31 October 2013

BM6 In 'n' Outro: Staying Power

We've made it. Here we are. Settings have been appropriately toggled so as to display the entire opus on the front page, though it seems I've once again overwhelmed the all-feeble Blogger with my verbosity, resulting in an incomplete display. I trust y'all are clever enough to navigate your way through the miasma as you see fit.

In the name of rousting evil blogospheric spirits from our midst on this All Hallows' Eve, now seems like as good a time as any to address the Death of the Blog. As I surveyed the landscape in preparation for this month, I came across quite a few declarations to just that effect. Fine with me. History tells us that only after the pundits start piling on the ______-is-dead meme has the party really gotten started. So stay safe out there, Modernists. You know where and, roughly, when to find it.

30 October 2013

Choice Nuggets As Always From G.E.L.

George E. Lewis deals to New Music Box:

I was communicating and trying to reflect at the same time how else to communicate. I began to develop what I thought was a facility for having multiple mindsets while improvising. I’ve read that people say things like, “I blank my mind out when I play.” That’s not my experience: usually I’m thinking about a lot of different things at the same time. I think that helped me perform in a different way, because it provided a space where I could at once hear the sound and to have a sense of the intent of the other person. It’s not mysterious; people experience it every day. Parts of sound and intentionality create a link.

Can you say "refreshing?" I think that the trance approach to improvising, though I've certainly had isolated experiences of that type myself, has thoroughly run amok at this point, so it's nice to see a name guy come out as a thinker (as if there was any doubt in this case, but even so). Assertions such as "I blank my mind out when I play" (I've heard them, too) would seem to me to demand some pretty serious excursus; but of course, this camp being as they are against thinking, excursus tends to be in fittingly short supply. Not so with the thinkers, for obvious reasons. Kenny Werner, for example, has clearly thought about this cogently: "the space" is not at all about numbing the mind, but rather the ego, thus freeing the mind to be as active (or not) as it wants. Or at least that's how I read it. My 10th grade English teacher, Ms. Stammers, once asked us if we didn't agree that it was always better to think one's way out of a situation. Thanks, Ms. Stammers...and thanks, Professor Lewis.


Now here's Professor Lewis on his stint as music director of The Kitchen in the early 80s:

[GL] There was a period of trying to stretch people’s ears and their consciousness. Anthony Braxton would go to Donaueschingen and play Charlie Parker for them, and then he would go to the Newport Jazz Festival and play this 50-page notated piece. That’s how it would work. You want people to not be settled in their beliefs; you want to challenge their beliefs through music, in some way.

TH: Do you think that era has ended?

GL: Well I hope it hasn’t. I mean, it hasn’t for me, but maybe I’m feeling a bit isolated. Maybe it’s not as necessary. Maybe all that work that was done before had some effect. But then, maybe not. I mean nowadays, everyone seems to want to be confirmed in what they currently believe. Technologically mediated narrow casting seems to make that possible. You don’t have to go to a concert of anything you don’t like; you don’t have to encounter a sound that you’re not interested in. What we find, though, is that there are people still out there who seek out new experience in sound; and that’s our audience. Or my kind of audience, anyway.

A funny thing happened to me after officially making the scene in Minneapolis for a number of years: I started writing more conservative music than I had at first. The early D Series pieces and Calypso Development represented a particularly stark neoclassicism. It was my first experience surprising people who only knew me as a wooly-headed modernist. It went down this way when I realized that there was a palpable void at the center of the Minneapolis music scene, comprised as it is nearly exclusively of oddball specialties with barely a whiff of the oppressive stylistic monoliths to which these niches might fruitfully oppose themselves in a more comprehensive musical ecosystem. There was, on one hand, all manner of roaring twenties revivalism, Gypsy jazz, non-idiomatic free playing, new-age Lutheran choral music, bluegrass type stuff, and self-consciously eclectic pop music mashups; and on the other, almost no hardcore bebop, post-serialism/complexism, New York School experimentalism, or process-oriented minimalism, or at least quite a bit less than I'm sure people who know the city only by external reputation might assume. (I've met a few. I fear they may be underwhelmed if they ever visit. If they listen to me and go in the fall, at least they won't come back complaining about the weather.)

There are two sides to every coin, and in Minneapolis, the freedom to be oneself, which the city, it is true, affords the musician in abundance, is also symptomatic of the unwillingness and/or inability to face down those towering monoliths, or even to acknowledge their global presence and gravitational pull. When Milo Fine sat me down and told me it was okay to play bebop licks in his groups, a weight was lifted off my shoulders (though I told him why I was uncomfortable with it and he understood: one too many times had I heard free jazz groups consisting of multiple abstract noisemakers and one post-Jimmy Lyons saxophonist full of stock bebop licks who seemed to have no awareness whatsoever that there were other people in the ensemble). Milo, as anyone who has heard or played in his groups knows, is a force of nature unto himself; but there aren't many others in town, and it's fitting that as the only lifelong Minneapolitan I know of who qualifies for such a designation, his groups are, simply by virtue of the personnel, also the most eclectic around. His work is a towering monolith constructed of a million tiny fragments; in other words, regarding the rather crude dichotomy I've proffered above, it is in an odd sense the exception that proves the rule.

Still others are more outwardly threatened by the bebop, the through-composition, the traditional ensemble skills, and all the other rigid mainstream practices which I for whatever reason uncharacteristically embraced at an early stage and made part of my own eclectic mix. It was shocking for me to learn the degree to which practitioners themselves tailor their own music and ensemble situations toward their strengths and away from their weaknesses; to witness consciousness of a music's unspoken internal political dimensions trotted out as a mere defense mechanism. "Challeng[ing] beliefs through music" begins at home, right? But I've also learned the hard way that no one wants to hear you or play with you while you're still learning to do something, and therein lies the explanation. I can see now that it takes thick skin and independence of spirit to sustain this kind of outlook for an entire career. If you want to be a lifelong learner, you had better be prepared to lose some friends and gigs over it. And do you know how I learned that? By putting neo-tonal, post-Hindemithian music in front of a bunch of wooly-haired jazz musicians. In Minneapolis, no one else was going to do that for them, and so were they the only ones, potentially, who might in turn be able to put it in front of the audiences who needed to hear it. That was my thinking, except I didn't really think about it; I just did it. That's where I think Professor Lewis is on to something important here.

Los Angeles, obviously, is another kettle of fish. The monoliths cast exceedingly long shadows here. My neoclassical music will not be needed for the foreseeable future, but nor is there any void that a calculated turn towards brand-name complexism, experimentalism, or minimalism might fill. There seems, rather, to be plenty of that going on without my help, along with plenty of navel-gazing jazzheads eager fill that well-known and much-discussed non-void. And so, with The "H" Series, I've veered toward a more satisfying synthesis of all of my interests all at once than I was ever able to conceive of in Minneapolis. I have, of course, been busy studying hard and growing older, which undoubtedly helps, but I think there's more to it than that. I always knew that I was only avant-garde in Minneapolis; that has been strongly confirmed out here, where I am decidedly middlebrow. I've still managed to alienate a few people by putting stems on my noteheads, but no one has yet called me "that crazy tuba player" within my earshot. I realize it was always meant as a compliment; it's just that it was never true. Everyone else was crazy, not me.


One for the road:

TH: Contemporary music and musicology entering the public sphere is sort of The Big Question in those fields, it seems to me. For the people involved with that, what can be done to take an active role in entering the public sphere?

GL: This is one of the hardest things to do, and people are going to have to be pretty ruthless and cynical about it. I was at UCSD in the ’90s. There are people there who are pretty influential in the world of scholarship—not just music, but many things. And they had no idea about what the musicians in this great music department were doing. So your job as a person is to go out and make those links. But that requires you do some research about what has been going on in those areas, and it might require you to develop some moles in the system, so to speak. There’s always somebody in there who is interested, and you don’t know who they are, but it’s kind of your job to find them. There’s no possibility of mass marketing. You’re not going to get attention without some mole in the system.

I copied and pasted this a while ago and now can't for the life of me recall exactly what earth-shattering point I was going to make about it. If you've kept up all month, by now you should be able to tell me what I would say. I'm spent. But it feels good.

29 October 2013

Driving The bus (ii)

Is it me or has the pitch of the jazz drum set, like concert pitch itself, been steadily rising over the years? Some of these snare drums the Nextboppy people are playing seem straight out of a college football broadcast. I often wonder about acoustics, and whether anyone will (or can; is it too late?) undertake a thorough study and/or reconstruction of the acoustical properties of the rooms where bebop was born. It would seem to me given the small dimensions and relatively large number of people that most of these spaces (that's right, they were not just "rooms") must have been exceptionally dead, and thus that the advent of the ride cymbal as we now know it could not have happened quite the same way in even a moderately reverberant space, where it would have been too washy (you know, like it is virtually everywhere this kind of music is still played today). A similar (and possibly more feasible) study of recording studios and engineering techniques would be equally valuable.

Compared to the music we're making now, the classic Blue Note stuff seems to me to have a certain darkness and richness of tone that I often miss elsewhere. Did I just out myself as an audiophile? I'm not so sure this is purely a question of production, though that's undoubtedly a significant question unto itself. Of course, physics tells us that the most basic way to get more, higher frequencies out of the same sounding body is to excite ever higher overtones by applying ever greater force; to wit, this bit from Ellery Eskelin caught my attention:

EE: And he [Gerald Cleaver] doesn’t play too loud, which unfortunately... I don’t even say that to criticize any other musicians. I’ve played with loud bands and I’ve played loud myself most of my life. It’s just the way we play today. I wasn’t around in the ‘40s or ‘50s, but I’m sure that we play two to three times louder than guys played then in terms of decibel levels. Sonic quality and resonance is another issue. Those cats could fill a room in a way that few people today can. But that’s not volume, that’s something else, that’s another quality.

Either way, the contemporary paradigm strikes me as higher and buzzier at all dynamic levels. Happily, this "other quality" has not been completely lost either: Jamire Williams, Nextboppy drummer about town whom I recently caught in person with the Walter Smith III quartet, has just about the lightest touch I think I've ever heard. Together with utterly fearsome chops and an unusually tasteful sense of when to bang and when to rustle, he makes magic with the high frequencies.

Driving The Bus (i)

Since moving to SoCal I've had the pleasure of meeting, hearing, and playing with a staggering number of outstanding jazz bass players. I have however occasionally been troubled by the evenness of attack in some of the walking lines I have heard here. The great bebop and post-bop bass players' lines were full of subtle slides, bends, and hitches; they constantly varied their attacks, often using extreme registers and unlikely intervals to create small- and large-scale contours that gave the music its signature propulsive energy.

I have had this thought before, but never about bass playing that was unimpeachable in virtually every other respect.

Walking bass is, of course, no longer quite the lingua franca of jazz that it once was, but the other ways of playing could probably use some of the same spice as well. Perhaps the notion that each individual rhythm section player's part should be interesting enough to listen to in isolation while nonetheless blending seamlessly with the whole remains strong advice. As someone who is trying to catch up conceptually more so than technically when it comes to jazz bass functions, I do sometimes aurally hone in on the bass player if the band I am listening to is in a feel which I don't fully understand yet. More often than not, I find that the playing doesn't quite meet this standard, even if you'd never think complain about much of anything in the total presentation.

28 October 2013

All Ages

Another point brought home by regular attendance at The Blue Whale: young people are capable of making great music, prodigies can sometimes live up to their hype, but it takes some old motherfuckers to make really timeless shit.

I myself was always an outlier without ever threatening to rise quite to the level of prodigy. I was also, if I don't say so myself, unusually level-headed about those kinds of things, and I generally got good advice and generally took it appropriately to heart. Where I and those I was immediately surrounded by failed, however, was in neglecting to accept college as a mere drop in the proverbial bucket of lifelong learning and evolution. Perhaps part of that was not knowing enough to see that four years was an inconceivably small amount of time in which to implement my conceptions, to say nothing of those I might have later. Being unusually facile at jumping through all the right hoops certainly hurt my chances of realizing this sooner. And yet the world, both within and without academia, seemed to no less than expect this from me and everyone else in the pipeline.

It took a healthy distance in both time and space from my college years for me to fully appreciate what a knot I had tied myself into during that time. It was a difficult, sometimes painful process to untie that knot. Once I decided that I could not possibly practice four hours a day without making unacceptable compromises in all the other musical areas that interested me, the physical dimension of brass playing became a major concern for me in a way it had never been previously, a double-whammy since I therefore had no experience dealing with it as such. Everything I knew about the tuba, myself, and the space where the two meet was based on a limber 20 year-old body and an even more voracious and self-motivated spirit. This has been its own adventure from which I am only now showing the smallest signs of emerging; even so, if it's possible to have been even slower to anticipate such changes in other areas, the conceptual area is just that place. It's hard to understand why I didn't stumble on certain ideas sooner...except that it's really not that hard at all. I didn't know enough, for one, but it's not just about knowing: doing matters too, and while it's possible to outpractice and outstudy your peers at an early age, I think it's much harder to accelerate the process of conceiving, realizing, curating, and reflecting, the process that drives artistic maturation not just internally but also in developing and understanding one's relationship to the world into which the work is to be released. And as any good constructivist would hasten to point out, even as I claim irreverence for such relationships to external forces, that in itself is a relationship I had better understand thoroughly before anything meaningful can come of it.

I have heard a number of young geniuses recently, players to whom I would be hanging on by a thread were I in their bands, and who are clearly much more than mere soulless technicians or stylists; and yet the old masters clearly have something more. They still have all the technique and vitality, but conceptually they are miles beyond musicians their children's age. And when you put it that way, who could really be surprised?

26 October 2013

Weirdest Email Ever

It isn't often that you get an email from an organization of which you only think you have ceased to be a member advertising an event at one of your alma maters but sent to the .edu address of a different alma mater 2000 miles away:

It took a good hard stare and some clenching of the brain muscle for me to figure it out: CalArts automatically signs its student composers up for ACF membership, and it was merely a coincidence that this ACF event was taking place at the U of MN. (It's not really a coincidence, actually, if you know the history of the organization, but you catch my drift.) Until I put it all together, I thought I might be caught in one of those soft nightmares where nothing outwardly threatening or unpleasant seems to be happening but something is clearly deeply wrong. I mean, the U of MN School of Music is building their convocation festivities around New Music? Maybe once I've been gone another ten years they'll be adequately supporting the jazz program and competently advising their students. I guess I'll believe it when it hits my inbox.

25 October 2013

whaling oops

So...perhaps there's something about October, much as I claim it as Blog Month's rightful calendrical home, that makes it difficult for me to make good on the project's greatest challenge. Perhaps being cloistered in a big kid art school dorm, confined to the same 2 minute walks between front door, practice room, and library, actually presented a more manageable scenario for daily blogging than the life of a freelance musician or transitioning recent graduate. Whatev. This year in particular, if it's not already obvious, has seen the conceit of daily blogging more or less dispensed with anyway in favor of the mere illusion of it. In other words, I work on these things in large chunks and well ahead of time, then clean them up in a flash of light on days when I have nothing better to say and before dumping them on you'all. Today, though, in place of yesterday, I will write off the cuff.

Last night I went to the Blue Whale to hear the Mark Dresser Quintet. The leader likely needs no introduction, but the band might, and you'll be pleased to make their acquaintance.

Saxophonist Ben Schachter emailed me a few years ago after finding his way to my website while searching for jazz tuba players. This was my first chance to hear him play live. He is a burning player with a striking tone, bright but warm and filling the room at every dynamic.

I first made the acquaintance of trombonist Michael Dessen at the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute last year. I've since heard him at the Whale a couple of times. Crazy chops; a rare ability and willingness, for someone with such a strong, bright sound (he and Ben make for quite a tonally unified front line) to alter his tone with varying degrees of airiness; and he plays with an F attachment, which I wish more trombonists would consider in this kind of setting (truthfully we all know why they don't; Michael has the chops, though).

I have heard pianist Joshua White many times at the Whale. Do not miss the chance to hear him if he ever comes to your area. Trust me. Until now, I'd heard him only on standard material and in the company of peers, but he didn't miss a beat here either. It's kind of scary.

Drummer Kjell Nordeson, native of Sweden and current student in the Integrative Studies program at UCSD, tied the whole thing together beautifully. Dresser's music has more than its fair share of twists and turns, including metric modulations, and in these hands they were always musically effective. There was swinging, there was burning, there was math, and there was freedom.

To summarize, can't really overstate how nice it is to have music of this quality happening locally, affordably, and most of all, frequently. I'm more excited about live music than I've been in a long time. So I'm going back tonight. Catch you'all on the other side of that.

23 October 2013

Large Whole-Number Ratios

I was reminded recently of a certain inconvenient fact about my master's degree:

As the graduation ceremony program shows, the CalArts School of Music granted nearly identical numbers of BFA and MFA degrees last spring. Occasionally people from outside the music profession will poo-poo a sarcastic remark about music degrees. Certainly my CalArts experience was worth quite a bit more than the degree ever could be. Yet isn't there something mildly unsettling about the notion of handing out graduate degrees in any of the arts or humanities nearly forty at a time? And even if the sheer number doesn't impress you, wouldn't you also say that the ratio between undergraduate and graduate degrees is much more flagrantly in violation of what once would have been called responsible academic behavior in fields where jobs don't exactly grow on trees? And if not for finding teaching work, what, exactly, is the degree for in the first place?

(For the record, both the raw numbers and the grad/undergrad ratios were similar in the schools of Art, Theater, and Film and Video. In Dance, where practice disproportionately trumps scholarship, and Critical Studies, where the opposite is true, many fewer MFAs were granted compared to BFAs.)

I'm not exactly blazing a trail here noting that the number of graduate music degrees granted and the number of real jobs for those graduates are out of whack with each other, nor am I the first to notice the Ponzi-like aspects of the academic food chain, nor does it take me and my blog to establish that the revenue feeding the scheme overwhelmingly represents debt of one kind or another incurred by students. The trite "real-world" stuff is no less troubling for having been recounted a million times, but as someone who may still yet be both a student and a teacher for the ump-teenth time each, I want to make sure we don't lose sight of the more abstract, less quantifiable aspects of all of this. To wit: is there anything left the truly gifted student might be able to do to distinguish him- or herself from the merely good? At what point does the propagation of opportunities for "encouraging" young artists swallow the entire endeavor whole? At what point have we encouraged enough of them to have discouraged all of them? Or, on the other hand, has the playing field actually been leveled in a constructive way, the profligacy of degree-granting institutions ensuring that bookish academic politicians with trust funds have a harder time swindling their way into real-world success that outpaces their talent now that everyone else has, on paper at least, much the same academic pedigree as they do?

It may be a stretch, even now, to say that a college degree is the new high school diploma, but perhaps the MFA, on the other hand, really is the new BFA. Seems to me that any serious disagreement with that statement has first and foremost to confront the numbers.

22 October 2013

Living Beyond Style (for realz)

If there's one thing regular attendance at The Blue Whale has brought home to me, it's that the notion of being beyond style is deeper than the lip service nearly all of us living and working today tend to pay to it. That is to say that I have been hearing a lot of music there that very much reflects the image the rest of the country has of L.A. (slick, polished, resolved, catchy, technical), some of which I wouldn't otherwise be going out of my way to experience, but which has, generally, been so well conceived and executed as to transcend the limitations (as people like me tend to see them) of the styles in question.

The saying about "good music and the other kind" comes to mind here, though to get on a razor's edge about it (and really, Modernists, where else would we want to be?), it is a saying that, much as we love its utterer, skirts more issues than it addresses. Even from the unfiltered vantage point of an individual audient, such all-or-nothing evaluations paper over the nearly intractable complexity of the listening experience, comprised as it most always is of numerous "good" and "bad" aspects all at once. Such it is that a group like the Billy Childs Electric Band, which I caught recently, constantly threatens a listener like me with all the rhetoric of showbiz and a notable banality of pre-composed material, all while melting my face right off as a total musical package that ranks in the top 10 live music experiences I've ever had.

Indeed, Childs' compositions and keyboard chops alike are almost impossibly polished. In Minneapolis, we run people like that right out of town with behind-the-back shit-talking. They don't fit the narrative we've constructed for ourselves to inhabit, the one where we repackage all of our shortcomings as conscious musical decisions and deride anyone whose faults are less obvious, whose technical polish is laid on thicker than ours, and, most of all, who are more obviously stylists than innovators. I must confess to having fallen victim to the Minneapolitan mindset myself on more than one occasion, and that is to say that Minneapolis, though it is an admirably pluralistic and original place in many ways, is not quite as far beyond style as we'd all like to think. Style, as any professional musician learns quickly, is only slightly less political than sex; to be beyond it, then, is not so simple as merely refusing to talk about it.

To wit, it's easy to highlight the superficial commonalities between the Childs group and the best of my hometown in spite of the stylistic grand canyon that separates them: high-level listening and interplay among the players, an incredible dynamic range (I doubt many Minneapolitans have ever heard a group this slick play so incredibly soft), and an unmistakable jazz aesthetic. The differences are just as stark: Childs' music is more through-composed, more harmonically "inside," and far more refined in overall tone color than most anything you can hear in Minneapolis without venturing to the Dakota.

Even after a relatively short time out here, I can already see the warnings of so many Minneapolitan rogues in evidence: clearly there is a more dominant mainstream at play in L.A. than in Minneapolis, and clearly I will find my way into friction with it at some point along the way. To be 100 percent beyond style is to be ambivalent about one's own stylistic direction, and to hew to whatever this mainstream dictates for you. Clearly I have no intentions of going quite that far as a performer or composer. I must say, though, that as a listener, given the quality of work out here, I certainly can imagine worse fates: I am learning a ton from what I'm hearing, and concurrently having a swell time doing so.

21 October 2013

The Latest on Extrinsic Benefits

This NYT opinion piece detailing the notable musical backgrounds of several highly successful people is currently making the rounds. Having gained a reputation in my immediate circle as a cynic, I've been asked for a reaction.

I doubt very much that the correlation between musical training and extramusical success is a mirage. I feel that my own musical endeavors have had much the same impact on me as these people describe, and I have iron-clad confidence that should circumstances dictate it, I could slip into any number of second careers that could have been my first, and with greater success than if I had majored in them in college.

Where the article and most every other one like it equivocates in a counterproductive way is in addressing (or not) the difference between rigorous pre-professional musical training (e.g. Paula Zahn) and sustained amateurism (e.g. Woody Allen). If there is one thing we can count on regarding the extrinsic benefit discussion, it is that where the rubber meets the road, it will be loudly proclaimed by all involved in the most overdetermined fashion imaginable that it must never, ever become the primary or even the secondary purpose of music education to train the students to be professional musicians. In the most literal sense, I could not agree more; however, I think it is equally self-evident that the ultimate beneficiality of the training (not to fret, Postmodernists, I promise to unpack that term in a moment) varies in direct proportion to the degree of rigor and accomplishment.

This leaves us in an awkward place few commentators are willing to explore, and one which requires much more space than they are customarily afforded in the dead-tree media. Many on the outside of this discussion will be quite surprised to be told that most professional performers don't have nearly the grasp of the kinds of higher-order musical skills that we think of as having particular value outside of music; that most of them are not equally fluent in playing from notation and playing by ear; that hardly any have had meaningful, sustained engagement with either the science of sound or the rich literature of philosophical aesthetics; and that virtually none truly reach their ceiling as technicians for simple lack of of dedication. In terms of making cross-disciplinary connections, pre-professional musical training as it is currently constituted is actually too narrow and not rigorous enough! The admonishment against training future professionals, then, is constructive primarily as an issue of mindset, far less so, though, as one of curriculum.

Even if we accept that characterization, however, there are still great conceptual problems here. Students, parents, and teachers do not simply throw themselves into rigorous, comprehensive, all-encompassing, life-dictating academic endeavors without any clear endgame. Should they? It would be far preferable to assuming a studied ambivalence which runs counter to all the values we purport to be teaching through music. That is my greatest fear and objection to much of the dialogue on this issue, the fly in the ointment that needs to be addressed in any and all of these discussions but virtually never is. I don't think we have any hope whatsoever of musical or extramusical successes if their pursuit becomes calculated, compromised, or triangulated.

Every research study and anecdote alike that is piled onto the heap of evidence for music as a force stronger than itself only causes making good on this promise to become less likely and more difficult. And to be unequivocal, I say that without any doubt whatsoever that the benefits are real. People need to understand that those two positions do not contradict each other in the least. One is directed at the ideal potential of the work and the other at its present, less-than-ideal mode of implementation. The point is that these are benefits which we know to arise from the naive, the recreational, and certainly, where they are pursued happily and healthily, the rigorous pre-professional and professional varieties of musical activity. It is not at all clear that they arise from what following Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind could be called "gainfulness," in other words, the self-conscious notion held from the outset that one is going to "get something" from all of this musicking. No, that has not been studied enough, if it can be at all; yes, it does matter; and holy shit does that mean we're playing with fire here.

Even as Kenny Werner, most notably, has delivered a suspicion of the gainful mindset to the musico-pedagogical mainstream, as far as I can tell no one has yet succeeded in doing the same for the arts outreach, advocacy, and non-profit community. Indeed, if I may be so callous, here is a meta-example of extrinsic benefits at work, a line in the sand between those who "do" and those who merely administrate, editorialize, and evaluate. If the latter groups all read the Suzuki and Werner books and rededicated themselves to their own artistic endeavors, that would be a start; I think, though, that without their having been through quite the same ringer as people like me, we're bound to have this same discussion with them over and over. Their culture is profoundly shaped by the concept of accountability, a rosy-sounding term which is nonetheless among the most toxic to art. In that sense, all of this relates to the general erosion of trust in our society, the fragmenting of culture, the world becoming smaller, the blowing of the lid off pedophilia, the notion of letting the terrorists win, and the whole mess. Accountability is society's answer to its own disintegration. Hopefully you agree that's too much to tackle for the present moment. But if you were expecting me to make some sarcastic remark about music not really being that important, hopefully this analysis to the contrary has been a pleasant surprise.

The bulk of those profiled in the article were or are high musical achievers, not dabblers, and while they clearly were cherrypicked to a degree that makes drawing any such larger conclusions inadvisable, I have to strongly agree, incidentally, with this bias in the method of selection. Even Woody Allen, as the token dilettante in the group, is fiercely committed: "I have to practice every single day to be as bad as I am." Talk about mindset! That's not a zinger I would willingly share with a young student, having as it does the potential to be lost in translation, but the intent of the remark is one I wish they would all grasp more readily. At half an hour of daily practice and regular gigs with his band, how many of us have had more than a few students that devoted?

After the unknown, unintended consequences of gainfulness, my second sphere of concern is yet more difficult to approach and also virtually never raised in polite company: which music are we really talking about here? It would come as an utter shock in purely statistical terms if all musical traditions proved to offer the exact same extrinsic benefits to the exact same degree. If this is indeed not the case, then the extrinsic benefit discussion has a highly political dimension to it that cannot go unremarked upon if this dialogue is to bear any fruit at all.

Personally, I think it is self-evident that the particular types of results described in this article could not possibly be achieved with, for example, New York School experimental music as the curricular focal point; and yet I feel equally strongly that virtually any music curriculum on any level which fails to meaningfully account for this body of work, or at the very least its philosophy and spirit, is profoundly compromised and minimally relevant to today's world. Of course, the question is not so complicated for me: the traditional and early-modern classical and jazz styles at the core of so much extrinsic benefit blather are also at the core of my own work as an artist; the ultra-modern, the experimental, the minimalist, and the popular are decidedly secondary, studied only casually and borrowed from only in tiny fragments. (Think Stockhausen to Feldman: "Your piece could be part of one of my pieces," possibly the ultimate asshole-composer quote for all time, but one which I, for better or worse, identify with to the core.)

There is existing research, philosophy, and infrastructure to support a mainstream, highbrow musico-pedagogical edifice, and we are busy at work building more of all of those things. This promises to earn money, prestige, and influence for musicians who work in those particular modes of expression, usually at the direct expense of those who do not. Even in my case, as someone who espouses the right kind of music on one hand and an odious devotion to rigor and ambition on the other, it has not been so easy to convince colleagues, institutions, and most of all, students and parents to buy into my version of the narrative. This is an unavoidable and dire political problem for musical culture broadly, particularly as music education becomes increasingly compromised through teaching positions at all levels having become the art-world equivalent of shoe contracts in basketball. It's a time bomb of sorts for the musico-cultural ecology that has delivered a body of knowledge we now know to have profound applications to every aspect of life. If educational utilitarianism truly becomes the only justification of our existence, as it is well on its way to doing, the nineteenth-century European value system we have spent the last century deconstructing, protesting, and overthrowing merely becomes reinstitutionalized, with music restored roughly to the place it had in ancient Greece, but without much of any acknowledgment of the events of the intervening millennia. That's a loaded statement I'm not fully prepared to defend here and now; but I believe it wholeheartedly and it keeps me up at night.

Two closing thoughts to this diatribe:

First, even if the various extrinsic benefit profiles of a wide range of musical cultures were to be codified, I would remain trepidatious. Aesthetic synergy with the individual student will always be a bedrock prerequisite for reaping extrinsic benefits, and it's hard to imagine that the prescription of certain courses of study with certain endgames in mind could possibly have much success. Gainfulness is an abstraction, but I think this much we can agree on, at least those of us who have ever been forced to study closely music which we didn't necessarily think warranted it in our cases.

Second, and finally, because I pay attention to all of this stuff in music, I chuckle often when I encounter less compelling extrinsic benefit narratives from other areas of culture. Golf, science fiction, gardening, and just about everything else is being sold virtually the same way music is. That doesn't change the evidence in our favor, but I think it does change the nature of the dialogue once we understand that we are hardly the only ones taking this tack. If we don't realize it, the people we are trying the hardest to reach will.

20 October 2013

Copland on the tuba

"The tuba is one of the orchestra's more spectacular-looking instruments, since it fills the arms of the player holding it. It isn't easily manageable. To play it at all one must possess good teeth and plenty of reserve wind. It is a heavier, more dignified, harder-to-move kind of trombone. It is seldom used melodically, though in recent years composers have entrusted occasional themes to its bearlike mercies, with varying results. (Ravel's tuba solo in his orchestral version of Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition" is a particularly happy example.) For the most part, however, its function is to emphasize the bass, and, as such, it does valuable service."

from What To Listen For In Music, p. 95

19 October 2013

Michael Kac at 70

The musician, linguist, son of the mathematician and father of the tuba player celebrates a milestone birthday today.

The apple never falls far from the tree, though sometimes it rolls a bit before reaching equilibrium. In any case, if jazz tuba still strikes anyone as a bit of a stretch, just keep in mind that I grew up with rock harpsichord as a fait accompli:

Meanwhile, this piece by Dad's long-time friend and collaborator Linda Cohen was heard around the house with some frequency during my childhood and undoubtedly bears some small degree of responsibility for warping my brain:

Finally, here's Linda playing Dad's "Valentine Suite."

18 October 2013

Metablogging, in re: the post of October 17

Have already gotten a bunch of spam comments...could it have anything to do with the word "exercise" appearing in the title?

I kind of doubt "relativism" is trending on Yahoo! right now, though it certainly has been trending with certain bunches of yahoos for a couple of decades now...

In Plain Sight

This surely will be used against me in any future discussion of the social function(s) of music, but I have to admit that it sure has been lovely to be able to attend musical performances anonymously for the first time since I was a teenager. And now that I read books, I can even bring one with me, which has enabled the reclamation of all that built-in concert downtime for dribs and drabs of pseudo-scholarly endeavor. It beats the pants off making small talk, or at least I would think so. I do have to admit some trepidation about walking in with pretentious-looking reading material, as if I am there merely to conspicuously consume it in the presence of other aesthetes while simultaneously erecting a barrier of hipsterism by sitting locked in concentration with so much petty socializing happening around me. There was a long stretch of my life where the mere thought of coming off that way scared me out of things as innocuous as carrying a book around. Perhaps that's because I'm among the quickest to jump to that conclusion about others. For the moment, though, I've found the space and am enjoying it. See you there, and catch you some other time.

17 October 2013

Selective Naciremical Reverse Pseudo-Relativism Exercise

Imagine a purely hypothetical non-Western, non-white society with an autonomous, aestheticist-leaning classical music tradition. Now imagine the tempest of vitriol that would rain down upon the Western author of a postmodern, deconstructionist critique of this hypothetical musical culture. Imagine as part of this critique the positing of a Freudian subconscious underlying this musical culture whereby its aspiration to autonomy is understood as a manifestation of all of human kind's worst attributes all at once. Imagine the concurrent pathologizing of this musical culture based on the social implications of the aspiration to artistic autonomy and the normativization of functional music based purely on its preponderance across the globe and only secondarily on its own social implications. Now imagine the possible reactions and how out of place the customary urging of tolerance would seem when applied to an art-music tradition.

It's a purely hypothetical, highly cherrypicked scenario that will never ever play out. Perhaps that's simply because the kind of postmodern theory I'm thinking of was never designed or intended to be applied to any other cultures: as Albert Murray said, "We [Afro-Americans] invented the blues; Europeans invented psychoanalysis. You invent what you need." Then again, the notion of classical musical tradition is not, strictly speaking, confined to The West (nor would Freud be, if there is anything worth salvaging from him, applicable only to us, even if we needed it more). In any case, if there is such thing as a death drive, I wonder if our present relationship to our musical past might well offer an example of it at work?

16 October 2013

Oh No, Boho!

I work in an area of town called North Hollywood, inevitably abbreviated as NoHo. (See also, SoCal. I have heard vehemently conflicting reports, on the other hand, as to the true currency of "NorCal." Stay tuned for any updates on that as they become available.) Not surprisingly, there is something nearby called the Noho Arts District, upon which official city neighborhood signage has been conferred, along with several much tackier visual devices announcing the district's existence.

Equally unsurprisingly, upon learning that I am a musician, a non-artist co-worker has recommended that I investigate this magical land of streetlight banners, tapas bars, cardboard condos, and fluorescent paint. He expects I will find both personal and professional opportunities of which to avail myself. My only question: after how long is habitual antisocial skepticism transformed by time into the wisdom of age and experience, and am I there yet? My instinct here is, of course, to stay as far away as possible from people and institutions who announce themselves so loudly as artists, knowing from experience that the most interesting work (yes, I'm pretty comfortable with that as a one-word distillation of value, so just go with me for the next paragraph or so) is not nearly profitable enough to fund its own conspicousness. There's also this, which fails utterly to inspire confidence. Seriously, metal karaoke?

As I'm sure the other musicians reading this know, explaining all of this to your co-worker is a fool's errand, just like when he asks you, "Why don't you just join an orchestra?" or "I heard [pop star] is doing a record with horns." So I said I might check it out, and then a few days later realized I was actually thinking about doing so. That would be a mistake, and I know that because it's one I've made before. So, I'll be waiting until something specific draws me there, and not exactly holding my breath on the matter. I have to admit, though, pastel color schemes and freeway signage are a sneaky-good combination.

15 October 2013

Picking Battles

How to reform musical academia while stopping short of outlawing aestheticism? Easy: greater institutional specialization.

The realization that a truly comprehensive musical education is no longer feasible should be accompanied by the realization that truly comprehensive orchestra programming is equally unfeasible for exactly the same reason. Instead, music schools must team up with other music schools, and orchestras with other orchestras, to create statewide and nationwide networks of institutions which collectively cover more ground more ably than any of them ever could individually. And it's not rocket science to see how the stylistic pie might begin to be divvied up: by local preference and tradition, by a school's extra-musical academic strengths, and, most trickily, as I will discuss shortly, by more extreme specialization based on big-picture affinities among seemingly disparate musical styles.

It makes sense for music schools at universities where technology looms large to lead the way in areas like complexism, electronic music composition, and music recording and production. Ditto for research science and music cognition. Ditto again for business school and arts administration. (Hand to heart, I'd personally rather that neither of those were taken seriously as academic subjects, but hey, just maybe today I could get through one blog post without attacking someone else's right to exist?)

The larger, older, established private schools like Northwestern and USC make sense as backward-looking art music conservatories, since they have the endowments, traditions, and locations to make it work. It doesn't really make sense for any other kind of school to be oriented in this way, however, and the small number of schools that are well-suited to it is probably about the right number that we really, truly need, don't you think?

Small out-of-the-way liberal arts schools, meanwhile, are bound to be more ideal places for navel-gazing composers, wooly-headed experimentalists, and angsty critical theorists to take their long walks in the woods and ever longer draws on their bongs.

Major research universities with multiple specialties and ever-shrinking state appropriations which are nonetheless charged with serving tens of thousands of students would be better served offering a hodge-podge of musical opportunities for the general student population to stay involved in music rather than cutting them off nearly completely from such opportunities in order to pour all of those resources into pre-professional training in musical traditions that don't exactly reflect that community's breadth of interests. (Okay, so I kind of gave away who I'm thinking of here.) Their faculties should be the most generalist and their accredited music degree-granting activities the smallest in scale and the most difficult to get admitted to. These music majors should be few enough in number to each be fully financially supported and afforded significant, meaningful teaching opportunities as undergraduates, thus allowing the schools to serve even more of their general student bodies. Obviously, under such circumstances, these music majors would be receiving generalist training themselves. Admission as a music major should be applied and auditioned for at the end of the student's sophomore year at the earliest, after they've had a chance to acclimate to college life, demonstrate some aptitude(or not), and figure out what they really want to specialize in. Because musical activities will be available to them from day one regardless of their major, they can take their time in figuring all of this out, as most of us wish we had been able to do. Upon admission, they should be granted four full years of study on top of whatever they've already had, leading to bachelor's and master's degrees.


Owing to the inertia of prestige, a lot of this has been happening somewhere, if not everywhere it should, for decades. The next step, strategic pairing of musical styles and specialties within these music departments, is equally crucial yet I suspect far less widely observable and probably bound to be unpopular with many. Here's what I mean:

It might ultimately prove that Indian classical music, for example, fits the structure and mandate of a rigorous jazz or classical music university-conservatory much more closely than that of a small liberal arts school where multiple non-Western traditions are studied quite a bit more casually than would traditionally be demanded of aspiring practitioners of Indian music.

Contemporary pop music and music technology obviously belong together, and that has already been happening.

The quarantining of the supposedly best-and-brightest classical music composers, theorists and historians in academically prestigious Ivy League-ish schools with few performers around to either keep them honest or do them an occasional solid has never made much sense to me, and I don't think I'm the only one; it seems obvious that the Brahms interpreters and the Brahms scholars (as well as the Webern interpreters and Webern scholars) would both be better served housed under the same roof, where they can drive each other crazy instead of the rest of us, and probably learn a lot of other important stuff from each other, too.

Improvisation could easily serve as a unifying principle in a specialized music department: jazz, pop, creative music, and heavily improvised, aural musical traditions from around the world could together comprise the exclusive focus. Imagine if there were just a few schools like this scattered around the country, where no one read music at all; then we could all stop fighting each other over this issue while trying to cohabit the same overextended institutions, and everyone could institute appropriate evaluative standards for their own students without having to make sacrifices to the demands of generalist musical accreditation.

And of course, what instrumentalist or singer hasn't dreamed of a music school free and clear from the meddling of the other group? Perhaps that species of institutional specialization is ultimately a bit too arbitrary and radical, but I still think it's an excellent example of the way we ought to be approaching this issue conceptually. You could rattle off x number of abstract ways this sort of insularity would be bad for the students and the student experience, but seriously, can anyone reading this who has been to music school honestly say they've never wished for it, or that it wouldn't have had major benefits for them?


I could go on, but I hope you see where I'm going with this. Most of this is perfectly conceivable in the abstract, but getting from here to there looks pretty much impossible. You would have to convince a lot of schools to shutter accredited degree-granting programs they already have, something almost no one is willing to do for just about any reason imaginable. Additionally, even if they were willing, someone has to blink first, and again, while certain local affinities can indeed be seen reflected in the identities of places like UCSD (nicknamed SCUD), Northwestern (classical Chicago), North Texas (baaaand), Mills (it's totally NorCal, man), every school in NYC (so killin' man) etc., etc., who is ever going to up and close down the other half of their department, lay off the other half of their faculty, hire seemingly redundant faculty in their place, and try to sell the rest of their immediate community on the notion of such a specialized focus? It seems impossible; but I think it's also inevitable and overdue. It simply is no longer possible for the flagship state school in every city, every state, even every region, to maintain an unspoken dominance of 19th Century orchestral performance while quarter-assing everything else just to look more pluralistic than they really are. And, it's no longer necessary! Why are we still doing it? If we could all be within a day's drive of a classical conservatory, a jazz/pop incubator, a world music hub, a scorched-earth modernist outpost, and a small, flat rock under which distanced scholarship is pursued, there would be no need for our local school to fake its way through all of those things at once...unless, of course, that was its mandate and there were only a few others like it in the country. We can always use a few. But only to work in tandem with the others.

14 October 2013

Hearing Modernity (iii)

Olivia Lucas on Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: Meaning of a Format:

The approach to history here is never teleological; instead, it emphasizes the contingency of all events and artifacts. The book addresses the fact that the mp3 could have been invented thirty years earlier than it was, and uses this fact to interrogate the assumption that technological capability alone leads to invention. The emergence of the mp3 in 1993 was the result of a long history of people, institutions and technologies.

Okay, okay, I get it. I mean, not really, but kind of. No musical style or technique is universally applicable anymore, but everyone in a society lives under the same set of social, political, and economic conditions, and the better we understand them, the better equipped we are to make and consume sound/music. The idea of replacing music theory with acoustics in the core curriculum actually has always kind of appealed to me for the same reason: we all live under the same physical laws, even if our Musical traditions are vastly different and irreconcilable. Why not go all the way? Isn't embracing "the contingency of all events and artifacts" going to do more for more students of sound and music alike than sweating out the gory details of how "a minority of aesthetes" chose to spend their putrid little lives?

I honestly am not sure. It seems we will find out in due time. I do wonder, though, just to belabor the point a bit more, what becomes of the last thousand years of willfulness in Western music? Are we to behave as if it never happened? Today, given enough data from which to extrapolate, computers can spit out convincing sound-alikes in the style of virtually any classical composer; and yet simply by virtue of being first, the original works themselves tell us so much more about the world we live in and how it got to be that way. Sociology, meanwhile, can explain or excuse the work, but it can't perform or compose it. The former are ideal academic pursuits; the latter never fit quite so well. Perhaps it's better, then, that academia do Sound Studies rather than Sound Making; that it focus on what it's good at and leave the creative, subjective work that it never really knew how to properly approach or nurture to be done outside its walls. Isn't that what people like me have been saying for a long time? And yet it was the academics' unhealthy distance from real live musical practice that prompted those complaints in the first place. Seen in that light, instituting a yet further distance suddenly becomes a lot less appealing, and the very point of doing so rather unclear. That's my main problem here. As long as there has been music, practitioners have always already been analysts, historians, and most of all, teachers and mentors. That aspect of music predates modern academia and promises to outlive it. The story of the academic perversion of the time-honored mentor-disciple relationship is one of increasing distance from musical practice; of enforced insularity as an inevitable product of a particular kind of hierarchical structure in the organization of such institutions; and of people with no particular interest in or ability for teaching or mentorship half-assing their way through it in exchange for a much-needed paycheck when the society they live in presents them with no alternative income source. The strongest backlash against this monstrosity was bound to come from far enough beyond its walls to ensure that those leading it didn't entirely understand or appreciate the value of a properly functioning version; they simply wanted their own demands met, their own self-importance validated, by whichever institutions they happened to be looking at after being shot with Cupid's envy arrow, and where such things were not immediately forthcoming, they set about burning the whole thing to the ground. Ergo, Sound Studies, the new and improved, politically correct version of Sound Making, where everybody gets a trophy, no one has to practice, and the only prerequisite is fluency in a coded language of five-dollar words. In all seriousness, there is undoubtedly important work to be done here should its exponents demonstrate the ability to learn from the history of the institutions they've worked so hard to penetrate; it so often seems, however, that this history has simply been dismissed as a dark age without being fully digested, the very notion of aesthetic contemplation considered beyond redemption, and our nose thus cut off very much in spite of our face. There are other questions, too, like what becomes of the "music makes kids smart" narrative after every last piece of physical and mental exercise inherent in the traditional Western musical experience has been decolonialized right out of it, and anything less than a Partchian mania for first principles is pathologized as reactionary propaganda? It is not for nothing that Christopher Small, The People's Deconstructionist, builds his widely-read book "Musicking" around the notion that music is something people do; it would seem rather obvious, though, that art which anyone can make, which requires no specialized knowledge or skills, is inherently non-transformative, art with zero "extrinsic" benefits, if you will. Who cares, then, how many people it reaches?

The 21st century postmodernists have let the 20th century musico-academic terrorists win. Distrusting the power of beauty to elicit irrational behavior, or perhaps possessing no ear for it themselves, they can't seem to understand why anyone else would have use of it; and so the play of contingencies and constructivisms is supposed to fellate our minds the way music once did our ears. I'm a smart guy, so...almost. But not quite. I have ears, not ice, where my heart should be.

13 October 2013

Hearing Modernity (ii)

More from an essay by Ian Power:

Here was the bedrock for scholarly work that was not about analyzing music formalistically; it was about analyzing the lines between music and daily life, the ways music was controlled and distributed—in studying a modern music politics, it began to become clearer that it wasn’t just music that was political, so was everything surrounding its dissemination. ...Music, seen through this lens, now appeared as a minor cog in the wheel of sound. ...Studying only music restricted us to studying a leisure activity in the face of mounting evidence that the study of sound was always already the study of politics and power, environment and experience. In studying music, we had been studying the actions of a minority of aesthetes; studying sound is, almost by definition, studying everyone.

Again, an omission of sorts that it takes a musician to get bent out of shape about: when we read "analyzing music formalistically" in this context, we of course know that the author really meant "jacking off to magic squares," and not "the instrumentalist's conscientious preparation of musical work(s) for performance." The latter is, after all, something only that pesky "minority of aesthetes" is silly enough to bother with anymore, trapped as they are in the Victorian, Darwinist clusterfuck of determinacy and willfulness, and burdened by the outmoded belief that the intentional refinement of a musical creation in direct reflection of one's own predilections and experiences enhances (potentially, at least) that product's intrinsic value, brightening an irreparably dark world ever so slightly.

In any case, if that's the musical framework that you live (or are trapped) in, you probably have no more patience than the Soundists do for the particular varieties of formalistic musical analysis that have prevailed in American academia. Even so, there certainly is a species of what can only be called analysis that you and everyone else you live (or are trapped) with in this world of music necessarily engage in when it comes time to give a public performance. People like us grew up associating such seemingly commendable abstract values as personal pride and respect for others with the drive to prepare and refine our work; for us, the most destructive force known to music, aesthetically as well as socially, is permission to dispense with them. Such an erosion of standards seems an awfully steep price to pay for something as silly as molding the sonic world into a slightly more idealized political allegory, especially when there's a "real" world of people and institutions out there that could use a bit more attention than it gets through this maneuver alone.

Not all aestheticism is politically naive: if one's musical desires are so destructive (but are they really?), does it not make sense to seek a padded cell for them to inhabit? Without such an outlet, the strictures of accepting the world of sound precisely as it is, simply presented with no hope for change, becomes a form of oppression, and the study of how the world got to sound the way it does becomes deterministic and empty. Aestheticism, meanwhile, was only ever a threat when tastes became institutionalized, just as determinacy is only inherently destructive when accompanied by spectacular deficits of consciousness which both music and sound, I hate to say for the second time in as many paragraphs, are hard-pressed to remedy on their own.

We are all aesthetes, even if only a minority of us are awake to it. The notion that "studying everyone" would be more politically appealing seems to me to overvalue the privilege of being studied while undervaluing that of sonic self-determination. Such a thorough distrust of intentionality and refinement threatens to trap us in the world as it sounds at the expense of how it might sound. Aestheticist music-making, conversely, is less about exerting control over others than about exerting it over one's own soundworld; about being the change you wish to see in that world, as the saying goes.

For its part, analysis (the type does matter, but not for the moment) is part and parcel of being a music-maker, i.e. a practitioner, or at least one worth his or her salt in any musical tradition that still permits its members their own value judgments. It's important to recognize that grain of civility lying at the heart of an early American musico-academic framework that was indeed to go precipitously off the rails in so many other ways. That such institutions can no longer possibly cover enough stylistic ground to make any claim to comprehensiveness in the contemporary musical environment is its own rather separate issue; the exclusive classical music emphasis never suited me either, but the aspiration to achievement sure did, and I certainly find it too important to be sacrificed as collateral damage in the postmodern theory wars. May benevolent willfulness find a way to coexist with Sound as well as Music, and nihilism thus be kept at bay for a little while longer.

12 October 2013

Hearing Modernity (i)

From an essay by Ian Power:

For the first ninety or so years of modern liberal arts education in the United States, the study of music meant the study of classical music, much like the study of literature was that of Great Books. As the advent of critical theory in other humanist disciplines began to expand the scope of scholarly study, music (somewhat grudgingly) began look to critical theory as well; with, for example, music theorists looking to phenomenology, and musicologists looking to gender studies. But perhaps most critical to the study of sounds themselves was the rapid expansion of ethnomusicology, which not only exposed academia to different musics, it brought to music departments a laundry list of ways of thinking about and experiencing music that were much different from the Western classical situation. There came to Western ears far more to tell of societies (contemporary and past) in which the boundaries between music and daily life were not so clear; where purposeful noise was integral and not polluting. In addition to these, scholars began to turn ears to contemporary consumers of American popular culture, much of which produced music that was not to be sat and listened to, but danced to, shower-sung to, run to, eaten to, and shopped to.

An important point goes customarily unremarked upon here: in the bygone era of cultural consensus (or the appearance of it), the arts nonetheless did not seem to fit very comfortably into the academic mandate, and it was never particularly gauche to suggest so. Canonical old-world musical figures like Berlioz, Wagner, Debussy, and Prokofiev certainly had their own strained relationships with the academic musical thought of their respective times, which is to say years or decades before music (of any kind) had gained its foothold in American academia1. With cultural consensus came the threat of enforced convention, and as goes one, so goes the other, or so it seems this cadre of sound scholars would have it.

The distinction here between "music" and "sound" is well-taken, and has shaped my own world more so than my overwhelmingly lines-and-dots-oriented work might outwardly indicate; in any case, I'm certainly not here to argue that classical music is the only kind worth studying. One wonders, however, if a precipitous lurch towards sound necessarily resolves the longer-standing tension, held over from the age of music, between academic theory and real-world practice; or if, in fact, as an almost purely academic construction (and at that, one taking significant cues from, of all places, critical theory), a field like Sound Studies merely threatens to transform the problem of studying music into something bigger, messier, and even less utilitarian than the paradigm it purports to supersede? Insofar as the "practice" of sound is less intention-driven than that of music, does it not pose a proportionately less tractable condition?

Indeed, the disintegration of cultural consensus was never music's problem alone: after all, with the "boundaries between music and daily life" now suitably shattered, what good is the study of sound without 1000 years of music as its contextual counterweight? Could Sound Studies justify its own existence without this backdrop? Throughout the musical era, the glaring and elementary epistemological problems inherent in the gesture of subsuming creative artistic disciplines as they were then understood within the academic environment as it was then manifested were nonetheless papered over, dwarfed as they were by music's (not sound's) larger cultural significance. Sound Studies, meanwhile defines such top-down, monolithic frameworks right out of its worldview; from what source, then, is its necessity taken to spring?

The matter of the arts justifying their own existence, in academia and elsewhere, is a frequent, if often indirect, topic of conversation these days, and rightfully so; yet no one I'm reading from either a musical or a sonic viewpoint is suggesting that both music and sound could be truly endangered academic species. I am beginning to take seriously the notion that they are; that more people think so than say so; and that we can learn something about the whole mess by studying these and other stakeholders' behavior. As a mostly musical creature myself, the rather calculated academic maneuver by soundists to dump the entire weight of postmodern cultural fragmentation onto the backs of us musicians strikes me as an omen, since these are the people that, if they understand anything, understand both culture and academic politics intimately.

Certainly with strict regard to music, the costs of pluralism (of which I have been a strong proponent here) are steep. The first is trite but all-encompassing: as a practical matter, schools of music can no longer provide comprehensive music education when the very notion of music has (rightly, I think) been exploded into something as varied as the individuals who sustain it and as vast as collective human intellectual endeavor itself. In other words, schools can neither expect their graduates to know everything nor can they afford to teach it to them. The second, equally trite and equally all-encompassing point: qualitative evaluation in the arts was a dicy proposition from the start, and in a self-consciously pluralistic educational environment, it is impossible almost by definition. If art and academia were always strange bedfellows, someone is sleeping on the couch for the foreseeable future. Does excising the study of art from the study of sound really solve the problem? Does it create another?

Paradoxically (perhaps ingeniously), the dismantling of cultural consensus short-circuits the possibility of the institutional training of music-makers while securing scalable, nearly unlimited avenues of inquiry for pure scholars of sociology and culture. Discourses of mastery and refinement (with, for Cage and post-Cageans, intentionality as their proxy) were the very first targets of the most vehement deconstructionists; all human beings, it turns out, create sound and shit in equal amounts (lots) and with equal effort (none). In an instant, there were no more musicians for academics to train and an unlimited number for them to study. Is it really all that farfetched, then, given, on one hand, the wide-ranging adademic-political implications of such a trend for what are, for the moment, known as music departments, and on the other, the well-documented limitless pettiness and insecurity of academics in marginalized fields of endeavor, to at least take note of all of this from an academic-political perspective?

"The advent of critical theory in other humanist disciplines" and its bleed into musico-academic scholarship is a topic which I'm neither prepared nor qualified to tackle in any mature scholarly way. I will say only that I suspect it deserves to be presented, as it is above, strictly as a history of academia itself, and as such is otherwise about as relevant to modern day musical practitioners as the list of Prix de Rome winners or the competing conventions for labeling secondary dominant chords. The emphasis on the role of ethnomusicology seems more justified, though this should also remind us that rigid convention, refinement of technique, and formal apprenticeship are not exactly unique to our own classical tradition. It is mere delusion to believe that excising them from our culture is inherently a depathologizing or liberationist maneuver.

As all-encompassing as the impact of critical theory can seem in the right circles, as well as the best of it explicates some important recent trends, and as thoroughly at odds as it is (representing fairly well, I think you could say, the facts on the ground) with the very notion of allowing pre-professional training of musical practitioners to dominate academic musical life as it has for several decades, musical academia itself has, of course, not (yet) truly begun to reform itself accordingly, nor has it ventured very far from the usual high-brow Western musical traditions. Last I checked, in fact, the numbers were continuing to explode. The institution I most recently attended, thought by itself and a few others to point the way forward on just these sorts of issues, is, of course, singularly proud of its accredited performance programs in several non-Western musical traditions, again solving one problem only to create another. It turns out that music-makers, those lovable idiot savants who make the entire musico-academic edifice hum, have a peculiar way of going on the offensive to protect their turf, preserving, contriving, and enforcing their own cultural consensuses among micro-communities just large enough (but plenty well-connected) to sustain the old monolithic ways in politically well-placed pockets of resistance. We are an eminently naive, outmoded and vulnerable species which critical theory has nevertheless completely failed to either reform or depose, not through exertion of external pressure, and certainly not through holistic infiltration of the subculture. (Really, how many conservatory brats could begin to understand the first thing about this literature? See the problem now?) As I continue to read about, study, and observe the world around me, the clearer it becomes that the academic training of practitioners of living musical traditions will remain in perpetual conflict with the values of liberationist critical theory unless or until such training ceases to be undertaken at all. So stay safe out there kids; there are Bolsheviks in our bathroom.

1Of course, it figures that the differences between (1) an old-fashioned (i.e. nineteenth century) national conservatory system and (2) a modern quasi-conservatory system subsumed within a nation's public and private universities are decidedly non-negligible, and would make for a fascinating angle from which to attack contemporary polemics surrounding the orientation and mandate of post-secondary music schools.

11 October 2013

Minneapolis Music "Scene" In Crisis: The Fickle Ears Pocket Guide to Donning Your Adult Trousers

When I began to seriously explore my options for leaving Minneapolis, it was not just because I had lived there my whole life, because I felt I had outgrown it, because I had become frustrated with a number of my projects, because I saw little hope of ever earning a respectable living there as a musician, because I felt the need to continue my formal education, or because I got sick of not being able to drive my car because it was literally frozen to the street. There was also a certain amount of writing on the proverbial wall in the form of venues closing or ceasing to host music, and an unmistakable downward trajectory in the interest I felt was being shown in my work. What had once seemed like the bad old days of post-college aimlessness and lessons learned the hard way ca. 2006-08 now appeared as the high point: throughout the mid-to-late 2000s, I had several late-night gigs a year at the Dakota while that series still hosted serious local bands, my teaching studio was steadily expanding, I auditioned my way onto the MN Orch sub list, I landed a 25-hour a week day job with good pay, health benefits, iron-clad scheduling, and no weird hours, and there seemed to be room to grow with most everything I was involved in.

By the time I was sending off grad school applications in the fall of 2010, I had realized that things were not just stagnating but in fact deteriorating. Emails to my contact at the Dakota, an old college friend, started going unanswered; bandmates with ins at other venues had similar trouble; personal relationships, both involving me and not involving me, became strained in a number of my projects. It was time to get the hell off this sinking ship.

The more recent sinkings of the Minnesota Orchestra and the Artists' Quarter make a rather incongruous pairing, except by timing, as well as in some ways by my own relationship to each of them: transformative early listening experiences, close mentorship relationships with members of their respective inner circles, avid participation in all the standard-issue minor-league kiddie shows, courtship of real adult involvement following my graduation from college and emergence into the professional world, and ultimately, after six years of that last step, zero to show for it. How, then, could I of all people possibly squeeze out something despairing, or even matter-of-fact, about the direction of the Twin Cities music scene in the wake of these two dinosaur institutions falling on the hardest of times? I have been proclaiming here for years a sort of Darwinist outlook on such institutions, which have a tendency to divert attention, resources, and butts-in-seats from the more out-of-the-way places where the music of our own time is hammered out. In that sense, I have to say obstinately that had I anticipated the downward spiral progressing quite so quickly, I may not have been so quick to leave town. The kind of work I'm interested in doing needs space, both literally and figuratively. Minneapolis in my heyday there offered neither kind; the city was too small and its institutions too big. It's not farfetched to wonder if a complete wasteland would have presented more opportunities than I had. If that's the way things are headed, color me equanimous.

The problem with this kind of anarcho-utopianism regarding the current situation is, of course, that the core audiences for the institutions under discussion are largely blind (deaf?) to the rest of the scene. They're more likely to disappear altogether than to take the initiative to find out what else has been going on this whole time. They need to know exactly what they're going to get in both musical product and social prestige before they make an appearance at an unfamiliar location, and there are more than a few parts of town which are non-starters from the outset. If anyone reading this back home takes offense to that evaluation, you have exactly one way to prove I'm wrong, and that's to become a seeker rather than a finder of live music. And to bring a friend. I double-dog dare you.

The vitality of a music scene cannot be measured by how many musicians comprise it, what kinds of music they play, how many venues they have to play at, how they compare ability-wise to musicians in other cities, or by measuring any of this per-capita, as Minneapolitans have the blithely irritating tendency to do whether or not it is relevant or constructive. Rather, the audience, that other 50% of the musical transaction, is more like 100% of the indication of a scene's vitality. It matters not whether that audience is comprised of other professional musicians or of people who just wandered in, just that its presence is, in fact, palpable in the air that is to be moved, its impact tangible on the musicians' morale, its proverbial butts firmly planted in all of those would-be empty seats, and it's five dollar bills deposited in hats, jars, and buckets of all manner in large enough quantities to, if not pay the bills, then at least warrant reporting on a federal tax return. And that's why Minneapolis, for all of its musical and extra-musical strong points, just plain stinks for some of us. When horseshit variety bands get called back year after year for the same good paying gigs, drawing raves from the patrons, it doesn't matter who has more of these bands; you just stink. When the same people play the same music at the same venue for the same audience for decades at a time, that presents another instance of stuff starting to smell funny. When the personality cults are built around musicians whose personalities and music alike don't seem to justify it, a foul odor begins to emanate from the "scene."

What, me bitter? It can't be at the institutions themselves, and it's certainly not at anyone I know. Just about everyone I know even haphazardly or once-removed came to hear me, often several times over. It's the people I only ever met in certain venues in certain parts of town when certain musicians were involved; they are the ones who, for obvious reasons, confound me. An overreaction you say? Not quite, if you believe this guy:

“I cut my salary to where there’s nothing left, and I still can’t make the numbers work,” Horst said. “I still have great nights here, but one great night a week doesn’t cut it. People say, ‘The place was packed when I was there.’ The problem is everyone is there on the same night.”

That many of the musical organizations I most wanted to work with could not afford to involve me in their plans is ultimately on the audience, not the organizations. Those organizations are not stupid, nor are the individuals who comprise them. They can't swing and miss six nights a week, and to them, I'm just another forkball in the dirt. I could only hang so many posters, send so many emails, run so many Facebook events, place on so many jazz calendars, do so many interviews, and go to so many horseshit amateur jam sessions without seeing much of a light at the end of a the tunnel before I just had to give up and go somewhere else.

So, Minneapolis, are you going to sit there and cry in your hotdish like a big blonde baby, or is it maybe time to wake up to all the "other" music you've been missing, to take inventory, notice what's missing, and get the hell to work on making it happen? You're not just going to let me go all petty on you in some stupid Nick-Payton-esque blog rant, right? You can't just let a prematurely washed-up malcontent like me be sooooo happy to have left you in my wake, can you? Don't make me proud, make me sorry! I triple-dog dare all y'all to live up to your own regional hype! Starting now! For better or worse, you have more space to do it now than you've had for quite a long time.

10 October 2013

Evading The MN Orch Question

The fact that I have not addressed the Minnesota Orchestra situation here says pretty much exactly what I would say without all the trouble of sitting down to write. However, I thought I might share some related stories that ought to be part of the public record about me and my work, and which will inevitably lead to some elaboration upon that opening sentence.

Early in elementary school (I don't remember exactly when, but quite early indeed), principal trumpet Manny Laureano made a visit to my school to give a talk about Pictures at an Exhibition and play the ubiquitous excerpt a few times. I've long since forgotten the content of the talk, but the sound of his trumpet in that gymnasium is something I've never forgotten, even if I'm not so sure it ever informed my own playing or hastened my later inclination towards brass instruments.

My college tuba teacher Ross Tolbert was the long-time principal tubist with the group and used to positively shower us with complimentary tickets. I once ran into him on my way into a rare concert at the St. Paul Cathedral and he insisted on rustling up a free ticket for me. I owe the bulk of my in-person orchestral listening experience to Ross and the orchestra, who, thanks to Osmo's arrival, were really hitting their stride around this time.

To this day, the most glowing classical-music bonafide on my resume is making the finals of the 2005 WAMSO Competition, which is the Minnesota Orchestra's young artist competition. Unfortunately, the aspect of this that has stuck with me the most is the opportunity I didn't have thanks to some good old fashioned U of MN politicking. At this time in history the U of MN Symphony Orchestra played a yearly "side-by-side" concert with many MNOrch players, and as a graduating super-senior and WAMSO finalist, I fully expected to be assigned to it for the first time. Unfortunately for me, my relationship with our orchestra conductor had been fractured years earlier over my involvement with the jazz ensembles when those commitments (made literally a year in advance for a special collaboration with the dance school) came into conflict with an opera to which he had hastily assigned me. When my friend Mike Werner returned from the side-by-side rehearsal, he told me that a group of players from the orchestra who had served as judges for the competition had come over to congratulate him thinking he was me. I felt bad for him to have been put in that situation, but worse that I had missed a significant chance to make some important connections, or at the very least to soak up some praise from some high-level classical players the likes of which I'd never have so good an opportunity to impress again. There's no guarantee that anything substantive would have come of any such connections, but having been denied the mere opportunity out of petty musico-stylistic politicking is one of several grievances for which I'll never forgive my alma mater. The conductor, against whom a resignation petition was once circulated during a rehearsal, didn't last much longer, but in my case, the damage was already done.

In January 2007, I took a sub list audition for MN Orch and several weeks later received a short, generic letter stating that I had been placed on the list. I assume my name can still be found somewhere towards the bitter end of that list, though obviously it hardly matters. Because I had been purchasing bare-bones ticket packages to the SPCO around this time, I would frequently get calls from fundraisers, who would announce themselves as "so-and-so calling from the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra." For about 3 seconds I would think it was a gig. Every time. It was miserable. Then again, MN Orch never even called me to ask for money.

I think I earned my way onto the list based on how I played that day, but in all honesty, the thought of performing with either of those groups did and still does frighten me just a bit. I've never known what to make of the fact that I'm the only U of MN tuba graduate I know who was never extended the invitation. I have tried to explain to jazz people many times that flashy bebop chops do not translate to orchestras of this quality, unless they exclusively play Berlioz, in which case I'm their man. I certainly don't have the right instrument to anchor a sizable orchestra by myself, though it is a supreme chamber orchestra axe, lying as it does right in the sweet spot between the big horn and the small horn as orchestra players tend to conceive of them. In other words, there is a role for me in orchestral music, but it's not the one that ever gets subbed out. Actually, I never once had a paying orchestra gig in Minnesota, not even as a ringer in a youth orchestra or anything like that. Conversely, within four months of moving to Southern California, I played two of them, two more than I'd had the rest of my life, without knowing anyone, handing out any business cards, or even having a Facebook page. I'm not sure if that says more about Southern California or the Twin Cities, but it didn't exactly make me sorry for leaving home.

As of today, everything floating around the blogosphere indicates that the Minnesota Orchestra is in dire jeopardy of ceasing to be the institution I knew it as, one which exposed me to the bulk of the live symphonic music I've experienced, and did so, especially after the arrival of Osmo, at an impeccably high level. This is something worth lamenting if it indeed comes to pass. It is, however, difficult for me to view these events in isolation, and in light of the larger national and international musical landscape, I am oddly ambivalent. I will say that I got sick and tired of seeing MN Orch players compete for and win McKnight Fellowships worth a fraction of their salaries while I and many freelance colleagues were passed over while grossing far less than the value of this grant in an entire year. I will also say that having my teaching methods called "crazy" by one MN Orch member with whom I shared a student was uncomfortable, if not entirely predictable. And though the ensemble has a wall full of ASCAP awards for adventurous programming, mainly that just makes it even harder to take the award seriously. Two of the very worst pieces of music I have ever heard in my life were token contemporary pieces on MN Orch programs, placeholder garbage by careerist hacks that, as many have pointed out, merely reinforce the traditionalist biases of rightly-suspicious blue-hairs.

There is now talk of would-be donors revising the Minnesota Orchestra out of their wills. I have yet to read an item detailing the fate for which all that money is now destined. It is without a doubt at this juncture a sum which could make some wonderful musical things happen in the Twin Cities if it were directed to the right places. The real questions, as always, are whether any such extra-institutional projects so much as smell like art to people with enough money to keep a will on file with their attorneys; indeed, whether these people have a nose for art at all, by any definition; and whether anyone at all in the Twin Cities would attend these performances if it meant they had to drive on surface streets, venture outside the Skyway system, or sit next to someone whose hair actually was dyed blue (you know, like in a hipster way).

So, I am ambivalent. I don't like to see people losing their jobs whether they are fellow musicians or not. I also would like to see the entire American orchestra world blown up and rebuilt into something functional and vital. Unfortunately, there's no reconciling those two things, and even more unfortunately, the former is always a much stronger likelihood than the latter. That's all I have to say about this for now. But do come back tomorrow.

09 October 2013

Exit Strategies Addendum

Humility and artistic self-determination: two vitally important achievements for any artist, typically in proportionately short supply, but always available in abundance at your nearest low-wage day job.

08 October 2013

Exit Strategies IV: Equal Time

Regular readers, if I have any, are no doubt accustomed to a steady diet of negativity and skepticism regarding just about every topic I choose to address. CalArts issues certainly have not been excepted. In my defense, I can only insist that a pure nihilist and absolute skeptic would not see the need to pour so much time and effort into polishing his purely nihilistic, absolutely skeptical evaluations of the world into moderately presentable prose missives and uploading them into an already-bizarre web-based interface which, to boot, is rendered only semi-functional by the age of his decaying computer. The worldview of this hypothetical person is one whereby the tasks to which I typically set myself here are superfluous. I see fit to mention that every so often just in case it's not otherwise obvious.

Quite to the contrary, I happen to cling to a garden-variety blogospheric aspiration that I think unites many writers of seemingly disparate orientations and styles, namely the faith that spewing our vitriol all over the internet might eventually have some small impact on someone else's thinking on a subject of particular importance to us both, even if that impact is merely to sharpen and clarify a dissenting view, and further, that the act of engaging in this dialogue is of limited but nonetheless vital importance to building and sustaining a functional, living and conscientious musical culture, such a culture being one small but necessary facet of a similarly functional and conscientious larger society.

Such it is that lurking beneath my outer cynic is an inner utopian, and I don't just mean in having the audacity to think people might actually read, but rather to imagine that by doing so they might come to understand the world a little bit better for the purpose of improving it. That is why I have invested a bit more than people of my parents' generation might recommend in following a variety of other music-oriented blogs, and it is ultimately just what I aspire to offer here for whoever might be up for it, even if it seems on the surface that I'm just a chronic bellyacher. Having said all of that, I do occasionally give thought to the overwhelmingly negative character of this blog and what that means for me, for the reader, and yes, for the world. To wit, as I've now more or less exorcised my grad school grievances, it occurs to me that some "equal time" is indeed in order, be as it may destined to fall well short of truly balancing the amount of criticism I've already leveled.

So...[clears throat]...My time at CalArts was a transformative experience in the fullest and most positive sense of that term. Two years is not nearly long enough to fully avail oneself of the human, curricular and physical resources of this school, and yet I doubt that I have ever been more productive during any other period of my life, at least not across all of my concurrent musical interests at once, a direct credit to an institution that is uniquely conducive to and encouraging of the kind of informed eclecticism that has marked my musical maturity. Similarly, what I have seen and heard so far from the network of recent and not-so-recent CalArtian musicians living and working in the greater Los Angeles area is staggering in both technical polish and creative potency. The end-times-like vibe of so many current extramusical events notwithstanding, there is greater potential here for me than I yet know quite what to do with, and I quite look forward to figuring it out.

There. Is that better?

07 October 2013

Making A Habit Of It: A Second Lapse Into Foodblogging

I now continue tumbling down the slippery slope of blogger-like behaviors with an encore foodblogging extravaganza. This year's iteration, however, bears quite a bit more directly on my musical activities than you probably would otherwise imagine. Over the past several years, I began to suspect that my largely vegan diet was not serving the needs of my choppers all that well. My first thought was protein, but I now suspect that iron has a much larger impact. The following dish was developed for iron loading, combining as it does three vegan iron powerhouses: kale, tempeh, and black beans. I eat it three times a week and have seen a noticeable improvement in my ability to get and stay in tuba shape. It's also a darn tasty and filling meal sure to please all but the most terminally constipated of fast-foodists. The recipe is shared below. Please note that most all of the measurements are approximate and included simply for effect; I do not own any measuring implements and have never actually measured anything when making this dish. Use your instincts and embrace some subtle variation within repetition. (Did I mention I eat this three times a week?)


Iron, Man!
feeds 2 people, or 1 tuba player

•1/3 Cup Canola Oil
•Two Handfuls Chopped Onions
•One Handful Chopped Garlic
•2 Tbs Ground Cumin
•1 Tbs Ground Cayenne Pepper
•One Package Trader Joe's 3-Grain Tempeh, Chopped
•One Generous Splash Bragg's Liquid Aminos
[low-sodium soy sauce substitute, available at health food type places and some supermarkets; a miracle; get hip to it if you're not)]
•Two Handfuls Cherry or Grape Tomatoes, Chopped
•Lots of Kale, Chopped (I use about 3/4 of the Trader Joe's bag)
•One Can Cooked Black Beans, Drained and Rinsed
[if you have time to cook your own beans and know how to do it well, this can really put the dish over the top; unfortunately, I have been opting for the expedience of the can lately]

In a large, deep skillet or wok, combine canola oil, cumin, cayenne pepper, onion, garlic, and tomatoes. Cook on low heat for 5-10 minutes, mixing occasionally to distribute. Mix in tempeh and liquid aminos and cook for an additional 5-10 minutes.

Now add as much kale as will fit in the pan. You really can't have too much, since it cooks down so severely, but you'll be lucky to fit a whole bunch/bag in there unless you're cooking in one of those massive witches cauldrons.

If using a coverable pan, cover at this point, but do not mix. When kale first begins to wilt, uncover and mix to distribute spices and oil. Cover and cook for an additional 5-10 minutes, or until kale reaches the desired state. (If using a wok with no cover, it's possible to get more or less the same results by bringing the heat up a tad and mixing every few minutes.) Uncover, mix in black beans, remove from heat and let cool. Serve.

You're now ready for life as a bodybuilder, or an improvising tubist, whichever sounds more exciting to you.