Racer Sessions

Sundays, 8-10pm at Cafe Racer in Seattle, WA

Vincent LaBelle - January 16th, 2011


My plan for this week’s Racer Session is simple: to present a pop song I wrote a couple years ago in the context of experimental, or freely improvised music. My hope is to capture the feelings which my song evokes, and present them and the song, in a new context, attempting to maintain the intention of the original piece.

I am interested in the idea of presenting a very musically accessible piece in a more challenging context, to see whether it’s basic intentions can still be felt. Joining me will be Neil Welch, Chris Icasiano, and Skiff Feldspar.

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There are many reasons why the average listener might be initially turned off by avant- garde or experimental music. One obvious reason is simply not having been exposed to the music, not having come up in an atmosphere which fostered an appreciation of it. Also, experimental music often reduces or distills common musical tenets to ideas which can then be manipulated, morphed, or presented in a new or different context. Often the music is abstracted or reduced to the level of simple gestures, or fundamental elements such as shape or direction. This kind of abstraction lends itself to freer forms of expression on behalf of the performer or composer, but it also asks a lot of the audience; not only must the audience be willing to let go of traditional musical constructs, they must recognize them in the first place. One of the beautiful aspects of freely improvised music, however, is that it can be appreciated on a purely experiential level, precisely because it is not necessarily inhibited by any defined musical grammar.

Interestingly, most “average listeners” have an experiential relationship with music. Most listeners simply know how a piece of music makes them feel. This is why many people define whether music is good or bad based on whether they like it or not.

In talking with friends and family who are not trained musicians, I have come to the realization that for many average listeners, their perception of music is (perhaps subconsciously) tied to the idea of a song. And, while the average person probably doesn’t define a song in any sort of concrete terms, I would venture a definition for them: memorable melody, relatively short form, discreet, repeated elements. This definition is consistent with why a typical listener might like the Beatles, as well as Mozart, or Ravel’s Bolero, but might struggle with something more through-composed, or musically complex (let alone, musically abstract!).

That a typical listener has an experiential relationship with music might also account for why Miles Davis, Ravel or Debussy, for instance, have garnered a much broader audience than their contemporaries. For whatever reasons, their music quickly evokes a feeling from the listener, despite it’s often musically challenging content.

So, I’d like to propose that, for the jam session portion of the evening, improvisers as a group focus on a particular feeling or feelings (i.e., melancholy, joy, anger, closeness, coldness, etc.) as their starting point for their improvisation. Another idea would be to reference a feeling that a particular work evokes, and try to express that feeling within the context of your improvisation.

I should mention that my song, titled “Swan,” borrows a melodic shape from the first two bars of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Le Cygne. In fact, in writing “Swan” I had the same sense of melancholy in mind as Le Cygne evokes (hence the name “Swan” for my tune). The first portion of our performance will be a treatment of Le Cygne, which will lead into my song. As sort of a secondary experiment, I am interested in the idea that an element of the Saint-Saëns was essentially borrowed and morphed into my little roots-rock song, and then again sees another permutation in this Sunday’s performance. Saint-Saëns was know to be musically conservative near the end of his career, so he’d probably hate this re-hashing of his music!


Below is a link to my song, “Swan,” as well as Camille Saint-Saëns’s Le Cygne:

My song, “Swan”

Saint-Saëns, Le Cygne