26 March 2012

Same Difference (iii) – some comic relief re: the fashion issue

I haven't ventured to L.A. all that much since I've been at CalArts, but when I have, the heightened importance of grooming has frequently been in evidence. The first time I saw a musician sporting the more or less archetypal musico-hipster outfit from the neck down in combination with the perfectly trimmed goatee and freshly styled hair of an accountant, I knew I wasn't in Kansas (or Minnesota) anymore.

10 March 2012

Same Difference (ii)

From an early stage in my musical development, I refused to embrace the expression of anything in particular as a worthy goal for music (mine or others'), and I haven't given much ground in the intervening years. It was at first merely a fact that I had not consciously or intentionally endowed any of my music with extra-musical content; only later did I become convinced through experience (can we just call it common sense?) that reverse-engineering the emotional impact of a particular piece on a particular person for the purpose of reconstituting it at will was, regardless of my own degree of interest in doing so, an absolutely impossible task. Such it is that "expression" in the colloquial sense in which that term is used by musicians and music-lovers remains more or less beyond the pale in my own work. Taken in the very most imprecise, deconstructed, overbroad sense, however, I'm not sure I can deny it completely.

My own social alienation has never been as simple as just being a painfully shy kid. I am a "blender," a "fly on the wall" almost wherever I go; I hear lots of things not meant for my ears; I startle roommates working in the kitchen who didn't see or hear me approach; I can sit at a bar for 20 minutes and not get served. When I stop to consider whether all of this might be, as most anyone I might relate this to is bound to respond, "all in my head," that it is more or less universal to the human experience and that what makes me different is not so much that it happens to me as how it affects me, I simply can't convince myself. Pushing 30, I'm both more convinced than ever that it's real and more disappointed than ever that I haven't managed to parlay this unteachable skill into a more lucrative and exciting career as an international jewel thief or double agent. It's getting harder and harder, though, to imagine that the career choices I have made cannot be partially explained in this way either.

To play tuba under these conditions is to both transcend and compound the problem. Depending on the acoustic and social environments at hand, the instrument may command undivided attention or it may be exceptionally easily ignored. It may be painfully loud or completely inaudible. In attempting complete musical statements where incomplete ones are no less than idiomatic and conventionalized, you will either wildly exceed the audience's expectations in your success, or, paradoxically, reinforce them even more strongly in failure at this loftier task than you ever could have by simply attempting that which they will continue to expect. I find that this mirrors my social experience quite closely, and if that does not really explain why I first became a tuba player, I think it might explain, at least in part, why I am still a tuba player today. You have to learn to live with your successes and failures alike being met with indifference; with being too loud for one kind of music you love and too quiet for another, and with being happy enough if someone so much as notices that one or the other is the case. These are not good feelings, but I knew them quite well from the hallways, the school bus and the baseball field long before I knew that music was my calling. So here I am, relatively unharmed, but not entirely at peace either.

The tuba is big and shiny and low and loud, superficial qualities which might get you noticed for a second, but won't hold anyone's attention much beyond that. Indeed, there's music (art, we hope) to be made on the tuba, and also on hundreds of other instruments. Art will not get you noticed by very many people, of course, but the few who do engage with your work will remember it for a long time. And as any good student of Music Business will tell you, the extent to which you are "different" is more or less directly proportional to the duration and intensity of this memory. This much, I think, was clear to me from the outset, if not on the most elementary, intuitive level, and I would not aspire to mislead anyone based on the first entry in this series that this was not the case. It may even be fair to say that my work on some abstract level represents an "expression of difference," in other words, something people actually notice even as I myself remain (socially) easy to ignore. What I simply can't abide are the more concrete, overbearing, self-absorbed forays into this realm, the ones which simply shove this supposed "difference" that all of us artists suffer with right in the audience's proverbial face, necessarily dragging along those trivial personal details which are its necessary vessels of delivery. Are we not already different enough simply for making art, regardless of its content? And really, don't we like it that way?