Performance – Part Two.
I distinctly remember the moment I realised I was singing a song which I had not written down or learned or planned, and which until that time had not existed, at the height of a live performance, during an encore in a small club in south London.
It had been one of those gigs which everything had conspired to wreck, but which despite or possibly because of frayed nerves, fallings out, fears about money, band members not showing up, broken instruments, strings missing and illness, we had collectively pulled off with a triumphant flourish. The audience were ours, dancing and cheering, the bar staff were grinning, the place was packed and people were still trying to come in from the cold outside. We were for that moment the focus of all the happiness in the world.
Being open to the moment, and caught by the spell, the words and the melody arrived without hindrance, and I was the conduit for the music, the singer and the song. It was freedom, and it was wonderful.
I am a writer, a crafter. In my previous collaborations with other musicians I was frequently the one with the techniques born of intense study and the benefits of education, bringing shape and harmonious order to the chaos of creative soup. I had often admired those gifted, confident souls who could just rock up, grab a guitar, and improvise a song on the spur of the moment. My own songs were born more privately and slowly, with much scribbling of pen on paper and the starting and stopping of audio recorder.
I knew that this wasn’t about quality – my crafted works were every bit as good – but I also knew that until then, somehow, I lacked the confidence just to let it out, uncensored and unchecked. It was the difference between swimming and sinking, between diving and a belly-flop. Once I had done it, I knew that I had just opened a door into the past and the future, and that it was not religion, or drugs, or academic study, that was the key, but music itself.
In the many years since finding that true freedom, I have found various ways to get into the zone. Stillness. Listening. Waiting. Trance. Dance. Movement. Playing music, listening to music, depriving myself of music. I still write like I always did, piece by piece, but, many times, I just open the door and let out whatever is in there, no matter what it is. It’s a great way of finding out who you really are.
Art Blakey the renowned jazz drummer said:
Music is a river, it must keep changing and flowing, or it will stagnate
Along with Art’s wisdom goes the oft-repeated theory that the mixed, mastered and released recording never sounds as good as the demo, the popular justification for which goes something like this: working to a script (including the structured, orderly recording process) kills spontaneity. This is not true, of course, per se, and I have heard many demos which, thrillingly inspired and raw though they may be, are far inferior to the polished recording. But likewise, the old adage about not being able to make silk purses from pig’s ears also holds true.
There is also an older concept, which echoes throughout Zen Buddhism, that the writing down of things in order to describe and define them fixes them in one place and thus limits them, robbing them of some essential essence. But even this kind of spontaneity that Zen aspires to requires the rigorous discipline of meditation and mental training to achieve.
So, written or improvised? We have the best of both worlds. Many classical baroque pieces from hundreds of years ago, give directions for soloists to improvise entire passages of play. In all live music at the highest level, variation in interpretation is expected and celebrated, and some for some genres, jazz and rock in particular, improvisation is the mainstay. Musicians treat recordings (either audio or dots on paper) as a point of departure, as a reference, not as the best or most ultimate definition of a piece of music.
To arrive at the best, most of the time, we need to find a balance between the planned and the improvised.
The map is not the territory. No matter how “perfect” a recording may be, every time the music is played, or played back, it is different, for reasons of the human environment, cultural context, acoustics, air temperature, and most importantly of all, because musicians are different.
Children, total beginners, people who don’t consider themselves musically adept can all equally well come up with staggeringly beautiful melodies, and poignant lyrics which express truths at the heart of the human condition, but they will be enjoyed, then forgotten. What differentiates a writer from everyone else is the compulsion to record, to distil and set down the concepts from which the music flows so that it can be repeated. And yet, without performance, there is nothing.
As a writer, I am most interested in what happens when you don’t try to dam the river, but rather, let music be your raft, the vessel to take you and those with you into places which are inaccessible by other means. For me this works well as a balance to the techniques I have learned and invented. The best improvisors have spent all their lives mastering their craft, but in the moment, none of that knowledge is conscious, and it is not actually even necessary.
Performance is creation, and creation is learning, finding out where the music wants to go and going with it, from the beginning of time, to the end of time.
What great fortune musicians have.
You might want to read part one