This morning I was going through some of my normal practice routines: lately I've been working on unusual scales from Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, an incredible book that systematically lists a couple thousand ways to find your way up and down the keyboard, categorized using home-cooked terms like "sesquiquadritone progression." I keep a log of the exercises I do each day. Each listing indicates the scale being practiced, the rhythmic value I use to play it in my right hand, the tempo (and note value) at which my metronome is clicking, what beat(s) the click falls on, the voicing of the comping chord I use in my left hand to accompany the scale, and the interval I use to move through the twelve keys sequentially -- major seconds or perfect fifths up or down, or major or minor third cycles in which four interlocking augmented triads or three interlocking diminished seventh chords, respectively, yield all twelve keys.
In my application essay for Banff, I described a plan to "forge my relationship with my instrument into higher relief."
So I'm practicing, and halfway through the exercise I found myself thinking about Robert Johnson.
Legend has it that the young blues guitarist became great by selling his soul to the devil. He was instructed to take his instrument to the crossroads late at night. There he met a mysterious man who took his guitar, tuned it, and handed it back. Johnson became a brilliant musician overnight.
Maybe it wasn't the Satan we commonly think of; some suggest that the "devil" in the story could be interpreted as the African trickster god Legba. This figure, known also in the syncretic tradition of Haitian voodoo, stands at the spiritual crossroads, speaks all human languages, and regulates communication between humanity and the spirits.
Regardless, Robert Johnson was not the first musician to attain greatness thusly in the popular imagination. Back across the pond in 19th-century Europe, Niccolo Paganini's skills on the violin were so spectacular that it was widely rumored he'd received them from the devil. The man's gaunt and sickly appearance didn't likely help matters, and nor did his instrument of choice. The violin has been long associated with the devil in numerous cultures -- I found an intriguing mention online (unsubstantiated) that the fiddle player in traditional Norwegian weddings plays only outside the church doors. The most popular American contribution to this mythical connection is of course the Charlie Daniels Band's "Devil Went Down to Georgia," in which the devil plays a fiddling contest with a young man named Johnny -- and loses.
The question arises: why is it always Satan? I suppose, Christianity being monotheistic, our culture has few nonhuman spiritual figures to offer as potential musicians or musical inspirations. Greek myth, by contrast, is packed with stories involving music. One tells of a contest like Charlie Daniels' between Apollo and the satyr Marsyas; in some tellings Apollo wins and in some he loses, but in none does he fail to have Marsyas flayed alive. The most famous musician in Greek myth is Orpheus, who played the lyre so masterfully that he charmed Hades, ruler of the underworld, into allowing him his dead wife back. (It didn't work out for Orpheus in the end, but that's irrelevant to the present discussion.)
But these stories feature mortals who are already supremely gifted musicians, not anyone like Robert Johnson, or the rest of us, who looks on perfection from the outside. So musicians in these old stories are divided into two camps: those who already possess divine musical ability, and those who are seeking it. The seekers are represented as desperate enough that they'll go to any end, face the greatest evil, sacrifice their very souls to become great musicians.
Composers, it seems, are not similarly chthonically afflicted. No, the guiding spirits composers seek are high and benign: the Greeks' muses, most famously, of which at least one was dedicated to musical expression. And even in Catholic tradition there is St. Cecilia, who depending on the story died a martyr's death while singing to God, and/or invented the organ to amplify her prayerful music. Many composers have written odes to Cecilia, asking for continued inspiration for themselves and other writers of music.
But one thing binds the players and composers of music together in these stories: they all seek something they lack. The Robert Johnsons among us see the Orpheuses and think we'd give our lives, or sell our souls, to be like them.
"Giving our lives" is perhaps what we do by dedicating ourselves to study and practice; "selling our souls" is more vague to analogize, though musicians are occasionally accused of it.
And who wouldn't prefer an overnight conversion to genius if the alternative is years of hard work, a proper "education" of the type that now occupies many of our musicians for the first three decades of their lives and beyond? We seek in our education someone or some place to bestow on us that elusive quality that others seem to effortlessly exhibit. And yet the word "education" itself comes from a Latin root meaning "led out" -- for some reason we never use the related verb "educe," which means drawing out something that is latent.
We are hesitant to acknowledge the elements that are already there, were there all along.
Somewhere along the line, a long time ago, musicians began to feel they were missing something. They weren't good enough. They needed something only someone else could give them, and they would go anywhere or do anything to get it.
Reading the lives of musicians over the years and witnessing them today, we can see that this has not changed.
But of course, we all know Robert Johnson didn't actually meet the devil. He just had music in him from the beginning, and he played it. Right?
Back to my scales.
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• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
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• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues