25 September 2009

More Inreach

Since the "Death of Music" discussion invariably intersects with the audience outreach and development discussion, here's a follow-up on the latter, which was actually in the works well before the former got me all riled up. Sometimes things just work out...


It seems to me that form is generally thought to be the musico-technical area where the novice and the specialist differ most greatly, perhaps even on as basic a level as merely being aware of the concept of a structural "big picture" in the first place. As such, it has become the go-to topic for many an outreach activity. This is not to say that the words "form" or "structure" are necessarily used all that frequently in such cases; they may not be used at all, but nevertheless, the idea that the ability to identify structural landmarks is what separates people who "get it" from people who don't seems to hold sway with quite a few musical missionaries.

There are larger issues here which I've chosen to gloss over for now, such as how long it takes for such musico-technical training to meaningfully sink in, and whether or not it is, in fact, the key ingredient to engaging and retaining new listeners in the first place. In the interest of space, I would again refer readers to my previous post on the topic, where these issues are discussed a bit more thoroughly. For the moment, let's just assume that the answers to those last two questions are both affirmative; why, then, choose to focus on form, and what are the consequences of this choice?

I posited above that form represents the most severe disconnect between professional musicians and new listeners. Many academics would tell us that "moment-to-moment" listening is shallow and limited, representing the ultimate inability to see the forest for the trees. The integration, development, and transformation of themes that classical theorists and musicologists tend latch on to often occurs across many minutes or even hours of music. In their defense, it bears pointing out that hour-long instrumental pieces have ceased to be novel in classical music ever since Beethoven, who died almost two centuries ago. Even so, such large-scale structural awareness remains a foreign concept to listeners with a history of nearly exclusive exposure to shorter musical forms. These shorter forms most certainly deal in variation and repetition as well, but the overall temporal units are significantly smaller and material is typically repeated much more literally.

As for explaining why certain people gravitate towards certain music, the nature-versus-nurture discussion is endlessly intriguing, but I don't think it lends itself particularly well to reverse engineering for the purpose of proselytizing for new audiences. I sense that it's neither practical nor desirable to attempt to gain control over listeners with the goal of achieving a specific outcome, and that there will always be numerous exceptions to any rule one might be tempted to establish. I do think it's safe to say that even listeners who bear an innate predisposition for structural contemplation will never experience it if they never have the opportunity, and hence that if nothing else, there's certainly good work to be done in the realm of take-it-or-leave-it exposure. I also think it's crucial to establish that structural awareness is not anathema to moment-to-moment listening, but in fact encompasses it; that they are not different things, but that one is a necessary precondition to the other; and that those who believe in the primacy of "the big picture" ought not forget this.

Moment-to-moment listening may be limited; it may gloss over the greatest accomplishments of many great musicians; and its predominance over structural listening among novice classical and jazz listeners may in fact be a direct consequence of an overly pervasive pop music aesthetic; but its primacy to the listening experience is undeniable and its influence is inescapable, whether in professional musicologists, rank amateur musicians, or the most musically naive among us. If the moment-to-moment sounds of a piece turn us off, then the whole piece turns us off. It's that simple. In absence of an attraction to what is commonly called music's "surface," mere "appreciation" (what an awful term) of the structure and development of a piece is not merely worthless, but I would think downright impossible.

While new music detractors love to accuse their enemies of exactly this pose, I've always had my doubts as to whether this is actually the case, there or anywhere else. I don't believe that atonal music is incapable of having an attractive surface simply by virtue of being atonal, and I certainly don't believe that anyone who claims such an attraction to atonal music is necessarily posing. But most importantly, I also don't believe that we can expect those for whom the surface of any particular piece is not attractive to simply ignore it and focus exclusively on structural elements instead. That's asking way too much.

You can dance around the surface all you want, but you can't make people ignore it. No one can ignore it, and they shouldn't ignore it anyway for crying out loud. That's just silly. One comes to care about (or even bother to think about) form only after the surface has drawn them in, but this process is one which can't be meddled with, forcibly drilled in, or lectured into behaving properly. Some may find it more plausible that structural listening could be taught, and that is undoubtedly how form has become the centerpiece of so many outreach activities, but even so, that's putting the cart before the horse. It's a sham, and neither an honest nor an effective way of addressing a shortage of butts in seats.


While I've been using atonality as an example to this point, what got me writing this post in the first place was actually not atonal music at all, but rather jazz music. While classical musicologists certainly love them some large-scale tonality, I think that jazz musicians are even more prone to agonize over form when it comes to outreach than are classical people. The forms that jazz was built on are popular music forms, and hence, it is that much more agonizing for a jazz musician to be told by a pop-literate audience member after a performance that they have no idea what the hell just happened. That this happens all the time should tell us something about the respective roles of structural and surface listening. It should also leave us looking in, not out, for a solution.

There is, indeed, some common ground to work with here if our goal is merely to explain what, in fact, did just happen structurally and how it's not all that different from what happens elsewhere. Here as always, though, the problem with dealing so heavily in larger temporal units is that one sells short moment-to-moment sound and continuity. Form may ultimately prove to be important or even essential in creating a lasting relationship with the music, but there are so many other things that can turn off a listener long before they even have a chance to become meaningfully aware of it. I'm not nitpicking about audiophile subtleties, either; I'm talking about things as basic as instruments being too loud or too soft, or people who dislike the sound of a particular timbre or harmony.

Like it or not, these moment-to-moment concerns are make-or-break concerns, but I don't believe for a second that the solution is for listeners to ignore them in favor of ungrounded structural contemplation, nor is it for musicians to merely pander to the lowest common denominator. To the contrary, I believe that mere exposure is more powerful than proselytizing, and that our goal as musicians should not be to convince as many people as possible to tolerate us, but to reach the particular people (however few of them there are) for whom our music is enough by itself, without marketing, proselytizing or peer pressure. I also have come to believe through experience that sharing a performance with these listeners is eminently more fulfilling and enjoyable than the alternative, no matter how few of them there are.

As musicians, it is as important to respect the informed judgments of listeners who reject our work as it is to seek out those to whom it appeals. As such, I believe that the way to reach new listeners is not to subsume one's voice in the most marketable styles, but to invest the necessary time and effort to consummate this voice on its own terms. In short, what I'm saying is that rather than doing music different, we ought to do music better, reaching in, not out, for a solution. Big of me to issue such a challenge, since I could certainly work harder and play better myself, but I want to hone in on one particular facet of jazz performance that we could all stand to do better at, though, unfortunately, it's too often out of our control.

Generalizations are always dangerous, but I've come to believe (long before writing this) that "clarity" is an excellent catch-all term for what distinguishes great jazz performances from the rest of them. Furthermore, I would hypothesize that performances which fail to attain a high degree of so-called "clarity" don't stand a chance in hell of engaging the uninitiated listener (nor an experienced one for that matter). I would propose that instead of wasting our time reaching out by lecturing people about bridges and turnarounds, perhaps we should reach in and make it our single-minded goal to achieve an ideal level of "clarity" in our jazz performances.

What do I mean by clarity? Many things, but first and foremost, it's an acoustical matter. There are exceedingly few rooms that truly suit jazz's acoustic identity, and even fewer competent engineers capable of achieving truly balanced and clear live sound in them. Of course, balance and clarity are primary technical concerns of any musician or ensemble worth their salt, but these battles are hard won and the deck can too easily be stacked against us. Just ask symphony orchestras, who not only spend countless hours fine tuning balance issues, but typically have spent eight- or nine-figure sums of money designing and constructing their own performance spaces with the input of multiple eminent world experts on acoustics. Not surprising when one considers that issues of "clarity" or "transparency" can make or break the careers and reputations of their music directors; suffice it to say that if the same were true in jazz, there would be a lot of broken careers out there.

In jazz, the string players don't come in 10-packs (thank god), the percussion are not in the very back of a large hall, and the very directional winds and brass are not always able or willing to point in the right direction, yet the traditional small jazz group has at least one member of each of these instrumental families represented, and along with them, a built-in acoustical nightmare. The rare ensemble which has taken the time and trouble to achieve a clear acoustic balance in their rehearsal space will likely find the venues at which they perform to be both drastically different acoustically, and, in the form of their proprietors, drastically less willing to accommodate an acoustic performance in the first place, hence taking matters of balance and clarity out of the hands of trained and experienced musicians and putting them in the hands of whichever bartender happens to be doing sound that night. Eight- or nine-figure sums of money would indeed solve the problem, but that's a pipe dream for all but a select few jazz organizations, and even those for whom it is a reality seem strangely content to continue performing in concert halls that were designed specifically for symphony orchestras.

While acoustical clarity is paramount in any musical performance, the element of my broad concept of "clarity" that more directly relates to the above discussion about audience outreach in jazz is that of structural clarity, and specifically, I believe, harmonic clarity. I'm not unaware of the pitfalls of putting such a concept on a pedestal: there are styles of jazz I enjoy immensely where it simply isn't a concern, as well as plenty of performances which strive to attain it, fail miserably, yet somehow are effective in some other way. I'm not trashing people who can't or won't play changes by way of a conscious artistic choice, I'm just trying to relate the concept of clarity to the audience outreach activities I'm aware of in the jazz area, which typically deal with the common practice "mainstream" bebop and post-bop styles of the 1940's, 50's and 60's. Within that very narrow stylistic area, I have no reservations whatsoever about saying that harmonic clarity is what separates the men from the boys.

So, giving the benefit of the doubt for just a second to those who advocate for form-centric audience outreach, let's establish that harmonic clarity is an absolute precondition for a jazz listening experience that is more structural and less moment-to-moment. This is not to say that the changes need be played the same way every time, just that the structure of the tune is clear at all times. Performances by eminent jazz musicians who purposely obliterate the original changes usually achieve far greater clarity than those by novice musicians who are just trying to "get through" the tune by playing it the same way every time. In the right hands, the three A sections of an improvisation over an AABA structure each have their own character, and I have several times walked into a performance in progress and known immediately not only which tune was being played but which A section I was hearing. That says something about me, too, a fact which advocates of musico-technical outreach would be quick to point out; but it also says something about the band, for as I'm sure may of you reading this can relate to, I have also gotten hopelessly lost in the form on many occasions, both listening and playing, while in the company of incompetent players performing material I know upside down and backwards.

Performing jazz is not about merely "following" the abstract structure, but rather about listening and reacting to those around you. That's why on the rare occasion that an eminent jazz musician drops an A section, the band stays together and sounds good doing it, and why when a student musician drops an A section, the other students in the band get lost immediately and everything falls apart. I am by no means convinced that our goal in reaching out to new listeners ought to be to teach them to experience the performance like a player, but if it is, then let's establish that merely drilling them on how to keep track of A's and B's doesn't qualify as such a thing in the first place.

Two musicians came to mind immediately when I started thinking about the clarity issue, and they are both pianists: Fred Hersch and Kenny Barron. If I were leading a new listener recruitment effort, these two would be my go-to guys when it came time to play records for the group. In my mind, their playing is as close to the ideal embodiment of "clarity" in bebop and post-bop jazz as I've ever heard, not just harmonically, but also technically and structurally. Their playing, compositions and arrangements are not only accessible but downright catchy on a moment-to-moment level as well. As for other instruments, my horn section dream team would be Terrell Stafford, Vincent Herring and Conrad Herwig. Dave Holland and Tain Watts would fill out the rhythm section.

Of course, you're not going to get this band together tomorrow and start running out to high school auditoriums in rural Minnesota, and even if you could, we all know that with musical ensembles, the whole is not always equal to the sum of its parts. I made the list for two reasons: first, to try to give the reader an idea of what exactly I meant by "clarity," and second, to make the point that when it comes to audience development, it's not worth bothering unless we put our best foot forward. We all know that outreach is inextricably linked with grant funding, and that many grants either require it as a precondition to the project, or offer additional funding above and beyond the initial award if the recipient adds it to their plan. What this means, though, is that most of the time, it's not the Clarity Dream Team providing the music, but rather some other team of grant funded musicians whose success in securing funding may or may not correspond to their musical abilities.

I'm not trashing anyone who's ever had a grant. There are a gazillion musicians out there who fall somewhere in between competent and brilliant, and that's sufficient for most purposes most of the time. Nonetheless, if the band, the room, and the soundperson alike can't deliver the musical goods to the newbies, it's a waste of time from an outreach perspective, and we'd be better served to go practice until this is no longer the case. That many musicians rely on this funding is unfortunate, a fact which lays bare my greatest reservation about the concept of outreach: the uncomfortable balance of selfless and selfish motivations that it requires. Human beings are generally too inherently selfish to strike this pose effectively, and hence, I feel that directing our efforts in rather than out is both the most productive and honest approach when it comes time to present our music to someone for the first time.

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