Category Archives: composition

Gestalt Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The division of labor between composer and performer, while central to Western art music, is foreign to much of the world. This does not owe to a lack of performers. Every human society, ancient and modern, has its musicians. What tends to be absent is the separate role of creator. Not only is it common for music to arise from an anonymous or semi-anonymous folk process, but musicians are also given to improvisation. Melodic lines and tonal archetypes (modes) are treated as canvases for spontaneously conjured embellishments and departures—or what pianist David Dolan calls “walking freely on firm ground.” It is only with the proliferation of notation that the composer and performer become truly distinct entities. The composer sets ideas on paper, and the performer meticulously renders those ideas into sound. The goal of “correct” performance replaces real-time interpretation.

Part of what differentiates improvisational and semi-improvisational folk music from Western art music is its gestalt approach, wherein a musical motive is conceived as a whole, rather than as a sum of individual notes. Thinking nothing of notes, the musician permits different tones and tone sequences to replace each other, so long as the motive retains its basic character. It is similar to an artist setting pieces of glass or stone within a framework, and is sometimes called the “mosaic technique.” This contrasts with Western notated music, which, by its very nature, is built from individual notes that are unalterably fixed on staff paper.

This distinction is best illustrated by example. Musicologist Michal Smoira-Cohn recalls when a Bedouin musician visited a class at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance. The musician played a “marvelously concentrated and highly inspired piece” on a one-stringed bowed instrument. When he finished, the professor explained some details of the performance and asked the musician to play the same piece again. Bewildered, the Bedouin proceeded to play a new improvisation, which resembled the first but was not identical. Smoira-Cohn relates: “The experience illuminated for me the true significance of the art of performance. I realized that the supposedly primitive Bedouin knew better than all of us the real value of music.”

This “real value” is part and parcel of oral societies, where improvisation is a fixture of story, dance, song, and instrument playing. Each performance is a re-creation involving identifiable elements that are manipulated, arranged, and supplemented in new and unreplicable ways. Compare this with the non-spontaneity expected of classical musicians, who work tirelessly to actualize a composer’s vision. Their performance may add a subtle interpretation, but the fear of wrong notes results in general sterility, and solidifies the separation of composer and performer.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Revising the Triangle

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music-making is sometimes depicted as a triangle consisting of composer, performer, and listener. It is a triangle in constant motion, with each side responding to one another. The interplay might go something like this: The composer interprets herself, the performer interprets the composer, the listener interprets the performer, the composer reinterprets herself, the performer reinterprets the composer, the listener reinterprets the performer, etc. As this clumsy illustration suggests, there is no one type of triangle or order of interaction that works for all scenarios.

It doesn’t take much to warp the triangle’s dimensions. When the composer is dead or was never identified to begin with (as with most folk music), one corner of the shape is inactive. When the music is improvised, the composer and performer are one and the same. Sound recording can freeze a one-time performance, leaving the listener to interpret an inanimate artifact. Electronic music can eliminate the need for a performer’s mediation.

These and other iterations require a revision of the triangle, the conventional version of which survives solely under strict conditions: a living composer writes music that is performed by living players for a live audience. The only side that remains constant in all cases is the listener—so much so that the model should be redrawn to favor the perceiver’s corner. One possibility is a tetrahedron (a three-dimensional triangle) that funnels sounds toward the listener. At one end is a wide opening, which receives music of all sorts: live, recorded, electronic, manual, composed, improvised. At the other end is a narrow opening, through which the music empties into the ear.

The advantage of this revised triangle is threefold. First, it does not discriminate against performance modalities. An orchestra premiering a new work in a concert hall is on equal footing with a turn-of-the-twentieth-century folksong recording. Second, it emphasizes that music is always heard/interpreted in the moment. This is true whether the performance is live, recorded, or a combination of the two (e.g., someone singing along to a karaoke track). Third, it reminds us that music is fundamentally audience-dependent. Painting, sculpture, and other concrete arts are affairs between artist and tangible materials. Once the work is finished, the creative process is complete; whether anyone sees the work is, in absolute terms, irrelevant. Not so with the immaterial art of music. If nobody hears it, it cannot be said to exist.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.


Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Tradition refers to the transmission of customs or beliefs from one generation to the next, or the fact of something being passed on in that manner. There are family traditions, cultural traditions, national traditions, religious traditions, and so on. Precisely why some things are treated in this way and other things are not is a topic too broad and varied to be reduced to a simple formula. But, underlying almost everything regarded as traditional is the term’s Latin root, traditio, meaning “surrender.” In no small part, the act of surrendering to and accepting what has been passed down is what makes something traditional.

Even when tradition is used as a noun, the term has an active connotation. An object, practice, or conviction does not burst into existence with the authoritative label. Rather, it gradually assumes that status through a process involving usage plus time. A recipe, for instance, becomes traditional through continued preparation and consumption. Likewise, the Western classical tradition is an assortment of Greco-Roman ideas, institutions, designs, rituals, and artifacts that have been received and integrated into later cultures. By definition, those things that have a lifespan extending beyond their originating time and place are, in some sense, traditional. Everything else is not.

This has relevance for music. Songbooks are filled with selections printed under the heading of traditional. Most of these are orally transmitted songs of anonymous authorship. However, it is not unusual to find songs with known composers listed as traditional. Strictly speaking, such ascriptions are errors: the songs did not emerge organically through an oral tradition, as the attribution suggests, but from the creative minds of individuals. The editors of such books can be faulted for a lack of careful research. Yet, if we understand traditional as an active adjective rather than a static noun, then it is an accurate depscription.

More often than not, so-called traditional melodies are so familiar as to have lost ties to any person or moment. This phenomenon, call it “traditionalization,” has at least four interrelated features: (1) The composer’s identity is forgotten and/or becomes irrelevant; (2) The music becomes the “property” of the masses; (3) The melody achieves a sense of timelessness; (4) The song is felt to be universal, no matter how closely linked to a specific situation, population, or storyline.

From this perspective, a song can be simultaneously traditional and written by a known person. Moreover, any melody—or, really, anything—can become traditional by way of its passage from generation to generation, and the power that such passage yields.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

A Windfall of Musicians (Book Review)

A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Émigrés and Exiles in Southern California, by Dorothy Lamb Crawford. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009. 318 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Immediately following his appointment as chancellor in January of 1933, Hitler launched an aggressive attack on Germany’s radio, press, film, music, and publishing industries. Hitler was himself an unsuccessful artist and amateur musician, who was denied entrance to art school in Vienna and failed in his effort to complete the text, design the sets, and compose the music for a mythic play Wagner had tossed aside. Control of the arts and media was given to propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who oversaw the content of every German newspaper, book, novel, play, film, broadcast, and concert, big and small. Goebbels gave the rationale for Nazi censorship, especially regarding music: “Judaism and German music are opposing forces which by nature stand in glaring contradiction to each other. The war against Judaism in German music—for which Richard Wagner once assumed sole responsibility [was to be carried out by] a united people.” As a result, Jewish composers, conductors, and performers who had once thrived in the Weimer Republic were now forced into silence and expulsion.

Musicologist Dorothy Lamb Crawford’s well-researched and informative book, A Windfall of Musicians, chronicles how many of these musicians fled Europe and gathered in the Los Angeles area beginning in the 1930s. As she explains in the unusually engaging Preface, Hitler’s rise to power coincided with the emergence of sound technology in Hollywood films. These converging developments brought an array of talented European musicians to the promising, though yet untapped, Los Angeles music scene. Crawford writes, “they constituted Hitler’s (unintentional) gift to American music” (p. ix), and helped transform Southern California from a “cultural desert” to a “musical mecca” (p. xi).

The book profiles fourteen composers, sixteen performers, and one opera stage director whose impact on the Los Angeles area was felt in the film industry, concert halls, universities, and through private teaching. Some of these musicians left Europe with impressive resumes and reputations, while others rose to prominence during their time in Southern California. Still others never quite established themselves in a cultural environment that for the most part resisted musical innovation. Even well known personalities like Arnold Schoenberg had trouble convincing the unsophisticated Los Angeles public to embrace his twelve-tone system; and Ernst Toch, one of the great avant-garde composers of the pre-Nazi era, constantly fought the label “film composer,” which he felt was beneath him. The book’s greatest attribute is its treatment of the struggles and successes of these immigrant musicians, both famous and lesser known.

The breadth and detail of this study are commendable, and evade summary in a short review. However, a couple of accounts gleaned from its pages should provide a sense of its fascinating subject matter. The third chapter profiles German-born conductor Otto Klemperer, who arrived in Los Angeles on October 14, 1933, and conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic until 1939, when he was incorrectly diagnosed with a brain tumor. Klemperer, a temperamental perfectionist, brought instant and marked improvement to the hitherto unimpressive orchestra. His first performance left audience members with the impression that he had brought the musicians with him from Europe, so changed was their sound. He was taken aback when he heard whistling in the crowd’s rousing ovation, which in Europe was a sign of disapproval.

The book also offers several portraits of composers in the motion picture business (chapter 8). Among them is Franz Waxman, who scored a number of classic films, such as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and A Christmas Carol (1938), and earned the Academy Award for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951). The seriousness with which he approached film composing was characteristic of this intense and highly trained group of composers. In a letter to the producers of The Nun’s Story (1959), Waxman complained about the late starting dates and short deadlines typically given for film scores: “Babies are not born overnight . . . and so it is with music or anything completely creative. . . . Everyone else connected with this picture has now been thoroughly drenched in it . . . and has had time to give it adequate thought. How, then, can a composer, if he is to do a decent job of creating, see a film one day and start writing it the next morning at nine o’clock?” (pp. 171-172).

Additional musicians featured include composer Igor Stravinsky, pianist Arthur Rubinstein, cellist Emanuel Feuermann, singer Lotte Lehmann, and many more who “managed to find personal self-renewal through individual journeys of discovery in their Californian lives” (p. 243). The depth with which Crawford delves into each biography varies, with some taking up an entire chapter (e.g., Klemperer, Schoenberg, Toch, and Stravinsky), and others just a few paragraphs. At times, these read like encyclopedia entries, with both the wealth of information and the dryness one would expect from such a resource. Still, Crawford’s enthusiasm for the book’s musicians and the Southern California setting is palpable. She has amassed a comprehensive survey of lasting value, and a worthy homage to this remarkable assemblage of vibrant personalities and artistic talent.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

The Timbre Effect

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

All melodies are the same. This provocative overstatement should not be dismissed out of hand. Although there are diversifying options, such as meter, mode, note density, and rhythmic values, the fundamental shape of melody is remarkably consistent. When the sonic fat is trimmed away, what remains is a typical melodic line. This mainly owes to the powerful force of convention, which (un)consciously shapes musical patterns in more or less uniform ways. Culturally conditioned ears tolerate only a limited spectrum of choices; the more divergences, the less the general appeal. At the risk of being tautological, melodies are recognizable because they sound like melodies.

Gary Ewer, a songwriter and creator of Easy Music Theory, identifies what he calls “5 Characteristics of Any Great Melody.” His summation is not as boastful as it might appear, though these key ingredients are found in most Western melodies, great and not-so-great. The five characteristics are: restricted range (an octave-and-a-half); repeating elements (intervals, rhythms, motifs); stepwise motion (moving by scale steps with occasional leaps); movement in relationship with the bass line (parallel, similar, oblique or contrary); and a climactic point leading to a cadence. Other building blocks not on Ewer’s list include four-bar phrases and predictable chord progressions (both simple and complex).

These ingredients are present in all idioms of Western music, from Baroque to reggae to bubblegum pop. Of course, some melodies are more adventurous than others, and some manage to buck a few norms while staying within the requisite parameters. Yet, without blurring the countless tunes that have been offered to the atmosphere, the fact is that differences between melodies lie in nuances rather than in fundamental structures.

Given this basic homogeneity, why do certain melodies rise to the top? The answer rests partly in extra-musical factors, such as lyrical content, the look of the performer(s), promotional efforts, and inclusion on a soundtrack. But musical qualities also contribute to a song’s popularity (or unpopularity). These aspects are not necessarily located in the pitches, dynamics or durations, but in the less tangible realm of timbre: distinctive and recognizable sounds.

This is particularly true of recorded songs, which reach audiences via specific timbre mixtures of vocals, instruments, and production signatures. Attraction to a song is really attraction to this global sound—a reality accounting for the frequent failure of covers and remixes. A Katy Perry song in someone else’s mouth does not have the same effect, just as Tom Petty minus the Heartbreakers lacks a certain something.

A historical case in point is The Paul Simon Song Book (1965), a solo album Simon recorded after Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, Simon & Garfunkel’s first studio recording, received a discouragingly cool reception. The record includes several songs that would become hits for the duo, such as “I Am A Rock,” “Leaves That Are Green,” and “The Sound of Silence.” But the timbre is off. Without Garfunkel’s harmonies and other additive sounds, the impression is one of raw incompletion.

Popular melodies sometimes find their way into song anthologies and fake books: collections of lead sheets with melodies, chord markings, and lyrics. These are “standards,” or tunes of established popularity from a period and/or style. The minimalistic presentation suggests that melody, apart from audible textures, is the source of a song’s popularity. However, the very reduction to soundless notation exposes the crucial role of timbre in creating hits. Without that tapestry of sounds, a melody is just a melody like any other.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Wagner and the Music of the Jews

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Anti-Semitism was not uncommon among nineteenth-century composers. Chopin, Liszt, Mussorgsky and others are on record making derogatory comments about Jews and Judaism. Most of these musicians carry no stigma; their works are performed without hesitation. This is not so with Richard Wagner, whose vitriol was exacerbated by his affiliation with left wing revolutionaries. Two things make it difficult to separate Wagner’s work from his views: the Nazis espoused his music, and he wrote a polemical essay, “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Jewishness in Music,” 1850, 1869). While he cannot be blamed for the Nazis’ use of his music—he died before Hitler was born—the anti-Jewish sentiment in his infamous essay is hard to dismiss.

Wagner makes two basic points in “Das Judenthum in der Musik.” The first is that “the Jew” is incapable of reaching the musical heights of European composers. He takes specific aim at Felix Mendelssohn, whom he considered more of a technician than an artist, and whom he thought lacked the passion and heart of a Beethoven (or of Wagner himself). He also mentions Giacomo Meyerbeer (Jacob Lieberman Beer), a once-popular opera composer whom Wagner felt was too practical, too calculated, and too concerned with popular tastes to be truly creative. Not incidentally, Wagner was convinced that Meyerbeer, a Frenchman, had deliberately sabotaged his early efforts to enter the Paris establishment. (Contrastingly, in 1841 Wagner wrote a glowing review of La Juive—The Jewess—a grand opera by another French Jewish composer, Fromenthal Halévy.)

If we remove the anti-Semitism and generalizations that fueled these observations, then Wagner’s views are not far off: Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer are in some ways inferior composers of the Western canon. But there is good reason for this. Jews did not enter the world of European music until the nineteenth century, and even then had limited opportunities to develop their craft. They were late to the party and had a lot of catching up to do. Moreover, Mendelssohn, a “classicist,” adhered to conservative and essentially canon-affirming tastes. Wagner died in 1883, so he missed out on the twentieth century and its slew of innovative Jewish composers: Copland, Schoenberg, Bernstein, Philip Glass, the pioneers of Hollywood film music, etc. In addition to being a venom-infused stereotype, Wagner’s image of Jews as musically uncreative is simply outdated.

His second point is that “The Jew flings together the various forms and styles of all composers and eras.” Wagner meant this as an insult: Jews have no musical language of their own, but instead appropriate their neighbors’ music and perform it as foreigners. If we take out the negative implication of “Jew as imitator,” then Wagner’s opinion was actually correct—and perhaps even ahead of its time.

Wagner lived when Jewish music was gradually becoming a topic of interest among Wissenschaft scholars, who amplified the cultural uniqueness of Jews and Judaism. As part of that agenda, Jewish scholars perpetuated a myth of musical continuity, wherein some elusive element of “authentic” Jewish music could be traced back to Jerusalem’s Second Temple. This element was never discovered, and was never really looked for in any serious way. Still, it was a powerful sentiment that basically went unchallenged until the mid-twentieth century, when scholars came to terms with the fact that Jewish music is always tied to its surrounding, as Wagner pointed out. Contemporary critics view the ability to adapt music of the surroundings as a strength, rather than a weakness, of Jewish culture.

Not surprisingly, Wagner’s admirers tend to downplay his anti-Semitism, while his detractors emphasize it. As noted, he wasn’t entirely incorrect in his comments on the music of the Jews in his time and place; but the hatred that saturates his words cannot be ignored.

It is sometimes remarked that Wagner was envious of the Jews, but this assertion is rarely elaborated upon. I’d like to add my own theory. Wagner’s greatest claim to fame as a composer is the leitmotif: a recurrent theme throughout a musical composition that is associated with a specific person, idea or situation. Given Wagner’s obsession with the Jew in music, he was almost certainly aware that leitmotifs were a staple of synagogue music in his native Germany, and had been since the Middle Ages. The High Holidays, for instance, were full of them (the so-called “Mi-Sinai tunes”). One might even argue that Wagner stole the concept from the Jews, or was appalled to hear Jews using a musical device he thought he had invented. This could explain at least some of his vehemence. It also suggests that maybe—just maybe—Jews weren’t so uncreative after all.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Pop as Folk

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There is an old adage about folk music: “You know it when you hear it.” The saying refers in part to the ubiquity of folksongs in human cultures. Populations throughout the world lay collective claim to a subset of songs that have seemingly been around forever. The saying also hints at the difficulty of defining what is and what is not “music of the people.” Parameters used to separate folk from non-folk allow frequent exceptions: songs with identifiable authors, songs that are “impure” (mixed influences), songs that are not very old, etc. In the end, folk designation has less to do with authenticity (whatever that term means), than with identification. We know it when we hear it because it sounds like us.

A cursory review of folk music definitions highlights the ambiguity of the term. Possibilities include: music transmitted by mouth; music of indigenous peoples; music of the lower classes; music with unknown authorship; music written by a known person but passed on orally; songs interwoven with a national or ethnic group; music long associated with an event or holiday; music that identifies a people; and more.

As is evident from this sample list, no single folksong exhibits all of these elements. Moreover, some of the elements are contradictory (music by a known or unknown source), some are outdated or bigoted (music of indigenous or lower class peoples), and others could refer equally to popular music (holiday songs and songs of group-affiliation).

Let us turn to the latter point. Although it is not fashionable to admit, folk and pop music have much in common. In fact, one could argue that folk music is a type of pop music, and pop music is a type of folk music. In order to appreciate these affinities, we must set aside two classic signifiers of pop: commercialism and artist-centrism. Looking at the basic nature of the songs (melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic material) and their effect on those who cherish them, the distance between the presumably opposite poles of pop and folk is greatly reduced.

Part of what shapes the perception of folk music is a sense of stability and longevity. Folk songbooks and audio collections tend to be homogenous retrospectives: they gather well-known favorites that share certain linguistic, thematic, and stylistic characteristics. A quick listen to any Celtic or Russian folksong anthology makes this point obvious. Because the songs come from the same stock and (ostensibly) emerged from the same collective process, they are more or less interchangeable. The dance songs sound like other dance songs, the lullabies like other lullabies, the meditative songs like other meditative songs, and so on. Even when sonic identifiers are removed, such as regional instruments and performance techniques, strong melodic and structural resemblances remain.

This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated with partner songs: songs that are so melodically and harmonically similar that they can be performed simultaneously. In the library of English-language folksongs, this is accomplished, for example, with the simultaneous singing of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Three Blind Mice,” “London Bridge,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “The Farmer in the Dell,” and “Here We Go Looby Loo.” The same can be done in the world of pop. For instance, any song built on the common I-V-vi-IV progression can be sung together, including “No Woman, No Cry,” “With or Without You,” “Unconditionally,” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Although they derive from different personages, serve different aims, and fit in different styles, they are as melodically and harmonically homogenous as partner songs from folk sources. All that is lacking is longevity, and the blurred distinctions that come with it.

Just as important is the degree to which pop songs encapsulate and perpetuate mass tastes. As much as individual performers and songwriters strive to give their music a unique stamp, it does not materialize from nothingness. Underlying these songs is a folk-like process, in which the sounds and sentiments of a particular group are harnessed and played back, thus generating a sense of collective ownership. This is not to ignore the creative process of popular artists, but rather to stress that such a process cannot be divorced from its cultural milieu. If we were able to scratch beneath the surface of songs that have come down to us as folk, we would likely discover individual musicians who offered melodies into a cultural pool, and whose individuality was obscured by the forces of time and transmission.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Hard (Melodic) Cases Make Bad (Melodic) Law

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Hard cases make bad law.” This legal maxim cautions against seeking general principles in the extremes. A case that is hard, either because it is unusually complicated or emotionally loaded, occupies disputed territory outside of the uncontroversial center. General law is derived from average situations and common concerns; difficult cases neither fit within its parameters nor contribute to them. Similarly, aesthetic outsiders offer little to normative notions of art. Duchamp’s Fountain and Cage’s 4’33” might be fertile topics for discussion, but without a basic consensus about what constitutes art, they would simply be an out-of-place urinal and a prolonged awkward silence.

Philosophers of art often give undue attention to fringe examples and provocative excursions, as if the existence of rule breakers sends aesthetics into a whirlwind of subjectivity. Who is to say whether Piss Christ is any more or less magnificent than Venus de Milo? The absurdity of this question reiterates the importance of the artistic center and its values. There is, of course, room for divergent approaches and variegated judgments; but art is generally recognized as art. (Incidentally, the outsider pieces cited above—Fountain, 4’33” and Piss Christ—have each been accused of not being art.)

The extent to which artistic conceptions are natural is demonstrated by melody. Certain elements are present in almost every Western tonal melody, from Baroque to mariachi to soul to grunge. These include repeating devices (e.g., melodic intervals and rhythms), a range within an octave-and-a-half, conjunct motion with occasional leaps (steps and skips), gravity (ascension, climax and dissension), and harmonic movement resolving to the root. These and other components are conventional to the point of being intuitive: any spontaneously imagined tune will likely contain most or all of them. This does not mean that adventures are forbidden in mainstream melodies. Standard components can be periodically stretched, as long as the overall integrity of the melody remains intact.

“Hard cases” in the world of melody are those that actively disregard this musical intuition. Twelve-tone serialism is a prime example, with its lack of tonal center, tone rows (non-repetitive arrangement of the notes of the chromatic scale), and regulated obscuration of patterns. Such musical experiments are conscious departures from the norm: they take account of the conventional building blocks, and proceed to knock them over. As with peculiar litigations, they can be thought-provoking and foster debate; but their influence on melodic standards and recognition is minimal at best.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Improvisation and Origination

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

All music begins as improvisation. Guided by an internalized assortment of musical conventions, proclivities, and preferences, and propelled by a need for self-expression, the musician offers up an unfolding sequence of tones. Sonic strokes are applied to a canvas of silence and time, coalescing into a piece of music. What happens after the initial act will determine what type of improvisation it is: creation for the moment, or creation for repetition.

In musical styles that value extemporization, such as jazz and ragas, certain sounds are not meant to extend past the performance. They are embraced as spontaneous creations in and for that moment. Beauty arises, mistakes are made, ideas are asserted, and ingenuity is flashed—all without concern for documentation. The experience begins and ends in real time. In contrast, music created for repetition is expected to persist beyond the improvisatory genesis. Tones emerge from the imagination, but are thereafter revised, re-shaped, and retained for future performances. This process occurs in both oral and scribal cultures, where music is reiterated through person-to-person transmission, notation, audio recording, and often a combination of these. The impulsive journey of formation becomes a roadmap for reproduction.

There are cases where creation for the moment and creation for repetition intrude upon one another. These “violations” take the form of transcriptions of improvisatory solos, recordings of jam sessions, embellishments in classical compositions, and the like. Purists shun such rule breaking: improvisers guard the ephemeral nature of their craft; classical musicians shield the notes on the page.

Frank Zappa was a vocal critic from the improvisatory camp. In a 1984 MTV interview, he blasted fellow guitarists for playing carbon copies of their recorded solos on stage. Zappa was asked, “Do you consider yourself a great guitarist?” Rather than self-labeling one way or the other, he gave an assessment of the state of guitar playing, lamenting the scarcity of intuition and risk taking. His response deserves quoting in full:

“Well, I’m specialized. What I do on the guitar has very little to do with what other people do on the guitar. Most of the other guitar solos that you hear performed on stage have been practiced over and over and over again. They go out there and they play the same one every night, and it’s really just spotless. My theory is this: I have a basic mechanical knowledge of the operation of the instrument and I’ve got an imagination, and when the time comes up in the song to play a solo, it’s me against the laws of nature. I don’t know what I’m going to play; I don’t know what I’m going to do. I know roughly how long I have to do it, and it’s a game where you have a piece of time and you get to decorate it. And depending on how intuitive the rhythm section is that’s backing you up, you can do things that are literally impossible to imagine sitting here. But you can see them performed before your very eyes in a live performance situation. I don’t like any of the guitar solos that have ever been released on a record, and I think that the real fun of playing the guitar is doing it live, not freezing it and saving it on a piece of plastic someplace or putting it on a video.”

It should be mentioned that Zappa was no enemy of notation. He meticulously scored his songs for all instruments, including percussion, and was notoriously perfectionistic regarding the conversion of his writing into sound. But he also knew when to depart from predetermined ideas and respond to the moment. What he despised was the breakdown of distinctions between the fixed and the improvised. Implied in his comments is recognition that music can only be improvised once. After that, it takes one of two paths: evaporation or concretization. For Zappa, fleeting sounds should be kept fleeting, while stipulated sounds should remain stipulated. Even so, Zappa himself sometimes wandered into the awkward space where impromptu playing becomes frozen for consumption. A series of guitar-solo albums and a book of solos-in-transcription are testaments to that uncomfortable truth.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Isomorphic Sounds

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Organizational competition is largely shaped by two countertendencies. The first and most obvious is specialization. This is, broadly speaking, the method through which commercial enterprises procure a niche in the competitive environment. Examples include regional specialties, like maple syrup from Vermont, targeted specialties, like children’s cereal, service specialties, like themed restaurants, and so forth. Profitability seems to depend on this separation from the pack. In a marketplace of so much sameness, distinguishing features are key.

Yet, the desire to be different cannot be divorced from the need to be the same. The ways in which organizations resemble each other are, in fact, more crucial than the ways in which they differ. There must be a common baseline of substance and form. This second tendency, called isomorphism, allows the consumer to recognize a gas station as a gas station, a pair of pants as a pair of pants, a tube of toothpaste as a tube of toothpaste. Without a suite of essential similarities, products would obscure themselves into oblivion.

The tension between specialization and isomorphism cannot be reduced to a mathematical formula. Variables such as ad campaigns, charismatic leadership, and “right place, right time” defy such simplification. Still, it is clear that without a high degree of conformity, uniqueness has no structure within which to shine. Abstract weirdness does not sell.

The same applies to music. Technically, musical creativity is not bound by hard and fast rules. The individual artist is free to explore any conceivable manipulation of sound. However, as composer and fellow blogger John Morton cautions, the matter is a bit more complicated. In order for music to sound like music (and thus have a chance of selling), it must conform to established norms. Over time, these norms yield a slew of regional and cultural stylesthe very existence of which demonstrates the power of isomorphism.

Almost without exception, the identifying attributes of a musical style emerge through a natural process of transmission, reception, and repetition. The resulting mainstream serves to regulate musical tendencies and expectations, thereby enabling stylistic recognition and generating resistance to deviation. Put simply, conformity is a driving force of music.

So where does specialization fit in? In general, musical evolution embraces adaptations but shuns random mutations. Subtle steps are more effective than giant leaps. The plotting of musical timelines with period-defining “greats” obscures the many measured steps in between. Aside from a few anomalous examples, rule-breaking musicians have little hope for success. They are labeled “ahead of their time”—a marginalizing euphemism for departing too far from stylistic norms and skipping too many evolutionary steps. In truth, any musician can be a radical innovator. It’s just not good for business.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.