Thursday, October 5, 2017

Phil Collins' Not Dead Yet and on being able to read music

I have been a fan and admirer of Phil Collins for around four decades and certainly consider him to be one of the finest musicians in Rock music as a songwriter, arranger, producer, drummer and singer.
I really have enjoyed his witty and clever writing in his new book Not Dead Yet ("pram perambulation" among other gems). Mr. Collins' writing comes off more as more erudite than his public persona would let on. His approach is breezy yet creates a colorful imagery in my mind's eye of the people, places and events that he describes. He is an amazingly good writer.

However, in reading one passage from his new book Not Dead Yet, I feel compelled to respond.

He states in an early chapter that he never learned to read music. I'm absolutely fine with that, many great musicians never learned to read music. Phil says he has a great ear and I don't doubt it in the least. I loved ear training when I took lessons and was quite good at it and while I can read, I find the ear training invaluable and enjoy learning pop, rock and even jazz tunes with it.

However, I disagree wholeheartedly that somehow learning to read music limits one's musical vocabulary or creativity. Mr. Collins states that some trained musicians he's known that read tend to be stiff and mechanical in their playing. So what? I don't think you can generalize about trained musicians sounding "regimented, taught, and clinical" (although I'm sure there are some). As for other creative greats in Rock, musical training and learning to read certainly didn't hurt the likes of Stewart Copeland, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Eddie Jobson, Geoff Downes, Tony Kaye, Carl Palmer, etc.  They had quite a musical vocabulary and I don't think sound "regimented, taught, and clinical." But I can certainly see reading music to be less of an concern in the Rock and Pop world and it't certainly not a prerequisite. But it might have helped Mr. Collins with the arrangements for his Big Band concerts as he said he had to invent his own phonetic way of doing the charts. To his credit he did continue to think about learning to read particularly imagining himself in later years playing in an orchestra pit!

I don't think learning to read music limits your musical vocabulary, but rather can increase it since you'd be able to play certain music in its entirety that would otherwise quite difficult to pick up by ear (Rachmaninoff for example). Tony Banks (also of Genesis!) could read music and in fact learned to play Rachmaninoff, particularly the C# Minor Prelude. Mr. Banks adapted Rachmaninoff's crossed hand techniques into his own playing creating unique (for Rock) passages like the intro to The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and even No Reply At All and Fading Lights (in the synth solo section). Reading certainly didn't limit his creative use of what he read and adapted.

I suppose I do take umbrage at the old chestnut in the Rock world that musical training hurts your creativity. That you can break the rules when you don't know them. Mr. Collins states he probably wouldn't have written the "unconventional" In The Air Tonight had he been able to read. "Unconventional?" Not compositionally, it uses pretty much only three of the most common chords in Rock and Pop, the minor vi, V and IV. Arrangment and recording-wise it is certainly fresh sounding (at the time) but compositionally, no. That's not to take away from it being a great, moody song.

Interestingly Sting (Gordon Sumner) said in an interview with The Guardian, "In pop music, there's no such thing as composition. We collate from pre-existing tropes and then the originality comes in the interpretation."

I would argue KNOWING the rules helps you realize what you need to do to break them rather than the other way around. Otherwise you THINK you are breaking rules but really without the knowledge of what has gone before you really don't know. I would have to say as far as people in Mr. Collins' circles who could read music, Tony Banks' chord progressions and solos are much more unconventional than what you heard in Pop and Rock. His music would often constantly modulate so the frame of reference you had for what you thought was the tonic was tossed out the window!

Anyway, this quibble aside, a truly engaging book and I felt I got to know the man better and appreciation for his musical and personal motivations. Kudos, Mr. Collins!

- B. Denim

No comments: