30 October 2013

Choice Nuggets As Always From G.E.L.

George E. Lewis deals to New Music Box:

I was communicating and trying to reflect at the same time how else to communicate. I began to develop what I thought was a facility for having multiple mindsets while improvising. I’ve read that people say things like, “I blank my mind out when I play.” That’s not my experience: usually I’m thinking about a lot of different things at the same time. I think that helped me perform in a different way, because it provided a space where I could at once hear the sound and to have a sense of the intent of the other person. It’s not mysterious; people experience it every day. Parts of sound and intentionality create a link.

Can you say "refreshing?" I think that the trance approach to improvising, though I've certainly had isolated experiences of that type myself, has thoroughly run amok at this point, so it's nice to see a name guy come out as a thinker (as if there was any doubt in this case, but even so). Assertions such as "I blank my mind out when I play" (I've heard them, too) would seem to me to demand some pretty serious excursus; but of course, this camp being as they are against thinking, excursus tends to be in fittingly short supply. Not so with the thinkers, for obvious reasons. Kenny Werner, for example, has clearly thought about this cogently: "the space" is not at all about numbing the mind, but rather the ego, thus freeing the mind to be as active (or not) as it wants. Or at least that's how I read it. My 10th grade English teacher, Ms. Stammers, once asked us if we didn't agree that it was always better to think one's way out of a situation. Thanks, Ms. Stammers...and thanks, Professor Lewis.


Now here's Professor Lewis on his stint as music director of The Kitchen in the early 80s:

[GL] There was a period of trying to stretch people’s ears and their consciousness. Anthony Braxton would go to Donaueschingen and play Charlie Parker for them, and then he would go to the Newport Jazz Festival and play this 50-page notated piece. That’s how it would work. You want people to not be settled in their beliefs; you want to challenge their beliefs through music, in some way.

TH: Do you think that era has ended?

GL: Well I hope it hasn’t. I mean, it hasn’t for me, but maybe I’m feeling a bit isolated. Maybe it’s not as necessary. Maybe all that work that was done before had some effect. But then, maybe not. I mean nowadays, everyone seems to want to be confirmed in what they currently believe. Technologically mediated narrow casting seems to make that possible. You don’t have to go to a concert of anything you don’t like; you don’t have to encounter a sound that you’re not interested in. What we find, though, is that there are people still out there who seek out new experience in sound; and that’s our audience. Or my kind of audience, anyway.

A funny thing happened to me after officially making the scene in Minneapolis for a number of years: I started writing more conservative music than I had at first. The early D Series pieces and Calypso Development represented a particularly stark neoclassicism. It was my first experience surprising people who only knew me as a wooly-headed modernist. It went down this way when I realized that there was a palpable void at the center of the Minneapolis music scene, comprised as it is nearly exclusively of oddball specialties with barely a whiff of the oppressive stylistic monoliths to which these niches might fruitfully oppose themselves in a more comprehensive musical ecosystem. There was, on one hand, all manner of roaring twenties revivalism, Gypsy jazz, non-idiomatic free playing, new-age Lutheran choral music, bluegrass type stuff, and self-consciously eclectic pop music mashups; and on the other, almost no hardcore bebop, post-serialism/complexism, New York School experimentalism, or process-oriented minimalism, or at least quite a bit less than I'm sure people who know the city only by external reputation might assume. (I've met a few. I fear they may be underwhelmed if they ever visit. If they listen to me and go in the fall, at least they won't come back complaining about the weather.)

There are two sides to every coin, and in Minneapolis, the freedom to be oneself, which the city, it is true, affords the musician in abundance, is also symptomatic of the unwillingness and/or inability to face down those towering monoliths, or even to acknowledge their global presence and gravitational pull. When Milo Fine sat me down and told me it was okay to play bebop licks in his groups, a weight was lifted off my shoulders (though I told him why I was uncomfortable with it and he understood: one too many times had I heard free jazz groups consisting of multiple abstract noisemakers and one post-Jimmy Lyons saxophonist full of stock bebop licks who seemed to have no awareness whatsoever that there were other people in the ensemble). Milo, as anyone who has heard or played in his groups knows, is a force of nature unto himself; but there aren't many others in town, and it's fitting that as the only lifelong Minneapolitan I know of who qualifies for such a designation, his groups are, simply by virtue of the personnel, also the most eclectic around. His work is a towering monolith constructed of a million tiny fragments; in other words, regarding the rather crude dichotomy I've proffered above, it is in an odd sense the exception that proves the rule.

Still others are more outwardly threatened by the bebop, the through-composition, the traditional ensemble skills, and all the other rigid mainstream practices which I for whatever reason uncharacteristically embraced at an early stage and made part of my own eclectic mix. It was shocking for me to learn the degree to which practitioners themselves tailor their own music and ensemble situations toward their strengths and away from their weaknesses; to witness consciousness of a music's unspoken internal political dimensions trotted out as a mere defense mechanism. "Challeng[ing] beliefs through music" begins at home, right? But I've also learned the hard way that no one wants to hear you or play with you while you're still learning to do something, and therein lies the explanation. I can see now that it takes thick skin and independence of spirit to sustain this kind of outlook for an entire career. If you want to be a lifelong learner, you had better be prepared to lose some friends and gigs over it. And do you know how I learned that? By putting neo-tonal, post-Hindemithian music in front of a bunch of wooly-haired jazz musicians. In Minneapolis, no one else was going to do that for them, and so were they the only ones, potentially, who might in turn be able to put it in front of the audiences who needed to hear it. That was my thinking, except I didn't really think about it; I just did it. That's where I think Professor Lewis is on to something important here.

Los Angeles, obviously, is another kettle of fish. The monoliths cast exceedingly long shadows here. My neoclassical music will not be needed for the foreseeable future, but nor is there any void that a calculated turn towards brand-name complexism, experimentalism, or minimalism might fill. There seems, rather, to be plenty of that going on without my help, along with plenty of navel-gazing jazzheads eager fill that well-known and much-discussed non-void. And so, with The "H" Series, I've veered toward a more satisfying synthesis of all of my interests all at once than I was ever able to conceive of in Minneapolis. I have, of course, been busy studying hard and growing older, which undoubtedly helps, but I think there's more to it than that. I always knew that I was only avant-garde in Minneapolis; that has been strongly confirmed out here, where I am decidedly middlebrow. I've still managed to alienate a few people by putting stems on my noteheads, but no one has yet called me "that crazy tuba player" within my earshot. I realize it was always meant as a compliment; it's just that it was never true. Everyone else was crazy, not me.


One for the road:

TH: Contemporary music and musicology entering the public sphere is sort of The Big Question in those fields, it seems to me. For the people involved with that, what can be done to take an active role in entering the public sphere?

GL: This is one of the hardest things to do, and people are going to have to be pretty ruthless and cynical about it. I was at UCSD in the ’90s. There are people there who are pretty influential in the world of scholarship—not just music, but many things. And they had no idea about what the musicians in this great music department were doing. So your job as a person is to go out and make those links. But that requires you do some research about what has been going on in those areas, and it might require you to develop some moles in the system, so to speak. There’s always somebody in there who is interested, and you don’t know who they are, but it’s kind of your job to find them. There’s no possibility of mass marketing. You’re not going to get attention without some mole in the system.

I copied and pasted this a while ago and now can't for the life of me recall exactly what earth-shattering point I was going to make about it. If you've kept up all month, by now you should be able to tell me what I would say. I'm spent. But it feels good.


Nick Z said...

"It was shocking for me to learn the degree to which practitioners themselves tailor their own music and ensemble situations toward their strengths and away from their weaknesses; to witness consciousness of a music's unspoken internal political dimensions trotted out as a mere defense mechanism."


Also, I hope I am one of the wooly-haired people to which you refer in this post.


Stefan Kac said...

Oh Nick, your readings of my charts were always suitably...clean cut.

Nick Z said...

Where's the "like" button on this thing? Wait, you mean I'm expected to actually generate and notate a coherent thought of some sort... God help me.