I underwent a “crisis of the violin” which came to a head at age 17 and lasted two or more years after that.
A few classical soloists underwent crises of the violin in their late teens. Theirs were different from each other’s, and different from mine. All of it interests me.
In particular, when I was 16, I overheard music teachers chatting about Menuhin’s crisis. (Presumably one of them had seen the 1956 New Yorker articles.) The teachers’ gossip was not especially knowledgeable. Menuhin’s problem evidently was that he had learned a common practice repertoire by mimesis alone. In his late teens, he realized that he didn’t know what he was doing. (Well, that’s what my manual addresses!) The music teachers, on the other hand, had the notion that Menuhin had suddenly asked, “why am I doing this with my life?”
In any case, the classical soloists, Menuhin included, resolved their crises by getting back on track and succeeding in the
profession—that is why we have heard of them.
In my case, the metaphor is unavoidable of a caterpillar going into the pupal stage and emerging as a butterfly. (Don’t take this as flattering myself with a metaphor. I have nothing against caterpillars! All the same, a caterpillar has to exit stage without dying!) But I didn’t know in advance that that was what it was about. All that I (or anyone) knew was that my path to becoming a classical violinist had hit a wall. At age 17, I had obligations, as a violin student, which I defaulted on. The situation became highly quarrelsome. (I am lucky that I got through it without a real disaster.) And my distress was not limited to the violin. I said to an older music student who hung out at the orchestra floor at my high school (he may have been an aspiring public school music teacher) “I am quitting the orchestra because it is interfering with my violin study.” He said, “that is like saying that you are quitting school because it is interfering with your studies.” I replied, “precisely!”
Very well, what explicitly bothered me had to do with classical music’s perfection standard. Let me underline, for clarity, that violinists who have a vocation for classical violin, and align with it intuitively, may find this account of my hand-wringing pointless. (The young Menuhin aligned with classical violin intuitively. But at 19, he had a crisis anyway. His later playing sounds to me like he never regained fluency, if he had it when he was young.)
But my hand-wringing wasn’t pointless for me. Again, it was my pupal stage. My transformation pivoted on it. For my clarity, I
would like to dredge up that crisis in as much detail as I can remember.
The story also gives context to the violin modality I arrived at. It sharpens contrasts. It sheds light on where the recommendations I have about classical violin come from.
At Interlochen, and back in Greensboro, I was not the best intuitive violinist for the repertoire that was automatically assigned to us. A schoolmate of mine was better in that respect. She replaced me as concertmaster in the high school orchestra when I quit. Oberlin was her college. She switched to viola and made a career in classical music and instruction.
That said, I was incomparably beyond the others. But: in ways the others only noticed with annoyance, and did not respect because it was meaningless to them. I searched out the challenging side of classical music, the latest thing in modern music (as I came across it)—obtained all the scores and recordings—delved into the theory of violin playing—and “even” picked up a manual on jazz piano.
I may have had the only score of the Schoenberg Concerto in North Carolina in 1956. As to the theory of violin playing, I am pleased that my teacher loaned me the Spivakovsky manual, and I read it. I procured a mail-order manual that promised a vast improvement in technique instantly. I have lost track of the latter, and I wish I had it: if only to confirm how useless it was.
As for Spivakovsky, although nobody could use his method but him, he was a stellar violinist. For comparison, we heard Milstein live, and he was tentative. (Was it recording that allowed him to sound crystal clear in his limited repertoire?)
I heard Oistrakh play the Shostakovich (now called the Shostakovich First), 1 January 1956 on the New York Philharmonic broadcast. I immediately procured the recording and the score. I was ambitious enough to go to Interlochen at 16. I brought substantial scores to violin lessons that my teacher had not assigned and wanted his blessing to work on them. The Budapest Quartet came through: whatever they played bored me. I saw Bartok’s Third Quartet performed, probably in 1957. As for other instruments: there was a performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto.
I have a direct appreciation of Spivakovsky’s stature because
I was in the front row when he played the Sibelius in with the North Carolina Symphony, probably early in 1957. It was the first virtuoso playing I saw. It has no relation to journeyman violin—of course—and I was overwhelmed. I want to testify about the deficiencies I faced.
In the first place, neither of the two or three violin teachers in Greensboro could play. I went to Interlochen hoping to find what I had not been getting. But the violin teacher I was assigned there was no improvement on Greensboro. As a matter of fact, he had no idea what a teacher’s job ought to be. (See the Annex on teaching.)
Very well. I was not alone in attending the professional concerts in Greensboro. But I was alone in the way I was challenged by them. In the way I was challenged by all of it, and in the way I followed it up. I understood that one had to want to get with modern music to be a chancer. But aside from having a teacher who was aware of Bartok (but who did not search out his oeuvre as I did), the others didn’t share that need to get with modern music. If anything, they avoided it. Being averse to modern music probably favored their becoming career classical musicians. The most important thing one needs is obedience.
Again: seeing Spivakovsky was life-changing for me. I couldn’t say this in 1957, but his technique was like that of a lead rock guitarist. It was some game that was unknown to the teachers available to me. (Like the difference between ping-pong as a pastime and competition ping-pong.) No local violinist, besides me, who attended that 1957 concert saw it as something they had to come to terms with. The best student violinist in Greensboro wasn’t in the audience. (She told me so—many, many years later. As the best student in town, she seemed to be missing in action, a lot.) The classical music fraternity in Greensboro was sleepwalking. There was nobody to talk shop with—nobody.
As for jazz and rock, any fans I may have encountered in those years could not expound them as musical languages. I had great disdain for pop. All the same, rock became a sensation in 1956–57, and I couldn’t resist having a look at it. So I purchased the sheet music of Hound Dog. The sheet music told me nothing. (And I didn’t know why it was so uninformative, when in classical music, the score is the piece.) What I now know is that, as is not the case with classical music, the syntax of rhythm & blues as a musical language (that is what it is) had not been spelled out. (Has not been spelled out, except by me, in unpublished documents.)
I wanted to play Scotty Moore’s solo, and nobody in the world was prepared to notate it even though it is mostly cognate with received notation. They still can’t notate it—myself excepted! You still can’t buy Moore’s solo in score! I am the only person in the world who has recognized that R&B—that is approximately the genre that is at issue here—has a distinct syntax; it needs a notation that concedes that terrible fact.
As I say, I feel like testifying. A few years ago, I made an approximate score for the Moore solo. I asked an expert classical musician to help me with it, pointing out that most of the solo can be duplicated on his instrument, the piano, and that there is a conformed notation for it. (It is not typical for a blues guitar solo to be playable on piano. Moore’s performance is atypical in being a clever translation of blues to classical-cognate music.) This classical musician literally didn’t know what I was asking for. It was the wall of incomprehension I have been contending with all my life. I have spent my life crossing what, for other people, are impenetrable mental (and social) barriers. It is what makes me so confident when I talk in general about template blindness.
Very well, I arrived at 1957 as a somewhat proficient journeyman—not the sort of intuitive player you need to be to make a career of classical music. Playing became more and more of a struggle for me because I saw a problem and didn’t know what to do
If I had begun to be uncomfortable with classical music as such in 1957, I didn’t know that. I gave up on being a repertoire violinist, but serious modern music was a serious hobby for me, and at college, I began to compose. (My first composition that was not child’s work: a monody in quarter-notes for violin, 1958. I was listening to Kirchner, and the chromaticism might have had something to do with that. I destroyed the piece early on. First premiere of a composition of mine, called “Trio,” Paine Hall, Harvard, December 1959. It was my “more Cage than Cage” period. I was the violinist in the ensemble. I have the recording; in fact, it was included in the audio section in the exhibition ±1961, Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2013. I have a violin score from that period which may be indicative.)
Resuming with 1957, I became neurotic, as they say, over accuracy of playing. Very well, I have to back up. Again, the teachers on offer to me were useless. My problem, to begin with, was that my mechanics were broadly faulty. The teachers didn’t systematically diagnose that, and assuredly didn’t tell me what to do about it.
They didn’t know any useful exercises. The Kreutzer Second Etude can be instructive if you know what to do with it. My teacher didn’t know, and I was dabbling uselessly with it. My teachers couldn’t play anything hard—and, with my faulty fundamentals, and lack of knowledge of how to practice, I couldn’t properly address anything hard.
Playing classical music, paper-to-sound conversion, is a task. I was expected to learn pieces which musically were utterly unrewarding, for competitions. (My teacher chose them because they would be counted as hard without actually being hard. Like a team coach, he was interested in winning.) I could not refuse the assignments without admitting that I didn’t belong there.
Again, I was in a high school orchestra (eventually, as concertmaster). Interlochen also: the emphasis was on orchestral playing. And I couldn’t see anything good about being in the middle of many indifferent renditions of the same line. (Orchestras which are not top-flight assume a range of proficiency, and presumably have the custom of competition for chairs to hide stumbling players.)
As an aside, I have to acknowledge that my teacher shaped up the high school orchestra to the point where it could give a recognizable reading of a substantial symphonic movement. (At the Music Educators Conference in Saint Louis in April 1956, our senior high school orchestra was called the best high school orchestra in the nation. As I say, the mentor whose path my path had crossed was a competitor.) My guess: our student orchestral performances were something of an illusion. One would not want to hear what an individual violinist in the back was doing.
Again, the ostensible issue in my breakdown was accuracy of playing. Classical music has a perfection standard. As it happens, it is unforgiving without being cognizant of the actual issues. (Again Szigeti on the Violin, “There Is No Substitute For Perfect Intonation.”) Very well, I decided that playing in a high school orchestra could only degrade my auditory judgment, and I quit. (The year before, I had quit the massed orchestra at Interlochen. All this quitting was unheard-of.) But I wasn’t getting anywhere with trying to play perfectly.
Very well, if I had had myself today as my teacher then, I might have gotten over the hurdle. But I didn’t.
My mechanics were faulty; and as I say, I could not properly address anything hard until that was addressed. And again, there are intonation issues which are intrinsic to classical music and the fifths tuning. And again, I took the perfection standard seriously because it exists. It brought me to an impasse.
With what I know today, I think I could have made a lot of recommendations to my youthful self. They will be found in the Annexes on practicing and teaching. But in 1957 no such instruction was on offer, and I dropped out, deeply frustrated—in a highly quarrelsome situation.
In the end, the only thing I was willing to do was to play on open strings. (Is that why there is so much open-string playing in my 1959 score which might have had something to do with Trio? The score survived and was included in my 2013 exhibition at ZKM.)
All the same, as I muse about what happened, I realize that it was better that I was not redeemed as a classical violinist, and better that I exited in acrimony. Unconsciously, I may have preferred immobilization. It was time for the pupal stage.
At Harvard, I was slammed with Cage at the beginning of my second semester. (Not in any music course. I didn’t go near Piston’s Music Faculty.) I didn’t like it. (The first Cage I heard was deadly dull. So, Young before Young.) All the while, as I said above, I accepted totally that new music comprises intellectual progress—that one has to be informed about it to be intellectually literate. (I already alluded in II.A to established precedent as regards music of the future.) And I accepted that one has to be informed about European music before 1600 to be musically literate. I studied all of it assiduously, returning to the music library so often that Ezra Sims would laugh when I walked in.
I was given to understand that post–Second World War modernism was now the going thing and that you had to get with it or fall by the wayside. All the while, I had no loyalty to conservative modern music (as my schoolmate Serge Tcherepnin evidently had at that time). I was ready for the avant-garde’s misbehavior because I was frustrated.
And what is directly relevant here: “indeterminacy” no longer told you exactly what pitch or duration you had to produce. Feldman’s scores (and Brown’s) relaxed the perfection standard.
But my adventure in these years involved more than coming to terms with post–Second World War modern music: the very repertoire that now has shelves and shelves of books devoted to it in university libraries as experts struggle to puzzle out Christian Wolff and so forth.
I got hold of the Angel release by Ali Akbar Khan, perhaps in fall 1958. It was outside the European orbit. Or was it? However wrong we may have been, we heard some of it as cognate with classical music. Because it was such a formidable musical language with a severe perfection ideal. I wasn’t going to affiliate with it: not only was no instruction on offer; perfection was a stumbling block
For completeness, Harvard afforded access to a varied musical menu. Not only was the new music represented. There was the opportunity to hear recordings of Japanese traditional music. I heard Hugh Tracey lecture on African drumming. There was a veena performance in Paine Hall. Terrific as it may have been, none of it could have been a role model for me.
I still considered myself an aspirant in serious modern music, but now I made my first substantial departure. One could improvise serious modern music rather than scoring and performing it. Of course, that abandoned one of the defining features of serious music: computationalism. The impenetrability of the discrete structure to performer and audience alike. Now, face value was what you got.
I eschewed an accuracy norm. There were no scales as pitch or duration norms. (It was the first time I noticed that the violin is not a piano.) Played pizzicato with strings loosened arbitrarily? Ukelele position? It was decidedly plinky.
For the first time in years, I was comfortable picking up the violin. (Ornette Coleman arrived at vaguely the same posture some years later, and his efforts became released recordings. I don’t endorse them. I find them the worst of his oeuvre.)
At the same time, or soon after, I poured effort into whistling. Whistling is “fretless” unless you scale it like a classical singer.
Since this is an annex on theory, I might as well follow through. What I was doing with the violin was not Scelsi. Scelsi (as far as I know) required his improvising string quartet to play within classical music’s pitch and duration scales. So that the result could be transcribed and become retraversable for any string quartet. Classical music had discontinued improvisation in performance. I gave a considerable context for that in (II) above.
This may be the place to say that I had come to look back in anger on classical music as an institutional custom. I arrived at a (utopian) reason to object to the competition for chairs in the orchestra (which Interlochen made so much of). Very well, that was part of a utopian critique of art which doesn’t belong here. A composer who is trying to get something out of a team of musicians (in jazz, sidemen) is not in a position to disdain proficiency in the relevant language.
I must say that this is not the place to chronicle comprehensively what I did in those years. Of course I won’t detail what I did outside music, but neither can I cover everything I did in music (“music”). There were too many sorties in too many directions to take them all in here—and other people’s sorties were coming at me from many directions. For example, “music” (which is not music) as pre-concept art doesn’t belong here.
As to jazz, I had been having an ongoing debate with myself about it. At first, I listened to it defensively, to convince myself that I didn’t have to take it seriously. I had no use for Bird. Solo jazz piano sounded to me like homophonic music with an Impressionist sense of harmony. I had bought into European modernism’s mystique of computationalism.
Coltrane and Coleman came up through the nightclub business; at the end of the 1950s, they transformed the by-now well-modulated bop (Red Garland!) into something else, a genre or genres that had not previously existed. (The attacks on them in the jazz magazines urgently recommended them to me.)
I bought a lot of jazz albums I only dimly remember now. In particular, Ornette Coleman was an icon—he got famous for unconfined jazz. I loved it that he and Cherry played toy instruments. A conventional jazz musician said of Coleman in one of the magazines that he would not be able to play a C major scale in whole notes on the saxophone. That was what I was waiting for. You didn’t have to be perfect—or rather, you didn’t have to convince the Philistines you were perfect. (As a matter of fact, when they wanted to, Coleman and Cherry could play their version of bop brilliantly. They were incredible natural talents. All the same, “changes” players continued to disparage them. La Monte Young spoke slightingly of Coleman to me in December 1960, presumably because Coleman had abandoned the changes. Much, much later, Cecil Taylor told me in the back room at Max Fish on Ludlow St. that Coleman could not play bop. I said, “you mean he doesn’t make the changes?” He said, “that’s it.”)
By this point, I had switched sides. I was beginning to despise European art music as a project. Lenny Bruce had impersonated a bopster on his comedy album Interviews of Our Times. When the announcer asked the bopster “What about Julliard?” the bopster said, “Nothing’s happenin’.” It was supposed to be comedy. For me it was a revelation and a battle cry.
At the same time, I began to realize that the genre at issue didn’t have to be jazz. Jazz, to put it unsparingly, has a cocktail lounge focus. I read Charters on the country blues, and sent away for the mail-order LP he had put together. Not so long after that, the Columbia release of Robert Johnson appeared.
I continued to spin away from classical music: to rock. The stations I listened to had mixed play-lists, from the Drifters to Paul Anka. It was to my advantage that rock was open to all chancers—that it did not have an authenticity norm.
Once again, a comedy recording spurred my theoretical orientation. This time it was Stan Freberg’s The Old Payola Roll Blues. It came along in a year critical in this story, 1960. I will always think of it by the first line, “High school, ooh ooh.”
Lenny Bruce’s bit was implicitly sympathetic to the bopster he was impersonating. But Freberg’s bit was intended as devastating ridicule of rock. But with me, the ridicule backfired. The suggestion that a wildly successful form of popular music was rudimentary, and incompetent, and gained its signature yelps when the producer jabbed the hapless singer with a stick was liberating to me. I instantly associated it with the derision that was heaped on Ornette Coleman in Downbeat.
As I say, I launched sorties in many directions. By 1960, I was conversant with “new music” and was composing it myself. (There were still scandals on offer, though. Cage in Time magazine, 21 March and 8 October 1960. Time loved it that it could report modern art as demented buffoonery. 8 October 1960, in Venice, had to have been because of the tie incident in atelier Mary Bauermeister.) Coltrane and Coleman were on offer in jazz. I knew something about Young, although I would not get the full treatment until I met him in New York in December 1960.
As I already said, I had arrived by my own route at improvised modern music. (It must be modern music because it is in no expressive language—while having the angularity and pointillism of modern music.)
Coleman and Cherry arrived at something which was recognizably jazz but which had been loosed from its moorings. That was the direction that proved to be most important to me.
As an instrumentalist, playing scores no longer came into it. I was basically involved with head arrangements. It was years before I returned to staff notation. I don’t remember owning a music stand at that point.
None of my first experiments in modern music improvisation on the violin yielded anything I would have been willing to allot time to listen to. I don’t remember recording anything. The reason the sorties have to be mentioned here is that as opposed to playing indeterminate scores (where the score still tells you where to be), I was improvising without an accuracy norm. I had rendered the stumbling block of 1957 irrelevant. (Is that what Earle Brown wanted you to do with his scores? I didn’t know, and
Let me pick up with jazz and Coleman. I had access to a piano (on which I had had no formal training, basically). As with learning to swim by jumping in the water, I steered myself to what I thought of as Coleman jazz piano. (A novelty, since Coleman gave no role to the piano.) A bop feel, the right hand playing a line, the left hand chording with no regard for tonality.
A Harvard schoolmate and jazz pianist who had studied at the Berklee workshop at the Newport Jazz Festival called my playing a fraud. That’s what they were saying about Coleman. (Not to belabor the topic, but when I attended the SNCC jazz benefit at the Village Theater, December 22, 1966—and reviewed it for a radical newspaper—free jazz had gotten to the point that jazz sensibility had disappeared. The few in the audience who affected to like it must have been taken with the energy. Recognized jazzmen had become the frauds.)
Again, I can only hit the high spots. Again, a comprehensive account is out of the question. When, in December 1960, Young took me to Maxfield’s studio to be able to play tapes, I played him my “Coleman piano” tape and a tape of my virtuoso whistling. As for the piano tape, Young liked my right hand but not my left. (Young didn’t like my chording because they weren’t legitimate changes?)
Young played for me “Cans on Windows” as he then called it. I perceived it as noise saturation. (Which it isn’t.)
(Cage’s Concert For Piano and Orchestra was and was not a precedent. It assembles unrelated thematic articulation: recognizable orchestra motifs.)
Music (?) no longer had to be differentiated, “thematic.” Noise saturation was a possibility. That instantly became the new norm for me as regards “sound art.” It must have brought my “lyrical” or “koto-like” improvised modern music to an end.
I owe Young a major acknowledgement. He was the first person I met who substantially saw me as an original and wanted to move me along for that reason. He was the impresario for most of what I did on the public record in the early years. My February 1961 appearances in Ono’s loft were at at Young’s invitation.
February 25 (already mentioned) was the more provocative outing. Cage was in the middle of the front row. But I have to underline the irony. I had entirely gone over to the other side and was now an enemy of the people I was performing for. At the same time, avant-garde tricks were still churning in my head. I tried to open with some of that “Ornette Coleman” jazz piano—but I had to abandon it because the pretentiously radical audience was so square that I couldn’t get it going. (One had to be “on” to bring it off. As in the case of the earliest Coleman, the jazz sensibility had to be recognizable. But, as in the case of Coleman, it wasn’t aligned with notation. Assuredly there was no chart—if that has to be said.)
Resigning myself to providing an avant-garde evening, I continued with two noise-piano sorties. (I recreated them at ZKM in 2013 and they should be available on the Internet.) I “played the clarinet” by way of separating the mouthpiece and biting the reed. (The approach turned up as “Free Alto 1964,” released on Raga Electric.) There was a lot more to it, but the story doesn’t belong here. The next afternoon, I performed a post-Indeterminacy violin score of mine, for example. (It only specified fingers with which bowed pitches had to be stopped in the open zone on I. More Feldman than Feldman?) But even though it was assuredly odd, I abandoned it as pointless.
Back in Cambridge in 1961, I still respected noise saturation as sound art (if I may use an updated terminology.) That is evident from my favorable mention of Cans on Windows in the concept art essay. I proceeded to do an analogue of the piece I knew as “Cans on Windows” on the violin. I slackened the strings, prepared the violin with coins and toothpicks, played arco, and tried to keep three strings going at once. The recording of the acoustic violin was supposed to be played very loud; a listener wouldn’t especially know that it was violin. The recording was played over WHRB to publicize our upcoming March 31, 1961 concert.
No 1961 documentation survives. However, I did a recreation at ZKM in 2013. (It should be available on the Internet.) I added something new in the recreation; I moved the toothpick as I bowed.
Then there was the March 31, 1961 concert at Harvard. The body of that concert is not relevant here. But: an afterward to that concert gave me the direction in musical language that would matter most to me from then on.
When the intransigently avant-garde concert was over, Young sat at the piano and played what he presumably thought of as minimalist jazz piano. Basic blues comping. (In hindsight, rather flatfooted. Just for accuracy, at that time, Young was playing a triplet swing rhythm. I would convince him to switch to a duplet rhythm à la the rock–R&B crossover. But there was never any sense of a back beat.)
Right then, I said that Young and I had to rehearse together; I would bring the violin. We rehearsed in Ezra Sims’ house in Roxbury, on April 1, I believe. (I must have tuned GCgc, and asked Young to play in C.) I wanted to do more with it; the next chance we got was when I came to New York in January 1962.
After April 1, I started transposing Young’s comping to violin (double stops with G and c as sympathetic strings)—triplet rhythm and all. The riffs that end Everlovin’ are a tribute to those 1961–62 sessions.
If Scelsi started by repeating one note on the piano, and worked outward from that, I started with a single phrase of “Young comping” and worked outward from it. I suppose it was indispensable that I had an open schedule; I could focus on one riff, varying and extending it until I was satisfied that I had a piece. An organic way of working.
What did Young have, or add, that the “storming” jazzmen didn’t have? Riffing could be the core of a piece. Once you arrived at the right place, you didn’t need to leave it. And while Young was not tonic pedal-point, he was close enough to make tonic pedal-
point the obvious next step to me.
After a while, I made a distinct break with Hindustani precedent, which I otherwise was mindful of. (Of course, passing chords over a pedal point were already a break with Hindustani culture.) In the middle of an improvisation, I would modulate to the fifth, treat it as the pedal-point for a while, then return to the tonic. After I took guitar lessons from Lou Reed in 1965, I began to include some of rock’s “outrageous” parallel motion in what I was doing.
One surviving piece of staff paper provides a little evidence on these little-documented years. It needs to be in the References. Let me label the original HILLBILLY JIVE notes (1966). I have just now made a fair copy of it which is much easier to decipher.
It shows me working out the characteristically rock I, IV, bIII6, IV, I on the open-tuned violin. Notably, it also has the opening dyads of Acoustic Hillbilly Jive (without the attack indications and without the triplet rhythm).
Presumably in 1961, I had retrieved my song flute and was playing it as a proxy for saxophone. Before I moved to New York in 1963.
I used Young’s piano playing as a basis for developing head arrangements on the violin and the song flute. I seem to remember that I tapped the beat with my right foot when playing song flute. It’s not just an aside. The tap was a “voice” and would have to be heard clearly in a recording. Did I tap my foot already when playing violin in 1961? Only a recording from that time would settle the matter. By the time I arrived at Acoustic Hillbilly Jive in 1963, the tapping foot was essential.
It was as if I had moved away from classical music’s accuracy norm to a different continent. European art music allowed itself in the twentieth century to stop being a native language. The piece became defined by a diagram with underlying calibrations. That diagram could be—and has been—realized mechanically—even if the Romantic sensibility does not find that satisfactory. (But modern music did everything it could to kill the Romantic sensibility.)
Very well, I had gone over to a spinoff of African-American music: which takes something basic as a core, and then branches out to unexplored territory. The nearest to what I was doing that survives and has been published: Acoustic Hillbilly Jive of December 1963. I have just now decided that I want to spell out what happens with that piece. It is an arduous study. See the score and text I have lately drafted.
Acoustic Hillbilly Jive (December 1963): Analyzing The Head Arrangement 55 Years Later
But I must say that AHJ is markedly different from where I started in 1961. In 1961, there wasn’t any ukelele-style introduction. I didn’t wall off the bowing from the left-hand riff. I may not have used overtone melismas. But I very effectively played long glissandi on the outer strings against the middle (drone) strings. I have already mentioned fair copy, HILLBILLY JIVE notes, 1966. It has an indication of that device of glissandi against the middle strings. I am trying to make the chart more informative for the fair copy. I will also add the core riff from my mid-1961 trials.
My Young-derived genre is heard by pretty much everyone as hillbilly, and I opted to title it that. With that said, it’s not especially hillbilly. The violin, bowing, perfect fifths from open strings will be heard as hillbilly. But the harmony and sense of syncopation are African-American. It’s a fusion genre.
Well! I called “Hoedown” “Hoedown.” I was cuing anybody who noticed to perceive it as hillbilly. But for anyone who could hear (almost no one), it was an obvious boogie with a (guitar E) run not unlike Chuck Berry. I suppose I was straddling genres because it sounded right to me.
Let me underline where I was in the early years. My album purchases were African-American, African, or rock. I wasn’t interested in standard-issue hillbilly music. It wasn’t until the 1970s that I detoured to familiarize myself with standard-issue hillbilly music, and began to listen to country pop. But anything I gleaned from that fed into the fusion. “White Lightnin’ ” opens with a boogie which syntactically is entirely African-American. (By the way, I importantly rewrote an entire section of White Lightnin’ after the published recordings.) “Lonesome Train Dreams” (recorded 1975, released on Graduation in 2001) pioneers what I call funky country.
Let me take up my strategy in a practice session. In the early 1960s, I grew into the genre as if it were a native language. At that time I wasn’t notating it. As I think of it, my accuracy norm was like the accuracy norm for natural language. Certain points have to be hit for it to be understandable, recognizable.
As an arcane detail, there is, for speech, an auditory illusion which illustrates that. The same word can be heard as markedly different words according to the frequency response of the listener’s hearing.
Very well, above I said that tonal functions have to be recognizable. In other respects, a performance can be idiosyncratic, as speech is. When I say “genuine improvisation required,” I’m channeling Ornette Coleman. Impossibility of exact reproducibility becomes the piece. One aims for an overall effect while details are supplied impromptu and will not be reproducible.
In the years in which I focused on my own compositions in the open tuning, if I had been away from the violin, I had a short warm-up before I would begin playing anything musically significant. I did not go through the comprehensive warm-up I do now, when my compositions can be cognate with classical music and when I learn sections of classical scores to investigate technique.
Playing is a different experience in the two cases.
My music, if I may say, has soul. When I practice it, I can start sloppily, and converge to the intended result. Playing classical music, for me, is a task. Getting it right doesn’t give anything back. I need a full warm-up so I can be mechanically accurate. (Even if I need to practice at a slower tempo, or ring in ossias.)
By switching genres, by inventing a new ethnic music, modal and justly tuned, I found a way around the perfection problem, not to say the tempered scale problem. It’s not that it is OK to mangle my compositions. It is that you come to sufficient accuracy and proficiency by a different route. “Genuine improvisation required.” You handle the instrument in a way that can’t be scored point-to-point or repeated point-to-point.
Looking back, in no way did the period of my crisis of the violin amount to wasted years. Coming out of that crisis, I produced many experimental scores and recordings—which I destroyed when I decided that that was not where I wanted to go. All the while, it was my larval stage. In 1961, cued by the Young encore to the March 31, 1961 concert, I emerged to the path I have taken from 1961 to today.
As for the acrimony and frustration that went with dropping out in 1957, it was unavoidable. I had no other way to exit than to be uncooperative and self-inhibited. There is a lesson there. Acrimony may be the only route to where you need to go. Coming together in comity, not to say harmony, cannot be a categorical imperative. I simply cannot regret my failure to please people who did not support my development because it was beyond their comprehension. (For that matter, who could not give me first-class conventional instruction as they were being paid for. I always remember what I heard one music teacher say to another music teacher during my high-school orchestra years. “You always end up having to teach yourself.” It’s outrageous—but it’s true.)
I didn’t belong on the trodden path. I needed to get off. All the while, there was nobody who could tell me what it was about, or tell me how to negotiate the acrimony gracefully. It helped me along to be up with the “new music” at Harvard, but I would turn against it, vehemently. (Again, it was not Ali Akbar Khan that did it; it was Coltrane, Coleman, and Robert Johnson. And knowing Young in person.) Avant-garde music is for you if you want to participate in the collective suicide, as if the civilization were Jonestown.
I was uncoupling from a practice I had accepted as prestigious—in order to steer toward a practice that was nonexistent until I began to assemble it in 1961.