Ed Bland.....Urban Classical Funk


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My Artistic Journey to Urban Classical Funk


Throughout my professional life, my creative efforts have been haunted by aspects of a cultural warfare that has been simmering under the world¡¯s cultures for several centuries. It is a warfare between a pagan prolongation of the eternal moment, found in the drum music of traditional religious rites of black West Africans living below the Sahara, and Western civilization¡¯s concept of time that emphasizes either a past golden age, postponed rewards in some vague future, or immediate gratification driven by a ¡°take-the-money-and-run¡± attitude.  In the latter approach, plundering the present at the cost of the future is considered a good. Whatever else can be said, Western civilization is profoundly ill-at-ease in the present moment.


For all humans, life is a short affair climaxed by the grim certainty of death. Since no one can live in the past, and may or may not have a future, all that any of us really has is the present moment.


As a composer, my job is to create work that holds the listener¡¯s attention so tightly that he or she cannot stray from the piece. Thus the listener is glued to the work from beginning to end.   When this occurs, a continuum  of past, present, and future has been achieved.  This continuum, which is experienced as a prolongation of the present, is what I call the eternal Now.


Ironically, the African slave trade, with all its horrors and social disruption, also presented an opportunity for transformation. It was the slaves¡¯ ability to rise to the occasion and create a new culture and persona that enabled them to survive and coexist in America. Traumatized by slave-ship voyages, deprived of languages, gods, families, communities, and rituals, the slaves were forced to modify what remained from their past and  invent  new cultural forms as needed in their new geographical habitats.


In a range of work encompassing Beyonce¡¯s ¡°Creole,¡± ¡±Skunk Juice,¡± Atari Video Games,  THE CRY OF JAZZ, Urban Classical, the Detroit Symphony, Dizzy Gillespie, Hip Hop, and ¡°Urban Counterpoint.¡±  I have composed music that celebrates the pagan prolongation of the eternal Now.


Confrontation has been a dominant quality of my work since my youthful days as a jazz prot¨¦g¨¦ (clarinet/sax) in Chicago. Later, as a composition student in the early 40s, I was one of the first musicians of my generation in Chicago to write atonally and  use Schoenberg¡¯s 12-tone system. Through jazz, I had been immersed in the harmonic language and sonorities of Art Tatum and Duke Ellington. Also through participation in many orchestral and chamber performances of concert music, I was heavily exposed to the harmonies and sonorities of Debussy, Scriabin  and Chopin.


I viewed Western Art Music as dead music, of interest for gaining great technical command of one¡®s instrument, but not music to be enjoyed as a living, breathing entity. With the technical command gained from playing and studying Art music, I felt I would be able to improvise more interesting and daring solos in jazz. But I viewed jazz as limiting because of the regularity and predictability of its cadential structure.


My world changed when I heard a recording of Stravinsky¡¯s ¡°Rite Of Spring.¡± Not only was the music alive, it swung!  I decided to become a composer because I could then have a freer formal expanse than was offered by jazz, and a much more plentiful, colorful palette and powerful instrumental device at my disposal. I felt that if I could uncover the secret of why Stravinsky¡¯s music swung, and combine that knowledge with what I knew about swinging from my jazz background, I might be on a fruitful mission.


After finishing my military duties in World War ll, I returned to college. I decided to go to the University of Chicago, a place noted for its investigation of the basic principles of various subject matters. I hoped that the same attitude extended to the music department. However, I had been warned by one of my previous professors that the music department at the University of Chicago was anti-musical. I decided to give it a try anyway. My need for a school where the professors could both think and argue with me overcame the warnings I had received.


I felt that I needed a school where I could question the very foundations of Western Music and also debate with the teachers. With such an attitude, I knew I wouldn¡¯t be welcomed at a conservatory. There I would learn what was supposed to be the craft of composition but I would not learn why the craft had to be conceived of in that manner and only in that manner.


I wasn¡¯t welcomed at the University of Chicago¡¯s music department either. At that time, it was a completely musicologically-based department. Papers concerning historical musicological subjects were more important than living music.


Meanwhile, the music I was hearing in my head and struggling to write, given my limited technical ability, was unlike any other contemporary music I had heard. I suspected that the wellspring of these musical ideas was my black American experience, both musical and cultural. In the late 1940s, very few American professors of Art music had any knowledge of or respect for jazz. Of utmost concern to me was the conception of musical form. It seemed to be conceived of spatially, as architectural ground plans, with various operations to achieve balance. Fine enough if that¡¯s what one wants. But I didn¡¯t. Semiconsciously I was groping for a conception of form based on the importance of the prolongation of the present moment and conceived of temporally. In addition, it struck me that the formal logic of music should be somehow related to the nature of biology instead of architectural ground plans.


Highly suggestive to me were John Dewey¡¯s philosophical works, Art As Experience, and Logic: Theory of Inquiry. Correctly or incorrectly, what I was able to take away from Dewey to use in my own compositional development was the notion that artistic creation is thinking in qualities.  Qualitative thinking means the construction of a means/end continuum of qualities. The transforming situation evolves during backs and forth between qualitative/quantitative thinking phases, moment, the eternal present, the eternal Now.


One of my counterpoint teachers at the University of Chicago remarked that West African drumming and its polymeric structure was more intricate than Bach¡¯s counterpoint.  Eventually I bought a recording of traditional West African drumming and discovered that in many pieces there was an adherence to the eternal present. In fact, celebration of the eternal Now was the norm. With these insights, I knew it was time to leave this musicological wasteland and go to a conservatory in order to sharpen my compositional skills.


After passing the requisite contrapuntal, orchestration and composition final exams at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, I was faced with the problem of earning a living. I never was interested in teaching.  I don¡¯t have the temperament.  Attending college was primarily for the purpose of learning and questioning what was taught there rather than earning degrees in order to work in academe.


Reading articles in Die Riehe, keeping abreast of what Stockhausen, serialism, the outgrowths of the dissonant counterpoint theories of Charles Seeger and Henry Cowell, musique concrete, and John Cage were doing, along with studying the polymetric intricacies of West African drumming, the newer developments of jazz, and refining my Art music arranging skills, kept me quite occupied.


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