Every now and then I get introspective. This time I intend to explore and explain my reasons for playing music.
I don't need to play music, at least in the sense that I am not compelled by external forces - income and validation, for example - to play. There are, however, other compulsions that come into play.
I've always had "big ears", probably from growing up in a family where most of the adults on my mother's side were very good classical musicians. Not that it did me much good - I repeatedly turned down offers to teach me music via piano lessons. As a rural teenaged child of the sixties I rebelled as best I could, mainly by turning down opportunities for formal education whenever I had a chance to do so.
I'm not anti-intellectal or even anti-education. I just prefer to explore things on my own whenever I can. I studied electronics, chemistry and computers on my own because they seemed interesting and engaging. Those early interests served me well in college, leaving me free to pursue non-intellectual pastimes and still turn in exemplary work in my classes, some of which were graduate-level courses that I was able to take as an undergraduate.
To this day I hold our modern educational system in fairly low regard. I'm convinced that educational institutions are superfluous for any student who possesses a genuine desire to learn, and irrelevant - or at least hugely ineffective - for everyone else. The crisis in education is not caused by a shortage of funding, but rather by a profound ignorance of the reasons for which people desire to learn. But I digress...
When I started playing the guitar again after a twenty year layoff, I quickly reached the decision to learn the instrument in order not to recreate others' music, but rather to create my own. Almost everything I've done since then has been in support of that goal.
My musical journey over the past eight years has taken a number of twists and turns. I've studied music theory (something I probably should have done when I was younger), played in bands, written songs and spent an inordinate amount of time and money attempting to define and refine "my sound". Despite the inevitable diversions, I've somehow managed to establish a consistent long-term direction.
A high-school friend once told me that I have an "organic" approach to music. Indeed I prefer music that has more in common with a living organism than with a machine. I like music that lives and breathes; music that alternately reinforces then violates the listeners' expectations; music that is somehow familiar and unexpected at the same time.
The problem with this "organic" approach to music, as I've discovered over the years, is that it doesn't fit in with a desire to interact with other musicians. Ensemble playing requires a high degree of predictability. The more musicians, the stronger the constraints. Stronger constraints leave less room for the music to breathe. It took me quite a while to become consciously aware of this now-obvious calculus while experiencing a series of frustrating and unsatisfying experiences playing in bands.
An average band presents many challenges beyond the obvious musical issues. Egos and drama are only the obvious manifestations of the most common problem facing a band: the lack of a shared vision. In short, band members tend to not have one good reason they can share to hold their band together. A typical band is divided by its own factions. Some members want the band to "make it", others expect the band to support their "star" aspirations, others want the band to support and participate in "the scene", some like the social interaction more than the music, and a few are just trying to make some money.
Then there are the external pressures: to play what the audience "wants" to hear; to get bodies out on the dance floor; to encourage patrons to buy alcohol. The first two objectives can be (and frequently are) met by a jukebox or a DJ. The third objective serves best to illustrate the unfortunate sublimation of art in the service of commerce.
I've had a few above-average experiences with duet improvisation over the years. It's relatively easy for a couple of facile musicians to improvise in the moment. Explorations are limited by the vocabulary and thematic corpus accessible to the players and by their ability to listen and respond. Ultimately such joint improvisation reaches a static equilibrium representative of the intersection of the players' musical interests and abilities. Such an intersection represents a musical space which is usually far smaller than the capabilities of either player.
It was with these thoughts that I abandoned my collaborative projects several years ago. I wanted to try to develop a style and some material that I could use in a solo setting. I spent (and still do spend) a lot of time learning my way around the fingerboard: intervals, chords, grips, etc. Add in a bit of ad-hoc (i.e.: "organic") voice-leading, and a style began to emerge. I have a number of motifs that I can stitch together on a whim. When I'm feeling adventurous I'll grab a few notes, trying to not fall back on any of my more common grips, and see whether I can build upon that starting point. Truth be told, I do exactly the same thing when my improv takes me somewhere I didn't anticipate; sometimes I get adventurous by accident...
I try to play "in the moment." Aside from the safety net of my collection of motifs, nothing is planned. I tend to play rubato quite a bit, waiting to hear the next note before I play. You sure as heck can't dance to it; the music is more cerebral than visceral.
I don't sing. I used to. When I decided to play solo, I really wanted to let the guitar be my "voice." The world doesn't need another warbly-voiced folk singer.
Enough of that. It's time to answer the question: "why do I play?"
An anonymous correspondent who once took issue with something I had written sent me a long impassioned letter about how he couldn't stand to listen to my recordings. The anonymous writer said a lot of things, none of which were complimentary or constructive.
And then there was the remark about how music "must be an emotional outlet" for me (as if that was somehow undignified). Well, yes... of course it is!
I've told you about my musical background; I'll never aspire to be a technical player or a commercial musician. At any rate I don't understand why the unnamed correspondent considered this observation to be an epithet (trust me: his tone made his intention very clear). There's plenty of music already out there featuring deemphasized or manufactured emotion. I don't need to (and honestly, can't) contribute more to the overtly technical "by guitarists for guitarists" genres. I have no problems at all with wearing my musical heart on my sleeve.
It's not only about self-expression, though. For me, playing the guitar is also about discovery. I enjoy learning about music theory, finding nice-sounding chord voicings and experimenting with voice-leading. There's a certain sense of adventure in "following my ears" that I don't get from studying printed or recorded instructional material. Still, I occasionally take a "random access" approach to books and DVDs when in need of a nudge to break out of creative stagnation.
Ultimately I play for myself. It's really that simple. Playing guitar is a means of self-expression; my "art", if you will. I'm fortunate enough to have a few folks who happen to like my music, but I'd play even if the cat on the windowsill was the only listener.