Friday, February 09, 2007

mob behavior and the hegemonic impulse

I remember, vividly, my first encounter with the mob. Afterwards I was an angry, upset and, most of all, confused (novice) improviser. Licking my wounds, I was attempting to piece together what exactly happened; trying to figure out exactly why I was angry.

…People who use anarchy of collective improvisation will interpret that [‘freedom’] to mean ‘Now I can kill you’…. …Any transformational understanding of so-called freedom would imply that you would be free to find those disciplines that suit you, free to understand your own value systems; but not that you would just freak out because ‘the teacher’s not there’.
Anthony Braxton quoted in Lock (1988), p. 240.
Let’s get a few things out of the way. By the mob, I don’t mean noise. Noise is that super-saturated, information rich, contradictory musical experience—really, I can’t get enough of it. Nor do I necessarily mean ‘playing as fast as you can, as loud as you can’—another standard complaint against improvised musics. Velocity and power are things that… well, that’s a story for another time.
No, what I mean by the mob is, to put it ineloquently, the moosh. You want the evil mirror image of contrasts and juxtapositions? Well, there it is: We are all the same, we are marching lock-step, we never ask why, and if someone does, we won’t hear them and we’ll make sure that they can’t be heard.
Mob behavior, in improvised contexts, is a strange thing. Sometimes I think that it shouldn’t exist at all, other times I’m surprised that it appears so infrequently. It’s as if the twin, seemingly incompatible, rhetorical ideals of improvisation (at least among many ‘part-time’ improvisers)—of individualism and collectivism—collude together to construct the mob.
So, do we want to be leaders, or do we want to be sheep? Maybe these are not as distinct as may appear. Maybe to be seduced by the notion of leadership is to become unquestioning followers.
You’re either with us, or against us….
George W. Bush, November 6th 2001.
What happened that evening of my first encounter with the mob? Those that could blast out, did; those that could not, had their voices taken away.
So I’m watching, for example, a couple of brass players who were, by day, straight laced orchestral types, now ‘free’ from the discipline of the idiom (score?), ‘free’ from the command of the ‘teacher’ (conductor?), were doing their best to drown out others whose instruments were not as capable of such volume. The irony being that I couldn’t make out what they were playing either.
After that bruising and disorientating experience had finished, an excited percussionist came up to the instigator of the event. Many mutual congratulations were exchanged. The percussionist talked about the symbolism of the group playing with one voice, and drowning out—indicating my little amp—the symbol of power. (I was too angry to say this at the time, but, oh, man, you couldn’t hear me ’cause I wasn’t playing. And anyway, you know I had the volume of my amp at the one quarter mark—I could have drowned out every single one of you easily: as easy as turning a dial, as easy as pushing a button—boom.)
All this was for a ‘consciousness raising event’ to stand against, I kid you not, the mob in Bosnia. How’s that for irony?
How many sins have been committed in the name of political purity?
…How often have we heard that Communism, or Socialism, or free-market economics, or cost-benefit analysis, or monetarism, would bring the good life (for those who remained) if only they were systematically imposed and all the deviant elements were rooted out?
Law (1994), p. 6.
We’ve been trained not to like difference or contradictions, or at best to keep it safely bound and fenced off. We may desire to be the same (we want coherence). We may desire societies composed of the like, rather than the different, because we believe that a heterogeneous society is no society at all. If we start believing that, we might just start to act like the mob. We’ll become sheep or (mythical) lemmings because we cannot, or will not, take responsibility for our actions. But that’s a subject for another time….

some (unanswered) questions:

How does Taylor do it?
Is it just me, or does Cecil Taylor’s larger scale performances fly close to mob behavior? How does he manage to navigate clear of it? Or does he? Is it that there is such a charismatic figure in the middle of it that prevents it swinging out into that moosh?

What can you do in the middle of that mob?
In subsequent encounters with the mob, my solution was to walk off stage. That never seemed to me to be an entirely satisfactory solution. It always felt dishonorable….

Does the lack of an explicit idiom act as a catalyst towards mob behavior?
Just informally, I’ve encountered this mob in the form of orchestral players and/or neo-boppers (exceptions in both cases of course) more often than others. Is it that they, more than others, feel that, when the safety-net of the score or idiom is taken away, the ‘teacher’ is out? Alternatively, does this become a collective therapy session to let loose and (primally) scream? Is it then unfair of me to say that this becomes ‘freedom’ for people who take freedom for granted?


Law, John (1994), Organizing Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell).
Lock, Graham (1988), Forces In Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music (London: Quartet).


Stanley Jason Zappa said...

In the words of the good Dr. Reich:

"Thus the problem is not what could and should be done; that would be comparatively easy. The real problem is how to start the doing."

+ + +

Could it be that it is that closeness to Mob Behavior that makes Cecil's music (especially those large band 'blow outs' from the 80's Peter has been talking about) so very exciting?

To misread Bloom,

"(Cecil Talyor's) exactly on the border of solipsism, neither within it, nor beyond it."

Bloom later warns

"Satan's later decline in the poem, as arranged by the Idiot Questioner in Milton, is that the hero (improviser/artist/band leader) retreats from this border into solipsism, and so is degraded; ceases, during his soliloquy on Mount Niphates, to be an improviser/learder, and by intoning the formula: "Evil be thou my good," becomes a mere rebel, a childish inverter of conventional moral categories, another wearisome ancestor of student non-students, the perpetual New Left."

Though it may have happened in real life, and while there are some Cecil Taylor large ensemble recordings I have not heard, the Cecil Taylor recordings I know and love do not evince the "evil be my good" capitulation and resultant Moosharrhea.

Charismatic as Cecil Taylor is, I don't know if it's his charisma that "keeps it from swinging out into that moosh" but instead his well considered and 'pre-heard' concept combined with an ensemble of incredible musicians both familiar with said concept and vested in its realization.

+ + +

While I can find neither the quote nor the book from which it came, Wilhelm Reich talks about "Freedom Giddiness" (I think that's his term)--that's when an organism is loosed into a free/open environment/situation after being in a strict, repressive. The organism goes nuts. I also recall a thing on the television about Amish kids going bonkers upon acquiring a taste of the big city after a life on the farm. Then there's all those tourists who go to third world countries for the express purpose of 'acting out.' Samey same.

Were the neo-boppers and the orchestral elite to put as much time, thought and energy into "this music"--were they to decide that playing this music was actually worthy of a "career," the mob-thuggery would quickly turn into quiet contemplation and consideration.

Stanley Jason Zappa said...

On the other hand/upon further reflection, why didn't you crank up the amp so you could participate in the 'moosh' on the 'mob's' terms?

Rationalize it as a worker among workers kind of thing, maybe.

How knows, perhaps with the amp at a clearly audible volume you could have entrained the music slightly in one direction or another. That's always rewarding, even if the totality of the piece isn't something you want to remember.

Another term for "moosh" is the glorious noise.

Some people hate the glorious noise, some people love it. Either way each 'glorious noise' session is different--no matter how similar they might appear. Like 'tie-dye' or marbled paper. In that instance, some are bound to be more exciting than others. That seems to be the nature of the methodology.


the improvising guitarist said...

“(Cecil Talyor's) exactly on the border of solipsism, neither within it, nor beyond it.”

Yup, this knife-edge act is, I agree, what is so compelling about a lot of Taylor’s larger-scale ensemble work.

“…an ensemble of incredible musicians both familiar with said concept and vested in its realization.”

I think you’re right. It’s everyone (I’m not sure what the right word is) owning/taking responsibility for/investing in the act/performance/tradition.
Where I think Taylor’s charisma may play is in how ‘seriously’ the ensemble takes its duty. By this I’m specifically thinking about the more ad-hoc ensemble—sometimes composed of ‘part-time’ improvisers—that Taylor has directed, but that, admittedly is a tangential issue in our discussions….

“Then there's all those tourists who go to third world countries for the express purpose of 'acting out.' Samey same.”

What I was thinking of when I wrote “‘freedom’ for people who take freedom for granted” is whether the ‘I can kill you’ version of ‘freedom’ tends to comes from a position of privilege. I have, of course, no evidence to back this one up though…
MLM wonders if there is something analogous to ‘freedom from’ vs. ‘freedom to’.

“…quickly turn into quiet contemplation and consideration.”

Or noisy celebrations and affirmations… anything but the moosh.

S, tig

the improvising guitarist said...

“…why didn't you crank up the amp so you could participate in the 'moosh' on the 'mob's' terms?”

That’s a good question. I just didn’t want to become the overlord of the mob. I mean, what could I gain from that?

“Rationalize it as a worker among workers kind of thing, maybe.”

Problem with this rationale is that I might consider the ‘real workers’ to be the ones whose voices were taken away; the ones whose individuality, and individual contributions, I could not hear.

“…you could have entrained the music slightly in one direction or another.”

Does this work in your experience? Whenever I’d tried this the result was always more of the same, but maybe I’m missing a key tactical element….

“Another term for "moosh" is the glorious noise.

I don’t agree. I love (glorious) noise, but noise is information overload. Noise is pandemonium which, according to an online dictionary, is defined as “a state of extreme confusion and disorder.” The mob is, ironically, all about certainty and order.

Always good to hear your comments, and thanks for dropping by.

S, tig