28 November 2007

The Abstract is Real

I have a problem with those who blindly claim allegiance to "The Arts." For one thing, if all of "The Arts" share one thing in common, it is our collective inability to define what "art" is in the first place. But to get to the real problem here, we need to go beyond this now rather superfluous observation and ask whether the very idea of a given individual embracing all art as good is not, in fact, an inherently disingenuous proposition.

Being an art where categorization runs rampant, music provides us with a microcosm of the problem with "The Arts." It is startlingly common these days for listeners to report that they like many different kinds of music, or even very occasionally that they like all kinds of music equally well. The former statement is critically dependent on how many total "kinds of music" there are in existence, while the latter, absurdly, would seem to presuppose knowledge of all extant music. In other words, the question of scale must first be addressed to evaluate the validity of either claim. This, however, is mere philosophical nitpicking; the real problem here is that the very concept of "liking" something (anything) requires an opposite (call it "disliking") simply in order to exist.

Put another way, it is impossible for everything to be "the best." If this were the case, there would be no best, only uniform mediocrity. Being an entirely relative concept, "the most good" means nothing except in relation to "that which is less good." It follows that in order to have likes, we must have dislikes as well, for the very idea of preference resists uniform projection.

It seems to me that the most likely reason anyone would desire to like everything is of a purely social nature. I'm sure that most musicians can recall an instance (perhaps many) where they minced words about a piece they didn't care for simply out of a desire to remain in someone's good graces. As a culture, we cave to herd mentality rather easily in such scenarios, if not inwardly, then certainly outwardly. In any case, when it comes to "The Arts," as with styles of music, I have my doubts as to whether any of us can, with any truth or validity whatsoever, report that we judge them aesthetically to be of equal merit. Whether or not this is actually the case, I can say with more certainty that I, for one, most definitely am not capable of this.

Despite having pursued a career in music, and hence being lumped in with other "Artists," I have no interest in most of the rest of "The Arts." Even within music, there is a line in the sand for me, and that line demarcates the border between the abstract and the representational. It has taken me until this point to figure out what it is that my aesthetic "likes" have in common: they are non-representational, non-linguistic, and non-sequential; in a word, abstract.

There is most definitely a tendency on the part of modern day commentators to view this as a sort of perversion or pathology. It may indeed be unusual, but I believe that there is one significant sense in which it is, in fact, highly rational. Take, for example, the difference between a Shakespeare play on one hand, and a Brahms symphony on the other (or, even simpler, a representational painting that attains a high degree of realism, and an abstract one that represents nothing in particular). In the case of the play, we must essentially pretend that what is going on in front of us is real even though we know it is not; same in the case of a representational painting. Abstract art, on the other hand, whether it be sonic or visual, is always real; as an NFL player would say, "It is what it is."

It is mind-boggling, in a way, that abstract art is generally thought to be more demanding and less accessible. In reality, it is the most accessible art there is, but perhaps it makes us that much more uncomfortable by putting us more directly in touch with the fact that to speak of liking something, we must dislike something else. As for likes and dislikes among "The Arts," I have a most intense dislike for things like theatre and film that present the audience with a choice between fantasy and reality while presuming that anyone in their right mind would go for the former. Personally, I'll take reality every time. Abstract art's lack of meaning, representation, linguistic properties, etc. is precisely what makes it so real; conversely, there is an element of artificiality to any presentation that presupposes the suspension of disbelief.

23 November 2007

November 24 CD Release

Who: Pan-Metropolitan Trio

Stefan Kac, Tuba

Japhlet Bire Attias, Chapman Stick®

Owen Weaver/Nick Zielinski, Percussion

What: CD Release Show for "Isolation"

When: Saturday, November 24, 2007, 11:30pm

Where: Dakota Jazz Club (1010 Nicollet Mall, Downtown Minneapolis)

Why: who needs a reason?

There is a $5 cover for this show, and we will, of course, be selling CD's for $12 each.

Go here to read an article about the band and listen to a track from the CD.

20 November 2007

More Harping on Promotion and The Scene

Something that has been bothering me lately has been the content of music-oriented newsletters and journals. I feel like a fine line is being blurred between the basically noble cause of giving exposure to a brilliant new artist (subjective as that label might be) and merely doing favors for friends; between current events coverage and a concert calendar; between a profile and a press release. I can't help but feel that many such publications I encounter have merely become conduits for promotion, hence neglecting important academic, critical, or news-oriented functions. Ironically, it is a self-defeating enterprise when pursued in this way, for now that this comprises such an astonishing majority of content, I cannot even begin to keep track of all of these people and their always impressive-sounding accomplishments.

I have myself, of course, occasionally been the beneficiary of such things, and am always involved in my fair share of promotional activities (this and similar blogs, I would continue to insist, being included in this category). It is also an unavoidable truth that some of the most enlightening and informative musicological specimens are musicians writing about themselves and their work. In my estimation, however, there is a certain gracefulness about many such works that is conspicuously absent in the garden variety articles we encounter constantly today.

I picked up the most recent issue of the ITEA Journal fearing more of the same, yet this time, I was pleasantly surprised with the cover story on tubist Jens Bjørn-Larsen. Without putting words in his mouth, I get the distinct impression that Joseph Skillen, the author of the article, shares the concerns I've laid out here: in the very first paragraph, he overtly states the intention to present "a different type of article than we normally see in our journal." In my estimation, he succeeded not just in being different but in presenting something useful, proving that granting exposure to an artist need not preclude making a larger contribution to the dialogue.

Though I found this article to be very informative in terms of pedagogy, it was a biographical detail that will probably stick in my mind the longest, and which I think is worth discussing here. According to the article, Bjørn-Larsen grew up living in an apartment, and after he took up the tuba as a kid, the noise of practicing soon became a problem for the neighbors, who sent "an elected spokesman" to talk to the family.

The neighbors said they certainly wanted him to practice, but they didn't want to hear it. Shockingly all the neighbors agreed to pay for soundproofing a room in the Bjørn-Larsen apartment so that Jens could practice and not disrupt the rest of the building. His childhood experiments then continued in this soundproof space.

I feel confident (though not happy) in saying that this is something that would never happen in Minneapolis. When I meet a musician from New York City, I always ask them about practice, and the response is always the same: everyone practices in their apartments and no one complains. I'm sure that's not true across the board, but it's obviously more true there than it is in the Midwest. While I lived with my parents (in a house, thankfully), I often practiced late at night, and even overnight. I talked with neighbors occasionally, and never did anyone tell me it was a problem. Yet one night during the summer of 2004, someone actually called the police on me. They knocked on the door and told me to stop, which I did, only to resume 20 minutes later with a mute. Eventually, I simply resumed playing at all hours of the day without the mute, and never had another problem. I do, however, know people here (some of whom live in houses, not apartments) who have had ongoing problems with neighbors over their practice, even in the middle of the day.

The Twin Cities music scene elicits a great deal of cheerleading from local observers. Since I got serious about playing professionally, I have grown skeptical about our supposedly disproportionately high ranking among music scenes nationally, although I have not spent enough time in cities of similar size to have any standard of comparison. I will say this: music is not "in the air" here; it's not an integral part of the culture. There's a lot of noise made in the press, akin to what I described earlier, but when it comes right down to it, the neighbors default to calling the cops, not building soundproof rooms for their neighbors' kid. The City of Minneapolis has also become shockingly draconian in dealing with venues that host live music: witness Exhibit A and Exhibit B.

There's no point in pouting over it, but I do wish the dialogue was a bit more informed. Take, for example, the situation with Tillie's Bean ("Exhibit A" above). Everything I've read about this story uses the fact that the musicians who perform there are not paid (aside from tips, apparently) as a way of eliciting sympathy for the establishment. I'll get to why I'm upset with the City's handling of this situation in a minute, but I'm also upset (and this is only one of a great many such instances all around the area) that the word "underselling" is never uttered. In some sense, musicians who play for little or no guaranteed money are doing exactly that to their colleagues. Yet it also seems obvious that a workshop-style gathering of amateurs is a far different thing from a polished, professional musical presentation. These two groups of people should not, in theory, be in direct competition with each other* as they ostensibly offer different products, and hence, it should not be hypocritical to assert that both have their rightful place in the local musical economy. This all rests, however, on the fickleness of that abstract entity known as "the scene," and as usual, "the scene" disappoints.

One of the truly maddening things about the Twin Cities is that these two groups are by no fault of their own in very direct competition with each other for the precious few dedicated listeners out there who have the time and the money to spend listening to live music, yet either value the ostensible social status associated with this or that venue over the music itself, or simply aren't bothered by substandard acoustics, poor intonation, and unprofessional stage presence enough to demand better of the performers. Predictably, most of them take the path of least resistance and opt for the performers they most relate to socially, and who cost the least to hear. I would posit that the national economic situation has something to do with it too, but that's outside the purview of this blog, as well as my expertise.

Suffice it to say that if we really want to have a scene,** then we (the audience) need to demand a scene, and then put our money where our mouths are. If trends start on the coasts and move inland, us Minneapolitans can expect that sooner or later, musicians will be paying to play in high-profile venues. If we really are serious about having a music scene, we ought to be giving these kinds of things some thought and heading them off at the pass. That, however, requires some serious hipness that I'm not sure exists here.

This is where you call me an elitist. This is also where you tell me that hipness is relative and socially constructed, not absolute. This is also where you call me a hypocrite for saying (as I often do) that there's no right or wrong way to listen to music, and that "educating listeners into conformity" (I love saying that) is the musical equivalent of fascism. I continue to stand by all of that, and am merely pointing out a simple cause and effect relationship: for every professional/accomplished musician working on the scene, there are 25 amateur/unaccomplished musicians underselling them. The salient feature of the professional presentation is the quality; the drawback is the cost. The exact opposite is true of the amateur. Hence, the only way the professional musician will be economically successful is if audiences choose quality over cost. If this does not happen, the professional will either move to a city where it does happen, or enroll in law school. Either way, the choices made by scenesters have a direct effect on which music is viable in that scene. If we are going to label scenes "hip" or "not hip", we have to look at what is viable there and judge it, not the people who put it out there, to be "hip" or "not hip."

Having arrived at this conclusion, the logical next question is, "Whither the Union?" Having joined for the first time a few months ago and now had a chance to review all of the relevant bylaws, I can only assume that many of them are not strictly enforced out of the practical realization that the situation here is so far gone that doing so would do more harm than good (the City could have used a dose of this sort of reasoning before they jumped all over Tillie's Bean, as could ASCAP, who has been on their own crusade against neighborhood coffeehouses for some time now). I was particularly shocked to read that as an AFM Local 30-73 member, I am not supposedly not allowed to sit in or make a guest appearance if I am not being paid. I have trouble seeing how this policy makes things better for musicians here, particularly considering (sorry, here I go again) that the Twin Cities jazz scene is spectacularly devoid of artistically and socially fruitful collaborations between young and old musicians (largely, in my estimation, a result of the latter viewing the former more as competition for the precious few paying gigs than as potential collaborators and much-needed new blood).

Given that I've witnessed this rule violated countless times, and sometimes in high-profile situations, I'm then comforted to know that whoever is in charge of policing such things obviously sees that doing so now would yield nothing positive. The same cannot be said of the national leadership's position on the RIAA's anti-piracy crusade, which has finally hit close to home. My impression of the slant of the International Musician (the AFM's monthly journal) is that they are just fine with these sorts of things; the short (3 paragraph) summary of the Thomas case was a cold, objective rundown of the verdict, concluding with a typically rosy-sounding excerpt from a statement released by the RIAA shortly thereafter. Perhaps this is the only tenable position for them to take given their role in negotiating with media conglomerates, which we have to assume is an overwhelmingly positive contribution. I wonder if the membership agrees? (And how many are "pirates" themselves?)

Somehow, I've found my way all the way back to critiquing music-oriented journals. For some reason, I feel guilty about skimming rather than reading and digesting these publications, but this is only the unavoidable result of there not being too much to digest in the first place. In talking to one fellow member recently, I realized I'm not the only one. In any case, the blogosphere has become a much more vital conduit of the sort of dialogue we're missing in print in many cases. As for the local scene, I'm happy to report that both concerts I went to over the weekend were very good, although they both involved musicians from other cities to some extent or another. They were also both very well attended, which is also good news. Maybe there's some hipness lurking here after all; or maybe the fact that a media blitz will lead a concert of Ligeti and Lutoslawski music to sell out is further evidence that it's "see and be scene" in the Twin Cities after all.


*For a fascinating take on amateurs competing with professionals (from shockingly early in history), see Arnold Schoenberg's "The Blessing of the Dressing" in the tome Style and Idea (I've cited it before here).

**In writing that line, I'm suddenly reminded of one of the all time great Onion headlines: "New Poll Finds 86 Percent Of Americans Don't Want To Have A Country Anymore."

10 November 2007


What matters is not how many people listen to your music, but what their relationship is to that music. If they are people who show up only to see and be seen, or who collect books and CD's as household decorations so that guests will see them as more intellectual, then you have not really succeeded in the most important way. It is infinitely more gratifying to play for small, appreciative and engaged audiences than it is to play for throngs of distractible yuppie chatterboxes. I say this as someone who has done both.

01 November 2007

Following up on the last post

One of the truly maddening things about brass playing is conditioning. A day off can be constructive, or it can set you back a week; two or more days off is just about fatal. To go along with this seemingly high lower limit, there's also a comparatively low upper limit to how much one can practice at a time. Suffice it to say that it's not a pursuit that lends itself to sporadic intense periods of focus, yet unfortunately, that is the mode in which I am most productive. At least writing (music and words) lends itself better to this sort of unpredictable inspiration; as for tuba playing, it's a constant struggle.

Much has been made in brass pedagogy about the so-called "smile" embouchure. It's considered one of the cardinal sins of brass playing, but it's one of the most common nonetheless. While it is often approached as a simple mistake or bad habit, I've found it to be entirely a matter of conditioning. When I don't put in enough time with the horn to keep the relevant muscles in shape, I start smiling; once I've had a good workout for a few days in a row, the smile goes away. I've started to wonder how many brass students who have been confounded by the smile embouchure would benefit from better conditioning with their current (often their "natural" or intuitive) embouchure rather than undergoing the physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing process of making wholesale embouchure changes. While certain embouchures appear to offer better chances of success, it is also true that somewhere, someone has gotten away with just about every embouchure deviation any teacher has ever thought it worth condemning. How much might excellent conditioning (something that is, let's face it, elusive for the majority of aspiring professional brass players, and often the same ones who have been diagnosed with embouchure troubles) allow players to overcome petty idiosyncrasies of the embouchure?

This is something I think about a lot. When I was 16, I was hit in the mouth by both a baseball and a cleat within 6 months of each other; hence, I have a lump of scar tissue in the left-center part of my lower lip that causes it to appear visibly larger than the rest of the lip, and a left corner that was severed 90% of the way through, and hence is noticeably weaker than the right corner despite the great deal of playing and conditioning that has taken place since then. Neither incident had a noticeable effect on my playing at the time other than to take me out of commission for a couple of weeks, yet a few days of substandard conditioning and suddenly the smile shows up with all of its attendant flaws of sound, intonation, and general control.

The smile, at least in my case, is a symptom, not a root cause worth pursuing. To eliminate the smile during one of those substandard playing days requires contortions of the embouchure that would only make things worse. As always, it seems to me that result-oriented pedagogy trumps adherence to supposed technical norms, and in my case, the way to get rid of the smile is not to change the embouchure but to "feel the burn" in the corners for a few days.


Is classical music the most technically demanding music out there? Or does it (and any other kind of music) merely pose a particular set of obstacles that makes it uniquely challenging, but not necessarily more challenging? I've wrestled with this one for a while also, and I'm still not sure that I've reached a satisfying conclusion. What I do find maddening is when people speak as if classical music has a monopoly on discipline. In reality, discipline has nothing to do with style: many players would have to work especially hard to sound like, say, Chet Baker, whose playing sounds so easy and relaxed to so many people.

I freely admit that classical music is harder for me than jazz, and to take it further, that notated music is harder for me than improvised music. That could simply be a consequence of how much time I have put into each, and/or of an innate inclination, and/or of a tendency to set the bar higher for myself in one case than in the other. But what I mean by this is not even necessarily that I am "better" at jazz and improvisation than I am at realizing and interpreting notated music, but more that there does seem to be a certain amount of technical wiggle room when it comes to improvising in just about any context, and that there is no such thing in the realm of classical solo playing.

I think that when it comes right down to it, improvisation, while infinitely more challenging both cognitively and expressively, affords the player the opportunity to roll with what they've got technically on any given occasion. This is in stark contrast to notated music where the piece is chosen months ahead of time and then subjected to specific preparation that presupposes a set of technical abilities that is relatively stable from day to day. Without this stability, such preparation is scarcely possible; that is why "consistency" is a word that classical musicians in training hear with some frequency. I have never found the consistency in either realm that would allow me to become a world class player, yet after years of feeling closer to this ideal as a classical player, I now feel completely the opposite.

For many years, my improvising (which for most of that time was pretty much limited to bebop and post-bop idioms) was maddeningly inconsistent. There always seemed to be a cycle; call it biorhythms or a male period or whatever. It didn't seem to have much to do with how much I practiced or how I felt in general. One thing that was nearly fool-proof was to listen to a great band or recording that played in those idioms, but even that did not get me going sometimes. This, happily, is changing for the better: ironically, after intentionally expanding my musical purview and spending less time than ever on bop-specific concerns over the past few years, my "inside" playing has solidified in ways that were once highly elusive.

This is going to sound horribly pretentious, but "inside" jazz playing just doesn't seem that daunting any more. What is almost paralyzingly daunting is the realm of Improvised Music (note capitalization), stylistic versatility, stylistic synthesis, and stylistic subversion. Those are becoming increasingly important pursuits to me, and they seem as challenging as bebop once did. I guess it's time to come to terms with the fact that I spent a whole shitload of time practicing to become a better bebop player, and that if I spend a whole shitload of time on something else, I'll get better at that, too.

I want to be crystal clear that this is not to say that I've lost my fascination with jazz. Very much the opposite is true. When I was 20 years old (ca. 5 years ago), I was shocked at how many musicians that were only a few years older than I was were professing to have become disillusioned, uninterested, and even downright hostile to jazz and it's practitioners. Now I too have seen the need to move on in a sense, but I'm still a bit puzzled by all the hostility and repudiation of past endeavors; is it genuine? Ego-driven? Money-driven? Or what?

Jazz is a gateway drug. For me, and I suspect many others, it has been a bridge from classical music to things like prog rock and Improvised Music. In my case, it had to be a bridge that traveled over and around popular music, which got in the way of me being able to really take in a lot of things at face value. By the same token, there are plenty of people for whom jazz is a bridge from pop to classical as well. As a high school student at jazz camps, I was always able to tell the difference between players who came to jazz from classical music and those who came to it from rock. I've talked a lot about feeling out of place in Minneapolis because I feel like practically the only person in the jazz/improvising circles who does not come out of rock and/or pop. The "classic rock" angle in particular colors a great deal of the jazz-oriented stuff that goes on here, and while I can relate as a listener, I sometimes have trouble relating as a player. In any case, jazz may only be the bridge for me, but this trip really is all about the journey and not the destination.

Given my investment in composition, education, and writing, the discipline (and hence the technique) required by classical solo playing is almost inevitably transient; yet improvised music by its very nature is not only accommodating to this situation, but given that one of its primary challenges is avoiding merely repeating old habits, it almost demands a certain inconsistency ("variation" would be a less stigmatized term) in technical ability and outlook. There are aspects of improvised music that demand consistency in other areas: one might label them creative potency, listening skills, mental focus, etc. The difference for me has been that this latter set of abilities have improved and been nurtured through the non-tuba related musical endeavors which occupy so much of my time. Ironically enough, it seems as if the same things that essentially prevent me from spending more time working on the fundamental technique required by classical music are the very reason that my improvisation has continued to improve in absence of putting in said time.


A friend recently asked me if I was relieved to be done with the recital. I wanted to say what I said in the previous post, which was that if one has to put everything else in one's life on hold simply to pull off a given performance, maybe one has chosen the wrong profession. But to be honest, I was relieved to have it behind me, even though (as should be obvious from the recent activity on this blog) it also causes a certain amount of lingering anxiety that was not there before it happened. Here is yet another aspect of musicianship that can't be addressed in the practice room, but it's still no substitute for playing long tones...first thing...every day.