31 December 2012

That's All Folks; Blog Month 2012 is OUVVAAH

Happy New Year, enjoy the Month below, don't worry about seeking an explanation, yada yada yada. Look for some exciting changes to Blog Month coming later in 2013. Or, alternatively, don't assume there will be changes but stay excited given the mere possibility. Or, further alternatively, go metablog about how annoying it is when people post more than a paragraph at a time on their blog which no one is making you read. If you ever change your mind, I'll be right here spewing vitriol in fits and starts.

[sc]airquotes (iv)

"Acquiring a familiarity with a particular style of improvisation frequently involves performing the same piece, or limited group of pieces, over and over. This allows the musician time to become intimately familiar with one particular stylistic "groove", to experiment with different possibilities within the parameters of its aesthetic, and in so doing to "push back" the limitations of a proscribed form of spontaneous creativity to an acceptable distance. The fact that North Indian musicians tend to study and perform in a relatively small number of ragas -perhaps fifteen - during the course of a lifetime illustrates this tendency. Dexter Gordon's repertory, as another example, contained a surprisingly finite number of songs which he constantly reshaped and altered over the course of his performance career.

Robin Moore. The Decline of Improvisation in Western Art Music: An Interpretation of Change. International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Jun., 1992), p. 65.

Not much to add here really; just been meaning to get this up in scholarly support of some things I've written recently. I'm struck by how our contemporary musical culture is so at odds with this well-known dynamic, mostly, I would posit, as a result of our capitalistic society, where "eclectic" is often little more than code for "employable." Of course, by this standard, I've undoubtedly overcommitted myself as well; I'm intrigued, though, at the possibility that my diverse musical interests might have deeper commonalities from which issues of style merely distract attention, something that seems more and more apparent even as I continue to collect metiers against my better judgment.

Toward a New Isolation (v)

The blessing and the curse alike of improvisation is that what goes in tends to be what comes out. I would define improvisational technique as the degree to which one is able to control "what comes out," not only through real-time decision making but also through the suspended-time working out of ideas and weighting of exposure (i.e. "what goes in"). The relationship between the preparation and the performance is muddier than with physical playing technique, and there's no "reinforcement" of good habits to which one slowly acclimates and eventually ceases to be conscious of; the only "good" habit is the one you can turn on and off at will. Even so, there absolutely are purely conceptual ways that improvisors can purposefully enable certain possibilities and disable others based on their aesthetic, and I would argue for understanding this process as a technique of sorts, albeit one dealing more with probabilities than assurances.

This is the main reason I haven't earnestly practiced scales or scale patterns since high school: I think they sound terrible as part of an actual performance. That almost no one seems to disagree with this value judgement and yet almost everyone overuses these patterns in precisely the way we all seem to agree they are the least useful leaves me to conclude that we simply are not in sufficient control of ourselves these days to meet our own standards. There are literally endless licks, etudes, vocalises, excerpts, saxophone solos, Bach movements, guitar riffs, and on and on that are available to us should we need to address the purely technical challenges posed by scales, and so there's simply no excuse for spending so much time with something you loathe that you're literally helpless to prevent yourself from playing it in the middle of an improvisation (in other words, precisely the way a sizable majority of our contemporary musical polity seems, by their own definition, to be).

I think it is crucial to understand the process of choosing and weighting these influences as a matter of technique in the sense that one's degree of control can be quantified, if not only in one's own mind: the same way I might choose how long to spend on long tones or lip slurs each day based on a dynamic understanding of my current conditioning needs, I might choose to invest heavily in blues-based material or avoid Charlie Parker licks if I feel that my frame of mind and upcoming obligations demand one or the other. In other words, intent becomes a yardstick against which outcomes are measured. The difference, then, in aesthetic between this kind of improvised music and pre-composed music is slight, and the reason for choosing improvisation over composition becomes less about "freedom" per se than it does about achieving (more like enforcing) a certain frame of creative mind driven by the urgency of real time, ostensibly because one deems the potential results to be (a) somehow perceptibly different from the alternative, and (b) worth the trouble.

Of course, the less specific the intent, the cloudier the issues of improvisational technique become. I've certainly enjoyed listening to much improvised music which I have to assume springs from a less overwrought conception of improvisation, and will even give myself over to working this way for the sake of a colleague's project; it is not, however, my default setting. The improvised music world is rightfully infamous for its practicioners' specious disavowals of having been governed by anything in particular, including their own tastes (so much for "just playing for themselves," huh?), often a not-so-innocent maneuver aimed at escaping responsibility for poorly prepared and executed performances by claiming that criticism to this effect somehow misinterprets their music. Such is the birthright, I suppose, of the "non-idiomatic" schools to which I, admittedly, aspire to belong most of the time; hopefully it is more agreeable, though, that in stylistic improvisation, more specific intent can be assumed a priori, and thus, that technical questions in the sense I am arguing we must understand the term (i.e. questions of "how") become paramount.

••••••••

Despite being disproportionately fluent in classical playing when I first got serious about improvising, no classical music, ensemble or teacher I'd ever encountered had so much as uttered the word "improvise," and so it was that a wall was constructed between my two musical worlds. I've yet to succeed in tearing this wall down completely and I'm not sure I ever will. One thing this ensured, though, is that I never fell into the trap of trying to be classically perfect in my jazz solos. That seems to me to be among the most important lessons for the legions of classical folk (all of them, apparently) who "really like jazz stuff too" and are also "totally down for getting together sometime" to go over some things (usually just once). Most classical players play scared when they first try to improvise, terrified as they are of making what an orchestral audition committee would identify as a mistake, even while it's quite likely that whatever jazz they're basing their feigned interest on was executed with a substantially higher degree of abandon.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that someone with my background and predilections really should be able to improvise in the style of Bach. When I tried it and found that I couldn't come close, I had to ask myself some tough questions, for there was clearly more preventing me from doing this than an inadequate internalization of the style. My bebop playing has never been squeaky clean, and as I say, that's not entirely by accident, but if I had perfected a cleaner approach, I certainly would be ahead of the game when it comes to improvising in traditional classical styles. As it stands, my musical mind still hasn't completely developed the ability to isolate "improvisation" from "jazz," and turning around and coupling "improvisation" with "classical tone production, articulation and intonation" has proven more challenging yet.

I actually had already encountered a related problem within jazz when I finally got serious about functioning as a bass instrument: besides the paramount challenge of finding the groove in a rhythm section, I had to face the reality that the lapses of focus I'd always gotten away with as a horn player simply won't fly if I want to be taken seriously as a viable bass instrument. This means knowing what to play next and being able to play it, always, not sometimes, and carrying on this way with little rest for up to an hour at a time. People always ask me about my chops and I tell them not to worry since I'm playing in and below the staff so much of the time; breathing is, of course, also a challenge, but there are many more constructive ways to let this direct one's personal style than I first would have thought; rather, I am more than anything mentally fried after a set of bass playing because it is so unforgiving of mental lapses. The same goes for improvising in the style of Bach: it's hard enough to play Bach cleanly as written, and so making it up as you go along demands a kind of focus and conditioning that has always been elusive to me. That's a big reason by itself why I've endeavored such an absurd thing at all, but the more I thought about it historically and aesthetically, the less absurd it seemed after all, and it has become, along with the kind of non-idiomatic solo improvisation I've discussed previously in this series, a focal point of my desire to develop an identity as a solo performer.

I see glorious opportunities for a merger of aesthetics and some creative anachronism in treating Bach movements as structures for improvisation the way jazz players treat songforms. Understand, though, that I am most decidedly not talking about playing Bach compositions in a jazz style, but rather subjecting them to the procedure jazz players use with standard material. This concept has several interesting aspects:

(1) Embellishment can go far beyond traditional Baroque ornamentation to include wholesale melodic invention over a particular harmonic structure with a particular meter and time feel. In fact, I've found it particularly fruitful to isolate particular phrases and come up with as many traditional embellishments as possible before attempting a whole-cloth improvisation; this provides a starter vocabulary for navigating this phrase, and also burns it into one's mind in just the way that is necessary to really "own" it once the training wheels come off.

While I started out "journaling" these ornaments as a way to make sure I remember them, I soon realized that this was of little value. I had a similar anxiety about jazz styles years ago, but it turned out that no matter how long I took away from jazz, it all came back remarkably quickly, I assume on account of some short but intense periods of immersion in my formative years. Those years are gone, of course, and my brain is undoubtedly substantially less plastic at age 30 than it was at 20, but Bach has been in my ear almost since birth thanks to my father, and so my aspiration here is to merely connect the skills I already have developed through jazz improvisation, classical training, and lots of time spent playing the cello suites as written. Predictably, I got much better very quickly, but it was a short honeymoon period and I now find myself in the thick of a quite arduous process of refinement. There is only added motivation in the possibility that my jazz playing could improve immeasurably this way as well.

(2) The style of Bach should prevail throughout, and "authenticity" of style (if not of gesture) should never be in doubt. However, rather than simply cataloguing a bunch of things that Bach did and limiting ourselves to them when we improvise, what if we permit ourselves to extrapolate from this material? To take some of those beguiling harmonic events precipitated by his beguiling counterpoint and make them central to our vocabulary rather than simply reducing them out of our analyses the way we're taught to in theory class? To seek our own voice within this style the way Cannonball sought his within that of Charlie Parker or Lee Morgan within that of Clifford Brown?

Classical music culture is prone to the view that this is not authenticity at all, but I disagree. I think one of the strengths of the jazz aesthetic is that imitating another player's style too closely is tolerated without being venerated; it is viewed, by some at least, as a necessary intermediate step in the learning process, but not a noble end in itself. Historically, to gain the full respect of the jazz community, there needs to be something unique and identifiable about your playing, even if it is very subtle. In classical music, we take this view towards performers but almost never toward compositional styles: a near-knockoff of Stravinsky is a full-on knockoff of Stravinsky and generally will be derided in the professional world. Conversely, Cannonball can almost be mistaken for Parker on occasion, but never beyond a shadow of a doubt, and by the time of "Somethin' Else," he was playing things that Parker, at least in his own era, never would have played. No one in their right mind would think to call this inauthenticity, but nor would they remain oblivious to these stylistic extrapolations and merely identify Cannonball as just another bop stylist; he clearly is more than that. That's my desired relationship with Bach stylism: no one could ever improve on Bach, but we can extend him through the lens of our own voices.

When this all works is when the new material "fits" with the derivative material. Of course, no such judgment on "fitting" original material within an historical style can be considered absolute, which I think explains the classical conception of authenticity as slavish recreation, i.e. as a mere evasion of this question. Imagine, though, a classical music culture that knew Bach as intimately as jazz players know Parker or rockers know Hendrix; that is, knew him not just well enough to play him with the right tone and ornamentation and tuning, or to be able to tell where all the roman numerals and non-chord tones go in an analysis, not to work towards merely being able to regurgitate material but in fact to follow that material wherever it leads you. Slowly, universitory music programs are moving towards more composition-oriented theory curricula that emphasize "owning" certain significant historical styles through the study of primary documents rather than memorizing dry theory; in fact, the Graduate Theory Review class I assisted with last semester at CalArts was taught entirely this way. We are late to the party, though, as this quite simply is what jazz players have always done by virtue of being "instant composers." Classical musicians will tell you this is a highly specialized skill, that it's "nice and all that" but that they and their little world are just fine without it; actually, it was a near-universal skill among professional musicians through at least the end of the eighteenth century which, to hear some tell it, only eroded when the bourgeoisie began demanding inclusion without making good on the high standards court musicians had previously established. Now that classical music has become hyper-bourgeoisified, one figures there's little hope of getting it back, for learning to improvise encompasses a kind of vulnerability that is the very antithesis of bourgeois comfort. The more I think about it, though, the more I'm convinced we should try.

In pursuit of this ideal, I anticipate that a severe limitation of material is necessary. It is well-documented that master improvisers the world over generally exert true mastery over a relatively small amount of material; there also are not more than a handful of solo Bach movements which are technically realistic for brass players. The thought has certainly occurred to me to pull things out of larger pieces, but for now, I'm limiting myself to movements from solo instrument suites, starting with the Minuets from the first suite in G major. The structural possibilities just with this pair are fascinating: you could state both as written before improvising on either; state and improvise over the first before moving on to the second; play the second in the relative instead of parallel minor, or even pivot in mid-stream, as in A(par)-A(rel)-B(rel)-B(par), which sounds surprisingly smooth; add free cadenzas as intros, interludes and finales; and who knows what else.

I've been working on developing all of this since last March and feel that I'm barely scratching the surface of what is possible conceptually. The technical barriers, of course, are also severe: these movements are certainly playable but are taxing nonetheless, and the improvisations are even more so. All of that notwithstanding, I'm in this for the long haul. I think that improvising over Bach in this way might be my last best chance at doing the music justice on tuba. I say this because despite no small effort, I don't feel that I've ever really mastered any of the movements I've worked up previously: they are too difficult, too unforgiving and too high maintenance. I would respectfully venture that most of the tuba players I've heard perform them in person are in the same boat, and I've been told by an accomplished teacher that the next tubist to do justice to Bach would be the first. As challenging as improvising this way might seem, I sometimes wonder if I don't stand a better chance of mastering it than I do of giving a convincing verbatim interpretation of an entire suite, the way I twice attempted as a callow undergrad. Improvisation, as intimidating as it can be at the outset, can also be subtly tailored to highlight one's strengths and cover one's weaknesses once a sufficient technical grounding is established. In this sense, what I'm really doing here is playing to my strengths, and finding a way into music which never really loved me back until now. In my opinion, nothing could be more authentic.

28 December 2012

On Having To Really Want It

For the longest time, I didn't read anything I wasn't assigned to read and often skirted the requirements on top of it. It's becoming one of my bigger regrets as I slowly find myself drawn into it after all. I'm not sure what to conclude from the fact that the things I once rejected (textbooks and novels) I still reject, and if anything more strongly, much like I still reject classical opera, which was more or less synonymous with "classical music" in my mother's household during the years I expressed the least interest in it.

Sitting on my "current" shelf at the moment is a smugly eclectic group of tomes: Arthur Danto's "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace" for the philosopher in me, Harry Partch's "Genesis of a Music" for the theorist (a prof advised starting with the final section, on tuning systems; a very good idea, I think), Paul Berliner's towering "Thinking in Jazz," which I've just, somehow, finished, Edward Cone's annotated edition of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, and Nicholas Cook's "Music, Imagination, and Culture." It's the last of these that I'm undertaking most out of obligation, and not to the blog, though I'll never forget thinking upon getting my first peeks at the classical music blogosphere that there must have been some secret pact among the highest profile bloggers to refer to this book, "Musicking," and "This Is Your Brain On Music" as frequently and gratuitously as possible (along with including a link to Alex Ross' blog at the very top of their blogroll; as if no one could have found it otherwise). The present endeavor will thus take me two-thirds of the way toward earning my stripes, though I have to add here, just in case you hadn't heard, that "This Is Your Brain On Music" is an utterly worthless piece of soccer mom pabulum.

The Symphonie Fantastique score is the outlier in this group because it's a score, but of course, that's not why I checked it out; rather, it's the accompanying essays and commentary which interest me for reasons which will become clear soon enough. It gives me pause, though, that even as I've found edification in curling up with a nice treatise from time to time, my relationship with scores remains as strained as my relationship with reading once was. I've surely created dozens if not hundreds of times more score than I've studied, which is something that was never true of my reading and writing. Just recently, I've been struck by the feeling that perhaps that particular change of course just needs time and patience to be allowed to take root, just as I, apparently, needed to reach my mid-twenties and a safe distance from Mr. Shakespeare in order to find pleasure in educating myself about the context for my musical work. Unfortunately, I fear more seeds of regret are planted as time passes.

26 December 2012

Now-Annual Linkinrunn

Linkinrunn is a Finnish word dating from the eighteenth century, when ironic messages about quotidian local goings on were commonly left in the town square by phantom nocturnal pranksters dragging pieces of chain through the snow. Actually, that's not true at all; it's merely my phonetic rendering of a well-known musicoblogical phenomenon whereby the blogger assembles one or more hyperlinks to online articles of marginal interest which said blogger has read in the recent past and deems worthy of passing on to the next marginally interested reader, but about which they have not the time, nor in most cases the inclination (ability? courtesy?!), to contribute anything original or enlightening of their own to the ongoing dialogue surrounding the topic at hand. This, gentle reader, is to be that, except for the fact that I really did find these blurbs interesting and worth my time, and will say a little bit (or a lot) about each of them as they are divulged. And all of that at no cost or obligation to you. Read on...

Golden Omelets - Jonathan Freilich

Jonathan is a fellow composition student here at CalArts and has written a lengthy but fascinating account of the intersection of the musical, economic and political in post-Katrina New Orleans. His account of the destructive effects, real and potential, of "boosterism" and political favoritism on the musical culture is revealing; in fact, I would say that if you have any interest at all in playing or studying any variety of New Orleans music old or new, it's essential reading. As one such person who nonetheless has found himself at a distance (geographical and otherwise) from "the real shit," it explains a lot; for example, how someone as spectacularly derivative as Evan Christopher can go around saying things like this to the jazz media without any fear of being marginalized:

Espeland: You were working with French musicians?

Christopher: On the Live at the Meridien recording, the drummer’s French. The other two musicians live in France but they’re actually Australian.

The bass player, Sebastien Girardot, has played traditional jazz with real New Orleans-style revival bands since he was 19. [Guitarist] David Blenkhorn came up with Australian musicians in the Australian traditional jazz scene. He plays the shit out of blues. He approaches jazz in almost a more American way than a lot of American musicians do.

Espeland[appropriately!]:What does that mean?

Christopher: He likes to swing and play blues.

Espeland: Do you find there’s a difference between working with American musicians and those who aren’t American?

Christopher: I can’t make a generalization like that. But I will say that I enjoy the spirit of these guys. It seems more American to me than a lot of the cats I work with here.

I'm no flaming patriot, but them's fightin' words anyway. There is, of course, something profoundly contrary to musical Americanism in what Christopher says here, which all jibes quite nicely with the notion of boosterism exported to out-of-the-way places, like Minnesota, where most people won't know the difference.

The Latin Jazz Grammy Travesty - Brian Lynch

I'm late to the party as usual, but if you missed it too, here's an in-depth account of some internecine strife at NARAS (the Grammy people) surrounding the recent consolidation of categories, which included the elimination of Latin Jazz as a standalone. It appears that Lynch himself as well as many of the other Latin Jazz luminaries involved are in fact members of this organization themselves. I can't claim any real understanding of what that means and don't particularly care to research it, but I'm having a devil of a time summoning the least bit of sympathy. Is this not an organization, an industry, a culture built from the very beginning on screwing people over? What has really been accomplished when recognition from such a morally and artistically compromised institution has become so paramount to a musical culture?

One obvious answer, I think, is that it hasn't really, but rather that there is some quite understandable, if predictable, self-interested writhing going on here among the exceedingly few exponents of said musical culture for whom the Grammys matter in the least, either practically or symbolically. I am especially troubled nonetheless by the assertion that ethnic pride is at stake here. Ethnic pride needs to be bigger than the Grammys; it needs to be self-determined and self-evident; it needs to be morally purer than the wretched criminals who run the entertainment industry and the soulless automatons they deploy to town hall meetings to run interference for them. Not that I know anything about ethnic pride, of course, but I'm at least willing to entertain the notion, because what is it that us straight white men hear so often from members of oppressed groups who intend to impress upon us how far we actually are from being post-race but that just because The Man gives out white and black and red and yellow trophies doesn't mean that those people have equal footing in His society; in fact, this may well be a diversionary tactic designed to make this appear to be the case while the injustices continue elsewhere in plain sight.

It is, of course, also highly unfashionable in 2012 to advocate so vociferously both for oneself and for such a narrowly-defined musical genre, more or less regardless of the social context, and so if you feel I'm being unduly-harsh-verging-on-obstrperous above, then allow me to at least point out this more obvious fact and have a good-natured chuckle about it at the expense of some musicians whom I otherwise have a great deal of respect for. I mean, reeeeeally guys? You wouldn't bat an eye if I was out there with a sandwich board agitating for an "Anglo-Jewish Mutt Acoustic Jazz Chamber Music" category and acting as if the future of my music and my people depended on it? If it does, I guess I've got another thing coming.

Irony Plague - Todd Clouser

I'm impressed by Todd's recent writing and thoughts, and as a result, also regretting not crossing paths with him when I was still in Minneapolis. Definitely read the linked NYT article, though, for the full effect. It puts into words so many thoughts I've had over the years in a way that I nonetheless don't yet have the full historical or critical theory-al understanding to articulate intelligently, though you might have noticed that I've tried anyway in fits and starts in this very space. There is what can only be called a psychoanalysis of the ironist conducted both explicitly and implicitly in this article, which I realize now is the way to get to the heart of the issue: postmodern pastiche itself actually fits fairly neatly into a linear art-historical analysis, but ironism specifically cannot really be fully understood this way, I don't think. It's a state of mind, not just a technique, and one doubts if it is unique to the present day so much as the democratization of creativity (which for high-musicological purposes actually started at the end of the eighteenth century, not with the advent of the microchip) actually creates it as a byproduct, leading to an accumulation over the years which has reached a fever pitch in recent decades. If you're an aesthete, ironism is a neurosis, not an art-historical inevitability; good to read a couple of intelligent takedowns, then, as such things tend to keep us aesthetes from also becoming nihilists, if only temporarily.

Everyone's Favorite Oxymoron

While I more or less rejected from the outset the idea of learning tunes solely out of professional obligation, I sense something of an impasse setting in over the last several years that makes me a bit uncomfortable. When someone calls an old standard I don't know, I still go home and look it up; the problem is that whereas I often used to be impressed enough to want to learn it, I now find myself gagging virtually every time. I don't know that many tunes, but it seems increasingly as if I know most of the ones that I care to know; such it is that the "obscure standard" remains a beguiling oxymoron.

There's so little to recommend tunes like Summer Night, I'm Old Fashioned, and the like. Even in an era of unprecedented narcissistic aping of classic jazz, they don't seem particularly necessary or even useful as foils to business as usual, at least not based solely on their relative obscurity. I would also argue that it is these tunes' very lack of "interesting" harmonic content in their original versions which seems to beget irreconcilable regional variations that can frustrate the prospective student: as best I can tell, Summer Night, for example, seems to exist in two versions, one of which goes to IV in the 7th bar, the other of which merely works its way back to I. That's not "substitution" at work so much as underdetermination, no?

To my ears, the various ways of playing the 10th bar of Alone Together are more symptomatic of inspiration, of attractive possibilities which both work well enough to capture the imaginations of the jazz community, and whose relative merits most of us wouldn't think to bicker over even if we'd agree that it's better to pick one explicitly before attempting a performance with people we don't usually play with. This variation in Summer Night, on the other hand, just sounds like a mistake, and at that, a mistake of the type that competent musicians simply don't make or accept whether they're an established band or a jam session punching bag.

It is well established that master improvisors in musical traditions the world over tend to exert their mastery over what in the jazz tradition would be considered a scandalously small repertoire of distinct pieces or forms. The lesson for modern day jazz players? Knowing 1,500 standards was a commercial venture from the start! Occasionally, it may be a voyeuristic one for the real zealots among us; but was it ever truly an artistic one? Indeed, could it ever be? Some would ask whether learning tunes is not one of the best ways for improvising instrumentalists to build vocabulary. Not necessarily, I would say, if the tunes in question are "singer tunes," i.e. "pop songs," i.e. vessels for the unencumbered delivery of lyrics in service to which the melodic and harmonic accoutrements have been purposefully pared to an unobtrusive minimum (so much so, in fact, that the recorded legacy of these tunes betrays literal ambivalence towards them as musical structures). If you play jazz in 2012, I think you have to face these questions eventually, and also realize that you can't trust anyone who writes for the International Musician or publishes jazz education materials to answer them for you. In any case, it seems to me that the road to encyclopedic knowledge of standards has become littered with half-remembered versions of unmemorable tunes, which is one of the best reasons I can think of to permit oneself to specialize just a bit.

25 December 2012

Holidays?! Foodblogging??!! AAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

At the risk of deflating what little intrigue I might create here once a month, I'd like to make the implicit explicit just one more time: in writing this blog for the last 6+ years, I've taken a hard-line, moralistic stance in favor of an exclusive emphasis on content which relates, however tenuously, to music and the world immediately surrounding it; this was in direct response to my experiences of repeatedly and maddeningly encountering other musicians' blogs where one or two brilliant missives in their area(s) of speciality were almost hopelessly buried amongst innumerable pictures of pets, progeny and, not infrequently, food. After a few years of this, the idea occurred to me to devote one month out of each year on my own blog to a no-holds-barred miasma of inanity, impulsiveness and insufficient proofreading as an ironic commentary on this state of affairs. The result is the Blog Month project, presently in its fifth iteration.

With that context in mind, understand that what I'm about to do gives me pause even so. I've never gone quite this far down the rabbit hole and I fear what might happen to me and my work if I do, but this is Christmas Day, I now live within reasonable (by CA standards at least) driving distance of most of my extended family, and I do, honestly, though I've come to it later than I would have liked, love food and cooking, and not just to assuage Wolf's Law. And so, today, Christmas 2012 in the good ol' USA, we here at Fickle Ears wish Happy Holidays and all that other stuff to you and yours and whoever else as we mark a new high, or low, depending on your perspective on the matter. Here's sending some vegan, gluten-free gingerbread your way:

24 December 2012

Strength in Numbers

The idea of "strong" and "weak" progressions is more discussed in classical than jazz theory, and jazz people might superficially find it odd that "common tones" between two harmonies could be a source of weakness. The sticking point, I suppose, is that classical theory deals mostly with triads and seventh chords whereas jazz theory is built around 7-note "chordscales," and a common tone is a bigger deal when there are fewer total tones in the construction. On the other hand, the A section of Autumn Leaves, for example, is comprised mostly of progressions where only one note in the chordscale changes (i.e. where there are 6 of 7 common tones), even though the root movement is "strong."

In any case, I wrote a tune a few months ago with a turnaround of sorts that moves in reverse around the circle of fifths: D-A-E-B, all lydian chords (i.e. major7 sharp11). I wasn't sure I liked it but wanted to try it to be sure, and I think it works better than I might first have thought. Then, more recently, I listened to this Kurt Rosenwinkel tune:



Seems to my unaided ear that this is an A section built out of a few different glosses on a relatively "weak" progression that might be roughly rendered as "I-V." It works beautifully, especially the turnaround, which reminds me of mine just a little bit. So, cheers to the theory people; you know what to do with yourselves, enjoy the ride to oblivion, don't let the door hit you, etc.

23 December 2012

On Writing It All Out

Trumpeter and blogger Stephen Haynes writes this of the late Bill Dixon:

"The landmark mid-sixties recording Intents and Purposes was primarily a through-composed/scored piece of music. 'At the time,' Dixon remarks, 'this was the only way to be sure to get what I wanted.' Just recently, Bill told me that if he knew then what he knows now he would have written a lot less. During the summer of 2007, in preparation for the work that became 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur, Dixon produced over one hundred pages of material for the orchestra. As the dates of the rehearsal approached, he was faced with striking a delicate balance between the amount of calligraphic notation he had created and the modest amount of rehearsal time available. Bill did what he has done with increasing frequency in similar situations: he reduced the quantity of written material and concentrated, during rehearsal, on direct composition/ communication of intent."


When I read that someone of Bill Dixon's stature feels that "if he knew then what he knows now he would have written a lot less," I can't help but wonder about my own journey in the opposite direction, roughly from this (2004)



to this (2005)



to this (2012)


I further wonder if "the modest amount of rehearsal time available" isn't too often a greater mediating factor than strength of conception. There certainly is a fair amount of pressure exerted on developing composers to hone in on the essence of what they're after and excise the rest, to be practical first and imaginative second. I hasten to quote Professor Gann in lengthy dissent:

In his notation, Feldman rammed with his full force against one of the great sacred cows of the late 20th-century composing world: professionalism. Many, many composers today, and especially those who teach or who get orchestral performances, are obsessed with the notion of professionalism. The imparting of professionalism is how a composition professor justifies his or her position in academia alongside the more easily validated fields of the sciences and social sciences. And the essence of compositional professionalism is notation. Composers in academia, myself included, constantly harp on students to make their notation as simple and clear as possible, to line the notes up right, to avoid ambiguities and complexities that have no effect on the sound.

...in reality, efficiency is only appropriate to things that are ultimately unimportant. We want our garbage taken out efficiently, we want our drivers’ licenses renewed efficiently, but someone who advocated efficient child-rearing – eliciting maximum good behavior for a minimum of parental care – would be a beast. In the same way, Feldman’s notation drives home a principle that we forget at our peril: that, however necessary the evil may sometimes be, efficiency in the pursuit of music-making is no virtue.


To piggyback on these comments through the lens of Jazz and Creative Music, I would point first and foremost to the irony that charts which are more thoroughly notated are generally seen as less efficient means of working with creative musicians, who may or may not have the inclination, training or chops to deal with such material. In my humble opinion, we have collectively accepted this division of labor far too easily, both in Creative and Concert music, and in spite of all the complaining (and a little bit of praise) about the ways in which jazz has become more like European music, it seems to me that there was actually a much stronger incentive to read when this skill had a greater social significance (i.e. as a matter of pride and dignity among early African-American jazz musicians), as well as an economic one (big bands, after all, employed an entire generation of "Creative" musicians). I have even argued that when musicians today point to the Ellingtonian dictum that writing for particular people is a richer form of expression than writing for nameless, faceless abstractions, they actually are appealing, in part, to efficiency as a virtue in just the sense that Gann (rightly in my eyes) dismisses it.

Of course, those are fightin' words in the jazz world, because frankly, efficiency rules today's jazz world, and this should give us quite a bit more pause than it ever does, more than any supposed European influence, loss of "relevance" to youth culture, or any of that other bullshit. The reasons it doesn't are too fraught and numerous to explore here, but suffice it to say that my work has only come into greater conflict with these tenets of efficiency as it has evolved and that this is a significant source of alienation for me. So, when I read a statement like the one above, given, as statements to this effect almost always are, without adequate context or explanation, and at that, from a musician who was exceptionally capable of offering both, I can't help but bristle a little bit. (Blame the scourge of efficiency again, I suppose, for the lack of clarification, since the given passage appeared, of all places, in a liner note.)

My intent here is thus not at all to level criticism at Bill Dixon himself, who I have to assume had good reasons for working the way he did and, given the opportunity, was more than capable of explaining why. I simply want to insist that efficiency, virtuous or not, is relative, that we (musicians) exert willful control over it by the skills we choose to develop or neglect to develop, and that there's still far too much work which remains unrealized, marginalized, stigmatized due to a lack of players who are truly equally comfortable at all points along the notational-improvisational continuum. I'm certainly not arguing that we impose this on everyone through conservatory training; that would be the worst course of action. People should make good on what they want out of music, theirs' and others' alike, and if there just aren't very many Creative musicians who really truly want and need to work the way I work, fine. That's the front, but I've never believed it; not for a second.

It will always be more efficient to simply wind up the players and set them off doing Their Thing, but it only becomes clearer to me with time that this is not My Thing. I don't believe that composition is superior to improvisation, but I do believe that they yield different results and that this difference is not negligible. I think I can defend the bulk of what I write out in painstaking detail on the grounds that it could not be improvised, which means that efficiency is then beside the point in yet another sense. I've also worked happily and fruitfully with many, many other musicians who work in quite the opposite fashion, and intend to continue to do so. Variety is both the spice of life and a lot of work.

22 December 2012

Soundcrowd

Timed comments let your friends and fans give you valuable feedback at specific moments throughout the waveform. Pinpoint exactly what's working well and start a conversation around it.


Really? You mean it's not just for person after person to say "that was dope" as a pretext for making sure a picture of themselves and a link to their page pops up the next time someone listens? Are you sure? Because to this prematurely crotchety old bastard of a blogger, it sure looks like the same endless feedback loop as the rest of the musical interwebz, where the incentive to find something, anything, to say in absence of any need for that something to be coherent, let alone constructive, merely ensures that the signal to noise ratio in our online musical discourse remains poor, good intentions (more like subterfuge) be damned.

21 December 2012

Keep Digging

It's winter break and I've spent substantial portions of the last 5 afternoons in the library doing research for an upcoming writing project. The library is of little use for most of what's required of me here and I haven't spent nearly as much time there as I thought I might when I arrived. Perhaps that's part of why I've enjoyed it so much this week, but I don't think that's the only reason. Academics are in my blood by both nature and nurture, but research didn't take: there were no more dreaded words the first twenty or so years of my life than "primary source," and most all my memories of libraries from that stretch of time are veritably traumatic ones, of long bus rides downtown, freezing weather, complete exhaustion, of navigating the minefields of library cataloging, lost books, borrowing privileges, and most of all an utter lack of interest in the topic I'd been assigned and a failure to understand why it was so important to suffer through all of this year after year.

By the time I was 22, I was devouring Schoenberg's Style and Idea between security patrols and had begun to aspire to something as a writer of words as well as notes, but I still found research per se difficult (and usually fruitless). Perhaps it was ambition which got me over the hump, a realization that knowledge really is power, even (especially?) within the rarefied confines of art music culture; actually, I think I was always smart, always curious, and most certainly ambitious from the start, but that school simply crushed my soul. That's the only explanation I could muster today as I sat before one of those bland library computers hurriedly scrawling notes on Liszt, a composer I simply revile but whose career bears heavily on the project at hand. It was both a physical sensation and type of subject matter which I unmistakably associate with the aimless torture of high school research papers, but somehow made not only tolerable but downright invigorating by its relevance to what I've decided to do with my life. The only downer here is the resentment I've developed towards The System in the form of my former schoolteachers, who surely operated under the assumption that they were both awakening these impulses in me and preparing me to make good on them. I'm afraid that by no real fault of their own it was quite opposite, and I've carried no small amount of regret with me since I realized this was the case.

19 December 2012

Suff Daddy

So, I checked out some of the NextBop non-jazz stuff. This guy's okay. I'm going to keep an eye on him. It's funny to me that when I find hip-hop I can actually listen to, it's not usually because of the presence of something that's lacking elsewhere; rather, it's when I get through a whole song without hearing something that makes me vomit that I know I've stumbled on something. That is to say that I like hip-hop and I hate almost all other pop music forms, and that most hip-hop I've sampled is too much like those other pop music forms to hold my interest. I like this, though: no whiny voices, awkward harmonic progressions or amateurish guitar playing, just taut, attractive beats, flow and rhyme striking that elusive balance between clarity and opacity that makes you want to listen to something again. Thanks guys.

18 December 2012

Best Lists of Best Jazz Albums of 2012 of 2012


(6) LA Times
Love the subterfuge in having eleven entries on the list and two turning out to be ads, including one from Bon Jovi plugging MasterCard. I guess we should be happy that an outlet like the LA Times bothers, even online and even in such glib fashion, to take note of new jazz releases. And I suspect that's all they're going for.

(5) Philadelphia citypaper
There are more recognizable names and more of them on this list than any others I've seen, and not that I've heard any of these records or anything, but isn't that exactly what you'd expect from something called "citypaper?"

(4) Larry Reni Thomas for JazzCorner
Gotta love it when all you've got for a list is...a list. No hipstering or qualification, just the facts, ma'am. Of course, it's always nice to be able to listen to the work in question, but this one scores points anyway for its unusually direct and unfettered presentation. Tell 'em what you're gonna do, do it, tell 'em what ya did. And done.

(3) NextBop Best Jazz Albums
25-11
10-1

If NextBop really is a movement, I'm not part of it, but I have to say, it's awfully valuable to have a site like this where you can hear more than just 30 second snippets of the latest stuff, and which casts, in this case at least, an admirably wide net. If a slight downgrade is in order, it is on account of the massive size of their list, which if it got much bigger would actually defeat the point of making one in the first place. Even so, I look forward to checking out as much of this music as I can and am grateful for someone else having taken the time to assemble it in one place. Really.

(2) NPR A Blog Supreme
Hard to hate on these cats, since it seems they're being reblogged by the hour: three of the top dozen lists I found Googling "Top Ten Jazz Albums 2012" were actually just this one in disguise. To their credit, though, the layout is nice, the commentary a bit more than cursory, and you can listen. Could be a lot worse.

(1) Nextbop Best Non-Jazz Albums
25-11
10-1

I can think of at least three levels of irony here, which is more than enough to earn this one the crown. Til next year listmakers.


17 December 2012

Perfunctory Year-End Metafiltering

Befitting the time of year we presently find ourselves mired in, NPR's A Blog Supreme has come out with its Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2012. Notwithstanding my pessimism about the very tenability of such lists, which I maintain, I nonetheless feel compelled to peek through my fingers as I cover my face with my hands. I listened to most of the music and wasn't really horrified by any of it which I heard, definitely a win. (The Don Cherry cover was mildly horrifying aesthetically, but not, I suppose, wholly inconsistent with his own thinking.) If you're looking for an endorsement, I'm afraid that's as close as I can get: professional obligation and morbid curiosity

Why such morbidity, the cultural relativists in the room demand to know? Going back to school has cut somewhat into my internet trolling time, but the time I have been able to spend over the last year or so has more often than not turned up artifacts which I do find truly horrifying, so much so in some cases that it is not their categorization as jazz or the clear outpacing of talent by promotion but, in fact, their mere existence which I find most troubling. One reason among many, I suppose, that it would be easier to delve deeper into the work that already exists than to actively seek out new things; a recent conversation here at school reminds me, though, that there are still people in the world (musicians, in fact) who claim to have exhausted all the music they are aware of, new or old, and need to find more just to have something to listen to. That seems impossible to me, but perhaps that's because I've done more canvassing than studying to this point in my life, and thus the realm of canvassed music comes to seem inexhaustible even as I truly know very little about it. There's no excuse, really, for not knowing something about what's going on now, and also, I think, grave consequences of a few different varieties for becoming truly out of touch with the Zeitgeist, even if you consider yourself a dissident; but since there's just so much stuff, filters become necessary evils in the equation, and because I so deeply distrust herd mentality (we call it other, cheerier things now, like "social media"), I try to source from a wide variety of them, and blogging, say what you want, is often helpful in this regard. I promise my participation at least one month out of the year.

16 December 2012

[sc]airquotes (iii)



"The late twenties trend toward larger groups coincided with replacing the tuba with the bass as the focal point of the rhythm section, causing many tuba players to switch instruments. As George Duvivier conjectures, however, few early tuba players 'made a successful transition to the bass, because they had nothing to guide them from a wind instrument to a string instrument.' Consequently, 'they made up for their deficiencies by slapping the bass, twirling it, and being active.'"


Berliner, Paul F. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994. 130.

Um...LOL anyone else? This is the first time I've seen this subject tackled in a scholarly publication, albeit under the rubric of "conjecture," but I think that most of us musicians have conjectured at least a few times in our lives that Guffawing Tubist Syndrome has its roots in something other than the well-known tendency of certain instruments to attract certain kinds of people. Indeed, does the tuba not in fact have two very different such stereotypes, both of which are quite observable and not so completely localized to the different musical traditions we most readily identify them with as to permit attributing them solely to the demands of those traditions?

Part of me is just dying to know if "slapping the bass, twirling it, and being active" was an authentic reaction newly encountered technical limitations, or if it was just one of many possible responses, but the one to which tuba players as a group were disproportionately predisposed. Did young, amateurish, or otherwise unaccomplished bass players of the era who had never played tuba typically succumb to these kinds of antics? Did they learn them from players who used to play tuba? Silly even to wonder these kinds of things, I suppose, but I just can't help it having found myself in too many situations over the years where the contractor ordered a GTS tubist and got stuck with me instead.

Kind of like lead and solo trumpet, or high and low horn, there are high tuba players and then there are hiiiiiigh tuba players. It's tempting to point to this kind of thing as evidence of the continuing inertia against tuba players developing complete musicianship. In truth, I think almost every band would rather have the better player, but it is also true that personality is at least equally important in many New Orleans-style bands and touring brass quintets, and I've read job postings from both types of ensembles which made this abundantly clear, and even one several years ago which generated some heated online discussion for stating baldly that the ideal candidate would be of a certain age (i.e. young and hip). I think the more important point, though, is one independent of matters of personality or overcompensation, namely that over time when such a great number of players of a particular instrument lack technical sophistication, this in fact becomes part of the style, which means the demands on new generations of players become limited, and as Mr. Jacobs famously said, "A limited challenge produces a limited musician," thus compounding the problem. It's fascinating to ponder this through the lens of the oft-cited era of transition from tuba to bass referenced in the above quote, but with documentation being elusive, I'm afraid we're mostly stuck with the kind of conjecture Duvivier offers here, which if nothing else had me laughing quite a bit harder than most scholarly publications ever will.

15 December 2012

Threads and Branches

Henry Threadgill, god bless him, has become by no particular fault of his own both the patron saint of the tuba in creative music and the source of too many shallow comparisons made by name-dropping idiot savant hipsters anytime they hear a tuba in creative music. I very much enjoy his work, but I can't claim to have been influenced by it in the least and can't for the life of me figure out what it could be about my music that makes people think of him other than the fact that there is almost always a tubist or two doing more than just sitting there looking lost.

Back in Minneapolis, the more frequently I played out with Milo Fine, the more I realized what a ridiculous range of references people would drop after the shows. I know that Milo takes pride in bringing lots of musical streams together in his groups, though not at all in the ways that turn of phrase might imply to most people, and he was generally amused at all the ground people were accusing him of covering. It does make you realize, though, that our ability to draw connections is profoundly limited by what we know, and if there's anything at all to be said for the kind of pursuit of knowledge for its own sake which I've mostly eschewed to this point in my life, I suppose this is it.

14 December 2012

Conditioning Best Practices for Tuba Player(s)

One of the most valuable aspects of returning to school has been the opportunity to begin a sort of empirical investigation of how to stay in tuba shape. The frenzy of my undergraduate years, which often included an inhumane amount of daily tuba playing (as often at my own behest as that of the institution) was tremendously productive in many ways, and yet because it was more or less impossible to get out of shape under those circumstances (and also because I was younger and more resilient), I left school with no reliable method or plan of attack for maintaining this level of conditioning, or even, as I realized just a few years ago, any real understanding of how conditioning works.

I hasten to clarify that I am not referring here to matters of embouchure, airstream or any other external "product" or the physical technique of producing it, but rather to the internal chemical and mechanical condition of the muscle and soft tissue surrounding the mouth which, to a greater or lesser degree depending on your level of Jacobsian mysticism, mediates one's physical ability to create those external results. I'm a long way from a thorough clinical understanding of this sort of thing, nor am I finished with my anecdotal investigation of the various factors through the more tractable lens of musical results. However, I thought it would be worth inventorying and sharing the strongest of my suspicions as they stand today. Consider this list subject to revision and highly personal.

-----

•Play for an absolute minimum of three 20 minute individual practice sessions every day. At least one should be longer and involve "feeling the burn" in your corners (i.e. where the muscles are; the center of the embouchure contains very little muscle and any pain or discomfort there is a major red flag). Two half-hour sessions at early and late hours have occasionally been sufficient, but usually not for an extended period of time, and especially not if what happens in between them is physically and/or mentally taxing.

•The most reliable way to "feel the burn" is to play music with no or very few breaks and lots of large intervals: Bach suites, jazz saxophone transcriptions, walking bass lines, running patterns and licks in all transpositions with a metronome, etc.

•"Feeling the burn" can range from working up to the point where you just begin to feel it and then stopping all the way to what I've heard weightlifters refer to as "total failure," when your muscles simply can't fire anymore. The happy zone on any given day is probably somewhere in between, so listen to what your face is telling you, not just that day but in terms of the larger patterns of how your chops have felt day by day for the preceding couple of weeks.

•Don't count rehearsal time as maintenance time unless it is so taxing that further playing that same day feels counterproductive or injurious. If this is the case, you've already given your muscles all they could handle that day.

•Space practice sessions evenly throughout the day. Don't play within an hour of your sleep: 1-2 hours after awaking is ideal; up to 4 hours before falling asleep seems tenable, though later seems to work just as well. Keep in mind that if you are a daily practicer, the longest you go without playing on a daily basis is between your evening session and the next morning; keep an eye on this time and don't let it get too terribly long one way or the other. Leave more time between your first and second practice sessions each day than between your second and third.

•At least 6 uninterrupted hours of sleep are absolutely required for a full recovery. Sleeping in shorter blocks for any amount of time is virtually useless to the muscles even if it is highly restful mentally.

•The most common interruptions are noise and nature calling. Therefore, I sleep with earplugs and limit food and drink to the extent possible after 8pm. Salt, alcohol and caffeine all will have you pissing your brains out a matter of hours later, so keep fairly dry, fatty, completely unsalted snacks handy in case you're really hungry late at night: unsalted sardines, extra firm tofu, dried fruit and nuts can be all consumed in satisfying quantities without precipitating a piss-fest. Two sips of wine a hour or two before bedtime can be relaxing; the alcohol will also dry you out a bit provided you leave enough time before sleeping for it to do its work, and it is also an appetite suppressant if you're feeling excessively snacky at an inconvenient time. Salt is just dangerous. Don't mess with it. Seriously. I cook primarily with Bragg's Liquid Aminos, which is (are?) miraculously low in sodium, and just a pinch of iodized salt here and there.

•Napping, while again often highly restful in every other way, is incredibly, gallingly destructive to the cycle of rest and recovery. My chops do not seem to differentiate between napping and sleeping: in other words, if I any more than doze off for a few minutes, it's as if I've "gone to bed" and my body hits the reset button. That is to say that if, for example, I have two practice sessions before 3pm, at which time I take a nap, awaking at 5pm, it is as if I have a new day on my hands, except (a) I had one too few practice sessions the previous day, (b) my body has not fully recovered from the previous day because I did not get at least 6 hours of uninterrupted sleep, and (c) I don't have enough time before I will be tired again to replicate a full practice day. Hence, I have essentially taken one potentially productive day and turned it into two unproductive days marked by the double-whammy of not enough sleep or practice, and two unproductive days in a row is generally four times worse than one. Further, this almost always leads to interrupted sleep for two or three more nights, which makes things even worse.

•Having said all of that, when the issue is fatigue and not underconditioning, it is likely that I will wake up from a long-ish nap with unusually loose, fresh feeling chops but very little endurance. I do this only in desperate circumstances because it tends to yield very good results in concert later that night; however, the long-term effect is similar to that described above, since you are still vastly undercooking your face and underrecovering two "days" in a row instead of one. I shudder to think how much of my life I've spent trying to get back into shape after doing this, so as miserable as it can be to be tired all day, I've started toughing it out until my normal bedtime almost no matter what.

•Eat a little bit of animal protein every day. It's clear to me now that my days as a strict vegetarian nearly ruined me. Perhaps it is possible to make this work, but I've found it much easier to simply reintroduce fish to my diet, which has lots of stuff besides protein that vegetarians don't get enough of. The rest of my current diet is very nearly strictly vegan across the board, so I'm not as concerned practically or philosophically with this single concession as I once would have been. While this was not the "magic bullet" I though it might be, it has in combination with the sleep guidelines made a significant difference in my conditioning. I began to suspect something was up years ago but couldn't confirm it. Rather, it was two separate incidents nearly a year apart which I couldn't explain, one at the tail end of a See Us Be Cute tour, the other when I moved to California last year. In both cases, the exigencies of travel meant that I (a) didn't practice much for several days, and (b) ate a ton of meat for being trapped at restaurants which didn't serve much else. In both cases, despite being completely exhausted and not in the best of spirits, I had indestructible chops two days later.

•Perhaps I simply have not mastered the craft of conditioning, but my final remark for now is that I have thus far found true consistency virtually unattainable, and in fact, even as an undergrad when conditioning per se was a non-issue and I maintained a near-fanatical devotion to routine, consistency was still a major problem. Some brass players insist that if you are consistent enough in the structure of your practice, it will translate directly to your conditioning; others maintain this is all in our heads and that if we so much as take note of how our chops physically feel, we have already lost the battle. I feel that both mindsets have let me down in a big way. My feeling has always been that there is a cycle of sorts at work; more recently, I've begun to suspect that one big piece to this puzzle which I have not yet mastered is ascertaining on a daily basis what my face needs. This probably sounds odd, but I have only recently learned to tell the difference between extreme fatigue and extreme underconditioning with a reasonable degree of accuracy: the physical sensations and musical results are remarkably similar. This is undoubtedly the source of some severe frustration in years past as it is then far too easy to mistake one for the other, which leads you to actually do the worst possible thing to your face that day. I will say that true days of rest are almost always conditioning setbacks, even if they are physically necessary to avoid injury; therefore, it becomes extremely important to avoid becoming this fatigued. Assuming this is attained, ideal conditioning seems to me to require a kind of scheduling flexibility that is almost impossible for most people, whether students, amateurs or professionals, since you have to react to subtle changes in your chops by adding or cutting practice sessions, or adjusting what you do during them and for how long. I know it's silly to get this detailed about it, but I've found the alternative terribly unsatisfying and counterproductive, and so I'm paying special attention these days to the Chop Cycle and trying different ways of gaming it to stay as strong and loose as possible. Did I mention that the parameters "strong/weak," "tight/loose," and "swollen/limber" all seem to operate independently of each other? It's quite a minefield, but I'm committed to figuring it out, hopefully sometime before my faculties start to erode from old age. To be continued...

13 December 2012

Thirsty Thursday

Thursdays are a night of ritual partying at CalArts. I've often remarked that if the kind of planning and foresight we collectively put into the Halloween Party, Graduation, and Thursday Nights® were invested in the day-to-day operation of the school, the place might just start functioning like an institution of higher learning. Going here makes me appreciate just how well the U of MN functioned during my time there, a bizarre appreciation I never would have thought to have (a high-functioning monstrosity is far more dangerous than an inept one; I knew that about people, and now I know it about institutions). Partying seldom interested me at the ol' U because it was so anonymous and mindless; living literally steps from the epicenter at a school 25 times smaller is hard to resist, though, even if it is still rather mindless.

Frequent readers know that I'm prone to find the cynical angle anywhere I can, and so I hasten to add that I've had a tremendously productive and valuable three semesters here so far and am anticipating one of the more exciting, if harrowing, times of my musical life over the next six months or so. And being that tonight is the last Thursday of the semester, a momentary setting aside of all things cynical is indeed in order. It's a useful diversion and a terrible raison d'etre.

12 December 2012

On Giving a Shit

About aestheticism, I just wrote, "fine with me, by the way, if we not try too hard to explain it..." I should say (and this is overdue here) that there's a real danger in not wanting to even attempt explanations of very important issues. I've written similar things here many times, but never, I want reader(s) to know, without some apprehension. I have a few different reasons for this isolated instance of anti-intellectualism: one was the realization that a certain sense of mystery is essential to how I experience my very favorite musical works; another is having developed a deep distrust of reverse engineering in art, or at least of that particular kind of reverse engineering musicians have so fallen in love with which works backward, whether philosophically or physiologically, from an emotion.

It's not difficult to imagine, for me at least, that sometime before the Earth falls into the Sun, medical research and technology will enable an understanding of the biological basis of aesthetics which is unfathomable to us today, and that artificial intelligences will be created which achieve a human level of aesthetic synthesis based in whole or part on this new understanding. Many will say that this truly ends art (which I suppose it could if you subscribe to a social theory of art), while others will simply deny that it could ever happen. My feeling, though, is that as long as I still had something nice to listen to, I'd be just as happy, and since we've thus far managed to collectively create way too many nice things to listen to without knowing exactly how much of which neurotransmitter is released when we hear a Hindemithian stretto versus a Lutoslawskian cloud, I would posit that future generations have a very slim chance of going wanting.

I'm less sure that we need to pursue these things than I am that someone will pursue them, and that they are, given enough time, achievable. Mostly, though, I'm ambivalent (may I flatter myself, actually, by saying uncharacteristically ambivalent?), and that's the source of some similarly ambivalent statements that I probably wouldn't make about most any other field of intellectual endeavor. All else being equal, we should always want to know more, but we can't know everything, and thankfully (this is the larger point here) we don't always need to. Indeed, I think there is very little necessity left in our over-saturated art world; that is, the work already exists: all kinds of art for all kinds people (though access, of course, is another matter).

11 December 2012

[sc]airquotes (ii)


"...speaking as a precocious therapist as well as a true philistine, Plato insinuates that mimetic art is a sort of perversion–a substitute, deflected, compensatory activity engaged in by those who are impotent to be what as a pis aller they merely imitate. And who, Plato asks, would choose the appearance of the thing over the thing itself; who would settle for a picture of someone he could have, as it were, in the flesh; or would pretend to be something in preference to being the thing as such? Those who can, do, we might interpret him as having maintained; those who can't, imitate."
Arthur Danto. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1981. 12.


A philistine, my dictionary app tells me, is "a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or who has no understanding of them," which if we define "the arts" the way Danto does I suppose I am. "In the philosophy of science," he writes, "there are no observations without theories; so in the philosophy of art there is no appreciation without interpretation. Interpretation consists in determining the relationship between a work of art and its material counterpart." (p. 113). A problem, I might add, which clearly belongs to a particular art-historical epoch, even if it was always there lurking behind the cloak of improbability: it was not until artworks had known material counterparts (identical objects which were not artworks themselves) that the question he seeks to answer here became a pressing one.

For Danto, the non-art material counterparts serve as a kind of control group: by bringing into higher relief the differences between them and those things identical to them in every way except in being artworks, we home in on the essence of art itself. It is an unusually persuasive approach precisely because it describes so well the reality of the art world. A suitemate of mine here at school, a visual artist, showed a work earlier this year that was painted with mixture of paint and his own blood, but this was not transparent in the work; rather, blood was the final entry on the materials list, which in my lack of art world acculturation I merely skimmed without interpreting. I found the work aesthetically pleasing anyway and offered the compliment, but he was none too happy and an animated discussion ensued later that night with roommates and guests alike polarized into what in the language of Danto you might call the Philistines and the Interpreters. It is thus more clear to me that Danto has identified an important feature of the art world he inherited than that he has located the essence of art. I get the sense from this book as well as his "After The End of Art" that much as music theorists analyze the music which their theoretical tools enable them to analyze, Danto seeks to explain the things that philosophy can explain, and aestheticism is not one of them. (Fine with me, by the way, that we not try too hard to explain it, but I often wonder if simply ignoring it is the best course of action.)

And so to return just briefly to Plato and his insistence on being over imitating, I would say that for me the most powerful thing about abstract art is the fact that it is the real version of itself. I would call this quality "immediacy" if that word had not already been claimed for the opposite usage by those who would insist that every work of art is representational of something or other, and that the higher the degree of abstraction, the less "immediate" the impact (Danto might say the more interpretation is necessary). I think there is similarly something to be said for such abstract works which cannot in any sense be called commonplace, or in other words, whose hypothetical material counterparts do not yet exist. Call my theory "The Fetishization of the Anomalous." The best part about being a philistine, I guess, is that you get to be a hedonist as well.

10 December 2012

The Now-Annual Placeholder Post

Long day today. Terrible day for blogging. Sometimes the end of the semester clubs you over the head, and other times it's death by a thousand cuts. It's the latter case this time around: no big projects or papers, no flurry of recitals or gigs, just a seemingly endless list of one-time menial tasks (like, uh, writing a blog entry every day for a month). I have to admit, though, that it beats the alternative. Overcommitment is a problem all college music students face at some point, but I have to think CalArts is about the most dangerous place for it ever created. There is a clear pattern among the MFA students: smorgasbord first year, retrenchment second year. Guilty as charged, I am. It was a productive semester, though, and this is where I'm supposed to say I can't believe how quickly three semesters passed and I can't believe there's only one left. Actually, I can totally believe it. The school year runs from September to May; two years of school is bound to feel like less than two calendar years because, well, it is. That's as much a reason as any why I didn't apply to masters programs my last year of college, and why I'm not applying to doctoral programs right now. It can ruin your entire school year. I'm suspect I'm watching it happen to a couple of folks right now, unfortunately. Too bad. There will be plenty of time for that kind of thing after I've squeezed every last drop out of this this place. It's privilege that a lot of people don't have, and I wish more people here behaved that way.

09 December 2012

On Charity


Those who can't do, teach found non-profits.

08 December 2012

Reinforcement

Consider this a mere prelude to a longer reflection on the topic of conditioning, but like most of us horn jocks, I'm continually fascinated/horrified at the relationship brass players have to our mistakes. It's a staple of music school lexicon that the best way to eliminate mistakes is not to practice them, but is it truly possible for a brass player not to practice their mistakes? Ever? Seems to me that no matter how hard we try, unless we are both independently wealthy and exceptionally, pathologically driven, we are going to have days where the ol' choppers simply won't cooperate, whether by virtue of over- or under-cooking the previous day(s). A day off to rest may or may not be in order depending on the particular sonic malaise, and even if it is, it may or may not result in a real live "good day" when we return. Most likely, we need to play some, if not a lot, and it's not going to sound good, i.e. it's going to be one big "mistake," or a series of them. And if we simply sit around waiting for a good day, we eliminate the very possibility, in addition to earning ourselves days or weeks of restorative maintenance filled with "mistakes." If there is a solution to be found here, it remains a mystery to me.

My grandmother, who never played professionally but had an acute musical sense, once said that what made brass entrances most exciting was the suspense surrounding the heightened potential for something to go wrong. I'm now imagining some orchestra outreach type in a sport coat and tennis shoes proffering this alongside his allegorical interpretation of sonata form as part of the hidden code of classical music listening. He might be half right.

07 December 2012

Aebersold Goes Digital (and I missed it?)

It seems that Jamey Aebersold has finally made his (in)famous Play-Along recordings available digitally and by the track. If anyone else still does eMusic, this link will deliver you to the promised land; iTunes has them as well, though it itself remains an evil place.

Once upon a time in a past life and far away land, where digital distribution remained a novelty and I trolled the JA online forum with a regularity I'd rather not admit, this was a near-constant topic of discussion, or at least remark; equally constant, at that time at least, was JA's insistence that digital was untenable for them for one reason or another. (Licensing is the obvious one, but I also think people my parents' age simply weren't ready to give in yet regardless of the other considerations.) I can't tell for sure when they took the plunge, but it looks to have been earlier this year. Many albums on both eMusic and iTunes bear what I suspect to be their original release dates, not their digital ones, but true to form, it's clearly not consistent either way, and suddenly the luddites' fears seem less irrational than they did ten years ago. In any case, whether this all just happened or it happened years ago and I missed it, they did wait an awfully long time to do this as it was clear even back then that digital was the wave of the future. I'm not sure if the lack of a digital presence explains why some of the younger jazz students at CalArts have never heard of Mr. Aebersold, or if there's something else going on, but in any case, someone or other has kept him in business long enough to finally make the leap.

06 December 2012

The Ratio

CalArts is a place of many paradoxes, contradictions and plain old headscratchers, not the least of which is that a music school with such collective irreverence for academic rigor is also a well-known hotspot for JI/microtonal people, who tend by definition to be among the more academically rigorous musicians you'll ever meet. By "academically rigorous," I suppose I really mean "able and willing to do arithmetic in their heads," which normally isn't saying much, but anyone who's been to polite bourgie music school knows that, in this case, it is.

When I arrived at the U of MN, there still existed something called General College, which was essentially a community college within the university. This served two main purposes: it enabled the athletes to play Division I sports while doing junior college academics, and it enabled the undergraduate music majors to take what was understood to be a high school-level class in order to meet the single such requirement imposed by the College of Liberal Arts. (It was not math or science but the foreign language(!) requirement which was waived for music majors in order to accommodate the boatload of coursework within our major, a stunningly counterintuitive if not downright misguided decision; but then, if I'm allowed to embark on a discussion of the many "paradoxes, contradictions and plain old headscratchers" at the ol' U, Blog Month might spill into next year...so we'll leave it there for now.)

In Genesis of a Music, Harry Partch writes:

An acoustician writes in his book that Just Intonation is impossible of attainment in a practical system of music, a psychologist repeats this in his book, authors of harmony repeat it in their books, and finally a veritable army of theorists, composers, and instrumentalists repeats it verbally–of whom not one in a hundred thousand can speak from personal experience. (p. 424)


Such it is that the rest of the students here aren't always on board with this whole thing, up to and including what I perceive as downright defensive reactions to the notion that the study of tuning systems is actually relevant to people who work within one or more of them. It only seems more essential to me the more I learn about it, but I sometimes wonder if this won't actually be the last place on Earth to require such coursework of its music students, threatening as that requirement would to severely harm their buzz.

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.

04 December 2012

Semi-Annual Anti-Amplification Rant

I've lost track of how many times I've heard well-meaning live sound technicians and recording engineers state their unfaltering belief that the purpose of live sound reinforcement is simply to boost the overall level and not to balance the ensemble. And yet as numerous as these pronouncements are, they're not nearly as numerous as the number of small to medium-sized performance spaces which house a sound system.

A world in which one has recourse to sound reinforcement only to reinforce and not to balance is a world in which hard-wired sound systems are the exclusive domain of sports arenas and the great outdoors. In any case, sitting in CalArts' Roy O. Disney Concert Hall (misnamed really since most schools would call a room that size a "Recital Hall"), it occurs to me that I can count on one hand the number of instruments I've heard in person there or anywhere else which would truly require amplification in such a small space simply to be fully audible.

Of course, there are many fruitful musical endeavors (i.e. solo tuba with big band, to name one quite near if somewhat less dear), which artificial balancing enables; call them "works of fiction," as one of my frequent collaborators does. We'd be loathe to throw that baby out with the bathwater, and yet I'd gladly limit myself to working in "non-fiction" for the rest of my life if it meant I never again had to sit ten feet from a needlessly amplified grand piano.

03 December 2012

Learning To Love You More Assignment #60



***FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE***

Bathroom Light In Room B-3 Left On Overnight

In testament to the high degree of self-absorption among art school graduate students and in spite of their lofty claims to be making the world a better place, the bathroom light in Ahmanson Hall room B-3 has been left on overnight for the third time in four days. Because all housing fees are paid in full at the beginning of the academic year, the steep electric bill which such behavior typically precipitates and which in turn tends to serve as its strongest deterrent will not be forthcoming, thus ensuring the light will be left on for hundreds more unnecessary hours yet this school year. All six residents of B-3 deny involvement in the matter and have no further comment at this time. Intra-suite discussion of the light has also been tabled indefinitely pending the development of sufficient resentment among the residents to engender further talks. Residents ask that the media respect their privacy during this difficult time. Requests for interviews will not be granted.


02 December 2012

Doctor Doctor

There seems to be an entire office at CalArts devoted to spamming students with links to opportunities which may or may not be relevant to them, but a recent missive detailing four faculty vacancies at the University of Northern Colorado School of Music caught my eye, first because it's a school I've attended, but also because while it is made clear that candidates with doctorates are preferred, only one of the four announcements (for a position in voice of all things) takes a hard line.

For all the handwringing over the perception that "you practically need a doctorate to teach sixth grade nowadays," it's hard to find evidence of this without being on the inside of the search process. I've never attended a music school that didn't have a significant contingent of undoctored faculty in some of its highest-ranking positions, and I don't think I'd want to. It will be very interesting over the coming decades to see if everyone's dystopian visions of a perfectly insular academic music world come true, and further, given the present "tough economic times" and dwindling private financial support and return on investment for endowments and the like, whether admission to the doctorate club becomes even more a matter of buying oneself in than it already is.

A final word here about CalArts, to my knowledge one of the exceedingly few Art Schools with a music department, and at that, an Art School with exactly one doctoral program, in music. That us musicians would need to create more and more credentials for ourselves to earn makes perfect sense considering that we're typically said to be valued below most of the other arts; indeed, if the proverbial aliens landed, it wouldn't be difficult for them to infer the rest of the valuation landscape simply by noting the size, prestige and rigor of the other graduate programs here. And while academic credentials are by no means universally admired in contemporary American society, they are far more universally admired than any given art practice, and as the only such concrete acknowledgments of our existence available, artists simply crave them. You can no longer prove your worth to the world by making Great Art, but you can still break the socio-political ice in conversation with a red-stater by mentioning that you have a degree in what you do. I've done it many times, often to my surprise. This dynamic in and of itself is not necessarily to be lamented, but the feedback loops it might create within the actual realm of art and art-making give one pause.


01 December 2012

December (yes, December) is Blog Month

December is Blog Month here at Fickle Ears, which means it's about to get hella in(s)ane up in this shit. Enjoy the intellectual carnage.

Prior intros here, here, here and here.

Prior outros here, here, here and here.

Behold the entire streaming pile here, here, here and here.

Blog Month V. Game On.®