23 January 2011

Second Loves (iii)

As a college student, I lost track of how many times I heard or overheard classmates assailing professors for being smart, as in:

"He's so full of himself."
"He just loves the sound of his own voice."
"He thinks he's the smartest person in the world."

...and occasionally, though it's only peripherally related, things like:

"He's tenured, he doesn't have to do shit."

I was raised, in part, by a tenured professor, and take a certain amount of offense to this kind of thing simply by virtue of that. But since I've never, for better or worse, actually taken a class from my dad, nor even taken one in his field, I don't feel that my perspective on this sort of thing is too extensively colored by my coming from an academic family. My professors were all unrelated to me and all taught other subjects, and for the most part, they were brilliant people. Even in the exceedingly rare cases where I developed an irreconcilable personal or philosophical difference with one of them, I always felt and continue to feel fortunate to have been exposed to their perspectives and knowledge.

In my experience, it's not a myth that students now tend to be more concerned with winning the game of college than they are with actual learning. I watched classmates grovel and haggle more like they were buying a used car than discussing a test question, and they almost always won. They were casual and distant when it came to studying, but utterly relentless when they detected the smallest vulnerability in the instructor, and if they thought they could get a test question thrown out, an extra day to study, or a class canceled, they fought to the bitter end. It was the path of least resistance towards a respectable grade, and the fact that it didn't pass through much of anywhere that would make them better musicians, scholars or people was no deterrent. The profs who held their ground on these matters who were the first to be accused of thinking that they're better than the rest of us, but I can honestly say that I never once found myself thinking that about a professor of mine. Even the tiny minority of them who somehow managed to thoroughly lose my respect never did it by actively making me feel inferior.

All of this is a mere prelude to what I really want to discuss here, which is the one instance in which a professor's expansive knowledge truly alienated me (by an entirely different mechanism), yet in doing so laid the groundwork for a constructive shift in priorities that is just now coming to fruition. The fact that this musicologist seemed to know an incredible amount made me very uneasy, but for an entirely different reason than my classmates: he'd done nothing notable as a performer or composer, nor was he, to my knowledge, actively involved in either craft at that time, though I believe he had been as a young man. To me as an undergraduate performance major, the purpose of gathering knowledge was to turn around and produce something out of it; one could never know too much, yet one most certainly could fail to produce music of a value commensurate with their booksmarts, the gatherer's later inability to synthesize these ideas into something tangible thus rendering the gathering itself a terrible waste of time. The realm of so-called "tangible" products included performances, scores and recordings; teaching, which even at that age I never thought myself above, I didn't see as belonging in this category. You certainly could argue that it does, but that point was moot to me at that time; I was so infatuated with playing and writing that I couldn't understand why anyone who was even mildly capable of them would voluntarily give them up, especially someone with such a vast intellect as to be capable of making contributions to the practice that simply can't be made any other way.

Having long since grown frustrated with my classmates' collective groveling, it troubled me that my own worldview had suddenly provided a seemingly rational justification for holding a professor of mine in contempt just for being really smart. I wasn't a tuba jock and didn't want to be one, but playing was still the center of my universe, and coming into close contact with someone whose sheer quantity of knowledge seemed wholly unattainable as a mere side project to my playing endeavors forced me to think long-term about my musical priorities in a way that I hadn't before. How would I ever manage to study all the scores, recordings, philosophy, musicology, theory, history, math, computers, biology, physics and visual art that might constructively inform my work without also divesting myself of the very practice and writing time needed to actually realize it? More recently, the crisis has become: What if I committed the opposite crime as him, investing too much time in producing stuff and not enough in study and preparation, thus yielding a large body of mediocre, naive, unsophisticated work?

Again, let me be clear that when I say this professor alienated me, it wasn't simply because he forced me to question myself, uncomfortable as it was. I knew in my heart of hearts even then that all of this was worth wrestling with and not worth putting off. Rather, the alienation I speak of was my judging him negatively for not putting his knowledge to what I considered to be good, i.e. productive use (a problematic and distinctively youthful perspective to be sure, but not one I would wholly disavow either). I've taken the time to relate all of this here because it has been only within the last year or so that the minor personal crisis which began years ago in this professor's class has begun to resolve itself (albeit by shattering into several mini-crises at once).

This has been a twofold process: it started with the first conclusive realization that I was indeed headed down the very abyss I feared I might be, namely that of lofty musical aspirations built on shoddy intellectual foundations; and it continues as an odd and sudden, almost unrelated desire for knowledge for its own sake which I'm at something of a loss to explain (this being a blog, though, I do attempt a partial explanation below). It certainly is a relief to resolve years of tension between the part of me that saw this prof as a navel gazer and that which saw him as a genius; ironically, though, it's because the intervening years have made me much more insecure, not less. I've found myself particularly anxious over social situations where my lack of knowledge of something musical might be exposed. It's another interesting consequence of the twentysomething years that as you progress through them, people get noticeably less and less kind about hipping you to music and musicians they think you should know about, even people who are close to you in age and/or spirit. There's a downright meanness to it these days that teachers seldom use with students, nor parents with children. So while I now probably know three times what I did as a college student, suddenly it seems never to be good enough to satisfy all the specialists that I, the voyeuristic generalist, insist on working with, and so in addition to constructively spurring on the great knowledge gathering expedition that has been my late twenties (the same one I should have begun in my teens but, like most of us, simply wasn't grown-up or fully-formed enough to initiate), I now have to admit that it has slowly been making me mean and insecure too, and that this meanness and insecurity is feeding my sudden motivation to study as strongly as any of the more practical or altruistic reasons are. Apparently, the well-worn saying ought to be amended to read, "The more people you know, the more stuff you don't know." It's the worst reason I can think of to hit the books, but I'm generally content to take what I can get in the self-motivation department.

04 January 2011

Second Loves (ii)

Hip-hop is the area of popular music (lower case, broadly construed) that has always piqued my interest disproportionately from all the others. Nailing down what exactly it is that I like about hip-hop and putting those impressions into words carries with it the same myriad pitfalls that accompany that task elsewhere in music, not the least of which is that the term "hip-hop" is general enough to include quite a bit of music I couldn't care less about. The best I can do, I think, is to say that I really like the "time feel" of certain rappers, and that when it serves the words particularly well, I like it even more. Most hip-hop songs, like most vocal jazz, classical art songs, and operas, fall well short of this exalted status, but very occasionally, I hear one that "works" on both levels, and it's threatening to become more than a passing fancy.

Yet I'm at a time in my life and career when even a dabbling side project in hip-hop doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Some colleagues would never speak to me again, others would just chuckle under their breath, and only if I'm lucky would a handful of sympathetic ones actually get my angle on it. But before the social consequences can even be considered, there's the more pressing issue of what to do about the music I've already devoted myself to, which is already an overcommitment and certainly doesn't need a mid-stream transition to a largely foreign style competing with it for time and attention. One solution is to skip the dirty work and simply launch into this new territory with little historical, technical or social perspective on it; everyone knows that's a recipe for disaster, though.

As I ruminate on whether or not to act on any of these impulses, here they are organized quite roughly into four musico-technical areas and given as something of a manifesto, a glimpse of what I might attempt in this realm if the stars were ever to align:

Part 1: Structure
Common-practice hip-hop leaves the most to be desired in the area of structure, and hence, this would seem to me to be where the most fertile ground for experimentation and innovation lies (and indeed, where the need for it is beyond pressing; it's looong overdue). In every hip-hop song I want to like but can't, there's a two bar drum loop to remind me that I'm listening to a commercially packaged product, music that needs to be "memorable" in order to be validated, and where through composition is a vice which merely "distracts" listeners from the all-important text. I see no reason why through-composed hip-hop is any less tenable than through-composed jazz of the kind that Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider and others have made their names with, or for that matter, why the surface elements of a Kurt Elling vocalese couldn't serve as a model for what forward-thinking rappers might fill these new and exciting structures up with.

In other words, someone needs to do for hip-hop what Behold...The Arctopus has done for metal: combine the timbres and time-feels of a pop music style with classical-modernist approaches to tonality, structure and motivic development. Of course, the mainstream pop lemmings have branded Behold... as "the worst band in the world," and one can imagine the mainstream hip-hop crowd reacting similarly to what I'm imagining. This music would be doomed to the kind of narrow appeal that keeps Kyle Gann up at night, but I would stand by my argument that pursuing such directions is both more necessary and more ethically defensible than musical sycophancy.

I shouldn't speak in hypotheticals. I think it's highly unlikely that no one has tried this yet; it's more likely that I just don't know where to find them. (Anyone out there know?) Genre searches on sites like MySpace, CDBaby and eMusic are either not specific enough, or downright misleading. I googled "progressive hip hop" and learned that using *4-bar* drum loops, a few "live" instruments, and making passing references to politics is all it takes to be worthy of that label. No thanks.

Part 2: Materials
As with structure, it's essential that the progressive hip-hop I'm envisioning cast a far wider melodic, harmonic and rhythmic net than today's commercial hip-hop does. A mentor of mine in the jazz area has always been fond of saying that a rhythm section's comping should be interesting enough to listen to on its own without necessarily intruding on what the soloist is trying to do. I can't think of a better admonition in this discussion either, and I think anyone who remembers cassettes with the complete rap song on one side and just the beat on the other will agree that those B sides were a lot less fun to just sit around and listen to than they were to horse around with. Yes, I realize that this is part and parcel of what hip-hop is; I am more concerned, though, with what it might be able to become, which is a hell of a lot more than bashing people over the head with the same sample literally hundreds of times in the span of only a few minutes.

Part 3: Content
I'm sick and tired of reading about how modern classical music, jazz, improvised music, and whatever else the musical populists out there might decide to tar with the modernist brush if they wake up on the wrong side of the bed, are irrelevant because they're too "self-referrential." CHEE-RIST, have any of you sycophants listened to hip-hop lately? If you do, you'll hear a music that literally refers to itself constantly, sung by people who simply cannot stop talking about themselves (and they don't have much to say, either). This is first order self-indulgent "fanservice" if I ever heard it, except the get-out-of-jail-free card otherwise known as the *backbeat* is redeemable for a free pass with any Cultural Studies major that might happen to hear it. So much for the words being more important than the music.

To their credit, at least hip-hop artists can be counted on to venture beyond "Ooh yeah, baby, I love you" with greater regularity than most any other vocal music tradition, popular or classical. Poetry as an art form typically does less than nothing for me, but even so, I'd have to rank the lyrical sophistication of hip-hop pretty high on the list of human cultural accomplishments. There are vast untapped possibilities, though, particularly in the realms of abstraction, nonsense, Dadaism, and scatting. Again, it's a matter of isolating particular elements of timbre and time-feel and importing them to other tonal and structural contexts. And on the rare occasion anyone comes up with a story worth telling to music, that's cool too. It had better be good, though, and if you're the main character, you better have accomplished something besides screwing or shooting somebody, because we've already heard that one a few hundred thousand times.

Part 4: Improvisation
One day about 5 years ago, pretty soon after I had graduated from college, I decided to indulge my curiosity by trying to teach myself to freestyle rap. The idea was as ridiculous then as it is now, but I felt like I had to try, if for no other reason than to gain an appreciation for people who can really do it. Along with hitting a golf ball straight and sight-reading Nick Zielinski's tunes, it's one of the hardest things I've attempted in my life, and predictably, I lost interest within a few weeks. There were a couple of moments of beginners luck, though, where, in the privacy of my car or my bedroom, I rattled off some pretty sick shit, and while I had no illusions that I'd be able to do it consistently without years of practice, there was something addictive about it, something I've never gotten over despite the fact that the sheer oppressive difficulty of it the other 99% of the time was more than enough to scare me away from making any kind of commitment to it. It was obvious that this commitment would preclude the commitments I'd already made to other musical endeavors, and while I've always been a bit restless, blowing everything up and starting over didn't seem all that prescient, especially for something which neither my inherited nor my acquired traits seem to suit me particularly well for.

Even so, I feel like my theory that one could reasonably expect to be able to approach freestyling much the same way instrumental jazz players approach their art is one worth hanging on to. The idea still intrigues me even though I didn't pursue it nearly far enough to be able to validate or refute it conclusively. I did get as far as identifying words whose final syllables were particularly tricky to rhyme and making lists of possible solutions. The harder work of transcribing other songs and perfecting the timing and delivery I didn't have the patience for, and would have been too embarrassed to be heard attempting had anyone walked in. So, I won't be the one to break down the barriers in this area myself, but if I ever meet someone else who can, I'll be champing at the bit to be their musical director.

People who would know better than I do have told me that most rappers can't actually freestyle, and that 99.9% of everything we hear from them is preconceived. That doesn't surprise me if it's true, but I do find it very disappointing. I'd posit that just as listening to Supersax performing a transcribed Charlie Parker solo or a dixieland band playing from a published arrangement are poor substitutes for the real thing, preconceived rapping, while some of it is good, merely scratches the surface of what is musically possible for the genre. The half-assedness of my experiment notwithstanding, I'm willing to bet that by applying some tried-and-true principles from the teaching of other improvisational arts, one could bring about greater overall fluency in freestyle rap, though undoubtedly it would come with the same drawbacks that have surfaced in formalized jazz education (and indeed, they're already giving degrees in Hip-Hop Studies, so we're likely to start experiencing these drawbacks sometime soon if we haven't already).