Jeffry Hamilton Steele

In Praise of Paper Music


Recently, while listening to the new anthologies of previously unreleased recordings by the Beatles, I was struck with a new concept placing all creators of music into one of two categories: composers and improvisers. Certainly most musicians have some of both, but it occurred to me that when viewed in terms of soul purpose, we each identify more strongly with one than with the other. For example, of my two strongest 60's influences The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix the former were clearly composers and the latter an improviser.

Listening to the takes that led up the the final versions of their songs, it strikes me that The Beatles were nearly always heading toward a final version for each. The song's earlier incarnation was not simply an alternative version, of equal merit to the final mix, but a developing sculpture on its way to completion. The melodies were superior in their final form, and therefore difficult to improve upon. It wasn't just because their audiences got too big or screamed too loudly that The Beatles needed to end their performing career together; for all they could hope to do live was repeat the best ideas they had already recorded. Their primary creative act, the evolution of masterful song arrangements, is what took place in the studio . Little variation was present in their live recordings; and when alternative ideas were tried out as in Paul McCartney's performance of Beatle hits with Wings they were not in keeping with or empathetic to the musical essence of the originals.

Jimi Hendrix, in his short life of 27 years, left a legacy of recorded performances, some of which were conceived as final studio versions but most of which were recorded in concert or jam sessions. As with improvisations of the jazz greats, many of the ideas he tried out in these alternative performances were equally musical. One is left with the sense, in listening to a song, of hearing only one of many ways he could have played it; of a new musical concept being tried and proved (except for the times he was too stoned or exhausted) in that moment. There could not be a definitive recording of a given song because it wasn't in his creative nature to make hard-and-fast decisions; rather, it was rooted in change.


The quality of improvisation is essential in all our lives. Even those of us who are not musicians delight in our own improvisatory abilities, as well as those of others. All of our interactions are improvisatory, as we have no way of predicting each thing coming our way. Some of us go after it on the basketball court. We enjoy banter, Like Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing. In jazz, such a musical conversation is called "trading fours". It is the essence of life. Listening to the radio, notice how much more attentive we are to improvised speech as opposed to that which is recited. Perhaps a better way to express it is that we use our right, intuitive, brain to follow improvised speech and our left, analytical, one to follow recitations. Herein lies the popularity of talk shows, the unpredictability affirms our inherent desire to live each moment well, encouraging our very blood to flow.

This inner process is much the same in conversation as it is in playing music: creating something new, by selectively dipping into our own unique files of memorized material while making way for Spirit to do the rest. Eric Clapton once spoke of how deluded people were to scribble "Clapton is God" graffiti on the walls because, from his point of view, all he was doing was stringing together memorized riffs; but whether he acknowledged it or not, he did it in such a way as to allow God to come through him.


However much spontaneity affirms life, our beings also strive for perfection. While an improviser may find what it perfect for that moment , a composer strives to create what is perfect for all time. When it all comes together, the end result is a "masterpiece". The question is: What would cause someone in the present day to devote most of his or her creative energy to the performance of music committed to paper by another, intended for an audience of a past century?

Most would agree that J.S. Bach was, through his music, as direct a channel of God as anyone. Yet, Bach didn't even intend his music to last beyond his generation. He, after all, would discard the scores left by his predecessor when assuming a new post and assumed that whoever followed him would do the same with his scores. If he could let go in such a way, why do so many of us persist in holding on?

In my practising on classical guitar, there continues to be a handful of pieces that are so infused with life that they keep on giving it back, no matter how much you play them. A fine line seems to separate them from other, often very similar, works. These pieces bring the performer to a state of transcendence -- a moment where the spirit of the player and that of the composer are joined in the common purpose, where egos step aside and God streams through. The audience members, once they also set their egos aside, will become the recipients of this bountiful stream which may also be a force for physical and spiritual healing.

How we choose to develop our channel whether it be as improviser, composer or performer matters less than does our commitment to this combined artistic and spiritual mission as communicators. What we choose to bring through matters less than how we choose to do it.

(Feel free to write with questions,
comments or just to say hello)