Serving the San Francisco Bay Area New Music Community

Dan Plonsey

Plonsey's Thoughts on Composing and Improvising
Date of Interview/Article:2/13/2003
These are some of the axioms which underlie what I'm doing with music, both as composer and improviser. I don't mean to imply that anyone else ought to adhere to these axioms, nor do I think that everyone will find the same means to make music, should they agree with any of this! What's important to me is that we do think about what we're doing.

- Perfection is a myth. I like to work with musicians of varying abilities, strengths, weaknesses. I don't want musicians to conform to my particular ideas about how to play an instrument, preferring variety (diversity) over uniformity. As the audience becomes aware of the virtues of the imperfect, recognizes that there are members of my ensemble who aren't virtuosi by any "normal" standard, they will hopefully feel more willing to risk creating things themselves, less afraid of "failure."

- Likewise, I try not to edit melodies much: we don't always know what is important in the ideas that come to us, so again, in the name of diversity, I often keep parts which seem inexplicable, absurd, simple-minded or weak: often they end up being much more interesting than the "strong" ones.

- Making more is better than making less. Sun Ra said that the Creator demands of us that we each create at least one thing per day, but that he [Sun Ra] tried to stay ahead by making more than one thing! I say: yeah, just as it's always better to cook too much pasta than too little, given how little it costs.

- Finding beauty in things which are small, damaged, underrated, flawed, etc., seems a worthy pursuit in a world which seems bent on destroying those individuals and those ideas which don't fit in, which aren't useful as consumers or consumable.

- Solos which teeter at the edge of the void are not only more dramatic, more encouraging to the audience to take risks as artists, but are also part of my personal preparation for dying. ("oooo! heavy!")

- Polyphony - having several ideas happening at once, especially in conflict - reflects the way of nature, depth of vision, and of human variety and interaction, multiple levels of meaning, multiple points of view, and again, undermines notion of perfection.

- Unison (of a ragged sort) allows the audience to most easily know that a section is written, while at the same time the "flaws" in the unison reflect anti-perfectionism.
Musicians are encouraged to ornament, or do mini-improvs. Also, if some idea (e.g., a melody) seems a bit odd to us, our tendency may be to undermine them by speaking tentatively - so big unisons are a way to make certain that the most improbable ideas get a good chance to make their point!

- Imperfect intonation thickens unison lines and reflects a sort of cooperation in which the individual is neither alone nor subsumed into a whole.

- If I can communicate to the musicians that they can have fun with the music, then they will hopefully put more of themselves into it, and ultimately take the work more seriously, also enhancing the polyphony. Such music also refers to and supports the style of teaching in which the student is engaged by encouraging him/her to question the teacher. In general, this is the basis too for a highly participatory democracy in which we come together to do one another's projects not out of obligation, but for the pleasure of interaction, and the testing of ideas, and we lose our need to be too polite!

- Form should be fairly apparent to a listener: I want the audience to know as much as possible about a piece, rather than engage in any undercover manipulation. But there must be some surprises for them - and for me!

- Reference to modal idioms allows the audience to grasp larger "chunks" of the piece, while also providing for possibilities of deviation from large and small scale expectations.

- Also, music with oddly mixed elements of the "exotic" is meant not only to kindle pleasure in diversity, and to encourage a vision of a world in which the emphasis is on cooperation.

- And also there's some developing sense I have that music of properly mixed modes has certain "magical" power to guide those us when we're lost and alone (and hence at high potential moments for creativity).

- It's important to me to develop extra-musical images or stories while developing the music. These help to particularize each piece. It's important to me that each piece have its own character, reinforcing again the notion that society of well-formed, clearly unique characters is far preferable to masses/mobs of folks who can hardly be told apart, whose identity is driven too much by what's "in." Even when approaching a free improv, I want to know: who am I? what's my motivation? am I a guy who's contrary, oblivious, sad, taciturn, studious, responsive, blustery, or what? I also want to know: where are we? in the woods? in outer space? in the past? in the future? Am I exploring? trying to escape? trying to connect? (This is why I challenge the myth of "Artistic Integrity" which I see as implying that there's only one way to be which is "me." Well, I'm not some single particle following a pre-determined path through the cosmos! I have a lot of choices!)

- Imagination. Just to follow up on the above, I don't see art as simply acceptance of what comes. I think the artist's will and efforts, in conjunction with his/her imagination is equally important. That is, I actively go out there looking for ideas; and I want to "make things up." And I want my music to clearly reflect the value of such searching and inventing. (Recall Schoenberg's description of Cage as an "inventor," and reconcile this with the picture people often have of Cage as a passive acceptor.)

- Humor - as in surprises, and a certain degree of self mockery, is employed as a weapon against fascism, both from outside, and from inside (the temptaion to get dictatorial, full of oneself). Also, it keeps me & the audience on our collective toes; it allows them to interact with the musicians (often laughter is the only sound an audience will make while music is happening). Furthermore, many people are more comfortable maing contact with one who has a sense of humor.

- Absurdity: allied with humor. Rule of thumb: if you have two ideas, go with the one which is more absurd! Twenty people playing simple melodies almost in unison, plus my six year-old son, on Western and Eastern instruments, plus tuned Balinese percussion, calling it "Jazz," at Yoshi's... well, it seemed to me that doing that might strike a few people as inexplicable, odd, or absurd - in the "right" way, and inspire thoughts about the wonder, mystery, and unknowable extent to all that is or might be...