Question: What do Randy Newman, Bjork, and Brian Jones have in common? Answer: They’re all awesome!
(The following is a guest article from Trey Pollard. Read his bio at the end of the feature to learn more about him and why we felt it extremely necessary to tap his brain for musical insight.)
The most painful class I ever had to endure in college was called “Music Since 1945.” The class’s participants were mostly graduate vocal students and it focused on composers like Penderecki, Cage, Stockhausen, Babbitt, Ligeti and Carter and covered topics like the “twelve-tone row,” early electronic/synthesized music and “musique concrete.” What was painful about the class wasn’t the music we were studying, only the conversations that were fueled by listening to that music. Because of the nature of the course material and the nature of most of the participants, nearly everyday the question would come up: “Is this music?” Which would invariably lead to “Well, what is music?” This class met twice a week, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that we spent at least of one of those days every week debating and discussing “What music is.” To be honest, nothing interests me less than questioning whether a certain thing “is” or “isn’t” music. I’m inclined to just say it’s all music and move on. A more appropriate and enlightening question, for me, has always been: “Is this great music?” and if so, “Why is it great?”
I have come to believe that any “great music” has to have two things. The “first thing” is always the same: for lack of a more eloquent way of saying it, the music simply has to be “good.” For some types of music, an understanding of harmony and melody is crucial. For others, the music simply must be created with integrity and sincerity. The specifics of what makes a certain type of music good depends and varies a great deal and is not necessary or interesting to discuss with anyone except fellow musician geeks. I do not want to dismiss this “first thing” and imply that this it is somehow less important. However, it’s much more clearly quantifiable and has been written about at great length (in fact, the whole of music education consists entirely of this “first thing”). Now, the “second thing” is not as easily defined because it is always different. Essentially, it’s whatever focus or underlying qualities the music has, beyond the prerequisite “first thing.”
From what I can tell, Bjork is a basically a competent musician. Her songs are well crafted, and she certainly executes them well. Now, these qualities alone make her very good, but it’s not enough to make her great. Bjork’s “second thing” is how she creates limitations and boundaries for herself. The most obvious example of this is on her record Medulla, where she confines the instruments on the entire record to only the human voice. I once heard her speak of her record, Vespertine and how she wanted to try to make a record that sounded good on mp3 (at the time mp3s where just beginning to catch on). So she ended up recording things that had a very small, thin and sort of “crunchy” sound to it. There are many moments on Vespertine where she could have said “Forget this” and really let the “4 on the floor” electronics hit or the massive orchestra, that was quietly accompanying her, swell and explode over the top. But she didn’t. And what is most amazing about her records is that she really succeeds. These aren’t just “interesting” albums – they are quite extraordinary. She challenges herself ways that most pop artists like her do not. She’s not just writing good songs and singing them. I always get the feeling that she is really challenging herself, which I think is a sign of a real artist.
Listen to Bjork[audio:http://rvanews.net/sounds/2008/09/trey_Bjork.mp3]
One of my favorite musicians is also a prime example of this “second thing,” Randy Newman. What makes him great is ability to take cliché, and through subtle variation and humor, make it new again. Not just a competent musician, he has total mastery of the craft of writing western functional harmony. Randy Newman is a I-VI-II-V in carnate. But in his very thoughtful and deliberate way, he can put the slightest twist on a stymied turnaround and make it fresh and interesting. He can take the simplest harmonic movement and really “make you hear it,” like in “In Germany Before The War.” And his lyrics are essentially the verbal equivalent of his music. He’ll take a snippet of the “Star Spangled Banner” or “White Christmas” and put just the right line or change in it, and either make you hear the words like you never have before or inject new meaning into them. He, both, makes fun of you and lets you in on the joke. And because his source material is so deeply ingrained in our language, we can all “get” the joke.
Listen to Randy Newman[audio:http://rvanews.net/sounds/2008/09/trey_Randy.mp3]
Local musician/composer/ringleader Brian Jones is another great example. Brian is an amazing drummer and composer, but what, I think, makes his music great is that all of his compositions have just one focus/concept that basically “is the tune.” His music is straightforward and every tune has a little nugget of something, whether it’s a rhythmic idea, a melodic fragment, or an improvisation concept. It seems like he chooses this thing and the tune just sort of fleshes itself out. You can look at the chart for just a moment and say “Oh, I get it.” He can explain the tune in one sentence to the band. It’s not that it isn’t difficult or musically complicated, because often it is; it’s that the tunes are so clearly focused on one thing. This again makes them digestible for the musicians and the audience. Which is quite a feat considering that a lot of music in the avant garde/free jazz realm can very easily lose its listening audience. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he always enlists great local musicians to play his music. This alone, however, would not be enough. I have many albums that have unbelievably capable and amazing musicians on them, but do not hold my interest at all.
Listen to Brian Jones[audio:http://rvanews.net/sounds/2008/09/trey_Jones.mp3]
In the same way I dreaded our weekly “What is music?” debates, I have always had trepedations about writing and reading articles like this. And although I’m a bit weary of debating and overanalyzing the merits of the music that I love, I have found this “second thing” to be a refreshing way to examine the music that is dearest to me. At the risk of being presumptuous, I think that Bjork’s need to challenge and restrain herself is a part of who she is in the same way that Randy’s sarcastic but extremely skilled and self-aware nature is a part of who he is. This “second thing” gives a bit more insight into the person who created it, and also gives some insight into what it is about this music that has made it so significant for me.
Trey Pollard’s introduction to music began with piano lessons at the age of six. At age 12, he switched to the guitar. In high school, he attended the Governor’s School for the Performing Arts where he was first exposed to jazz from his guitar teacher Woody Beckner. After high school, Trey attended Virginia Commonwealth University as a Jazz Studies Major. There he studied jazz guitar with Mike Ess and arranging/composition with Doug Richards. Trey has been a member of Modern Groove Syndicate, The Devil’s Workshop Big Band, the Dean Fields Band, Brian Jones Double Guitar Quartet, Bungalo 6, Taylor Barnett’s 10-tet, and Rex Richardson’s X-Ray Rextet among others. Trey is a composer and has had his work played by the Devil’s Workshop, the Patchworkestra, the River City String Quartet, and Taylor Barnett’s 10tet. He also composes music for media and most recently has written for a Barack Obama TV ad as well as the feature film, Border Town, produced locally in Virginia.