Portrait of Bill Dixon by Nick Ruechel
Jason Zappa, Nick Scrowackzewski and I convened a small orchestra in Boston to honor Bill Dixon and his contribution. The orchestra was composed of former students like myself and Jason as well as players on the Boston scene. Stephen Haynes came up from CT and drove Bill from Vermont.
I transcribed the following lecture which was then edited by Jason Zappa.
"One of the errors that stays with this music is that ‘if you just wait the music is going to construct itself and you will have done nothing’
The difference between this music and the other area of music has to do with the responsibility for the erection of the piece of music is 100% on the shoulders of each player. When someone writes a piece of music, the responsibilities for detailing what each of you need to know to make it into a cohesive whole is on the person who writes the music. So for many years you don’t pay it any attention and then a sliver of light "freedom!"… and people say: "oh freedom! we don’t need to do this!" and still you don’t pay it any attention.
There is just as much discipline (with) as many rules and variables as a piece of music you sit down and construct as it is happening as is in a piece that someone else does. So your responsibilities as players are the same.
What does your instrument do in the texture?
What doesn’t it do when someone else is doing something?
When should you play unison?
When does this need to be reinforced?
When should someone have a line and cut through and waken the thing up?
When should you be lethargic and just let the sound of the room dictate the aura that you are supposed to be addressing?
But you have to pay attention and you have to MEAN IT! I didn’t hear any meaning--its like fucking a dead whore. No one gets anything from that so you have to make believe--make believe you are doing music, and all of the things that go into a piece of music will become a part of your vocabulary.
When should you reinforce?
When should you play in unison with someone?
When should you try and build a line?
When should you do counterlines?
When should you be in your upper register?
When should you make a noise or something because things have become to pure?
All these things.
And you answer these with your playing. Now [there is] one rule that will guide you and that is no matter how many players are in the room, you should be able to hear distinctly what each player is doing. That gives you your level of balance. You don’t need a conductor--your ear is dictating to you.
The other thing is, what about the sameness of sound?
Play a concert C
you have to hear it in your mind and when you play it that’s what comes up. You can’t puff and hope that it will happen. Instruments are cruel and insensitive things when you entrust them with too much responsibility, see? And you learn that very early. Alright.
Play a concert C but before you play and everybody play it at the same time and not too loud and not too soft but to establish a sound. Alright go ahead.
STOP. Alright. Now you’ve got to find some way of communicating so the best way of doing it is to make yourself circular. There’s a reason why people play in a circle--so everyone can see everyone--and you can see when that person is going take a breath and you’re guided by that--and you have to
play that note as if you are not going to get another chance to play that note. See--that’s what it is.
Alright, hold that tone as long as you can. When it sounds like one sound, you are in tune with the sound
As long as there are these other things, you are not in tune with the sound
And you may very well not want to be in tune with the sound but what you play should be played because that’s what you want and its not what you get that you are satisfied with.
Alright now [here's] what you should do--and this is an old thing:
Establish a sound. Then we have 3 notes that you can go up from that sound, and 3 notes that you can go down from that sound, arbitrarily and no one should play that in unison:
2, 3, 4 and play
Every sound has its initiation, its gestation period and its establishment.
A sound is a sound, not something to help you get to the other one, so when you hear the players, you think are doing something that you really favor. Whether they think of this, or have thought of this, whether they have studied it or not studied it--this is what they are doing. What would you rather do--play any sound that you want or would you rather name the sound that someone else plays? Which would you rather do? I would rather play the sound because if I to know the name of the sound I would ask a person. So intellectual discourse has no place in music performance.
See how beautiful that sounded? [That's] because it can’t be measured. Now if I told you to play each sound 2 beats it becomes arithmetical and that’s the way you learn music anyway--but that’s not what you say you want to do. You want to create music…don’t you?
So how do you think it's created? Someone has to stand out there, make all the mistakes, everyone else learn them and then you come along, diligent students that you are and you learn how to do that--but you’ve gotta have the feeling.
I personally don’t believe everyone can do everything. I don’t think a person can run a 3 minute mile, climb mount Everest, knock out Muhammad Ali, Swim 100 yards in 3 seconds...I don’t believe a person can do everything. But the thing that you do we hold you responsible for.
A HA! Your whole personal stance, how you hold the instrument, how you are dressed-- all of those things have something to do with what is going to come out of your instrument which originates in your brain and is coursed through your body. That’s what makes us pay attention.
The rest of it is bullshit.
So one decides what one wants to do. Alright, so with that as a guideline. Lets play something for six minutes no more. Decide whether its going to be six minutes of solo playing, decide whether its going to be an ensemble thing making an ensemble statement, decide how many octaves you’re going to use on the instrument because don’t forget you have all of that.
You understand what I mean?
Ok play something for six minutes and make it concise.
We can’t discriminate against sound. All sounds are beautiful. Some collections are more effective and please us aesthetically more than others. So there were some points there that sounded really quite beautiful. There were some things that happened in that span that no one could have done the way you did them--because you have to understand that when you play well, no one can do it as well as you. If you play badly, there is no one who could play it as badly as you--so there’s always this individual thing―you understand what I mean--and what we do is we emulate the players we think are playing well and we try to say that we’re being creative.
That’s not true.
You’re not even being re-creative--you’re being nothing because its already been done by someone else and you’re trying to jump in on that. More power to you [but] it’s impossible--[it] can’t happen.
But if you have a problem, you can’t forget all the things that preceded what you’re doing now. If you have to write something down to form a unified 'something' out of which you can come that’s what you should do. Don’t think that because another direction happens to surface in music that it gets rid of all of the stuff that preceded that--its added. It's given you something else because there are some things, for example some things cannot be written down...so that you can...well lets put it this way: nothing can be done twice.
We try to do it as much as we can. It can’t be done twice because the first time you do it you’re a certain age, you’re this, you’re that your body, the world is spinning a different way and all like that so if everything stayed the same, you could do it twice.
[It] doesn’t stay the same, you can’t do it twice, but you want to repeat that because there is something about it you want--so you work at trying to remember what the feeling was, what the sound was, how the instrument felt in your hand blah blah blah and that’s what you do….
But you can’t make music that way--you can’t create music. To create music you gotta come up with a whole other thing. Someone punches someone in the mouth and he doesn’t say “OW!” he says “Gee! do that again” that’s creative. You want to imitate? My god he got punched in the mouth and he enjoyed it for gods sake.
Doing music and the people around you who are doing music are the most important people you can have because they are the one’s that are going to teach you--the one’s that you play with--not the ones you listen to on CD, the one that you play with, see? So try to understand what they are doing when they are taking a breath, what kind of sound they make or how you can compliment that sound. Can you get inside that sound and do something? Can you do it? AH--how do you then take one note and make it seem to imply three or four notes? You see? How do you do that?
So if you have nothing else to practice, these are the things to think about and work at in addition to the academic things that are still important on the horn.
A scale is still a scale and still has to be played as a scale.
A line which is a scale has to be played as a line.
A melody has to be played as a melody.
So all of these things when you break it down, everything is reduced to a cipher. You've got to decide what part of it at a certain time your dealing with.
Now one of the problems...you’re going to do something tomorrow, because tonight you should be trying to grease the wheels--like, get rid of a lot of the dumb stuff, you know, and tomorrow what you should do when you give your performance [is] you have to play every note that you play as if it was the last thing you were going to do on the face of this Earth. And that it's also possible that if you do it right that it can change things--and that is not mere folly--you have to believe and you can’t wait until someone gives you a four star review in Downbeat before you believe in yourself. You have to believe if no one else does. I’m doing this--you have to critique yourself. Someone says “Oh my God man it was beautiful what you played” and you know half of it was and you thank them, be generous, but then go back and say "if this is what I’m doing I better be doing something else...because I’m not doing what I think I’m doing."
Music, creative music, improvised music--whatever you’re going to call it requires a basic kind of honesty. YOU have to know when you’ve done it because you’re the only one who knows because you’ve done it. You might play and someone says ”my that was really something” and you barely got by in your playing by the skin of your teeth. Everyone of us has had that.
You played well at a party, concert or whatever it is or something and no one heard it, they were talking, The better you played the more they talked and then there--sometimes at a performance where you played, you just barely limped along and everyone was “gee wow man this guy is greater than Miles...man he’s sittin' here...Oh 'Trane better watch out”
So its you. [You] gotta be honest with yourself.
Now a good way to approach that is, like, I know as long as I’ve been playing--and I’ve been playing a long time--every single day I find out something about the trumpet that I didn’t know the day before, so some people say you’re smarter.
”Oh I thought you couldn’t play”--well that’s their problem. I’m hunting for information that's what I want. I want to be able to play effectively what I want to play. I want to be in charge and if no one likes it, that’s their problem
So your audience is your enemy,see? This is a private thing--you decided you wanted to play this music this way. No one forced you--in fact if you’re not remiss and you’re hip, they did everything they could to see that you couldn’t learn how to play. So if you do anything well its not because of them its in spite of them. Remember that.
And there’ll be times in your playing when you finish you’re playing. You’re doing a performance or something like that. There’s a very good feeling that comes out of when you play well. Maybe money won’t happen. Your next job you may get five dollars more, but there’s something about playing well in music. I don’t even think sex equals that. I don’t, but I’m older―you guys are still young, bucking around stuff--but be honest with yourself, because you can’t get anywhere as a creative musician if you are dishonest...you just can’t.
Know when you need to work on certain things, Know when you are not identifying pitches properly. Know when if there is D flat situation and you’re playing a D because you haven’t sat down today, KNOW THAT--THAT’S YOUR INFORMATION. That’s your information, see? and LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN
In the ensemble you may start to play something and this other person has already started to play that. You don’t need to play that, so you have to find a way to get out of that and start another situation. See what I mean? Thats your orchestration. When you have someone write for you they write it. Don’t forget if you have ten players, ten players are writers. Keep that in mind. The pleasure in this music is...they equal the horrors and the disappointments--but just a little bit. They make you want to continue. You have to do that.
Now, you can’t neglect academic practice of your instrument. If you don’t know your instrument, your intervals, and you think you can play everything chromatically you’re deceiving yourself in playing . If all of a sudden harsh sounds are in vogue, it doesn’t...what we ascribe to music, it doesn’t rule out beautiful sounds. There’s something, I mean, you can be playing all of this stuff and all of a sudden there’s this...someone can be playing a simple, beautiful academic melody. Well if it fits, fine, because
sometimes that’s what, I mean, you know everything isn’t a thirteenth chord. Triads--when I was studying the rule was when you get into trouble, go back to your triads because they contain everything. You understand what I mean? So with that as a thing, make small examples, like, do an orchestra piece that has an introduction, whatever an orchestra piece has, and do it in ninety seconds--Things like that, and see if you can make it sound like it had a beginning, middle and end...you know what I mean.
And things like that and do things where, if you can, start like in the middle of a piece of music--which is what most people do anyway; they think they’re at the beginning and they’ve really started in the middle. You can hear it because the more comfortable they become, then they begin―they work themselves up to the beginning and back again
So give yourself little examples of things like that. Don’t just play openly to see how long you can play. Don’t do that. Start off to see...have someone play and see if everyone can learn to play in unison with that person who’s playing. These are exercises--good for your ear, good for your facility, certainly good for your knowledge.
You understand me?
Doing duets: Duets are easier than trio’s for one reason--two people can get along better than three or whatever. I don’t make the rules--that’s what they do, because that’s what the hell it is, right? The more people you have, there’s a kind of, um, "what about me? what about me? what about me?"
They may do a piece or part where your horn isn’t required. That's being honest in the music. You understand what I mean? So know where you belong architecturally and instrumentally and try these things out and when they don’t work, learn to critique yourself without feeling attacked and without being defensive.
When would I say “hey man, you’re out of tune...”
“Well your mother’s out of tune...”
You want to be gregarious about wanting the information because knowledge in that instance IS power.
Well why don’t you just take a unison--do this for about 90 seconds…and here’s why don’t you play a unison--this is very difficult. You’ll start off, and as I’m talking to you now, everyone should be thinking of the note that the unison is going to be. This is how intuition...everyone talks about intuition--intuition is invisible as a thing, it only exists in our imagination and when we hear it, OK. So I’m going to tell you to play for ninety seconds and I’m just going to give you the thing, the downbeat to play, I’m not going to tell you what note and you’re going to try to do it in unison. You do that for six months you’d be amazed at what the group is supposed to sound like…
(a small sound is heard)...
Now who did that? Why did you do that? No tell the truth why did you do that?
Student: “ when I started playing the horn I had difficulty figuring out where I was. I was so used to playing the piano.”
Well that doesn’t help the situation. You understand what I mean? That’s cheating in a way. If you want to cheat all your life its not going to bother me but its going to bother them and they should chew your ass about it.
Alright I’ll give you four and then you, I mean, do it moderately so we can hear the overtones
1 2 3 4 and...
Now that wasn’t bad. That wasn’t bad at all, but you learn so you can almost hear what the musicians are thinking especially after you’ve played together for a while.
Reading: you know, there is an old story--music of the future, music of the future, we’re going to be so advanced that the composer will come in and sit down, he’ll face the audience. The composer will sit down and he’ll face them and they’ll look at each other and for three hours they will just face each other and then when the three hours are up they’ll applaud--you know why? They will have read each others minds and they will read in his mind what they want to play--and so you know if they can get that, why waste time trying to write it down and have them interpret what they want to play?
Now, you may think that’s impossible but it's not impossible. The mind sends out vibrations--it's up to you to catch it, and this is simple. We’re all on the same wavelength [in] this is music. If you play together for a month and you come in and you do that exercise after one or two times you should be able to do it anytime you want because you’ve already circulated what you think and how you think if people are paying attention.
Now in that instance the saxophone player was the strongest voice but there was a point for six or seven seconds [where] there was a beautiful sound--it just had to happen very briefly--a beautiful sound and if I were playing, I would have wanted that sound to stay, and then when you couldn’t stand it anymore, then someone just shriek a line through that dog gone sound
I'll tell you a story. I have a piece of music called Shrike and I was in Vienna and I met...what the hell was his name...(student reminds him―Luigi Nono) HA! who? (student says Nono) Nono--Luigi Nono, yah I met Nono--a tall man. They were having a composers conference and the people I was with had given him a copy of the record. He’s a tall man so he picked me up and he’s holding me off the ground and he says “come we must go to my villa and we must spend time there and you must show me how you do these things so I can write a piece for you”
And I said but Mr Nono I couldn’t play it if you wrote it. It wasn’t conceived that way and he just looked at me wondering if I was holding something back. Everything can’t be written in the way that you want it so...alright, Ok, try it again
2 3 4 and...OH, but this time whatever you play..play it a half tone higher
2 3 4 and
Ok, now the other thing is learning how when one person runs out of breath, so that when one person is leaving a note, you attack your note on the high point of his leaving his note, so we don’t hear a break. You learn how to do that in an ensemble too see because everything isn’t a whole not or half note or something like that. These are the things you can do instead of wasting your time thinking your doing something. Learn the things that go into making music so that when you're lucky (snaps) you can do music.
Alright, get it. Here we are again. One more time..
2 3...now do it a half tone lower
2 3 4 and..
OK. Alright. Now it’s the last one and then you’re going to take all four of those and put them together. Alright this is the last one. I want you to start of on a C sharp--your version of a C sharp. You know you gotta have it in your mind. And start pretty strongly, and hold it, and then bring it down so that its almost a whisper
OK 2 3 4 and
Now all of you could stand some time in the gym too!
alright…….take those four things that you have: the first note, then a half tone lower and then a half tone lower than that, or then a half tone higher, and then this last one make a piece of music that lasts a minute. Out of it I want two soloists...I want three soloists. I want Jason, I want the alto, and I want ah...ah...whats his name, Forbes. At various [points] you’ll take a solo. You'll make it relate in terms of the sonority. "
(recording was cut off)