Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ellington addendum

Thanks to Jason Crane for pointing me to this thought-provoking Ethan Iverson piece, following up on his interview with Terry Teachout and his reflective essay about Ellington

Iverson is pretty critical of blogger and writer Maria Popova, who recently posted a brief but favorable review of Teachout’s Duke. In the main bit Iverson focuses on, Popova writes:
What Ellington did was simply follow the fundamental impetus of the creative spirit to combine and recombine old ideas into new ones. How he did it, however, was a failure of creative integrity. Attribution matters, however high up the genius food chain one may be.
Personally, I have a hard time responding to this, because I’m not sure what Popova means by that phrase “failure of creative integrity.” (Is she accusing Ellington of an ethical failure, I wonder?) And what is a “genius food chain”?
In any case, Iverson is right that “everyone who loves jazz has always known how important dozens of great musicians were to Duke Ellington and the sound of Ellington's music. No other bandleader has shined such a powerful light on so many of his team.” And so it’s odd that the rest of what he says in this piece restricts that light only to Ellington, criticizing a broadly collaborative interpretation of his career. Iverson begins with an analogy, citing (as an example of how artistic appropriation happens) the opening portion of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, noting that the composer borrowed the theme from “a book of folk melodies”—in that book, the tune was called “Tu, manu seserėlė.” After comparing scores for the opening of Rite and its source, Iverson claims that “the source could never have been a hit. But Stravinsky’s asymmetric rhythm and the astonishing orchestration (the highest notes of the bassoon) made it an earworm.”
Wait a minute. For something to qualify as a “folk tune,” isn’t it by definition already an earworm? In this case, didn’t “Tu, manu seserėlė” need to have some kind of life as a shared melody, handed down by ear for some period of time, before Stravinsky ever got his own ears on it? How else would it have ended up in a book of folk melodies in the first place?
Iverson never comes out and says it, but he seems to be giving credence to the idea (the wrong idea, I think) that the relationship between Stravinsky and the author(s) of “Tu, manu seserėlė”—like that between Ellington and his musicians—was fundamentally hierarchical. He credits Ellington with the divine act of bestowing immortality on the music—just as, in another analogy, “Bach's harmonizations immortalized chorale tunes from the Lutheran community” (he cites Matthew Guerrieri on this). Like the Stravinsky, that’s an interesting comparison, but I have to say, anecdotally: I play some of those chorale tunes every Sunday for a Lutheran congregation here in Portland, and very rarely do I have the pleasure of being asked to play them in their Bach harmonizations. Indeed, I wish I had more opportunities to do so—if I had my way, I’d be playing as much Bach as I could. But the truth is that at least some of those tunes are doing just fine without him, thank you very much—and that’s a kind of immortality too.
This notion of authorial hierarchy is an easy bias to adopt, because of our cultural habit of lionizing the composer. But like the desire to “definitively” separate the work of Ellington and Strayhorn, it clouds our understanding of collaboration, which is a much more pervasive phenomenon than we're comfortable admitting. It’s like saying the composer is Europe, and the other guys are the New World, providing the raw materials that are then harvested and mined and turned into art—and then celebrating that interpretation of the relationship. “I am absolutely convinced this is what Duke did with fragments from the early horn players as well,” Iverson writes, in his comparison of Ellington and Stravinsky. “None of them—not a single Duke horn player, ever!—has contributed a standard to the repertoire. It was the settings that made these fragments famous.” 
But that’s not quite fair. If the Ellington horn players were never known to have created standards outside of the band, that only proves that they depended on context just as much as their boss did, and that the context Ellington provided was a rare and inspirational thing for everyone, even when (as was sometimes the case) there were bad feelings involved. Ensembles like that don’t just drop out of the sky, and they require something more than simply putting a bunch of talented individuals together in the same room. 
More importantly, why are we so obsessed with saying that Ellington-undoubtedly a man of prodigious giftswas more essential to the overall creative process than his bandmates? Especially in cases where he used a tune (or a melody, or a lick) that came from elsewhere? What view of the world does that interpretation protect? If the end result of a composition was greater than the sum of its parts, what justifies the impulse to single out the author of only one part? 
I (respectfully) suggest that arguments that force a value choice between raw materials and work done to them are inevitably informed by their makers’ own creative strengths and weaknesses. No one can do everything well. I do well what I do well, and it’s easy for me to overlook the importance of what the other guy can do better than me. (I once had a literature professor who pointed out how tempting it is to talk shit about iambic pentameter until you try to write it yourself.) Coming up with a worthy tune—even coming up with a worthy tune fragment—is never as easy as it seems to the person who didn’t actually do it. It’s silly to dismiss that part of the process as if it’s literally nothing. Yet incorporating it into our conception of creativity requires wrapping our minds around a dynamic that is more complicated, profound, and beautiful than we have been taught to expect. And that may take a little work too.

Friday, February 07, 2014

The realest thing to do

A week ago I could not have predicted that the 2014 Superbowl would inspire so many interesting discussions about music. I have already mentioned the Bob Dylan thing. Apparently there is also a bit of an uproar over the notion that Bruno Mars performed the halftime show for exposure instead of a monetary fee. (In fairness, he isn't the first pop star to have done so.) That may not exactly suck for Bruno Mars, who probably got a ton of new fans as a result -- but it does suck for those of us farther down the musical food chain, who already have a hard time convincing presenters to pay us for what we do. One can imagine the strange rationalizing: well, if Bruno Mars can play for exposure, why can't you? 

Still, the incident is a useful reminder that market capitalism is inherently exploitative. Within this system, there might be short-term solutions to the problem Mars highlighted (e.g., labor organizing, boycotts, etc.), but if you're truly interested in economic fairness for musicians, you should think about getting a different system altogether.

I also want to comment on a third discussion, about how members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers -- who appeared in tandem with Mars -- mimed the performance of their song "Give It Away." Bassist Flea has a thoughtful post on the subject. He explains how difficult it would have been, from a technical standpoint, to actually perform live at such an enormous venue, under the given time constraints. When the band, for whom performing is a "sacred thing," was offered the gig, they gave it a lot of consideration, and decided to do it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- a "wild trippy thing to do." Flea asks:

Could we have plugged [our instruments] in and avoided bumming people out who have expressed disappointment that the instrumental track was pre recorded? Of course easily we could have and this would be a non-issue. We thought it better to not pretend. It seemed like the realest thing to do in the circumstance. 

I like that. The "realest" thing -- implying that in the act of perception, reality is always a question of degree, and never as absolute as we assume, or as it inevitably feels. Riffing on Flea, one could not say of any performance that it was the real thing to do -- only that it seemed like the realest, given the context.

Every time one of these controversies comes along, I want to point out that the resulting outrage is never itself genuine. Once upon a time, one could perhaps claim to be legitimately astonished at the inauthenticity of a performance. (Perhaps.) But in 2014, it's not like audiences don't know, deep down, that some kind of fakery (or, to put that more generously, some kind of mediation) is an unavoidable component of both live and recorded music. We all have had our moments of disillusionment, whether your touchstone is one of the obvious ones -- Luciano Pavarotti (2006), say, or Ashlee Simpson (2004), or Milli Vanilli (1989), or Michael Jackson (1983) -- or something more local, like the pre-recorded soundtrack used at your kid's choir concert. More broadly, in the digital age, fakery is a way of life. We all partake in it. Your Facebook page? It's a construction. The photos on your iPhone? You have probably edited them to make them look cooler. 

For the person sitting at home watching the Chili Peppers on TV, what is the functional difference between the performance with plugged-in instruments and the performance without? Either way, the vibrating air that reaches your tympanic membrane had to originate with a human musician. Either way, it is highly processed, through the instrument, through the soundboard, through the football stadium, through the satellite broadcast, through your television speakers, through the cultural baggage of the Superbowl, through your living room, through your physical hearing apparatus and subjectivity. How much more is it changed if the sound that registers in your awareness actually began in a studio the day before? 

It's not enough to say "live music is better," because what people roughly mean by "live music" -- an almost mystical communion with the artist -- is unattainable with current technology. What's most interesting to me is the weird psychic dance we do in response to that truth. We lie to ourselves. Immersed in fakery, we are not naive; and yet we delight in pretending the fakery is not there, or that it is possible to eliminate -- as if we could plug directly into each other's aesthetic consciousness. We feign horror when that pretense is exposed, as it inevitably will be. Why?

Monday, February 03, 2014

Is there anything more stupid than stupidity?

Completely by chance, the only bit of the entire Superbowl I happened to see was the Bob Dylan car commercial. I used to be a Dylan fan, but I found it instantly laughable and annoying. I did not bother watching the rest of the game, or the advertising blitz it was a platform for. I tried to content myself with a brief Facebook vent: "I walk in the room long enough to see Bob Dylan selling cars. I walk out."

But today, I find this defense of the commercial as laughable and annoying as the commercial itself:

Let’s be clear: Dylan’s greatest asset over the course of his long and still-going-strong career is precisely his willingness to disappoint and shock his fans and force them to reconsider their relationship to their singing savior. 

Come on. Aside from the fact that a commercial is not an album (does the former really have to be counted as part of Dylan's "career"?), and aside from the fact that Gillespie's celebration of Dylan's "willingness to disappoint and shock" is really just a disingenuous swipe at Sixties liberalism, his argument is pretty weak on aesthetics too. Lauding an artist's desire to go against the grain for its own sake (Dylan "changes identities as often as most of us change our socks," and so on) is as tiresome as lauding an artist for being predictable -- indeed, it is a kind of predictability. Anyone who really cares about art (and has graduated from high school) knows that there is good art that lives up to expectations and is comforting, and there is bad art that is disappointing and shocking. It takes a special kind of speciousness to assume that only the opposite can be true. 

My own reaction to the commercial had less to do with shock or disappointment -- no plaintive cries "oh no, they got Bob Dylan!" here -- than with an overwhelming sense of frustrated rage at the sheer tedium of what I was witnessing. Of course they got Bob Dylan. Someday they will get Springsteen. Hell, someday they may even get Woody. That's just the way Capitalism works. But why the fuck should I spend my valuable time on it? I'm not even in the market for a car.