05 April 2014

[sc]airquotes (vi)

"The Partnership for 21st-Century Skills, a coalition of business and education leaders and policy makers, found, for example, that education in dance, theater, music, and the visual arts helps instill the curiosity, creativity, imagination, and capacity for evaluation that are perceived as vital to a productive U.S. work force. And the Conference Board, an international business-research organization, polled employers and school superintendents, finding that creative problem-solving and communications are deemed important by both groups for an innovative work force. Additionally, IBM, in a 2010 report based on face-to-face interviews with more than 1,500 CEOs worldwide, concluded that 'creativity trumps other leadership characteristics' in an era of relentless complexity and disruptive change."

Sunil Iyengar and Ayanna Hudson
Who Knew? Arts Education Fuels the Economy
Chronicle of Higher Education
10 March, 2014

Has anyone who conducts these studies or writes these articles ever tried to get a job armed with an arts degree?

03 February 2014

Exchange with Milo Fine (vii): "fuck prejudice!"

[Previously: Foreword(i)(ii)(iii)(iv)(v)(vi)]

[SK] Just one thought this time, regarding the academy broadly construed: I am (finally) reading the George Lewis book about the AACM, and in light of our last installment, it's intriguing to consider how many of these musicians, to say nothing of their more "inside" but also-innovative peers and elders around the country, spent time, musical and otherwise, in the military. This is not just to ponder the impact of military culture on their subsequent activities, but also that they possessed the requisite "inside" chops at early stages in their musical development. On top of that, if not because of it, there seems to have been very little scorched-earth modernism at work among this assemblage, no matter how strongly a few unperceptive contemporary critics may have thought they detected it; there is even mention in the book of the fundamentals of Western music theory being enthusiastically taught in the early AACM educational program. So, I suppose it's too bad I didn't actually listen to any of this music sooner; aesthetically, at least, I feel like I come from a similar place (a blessing and a curse alike, I suppose, in that it's not quite so radical a place anymore).

Good points/observations all. I knew this about the AACM, but hadn't thought of it in quite a while. (However, what's interesting in this regard is the nature of some of their early work. Listen, for instance, to Anthony Braxton's brilliant FOR ALTO. Talk about raw and unfettered!) The same thing held true for the first wave of Brit improvisors. Paul Rutherford, John Stevens and Trevor Watts met when they were in the Royal Air Force music school, which, as Martin Davidson astutely puts it in his liner note to the Spontaneous Music Ensemble CD reissue[s] of CHALLENGE was "a relatively painless and cheap way of getting a technical music education." (Indeed, my dad used his already established musicianship to gain playing experience while in the army. And it helped him to avoid some of the usual bullshit to boot.) And this gets us back to that self-serving canard: "You gotta know the rules before you break 'em." I say this is self-serving because it creates a more or less single path to finding one's voice; to creativity.

As I stated previously, as evidenced by the wonderful music created by folks having gone down this road, it is certainly a viable path. But, naturally (and again), that has as much (if not more) to do with the resolve of the individual to utilize their education to their creative advantage than the aforementioned canard. The reason I somewhat unfairly state "canard" is the fact that, in almost every endeavor, this "rule" is erected as a barrier in order to create a set of values which insulates those who have chosen to go that route; something to hide (their own weaknesses &, perhaps lack of resolve/initiative) behind. This is also why, generally speaking, and no matter how creative, articulate and accomplished they might be, someone without academic credentials is generally not allowed to teach in the academy. (If universities gave these people jobs it might expose the fact that the emperor has no clothes, or, at least fewer than one initially thought!) Similarly, when I tried my own divorce decades ago (that marriage being a short, wrong-headed union if there ever was one!), I was last on the docket. I asked someone -- perhaps the court officer -- why that was, and he told me that the legal system didn't want to broadcast the fact that a basic divorce could be done without the "benefit" of a lawyer. (Just think of all the lawyer's fees that wouldn't be collected!) On the other hand, of course, being an autodidact doesn't guarantee anything either. As I'm wont intone, something akin to genuine creativity is in the hands of the individual practitioner, regardless of background. The (A) point is not to disregard the autodidact; what he/she brings to the table, out-of-hand. Fuck prejudice!

02 February 2014

Exchange with Milo Fine (vi): "a desolate marketplace"

[Previously: Foreword(i)(ii)(iii)(iv)(v)]

[SK] I think there are many shades of grey on the autodidacticism spectrum.

[MF] Certainly. But, generalizations have their place in a discussion.

My own music-educational path was such a hodge-podge of chance occurrences and missed "opportunities" that I typically hesitate to place myself squarely in either the autodidactic or academy-trained camp.

I would say you're definitely more "academy" than autodidact; even if you didn't fully pick up your jazz chops as a result of the former.

[Milo adds later: And I should make it clear, pursuant to your point about "shades of autodidacticism", that, in terms of an "autodidact", I am not referring to someone who learns accepted/traditional technique/theory without the benefit of formal training, but, rather someone who charts and explores a path of unorthodoxy. (Keeping in mind, of course, that *everything* is, to shamelessly, if reasonably quote an LP title of mine, the constant extension of inescapable tradition.)]

I've often had the thought that my early and frequent exposure to classical music "in the house," as they say, bears more responsibility for my middlebrow tastes than any post-secondary academic molding, but then again, you yourself come from yet more intense classical music parentage than I do and you turned out very differently.

A matter of processing. And, to be clear, my parentage was *much* more jazz than classical. My dad was a jazz drummer who happened to fall into a "career" with the Minnesota Orchestra (or, as it was known then, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra). As a kid living in the first ring suburbs, I walked around the house singing "Salt Peanuts" rather than some aria. (And what I most heard around the house as time went on -- and my dad played less records -- was middle-of-the-road AM radio.)

In any case, while I'm no apologist for a musico-academic establishment with which I myself have had at best a strained relationship, given that most students in this country don't actually enter "the academy" until they are nearly 20 years old, I often wonder if it's too easy to blame their schooling for any and all personal shortcomings (or, for that matter, attributes) they may arrive and depart with intact?

The academy is a sort of early end-point; a matter of a more or less natural progression: orchestra in elementary, junior high and high school; often augmented with private lessons. A continuum.

A mutual acquaintance of ours once expressed near-disbelief that someone with my interests and outlook could also be someone who previously spent 4 years at the U of MN School of Music. What's actually amazing, I guess, is not that I went but that I stayed; in hindsight, though, it's clear to me that it was the previous 17 years of my life, though a decidedly mixed bag in their own right, which had prepared me to jump through all the requisite hoops while nonetheless continuing down my own path relatively unencumbered.

As I mentioned before, one *can* get something out of the academy without it subsuming them. It takes some conscious effort not to buy into all the values/sub-texts endemic of an institution.

Similarly, I can tell you from firsthand experience that the U doesn't have to close its students' minds for them; the bulk of them more or less show up that way.

That's what I was getting at previously. Everything's set. This is just the next logical step in drinking the kool-aid.

The situation at CalArts is not as bad, but it's hardly as good as it could/should be given the school's mission, history, and (dis)orientation. (It was at least entertaining to see the tables turned, with the conservatory brats pretending to tolerate the notion of free improvisation purely to avoid rocking the boat; opposites day every day!) In both cases, it was clear to me that while the institutions certainly could do more, there's no guarantee any of it would, shall we say, resonate with those at which it might be directed. A good deal of that work is done, or not, earlier on.


Incidentally, the notion of ultimately "becoming one's own best teacher" is a mainstream one in musico-academia, perhaps yet another co-optation, but one without much of a downside that I can see.

That's an ideal, and a good one. (When I was teaching drums, I almost always told students that the best I could contribute to their growth was to teach them to teach/motivate themselves.) The problem is that most people don't have the wherewithal/fortitude/discipline to take that path. Much easier to listen to lectures, read assignments, regurgitate information, get decent grades, network, and get a job. True individual initiative, is like wisdom: in short supply; or as Blake put it, "...sold in a desolate marketplace where none come to buy".

Your point about the blues is well-taken, but not exactly what I was getting at. I guess I have been involved in a handful of "improvised" situations over the years where one or more people in the ensemble were clearly and unabashedly searching to establish a structure (i.e. a vamp and/or chord progression). Stated in terms of our present conversation, their aesthetic is that of the status quo through and through, and they use "free" settings simply as additional opportunities to express it.

This point certainly resonates with me. It's too, too true. The flip side is throwing in some "free" (atonal) bits as seasoning (spice); more or less just to show one is accomplished (hah!) in that realm as well.

One has to think that what you're describing with the blues was more viable among groups of players for whom that form was/is both widely shared and occupied, for lack of a better way of putting it, a "special place" in the culture. I was thinking more about motherfuckers fumbling around with their heads up their asses until they can find each other in a rather arbitrarily chosen common key and meter, whereupon they will inevitably mire themselves ever deeper until the whole thing falls apart again. The blues is a much more flexible and varied form which, depending on your taste, can tolerate anywhere from a little to a lot more give and take, whereas the harmonic practice of so much mainstream classical, jazz, and rock music is, in the grand musical/sonic scheme, profoundly limited (usually a consequence of its being rooted in "vertical" rather than "horizontal" thinking).

Ah, you misunderstand what I meant vis a vis "the blues". I meant the basic 3 chord structure; readily communicated and understood. Once introduced, everyone can get on board. (Sigh of relief!) A basic foundation before resorting to the "I Got Rhythm" changes.

It's difficult to express all of this without sounding like just the kind of person I'm writing against.

You don't sound like that at all, at least to me.

The one time I really tried to turn someone on to the Improvised Music aesthetic, his response as I recall was something like, "Cool, we'll improvise one this set, but none of that [makes funny noises with mouth] shit, okay?"

What a predictable cretin!

So, again, there's always more to it, no?

Always! Or, in any case there *should*, no, *must* be.

01 February 2014

Exchange with Milo Fine (v): "the wherewithal to examine it ruthlessly"

[Previously: Foreword(i)(ii)(iii)(iv)]

[SK] You're absolutely correct that versatility has been co-opted, and in quite a counterproductive way. I have sat through many a guest artist lecture during which the purely practical value of a wide ranging musical skill set has been expounded. There is, potentially, one minor positive aspect to this as musical academia continues hurtling down the "hire education" abyss, which is that it pokes a nice big hole in the narrow focus (too narrow for its own good, probably, even for the sake of true believers) that has traditionally prevailed there. Being driven by pragmatism and only negligibly by artistic concerns, however, undermines from the start what little hope this development brings with it.

[MF] Yes, in order to remain viable, the academy has to take in, analyze, dilute and regurgitate; even as much of what it vomits up pursuant to something like art in the purest sense doesn't have a practical application, and thus is at odds with what has become the academy's primary function. This would, in part, explain why the possibilities touched on by early free jazz musicians (or, earlier, Dadaists) were inevitably jettisoned, not only by the academy, but by musicians and listeners too. I'm talking about exploring pathways into the music that weren't dependent upon established approaches/dogma. But, what has happened, of course, is that these stylings were essentially dismissed as second-rate when unfairly and unreasonably compared to the inevitable emphasis on traditional virtuosity (extending into extended techniques [wordplay intended]). Of course, that hasn't prevented some of us from heading down those barely lit paths anyway. (As an example, I was delighted when, several years ago, friend and colleague Charles Gillett -- who is a highly accomplished autodidact in his own right -- turned me on to the band Aerosol Pike [Philip Mann/Ryan Reber/Rick Ness] with whom we've both collaborated. As I've said to you and others, these guys sound like they were lifted from the late 60s free jazz scene and transplanted here and now; like listening to a living ESP-Disk. But what's amazing, and I think gives their work a hearty resonance, is the fact that while free jazz influenced them, they didn't study and mimic autodidact players from that era. Rather, as I understand it, their music naturally evolved from an avant-garde rock based aesthetic. Not surprisingly, there was *no* issue with you, an academy-trained musician, being able to find common ground with them; or Charles for that matter. And this speaks to the notion of an openness to embrace another, equally valid point of view.) Curiously, however, having, I think, much to do with my focus and determination, I have, on occasion in reviews, nonetheless been termed a virtuoso.

Actually, I believe one can see rather clearly the seed of music's outright destruction as a post-secondary academic subject contained in the inability of any one musician, scholar, or institution to adequately deal with the full range of currently academically acceptable musics, to say nothing of the outliers. Gradually, I think we are having to accept that the needs of all of these students are too different from each other, and that there isn't really any core curriculum of a manageable size which can unify them. Not that people won't try, but it's only going to keep looking more and more ridiculous. Eventually, even the trustees, donors, and administrators will be people who didn't necessarily grow up believing that nineteenth century orchestral music deserves to be prioritized over all other forms.

I think here we have to examine the agendas of everyone involved; most of which have little to do with the essence of what is termed "art". Granted there are professors and students who retain the semblance of a resonant core, using the academic setting to further their individual quest, and more power to them! Glean something from the material itself and fuck the faux value system which surrounds it.

Probably the thing I was most curious about leading up to the Improvised Music workshop we co-led for WBSM was how you would position yourself, so to speak, seeing that there is a certain pluralistic aspect to how you work, but that you also have very high standards, the latter implying a role for judgment/taste/
determinacy/willfulness that more than a few improvisors of your generation (in)famously dispensed with. I laughed pretty hard to myself when you said that a certain pattern got "obnoxious" after a period of time; it was a pointed but diplomatic way of expressing an aesthetic position.

Well, that was "true" for that moment, that context, and also pursuant to the, what?, feeling behind what was being played. (Again, one can develop a sensibility to hone in on such things. Not that one is, thankfully, ever 100% correct, but, enough to provide insight into what might lie behind the work.) So, at another moment, another context, and with a different feeling, I wouldn't have made such an observation. (And, in any case, I would always be open to being challenged on any assessment!)

And yet...so many musicians are pattern/groove players. In pure pluralism, that's what they'd bring to a collaboration.

Which, even while painfully predictable, is not necessarily a counterproductive thing. The problem is that it's a default, a habit, and thus serves to prevent creativity coming to the fore.

The issue is whether one can recognize and challenge such defaults; phrasing them differently, breaking them up, shutting the fuck up, abandoning them, etc. But this takes conscious effort/thought, and, as we've touched on here, too many musicians don't see that as a vital aspect of free improvisation. And, even if they do, don't have the wherewithal to examine it ruthlessly and get out of their comfort zone. (And, perhaps return to it at some point from a different and more creative perspective.)

For me, being an "inside" musician quite a lot of the time, I tend to give a different reason why I don't like to attempt ensemble improvisations of songforms, vamps, or functional harmonies, which is that it more or less requires everyone in the group to be a mind reader.

Well, I would define those as more ad lib than improvising situations. And, I don't know that one would have to be a mind reader. Remember that a good amount, if not a lot of early free jazz attempted by boppers inevitably ended up as a blues.

When I hear bebop, I want to hear harmonic agreement; when I hear Beethoven, I want to hear right notes; and when I hear Improvised Music, I want to hear something akin to the approach you've carved out. But I suppose that brings us back to compartmentalization…

Yes, but from there, and with your restless, fertile mind, can come a (natural) synthesis; a conjoining not rooted in marketable eclecticism.

To go along with all of that, your response to the tradition question makes me realize that there is a parallel question, perhaps more to the point, about aesthetics and anti-aesthetics. For me, aestheticism is a first principle of sorts; I tend to feel that intentionally working against it is like cutting off your whole leg because of a blister on your foot. In any case, it seems to me that the notion of undermining the status quo becomes quite a bit muddier here, i.e. in light of the difference between striving to make "beautiful" work out of novel sounds/methods and making intentionally "ugly" work for whatever reason.

Ah, but there you're getting into our wiring; our cultural values based on conditioning. Ultimately, aestheticism and anti-aestheticism are the same thing, though aspects of each come to the fore based on what one is feeling at any given moment; thus impacting both musical decision-making and perception. This attempt to accept, embrace and utilize every/anything on some level forms a (not *the*) basis for free improvisation; at least for me.

31 January 2014

Exchange with Milo Fine (iv): "if you don't like the world, change yourself"

[Previously: Foreword(i)(ii)(iii)]

[SK] Not that it's of much consequence, but I guess I should clarify what I meant about consistency/reinvention. There is an adage now that in order to get over, you have to be "the guy/gal/group with the _____," the blank being filled in with just about anything, but just one thing (at once) so as to be digestible/memorable in scope and on display at each and every opportunity, i.e. towards the notion that people need to see something advertised x number of times before they will buy it. (Wikipedia tells me this is called Effective Frequency.) I didn't mean to imply that those so inclined never, ever evolve, just that there is an initial marketing phase that has to either succeed (which permits more freedom) or fail (which necessitates trying a new, calculated [blank]) on the basis of a predictable musical outcome. In other words, in terms of a science experiment, the [blank] is the control/constant.

[MF] Ah, I see. In a way, distinction without a difference. What we're talking about here is marketing/packaging, and, of course, advertising. Big tool for the latter is, naturally, repetition, through which people are convinced they "need" something. A couple thoughts concerning "effective frequency". First is the fact that I keep stumbling into more and more rarified concepts and terms. Some, maybe even a good percentage, can be helpful as they identify further subsets in/of a given field. Put another way, they illuminate various "corners" of various theories. On the other hand, they seem to obfuscate more than illuminate when it comes to application. So much more "knowledge" resulting in so much less "wisdom". Putting *that* another way, people coin terms and phrases, research and write about them, but, fundamentally *nothing* changes concerning the so-called human condition. We're much better at identifying things than putting them into meaningful action in our own lives. Pathetic. Concerning "effective frequency", I would debate the issue that the success of an initial marketing phase permits more freedom. Perhaps true enough if that (successful) initial phase is focused on the public image of the "artist". That would give them maneuvering room to take on different forms/styles. But, if a particular style/approach/form is what strikes the (fickle) fancy of the public, then one will be hard-pressed to do anything else if one is to maintain that initial blush. Of course, "art" predicated on the commonly understood definition of success is, for me, always highly suspect.

I guess the funny thing, though, is that should the artist insist on being unpredictable, the "pidgeonholing" impulse in the culture at large will fill in the blank anyway.

Right, right.

I've been "the jazz tuba player" for a while, and I'm sure you've had your go-rounds with that sort of thing as well. It happens by itself, whether you like it or not; truthfully, though, I can't sit here and complain without acknowledging that all of this has probably done more good than harm for me in the long run in terms of opportunities to play with people, even despite getting to hear them say some borderline-insulting things about me in my presence (i.e. a jazz guy once told me, "Once you get your classical chops together, you're set!"). The dynamic I was attempting to describe before was a certain encouragement of/pandering to the pidgeonholing impulse, an impulse which unfortunately I think we all are prone to (see, in your words, "wiring"), which explains its reliability in the eyes of those doing the pandering.

Yeah. Just as our conditioning/wiring filters create a sense of "order" in our perceptions, so we readily gravitate towards pigeonholing. As I've no doubt posited to you before, how amazing it would be to perceive (hear, see, etc.) the world around us closer to what *it really is* without these filters, rather than with the artifice created by them.

There's something in there, of course, about Improvised Music being "different every time," but also about your notions of consistency and resonance. Another fruitful dialectic very much at odds with the status quo, which is more dualistic.

Yes! Particularly if, re: "different" every time" you mean genuinely *improvised* music rather than improvising musicians overly relying on their tried-and-true vocabularies, strategies, etc. That stated, musicians relying on established tools can, and do, obviously, create resonant music. And there, we return once again to the initiative of the individual, which, ultimately, is much more important than the style of music. Putting *that* another way, while improvised music provides, shall we say, more potential for resonant/individual expression, that too has been squandered.

Besides the threat of being personally/artistically pidgeonholed, it was eye-opening for me in my early "professional" career to see friends and acquaintances gradually polarize around styles and venues I had associated myself with. In one sense I actually felt bad about it, thinking again of what it's like to be a follower of a few "inconsistent cats" myself. At that age, though, I was strangely content (and aware of it) to lead a compartmentalized musico-stylistic life without much blending. Needless to say that my first whiffs of the "specious pastiche-stained umbrella" of self-conscious eclecticism actually heightened my resolve, even though I always figured a more thorough integration was inevitable; in so many ways, I've come to be very suspicious of those so bent on precipitating inevitabilities; but, it has started to happen, and I think it has indeed been positive precisely for not being forced in the least.

Your path of discovery; what I like to term "gathering evidence", after Thomas Bernhard's autobiography.

Even so, a degree of compartmentalization is still perceivable and I suspect it always will be with me. I always aspire to play jazz, classical, and improvised music with the best players in those areas, which is to say usually with specialists, problematic, if not outright hypocritical, since I thus refuse to specialize myself, and increasingly a non-starter with my own music, which tends to demand fluency in (not just familiarity with) more than one of those traditions. (An aside: is Improvised Music a tradition or an anti-tradition?) Ethnomusicology has established rather starkly that there are only so many styles/forms/compositions a human musician can truly specialize in, and yet I can pinpoint a number of pretty specific technical features of the music I'm interested in that cut across these three styles: it's mostly polyphonic, contrapuntal, harmonically and timbrally rich/dense, and so on. The question facing musicians like me, then, is whether we can transcend the limitations of generalism by specializing in our own poly-stylistic music (i.e. jack-of-all-trades, master-of-some)?

First, improvised music is now a tradition; absolutely. But, for the most resolute practitioners, it is still and must be, a non-tradition; an "avant grade" in the purest sense of the term.

And, concerning this whole "renaissance man" notion which has taken on a whole new (oxymoron intended) superficial breadth and depth over the last century, I again defer to Musil (THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES, same translators). Here, our "protagonist" is contemplating his position compared to the "superman (renaissance man) of letters" character in the book, who is also a cagey opportunist and politician:

"Let us try to imagine the opposite — a writer who did not do all these things. He would have to refuse cordial invitations, rebuff people, assess praise not as though he himself were the object of it, but like a judge, tear the natural state of things to shreds, and treat splendid opportunities with suspicion merely because they were splendid; and he would have nothing to offer in return but processes going on inside his own head, difficult to express and difficult to assess, and the work of a man of letters, something that an epoch already possessing supermen of letters need not set much store by. Would not such a man inevitably remain an outsider and have to withdraw from reality, bearing the consequences of his attitude?"

Let us also take into account another searing observation from Hannah Arendt. To paraphrase, each succeeding generation has "improved" technical wiring; which is why, for instance, contemporary composers are generally one generation ahead of people actually being able to realize what they write. This is much more inevitable than it is admirable; a natural progression of technique, but, of course, not necessarily resonance. And this ties into the above re: no marked "improvement" in the overall human condition. So, it makes biological/physiological sense that more and more musicians are able to produce superficially convincing/compelling eclectic music.

It seems to me there are fewer specialists now; a situation created/driven by careerism. "Oh, I'd better get this other thing together -- at least somewhat -- because it will open more doors." And those who are specialists are just that because they are able to do so, i.e.; the gig pays enough. Naturally, I'm oversimplifying, but the point I keep getting back to is that, sadly, most "art" is done for recognition and money rather than the work itself. Hey, you hipped me to the term "hire education".

That stated, "poly-stylism" is absolutely a viable path. (And I say that unequivocally because, as you point out below, I am a "poly-stylist"; though not quite in the manner you ascribe to yourself.) For example, I find composer Alfred Schnittke's "poly-stylism" very appealing; and resonant. Just as I don't find anything opportunistic about Henry Cowell's adaptation of ethnic music. It all boils down to doing the work you need to do for *yourself*; because it needs to be done. Doing that, you will find listeners. And, among those, some who will truly hear.

You're path was, by choice, very different, one very large degree removed from what I'm describing in that your range of listening is quite broad but your interface with your instruments intuitive (autodidactic? naive?), and from a very early stage. Your groups include people who elsewhere read notation, play changes, recite poetry, do experimentalism, etc., and you occasionally enable/tolerate a certain amount of those things, but your groups play "free" as a rule. It seems to me that your sources, so to speak, are not so different, but your method is. (But then, at a certain point, that kind of music becomes a source?) I had a string of gigs with you a few years ago where a listener dropped a different superficial post-concert reference each night; they were not so much off-base as simply unnecessary. In any case, despite my own compartmentalist tendencies, I would say based on playing in your groups that there certainly is something of a higher order about the way these things emerge from your way of working. It is actually more compelling when not everyone in the group "owns" every style.

Extremely astute observations. And, as I think you know, I never mapped this out; never had a "game plan". This all evolved more or less naturally, as I played, observed, challenged my own personal baggage, and investigated; combining as I do when playing, the intuitive and the intellect. And, I am convinced that this, as you put it, "higher order" (Musil's "andere zustand") comes from a collective consciousness/unconsciousness/energy. I have no idea how it actually functions, but that mystery of that process is vital.

As for resonance, at the risk of now running in circles, the question for me becomes whether this notion that "what he learned from sound he brought to his life, and vice versa" is a description or a prescription? This potential of sound/music is self-evident to many of us, but...well, so many others seem incapable of learning this way. You almost can't give away music right now. So yes, from the department of worrying about the things you can control, the inner struggle becomes paramount. I guess I am trapped, though, because I have always made my inner struggle about how I could do more for other people; and further, a paradox inside a paradox: the closer you get to just about any people, their fallibility and vicissitudes, the less you want to help them! Yet unless you believe in a higher power and/or something like a judgment day, it seems to me that any sense of wholesomeness or morality is at root a matter of your relationships, direct and indirect, to other living things on Planet Earth. So, I guess I'm not sure how the "indirect" route of the inner struggle can claim complete supremacy or dominance over more "direct" paths. Or, is the notion that "direct" here is simply standing in for "contrived?"


I would suggest that "direct/indirect" is much like "intuitive/intellect"; a flux. We are diseased, we are flawed, we struggle. In amongst that we find that some people's "fallibility and vicissitudes" cause us to cut them loose. With others, we find ourselves hanging in to varying degrees in different ways. I know I've told you about the surprising relationship arcs I've had with a few people over decades. The "falling outs" have seemed final; irrevocable. And, then, years later, through no forced effort of our own, we find a new footing/common ground. Sometimes this leads to a new "falling out", but, the time reconnected feels utterly worthwhile. When I was younger, things were much more cut-and-dried. But, with age, my self-righteousness has diminished, thanks in good part to an unerring look in the mirror. From another angle, and as the cliche goes, "I love humanity; it's people I can't stand"; and, of course, that *all* starts in the mirror. A major motivation for me to attempt something akin to an ethical (I find that concept much more tolerable than "moral") life is that *so* much of the world is unethical. As with my music, a matter of moving along the path less traveled. (If you don't like the world, change yourself!)

30 January 2014

Exchange with Milo Fine (iii): "a smattering of constants"

[Previously: Foreword(i)(ii)]

[SK] The delivery of a consistent product does seem to be a non-negotiable demand of "careerism," no matter the stated (or unstated) stylistic orientation of the artist.

[MF] Keeping in mind, of course, that a hype-driven image, leaning, naturally, towards the faux provocative, is more important than the consistency of the product.

Even a panoply of pop music styles doesn't fly; like a restaurant chef, unpredictability gets you canned.

Well, that sort of thing *is* possible. There are any number of pop musicians who have "reinvented" themselves successfully.

For all the tiresome rehashing of inherent conflicts between artistry and the marketplace, I wonder if this one actually shouldn't be talked about more than it is?

Absolutely. But that might get us to something like a truth, and so, is willfully avoided.

We are, collectively, so not yet beyond style, no matter what people say in their bios.

Generally, yes. But, on the other hand, there is a growing pervasiveness in the blurring of style; a sort of New World Arts Order; an attempt to bring everyone together under a specious pastiche-stained umbrella. Obviously, this is not being beyond style.

When I was younger, I myself became quite frustrated with any number of current jazz players I had heard once in some particular context I enjoyed, only to find it was all they'd ever done in that vein. The opposite, though, can also be galling: personally, I think the world of Brad Mehldau as a player, but I hear almost no evolution across his body of work. In my mind, the inner circle will always be reserved for the Ligetis and Coltranes, i.e. those whose quality control is impeccable throughout substantial artistic evolutions.

This is something for which I also have the utmost respect, though, on the other hand, the production of even one small body of work, or a single piece with resonance is admirable. Not everyone has the wherewithal to sustain the spirit, though, goddamn-it, more could at least make the effort!

There is a book by economist David Galenson, which I recommend, called Old Masters and Young Geniuses which makes something of an empirical study of these two types of artists across several disciplines, drawing some compelling conclusions. (Equally interesting: he neglects to take on music directly.)

I'll make a note of that, though the stack is pretty thick and time is running out.

Your reticence regarding fixed lists of favorites is, though it foils a potentially juicy piece of bloggerel, timely in and of itself.

Well, as I said in an interview with Pamela (Espeland) some years ago, in those cases, 'Either you talk about all the people that everybody talks about, the pantheon; or, you start bringing up all the arcane people, showing how hip you are.' To be clear, there are people who's oeuvre is impressively consistent. If you keep pressing, I *might* go there.

[Milo adds later: Another issue in my reluctance has to do with the fact that there are any number of people doing significant work who have little or no public presence; people of whom I am, naturally, unaware. Thus, my disinclination to make a public list is, in part, a gesture of respect to bodies of work relegated, by choice and/or design, to the shadows.]

There is a lot of talk right now, and there has been for some time, of purging essentialist notions of transcendence/timelessness from our musical culture.

An excuse for mediocrity; especially if there's *just* enough faux transcendence/timelessness to get it over with its target audience.

My personal take (subject, I suppose, to the same vicissitudes as musical taste itself) is that the more ardent proponents of this deconstruction have gone a bit overboard. (I mean, getting back to co-optation for a second, have pop songwriters and middlebrow film composers not mined the Well-Tempered Clavier at least as thoroughly as navel-gazing academics have?)

More troublesome is the fact that this shit satiates the appetite of the "masses" in general, and, in too many cases, the so-called arts consumer as well.

Certainly it figures that any given artwork needs some...good luck? on its side, no matter its internal qualities, to still be receiving any attention whatsoever centuries after its creation. I'm fine with maintaining a healthy suspicion toward the motivations/ideologies which enable this.

The old cliche about being in the right place at the right time certainly holds true. And your suspicions are certainly well-founded. The nature of history is suspect; who is reported on and why. I've remarked elsewhere on the fact that in order for a person to be credited and acknowledged, they have to have a degree of cultural/social visibility. Plus, no *one* person invents anything; it's always a matter of the collective unconscious and the manifestation of an idea via particular electrical/chemical conduits (i.e.; humans).

But, let's face it, at some point there will be no "humanity". So the notion that something is still revered after centuries is ultimately a moot point.

It's also healthy (necessary?) to acknowledge our own fickleness by...I don't know, how we name our blogs? Nothing is absolute here. You, however, are older and more experienced than I am, and I simply wondered if by this time you might have noted a smattering of constants among your (stunning) record collection? Actually, I know you have in *other* areas; but what you say about commercial music is so obviously true.

But, to be my own devil's advocate -- a role I often play -- concerning pop music, I can accede to the fact that a percentage of musicians working in commercial fields have a certain earnestness; at least for a time. But, overall, any distinction/creative impulse is quickly lost due to the nature of the activity; a sort of inherent gravitation to a lowest common denominator; a sinkhole effect that one also finds in jazz, classical music, and, yes, improvised music as well; particularly when other sensibilities are embraced in order to gain acceptance. (See previous Musil quote.)

"A smattering of constants" among my record collection is an extremely apt description. I have been let down by so many artists who, over time, have not maintained that creative fire that initially drew me to them. But, I do so love being surprised when some inconsistent cat releases something of note. The fact that someone can still rise to the occasion is admirable.

For me, at least, it's equally true of very "accessible" jazz and classical music: I own exactly one Keith Jarrett Standards Trio record, which I at first thought could never be enough, but quickly became convinced is probably just the right number.

One too many, I'd say.

Conversely, one of my very favorite records (or music of any kind) is the album Miles Smiles. I'm comfortable extrapolating from my first dozen or so years spent with that record that it is, for me, "timeless," and not just because it seems to appeal to me in virtually any mood, environment, or other harbinger of fickleness, but because I notice something new every time I listen. Such a cliche, I know, but for me there's no other record I've had quite the ongoing journey of newfound realizations about as with this one. Surely you have a few of those, no? (You don't have to name them.)

Easier to pinpoint when I was young(er) and had fewer records! With the sheer volume comes a sort of diffusion. And, to be honest, with so much stuff being available (and so much of it being sub-par), combined with my having a fairly extensive library, plus auditing my own ongoing work, I simply don't seek out material the way I used to. That said, there are certainly works that are near and dear to me; evoking a sense memory of where I was at when I first heard them and the inspiration they provided concerning finding my own voice. (Ironically this phenomena is similar to what the so-called average consumer calls "the soundtrack of my life" vis a vis pop songs.)

Finally, if I'm not being too dense in asking, I'd love for you to expand upon your use of the term "resonance" throughout the last dispatch, particularly regarding that of "work" versus that of "daily life." I can think of a few specific aspects you might be getting at, and I suspect you mean to get at all of them, but I'm not totally sure. Certainly I too have known people to say and do completely different things, to claim a music or artist or era is "so totally important" to them, but to concurrently admit that they more or less abandoned it when they graduated music school. (It's usually something "out," for which something "in" has been swapped; coincidence, then, that this happens for so many people upon entry into the so-called "real world?") If you mean to draw a more direct (i.e. allegorical) connection between art and life here, I'd benefit from some fleshing out of that notion. Something tells me your use of the term is not simply decorative.

Of course you're not being dense! I use the word "resonance", but one could substitute "transcendence", or even "depth". The problem, of course, is that words have, for a long time, been thoroughly misappropriated and thus, used up. But, words are all we've got, so we keep pissing into the wind. While subjectivity always plays a (too often unfortunate) part, I think -- and please pardon my willful naivety and idealism -- if people were to experience music, painting, sculpture, etc. in an open, less conditioned manner, there would be a sort of consensus as to what constitutes a work with "resonance". In any case, resonance is, to me, readily apparent, and is something to be striven for. (Aside: over the years, as I've gotten to know younger people, I make recommendations as to what to check out and what to avoid. Inevitably, people will challenge my choices, and, almost without exception, they find out that my sensibilities are uncannily spot-on. But this "ability" is really nothing special; more a matter of discernment; of perceiving with resonance.) And, if one can touch that in one's work, can it not be striven for and applied in one's life? The done-to-death tortured (and/or crazy) asshole artist stereotype is still an extremely viable marketing ploy. And, as with most stereotypes, there is truth to it. But, it is ultimately tiresome; as is the newer image of artist-businessperson. For example, by all accounts, John Coltrane was nearly a saint, in the best sense of the term; what he learned from sound he brought to his life, and vice versa. This is what I'm getting at. As for what you describe in people abandoning something important to them, this is simply a succumbing of sorts. At some point, they touch something "resonant", but as personal/societal/cultural pressures come to bear they sadly, if predictably acquiesce to the sickness of status quo. Easier to abandon than to struggle at that level.

28 January 2014

Exchange with Milo Fine (ii) – "*every* survival strategy is fraught with pitfalls"

[Previously: Foreword(i)]

[SK] At the risk of both lapsing into cliches and miring us unduly deep in the critical theory labyrinth, for me your last missive leads unavoidably to questions of a postmodern condition. One defining feature of postmodernity is the sense that everything has already been done, the ultimate triumph of the status quo since it can, at that point, not be meaningfully subverted.

[MF] I concur. *But*, I would draw a line -- however ultra-razor-thin -- between "meaningful subversion" and "subversion" (the marketing term.) Understanding that of course, as I stated previously, it's *all* -- "meaningful subversion" disruption, etc. -- part of the status quo. What is ideally sought in "meaningful subversion" would be a shift in the nature of the status quo itself. An impossible task! But, in my view, one worth pursuing anyway.

Aesthetically, at least, it's all too easy to feel that way right now;

Especially if it's a strategy for "getting over". [smile]

and yet I think you would agree that anecdotally there would seem to remain ample opportunities to subvert, or something akin to it, by incredibly simple means. I am, of course, reminded of this often merely by virtue of playing traditionalist music on a non-traditional instrument, to which positive and negative reactions alike tend to be exaggerated.

I'd call that "subversion" (the marketing term).

But of course, after the gig, we still have war, poverty, political corruption…

As if a course of action taken by any individual could immediately eradicate any of our ills; internal *or* external...

The second, less-cliched, possibly contentious but I think potentially more important aspect of the postmodern condition I want to raise is the self-conscious manner in which artists go about their work once it is not only established but widely trumpeted that the arts are "the harbinger of (human) potential," that they, so to speak, "matter." I often wonder if the whole endeavor isn't spoiled the moment we really, truly convince ourselves this is the case? To hone in on an issue of "wiring," I'm not sure it's possible for human beings to have such an eye towards our place in history as it is unfolding and not succumb to what Shunryu Suzuki calls in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind "gainfulness." Here is a "hurdle" if there ever was one.

Exactly! But, you know, the whole
business of a "self-conscious manner"
and fame is essentially the result of careerism(posturing)/marketing(words)/positioning. Additionally, once one reaches that artificial pinnacle, there is the tendency to just keep repeating the same thing that got one there; and thus insuring an income stream while diminishing the work if indeed there was anything left to diminish. To wit, the vast majority of the time, the emperor has no clothes. There are, of course, exceptions; at least in the quality of the work itself. But, I've always been troubled by the fact that so few qualitative "artists" even attempt to match the resonance of their work with the resonance of their daily life. This would seem to be a key in getting to something like "meaningful subversion". And let's not forgot the inherent paradox in the fact that we are simultaneously utterly insignificant and, for wont of a better word or term, sacred.

In any case, I know from experience that when material gain is at play, all bets are off, and this is for me, though I had little faith in the notion of arts activism to start with, the gravest unaddressed, practically unmentionable issue in that sphere. Charitable arts education work suffers tremendously when artists are paying their mortgages that way. I don't mean to imply here that you should have to take a vow of poverty to be an artist, or that artists involved in this work now are necessarily incompetent, but rather that hitching this entire wagon to our checkered (that's a kind description) network of public and private institutional arts funding more or less guarantees a reinforcement of the status quo, no matter who the artist-educators are or what they bring to the table. This supposed great vehicle of change truly has been co-opted for quite the opposite purpose, enabled by the bourgeois aspirations of our own ilk, for which we/they do deserve a fair share of blame, and which is itself a direct result of the monied outflanking the poor in arts access and achievement from the start. So it's a cycle.

Too too true. But, instead of attempting to "break the cycle", a better course of action would be to pursue "inner something-like-the-truth" without being at all concerned with an outcome. Can this involve seeking funding or entering into the field of arts eduction? Perhaps; at least to an extent. Keeping in mind that "untenability" and "ambivalence" are my watchwords, I am ambivalent about funding. Can one truly wash the blood off of robber baron fortunes by doing good work? Let's face it, these foundations are a front; a PR mea culpa for the heinous machinations which allowed such a fortune to be accumulated in the first place. Plus, keep in mind that in almost every case, all the money they're benevolently giving away is nothing but the interest on their investments. (Gotta keep the heirs living in the style to which they've grown accustomed.) Still, if one can face that reality, and proceed in as ethical a manner as possible, some small amount of blood can be, if not eradicated, then slightly diluted. (And, of course, there's the issue of getting grants being a "career" in itself, as careerists chase trend and fashion in an attempt to become one of the "anointed"/entitled whose place at the trough is assured.)

As for public funding, I have no problem with spending taxpayers' money on work of deep resonance; work which, ideally, contributes to the, for wont of another better word, health of a culture/society. Unfortunately, most of what is funded falls far short of that reasonable expectation, and thus could be better spent providing food, housing, etc. for the underclass. (However, as we know, given the structure of organizations/bureaucracies, only a limited amount of the money earmarked for such worthwhile endeavor is actually used for the intended purpose; too much of it going to the usual parasitical suspects: bureaucrats, ancillary sub-contractors, etc.)

Working in arts education is likewise a tricky treacherous business, because these organizations/institutions aren't really interested in art, but rather, the *appearance* of art. I know people who have entered the academy as a survival strategy, and while despising the politics, etc. have nonetheless been able to maintain the overall quality and resonance of their work. To reiterate, when looking at/for "opportunities", one simply *must* look closely at the up-side and down-side of a given scenario. And, while the majority of even those who bother to objectively and ruthlessly assess a situation into which they decide to enter ultimately abandon their principles as soon as the money starts coming in, it is possible to make it work. To be clear, *every* survival strategy is fraught with pitfalls.

The notion of pop/rock as "parasitic" forms/styles gave me a chuckle, but I think it's a valid observation. Of course, as you say earlier, all creativity borrows from existing strands; and yet not all creativity is parasitic in the sense that it drains or ultimately kills its "host."

I agree. For instance, Henry Cowell, way back when, introducing so-called ethnic elements into his compositions, while a novelty (and something which generated attention) was, as far as I can tell (and pardon me if I'm being naive or, even worse, nostalgic!), done out of a genuine interest. This has become less and less the case, as appropriation and self-aggrandizement have gotten substantially more hand-in-glove.

Aesthetically, we both, possibly to the surprise of many who know us, can count a smattering of rock-(though not pop-)derived music among our very favorite.

I wouldn't say "my very favorite"; more like songs which spoke to me, for whatever reason. But, that has a *lot* to do with our basic wiring of which pop/rock is extremely aware; hence "hooks". It's sort of akin to my getting tearful watching some half-assed movie. The plot/script and acting gets to me, even as I know I'm being manipulated by the screenwriter/director "pushing my buttons." There is very little, if anything genuine therein, but I accept the sentiment even as I recognize the artifice. That stated, I do certainly sense and appreciate the directness/sincerity of some rock/pop music; often those that seemed underproduced. (And let us always remember the origins of rock and roll; the appropriation of Black rhythm and blues for a white audience.)

(Would you care to hip us to a short list? Or am I misremembering here?)

You're remembering correctly, but, for a lot of reasons, I don't care to go into specifics. Besides, my tastes in that regard are pretty fickle. Things often wear out their welcome quite quickly. After all, disposability -- built-in obsolescence -- is a key component of consumerism/commerce.

It is socially and economically speaking, rather, that I think "parasitic" is a perfect description. How many "jazz" gigs sprout up at newly opened restaurants and summer concert series only to (d)evolve into hosting the same handful of half-assed world-pop groups? Further, the compression of various musics from around the world into these salable, nearly indistinguishable reductions, always with a backbeat and a "chick singer," is an aesthetic issue, for some people an ethical one as well, and certainly a textbook parasite-host relationship, a prime example, my mother would not miss the chance to point out, of capitalism killing culture.

Couldn't have said it better. (Though let's give credit where it's due. There are plenty of packaged "dude singers" too!)

There is, on the other hand, traditionally what can only be called a symbiosis at work in jazz and creative music, at least where the players permit it to arise. It's a nice analogy, and especially for your groups.

Thank you. A primary reason it works for me and my collaborators is that I don't try to force any kind of symbiosis. (And it is a symbiosis which, as you know, while having jazz at its core, also encompasses many other impulses.) It happens as the result of mutual respect, sensibility and sensitivity. Put another way, I consider myself a facilitator/catalyst rather than a "leader". And, make no mistake, there is a clear line between the former and the latter.

27 January 2014

Exchange with Milo Fine (i): "illuminating another course of action"

[Previously: Foreword]

[SK] So, I didn't have to read too far before a conversation starter presented itself:

"[The New Riverside Cafe in Minneapolis] was a venue in the heart of what was, for many years, an enclave of the hippie/counterculture movement. Getting a gig there...was, however, curiously difficult [for avant-garde musicians], in no small part due to the fact that so-called social progressives, then, as well as now, were unable to see that vital flaws in the value system of the status quo stood at its core, i.e., the nature and application of sound, and thus weren't all that interested in presenting/supporting music which undermined, or at least, challenged fundamental cultural assumptions."

Reading this, I am reminded (I've had the thought before) that you and I have never had a knock-down-drag-out over "what it all means," i.e. what music can accomplish beyond itself, its place in society, its role in political movements, etc. Perhaps we have talked about it tangentially, but not overtly, I don't think.

[MF] So-called "breakthroughs" or "new" developments in the arts -- which are, in the final analysis nothing but an ongoing evolution (everything being predicated on what precedes it) -- generally foretell shifts in the social/cultural/political fabric. But, of course, by the time those shifts are manifest, they are, overall, absorbed by the status quo. (As I am often wont to intone, the status quo is an insatiable beast that uses everything to its own advantage.) Put another way, arts are the harbinger of (human) potential. So, while the theoretical/technical aspects of any developments in aesthetic endeavor will be dumbed down, diluted and put in the service of the lowest common denominator, an individual focusing in on this, what?, energy can, I believe, internalize and nurture it to lend it a deeper resonance, and, from there, interject a necessary (and genuinely) subversive element to the collective unconscious. An element which is, of course, also a part of the status quo; and yet, in the best circumstance, not. (Another way to look at it is that the accumulation of such element[s] could serve to stretch the status quo, or, better yet, create a boil or tumor with the potential of infecting it.)

You have told me, more than once, about the sense which permeated your formative years, circa the late 1960s, that "anything was possible," and about how widely shared that belief/sensation/perception was among those who were there. (Everyone?) I sense, however, that much has gone unsaid in our conversations on this.

Yes, it was widely shared, but certainly not by conservatives and reactionaries! And, being it was "in the air", a lot of people were just along for the ride. Manifestations in music were rooted in free jazz (predicated in some ways by contemporary classical music), and, of course, what with youthful hormones (always ripe for faux revolution) and a fertile marketplace, rock; which, has, generally been a more or less parasitic music. But, naturally, it didn't take long for the opportunists, careerists, bureaucrats, businesspeople, etc. to start to exploit and manipulate the situation in the name of commerce and a higher position in a developing hierarchy. "Anything was possible", but, sadly, much, for wont of a better word, genuine individual initiative -- doing the work out of a more or less pure necessity -- was once again overall (and inevitably) subsumed by the status quo paradigm. That said, it was, for me anyway, a wonderful time to come of age. Disillusionment set in when I figured out that very few people really gave a shit as to what really *was* possible; that a meaningful cultural/societal shift was not going to happen. But, that bolstered my resolve to attempt to carry that spirit forward.

To me at least, the notion of getting "elsewhere," to "der andere zustand/the other condition"1 or wherever, is very nearly self-evident in your work.

Thank you.

In the broadest terms, I think the justification is equally self-evident: to show the world as it might be rather than what it merely is.

Exactly. And what's also self-evident is there's no formula nor map nor rules nor dogma. (However, there are, from time-to-time, suggestions predicated on habitual behavior; suggestions which, as far as I'm concerned, can come from anyone in any given ensemble.)

To confess, though, I've always been rather skeptical of the notion of music as a vehicle for social or political change (and as I use those words, I'm sure you have plenty to say about the co-optation of this narrative by a mainstream for which they are indeed nothing more than words; but bear with me as they are the most widely understood shorthand for what I wish to refer to).

See above, to which I would add that experience/observation has made me extremely cynical and skeptical. In a relatively recent conversation with Paul Metzger and Elaine Evans, I clearly identified components of my personality which define what, for me, is a curious affect. I was a loving, compassionate, gregarious child and young man. That's still there, but there is an overlay of cynicism and skepticism; all of which inform how I interact with people. I often feel I come across as awkwardly gracious, particularly with people who I don't know all that well. (As I'm sure you'll attest, however, once I get to know you, all bets are off!)

There are many, many angles from which to approach this topic, and I'm not sure they are all equally relevant to your work: for example, you have never been interested in the sheer number of people you are able to reach, which is a necessary condition for success at your chosen task, yet ensures that its impact is limited.

Depends on one's definition of "impact." One does work (lives), energy is released, and goes out into the world/cosmos. The attendance numbers are almost irrelevant, except for what they bring to the music; particularly those who are active/engaged listeners; that are there to impact the music as much as it impacts them.

The lowest hanging fruit here for the cynic, however, is the constancy of so many social and political problems, certainly over the last 50-some years, but no less across centuries during which art has changed immeasurably.

I sadly agree. Art, in the best sense, just keeps illuminating another course of action. Humanity (and artists!) seldom, if ever, follow through.

One thing that certainly has not changed, as you allude to above, is this compartmentalization of agendas by "so-called social progressives." This was already on my mind because it is, you will not be shocked to learn, very much in evidence among the students at CalArts. I had a visual artist roommate last year who would cry bloody murder if someone missed some subtlety in a piece of his, but also if a piece of music lasted more than a couple of minutes. More disturbing yet, to me at least, is the notion that because pop music was for so long not taken seriously by classical musicians or scholars that playing pop music in art music situations or making an academic study of it is somehow deeply subversive.

What a fucking tool, this roommate of yours! To so obviously succumb to the short attention span plague.

As for the aggrandizement of pop music, well, I first became aware of that when, as a young teenager involved in rock, I read THE AGE OF ROCK, a book consisting of quasi-intellectual essays that were pretty specious overall. It's called pop for a reason. I put this in an interview 14 years ago: “Pop music, by its very nature, feeds on the deeper streams of creativity, and by its very nature, which is parasitical, it doesn’t do those streams justice.”

As for pop music in the academy being subversive, what an asinine contention! What you have with pop and the academy is mutual exploitation. The academy co-opts rock to reach more people (get more enrollees), while rock co-opts the academy to adopt a sheen of legitimacy/respectability.

In the larger picture, this type of pervasive commingling exemplifies something Robert Musil -- likely my favorite author -- predicted for the later 20th century (and is a sort of blueprint for so-called postmodernism) in THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES (likely my favorite book):

"Ideas that had once been of lean account grew fat. Persons who had previously not been taken altogether seriously now acquired fame. What had been harsh, mellowed down, what had been separated, re-united, those who had been independent made concessions for the sake of public approval, and established taste fell, a prey to new uncertainties. Sharp borderlines everywhere became blurred, and some new, indescribable capacity for entering into hitherto unheard-of relationships threw up new people and new ideas. These people and ideas were not wicked. No, far from it. It was only that the good was adulterated with a little too much of the bad, the truth with error, and the meaning with a little too much of the spirit of accommodation."

In line with that, from the same book:

"And, after all, if stupidity did not, when seen from within, look so exactly like talent as to be mistaken for it, and if it could not, when seen from outside, appear as progress, genius, hope, and improvement, doubtless no one would want to be stupid, and there would be no stupidity, or at least it would be very easy to combat it. But unfortunately, there is something very winning and natural about it …The long and short of it is, there is no important idea that stupidity does not know how to make use of, for it can move in all directions and is able to wear all garment of truth. Truth, on the other hand, has only one garment and one road and is always at a disadvantage."

(translated from the German by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser)

What all of this suggests is that there certainly is ample work left to be done awakening people to the possibilities and implications of sound. I do wonder, though, how we can go on implying a higher purpose for that work only to dance away from such implications when things don't change?

See above, plus, I should note, reitering something previous, any change, however small, is *internal*, and radiates from there. It's the person in the mirror who provides the biggest challenge/the largest hurdle to substantive change; the individual against oneself (one's conditioning/wiring). *That* is the fecund (and *only*) ground where meaningful revolution can occur.

For me, establishing this maneuver in the lexicon of careerist artists everywhere is the ultimate "thanks but no thanks" legacy of 1960s art-thought: an irreverence for specifics, a desire to no longer be hemmed in by rationalism, and a faith,

Not sure what you're getting at…

therefore, you might say, that justification for any particular endeavor will emerge from all the good vibes seem to me to be defining characteristics of the era which younger generations, seldom for the right reasons (though I do believe those exist) glommed onto in droves.

But with that, I concur. Though these droves are simply echoes of many earlier droves. I do however wonder, with the sheer number of people on the planet now, to say nothing of technological acceleration, whether there can ever be another substantial drove, or whether all is now (and from here on in will be) reduced to subsets.

You've kept the faith admirably through all of this as few people would or could,

This means more to me than you might imagine. The genuineness of the sentiment helps fuel the next heartbeat, the next breath, the next step.

and I'm sure I've written enough at this juncture to engender some lively discussion. So have at it.

Just did! :-)

1A phrase/concept drawn from Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, which looms large for Milo and is discussed further as the conversation proceeds.

26 January 2014

Interview Exchange with Milo Fine: Foreword

Milo Fine is a Minneapolis-based multi-instrumentalist improvisor with whom I have had the great pleasure of both making and discussing music on numerous occasions since first making his acquaintance late in 2005. Coming of age in the late 1960s, Milo made an unwavering commitment to instrumental autodidacticism, ensemble collectivity, and artistic self-determination that he maintains to this day, surrounding himself with a small but potent and diverse group of musical collaborators from around the Twin Cities, as well as maintaining lifelong interstate and international relationships with some of improvised music's heavy hitters. There is much more about Milo in his own words, as well as information about recordings and concerts, at his website.

The thought of featuring a Milo Fine interview here has been in the back of my mind nearly since the inception of this blog, and yet the standard interview format only appeals to me less as I encounter it with ever greater frequency on the music-oriented blogs I follow. With Milo expressing his own qualms as well, I suggested an email exchange, which given our mutual penchant for the written word I was confident could approach the depth of the face-to-face conversations we've had. The following installments represent the fruits of that effort.

Regarding formatting, Milo chose, as always, to interleave his responses throughout my initial messages. Seeing that anyone reading this probably uses email themselves on more than a cursory basis, we maintain this format below with no apprehension about its intelligibility. Here, however, is an official reminder to remain cognizant of this decision should a discontinuity seem to present itself.

Regarding the first installment, the initial quote comes from Milo's notes to his 2008 Emanem release Ananke, from which we decided I would extract a conversation starter.

19 January 2014

31 October 2013

BM6 In 'n' Outro: Staying Power

We've made it. Here we are. Settings have been appropriately toggled so as to display the entire opus on the front page, though it seems I've once again overwhelmed the all-feeble Blogger with my verbosity, resulting in an incomplete display. I trust y'all are clever enough to navigate your way through the miasma as you see fit.

In the name of rousting evil blogospheric spirits from our midst on this All Hallows' Eve, now seems like as good a time as any to address the Death of the Blog. As I surveyed the landscape in preparation for this month, I came across quite a few declarations to just that effect. Fine with me. History tells us that only after the pundits start piling on the ______-is-dead meme has the party really gotten started. So stay safe out there, Modernists. You know where and, roughly, when to find it.

30 October 2013

Choice Nuggets As Always From G.E.L.

George E. Lewis deals to New Music Box:

I was communicating and trying to reflect at the same time how else to communicate. I began to develop what I thought was a facility for having multiple mindsets while improvising. I’ve read that people say things like, “I blank my mind out when I play.” That’s not my experience: usually I’m thinking about a lot of different things at the same time. I think that helped me perform in a different way, because it provided a space where I could at once hear the sound and to have a sense of the intent of the other person. It’s not mysterious; people experience it every day. Parts of sound and intentionality create a link.

Can you say "refreshing?" I think that the trance approach to improvising, though I've certainly had isolated experiences of that type myself, has thoroughly run amok at this point, so it's nice to see a name guy come out as a thinker (as if there was any doubt in this case, but even so). Assertions such as "I blank my mind out when I play" (I've heard them, too) would seem to me to demand some pretty serious excursus; but of course, this camp being as they are against thinking, excursus tends to be in fittingly short supply. Not so with the thinkers, for obvious reasons. Kenny Werner, for example, has clearly thought about this cogently: "the space" is not at all about numbing the mind, but rather the ego, thus freeing the mind to be as active (or not) as it wants. Or at least that's how I read it. My 10th grade English teacher, Ms. Stammers, once asked us if we didn't agree that it was always better to think one's way out of a situation. Thanks, Ms. Stammers...and thanks, Professor Lewis.


Now here's Professor Lewis on his stint as music director of The Kitchen in the early 80s:

[GL] There was a period of trying to stretch people’s ears and their consciousness. Anthony Braxton would go to Donaueschingen and play Charlie Parker for them, and then he would go to the Newport Jazz Festival and play this 50-page notated piece. That’s how it would work. You want people to not be settled in their beliefs; you want to challenge their beliefs through music, in some way.

TH: Do you think that era has ended?

GL: Well I hope it hasn’t. I mean, it hasn’t for me, but maybe I’m feeling a bit isolated. Maybe it’s not as necessary. Maybe all that work that was done before had some effect. But then, maybe not. I mean nowadays, everyone seems to want to be confirmed in what they currently believe. Technologically mediated narrow casting seems to make that possible. You don’t have to go to a concert of anything you don’t like; you don’t have to encounter a sound that you’re not interested in. What we find, though, is that there are people still out there who seek out new experience in sound; and that’s our audience. Or my kind of audience, anyway.

A funny thing happened to me after officially making the scene in Minneapolis for a number of years: I started writing more conservative music than I had at first. The early D Series pieces and Calypso Development represented a particularly stark neoclassicism. It was my first experience surprising people who only knew me as a wooly-headed modernist. It went down this way when I realized that there was a palpable void at the center of the Minneapolis music scene, comprised as it is nearly exclusively of oddball specialties with barely a whiff of the oppressive stylistic monoliths to which these niches might fruitfully oppose themselves in a more comprehensive musical ecosystem. There was, on one hand, all manner of roaring twenties revivalism, Gypsy jazz, non-idiomatic free playing, new-age Lutheran choral music, bluegrass type stuff, and self-consciously eclectic pop music mashups; and on the other, almost no hardcore bebop, post-serialism/complexism, New York School experimentalism, or process-oriented minimalism, or at least quite a bit less than I'm sure people who know the city only by external reputation might assume. (I've met a few. I fear they may be underwhelmed if they ever visit. If they listen to me and go in the fall, at least they won't come back complaining about the weather.)

There are two sides to every coin, and in Minneapolis, the freedom to be oneself, which the city, it is true, affords the musician in abundance, is also symptomatic of the unwillingness and/or inability to face down those towering monoliths, or even to acknowledge their global presence and gravitational pull. When Milo Fine sat me down and told me it was okay to play bebop licks in his groups, a weight was lifted off my shoulders (though I told him why I was uncomfortable with it and he understood: one too many times had I heard free jazz groups consisting of multiple abstract noisemakers and one post-Jimmy Lyons saxophonist full of stock bebop licks who seemed to have no awareness whatsoever that there were other people in the ensemble). Milo, as anyone who has heard or played in his groups knows, is a force of nature unto himself; but there aren't many others in town, and it's fitting that as the only lifelong Minneapolitan I know of who qualifies for such a designation, his groups are, simply by virtue of the personnel, also the most eclectic around. His work is a towering monolith constructed of a million tiny fragments; in other words, regarding the rather crude dichotomy I've proffered above, it is in an odd sense the exception that proves the rule.

Still others are more outwardly threatened by the bebop, the through-composition, the traditional ensemble skills, and all the other rigid mainstream practices which I for whatever reason uncharacteristically embraced at an early stage and made part of my own eclectic mix. It was shocking for me to learn the degree to which practitioners themselves tailor their own music and ensemble situations toward their strengths and away from their weaknesses; to witness consciousness of a music's unspoken internal political dimensions trotted out as a mere defense mechanism. "Challeng[ing] beliefs through music" begins at home, right? But I've also learned the hard way that no one wants to hear you or play with you while you're still learning to do something, and therein lies the explanation. I can see now that it takes thick skin and independence of spirit to sustain this kind of outlook for an entire career. If you want to be a lifelong learner, you had better be prepared to lose some friends and gigs over it. And do you know how I learned that? By putting neo-tonal, post-Hindemithian music in front of a bunch of wooly-haired jazz musicians. In Minneapolis, no one else was going to do that for them, and so were they the only ones, potentially, who might in turn be able to put it in front of the audiences who needed to hear it. That was my thinking, except I didn't really think about it; I just did it. That's where I think Professor Lewis is on to something important here.

Los Angeles, obviously, is another kettle of fish. The monoliths cast exceedingly long shadows here. My neoclassical music will not be needed for the foreseeable future, but nor is there any void that a calculated turn towards brand-name complexism, experimentalism, or minimalism might fill. There seems, rather, to be plenty of that going on without my help, along with plenty of navel-gazing jazzheads eager fill that well-known and much-discussed non-void. And so, with The "H" Series, I've veered toward a more satisfying synthesis of all of my interests all at once than I was ever able to conceive of in Minneapolis. I have, of course, been busy studying hard and growing older, which undoubtedly helps, but I think there's more to it than that. I always knew that I was only avant-garde in Minneapolis; that has been strongly confirmed out here, where I am decidedly middlebrow. I've still managed to alienate a few people by putting stems on my noteheads, but no one has yet called me "that crazy tuba player" within my earshot. I realize it was always meant as a compliment; it's just that it was never true. Everyone else was crazy, not me.


One for the road:

TH: Contemporary music and musicology entering the public sphere is sort of The Big Question in those fields, it seems to me. For the people involved with that, what can be done to take an active role in entering the public sphere?

GL: This is one of the hardest things to do, and people are going to have to be pretty ruthless and cynical about it. I was at UCSD in the ’90s. There are people there who are pretty influential in the world of scholarship—not just music, but many things. And they had no idea about what the musicians in this great music department were doing. So your job as a person is to go out and make those links. But that requires you do some research about what has been going on in those areas, and it might require you to develop some moles in the system, so to speak. There’s always somebody in there who is interested, and you don’t know who they are, but it’s kind of your job to find them. There’s no possibility of mass marketing. You’re not going to get attention without some mole in the system.

I copied and pasted this a while ago and now can't for the life of me recall exactly what earth-shattering point I was going to make about it. If you've kept up all month, by now you should be able to tell me what I would say. I'm spent. But it feels good.

29 October 2013

Driving The bus (ii)

Is it me or has the pitch of the jazz drum set, like concert pitch itself, been steadily rising over the years? Some of these snare drums the Nextboppy people are playing seem straight out of a college football broadcast. I often wonder about acoustics, and whether anyone will (or can; is it too late?) undertake a thorough study and/or reconstruction of the acoustical properties of the rooms where bebop was born. It would seem to me given the small dimensions and relatively large number of people that most of these spaces (that's right, they were not just "rooms") must have been exceptionally dead, and thus that the advent of the ride cymbal as we now know it could not have happened quite the same way in even a moderately reverberant space, where it would have been too washy (you know, like it is virtually everywhere this kind of music is still played today). A similar (and possibly more feasible) study of recording studios and engineering techniques would be equally valuable.

Compared to the music we're making now, the classic Blue Note stuff seems to me to have a certain darkness and richness of tone that I often miss elsewhere. Did I just out myself as an audiophile? I'm not so sure this is purely a question of production, though that's undoubtedly a significant question unto itself. Of course, physics tells us that the most basic way to get more, higher frequencies out of the same sounding body is to excite ever higher overtones by applying ever greater force; to wit, this bit from Ellery Eskelin caught my attention:

EE: And he [Gerald Cleaver] doesn’t play too loud, which unfortunately... I don’t even say that to criticize any other musicians. I’ve played with loud bands and I’ve played loud myself most of my life. It’s just the way we play today. I wasn’t around in the ‘40s or ‘50s, but I’m sure that we play two to three times louder than guys played then in terms of decibel levels. Sonic quality and resonance is another issue. Those cats could fill a room in a way that few people today can. But that’s not volume, that’s something else, that’s another quality.

Either way, the contemporary paradigm strikes me as higher and buzzier at all dynamic levels. Happily, this "other quality" has not been completely lost either: Jamire Williams, Nextboppy drummer about town whom I recently caught in person with the Walter Smith III quartet, has just about the lightest touch I think I've ever heard. Together with utterly fearsome chops and an unusually tasteful sense of when to bang and when to rustle, he makes magic with the high frequencies.

Driving The Bus (i)

Since moving to SoCal I've had the pleasure of meeting, hearing, and playing with a staggering number of outstanding jazz bass players. I have however occasionally been troubled by the evenness of attack in some of the walking lines I have heard here. The great bebop and post-bop bass players' lines were full of subtle slides, bends, and hitches; they constantly varied their attacks, often using extreme registers and unlikely intervals to create small- and large-scale contours that gave the music its signature propulsive energy.

I have had this thought before, but never about bass playing that was unimpeachable in virtually every other respect.

Walking bass is, of course, no longer quite the lingua franca of jazz that it once was, but the other ways of playing could probably use some of the same spice as well. Perhaps the notion that each individual rhythm section player's part should be interesting enough to listen to in isolation while nonetheless blending seamlessly with the whole remains strong advice. As someone who is trying to catch up conceptually more so than technically when it comes to jazz bass functions, I do sometimes aurally hone in on the bass player if the band I am listening to is in a feel which I don't fully understand yet. More often than not, I find that the playing doesn't quite meet this standard, even if you'd never think complain about much of anything in the total presentation.

28 October 2013

All Ages

Another point brought home by regular attendance at The Blue Whale: young people are capable of making great music, prodigies can sometimes live up to their hype, but it takes some old motherfuckers to make really timeless shit.

I myself was always an outlier without ever threatening to rise quite to the level of prodigy. I was also, if I don't say so myself, unusually level-headed about those kinds of things, and I generally got good advice and generally took it appropriately to heart. Where I and those I was immediately surrounded by failed, however, was in neglecting to accept college as a mere drop in the proverbial bucket of lifelong learning and evolution. Perhaps part of that was not knowing enough to see that four years was an inconceivably small amount of time in which to implement my conceptions, to say nothing of those I might have later. Being unusually facile at jumping through all the right hoops certainly hurt my chances of realizing this sooner. And yet the world, both within and without academia, seemed to no less than expect this from me and everyone else in the pipeline.

It took a healthy distance in both time and space from my college years for me to fully appreciate what a knot I had tied myself into during that time. It was a difficult, sometimes painful process to untie that knot. Once I decided that I could not possibly practice four hours a day without making unacceptable compromises in all the other musical areas that interested me, the physical dimension of brass playing became a major concern for me in a way it had never been previously, a double-whammy since I therefore had no experience dealing with it as such. Everything I knew about the tuba, myself, and the space where the two meet was based on a limber 20 year-old body and an even more voracious and self-motivated spirit. This has been its own adventure from which I am only now showing the smallest signs of emerging; even so, if it's possible to have been even slower to anticipate such changes in other areas, the conceptual area is just that place. It's hard to understand why I didn't stumble on certain ideas sooner...except that it's really not that hard at all. I didn't know enough, for one, but it's not just about knowing: doing matters too, and while it's possible to outpractice and outstudy your peers at an early age, I think it's much harder to accelerate the process of conceiving, realizing, curating, and reflecting, the process that drives artistic maturation not just internally but also in developing and understanding one's relationship to the world into which the work is to be released. And as any good constructivist would hasten to point out, even as I claim irreverence for such relationships to external forces, that in itself is a relationship I had better understand thoroughly before anything meaningful can come of it.

I have heard a number of young geniuses recently, players to whom I would be hanging on by a thread were I in their bands, and who are clearly much more than mere soulless technicians or stylists; and yet the old masters clearly have something more. They still have all the technique and vitality, but conceptually they are miles beyond musicians their children's age. And when you put it that way, who could really be surprised?

26 October 2013

Weirdest Email Ever

It isn't often that you get an email from an organization of which you only think you have ceased to be a member advertising an event at one of your alma maters but sent to the .edu address of a different alma mater 2000 miles away:

It took a good hard stare and some clenching of the brain muscle for me to figure it out: CalArts automatically signs its student composers up for ACF membership, and it was merely a coincidence that this ACF event was taking place at the U of MN. (It's not really a coincidence, actually, if you know the history of the organization, but you catch my drift.) Until I put it all together, I thought I might be caught in one of those soft nightmares where nothing outwardly threatening or unpleasant seems to be happening but something is clearly deeply wrong. I mean, the U of MN School of Music is building their convocation festivities around New Music? Maybe once I've been gone another ten years they'll be adequately supporting the jazz program and competently advising their students. I guess I'll believe it when it hits my inbox.

25 October 2013

whaling oops

So...perhaps there's something about October, much as I claim it as Blog Month's rightful calendrical home, that makes it difficult for me to make good on the project's greatest challenge. Perhaps being cloistered in a big kid art school dorm, confined to the same 2 minute walks between front door, practice room, and library, actually presented a more manageable scenario for daily blogging than the life of a freelance musician or transitioning recent graduate. Whatev. This year in particular, if it's not already obvious, has seen the conceit of daily blogging more or less dispensed with anyway in favor of the mere illusion of it. In other words, I work on these things in large chunks and well ahead of time, then clean them up in a flash of light on days when I have nothing better to say and before dumping them on you'all. Today, though, in place of yesterday, I will write off the cuff.

Last night I went to the Blue Whale to hear the Mark Dresser Quintet. The leader likely needs no introduction, but the band might, and you'll be pleased to make their acquaintance.

Saxophonist Ben Schachter emailed me a few years ago after finding his way to my website while searching for jazz tuba players. This was my first chance to hear him play live. He is a burning player with a striking tone, bright but warm and filling the room at every dynamic.

I first made the acquaintance of trombonist Michael Dessen at the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute last year. I've since heard him at the Whale a couple of times. Crazy chops; a rare ability and willingness, for someone with such a strong, bright sound (he and Ben make for quite a tonally unified front line) to alter his tone with varying degrees of airiness; and he plays with an F attachment, which I wish more trombonists would consider in this kind of setting (truthfully we all know why they don't; Michael has the chops, though).

I have heard pianist Joshua White many times at the Whale. Do not miss the chance to hear him if he ever comes to your area. Trust me. Until now, I'd heard him only on standard material and in the company of peers, but he didn't miss a beat here either. It's kind of scary.

Drummer Kjell Nordeson, native of Sweden and current student in the Integrative Studies program at UCSD, tied the whole thing together beautifully. Dresser's music has more than its fair share of twists and turns, including metric modulations, and in these hands they were always musically effective. There was swinging, there was burning, there was math, and there was freedom.

To summarize, can't really overstate how nice it is to have music of this quality happening locally, affordably, and most of all, frequently. I'm more excited about live music than I've been in a long time. So I'm going back tonight. Catch you'all on the other side of that.

23 October 2013

Large Whole-Number Ratios

I was reminded recently of a certain inconvenient fact about my master's degree:

As the graduation ceremony program shows, the CalArts School of Music granted nearly identical numbers of BFA and MFA degrees last spring. Occasionally people from outside the music profession will poo-poo a sarcastic remark about music degrees. Certainly my CalArts experience was worth quite a bit more than the degree ever could be. Yet isn't there something mildly unsettling about the notion of handing out graduate degrees in any of the arts or humanities nearly forty at a time? And even if the sheer number doesn't impress you, wouldn't you also say that the ratio between undergraduate and graduate degrees is much more flagrantly in violation of what once would have been called responsible academic behavior in fields where jobs don't exactly grow on trees? And if not for finding teaching work, what, exactly, is the degree for in the first place?

(For the record, both the raw numbers and the grad/undergrad ratios were similar in the schools of Art, Theater, and Film and Video. In Dance, where practice disproportionately trumps scholarship, and Critical Studies, where the opposite is true, many fewer MFAs were granted compared to BFAs.)

I'm not exactly blazing a trail here noting that the number of graduate music degrees granted and the number of real jobs for those graduates are out of whack with each other, nor am I the first to notice the Ponzi-like aspects of the academic food chain, nor does it take me and my blog to establish that the revenue feeding the scheme overwhelmingly represents debt of one kind or another incurred by students. The trite "real-world" stuff is no less troubling for having been recounted a million times, but as someone who may still yet be both a student and a teacher for the ump-teenth time each, I want to make sure we don't lose sight of the more abstract, less quantifiable aspects of all of this. To wit: is there anything left the truly gifted student might be able to do to distinguish him- or herself from the merely good? At what point does the propagation of opportunities for "encouraging" young artists swallow the entire endeavor whole? At what point have we encouraged enough of them to have discouraged all of them? Or, on the other hand, has the playing field actually been leveled in a constructive way, the profligacy of degree-granting institutions ensuring that bookish academic politicians with trust funds have a harder time swindling their way into real-world success that outpaces their talent now that everyone else has, on paper at least, much the same academic pedigree as they do?

It may be a stretch, even now, to say that a college degree is the new high school diploma, but perhaps the MFA, on the other hand, really is the new BFA. Seems to me that any serious disagreement with that statement has first and foremost to confront the numbers.