11 July 2009

Reaching Out? Try Looking In.

If you keep up with what I write in this space, you know that I have quite a bit of trepidation about audience outreach, particularly the idea that fostering a better technical understanding of the music will equate to greater enjoyment/fulfillment/appreciation/enlightenment/salvation/whatever we're calling it now. (All of those terms are problematic in some way, so I don't know what else to do other than to make a list. Did I leave anything out?)

To this end, I had a thought-provoking conversation with a bandmate on the way home from rehearsal the other night, centered around the issue of drawing in listeners who don't normally listen to jazz, and/or don't "get it," so to speak. My friend argued as many have, that we can't take for granted the roles that our own training and experience have played in shaping our listening, and that sharing these insights with the audience has the potential to draw them in. One problem I have with this line of thinking is that bringing a true novice up to speed in this way cannot possibly be accomplished in a single evening because the volume of information is simply too great, and hence, the best we can do under the circumstances is usually so incredibly vague and oversimplified that it has no practical value whatsoever (see: Ken Burns Jazz). But even if we could teach a new listener everything we know about music all at once, I'm not convinced that we should. I, for one, enjoy music far less when I "get it," and my musical training and experience has ruined far more music for me than it has drawn me in to.

This isn't something I'm saying just to grandstand or be provocative. I remember vividly how my very first theory classes in high school almost immediately began to drain my enthusiasm for common practice classical music, and how having names for chord qualities and inversions and realizing that I could now identify them by ear became a distraction that I was powerless to ignore. It only got worse when the topic of large-scale form was introduced. At the time, I likened it to a news ticker running through my head from which I was powerless to look away while listening. I complained to my parents (accomplished musicians, both of them), but they seemed to think it was more cute than anything else, and didn't realize what a burden it was becoming.

It took music that I couldn't analyze on the fly to get me engaged again, and in the intervening 10 years or so, that has not yet changed. I often can't tell what in the world composers like Ives, Messiaen, Hindemith, Monk and Shorter are doing harmonically without taking those particular moments out of time and studying them closely and repeatedly, but when I do decide to go this route, it's not because the music has left me cold and I want to figure out what I'm missing. Quite the opposite, actually: it's because even though I can't seem to grasp what's going on under the surface, I'm just too damn curious to go on not knowing because I like what I'm hearing so much. And sad as it makes me to say it, I'm still bored to tears by most common practice era classical music, and it's getting worse by the day, almost to the point of disbelief considering the role it played in getting me to where I am.

Close study of a recording or a score is rewarding in its own way, but it invariably reduces my enjoyment of listening to the piece, and I have often made my very favorite music off limits for analysis. The music I study with a musicologist's eye has to be treasured without being irreplaceable, cleverly constructed without being downright ingenious. Sometimes, the decision is agonizing. One item under such consideration on an ongoing basis is Wayne Shorter's solo from "If I We're A Bell" from Disc 4 of the complete Plugged Nickel. The idea of never getting around to transcribing this solo scares me in a way, but not half as much as the prospect of never again being able to hear it naively.

In short, what has turned me against musico-techinical audience outreach is the realization that what's best for the trained musician part of me is often hazardous to the naive listener part of me. I would insist that the latter never completely dies in those of us with formal training, or at least that we shouldn't let it if we can help it. This is easier said than done, though. As both a listener and also as a composer (though definitely not as a player, for obvious reasons) I'd give anything to reclaim some of the naivete that I brought to my earliest musical experiences. I simply can't imagine why anyone would voluntarily give that up, and moreover, why we as the "professionals," the people who supposedly "know better," would want to take that away from our audience. It seems like the opposite should be true, that we would want as many people as possible to remain naive for fear that the alternative might do irreparable harm.

Obviously, I can't argue with any authority that traditional listener outreach has the same effect on its intended targets as my musical training has had on me, but I think it's a bit more plausible to assume that it hasn't been nearly as effective as its creators would lead us to believe. For starters, this sort of outreach has been around for a long time, and yet if you believe the talk from some of its most ardent proponents, things just continue to get worse in terms of attendance at and overall interest in both jazz and classical music performances. Consider also the attrition rate in undergraduate music schools, where theorists and musicologists are presented with a captive audience of young people with an avowed interest in and ability for music, yet somehow manage to consistently alienate a sizable majority of them to the point of quitting. It's not a perfect analogy, but undergraduate academic musical training certainly emphasizes many of the same concepts as traditional listener outreach, and its success rate is miniscule. I'd argue once again that musicians' relationship to their technical training is generally not as rosy as some would make it out to be, and that this ought to serve as a cautionary tale for anyone conducting an outreach program.

So what is there to be done, if not outreach? Inreach. To get started, we must accept that no form of music yet created has been received favorably by every single person who ever encountered it, and it's crazy to expect that this will ever change. We can't help it if this hurts our wallet, but we can at least decide not to let it hurt our feelings. Truly respecting an audience means giving them the opportunity to engage with the music on their own terms, and to form an opinion based on this. We must not take their opinion personally when it is unfavorable as this creates social pressure to be positive at all times, potentially forcing listeners into dishonesty and suppression of their true feelings. When such social barriers to honesty are mitigated, it's true that many possible converts will walk away without so much as a second thought, but it's also true that those who stick around will stick around for a longer time and in a much more genuine fashion than those who could potentially be herded around only with considerable effort.

To label this a "laissez-faire" philosophy is to miss the point. There's quite a bit we can do to advocate for our music without imposing tenuous assumptions about why we "get it" on people who are very different from us. A more pressing problem which surfaces in those of us with "training" than that it changes how we listen is that it changes how we view those who lack it. This is not merely to say that it leads us to despise them; clearly, that is not always true, but in any case, it nonetheless renders us unable to legitimately put ourselves in their shoes for the sake of argument. In the abstract, the words "ignorance" and "naivete" clearly have different connotations, but when it comes to interpreting sentient reality, it can be difficult or impossible for us to distinguish them from each other. At the risk of overreaching, I would argue that listening is more about being happy than it is about being smart, but even if you disagree, the argument is really less about which is preferable than about whether or not one is the most direct path to the other. I can't help but think about all the music school dropouts again and conclude that it's not.

Whenever we were reading Shakespeare in one of my High School English classes, it would quickly become apparent that, while we were able to follow the plot well enough, the archaic dialect was preventing us from catching any of the more subtle features of the text, especially the jokes. Needless to say, if you have to explain a joke after it has been told, you've already lost your chance to make it funny, but typically, that's exactly what the teacher would end up doing. Also typically, they fell completely flat on a bunch of 15 year-olds who would have rather been outside playing basketball. Such seems to me to be the case with listening also. Just telling the audience that "This is the bridge" and expecting them to start having a good time is like telling them "That joke was funny" and expecting them to laugh.

Many would (and have) argued that letting listeners keep their naivete merely equates to losing all hope of them ever listening to us. I would counter that the role of missionary is no less hubristic in music than it is in religion. I've always detected just a hint of doublethink in the word "outreach," since such efforts toward new listener retention seem to do more grasping than reaching. Perhaps by looking within, we can find confidence without hubris, and along with it, the ability to accept the consequences of letting our music speak for itself, whatever they might be.

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