Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Educational" or "indulgent" composition?

I spoke about self-indulgence of improvisation I feel as a listener sometimes, but this is slightly different.   I just listened to a concert with a composition that represents a particular musical theory, and the composition was "showcasing" that theory.   I failed to understand the point of it, it seems, since it sounded to me as if we the audience were being "explained" or "educated" about this theory as a series of tonal experiments, or listening to a demonstration or lecture, making sure that we understand it.

I suppose it is "nice" to be explained, but I actually found this form of composition rather passive aggressive, another kind of "indulgence".   Why would you want to "explain" your theory via music, instead of "expressing" music?  Does the composer seek the justification of his composition or some kind of validation?

I am very curious, since I do "showcase" my Subharmonics technique, composing works for the violin that includes the "lower" pitches and the particular technique I am developing.  In my new album, "The World Below G and Below", I did include a set of 6 "Caprices" for Subharmonics, which "showcase" my various technique, and music is composed to use this technique.  But I hope that I am making those pieces for the sake of music, rather than the showcasing of the experiment, or for the sake of educating the public with my new technique.   I hope that people will hear the music as it is, and not as some kind of an educational experience I'm forcing upon people.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dharma in Hamburg

I'm in Hamburg this week, spending the Thanksgiving in Germany.  It's two years in a row I do this - I was in Munich last year!  I'm Japanese and don't really have much nostalgia with turkey meat, but did bring back fond memories having Turkey with friends.  I do my own turkey sometimes, but my French husband isn't that keen on the turkey taste so much--they don't eat much in France either.   So not knowing how to cook, and having inviting guests for the feast, I cooked a 'practice run' which was a large chicken.  I called it "practice chicken" and made my husband laugh.

Here I am rehearsing with the Hamburg Symphony.  My foot pedal is doing fine, but still adjusting the sound quality of the electric violin, with compressor, filters, reverb, and so many variables.  Funny I don't have to adjust sounds on my wooden box with 4 strings attached at all :)  There is a funny feeling of sound you are not so sure how you are making, and completely in the hands and mercy of speakers and the sound technician at the booth.

The piece is The Dharma at Big Sur by John Adams, performance is tomorrow.  I know the 'philosophical' significance of Dharma but for me, I can't shake the "Daruma-san" I grew up with, or every Japanese child grow up with!  We have games like "Daruma-san, Daruma-san, let's stare at each other, the first one to laugh, loses, 1, 2, 3!!" and we make the funniest faces try to make the other person laugh.  I'm doing that with my kids at home....  I guess he was a very serious guy -- oh well, having to bring ZEN to China, and said to have stared at the wall for NINE years meditating...  :) 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Day of Lists

Obviously I'm taking a mini-hiatus on my blog as I'm leaving tomorrow to Berlin/Hamburg.

More later, on many things but today (Friday) everything has to work like a clock-work, going through my mega-list of "to do", including taking daughter to her doctor's appointment, son's potluck, and oh yes, packing :)

Here is a picture of my DIY (do it yourself) footswitch I will use for my performance in Hamburg, high-heel safe mouse trap! (computer mouse)  It's sand paper, weather tape and rubber sheet which will not slip on wooden floor :)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Head Space

This week I'm in a crises mode  :)  Not really "crises" but I'm preparing intensely for my upcoming concert in Hamburg, Germany.  I'm performing John Adams' "The Dharma at the Big Sur" with Hamburg Symphony on the Thanksgiving day.

Since the early 90s, I started to compose for myself, using violin and violin with electronics.  I started to sculpt my own language, searching for my voice, so to speak.  In the beginning, I was not sure of myself---still today I am often not sure of myself--and in fact I kept, and still keep, a notebook writing everyday asking myself, "What do I feel?"  I was putting myself into a cheap self-therapy :)   Anything that bothered me, I learned to extract what was bothering me, often a social situation.   Those "bothers" I found are actually quite debilitating, and kept me from focusing on my work.  It was more important, still is, that I am emotionally free of worry than trying to come up with a compositional scheme.

Today, things are more systematic and I don't get to the point where I have to ask my notebook "what do I feel?", but rather I make tons and tons of list "to do".  I have a multi-faced life with family, kids, etc and I cannot keep up with everything---my head space is full.  Or I like to say, my "RAM is full"  :)   I like to keep very empty head where I could day-dream:  My 9-yr old daughter probably got it from me saying recently, "Don't bother me, I'm busy DAY-DREAMING!!"  and it's the state I also like to be in :)

Speaking of head-space, and going back to composing for myself:  I have met wonderful musicians, composer/performers who only compose for themselves or others, but stopped performing other people's music.  For me, I absolutely LOVE going into someone else's head-space, practicing someone else's compositions, or getting onto someone else's Magic Carpet.  Not performing others' music, I'm afraid, might narrow my musical understanding as a performer/composer.   There are states of mind, feelings, musical languages that I cannot possibly come up with myself, and it is refreshing to learn them.  It is probably as close as going surgically into someone else's brain, but without blood!   Although I have been composing for myself I would very much like to keep performing as a "musician for hire" performing someone else's music.

As for how I practice, you will have to catch my husband and ask how he feels about it :)  I decided to marry him (in my mind) when I took him to one of my tours performing a recital in Budapest.  I had a concert to give and I had to practice so I sent him off on his own.  A mathematician by training, I thought he would enjoy visiting great Hungarian mathematicians and artists monuments and spots to visit.  He came back very tired, when I was practicing Luciano Berio's Sequenza No. 8 (by the way, the 1976 work, it was me who gave the US premiere in 1994 in NYC!  Nobody touched it until then.  I got a nice hand-written note from Berio.)

Oblivious to my quite a painful repetitive practicing to listen to (I'm sure), he went to sleep with no problem.   It was this moment I thought, OK, if he can survive my Berio practicing, he would survive me and my life!  :)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Freedom and Limitations

This sort of 'grandiose' title isn't trying to be an op-ed piece for New York Times or anything :)  I'm narrowly focusing on something I am working with, with myself and with my students on when you start creating interactive computer music.  Recently I was showing my students at Juilliard my older piece called Polytopia, while discussing the creative process and tools to use.   In the piece I only use basically two techniques, delay and pitch shifting.  As I described in the post about it, I started from having a vision of 6 violinists virtually running around in a Surround 5.1 space while playing like mad :)  Then the technique fell in place--all six 'virtual' violinists need to be independent in realtime with no recorded materials in pitch and in timing; thus the delays, a little bit of realtime sampling and pitch shifting.

When you compose for an acoustic instrument such as a solo violin, you are basically confined to the instrument's mechanical limitations (and yes, even with my range-expanding Subharmonics :)  Let's say, a percussionist with longest limbs with several instruments, and who seemingly have no limitations in the palette of sounds, still has his/her limitations. Within that limitation, you are completely free to be creative.

With computer music, your choices are so vast in choosing what to use.  You are more than free, you are virtually boundary-less.  How do you find yourself to be free creatively, when there is no limitation?   In fact, isn't it even harder to be free, when there is no mechanical limitation?   There is no wonder many "art" computer programs, visual and audio, have some kind of "presets" so the users are not completely lost; there is a starting point of some kind where the users could latch onto at first.   But doesn't pre-made-by-someone-else "presets" limit the individual freedom and creativity?   Can a person with body sensors, internet, 100s of banks of sound with high-power computer or smart-phones, make equally as amusing and creative performance as a guy in the subway plucking away on an upside-down tin bucket with one rope attached, an instant bass?   Who is creatively "freer", the computer performer or the bucket guy?  :)

Friday, November 12, 2010

The taste you don't understand

I went to a concert, a very well attended contemporary music concert.  It was a last-minute thing and I didn't quite know the program nor what to expect, and I went for a pleasant surprise.   In a typical New York city new music concert fashion, the audience included many colleagues and friends.

The concert, which was in the style of semi-written, semi-improvised form, had its good moments, and also I thought, not so good moments.  It wasn't bad, but not extraordinary in my opinion.   However, my company, who are good friends of mine--and we do share good deal of similar tastes in music--were absolutely raving about it as if it was one of the best things they have heard.  Then I realized, this particular company I had, are from an older generation, sharing different taste and history which I didn't belong to.

I do realize that I come from a classical background, growing up with Western classical music in isolated Japan.  I was quite sheltered in an "ivory tower" of elite classical conservatories for a long time.  At present, I do a lot of contemporary music, I do compose myself and consider myself quite open to all kinds of sounds and music.   But this particular concert, and the audience who seemed to have shared the same language and values, I did not understand.  I didn't understand their taste.

I thought about it quite a bit, since I am very curious when I don't understand something.   Then I thought about food.  There is a food I couldn't eat as a youngster--namely Japanese "Natto", rotten or fermented beans.  To a first timer, it simply stinks and some might even think it's gross.  I thought so when I was a pre-teen.  Then one day, I tried it and became very fond of it.  It was an "acquired" taste for me.   Is it possible that what I heard at this concert could be my "Natto"?   It very well maybe.

But then, once I become "used" to the taste, do I forget the part that was revolting or unpleasing?   Suppose I get "used to" the kind of music I heard, and start to understanding it; would I then disassociate from the taste of people who don't find it interesting?   I somehow like to remember that I used to hate the smell of Natto, and now I can eat it or even like it.   I don't think I can find it revolting again.   However, as an artist, I would also like to remember my present and past tastes, and if possible, go in and out of the time past and present, in taste.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Art of Tool Making, Art of Art making

It used to be in the old times, tool makers made tools such as instruments; violin builders were not violinists although surely there were able to play the instrument; they were not artists USING their tools.

Today, especially with computer technology, computer programmers and engineers, many of them are also musicians or at least, composers.  They create their tools to invent their own musical tools, thus of course they would make music using their tools.   In the particular circle of interactive computer technology and electronic music, the tool and the field itself has been somewhat confined to those who can operate them; it is changing rapidly and those of us without the computer science background, can now relatively easily access the latest technology to create music.   It hasn't become as easy as someone sliding in front the piano and start creating masterpieces, but still, it's coming.

The peculiarity of today's tool-driven music making, is that there isn't much time for the tool and the users to mature, tested, evolve etc.  Of course they do, a lot smaller in scale compared to the history of pianos or violins.  And that is OK.  The tool makers have to keep creating tools, for money or getting their "inventions" published for tenure, etc.  Computer operating systems gets upgrade, software companies need to keep churning out new functions and versions.  So there are user groups, forums etc. to keep up with them.  This is simply the fact of economy-driven art today.

Of course the argument "for" these new form of art is that we are creating a new ways of human expression.   We are giving ourselves the new dimension in creating art.   We are not replacing the past, we are continuing the tradition of art making and expanding it.  With the new version and software, comes the new art.  And that's all valid.  

My question is, are the tool makers making as excellent "art makers"? Do the computer-programming "tool makers" who make art, making as good art as an excellent Jazz performer from the streets of New Orleans because of these sophisticated tools?

This isn't very comfortable, but it is a question that has to be asked.  As a friend recently said, the "time" might take care of it---what seems hip and new today, might very well be forgotten in 10 years and those with true lasting power would survive to the next generation.  There are street musicians in New Orleans today, but OS9 is dead   :)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Magic Carpet

I talked about when improvisation fails, or if there is a "wrong note" in improvisation.  I said in more motivic or context-based possible "wrong" note, when improvisation appears not working too well.

When a musical performance--any performance, classical, contemporary or improvisation, isn't working, one way it sounds to the audience, is as if the music is 'losing steam'.    Before you go on stage, or at least before you start playing, either on your own (solo), with accompanist, or with orchestra, i.e. before the music start, I like to see an imaginary stream, like a jet-stream where I'm supposed to hop onto.   To be more substantial, one could imagine a Magic Carpet, which isn't stationary but is coming around for you to hop onto.

The point I'm trying to make is, the movement of music, or the "time" itself is already there before you start playing; it is like a stream of air that's already moving.  You are to get onto that "time stream" while you mold the rhythm of your music in it, but not trying to artificially start or create it.  It is easier that way, to imagine you "join" the already-happening "time stream" to play your first note, rather than trying to get the Magic Carpet float from the ground.

This is probably too abstract but I really don't know how else to describe it.  But if you don't do this "hopping onto the Magic Carpet", or worse, you fall from it during the concert--which happens-- the performance feels as if it has lost its steam.  I have, of course, felt it myself, and it is a bad experience. More than half a year ago, I had a semi-informal concert, which was a small dinner-concert where I ate before I played, which was a mistake.  My attention wasn't really there, and my Magic Carpet fell.  I wasn't interested in my own playing which still remains as a bad memory.

As a performer, a goal is for every performance I give to be a good memory, and not have a bad experience.  That is truly important, since what you did last is what you build upon.  We have to keep the Magic Carpet flying.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Final thoughts on Improvisation: Becoming a "Medium"

When I am on stage performing, I tend to imagine myself disappear. I literally walk out on stage as "Mari Kimura", who is just DELIVERING something to the audience, and not Mari Kimura who PERSONALLY has something to say or to express.

Last month, I posted a thoughts on Having Something to Say.  I was speaking about listening to "boring" performance and wondered why.   When I am performing, I am having something to say, but not myself personally.  This is true in being both as an interpreter and performer/composer or improvisor.

Ever since I was young, I always had a feeling of "separation" within myself; I was floating away and looking at myself from outside.  It used to scare me as a child, and it happened often especially when I was sick or coming down with a cold; it was like almost having a nightmare while being awake.  Curiously, today I have internalized it, and I automatically "externalize" myself when I am performing.  This was a conscious decision, or a form of "self protection" after experiencing years of quite a harsh "stage fright" all through my adolescent years growing up in the most competitive music conservatories.  I became so nervous before performance, I used to almost throw up weeks before concerts, my pulse would become very fast and I would hyper ventilate; it was rather pathetic.  So I had to work on a method to overcome my nervousness.  I read many books on acting, especially Stanislawski.   This subject is for another post, but what I achieved, or what I have become, is to be someone other than myself, when performing.

I stopped being afraid on stage, because I myself wasn't there anymore.  I become someone else, or at least a "Mari Kimura" who is merely delivering the "3rd dimension", the musical flow I talked about, expressing and communicating to the audience.  I become sort of a "medium".   I lost the reason to be afraid on stage, since I have nothing personally at stake; I understood that the reason you maybe afraid on stage, is because you have something personal to lose.  Since I am a "medium", my failure and success depends on how I'm able to deliver as kind of a "middleman" between music and the audience, and "Mari Kimura" myself has really nothing to do with it except to managing it.

In my real life as "Mari Kimura", I like to keep myself quite neutral; there are more flamboyant type of artists whose personal life, demeanor or mannerism maybe more "artiste"; their professional and personal profiles are closely related.  That would probably help my career advanced since people seem to need to put you in a "artist" box, and expect you to act and dress like one!  I really consider myself quite plain in person, not a "performer" in social occasions or parties etc.  I like having a quiet, normal life with my family, except when I am on stage or recording.  Then I become someone else.  Improvisation is the same, and I like being someone else, or a "Medium", completely detaching myself from my quotidian life.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Thoughts on Improvisation (3): Is there a WRONG note?

Let's me think about when improvisation "doesn't work", or at least, from my audience point of view in contemporary free improvisation context (not cultural, ceremonial etc).  Is there a wrong note you can play?

Yesterday I talked about the "3rd dimension" or a kind of musical flow that is not on paper or written notes.  I think that in any performance, classical or contemporary, or any performing arts in that matter, needs this "3rd dimension" that is not on the score or text, to bring the performance to life in order to communicate.  Again, I still have doubts that in some improvisation circles, "communication" may not be the goal.  I just don't know.

When you don't have a score, and let's say that you are performing the "3rd dimension", I do believe you could play it wrong, by somehow losing a thread, or a "train of thought" so to speak.   And that may be equivalent of playing a wrong note.   The performer could go on exploring musical materials for a while, but there comes a time the exploration itself becomes some kind of a purpose of performance, and NOT what you are trying to communicate across.  Again, if the performance is meant to "explore" music in front the audience without the regard to the outcome as a musical performance "communicating" with audience, and if the performer-audience relationship is not based on communication but rather, a performer and a kind of "spectator" who is witnessing the exploration, then those "spectator" maybe satisfied.

The "train of thought" is again, like a conversation; you could be talking about an "egg" (for example, I don't know why! :)  cultural significance, old legends, nutrition or recipes.  The point is, when you are talking about eggs, you probably don't talk about a jeep.  But the fun part is, if you did mention a word jeep in the middle of old ancient Japanese mythical story about eggs, then you could somehow tie the jeep into Sci-Fi-esque story!  And that's the fun thing about improvisation as you probably don't do that in real life.  Or you might not tie that in, and decide to have two completely different, parallel world within your dialog.  But in that case, you would probably want to develop both at the same time.   The point I'm trying to make is, it could be random but it still needs to be presented as such.

But if this isn't the case, those who do not wish to be a spectator who takes a pleasure in witnessing the experimental exploration rather than musical communication, and the audience who feel "trapped" by not being communicated to, are being alienated by the performer?

In that case, I am pretty sure the experimental and free improvisation will surely stay in a very small circle of people who like to spectate, and surely will be difficult to get programmed in main stream concerts where at least some audience expect "communication".  And that very well maybe the way to be.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Thoughts on Improvisation (2): The 3rd dimension

As I continue my Thoughts on Improvisation, today I would like to start to put in words how I try not to be a "self-indulgent" improvisor  :)

Recently I was having a conversation with an artistic director of a prominent institution, who is said to be "friendly" towards improvisation.  However I sensed that, like most people in an established administrative positions, he would be more "comfortable" if a performer like me would comfortably fit myself wearing an "interpreter" hat playing "scored" or "composed" work put down on paper.   This is besides the point, but I think the "fear" among the establishment towards the free improvisation form comes from not really musically understanding what is happening, or one fears that he/she is listening to someone who is making random noise, thus hard to evaluate the performance/performer artistically.  And that is totally understandable.

At IRCAM in September during my exit talk, I said that I now need a "3 dimensional score", adding to what we have now, the two dimension one.  I need the 3rd dimension to describe the "wave" or the "flow" of the music, which moves 3D or maybe even 4D in space (I will talk about this "4th" later).  And this 3rd dimension, in any mode of performance whether it's classical or contemporary or even improvisation, is where the musical performance lies, and what audience is being presented to.  It is this 3rd dimension, the "musical flow" that the performer creates, "interpreting" what has been reduced to 2 dimension by the composer.  It is as if the performer is "re-inflating" the musical flow a composer has imagined, but then forced to shrink down to 2D in order to let others try to understand his/her music.

For me, free improvisation is performing directly in this 3rd dimensional mode, without the 1st and 2nd dimension, the written notes.  In another words, you don't need the specific notes, rhythm and timing spelled out, but directly express what is inside the 3rd dimension.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Thoughts on Improvisation (1)

First off, I said (1) since I probably have a lot to think about.... 

I often think of improvisation as non-verbal communication, speech, or conversation.  "Communication" by default, you have a "person" whom you are conversing with.   That "person" in fact, could be a real one, imaginary one, a dead one, not just one but several people, or even yourself.   There are many schools and tradition of improvisation, and having no so-called 'tradition' such as jazz attached to my background, but just being a so-called "natural" improvisor, I mainly listen to this "conversation".  

People listen to improvisations in different ways.  For me, it is about listening to what is "being said".  I like to think like a dinner table, a dinner conversation with several people.  Two people started to share a topic, or one person started to speak about a topic.  Then they can agree, disagree, talking over each other, speaking in parallel passionately arguing.  Or one can choose not to say anything verbally but silently thinking about it, expressing within him/herself.

When improvisation "works" for the listeners, I think at least one of the above "communication" is somewhat established.  Otherwise, the performance become self-indulgent.  This happens more often, in fact VERY often; the performer starts to improvise in his/her own space, not communicating, and audience is trapped being force-fed the self-indulgent "monologue".   I too often find myself feeling  "trapped" as a listener.  My husband, who is a very open-minded listener of any kind of music, describes it well, "It is as if you are taken as a hostage".

How do you avoid this?  How does one improvise and not be self-indulgent but communicative?  Or, in some improvisation tradition or circles, it is in fact NOT the point to communicate, but indeed to BE self-indulgent?  And some people like listening to the self-indulgence, or don't consider that as a passive-aggressive form of performance? And "like" being taken as "hostage" audience?