Eleven Bars and Twelve Tones Interview




A telephone interview was conducted by Michael Beckerman with Mr. Arnold in 1996. This article is the outcome of those conversations.

Michael Beckerman is Professor of Music at UC Santa Barbara. He has written books on Janacek and Dvorak and is currently editing a collection of essays on Bohuslav Martinu and writing a book on Dvorak’s American Years. He writes for the New York Times and does intermission commentary on Live From Lincoln Center.

Eleven Bars and Twelve Tones
One of the most vivid illustrations of the musical fault lines of our time can be experienced by going into any Tower Record store. You enter to a burst of sound and color, bright advertisements, hundreds of body pierced teenagers, blaring sound. If you follow the signs you might stumble towards something called the “Classical” section. You open the door and go through a warp zone. The teen agers vanish–well one was reportedly seen in a New York store in 1994–the noise disappears as you listen to the gentle strain of Monteverdi madrigals, or a symphony by Berwald. There is about as much connect between the two worlds as there is between Kurt Masur and Alanis Morisette.

That is why it is surprising to find that depending on which store you go to, you may find guitarist Bruce Arnold’s “Blue Eleven” in the pop section under jazz or the Classical section under 20th century music. While this involves a problem of distribution to some degree, it is also symbolic, Bruce Arnold could be the ultimate crossover musician. Consider this: the album begins with traditional jazz tunes and ends with an art song called “A Day in the Badlands.” Between the two are a series of pieces called “Variation,” played first in a rather ascetic manner on guitar alone, and then with a three person ensemble. Finally, the title cut is an eleven bar blues which uses twelve tone techniques, not your usual medium for improvisation.

Arnold was born in South Dakota and began his serious studies at the University of South Dakota. After three years he transferred to the Berkelee School of music where he came under the influence of Charlie Banacos and Jerry Bergonzi. “These guys are heavy duty jazz guys who love to take concepts used in 20th century classical music and use them in jazz. They would say things to me like ‘Here’s this concept, listen to Coltrane and also check out Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.’” After finishing his studies, he started teaching at the New England Conservatory, Dartmouth College, and at Berkelee. Since then he has moved down to New York and teaches at New York University and Princeton University. But he has never stopped studying or asking his colleagues what he should read, so he spent several years communing with Howard Hanson’s Harmonic Materials in Modern Music, treatises by Schillinger, Babbitt, and twelve tone theory books.

When I ask Arnold about the presence of his album in the classical section he says “Labels are a necessary evil but as far as the business world is concerned, labels are important. I don’t think of my music as jazz or classical, but as something you might call ‘American improvised music.’ I see myself as part of a great tradition, going back to earlier classical composers like Bach and Beethoven who actually improvised.” There is no trickier thing to understand in music than improvisation. On the fact of it, it seems miraculous for people to pull coherent tones and structures out of nowhere. Yet, as Arnold observes, all is not gold that glitters. “There are so many people that improvise, but at least seventy five per cent of what they play it totally worked out. Go hear them three or four times a month and you will hear practically the same thing. You really notice the repetition when someone plays fast, even in Parker or Coltrane. I try to stay away from that. I try to improvise and put certain kinds of limits on myself especially in the pieces called Variations, and I play only certain kinds of scales.”

Arnold has been groping towards something he regards as pure improvisation. Several years ago he and three others made an album called “Act of Finding” which was “totally free improvisation. Trying not to play anything we’d done before and really not knowing what’s coming up the next moment. You’ll hear a little of this kind of thing right before the final cut, eerie music coming out of the speakers, from the spirit of ‘Act of Finding.’”

This bold notion of “American Improvised Music,” may expose other fault lines which are more delicate than those implied by words like “pop” and “classical.” The very question of jazz, its origins and its connection to the African American community, is problematic and gives rise to a good deal of uneasiness, but Arnold is not troubled by this: “The real issue that concerns me is not racial or cultural, it is the way people try to define jazz, to categorize it and pin it down to just one thing. It is easy to fall back on what is already known and accepted, and most people do that with music, that’s why it is so hard to be an artist.” Arnold wishes that influential figures, like Wynton Marsalis, would embrace a more experimental approach and encourage a progressive attitude. If Marsalis is playing music that sounds like Miles Davis it may be difficult for composer performers like Arnold to be taken seriously. “Blue Eleven,” doesn’t sound anything like Miles Davis, with its jagged rhythms and 12-tone improvisation. How does one improvise using the twelve tone method anyway? After all, the twelve tone composer chooses a pattern made up of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale and uses that as basic “melodic” materials. How can anyone remember such thing while improvising? “At first I thought 12 tone improvisation was hard, but I got better at it,” says Arnold. He explains that he likes to divide the twelve notes first into two groups of six (“Schoenberg was into that”) and then into four groups of three notes (“that way it’s easier to remember while you’re improvising.”)

It seems ironic, but also appropriate that the twelve tone tradition is continuing in a realm somewhat distant from its origins. Even though some of Schoenberg’s most ardent champions despised jazz, music faculty at Princeton, like Milton Babbitt, find Arnold’s music interesting. But why would someone who delights in free improvisation choose to work in what some consider to be a rigid system?

“I’m not much for the intellectual side of 12 tone music, it drives me nuts. I’m not like Milton Babbit who loves that stuff. I’m just looking for a new harmonic palette to get away from tertial harmony. Besides, like everyone else, I bend the rules. My interest in 12 tone approaches is the tip of the iceberg for me and part of my search for fresh ways of organizing musical sound. I’m interested in three part sounds that aren’t traditional chords, and soloing with these smaller units.” “But actually I compose very emotionally, and my desire to play is emotional too. I’m trying to find different ways to make music move around, and I keep searching for specific palettes of sound. For example, Variation 3 has a bittersweet tone and uses some unusual sounds.”

For all its rigor, we sense that title cut, “Blue Eleven,” fits squarely into the popular music tradition. After this tour de force though, Arnold enters another world entirely ending the disc with “A Day in the Badlands,” which could easily be considered a piece of “20th Century Art Music.” It seems a peculiar way to draw such a bold and abstract collection together, but Arnold explains: “I wanted to end it with the guy on the horse riding off into the sunset, to end with the feeling that tune gives me, very peaceful. I feel that some things on the record are rough going. I hear Badlands as a lush, contemplative, self-renewing thing which cools you out.”

In some ways the Badlands themselves are a key symbolic image for Arnold and despite the cosmopolitan feel and flavor to his music he is not reticent about discussing his origins and the way they have affected his outlook. “I come from South Dakota where there is a totally different lifestyle and a special way of looking at the world. It’s kind of naive, I almost want to say ‘nice.’ You are always supposed to be nice. And there is the landscape too. In my music you can hear many long tones which can be related to the wide open spaces you can see in South Dakota. I am only comfortable in New York because I live on the 6th floor and look down to lower Manhattan.”

“There is another thing that comes from my South Dakota farm background: I work all the time. Where I come from you get up at 4 in the morning and go to bed at 11 at night. It is understood that if you are going to get anywhere, or even survive you have to be getting things done all the time. And besides, it’s the work that’s important. One thing that I see in many musicians here–both jazz and classical–is that they do not really work that much. Some New Yorkers seem to be more interested in figuring out, ‘how will I get to this guy who is going to make that connection for me,’ and there is tremendous concern with social mobility.”

“Where I come from, people say what they mean and only say what they mean. They never go off on long explanations or avoid coming to the point. Maybe this is related to the minimalist character of the Variations. They reflect my personality. You might get three words out of me. I don’t talk much.”

As Arnold rides off into the sunset, various record stores around the country are still trying to sort out the question of where to put his new recording. Jazz? Classical? It is even more complicated then that: two of the Variations are beings played on New Age radio stations because, according to Arnold, they are considered “contemplative and pretty sounding.” So you may have to search a bit. Don’t give up though; this is a fascinating recording and, after all, you are sure to find it somewhere.