Banff, Day 3

Jazz? Here?
One of the many arts workshops offered at the Banff Centre in Alberta, CA is the "Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music," which Vijay Iyer has called a "crucible of creativity." He wasn't kidding—a regular day at the program entails two hours of morning ensemble rehearsal, lunch, and then three hours of masterclasses in the afternoon (plus jamming, rehearsing, hiking, etc. the rest of the time).

Calling the program a "jazz workshop" might be misleading: if anything, the approaches to improvisation and composition might be best described with broader terms—sort of like how the New England Conservatory has separate departments for Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation. On the very first day, in fact, we were all encouraged by Vijay to engage in "critical practice," or to re-examine the fundamentals of what musicians do; we were encouraged to reflect on what music is, what purposes we believe it serves, and analyze and defend our own musical decisions. Looking at music anew with such critical eyes reminds me of Georges Perec's line, "Question your teaspoons"—take nothing for granted, even teaspoons.

One of the faculty members, composer, guitarist, and visual artist Miles Okazaki, mentioned that when he composes music, he keeps in mind the literal meaning of the word "composer" — according to good old Wikipedia, "Latin com+ponere, literally "one who puts together." Composing isn't a process in which one becomes the "originator" or "creator" of music; instead, composing involves the arrangement of existing sonic elements. Some of Miles's carefully-devised, puzzle-like compositions reflect this perspective, and I think it's helpful to think about composition as analogous to architecture or any related act of arrangement. Haphazard composition suffers from the same problems as poorly conceived architecture does: there should be internal logic holding a composition together, be it some sort of a central conceit or premise or something else, and symmetry or purposeful asymmetry also strengthen a composition.

But, a composition doesn't necessarily serve any function on its own, save for creating a framework in which musicians can be challenged and collaboratively improvise to create something that can stand on its own terms aside from the framework. Compositions also don't need necessarily to be long or extremely complex: Vijay presented several compositions of his that are short enough to fit on a single page—or even on the back of a napkin—yet provide enough direction for musicians to generate music that reaches far beyond the original rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic foundations of the compositions. Sheet music might be thought of more or less as a "description" of the piece, to which musicians interpret and try to render on-stage in a personal way. 

There are so many analogies when it comes to talking about music, but I've been taken with the idea of thinking of specified melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic conceits as tools, or as a means to an end. It might seem obvious, but it helps to distinguish between thinking of math or numbers as inspiration for a piece and as a tool like a hammer. 

It's surprisingly harder to put these ideas into my own words than I thought (evidenced by the amount of quoting/paraphrasing I've done), but maybe it's because I'm realizing that many of these concepts are common sense—common sense that might be easily overlooked, particularly for me in many cases. More to come in the future!