Friday, August 28, 2009

Put Another Nickel In

The Oh-So-Polite Beg-a-Thon

As you may have heard, the Industrial Jazz Group is touring the east coast in October! Hoo-boy, we can hardly wait.

Of course, a journey like this (ten shows in as many days, all occurring many miles from our natural habitat) is hella-expensive. One might even say ridiculously, brain-crushingly expensive. Airfare, hotel lodging, musician fees, catering, pyrotechnics, personal trainers, wardrobe, masseuses, pet sitters, limousine service, extra TVs for the ones we plan to throw out of hotel windows, extra cars for the ones we plan to drive into hotel swimming pools -- damn, it all adds up!

(Okay, so I was just kidding about the last few items, there, but still -- damn, it all adds up!)

Consider: Airfare for 11 people, which will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $3300. Artist fees for 15 people for 10 days, which should be somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 at least. Transportation for the tour, which will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $5000. Add it up and pretty soon you're talking about real money!

You may have heard scuttlebutt here and there about the impending collapse of the music business, and of the jazz music business in particular. And while those rumors may or may not be true (we think they’re not!), and while there may or may not be an entirely new economy of music on the rise (we think there is!), we are realistic enough to recognize that we’re never going to sell more records than, say, the Jonas Brothers. (I know, four years ago we were making this joke about Christina Aguilera. Hey -- times change, but our humor is consistent!)

In any case, while we can keep this band going without ever being as big as the Jonas Brothers, we can’t keep it going without you. That truism has never been truer than now, as we’re about to launch the mother of all impossible independent tours. And so, in all seriousness and humility, we’re turning to you, dear IJG fans, to help us make the whole thing a little less, uh, painful, financially.

To wit: like many before us (and like ourselves in a simpler time), we have created a full-fledged fundraiser, where you can get stuff (some of it rather ridiculous, I know) and contribute on one of multiple levels, should you so desire.

All contributions are, of course, tax-deductible. And incidentally, if you find the listed gifts a little silly (can't say we blame you if that's the case), or if you find the listed amounts not to your liking, but you still want to contribute, that's totally cool! We'd be grateful for anything you are willing to give. If you want to pass on the gifts, just let us know.

Please note too that there is a PayPal button at the top and bottom of the fundraiser details list (below). To contribute, click either button, enter the desired amount, and you're good to go. (You need not have a PayPal account to contribute.)

And please accept our undying gratitude in advance!

Industrial Jazz Group 2009 Fundraiser

==> Donate $1, and get an IJG-themed postcard, with a short handwritten “thank you” message from Durkin.

==> Donate $5, and get a fun pack of 3 IJG bumper stickers.

==> Donate $7, and get a high five from the whole band the next time you see us in concert.

==> Donate $10, and get a copy of the new CD when it comes out in 2010.

==> Donate $15, and get a copy of the new CD, plus a shout-out from the stage during our next concert (e.g., “Thanks to the great Joe Blow for helping us get here!”).

==> Donate $17.50, and get a copy of the new CD, plus a batch of homemade maple bacon cookies baked by Jill Knapp.

==> Donate $20, and get a copy of the new CD, plus a photo with the whole group the next time you see us in concert.

==> Donate $25, and get a copy of the new CD, plus a batch of the best chocolate chip cookies you will ever eat in your life made just for you by Butler On Demand.

==> Donate $30, and get the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, plus an IJG T-Shirt of your choosing.

==> Donate $50, and get the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, the IJG T-Shirt of your choosing, plus a bit part in our next music video. (You have seen our music videos, haven’t you?)

==> Donate $75, and get the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, the IJG T-Shirt of your choosing, the bit part, plus a custom-made hula hoop created by Tailspin Hoops.

==> Donate $100, and get the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, the IJG T-Shirt of your choosing, the bit part, plus a personal “thank you” message included in the liner notes of the album. (E.g., “Thanks for helping us finance our last tour, Joe Blow! You rock!”)

==> Donate $150, and get the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, the IJG T-Shirt of your choosing, the bit part, the personal liner note “thank you,” plus a custom two-minute poem written and performed by IJG trombonist Mike Richardson, on a subject of your choice. Mike will call you and recite this poem, which will be dedicated to you, and published on the band website.

==> Donate $200, and get the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, the IJG T-Shirt of your choosing, the bit part, the personal liner note “thank you,” plus a 30-second musical answering machine message, with music by Durkin, and performed by the IJG singer of your choice. You provide the text of the message (”Hi, this is Joe Blow, I’m not home right now,” etc.), we will provide you with a recording of the piece, which you can then use for whatever you like.

==> Donate $350, and get the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, the bit part, the personal liner note “thank you,” plus a gift pack of 10 custom T-shirts, featuring Industrial Jazz Group song titles of your choosing, with colors of your choosing (as long as they’re in stock).

==> Donate $400, and get a the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, the bit part, the personal liner note “thank you,” plus a signed print of one of Jill Knapp’s infamous “Hello Chicken,” “Hello Ninja,” or “Hello Bacon” paintings.

==> Donate $500, and get the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, the bit part, the personal liner note “thank you,” plus a customized, hand-made, signed, single page expression of gratitude from every musician who appears on the album (all 16 of them!). Each bandmembers’ page will consist of text, a drawing, a painting, or some other visually-communicated personal message expressing two ideas: 1. How grateful we are for your support, and 2. How incredibly awesome you are.

==> Donate $600, and get the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, the bit part, the personal liner note “thank you,” plus an original painting by artist Douglass Truth, based on a mutually agreed-upon IJG song title. The painting will be on 24″ x 18″ canvas, and will be completed by the end of the year. (Dig some of Douglass’s work here.)

==> Donate $1000, and get the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, the bit part, the personal liner note “thank you,” plus a recording of a two-minute original Durkin piece (instrumental or vocal), written for you, with a title and subject of your choosing, and featuring four members of the group. (Note: this option, and the other song options, are good for things like birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc.)

==> Donate $1250, and get the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, the bit part, the personal liner note “thank you,” plus a recording of a four-minute original Durkin piece (instrumental or vocal), written for you, with a title and subject of your choosing, featuring six members of the group.

==> Donate $1500, and get the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, the bit part, the personal liner note “thank you,” plus IJG bassist Oliver Newell will come to your next party and dance. Fine print: this offer is contingent upon Oliver’s schedule. “Party” is defined as an event lasting no more than 5 hours. Oliver will determine how much of that will actually be spent dancing – but if the music is good it will probably end up being a long time. If outside of the LA area, you must also provide Oliver with a plane ticket and place to stay for the night.

==> Donate $2000, and get the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, the bit part, the personal liner note “thank you,” plus dinner at Applebee’s with the entire band, in Los Angeles, during our next SoCal tour (Spring, 2010). What you do after dinner at Applebee’s is entirely up to you.

==> Donate $5000, and get the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, the bit part, the personal liner note “thank you,” plus a three minute, bethonged dance from Mike Richardson, accompanied by a plaintive version of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” played by one IJG member of your choosing. Fine print: this offer is contingent upon Mike’s schedule, and the schedule of his accompanist. “Bethonged dance” is defined as a personal dance meant to entertain, but without any physical contact. If outside of the LA area, you must also provide Mike and his accompanist with a plane ticket and a place to stay for the night.

==> Donate $50,000, and get a copy of the new CD, the high five, the shout-out, the photo, the bit part, the personal liner note “thank you,” plus my Volvo Station Wagon, a historic vehicle which was used in seven IJG tours on the west coast (and which still displays some of the wear and tear from same).

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Letting it all hang out

As a composer and cultural gad-about who jumped early and fully into the craziness of the online world, I sometimes wonder if I'm giving too much away with what I do here.

Isn't that the great trade-off of blogging and social media? Hooray: I'm sharing my personal thoughts and experiences with a pretty big audience! Yes, but, you know... I'm sharing my personal thoughts and experiences with a pretty big audience.

Which is not to say that I feel like I've lost my privacy altogether. But I do think I put a lot more of myself out there than my basically introverted nature seems to require. I mean, I used to keep a personal journal, and I don't really do that anymore. I do continue to carry around notebooks, but they are full of fragments and sketches, rendered in the shortest shorthand I can muster. Still, in the end, for better or worse, this blog (and my social media presence in general) has become the new testing ground for most of my latest ideas and observations.

I get the point about how a significant portion of what's out there on the internets is "pointless babble" and "narcissism." Note that pointless babble and narcissism totally make sense in the context of a personal journal -- sometimes you have to slog through (or purge!) what the Zen monks called "roof-brain chatter" to get to anything of substance. But in public? Unseemly! I can only imagine what the great Neil Postman would have to say about Twitter.

Of course, I can't remember ever feeling this paranoid about the way things are going:

I actually really want to see this now, cuz it looks like a good comedy. (Sorry: it's hard for me not to laugh at any film whose trailer includes the line "But he took it too far." (Dun-dun!))

Actually, the movie feels like a trap: showing us what a culture of compulsory voyeurism/exhibitionism does for the human species, and simultaneously implicating us in that process (because as the audience, we're the voyeurs -- get it?).

I dunno: I realize we're living in a new era, but it will take a lot to convince me we are living in a true Panopticon culture of compulsory voyeurism/exhibitionism. To me, it feels less compulsory than compulsive.

And besides: jazz! Perhaps one reason I've adapted to this new landscape so readily is that it resembles the dynamic of improvisatory music (and the sort of music that I do, which is heavily informed by improvisation, whether it explicitly includes it or not).

What is a jazz soloist doing if not publicly presenting a work-in-progress (the fruits of an ongoing routine of practice, study, imagination, listening)? Like a social media junkie, sometimes a jazz musician shares too much, or too soon. ("Hey, I discovered this cool figure while practicing earlier today -- let's see if it works in this tune. Whoops, never mind!")

Even the best bloggers and twitter-devotees let through the occasional typo, awkward turn of phrase, or incompletely-considered idea. (That there is one reason somebody is always "wrong on the internet.") And even the best improvisers and composers-who-think-like-improvisers let through the occasional clam, or hackneyed theme, or bad transition. In both cases, the dedicated ones go back to the drawing board, edit, and try again -- and that persistence (and its subsequent payoff) is part of what makes them great.

Process over product, baby. No?

[Photo credit: Hyku]

Friday, August 21, 2009

Watts Ensemble

What follows is an email interview with Brian Watson, founder of / composer for the Watts Ensemble.

Never heard of them? How's this? (The tune is called "Funny Cigarettes.")

Based in LA, and supposedly created on a dare, Watts is an impossible, outlandish creature after my own heart, a kindred spirit if ever I met one. The group recently released their first album, Two Suites for Crime & Time.

N.B.: I recommend reading the Chris Ziegler interview over at L.A. Record before reading this one.

* * * * *

Durkin: First of all, to reiterate -- I really dig the record, and thank you so much for laying it on me. I find it a pretty remarkable document for 2009. In some ways, it's very retro (to my ear, it could be a backbeat-ified version of a lost Alex North or Leonard Rosenman soundtrack), but in some ways it's pretty "progressive," at least in the sense that it's quite unique in the musical landscape right now.

BW: Thank you! That means a lot to me coming from you. That's exactly what I was going for. I've always believed that it's important to look back at the history of music and to dig as deep as you can to fully appreciate where we are now. John Coltrane has a quote that really resonates with me; “I’ve found you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.” I couldn't encapsulate my musical philosophy any better. For me, there's nothing more uninspired than a group who recreates something from an older era to the tee. It feels like a novelty act, or like nostalgic fetishism. Conversely, I find it underwhelming when I see a band that's only influenced by modern music.

Durkin: Since Los Angeles played such a crucial role in my own development as a composer, I have to say: there's an eerie LA-esque sound to this, maybe the sort of thing that you can only appreciate if you've lived in that town for a while. So I'm curious: are you a native Angeleno? And does the record sound like LA to you? And what's with the name of the group -- is it a play on your last name? Or a reference to Watts?

BW: Yeah I'm basically an Angeleno. I've lived within 50 miles of LA my entire life. I've never really thought of the music sounding particularly LA-esque, but now that you mention it, I suppose that living in this city has had an impact on my musical language. There are certainly many phrases and parts on the album that I had written in my head while slugging my way through LA traffic or walking around my neighborhood.

As for the name, when I first thought of it, it was supposed to have two purposes. One was that I would have part of my name in the group without it being "The Brian Watson Super Orchestra Concert Band." The second part was, I thought it was kinda funny to call it "Watts" since we were (at least in the beginning) an all acoustic group. I didn't realize that my last name was actually in the name of the group until I heard it out loud. At that point it was kinda like "ha, oh well."

Durkin: I totally missed the "watt" angle -- that's hilarious! And actually, I kind of like the name "The Brian Watson Super Orchestra Concert Band," because it's so absurd. But no one would be able to remember that, I guess.

And now I need to interrupt this interview in order to insert an album cover featuring another great LA musician, standing in the Watts I thought you might have been referencing:

Anyway. One bit I loved in the Ziegler piece was when your friend Brad said "Man, it’s a beautiful record but you can tell you don’t know anything about jazz harmony—but beautiful record!" I love that. I'm curious, though, did you give it to him with the expectation that he would hear it as a jazz record? I definitely hear jazz inflections in it, especially that cinematic "crime jazz" sound. But do you consider what you do to be "jazz"?

BW: What's funny about a lot of the music on the "Suite for Crime" is it's mostly influenced by the likes of Stravinsky, who was himself influenced by jazz music. So the piece is really only jazz by proxy! Brad is a very sharp, very well rounded musician, he's one of those guys that can basically play anything on any instrument and do it super well. So I gave the record to him hoping that he would dig it, especially given the fact that he knows what he's talking about. I wasn't sure if he would hear it as straight jazz or not, but I'm just glad he thought it was a good piece of work.

As far as what I consider the music to be, it certainly has a lot of jazz influence, but it has just as much classical, and just as much rock and roll influence as well. I could point out specific parts where I was thinking of Hindemith, Philip Glass, Rocket from the Crypt, Devo, hell, I even rip off a Deep Purple riff in there! So I wouldn't call it just jazz. There's definitely more going on.

Durkin: Along those same lines, I'm fascinated by your openly-stated lack of formal training, and I'd love to know more about the path that led you to start your group, given that background. It reminds me of a favorite story about the writer William Faulkner, who, when he was asked to give a professional talk at a college writing program, advised all the students to drop out (who knows, maybe he was drunk).

Like you, I lack the proverbial music degree, and am without formal training in composition. But so were most of my musical heroes -- particularly Zappa, who never hid the fact that his career path was non-institutional. He listened to records, he read books, he worked hard and went through a lot of trial and error. But in a sense, for better or worse, his primary teacher was his ear.

BW: Yeah, since I have such little training, I really only have my ear to trust. I'll play a chord and look at it spatially and I'll guess what it's going to sound like (sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm wrong!), yet I have no idea what kind of chord it is. I could sit there and count the intervals and figure it out, but initially, it's all instinct.

In regards to the path that led me to start the group, I suppose it was time for me to branch out. I had been playing in rock and roll bands since I was about 14, and I think I had just exhausted all of my ideas. I did the Dead Kennedys style group, I did the Mummies style group, I did the Stooges style one, I did the Karp style one. So I began listening to classical music and when I first heard "Rite of Spring" it was just as exciting as it was the first time I heard the Stooges "Raw Power."

I did basically what Zappa did, I listened to a ton of music. I would go to the Brand Library every week and get the maximum 15 classical cds and listen to them intently and I made sure to make playlists of the pieces I want to emulate. I read Rimsky-Korsakov, Hindemith, Schoenberg, and some of it made sense, and a lot of it didn't. I bought a keyboard and some sample libraries and started messing around with it, and eventually I would write something that I liked. Once I had written about 5 pieces I thought, "Well shit, maybe I should try to find some people to play this stuff!" And luckily, I did.

Durkin: The Brand Library! People who don't live in LA might not get the reference, but that place (in Glendale, CA) has a truly amazing music collection. I visited there often (and accumulated many fines!) when I lived in LA. It was perfect for the starving artist trying to stay on top of all the music that comes out in a given year.

BW: The Brand is an amazing place. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing without it for sure.

Durkin: How else do you find music? It seems like you tap into the network provided by your band, that there's a lot of word-of-mouth that might point you in a specific direction. Do you also rely on blogs, or music magazines, or other media?

BW: I don't really indulge in [other media], other than people sending me random youtube videos (just saw a P.P. Arnold one). Most the time I'll hear a record or an artist either from somebody in Watts or from somebody in the other group I play in, Jail Weddings (which the aforementioned Brad is in), since both those groups have a collective 25 people with varying musical backgrounds.

However, I still find that the biggest thrill for me is to see a band that I've never heard of and have no preconceived notions of and absolutely loving them. It reminds me of being young and hearing things for the first time, and it reminds me why I love music so much. That sort of thing usually happens when you least expect it. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's fucking magical.

Durkin: Back to the educational question for a moment. I bring it up because in the jazz and new music worlds, it is pretty unusual these days to come across people without formal musical training. I don't at all want to imply that it is necessarily "better" to be trained or to not to be trained -- there are risks and benefits that come with each, and a lot depends upon the personality of the individual involved. But I'm curious: what do you think is the value, if any, of being unschooled in compositional techniques? Do you regret your lack of formal training? Do you think your music would be different without it?

BW: When we were recording at CalArts, I made a comment that I wished that I had gone to school there when I was younger, and the pianist, Philip, who was a student there said "Yeah, but then your music would probably sound completely different." And the more I thought about it, the more I tend to agree with him. I think for me personally, not going to school was beneficial, it's certainly not for everyone. I do much better by simply diving in and getting my hands dirty, and yes, making mistakes, lots and lots of mistakes. I've learned the hard way that you can't have a bari sax play eighth note triplets at 180 bpm or have a trumpet jump octaves back and forth. And hey, did you know that you won't be able to hear a bassoon over an entire sax and brass section going full blast fortissimo? Now I do!

There's certainly two sides to the coin. On one hand, I don't know what's considered "wrong" which can be good or bad. I've certainly heard that I've voiced things wrong, and I've written odd looking charts more than a couple of times. Then again, they used to say that parallel fifths were wrong and that's a power chord which is the basis of all rock and roll, so those old time baroque guys where full of it!

One of the downsides to having no formal training is I'm not able to deconstruct things the way that others can. Sonic Youth wasn't simply making a bunch of noise. They were knowledgeable enough to take something as simple as a 3 chord riff and make it sound completely unique. Yet, I'll see drummers who are self taught, and what they lack in coordination they make up for in innovation. I've heard some of the most interesting yet simple drumbeats come out of self taught drummers and it's all because nobody was there to say "don't play that because it's weird." So I suppose not knowing what you're doing is both a blessing and a curse.

That being said, I've learned a lot from everyone in the group. My musical knowledge now versus when I started the ensemble is probably 1000 times more informed. When you think about it, I have 14 theory teachers coming to my house every Monday night. Whenever I present an idea to them, I always ask for their input and many times they'll enlighten me to something I wasn't aware of. I love the fact that I get to basically go to school by writing and performing with these amazing musicians as opposed to sitting in a classroom. It's the only way I think I'd be able to do this.

Durkin: Are there examples of things that you tried, not knowing whether you would like them or not, and that ended up working, but that you later learned were "against the rules"?

BW: The first track on the album, "Good Morning" (hear it here), was written in one sitting one morning. I woke up, rolled out of bed and just heard this pulsing eighth note. It worked out because my right hand was just hitting the high E over and over, and since I can't really play piano with both hands playing two complex rythms, I was able to do the whole thing. After I recorded it I said, "ah what a piece of garbage," but I never throw anything away and put it in my "Retired" folder. Months later I was digging through there, heard it and thought, "What the fuck was I thinking?!" And now it's one of my favorite pieces.

As far as doing things "wrong" I know that I write a lot of unison / doubled parts for the entire group, which isn't necessarily wrong, but I think I employ it more than usual. Then again, that's because I wanted the band to have a rock & roll feel to it, I wanted it to be as loud and focused as a "power trio," hence the areas where everyone is essentially playing a power chord. There's not a whole lot of melody in the pieces either, it's a lot of texture, but that's what I've always been attracted to. Don't get me wrong, melody is great. However, it can sometimes be annoying when you get a nice melody stuck in your head and it won't go away. That's how I'll justify the lack of melody in my compositions. Thank you very much.

Durkin: Another thing that I thought was remarkable about the way you approach this project -- particularly given the size of the group -- is the humility you bring to it. We hear so many stories of artists who are so self-assured in their "vision" that they feel justified enacting a sort of "my way or the highway" approach. Not that that never works. But you seem to strike a nice balance: your lack of training may put you in a position where you depend upon a certain amount of band-generated goodwill for the project to succeed, and you're open to that -- but at the same time, you clearly have a vision for what you want to do. Does that sound right? And have you ever been tempted to be more of an asshole?

BW: You know, Buddy Rich has influenced me in two ways. One, he's a fucking amazing drummer. Two, he was a monumental asshole. Have you ever heard that tape of him yelling at his band after a gig?

It's ridiculous. That is the antithesis of how I want to lead a band.

But yes, you're right, since I'm relatively new to this, it doesn't behoove me to make up for my lack of training with some sense of faux confidence and chutzpah. It's not really who I am, and it would just alienate the rest of the group. And besides, there really isn't a need for it since everyone in the group gets where I'm coming from and what I'm going for. I honestly can't say how lucky I feel to have so many talented people taking time out of their schedule to come and play music with me. It's insane when you think about it.

Durkin: Last question. You mentioned how beer is a part of Watts Ensemble rehearsals. How important is "fun" to what you do (for the band or the audience)?

BW: It's extremely important for rehearsals. I don't want it to feel like a high school class or some stuffy orchestra. Since there's no money involved it has to be fun, otherwise they wouldn't do it.

As for the audience, our live show really consists of us playing the compositions as is. I've thought about doing a visual show by incorporating a projector (in fact, we're writing and rehearsing a live score for DUEL which we'll play at the Silent Movie Theater in October, and may do other performances of it in other venues if all goes well). But generally speaking, I'm hoping that people have fun watching a band our size squeeze onto a stage and play the music I've written.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dumb all over, a little ugly on the side

In which I discuss matters that have no bearing whatsoever on jazz. Except to the extent that jazz, I imagine, would suffer too if we end up having an all-out civil war in this country.

Wait, did I say "civil war"? I meant "debate over health care."

Anyway, you heard about this dude who brought his only special friend to a recent Obama protest, right?

And then you probably read or saw how he was just one out of many! And it's all legal and shit!

"I come from another state where 'open carry' is legal, but no one does it, so the police don't really know about it and they harass people, arrest people falsely," the man, who wasn't identified, said in an interview aired by CNN affiliate KNVX. "I think that people need to get out and do it more so that they get kind of conditioned to it."

I love how this guy was concerned about the dangers of being "harassed." His concern was particularly evident in the great care he took not to harass other people. Cuz nothing says "I'm not harassing you" like an assault weapon at a political protest.

I love too the invocation of revolutionary times (ya gotta check the video for that little gem). Cuz the founding fathers were all about arming their African-American friends. (Wait: they weren't? Double wait: they didn't have any African-American friends?!)

Tim F. at my beloved Balloon Juice has a spot-on take:

The sad part is that we do not even have to wait to see what happens next. Half a mile from my house a relatively ordinary freeper/stormfronter shot three policemen because he thought Obama would take his guns away.

All these guys need is one martyr to put on their t-shirts and name blogs after. Nobody needs to get shot, although they would love it if someone did. Their intense police state paranoia will be validated enough when a local cop confiscates some bubba’s precious AR-15. Rumors were enough to send several recent crazed shooters over the edge. How many more need just one aggrieved victim of guvmint overreach with a photo and a name?

The second funny thing is that I don’t think that any of these guys have any idea what to do when they have their little revolution. I suppose they hope to take power just by making America ungovernable by anyone else.


Honestly, I would pay good money to watch people who associate book learnin’ with the enemy try and fail to produce a modern-day Federalist Papers. If they do manage something it will be the first book ever written in all caps.

* * * * *

Do you remember that moment, back on the playground, however many years ago, when you were involved in the sort of well-meaning roughhousing that kids do, and suddenly there was this transition? Such that said roughhousing instantly morphed into a whole other kind of situation, one in which it became apparent that someone was really going to get hurt?

We're living through one of those moments right now, I do believe. Writ large and in very slow motion. (And I say that knowing full well my own proclivity for overcautiousness about such things. Though I'll repeat: one should never underestimate the power of a fringe, especially a fringe with laptops.)

The left cries "foul" (understandably) whenever Obama pulls back from some stated campaign goal, some longed-for move toward progressive change. We decry the urge toward bipartisanship as naive, Kumbaya-drenched nonsense. We pass around our little hoax posters. We argue that Bush, who we never agreed with, at least had the right strategy for getting shit done. It was (surprise!) a simple strategy: he just did it, and damn the consequences.

But it's more complicated than that, isn't it? Bush was a white president in a majority white country. He never faced the threat of armed insurrection. No one ever questioned his citizenship. No one ever accused him of being in cahoots with terrorists. He was compared with a chimp, it's true, but never a chimp shot dead by cops in the street. He could throw his political muscle around, even in the face of his own illegitimacy, because he had the weight of tradition on his side.

Which is not to say that no progressive ever longed, in a fit of rage, to punch Bush in the nose. But the idea of violence against that president was only ever raised in jest. And even then, it was immediately booed by progressives themselves. Instead, we chose to fight back with words. Of course, that didn't work out as well as we hoped, cuz Bush realized, in his oddly, perhaps accidentally postmodern way, that words were merely tools, and that you could say whatever you wanted, and it would be "true" if you repeated it enough and gave it an aura of gravitas. And in the end the worst physical threat he ever faced was a friggin' shoe, thrown (inaccurately) by someone from another country, after the target was already a lame duck. It's just not the same.

Which is also not to say that progressives should take the pressure off Obama whenever it appears he is giving up on an important principle (in fact, I suspect that he welcomes such pressure). Or that any of us should be intimidated into submission by the rabble-rousers -- that's exactly what they want. But even as we insist on follow-through, we have to see the administration's dance, such as it is, in a realistic context -- one that includes this bullying, ignant, violent, worst-of-the-60s-style survivalist bullshit.

[Photo credit: peterPIPERpickedTHEpeppers.]

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Jazz of the Future, part two

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Industrial Jazz Group in, like, twenty years:

Actually, these photos depict the Get a Life Marching Band, the big hit at each August's Multnomah Days, here in PDX.

Supplementary (or actually, essential) reading on the importance of amateur music is here. I may have to comment on that soon, it's quite sharp.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bye Bye Blues

A few weeks ago I had to play a funeral (it's part of my "day gig"), and was struck when one of the featured speakers described that event as a "cause for celebration." Then I realized: the deceased had made it into her 90s, and seemingly lived her life exactly as she pleased. What was there not to celebrate? We should all be so lucky.

Can you blame me for feeling the same way about the passing of the great Les Paul? Sweet mother of pearl -- what a life this dude lived.

When it comes to the "great man theory of history," I'm skeptical. I believe instead that developments in the world of art, or science, or other areas of culture are generally incremental, with many people contributing small things toward a pattern of overall progress. Every once in a while some talented-but-lucky schmuck comes along at just the right moment (more or less accidentally) to reap the rewards of all that less-than-thrilling behind-the-scenes preparatory work.

Here's evidence of Les Paul's impact -- it almost made me wonder if my skepticism was misplaced.

I do play guitar, but I'm not a guitarist (if you catch my drift), so I don't want to discuss all the wonderful things Paul did for that instrument (except to say that as a composer I benefit from them too). I also don't want to get into Paul's musicianship here, though I consider it to be above reproach. I remember hearing him perform at Fat Tuesday's in NYC, back in the 90s, just as I was beginning my own long, slow, downward spiral into jazz. My friends and I had a great time at that show, and I was thrilled that I got to shake the man's hand -- but I think I sensed even then that his music was not for all tastes, not even among guitar players. In the years since, I came across many other admirers of his, and noticed that more than a few of them faulted him for being capable of some pretty "corny" music. But for me, even Paul at his poppiest (e.g., the Mary Ford stuff, which I confess I love) always walked a delicious line between pablum-for-the-masses, on the one hand, and some kind of weird avant-garde mutant shit, on the other.

No, really. It seems commonplace now, but it's fundamentally bizarre (in a good way) to be able to play along with yourself on a recording, or to create an ensemble piece with musicians you have never actually met. So just as people were getting over the unease-with-the-uncanny that accompanied the first half-century or so of recorded sound, Paul comes along and gives them a reason to fret again. Cuz if music is all about being "in the moment," what happens when you split that moment over multiple tracks? When music becomes asynchronous? With one fell swoop, Paul (and the zeitgeist he rode) opened up a new avenue of musical art, one that was -- hallelujah! -- anything but "authentic." (To paraphrase Frank Zappa -- himself a pioneer of multitracking and other studio techniques -- with studio recording you could suddenly do things that had no analogue in nature.)

Ironically (to the extent that Paul is considered a jazz musician), jazz has always had a complicated relationship with recording technology, and specifically with the advances that Paul wrought. Though some jazz musicians were keenly aware of the possibilities, and sought to use that information to the most musical ends possible (Ellington was apparently a real stickler about recording), the infamous original resistance of a Freddie Keppard (say) seemed to inform the broader view: if you play jazz, record it only because you have to. And when you have to, aim for a good representation of the "live event," but don't ever think that that representation is going to compete with "the real thing." Making albums, in other words, is just a byproduct of the fact that we're in the music business -- not a viable practice unto itself. And so the experiments of a Bill Evans or a Bob Ostertag remained just that: experiments.

And yet we jazz musicians live in the present, too, and are affected by technological advances that we may not see fit to embrace explicitly. I have always wondered, for instance, about the extent to which a tune like Mingus's "Moanin'" (from Blues & Roots) would have been possible without the concept of multitrack recording hanging around in the cultural background. On the liner notes to that album, Mingus writes that he wanted "to use a larger group to play in a big band form I'd like to hear that has as many lines going as there are musicians." Here's a live version:

Is this really that dissimilar to the dense tier-ing that characterized some of Paul's recordings (or his demonstrations of same)? Set up the basic skeleton of a form -- whether it's a blues or something else -- and then just layer the shit out of it. You know, because you can. It seems like a model plucked right out of the multitrack world, where the temptations to think vertically can be pretty strong -- those of you who have ever owned or futzed around with a four-track, or a DAW, or a copy of Garageband, probably know the temptations I'm talking about.

I dunno, maybe that's a stretch. Or maybe I'm just realizing that this "multitrack mindset" has a lot to do with how I write the music for my own big band -- which, incidentally, now feels more indebted to Les Paul than ever.

Anyway, RIP.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Return of the son of last week's comment thread

Not to get too incestuous on this blog, but I sorta did promise to return to a certain discussion from last week. You know, the one that cropped up in this post, but simultaneously seemed to cry out for its own space.

Quick summary: it's basically a version of the old "recorded music vs. live music" debate. Mr. G and Steve smartly posited the superiority of the latter, while I attempted to argue for the value of both. (Apologies if I am misrepresenting.)

In an effort to get right back into that moment, and to cut off this damned preamble before it goes too far, can we just pretend that what follows is a natural extension of the previous comment thread?

Mr. G: I think it behooves us as musicians to remind folk how canned music is to music as canned peaches are to peaches, and they should re-gain the ears to hear that, and thus demand live music.

Durkin: Again, I'm a big fan of live music, and I agree we need to find ways to increase its presence in the world. But canned music is not to music as canned peaches are to peaches. "Canned music" (if we must call it that) is to music as apples are to oranges.

If, when listening to recorded music, your main question is, "How much does this sound like live music?" then of course you are in for disappointment. It's the wrong question to ask. The authenticity battle is a battle that engineers can never win (and so sound system ads that tout verisimilitude are disingenuous).

Which, by the way, is not to say that live music has a more convincing prior claim on authenticity. What seat do you have to be sitting in to get the "real" symphony? Which concert hall? Which orchestra and conductor does it have to be? What edition of the score should be used? What state of mind do you have to be in? What time of day does it have to be?

It's no disrespect to live music to wonder these things. But that's the problem with the "live" vs. "recorded" debate: we harbor all kinds of anxieties about "technology" (defined pretty narrowly), and so recorded music is regularly scrutinized to see if it passes the "real thing" test, and found wanting because it doesn't. Live music, we assume, is just "music" -- pure, unmediated, undifferentiated, and never filtered by the acoustic idiosyncrasies of the context in which it is heard, or even by the physical and/or psychological biases of its listeners! (Huh?)

Mr. G: As musicians we need to remember that Mintons was Monk, it was a place, it was the place and it was made special by the presence of the living Monk. Place the best Japanese Import LP in a glass case, it just ain't the same. The place is where the living music happened.

Durkin: Sure. But my childhood bedroom, where I spent long hours listening to music on headphones, deep into the night, was also a place. The music I discovered there sure felt alive to me. That's a testament to the records that were involved (many of which I wouldn't really understand until later) -- because with most of them the possibility of ever experiencing their content as actual "living music" had long past.

Mr. G: if music was simply wiggly air, then sound systems would work. What you and I hear, as musicians, is different than what the average person hears because you and I colour what we hear with prior experience. In other words, we imagine most of what we hear on records because we know what it really sounds like. Thus I can listen to old cylinder and victrola recordings and get really excited about the composition and musicianship, whereas everyone I have ever lived near (save a few, musicians all of them) will say "Turn Off That Noise!"

Durkin: Yes, as musicians we fill in a lot of the details when we listen to recordings (though see above reference to records I loved but didn't understand when I first heard them). However, many recordings have a beautiful sound unto themselves. Cylinder recordings are a pretty extreme counterexample, of course, but, for instance, I adore the creepy sound of the original 1928 version of "The Mooche" ("squashed" and "noisy" though it is by modern standards). In fact, I don't think I have ever heard a version I like better. In such cases (and there are many of them) the recorded sound is, for all intents and purposes, a compositional gesture.

More broadly, the recording studio, and recording technology in general -- as the "techno kids" you rightly admire know full well -- is just another instrument. It's a machine that produces sound, just like a trumpet, or an accordion, or a kazoo...

Mr. G: If it is all just filtered sound, everyone should be used to it, like how they all see circles where the eyes nearly always see ellipses, it needn't be a learned thing. Everyone has heard sound filtered through doors, through hats, through distorter muffs of all sorts, yet you play a soundsystem in a subway, you get sneers, you play a guitar, you get smiles. You play a brassband record out your shop window, you get nada, but the Hypnotic Brass plays a street corner and people (who cannot see them) swerve from blocks away to investigate the marvelous 'sound'.

Durkin: This seems to me to be a pretty broad generalization. I have personal experience with friends playing guitars in subways, only to be met with rolling eyes, and then to be escorted out a few minutes later by cops who certainly weren't smiling. And anyone who has been to a discotheque, or a rave, or any other environment that is driven by DJs and sound systems (and the cultures that surround them), knows that whatever "sneering" happens in those contexts is typically unrelated the source of the music.

Both recorded and live music are filtered, inevitably. And so they will remain -- at least until we figure out a way to beam songs directly into each other's brains.

[Photo credit: Eva101]

Monday, August 10, 2009

Hither and thither

Stuff collected and collated from various points:

* Another Industrial Jazz Group quintet tune.

* Another shaving video.

* The latest IJG October tour (aka "Rocktober") itinerary. Gigantic thanks to Nate Trier for securing our eighth official gig -- an October 20 hit at the Space with Nate's band the Skamatix. Should be an awesome time! (We still have two more dates to add to the tour: October 18 and October 21 -- cuz, you know, things are not quite insane enough yet. Anyway, stay tuned.)

* The re-animation of a presumed-dead blog post! Tour tales no. 1: The wages of profanity and political commentary, a story of one band's adventures with the word "fuck," was dumped in this space nearly a year ago. It was recently revisited, with insightful commentary, by our new friend (and fellow blogger) Tim Kitz. Definitely worth reading -- not least for the story of how Tim ended up finding this blog. Thanks, Tim!

* A nice video about the demise of the music industry (nothing particularly new here, but worth viewing for Zappa's typically wry analysis):

* And, speaking of Zappa, here's FZ alum Mike Keneally's newest video / song:

Friday, August 07, 2009

Classical gas

Earlier this week I got an email from Doug Jenkins, leader of Portland's own (logically enough, given their name) Portland Cello Project.

I love it when gig emails from groups I really dig make me laugh out loud! Let's see if you have the same reaction. Here's an excerpt:

Sometimes I write emails for the Cello Project list, and right after I send them I think “oops – that one might earn a few ‘unsubscribe’ responses.” Generally this is the case if I do something like talk about Britney Spears too much, or something. I forget that some people don’t think pop music is as simultaneously silly, ridiculous, joyful and compelling as I do... It’s just a good break from all the serious music you have to play when you’re a cellist, especially in the summer with wedding gigs and all of this other stuff...

I always want to write back to the people who unsubscribe and say "but... I’ve been practicing the Chopin sonata all day – this pop music thing is just my escape – I promise I just got carried away for a second with the ironic pop music references!"

Anyway, this email INESCAPABLY revolves around getting carried away with the ironic pop music references, so, if that’s not your thing, you may as well stop reading right now!

Who among us in the jazz world, with its overblown anxieties about audience, art, and entertainment, could fail to appreciate these sentiments?

Of course, our overblown anxieties may be quite different from what a classical cellist experiences in a group like the PCP. Perhaps classical music, with its centuries-long backstory as "serious art," at least provides its practitioners with a clear choice: different contexts require the wearing of different hats, and it's particularly obvious when those hats are being mixed up. You get asked to play classical music at a wedding, for instance, and you can be reasonably sure that you are being asked to be "serious" (even if you are being asked to do it in the background). And because audience expectations about classical music are so deeply ingrained, using a group of cellos to play music ostensibly designed for "entertainment" (especially when it's not the Beatles, or other stuff that routinely gets covered by pops orchestras) is probably still a pretty surprising gesture, relatively speaking.

Playing pop (or pop-inflected) music in a jazz ensemble is a different animal altogether. We've forgotten which hat is which. People like me complain a lot about how jazz has almost completely lost touch with its roots in the brothels and rathskellers; and to a certain extent, those complaints are justified -- clearly the era of Jazz, the Institution is now upon us. But the real "problem" (which may not be a problem at all, except for those who seek clarity in their art) is just that jazz is taxonomically confusing. We jazzers know what we like, but we don't really know for sure whether what we create is "art" or "entertainment." (Quick: you get asked to play jazz at a wedding! What exactly are you being hired to do?)

As I say, such confusion may not be a problem at all, in the grand scheme of things. In fact, as a committed Dada-ist, I love it. On the other hand, clarity about genre helps to sell records.

* * * * *

Anyway, for those of you here in Portland, the PCP is performing this Saturday at the Doug Fir Lounge. I have seen them before, and can heartily attest to the wonderfulness that is their show. It usually features a rotating cast of collaborators, drifting in and out of the group from all directions, making for a very lovely two-hour-or-so smorgasbord.

If you don't believe me, I urge you to check out the audience hooting and hollering in the above video.

[Photo credit: Alicia Rose]

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

RIAA breaks guitars, and music in general

So the court came down hard on Tenenbaum. Fuck. I was hoping the trial would last at least a week.

There are so many things to say about this. There's the idea that the punishment is excessive (Steve Lawson was one of the first to point out that $22K per MP3 is a complete joke). There's the idea that the record industry continues to fight against inevitable change, instead of working hard and in good faith to develop a viable business model that takes into account new technology, the livelihood of musicians, and the needs of audiences. And there's the idea that none of this will do what the RIAA appears to believe it will do -- specifically, intimidate other music fans into giving up "filesharing" altogether.

That last bit is key. Let me say it again, in a slightly different way: this case is not going to have much (or any) effect on the day-to-day lives of music fans -- except perhaps to galvanize them against the industry a bit more. So it's basically a very damaging exercise in futility, a lashing-out, a naked and spiteful display of power by an already-doomed giant. If this is a "war," as Debbie Rosenbaum says, it looks to me like Vietnam. "Filesharers" (i.e., most of us) are the Viet Cong, and the record industry is the US military-industrial-congressional complex, throwing massive amounts of firepower at the enemy, and finding itself flummoxed when a whack-a-mole dynamic ensues.

The fate of the twentieth century version of the music industry, as represented by the RIAA, is sealed. No matter how anti-social human beings may get, you cannot prevent them from sharing stuff they like, especially when the technologies to facilitate sharing are so ubiquitous. And so this trial was an expression of a strategy that has already failed. Mr. Tenenbaum, unfortunately for him, is collateral damage.

* * * * *

Incidentally, I find myself wondering why no musicians were singled out by the RIAA Dragnet. Surely musicians steal music too? Don't we? (Yes, I'm talking to you, fellow jazzers. Don't tell me no one has ever burned you a copy of a CD.) What would a musician have done in the face of one of those pompous subpoenas? How would a musician have "fought back"?

Well, I can't speak for anyone else, but I think I know how I would have approached things. (Not that the trial would have had a different outcome.)

Mostly, I would have wanted to look the court in the eye, at some particularly dramatic moment, and ask: "Do you really love music?" Assuming the answer was "yes," I'd go on: "Do you want more of it in the world? Would more good music, on balance, be a good thing for the planet?" Assuming the answer was again "yes," I'd go on some more: "Where do you think good music comes from? A vacuum?"

And if the answer to that was also "yes," I'd know I was dealing with the assumption that musical brilliance springs full-blown from the mind of genius composers who lock themselves in musty attics for years on end, and whose output does not depend upon interaction with a vibrant, accessible musical culture. I'd have to go into a long rant about an opposing (and, in my opinion, more accurate) theory: that in order to make good new music, musicians have to be knowledgeable about already existing music, and being knowledgeable about already existing music (especially on a typical musician's income) sometimes means that it has to be passed around for free.

I'd point out that biographical data usually suggests that, at some point, developing musicians have access to a public and / or private social context in which they can hear a good deal of high-quality music. Everyone knows, for instance, about Louis Armstrong, and the public music making that occurred in the New Orleans of his youth (parades, funerals and other social events). I'd talk about Bach and Zappa, and any number of my other heroes and heroines, and how they depended upon the existence of a public sphere for music, and to the extent that they couldn't get music that way, and to the extent that they couldn't purchase it, they too had to "steal" it. Sheee-yit, there was filesharing way before Kazaa.

Oh, I'd school those highly-paid, tone-deaf lawyers. I'd argue that, yes, musicians need to be remunerated for their work (not that you were ever very good at making that happen, dear RIAA!), but if you try to make sharing impossible (and that's what's at the bottom of the industry's slippery slope, isn't it?) you're going to end up with a musical culture that is a whole lot less interesting and creative.

I'd talk about how it's not about not paying for music if you can (something no true fan would ever even consider), it's about not automatically being denied music just because you can't. It's about ensuring the existence of a "musical commons" (part of the "intangible commons of the mind"), which doesn't have to include all music, but which has to exist, and which, as a commons, should be accessible regardless of one’s economic resources.

(To clarify that "slippery slope" crack, I'd argue that the RIAA, with its infernal DMCAs, and its confounded Sonny Bono Copyright Acts, its craptacular DRM technologies, and so on, has, since this nonsense started 10 years ago, been pushing toward a totally proprietary listening environment -- the complete and precise opposite of a musical commons.)

What else? I'd talk about the generally lame state of music education in the US, and how that further depletes the musical commons.

And then, for good measure, I'd point out that the framers of the Constitution thought copyright should be used to attract people to a life in the arts and sciences by providing a material incentive -- which is different than saying that copyright should reward the hoarding of intellectual property as if it was a scarce good. Copyright was designed to promote creativity, not to divide musical culture up into little fiefdoms.

And finally, as they carried me out of the courtroom, kicking and screaming (I presume), I'd leave them with this bombastic recap: if you think music can optimally continue in an environment in which the act of sharing is technically, officially, and legally verboten, you're kidding yourselves!

[Photo credit: mercredis]

Monday, August 03, 2009

Don't you ever play a rumba?

Along the lines of "The Job Song" as you've never heard it, I present the little ditty that resides in the first half of this clip: "The Wave-a-Stick Blues." C/o Jill.

I guess any job can become a drag if you let it...

Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra