Sunday, 20 May 2012

Musical Debate: Can a band be greater than the sum of its parts?

Part II – the debate

Disclaimer - the following argument came out of the Bowerbirds show (see review here) that we recently attended, but has turned into something much bigger. Any examples using the Bowerbirds should not be held against them and the one show of theirs that I have seen, they just happened to spark the debate. And with that, on with the show....

As any proud Greek will tell, it was Aristotle who first came up with the idea that a whole could be greater than the sum of its parts. And while most of us have might not have looked at the study of metaphysics all that closely, we have probably come across similar concepts in high school economics or that intro to philosophy subject that seemed like such a great idea in fist year uni.

But can the same, or at least a similar idea work for music? And more specifically can a band be greater than the sum of its parts when performing live?

Like our first year philosophy course taught us, we need to break the idea down into some smaller parts and try to define our problem. Step 1 – what are the parts of a band and a live show?

The most obvious parts are the members of the band themselves. For the Bowerbirds this was 5 parts, a drummer and 4 other members who played a variety of instruments. The more talented these parts are the more they add to the sum.

But there is more to the equation of a live performance that just the people on stage. The stage itself plays a part, as does the venue as a whole for both its acoustics, its size, the lighting and even the sound mix. And then there are the songs themselves – you can have talented musicians at a great venue but if they don’t know how to write a good song, or they’re not playing a good song someone else wrote, it’s never going to be that good.

And that perhaps leads us to the next part on our definition, Step 2 – what is the sum? The simplistic version of the answer is that the sum, or the result, is the output of the live song or set of songs that are performed.

What the value of that sum is, which ideally you need to know in order to be able to work out if it has been exceeded, comes back to the age old question of measuring art. We all know beauty is in the eye of the beholder and as such let’s just assume we all put our own value on the parts and as such their sum. In my Bowerbird review I explained that by putting those instruments together and playing that style of music, there was a pretty good chance I was going to like it. That’s because I give all those parts a high value based on my personal tastes and past experiences of live music.

The opposite applies if I get taken along to say a Hip Hop show, or a Neil Diamond tribute band. They can be talented and it can be a good show but it will always be hard for them compete with other bands because I put such a low value on their parts.

This takes us to the final part of the problem. Can all of these things come together and produce something is beyond the value you would normally have given them?

As I explained in the Bowerbirds review, my answer is yes. There is no doubt in my mind that on a good night all these parts can come together and it can move you in a way that is beyond just being a really good song. A recorded song can move you for lots of reasons; you can identify with the lyrics, it can remind you of a person or and event in your own life, or the songwriter can just be so emotive that you feel for their own story.

But on stage you can hear a song you have never even heard before and still be blown away. The way the musical notes or the harmonies combine with the passion of the performance can raise the hairs on the back of your neck. I have heard crowds of thousands of people become so quiet that the band can unplug their instruments and mics and just sing (Ben Harper/Fleet Foxes/Avett Brothers). The emotion and passion combined with the silence of the crowd can blow your mind, to steal an expression form a good friend.

The example I will use is the Head and the Heart (see my top 5 shows of 2011), a band who I have seen a couple of times and in a lot of ways aren't too far removed from the Bowerbirds in terms of 'parts'. On stage they can bring such energy and emotion to their songs that even as the support band, that almost no one knew, they had everyone mesmerised.

In the clip below they are missing almost all the instruments that go with the song (and the piano player is looking really lost in the back with nothing to play at all). But a picturesque setting and emotion of the song still seem to take it to another level.

At the end of the day, music is art and everything will have their own measure or value of it. But I stand by my idea that a live show can be great than the some of its parts.


The below video is not mine, but it is a great clip of the Bowerbids and Bon Iver playing at the first ever show I saw at Paradiso. A great combination of a band who are equal to the sum of their parts and one who almost always exceeds.

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