One of the things that appeals to me most about musicians like Toumani Diabate who are part of a distinct musical culture is that these musicians speak a finite musical language, and they speak it as a first language. Before the invention of a written musical tradition this was, I imagine, the only way to be a musician. You learnt the music of the people around you by hearing it and playing it. It probably never occurred to you that some other language of music existed, and if it did you probably didn’t try to understand it anyway.
Things have changed. I have probably listened to more kora players than any kora player would have heard one hundred years ago. Not only have I listened to them, but I have the technological means to really explore this music in minute detail.No live musician would have had the patience to have allowed me to explore kora music in the kind of detail I have explored it in order to find a way to play it on guitar. My work in the regard is entirely the product of digital technology.
This kind of interaction with a musical language is already an old phenomenon. An example: people have been studying Bach’s music in minute detail for hundreds of years without ever having met him or been to his country. Glen Gould’s two recordings of the Goldberg Variations are the stuff of legend. Gould and Goldberg are intimately connected. But Gould is Canadian (I imagine his German is sketchy or non-existent) and their birth dates are two hundred and forty seven years apart. Yet nobody asked Glenn, with misty eyes, if he’d ever been to 17th century Germany. And Glenn probably never assumed that such a visit would enlighten his image of Bach’s music. Glenn Gould explored Bach’s music from the point of view of a twentieth century musician called Glenn Gould, on an instrument very different from anything Bach ever paid eyes on, with a musical aesthetic informed by a musical world that was as removed from anything which Bach would even call music.
And I think this is what is interesting about Glenn Gould’s Goldberg variations. And this is what is interesting about Bach (and any other composer). There is just so much space for the personality of individual musicians to come out in different interpretations of their music. The music is, as all music is, a vehicle and a means to play an instrument. Without somebody to pluck the strings or press the keys, Bach is nothing but a few mental scratches of a quill pen on a piece of old paper.
I just read the bio of an American violinist called Lindsay Stirling who dances while she plays over electronic beats . She learnt classical violin from a teacher, but she learnt to dance on You Tube. Glenn learnt to play piano from a teacher, but he learnt the Goldberg Variations from a book. I even have a friend who learns the ancient art of knitting from online forums sharing digital representations of knitting patterns. Same same? or different?
I have learnt guitar from a teacher (well some of it), but I learnt the language of the kora from recordings. I am using the tools at my disposal to learn this language in a way that is very different from how it is learnt in West Africa. And I am learning it with the goal of creating a rich language so that I can continue to experience the guitar in new ways. Not so I can play music like Toumani Diabate, but so that I can experience the musical phenomenon of exploring a finite language in myriads of ways. This is a little like Glenn’s interpretation of the Goldberg Variations: the exploration of a finite musical universe, one which is constantly changing in subtle ways. But this language that I learnt from the kora is not the language of a single utterance like the Goldberg Variations, it is rather a single vocabulary which makes possible many individual utterances. And this is something like what I admire in so-called traditional musicians: that fluency in one dialect.
The pieces on One Night on Earth represent a huge amount of work transcribing, learning and developing my own versions of Toumani Diabate’s kora music. I am now as familiar with his musical language as I am with Bach’s. Playing the music of Ballake Sissoko was a new adventure started just before the recording, a new accent, a new dialect, but the same music., and have continued this project recently with some new solo works of Ballake’s.
In the last few days I think I may have stumbled on a very large collection of kora compositions which explore the same language as you hear in One Night of Earth. And when I start to translate this music onto the guitar I see a new expression of what is becoming a very rich musical language for guitar. This satisfies my desire to speak individual musical languages fluently, even though I may have learnt them from pieces of paper, or electronic recordings. It also paves the way for a new collection which will be like One Night on Earth, but will also be very different.
I look forward to sharing this with you when the time comes.