KAPLAN: That’s right. What about music of today? Contemporary composers or music at least of the last fifty years? Do you listen to that at all?
KEATING: I think I’m probably guilty of not acknowledging, or being as enthusiastic about, contemporary classical recordings. A friend said once, if you had to come back in this world reincarnated as something else, what would you come back as? He said well a rat in the Prado [Madrid’s principle art museum]. So you can run around all night looking at the pictures. And I think I’m probably in the museum, too. But I’m in the musical museum. The fact is, where are the big tunes? Where are they? I mean, we’re not hearing. We just talked about Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony or the Ninth. Or Mahler? Take Mahler’s Ninth [sings]. Those opening couple of bars. Who is doing this now? Where is melody? There are all these excuses for the absence of melody.
KAPLAN: I couldn’t agree with you more. As our listeners know, I talk about this all the time, because there almost seems to be a law that it’s against the law to write a beautiful melody anymore. And contemporary music has many aspects of it that appeal to people. It can be riveting, it can be rhythmic. But I am of the Duke Ellington School myself and he says, “If it sounds good, it is good.” All right, we come to the final part of the show which I call fantasyland. And this is something I ask of all guests, so you get the chance at it also. I have a feeling I know where it’s going, but we’ll have to see. And the question basically is, it’s about musical fantasies. If you could be a star in the classical music world, what would you like to be? Conductor, composer, play a solo instrument? What would it be?
KEATING: A conductor, I think.
KAPLAN: I knew it was going there.
KEATING: I’d be in the game you’re in. You want to hear the whole lot come off the end of the baton. And frankly, I think I could do a better job than many conductors. You know, one of the things that surprises me about music is how a lot of these people have the technical skills to pull the music, to pull the sound, from the manuscript. But they don’t have the soul understanding within them to give you what the composer is offering you. Now, of course, the great ones do; the ones we all mentioned do. Many people do. Your Second is marvelous. You get it. But you see, so many ho-hum conductors, oh, how do you do? Oh ho hum. Oh yes, we’re playing Mahler’s Fourth tonight or we’re doing Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead or we’re doing Piano Concerto No. 3. And they turn out this rather workmanlike but just doesn’t leave you with any excitement.
There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.
The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.
This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflections, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.
Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved on this recording.
As the painter needs his framework of parchment, the improvising musical group needs its framework in time. Miles Davis presents here frameworks which are exquisite in their simplicity and yet contain all that is necessary to stimulate performance with sure reference to the primary conception.
Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a “take.”