In the past few days I started learning an old song from my youth, “More Today Than Yesterday” by The Spiral Starecase [correct spelling – they did named themselves after a Hitchcock film but corrupted the orthography]. There was a video available of the group playing the piece, so I watched the guitar player/singer’s hands on the fret board to make learning it easier. The opening chords were from exercise number two from the Mickey Baker book, “A Modern Method in How to Play Jazz and Hot Guitar. Pat Lipton, the singer/guitarist/composer was alternating between G Major 7 and G 6 much of the time, as per the dictates of Mickey Baker’s lesson. It turns out that Mr. Lipton had learned a new chord but couldn’t find a pop song that used it, so he wrote one himself.
This made me think of a Randy Bachman story, about his lessons with Jazz guitar legend Lenny Breau. During One lesson, Breau taught Bachman an ending formula. The next week Bachman came in to his lesson exclaiming, “You know that ending you taught me last week? I used as an intro in my latest song.” At which point Breau said, “You can’t do that man, everyone’s going to think the song is over before it begins!” The song was “She’s Come Undone, written in 1969, about a girl who dropped lsd and was never the same. It was an appropriate observation, for a good Mormon boy like Bachman.
This makes me very happy, to think about, creative spirits who expand their knowledge base and use it to write pop songs. In doing so the vocabulary of the idiom grows, and we all become a little bit richer. Any idiom that stops growing and changing risks becoming stale. I think now of George Harrison as I listen to some old Beatle songs and marvel at his guitar parts, which are sometimes inflected withjazz or country styles and the appropriate mannerisms.
Here I sit as a classical guitarist pondering these things. When one of my dear friends was studying viola in Paris in the early 1980’s, he once did a gig with a pick-up orchestra for a pop singer. Word of this got back to his viola teacher, who threatened to ban my friend from his studio because this association with popular music would ruin his good name. The alignment of music with the class structure was so strong at that time that I wonder how much I missed during my own time in France. In Toronto’s current economic climate, many freelance violinists work regularly with mariachi bands to supplement incomes.
Necessity has broadened our horizons…
Nasrudin was dining with the sultan, who leaned over to ask him about the stew. “I thought it was quite good your majesty,” said Nasrudin smiling.
The Sultan replied, “I thought is was terrible.”
“Quite right, your Majesty, it was horrid,” said Nasrudin.
The Sultan frowned, “did you not say it was quite good a moment ago?”
“Ahh, eerrm, yes,” said Nasrudin, “but I serve the Sultan, not the Stew.”
At some point this past year I realized that my recent work wasn’t new music. Certainly it is freshly composed, but it no longer explores sonic frontiers. Rather, it seems to explore older areas. I wish that when hearing one of my pieces, a listener might say: “That sounds like something I have heard before, like something that has always been there.”
This is reminds of the semantic confusion during the 60’s and 70’s when people were said to be writing “folk music.” Properly understood, folk music would be that which has been passed down from older generations. The successful songwriters of that period immersed themselves in the songs from the past and have made our world richer by adding songs like “The Circle Game”, or “ Me and Bobbi McGee” to our world. Perhaps there is a blur between the old world and the new now. So much music available from so many different places.
Having composed for prepared guitar, and having employed extended techniques, my goal now is simpler: to take an idea and make the most of it. In order to do this, one must let the idea dictate the paths to follow, be they tinged with bluegrass, old folksongs or the limits of a church mode. We create within limits and there is a joy from trying on different clothes, so to speak.
A critic once commented about one of my CD’s that there wasn’t a cohesive style. There were rags and choros, followed by imitative parodies and innovations. One can’t really imagine Steve Reich or Phil Glass doing those different things on a recorded project. I’d like to think that there is a bit of myself in each of these styles, that my ears are made afresh with every project. Each piece is an adventure, be it through the world of 12 bar blues or through a looping pedal. Each piece is a different way to use my resources.
It is also the response of a teacher hoping to share the joys of discovery with the guitar world. Ragtime and blues music present the challenge of using certain harmonic patterns, while the restrictions of a mode may force one to think of melodies and drones. Each new problem is a bit of a stretch. My place in the music world may be modest but is filled with wonder.
One day Nasrudin went to visit a neighbouring village. He stopped to rest, and while doing so read a bit from his favourite book. He put it down to have a drink before getting up to leave. It wasn’t until he was at his friend’s house that he realized his book had been left behind. It was no longer there on his way home and he worried that it was lost forever.
A week later a goat came by and dropped the book at Nasrudin’s feet, which inspired the master to leap up calling, “it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle.”
“Not really,” said the donkey, “your name was written inside the cover.”
I have been frustrated recently hearing people play upon the guitar. I have heard experienced composers and professionals just playing the correct notes and rhythms. It seems to me that we play through the guitar, we invest time to gain knowledge of the inner workings of a piece of music. We invest energy trying to deliver that wisdom as best we can. Putting our fingers in the correct place is only a small part of that journey.
All the notes of a piece have a status and some of those are pretty small like arpeggiated accompaniment figures. They fill space and time, surrounding the more important notes with harmony. The successive notes of a dominant melody all have more or less importance and generally have a gravitational pull to a destination. Bass lines also have gravitational pulls but also add buoyancy to the music.
Our job as we learn a piece of music is to understand all of these aspects and embody them all. We have reached a point where computers can be called on to create a “human” feel. Frequently this means slight changes of tempo and the occasional flub. I would say that we must render music with details that get smaller as we improve. Every note should have its own colour, touch, timbre and inflection. Improving our control over those details is the only way to be a musician.
It is never easy to know what a piece of music is saying. As someone who plays his own music, there are times when I sing a line over a hundred times just to know how to convey the various aspects of its meaning. I may write new music, but I want it to sound old. I’d like to be able to entertain the fantasy that one of my pieces was always there and was somehow just plucked it out of the infinity cupboard, the wellspring of art.
Nasrudin slipped and nearly fell into a lake, but was caught by a friend walking next to him. From then on, every time Nasrudin saw this friend, the incident was shared with everyone who was near.
Over time, Nasrudin grew weary of this, so one day led that friend to the same lake. With clothes and shoes on, he jumped in and lay there saying, “Now I’m as wet as I would have been if you hadn’t saved me that day. Stop reminding me about it!”