Sunday, March 27, 2011

Going to Ann Arbor/Matt Endahl and the Amplified Piano

Today I bought tickets to go to Ann Arbor April 21-24 - which means that, pretty soon, I'll get to play with two of my closest musical brothers, Matt Endahl and Tim Cohen.  Which means that, pretty soon, I'll be going head to head with the likes of this:

You'll have to forgive me for the awful camera work and narration. There are worse things to be bad at.

The short version is that I first met Matt Endahl in the fall of 2004 in Improvisational Forms, the pre-requisite class to the Creative Arts Orchestra, then taught by Ed Sarath. We were both sophomores at UM, though this was before I was actually in the School of Music.  Matt and I started playing together regularly in the summer of 2006, after we found ourselves both briefly working in the house band at the Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island.  We were roommates from 2007-2008.  It was just about the time when we started living together that Matt invited me to jam with him and Tim Cohen, a physics graduate student and drummer Matt had been playing with for a few months.  In April of 2008 we were joined by my good friend Kate Olson, an arrangement we came to call the KGMT Quartet, and that has more or less stuck even since Kate and I moved to opposite ends of the country.  The experience of playing with these folks multiple times a week that spring/summer of 2008 directly paved the way to my album Improvised Duets, the story of which I will save for a future post.  These three people are a constant inspiration to me.

Determining what track to post here tonight was a real struggle.  Ultimately, I've decided to put my ego aside and share something that doesn't feature guitar.  This track is a free improvisation from our performance at Canterbury House August 28th, 2010.  It is a complete performance - partway through the show we broke off into duos, Gary/Matt, Matt/Tim, Gary/Tim; this is their duo.  I'll post other tracks from this performance in the coming days.  Until then, listen for the amplified piano at the beginning of this track, for the interplay between the musicians, how Matt and Tim work as a unit, and for the overall structure of the piece.  It's a slow build, but well worth it.

Tim Cohen and Matt Endahl duet, 8.28.10

Part of the practice of improvised music, for me, is learning to experience the music your partners are making as though you yourself are creating it.  This way, I am as emotionally engaged with and invested in what Matt plays, or what Matt and Tim play, as I would be if I was playing it myself.  This is true even if I'm not onstage with them.

Through this practice, one learns to let go of the ego and not seek to impose one's musical will on the group, or become too attached to a given sound.  If we listen from this place of no ego we tend not to play out of obligation, that is, to play just because we happen to be holding the instrument and are expected to.  It is crucial to avoid unnecessary, aimless playing in any music, but especially so in free playing, where your mediocre idea might stifle your partner's brilliant idea.  When all the musicians playing together learn to listen to and trust one another in this way, there is no limelight to seize, no ego to bruise, no I sounded great, he sounded terrible.  We all make music as one, and experience it together.  Even though I'm not playing on this track, I'm in there, listening.  This is what it means to be participating energetically, to be fully present, whether as an audience member or as a performer.  This kind of listening/engagement is something you can practice whether or not you are a musician.


  1. Well said. I would only add that judgments of musical ideas as "mediocre" and "brilliant" are also expressions of the ego, and should be avoided in free improvisation. I think we agree that the point of free improvisation is the sound experience, and the community involved in it. If that's the case, then it can only be judged based on whether or not, and how well this goal is obtained. In my opinion, this has nothing to do with actual sounds, and everything to do with the perception of those sounds.

    I don't mean to make it sound easy. As you well know, it's really hard. But I think this is a pretty good principle to work from.

  2. Absolutely, the sound experience and the people involved, the sense of connectivity with those people and the moment take primacy. But I will add that, for me, making music which I enjoy on an aesthetic level, and exploring musical aesthetics, is a major part of it for me. I want to make music that I might listen to later and think, man, I really like how that sounds. But that said, I think that, when the ego is conquered, however temporarily, and this place of connectivity is reached, 'good' music invariably follows. And of course we both agree judgments about the quality of the music have absolutely no place in the act of playing. This is why it is so important to practice complete trust with the people you play with. My perspective, and certainly not the only way to experience this type of playing