Hello folks. I decided to put some of my thoughts here about life, pictures, music etc..., I will add to it usually when I upload new photos, and I won't hold anything back.
I have a new CD released of improvised music on the Stuart and Sons Concert grand piano. I took photos of this beautiful piano a while back: http://oasisbill.zenfolio.com/stuartpianos
This is the actual piano on the recording. To listen or buy the music you can go to www.cdbaby.com and search for Bill Risby. The album is called "ONE".
Feel free to ask me any questions about the piano or the music.
What Does It Matter?
In 1983 I was lying in a tent in Esperance, Western Australia, looking up at a sky thick with stars - so thick that they mimicked clouds. That night could easily have been erased from my memory were it not for the good fortune of having a ghetto blaster playing a cassette of Windham Hills artist Will Ackerman. The album was called “Past Light”, and the sound was completely engulfed into the environment. Never before (at the ripe old age of 15) had I been witness to the unity of the universe being demonstrated by multifarious vibrations, and those represented by so many different mediums - music, light, smell, touch... They all seemed one, and I was but a child. The sound and the stars.... the sounds were the stars.
Thirty odd years later I find myself sitting on my back deck in the bush eating dinner with my beautiful wife and Will Ackerman starts to play on my stereo. This time I’m laying back on my chair looking through this huge white gum tree at the moon while eating dark chocolate ice cream soaked in Norfolk Island Sambucca, and suddenly the sound has completely erased the last thirty years. I’m a child lying on my back with my head in the dirt sticking out of a tent flap completely lost in the universe, in my thoughts, and in the vibrations of his guitar. Not till tonight had I been so palpably aware of music’s ability to carry a memory as though a vessel through a dark passage, emerging unscathed at the other end.
I met Will Ackerman once. He was neat, meticulous and fairly quiet, but he was nothing as I imagined him. Similar to when you form a visual impression of a radio personality from their voice alone, and on first sight their persona creates a great dissonance with your virtual brain manifested creation. He quite frankly could have been anybody and nobody, and I was immediately challenged with whether meeting him would take from me an illusion greater than reality.
We shared a few stories about his life around the time he recorded those albums - his divorce, and a funny misunderstanding he experienced when he was spotted having breakfast soon afterward with a male friend. “No we are not a couple...”. He was in San Francisco, so the miscomprehension was understandable. When I was 15 I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be ever meet or speak honestly and “normally” with someone who had meant so much to me for so long, and I told him as much - which brings me to the point, What does it matter? When you’re in your room writing a song, or a poem, or painting, what does it matter? If you work in an office in a qualitative job, you may have the luxury or knowing that what you do matters, but for us artists, what does what we do matter?
The great Salman Rushdie when interviewed on love, was asked “What is the use of stories - what’s it for?” (feel free here to replace “stories” and literature” with “compositions”, “songs”, “music”, “lyrics” etc..) He answered by saying that the point about literature is that it is useless, that is, it shouldn’t be seen functionally. In his words, “What’s the use of Alice In Wonderland? It doesn’t help you fix the fridge... firstly, ‘use’ is the wrong thing to be talking about when you’re talking about stories.”
He goes on to say, “It seems to me the relationship between imagination and actuality is much much closer than we think. Things are imagined before they come into being. You have to imagine a motor car before you make a motor car. The imagination is the place where we bring the world into being, and always has been, and always will be. So the imaginative world, the imagined world inside our head is that place where we make the world outside our head. It’s not a kind of frivolous spare time activity. It’s not just a pastime or a means of relaxation. Whether we are writers or not, it is the thing we ALL use to make our lives..... We are creatures defined by our imaginative capacity, and that capacity has allowed us to become the species that we are.” (from Salman Rushdie and Friends in Conversation: The Only Subject is Love. © Emory University)
In the same way as literature, music is one of the elements that defines who we are, and is the salt that grounds our culture, and I would contest that music, art and literature are the only things that matter as they are the elements that define our species and set us apart from all the other species.
It is not for no reason that the nobel prize for literature is generally awarded to a work of fiction, and is a work that elevates the general discourse of life to a higher level.
Will Ackerman matters. He matters to me even though he never knew I would be born, or that he would ever meet me and be told by me that he mattered to me. He matters whether I think he matters or not. After all he is made of “matter”. He created a world for me that didn’t exist, and a “place” I went too as often as I could (and still do) - where music inhabited my dreams, and became part of the world around me - a dreamlike state that only he could have given me.
This article was originally written for www.musicbizaustralia.com (2008)
Music comes from such a diverse and unlimited source that it can be hard to claim ownership over anything we play as musicians. Improvisation is the supposed ability to make something up out of nothing, to “make it up as you go” as it were. Is this really the case?
Branford Marsalis once said, “Without structure there is no freedom”. Coming from a traditional Western musical background (both Classical and jazz) the music I studied is filled with structure. One of the structures set in place is the tuning system used for the instruments we play. Another structure is the set of scales we play with those notes. There are rules involved in resolving harmonic dissonances, and rules regarding which beat of the bar is emphasised, not to mention the fact that most of the time we divide music into bars (or measures). For the purpose of this discussion we will have to rule out perhaps 75% of the known world in order to offer us a little freedom and focus, and at a later time these thoughts can be applied to the music of the rest of the world.
The word ‘Improvisation’ usually means to compose in real time. This can include composing the harmony, the melody, the rhythm, or any combination of these elements, depending on how much existing structure you wish to base your improvised contribution on. (keep in mind that if you improvise all these three elements, you are still bound by certain elements. You could play out of time and measure but your piano (for example) will still be tuned to A440 or whatever it was originally tuned to, and it is still not possible to play a note between C and C# for e.g.).
So improvising is composing, but the key question is, “How long can the delay be between the composing and the performing before it is no longer improvising?” If the idea ‘pops’ into your head 5 minutes before you play it then surely it was pre-composed but hasn’t been written down yet… furthermore, if I think to myself while playing, “Now I will play this scale over the next two bars…” and then choose not to decide each individual note till those two bars are up, am I improvising? Or am I playing a pre-composed scale?
Composers of the past such as J.S. Bach and W.A. Mozart improvised in much the same way as we do now, and some of their music we play today was improvised, and then written down afterward. Bach still sounds like Bach because he adhered to certain rules (and patterns and phrases) of the day as much as he broke them. Their music still sounds Baroque, or Classical, i.e. it doesn’t sound random.
When we improvise a melody in music we usually take a chord structure or chord progression and “make up” a melody that fits with those chords. Where does this melody come from? These notes can come from one of many sources, or any combination of these sources.
The way I define improvisation is that any note heard and then played with intention is improvisation.
To demonstrate what I mean, I am occasionally asked if I can read music. I usually answer with, “I can read any piece of music perfectly, but not necessarily as fast as I can play it…” So it is with improvising. I can play notes of my choosing at a particular tempo, but after my ability to choose has been sabotaged by the tempo I resort to choosing whole patterns, phrases, scales and arpeggios from my vocabulary of sounds. I may know what a scale is going to sound like but I am not choosing each note, in fact the music (more specifically the tempo and chord progression of the music) has chosen the way I have to play it.
I have gone from improvising to getting to the end… from the front foot to the back foot so to speak.
This less desirable default can be thrust upon us through difficult tempos (fast of slow), or difficult harmonic progressions that can’t be readily heard, or difficult rhythmic patterns that can’t be felt. Another limiting factor can be the ability to hear what you want to play whilst playing and hearing where you are now in a piece.
A corollary of this is that a great improviser has to develop the ability to transcend the three musical elements of harmony, tempo and rhythm to create something new, and also have the ability to do this while hearing something now. In addition to this one might include the vocabulary of the feelings of music as something that must be transcended in order to communicate effectively.
All players have strong and weak elements in their playing and the quality of their solos and improvisations are determined by this. The music they choose to play often defines whether we think they can improvise or not.
Improvising is like life in that NOW is all that matters. To quote Omar Khayyam,
The moving finger writes; and, having writ
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
© 2008 Bill Risby
© 2011 Bill Risby
It's hard work. Sometimes you might imagine it as a dream life of a kind, but being away from ones you love is difficult. I try and take photos to remind myself of where I've been, and quite often I am not completely present at my destination. The images help fill in the gaps after I return home. The place becomes more vivid when it is reassembled in my memory at home from pictures.
I generally walk around lost and attempt to see things from a unstable point of view. Then I try and capture the feeling of looking at something as a first impression. Being lost comes easy to me though.