25 July 2007

Arnold Schoenberg and Stan Kenton

What do these two have in common? Both felt that the setting in which their music was expected to be presented was not necessarily the most appropriate one possible. Compare the following excerpts from the Statement of Aims of Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances (1) and Pete Welding's liner notes to Kenton's "New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm" (2).

(1) Herein lies the essential difference revealed by a comparison of the Society's aims with those of the everyday concert world, from which it is quite distinct in principle. Although it may be possible, in preparing a work for performance, to get along with the strictly limited and always insufficient number of rehearsals hitherto available, for better or worse (usually the latter), yet for the society the number of rehearsals allotted to works to be performed will be limited only by the attainment of the greatest possible clarity and by the fulfillment of the composer's intentions as revealed in his work.

...artists of high-priced reputation will be used only so far as the music demands and permits; and moreover that kind of virtuosity will be shunned which makes of the work to be performed not the end in itself but merely a means to an end which is not the Society's, namely, the display of irrelevant virtuosity and individuality, and the attainment of purely personal success.

...The only success that an artist can have here is that (which should be most important to him) of having made the work, and therewith its composer, intelligible.

(2) And although the orchestra had started as a dance band–albeit one with a rather different twist–and continued to play for dancers, it became more and more a concert ensemble as Kenton more fully realized his ambitions to anneal jazz with European concert music.

...It is partly as a result of his efforts that jazz is now accorded respect as a serious music, perhaps America's major contribution to world music; that the locus of the music has shifted from the nightclub to the concert hall and festival stage; that the synthesis with European concert music he envisioned has been enabled to take place in the work of others who followed in his wake; and that the music has had its horizons widened through various of the concepts he pioneered and set in motion.

Obviously, Schoenberg's complaints had more to do with the various distractions surrounding the concerts (prima donna performers, hostile audiences, and critics wielding the power to make or break an artist) than with the concert format itself. Many of what he sees as problems have been part of classical music both before and after his time. On the other hand, for Kenton, assimilating to this concert format was a breakthrough in itself (or so it is made to sound). What intrigues me about both is the idea that a musician may have to actively search out or create from scratch the ideal presentation of his/her music, and the resistance one may encounter along the way from casual listeners and fellow professionals alike.

To put it bluntly, for me, this is about jazz and bars. Welding's reference to the "nightclub" is too generous a description of many of the Minneapolis venues I have performed in, and yet, the musicians, bookers, and proprietors of these establishments seldom give the situation a second thought. Even working for free, a traditional classical string quartet would never be allowed in one of these venues, but whether it is the history of the music or the simple fact that it often enough involves a drum set and a guitar, jazz groups have always played in dive bars, even now when both the proprietors and the clientele of most such establishments tend to favor other music.

Call me a snob if you will, but nothing I do belongs in this setting. I say this not because of the puke on the floor, the often-cramped stages, or the paltry financial rewards. I would not only put up with but embrace all of that if only the more important aspects of the situation were in line, but as it stands, these establishments are not conducive to attentive listening, not only because of their horrid acoustics, but also because they exist first and foremost as conduits for socializing. There's nothing wrong with that; it's just not an ideal environment for concert music. I would not be so quick to laud the virtues of the concert hall and festival stage either. The acoustics of many concert halls are not good for jazz; who would expect otherwise, as they are designed primarily with the traditional European symphony orchestra in mind? The festivals, on the other hand, aren't always the best either, especially if they are outdoors. Usually, this means relying almost entirely on amplification, even of the horns, and this changes the character of acoustic music too much for my tastes. Besides, at 24 years of age, I am already too old to get booked at jazz festivals. If only I could go back to being a teenager and take up the saxophone and be from a foreign country and...forget it.

What, then, is the solution to the non-classical concert music conundrum? I don't know. The "performance space" is always an attractive concept, a medium-sized room tucked away somewhere with seating for 30-50 people and half-decent acoustics. If only there was a musician somewhere who could afford such a place. Most likely, we'll have to make due with the current hodgepodge of bars, concert halls and coffee houses for some time to come, but I for one will always be keeping my eyes out for venues that offer something closer to the ideal.

It doesn't help that the very idea of presenting jazz as "concert" music is still resisted by some jazz musicians and audiences, who sometimes argue that it is unwise to remove the music from its native socio-cultural context. I would counter that this context too often represents an affront to both the music and the musician for the reasons already given. The position I'm taking was taken by some as early as the 1960's, but of course, the most conservative wing of the jazz culture warriors is always looking nearly twice that far back, to a time when jazz was both literally and figuratively "popular" music. Does it bother anyone else when the musicians are essentially being used to sell food and drinks, or perhaps are merely being tolerated by the management for some other reason? Venue owners take advantage of musicians to this end, offering little or no guaranteed pay and getting away with it simply because there are enough bands willing to play for free, musical competency be damned. I would hate to think that any practitioner or other devotee of a certain music would find that music unsuitable for concert performance. That's an outright admission that when you take away everything that attaches itself to the music like a leech, there's not much left that's worth anything. For me, in general, jazz is not one of those musics. In this case, concert = respect and dignity as far as I'm concerned.


Despite having only a cursory knowledge of his music, I have held Schoenberg in extremely high regard as a thinker ever since I read Style and Idea, an exhaustive collection of his writings. I have maintained ever since that if he was crazy, so am I: this book is among the most incisive things I've ever read on music, and is even laugh-out-loud funny on occasion. I highly recommend it to everyone.

I don't know nearly as much about Kenton. I bought the above mentioned CD to use in a jazz history class I was teaching, as well as out of a sense of professional obligation. With the exception of a few tunes, the music is starting to grate on me. It seems to me to be the earliest example of the distastefully high lead trumpet writing that has become de rigeur in big bands of all stripes. Perhaps someone with more knowledge of the subject can fill me in on the history of the big band trumpet screeching (when I was in school, my mom always called it, "that damn Las Vegas trumpet thing").

In any case, I have to respect (or at least empathize) with both men when it comes to the need for a different format or presentation. For me, this has become about establishing a "concert" atmosphere away from the traditional "concert" venues. Of course, to hear people like Greg Sandow tell it, today's movement is a movement in the opposite direction, one where adherents are quick to point out that even classical music was once presented in circumstances not too terribly different from what I'm opposing here, and then suggest that we should consider going back to that. It's safe to say that I, for one, would stop going to concerts if people were allowed to walk around, chit-chat, and eat popcorn; that, however, is much less than typically goes on in many venues I've played at. In any case, I believe in strongly in the concert as an institution, one that must be understood as aspiring to be "different" rather than "better" than the alternatives (and, dare I say, the ball is in the relativists' court on this one, for I have to believe that the interest in "pop" music on behalf of "concert" musicians has never been higher, myself not withstanding). The concert is not intended to be above anyone: it is simply a place where listening attentively takes precedence over everything else, if not temporarily.

By removing all other attractions and distractions, you are also being more honest. The ArtsJournal approach to "saving" classical music has always struck me as dishonest because it relies on what is essentially a bait-and-switch tactic, namely creating some non-musical attraction and crossing your fingers that some of the people you fool into coming happen to enjoy the music also. If it saves a regional orchestra here and there, fine. My personal experiences have taught me that it is more fulfilling to play for 3 involved listeners than it is to play for 1,000 people who would rather be somewhere else. That philosophy combined with an insistence on "concert" presentation isn't going to draw very many people overall, but there's a good chance it will draw the same number of listeners as any most other approach.

16 July 2007

Miscellaneous Confessions

I am not an audiophile. When I listen to recorded music, I may notice the sound quality, but very rarely does this color my overall opinion of the work. It has to get to the level of the constant static on the earliest jazz recordings (i.e. 1910's and 20's) before I will bat an ear. I can't tell the difference between MP3 and CD sound. The word "lossless" is not yet in my vocabulary. I can tell the difference between CD and vinyl, but who cares? I can't stand reviewers who practically put equal stock in production and content, but I suppose this isn't worth bellyaching about since great music poorly recorded tends to garner more acclaim in the long run than mediocre music masterfully recorded.

Lately, I've found that I am far more likely to be dissatisfied with the sound at live performances than recorded ones. Perhaps that means that I take the art and craft of recording engineers for granted, or that the overall competence of live "sound guys" everywhere is not very high, or that we are more aware of what we are missing when we can see it but not hear it. In any case, when it comes to recordings, I don't seem to have any trouble looking past the production as much as possible in order to connect with what is really going on musically. I am more picky when it comes to live music, which raises a familiar conundrum.

People have been speculating for decades now as to whether recorded music will kill live music, and even I as a musician have to admit that in many cases, I'd rather stay home with my stereo. This is mostly because of amplification*. You might as well be listening to a recording when violins or trumpets or grand pianos are cranked through a PA system; the sound comes out of a speaker just the same, and it has none of the character that the same instrument has when heard unamplified. Pretty much the only thing that makes it worth the trouble to hear the music live is to hear the sound of the instruments and/or the space in person. That's all that live music has on recording in the end, and yet there are precious few settings outside of the concert hall where one can expect to hear unamplified live performances on a regular basis.

What comes out of a PA is what comes out of your home stereo, only your home stereo isn't set at a dangerously high volume (unless you want it that way) and you don't have to commute in order to use it. I value live music as much as anyone, but for me, "live" means "acoustic." There simply is not enough of a difference between a recorded ensemble and an amplified ensemble to make it worth anyone's time to choose the latter over the former. There's also something to be said for the comfort of one's own home, as the saying goes. I don't think live acoustic music is in any danger of succumbing to recordings as long as it continues to offer something recordings don't have. Live amplified music, on the other hand, will always be in direct competition with recordings, which offer basically the same experience. Let's face it: some recordings come right off the soundboard at a live show. That says it all.

*Let's be clear up front that this is not an all-out attack on electric guitars. The choice and calibration of *personal* amplification equipment is an art unto itself, as evidenced by the fact that when a PA system is in use, it is not uncommon to mic the guitarist's amp rather than go direct. I think we already tend to recognize that a musician's particular set-up is part of his/her sound and art; what is not recognized as widely is that this sound must be as prone as any to disfigurement when run through a PA by an incompetent engineer.

10 July 2007


It is a well-established pedagogical guideline that one should avoid negative advice whenever possible. As teachers, we tend to accept the premise that it is better to say "do this" than it is to say "don't do that." Nevertheless, this mode of thinking tends to go out the window when tuba players approach repertoire that predates the tuba, especially anything by J.S. Bach. When it comes to imitating another instrument, the hip thing for the teacher to say has traditionally been, "Don't sound like a tuba."

I feel that even when such imitation is part of the process, the ultimate goal is still to sound like a tuba, even (or perhaps especially) if that means playing the tuba in a way no one ever has. Throughout the 20th century, the contributions of the great player/pedagogues (Bell, Jacobs, Phillips, et al) that have become the mainstream of tuba pedagogy were in their times often most remarkable for challenging the assumption that the tuba player's abilities need not be on par with the rest of the orchestra simply because the parts did not demand it. What better way to shatter that barrier than to beat the violinists at their own game?

As with composing, the first steps have been imitative. This doesn't mean that they have not produced anything valuable; it does mean that the story isn't over. I've heard it said that the current level of tuba playing in general has grown leaps and bounds over what it was even a mere 20 years ago. In any case, it doesn't take a historian to hear that we've moved beyond the now-traditional dynamic where the greatest thing we can accomplish is to sound like something we are not.

When we play, it must be explicitly with the intent of sounding like a tuba. As Gene Pokorny says in the introduction to his orchestral excerpts CD, if you want to be professional tuba player and you don't love the sound of the tuba, you may want to reconsider your career choice. We will continue to imitate all kinds of things in the interest of musical growth, but we must not be afraid to form our own idiomatic statements, and consequently, an identity based on sounding like ourselves rather than like something else.

03 July 2007

More Food For Thought From "The Nation"

I promise this will relate to music eventually. If you don't believe me, keep reading until it does.

I'm not making a habit out of taking issue with verbiage in The Nation because I have some kind of bone to pick with them. It's just that I've been reading it regularly again and I've stumbled upon another very thought-provoking turn of phrase, this time from Ronald Aronson in his article "The New Atheists." Aronson profiles five recently published anti-religious books that have made bestseller lists; I won't bother with titles and authors because all you need to know about the excerpt that follows is that it refers to two of them:

"[Author 1] and [Author 2] might have considered their readers more and disciplined their own need to follow out every line of thought..."

If you are a musician, you probably have heard almost this exact same phrase uttered before, only about a piece of music, a performance, or a recording. "Consider your audience" is another one of those pieces of our colloquial musicological vocabulary that could have been devised by Karl Rove. It's not about specific people with specific wants and needs; it's about something more abstract and universal that it is suddenly assumed all human beings share merely as a consequence of being human.

As with most such assumptions, it has proven irresistible to large throngs of people despite being completely false. There is, in fact, wild variation in our willingness to read demanding books or listen to demanding pieces of music, to say nothing of the inherent value of "follow[ing] out every line of thought" in philosophical discourse. Used as it is in Aronson's article, the phrase is just another institutionalization of pop culture sensibility, where anything that cannot be taken in passively is not worth the trouble (or worse, is elitist or snobbish). Particularly with regard to verbal discourse on issues as complex as religion and atheism, it astounds me that anyone would level such a criticism against a book. Just a few paragraphs earlier, Aronson described the authors as, "devoted...to overcoming a situation in which every other area of life can be critically analyzed while admittedly irrational religious faith is made central to American life but exempted from serious discussion." If pursuing "serious discussion" means being "inconsiderate" of one's audience, does that make it any less urgent or valid?

Music, of course, is not an empirical pursuit, but I don't think that using "consider your audience" as a euphemism for "don't play anything contemporary or long" is any more intelligent or appropriate. Words like "modern" and "avant-garde" got co-opted in the same way, and many people now understand them to refer to embalmed musical styles rather than to their dictionary definitions. The problem? This leaves a linguistic void, or at least creates confusion: what do we call music that is literally "modern" or "avant-garde" but doesn't sound like what most people associate with those terms? Similarly, we must always be considerate (literally) of our audience; they are human beings, after all. But alas, this turn of phrase has also been stolen by the trend-makers and sentenced to function merely as so much mud slung in the general direction of anything dissonant.

I hereby consider my audience by giving them permission to alleviate any discomfort they may experience during my performances. If their butts hurt after 20 minutes, they can get up and leave. If they're falling asleep, they can get up and leave (or stay asleep; just don't snore and/or fall off your chair because those things make noise and would interrupt the performance). If someone in the audience absolutely hates what I do, I would recommend that they get up and leave rather than sticking around and creating that now-famous "cold and stale" atmosphere that has Greg Sandow's knickers in a twist about the future of classical music.

I am reminded of two summers ago when, by some stroke of luck, the Minnesota Orchestra's often-forgettable Sommerfest resulted in a late-night solo piano set at Orchestra Hall by none other than Fred Hersch, and for only ten f$%&*ing dollars! Not only would this have likely cost $50-$100 in most any other case, but it would actually have been worth it. Nonetheless, people's butts were squirming after one tune, and were headed out the door after two or three. The most engaged they were all night was during Hersch's opening remarks when some hysterical laughter erupted as he introduced the first tune, Billy Strayhorn's "Upper Manhattan Medical Group." If he had just followed up with Monk's "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are" and Hank Mobley's "Old World, New Imports," he might have kept them around longer. But Mr. Hersch didn't consider his audience; he just played his ass off.