Friday, May 29, 2009

Fermentation Friday - Free Improv

Joy is adding hops whenever your kid thinks it'd be fun.

For a length of time I'm reluctant to calculate for fears I'll have to confront quantitative evidence of just how single-minded (and old*) I am, I've been damned near certain my life would be spent as a musician. How exactly, on the other hand, has been a more nebulous decision. There have been numerous iterations defining musicianship over the years [Um, hello - DJ? What the hell was I thinking?], but one constant has remained. Regardless of what was going to define "being a musician", it was bound to reflect the dominant aspect of improvisation. Whether as a guitarist or a composer or an electronic musician or an arranger (or even as a what the hell was I thinking man that's a lot of expensive gear DJ) there has always been a need to incorporate the element of spontaneous musical composition, because ostensibly, it's only when you loosen the reins and allow the truth of the moment to materialize that you can really embrace the livingness of the art form. In the Shona music of Zimbabwe, for instance, regardless of the fact that musicians play known pieces with names and moods associated with them, they often lack specific beginnings and ends as they see the act of performing akin to making a telephone connection to the spiritual world, and that effect of simply "tapping in", much like turning on a tv in mid-show and turning it off just as arbitrarily, along with a degree of a jazz-like spontaneous interpretation, reflects an ethos that embraces the notion of music as a separate animate entity that we have access to and through which we can communicate our emotions, amplified and transmuted. That "it's there if you're listening for it" approach to creating musical sound can lend to a fascinating viewpoint on what level of control one feels they ever truly have over the creation of their own musical art.

Even musicians trained in the most rigid Western classical traditions respect and acknowledge the discrete variations between various performances and aim for - even under the auspices of cohesively following the written instructions of the composer and/or how they're being translated by a conductor - a performance that transcends the printed page, referring to successful interpretations in terms of being alive, of their emotional resonance, and of their ability to "communicate". And outside of that rarefied sphere of purpose-driven musicianship, in the world of popular, blues, jazz, even now including dance and electronic music, the idea of improvisation as a method whereby a musician can actively exploit the use of time as medium and sound as materials to unveil music that already exists, but which simply needs to be tapped into in order to be brought to light, is such commonly understood routine that discussions over what truly defines improvisation are often eclipsed by the more immediately gratifying discussions over how to do it successfully.

The prevailing argument states that there's no such thing as true spontaneity in improvisation. Any music made on the spot is going to be influenced by so many mitigating factors - previous performance experience, muscle memory, preconceived notions about stylistic guidelines, imitative gestures, unconscious mimicry - that outside of a tiny circle of free improvisers who've made it their guiding discipline to try to divorce themselves from those binding detractions and play from a purely ascended level not unlike a state of trance, all improvised music is pre-composed to some certain degree. Where that line is drawn (not to mention how broad or thick or porous or opaque that line is), between what defines a piece of music and what elements of it have been spontaneously manipulated is where the discussion of improvisation - particularly from the point of view of the composer - becomes richly rewarding, far beyond the talk of "who takes a solo when" or "what scale should I use", breathing life into music by opening the door to the chaotic nature of possibility and potential.

It's near certain that my evolving philosophy on the creation of music has rewired the rest of my brain to the extent that it affects the way I approach pretty much anything that comes up in a given day, with understandably mixed results (let us never again speak of the savory French toast experiment). It should come as no surprise, then, that brewing in this house incorporates a good level of improvisation, for good and for bad, and which brings us to the topic of today's Fermentation Friday. Simply said, the thing that brings me the most joy and the most pain is one and the same: the fact that I can't get through a single brewing session, whether it's in the composing of the recipe or the methods used during the brew to last-minute deviations in hopping to fermentation temperature changes to bottling, kegging, or conditioning choices, it's become quite clear that I'm anything but the type who "leaves nothing to chance". That's all I leave it to, most of the time. And you know what? The beer turns out pretty good. Near disasters provide opportunities to get quickly creative, and unintentional moments of brilliance can make an entire session memorable. Ad-libbed triple decoction? Pain. Spontaneous mini-decoction? Joy. Cutting short a boil time without considering full wort evaporation rates? Pain. Deciding to extend a boil for an extra hour because the weather's nice? Joy. In the end, though, my tolerance for pain is pretty low. Which is why we do so much homebrewing around here: It really is quite simply a joy.

Here's tonight's recipe. I'll post back if anything changes.

* Additional criteria of concern: Adding a power carpentry tool to my Amazon wish list alongside completely unironic enjoyment of the piano music of Handel.

Many thanks to Ted at Ted's Homebrew Journal for hosting this month's Fermentation Friday, a monthly blogging carnival gathered around the topic of homebrewing, originated by Beer Bits 2.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home