Openers, Limiters and Pairs of Opposites

One of the things that seems to help my playing the most is teaching advanced students. I am challenged to analyze and describe my personal concepts and approaches to Jazz improvisation. Yesterday as I was teaching a lesson I realized that I like to start out my solos with an abstract theme. I look for something that has an interesting shape to start my solos with. It may not even be such a strange shape or rhythm, or it may just be a pattern that lays funny on the horn. I do this in hopes that I'll stimulate something new in response to it. It doesn't need to be complete idea, just an introduction for what will follow.

For me, the first statement is very important developing the rest of the solo. I want to feel like I'm circling the tune like a vulture, waiting for the right time to drop in and devour my carcass. The first statements of a solo should have some relationship with either the tune or the prior solo. It should let the listener know that a new section of music has started. These first statements also act as a bridge for what came before. It's a mood change. I may not even have a particular mood in mind, it may be just an expression or a type of look that you may give someone.

Sometimes just for a change of pace I'll give myself 'limiters'. This means that I'll pick a few specific limits to different factors of my playing. I might set a limit on the range of just the first chorus, for example only playing between low D and middle G. Another approach would be to limit the dynamics that are you use, an example would be to play only piano on the A sections and only forte on the bridges. You might limit yourself to a couple of types of articulation or one type of interval. You could also limit yourself directionally, like only playing lines that ascend. If you combine more than one 'limiter' you can really get some cool effects that you might not come across any other way.

By using limits in this way you can create some very interesting and unique textural effects. You don't have to use limits for your entire solo, maybe just in the beginning or for a short period of time in the middle or at the end. You might try switching from a set of limiters to the opposite (or complementary) set of limiters half way though the solo. Some limiters would be better used for free playing, they can give structure and variety when there is little form in the music. An example of a limiter best used in free situations would be to only play flat or sharp, or to only play alternate fingerings.

Like any technique or musical device it takes some practice to get from the conscious mentation stage to the intuitive reaction stage. At first limiters are an entirely intellectual process, but with some practice they become automatic and natural. Of course some limiters will probably never be totally spontaneous, like deciding to only play Major or Diminished triads over an entire tune. Sometimes you need to set limits in order to focus what you're working on.

The idea of limiters is also related to what I like to think of as the table of opposites. This is an adaptation from an an idea from an ancient document called the tablet of Hermes. The fourth principle from this document is the principle of polarity. It reads like this:
  • “Everything is Dual; everything has poles; everything has its pair of opposites; like and unlike are the same; opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes meet; all truths are but half-truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled.”

    This Principle embodies the truth that “everything is dual”; “everything has two poles”; “everything has its pair of opposites”; these phrases are old Hermetic axioms. It explains the old paradoxes that have perplexed so many, and which have been stated as follows: “Thesis and antithesis are identical in nature, but different in degree”; “opposites are the same, differing only in degree”; “the pairs of opposites may be reconciled”; “extremes meet”; “everything is, and isn’t, at the same time”; “all truths are but half-truths”; “every truth is half-false”; “there are two sides to everything”, etc.

    The Principle of Polarity explains that, in everything, there are two poles, or opposite aspects, and that “opposites” are really only the two extremes of the same thing, with many varying degrees between them. For example: heat and cold, although “opposites” are really the same thing; the differences consisting merely of degrees of the same thing. Look at your thermometer and see if you can discover where “hot” ends and “cold” begins! There is no such thing as “absolute heat” or “absolute cold”; The two terms “heat” and “cold” simply indicate varying degrees of the same thing, and that “same thing” which manifests as “heat” and “cold” is merely a form, variety, and rate of Vibration. So “hot” and “cold” are simply the two poles of that which we call “Heat”, and the phenomena attendant thereupon are the manifestations of the Principle of Polarity. The same Principle manifests in the case of “Light” and “Darkness,” which are the same thing, the difference consisting of varying degrees between the two poles of the phenomena. Where does “darkness” leave off, and “light” begin? What is the difference between “Large and Small”? Between “Hard and Soft”? Between “Black and White”? Between “Sharp and Dull”? Between “Noise and Quiet”? Between “High and Low”? Between “Positive and Negative”?

    The Principle of Polarity explains these paradoxes and no other Principle can supersede it. The same Principle operates on the Mental Plane. Let us take a radical and extreme example – that of “Love and Hate,” two mental states apparently totally different. And yet there are degrees of Hate and degrees of Love; and a middle point in which we use the terms “Like” or “Dislike,” which shade into each other so gradually that sometimes we are at a loss to know whether we “like” or “dislike” or “neither”. These opposing sentiments are simply different degrees of the same thing.

Can musical principles also be seen in this way?

How about these for a start:

and on and on.....

The more you become aware of all of the opposites, the more you can determine where your playing is on the scale of the opposites and the more you can bring balance and variety to your playing. Some players may be totally unaware of let's say the Sad-Happy opposite and always play happy sounding solos, never varying the level of happiness. Some of the West Coast swing players might do this. By consciously playing toward the opposite poles of your usual playing you can break yourself out of some real ruts.

Awareness of the musical opposites can really help give you a better idea of all your musical options for improvisation. If you aren't aware of these opposites then you could end up getting stuck in a rut with regards to your overall sound and texture. Even the mental and emotional sets of opposites can help you give more variety and depth to your improvisation.

And the Infinite,
according to Its Wisdom,
took a portion of its own being
and separated itself
into the pairs of opposites
which make up all aspects
of the manifest;
Dark and Light;
Night and Day;
Cold and Hot;
Wet and Dry;
Soft and Hard;
Negative and Positive;
Female and Male;
Dead and Living.
We must develop our abstract thinking in order to fully understand such an abstract art form like music.

Astrology and pairs of opposites


Unknown said...

Here's one:

discipline, creativity

David Carlos Valdez said...

I would say that Discipline goes with
Laziness and Creativity goes with Conservative.

You can be highly Disciplined and highly Creative at the same time, so how could they be opposites?

Unknown said...

My thinking was, there's a certain think-outside-the-box factor that discipline takes away from. Discipline is not the same as work ethic. It should not necessarily be the basis for your pool of ideas, at least not all the time. Sometimes you need to break the mold. You need the balance between the two.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Maybe in your mind you've rationalized not being disciplined by thinking that if you do you'll lose some of your individuality and creativity.

In fact, you can become disciplined at being creative. Being disciplined about studying the nuts and bolts of music can free up your ability to be a creative improvisor.

If you have been disciplined enough to learn all your scale for instance then you will be guessing and hoping for the notes that you want to play. Discipline allows for self expression, it allows you to overstep the limitations of 'the-box'.

If you're too lazy to do the work it takes to play Jazz well then you'll be playing your own music, by yourself. It's true that many highly disciplined players aren't super creative or unique, but being disciplined isn't the same as being unimaginative (the opposite of creative) or rigid.

To me, the amount of discipline a player has is not related in any way to how creative they are. You can have a highly creative free player who never practices and is just a natural creative artist.

Unfortunately Free-Jazz isn't the same as Be-bop, which takes a highly disciplined person to do it well.

Some pairs of opposites are related
to each other, like structure-chaos
and discipline-laziness.

No discipline? try Blues or Free music...

Unknown said...

I'm not using it as a rationalization for anything. In my case, I'm practicing more than ever at it, but I have a long way to go before I have learned enough discipline, so the comparison doesn't really apply. That's what I'm working on. You disagree with the idea in and of itself and that's fine.

matt said...

what do you mean by free music? just curious-would you consider anthony braxton free?


David Carlos Valdez said...

Good to hear you're working hard!

Don't worry that your creativity will be stifled.

David Carlos Valdez said...

That’s another can of worms. There is such a huge range of music that I would consider free. If I was more of a free player myself I’m sure my definition of Free music wouldn’t be as broad. Braxton is definitely Avant-garde,but I know that has a very particular about the way he describes his own music. Neo-Classical-Pan-Afrocentric-modernist , who knows?

I find Braxton fascinating because of the incredibly deep philosophy that informs his music. He is a true genius and a great musician.

Do I like to listen to his music?

Not for extended periods of time.

Still, he is brilliant.

Some good books about Braxton that I would suggest reading:

Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton

New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique

The Dissonance said...

I once mentioned that I found much of Coltrane's music to be a 'hard listen' and the folks were stunned. How can great music be a hard listen? But then, they weren't jazzoids or sax players were they. ;o)

matt said...

i think playing free can use the "nuts and bolts" of music just as much as playing bebop. alot of folks, especially these days, that can or do play "bebop" play free too and its not like they throw away all of their discipline. people like tony malaby, kurt rosenwinkel(with his band human feel), pat metheny, dave douglas, john zorn, eric dolphy, george garzone, john coltrane, etc......some folks never really learned to play changes but they still have an understanding of the "nuts and bolts" like scales, harmony, voice leading, etc..ken vandermark, ornette coleman, bobby bradford, dewey redman(early years) etc...

granted there are alot of people that do play free that never studied but this does not account for an approach in its entirety.

i would also say that to play free well regardless of knowledge requires a type of discipline. the discipline of concentration, connectedness, listening, choice. (these are of course not limited to free playing) to play free well is hard! there is not an immediate frame work or direction. it is discovered and shaped on the spot and when it works and is done well it can be as revelatory as listening to bird.

David Carlos Valdez said...

I totally agree with you. I didn't mean to suggest for a second that free players aren't helped by know harmony.

I only meant that it is possible to play free jazz without knowing any music theory, reading, ect. There are still many free players who are very creative players and know little harmony. I know several fantastic players like this myself. These guys have big ears and highly developed concepts.

Of course my favorite free player is Garzone, who is able to switch back and forth between Bop and outer space in the blink of an eye.

I love playing totally free and have played a lot of free Jazz. I never feel like I'm as comfortable
as when I'm playing more structured Jazz, but it's a lot of fun. It seems even harder to make it really work. The combination of players has to be just right in order to really get things off the ground, unlike more traditional Jazz where at least you can limp by with standard tunes. Everyone has to be totally listening.

I haven't really had a rewarding free experience since Jonas Tauber moved back to Switzerland.

matt said...


ive never heard of mr. tauber. i just read a little bio of his and ill definitely have to check him out at some point. he even played in the knoxville symphony. we probably both lived there at the same time.