Sense, Feeling, and the Rhythm of Study: A Conversation with Jean-Michel Pilc

[The following transcript is excerpted from a conversation with pianist Jean-Michel Pilc recorded on January 15, 2013, at the Kitano Hotel in New York City.]

Mark Lomanno (for “The Rhythm of Study”): The blog is brand new, but the work is not. This is one place where I can include my academic writing, my teaching, but also interviews, and reviews of albums, books, and concerts…one place to put everything together because, even though we do multiple things, I’ve always felt that I have one career. That I’m on one journey in which I’m doing a lot of different things. So, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you first because you’re a performer who’s also committed to education. And then, especially in your book you mention how important it is that your education and your playing are close together—that you’re communicating through your teaching the same kind of things that you’re considering when you’re playing. So, that’s why I wanted to talk to you. […] I wanted to ask you about a quote from another interview—something that showed up in the Jazz Improv interview. It was a particular quote—and you mention it in a lot of different ways in the book—[in which] you talk about study (which is in the name of the blog, it’s called “The Rhythm of Study”) and you said that you “study so that your own voice can reappear.” […] The reason that it stuck out to me is because, in the book, you talk a lot about the importance of feeling and physicality, and an individual journey. And that there is a place for study—there is a place for academic work—but it’s not an end unto itself necessarily. […] You talk about the difference between music and musicology, for example. I like to think there’s a place for musicology but maybe that that’s not the end goal.

Jean-Michel Pilc: I think that the first problem is that people seem to consider that music is something that can be learned. It might seem shocking what I’m going to say […] but I don’t think music is something that you learn. I mean, I have the example of my kids. My son seems to be very gifted at drums and, you know, of course, maybe he’s going to be a genius or maybe he’s not. He sits at the throne and plays in time. And has that gesture and that kind of confidence. And he’s never been taught anything, I mean, you know, by anybody, certainly not by me. So, and my daughter…I have the example of my daughter who sang and danced [at a] very young [age] on the music of Ravel and Chopin. And she was very confident and she had that rhythmic thing and, when she sang, she had that feeling. Nobody taught her that…it was too early. So I think that people seem to believe that music is something that you learn. I don’t think you learn art; I think you have it in your blood. And then there’s Errol Garner who famously said, “I have a gift and I spent my whole life developing it.” Then you work to make it go further, you know? But I think that people make that mistake that they go to a school to learn music. I think, at the basis, it’s a big confusion between art and discipline. I think, art, you have it in your blood, and then you decide, “how can I go further?”, and you can go of course to see teachers or older musicians or older artists—people that you look up to—to get advice. And you can do like I did and never go to a school and just buy the recordings and go to live concerts because let’s not forget that it’s…it’s sound, you know? It’s oral tradition; music is sound. Until very recently, all musicians were self-taught—there was no music school [for jazz]—and listen to how they played! Don’t go to a school only because you think you’re going to learn music there. You might make very interesting discoveries and get very interesting advice; it might also in some cases confuse you because you might get lots of contrary advice, which can be dangerous. But don’t expect that experience to teach you what art is. That is something that you have inside of you or you don’t.

ML/TRoS: Maybe the difference between music and musicianship?

JMP: Yeah, I mean, after that it becomes semantic…the use of different words, you know, and that’s another thing: people seem to be always trying to find the words to talk about music. I faced the exact same problem when I wrote my book. And I realized that sometimes you just need to use the simplest words. And that, sometimes when you go too deep into semantics, it doesn’t mean anything anymore…

ML/TRoS: Yeah, actually I wanted to ask you about that—I just thought of a couple things—but since you just mentioned writing. […] When I write (being a musician)—and this is some good advice that I think I got from going to school—writing for me is artistic. It is creative and I…

JMP: Sure, literature is a major art…

ML/TRoS: Right. So is this something that was on your mind? I wanted to ask you a little bit about your writing process and whether you saw any similarities between playing the piano, improvising at the piano, and writing.

JMP: I don’t think so. I mean, I’m not a writer. I’m a musician; I play the piano. I don’t feel the same way at all in front of my computer while I’m writing that I feel in front of the piano. There’s a huge difference. You know, I’m sure Hemingway or Faulkner or George Orwell, when they worked, they experience something similar in a way to what I feel when I play the piano because they were writers. I don’t consider myself a writer; I don’t think this book is a work of art. I think it’s a book about art, written by somebody who has things to say about it, but is not a writer. So I would not say I was experiencing some epiphany in front of my computer, no, that’s happens when I play the piano and everything goes well. But I experienced some very intense emotions writing it because I felt like what I was expressing in the book…were things that I felt very strongly about—which doesn’t mean I’m right, of course—and so in a way it [the writing process] was very strong. But it was not similar to what I experience when I’m playing the piano, because—let’s face it—I’m a musician much more than a writer.

ML/TRoS: Yeah, yeah. So, what about [connections between playing the piano and] teaching, then?

Photograph by Matthew Lomanno

Photograph by Matthew Lomanno

JMP: Well, teaching is a different thing. Teaching is…completely different from either experience. First of all I play a lot for my students, so sometimes I play for my students and I experience that feeling of “rightness.” […] When I started teaching years ago, I used to play very badly for my students because it’s very intimidating to play for one person. It’s much more difficult to play for one person than ten thousand who are completely anonymous. But as years went by I realized that, when I play for my students, I’m looking to convey something to them that is clear. I always emphasize that what you play should be clear to you—to the audience, it’s another story—but to you, you know. Sometimes I play and it’s not clear to me. What I mean by “clear” is not cold or controlled, or anything like that—that’s not it. I just mean that you hear it and it makes sense. You know what I always tell my students is that, when you play, you have to hear yourself the same way as if you were sitting in the audience. If you don’t like what you hear, there’s a problem. Or if it’s not clear to you, if it sounds like something you don’t even understand yourself. When inspiration is there you don’t control it but it works. You don’t know what you’re doing but it sounds like “wow, it’s not me,” it’s, I don’t know, some other entity. I’m not religious, I’m just saying something that’s completely out of your controlled sphere—your rational sphere, for that matter—but it makes perfect sense.

ML/TRoS: Yes, you talk about that in your book. You talk a lot about getting out of your own way…

JMP: And so…when you teach—just to finish with that teaching thing—and you play for a student, there is a lot of attention to that—”does it make sense in the sound?” And as a result I feel that I play better in that situation.

ML/TRoS: Because…[to] some degree there’s an idea that you have to reproduce, right?…that you’re playing to show?

JMP: No, if you think like that, then you’re not gonna sound good because […] then you have a goal. I cannot play well if I have a goal. Or even an intention. I can only play well if I have an image. And if I have the image of a sound that’s clear—that means something reaching that student, then I can play well. If I say, “oh, I have to show him that or this,” it doesn’t sound that good.

ML/TRoS: So, how do you tackle the student who is looking for something more mimetic? who is saying, “oh, show me what you just did there!”

JMP: Yeah! well…I can do that. First of all, that’s very different from one student to the other. But very often the student will [ask] me, “how did you do that or this?”, and sometimes I’m in trouble because I don’t remember. Most of the time I don’t remember. But I show him something similar…it’s very intuitive. Honestly, it’s very different even time I do it—it’s very different. I also give my students very simple exercises—some of them are in the book—because it’s not only about the beauty of the music. Sometimes it can be about some very basic stuff: just playing a phrase over and over until it sounds good, which I talk about in the book.

ML/TRoS: Yeah, and I found that really refreshing as a pianist [reading the book]. You mentioned getting poor advice in school. When I was an undergraduate, I had a teacher who was giving me exercises with which, after three weeks, I developed tendonitis in both arms and I couldn’t play for six months […] It was good because it taught me something that you talk about in the book, which is learning about music and learning about being…a performer and improviser without touching your instrument…

JMP: Yes, of course…

ML/TRoS: …and to listen first. I had to teach myself how to learn by listening…

JMP: I think the truth—I mean, there’s no truth in art, you know? I think, each time I use use the word “truth,” I jump when I hear myself. The word “truth” can be really overused, not only in music. But I think—I think I say it in the book—that the truth is there’s no truth…and the rule is that there’s no rule. I think that nobody other than yourself can feel ultimately what is good for you. I remember hearing some advice from people and feeling that it wouldn’t work for me. I have even heard interviews from very great artists for whom I have an enormous amount of respect and I heard what they were saying and I thought, “Man, this is bullshit.” Of course that’s a little bit of a…[laughs]…quick way of summarizing it. But I [thought], “No, it doesn’t work for me. I don’t agree with that,” with all due respect. So, I think we’re all different. I mean, every good musician is a different world in a sense…carries a different world. And only you can know the laws of that universe—nobody else but you. So…that’s what I tell my students, I say, “What I’m telling you is really a minor thing compared to what you have to find about yourself, which I have no way of knowing because only you can”—not even know that, because we don’t know about ourselves that much—”but dig into.” You know what I’m saying…

ML/TRoS: Yeah, which, incidentally, is a much more challenging way to teach…

JMP: Yes, you know…when you’re in love, people tell you “she’s good for you,” “she’s not good for you,” “you guys are so great together,” “yeah, she’s not the right girl for you.” You know, all that kind of stuff. And, in the end, nothing [they say] changes anything. You are in love with that person or you are not. And I think music is exactly the same thing: we’re all in love with some things and those are things we have to connect to. And everybody’s going to be in love with different things which is why great artists sound so different from one another.

ML/TRoS: Right, and one of the reasons why you feel so strongly against the sort of regimented instructional models that you’re arguing against in the book.

JMP: Yeah, because, I really saw some students of mine that had been subjected to that kind of teaching for years and have no idea what they’re playing—that don’t even hear what they’re playing. I saw some guys that couldn’t sing a major third. I see some guys even now that play a note and cannot sing it. It goes pretty far, you know? So, I know those methods don’t work. I mean, they work if you want to fabricate a musical cipher, but they don’t work in terms of the music itself. And, when you think about, like I said, art is very similar to love, and you cannot really…impact a student with such methods. You can only give the illusion that you do. It’s a substitute, and I don’t believe in substitutes in art. I think substitutes have nothing to do with art.

ML/TRoS: You were talking about teaching individuals and about being a teacher of individuals and, since we’re talking about teaching and since we’re talking about inspiration and art, you know this phrase “the rhythm of study,” the title of the blog, comes from an Italian philosopher named Giorgio Agamben and he talks about study and how it comes to have two different meanings. This idea of “study as work” and “study as inspiration,” right? And he talks about how…for the student, study is inspiration. You put in the work…not to leading toward a particular goal but for the process of leading to inspiration. As opposed to the scholar for whom the work is primary. The process is to get to the work—to produce a work. Whereas for the student the process is for inspiration.

JMP: For whom is it to produce a work?

ML/TRoS: The scholar.

JMP: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t really relate to that. It strikes me as an artificial division. What is a scholar? What is a student? What is a teacher? What is a musician? I think we all are everything at the same time. I really don’t understand at this point why people try to subdivide the human race into different categories: I’m a student; I’m a scholar; I’m a pianist; I’m a human being; I’m a father. I’m many things at the same time and what comes to me as inspiration also produces work. It’s also to inspire other people; it’s also a process. And that process includes so many things. And I think by trying to rationalize everything by putting too many subdivisions, you end up…you know, that’s what many artists do for marketing’s sake—they rationalize everything and I’m against that. I think that explains for me a lot of the dryness that I feel in art these days because…we are so many things. And sometimes by rationalizing too much [we are distracted] from what’s important at the deepest level.

ML/TRoS: The whole reason I started this project is because there is no one name for what I do…

JMP: As another reaction—we are all…looking for inspiration. Everybody wants to feel inspired. We all want love; we all want inspiration; we all want transcendence. And what’s why spirituality and religion have so many [followers]. I don’t find it through those things; I find it through music…but…I think everybody wants inspiration. We all want that; that’s what we live for.

ML/TRoS: Well, again about the book…the process…teaching process, the application of the book that you’ve written is to help develop individual voices…

JMP: Not necessarily. Because not everybody has one. I mean, I think some people don’t have an individual voice. I just want people to connect to the music the best possible way.

ML/TRoS: [developing individual voices] as opposed to imparting a strict curriculum…

JMP: Exactly. I want people to be inspired—actually, you know, I talk about the state of grace—but, the result of that, you know, the output in some cases is not necessarily an original one, a special one, because you’re not gonna have six billion individual voices…you know what I’m saying. And that’s another thing that schools tend to make people believe: that everybody’s gonna become a great player. Of course that’s not true. We all know that.

ML/TRoS: Well, that’s what…all these exercises in the stricter curricula seem to suggest…

JMP: You see, for example, I talk about the exercise of tapping a rhythm while talking. I think for me, it’s more valuable to have somebody who’s not necessarily going to be a great musician but experiences that feel of dissociation—of rhythmic freedom—by talking and tapping at the same time. For me, what that [process and experience] discovers is way more valuable than being able to simulate some expert bebop playing, which will at the end will sound flat or lame and uninteresting…And, well, you’re going to tell me, “Yeah, but talking and tapping is not a work of art,” and I will say that the other thing—consisting of playing like a machine on some bebop tune—is not art either. And I’d rather have that person experience something that’s authentic. And to me that is more authentic than simulation—musical simulation. But, at the end, not everybody is going to be a great player.

Photograph by Matthew Lomanno

Photograph by Matthew Lomanno

ML/TRoS: Yeah, that’s one of the things that resonated most strongly with me in the book is this idea of “the art and heart of improvisation” coming from the physical, coming from the sensual, coming from…the everyday. The idea, for example, that important development as an artist can come from taking a walk…

JMP: Of course, exactly.

ML/TRoS: Right? But whatever it is, it ought to come from yourself. It ought to come from your breath, from your steps…

JMP: I could say, maybe to summarize…something that’s impossible to summarize…I’d rather have people experience the real feel of music rather than manufacture as many musicians as possible.

ML/TRoS: Yes, exactly. That whatever kind of music it is…

JMP: [In] the end, it might not even be music. It might just be the feeling of it. That feeling of, “oh, wow! I’m in that zone.” Even sometimes, like you said, when you’re not even playing…just feeling.

Jean-Michel and I at the Blujazz Productions showcase of the Moutin Brothers Reunion Band during the 2013 APAP-NYC conference (Photograph by Matthew Lomanno)

Jean-Michel and I at the Blujazz Productions showcase of the Moutin Brothers Reunion Band during the 2013 APAP-NYC conference (Photograph by Matthew Lomanno)


ML/TRoS: I wanted to ask you—just because the word kept popping up—I’d like to ask you one more question and then I’ll let you get ready. Like you said, we don’t divide ourselves. I don’t consider myself divided in the sense that today I’m a writer, tomorrow I’m an ethnomusicologist. In a couple days I might be a pianist…

JMP: You’re you.

ML/TRoS: …I think that all of them benefit the others…

JMP: Yeah, exactly.

ML/TRoS: One of the words that really stuck out to me in your writing and in some of the other things that I was reading [about you] was your [use of the] word “agenda.” You said you don’t like it when people write with agendas, or when people teach with agendas. I want to ask you about that because, in the book, I don’t think you’re saying that people shouldn’t study—that there’s no place for academics—that there actually is [a place], it’s just not necessarily the end goal, right? I just wanted to ask you to elaborate on that a little bit, on what you think is writing or teaching with an agenda.

JMP: Well, I mean, we all have an agenda [laughs]. Sometimes we don’t even know about it. What I can an agenda—at least what I had in mind when I used that word—was that, in many cases, people…how can I say this?…there is a lack of spontaneity in the way they do things. And of cousre, you cannot be spontaneous all the time; you make a lot of mistakes by being spontaneous. Sometimes you have to plan. But I think that sometimes people really live their lives the way a politician makes a career: you know, “what I should do is this” and “if I do that…” It’s all about strategy and tactics. And I think that, when you push that a little too far, everything becomes fake. Everything becomes almost like a game. And I know lots of musicians…actually in the music world many musicians are like that [who] think it’s a game. And I feel like the music loses something, you know? When you look at people like Louis Armstrong, or Charlie Parker,Coltrane, Beethoven, life was not a game for them. They were not strategizing their lives…or Schubert, you know? They were way too deep…I mean what they felt was way too deep for that. I see many people now—many musicians—acting like politicians. And they’re so normal, it’s frightening. I mean, even when they play, there’s something very bureaucratic about it. And I just say, you know, let’s go back to more innocence. I think that’s what I meant, you know?

You know there is another sense to that word, the sense of a “bias.” Many people are very biased in life; for them, they categorize people—we go back to that [discussion of] category—and they talk about, you know, “I come from this place” and “I’m influenced by that culture” and “I think people from this place are…” […] And I hate it. And I use that word in a very clear way, because, to me, everybody’s different and I don’t care about those things. I care about the individual. And I don’t like when people have that way of seeing things. [When they think that] they already know so much about people without really knowing them. Just by virtue of those categories. You know it has become so important in music where you come from. Music is not geographic. And so that’s what I call an agenda…when people are biased, when there is this a priori type of thinking and I think, when I read what some of my colleagues write, you know I’m like, “Wow, we’re artists. How can an artist be that biased?!” You know, where are you going with that? Nowhere. I mean, they do go somewhere because marketing-wise it works. But that is something I would never do, because, to me, it goes against everything I believe in. And you’ve read the part in my book where I say, for example, to me, Art Tatum and Liszt are very close, or Beethoven and Louis Armstrong and I don’t see the necessity of dividing people—you know, jazz/classical, black/white, American/European—all of that to me is absurdly unsignificant. Call me naïve, or childish, or idealistic, but to me that is what I mean by having an agenda. And I try not to have any but I’m only human. I can be biased sometimes.

ML/TRoS: Well, I want to say on the recording, even though I’m not going to post the recording—just the transcript—thank you for your time…

JMP: Oh, sure…

ML/TRoS: And I would love to talk to you more, but we’re on a tight schedule. But I’m going to stay for the show.

JMP: Oh, thank you, man. You know most of what I have to say is at the piano anyway [laughs]…

Photograph by Matthew Lomanno

Photograph by Matthew Lomanno


“Inspired Intuition and Dissociative Play: The Improvising World of
Jean-Michel Pilc”
Album review…Jean-Michel Pilc, Essential (Motema Music, 2011)
Album review…Pilc/Moutin/Hoenig, Threedom (Motema Music, 2011)
Book review…It’s About Music: The Art and Heart of
(Glen Lyon Books, 2012)

One comment

  1. […] may be because of an affinity of approach between Jean-Michel and me, which became clearer during our interview, but I suspect it has more to do with his book’s potential application among a wide range of […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: