30 September 2007

A Bit of Cutesy Philisophy

Popular discourse makes a distinction between an art and a science, the latter being applied to any pursuit that is empirical, objective and/or quantifiable, and the former being used to indicate that the rules of engagement are somehow vague, undefined, and/or subjective. Dating, it might be said, is an art in that there's no quantifiable recipe for success; conversely, bicycle maintenance could be called a science in that there is more clearly a right and a wrong way to do things. Hitting a baseball or a golf ball are good examples of tasks that might appear to fall somewhat in the middle: some great players may appear to have wildly erratic or idiosyncratic swings, your coach might say, but they all do a few crucial things exactly the same way.

This widely understood distinction notwithstanding, abstract art and the hard sciences do have at least one thing in common, along with athletics as well: they afford human beings the opportunity to cultivate, demonstrate, and freely exercise their understanding of and control over their physical environment. The hard sciences may be empirical, logical, and rigorous, but they are also expressive in this way; and abstract art, while devoid of literal meaning and hence ensured of the most subjective of receptions from its audience, is not created randomly, but by being in touch with physical reality in a way that can only be called scientific.

Accomplishments such as calculus, the slam dunk, and The Rite of Spring are all brash displays of a certain level of control over and understanding of the parameters of our physical environment. In my view, this is every bit as much an inherently artistic or aesthetic concept as it is a scientific one.

28 September 2007

Work For Hire?

This is really appalling: apparently some film schools require students to sign the rights to their student works over to the university. According to the article, the University of Hawaii claims that most any work done by students and faculty belongs to the school.

Can you imagine not owning the rights to anything that you wrote or recorded or while a student? How about the trade off for landing a college teaching job being losing the rights to all the music you create during that time? Since there's no money to be made from most of what comes out of college music departments anyway, I guess it would be surprising if this happened. Nonetheless, this is still a bit shocking to read.

20 September 2007

Buying and Listening Habits

In talking to several acquaintances recently, I have learned that most of them have at least one quirk when it comes to their CD buying and/or listening habits that seems very counterintuitive to me.

I know someone who buys lots of CD's and listens to them only a few times. Schoenberg said that to like something one must first be able to remember it; probably too broad of a generalization, but certainly one that I find myself identifying with most of the time. In any case, if you can't remember it at all, how's that any different from never having listened to it in the first place? It's also good to give everything a fair shot; early on especially, I found that things that sounded "weird" at first I often ended up far more attached to in the end than the things I liked right away. This, however, is changing the more experience I gain; nowadays, my early reaction is much more indicative of my eventual "final" judgment.

I know someone who has almost stopped buying recorded music completely. This seems very strange to me. The more you know, the more you don't know, right? New recordings are being made at an alarming rate, and this only adds to an already staggering cumulative body of work that is available. The more music one is exposed to, the more one becomes aware of what one hasn't heard. It starts to appear unmanageable sometimes, but rather than get discouraged, it comes to seem even more imperative that one continue to investigate. Time is running out, you know? I can't imagine living without hope of anything interesting ever materializing again. That would really suck.

I know someone who does not expect a CD to last more than a couple of years. Many concerns have emerged about the durability of CD's. I treat mine poorly, and yet I have had no problems yet that were not due to gross neglect (i.e. major scratches and scuffs). My earliest computer burned CD's have also held up quite well considering that they are supposed to have a much shorter life span than their commercially produced counterparts. I'll be holding my breath as the oldest among my CD collection enter their second decade.

I know someone whose CD collection is heavily weighted towards only a few favorite artists. Conversely, back when I was starting from scratch, I figured that I ought to focus on breadth rather than depth simply because there was so much out there. I figured that I could start to specialize after I got a decent idea of what I was dealing with in the first place. I seem to recall developing this approach based largely on what I was hearing and reading from jazz pedagogy, although come to think of it, I can't place the exact source right now. I seem to think that Aebersold advocates this somewhere, but I'm not sure. Lo and behold, I have stuck to this mindset for almost a decade and the sum total of all recorded music seems more unmanageable than ever. I've also found that, according to acquaintances, this is probably my oddest quirk as a consumer of recorded music; nonetheless, I plan to stick by it for a while to come. The toughest issue is posed by major figures who have reinvented themselves multiple times: Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton, Gyorgy Ligeti, etc. One does not simply pick one CD by one of these artists and call it a representative sample, so essentially, you end up counting music from different periods of the artist's career as if it were made by different people. There's so much out there that you're going to miss some of it no matter what. If nothing else, the creative process demands stimulation (if not downright influence), and I think my approach works well in this way. I also think that there's a certain amount of professional obligation to be aware of what's out there, as well as to stay abreast of new developments (if not as a player or writer, than at least as a teacher).

Finally, check out the comment to here. Critics selling their review copies of CD's before the official release of the album? You'd expect there to be an unwritten rule against this in the profession, but either it doesn't exist at all, or it isn't a sufficient deterrent. I guess chronic exposure to less-than promising releases leads some critics become so cynical about musicians that they have no conscience about this.

What are some of your buying and listening quirks?

13 September 2007


The blogroll concept has always bothered me. If someone puts you in their blogroll, are you obligated to put them in yours? Why bother putting the most widely-read blogs in your blogroll when they already appear on every single other music blog the world over? In the link, do you use the name of the blog, the name of the person, or both?

Suddenly, the cartoon light bulb appeared over my head and the solution became obvious: the postroll. From now on, when I read elsewhere a post or article that I judge worthy of my readers' attention, a link to said post or article will appear in my *postroll* at right. Besides avoiding the piddily hang-ups already listed, there are 4 really good reasons for doing it this way:

(a) because none of us share exactly the same interests or depth of knowledge about the same subjects, and hence even at a "good" blog, not every post is going to be worth everyone's time; this way, the postroll becomes an extension of the content on your own blog as it more strongly reflects your own opinions and interests;

(b) none of us are perfect, and we are all bound to turn out a few turds here and there; in recommending a particular writer, you want to showcase their finest work (same as with musicians, right?);

(c) for better of worse, the blog world seems to be entirely concerned with the present, at the particular expense of the past. In most cases, it seems as if the archive feature is almost superfluous; upon discovering a new blog, how many of us dig through the entire archive before checking out what is up on the home page? With the postroll, worthy contributions are sorted from the duds as they happen, which affords readers who may only later discover blog a more efficient means of catching up on what they've been missing.

(d) no more "link-and-run" back-patting posts; simply link to the post in the postroll and resume turning out your own masterpieces!

I've got a few links up already to get the ball rolling, none of which are likely to be news to many of you regulars...but if they are, check them out.

05 September 2007

When To Hold Your Ground

There's a moment in the Miles Davis Quintet's Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel (at 8:59 of All of Me from Disc 3 to be precise) where Wayne Shorter resolves to a D major arpeggio over an E-flat major seventh chord. The juxtaposition makes for one of those startling moments that are so characteristic of this set, and of which there are too many to count contained in it. What I find so paradoxical is that in the musical world which these performances inspired and enabled, moments like this one are exceedingly rare simply because the musical parameters don't allow for them to happen at all.

In other words, piano players in these contexts just don't play unadulterated major seventh chords, and saxophonists just don't play major arpeggios; the chances of hearing a major arpeggio superimposed over a major seventh chord a half-step away are non-existent. What you are more likely to hear is a bi-tonal chord (call it Dmaj/Ebmaj) in the piano and an "Eastern" sounding scale played by the horns. It's great that Dmaj/Ebmaj is now an acceptable chord symbol that most anyone who fancies themselves a "jazz" musician can reasonably be expected to understand. The only problem is that Wayne didn't play Dmaj/Ebmaj, he played Dmaj; and Herbie didn't play Dmaj/Ebmaj, he played Ebmaj7.

What enabled this moment to happen is the innovative, transitional nature of what the group was doing: they weren't so much obliterating or evading common practice as they were subverting it, maintaining it as a point of reference against which even their more subtle deviations stand out in high relief. For better or worse, this moment has itself now been absorbed into common practice, but moreso as "Dmaj/Ebmaj" than anything else. Nonetheless, if you were writing a tune and you wanted to recreate this type of moment in it, you would have to write different chord symbols in each player's part rather than writing them both, one on top of the other, as the case may be.

The ability to identify aurally what the soloist is doing harmonically (and even anticipate what they might do before it happens) has become a major topic of discussion and study in jazz education. This skill is as valuable as it is difficult to cultivate, but what is even more valuable and difficult is to have a good enough idea of what the group sounds like "out front" that reacting to a soloist doesn't have to always take the form of imitating what they just played. There are quite a few chordal players working today who, upon hearing a horn soloist play a major arpeggio a half step down, would pick up on it immediately and then play a bi-tonal at that place in the form for the rest of the solo (or maybe even spontaneously reharmonize the rest of the form using bi-tonals or altered extensions). There's no doubt that this can be effective, yet if this becomes the universal knee-jerk reaction in such situations, we disable the possibility that Herbie and Wayne realized so spectacularly in the example given above.

Listening and reacting are the essence of jazz performance, and it was this quintet that took such things to their highest level. What is interesting about this particular moment is that it was enabled by one of the more conservative performances in the collection, with the rhythm section playing very straight ahead time and the horns playing sparingly during their solos. It is precisely by creating such an "inside" vibe throughout the majority of the performance that the "outside" moments come to stand out so spectacularly. We don't tend to remember this group for delegating the freedom to subvert the changes only to one player (the soloist) at a time, but rather for their uncanny ability to do so as a unit with uniformly spectacular results. Nonetheless, there are moments of the former type, and they offer an important lesson: when it comes to improvisation of virtually any kind, it is just as important to know when to hold your ground as it is to know when to follow or imitate another player.