I often forget that my kids are still developing the vocabulary to talk about music. Genres aren’t clearly defined to them; just as I can’t tell wines apart, they don’t fully grasp the differences between, say, country, folk, and Celtic.
They have to invent their own words on the fly, and it makes for some interesting insights.
“This is like piano-talk,” my 16-year-old daughter said in the car, as the opening improvisation of Marc Hannaford’s “We Talk in Jests” floated by.
She wasn’t far off.
That got me thinking about pieces that deliberately mimic the inflections of human speech. There are plenty of them — and I have to admit, they don’t usually “work” for me.
I’ll pick on Eric Revis here. I’ve enjoyed his albums and his composing, and I’ve been wowed by his bass playing. On his album Crowded Solitudes (Clean Feed, 2016), the composition “Bontah” is based around the intonations of an infant’s words. The kid, who I’m presuming is Revis’, is trying to be quite serious, and it’s adorable. The resulting theme is intriguing as well.
But the voice is played back at least five times, and by the third time, I find it’s already getting on my nerves. I hesitate to say that, considering this might be Revis’ own kid, and he should be rightfully proud of his child being part of this project. But the repetition gets to me.
Actually, it’s more than that. Jason Moran once released a similar “spoken composition” track, if I’m remembering correctly from my KZSU days. I don’t believe it repeated, but I remember having a similar reaction: I liked the idea — molding the infections of speech into the closest 12-tone equivalent to see what happens — and I liked the resulting composition, but I didn’t really enjoy the sound of the two overlaid.
Most musicians, I suspect, would consider the overlapping to be vital, because the whole idea is to explore the musicality of language. In a world where so many of the “obvious” compositional tropes have been exhausted, it must be an exciting way to compose. It’s a way to make discoveries, much like Joni Mitchell using alternative guitar tunings as a way to avoid old habits.
I think it doesn’t work for me because I’m just not that “into” the sound of the human voice. I’m more interested in the piano or saxophone or violin that’s tracing this oddball melody, and less interested in hearing the spoken patterns that the composition is tracing.
What would it be like if the composer didn’t show you how the words and music match? Drummer Jeff Ballard has a track called “Western Wren (A Bird Call)” that might have used birdsong as the source for its theme. I don’t know, because the track doesn’t include a sample of a bird’s call — and I find I prefer it that way.
As for the Hannaford piece, it does eventually shift into a more structured flow that’s more like “jazz” than “piano talk.” By the way, the band on there is Hannaford (piano), Sam Pankhurst (bass), and James McLean (drums).