One Moment of Music

1. Zen in the Art of Lute Playing
Cultivating the Flower. Zeami on lute playing.
Lute Recipes by Dōgen.
Genjōkōan – Realising Music Through Lute Playing.
The Sound of Silence – Ma in Music
Zen in the Art of Listening
Walking the music
One Moment of Music
The Kōan of Playing Lute
To Play Lute is to Play Lute
11. Bach, Weiss and Nō
12. Instruments in their natural environment
13. It’s Zen to be HIP

This is part eight in a series of lute lessons inspired by the teachings of Zen. Here I try to establish a school of lutedō: the Way of the Lute. For this lesson I will take you on a trip through the mind of a jazz player.

Browsing the Internet, I came across an interview with Bill Evans. The interview is called The Universal Mind of Bill Evans and can be found here on YouTube. Bill Evans (1929-1980) was an American jazz pianist. The interviewer was Bill’s brother Harry, also a pianist.

In the interview Bill Evans spoke of the lost art of improvisation in classical music, still present in 17th century music. In classical music there are composers and interpreters. Composers may spend three months on composing three minutes of music, just as interpreters study for months to play these three minutes of music. The jazz-process, as he called it, works differently; jazz according to Evans is the process of making one minute music in one minute’s time. He explained further, “In an absolute sense, jazz is more of a creative process, a way to make music of the moment, a spontaneity, and a style. Therefore you might say that Chopin, or Bach, or Mozart, or whoever, improvised music, that is, was able to make music of the moment, was in a sense playing jazz.” Later he added, “The art of music is the art of speaking with a spontaneous quality.” His brother then extemporised on these remarks by saying, “One moment of music is one moment of music. This type of challenge, you have to direct yourself to this moment. Call on all your energies and your intellect, physical energies and aesthetical energies, and aesthetic energies to your environment, and pour it all into this one moment, and you don’t have time to even reflect on it, you know. Afterwards you might reflect on it, certainly, but at the moment, you are inside of it.”

In our lutedō, too, we are aiming at a state of playing lute where one moment of music is one moment of music. We use Zen because this teaches us a strong sense of importance of the moment, heightened senses and maximum concentration. Is playing jazz, or improvising, also a way to accomplish this? I think it might indeed be easier to accomplish being one with the music, or ‘being inside it’ as Bill’s brother Harry calls it, when improvising. So this lesson is about improvising and about what it can do for your lute playing.

How should we improvise? Remember this is not about becoming great improvisers, nor is it about playing jazz. Evans talks about the jazz-process and he calls this a way to make music of the moment, a spontaneity. For us, lute players of early music, it makes sense to improvise in a style that relates to the music we play. So, let’s begin by improvising a melody.

The first ‘rule’ in improvisation is that there are no rules. The second rule is that it helps to set yourself some limitations. This will prevent you from trying things that are too difficult and steer you off-course by trying to make something beautiful or correct. You can think of limiting yourself to a major scale, playing one note at a time within one octave, choosing from these:

C major scale

But remember, in improvising there are no wrong notes, so feel free to play outside these notes as well. Also, there are no ideals to copy and no standards to match. Don’t feel embarrassed by what you are doing, but try to immerse yourself in just playing what comes to your fingers and mind. Improvisation is a skill, a craft you have to learn, so don’t expect magic to happen the first time you try it. But what is possible even the first time, is to feel you are one with what you are doing. Just play a series of notes slowly and listen to every note and how it connects to the notes before and after. You are now improvising your own melody. It doesn’t have to be fast, it doesn’t have to go anywhere and it doesn’t have to be good in any way. Don’t judge your melody but explore it, listen to it and be inside it. This is what the Evans’ brothers are talking about when they say one minute of music is one minute of music. Try to experience this feeling of being one with the melody you are improvising. Actually, I should not tell you to try and capture the feeling, but I should only suggest you to play, because only playing will take you there; when playing, you will experience the feeling of being one with the music. Once you’re one with the music and listening with all your concentration to your own melody, you won’t notice you’re one with the music. When you do notice this feeling, the moment is gone because you must have taken a step back to observe yourself being one with the music.

This feeling of being one with what you are playing is the aim of our lutedō. Once you have experienced this feeling, try and recapture it the next time you improvise, deepen it and explore it. As you grow, you will be able to recapture this feeling more easily, and eventually ‘switch it on’ at will, also when playing music from sheet music or memory. Improvising or playing a composed piece should not make any difference in feeling one with the music. In both cases you should have the same concentration on the music; follow the melody of the composed piece just as intently as you did your own improvised melody and be inside the music just as much. Only then you’ll be able to make every moment of music one moment of music.

The practical lesson for our lutedō is to insert a bit of improvisation into our daily study routine. Not with the aim of becoming great improvisers, but with the aim of becoming one with the music, being inside it. Improvising free from sheet music and any notion about what is correct and incorrect in what we play, is a great tool in achieving that goal.

PS: These lessons are not the place to turn you into an improviser, but if you want to experiment more with improvising in an ‘authentic’ way, I can advise you to take up continuo playing or to study improvisation with diminutions from books by for example Diego Ortiz (1553) or Christopher Simpson (1665). A great introduction to this repertoire is the book 50 Renaissance and Baroque Standards by Pascale Boquet and Gérard Rebours (Editions Fuzeau Classique). Or you can take up playing jazz, of course.

David van Ooijen