Volume 8, January 2017
Revolution in Action: A Motivic Analysis of "Ghosts: First Variation" As Performed by Gary Peacock
by Robert Sabin, Ph.D.
This performance is one of many that should help to establish Peacock as one of the most original and unorthodox musicians of the 1960s, the discussion of whom intersects with some of the most compelling issues in modern music. This performance helps to redefine what it is to improvise, reimagining the deeply canonized techniques of time and changes, retaining them as deeply embedded DNA of highly individualized performance. These virtuosic techniques were rich enough by the time of "Ghosts" to become self-sustaining generative structures at the core of new modes of free improvisation.
Independence is the central characteristic of this ability, with phrases manifesting an array of motivic characteristics freely forming an unpredictable network of associations across the first half of the track, and an aggressive interpretation of the swing and broken time traditions. This allows the perception of an extensive world of combinatorial relationships, based upon the biases and inclinations of the listener and performer, which can shift dramatically upon further listening. Because multiple concurrent levels of phrase and motive organization are possible simultaneously, it is difficult to relate the work to analytical traditions rooted in chord/scale theory, rhythmic and phrase hierarchies, or linguistically derived methods of phrase hierarchy, and suggests further work in the fields of interactive analysis.
The independence required to intuit pulse with certainty while executing these motivic shifts suggests Peacock possessed an exceptional rhythmic idiom that was unique in its ability and unfettered in its execution. This approach forms the backbone of Peacock's interpretation, and is characteristic of the gradual emancipation of rhythmic dissonance characteristic to the era. These phrases no longer merely "lay back" or employ mathematically reducible rhythmic subdivisions or tuplets, but rather are a rapid moment-to-moment reevaluation and reinvention of harmony, meter, tempo, grouping, and juxtaposition.
Often an improvisation such as this can challenge the listener's perceptions of the fundamental rhythmic nature of improvisation, but when examined in detail reveal a universe of musical expression that could be called "open" but is not "free" from the materials inherent in more traditional improvisational contexts. Rather, they have been combined and juxtaposed in a flurry of virtuosity that matches the volcanic manner of change that dominated the music and innovators of the decade.