Sunday, February 10, 2008

Finding the Funky Kink

"There are two types of people here: people who play instruments, and musicians."

I'm sure it's a quip that gets uttered any time both types of people gather together in the same room. In this particular case, it was some toothless codger at my mother's fiddle club, a talented old bastard stuck among a group of screeching, caterwauling octogenarian farts that celebrates more funerals than gigs. I've heard their practice cd and I'm sympathetic to his aphoristic feeling, even if it stings. The sound of them recalls all the joyless horrors of high school band sessions, and my mind fills in the details of a harried, underpaid director, hopelessly trying to flail three dozen instruments into the same time and the same tune with his little wand as the musi players all saw away with an urgent confused focus or with blithe, individual abandon. It's not an inappropriate venue for my poor dear Mum (who, I'll emphasize, is not reading this) as she hardly feels it in her at all. Even now that it's inexplicably become a family thing, she still hasn't found that funky kink in her soul, the smirking, expectant, excitable little asperity of animus that coaxes music into being, or responds to it. You can imagine the mindset that got her auditioning solo in front of all those geriatric cranks, that certain combination of stubbornness and cluelessness. It runs in the family. And she impresses the hell out of me.

Still, I'd much rather be the musician in that epigram. It's not because I'm a particularly aspirational sort of person (really kind of the opposite), or because I'm particularly good at it (I'm not), but it's a growing torture to have this body of understanding looming so close to the edge of my apperception. It's like a familiar face I can't put a name to, or a missing phrase that will perfectly express my thought--or maybe like that enthusiastic but retarded little psychic drummer that was happy enough to keep my jerky internal rhythms going at their own idiot pace for thirty years before noticing the sounds around him, and who is now deluded to think he can march the body to that external time, or even worse, maybe has the idea he can express our own oddly syncopated thrumming to outside minds--and it taunts me just out of my reach. If I get nothing else out of music lessons, maybe I'll convince myself to eradicate these sorts of shitty metaphors from my vocabulary.

I'm up to two of 'em so far (lessons that is, already in double digits with the language thing), and I think they're great. I don't know how good a teacher I have (certainly he's a hell of a player), but I appreciate for now the loose approach we've been going at it, focused more on opening up paths than on inflicting instructional drills. I can go ahead and wade through the drear on my own, and playing (nervously) along with someone (much) better after I've been getting some pointers lifts me right up. I'm almost annoyed that I have to pay someone fifty bucks a pop to show me where the door is, but there you are.

An example of what I mean: in the middle of teaching me this one riff, I ask him about the rhythm he's backing me up with, and it breaks off on a tangent about the chord shapes I know, and some of his more arthritic variations. "I like the chop chords, but these barre ones sound nice sometimes. Is it important to practice them in general, you think?" "Dude, it's good to practice everything." It's like I needed permission. But as importantly, it's like I needed to be told the point of developing more than the usual default shapes.

This tidbit kicked off a quest to develop some better understanding of music theory. It had gotten to the point in the various intermediate and introductory manuals where it was more difficult to keep explaining the simplified version than to just come out with a reasonably comprehensive approach to the subject. I needed a little more of the why of it, and a little less ad hoc explanation. (I sometimes had similar problems with undergraduate engineering courses.) That five-minute tangent is also providing a new appreciation for contortionism as I twist my fingers through sixty pages of mandolin chords. I don't expect to memorize them all, but it's great for limbering the digits and feeling out the constructions by ear and hand.

The frustrating thing on a mandolin is also one of the things that makes it simpler to play than an instrument where you can theoretically reach everything. With only four (pairs of) strings and only so many physically possible ways to wrench your knuckles, the number of chord voicings is limited. In almost every case, you're stuck playing an inversion, or for anything past the seventh degree, with a chunk of the middle cut out. I find both of these things to be a little maddening, because they can sound very different to my primitive ear, and the right voicing, in the right context, can be the difference between euphony and cacophony, even when you're plucking the same basic notes. I mean, how do you know? You could learn the half-dozen fingerings for each of the eighty-three motherfuckers I've had named to me so far, and there's still no guarantee you're a musician. There's more to knowing the tones and the shapes, more even than knowing when to use them. There's this business of the funky kinks: that killer intuition for what sounds right, and much as I think the book-learning can augment musicianship, build it up to dizzying levels in fact, it sure ain't the source of it.

There are a couple of keys on a mandolin that lend themselves to strumming with hardly any input from your fingers. On his blog, Claude Scales featured a musician a month or two ago, some pie-faced, but still rather handsome, chap (must be the hair) grooving out a Canadian folk tune in the key of G. He sings well in his style, but I'm hesitant to call anybody who's showing off something even I can pick up in half an hour as a mandolin player. What even took me that long is that I didn't immediately recognize the chord he sneaks in between the G and the C, the one that gives the song it's real character. It feels like an anticipatory lift, a ride over a swell just big enough to change the view for a moment before sinking back into the usual pattern, temporarily vertiginous, but well in control. It's exactly the thing that makes it feel like a sea chantey instead of the all the bluesy redneck versions of the same Island tunes, what puts it on the shores of Nova Scotia in fact, and not in the hills of Appalachia. The open (unfretted) chords lend to that feeling too, as does his non-percussive rhythm strumming. The sound flows instead of stomps. I doubt the Bard of Cornwall is a theory nut--based on his videos, he only seems to know four or five chords and play in one or two keys--and I doubt in my thick mando tome, I'll find a picture of the Gorton fisherman next to a chord progression with that major seventh in it. He hit that fret, I imagine, for no other reason than it felt right. I could read music theory all fucking day long and never make that leap.

It's not different in any field. The reason I remain a mediocre engineer or chemist (or whatever the hell it is I do) is that I don't find so much satisfaction from scratching the itch that it justifies the depths of scientific monomania. (My employers only make this worse.) It's too easy to yank the tension out of my internal geeky knot. I'm undoubtedly less musically inclined, but here I find it more rewarding. If you find one of those funky kinks, I guess the best thing you can do is stroke it, get the joy out of it you can.

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