(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Essay: Musical feng shui

Whether you believe in feng shui or not, it's a useful concept to apply a set of rules to bring things into balance. Things like the balance of parts within a song, the flow of songs in a setlist or album, or even the emergent collective arising from the members of a band -- all of these can fit together or fall apart. Like feng shui may be used to improve an environment, I believe there are tools that can be applied to making better music.

Feng shui relies on a few basic ideas such as energy, polarity, and direction. In the musical setting, energy can be anything from an attitude (of a song or player) to tempo or dynamics. Polarity provides context for that energy: loud or soft? structured or chaotic? passive or aggressive? Finally, direction adds an element of relativity -- going from here to there -- that creates flow.

Just as feng shui builds rules upon these foundation concepts, we can invent rules for our musical world. One of the core rules I've internalized is cooperation and contrast. I came to understand this with my reggae band, Cool Runnings. There were seven of us playing and we each needed to create our place in the song.

Cooperation comes first: what can I play that fits together with another part to support it? This could be matching a rhythm or echoing a melodic line. By supporting another musical element, it validates my part. But cooperation is not enough. Without contrast, my duplication is pointless because it can't be heard. I need to add an element of contrast that justifies my part and helps create complexity. So, if I echo a melodic line, I can expand upon it. At a higher level, if everything else in the song is pure harmony or strongly structured, it might be appropriate to contrast that with controlled discord or a little chaos.

Another rule is to work for dynamic balance. A situation that shifts but holds together is more interesting for the players and for the audience. A static balance can be challenging to achieve, but ultimately it's less interesting because it can't offer the novelty that arises from disparate parts coming together without settling into predictable ruts.

This rule pushes me into band and jam situations, because it's harder to create a dynamic balance alone. Playing with other musicians not only forces me outside my comfort zone to become a better player, it also creates another musical context to display my playing in a new light.

The power of dynamic balance can be seen when comparing solo artists with the bands they arose from. A single solo album may be great, but the lone player doesn't often hit the heights they reached in their band. The Beatles' post-breakup work serves as a great example. A richly artistic solo career is often dependent on the musician partnering with the right people to maintain that dynamic balance. So, David Bowie has collaborated with Mick Ronson and Brian Eno. Likewise, Peter Gabriel has worked with a variety of strong producers like Bob Ezrin, Robert Fripp, and Daniel Lanois, as well as iconic musicians like Tony Levin.

Other rules I've used include dedication to the groove, which is about following flow rather than driving it, and swapping figure and ground as a technique for emphasizing elements with low dynamics. But like feng shui, the challenge isn't learning the rules, it's figuring out how to apply them.

2 comments:

  1. to change the layout i went to DESIGN then DYNAMIC VIEW. (btw to get back into your behind the scenes area you have to click where it says "powered by B") top right of the page.. if you change the layout

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