It’s no secret that slugging chardonnay can give a performer some gumption before taking to the stage. However, liquid courage is not the subject of this particular blog post. As much as I love both drinking and singing, I don’t pursue them simultaneously; any attempt I have made to sing under the influence has resulted in unintended lyrical improvisation or total abandonment. That said, the world of wine has given me a great deal to ponder in my music, even if I’m not actually having “one for my baby and one more for the road” at the time I sing it.
Like most artists, I have other, non-theatrical or musical ways I make a living. Mine is the wine business. Now, I believe a level of expertise in any subject can provide insight into art and living. There are lessons of skill, progress and patience in every trade from fishing to clock repair. My trades are wine and song –there’s artistry in both, pleasure and transformation being essential to the success of each. Here are some short-form philosophies that, I believe, travel from the world of the grape to the world of the groove.
Terroir – own where you’re from
“Terroir” is one of the most prevalent and elusive terms in wine. It means, essentially, “sense of place.” Wines that have a sense of terroir reveal where they are from. These wines incorporate their soil type and their surrounding ecology in the way they taste and smell. Wines that have a sense of terroir are exposed – they don’t hide behind overly ripe fruit or overdone technique. One of the joys in discovering wine is being able to discern what kind of slate a German Riesling grew in, or whiffing the native herbs and scrub brush that are characteristic in some reds from Provence.
There’s a musical terroir, if you will: you can hear the ‘church’ in someone’s sound who spent a childhood singing to the rafters as a minister’s son or daughter; you can hear the sweet swing sound of someone who’d listen to a grandparent’s big band records over and over again. When you can hear an artist’s sonic history, it makes their music personal and unique. Whereas, shellacked pop stars by design sound like they could be from anywhere, so they can play everywhere. Becoming who you are takes more courage and makes your sound more inimitable. I’m inspired by artists of all kinds that claim who they are. If you don’t nurture the roots, how can you grow?
It’s all about balance – the bitter and the sweet
A great wine needs balance. The greatest sweet wines of Germany, Hungary and beyond are great because their sweetness is tempered by acidity. Sweetness alone is cloying and unpleasant – acidity alone will sear your tongue, and probably give you heartburn. In concert, so to speak, they create structure and allow both elements to create harmony.
In great music too, all dichotomies are in balance. As a singer, I think of this within a set: being too ballad heavy can weigh down an evening and cause it to lose its edge, too many brash uptempos and you risk leaving the audience cold. With a song it’s the same; a caressingly legato phrase will be all the more beautiful when followed by a rhythmic toss of a line. Listen to Nancy Wilson sing “The Masquerade is Over” – it’s an exercise in contrasts – she’s hopeful and world weary, alternately anguished and resigned. When each element of sound and mood have at their balancing force to temper them, a performance transcends any one individual quality to become a captivating whole.
Some of my favorite wines are made by a “natural” school of winemaking – vintners minimally intervene in the process, allowing native yeasts (as opposed to the ones made in laboratories) to ferment the juice. These wines are even more expressive and sometimes even funky for these techniques and lack of technology. Even more modern winemakers have to get comfortable with many unknowns – weather foremost among them. The best all have great technique; even more than that though, they know how to adapt to ever changing circumstance.
Similarly in music, spontaneity is part of the very fabric of performance. Within the context of technique and vision, welcoming in the unknown is what separates a solid performance from a transcendent one. My favorite moments on the bandstand happen when great musicians try something new, welcome in the unknown in a new tune or approach, and see what happens (the emphasis on spontaneity is why I love jazz especially.) Artful uncertainty is exciting, and leads to invention. Experiencing this as a listener is when the magic of live performance is at it’s height.
Authentic is not categorically good
I went to a wine lunch and sat next to a guy from Puglia, Italy. On the boot that is Italy, Pulgia is the heel. Their wines can be very distinctive. To make conversation, I mentioned I had tasted a fair amount of Puligiese wines, like Negroamaro. He asked me if I liked them, and I said they were usually very authentic, expressive wines (hedging the fact I’d rarely had one I truly enjoyed.) He then looked at me and said, “You know, just because something is authentic doesn’t mean it’s good.”
I love this. What a reminder – that after all is said and done, you can be authentic and spontaneous -truly yourself – but if you don’t know how to sing, or play your instrument, you might just be making very authentic and spontaneous noise. We have got to respect craft.
There are wines that need age in the bottle before they are suitable for consumption. The most famous of Italian wines, Barolo, is famously is aggressive and tannic in youth; give the best a decade or two, and they become entirely different wines – expressive, elegant, powerful and yet nuanced. On the other hand, there are wines that are meant to be enjoyed in their youth –a Beaujolais Nouveau, for instance. They are seasonal, exciting, simple and short lived. The kinds of wines that change your palate, change your life, need time.
This lesson goes deep. In music, time is everything; it’s a temporal art form. Learning to feel the time and not battle it; to find your swing and play with rhythm while still being inside the groove; to be the time, as my teacher says; these are the quests of the musician. But more than that – as artists, sometimes we have to accept we need time to come together and to have something to say. We all aren’t Beaujolais Nouveau pop stars. But with the gifts of time and age – some of us may be able to make some music that will forever change the listener and be profound in its depth.
Allow yourself to be intoxicated
Wine people sometimes take themselves very seriously. The idiosyncrasies of the wine subculture can threaten to overwhelm the substance of the work; sometimes, the stereotype of the condescending aesthete apply to people who dedicate their careers to the grape. Often we forget that wine is about joy, pleasure, and communion. More than that, it’s about putting history and technique in the service of making the present moment all the more real and meaningful.
Musicians also can run the danger of taking themselves too seriously. The idiosyncrasies of the jazz subculture can threaten to overwhielm the substance of the work. Sometimes, the caricature of the furrowed brow hepper-than-thou cat is true. Often we forget that music is about joy, pleasure, communion. More than that, it’s about putting history and technique in the service of making the present moment all the more real and meaningful.