Thursday, December 11, 2014

Musical Diversity - Accentuating the Similarities

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There’s a research paper entitled Mozart to Metallica: A Comparison of Musical Sequences and Similarities, by Stuart Cunningham, Vic Grout and Harry Bergen. The paper found that “Many musical pieces, though perceived as being greatly different in terms of their style, are often very similarly constructed on a strictly notational basis”.

Now that I’m attempting to play and notate some music by ear, I am noticing this more myself. Genre has its uses and conveniences for categorizing and selling music to the general public, and as a player of music you can delve pretty deep into the nuances of different styles and traditions if that’s your thing, but the more I play and study music, the more I see the similarities.

I personally define traditional music as the act of creating music on your own, for your own enjoyment, using some type of musical instrument. This must have been how people did it back in the days before recordings, mp3s and clicking play. If you’re sitting on your front porch playing guitar, then you’re playing music in a traditional fashion, no matter what sound is coming out. It could be Bach or it could be Mary Had A Little Lamb.  One could also argue that pursuing your own musical interests based on the influences around you is more traditional than going out of your way to preserve an archaic style.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

To me, (tenor banjo) is a music equalizer. I can use it to pluck any instrumental melody that my ears are capable of hearing and my fingers are capable of playing. The universality of this act neutralizes the concepts of musical genre, style, tradition and other perceived differences. In other words, a classical composition, a fiddle tune, a jazz standard, an Eastern European folk song – when envisioned/interpreted as notes on the 4-string banjo – sort of all become the same thing, rather than a bunch of very different things. At this micro-level, the only genre is the genre of making music on your instrument. There’s a lot of freedom in that.

The tenor banjo is one of the core instruments in Irish traditional music. It’s loud, it cuts through the din and it uses the same fingerings as the fiddle. It made sense for it to be adopted into the fold. But, when I play an Irish tune on tenor banjo, I try and view it as more of a coincidence than an association with an established style. Irish tunes are just one of many things I might want to play on this instrument. Hopefully, I’d still be playing Irish tunes on the tenor banjo even if there wasn’t already a precedent for it (although it is nice to have that roadmap).

Everything is malleable. For example, I’m pretty sure the Phish song Guyute is in 6/8 time like a jig (if it’s not it could be). When stripped of its album version, its arena-rock context, and its jamband distinction, and with no one to please but yourself, playing Guyute on your instrument should be fundamentally no different than playing something like Irish Washerwoman on it. Conversely, when stripped of its clichéd “Irishness”, playing Irish Washerwoman on the tenor banjo should be no different than playing an arrangement of Guyute on it. It works both ways. One is no more or less an aberration than the other.

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