Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Art of Variation


A donkey’s jawbone. A wooden box. A gourd with beads around it. Two small gourds with seeds inside. These amongst the instruments featured in our recent Orff gathering with a Latin accent. The quijada, cajon, maracas and shekere played by musicians from Mexico, Peru, Venezuela and Cuba. Simple tools brought to a breathtaking level of virtuosic expression by master musicians who have dedicated the time and intelligence to “extract the utmost information from the simplest apparatus” (Alfred North Whitehead’s advice for inspired education). How do they do it?

First is attention to sound. How many different sounds can one find on each instrument? Then technique. What is the most muscularly efficient way to release each sound? Then rhythm. How can I start from the center of a groove and circle around it, swoop under and above it, pass through it and take it on a side road or two? Finally, variation. How can I travel to the edge of imagination, armed with coherent knowledge, efficient techniques, full use of 360 degree possibilities of telling a story? It’s a wonder to behold—and behear—what a simple tool in the hands of a master artist can express.

Meanwhile, we get so distracted arming the students with the complex tools of i-Pads, giving them Smartboards and Smartphones, but often neglecting smart children prepared to do something important and interesting with them beyond text the next inanity to their friends or gorge themselves with pop fluff and the constant addictive stream of sensation. Might everyone be required to express themselves artistically with a wooden box before composing with Garage Band? Write a beautiful poem with pencil and paper before learning the word processing program? Draw 52 still lives with charcoal before delving into the cool graphic design program? You get the idea.

But I’m not just talking about the choice of tools. The deeper question is how do we cultivate human intelligence? A quick look reveals that it has much to do with the art of variation. Artists develop their craft through those 52 different versions of a bowl of fruit. Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven honed their compositional skills with countless themes and variations, using both intelligence and imagination to ask and answer, “How else can I express this theme?” Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane did the same as they circled time and time again through the changes of the 12-bar blues or the harmonic progression of I Got Rhythm.

Such variation is only possible in the human world, a gift of the neo-cortex that has the capacity for choice, for stating one thing one way and then re-stating it another way and yet another and yet another. Animals driven by hard-wired instinct don’t have this flexibility, though it does increase as you climb the evolutionary ladder. If we are to be worthy of our species, we would do well to live our thoughts and our lives with the cultivated craft of variation, whether it be playing a donkey’s jawbone or writing a daily blog.

Have I said this before? Certainly, but here is variation number 612, inspired by the beads wrapped around a gourd in the hands of John Santos, a pair of maracas brought to life by Jackie Rago.

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