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18 November 2011

Insight: Clock time, imaginary time and the Resurgence Band

Mark Isaacs Image: Mark Isaacs  

At the end of 2010 Mark Isaacs released the CD/DVD Aurora by his Resurgence Band. This was the third release in the 'Resurgence' series which has defined his jazz output over the last five years and received international critical acclaim, major awards and nominations. The Resurgence Band has toured extensively in Australia and Asia, performing at the Tokyo Jazz Festival and recording a TV special for South Korean national television. In parallel, Isaacs continues his career-long involvement with composing music for the concert hall: he has just completed a cello concerto for Julian Smiles, and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra will be premiering another of his pieces early next year. He has also recorded classical piano repertoire for ABC Classic FM. In this article he explains that the Resurgence project is, in fact, a summation of all the varied things he does in music.

> An updated (October 2014) version of this article is available on Isaacs's website.
> More 'Insight' features by the AMC's represented artists: Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson, Gordon Kerry, Drew Crawford, Peter Knight, Jessica Wells.

I've come to realise that my different activities in music - ostensibly revolving around the intersecting dichotomies of classical/jazz and composer/pianist - lie on a spectrum defined by their deployment of clock time versus imaginary time.

When composing, the imaginary time I inhabit means that I can write the third movement of my cello concerto before the first, I can take three weeks to compose three minutes of music and I can reverse the arrow of time and watch the music de-compose before my eyes as I screw up rejected pages. Being in imaginary time, rather than clock time, benefits particular areas of music-making: counterpoint, formal design and concoctions of instrumental colour come to mind.

Creating music in real time as a performer has its own strong cards, for example rhythmic and pitch subtleties that can't be readily notated, and all the opportunities arising from a sensitivity to the present moment and space. The role of improvisation in performance is simply a matter of degree. All performers make decisions in real time, and in that sense all are improvisers in some way, and certainly the primary part of what they do unfolds in clock time. This kind of virtual time/clock time dynamic is similarly played out in terms of emphasis across the classical/jazz divide as well the composer/performer one.

There are other areas of focus in music-making where this clock distinction is borne out. It's inherent in the difference between a live and a studio recording. And it's germane to the whole business of preparing music through practice and rehearsal, and to the process of programming repertoire. In the recording studio, rehearsal studio, practice room - and when deciding on repertoire or drawing up a set list - the performer too can work within something like the imaginary time of the composer.

A lot of my projects are at the extremes of this clock time/imaginary time spectrum. When I compose an orchestral work, I have maximal imaginary time. When I perform an entirely extemporised solo piano recital, the music's realisation maps to the clock as fully as it ever could. These extremes can in turn be moderated: a studio recording of a series of solo piano extemporisations allows more imaginary time than the recital since takes can be discarded or re-ordered.

I enjoy all these polarities and increments for their own sake. I like going to the extremes or having a lopsided bias toward one end or the other at different times in my work. All the models instantly create a framework that has its own characteristic ethos and that's a very liberating place to begin.

Mark Isaacs Resurgence Band
The Mark Isaacs Resurgence Band
back: Brett Hirst, Tim Firth, Matt Keegan, James Muller; front: Mark Isaacs.

The thing about the Resurgence project is that it seems to sit exactly at the centre, and from there it encompasses the whole spectrum: through-composition and free improvisation, the freest rubato and the tightest of pulse, studio recording and live recording, touring band and studio band, intensely-rehearsed passages and unrehearsed passages. It's all over the clock.

Concomitantly, it's also my most varied project in terms of subsumed genres, containing elements of jazz, classical, R&B, soul, gospel, Latin, blues, ambient and rock. It's simultaneously an acoustic and electric band both in instrumentation and sound world. Its dynamic range is singularly wide, from passages revolving around nothing more than isolated, monophonic, high ppp solo piano notes to densely drawn, electric guitar-driven rock.

The Resurgence project is so flexible because of the players I chose - all able to improvise freely in a wide range of genres but also capable of executing and interpreting complex notated music - and the nature of the instrumentation itself. Piano-based solos, duos and trios in jazz are great for spontaneous combustions in clock time, but I have never been that interested in preparing the way by composing much for them. There's the lack of instrumental variety and the fact that the piano is generally the main voice. Part of my joy in composing is hearing other instrumentalists play my melodies, and in my solo piano jazz spots and the trios I have therefore either improvised freely or interpreted the melodies of others.

In 1997 I formed a quartet and began to compose more seriously for it. The quartet recorded a CD On Reflection with guitarist James Muller as guest artist on one track only. I soon realised that the quintet format opened up many more possibilities by having both guitar and saxophone out the front. James Muller himself encapsulated the sort of freedom I was after: a consummate improviser who could beautifully interpret a written melody or passagework, making for a continuing collaboration between us of nearly fifteen years and five recordings.

In 2000 I released the quintet recording Closer internationally on Naxos with the On Reflection quartet plus James Muller. This quintet was really the forerunner to the Resurgence project, obviously in instrumentation but also in aesthetic. I realised that five players was the fulcrum on the axis. Not only were smaller groups less conducive to imaginary-time pre-composition, but ensembles larger than five reduced opportunities for clock-time improvisational flexibility. The quintet was the sweet spot.

The first Resurgence release was a studio recording by a non-working band tackling the repertoire for the first time. James Muller and I travelled to Los Angeles and recorded Resurgence after one rehearsal with some heavyweight American players that we'd never played with before in that configuration. I formed the all-Australian Mark Isaacs Resurgence Band to tour in the wake of that release and immediately wrote a new repertoire for it so the Australian players wouldn't feel they were substituting for the Americans on the same material. As this was a working band, the material evolved on the road in the light of the performances. I'd often make changes to the arrangements on the fly (sometimes literally, bringing these ideas up when our aeroplane seatbelts clicked in before takeoff). The second release Tell It Like It Is was diametrically different to Resurgence - a live concert recording by a working band tackling repertoire frequently performed previously. The third and most recent recording, Aurora, was yet another permutation. It was a studio recording by a working band playing frequently performed repertoire (and I also included a DVD of Tell It Like It Is with the release, enabling instant comparisons of the live/studio dynamic). To go the full circle I hope to take the Resurgence Band back into the recording studio to tackle never-performed repertoire (in other words, replicating the modus operandi of the original Australian-American recording but with a working band).

All of these permutations have their own characteristics and advantages both in what they offer and in indeed what they lack. Studio recordings go right out of clock time: on two tracks of Aurora, James Muller recorded both acoustic and electric guitar tracks, and on another track Matt Keegan overdubbed shaker against his saxophone. Touring the material can refine the arrangement and energise the performance but there's something special about bringing new material into the studio - the restraint and concentration involved brings its own rewards. (Similarly, at times I've thought the very best rendition I've given of a particular classical piece was when I sight-read it for the first time, with all my antennae out for its every twist and turn and no chance of any kind of glibly familiar moves). The energy of a live recording is hard to replicate in a sustained way in a recording studio - though there can be very many glimpses of it - and releasing a studio recording after a live one (or indeed, together with it as I have done) can mean some critics and fans familiar with the live release hold it against you, apparently not feeling, as I do, that the extra polish and restraint of the studio has its own balancing beauty.

I think I have eschewed the traditional swing feel of jazz in the Resurgence project because the weight of tradition it carries did not serve my purpose. Similarly, in terms of the compositional frameworks I use in Resurgence (which in turn mandate passages of improvisation within them), I have strenuously found ways to vary - and indeed sometimes avoid - the traditional head-solos-head formal design that tends to accompany swing. I've also worked on the macro level of programming - both in recordings and performances - so that the individual pieces fit together as suites (and I even pay attention to how the key centres of each piece progress).

Between the Shores, Night Song: Part 1 and Good Tidings are wholly through-composed pieces that contain no improvised solos. The music that the saxophone and guitar play is entirely notated from beginning to end. The figurations of the accompaniments, played by the piano, double bass and drumset, are mostly improvised from a lead sheet containing the melody lines and chord symbols. This is analogous to a baroque instrumentalist improvising accompanying figurations from a figured bass. It's an important distinction, not all improvisations are 'solos' and the absence of the latter in these pieces by Resurgence is very unusual in jazz.

I have got away from solos per se by having a collective improvisation, as takes place in the coda of Bagatelle where concurrent solo lines are tossed around between the performers. In Emergence I experimented with having James Muller and Matt Keegan trading improvised solos of only 16 bars (this is more customary in jazz when it involves trading with the drums).

I don't completely avoid solos however, far from it, but I sometimes find other ways to break the paradigm. In Tell It Like It Is and For the Road all five members of the band solo but not in turn. An interlude consisting of a restatement of the head is interspersed between each solo in almost all cases. Call it my jazz take on rondo form if you will.

Another idea was to have three statements of the melody in turn, each by a different lead instrument adding its own colouration and dynamic posture to the mix. I did this in You Never Forget Love and Aurora. For some reason there seems to be an unwritten rule in jazz that you generally only get to hear a melody twice in a row. In Aurora the three melody statements are in different keys, too, each a major third apart (and the solos are based on pedal tones also a major third apart). It is surprising how little modulation at the primary level of the material - as opposed to secondary modulations within and between phrases - is used in jazz, particularly instances of presenting the same material in a different key.

In the area of counterpoint I often use written counter-melodies, and in Night Song: Part 1 and Walk a Golden Mile I used canons between the guitar and saxophone. In the former case the canon is at the unison and the half-beat, a device I learned from the Goldberg Variations.

Another device I have used is to create effectively a three-movement work proceeding attacca (without a break). I did this with Night Song: Part 1/Night Song: Part 2/Angel and Good Tidings/Emergence/Threnody. Within these triptychs I like to introduce bridging passages of freely extemporised solo piano (in the second set when it's a live performance). I see these piano improvisations as running the spectrum from the through-composed pieces, or from passages like the opening theme statement of Will-o'-the-wisp which is fully written out for both hands of the piano and has a separate life as a classical piano solo.

My approach to writing the band's material and rehearsing it has been a hybrid of my classical and jazz experiences. In terms of notation, sometimes dynamics are on the page or otherwise the band's use of dynamics arises spontaneously or might be subtly directed by me from the piano (as are the rubato passages). There are two areas in the relationship between a composer and an improvising jazz musician that have proved sensitive in the past. One is the ways in which one as composer provides a preset framework for improvised solos and the other is the question of verbal versus written direction of solos. Neither of these is contentious in classical music: you can write what you like and conductors, ensemble leaders and others give or share verbal directions as needed.

In the past I've found it odd that a jazz soloist will accept from me a highly complex harmonic structure to solo on without complaint and spend many hours practising how to negotiate the changes. That same musician may, however, think it an impingement on soloistic freedom to be asked to follow a dynamic curve in the solo. It seems incongruous as the case of a harmonic minefield is in reality much more restrictive, however there is in jazz a firm tradition of soloists following the harmonic templates of others but really none for dictates regarding dynamics (other than in written passages). In the Resurgence Band we worked that kind of thing out just fine. In Aurora Tim Firth's drum solo ends with a pianissimo entry by guitar and sax and it was necessary for me to ask that his solo end softly to accommodate this (despite the drummer tradition of ending a solo by going out with a bang!).

Similarly, nobody in the Resurgence Band seems to take issue with verbal direction in place of written direction in rehearsal. In a previous band I had charted the bass player as doing an introductory solo based over C for a piece in C minor. He played in the Dorian mode and upon hearing it I realised that something based around the blues scale would set up the melody better. So I asked him to use the blues scale and he replied 'I thought it was my solo!'. I know for a fact that had I written in the first place 'Solo - C blues scale' on his part there would have been no issue at all. The problem was with the same instruction regarding a solo being issued verbally rather than in writing. These apparent anomalies arise from different performance practice traditions.

There's certainly an intersection of performance practice traditions in the Resurgence project along with all the other intersections arising from the compositions, modes of recording, ways of deploying material and band formation. I think it's been one of the central achievements of my musical output and certainly my most substantial and concentrated opus in jazz to date.

Imaginary time: an entirely through-composed piece from the Resurgence Band (Between the Shores)

Clock time: a piece full of improvisation and solos (Homecoming)


Resurgence discography 2007-2010

Mark Isaacs Resurgence (2007, ABC/Universal 476 6160). Mark Isaacs, piano; James Muller, electric & acoustic guitar; Bob Sheppard or Steve Tavaglione, soprano, alto & tenor saxophones; Jay Anderson, bass; Vinnie Colaiuta, drums. Walk a Golden Mile - Waltz for Melanie - Three Days of Rain - Affectionately Yours - Chaconne - Resurgence - Pentimento - Heal Thyself. Audio samples and more details.

Mark Isaacs Resurgence Band Tell It Like It Is (2009, ABC/Universal 270 3869). Mark Isaacs, piano; James Muller, guitar; Matt Keegan, soprano & tenor saxophones; Brett Hirst, bass; Tim Firth, drums. Minsk - You Never Forget Love - Homecoming - Night Song: Part 1 - Night Song: Part 2 - Angel - Tell It Like It Is - Between the Shores. Audio samples and more details.

Mark Isaacs Resurgence Band Aurora (2010, Gracemusic/MGM GR003, includes Bonus DVD of Tell It Like It Is). Mark Isaacs, piano; James Muller, electric & acoustic guitars; Matt Keegan, soprano & tenor saxophones, shaker; Brett Hirst, bass; Tim Firth, drums. Will-o'-the-wisp - Good Tidings - Emergence - Threnody - For the Road - Bagatelle - Aurora. More details.

AMC resources

Mark Isaacs - AMC profile
'Musicians do different things - end of story' - article by Mark Isaacs on Resonate (12 September 2008)

Further links

Mark Isaacs - www.markisaacs.com

Mark Isaacs is a composer and performer in jazz and classical music. In jazz he has worked with some of the international legends of the art form and in classical music he has composed for leading Australian orchestras, soloists and chamber groups.


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Some comments

Firstly, I'd like to say that Mark Isaac's life's work is significant, particularly in the field of jazz, and he is an extremely skilful and accomplished musician.

But I'm not sure his article helps identify what makes improvisation such a key element in the realisation of much of the world's performed music (taken that over at least a 40,000 year history, what happened in classical music is something of an aberration). Recently the use of the word "improvisation" has become truly an Alice in Wonderland phenomena; in the sense that it can mean absolutely anything the contemporary musician wants it to mean. Anyway recent events have triggered this short rave.

A few nights ago I heard some English conductor on ABC FM speaking about Schubert's Great C major Symphony – he used the word "improvisation" at least twice in explaining his approach to this piece of written music. I'm sure all conductors think they give a certain individual twist to a performance of a Schubert Symphony, but improvised - no. I'm also sure that "improvisation" was unlikely to have been in the thoughts, or on the lips of any of the "great" Schubert conductors of the past. Do conductors really think they are now improvising with the corner stones of the classical repertoire in which the score is worshipped as sacred? I think this is probably a developing and lazy use of language than any grand delusions of screwing with the classical tradition.

Earlier this year, I heard a classical cellist informing the public on radio that he was off to ANAM to teach the classical kids how to improvise. When asked to demonstrate what he had in mind, the listener was subjected to this guy playing very slowly up and down a Dorian scale over two piano chords. Yeah I hear you, stop listening to the radio.

In the 1960s and 1970s as the notion of improvised music gained currency on the edges of European culture (mostly), improvisers spoke about improvisation with almost religious gusto (myself also guilty). Very few other musicians cared to consider what we were talking about – jazz musicians spoke about taking solos not improvising. In the field of composition, there were a few examples (eg. The Scratch Orchestra, Stockhausen From The Seven Days) but it was considered (still considered) beyond the pale – a practice by people who had somehow lost it. Beyond these examples (demonstrating arguably the weakness of improvisation without technique), a seriously minded body of musicians were evolving new techniques, attitudes, practices, structures, relationships to instrument, transformation of instrument, invention of instruments, etc. that has since expanded into a plethora of improvisational performance practice around the world involving thousands of dedicated musicians. The fact that these innovators remain for the most part unknown to large audiences (exceptions would be John Zorn or maybe Derek Bailey) says only that most set music genres remain in a conservative lock down, it doesn't change what the transformative nature of improvisation can be or where it can lead.

The use of the word Improvisation has got to be the only growth industry in music today. Everybody is doing it, or are they? Maybe it is just the latest piece of window dressing.

Improvisation can be an umbrella notion for what Mark Isaacs suggests is a sliding scale with composition on one end and improv on the other and some kind of group treading of water in the middle. But what is missing from this assessment are the kind of sonic events that I have witnessed over the last 40 odd years - arrived at through the process of improvisation.  Improvisational decisions that have turned the aesthetic apple cart upside down, memorable events that transformed the constituents of the sound, impossible moments that make no sense in any post analysis, a small decision that stopped the music dead in its tracks, a musician leaving the stage but somehow still there performing, the arrival of unexpected unplanned theatrical signposts, the power being unplugged, stubborn refusal by a musician to play but still part of the performance, an interval that's not in the interval, a rain storm intervention, the arrival of the military (true I assure you), and on…

To be honest I don't see or hear a lot of this in most concerts of improvised music today either, maybe it's the time we live in – the 21st century still waiting, still trying to happen despite itunes.

Definitions of improvisation are as problematic as definitions of music itself – I've never heard one that nails it – probably because improvisation is much like sound itself – ungraspable, transient in existence.

I do hear, however, that our English conductor with his Schubert, and the cellist with his Dorian scale are kidding themselves re. improvisation. In the 1980s a small Berlin record label was sued by Deutsche Grammophon. I know about this because it was my album that was the cause of the dispute.

In a dusty pile of old LPs, I found a copy of Herbert Von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Brahms' Fourth Symphony. My reason for selecting it had been inspired by an article in The Sunday London Times. The article reported that the French horn section of this orchestra had been accused of playing wrong notes on purpose as a demonstration against Karajan's increasingly dictatorial actions against the musicians. This got the journo going and it was, anyway, the perfect sleeve for my appropriation and misuse (you can read why on my site if you are interested).
It is hard enough to play correct notes on such a recalcitrant instrument; things must be really bad if you want to play wrong notes on purpose. The journalist let his imagination run away with him as to how the orchestra might continue their industrial action. Supposing Herbie gets up and starts conducting Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; the orchestra, however, spontaneously plays the Fourth instead, or even a combination of the Third, the Seventh and the Ninth at the same time… In the event of such an Ives-ian musical maelstrom, and in a situation such as this, the conductor may have to finally improvise – and it will never happen in classical music.

Some comments on the comments

I likewise acknowledge Jon's longstanding contribution to music.

Jon says "I'm sure all conductors think they give a certain individual twist to a performance of a Schubert Symphony, but improvised - no".

I say "Yes", and I'll illustrate why. The only way I can respond to the idea that classical musicians don't improvise simply because they reproduce notes preset in a score is this: whoever thought music was only about notes?

I don't see how it would be possible to perform music - of any kind - without improvising. If it was possible for a performance to be so micro-rehearsed that there was no chance of a single spontaneous thing happening then the performer would simply have attained the state where they can use their own brain as a recording and replication device. This would be a feat worthy of note, but the performer would have been erased. Wherever there is a performer there is improvisation.

If we don't accept that a performer is improvising merely because certain aspects of the music are pre-fixed we are on a slippery slope to there being no improvisation at all, because there is always a way to be still more radically free and accuse everyone else of being chained. Person A is not improvising because the notes are set. Person B is not improvising because the chord changes are fixed. Person C is not improvising because they showed up. Person D is not improvising because they weren't prepared to wait and see if reincarnation was real, in which case there's no need to assume one must start the thing in this lifetime.

Jon is happy - as I am - to say that a performer who does not show up is also contributing to an improvisation, but he seems not to be prepared to be radical in the opposite direction: to acknowledge that all who make any musical decisions of any kind within the flow of clock time are improvising.

That's not to say there are no degrees in play here. Not at all. All performers are improvising to some extent. It's an important qualification.

I know the feeling of SO MUCH improvisation that it feels one has been born anew.

Or so little that one feels barely alive.

I just can't link those polarities in any way that can be predicted or fixed with things like genre, performance practice traditions or any other of those kind of silos. There's no inherent connection. I've felt spontaneity in every pore of my body during a classical performance, and felt utterly suffocated by a so-called "free improvisation" containing hardly a skerrick of spontaneity (though axiomatically not completely without it). And of course I've experienced the reverse.

Jon seems troubled by a kind of democratising of improvisation. I celebrate the inclusiveness, and in fact improvisation takes place throughout life, and all participate more or less. But I'm not defining improvisation in music to mean whatever I want it to mean. In my article, I explained my concept of "imaginary time" in music: how some musical alloys are formed by being forged with a relative independence of the clock, as when a score is written, a programme is planned, or a recording is assembled or edited. This is where improvisation can and does absent itself for some of the time. Here music shakes off to some degree the clock time in which performance takes place and imbues itself with something that maps to the artforms that are fixed in a rhythm independent of the strict flow of the timestream: painting, sculpture, architecture.   

Nonetheless, I completely agree with Jon that improvisation is a "key element" in the history of music. Indeed, I would say it is more pervasive than Jon seems to think. Apart from admitting all performers to the improvisation club that he perhaps prefers to keep more exclusive I'd point out that a score itself contains artefacts of improvisation (i.e. ideas that came spontaneously: maybe that's a definition of improvisation that "nails it") - they just didn't manifest necessarily in the order - and certainly not at the clock time pace - of their ultimate realisation in performance. That's the bit where improvisation ends. Only there.

Wherever there is a performer there is improvisation

With the greatest of respect Mark, this is exactly what I'm talking about when I say that the use of the word "improvisation" has become an Alice in Wonderland issue – "improvisation" meaning whatever the proponent says it does. And indeed musicians can say or do whatever they want, it's still mostly a free country. My point is that the word "improvisation", and its accompanying knowledge base, can help explain why the guitar playing and practice of someone like Derek Bailey was very different to the guitar playing and practice of someone like John Williams. Apart from the fact they sound so different; one lived to play improvised music, and the other not.

On most of the other issues you raise, we are probably in danger of vigorously agreeing – particularly on the character of all performed musics being elusive, transitory, un-repeatable in an exact sense.

As to me belonging to an exclusive club, you are correct when I perform a solo project, by definition it's a club of one! But in my defense, I would point you to a couple of current music projects that include dozens if not hundreds of regular citizens – most of whom would not consider themselves to be musicians at all, yet they are improvising democratically with sound.


Also with the great respect

I know what you mean Jon. At the same time my unashamedly radical "core" definition is still I believe not merely glib self-styling for its own sake, but points to an underlying truth (thought it's not the only way to get to that truth). My paradigm accommodates the fact that whatever "sound" an improvisor can make, it's possible that someone who has learned the dots can theoretically make it. Though the reason one artist sounds very different from the other may be that one of them has used dots (as in your example) it doesn't immutably follow that they must sound different. Otherwise one could always tell who was improvising and who was not. Who can say they can always do that with all new music? The fact that you can't guarantee you can know seems to me to indicate that the issue of "dots or not" is ultimately immaterial to the resultant sound.  Sure, my definition puts Derek Bailey and John Williams on the same page (as it were), but that's not too bad a result. They're both music-makers. In a nutshell: I am suggesting that process is second-order matter. Resultant sound is first-order.

Correcting the conclusion of my last comment

Sorry, was thinking on the fly. This is better:

Musical processes are second-order. States of being are first order. Resultant sound comes from the first order.

So: for improvisation to have any axiomatically intrinsic effect in sound it must map to a first order condition.

That's why I define improvisation as "spontaneity", a state of being. And that's why it's not a property of the presence or absence of "dots", as of course spontaneity itself is independent of that issue, if there's dots it just moves to a part of the music that the dots aren't dealing with. 

I think this can be borne out. While I don't think you can aways tell from resultant sound if someone has used dots or not, all other things being equal you could (more likely) tell if they were being spontaneous or not.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Further clarification

"My paradigm accommodates the fact that whatever "sound" an improvisor can make, it's possible that someone who has learned the dots can theoretically make it. "

In saying the above of course I was presuming the possibility (necessity) of radicalised notation. So "dots" may be metaphoric, there may be no actual dots, it might be a graphical score. There's a curly one for you Jon. Would you accept that someone working from a graphical score might be improvising?  Even a jazz player playing a solo with his eyes glued to a lead sheet begs the same question...