What’s New?
The Point of Departure Roundtable
(continued)

Bill Shoemaker: Granted, there are more questions than answers when it comes to these issues. There are so many, in fact, that the truly important questions about the long term may well be crowded out of the snapshots we currently scrutinize. What crucial questions are not being asked?
 
Caroline Kraabel:  How do we prevent the advance of the desert? This was the title of the first LP I was on... and it’s a question that I feel I need to keep trying to answer. I mean what do you think about the impact of globalisation - how to avoid theft while embracing the new sounds available to us, how to resist deskilling of music (making/listening) along the lines of the fast food industry... and what should we do about the ecological impact of the products associated with music and music-making? How do we use (subvert) technology with integrity, without being used by it (or by its corporate/military-industrial makers)?

I ask this question because I don’t have any fully satisfactory answers to it, so little remains for me to say... some of my friends are university professors, and others are socialist firebrands, and I think they are all doing what they can to contribute to understanding and trying to help... I don’t want to speak generally as I don’t feel qualified to. I’d like to try and state what I feel music can do, and what musicians can do in the face of the desert...

The first thing that comes to mind is something that Eddie Prevost said to me when I had my children - he said that he had felt that one of the great joys of being a parent was the privilege of being responsible for your children. I found it so inspiring to hear responsibility described as a privilege, and it chimed with my impression that responsibility and love are almost identical - I think a responsibility that musicians have is to share what they know as widely as possible. Eddie Prevost is exemplary in that he teaches and runs workshops, including a quite long-running weekly improvisation workshop in London open to anyone who’s interested. The other weekly open improvisation gathering in London is The Gathering, which Maggie Nicols has been running for many years, and which has been an extraordinary place to meet and learn and exist through improvisation. Maggie Nicols has inspired several generations through The Gathering, and she is very articulate in expounding improvisation as a way of living.

Perhaps it would also be helpful if we were to share our equipment, at least the fossil-fuel hungry electrical stuff - not instruments perhaps, but recording and playback equipment could be shared, which might reduce environmental impact – like Laundrettes do... and using our creativity and ingenuity to recycle such equipment, buying second-hand or re-making electronics for our purposes could also help.

Improvisation is something that takes great gifts and a long time to learn, but at which one can get better with practice and it is also an invaluable approach or tool for day-to-day-living - interacting with people, responding in the moment, dealing with change - everything is easier for the experienced improvisor. Making music also depends on listening, which is an undervalued skill... Recently Daniel Barenboim has been giving the Reith lectures on the BBC, and he has a lot of interesting things to say about the way music-making helps us with many aspects of living and communicating - his “East-West Divan Orchestra”, made up of young Palestinian and Israeli musicians seems a brave effort to apply music in that harrowed corner of the world (See www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2006).

As soon as you make a sound yourself, originating from your own body, you locate yourself in space and permit anyone who hears you to locate you - this may take courage...

Another interesting text, by Cornelius Cardew, I think from 1968: www.ubu.com/papers/cardew_ethics.html

Time and my own diffidence prevent me from adding more -- please play yourself to find out what happens next!

Fred Ho: In my opinion, the predominant suppression of discourse around music and the arts is not so much its social context, which aspects of “critical theory” and “ethnomusicology” and other “ologies” engage, but the actual political role music and music creators can play in challenging capitalist-imperialist hegemony, and even dare to overthrow and replace. That is the question: HOW DOES MUSIC FREE US?

But before I proceed, let me not make the assumption that my colleagues of this roundtable share this interest or commitment. So for the sake of civil intellectual discourse, let me argue why we should even be concerned about this matter as intrinsic to perhaps what I may assume to be our common interests and values such as artistic integrity, aesthetic development, creativity, originality, inclusivity and “racial/gender/economic” equity in terms of compensation, career recognition and rewards, valorization of transgressive and “avant garde” or innovative formic considerations, etc. Even if one subscribes and espouses “art for art’s sake” and “standards of creative excellence/artistic quality as the sole and determinant criteria”, I will argue that destroying capitalist-imperialism is the way to go for anyone who feels, believes and sees that commodification and desertification of creative resources and capabilities is the ever present danger.

I share all of the above issues raised by Caroline Kraabel. Her description of the onslaught of cultural and ecological degradation, and the exponential subordination to imperialist aggression (whether it be military conquest or socio-economic, the double effect of McPentagon and McWorld), are not understated.

First let me define what I mean by “imperialism” or the capitalist-imperialist system. No one but the most dishonest or ideologically-blinded would disagree that the world-system of capitalism, which is hegemonic today, is at a global stage, running amok over the entire planet. Imperialism is this global, monopolistic, stage of capitalist economic and social development, which seeks to impose its relations of production everywhere and hence is totalizing and globalizing. Imperialism is not merely a policy of nastiness and bullying practiced by mighty nation-states over weaker ones. Even these policies and acts of bullying and domination are driven by competition to hoard and control resources, to exploit cheaper labor and to expand markets to stimulate and saturate with consumer goods and parasitic services. So my use of “imperialism” refers to this totalizing, world dominating process and effect of capitalism, thru both its state institutions (governments, military, world bank, trade cartels) and its monopolistic multi- and trans-national corporations.

Let me address the symptoms and characteristics of imperialism mostly upon music.

Imperialism and ecological and cultural desertification. The capitalist system of mass commodity production and exchange inevitably replaces and defeats individual production (from the family farm to the individual or cooperative craftsmen guilds to mom and pop businesses) by simply producing things more cheaply and faster. The inevitable effects and consequences of mass production are mass consumption/consumerism. Circulation of commodities (including music via recordings or packaged tours, digital downloading thru the purchase of more toys like Ipods, etc.) is accelerated and intensified. What might appear to be more “choices” in actuality is the homogenization of products as volume and per unit sales trumps quality and individuality. Even so-called “niche” markets cannot survive if sales don’t produce sufficient profits to stave off competitors who are always looking to capture and control greater market share. The syndrome becomes: so much information, so little knowledge; so many channels, so few choices; so many toys, so little satisfaction and pleasure.

I just have to look at my LP collection to remind me that the music I most enjoy will most likely never be digitized and make it into CD format (which if this music were converted to CDs, would tempt me to buy for a lot more cost than I spent for my vinyl simply because I want the portability and the ease of great sound coming out of miniscule device via headphones, all of which I can conveniently put into my jacket pocket). Or if this music was digitized and put “free” on the web, I would be tempted to buy a new toy like an I-Pod. But should any component of the capitalist music industry figure a way to profiteer off my particularly esoteric musical tastes, they’ll figure out the temptation needed to get me to buy the CD versions, and since my own personal economics don’t have the growth trend of a university professor union contracted pay scale raises, I’d additionally be tempted to sell my vinyl somehow to afford my new conversion and to make space since I can’t afford to buy a bigger place to live and keep accumulating things.

The advancing desert is a powerful metaphor. Ecologically, soil erosion, increased land salinity, deforestation, mono-crop botany and agriculture, have led to the devastation of desertification. So too has cultural desertification been a product of the homogeneity of commercial music (Pop music with a “capital/capitalist P” and not the popular music, small “p”, of indigenous creativity).

Another by-product or “side” effect of cultural malnourishment, increasing mono-diets, over-consumption of processed, chemically treated/created culture and food is the over-reliance upon our musical intake from manufactured commodities such as loudspeakers, machines, computers, and thus greater passivity is generated where by people no longer look to themselves to make music, but simply purchase it via a concert ticket to a new electronic home entertainment toy. With this greater removal of participation and creation are two effects: the musical and artistic deskilling of the populace and its increasing specialization and monopolization by “experts” or marketers (often, with the complicity of academia and corporations, they are one and the same). I will discuss academia’s complicity far more below, so this is an early warning to you professors and self-important intellectuals that I’m comin’ after y-alls!

So we get a listening population, similar to the general population that is obese, out-of-shape, unhealthy, addicted to all the wrong and bad stuff. What is organic becomes a “specialty” niche market perhaps packaged as “world music”, etc. They are hooked onto the saccharine-saturated, they believe the hype, and worse, consume it as if it is suppose to be good for them. And the cycle of consumption/accumulation spirals out of control: more diet fad books to the latest pills to the latest exercise toys or gurus. In terms of music, consumers consume the latest glossy music junk journalism, buy the latest world music guide books or illustrated coffee table books about “jazz” or watch the Probably Bullshit and boring Stuff (PBS) documentaries called “Jazz” made by a well-financed darling who not only is a novice on the subject matter, but relies upon the most reactionary and backward “advisors” in the field.

Technology has not only mediated and shaped how and what kinds of music we hear, but it has, under the control of capitalist interests, in a growing number of cases, become the actual music. Sound and recording engineers are as or perhaps, in the most commercially aggressive cases, more important to the finished product of music we buy and listen to than the actual musicians themselves! And as we all know, the most influential and determinant link in the process from recording studio to the marketplace has nothing to do with music production, but its marketing from visual packaging design, to advertising, to the hype of so-called music journalism to simply conforming to current lifestyle and fashion trends.

I go to my food market, and “regular” foods are everywhere, while “organic” foods are in special sections. A “regular” apple I buy has been subjected to petrol-chemical fertilizers and insecticides, artificial environmental treatment, probably genetically-modified to enhance its size and color attraction. The “organic” apple has to be labeled with its certification and of course, costs a whole lot more (because individual human labor power was much more direct rather than the lesser-costing automation).

CULTURAL IMPERIALISM VS. CULTURAL RESPECT. Many who know me and my views are well aware of my pummeling of practices and rationalizations that are cultural imperialist. I won’t rehash such critiques here which include such commonplace cultural imperialist thievery and fakery of claiming credit where credit isn’t due, or posturing as knowledgeable about “other” music when you really aren’t, or promoting “exoticism” and pumping up your “newness” or unfair compensation between the first world “name” artist and the third world talent. Rather, I will focus on the principles and practices that would enhance CULTURAL RESPECT/SHARING.

Working humbly for years with master artists from traditions you seek to learn, including giving such artists in your work full credit and just compensation; not simply “sampling” without regard to contextual source, respect for the sacred, acknowledging and crediting and compensating sources (including shared copyrights with entire villages or peoples, which Dr. Royal Hartigan has propounded and practiced); learning to liberate oneself from the bourgeois individualist artist-as-heroic-genius of simply using “sounds” for self-_expression (self-gain) but as ways of supporting anti-racist, anti-imperialist, pro-fair exchange, pro-indigenous organizing causes and activity; living in the same conditions with, and learning from, the people and “giving back” in all the ways we can (from our sincere friendship, admiration and love to supporting and participating in the fight against all forms of imperialism and imperialist-supported assaults).

In a nutshell, the three “C’s” of cultural respect and sharing: Credit, Compensation, Committed anti-imperialist solidarity. (As a hardcore revolutionary socialist, in the final analysis, I believe the greatest contribution will be the last aspect, especially what we in the first world can do to end the inequality and oppression within the citadel of our own comforts, compliance, conformism and corruption by rejecting first world chauvinism and privileges.)

What is to be done, How can music free us?

By recognizing and combating the ideological “givens” and values and assumptions of bourgeois culture/society, and by constructing its opposite so we can live and make music in total opposition, as revolutionaries, seeking to rid the world of all of its bullshit effects and toxins, and becoming organically whole and self-producing creative, imaginative and socially conscious human beings building socialist sustainability.

Reject the cerebral over the physical. Some black artists, in reaction to being stereotyped or “essentialized” as “physical” and “emotive”, have tried to argue for and justify access, legitimacy, credibility and recognition for the more “serious” valorization of European high-art musical values. In academia, this is so readily apparent whereby music theory and analysis is valorized over performance or “playing.” Music, as emphasized in bourgeois academia, is more about knowing than doing (with the false assumption that one could ever really know something without being able to be engaged in doing). Performer-players are relegated to junior and adjunct positions. The stars are those who can throw together the most fashionable big-worded jargon masquerading as theory. When one scrutinizes what they can actually do, either as musical leaders or as performers, they come up shallow and superficial.

Part of liberating the planet must be de-Europeanizing the world (Kalamu ya Salaam). With the ascendancy of the western European (and later American) bourgeoisie, music became increasing removed from its communal soil and sold on to the market place as the product of the individual-heroic-genius. Removed from its profound, inextricable, sustenance to communal life, with an elite detachment produced for (and soon, by) the leisure classes (bourgeoisie and middle-class), concomitant values of notation-primacy, equal temperament, technical perfection, fixed “classics”, “canon” construction, rigid hierarchal pedagogy and ensemble social relations, etc. are promoted and as capitalism takes root everywhere, become the “standards” for “art.” I am not advocating the total discarding of the bourgeois European art music traditions (though personally, I have little interest or use for it), but rather, its canonization as anything superior or more profoundly musical. Indeed, I find the traditions of Asia and Africa to be far more evocative, especially when we get into shamanism and the spiritualizing totality of music. In those traditions, music IS a force to effect (wo)man and Nature.

I personally would rather converse in “non”-European tongues, eat the food of local families in Third World villages, wear Afro-Asian clothing, and build movements of musical and political solidarity with the national liberation struggles of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania. But that’s me.

Reject Technological Supremacy, Embrace Ludditism, Learn from and have Low Impact Upon Nature. I’d rather have sex with many womyn openly and freely without the repression of bourgeois monogamy, marriage and the nuclear family and failing to attain these “family values”, stay in front of TV or on the internet trying to find a date or masturbate to commercial porn. I’d rather be playing with George Lewis, without having a gig bring us together, enjoying the natural acoustics of my local church (I’m not religious, just rent the space to practice) to simply enjoy his musicality and personality. Acoustic live performance over electricity-dependent situations. Live performance is a social act in which all people participate and interact and have mutual influence. It wasn’t the recordings of Sun Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk or many other artists that had the most important and profound impact upon me (indeed, some artists’ recorded works are substantially inferior to the experience of hearing and being there live with them, which ironically, “live” recordings fail to capture/convey as well). It was hearing them live, being in the aura and experience. I have visited the home of Amiri Baraka many times and have been most profoundly struck, that given his output of writings and involvement with “the music,” how few actual recordings he had, how little “stuff”, except paintings and artwork, were in his home. Especially the low number of techno-types of toys. I realized that his great knowledge of “the music” and of black culture in general came from participation and involvement, not in accumulation of things and objects (again, with the exception of visual art). I also noted how freely he just gave away books he had (not just of the books he’s had published). It was like barter. He gives me a book, I give him a CD, he perhaps gives that CD away and someone gives himself something else to check out. This recycling is another form of circulation but outside of mainstream commodity exchange for cash.

Computer-generated music, like computer-generated art/animation, can infinitely explore all the permutations and probabilities of responses to any and all data. They are the ultimate in technical perfection. But I would submit that it is in the imperfections where the imagination inhabits, and which is truly the stuff of great, soulful human expression.

Reject City Domination over Countryside. Mao and the revolution in China have especially had to struggle with this contradiction/dichotomy. My life is made up of two extremes, of which Suburbia is completely removed and non-existent. Suburbia is the analogy for homogeneity and social engineering. I spend part of my time living and working in one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities: Brooklyn (secondarily New York City which most presume is Manhattan!). I spend the rest of my time in Third World rainforests completely nude, usually living with an extended family from whom I get meals and a place to sleep. My music is most characteristically “urban” but my soul is “tropical rain forest.” While I think my music can communicate to humans, I am still learning to figure out how I can communicate with bears, coyotes, whales, dolphins, jaguars, mountain lions, cougars, bob cats, wild horses, etc. Raul Salinas, the great native American-Xicano poet-revolutionary socialist, said in a poem, that Native Americans liked Rahsaan Roland Kirk a lot (“Song for Roland Kirk”) because:

“…you were close to something, man…
Native brothers and sisters from the north
dug you, too
you talk to trees, bees and birds and things like that…
the grey world judged you nuts,
so what else is new?…”

I haven’t learned how to make my own musical instruments like the elder musician I met on a beach in southern Turkey who made a flute from the marsh reeds by the beach, and played one of the most spectacular solos I’ve ever heard; and who, when finished, simply gave me the flute he made and had played (without me asking for it).

We need to restore what some call community, others call collectivity, but what I would assert is communism: the social nature of production must finally and ultimately mean the social control and ownership and benefit of production over individual profiteering (transmogrified today into imperialism, the monopolization of power by a very few ruling over the very, very many). Many would say: Fred, let’s focus on what’s possible. Or, Fred, your ideological and political predilection seems to preclude propensities for the here-and-now possible reforms. But I will only quote Sun Ra in response: Everything possible has been tried and nothing has changed. What we need is the Impossible. The music we make must embrace the Impossible in the arduous journey to make the music a true force for social revolution. Everything musically possible has been done. The world hasn’t changed. What we need is some Impossible music along with some Impossible thinking and activity.

George McKay: I took retreat in the anarchist movement two or three decades ago in the hope that it would free me from some of the excesses of leftist splintering and accusatory rhetoric. I admit it was a fairly naive and failed tactic. (But I remember being rather pleasurably shocked 10 years ago in discussion with American anarchist academic in Britain, when he said to me about local government something like 'You know what really ruined this country, George? Socialism!' Even most of the anarchists I knew didn't speak quite like that.) But one of the compensations in the end of socialism debates post-1989 was that anarchists had always had that doubt about the efficacy of socialism anyway, as made by state and authority, revolutionary or reformist, so we didn't feel the pain in the same way. In fact it seemed to open some space up for new generations of cultural autonomists, a few of them working in music.
 
I haven't encountered the sort of language used by Fred for along time; maybe I just move in the wrong circles these days, as a (sigh) bourgeois professor? I quoted the wonderful South African pianist and bandleader Chris McGregor's wise words in the funeral oration for my father (a Scottish baritone saxophonist) two weeks ago today: 'Music is in fact very precise. It says everything words are unable to'. Of course that's a sleight of hand, but it's beautifully elegant, and its limitations can be worked through with joy. It's possible that, in championing the physical over the cerebral, as Fred does, one loses something to do with the expressive subtleties of language and communication, and I for one am hugely reluctant to go there. Particularly when the alternative is (his words)  a 'hardcore' 'pummeling'...
 
Also I am tired of the occasional but persistent minor attack on academics exemplified casually by Fred's latest piece. I know and respect a number of committed social critics working across universities who explore compelling problems of culture and politics in their lifetimes of writing and teaching. Based on my experience here is a simple observation: calling for solidarity while shouting other radicals down will not work. 
 
However, back to the music (or, writing and reading about it, which is our purpose here). I still think one important question, since other responses seem to be articulated in the context of a critique of globalisation, or global capitalism anyway, is the complicity or otherwise of jazz in it. Its internationalist imperative is there in its black Atlantic origins (I think I called this is 'the sonicity of triangulation' in Circular Breathing), in the myths and facts of 'creolisation' around New Orleans--but also  in the early music's distribution by mass media communications, trade and  military networks around the world. Perhaps what have come to be known in recent years as postnational identities have inscribed within them still some national strands--what role, in globalisation, is or was played by the problematic term Americanisation? This is still worth asking because jazz likes to claim a universalising utopian cultural impulse, and of course jazz is understood historically as an American invention. How do those two--American, global--relate, how do they sound together in this music? By extension, and picking up the discussion above, (how) does jazz appeal to leftists and autonomists internationally? Because of its transnational origins, and its century-long history of global, or at least hemispheric, dissemination and practice, jazz holds, not a unique, but certainly a central position in debates about the globalisation of P/popular music. It may be both part of the problem and the solution.

 

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