Sunday, September 27, 2009

If Q then not necessarily P

Americans have long had a technique fetish in their Calvinist, superficial attempts at appreciation for the arts.

Recently, Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success caused quite a stir. As soon as I heard Gladwell's glib "10,000 hours" formulation, I knew a couple things. I knew it would become a meme, a viral apothegm. I also knew it was a formulation of no ultimate consequence. This past summer, I was snooping around a friend's bookshelf, found a copy of Outliers and read it in about 45 minutes. How utterly disappointing, to see that the "best minds of my generation" are well-fed, superficial and have decided to reduce their intelligence to Reader's Digest levels of pablum-spewing lack of significance.

I'm sure there is a correlation between time spent engaged in a task/field of endeavor/area of expression and the quality of the results. I'm also sure that switching the "if...then" of the basic proposition reveals, in what should be an obvious way, the glib superficiality of the basic idea. "People who show extraordinary success at X have put in at least 10,000 hours of practice" simply doesn't translate to "People who put in 10,000 hours of practice at something will be extraordinarily successful at it." That this simple logical converse does not seem to shed light on the transparent uselessness of the original correlation for a lot of people speaks to how bereft the arts are (for example) in America.

The American sensibility seems to me often to reduce appreciation for an artist to the admiration one shows for a circus freak. Speed of execution, articulation, ability to manipulate the physical world and one's body, excellence at representing reality, extraordinary agility, flexibility, etc. These are the hallmarks of a "true artist" for the essentially materialistic American "consumer" of the arts. Even in the case of highly technically accomplished artists who also have a great depth and individuality of expression, what many Americans seem to value is merely the technical accomplishment.

Take, for example, the majority opinion on John Coltrane. Check out this bracing video of a transcription of Coltrane's solo on Giant Steps, the version originally released on Atlantic:

This metronome 240 (roughly) foray into linear and arpeggiated statements over functional harmony, an exaltation of both freedom and form, is a landmark performance. But the pathetic Jazz University that would soak such a form in formaldehyde entirely misses the point.

Coltrane's trajectory soon followed entirely new shapes, much to the dismay of many long time fans. The triumph of "be bop" was also its downfall. The form allowed for too much formalization, and very soon the genius practitioners of the form chafed against the "hamster wheel" experience of simply running the changes in 12 or 16 or 32-bar cycles again from the top. What could be said in such a fashion was exhaustively said, by artists of such expressive ability and insightful genius that there was no artistic urgency to revisit the endless chord wheel yet again.

Yet the phase of Coltrane's career most beloved by Americans, and especially most revered in "The Jazz University," is absolutely the phase of greatest traditional display of traditional technique. This is as it always has been here in the great US of A. Even 'Trane's later work with Miles Davis on the so-called "modal" Kind of Blue
pieces begins to attract resistance. "Too many notes," say some. (Possibly even Mr. Davis, who in his famous, possibly apocryphal, rejoinder to Coltrane offered a very simple suggestion for how to end a solo, namely, "Take the @%#$!* horn out of your *#@*&% mouth").

I have had many be-bop lovin' hepcat jazzbo white guys who are still running tired, fleet and technically accomplished solos over even more tired Real Book (tm) tunes say to me "I can't stand that later Coltrane stuff! He must have gone back on smack or something! Or that cat went crazy man! Ya Dig!!" (not really that last part, so much, but you get the idea).

So I'd offer Coltrane as one example (of a very, very many) of an American artist embraced as a master up until that regrettable leap off into madness, marked especially by what is perceived as an abandonment of technical facility. For contrast, and for a renewed sense of just how astonishing 5 years can be in the lifetime of an American innovator, check this transcendent 1965 performance of Naima :

And this is especially telling, as Naima is itself now considered a "jazz classic," and sometimes is subjected to the usual superficial, glib, utterly semantically depleted exsanguination as any other "tune" suffering the general misfortune of being adopted by the jazzbots. (At the same time, also tellingly, Coltrane's Sufi-like ecstacy in his solo is often dismissed as "just too much, " even now, 45 years after the fact).

So where does this version of Naima fit in the Gladwellian formulation? Clearly, Coltrane's utter mastery of the tenor saxophone, of the fundamentals of melody, harmony and rhythm, of the great sweeping arcs and jagged jumps of compositional drama in his solo, these aspects of Coltrane's art could (perhaps) be taught. Certainly, if not taught, at least analyzed, more deeply admired through analysis and perhaps employed in part or attempted whole by other artists, other students of the music. One could imagine easily spending 10,000 happy hours learning to play every nook and cranny of a handful of Coltrane recordings from roughly 1962-1967. Indeed, an entire school could be and in fact has been built on Coltrane's work, or Davis's, or Parker's, or what have you. Entire 10,000-hour schools could be built on single solos by these masters, or even some of the methodologies summarized in a few bars. This may sound hyperbolic, but listen to any so-called "JAZZ" recording claiming to be "mainstream" from the past 40 years or so and tune in to how each solo is an homage to an homage to an homage to some masterful statement, several decades old, a palimpsest featuring Sunday cartoon comics sketched over layers of what used to be culturally significant, the bottom-most layer an intricate, fundamentally unreproducible and urgent statement of vital truth.

What Coltrane (and so many others) plumbed (and continue to plumb) at the peak of their self-expression cannot be taught. Cannot be practiced. Only a mistranslation (at best) or a sorry-ass recapitulation is possible. Check the Naima clip from 2:49 to about 3:17, or the amazing interlude of telepathy with Elvin Jones from 4:26 to about 5:05 for but two examples (totaling just over a minute) from Coltrane's improvisation of what 10,000 hours, or 10,000 lifetimes of 10,000 hours each, could never teach.


mht712 said...

Do you think art can't be taught, then? Can a Coltrane be made, or are they simply irrepressible?

On another note, this is an essay I'd like to give the next student who tells me that so-and-so artist (always African American, of course) paints "like jazz."


david_grundy said...

As you say, the problem is the notion that anyone could do the same as Coltrane with the right amount of hard work. And while it's true that to even approach Cecil Taylor or Coltrane or one of those players who possess absolute technical mastery is going to take a huge amount of work, that work on its own is not going to help you much in the creation of a music that comes from yourself and from your situation. What such analyses leave out is the whole socio-political dimension of the music: the charged atmosphere, the very real day-to-day problems of living in an institutionally and personally racist society, the revolutionary struggle, etc. As Fred Ho puts it in his article on Jazz as Revolutionary Music, terms like 'swing', and 'blues' are important not so much as technical benchmarks by which to check whether something is 'jazz' or not, but as embodiments of entire attitudes to life and to music, arising out of the experience of oppressed minorities in the twentieth century USA. which is not to say that jazz will always remain such - yet while those problems remain (as indeed they do, in whatever cunningly disguised form), the music will address them. and it will not do that by running over the chord changes to giant steps with technical perfection, every time. a computer can do that. music, as a human activity, is often IMperfect, which is its beauty: think miles davis' beautiful mistakes on those early charlie parker records. of course the problem with arguing that hours of practice won't make you coltrane is that you're led into the trap of saying 'well, coltrane was just a genius, THAT's why he's so good', rather than placing the music in its context. and i'm kinda suspicious of the whole 'genius' notion (the notion there is some 'inherent gift' that some people have which others do not - like a kind of religious, the escape to the inexplicable in lieu of explanations).

anyhow, interesting post!

peter breslin said...

Margo: absolutely art can be taught, I think. I'm mostly resisting the class-based "Protestant art work ethic" implied by Gladwell's formula.

David, I'm older so perhaps I'm more comfortable with the 19th/20th Century formulation of "the genius." I've noticed a tendency among younger people to reject, or at least interrogate, the idea. I do agree that the socio-political/economic contexts are crucial for the conversation. I like the beauty of human imperfection. As Leonard Cohen sings, "there is a crack in everything/that's how the light gets in." (or as James Joyce said, "a genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.")

Numinous said...

Here are my thoughts on Gladwell's Outliers and while he is good for bringing up different ways to think about something, I do agree that his solutions/conclusions are often too simple and easy.

As great as Coltrane is (my favorite Coltrane is actually his later Impulse years, precisely because he is reaching for something beyond the mere technical), why would you spend 10,000 hours trying to be him (or like him) or Miles or whomever, when you could spend that time exploring what you are or have to say? Maybe that's a symptom of today's American society: whatever paths to success that work for one person is reduced to an easily digested formula and plied to someone else in the hopes that it will achieve the same results. Which it never does. No matter how great those young bebop cats you know can play, what are they saying? what are they adding to the language? Like Miles said, "We played that &^%* already!" This is the same problem I have with the J@LC attitude (I liked your earlier posting): taking the surface structure and elements of jazz (swing, improv, etc.) and fossilizing that into amber as JAZZ, the immutable, instead of being open to what music of TODAY is saying and incorporating that into the music (like the days of old...).

Nice to have found your blog by way of ABS...

peter breslin said...

Thanks for stopping by! Numinosity is always welcome.

J@LC sometimes seems like a jazz museum to me. In a museum, everything is well preserved and beautifully displayed. And dead.

Sometimes it seems like a jazz zoo. Exotic and wild creatures kept in cages.

I am a free range listener and I want free range music. It's out there for sure.

Chris Kelsey said...

In the words of Homer Simpson, "Your ideas are intriguing and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter."

And so I have (linked Stochasticactus to my Blogroll, that is). Great stuff, Mr. Breslin!