ON DIFFERENT KINDS OF MUSIC FREEDOM (part two)

This is the second part of a post addressing the question “what is music freedom?”. The answers I have proposed in the first part concerned mostly a musician’s public sphere. The following ones, instead, are progressively of a more private and intimate nature.

(4) Freedom relative to other musicians. How much is a musician’s style influenced by music tradition, academies and schools, or by certain specific musicians? How much is such influence a free, conscious, good choice and how much is it not? Of course, learning music is also a matter of imitation, as it happens in art in general. But, are we really free from our fellow musicians, our teachers, the great masters, or other musicians that we like? I think that this is a very important question. It is possible to imitate creatively but there is also a risk of becoming a clone (generally a bad one). Do we play to express what we like, to enjoy reproducing what others have already done, to show off our abilities? These are not necessarily alternatives or opposites. However, musicians are probably the most conservative species of artists, and many of them have absolutely no interest in exploring new, more personal approaches and directions. Also, think about issues like consonance vs dissonance, composition vs improvisation, playing by ear vs educated playing, technical dexterity vs expressiveness, serious music vs popular music. In fact, these are just notable examples of false oppositions, that nonetheless often have a tremendous influence on a musician’s style and on what he thinks he is entitled to do or not. Spending some time reflecting on all this can reveal new, unexpected, personal, freer ways to music.

(5) Freedom relative to one’s own musical abilities. Each musician develops a personal technique and has his own set of skills. Some people can barely play three chords on a guitar and some are great virtuoso players. But they are both musicians and both have their own abilities and limitations. Years of routine playing and practice produce a series of habits that help a musician to achieve certain results, but also keep him at a distance from certain other possibilities. Moreover, technique is not a synonym of bravura (even if that’s how the word is commonly used: just think about playing fast, as if it was the most important aspect of instrumental technique), but rather a neutral word indicating a practical knowledge. Expanding such knowledge widens a musician’s possibilities and therefore increases the musician’s freedom. In this respect, a common myth is that more music knowledge, either theoretical or practical, produces more mechanical and less inspired music. This is generally not true, provided that expanding or improving the abilities be accompanied by a constant focus on the goal of music. For instance, musicians should study scales and arpeggios, because they are useful tools; but how many musicians can also play beautiful phrases and not only scales and arpeggios? Similarly for music theory: the more you know it, the better it is, but don’t confuse music theory with actual music!

(6) Freedom relative to one’s own personal tastes. I said above that musicians are probably the most conservative species of artists. Musicians who like different genres are a rarity. That’s not wrong in itself, but it does not seem reasonable to expect much artistic freedom if the music tastes are also limited. The widespread practice of listening to one genre only, one style only, one specific type of instrumentation only (such as the classic rock set: drums, bass, guitar, voice, and perhaps keyboards), or even listening to no more than a few bands, is certainly comfortable and reassuring. Actually, sometimes music can be unsettling or even a bit scary, with all its variety of forms, timbres, sounds; we generally like music that resonates with our desires and positive feelings, not music that we perceive as either cold, boring or annoying. Nonetheless, I believe that, as they grow up and develop, serious musicians should work on opening up their horizon, not on closing it. As a test, try to seriously ask yourself questions like: why exactly I don’t like hip-hop (or folk, jazz, metal, classical, etc.)? You might find very interesting and inspiring answers about both music and yourself.

So, these are my reflections on music and freedom. I have tried to highlight certain core issues and I have also given, more or less explicitly, my personal point of view, along with some advice on how to maximize music freedom in different cases. But my goal is not much to convince anybody to adopt certain attitudes, which I consider as favourable to more artistic freedom. Rather, I mainly wanted to break down the concept of music freedom into different parts, because I think that there’s often some confusion around it. And confusion does not help when you have freedom problems. The important thing, I believe, is to be aware of the fact that music freedom is conditioned by a plurality of aspects that interact in a complex way. I thought that a clearer picture of such panorama might help to understand certain biases, prejudices, fears, desires, or any satisfaction or dissatisfaction that we might have as musicians (but also as pure listeners.)

I’d like to end this post with a personal testimony. I recently enrolled in an online course on jazz improvisation taught by Gary Burton, a notable master of the genre (https://www.coursera.org/course/improvisation ), and I took the decision to use the piano during such course. I am not really a pianist; rather, I play bass and guitar, but my background is in pop, rock, and some acid jazz, not in mainstream jazz. Therefore, I have some difficulty when I try to improvise in a jazz fashion on my instruments. Even if I am not too worried by that, because I love to play pop or rock, sometimes I feel my uneasiness with jazz as a kind of limitation, as a lack of freedom, and as a result of some conditioning that has characterized my musical growth. I therefore decided to enroll in that course and face such limitation. However, I have chosen an indirect way to do it: starting again on instrument that I know very superficially and approaching it specifically from a jazz point of view. I have done my first assignment, playing a solo over a set of changes for three choruses, and I am rather satisfied of the result. Since my technique on the piano is very poor, I could not rely on things like scale fingerings, patterns or licks and, instead, I was forced to sing internally as much as I could, hoping to hit the right notes at the right time. The result is nothing sensational, but I think that my simple single-note solo has a nice, honest feeling and I was also surprised by the good interaction between my playing and the band in the backing track. I realized that, while I played, I was really listening to the piano, bass and drums, because I had nothing else to think about, apart trying to play as best as I could what my ear suggested me.

So, it seems that I have found some freedom within a situation that is novel, challenging, purposefully limiting, potentially scary and apparently unreasonable! Perhaps, placing ourselves in uneasy situations is really what we need, to understand freedom better and acquire more of it.

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3 thoughts on “ON DIFFERENT KINDS OF MUSIC FREEDOM (part two)

  1. Hello Pietro

    One day, I have written this text, about music and improvisation (I hope my english is not so bad) :

    Some music are like appeal, attraction, vertigo.
    Affinity of forgotten notes in hearts. Resume the music at the beginning, each time at the beginning and forget what we know, the desire untouched. Drink it with the eyes, lips, hands, unaltered. Play, read, as if something had to cross a wall, a test, one love.
    The sounds seem then not the sounds of the instrument, but that of the orchestra tended to an end, the approach of the piece, its
    soul, its mystery.

    Is there something in the music to know more than to experiment ?
    To interpret and to want to catch the shadow of the shadows, hidden path that leads to the composer’s soul. The place of assembly, thought of thought. A journey without other baggage as notes, forms, the invisible, the ineffable at the end of the world.

    Perhaps that interpreting is finally practicing meditation of the written things. Approach of the sound, text in hand and fingers on a vibration. Partition actions. Sitting inside the music. Watching her hands as if they do not belong to us.

    Maybe being a composer is like trying to capture the waves and trying to make his own, unaware of the responsibilities involved … claim to want to dissolve between misery and miracles, dead shadows in search of the luminous beauty.

    Maybe being a composer is to ask “why” rather than “how” … to try to give wings to the sublime in launching his notes upstairs in the empty, into ropes that would be plucked by the wind….

    Christophe

    1. Thank you for sharing your reflections, Christophe. You touch lyrically upon a number of different aspects, but I was especially caught by your remarks on the importance of looking for a physical relation with music, improvisation being an experience involving the whole person: perceptually, intellectually, and emotionally. Perhaps you will agree with me that that’s also a kind of freedom that requires some time and application to achieve.

      Pietro

  2. Pietro, you are right : I believe that life is not enough to go around the freedom. It takes a lot of commitment, work, sincerity and simplicity..

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