Playing/listening/talking

In recent years I have been increasingly drawn to thinking about the way people talk about their experiences of playing and listening to jazz and improvised music. Perhaps the main catalyst for this was starting to research how a number of jazz musicians have spoken or written about the way they approach making music. For me late, great Steve Lacy was a leading figure in this respect. What I learned from beginning to read more about Lacy – a musician whose music I had always admired – was the importance that he gave to his creative process from beginning to end. This is to say, the initial idea or concept that precipitated a certain project, the process by which he developed this idea, leading to its performance.

Steve+LAcy.jpg

A large percentage of what gets talked and written about jazz and improvised music concerns the part of the music that you hear, which is almost inevitably ‘the performance’ – the last of the above three stages. This shouldn’t be surprising because it is the part that the performers present for public listening. That we don’t normally get to witness the preceding two stages is likewise unsurprising because we are not normally close enough to the musicians to be allowed to share in the process of conceptualisation and development.

However, reflecting on this state of affairs prompted me to consider some of its consequences.

Let’s turn to a hackneyed cliché among jazz instrumentalists. It is generally accepted that any given musician will at some point be approached by an audience member who asks ‘Why don’t you play something we can all understand?’ And, of course, the similarly clichéd response is for said musician to wearily roll his or her eyes at the sheer naïveté of it – after all, jazz is about freedom of expression right? Why should I have to water down my art so you can enjoy it too?

Needless to say I’m labouring the point a little. But I think there’s an important point to be found here. How do I – the musician – know that you – the listener – are hearing what I want you to hear? Or perhaps I could phrase it another way. How do I know you are hearing it in the right way?

One answer to this would be to say that all human experience is subjective, so not only are you definitely nothearing what I hear, you actually nevercould.

But that’s not to say that you couldn’t hear it differently if you changed your expectations….

My hypothetical audience-member’s frustration was likely the result of unfulfilled expectations of what a jazz performance should be. To put it in concrete terms; if someone had formed their idea of what jazz should sound like based entirely on the discography of Louis Armstrong, they might well be confounded by an encounter with mid-60s Coltrane. And of course, nobody in this equation would be objectively wrong about what jazz is or isn’t (assuming it even matters.)

I think the point of this piece is to introduce some of the questions that I have formulated as a result of this train of thought. My reason for bringing it up in this public forum is because I’m beginning to experiment with ways of creating dialogue with my audiences so as to discuss the significance to them of the first two stages of my triumvirate – concept and development.

Returning to my observations about Lacy’s writings on his music, I have come to reflect on the importance of the ‘why’ of creative activity as much as the ‘what’. Needless to say Lacy is by no means the only artist to talk about these things. He’s not even the only musician to do so. Nevertheless, I’m fascinated by the prospect of talking to jazz and improvised music people about these questions – be they players, listeners or whatever.

As this recent run of blog posts indicates, I’m about to debut a new suite of music I’ve written as a way of exploring ideas of creativity and originality that were initially inspired by Picasso’s Las Meninas and Coleman Hawkins’ Picasso. In the concert this Saturday as well as future performances it’s my plan to open the event with a short talk, and close with a Q&A session. I’m hoping to elicit dialogue and debate between my fellow musicians and listeners (I’m both after all).

If anyone is interested in the format of the discussion I will attach the programme notes at the end of this post. I would also love to hear from anyone who has anything at all to say about any or all of this.

Details of the upcoming concert are as follows, with the pre-concert talk stating at 12:30pm

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Programme notes

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Rehearsals

There’s a common understanding that the way most music gets made is a three-stage procedure. 1) A composer composes a piece 2) Some musicians rehearse it in order to be able to accurately play what the composer wrote 3) The piece is performed.

 

There has been quite a lot written to dispute this model across musical genres, and at the very least most jazz musicians will attest to the fact that, while rehearsals normally precede performance, the purpose that they serve is more nuanced. I am currently mid-way through a series of preparatory rehearsals for a large ensemble project called Picasso(s):Interactions that will have its debut performance next weekend (27thApril 2019).

 

The first thing to say is that being in a position to say this at all is quite unusual, and I should once again acknowledge the support of Arts Council England for making it possible to dedicate four long sessions to working on my new music with a 12-piece ensemble!

 

To continue, if we return to my opening remarks we could speculate that the reason for my having chosen to spend so much time rehearsing is that the music that I have written is extremely complex and difficult to play. However, while there are some sections that have needed a bit of work, all in all what I have written is relatively simple, at least in terms of the number of notes.

 

So why the need for so much rehearsal time?

 

Consider the following description of Duke Ellington’s composition process:

 

Ellington is a new type of composer in that he has written…for a particular group of human beings…The more respect shown for the identities of the individuals who comprise it, the better it will be…. This is why there must be a two-way relationship between the composer and the players.’

 

I won’t go into too much analytical detail regarding this statement beyond drawing attention to the last line, and to the ‘two-way’ relationship between composer and musicians. Because jazz relies heavily on improvisation it is inevitable that individual musicians will make unique contributions to the music.

This effect becomes more pronounced the more improvisation is used.

 

When I compose music for MFJO I try and follow Ellington’s model. I prepare fragments of music to stimulate the collective imagination of the group, and then we spend as much time engaged in musical dialogue as is necessary to establish a way of performing the material that represents the group aesthetic.

 

The Picasso(s):Interactionsrehearsals has reinforce to me the importance of allowing time for a group of jazz musicians to develop a relationship with one another via the music they perform.  I’m very much looking forward to continuing this process and finding out where my initial ideas end up.

 

 

Footnote

 

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It might be possible to detect a slightly academic note to the way I think about music. This is because my ‘day job’ is as a researcher and philosophiser of music. Not too surprising then….

 

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to spend several days among likeminded colleagues at the Rhythm Changes jazz studies conference in Graz. As I have been writing about the importance of dedicating time to exploring and developing musical ideas, I should point out that the same is true of research. As well as being given time to share my ideas with a group of other musician/researchers, I was also lucky enough to hear a number of presentations from a diverse range of people on an equally wide variety of topics.

 

I’m feeling particularly well nourished in music and ideas these days!

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Update

Sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for until you’ve found it. In fact, there are times when you don’t even realise that there was anything to be looked for in the first place. That is, until you suddenly notice that the hue of your subconscious has changed a little, that a new feeling, or depth of understanding, is shaping the way you go about your business. At which point it becomes almost unthinkable that you hadn’t noticed long before now.

 

I’m writing on the eve of the first rehearsal of a new musical project that I have embarked on. This is ostensibly a new suite of music that I’m in the process of writing for the 12-piece ensemble that I convene from time to time, but actually it represents more than that. To be sure, it is a new suite of music (or at least it will be soon). Nevertheless, I have recently come to realise that it also represents an important development in my relationship with music in more general terms.

 

Since I began a PhD in composition at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in 2014, I have been dedicating an increasingly large percentage of my intellectual and creative efforts to critiquing and questioning not only the way I engage with music, but also the fact that the wider worlds of art and philosophy come to bear on my role as a twenty-first century European jazz musician (not to mention a doctor of such matters to boot), and furthermore that recognising this fact can be richly rewarding.

 

Perhaps the most notable result of this change of perspective has been a shift in the balance between the way I prepare and perform music. As things now stand, the process by which I engage with the former has become both more deliberate and more painstaking. By this I mean that I have come to invest more thought in the way that I conceive of music – be it practicing, composing, performing, listening, or one of the many variants thereof. While the minutiae of this process may only be of interest to the most hardened of theorists, the results can be more readily witnessed. An example of this will bring me round to the new music that I’ll be rehearsing for the first time tomorrow.

 

My most recent album was a self-released solo saxophone record that I entitled Picasso(s). This music was the outcome of my doctoral research, and in the simplest of terms represents my attempt to find an original way to perform jazz, via Picasso’s Las Meninas and Coleman Hawkins’ Picasso. The details of this process are best saved for another forum (a brief outline is available in a previous post) but the effect it has had on me as musician has been profound. So much so that I have decided to build on the solo project with the aforementioned large ensemble suite.

 

Which brings me back to my starting point. I suspect that as a result of this process I have developed a conception of music that, at least for the moment, allows me to reconcile, on one hand, my longstanding commitment to the varied historical traditions of jazz (memories of bunking off school to go and buy Charlie Parker records), and on the other, my complex, at times insecure, and by no means always positively-motivated, expectation that I should be a ground-breaking experimentalist. To put it more simply, I’m excited to play it!

 

Of course, much of this might be of little or no interest to many of my listeners. However, I have decided to undertake to make details of my process available should anyone be interested. Sharing these insights will take a number of forms. Of course, I will be updating this site much more frequently, and I will be doing my best to encourage people to feed back. I will also be offering pre- and post-concert talks to allow audience members not only to find out more about how the music comes about, but also to engage in discourse with the performers.

 

And, of course, we’ll be performing the music too! A date for the diary is the 27thApril at the Midland Arts Centre in Birmingham, where we’ll be premiering the new suite as part of Sid Peacock’s Surge In Spring festival.

 

My plan is to post updates here as the project progresses, and I’d be very happy to hear from anyone who would like to know more.

 

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Picasso(s)

The last time I posted on here – an embarrassingly large number of years ago – I made reference to the fact that I was in the early stages of my PhD research. Jumping forward to the present I’m now pleased – not to mention relieved – to say that it’s very nearly finished. Much of what I have been working on has been fairly complex theorisation of my work as a musician and so is unlikely to be of interest to everyone. Nevertheless, the main focus of the project is music, and the centrepiece of my research is a piece for solo saxophone that I have called Picasso(s). While an hour of solo saxophone music might not be to everyone’s taste, I am proud of the results and would love for people to hear it. Consequently, the main purpose of this post it to draw attention to the link below. By following it you can hear a studio recording of the piece, and if you really like it you can also order a physical copy (!):

 

https://mikefletcher.bandcamp.com

 

However, while it is perfectly possible to listen to the music without any further contextualisation, I am also keen to draw attention to the fact that there is a conceptual basis to the project too. With this in mind, I am also including a short introduction to the theoretical aspect of the project. Once again this won’t be of interest to everyone, but I hope that contextualising the music might add an addition layer of interest to the listening experience. Additionally, I have included a link to the Hawkins recording that I used as the musical basis for my piece.

The following is a brief outline of my Picasso(s) project:

 

‘Suppose (I) were to make a copy of Las Meninas… Almost certainly I would be tempted to modify the light or arrange it differently…. Gradually I would create a painting…(that)…would not be Velazquez’s picture; it would be my Las Meninas.’ Pablo Picasso

In the second half of 1957, Pablo Picasso began a 6-month creative examination of a Velazquez masterpiece, which resulted in the series of 58 paintings that comprise his own Las Meninas. This collection is a seminal exploration of artistic originality, what Ortega called ‘the clash of the individual sensibility and already existing art.’

Picasso(s) uses the ‘clash’ concept to explore the thresholds between originality/imitation and composition/improvisation within my own creative practice. It combines elements of Picasso’s Las Meninas and Coleman Hawkins’ 1948 solo recording Picasso to form a pieces for solo saxophone that allows the performer to explore their own originality.

 

Hakwins’ Picasso:

 

Finally, as the music forms part of a PhD research project, there is inevitably a lot more that I have written about the development of Picasso(s) as well as the theory and history of originality in art and music. Consequently, I would encourage anyone who’d like to know more about it to get in touch directly with me and I’d be happy to expand in moe detail!

 

 

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Some questions

1 – Would you describe yourself as a jazz musician? If yes, please qualify. If no, how would you describe your relationship with jazz?

2 – What motivated you to become involved with jazz?

3 – Are you involved in forms of musical activity that you consider as ‘non-jazz’? And, if so, how does this impact on your involvement with jazz?

4 – Does your involvement with jazz engender any feelings of responsibility?

5 – To what extent do you consider your involvement with jazz to be a choice?

6 – Are there non-musical factors that influence the way you are involved with jazz?

7 – Other thoughts/comments

Please reply to mikefletcherjazz@gmail.com

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Forgive me WordPress, for I have sinned…..

When I first signed up as a fledgling blogger, I had high hopes of making regular contributions to the every growing wealth of knowledge and opinion on the internet. However, the evident lack of posts reveals that this hasn’t quite been the case, which is something that has preyed on my mind to a certain extent. Although I am under no illusions that my current status as a lapsed blogger is depriving the world of valuable wisdom, I do feel that by neglecting this blog I am revealing my inherent tendency to laziness and procrastination. While I might once have argued that my failure to update this site is of little consequence, I am now starting to realise this might be a bit of a naive perspective.

As a musician, I have something of a public profile – although, as I am primarily active in the fields of jazz and improvised music, this profile is, at best, quite ‘niche’. Nevertheless, by virtue of my musical activity, I have been the subject of a certain number of interviews over the course of the last six months or so. In addition to doing wonders for my ego, having journalists taking an interest in me and my work has the inevitable consequence of being subjected to the ubiquitous Google search. Consequently, on more than one occasion recently, I have been presented with quotes drawn from comments I made on extremely remote parts of the internet. Therefore, I have decided to give any future interviewers a bit more fodder, which will hopefully draw attention away from some of my more unguarded comments.

Now, I realise that one could argue that this fact too is of little consequence – and I admit there is a part of me that would be inclined to agree – but, despite this, I have now decided to take a more responsible, motivated attitude to my online presence. Of course, this is, at least in part, a cynical ploy to accumulate ‘likes’, ‘followers’ and all the other virtual trappings of a successful career as a 21st century ‘artist’. However, I am also beginning to see the value of the internet beyond a cheap and simple marketing tool.

In recent times, I have augmented my performance activity with my first forays into the world of academia. In September of last year I began my PhD studies in composition in Birmingham, and am currently working on a chapter that will constitute my first published work when it is included in a forthcoming collection of academic articles about jazz. As a result of this I am spending a fair amount of time reading and writing, some of which is beginning to bear some quite interesting fruit. Therefore, in addition to sporadic uploads of Youtube vids and gig reviews, I am now planning to use this blog as a type of public sounding-board/forum for some more philosophical ideas about music, art and creativity.

I have spent a good month or two thinking of how to get the blog-ball rolling again, so hopefully this visit to the virtual confessional will leave my conscience clear to produce some posts of more substance. I do hope so…..

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Vuelta

I’m pleased to introduce my new trio album Vuelta on Stoney Lane Records. This is an enterprise set up by the tireless Sam Slater and aims to promote new music in Birmingham, and I have the not inconsiderable honour of being the first official release.

stoney-lane-records-vuelta-2015

Peter Bacon has outlined what you can expect to hear here, and below is a track for nothing.

You can get hold of the album via any one of the myriad retail outlets virtual and physical.

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