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I change the music – the music changes me

February 21, 2013

When we learn a work by Matteo Carcassi we hear it in ways that the composer himself could never have heard it. The pedal points at the outset of study number two always remind me of 70’s rock music where chord changes happenedOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA while the bass stayed on the same note. The tonal melodies may seem limited when you have heard and become accustomed to some taqsim tunings, not to mention the quaint sound of a classical guitar after listening to Pete Townsend play Baba O’Reilly [itself a tribute to the great American Composer Terry Riley]. So many worlds of music since Carcassi’s time and yet we still find great beauty in those simple harmonies. With my modern ears and modern instrument I hear the notes in a way that is quite different from the way Carcassi heard it. I change the music,  yet try to stay true to the spirit of it.

When we learn a new piece of music new patterns are created in our brain, so that we can make sense out of the new sounds. Every time we learn a new piece we create new neural pathways. After a certain amount of experience we have a veritable highway running through our brain, and new patterns are easier to create – we just have to modify some of the existing ones. Old patterns reform and make learning the new ones easier. On the most basic level we are changed in this way by the music we learn.

In the performing arts the text [music or play] requires an intermediary – the performer to make it come alive. In the theatre, directors have a great deal of freedom to cut scenes, and alter a play to make it conform to the specific needs of a situation. We see the director’s interpretation of the play. In music we tend to be a bit more conservative, especially in the age of recording, we feel our performance will be compared to the best renderings available. At one point I was listening to a play back in a recording studio and realized that I wanted to hear the notes just how they looked on the page. With modern printing, the notes are all of equal size, and equally inked. There is a huge tendency to equalize all the notes as we look at a score while listening: we conclude that music should sound how it looks. Modern printing and recording alters our perception of music.

DSCF9495One of my high school teachers was also a conductor and he told us that he couldn’t listen to a recording of a piece he was working on. He had to first develop his own idea of it, which took quite a bit of time. When he knew how he was approaching a work he could then compare his notions of it with others, but it was a conscious comparison. He had to be changed by the music first.

It has been very satisfying to compose pieces in the blues tradition for solo classical guitar. In doing this I share the harmonies that piano players use and use sounds from the vernacular. It feels right to be a part of my wider musical tradition, and as someone who came of age in North America during the last half of the 20th century, those sounds are a deep part of my musical identity. I realize that in writing down stuff that is normally shared orally and aurally I change it, but there is a sense of greater good, because now this information can be shared with others.

One of the most interesting aspects of learning some of those pieces is in adapting to the rhythmic conventions. Using the metronome in cut time – but letting it represent beats 2 & 4 demanded a rearrangement of my sensibility. In swing music the accents are on 2 & 4 and many of the important musical gestures land on those beats. This was a profound change. Just as important however are the moments that call for alterations of the written rhythmic figures, arriving late for a note or pushing ahead to anticipate. These are aspects of vernacular performance and playing music in this style demanded that I acquire some familiarity with those performatives.

The dictates of the blues vocabulary created a need for other nuances. It is said that blue notes for example [the lowered 3rd and 5th of a major scale] are a way of trying to get between the notes of the equal tempered system: a longing for additional notes that don’t exist in our western musical world. In this desire to express human feelings, gestures such as slides and pitch bends help to make the sonic picture more nuanced – less about pitches and rhythms and more about variety. This musical style demanded this, and I set about trying to add these things into the readings of my own music.

One day the Nasrudin was walking home with a basket of grapes in his arm when the neighbourhood children saw him and asked for some. Nasrudin gave each one a small cluster of grapes and when the children complained that he was giving too little, Nasrudin replied, `A little, a lot, they all taste the same.’


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