Percutio's editor (Bill Direen) questions pianist Jonathan Crayford
about his approach to improvisation.
P: How do you prepare for a performance?
J.C.: If itÕs solo and improvised I spend weeks looking at different material that might give me ideas for creating musical seeds that have explorative possibilities. In the end I will find something that resonates with my feelings at the present which is usually a combination of where I have been, the flavour and feeling of the people I am involved with and whatever my overall mood is. Then I work hard to make myself neutral, entirely blank. In the case of my last solo concert which was in Catalunya, Spain, I had spent the summer in a beautiful small village called Cadaquˇs and had been to a lot of parties and musical gatherings. It was such an intense and brief period of being very social I found that in my mind I was constructing a story about all the people I had met. The story evolved musically and I began to compose an opera about the true relationships between people which is essentially love or envy I think, or a combination of the two or neither Ń IÕm still working on it, its called El Diablo de Cadaquˇs. In the end, right before my concert, my heart plunged into despair from a broken love affair and I used the concert as a means to gain some control. I exorcised a demon in that I musically told the story of my affair with that little town and one of its people.
P: How many hours of practice would you do a week when you are performing regularly?
J.C.: I sometimes practice for 6 or more hours but it depends on what the objective is. Sometimes not practising is better. For example, I have been playing a lot of Bach because I am trying to understand how to think in multiple lines at the same time, something he did with ease. In the case of practising something that is physically technical, itÕs easy. You must slow everything down and get your body to belong to it, or the other way around. But for something that is more to do with your brain, creating multiple lines on the fly for example, this requires some attention to reducing the amount of work your brain is doing in certain areas so as to be able to devote more concentration to other particular areas. When IÕm doing that, I often start in the morning and soon realise it is dark and I havenÕt eaten. Then I can become overloaded sometimes with too much practice and things donÕt seem to be improving. So I stop practising that certain thing for a month and do something else. After I come back to it, I find the brain has somehow reorganised how it must be done and it tells the body how to better execute the material. ItÕs at that point that I realise my brain is more powerful that my mind in this respect and that my desire to ŌaccomplishÕ the feat of being able to play something, has hindered progress. Once I stopped thinking about it, my better subconscious self reorganised everything Ń it listened.
P: Do you keep abreast of current developments in musical technology?
J.C.: I used to a lot more but these last years I have mostly been trying to refine my approach to the piano and to composition so for that, one doesnÕt need much technology. IÕm more interested in skill and feeling.
P: When you improvise, do you have any form in mind, either like an image, or a shape or a grammatical thing, such as a sentence? What helps you to make sense of longer passages, without getting lost?
J.C.: I throw stones ahead of me a lot and see where they land but I have to always have a stone or more in my pocket so that I know I have somewhere to go. When I know that I have somewhere to go, it allows some freedom to maybe not go there and explore another area and come back to that thing later. Generally, the first leads to the last and anything in the middle is ok. Sometimes the source of exploration is an impediment, such as choosing to only play one note for as long as possible, or looking at someone and wondering what they are feeling and trying to resonate with them, or excluding certain things. Words and phrases are good food and so are interactions with people, nature or anything that gives feedback. I once created a piece simply because I had no idea what to do. I wasnÕt prepared and it was an encore and I was blank. So I asked myself, what I was doing. I answered, ŌIÕm sitting at a piano and donÕt know what to doÕ. Then I said Ō I donÕt have to do anything but this is a nice pianoÕ. I let myself not have to do anything and the idea came to me to simply explore the quality of the piano. So I played ŌEÕ above middle ŌCÕ. Then I played it again and again listening to just that note until I wanted to hear something else so I added some other lines and bam! ... I knew then what I could build ... to make an entire piece around that ŌEÕ. I wouldnÕt have done that if I hadnÕt found that I was out of my depth and really didnÕt know what to do next.
P: Do you take special care of your hands? Have you ever come close to damaging them?
J.C.: IÕve never taken any special care or wanted to feel that I should. One time my sister wouldnÕt let me fiddle around with a motor in case it hurt my hands. I donÕt like feeling inhibited by this kind of thing. But I donÕt like them being dry and I am pretty careful not to stress fingers and muscles by trying to do too much. Once, when I was new to New York, I noticed my right hand would become very sore when I was taking a solo. It went on for months. I wondered why it was happening Ń was it the fact that the piano was the quietest instrument on stage and I really had to hit it hard to project (something that isnÕt nice to have to do)? It probably was a contributing factor but in the end I admitted to myself that I actually wasnÕt interested in what I was playing. I figured I ŌhadÕ to play all kinds of stuff but after I said ŌWhy?Õ to myself ... I let something go, and played what I was interested in hearing. A friend of mine would describe this as being ŌalignedÕ. The pain went away. In that sense, I took care of my hands yes.
P: Do you believe that the instantaneous mind-hand relationship of improvisation is essential to music, or do you think that music with ŅsoulÓ (or ŅmeaningÓ, if you prefer) can be composed without the involvement of the human body, using only the mind?
J.C.: Yes, very much, music can be created any way. What ever your system of delivery is, your mind adjusts to and uses its ŌvoiceÕ. Lately I have been having to work only on paper and I am surprised to find that it isnÕt that hard. My preference is to have my hands on a keyboard attached to a very nice piano so that I can feel what is happening. IÕve spent most of my life playing this way. But you know .... the most important part of a relationship isnÕt the sex, but the feeling, the soul and spirit. But we live in a physical world and that is of course, a huge part of our existence. I also like to listen to the sound of the world ... without music. I generally donÕt like the sound of a television or commercial radio or internal combustion engines. I like the sound of an audience or even one person expressing what they truly feel at any time. I donÕt like the sound of people ignoring things. I like the sound of people sleeping ... the way that people speak quietly when they know someone is sleeping ... ThatÕs what I mean, the sounds that come off other people who arenÕt sleeping when they know that someone is Ń itÕs the sound of caring.
To get back to your question, the mind-hand relationship is pretty central to what I do but itÕs not the only thing and distilled thought can be the most powerful activator of sound. This and the raw energy of loving being inside a body in the physical world.