Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Size doesn't matter



So one distracted morning last week I decided to jump back into the jazz blogosphere by offering a comment on NPR's A Blog Supreme, specifically in response to an interesting post called "Oh, The Kids These Days." The always alert and thoughtful Patrick Jarenwattananon decided to turn that comment into a full-blown post of his own, and here we are.

It was a weird comment to write, though not unrelated to things I have said on JTMoU before. As a bandleader, I am exceedingly frustrated by the idea that art might do better (qua art) -- that it might be more interesting and vibrant and vital -- in a microcosm, because the bottom line of that scenario is most likely less work and less bread for me and my (large and unwieldy) band. And that too is essentially the POV articulated by all of the "con" commenters who responded to PJ's question. (In my original remarks I should probably have made a distinction between "smallness" and "viability." I definitely was not suggesting that it would be better for jazz to lack viability.)

But I am also, as I said, a music fan. And as a fan, I am always tempted by the impulse to run screaming in the opposite direction whenever I know I am being actively sought out as a consumer. And that's probably the point that I should have magnified. Call it the observer-expectancy effect, or late industrial capitalism-induced paranoia, or what you will.

Of course, this point too is kind of ridiculous, if you think about it. The intentions of the boosters are certainly pure. Alas, my fanhood habits were developed as an adolescent, and in some ways I never grew out of the way it felt to love music in that insubordinate context. Unlike most of my friends, whose parents listened to classic rock and roll, and were thus at least tolerant of subsequent forms of youth-oriented popular music, I grew up in a household in which "The Windmills of Your Mind" was unironically considered to be good stuff. The first rock and roll album I heard from beginning to end -- Hey Jude, by the Beatles -- was a true shock in that environment. And from that point on, underneath all the other layers through which I learned to enjoy music, I have always valued it first as an expression of rebellion. (Silly, I know.) Being openly analyzed as a hypothetical customer tends to ruin that effect.

There is an extent to which the debates over jazz's future -- whether of the "jazz is dead!" or "jazz is making a comeback!" variety -- depend and even thrive on one another, and are really just two sides of the same coin. The problem that I was carelessly lashing out over, I now realize, was the sin of excessive self-consciousness, the sort of interminable navel-gazing that is usually symptomatic of decadence and the effete. It is the inevitable byproduct of jazz finding a home in institutions, and on the blogs -- if not in the hearts of a wider audience. (Don't get me wrong -- as a frequenter of both institutions and blogs, I am as much to blame for the problem as anyone else.)

I guess what I was positing was that being satisfied with being "small" (whatever that means) -- or better yet, letting go of (or at least dialing back on) the "whither jazz?" meme altogether -- is a way for musicians and fans alike to escape the oppressiveness of self-reflection run amok. What about the novel idea that we could attract "the kids" (or any neophytes, actually) simply by being hopelessly caught up in the process of unselfconsciously (insofar as that is possible in 2010) creating and adoring great music? Would that not be better than having to talk said kids/neophytes into their attraction? (And is it not ironic that I am articulating this idea so very self-consciously?)

Maybe I'm being uncharacteristically purist here, but isn't it better to have someone love you for who you are, rather than for how well you sell yourself, how well you know yourself, or how much pity you make them feel?

[Photo credit: Niffty]

11 comments:

Kris Tiner said...

I want to frame that last sentence and nail it to my wall.

mrG said...

I had a conversation with an advertising writer at a party once upon a time, we'd both imbibed somewhat liberally, and I said, "Advertising is a Skinner Box, but it is not the public that is being conditioned, it is the people working IN advertising who push the bar and wait for food pellets." My conversant said he found that to be the most depressing idea he had ever encountered and wandered off to find the bar.

A few days later I was in their agency office and this same writer came bounding out of the back offices. "I can disprove your theory!" he shrieked, "Advertising can make a BAD product fail even FASTER!"

In "The Jazz Ear" (http://amzn.to/bT7ZU1) Brantford Marsalis proposes that the drop in attention to jazz is due to nothing more than the drop in the charisma of the performers. Players are smart, technically skilled and knowledgeable, and people just sit there -- as Anthony Braxton put it, "'Intellectually' interesting is just not interesting enough."

IMHO, audiences are waiting for the musicians to say something.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that Braxton says that, considering his output from 1969 on...

Andrew and MrG, I wholeheartedly agree with you both. I yearn for musicians to say something...usually, I'm not all that dissapointed.

Its difficult for me to determine what is authentic and what isn't. Is there a criteria? I haven't found a consistent one to lean on...

And don't get me started on mediocrity.

I think I'm most attracted to a story, of sorts. Sometimes, all it takes is a fucking punchline, yknow?

mrG said...

ba-da BOOM!

Actually, Braxton said that in the Q&A following his keynote address at the Guelph Jazz Festival a few years back, and you'll be amused to learn that he was referring to his own output circa 1969-1979, which delighted me because that was pretty much the same era when I drifted away from his work. I mean, I respected his work, it was demanding and technical, but ... well ... I just thought it was me. I was also delighted to learn that after he came to that realization, Braxton signed up for a lot of classes in world music and especially North American First-Nations music.

Vikram Devasthali said...

Maybe I'm being devastatingly practical here, but are unconditional love and sleazy hookups our only options? I suppose I'm less turned off by the idea of selling oneself well because I'm a bit of a music slut; I'm always looking for a reason to like music, and sometimes cool album covers and clever sales pitches give me that. If I get duped, I figure, is that really so bad?

As for knowing oneself well, I think a person reveals this attribute more by his actions than by his words. But I'm as much a slut for rhetoric as I am for music; I enjoy hearing people make arguments, or just shout at each other. It's fun for me. Pity, I agree, not so much.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Thanks for reading, thinking, commenting, all!

I'm always looking for a reason to like music, and sometimes cool album covers and clever sales pitches give me that.

Can you think of an example? In my experience, sometimes what feels like "a reason to like music" is actually a reason to like a cool album cover or a clever sales pitch (or a video, etc.). It's not that the music itself is something I would actively dislike -- it's more like the music is a soundtrack to the other thing, instead of being able to stand up on its own.

But I'm as much a slut for rhetoric as I am for music; I enjoy hearing people make arguments, or just shout at each other. It's fun for me.

Me too. That's why I referred to the problem as "self-reflection run amok." It's not that self-reflection itself is bad. But there's a limit to how much of it is productive, no? At some point surely it becomes culturally pathological?

Vikram Devasthali said...

Merely glancing at my shelf, I see many such examples. Hold Time by M. Ward, Bitte Orca by Dirty Projectors, baby darling doll face honey by Band Of Skulls, and Black River Killer by Blitzen Trapper rank among my favorite albums. I knew nothing about any of them when I bought them, but I allowed myself to be seduced by the beauty of their covers, and I'm glad I did.

And yes, there are a great many albums that I took on a date, only to find that their contents didn't measure up to their facades. But as disappointed as I've ever been with an album, I've always felt like I got my money's worth. Fifteen bucks seems to me like a small price to pay for admission to the whole world of enjoyment that exists between the time I buy an album and the time I finish listening to it.

There's unwrapping the packaging, imagining what the music might sound like, the sheer surprise of the first note, the bittersweetness of the last one, and every mundane and profound moment in between. Every album is an opportunity to communicate with musicians and producers and engineers and visual artists I'll never meet, and whether the conversation is dull or ecstatic, I can't tear myself away.

As for self-reflection, I agree that there's a limit to how much of it is productive. I suppose the difference between us is that I don't care whether it's productive or not. It might be culturally pathological, but there are worse pathologies a society can be afflicted by.

Andrew Durkin... said...

For some reason, blogger is not allowing me to publish Vikram's response, so here it is, cut and pasted:

Merely glancing at my shelf, I see many such examples. Hold Time by M. Ward, Bitte Orca by Dirty Projectors, baby darling doll face honey by Band Of Skulls, and Black River Killer by Blitzen Trapper rank among my favorite albums. I knew nothing about any of them when I bought them, but I allowed myself to be seduced by the beauty of their covers, and I'm glad I did.

And yes, there are a great many albums that I took on a date, only to find that their contents didn't measure up to their facades. But as disappointed as I've ever been with an album, I've always felt like I got my money's worth. Fifteen bucks seems to me like a small price to pay for admission to the whole world of enjoyment that exists between the time I buy an album and the time I finish listening to it.

There's unwrapping the packaging, imagining what the music might sound like, the sheer surprise of the first note, the bittersweetness of the last one, and every mundane and profound moment in between. Every album is an opportunity to communicate with musicians and producers and engineers and visual artists I'll never meet, and whether the conversation is dull or ecstatic, I can't tear myself away.

As for self-reflection, I agree that there's a limit to how much of it is productive. I suppose the difference between us is that I don't care whether it's productive or not. It might be culturally pathological, but there are worse pathologies a society can be afflicted by.

Andrew Durkin... said...

And my own response:

One thing I like to do a lot these days is purposely try and divorce music from its context, just to see what happens. This is only really possible when something is brand-new to me, but of course digital technology makes it easy to defamiliarize stuff in this way. I love to download or import a slew of new recordings, then mix them up or randomize them and see what my reactions are based on a blind fly-through of the resulting playlist. Sometimes the stuff that I had been anticipating the most (because of all the work that was done to sell me the music) turns out to be the most lame.

I find that kind of comical, but at the same time, as you suggest, it's a learning experience, and you can have an engaging experience with music that you don't necessarily care for. So I can appreciate your point when you write, "whether the conversation is dull or ecstatic, I can't tear myself away." I admire that commitment.

At the same time, I'll be curious to check back in with you in ten years or so, to see whether your thinking on this has shifted. In my own case, I have found, as I have gotten older, that I want to consciously control my music intake in a way that ensures that there is less of the dull stuff. As David Ocker says, "Life is too short to listen to bad music."

Anonymous said...

I purposely listen to bad music just to make sure I "know" whether I like it or not. What I find is a NEW reason to like the music I once hated--I hate it to the point where I'm fascinated by it. Now the music sounds completely different to me.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Okay, and now I found Vikram's comment, and have published it accordingly. Seems it went to the spam folder. Bad, blogger, bad!