Speaking of visually stimulating…
This was in the VHS rotation at my apartment during my undergraduate tenure at UNF (shout out to my apartment-mate Ryan). I also seem to recall random shots of tropical birds.
Improvisation as temporal composition.
I think the above phrase is a useful (if somewhat tenuous) analogy and I found myself coming back to this idea repeatedly in my dissertation research.
There are a number of musicians who demonstrate this concept and improvise at a high level. They develop themes, modify phrasing, elude to outside sources, create tension, etc. etc. However, they have to create and compose under the constraints of time. A composer has the benefit of working outside of time. They can go back and change things, work out of sequence, and modify at any point.
I believe that is one of the many challenges and rewards of improvising. Once you’ve played it, you can’t go back and change it.
This also makes me think of all the factors that go into that moment of creation. In some cases, it may be a completely original idea or a reaction to something from a fellow musician. It may be a learned device (I hesitate to use the word “lick”). It may be an emotion or color that somehow translates in the improviser’s mind into a series of pitches and rhythms.
This can include sources outside the music-making elements on stage (i.e ourselves and those we play with). Jason Palmer, one of the other interviewees for my paper, mentioned playing a jazz festival where the stage lights flashed different colors every few seconds. He wondered if it changed the way he played, being visually stimulated.
For Jason’s “analysis” portion of the dissertation, he selected a live performance of his composition Abu Abed from his weekly gig at Wally’s Jazz Cafe in Boston (also featuring my good friend Michael Thomas on Alto Saxophone). Before his solo, the audience was cheering for the guitarist. One person cheered very clearly on a bent concert E. Jason used that cheer as the opening note of his solo and developed the bent note motive throughout.
Above is a video of Tim Hagans’ Animation/Imagination group performing in 2000. The name of that record alone (as well as Audible Architecture) eludes to the visual connection. Would the performances differed at all with no lighting changes (or no light at all); what if there was a dance company on stage? I think it’s something to ponder…
Of course, we could also opt to take musical inspiration or material from even more abstract sources, such as someone’s facial expression. I have to give a shout out to my friend Rich Willey for his take on visualization in improvisation:
“Thanks Matt … y’know, I could have saved you a lot of time on your DMA thesis about “Visualization in Improvisation.” Just take your average male jazz player, record him playing a solo, then bring in a beautiful woman and have her sit in the front row and record him soloing again and see if that visualization improves the improvisations.
It’s a no-brainer, really.”
I asked each of the “subjects” in my dissertation research to select one recorded performance they recalled as having a strong visual experience. I transcribed their solos and conducted a follow-up interview, comparing the aural elements of listening and notational analysis to their visual experience.
Tim Hagans chose his performance of I Hear A Rhapsody from the album Audible Architecture (Blue Note 1995), featuring Billy Kilson on drums and Larry Grenadier on bass.
I mentioned before that a key component of Tim’s visual experience and musical intent is tied into the physical “comfort” of playing the trumpet. The timing of this particular recording date was interesting as Tim was recovering from adult chicken-pox. In this excerpt from the interview, Tim recalls this particular performance and the events leading up to the recording…
“Well, I’ve heard this solo many times, and I actually like it… I like everything on that record. It was a little under duress, and what I’m about to say will lead up to what I was trying to do musically, because I remember specific things I was trying to do on this tune, the break, everything…
I had Chicken Pox. I got it from my kids and I didn’t have it as a child.”
Yes, we discussed this last time and you mentioned that your Mom initially said that you had it as a child, but you really didn’t.
“You’re right, and so when I went into the session, I had been playing. Even when I was feeling bad, I was still playing and trying to practice. We had a couple of rehearsals and we also had a gig at Smalls – which was the only time I’ve played at Smalls. So I felt pretty good. This was going to be the first thing on the record and I wanted it to be burning the whole way through. So when I played that break, I was hoping that Billy Kilson (drums) would just come in just screaming. That break is above the staff, in the upper register… and all of a sudden, Larry Grenadier is playing a two-feel and it was kind-of ‘spacey.’ Immediately I had to switch gears, but there was disappointment – within two seconds after the break. I had a pre-conceived notion of what I wanted to happen and that is always dangerous (laughs).
So I went with what they were doing and it turned out to be fine. Now I can’t imagine it being any other way. I remember certain emotions recording the solo. I think we did two or three versions – it would be interesting for me to go back and listen to the other ones that weren’t picked.
I remember coming in the next day – the day (Bob) Belden was going to come in and do his tunes. He came in and we were listening to the different versions of “I Hear A Rhapsody” and I said ‘I want to do another take today, before you get your horn out, we’re going to do just one more.’ He looked at me - he had heard the takes – and he said, ‘You’re crazy, you’re writing the book on this, and the book is great. Take this one and leave it.’ He’s a very smart person and I’m never sorry that I took his advice.
I remember thinking that this is going to be the first track on the record and I want it to be like “Without A Song” from the Freddie Hubbard record “Hub of Hubbard.” It’s one of the great Freddie Hubbard records and that Freddie solo is just… so that’s the model I had in my head, and it’s always dangerous to have a model as well, because it puts you in that frame of mind, and it created disappointment right when I started playing.
So I went with it and I thought, okay I’m not going to try and burn eighth notes over what they’re playing, but I’m going to try and play flowing and melodic.”
I’ve attached a picture slide show of the transcription in the post below. My next series of posts will cover Tim’s recollections and analysis of this particular solo, including some useful advice on improvising over standard material, phrasing, harmonic approach, and of course, his visual and emotional experiences.
When I started planning for this research, I expected to focus solely on the connections created between aural and visual information. Even as we (musicians) perform and listen to music intently – training our ears to recognize and decipher musical content – we are still barraged with visual imagery during every waking moment.
Although it makes perfect sense in hindsight, what I didn’t realize until undergoing these interviews is that the physical component of what it “feels like” to play certain musical gestures is important, and in the case of my three initial interviewees, intertwined with the visual and aural components of improvisation.
About ten minutes into our first interview, Tim Hagans used the term “Emotional Harmonic System” to describe his harmonic approach to improvising. This is a great example of what I described in my “Welcome” post as differentiating between process and product.
Listening to Tim’s playing (at least early on), I assumed that he was employing “advanced” harmonic techniques while improvising. His lines contain chromaticism and “side-slipping,” but I also noticed considerable attention to voice-leading and finding ways to outline important pitches within the harmonic structure of tunes. Tim certainly does that purposely (something we did discuss in checking out his solo on I Hear A Rhapsody), but I assumed it was based on something theoretical and learned.
(Sample of Tim’s solo on I Hear A Rhapsody - although there is a lot of chromaticism, he’s also playing specific “inside” harmonic pitches in strong rhythmic locations)
Just as every chord and pitch has a visual component of individual and unique colors, Tim also feels that every pitch and its harmonic function can have an emotional aspect. This can also be influenced by the way it feels to play that note or, specifically, how the note resonates and feels on the trumpet. This notion requires some explanation, so I’ll start by quoting our first conversation. Tim mentioned that he closes his eyes when he improvises, probably stemming from some interesting and humorous events in his early career (more on that later).
“ …unless I have to read chord changes, I play with my eyes closed. A lot of times I’m in a situation where it’s original music and there are a couple of rehearsals for a recording or concert, and even in those situations I try to get as much as I can memorized.
I tend to play or think melodically – when I say play, I mean improvise. I tend to improvise where my eyes are, which are always a little bit ahead of the music, because as you read…”
You’re always looking ahead…
“As your brain interprets what you just saw. So I find that I’m melodically hindered, because I’m only playing into the next bar. I’m not thinking of the whole overall phrase, which may happen to be eight bars, or twelve bars… or whatever phrase I’m in the middle of. I’m playing shorter and it definitely affects the way I play because I’m playing where my eyes are – instead of where the creative cosmos wants to take me.
So I try to get everything memorized as quickly as possible and of course, playing standards or stuff that I know already – it’s not an issue, you know?”
Do you feel that playing with your eyes closed allows the visual element of improvising to come more into play?
“Well yeah, I think it does a couple of things.
First of all, because I’m not directly visually stimulated, it increases the strength of the other senses – specifically audibly. Because I can tune into the drums – I get most of my inspiration from the drums, not so much from the other harmonic instruments, unless again, it’s material that I don’t know that well… I basically focus on the drums because that’s the rhythm – that’s what I don’t go through – a trumpet player can only play one note at a time, playing horizontal melodies and I need something to surf over. So for me, it’s the drums.
The harmonic instruments – of course on a more subtle level I’m absorbing what they’re doing, but it’s not in my “front brain” kind of consciousness.”
Do you think that may be surprising to people? I think many people would hear your playing and think it’s coming from a very advanced harmonic place – but you’re more focused on the rhythmic component.
“Well no, the reason I block out the harmony is that (laughs) I have my own stuff going on.”
“So that I am adhering to harmony and where things are going, but they’re not defined by the harmony that we derive from piano with twelve keys in the octave. It’s more of an emotional harmony.
If we go back to language – language is very limited. The point of language is to describe, in art anyway and literature, human emotion. It’s to tell a story, but the story sometimes is just there because you need to tell some kind of story, it’s really about decisions, emotions, and how people interact.
With language they say that French and Russian are the most descriptive languages to use as an author, but they’re still very limited. If you think of the whole spectrum of human emotion, and you try to describe that in language, forget it. That’s the point of being an author or playwright, using language to TRY to describe the human existence.
(Dostoyevsky - A Locrian type of guy?)
Well, I look at harmony the same way. We’re bound, because of our ears and evolution, to accept half-steps. Other cultures may accept quarter-steps or bending notes. In jazz, we’re stuck with chords and harmony that’s derived from twelve-tone chromaticism. To truly describe human emotion and existence, we would need a piano with eighth-steps, or sixteenth-steps because we’re all so completely crazy in this world and we’re trying to describe that.
To me it’s very limiting what a piano or guitar player plays because it’s a very limiting tool to describe human emotion. So that’s what I mean when I hear my own things, it’s nothing that an instrument could play – it’s emotional descriptions of my life up to that point when I improvise that tell me what notes to play on the trumpet, where I’m stuck to the twelve-tone system.
So when I have my eyes closed, I can hone in on that thing. If I’m listening to anything, it’s the drums. I’m listening with my ears, but that is hooked up to this emotional harmonic system that I’m involved in and that dictates what I should play. There is definitely along with that, an energy force, which is why I hook in with the drums – that rhythmic energy thing.
“This is why Coltrane went through so many drummers before we settled on Elvin (Jones). He knew from listening to Elvin that he was the cat for him, because Elvin never went to brushes on the seventh chorus, or dropped out, or thought “You know, I think it would be great if we went into double-time.” Elvin said “What’s the tempo? I’ll see you at the end, wherever that is” and he just pounded out the time. That’s what I need too. So many drummers today are “cymbalists,” and this is not a criticism – I just know what I need to give me inspiration. I don’t think I’m a natural-born trumpet player. It’s always been a struggle, and I’m always trying to play things I can’t – but if I’m playing with a drummer who’s really laying it out there, it makes it easier to hook into this emotional harmonic area.”
Since there are so many physical challenges associated with playing the trumpet, this comfort and “activation” created by Tim’s relationship with the drums is a point to which he returned often, particularly in describing performances he’s been happy with. This all tied into the visual element of seeing colors and contours that I previously discussed.
Tim further described his emotional system as a combination of physiological effects based on both the physical “feeling” of playing specific pitches as well as the pitch functions in certain harmonic situations. This amalgamation creates a variety of “emotional situations” that can be unique to harmonic progressions and keys of a particular song. For example, different pitches that have the same harmonic functions in different keys can have completely unique emotional qualities when partnered with the physical element of what it feels like to play them.
“If you listen to Miles (Davis) play on “Walkin’” – so a blues in F (concert). He plays the concert Ab above the staff – that’s a great note on the trumpet – in the context of being the minor 3rd on a major blues. That #9 sound, it has a lot of emotion spinning in it. It’s just incredible, the action in that particular note.
Now the other key we tend to play the blues in is Bb. The concert Db, down in the staff, is the same technical note (in terms of chord relationship), the #9, yet it has nowhere near the same energy on the trumpet as the Ab does when we’re playing a blues in F. So people pick keys based on how they feel and how they sound when you play in them. A lot of people play “Alone Together” in C minor, and I have played it in C minor, but I like it much better in D minor – where most people play it. There are certain notes in certain events in that tune that I like to choose – they feel better, they make me feel like playing because I’m involved in the experience up a whole-step.”
Conversely, the emotional quality of a pitch can also be dependent on its harmonic function in the harmony or tonality of a song. Tim described how the same pitch, Ab functioning as the #9 or b3 in F, has a different emotional quality and feel than when used in E, where is it enharmonically spelled G# and functions as the major third. When played in E, the G# does not have the same emotional quality since it’s not tied to an interesting harmonic event, although it may physically feel the same to play it.
(same pitch, same physical feeling, different emotional reaction)
“I still find myself using it (the G#) to get to the #9 (G), Even if it’s an E triad or E13. Even that G does not have the same vibrancy, it’s not worse, but it just has a different feel, even though it’s a half-step down, functioning in the same way. It’s all very specific to each half-step. I’m sure in other cultures, it’s more specific to each quarter or eighth step.
That’s where this music comes from, vocalizing, and horn players trying to imitate the minute changes in a note that the voice can do. An instrument made up of buttons and tubes cannot perhaps get that specific, but we’re trying.
So there are emotional grades that are minute that we all have to be tied into.”
So in this case, it’s an emotional response, but there is also a physical component of what it feels like to play a specific note.
“Yes, and I don’t really hear anyone talking about that, or maybe it’s a non-issue. I don’t know. I have a physical feeling because with the trumpet you’re so physically involved to begin with, and I think on any instrument, you’re involved physically. It just feels a certain way to play certain notes, and then you add that to my emotional thing, then that further affects your physical feeling.
If you watch a movie or read a book, you have an emotional experience – or even in real-life, when you have an interaction with a physical person – there are feelings that go along with that. It’s all combined, and I think when you hook into that, you become a more sensitive, honest and true-to-yourself player.”
From “Sam and Friends” (1959) - Featuring an Early Kermit the Frog and Harry the Hipster. I used this clip as an introduction for my lecture recital at the U this past April. I find it interesting that the piano music is depicted as musical notes and Harry’s improvisation as abstract shapes and lines.
I’m finishing up a lengthy post on Tim Hagans’ “Emotional Harmonic System” that should be up either tomorrow or Friday. Thanks for reading!
I interviewed Tim Hagans in November of 2010 and again the following January about his visual experiences and the improvisational process. I’ll skip the lengthy bio presented in the dissertation and tell you that Tim has been one of my favorite improvisers on trumpet since I first heard his playing on Maria Schneider’s debut album, Evanescence.
Tim has done a few records for Blue Note (notably Audible Architecture, Animation-Imagination), working closely with Bob Belden, and has stayed busy for the past few years as the leader and musical director of the Norbotten Big Band - based in Lulea, Sweden. In addition to his work as a performer and composer, Tim is a seasoned educator and great communicator. His interviews were introspective, informative, and often very humorous when describing his approach and visual experience during improvisation.
In discussing the visual element, Tim experiences contours and colors when improvising. I’m not sure (and neither was Tim at the time of the interviews) whether his color experience is actually synesthesia. If you’re not familiar with the term, look it up for a definitive explanation – but in discussing music, we’re referring to sound-color synesthesia, which is literally experiencing colors visually as a by-product of listening to music. Although I wouldn’t call it “common” in musicians and composers, there are some notable examples, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Liszt, Scriabin, and supposedly Duke Ellington and Billy Joel.
(Scriabin’s Color Associations for the Circle of Fifths - there seems to be some disagreement among color relationships and whether Scriabin was a true synesthete…)
If you’re familiar with Tim’s playing, you’ll also notice that he takes a number of “liberties” harmonically, particularly in his approach to playing standard jazz material. Tim employs what he describes as an “emotional harmonic system” in his approach to harmony and playing the changes. Although this isn’t directly visual, it does tie in to his color experiences and the physical element of playing the trumpet - all of which are interrelated - while improvising.
Since my wife informs me that the key to a successful blog is concise and shorter posts, we’ll focus on shapes and colors first. I’ll post complete interview transcriptions as separate posts down the road.
Tim visualizes chord changes and pitches in the transposed key for Bb trumpet (up a whole step from concert pitch). Since Tim was involved in school music programs growing up and the developing experiences of working with various big bands (notably Stan Kenton), my theory is that reading Bb trumpet parts early and throughout his career is an influencing factor. We often switched between the transposed and concert keys during our interviews, so I’ll add the designation to any direct quotes.
Tim experiences every chord change and particular pitch he may choose to play as having distinct color relationships:
“Every Letter in the alphabet, every number, every group of numbers, letters, words, and notes has a color – individual colors. When you combine those colors, sometimes it’s a combination of those colors, or one color takes over and dominates the entire word. When I hear you speak, I see colors with the words you are using.
It’s the same thing when I’m playing. Certain notes always have the same color, but they may change depending on the register. G# (transposed) is always kind-of green, but Ab is kind-of maroon. So it depends, if I’m playing over F# minor and I play the G#, it’s the green element of that. If I’m playing F minor and play the Ab, that’s more of a maroon. F minor in general is kind-of tan. I think these things change too – I don’t think F minor was always tan – it might be just for today, or for awhile.”
These color associations are unique to every musical situation and often feature shadings and dovetailings of various color combinations. Tim also describes the visual palette during improvisation as a combination of general contours, colors, and specific notes on the backdrop of staff paper – as if he’s visualizing a unique form of notation while improvising.
(Tim’s opening phrase from the “Original Drums and Bass” - Animation - Imagination)
“So there’s colors, and I also see contours. It’s as though there is a transcription – in a very abstract way. I see a contour, which points to where I want to play – the line or direction – but I haven’t played it yet, so it’s not designated in exact notes. But after I play it, it’s as though it suddenly becomes music paper.”
Oh wow – so you’re saying in a preparatory sense there may be a general framework, but after you play it, it is something that is fully formed and notated?
“I don’t see it as complete notation, but I see the lines on the staff and I see a combination of angular contours and notes … which have colors.
It’s funny though – the contour that I see before it is played doesn’t have a color – it’s just black – maybe because it’s not realized yet, it’s just a direction.”
(graphical representation of the same opening phrase above)
Okay, so do you feel that once you play it, the colors are assigned to it?
“Yes, and in part the exact notes on lines of music paper.”
(a possible version of Tim’s visual experience)
I asked Tim how colors may change in the form of a tune, or if chord changes that are tonally related to a key center have related color qualities. Tim used the form of a minor blues to illustrate what he may be experiencing.
“I’m thinking, okay, if we’re playing a blues in F minor, when it goes to the IV chord in the fifth bar, what color is that Bb? Bb to me is usually black. The Bb tonal center is like I’m looking at the word, symbol, and whatever you would call it, like it’s written in typewriter ink, black word on white paper. So I’m trying to think that when that happens inside a tan F minor, what is that? Right now, probably thinking about it for the first time ever, it’s still black.
So now I’m thinking of a G minor, flat 5 that you may find on the ninth bar of the blues and the C7 that would follow it, they still have their original colors. They’re not really shaded by the overall tan. The G is green-ish blue, and the C7 is a whiter cream color.”
Although I’ve provided a crude graphic here to illustrate the relationships, Tim says that the colors are not defined by bar lines, but instead where he may be heading or thinking harmonically at that point. For example, he may establish a chord sound by a specific pitch or motive before the bar line (anticipation), creating a “blending and dovetailing” of various colors. In many cases, where he’s heading and getting there in an interesting way is an important aspect of the process.
Tim can also alter the visualized color scheme completely if he opts to play musical material outside the typical or stated harmony. For example, super-imposing a structure, such as a triad or a chord with common tones, can create a visual experience of one color replacing another.
“A lot of times if I’m playing over a G7, I may be thinking E7. just over that G7, playing the E triad. There are types of things you could throw in there, the 13, b9, there are a lot of common notes… I’ll find myself getting intricately into another key while I’m playing over another key or chord and there is a blending of those particular colors. If I get really involved in E to the point that I forget about the G, or at least sort-of, that color begins to supersede the original color.”
Although I’m not a qualified scholar on synesthesia, I find this very interesting since Tim can actually alter the color experience based on his musical decisions. Most research I’ve read on sound-color synesthesia (again, very limited) covers the reactionary aspects of the condition. For example, recording visual experiences while listening to music, not necessarily creating it in real-time.
As we’ll examine later when we take a look at Tim’s solo on “I Hear A Rhapsody” from Audible Architecture – Tim also visualizes phrases being notated as he performs them on staff paper. This was a commonality among all three initial subjects in the dissertation and, again, relates closely to reading notated music.
In the next post I’ll cover Tim’s “Emotional Harmonic System” and its connection to visual imagery and the physical component of trumpet performance.
My name is Matt White. Welcome to my blog.
I’m a freelance trumpeter and educator currently trying to make ends meet in Nashville, TN. I also write original music for my own group - The Super Villain Jazz Band.
In April, I successfully defended my dissertation for the Doctoral of Musical Arts in Studio Music and Jazz at the University of Miami. My topic was “Visualization and Jazz Improvisation.”
I’ve been interested in the connections between visual imagery and sound for quite some time, often experiencing shapes and abstract contours myself when improvising. In reading interviews with jazz musicians, I noticed that words like “painting,” “colors,” and “shapes” were often used to explain their approaches and experiences during the improvisational process; however, in most cases, these comments weren’t elaborated upon, either due to the background of the interviewer or perhaps the assumption that the comments were metaphorical.
To my knowledge, no research exists in which musicians are asked to describe their experiences and compare the process to the product we often examine as listeners or students of music. As someone who spent a considerable amount of time as a student and now as a teacher, I feel a formidable challenge in the study of improvisation is separating process and product. It’s one thing to examine a transcription and assume that the performer may have been utilizing chord substitutions, scales, etc. But what if their experience involved creating or reacting to the color red or creating angles across dimensional planes?
Like any research one intends to finish in a reasonable amount of time (and I was ABD for two years before ultimately finishing this), I had to find a way to limit this topic, at least for the initial document. I decided to start with musicians on my instrument (trumpet) who have unique visual experiences/approaches and also come from a “straight-ahead” or tonal perspective. This isn’t to say that I’m not interested in other types of improvised music or genres of the jazz idiom, but given the “academic” nature of the document, I needed some element of analysis that would be accessible to an educated reader. I’ll also admit that given the time constraints of interviews, schedules, and graduation, not every possible question was asked or considered, nor was every approach covered. One of the aims of this project is to address those shortcomings.
I performed a series of interviews with each of the subjects. In addition to discussing influences, the process, and recollected experiences, each subject was also asked to pick a recorded performance in which they recalled having a strong visual experience. I transcribed the solos and we viewed/listened to them together to compare visual elements with what we heard and examined on paper.
The results were enlightening and laid the groundwork for what can be a new way to examine the improvisational process, apply it pedagogically, and create new ways to experience improvised music for new audiences that are demanding multi-sensory presentation.
That leads me to the focus of this blog. I want to share this research in the hopes of spreading this information and attracting other musicians who may have similar or different experiences for a variety of instruments and improvisational genres, creating a “database” of research and information for fellow musicians and interested parties.
Each Subject chapter of the research constitutes about 30-45 pages of text. I’ll do my best to divide the information into a number of posts. Of course, any other musings pertaining to music, education, being a freelance musician in Nashville, or looking for that coveted tenure gig are fair game as well. Questions and comments are welcome as are volunteers for those who experience visualization while improvising and would like to discuss it. Spread the word and thanks for reading.