23 June 2007

The Case Against Audience Tampering

I rarely engage in the typical inter-blog linking and back-patting behaviors, but I'll make an exception here. I've been a major detractor of pre-concert lectures and other such activities since I was a teenager (i.e. since people started trying to use it on me), and now Matthew Guerreri has a postup that supposedly explains why I enjoyed myself more without Joe Musiciologist helping me "understand" the music. Daniel Wolf also has a typically-eloquent take on the matter here.

Matthew, who I respect greatly as a writer, says that these findings contradict his personal experience. Conversely, they reflect mine very accurately. That two people would feel so differently on this ought to be proof in and of itself that listeners must be drawn in on their own terms, and that contrary to what pre-concert talks often assume, different listeners will be engaged by different landmarks in the same piece.

21 June 2007

The Tasteless Display of Non-Virtuosity

It is high time we stopped hating virtuosity. I am a firm believer that the thinking musician cannot possibly have too much technique, for if he/she is truly a "thinking musician", then he/she will have plenty of constructive uses for those abilities. The tasteless display of virtuosity is not the inevitable consequence of developing virtuosic technique; those who put on such displays have something else wrong with them that is pretty much unrelated to their technique, even if their technique becomes a vehicle for expressing this pathology.

If you ask me, tasteless displays of non-virtuosity are equally disconcerting. There's a classical-era string quartet piece in the Muzak rotation where I work that is rottenly out of tune. Someone (several someones, actually) got paid to play, record, mix, produce, distribute, and license that music, while there are inevitably several quartets worth of string players the world over with impeccable intonation who are eating ramen and peanut butter for dinner tonight. Do you feel better now?

Of course, I'm going to get myself labeled an elitist, a snob, or a typical young whipper-snapper, whereas the anti-virtuoso people are being inclusive, open-minded, mature, perhaps even multi-cultural. And of course, I'm a tuba player engaged in the Sisyphian struggle against the valve system and all of it's inherent flaws of intonation, so who's to say I could do any better? The point is that some people are not satisfied with merely attaining the level of technique needed to land a Muzak session gig. Vanity, self-aggrandizement, and exhibitionism are not good reasons for feeling this way, but artistic vision and personal pride are. Don't throw the baby out with the bath water. The circus acts give virtuosity a bad name; nonetheless, it is vital to music, and a dearth of it is harder to endure than the most shameless displays of excess.

20 June 2007

Prepare >>> Produce

As a college music student, it always seemed that everything I was doing was preparatory. Every act of performance or composition was in some sense undertaken less for its own sake than as an exercise aimed at sharpening my abilities, or perhaps as a barometer of where those abilities stood at the time. Just over two years removed from my last school-related activities, I find myself suddenly overtaken by frustration at how little of value (even to me) I have produced up to this point, as well as the realization that this has occurred largely because the focus has always been disproportionately on preparation rather than actual production.

There are a handful of recordings and scores that I'm very proud of, but in large part, all of those great things that my early accomplishments supposedly foreshadowed have yet to materialize. All of this has allowed me to confirm that the greatest challenge in making the transition to the "real world" is not economic, but artistic and philosophical: how does one go from constant preparation to consummating that preparation in the form of tangible musical products (i.e. performances, recordings, and scores)?

Preparation is hard work physically, but mentally and emotionally, it's comparatively easy as long as it is always directed at something abstract and years in the future. In an academic setting, there is also lots of direction, coaxing, and pressure coming from without as well as within. Now, however, I am feeling pressure (from myself rather than from others) to deliver the goods in a timely fashion.

I was, of course, always frustrated with the fact that school involved so much preparation and so little resolution of that preparation. I was scared off (perhaps, it now seems, for good) from taking composition lessons when a professor I approached told me that he had stopped composing altogether as an undergraduate while studying theory. Privately, I reacted very strongly against this: "To stop composing now," I though to myself, "would merely diminish my total output." Big-headed and naive? Absolutely...but I was right. I wrote several worthy pieces during this time, and they're almost everything I have to hang my hat on at this point.

Since there are only so many hours in the day, more producing equates directly to less preparing, and hence, it's too easy to feel that there's another big-headed, naive assumption behind this decision also (i.e. as if I was done learning for good). I've made up my mind, though, for better or worse, that it's time to throw down. I'm not getting any younger, and it would be a shame to waste all of that hard work.

13 June 2007

Making E-Time

Let's call this the second in a two-part series on music and the internet, the first of which would be located here

While writing that entry, I was reminded of the time I volunteered to work the phones for a local radio station's pledge drive. They had a sheet sitting on the table listing the number of people who had listened to the station online the previous day, which country they were from, and the total amount of time by country. The good news was that 6 people from China tuned in; the bad news was that the total amount of time the 6 of them listened to the station was less than 5 minutes. As I recall, The Netherlands topped the list with 2 people and a total of 3+ minutes; this was the only country (including the U.S.) where listeners averaged a minute or more each.

So, is there something inherently casual, or even inane, about the internet? Not for me. I block out time every so often to listen (REALLY listen, that is) to music on other musicians' websites and read articles and blogs that are relevant to my musical endeavors. Of course I enjoy it, but I am very careful to make it constructive. When my attention span lapses, I go do something else. If I stumble on something I'm not interested in, I move on quickly.

The best thing about the internet is also the worst thing about it: everything is just a click away. This has yielded great advances in communications, but it also presents an unparalleled opportunity for fickleness to get the better of the user. The internet isn't doing anyone any good if no one takes advantage of it, but it's also not much good when used for trivial reasons either.

Finally, here's an excerpt from a recent Electronic Frontier Foundation newsletter that dovetails nicely with what I wrote previously about physical storage devices:

The NPD Group's latest music stats provide yet another reason that the RIAA's war on college students is misguided:

"The 'social' ripping and burning of CDs among friends -- which takes place offline and almost entirely out of reach of industry policing efforts -- accounted for 37 percent of all music consumption, more than file-sharing, NPD said."

This data suggests offline sharing is growing, and that's to be expected. Along with burning CDs and DVDs for each other, fans can swap hard drives, share USB drives, and use many other technologies to share music without hopping online or installing P2P software. It's only going to get easier to share mass volumes of music in this way -- these tools are increasingly ubiquitous, with ever-growing capacity and ever-diminishing price.

06 June 2007

My Philosophy In a Nutshell

Much ink has been spilled and time wasted trying to define "music" from a technical or structural point of view, but what about defining it in terms of perception/reception? I'm willing to accept any sound as musical. However, if I wish to find the music in any old sound, I am the one who must decide that this is what I want to do, how I should do it, and why it is important to me. The sound as a physical phenomenon remains unchanged whether I ignore it or contemplate it. A Mozart piano sonata could be a mere distraction if it threatens to drown out an important conversation, while a construction crew could unwittingly create a musical experience for someone who chooses to receive it as such.

In my relatively brief time as a musician, my music has been both a distraction and an attraction to many people. I, of course, intend only the latter, but I only control the sound; the audience controls the music. That there is, in fact, a whole sovereign genre called "ambient music" is very disappointing to me. Besides the fact that I despise this phrase, I would also argue that it is a contradiction in terms. Making music has as much to do with receiving as it does with sending. For this reason, it may be possible to create music unintentionally or accidentally, but it is not possible to perceive it that way. There is a difference between "hearing" and "listening" just as there is between "seeing" and "looking".

Some call this an intellectual distinction; I disagree. That position presupposes that there is only one way to hear a piece of music; that there are certain things that everyone needs to be on the look out for, lest they fail to "understand" the piece. As Debussy said, listeners need only to listen. Let them notice and miss what they may. It is not a question of intellectuals and non-intellectuals, but of those who decide to pay attention and those who either can't or won't for whatever reason.

Among those who pay attention, no two will have the same experience, nor should they. The aims and implications of much of the audience outreach that has been done in the last several decades are profoundly flawed because they assume that the goal is to teach large numbers of people to experience the same music the same way. It's no wonder little progress has been made, for this is simply impossible. The current paradigm is one that aims to educate diverse perspectives into conformity rather than simply allowing them to take their place and exist as they may, but that approach is no better suited to music than it is to government.