Sunday, August 12, 2007

I sing the body, whatever

(Aside: I suppose the above image gives a new vibrancy to the "navel-gazing" tag...)

So I know I'm guilty of occasionally using this blog to less-than-surreptitiously complain about a certain back condition (ankylosing spondylitis) that has been a part of my life for the last ten years or so. I'm going to start out this post by being a lot less surreptitious.

Apparently, according to my rheumatologist, there are some new developments. What the most recent X-Rays suggest, anyway, is that my vertebrae are now actively fusing together. That's right: my spine is slowly calcifying into a single bone! Neat-o, eh?

So yeah, I've entered a more aggressive phase of this fucking disease. The usual trajectory from here is to fuse and fuse until you "cain't fuse no more." It takes a while, yes, but that's the narrative.

No point in getting melodramatic about this, of course. There's no way I'm going to end up like the guy pictured above (even though he had the same illness). Besides, there are a few new "wonder drugs" on the market that purport to be able to stop the thing in its tracks. (Alas, like most wonder drugs, these oddly-named concoctions have the potential to create a whole different set of problems. But what the hell -- it's not like the "booze therapy" I had until recently prescribed for myself was without its own side-effects.)

* * * * *

Why on earth am I boring you with the tedious details of this situation? Well, like everything in my life, it always seems to come back to music. In this case, I've been thinking a bit about composition and its relationship to both the body and the physical act of playing an instrument. I wonder: is composition a habit you develop when your fingers aren't skilled enough to articulate the sounds your mind is imagining? (By "you," I mean "me," of course.)

My own history as a player has been a hodgepodge at best. The piano was the first instrument I can remember wanting to play, and though I started early enough (2nd grade), I never came close to being what you might call "accomplished." I was certainly never the kid who played exceptionally well at the recital. I could find my way around a keyboard alright (still can), but I hated reading music (still do), and more than once was caught by my teachers(s) filling in the gaps of what my eyes couldn't follow with what my ear was hearing.

Sure, the piano was always my main axe, but I was never really in love with it the way I was in love with the process of "making up songs" (even way back then). I suspect on some subconscious level that I felt obligated to find an instrument at which I could truly excel -- this, I believed for a while, was the essence of being a musician -- so at some point in my youth I spent quality time with the drums, the guitar, the trumpet, the clarinet, the bass clarinet, and the tenor sax. Alas, nothing clicked, though of course I got a lot of practical knowledge about how these instruments worked. But I always came back to the piano, and that was where I did the bulk of my writing.

In high school I found myself constantly at war with the notion of instrumental virtuosity. On the one hand, many of the extra-curricular musical circles I moved in were oriented toward the heavy metal / prog rock vibe, which of course is all about technical mastery. I was one of a handful of keyboardists in my class willing to take the time to learn some silly Yes or Rush song or other, mostly for the "benefit" of the opposite sex.

But truth be told, I hated the whole chop-heavy ethic of that environment. Partly because I suspected that I couldn't hang with it consistently. (It's one thing to play a little flashy piano for some big-haired girls in a choir room, but something else altogether to do that sort of thing regularly with an actual band.) More importantly, it all felt a little misdirected to me. I probably knew even then that the time it would have taken to get my technique up to speed -- if such a thing were even possible -- was time that would have been better spent actually writing music.

So at some point in my early college years I resigned myself to being a merely competent instrumentalist (piano mostly, but a little guitar too), and concentrated on writing the best music I could in spite of my technical flaws.

Of course, just as I was becoming comfortable with this role, I accidentally started studying jazz more seriously. It began with a ragtime phase (in 1995, shortly after moving to LA to go to grad school) and that quickly led to an immersion in classic jazz piano styles, like boogie-woogie and stride. I was so hardcore about this stuff for a while that I actually found myself playing fairly regularly with a sad little "dixieland band" (their term, not mine), which was, incidentally, where I met some of the original members of the IJG (including some, like Evan Francis and Cory Wright, who are still in the group).

Because of the level of tactical precision required to execute any of the stride-oriented styles in particular, I found myself spending long tedious hours trying to work up something resembling a technique. I never really achieved that, but I got to the point where I could fake it well enough to play publicly. From there, I got bored, of course, and also got so sick of the dixielanders that for a short time even Louis Armstrong was ruined for me. I then spent about three years burning through an ad hoc "modern jazz piano course" (of my own devising) during which I aspired to play mostly like either Bill Evans or Monk, depending on the day of the week.

Once again, at the end of this period, a certain basic competence was attained, but once again, it wasn't enough to satisfy my own personal criteria-for-doing-it, which was, roughly: if I am going to put in the effort as a pianist, I want greatness to at least be an option. Merely being good at the piano wasn't enough of a justification for going through the mind-numbing hell of daily rudiments. So my self-imposed routines started to drift, and I inevitably found myself using the piano to write instead of practice.

Thus for a second time I abandoned my aspirations toward total instrumental proficiency. And thus for a second time I confirmed my identity as "one of those composers who can't play so good." And all of this, I realize now, was at least partly spurred on by a new reality in my life: suddenly, sitting with the "appropriate piano posture" on the typical backless piano bench for more than fifteen minutes at a time could lead to excruciating pain. Suddenly, too, I was unable to sleep through the night for the same reason. (Ankylosing spondylitis is at its most onerous during periods of inactivity.)

I have always been a night owl, but the fact that I could no longer sit still for the amount of time it usually took me to get into a good compositional work rhythm (for me, writing at the piano always involved a warming up period of basic noodling) meant that I had to develop new work habits.

The first of these was pacing. It's amazing how many compositional problems can be solved by walking back and forth, humming to yourself. I've always been interested in the relationship between sound and movement -- but suddenly this relationship was much more immediate and compositionally relevant for me. The fact that I took up writing-while-walking may help explain why so many of my IJG-era tunes are more groove-oriented than the stuff I was writing during, say, the Evelyn days.

The second new habit was writing music on a computer. I know, it sounds kind of scary. But the computer has come to feel very much like a neutral device to me -- it doesn't seem to guide or limit the direction of a particular piece in the way that writing on a piano did. Thanks the invention of notational software, which could be loaded on a laptop, which could be placed on a counter so I could work while standing, I could score an entire piece without touching the piano at all. (And actually, with my temperament, I can't imagine keeping a group like the IJG stocked with tunes if I were computer-less. With the original quintet version of the group, I used to do stuff the old-fashioned way (i.e., by hand) and found it tedious as hell. But I suppose that's a topic for another post.)

I guess the irony in all this was that, though I was suffering physically much of the time (both from the disease, which was finally diagnosed in 2002, and from the fatigue that came with the accumulated lack of sleep), I was suddenly writing better music than I thought I was capable of. I suppose there was something delightful about being "freed by necessity" from the limitations of an "actual instrument" -- no longer did I need to cultivate my tunes by physically playing them. This (for me) fresh perspective on the process of writing music was like rediscovering the rush of completing my first compositions: I felt like I was seventeen again, and writing for all the right reasons.

Anyway, we'll see if the new drugs make any difference in all of this. First, I guess, I should get over my aversion to having to stab myself in the thigh once a week.

We just bought a dorky red upright piano for the basement -- just for fiddling around, I told myself, though I hope it will also tempt the kid into learning to play. I do daydream from time to time about starting some kind of free jazz duo or trio -- as a periodic diversion from the stresses of running a fifteen-piece group. But the piano portion of that hypothetical project would inevitably be more of an energy-over-ability thing. You know: "punk piano." Certainly if I ever start taking myself serious enough as a pianist to act like this, you should feel free to tell me to fuck off.


Jeff K. said...

The fact that you don't consider yourself a pianist still slays me. I'd give my left nut to be able to play like you.


Sorry to hear about the back thing. At least they've identified it, and maybe the drugs won't make you bleed out of orifices that shouldn't have blood coming out of them...

John Lester said...

Nice blog!

Andrew Durkin said...

Hey Jeff:

Thanks. On the piano -- yeah, I dunno. Piano is a means to an end for me, ya know? I suppose I've got "my own vibe" as a pianist, but that vibe has never seemed to be my strength. Maybe I'm overthinking it.

On the back business -- I tried to think of a way to describe all that without sounding self-pitying or maudlin. Not sure I succeeded, actually. And I'm not sure the blog was the best place to tell that particular story, either. Maybe I just needed to vent. Thanks for reading, anyway...

Viva la old age!

Andrew Durkin said...

Hi John, thanks for checking in.