Monday, November 30, 2009

Who will save your filthy, filthy soul?

"Hypocrisy is woven of a fine small thread,
Subtler than Vulcan's engine: yet, believe't,
Your darkest actions, nay, your privatest thoughts,
Will come to light."

John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

One of the ongoing challenges with the Industrial Jazz Group is walking the line between a.) appealing to the wholesomeness of the mainstream jazz community, and b.) staying true to our more raucous, obscene natures. It's a bit of a balancing act, trying to read an audience before a performance, and adapting our presentation accordingly, all while trying to comport ourselves in a way that feels genuine.

E.g.: sometimes, in the middle of "Big Ass Truck," we shout "What the fuck?" At other times, we shout "Fiddlesticks." It all depends on the scenario. (And we don't always guess right.)

You may know that in its early days, this band was driven by a much more innocent aesthetic. Sometimes I worry that maybe, by going over to the dark side, we've screwed ourselves out of mainstream success at some point in the future (not that I crave mainstream success, but it is a good way to get the band paid). The internet never forgets, and, like a beauty queen trying to outrun a sex tape, perhaps our chastened future selves (ha!) will discover that we're shit out of luck the next time (er, the first time) we want to play a high-class, upscale jazz venue. (I'm reminded of something David Ocker once said about Frank Zappa: "Can you imagine what the Board of Directors of your average symphony would say when confronted with a piece for full orchestra called PENIS DIMENSION?")

Or perhaps not.

I just came across Save the Linoleum, an incredible (I mean that literally) early promo recording by that monster of folk-pop (I mean that affectionately), Jewel. The first track, "God's Gift to Women," is remarkable. The lyrics are not quite safe for work, so if you're at work, well, then, for goodness sake, don't read the quoted section below!

Would you like to ram your tongue down my throat?
Would you like to grab my thighs
Yes, I have got nice tits
They are the perfect grab-me size

I'm just a nice girl
Thought I had everything
Until you flashed me
And I saw what I've been missing

I've been saving myself my whole life
For some slimeball like you to come along
I am so desperate
I'll do you and your mom.


I was just thinking
That it'd really turn me on
If some guy would drive by
And show me his tongue
I was just thinking that it'd really make my day
If he offered me a place to stay with pay


I've been saving myself my whole life
for some sketcher like you to come along
I am so desparate
I'll do you on the front lawn.


I was just thinking that it'd be really cool
If I got hit upside of the head with a manly tool
That way he could have nothing left to say
And have his way with me all day


I've been saving myself my whole life
for some motherfucker like you to come along

Which is actually not so dirty compared with, say, Lil' Kim. Clearly, the song is a satire of creepy men and weak women, and on that level it's very successful. (Of course, record company executives are never very good at divining non-literal meanings, and so I'm sure somewhere along the line someone got to the young singer-songwriter and said: "This is way too freaky for us. Let's tone it down and clean it up." And the rest, of course, is history.)

I guess the real question, though, is why should this be surprising? Propriety is always a veneer. To pretend that it isn't is a form of hypocrisy.

And how much hypocrisy can art (and culture in general) really take?

I for one wish Jewel would make another album like this.

[Photo credit: jenniferlstoddart]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Creative marketing

Assuming you know I'm a fan of unusual promotional techniques, and especially unusual promotional techniques involving film, you probably won't be surprised at how great I think this is:

Maybe it's just Portland. We do things differently here.

Anyway. Ben Darwish Group / Sam Howard Band, at Jimmy Mak's, December 4. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

We have a visual

The first (and possibly only) video from the Rocktober tour. Mildly unsafe for work. Composition by Andrew Durkin, performance by the Industrial Jazz Group.

Footage shot in Pittsfield, MA (Berkshire Museum); Coxsackie [sic], NY (rest stop); Philadelphia, PA (Green Line Cafe); Staten Island, NY (Galerie St. George); Brooklyn, NY (The Bell House); Washington, DC (Twins Jazz); Jersey City, NJ (Automata Chino); Montpelier, VT (the Black Door). Camera work c/o Tany Ling and Matt Lichtenwalner (camera c/o Tany Ling).

The audio is still a rough work-in-progress (not yet fully mixed), derived from a few spring 2009 recording sessions. It features Dan Rosenboom, Josh Aguiar, Aaron Smith (trumpets); Mike Richardson, Ian Carrol (bones); Gavin Templeton, Cory Wright, Evan Francis, Brian Walsh, Damon Zick, Gabriel Sundy (saxes); Tany Ling (vox); Oliver Newell, Dan Schnelle (rhythm section); Andrew Durkin (composition, conducting); Jill Knapp (as-of-yet unrecorded vox).

All images are of the October 2009 touring band: Dan Rosenboom, Phil Rodriguez, Steph Richards, Dylan Canterbury, Joe Herrera (trumpets); Mike Richardson, Ian Carrol (bones); Gavin Templeton, Beth Schenck, Robbyn Tongue, Evan Francis, Brian Walsh, Dave Crowell, Tony Gairo, Gabriel Sundy (saxes); Tany Ling, Jill Knapp (vox); Oliver Newell, Dan Schnelle (rhythm section); Andrew Durkin (composition, conducting).

"Et Tu, Tutu?" began life as a piece for the Portland Jazz Composers' Ensemble. A few months later, I adapted it for the IJG.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)

So my little girl came home from kindergarten yesterday with two paper doll pilgrims she had made in honor of Thanksgiving.

Interestingly, she had given them both brown skin. And though I'm usually a stickler for historical accuracy, I thought that was pretty fucking cool.

I suppose it's only a matter of time before one of my conservative friends (1.) becomes offended by this, and (2.) blames it on Obama.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bricolage, baby

These days, the term "indie" seems to connote a particular style of music, as much as (or maybe more) than a particular approach to (or strategy for) making music. But when I hear the word "indie," my first association is with filmmaker Roger Corman, who, as you may have heard, was just given an Academy Award.

Why that association? Well, Corman set the independent template, not so much by growing (or not growing) a beard, but by displaying a knack for cutting through the bullshit that attends corporatized art production. (And is there any artform more prone to corporatization than film?)

John Sayles:

When you're starting out, most screenwriters write a dozen things and two maybe get made. The important thing about Roger is that he makes movies -- he doesn't fuck around a lot. He just decides, "I'm going to pay somebody to write this movie and that means we are making it once the script is as good a shape as we can for the money and time I've set aside for it." I wrote three screenplays for Roger and all three got made into movies. That's why he is really so incredible. You get the learning, the writing, the story conferencing, and all that. But you also see the whole thing translated into a movie.

Because of the smallness and directness -- I mean, there was one boss, which was Roger -- you didn't go through a dozen subproducers to get to the guy who was going to say yes or no to a screenplay. With the studios, you're always campaigning for one guy so he'll hand it off to the next guy, and the other guy might actually respond very differently. So you never really know who your audience is. Five or six people will filter your script through, whereas at New World there was Roger and there was Frances and that was it. So right away you got to talk to the people who were responsible for making your movie.

I did so many fewer drafts working for Roger than for other places, and as far as I'm concerned the extra drafts didn't make for a better movie. It was just that other functionaries in the major studio process were getting to lift their leg up on your work along the way.

It's funny that I recently succumbed to the notion that sometimes you have to spend money to make money, because for so long I have assumed that my own meager attempts at excellence would have to be done on the cheap. I'm not sure Corman has ever been interested in excellence, per se (not that that has stopped me from loving his work), but he is notorious for not spending money (because you can't spend money you don't have), and getting stuff (a lot of stuff, in fact) done anyway. Which I suppose is why he has been one of my heroes.

Of course, everything is relative, as the man explains in his memoir, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood And Never Lost a Dime (from which all the quotes in this post are taken):

Part of why Hollywood studio features average $20 million [this was written in 1998] is the justifiable cost of making big pictures combined with supply and demand for huge box-office stars who command gigantic fees. But another part is simply inefficient or indulgent filmmaking. I can look at a movie with an ostensible $1 million budget and say whether the money was well spent or not. With a $30 million or $50 million picture, I have no frame of reference. Who can tell you what a $50 million picture is supposed to look like? Lucas's Star Wars money was brilliantly spent. It was on the screen. The fortunes spent on Heaven's Gate or Ishtar, for example, clearly were not.


Let's consider this a slightly different way. It seems like there are two approaches to making art (and maybe the healthiest thing any artist can do is to figure out how to navigate between them as the situation demands). One can start any given project with a clear but unyielding concept of what the end result should be, laying down the law in advance, and then finding, come hell or high water, the means to execute that vision to a "T."

Or, one can start with a rough idea of what the end result should be, and then adapt to the resources at hand (not to mention the inevitable things that will go wrong) with all the suppleness and aplomb and quick-thinking intelligence of the best jazz improvisors.

You probably know where my sympathies lie. Corman, again:

I remember shooting Atlas in Greece almost thirty years ago when I was staging the climactic battle in which Atlas leads the troops of Praximedes against the walled city of Thenis. I'd promised a contribution to the Greek Army Charity Fund in return for its providing five hundred soldiers for the battle. On the appointed day only fifty appeared. Possibly someone had misplaced a decimal point. The script called for Praximedes to overwhelm the outnumbered defenders with the size of his army. The only thing I could think of was to abandon my plans for large-scale panoramic shots and shoot the battle in a series of close action shots to hide the size of the army with a flurry of action on the screen. Before shooting I quickly wrote some new dialogue in which Atlas asked Praximedes how he hoped to conquer the city with such a small number of soldiers. Praximedes replied that in his theory of warfare a small band of efficient, dedicated, highly trained warriors could defeat any number of rabble.

That's my theory of filmmaking.

Again, yes, to both the example of on-the-fly adaptation and the lesson Corman drew from it.

(And though I'm going to be trying out some different approaches soon, deep down, that's also my theory of music-making. Bricolage, baby.)

Friday, November 13, 2009

The top ten things I learned from the Rocktober tour

Okay, I promise this will be the last post spent processing October's tour. I realize this stuff must get tiring to folks on the outside.

(Though if I were to justify all the navel-gazing, I'd say that when you're a professional musician with an original concept that you're trying to get out into the world in an economically viable way, you have to constantly analyze, evaluate, and adapt. There is no template for a 21st century not-really-jazz (but not-really-anything-else) big band. There are lots of places around the web to get good advice, lots of good books you can read, and lots of good people who are helping build a new music economy, one note at a time. But there is still, inevitably, a lot of trial and error. And that's fine; I, for one, never expected anything else. But I'm also trying to understand every step (and mis-step) as fully as I can. It's partly why I started this blog in the first place, don't'cha know.)

Anyway: what did I learn this time out? Well, how about I try to distill it all into a single handy-dandy list?

(I realize some of this may be obvious, but it's helpful for me to repeat it, even if only for myself.)

1. The old music business is currently a little like the Terminator at the end of the original movie.

We're at the point where the polyurethane skin and flesh have been burned off, and the silver robotic skeleton has been exposed. But the damned thing still shows no signs of dying, and the hydraulic press is not yet a foregone conclusion.

Which just means that, though this is an exciting time, full of musicians who are creatively taking charge of their careers, in some cases the smartest approach is to go about your business the old-fashioned way. For me, that means recognizing that the IJG is not really as DIY of a proposition as I first thought, and that, at long last, I am going to have to assemble a team to help me run it.

2. Sometimes trying to save money can be costly in other ways.

Logistically speaking, probably the biggest challenge with Rocktober was the fact that I tried to do it as inexpensively as possible (naturally enough, since it was our most ambitious outing). That ultimately ended up making life much harder than it had to be.

For instance, it's mercifully cheap to have bandmembers stay with friends at various homes scattered throughout a given city, but that also means that the next morning, when we're trying to get to whatever the next event is, everyone is not conveniently in the same place (i.e., a single hotel), and the ability to depart for that evening's gig is completely dependent on people's ability to get to a designated pick-up spot at a given time. With a quartet, that is possibly a manageable task. With a 16-piece group, that is practically an invitation to disaster, unless you have one person whose job it is to be a professional asshole, ensuring that everyone is where they need to be at the right time.

3. Hire a professional asshole.

Otherwise known as a "tour manager," this is the person who would, for instance, proactively motivate any individuals who seem poised to make everyone else late. Alternately, he or she would be a veritable information kiosk for any and all questions about the itinerary, would anticipate occasional unforeseen logistical problems, and so on. (Oh, yeah! He or she would also allow a bandleader to focus on other things -- like, well, you know, the music.)

4. Leave a 3 hour buffer for everything.

Is the call time 6 PM? Aim to get the whole band there by 3.

(Not least because of the absurd phenomenon known as traffic. I escaped traffic as a concept three years ago when I left LA for Portland. But Rocktober quickly reintroduced me to this strange, absurd, and ultimately evil phenomenon. Trust me: you don’t know how hellish traffic actually is until you are able to live somewhere where traffic is relatively scarce. Getting to know traffic again, sitting in the back seat of a small red car and waiting waiting waiting until whatever the fuck was slowing us all down could be moved, I was reminded of a thought that often crossed my mind during the few minutes of my life when I could actually tolerate a “real job”: human beings are not meant to live like this.)

5. Hold regular band meetings, even when there doesn't seem to be a reason for them.

Before this tour, the only "band meetings" the IJG ever had were during the few minutes at the end of a rehearsal.

On this tour, I learned that, when you have 16 people on the road for an extended period of time, it is crucial to provide a regular opportunity for them to express whatever concerns, issues, complaints, or observations they might have. Ideally this sort of thing should function like the steam valve on a pressure cooker.

6. Don't count on your GPS.

GPS is a crutch. Even the best ones seem unreliable for a long-term itinerary in which you're trying to figure out a route on the fly. (Being right nine times out of ten counts as "unreliable" in my book.)

If you're undertaking a tour with a lot of driving, research your route ahead of time: start with mapquest or google maps, and print all the results out (I actually used to do that, but for this tour it was one more task I didn't have time to get to). Bring along a GPS, sure, but also arm yourself with an old-fashioned hardcopy map. Hell: contact your destination ahead of time to confirm that you are taking the best path from point A to point B.

When you're on a long tour, everything depends on your ability to get to a given location in a comfortable, timely manner. Nobody plays well when they have to crawl out of the back seat of a crowded van a few minutes before a gig. Triangulate the shit out of your directions.

7. 12-seater vans are awesome, convenient, and easier to drive than you might think.

If I had known this ahead of time (I only discovered it by accident toward the end of the tour, because of a mishap with a credit card), I would have rented one of these babies for the entire tour, instead of the two smaller vans we ended up using for most of it.

8. Unless absolutely necessary, tour in the spring and summer only.

Touring during the onset of a novel flu season is a big, big mistake.

9. It is much better to play a single 60-minute set on a double or triple bill than it is to play two or more sets when you're the only band on the bill.

Truthfully, this is something I've been aware of for a long time. It's actually my preferred performance scenario, at least at this stage of the band. But when you're not a professional booking agent, and you're putting together something like Rocktober, there's only so much you can do before you hit a wall (e.g., bands you like who are unavailable to gig with you, venues who demand that you go it alone, etc.).

Which makes me think that this item should actually be "find yourself a professional booking agent" -- someone who knows how to get over the aforementioned wall. (See also number one, above.)

10. Admit when you're wrong, take responsibility for any shit that happens, and learn from your mistakes.

I have spoken before about the role that I believe the ego plays in all the arts. We artist-types are driven by a deep desire for self-expression, and every time we get up to perform we're exposing what feels like an extension of ourselves -- our psyche, or soul, or moral fiber, or whatever you want to call it. (Which may be why the arts can be home to such vitriolic, passionate arguments over craft, process, meaning, etc. It also may be why some of the most beautiful collaborative relationships have gone so sour.)

In any case, a good bandleader, I think, has to know how to set all that ego-baggage aside, and fully own up to (and apologize for) any of his or her mistakes. But more than that, I believe that a good bandleader has to learn how to productively take responsibility for anything that goes wrong with the band -- not always in a literal sense, but (like the captain of a ship, or the president of a country) figuratively, symbolically, and as a way of defusing any tension. As I used to say during our gigs, while gesturing toward the ensemble: "This is my fault." I think people appreciate when you are able to recognize that you put them in a given situation, even when you did not necessarily cause a specific aspect of that situation to go south.

Hope that list helps you. It certainly helped me.

And now: onward and upward. (Or, as John Lennon used to say: "To the toppermost of the poppermost!")

[photo credit (top only): Mike Licht]

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Things we said today

Now that I'm returning to post-tour sanity, I'm actually starting to read the blogs again. That's right, baby: blogs! They're the wave of the future.

I suppose it's a little lazy of me to simply share what I've been commenting in my travels, and act like that's a bona fide post. (Is it? Sometimes I feel like I've lost all sense of decorum.)

Anyway, I chimed in at Eric Benson's fantastic post on Pandora and iTunes's Genius service. The original post is well worth your time, so go read. And here is what I said about it:

This is a very interesting piece. I'd be curious to know about the constituency of music listeners that Pandora is attempting to serve (I haven't had a chance to listen to the interview, so I don't know if this was covered there). But I think they are assuming that most people are pretty happy hearing "more of the same." Why else would they tout their service as "stations that play only music you like"? You can't really be adventurous in your listening without the risk of failure, and if they're counting on you liking everything they come up with, well, where's the risk?

That in fact is why I have always been suspicious of services like Pandora, Genius, the Amazon recommendations system, etc. I do use them from time to time, but I kind of resent the way they seem designed to make the process of discovering music easier. That seems like a pitfall to me, because personally I have always enjoyed the hard work involved in the process of discovering new music through my own active research: methodically triangulating numerous sources (friends, libraries, reviews, DJs, etc.) and coming across some real gems in the process. While it's true that that approach is more time-consuming, involves a greater degree of risk, and a can occasionally yield a dud, it still feels like when I am actively participating in the my own music search, instead of having possibilities handed to me by an algorithm, the end result is a feeling of greater connection with the music I end up loving.

Of course, on the other hand, I understand the motivation behind services like Pandora, which I think would not be springing up if there was not exponentially more music in the world these days. It's a response to what Alvin Toffler called "overchoice" -- the dizzying array of new releases in any given week, month, year. So I get it, but I still avoid it.

Earlier, I waxed ponderous at Peter Hum's terrific post on semantics and music criticism. Again, well worth your time. Again, go read. Again, here's what I said:

Thanks for this great discussion, Peter.

Personally, though I try to choose my words carefully (and at times obsessively), I confess I'm less concerned with finding the perfect word to describe music x, or automatically avoiding certain words for the same reason. Language has always been a much more fluid phenomenon than most of us realize when we're caught up in it at any given moment. But the truth is that fifty or a hundred years from now, what seems like perfect or imperfect terminology today may have changed its meaning in ways we can't foresee.

What is far more important, and what your article reminds us of, I think, is that writers need to *define their terms up front*, either explicitly, or by placing a given word in a context that is impossible to miss. And failure to do that is really where the problem comes in.

The other thing you've reminded me of is the Orwellian idea that the words a writer chooses (though if he or she is being lazy, "choice" may not be the best description of what is happening) can influence the thoughts he or she is having. As Orwell says in Politics and the English Language, sloppy writing produces sloppy thinking. And whatever else is going on with the music biz these days, we could sure do with a lot less sloppy thinking.


* * * * *

Incidentally, a very good friend of mine is diving into the blogosphere. His stuff is here. Take it for a spin if you like.

[Photo credit: Mike Licht]

Friday, November 06, 2009

Thank you, thank you, thank you

One thing to keep in mind about this whole Rocktober business, and one thing that I haven't made nearly clear enough, is that it would have been impossible without the help of numerous volunteers and kindhearted souls. Aside from the obvious role played by the bandmembers, who gave so freely of their time and talents; the typical helpfulness of Mr. Lichtenwalner, who came to as many shows as he could and helped make things run more smoothly than they would have otherwise; the unexpected generosity of the people who contributed to the fundraiser (we ended up raising around $800 -- not bad for a period of economic downturn); the incredible support of people who came to our shows, sometimes at great personal expense (e.g., driving half an hour, or staying out way past their bedtime on a school night); aside from all that, there were many people who gave of their time and resources in various and sundry other ways, all of which turned out to be essential.

First were the people who opened their doors to the group, ultimately saving me the huge expense of putting everyone up in a hotel every night. Many of those who helped out with lodging were friends of the band, and a few were in the band (Stephanie Richards and Jill Knapp both took on house guests). But some were -- get this -- more or less total strangers. Specifically, Jill's friends Jeremy and Mark housed and fed two thirds of the group when we ventured south of Philly. And Joe and Kristen Phillips, who I only knew through blogo-spheric and social media interactions, invited the whole group to stay in their beautiful Hudson NY home, accompanied by plenty of wine and delicious home-cooked meals, without ever having met any of us personally. (The above photo depicts all of us posing on the Phillips's porch on the morning we left.) If you're not already aware of Joe's music, or his blog, you should be. Really, do yourself a favor.

The second group of kindly-souls-without-which-the-tour-would-have-been-impossible are those who made generous loans of gear. Given that our rhythm section was traveling light (sans bass amp, drum kit, keyboard), we had to figure out how to obtain that bulky stuff for many of our gigs (because, as it turned out, some of the venues were gear-less). To the rescue came Joe Trainor and his trio (who helped us out in Philly); Stephanie's boyfriend Andrew (who let us use his drum kit multiple times on this tour); my childhood buddy (now a children's entertainment guru) Randy Rossilli (who didn't even hesitate when I asked him if we could borrow his PA); various members of the Bjorkestra and Secret Society (who generously helped us out with all of our gear needs at the Bell House); various members of the Skamatix (who generously helped us out with drum and keyboard needs at the Space), and Adam and Sarah Rabin (who made sure we had access to a bass amp and drums for our show in Montpelier). Adam, if you don't already know, is the mastermind behind the influential band Mailbox. But all of the projects namechecked here, it should go without saying, are deserving of your attention.

I have probably forgot someone, and if I have, please alert me to the omission in the comments.

And in any case, many thanks to everyone who helped us make the tour happen. You are all beautiful and we are forever in debt.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

"You guys are crazy!"

That was probably the most consistent comment I received during our Rocktober tour.

Some people liked our show, some people loved our show (really, they did!), and a few people hated our show, or at least didn't get it. In general our audience responses ran the gamut. But for the most part they were tied together by this notion that we were, um, insane.

And I can't deny that there was something quite close to the brink about this particular outing, moreso than with any previous IJG tour. Part of it was the music, which at times became a little relentless in its skittery refusal to sit still. Part of it was the performance frame, which (both intentionally and spontaneously) veered into areas that no other self-respecting "jazz band" would be willing to toy with, for better or worse. And part of it (well, maybe most of it) was the logistical challenge that goes along with trying to do an independently-funded 10-day tour on the cheap, without, it turned out, enough of a consistent material payoff or audience presence (not that that was intentional).

I don't want to get melodramatic about the whole thing, but holy cow if it didn't feel at times like we had unleashed forces that, on a good night, could coalesce in really fascinating and powerful ways, and leave people with an experience they would not soon forget, but on a bad night, seemed to (forgive the cliche) tear at the very fabric of the band, onstage and off, threatening to irrevocably rip it asunder. This was the first tour where I actually found myself worrying partway through whether we would even be able to complete the whole damned thing, or whether we'd break up on the road, and head back to our separate corners of the country in a huff. This was also the first tour where a gig (our Montpelier show, the last of the trip, and our best, by all accounts) was compared (by several bandmembers) to "make-up sex."

"Make-up sex"! Turbulent, baby, turbulent. But I'm glad things ended that way.

More than once I found myself thinking about an early article on the group, written by Andrew Gilbert for the San Diego Union Tribune way back in 2002 (shortly after our second album, City of Angles, came out). At that point we had expanded from a trio to a quintet to a septet to a nine-piece group, and though I had no clear plans to create a big band, the pattern of personnel expansion had been set in motion, so I suppose 16 pieces was already our destiny. Anyway, Gilbert closed that piece by quoting an off-hand comment I had made about where I thought the impulse to keep adding players would ultimately lead:

It's really a balancing act, to keep adding people and to be able to afford to keep the group together [...] I think what's going to happen is it's going to continue to grow until it explodes.

Let me tell you, it very nearly exploded this time out.

Of course, there was at least a little bit of method to the madness. I didn't know the tour would get quite as crazy as it did, but I did know it wouldn't be a walk in the park. And from the beginning I felt that there was an aesthetic justification for pushing things to that particular limit. I believe I referred to it as "performance art."

I mean, if we can agree that this is an absurd world (and we can, can't we?), then we have to be circumspect about what an artist's relationship to absurdity ought to be. Should musicians and composers pretend it (absurdity) doesn't exist, by generally adhering to expectations and common-sense, and building logical, sophisticated, tightly-controlled, artificial soundscapes where listeners can safely insulate themselves from the horror of how the real world conducts its business? Should we all be pushing "pizza and fairytales"?

Well, maybe not always, but sometimes we definitely should. There is great value in creating an alternate, saner "way of being" through aesthetics. Not to mention the fact that it's also probably good for one's mental health. Much of the music I love is not absurd at all, and doesn't bear any direct relation to anything I would describe as "reality." And that suits me just fine.

But that, to me, is a different sort of beauty from the "beauty is truth, and truth beauty" formulation. And the latter is where my head is at as a composer these days. While the IJG embraces the celebratory, physical, motion-oriented aspects of music (and is thus "upbeat" in that sense), our work is also heavily informed by specific, undeniable social dynamics and practices -- war, for instance, or power -- that have long since ceased making any sense whatsoever, and that are in fact fundamentally arbitrary, irrational, and problematic. Our challenge is that we attempt to mirror that absurdity in a way that transmogrifies it into art, but doesn't lose sight of its basic (disturbing) nature.

I don't know if we're successful at that, of course. It's not exactly an easy thing to do. But I can say that one very good way to "mirror absurdity" is to go on an independently-funded, tour-manager-less, on-the-cheap 10 day tour with 16 people, during a bad flu year, a scary recession, and a time of great political tension. In fact, given the philosophical framework I just laid out, such an undertaking can make the line between life and art very blurry indeed. And while I'm very glad we're all home safe and sound now, I'm also very glad we did it.

Anyway. More thoughts to follow.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Please, whatever you do...

...don't drink the toilet water.

(Photo snapped somewhere in Vermont, during the big tour.)