03 February 2014

Exchange with Milo Fine (vii): "fuck prejudice!"

[Previously: Foreword(i)(ii)(iii)(iv)(v)(vi)]

[SK] Just one thought this time, regarding the academy broadly construed: I am (finally) reading the George Lewis book about the AACM, and in light of our last installment, it's intriguing to consider how many of these musicians, to say nothing of their more "inside" but also-innovative peers and elders around the country, spent time, musical and otherwise, in the military. This is not just to ponder the impact of military culture on their subsequent activities, but also that they possessed the requisite "inside" chops at early stages in their musical development. On top of that, if not because of it, there seems to have been very little scorched-earth modernism at work among this assemblage, no matter how strongly a few unperceptive contemporary critics may have thought they detected it; there is even mention in the book of the fundamentals of Western music theory being enthusiastically taught in the early AACM educational program. So, I suppose it's too bad I didn't actually listen to any of this music sooner; aesthetically, at least, I feel like I come from a similar place (a blessing and a curse alike, I suppose, in that it's not quite so radical a place anymore).

Good points/observations all. I knew this about the AACM, but hadn't thought of it in quite a while. (However, what's interesting in this regard is the nature of some of their early work. Listen, for instance, to Anthony Braxton's brilliant FOR ALTO. Talk about raw and unfettered!) The same thing held true for the first wave of Brit improvisors. Paul Rutherford, John Stevens and Trevor Watts met when they were in the Royal Air Force music school, which, as Martin Davidson astutely puts it in his liner note to the Spontaneous Music Ensemble CD reissue[s] of CHALLENGE was "a relatively painless and cheap way of getting a technical music education." (Indeed, my dad used his already established musicianship to gain playing experience while in the army. And it helped him to avoid some of the usual bullshit to boot.) And this gets us back to that self-serving canard: "You gotta know the rules before you break 'em." I say this is self-serving because it creates a more or less single path to finding one's voice; to creativity.

As I stated previously, as evidenced by the wonderful music created by folks having gone down this road, it is certainly a viable path. But, naturally (and again), that has as much (if not more) to do with the resolve of the individual to utilize their education to their creative advantage than the aforementioned canard. The reason I somewhat unfairly state "canard" is the fact that, in almost every endeavor, this "rule" is erected as a barrier in order to create a set of values which insulates those who have chosen to go that route; something to hide (their own weaknesses &, perhaps lack of resolve/initiative) behind. This is also why, generally speaking, and no matter how creative, articulate and accomplished they might be, someone without academic credentials is generally not allowed to teach in the academy. (If universities gave these people jobs it might expose the fact that the emperor has no clothes, or, at least fewer than one initially thought!) Similarly, when I tried my own divorce decades ago (that marriage being a short, wrong-headed union if there ever was one!), I was last on the docket. I asked someone -- perhaps the court officer -- why that was, and he told me that the legal system didn't want to broadcast the fact that a basic divorce could be done without the "benefit" of a lawyer. (Just think of all the lawyer's fees that wouldn't be collected!) On the other hand, of course, being an autodidact doesn't guarantee anything either. As I'm wont to intone, something akin to genuine creativity is in the hands of the individual practitioner, regardless of background. The (A) point is not to disregard the autodidact; what he/she brings to the table, out-of-hand. Fuck prejudice!

02 February 2014

Exchange with Milo Fine (vi): "a desolate marketplace"

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

[SK] I think there are many shades of grey on the autodidacticism spectrum.

[MF] Certainly. But, generalizations have their place in a discussion.

My own music-educational path was such a hodge-podge of chance occurrences and missed "opportunities" that I typically hesitate to place myself squarely in either the autodidactic or academy-trained camp.

I would say you're definitely more "academy" than autodidact; even if you didn't fully pick up your jazz chops as a result of the former.

[Milo adds later: And I should make it clear, pursuant to your point about "shades of autodidacticism", that, in terms of an "autodidact", I am not referring to someone who learns accepted/traditional technique/theory without the benefit of formal training, but, rather someone who charts and explores a path of unorthodoxy. (Keeping in mind, of course, that *everything* is, to shamelessly, if reasonably quote an LP title of mine, the constant extension of inescapable tradition.)]

I've often had the thought that my early and frequent exposure to classical music "in the house," as they say, bears more responsibility for my middlebrow tastes than any post-secondary academic molding, but then again, you yourself come from yet more intense classical music parentage than I do and you turned out very differently.

A matter of processing. And, to be clear, my parentage was *much* more jazz than classical. My dad was a jazz drummer who happened to fall into a "career" with the Minnesota Orchestra (or, as it was known then, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra). As a kid living in the first ring suburbs, I walked around the house singing "Salt Peanuts" rather than some aria. (And what I most heard around the house as time went on -- and my dad played less records -- was middle-of-the-road AM radio.)

In any case, while I'm no apologist for a musico-academic establishment with which I myself have had at best a strained relationship, given that most students in this country don't actually enter "the academy" until they are nearly 20 years old, I often wonder if it's too easy to blame their schooling for any and all personal shortcomings (or, for that matter, attributes) they may arrive and depart with intact?

The academy is a sort of early end-point; a matter of a more or less natural progression: orchestra in elementary, junior high and high school; often augmented with private lessons. A continuum.

A mutual acquaintance of ours once expressed near-disbelief that someone with my interests and outlook could also be someone who previously spent 4 years at the U of MN School of Music. What's actually amazing, I guess, is not that I went but that I stayed; in hindsight, though, it's clear to me that it was the previous 17 years of my life, though a decidedly mixed bag in their own right, which had prepared me to jump through all the requisite hoops while nonetheless continuing down my own path relatively unencumbered.

As I mentioned before, one *can* get something out of the academy without it subsuming them. It takes some conscious effort not to buy into all the values/sub-texts endemic of an institution.

Similarly, I can tell you from firsthand experience that the U doesn't have to close its students' minds for them; the bulk of them more or less show up that way.

That's what I was getting at previously. Everything's set. This is just the next logical step in drinking the kool-aid.

The situation at CalArts is not as bad, but it's hardly as good as it could/should be given the school's mission, history, and (dis)orientation. (It was at least entertaining to see the tables turned, with the conservatory brats pretending to tolerate the notion of free improvisation purely to avoid rocking the boat; opposites day every day!) In both cases, it was clear to me that while the institutions certainly could do more, there's no guarantee any of it would, shall we say, resonate with those at which it might be directed. A good deal of that work is done, or not, earlier on.


Incidentally, the notion of ultimately "becoming one's own best teacher" is a mainstream one in musico-academia, perhaps yet another co-optation, but one without much of a downside that I can see.

That's an ideal, and a good one. (When I was teaching drums, I almost always told students that the best I could contribute to their growth was to teach them to teach/motivate themselves.) The problem is that most people don't have the wherewithal/fortitude/discipline to take that path. Much easier to listen to lectures, read assignments, regurgitate information, get decent grades, network, and get a job. True individual initiative, is like wisdom: in short supply; or as Blake put it, "...sold in a desolate marketplace where none come to buy".

Your point about the blues is well-taken, but not exactly what I was getting at. I guess I have been involved in a handful of "improvised" situations over the years where one or more people in the ensemble were clearly and unabashedly searching to establish a structure (i.e. a vamp and/or chord progression). Stated in terms of our present conversation, their aesthetic is that of the status quo through and through, and they use "free" settings simply as additional opportunities to express it.

This point certainly resonates with me. It's too, too true. The flip side is throwing in some "free" (atonal) bits as seasoning (spice); more or less just to show one is accomplished (hah!) in that realm as well.

One has to think that what you're describing with the blues was more viable among groups of players for whom that form was/is both widely shared and occupied, for lack of a better way of putting it, a "special place" in the culture. I was thinking more about motherfuckers fumbling around with their heads up their asses until they can find each other in a rather arbitrarily chosen common key and meter, whereupon they will inevitably mire themselves ever deeper until the whole thing falls apart again. The blues is a much more flexible and varied form which, depending on your taste, can tolerate anywhere from a little to a lot more give and take, whereas the harmonic practice of so much mainstream classical, jazz, and rock music is, in the grand musical/sonic scheme, profoundly limited (usually a consequence of its being rooted in "vertical" rather than "horizontal" thinking).

Ah, you misunderstand what I meant vis a vis "the blues". I meant the basic 3 chord structure; readily communicated and understood. Once introduced, everyone can get on board. (Sigh of relief!) A basic foundation before resorting to the "I Got Rhythm" changes.

It's difficult to express all of this without sounding like just the kind of person I'm writing against.

You don't sound like that at all, at least to me.

The one time I really tried to turn someone on to the Improvised Music aesthetic, his response as I recall was something like, "Cool, we'll improvise one this set, but none of that [makes funny noises with mouth] shit, okay?"

What a predictable cretin!

So, again, there's always more to it, no?

Always! Or, in any case there *should*, no, *must* be.

01 February 2014

Exchange with Milo Fine (v): "the wherewithal to examine it ruthlessly"

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

[SK] You're absolutely correct that versatility has been co-opted, and in quite a counterproductive way. I have sat through many a guest artist lecture during which the purely practical value of a wide ranging musical skill set has been expounded. There is, potentially, one minor positive aspect to this as musical academia continues hurtling down the "hire education" abyss, which is that it pokes a nice big hole in the narrow focus (too narrow for its own good, probably, even for the sake of true believers) that has traditionally prevailed there. Being driven by pragmatism and only negligibly by artistic concerns, however, undermines from the start what little hope this development brings with it.

[MF] Yes, in order to remain viable, the academy has to take in, analyze, dilute and regurgitate; even as much of what it vomits up pursuant to something like art in the purest sense doesn't have a practical application, and thus is at odds with what has become the academy's primary function. This would, in part, explain why the possibilities touched on by early free jazz musicians (or, earlier, Dadaists) were inevitably jettisoned, not only by the academy, but by musicians and listeners too. I'm talking about exploring pathways into the music that weren't dependent upon established approaches/dogma. But, what has happened, of course, is that these stylings were essentially dismissed as second-rate when unfairly and unreasonably compared to the inevitable emphasis on traditional virtuosity (extending into extended techniques [wordplay intended]). Of course, that hasn't prevented some of us from heading down those barely lit paths anyway. (As an example, I was delighted when, several years ago, friend and colleague Charles Gillett -- who is a highly accomplished autodidact in his own right -- turned me on to the band Aerosol Pike [Philip Mann/Ryan Reber/Rick Ness] with whom we've both collaborated. As I've said to you and others, these guys sound like they were lifted from the late 60s free jazz scene and transplanted here and now; like listening to a living ESP-Disk. But what's amazing, and I think gives their work a hearty resonance, is the fact that while free jazz influenced them, they didn't study and mimic autodidact players from that era. Rather, as I understand it, their music naturally evolved from an avant-garde rock based aesthetic. Not surprisingly, there was *no* issue with you, an academy-trained musician, being able to find common ground with them; or Charles for that matter. And this speaks to the notion of an openness to embrace another, equally valid point of view.) Curiously, however, having, I think, much to do with my focus and determination, I have, on occasion in reviews, nonetheless been termed a virtuoso.

Actually, I believe one can see rather clearly the seed of music's outright destruction as a post-secondary academic subject contained in the inability of any one musician, scholar, or institution to adequately deal with the full range of currently academically acceptable musics, to say nothing of the outliers. Gradually, I think we are having to accept that the needs of all of these students are too different from each other, and that there isn't really any core curriculum of a manageable size which can unify them. Not that people won't try, but it's only going to keep looking more and more ridiculous. Eventually, even the trustees, donors, and administrators will be people who didn't necessarily grow up believing that nineteenth century orchestral music deserves to be prioritized over all other forms.

I think here we have to examine the agendas of everyone involved; most of which have little to do with the essence of what is termed "art". Granted there are professors and students who retain the semblance of a resonant core, using the academic setting to further their individual quest, and more power to them! Glean something from the material itself and fuck the faux value system which surrounds it.

Probably the thing I was most curious about leading up to the Improvised Music workshop we co-led for WBSM was how you would position yourself, so to speak, seeing that there is a certain pluralistic aspect to how you work, but that you also have very high standards, the latter implying a role for judgment/taste/
determinacy/willfulness that more than a few improvisors of your generation (in)famously dispensed with. I laughed pretty hard to myself when you said that a certain pattern got "obnoxious" after a period of time; it was a pointed but diplomatic way of expressing an aesthetic position.

Well, that was "true" for that moment, that context, and also pursuant to the, what?, feeling behind what was being played. (Again, one can develop a sensibility to hone in on such things. Not that one is, thankfully, ever 100% correct, but, enough to provide insight into what might lie behind the work.) So, at another moment, another context, and with a different feeling, I wouldn't have made such an observation. (And, in any case, I would always be open to being challenged on any assessment!)

And yet...so many musicians are pattern/groove players. In pure pluralism, that's what they'd bring to a collaboration.

Which, even while painfully predictable, is not necessarily a counterproductive thing. The problem is that it's a default, a habit, and thus serves to prevent creativity coming to the fore.

The issue is whether one can recognize and challenge such defaults; phrasing them differently, breaking them up, shutting the fuck up, abandoning them, etc. But this takes conscious effort/thought, and, as we've touched on here, too many musicians don't see that as a vital aspect of free improvisation. And, even if they do, don't have the wherewithal to examine it ruthlessly and get out of their comfort zone. (And, perhaps return to it at some point from a different and more creative perspective.)

For me, being an "inside" musician quite a lot of the time, I tend to give a different reason why I don't like to attempt ensemble improvisations of songforms, vamps, or functional harmonies, which is that it more or less requires everyone in the group to be a mind reader.

Well, I would define those as more ad lib than improvising situations. And, I don't know that one would have to be a mind reader. Remember that a good amount, if not a lot of early free jazz attempted by boppers inevitably ended up as a blues.

When I hear bebop, I want to hear harmonic agreement; when I hear Beethoven, I want to hear right notes; and when I hear Improvised Music, I want to hear something akin to the approach you've carved out. But I suppose that brings us back to compartmentalization…

Yes, but from there, and with your restless, fertile mind, can come a (natural) synthesis; a conjoining not rooted in marketable eclecticism.

To go along with all of that, your response to the tradition question makes me realize that there is a parallel question, perhaps more to the point, about aesthetics and anti-aesthetics. For me, aestheticism is a first principle of sorts; I tend to feel that intentionally working against it is like cutting off your whole leg because of a blister on your foot. In any case, it seems to me that the notion of undermining the status quo becomes quite a bit muddier here, i.e. in light of the difference between striving to make "beautiful" work out of novel sounds/methods and making intentionally "ugly" work for whatever reason.

Ah, but there you're getting into our wiring; our cultural values based on conditioning. Ultimately, aestheticism and anti-aestheticism are the same thing, though aspects of each come to the fore based on what one is feeling at any given moment; thus impacting both musical decision-making and perception. This attempt to accept, embrace and utilize every/anything on some level forms a (not *the*) basis for free improvisation; at least for me.