Vision, Artistry and Music

I have recently been thinking about deeper meanings in music; how abstract playing an instrument is to making meaningful music. Alliteration aside… Glenn Gould’s beautiful performance of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations spurred my mind into thought last night (whilst I couldn’t sleep), so before I go on do watch some of this video.

Gould is amazing. Everything he does is intertwined with meaning (character, emotion; those things which have a very human gravitas or connection), the very fact that he is singing as he is playing augments the performance. As I said, last night as I was perpetually not sleeping, listening to Gould made me think of a couple of important subjects. Note that I reference performers, but in my opinion this is equally valid to composers.

The best musicians who give the best performances have a strong vision; they have conviction to play the music with their own voice and embrace the music almost as if they had lost self-awareness.

Technique alone means nothing to music; technique is a hindrance if solely pursued. (Within the heading “Technique” I would include any physical aspects of playing which do not address interpretation or the human element of performance).

I have been careful with my word choice; I am not trying to make a blanket statement to grab a short shock value, for that I would be much more blatant.



Listening to Gould’s above performance really linked my above points. He does not have perfect technique, however he was a virtuoso pianist. Much more importantly is the musicality and daring of his performance which can only come from someone who has a real vision and conviction on how they want to perform. It is not good enough that we, as performers, would study just to copy what has been; there is no musical merit to that! There is a LOT to learn from transcription and diligent study – that is not in question. Also it is obvious that not everyone is going to be one of the most eccentric concert pianists ever to have lived, but you have a responsibility to put meaning in your performance and composition, otherwise it is pointless; a CD player will play your piece better, a sample library will flawlessly execute your performance (however clinical and devoid of nuance) only you can add the abstract notion of meaning.

A good example before I start talking in circles:

John Coltrane was one of the world’s greatest Tenor Saxophone players, he has left us a legacy, he had a strong confidence in his vision on how he wanted to play; he was not Charlie Parker II, he was John Coltrane. One of his most famous tunes is called “Giant Steps” which was released in 1960 on an album of the same name. The solo which Coltrane plays on this is iconic. It is bebop influenced and it is a for teller of things to come in Coltrane’s musical career, playing “sheets of sound” and with dense harmonic complexity and sheer virtuosity. None of this ability diminishes the recording, nor do the alternate takes. It was no secret that Coltrane, who obsessively practised, shedded this tune for a year before recording it. My point is that there is meaning in this music, I can appreciate the connection of music and musician.

Before we get to Coltrane, I will show a clip of Parker playing so that you have a reference point. Shoot me, but I wish Buddy Rich played less, and Charlie more!

This video has a very nice transcription which is mesmerising if you vacantly stare at it while the music plays. It is also interesting to musicians to see in their language.

And now, like Babe Ruth, I am going for the home run… A video that us music geeks know well; the Japanese robot playing Giant Steps. Remember, you aren’t far from this if you are set for perfect technique and neglect to personalise the music, or in fact if you have bad technique and just wade on through the music like washing the dishes.

And at 350 BPM! I can’t get through these videos, they are really nasty!

Time to finish off (I usually say this at the half way point of emails – for those of you who know me and get longer emails from me, you can smirk!). The players and examples above feature very capable, virtuosi instrumentalists, but my point on technique is fair. The pursuit of technique alone is meaningless, because although it will facilitate the playing of exceptionally demanding pieces, it is not inherently musical and meaningful. Caveat: Yes, I like my concerti without mistakes… I also like great cadenzas, exciting tempi, bebop, Wayne Bergeron and beer. These all require good facility on the instrument (Trumpeters dig the latter few… I hope!), but just to repeat myself; technique is meaningless without the cognitive effort of personalising the music you use it to play.

The importance of technique is more that a lack of it will impede your playing of certain music. I could not convincingly play through the “Carnival of Venice” by Arban. If I thought I would be able to express myself adequately with this piece of music, I would shed it really hard, however, I would prefer to have the technique required to play this piece because it is transferable to all aspects of playing which is why I study aspects of this. It is good to note that every clip that I have shown has players with phenomenal ability, players who obsessively practised. They didn’t have flawless technique, but I believe that their pursuit of technique was for a musical end and that they did indeed create music with meaning.

Another chronic practiser was Clifford Brown, one of the finest bebop trumpeters to have lived. Sadly a very young death halted what would have almost certainly been a ludicrous career in music; who knows what Brownie would have worked on!? Alas, that is not the point. He worked on his technique so that when he was to improvise, he could play what he heard in his head and what he wanted to express. A fairly famous solo of Brownie’s is on “Joy Spring” – it is technical but not cold or robotic, and you can hear the hours he spent shedding the changes and working on his playing so that when he recorded it there were fewer road blocks… Sometimes I can’t even see a road!

Ignore the picture of Miles. This is Brownie.

Voice, nuance and character within music – interpretation – links me to my final point. Yes, very few of us will be near Gould’s level of artistry (or eccentricity if you prefer to see it this way) but all of us are able of independent thought, don’t deny yourselves this in your music. OK, you could be playing somewhere very restrictive, like Violin II desk II in the Symphony, but you don’t need to pull the tempi to pieces as Gould does. The magnitude of the effect of your personalisation of the music need not be anywhere as dramatic as Gould’s; the only important level is personal if you are consciously doing this, obviously soloists get much more freedom in this respect. Alternatively you can take the Eroica at half tempo. Email me if you do, I would love to know what your conductor says 😀

As a tentative link to interpretation and technique: Freddie Hubbard playing Clifford Brown’s Joy Spring.

Obviously with Jazz the improvisation is the perfect place to personalise the music, it is also very easy to think that “your thing” isn’t acceptable and therefore you just imitate. Freddie clearly didn’t. Freddie’s technique wasn’t perfect; he had a lot of embouchure problems, yet his artistry was not affected. There are points here to address at another stage, I don’t want to loose the point of this in a sea of Philosophy, improvisation, Jazz and the like.

I hope that this wasn’t too rambly, and made some sense. The barrier between a feeling and the words to usefully convey it is immense, just know that I am earnest about what I write and am in no sense of the word a “professional” performer or musician. I love music, I love playing and composing. I am happy in what I do… and when I hear the video I am about to post, I am literally speechless. (considering that in the recording he was early 20s, record contract age 14, age 17 recorded what I would class as “sickest trumpet chops ever” on his CD “Carmen Fantasy” available on Teldec I believe. This has to be heard to believed.)

Sergei Nakariakov playing a transcription of “Rondo Capriccioso”. Sergei is probably the greatest Trumpeter to have ever lived. He is capable of outstanding virtuosity, and musicality.



About Michael Barkley

Trumpet player/tutor, luthier, jazz enthusiast, coffee addict.
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