The Flute and Global Fusion

2009 December 13

In his comment on my first post, Paul Van Heuklom said, “Your thoughts and experience with the fusion and global aspects of music and flute playing are much appreciated and welcomed. I, for one, am very interested in ideas about transcending particular genres, conventions, and cultures–without losing sight of them in the process.” Thanks, Paul, that’s where I’m going to begin. What is our role as a flute player in a fusion context, and how can we best fill it? I think in order answer to that question, we should begin by asking two more questions. “What features do most styles of music have in common?” And “What are the distinguishing factors that define any given style of music?”
Let’s start with the common elements. We play flute, so melody is the obvious starting point. Then there’s harmonic environment (chord changes, modal, or dronal), rhythm (in or out of time, swing or straight feel, etc.), dynamic range (loud and soft), and texture and tone quality. Each of these broad categories has its own qualities of ebb and flow, yin and yang, tension and release, branching off into infinite variations. As a flute player playing “global” music we should start by understanding the basic elements of music itself.
There’s an obvious relationship between melody and harmonic environment. For example, if the harmony is a C major chord, we know that the “resting” or consonant notes in a melody will be the chord tones C, E, and G. Adding non-chord tones will “spice up the soup” in accordance with their individual properties. This has nothing to do with musical style. Somehow, we all perceive those notes in that way. Likewise, a loud bass tone makes us want to move our body. Think about it; if you hear a loud bass tone in the middle of the jungle, it means that something really big and close to you is moving around—get ready to run! Thus, we should take into consideration that the human organism is equipped with a set of perceptual equipment that fundamentally characterizes the way we interact with the world. Varying musical styles stimulate subtle (or not-so-subtle) differences in what we perceive, but they don’t alter the fact that we have ears connected to a brain that interprets information according to its evolutionary design. Therefore, knowledge of the fundamentals of music and how they interact with human cognition is paramount.

A quote from Bruce Lee:

“I hope martial artists are more interested in the root of martial arts and not the different decorative branches, flowers, or leaves. It is futile to argue as to which single leaf, which design of branches, or which single flower you like; when you understand the root, you understand all its blossoming.”

With regard to playing within any given style of music, we must be familiar with the specific features of that style. In his book, “This is Your Brain on Music: the Science of a Human Obsession”, Daniel J. Levinton describes something called a “schema”, which is a mental model that your brain uses to identify and categorize. Imagine flipping through the radio looking for something to listen to. If you hear a ride cymbal and walking bass with a piano solo, your brain says “jazz”. People can argue endlessly about what jazz is or isn’t, but generally speaking, we all know it when we hear it. That’s because we have a schema in our brain for “jazz”. This accounts for the spark of recognition we experience when we hear something new, but familiar. If the music is totally unusual from the listener’s standpoint, they have a hard time understanding it, because there is no schema to help them interpret it. But if the music is too familiar and predictable, it’s boring. One of the challenges of being an artist is to provide that recognition, the activation of the schema, without being boring or predictable. Familiar with a twist is a good formula for making captivating music.
What this means if we want to “transcend a genre without losing sight of it” is that we need to activate the schema for that genre in the listener while using our knowledge of the fundamentals of music to provide a different context or element that works harmoniously with the essentials of the style. For example, many traditional modal or dronal styles of music use the minor pentatonic scale (C Eb F G Bb in the key of C). If you were to play a traditional melody in that scale, then it would activate the schema associated with it. What would happen, though, if you put different chords behind that melody, besides C minor? C sus, F minor 9, F sus, Eb major 6, Ab major 7, Bb sus, and Db major 7 #11 will all change the way you hear the C minor pentatonic scale, even though the melody itself is unchanged from its traditional form. Thus, the same melody will activate the schema for its tradition, while the new chords simultaneously expand on it in a way that works. This is a very simple example, but the general principle can be extrapolated and applied to other specifics.
It gets more complicated in real-world practice. Sometimes fusion leads to confusion. I could speak the most eloquent poetry on the nature of the soul, but if you don’t understand my language, it just sounds like nonsense. You can’t just throw an Indian sitarist on a stage with an African drummer, a jazz piano player, a techno DJ, a mariachi, and a Bulgarian women’s choir and expect it to work without effort. I’ve been in situations like that, and no one comes away happy with the result. That’s why in my opinion, it really helps to make the effort to truly understand other styles of music.
It reminds me of when Arturo Sandoval came to do a master class when I was at Berklee. He’s a trumpet virtuoso, but also plays great jazz piano. I asked him, “How do you approach being a multi-instrumentalist?” His answer was so simple and true. “If you want to play two, practice twice.”

4 Comments leave one →
2009 December 28

I am just in the process of reading “This is Your Brain on Music: the Science of a Human Obsession”, by Daniel J. Levinton. Jouhsu your description of fusion and the roots of music styles is so well stated. Since I play sever styles I now have some new things to think about when creating. Thanks, I hope you write more on the base of some of the styles you use to fuse your music.

2010 February 10

Very eloquently put, Joshua! Thanks for the great insight.

2010 February 12

Speaking of the root of music, my great great grand teacher, Watazumi Doso Roshi said at a lecture once, “It’s fine that we you are all deep into music. But there’s something deeper and if you go deeper, and if you go to the source of where the music is being made, you’ll find that at the source, everyone’s individual music is made. If you ask what the deep place is, it’s your own life and it’s knowing your own life,that own way that you live.” Also found it interesting after reading the sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan’s “The Music of Life” that the thing he loved most (music) he eventually gave up. He said, “I gave up my music because I had received from it all I had to receive….I composed songs, I sang, I played the vina. Practicing this music, I arrived at a stage where I touched the music of the spheres…. I played the vina until my heart turned into the same instrument. Then I offered this instrument to the Divine Musician, the only Musician existing. Since then I have become His Flute, and when He chooses He plays His Music. People credit me for this music, which in reality is not do to me, but to the Musician who plays on His own instrument.”

2010 February 12

thanks for that, alcvin! hazrat inayat khan’s writings are a huge source of inspiration…”the mysicism of music, sound, and word” is a classic. every musician should check him out.

the wellspring that gives birth to the river of music is hidden. who can say definitively what It is? we can only observe it by its effects on us, by our perceptions of it, never directly. but i think it’s beautiful that it’s a mystery! the striving to unfold ever-deeper layers drives us forward as artists.

there is a big difference between Mastery of the technical elements of music and an appreciation of the Mystery behind them. the learning process must include both to be effective.

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