Monday, August 23, 2010

What is "influence"?



In response to this article, and the invocation of "Musicians who ignore Armstrong" (a convenient fiction, methinks, if there is any truth to the notion that most contemporary jazz musicians are the products of history-laden jazz education programs), I tossed off this tweet today:

"I don't get this idea that musicians have to emulate all the music they love / are influenced by. It's more complex than that."


What do I mean by that?

Look. I love bluegrass music. I have listened to a lot of bluegrass music in my time. If I were charged with assembling a bluegrass band, I would know what to look for as I was auditioning and hiring the musicians. I would understand what sort of repertoire to have them perform. And knowing what distinguishes "good" bluegrass from "bad" bluegrass, I would understand how to guide such a project. Furthermore, god-dammit, I would probably enjoy the entire process.

I'm certain that my experience with bluegrass informs my writing to some extent. Yet most people would probably say my own music sounds nothing like bluegrass.

Am I influenced by bluegrass or not?

[photo credit: Tony the Misfit]

16 comments:

Greg said...

I think it's rather superficial. You're only influenced by bluegrass as much as the listener can discern such an influence. If the listener's understanding of a genre of music is rudamentary, instrumenation would be the only clear guide to such a judgement. A scholar with a deep afinity for Bach may be able to point to such influences based off of chord compositon. Such clames just smack of a posteriori knowledge.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Hi Greg, thanks for commenting.

I want to make sure I understand you correctly. Are you saying that the listener (or the scholar) gets to determine the extent to which a composer is influenced by a certain type of music -- based solely on the textural or harmonic traces of the putative influence which can be found in the composer's work? In other words, does influence need to be obvious to count as influence?

Anonymous said...

To me, naming influences is like masturbation. You think of all these scenarios where your music is getting fucked by a gaggle of musicians.

It'd hard to ACTUALLY name all of what influences you or your art/music/whatever...

ic

Greg said...

Andrew-

I view the assignment of influence more as the bias of the listener.

For example, a friend/colleague of mine had a critique of his small jazz ensamble works at the Reno Jazz Festival. My friend was asked if he was middle eastern and how middle eastern music influenced his music based off of one specific work. The work was entitled "Tajikistan" (sp), and was based off of a harmonic minor blues progression. He is of Native American ancestry.

Based off the color of his skin (olive brown), the name of the song, and the choice use of notes from harmonic minor, the adjuticator assumed that the song was based on something completely different than my friend had intended. The adjudicator was, as I recall, faculty at UNR. An honest mistake, but I feel it illustrates the point. We as listeners assume connection based off of our own experiences, and conclude what something is or is not based from our pool of knowledge. This is why I feel taking stock in a critic does very little, as it is the interpretation of one person experiencing art a handfull of times. Unless the artist feels the need to tell the audience at large what they were feeling and thinking and being influenced by at the time, we cannot assume influence. Each piece is, and should be treated as, an island to itself.

Which, in turn, screws us over looking through a historical lens... but thats another story.

Anonymous said...

I'm usually on the side of "kill the critic" but I don't know very many non-critics who "experience art a handfull of times." Give them more credit, right? I don't know...

And it seems rather incongruous to treat each piece as "an island to itself" if each piece is NEVER created as an island to itself.

Vikram Devasthali said...

A more interesting question, to me at least, is: what are you not influenced by?

mrG said...

Sun Ra was asked of his influences. He said "The birds, the flowers and trees, the gods, both real AND imaginary"

Buckminster Fuller observed that knowledge was always and exclusively additive, that you could learn things, but you really could not un-learn things, every shred of information that comes your way gets added to the whole, either to be incorporated and adapted, or as a challenge to be accommodated or discounted, both are additive. So of course bluegrass informs your work, that is just how brains work.

Usually, however, when a reviewer asks about your influences, what they really mean is to ask "If a buyer of your music is in the record store, where should they expect to find your music" to which my answer is generally, "on the streetcorner OUTSIDE the record store" but, as you can imagine, someone like Kenny G's management would want to give a completely different answer.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Additive, yes, that's how I see it too. The notion of discrete influence is a fiction designed to assist in the (arbitrary) process of musical categorization. But all artists are the sum of their experience, I think. The trajectories of cause and effect are not always going to be obvious. The only thing you are not influenced by is the thing you don't hear.

Andrew Durkin... said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Andrew, is it pathological to think that everything, even if you didn't directly hear it, influences everyone? For example, I may have never heard some of the music Varese was influenced by in his lifetime (or more simply, the experiences he had) but I was influenced by his art. Does that mean that his experiences were retained in his art? I'm thinking memes here...and that old sage wisdom "as above, so below"

Anonymous said...

Or maybe naming influences is like trying to achieve perfection in describing one's art? Seems futile, yet...masturbating is fun right?

Anonymous said...

maybe, naming influences is the beauty of diversity...

Stanley Jason Zappa said...

Everyone wants to play like Bill Monroe, but who wants to live like Bill Monroe?

Stanley Jason Zappa said...

p.s., according to Harold Bloom, poets can be influenced by poets and poems they haven't ever read.

Can you possibly dig it?

Andrew Durkin... said...

Hi SJZ -- Harold Bloom! Now that's a blast from the past! Awesome.

Hi Anon -- no, I don't think it's pathological at all!

Neal - Sax Station said...

Being influenced is inevitable if you're listening.

In a positive perspective, it contributes to the richness of the musicians’ inspiration.

Bluegrass musicians can have some great ideas musically and because you like it, you must like ideas within it. I would bet that influences are in your music, even if it's far from direct quotations.