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thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: music theory

Intangible Things: On Victor L. Wooten’s “The Music Lesson”

New Age : “an eclectic group of cultural attitudes arising in late 20th century Western society that are adapted from those of a variety of ancient and modern cultures, that emphasize beliefs (as reincarnation, holism, pantheism, and occultism) outside the mainstream, and that advance alternative approaches to spirituality, right living, and health

Victor L. Wooten’s book The Music Lesson (Berkley Trade 2008) caught me off guard. I came across the book entirely by accident and after having read its first few pages didn’t know if I felt quite compelled to keep at it. So I put it down. And then picked it up again, kept reading a bit. And then put it down again, back and forth, oscillating on how I felt about it. The Music Lesson was speaking in common tones, asking me to forget thick theory for a moment to follow an invented story about what it means to understand music and being musical, making music with meaning—or, as the cliché goes, with heart and soul. Hmm. I put the book down, and then picked it up again. I kept at it. If I stumbled upon the book I should at least have the patience to stay a while and listen, right?

Wooten is a distinctive musician. A bassist since he was a toddler, he’s well-known for his work with the banjo player Bela Fleck. Here is a clip of Wooten playing a virtuosic rendition of “Amazing Grace”:

As if musical skills on their own weren’t enough, Wooten is also a naturalist and animal tracker, directing a one of a kind music camp in Tennessee that teaches musicianship by way of not just musical instruction but also nature exploration.

***

In The Music Lesson, a fictional account of a set of music lessons, we first encounter Wooten at time in his life when nothing seems to be working. He wants to improve his musicianship, but seems stuck in a rut of old practice habits that aren’t paying dividends. Then, as if by magic, a series of music teachers appear in Wooten’s life to guide him on his spiritual quest through a number of musical concepts. The main teacher is Michael, a mysterious trickster-like figure with eyes that change color on occasion and who comes across a little like a Native American sage and Zorro with a skateboard in tow. But there’s also Uncle Clyde, a homeless old man who plays a mean harmonica, Sam, a precocious boy wonder of a eleven-year old drummer who is wise beyond his years, and Isis, a quirky Russian fortune-teller with an intense interest in connection between numbers and music. Michael, Clyde, Sam, and Isis lead Wooten through a series of lessons on groove, notes, articulation, technique, emotion/feel, dynamics, rhythm/tempo, tone, phrasing, space/rest, and listening. By the end of the book, Wooten’s senses have been thoroughly reoriented, his musical life focused and energized.

Scattered through the text are a number of interesting ideas about music and musicianship. Below are a few of them that struck me.

First, music is inside the musician, not the musical instrument. There are many instances in the book where Michael admonishes Wooten for merely thinking of himself as a bassist rather than as a musician who happens to play the bass. The idea here is that musicality is more an orientation towards the field of the sonic rather than a technical competence on a particular musical instrument.

Second, dissonance in music is contextual. For instance, while two notes a semitone apart sounded together produce a “tense” sound when heard on their own (e.g. try playing the adjacent notes C and C-sharp at the same time), when surrounded by additional tones (e.g. try adding the notes F-sharp and A above to the C and C-sharp) the dissonance can sound quite different and in fact, consonant.

Third, when we say we dislike a music we are admitting a failure to perceive it adequately. In a passage about Wooten’s dislike of bluegrass, Michael tells him: “You are talking about you but blaming your lack of perception on this particular style of Music” (56).

Fourth, “beauty is something you experience, not something you prove” (73). This, to me, is a pure phenomenological stance, and probably what music does best: putting out an experience in time that may not mean anything specific or prove an argument, while at the same time bringing us on a virtual ride that feels important somehow.

Fifth, the idea that emotions are stored as a kind of infinite potential within a musical instrument (116). Admittedly, I had not thought much about this possibility, probably because I know myself to be more interested in what I’m feeling than what emotions may or may not be latent in the instrument. But each musical instrument certainly seems to have its own range of affective potential.

Sixth, a listener’s musical attention can be shaped and directed by playing fewer rather than more notes. Here, Michael explains to Wooten a strategy for accompanying a soloist in a way that his or her solo can shine: “We were creating a hole right in the middle of the music that allowed the soloist to stand there out in the open. We also simplified the music, directing all of the attention to the soloist. . .” (140). The lesson here is that by saying less, you can not only listen more, but also give other musical speakers room to breathe.

Seventh, “music is played from the mind, not the body” (158). This almost seems counter-intuitive, since musicians spend so much time refining their bodily relationship to their instruments. And yet, as listeners we’ve often had the experience of witnessing a musician who manages to hold our attention and compel us not so much through virtuosity per se but through sheer presence. The lesson here is that presence and focus are themselves kinds of musicality that transcend what the musical body can pull off.

Eighth, “you need to get your thoughts out of the way so that your true feelings can speak” (216). This idea relates to point number four above. If music is not about proving anything, but rather a tool for exercising perception, then we are best ready for it when we stop worrying about what it all means. From this perspective, music just is.

Finally, here’s Wooten on listening, perception and synesthesia: “What difference does it make who it is? What does it sound like and how does it make you feel? That is what is important. […] Allow your whole body to pick up the vibrations, using the whole body as an eardrum. […] We think that music stops at the ears. That is a mistake. Vibrations can be felt in all places and all times, even with the eyes. Music can be seen if your awareness is broad enough” (239-240). To illustrate this holistic approach to listening, there’s a striking passage at the end of the book where Wooten and Michael are out in the forest taking in its soundscape. As Michael learns to model his listening acuity on Michael’s, all of a sudden he’s having a full-blown synesthesia experience—seeing sound as color flowing through the forest creatures around him. (It’s pretty psychedelic actually and the image stayed with me for a while, even inspiring my own dream in which everyday objects began speaking in tones. But that’s for another blog post!) The lesson here is that there is potentially no end to listening as a full body—and even out of body—experience.

***

In sum, The Music Lesson is an idealized account of the musician as a kind of deeply knowing, in-tune seer, healer, and phenomenologist. Michael and the other teachers in Wooten’s life are voiceboxes for the author’s own musical philosophy, and while these at times cartoonish characters are a writerly conceit, it’s a conceit that works well to get Wooten’s many thought-provoking points across. Moreover, it perhaps goes without saying that it’s difficult to talk about philosophical aspects of musical experience without risking sounding cliché or even New-Agey. So hats off to Wooten for trying. I’m glad that I stuck with his zany story to its end.

Last but not least, The Music Lesson is ultimately about the importance of oral tradition to how musical traditions survive and evolve. By the book’s end the narrative circles around on itself, Wooten having taken the place of Michael as a teacher himself, appearing in the life of young musician—a musician that bears a striking resemblance to Wooten himself at the beginning of the book—just at the very moment the young man needs guidance. And so Music—that presence Wooten characterizes as feminine and always worthy of a capital M—lives on as a teachable perceptual power, helping us understand both ourselves and the worlds we live in.

Stewie Griffin On Music Theory

There are as many reasons to be a fan of some parts of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy as there are reasons to be annoyed by it. For me, the best reason to watch is to take in Stewie Griffin’s worldly wisdom. But who knew he knows something about music too?

In one clip available on YouTube, “Music & Lyrics by Stewie Griffin”, Stewie falls for a fellow baby living next door and decides to compose a song for her on the guitar. The song, however, quickly goes meta. Stewie’s improvised lyrics simply describe what it feels like hang out on a G Major chord (“it’s like your cozy house where you live–that’s where you start your journey”) and follow the music as it shifts to C Major (“then you poke your head out the door with a C chord…”) and D Major chords (“whoa!–walking around outside, looking at all the stuff out here…”). Then Stewie switches to a minor key, playing A minor (“it’s getting a little cloudy out here, looks like we might have some weather…”) and E minor chords (“definitely got some weather, things are a little more complicated than they seemed at first”) before returning to C major (“and then we go back to my house!”).

And that’s the song.

Not a small number of Western music theory books have described tonal music–comprised of the major and minor scales and the chords that are built upon them–in terms of a “tonic” note or chord that functions as a stable planet around which other notes or chords orbit like moons. So, for example, if we’re in the key of G Major (as Stewie seems to be), the note G and the G major chord (made of notes G, B, and D) function as the stable tonic. Other notes and chords besides the G and its chord are defined in their relation to it. To return to the planets and moons analogy, the G exerts various degrees of gravitational pull on other notes in its orbit. Thus, Stewie moves from his G Major chord to C Major, D Major, then A minor and E minor chords, before finally being pulled “home” to C Major.

What I like about the clip is that Stewie explains music theory in affective terms that make sense to us: how the tonic G Major chord feels comfortable and stable, how moving to the C and D Major chords (a classic I-IV-V chord progression) feels like taking a trip outside, and then how the A minor and E minor chords feel like bad weather approaching. (In case you were wondering, the association of major chords with “happiness” and minor chords with “sadness” has been around in the western world for centuries.) In a sense, Stewie’s lyrics are a real-time articulation of how a chord progression can guide us through a series of feelings.

Stewie’s song–brief as it is–is interrupted by Brian the dog who calls his baby brother “an unbelievable douche bag.” Stewie uses this insult to fuel the next version of his song. Here he keeps the same chords but speeds up the tempo and strums the guitar in a folk style. The lyrics are based on Brian’s insult and reflect on how that insult is shaping the song’s unfolding. Again, pretty meta. By the time we arrive at the A minor and E minor chords, Stewie is on fire, channelling a young Bob Dylan-esque singing style (“Why are you bringing me down, man?”).

The remarkable thing about this song is how economically (not to mention humorously) it explains not only basic western music theory but also how musicians–even cartoon musicians–put this theory into action as they write songs about their experiences.

On Tim Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972: How Do You Know When A Music Is Really Good?

There’s an often unremarked upon aspect of music listening/music appreciation that has to do with how we know when a piece of music is really good.  I’m not talking about the European classical or pop music “classics”–from Mozart concertos to Beatles’ songs (choose your poison!)–that have come our way practically with stickers attached to them announcing their proven historical importance.  No, I’m talking about new left field, under the radar music that’s being made in our time, today, right now.  How do you know when something you’ve never heard before is really good?

One thing ethnomusicology has been telling us for some time is that all music is good music in that it has some kind of meaning for someone, somewhere.  From this culturally relativist viewpoint, it doesn’t matter so much exactly how the music structured, but rather what kind of relationship people have to it.  Musics can become important not just due to their sound, but because so many people ascribe meaning to them.  From this perspective, all music is functional music too.  So sometimes when you find a music to be really good what you’re saying to yourself is that you have found a connection to its way of organizing sound, or a way to find a use for it in your life.

What is the nature of this connection we have to music?  There seems to be something internal going on when listeners encounter a new piece of music, especially on that first hearing.  As we listen to a new piece for the first time, we’re trying to make sense of it in terms of just about everything we’ve ever heard before.  This cognitive process feels like a giant real-time, number-crunching comparative study that lines up the new piece against all that we know about music in general.  Thus, our encounter is always limited by what we know and don’t know already.

This is what I think is happening when I encounter new music, and the idea of a real-time comparative framework occurred to me while listening to Canadian ambient/drone musician Tim Hecker’s recent release, Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky 2010).  Recording live organ and guitar improvisations in a church in Reykjavik, Iceland, and then processing them on a computer, Hecker extends ambient electronic music into deeply layered worlds of long tones, distortion, pulsing fragments of stacked chords, reverb
and drones.

It was when I arrived at track five, a brief piece called “No Drums” that it struck me that this was really good music and while I couldn’t say exactly why this should be the case without simply articulating my musical taste, I felt sure of my judgement.  One thing I do know, though, is that as I listened I kept trying to either predict what would happen next, or else line up what had just sounded with something I had heard somewhere–anywhere–before in my listening history.  The moment of insight was swift: I couldn’t predict what would happen next, nor did the music trigger any specific musical memories.  No, this piece seemed genuinely new, yet familiar and accessible–all in all, and just genuinely really good. Another listener with a different listening history would probably not react the same way I did.  But then, this applies to how we approach Mozart too–comparing his music to everything we’ve ever heard and can remember.

Below is track one, “The Piano Drop” from Hecker’s album.  (I couldn’t find a clip of track five after all that.)  The video, by the way, is real footage of a piano dropped from a height at MIT in 1972.

What Chord Are You?

Could a chord–two or more pitches sounding simultaneously–capture your essence, sum up who and how you feel yourself to be at a particular time and place? Are you a sunny major triad kind of person, or a minor key tolling?  Are you open and consonant, in tune with yourself, like a perfect octave or fifth?  Are you a diminished soul, turning inward by half steps, or are you augmented, always stretching just a little beyond?  Do you have added layers to you, like a triad with a major second or sixth blurring and ambiguating what you feel?  Do have the cool energy of a suspended chord?  Are you like a four- or five-note jazz harmony, all stacked up like a major 9 chord’s lush sonorities?  Or are you something else–a big jumble of notes full of dissonance, clashing semi- and tri-tones ringing out for attention, looking for some kind of resolution?

If you happen to be near a keyboard while reading this post, try out some of the chord shapes displayed here by playing the pink colored notes.  Once you have found the right keys, hold down the notes to let them ring and listen to how each chord shape makes a constellation of sound that feels different from the next . . .

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