Yesterday I had that great feeling of really being inspired by the work of another musician – not just ‘appreciating’ their music, or being impressed by its ‘cleverness’, ‘virtuosity’, or ‘depth of emotional content’ etc – but being shown new things that spark off an excitement and urgency to get busy in the composing lab with my own work. I’m talking about the hour I spent with sound designer Tom Angell showing me around some of his recent creations with Pro Tools and Logic – it opened my mind to ways of working beyond the limited understanding of the software I’ve had until now. It’s like the ways I used to approach working with 4-track tape recorders – I’d never thought to use that approach with digital technology. Inspiring!
We tend to get locked into the way we do things, to stick with what we know. To be shown something outside this framework can really blow a wind of change or at least fresh air through the way we do or see things. I’ve long been fond of Vincent Persichetti’s ‘Twentieth Century Harmony’, a book I first came across when I was a spotty O level student in the mid 1980’s. The thing I like best about it is that it begins with a paragraph that reads ‘Any tone can succeed any other tone, any tone can sound simultaneously with any other tone or tones, and any group of tones can be followed by any other group of tones, just as any degree of tension or nuance can occur in any medium under any kind of stress or duration. Successful projection will depend upon the contextual and formal conditions that prevail, and upon the skill and soul of the composer”. Wow. Stop for a minute and re-read that. This is the opening gambit of a music theory textbook. Basically, Vince seems to be saying ‘Never mind Eric Taylor, or those outlawed consecutive octaves in your Bach chorales – anything goes’. The book then goes on, for well over 200 pages, to explore the 20th C developments in approaches to the elements of music – intervals, scale materials, chords by 3rds, chords by 4ths, polychords, rhythm, textures, tonalities… it present a whole bunch of ideas that my spotty teenage self was becoming increasingly aware of on my journey into music. However, the book concludes with exactly the same paragraph that it began with, giving a sense of negating everything between the covers that might suggest a ‘dogma’ or ‘right way of doing things’. This had a huge influence on me – yes, I’d been devouring the likes of King Crimson, Derek Bailey and Company, Ligeti and anything weird and ‘out there’ that I could get my mitts on – so this ‘license to do what thou wilt’ came as no surprise, but it was still a revelation to see it so succinctly put in black and white. Perhaps rather dry and academic by today’s standards, the book still represents a potential ‘wind of change’ that could open a whole load of doors for anyone locked in the rut of functional harmony and ‘composing by the rules’.
It’s not unlike Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s ‘Oblique Strategies’, which came up in two different contexts recently (see Youtube on the left for one of those - by the fabulous Brothers McLeod (http://www.brothersmcleod.co.uk/ ) – the ‘Oblique Strategies’ are a set of ‘prompt cards’ to draw upon when inspiration runs dry: a prod or a nudge from the outside, to inspire movement. Which brings us at last to my last example (phew). It was great to get feedback from a piano student on Monday, that she had got home ‘full of beans and enthusiasm!’, inspired by the things we’re working on. H has recently started playing again after too many years away from the piano; she thought that the repertoire from her past – bits of Beethoven, half-started Chopin pieces etc – would be enough for her to continue to chip away at, plus maybe an Einaudi or Nyman piece for a change. She didn’t bargain for me throwing her the curveball of coaxing her into reading chord symbols (she didn't think she could do it) and encouraging her to explore rather than just ‘read’ - so that she could experiment with Bowie’s ‘Life On Mars’, or find herself tackling the colourful, Scriabin-esque harmonies of Bill Evans… she’s now got a license to push beyond the confines of what she knew, and to explore whole new landscapes.
She’s taken a step outside that circle of familiarity; that freshening breeze is blowing through her time at the piano.