Bill Shoemaker: Experimental practices have historically been identified by place. The New York School, the Dutch school…the list is long. Whether we’re talking about late ‘40s Philadelphia, mid ‘60s Chicago or present-day Tokyo, innovation has resulted from the prolonged physical proximity of musicians who, at some point, become a community. How many – or more pointedly, how few – musicians does it take to make a community? If three constitutes a mob, let’s go with that as a baseline. Perhaps, that minimal number is one factor in addition to the obvious reasons – the Internet, relatively easy international travel, etc. – why few experimental music communities remained geographically moored. I think we’re in something of a historical cusp in this regard. Community is now defined by methodology as much as geography. Place remains important in that many experimental music communities have festivals that support their work. Subsequently, community as place now exists largely for only a few days at a time. What is being lost and what is being gained because of this transformation?
Fred Ho: Many traditional music communities all across the planet continue to exist as communal centers of music-making, performance, and training. Many are known as “schools” with resident master-artist/performers. They seek to continue the on-going legacy (albeit feudal in many respects). In respect to “jazz”, Barry Harris’ Jazz Cultural Theater continues what quite possibly may be a 30 year history centered around the teacher-master pianist. Though students and musicians don’t share a co-habitation proximity, they spend many shared hours and common musical activity together with the venerable Mr. Harris. The original San Francisco Taiko dojo under Sensei/master Seichi Tanaka was very feudalist: though his students (Japanese/Asian Americans at first and then including others) didn’t live in the same quarters as Master Tanaka, he did make them run, exercise and condition together! Initially, these student disciples were not allowed to perform with anyone outside the Tanaka group. Today, perhaps, Mr. Tanaka has allowed a rare few to do so, but I’m not sure.
However, for the “experimental/contemporary” composer-performer, feudalist legacies are irrelevant and rejected in favor of bourgeois individualist notions of artistry, individual creative genius, solo careers, leveraging and maneuvering funding and patronage, etc. A possible grand exception might be Sun Ra and his Arkestra, rehearsing and living together under the same roof. Though it might be argued that Sun Ra was adopting certain feudalistic practices of pre-germ Africa just as major cultural nationalist organizations and institutions (such as The East, the Congress of Afrikan Peoples, and others) promulgated what they perceived to be pre-European African “traditions.”
In the histories of “experimental” musics, there have been many “scenes” and even “movements.” For me, I use the term “scene” to describe something very broad musically, but with intersections and overlaps, a sector within a larger industry that might share certain ideological, musical, and professional interests and joint activity. Michael Dessen has a far more elaborated understanding of “scenes” than I do.
By “movement,” I prefer to describe a more cohered trend, with institutions, leadership, and even commonly professed objectives or principles or values. While there were many “free jazz” scenes during the 1960s and early 1970s throughout the U.S. and perhaps internationally (for example, Paris in 1969 with the presence of expatriate and visiting African American and other musicians in transit between New York, the U.S., and the Pan-African Arts Festival in Algeria); I would maintain that all of these “free jazz” scenes, along with “other jazz” artists (and possibly “scenes”) were the musical activity within the larger Black Arts Movement. Just as Archie Shepp collaborated closely with Cal Massey who collaborated with Italian American Romulus Franceschini (Romulus and Massey were the leaders of the RoMas Orchestra), producing concerts to benefit the Black Panther Party that included a wide spectrum of artists from Sun Ra to Junior Cook to Woody Shaw to Betty Carter and Carmen McRae.
Let me soundly state my view that most musical histories of such experimental “scenes” and communities have ignored the many parallel and possibly precursor activities of “non-white” artists as well as women artists, including the Black Arts Movement (Black Artists Guild in St. Louis, of course AACM in Chicago, and several important others); Asian Americans (from the Columbia University circle around Chou Wen-chung, to the Bay Area Kearny St. Workshop-Asian American Jazz Festival to the AsianImprov Records/League of Revolutionary Struggle cadre-musicians, etc.); Pauline Oliveros and Batya Weinbaum and women’s music movements; etc.
The struggle for diversity and inclusion, to broaden beyond the “great white male” heroes of new music, continues in tandem with, and sustained by, the legacy of white settler-colonialism, privilege and supremacy in the U.S. The larger global struggle is one against Eurocentrism and imperialism. These great white heroes, from Cage to Zorn, are greatly indebted to both the musics of “non-whites” and to “non-white” artists that have influenced (directly or indirectly) them, though it would be refreshing to find a “great white hero” who actually, boldly acknowledges that as part of a greater commitment to anti-racism. But perhaps the very notion of an individual genius or hero is simply a bourgeois by-product anyways, by placing primary consideration upon the individual and not upon their community or communities, including the ones that are contrapuntal or oppositional.
The possibly of community in the First World has been greatly diminished for human beings as a whole. Commercialization, commodification, market dominated economies, individual career self-aggrandizement, acquisitiveness as the pursuit of affluence is primary, allows for a “cerebral” community of bloggers, emails, shared downloaded music files, contracted festival acts, etc. But a community that grows its own food, shares meals together, literally breaks bread, shares in cooperative, self-sustained economic activity, engages in face-to-face raw debate, discussion and emotional honesty, and works out (exercise and train) together, are rare (Taiko drummers excepted!). There are few real “temples” or “centers” or “schools”; however, many are driven by the cash connection (students and audiences pay tuition and admission, while the teachers and artists get paid, and another layer of administrators, managers and middle-people take their commissions and percentages). Most “new music” professionals have professor jobs, usually at salaries far higher than the populace, most choosing to live in suburbs, preciously guarding their privacy and inaccessibility to the masses (though some may secretly wish they could cross-over to be perhaps Philip Glass-like career phenoms). Email, caller ID and gated communities serve the same function: to selectively keep out all those who haven’t been pre-screened, pre-qualified and pre-selected. Any wonder why “new music” concerts are so poorly attended and usually by the same (mostly white) faces? Rather than blame it upon the tawdry tastes of the masses, their ignorance and unculturedness, perhaps the socio-economic relations, manifested and expressed thru a myriad of differences, are too fundamentally disparate as part of the crass class cleavages wrecked by modern-day capitalist existence and acquisitive-focused “lifestyles.”
I don’t believe the “avant garde” is intrinsically alienating from a larger non-self-referential community (i.e., “the people”). There are many exceptions, indeed examples of “popular avant garde”, but since marketing resources to educate and acclimate broader popular tastes are largely owned and controlled by the huge corporations and high-art institutions (the SOBs: Symphonies, Operas, Ballets), even the affluent petty-bourgeois avant garde who have professor salaries into the six figures can’t compete with multi-million dollar marketing budgets. However, if expectations aren’t as grand, if lifestyles could be thrifty (or thriftier), perhaps a few tens of thousands of dollars a year could be reallocated into sustaining a simple community-based avant garde concert series. After all, having 100 people turn out (from the paltry previous attendance of little more than a dozen) from this added reallocation of marketing dollars, without even consideration given to changing the artistic content or substance, would be a triumph.
I’m continually grateful for Thomas Buckner. His support allowed me to change the usual venues of his new music Interpretations series for my event from Merkin Hall near Lincoln Center to a venue like the black box (now called “salon”) of the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Inner-city school kids packed one program, and a very diverse audience came to the other events. What normally was spent on one evening’s concert, I managed to spread across 5 performances among two dozen performers and designers. I believe I still hold the box office and attendance record for the Interpretation Series for over 225 paid admissions at Merkin Recital Hall for the work-in-progress presentation of my Black Panther Suite and Once Upon a time in Chinese America martial arts ballet preview back in February 1997. (There were more than 225 people as typically many “new music” events paper the house with generously supplied guest comps.)
So what I’m saying is that capitalism mitigates and eviscerates community, subordinating human interactions to a cash nexus and thereby shredding holistic and honest social relations, increasing alienation, isolation, fragmentation all the while homogenizing, standardizing, regulating, and manipulating mass consumption and identity via a host of methods (branding, subliminal seduction, creating unnecessary needs and unwanted wants, etc.). But the methods of marketing (slickness, saturation, to name only a few since I don’t have an MBA and couldn’t begin to teach anything about marketing), while tools, shouldn’t be the main methods. Audre Lorde said “You can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.” I believe, perhaps to somewhat differ from the sister Lorde, that some of the tools can be used, but most require alteration and transformation and for us to devise fundamentally different methods, tools and expectations. For us, I believe in utilizing and developing more people-to-people methods. Adding home-cooked potluck meals to concerts would be a suggested start.
What we need to do is resist and combat the divisions, dishonesty, and diversions fostered upon the communities of humanity. We need to build community and not succumb to solipsism, the privatization of society, the deification and mythologizing of free will, bourgeois individualism, art for arts sake propaganda, and all of the other atomizing dehumanizations. We can build it starting with two people. And hopefully, as we struggle and figure out how to overcome all of the things that deter unity, we won’t be building exclusionary, elitist, divided, hierarchal “communities” or circles or scenes, but an entire movement embracing diversity and difference, united in a common goal to put people and the planet before profits.
Caroline Kraabel: These words will, I am told, be made available online. According to some, that makes us a “community”.
Chris Cutler has written “Almost all of (the music that became the currency of my generation) came out of loudspeakers. If we wanted to join in, there was really nowhere to learn how to do that except the records themselves... Records became a kind of “where” for us; a kind of school; a kind of community.” He goes on to say “An encounter with a loudspeaker” (as opposed to one with live music -- CK) “may still change our lives but the differentiation, the mutual construction of time, the profound integrity of shared occasions, are all gone. And because we are freed from the obligation to lead a certain kind of life, or to be at a certain place at a certain time in order to experience certain kinds of sounds, the meanings that those obligations lend those sounds are also irretrievably lost” (‘A Personal Note About Locality’, Chris Cutler, in Resonance Magazine, Issue 10.2 (2005), still available from the London Musicians’ Collective). I am aware that there is an ambiguity in the above. Does the community consist of the collection of records each individual is learning from, or the far-flung listeners to each record, unknown to each other or to the artists they listen to? Both could be construed as communities, but neither really allows for much flow of communication (as opposed to information).
“I left my family, I left my friends, I left for real. I left everything to be me ‘cause I knew I was not like them. Not like black or white, not like Americans. I’m not like nobody else; I’m alone on this planet.” Sun Ra 1990. (from Chasing the Vibration, by Graham Lock, Stride Publications 1994)
I’m not sure that I agree that innovation has come from stable geographically-fixed communities. I get the impression that new things happen when people, styles and ideas move around and recombine (and also in response to economic and technological change). Sometimes new ideas or directions surface in several places at once, for example tendencies towards sparse and quiet music in London, Berlin and Tokyo, or trying for completely improvised group music-making, as Joe Harriott and Ornette Coleman (and perhaps others) were at around the same time and independently.
I seem to find community pretty hard to define, but I do have one piece of practical advice, if you can bear with me... If some people of Chris Cutler’s generation were making their own one-way communities of sounds coming out of loudspeakers, today’s generation often has those loudspeakers placed inside their ears - missing out on engaging with the here and now and making it even less likely that anyone else will hear as and when they do. (I believe that togetherness is one of the profound purposes of listening to music as well as of playing). I remember a flash-mob that I wandered into unwittingly about a year ago. I was at Waterloo Station in London, underneath the clock (a traditional meeting-place since the station was built) when I found myself surrounded by about 40 young people, each of whom was wearing headphones and dancing in such a way as to make me certain that each pair of headphones was relaying a different piece of music - not only was each dancer in a different style and tempo (many had their eyes closed), they were all awkward and self-consciously alone. This was a clever exposition of the influence of technology - simultaneously pro-community and anti-community.
Ajay Heble: Community inheres in the way people make choices, in how they adapt to circumstances, how they shape and intervene in the production of knowledge. True, familiar markers of community—such as place—may seem to be shifting, as new forms of affiliation (virtual communities), new models of information restructuring, and new means for people to come together (through, for example, internet-based performances) emerge. But many vibrant and thriving experimental musical communities still retain their geographical moorings, as well as their commitments to nurturing a local or regional scene.
Here in Canada, there are a number of such communities. For instance, there’s the community associated with the New Orchestra Workshop Society (NOW), an organization with an explicit mandate to focus on the creation of original West coast Canadian creative music. In Toronto, there’s the recently formalized Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto (AIMT). And, most notably in Montreal, there’s the ever dynamic and distinctive community associated with the musique actuelle scene.
The artists associated with the Montreal musique actuelle community—many who record for the pioneering Ambiances Magnétiques label—have nurtured and developed what may well be the most distinctive (and most identifiable) sound in Canadian experimental and creative music. They delight in crossing stylistic borders and in resisting simple classification. These performers typically draw from many musical genres, including jazz, new music, Québecois folkloric traditions, rock, “world music,” and free improvisation, often combining any or all of them with theatrical and parodic flair. With its emphasis on improvisation, genre-crossing, and experimentation, this musical community, then, while rooted in the specifics of place, also articulates its sense of purpose in terms of its methodology and its protocols of inquiry.
Indeed, one could argue that all three of the experimental musical communities I’ve named are defined as much by methodology as they are by geography (the same is true for the AACM, BAG, the UGMAA, etc), that stylistic concerns and identities (which are themselves so often tied to broader social and ethical matters) can be as powerful in shaping community as the kinds of concerns and practices which historically have been grounded in local or regional circumstances.
What’s gained, it seems to me, as our understanding of community broadens beyond the specifics of place is the opportunity for new and exciting experimental musical styles to take shape and develop. I agree with Caroline that “new things happen when people move around and recombine.” What’s gained, in short, is an opportunity to reinvigorate public life with new collaborations, with new and more diverse kinds of dialogue, with processes of change and trans-cultural cross-fertilization, as artists from different places meet and create music together.
Through my work as a Festival presenter, I’ve also become keenly aware of the extent to which institutions (such as arts organizations and festivals) play a role in shaping and consolidating musical communities. In particular, I’m interested in thinking about arts presenters (festival organizers, curators, club owners) as community-based educators and activists. As a Festival director, I’ve become increasingly aware of the ways in which the choices I make (about what artists to present, in what context, etc.) ought to be understood not simply as programming matters, but as pedagogical acts, acts which frequently question static relations of power, which seek to build alternative visions of community and social cooperation, and which often explicitly set out to challenge taken-for-granted representations. In this context, festivals might purposefully be considered, as writer Max Wyman suggests in his book The Defiant Imagination: Why Culture Matters, as “testing grounds for new visions of how we live together, new ways to establish shared values.”
In an era when the very possibilities for public life are continually being enfeebled, when material constraints and realities too often dictate views and understandings of music and art, when there is increasing pressure to conform to the narratives promulgated by dominant knowledge-producing elites, and when entrenched (and taken-for-granted) positions crowd out alternative visions and opportunities for change, the need to establish such “new visions” and “new ways” is no small matter.
George McKay: I made the point already that jazz was a music that questioned national boundary and culture from its origins on, that had a kind of postnational position inscribed within it by virtue of some of its diasporic founding features—as a mix-music sonicity of the black Atlantic, an aspect of slavery's triangulation, and later as a popular music disseminated by mass media technological innovations in the early 20th century. So it always already had that questioning of spatial and geographical boundary within it, and it also liked to see its outward-looking internationalism as part of its positive politics. I'm not sure that we are necessarily in a historical cusp produced by aspects of contemporary technology (the internet) and economy (cheap or easy international mobility)--or, rather, jazz might be one of the intriguing cultural precedents to this apparently 'new' globalising state we are in.
For some too jazz and improvised music was a means of escape from national community or framework, and yes their passport was a record (Caroline quoting Chris Cutler; Evan Parker also has talked about his tradition of music coming out of his record player). I'm reminded of pianist Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) in South Africa, nicknamed 'Dollar' because he always had one to buy the new records in port, is that right? Then, to complicate it, I'm thinking of US GIs in Europe, bringing official V-discs for the locals, music as a weapon in the propaganda war.
To look at 'community' politically, it is the case that other radical cultural communities only exist temporarily, so I'm uncertain that jazz is losing anything here. I'm thinking of the Temporary Autonomous Zones celebrated by Hakim Bey (sic)--anarchist picnics, protest camps, free festivals, squatted raves. Doomed to failure, sparks of success and utopian vision. I've some powerful memories of events like these--far more than some of the international jazz festivals I've yawned through (concerts sponsored by banks).
1933 Rhythm Clubs movement starts
Yes, there is a narrative of failure here too, in a dismal reading whereby many of these groupings floundered or disappeared; but there needs also to be recognition of the social significance of the culture: here is evidence that jazz has a continuing imperative towards mutual aid and autonomous organisation. This is the case both because its music-making is a collective and dialogic praxis (and jazz likes to claim a special status here, arguing that, because of its improvisatory core, it is more collective and dialogic than other musics), and because, in Britain at least, its position within the cultural hierarchy has always been low or uncertain (in part because it was viewed as imitative, and, worse for Britain’s cultural elites, its musicians were imitating American sounds). By choice and necessity ‘community’ has translated into the pragmatics of organization, education, participation. This continues, even with contemporary technology: London Musicians’ Collective’s recent work in the field of community media (with FM radio and the internet) has given it a new lease of life and a new raised public profile.
George E. Lewis: Certainly I understand something of the power of a place-identified experimentalism, since I’ve been part of such a community for many years now. In my experience, however, assessing the nature, range and impact of place in experimental music communities requires us to recognize that these aggregations are comprised of much more than collections of human bodies busily exchanging sounds and silences. The advent of the Internet as a major influence on contemporary life points up the necessarily networked nature of the community formation dynamics that preceded it. Thus, we should try to remember that along with people and technologies, we want to take account of the actions of a great, even potentially infinitely varied set of factors, each of which (or whom) embodies varied and subtle forms of agency, (sub)alterity, and investment.
Methodology and geography are only two of the factors that define experimental music communities, but consider Anthony Braxton’s recollection regarding the AACM (from his “Tri-Axium Writings”) that “...no musicians...employed the same approach to making the music. Instead, the diversity of its composite investigation has been the strength of the organization.” In this case, the assumption that a shared methodology or mode of presentation was undesirable was part of what bound the community together.
With that in mind, we might want to try other means of tracing at least the outlines of the matrix that these elusive communities navigate. As a first effort, I would observe that the performative telling and retelling of histories by members and adherents (including the repetition of aporias) is crucial in a community’s life, as are expectations or assignations of rights, privileges, infrastructures, and rewards, whether in this world, in the next, or in transit toward a Saturn-situated Ethiopianist Zion. Of course, these dynamics of narrative exchange work through community identities that are in turn structured through modalities of race, gender, class, national origin, and a host of other factors.
As it happens (however curiously), music historians, journalists, and musicians themselves have often used these characteristics to claim/presume homologies between these factors and musical methods and traditions. At times, the results of these presumptions are simply amusing, but more often than not their very real import and impact is to assign or deny membership, to define the limits of the rational and the canonical, and ultimately, to limit mobility, along with possibilities for exchange, learning, and growth.
It is ventured in the question that “community as place now exists largely for only a few days at a time.” Indeed, communities can come into existence at the speed of collective thought and action, and in some cases, ephemerality – the transitory and the temporary – constitute aspects of a preferred aesthetic and social stance. This is particularly evident in cases where no larger reason exists for the formation of the community than to realize and further the goals of its members. But the more introspective members of such an emergent community, though they may have come together simply to promote themselves, may gradually come to the realization that their work together as artists contains larger implications that could somehow promote a different way of thinking, being, and doing--first, among themselves, and later, in dialogue with artists far afield from their own worlds of music, as well as larger social and cultural entities and issues.
Even in the absence of a top-down or originary goal, emergent challenges to an established social, political, cultural, or sonically asserted discursive order (for that is what they will quickly come to seem to many, inside and outside the group) may eventually be realized, and even become transformed into a sustaining myth of origin and boundary. Moreover, the challenges need not be the same for each member of the group; community members may vary in their degree of investment. Thus, maintenance of a community (if that is what is desired) will necessarily involve the acceptance of difference, diversity, dialogue, and debate with regard to the central issues. Unfortunately, final resolution of this dynamic is elusive; where it occurs, a kind of necrosis (physical or mental) may well be at hand.
It is sometimes quite difficult to discern the signs that animate communities of experimentalism, particularly where no central figure seems to exist who can serve as lawgiver (or bandleader). Live performance, which for the moment remains the lifeblood of most of these communities, is overwhelmingly if not exclusively geographically situated--and most crucially, always temporally situated. Most musicians are obliged to take their work on the road and commit to coming together at the same time if they wish to interface their sonic and cultural values with other communities, whose values may or may not be congruent with their own. Here, innovation can result from a situated community taking a collective decision to make a change of geographic location--again, at the same time.
Of course, the relatively mundane international traveling experience of today (as distinct from the “Exodusters” who rode the rails or simply walked North during the Great Migration) has made it much easier for geographically mobile groups of artists to engage each other in both planned and random encounters. At the same time, also along for the ride as stowaways, so to speak, are memory and history, which are more or less literally inscribed on the artists’ bodies, going wherever the artists go. The network’s embedded values, canons, heroines and heroes, and acknowledged antecedents are announced by the individual node, the single musician at work.
I would venture that it is this constructed historical and cultural imagination that could ground the geographically dispersed musical community. Even in the absence of downloads, telephones, and mail, imagining that one is acting in congruence with some seemingly unified goal or ideology is sufficient to establish a sense of fealty and belonging. This could be the case even for artists in exile--certainly an extreme case within the set of possibilities for membership in an experimental music community, but hardly out of the realm of possibility. Moreover, the question seems to imply a kind of constructed diasporic experimentalism. How else to explain the situation where individual musicians of diverse backgrounds become united by a belief that the freely improvisative encounter inevitably serves as a site of exchange, and quite often, a celebration of community?
If, in the end, we want to claim that “innovation has resulted from the prolonged physical proximity of musicians who, at some point, become a community,” I’d like to suggest that the ready availability of a central site of exchange within that community is vital--in the case of the AACM, its various temporary homes over the past 40 years or so, or that special bar in Wuppertal I visited many years ago with Peter Kowald, Rüdiger Carl, and Peter Brötzmann, where I had the sense that history had been made amid the gruff cries of “Noch ein grosses!”
In contrast, one wonders how the impact of these newer, internationally articulated avant-gardes, transcending (or at least trying to transcend) place, language, culture, musical methodology, and the corner Kneipe, can be properly grasped. I don’t envy those who have limited space and time to convey the sense of these emerging experimentalisms, and yet, whose sense of writerly ethics forbid them from falling back into the usual loose gender talk, the easy ethnicized and racialized assignations of genre, and the quick thumbnail imputation of lineage: Bud or Monk? Trane or Newk? Kai or J.J.?
Here, what is lost is time, and the danger for such communities is that their seeming ephemerality may not provide sufficient time to develop and nurture practices that foreground difference, diversity, dialogue, and debate, as distinct from a reliance on the power of basic individualism alone. In that case, a hastily manufactured self-celebration seems to lie more easily at hand, even in the face of certain artistic death.
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