Try thinking of the music you listen to in one of two ways:
Either the experience will be primarily a journey, or primarily a place.
Music that relies on a strong sense of narrative, would be the former type.
Turn on a recording half way through, if it is a piece that relies heavily upon narrative you’ll potentially feel the lack of something, just as you would if you were to start a film half an hour in.
The narrative content of a piece of music demands our attention, it relies on us engaging with the linear story being told.
Whether it be the structure of a Beethoven sonata, a (seemingly) less structured Coltrane solo (from a later album) or the unfolding of the slow movement of the Ravel piano concerto, you can appreciate the momentum and engagement of great narrative music. Likewise a great improvisation over a standard tune; to really hear just how the soloist is manipulating and superimposing over the tune’s structure, it helps to have heard that tune, its exposition, and to have enough attention invested in what’s going on to remember some of its contours.
Music as a place:
To write music as a place is to meditate upon a picture in one’s mind, or to use an actual photo perhaps, and somehow distil the essence, or emotional “meta-data” that resonates within you as you translate your feelings to music.
It cannot actually be static as it is still, of course, in time, but It is a gradual deepening or focussing of the emotion, that represents the development of the piece, even if it is characterised by a lot of repetition.
Listen to Steve Reich’s Desert Music, or one of the very vampy recordings by Keith Jarrett, including his best selling Köln Concert. From early plainchant to Louis Andriesson and his “De Tijd” (“Time”), any music which summons a sense of place, over it’s sense of journey, can be appreciated as deeply immersive.
It is also more possible to listen in on a piece like this after it has started. Often the emphasis on texture, production or repetition will be so prominent, as to pull you right in from whatever point you start to listen.
These examples are a starting point only, but it is worth pointing out that the influence of movie music has had a greater impact upon our appreciation of place music, and has not done so much for our ability to get engrossed in longer, through-developed music, whatever its genre.
I have long been totally in love with “modern” harmony, which I sometimes refer to as The Beauty In The Dissonance. Music with a lot of harmony or active foreground melodic lines, really does require your foreground attention and a certain amount of willingness for the twists and turns of the genre to become familiar. There is no singular place this music is describing, it is more a journey between places. It doesn’t make good background music, and can be difficult to appreciate without putting your phone down for the whole duration, counting out millions of potential listeners so it would seem.
I am not saying that music-as-a-place is in any way inferior. These two approaches are, more truthfully, entirely intertwined. I am only criticising an unwillingness to develop attention, and that goes far beyond the subject of music.
Check out Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus In Memorium Benjamin Britten”, this summons an amazing sense of place. It is not concerned with the journey as I’ve been defining it, but it most certainly deserves one’s whole-hearted, sustained attention.
The Place v. Journey approach has been on my mind a lot as I am on the eve of releasing my new album Weather Walker, which blends these two approaches in equal measure more than anything I’ve tried before.
I am incredibly proud to have had the opportunity during this project to record the English Session Orchestra string section in studio one at Abbey Road, plus eight soloists in studio 3, to create my own series of “pictures” of the Lake District.
It is within these places, that the narrative element is added by the magic of pianists Jason Rebello and Pablo Held, and bassist Yuri Goloubev. These plus my own playing of course, on soprano and tenor saxes, (overdubbed as I was conducting the orchestra) create the balance of narrative to place.
So does the characterisation of music in this way add up to anything more than a mental game, given that you can’t really have one element without the other being present anyway?
It is the balance of these two approaches, forever changing, that keeps creative music endlessly varied. Whether you are notating your feelings into compositions, or improvising direct to an audience, observations which help you maintain an overall view of your art, are much more than a mental game.
In Weather Walker, you could imagine the string orchestra as the landscape, and the soloists as those that witness the wonder of it. Their spontaneous performances inject the human narrative, the emotional response and the sense of journey, which is at once personal to them as players, but created to be shared.
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