Friday, March 30, 2007

listening: feeling the string tension

Towards the end of Chan-Wook Park’s Lady Vengeance (Chinjeolhan Geum-Jassi) there’s a forty second close-up of the main character.image from Lady VengeanceIt’s an extraordinary scene in which you see the face of the main character (played by Yeong-ae Lee) crumple and contort, hovering uneasily between expressions of despair (mourning, perhaps?), relief, triumph, and half a dozen undefinable, unspecifiable states. It’s extraordinary also because, as you watch the scene progress, you can almost feel her muscles working under her face. It’s as if your face (not your eyes, not your brain) is responding to the scene; telling you what is happening, what to feel, how to empathize.

Listening to the radio last night and MLM asked if I could identify the type of guitar by ear. Well, beyond the obvious, all I can identify is a cloud of possibilities—probable combinations—that might be deployed to get a certain sound. The obvious: acoustic/electric, nylon/steel strings, finger/plectrum, etc. The probable: how its mic’d-up, pickups used, recording technologies, etc.
What surprised me, however, was that I could hear the string tension. Actually, scratch that, I could feel the string tension. On the guitar of a track on the radio, for example, I could feel that the strings were of higher tension than what I’m used to: an acoustic guitar with probably a higher action, maybe heavier strings. Later, listening to a recording by Bill Frisell, I could tell that he has much lower string tension, on the electric, than I do (even though Frisell tends to tune slightly sharp of Concert): Frisell probably uses lighter strings.
The funny thing is, it really is (almost) a bodily reaction—feeling the string tension—it does register in my fingers, arm, etc. (MLM, being a vocalist, has analogous reactions to recorded voices.) And, like watching that shot in Lady Vengeance, I know—I think I know—that it must be my sensory and cognitive mechanisms (ears-nerves-brain), that is constructing this model, but the (empathetic?) effects seem to be in my sinews and my muscles.

Does anyone else have similar responses? And does it seem to register in your body?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

the closed laptop pt. 1: i/o? what i/o?

Continued from part 0….

Leaving aside the issue of narcissism for the moment, what is it that you witness at a laptop performance? What does it mean to ‘perform’ in this context?

…In live [electro-acoustic] performance situations, most people in audiences are not clear what us happening when a performer plays a [MIDI] controller. Most listeners, I believe, actually suppose that what they are hearing is an instrument in the traditional sense. They watch the performer, they experience the action/response phenomena, and they imagine that what they see is what they hear.
Schrader (1991), p. 101
Barry Schrader was writing this in a techno-historical moment before software plugins (VST, b. 1996), when sampling, on the whole, was done at resolutions coarser than 16-bits, and live computer music, more often than now, entailed the use of ‘alternative’ MIDI controllers (remember those?). Despite this technological distance from our current practices, similar issues, I think, are relevant to laptop performances. Specifically, the issue of decoupling bodily gesture and sound production: what you see is not what you hear.

Having not been paying much attention to laptop-based performance for a little while, one of the thing that struck me about the laptopping I’ve witnessed over the past few months was the familiarity of the sound manipulation techniques (reverse, vari-speed, splice, granulation, etc). We’ve increasingly grown accustomed to these techniques from, say, the sound effects of fantastical cinema, trip-hop, or experimental rock productions, but, in the case of laptop performance, the results are, at least to me, oddly alienating. While, on the one hand, there’s a sonic familiarity, there’s a gestural alienation.
This strikes me as almost the reverse effect of a prepared piano or turntablism. In the case of the prepared piano, for example, gestural familiarity (pianist at the keyboard) is coupled to sonic novelty (well, that doesn’t sound like a piano). A (pleasurable?) schism exists because the stimulus and response don’t quite match up.

Just Outside asked about the relative unpopularity of EAI and related musics in comparison to the (postulated) corresponding visual arts. Although laptopping constitutes only a part of EAI and related musics, I think it may be instructive in this discussion. In particular, much of the visual art cited leaves intact the methods, techniques and media—paint, brush and canvas. The shock of the new, in this context, is in the form, the encoding, the process. A gallery goer will have no difficulty trying to figure out the hows or whats of artistic practice. What EAI does, in a sense, is the opposite.
Let’s sketch-out this, as Schrader calls it, action/response mechanism: in acoustic/mechanical performance, there’s a relatively close coupling of action and response in sound production. Pluck a string on a chordophone, and you get a certain class of sound. Even mechanical mediations (the key-hammer-and-damper-string mechanism of the piano, for example) are largely fixed, simple and/or culturally coded. However complex the action/response mechanism, audiences can, with experience, come to learn these (the piano, for example, has an idiot’s interface: left side of keyboard = bass, right side = treble; play lighter = quiet, play heavier = loud).
However, with electronics, and with software mediation in particular, the practitioners (software engineers) gain the ability to more-or-less arbitrarily hook-up action and response. From an audience’s perspective, the action/response mechanism becomes, at best, obtuse.
Okay, but what does this alienation from action/response have to do with alienation in general?
If, having learned the sound of a saxophones via the official Berkelee team, you hear a saxophonist sound like a hair-dryer there’s a possibility of a terrible / unpleasant / joyous / mind-expanding / life-changing surprise. Someone turns a soprano sax the ‘wrong’ way ’round: you don’t know what to expect. On the other hand, someone moves a MIDI slider, hits a QWERTY key, taps on a trackpad, or any number of gestures, you have no (low-level mechanical) expectations, so how can you be surprised.
The problem, in a sense, is not that ‘what you see is not what you hear’, but that the relationship between what-you-see and what-you-hear is being reeingineered (arbitrarily?) before your eyes and ears. Which is all fine—a potential source of interesting and creative contradictions—but how can we, in this context, develop connoisseurship?

What amplifies (or, depending on you point of view, exacerbates) this alienation in laptop performance is that the audience is inanimate. Contrary to the club in which the ‘audience’ is in motion—in full-bodied dance—much laptopping takes the concert recital as its model (albeit with some of the visual trapping of the club). What does this model (captive/captivating) mean in the context of gestural alienation? What does it mean that the audience is (expected to be) disembodied (‘all ears’) while the performers arbitrarily re-map bodily actions to sounds (effortless, virtual exploration of sounds).
Since I’ve written elsewhere about bodies, performance and the ‘music itself’, I won’t go into much more detail here but to say that this dislocation of gesture and sound ultimately leads to the amplification in importance of the ‘music itself’.
As each discouragement draws the listener’s identification away from the physical, it directs it towards the imaginative mastery of all possible combinations embodied by ‘the music itself’. Socially mobile, freed from physical work, seeming to encompass all possibilities in a unified whole… a sonic experience of the middle-class self.
Cusick (1999), p. 495.
Too often in electro-acoustics practice is one of the last considerations; bodies are one of the least concerns; and audience is a canvas or recipient—an after thought.

To be continued…


Cusick, Suzanne (1999), ‘Gender, Musicology, and Feminism’ in Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist (eds) Rethinking Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Schrader, Barry (1991), ‘Live/Electro-Acoustic Music—a Perspective from History and California’, Contemporary Music Review (vol. 6 pt. 1).

Sunday, March 25, 2007

race: how many of us are just visiting?

I apologize for the lack of proper referencing, and the disjointed nature of this post. Most of these fragments were for separate articles, all in very rough form, but in light of Mwanji Ezana’s excellent articles on race and the jazz ‘avant-garde’ (‘don't say it too loud… part 1’ and ‘part 2’) and the blogospheric responses, it seems like a good opportunity to put it out there, ready or not….

“Let me ask you something… we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish they have the homeland, jews their tradition; even the niggas, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?”
“The United States of America; the rest of you are just visiting.”
from Robert De Niro dir. (2006), The Good Shepherd.
I’m going to assume the following: discrimination and inequalities exist in these musics, and the (political and economic) systems in which these musics operate. Maybe in my most blinkered moments I hope that ‘we’ are different from other traditions (say, West European Concert Music), but I know that we’re embedded in a systemic problem.

A couple of anecdotes (both relatively recent):
  • A micro-festival: two non-white performers (neither black), one woman, out of a pool of maybe two dozen performers.
  • A small, single-day academic conference on experimental music: one woman speaker, no non-white faces.
Beyond this, however, is the the inability or reluctance to acknowledge, never mind tackle, this issue. Do we even want to take note of this? I wish I could say this was an exception….
I also know that propping up a mirror can be difficult and painful; that our first instincts may be to deny, deny, and then deny some more. It’s not our fault, we’ll say, and maybe later, well, we didn’t do this deliberately—with intent.
But none of that is going to get us anywhere.
Improvisative practices and traditions thrives on diversity, difference and, maybe, contradictions, but good intentions alone will not suffice. (I doubt Goodman, Wilson and Krupa came together by good intentions or by blind luck.)

exclusion from stories and contexts

‘Avant-garde’ does not mean one thing, but one of its meanings might be ‘transcending’ the mundane reality of historical, social, political specificity. Experimentalism (with or without the capital E) might mean flights of fancy ‘unrestrained’ by tradition and individual or collective identity.
Now, let me interpolate something here: those that are able to transcend historical specificity (class, race, gender, etc.) do so from a position of privilege.
I’m not saying that only white, upper/middle-class, heterosexual men can be avant-garde or experimental, but I am saying that it may be easier for those of us who fit that description to be seen as avant-garde or experimental. Maybe these terms have been defined with that in mind….
How often have we heard the lazy line that jazz follows in the footsteps of West European Concert Music. (Oh, we’ve laughed at that, but I digress….) What do you need to sweep under the carpet in order for that model of pre-ordained, inevitable, cultural evolution to work? Are musicians such as Fred Anderson or Bern Nix largely excluded from the (white sanctioned?) canon of avant-garders because their approach does not scan with experimentalist ideologies? Bern Nix’s approach to the instrument is as radical as anything I know, but, free from the screeches’n’scrawls and technological paraphernalia of officially sanctioned Radical Guitar™, is evidently not worthy of the canon. (Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith once critiqued the expression ‘extended technique’ as a way in which white, european avant-garde composers could appropriate the ‘novelty’ of techniques that have been well known—perhaps well documented, perhaps antique—in non-Western cultures.)

How does this match up on the avant-garde scale: John Zorn vs. Steve Coleman?
Or Reid vs. Frisell? So how come Vernon Reid, nominally (weren’t they all?) part of that Downtown scene, was so readily seen as a sell-out—just a rock musician who could have been—or a cross-over artist?

I remember, vaguely, in the middle of an angry, sometimes barely-veiled-racist, letters pages exchange regarding Public Enemy in Keyboard magazine in the early ’90s, one (black) writer asked when we would be able to talk about Duke Ellington as a great composer, and not a great jazz composer.

I’ve already done the Grove Taste Challenge, so I don’t need to repeat myself, but I recall George E. Lewis’ story about composer-performers Anthony Davis and Gerry Hemingway attampting to register as a composer with their publisher. Hemingway (in my mind the more performerly of the two) had no problems. Davis (closer of the two, perhaps, to the composer end of the spectrum) was prevented from doing so, and had to change publishers in order to achieve this.

beyond education that echoes colonialism

Questions of education and outreach tend to focus on, to put it bluntly, ‘bringing black folk back into the fold’. Well, beyond the patronizing, neo-colonialist streak, unless we accept major institutional revolutions we may still be in a situation of a token few black professors teaching white students, or that of white folk educating black folk about their own (African-American) self-worth. Do ‘we’ want ‘them’ to come to ‘us’, or are ‘we’ to go to ‘them’? ‘Outreach’ and ‘education’ can be the most misleading of words: who’s needs to educate who? Who needs to reach out to who?
We need a radical overhaul of how we talk and discuss education and outreach; what its ultimate societal aims are. Unless we do this, don’t see much success in a system that would ultimately keep ontological power—the power, in this case, to define the aims and objectives, the qualities and shape of, the avant-garde—in the hands of white hegemony.

Imagine a white guy barges into NAACP meeting and saying “don’t worry I will liberate you!” (Some people come very close to this.)

I have, however, a modest proposal to the overhaul of music education: let’s not call Charles Ives a Great (American) Composer, let’s make sure he’s identified as a white, male, middle-class, American composer. Let’s make sure that actors identified with positions of privilege cannot escape their markers. The New York School? White Men’s Club. Post-War European Avant-Garde? The same. Let’s stop pretending that we have a cultural (social and economic) meritocracy. Let’s see how much longer the system can bear up under such explicit hi-lighting of inequality.

follow the money

Race intersects with class in complex, but seemingly inexplicable, ways (if we’ve learned anything from the discussions surrounding Obama). This whole issue is tied up with funding, ticket prices, artists’ sustenance (to put it unglamorously), and access (including even less glamorous subjects such as public transportation and venue location). Does the music (and ‘unfettered’ experimentation) become a luxury for the middle-classes? The wealthy?

Try these for size:
  1. We want cultural participation by all (or the many).
  2. Economic factors stand in the way of this cultural participation.
If you disagree with A and B, you may as well stop reading now….
The bad ol’ days of the aristocratic patronage of the arts are over. However, the funding objectives have, in many respects, reverted to a pre-20th century model.
Let’s get a few things out of the way. In the context of music, the funding and subsidies that jazz and improvised musics receive is dwarfed what is received by institutions such as, say, national/regional orchestras and opera houses. Modern orchestras cannot exist without some form of subsidy. Indeed, I doubt ticket sales would sustain a big-budget, technicolor, bells’n’whistles staging of the Ring cycle (something that is done periodically). Yet, by and large, these are the venues and cultural forums for the white (and ‘almost-white’) middle-classes and, particularly in the U.S. and England, the rich. Music as it stands is becoming too much of a playground for the wealthy.
If we agree with points A and B, arts funding needs to be re-thought-out. As it currently stands, funding (including through taxation) is often used to subsidize the vanity projects and playthings of the haves and have-mores. (Hmm… am I sounding awfully socialist here?)

And what are the goals of the Lincoln Center—what are the dreams, desires and aspirations that the Lincoln Center (sees itself) embodying?

meanwhile, off the black-white axis

What does this mean for those of us who are not black, but not (quite) white either; those of us who have had the luxury of some choice in which ‘side’ to play for (in many cases, for unfortunate political expediency)? ‘White’ when convenient to do so, not-white, when otherwise. We can’t/won’t/shouldn’t sit on the fence, that’s for sure.
And what of those of us with (in some circumstances) perhaps less mobility than African Americans? e.g. Latinos in Southern California, Pakistani in England, Moroccans in The Netherlands?

and what about gender?

One final question: when is the equivalent debate on gender and jazz about to hit the blogosphere?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

training (the) quartet pt. 1.1: protocol of affinity

revision notes:

It’s not everyday that I post up a revised version of a post, but having sat on this a while, I think it’s worth it in the long run. The previous version of this article was titled ‘protocol of mirroring’ and I’ve pretty much simply substituted the word ‘mirroring’ with the phrases ‘sharing affinity with’ or ‘creating affinity with’.
Looking back on my old scribbles and notes on these exercises, I noticed that I used ‘affinity’ to describe the main protocol, and that’s the word that I use to describe this in practice (in rehearsals and in class), so I don’t know what stroke of anti-genius (what is the antonym of ‘genius’ in this context?) made me choose ‘mirror’ instead. Whatever the case, having re-read Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ recently, I was struck by the following:
Cyborg unities are monstrous and illegitimate; in our present political circumstances, we could hardly hope for more potent myths for resistance and recoupling. I like to imagine LAG, the Livermore Action Group, as a kind of cyborg society, dedicated to realistically converting the laboratories that most fiercely embody and spew out the tools of technological apocalypse, and committed to building a political form that actually manages to hold together witches, engineers, elders, perverts, Christians, mothers, and Leninists long enough to disarm the state. Fission Impossible is the name of the affinity group in my town. (Affinity related not by blood but by choice, the appeal of one chemical nuclear group for another, avidity.)
Donna J. Haraway (1991), ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge), pp. 154–155.
Not political alliances because we are the same, not alliances because we are related, not an alliance based on some intrinsic quality, but alliances borne out of contingency and necessity, because we can work towards some collectively desirable outcome. (I am reminded of the recent anti-war demonstrations which I’ve tangentially blogged about.)

revision 1.1:

Having specified the quartet formation, let me introduce the protocol in the context of this ensemble: affinity. Well, I’ll be calling this thing ‘affinity’, but when one is sharing affinity, or creating affinity, with another, it can, for example, mean any of the following:
creating similitude
corresponding with
correlating with
This is the elemental behavior within these exercises. When one improviser shares, or creates, affinity with another, the improviser modifies their behavior to correlate in some way to the behavior of the other. Affinity may be implemented as imitation or impersonation, behavioral or stylistic equivalence, etc. Don't get too dogmatic about this, improvisers will find various (creative) ways to implement this idea.
A simple arrangement of the quartet is in a circle in which each improviser creates affinity from the behavior of the improviser on one side (behavioral information is passed in the opposite direction).message-passing in a quartetThis sounds simple, and it is, but we’ll be developing and twisting this idea as the training continues.

some (unanswered) questions:

Does the concept of affinity hold up to scrutiny?
Given that improvisative interaction may encompass juxtapositions, contrasts and contradictions, how can we engineer, or justify, such simple interaction? Affinity is somewhat an arbitrary protocol, but I find it easier that others to explain and implement. I’m, however, very interested in hearing of alternatives.

Is the dualism embedded in this protocol (similar OR different) culturally restrictive?
Yes, it is, and this will come to haunt any ensemble, particularly those composed of inexperienced improvisers. Does anyone have any solutions?

Can interaction, under any circumstance, really be thought of as unidirectional?
Of course not….

Friday, March 16, 2007

i have no idea what I’m doing

A little while ago, away doing a performance, I was in the neighborhood, so I arranged to meet an old mentor of mine who I hadn’t seen in several years.
Let me tell you a little about CL. Although not affiliated with any institution, CL was my first (semi-formal) teacher who was seriously navigating this murky but exciting territory in the intersections of jazz and experimentalism, improvisation and composition. During our lessons, I took my first baby-steps in thinking and listening analytically about these musics and these practices (no more letting the sound of, say, Cecil Taylor wash-over me in a soft-headed fashion). In retrospect, I see that those lessons were the beginning-of-the-end of my lackadaisical fooling around with, and casual engagement with, in particular, the act of improvisation.

And there we are, I’ve lost my pony-tail since our last encounter, and CL is distinctly grayer. Older, hopefully wiser, but I still feel like the student in this relationship: twenty minutes into our meeting and CL will be listing things I should be listening to, musicians I should be checking out, and avenues still open for exploration.
But I’m jumping ahead in this story.
So there we are, standing in line to order our coffees and I tell him about the fact that I’ve started to teach. What a joke: “I have no idea what I’m doing,” I confess.
CL laughs, “I would have been worried if you said you did.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

daily recommended traditional intake

I try and stay away from (life is far too short), but I was perusing the pages and I came across this ridiculous piece: ‘Percentage Analysis Free Improvisation/Jazz Incl. Free Jazz’. Here’s an example:

SUN RA 21% Free Improvisation 79% Jazz
I marvel at how neatly free improvisation stops at the 21/100 mark and jazz begins there.
Maybe I’m missing a joke here, so, if this is some kind of a conceptual art exercise, why not go further and propose a package label for each musician?
Tradition Facts
Performance Duration 65' 00"
Amount Per Performance
Improv 48' 20"From Jazz 25' 00"
Total Improvisation74%
   Free Jazz40%
Musician may be nuts.
Jazz content may be higher than taste suggests.
But seriously, if the value of improvisation—as a skill, as a craft—is partly, perhaps primarily, to do with its adaptability—to cultural contexts, to social networks—then how can we ever hope to tentatively, never mind categorically, state that, say, “Ornette Coleman [is]… 13% [not 12, not 13.5] Texas Blues”, and “Albert Ayler [is] 18% Free Improvisation”?
The mistake, I think, is that we are thinking of idiom and tradition as something fixed. That there are stylistic traits written in stone which shape, or act more-or-less unambiguously as markers for, categories. That’s fine, if you believe that we’re studying cultural fossils, but if these are dynamic, living idioms/traditions which are, by definition, impure hybrids, then the actors (musicians, audience and, yes, theorists) themselves encapsulate these idioms/traditions. Is not the labor of a jazz musician, whatever they do, by definition, 100% pure jazz (as a hybrid form)? And is not the act of improvisation also, by extension, 100% free?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

what’s in a name: the j-word

Jazz is dead, long live jazz.

This one is a little bit more personal in its politicals than my previous ‘what’s in a name’ posts. As what started off as a comment to ‘Jazz Death?’ at Stochasticactus and ‘Jazz historiography versus jazz reality’ at Soundslope, this is my partial, subjective take on ‘jazz’.

Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.
Frank Zappa on ‘Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzmen’s Church)’, Zappa/Mothers (1974).
‘Jazz’ is the name of the political system that controls and dictates African-American information dynamics.
Anthony Braxton quoted in Lock (1988), p. 92.
I’m stuck somewhere between the implications of the Zappa quote (in a sense who cares if jazz is dead) and the Braxton (well, if that’s jazz, they’re welcome to it). Yet I head straight to the J-word section in record stores since, for better or worse, right or wrong, much of the music I love and study is to be found there; I find the results of the labor of many of my cultural elders filed under that moniker.
Reading some of the debates here and there, it occurs to me that there are at least two issues here: one is, for lack of better word, ‘authenticity’ which comes under threat from diversification, intertextuality, marketing and reception. I’m not a huge fan of marching under this banner: I’ve seen what it (or the pursuit there of) can do to traditions of musicking.
And if the lack of ‘authenticity’ leads to an uncomfortably high dosage of ‘jazz’ of the—choose your prefix—smooth-, cocktail-, comfort-, easy-, light-, yuppie- brands, I can live with it. At least Kenny G does not pretend to tell the whole story—the one true story—of jazz.

The other issue is the ‘official stories’.
…It [jazz] was seen as that [subversive and culturally corrosive] a long time ago because of race. That’s the only way you could see Louis Armstrong as a subversive figure, or Charlie Parker, or Duke Ellington. Their message was always one of humanism….
Wynton Marsalis on The Daily Show, March 7th 2007 (watch the video).
So Marsalis claiming that, once stripped of its historical, political and, yes, racial specificity, jazz can stand for a universal humanhood. But is Marsalis also arguing that, having developed colorblindness, we can now appreciate the colorless message underneath the black faces? And isn’t this identity-free, discorporate, humanism a luxury of the wealthy? the white? the male? the heterosexual? Is Marsalis in fact saying that underneath the black faces is the music of/for whites?
…Jazz is the product of the whites—the ofays—too often my enemy. It is the progeny of the blacks—my kinsmen. By this I mean: you own the music, and we make it. By definition, then, you own the people who make the music. You own us in whole chunks of flesh.
Archie Shepp (1965).
What motivates Marsalis’ odd-ball desire for colorblindness (‘once we get rid of the race element, we shall see the universal value of the music’)? Of course this music was subversive and culturally corrosive. Surely you’d have to be come kind of reactionary, wingnut not to want it to be. Why would you want to neutralize this music? Does Marsalis want it to smell less—to smell better?
You wanna know about ‘official stories’? Misha Mengelberg gets to be a composer, but Ornette Coleman—well, Ornette?—is a jazz musician. Wanna know where Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith is found in Grove Music Online? In Grove Jazz. How about John Zorn? John Zorn gets two entries: one in the vanilla, mayonnaise, real Grove, and the other in the ‘jazz’ subsection. (Macy, accessed March 11, 2007.)

If Pulitzer Prize winning neo-classicists want the J-word, they can have it. …Or they can’t: it’s not theirs to own, and its certainly not mine to give. But if jazz becomes Jazz™, fine, have it. Just leave the rest of us alone and save your sermonizing to yourselves—to your little ghetto—and stop staking claim to the names, works and labor of those you wish to forget; wished hadn't been born; wished did not pollute the perfect, flawless, immaculate, clean, purity of your fictitious history. Stop speaking as if the music of anything after hard-bop has any relevance to what you do. In fact, fuck off.
You have to give Wynton [Marsalis] and those guys credit for insisting that black people should have a very important voice in outlining what African American culture is all about. I think that’s a good thing to do. But then, I have a pretty expanded view of what the African American tradition can be. I’ve learned from some really amazing individuals representing a pretty diverse take.
George E. Lewis quoted in Corbett (1996), p. 40.
But whether or not jazz is dead, I don’t share many of the feelings underlying expressions of pessimism. And if the youthful musicians of today appear timid, maybe that has more to do with the fossilized tradition’s elder guardians’ constant proclamation that there will never, ever be another genius of the status of Duke, Parker, Monk, Coltrane. Ever.
What’s important to me is that my work is seen in a particular context, coming from a particular tradition. I don’t really care what people call it but I would want is to be clear that I was inspired to play by listening to certain people who continue to be talked about mainly in jazz contexts. People like John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor—these were people who played music that excited me to the point where I took music seriously myself. That continues to be the case. That’s where what I’m doing has to make most sense, if it makes any sense at all.
Evan Parker quoted in Lock (1991), p. 30.
I’m happy to be labeled under the J-word; I’m happy not to be. The musicians I work with orbit the traditions of improvised musics (free or otherwise), the Blues, of Rock, of R’n’B, folk musics (regional or nomadic), and Experimentalism (from its various forms, branches and chapters). However, it may be that the single most common cultural lineage we hover around and intersect with is encapsulated by that J-word. That, to me, is the testament to the legacy of African-American… actually, let’s not tip-toe around this in our current Obama fueled condition: the legacy of Great Black Music.

The tradition is dead; long live the tradition.


Corbett, John (1996), ‘Interactive Imagination: George Lewis’ Wild Trombone’, Down Beat (vol. 63, no. 8, August).
Lock, Graham (1991), ‘speaking of the essence’, Wire (issue 85, March).
______ (1988), Forces In Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music (London: Quartet).
Macy, Laura, ed. (accessed March 11, 2007), Grove Music Online,
Shepp, Archie (1965), ‘An Artist Speaks Bluntly’, Down Beat (reproduced at
Zappa/Mothers (1974), Roxy & Elsewhere, CD (Rykodisc re-release of Discreet).

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

playing in position pt. 9: fingerboard geometry

To simplify things, there’s basically three ways to change the pitch on a chordophone like a guitar: change the tension of the string, change the mass of the string, or change the effective vibrating length of the string. On the guitar the tension of the string is altered by ‘bending’ the strings or via mechanical means (e.g. tuning machines, a mechanical ‘detuner’ or whammy bar). In the context of position playing, however, it’s the latter two (mass and length of the vibrating string) that we’re interested in.The fingerboard as cartesian spaceYou can view the fingerboard as a two dimensional space in which pitch is dependent on the position both longitudinally and transversally in relation to the strings. Pitch is altered by moving up and down the string (changing the vibrating length of the string) or by moving perpendicular to the string, across the fingerboard (selecting strings of different mass and, to some extent, tension).
In our exploration of playing in position, thus far, we’ve really only concentrated on the first of these dimensions, but we’re about to extend playing in position across the fingerboard. (Or, recalling my earlier metaphor of the guitar fingerboard as “a set of single-pole, multi-throw switches”, having concentrated our efforts on the individual switches, we are about to practice moving between the switches.)

One of the interesting side effects this 2-dimesional arrangement is that the same pitch may appear at multiple coordinates on the fingerboard:E4 at six positions on the fingerboardAnother is that shapes derived from the comfortable hand shape (the diagonal fretting pattern that, from first to fourth finger, moves bass to treble across the strings, and bass to treble up the frets) tend to maximize the pitch interval available, while the reversed diagonal shape tends to minimize them. (These factors will become significant in, for example, the playing of clusters.)diagonal and reverse diagonal shapesKeep these ideas in mind as you approach the 2-dimensional fingerboard: you’re about to take a step towards what some players describe as the fingerboard ‘lighting up’….

Sunday, March 04, 2007

diabolically inspired and hilarious

Okay, I’ve linked to YouTubified clips to (respectfully) critique an elder of guitar improvisation, discuss a problematic reengineering of performance ritual, and, the last time, to simply point to a beautiful and charmingly sweet little ditty….
Well, this ain’t charming or sweet, and it’s definitely ugly… but it is inspired and hilarious (which is, as far as I’m concerned, an appropriately diabolical combination). Enjoy!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

who needs record labels?

As a possible reply (or response or counterpoint or tangential-example or interesting-but-irrelevant-aside) to ‘Ramblin man’ at SoundSlope, ignore the U.K.-centric language, and have a read of ‘Record labels lose out as bands become brands in fierce market’ from the Guardian Unlimited. In particular:

Although sales of CDs are falling sharply… artists are riding the crest of a creative wave—live music has never been more popular, festivals are selling out in record time and brands are paying millions to associate themselves with up and coming acts.
The rest, however, with its predictions of markets driven by cottage industry ‘brands’, reads a little bit like a poor imitation-William Gibson novel (when did business sections of newspapers start getting their tone from Wired, eh?)…