was the question?

     

    Q. Having to do with electronic instruments imitating acoustic instruments. 

    A. Right. Well, does it really matter?

    At the end, you like it or not, you’re intrigued by a piece of music or you’re not—maybe each time you listen you hear different things, or not.

    I am true to my own tastes and eccentricities. If I like it, or love it, it stands to reason that someone, somewhere will as well.

     

    Q. What if you hate it?

    A. If I hate it, no one else will hear it, at least not while I’m around!

     

    Q. Could you talk a little about your piano-playing?

    A. Okay. What do you want to know?

     

    Q. Just how your style has come about? It’s unusual. Listening it’s kind of hard to guess how you’re actually playing. Sometimes it seems as if maybe you overdubbed yourself, because there’s a lot going on.

    A. Well, there’s no overdubbing. If you really listen, and if you happen to be a musician, it should be obvious that there’s no way to effectively  overdub and make it not sound clumsy and unnatural.

     

    Q.  Well, I’m not a musician, and it still seems that just one person can’t be playing in certain sections.

    A. Well, one person is. I may put a video on here in which you can see a whole piano track being laid down, followed by a drum track and then a bass track. That way people can observe there’s no trickery or technological magic.

    Apart from that, there is a lengthy article I’ve written about the evolution of my piano style. This is because I’ve thought so much about it. It’s technical and full of things that mostly only musicians will understand.

     

    Q. Is that in here somewhere?

    A. At the moment, no. I don’t think it’s that interesting for many people. The music is the most important thing. If there is interest in it, I’ll put it up  here.

     

    Q. It sounds like there’s more than just an acoustic piano in there.

    A. Right, I’ve layered some guitar, organ and electric piano on top. It gives it a great de-tuned sound in the upper register!

     

    Q:  Jonathan Biss, the pianist/author writes about performing all the 32 sonatas of Beethoven and of the various issues that raises in his book, Beethoven’s Shadow. In it, he discusses at some length about a three-part relationship between the composer/composition, the performer/interpreter and the audience. The audience he feels is a prime component in the equation of musical performing. It’s one of the reasons he feels that recording is so difficult without an audience. An audience for him is a palpable thing—even though it cannot be reduced to a single entity. After all its ‘consciousness’ is comprised of the the consciousness of every single person there. Nevertheless, he senses its presence and its influence in live performance.  In your situation, not only is there no composer /composition, but the live audience is never there. Don’t you miss that? Isn’t what you do less than what it could be without an audience?

    A: You just can’t leave this alone, can you?

     

    Q: I guess not.

    A: I agree that an audience is a ‘thing’—mysterious and impossible to discuss in any quantifiable way.

    I remember when I was a musician on Broadway, either playing in the pit, or conducting. There was a sense of its presence, even without any concrete evidence of that. It was something we all commented on, comparing the audience on one night with those of other nights.

    But let’s be realistic: an audience makes noise—applause, cheers, laughs, bravos, boos. We can hear individuals in those sounds. We can then add up those reactions, plus the aftermath of those reactions—how quickly the applause came after an event, how loud the laughs, how long it takes the audience to settle back down—and get a sense of how we’re doing. Gee, they liked the jokes, they loved that song, the applauded for a long time after that—whatever. Who wouldn’t like that? A cumulative report-card about our success on a minute-by-minute basis.

    If the rest of us in our daily lives received applause, laughs, cheers every five minutes or so when we went about our tasks, we might appreciate that in ways that made us feel that those reactions helped us do what we do. I’m not so sure. That said: I have felt as one with an audience and felt them carry the creative spark in an improvisation to heights I didn’t know where there!

     

    Q: Aha! So you admit it!

    A: Yeah, but so what? I don’t have an audience with me when I play. Too bad! What I’m doing succeeds or fails based only upon what I am able to do on my own. I don’t think anyone listening would say: gee, if only there were an audience present to push him to new heights!

     

    Q: O.K. You’ve a good point. But the point you made earlier, referencing Glenn Gould I think can only apply to classical music.

    A: Not at all. Of course there is the difference that the audience will never have heard the actual music being played ever before. In jazz, that is. In classical, they may have heard the music many times before and are there to compare the performance they are about to hear with their internal library of other performances of the same music. In both cases, the audience is there to react to what they’re hearing at that moment.

     

    Q: Do you consider the abilities of jazz musicians and classical musicians to be equal?

    A: No, but it’s not a meaningful question. I mean classical music performance requires just a few basic skills that can be discussed, and a whole range of skills that cannot.

     

    Q: Such as:

    A: Such as 1. Being able to play the notes—having the required ability to execute the notes on the page at an appropriate tempo without making mistakes. 2. Remembering—playing from memory is a young person’s skill. It naturally fades as we age. (The great Sviataslov Richter at the end of his career didn’t want his audience to have anything he considered that would detract from the music, so he played everything from the score, with a page-turner sitting dutifully at his side. He didn’t want his ‘persona’ on stage competing with the music for attention) 3. Contra-Richter! An ability to engage the audience visually—as a personality on stage. This really has nothing to do with music, but is exactly counter to what Richter wanted!

     

    Q: Really? You mean the performer’s looks, their clothes, their—

    A: Yes, their manner, movements, facial expressions—perhaps the most important part I think. All of it has nothing really to do with the music—pure show biz!  An audience wants to like the performer, they also want to indentify with the performer in the sense that they could be that performer, which makes them feel: he or she is one of us; or I could have a beer with him; she could come for dinner, etc, I remember great classical performances I have seen and been transfixed by the performers in these ways.

     

    Q: Which come to mind?

    A: Not many. Richter was one (while he still thought of himself as a performer!); Vladimir Horowitz.. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was another.

     

    Q: What was it about her?

    A: This was something you wouldn’t get from just listening to her, or even watching a video or film. On stage she was a totally captivating female. Of course she was beautiful, but she made everyone fall in love with her. Her smile, her movements, and then her voice and then her musicianship and then, possibly, her greatness of interpretation. But the falling in love part made one feel she could do no wrong. Marilyn Monroe had that same effect on me.  They were both unattainable women, at least by me! Only the Arthur Millers, DiMaggios, the Walter Legges of the world would really only possess them.

     

    Q: Marilyn Monroe? Are you kidding?

    A: No, well, maybe. Actually, no. It’s the same thing. One needs to correctly recognize the power that beautiful women have on men and how that power is used. It is significant—it has nothing to do with their abilities beyond that. I mean if Schwarzkopf sounded like a pig, it wouldn’t work—if she couldn’t carry a tune, it wouldn’t work. But she did all that. She could get a man to believe anything she sang or said. It’s like what has been said about Jacqueline Onassis: if she called you and asked you to work on a project she was supporting, it would be impossible to say no.

     

    Q: We’re getting off the subject.

    A: I know, but part of this also—and this pertains to men as well—is fame and persona. The audience knows who a famous performer is and that produces a certain mind-set that leans either towards a positive reaction or a negative one.

     

    Q: All right. A minute ago you started to mention the basic skills that a classical musician needs. You mentioned three that can be discussed. What are the others?

    A: I don’t think there are others.

     

    Q: But you’re leaving off interpretation—what sets one performance apart from others. Classical musicians discuss interpretation as an art in itself—as great or greater than just reproducing the notes.

    A: Oh, I know! I believe that those things come under the heading of ‘cannot be discussed’.

     

    Q: But there’s an industry of musical criticism that wouldn’t exist without this discussing interpretation. You think it’s bogus?

    A: No, just grown out of proportion to reality.

     

    Q: Meaning?

    A: Meaning we like to complicate things. Musicians feel that they need to be seen as thoughtful, intellectual. Especially classical musicians. There is a reverence for the intellectual processes that borders on the excessive. I like to reduce things to their essesntial components and then analyze. Performers are really not much different from those performing a stunt or trick. It’s just that their stunts or tricks may be many minutes in length and have many components to them. But in the end, it doesn’t change the nature of the task: you have to play the notes at an appropriate tempo and not make mistakes. For me that’s about 95%. But even here the only thing that’s an absolute is the notes on the page. An appropriate tempo for me might not be for you—or it might be for me at age 20, but not at 60. You follow?

     

    Q: Yes, but it seems absurd to reduce the artistic nature of classical performing to a trick.

    A: Maybe. It certainly wouldn’t be a popular opinion to hold at a school of music or as a music critic. But think about it: we all need to make what we do feel important to give us a sense of self-worth. If we can make a case that the way we play a well-known piece of music ties us to a larger cultural tradition then we are more important that the journeyman who plays all the right notes and hasn’t another thought in his head, but I actually don’t think there are such musicians.

     

    Q: There are performers who even feel that playing all the right notes isn’t essential to the experience of the majesty of a particular piece. They don’t mind missing a few notes if the effect is the same.

    A: I don’t agree with that at all. Nobody playing anything is really ever gonna get all the notes, but it must remain the most important goal of all. Performers who don’t think it’s of primary importance are rationalizing. It’s said after the fact: Yeah, I missed that bunch there and there, but you’re being too literal—the effect is what’s important. Sounds better than saying I just fucked it up! We wouldn’t dream of exhibiting the western painting or sculpture in poor lighting or crowded in with others so that they’re visually compromised. For me, there’s nothing more exciting than hearing all the notes, all the right notes. Vladimir Horowitz also felt this way, even, as I may have mentioned before, he slowed the tempo a bit so that the listener could actually hear all of them. Many passages in Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff are very fast blurs of many notes. But when you can actually hear all the components of the very fast blur, it’s that much more satisfying. I invoke the spirit of Glenn Gould! The Goldberg Variations—his first recording when he was in his twenties: it can’t really get better than that!

     

    Q: And yet, here you are, discussing interpretation!

    A: Ah! Well, the idea of interpretation, not the specific interpretation of a specific piece.

     

    Q: Isn’t that a technicality?

    A: Not at all. Look there can be no agreed-upon starting point. There is no musical ideal. Even the composer may have not understood what he created and may indicate tempi and dynamics, articulation that no one follows, because they don’t like them. Who’s to say they’re wrong?

     

    Q:  Your obligation is to realize what the composer put on the page.

    A: No. It’s only to produce a satisfying experience for the listener. You must try to make the music come alive and carry those listening into some higher plane of consciousness. In many cases, it’s almost impossible not to do that—those very great works: Beethoven 9, Mozart 41, Chopin F-minor Ballade, Polonaise-Fantasy, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. If you get all the notes and tempi right, you will change people’s lives! What more can you do? Would you want to do? And, since you’re a living, breathing human, you’re going to add your presence into the mix. You can’t help it. That’s really the only interpretation that’s worth talking about. Also let’s not lose sight of the fact that ‘interpretation’ as a subject for discussion is really only possible after the advent of the recording. Now we can hear what Rachmaninoff played, Schnabel and the others. So it’s a discussion that’s less than a hundred years old. That, to me, makes it very non-essential!

     

    Q: Can we go back to the question of basic skills? We discussed basic skills for classical performers, what about jazz performers?

    A: I’ll list the obvious ones: ability to play in tune, in time, swing, play pretty much anything you conceive. And then there’s dealing with the danger.

     

    Q: Danger?

    A: Yeah. You start with a blank slate every time. You’re going to play something you’ve never played before, so ‘interpretation’ isn’t anywhere in your thoughts. You are a trained bear on the tightrope, and you can get to the other side, having done your somersaults, or you can fall at any time. And you don’t have a pre-conceived routine to follow. You’re weaving it as you’re wearing it, trying to get a feel for everything you do while you’re doing it. With me, I have these technical/textural tools I’ve developed that comprise my playing and I try to leave my mind clear so that the employment of one or all of them is not consciously determined. Classical musicians have none of these issues.

     

    Q: Aren’t you making this seem more involved than it is? I mean, when we talk, 99% of the time we’re saying something new, right?

    A: Yeah, but we talk with words and phrases we know and our listeners know well. I’ll admit that improvising can often mean that you’re starting with your own musical vocabulary, but the best players try to push that lexicon, make utterances they haven’t made before.

    Look, even someone as astute and articulate as the great Mel Powell, a former teacher of mine said that what Earl Hines did on the piano was some of the scariest music he knew. Hines was the ultimate risk-taker, even more so than Waller or Tatum. Sometimes it worked, and worked brilliantly, but not always. Because of that, Powell felt that what jazz musicians do is more challenging than what classical musicians do.

     

    Q: And you agree? More challenging than playing Beethoven’s 32 sonatas?

    A: In a different way. I mean, you’re not improvising for a day and a half. But that’s an idiotic comparison anyway. Mountain climbing is more dangerous than spinning, although they will both get you in shape. You get through all 32 Beethoven sonatas without screwing it up and you will change your life and the lives of those who listen. And if you’re John Coltrane and you just played Chasin’ The Trane at the Village Vanguard in 1961, you’ll change everyone’s life, including your own. Same as if you’re Louis Armstrong and West End Blues or Duke by composing and performing Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.

     

    Q: Interesting. So can jazz change people’s lives? All jazz is new, can a performance totally new transport anyone’s spirit?

    A: Yes, of course.

     

    Q: How? Why?

    A: Because the triangle relationship you mentioned before is still there. It’s just that the musician is at once the composer, the composition and the performer as well!

     

    Q: But you never have the third point of the triangle—the audience. You never get that. So how does all of this work?

    A: Because it does. Look, we’re discussing a relationship between the music, the performer and the audience as if it’s written in stone. Composers don’t get to experience the audience until after all their work is done. Writers never get to experience an audience at all, unless it’s an audience of one coming up to them and giving their reaction to the book. It’s the same with me.

    Q: Do you care?

    A: About what?

     

    Q: Whether anyone listens or likes what they hear?

    A: Of course. This is maybe music created in isolation, but it’s for everyone. I think it has transformative power. The symphonies perhaps more than the jazz. When I work, I aim to astonish myself, excite myself. If I do that, it stands to reason it will do that to somebody else, maybe a bunch of somebodys else!

     

    Q: Do you edit the jazz stuff?

    A: Yes, maybe cut some things out. I do orchestrate the improvisations and that means moving things around.

     

    Q: Any recomposing?

    A: In the sense that that word means anything in this context, yes. This is, after all, not live music, not a spur of the moment creation, but just born out of that. I stand it up, brush its hair, get it to put on a different shirt before I send it out the door!

     

    Q: What about the future? You think of this as a posterity thing—can someone else do something with this music?

    A: I have thought about this a lot. I hope I can organize just the midi files and if and when there are new and/or better VST instruments or effects, someone could re-orchestrate. I mentioned earlier that the music could be played by real people. As far as changing the music goes, there may be some restrictions placed on that by my estate, assuming for the moment that anyone would be remotely interested. But it would be similar to having a new recording with better technical results. Still, it would be a high-class problem and one that would only arise when I’m not around.

     

    Q: What say we take a little break?

    A: No argument here.

     

    Q: I do want to return and talk about Josephine Baker.

    A: Oh, God!