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.

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