“Don’t play what is there, play what is not there…”
This famous quote by trumpeter Miles Davis is frequently mentioned when discussing the more philosophical aspects of jazz improvisation, often in conjunction with a discussion of “playing” the space between notes. But what you hardly ever find are practical discussions of this idea: how to approach ‘what isn’t there, ‘ or how to make music by somehow either not playing, or utilizing silence. But there actually are a number of interesting ways that artists and musicians in Eastern countries especially have dealt with this subject, and I think they are useful to the serious student of improvisation, no matter what level of expertise, or style – heavy metal, jazz, turntablism, etc.
When I studied traditional Japanese Noh Theatre (nohkan flute) in Osaka Japan in the late 90s my teacher often discussed the idea of ura-byōshi, the silences in music that are alluded to by musical notes (!). Every (quarter note) beat of time in Noh is considered to consist of an eight note of sound and an eighth note “made” of silence. But this silence is no ordinary silence. It is what is referred to as ma, a profound space or void from which the next note is ‘born’ or arises. So it is not a blank space between sounds in the sense that it “lacks” sound (implying something negative), but rather a profound moment bursting with future potentialities (positive implication), a revelation of the origin of possible sounds.
Zeami, the founder of what we now call Noh, said in one of his acting manuals “what the actor doesn’t do is of interest,” a moment of non-acting wherein a superior Noh actor reveals inner tensions and the character’s essence. In South Korean classical arts they call this revealed essence mǒt – the quality of an object’s being/essence, through which we can relate to by “entering” into the spirit of the work. In the classical arts of China a work can also be similarly described by the word ch’i-yun, how “alive” with spirit a work is, resulting from the direct expression of a mind and paint brush in physical and spiritual harmony.
So, that being said, how do we relate these ideas to the performance of jazz improvisation, or indeed any other kind of music?
First of all, utilizing space is not a metric science in the sense that we count exactly two measures before playing again, and so on. The idea is that we learn to pause and reflect on/develop what we have just played the moment before. That means the time in which we are pausing is (naturally) not the same length as the previous note or phrase. This is what I call a “living, breathing asymmetry,” which is invaluable in creating a sense of drama and anticipation of what may come, what you could call “jazz ma.”
This asymmetrical silence does not have to be very long though, as many younger jazz saxophonists especially improvise for excessive amounts of time, or else jam their solos full of so many ideas, it is almost a miracle anyone can follow along through the dense tangle of overexpression! A well-intuited, asymmetrical space between phrases is not only beautiful (see Wayne Shorter and/or Lester Young’s work), but will most likely catch the audience off-guard, and they will listen with great interest to hear what is going to happen next. And believe me, this is a good thing. This space also gives you a chance to really listen to your inner voice, as well as the rest of the members of the band, and keeps you from just blurting out stuff and trying to fix it immediately afterwards. Spontaneity and reticence make great partners in music, and holding back to some degree creates suspense, as well as helps pace your soloing.
This is where listening to and emulating great rhythms section players (bass, drums, guitar, piano) and how they accompany other musicians’ improvisations is of huge benefit Great jazz guitarists are very often amazing accompanists too, interspersing only a few perfectly placed chords while the saxophonist solos. This is where Canadian jazz guitarists such as Lorne Lofsky (pictured above), Mike Cado, Rick Lett, or rock/jazz guitarist Jamie Philp really lead the way amongst their peers: the ability to create positive anticipation through sparse chords/silence, and a whole lot of artistic patience. These great artists often do not play every chord in the song, but rather outline or re-harmonize key moments in the music every so often to create the illusion of the passage of time and musical colors – an effect/method that has been at the core of the most profound jazz. You can literally pick your silences, framing what you want open by ‘bookending’ it with sound.
Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock’s spacious, evocative accompaniment in trumpeter Miles Davis’ 1965-1968 quintet still stands as the quintessential example of sophisticated restraint, and musicians of all kinds are still raving about Hancock’s role in the group 50 some years later. Hancock paid intense attention to what every member of the group was doing and was adept at building ‘cathedrals’ of sound out of even the most ordinary rudiment present in the other player’s solos and accompaniment. If anyone has captured the essence of sound via silence, it is Herbie Hancock (or fellow band member Wayne Shorter to much the same extent). In this case, listening itself is a form of composition, improvisation, or music making!
Another important aspect of this asymmetrical ma is tat it gives a very palatable sense of transience, an ethereal quality of the impermanence of sound and art. A cleverly crafted solo filled with jazz patterns and ‘licks’ has its own merits, but is often a disguised set of pre-rehearsed strategies and methods, meaning that there is a lot of jazz out there that is not truly improvised. It is also one of the reasons many say jazz music is now dead, as there are too many young players graduating with university jazz degrees who merely play sophisticated patterns and dissonant chords without once trying to play slowly, softly or simply when the music demands it, they are in essence not tone deaf, but “music-deaf!” (they couldn’t even play a lullaby to save their own lives). But as Miles Davis so completely and utterly proved with his trumpet playing and composing, ma will “do” more, create much more profound art than a million racing notes, and space was always the key.
The other secret about this transient quality is that it can personalize your music as much as having a signature saxophone sound, or compositional/improvisational style. If you go to a jazz jam session, and play a simple four or five note solo, you WILL be noticed and remembered, as the audience that night will have been subjected to a barrage of over-playing (young saxophonists) and tortuously long soloing. After being pummeled by “jazz,” the audience will greatly appreciate a “voice of reason” calling out from the menacing woodwind barrens!
Ethereal space or ma will also give your playing a beautiful non-deliberate quality, like you are playing in a stream-of conscious manner. This effect (technique) is called zuihitsu in mediaeval Japanese literature, literally “following the brush” – contemplating any/all ideas as they float through your mind/consciousness. But this is not merely musing but rather philosophical or, to some degree, spiritual contemplation. This quality is also summed up by the Japanese aesthetic concept fu-ryu, “wind and water,” a suggestion of the impermanence of beauty and indeed of Life itself. It need not be negative though, rather it is most often more poignant than painful. It is interesting to note too that wind and water are the forces behind many of the most beautiful forms in Nature, e.g. a leaf ‘dancing’ on the surface of a lake, sandstone “carved” into thin spires (hoodoos) by the wind, erosion patterns, the sound of rain falling on a river, and so on.
Focusing on the asymmetrical, contemplative, and transient qualities potentiated by silence is a very valuable activity in improvised music (or compostion), and a valuable asset in communicating your own unique personal feelings/essence. Start expanding your sonic palette with ma today… it will really be worth it.
For more Japanese, Korean, and Chinese aesthetic terms that relate to silence, space, and sound, see my posts on East Asian Aesthetic Terminology. The posts on Japan (both Part One and Part Two) in particular contain dozens of great concepts and terms to help you in this regard.