Theoretical Musings Interview

Bruce Arnold conducted an e-mail interview with Noah Wane in the first few months of 1997. This interview was originally posted at the on-line magazine Splendid e-zine. Noah Wane is a Boulder, Colorado-based, freelance music critic. Currently, his work can be read in the Splendid e-zine.

Also, keep your eye out for some of his reviews in the You Could Do Worse paper ‘zine. Mr. Wane holds a bachelor’s degree in music composition and theory. His musical interests include anything on the experimental side, and particulary music that brings elements of pop music and classical theory together.

Before the interview begins, Noah included some further background about himself and the state of music today.


Let me give you a little background first.

I got into jazz in high school. The first jazz album I owned was Wynton Marsalis’ Live at Blues Alley and the reason I liked it so much was mainly because my dad, being a product of the sixties and mainly into acid rock, hated it! He kept telling me that it was just a phase and that I’d grow out of it. Jazz became rebellion music for me and I consumed the stuff like some sort of swing-starved glutton.

I soaked up biographies of jazz greats, cataloging names and birthdates and generally becoming a trivia monger. I studied jazz piano and learned to scat. Jazz was where it was at!

Then somewhere in college, after the newness had worn off, I began to realize the degree to which jazz had become institutionalized — I think my first clue was the discovery that “Jazz Studies” was being offered as a major at many universities! Wynton Marsalis (my erstwhile hero) had donned the mantle of jazz savior and was touring the country with his repertory jazz orchestra recreating jazz recordings from the ’30s and ’40s verbatim while various jazz historians worked at compiling definitive jazz collections for the Smithsonian. I also began to question the creativity of modern jazz as Downbeat heralded a new generation of “young turks” who seemed to represent technical showmanship more than the soulful, simplicity of Miles Davis or Thelonius Monk. Gradually my sense of jazz as rebel music disintegrated as did the illusion that jazz was a living art, leaving in its stead a sense of disillusionment and a conviction that, despite what Mr. Marsalis and his disciples were telling me, jazz really had died somewhere back in the early seventies after Coltrane had died, while Miles was in hiding and when Coleman had gone mainstream.
Recently I’ve had a jazz reawakening. Several indie-oriented jazzers appear to have taken up the innovation torch that was dropped more than two decades ago and are producing jazz that, once again, has balls to it.

Many of these artists are coming at things from the point of view of introducing rock or funk elements into jazz to give it greater firing power (I’m thinking of artists/groups like Medeski, Martin and Wood, Charlie Hunter and Headless Household). Thankfully, these musicians understand that true jazz-fusion has much more to do with Bitches Brew than with Kenny G.Some other artists, rather than embracing rock, are rekindling a spirit of improvisational experimentation similar to that of Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz or whichever late Coltrane composition you care to cite. These artists are striving to develop new ways to organize improvisational music apart from the orthodox (and generally stale) method of “playing the changes”. One such artist is New York-based guitarist Bruce Arnold who has been experimenting for some time now with instilling twentieth-century classical compositional techniques into his improvisation. His first album as a leader, Blue Eleven (MMC Recordings — read Splendid’s review here), is a fine showcase of Mr. Arnold’s aesthetic. Besides working with his own group, Bruce is involved with the NYC-based experimental improvisation group Act of Finding (O.O. Discs) and is currently working on a set of orchestral variations for the Warsaw Philharmonic. The following is an interview conducted by Splendid with Bruce Arnold via e-mail earlier this year. — Noah Wane


Splendid: Alright, I’d like to pose you a question. I hope that this isn’t too mundane but I’d be interested in having you discuss your influences. I’d like to divide the question into two parts:

1. Which jazz musicians have been of particular import to you?
2. Outside of the jazz world who have been your major influences?

So first, what jazz influences do you have?

Arnold: I don’t feel that limiting my influences to jazz gives an accurate picture of my development as a musician. Therefore I will discuss my influences in relation to contemporary music excluding what is commonly referred to as classical.

I was drawn into music by my mother who had me learning theaccordion. After I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan show when I was 7,that was the end of the accordion. After ruining multiple brooms and tennis rackets while pretending to play guitar, my parents broke down and got me a real guitar. Dave Wood, my cousin, (who by the way is an excellent guitarist) was into traditional blues. He turned me on to Robert Johnson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Light’n Hopkins. We both were enamored of these artists, and along with the influences of Duane Allman, Cream and Eric Clapton, Kim Simmons (Savoy Brown) we spent most of our free time playing the blues or blues related forms. Our parents, bless their hearts, let these 8 and 9 year olds rock the foundation of our homes with the deafening volume of electric guitars and drums.

As I moved into high school I met a long time friend Dan Phenwho for a high school student in the early ’70′s had a truly amazing record collection of rock, blues and jazz. Many hours of listening exposed me to everyone from the “Who” to John Coltrane. As a senior in high school I was placed in the talented students program led by Gene White, a jazz trombonist. Gene exposed me to many of my early concepts of jazz and by the end of high school I knew I wanted to pursue music as a career. I decided to study music at the University of South Dakota.

Larry Mitchell, the band director there, exposed me to big band jazz and to playing jazz standards in a small group setting. After a couple of years at the University I decided jazz was for me and I was off to the The Berklee College of Music in Boston.

At that time, 1976, Boston was buzzing with guitar; Pat Metheny, Mike Stern and Bill Frissel were the mainstays. These three guitarists greatly influenced my outlook on music. Their styles, which were crosses between blues, rock and jazz, really inspired me to let my early blues and rock (and yes even South Dakota country music) influences into my jazz playing. I was of course at this time also madly transcribing guitarists like Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Charlie Christian and horn players like Coltrane, Bird, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins. But the fusion of music styles was in full swing in the late ’70′s so I also was absorbing the influences of Larry Carlton, Michael Brecker, Steely Dan and Peter Gabriel to name a few. Upon graduating from Berklee I had the honor of studying privately with two men who would be my greatest influences to date: Jerry Bergonzi and Charlie Banacos. Through these two wonderful musician/teachers I discovered a true depth of musicianship. Jerry and Charlie’s method of analysis, ear training and pedagogy was (and still is) unmatched by anything I had ever encountered. Through their ideas and my hard work I was led into a musical world with no stylistic boundaries, and no end to the musical level one could reach through perseverance.

Many of these ideas are expressed in my CD Blue Eleven. Compositions like “Blue Eleven”, “Drops”, “Hobroken”, and “Did I Tell You” show the direct influence of these fine musicians, both in the soloing approaches and the compositional content. Jerry and Charlie had me transcribe the solos of many great jazz musicians like McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett. They pointed out soloing ideas which demonstrated both jazz and classical music influences. After my studies ended I embarked on a journey of discovery as I attempted to master these musical concepts and apply them in my own musical life.

Splendid: So who were you influenced by in the classical world?

Arnold: My first real experience with and investigations of classical music began at the University of South Dakota. I studied composition with Robert Merek, and there were also wonderful courses in music appreciation and music history which gave an overview of the depth of western music.

After transferring to Berklee College of Music I decided to major in composition. The courses I took at Berklee on classical music theory and analysis really set the ground work for many developments that were to follow. My studies after Berklee with Bergonzi and Banacos reinforced my understanding of classical music and showed me how I could take classical music and all my blues, rock, and jazz influences and put them into my music both through improvisation and composition.

Upon arriving in New York I began teaching at Princeton and New York Universities. The excellent libraries these school have enabled me to continue exploring the world of classical music through scores and music reference books. It was here that the music of Webern, Schoenberg, and Berg really started to make sense to me. Drawing from my previous studies with Bergonzi and Banacos I realized how this music could be integrated into my own. Also at this time through Princeton University’s collection of contemporary classical music I was introduced to the music and concepts of Stockhausen, Boulez, Cage, Feldman, and Xenakis. This was to play an important role not only in my compositional style but also in the free improvisation groups I was about to get involved with.

I must also mention that there were many books by Howard Hanson, Joseph Schillinger, Joseph N. Straus, Joel Lester, Heinrich Schenker, David Cope, and Glenn Gould that greatly influenced my direction. (A complete list of these can be found on my website.)

The works of Cage, Xenakis and Stockhausen also made me understand the use of pure sound as a means of musical expression. I had been experimenting with creating alternate sounds with my guitar and a host of electronic sound processors for many years, as far back as my Boston days, when performing with a wonderful vocalist, Alida Rohr. That, and hearing Bill Frissel’s sound explorations encouraged me to explore this avenue. As a result, many of the records I performed on while in Boston show the beginnings of my sound experimentation.

This all coalesced in New York a few years ago, when I met Tom Buckner and Tom Hamilton, two performer/composers with whom I (along with Ratzo B. Harris) formed a free improvisational group called Act of Finding. This group allowed me to really develop this side of my playing. In particular, Tom Hamilton’s approach to improvisation helped me to contextualize the sounds that I had been developing. It also allowed me to perform alongside veteran improvisers and put into practice the concepts I had been hearing from contemporary new music composers.

To add to the melting pot, enter a new group called Spooky Actions at a Distance. This group plays contemporary pieces by Webern, Schoenberg, Bartok and Debussy and then arranges each piece so there is free improvisation intermingled with it that reflects the nature of the composition. I enjoy working with this aggregate as it is extremely challenging and gives the classic compositions an interesting twist.

Splendid: I read in the press release material that came with Blue Eleven a statement you made that went something like this, “Jazz follows classical and rock and blues follow jazz”. Could you elaborate on this concept? I couldn’t help but notice, by the way, that your own musical evolution seems to reinforce this idea. You started playing the blues and from there became interested in jazz, then as you were pursuing jazz in college you became interested in classical — it’s as if you were ascending this musical hierarchy.

Arnold: Well first, even though I said that “Jazz followings classical music and blues and rock follow jazz,” using labels for styles of music will always get you into trouble. The overlap between styles can sometimes be enormous which creates a categorization nightmare. But music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and once it comes into contact with another kind of music, one is bound to influence the other.

Overall I look at development in musical styles on two levels. On the first level, any musical style develops over time. In western culture, experimentation is encouraged; in addition, the events of history can frequently effect change. Sometimes these changes alter a style or create new styles which are closely related offshoots. In the case of blues, which is a relatively simple musical form, expansion of its rhythmic, melodic and harmonic elements led to the creation of jazz. Most music students are taught that jazz developed from blues combined with western classical melodic and harmonic concepts.

And of course rock and roll could not have developed without rhythm & blues. Rock and roll was certainly, in its beginning forms, as simple a genre as blues; for it to evolve, it would naturally have to incorporate more sophisticated influences. As far back as the late ’50′s you had jazz and rock starting to combine and influence each other in the modal period as exemplified by Miles Davis’ So What. In the late ’60′s rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake and Palmer were combining the influences of classical music and jazz. Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew was a landmark integration of jazz and rock. In the ’70′s jazz pianist Bill Evans was harmonizing 12 tone melodies (as in his classic composition “A 12 Tone Tune.”) John Lennon stated that Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic music directly influenced “Strawberry Fields” and chunks of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.” (It is revealing to note that Stockhausen had played jazz piano for American GIs to finance his music education.)

On the second level, different styles of music which exist at the same time in history tend to influence each other. This influence depends on the how accessible the styles are to a musician or composer. In the 20th century, with communications and transportation so highly developed there is cross breeding at an accelerated pace. In the 1920′s you had George Gershwin studying with the music theorist Joseph Schillinger and writing show tunes which were then used as jumping off points by jazz musicians. Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is a perfect example of jazz-based idioms melded to formal classical composition. By the late ’60′s John Coltrane was studying (and deriving inspiration from) the ‘Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns’ written by a classically trained musician Nicholas Slonimsky.

Coming at it from the other direction, we do have the influence of jazz on classical music. The work of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky reflects this. Further down the road, pieces by Stockhausen and Witold Lutoslawski incorporated improvisational sections into their music — which of course is commonplace in contemporary classical music today.

It is interesting to take one small musical element and trace its development in contemporary music while keeping it in the context of the history of western music . The use of scales is an excellent choice for this. (I will make this brief because you could write a book about this stuff.)

Much of early European folk music is based in Pentatonic scales (a 5 note scale) as are most of the early blues melodies. Gregorian Chant used the building blocks of the modal scales (usually 7 notes scales) as did the modal period of jazz. The work of Corelli through Bach to Beethoven reveals investigations of the major, harmonic and melodic minor scales and their related harmony. Similar investigations were made in jazz and rock throughout the 1960′s. It is also interesting to note how blues started having more and more complicated blues progressions in the 1960′s which incorporated harmonies from the major, harmonic and melodic minor scales. The nineteenth century saw the rise of chromaticism in classical music, as exemplified by Chopin and Wagner. (By the 1970′s, jazz was highly chromatic, both in composition and improvisation. You can also see this chromaticism creeping into heavy metal music of the last ten years. ) Moving past scales we have the serial music of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg the characteristics of which has just started to appear more often in the jazz of the ’90′s. But it is important not to underestimate the effect Karlheinz Stockhausen and electronic music (which in the beginning was highly serialized) had on free jazz which started in the late ’60′s. Stravinsky and his metric modulation can be felt all the way from Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” through the oeuvre of Frank Zappa to contemporary rock bands Primus, Sound Garden and Helmet.

I think it is easy to see that jazz first started borrowing from classical music, and either through jazz or directly from classical music, rock and blues followed. One thing I find of interest in teaching is that when I first tried to get students to learn the major scale in the early 1980′s they thought I was nuts. Today with every heavy metal guitarist using a plethora of different scales the major scale is learned without question with eager anticipation of the more complicated scales.

Splendid: I find your comments very interesting. Especially your equation of the development of jazz in the 20th Century with the development of Western Music as a whole (i.e. pentatonic to modal to major/minor to chromaticism to serialism).

The foundation for Schoenberg’s theories was laid, unquestionably Ithink, by the hyper-expressive extended tonality of the Post-Romantics. His design being to create an objective system for the treatment of the 12-note aggregate to replace the rather ad hoc approach of the Post-Romantics who were certainly using all twelve pitches consistently but were trying to govern their use with an outdated tonal system that was “designed” for only seven pitches. In a similar vein, I wonder if jazz musicians in the ’90′s who incorporate twelve-tone theory into their music (musicians like yourself) are trying to create order in wake of the “freer” chromaticism of the late ’60′s and ’70′s. Any comments?

Arnold: Many improvising musicians are trying to create a new order in their music. But I think that rather than being a reaction to freedom, it is more of an exploration of new approaches to the “tonal” improvisation that was used previously. The music that one can create using the techniques of the serialist is very intriguing and I find most contemporary musicians find the sound to be refreshing.
If we relate this desire for a new order to the musical developments of the 2nd Viennese School we find that there are many parallels and that these parallels have been apparent in contemporary improvisation for quite some time. Of course many of the musicians that applied these serialist techniques were considered extremely avant garde and most were not (and still are not) accepted into the jazz mainstream. Many of the techniques the 2nd Viennese School applied in their music were logical outgrowths of a “tonal” system, therefore it seems logical that jazz musicians would reach the same place musically as THEY pushed the boundaries.

I find that while the use of a strict 12-tone method is limited and therefore has a small presence in jazz, many other techniques used by the 2nd Viennese School are more widely used by contemporary improvising musicians.

I will limit my discussion to two of these techniques:

1. Limiting the interval content of a musical phrase: This is a technique which Webern used masterfully in many of his compositions. Some contemporary improvisers such as saxophonist Dave Liebman and pianist Chick Corea will use a limited group of intervals and move these intervals around to different pitch levels. Our ear perceives a phrase built with this construction as making musical sense, due to the fact that a limited interval content creates a strong internal structure. Relating to this, I limited the interval content of the “Variations” from my Blue Eleven CD to a half-step, a 5th, and a 3rd. Therefore my “Variations” are based on a limited interval content and not on permutations of a melody.

2. Dividing and organizing a composition based on hexatonic scales: This is another technique found in both the 2nd Viennese School and the work of contemporary improvising musicians. In jazz this can be seen as far back as McCoy Tyner’s use of a six note grouping (two alternating triads) in his “Passion Dance” melody and improvisation. Contemporary musicians now can be heard applying non-tertial hexatonic scales in their improvisations which is much closer to the spirit of the serialists. I use a hexatonic scale to improvise over the “Variations.” The hexatonic scale I chose creates a very “major scale” sound because of its internal interval content.

Splendid: What does twelve tone theory and “set” theory (which you seem to be describing well) bring to your music that wouldn’t be there otherwise?

Arnold: When someone writes a composition using a major scale it creates a certain sound. Creative as the composer may be, the harmony moves in certain patterns that are inherent in the major scale. By accessing serial based note combinations you can create new tonal worlds which break these patterns.

Splendid: As you have already mentioned, serialism in its true sense seems at odds with spontaneous music making — the rigidity of serialist systems would seem to limit choice to such a degree that improvisation would become extremely difficult if not impossible. What is your feeling — can true serialism exist in a purely improvisational context?

Arnold: Certainly if you limit yourself to the commonly taught concept of 12-tone theory (that you must play all notes in a specific sequence before repeating a note) you run into a lot of problems when you try to apply this to improvisation but there are many other serial-based concepts that allow more freedom. For instance, dividing a 12-tone set into 3 groups of 4 notes and moving through these groups in any order, you still create 12-tone lines but it is much easier to use in an improvisational way. A good example of this is the title cut from Blue Eleven where I move through three 4-note chords for the melody and for soloing.

Splendid: In the liner notes of Blue Eleven you pay homage to Milton Babbitt. Is there a special connection there? In what ways is his influence evident in your music?

Arnold: Through Milton Babbitt’s writings I really started to understand how I could apply hexatonic-based, 12-tone groupings in improvisation. Mr. Babbitt never mentions this in his writings, but his wonderful explanation of hexatonic-based systems in combination with concepts I learned from Charlie Banacos led me to derive a system that could be used in both composition and improvisation. The Four “Variations” and a “Day in the Badlands” are based on these relationships.

Splendid: Other musicians have melded jazz and twelve-tone theory. Earlier you mentioned Bill Evans “A 12 Tone Tune” and I know that Cecil Taylor, for example, has used aspects of twelve-tone theory to govern some of his free improvisations. Is there something unique about your approach to all this?

Arnold: Yes, there are many unique aspects to my approach of integrating serial composition techniques into both my writing and improvisation.
As I have previously discussed, the use of hexatonic scales and trichord groupings allows spontaneous improvisation but these methods of organization also allow a high degree of control over the sound. For instance, the “Variations” on Blue Eleven use a basic cell of 015 (a half step and a fourth). This sound is quite consonant (mostly from the fourth). Therefore you find all four “Variations” to be quite consonant. My improvisations on these “Variations” use a combination of 015 and 027 which also creates a very consonant sound.

If I where to choose a sound like 013 (half step and a minor 3rd) you would find the compositions and improvisation to be much more dissonant because the intervals contained have more tension in them. Therefore depending on my mood and creative direction I gravitate towards the sound combination that best fits the situation and my artistic direction at the moment.

These types of organization also help me to change the overall form of a composition, to get away from the standard form of AABA that so many contemporary compositions fit into. It also helps me in my writing and improvisation to get out of the usual harmonic and melodic patterns which the common 7-note scales create.

Splendid: Let’s move on to another topic. In what ways has your jazz background influenced your orchestral writing?

Arnold: I think the amount of percussion I use is a direct influence of my jazz background. I would have even more percussion in my pieces but it’s hard to find orchestras that employ more than three percussionists at a time.

My use of (or lack of use of) dissonance is also an outgrowth of the jazz harmonies I have been exposed to. Because of the wide experiences I have had playing so many types of jazz I think this is a little hard to examine in my orchestral writing but I personally see the influence from time to time.

I do feel that my use of sound as a musical element (a la Act of Finding) is very apparent in my orchestral writing. Many of the sound structures I create with the orchestra are just a copy of the electronic sounds I hear in my head. Rhythmically these sounds are usually a lot more complex than what I write into the score but if I want these pieces performed with limited rehearsal it is the only way to go. Lately I have been looking into computer composition as a possible alternative to realize these complicated sound sculptures.

Interviewer’s interjection: I think it’s appropriate to mention here that it was desire on the part of the early serialists (Stockhausen, Boulez, etc.) to create music that was intricate to the point of being unplayable (by humans) that pushed them into pioneering computer music in the first place! –nw

Splendid: Just two final questions — first, what is your view of the current state of jazz in America?

Arnold: Currently jazz seems to be in a “neoclassic” stage similar to what classical music went through in the early 20th century. The jazz style of the late ’50′s and early ’60′s is what’s in vogue as I write this. The artists that are following in the path of late Coltrane or Ornette Coleman are considered avant-garde and to many jazz purists not jazz at all.

By the way, it is interesting to read the criticism that the swing-era musicians leveled at bebop when it was first taking hold: “Sounds like noise . . . “, “This isn’t jazz . . .”, “They don’t know what they’re doing . . .” — you hear many of the same statements made nowadays about contemporary jazz.But as many of the swing-era musicians were pop icons the bebop musicians started out as cult figures, and only much later did their music become accepted into the main stream. So it is with contemporary jazz: the most creative are many times shunned while the traditionalists are hailed, and slowly art creeps on. Whether the experimental and pioneering artists will ever achieve the popularity that these other musicians have is anyone’s guess. (Of course, this leads to ruminations on the deadly state of affairs in the music business itself, which shuts out art and promotes “lite” music to the public.)

Splendid: So where is jazz going? What is the future of jazz? How do you fit into the picture?

Arnold: If current trends continue, the word “jazz” will come to mean something from a particular historic place, to my mind, it will mean everything pre-late Coltrane. Many jazz buffs these days don’t even consider late Coltrane to BE jazz. So a new label will have to be found to fit all this more adventurous and experimental music into. There is a practical angle to consider–we all know how important labels and categories are to marketing, so a new name or label will eventually have to be thought of.

Personally I consider what I do to be jazz because I consider jazz to be a type of “American improvised music” which has improvisational and compositional elements. I am also lead to this analysis because of the many years I have studied jazz and I can see these elements in my music.

I believe that creative improvised music will continue to blossom with hundreds of genres. Some will have close jazz roots while others will be coming from a completely different perspective. While it is quite exciting to live in New York and get exposed to so much new art I find that much that I hear is weak in its execution or content. I also find that many musicians are more concerned about making a living or their status in the music industry than taking a more “artistic” direction and creating new and challenging art. I put some of the blame for this on the nature of the music business itself — for anyone to tackle the market place, they have to be part musician, part business person, part supermodel and I think that art suffers when one wears that many hats.
As for me, my creative direction will be towards exploring different compositional and improvisational elements that I find interesting and challenging. I have never been that socially ambitious, and I am lucky that I can make my living as a music teacher, so I can concentrate on staying true to my goals.