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Jacob Collier

I recently came a cross this amazing talent in a newsletter email highlighting an upcoming Quincy Jones’ concert with Mr Collier accompanied by raving endorsements by Jones and other top jazz performers of our time such as Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. The introduction of this rising star mentioned that he’s a successful YouTuber so naturally I looked him up. And here’s what I came across first.

That really blew my mind! It’s easy to hear why he’s received such praise. Not only does young Mr Collier has some very interesting and fresh sounding harmonic, melodic and rhythmic ideas but he’s also found his own way of expressing them – his performance style, if you will. And listen to the way he builds up this old classic first with rather traditional, although extended, harmonies and (more) conventional rhythms and saving his more unique ideas later on in the performance. I.e. he doesn’t go straight for the “acrobatics”, but first bows to the tradition before springing from it to his own adventurous exploration of the song.

In this age of fast flying YouTube stars and child prodigies Mr Collier shows not only musical maturity – at the age of 19 – but he’s put considerable effort and thought into his presentation. His videos are very well produced with fine audio and video quality and skilful editing. He even creates slightly different personages for the many “Jacobs” singing the multiple parts. They each have a unique attire and different hairstyle (although, frankly, he’s not much of a stylist 😉 ). What I especially like is that he moves his head in rhythm with the particular voice he’s singing making it easier for the listener to recognise which of the Jacobs is singing which part.

Technology and/in performance

After my university studies I was sketching a plan for a PhD research on music and technology, especially in the ways various technologies are used in live music performance. Collier seems to be interested in this topic as well and searching for technological means to express his musical ideas.

I recommend listening to this one with heaphones or well positioned speakers to experience the live mixing.

What I find especially intriguing in this video that Collier actually demonstrates us what DJs do when they mix records and samples and manipulate them live. Only Collier produces all the “samples” himself, live. In an interview he has indeed mentioned that honing his performance solo practices is one of is major goals. For this end he’s already got a project with MIT lined up. I’m very curious to hear and see the fruits of that endeavour!

In the above interview Collier makes an interesting comment about his predilection to acoustic piano against various keyboards and synthesisers. That’s an approach of a musician as a craftsman in the traditional sense. Playing acoustic instruments gives one a whole different sense of “doing” and control of the sounds one produces. Getting the desired sound(s) out of an acoustic instrument also requires sufficient technical command on it. On a keyboard, synthesiser, or some other “post-mechanical” instrument, the sound is much more – if not entirely – predetermined and the player merely triggers it with a press of a key or hitting the electric drum. Of course technique is still required to make music with such instruments but more towards executing than producing the music.

Collier’s choices of instruments are eclectic and apparently arise from his upbringing in a family of musicians and abundant and varied musical activities from an early age (see the interview linked to above). He has a particular preference to melodica, an instrument originally designed for educational use. In Collier’s hands this simple instrument doesn’t seem to lack anything but is able to rise for the musical occasion at hand. Outside his music room he also makes use of its portability and e.g. joins the horn section of Snarky Puppy and walks to the soloist’s mic to take his solo in the manner of horn players.

Talent in the Internet age

As mentioned above, Jacob Collier really stands out among the YouTube child prodigies playing e.g. classical piano, guitar or conducting an orchestra at a young age. While this comparison might be a bit far fetched as Mr Collier is not a child any more, there’s a similarity with the immense concentration of talent around a person (Anakin Skywalker anyone? 😉 ).

Significance of the medium in which we get these talents presented to us is also not to be neglected. While the YouTube stardom of most of the above mentioned young talents doesn’t reach the “Internet Phenomenon” stage, with Mr Collier it not only does reach it but delving into his world through the available clips makes quickly apparent that he already has a vision of his career that won’t allow his star to descend any time soon. At least that’s what I sincerely wish for him and am eager to witness in the years and, with all likelihood, decades to come.

Actually Collier’s undertakings remind me of Prince in many ways. Prince has also always (or at least mostly) played all the instruments except horns on his records. But in fact also on the business side. In the 90s Prince infamously quarrelled with his record label at the time Warner Brothers about the ownership of his master records and began sporting a “Slave” text written on his face and changed his name to an “unpronounceable symbol” – all acts with multiple meanings as well as causing headaches to his record label trying to promote the brand formerly known as Prince.

Prince is attributed to have been one of the first artists to realise the power of internet in music business, which Collier seems to have mastered quite well. In addition to his YouTube channel, which having over 44 000 subscribers (at the time of writing this) probably brings him more than pocket money in Google Adds compensations, Collier has also launched crowd sourcing project on Patreon. I’d say he’s at least got his tuition fees at the Royal Academy of Music covered and he’s still left with some to maintain his sizeable instrument collection 🙂

Another thing about talent I’d like to bring up is the “nature-nurture” aspect of it. Statements about talented people like “It’s in his/her genes” are common enough implying that the talent is inherited. Coming from a musical family, this seems to fit the bill in Collier’s case. It is, however, a fact of biology that learned traits are not simply passed on. We can’t change our genes by learning new stuff and expect our offspring to get that “in the mother’s milk”. Species evolution takes place on the gene level due to (significant) changes in the living environment causing some genes to mutate. And this doesn’t happen in a generation or two of e.g. musicality in the family.

For more about human musicality check this short and concise presentation by Professor Henkjan Honing.

While “everyone is musical” to an extent as Professor Honing has shown [English translation of his book Iedereen is muzikaal], this musicality is of a different kind than what we witness in Collier. His musical family does have everything to do with it but not in a way of “passing on” the family trait in their genes. Rather, musical families support each other should there be interest in pursuing musical activities. Such interest is apparent in Collier and the support of his family has enabled him to reach a level of musical maturity in a young age (Check out also the bass player Victor Wooten‘s an multi-instrumentalist Usman Riaz‘s similar stories). What we hear in Collier’s undertakings is not merely talent but passion and drive to put the countless hours into practising and working on his music required to reach this level. And he just seems to be getting started so I’m really looking forward to follow his musical adventures to come 😀

And to wrap up here’s one more gem from Jacob Collier.

Black music – Part I

After a summer break I’ll try and resume posting again. I’ll start with some ruminations about the genre of music closest to me.

As mentioned before, most of my musical activities have revolved around musical genres which can be grouped under a general category of some thing called “Black music”. While Black music is a common nomination for musical cultures with roots in Africa, the notion does raise some questions some of which I’d like to discuss here.

In addition to have been involved with Black music for most of my musical career, there was one particular incident that got me thinking of this notion more broadly and deeply. This happened in a university in Germany where I was presenting my idea for a Master’s thesis about the brass bands in New Orleans. The most discussed topic after my presentation was the notion of Black music and whether it was a racist, discriminating and/or politically correct term.

In my studies I have largely relied on North American literature about the music. My interests have began with the history of jazz and from there to Black music in a more general sense. The choice of literature has also been affected by my language skills as well as the institutional preferences at Musicology department of University of Amsterdam.

The academic discourse about Black music has gone more or less hand-in-hand with the general discourse in terms of terminology. One of the most significant publications on the field Black Music Research Journal began 1980. In the largest online repository of academic publications JSTOR this journal is listed under the topic African American Studies. Among others the list of journals there include Journal of African American History, Black Perspective in Music and the Journal of Negro Education. It’s notable that the first of these was originally called Journal of Negro History (1916-2001) but the last is still in publication using the original name (since 1932).

Thus it seems that the academic community – at least on that side of the bond – is rather heterogeneous in their terminology in this regard. But let’s turn back to music and what this terminology implies in terms of music and musical practices.

Can music be black? – Some musical markers

The notion of “Black music” would seem to indicate that there’s something specific in the music – as a “sound object” – that makes it “black” as opposed to some other colour, i.e. it points at an ethnicity or a race. What could such musical elements be? With the risk of simplifying and essentialising matters, I’m going to use a bit of comparative methodology here.

Revealing my cultural background and point of view I’ll take – rather stereotypically – as a point of comparison the western classical music. The most striking difference between western classical music and most Black music genres is the use of rhythm. The most distinct feature of such contemporary genres as jazz, blues, R&B, reggae, samba, salsa, etc. is their rhythmic character; swing, groove, tumbao, whatever it’s called in a particular genre. One could also argue that the frequent use of pentatonic scales with some unstable “blue notes” is distinct to Black music genres. Harmony has for so long been in the centre of western classical music that it has for a long time been difficult, if not impossible, to do anything new on that area. It could, however, be argued that harmonising the above-mentioned scales and fixing those unstable inflections into chords corresponds with the (Black) aesthetic of the music and results in harmonies – while nothing new on paper – are characteristic to these genres. Blues is a prime example of this as the use of a dominant chord on all degrees (I, IV, V) undermine the conventional function of this chord, resulting in a distinct “blues tonality”.

Each genre also tends to have its characteristic instrumentation; violin strongly implies classical music – although violin or similar instruments have always been used in popular music as well – saxophone or trumpet are often used to signify jazz in e.g. festival posters and album covers, electric guitar and drums refer to pop/rock, and so on and so forth. Performance venues are also markers for genres, albeit broad ones. You don’t have a symphony orchestra playing in a bar or a heavy metal band in a concert hall. Only due to the acoustics of these venues such performances would not be successful, but also in other ways the music would mostly likely seem to be quite “out of place”, in a very literal sense.

I’ll come back to these aspects later when I take the discussion to a more concrete level with some more specific examples.

Music as discourse

So there are some musical and physical, or extra-musical, markers suggestive of a musical genre. But what do these have to do with any sort of racial or ethnic label or claim on music? Quite a lot, in fact. Music, like any other art form, is used to express, communicate, share and live various, more or less specific, socio-cultural experiences. As such these artistic processes are part of the ever continuing discourse about the human condition.

Music has also the benefit, and challenge, of being the most abstract of the art forms. Referentiality or any kind of “meaning” in instrumental music is a very complicated notion and highly malleable depending on various contextual factors. Shortly, it’s quite difficult, if not impossible, to put a finger on the references or “meanings” of a piece of instrumental music. In most cases there are several semantic layers and various possible interpretations.

To call some music “Black” – or any other such label or category – then is to claim that it has some specific relation to a specific group of people. We are, thus, dealing with a discourse about identity with various cultural, social, political, etc. dimensions. And this is essentially a musical discourse; while a lot has been – and will be – said about music in this regard, the really meaningful discourse takes place in the music itself; the ways in which people make and use music. To give this a Heideggerian twist, we cannot perceive/experience music as a “sound object” without our subjective interpretation colouring the experience with connotations and meanings, i.e. there’s no Music (with a capital M) without extra-musical elements and dimensions (begging the question as to whether “extra-musical” is a valid notion).

I’ll leave it at this for now. Next time I’ll take a more concrete approach to the matter and discuss jazz as Black music and the discourse around the topic. I’ll bring along some other, more renown, commentators on the matter and also discuss an aspect I haven’t touched yet: What does the “Black” in Black music actually stand for?

Intro

In this blog I want to share some of my thoughts about various topics. Since my background is in music, its practice and theory, as well as thinking about it, my posts here are going to take music as a point of entrance to any particular topic at hand – or at least have a connection to music.

My musical life began when I picked up the guitar at the age of seven. Later I moved on to electric bass and finally double bass, which became my main instrument. After finishing my jazz double bass studies at the Conservatory of Amsterdam I took on musicology at the University of Amsterdam in which I earned the Master’s degree specialising in Black music (or African American music, if you prefer). I continued this specialisation in my Art Studies Research Master’s studies. The latter also included research trips to Rome and New Orleans and especially from the latter I have a lot of material I’m going to make use of here.

As my academic career so far has led to only one publication, many of my posts here will be of topics I wrote about during my studies.  Additionally, I’ll write here about music I’ve heard – live and recorded – and the thoughts such performances have brought up.

My interest in music is most importantly cultural and social; how music “works” and is used in different cultural and social settings by performers, audiences/listeners, promoters, authorities and various other agents. So rather than music theoretical analysis of performances I’ve witnessed or music criticism in the traditional sense, I’m more inclined to produce contemplative texts about the philosophical, phenomenological and perhaps ethical dimensions of music.

I’ll try to post something whenever I get around to do so. There’s a comment link on top of every post. Please, feel free to use it! I’d like to hear your thoughts and engage in discussion. As the topics I discuss here are mostly not tied to specific time, such as the performance discussed or the time of posting, feel free to comment also on some older posts should you feel like you have something to say.

Looking forward to some lively discussions!

Cheers, Mikko

P.S.  For more about this blog and the thoughts behind it, please see the next post (link below).