Friday, June 12, 2009

Less is More: Leaving Space for Other Musicians

When playing in an ensemble, a really good ensemble with fine chops, you may get ahead of your inspiration and play too much. You can always play too much. The talent in the other people you jam with will invoke you to add to their texture, always trying to further the search for the golden overlap, a sheet of sound, if you will; but then there is always space. Nothing like empty space to inspire you.

For instance: You (we'll say piano player), B the bass player, G the guitarist, and D the drummer are all jamming on a 4/4 shuffle; the tune takes an instrumental turn and you all start to trade solos, as we all know that as a musician, you either play with the band, or over the band (rhythm and lead). It is your turn to solo after G, and instead of going off on some Johnnie-Johnson-Boogie-Woogie tangent, you will inspire and accent the band a little bit.

Cliches and familiar riffing must be executed in a mutated yet tasteful manner for them to be any bit pleasant. Nothing is worse than hearing a bad and repetative, double-string Chuck Berry riff that doesn't suggest anything else. Subconsciously as a soloist, you know what phrase you want to say next; however, instead, play only a fragment of the phrase and delete the other half from your working mind; this will not only leave room for different ideas but it will also complement (as well as bring forth) the rhythm and drums. Your ideas are good only if you sacrifice the best, it will come forth later on; instead focus on what you don't know. I say this because chances are, they don't know. This promotes exploration, and more space.

You feel your way when you don't know; musicians listen when they don't play. If you know B, D, and G as well as you think, then you know their frequent voice patterns; you know how this note resolves the other in G's riffs, and you know when D is hinting in another direction. What will inspire you is to hear things they don't usually do, or rather, fragments and infinished parts of what they usually do. Your subconscious will say, "That's weird, he didn't play the rest of that riff he always does...well, he's not audible for this split-nano-second so I should fill the space!"

It's just an exercise. Don't be surprised if new songs come pouring out of your rehearsal space. Another experiment worth trying when soloing, involves either the use or complete disuse, of a note. B.B. King was famous for returning back to the root note (a high, crying root note that is) after voluptuous bends, and doing so sometimes throughout his entire solos; he gave his listeners the note they wanted, sometimes unexpectedly or sometimes right on the money. One could appeal to a more technical listener if he/she avoided the root notes, focusing more on fifths or chromatic thirds; the musician continuously beats around the bush of the expected note(s), causing antsiness and attentiveness in the listener while also forcing more challenges and excursions within the musician.

Miles Davis is probably one of the most famous "less-is-more" musicians. There was a concert he held in his early So What days where he only played one note at the very start, and proceeded to let his band play the rest of the show as he listened. Listen to him play melodies and notice how he quite often leaves crucial notes out of the melody, keeping listeners, but more or less himself, on their toes.

Bottom line, music is but another language humans have conceived; if you talk too much, no one will listen. They may hear it and try to listen, but to no avail. Music is a language that, in large groups, humans interact and sound their voices all at once; obvious contrary to common vocal communication where participants speak and then proceed to silence themselves in acknowledgment of the other person's verbal intentions. With that in mind, music should be dealt with carefully. The bass line has a hole to jump in but also leaves a hole for the percussion to jump in. The pianist's right hand plays on the off-beat of the shuffle, while the guitarist's right hand rakes up with the piano, but immediately back down to meet the percussion on the snare hit. Every instrument has a certain niche and spot in every song; playing less and listening more is the key to unlocking it.