Saturday, May 21, 2005

For BC

Obviously music isn’t the same as language. They do brain scans to find out where language is located—all over, as I recall. I don’t recall a similar study for music. People tend to think that music is unimportant.

Words are utilitarian in a way that music is not. “Please pass the salt,” isn’t something I can communicate with notes. But your mind has still built up a vocabulary for music that allows you to understand and enjoy it. The more complex the music, the more extensive the required vocabulary.

I was once interested in the idea of Artificial Intelligence, and have generally thought that by focusing completely on the utilitarian aspects of thought they missed completely what is actually going on.

I loved the program “Alice.” She was only about 2 pages long and substituted wonderfully well for a psychiatrist. You would key in something, and Alice would pick out a key word in your sentence and ask you how long you had been feeling that way. Very amusing. I knew people who would talk to Alice for hours. Alice was closer to actual intelligence than AI generally is. AI is just a logic tree.

Have you ever asked yourself when listening to Mariah Carey why you can’t do that? You lack the required musical vocabulary.

Your intelligence interacts with its world and creates an internal explanation for reality. It explains the sounds it hears, some into words, some into music. By the time you are five you have forgotten how you did this. Learning these things later in life is a lot more work.

I remember being asked how to do a portamento. It’s part of your musical vocabulary, or it isn’t. It’s a fallacy, an often taught fallacy, that music is nothing more than acoustics. I took those classes, too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mariah Carey, no; Miles Davis, yes (how can he play a whole note and make it swing? how can he crack a note and make it the deepest, richest, most resonant sound at that moment in the universe? it doesn't seem fair), Lester Young, yes (how could he take a so-so tune like "Lady Be Good" and turn it into a revolutionary statement on music's possibilities?), Regina Carter, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, yes.
How do they think those things up, in the moment? it's bewildering.
But that's talking about the creative process, not the technical side of making music. And yeah, I do wonder--and when I wonder, often enough, I've actually gone to some of the elders for answers. That's fairly possible in the jazz world. I wanted to add plunger mute to my vocabulary: Steve Turre was kind enough to give me a lesson; Steve has the most glorious tone on trombone, he showed me some things that should help me get it, too (then, again, he plays a trombone that Yamaha built specifically for him, a technological advantage not so easily available to us sandlot players). I wanted to learn to improvise at all, survive in playing situations where you should take a chorus now and then--Wayne Wallace took me under his wing for many years, showed me whole new worlds....
But that's me. Does knowing all that make hearing music a richer experience? I'm not sure. I think of all the Deadheads I used to hang with who'd go crazy over some guitar line that was nice enough in the moment and very learned and swinging--but if they knew how basic it was (just a dorian scale or maybe a pentatonic over a minor chord), they might not have had so much fun....
In some ways of course the answer is yes, more technical knowledge enriches or can enrich your appreciation--like the way you, Dr. B respond to Mariah. You KNOW how physically hard it is to sing that high and add those ornaments. I KNOW how hard it is to play trombone at bebop speeds; for that matter, how hard it is to sit through three movements of Brahms' Fourth Symphony and then start playing, in-time, on-pitch, in-tune, with a big, rounded tone (yet not very loud) at the beginning of that last movement (same for Beethoven's Fifth, but that's kind of balls-out, you should pardon the expression, playing, and therefore easier). I sit in Davies some evenings just trying to hear how Bob Ward attacks and releases notes and it can be heart breaking to think all the millions of hours that have gone into preparing to put air into the horn in that moment. heart-breaking and a triumph of the human spirit.
may St Cecilia have mercy on us all
--bc