Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Winging it

Much jazz-oriented criticism seems to rely on the notion of "spontaneity" (and determines value based on who has it and who doesn't). But lately I've been wondering what that means, exactly, and whether there isn't a certain amount of semantic prestidigitation going on whenever someone invokes the term as a means of praising some artist or other. (Okay, "whether there isn't" is maybe a little coy of me -- I should've written "of course there is a certain amount of semantic prestidigitation going on whenever someone invokes the term as a means of praising some artist or other.")

Let me try that again: I've been getting the feeling lately that "spontaneity" is one of the more unexamined concepts in the jazz lexicon.

Consider, for instance, this less-than-enthusiastic review of the band Mostly Other People Do the Killing, by Peter Hum.

Hum is an observant, articulate writer. I can't begrudge him his taste (though I may have more to say about this piece at some point, because some of the problems he has with MOPDtK are criticisms that people have leveled at the IJG as well). But I seem to have a deeper resistance to comments like these:

To my ears, many post-Coltrane and European improvisers, consumed by finding new and even unconventional sounds as improvisors, rejoice in tossing structure, tonality and rhythm out the window. They might contend that they have enlarged our definition of "beautiful," burying outdated sounds and social significances in the process. And yet, some of the tropes of their music, say piano pummeling or saxophonic overblowing, I would contend, have since become codified, making free jazz that is nonetheless dependent on a set of fall-back musical moves. Meanwhile, musicians such as Keith Jarrett have played utterly spontaneous music -- free, right? -- even as they adhered to song forms and all the conventional beauties of melody, harmony and rhythm.

It's hard for me to imagine that anything played by a professional musician, particularly one as experienced as Keith Jarrett or Ornette Coleman, could ever be "utterly spontaneous." I mean, think about that phrase for a second. It suggests that years of performance and listening history, years of artistic backstory, years of being engaged and in the world, can somehow be abandoned, at even a subconscious level. As if environmental factors can be made completely irrelevant when it comes to expression.

Which is not to say that it is not worth pursuing "utter spontaneity," or employing it as a metaphor, or even that sometimes things might sound utterly spontaneous -- but that's exactly the problem. The old platitude is based in truth: what sounds "spontaneous" to me might not sound "spontaneous" to you. And if we assume that something that sounds "utterly spontaneous" is utterly spontaneous -- just because the artist (or his / her marketing materials) tell us it is so -- we are probably being duped. Cuz y'know: every utterance is inevitably informed to some extent by external factors.

(I don't have a solution to this problem, of couse; I'm just content with pointing it out.)

Speaking of Jarrett, by the way, no one is more flabbergasted than me that "Incident at Umbria" is the IJG's most-viewed video (by far) on YouTube. Like, we've passed 8,000 views. For us, that's pretty freaking amazing -- and kind of exasperating, too, cuz, you know, I have written plenty better things than that. Anyway, check out the comments if you have the time. There has been a bit of an "exchange."


The LondonJazz site said...

This is a really interesting and thoughtful post indeed . In the interest of provoking a discussion, a few thoughts:

1) I am very wary of what CS Lewis - with reference to religion-deftly calls "chronological snobbery."

Let CS Lewis define that: "the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited."

There is a whole industry out there based on value stemming from what is hip/current/cool/being in touch with the buzz. Beware. Is everyone writing today necessarily better than Edith Wharton or Saul Bellow or Shakespeare - or CS Lewis? I don't think so.

2) A particular form of this delusion is the search for the "edgy". I liked UK critic Ivan Hewett's take on this HERE:


He writes about Arve Hendriksen/Jan Bang:

"The strange clicks and howls were soon wrapped in a duvet of reassuringly familiar chords. It beats me why this sort of limp-minded, soporific New Age-ism is taken seriously. Perhaps it's the technology, which persuades some naive souls they're witnessing."

3) Nothing new here. There has always been music in fashion which gladly accepts its status as sonic wallpaper. As a listener one has the choice to be dulled or wakened.

4) I can understand why people get tired with unspontaneous "playing over changes." It takes knowledge, experience , progressio, talent.... to be spontaneous over changes. If the listener isn't also getting a story, being taken on a journey, then....check your watch and wait for it to be over.

5) Freedom and spontaneity, I believe, work best when they represent a departure from order. There needs to be a directive energy that takes you there. Spontaneity is freedom...but freedom from what?

If all you're getting from the music is the expression of a directionless desire to be free and spontaneous then , again, the attention can very quickly drift.

Ellington: "There is no art when one does something without intention."

Anonymous said...

Spontaneity is like swinging. I know it when hear it. You know, like porn, except for the "hear" part.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Hello London!

Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful response to what was a terribly haphazard post.

I agree that newer / edgier / progressiver-than-thou music is not automatically better music. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. Some people get their kicks from one extreme or the other, and that's fine. For me, there has to be something else.

Sometimes I like calling that something else "spontaneity," but that's because I don't really know what else to call it. Is it really spontaneity? I don't know.

I'm reminded of Zappa's experiments with xenochrony, and how some of the people who first heard it without knowing what it was remarked on what they perceived as the amazing, sensitive interplay of the instruments -- an "interplay" that turned out to be wholly accidental, since in xenochrony the instruments are recorded separately and without much knowledge of each other.

The point? We are attracted to certain kinds of sounds for reasons that may sometimes have to do with more than the sounds themselves (psychological, biological, social reasons), and we like to hang critical terminology on that experience after the fact ("I like this but I need to figure out why I like it"). But at times that critical terminology can resemble a system of placeholders, an empty code that helps us to communicate to other music lovers which tribes we belong to (Jethro Tull fans in the house!), but doesn't really tell us anything truly substantial about the music itself.

For instance: since music is a time-based art, I fail to see how any example of it could ever not be taking us on a "journey." I may not like the journey I'm being taken on... but here we are back at the inscrutability of personal taste again.

It's a dance we do, and it's great fun to participate in, but sometimes it's frustrating too, particularly for the bands whose music is fodder for the dance (sorry for the mixed metaphor).

Andrew Durkin... said...

Hello Anonymous!

That's true. So is "writing persuasively about the experience of knowing it when you see it" the best definition of criticism we have?

Anonymous said...

"So is "writing persuasively about the experience of knowing it when you see it" the best definition of criticism we have?"

Um, maybe. I don't have any thoughts on that whatsover...

Interesting reading relevant to "spontaneity" the come to mind:

David Valdez Brecker obit:

Konitz interview

Always seemed to me that the cool jazzers - not just the Tristanoites but also people like Baker and Desmond - were pretty pure improvisers were in that the building blocks of their solos were pretty short strings of notes and they deliberately didn't repeat themselves too much. And, even though you might not get that impression from the Konitz interview, I think the lyricism and flow of their playing shows that they depended a lot on intuition. Intuition can direct you to make choices that are logical in ways that you're not aware of at the time. Improvisation is a way of accessing this, but it can also come up in the woodshed, or in your 12th draft of a composition, or in the performance of something you memorized. And you can fake it, I guess, but, then you can fake an orgasm, too. Well, maybe not you per se...

And yeah, the blocked comment was me, and it was in earnest, but I didn't realize the guy had gotten better, so never mind, it was dumb anyway.

david said...

Is scattering "yeah" and "cuz y'know" around a piece of writing evidence of spontaneity? If so, then I recommend being a bit less spontaneous and thinking about how to say what you have in mind.

CS Lewis's "chronological snobbery" is quite nice, but I prefer EP Thompson's "the enormous condescension of posterity".

Anonymous said...

Not to split hairs (perish the thought), but if you look at the context of the "yeah," and the "cuz y'know," you might notice that it was in each case a self-deprecating digression, which would seem to be just the place for informal language, unless you think there is no such place, of course, even in a blog.

Andrew Durkin... said...

Intuition can direct you to make choices that are logical in ways that you're not aware of at the time. Improvisation is a way of accessing this, but it can also come up in the woodshed, or in your 12th draft of a composition, or in the performance of something you memorized.

I like this very much.

It seems to be a given that aspects of a performance (or composition or whatever) can be spontaneous, or driven by intuition. What stuck in my craw was the idea of "utter [i.e., complete and total] spontaneity," which in a way seems to be a revisiting of the old notion of essentialized, primitive expression that so many early jazz musicians were saddled with. In my view, that's a romanticization of what actually happens in a performance.

Thanks for the links!