Living Inside the Notes

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!”


  1. Bob Gilmore says

    Great work Kyle, don’t let the naysayers dissuade you.
    By the way, I see your next post will be #1000 – gonna have a birthday cake?
    KG replies: That number includes a few of the peripheral features to the right like “About” and “Sites to See.” The actual number of blog entries isn’t quite there yet.

  2. Eric Shanfield says

    I agree with you 100% on downtown group improv, and re: your earlier post “A Modernist By Any Other Name” I was wondering what you thought of Zorn’s early game pieces, where he controls group improv practically down to the nanosecond. Honestly, I personally have a hard time telling the difference between those pieces and completely free playing, but maybe that’s just personal prejudice. Still, they are process (or systems) pieces, so I guess in some universe you could think of them as drawing a line from modernism to improv to minimalism, although it’s a pretty dotted line, to be sure.
    KG replies: Hi Eric. I did think that all of Zorn’s game pieces were a laudable attempt to get away from the clichés of spontaneous free improv and introduce some internal controls. The early ones sounded very much like Kagel. Cobra was more interesting, but not a recording I enjoy listening to much.

  3. says

    Through my somewhat jaded historical view, the 80’s was in fact the decade when free improvisation became a global musical art and lingua franca enabling various forms of spontaneous music by anyone, anywhere, anytime (the essence of the old MEV gospel)…one could say this musical style had become the new pop music of the recalcitrant 70’s underground. Arising as if out of nowhere and conferring instant musicianship degrees to anyone, it gave this movement and many of its practicioners an “untouchable” aura. This of course is all myth, in reality, the hard core improvisers, not only composed, experimented in formal and sonic research projects but practiced and critiqued and constantly revised their musical practices and philosophies… nonetheless – a strong committment to liberational and collective leftist politics always provided a formal hard edge and self-assured impervious exterior to this movement. So in a word, I disagree with Kyle, that while the improvised music in general pretended to be beyond criticism it was in fact (in some quarters) always aware of its weaknesses, vulnerabilities and above all failings. Also, while great solo improvisers, like Braxton,
    Malcolm Goldstein, Maryanne Amacher, LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Charlemagne, Harold Budd, Pauline Oliveros, Evan Parker, Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Frith etc etc are in fact astounding spontaneous music makers, they are composing every millisecond of the way – surely no special guarantee of anything – excepting the sound architect’s skill to avoid structural collapse and knowledge of when and how to embrace silence.
    The transcription problem is one of good ears and good musicology and really doesn’t concern me, except when I try to transcribe my own improvisations (very very rarely)…. My practice has always been, to compose them out from the start – so from pieces like the end of the MAGNETIC GARDEN — all these multi-layered canons are in fact composed melodies… as is the second (strumming part) of FOR CORNELIUS, and now almost all of my extensive piano pieces in the collection: INNER CITIES, are nearly all written out (rather composed-out) improvisations… so for me, this is how I have continued to have my cake and eat it too.
    KG replies: Thanks for your thoughts, Alvin. But it’s interesting that almost all the musicians you name are from a generation older than the ones who dominated the scene in the late ’80s – a generation who, I’d agree, took a more disciplined approach.