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Saturday, March 3, 2012

When Too Much Is Too Much

Too much garlic! Too much oregano! Different for every person, you say? OK, how about technique? Is too much technique subjective like too much garlic or oregano? For which art forms can you have or use too much? For which art forms is there no such thing as "too much"?

I've heard people say things like "...if I notice a writer's technique it distracts me from the story..." But  writing technique comes in many shades so, which type of technique is it that distracts? Too much dialogue? Too much exposition? Too much descriptive or metaphorical language? Or... are there too little of any of those (or other) techniques on display? Same idea, different medium. If you're engrossed in but then suddenly notice you're watching a movie because of technique (think of Alfred Hitchcock or the Coen Brothers), has that technique gotten in the way? Too much garlic?    

An often re-told anecdote describes Duke Ellington's reaction to a pianist with dazzling technique. Duke was heard to say - "My, you play a lot of notes!"; supposedly the pianist didn't realize he'd been insulted. I've played with people with dazzling technique. Putting the Duke's bon mot aside, I've yet to hear anything except compliments paid to those musicians. So, how much technique is too much for a musician? How often have you said to yourself  "he's so fast, I'm distracted?"  Ever heard the expression "she was chewing up the scenery" to indicate an over-use of technique in acting? What equivalent expression have you heard or used for a musician? How about for a photographer? Visual Artist?

Lots of questions today. I'll weigh in when I get a reaction or two. Got jazz guitarist Joe Pass on my mind.


  1. Pat,The part of the Duke Ellington story you never hear about is the quality of the pianist's musical statement(I assume it was nonexistent)Duke Ellington is often quoted as saying Kenny Burrrell was his favorite guitarist-a musician who at that point in his career certainly played "a lot of notes". If you slow down some of Kenny's work on one of our modern transcription devices,you find that 90% or more of the time what he was creating were great melodies.Art Tatum also falls into this category. Their style of technique just required the listener have the listening "technique" to hear the ideas.

    I'm a big fan of the Marx brothers,especially Graucho.His comedic technique allowed him to come up with a funny response almost instantly.It would take me weeks (if ever) to respond with a similar degree of humor.Other comics,on the other hand,have a slower, more deliberate way of delivering a line but they're just as funny.

    The reverse example would be one of a friend of mine whose son unfortunately had a severe substance abuse problem as a child. It left him with severe cognitive damage.I don't mean this to be disparaging, it's very sad. This boy's statements are often very slow and rambling and often make little sense.On the other hand, I have an uncle who is in his his late 80's.He had a PhD in advanced chemistry and is brilliant. He currently (remember, he's in his late 80's)takes advance physics courses "for fun" at a prestigious university.His technique of speaking is slow and rambling, but I often want to write down every word he says because it's so profound.His speaking technique is entirely different from Graucho Marx, but the content is always there.

    This doesn't just apply to the fast/slow elements of technique, it really runs through every aspect of artistic technique. When I visit a museum,the plaque next to the painting doesn't say whether the painter used 6 shades of blue or one.It also doesn't say whether the painter copied her subject realistically or abstractly.Was painted in 2 days or a year and a half? It doesn't matter. The message, if it's there,comes through.

    The same is true for the written word.I don't care if the writer's vocabulary is incredibly extensive or simple.I'm just concerned with a cognizant thought being conveyed to me.

    This also requires a responsibility on the part of the listener,observer or reader to see past the technique and look for the content of the work.For me, in the end, all techniques are simply aspects of ones artistic style.If there is no message the techniques won't create one. If there is a message, good technique of any kind will enhance it.


    1. Peter; Thanks for your thoughtful and in depth comment. As usual, I learn from you. I especially appreciated your final two sentences about the need for a message, technique not withstanding.

  2. I know what you mean, Pat. As you know, I especially like finger style guitar music. The talent out there is incredible. But I get overloaded by "too much" technique. As wowed as I am by someone like Tommy Emmanuel, I'd much rather listen to simpler, less ambitious arrangements. My favorites blend simplicity and killer technique. Richard Thompson comes to mind. Paul Simon. Understatement, even holding back, can enhance the listen. Then, the amazing riffs and breaks, when they come, blow me away. Jorma Kaukonen and David Bromberg are masters of that.

    1. Jim; Thanks (again) for responding; glad this post resonated for you. I share your love of Paul Simon's understated and simple guitar playing.

  3. Pat, your post reminded me of the scene in the movie Amadeus when the king says to Mozart that his piano composition has 'too many notes." Of course Mozart takes great umbrage to the king's comment, insisting that his piece had neither too many nor too few notes but just the right amount. Everyone has an opinion on this topic! Personally, I enjoy music that has some space and 'breathing room' in it. I have sometimes felt overwhelmed during a concert/jam session listening to wall-to-wall sound. Had to restrain myself from shouting "Will someone please sit out for a few bars!"

    1. Lori; Thanks for weighing in; I loved that scene in Amadeus! And I love even more the word "umbrage" - such a cool word. It sounds like you and I are pretty aligned on this. I'm humbled by amazing technique but much more moved by ideas well expressed. My favorite guitar solos are rarely dazzling in speed.