25 January 2009

Tribute to an Inheritance

This book review from The Nation touches, in a roundabout way, on a very important subject for musicians and artists of all stripes. Of authors Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly, reviewer Mark Engler says,

Their foremost ethical question is, given that we owe most of our productivity to a common social inheritance, to what extent can we say that we have "earned" our personal wealth?

Whether you tack the word "social," "cultural," or "artistic" in front of it, this idea of inheritance is one that all musicians grapple with to some extent. Just as political conservatives extoll the "self-made man" as if he exists in a vacuum apart from the accumulated wisdom of his society, so are musicians too often fed the "Great Man" theory of history, by which we are indebted to only a select few towering giants of music, when really, the roster of contributors to whatever tradition we work in (or against) is almost endless. This not only predisposes us to overlook plenty of music we might end up very interested in were we to ever encounter it, but also conditions us to aspire to join the club ourselves someday, this being the ultimate measure of success or failure in our careers. Both of these conditions are unfortunate, the former because it narrows our horizons, and the latter because it begets envy and petty bickering among contemporaries, both over their own status and that of forebears for whom they may feel compelled to advocate, for whatever reason.

One would hope that musicians could collectively do better than the ego-driven hero worship, self-aggrandizement and name-dropping that dominates today's scene, which, the flawed logic of it aside, does more harm than good when it comes to the social side of making music. Cage's writing on this subject presents a more refreshing alternative, as does Feldman's recollection here of a saner ethic prevailing in 1950's New York. ("What a terrific show. Am I glad he did it. Now I don't have to." Can you imagine hearing that after an exhibition or a concert?) Whether it is realistic to expect such an attitude to take hold among large swaths of artists and audiences I'm not so sure of, but it is a worthy goal nonetheless.

While ego-driven personal ambition is an unavoidable part of life, I wouldn't go so far as to say that it cannot possibly be turned into a constructive force. I suspect that one can be both ambitious and successful without falling victim to more unseemly bouts of overt narcissism. Here's somewhere to start: when paying tribute to a musician that is perceived as an innovator, is it not more appropriate to do one's own thing rather than simply aping one's hero? To continue the economics analogies, literal imitation as tribute is more like the "casino economy" of stock brokers, hedge fund managers, and securities traders: just as these paper pushers don't actually produce anything material, literal imitation as tribute contributes nothing new to the fabric of musical life. Only with a healthy dose of oneself in the mix does one produce musical goods that may become a meaningful part of the next generation's cultural inheritance, hence giving back as much as one can (in fact, giving the only thing one really has to give, that being one's individuality, however subtle or extreme it might be). Conversely, merely reiterating that which you yourself have inherited is a regressive act in that it takes more and gives less (and is never as good as the real thing anyway). It is in this way that the most overt tributes too often become the most overt affronts (think Kenny G and Louis Armstrong).

One need not bother building monuments to musical heroes, for to imitate them is merely to be oneself. And let's face it, when it comes to the Tributes to So-and-So that pop up with such regularity these days, it is often all too obvious that our heroes are merely being used for name dropping in hopes of somehow capturing the attention of a fatigued and increasingly frugal audience who couldn't possibly know or care who we are, but might have heard of someone we listen to. In the end, that's not really much of a tribute.

The emphasis on individuality and aversion to stylism is, of course, just as prone to running afoul of the inheritance question, since each of our originalities is really just a conglomeration of our influences. It is this very realization, however, that can inform a more humble approach to one's own place in the grand scheme of things. How much credit does any one person really deserve for their music, after all? Beyond simply expanding the Heroes list from composers, performers and teachers to include inventors, scientists, music theorists, publishers et al, what if we go so far as to consider the effects of parenting, heredity and environment on a budding musician? A concept such as work ethic, which is part and parcel of the conservative notion of "individual responsibility," could then be seen as something for which one was no more responsible than their hair color.

Importantly, by problematizing individual responsibility, one problematizes individual accolades as well. This angle can quickly become an exercise in nihilism, and suddenly, nothing matters at all and no one deserves any credit for anything. There's no reason to take things quite that far, but at the very least, an acceptance of oneself as the product of one's cultural* inheritance rather than an exceptional amount of some sort of innate or acquired merit is a big step in the direction of toning down the petty bickering and egomaniacal crusades over status that are tremendous burdens on both the music world and life in general.

*I cringe at invoking the concept of "culture" at all, since it seems mostly to be used as a bludgeon against anyone who prefers their music free from literary associations and functional obligations, as I do. Even with these particular distractions out of the way, though, there doesn't seem to be any better term to describe the melting pot of ideas that contribute to a musical tradition, however absolute.


Nick Zielinski said...

Case in point. There's actually a band operating in the Twin Cities called "Monk in Motian." It's pretty absurd that there is a tribute band of a tribute band. I think you really hit it on the head when you said that evoking the names of these "giants of the past" is an attempt to get an uninterested audience to pay attention to something. It's sad that a band consisting of Paul Motian, Joe Lovano, and Bill Frisell has to do such a thing... it's comical that its already started to feedback on itself with the Monk in Motian tribute band. Pretty soon the tribute bands will have their own tribute bands. And those bands will have tribute bands. In the end there will only be one band...it will be a tribute to grand tribute bands of the past.

You're right that the best tribute is to strive for originality and creativity ( I think Braxton calls it Restructuralism or the post-Charlie Parker Continuum (or some bullshit)). It is difficult for many of our colleagues to realize this, however, in a culture where your bank account is the chief barometer of success. And if we delve deeper, there's a feeling amongst musicians that if we can't make a lot of money (which for most of us is true), at least we can play a lot of gigs and then we can feel successful because our calendar is full. We equate quantity with success. If we have a shit load of something (whether it be money or gigs) we can feel alright about ourselves. Never mind that the gigs we are playing are mind-numbing bullshit for a paycheck that's more of an insult than anything else. And by agreeing to play such gigs we're actually the ones responsible for dumbing down the potential audiences for creative new (notice "new" is not capitalized) music of the future.

That being said, I still want to have an Eric Dolphy memorial barbecue...


Stefan Kac said...

Well said, NZ. It's hard to think of a jazz great who has NOT been paid "tribute" by a Twin Cities group in the recent past.

Make sure you've got Boca Burgers on hand for the BBQ. I'm not showing up just to sit in the corner and eat carrot sticks.

Stefan Kac said...

Another great line from this article:

"As Alperovitz and Daly write, the pattern of simultaneous invention 'is so obvious to modern scholars that it is no longer considered controversial.'"