Writings About Music

Six Seas: Conlon, Charles, Claude, Charlie, Chick and de Chirico

Postclassic, the superlative blog of composer and musicologist Kyle Gann, inspired the following comments about composers and improvisers whose names all coincidentally begin with the letter "C": Conlon Nancarrow, Charles Ives, Claude Debussy, Charlie Parker and Chick Corea, plus a painter whose last name begins with "C": Giorgio de Chirico.

Here are the comments together with the links, which I urge you to use both to experience Kyle Gann's writing, and for the full context of my subsequent comments.

- Michael Robinson, August 2015, Los Angeles


An Embarrassment of Nancarrovian Riches by Kyle Gann

Michael Robinson says
June 23, 2015 at 3:21 pm

Here is my vote for having your talks and the others videotaped and made available for those who are unable to attend.

Regarding Conlon Nancarrow, does anyone know what specific recordings and concerts of Indian classical music he was exposed to. The same for jazz: Does anyone know what specific recordings and concerts he was exposed to?

It troubles me that, for example, that a vague and general “jazz” influence is attributed to the music score of West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, without any specificity, especially when Bernstein told Lee Konitz that the song, “Cool”, was inspired by his alto saxophone playing, and I find the jazz of Konitz to be an overriding influence on the entire work.

If there are specifics known about Nancarrow’s Indian classical music and jazz influences, I would love to know. Off the top of my head, I would guess that the predominant jazz influences were Art Tatum and Charlie Parker, and that Nancarrow was exposed to Indian classical music percussionists, at least. Perhaps he heard a concert(s) directed by Ravi Shankar’s older brother, Uday, which included a cornucopia of Indian classical and folk music and dance. After all, how many exposures to Indonesian gamelan music did it take to utterly transform the musical vision of Claude Debussy?

KG replies: I agree – pretending each musical genre is a kind of consistent monolith allows a lot of slipshod writing and thinking to go around. I cite my music as jazz-influenced, by which I specifically mean James P. Johnson, Bud Powell, Art Tatum, Bill Evans, and Miles Davis on one hand, and a lot of jazz harmony I’ve learned from books on the subject and from our jazz faculty (John Esposito and Erika Lindsay) on the other.

Anyway, the jazz musicians Conlon mentioned particularly were Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Earl Hines. There’s good evidence for some Art Tatum influence too. And he collected recordings by the Uday Shankar ballet back when there was hardly anything else around. Don’t know that he ever got more into it later.

Michael Robinson says
June 25, 2015 at 4:30 pm

Glad to hear this. I have thought some more about Nancarrow’s music since I made this comment, and now I am convinced he was deeply familiar with the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Lennie Tristano. After all, the time and place for this exposure was exact, and it is inconceivable that he would not have been fascinated with these new developments in jazz. Mel Powell once told me that the reason he switched from jazz piano to composition is because he was unable to play in the new forms of jazz. I mention this because there is a connection with Nancarrow, who must have been thrilled by said music, and found the player piano a method for expressing such intense complexity of melody, rhythm, texture and expression, and tempos gone wild.

It still isn’t clear to me why there is no apparent record of Nancarrow’s exposure to Parker, Gillespie and Tristano. Perhaps there is a record of this, but no one wishes to share it, or perhaps Nancarrow just assumed the influence was so obvious in the music to be understood by anyone. Or perhaps he wished to keep the influence quiet for some reason. The common mentioning of earlier jazz artists even strikes me as disinformation, as if the real influences were not to be mentioned overtly.

That was an educated guess about the exposure to Indian classical music via Uday Shankar, and thank you for confirming it. My understanding is that these recordings contain superb performances of Hindustani and Karnatic percussion music, which I consider the most advanced musical forms in history. Exposure to this percussion music alone is another central influence on Nancarrow’s music, which is obvious when listening to the music for player piano. In other words, not being able to play the new forms of jazz, or play Indian classical percussion music, including the melodic complexities known an raga, Nancarrow took the resourceful and ingenious pathway of player piano, expanding upon the musical explosions that occurred in his body and soul (and mind) from hearing the new jazz and Indian classical music with a new form of composition and performance.

In a recent writing, Zachary Woolfe stated in The New York Times: “Over four concerts on Tuesday, the combination of electronics and traditional instruments produced shape-shifting pleasures. But the effects that were showcased felt, at least in this lengthy immersion, stultifying, a uniformly creeping, creaking, popping, shimmering soundscape familiar to aficionados of classic horror and sci-fi film. Electronic music’s tools have gotten far more sophisticated since the genre began, but the results, at least those here, have remained in a curious time warp.” What Woolfe is touching upon is that there has been too much focus on conformity of means and ends in the genre, and simply because something is new or newer, or has a different focus of capabilities doesn’t automatically bestow the quality of sophistication upon it.

Here is a relevant passage from my recent interview in textura:

It’s crucial that composers use hardware and software that’s relevant for their expressive purposes and not feel pressured into compromising their vision by using whatever happens to be most fashionable, common, or new, especially being careful not to acquire everything that is recent simply because it’s new. When I was living in Manhattan, I had a temporary job for a month or so working as an assistant for the Vice Chairman of Sony Corporation in Manhattan, Sadami (Chris) Wada. He impressed upon me an ancient Japanese concept: “He goes far who never turns.” (Not only that, he also insisted upon playing a recording of my composition, Trembling Flowers, at a high volume with the door open, creating quite a scene with bewildered employees stopping in the hallway to stare in, making sure everything was okay. Mr. Wada was excited and intrigued by the music, commenting that it reminded him of toccatas by Bach.) In other words, if one is always turning to new instruments and products, including taking the necessary time needed to actually learn to use them at a meaningful level, one might miss the experience of delving more deeply into one’s personal musical vision that comes from working and focusing on one instrument, as Chopin did with the piano and Mahler did with the orchestra, to cite two examples. Also, as the practice of violin-making has proved, sometimes the oldest instruments are the best ones, and this concept absolutely applies to computer, electronic and digital instruments, and software, too.

Conlon Nancarrow is a supreme example of “He goes far who never turns”!

For those interested, here is a link to the mentioned interview: Ten Questions

KG replies: Maybe I’ve turned far too often.

Michael Robinson says
June 25, 2015 at 6:49 pm

I doubt that very much. This is the nature of Texan Rhabdomancers when they divine for water. There is no more water in California, of course! When I asked Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton, regarded as the foremost expert on climate change, about a graph from UC Berkeley showing how the drought is likely caused by pollution drifting over the Pacific and blocking the storm systems that normally bring rain, he dismissed the idea, stating that local pollution was the problem, and that pollution from overseas was insignificant. However, if over 25% of our pollution comes from overseas, how is that insignificant? No reply. My original question came after reading a series of articles about the drought in The New York Times that unbelievably failed to mention likely causes for the drought other than blaming it on Mother Nature.

What strikes me is similar to the misunderstanding of Nancarrow’s music. That is, pollution must be examined in the full context of influences that transcend countries (genres in music), and until we do so, understanding and solutions are impossible. Of course, foreign countries must not be singled out, as America is equally at fault for not moving quickly enough to solve the problem of no more water and other horrors from pollution.

This describes a symbolic effort I made regarding rain in Los Angeles: Music for Rain


Owning Art by Kyle Gann

Michael Robinson says
July 21, 2015 at 4:38 pm

Paintings are a great love of mine too. These are captivating images shown here. Currently visiting New York, I visited with old friends, including View of Toledo by El Greco, and Ariadne by Giorgio de Chirico, which always astound me, making me shake my head. Already, I’ve visited the exhibition of Indian art at the MET twice, marveling at the use of color and wondered about parallels appearing in their music.

Last Sunday, I visited with my former English professor, Therese Law, and there is an original canvas by Anne Yeats hanging in her living room. Not recalling the exact title, it is something like “Through the Mouse’s Eyes”, and apparently depicts Anne looking at her father, William Butler Yeats, who is represented as the very close head of a black cat staring at her. The eyes of the represented poet are mesmerizing and even frightening in their complex, polyrhythmic intensity. Of course, Yeats was deeply involved with occult and metaphysical thought, in addition to Irish mythology and nationalism.

With my new composition, Rajasthani Spring, I was captivated by the excitements of timbral color, including speculating upon used hues in the liner notes. Here is a link for those who may be interested: Rajasthani Spring


Name that Pianist by Kyle Gann

Michael Robinson says
July 29, 2015 at 12:27 pm

This is far from the improvisational music I’ve listened to, but in the spirit of buying a lotto ticket (something I’ve been neglecting in recent months!), I would wildly guess Chick Corea, with a suspicion it could possibly be Jarret. Whoever it is, the influence of Corea is paramount. Some of my favorite Corea is found on Captain Marvel with Stan Getz, including perhaps the greatest electric piano improvisation ever on 500 Miles High, together with his Light As A Feather album, which remains a pinnacle of the music of our time. Corea did much playing with Getz before Light As A Feather, and that interaction inspired both musicians famously, together with equally important inventiveness from Airto Moreira (wow!), Tony Williams and Stanley Clarke.


The Whole Tone Hypothesis by Kyle Gann

Michael Robinson says
July 31, 2015 at 12:51 pm

Thank you for awakening an interest in listening to the Concord Sonata with this remarkably well-articulated and passionate writing. I went to listen on YouTube, finding the Gilbert Kalish recording, and right away, from the opening movement (I have not yet listened the the remaining movements), it becomes apparent that Ives was liberated by the music of Claude Debussy, including the “ivesceration” (better than evisceration here!) of traditional harmony. Thus, your statement about the central structural basis of whole tone scales sounds true, and one may hear this music as poly-modal, with no limit to possible harmonic embellishments of a predominantly horizontally (and emotionally) conceptualized music, including the American composer’s purposeful and original investigations of his inner and outer experience expressed through the newly revealed universe of musical textures and pianistic tone colors Debussy unleashed. All this was hatched by the fortuitous accident of hearing Indonesian gamelan, famously experienced by the French composer.

During my one semester at Stony Brook, promoted by Elliot del Borgo’s suggestion that I take advantage of an opportunity to study with Turkish electronic music pioneer, Bulent Arel, the subject of Claude Debussy was joyfully raised by Arel. He took great pleasure in relating how Debussy had created a music that was so original as to defy any explanation or analysis in previous templates, forcing people to rethink both the experience of listening to music, and the creative challenge of writing about music.

Hats off to you for finding new and necessary ways to explore the music of Charles Ives, including inspiring others like myself to listen again to music that was only briefly introduced to us in the past.

Michael Robinson says
August 2, 2015 at 12:07 am

There is a thin line between composition and improvisation. Having just begun yesterday a new composition after nearly a month of contemplation and some delay, with the overall structural form settled yet comfortably fluid for spontaneous impulses, I am now happily drowning in the nectar of Raga Kirvani’s divine swaras, the sounds of which came to me while listening to a new song by a local African American artist of considerable fame - Snoop Dogg. It charms me how I am essentially breathing the same air at the same time as this person from essentially another strastosphere, finding a common link.

At Smoke in upper Manhattan last weekend, I heard Gary Bartz worship at the timeless and placeless and invisible shrine of Jackie McLean and John Coltrane with his extraordinarily tempered and inspired alto saxophone, reminding me of his superb collaboration with McLean on the Ode to Super album.

Bartz is a true musical wizard in our midst! He was able to shine his brightest because pianist Larry Willis, drummer Al Foster and bassist Buster Williams are all equally great. Every college in America should bring this quartet to their community as close to now as possible to experience the art of improvisation in one of its finest present-day incarnations.

Postclassic by Kyle Gann is published under a Creative Commons license


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and musicologist.