According to Nicolas Slonimsky (author of the seminal Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, 1947), there are 479,001,600 possible ways of configuring the 12 note chromatic scale. This doesn’t include reversals, rhythmic variations or repetitions. I think the well of music creation is far from dry!
When I played in cover bands in the 80s (bands that played other people’s hits, past and present), there were many nights where I would look at the list of maybe 30 songs and see essentially the same formula – over and over – with only the key, the melody, tempo and lyrics changing. The window dressing changed but the view was always the same.
What is astounding, is that in 2016 so little has changed. When I listen to contemporary music, often I can’t tell when in the last fifty years, the piece was written. I hear the same half-dozen formulas. What disturbs me greatly is the ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ approach to song production, where bits and pieces of old and new material are stitched together, usually with a ubiquitious rap, and sold as the ‘next big thing’.
The recording industry, from around 1960-2000, made a lot of money for not many people. As an industry manufacturing and marketing a product, it became reliant on the usual factors essential for survival which included competition, fast replication and minimal risk taking. The reason for the homogeneity of pop music now, is partly to do with this. Risk taking is not advisable; nor is creativity, because, heck! We might have to change our thinking!
I’m hoping that now, with the demise of the power of recording companies, artists will again experiment, take risks, and create. In the last few years we’ve seen the stirrings of this in mainstream genres such as Metal and Country.
One genre that has essentially escaped the confines of the bland pop template is Jazz. Jazz is less visual, more aural, and you don’t have to be good-looking, or young, or in-the-news to be a jazz muso. You do however, have to be pretty good on your instrument.
Contrary to the pop music demographic, the modern jazz audience demands, embraces, and rewards experimentation. They listen more than watch, and they abhor predictability. I consider Jazz to be like a ‘research and development’ department – what’s being worked on here will be pop music in ten years time. Just ask Quincy Jones.
Next week is Allan Holdsworth’s birthday. He will be 70. Happy birthday, Mr Holdsworth. For those who don’t know of Holdsworth, he is considered by many (including myself) to be the greatest living exponent of improvised electric guitar. The other person often mentioned with Holdsworth is the late jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Coincidentally, both studied the Slonimsky book I mentioned at the start of this blog.
Holdsworth, like Coltrane, has taken experimentation and innovation to the edge. It’s difficult now to even say that he’s a jazz musician. His improvisations have no point of reference to guitar playing – you won’t hear Clapton, Joe Pass, or any of the Greats. His chords and progressions are unique. Referring to my last blog (You can’t tell the time…), analysis of Holdsworth’s material is pointless, but listening to it is sublime. He plays the guitar with exquisite naivety, as if he has never heard another guitarist in his life, and yet improvises profound lines of linear beauty.
Holdsworth is on the record as saying it’s been a hard road. He has paid for existing outside the box: he tours rarely and sells very little product. Apart from the guitar-playing community, he is unknown. Within that community he is spoken of with awe. Sadly, it will probably take his passing for him to receive the recognition he deserves.
If you haven’t yet heard Holdsworth, then please listen to two entry-level Holdsworth pieces. Both are on YouTube: Joshua – Allan Holdsworth and A Kinder Eye – Level 42 with Allan Holdsworth. Both solos are exceptionally lyrical.
It is difficult to promote creativity because, paradoxically, creativity in mainstream music comes with constraints. The major product of experimentation is unfortunately, failure. These days, we are taught that failure travels with you and it has a big stick. The easiest way to avoid it is to stay in ‘that lane’ and leave true creativity to those foolish few who venture into the unknown.
So, how do we motivate people to think outside the box, even while the music business is enticing them into it? Watch this space.