05 December 2012

[sc]airquotes (i)

"One important aspect of Afrological improvisation is the notion of the importance of personal narrative, of 'telling your own story'...

...An Afrological notion of an improviser's 'sound' may be seen as analogous to the Eurological concept of compositional 'style,' especially in a musically semiotic sense. Moreover, for an improviser working in Afrological forms, 'sound,' sensibility, personality, and intelligence cannot be separated from an improviser's phenomenal (as distinct from formal) definition of music. Notions of personhood are transmitted via sounds, and sounds become signs for deeper levels of meaning beyond pitches and intervals. The saxophonist Yusef Lateef (1985-88, 44) makes it plain: "The sound of the improvisation seems to tell us what kind of person is improvising. We feel that we can hear character or personality in the way the musician improvises...

...Interestingly, Cage's critique of jazz also likens it to personal storytelling. Cage's description of jazz seems to liken the music to a ring shout: 'The form of jazz suggests too frequently that people are talking-that is, in succession-like in a panel discussion .... If I am going to listen to a speech then I would like to hear some words' (quoted in Zwerin 1991, 162). This perceptive comment from a composer who could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be portrayed as possessing any affinity with Afrological musical forms, provides some intersubjective justification for the notion that one of the central aesthetic demands made on Afrological improvisers is that the improviser 'tell a story.'

In any event, Eurological improvisers have tended to look askance on the admission of personal narrative into improvisative activity. I believe that, for postwar Eurological improvisers, the ideas of Cage have, again, had the greatest impact in this regard: 'What I would like to find is an improvisation that is not descriptive of the performer, but is descriptive of what happens, and which is characterized by an absence of intention'(quoted in Kostelanetz 1987, 222).

George E. Lewis
Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives
Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 22, Supplement: Best of BMRJ (2002), pp. 241-242

Professor Lewis is more or less beyond reproach, and nothing he says here is debatable in the sense that it is inaccurate. I for one am struck, rather, by what is not said. The validity/usefulness/expressive power of personal narrative would seem to my Eurologically-inclined sensibilities to be almost completely dependent on the nature and content of the narrative in question, and not simply projectable a priori across an entire culture (less yet to others) without case-by-case evaluation of this content. In other words, apples-and-oranges characterizations fail when one prefers Granny Smiths to Clementines and Navels to Red Delicious. Mustn't we be allowed our own value judgments as to who's story matters to us? And if we simply don our dreadlocks and patchouli oil and decide that everyone's story matters, does anyone's story really matter?

Lewis makes no explicit endorsement of such expansive relativism, but nor does he avail himself of a readymade opportunity submit it to the same kind of fruitful interrogation the Eurological view receives in ensuing paragraphs. It's plain enough even to someone like me that, "The sound of the improvisation seems to tell us what kind of person is improvising," so plain, actually, that I'm not sure what we've really established by stopping there. The deeper questions, I think, are about the nature and importance of this knowledge to the listener and the citizen.

In any case, I continue to maintain that I'm not nearly interesting enough to be the focal point of my own music, or alternatively, that if the most interesting thing about my music is that I made it, I've probably not achieved much. The question of individuality, highly valued in Afrological thought according to Lewis et al, is thus related, but nor is uniqueness broadly construed any more sufficient, in my opinion, than narrativity broadly construed to confer value on any given work without considering what is unique and how the story actually goes.

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