The hired-hand conditions of most starting-out professional musicians, especially those not starting from the fairly defining set of contacts, techniques and expectations of mainstream conservatoire training, tend to produce a highly fragmented musical picture. For me certainly it has so far been four gigs one week, none the next; save £400 in June only to outspend my earnings by £500 in July; today Haydn, tomorrow neo-soul, next week steampunk and wedding reception Irish rock.
This tends to go smack in the face against all the (now very) late-Romantic ideas about creativity, artistry, originality, self-expression etc. that are still the bedrock of most Western thought about people that make music, write, draw, and so on. I’m determined to be pragmatic and adaptable about my paying music – which is part of why I prefer the label ‘craft’ to ‘art’ for what I do. But I’ve written about that at length in other posts and wanted to not repeat myself too much in this one.
This blog contains musings almost as scattered as my gigs and clients. Little individually more or less coherent disquisitions on orchestral performance practice, or playing style, or the visual aspects of musical performance, and so on and on and on. Is there a connecting worldview or value-set? And is there a connecting thread to how I play music, or am I as pure a musical chameleon as ability and knowledge will allow?
The cheat answer on the musical front at least is to argue that everything I do becomes coherent because I do it. But I don’t think that answer means anything in real terms.
Perhaps, in a paradox that typically appeals to me, the unifying thread is a desire to avoid ‘I want to play this’ and ‘I want to do it this way’ ‘because I like it’. The vast majority of what I do for money involves a deliberate and willing adoption of the tastes and expectations of the context. You want gloopy, unaccented, vibrato-laden Romantic orchestral string playing? You shall have it. Jigs and reels at such speed that tone and most aspects of technique have to be sacrificed to sheer tempo? Right you are. You’d rather I played without anything written in front of me even if it means questionably accurate renditions, or bounced around the stage like a first-generation punk even though I slip out of tune? Monsieur has excellent taste, sans doute.
I wouldn’t say I carry this to its logical extreme. I will tend to go very easy on vibrato playing Haydn, regardless of whether any gestures to period performance are being made by the rest of the orchestra. If I’m asked to write a backing string arrangement (rather than transcribe existing material to fit the real instruments available), I’m likely to try and make more use of technical, timbral and textural variety, and indeed of straightforward rhythm, melody and non-repetition, than the exemplars the client was probably thinking of because to my mind stereotypical jazz and pop string section writing is just lazy and limited.
So am I the musician that does nothing for myself? Well, maybe nearly. But even that won’t cover the full picture. It doesn’t make any real sense of my actively seeking out unusual style-instrument combinations, like blues violin or jazz viola, where there isn’t a model or much in the way of expectations to match. Nor does it explain what I write my parts out of with The Filthy Spectacula – where there is a deliberate mishmash of genres, the music is all new, and pretty much none of the influences we draw on at a distance feature strong precedent for fiddle as lead instrument. I mean, at least you can say roughly what ska-punk bass might sound like, or a rockabilly drum beat, or dark cabaret vocals even. Anyone got any ideas of what gothic violin playing typically constitutes? Yet this is the area where perhaps my playing / writing / improvising are most appreciated.
Contradiction remains the unifying feature. Quelle surprise.