Decompositional Music

Dehydrated and tired, I made a musical discovery in the practice room today. I was playing the standard "You Must Believe in Spring," a contrapuntal arrangement I've been working out, when I started to doze off. I found the texture reduce itself to three, then two voices, until I was barely awake, playing only a single melody that tracing the harmony and thematic motives. It was liminal music: the notes gradually spread further and further apart in time, until finally—nothing.

I fell asleep.

In free jazz—totally unconstrained improv—we start with chaos and try to find our way towards a group coherence, although we may stop shy of metrical form or harmony. On the personal level, the game is listening, and its object is for each musician to be so attuned to what the others are playing that they start to anticipate what they will play before they play it. On the collective level, the goal is to "make music," or arrive at a product that sounds intellectually organized.

It's an end-oriented process. A free jazz session, in this model, begins with the assumption that the music will arrive at a sort of form, and then it goes there. And I think that this kind of free jazz is "too easy."

I don't mean that it's easy to play, which it obviously is not. It takes a high degree of technical fluency, musical sensitivity, and intuition to perform a successful free jazz piece. I mean that this mode of playing free is too conceptually simple for a music that is so advanced in other areas. Starting from musical chaos and then nudging it into musical coherence meshes too well with the way the brain naturally operates. We already know that our brains are pattern-finding machines. Why do we need music to prove it?

For some, watching free jazz is like watching someone fill in a sudoku puzzle. It's clear to them that there is a tremendous amount of intellectual activity going on, and it is satisfying to see all the parts line up, but the wow factor disappears as soon as they realize that the performer is just following a certain procedure. Though the outcome (numbers in squares, notes in space) may vary, the method is the same. The listener is easily drawn away, either by music that follows a more sophisticated compositional procedure (occasionally), or by music that doesn't have any pretenses about its simplicity (more often).

I am not that easily-bored listener. I love listening to even the sort of free jazz that people call repetitive. But I cannot say for sure whether or not my enjoyment of it is merely intellectual, connected to my being a student of jazz—the same way a chess fiend can truly love reading a move book recounting a match between two masters, while the rest of us just want to know who won.

What both groups have in common, though, is a desire to have something new to sink their teeth into.

My new experiment is to play a free jazz that actively tries to break down pattern. It takes reified musical structures and harmonic and melodic concepts and lets them disentegrate—into silence, or some pre-formal essence. I think I succeeded at this by accident with "You Must Believe in Spring"—beginning with little, and then subtracting.

I want to play that kind of music with my eyes (literally) open.