Saturday, March 12, 2016

Five Ways Irish Music Has Influenced Me

For the last couple years a lot of my time spent playing music was spent playing Irish traditional music: instrumental jigs, reels, hornpipes and such. Although recently I've temporarily drifted away from that repertoire it still has an impact every time I pick up my tenor banjo and pluck a tune.
Here are five ways Irish music continues to influence me:

1) It's All About The Melody
I love how in Irish trad if you play a melody instrument you play the melody all the time in unison with others.  You never have to comp or take a solo.  There is some variation and improvisation but it's minimal - you pretty much just stick to the melody and structure of the tune as it keeps repeating.

This mindset of repeatedly playing the melody has carried over into everything I play.  It's basically the same as using an instrument to whistle.  I try and find songs with good melodies and then just play those melody lines as instrumental tunes.

2) Dispense With The Chords
Harmony plays a big role in most music but in Irish traditional music it matters not as much.  When a jazz horn player plays a standard, he is conscious of the chord of the moment and that informs his note choices during a solo.  As a melody player in Irish music you don't really need to be aware of the underlying chords in this way since the tune is the tune and the chords are secondary or arbitrary.  You can be aware to the extent that you add harmony like double stops at certain places but those selections are often optional and variable.

Irish music has given me the confidence to use this same "chordless" approach no matter what I am playing.

3) Modes, Modes, Modes
My own theories toward music theory have been helped along by my experience playing Irish music.  I realized quite early on that the "modal" and/or "minor" tunes common to the Irish session repertoire (tunes in E-Dorian, A-Dorian, D-Mixolydian, A-Mixolydian, B-Aeolian, E-Aeolian) are all melodies comprise of notes from either the D-major or G-major scales, but resolving to a tonal center other than the "1" of those major scales.

Because of this awareness which stemmed from Irish music, I now analyze almost any melody I am learning in terms of the major scale - even if the mode being used is Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, or Aeolian.  When you analyze melodies in terms of the universal major scale patterns start to show up and you understand that "sharp" or "flat" note only occurs when it is truly sharp or flat!  This way of thinking also makes it easier to play the same melody in other keys since the major scale is universal.  Being a Dorian tune, Cooley's Reel is always going center around note 2 of the major scale.  It's normally played in E-Dorian, which is the D-major scale, but if you wanted to play Cooley's in G-Dorian you would simply transfer every note to the F-major scale.
4) Music Doesn't Need An Audience
People who play Irish music are going to play whether there's an audience or not!  A jig or reel is musically complete when one person is playing it on a fiddle, even if there's nobody else around to hear it!  I do realize that Irish music stems to a type of dancing which suggests the speed and rhythm that a tune should be played at and that Irish sessions are social in nature.  But musically these traditional dance pieces do not require full band arrangements or dancers.

This lack of a need for an audience is contrary to the way we're conditioned to think about music.  What rock band practices without some aspect of entertainment or performance or getting a gig being taken into account?  Yes you can play music for fun as a hobby without having to have performance or entertainment as the ultimate driver.

5) My Instrument Of Choice
I love to play tenor banjo.  More specifically, I love to flat-pick or pluck melodies on tenor banjo. I don't really believe in genre or style when I'm playing something.  I don't really care where the piece came from or what kind of tune or song it is supposed to be.  I just like using a tenor banjo to sound out a melody.

It just so happens that there's a whole genre of music where people flat-pick melodies on tenor banjo and it's called Irish traditional music!  Being able to hear masters like Angelina Carberry and John Carty play tenor banjo in this way really helps.  I know what the sound of a flat-picked tenor banjo by an expert musician should sound like thanks to these Irish banjo players.  I may not want to always play tunes of Irish origin on tenor banjo but without that connection I don't know that I would have made that leap to the instrument at all.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Should You Play Music, Write Poems or Make Art?

Comedian Jon Benjamin has put out an experimental jazz album where he plays piano backed by professional musicians.  At the time of recording Benjamin didn’t know how to play piano – at all!  He was completely making it up on the spot.  It sounds like free jazz.  In an interview with NPR Jon Benjamin admitted “It's a real insult to people who try.

I think this is hilarious and brilliant.  Of course on some level it is an insult to just start banging away on piano keys when there are people who have put in years of discipline and practice into their musical talent.  On the other hand I do believe that with the right attitude and approach someone who has never played an instrument before can pick it up and start making music from day one.  That’s basically what I’ve been doing for the last ten years, off and on.

There are elephants, chimpanzees and pigs who paint.  Their work is very avant-garde.  I happen to dig this kind of art.  Is this an insult to actual trained abstract artists?  Probably.
From around 2005-2008 I lived in a shitty house in the country where it didn’t matter if I spilled paint everywhere.  Somewhere during that time I decided I was going to start painting.  There were these old boards out in the shed and I would get paint very diluted and use non-conventional devices like spray bottles and toothbrushes to splatter paint onto these boards and then let gravity do the rest. 

Some paint would miss the boards entirely and either fall to the ground or vanish in the air.  Bon voyage.  The paint that did land on the board would become the painting.  This diluted paint would trickle down through cracks and crevices of the wood, eventually drying and leaving what was basically a discolored paint stain.  That would be the finished piece.  It was on par with elephant, chimpanzee, pig and worm art.  I might start doing this again.  Is this insulting to actual painters who rely upon skill?

I like to write in a ruled composition notebook three or four times a week.  I fill up the entire page – never more than one page per day – always stopping when the page is full.  I usually write in a linear top to bottom, left to right fashion but not always.  Days, weeks, months, or years later I look back at what I’ve written and make a “poem” out of it, usually retaining 80% or more of the original text.

That composition notebook process is completely freeform – almost like automatic writing – but I hesitate to call it prose poetry.  It’s more like improvisational journal entries.  I rarely have any idea what I’m writing about as I'm doing it; I just start with a blank mind/page and don’t stop until the page is full.  The whole process probably takes about ten minutes or less.  This format and these parameters work for me.  Is this insulting to actual poets?  Certainly writing in a diary is OK to do and that’s essentially what this is.

A few years after I had been playing tenor banjo I convinced my wife to start playing a baritone ukulele so I could have someone to play backup to my melody.  She never had any lessons other than what I could show her, but within days of her getting the uke and learning chords I had her record an “album” with me that we put on Bandcamp.  Is this an insult to actual musicians?  People post crappy YouTube videos of themselves playing music all the time!
I started this blog over five years ago to primarily write about music.  I enjoy writing and it comes easy to me but I am no expert.  I didn't get an English degree and I certainly don’t have a degree in musicology.  I’m not a performing musician and I am definitely not a music teacher with actual students, but this space gives me a place to share music tips and music theory theories as if I do know what I'm talking about.