7 Attributes of a Complete Contemporary Musician- Part 6

Attribute #6: In previous blogs, we have discussed the following points regarding the complete contemporary musician. 

He will have a meaningful purpose for his work (Attribute #1).  He is open to cultural influences, learning from those who have come before him (Attribute #2).  He is willing to embrace the creativity of other contemporary artists (Attribute #3), and he is able to both improvise as well as read music (Attribute #4).  He is willing to study and participate in new innovation (Attribute #5). 

In this blog, we will explore the need for the complete contemporary musician to be proficient in both practices of composition and performance.

The subjects are mutually beneficial to each other.  Without one, the other does not exist.  They blend together almost like the covenant of marriage.  The inter-relationship between the two subjects, at times, becomes so saturated that it is difficult to always tell when composition isn’t performance, and when performance isn’t composition.

In Attribute #4, we discussed the subject of improvisation.  This is one way the two worlds can simultaneously coexist.  Another example might be when a performer adds his ‘interpretation’ to the work, making it uniquely an expression of his own artistry.  Many who compose music will attest to the fact that at certain moments in the creative process, one feels as though he is performing while he is at work, even when he is the only one in the room.

There are times when the composer, with all of the specific instruction he can muster, must step aside to allow the performer ‘room’ to express the work in a way which sometimes even goes beyond the composer’s own original imagination.  It is futile for the composer to exert his authority over every tiny detail of performance, ultimately stifling the creativity that emanates from a mutual relationship with the performer.

I believe that the complete contemporary musician must be able to function both as a composer as well as a performer because, without the knowledge and experience gained on either side of the equation, he will be severely lacking in his ability to make meaningful music in either discipline.

For example, if a performer has no understanding of composition, or the process of creativity, his performances will tend towards a mechanical approach, simply robotically moving through a sequence of notes and pretending emotion.  However, when he sees himself as a composer, he will be more willing to take risks with the material, gaining insights into the mind of the composer himself, catching the ‘spirit’ of the material, and not the ‘letter’ of every ‘crossing of the t’ and ‘dotting of the i’.   I am not insinuating that the performer should become slack in his approach and respect for the creator’s original work, but rather encouraging a comprehensive approach to his interfacing with what the composer has given.  I would go so far as to say that the performer’s own unique ideas actually complete the process of creativity.

Many times, as a composer, I am elated to hear a performer bring my composition to life in an unusual and unexpected interpretation.  I believe many composers feel the same way.

Composers, on the other hand, if lacking in performance experience, tend to become cold, distant and irrelevant to their audience, hiding away in some castle of ideology and technical matrix they have created.  When a composer is also a performer, he intuitively knows what will work for a particular audience, and imagines that audience’s response while he is working.

Not every work is for every audience.  In a perfect world, it would be wonderful to believe it was true, but the world of performance simply isn’t perfect.  And that’s the beauty of it!  The composer needs to ‘get his hands soiled’ in the imperfect dirt of audience interaction.  When he is keenly aware of who he is writing for, he will know the boundaries he can push and those he must never cross.  The process of composition is simply about making good musical judgments along the creative path, judgments that work both for the audience as well as the performer.  I am not insisting that the composer must relinquish his idealism altogether, but rather that he ‘tailor’ the ideas to fit the needs of his audience.  According to Stravinsky, in his “Poetics of Music”, the narrower the boundaries, the greater the creativity.

The intermingling of these two disciplines, I believe, will yield the most successful results for both areas distinctly.  I am not advocating that an artist should relinquish his particular ‘bent’, his ‘gifting’, as some people have more creative leanings, while others have greater success in the art of performance; however, I want to encourage ‘both sides of the coin’ to expand their capacity to embrace the other side.  Doing so will ultimately create the best results for both worlds.

(For more on this subject, see “Opposing Paradigms”)

7 Attributes of a Complete Contemporary Musician- Part 4

Attribute #4:  We have established the fact that to be a complete contemporary musician one must have a worthy purpose for his life and art (Attribute #1), he must learn from those who have come before him (Attribute #2), and he must be willing to embrace the creativity of other contemporary artists and stay abreast of the times (Attribute #3).  The skilled and successful musician must also be able to function both creatively and responsively in the process of making music, that is, he must be able to improvise as well as read music.

The improviser, to a certain degree, becomes the composer.  He spontaneously creates the music at the moment.  The music reader, however, is responsive to the one who has created the work already, endeavoring to bring the ideas into completion as carefully and accurately as possible.  Both scenarios have merit.  They are ‘two sides of the same coin’. 

Improvisation lends itself to freely expressed emotion-inspired creativity, while reading notation yields a more accurate, carefully constructed and pre-meditated order.

Improvisation many times marks the burgeoning of a new historic style.  As the style continues to work its way through history, however, notation begins to document it so that others can appreciate and participate in its established patterns.

Take, for example, Rag-time music.  It wasn’t until Scott Joplin put the music into notation that its wide-spread influence could happen.  A similar process occurred in 19th Century Europe with the Gypsy musicians who improvised profusely.  Skilled composers brought much of the creativity into notation, historically cementing the music for others to enjoy and play. 

Throughout history, there has always been interplay between improvisation and notation, the creative expressiveness of improvisation together with the careful preparation, pre-meditation and design of notation.  Take Bela Bartok, for example, who took the un-notated Hungarian melodies as themes for his classical compositions.  Another example is George Gershwin, who took jazz motifs and raised them into a sophisticated symphonic structure.  J.S. Bach merged the two worlds of improvisation and composition simultaneously, as he was able to create a multi-part fugue in his mind as he improvised!  (He literally improvised as he composed, and he composed as he improvised.  The process was one and the same to him.)

I once had to arbitrate in a great debate between people in my music ministry team who could only read music while straining to improvise, on one hand; while on the other hand, there were those who could only improvise and had no desire to read notation.

The music readers argued their points about the benefits of reading notation, and chided those who lacked that ability.

The improvisers, however, mocked those who couldn’t ‘play by ear’, citing the benefits to knowing how to ‘flow’ when given only a chord progression, at most.

I pondered how to solve this dilemma, and one day, as I was reading my Bible, a scripture popped out at me that said it all: “The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the Lord has made both of them.” (Prov. 20:12)  I knew then, as the leader of the group, that I must expect everyone to improvise (or ‘play by ear’), as well as knowing how to read notation.  Once the entire group felt comfortable with both, I knew we would have a winning combination.

One of the main benefits of reading music lies in the fact that it doesn’t exist as sound, but rather as ideas.  It leaves room for interpretation from the participant’s imagination.  It is not subject to the flaws of a human performance, but rather exists on a higher plane of ‘pure ideology’.  (For more on this, see “My Vision- The Technique”)

Another benefit is that it structurally allows more than a few people to participate, giving clear and concise direction to all who join the plan.  When dealing with larger groups of people, a more specific plan becomes necessary.  Take for example traffic in a big city versus a small town.  In one situation there have been multiple engineers who have designed highways and clover-leafs for huge volumes of traffic; whereas, in the other situation you might have a single policeman to direct a few vehicles.

The same hold true with music creativity: more people, more planning; fewer people, less planning (or easier improvisation).

The complete contemporary musician should be able to function proficiently in either situation, able to both read fluidly and improvise freely, to intellectually and accurately follow a chart, as well as participate creatively with others in a small consort.  He must know how to live successfully in high structure, as well as in little or no structure.

Perhaps someday, even as J.S. Bach, the one who is skilled in both areas will experience the simultaneous merging of both worlds!

Who Was the First Musician?

(We don’t know, for certain, that this was the very first musician to have ever lived, but he is the first person mentioned in the Bible who was highly influential in music.)

“And Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock.  And his brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” (Gen. 4:20)

Jubal was the father of all the musicians in that day and age.

Jubal’s name is very interesting.  It means: “a stream, or watercourse, to carry.”  It fascinates me that the name of the father of the musicians had a name like this.   A name in the ancient Biblical world had meaning and carried a sense of the destiny of its recipient.

When I think of a river, I think of several things: 1) Nourishment, 2) Refreshment, 3) Flowing, and 4) Cleansing.

Those who either listen to or participate in music, to any degree, would attest to the fact that good music brings nourishment to our souls.  It refreshes us.  

As a musician, I am particularly interested in the flowing nature of the melodic lines and the general direction or flow of the composition.  As a worshiper, I am endeavoring to always be aware of where the flow of the service is going, what direction it’s taking.  The ability to ‘flow’ in music and worship may ultimately be the most important thing for the musician to learn.

The current of the river carries you.  You don’t manufacture it.  You can’t change its flow; it would futile to try.  You simply relax and allow yourself to be carried from one destination to another by the river’s pervasive power.

Sometimes the river is ‘wild’, impassioned and driving, while at other times it is peaceful, tranquil, and serene.  One who is traveling its path cannot dictate when or where these things might happen, he must simply ‘go with the flow’.

In creativity, whether spontaneous improvisation or meditative pre-planned composition and arranging, there is a flow that is already there, just waiting to be ‘tapped into’.  It is when we step into this River that we have the most rewarding times of bringing forth the new.  That which will be created flows out of that which already is.

Fourthly, a river brings cleansing.  We should be listening to and participating in the refreshing waters of music and worship, rather than the murky waters of stagnate pools.  If a music or worship experience leaves you feeling empty or dry, it’s probably because the River was not in it.  However, when you participate in the flow of the River, you always come out knowing it.  You feel refreshed, nourished and clean.

We should always endeavor to tap into the source of this flow, the flow that is already happening…a flow which cannot be controlled or manipulated.  (Oh, we can navigate, but we cannot ultimately control its onward momentum.)  We must simply ‘connect’ to it and participate, not fighting against the current, but relaxing in it, as we are carried to our next destination.

Perhaps Jubal is not only the father of ancient Biblical musicians, but also of all those who enjoy participating in the same River from which he himself flowed.

Opposing Paradigms?

Should composers be performers, or performers composers?  Where in the world did improvisation go, when it comes to academic music training?  It seems that the longer a musical style is around, the more cemented it becomes, less flexible, less innovative.  Jazz, birthed in a highly innovative environment, is already starting to show signs of this.

What about new styles versus old ones...is there any common ground between Pop genres and Classical disciplines?  What would benefit popular styles from the Classical heritage, if anything?  What would J.S. Bach likely do, if he were alive in today's culture?

These are some paradigms that seem to be contradictory, but maybe these questions should be asked.

To find out more, see my article Opposing Paradigms.