What’s New? is an occasional email roundtable that brings together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.
The approach was simple: A question was posted and the panelists answered as their schedules allowed. As responses were made, the transcript was updated and distributed to everyone. Once everyone weighed in, the process was repeated.
The panelists for this roundtable include:
Ajay Heble, a Professor of English at the University of Guelph, and
Fred Ho, a Chinese American baritone saxophonist, composer, bandleader, writer, producer and revolutionary matriarchal socialist.
Caroline Kraabel, a London-based improviser. She directs Mass Producers, a large saxophone ensemble. Her radio program, Taking a Life for a Walk, is heard on Resonance 104.4 FM (www.resonancefm.com). She edited Resonance magazine issue 10.2: Locality and Reproduction (www.l-m-c.org.uk).
George E. Lewis, a composer, improviser, performer and computer/installation artist. A 2002 MacArthur Fellow, he is currently Edwin H. Case Professor of Music at Columbia University.
George McKay, the author of Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain (Duke University Press). He also directs the Communication, Cultural & Media Studies Research Centre at the University of Salford, where he is a Professor of Cultural Studies.
Bill Shoemaker: A few years ago, Joe Morris released an album entitled The Age of Everything, an apt moniker for the present period in jazz and its constituent experimental genres. Accessing materials from outside one’s community-based tradition is no longer provocative as it was when Charlie Parker was delving into Hindemith, or Anthony Braxton first extolled the virtues of Stockhausen and Boulez. It is now arguably the quotidian characteristic of 21st Century music. What critical methods best assess work from this period? Do old school expectations of acuity and adept execution still apply? What recently articulated evaluative criteria do you think will withstand the test of time?
Ajay Heble: In its most provocative historical instances, jazz has always been about innovation and change rather than stasis and preservation. And accessing materials from outside one’s own cultural and community-based traditions has, I would suggest, always been an important part of that vital process of change, transformation, and experimentation. From Louis Armstrong’s Broadway tunes, to Miles Davis’s fusion experiments, to John McLaughlin’s collaborations with Indian musicians, to operas by Anthony Davis, Anthony Braxton, and Fred Ho, to Supersilent’s indebtedness to electronic music and new technology, the music has sought to widen its expressive vocabulary, to discover new nuances of influence, to cross borders, to test boundaries, and to explore (and, indeed, to celebrate) new kinds of relationships (musical and otherwise). Much of what may appear to be new about 21st century jazz and creative improvised music actually seems to me to be a contemporary manifestation of an ongoing historical process.
Sure, old school expectations of acuity and adept execution still seem germane. The music needs to be played well, with care and thought and appropriate expressiveness. But perhaps equally relevant, equally pressing, are matters of rights, respect, and responsibility. Are there instances where a particular community should have privileged access and privileged rights to the expressive traditions of its own culture or heritage? Or should any and all materials, from whatever context, community, and tradition, simply and fairly be up for grabs in a globalized and transcultural Age of Everything? What does it mean to “borrow” responsibly from other cultures and traditions, to access materials from those cultures and traditions in ways that are genuinely respectful and non-manipulative? In a world where power and resources are distributed unevenly, where aggrieved communities are struggling for access to representation (and where the consequences of this maldistribution and lack of representation can be profoundly harmful), it behoves us to ask: whose interests are being served by such borrowing and accessing? In what ways are the materials from outside one’s own community-based tradition being accessed and adapted? What’s at stake, and for whom? It seems to me that these are some of the key critical, ethical, and evaluative questions that will withstand the test of time.
It also seems to me that our evaluative assessments will always be based not on our understanding of some quality of the music in itself, but on a broad range of social, cultural, and institutional factors: What kinds of social or cultural relationships are being sounded, envisioned, and activated through the music-making? What are the conditions in which the music is being made and in which it is being performed, listened to, or received? What commitments and assumptions guide our own practice as listeners and critics? What are the experiences, goals, and intentions that, from the artist’s point of view, have given rise to the music? And how do we negotiate amongst these various factors?
Caroline Kraabel: Another characteristic of 20th and 21st century music is that it’s mostly and increasingly coming out of loudspeakers, which is a reason that we’re able to have this intercontinental discussion with some overlap of musical references - and also a reason for the “Age of Everything”, as far as music is concerned.
Music has been the art form that brings together time, space and the body - now the body’s involvement in making music is increasingly optional, and the thought-processes involved in electronically mediated music-making are less likely to happen in real time (even live electronics have a strong pre-prepared element that gives them a ‘composed’ sound), and will have more in common with the code-based mental processes formerly more typical of literature: selecting, editing, cutting and pasting. The listeners’ perception of space is also distorted: by loudspeakers which move sounds from their places of origin and into boxes, and/or introduce a range of sounds created in various ways and various spaces (real or virtual), and at various times, all mixed together and coming out of the same boxes. It is rare that music-makers take acoustics/physics into account when using loudspeakers - Alvin Lucier is exceptional in this regard. The Age of Everything could also be the Age of Nothing, and I think I am typical - excuse me for bringing myself into it, but Bill’s question reminded me that, like many artists and musicians working now, I feel I come from no tradition or community and am trying to create my own way of working, AND of listening (I agree with Ajay that listening is a learned skill with various cultural manifestations - and not to be taken for granted). Again like many I come from a mixed background - neither of my parents belonged to a strong musical community, there was very, very little music in our home - and none of it (classical recordings, MOR radio) felt like it was ‘ours’, because it seemed to serve no purpose beyond that of (very quiet) decor. I find it hard to imagine even now how having ‘our’ music might feel. I think this has to do with industrialisation, mobility and de-skilling - perhaps we have become alienated even from our leisure! A very recent study in the UK seems to show people consuming more music but in a passive way, and generally while a) alone and b)doing something else (“Why music downloads have lost the X-factor”, Dr Adrian North (Leicester), Prof. David Hargreaves, Jon Hargreaves, 2005/6).
Evaluative criteria - Though social, cultural, economic and political factors are important, I think that neurological study is revealing the adaptive roots of music-making and that there is at least a case for a physiological basis for the fact that music-making and enjoyment is universal among humans (See for example “Is Music an Evolutionary
Fred Ho: Just as I consider “free market” economics to be a sham/scam, so too do I consider “free market” musical/intellectual exchange. The bourgeois individualist “right” to artistic license is proffered to justify “cross-cultural” experimentation, “borrowing”, etc. Just as the “free market” (from the exchange of commodities to ideas, for which the latter is simply another form of “intellectual property”) conveniently disguises exploitation, unequal exchange, and of course the over-arching power of monopolies, so too does “artistic license” perpetuate such a deception.
Over five centuries of colonization and imperialism has euphemistically brought the world “closer” and thereby generated a myriad of interactions and investigations and socio-cultural miscegenations. But these engagements have been far from “equal.” The result of colonialism is that economic, political and military power squarely centers in the West (Western Europe, the former colonial masters; and now primarily with the mighty imperialist U.S.A.). Therefore, the power of legitimacy, authority, acceptability and assumptions/pretensions towards universality is a Eurocentric/white thing. However, while the Eurocentrist trumpets how much the “natives” look to the greatness of the supposedly universal standards of the Western canon (“jazz” earning legitimacy for checking out the Euro-masters and their master narrative/canon), a good many of the “natives” have appropriated, subverted and transformed the master’s “tools”, and indeed re-made these “tools” into revolutionary weapons, forms and forces (since Audre Lorde’s contention that the master’s tools in and of themselves, without alteration, can’t be used to dismantle the master’s house since they aren’t value-neutral). That is what Amiri Baraka means by the proposition of the “changing sameness” characteristic of African American music and its process of music-making. It remains African American while it incorporates and utilizes everything from around the world, including from the oppressor-imperialist white supremacist, adding, enhancing and expanding the African American formic traditions as part of maintaining national self-identity in the face of the forces of imperialist white assimilation.
Today, imperialism (described by Kwame Nkrumah as “neo-colonialism”) dominates not by blatant external control as its predecessor form of colonialism. Rather, abetted by native agents through economic dependency, imperialism has expedited the profiteering and benefit of the western capitalist centers at the continually intensified expense of the rest of the world. These imperialist-identified natives lust after getting as close as they can to the imperialist centers and any chance they can get to pocket what crumbs come off the imperialist table for themselves. So it is no surprise that the bourgeois western individualist notion of “artistic license” is even adopted and espoused by “people of color” (oppressed nationality personages).
The question is not the act itself of “borrowing” and “mixing” but the content of that act, its intentions and more importantly, its impact. “Borrowing” and “mixing” aren’t value-free, neutral, apolitical acts. Under the transformation and domination of the globe by capitalism, everything is a commodity, including “intellectual property” or creative labor and its cultural/artistic creations. Capitalism seeks to impose its values upon the world’s people, societies and cultures: to bring everything into the realm of market relations, and thereby be exploited for profit (for a few). Therefore, the “music” of cultures that don’t subscribe to art-music, or commercial music, or the notion of “art for art’s sake” (bourgeois individualism) may be deemed “primitive” and thereby like any natural resource, available to the imperialist or bourgeois, for plundering, profiteering and private ownership, whether by an individual or by institutions.
The artist does not have the right to simply take, no matter how well-meaning and by whatever creative individual desire they may have. The common practice of shallow, superficial flirtation and dabbling in cross-cultural jamming shows the cultural tourist fascination with exotica justified as experimentation. No matter if it is done by a legendary “jazz” pianist with a Chinese pipa player. The impact or results are an insubstantial mish-mash masked as “improvisation.” No effort is developed towards cross-cultural discourse in any sustained and rigorous engagement. Perhaps a recording is made and the artists move on to other “projects.”
As someone who has been engaged in Afro-Asian unity building, I can tell you it is a life-long, protracted struggle, and the musical discourse demands the same commitment as the socio-political effort. It doesn’t happen in a jam session, a recording or in a touring project as some kind of novelty or “new” experiment.
The evaluative criteria, in my view, are not just musical or aesthetic, but also ethical/political, with aesthetics and ethics operating dialectically. The sham and scam “exchanges” don’t reflect any true internalization (which isn’t just solely or even primarily as result of ethnographic or ethno-musicological study), i.e., a living, dynamic, committed grasp and engagement with the musical sources. A koto “new music” player who hasn’t really learned the tradition of her* instrument, but justifies her technical shortcomings with “improvisation” and being “new music/experimental.” (The pronoun “her” is used as the Japanese tradition of koto performance has been a female practice.) Obviously such poseurs don’t make for much of an impact within the tradition and culture and can only continue a “career” in an ignorant (usually white) and culturally unknowing circle (guess what, white “new music”, though as I’ve pointed out before, a few token “non-white/natives” may be participants).
Conversely, someone who does know the tradition (thru study, practice/immersion/ engagement, or a combination of such committed activity), with the additive of imagination, daring, boldness, skill and adventurousness), will perhaps make fresh “new music”.
I agree that the evaluative criteria are still subject to much debate, discussion and delineation. That is because we must examine the aim and method of evaluation outside of, and often contrary to, the bourgeois art individualism of aesthetics over ethics and socio-political issues and impact. This is not how musical criticism is usually done either in the bourgeois academia or in commercial music journalism.
I realize my views and comments may be controversial. Let me add even more controversy: I think that ultimately such “new” criteria must ask the question, HOW DOES IT (THE MUSIC BEING MADE) FREE US?
I think that the legacy of the Black Arts Movement asserted this question, but since Black Power and its attendant cultural wing, the BAM, have been pilloried by a host of neo-conservative opponents (a la Crouch-Marsalis) and accomodationist-integrationist market intellectuals (a la Henry Louis Gates), the framework of evaluating its socio-political impact to the liberation struggle is dismissed as vulgarizing and reductive and perhaps essentialist.
So rather than call the music of the sixties, “free jazz” (and thereby reduce it to a style or regard it exclusively or primarily as an aesthetic movement), I’d rather view it, contextually and I believe more holistically, as the music of the Black Arts Movement (which inspired people and artists across disciplines and ethnicities and social experiences), the musical component of the Black liberation struggle/movement, conjoined intimately, inextricably and in an infinite number of ways.
So, HOW DOES THE MUSIC FREE US? I perhaps have gone on too long in this essay. Let me suffice to say that that topic will be discussed in future responses, hopefully.
George E. Lewis: Perhaps the first thing I should address is one of the premises of Bill’s question, i.e., “accessing materials from outside one’s community-based tradition.”
While there is no reason to view the jazz tradition as somehow exempt from the fragmentation and instability that has been endemic in recent years, it occurs to me that perhaps we display a kind of postmodernism-imbued hubris in describing our own historical period as more open than others. In fact, I find myself agreeing with Ajay, as I observe that well before the current period, jazz has been one of the areas in which the sensibility of methodological and genre openness was addressed with the greatest alacrity, as Carol Oja has shown about the debates over jazz’s place in American culture in the 1920s and 1930s, and as Jason Stanyek has shown regarding pan-African collaborations in the 1940s.
The theory of the 1920s was that any music could be “jazzed,” and the miscegenationist subtext of “jazzin’ the classics” symbolized jazz’s challenge to high culture--and, of course, to the dominance of whiteness. To address Bill’s examples more directly, the bemusement, wonder, and later opposition to Parker, Ellington, and even AACM appropriations of pan-European high culture musics was related less to genre transgression per se than to the appropriation of those methods and tropes (and the related authority and mobility routinely embedded in them) by designated racial subalterns for whom genre stability and immobility had already been naturalized.
Howard Becker’s study of 1950s club date musicians described their essential view of jazz (in fact, the most widely held view) as representing “freedom from restraint.” Perhaps this has been forgotten since the mid-1980s, when a highly touted set of issues arose concerning the retroactive canonization of heroic figures and standardized, easily replicated modes of performance.
This debate has perhaps distracted many of us from the far more ominous recent challenges to the notion of jazz as a site for border-crossing, a fundamental aspect of the tradition since its inception. Emerging from a condition of chattel slavery in which mobility was all but impossible, the imperative driving the music’s border-crossing impulses could not be more obvious, as African-American musicians from the very beginning of the 20th Century were insisting that no tradition was alien to their purview.
This view problematizes the idea that musicians inevitably saw their activities as moving “outside their community-based tradition.” To make that claim requires far more stable notions of “community,” “inside,” and “outside” than can be responsibly countenanced in a contemporary historiography. In the US context at least, claiming multiple traditions can be seen (at least ideally) as emblematic of the American project, and I see this kind of assertion of mobility surrounding jazz--a networked sensibility--as a far more plausible and historically grounded model for contemporary genre transgression in the field than an easy postmodernist reading.
Could it be, then, that it is the 20th Century example of jazz that prepared the ground for the 21st Century “Age of Everything”?
Those who would invoke Charles Ives’s strategies of depiction of multiple streams of music as an alternative antecedent in this context might want to remember that one of the musics being depicted in Ives’s work was the jazz precursor known as ragtime, a music presaged in turn by Louis Moreau Gottschalk--who was not at African-American, by the way. This mid-19th Century pianist-composer was extremely celebrated in his day for his blending of European and Caribbean-Africoid musical tropes in his music. Even if a later generation of American music historians sought to minimize his contribution (perhaps in favor of the ultramodernism of Ives and Cowell), the connection with later mobilities surrounding jazz is easily heard.
Harlem Renaissance historian Alain Locke, whose ideas are rarely referenced by jazz historians, saw a similarly syncretic sensibility evoked by jazz, even if his goal, asserted in terms of the commonly asserted eugenicist tropes of the period, was the fusing of jazz with European high culture music to create a “vital but superior product.” Ives’s willingness (at least symbolically) to fold various streams of American music into a conception in which Yankee transcendentalism was nonetheless dominant did not really challenge the later distancing from jazz asserted by the American ultramoderns, which in my view reduces the trenchancy of their claim to a similar openness. This was almost certainly a major factor in William Grant Still’s parting of aesthetic company from his teacher, Edgard Varese.
Now I can address the rest of the question, concerning value assessments and the role of “virtuosity.” I think I’ll skip the part about “withstanding the test of time,” since this would take my answer far beyond the bounds of what we can address in this forum.
I don’t think I would be able to summarize the current state of “recently articulated evaluative criteria,” but for me, any age of everything worth its salt would have to observe Jacques Attali’s notion of improvisation--which he called “composing.” Attali, as some would like to forget, explicitly named free jazz and the AACM as emblematic of the advent of a “new noise” in which styles and codes would diverge and rules would dissolve. Even before the advent of free jazz, virtuosity (adept execution) was never the primary factor in assessing affect; if it were, Johnny Griffin would be exercising greater impact on contemporary culture than John Coltrane. Thus, when we profess to examine “old school expectations of acuity and adept execution,” we have to maintain clarity about whose “old school” we are addressing; after all, we’ve had over fifty years of free improvisation in jazz-identified and jazz-influenced musics. We would need to clarify the provenance of the expectations that are being addressed, since both musicians and journalists have at various times touted the importance of “virtuosity.”
If we look back on various “old schools” of musicians, certain baseline competencies really did matter. More recently, even as the notion of baseline competencies and even virtuosity has been shattered into a thousand and one poststructuralist fragments in some communities, imputations of virtuosity continue to be welcomed as legitimizing narratives that can help foster greater access to infrastructure, even if no one is quite sure what virtuosity means when listening to, say, onkyo, or “reductionist” improvisation. Where impersonations of music-theoretical (or, for that matter, racial/ethnic) authority prove difficult to impose, discussions of affect become even more critical to evaluation, a dynamic that in the best case renders stable judgments worthless, allowing a greater number of voices to be heard.
What I see (or rather, what I want to be a part of) is an emerging, globalized community of new music that can draw upon the widest range of traditions, while not being tied to any one. In this regard, I find myself in the same position as Caroline, coming from a “mixed” background--but once we move beyond glib racializing positions, what we find is that “mixed backgrounds” along the lines Caroline describes are really the rule with contemporary musicians, even if the set of positions relative to the question of alienation she describes are equally “mixed.”
Given this kind of Métis sage, however, what could prevent the advent of Attali’s “new noise” is the ongoing tendency to frame as canonical a whiteness-based, transnational, pan-European experimental aesthetic that asserts the permanent marginalization of African-American agency. In a recent letter to The Wire (#260), electronic musician Morgan Craft observed of the magazine’s content, “I'm constantly fed this steady stream of future thinking folks from Germany, Japan, UK, Norway, etc, but when it comes to America all I hear about is the genius that is free folk or if it's black it must be hiphop, jazz, or long dead. How many more articles on Albert Ayler do we really need?”
At the same time, Craft pointed to the assumption of responsibility and agency by African-American experimental artists as crucial to the emergence of new noise: “Improvisation and resourcefulness are present. The awareness of European and Asian traditions informs our approaches. Technology is within reach. The hype of the interconnectedness of individuals is here. What does the black American do with all of this?” Indeed, if jazz, the “avant-garde,” and other musical movements have become part of a larger network in which no one scene is dominant (as you wrote, Bill, in a Jazz Times article from September 2000), resistance to the essentializing impulses that discursively block freely forming conceptual, financial, social, and cultural flows is critically important.
Thus, the Age of Everything may not necessarily be the Age of Everyone, and I tend to cast a skeptical eye on glib tropes that uncritically celebrate First World “access to materials.” On this point, I again find myself quite in agreement with Ajay, not least because of the tendency to fold people into the category of “material.”
Despite the hopeful title, “Here Comes Everyone,” given to a recent compendium of articles on Cage, the post-Cage movement can’t possibly pose as exemplifying the kind of openness we are discussing. In that light, Fred’s important question, “How does the music free us?” contains a wide range of possible positions. Certainly, there is no one music that can free us, and no one area in which that freedom might be asserted or conceived. Jazz, an area that has tended to pose relatively low barriers to admittance--that is, with the major exception of its ongoing problems with accepting women’s’ histories, sounds, and practices--has, until recently, served as an international symbol of freedom and mobility. As such, this fuzzy set of musical genre-positions has a much stronger claim to being a music that could actually put into practice the best aspects of an Age of Everything and Everyone--quite possibly because to this day, the instability of its definition and the absence of borders allow maximum mobility.
Beyond that, the need is not to reassert stable evaluative criteria, but to unmask those criteria that seek to obscure tendentious historicizing and co-dependency with particularly situated cultural worldviews and power-complexes.
George McKay: Jazz is a big thing, meaning that much of the practice we see, hear, listen to regularly, is in fact not innovative and alterative (not sure that’s a word), but static, retrogressive, formulaic, tired. (Am I talking primarily about my view of the UK here, from the amateur and semi-pro scene outwards? They interest me.) In seeming to privilege for our discussion so far those energetic, bursting, dialogic forms or moments of the music we are already evaluating and excluding. That’s fine, cultural criticism often focuses on an artist’s strongest work, but we need an eye on the weaknesses of that tactic too: the danger is of overstating the utopian possibility, of overwriting the liberatory claim, maybe of overlooking some of its limitations. This is a point particular to jazz I feel: when I wrote in the past about, say, punk rock—my own formative moment, generationally—I wasn’t really positioned by reviewers or media as a ‘champion’ of it; when I wrote about rave culture it wasn’t text that was read as a defence by a committed raver. But now, writing about jazz, I do have a sense that this material is understood differently: I am expected to be a defender of that music, it’s assumed that I will align myself with some sort of positive perspective on it, socially, musically, and that there will even be something like an undercurrent of celebration to my history or critique. (I have I’m afraid no firm evidence to confirm this soft perception of mine.) I am ambivalent.
That sense of the Americanness of the music, which was historically a key factor in its attraction and dread alike for non-US fans, musicians and ‘dislikers’ (the English poet and jazz record critic Philip Larkin’s characteristically curious word), shouldn’t be entirely overlooked in our apparent rush to the postnational—even if the music was always already kinda postnational in its Atlanticist origins. This last observation is important: did jazz, in its transcultural, anti-elitist, ‘outernational’ (Paul Gilroy) practice help to set the template for just the kind of ad hoc borrowing or grabbing we seem to be berating elsewhere, in apparently contemporary music-making? Jazz then (forgive the binary) becomes part of the problem rather than the solution—exacerbated by the distribution through mass media technologies of the music through the 20th century. There is another question about American export culture in the global economy in relation to current hemispheric military engagement which has left some or many of its enthusiasts in, in my example, Britain, feeling uneasy. (Bebop drummers ‘dropping bombs’.) I recognise that, since most of my interviewees were politically active—that’s why they were attractive to me—this may be a partial perception on my part.
The ‘community-based’ representation of jazz also interests me, for two reasons. First is the participatory nature of the music-making, that, in many except the most technically demanding forms, jazz has been received as a music that many people can make, from amateur onward. While this presented problems historically for organisations like musicians’ trade unions, it also meant that there have been persistent groundswells of autonomous organisation within the various scenes over the years. Second, the informal educative possibilities of the music over the years are significant too, whether sole musicians bolstering their regular income by teaching, or some of the more radical community education programmes that came out of the counterculture (in Britain). Self-organisation and informal education have been important contributors to the social and political side of (jazz) community—all the more worthy of recognition in a music that dramatises the tension between collectivity and individualism, between supportive dialogue and aggressive competition.
In terms of ‘evaluative criteria’—ugh, you really put me off there—several of the other respondents are keen to blur or problematize the distinction between musical and social, or aesthetic and ethic. This surprised me a little: it’s what I do too. Or rather, my interest in music is always framed by social and political questions—‘cultural politics’—it’s possibly made me a bit of an ‘old leftie’ figure in Cultural/Media Studies over here, my outdatedness massively confirmed by choosing most recently to write about jazz… But: what is potentially lost or at least sidestepped in the turn to the social for our evaluation is the ‘magic’, the ‘mystery’ of music itself (from memory, Said and Barthes have written about this), its cultural specificity. I acknowledge that; it doesn’t worry me for my own writing, since I ‘do’ cultural politics, but it would worry me if we all turned that way. Especially the musicians? What was it Chris McGregor the white S. African pianist and bandleader said: ‘music is in fact very, very precise: it says exactly what words are unable to do’.