Ultimate Liberty, Ultimate Fun

Later this month I will pay a visit to Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. It holds nine floors of books, with one whole floor devoted to literature. I’ll have to restrain myself from adding thousands of titles to my to-read list. This confronts me with something that faces every art aficionado eventually: Art takes more time than I have. I will never read all these books, and it’s the same with my own writing–the projects in my head vastly outnumber the actual hours I can spend on them.

The sentiment is an old one. Hippocrates said, “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Longfellow translated this, “Art is long, time is fleeting.” Some artists, like Grace Paley in a Paris Review interview, take this to mean that art is not the only thing they want to give their time to. Others take it to mean “life is short, but art endures.” Taking the translations together, a quandary arises: Art’s endurance makes it seem worthy of life’s time, but life is short and life is more than art.

Photo: David B. Thomas

Ron Thomas has been producing and recording original jazz and classical music since the 60s.  This enables him to look back over a strong musical legacy and forward to work ahead, and to comment on the relationship between art and time.

In terms of work already accomplished, Thomas has released eleven albums. If you begin to talk shop with him, you’ll discover he knew John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In 1964, when Stockhausen was Visiting Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Thomas studied with him (or, as he puts it, “became glue on Stockhausen”).  Thomas teaches piano and composition with “a full, full heart,” he says. “It’s full-throated teaching.” He writes essays on aesthetics, musical theory, teaching, and more. If you visit him, I promise you won’t leave without a new book or photocopy in hand, fodder for new art.

His music is at once ethereal and comforting.  It delves into imaginative, cerebral themes—Blues for Zarathustra is the title of his 2008 collaboration with Paul Klinefelter, and 2003’s Scenes from a Voyage to Arcturus explores David Lindsay’s novel A Voyage to Arcturus.

In thinking of work ahead, Bartόk’s life and music have been on Thomas’s mind, and he hopes this will inspire new music drawn from the new experiences this stage in his life is presenting.

Pacing and Discipline

Working with an art form for several decades has given him a good sense of pacing. “I’ve never thought of composing as something I have to do every day,” he tells me over one of his four or five cups of coffee for the day. Instead, he laughs, “My craft is all designed for this total freedom that I seem to need.”

He doesn’t force himself to compose for long swaths of time every day, nor even necessarily every day. His creative routine is much more exuberant than that.  He believes that even though it may often make the artist sweat, his artistic process needs to bend away from “negative stress” and instead capture “ultimate liberty and ultimate fun.”

The one rule he does set for himself is not to end a work session with something questionable.  He has to reach the point where he can pick up from where he left off.  When he writes something good, though, he says to himself, “That’s it for the day,” and then, he says, “I go and jump around the room.  There’s only so much creativity I have in me. I don’t want to drain it dry.”

In writing classes, my professors always told aspiring writers, “Write every day.”   They advised this, I’m sure, because once we’d left the rigor of academic deadlines, who knows what non-artistic deadlines would swallow our days whole?

“But do you want to write every day?” Thomas asks me.  He has a good ear for artistic anxiety.

“Partly,” I say, “I enjoy giving myself this gift of time, and partly, I feel like I have to do this if I want to be a good writer.”

“I would drop the one that says ‘I must do this every day if I am going to be a good writer.’”

Photo: David B. Thomas

When it comes to being disciplined as an artist, Ron Thomas remembers that “it’s a discipline of the imagination,” and he leaves room for discovery.  His musical craft is “all about spontaneity. I want my music to be totally fresh. Maybe ‘alive’ is a better word.”

He believes that work born of surprise and joy is the ars longa, the work that endures.

Time and Detachment

This kind of art may be spontaneous, but it takes a great deal of freedom and space to cultivate, so that even when an artist is not making art, art might still be in the making. “You need to digest things,” says Thomas. Whenever he says “you need to,” his tone holds recommendation, more like let yourself do this.

Taking time to digest life and to let other art forms sink in means cultivating some detachment from the artistic work.  Feeling time pressure can push artists to compose too frequently, at a faster pace than new inspiration actually comes.  Thomas relates the story of painter Joan Mirό standing in front of his canvas for hours on end as idea after idea would come.  Mirό would stand and the ideas would flow, but he would not paint. When he’d accrued several really good ideas, then he would begin to paint them. “You should reject some things,” Thomas advises.

Similarly, Picasso’s pattern, says Thomas, “if a painting resisted completion because of some undetectable formal flaw, was to find the wonderful thing in that work and then destroy it.”  This would yield a breakthrough, “and the final form would come successfully: the one wonderful thing to which he was too emotionally attached” was setting the whole piece off balance.   People asked Picasso, “But what happens to the wonderful thing?” And Picasso would answer, “It comes back.”  Thomas  repeats, “It comes back.”

This holds true for Thomas’s own work. He has stumbled across fragmentary work he’d composed and abandoned fifteen years ago and been able to incorporate it. This perspective frees him to compose and reject, knowing that his process is fluid.

Competition and Hurry

His process not only banishes critics but also takes a gracious and realistic approach to competitors. Competition can easily add a sense of hurry and negative stress to the artistic process. He remembers his father saying that an artist’s only competition is with himself or herself.

“If I thought too much about Stravinsky and Miles Davis, I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. How could you possibly be in competition with them? It’s ridiculous!”

As a teacher, too, he dismisses thoughts of competition, favoring instead the saying, “Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.”

The Sound of Time and the Voice of the Artist

Even as he discusses his process, Thomas keeps perspective: what works for him won’t work for everyone. The discipline of art, he says, is not universal.  “Unilateral rules are counter-productive.  I have tricks to keep myself from thinking too much about the seriousness of what I’m doing so I don’t get too nervous about it, but you have to select and reject the tricks you will use. As long as it’s legal, and as long as it works for you.”

Thomas urges artists to find their own voices among the clamor of critics and voices that tell them what they “have” to do as artists.  What works for one may not work for another.  It’s true, too, that the voices that remind artists about time and tasks to be accomplished can become part of the chorus of critics.  They smack of the practical yet disciplinary reminders “Be back by midnight” or “Hurry up, you’ll be late.”  Hippocrates himself can thus become no more than a disgruntled adult, saying, “Kid, you haven’t got all day.”

So, if it helps you, listen to the tock of clock-hands or the screech of clockwork gears.  From this sound, find focus.  Hear, too, the tumble of future piano keys.  Trust that even though life is fleeting, the days allotted are enough, and in them, find space to enjoy the freedom and fun of the art that has been given to you.

Classical What?!

Hello, I’m Kevin. It’s a pleasure to meet you.

I’m sorry, it’s loud in here, you asked what I do? I’m a saxophonist.

Excuse me? Oh, uh, I play some jazz. But probably not well enough to go toe-to-toe with the heavyweights that play here in New York. I did my master’s degree in classical saxophone, at KU.

No, no, not Kentucky – Kansas.As in 2008 NCAA Basketball Championship winning Jayhawks. . . Anyway, I trained to play classical saxophone, primarily.

Don’t apologize, most people don’t know some saxophonists play classical music.

Do I play with the symphony? No, no. We are rarely welcome on the symphonic stage, except for every orchestra’s annual Gershwin concert. Even then, some bass clarinetist will usually pick up his old saxophone and hack through the chart. Most classical saxophone performances are soloists with piano, or often saxophone quartets. Sometimes composers will “spice up” a new piece with a dash of classical sax.But really there aren’t too many opportunities for the performance of classical saxophone music.

I still love to play classical saxophone.

Which really means that I sit in my Jersey City apartment every day and practice music so alien to nearly everyone Ithat I’ve had that conversation more times than I’ve actually performed the music about which I mumbled.It means I’ve rehearsed innumerable hours in an unknown, unheralded saxophone quartet, with three other young saxophiles just like me whohave just as much trouble describing our colossal anonymity, only to end up disbanding.

Clarinetists, trumpeters, pianists, guitarists, conductors, bassoonists, percussionists: the whole lot of you don’t know how easy you have it.

True, the competition for an orchestra job has gotten such that if your shoelace hits the floor during an audition, you’re immediately hired so they can fire you right there on the spot;but, at least you were standing in a line waiting to get hired/fired from a job that involves playing the instrument you laboriously slaved over while chain smoking your social skills into the ground in an asbestos-walled practice room during college.We wait in line to get hired bagging groceries, because if we get asked to “play Kenny G” at another wedding, there’s a real sh**storm coming.

I can understand why so many classical musicians don’t have much respect for or awareness of the existence of classical saxophonists. We don’t gush over their artistic genius and weep with them when they have to play Beethoven’s Ninth again. I don’t feel bad for anyone who can say “I’m a violinist,” and be met with “oh, that’s lovely,” instead of, “do you play hardcore death violin?” Playing violin needs no clarification, no drawn out analogies to the vacant stares of strangers.

I can think of only a few other fields where confusion ensues upon statement of profession: philosopher, geneticist, human rights advocate. Fortunately for those highly educated individuals who are also asked to explain their day-to-day dealings, they have either mental superiority or moral uprightness on their side. In other words, the befuddled acquaintance is either intimidated by their sheer genius, or ashamed that they could really give little more than a crap about anyone else in the world.

Classical saxophonists lose on both counts.We can’t intimidate by either intelligence or shame, and so we are left with the soulless embodiment of our culture’s interest in what we do standing there, wondering why we continue to be allowed to use up valuable oxygen. And with all hot air we blow . . . I can see why.

Let me help you take a few steps into the world of classical saxophone:

The Devil’s Horn
For half of a century, hundreds of saxophonists pursuing their doctoral degrees have composed hundreds of obligatory dissertations on the history of the saxophone. You can imagine the arid reading.
The Devil’s Horn: The Story of the Saxophone, from Noisy Novelty to King of Cool
by Michael Segell stands in pleasurable contrast. Segell’s journalistic writing is crisp and insightful. Its relatively short and yet tumultuous history makes the saxophone one of the most interesting instruments about which to read. Segell distills the most compelling and bizarre narratives about the saxophone’s invention and rise in popularity to the king of instruments in the mid-twentieth century. Plus, he tells the whole tale, including great tidbits about the saxophone’s classical heritage. A great read. (You can hear Segell interviewed on NPR here.)

Branford Marsalis might be the biggest name in classical saxophone – even though he’s a jazz player. Marsalis has twice made good classical saxophone recordings. They are not great, but they are good.He has developed a deep respect for the tradition and difficulty of playing classical saxophone.Branford, who has already risen to the top of the jazz/pop saxophone world, recently started studying with classical saxophone giant and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Harvey Pittel, in order to better approach and perform the classical repertory.

His first classical record, Romances for Saxophone, was released in 1986 and is a little schmaltzy and hyper-romantic, but a pleasant listen. Only in his twenties when he recorded this record, his youth and inexperience with the genre shows in the style of his playing, but is one of the few recordings of classical saxophone that has even one toe in the mainstream.

The second record, Creation, has been keeping Marsalis busy since its release in 2001.He performs some of the great pieces in the classical saxophone repertory and does so with a maturity not present in his earlier work.However, it was the live performances of this CD, recorded with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, that spurred him to accept Pittel’s invitation to study the classical side of the instrument.This a great recording, and perhaps the classical saxophone’s only other foray out of the institution and into culture.

Purists, and others interested in delving into the mysterious world of the classical saxophone, should try exploring Marcel Mule, Joe Allard, Eugene Rousseau, Donald Sinta, Harvey Pittel, Vince Gnojek, Sigurd Rascher, Jean-Marie Londeix, Claude Delangle, Nobuya Sugawa, and Timothy McCallister.

Now I would like to officially welcome you to the world of classical saxophone. We the musicians thank you for taking the time to get to know us, and hope that you’ll come back soon.

And best part is that next time you meet one of us, you can impress us by asking if we play jazz or classical.

I promise we’ll appreciate it.