Monday, October 1, 2012

Clarity of Time

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. “

When I was coming up I would often do a solo or groove so ‘hip’ I would ‘lose’ the rest of the band.  I would get annoyed that they did not share my level of hipness.  In reality, as the old adage states, I think it was a case of two hips making an ass.

As bass players we hold a very special relationship with time.  With our teammate, the drummer, we are the keeper of the groove.  In thinking about time though I have come to the realization that there are so many ways of conceiving of it.  For the sake of this discussion I want to think of it as a linear succession of events.  I think of it as continuum.  We are the ones that are choosing to subdivide and ornament it in different ways.  By this every possible subdivision always exists.   I think that is it beneficial for us to think of time as a fluid, organic, and chaotic thing that we are shaping. This gives us freedom and doesn’t pigeonhole into just one view of time.

So how does clarity fit into this?  Once you are comfortable with the idea that time is undefined and you are the one defining it I think you can be a more active participant.  The hard part about this is acknowledging infinite possibilities. The time or groove is not something you are subjected to like hopping on a moving train.  Instead you are taking a formless thing and shaping it.  You are building a foundation with only your own will for the window-dressings to sit upon.  A foundation needs to be strong and deep but it also needs to fit the building that is being build on top of it.  Too much and the building will look silly, to little and it will fall down.

As a digression this all brings to mind Zeno’s arrow paradox and a great Aristotle quote.  “If everything occupies an equal space at rest, and that which is in locomotion is always occupying space at any moment, the flying arrow is therefore motionless.”  Basically the idea is that in any one instant of time, the arrow is neither moving to where it is, nor to where it is not. It cannot move to where it is not, because no time elapses for it to move there; it cannot move to where it is, because it is already there. In other words, at every instant of time there is no motion occurring. If everything is motionless at every instant, then time is entirely composed of instants.  I think of these because it is thinking of time as a series of points.  The notes we choose are that series.

This brings back the idea that clarity is about perception.  Develop the ability to step outside yourself and listen to the group as a whole.  What you perceive as the hippest groove in the world might just not be the right one for the song at hand.  Divide time in such a way the you build a strong foundation.  And most of all be comfortable enough with time that every note you play is with purpose and intention.

Time is such a huge topic and I may make a second post about it.  Feel free to comment and let’s see where it takes us.  

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Clarity of Tone

Clarity of tone

“All vibrations need a conduit before they can be born. A vibration is nothing until it has something to bounce off of.”  Victor L Wooten

When I was thinking about what part of my playing to apply the concept of clarity to first I found an argument that each aspect was the ‘most important’.  As I thought more about it, each part needs to work in synergy with the others to create the total picture.  For the sake of these musings I’m going to start with tone.  Tone is where it all begins in my conception.

In thinking about it I first asked myself the question What is tone?  The obvious answer is it is the sound you produce from the instrument but as I thought more about it I realized it is also, in the case of ensemble playing, how you blend with the group.  The goal with any ensemble is to sound like a single unit.  A great ensemble player develops the ability to step outside of themselves and listen  to the group as a whole taking note of their place in it.  This place is not one of just decibel balance with other instruments but also tonal balance. 

Where does your instrument sit in relation to others tonally?  I think often a mistake of more novice players is to turn up or play harder if they feel they are lacking in the mix.  While this is sometimes the appropriate course of action, other times it is about as effective as trying to knock down a brick wall with your head.  I think developing the ability to hear what you are competing with sonically is key.

Just a note,  As a double bass player that enjoys playing acoustically I wanted my amplified tone to be as close to my acoustic tone as possible.  When I was happy with how my tone was sitting in the mix I made some physical changes to my bass rather than tweaking nobs.

So we come back to how clarity applies to tone.  A tone that sits in a discrete place in the mix yet blends with the ensemble without needing to be forced with volume is a tone with clarity.

We all have been in situations where the people we play with don’t take the same level of care.  That’s why I believe it starts with tone.  Nobody is going to want to listen to what you have to say if you are yelling into a megaphone in an unpleasant voice.

I am not going to talk specifically about tone production on the double bass.  It is something that I have spent countless hours working on and is a HUGE topic.  If you really want to get my thoughts on it send me an email and well set up a time to meet face to face with basses in hand.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


“Once you achieve technical facility you’re either a musician or you’re not.  You’re either a creative person or a stenographer”  -Charles Mingus

In recent years I have been applying different concepts to my music making.  A concept that I started focusing on a couple years ago in how I conceptualize improvising and composing is the issue of ‘clarity’.  Clarity can be a very broad concept encompassing tone, time, solo lines, melodies, chord structures… really everything. 

To me the goal of any kind of music is to move the listener.  I think it is easy to become technically proficient at an instrument.  It is quite another to ‘say something’.  I remember when I was in undergrad I played what I thought was a particularly blazing solo and felt very proud of myself.  One of the instructors looked at me and said “one wrong note by Miles says more than a thousand right notes by you”.  At the time I just thought it was kind of a mean thing to say.  As I’ve matured as a player I have come to a better understanding of that comment.  Miles’ solos were so moving that in 1983 George Russell arranged Miles’ solo on So What for big band on the record of the same name.  Kinda Blue is still the #1 selling jazz record of all time (last I checked) and I venture to bet that more babies have been made to that record than maybe any other. 

So when I started trying to apply this overarching concept to everything I do musically (and non-musically for that matter) I stopped to think how it could be applied.  Since an idea as broad and subjective as clarity doesn’t really have a tangible right or wrong answer I had to look outside myself.  I started thinking that clarity is not coming from within but rather how my ideas are being perceived by others. 

There is a desire in the arts to put it on the consumer if they don’t ‘get it’.  We as artists say aloof things like they just aren’t ‘hip enough’.  The consumer feels stupid and since nobody wants to feel that way they move over to something they can understand and moves them.  But in the spirit of communication isn’t the idea to make art that people WANT to view or listen to?  I don’t think this means it can’t be challenging.  But art is a community activity.  I think the producer and the consumer have equal parts in the creation of the art.  After all without both it doesn’t exist.

This is where the concept of clarity comes in.  To me clarity is about presenting any idea in a way that everyone involved can understand the idea.  This doesn’t mean compromising your artistic ideal but you wouldn’t walk into a room and start speaking gibberish.  You can however craft those words in a way that moves your audience.  I believe the same to be true in the visual arts and music.

In the subsequent posts I am going to be writing about how I have applied of clarity to different aspects of my playing and writing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

musings about dynamics

“A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians. “
Frank Zappa

Sunday night I went to see Fred Hersch at the Jazz Showcase.  As expected I really enjoyed the show.  I was talking to a friend and he was not as floored.  He felt the show lacked dynamic range.  I disagreed but it got me thinking about what dynamics are.  Traditionally they are defined as the little letters or volume markings under the music.  I think they are so much more.  So here are my musings.

In my mind dynamics are all about physical volume and density.  How much space the notes take up and how close together they are.  As the quote alludes to above, we are imposing our will on air molecules.  I like to think about this as a 3 dimensional process.  I define volume not in the acoustic sense but rather in the geometric sense.  How much space the notes take up and how densely they occupy that space.  The 3 dimensions in my model are the traditional ones of length, width, and height.

Length refers to horizontal density, how many notes in a line, and how relatively consonant or dissonant they are to the prevailing harmony.   Any of these factors can cause the line to take up more space.  More notes, more rhythmic variation, more dissonance equals greater volume and density.   Less notes, less rhythmic variation, more consonance equals less volume and less density.

Height refers to vertical density, how many notes are in a chord voicing, closed or open voicing, and relative consonance or dissonance to the prevailing harmony.  Open consonant voicings are perceived as quiet and closed dissonant voicings are perceived as loud.

Width refers to acoustic loudness.  Notes at a higher decibel level will be virtue of the amount of air molecules they are exciting take up more space.

These three factors contribute to dynamics.

A note about consonance.   Pythagoras and later Helmholtz talked about how acoustically consonant an interval sounded was based on frequency ratios.  Pythagoras theorized that frequencies with ratios of lower simple numbers were more consonant than those that are higher.   Later Helmholtz theorized about partials (harmonics and overtones).  He felt that consonance had to do with the coincidence of partials.  Basically the idea that every note or interval has a series of harmonic overtones associated with it.  How these partials coincide determines how relatively consonant or dissonant a collection of pitches will be.  I like these definitions because they say nothing about the traditional idea the consonant equals pleasant and dissonant unpleasant.  Rather they just speak to the level of acoustic activity.

Dynamics are about the amount of space a pitch or collection of pitches take up.  The amount of activity.  Fred and others like him have really made me rethink to whole concept.  Music doesn’t have to be of a high decibel level to be loud.