Preparation and Improvisation

When the modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state change with it. -Plato

Most people these days probably think that music is a result of spontaneous inspiration.  Indeed it is, but this is only half the story.  Do not forget the orderly, mathematical side of music.  Music is not so much created as it is discovered and then forged.  Pythagoras was not even a musician, yet it is he who discovered the diatonic scale.

The above quote from Plato refers to specific modes of Greek music such as the Ionian, Dorian, or Lydian and their ability to alter moods and temperaments.  No one will deny that calm music soothes us, and warlike music stirs our aggression.  Great pieces of Classical music take the listener through various moods and temperaments.  But what if we extrapolate this notion to modes of creation of music or even art in general?

The most basic division between modes of creation would have to be preparation and improvisation.  Any great artist needs to practice both of these modes.  Although, ironically, “practicing” improvisation is actually a form of preparation and conversely, all art, in its final form, was improvised at one point.  An artist cannot forge what he has yet to discover.

Indeed, improvisation and preparation should both be valued.  But let’s cut to the chase.  These days, it is hard to deny we disproportionately value improvisation over preparation.  Although all of the regional re-iterations of Woodstock, most notably Bonnaroo, try to come across as “underground,” everyone knows how popular they are.  Without a doubt, the mode of expression at these events is one of free-spirited improvisation.

The remedy to this situation is not military marches and national anthems exclusively.  We simply need a balance.  Believe it or not, Elvis was not the first showman, Jimi Hendrix was not the first “shredder,” and Jazz was not the first musical genre that utilized improvisation.

Jazz might be the genre most closely associated with improvisation, but the Classical musicians improvised as well.  Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt were all known for their improvisational skills.  But unlike the “jam bands” at Bonnaroo, the Classical musicians improvised through variations on themes.

The improvisation of the jam bands is reliant on genre mixing.  These genres include folk, rock, folk-rock, blues-rock, funk, jazz, jazz fusion, psychadelic rock, southern rock, country rock, acid jazz, bluegrass, and techno.  Confused yet?  The possibilities are endless man.

So many styles resemble schizophrenia, quite frankly.  Perhaps this is why Plato wanted to keep the modes of music clearly defined and separated.  The band names in this scene are equally random and meaningless.  String Cheese Incident, Aquarium Rescue Unit, ekoostik hookah, Leftover Salmon, Fearless Flying Frog Brigade.  How quirky!

One almost gets the feeling that a total reliance on improvisation is just an excuse to avoid making the masterpiece.  But let’s get beyond improvisation and return to striking that balance between preparation and inspiration.  Listen to the works of Niccolo Paganini, specifically his 24 Caprices, and try to convince yourself he isn’t just as inspired, spontaneous, and imaginative as any jam band.  You won’t be able to do it.  Paganini is the true sound of never ending, constantly flowing Nature.

Paganini might be classical music, but he is far from stuffy and boring.  He was a virtuoso and a showman.  “He did everything but come on stage wrapped in blue flame,” according to one admirer.

There is no doubt that in live musical performance there is going to be an element of improvisation and “winging it.”  But there is a difference between noodling, twenty minute space-jams and Paganini’s dazzling, unprecedented technical feats and mesmerizing theatrics.

His 24 Caprices are just that – capricious and whimsical.  They sound spontaneous but they are not spontaneous.  It is not overly serious or over-prepared, but it certainly isn’t aimless and random.  It has purpose.  Paganini was a rare man who discovered and forged a path between preparation and inspiration.

The Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle

When one is young, there is a need to find a common index of things to discuss with one’s friends. In times when words were less inexpensive, these included the myths and stories of culture, but now, it is basically limited to products. Whether media products, or tangible products like game systems, these are what one has in industrial society to talk about, besides the “news” which is, as most kids will readily note, vastly recombinant and usually a lot of paranoid hype about nothing.

Rock music was created as a product. Essentially, they first hyped the blues, portraying it as the wisdom of an alien and suppressed culture, as if the alien and suppressed culture of Indo-Europeans before Christianity wasn’t real enough for them; however, cultures that emphasize healthy values don’t sell as many products, so that – fortunately – was not what was marketed.

We’re told about the blues form now and given the idea that a group of impoverished musicians got together and created it to sing of their sorrows at the mean hands of their oppressors, but really, the blues form is a distillation of European popular music by those who, without the benefit of music theory, needed a quick way to emulate it. Thus a simplification to the point of barebones, and development from there.

If you know your way around a diatonic scale, you know how convenient the notes of the blues scale are, and how convenient the blues chord progressions are: basically, you can’t screw it up. It doesn’t require genius or years of training to produce. Although what you can do with it is highly limited, and its distillation of the vivid notes of the scale creates a constant intensity which is contrary to most artistic needs, it’s easy to make and understand, thus accessible to everyone. Change the appearance of the artists, or add some trivial finishing touches, and you have something “new.” It’s the perfect product.

From there, it was easy to re-introduce elements of other popular music, add a seemingly white face, and voila! A new version of the same product, with the same advantages. It doesn’t take much brains to borrow some licks, a good beat, a bassline, and hype your own particular neurosis into a hit. The Beatles got to pretend they were prophets for having discovered musicality in rock, but really, they were more reactionary than revolutionary: they were introducing more complex elements into a culture designed to be simplistic for the purpose of having its essence escape no one in a crowd of intelligence ranging from borderline retarded to high normal.

Tap your foot, to the beat; catch the hook, sing along. It’s something “new” and you should be discussing it, and buying it, because your friends are. Because young people are introduced to this culture first, it forms the basis of what they know as “music” and thus what they expect for the rest of their lives. And to compete socially, they begin buying lots of expensive CDs and assorted paraphernalia, and may even get some instruments to slog along with their own band. It’s the perfect product.

Notwithstanding that most of rock ‘n roll is bland, and if you listen to it for more than five times in a row, you will become very bored, it dominates the airwaves, and has even assimilated divergent genres like techno and hip-hop (that which has no character of its own can assimilate anything). Its simple instrumentation allows for very basic production, which makes it loud and easily heard while one is pumping gas, smoking crack, buying products, or having a thrilling orgasm in an AIDS-infested bathhouse. In fact, it is best if one is either wasted or doing something simple and repetitive, as it’s perfect for a reduced concentration.

Even the best of your kids, no matter how smart they are, are going to want to have friends. If their friends talk about TV, video games, and music, and very little else, these kids are going to go looking for the best in rock. Of course, since the whole thing is a giant ripoff, they will end up thrashing around until they find something that is less offensive, and settling for that. It’s an early lesson in passivity: don’t aim for the best, but find something that sucks less. This will provide good training for their future numb, neo-mindless bureaucratic jobs!

I was fond of some metal music because it broke the rock formula. Where rock uses a fixed structure, defined succinctly as “an intro, a verse, a chorus, second verse, a second chorus, a breakdown section, back into a double length chorus and outro” by one experienced source 1, metal uses a narrative structure: songs develop, like classical songs, according to a central melody or “shape” of a dominant riff. Much as Mozart buried a very simple melody in very complex symphonies, metal bands shape their songs around an idea, and use a circuitous series of introductions, breakdowns, bridges and riff motif rotations to convey it.

This took a long time to develop, and was really not even extant as a concept until the late 1980s, exemplified best perhaps by Metallica’s tribute to classical music, “Orion,” or Bathory’s classically-inspired “Blood, Fire, Death.” These were, like the Beatles, a reactionary impulse against the dumbing-down that is the basis of rock music. I had high hopes for this genre, but alas, the social impetus that gets people into rock music also tears down anything that the crowd as a whole cannot appreciate.

Crowds detest those who stand out. The crowd mentality is paradox: one must be an individual doing what everyone else is doing, of their own “free will,” of course. This way the individual gets the best of both worlds. They can worship their own ego, and also, socialize in a way that guarantees they won’t offend anyone, thus eventually will get whatever they want, whether it be sex, drugs or simply, friends. Because these individuals have no other way to succeed, and because they depend on the crowd, they enforce it on others. Rock music is a product of the crowd.

When metal finally succumbed to the fetal impulse toward lowest common denominator at the turn of the millennia, it was an appropriate self-sacrifice, worthy of Jesus on the Cross. All of that labor to bring rock music to some degree of braininess, first by prog-rockers inspired by the Beatles, and then by generations of metal bands, was eventually dragged down by the nature of rock music – it is a product, and a product needs the crowd to buy it. This is why rock produces bitter old men, since 99.99% of those who get involved with it experience no real success, and the remainder are neurotic lapdogs kept by the industry and discarded when their usefulness is over (enjoy your suicide, Mr. Cobain – you’re right: you failed).

Conservatives, or those who wish to uphold (post-Christian) “traditional” values, have a singleminded approach toward rock music. They will loudly proclaim that it’s crap, and then ignore whatever their kids bring home because, after all, the kids are stimulated by the music’s ability to provoke that reaction in brain-dead parental units. “Son, I’m reading the stock pages – turn that crap off and go to your room.” That further heightens the marketability of rock. Liberals, of course, listen to jazz and world music and contort themselves pretending they can tell the difference between artists, tracks and genres.

My approach to rock music is to recognize the wisdom of this piece from the same source cited above:

There are twelve different Major keys and twelve different Minor keys. In each key there is a scale of eight notes, the eighth note being the same as the first but an octave above. A chord is where two or more notes are played together. There are three basic Major chords and three basic Minor chords in each key. You do not need to know the above but if you do want to, that’s it.1

Our schools, public and private alike, have been dumbing themselves down for years to provide more inclusivity. First it was for the less-rigorous cultures of Southern and Eastern Europe, infused with the failed remnants of the once-great Greco-Roman empire, and then it was for new groups of people from other cultures which didn’t have a classical music tradition like that of Europe. This isn’t to slam those groups; they can do what they want. However, it’s time to bring back classical music education for the simple purpose of debunking rock.

When one is familiar with how easy it is to pick out a basic riff and harmonize it, then make a pop song, the mysticism of rock – the longstanding tradition of “authenticity” through alienation extending from the blues through punk – is vanquished, because the music is seen as un-fascinating since, well, it’s actually quite bland. You have a basic chord progression, and you use notes in that chord to determine what keys you can switch to, if you do at all; guitar solos are a matter of staying within some degree of modal coherence to the progression underlying them, or using the pentatonic so everything “sounds good.” It’s not rocket science.

That’s the approach I’d take. Our kids deserve better music, but in order to tell the difference, their first experience with music has to involve knowledge, not the crowd-pleasing ignorance that makes rock a perfect product. Stamp your foot and scream that all rock is crap, and well, they’ll run to MTV and go buy the latest rock or rock-hybrid at $16/CD. Show them something better, regardless of form – it’s even possible to simply make brainier rock music, as Yes and Bathory and King Crimson did – and they’ll slowly continue the reactionary process of converting rock from moron fodder into something listenable. That alone is victory over the crowd.

Diatonic and Pentatonic Scales

One irate reader fumed that the blues scale is “not” a pentatonic scale. Wrong – it’s a modified pentatonic scale, but is not a five-tone scale. The comment here about the diatonic scale is to point out that if you play only the emphatic notes in a diatonic scale, you get a pentatonic blues scale. Although that’s sort of like a Hallmark card-styled emotionality, most people “seem” to like it.