Forecast for the Future

"Every individual without exception bears a potential writer within himself. The reason is that everyone has trouble accepting the fact that he will disappear unheard of and unnoticed in an indifferent universe, and everyone wants to make himself into a universe of words before it's too late. 

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not that far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding."

- Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Week 12, Rock and Roll: Trucking Along

We got together as a trio yesterday sans Jay Greene, who was off making waves with Paul Haas, to keep working on pulling together tracks for Saturday--including writing our third song.

Note not one but two broken guitar strings, including the D string (how do you break a D string?)

We began by spending some time refining our first song a little more and then Imanant taught me the guitar parts to the second song so we could play a bit without Jayson. I am at best a shitty guitar player (which is really about being a non-musician), and watching him explain to me the simple chord changes as they translated into "parts" was interesting as I thought about the different ways in which we all are able to learn (and the ways in which we can't).

Ok, watch me stretch out a bit from here:

I think what is unique and curious in the history of Western music is the way that rock music stands apart from other forms and genres of music as one of considerable primitivism. In nearly every other form of Western-style music, musicians learn about music simultaneously--or even before--learning how to play it. Generally this translates for players to skills such as sight reading and an understanding of musical theory, but even in the cases of the weakest, least talented and/or least interested, say, violin players, there is still a basic understanding of music composition, including a knowledge of the musical notes and where they fall on a staff; tempo and rhythm; and scales, including at least major and minor. This is not to suggest that every classical musician or, more specifically, general person who tries to learn violin or trumpet, is a great student who cares as much about understanding music's composition as they do learning how to play; however, the difficulty in learning most instruments requires an instructor for basic guidance, and these instructors always spend at least a little time attempting to lay down a framework of knowledge underneath the physical performance.

Rock and roll, on the other hand, is the domain of the guitar, and the guitar is a magically democratic instrument that, like the piano, is capable of producing beautiful sounds by anyone possessing even the most limited musical knowledge or ability. 5 minutes of instruction plus a few finger calluses is all you need to be able to play "Not Fade Away", "I'm Waiting for the Man" or "About a Girl." As far as I'm aware, this kind of immediate gratification isn't really true for any other instrument except, again, the piano. [Extension: is it not unreasonable, then, to think of the piano as the "gateway drug" to the deliciously addictive musical primitivism of rock and roll?]

It seems like a reasonable extension then to imagine that the great difference in "entry requirements" for playing guitar--hence rock n' roll--compared to anything else allows for some significantly different philosophical approaches to both learning and writing music. Even the idea of "reading music" for guitar by tablature (string/fret finger notation) rather than note staffs presents an exploration into this theory, as far as presenting the guitar not as a musical instrument but as a simple object capable of producing coordinated sound.

This brings me back to where I started: I am a crappy guitarist with a sketchy understanding of musical scales and a limited "feel" for the instrument; I do, however, know major and minor scales and the placement of notes on the fretboard, and I can generally form specifically named chord shapes on command. Which really isn't much, but even this limited knowledge distinguishes me from a great number of guitarists with far more technical ability and musical feel, who learned to play by memorizing a few basic chord formations and then using tablature and their ear to either play other people's songs or write their own. The notes on a guitar are so mathematically laid out that, as I've said already, it's really easy for just about anyone to bust out a tune. And couple that with someone who has a little real "inner feel" for music and rhythm and suddenly you've got wonderful creations by people who "know nothing about music."

That was it: me, with my laughably small parcels of musical understanding, asking to learn guitar parts from someone who sees and hears the notes as hand placements rather than notes: "Do this, this, that and that. You know?" speaking as his hands move up and down the neck of the guitar. I stare dumbly: "Umm. Yeah. So, uh, what chords exactly are those again?" In Imanant's case, it's not that he doesn't know the musical details, because he does (now), certainly more than me, but I think he still comes at playing the guitar--especially when fucking with simple garage-y ditties like ours--with that primitivist non-musico mindset that's more about hands and ears than keys and scales.


And so we are "writing songs". As I said, we came up with another new song on Wednesday, which I'm especially excited about because it was basically all mine--though anyone who'd witnessed our session would see how essential it for me to have these guys to work with: "Ok, so I wrote these words that go 'dah-dah-dah-duh-dah'--I want some kind of guitar part that's kind of like 'duh-duh duh-duh duh-duh'. You know?" I started to get a little stressed but luckily Doorknobs, my rock of Gibraltar, cooled me off.

I'm really looking forward to Saturday when we can move all the equipment out of my kitchen and begin laying some finished work.


For any non-musician interested in learning more about the foundations of music, I highly recommend checking out Daniel Levitin's Your Brain On Music. His descriptions are clear and concise and he uses language that is inclusive rather than exclusive (in the way that discussions about music often can be). I got Your Brain on Music as a gift this past Christmas from someone who knows me well and I really feel like it speaks to me in a powerful way--it's basically the perfect book for a person who loves music but maybe doesn't "understand" the details of what they're hearing and why they love (or hate) it so much. For an obsessive like myself who relies on music to paint the walls of every room I'm in it's become almost a Bible in the way I feel it's opened my brain up to new ideas and ways of seeing and hearing.

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