Greetings from the trenches of the classical guitar world! This week your intrepid reporter is in search of some mad guitar skillz at the 20th incarnation of the National Guitar Workshop Classical Guitar Summit in lovely New Milford, CT. In fact, I’m preparing this dispatch while seated at the front window of the charming Bank Street Coffee House in that same city. The coffee is excellent; it’s a highly recommended stop if you’re ever here in New Milford. In any case, I’ll spare you the guitar shop talk and poetic waxing about the finest of instruments (do head on over to my usual haunt if you do want to suffer in that particular fashion, though), and instead hip you to something every musician or music lover should check out.
The back story: One of the courses I’m taking here at the festival is called “The Sense of Sound” and it’s taught by the encyclopedically brilliant, musically unparalleled, and astoundingly inspiring Julian Gray, who also happens to be my teacher down at Peabody (you should be very jealous). The course is meant as an examination of the two meanings of the word “sense” and an exploration of how the two possible understandings of the phrase “the sense of sound” affect music making. In other words, answering the questions “how does one make sense of music, and how does a performer go about expressing that sense to a listener?” and “how do all of a performer’s senses work together to produce musical sound?” Today Julian pointed out that when some individuals set out to make sense of music their genius, or their curiosity, or whatever else leads them to discover something that had never existed before — that new styles are forged only when a new understanding of musical grammar or emotional content is reached. To prove his point he played two recordings of the same cornet player, one Louis Armstrong, on either side of his discovery of jazz. The first, from I think 1931, smacks of the typical, it could be any dixieland trumpeter tooting out a bugle call. The second, however, from 1933, is a revelation. It swings, it groves, there’s breath in sound of some notes, and pitches swirl in an intoxicating stew of heartfelt emotion. It’s also blatantly clear that the playing is Armstrong’s. It could be no one else. What’s incredible, though, is that the arpeggio of the bugle call still looms large. The basic musical material is exactly the same. What’s different truly is that Armstrong understanding of what that bugle call is and means. He truly birthed jazz by making sense of the arpeggio in a new and unprecedented way.
Thinking about musical innovation in this way is, I think, eye opening. We’ve had the same 12 notes for more or less 800 or so years, and the system of organizing them that still predominates both popular and “classical” music we’ve had for about 400. But just think for a second about the range of styles, both personal and collective, that have come and gone and come back again in that time. Think about how much grew out of so little. Words don’t quite do justice to this concept, so go out and grab an Armstrong collection and compare early and later stuff(seriously, do it, don’t just look at me like I’m crazy). Check out the world of difference between the two — he’s playing the same notes, but man does he make sense out of them in wildly divergent ways.