28 November 2009


I went to a concert last night and it was really good. The thing is, I almost didn't go. I had no obligations of any kind yesterday, a rare occurrence these days, and one that inevitably leads me to hunker down and get to work on playing and writing things that I actually want to play and write. I'm not always in the mood for that kind of work, nor do I often have a whole lot of time for it, so when those two things align, I can be difficult to roust.

Over the years when these conditions have presented themselves, I've chosen overwhelmingly to stay home and keep working, and this, among other factors, has made me into quite the infrequent concertgoer, so much so apparently that I seem to have acquired exactly that reputation with a few of my colleagues. Things were not always like this. I was an avid and frequent attendee of live music late in high school and into college. I had really just discovered my penchant for music (making it as well as listening to it) for the first time, and the excitement of this stage of my life is something that, sadly, I'll never experience again. After a while, though, that thrill wore off, and I realize now that the biggest mistake I made was not taking it upon myself to go looking for new things to hear. Instead, I simply got bored and mostly stopped going.

That's the short version, but there were (and are) myriad other factors at work. First of all, for many years, I made the mistake of chasing high-profile, big-name, hot-ticket jazz events by so-and-so's latest supergroup. Frankly, most of those concerts absolutely stunk, and I wish I had back the time and money I wasted on them. It has since become obvious to me that I needed to do the work or ferreting out what was worth hearing for myself rather than merely swallowing the promotion, but at the time, I merely got disillusioned with everything and became less and less apt to leave the house. I've since come to say (sarcastically, but only a little bit) that I won't listen to anything by someone I've heard of. It also seems to me that this advice is also increasingly apt in the realm of art.

Secondly, though this took a while to happen, I became profoundly disillusioned with acoustics. For a while, it seemed like every show I went to was an acoustical nightmare. This was partially a result of hearing so many of the afore mentioned nationally touring jazz acts in concert halls rather than clubs, but also of some particularly horrendous club acoustics, as well as the occasional poor decision by a performer. I've come to loathe my own shortcomings in understanding the basic physical principles of sound, as well as the fact that music education, whether at the elementary or the graduate level or anywhere in between, rarely so much as scratches the surface of this topic. I'm coming to believe that this is our greatest shortcoming as musicians, an utter ignorance of how our work is governed by the laws of physics. Even if that's going too far, though, it's safe to say that in absence of better rooms to play in, we really ought to do a better job of managing the ones we have.

Third, I did not turn 21 until I had started my 4th year of college, so up until that time, I wasn't even allowed into some of the places where the real shit was going down. I've never entirely shed my resentment of that fact, and I have always looked forward to a day when I might wield enough credibility to impose an all ages policy on any venue I play at. That may never happen, but even so, it's an issue all of us ought to be more cognizant of, along with the artificially late start times that have become a badge of hipness many circles despite the fact that the musical cultures which spawned them are largely dead.

Fourth, I'll just come right out and say that I went to a music school that treats its students like kindergarteners. Required concert attendance was used as a bludgeon against a student body comprised largely of people who didn't belong there, the vast majority of whom never finished their music degrees. The environment was downright toxic on occasion, and so the naive, self-directed concertgoer I was in high school quickly became a cynical, perfunctory one in college. It's worth noting that performing in these required concerts for an audience comprised exclusively of cynical, perfunctory listeners was even more unpleasant.

Fifth, I've had a couple of different non-musical day jobs after college, and both tended to present me with the same galling choice: practice or go to a concert. Many many days, I simply could not do both, and as my freelance career picked up and my obligations therein became more significant, it became less frequent that choosing the concert was even a tenable option. I've joked before that playing the tuba has ruined my life, and this just is one of those situations that spawned that joke. I was never happy about it, I just didn't really have a choice.

I've shed the day job thing for the moment, and so I've been making more of an effort to get out and hear things. This brings me back, though, to the simple and more important fact that while the things I listed above all played a role, I've always been a full-fledged homebody and a little bit of a workaholic to boot. As such, it only took the slightest bit of cynicism creeping in to almost completely negate my interest in going to hear music in person, and even now that I've emerged from that stage of my life, I still have trouble kicking myself out the door most of the time. When I can buy tickets in advance of the show, that does the trick. The disincentive to waste money is always powerful. Most of the shows I want to hear are not organized that way, however. It's why I've become a marginally more loyal SPCO attendee, for even at the discounted prices I hold out for each year, I still can't justify merely skipping the concert, nor, truthfully, do I really want to anyway. I'm just a little but obsessive about getting things done, and I still enjoy making music enough that sometimes listening falls by the wayside when there is a conflict. I am so very glad I went last night, though. I had it on the calendar for a few weeks to remind myself, but knowing it would be the day after Thanksgiving and I had nothing to do but hole up in my room with my tuba, computer, and iPod, I sensed danger almost as soon as I heard about the gig. It was one of those days where my innate predispositions have so often trumped my acquired interests. I should say also that it's not any easier to get out the door when what stands between you and the concert is a 30 minute bike ride in 30 degree weather. I didn't even have a car until I was 22, and biking to concerts had long since become force of habit, even for most of the winter, so it's amazing to me how soft I've gotten by virtue of having a car for the last several years. Perhaps only a native Minnesotan could think so, but the weather last night was absolutely beautiful, crystal clear and not a breath of wind, at least on the way up there. Coming back, there was indeed just a breath, but it was right in my face and things had cooled off noticeably by that time, so that was less enjoyable. Nevertheless, I got some much needed exercise, reduced my carbon footprint, and saved some cash on gas. I remember when that was the norm, and it scares me how much I sometimes dread cold weather riding these days when I used to just man up and brave it. So, in short, I went primarily to hear good music, and secondarily to get some exercise, and I got exactly what I wanted in both cases. I'm starting to succeed as a concertgoer again, and that's a really good feeling after years of severely premature cynicism. Let me tell you some things that I didn't take into consideration, though. First of all, though these were local artists, I did not go to hear them simply because they were local. I've had enough of the "Buy Local" line being applied to art as if it were food, and though I myself made an analogy above between art and food politics, I think it stops here rather decisively. Art is not to be judged by a standard so unrelated to the aesthetic experience. To do so, one has to believe that art's functional utility reigns supreme over its aesthetic properties, or put more bluntly, that beauty doesn't matter. To support artists for non-aesthetic reasons is merely to enable the perpetuation of mediocrity by rewarding social rather than technical virtuosity. We'd do better by both art and ourselves to simply follow our noses instead.

There are local artists I can't get enough of, and many others where once was enough, but the fact that they live and work in the same general area of the planet as I do is meaningless to me. Each such local scene has its ins and outs, strengths and weaknesses, surpluses and deficits, and it would be ludicrous to expect each and every citizen of such a place to assimilate these precise tastes out of deference to art and artists chosen for them by mere happenstance. Whether or not I can hear Lutoslawski's "Mi-Parti" played by a local orchestra any night of the week has no bearing on my opinion of the piece. To parrot the "Buy Local" line as if the very perpetuation of art depends on it is to endorse an unsustainable, "growth for its own sake" philosophy whereby the total quantity of art is more important than its perceived quality, and to impose an uncomfortable dishonesty on anyone who might be tempted to think for themselves.

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