The Art of Improvisation 3

I have a further theory. I see three things as coming into play with learning and playing music. Three primary elements of any art: a triangle of Emotion, Aesthetics and Technique. These are three points of view of art. Some music only has one point of view, or is primarily concerned with one, at the expense of the other two. And this is not to say that there aren’t other viewpoints.


Let’s define our terms here. Everyone knows what emotion is, of course. You can think of emotions as wavelengths of feelings. You can go from utter despair and death up through exhilaration, with everything else in between.


Take the Sex Pistols. They were a remarkably emotional punk band of the mid 70s. Primal rage is how they struck me. Young screaming rage. It was amazing listening to them on that level. I heard them from my solar plexus. There’s very little else there, for me personally.  They didn’t have a particularly great sense of aesthetics – no great beauty, except in perhaps the lack of it. There was no technique to speak of, except in the lack of it. Sid Vicious admittedly couldn't even play the bass. But Sex Pistols were exactly not about that.


Or you can think of some great delta blues musicians. Completely emotional.  That’s where that music lives.  I also listen to delta blues from my solar plexus. Playing those big acoustic guitars with thick strings about an inch off the fretboard must not have been easy.  And delta blues, solo guitar while singing is not easy, but it was not about technique. Most of these guys didn’t even know what they were doing or what the names of the chords were, and rarely did they stay in meter. There was a wonderful aesthetic, but the music wasn’t about beauty. It was about pain, and that was it’s aesthetic. But the music was REALLY about emotion.


Aesthetics is the sense of beauty, or a scale of beauty from ugly. Ugly beauty. Beautiful pain. It’s the poetry of music or art. It’s the imagination, ideas and concepts behind it.


Music that is primarily aesthetic with little emotion or technique: I think of a style of music that was popular a few years ago called new age. Some new age is wonderful, if a bit boring. Long, simple chords creating a poetic effect. No particular emotion and no technical knowledge or ability, to speak of. Randomly and softly grab two or three black keys on a piano and every now and then let go and grab some more. It was very cool and beautiful, but little other substance for me personally. Some of it was great. Some of it was wall paper.


Technique is our entryway. It’s the physical ability to execute on an instrument or ability to write a composition. It’s the theory and mental knowledge of the subject. You learn an instrument through technique; where to put your fingers and how to get a good sound.


We’ve all heard certain people termed shredders who can play 200 miles per hour, sometimes with no real content. They seem to be devoid of emotion or aesthetic principles, but their complete intention is to devastate you with their blistering speed and physical mastery of the instrument. You can appreciate this music on that level alone.  That is the point of view to take to appreciate that music.  


I think the best is to try to achieve a balance – a high order of balance. Of course I think of jazz musicians because that’s my field. I think of John Coltrane, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock. These musicians were amazingly balanced in those three areas. They could create from varied viewpoints of expressions and emotions; they had unwavering imagination and creativity – aesthetics, and they all had ridiculous amounts of technique and musical know-how to assist them in their pursuit of the creative impulse. But their technique served the purposes of their aesthetics and emotions. And this can further be a challenge because so much jazz music demands a high level of technical ability and musical know-how.


The challenge and the difficult part is the way we learn and the way music is taught is pretty much, only through TECHNIQUE.  You don’t teach guitar by having the student read Keats or go watch a sunrise. You don’t teach or learn the guitar by getting into fights with your girlfriend or falling in love. Those things and events live in the pool, vault or repository of impressions.


As a musician and a student musician you must not fail to remember these other elements, as they will, more than likely, be left out of your studies.  So much effort is placed on KNOWING HOW to play. Knowing how to feel and having something to say and purpose of beauty is something that’s left to you as an artist.


Further I think the music that tends to stand the test of time; the music that has legs and lasts, is music that is balanced in these three areas. Beethoven, Debussy, Brahms, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Gershwin, The Beatles, were all balanced. They all created music that was emotional, visionary, beautiful and was technically savvy, to a certain extent.  Aesthetics, Emotion and Technique.


Why is this important?  It’s not, except to maybe remind oneself of the other elements.© Henry Robinett 2020