Conversation as Art

As a musician, I’m mostly a solo artist. I like it that way because I get to be in full control. I conceive of the songs, I write them, and I perform them. It’s one of the few parts of my world in which I focus on “my own voice” — literally and metaphorically.

I like song circles, in which people share songs. Usually people in the “circle” take turns singing their song, one at a time, and then listen attentively to the next person’s song.  Sometimes there is a little bit of collaboration, where someone might sing an impromptu harmony, or play an accompaniment or take a lead during a break. But it’s still mainly one person “speaking” at a time, and the others listen.

“Jam sessions,” on the other hand, scare the shit outa me.  I’m a pretty good guitar player, but I’ve never learned what to do when someone looks at me during a musical break and says “take it, Mike.”  I’m like Tommy Smothers in the old skit: I say “Take it back.”

A song circle is like a conversation. It’s an exchange of ideas.

But a “Jam” is also a conversation. In fact, it’s a more intimate kind of conversation, in a way. It doesn’t work if play in different keys, or even if they’re out of tune with each other, or they’re not keeping up with each other during the changes, or they’re not in rhythm with each other… 

When a jam goes well, the exchange of ideas is live, collaborative, supportive of each other. There’s a “groove.”  You hit the “pocket.”

A verbal conversation is like this — it’s an exchange of ideas between people.

This is in contrast to an argument, in which people intend to impart conflicting ideas upon each other. In musical terms, this is often called a “train wreck.”

If you think of a conversation as a song circle, or even as a single “jam,” it makes sense.  It also makes sense than an “argument” (in the usual sense) simply would not work as a piece of music. Nobody would want to listen to something where the people in the jam (the “band”) are out of tune, out of sync, or simply playing different pieces of music.

Imagine a simple duet on stage. Two guitars, two voices. One is playing “Hotel California,” and the other is playing “The City of New Orleans.”  Even in the same keys this would likely sound like crap. 

Most of what we read on social media is not conversation — it’s argument. Who (or more) different people playing different pieces of music, in different keys at the same time. 

To have a real conversation, you have to think of it as a piece of art. A collaboration.  What are you going to create, in the end?