In our last post (Part I) we observed the phenomenon of nature to produce and possess unique beauty in what does not contain absolutely perfect measurement or proportion, composed of exquisite variation of form and ratio. In response, we talked about an artists’ role in placing emphasis on upstaging what is already beautiful, allowing it to express itself organically. Can we seek to include such variation in our own work and emulate these attributes? Sadly, we’re often guilty of over-aligning and over-correcting everything according to presuppositions, clouding what’s already marvelous and causing a lesser artistic result than what could be fully realized.
What exactly do we mean by all this and how do we apply it? How do we allow our music to express itself more naturally and to not obscure? If the answers were only easy and these articles can only hope to introduce the argument for further study. The end of our last post posed a few circumstances one might commonly run into, where the artist might try to over-think or overcompensate. To some degree, the simple answer is learning how to leave well enough alone and declare a project “finished!”; an art in itself. But that’s only touching the surface.
Consider a commonly used chord progression that inherently contains a moving harmonic flow that has lent itself to countless compositions. In such a case, it’s hard to say who originally “composed” that progression as it sounds like it has existed for an eternity. It’s like the musical forces that-be conceived them, and they’ve been graciously placed into our lap. So, in essence, we didn’t actually compose it, but we employ, or borrow its use and allow its attributes to form a new message; a new work or composition of our own. They become our building blocks, or medium, with which we can manifest what we want to form or compose. The same natural constructs are found in melodic and rhythmic forms, with qualities that have continually found their way into musical creations over the centuries.
To further illustrate, ponder a stone fireplace built using randomly shaped cobblestone or mountain rock. The fact that each stone is unique and irregular is the very motivation to utilize them because they’re organically whimsical and pleasing to behold. Typically, these stones would be stacked in such a way to allow their random shapes to artfully intersect and complement one another, and yet still produce a fireplace composition that contains a determined motif of height, width, and depth, and symmetry. Keep in mind that the same stone shapes could also be used to create countless other fireplace designs, as not being limited to the formation of only that one design. So we have to ask, did we create or compose these natural rock shapes? No, but we employed them to compose a pleasing fireplace idea as artistically desired by allowing the stones’ innate qualities to be highlighted. The medium already possesses fantastic variation and form, and the builder/artist appointed them in such a way as to upstage those strengths, yet compose a unique finished whole they could place their name on.
However, if we were to take these natural stone variations and mercilessly square them off and force them each into a uniform size, we might more easily create a perfectly proportionately shaped structure, but would run the risk of having the finished project appear over-worked and vain. Why? Because we ultimately dismissed what was already organically inspired and exquisite in and of itself, as if to foolishly exchange all that for an imposed grandeur of sorts that is likely contrived, at best. In this, we truly missed the mark and the point.
Being faithful to the natural forces of music as we’re examining may be more comfortable and more fitting within specific styles and genres than with others, but by no means excludes any. Intellectual categories are the first likely candidates, such as in more complex forms of jazz and impressionism. Please also note that we’re mainly referring to tonal, and not atonal, types of music. Here, we can allow melody, harmony, and rhythm to traverse and interact with one another more freely, allowing a result that’s not entirely dependent on artificial precision or presumptions.
Can we, therefore, allow our melody to move and have its being even if it doesn’t want to fit precisely within a four measure statement? Or do we have to force it into uniformity according to convention and sacrifice its natural inclination? Must the harmonic and rhythmic fabrics be subservient to the melody or can they also maintain their own autonomy while still complementing the whole? Perhaps a chord progression wants to be liberated from an imposed tonic/dominant formality and move whimsically into a new key center instead of cadencing in a usual manner. To do so, it may call for fewer beats per measure momentarily to accomplish such a desire. There may be other incidences where the context of the melodic and harmonic movement in a given passage does not perfectly align, but yet the whole makes for a profound statement. Under a microscope, it doesn’t appear viable but is breathtaking to behold upon stepping back and experiencing it over time.
At the expense of sounding like we must be wholly whimsical and asymmetrical at all times, we should be willing to appreciate and infuse what is non-proportional and capricious within the boundaries of standard form, on the merits that it accurately emulates our existence and the art found all around us. So, as inspired artists, let’s become more sensitive to the innate forces that facilitate our production of music. Taking a cue from nature, we can strive to not force our compositions into pre-supposed molds or expected measurement, and allow for a more organic outcome that highlights the inner virtues our medium extends to us. Doing so will allow for a touch of flawless imperfection that our work craves. Next time we’ll further this study with examples from Bob Brookmeyer’s masterful work, “First Love Song.”
Marc J Stasio is an east-coast based composer/arranger, pianist, educator, and author who actively lives out his calling producing scores for hire, serving as collegiate jazz faculty and performing abroad for nearly 40 years. His work is heard on recordings by today's top artists in jazz and contemporary music. As professor of jazz studies, he specializes in teaching composition and arranging based on “the Hidden Score,” with a dedicated blog by that title. Marc holds a B.M. in Arranging and a Masters degree in Jazz Studies. Visit http://marcstasio.com.
This article may be freely reprinted by including the author's bio and website address, above, subject to copyright law.