Despite it being the busiest part of my school year and busier than usual, I have taken advantage of odd moments to complete my transcription of Harold Budd’s 1982 piano solo Children on the Hill. A friend asks if I couldn’t persuade Harold to transcribe his own damn solo, but that’s beside the point: there is nothing, I think, more educational than transcribing or arranging a work of art you particularly admire. I could never have internalized the piece so deeply from playing through another person’s transcription. And I do a lot of such work for no practical benefit beyond the enlargement of my own musicality. I have a full, playable piano transcription of Ives’s Third Symphony that I wrote several years ago and presumably can do nothing with, because of copyright issues; and also partial piano arrangements of Harris’s Third Symphony and Sibelius’s Fourth, works whose inner logic I wanted to imbibe in full. Mozart learned to compose by copying out the works of others and turning sonatas by lesser composers into his own early concertos. I don’t know a more efficient way to become a composer.
My success in getting a good 98 percent of Harold’s notes on paper, I flatter myself, has emboldened me to start similar projects with other composers. People forget how much early minimalist and postminimalist music was improvisatory: besides Budd, Elodie Lauten, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Curran, among others. Back in the 1980s I was criticized by New York musicians for being allegedly anti-improvisation. Actually my views on free improvisation (I’m not talking about jazz or rule-based Indian-type improvisation, which are entirely different matters to which no general objection is conceivable) were pretty nuanced and targeted case-by-case. It seemed to me at the time – and free improv was almost all you could hear in New York City in the ’80s – that many of the improvisers did a lovely job when playing solo, but that the group improvs often fell into the most patent clichés unless some structure was agreed upon beforehand. There were exceptions like the fearless AMM group, who seemed to truly stay in the moment with no preconceptions, thinking and feeling with an egoless and unsentimental independence. But in general I quickly tired of the inevitable group climaxes 3/4 of the way through, and every piece ending with a long trail-off, each performer trying to be the one to add the last little flourish. What I especially objected to was a collective philosophy which excused all improvisation, however poor or unsuccessful, on the grounds that it was “risk-taking,” and therefore should never be criticized. But if criticism was disallowed, then the risks, it seemed to me, were only assumed by the audience, and not by the performers, whose philosophy gave them an automatic safety net. And, lacking self-criticism, they had neither the means nor the incentive to improve as improvisers, to benefit from what did and didn’t work and use the knowledge to push their art to a new level.
And now that I’m involved in a big project to preserve minimalist improvisation for posterity, a composer writes to tell me I’m wasting my time, that improvisation can’t and shouldn’t be preserved, that if Sarah Cahill (the pianist who’ll be playing the Budd) can’t improvise herself, I should just get a pianist who can. You truly can’t win: if I criticize improvisation I’m bigoted, and if I analyze and try to immortalize it, I’m wasting my time. But actually this is the same attitude I encountered in the ’80s: someone who doesn’t want to analyze improvised music and learn from it how to improvise even better, but who thinks improvisation is somehow sacrosanct and should only be experienced in the moment and then forgotten. It is not through such willful ignorance that jazz produced a Miles Davis, a John Coltrane. I’m proud of what I’ve learned from living inside Budd’s recorded notes for so many months, and eager to let it bear fruit in my own music. And to refrain from sharing what I’ve learned with other listeners, audiences, and composers would seem absolutely churlish.
UPDATE: Harold responded with a nice note after I sent him the score, and added, “I couldn’t play that in a thousand years!”