TIPS FOR LISTENING TO FREE, IMPROVISED, AND CREATIVE MUSIC.
1. TRUST YOURSELF
You are more intuitive and creative than you give yourself credit for.
Your first impressions are probably A-OK. Appreciating the less familiar is not always about understanding it or picking it apart. Sometimes what you get is emotional catharsis, sometimes mental stimulation, sometimes a visceral reaction—good or bad.
It’s all OK.
2. MULTIPLE INTERPRETATIONS EXIST
You’re allowed to think whatever you want. There are no music police.
Between Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author and the popularity of chance and randomness as compositional techniques, the odds of a composition being understood the same way by the entire audience are pretty much nil.
Meaning is made in the mind, and there will be as many interpretations of the music as there are audience members. With creative music, you’re invited to take references from your own life experiences, cultural background and training to draw connections to make the experience meaningful for you.
Of course knowing a bit of the history of the music and having a wide exposure to it will enhance your enjoyment of it—when you know a musical quote is being deployed for humorous, or political, or intellectual effect, your understanding and enjoyment of a piece goes up. But that comes with time and exposure.
3. WEIRD CAN BE BEAUTIFUL
Throughout the Romantic Era, the “goals” of composers were fairly straightforward. They wanted to express themselves or their values, or paint a picture with sound and musical colour. The story of classical music in the nineteenth century is essentially a single narrative. That splintered into many narratives at the start of the 20th century.
The story of classical music from the 20th century on is one of experimentation. A coherent and traditional musical narrative takes a back seat to explorations in sound.
Parallel to these developments in classical music, jazz moved away from its ragtime and swing origins, and while the concert hall was embracing experiment, so was the jazz club. Bebop sowed the seeds for Third-Stream, free music, and a more avant-garde sensibility, played by players grounded in the tradition but looking for something new.
From Albert Ayler’s ability to create complex emotion from simple melodies to Cecil Taylor’s formal experimentation; from the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s diverse and unpredictable sound to Ornette Coleman’s boundary eradicating investigations, the ‘70s set the scene for today’s anything-goes experimentation.
All of this to say, “weird” music is usually not as weird as you think. It draws on a number of traditions, conventions, and tropes, but twists them—either subtly or radically. Today’s avant-garde can value expression, ensemble playing, and creativity over technique. It can also showcase spectacular, virtuosic playing.
Many creative music shows are presented in an intimate setting, where you can sit and let the music take you on a journey. Ultimately, you might not discover any underlying aesthetic unity or anything you like about the music. And that’s OK. The experience can still be interesting, and for some, that’s a major reason to listen to music.
4. VIRTUOSO PERFORMANCES CAN BE VERY SIMPLE.
Intricate guitar solos, virtuosic extended wind techniques, and drummers who seem to have as many arms as an octopus has tentacles easily impress us. We understand that it takes years of training to be able to sustain such positions and fine-tune technique with such precision.
Yet we do not recognise the level of difficulty involved in playing a single note at a constant pace and energy level while staying connected to the audience and to other musicians on stage. We do not recognise the level of focus required to imbue a simple sound with a multiplicity of intentions.
We think, “They might as well pay me to blat away on a saxophone, I can do it too, and I’d be cheaper”. Sometimes, the virtuosity is not in the act itself—the artistry is in the performance. Sometimes, if you can stop judging and just respond to the performance, the beauty of simplicity becomes apparent.
5. NOT KNOWING IS A GOOD THING
Contemporary music can make us question. We can take pleasure in facing that challenge metaphorically and artistically—flipping the finger at musical conventions feels fantastic sometimes.
By trying to push the boundaries of what music is, what form it takes, and where it is encountered, creative music can question not only societal norms but artistic norms as well. Sometimes that state of questioning and not knowing is more fruitful than having the answers because when you think you have the answers, you stop searching.
WANT TO GIVE IT A WHIRL?
Try these beginner friendly no-cost shows:
Kids’ Table Quartet + Mats Gustafson
Swedish powerhouse sax player + Vancouver collective that’s 50% Coastal Jazz fellas. This will be a loving tribute to our late founding Artistic Director Ken Pickering, who inspired this post. Mats will be loud at times, and that’s OK.
Paul Plimley Trio
Vancouver’s Paul Plimley is the perverse imp of the piano. Behind his joyful tornado of sound lie formidable chops for passionate, forward thinking improv.
“dadada” Roberto Negro, Michele Rabbia, Emile Parisien
Two Italians (piano great Roberto Negro, drummer Michele Rabbia) plus French saxophonist Emile Parisien bring a European sensibility to dreamy, ever shifting sounds.
Beatings are in the body
All-female trio of Róisín Adams on piano, Peggy Lee on cello, and Thus Owls’ Erika Angell on vocals and electronics are inspired by a work by Canadian poet Meaghan McAneely.