What's New?
The PoD Roundtable
moderated by Bill Shoemaker

What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.

The panelists for this roundtable include:

Russ Gershon Russ Gershon is a saxophonist and composer. He is both the founder of Either/Orchestra and of Accurate Records, E/O's primary label. E/O first recorded Ethiopian music for its 2000 Accurate CD, More Beautiful Than Death. The E/O's 2004 trip to Addis is documented on Ethiopiques Volume 20 Live in Addis (Buda Musique) and its 2006 E/O performance at the Banlieues Bleues Festival with singers Mahmoud Ahmed and Tsédénia Gébré-Marqos is available on the Buda Musique DVD, Ethiogroove (the DVD is discussed in this issue's Page One). For more information about Russ Gershon and Either/Orchestra, consult: http://either-orchestra.org. (Photo by Phil Stiles)

Jason Kao Hwang Jason Kao Hwang is a composer, violinist and educator, whose works span compositions for jazz quartet and chamber opera. From 1990 until 2004, Hwang led The Far East Side Band, a pioneering quartet with Joe Daley, Sang-Won Park and Yukio Tsuji. Hwang currently leads Edge, a quartet with trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum, bassist Ken Filiano and percussionist Andrew Drury (their eponymous debut CD on AsianImprov was reviewed in Issue 6). His most recent recording is Local Lingo (Euonyus), an album of duets with Park. For more information about Jason Kao Hwang, visit: www.jasonkaohwang.com.

JD Parran JD Parran is a multi-instrumentalist and composer. A member of the St. Louis-based Black Artists Group while studying for his Masters in Music Education from Washington University, Parran has appeared on more than 50 recordings over the last three decades, including collaborations with The Band, Anthony Braxton, Don Byron, Anthony Davis, Julius Hemphill, New Winds, Yoko Ono, Alan Silva and Stevie Wonder. His latest releases as a leader, JD Parran & Spirit Stage featuring the poetry of Shirley LeFlore and Omegathorp: Living City (co-led with Mark Deutsch) are both available on Y'All Recordings. Parran is also a veteran educator who lectures at City University of New York (CUNY) and teaches clarinet and saxophone at Harlem School for the Arts.


Bill Shoemaker: What are the motivations and practices of the musicians you have worked with from other cultures that make their music “non-Western?”

JD Parran: The question of “western” or not has caused me to grapple with a few issues about my musical influences. I do search for more understanding as a performer and teacher while our culture and concerns become more and more global.

On September 29 I participated in Technodiaspora: An Internet Master Class and Teleperformance hosted by George E. Lewis utilizing video and audio streaming via the MARCEL telecollaboration network. I performed in a trio with Warren Smith led by Douglas Ewart at Harlem School of the Arts, New York City in virtual reality with a trio of South African musicians in South Africa. We could see and hear each other as we performed together for a live audience at HSA.

Only after the live sound from South Africa was in the room for a few minutes during shuffling of positions, musical instruments and technical gear did I “listen up” to realize that “Hey, you folks are here playing with us and we sound like you.”

Some of their instruments were intrinsically African: several varieties of the Zulu berimbau, handmade wooden flutes and percussion but what sounded so very African was the vocal delivery. Here sometimes accompanied by the South African guitarist there they perform African vocal renditions with or without western chords. The chords are few without key modulation.

The western ideal sound is pure tone without constrictions or add-ons. Non-western instruments tend to opt for sympathetic vibrations (sitar) or multiple sound generators (balaphone, djembe). Some styles of Chinese and African singing include throat sounds as part of the voice, techniques that refer to functional traditions hundreds or thousands of years old. Also non-western cultures developed music much less involved with progressive chordal harmony, intricate textural polyphony and complex orchestration than in European folk and classical practice.

This vocal delivery carried the unmistakable mark that I experienced as the opening hymn in Baptist Church services as a child in St. Louis. The style or rendition of “Old Dr. Watts” hymns placed me and my congregation inside the slave experience and transported us to a spiritual place. Intensely functional, this is the direct legacy of African musical practice adapted, under duress, here in America.

The deacon with the gravelly voice would send out the “call” and the congregation responded. We had now entered the safety net of the ancestors. The minister would then take the pulpit and service proper would start, including music in the gospel and spiritual musical styles commonly associated with black Christian music.

I have experienced plurality in musical experience all my life and although I can’t accurately speak for them I believe musicians from other cultures do too.

Life in the west tends to be separated into components: work vs. play, church vs. school vs. workplace, my room vs. your room etc. Music in the west is functional but still separate to the extent that a choice to have it or not is on the table.

This is clear particularly in comparison to West African culture where dance, music and visual arts are integral to acts of everyday living as well as the ceremonial acts.

I gave a call to the son of this Afro-cantor and sadly but predictably this element, a non-western fragment has disappeared from the church service. His father is deceased along with the other men who were capable of leading it. There are purists who perform ancient arts locally or internationally. Others pursue preservation of arts that may disappear. But it seems more fruitful right now to talk in terms of shared materials and practices.

Jazz music has juxtaposed western and non-western elements from its beginnings to the now as a diasporan manifestation of survival and an improvisation on opportunity. We continue to reach as we recreate. Freely improvised, no time, no tonic, at least as a starting point, has acquired an annual NYC festival to accommodate that “Vision”. Individuality of voice and the possession of ones own signature music is the mark of artistry in any culture, specific or non.

Russ Gershon: There are the obvious things: different sense of pitch, rhythm and harmony; different instruments different repertoire (both in the music they play and in the music they know), different (spoken) language, different terminology for musical devices, different procedures for learning music, i.e., non-literate (although that describes many Western musicians I've worked with too).

There are more subtle, cultural things, such as degrees of punctuality (both in the negative sense of showing up "late" and in the positive sense of working on music until it's "right," even if this runs longer than scheduled); degrees of expressiveness in rehearsal conversation (people from some cultures are less inclined to directly disagree or state dissatisfaction than others; this also goes for individuals regardless of cultural background).

There are philosophical/social notions at play, such as whether a musician is an artist, an entertainer, a functionary. Of course, even within the West all of these roles can be part of a musician's program – I am all of these things in varying degrees, depending on the nature of the gig. I personally enjoy the shifting proportions, as each hat brings out a different part of the art and the craft of music for me. In non-Western cultures I've worked with (I'm thinking primarily of Ethiopian and Latino cultures), the role of artist seems less emphasized, sought after and treasured by musicians. There is more of a feeling of the musician as social functionary and entertainer. Of course, most cultures outside of the West emphasize social connectedness among people to greater degree than we do here. Our individualistic, wealthy society pushes people away from each other in many ways, and venerates the triumph of the person who can generate wealth and accumulate power. Musicians and artists feel the pull of this, even ones who profess to criticize the status quo and do art for arts sake. This is the sea we swim in, and the game we have to play to try to make a living. I don't want to romanticize poorer, less materialistic societies, because there is ego and power everywhere. However, in non-Western societies a greater proportion of people don't even have enough access to buy into the myth of making it big and becoming materially isolated from their surroundings, so their energy focuses more on social interactions. This necessarily affects the role of the musician, his philosophical stance.

I would also like to emphasize the degree to which I have found common ground with non-Western musicians, once again, primarily Ethiopian and Latino.

Although I have had some formal education in European classical music (violin and piano lessons, masters degree in composition at the advanced age of 44) and jazz/modern music (Berklee), I came into playing jazz and other American music forms (rock, blues, soul, funk) in a practical way. I listened to a ton of music and then I picked up a saxophone and starting blowing into one end until sound came out. Then I started jamming with friends as we tried to imitate the music we liked (fortunately, they were a lot more advanced than me!), which was Ornette Coleman, Sam Rivers, John Coltrane. Later I took some lessons and began working on technique, and also began playing blues, rock and so on – more basic forms where technique is perhaps less important than expression. The rock bands I played in were essentially non-literate.

So, my music education was kind of folk-style, with the formal and theoretical stuff coming later. I have no problem relating to musicians who learn by ear, who have no theory as a separate body of knowledge from practice, who need endless repetitions to remember things because they can't rely on paper.

In addition, my years of playing American styles have equipped me for playing African music for the obvious historical reason that so much of American music is descended from African music. The rhythms of jazz, funk and Afro-Cuban music are all found in African music, and vice versa. The notion of non-tempered pitch is all over the blues and other African-American originated singing styles, which are the basis for jazz melodicism It's all part of the same big story. (I daresay that non-tempered pitch is found in European folk singing too, which has also had a huge influence on American music and therefore the "training" of the American musician.) This is not to downplay the regional differences between African and American music (or within these continents); there is a dazzling and fantastic variety of musics with very particular defining characteristics. To participate in any particular tradition requires learning what these particularities are, and equally important, to learn what is the social and cultural context of the music.

Jason Kao Hwang: When I work with musicians from “other” countries, speaking “other” languages, trained in “other” traditions, playing “other” instruments, I strive to feel no difference. Jazz has trained me to find a space where no dichotomies exist, only sound. I feel their music, our music, makes complete sense. In fact, their music is a gift, awakening my own like qualities, which to various degrees, had been dormant. We “speak” in different dialects of the same human experience. We affect each other, our vibrations creolized. We are our instruments. As with new friends, our dialogue grows through continued interaction.

In other words, I’d rather not understand the question. But of course I do, and it’s a good question based on definitions that are worth challenging.

With our now global culture, all of us possess multi-cultural qualities, none of which are the exclusive possession of any one ethnicity, but determined by choice, willful or unconscious, for reasons deeply rooted in personal history. These qualities flow into each other like water. Cultural essentialism is a myth, used by both Romantic idealists and racists alike, of all colors. So many people, like the artists in this panel, have imagined and created identities that are exceptions to precepts based upon ethnicity. “We” vigorously resist definition by school, movement, or any “Other” box.

That being said, artists of color often feel the “non-Western” qualities in their music feel, and therefore are, essential to spiritual dignity. Artists of the diaspora often imagine strong identities based upon the unique qualities of their music, some of which can be identified with their country of origin. Musicians, who create to celebrate and affirm their spirits, resist the power of dominant culture to marginalize their voices. This resistance has historically been a motivational force of music, most notably in the past century, blues, jazz and hip-hop.

I began to understand and therefore, imagine my identity, while touring South Korea with vocalist/choreographer Sin Cha Hong in 1992. This was my first trip to Asia. The experience was startling, both radically familiar and foreign. Though I am of Chinese decent, simply seeing, for the first time, streets bustling with heads of black hair was an inexplicable déjà vu. I remember witnessing myself in the dance mirrors of the Samul Nori studios, rehearsing with Korean musicians and dancers. The body language, smiles and laughter all seemed familiar. Being American-born Chinese, this was the first time an environment appeared to reflect at least some aspect of my being. At the same time, very few people in the project spoke much English. Also, I couldn’t read Korean. Paradoxically, I could not participate socially in all that looked so familiar. The inability to communicate is perhaps the ultimate foreign experience. Music was our only language.

I returned to the States with a new understanding of how much I had in common with my parents, who came from China in the 1940s. I sound like my father when I laugh or sneeze! Looking back, I also recognized how I responded to various life events emotionally, like one or both my parents. It is this mass of “micro-learning” ingrained into my personality, not Asian scholarship, that defines my cultural self. These realizations generated insights about the shape, sound and phrase of my violin improvisations and compositions. In my sound was evidence of who I am.

What defines “non-Western” is complex and nuanced, far beyond simple markers of musicology, like the pentatonic scale.

It is a perspective that inspires my collaboration with Sang Won Park, who plays the kayagum, ajeng (Korean zithers) and also, sings in the pansori (Korean opera) style. We just released our duo CD, Local Lingo (Euonymus), a strong document of the empathic listening we cultivated throughout performances over the past 16 years. Sang Won is an amazing improviser. The spectacular timbres that emanate from both his plucked kayagum and bowed ajeng (with a resined stick), inspired alternate approaches to my violin. I found colors produced by extreme changes in bow pressure and sounding points created bridges to his sound. With his deep “vertical” vibrato, I broadened my vibrato using a full range of wide arm/hand movements to narrow/rapid finger fluctuations, with a rapidity and combination that spoke in our lingo. This allowed the inflections of our phrases to resonate as one. Through expressive intent and intuition, we also developed our own system of intonation. Though not of Western temperament, we are always “in tune.” For my compositions, the notational elements for Local Lingo are distilled to initiate a full and detailed improvisational development. Local Lingo will perform at the Issue Project Room on November 28th, along with the trio, Kioku.

On October 27th, at Symphony Space, Music From China will premiere my composition In the Garden of Morning Glories, which features erhu(2-string violin), pipa(lute), yanqin(hammered dulcimer), guzheng (21 string zither) and my violin. This work is my first experience with yanqin, guzheng and also, incorporating the improvisations of these traditional musicians.

Wang Guo Wei(erhu) and Li Sun (pipa) are superb instrumentalists, fluent in both Chinese and Western notation. Generally, earlier generations in China, from the pre-conservatory era, had some knowledge of Western notation, but little applied experience. The excellent Helen Wong (yanqin) and Sara Chou (zheng) are both American born and thorough cosmopolitans.

For this work, Western notation is the bridge. Improvisations are placed within a narrative musical structure that includes completely notated, extended passages. For my violin, I’ve developed a tremelo pizzicato to blend with the pipa, yanqin and zheng. The erhu’s characteristic portamento and shorter bow length are also influences.

Because I cannot read Chinese orchestration texts, I primarily learned Chinese instrumental technique directly from the musicians themselves. I also absorbed CD recordings and video clips on youtube, to observe the physical practice, color, phrasing and rhythmic language of these instruments. Understanding the intrinsic “finger memory” of these musicians was necessary to compose music that they will find naturally expansive, rather than completely contrary to their background. I just sent them their parts and score, and await their feedback.

Though through different modalities, this creative process is not so different from my cultivation of musical language with Sang Won.

Shoemaker: Who has had the steeper learning curve in your experiences of cross-cultural exchanges, the Americans or the other musicians?

Hwang: The learning curves were different but equal.

The “call and response” JD recollects could also describe the learning process between Sang Won and I. When improvising we face a continuous stream of decisions as to what sounds good and what does not. How do we initiate our own ideas? How do you support the other musician’s ideas? Through years of engaging in the practice of call and response, we developed our language that continues to evolve.

To reach common ground, we faced technical challenges. For Sang Won, reading Western notation and improvising within certain structures were second nature and required assiduous practice. For intonation, he was accustomed to tuning open strings approximately a quarter step lower than equal temperament. He would constantly bend this sound in and out of tune, the inflection infusing life into the vibration. But I found this approach too “out”, especially when I wished to play with harmonic ideas. So Sang now tunes his strings as close to equal temperament that he can. He still bends notes without restriction, but from a foundation closer to equal temperament. I also adapt, purging my finger memory to play similarly, slightly sharp and flat, with strings tuned to equal temperament. Sang Won also influenced the timbre and vibrato inflection of my violin, as I described before Also for our CD, I changed to Infeld Red strings, which are extremely dark, bringing my timbre closer to the kayagum and ajeng.

I have my first rehearsal of In the Garden of Morning Glories with Music From China tonight. A couple weeks ago the players received their parts and gave me positive feedback. This is satisfying.

Before writing this piece, I looked back to my opera, The Floating Box, A Story in Chinatown, and reconsidered the number of difficult passages I composed for the Chinese instrumentals. I know the musicians worked extremely hard to master these challenges. What makes music difficult? Not just the fingering, but the tempo and context of that fingering before and after the passage. Wide intervals based upon extended harmonies and ensemble polyrhythms, both uncharacteristic of Chinese traditional music, were new, expressive and difficult.

History is rife with examples of this struggle between vision and current instrumental practice. Tchaikovsky wrote his famous violin concerto for the great virtuoso Leopold Auer, who refused to perform it, considering the music unplayable.

Well, what I’ve concluded is that a composer should always strive to create through the musicians. Musicians must also strive to play through the music. This line of “learning curve” shifts and is elusive. For both cross-cultural improvisation and “classical” composition, the process of call and response and call and response, allows us to challenge and learn from each other to create new bridges. It is a fantastic and imperfect process that deepens with experience.

Gershon: It is difficult for me to make this comparison for many reasons, and here are a few:

–I have worked with many more Americans than other musicians, so I have very different sample group sizes.

–Within the group of Americans, I have worked with musicians who learn at lightning speed and others for whom almost no amount of repetition is enough – they'll still be unable to play the same things they couldn't play before rehearsing. They are caught between their desire to stretch and learn, and their training, experience and ability.

–As a composer/music organizer/bandleader, part of my job is to put players in a position to sound good, so I make different demands on different individuals. I would never put "Giant Steps" chord changes in front of a traditional musician from Ethiopia (or any chord changes on a piece of paper) because his training and experience have not prepared him for these. And this musician might handle music in his own culture of equivalent difficulty without any problem. There are some kinds of challenges that I have not attempted because we are always working toward preparing a strong presentation, rather that engaging in a purely educational process.

–Related to the previous reasoning, I tend to challenge the Americans (i.e., "my" musicians) more specifically, because I know them well, understand their capabilities, and because the "jazz" aesthetic (as I interpret it, anyway), involves being open to dealing with playing under any conceivable set of parameters. Also, in Western "professional" music culture there is a premium on being able to learn almost instantly, if not always with incredible depth.

–On the other hand, some of the non-Western musicians I've worked with have such extraordinary ears and hands, and are so unencumbered by theoretical constructs, that their music instincts get them to a high level in any sound situation very quickly. Some of this surety comes from how connected they are to a specific musical tradition. They have such a strong basis for approaching music that they can apply it easily, rather than feeling around for an approach, as Western musicians may have to do in our culture of multiple perspectives. I have been wonderfully surprised on many occasions when non-Western musicians are put into a freer context and thrived. (Some of this returns to putting players in setting where their instincts will serve them well.)

This situation reminds me that most of the best "free" players are those who have worked their way through one or more very rigid traditions: it gives them vocabulary, a powerful understanding of ways in which music can be structured and the ability to handle their instruments. The trick is to both utilize one's training and the discipline developed within particular forms and yet remain open to new possibilities. The best jazz players have this, and I'm finding that some (certainly not all) of the best non-Western players have it too. For some non-Western musicians, their music is so enmeshed in a broader social context that they don't have the desire, the resources nor the feeling of empowerment to alter it or mix it with other forms. (This can be said of many "purists" within American music, too.)

So, the answer to you question is: the jazz/professional/music education aesthetic generally prepares people better for fast learning, but the abilities and desires of talented individuals transcend all generalities.

Bridge Records

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