Sunday, December 10, 2006

In defense of fun

The amazing Destination Out recently had a nice post on Dutch master Willem Breuker, whose music I must admit I have a weird affinity for, and who more than one observer of my own compositional ramblings has cited as a clear influence on the IJG. Odd, isn't it? I don't own too many Breuker albums (the featured tracks here were brand new to me), so I guess this is sort of like Zappa citing James Joyce in the liner notes to Freak Out... and then admitting that he had never read much James Joyce. I explain it like this: with certain artists, you sense a very strong resonance straight out of the gate. In my case, from the moment I heard it, Breuker's music made a kind of immediate sense. It's just that I haven't delved too far into the discography yet.

Little by little. These tracks -- especially "Driebergen-Zeist" -- only reinforce my initial impressions. Sure, Breuker has his Zappa-isms (I suspect the first part of the opening drum fill to "D-Z" is a quote of the famous beginning to "Peaches En Regalia") and his Weill-isms (consider the lovely saxes-in-octaves thing that happens at about 1:20; who else but Weill could have inspired that?). But if this music is retrospective, it's also retrospectively iconoclastic. At least that's how I understand the much ballyhooed break with the Instant Composer's Pool: rather than searching for wholly "new" compositional methodologies (in this case, approaches to improvisation), Breuker turned to traditional techniques (mostly through-composition for large ensemble) in order to focus on playing with what the listener already knew (and how!). Creative re-juxtapositions, brilliantly alternating between satisfaction and subversion of the listener's expectations: that's where this music is at.

The D-O guys do a beautiful overview of this stuff, though I can't help finding tidbits to cavil over. For one thing, the Wallace Stevens device didn't ring true for me -- Breuker seems to require a riff on e.e. cummings, or (much better) the prose writer Donald Barthelme. And then there's Chilly's argument that "The avant garde gets a bad rap for not having a sense of humor. Especially free jazz. This gives the lie to that notion." Maybe. Certainly some of my favorite "out artists" (Lester Bowie, Monk, Ornette, to name three) have moved me by (at least in part) cracking me up. But come on. When was the last time you actually laughed out loud at an "avant garde" performance? (I'm talking about a good celebratory -- and perhaps even tearful -- guffaw, not a snarky "I'm in the club" chuckle.) And -- more importantly --why does it actually take effort to imagine that laughter might be a relevant aesthetic response?

Some old French guy famously said that "life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think." But that's not quite accurate. When done right, comedy itself is suffused with emotion. And not just the emotions of "instantaneous thrills, like a good rollercoaster ride" (Chilly again). In the right context, comedy can be deployed in ways that are extremely serious (think Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, or the role of humor-as-resistance in the Holocaust). Even now, at this particularly dismal historical moment, it has been the comics and humorists (the Stephen Colberts and Bill Mahers and Onions of the world) who have succeeded in poking the biggest holes in the thick, scuzzy film that covers our political life.

For me, no matter how absurd or obscene Breuker's arrangements get -- and I for one will always argue that there is an important place for both absurdity and obscenity in art -- there also always seems to be room for the qualities that D-O holds in high regard, but does not hear in the Kollektief (Chilly's "heat-rending lyricism or spiritual uplift"). In "Driebergen-Zeist," that moment happens twice for me: the first time at 6:38, with its ecstatic descending figures, and the second time at 7:57, where Breuker finally makes good on a melodic promise that was introduced at 1:22. Brief though they are, these moments suggest that Breuker is up to much more than just a light-hearted shtick.


Chilly Jay Chill said...

thanks for the shout-out. really enjoyed your insightful breuker piece and thought you brought up many excellent points re: humor and depth. liked the small moments you pointed out in breuker that we glided over. and yeah, if we could've figured out a barthelme pastiche on a bleary-eyed sunday night that probably would've been preferable. but hey, stevens doesn't get enough shout-outs in the free jazz world.

i agree there's plenty of humor in free jazz, though i think the general impression of the music (mostly by outsiders) is that it lacks a funnybone. for me, humor actually shows the depth of an artist's seriousness. it's to breuker's credit and while we love the ole spiritual uplift, we don't necessarily prize it over a good gag. buster keaton is just as amazing as, say, robert bresson - to choose examples from another genre.

anyway, love how this has got me thinking. kudos again on the wonderful piece and fine blog!

Andrew said...


Holy cow -- I am doubly grateful; first, that you came over to check out the blog; and second, that you commented!

Actually, triply grateful: thanks too for responding to my (perhaps over-exuberant) criticisms so graciously and thoughtfully. As I'm sure you recognized, this issue has a personal relevance for me and my own attempts at composition.

Your comments got me to wondering what role jazz history has in all of this -- in the sense that it took decades and decades for anyone to take jazz seriously as an art form at all (you know, the whole "novelty music" rep). Many critics, observers, and historians have rightly pointed out the basic unfairness of that situation. But it may be that we musicians have to some extent overcompensated by really ramping up the attention paid to "jazz as a sober art form," while neglecting its, uh, Rabelasian potential.

In any case, my sense is that something somewhere along the way has convinced audiences of "art music" that they are not to respond with laughter unless explicitly cued to do so. A long time ago, I used to break up our sets by performing an acoustic version of "Disco Inferno," which I would always introduce as a "little-known Bob Dylan song." I can't tell you how many times folks would come up to me after a performance, totally straight-faced, and ask "Was that song really written by Bob Dylan? I had no idea!"

Anyway, thanks again. Really enjoying the D-O blog -- I'll see you over there!