27 January 2014

Exchange with Milo Fine (i): "illuminating another course of action"

[Previously: Foreword]

[SK] So, I didn't have to read too far before a conversation starter presented itself:

"[The New Riverside Cafe in Minneapolis] was a venue in the heart of what was, for many years, an enclave of the hippie/counterculture movement. Getting a gig there...was, however, curiously difficult [for avant-garde musicians], in no small part due to the fact that so-called social progressives, then, as well as now, were unable to see that vital flaws in the value system of the status quo stood at its core, i.e., the nature and application of sound, and thus weren't all that interested in presenting/supporting music which undermined, or at least, challenged fundamental cultural assumptions."

Reading this, I am reminded (I've had the thought before) that you and I have never had a knock-down-drag-out over "what it all means," i.e. what music can accomplish beyond itself, its place in society, its role in political movements, etc. Perhaps we have talked about it tangentially, but not overtly, I don't think.

[MF] So-called "breakthroughs" or "new" developments in the arts -- which are, in the final analysis nothing but an ongoing evolution (everything being predicated on what precedes it) -- generally foretell shifts in the social/cultural/political fabric. But, of course, by the time those shifts are manifest, they are, overall, absorbed by the status quo. (As I am often wont to intone, the status quo is an insatiable beast that uses everything to its own advantage.) Put another way, arts are the harbinger of (human) potential. So, while the theoretical/technical aspects of any developments in aesthetic endeavor will be dumbed down, diluted and put in the service of the lowest common denominator, an individual focusing in on this, what?, energy can, I believe, internalize and nurture it to lend it a deeper resonance, and, from there, interject a necessary (and genuinely) subversive element to the collective unconscious. An element which is, of course, also a part of the status quo; and yet, in the best circumstance, not. (Another way to look at it is that the accumulation of such element[s] could serve to stretch the status quo, or, better yet, create a boil or tumor with the potential of infecting it.)

You have told me, more than once, about the sense which permeated your formative years, circa the late 1960s, that "anything was possible," and about how widely shared that belief/sensation/perception was among those who were there. (Everyone?) I sense, however, that much has gone unsaid in our conversations on this.

Yes, it was widely shared, but certainly not by conservatives and reactionaries! And, being it was "in the air", a lot of people were just along for the ride. Manifestations in music were rooted in free jazz (predicated in some ways by contemporary classical music), and, of course, what with youthful hormones (always ripe for faux revolution) and a fertile marketplace, rock; which, has, generally been a more or less parasitic music. But, naturally, it didn't take long for the opportunists, careerists, bureaucrats, businesspeople, etc. to start to exploit and manipulate the situation in the name of commerce and a higher position in a developing hierarchy. "Anything was possible", but, sadly, much, for wont of a better word, genuine individual initiative -- doing the work out of a more or less pure necessity -- was once again overall (and inevitably) subsumed by the status quo paradigm. That said, it was, for me anyway, a wonderful time to come of age. Disillusionment set in when I figured out that very few people really gave a shit as to what really *was* possible; that a meaningful cultural/societal shift was not going to happen. But, that bolstered my resolve to attempt to carry that spirit forward.

To me at least, the notion of getting "elsewhere," to "der andere zustand/the other condition"1 or wherever, is very nearly self-evident in your work.

Thank you.

In the broadest terms, I think the justification is equally self-evident: to show the world as it might be rather than what it merely is.

Exactly. And what's also self-evident is there's no formula nor map nor rules nor dogma. (However, there are, from time-to-time, suggestions predicated on habitual behavior; suggestions which, as far as I'm concerned, can come from anyone in any given ensemble.)

To confess, though, I've always been rather skeptical of the notion of music as a vehicle for social or political change (and as I use those words, I'm sure you have plenty to say about the co-optation of this narrative by a mainstream for which they are indeed nothing more than words; but bear with me as they are the most widely understood shorthand for what I wish to refer to).

See above, to which I would add that experience/observation has made me extremely cynical and skeptical. In a relatively recent conversation with Paul Metzger and Elaine Evans, I clearly identified components of my personality which define what, for me, is a curious affect. I was a loving, compassionate, gregarious child and young man. That's still there, but there is an overlay of cynicism and skepticism; all of which inform how I interact with people. I often feel I come across as awkwardly gracious, particularly with people who I don't know all that well. (As I'm sure you'll attest, however, once I get to know you, all bets are off!)

There are many, many angles from which to approach this topic, and I'm not sure they are all equally relevant to your work: for example, you have never been interested in the sheer number of people you are able to reach, which is a necessary condition for success at your chosen task, yet ensures that its impact is limited.

Depends on one's definition of "impact." One does work (lives), energy is released, and goes out into the world/cosmos. The attendance numbers are almost irrelevant, except for what they bring to the music; particularly those who are active/engaged listeners; that are there to impact the music as much as it impacts them.

The lowest hanging fruit here for the cynic, however, is the constancy of so many social and political problems, certainly over the last 50-some years, but no less across centuries during which art has changed immeasurably.

I sadly agree. Art, in the best sense, just keeps illuminating another course of action. Humanity (and artists!) seldom, if ever, follow through.

One thing that certainly has not changed, as you allude to above, is this compartmentalization of agendas by "so-called social progressives." This was already on my mind because it is, you will not be shocked to learn, very much in evidence among the students at CalArts. I had a visual artist roommate last year who would cry bloody murder if someone missed some subtlety in a piece of his, but also if a piece of music lasted more than a couple of minutes. More disturbing yet, to me at least, is the notion that because pop music was for so long not taken seriously by classical musicians or scholars that playing pop music in art music situations or making an academic study of it is somehow deeply subversive.

What a fucking tool, this roommate of yours! To so obviously succumb to the short attention span plague.

As for the aggrandizement of pop music, well, I first became aware of that when, as a young teenager involved in rock, I read THE AGE OF ROCK, a book consisting of quasi-intellectual essays that were pretty specious overall. It's called pop for a reason. I put this in an interview 14 years ago: “Pop music, by its very nature, feeds on the deeper streams of creativity, and by its very nature, which is parasitical, it doesn’t do those streams justice.”

As for pop music in the academy being subversive, what an asinine contention! What you have with pop and the academy is mutual exploitation. The academy co-opts rock to reach more people (get more enrollees), while rock co-opts the academy to adopt a sheen of legitimacy/respectability.

In the larger picture, this type of pervasive commingling exemplifies something Robert Musil -- likely my favorite author -- predicted for the later 20th century (and is a sort of blueprint for so-called postmodernism) in THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES (likely my favorite book):

"Ideas that had once been of lean account grew fat. Persons who had previously not been taken altogether seriously now acquired fame. What had been harsh, mellowed down, what had been separated, re-united, those who had been independent made concessions for the sake of public approval, and established taste fell, a prey to new uncertainties. Sharp borderlines everywhere became blurred, and some new, indescribable capacity for entering into hitherto unheard-of relationships threw up new people and new ideas. These people and ideas were not wicked. No, far from it. It was only that the good was adulterated with a little too much of the bad, the truth with error, and the meaning with a little too much of the spirit of accommodation."

In line with that, from the same book:

"And, after all, if stupidity did not, when seen from within, look so exactly like talent as to be mistaken for it, and if it could not, when seen from outside, appear as progress, genius, hope, and improvement, doubtless no one would want to be stupid, and there would be no stupidity, or at least it would be very easy to combat it. But unfortunately, there is something very winning and natural about it …The long and short of it is, there is no important idea that stupidity does not know how to make use of, for it can move in all directions and is able to wear all garment of truth. Truth, on the other hand, has only one garment and one road and is always at a disadvantage."

(translated from the German by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser)

What all of this suggests is that there certainly is ample work left to be done awakening people to the possibilities and implications of sound. I do wonder, though, how we can go on implying a higher purpose for that work only to dance away from such implications when things don't change?

See above, plus, I should note, reitering something previous, any change, however small, is *internal*, and radiates from there. It's the person in the mirror who provides the biggest challenge/the largest hurdle to substantive change; the individual against oneself (one's conditioning/wiring). *That* is the fecund (and *only*) ground where meaningful revolution can occur.

For me, establishing this maneuver in the lexicon of careerist artists everywhere is the ultimate "thanks but no thanks" legacy of 1960s art-thought: an irreverence for specifics, a desire to no longer be hemmed in by rationalism, and a faith,

Not sure what you're getting at…

therefore, you might say, that justification for any particular endeavor will emerge from all the good vibes seem to me to be defining characteristics of the era which younger generations, seldom for the right reasons (though I do believe those exist) glommed onto in droves.

But with that, I concur. Though these droves are simply echoes of many earlier droves. I do however wonder, with the sheer number of people on the planet now, to say nothing of technological acceleration, whether there can ever be another substantial drove, or whether all is now (and from here on in will be) reduced to subsets.

You've kept the faith admirably through all of this as few people would or could,

This means more to me than you might imagine. The genuineness of the sentiment helps fuel the next heartbeat, the next breath, the next step.

and I'm sure I've written enough at this juncture to engender some lively discussion. So have at it.

Just did! :-)

1A phrase/concept drawn from Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, which looms large for Milo and is discussed further as the conversation proceeds.

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