Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Musical Creativity

I read a piece recently that I'm going to link to in my Friday miscellanea that reported that scientists did a study that showed that of the three categories of musicians, classical, jazz and popular, jazz musicians proved to be the most creative in their thought processes. Now I just ran across a piece in the Wall Street Journal about jazz pianist Vijay Iyer who is about to give a course at Harvard called "Creative Music: Critical Practice Studio". The course is described as:
"an intensive, research-oriented workshop environment for advanced improviser-composers" meant to "engage with a range of contemporary musical perspectives and practices."
I have no idea what any of that could possibly mean, but I associate that kind of prose with highly-connected and privileged positions. Last year he won a "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation. All this makes me very curious. So let's have a bit of a listen. Here he is with his trio:

Hmm. Well. Do you hear anything even vaguely creative there? I'm afraid that I don't. It sounds just like the last one hundred modal-jazz-improv-syncopated-added-note-grooves that I have heard. My, admittedly cynical, view is that the only artistic people who get big grants and favors from big institutions like Harvard (or the Canada Council) are people who are doing something exactly like what the bureaucrats who make these decisions expect. In other words, very non-creative things.

Here is another clip where he talks about his background playing classical music on violin and his new piece for himself and string quartet. We hear some bits of it in the background and, frankly, it sounds like diluted Philip Glass.

I wish I could put up a clip of the actual piece itself, but it doesn't seem available on YouTube. The Wall Street Journal is really going all out for Vijay Iyer this week as they also have a piece up reviewing--sort of--new albums by him and Regina Carter. Here is some of what they say:
The music on "Mutations" is ruminative and compelling. The recording shifts seamlessly from austere but elegant solo-piano segments to furious moments where the strings create a swirl of sound around dark staccato keyboard figures. The dynamic diversity of the record is part of its interest. There are quiet moments that draw you in and loud propulsive ones that restore the routine distance. The suite was composed and premiered in 2005, but it has grown since. Mr. Iyer arranged this performance to give the string players considerable improvisatory leeway.
This is the kind of thing that often passes for a "review" these days, but in reality it is just a "puff piece", a bit of promotional prose with description with the sole purpose of persuading you to purchase the product. It's an advertisement, in other words. The only thing available on YouTube of the new album is another ad, a "trailer":

Again, sounds like vaguely jazzy new age with strings.

I am frankly amazed that Harvard pays big bucks for this kind of "creativity", but I suppose I shouldn't be. Books and seminars on "creativity" are the stock-in-trade of scam artists the world over and, of course, the very last thing you should expect to find in these books, seminars and Harvard courses is anything resembling actual creativity.

Am I being too hard on Vijay Iyer? Let me know in the comments.

UPDATE: I got some interesting comments and one reader recommended the Hutchison Andrew Trio from Alberta for comparison. Here they are with a tune called "What To Say":

Don't know about you, but I prefer these guys. They seem to have a bit more involvement. But I am certainly no judge of jazz trios!

Here is what I thought of uploading for comparison. The Tony Genge Trio (also Canadian) and a tune Tony wrote called "West Coast Groove". That's weird, YouTube refuses to embed it, so here is the link:


Bridge said...

Creativity is a very ill-defined term. Usually people use it to refer to good music achieved through creative means but never to bad music achieved through the same way. There are a lot of creative things one can do that are just plain bad. Does the fact that the result is bad make the idea any less creative? Or maybe, just maybe, one needs to have a firm grasp of what one is doing so that when interesting subversions are made they are achieved in the best possible way. For this one requires knowledge and experience, not creativity, which is very overrated. Even if "creative" was a meaningful adjective all it entails basically is having a brain capable of making rapid connections often between foreign elements, right? If so, it is no wonder that a musician whose entire time is spent refining their improvisatory abilities would be classified as "more creative." It's not so much that jazz musicians are more creative and therefore choose to play jazz as a outlet for that creativity, therefore jazz = more creative music; but rather that it is a skill that one develops. Improvisation has been deemphasized in classical education as far as I can tell, but that does not mean classical musicians are necessarily less creative. Is a chess player who plays without time controls less creative than somebody who plays bullet chess? Demonstrably not, in fact quite the opposite. It's a matter of quick decisions not being important to the former player, but to the other it is life and death. Even if the results of the study you mentioned mattered at all, who exactly were the classical musicians they tested? Had they tested Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin or Liszt it is impossible that they would have come to the same conclusion. Those musicians could run circles (if accounts are to be trusted) around any jazz musician when it comes to improvisation and yet they are classical musicians who also took their time when they needed to. Personally, I think that they are assigning an arbitrary definition to creativity and saying jazz musicians have more of whatever that is rather than conducting substantive research. Can creativity even be measured? Perhaps by an IQ test, but even then I am skeptical. Look forward to reading the study anyway.

Anne Languedoc said...

I can't believe the music clip in your blog example. They've totally lifted material from The Hutchison Trio (awesome Canadian jazz band) , original compositions by pianist Chris Andrew. Listen to their latest album and you'll understand what I'm talking about.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Anne for your comment and welcome to The Music Salon. Funnily enough, I was just thinking about putting up an excerpt from a album by Tony Genge as a counter-example, but I will investigate the Hutchison Trio instead. Thanks for the tip.

Bridge, you bring out some interesting questions about the meaning of "creativity". Is the notion of "aesthetically good" built into the idea at all? I think people assume so, but as you point out, you can be very creative in making bad music! Perhaps creative just means original, in which case, there would be very, very little truly creative music out there as most music is heavily indebted to other music for its structure, mood, texture and just about every other aspect. What makes a great piece of music is just the right blend of the ingredients, some new, some old. In that way, music composition is a bit like cooking, don't you think?

Damián López-de Jesús said...

Jeez, man, you had to attack Vijay Iyer's "Human Nature" cover?!? I love that tune to death - I think it has a great harmonic progression, and I found it unique how he maintained the rhythmic contour of the original song but changed the metre(the original is a 3-3-2 syncopation in 4/4 time, and he "Fibonacci-ised" it by giving his cover a 5-5-3 syncopation in 13/8 time). That rhythmic manipulation alone intrigued me and has given me new musical ideas to play with for my own future compositions. Also, I think the "Mutations" excerpt sounds interesting.

Regardless of my fanboy moment, I think you do have a point that just because someone is always being "creative" doesn't mean he/she is always making good things; creativity has become overrated, and it's not the only ingredient to the recipe of good quality things.

Anyways, you seem to have a "classicist" stance, as in you don't like any composer that doesn't strongly use elements of the "traditional classical" method of composing. While I almost despise 20th-century 12-tone/modernist/avant-garde methods of composing, I'm not a big fan of re-hashing traditional methods either. It would make more sense to write current classical music that reflects the current musical palette of the world today, or at the least, the musical taste of the composer. In my case, I try to write music that incorporates elements of the music that I grew up with and still love to listen to (e.g. progressive rock (Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Yes, King Crimson, Rush, Steely Dan), solo artists, some 80's pop tunes), because I'm familiar with that music. Why bother writing something so esoteric that even I don't get it? It's much more fun to write an ensemble piece that evokes new wave and Rush, but in a tasteful way.

Hopefully, my rambling made some sense at some points. If anything, do you think you can try to be, oh, I don't know, less of a stick-in-the-mud with new music?

Augustine said...

Nope - agreed with you! Sounds like ye olde jazz noodling. In my opinion, something like this is far more creative - new instruments yet symphonic:

Damián López-de Jesús said...

@Augustine, I have to admit, that is some good stuff you just linked me to! I'll have to check out Snarky Puppy some more. Thanks!

Bryan Townsend said...

Damian, sorry to comment negatively on music you love, but sometimes that's the way the cookie crumbles. The original Michael Jackson tune, from Thriller (1983), is in 4/4, a ballad with a Latin feel due to its, yes, subdivision into 3+3+2. But this version sure doesn't sound like 13/8 to me! It appears to be in a heavily-syncopated 6/8. And I have no idea what you mean by "Fibonacci-ised". The Fibonacci sequence, used by Bartók among others, is 1, 1, 2 , 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34.

As for me being a "classicist", guilty as charged! I make no secret about that--in fact, don't tell anyone, but that is pretty much the whole point of The Music Salon, reviving classical aesthetic values.

But the point of the post was not to attack Vijay Iyer, who seems a nice guy playing some nice music. It was rather to point out the contrast between this perfectly decent, though rather ordinary, music and the huge hype that the Wall Street Journal is giving it, alongside the pretentious course in "creativity" offered by Harvard. It's the incongruity that interests me.

But if you look around the blog, you will find that I like a lot of things that don't "strongly use elements of the "traditional classical" method of composing". I'm an admirer of the Beatles, for example, and quite a few other non-classical artists.

Nowadays taking a position in favor of long-disdained aesthetic principles is the most radical stance you can take after over a century where the ruling ideology was "progressive" so I think I will just keep on keeping on. Someone has to!

Bridge said...

@Damián: Why indeed, which is why almost nobody does it. There are no doubt many lost souls who apply self-delusion techniques when it comes to their music but no great composers do it - understanding your music on a very profound level is a prerequisite to writing good music. I speak for Bryan and myself when I say we do not listen to "classical music" ironically. Nor does it have anything to do with being a stick in the mud, at least not in my case. I was not conditioned to like classical music from a young age as most people assume must be the case. Up until I was 15 I listened only to pop genres, at which point I started listening to rock and metal, then I moved on to prog rock, jazz and world music and some classical, and then I started to listen to classical music to a much greater extent and have done so for some years (I'm almost 21 now). I apologize for the life story but I just resent your implication somewhat, since it is patently untrue.

The reason is that what we normally call classical music has far greater depth in my opinion than other styles. There is much more for me to enjoy, and as an informal student of composition it offers the most amount of musical lessons, though that doesn't mean I only listen to it for academic purposes. It just excites me like no other genre does. It's not uncommon for me to listen to jazz, progressive rock, various world music styles and even on occasion metal but I do this to satiate incidental desires (that doesn't necessarily mean they are shallow though.) Classical music on the other hand, and it is important to define it properly because used generally it refers to nothing, is the pinnacle of balance. A good piece leaves me needing nothing and yet wanting more - it fills me with happiness I rarely get from other sources. Listening to other genres for extended amounts of time leaves me with a feeling of emptiness because they usually don't deliver on everything I require, which isn't normally the case with classical music (doesn't hurt that it is so diverse.)

Don't know what more to say, other than classical music is the meat and potatoes of my musical diet, with other things being the side dishes, spices, condiments and beverages. The analogy doesn't make much sense but it's the only one I can think of that even vaguely approaches what I want to say. In reality, classical music is the entire meal and the other things are nuts and crackers. Not that I dislike nuts and crackers - but they're no steak, yeah?

Hope that made even a remote amount of sense.

Bridge said...

Bryan, by Fibonacci-ized he means transforming 3+3+2/8 to 5+5+3/8, notice that each subdivision moves to the next position in the Fibonacci sequence.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ah, I see. Thanks, Bridge. But do you hear that in 13/8? Sure sounds like 6/8 to me...

Bryan Townsend said...

One other little thought: looking back over my post, the most entertaining thing there is that quote from the WSJ "review" of Mutations. Have a look at that prose! Ruminative AND compelling? How does that work? "Dark staccato" is quite the expression, and I doubt anyone who actually knows the meaning of the word "staccato" would link it with the adjective "dark". "Quiet moments that draw you in and loud propulsive ones that restore the routine distance" is a confusing little phrase that really intrigues me with the word "routine". So that's what happens with music: it routinely keeps you at a distance. Remarkably bad prose, isn't it?

Bridge said...

It took a while but I do hear a syncopated 13/8, with a 5-5-3 pulse as he said. It's most clear at 2:19, listen to the right hand melody.

Bryan Townsend said...

Based on the grouping of quick notes?

Bridge said...

Yeah, it's by far the most unambiguous example, as the time is kept rather lazily throughout. But if you listen to the percussion and bass, they often outline this pulse, accentuating beats 1, 4, 6, 9 and 11. Just like how two bars of 5/8 and one bar of 3/8 would normally be stressed. In fact, I think the most precise way to notate this is as a mixed meter 5/8+5/8+3/8. 5+5+3/8 also works in a way but the performer might be tempted to play the subdivisions into five all as one pulse, like a quintuplet.

Damián López-de Jesús said...

@Bridge, I agree, nuts and crackers definitely aren't equal to steak. I didn't know that you were 21 (I'm 20 myself), so it's cool to know that I'm not the only one of the "millenial" generation to be reading this blog. I also didn't grow up with classical music being played at my home (similar music taste as yours - pop, then prog rock and jazz, then got into classical in college), so if anything, I'm still getting accustomed to classical music and its aesthetics and, thus, still learning to appreciate it fully.

You said yourself that classical music is the "meat and potatoes" of your musical diet, whereas for me, I currently alternate between this big meal with others that I
consider to be just as big (but that you may only consider a nice occasional treat). It's hard for me to think right now that there is only one genre of music that is truly "the most sophisticated" or, dare I say, "superior" to others, since I feel that there must be at least one or two other genres, or various songs or artists, who also show a level of sophistication and high-quality taste in their composing/song-writing (I've contemplated about the Beatles as falling into that description, even though I don't care to listen to them). That, and the fact that I haven't yet associated classical music with any personal experiences that I will always remember the same way I do with my favourite pop/prog rock songs.

All in all, from your comments as well as Bryan's, it seems that I have a lot more to learn and appreciate about classical music, so I'll just keep reading these posts.

Btw, what would you define as "classical music"? Examples would be much obliged.

Bridge said...

Don't let me browbeat you into becoming a part of the master race or anything, it's only my opinion. There are many examples of non-classical music that have an astounding amount of depth, such as the music of Frank Zappa, Gentle Giant and Allan Holdsworth to name a few. The latter in my opinion being nothing short of a genius. His sense of harmony is among the most impressive I've heard, and how he is able to smoothly navigate almost impossibly complex progressions in a musical way is a mystery I may never be able to solve. I mean, the guy's improvisations almost sound like fully developed compositions they are so good.

But keep exploring it, there is a lot to discover in classical music. Whether it's superior to other genres is not really important, I just find it to be excellent music and I like good music. Have you by any chance heard The Rite of Spring yet? If not, listen to it, I guarantee that it is going to become one of your favorite things.

As for how I would define classical music, I recommend you read through this blog post for an interesting discussion:

As you can see there is much debate over the term. In its most distilled meaning however the term "classical music" refers to Western art music since the Middle Ages. Obviously not a very enlightening definition.

Bridge said...

"Don't let me browbeat you into becoming a part of the master race or anything, it's only my opinion."

Just to clarify, this is a joke. Reading it over I think it can be easily misinterpreted.

Vernon Lundy said...

I listened to the last recording posted and I think it is outstanding. I might buy it so thanks for posting. Having said that, if I had it on random with several other recent albums of the same vein I don't think I could identify it from the others. I don't disagree that iyer' s music borrows from Phillip Glass I would add very unflattering comparison to George Winston but I think the value is found in the sum of its parts and the depth of influences and techniques adds up to a unique sound that is very creative. I would think the justification for Harvard hiring Iyer to teach pretentious titled courses is that he has the educational credentials to do so. It's that simple.

Bryan Townsend said...

Tony Genge is also a very fine composer, though in a quite different style. Winning the MacArthur grant is certainly a very strong credential!