29 May 2007

Sweating The Details

If you read The Nation, you may have noticed that the May 14 issue featured a sizable piece on Ornette Coleman and the long-overdue awards he has received recently1. It's always nice when a worthy music-related story gets covered by a non-musical publication with wide distribution. What was not so thrilling this time around, however, was the terminological malfeasance committed along the way.

In attempting to put Coleman's musical innovations into historical context, author David Yaffe wrote the following:

Miles Davis's Kind of Blue had come out a couple of months earlier, just a few months after John Coltrane's Giant Steps, each disdaining chord changes in favor of solemn inquiries into chords and modes. Davis's So What coolly navigated between a couple of minor Mixolydian modes; Coltrane's Giant Steps circled the circle of fifths.

For all the presumed good intentions here, this passage is nothing short of an embarrassment. It is possible (remotely) that the term "minor Mixolydian" is a provincialism of which I was not previously aware, but I cannot confirm this. In any case, it is quite obviously a poorly chosen one given that the mode in question already has a Greek name of its own2.

There is perhaps less reason to get worked up over the circle of fifths reference. Though what Yaffe wrote is technically incorrect, we have all seen the term used in this colloquial manner before. Giant Steps is based on a circle of sorts, but it is actually a circle of major thirds, an interval which symmetrically divides the octave and hence lands on only three of the twelve key centers contained in the circle of fifths. Sure, I'm speaking musician-speak because I am one, but how many "average listeners" could phenomenologically confuse one circle for the other at the time Giant Steps was released, when it sounded to most such people like it came from outer space? It's not just that the term "cirlce of fifths" literally refers to something else, it's that this something else was, even in 1959, totally mundane, whereas Giant Steps was simultaneously earth-shattering and profoundly alienating, depending on one's sensibilities.

The misuse of terminology certainly risks detracting from the authority of the article in the eyes of navel-gazers like me, but is there anything more to this? I think that there very clearly is, and that it most likely betrays pretensions to hipness above all else. That is to say that the fatal error in Yaffe's process was not his particular choice of words but rather his choice to invoke technical jargon at all. Considering that he has a PhD in English, I suspect that if clarity were his motive he probably has the writing chops to make good on it. Then again, considering that he is a music critic with a PhD in English, the hipness/clarity (im)balance is totally predictable.

If it had been up to me, I would have eschewed the jargon altogether and instead written something like this:

Both Miles and Coltrane were moving away from the dominant jazz style of the late 1950's, but in quite different directions. In So What, Miles implemented more static harmonies and a relaxed tempo; Coltrane did the opposite in Giant Steps, saturating musical time with novel chord changes and blowing through them at a blistering pace. Later exponents of both tendencies eventually went to such extremes that traditionalists questioned whether this was jazz at all. Some musicians would eventually ask themselves this question too and realize that the short, rigid, repetitive nature of songform-based jazz no longer permitted them to play what they felt. This was the winding path many later took to "free jazz" which relaxed or abandoned such constraints. Coleman's brand of it was, in hindsight, not among the more radical departures, especially vis-a-vis the role of the drummer, but he had helicoptered in so far ahead of everyone else that visionary status was inevitable. At a certain point, all that remained was for those pesky traditionalists to catch up with everyone else.

It is notoriously difficult to explain obscure technical topics in plain English, regardless of the subject, and editors are justifiably weary of articles that are too technical. One way to ease that fear is to hire people who simply don't have the technical background at all, but in Yaffe's case as in so many others, the results of that strategy speak for themselves. My explanation is less technical than his, but no one without a strong technical background could have produced it.

I don't think this is by any means too much to expect out of the critical establishment. Musicians as a group may not be a model of intellectual potency, but I would venture that there are more than enough who deal equally well with music and the English language to make a more attractive solution possible. I hesitate to invite readers to peruse the blogosphere in search of support for this claim, but given that it is no easier to make a living as a jazz musician than it ever has been as a writer, you can bet your life that there are more than a few qualified people who would accept most any offer to function in both capacities. What's more, the well-known conflict-of-interest that arises when musicians are charged with publicly chronicling and/or evaluating the work of their peers isn't such a big problem in the case of a figure like Ornette, who doesn't have many peers and won't be working with most of them anyway. I have to think that there are plenty of musician-scholars who could have produced a piece on Ornette that was every bit as well-written and well-informed, yet also technically correct and entirely comprehensible to non-musicians.

Whatever the real reason for Yaffe's slip-up, the larger point is that the jargon was simply uncalled for here: musicians don't need to be told the harmony of So What and non-musicians won't understand if you try to tell them. The only people who actually seem to inhabit a grey area between these two levels of understanding are the critics themselves.

Lest I be seen as taking personally-directed cheap shots purely for sport, I trust that most anyone taking the time to read this knows that "terminological malfeasance" happens all the time. I wish to level these criticisms at the entire world of music journalism, not just one author or one publication. This case merely pushed me over the edge (although I have to admit, I'm almost starting to like it over here). Of the top of my head, the following anecdotes from my college years come most immediately to mind:

•I recall spending most of a class session in Jazz Combo with Phil Hey at the U of MN unpacking the assertion made during the Ken Burns Jazz documentary that Charlie Parker was the first jazz musician to improvise solely on the structure (chord changes) of a tune rather than the melody. You can see the selfsame reductive process at work here that resulted in Giant Steps becoming a Circle of Fifths composition...but seriously, did anyone on the editorial level over at PBS actually listen to Louis Armstrong?

•there is, according to one source of mine, a prominent local writer who frequently confuses rhythm and meter.

•one music-major cohort of mine who took a jazz history class taught through non-music academic department and taken by students from a variety of majors emerged with a laundry list of faux-technical missteps committed by the professor and clear evidence of the students' lack of a musico-technical background that would have made a technical approach valid in any case.

Now it's time to anticipate the inevitable cynical rejoinder to my complaints here: "Who the hell cares, and why?" I would hope that it might be self-evident to a good number of readers that intellectual integrity is crucially dependent on the accuracy of the article from top to bottom. Certainly a large quantity of the correspondence I receive here is aimed at correcting small factual errors, and a hell of a lot more people read The Nation than read my blog. Many have remarked on the "gotcha" mentality that modern social media platforms encourage, but as the errors add up, it's not unreasonable to question the overall accuracy of the work, or even the publication as a whole. Yaffe says that Ornette once asked a doctor to castrate him; that certainly makes for great cocktail party banter, but how do I know this is accurate coming from someone who describes Giant Steps as disdaining chord changes?

Even if you think lapses in usage are truly harmless (I would disagree), it's still not right, or at least not as right as it could be, and the fact that self-interest is not sufficient even for commercial publications and professional writers to clean up their collective act is telling. I think that we owe it to them to make them owe it to us. How's that for clarity?

Somehow, I'll condense all of this into a paragraph and send it to The Nation. I'd be the first to agree that they have more important things to worry about, so I doubt they will print it. The outside chance that someone might read it and really think about it, however, is enough for me3.


1. The article is now online, which it was not at the time this post was written.

2. At the risk of being over-thorough in my revision here, I can report that today Google returned only thirteen results for "minor Mixolydian mode" and one fewer than that for "minor Mixolydian modes," the latter including a reference to this post on another blog and the original article itself (and NOT my blog; that hurts, Google). Of the remaining pages, only this one uses the term as Yaffe does; the rest are merely lists of terms and topics where the words occur in this order by virtue of having been alphabetized. This lone corroboration was posted on a message board in 2001, so technically I could/should have been able to find it in 2007. Perhaps it is a parochialism issuing forth from the Balkan clarinet community? Frankly I don't think it really matters: if it was not truly an authorial boo-boo, it was still an editorial one, and this is the larger point.

3. The final insult: The Nation did amazingly enough publish two letters regarding Yaffe's piece. One offers some minor factual (not terminological) corrections; the other, longer screed by one John Provost is a meandering, faux-poetic, personal reflection on a 2004 Ornette concert. I'm willing to accept whatever abuse the more sanguine among us might have for the sentiments I expressed in this post, but if we're going to absolve authors and editors for their less-than-ideal terminological compromises based on space constraints, then it becomes ever more perplexing why a letter like this was printed. It certainly is more perplexing even to me than Yaffe's appeal to jargon, for which the explanations actually are too-obvious.

Here, according to the sent folder of my email account, is what I sent to The Nation that May 29:

Thank you so very much for your recent piece on Ornette Coleman (David Yaffe, Art of the Improviser, May 14). Yaffe should, however, be embarrassed at having used a made up term ("minor Mixolydian") in the course of referencing one of the most famous, most simple, and most famously simple jazz standards in history, Miles Davis's So What. A more musically competent writer would not only have known that So What uses the Dorian mode, but could have managed a perfectly decent explanation of Coleman's early 1960's innovations without resorting to jargon at all, hence making to article more comprehensible to non-musicians.

22 May 2007

Into Thin Air?

Pronouncements of the imminent death of CD's are increasing in frequency. Digital downloads, so say those in the know, are poised to take over completely. Unlike many, I am not so attached to CD's that I would oppose this simply out of conservative desperation. I do, however, want to point out a few things that I have yet to hear anyone mention.

First, even if recorded music becomes sold exclusively through online downloads, it still must be stored on some kind of media, both before and after the transaction. Whether that is a hard drive, a jump drive, an iPod, or god forbid a compact disc, the data is not simply going to disappear into thin air. The method of delivery may change drastically, but in the end, the music must still be delivered to someone somewhere and on to something. Barring the development of technology for downloading material objects, such devices will continue to be part of the picture. This fact ought to be embraced rather than lamented, for internet communications are too prone to eavesdropping and censorship to be allowed to become the sole method of transporting data from one computer to another.

Next, let's make a list of what one must presently be able to afford/possess in order to purchase and download music and why:

(1) A Credit Card
These days, most bank accounts come with check cards that work just the same, but they do not have the fraud protection that comes with a "real" credit card. They are a direct line to your bank account, and when that money is gone, it's gone for good. This means that it is exceedingly risky to use them for online shopping. A "real" credit card, on the other hand, is something that many poor people don't have, and also something that many others of all income levels do not otherwise want or need. To require a credit card in order to purchase recorded music would be to effectively shut out a large number of people from the process, or force them into a lifestyle decision they don't want to make.

(2) A Sufficiently Capable Computer
Every time I see one of those Dell commercials where the CEO says he is all about improving people's quality of life, I throw something at the television. Computer manufacturers mastered planned obsolescence long ago, and they continue to use it to this day in order to line their pockets. There are 20 year old CD players that still work fine, but how many 20 year old computers are there that can download a 3 minute song from iTunes? In any case, even "cheap" computers of any kind are still major investments for most people in the world today. I know plenty of people (musicians and music lovers all of them) whose computers couldn't download a piece of text, let alone an MP3 of virtually any length. Make this the only way to get recorded music and you have ensured that only the middle and upper classes have access.

(3) Sufficiently Capable Wired Internet Access
Of those who can afford a computer at all, how many can also afford an extra monthly bill for fast internet access? In most areas of the U.S., wireless can be had for free one way or another, but it is inherently insecure, making it risky to make purchases this way.

Of course, I could have it backwards: perhaps the demand for downloads among the working classes will lead to the spread of low-end MP3 players and automated downloading stations in malls where one can pay cash. The music and technology industries speak the language of money, and in the end, one would expect them to leave no market untapped. So, perhaps what we are facing here is only a temporary problem, not to mention one that has been faced a few times before. Nonetheless, I think that it is part of a larger problem anyway. From New York City jazz club cover charges to the price of commercially produced CD's, listening to music has already become somewhat forbidding to those without a lot of disposable income. It has been pointed out that, compared to CD's, downloads cost less for consumers and earn more for record labels. That is only true, however, if one assumes that the consumers all possess the three things listed above, and I still know enough people for whom this is not the case to make this cause for concern. I have enough money in the bank to afford several dozen gallons of jet fuel, but I do not own my own private jet. Such is the situation with downloads: what good is being able to buy a track for a dollar if one must invest hundreds or thousands of dollars accessorizing just to gain access to that track?

The industry has already shown us that changes in format don't just happen on their own for no reason. Perhaps it was inevitable that technology evolves faster now than it ever has before. However, this also means that it becomes more and more expensive for the masses to keep up, and easier for the industry to profiteer through planned obsolescence and other tactics. Coincidence? Consider current events: the RIAA continues it's misguided crusade against piracy, the Copyright Royalty Board is trying to kill internet radio as we know it, computer companies continue to implement planned obsolescence, and internet service providers are busy opposing the construction of municipal wireless internet utilities. Let's face it: to a great extent, the corporations have us by the balls, and where they don't, they sure would like to. If I thought that they had our best interests in mind, I would not be so hesitant to celebrate the inevitability of an all-download music business. As it is, however, I haven't really stopped to think about how I feel about downloading as a consumer; instead, I'm preoccupied with anticipating the consequences of allowing large media corporations to control all access to recorded music. Call me paranoid, but you never know. The affordability of home recording equipment coupled with, yes, the internet, has hastened the demise of the so-called "music industry." I, for one, would like to make sure the damn thing is completely dead (in addition to seeing the "digital divide" thoroughly bridged) before I'll be okay with the thought of obtaining recorded music exclusively through downloads.

14 May 2007

Name The Band After Yourself

If your band is truly a joint venture among the members, if it is going to be heavily promoted through all of the usual outlets, and if you have a really good idea for a name, you have all the reason you need to apply that ingenious name to your group and continue going about your business. However, I have a problem with the idea that every group that has a gig must also have a name, particularly when the group in question does not demonstrate the characteristics of a "regular" band (i.e. being a priority for everyone involved and playing out consistently).

I say this because I occasionally find out that I missed a show I would have really like to have heard simply because I did not know who was in the group, let alone what they actually do when they get together. Knowing the venue is helpful but is usually not enough by itself; if you also know who the performers are (all of them), that completes the circle. How ridiculous it is that this information is seldom available because everyone feels obligated to use their latest play on words in lieu of the name(s) by which they are known to the rest of the world.

If you go to shows based entirely on the name of the band, you have probably been to a lot of shows you hated. If you play with a rotating cast of characters and you rename each subsequent group, you are hurting attendance at your gigs. Your name, your instrument or voice, and the venue are both more pertinent and more helpful pieces of information. People who can't read minds (like me) will thank you.

07 May 2007

Returning With a "Pop" Instead of a "Bang"

Per normal blog etiquette, this is where I'm supposed to apologize for my protracted absence from cyberspace the last couple of weeks. In reality, the person I owe the apology to is myself, for the tenuous readership this blog enjoys is proof that I need you more than you need me. In any case, here's your damn article, saps.

In an attempt to return with a bang/stir up controversy/see if anyone is actually reading, here's an idea I had recently that is sure to get some undies in a bundle. Like many of my ilk, I don't see most pop music as being worthy of academic attention. Unlike many of my ilk, however, I say this not because it is too easy to listen to*, but because it is too easy to play.

It is not uncommon to hear complaints about academia's seemingly exclusive focus on the classical and jazz traditions. The word "elitist" is thrown around with some frequency when this topic comes up. I have three questions for people who level these complaints:

•"What specifically, then, ought to be covered in such a curriculum?"

•"Are these college level academic topics?"

•"Be careful what you wish for. Don't you see what they've done to classical and jazz music?"

If you've spent any appreciable portion of your teenage years playing music, yet upon arrival to college you need someone to hold your hand while you explore the mystical worlds of power chords, backbeats, and modulations of an ascending minor third, you are not functioning on a post-secondary level in this particular subject area (music) in the first place and should not be admitted to college as a music major anyway. There are plenty of fine musicians who play by ear and may struggle with the "theory" behind these concepts in written form, but if these devices are beyond one's technical capacity as an instrumentalist or vocalist, college is not the place to address this deficiency. At most schools, the admissions bar is already much higher than that, and in reality probably ought to be higher yet anyway.

Please don't jump to conclusions about what I'm saying. I wish that colleges would involve many more students in their music programs than they currently do by expanding their offerings to non-majors. (Have I plugged this lately? Please feel free to read it if you haven't already) These offerings, however, need to be consistent with the level of coursework done in every other department at the school.

It's no surprise that pop music has made the most inroads in the musicology area of the curriculum, and that many schools offer classes like "History of Rock and Roll" as token gestures of goodwill towards the other liberal arts departments. As long as they jump at every opportunity to make connections to sociology, cultural studies, or whatever, there's plenty of fodder there for a college level class. Musicology and pop is a match made in heaven as long as both groups are so perversely content to wallow in concerns that have absolutely NOTHING to do with the actual creation of music. Conversely, colleges are understandably unwilling to approach pop music in the applied, ensemble, and theory areas because the curriculum would then fall well short of what could reasonably be deemed "college level" coursework.

There is no college arithmetic, nor do English literature students read Dr. Seuss, and to teach the performance of pop music as a specialization in post-secondary education would come close to crossing this line. You could say I'm biased, but this is something of a style-neutral issue anyway: a 4-year degree is a 4-year degree, and it had better signify a certain level of accomplishment at something. Like it or not, in a field where almost everything else is entirely subjective, raw technique is one of the few legitimate objective standards one can apply. In trying to precisely locate the cause of the problems so many people have with academia, the general emphasis on technique should not be confused with how it is approached. I would argue that the former is correct while the latter, in my limited experience, leaves quite a bit to be desired.

In any case, schools should not be granting music degrees of any kind to people who can't play their instruments (actually, they already do, which means that adding a pop music specialization would be compounding rather than solving the problem). That the techniques required by pop music would be inappropriate for college level coursework should also betray the fact that one does not need a degree to play pop (actually, any) music in the first place. Of course, all of us look forward to those precious few opportunities to get credit for something we would be doing anyway. That, however, is not what post-secondary education is about. Post-secondary education is about being dragged kicking and screaming out of our comfort zones and experiencing unforeseen and unprecedented personal growth as a result. You could call me, as a degree holder myself, a hypocrite, but in truth, "what I did during college" was nothing like "what I would have been doing anyway", and as ungrateful and irreverent as I get about much of my experience as a lowly undergrad, the truth is that it undoubtedly had a sizable impact on my musicianship. Just because someone is earlier in the process and/or interested in different music doesn't mean they don't deserve instruction and encouragement. I don't believe, however, that post-secondary educational institutions are obligated to provide it when the subject matter falls outside their scope.

So far as "nurture" (as opposed to "nature") is concerned, it's not too difficult to objectively evaluate different kinds of music for suitability for academic study (which is not to say I endorse their thought process on this 100% of the time, but academics are the way they are for a reason, and there's an upside to this as well as a downside). As for nature, academic musicians are reluctant to acknowledge it at all, content instead on pretending that they can work miracles with any student. This is a prudent business decision, but it doesn't always yield the greatest pedagogy. Anti-elitists beware: you ought to be careful what you wish for. Two ways academics ruin music are when they, (1) have delusions of controlling "nature", and (2) institutionalize certain biases as objective standards for lack of any other beyond the technique example given earlier.

It's not my place to say whether pop music is worthwhile on its own merit; that's up to individual preference. The requisite abilities (that is, those that can be taught at all) are so basic that they are not worthy of being taught at the post-secondary level. I say this, of course, taking for granted that there would be highly functional music programs in our K-12 schools, which is largely not true at this point. However, in a perfect world, these skills would be part of middle and high school curricula, and those who did not possess them as prospective college freshmen would be appropriately nudged towards remedial instruction, just as in every other academic discipline. I have been known to insist that, "Anything is difficult to do well." I still believe that. The path to doing something well, however, may or may not be worthy of college credit depending on the destination.

*It goes without saying, of course, that I find pop music incredibly difficult to listen to, and therein lies the problem with the all-too-handy convention of using "easy" and "difficult" as euphemisms for other things. I would argue that such labels always tell us much more about the person who made the statement in the first place than they do about the actual music that person is referring to. I promise to produce a treatise on this sometime in the next 40 years. For now, the readership can surely forgive me on the grounds that the cleverness of this particular turn of phrase outweighs the hackneyed semantic transgression I was forced to employ in its service.