Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Chess and Music, Meeting Levon Aronian

Back in July of 2016 fellow saxophonist Ned Rothenburg set up an informal get together at his apartment one evening for a number of his chess playing musician friends.  Ned had become friends with the Armenian chess master Levon Aronian, who was in town and on his way to a tournament. Levon is a big music fan and especially loves jazz so Ned thought it would be fun to have a chess party, with Levon taking on a bunch of musician chess enthusiasts.  It was a small affair, about a half dozen of us, and needless to say, an immense opportunity to meet and play with a legendary chess champion, the fourth highest rated player in history.  

Of course this was going to be a complete blowout for us.  So in order to make it more sporting for Levon, he played three of us at a time.  Simultaneously.  While not looking at any of the boards.  And having what sounded like a delightful conversation on many other topics with other invited guests in the room.  And drinking a cognac.  We would call out, “Board one, E4!”  and he would give his reply, using the letter and numeral coordinates involved for us to move the pieces.  While one board is awaiting a reply another board might also call out a move.  Levon might make a couple of moves in one game before getting back to another.  So it was seemingly all out of order, and yet he kept track of all of this without even breaking a sweat or stumbling in his conversations.  

And while it may seem silly to talk about sweating during a chess game, I can tell you from experience that it’s real.  Years ago I played in a tournament here in NYC in which I had a make or break game that I was losing.  I could afford no further mistakes and it took six hours until I somehow managed to pull off a win.  The concentration and intensity made my heart pound like I had run a footrace.  But back to Ned’s place.  At a certain point, Levon said to us, “You’re playing like improvisors, you need to think more like a composer”.  Meaning that we were moving too quickly, not carrying out any kind of real plan.  I appreciated this comment, and in terms of music, this idea is actually close to my heart.  I often tell my students to improvise like composers.  As it happened, “Chess Life” (official magazine of the United States Chess Federation) found out about our little get-together and interviewed me for an article on “Chess and Music” in their December 2017 issue.  Have a look.

So what about this idea of planning in the context of improvising?  Isn’t improvising about spontaneity?  How can we plan anything when it’s the “non-thinking” mind that we use when improvising?  Isn’t it some kind of contradiction to say that we strive to make meaningful statements, create form, express depth…and at the same time keep this a simple, natural, unencumbered process?  This is of course the reason we practice.  This simple, natural, spontaneous, non-thinking process is not haphazard and reactive.  Rather, it’s deeply informed.

In practice, information is constantly being acquired and skills honed and developed.  Learning, assimilation, and embodiment take place.  And then we forget it all in the moment of putting air into the instrument, or touching a key, pulling a string, hitting a drum.  Yet somehow in forgetting it all, we have access to it all. This simple act is informed by what you know. And if you keep going, you’ll soon discover that it’s also informed by what you don’t know.  Sometimes I tell students to meet the instrument fifty-fifty.  Bring full intent to everything you do and meet the moment with openness and flexibility.  Your instrument is telling you something.  The other musicians are telling you something.  Sometimes I find myself saying to students “your instrument is your teacher”.  I kind of wince at language like this but it’s actually true.  Your instrument does the only thing it can do within the circumstances that you create.  It does not fail to register exactly what you put into it.  It’s completely consistent that way.  And no, I don’t want to hear about saxophone reeds being inconsistent.  You can work with your reeds.  But you have to be flexible there as well.  They are telling you how to play them.  You just have to listen.  

So what of the idea of planning?  How does that fit in?  How to we improvise like composers?  I think it boils down to intent.  We start with a definite impulse, a physical gesture, a sense of movement.  The content of that gesture does not get fully filled in until it’s actually played.  But it must be deliberate.  We must “know” what we’re doing, what we’re carrying out.  And yet there is no way that we can fully know what will happen once the music has started.  There are other people playing as well.  Just as in chess there is your opponent.  This “opposition” is actually an agreed upon form of cooperation.  In music we don’t talk too much about opposition, although if you think about it, counterpoint is a means to accommodate multiple, independent voices within an overall form or structure.  In chess, even though I have a plan I must also take into account my opponent’s moves.  So to improvise like a composer means to see this relationship as the music itself.  Not just paying attention to your own moves, your own part.  We bring something to the music and are prepared to change and adapt all along the way.  Fluid might be a good word here, as in water.  With water, when it’s at rest it conforms to the shape of whatever holds it.  When it’s moving it can carry tremendous force.  And there’s everything in between.  All shapes, forms, directions.  Everything.  So it’s about this interaction with others, right?  But if that’s the case, what about solo playing, one person alone, improvising?  Well, you’ll recall that I mentioned being informed by what you don’t know.  Our personal expression does not exist in a vacuum, apart from everything else.  Because we ourselves are not apart from everything else.  Even the composer, alone with pen and paper, is unleashing forces, accessing what they don’t yet know.  

In other news, just got back from Europe with Christian Weber and Michael Griener (all acoustic, no amps, no PA systems!) as well as dates with Stephan Crump. Earlier in the season I played at the Middelheim Festival in Belgium with Jozef Dumoulin and Dan Weiss (Dan was at that chess party!).  Saw Charles Lloyd there.  Met Billy Harper as well.  Thinking of this, I recommend the Lee Morgan documentary, "I Called Him Morgan" in which Billy Harper is one of the voices.  And speaking of voices, I loved the fact that we heard directly in that film from those involved, first hand.  And speaking of documentaries, I also recommend the John Coltrane documentary “Chasing Trane” although I wish that it had not taken 50 years for us to be sharing his story in this form.  It was especially moving to see Coltrane in Nagasaki, at the site of the dropping of the atomic bomb.  Which also reminds me…while in Europe this past tour, I had a day off in Dachau, Germany.  I took advantage of the time to visit the memorial at the site of the World War Two concentration camp of the same name.  Words fail.  

I’ve also been thinking about the passing of Muhal Richard Abrams, one of the music’s most important leaders and composers.  As it happened, he also lived on my block here in midtown Manhattan.  I would see him pretty often but we never had the opportunity to play together.  It got to feeling kind of awkward passing him by and not acknowledging or expressing in some way my admiration.  So one day I introduced myself and mentioned some folks we knew in common.  Having made a connection in this way I later decided to share some music with him.  I had some copies of a new CD with me and while chatting I took one out and offered it to him.  He declined.  I realized that the offer was unsolicited and that this could be taken as an imposition.  He explained that he did not want to be obliged to have to tell me what he thought of the music.  I understand that.  In fact, I kind of feel the same way myself.  Music is bigger than that.  Bigger than what I think of it.  I think he may have been pointing to that.  And of course, he was certainly busy enough with many things let alone seeing me again and possibly being asked about it.  But I explained that he was under no obligation whatsoever and that I simply wanted to give him that music as a gift, a way of saying thank you for all that he had done for so many people, myself included.  At that he accepted.

I live in a building with a lot of musicians and actors.  Muhal Richard Abrams’ passing also reminds me of the passing of some other inspiring musicians who were also my neighbors.  Saxophonist Harold Ashby (1925 - 2003) once played in the Duke Ellington Orchestra and would periodically lead dates at the Village Vanguard and release recordings of his own.  I would see him almost every day, sitting outside with a group of folks (writers, musicians, neighborhood people).  I’d join them from time to time.  He was gruffly good natured and usually replied to my inquiries about events back in the day with “nobody want’s to hear about that old stuff”!   And there was bassist Fred Hopkins (1947 — 1999), a great musician from Chicago perhaps best known for his work with Henry Threadgill.  Some years back my wife and I invited a bunch of folks to our new apartment and Fred came.  Life of the party!  And then there was saxophonist Frank Lowe (1943 — 2003) who got his start with Alice Coltrane.  I fondly recall many chats with him about the music and the tradition.  He took it seriously!  And he loved Lester Young.

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