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Musical Athleticism

July 14, 2010

I am no fan of music athleticism, be it in rock, jazz or classical music. By athleticism I mean aspiring to and celebrating music on the basis of its being high, fast and tortuous, and therefore very difficult to perform. Musical athleticism should not be confused with virtuosity, the general mastery of an instrument. The virtuoso can do the hairy stuff, but can also convey emotion, the essence of music.

I understood this when I learned folk guitar. But when I later took up electric I became confused as to whether music was an art or a sport. I found myself chasing the false God of pyrotechnics. My excuse is that I was young in a time when guitar heroes ruled among men, and as such tended to get the girls. That naturally meant that many guys vied for that position, strutting around with their Strats, each proclaiming he was the fastest axe-slinger in the West.

It was easy to get fooled because of guys like Mike Bloomfield and Jimi Hendrix. Their playing burned on the surface, and in their cases that fire was the outer manifestation of passions that ran deep.

Image by A. Vente via Wikimedia

I first got an inkling that some guys might be faking it when a friend took me to see his favorite band, Ten Years After. Alvin Lee had this one trick, this lickety-split riff that went Diddly-Doodely-Diddly and repeated for minutes on end.  My initial response was astonishment and humiliation: how could he – anybody! – keep doing that without his fingers falling off. Mine hurt just hearing it. But then I was bored, wondering – What else have you got? Nothing.

By the time of Woodstock, the vast world of rock music was rapidly shrinking to a battlefield where hot guitarists fought. I recently saw the celebrated film and found myself fast forwarding through many a guitar solo (not to speak of the drum solos).

By some point in the 70s most people were bored with the guitar game. Flashy playing got exiled to niche genres like Speed Metal or Fusion Jazz, where hot guitar players get to play for other hot guitar players while everyone else sits around bored.

The reaction against such self-indulgence is understandable, but has gone too far. Good guitarists today are lucky to get a single chorus of solo on an album. It’s a shame because we heard real musical promise in extended guitar work – in Hendrix or the Grateful Dead, or  Butterfield’s East/West.

I’ll admit, jazz has never been my thing. I don’t mind a little Miles in a restaurant, but as soon as they put on Be-Bop I’m annoyed. Yes, I know how hard it is to stream eighth notes over all those changes at a lightning tempo. But I knew that 5 minutes ago, fifty years ago. Now, please, just stop. As Chuck Berry put it, “I’ve got no kick against modern jazz, unless they try to play it too darn fast.” Which they do.

One kind of jazz I really like: Django Reihardt. Though he’s flashy, doing stuff with his two fingers we four fingered guys can only dream of, as with Bloomfield and Hendrix, there’s great feeling in his music.

What ruined guitar playing for me was the guy who married jazz to rock: John McLaughlin. I was at the first gig of his Mahavishnu Orchestra, at my college, Wesleyan, in 1971. In a matter of an hour he demolished my aspirations to be a guitar hero. I knew what he was doing was impossible for me, indeed for anyone else, no matter how many hours a day I might practice. It was like trying to ride a trike next to Lance Armstrong.

John McLaughlin

Recently I listened to the first Mahavishnu record. I was no longer intimidated, rather irritated. With the exception of the one slow, beautiful piece “A Lotus on Irish Streams,” what I heard McLaughlin convey through his music was the message:  “Got you beat suckers, just give it up now.”  Except I’d already done that back in 1971. Hearing McLaughlin had been the first step on my path to becoming a composer. I don’t regret it, because for me it’s always been more about the feeling than the flash.

Classical music has its own problems with athleticism. I love Glenn Gould and will defend his Bach against his detractors. But there are a number of preludes in the Well-Tempered Clavier that he takes at preposterous tempos. In them I hear the same message as McLaughlin’s –“Good luck going up against me, you guys.” I long to hear what gems Glenn might have unearthed in those pieces if he’d taken them slow enough that they didn’t pass like the TGV from Paris to Geneva.

To continue Chuck Berry’s thought: “And lose the beauty of the melody, until they sound just like a symphony.” Rather, a concerto. It’s in concertos for solo instruments with orchestra that the problem of musical athleticism crops up.

I’m pretty good with piano concertos up until the late Romantics. With Bach, they weren’t yet virtuoso showcases (though like all Bach, his concertos can be quite challenging.) Mozart and Beethoven started ramping up the technical demands on the keyboardist. It still doesn’t bother me. In Mozart I hear youthful exuberance, and in  Beethoven the kind of improvisatory virtuosity he was apparently quite possessed of as a performer. The two Brahms concertos I like fine. Maybe that’s because having played a little Brahms, I know he’s actually harder to play than he sounds.

When I hit the likes of Rachmaninoff I start having a problem. The guy can really write a melody, but just as I’m starting to enjoy one the piano sets off on some hair-raising passage. It sounds like the composer’s trying too hard to make the pianist try too hard.

What I really have trouble with is violin concertos. The fact that these instruments are so much more difficult than a piano or guitar to even get a single decent note in tune out of seems to have inspired composers, starting with Beethoven, to write stuff that’s ridiculously high, fast and awkward.  I’ve seen some of the best, like Joshua Bell, perform these works flawlessly. Yet the buzz it gives me is on the same level as seeing the Cirque du Soleil, minus all the great lights and costumes.

It’s notable that both Beethoven and Brahms only wrote one violin concerto. Each one of them glows with some of the finest melodies those composers ever penned. But just s I’m relaxing into them, that violin takes off like a rocket for the stratosphere. When they really get going they play high harmonics – a sound that falls on my rock and roll abused ears like fingernails on a blackboard.  When they get to the climax of the last movement of these pieces they start furiously sawing away, and though there’s only probably a couple of handfuls of fiddlers on the planet who can pull it off, it still sounds to me like just so much sawing.

Veneer Sawing

So hey – I appreciate how well you play that thing, the long hours you spent huddled over it growing up while the other kids were out having fun, being kids. But please, can you just play me that melody?

  1. Carolyn permalink

    My teacher and I were discussing the tempo of a Bach aria with a really sweet coloratura passage, which is fun to sing at a dazzling speed. She said,
    “I know you can sing it that fast, but we can’t hear it that fast.”

    • Thank you Carolyn, for illuminating another aspect of flashy playing. We don’t just do it to impress, or because audiences like to be impressed, but because of that child’s exhilaration in speed – it feels like running around, or sledding a steep hill. No so much fun to watch.

  2. Nice piece. I remember struggling with guitar heroes in the 60s until the penny dropped and suddenly I understood what they were doing. I’m probably as guilty as most in being awed by technical ability, but in the end I’m still bored by the lack of feeling. Some of my favourite players like Steve Hackett don’t play fast but pack their fewer notes with so much emotion, it hits deep.

    This urge to speed things up always seems to affect bands playing live. Some of my favourite songs have been ruined by bands charging through them at breakneck pace. My all time fav band, Lush, were a bit prone to this until I discovered their take on ‘Thoughtforms’ ( which, if anything, is slower than the recorded version and it is just gorgeous. Sometimes slower is better.

    • True. I would add that nervousness in green performers almost always leads to jacked up tempos, with sometimes disastrous or hilarious results. And then there’s that first Grateful Dead album performed on amphetamines.

  3. It’s funny you mention this as I was just remembering an old discussion I got into on a message board about groove vs. technique… In particular the discussion turned into one about drummers Neal Peart of Rush vs. the late Jeff Porcaro of Toto/Steely Dan/countless others…

    Inevitably it was decided that Porcaro was one of the best groove drummers and Peart was one of the best technical drummers and you can’t really compare the two as their focuses are/were so much different from one another.

    For guitarists you mentioned a couple I thoroughly enjoy (and for the reasons you stated): Django Reinhardt and Mike Bloomfield. Those 2 cats were brilliant because while they both had good technique it wasn’t at the expense of the feeling/emotion/passion of the music. They knew how to marry the mastery of technique with the expression of emotion– that’s something not many can do, at least not with the level of mastery that they both did. Another couple I’d add to that list are the late John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service and the late Terry Kath of Chicago.

  4. Despite the fact I was raised on rock and roll, I gotta go with Django as “The Man”.

    Great post — keep ’em comin’.

  5. Great post. I’ve long thought that too many players go for loud and fast for no other reason than doing it. I especially agree, in hindsight, with your thoughts on “Woodstock” and on Ten Years After. And I’m gonna throw another name into the mix of guitarists with admirable restraint: Duane Allman.

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