Performing theory: Imagination in Jacob Collier’s music

The unexamined music is not worth performing. (Cover version of a proverb)

There is this fairly common assumption according to which theory and practice are mutually exclusive. “That’s only a theory, but does it work in practice?” Often we encounter outright hostility against theorising. As if it were a waste of time as long as it is not applied. As a philosopher, I hold of course a professional suspicion against this attitude. So it won’t come as a surprise to you if I say that the whole thing is owing to a false dichotomy. As I see it, certain forms of doing and experiencing even require theory. You begin to see this once you notice that theories are not just lists of sentences written down in dusty books. Rather, theories are forms of thinking about possibilities or options. Theories are imaginative spaces. What that means might be shown in many ways. But since I’ve recently been struck by the music of Jacob Collier, I’ll try to make my point by musing about his work.

Can you walk into two directions at once? – You think you cannot. But you know this, paradoxically so, because you can. It is imagining trying it that tells you that your physical constraints would normally stop you from doing so. This way of imagining is a sort of theorising: It doesn’t only tell you what you can do; it also gives you an idea of your constraints, of what you can and cannot do in space and time. Arguably, it’s reflecting on such constraints that make our actions meaningful. It’s the imagined possibility of turning the other way that gives direction to your walking this way. Such theorising or imagining sometimes gives an existential ring to our experience. A phenomenon that bears this out is the narrow escape. If you’re nearly run over by a car, your imagination of that accident will give a different meaning to your still walking upright. Conversely, we might daydream about being elsewhere, abstracting away, yes: abstracting away, from certain constraints. Arguably, narrow escapes and daydreaming are forms of integrating theory or imagination into practice. They are forms of doing or experiencing that thrive on including possibilities. They make our actions ambiguous or reveal the ambiguities in our actions.

Various forms of art are conventionalised forms of integrating theory into practice. One way of doing this in art is by exploiting perceptual ambiguities. Have you ever seen a piece by Escher? Or a depiction of the duck-rabbit? Then you get the idea for visual perception. I haven’t thought this through but I am inclined to think that the richness of possibilities increases with abstracting away from constraints. In music, you can experience various ambiguities in relation to rhythm and harmony. But since music education is a rare thing, it’s harder to write about this experience without sounding like someone besotted by jargon. While we have a lot of vocabulary for visual structures (we talk shapes etc. all the time), this is less true for other sense modalities. But perhaps a good example for ambiguities in music are cover versions of songs. Do you know the nursery rhyme Frère Jacque? Ok, now imagine it as a punk song. And now as a waltz. Just try it! The point is that such a cover version would include at least two possibilities at once. You hear the nursery rhyme and you hear it presented in the punk idiom and you hear that it is a different take on something else. You can abstract away from certain features and include possibilities. In some sense, a cover version performs a theory of a song. It presents possibilities and constraints as they are performed. – Now you might say that this is a case of just one possibility realised: there is just the punk song. But I doubt this. The original matters, too; it’s not just a punk song based on old material. Otherwise you would not experience the pushing of boundaries and conventions. Both the original and the new song are present at once, just like the duck-rabbit presents us with features of both animals at once.

Pushing the boundaries of musical experience by hopping genres is easily recognised, but it happens at various levels. Sometimes such an extension of boundaries goes so far that the experiential space is itself extended. Think of it this way: At some point in history abstract painting, for instance, was not really a widely approved option. Today it’s common, but at some point it reshaped the very conventions of what it means to paint or create art. Arguably, Jacob Collier’s approach to music can be seen as such a sort of move. Among the many things that make his work fascinating is that he includes such a great number of possibilities at once. Not only did he create numerous covers in addition to very impressive compositions of his own. His songs and covers exploit ambiguities on all levels, and push them enormously far. This is perhaps most palpable in his cover of the classic All Night Long (listen and watch!).

What makes Jacob Collier’s music so special? Reshaping rhythmical distributions and substituting harmonic changes while helping himself to microtonal steps between conventional intervals, he makes parts of this well known song ambiguous and has it dip into various genres. (Here is a helpful introduction to some crucial concepts.) This is something we are all familiar with to some extent. But the overall effect is that he redefines or widens the musical space in which the music is received. What do I mean be this? Imagine a world without waltzes or minor chords (the ones that sound somewhat sad)! And now imagine that you listen to a familiar song (written in major, of course), but set in a minor key for the very first time. The experience that there are minor chords does not only alter the song in question. Arguably, it does something to all the other songs you already know. Allow me one more analogy, please: Imagine that you’ve lived in dark rooms for a long time and have seen all the things around you in dark shades, but now someone switches on the light. Even if the light is switched off again, knowing that the darkly shaded objects can appear colourful alters the perception of them. Returning to the introduction, our theory of objects affects our perception. This way, certain practices require the integration of theory. Likewise, being introduced to new concepts can alter one’s musical perception.

Let’s zoom in more closely. My point is not that Jacob Collier is the first one to use some extravagant concepts in his work. What is striking are, in addition to his obvious talent, two things: the pop-musical context in which he applies such devices and how assertively he embraces theory as an ingredient of musical performance. The first point is easily demonstrated by pointing out what he does in his cover versions of pop songs. Some of us might be familiar with this kind of practice at least from the Bebop era or from the way many classical composers approached folk songs. However, the second aspect, though perhaps more salient, might not be immediately obvious. Cover versions of songs, for instance, might just be intended as entertainment, but they can also be heard as a form of integrating theory or imagination. As noted above, playing Frère Jacque as a punk or reggae tune would integrate theory in that way.

Jacob Collier does this sort of thing way more assertively though. What stands out immediately is that he happily shares his “secrets” in all sorts of workshops and clinics (see e.g. here); so the involvement with some of the crucial concepts behind his music has almost become a regular part of the reception of his music. In his covers, he takes care to retain the original while doing all sorts of things to it. But this does not just produce an alienation effect. The reharmonizations, for instance, do not only make you think: “oh, that sounds different”. They also might make you think: “oh, how far can you stretch these reharmonizations without ending up with a different song?” This is taken to the extreme in his version of Moon River. Some people will surely think that this is going too far: too many reharmonizations! Doesn’t it destroy the unity of the song? Doesn’t it deprive it of it’s character? While I can see the point of such reactions, I also see something else: he doesn’t just perform a song with fancy modulations; he provides a theory of that song. The theory is the answer to a question: How many possible ways are there of singing Moon River in a certain mood? But the song is not merely a sequence of modulations; it is a proper song with a climax. But it is also a theoretical tale of harmonizations, bound together by a certain mood. While other versions of that song give you a sentiment, Collier’s version seems to give you a whole opera. In provoking such mixed responses, then, Collier encourages analytic listening without giving up on the fun. He presents so many reharmonizations of one song in the same song that you cannot but grasp the idea of reharmonization itself. (In fact, the reharmonization or harmonization of melodies is something that he devoted particular attention to, as can be seen from this series of clips in which he harmonizes melodies sent in by various singers.)

However, the basis of a song is not just formed by theoretical concepts. What holds all the theoretical or imaginative explorations together is an emotional core. But like all other aspects of life, feelings can be highly complex and ambiguous. Collier sometimes talks about (a certain) harmony as “the way a melody feels” or a way of “injecting melody with emotion”. Now his songs and covers give you an indeterminate variety of feelings for a melody. When listening to one of his songs, you will go away with the impression of having listened to a subset of all the (emotionally) pertinent versions of that song. (This receives further support by the variety he adds through performing different versions of the same song. I have listened to three versions of his Hideaway, all of which seem to explore different possibilities of instantiating the same song. Again, the phenomenon is not at all uncommon. But I found the differences between these versions quite striking: onetwothree.) At the same time, he presents visual clues for this approach. If you follow the video of All Night Long, you can see that he employs various visual devices to convey the alterations in the music. The visual and auditory devices jointly demonstrate that (and partly how) the piece is (re-)arranged. (Look for instance how the chord changes are depicted during minutes 3:31-3:35. Likewise, the ubiquitous co-present segments of pictures showing Collier or other musicians support an analytic focus in listening.) – I still find it difficult to provide a summarising statement of what I’m trying to get at here, but the upshot is this: Whether or not it’s intended that way, Collier’s approach encourages analytic listening, making palpable the contingent and ambiguous features of the piece, while retaining the musical and emotional flow. It’s not an Either-Or between theory and practice. It’s practice embracing theory.

If some of the above makes sense, you might agree that Jacob Collier’s work can be seen as a way of performing theory. But even if this were well applicable, why would it matter? Apart from wishing to counter the fairly widespread assumption that theory is opposed to practice, I also think that this view is particularly pernicious for the arts. And yet I find it often endorsed even among practitioners. It’s a common assumption that theory gets in the way of performance, musicality, emotion, expression and what have you. Of course, there is an almost trivial sense in which this can be true. If I keep wondering what the name of the currently played chord is, I might end up losing touch with the flow of the piece. But what is rarely appreciated is that theory can also be seen as the imaginative space in which art (and everything else) is received. This becomes most obvious when theories (and thus our imaginative resources) are altered and begin to affect conventions. In this sense, theory should be embraced, not shunned. Theory is part of what we do; not something extra on the side. Think of this next time you hear a funny cover version of a cherished classic: it’s theory performed.

____

Thanks to Sabine Döring, Daniel M. Feige, Jens-Holger Hopp, and Eric Richards for hints and discussions.

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