Music As It Was Meant To Be

Music is meant to be experienced. In fact, I would posit that music doesn’t actually exist until it’s experienced – in time, in space, in sound waves vibrating through the air. The old “tree-falling-in-the-forest” riddle is applicable here. Yes, the tree does make a sound, but only when someone is there to hear it does that sound have any meaning?

Music is meant to be experienced. In fact, I would posit that music doesn’t actually exist until it’s experienced – in time, in space, in sound waves vibrating through the air. The old “tree-falling-in-the-forest” riddle is applicable here. Yes, the tree does make a sound, but only when someone is there to hear it does that sound have any meaning?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how the experience of a particular type of music depends on its basic nature and what impact this should have on musical creation. One thing that’s been helpful in my thought process has been to consider whether a piece of music is essentially a monologue or a dialogue. I say essentially because most musical styles fit solidly in one camp or the other.

Monologic music is that which is entirely (or almost entirely) set in advance and represents a singular musical statement. The goal of monologic music is to present the composition as accurately and expressively as possible. Though there is some room for interpretation by the performer, ultimately the experience should be of the composition rather than of the performance.

Dialogic music is quite the opposite in that there is room for improvisatory dialogue between the musicians.  What one performer plays affects the others and vice-versa.  This dialogue can also exist between the performer and the listener in that the response and mood of the audience affects not only the energy of the performance but also the content of the music itself. The experience of this music is more about the performance than it is about the composition. These two types of music-making are quite different in intent and execution and this should be taken into consideration when composing and programming music.

It’s not necessary to choose one over the other since there are musicians who are great at both and individuals who equally enjoy monologic and dialogic music. However, there are circumstances and venues that benefit one more than the other. When NO BS! Brass (of which I am a member) performed at the VCU Department of Music’s BrassFest in October, we played on the concert hall stage for a very well-behaved audience. It was a pleasant change to not have people shouting over the music and to not have any televisions on in the room; however the closest person to us was 40 feet away and about 4 feet below us (and if you know anything about NO BS!, you know that we are not “above” our audience). It was weird. The fundamental characteristic of NO BS!’s music is that it encourages a dialogue among the band members and between the band and the audience. The concert hall stage is, quite simply, not an ideal place for music like that to be presented. How much communication can take place when the band members are spread out on a large stage and when the audience is removed from the performance both physically and through standard concert hall etiquette? The ability to perceive the communication among the performers and to communicate with them through dancing, shouting, clapping, and eye contact requires a smaller, informal performance environment.

The concert hall is much better suited to monologic music, where the ultimate experience for the listener would be to hear the music as the composer intended it. The separation that a concert hall creates is beneficial here, in that it allows the audience to experience the blended, final product without being distracted by the individual musicians and without the performers being distracted by the audience. It has become vogue for classical music organizations to present concerts by small ensembles in bars and clubs in an attempt to attract new audiences. A few years ago, I heard a very fine string quartet from Boston perform pieces by Mozart, Ligeti, and Webern at a bar in downtown Richmond. While it was a neat concept and an enjoyable show, that music doesn’t thrive in a setting where there is a lot of ambient noise (conversations, cash register, drink glasses, etc.) and where the instruments’ tones don’t have a chance to blend in the room.

Obviously the quality of each kind of music depends on the ability and vision of the creator(s). As I discussed in my last article for RVA News, the best monologic music can seem organic, spontaneous, and soulful; and great dialogic improvisation can have balance, structure, and cohesion. However, though the greatest examples of composed and improvised music can share all of these qualities – balance, structure, spontaneity, and soulfulness – the ultimate experience of these two types of music is still determined by which camp they fall into.

What I have just said is controversial. It probably doesn’t upset anyone to say that classical music doesn’t “belong” in a bar or club, but I’d imagine that some people will take issue with my saying that dialogic music – jazz, funk, salsa, jam band, and avant garde – doesn’t “work” in the concert hall or festival stage. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there should not be a Jazz at Lincoln Center, or that the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio should only play clubs and not European opera houses, or that the gigantic jazz festivals shouldn’t exist. Those things are good for the promotion of improvised music and they have their virtues, to be sure. What I am saying is that those places, by their very nature, are less conducive to the social nature of dialogic music.

There’s a reason that individual venues tend to only present either monologic or dialogic music and it’s not because jazz or salsa isn’t good enough for the Paris Opera House or that classical music is too good for Bogart’s Back Room. Because music’s existence is inextricably linked to its real-time experience, a piece of music is quickly ruined when presented in a setting that does not respect its very nature.

Though, as I said, most music fits solidly into one camp or the other, there are many musicians (myself included) who are interested in taking best of what monologic and dialogic music have to offer. What I have found is that it is much easier said than done. It is a challenge to live in both worlds simultaneously as a performer (and as a composer) and even harder to find a venue and an audience that is ideally suited to music that at once draws from different worlds and yet does not fit in any of them. That said, I believe that it is a rewarding experience for both the musician and the audience.

Below is an example of my music that is both monologic and dialogic. It is an arrangement of a short (0:25 long) beginner piano piece by Béla Bartók. I expanded it by adding elements of New Orleans jazz, Duke Ellington, and free jazz. The piece is titled: Mikrokosmos #75: “Triplets.” It features myself on flugelhorn and Jason Scott on tenor saxophone. As you listen, think about where this piece might be best performed. Drop me a line if you figure it out.


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Taylor Barnett

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