Questioning your masters
It’s important to never let critical judgement lapse even with your greatest heroes. I’ll give you an example: the other night, I was biking and listening to Gradualia, a massive collection of catholic liturgical music by William Byrd, composed late in his life. As a small bit of explanation, let me say that, later in life, and especially with his Latin liturgical music, William Byrd cultivated what was at times a brutally austere style. Gone is a lot of the harmonic daring, periodic melodies, and rhythmic experiments of his youth at Lincoln Cathedral, and in their place is something more akin to a “continental” style like Lassus or Palestrina. It’s still Byrd, but he seems obsessed with different things than earlier: simplified melodic lines, transparent clarity, and limited dissonance—one might with caution say a “back to basics” approach. There’s nothing inherently wrong with his late in life style; with it he gave us his three, four, and five part masses, all of which are major works. But again and again, on this bike ride, I was overall disappointed with this style as seen in the Gradualia, and that disappointment extended to decisions he made within pieces as well. I found myself thinking, “oh, he missed an opportunity there” or, “this seems too obvious” or various other things. And it made me think about how, when developing your own craft, it’s important to not veer into either complete devotion or aggressive criticality towards your heroes. I’ve certainly veered towards both ends of the spectrum before. Sometimes, especially when I was younger, I would criticize some aspects of certain famous players, and sometimes my peers around me would be aghast “*gasp* how can you criticize BEN WEBSTER??!!” “He criticized Joe Henderson? Who does he think he is??!!”, and then there was an obsession with Dexter Gordon I had the first year of high school, where literally every note he played was seen as the purest gold. The less said about that the better. My point is that a finely balanced ability to critique things you like and don’t like about music, no matter how sacred (to you or to others) or how “low” the music is in question, is important to how you yourself are able to self-critique. Ultimately, being able to appreciate and question at the same time gives you two sides of the same coin—what to do and what not to do. What to take and what not to take. And every artist is composed of thousands of the these little decisions. And at the end of the bike ride, as I was pulling up to Nick Sander’s house, I heard something that almost made me fall off my bike. It was a long alleluia, within the Gradualia, and I swear it’s one of the greatest 20 seconds that Byrd ever wrote.
note: The part in question starts at 2:05