I’ve written in the past about the adjective ‘musical’. Lately I’ve been hosting and helping people with improvisation. The odd thing is that I am no expert in music and I am an amateur and dilettante. I love to watch youtube videos about improvisation and playing technique and reading things here and there. I feel that one of the things that really enhances my ability to play is just to listen. There is a skill in being an effective listener of music and for me that is more of an accomplishment than whatever I happen to perform.
I have often said something to the effect lately, that the emphasis in performing well is to think musically. I keep saying this so much I don’t even know what I mean sometimes. I thought I might clarify what this could possibly mean in this post.
Thinking musically is about a commitment to music itself, music as a human activity and tradition that goes back to – God knows when! As a human activity we have forbears and we are inevitably indebted to them. It is fair to say that I am a paternalist about music often. Many things go back to Bach. Even the things that are developed as a reaction against something else, show that something else as a form of influence (Neoclassicism vs. 20th century Avant-Garde for example).
To think musically is to have your own voice. To think musically is to have a sense of conviction. My old piano teacher always used to emphasise the conviction of a performance over technique. Sometimes your conviction can be so strong that you might go against the standard interpretations or customs already established. Thinking musically can therefore be a means of expressing individuality.
As well as a commitment to traditions, genres and so forth; there is often an internal logic. There is an internal logic to an individual piece of music, sometimes in the phrasing, the articulation. Sometimes the internal logic is to one’s own playing style. An internal logic may be towards the interpretation of a composer or period.
I like to apply thinking musically to when I write my blogs. One thing that is a cliche of mine, is that I go for extended digressions that don’t always have a comprehensible take home message. Another example of applied musical thinking to a non musical discourse, is Glenn Gould’s ‘The Idea of the North’. This documentary on the Northern wastes of Canada applies an idea from the musical genre of the Fugue. The subject of the documentary focuses on vox pops of various people who have an experience of living on the northern frontiers of Canada and the aural testimonies are layered on top of each other in the form of subject, counter subject, answer. Of course I presume that when Gould did this documentary, not many of the intended audience would understand this Bachian influence on the art of radio documentary making. In lieu of this obscurity, it causes me to laugh at Glenn Gould’s sincerity. That so few would understand him yet he still continued his commitment to thinking and living musically.
Perhaps thinking musically is not a thing-in-itself, but a media through which ideas come forth. I think of how Haydn’s music often contains humour, not within the musical form but by virtue of being funny.
Perhaps I have a specific view about thinking musically. Lately my idea of musical thinking is a commitment to form and using form as a tool of expression. I often feel that things such as genre and style can often be the product of our cultural education and upbringing and instead of contributing new music to add to a historical process of cultural idioms and styles, we simply replicate them. While this in itself is not aesthetically ‘wrong’ or bad (see my post on musical conservatism), it is the unconscious and indeliberate nature of these influences that is deleterious. Like Walden, we must live deliberately in our music. If our upbringing is blues and our heart is in blues, then make it so, but deliberately.