Saturday, July 14, 2012

I wish I had taken music instruction a bit differently

This dawned on me today as I was thinking about how I want to organize some of my new guitar practice, and what I'm trying to get as practical takeaway from reading up on some theory.

I had instruction on several instruments for many years - particularly saxophone, and then trumpet. During that time I was learning to be a musician in the sense of being an expert in using an instrument as a tool for delivering music, rather than learning how to create and deliver music while learning an instrument. There's a big distinction in my mind. Not a knock on my instructors by any means - they were very good and I often wound up being principal chair (at school anyway).

What was my end goal while practicing as a trumpet player? To play a piece flawlessly I suppose. Hit all the notes with the right timing, the right attack, the right intensity and duration... and to perfectly express someone else's phrasing and ideas. Like if I were to get up on a podium and deliver the Gettysburg Address with the same gravity and inflection as Lincoln. 

What I'm really after now is to be able to come up with and express my own ideas. Until now I've been speaking words and phrases without grasping their meaning or gravity or resolution. I'll have some work to do to get to that level!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Speaking of concepts - how about The Concept?

Today I started reading a bit about "The Concept" - The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. Ironically enough it felt like the first time I picked up Race Car Vehicle Dynamics in the sense of theory overload, and gave me a bit of perspective on my day job doing vehicle dynamics work! 

For me anyway, it's one of those reads that hits you as, "I'm definitely not as sharp as I thought I was," but it definitely seems fairly brilliant and is something I'd like to learn. This all stems out of my previous post regarding modal jazz - for which The Concept is reported to form the conceptual base. In some ultimate irony it shares similar terminology to passing concepts in (American) football - which all tend to boil down to vertical, horizontal, and oblique stretched to use Norm Chan's terminology... whereas TLCCOTO uses vertical, horizontal, and supra-vertical. More on that at a later date - American football is very much a thinking man's sport at a high level.

In any event, when I was in my more serious musician days (sic) in high school, any improvisational or soloing work I did was just fumbling for sounds... stringing some notes together to make a lick and quickly pass over or audible out of anything blatantly dissonant! Since getting my engineering degree I honestly feel much more comfortable with music theory in general - to the point I'm actually interested in learning and making sense of it. Not dissimilar to practical engineering work, things in music work for a reason, and I feel that the better grounding and understanding I have there the easier it is to be creative. To me, improvisation or composing are no different than speaking a language. In high school I took the cave man approach of grunting sounds, syllables, or words to get some basic concept across. Theory gives you the syntax of how nouns and verbs come together to make a sentence, sentences to form a paragraph, and paragraphs to form a complete line of reasoning. The difference between composition and improvisation then is the difference between writing out a speech in advance, or having a few ideas in your head and being able to speak to them comfortably on the fly.

How does this relate to the day job? It gave me interesting perspective on theory versus application and what it really takes to make one relevant to the other. At work, part of my responsibility is to come up with theory which then gets handed over for use at the race track. To me it all makes perfect sense, but if you can't convey that sensibly to those who have to use it.. it's all for naught. Mostly challenging given how tight and limited timing is as far as getting everyone on the same page conceptually. When I have time to sit down and work through things I think I can convey concepts reasonably well in translatable terms. For now though I feel like I'm on the application end of modal theory with little understanding of why things work the way they do. Sure, I can dig that an Eb Lydian scale works well with a C minor 7 chord (and why the Dorian mode matches well for the given root) but it sure would be nice to grasp where that all stems from. 

It will take some further study. 

The other way this is analogous to the day job is that this is how I had to learn vehicle dynamics.  There was really no one around sufficiently experienced to teach it to me, which left self-guided learning through books and experimentation as the only option. So for those struggling with it and stuck in the same situation - I feel your struggle!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Getting Back to an Old Hobby - Part 2 (Concepts)

The last time I really did any recording was in high school or part of college. I came up with some riffs, recorded bits and pieces of ideas that I wanted to put together, that sort of thing. Mostly it just emulated whatever I was listening to at the time without any growth. I was making things without really creating anything. Nothing new or unique. As Miles Davis would say, it was "like warmed-over turkey."

Since getting the playback aspect of the audio lab set up (namely Alesis 100W power amp with  Monitor One Mk2 studio monitor speakers) I've been going through and listening to a lot of tunes. I've been thinking a lot about what I personally like to hear, and stylistic concepts from a variety of places which I can pull together to make something a bit more my own. I'd say I'm reaching a point where I'm a little more comfortable in knowing what I want.

We'll start off with the 10,000 foot view. Broadly speaking, jazz and hip hop have been two main genres I can really get into. I still enjoy putting on some Nirvana or Deftones from time to time, but it doesn't get into my creative vein as much. There is also some good ambient and downtempo electronica that really catches me, but that's more an accessory to the two aforementioned genres. Jazz and hip hop have a one-way link for the most part. Obviously one preceded the other, and there are certainly a number of hip hop tracks which sample old jazz tracks (though admittedly it's more funk, soul, R&B...). But while hip hop samples some jazz, I don't see much of the other way around. I'd like to explore that.

In any event, from the former category I love modal jazz. Late 50's, early 60's, with perhaps the most canonical work being Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. The aspect of that I like are the extended, almost vamp-style chord changes which really open things up for soloing on top. You open with a phrase, have several instruments tell a story soloing one after the other, then come back to your main phrase to cap it off. Exemplified by one of the coolest songs of all time:

To a degree you could argue there's that aspect in some hip hop of a repeated sample or beat with expression on top of it - say with multiple lyricists all in a common theme (in the following example) or just one performer telling a story (a la Slick Rick). And for those who say all hip hop is garbage, you can't understand what they're saying, blah blah blah... fuck off with that nonsense. Some is shit, sure, I'll give you that. Some of it isn't. And with regard to "understanding" people... can you "understand" what John Coltrane is communicating when he goes off on a tear of a wild solo? No, you can't? Didn't think so. Just put a tune on and enjoy it for what it is and don't go off on some elitist rant of why your favorite music is so much better than something else.

Regardless, from the hip hop category I love the "boom bap" style of things from the mid-90's, particularly out of New York. Pete Rock exemplifies it with punchy drums at the front of the mix. Check it:

Keeping on the drum theme, while I love the punchy and catchy drums of the boom bap, I still want to be able to have an organic and diverse sound while keeping time. For that, I bring you Steve Gadd. I don't get into drummers much but this guy is the man. Check the following with him playing "in the pocket" - not going into some free time or busting out a solo, but just... well, listen for yourself. I could put listening to this sorta thing for ten minutes straight:

So I really dig the things he does with a groove. Drilling down a bit more to the specific level, Gadd is great with "linear" drumming, in which you don't have as much (or any) of the overlap you'd find in pop or rock drumming with multiple limbs hitting at once. Gives it a really cool sound. I could definitely imagine taking the idea behind the sticking for Lenore (Chick Corea), slowing it way down, and growing some accent and expressive bits on that to make it really fat punchy beat.

We'll end it there with the drums and percussion for tonight!