Sunday, January 21, 2007

structure|ings: engineering serendipity

Some discussions with students in class, and Peter’s comment on ‘endings: or engineering serendipity,’ got me thinking again about this tight-rope act that we do as improvisative performers (to borrow a term from George E. Lewis).
I’ve been trying to get my students to throw in everything and the kitchen sink—all their resources and techniques—into their playing: I want, as Anthony Braxton is quoted as saying, clouds of garbage cans. Yet there’s a strong impulse to create ‘coherence’; to subdue ‘noise’ (in the behavioral sense, if not the acoustic one). The consequences of this is that we end up afraid to jump in and do. The play often ends up as uniform and slowly-evolving gestures; consistent if predictable. We’re, to paraphrase a student, waiting for the ‘mood’ to settle.
There’s complex forces and desires that conspire (cohere?) to do this, and one of the issues has to do with form. In a way, I think, the students are caught between twin ideologies of form; form as a property that is emergent, and form as a framework that is (pre-)composed. The former has, for example, its well-known and vocal proponents in the neo-Cagian camp, the latter is very much, well, a composerly dictum. (I’ve talked about some of the ideologies of form/structure before, so I won’t get into much more detail here.)
I don’t want to get into an debate about, to caricature it for a moment, the denial of agency versus authorial prescription, but it strikes me that, in the context of improvisation, the interesting and practical stuff lies between these dual ideals of form. (So, I find myself back to fuzzy boundaries again.) For whichever of these two formulations we adhere to, form and structure are given to you—handed down rather than forged in real-time.
Sure “what happens, is what happens,” but it is about accepting (the outcome of) your own (and your partners’) actions. You are the one who makes it happen, and it may be unproductive to wait for external dictation.

If you go

bloop bloop bloop bloop…
bloop bloop bloop bloop…
Well, yes, that’s audibly ‘coherent,’ and, yes, you can wait until the ‘mood’ settles. On the other hand, there’s nothing stopping you from throwing yourself into it and going
crash-k’BANG… b-b-bloop-pah-pah shwoop…
bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz… bzzz-CRASH!
k’bleep…
In the end, you’ve just fashioned the mood. Coherence be damned, accept it, and it’ll all make sense later (but that’s another story).

9 comments:

Good Times said...

Upon reading this I quietly asked myself "self, what kind of students does STIG have?"

Do these students drink beer out of fishbowls until they crap their pants every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday or do these students moon-light at a mortgage brokerage firm? (or both?) Do they know that cruel hand of fate is poised, with infinite patience, to grind their young bodies and minds into a thin, tasteless gruel to be consumed by our evil fourth dimensional alien overlords--or is their's a life of golden mattresses ready to further soften golden parachute landings?

ATTENTION ATTENTION!

Start making sound those sounds that are important and gratifying to YOU while you still can!

The 'mood' isn't going to settle anymore than 'the good guys' are going to 'win.'

Slowly-evolving gestures? That's not going to get you an x-box-III virtual edutainment system at the mall on the busiest shopping day of the year, nor is it going to make anyone real-estate 'gold-star seller.'

Caught between ideologies? HA! Who has the time? "Confusion is a luxury" as Dixon is often wont to say.

The Neo Cagian camp? Slowly chewing brown rice in our cubicles, grooving on the music the copier machine makes for 4 minutes and 33 seconds? Oh how cultured, how evolved...

The kids these days! Not that you asked, but I'd make the little monsters kneel on pencils while they listen to Repent by
Charles Gayle in its entirety. See if that doesn't spice things up.

As was said to me time and time again as a youth in New Jersey, "Don't make me come down there..."

cheers,

Annie Sullivan

the improvising guitarist said...

Dear Ms. Sullivan,

Despite your legendary status in the canons of education, I find myself shocked and dismayed at your lack of understanding or sympathy for the students. I can only assume that your pedagogical achievements have been greatly exaggerated, or you are in a state of intoxication.
You ask if the students drink beer and “crap their pants”, else work at a mortgage brokerage firm. The answer is no to the former, to the latter, and to both; it is neither.
Furthermore, although I maintain that the class is caught between ideologies, at no point do I say that they are confused.

Having said that, let me agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments concerning the neo-Cagian camp.

Yours sincerely,
tig.

P.S. I will seriously give consideration to a session devoted to Repent.

Good Times said...

Gayle is a fascinating figure. He is (much like Coltrane) a musicians musician (in the strictest, most repressed pedagogical sense of the word) *and* the furthest 'out' of the tenor's at the same time.

Everyone in the whole wide world should make careful study Charles Gayle's music! Right now!

I've seen Charles Gayle dozens and dozens of times--mostly around the time Repent was recorded. Gayle was playing regularly at the Knitting Factory then. Also around that time, he gave an interview with Ben Young on WKCR. (Perhaps I promised to send that to you already--if I did, I haven't found it yet.)

In said interview, Gayle made a point of saying they did not rehearse and they did not talk about the music or what they were going to do. The underlying implication (as I misread it) was that the group's methodology began with 'hitting the on switch' and ended with 'hitting the off switch.' Everything did go, and in that instance, it always went. Went well? Went poorly? (For me) the experience was 'beyond good and evil' in that the simple fact that it happened (that sounds were made in that brand new order) was good enough. In all the Charles Gayle shows I saw at that time, while there was no mistaking who was playing, no show was ever 'the same.' It was all music, and it was all very exciting.

As a related aside, the greatest Charles Gayle performance ever of all times was his performance with William Parker and Milford Graves at the Webo Gallery in New York City. In Cred I Ble. I put a large part of the blame upon Milford Grave's shoulders who's sound energy and entirely unimpeded 'flow' instantaneously melted all 'armoring,' thereby allowing an incredible amount of orgone to flow freely and vigorously.

(Naturally, no known recording exists.)

I find that kind of 'energy' isn't usually celebrated in the academic setting (or anywhere else.) It seems to go against a kind of programming that's fundamental to success in most other areas and pursuits within and outside of music.

where do you teach? Is it at a college? Is it privately? How big is your class?

the improvising guitarist said...

“I find that kind of 'energy' isn't usually celebrated in the academic setting (or anywhere else.)”

That’s a common (though maybe not universal) problem with music in academia. Despite pockets of resistance, the music and practice that’s celebrated are those that render the body invisible and freeze time (‘all ears’ and ‘timeless’). Neither of which are qualities I call on, or value, as a performer (never mind an improviser). Of course, it is under these conditions that neo-Cagianism can flourish. Hasn’t 4'33" become exactly that—discorporate celebration of truth (timeless and placeless)?
(Aside: The ‘pseudo-scientism’ in music schools is maybe why art colleges sometimes are forums for the more interesting rock bands… at least historically… but is this even the case anymore?)

“Went well? Went poorly? (For me) the experience was 'beyond good and evil' in that the simple fact that it happened (that sounds were made in that brand new order) was good enough. …It was all music, and it was all very exciting.”

Yes, yes, yes. But, for people who have been indoctrinated into neo-Cagian doctrine, this can so easily slip into a passivity. How can you say, ‘let it happen’ or ‘just do it’ (global capitalist slogans not with standing) or ‘don’t care if it even resembles music’ without becoming dispassionate and submissive?

“where do you teach? Is it at a college? Is it privately?”

At college (although I’m not ‘faculty’ by any stretch of the imagination) and, in the past, privately.

“How big is your class?”

Bigger than I would like, but manageable.

Thanks for the comments (oblique and irreverent as always).

S, tig.

Good Times said...

Yes, yes, yes. But, for people who have been indoctrinated into neo-Cagian doctrine, this can so easily slip into a passivity. How can you say, ‘let it happen’ or ‘just do it’ (global capitalist slogans not with standing) or ‘don’t care if it even resembles music’ without becoming dispassionate and submissive?

Oh dude, that's simple. You've seen Full Metal Jacket right? Samey-same! Make cutest of the dispassionate and submissive Cage types kneel before you and put their neck into your hands for the choking.

And if that's a little too Chesty Puller for ya, certainly there must be some 'consequence' you can whip 'em with? Because really now, no consequence, no anxiety, no music.

True or false? The history (of everything) is littered with examples to substantiate that claim.

Just the other day I was thinking about all the screaming and humiliating the saxophone teacher at the local community college was kind enough to share with us.

Without the fear of an old fashioned pre-Viet Nam era U.S. Navy band style dressing down, without fear of failure (which is a real thing in music--music can be done wrong) there wasn't any real reason to practice and get the shit tight, no real reason not to wallow in Cage's mud.

Have you shaken the shit out of one of your little monsters yet? You know, a real 'vein popper'--standing on top of the piano 'telling it like it is?'

A little more Ms. Sullivan for ya.

Cheers

the improvising guitarist said...

“True or false? The history (of everything) is littered with examples to substantiate that claim.”

What claim? Brutality leads to submission? Humiliation leads to passivity? Fine. True. Excellent, you’ve just succeeded in reproducing Cage’s docile children. Boo.
I think, Ms Sullivan, that you are confusing the confrontational classroom (a la bell hooks) with boarding school autocracy.

“Without the fear of an old fashioned pre-Viet Nam era U.S. Navy band style dressing down, without fear of failure (which is a real thing in music--music can be done wrong) there wasn't any real reason to practice and get the shit tight, no real reason not to wallow in Cage's mud.”

Are you seriously saying that the lack of “fear of failure” leads to the neo-Cagianism?!?

S, tig

Good Times said...

What claim? Brutality leads to submission? Humiliation leads to passivity? Fine. True.

No.

claim: "no consequence, no anxiety, no music."

In the classroom setting "brutality" leads to what ever it takes to avoid brutalization. "Humiliation" leads to what ever it takes to avoid humiliation.

My Experience Learning To Playing Changes at Community College:

"that sucked. certainly you're not practicing, because if you were, that wouldn't have sounded so horrible. And that sounded horrible. Class: does everyone agree that sounded horrible? The reason why it sounded horrible was because (insert real reason here) and because you are lazy and a recidivist. Now, in front of the rest of the class, your peers, you are going to do it (that which sounded horrible) again and again until you do it correctly, right here, right now because we have a concert in 2 weeks and if you play like that on stage in front of the audience consisting of your friends and family, you will sound like an asshole, and I will appear to be a bad teacher and I am most certainly not a bad teacher, I am a very good teacher, so that means you are fucking up. Pray tell, how are you going to make it right, this fucking up thing you do so often?"

etcetera. It worked. It worked for me anyway.

Are you seriously saying that the lack of “fear of failure” leads to the neo-Cagianism?!?

For our purposes here, yes.

If there's one thing about those neo-Cagians, it's that they hate them a 'canon.' Without a canon, without consequence, with out a 'gold standard' (so to speak) the aesthetic muscle in the human atrophies. Without the burners on, the porridge gets cold and yucky to eat. If there's plenty else to eat (as is often the case the college/cafeteria setting,) then it doesn't 'matter' and so why make the fuss? Why can't we call silence music? Why can't we just appropriate the sounds of the copier machine can call them our own?

Is what I'm saying honestly that outrageous?

the improvising guitarist said...

“no consequence, no anxiety, no music.”

Okay, I’m with you there. But ‘consequences’ does not need to be flagged by, er, flagellation. (Aside: Am I conversing with the same person that took issue with my use of the word ‘violence’? ;-)

“that sucked. certainly you're not practicing… how are you going to make it right, this fucking up thing you do so often?”

Well, that’s certainly provocative (I mean that in the best sense of the word). Let me reserve that idea of a ad-hoc ethnography of my classroom for a future entry.

“If there's one thing about those neo-Cagians, it's that they hate them a 'canon.'”

The irony here is that Cage is (being) canonized. The cannon is not an alien concept to neo-Cagian doctrine, the same way as the denial of agency or volition or desire does not mean that they don’t still, in some way, operate.

“Why can't we call silence music? Why can't we just appropriate the sounds of the copier machine can call them our own?”

Again, provocative, and I think I’ll return to these in a future post. The answer, IMNSHO, is that, yes, we can call silence music, we can accept the sounds of the copier machine is music, but to do so leads to cultural and political implication that are (not necessarily) in sync or compatible with improvisative practices. Agency, volition, desire, and, yes, goals and consequences (and the problematization there of) shape the tactics and strategies of improvisation. To go around, eyes (ears? minds?) closed and to say they don’t exist is what makes for a hostile environment for improvisation in a Cagian context.

“Is what I'm saying honestly that outrageous?”

Of course, would you have it any other way? ;-) I wouldn’t.

S, tig

jinx said...

Wow! What a revelation! I am certainly going to try the tell-it-like-it-was approach in my teaching and ensemble coaching. I may even quote this bit direct "that sucked . . . you will sound like an asshole, and I will appear to be a bad teacher and I am most certainly not a bad teacher, I am a very good teacher, so that means you are fucking up. Pray tell, how are you going to make it right, this fucking up thing you do so often?" The nastiest thing I've ever done is pull someone from a concert because they didn't come up to scratch in time. But I think I'll try the humiliation tactic in advance next time round. No more Dr Nice Person. Thanks Ms Sullivan.