The word music comes from the Greek “Muse,” the mythical spirits of inspiration that would visit the artist and imbue his creations with the ineffable. It is guessed that due to the feelings that music can evoke beyond words it became the namesake art-form of the muses. William S. Burroughs famously echoed this sentiment in his statement “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”
Unfortunately, not all people are familiar with this idea. Complex language being one of the distinguishing factors between humankind and the animal kingdom, musicians find themselves having to use language to describe their art. The various genre tags attempt to fix music within the world of names which humanity has created around its self. Saying “fish” to your average English speaker will evoke a mental image of a fish (regardless of whether it is a carp or tuna etc.) but when you say “modern jazz” even to a jazz fan, it can evoke anything from the sounds of Charlie Parker to something that may sound like musicians mimicking the mating calls of various mammals. Here lies the problem of the average working musician.
Recently I was asked to play solo saxophone music that was “happy and fun” on a demo recording for an upcoming series of shows. The happiest songs I could think of were calypso songs such as “The Banana Boat Song” and “Don’t Stop the Carnival.” Upon hearing these demo recordings the client said that the songs were too relaxed and they wanted something more “exciting.” I then played some faster bebop compositions but they responded similarly. As the exchanges went back and forth, I realized that the people had absolutely no idea about music whatsoever and that “talking about music” was only making it less possible to understand one another. That brings me to why I am writing this article. I wish to put forth some suggestions for anyone working with musicians on how to speak our language, like a condensed Lonely Planet Phrasebook for the musically illiterate. Due to the decline in musical literacy over the years as a result of a lessening investment into arts education worldwide, despite so many corporations looking for “the innovation edge” and the “creative class” of worker, most people have very little idea how the sounds coming out of their stereo happen.
If there are no specific song-titles or instruments that you would like to use for your upcoming event, then I suggest these simple steps. The first is to gather all the MP3 devices of all the workers involved in the project and sift through the tracks for something that resembles what you are looking for. Failing this, take the time to go to the musician’s home and get them to play through his music collection (which is often very large when compared to the average non-musician) or find a DJ friend or music enthusiast and do the same.
The second step will be to create a compilation of the music you feel will be most appropriate for your event and give it to the musician. This way the musician will be able to discern what the most appropriate repertoire will be: similar to, if not the same as that of the compilation. This will also help you to avoid booking the wrong type of musicians, as most responsible performers will realize that doing heavy metal music if they are classical musicians puts them out of their depth.
The third step will of course be a discussion of budget. If you have a small budget, choosing music from the big band era, for example, or orchestral music, music that involves between eight and very many musicians, is probably out of your budget. Countless times 3 piece bands have been asked to play Sinatra’s big band-era version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” exactly like the recording. Unfortunately this is not currently possible, though when genetic alteration technology or cloning improves it may help save event organizers a lot of money. Upon hearing the CD the musicians will be able to tell you the number of performers required. If the client is set on a very specific sound, but their pockets are very deep and arms very short, then a musician with a pre-recorded backing may be appropriate. If these steps are followed then there will be no nasty surprises for the musicians or the client, although there is always the anomaly that lack of intelligence can provide, as the following anecdote illustrates.
My friends were a roving 3 piece group featuring saxophone, acoustic guitar, and percussion. They were playing a gig at a shopping mall, providing delicate background music specifically tailored to sooth the passing shoppers. A woman approached this group to book for a future performance. They assumed that since she had been listening to them she would expect the same sort of music at the planned event.
Upon arriving the musicians saw that it was the annual party of a local football club, an event synonymous with binge drinking and an environment thick with testosterone. The musicians approached the stage through rowdy athletes banging into each other like rutting rams and prepared for their performance. They began as they had in the shopping mall: with a gentle rendi
tion of “The Girl from Ipanema” which inspired a tirade of abuse and boos from the audience.
From the side of the stage they heard the pleading of the woman who booked them, “can you play some ACDC?”, a completely different type of group from the trio she had booked. Despite the group luckily knowing “Highway to Hell” and “TNT”, the saxophone playing the melody while the percussion played his pandeiro (an instrument similar to a tambourine) with a backbeat, along with the acoustic guitar, these things still perturbed the audience. The band decided it was time to leave and avoid any violence that might be directed towards them as a result of their inability to magically transform into a heavy metal group. Leaving the stage was reportedly like running the gauntlet, and attempting to obtain the fee from the lady who booked them created an argument that required the band to speed away from the establishment as beer bottles were hurled at them by the drunk patrons “backing up” their “booking agent.”
I hope that the reader of this article will feel at least a little enlightened about how to communicate your musical requirements to musicians in the future, and that you may think twice about booking the nice hotel lobby duo you saw last night to play at your brother’s buck’s night before the stripper jumps out of the cake. If you are an events company that would like a more in depth education in the basics of music, please feel free to hire a musician as a consultant to help bring your staff towards greater musical literacy.