Sunday, April 9, 2017

Education in the Arts Postscript

I've been waiting for a commentator to rake me over the coals for saying in my post yesterday that "They want to bring pop, folk, jazz and world music into the curriculum. At first this seems a good idea, but over time, they start to edge out the classical music. They are easier to enjoy and the technical standards are not so demanding so if you don't have a very strong handle on exactly why you need to be teaching the classical traditions, then pretty soon you will just stop bothering." The bolded passage is the one that I felt sure would attract some criticism, after all, jazz, rock, pop and world musics all demand a level of technical precision and accomplishment that is as demanding as anything in classical music. Right? Right?

Ah, but in many ways they don't. But first let me point out ways that they do:

  • All forms and genres of music contain examples of real virtuosity because musicians learn how to do tricky and complex things and they like to show them off
  • In every kind of music, there are some players for whom fast passages come naturally
  • In jazz, virtuosity is expressed, not only in technique, but in improvisational ingenuity
I'm sure I could quote all sorts of examples from Alvin Lee to Van Halen to gypsy fiddlers to flamenco guitarists, but no need. We have all heard instrumental virtuosity of this kind. Heck, even actors can fake it a bit (sorry, Blogger won't embed):

But here is the difference: all of this virtuosity, all, is based on instrumental athleticism, finding how to do quick and clever things on the instrument. It is also something that each individual virtuoso develops based on their own individual skills. This is entirely different from the technical command necessary to play classical music really well. What is the difference? I think the main one is that non-classical instrumental virtuosity (and that practiced in classical music as well, up until the 17th century) is based on finger (or lip, or throat) virtuosity, but in classical music for quite a while now, it is all about precise control of dynamics, articulation, phrasing, timbre and a bunch of other subtleties that we don't have names for. And all this is directly related to the specific musical context, not to the performer's skill set.

Now you might protest that other kinds of virtuosity, for example that of Stevie Ray Vaughan, is all about intense expressivity and that is true. But it still emanates from and is based on the skill set of the performer, not the objective requirements of the composition because, in the blues, the individual voice of the performer is, to a large extent, the composition. But if you are playing a sonata by Beethoven, you have to accept and master a very complex set of skills that are entirely developed to allow the musical content and structure to be communicated clearly and beautifully. Completely different thing:

And then there is this, where, except for the trills, there is almost no conventional virtuosity--it is all in the expression:


Anonymous said...

I think you make good points. The thing is, in classical music, because there is no improvisation, you have a clear decoupling between composing and performing. You do both, I know, but you don't do them *at the same time* I assume. I agree that rock is too poor harmonically to be compared to classical in any meaningful way. But because jazz involves both improv and virtuosity, the skill set is quite different.

If you compare your average symphony orchestra musician with a standard jazz session player (of the kind you find working for Hollywood), you'll find the jazz guy (they're all guys) a vastly more accomplished musician. Typically the classical musician, not being a composer, will have limited theoretical command of the material. The jazz player will need to be fluent in a wide range of theoretical techniques. Those guys know their chord inversions and extensions by heart. They have to be able to harmonize any tune on the spot, using a wide array of chord substitutions. Jazz shuns the root and the fifth like the plague, so even being able to follow the harmonic progression without constantly chasing for the dominant 7th is a big challenge any jazz player has to meet as a beginner.

The harmonic fluency of top jazz musicians is only matched by top-flight organists. Your typical classical composer will understand the theory but prove incapable of demonstrating fluency. You're a composer so you can test yourself: pick a tune, say, the Ode to Joy, then pick up your guitar and harmonize it with tritone subs and 11th or 13th extensions: now do it 3 times without reusing the same extensions and voice leading paths. Also make sure to drop the quarter notes after the first iteration and do it in 8ths and 16ths (hey, it's got to swing!) You're not allowed to "work it out" first. You've got to do it on the spot. People like Wynton Marsalis and Joshua Redman can do it effortlessly on their instruments. Maybe Yo-Yo Ma can, being such a well-rounded musician. But I would be surprised if Sokolov or your run-of-the-mill concert virtuoso can. Their skills are elsewhere as instrumentalists.

Bryan Townsend said...

This is exactly the kind of comment I was hoping for. Thanks, Anonymous. I wish I could give a detailed response, but all the choices I have made have led me away from being able to do what you are talking about. This is such an interesting and detailed comment that I will have to think about it for a few days. I have to say that I am uneasy with the claim that the jazz guy is a "vastly more accomplished musician." As you say, there are different sets of skills.

But many thanks for the observations!

Anonymous said...

I take back the "vastly more accomplished" comment. I should have said jazz musicians need to acquire a command of and fluency in harmony that is rare among classical musicians (except organists). But then classical virtuosos have other skill sets, so we end up comparing apples and oranges.

Will Wilkin said...

It would be nice to hear the classical cadenzas come back, so a bit of the virtuosic improvisation Anonymous describes could be brought back to classical.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think there is one pianist who improvises cadenzas in Mozart concertos, but I forget who it is. Since the coming together of the classical "canon" in the 19th century and the trend towards composers writing out their cadenzas, fewer and fewer performers venture to improvise their own. Especially since the tragic results caused by one classical guitarist, with rock roots, who, during a performance of the Concierto de Aranjuez, instead of playing Rodrigo's cadenza, launched into what could only be understood as a ten minute tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan which involved switching to a Stratocaster and a wall of Marshall amps. The viola section are still undergoing intensive therapy.

Ok, just kidding!

Anonymous said...

There is this pretty awesome French dude, Karol Beffa, who's a classical composer and a concert pianist. One of his specialties is to improvise on the piano on any tune any member of the audience will request. As long as he knows the melody, he'll be able to do it and the results are simply... Wow! But he's also a guy who writes symphonies that are performed by minor outfits like... the London Symphony Orchestra.

Oh, and if that was not enough, he collected 8 "premiers prix" from the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique and wrote his PhD thesis on Ligeti's piano studies...

The kind of guy one can only hate! :-)

Anonymous said...

PS: Hey, I love SRV! A pity he had to die right after kicking his drug addiction.

Jives said...

I daresay an accomplished jazz player and an accomplished classical musician would BOTH feel totally at sea if suddenly transplanted into the other musical idiom with no prior experience.

part of the appeal of jazz is that it's not "all worked out" beforehand and so there is lots of room for spontaneity and happy accident. In capable hands, it's transporting, in less-capable hands, it's a mish-mash.

part of the appeal of classical music is that it's "all worked out" beforehand, the finely-wrought counterpoint, the overarching structure, the perfectly-timed recall of motives that sends chills.

In spite of it's reputation for freedom, and its relentless cross-pollination with world music, jazz does seem tightly wound around the "head - solo(s) section- recap of head" form, tension rising in the middle section and ebbing at the end, basically ternary form, I guess. I wonder if that accounts for the "sameness" of the jazz-journey to some ears. That freedom that jazz offers is a very heavy burden which not every musician is equal to.

To my mind, the classical genre is more wide-ranging and admitting of formal variation than people might think, not to mention tone color, and rhythmic variety, especially in the last century.

just my 2 cents