I ask you to hazard a guess as to what a mercenary commander and philosopher from the 500s BC shares with 16th century courtiers, anime boys, Italian business moguls, Duke Ellington, and J Dilla?
The answer: Sprezzatura
The first use of this word comes from one Baldassare Castiglione’s book “The Book of the Courtier” in the 1520s. He describes it as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it… an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them." It’s unclear whether or not he invented the word to mirror something he was seeing or if this word had already existed in some form. It was revived later by socialite Beau Brummell who spent hours trying to tie his cravat just right so that it looked elegant while still simultaneously looking like he’d just thrown it around his neck.
In the last century however it has become more of an idea of flippant and almost roguish imperfection in dress specifically however it is most affecting when paired with one who carries such a personality naturally. One prominent person to embody this was the CEO of Fiat, Gianni Agnelli. A quick Google search will show you what I mean but it also wouldn’t be out of place on more modern public figures like Robert Downey Jr., Ricky Gervais, or Johnny Depp. In fact this style is so captivating that you’d be hard pressed to find a glamour shot of a male anime heartthrob without some element of this style being present.
This look has a time and place and often fails because people over accessorize and try and bring it over the top and cease to embody what the look was about in the first place. However paradoxically, in order to convincingly pull off this look you must be well aware of all the stodgy old menswear rules in order for you to know how to not look ridiculous while defying them, and also look elegant while doing so. In short, in order to seem to the outside convincingly undisciplined without being so, you must be of the utmost discipline. If you want to seem weak or disabled to an opponent so you can take advantage of their being underprepared, you must actually be of the utmost strength. Aaaand there goes Sun Tzu, our mercenary commander rearing his head once again! I personally find this fascinating that his principles can be applied to etiquette and dress of all things.
So why am I going on for so long about this? Well this elegant nonchalance with an air of attractive contrarianism is sought after constantly in music of many persuasions. In fact I would even consider it one of the founding tenants of pre-hyper academic Jazz music in general. Jazz takes a deep understanding of European instrumentation and harmony, and combines it with an equal if not deeper understanding of West African instrumentation and rhythm. It then proceeds to take it to the stars in an entirely new direction to anything else. This cultural development is as American as lederhosen, beer, and Wagner is German, it couldn’t have happened anywhere else. The ethos circumscribes everything that had been said about the American Dream, and the new rebellious, self-determined nature of Black American thought at the time. “Take the A Train” is such an elegant little theme that is free of any kind of cynicism of affectation about rushing to Harlem with giddy excitement to hear some new jazz, and bask in the height of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s composed, arranged, and performed masterfully yet it’s nonchalant in its elegance.
Recently Hip-Hop and its subgenres, as well as some contemporary jazz have adopted this air in a big way stealing the “unquantized” or “laid back” feel off of certain J Dilla songs. This wonky drumbeat, to the uninitiated, may seem like a mistake that should’ve been corrected but in fact the intervals between hits (i.e just how laid back you are), must be absolutely unerring and set in stone. The shorthand for this for many has been playing within odd grouped tuplets such as quintuplets, septuplets, or nontuplets. This requires a high degree of instrumental facility in order to sound good and groove enough to be musically malleable. In other words you need to be very good at playing drums in order to display the art of getting something so wrong it’s… Right…. Man. Naturally, J Dilla, famous for use of the Roland MPC Drum Machine wasn’t precisely calculating his intervals; in fact the machine wasn’t nearly complex enough to make that request happen. He played it so wrong it was right and enjoyed the sound. He effectively stumbled upon Sprezzatura much as one blundering would but he saw its value, its limitations, and how to use it to create something new, interesting, and inspiring.
So I suppose, next time you sit down to write or produce a song, think on Sprezzatura.