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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Thinkers

(21 April 2005)
Eliezer started our tradition of improv in the Academy a year ago. I had been improvising alone (for fun) for a long time, but that was my first experience with duet improvisation. I sit at one grand piano, some other pianist (sometimes Eliezer) sits at the other grand piano, and we just start to play.… We're playing, but we're also listening, because we need to complement each other. With these improvs, you never know where it's going, because the other player might suddenly get an idea, and you'll go in that direction with him. Or you might get an idea, and he'll join you. It's fun. But it's very difficult to have a coherent overall structure.

The following post is a direct sequel to title="27/3/2007" style="font-style:italic;">The Composer.
Eliezer called, out of the blue. He asked if I'd improvise with him at the Hebrew University the following morning, as a demonstration for a lecture or some such.

I walked in very late. Eliezer had gotten there a few minutes earlier, and he was improvising with a guy named Levi who's (I'm guessing) a regular at his weekly Tel Aviv sessions. I took a seat and enjoyed the performance.

I looked around the room. Eliezer wasn't talking to a bunch of college students, he was talking to the heads of the Musicology department! There were a dozen or so people, ranged in age between their 30's and, oh, I'd say 70's. They listened to the music dispassionately. Then the music stopped, with both sides trying to get the last statement (to the piece's detriment).

Eliezer began to talk. He talked about the idea that the specific piano played on is as integral to a piece of music as its melody. He talked about improvisation as an important part of the composition process. He talked about improvisation being considered unimportant in understanding classical (and more generally Western) music. And then he invited me to play.

I started with a note, and he repeated the note. I built a theme of three notes, and he repeated it. And we were off. I tried to not take too much attention for myself, because I knew Eliezer would want to do all sorts of fancy stuff I barely understand and I needed to give him space. So I kept it simple, anchoring the piece in the original theme throughout while he jumped around enough to make it interesting though not enough to contradict me. I followed his modulations and added little cutesy flourishes. We each anticipated where the other was going and completed each other's sentences. It was a lovely improvisation. Then he ended, and I ended, and he ended, and I ended. "Everyone needs to have the last word.", he pointed out.

Eliezer continued to talk. He talked about the self-sacrifice of limiting yourself for the sake of your partner. He talked about the greatness of some of the improvisations he had with Levi. He talked about the experience of having a conversation in music. He talked about how two-person improvisations could be analyzed and studied. He talked about his old schools in Russia frowning on improvisation. He talked about all the little things he could think of that he loves about two-person improvisation in general. And the room was silent. At one point a guy raised his hand to start a point, but thought better of it and let Eliezer keep talking. Eliezer talked and talked and the room sat still. If I may interpret what I saw, he started to get a little scared. He asked the esteemed musicologists in the room to contradict him, to speak up against him. He quoted Gemara for some reason I didn't catch, though I figured he was making a point about proper conduct in speaking.

And the one in the back who raised a hand earlier began to talk. I think it was the head of the entire department. He spoke with intelligence and consideration, and no one could have doubted that he knew what he was talking about. He talked for a long time, taking apart Eliezer's ideas piece by piece and comparing them to other things he was familiar with. He cut through all the enthusiasm of the speaker to reduce the issue to its most basic points: For instance, what exactly was Eliezer (who, make no mistake, the entire room respected) trying to sell them? And Eliezer invited Levi to improvise again.

Eliezer did not sit down ready to listen to his partner. He sat down with the need to prove himself. He played a technically impressive improvisation, that neither needed Levi's perspective nor allowed for it. It was jazzy and crazy and had little pauses where Eliezer hoped his partner would come in. He did not, because to see the openings Eliezer had left for him would require Levi to think exactly like Eliezer. For the entire piece, he was desperately looking for openings he could never find. Then it ended, with each side of course trying to end himself.

And the argument began. I will be blessed in life if I am ever on any side of such an argument.

Each new voice brought a totally different perspective. Some were short and incisive, others were long speeches contrasting Eliezer's method with their favorite improvisation-related topics. None were the sorts of positions Eliezer might have foreseen, and each speaker gave me the impression, while he was talking, that what he was saying was absolutely and indisputably right. There was not a single comment made which was not well-reasoned, even if the reasoning had little to do with what Eliezer was saying. They often reiterated what had been said so far, and it was always done eloquently. They worked each other's positions into their own. They dissected and analyzed.

One woman talked about the "Anything goes" mentality, and whether that kind of improvisation fits into the world's current position in musical history. One man talked about what studies of improvisation are being done at Juliard and London, and whether this adds anything to that. One woman repeatedly insisted that it should not be taken for granted that the topic up for discussion is Western music, that that is small-minded and ignorant. One man, excitedly bouncing around in his chair, talked about a novel he read where improvisation becomes a competition, where the goal is to be better than the other rather than to listen to him. One man asked what Eliezer thought they could do. And so on. The conversation bounced around the room, gaining momentum as it did. The overall tone was critical and negative, though they all had different reasons.

Eliezer asked for a volunteer in the audience to improvise with him.

The room went silent.

For a minute, all these great musical minds, all of whom are wonderful pianists, looked around at each other awkwardly, waiting for someone to get up. They smiled, amused at the situation. But they still didn't get up. They spoke only to make excuses.

Finally, the man who started the argument with his well-placed criticism got up. He walked down to the piano.

Before sitting down, he asked who starts. He insisted that the question of who starts is of vital significance, because that person sets the tone for the other. He argued with and considered Eliezer's suggestion that they start with single notes. Eliezer responded.

Finally, the man sat down. And they played.

It was a revelation.

They bounced musical ideas back and forth so effortlessly, you'd think they'd been doing it for years. And those ideas came from everywhere. They started with atonality, and moved on to jazz and classical and pentatonic scale. They moved from one to the other seamlessly, like it was all the same language to them. They never forgot where they'd been before, and they never hesitated to bring it all back at the most unlikely of times. They copied each other with perfect pitch, they finished each other's sentences even when the sentences were creative. These are people who've heard everything, who can't be surprised anymore. They played the sort of thing I'd love to hear again. And then they stopped, with each one trying to get the last word in.

Suddenly, everyone in the room was fascinated with what had just been played. They were analyzing it, and dissecting it, and admiring it from all angles. Truly, there was a lot for them to think about there. And they went back and forth on the merits of the piece that was played, but Eliezer had already won the original argument. Not with words which can be countered, but with music which inspires. The entire room was talking about what they'd heard. And as one person pointed out, something which evokes such strong responses has to be worth something.

As Eliezer drove me and Levi away, he said to us:
These are people of words. They talk. When it comes time to do, they have trouble. Who accomplishes more, the person who talks about things or the person who does?



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