Wednesday, January 17, 2007


From Joe Phillips' Pulse, this interesting composer's symposium. (With my own attempt at lucidity interspersed...)

PULSE Composer’s Salon #1

The Audience

“The public is a thick skinned beast which must be continually beaten to let it know you are there.”—Walt Whitman

“Historically, the artist has been a slave, an unregarded wage earner, a courtier, clown and sycophant, a domestic, finally an unknown citizen trying to arrest the attention of a huge anonymous mass public and compel it to learn his name.” —Jacques Barzan from The Use and Abuse of Art

"I. In an interview (New Voices by Geoff and Nicola Walker Smith, Amadeus Press, 1995), Laurie Anderson says that her work/composition is not complete until it has been observed or heard [and subsequently] evaluated by an audience. She goes on to say that the measure of a good work of art is one that (as you experience it) “makes you want to jump up and get out of there” and go and create something yourself. How do you view this statement (especially in relationship toward how your own compositions are received by the public)?"

Anderson's first comment makes me think about completion more than anything else. My understanding is that Anderson is not an improvising artist. For me, as an improvising composer (not that I'm entirely satisfied with that phrase), my experience is that pieces emerge out of practice/rehearsal/performance opportunities, take a few different shapes, sometimes hang around as themes or get transfigured or transliterated into different formats and settings, and then mysteriously (either abruptly or slowly) disappear. The life of certain "composed parts" of an improvised piece peregrinates through many audiences, live and recorded. I just played some solo piano stuff I did in 1986 for the unnarrator and it had a completely different feel to it than I had ever heard before. So for me completion isn't really possible, at least not on my own terms. With this in mind, and remembering (for example) that a friend of mine has a huge box full of Cecil Taylor scores which have never been played or have only had performance in sections, I end up wondering about what Anderson means by "completion." On the one hand, there's a lovely aspect to performance, especially in composition with significant improvised sections and a huge amount of leeway even in the reading of composed sections. Performance always has mysterious energies. Things arise that were inconceivable in rehearsal. Energies are unleashed or redirected. My favorite phenomenon in live performance is the long silence after a piece is finished. If that's there, it feels that sound, space and time have worked themselves out into the mystery they are.

On the second comment, I generally agree that this interactive, inspirational muse experience, this sense of having a fire lit under one's ass to make something, seems common to my experience of many of the works I admire the most. But I wonder about it because I am also sometimes just a consumer. There are art forms that are good to be there for, like dance, but they don't always make me want to run out and make something.

II. One premise of the book Hole in Our Soul by Martha Bayles (Free Press, 1994) is that with the rise of modernism (in art) in the early 20th century, there came a disconnect with audiences—an “antagonism” between the artistic creator and the consumer of the art. Before this perverse (her words) turn of events, the relationship between creator and consumer was not so great. (At least in jazz) high art and the commercial and popular were not always mutually exclusive. As Gary Giddins states, people like Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong had the “…ability to balance the emotional gravity of the artist with the communal good cheer of the entertainer…” However, with the advent of such movements as Dadaism or Abstract Expressionism in painting, the literary explorations of Gertrude Stein, Virginia Wolff, and James Joyce, and in music the dodecaphonic and serial explorations of Arnold Schoenberg, chance and aleatory music of John Cage and in jazz the rise of bebop and free jazz, large audiences mostly tuned out. Jazz critic Philip Larkin is quoted in Hole in Our Soul stating, “To say I don’t like modern jazz because it’s modernist art simply raises the question of why I don’t like modernist art…I dislike such things not because they are new, but because they are irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it. This is my essential criticism of modernism, whether perpetrated by (Charlie) Parker, (Erza) Pound, or (Pablo) Picasso: it helps us neither to enjoy nor to endure.”

Do you agree or disagree with Bayles’ and/or Larkin’s statements/premises? How do you as a composer/performer, balance artistic and commercial viability in your own work? In the presentation (i.e. performances) of your works? What other composers/performers do you feel balance artistic and commercial viability well? Is this even necessary?

I heatedly, passionately disagree with Larkin. (I haven't read Bayles, but the way her thesis is stated here it sounds like a simple statement of fact, more an observation than a lament, with the caveat that the "antagonism" just arose and was not intentional in many cases). For those who are interested in more of Larkin's rant, his essay "All What Jazz?" is anthologized in Reading Jazz:A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage and Criticism from 1919 to the Present, an excellent if cautious and generally moldy-figgish collection edited by Robert Gottlieb. ("All What Jazz?" originally appeared as the introduction to Larkin's 1970 book collecting all of his jazz reviews that he had written for The Daily Telegraph). Larkin shows himself to be an insufferable idiot, willfully hoi polloi and proudly dumb as a box of rocks. His fetishistic fondness for Bix, Louis, that good old Nawlins jass, is revealingly framed as a nostalgia for his simple minded college days. There is great, acid, biting humor in Larkin's essay and one suspects that his queeny claws-out bitch-rant is meant at least partly ironically and definitely is suffused with his usual alcohol-soaked self-loathing. Not the best milieu for any kind of insightful criticism of Modernism, let alone jazz after 1938. His two central complaints about Modernism are worth spending some time with, however. The first, the "irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction to life as we know it" begs the question: who the fuck is Larkin's "we"? Perhaps more to the point, what would irresponsible exploitation of technique mean?

Larkin and other critics of Modernism (not to mention the avant garde, whatever that is) fail to talk about aesthetics. This is the fatal flaw in every critique of art that focuses on the moral character of the artist, or the solipsism or self-indulgent idiosyncrasy of the artist, or the "failure of the artist to communicate," or the favorite fallback for scared, murine little-eared reactionaries of all stripes, the "charlatanism of the artist." These critiques confuse initial shock or unfamiliarity with the presence of something wrong with the art or inherently suspect about the artist's methods or intentions. The height of irresponsibility is to ignore one's own taste.

Which leads me to Larkin's second major statement: "it (Modernist art) helps us neither to enjoy nor to endure." Again, who the fuck is "us"? And again, more importantly, I'm living proof that Larkin's wrong. An Art Ensemble of Chicago performance at the 9:30 Club in DC in 1982 saved my life. For example. So did ditching school my senior year in high school and staying home reading everything by James Joyce I could get my hands on.

General things to think about:
-As a composer and/or performer how do you generate audiences for your performances? How does audience reaction to a piece affect your future writing? your programming? Do you think about the audience when writing?
-Can you recommend any composer, group, or recording that balances the artistic with the popular (or at least commercial successful)?

I generate audiences by promoting my own shows. I have sometimes felt quite discouraged by lack of audience or poor audience reaction. Discouragement has sometimes taken the form of many months or even years of not performing. (This was of course my own choice in regard to the matter). I don't think about the audience, but I do think about a few admired people.

I can't find a meaningful way to respond to the last question. It sets up a false dichotomy to begin with.

Great questions, though...look forward to more...

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