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.

No comments: