Banff 2012: A Roundup

It's been more than a week since I got home from Banff, and I've waiting since then to write the big "end-of-Banff" blog post, for various reasons: fatigue, procrastination, distraction, all the usual suspects. But, here it is, in all its disorganized glory:

Early on during the 3-week session at Banff, Vijay Iyer posed this question to the participants at a program-wide assembly: "Why are you here?" I personally didn't raise a hand, mostly because I didn't really know why, or because I had reasons that I didn't think were worth sharing, e.g., I heard about this place from a friend and the faculty from previous years looked amazing and because I could afford to go thanks to a generous college fellowship. 

Nothing noteworthy there, but later in the discussion, Vijay reminded everyone that they were in Banff, a sort of musicians' heaven in the Rockies, because they were privileged: privileged to have the ability to play music, attend college, or receive an education related to music and pursue it as a career. The relative homogeneity of the participant pool evidenced this pretty clearly, and Vijay was clear to emphasize that many musicians and students need this sort of an educational experience more than we do; many of us already had the chance to study music in an academic setting and hone our craft under the tutelage of professionals. 

So, spread the word about Banff — if you know any young aspiring musicians, check and see if they've thought about applying to Banff: urge them to apply, especially if they're interested in composition and/or more non-mainstream approaches to improvisation and creative music, and make sure they know that Banff also provides generous financial aid. Basically, apply first and figure out whether to do it later, but if they can do it, do it by all means.

Now, why do it? I'm going to avoid making this sound like an advertisement—don't worry!
At Banff, I was defamiliarized with music. On the very first day of ensemble, Miles Okazaki asked us all to play over rhythm changes, but called different groups of instrumentation so we couldn't just skate over the rhythm section. We played in random pairs of instruments and didn't trade 4s, but instead played when we were called on—you really had to listen hard to everything to keep the form. It was like learning to play over changes all over again: frightening but adrenaline-fueled fun!

Defamiliarization in music is just as important as it has been a concept in literature—check out the definition of "Defamiliarization" in the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (oh the pretension!):  
“The distinctive effect achieved by literary works in disrupting our habitual perception of the world, enabling us to ‘see’ things afresh”
Listening to great music does the same, as does having great teachers. As it turns out, there are endless ways to defamiliarize yourself to elements of music so that you approach improvisation in the way that it should be approached: without excessive preparation or polish. At Banff, we defamiliarized ourselves with respect to time—both the shared, collective time that exists between a group of players (if they're doing a good job), and the distinctive individual time that we each cultivate as separate personalities. 

We tried playing along with the metronome on beats other than 1 + 3 and 2 + 4, trying to "make the metronome swing as hard as possible," in Dave Douglas's words; another way was to get out of 4/4, 3/4, 5/4, 7/4, 9/8, 12/8, and the like (e.g., Steve Lehman's "Foster Brothers," whose rhythmic unfamiliarity has been immortalized in a Jazz Robots video), or to take those meters and create constraints within them (can you play 3+2+2+3 over an afro-cuban 12/8? Rachel Therrien can!). 

Defamiliarizing ourselves to harmony was also eye-opening: simple things like writing tunes without chord symbols and instead using specific voicings, sets of notes, or visual shapes to create personal harmonic textures rather than generic textures from textbooks or lifted from old records (not to say that lifting voicings from records isn't productive, of course). It's all so simple, but it's easy to overlook these approaches when we're so used to falling into certain habits we've become familiar with. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote:
“In consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet not see, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand” 
We even defamiliarized ourselves to the entire concept of improvisation and the different approaches or "idioms" that we've come to identify after going to music school: "straight ahead," "avant-garde," or whatever. Just throwing out those kinds of classifications was a welcome relief. Thinking of the practice of improvisation as a kind of conditioning—preparing oneself to react quicker and more sensitively to environmental changes—rather than as a form of polishing—getting lines down under the fingers, covering up the fact that you're creating in real time—was hugely helpful in deciding what things to practice are most important and, more broadly, how to approach practicing. 

As Muhal Richard Abrams (somebody I'll hopefully invest some serious time in checking out this summer) once said, improvisation is "a human response to necessity" — it's something we all do and have to do, but sometimes we forget the human part in practicing music, which can be expressive in abstract but deeply felt physical terms: pitch, rhythm, timbre. To illustrate the importance of human drama in improvisation, Vijay put on a recording of Monk playing "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)" from Solo Monk. The time is so solid, but check out the break at the end of the first chorus as Monk transitions from the melody to his improvisation: as Vijay put it, there's a sense of somebody falling down, but recovering gracefully. These moments makes the music that much more compelling and enjoyable.

Aside from defamiliarizing ourselves to just about everything we thought we knew about music, we also thought about deep-rooted assumptions we had about music; we reassessed and eliminated those that didn't seem to make sense: 

Are odd-meters inherently any more "cerebral," "intellectual," or mentally demanding to play than 4/4? No! As Matt Brewer put it so eloquently in a discussion about music from foreign cultures that aren't necessarily in any Western sense of 4/4, "You can't dance with numbers!" 

Meter isn't necessarily synonymous with rhythm: meter can oftentimes come after the establishment of a firm, repeating or cyclical melodic rhythm (and usually just as a calculated imposition that isn't necessarily helpful when you're trying to make music!). Instead, thinking in terms of rhythms when playing certain styles (long and short beats) can be much more helpful for orienting yourself and learning to feel comfortable.

Needlessly complex music is not necessarily the same as music that's simply unfamiliar.

The best compositions don't necessarily need to be super-long or involved.

Trying to be "original" or "innovative" is usually less productive than just trying to be personal in your playing.

Coming up with something that's personal and distinctive from conventionality doesn't necessarily require a disruption of convention.

Making systems for improvisation doesn't diminish creativity—it does the opposite! (Approaches for improvisation by Henry Threadgill or AACM-related musicians illustrate this well, and also work well as an improvisatory equivalent to 20th-c. Western compositional systems, like the Shillinger system).

In the studio, playing louder doesn't make you sound bigger.

There's more, but many of them are pretty simple and would seem redundant—these were the ideas that to me seemed the most helpful but simple in orienting myself when composing and practicing. The rest of the stuff I learned is a mountain of more specific and often technical stuff that the Banff Centre probably doesn't want me to share with you, but these more general philosophical ideas are fair game, I hope, and hopefully they'll be as helpful to other people as they have been and still are for me. 

I can't thank everyone who was at Banff this year enough: for being such inspiring musicians and teachers and awesome people—the late night Maclab hangs were edifying on multiple levels, as I'm sure those who were there can attest, and I'll never forget singing Bach chorales atop Tunnel Mountain (oh, the glory!). Also, thanks to Dave Douglas for a decade of service to creative musicians around the world: if the other Banff workshops were as transformative as this one was (as I'm sure they were), that's a lot of musicians whose lives were changed forever, not to mention their respective communities as well.

Oh yeah! I almost forgot: community. That's how art and music and people thrive — collaboration is where it's at, including interdisciplinary collaboration like music-literature and visual arts-music. It can and should be done! 

That's all I've got to say about Banff (promise!), and the rest of it you can get only if you go yourself—everybody's Banff experience is probably extremely different, but that's all for the best. Lastly, a brief list of accumulated recommendations, many of which I haven't checked out yet but hopefully will. Maybe something here will be life changing (but no guarantees!): 
That's all! Check out the rest of my Banff-related posts here.