When I was a graduate student I had the opportunity to study with a wonderful composer (and teacher) named Olly Wilson. A piece of advice Olly gave his students (myself included) was to listen to and thus immerse yourself in whatever instrumental combination you were composing for in order to get (and keep) the “sound” of that ensemble in your ear. It was good advice, but for me, only up to a point. Yes, in preparation for beginning a project, I like to do a little such listening. But once I’ve started writing, there is no chance and no way am I going to listen to another composer’s music for a like ensemble.
Here’s why. I am presently working on a trio for violin, ‘cello, and piano. I began writing in early March and am presently about halfway through the first draft. Listening to recordings or live performances of other piano trios at this point can only do two things: distract or induce despair. Regarding distraction: I’ve got to let my musical materials go where they want to go. That means focusing with narcissistic intensity on my materials and my materials only. To hear – and worse, be influenced – by another piece at this stage of the compositional process can only sidetrack, divert, befuddle, and confuse the musical issues I’m presently dealing with. As for despair, well, should I be so foolish to listen to, say, Beethoven’s Trio in B-flat Major Op. 97 (the “Archduke”) or Brahms’ Trio in B Major Op. 8 (which the little cocker wrote when he was just 21 years old), the only appropriate response would (unhappily) be to ask myself why am I even bothering and to consider a career in vacuum cleaner repair.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I must swear off recreational listening while composing; what is does mean is that I will tend to listen to stuff that is as different from my compositional world as is possible. Which has provided me the excuse (not that I really need one) to pull out my recordings of one of my favorite all-time performing groups, the six-man Cuban a capella vocal ensemble called “Vocal Sampling.”
(A quick parenthetical statement. Of the roughly 800 fine folks who presently read this blog, I would hazard to guess that only a handful is familiar with this group. For the rest of you, prepare for REVELATION, for the AMAZING EXPERIENCE of discovering something fantastic that, until this moment, YOU DIDN’T KNOW EXISTED.)
“Vocal Sampling” grows out of an Afro-Cuban performance tradition in which percussion instruments are imitated by human voices. However, Vocal Sampling takes things a bit further in that they imitate entire bands – brass instruments, bass lines, electric guitars, etc. – with their voices. It is absolutely uncanny, and their musicianship is extraordinary. I’ve provided a link to a live performance in which they sing a piece called “Un son pa’cantar” by their lead singer René Baños.
They’ve made a bunch of CD’s. I’d recommend that anyone interested begin with a disc called “Cambio de Tiempo”, which is killer: an amazing combination of Cuban pop and Afro-Cuban sizzle. You cannot live without this disc. Cannot live. Cannot. Live. Without.