Sunday, March 21, 2010

Playing the Ink

Here we are again, the wee hours - just so much to do in a day's work. Yesterday, I learned "So What" from Pink's Funhouse album, with the intention of going straight through and learning all the songs on it, or at least all the singles. "So What" - easy to learn and to play, especially since I've been mainlining that album for the past week or so. I can't help but think my neighbors might have gotten sick of hearing me play the repetitive little melody of the intro and verse. Na-na-na naa na-naa naa...

Contrast that with today's epic Jason Robert Brown song, "King of the World" from Songs for a New World. I needed to work on it a little bit anyway for a gig this week, and I decided that I might as well make it the song of the day, and savor the fun of Funhouse a little longer.

Memorizing-the-Form-wise, "King" is easy (intro, verse-prechorus-chorus, verse-prechorus-chorus, bridgity-bridge-bridge, chorus, tag), with the exception of the bridge ... I call it a bridgity-bridge-bridge because it's ...well, long and drawn-out as only Jason Robert Brown can draw something out. It is - if you choose to analyze the song as I did - twenty-eight bars long. The right hand of the piano part is a repeated 5-note pattern that's really simple conceptually and really irritating kinesthetically. Then there's a funkdafied, syncopated buildup into the final chorus which is completely balls-to-the-wall ridiculous.

This is the kind of stuff I live to play.

A note on modern musical theater composers and sight-reading/faking: Jason Robert Brown's music tends to be very idiomatic of some existing pop style. This isn't to say he doesn't have his own compositional voice, but, in an emergency, you can usually tell at a glance, ok, this is more or less a rock/blues/funk whatever tune with a not-unheard-of chord progression, and you just hang on and count like the dickens. With Guettel or LaChiusa or Lippa, it may look like something familiar at an instant's glance, but you soon realize the harmonic or rhythmic language is not quite...normal. More rooted in classical music, so perhaps there's more scope for variation in the musical language than there is in a composition rooted in music of the plebs? A guess at most. But that's been my experience when put in a position to sight-read any of these composers' work.

Playing the Ink: this is jargon for playing exactly the notes written on the page, as opposed to "comping", or making up a groove based on the chord progression and style of music. Classical musicians who don't improvise only "play the ink". Then there are some fine players who wouldn't know one inkblot from another. My goal is to be able to do both: play the ink and comp well in a lot of styles of music. Five years ago I was an ink-only musician. I'd say I'm making progress.

The reason I bring this up right now is that, for many of the songs I work on, I just type up the lyrics and maybe the chord progression, giving myself no ink to play. I'm a very visual learner (weird for a musician, right? AND I'm a morning person, believe it or not). Learning from the sheet music saves me a lot of time, but I actually get too caught up in the music I see rather than hear, and I'm trying to learn to get off the page as quickly as possible.

Now, for "King of the World", I'm learning the ink, and there's no way I'd be able to memorize each note in the time I was able to spend on it today. At least I know the form and the chord changes, and have listened to it a bunch of times. I'm pretty sure that, if Martians landed and demanded that I accompany the Head Martian on this song from memory or else they'd blow the planet to bits, I could at least get through it. Hopefully Martians aren't giant JRB geeks. In any case, I think I will go to bed now, which seems the only thing to do when my blog posts take a turn for the extraterrestrial.

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