Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The tyranny of the new

So here's one of the central tensions for an independent big band helmed by an easily-bored composer who can only afford to take everyone on the road maybe three or four times a year. Specifically: figuring out how to strike a nice balance between the following things:

1. the need for artistic growth and freshness, and

2. the need to have played a given tune enough times that the band feels the requisite level of "mastery" to perform it with conviction, and

3. the need to promote the tunes that are actually on the album you're selling to an audience that may never have heard them before, and

4. the need to make sure the band doesn't get too "comfortable," cuz comfort tends to obscure the adrenaline-intensive place that can incite the best performances, and

5. the need to make sure the audience is not too disoriented (thus the need to avoid the total lack of familiarity that would obtain if we unleashed an onslaught of new tunes every time we did a show).

I have never thought that I balance these competing needs particularly well. Indeed, if anything, I err on the side of novelty, the hard-to-satisfy impulse to always keep things moving full-speed ahead, and damn the consequences. It's not unlike how I listen to music, in fact: I much prefer to dig into a new album rather than pull out something I already know I like. For me, successful listening -- as I pompously described it during the Meet The Composer talks I did as part of this latest tour -- is a quest for astonishment. (Sometimes I feel like I am more interested in the possibility of astonishment than I am in the guarantee of pleasure from a recording I already know and love.)

The charitable way of looking at this is that I'm a musical (and cultural) omnivore, one whose tastes and temperament are perfectly suited to the Library-of-Alexandria-esque smorgasbord that characterizes our digital age. A less charitable way of looking at it is that I have very fickle, and even superficial tastes. In either case, I fear I'm terribly, even unfairly impatient with audiences who come to a show wanting to hear the songs they already know. Of course, I bear no grudge against that desire, and of course I want to provide some kind of stable ground from which to proceed. But, as I said, I'm impatient.

Goddamnit if Fiona Apple (who I hadn't realized was still making records until IJG drummer Dan Schnelle re-introduced her to me during one of the recent tour-related road trips) didn't nail, in the above YouTubed tune, what I think (again, terribly and unfairly) is going on with the desire for repeating the "tried and true":

Give me something familiar
Somethin' similar
To what we know already
That will keep us steady
Steady, steady
Steady going nowhere

"Nowhere" indeed.

Anyway, normally I try to be pretty incremental in the process of introducing new tunes, bringing in a new one or two per tour, and adding it to the stuff that is already working well. But you keep adding and adding, and eventually you have some pretty outsized sets. So this time I decided to bite the bullet and gut the show of the tunes that have been staples of ours for 3-4 years now: "Howl," "PDX LIX LAX," "Bongo Non Troppo," "Fuck the Muck," and "Big Ass Truck." Sure, it felt a little like sitting them all down on an iceberg and pushing them out to sea. But I think it was the right thing to do.

And with that, I think the band is now officially in a "new phase," which means there will be a new album soon. More on that later... in the meantime, watch this space for yet still even more videos of the new tunes, of which there are four.

Ah, what the hell, here's a preview: a little sample of our "Theme for a Cable News Show," recorded by someone in our San Diego audience (warning: at one point it becomes very thong-centric):


Ray said...

Maybe you should look at the length of the show and weigh what really represents IJG the best. New or old, shouldn't the best be what you want to present to the audience?

Ideally, there should be more material than time, and you can swap things in and out of the set list to keep it fresh.

Just saying.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Again, Ray, thanks for your thoughts. (Hopefully I didn't scare you away with my remarks on the other post...)

I hear what you're saying here, but in some ways I feel like, for better or worse, "change" is what the IJG is about. Which is why I try to push the new stuff as much as possible. Just as the internal architecture of any of our tunes is designed to avoid stasis (one of the things most of our repertoire has in common), our overall m.o. is to try and find new ways to express ourselves (within certain arbitrary limitations -- like a specific and very traditionally-defined instrumentation, for instance).

Kind of like a shark -- if we stop moving, we die.

Ray said...

Perhaps it's possible you are overthinking it. In my mind #2 should be a priority. (hehehe, #2. Settle Beavis.) You want your performance to be polished enough to shine. The audience will provide feedback on how oriented they felt with your performance. I went to your last Philly show with NO frame of reference on IJG, and it wasn't disorienting. Everything was presented fresh to me and I picked it up from there. I think the folks who are going to be inclined to go to your shows are going to get it. And if not at least you will stand out as new.

And no worries about scaring me off. I have a thick skin courtesy of working for that thankless taskmaster Jill.

Andrew Durkin... said...

I went to your last Philly show with NO frame of reference on IJG, and it wasn't disorienting. Everything was presented fresh to me and I picked it up from there. I think the folks who are going to be inclined to go to your shows are going to get it.That's really valuable feedback, Ray. It is, in fact, what I assume our audiences are thinking, and what I try to program into the show (i.e., equal doses of strange and accessible)... but I'm never really sure if that is the actual experience for a newcomer, or if I'm just being naive and idealistic in hoping that such a thing is possible. It helps to know that it is possible to enjoy what we do with no previous context on us.