Bill Evans' Meditation on Serenity
How playing "Peace Piece" can bring us to a centered place of reflection.
Posted Jan 16, 2021
Perseverance and dedication are two qualities that can be helpful when cultivating a skill, such as playing an instrument. However, a preoccupation with this orientation towards self-discipline can suffocate the musical experience.
In the expressive arts therapy community, there is a mantra: “Low technique, high expressivity.” This is a reminder that in expressive arts therapy, the goal is not proficiency or virtuosity on our instrument but rather personal exploration and expression. We can borrow this way of thinking from the expressive arts therapy community to enrich our musical experience with our instrument.
Many people come to music lessons with an orientation towards the technical mastery of an instrument, rather than the cultivation of a personal experience with the emotional life through music. It is true that the more skillful we become with our instrument, the wider our musical experience might become. However, orientation towards technique can have the unintended consequence of neglect for the personal, emotional contact that music-making can offer to us.
In her book Love and Limerence, Dorothy Tennov discusses the link between artistic expression and the state of limerence, or romantic love-sickness. I am not sure that we can say that all music is an expression of a romantic passion, but I think it is safe to say that we have many instances of limerence-motivated art. Much of the operatic libretti deal with limerence, as do popular love songs. The expression of romantic passion through music is an example of how music can serve as a catharsis for emotional experiences. With limited music technique, we can express, contemplate, communicate, and even purge our innermost emotional experiences.
Music lessons often focus on the techniques of music-making, such as note-reading, repertoire, scales, and arpeggios. But equally as important are what we do with those materials of music—how we utilize them for coming into contact with ourselves.
There is a work by the American composer Bill Evans that serves an infinity of possibilities in emotional expression. "Peace Piece" is a two-chord study in personal reflection that has been described as a personal meditation on solitude. The materials for "Peace Piece" are complementary to our motto, “Low technique, high expression.” We learn the ostinato left-hand pattern, which serves as our musical background for our meditation. Much like the music of Erik Satie and the ragas of Indian classical music, the repeating two-chord pattern provides a grounding for limitless sonic and emotional exploration.
I teach "Peace Piece" to many of my students in our first session. At first, the left-hand voicings and fingerings can be challenging. After an hour or so of repetition, the bass line becomes automatic, and the right hand is free to explore. The work is a part of my daily practice session, and I encourage all of my students to open their practice time with the work. It is also a piece that I return to when I feel the need to center or quiet my mind.
The tune is simple. There is no set melody, but we do have one recording of Evans playing the piece on the 1958 album Everybody Digs Bill Evans. Transcriptions of that improvisation have been published.
The transcription might be interesting to studying Evans’s style, but I think learning Evans's transcript solo misses the point of "Peace Piece." It is a reflecting pool, an opportunity to be and come into contact with oneself through music. When we play the simple left-hand pattern, we fall into a tempo that eventually frees us from chronos time. We enter into a state of kairos time or phenomenological time and allow our right hand to speak inner truths.
The right-hand melody can explore freely, through all chromatic tones. We settle into certain melodic and rhythmic utterances. I find that certain motifs return weekly. "Peace Piece" is also an opportunity for musical conversation with a friend. Its simplicity affords and requires us to listen and to speak with intention.
“Low technique, high expression” is a lesson we take from Evans's "Peace Piece." It is a reminder and an orienting star that can save us from the stultifying preoccupation with technique, discipline, and ego-oriented accomplishment.