Collision Course

If you are reading this it has probably become clear that Greenleaf Music, and my own interests, have a lot to do with the collision of musics and points of view. Musical collisions attract me as a composer because they challenge my assumptions and any easily accepted sense of what music and humans can be. Both music and humans surpass comprehension, but creating new music puts one at the edge of the mystery. When different systems or different languages interact, everyone benefits. It’s how culture perpetuates and refreshes itself.

The growth is not always easy. I tend to see the jazz wars as part of the larger culture war about what we should believe, what the past means, and how we outgrow stereotypes. Not to overdramatize it — there are much more critical battles going on in the reality-based world of war and fundamentalism. But if culture is a microcosm we can watch some of those same tendencies in reaction to change and progress.

What I really want to talk about are specific musical observations following up on my 12/16 post. These are some things I’ve noticed in the music, and they are things I don’t see talked about very often.

One of the biggest obstacles that arises as soon as musicians from different disciplines play together is dynamics. How loud is loud? How loud is too loud? And what do we do about it? This is a more subtle distinction than it seems — classical players depend on a score and an ensemble sense to guide them, jazz players tend to play as loud as the drummer, electric musicians play as loud as they have to to get the sound they’re looking for. The presumption of how loud to play is not quickly re-established. The conception of volume and its meaning is a constant and persistent concern.

The perception of time is vastly different. I don’t really mean “swing” versus “straight eighth” feels, although that is an important area that has been addressed thoroughly. I mean it in two other ways: one is the perception of elapsed time (minutes and seconds), the other is the amount of flexibility in relation to a pulse, and the sense of responsibility to uphold that relationship. If that sounds abstract or complicated, it shouldn’t.

In the first case: an improviser has a different experience than someone who is reading bars and beats. The perception of the passing of time is radically different, even if they end up in the same place. There is a magic, an alchemy, that occurs with seasoned improvisers that bends the passage of time in all kinds of ways, speeding it up, slowing it down. On the other hand, great contemporary classical players have a subtle and ingrained sense of time because they are asked to follow scores with harrowing specificity. There is great richness in the imaginative blending of these two skills.

In the second case, ensembles (in each country, each city, each string quartet…) have their own relationship to an objective pulse (metronome). How much behind or in front of the beat the band plays becomes responsible for their identity. That may seem obvious — a simple rehearsal would straighten out any differences. But there’s something else in this, and that is our assumptions about “responsibility.” I tend to feel that in any great ensemble, each player bears equal responsibility to maintain the beat — not let it sag or rush. But there are as many ideas about this as there are musicians. Vive la difference. Jazz players often rely on the drummer, whereas classical players rely on the conductor. These days most pop musicians rely on the computer. I’m not saying there’s a best way. What I’m saying is that a friction arises when you bring the groups together, and there is an exciting heat in that.

I generally dislike the word authentic because it is so often misused. But in the sense of “not imaginary, false, or imitation” I feel that music meetings rarely work unless there is a true understanding on both sides of the divide. Musicians need to be willing and able to look with some specificity at the techniques of other musics. Stylistic reference has to go beyond the surface qualities, otherwise the results are a sort of simulacra that does everyone a disservice. One of the problems in hybrid music is this lack of depth — a kind of facile adoption of the mannerisms of the music rather than the deep and specific guts of it. Great music always gets to the heart of the matter and can’t do that without the touching the matter at heart.

A big thing I see often is the different sense musicians have of their role in the music. There is a great divide between a musician who reads his or her part and executes it faithfully, and a musician who listens to the whole sound of the music and makes a decision as to how their part ought to be played. Any good player aims for the latter (and not to make this a false choice, I acknowledge how many different ways there are to relate to the band). But I find that in improvised (and partially improvised) settings there is a greater sense of responsibility to the whole music, and an assumption that it is welcome and indeed encouraged.

An active participant in a democracy takes responsibility for the choices of the entire body. That’s an idea that probably makes a lot of composers and dictators uncomfortable. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t happen very often.

So I think the challenges here go beyond style: it’s not the swing or lack thereof, it’s not the rhythm section, it’s not the amplifiers. It’s beyond the notes and the instruments. It’s the overall conception of the musician that needs to be flexible enough to learn and adapt to new situations. When that happens I’m transported beyond the collision.