18 January 2010

A Nickel For Your Thoughts

Whenever I return to the Complete Plugged Nickel recordings of Miles Davis' 1960s quintet, I find myself compelled to share something I've realized or thought of. Tonight, it relates to the questions of structural listening and audience outreach, which have become a recurring theme on this blog lately.

As a group which had the uncanny ability to essentially improvise form, this great quintet provides a unique case study in structural listening. Most highly trained professionals would be hard-pressed to follow every last structural twist and turn the first time they heard many of these cuts, and some would be lucky to catch even a few. These are performances which, to some extent or another, level the playing field between trained and untrained ears. Hence, given their exalted place in the pantheon, it is reasonable to assume that a large part of their attractiveness lies elsewhere, namely in what might be called "surface" elements. Because the music is successful on the moment-to-moment level, one need not be able to follow the form in order to reap great pleasure from the experience.

Music that is not successful on the surface is not successful period, and one cannot make an end run around this fact merely by substituting "understanding" for "enjoying." Modern music cannot simply be explained away by positing that it must appeal to something other than the senses, for in the realm of music, that is a contradiction in terms. Technical proficiency is meaningless in absence of emotional resonance, nor does one equate to the other (just ask any musician who's held a "day job" simply to get by). This is why outreach can profitably deal in exposure but not in persuasion, and why its potential impact is neither infinite nor scalable.

Given that this issue has become so badly distorted largely due to a preponderance of pop culture colloquialisms in our contemporary musical dialogue, it's fitting that I might resort to one myself in order to illustrate my point, and that would be the idea of the "mind-blowing" listening experience. No other phrase could so capably encapsulate the value of listening without understanding! Yet there's an all-too-convenient double standard available to anyone who can't be bothered to explain themselves in anything but the vaguest of terms: when the music is good, it's "mind-blowing," when it's bad, it's "incomprehensible." If failing to understand can be either good or bad depending on the circumstances, something is mighty fishy here. There's obviously more to it than that, more than a pre-concert lecture or interactive workshop can account for.

As I've said here before, structural listening is a crap shoot in my case. It just as often detracts from the experience as enhances it. There is much music which has grown on me over time, and this has surely been attributable to structural listening in many cases, but in the case of the Plugged Nickel, I find the opposite to be true. Many of the cuts are most fascinating to me when heard on the moment-to-moment, surface level, and become, understandably, a bit harrowing once I start to mentally outline the form of the performance and compare it to the original form of the tune. This is not to say that the surface becomes less appealing, only that I am quite literally distracted from this attractive surface by my now firmly entrenched performer instincts to "hold the form" at all times. It serves as a perfect example of why I'm apprehensive about audience outreach activities aimed at simulating technical proficiency in novice listeners: technical proficiency has ruined more music for me than it has revealed, and I can't see the value of perpetrating that crime on anyone else.

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