Wednesday, August 31, 2005

"What is your quest, man?"

Years ago, I had a high-larious friend who used to ask that questing in a variety of situations, some funny and some less so. But, "What is your quest, man?" was never more of a tension-releaser than when some musician or other was taking himself too seriously and becoming argumentative about it.

I think almost every dedicated musician, if they are honest with themselves, will admit to at least a brief episode or two of "over-seriousness", and that would certainly have applied to me (In spades) at numerous points in my past. The reason I bring this up is that I constantly encounter this "over-serious" attitude, and I am incredulous that I am often acused of being the over-serious one by those who cannot see their own over-seriousness (I hope you "heard what I meant" through the awkwardness of my expression there).

That got me to thinking, and so today's unplanned and totally left-field post was born.

If I look back to the beginning, as clearly as I can after all of these years, to encapsulate my initial motivation for playing music and writing music, it can best be reduced to a single word: Fun. Playing an instrument was fun, and I wanted to have fun. As soon as I learned a few chords, I began to make up my own primitive music... because it was fun. The simple joy of learning and discovery, and the pleasant satisfaction of creating something I enjoyed hammering away at, were all addictively fun things for me.

It is possible for me to trace every single last episode of unhappiness and over-seriousness I went through as a musician to losing sight of this earliest motivation. At one point, it got so bad that I left music entirely and spent a literal sabbatical of seven years in a non-musical career. Of course, I was initially "happy" at being free of the burdensome load that music had become for me (Which I was 100% responsible for), and I certainly made a lot more money than I ever had as a musician, but eventually I became even more depressed at not having music as my primary "quest" in life.

This conundrum was not resolved until I had enough time away from music to want to have fun with it again. More than that, though, my career outside of music had become so depressing that my continued pursuit of it became untenable due to the dileterious effects it was having on me both internally and externally.

So, when I decided to return to music, I resolved to just have fun with it, no matter what. At that point, I had not picked up a guitar for about three years, so I had to re-learn my entire repetoir of pieces, and that was fun in the most constructive sense possible, because I had to go back to the very beginning and in so doing I rediscovered the fun I had initially all those years (Decades, actually) before. I also decided to learn some pieces I'd always been meaning to learn, but had never made the time for. That was fun too. Starting the blog has been fun, since it has also allowed me to do some things I had always been meaning to do (Like analyzing the Ninth), but my seriously structured goals of old got in the way previously.

Which brings me to the point: These days, if I try to make an argumentative point in support of an opinion I hold about some aspect of music or other, I usually try to lace the point with some humor in the hopes that people will note that I'm not taking myself too seriously. I mean, I'm just a pimple in a bad patch of complexion on the corpus of music, and certainly don't expect to change the world or anything, but I actually have fun exchanging views with other musicians who have taken different paths on their individual quests (So long as they share the same attitude).

This approach works almost 100% of the time in face-to-face discussions, and fails miserably in internet discourses - at least with those suffering from over-seriousness disease - almost routinely at a 100% incidence rate with at least SOMEBODY who is reading. Certainly, the absense of mocking tone of voice, facial expressions, humorous gesticulations, etc. in print is partly responsible for this phenomenon, but the only excuse for missing a humorous aside or an obviously over-the-top bit of hyperbole is to a large extent in the eye of the overly-serious beholder.

If I look at this on an even deeper level, while trying to remain acutely self-depreciating, it is obvious to me that my over-serious episodes were born of insecurities that I was working my way through. One of the very best things about getting older is the process of maturing, a large part of which is becoming comfortable within one's own skin. At least, that's the way I look at it. Being genuinely happy with being a first-rate third-rate performer and composer in a region of small towns where everybody knows you, and is going to love your performance of "Spanish Fly" even when you almost invariably flub the same passage, is a very liberating level of enlightenment to be at. It_allows_me_the_freedom_to_have_fun.

The "Young and Overly-Serious" (Could be a good musical soap opera) can be quite cute, in an annoying sense in which one is shaking their head and chuckling simultaneously. A good anecdotal example of this type were some undergraduate classical guitarists I overheard at a GFA concert several years ago. These two spaz-tards spent an entire performance sitting in front of me critically analyzing a guitarist's technique: Nodding to each other in mutual reinforcement and tisk-tisking at every appearance of some percieved technical travesty ("Did you see that? He repeated his i finger three times in a row!"). I vividly remember this episode as a surrealist painting in my mind, the dichotomy of which was profound in a quasi-abject/quasi-funny kind of way. Since we were within a few rows of the performer, I was able to alternately shift my attention from his performance to the know-it-all undergraduate God's gifts to the guitar and their running commentary. The performer in question's identity is lost down the memory hole, but what I do remember is that it was a heartfelt performance during which some big risks were taken, some of which admittedly didn't have real happy endings. But, I was in a subdued state of awe at the fresness of the performance and the "come hell or high water" attitude the performer demonstrated in front of an audience consisting almost solely of other guitarists. Our two overly-serious antagonists obviously missed out on all of that, as their reaction at the end of the performance indicated.

Is this really the ideal attitude to have about music? Is a hyper-critical approach really constructive? This same overly-serious attitude that is easily understandable and readily excusable in the young dedicated student is, to be cheritable, less so on both accounts in the supposedly mature musician. The terms "stuffed shirt", "pompous ass", and "pretentious turd" spring to mind as things I have muttered to myself in the past.

I briefly had the extreme fortune to learn a bit from the late great jazz guitarist Herb Ellis many years ago. Herb was an extremely distinguished gentleman who was always genuinely supportive of and encouraging to aspiring guitarists. He was also genuinely enthusiastic about our lame attempts at performance, always clapping and pointing out the positive aspects of our attempts (Even when there really weren't any positive aspects) before offering suggestions for improvement. And that's just it: He invariably offered suggestions for improvement, and not criticism. To me, that is the ideal of the genuine mature virtuoso musician: Someone who is virtuous in their treatment of their fellows, regardless of their playing level. Others in this mold I have encountered would have to include Pat Martino and John McLaughlin: Both just absolutely beautiful guys with never a negative vibe to be found. Jackie King was also of this breed, though he is less well known (I still don't think there is a finer Bebop guitarist sucking air).

So, if you have lost sight of the aspect of fun that attracted you to music in the first place, stop right now and ask yourself, "What is my quest?" Or, if you are a guitarist pushing 50, re-learn Stairway to Heaven! Speaking of which...


Blogger solitudex said...

Did that really happen during the GFA? That was supposedly the most prestigious guitar competition and we have a bunch of immatured audience still, who value technical details more than musicality. I'm not having problems about people being hyper-critical, but some of them really show their ignorance in music through their criticisms on the wrong things. I still indulge myself in reading insightful and mature criticisms and I have to admit those criticisms do affect my choice of music when I buy them.

I'm glad that you made the right choice and came back to music after years of unsatisfying 'abstinence'. =)

10:16 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Well, you know, there are good an bad criticisms. I'm speaking of heartless negativity. That has no place in art, as far as I'm concerned.

For example, I'm critical of Eliot Fisk's Virtuoso Guitar CD. His ornamentations of Bach are WAY over the top and tasteless, IMO. But, no arguing he's a great player on other efforts. I like his Paganinni, for example.

Kazuhito Yamashita is another whom I've heard "wrongly" criticised, and rightly criticised. I actually met him and got his autograph after hearing him perform Dvorak's New World Symphony transcription. That is a monumental guitar transcription. But, his tone does suck by some standards, and I have a CD of concertos he played on that I think rank with Fisk's in terms of tastelessness.

No secret I'm also an ardent disgusted critic of contemporary Wagnerian traditional vocal technique. It tuns me off in an abject way. The striving for projection, volume, and deep vibrato simply create a campy caraciture when I hear it. Why aren't singers taught a range of expressive styles? I think that is a valid question. But I'm not demeaning the persons involved. They may be fine musicians by their standards. It's their standards I question, not them PERSONALLY.

It's the dismissive personal attacks I despise. Though I consider myself rightly immune to criticism, I've been a victim of that, and the people in question are supposedly "big names" in classical guitar. That may be, but I have no respect for them because of the less than constructive way they approached me. I have changed via CONSTRUCTIVE criticism before, but DESTRUCTIVE criticism had only made me more... well... rebellious.

12:14 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Very nice blog, hard to come by these days,

If you have a chance, can you visit my how to play guitar site

It has all guitar related stuff.


6:45 AM  

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