Do You Know What You’re Doing?

written by Danny Gouker
2018 GLFCAM John and Marie LaBarbera Fellow, Cycle 6

I went for a walk with my wife the other day. It was one of the first nice Sundays of the spring in New York and we wandered around Prospect Park for an hour or so. After chatting for a while about a few trivial things and commenting to each other about some of the people and activities inhabiting the park, we walked in silence for a while. As we continued walking, our pace slowed as I got a little deeper in thought. Finally, I broke the silence.

“I have something I feel like I need to say to you,” I began, realizing as I said it that it sounded more ominous than I meant it to, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” She smiled, and I don’t remember what she said next, but it was a response of understanding. This was not news to her, and she knew how I meant it.

It’s true, I have no idea what I’m doing.  This isn’t to say I’m aimless, disorganized, chronically unprepared. In fact, I suspect that most people who know me in my day-to-day and professional life as a trumpet player and jazz improviser would say the opposite: I’m relatively disciplined in my studio habit, I set goals and follow through, I answer e-mails related to gigs and other projects and keep track of my practice and rehearsal schedule. This might all be true but the fact remains: I have no idea what I’m doing.

This runs in contrast to what I long believed about how a composer works. Maybe influenced by watching Amadeus, the movie about the classical composer Mozart, as a kid, I thought that a true composer knew exactly what they were doing from the get go, and they could hear it all in their heads prior to writing it down. Any revisions were merely to correct an error in translation. Or even if it was some discovery, it resulted from some tinkering at the piano and then suddenly, they “had it” and it was all figured out. A composer knew what they were doing at all times, in my mind. So, while I wrote some of my own music, I didn’t really consider myself a composer, because I didn’t have it all figured out.

Eventually, as I worked my way into a vocation as a musician, I found myself drawn to improvising as opposed to performing repertory or even composing my own music. In improvising, after all, it’s not supposed to be figured out. Sometimes it can’t be figured out, especially if you’re improvising with other musicians. Whereas I had long discounted my compositions as trivial because I hadn’t figured it out, I was drawn to improvising because of the excitement of not knowing what I’m doing. “I have a sickness,” I once joked to a friend after a gig, “As soon as I figure out what I’m doing, I have to do something else.”

Maybe it’s a sickness, but maybe it’s a desire to find something new. Another way of looking at it is, if you’ve heard it or seen it done, what’s the point in repeating it? Perhaps it is a matter of refinement or bringing strength and attention to something, a matter of nuance. But if you’re going to break new ground and find new meaning in music, or in life, in some way you must get to a point where you have no idea what you’re doing. It can be subtle, it can be just a moment, but if it’s not there, does it have new meaning?

My position on this seems clear to me. A few months ago, I came across a note I wrote to myself in October 2016: “If the meaning or relationship does not change from when you started working, it’s not art. It’s propaganda.” Maybe this seems harsh. Maybe it’s just my aesthetic. On the other hand, there is serious pressure on artists to know what they are doing ahead of time. In school, it may be to ensure they get a passing grade on their recital or the approval of a professor. In the professional world, there is tremendous pressure to brand ourselves for grants, for audiences, for press releases, in order to generate income. “I am…” “This music is…” “This piece is about…”. Often these statements come before a single note is written or played; often out of necessity to secure funding for the work.

I will once again take the opportunity here to admit to you, no matter what my press releases or grant proposals say otherwise, that I have no idea what I’m doing. Maybe it’s a sickness and I should figure it out, but I choose to see it as a necessary condition for a quest for new meaning in music. I’m looking forward to working with GLFCAM and Duo Cortona as a fellow in Cycle Six because they support this quest. Yes, I have been encouraged to study and learn about the instrumentation, and I will certainly walk away from this experience with new knowledge, but this program also makes space for not knowing as well. I have the opportunity to find something new. Gabriela has encouraged us to try several ideas at the upcoming reading session, to even rewrite the same idea different ways to see what’s possible. I have the opportunity to try out music with high caliber musicians, having no idea, at first, what I’m doing. Eventually, this will result in a finished piece, but for now it is a laboratory brimming with possibilities for new meaning. [Gabriela's note: Danny played for an appreciative Boonville audience at our Bueno Yabbelow Music Series concert and then brilliantly led a group of high school students new to music in their first group improvisation.  He knows what he's doing.]


Danny is a trumpet player currently in Brooklyn, New York, where he is active in the improvised music scene. Also an educator, he has served on the national faculty for The Art of Science Learning since the fall of 2013. Learn more on Danny's bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank