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Transparent Music Pt 1

November 21st, 2007 | 1 Comment | Categories: bass ideas · Musing on Music · tips for musicians |

Nope, this isn’t going to be a review of the excellent BJ Cole album of the same name (though that always comes highly recommended!) – no, in this context, transparent music relates to making music that isn’t obscured by the technical and ego-laden concerns of the creator… It’s something that bassists seem to struggle with more than most, often content to label what we do as ‘bass music’ or to see other bassists as a target market. So many bass-led albums end up being largely displays of technical virtuosity and bass-ish gimmickry devoid of much musical content. Or even with plenty of musical content obscured by the techno-wank going on over the top.

I dispensed with the idea of targeting bassists as my primary market a long time ago. I did so not because I don’t like bassists listening to what I do (dear bassists of the world, I love you very much indeed), but because of how it affected the way I thought about making music. As I’ve reiterated here a number of times, impressing bassists isn’t that hard – indeed it’s often the stuff that is least musical by a particular artist that gets the strongest accolades from the bassists of the world – youtube is full of half-assed bass cleverness getting the ‘wow that’s amazing!!!’ treatment from the enthralled bass playing teenagers of the planet. But will it ever get airplay? Probably not. Will you ever see it on a gig of any kind? Probably not. That’s not to say that the people making it shouldn’t be doing it – of course anyone can make whatever noises they want and upload the vids to youtube without me policing it!!! – but it’s important to be aware of what’s at work, and how it affects YOU the artist.

If you find yourself thinking about your target audience when you’re making your music, in a ‘this’ll wow them’ kind of way, that’s going to affect the emotional range of what you come up with. Guaranteed. You’re narrowing yourself to ‘wow music’, and that’s not, for the most part, a particularly fertile furrow to plough.

So this is where the idea of transparent music comes in – music unobscured by the technical overload ladened on to leave teen bassist’s tongues hanging out. Music where the story, the emotion, the vibe, the scene that’s being set is foremost in the listener’s awareness when they’re listening.

So am I saying that technique isn’t important? Of course I’m not. Technique is doubly important because it has no real currency in and of itself, so it needs to be learnt, perfected and then set to work serving the greater musical picture. It needs to be much more highly developed given that the cleverness of it will be no coverup for a bunch of fluffed notes, when it’s meant to be conveying something else to the listener.

It requires mindfulness and maturity, clarity of thought and purpose, and is particularly difficult if you’re thinking about how you’re going to sell the end product when you’ve finished it. But no-one said make great music would be easy. It clearly isn’t, given how much risibly dire shit gets through the radio/magazine/tv filters – most music is at best mediocre. Which is all the more of a challenge to make something of substance. As Ellis Marsalis once told his son Wynton – “those who play for applause, that’s all they get.” – technique has to be at the service of something deeper, or it becomes circus performance.

And of course, it goes without saying that that deeper thing can be incredibly technically advanced – have a listen to Michael Manring, Don Ross, John Coltrane etc. etc…. It’s just that in each case, the music, the passion, the spirit is deeply evident in every note.

In the UK for quite a few years through the late 90s and early 00s the exact opposite of the flashness thing was true – musicians were actively shying away from appearing to be technically proficient, preferring to sound shitty and untrained as a way of appearing to be 4 REAL. Bollocks. It just meant that nothing grooved and a whole load of musical language that REQUIRES proficiency dropped off the musical map for a while.

One of the reasons that so many times of musical transition have been characterised by drug use is not that drugs make you more creative. It’s just that they shut off the voices that tell you what you CAN’T do. And very few people can be bothered to go through the process of shutting out those voices in a way that doesn’t rely on drugs. It’s tough. It’s really hard to filter through the thousands of messages we get from marketeers about how we should be, what we should like, what’s cool and why cool matters. And it’s all utter bullshit. Picking a path through it is a life long pursuit, and a daily one at that. A process of naming and disregarding the BS voices trying to get us to conform and consume.

It’s the same in the music world as anywhere else. Fads, fashions, new gear, new software, new models for this and that. Buy a new bass and your tone will magically compensate for the 10 years of half-assed non-focussed practice that you haven’t been doing. Picking through that, realising that there aren’t any short cuts, but there are efficient ways of doing the work, there are useful ways of thinking about what it is that we do that will help us cut down on wasted time and get to the place of creativity and clarity sooner, and without needing to get stoned to be there.

Feel free to post your thoughts and experiences in the comments, before I expand on this in Pt II. :o)

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One Comment so far ↓

  • GREGORY BRUCE CAMPBELL

    “Picking a path through it is a life long pursuit, and a daily one at that. A process of naming and disregarding the BS voices trying to get us to conform and consume.”

    GREAT ARTICLE STEVE! I FOUND INSPIRATION IN HERE AND REALLY DUG THE LINE I QUOTED ABOVE…

    THE PATH IS LIFE LONG!!!

    AND I HAVE A HARD TIME TURING OFF THE VOICES SO OFTEN AND THEY ARE 99% OF THE TIME FELLOW BASSISTS

    I’M GOING TO GO READ THIS AGAIN…