Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Having a thing

Speaking of rituals of validation, Google Reader just handed me this interesting post by east-coast trumpeter Jason Palmer. It touches on the time-honored critical use of the word "voice" (usually paired with the word "original") as a way of praising (or conferring worth on) a given work.

The (or my) question is: nowadays, how does one recognize such a thing?

I frequently read album reviews of artists that are in my generation (25-35). Many of the writers proclaim that the artist doesn’t quite have their own “voice” or that the artist is still in the process of finding his/her own “voice”. Whenever I read a statement like this I can’t help but wonder if the writer were to put the record on repeat and listen to it all day, day in and day out (no one I know has time for this, but you know what I mean), would that artist then have their own “voice” in the view of the writer’s mind’s ear?


Good question. Is the ability to recognize a musical voice (particularly a "new" and / or "original" voice) akin to the process of learning a new language? Does it involve, you know, hard work?

That "no one I know has time for this" is actually pretty important. I strongly suspect that if you factor in whatever gets counted as "indie" (and maybe even if you don't), there is much more recorded music being produced today than, say, forty years ago. Who has time to listen to it all? And yet, if you can't listen to it all, how do you know what an original voice is? ("Original voice" would have to be defined in the context of "all recorded music," no?)

For me, it is all related to definitions of "listening." I have read about critics dismissing a disc after two or three spins in the car. Huh? Have they really heard the thing? I realize, of course, that this is a strategy for making the review glut more manageable -- as the review copies start to pile up, one reaches for any excuse to cross an item off the list, and thus get closer to a feeling of "critical mastery" (a pretty elusive feeling in this day and age). But come on! Some of my current favorite recordings have taken weeks (or even months) for me to warm up to -- time that involved listening in different contexts, and usually (at some point) setting aside an evening for deep listening with headphones.

(Which is not to say that there isn't some music that I pretty much know on first listen is never really gonna resonate with me.)

In the long run we want to be remembered for having our own “thing”. I’ve heard some say that the age of obtaining a personal unique style of improvising [or composing?] in jazz is gone. I don’t really agree with that assessment [...]


Me neither. But I do wonder if it is getting harder to recognize "a thing" when we hear it.

4 comments:

mrG said...

I'm no music critic, but I'd say we have to take the word Original in the sense of "the voice you had ... before you started copying your heroes and teachers" ie, your Authentic voice, and in that sense I think we recognize it by a certain quality of ease and honesty, original voice isn't trying to capitalize on emulating some other style even if it does emulate some other style (because they all do) -- the only 'original' musician was John Cage, all the rest freely borrowed their harmonies from Mozart, their instruments from the church, their rhythms from tribal cultures. Cage instead borrowed from literature, painting and poetry, so he's not really a First Cause either.

This is the reason I think copyright is bunkum: There are no original melodies, harmonies, plotlines, rhythmic structures etc etc, there are only modifications of prior art, building upon and inspired by those who came before. Your originality on the other hand, in the sense that you are you and even a clone of you will not be, there is no need to protect that by law because it is not possible to steal someone's soul, however much you may steal from their style :)

Andrew Durkin... said...

This is the reason I think copyright is bunkum: There are no original melodies, harmonies, plotlines, rhythmic structures etc etc, there are only modifications of prior art, building upon and inspired by those who came before.

I agree! This was the subject of my dissertation (shudder), which I may start posting here in dribs and drabs soon (since in the end I didn't do much else with it).

I am coming to define "originality," to the extent that it exists, as the "quirk of personality" that can be expressed by an artist somehow, but that, for the most part, eludes language. I can talk about the "material elements" of some artist's work, but most of the time, as you suggest, I can find examples of those things elsewhere, and earlier. And yet I can still recognize something ineffably distinct about the artists I love. Perhaps it's that "pre-edumacation" authenticity coming through?

Andre said...

If all art is a modification of prior art, where did it begin?

Andrew Durkin... said...

Hey Andre!

If all art is a modification of prior art, where did it begin?

Well, you could reverse this question, couldn't you? And ask something like this: "If all art isn't a modification of prior art, then why didn't Mozart think of writing music that sounded like Mahler?"

Or, another way of looking at it: perhaps the "original art act" that you are referring to here was actually just the decision to label something "art." So it "began" with the decision to think of everyday activities in a new way. But that's not really "originality" in the mythic sense that obtains in aesthetic discussions nowadays.

Stay tuned... I'll flesh this out when I post my diss.