Diversify, Diversify


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For financial types and for musicians, it’s a way of reducing risk.  But it’s also so much more for musicians.

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There are certainly practical reasons for musicians here and now to have a broad skill set—self-promotion, recording, self-management, composing, arranging, and even playing multiple instruments.  (Colin Maier of Quartetto Gelato plays about 40 of them,  15 well enough to perform on:

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But there are musical reasons too. Once upon a time, I heard complaints about classical musicians being “too stiff”, or not being able to “swing”, when given a piece of popular music to play.  Classical musicians chose their specific métier and drilled down into it, spending every ounce of concentration on learning exercises, studies and performance pieces exhaustively, to the exclusion of any other types of musical influences.  Perhaps the notion that you could really only be the best at something if you devoted all your energy towards it was the driving force.  Because you definitely have to be the best, or you won’t survive. Perhaps a sense of snobbery, lack of interest or exposure was the reason for disregarding other practices.  Now the openness of the media and shared knowledge means that we have become aware of, interested in and much more accepting of a variety of musical styles, and classical and pop artists are growing their musical vocabularies more than ever.

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Tessa Lark is a superstar classical violinist.   Here’s Tessa playing some Bartók:

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Hardcore, right?

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I heard Tessa play a program of chamber music which included Haydn, Ravel & Kodály and a new composition by Ken Ueno, all very demanding and serious works, but I was trying to figure out what made her performance grab my attention more than that of her fellow players (who were also amazing).  Then I found out she grew up playing gospel bluegrass music.  It’s not that her Haydn sounded like a hoe-down.  It’s that it sounded like fun.

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It works the other way, too.  Jazz musicians, whose music sounds so untethered compared to classical, frequently cite J.S. Bach as a foundation and inspiration.  The line, shape, precision and mathematical genius of Bach’s music is ballast to keyboard jazz musicians; jazz pianist Bill Evans’ recorded a Bach fugue which is transformed by his sensibilities. 

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The notes are there, they’re what’s written in the score, but there’s a fluidity and lilt that turns the Bach into something entirely new.  For some reason, the notes sound like hundreds of little rounded pebbles to me.

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“Freedom with responsibility” is how Evans characterized jazz, something Drew Jurecka from the Payadora Ensemble demonstrates effortlessly:

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How could you possibly go “wild” like that without years of discipline, getting your fingers to go where you want, when you want? The classical music and training tethers and informs the freedom.

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Mandolinist Chris Thile is another bluegrass musician, but in his case it’s his main gig.  He’s pretty much a genius at it. I wonder if it’s how he manages to give this Bach the thrills and momentum of a roller coaster ride.  Listen to the incredible drama and shape he gives to this Bach Sonata:

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Clearly, diversity is always a good thing.

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