Tag Archives: art

Four Tips for Improvisers

1 Feb

Many have reacted warmly to my Seven Tips for Composers; thank you all!

Here are some ideas regarding the unique art of improvisation.

1. Learn Languages.

If you want to improvise, study what other improvisers do. It is essential.

It’s surprising to see how many young players seem to believe they will be able to get ahead without it. I think that’s impossible. Also,why would you want to skip it? Why not tap into beautiful universes filled with musical ideas that were created on the spot by masters?

Most improvisers want to be original, and look for general concepts that will allow them to shape their own ideas; That’s fine. But avoiding learning the common and/or obscure vocabulary of improvised music (be it in the realm of Jazz or any other musical world) is not practical.

Why? Because you can only create something personal if you know what you’re doing.

Imagine someone who wants to express profound and beautiful ideas using the Spanish language, without having learned Spanish vocabulary, grammar and so on – for fear of becoming less original.

Now imagine a great poet, who, out of her deep knowledge and understanding of the language and its contexts, can eventually create singular, personal and powerful work.

2. Record and Analyze Your Improvisations.

An invaluable process. When you’re improvising, you’re so busy coordinating all the various musical elements, that you hardly get a clear picture of what it is you’re doing; especially in the beginning of your life as an improviser.

If you never record and listen back, there’s no way that you will be aware of everything that was going on; there’s no way you’ll be able to say that you liked what you just played, and be sure.

Listening to recordings of yourself can be cruel, but it’s an effective way to understand – according to your own taste and judgement – what are the things you want to improve.

3. Separate the Elements.

Let’s say you’re listening back to a recording of a solo you just played, and you’re not happy with one of the elements in your playing.

Examples:

1. Your time rushes when you get excited.

2. You tend to begin your phrases at the same place in the bar.

3. You don’t go out of the prescribed harmony enough, to your taste.

4. You’re not using various dynamic levels in your solo.

And so on and so forth.

Now is the time to work on an element that lacks quality, according to what you hear in the recording.

To do that, the best approach is to begin by working only on that single element.

For example, you practice beginning your phrases in new and unexpected places rhythmically. You work on it, disregarding all other elements.

While you practice this concept, you don’t care about anything else: quality of melodic ideas, using various registers, anything you would normally care about – you stop caring about it for a while. You play as if the only important thing in the world is to begin phrases in interesting places.

Then, when you feel you’ve made progress with this topic, you isolate another element and work on it.

Later you can combine two of these; now you’re worrying about two things – where you begin your phrases, and playing more “out” harmonically, for example. Slowly but surely you bring those improved aspects into your general playing, and actually hear yourself becoming a better improviser.

4. Why are you playing?

This doesn’t have anything to do with music per se. It’s a human, spiritual, existential idea.

Practicing can be a technical activity. The actual playing of music, once you’re performing, rehearsing, or even practicing ‘real’ playing, should not feel technical.

The situation: You are creating music on the spot, on a given day and time, at a given country, city and venue, in front of a given audience, and with given collaborators.

The uniqueness of each event is what lends improvised music its incomparable magic.

It shouldn’t sound the same every night. You are never in the same exact mental state, and if you sound the same, that means you’re ignoring that fact.

Some of your current emotions, ideas, thoughts and so on, should find a way into your playing on a given night. There should be a reason why you’re playing what you’re playing tonight. It has to be that you must play what you’re playing. What story do you have to tell?

When a good friend asks you how you’re feeling these days, you always have something to say. Improvisation can have some of that quality too.

For me, this is crucial in generating a great, even a needed, improvisation.

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The Riddle

2 Jun

The act of creating something new.

Sometimes it feels like you’re inventing a riddle to which you yourself don’t know the solution.  You look for it for a while, then hopefully you find it.

This is something that might as well have been said by myself, including the exact age:

“Since age seven, I’ve been composing and have never stopped composing, yet, the creative process is as elusive to me as it has ever been.” – Lukas Foss

This happened to me twice last week:

“The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.” 

– T. S. Eliot

Sometimes you just have to keep working, and the work eventually brings the inspiration:

“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.” — Victor Hugo

And this is by the persian poet Rumi, whom I mentioned the other day:

Birdsong brings relief

to my longing.

I am just as ecstatic as they are,

but with nothing to say!

Please, universal soul, practice

some song, or something, through me!

New music on its way to you.

What’s New

31 May

Backstage

I haven’t been blogging in a long time – too busy with other things.. but I’m back. So, what did I miss?

Two really nice reviews of my trio with Haggai and Ziv. Nate Chinen wrote in The New York Times about our trio show at Smalls in New York City, that took place on April 5.

Here is a short video from that show, (we’re playing Shining Through Broken Glass) and this is us rehearsing a new tune, the morning after, in Brooklyn.

Carlo Wolff wrote about our album Rockets on the Balcony, in JazzTimes magazine. The review includes some great short descriptions of the tunes on the album, including calling ‘España’ “Sexy”, and saying that ‘The Wedding Song’ is “Middle Eastern disco for the end of the world”. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

I was especially happy with the way both Haggai and Ziv are complimented:

“For Milo’s style at its spriteliest, try ‘Hope.'”

“Ravitz is so driving, his highly textured rhythms dovetail perfectly with Klein’s explorations.”

last paragraph:

“That Klein has technique to burn is obvious. That he deeply feels what he’s writing comes through even during a composition as rueful as the title track. He’s pushing envelopes ethnic and musical here. Stretch your ears to meet Omer Klein.”

I’ve been checking out so many things recently.

Music:

Francis Poulenc. This incredible French composer is going with me everywhere I go these days. His choral music is beautiful, and I love his opera Dialogues des carmélites, but I’ve been mainly listening to his chamber music. I’ve developed an obsessive fascination with his Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet. Check out the first, slow theme of the second movement.

I’ve also been digging into some other 20th century pieces: Stravinsky’s Octet, Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, Ravel’s Piano Concerto (Second movement!), Berg’s Violin Concerto and Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp.

I find a lot of beauty and depth in all of the above.

Books:

Guy de Maupassant – Le Horla. (In Hebrew it’s called Ha’ShamKan.)

A collection of short stories translated to Hebrew by Aviva Barak. The story Le papa de Simon is a testimony of the existence of good people in the world. It touched me so much that I composed a tune inspired by it, which bares the same title. Can’t wait to bring this one to the trio. However, other stories have much darker themes. All is warmly recommended.

Alex Ross – The Rest Is Noise. I have a much clearer picture of the music of the 20th century now. Ross really creates a strong, unified narrative that ties it all together. If you care about music, this book is a must.

Pablo Neruda – Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Translated by W. S. Merwin.

Rumi – Birdsong, translated by Coleman Barks.

I’ve been composing new music intensively, preparing for the Israeli tour with the trio in June, for later concerts we have in Europe, and for several upcoming solo concerts. It’s a very exciting process and I’m looking forward to sharing the new sounds with all of you.

Israel Trio Dates: (all in June)

  • 16 – Beit Ha’Kshatot, Ein Ha’Shofet
  • 17 – FestiJazz, Givatayim Theater
  • 18 – Levontin 7, Tel Aviv
  • 23 – Levontin 7, Tel Aviv
  • 24 – Milestone, Gan Shmuel

European dates for the trio coming soon, including some very cool surprises. In the meanwhile, this hit is announced:

  • August 20 – Hofgarten, Düsseldorf – outdoor park concert!

In September, apart from the trio gigs that will soon be confirmed, I’ll also be playing solo concerts and teaching. On Sep 18-22 I’ll teach at the Jerusalem Music Center, in a special, intensive Jazz course for Israel’s finest young classical pianists.

During that visit, I’ll play two solo piano concerts. One at the JMC, (exact date coming soon), and one on Sep 16 at the Gesher Theater. Later on, on Sep 25, I’ll play another solo concert, this time in Belgium – would love to see all my friends over there! This one is at Den Egger, in Scherpenheuvel-Zichem. Try to say that fast, three times, chewing a gum.

Hearing Voices

23 Jan

Last week I finished reading Madame Bovary, the 19th century novel by French author Gustave Flaubert. When a book’s original version is in English or Hebrew, I always read the original, since I don’t want to miss what was lost in translation. But I still don’t know French and so I turned to the Hebrew translation by Irit Akrabi, and found it to be phenomenal.

The novel itself deeply moved me. I consider it to be one of the greatest works of art I ever encountered. As it is with all art, grading novels is of course ridiculous; But when I finished reading I couldn’t help but feeling that Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the only novel I’ve read that rests at the mountain-top of artistic achievement together with Madame Bovary. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks are among other realistic novels that have inspired me a great deal, but they seem to stand just a step – well, half a step  – lower than Tolstoy’s tale of Anna and Flaubert’s story of poor Emma.

I don’t know if Facebook should be any indication, but I posted the following status: “Just finished reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.. I’m speechless in the presence of such a perfect work of art. Did anyone here read it? What did you think?”. Only one person “liked” the status and also wrote a detailed comment. It was my friend Sophie who happens to be a Literature Professor at the Sorbonne… for comparison, an earlier status about the fascinating dilemma of being a night person vs. a morning person generated seven comments. Could it be that no one cares about these masterpieces anymore?

Anyway, the one thing that struck me the most about Madame Bovary is Flaubert’s voice. I’m using the word ‘voice’ as opposed to ‘plot’ or ‘story line’. In Madame, The plot itself is not especially unique. It does move to extreme places, but compare it with any plot in a Paul Auster or Philip Roth novel and you will find it rather predictable in comparison. I think Flaubert’s real achievement (and this was said many times before, for sure) is not the story but the way he tells it; The Voice. His is full of subtle (and less subtle) irony, a healthy dose of cynicism, emotional warmth in unexpected places, and a penetrating vision as to how society and personal life are interconnected.

The “It’s not the story, it’s how you tell it” principle could easily be applied to Jazz as well: “It’s not the song, it’s how you play it”. Sure, some songs have better melodies, more interesting harmonic progressions and so on. But tell that to Charlie Parker, who transcended the basic form of Gerswhin’s I Got Rhythm to create a revolutionary, personal sound, or to Thelonious Monk, who was the Midas of Jazz, turning everything he touched to Monkish gold. (Monk certainly earned his place in history by playing his own compositions, no doubt about that, but his interpretations of standards are sublimely original. Check out his album Monk Plays Ellington for an extensive example.)

I don’t think that “sounding like yourself” at all costs is what a musician should aim for. Branford Marsalis once said something that really made me think; I don’t remember the exact words, but he basically said he doesn’t need people to always recognize him instantly when hearing his music. On the contrary, he would love it if people would open the radio, hear his new album, and think “man, this is cool! what IS that?”, only to discover later that it was him.

The following process is known to many musicians:

You start out by looking for your “own style”.

You find something you’re happy with.

You begin to eliminate anything that doesn’t fit in, and you work with your newly discovered style for a while.

Some time passes. You realize that this style, that was so you last year, isn’t so you now.

More importantly, you realize that if you’ll keep turning away anything that doesn’t comply with your idea of your “true” style, your art will never grow.

Eventually you understand that you can play anything you want, and that if you will be open minded, let a lot of inspiration flow in, master your instrument, and play whatever wants to come out, you are going to end up sounding great; forget original – just great.

“A great work of art is of course always original” – from Nabokov’s Lolita

“To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body—both go together, they can’t be separated.” –  Jean-Luc Godard

What do you think? Could a boring song become a masterpiece under the hands of a superb artist? On the other hand, are there stories so intriguingly beautiful, that it doesn’t matter who tells them? And what about an original voice in art – do you care for it when listening to music for example, or is it just great music you’re after? It could be of course, that originality and greatness are inseparable. Your comments are welcome.

On Blogging, Tennis and Miles Davis

3 Jan

“I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later” – Miles Davis

… and so it happens I’ve decided to welcome the new year with a brand new blog.

It’s not exactly a new year’s resolution (I call them January resolutions since they’re usually only valid until early February), but rather a new writing challenge, which randomly begins with 2011.

Naturally, I’ll write a lot about music in general and Jazz in particular, and will also touch upon some other topics of personal interest like Literature, Art, Food and more.  However, that Miles Davis quote above sums it up the best. Just as if I’m playing a solo, I’ll be moving from note to note, phrase to phrase, or in this case, post to post. Keith Jarrett once said (I’m paraphrasing) that his best performances occur when he knows nothing in advance about what he’s about to play. I feel the same way.

Fred Hersch, one of my most inspiring teachers, often compares Jazz playing to a Tennis match. Meaning, Jazz is not Chess; You can’t calculate your moves in advance. When that yellow ball is rapidly approaching, you can’t busy yourself with thinking three moves ahead, or you’ll end up dropping the ball. Instead, you play the ball that’s in front of you, and keep rolling.

In a jazz solo, that would be playing what comes now, then moving to the next thing, and allow your intuition to create the larger structure. The definition follows the act – “I’ll play it first and tell you what is later.”

If that attitude works for Tennis and Jazz, it should work for my blog as well. I hope you’ll enjoy spending time here! Your comments, ideas and insights are truly welcome.