August 14, 2015

The delights of music, math, and hokum

So I've been reading Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Volume One, getting close to the end at this point.  Hit a passage the other night that struck me and got me excited, in which he talks about feeling stuck, like he can't perform anymore.  Inspiration came to him through the memory of a lesson he'd learned from Lonnie Johnson, a blues/jazz musician I only have one record from but whom I absolutely love. Along with Little Willie John, Lonnie's one of my favorite crooners.

I owe a big thanks to for typing out that passage from Chronicles so that I don't have to.  Here's the part that jumped out at me: 

Besides my devotion to a new vocal technique, something else would go along with helping me re-create my songs. It seemed like I had always accompanied myself on the guitar. I played in the casual Carter Family flat-picking style and the playing was more or less out of habit and routine. It always had been clear and readable but didn't reflect my psyche in any way. It didn't have to. 

The style had been practical, but now I was going to push that away from the table, too, and replace it with something more active with more definition of presence.

I didn't invent this style. It had been shown to me in the early 60's by Lonnie Johnson. Lonnie was the great jazz and blues artist from the 30's who was still performing in the 60's. Robert Johnson had learned a lot from him. Lonnie took me aside one night and showed me a style of playing based on an odd- instead of even-number system. He had me play chords and he demonstrated how to do it. This was just something he knew about, not necessarily something he used because he did so many different kinds of songs. He said, "This might help you," and I had the idea that he was showing me something secretive, though it didn't make sense to me at that time because I needed to strum the guitar in order to get my ideas across. It's a highly controlled system of playing and relates to the notes of a scale, how they combine numerically, how they form melodies out of triplets and are axiomatic to the rhythm and the chord changes. 

I never used this style, didn't see that there'd be any purpose to it. But now all of a sudden it came back to me, and I realized that this way of playing would revitalize my world. The method works on higher or lower degrees depending on different patterns and the syncopation of a piece. Very few would be converted to it because it had nothing to do with technique and musicians work their whole lives to be technically superior players. You probably wouldn't pay any attention to this method if you weren't a singer. It was easy for me to pick this up. I understood the rules and critical elements because Lonnie had showed them to me so crystal clear. It would be up to me now to expel everything that wasn't natural to it. I would have to master that style and sing to it. 

The system works in a cyclical way. Because you're thinking in odd numbers instead of even numbers, you're playing with a different value system. Popular music is usually based on the number 2 and then filled in with fabrics, colors, effects, and technical wizardry to make a point. But the total effect is usually depressing and oppressive and a dead end which at the most can only last in a nostalgic way. If you're using an odd numerical system, things that strengthen a performance automatically begin to happen and make it memorable for the ages. You don't have to plan or think ahead. In a diatonic scale there are eight notes, in a pentatonic scale there are five. If you're using the first scale, and you hit 2, 5, and 7 to the phrase and then repeat it, a melody forms. Or you can use 2 three times. Or you can use 4 once and 7 twice. It's infinite what you can do, and each time you would create a different melody. The possibilities are endless. A song executes itself on several fronts and you can ignore musical customs. All you need is a drummer and a bass player, and all shortcomings become irrelevant as long as you stick to the system. With any type of imagination you can hit notes at intervals and between backbeats, creating counterpoint lines and then you sing off of it. There's no mystery to it and it's not a technical trick. The scheme is for real. For me, this style would be most advantageous, like a delicate design that would arrange the structure of whatever piece I was performing. The listener would recognize and feel the dynamics immediately. Things could explode or retreat back at any time and there would be no way to predict the consciousness of any song. And because this works on its own mathematical formula, it can't miss. I'm not a numerologist. I don't know why the number 3 is more metaphysically powerful than the number 2, but it is. Passion and enthusiasm, which sometimes can be enough to sway a crowd, aren't even necessary. You can manufacture faith out of nothing and there are an infinite number of patterns and lines that connect from key to key - all deceptively simple. You gain power with the least amount of effort, trust that the listeners make their own connections, and it's very seldom that they don't. Miscalculations can also cause no serious harm. As long as you recognize it, you can turn the dynamic around architecturally in a second."

I mentioned this at a message board where I've been talking to people about Dylan and was told by a guy who worked on the book for the publishing house that employs him that the passage I was so struck by was an example of the "delightfully Dylanesque hokum" that Chronicles is apparently full of.  That may be true, and it didn't surprise me.  I knew going in that Dylan has a reputation for deception and camouflage and I'd been wondering already what parts of the book were true vs hokum.   He may've never met Lonnie Johnson or, if he did, was never schooled by him (though there are people out there  who seem to think  there's something to the tale).  But that doesn't matter, doesn't diminish the beauty of the passage for me at all.   It was the mathematics of it that fascinated me.  I'm not a mathematically inclined person, my brain just doesn't work that way.  I can do simple math in my head, most of the time, but algebraic stuff leaves me flummoxed.  So the marriage of math and music is something that fascinates me.  

Music is intangible, ethereal.  Even if you own a record, you only own a piece of vinyl in which sound waves have been captured. What those sound waves contain, though, can't be held in your hand. Music is stories, notes that can break your heart or uplift you. Music can bring you to tears of sorrow or joy.  Music is the only form of art that you can enjoy while doing other things, like driving or jogging or washing the dishes.  It's the only form of art that makes us move.  That's how we're able to connect other experiences to music and, I think, a large part of how music creates a sense of nostalgia in us.

Math is intangible, too, but there's nothing ethereal about it. It's fact, it's cold, hard, rational and logical.  So the fact that music is based on mathematics blows my mind.  And you can't really do other things while you're doing math, nor can I imagine the sight of an algebraic formula giving anyone but a mathematician a nostalgic pang. Math can make you cry, though. I remember sitting in algebra class in high school and yawning until tears came to my eyes, sometimes to the point that a few would slip out and roll down my cheek.  One day I was wiping some of those tears away and the teacher asked me "Is this class that hard for you?"  I said, "No, it's that boring".  That's no hokum.

You were expecting Dylan videos, perhaps? Here, have one of Bob and John Lennon being silly in a London cab--