27 June 2012

Toward a New Isolation (ii)

While the thought of making a vital and coherent unaccompanied musical statement doesn't scare me much when I'm part of a larger ensemble or program, the thought of sustaining it for an entire set (even a short one) can be terrifying. Whether a matter of real-time or suspended-time composition, the task becomes increasingly daunting as one's durational aspirations escalate. When composers speak of the challenges of "large-scale forms," they are likely referring not only to durational but also orchestrational scale, and, more importantly, to the relationship between the two. Depending on how it is deployed, the sonic variety afforded by large forces can add variety to a lengthy piece or obliterate the unity of a shorter one. An unaccompanied solo concert on a monophonic instrument is a similarly extreme case, pairing as it does maximum duration with minimum orchestration. This in large part explains the difficulty of such concerts for performer and audience alike, and similarly, the rarity with which this challenge is embraced and met by players of monophonic instruments.

In the previous post, I outlined several reasons why I've decided to undertake just such a project. Notably absent, you may have noticed, were any specific ways I intend to address this basic problem, nor did I claim anything resembling an abiding love of monophonic solo music. Solutions and affinities both will need to be discovered along the way, which for me is a foreign way of working (as is knowing from the outset that one or both could fail to materialize). One of my teachers asked whether I thought if x or y great musician had been a tuba player they could have pulled this off. Obviously, we'll never know, and it's better that way: for one thing, it's foolhardy to assume that any of the musicians whose names you might invoke in this capacity would have been equally well-suited to just any instrument or tradition; further, those of us who might otherwise be tempted to lament the fact that none of them were tuba players can take solace in knowing that there's still something experimental, Modernist, essential, dare I say new out there for us tubists to research and aspire to.

To be sure, this is a subtle and not a revolutionary newness, but I think it is palpable and worth mapping anyway. When your instrument has become a dubious luxury item, and not least for the very musical culture which spawned it, any questions that still need answering are important questions, and work that needs doing is important work. And at the risk of contradicting my obstinate aversion to allowing aesthetic factors to be mediated by social ones, I wholeheartedly admit that the more complete self-determination of the solo endeavor is, for the moment, by far its most attractive feature, certainly more so than any actual artistic vision I've yet managed to pin down. This is, after all, a kind of autonomy not typically granted to monophonic musicians, nor even truly considered available to us in many traditions; who knows, then, what kind of constructive havoc we might wreak on both the tradition and our own oeuvres by rightfully claiming it? The thought is exciting enough that I'm willing to temporarily compromise my absolutist tendencies in order to find out if this excitement is justified.

So, where to start? My first concentrated investigations have been conducted through the lens of improvisation. It had been clear to me for some time just from the extremely limited amount of noodling I had done in a few idle practice room moments that solo improvisation isn't something you just sit down and do, even if you're an experienced ensemble improvisor, for each presents unique challenges that the other does not. No sooner can I type that, though, than I become acutely aware that this statement marks me as something of a conservative in what tends to be an ultra-liberal landscape: there is after all in improvised music what at this point can only be called a tradition of learning on the job, as well as a thoroughly irreverent attitude toward Uptowner angst over compositional "problems" like that of orchestrational versus durational scale. Having worked extensively with militants from both ends of this spectrum, I've often found it to be a highly polarized one. I fancy myself something of a peacemaker on this front and have embraced certain aspects of each aesthetic, but I ultimately register somewhere on the center-right than straight down the middle. In any case, in solo performance, you can't just go along with what everyone else is doing, which means I'm finding out what I think about a few things that were only ever peripheral to my ensemble endeavors.

To start, it bears mentioning that I've come to strongly favor traditional techniques of tone production as foundations on which to expand, this following in part from the realization that subverting my classical training has proven far easier than the process of developing it. If I want an airy sound, I can play out of the side of my mouth, open a water key, set a tuning slide ajar, and on and on; if I want indeterminate microtonality, I can engage the fifth valve and play with the other four as I would normally. If this sounds suspiciously facile, perhaps it is: part of why I find these techniques more accessible than classical tone production is because my classical sound concept is exceedingly specific while the outcomes I'm seeking through these techniques are much vaguer and mostly defined negatively (i.e. in opposition to the "classical" ideal). These are, in fact, techniques which I've developed almost exclusively "on the job" while on stage with improvising ensembles and spent much less time "practicing" by myself. To be sure, the pursuit of very particular airy tones or off-kilter temperaments would entail much more work and undoubtedly prove much more elusive than I'm claiming my versions have. It does confound me, though, that despite my disproportionate investment in traditional technique, it remains a greater challenge.

Of course, more and more musicians from all across the musical spectrum are proclaiming an authentic dislike for the "refined" instrumental sounds of classical music. Oddly enough, it seems to me that the pop music people tend to be among the more intelligent and level-headed about this; in any case, it is intuitively clear even to me as a relatively uninitiated (and uninterested) listener why these sounds don't suit most mainstream pop and rock very well. I find the venomous anti-classical ravings of the improv world, supposedly founded on the principle that anything is possible, to be far more arbitrary and confounding. As best I can gather, there are two primary explanations (unsurprisingly, both are non-aesthetic and conjectural): one is the association of classical music with Europeanism, colonialism, oppression, The Dominant Ideology, and so on; the other is the assumption that classical training does as much to prevent non-classical possibilities as it does to enable classical ones. The first issue is far too treacherous to elaborate upon at the moment. I trust that if you have strong opinions on this that you know where to look for further enlightenment, and also that there is not here. The second issue, conversely, is something I've returned to again and again in this space and even so have no shame in returning to yet again, though I have a slightly more qualified response to offer in this particular case.

While the classical method of tone production remains my default setting, I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that this reflects a choice I have made for myself rather than one that my teachers and training have made for me. I don't believe that the classical training I have had has either physically or conceptually closed me off from exploring a variety of alternative methods of tone production, even if my sparing use of these alternatives might innocently suggest the opposite. In fact, I often hesitate to apply phrases like "classically trained" to myself at all, since I was almost purely self-taught in the area of technique for the first four years I played brass, didn't have my first tuba lesson until the age of 15, and, as my teachers surely would tell you, have never fully assimilated the total package of standard orchestral brass methods. Even so, I did more or less adopt the sound ideal once it was presented to me in the standard way and have spent most of the last dozen years pursuing it, albeit through a hodge-podge of self-taught and standardized techniques.

If you insist, I suppose you're entitled to speculate that I merely accepted what I was being told by an authority and that I'm mired so deep in this subversion of my own identity as to have become unable to perceive the reality of the situation. We should all at least be willing to consider that possibility, and also considered qualified to dismiss it: it is far too easy an accusation for us to level at each other, not to mention for an outsider to level against an entire musical tradition in which they have no interest or investment. It is awfully presumptuous to reduce an individual's entire life experience to tidy packages like "classically trained" or "academically credentialed" based on limited observation. I would posit that we're all guilty of these kinds of snap judgments on a daily basis, appearing as they do to be simply a part of our human wiring. For my part, I don't consider myself to be either a pure autodidact or purely classically trained, and yet when in the company of one group, it is without fail the other factor by which I am most strongly identified, labeled and remembered.

I am certainly not disputing that classical music culture tends to be obstinately absolutist about tone production, for that it most certainly is; yet based on my own time in accredited classical music schools (something I've actually experienced that the woolliest improv heads have not), I do think that, ultimately, the seeming triumph of this absolutism speaks overwhelmingly to the tremendous poverty of imagination among these students, which itself ultimately speaks more to the unsustainable size and scope of contemporary accredited, degree-granting musical academia in the United States than it does to the pedagogy that prevails therein. There simply are not enough dedicated, inspired, self-motivated students with which to populate this voracious institution, and at the point when schools are growing enrollment simply to generate revenue, one can no longer make facile observations about the efficacy of their curricula by simply examining the end results. For the overwhelming majority of these students, there's no personal artistic necessity at work, nothing whatsoever compelling them to pursue some musical ideal which exists in its truest form only in their imagination; in other words, there is no voice here for advanced classical training to stifle. I did not always see it that way, especially regarding composition, but time and perspective have changed my views.

I myself was among the most suspicious and disillusioned of classical music majors, and often profoundly unhappy, but it was no more lost on me at the time than it is now that I was being presented an opportunity for a certain kind of growth which was important to the musical vision I was beginning to develop, and which I would have been a fool to turn my back on for fear of becoming a mindless technician or a servant of The Dominant Ideology. (Though I would, like all of us, claim to be among the worthier of music students, the fact that I jumped through every hoop in the mindless technician curriculum with room to spare and yet still can't touch the mindless technicians one encounters on the professional level speaks again to my point about over-enrollment.) The University of Minnesota was far from the ideal place for me; it may in fact have been the worst place in the world for me to go to music school. Even so, while it may have stifled me socially, I can't say that it stifled me musically. There certainly were opportunities I didn't have there that I could have had elsewhere, but the ones that did exist were no less relevant to my goals, and even my most resentful investments in them have continued to pay dividends.

The whole issue of classical training begetting conformity is in my view frequently mischaracterized in the most obstinate corners of the improv world, where, not coincidentally, first-hand, in-person observation of the people and institutions under discussion tends to be in notably short supply. In any case, the trope about virtuoso clones is, if not necessarily an inaccurate surface observation about the classical world, more or less equally applicable to the improv world, which has now been around long enough for us to observe a similarly high degree of uniformity and predictability among these musicians (at which I imagine their pioneering forerunners who are still alive can only cringe). There sure are an awful lot of self-proclaimed rugged individualist brass improvisors who all play flat on the fifth partial. This is not in any way to say that music which uses flat fifth partial tones is necessarily bad music, only that many of these players' lofty claims to negative freedom are overstated. Conformity, it turns out, is not so easily pinned solely on the Uptowners: it does not simply disappear in absence of the will to impose it, nor in the presence of the mere stated intent to escape it. Seriously, how many times have we all heard from improv detractors that "all that shit sounds the same" and had no way to respond aside from assuring them that what they just heard wasn't the real shit? This is not just a classical music or an improvised music issue.

You've probably heard the same stories I have about classical teachers forbidding their students to play jazz, especially early on in jazz's history; ironic, then, that a remarkably similar line of thought prevails today in certain improvised music circles regarding classical technique itself. It's too bad that we, collectively, have not yet managed to debunk this myth from either side of the divide, but that's probably because trained-monkeyism on the one hand and laziness on the other are as timeless and endemic to human civilization as music itself. This makes it appear as if pan-stylism is fiendishly difficult when in reality it is merely a matter of dedication and balance. Similarly, to believe that great hordes of latent musical visionaries are being stifled by academic dogmatism is so often merely a desperate attempt to reconcile an overly idealistic view of human creativity with a lack of tangible evidence to support it. Again, the actual problem, if it is one, is that there are not nearly this many visionaries available for today's vastly overgrown classical music academia to stifle. (Of course, I would be remiss not to mention this angle as well.) I do believe that there are better ways to train musicians, that there are methods which are predisposed to open stylistic doors without closing them, and that there is a certain concurrent depth of experience as both a listener and a player which will make this process not merely accessible but in fact inevitable. No one would like to see classical music academia embrace these methods more than I would, and that's because I've lived in it; by leveling criticism, I hope to redeem this music and these institutions, not condemn them. I'm awfully tired of people who know only a little bit about the products and nothing whatsoever about the process taking these perceived shortcomings as indictments of the entire classical music tradition, mere collateral damage in a voracious search for authoritative-sounding zingers with which to validate their own tastes.

I am not writing to argue for the inherent supremacy of the classical sound, but merely to declare my embrace of it as one possible acceptable sound in an improvised piece; indeed, as a sound which I freely choose to rely upon heavily even having developed a handful of alternatives, and in no way simply hewing to the intolerant classical tuba teacher I never had; and to locate that position in the current musico-philosophical landscape as I've experienced it anecdotally. If there is a rational justification for a player to seek refinement of their sound, it is that this represents one way to move beyond the lowest hanging technical fruit, and therefore, one hopes, to conform less, not more. Regardless of the particular sound in question, this kind of refinement presents an inherently steeper learning curve, certainly much steeper than one could hope to climb without substantial off-stage practice time. For this reason, I think that classical players actually tend to have access to the greatest variety of sounds; whether or not they choose to use them is a cultural question, not a technical one. And in the case of unaccompanied monophonic solo playing, I would take tonal variety as a fundamental value a priori, with timbre, which is far less important to me as a symphonic composer, taking on a heightened importance. I see most of the possible sounds brass instruments can make as accessible from a variety of points on the classical training continuum while the classical sound itself seems to be accessible only to those who have invested disproportionately in it. Your mileage may vary, but in my case, not even the obstinate autodidact part of me has failed to find rewards along the way.

21 June 2012

Three Concessions on Cliche

All cliches are idiomatic but not all idiomatic statements are cliches.

Idiomatic statements become cliches through overuse, and therefore only if they are exceptionally attractive or otherwise useful.

Cliche is relative: neophytes by definition cannot detect it. Contemporary art music has many more neophytes than initiates.