Friday, September 02, 2011

Music is Expression in the Form of Sound

Art (painting, acting, dancing, writing, playing an instrument, etc.) can manifest from two internal states: the intellectual, technical perspective and the emotional, sentimental perspective. Art, first and foremost, is the expression of emotion or spirituality through some medium. Or, at least, it should be. The origins of music started this way--music to accompany the hunt, to mark a death, to celebrate a marriage, etc. The intellectual side of art developed over time, as man's mind developed beyond simply concerning himself with food, shelter, and other basic needs. I attempt to cultivate both sides of that dichotomy when I dabble in art, whether painting, playing, composing, or writing. That's why I can dig the craziest Frank Zappa Synclavier piece and then turn around and love Tom Petty, Robert Johnson, Rob Zombie, Fleetwood Mac, B.B. King, or Audioslave. There's a place for the emotional side in music, but the expense of one over the other can be problematic for thinking, feeling human beings. If I spend too much time consuming so-called "simple" music, I eventually go through a balancing stint of listening to more esoteric, experimental stuff to buttress the intellect. If I go on a jazz listening spree, I'll shortly thereafter undergo a pop music consumption binge to feed the sentimental or nostalgic side. I'm a bit bipolar when it comes to music--happily so.

There's something to be said for musicianship (a part of the intellectual frame of reference). If music exists primarily as a means to creatively express something through sound, musicianship serves to improve that expression (or, occasionally, to overshadow it). It's a balancing act; some schmucks screw it up by obsessing over arpeggios, scales, and other theoretical concepts (i.e., Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci, or <insert shredder name here>) at the expense of expression; those sorts of musicians sometimes end up without anything to say with their music, except for the theory or technique itself. It's very rare to find someone sufficiently talented who can skillfully fuse the two together: equal parts feeling with equal parts technique, where the mesmerized listener--any listener--is just blown away. The layman is attracted to the emotional and rhythmical, while the technician gets sidetracked by the theory of it all. The technician then wonders to himself why the masses prefer Soundgarden to his scale-filled rock guitar masterpiece. Because Soundgarden stirs the emotions of the average listener, shredder guy! Your scales sound like weedily-wee-wee-wee to the unschooled listener. Maybe the layman is temporarily impressed by your technical display, but he eventually awakens from that stupor and goes back to dance with the one that brought him: lyrics, melodies, repeating phrases, and simple rhythms--music that stirs the sentiments. There are, of course, exceptions to that phenomenon, because in amongst the masses are the few intellectual types who, unfortunately, go on to be the next generation of shredders. Some of those shredders will, over time, mature and learn to broaden their pallet to enjoy highly intellectual forms of music, like jazz, so-called "classical," or experimental music forms (I put myself into that category).

Yes, I realize that someone might argue that a pure consumer of "intellectual" music--having listened to and digested such auditory works continually--might be moved emotionally by such music. I believe there is some truth to that assertion (I can be moved emotionally by what some might consider "strange" music). But it's still academic sentiment; it takes time to develop that sort of appreciation, whereas the casual listener--even a baby--can discern simple rhythms and melodies right away. I'm not saying we should all be babies when we consume art, but maybe infants could remind us of simple joys that we sometimes leave behind (like bopping to a simple dance groove). One of my favorite musical thinkers of the recent past, Marion Bauer, stated in her 1933 book, Twentieth Century Music: "The untutored listener responds to obvious rhythms (a foot-listener), the banality of which annoys the trained musician who seeks his satisfaction in melodic and harmonic complexities...sounds which were painful, when once accepted and organized by the brain, may become pleasurable."

My intellectual side agrees with Marion, wholeheartedly; I have honed a certain appreciation for what most would consider strange and inaccessible in the world of art. However, I started off in life as a "foot listener." And so did she (and everyone else). There's nothing wrong with "obvious rhythms," though they may not seemingly impress those paying lip service to the intellectual, the obscure. Yes, the trained intellectual (the shredder or music elitist) may look down on what he considers banal musical forms, even though he may avoid admitting that he, secretly, loves those obvious rhythms too! Very few of us are, purely, one or the other.

What I'm attempting to convey is that I can stand on stage with a hot amplifier fed by a Fender Strat in my hands and feel just fine chunking on a few simple power chords, especially if that certain unspoken energy is circulating in the room and entrancing both the listeners and musicians. That's a feeling that's hard to define or explain. It's also one of the reasons that some of the best performances have occurred live, becoming seminal moments in popular music history (Jimi Hendrix's burning Strat, The Who destroying their instruments, Janis Joplin squawking in all her blues-laden fury, Frank Zappa's performance art--especially the NYC days, etc.). Such moments involved some form of energy that was being shared between listener and performer. Antithetically, I can also completely vibe out on Arnold Schoenberg or Igor Stravinsky performances and recordings. All of the aforementioned performances and works hit at different sides of the brain. The response--or even the intent--might be emotional or intellectual or both (though rarely both).

Ten years ago, I was living in Virginia and playing in a swing band; I was the youngest guy in this large group of mostly graying horn players, and it was very challenging hanging with all of these old cats who had played those big band charts a thousand times. I struggled at first but eventually got better, because they were willing to put up with me. I've also been in groups where I was the most knowledgeable and experienced; I had fun in both situations. I found that I really got better when I learned to take my ego out of the picture; I know there are tons of guys better than I am, technically, at music. But NO ONE can say what I personally have to express from an emotional, creative perspective--whether I pick up a pencil and draw it or pick up a guitar and play it. We're all different in that regard, and no one can express what you feel better than you! My advice to all musicians is to avoid the trap of comparing oneself to others; usually, such comparisons involve trivial thought patterns, like how much better another is technically or musically (there's that intellectual stuff creeping in again, interfering with the emotional). No one on earth touches an instrument the way someone else does, with the same tone, the same quirks, the same mechanics. All of those little things make each of us different and give our creations a unique quality.

There is no best in art, in my opinion. Music competitions--including the informal, comparative ones--are stupid; it took me a long time to learn that lesson.