Awasu » 2007 » November
Friday 23rd November 2007 11:01 AM [General]

Continuing on from yesterday, I implied that one of the hardest things for a musician to do was learn how to play honestly and from the heart. While that's very true, I forgot to mention something that's even harder: learning how to not play. We spend thousands of hours studying our instruments, all that theory, how to perform, and so it's extraordinarily difficult to be able to just shut the hell up and do nothing :roll:

Elizabeth Adams talked recently about allowing space, and relates it to the same idea in music.

Rests in music, like the blank areas in a drawing, or the cloud that passes over the moon, are there for a reason: they heighten what happens around them, and they also make us think about absence, about the negative in a world that seems to be all about sound, or about marks on paper or canvas.

There are often periods of quiet on this weblog, which is not good from the point of view of maintaining visibility nor promoting Awasu but to be honest, I'll only write when I've got something worth saying or want to share. I'm often flat out working on the next release and won't write much here, not so much because I don't have the time but because my head is in another place that's not conducive to good writing.

But it's just not music or other artistic activities that can benefit from leaving space. Tom DeMarco, author of "Peopleware", also wrote the equally good "Slack" which talks about exactly this. From the Amazon review:

DeMarco writes, "Organizations sometimes become obsessed with efficiency and make themselves so busy that responsiveness and net effectiveness suffer." By intentionally creating downtime, or "slack," management will find a much-needed opportunity to build a "capacity to change" into an otherwise strained enterprise that will help companies respond more successfully to constantly evolving conditions.

In other words, because we're so busy all the time, we don't have a chance to stop and think about what we're doing, learn new things, try them out. We're like mice running furiously around in the wheel, working really hard but not actually moving forwards :-)

And it gets worse. In the interests of wringing every last ounce of "productivity" out of our employees, infrastructure and just about everything else, we've loaded them up to run at 100%, all the time. The problem with this is that when the next spike in demand comes along, as it surely will, there's no spare capacity to handle it and the system fails and unfortunately, since they often don't degrade gracefully, they instead collapse in a screaming heap. On the other hand, it's difficult to imagine any manager being able to survive in today's climate if he's doing anything other than running his operation full-tilt into the ground :roll:

Maybe it really is time to retire to the hills and start growing my own vegetables [1]...

[1] In case you don't know, Earl has written a lot about collapsing systems in the past. I was going to link to him but gave up trying to decide what... :-D

Thursday 22nd November 2007 5:22 AM [General]

I've been playing sax for a little over twenty years and one of my most influential horn players has always been Art Pepper. While he could swing and bebop with the best of them, he really shone the brightest as a soulful balladeer. He used to play a lot with his favorite pianist, George Cables (whom he liked to call "Mr. Beautiful") and one of my all-time favorite recordings is of the two of them playing "Over The Rainbow." These days, the song may have something of a cheesy reputation but its melody is as beautiful as it is simple, yet the chords are moving around enough in the background to open up lots of interesting possibilities when improvising. Even so, it was only a few months ago that I finally got around to learning this song and have fallen in love with it all over again :oops:

His auto-biography, "Straight Life," is a great read and there's one bit that has really stuck with me over the years. I don't have my copy with me now so I can't give you the exact quote, but it went something like this:

You play the way are. If you're a selfish, inconsiderate person then that's what will come out when you play. You'll elbow the other musicians aside so that you can take the first solo and then keep playing loud and fast behind them, even when it's their turn. But if you're a generous, laid-back sort of a guy, you'll let others go first and play something supportive behind them before stepping up yourself.

You play the way you are.

I've seen and played with so many musicians across the globe, some of whom are insanely good. Incredible technique, fantastic delivery, yet more than a few of them just leave me cold. Seemingly intent on copying every nuance from the CD, the final result often sounds pretty good but it comes across, at least to me, as somewhat fake. Female vocalists seem to be especially prone to this kind of thing, probably due to the rise in popularity of the many near-operatic divas in recent years. Jazz cats too, since so much emphasis is put on technical excellence. We spend all this time practicing how to play at blistering speeds with lots of jazzy "outside" notes that we sometimes forget what it's supposed to be all about [1]. So these days, when I'm looking at a musician, I want to see something more than just raw technique, I want to see something of them on stage, their persona, a window into who they are.

I used to think I had a reasonably good handle on that side of things until I saw a young lady perform the other night who just put me to shame. She played alone, guitar and singing, and while her technique was OK, her performance just blew me away. The warmth and joy she put into each song simply filled the room and you could tell from the way she moved that it was coming from every bone in her body. I absolutely had to jam with her (and yes, I always bring my horn with me these days) and got the surprise of my life when she tentatively asked "Do you know this one?" and without giving me a chance to answer, launched into "Over The Rainbow," thus invoking my first ever public performance of it [2].

After the show, I had a few beers [3] with her and one of the things she said really got me thinking. "I choose to be a happy person," said she, "I don't like being around grumpy, cynical, bad-tempered people [4] 'cos they just drain me." Normally I would've just dismissed this as the babblings of another bubble-head blonde but not this time. She really was one of the most genuinely cheerful and happy little vegemites I've ever met and I don't think I've ever seen anyone who played their music in a way that was so honest and in tune with who they were off-stage. You play the way you are, indeed.

Yet, having said all that, I don't think it's quite enough.

Art is about exploring the entire gamut of the human experience and it's not enough to take only the happy, nice stuff. It's when things get mean and nasty and dirty that they get really interesting. Many great artists have struggled with madness, depression, or just simply been really unpleasant people, but that negative energy often translates into some amazing work. Charlie Parker's recording of "Lover Man" is legendary [5], where he was so trashed on booze and drugs, he could barely stand. They had to prop him up, put the horn in his hands and stick the thing in his mouth, yet when it came time for him to play, what came out was so painfully heart-wrenching that even after the umpteenth hearing, it still gives me the screaming cold shivers. That kind of thing only comes from being in a place you really don't want to go.

I know that some of the best music I've ever played has come when I've been furious or upset or just plain miserable about something. The energy these emotions generate can be incredibly powerful and I've sometimes scared myself with what has come out of my horn, things so intense that I don't want to think about where inside of me they could possibly have come from. I remember one time getting fired from a band and then having to go play another gig elsewhere straight after. I was extremely upset but people, who had seen me play many times before, were coming up to me after the show saying "Man, WTF happened to you tonight?!" Somehow, they could tell that something heavy had gone down.

But getting back to this trip, I also got to see a local barbershop quartet that were amazingly good and while I could certainly dig what they were doing, it also left me a little disappointed, knowing that if I went to see them the next day, I would see pretty much exactly the same show. There was none of the creative fire and passion of, say, a screaming jazz gig, no real dynamic connection between the musicians, or audience. I get the same kind of reaction at classical performances; it's a wonderful experience to be in the theater with an orchestra in full flight but I can't help but get the nagging feeling that something is missing. Can a meticulously planned, precisely executed performance really be considered a creative activity? :unsure:

Anyhow, someone once expressed surprise to find discussion about philosophy on a site that's supposed to be for a feed reader and now we're examining the emotional aspects of the creative process [6]. What can I say? Writing C++ code that parses XML and bungs it into a database can get kinda boring after a while. Sigh..

[1] I was lucky to have started off with building a strong foundation in the blues, where the emphasis is on playing from the heart, before switching to the more technique-heavy jazz. But it still cracks me up that I can play jazz gigs and have people tell me after the show how bluesy my playing is, yet when I play blues gigs, people say they really dig the jazzy bits I throw in every now and then :roll:

[2] Unfortunately, she totally messed up the chords during my solo. Thanks a bundle, girl :wall:

[3] Well, I had a few beers. She had a glass of milk to go with some cookies she had been carrying around in her bag :blink: I am not making this up :hysterical:

[4] Which is unfortunate since this is a pretty accurate description of me :brood: But despite being almost completely opposite kinds of people, we really connected musically on stage. Still trying to figure that one out...

[5] There is a great scene of this session in Clint Eastwood's biographical movie, "Bird."

[6] And not for the first time, either :wink: