When baroque music came on the scene in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, music was leaving its medieval phase of homophony, or music with one line of melody and harmony (without systematic rhythmical structure). The baroque polyphony followed the rise of complexity in Renaissance, culminating in bridging composers like Monteverdi. When Bach entered the scene, the new polyphony lacked a clear structure, a structure Bach was only too willing to provide. Defining centuries of harmonic conventions with his own multi-melodic inventions and improvisations, Bach anticipated the later tradition of jazz music in laying the technical foundations for artistry in music. Noticing the parallels between the two traditions at the outset of classical and modern music, respectively, Clare Fischer has fused Bach with blues and jazz, with mixed results.
On the one hand, Fischer’s music is delicately beautiful at times, turning Bach on his head, so to speak. But similarly, Fischer’s music can become unseemingly difficult to listen when notes are crammed together instead of spread out sequentially as in baroque music. Jazz favours simultaneity over sequential progressions of notes, with chords being the new note form. This can allow for more complexity — or, in the case of the popular music to which jazz music gave birth, crude simplicity. It is hard to know where this leads.
Miles Davis articulated one structure for jazz in Kind of Blue, making melody the driving force behind harmony. In much contemporary jazz, rhythm is the name of the game, and rhythmical complexity is prized as highly as harmonic complexity. But what is complexity for its own sake if not a way of showing off?
For sure, there are moments of sublime emotional lucidity to Fischer’s music, a form of jazz that, as a good friend described the genre, captures emotions that cannot be expressed in words. But words need not be literal, and it remains, as another friend articulated eloquently, the defining achievement of hip hop to unite music and poetry. But the music often derives from soul music, and soul music from jazz and blues. On the other hand, soul differs from jazz in that it turns our attention from technique towards artistry. The clue is in the name: soul.
Of course, what is the soul without a mind and a body to support it and give it shape and form? Bordered on both sides by jazz technique and hip hop artistry, soul is often pared with R&B in its synthesis of rhythm and harmony driven by melodic ideas and lyrical passion. Fischer’s baroque jazz restates in an artistic manner the technical foundations of this musical superstructure. Is it enough? Hell no. Does it teach us something about where music comes from, and how it begins? Certainly. Jazz, indeed, was born in from ashes of romanticism. If art is the end or purpose of music, then technique is the origin or platform from which music can grow.
Here begins one story of music. And even in the beginning, the image of the end is imprinted from the end of the last story, which often bears resemblance to the end of this story, before it has even begun. The tension between reason and romance runs through all music. If jazz is the contradiction, and soul is the balance, then hip hop is the resolution of the tension in modern music. The clash finds an epiphany in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West, a modern version of Mozart’s Requiem.
And Fischer acolyte Jacob Collier is approaching the age Kanye was when he released that defining album. If he is the new Mozart, now is his time. If there is a time for transcendent artistry from the void of immanent technicality, now is the time. Let the clash be collapsed, that new life may be born. First the old fades away. Only then is the new truly, if traumatically, born. Only when the clash is articulated clearly and defiantly is the muddle of music brought to brilliant life. It is about time. Shall we begin?