Jacob Collier, a 21st Century Mozart?

by Bill Benzon

A little over a week ago Jacob Collier’s version of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) came up on YouTube. I know the song well, and love it. As I’d seen a video or three by this Collier fellow, I decided to give it a listen.

Wow! What?

I was stunned, but also a bit skeptical. Collier was obviously a talented musician, with mad skills. But to what end? This struck me as being musical comfort food. Skillfully made – oh yes! the man has chops! – but comfortable. But then, what’s wrong with comfort? As a steady aesthetic diet, it’s inadequate. But don’t we sometimes turn to music for comfort and solace? Do we not need comfort and solace in this time of Covid, not to mention the post-election tantrums of He Who Must Not Be Named?

What else has Collier got? If it’s all like this, then Collier’s a one trick pony. But maybe he’s got more tricks up his sleeve. I decided to investigate.

Caveat: I’m going to insert a bunch of videos into this piece; one of them is very long – over three hours. Feel free to skip over material.

But First Let’s Look at a Transcription

The first thing I did was look at Jason Fieler’s transcription of “The Christmas Song”:

Even if you don’t read music, it might repay you to follow the transcription. You can follow the lyrics on the top staff and glance down at the rest. The visual appearance will give you some insight into what’s going on musically. Pay attention to the density of notes, the amount of ink in a given area, and the direction: Are they moving up, or down?

Note that not only is Collier singing the melody, at the top, but also the accompanying voices, middle and bottom. Technology allows him to do that. Anyone with a reasonably powerful laptop, the right software, and, of course, the skills, can do it. You don’t have to have a professional recording studio to multi-track yourself, or anyone else.

If you’re following along, look at the upper left corner at about 3:49. You’ll see a notation: “∼16 cents sharp”. The cent is a measure of musical pitch. Collier is modulating up ever so slightly, not a whole or even a half step. You probably didn’t even notice it when you listened – I didn’t. He does it again at 3:57: “∼33 cents sharp”. And again at 4:04 (notice the massed voices at the bottom). Those subtle modulations would be somewhere between difficult and impossible with standard instruments, but are easy with electronic instruments. Making skillful use of that capability is, of course, a different matter. (I’ve included a video by David Bruce at the very that explains in some detail what Collier is doing with pitch.)

The arrangement climaxes at roughly 4:14 with a stately “opening up” of the musical texture. Then, just has Collier has us suspended at the top of a mountain looking out over whatever, he drops us gently to the bottom of the valley at 4:52 for a simple and quiet ending.

Something Different: “Blackbird” in Live Performance

Collier is also a skilled, charismatic, and gracious live performer – at least in so far as one can judge this from video clips. I’ve not seen him myself. Here’s a solo performance from 2017, “Blackbird”.

The song is a Beatles song from the 1968 “White Album”, where McCartney performs it solo, accompanied only on an acoustic guitar. Collier accompanies himself on the harmonizer.

What, you ask, is a harmonizer? It’s an instrument that Collier developed in conjunction with MIT’s Ben Bloomberg. Collier sings a note while also playing the keyboard. The harmonizer transposes his voice to the different pitches he’s playing, thus allowing him to play harmony with himself.

Collier opens the performance in a pointillist, almost percussive, style. Notice the dramatic shifts in volume and the way he indicates call-and-response (with himself initially). At 2:39 he calls for audience response (finger snapping), returning to the harmonizer at 2:45 as the audience continues, amplifying to hand-clapping a bit later. He starts directing the audience at 4:47 or so. He keeps up some form of audience interaction through the end of the performance seven minutes later. Watch his gestures and movements.

It’s an astonishing performance. And it is THAT, a performance. A mere sound recording of would be pointless, as you wouldn’t see what he’s doing. Even this video gives at best a diminished sense of what the performance must have been like.

Remember, until the early twentieth century music didn’t exist except in live performance. During the previous few centuries the Western art musical traditions (aka classical) had developed musical notation that allowed musical pieces to be worked out in the absence of performance so that all performances would be more or less alike in many, but not all, aspects. But no one could actually hear that music without live performance. Recording and broadcast technology has made it possible to hear music without being present during a performance.

Collier’s “The Christmas Song” is a fine example of what technology has made possible, giving a single musician control of all-but unbounded musical resources – what would Glenn Gould have thought? Collier knows how to use those resources with skill and passion. But he also knows how to work, and to work with, a crowd. He remains firmly grounded in live performance. I note that he grew up singing Bach chorales with his mother and two sisters. Interacting with others in performance is, if not “in his blood”, as the saying goes, foundational, as it must be for any musician.

Twinkle All Over the World

Back in 2018 one Bart Orr issued the “Twinkle Twinkle Challenge” on YouTube: Make a version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and upload it to YouTube. I have no idea how many answered the call, but many did, including Collier.

The song is old, widely known, and is performed all over the world. It first came to view in mid-18th century France as “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman.” Mozart composed a well-known set of twelve variations later in the century. Here’s a recording by Clara Haskel. Note that the eighth variation is in a minor key.

Some years ago I collected a number of versions of the song, many of course by children, into a list on YouTube. I find this next clip particularly interesting because it gives us versions in three styles from India: Kannada, Carnatic, and Hindi:

Notice that many of the notes sound out of tune. They are not. But traditional India styles use scales that are different from the (diatonic) scales that have become the foundation of most Western musical styles. In this clip a young girl demonstrates a half dozen styles, some Western. As I readily found several other clips from India, again explicitly highlighting different styles, I have to wonder: What’s going on? Did “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” become a cultural touchstone or meme of some sort? If so, when, and why?

I’ll give you one more non-Collier version. This is by the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole:

Iz, as he was known, was a fierce proponent of native Hawaiian culture and, as such, was much loved by his many fans. Notice how he recomposes the melody, something he did with other songs as well, such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” (see my piece, Wonderful Rainbow Aesthetics).

Here’s Collier’s version, which is in the lush harmonic style he uses in “The Christmas Song” and many others:

That’s from the end of a video in which Collier creates the arrangement. Here’s the full video, which is well over three hours long:

If you’re interested in how music is made, this video is worth watching. Skip the first two and a half minutes; nothing happens. Collier states the melody at 5:23 and noodles around at 6:00. He sings the melody at about 7:44. Notice the ornamentation he tosses in at the end (on “you are”); the melisma (wiggly melodic line) on “you” is reminiscent of the ornamentation in the Indian versions. Notice the bass line that shows up at about 10:09. And so forth and so on.

There’s lots to notice, but there’s little point in me going through it point by point. One of the commenters, Manteusz Madej, has made a helpful list of links to salient points in the video. Between listening to the music as it emerges, listening to his comments, and seeing the visuals, you will get some insight into how Collier creates. There’s a lot of messing around – how could there not be? The final version starts at about 3:18:19.

A 21st Century Mozart?

The comparison is, at best, beside the point and, at worst, flat out ridiculous. For one thing, the musical culture of 18th century Europe is radically different from the musical culture of the contemporary world. Still, if we’re careful it can’t do much harm.

Collier (Wikipedia) IS prodigiously talented and, at 26, very skilled and much acclaimed. He did a residency at MIT in the fall of 2018 and has Quincy Jones as his manager. He’s already won four Grammy Awards, all for arranging, and has been nominated for three more in 2021, including Album of the Year. Will he be remembered a hundred or two hundred years from now, will he exert a major influence on our musical culture, as Mozart once did? We don’t know, and the answer to those questions has as much to do with our musical culture – or is it cultures? – as it does with Collier’s skill. While Mozart’s music is still performed, his contributions have long since been absorbed into Western music. As for Collier’s influence, who knows?

Let’s let him have the last word. Here’s what he said in response to being nominated for Album of the Year:

The last 24 hours have turned my world upside down. To find myself Grammy-nominated for Album Of The Year is nearly impossible to wrap my head around…an unthinkable, unspeakable, epic honour. Three years ago, when I set about dreaming up a self-produced quadruple album, I barely imagined it would be possible to create, let alone that it would carry me into such unfathomable territory as this! To be considered alongside such legendary nominees for this award is a bizarre and tremendous privilege. I am forever grateful to Mahalia Music, Ty Dolla $ign, Daniel Caesar, Jessie Reyez, Kiana Ledé, T-Pain, Kimbra, Tank and the Bangas, Tori Kelly & Rapsody for bringing such magic to the album… to the wonderful Ben Bloomberg, Emily Lazar, and Chris Allgood for helping me shape it sonically… and to all at the Recording Academy who voted for me. This is going to take some time to fathom… but in the meantime, I’m sending so much love to you all from here in London, and looking forward to wherever the path may lead us.

This video documents his 2018 residency at MIT:

Pay attention to how he interacts with the students, and their response to him. That’s where the future is gestating.

Coda

Here’s a video where Collier explains harmony at five levels, from young child through teen to Herbie Hancock:

Composer David Bruce explains Collier’s use of microtones:

Collier’s YouTube page: https://www.youtube.com/user/jacobcolliermusic

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