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Artistry and Virtuosity

A buddy and I have been thrilled with artists - in our current discussions, musicians - who specifically bring juice to their art, as well as virtuosity, rather than losing it in the quest for virtuosity.

(Brian Eno is one example of this who stands out the most for me, in the realm of music. As essentially a synthesist, and one who came to music without any rigorous training at all, he managed to develop and propagate new sensibilities, and his virtuosity seems to be the art of composition, itself. Some other examples in the progressive rock vein are David Byrne, King Crimson, even Paul Simon...)

In a Guitar World interview with the guitarist from one of my favorite groups, Adam Jones of the progressive metal band Tool, he touched on this issue in what seems to me to be an exquisitely distilled rendering:
"For a guitar player - regardless of what your level is - it’s about doing what you can do and trying to do it well instead of worrying about how someone else does it. I think people get kind of lost when it comes to why they’re doing it. 
"It’s not a video game where you have to master a sequence exactly or you don’t beat the level. That’s not what guitar playing is, and if you’re trying to emulate someone else, sure, it can help you with what you’re doing, but if you get lost in that pursuit, you’re not going to do anything worthwhile. 
"I play the best I can - and I try to play with emotion and from my heart - and get myself excited while doing the best job I can do."
This kind of principle is especially nice to see expressed so clearly in a Guitar World interview, where it's so easy to talk about technical proficiency (and there's plenty of that in the interview) and lose sight of musicality. Further, I think many play lip service to this perspective, but few do justice to it.

The lack of this attitude tends to show flagrantly in the work - particularly in collaborative situations, where "do anything worthwhile" depends on not getting carried away with your own stuff to the point where you're not listening to your collaborators. Jones gets to the crux of that a bit earlier in the article:
"It’s a system and it’s a group effort, so you get used to asking, 'What does it need?' and not trying to play leads the whole time or worrying why your guitar isn’t loud enough. It’s about focusing on the four parts making a whole. 
"It takes a lot of discipline to think about what the song needs at a given time and really dial it in, and there are times when my part on its own might sound stupid or childish, but it can be what the song needs to drive everything else, and I think all of us have that understanding."
This is an element where I think all the artists I mention in the second paragraph - a sense of engagement in their art where creating rich, coherent compositions is important, even central.

This issue is particularly crucial in collaborative improvisation, including the Contact Improvisation and ensemble collaborative improvisation activities which I practice. Over time I've become increasingly biased towards art that maintains a sense of personal involvement on the part of the artists, where I feel that I (as audience or co-performer) am welcomed to an ongoing process of discovery by the (other) performers - that's what is engaging for me. Having just listened to Tool's new album, I continue to find that sense of engagement, even in the highly produced and deliberate (ostensibly, 13 year in-the-making) product. I'm not writing all this as a recommendation of that album (but do check it out if you're into progressive metal... (-: ), but rather as a recommendation for personally engaging, exploratory art.


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