Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Are Composers Musicians?

That's the sub-topic of an Althouse post today (the other half of the topic is "musicians who died 'too young,'" for which I added my name to those who put Charlie Parker on their lists). There are a lot of different opinions in the comments; I said my piece by responding to two previous commenters:

Theo: "Is a jazz musician a composer, even though he/she riffs on someone else's tune?"

Sanjay: "Theo asserts that a jazz improviser is, in fact, a composer. Well, sure, I think most people would agree that he's at least doing something improvisational, as is a classical performer during a cadenza. But I think a more complicated is a jazz composer, a composer? "

My reply:
I think the answer to both questions is "yes." I teach a class in improvisation at my college, and one of the first things we tell the students is that improv is defined as "spontaneous composition." What we're really teaching people in that class are the principles of composition--knowing the chords, their functions and how they relate to each other--so that they can come up with new musical material in real time. To me, that's definitely composition.

(I'm certainly not saying that everything the improvisor comes up with will be completely original--everyone has a certain "bag of tricks" that is relied upon in a pinch--but the chances of someone playing an exact replica of a previously-played solo are slim, at least since the "Swing Era.")

And writing a jazz tune is definitely composition, even if it's only a "head" (the main tune). By establishing a certain melody, harmonic rhythm, groove, etc., the composer is giving a specific set of instructions to the soloist(s), who, while coming up with original material, are likely to at least stay somewhat faithful to the composer's intentions (though some tunes are certainly adapted in unusual ways by others, which makes arrangement into an even bigger subset of composition than it already is).
Sanjay also provides a link to an essay by Brad Mehldau on the subject, from the liner notes of the recent Mehldau CD House on Hill.

What are your thoughts? Please respond in the comments.

Next, they'll be saying "y'all" and serving chicken-fried steak in Chicago: There have now been confirmed armadillo sightings in Illinois.

Cheers to the bus driver, bus driver...kid? A Florida teenager has been arrested for driving a stolen city bus; even more unusual is the fact that he was already on probation for doing the same thing with a tour bus earlier.

When Teddy Ruxpin goes bad: Two students who made a movie about evil teddy bears that attacked their teacher were expelled from school, but a judge has ordered them reinstated.

Remembering #38: R.I.P., Gerald Ford, who was much more than the Chevy Chase caricature of him on Saturday Night Live. There's also a nice essay about him over at Althouse that's worth your time.


Gary P. said...

but the chances of someone playing an exact replica of a previously-played solo are slim, at least since the "Swing Era."

... says the guy who has apparently never heard me solo.

Kev said...

Gary-LOL. So you say you take the same solo and recycle it a few times, eh? ;-)

That kinda reminds me of the running joke we have in the faculty band at jazz camp:

Kris--"OK, Glenn's gonna solo on this next one."

Someone else in the band--"No way, man; Glenn's solo doesn't fit over those changes."

(The soloist could be anyone in the band, of course; Glenn's name was the first one that popped into my head. I"ve also heard people joke that their own solo didn't fit over those changes.)

Jazzy G said...

I"ve also heard people joke that their own solo didn't fit over those changes.

Don't forget those of us who joke about never playing the changes in the first place.