Friday, June 12, 2009

Quasi Una Fantasia Again

Prologue 1:

Warning: This post contains embarrassing content. If you can’t stomach watching a grown man make a fool out of himself, click away to some other site today.

Prologue 2:

If you do a Google search on the words: “playing guitar and singing at the same time” you will get millions of hits. It’s a big topic. That is what today’s post is about. People who always could sing and play at the same time, and people who were capable of learning to sing and play at the same time, always misunderstand the scope of the issue. For some people singing and playing at the same time represents a kind of cosmic psycho-drama, a neural battle of brain cramps and synaptic spasms that leaves them one step short of having their head explode. It’s not an issue of trying harder or learning techniques or more-more-more practice. Some people just have vast troubles doing it. Eric Clapton—remember: God!—cannot play lead guitar and sing “Layla” at the same time. Frank Zappa—possibly in real life a “better” guitarist than Clapton—couldn’t play and sing at the same time; that’s why his vocals are usually just chat/rap vocals.

Quasi Una Fantasia Again

Last month I posted about the phrase Quasi Una Fantasia—the musical direction to perform a piece with an other-worldly effect, freely, like a fantasy. What I didn’t mention back then is that for me, very idiosyncratically, I have come to use the phrase to differentiate between music that is quantized and music that is played to an internal rhythm.

A hundred years ago there was debate about simple external quantization—the use of metronomes. At Wikipedia’s page for metronomes people like Beethoven and Liszt and others are quoted with their concerns that metronomes might not be such cool things.

Today, of course, the situation is monstrously and bizarrely exaggerated. In the professional world, not only are musicians expected to play to a click-track, but even if the musician managed to inject slight anticipation or delay into his rhythm it doesn’t matter because computer signal processing software will automatically sort out the beat of the musician’s playing and re-work the pulse to put it any place the producer may want it temporally. When computer processors run at many gigahertz and software is skillfully written, there is almost nothing that can’t be done in terms of editing a digitized audio signal.

And, of course too, beyond just quantization of rhythm, of the pulse in time, nowadays Auto-Tune software and other packages can do the same thing to the complete sonic envelope of a performance, quantizing the pitch and any other aspect of a performance.

Music has become Frankenstein music.

But the deeper philosophy of all this is kind of lost on me because I personally have never gotten past the simple metronome question. I have great difficulty quantizing my own playing to an external beat. And I have endless fucking difficulties—excuse the language but it’s from my heart—even syncing-up my own brain to my own body in playing-and-singing performances.

Today I’m going to prove it by posting three performances of the same content. To save time and bandwidth I’m going to perform, three separate times, just one verse of one of the songs I posted lyrics from yesterday. I’m going to take three tries at the first verse of the pop/jazz classic, “Deep Purple.”

First I’m going to do a singing-and-playing-at-the-same-time version. To even get this done I am wildly altering the way I play the song. Instead of playing the song, I will be chording the song, hitting just one chord per measure and just on the one beat. Hitting the ones is the simplest way to get through a song and I can almost do it and sing at the same time. I can’t really even sing and hit the ones at the same time as you’ll see in the video, but I can almost do it, and this is me trying as hard as I can after practicing, literally, for years.

Then I’ll do a version of me playing the song to a click-track.

Then I’ll do a version of me playing the song freely without a click-track.

Although I’ve often practiced with and without a click-track, and of course I’ve often tried to sing and play at the same time, I’ve never captured the efforts on video to observe and study and see if observing myself makes any difference in my future efforts.

As you’ll see, it would be difficult for things to get worse, so I’m not worried about having a negative effect on my music.

As I look at these, right now, so soon after having made them, nothing really jumps out at me. The click-track version doesn’t look/sound as different from the free version as I’d expected. The singing-and-playing version looks about as awful as it felt and you wouldn’t believe how many takes it required just to get this version. I’m looking forward to letting some time pass and then coming back and checking out these three videos after still more practicing and after I’ve separated myself from the performance-memory of making them.

Maybe I will do this kind of thing every few months with a different song. Maybe over, say, a year of trying to get better at this and dealing with the pain of embarrassing myself publically my subconscious finally will start doing some re-wiring of my brain or something and let me get better at this!

Singing-and-playing-at-the-same-time version. Hitting the ones. (Even though I have trouble hitting the ones here, if you listen closely to the click-track, you will hear that the Tascam GT-R1, which is providing both the amp emulation and the rhythm track, is giving me a cool click-track that is one-two-three-four so I can’t really get lost. But I still come close to getting lost!)

Click-track version. (And just to get through this I used a click-track that is just clicks, no pulse at all. And there were moments when I was playing this when my playing mind somehow just separated itself from my listening mind that was hearing the clicks so the “syncing” kind of comes and goes. It’s a mystery to me why my brain and body go to war over this.)

Playing freely version. (I did this version last and I strongly suspect I should have done this version first. By this point even though the earlier two versions only took about fifty seconds each I felt like I had just lived through a dental appointment with my guitar in my lap because the two earlier versions required so many ‘takes’ to get even reasonably correct clips. This was supposed to be the “freely” played version but by this point I was kind of too numbed to really play freely. But it certainly is more relaxed than the previous two versions.)

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