I HAVE A THEORY
Written by Ray Turner for the British Columbia Music Magazine in September 2006.
Cranky old men like me form rigid opinions about anything and everything: what the cat is thinking or the safest way to cross the street. My son has heard it a thousand times. He will tell you it goes like this:
My theory is . . . blah . . . blah . . . blah . . . pedestrians that blindly follow the “WALK/DON’T WALK” signs at intersections are acting like sheep . . blah . . . blah . . They are far more likely to be killed than those that use their wits by looking around and crossing only when they are sure they are safe.
On the subject of music, this Cranky Old Person cannot help but offer a few theories about what is supposed to be the subject matter of this magazine.
Theory – Music played in coffee shops is for benefit of the staff, not the customers.
While the owner may insist on a particular style of music for the establishment, it will largely be ignored by the employees. They would rather hear Nine Inch Nails or Black Sabbath than Enya during their sometimes tedious shifts. I have sympathy with them, but not much (as TJ at The Bean Scene will tell you,) and I barely tolerate Enya but most people go to a coffee shop for refreshment or conversation. Music is an added attraction.
Sometimes, a balance is struck. In Victoria, there is a coffee shop that not only has good coffee but also mirrors my own musical taste by playing the cable feed from jazz station KPLU-FM in Seattle. It was a brave employee that ever defied the manager. Like the coffee, I always knew what I was getting.
We who are always in the right, the customers, can fight back. Point out to the barista that you are there to enjoy the coffee and chitchat and that the CD player’s output is a secondary pleasure. The music will likely be changed or, at least, lowered in volume. An ex-friend of mine, again in Victoria, (that revolutionary city) does not understand this. He has often gone too far by sneaking in his own choice of music by substituting his favourite CD without the staff’s knowledge – until he gets caught. Other guerilla tactics such as helping himself to extra coffee and making the Globe and Mail his own have resulted in his being banned from at least three coffee shops.
Theory – Live music in lounges will never satisfy the performers nor the customers.
Curse the restaurant owner who invited his nephew, a pretty good guitar player, to entertain the patrons one Friday night. The customers had never heard of background music so they chatted at whatever volume seemed necessary. Naturally, their voices were raised. This irritated the musician who also did not understand the concept of “background music.” His music was to be listened. Just that, so, he played louder. The customers raised their eyebrows, their glasses and their voices. next, the guitarist brought an amplifier. Customers talked louder. Three musical friends with amps were added. Customers were now shouting. That’s how it started and that’s how it is today. No one is happy. It’s hard to make a living. It’s hard to make conversation.
Theory – Jazz singers deliberately pitch their songs in a key one tone higher or lower than that which suits the band best.
They say, “E minor is the only key for this song.” They will not move it up or down a semitone to help the pianist. They continue, “It does not sound right in anything else. And my cat loves it in that key.”
My theory is that the key could have been chosen by the composer for a variety of reasons, such as, a) the piano he was playing at the time had a note missing, or b) his guitar produced a particularly beautiful ringing tone at some point, or c) it was his hangover song. Soloists who pay tribute by performing the composition will take the opportunity to change the key to suit their vocal or instrumental range. This will not always suit their fellow musicians.
Some will not budge an inch. At a Sunday jam in Shawnigan Lake, a newly-graduated student from the jazz programme at Malaspina College felt he was ready to join in on his alto saxophone. The guest piano player, a professional, fresh from playing on cruise ships, started a number and shortly after gave the sax player the opportunity to take a solo. Now the natural home key on the alto for a beginner is Eb. Other “easy” keys are F, Bb, Ab, Db. The poor guy never stood a chance. He bravely started his solo but had to give up. He was nowhere near familiar with the key. I felt bad for him so, later, during a break, I asked the pianist which key he had chosen for that particular song. “Oh! B Major.” he replied. “I always play it in B.” As a new player myself, I mentioned that new players, myself included, would have had great difficulty with that key and suggested he could have lowered it to Bb, or raise it to C, a common “easy” key. His brutal response was “Get over it!” I hated him at the time but it was a great lesson for me. I decided that I would study hard and learn to play in all twelve keys by ear. That goal is getting close now but I often wickedly wonder if I had witnessed a case of the pianist getting his own back at singers.
Theory – All the good songs have already been written.
Sorry, you singer/songwriters. As John Cleese said about comedy: everything is derivative, it all comes from somewhere. Mozart knew it; he improvised on his themes over and over again. Bach knew it; he invented variation upon variation, kept Glenn Gould busy for a lifetime.
The truth is there are only so many computations of notes, chords made up from the notes, progressions of the chords, and variations of notation that together produce a memorable song. A shaved chimp working on a computer programme will eventually come up with Stardust, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes or Stella Blue. Well, I am not sure about Stella Blue. That’s a good one. It must be the arrangement. Now I come to think of it, there might be quite a few more. Okay, singer/songwriters, forget what I said. Get back to work.
Theory – Sheet music is both an aid and a barrier to enjoying music.
This is a work in progress, in fact, it is my most commonly stated theory, one that is so huge and ever-changing that I will save it for another time. It includes secrets to the mysterious triangle of sevenths. I am trying to lay it out so that it does not offend anyone, especially music teachers. We will have to wait.