25 July 2007

Arnold Schoenberg and Stan Kenton

What do these two have in common? Both felt that the setting in which their music was expected to be presented was not necessarily the most appropriate one possible. Compare the following excerpts from the Statement of Aims of Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances (1) and Pete Welding's liner notes to Kenton's "New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm" (2).

(1) Herein lies the essential difference revealed by a comparison of the Society's aims with those of the everyday concert world, from which it is quite distinct in principle. Although it may be possible, in preparing a work for performance, to get along with the strictly limited and always insufficient number of rehearsals hitherto available, for better or worse (usually the latter), yet for the society the number of rehearsals allotted to works to be performed will be limited only by the attainment of the greatest possible clarity and by the fulfillment of the composer's intentions as revealed in his work.

...artists of high-priced reputation will be used only so far as the music demands and permits; and moreover that kind of virtuosity will be shunned which makes of the work to be performed not the end in itself but merely a means to an end which is not the Society's, namely, the display of irrelevant virtuosity and individuality, and the attainment of purely personal success.

...The only success that an artist can have here is that (which should be most important to him) of having made the work, and therewith its composer, intelligible.

(2) And although the orchestra had started as a dance band–albeit one with a rather different twist–and continued to play for dancers, it became more and more a concert ensemble as Kenton more fully realized his ambitions to anneal jazz with European concert music.

...It is partly as a result of his efforts that jazz is now accorded respect as a serious music, perhaps America's major contribution to world music; that the locus of the music has shifted from the nightclub to the concert hall and festival stage; that the synthesis with European concert music he envisioned has been enabled to take place in the work of others who followed in his wake; and that the music has had its horizons widened through various of the concepts he pioneered and set in motion.

Obviously, Schoenberg's complaints had more to do with the various distractions surrounding the concerts (prima donna performers, hostile audiences, and critics wielding the power to make or break an artist) than with the concert format itself. Many of what he sees as problems have been part of classical music both before and after his time. On the other hand, for Kenton, assimilating to this concert format was a breakthrough in itself (or so it is made to sound). What intrigues me about both is the idea that a musician may have to actively search out or create from scratch the ideal presentation of his/her music, and the resistance one may encounter along the way from casual listeners and fellow professionals alike.

To put it bluntly, for me, this is about jazz and bars. Welding's reference to the "nightclub" is too generous a description of many of the Minneapolis venues I have performed in, and yet, the musicians, bookers, and proprietors of these establishments seldom give the situation a second thought. Even working for free, a traditional classical string quartet would never be allowed in one of these venues, but whether it is the history of the music or the simple fact that it often enough involves a drum set and a guitar, jazz groups have always played in dive bars, even now when both the proprietors and the clientele of most such establishments tend to favor other music.

Call me a snob if you will, but nothing I do belongs in this setting. I say this not because of the puke on the floor, the often-cramped stages, or the paltry financial rewards. I would not only put up with but embrace all of that if only the more important aspects of the situation were in line, but as it stands, these establishments are not conducive to attentive listening, not only because of their horrid acoustics, but also because they exist first and foremost as conduits for socializing. There's nothing wrong with that; it's just not an ideal environment for concert music. I would not be so quick to laud the virtues of the concert hall and festival stage either. The acoustics of many concert halls are not good for jazz; who would expect otherwise, as they are designed primarily with the traditional European symphony orchestra in mind? The festivals, on the other hand, aren't always the best either, especially if they are outdoors. Usually, this means relying almost entirely on amplification, even of the horns, and this changes the character of acoustic music too much for my tastes. Besides, at 24 years of age, I am already too old to get booked at jazz festivals. If only I could go back to being a teenager and take up the saxophone and be from a foreign country and...forget it.

What, then, is the solution to the non-classical concert music conundrum? I don't know. The "performance space" is always an attractive concept, a medium-sized room tucked away somewhere with seating for 30-50 people and half-decent acoustics. If only there was a musician somewhere who could afford such a place. Most likely, we'll have to make due with the current hodgepodge of bars, concert halls and coffee houses for some time to come, but I for one will always be keeping my eyes out for venues that offer something closer to the ideal.

It doesn't help that the very idea of presenting jazz as "concert" music is still resisted by some jazz musicians and audiences, who sometimes argue that it is unwise to remove the music from its native socio-cultural context. I would counter that this context too often represents an affront to both the music and the musician for the reasons already given. The position I'm taking was taken by some as early as the 1960's, but of course, the most conservative wing of the jazz culture warriors is always looking nearly twice that far back, to a time when jazz was both literally and figuratively "popular" music. Does it bother anyone else when the musicians are essentially being used to sell food and drinks, or perhaps are merely being tolerated by the management for some other reason? Venue owners take advantage of musicians to this end, offering little or no guaranteed pay and getting away with it simply because there are enough bands willing to play for free, musical competency be damned. I would hate to think that any practitioner or other devotee of a certain music would find that music unsuitable for concert performance. That's an outright admission that when you take away everything that attaches itself to the music like a leech, there's not much left that's worth anything. For me, in general, jazz is not one of those musics. In this case, concert = respect and dignity as far as I'm concerned.


Despite having only a cursory knowledge of his music, I have held Schoenberg in extremely high regard as a thinker ever since I read Style and Idea, an exhaustive collection of his writings. I have maintained ever since that if he was crazy, so am I: this book is among the most incisive things I've ever read on music, and is even laugh-out-loud funny on occasion. I highly recommend it to everyone.

I don't know nearly as much about Kenton. I bought the above mentioned CD to use in a jazz history class I was teaching, as well as out of a sense of professional obligation. With the exception of a few tunes, the music is starting to grate on me. It seems to me to be the earliest example of the distastefully high lead trumpet writing that has become de rigeur in big bands of all stripes. Perhaps someone with more knowledge of the subject can fill me in on the history of the big band trumpet screeching (when I was in school, my mom always called it, "that damn Las Vegas trumpet thing").

In any case, I have to respect (or at least empathize) with both men when it comes to the need for a different format or presentation. For me, this has become about establishing a "concert" atmosphere away from the traditional "concert" venues. Of course, to hear people like Greg Sandow tell it, today's movement is a movement in the opposite direction, one where adherents are quick to point out that even classical music was once presented in circumstances not too terribly different from what I'm opposing here, and then suggest that we should consider going back to that. It's safe to say that I, for one, would stop going to concerts if people were allowed to walk around, chit-chat, and eat popcorn; that, however, is much less than typically goes on in many venues I've played at. In any case, I believe in strongly in the concert as an institution, one that must be understood as aspiring to be "different" rather than "better" than the alternatives (and, dare I say, the ball is in the relativists' court on this one, for I have to believe that the interest in "pop" music on behalf of "concert" musicians has never been higher, myself not withstanding). The concert is not intended to be above anyone: it is simply a place where listening attentively takes precedence over everything else, if not temporarily.

By removing all other attractions and distractions, you are also being more honest. The ArtsJournal approach to "saving" classical music has always struck me as dishonest because it relies on what is essentially a bait-and-switch tactic, namely creating some non-musical attraction and crossing your fingers that some of the people you fool into coming happen to enjoy the music also. If it saves a regional orchestra here and there, fine. My personal experiences have taught me that it is more fulfilling to play for 3 involved listeners than it is to play for 1,000 people who would rather be somewhere else. That philosophy combined with an insistence on "concert" presentation isn't going to draw very many people overall, but there's a good chance it will draw the same number of listeners as any most other approach.

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