Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Breakfast in the Field

The summer after I turned 20 I must have stolen a bunch of cassette tapes from my father. I can't remember why I did this or what else was among them except for a home recording of the 1981 album "Breakfast in the Field" by Michael Hedges. I remember putting it on and feeling like I knew every note before it was played. This was music that fit perfectly, with not a note out of place or accent missing. And it sounded suspiciously similar to the music I was writing for solo acoustic guitar, the origins of which I'd always taken to be some combination of being really into Leo Kottke and wanting to write music that would sound full without singing or accompaniment. Then, lo and behold, I realized:

Michael Hedges "The Happy Couple"

I was trying to sound like Michael Hedges. I'd been writing music that sounded like Michael Hedges and developing a style that sounded like Michael Hedges all without knowing who he was. When I told my dad how eerily familiar the music was, he explained that he used to play it for me when I was a child, in an effort to get me to fall asleep. And suddenly, my playing made total sense.

We can only begin to know how affected we are by factors we can not consciously remember. The music we listened to as an infant, what we ate, how we were treated by our parents, the environment we grew up in. Yet no matter how much we grow and how much we get to know ourselves and change and develop, this bedrock of our personality remains, perhaps unknowable even through introspection, until we hear music from childhood and know it without ever remembering knowing it before. And in these unconsciously remembered experiences are the roots of our aesthetics. Do I love this song because of its aesthetic qualities? Or do I love the aesthetic qualities of this song because this is what I was given as an infant?

There are a lot of things I love about this song. Listen for the way Hedges fluidly embeds natural harmonics into the melody of the song in such a way that they don't jump out, but add richness and subtly. Listen to how he alternates between expressing the melody in the middle voices and in the upper voice. Note how Hedges develops this song through a gradual increase in note density, reaching the climax at 2:25. Listen for the different sections of this piece (the first section, for example, repeats for the first time at 1:30), and how they are treated differently, or juxtaposed to different developments. But above all, I think of the name of the piece - how happy is this couple? Are they misconceived as happy by the world? Do they put on a guise of happiness? Or are they truly happy, their love tempered by a kind of shared experience of melancholy, as expressed musically here? Perhaps the different sections of the song can be heard as two people talking to each other, or telling their story separately. This is the infinite beauty and power of purely instrumental music to suggest moods and meanings by attaching only a few words, even to the point of suggesting feelings that are inexpressible.

This piece is performed on a six string guitar tuned low to high G B E F# A D - an open G 6/9#11 chord. Just in case you're not a guitar player, standard guitar tuning is low to high E A D G B E - an open Emi7 add 4 chord (I'm not calling it an 11th because the A is so low), a not particularly beautiful, if utilitarian tuning. Hedges studied composition at The Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and said that he chose the tuning to fit the composition, rather than starting with the tuning and going from there. In this way he presumably avoided the typically guitaristic pitfall of writing songs based more on a particular idiomatic shape than on compositional intention. Hedges rarely worked in standard tuning, and regularly employed tapping (both hands) as a way to extend the instrument's range.

That's him in 1988 in Guitar World magazine, holding a Dyer harp guitar, which, yes, he actually played. That huge metal thing is some kind of crude pickup for amplification. Hedges died tragically in a car accident in 1997. I won't say I love all his output, or even all of "Breakfast in the Field" - he can get a little New Age for my taste, and something about fretless electric bass has never sat well with me, Jaco's playing on the Joni Mitchell album "Mingus" excluded. Which does cast a shadow on the theory that my aesthetic preferences in music come from hearing this album as an infant. Or maybe I was just always asleep by track 4 when the bass starts in. If you're going to get one of his albums, and you should, this is the one to get.

As long as I'm putting it all out there, compare "The Happy Couple" to my tune "Leaves", written early 2006, and available for download here. I do have a transcription of this tune, if anyone ever wants it. This is an old recording and you'll have to forgive its failings. I'm playing Andrew Klein's Martin, and this was recorded by Mark Swiderski. This is before I started growing/maintaining my RH nails for fingerpicking. I will confess to being proud of my control of dynamics throughout this recording.

Gary Prince "Leaves" by Gary Prince

I'm playing in double drop D - low to high, D A D G B D. This is one of the only tunes I have in an alternate tuning, and I still perform it, even five years later. I don't think I need to write about the obvious influence at work and how it is expressed structurally and aesthetically in this piece. I feel no shame in admitting the elements of my playing that are frankly derivative, and I like to think that my influences and imitations in my playing are varied enough, that, when expressed today and combined with my musical abilities and limitations, especially in free playing, I wind up sounding like myself. After all, is this not how culture works and develops?

I conclude this homage with a picture of myself playing the harp guitar at Dusty Strings in Seattle last August. I'd be lying if I said I figured out how to use those extra bass strings effectively. But yes, I felt pretty cool. And that's what playing guitar is all about, right?

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