What's up with that?

Welcome to What's Up With That? A weekly question and answer sesh in which we focus on pressing issues in the music (geek) world. You email it in, and as long as the question ends with "What's up with that?" I'll answer it. That's the way it works. Let's have the first question:

Johnny Punk Rock emailed in with this question: "You always seem to get pop musicians who don't know anything about music, but who can improvise anything. They can just make stuff up! And then you have classical musicians: technically proficient musicians who can't make up a thing. They don't make a sound unless music is put in front of them. How come classical musicians can't make anything up?
What's up with that? "

Well, Johnny, the answer is that classical musicians can't improvise because all of thier technical training and knowledge of music theory has sucked the soul right out of them. If you think that's not true, ask yourself this: have you ever seen a classical musician's soul? Oh, and it's true with pop musicians too. Everyone knows that if a pop musician knows too much theory, or if he's too technically proficient on his instrument, not only will he not be able to make anything up, but he'll also have no soul. Have you ever seen your bandmate's soul? I mean the guy who can tell you the names of all the chords and who knows all about scales and stuff? That guy? Have you seen his soul? I rest my case. And don't get me started on jazz guys. Oh man, they don't even have fashion sense, let alone souls. What's up with the porkpie hats? And the suit vest over tee shirts? And the goatees? No no. Anyone with that kind of technical knowledge and proficiency on his instrument has absolutely no soul at all. Especially the ones with soul patches. If you have to tell people you have a soul, then you don't have one.

If you heard the cheek in my tone during that last paragraph, you get a prize! It's, of course, a myth among pop musicians that knowing about music stifles creativity, or that technical proficiency yeilds cold, soul-less playing. It's true of some players, but it isn't a rule. Classical musicians have trouble improvising because they cultivate a different set of skills. They're trained to interpret music, not to invent it, which means they have to have a wide range of technical abilities, but they don't exercise their improvisation skills. Nothing is wrong with that. The implication for us pop musicians, however, is that if we want to have classical musicians come play on our stuff, we have to write out the music for them. This means that we have to know a lot about their instruments and how to arrange them. This isn't always true, though. I've seen pop musicians who improvise their own string and horn arrangements on a keyboard and it sounds great. I've also seen pop musicians bring in strings and horns and just have the players improvise. That works sometimes. But most of the time that approach yeilds limited results. Usually, if you aren't in a "shambly ensemble" band, the result is a very middle range, flat, long note drone underneath the music. If that's what you want, fine, but even being able to write a drone is better than coming up with one by accident. If you want a truly nuanced, sparkling arrangement that ties in well with the music you've made, you should really learn arranging. But that's just my opinion.

Then there are pop musicians who can improvise really well, but they don't know anything about music. In fact, they cling rather stubbornly to an ignorance of the language of music that kind of grates on me, personally. I don't think you have to know everything, and certainly no one likes a gearhead, but when you're staring at a guitar player trying to spell out a chord for him and he's just hunched over his guitar staring at you goggle eyed, absolutely refusing to understand you, it just makes you want to smash a music fundamentals textbook over his head. Anyway, for pop musicians, the focus is not on interpreting old music, but on spontaneously composing as a group brand new music. That's hard to do, because more often than not the skill levels in any given pop group are widely varied. Jimmy and Titch might know all about thier instruments and theory, while Mickey and Frank don't know anything and just go on instinct. That can make writing music really tough. But they get it done; usually to wonderful effect.

And then there are jazz musicians. They are technically and theoretically proficient AND they not only improvise, but they can also compose and interpret music. They are superhuman. And, listen, even if I thought most of the music they make is lame, and I'm not saying I do, you have to admit they have skills.They're the most flexible of all of us. You can get as complicated and as simple as you like in jazz.
Miles Davis composed entire songs made up of only two chords. Even math-rockers aren't that flexible. Half of what they do is by accident anyway. Try asking a math rocker to sing you a love ballad, or play in 4. He'll hit you with his graphing calculator while his friends scoff at your outfit. No, a jazz player's skills only make him more flexible. Jazz dudes can get together and, never even having met before, make a performance of a song sound like they rehearsed it for years. It's really awe inspiring. Even if you think their music is shit, you have to admit it's amazing to be able to do that. I have first-hand experience of how hard it is, and how much training goes into it. Those boys and girls work very hard.

So there you have it. Every musician has a different focus, and a different set of skills. Even punk rockers have skills. They have the power to get really far under my skin, for one. And they can do that chugga chugga thing. And they can scream really loud. In fact, I think there's only one skill punk rockers lack: subtelty. Subtelty is not even a card in their deck. That said, there's something to be said for loud music. There's also something to be said for plane crashes, oil slicks, and swallowing tacks.