This post comes from pianist, composer, improviser, and philosopher Dr Steve Tromans and is a reflection on his album ELLIPSES (notes musical & philosophical). He alludes to some of the philosophical ideas that have informed his performance practice and writes about the artists and thinkers that inspired various tracks on the album.
ELLIPSES (notes musical and philosophical)
by Steve Tromans
On Friday 18 December 2020 (coincidentally, the day my doctorate was officially awarded), I took a train and then a short walk over to the excellent Sansom Studios, Birmingham with one thing in mind: to record, over the course of a single day, a triple album of music and spoken word. The triple album was to be completely improvised, and would feature my solo-piano performance alongside vocal ruminations on spontaneously-chosen themes. The idea came to me a couple of weeks prior to the session, as a way to build on the experiences of recording my solo album, THE WAY (FMR Records), and my years of study in the philosophy of time that led to gaining my PhD. I wanted to mix these two aspects of my practice – improvised music and philosophical thought – in a way that was both similar yet different to the musical-philosophical mix that characterises my doctoral thesis. And, crucially, to do this in a manner that lent itself to the medium of the (triple) album, as well as in a format that was open and welcoming to non-philosophers alongside those with knowledge of the philosophical themes discussed at the piano.
The triple album itself is divided into three sets of six tracks, and is presented chronologically – i.e., in the order it all happened on the day. The three groups of six represent the three sessions recorded, with each session being the result of “letting the microphone run”: I performed piece after piece without taking a break in between until I felt each album length had been achieved. The fact that this led to three groups of six tracks was not deliberate but was a happy accident, lending a satisfying sense of a 6-6-6 tripartite compositional form to the project.
So what of the themes under discussion in the nine spoken word components? Almost inevitably, given the focus of my PhD study, the philosophical spectre of the French post-structuralist, Gilles Deleuze, looms large in my monologues. In particular, I play with notions around Deleuze’s concepts of immanence over transcendence, the fold, and the incompossible. In a nutshell, these concepts allowed Deleuze to develop a “process philosophy” that considers processes of change, flux, movement, and becoming, as fundamental to existence. For improvising musicians (or any performing artist, for that matter), such processes, and any philosophy that concerns itself with them, is of paramount importance. But why? Immanence is the experience of being in the thick of things rather than being outside of them (transcendence); the fold is a way of conceiving everything in terms of folding (hybrid entities such as the pianist and the piano, music and philosophy, word and music, for instance); the incompossible is the existing-together of disparate elements (those hybrid entities again). For anyone interested in how performers perform, and especially for those involved in the nascent field of practice-as-research (a field that currently boasts a growing number of PhDs in jazz and improvised music), these concepts provide a ready-made toolkit for better understanding what it is that we do, us improvising musicians, when we make our music in whichever ways we choose to make it.
But Deleuze is not the only philosopher I draw on in my improvised talks across the triple album: Albert Camus, Gottfried von Leibniz, Muhammad Ali, and John Cage also make appearances. The latter two, of course, do not typically qualify as philosophers, yet they both have had much to say of interest to any research that focuses on creative processes (of winning a boxing match, and of understanding the vital role of silence in music-making, respectively).
And what of the musical components? Many of these are piano alone; others interweave word and music, especially as the triple album develops throughout the sessions. The titles of these (as with the exclusively spoken-word tracks) reflect the themes I had in mind as I performed. Some are humorous: the title of Track 6, And play the piano, comes directly from a remark I make just prior to beginning my improvisation (“Some folks listening are probably thinking: just shut up, man, and play the piano...”). Others are solemn dedications: Track 1, Comrade Victor Jara, is a respectful nod in the direction of one of my musical-political heroes, the Chilean singer-songwriter and activist who has inspired large-scale projects of mine over a number of years; Track 10, Fail again. Fail better and Track 11, A little better, are inspired by Samuel Beckett’s infamous quote, “Ever tried? Ever failed? Fail again. Fail better”, which I consider to be a wholly positive call to creatives everywhere to “keep on keeping on” – to keep making their art, no matter how “successful” that art is judged (and by whom?) to be. Track 13, For Gary Peacock and Track 14, Wh(Y), are dedicated to the three members of the Albert Ayler Trio: Gary Peacock, Sunny Murray, and Ayler himself, and the “Y” in Track 14’s “Wh(Y)” comes directly from the sleeve note to the legendary trio’s album Spiritual Unity (according to Ayler, the letter “Y” predates recorded history and represents the rising spirit of Man). I perform “Wh(Y)” with an extremely (at the time) strong sense of their presence in the room: the “ghosts” (another theme close to the heart of Ayler) of musicians past that all performers feel when they make their own contributions to the history of whatever musical fields they operate in.
So how does it all end, all this musicking and philosophising, playing and talking? The extraordinarily busy, productive, day in the studio concluded with a third session at the piano, featuring a beautiful composition by my good friend, the guitarist Courtney Barrett: Track 15, Requiem for Vanessa & Dave; a set of impromptu interviews with myself, conducted by Barrett; and a final improvised solo-piano piece (at which point I was physically exhausted – something I remark on in the closing seconds of the triple album itself). The interviews touch on certain themes from my PhD thesis and also on the politics of the moment: the recording session took place during the winter lockdown, at a time of increasingly desperate isolation felt by all of us, performing artists especially.
All in all, the triple album, and the day in the studio that gave birth to it, was and is a statement of defiance and creativity: defiance in the face of the pandemic and the loss of livelihood that continues to cast its shadow across every artist who was suddenly adrift in a world without live performance; creativity, since we are defined by our creative acts, us makers of art – and without the opportunity to make, we are not our true selves as artists. Long may we all make, despite whatever restrictions we face, then and now, and long may our makings be of interest to listeners and audiences everywhere.