The story goes that golfer Ben Hogan, after his first round with a young Jack Nicklaus, was asked his opinion about Nicklaus’ prospects. Hogan was said to have replied, “This young man plays a game with which I am not familiar.”
We are all occasionally blessed to encounter people who are unreasonable. Who are so fully committed to their art that they do things that the rest of us not only couldn’t do, but couldn’t have imagined before we saw it.
Or, in this case, heard it.
I am several years late to this party, but in case you don’t know, I’d like to introduce you to the music of Jacob Collier. Jacob is a self-professed “chord geek,” always searching for new ways to combine the relative handful of notes available to us. He’s that rare figure who uses music theory to create rather than merely to understand. And what he creates is unexpected at every instant, even as it always feels inevitable.
Collier, growing up in a professional music home, was encouraged to a path of what I can only call rigorous play. Before he’d finished high school, that path was emerging onto the field of overdubbed recording, in which he sang with himself in densely textured arrangements of well-known songs: a few by Stevie Wonder, some Lionel Richie, even the theme song of The Flintstones, all shattered and rebuilt to be simultaneously recognizable and not.
But then, this. (Headphones or good speakers, please. You can thank me in nine minutes.)
Henry Mancini wrote the song “Moon River” for the 1961 movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and it’s since been appropriated by tens of thousands of crooners from Andy Williams to Barbra Streisand to Frank Ocean. It’s a pretty song. But in Collier’s arrangement, it becomes both joyous and profound, and about three times longer than before. It becomes impossible. It has reached perfection.
Why is it that we cry when we encounter beauty? We can learn what Collier has done to build these chords, but it’s the chords themselves that break us to pieces. We can know that Spiro Kostof was trained in theater before his doctorate in architectural history, but it was the fact of his writing and his lectures that brought thousands of people to understand the built world in new ways.
When I see something like the dancer Yoann Bougeois’ interpretation of Claire de Lune, or pretty much anything that Simone Biles does, or the creative cycling of Danny Macaskill, I’m left wishing that every child everywhere had access to someone who is unreasonable. Someone who can show us up close what real greatness is, what it’s for, what it costs. Most of us live most of the time in the big bulge in the middle of the bell curve; we deserve to experience what’s out there on the far right tail.
And for ourselves and our own responsibilities, let’s close with a quote from Jacob Collier: Don’t wait for things to be possible before doing them.