Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Hendrix and Audiation

There is no record of Hendrix rehearsing in the studio, but if there were, what an event it would be. There are musicians, of course, Steve Howe of Yes comes to mind, who are classically trained, who read and are able to transcribe music and have the theory to understand the complexities of what they do. Then there are people like Hendrix (and McCartney who, without the ability to read music, has composed symphonies). We know that Hendrix loved the studio because it enabled him to record long, complex tracks like "1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)" in separate sessions and edit them together—this was done of necessity because the only three musicians on the track are Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and Chris Wood of Traffic on flute. In order for him to be able to maintain control over such a long, structured track, Hendrix must have heard the different parts in his head with great clarity. This is known in music theory as audiation. When you compose music, you are constantly audiating - your "inner ear" "hears" something, you write it down, you check it, and if it matches, you move on. If it doesn't, then you modify your understanding of what it is you're hearing until you are.

By contrast, musicians with poor audiation tend to have problems creating music, unless there's someone in the room who can do it for them, namely a gifted producer. The most infamous example goes back again to Hendrix: one of his concert-stoppers early in his career was "Wild Thing," a song that was originally a hit for the English band the Troggs. The Troggs, it's fair to say, were not audiators. As long as they had producer Larry Page to direct them, they were able to make songs of classic simplicity like "Wild Thing" (which they didn't write), "With A Girl Like You" and "Love Is All Around" (which they did), but when they neglected to invite Page along, they found themselves struggling to agree on what exactly they ought to be doing. The result was captured by their engineers one night in the legendary Troggs Tape, a recording of them arguing in the studio. It wasn't a case of alpha musicians bickering over a sound or an arrangement, it was a studio ball of confusion. It's an interesting listen if you have time on your hands, and often hilarious. The point is this: had their usual producer been in the room, he would have been able to suggest a direction that the band would have gone with. In his absence, it's clear that nobody has a coherent idea of what the track ought to sound like.

Audiation is not a substitute for scoring. There are levels of detail that you can't just hum to other people. Had Hendrix lived, I suspect he might have learned to write music because his ideas were becoming more and more complex and the people he wanted to play with were at a level that he would have needed some study to keep up with them. It's the kind of thing that haunted Lennon. He had the audiation, but couldn't express it, often not even to George Martin. Aside from Hendrix and The Beatles, other musicians who have no formal training in music but were blessed instead with an innate ability to hear the music in their heads (audiation in its truest form) include Dave Grohl, Robert Johnson, Eddie Van Halen, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton and Elvis. Pretty good trick.

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