Tag Archives: Charlie Parker

Object and Motion

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The physical universe can be thought of either in terms of objects (substance) or motion (process). When substance is the focus, the universe appears as bundles of photons. When process is emphasized, the universe appears as waves. From the point of view of physics, both perspectives are true. Objects and motion are both made of light: photons are packets of light; waves are undulations of light. It is beyond my purpose (and my ability) to elucidate the finer points of this scientific principle. I wish instead to draw a rough analogy between substance and process as understood in physics, and the general way in which they are used in musical criticism.

Object in music is the final product: the sound recording, the lyric sheet, the notated score (composition or transcription). Process is the performance: the music making, the listening, the audible manifestation. The former is a starting place for (or record of) the latter; the latter is the content of the former. Unlike physicists, music critics tend to perceive object and process as utterly distinct, ignoring the “light” uniting the two. More often than not, one mode of understanding takes over, or is unduly elevated above the other.

For example, John Brownell notes a trend in jazz studies of applying analytical models to improvisation. He takes specific aim at Thomas Owens, who dissected a large number of Charlie Parker’s improvisations, cataloging sixty-four melodic devices ranked according to frequency of occurrence. For Brownell, this systematic method is antithetical to the spontaneous purpose and process of improvisation. Brownell is similarly critical of Gunter Schuller’s study of Sonny Rollins, which elucidates the saxophonist’s “thematic” improvisational approach. Schuller identified hallmarks of a well-crafted composition in Rollins’s solos—themes, coherence, deliberation, form—and on that basis claimed that his playing was aesthetically superior. From Brownell’s viewpoint, such analytic models have no place in jazz, which is, in essence, a performance practice outside the range of mechanistic tools. He dismisses these attempts as  “notism,” or the “fixation on the object of analysis rather than on the process from which it springs.”

While it is true that aesthetic expectations from one artistic form do not translate appropriately to other forms, the notion that experience and analysis are mutually exclusive is not entirely so. Notation, whether of a written piece or an improvisation notated later, is always and necessarily a shorthand for the real (audible) thing. It is a useful language for understanding music, but it is no substitute for the thing itself. At the same time, a purely experiential appreciation of music, without facility in the written language, is to a certain extent incomplete. It is through listening and analytics that music is grasped in its full dimensions.

It is unfortunate that music is often apprehended from an either/or vantage point. Either it is received in the moment of perception, or it is shoved under the microscope. Exclusivity arises in the extremes of experientialism and notism. What is needed is a balanced view, which values both the product and the performance. They are, after all, aspects of the same thing. Returning to the physics analogy, performance (process) is a manipulation of sound, while score (object) is a map of sound.

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


Radical Conventions

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Everything we accept as mainstream had a beginning somewhere in the past. It may have sprung from a single source or through gradual development. It may have appeared in dramatic fashion, parting abruptly from ideas, technologies, manners or artistry of the day. Or it may have come with a snail-paced shift in the zeitgeist. Whether or not we know from whence it came, what we now consider normal was not always so.

True, nothing is without precedent. Given the cause-and-effect nature of reality, no entity is absolutely divorced from what came before. There is continuity in the intellectual evolution of our species, even when advancements seem more like mutations than adaptations. And, with enough time and repetition, once-innovative or iconoclastic views can become prevailing norms. Mark Twain put it thus: “The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them” (Notebook, 1898).

In the vast universe of music, the transition from radical to conventional transpires in various ways. Two will be examined here, as they seem to be the most common: the appropriation of “far-out” ideas by mainstream musicians, and the discovery of older elements in novel forms.

The first involves convention through indirect channels. A good example is John Cage, hailed as one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century. Cage’s legacy is felt more in his ideals than his actual works, which incorporate indeterminacy, spontaneity, expanded use of instruments, and manipulation of electronic and recorded material. Because of his personality, creativity and the experimental ethos of his time, Cage’s name became household. But his music never caught on in a popular way. It was and will always remain in the impenetrable realm of avant-garde. Despite this, his conceptions seeped into the musical vernacular by way of Woody Guthrie, John Cale, Sonic Youth, Frank Zappa and Brian Eno, as well as the countless musicians they have inspired.

The second way radical music becomes conventional is through recognition of the past in envelope-pushing sounds. After the initial shock has worn off, new forms and styles are often reframed as unique syntheses of elements culled from a pool of established devices. This is perhaps most prevalent in the jazz community. The innovative playing of Charlie Parker has been reassessed as a fast-paced and intricate rendering of the blues. Eric Dolphy’s mold-breaking approach has been described as rhythmically similar to Parker’s, but more harmonically developed. The freeform technique of Ornette Coleman has been identified as a rephrasing of old swing patterns. These evaluations help pave the path to convention, where “outsider” sounds inform and are eventually fused with contemporary norms.

Most music is directly influenced by other music. Standards and trends do not arise in an instant or out of nothing, but through a subtle and organic flow that only becomes apparent with the passage of time. Drastic departures can also occur within this linear movement. As things progress, these too can become “normalized,” often through secondary influence or reappraisal. Thus, as Twain observed, the radical is made conservative.

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

Sound Stories

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Scottish historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) observed, “History is the essence of innumerable biographies.” The biographies he had in mind were not those of famous men and women, but the lives of anonymous individuals who constitute the real spirit of a nation. The notion of regular folk as history makers was almost unheard of in Carlyle’s day. And although some modern historians focus on ordinary people and groups long neglected—like women and indigenous populations—our awareness of history is overwhelmingly shaped by profiles of the “greats.”

Understandably, writers of history are drawn to high profile players, dramatic episodes and popular places. In order to map out and find patterns in the sweep of time, dots are connected between a handful of carefully selected people and events. What the writer chooses to include or exclude is shaped by biases and pet interests. The story presented invariably favors certain views, parties and locations. However, while this process is faulty and subject to revision, it is essential for reducing the immensity of human experience into a comprehensible snapshot.

Music history is similarly conceived of as a linear path punctuated by luminaries. The annals of historical musicology—the study of musical composition, performance and reception over time—are filled with anecdotes and analyses of the lives and works of big-name composers. In the West, the periodization of music is centered on famous figures, both representative and transitional. Mozart, for instance, is seen as a quintessential Classical composer, while Beethoven is considered a bridge between the Classical and Romantic periods.

That the musical timeline is organized around emblematic personalities is perfectly logical. Music is a human invention and those who make it determine its course. Yet, while we can trace stylistic developments by linking one famous composer to the next, this neat (and in some ways necessary) construction not only obscures less prominent musicians, but also ignores multifarious influences that inform each piece along the way.

It is no secret that major composers inspire other major composers, either through friendship, study, admiration or a master-disciple relationship. The inspiration is sometimes acknowledged by the composers, and other times gleaned from their compositions. But musical information does not pass on exclusively through masters and masterworks.

The ear of the composer is alert and sensitive to all sorts of sounds, some of which are consciously or unconsciously recalled during the act of composition. The sources of these sounds may be famous, folk or forgotten, but their imprint is indelible. No piece of music is an island. Whether conventional, groundbreaking or somewhere in between, music involves the absorption and manipulation of existing sonic material. Even the most innovative composition is built upon previous efforts. And the more musical access a composer has, the more eclectic and plentiful the influences.

The potential complexity of this musical picture is captured in a reminiscence from trumpeter Frank London: “We studied [at the New England Conservatory] a mixture of classical and jazz, as well as lots of other stuff—pop, folk, and ethnic musics—while developing a particular philosophy that still guides my own musical life and that of many of my peers. The idea is that one can study and assimilate the elements of any musical style, form, or tradition by ear. You listen over and over to a Charlie Parker solo or a Peruvian flute player and learn to replicate what you hear. . . . We became cultural consumers. No music was off limits.”

The history of a single piece contains the histories of many other pieces, which are themselves built on the histories of other pieces, and on and on. Thus, as Carlyle might conclude, music is the “essence of innumerable biographies.”

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