Friday, November 11, 2005

Maybe you have to be a composer to enjoy composed music. I did. When I first began listening to jazz, I avoided big bands like the plague. I thought they were stiff; the antithesis of jazz, which happened when a few guys got together to improvise. Then someone gave me a Don Byron CD. Then I checked out Ellington. Finally, Berklee forced me to write and conduct music in front of live bands -- and something clicked. I fell in love.

Now, probably one-third of the stuff I buy is through-composed. It was something that I couldn't appreciate until I had actually done it; and once I had, I experienced one of those moments where you realize the vast scope of your own ignorance. Even as a writer, it wasn't until I tried composing that I realized just how scary can be a blank sheet of paper.

Kerrie still doesn't like big bands. For her, and for many people, music without lyrics is already a stretch; when you introduce six different lines and eight different timbres, it's just too much information. I can sympathize; I have the same reaction when she tries to explain her finance homework to me. I sincerely try to listen...but by the time she's thrown four different numbers at me, I'm like a deer in headlights. I can do simple arithmetic fine, but I get lost in complex math. It's just too much information.

I've been asked how to kindle appreciation for big bands in people who relate them to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. The best idea I've found is to let them find a building block: Listen for motivic development. People can be overwhelmed by immediately trying to pick out a small motif; instead, just listen for a pattern. It's that simple. You'll hear it; humans are particularly keen at detecting patterns.

Once found, that pattern can be broken down like a fractal into smaller fragments which share a common attribute -- maybe a similar rhythm, like two long and one short; or maybe a similar shape, like three ascending pitches followed by one low note. And that's the key to understanding most composed music. Just like any pattern: Once you've found it, you'll find yourself compulsively listening for it in other places. You'll hear it, too, interpreted in myriad ways, some more recognizable than others -- but always reducible to that simple motif. And then, assuming the music's any good, you'll appreciate the cleverness of the composer in developing that motif.

There are any number of ways to begin wrapping your ears around this stuff. That's just one -- but I've suggested it and been told that it worked. I don't find it useful to try talking people into enjoying something they dislike; but if they can understand it, appreciate it, then at least they have a foothold.


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