Thursday, July 17, 2008

Speak to it

The discussion that Darcy has prompted from this post is a debate I've had internally and with colleagues for many years. What is the role, the point, the function of music (or art in general)? Is it supposed to be communicative in nature? I don't intend the following to be the final word on the subject - it's merely a description of where I'm at in my music-making process and what my goals are.

I had an epiphany about this in 2005. When Chris Driscoll, a fantastic drummer and inspiring human being, passed away, the family of his best friend, bassist Pat Reid, chartered a bus out to Prince Edward Island so that Chris' McGill friends and colleagues could attend the service. The Reid house became Ground Zero for coming together, grieving, and jamming. It was in that week of non-stop music, culminating in a seven-hour marathon concert at a local church, that I rediscovered what music can do, and ideally, should do.

Immediately after I heard the news, this fragment of melody popped into my head and wouldn't go away. I didn't have time to write it down before taking the bus the next morning, so I kept repeating it to engrave it in my memory. I wrote a first draft on the 12-hour bus ride from Montreal to Charlottetown, and finished what is now called "Driscollage" in the living room of my wonderful PEI hosts. The origins of "Driscollage" were, in a sense, purely selfish - I wrote it for me as a way of coping, and paying homage to the memory of a colleague for whom I had the utmost respect. (It would be too much to say Chris and I were close, but the last thing we said to each other was that we should play together more often.) But after we played the piece at the PEI concert, Chris' father came up to me and thanked me for the tune, and "Driscollage" now has a whole new meaning for me. I may write more intricate, developed, complex and/or creative pieces in the future, but none will occupy the place of importance and honour that "Driscollage" has.

I strive for a sense of connection and communication in every piece I write, in every gig I play; a lack of it is what turns me off at gigs. Darcy sums it up thus:
Well, first and foremost, ["meeting the listener halfway"] means playing the music like it fucking means something to you, and you desperately want us all to understand exactly what it is that it means to you, because these sounds that you are making are the most important sounds in the world, and if you fail to persuade us just how important these sounds are, you'll die.
This sense of connection doesn't have to lie exclusively in anthemic, accessible pieces (although the soaring melodies of David Binney, Roberto Fonseca, Djavan and Milton Nascimento do this quite often). There was a moment - a single moment - where drummer Paal Nilssen-Love bowed a cowbell, and trumpeter Magnus Broo landed on the same note at the same instant, holding for another moment and then moving away; this was the highlight of the entire concert for me. The Sun Ra Arkestra, in their densest, knottiest segments, has a manner of captivating the audience. All the aforementioned artists, even in their most "accessible" moments, are not writing simple tunes - there's a high level of sophistication in the musical information. But they're not focused on musical one-upsmanship on the bandstand. It's the "Hey! marvel at our rhythmic complexity and overwhelming ingenuity" attitude that leaves me out in the cold, vs. Darcy's sentiment above.

Most professional musicians wind up taking gigs that do not showcase their main creative outlet - playing repertoire we wouldn't select ourselves, in settings that are less than optimal. However, we are (or should be) still attempting to make music. The easy way out is to slag it off and phone it in. The bigger challenge is to actually be musical and engage with one's partners on the bandstand. Honesty goes a long way - someone in the audience will pick up on it. It only takes one person to give sincere thanks for our music, to have been genuinely affected by it, to change the outlook of a gig.

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