The Skills of Expression
For the last year or so my workouts and long car rides have been accompanied by Marc Maron, Terry Gross, Greg Kot and Jim Derogatis. Nothing passes time like a good interview, and yesterday while huffing and puffing on a stationary bicycle I heard a doozy of a conversation on Sound Opinions with multi-talented Esperanza Spalding, just another of the seemingly endless blind spots I have in my musical repertoire. I only knew Spalding as the bass player with big hair who beat out Justin Bieber for the Best New Artist Grammy some years ago, but after this interview I’m next in line to purchase her latest album, Emily’s D+Evolution. (Yes, that’s right, if you like a piece of art, you should buy it, not stream it on youtube.) This gal can not only play, she can express herself, think deeply, push boundaries and challenge conventional wisdom. If you haven’t heard the interview, I highly recommend it.
But it was the interesting juxtaposition of something Spalding said and a quote from a character in the Mike Mills film 20th Century Women that prompted me to write this blog.
20th Century Women is if nothing else a love song to punk music, and while I’ve never been a fan of the genre, I was taken with the following exchange as Dorothea – played by Annette Bening – challenges Abbie – played by Greta Gerwig – about the music she’s listening to (thanks to Wikiquote for making this easy):
Dorothea: What is that?
Abbie: It's The Raincoats.
Dorothea: Can't things just be pretty?
Jamie: Pretty music is used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is.
Dorothea: Ah, okay so... they're not very good, and they know that, right?
Abbie: Yeah, it's like they've got this feeling, and they don't have any skill, and they don't want skill, because it's really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that's raw. Isn't it great?
There’s something to this, I think, and it really made me consider punk music in a new way. There is something very powerful in expressing oneself in a raw, uninhibited way despite not having tools to do so eloquently. It happens at nearly every outdoor festival I play at. There’s always that one guy – usually shirtless – who stands near the side of the stage and dances. Dances like there’s no tomorrow, like he’s offering a primitive prayer to the heavens, arms and legs flailing, torso gyrating, eyes closed. This man is dancing despite not knowing how to pirouette or jeté, and there’s something very freeing and very pure about this, like when a three year-old joyously shakes and stomps to music. I wish I could express myself as uninhibitedly.
But in the Sound Opinions interview Spalding offers another way to consider things:
“You need technical prowess to express yourself freely. You don’t need to use all of it all of the time, but it really helps to have technical facility.” She goes on to mention dance troops who hire ballet dancers, not because they’re performing ballet, but because they need the technical skills to pull off the dance moves the troop requires. “Music is the same. Jazz music, whatever music. It’s just having more vocabulary, like you want to be a great writer and you discover that your vocabulary is limited, like you feel the crunch, like I want to have a place out here, I need to work on my vocabulary.”
And she is, of course, spot on. I think of the multitude of times that I wanted to get my point across in a sharp, succinct way, but couldn’t find the one word that would have allowed me to do so, instead leaning on very basic vocabulary that diluted my message. Similarly, when I play piano, there have been times when I wanted to take my playing to a new place, and although I could visualize exactly what I’d like to do, I didn’t have the technical skills to take me there.
It’s important that Spalding added the following caveat, “You don’t need to use all of it all of the time.” When my son was just learning drums and starting to come up with his own fills, I played for him the tom fills in Toto’s song, “Africa.” You know it well, but in case you need reminding, go to 1:10, 2:20 and 3:15 of the following video.
These are three of the simplest tom fills you’ll ever hear, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find any more effective. It’s important to note that Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro was among the most talented and most sought after drummers in the music industry at the time, and while he could have overcomplicated things (probably in a very tasteful and interesting way), he opted to offer simply what the song required. I imagine it’s the same in any art form. Ernest Hemmingway wrote relatively simply, but I suspect he could have rivaled F. Scott Fitzgerald’s word wizardly if he’d chosen to or needed to.
And that’s the ultimate aim of any musician, any artist or really any human being: to have the skills to express yourself in any way you see fit. If simplicity is required to express raw emotion like that of punk music, great. But if something more extravagant is needed, you can go into your bag of technical skills and do what’s required.