Read It – and Feel It

As an introvert who grew up as a classical musician in Texas, I tend to apologetically assume that everyone in the world knows more about pop music and jazz than I do. For instance, I didn’t read Miles Davis’s incredible autobiography until I was in my 40s, while I assume any hip musician would have read it in his 20s if not earlier. (The fact that I was 34 when it was published does not allay my suspicion.) But it appears that not everyone knows the context in which Miles referred to classical music as “robot shit,” and the story – heavily underlined in my own copy of the book because it had so much relevance to my own experiences, and made me feel so good – is worth retelling as often as possible. The occasion was the recording of Davis’s and Gil Evans’s Sketches of Spain, for which they hired some classical brass players to play some of the background parts:

…I just went to Gil and told him, “Gil, you don’t have to write music like that. It’s too close for the musicians to play. You don’t have to make the trumpet players sound like they’re perfect, because these trumpet players are classically trained and they don’t like to miss no notes no how.” So he agreed with that. In the beginning, we had the wrong trumpet players because we had those who were classically trained. But that was a problem. We had to tell them not to play exactly like it was on the score. They started looking at us – at Gil, mostly – like we were crazy. They couldn’t improvise their way out of a paper bag. So they were looking at Gil like, “What the fuck is he talking about? This is a concerto, right?” So they know we must be crazy talking about “play what isn’t there.” We just wanted them to feel it, and read it and play it, but these first ones couldn’t do that, so we had to change trumpet players, and that’s why Gil had to reorchestrate the score. Next we got some trumpet players who were both classical and could feel….

Then we had to have some drummers who could get the sound that I wanted….

…Legit drummers can’t solo because they have no musical imagination to improvise. Like most other classical players, they play only what you put in front of them. That’s what classical music is; the musicians only play what’s there and nothing else. They can remember, and have the ability of robots. In classical music, if one musician isn’t like the other, isn’t all the way a robot, like all the rest, then the other robots make fun of him or her, especially if they’re black. That’s all that is, that’s all the classical music is in terms of the musicians who play it – robot shit. And people celebrate them like they’re great. Now there’s some great classical music by great classical composers – and there’s some great players up in there, but they have to become soloists – but it’s still robot playing and most of them know it deep down, though they wouldn’t admit it in public.

So you have to have a balance on something like Sketches of Spain, between musicians who can read music and play it with no feeling or a little feeling, and some others who could play with real feeling. I think the perfect thing is when some musicians can both read a musical score and feel it…. [pp. 243-244, emphases added]

Just like Downtown music. Just like Downtown music. Do you hear what I’m sayin’? JUST LIKE DOWNTOWN MUSIC. Not that you have to be able to improvise, but that you have to be able to feel a musical score, not just replicate the marks on the page.

And as for you, Mr. Edgard “Feel-sorry-for-me-I’m-a-misunderstood-genius” Varèse, you who insists that every note in a score has to have multiple dynamic and articulation marks on it: Why? To turn it into robot shit, to prevent musicians from deciding how they feel it. Because otherwise [in the most simpering possible French accent] “zey do not know how zay vant zere museek to soooooouuuuund.” Well, fuck you, Varése. Fuck you and your pseudo-scientific approach to music. (And while I’m at it – Octandre: nice piece.)

That felt good.


  1. says

    I agree, Kyle. But I’m not sure Edgard is the best example. Now Babbitt, with dynamics on every note and music that sounds pretty straightjacketed…

    Seriously, perhaps performers just need to take all these markings less seriously and just feel the music. With some works, however, I wonder if all the markings in the score are there to cover up a lack of feeling?
    KG replies: Well, Babbitt said of Varèse, “he changed the very anatomy of our mind’s ear.” For the worse. Not that I don’t admire Varèse’s music, but his dogmatism about notation began a horrible trend.

    • martinonmaven says

      Your post reminds me of something former Chicago Symphony principal percussionist Gordon Peters once said about Hindemith, who conducted the CSO several times, both at Ravinia (where I heard him lead a crackling rendition of his impudent, witty, and absurdly neglected Concerto for Orchestra [1925]). “There are the metronomes in his scores, the metronomes on his records, and the metronomes he used in performance. They were as far apart as if there had been three different conductors. I asked him about this and he said, ‘Well, I changed my mind, I feel differently now.”

      I’m similarly reminded of something Aaron Copland told the players during a rehearsal for his recording of the complete “Appalachian Spring.” At one point he asked the violins to mark their parts with a crescendo not found in the score. He told them, “I don’t know where it came from, but I’m used to that.”

      I wager everyone reading this could cite dozens of similar anecdotes about all those cluelessly rigid, stuffy, strait-jacketed ofay “classical” dudes Davis dismisses so crudely with his mile-wide brush.

  2. says

    Kyle, a small point, but it’s interesting you should post something about Miles Davis on the very day Teo Macero’s obit appeared in the NY Times. In the early 90’s I had the great pleasure to see him at the Knitting Factory (located downtown). Now THAT was someone who felt it.
    KG replies: Wow, didn’t even realize Macero was still alive. That *is* interesting. Thanks for letting me know.

  3. says

    Don’t you think that Varese and those of his generation were maybe reacting to the schmaltzy super romantic performance habits of the 1920’s?

    I figure that composers wanted to get control over their performers who might otherwise turn their music into sentimental mush.

    Because orchestra performers of that period probably could not be trusted. They might try to play Octandre as if it were by Schumann.

    I would tend to hope that today we have better trained musicians who CAN feel the music. I’m not so sure about the past, however.
    KG replies: You’re probably right. But he didn’t need to express it as a mandate that every other composer had to follow or he clearly wasn’t any good. I don’t mind the way Varèse wrote his music, I mind the autocratic snobbism he (and Schoenberg) created the template for.

  4. says

    I don’t know about the end of your post. Downtown music doesn’t own expressive playing. I can’t imagine Corigliano telling a band that was playing “Circus Maximus” that they shouldn’t feel the music, can you? (I assume anyone who teaches at Juilliard counts as uptown.) And let’s not forget that classical music existed before modernism, too.
    KG replies: I didn’t mean to imply that Downtown music is the only repertoire that encourages interpretive latitude for performers. Quite the contrary. Seems to me that the modernist camp who don’t believe in interpretive latitude have cut themselves off from the rest of the history of music. On the other hand, the kind of bland perfectionism that has become common in classical performance in the age of recording has been often noted too, and is part of the same syndrome.

  5. says

    I’d also like to add that I’ve heard a number of downtown-type ensembles who I don’t think played with much feeling at all — because they’re too concerned with being as loud and aggressive as possible. There’s a current of rock-band-envy running through the downtown scene, and it’s detrimental to expressive playing. Of course, there’s a lot of expressive playing in the scene as well, but I wouldn’t put it on a pedestal as the one oasis of feeling in a sea of robot shit. (Eww.)
    KG replies: Admittedly, it’s not true of all Downtown music. You’re kind of dancing all around my main point, which I’ll spell out: composers are not required to spell out in detail how a piece should be played, and the failure to control every expressive nuance (common in Downtown practice) does not make a composer “unprofessional.” It’s OK to leave certain things up to the performer, despite what Varèse said about it. Many powerful composers today insist on the Varèse approach to notation, but Downtown music was closer to Miles Davis. That’s the point. Much more than this I didn’t intend to say or imply.
    I completely agree, by the way, about Downtown rock-band-envy. But allowing performers the freedom to play bombastically is a freedom I still approve of, even if it’s not always treated tastefully. Aggressive is, after all, a feeling.

  6. says

    Kyle, as much as I like Varese’s (and Schoenberg’s) music, I do agree with you about the template for snobbery, although I suspect this was unintentional (at least for Schoenberg—Varese, from what I’m told, was a real jerk, racist and elitist).

    You might want to check out this blog post for a rant about the whole Perspective on New Music, academic culture that is in many ways a consequence of what Varese did. Still, Varese was not a serialist, did not start a school as best I can tell, nor did he have a method or system. His notation might have indeed been confining for performers, but while perhaps intentional on Varese’s part, I also think that was the style of the day.

  7. C. Dalton says

    Surely “feeling it” isn’t a jazz invention? Why Miles Davis and not, say, Gilles Binchois? In his day, the written score was seen mostly as an opportunity for the expert performer to showcase their art, and not so much to adhere to the “vision” of the composer. I’m sure you knew that.
    KG replies: Yeah, I guess I could have quoted Beethoven, had he said anything about the way classical music was played in the late 20th century. But still I kind of doubt he would have been as eloquent as Miles was.
    Perhaps my comments about notation and performance only make sense to people who deal week after week after week, decades on end, with composers who insist that every page of a score has to be covered with dynamics or it isn’t finished, and performers who tell you they have no idea how to shape a phrase unless you put in the hairpins for them. But I do.

  8. says

    Just to be a stickler on semantics – Miles was a jazz cat, and when he says, “robot shit,” he doesn’t mean fecal material from a robot, he means something more like “robot stuff,” or “robot things,” sort of like the fact that Miles played “jazz and shit.”
    Although the image of robot shit is appropriate in this context.

  9. Bill says

    Miles was dead-on. My kingdom for a classical performer who can actually play the music, not the notes. Do I have to keep breaking out my Glenn Gould CDs?

  10. kraig Grady says

    The best recording of the Ebony concerto is the first one by far. No other recording has the warmth or humor of this one even if later ones are played better. I have often said that “casting” is now apart of the composers craft. ‘who’ plays what really matters. Ellington would rewrite a part if player left his band and more than once will i stop performing a piece if lose the player that made it come about. Perhaps the problem is writing for ‘genetic’ players. One composer told me he runs from classical players cause he didn’t want to deal with a bunch of people who never have fun. But Ferneyhough has solved this problem of excessive notation. It is impossible to do what he asks so the players have to ‘feel’ it in the end.

  11. says

    bill, come to brooklyn and i can hook you up with a kingdom’s worth of classical musicians who can play music, not just notes.

  12. says

    I have to say, I don’t see anything especially “Uptown” about wanting your music to be played exactly as it appears on the page, or especially “Downtown” about acknowledging the performer’s role as creator.
    Mahler’s scores, for instance, are filthy with detail (and I hardly think he’s a worse composer for it), but contemporary recordings suggest that his favorite interpreters were actually quite free with his markings. Even Boulez, Varèse’s most doctrinaire disciple, has backpedaled heavily on the notion of “playing what’s on the page” (as, to be fair, he has done on most of his loopy 60’s notions).
    Meanwhile, see the recent 8th Blackbird posts on their new Reich piece–Reich’s page, by contrast, is smooth as a baby’s butt, but as “Downtown” as his music’s genealogy might be, pseudo-science/robot shit is exactly what he demands of his performers. (Again, I hardly think this makes him less of a master.)
    That said–thanks again for the terrific talk last week! I found myself wishing it could have gone on for another hour… which is, let’s just say, not like me.
    KG replies: Exactly. See my response to Alex Temple above. One of the most typical distinctions between Uptown and Down- in the ’80s and ’90s was how many and how detailed expression markings they felt compelled to have in their scores. Within that distinction, various attitudes toward interpretation were possible.

  13. mclaren says

    The Rise of the Anti-Musicians remains an undocumented chapter of modern music.

    Sometime around the year 1900, people without thorough musical training discovered that they could intimidate highly skilled musicians by dragging in non-musical jargon from the sciences. Then these non-musicians (usually engineers or mathematicians or dilettante amateurs who’d never gone through a conservatory) figured out that they could humiliate expert musicians even more thoroughly by writing down densely complex scores riddled with excessive accidentals, instructions, tempo marking, and so on.

    Pretty soon the dilettante non-musicians had the skilled composers and the musicians on the run: unable, or unwilling, to demonstrate expertise in actual musicianship, the anti-musicians made an end-run around that obstacle by trying to turn music into a sub-branch of mathematics, or acoustics, or notational graphic art.

    By the 1950s, musical scores had become baffling objets d’art full of incomprehensible numbers and newly-invented graphical notations, the better to demonstrate how allegedly stupid and supposedly incompetent mere musicians were. These compositions usually had scientific-sounding titles, like “Vectors IV,” or “Projections 12.1” or “Diamorphic Manifolds VII.” This process culminated in substituting machines for troublesome human performers, the better to prove how completely contemptible and disposable actual musicians were — algorithmic music which vomited out random spatters of notes, or, in the case of the doyens of The New Complexity, grown-ups playing kiddie-games with notation software and creating scores far too complex for any human to perform.

    Of course this was all just a power grab by the anti-musicians. The dilettantes (who lacked musical training and usually didn’t even know the rudiments of basic musicianship) found themselves unable to compete with musicians who had trained since age 6, and who had taken years of music history courses. So the dilettantes used the oldest ploy in the book: if you can’t win the game, kick over the chessboard.

    The non-musicians declared musical skill irrelvant and set up impossible notational challenges designed to degrade and humiliate the musicians, in the manner of an Abu Ghraib MP forcing prisoners to stand in a stress position until they collapse.

    It’s important to remember that the engineers and programmers and mathematicians who indulge in these kinds of notational power games (Varese, be it noted, started as an engineer) didn’t just lack respect for musicianship — they usually had active contempt for conventional musical skills. The dilettantes weren’t just non-musicians, they were anti-musicians, determined not just to ignore but to entirely devalue basic musicianship.

    This typically culminated in music which lacked the most essential rudiments of basic musicianship — music without discernible melody, without functional harmony, without a perceptible rhythmic pulse and lacking in audible organization. In short, the kind of stuff you get when 4-year-old nephew Willy bangs at random on the piano. When nephew Willy indulges in this kind of tantrum, you shout, “Cut it out and go play outside!” But when an engineer or a mthematician or a programmer spews out this kind of stuff, and then has the gall to declare it some new phase of music which surprasses the efforts of conventional composers (and if you can’t perceive any audible organization in it, supposedly demonstrates you’re ignorant)…why, suddenly, trained musicians turn into chumps and gullibly accept this kind of obvious con game as legitimate and serious music.

    As just one example, one of Ferneyhough’s scores contains 4 levels of nested tuplets. The point isn’t that no one can play that stuff; rather, the point, if you set up a notation program and play the results using MIDI, is that even if you listen with fanatical attentiveness, you can’t hear any significant reliably audible difference between 3 levels of nested tuplets and 4 levels of nested tuplets.. In short, that notational complexity isn’t there to serve the music. You can tell that because it usually isn’t even audible. You can’t hear any difference between 4 levels of nested tuplets and 3 in real music in the real world. No, the notational complexity is there to serve as a bludgeon wielded by the composer to beat the performers over the head. It’s the equivalent of the composer bitch-slapping the performers while shouting, “Look at me, peon, look at how great I am! You’re scum! You can’t play what I’ve written down, and that makes me the master and you the minion!”

    Sadly, it’s a lot easier to play those kind of infantile power games than to actually impress people by writing vividly memorable music. You can slave away like a dog and still turn out a piece of music that just doesn’t work. Composing is tough work, and there’s never any gauarantee that the piece will be any good, no matter how good a composer you are.

    Ah, but if you cover your musical score with dense impenetrable thickets of newly-invented symbols and italian directions and embedded tuplets and meter changes and accidentals and complex overlapping dynamics markings…why, then you’re guaranteed to wow the audience. And if they ooh and ahh at the written score, but say the music doesn’t impress them, why, then you just sneer, “You have obviously failed to penetrate the inner subtleties of this score. Study it again and come back when you have fully understood the vast depths of this notational masterpiece, peons.” Works every time.