Saturday, February 16, 2013

Alan Sondheim

on (my) improvisation

i could not live without music. my body would atrophy, my mind
would have forgotten the potential of entangled structures. or
would not have gone there in the first place. my nails on my
right hand need guarding, they are often coated or gloved, they
carry the attack on the strings just as the soft skin beneath
them carries the denouement. i worry when my right index finger
develops pain and have learned to switch to the middle or fourth
finger for the same strokes; the strokes are constantly varied,
and if a nail breaks, another finger comes in for the substitu-
tion. my wrists are clumsy; my hands move laterally, quickly,
but have difficulty sustaining the back-and-forth of picks, and
picks in any case seem absurdly single-minded, as if the body
concentrated into a single contact from mind to instrument - one
stroke at a time, a quick succession of linear flashes. instead
i tend to claw up and down on the strings, as many as possible -
or instead, churn quick successions of notes as my right hand
rolls across one or more strings, something i picked up between
flamenco and pipa. bowing is a relaxation; the fingers do little
and i can let the arm bear the brunt of the music and its smooth

but when a nail splinters, i must hone it down as near as
possible to the breaking point, but not beyond; i need as much
as available. my playing becomes a ragged system of substitu-
tions as different strategies are employed so that the surface
of the music coheres. gone are the nail hardeners and
strengtheners and gloves; what's present is the feel of the
pressure against the nail, skin, and mind; in this i'm always
and already thinking ahead to the next difficulty, the next

when bowing, not when using my fingers, my body sweats. it
sways, taken up with sonority, it moves athletically - which my
fingers do not. my fingers are concerned with dance, with
litheness, something wayward and untoward, not repetitive and
resistive. bowing is always changing, it is the arm and wrist
and palm, and shoulder, and for me, my fingers are more relaxed.
because i bow instruments with the base of the body on my foot
or carpet, i also must think ahead, turning the instrument to
advantage, to the best position of the bow. in both bowing and
plucking, there is a continuous dialog between instrument and
body, each adjusting to the other. the dialog is continued in
improvisation - as i know somewhat where i want to go (the
strategy of sound and structure), i work with the second
strategy, that of the body and work-arounds that may alter the
piece itself.

i play fast; there are times i play as fast as possible. then
i'm able to let go, to let the music create its own arcs and
bridges which i may not be able to follow. i'll do everything
with my fingers to keep the speed. i use drones a lot, something
i picked up from blues players, but have developed on oud, pipa,
saz, even violin and viola, having that thickness and resonance
of sound as much as possible, filling the space, the void,
opening the abyss to swooping lines of music, double rails
carrying the trains of the world to every unknown continent.
naively, i've thought of speed as a sign of virtuosity, which
fascinates me, although i prefer listening to alap and dhrupad
for example. but speed seems to say, look at what this body can
do!, how far it it removed from itself, how high it reaches! and
it exhausts me, and yes, there is something of the contest in
it, where might i take music that i haven't heard it taken
before? this may be a delusion, but like everything described
here, including alap, it is a driving force.

my breathing is no problem with stringed instruments, although i
may catch my breath, having forgotten, autonomically, to
breathe. when playing flute or chromatic harmonica, of course,
breath is everything, and again i have to think where i am going
in both music and body, where paths will cross, what will occur
if, for example, i accidently hit a note i didn't want, or find
myself playing harmonics where i want fundamentals. so there is
constant correction, feedback, at work, just as there is, for
example, in playing a fretless instrument where i am constantly
adjusting my left-hand fingers for pitch as proper as i can make
it. it becomes complex if i find one or more strings slipped and
out of tune; at that point i might stop briefly to retune, or,
more likely, play harmonics as part of the improvisation, and
bring tuning into play so that the music takes a detour, but
doesn't appear to stutter. you can hear this at work in some of
my pieces, soft lulls and softer bending notes.

when a finger cramps, another takes over. when a technique on
single strings creates strain, i may switch to a technique of
whole-hand movement, for example quickly brushing the strings.
when i play cura cumbus, a fast and loud small saz with a metal
body, i will bring the thumb into play against my first and
second fingers, which gives them a rest from the rapid trilling
i'm otherwise engaged in. the result sounds like horses
galloping and i imagine myself in the steppes somewhere,
surrounded by wild mustangs.

my mind juggles all of this, not necessarily inhabiting the
music in a romantic or pure sense, but bouncing around like a
stage manager as well, making sure the hands and fingers do
their job, that momentary structures are recalled or abandoned,
that the instrument remains in tune, that its position needs
re-adjusting (for example i slightly change the position of the
oud periodically), that everything is proceeding in due course,
and then in relation to the other musicians. mostly i think like
a solo, since there is already so much to consider; on tabla,
for example, the heads may loosen due to humidity and even the
stringed instruments may end up sounding dead - things like the
ghichak or suroz for example, where the heads are partly skin,
partly open to the world. when these things happen - changes in
temperature or humidity - playing against has to be adjusted,
for example perhaps emphasizing the bass or plucking towards the
bridge to increase the treble.

i do try to be awkward, to confound myself, to play things that
sound wrong but in an interesting way; recently, i've been doing
this on tabla. the notes seem to drag elsewhere from one another
and the landscape even with tamburi drone, is glacial. when i
play like this, i think of particle physics, with its strings,
rhythms, virtual particles, energies, stochastic processes,
information loss and transformation, and inconceivably vast
voids tending towards entropic stases. on a smaller scale, i
have played open-holed classical flute with birds to good
effect, in doubly entangled communications that can go on for
quite a while.

i play on the floor or standing or on a low chair. i sit on
wood or cloth, bending into the instrument, surrounding it.

playing on the floor, my feet, by the way, tend to fall asleep,
but it is impossible to change position with most of the
instruments; it's afterwards, when i attempt to stand, that i
notice this. the feet play little role other than support; on
the other hand, when i play pump organ, it's as if everything is
in the feet, not the keyboard, since proper pumping is necessary
for an even sound, for the swelling and diminution of sound, and
even, on an antique instrument, for preserving the condition of
the bellows. the pump organ can be delicate to an extreme, just
as the chromatic harmonica must be played carefully, in order to
avoid clogging the valves. the easiest of the wind instruments i
play, in terms of care, are the recorders - tenor is my
favorite, and it's also one of the most difficult to play since
everything depends on breath. i'd rather have good breath than
good fingering, in fact, since a wavering recorder tone always
sounds out of tune.

the nails on my left hand are almost always cut very short, but
there are time when they're useful - certainly on sarangi,
suroz, and ghichak, where they are used to press sideways
against the strings, but also on things like the sung lisu, a
shamisen-like northern thai instrument strung with three
strings, all thin wires of the same diameters. using the
left-hand nails against the fingerboard results in a sharper and
clearer sound, something like a fretless banjo, but louder and
with more warmth. on the other hand, faster runs require
hammering-down and pulling-off, and this can only be done with
the fleshy part of the fingers. again, thinking ahead results in
smoother improvisation, and there are times one finger alone may
be used for a nail glissando up and down the neck (the same is
true for the oud).

at the end of a night with usually one set of thirty to forty
minutes, i can no longer play. my nails are worn down and split,
my muscles are slightly cramped, and i have to change fingering
patterns and fingers too often. but all of this occurs, all of
this is something i have learned, in order to keep the music
flowing, often at high speed, often irregular and inventive. i
have to keep thinking of new things, thinking of the body's
condition as well, and this means simultaneous immersion in the
music, and maintenance of both instrument and body, it's always
a question of dialog, it's never monolithic, it's rarely the
mythical 'being in the moment' which singers may often
experience. instead it's inordinate difficulty and as a result,
i record almost everything i do, to make sure i'm on track, i'm
being inventive, i'm not wildly out of tune (given my hearing,
my greatest fear), i'm not stepping over or under the other
musicians, if there are any, and i'm producing what to me, will
resound with a sense of wonder on second-hearing. for it is
always second-hearing that is at work, hearing after the fact,
after the resonance, after the production - hearing what had
been, but i had not been aware of it, having dwelt in so many
places at the same time. this is the being and heart of music i
think, this dwelling, which is not unary or monolithic, and in
fact does not give itself up to either spirit or monotheism; it
simply _is,_ in the sense that being _is,_ and conveys that
being within a communality embracing body, object, cosmos,
architecture and architectonics, and structures, in a complex
and striated simultaneity that seems endless within, and the
memory of endlessness, without.

( a final, parenthetical, note - the voice is another matter
altogether; i cannot sing or even carry a tune; it's as if
there's a disconnect between mind and vocal chords. so i don't
have the luxury of tuning by song, of self-accompaniment.
instead, everything is strained, difficult; I use a tuner
constantly and have to train and retrain myself to listen. my
voice is flat, almost monotone; i remember al wilson, later of
canned heat, telling me i was one of the few people he knew who
couldn't hit an octave. so again there are work-arounds but i
must bypass, cauterize, the part of my mind that wants to
express itself otherwise. if i have no instrument, i have no
pitch, literally, to speak of, and my instrument must speak for
me. )


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