Music is the Space Between the Notes

Written by Bill Leebens

Depending upon whom you believe, that statement was made by either Claude Debussy or Miles Davis.

I’m certainly no authority on Debussy, but it seems to me that his stuff never had a shortage of notes. Miles was more about the meaningful nothingness, the zen of notes that ain’t there.

Again: no authority.

Whoever said it, think about what that statement means: there has to be breathing room in order to just absorb music, much less appreciate it. These days, it seems as though there’s very little opportunity to take a breath, much less absorb the meaning of music. Or even experience the silence required for music to work against.

The ’50s image of the hi-fi enthusiast is appealing largely because there is a sense of relaxation, immersion, actually being able to pause and listen. Kindly ignore the innate chauvinism, or the damned cigarettes.

At this point in my increasingly-arthritic life, if I were to lay on the floor to listen, there might be a call to 911 in the offing. But that’s another matter.

I’ve never been a fan of rapid-fire, busy guitarwork or frantic piano noodling; all they do is make me nervous. They remind me of trying to read a Victorian novelist who uses three times as many words as are needed to tell a tale. Whether it’s jazz or drawing, a well-defined, expressive line is preferable to me. Give me a B.B. King, who knew how to let a note hang in the air, over the frenetic thrash of, say, Yngwie Malmsteen (and spellcheck was ZERO help on that one!).

It seems as though any time you see a 12-year-old guitar prodigy presented on TV or YouTube, they dazzle with speed, rather than finesse or musicality. Well, of course: that’s what nimble young fingers are good at. Nonetheless, it would be nice to see and hear some thoughtful, contemplative playing.

That’s probably an unreasonable expectation—sort of like condemning Brett Easton Ellis for having written Less Than Zero when he was 21, rather than Remembrance of Things Past. As has been said more than once: time takes time. While there may be innumerable young speed demons and memory experts, wisdom and discretion are generally gained through experience, not a happy accident of genetics.

Speaking of B.B. King, here he’s a youthful-looking 48, masterfully playing the crowd as well as he plays Lucille. Skip to about 1:35 to bypass some time-killing palaver:


Compare that to speed-metal king Michael Angelo Batio—whose playing is actually more lyrical than that of many speedsters. Even so: yikes. It gives me a headache and spilkies, simultaneously:


As much as I try to avoid piano-players whose primary skill is playing with ridiculous rapidity, this one was unavoidable. Sheesh:


Compare that to the always-tasteful playing of Cuban jazz composer/pianist/Steinway Artist Elio Villafranca—here playing slow passages of Rachmaninoff, live from the Steinway factory floor. You can breathe:


Decades ago my brother Chuck— always far ahead of me in exploration of music— pointed out that as he grew older, he listened more and more to music with a tempo that mimicked the human heartbeat: 60-80 beats per minute.

I guess I’m headed there, myself. If I want a stress test, I’ll visit my cardiologist.

Back to Copper home page

1 of 2