Music is ultimately about connection and communication. You send out the signal and you hope that it is received with the same intention and emotion. The thing is, you can only control one end of the deal. I used to get really strung out after shows, feeling that my playing wasn’t what it should be or that the band was having an off night. We would have very intense, post-gig meetings to analyze what went wrong during the show, dancing through the minutia of the night. After our meetings, we would greet fans who would glowingly tell us how tight the band was, or how magical the performance and night had been. Similarly, I have finished a show thinking that my playing and singing were in rare form and feeling quite proud of myself, only to have someone tell me that it seemed like an off night. So, how can this disparity exist? How is it that the signals I send out can be received so differently?
I’ve spent way too much time thinking about this, and I’m still at a loss for an answer. However, all the ministrations have got me thinking a lot about connection—why some people really connect with an audience when they pick up an instrument, and others don’t. My column a couple of months ago focused on a Jeff Tweedy solo as an example of emotion and power in simplicity—kind of a refuting of technique as the primary drive in music. I found the comments to be interesting, especially those that didn’t agree. It got me thinking a lot about culture and how vast it is, even among those of us who seemingly share so much of it. My simple beauty may seem banal to someone else, and their burning truth may seem overly complicated and incidental to me.
I went through a brief flirtation with fusion music. I spent a lot of time with mid-period jazz in the first couple of years of college. I really liked the bop and cool jazz, and people started giving me comps of harder, more intricate music. Bitches Brew was the first record that I dug into, but I spent time with Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra as well. I struggled with some aspects of it, but I liked the ferocity and was attracted to the spirit of guitar players like John McLaughlin and Mike Stern. I remember reading an interview around that time with Mike talking music and guitar. When the interviewer asked him how much he practiced, he said that he tried to play his guitar every day, but that he learned to practice often had nothing to do with guitar. He talked about being young and focusing only on technique, but then realizing that he really didn’t have much to say. So he started trying to look outside of the guitar for his influences.
That really blew my mind, because I thought at the time that playing guitar was about practicing more and harder than anyone else—believing you would therefore be the best—as if there was some linear arc that could quantify expression. I think that was one of the lightning moments for me and I really started changing the way I thought about music and its flow. I realized, at least for the player that I wanted to be, that there was no destination. Slowing down to learn more as I went along, instead of judging myself against others, changed the whole dynamic of my playing.
I thought of other things I loved—great conversations, books, movies, food—and tried to channel those things into my playing. I think that inclusive expansiveness is what I like in other players. It makes their statements bigger and more important to me. When I listen to Tweedy or Richard Thompson play, I hear emotions that are so beyond anything one could learn in a practice room. Richard has a good deal of technique, but his playing is superlative because you can hear pain, humor, anger, and angst in it. I have been pursuing that angle for a number of years now and it is really a bitch. It is hard to quantify esoteric quests, so there are many times where I’m completely at a loss as to whether my playing is improving or not. But it has allowed me to continue my teenage love affair with guitars into my 40s.
I love to eat, particularly ethnic cuisines. Give me a funky Vietnamese dive or an Oaxacan food cart and I will glow for hours. I have shelves and shelves of cookbooks that span the continents, with major hot spots on Asia and South America. Somewhere in the midst of a food revelry, I realized I had an aesthetic that was consistent throughout my life. I tend to like things that are seemingly simple, but have a deep well that they are drawn from.
I remember eating at one of the first fusion restaurants to pop-up in the early ’90s. It was very trendy and my memory was that they were quite pretentious in the way they presented their food. They were freely taking from all the ethnic cuisines, but without a true appreciation or understanding of how shallow their take was when dipping their toes into a culture just enough to take what they wanted. They seemed unaware of how slowly these cultures edged their simple frijoles or banh mi to perfection through repetition and a deep, multi-generational understanding of subtlety. I think there is a real parallel there. Western musicians borrow freely from all over the planet to put together our own stews, but sometimes we are skimming from so much that there just isn’t much depth. To me, as a listener, I would rather hear an Indian sarod master digging into a Hindustani raga than an American fusion-player ripping through harmonic minor scales. Just like fusion food, fusion music has evolved and branched into many different areas. I feel more humility, and consequently more depth, in many of the new “fusion cuisines.” They don’t seem so thrown together. Similarly, artists like Ry Cooder have been able to put together true, fusion records that seem to really capture the soul and sound of the music styles they are fusing.
Maybe it’s simply listening? Realizing that we don’t know so much and spending more time and respect on the things that we take in. Our words, and our music, find a more receptive ear when we are able to listen as well. To truly listen gives a deeper understanding of who we are communicating with, and consequently helps to bridge the gap from speaker to listener. A great chef truly listens, with his taste, to the subtleties of flavor and combination. A great player seems to take the time to understand in the same way. Open the door and the windows. Let the outside in.
Ian Moore is an Austin, Texas-based guitarist who has had his hands in a bit of everything related to guitar, from an acclaimed solo career to building and modifying his own gear to being a sideman for pop star Jason Mraz. ianmoore.com
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