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“…Can you bring me to the place where the pollen is now the light…” Linda Hogan

June 13, 2016

 

At its best, art can be transformative: a painting can make us look at the world in a new way; a poem can capture thoughts that rattled around in our heads without coherence. Music is sometimes at its best when it is hardly noticed like in a great film. One of my colleagues referred to Lawrence Of Arabia, a film that opens with seven minutes of landscape panoramas. The music captures our minds, and lets us float through the scenes.

imgresMore often, music can be transfixing as performers weave a spell over us by taking risks. I remember the first time I saw a double solo in a jazz band concert. The conductor, Phil Nimmons pointed to a sax player who stood up and moved to the microphone, then he moved his own mike to the centre and pointed to a trumpet player whose shocked face told us this was a surprise for him too. They both started improvising hesitant, trying to figure out how to make it work. As they went on each filled in the other’s breathing gaps and created counterpoints for the overlapping parts.

Later, I was to see a whole big band follow a conductor/composer as he sang parts into the ears of performers – making it all up as he went along. There were gestures to signal how to proceed, to make long notes or change pitch levels. Reflecting back upon this, it is hard to say whether it was the sheer exuberance at the moment of creative exploration or the inspired playing as the musicians inflected the musical material.

imagesI have just listened to a couple of pieces by the marvelous composer/trumpeter/bandleader Don Ellis. His music, which is frequently in odd metres such as 3,3,2,2,2,1,2,2,2, [19] which was the name of the piece he introduced his band with at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966. He quipped to the audience, “And that is just the area code.” Playing in such time signatures requires that the players pay extra attention. I listen to these works 42 years later and I find them just as enthralling. as I did the first time. This music is a dance between the predictable and surprise and all these years later I love it even more.

One of the ways to make classical music enthralling is be to be able to hear the same old piece in new ways. If we keep growing, keep making sense of unfamiliar sounds and patterns, we can better situate the conventions of our repertoire. Conventions, patterns that we recognize and attribute meaning to, are the ways we organize sound and music. As we discover patterns from farther afield, we can better notice the patterns we take for granted. Patterns from the familiar are just as exotic as any other but we tend to take them for granted since we “know them”.

It was one of those years when there was a terrible drought and the villagers decided to visit Nasrudin, to see if his prayers could help bring some rain. So everyone went to Nasrudin’s home and asked for his help. “I can’t help you,” said Nasrudin, “You have no faith.

“How can you say that?” said the villagers, “Our faith has brought us to your door, asking for help?”

“Ah,” said Nasrudin, “If you really had faith, you would have come with umbrellas.”

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