A Few Things I’ve Learned About Livestreaming

“Thanks” to the pandemic, I’ve spent much more time figuring out how to deal with video and live streaming than I ever thought I would. It’s turned out to be a surprisingly rewarding experience. In no particular order, here are some things I’ve learned along the way.

29.97 vs 30

For historical reasons (i.e. for reasons that probably could have been better dealt with at the time but were instead swept under the rug, having to do with the switch from B&W TV to color), for these purely historical reasons, in the parts of the world that use the NTSC standard, including North America, footage is recorded and played back (on TV at least) not at 30 frames per second (fps) but at an incredibly arcane 29.97 fps. This would be okay if that were always the case.

It’s not. For example, let’s say I filmed a concert at 29.97 fps but then create a Final Cut Pro project at 30 fps, because, believe it or not, lots of online footage is actually at 30 fps and not at 29.97 fps — perhaps because computer monitors actually refresh at 30 or 60 Hz, not at 29.97 or 59.94. I import my footage and place it in the timeline. Now, unbeknownst to me, Final Cut will actually play the whole thing imperceptibly faster than it happened in real life, including the audio, because the playback frame rate is now a smidgeon faster than the recorded frame rate.

If that were it — if we exported our project and uploaded now — all would be okay, no-one would ever notice, because the discrepancy is so small. But, say I also recorded the concert with external audio gear. I import the sound file and place it underneath the previously imported video. I try to sync it up with the existing audio. What I find now is that if I sync it in one spot, it will be out of sync in every other spot. It’s unusable. Why? Because Final Cut is actually playing this newly imported sound file back at the same speed as it was recorded, whereas it’s playing the video footage back slightly faster. This is an easily solvable problem — just make sure you start your FCP project at the correct frame rate. But it’s an example of the headaches this historical artifact can cause. I’ve done this by accident twice, and it took me a little while both times to figure out what was going on.

Much worse is what happened when I was making my Natural Machines album. I filmed it at 29.97 fps, only because my cameras can’t record at true 30 fps (note that they label this as 30 fps, not 29.97! You’re just supposed to know, it seems). While I improvised, programs I wrote on my computer answered me in real time, both by playing the Disklavier piano themselves, and by generating a visual representation of the music. I recorded the visual output by plugging an HDMI recorder into the output of my computer. But, lo and behold, when I tried to sync the footage of my live performance with the live visuals, they kept drifting out of sync. Lots of headaches later (I didn’t know anything about the NTSC / PAL wars at the time), I realized that my computer was outputting 30 fps footage over HDMI and not 29.97. Which makes sense, because again, computer monitors don’t refresh at 29.97 fps. They refresh at 30 fps or 60 fps (or higher) because, obviously, since alternating current oscillates at 60 Hz in North America, it would be INSANE for anything to oscillate at anything other than multiples of this number, right?

Now, you might think that I could just run my 30 fps footage through a converter to resample it to 29.97 fps. This is, in fact, possible, but it’s very slow and, more importantly, it looks terrible. And for good reason. With audio files, you’re dealing with tens of thousands of data points a second. Typical audio is recorded at 44.1, 48, 88.2 or 96 thousand data points per second. With that much density of data, it’s relatively straightforward to resample a file from 88.2 kHz, say, to 48 kHz (although there are subtleties to this, too, involving aliasing etc, but they won’t bite you nearly as hard as the video issues I’m talking about), because the data points can essentially be imagined to describe a continuous line, and you can choose how often you cut that line up into data points without affecting the continuous line too much.

But video happens incredibly slowly — over one thousand times more slowly, typically. Instead of 44,100 events per second, we’re dealing with 30. So there’s nothing continuous about it. Whereas the change in audio level from one data point to another at a normal sampling rate is minute, at 30 fps the change in the image from one frame to another can be huge. It simply can’t (without advanced A.I., that is, and that’s coming here) be imagined to be a continuous flow that you could choose to sample at whatever rate you wanted. Instead, resampling from 30 fps to 29.97 essentially involves removing frames here and there, or if you’re being sophisticated, blending two of them together now and then. The resulting jerks in the image are immediately discernible, and to me, really annoying.

The solution to this problem was to figure out (this was not easy and involved external software) how to get my computer to output 29.97 fps via HDMI rather than 30 fps. And just imagine! If the switch from B&W to color TV had been dealt with cleanly in North America when it happened, this absurd problem wouldn’t even exist in the first place!

Luminance ranging

Most video — and most computer graphics, too — is encoded with 8 bits per channel. What does this mean? Each pixel in a frame of video has a brightness value (its luminance) described by a number. The question is, in how much detail do you describe it? If you have 8 bits per channel, that means you have 256 different possible values for it. If you have 10 bits per channel, which is becoming common now in pro and even less-pro video, you have 1024 possible values. In theory, at least.

Because, as I’ve recently learned, for another seemingly insane historical reason (fight me on this), there is a convention in video that the bottom and top values not be used. So, instead of your values ranging from 0 to 255, with 0 as black and 255 as white, they’re supposed to range from only 16 to 235. What happens to the rest of those values? Anything below 16, as I understand it, is considered black, and anything above 235 is considered white. I can’t begin to imagine why anyone would want to throw away 14% of their dynamic range, but that’s that.

How has this affected me? Well, I film with Panasonic LUMIX GH4 cameras, which I love because they’re very cheap used (~$400) and make a beautiful 4K image. I bought them when I was making my Natural Machines album. The LUMIX gives you the option of recording your luminance values either as 0 – 255, 16 – 235, or 16 – 255. Being a reasonable man, I opted for 0 – 255, of course. Why would I throw away those extra bits?

Now, since I’ve been live streaming, I’ve noticed that the image I see on my computer, after it comes out of my cameras as HDMI, enters my Blackmagic ATEM Mini, and exits as USB, is noticeably higher in contrast than the image I see in my cameras’ viewfinders. This puzzled me until last night, when I dove down this rabbit hole and discovered that the ATEM Mini expects its video to be delivered as 16-235, which, I now understand, is the common video standard. So it’s natural that it was cutting off the bottom and top luminances of my image, making anything somber completely black, and anything light completely white. Again, why does this problem even exist in the first place? To an outsider, it’s patently absurd.

Lighting is everything

One joyous thing which I simply had no real appreciation of before, even though I’d heard it talked about, is that lighting is everything. Wow does lighting completely determine how your image looks! I know that sounds like a platitude, but it was very impressive to experience it first hand. I feel lucky that I was forced to deal with it: early in the pandemic, the Karajan Institute hired me to produce a 30-minute long video of myself performing Natural Machines, for Austrian and German television. They partnered with Deutsche Telekom and a TV company to ensure the footage met professional TV standards. They asked me for some test footage before I filmed my set.

Before lighting

I got a call from a nice man named Daniel who told me “Dan, the sound you’re getting is top notch, the quality of the image is really nice too, we love your playing and the music, but… your lighting needs to be improved.” We talked about it for some time and he ultimately pointed me to a YouTube video which in turn pointed me to another, which I recommend to everyone: How To Make A $300 Camera Look Pro!

After lighting

Follow these instructions and it will completely change how your video looks. For my first five or so livestreams after upgrading my lighting, I didn’t even have a real diffuser for my lights. I used a storage box that had a white, transparent bottom, and a vegetable bag. It still looked good.

Macs overheat

Streaming is really hard on computers. On Macs, at least. I stream with the free software OBS, and apparently, Apple has chosen not to participate in the project (read, I think: has chosen not to give the project money), and as a result, OBS for Mac doesn’t make efficient use of the hardware. So what happens? Macs get very, very hot when streaming, even new and powerful ones. At the beginning of the pandemic, this was okay because the weather was mild. But as summer rolled in, I started having strange episodes in my streams where my image would start to slide way behind my audio. Seconds behind. It took me a while to figure out that as my laptop got hot, the system throttled down the processes using the most energy to keep the processor from overheating, and as a result OBS could no longer encode the video fast enough. At one point, on a hunch inspired by the jet-engine-like sound my Mac’s fans were making, I ran to the fridge, grabbed a couple ice packs, and put them under the computer. Zap! The image snapped back into sync with the audio in about 5 seconds. I later learned that cooling a computer with ice is a very bad idea, because ice creates condensation, causing the air your computer cools itself with to be full of moisture, ultimately causing your computer’s components to corrode, rust, go bust, fall to ruin. The ultimate solution, which has worked well for me, was to buy a $35 cooling pad — essentially two big, quiet fans powered by USB — and set it under my laptop. I haven’t had a problem since, and these external fans are much quieter than the internal ones in my computer.

Logic is bad for live mixing

I’ve been happily using Apple’s Logic Pro for years to record, mix, and master. I’ve even made extended midi experiments with it. I’ve recorded all my albums myself since 2011, so I’ve put together some good gear over the years and have become fairly experienced with audio.

So, naturally, getting a good sound out of my piano was the easy part of figuring out how to livestream. I brought my mics (two DPA d:vote CORE 4099P mics which conveniently fit under the closed lid of my piano, keeping out street noise) into Logic via my Apogee Ensemble (the same one I used to record my last four albums) and some nice preamps, record-armed the tracks there, applied some plugins to mix the sound, and routed the mixed sound to OBS via an excellent little piece of software called Loopback Audio. This all worked great, except that sometimes, for completely inexplicable reasons, one of my mics would develop an echo. A very pronounced one, too, a with a delay of a couple seconds. A total dealbreaker. It tended to happen in my vocal mic, too, which made it even worse, because it meant people couldn’t understand what I was saying. Thank goodness for the feedback given by Facebook comments! People would let me know right away when it happened. I realized I could fix it during the stream by resetting the sample rate of the project, but even if I did that, it could reoccur again at any moment and was a constant source of worry, something I didn’t need more of.

So, what did I do? I switched from Logic to Reaper for my live mixing. Reaper is very cheap ($65, and you can just use it for free if you want), extremely streamlined (it weighs about 35 MB to Logic’s many GB), and has worked perfectly for me. I haven’t had one bad moment with it. It’s what they’d call robust. I’d recommend it for this purpose to anyone.

It’s really possible to play music over the internet, and it helps to have nice neighbors

One of the best things that’s happened to me during the pandemic is the discovery that playing with other musicians over the internet is, contrary to popular perception, totally possible, and in fact super fun! And I’m not talking about the kind of playing where you accept the huge (~1/2 sec) latency of Zoom or Skype or Facetime and make the best of it. I’m talking about ultra-low-latency, real playing together, in rhythm, as if you were in a recording studio together.

I won’t recount the details of my journey with the open-source software Jacktrip here, because NPR did an extraordinary job of telling the story and explaining the challenges involved, all narrated by the great Christian McBride:

One thing not in the video: after that initial test with Jorge Roeder, I quickly discovered that in order to do Jacktrip properly while livestreaming — i.e. doing a live performance over the internet and simultaneously broadcasting it to an audience — one needs two computers, and two independent internet connections. Fortunately, when I bought my new laptop last year, I kept my previous one, from 2015. I almost sold it and then reconsidered, on a hunch that it would be essential in the future. I realized that in order to get the very lowest latency possible on Jacktrip, it needs to be the only thing using your internet connection at that time. You certainly don’t want it to be in competition with, say, a program (like OBS) that’s constantly uploading large amounts of data to YouTube for your livestream. Jacktrip’s ability to send packets of information in the fastest possible amount of time is key to making these remote musical collaborations work.

So, what did I do? I borrowed my neighbor Carrie’s internet. She kindly agreed to let me string an ethernet cable from her apartment to mine, which has now been snaking along the side of our common hallway for months. And Jacktrip has worked like a charm. It’s taken time to get the most out of it, though. The trouble is that getting the lowest possible latency (which is important in order to play together in rhythm) is at odds with getting the best audio quality. I won’t go into the details, but if you’re going to start playing the packets of sound information you’ve received as soon as possible, there will probably be some, because of the vagaries of the internet, that won’t have arrived in time. And this causes glitches in the audio, very noticeable ones.

So, for a while, I was constantly trying to find the best compromise between latency and audio quality. Remember, I was livestreaming these remote collaborations, sometimes for paying customers (I’m now on my sixth ticketed livestream concert), so glitchy audio wouldn’t do!

I had an epiphany while setting up for a Jacktrip session with trombonist Ryan Keberle: I could have my cake and eat it too. I could set up not one, but two simultaneous connections with my duet partner. One would have the lowest latency possible, and have the massive audio glitches to show for it. I would play along with that one, sometimes having to reconstruct a note in my ear through the noise. The other would have high latency, and perfect audio, and that’s what I would send to the livestream audience, after delaying my own audio to match it.

Jacktrip duet with Aaron Diehl from our July 15 livestream concert

This felt like finding the holy grail. And I realized that having the extra Jacktrip connection was in fact superfluous. What was really needed was to be able to extract two different latency feeds from one single connection — there was no need to receive the same data twice. I wrote to Chris Chafe, who co-wrote Jacktrip, explained the idea, and he said that he had thought of that years ago but had never implemented it. He called it “slipstream”. The idea is now in active development among the community of programmers (especially one in particular, Anton Runov, a brilliant coder from St Petersburg) that maintains and develops Jacktrip.

Live is sacred

One thing I never saw coming before I started doing livestreams is how authentically live a performance can feel over the internet. It was clear to me from the beginning that I needed to make it obvious — I would even say prove — to my audience that what they were hearing and seeing was live. One reason I felt this is that I knew that some presenters were asking musicians to pre-record performances of themselves, then presenting it to their audiences as if it were live. This is fraudulent, of course, but it’s also understandable at a time when doing things genuinely live comes with the risk of it all falling apart. Many livestreams never even start, many more disappear halfway through, others have no sound (surprisingly common), and yet others have sound that peaks the entire time. I’ve made every single one of these mistakes myself, and I’m more tech-oriented than many musicians.

So I felt that if I was to go to the trouble of actually doing it live, all of it, including the real-time Natural Machines graphics — which I eventually figured out how to superimpose over the main camera feed with transparency —, but also my live remote musical partners on Jacktrip, or my friend Kristin Berardi controlling my piano all the way from Australia, then I had better prove to my audience without a shadow of a doubt that it was truly live. And, of course, there’s a simple way of doing that, which is to interact strongly with the comments.

So, in my livestreams, I always take requests and questions. I’ll fix technical issues that people mention in the comments — for example, that my speaking mic is off, or that my video is no longer synched with my audio, problems that thankfully don’t happen often anymore — on the fly if I can. In many ways, experiencing unforeseen problems and solving them in the moment is the most direct way of recreating the feeling of live performance.

Because that’s what it’s all about, right? The feeling of live. The feeling of danger, of the possibility of things going wrong, and conversely, of them going gloriously right. It’s a sacred thing, this feeling, because it’s ultimately about reminding us all to dwell in the moment.

What I think has most surprised me about livestreaming, as someone who has lived and breathed live performance for most of his life, is how authentically live it feels to me as the performer. I feel the presence of the audience watching me through the ether. I feel their gaze, their judgement, and I swear I can feel their joy when I’m particularly in the zone and the music I’m making is really speaking from the heart. It sounds crazy, but the livestream experience has felt even more intimate to me at times than it has to play in a jazz club or a concert hall.

During one stream, I mentioned in between improvisations that I was reading Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop, because he had written me after the New York Times covered my #bachUpsideDown project, and because his classic Gödel, Escher, Bach had been a big influence on me in my early twenties. One person commented that they had an entire shelf of their library devoted to Hofstadter’s work. I talked a little about Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, and how it related to what I had just played, and another listener mentioned that she had just finished translating three hundred of his letters from German to English! She also corrected me on the pronunciation of his name. When has that kind of interaction been possible in a live performance? I never would have thought that it would be possible to foster a genuine sense of community in this format.

The great classical pianist Leon Fleisher died on August 2nd at the age of 92. On my regular Monday livestream August 3rd, one listener asked if I would play the jazz standard Someday My Prince Will Come, and immediately afterwards, someone else asked if I would play something with my left hand only as a tribute to Mr. Fleisher. One thing I’ve come to love doing during these streams is combining ideas from my audience. For example, one person provides a key, another a time signature, another a theme, and I play a freely improvised piece using those elements. In this case, I played a left-hand-only tribute to Mr. Fleisher, something that I never would have thought of doing without these serendipitous suggestions from the audience.

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TriadSculpture for sale

At long last, I’m now offering my triad sculptures — the ones that I created while developing my Natural Machines project — for sale.

Here’s the Major Triad (ratios 4:5:6) in natural sandstone:

And here’s the Minor Triad, ratios 10:12:15 in the same material:

They will be 3-D printed on demand for you and can be ordered at my Shapeways.com shop, right here.

Augmented and Diminished triads are coming soon! Here’s a sneak peek at the augmented…

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Negative Harmony: a primer

Ever since Five Pedals Deep, my trio record with Thomas Morgan and Ted Poor, came out in 2010, I’ve gotten a steady trickle of emails asking about a particular tune on it called Back Attya.

If you listen to it without knowing what it is, there’s something about the harmonic movement that might feel surprising. You can feel intuitively that it has a really solid structure, but at the same time, the chords don’t seem to move in a way that you would expect. There’s a reason for that: Back Attya, as the name cryptically suggests (ATTYA being an acronym), is an inversion of All The Things You Are, by Jerome Kern. Continue reading

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McCoy Tyner: dance, drums, beauty salons & fourths

The great McCoy Tyner, giant of jazz, huge influence on me and countless others, died a week ago, on March 6th 2020. Back in 2008, when I was 26, I had the privilege of interviewing him for French magazine Jazzman ahead of the release of his album Guitars. Now seems like an apt time to share the interview below, which — aside from the translated and much condensed version that appeared in the magazine at the time — has never been published. Thanks to then editor-in-chief Alex Dutilh for trusting my young self with this assignment and giving me the opportunity to talk to one of my heroes.

Dan Tepfer: Hi, McCoy. I should start by telling you that I’m a pianist. I’ve been playing with Lee Konitz for a few years now. It’s been very special for me to find myself on the bandstand with someone I’ve listened to since I was a teenager. Likewise, it’s very special for me to get to talk to you now, because I’ve been listening to you since I was a kid.

McCoy Tyner: Yeah, well, it’s the same for me. I’m happy to meet you young guys on the scene, and when they say ‘well look, I’ve been listening to you for a long time’, I never think about how old I am, but I think ‘wow, that’s good that I helped somebody’ or ‘my presence has a meaning’, you know. That kind of thing makes me feel good — I have a purpose in life. 

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Creativity and Its Sources / Tom McCarthy’s Remainder

Reading Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, which I love, I’m reminded of a realization I had a while ago: pure creativity is closely related to dreams — a mysterious place where new visions are somehow born. You dream, and you see something, and metaphorically speaking — because “dreams” can be taken to represent any information that comes from the unconscious mind — your conscious job as an artist is to reproduce this vision in real life as faithfully as possible.

These “dreams” could take the shape of memories (as they do in the novel) or ideas which suddenly (and perhaps inexplicably) seem important. While reading John Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven earlier this year, I was struck by the fact that the Mormon fundamentalists he writes about seemed to be receiving messages and visions from a source remarkably similar to my own as an artist: they would close their eyes and listen inside. The only major difference is that they attributed this new information to a source outside of themselves: God. To me, because I am merely making art, the source of the message is secondary: what matters is that it’s personal, and that I like it. To them, the identity of the source is paramount: if it’s from God, a murder can be justified; if it’s from the realm of dreams, they are merely delusional killers.

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Sister Canons in the Goldberg Variations

In Bach’s Goldberg Variations, every third variation is a canon at an increasing interval. The first (Variation 3) is at the unison (the canonic voice repeats the leading voice verbatim), the second (Variation 6) is at the second (the response repeats the subject a diatonic second away), and so on until Variation 27, which is a canon at the ninth. (Variation 30, the last of the set, where you would expect a canon at the tenth, is instead a Quodlibet).

But this leaves a question: what direction does the interval in each of the canons go? If Bach writes a “Canon at the Second,” there’s some crucial information missing, isn’t there? Is it a second above? Or below?

One might expect that Bach settled on one direction, and that all of his canons are at increasing intervals above, or below. This isn’t the case. The direction of the canons, in fact, keeps changing, and seems to be an important structural component of the Goldbergs. This is something I’ve been fascinated by for a while, and I haven’t seen it discussed anywhere else before. Let’s take a look: Continue reading

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The question, when performing

The question, when performing, is:

“Am I putting up with anything right now? Is there something that I’m unhappy with that I haven’t addressed?”

For example, awkward posture, which looks uncomfortable, will make the audience uncomfortable too, because it shows the performer to be someone who is putting up with something rather than doing something about it. We want to see someone who is at peace, from head to toe.

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A Container for Nothingness

Two of my favorite jokes rarely get any laughs. I learned them both as a kid growing up in France. The first goes:

Why do Belgians sleep with two water glasses by their bed, one full and one empty?

One is in case they wake up in the middle of the night feeling thirsty. The other is in case they wake up in the middle of the night not feeling thirsty.

Of the two, this is the one that usually gets at least a chuckle. The second is dirtier, but is almost guaranteed to get no laughs at all: Continue reading

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Natural Machines

 

The Natural Machines album is out today, Saturday October 27th. I’m bringing the project to Le Poisson Rouge in New York on October 30th. The fine folks there asked me some smart questions ahead of the gig. Thanks to John Ruscher for asking me to do this interview. Continue reading

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Short songs with absurdly long codas

Form-wise, the Beatles’ Hey Jude is unusual. For 3 minutes and 8 seconds, it’s a conventional song, with melody, varying harmony, A and B sections that repeat in a predictable pattern — what you’d expect from a pop song. Then, for the remaining 3 minutes and 57 seconds, it’s something else entirely, a long vamp where the same static chord sequence repeats over and over again while the melody repeats with small variations and interjections. The proportion of these two parts feels like a bold move — there’s something about the length of the coda in relation to the body of the song that makes you question whether you just listened to a song or to… something else. Are we being tested? Are the Beatles daring us to walk away? If “art is what you can get away with” (Andy Warhol), are the Beatles pushing the limits? Continue reading

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The TRAPPIST-1 System: Listening to Planetary Orbits

(Cross-posted from WBGO.org. Thanks to Nate Chinen for inviting me to write this.)

With most things, I’ve found, what’s most interesting isn’t the thing in itself, but rather how it relates to other things. In other words, everything is relative, which is why I was so excited to see the video below. It shows, using harmony, rhythm and visuals, the relationships between the orbits of the seven planets around TRAPPIST-1, a dwarf star about 40 light years away from us.

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Vancouver

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Interview: Improvisation, Mountain Climbing & the Meaning of Life

I’ve got a little time off from touring so I’m cleaning house. While sorting through old papers I came across the interview below. Most of these answers still ring true to me today. It’s fun to hear from past iterations of oneself, sometimes.

Dan Tepfer interviewed by Gary Heimbauer
Jazz Inside Magazine, January 2010

Jazz Inside: Can you talk about how your unique childhood/young adulthood might have influenced your voice as a musician? You were born in Paris, France to American parents, got a degree in astrophysics in Edinburgh, Scotland and then moved here.

Dan Tepfer: I grew up in a way that doesn’t really give me any choice but to see the outside view, to see music as a pluralist art form. My grandfather was a jazz pianist on the West Coast. As a matter of fact, Nancy King, Ralph Towner and Glen Moore credit him with getting them into jazz. My mom is an opera singer. So I grew up hearing a lot of music, mainly jazz and classical, from before I was even born. I studied classical piano at one of the Paris conservatories through my childhood and teens, but somehow I always mainly considered myself an improviser. Continue reading

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Birdman! Absurdity, theater, music & the importance of madness

birdman-1000I left the movie theater last night, post-Birdman, intensely moved. Rarely has a film gotten to me so directly. Birdman is a wacky movie that seems to be asking a serious question: why live? What keeps us trucking on and floundering and trying as hard as we can to accomplish things, when we’re only specks of dust on a small rock orbiting around an average star, one of billions in a galaxy that itself is one of billions in the universe? How can you explain that we care so deeply about our shit? Our little troubles and tribulations? The movie has a simple answer: madness. That’s what explains it. And the beauty of it all is that madness is at once a curse and a necessity, without which, well, we might as well throw in the towel. Continue reading

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Doing It Bachwards: my unexpected Goldberg Variations

(Cross-posted from UCLA’s Ethnomusicological Review. Thanks to AJ Kluth for inviting me to write this piece for the journal.)

As I look back over the last ten years and the peculiar journey with J.S. Bach that the time represents for me, it’s sometimes hard to believe that I’m here, now, playing the Goldberg Variations from memory in their entirety, for sometimes sizeable audiences, well enough apparently to get enthusiastic approval from the classical section of the New York Times. I’m really a jazz pianist, after all, and the Goldbergs are hard. And the crazy thing is that I never set out to do this in the first place. How did I get here? The best answer I can give, to echo an experience many musicians have reported through the years, is that Bach taught me. Continue reading

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Lee Konitz on Spontaneity, Originality, Drugs & Playing Sharp

Lee and Dan

Lee Konitz will be turning 87 in October, and his long and distinguished career as one of the most singular saxophonists in jazz needs no introduction (but if you need one, it’s here). He is known in particular for his intense focus on improvisational integrity, a desire for each musical choice to reflect the present moment as much as possible instead of a pre-made plan or habit.

It’s easy to overlook how radical this position is. In many other styles of music, from classical to pop, the goal in live performance is the opposite: to reproduce a carefully thought-out plan as faithfully as possible. Even in jazz, it’s not uncommon for groups to take a hybrid approach where a good portion of the material, even outside of written sections, is predetermined. Despite all this, Lee has somehow stubbornly insisted on showing up to his concerts prepared to be unprepared, and has (mostly) delighted audiences in doing so. Continue reading

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The New Logic, Objectification, & Bob Dylan

When I got back home to Brooklyn from tour a couple days ago, one of the things I did was buy Logic Pro X, a big update to a music production app I’ve used for a long time. To get a handle on it, I decided to make a track for a friend of mine. Earlier in the day I’d come across Bob Dylan’s All I Really Want To Do again, which, I was reminded, has got to be one of the most wonderfully simple and profound songs there is, and I thought it would do just fine.

I started hunting around the program for sounds. One of the big additions to Logic is that it now comes with a huge sample library. I focused on the orchestral samples, because I’ve never seriously tried to make a computer sound like a real orchestra before. The music I’ve made so far with sequencers, like my recent score for the film Movement & Location, is what we’d call electronic music: it purposely sounds machine-generated. There are people out there, particularly film composers, who are great at drawing acoustic-sounding music out of a computer, but it’s not a skill I’ve worked on before.

Logic now also has an advanced arpeggiator, which is something that was (amazingly) lacking in the old version — there were workarounds, but they weren’t pretty. In this context, arpeggiation means making melodies out of the notes in a chord by playing them sequentially instead of playing them all at once. Combine arpeggiation and some string samples, hold down a chord, and you might get something like this:

 

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Rhythm / Pitch Duality: hear rhythm become pitch before your ears

I just got home from a five-week tour in Europe and finally have some time to do what I call research. The way I see it, being a touring musician is a bit like being a scientist: you spend a bunch of time in the lab, and you find something that you’re excited about; then you have to go out and give a bunch of seminars to tell the world about it. But very soon you’re itching to get back to the lab, because you want to discover the next thing. So here I am, at home and doing research, which for me, right now, in between practicing piano and writing tunes, means getting into a computer music programming environment called SuperCollider.

Yesterday I was fooling around with it and suddenly realized that with SuperCollider, I could do something I’d been wanting to do for years, which is to make a recording of rhythm becoming pitch, and back again. You see, rhythm and pitch are exactly the same thing, only at very different speeds. How’s that, you ask? Well, let’s start with the harmonic series:

harmonic_series

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Long Island

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Normandy

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Algorithmic Art

My dirty little secret is that I can be a pretty serious nerd sometimes. While I was procrastinating from writing a piece for nonet a few months ago, I reopened a computer program I had started working on in 1998 (!) and modified it so that it would work on my current Mac. The idea is pretty basic: use lines and a little math to make pretty pictures. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it’s an example of what’s called algorithmic art. I remember being totally fascinated by this as a teenager: I would try things, almost at random, and these incredible shapes would appear. Fourteen years later, with a couple tweaks to the program, I still think there’s something really special about these images.

1.

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Questions from the Atlas

I’m bringing my trio with Ted Poor and Ben Street to the Atlas in Washington DC tomorrow night (Wednesday, May 30th, 8pm). Brad Linde, who curates the jazz series at the Atlas and is also a saxophonist/bandleader of renown on the DC scene, asked me a few questions ahead of the gig. (Cross-posted from the Atlas Arts Blog).

Brad: How does your approach to improvising/accompanying/etc change based on the different contexts you encounter?

Dan: The essence of improvisation is context. That’s what’s special about it. Since it’s happening in real time, since we’re actually making music up on the spot, at its deepest level it should reflect everything about the current moment. I’m not only talking about the note choices that my bandmates make, and that I respond to; I’m also talking about subtle things like the sound of the room we’re playing in, what we’ve eaten that day, how we’ve slept, and what the weather is like outside. In improvisation, we have the opportunity to take all this into account at an intuitive level. It’s exactly like having a conversation with a group of people: depending on how noisy the room is, how well you know the people, the general vibe, you’ll participate in a unique way — if you’re really listening, that is (we all know people who seem oblivious to context, interrupting and forcing their point across). So I see the challenge of improvisation as listening to the current context in as sensitive and authentic a way as possible, and letting myself respond. The other side of this challenge is to be able to find yourself in that context: not to give in to it completely but to find the balance between it and who you are. Continue reading

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Montana

 

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Konitz Playlist

A few months ago, JazzTimes asked me to choose ten tracks from Lee Konitz’ recorded work that stand out to me in his career. Here’s what I came up with.

Lee Konitz Playlist – Dan Tepfer

Lee Konitz started recording in 1945, and he’s still going strong today. He appears on hundreds of records, with an incredibly wide array of musical associates. Lee was unique from the get-go: his tone and phrasing are as instantly recognizable on his recordings from the forties as they are now. I’m fortunate that I’ve gotten to play regularly with Lee over the past four years; here are some tracks of his that have struck me along the way.

Marshmallow
Subconscious-Lee (Prestige) 1949
A classic cut of Lee and Warne Marsh tearing up a lightning-fast written line in close harmony, something they did peerlessly. This is Lee’s first session as a leader; he’s barely 21, and he plays a super-tight, blistering solo.

Odjenar
Conception (Prestige) 1951
I like this track because it shows Lee completely at ease in the modernist classically-influenced style that was coming into vogue at the time, two years after the Birth of the Cool sessions. The composition is by George Russell, and the interplay between Lee and Miles Davis is mysterious and fascinating. Continue reading

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All Kinds of Music-Making

The composer Anna Clyne and I got together yesterday evening to catch up, and since we were at my place, and there were microphones lying around, we decided to make a track. I met Anna at the University of Edinburgh when I was 19 or so, when she got me to sing on one of her first compositions, a knotty choral thing where the time signature changed every bar (and they were short bars, too). She’s now the composer in residence of the Chicago Symphony, and has been making some awesome music.

Here’s what we came up with — it ended up sounding like some kind of post-modern tribal thing, with Moby Dick and Beckett thrown in. We used whatever was close at hand.

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Groucho Marx vs. Irving Berlin

Everyone needs to have a copy of The Groucho Letters. Groucho Marx, aside from being very funny, was a great letter writer: he corresponded with many of the memorable people of his day, including (incredibly) T.S. Eliot. This collection is on my shelf next to Mozart’s letters. And when I say shelf, I really mean bathroom.

My fave so far is Groucho’s exchange with Irving Berlin, in 1956:

Dear Irving:
I have taken to singing songs on my show; cute or funny ones, preferably. A few weeks ago I did “I Love a Piano” with Liberace, and last week I did “Cuba.”
I know that you have many songs of this type and if, one of these days, you could stray far enough from your money to peruse your catalogue, perhaps you could instruct one of your hirelings to send me a few of them. They don’t seem to be available in the music shops. I did get “I Want To Be Lazy” — but that’s about all I could find.
Regards,
Groucho Continue reading

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It’s also about the notes

I dropped by 5th Estate in Brooklyn tonight to play some sax at the jam session, and had a conversation there that brought up a nice memory: it was shortly after I started playing with Lee Konitz, in early 2007. I had been introduced to him by the great French pianist Martial Solal, and started going over to his apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan to play. We hit it off right away. I knew Lee’s music from recordings and from hearing him live, but when I started playing with him, what struck me most was how much meaning Lee could put into a single note. You didn’t even realize that he was playing notes unless you consciously focused on that — what came across was pure expression. So after pondering this for a few days, I showed up at Lee’s apartment and after playing a tune with him, I said:

“Lee, I think I’ve figured something out from playing with you. It’s not about the notes you play, really, is it? It’s about the meaning that the notes have to you. It’s about how connected emotionally you are to them.”

To which Lee answered:

“Well, sure, but it’s also about the notes.” Continue reading

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Paul Motian, 1931 – 2011

I have a really clear memory of dropping in on a trio set with Paul Bley, Gary Peacock and Paul Motian while passing through New York when I was 17 or so. It was Motian who struck me the most: on one tune — and I can see this clearly in my mind 12 years later — all he played was his ride cymbal. After the tune ended, a guy in front of me leaned in towards his date and said: “only Paul Motian could pull that off”, and that was really my first clear realization of that most mysterious element of music, the ability that great musicians have to infuse the tiniest thing — a single cymbal hit, for example — with layers of meaning. How is that even possible? It’s just a cymbal hit, after all. But Paul was staring so hard at the cymbal, and his concentration was clearly so intense, that somehow it didn’t sound like a cymbal but like some kind of personal expression, like a smile, a raised eyebrow or a laugh. Paul was one of the rare players who never sound like they’re playing notes — it goes straight past craft into expression, past “music” (in the non-transcendent sense) into “art”. Continue reading

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Content, form, and weirdness

I’m a longtime fan of Pedro Almódovar — it’s hard not to be if you grew up in France — so I couldn’t wait to see his latest film, The Skin I Live In. I saw it last night and there’s really only one word that immediately comes to mind: W•E•I•R•D.

It’s probably the strangest movie I’ve ever seen. Its weirdness is profoundly disturbing because it’s presented in a non-weird package, with Almodóvar’s trademark gorgeous composition and vibrant colors. I’m a fan of strange movies — David Lynch’s Lost Highway was one of my faves as a teenager — but on the weirdness scale, this one takes the cake by a long shot. Usually, the strangeness of a movie is reflected in its form. Black Swan, for example, has all kinds of strange things going on in the presentation that make it clear that you, the viewer, should take everything that you see onscreen with a grain of salt: the form of the film actively reminds you that the story isn’t necessarily real. Continue reading

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All I Heard Was Nothing?

Sometimes nothing is a lot to hear. And other times you hear a lot, but it adds up to nothing. You know what I mean?

At any rate, here I am, blogging. Or so it would seem.

Stay tuned.

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