What's New?
The PoD Roundtable
moderated by Bill Shoemaker

Parran: I refer to my last statement in the first round of this panel: “Individuality of voice and the possession of ones own signature music is the mark of artistry in any culture, specific or non.”

For me, the curve is what I’ve become during my life in music. It started with choosing instruments, continued by participating in classes, ensembles, private lessons and by gradually being exposed to genres/styles within genres. I feel beyond that curve when I encounter musical tasks that involve unfamiliar repertory or processes. Also difficult fingering and/or rhythmic passages (notated or not) that call for learning new skills and achieving faster and faster tempos puts one again, face to face with the curve. “How much work will this take to perform well and can I do it in the time allotted”?

Exposure is so critical for the 20th/21st century person. We’re talking inundation of cultures, styles within a culture and now Net-born music buzzing through cyberspace compared with the era when recordings were not plentiful and media technology was new. As a young teen I went from jazz clubs to symphony hall to listening to recordings of far-away cultures while continuing to go to school and enjoying the participation in whatever was offered. But by senior year I joined the musicians union in order to be able to play saxophone in rhythm and blues bands and practiced clarinet repertory for college entrance. Like my church experience, music and the curve had now become multi-dimensional and multi-cultural.

This panel has coincided with my participation in the COLUMBIAHARLEM Festival of Global Jazz. Since then I attended another event given by the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University on October 23, 2007: Jazz in the World: Signifyin’ Natives, Current Conversations in Words and Music. MCed by Prof. George E. Lewis of the Institute, the program was given by William Lowe, Louis Armstrong Visiting Professor, Center for Jazz Studies and Hafez Modirzadeh, Professor of Music, San Francisco State University.

Observations by Professors Modirzadeh and Lowe on their work and travels in Cuba, Spain, Iran, and Palestine, as well as the United States made for an optimal presentation that included their musical performance and film clips specific to the two individuals. Lowe’s clip was about his collaboration with his daughter Naima. An autobiographical work, Birthmarks, documents Lowe’s harrowing experience of survival in a famous police riot in Newark NJ; it brought political reality into the picture of an artist’s life. (It can be viewed at: http://www.naimalowe.com/).

One of Modirzadeh’s clips was of a group of around thirty musicians of diverse traditions participating in a group improvisation. Modirzadeh has formulated strategies for this type of musical performance that he considers to have for him become a preferred mode of expression. The concept that Modirzadeh emphasized most in his lecture was: “Start your musical idea but don’t finish it.” This concept along with systems outside chromatic/major-minor harmony and tempered tuning and that utilize irregular rhythm, poly-rhythm or no beat at all to be adhered to while playing, were in effect thus creating a platform on which the divergent traditions studied and mastered by the participants on this film opened the door for ecstatic and spiritual communication. (This can be viewed at: http://listen.to/hafez)

In order to participate at all in jam sessions in the jazz tradition players need to make the curve idiomatically and master a body of repertory to be performed and referred to. The steady beat at medium to fast tempos provide the grid on which to hone ones skill playing the changes in time on stage with a strong competitive/comparative edge. The last element serves as an incentive to achieve and a catalyst for sparks to fly when the participants are top flight. Physical endurance can also come into play especially at contact points with the instruments like lips and fingers. Chops, both technical and physical, you must have.

Trane, in his turn, broke the swinging bebop mold in jazz, notably with Ascension, by enlisting both musicians who did and did not perform traditional jazz as their main expressive language at the time. He also mentored a group of leaders into the recording business thereby solidifying the position of creative/spiritual music as he recorded and performed this genre day in and day out.

John Coltrane had chops! Do other musicians who perform music other than their original, “pure” and formally studied traditions. What about those who opt for no tradition at all in order not to block the path to …?

Shoemaker: There is an implicit education component to cross-cultural collaborations, in that your presumably Western audience needs to have some idea of the significance of the artists with whom you are working, and the traditions they represent. What should an audience know about your collaborators and the collaboration itself before the concert, if anything?

Gershon: There is an implicit educational component to all art, and at risk of sounding pompous, to the well-lived life.

Any artistic experience, in my view, balances the sensual and the intellectual. The audience doesn't need any background to experience the former; do they need the latter to have the fullest artistic experience? I would say that, it is the interaction between these two realms that creates the richest emotional reaction. Art that lacks the former comes off as didactic, dry, boring. Art that lacks the latter comes off as low entertainment, gratuitous, empty. So, it is beneficial to the audience to have more than a nervous system, but some kind of knowledge.

Of course, as human beings we bring to artistic experiences our senses and emotions, and also our knowledge base. We don't approach every artistic (or other) experience as a blank slate; life would be impossible like that, or at the very least we'd wind up as a case study in an Oliver Sachs book. The knowledge base varies depending on the individual, who may be a highly educated musician or scholar of music, or simply someone who likes music (or even dislikes it).

My approach to audiences has always followed my own preferences as an audience member: I am eager to know what makes the music work. Who are the players? Where are they from? Whom have they played with? What other music have they played? What is the music they are playing? How does it fit into the broader context of their culture (which might be "my" culture, too)? I guess you could say I'm from the liner note generation.

Even when I'm playing "American" music for "American" audiences (two fairly broad categories indeed) I feel that part of my job is to educate the audience. This doesn't have to be a primarily educational mission: I feel like they will understand and appreciate my music better if they have some context. I have found time and time again that audiences will open themselves up to unfamiliar music if they are given a way in. That way could be an informative spoken introduction or program notes, visual cues from the performers as to what is happening onstage, or intelligent programming that leads from the familiar to the new in a progression that allows the novice to follow.

When it comes to programming non-Western music for Western audiences, or vice-versa, there is likely a larger gap between the audience's knowledge base and that of the performers than there is between Western performers and audience. However, I don't see it as qualitatively different. (Look at the patent of absurdity of lumping all "Western" music or audiences into one category - think of the gaps between groups within this category.)

The audience that attends "world music" concerts in the US, or the audience that would come out to see an American band in Africa, for example, is self-selected for open-mindedness. Such audiences are predisposed to be ready for a new sensual experience at the very least. They may also have an appropriate if limited knowledge base. There is also the notion that I have brought up in the first question in this forum, that the historical connections between the music of Africa and that of the Americas (which has in turn so affected the music of the whole world in the 20th century) has subliminally prepared audiences everywhere for a huge range of musical experiences.

Of course it is fascinating to know that a piece from another culture is a wedding, funeral or party song; that it's traditional or that it was written last year; that the musician is a highly respected hereditary aristocrat or a barely tolerated wandering minstrel; and any number of other bits of background information. As a musician myself, I am happy to be informed about formal considerations and I'm always curious as to how these musicians live - are they full timers, are they farmers most of the time; are they the crème de la crème or can everybody back home play like this; how did this tour come together and how much is everybody getting paid.

So, I circle back to my opening: the music's sensual content should be enough to engage the audience. Their life experience in our global culture usually gives them enough context to relate to a broad range of music. However, most people are curious about the story behind the performance (witness our obsession with celebrity gossip!), and it can be hugely helpful in humanizing the unfamiliar. People have a craving to relate to other people on a human level, and information about the performers, from biographical to musicological, always helps.

Hwang: First and foremost cultural attitudes need to be addressed. We may know very little about people from a different race or background, but can accept and respect and love others and their music if our common humanity is valued above all else.

Cross-cultural music is growing, but still relatively rare and therefore subject to the dynamics of exoticism. If you have never heard an erhu or djembe before, the novelty can often foreground and limit the musical experience. Before what we see and hear is discussed, the attitudinal lens upon that experience must be clarified.

For my opera, The Floating Box, A Story in Chinatown, a critic from a major publication called before opening night, asking the producer if the singing would be in Cantonese or Mandarin. He assumed this was a traditional Chinese opera. Nothing in the press release or my background would have suggested this. The assumption may have sprung from what he wanted. In the subsequent review, the most appealing scene to this writer featured the erhu (2-stringed Chinese violin) and Father’s theme, which was indeed influenced the lyrical southern Chinese style. The rest of the score sounded confused to him. In contrast, the World Journal, an international Chinese language daily, wrote a review commenting on the whole music, libretto and production. The Chinese instruments were not exotic, but a story-telling element of equal stature to the Western sounds. The first writer was highly educated, but we can deduce that the brands of knowledge under his command caused or at least, failed to neutralize attitudinal distortions.

The ultimate goal for both music and education is to cultivate an open heart. An open heart allows you to appreciate the beauty of all people in their genuine expressions with all sounds – Western, international, electronic or “noise.”

If you are open to cross-cultural music or any foreign or new sound, then chances are, you will probably be open to different kinds of people, of all colors and cultures.

Because cross-cultural collaborations represent this hope, sharing information about the artists, their music and collaborative process is important. Our educational efforts must address the totality of attitude, creative process and scholarship.

Parran: Cecil Taylor has long expected his audience to bring something to the table. I have also been privileged to work under the great African American opera star Betty Allen in music education at Harlem School of the Arts. She absolutely has no expectations for an opera audience without education and preparation.

Modern audiences have access to so much music … only which music? There is great access to information … but why seek it? Sadly, attitudes of exclusion and separation so easily become cemented by tribal/survival/pop/fashion genres cum rabid commercialism. Some people thought that Internet music sharing, in the face of resistance by the big industry distribution lock would open doors on the ground through which artists would be granted existence and sustenance: (Lanier, Jeron, Pay Me for My Content, New York Times Op Ed, Nov. 20, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/20/opinion/20lanier.html?_r=1&oref=slogin).

But the presentation/promotion of quality representative performances may be the most pressing issue in the face of declining touring opportunities. Touring music without superpop and/or superstar status has been a laborious subsistence for many who are now left with the sub but no sistance. The post 9/11 travel for artists like the South Africans I performed with via internet on September 29 (see my first panel entry) has been transformed from difficult to “denied.”

Ask Helene and Robert Browning of World Music Institute, for decades the main conduit for music performers from around the world into New York City and through to audiences across the US. Just when we thought the globe was shrinking and now that people can study virtually the total of world music – that, for me, includes western music in terms of its earliest development and present position in world culture – there is a world audience that is blocked from receiving the performers they need to make it real. Performers who need to fulfill this seeming supply/demand equation may be receiving recognition with no access to funding; and, in the case of citizens of many countries outside the U.S. and Europe, they have no access to the temporary entry visas that have in the past been possible to attain.

In parallel, look at jazz education in general and in the classical field music camps specializing in audition training. They now fill in the gaps that “field experience” traditionally provided in the life of developing artists. The entry level is open to fewer and richer people as the stage shrinks faster than the globe.

Bridge Records

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