There is a silent film starring the late Charlie Chaplin. He is working as a clock repairer in a jewellery store. A chap brings in a clock that isn’t working. Charlie examines it with his magnifying eyepiece for a while, puts the clock to his ear, checks it again, places it on his workbench. He then proceeds to dismantle the clock using a hammer, a can opener and screwdriver until all he has left is a heap of cogs, springs and broken glass littering the bench. The scene ends with Charlie putting the bits into the owner’s hat, handing it back and shaking his head sadly, as if to say, ‘Sorry mate. I can’t fix it.’
For many years, various guitar magazines have been placing transcriptions of interesting guitar solos and rhythm parts in their pages. One of the first and most treasured that I remember was Guitar Player magazine’s transcription of Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’. Another was Larry Carlton’s ‘Room 335’. Both are beautiful pieces of fine guitar playing. Gee, in the early 80’s in Sydney, if you couldn’t play either of those two pieces you could not get a look in for a serious job as a guitarist.
I, and the other 300 guitarists who lived in my suburb in Sydney, could play fairly large chunks of these solos pretty well. We even bought the gear – I was a ‘Larry Carlton’ guy with a Gibson 335 and Mesa Boogie amp – but something was missing. We could play this stuff; why then weren’t we as good as these players? The transcriptions in the magazines were incredibly detailed: every pick-scrape, whammy-bar dive, tap, and bend was explained; as were the scales and the chords. So why was the magic missing when we played these pieces?
Then I realised something very important – you can’t tell the time from inside a clock. Analysing something to death, pulling something apart until you can see every cell of it, is not the reverse process of creating it. No transcription can tell you what the creator was thinking, or what life journey they went through to arrive at that particular selection of notes. That is for them to know and for others to ponder. Beauty disappears the closer you get to it.
I think we have to exercise self-awareness when learning other artists’ works. It’s not that I think analysis in itself is a bad thing to do, but that we need to keep in mind exactly what we think we are accomplishing. We may wind up being able to play the piece as the original artist did, but may also end up fooling ourselves about our own ability to understand the creator and the work.
When I was studying the transcription of ‘Room 335’ (the Larry Carlton piece) in my motel room in the Territory outback back in 1982, one of my favourite bits turned out to be an ascending C Major scale. I thought, ‘Hang on. Even I know that! What the…?’
Some of my students have said in the past, ‘Yeah, I got the music and I’ve mastered that solo.’ My response is usually something like, ‘Firstly, well done! However, you might be able to play it but can you think it?’ And secondly, ‘You can never truly master someone else’s work.’ Sometimes too, we can miss the point that beauty also lives in those things of our own making.
This brings me to ask: are we losing the ability to create because our access to analysis is too convenient nowadays? Are we in danger of forgetting what ‘beauty’ is because we see it as a collection of bits?
I’m trying to keep the sense of wonder alive in my life (musical and otherwise). I’ve found most things are best experienced in their most profoundly beautiful state if you simply stand in wonder, at a distance, and don’t ask how, why, and how much.
You can’t tell the time from inside a clock.