Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Working without Notation

Yesterday I explored the hypothesis that those whose music education began with learning how to read the notation could not grasp the idea that one could learn to play anything of any "respectable" complexity any other way. The example that served as my point of departure had to do with Vladimir Horowitz' surprise that Art Tatum could come up with a variation on "Tea for Two" more elaborate than his own entirely by ear. Nevertheless, as I work my way through Robin D. G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, I realize that there is a perfectly good and familiar model for how Monk would teach his sidemen by ear. The problem (for musicians at least) is that the model is not to be found in music schools but in the worlds of classical ballet and modern dance.

While there have been a variety of noble efforts to develop notation for dance, none of them have established themselves as firmly as music notation. On the other hand this is a domain for which several centuries of practice have accumulated, and those centuries of practice still provide the foundations on which new dances are created and old ones are taught to new dancers. The process is a slow one, since it involves demonstrating every step, observing, and correcting. The primary channel for communication is body movement itself. Language intervenes to call attention to subtle detail or to provide context through which the learner may better perceive what the teacher is demonstrating. Since I first honed my writing chops as a dance critic, I had many opportunities to sit though sessions like these. They are real tests of both endurance and patience.

I remember once attending a lecture about dance notation. The lecturer asked us to imagine what it would be like if the New York Philharmonic had to learn what they were performing the way the members of American Ballet Theatre had to learn Sleeping Beauty. Think of Gustav Mahler's eighth symphony (which is probably on the minds of most San Francisco Symphony fans now that the classical Grammys have been awarded). It is hard to imagine that Mahler would have ever conceived of such music if he would have had to teach it the way a choreographer teaches a new work.

Yet that is the approach that Monk took in teaching his sidemen. Sometimes it could involve hours on getting the first measure right, which means that often a new sideman had not really learned all of the music before the first performance. So in reading Kelley's book we keep encountering stories of learning that takes place "on the stand." Monk accepted this as part of the process. Thus, with his most sympathetic audiences, such as those at the Five Spot, he could decide to play a piece a second time because they did not quite get it right on the first take.

None of this should warrant a condemnation of the use of notation in classical music. Rather, it is to raise the cautionary observation that, because notation is not everything, it runs the risk of warping perception with the illusion that it is everything. In contrast to practices in the dance world, notation provides an opportunity for almost-instant gratification, through which performers can "run through the whole thing before starting to work on the details." This overlooks that possibility that one or more of those details may actually critically influence how "the whole thing" is perceived in the first place. To invoke again the metaphor of a journey, it is as if one begins by thinking only in terms of getting from here to there without considering that the heart of the journey may involve why one path was selected over another. The nouns of the notation end up distracting from, rather than facilitating, the verbs of musical performance.

These days I suspect that there are many jazz performers who are as notation-bound as those devoted to classical traditions. If that is the case then we may face the possibility of playing by ear fading into obsolescence. That would be regrettable. The act of listening to music should be as important to performers as it is to the audience, and the idea that serious listening may gradually lose its value to performers is a depressing one. Perhaps we should consider the pedagogical asset of trying to learn by ear some of the shorter compositions whose notated form we take for granted, such as the individual movements of the keyboard suites by Johann Sebastian Bach. Having hypothesized that some of those movements may have been "the ultimate inspiration for John Coltrane's jazz improvisations," this would seem like a perfectly reasonable exercise the refine both ear and physical technique!

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