31 January 2014

Exchange with Milo Fine (iv): "if you don't like the world, change yourself"

[Previously: Foreword(i)(ii)(iii)]

[SK] Not that it's of much consequence, but I guess I should clarify what I meant about consistency/reinvention. There is an adage now that in order to get over, you have to be "the guy/gal/group with the _____," the blank being filled in with just about anything, but just one thing (at once) so as to be digestible/memorable in scope and on display at each and every opportunity, i.e. towards the notion that people need to see something advertised x number of times before they will buy it. (Wikipedia tells me this is called Effective Frequency.) I didn't mean to imply that those so inclined never, ever evolve, just that there is an initial marketing phase that has to either succeed (which permits more freedom) or fail (which necessitates trying a new, calculated [blank]) on the basis of a predictable musical outcome. In other words, in terms of a science experiment, the [blank] is the control/constant.

[MF] Ah, I see. In a way, distinction without a difference. What we're talking about here is marketing/packaging, and, of course, advertising. Big tool for the latter is, naturally, repetition, through which people are convinced they "need" something. A couple thoughts concerning "effective frequency". First is the fact that I keep stumbling into more and more rarified concepts and terms. Some, maybe even a good percentage, can be helpful as they identify further subsets in/of a given field. Put another way, they illuminate various "corners" of various theories. On the other hand, they seem to obfuscate more than illuminate when it comes to application. So much more "knowledge" resulting in so much less "wisdom". Putting *that* another way, people coin terms and phrases, research and write about them, but, fundamentally *nothing* changes concerning the so-called human condition. We're much better at identifying things than putting them into meaningful action in our own lives. Pathetic. Concerning "effective frequency", I would debate the issue that the success of an initial marketing phase permits more freedom. Perhaps true enough if that (successful) initial phase is focused on the public image of the "artist". That would give them maneuvering room to take on different forms/styles. But, if a particular style/approach/form is what strikes the (fickle) fancy of the public, then one will be hard-pressed to do anything else if one is to maintain that initial blush. Of course, "art" predicated on the commonly understood definition of success is, for me, always highly suspect.

I guess the funny thing, though, is that should the artist insist on being unpredictable, the "pidgeonholing" impulse in the culture at large will fill in the blank anyway.

Right, right.

I've been "the jazz tuba player" for a while, and I'm sure you've had your go-rounds with that sort of thing as well. It happens by itself, whether you like it or not; truthfully, though, I can't sit here and complain without acknowledging that all of this has probably done more good than harm for me in the long run in terms of opportunities to play with people, even despite getting to hear them say some borderline-insulting things about me in my presence (i.e. a jazz guy once told me, "Once you get your classical chops together, you're set!"). The dynamic I was attempting to describe before was a certain encouragement of/pandering to the pidgeonholing impulse, an impulse which unfortunately I think we all are prone to (see, in your words, "wiring"), which explains its reliability in the eyes of those doing the pandering.

Yeah. Just as our conditioning/wiring filters create a sense of "order" in our perceptions, so we readily gravitate towards pigeonholing. As I've no doubt posited to you before, how amazing it would be to perceive (hear, see, etc.) the world around us closer to what *it really is* without these filters, rather than with the artifice created by them.

There's something in there, of course, about Improvised Music being "different every time," but also about your notions of consistency and resonance. Another fruitful dialectic very much at odds with the status quo, which is more dualistic.

Yes! Particularly if, re: "different" every time" you mean genuinely *improvised* music rather than improvising musicians overly relying on their tried-and-true vocabularies, strategies, etc. That stated, musicians relying on established tools can, and do, obviously, create resonant music. And there, we return once again to the initiative of the individual, which, ultimately, is much more important than the style of music. Putting *that* another way, while improvised music provides, shall we say, more potential for resonant/individual expression, that too has been squandered.

Besides the threat of being personally/artistically pidgeonholed, it was eye-opening for me in my early "professional" career to see friends and acquaintances gradually polarize around styles and venues I had associated myself with. In one sense I actually felt bad about it, thinking again of what it's like to be a follower of a few "inconsistent cats" myself. At that age, though, I was strangely content (and aware of it) to lead a compartmentalized musico-stylistic life without much blending. Needless to say that my first whiffs of the "specious pastiche-stained umbrella" of self-conscious eclecticism actually heightened my resolve, even though I always figured a more thorough integration was inevitable; in so many ways, I've come to be very suspicious of those so bent on precipitating inevitabilities; but, it has started to happen, and I think it has indeed been positive precisely for not being forced in the least.

Your path of discovery; what I like to term "gathering evidence", after Thomas Bernhard's autobiography.

Even so, a degree of compartmentalization is still perceivable and I suspect it always will be with me. I always aspire to play jazz, classical, and improvised music with the best players in those areas, which is to say usually with specialists, problematic, if not outright hypocritical, since I thus refuse to specialize myself, and increasingly a non-starter with my own music, which tends to demand fluency in (not just familiarity with) more than one of those traditions. (An aside: is Improvised Music a tradition or an anti-tradition?) Ethnomusicology has established rather starkly that there are only so many styles/forms/compositions a human musician can truly specialize in, and yet I can pinpoint a number of pretty specific technical features of the music I'm interested in that cut across these three styles: it's mostly polyphonic, contrapuntal, harmonically and timbrally rich/dense, and so on. The question facing musicians like me, then, is whether we can transcend the limitations of generalism by specializing in our own poly-stylistic music (i.e. jack-of-all-trades, master-of-some)?

First, improvised music is now a tradition; absolutely. But, for the most resolute practitioners, it is still and must be, a non-tradition; an "avant grade" in the purest sense of the term.

And, concerning this whole "renaissance man" notion which has taken on a whole new (oxymoron intended) superficial breadth and depth over the last century, I again defer to Musil (THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES, same translators). Here, our "protagonist" is contemplating his position compared to the "superman (renaissance man) of letters" character in the book, who is also a cagey opportunist and politician:

"Let us try to imagine the opposite — a writer who did not do all these things. He would have to refuse cordial invitations, rebuff people, assess praise not as though he himself were the object of it, but like a judge, tear the natural state of things to shreds, and treat splendid opportunities with suspicion merely because they were splendid; and he would have nothing to offer in return but processes going on inside his own head, difficult to express and difficult to assess, and the work of a man of letters, something that an epoch already possessing supermen of letters need not set much store by. Would not such a man inevitably remain an outsider and have to withdraw from reality, bearing the consequences of his attitude?"

Let us also take into account another searing observation from Hannah Arendt. To paraphrase, each succeeding generation has "improved" technical wiring; which is why, for instance, contemporary composers are generally one generation ahead of people actually being able to realize what they write. This is much more inevitable than it is admirable; a natural progression of technique, but, of course, not necessarily resonance. And this ties into the above re: no marked "improvement" in the overall human condition. So, it makes biological/physiological sense that more and more musicians are able to produce superficially convincing/compelling eclectic music.

It seems to me there are fewer specialists now; a situation created/driven by careerism. "Oh, I'd better get this other thing together -- at least somewhat -- because it will open more doors." And those who are specialists are just that because they are able to do so, i.e.; the gig pays enough. Naturally, I'm oversimplifying, but the point I keep getting back to is that, sadly, most "art" is done for recognition and money rather than the work itself. Hey, you hipped me to the term "hire education".

That stated, "poly-stylism" is absolutely a viable path. (And I say that unequivocally because, as you point out below, I am a "poly-stylist"; though not quite in the manner you ascribe to yourself.) For example, I find composer Alfred Schnittke's "poly-stylism" very appealing; and resonant. Just as I don't find anything opportunistic about Henry Cowell's adaptation of ethnic music. It all boils down to doing the work you need to do for *yourself*; because it needs to be done. Doing that, you will find listeners. And, among those, some who will truly hear.

You're path was, by choice, very different, one very large degree removed from what I'm describing in that your range of listening is quite broad but your interface with your instruments intuitive (autodidactic? naive?), and from a very early stage. Your groups include people who elsewhere read notation, play changes, recite poetry, do experimentalism, etc., and you occasionally enable/tolerate a certain amount of those things, but your groups play "free" as a rule. It seems to me that your sources, so to speak, are not so different, but your method is. (But then, at a certain point, that kind of music becomes a source?) I had a string of gigs with you a few years ago where a listener dropped a different superficial post-concert reference each night; they were not so much off-base as simply unnecessary. In any case, despite my own compartmentalist tendencies, I would say based on playing in your groups that there certainly is something of a higher order about the way these things emerge from your way of working. It is actually more compelling when not everyone in the group "owns" every style.

Extremely astute observations. And, as I think you know, I never mapped this out; never had a "game plan". This all evolved more or less naturally, as I played, observed, challenged my own personal baggage, and investigated; combining as I do when playing, the intuitive and the intellect. And, I am convinced that this, as you put it, "higher order" (Musil's "andere zustand") comes from a collective consciousness/unconsciousness/energy. I have no idea how it actually functions, but that mystery of that process is vital.

As for resonance, at the risk of now running in circles, the question for me becomes whether this notion that "what he learned from sound he brought to his life, and vice versa" is a description or a prescription? This potential of sound/music is self-evident to many of us, but...well, so many others seem incapable of learning this way. You almost can't give away music right now. So yes, from the department of worrying about the things you can control, the inner struggle becomes paramount. I guess I am trapped, though, because I have always made my inner struggle about how I could do more for other people; and further, a paradox inside a paradox: the closer you get to just about any people, their fallibility and vicissitudes, the less you want to help them! Yet unless you believe in a higher power and/or something like a judgment day, it seems to me that any sense of wholesomeness or morality is at root a matter of your relationships, direct and indirect, to other living things on Planet Earth. So, I guess I'm not sure how the "indirect" route of the inner struggle can claim complete supremacy or dominance over more "direct" paths. Or, is the notion that "direct" here is simply standing in for "contrived?"


I would suggest that "direct/indirect" is much like "intuitive/intellect"; a flux. We are diseased, we are flawed, we struggle. In amongst that we find that some people's "fallibility and vicissitudes" cause us to cut them loose. With others, we find ourselves hanging in to varying degrees in different ways. I know I've told you about the surprising relationship arcs I've had with a few people over decades. The "falling outs" have seemed final; irrevocable. And, then, years later, through no forced effort of our own, we find a new footing/common ground. Sometimes this leads to a new "falling out", but, the time reconnected feels utterly worthwhile. When I was younger, things were much more cut-and-dried. But, with age, my self-righteousness has diminished, thanks in good part to an unerring look in the mirror. From another angle, and as the cliche goes, "I love humanity; it's people I can't stand"; and, of course, that *all* starts in the mirror. A major motivation for me to attempt something akin to an ethical (I find that concept much more tolerable than "moral") life is that *so* much of the world is unethical. As with my music, a matter of moving along the path less traveled. (If you don't like the world, change yourself!)

1 comment:

Stefan Kac said...

Christopher Lasch
The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics

"The coexistence of traditional and modern elements undermines the claim that modernization is a "systematic" process. It now appears to be a highly selective process; and this discovery parallels the growing recognition that progress in technology, say, does not necessarily entail progress in morals or politics."
(p. 163)