What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.
The panelists for this roundtable include:
Jen Baker, an Oakland-based trombonist, composer and teacher. In addition to improvising in many settings and performing commissioned works, Baker has recorded music ranging from video game trailers to the soundtrack to Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World. Baker’s festival performances include the International Trombone Workshop, the Eastern Trombone Workshop, No’west Improvised Music Festival, and the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. She has performed and worked with Stuart Dempster, Pauline Oliveros, Fred Frith, Joelle Leandre, Chris Brown, William Winant, Cecil Taylor, Alvin Curran, and the Rova Saxophone Quartet. In addition to albums by the Mountain Goats and the Michael Cooke Quintet, and the Music + One improvisation compendium (Rastascan), Baker can be heard on Blue Dreams (Dilapidated Barns), an album of solos employing multiphonics and aspects of Gergorian chant. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and Mills College, Baker teaches privately and at Oakland's Archway School. For more information, visit: www.baker7jenz.com.
Reuben Radding, a Brooklyn-based bassist and composer. After working in the DC punk scene, Radding moved to New York in 1988, where he studied with Mark Dresser and began working with leading exponents of the Downtown scene like Anthony Coleman, Elliott Sharp and John Zorn. The groups he led or co-led during the early and mid '90s included Myth Science, which performed Sun Ra's compositions, and Refuseniks, an experimental world music ensemble. Relocating to Seattle in '97, Radding collaborated with Northwest improvisers including Stuart Dempster, Amy Denio and Wally Shoup. Since returning to New York in 2002, Radding has performed on many acclaimed albums with artists including Daniel Carter, Robert Dick and Ursel Schlict. Radding also launched the Pine Ear imprint, whose releases include Intersections, with a trio including Matt Moran and Oscar Noriega, and Fugitive Pieces, with Matt Bauder, Andrew Drury and Nate Wooley. Radding is also a much in-demand sideman in the Klezmer and Balkan folk music scene, and has worked with Yuri Yunakov, David Krakauer and others. Radding has given workshops at secondary schools and universities in the US and at the Banff Center in Canada. The first album Crackleknob, a group featuring Radding along with guitarist Mary Halvorson and trumpeter Nate Wooley will soon be released on hatOLOGY. Radding's site is located at: www.reubenradding.com.
Jon Raskin, a San Francisco-based saxophonist and composer. Before co-founding Rova Saxophone Quartet in the mid 1970s, Raskin performed in ensembles directed by John Adams and Barney Childs, served as music director of the Tumbleweed Dance Company, and co-founded the Blue Dolphin Alternative Music Space. Raskin cites composing a collaborative work for Rova and SF Taiko Dojo, working with Howard Martin on the installation work Occupancy, and organizing a 30-year anniversary concert of John Coltrane's Ascension as highlights of his tenure with Rova. Raskin has received numerous grants and commissions for compositions from the NEA, Reader's Digest/Meet the Composer, and the Berkeley Symphony. On recordings, Raskin has collaborated with, among others, Tim Berne, Anthony Braxton and Pauline Oliveros; he also performs with the Wind Trio of Alphaville and a trio with George Cresmaschi and Ches Smith. For further information, consult: www.rova.org.
Jen Baker and Reuben Radding will perform as a duo at the Red Room in Baltimore on February 14th, at ABC No Rio in New York on the 15th, and at Le Grand Dakar in Brooklyn on the 19th.
Bill Shoemaker: One of Wallace Stevens’ main themes was the ongoing struggle between the imagination and what he called “the pressure of reality.” That pressure is currently intensifying by the day. Not only is there a global economic train wreck in process, which exacerbates stresses of producing performances and touring, but we’re also at a crossroads in terms of the medium(s) for recorded music going forward, and its distribution. How are these extraordinary times informing your work?
Reuben Radding; I think the kinds of music all of us make have always involved sacrifice on someone's part. Like most art musics ours can't survive economically on the audience contribution. I grew up around symphony musicians and I learned that the orchestras biggest motivation for filling the seats was to able to look legitimate to potential donors. They couldn't survive off of audience, although it helps a lot. I feel like our situation, on the business side is similar. There are forces out there trying to convince us that there's some merit system that equates audience with legitimacy. Since my beginnings in music I sought the underground, wanting to get out of the system that said it's only real if it's on TV and selling a million copies. I'm still there on the fringes, but we aren't as separate from the world economic system as I'd like. We still rely on someone to give beyond what is justifiable from a business standpoint, whether it's a venue owner, patron, granting organization, fans who let us sleep in their extra bed, the musicians themselves! We have always sacrificed to make our work go on, and we always will. Every time a venue closes in New York everyone freaks out, and I'm not glad about it either, but there's always this attitude of "it's all going to die!" that I really don't relate to, because the opportunities come and go and we're always still here working on our projects and convincing someone to let us put it in front of the public.
But your question was how it informs the work, and that's hopefully not the same question as business concerns. I have at times recently had to contend with changing my vision of a project because of economic concerns, whether the costs of manufacturing, or the number of people in a group I lead. I hate it, and I resist it, but if I can't afford to put out another CD on the Pine Ear label this year that's just how it has to be. I don't fret about mediums. I only try to make sure that the medium I use for distribution is organic to the project. The material I chose for my year-long free download project (www.reubenradding.com/12.html) were mostly recordings that wouldn't fit somewhere else logically, and a few were recorded with the project specifically in mind. Plus I just couldn't afford to put out any CDs that year, and I thought it would also be a good challenge for my year of being 40 to have to get this stuff out there. I hoped it would get more press attention, but I found that even though the age of the CD is being touted as over, that many publications and reviewers simply weren't able to bend their process to the product. They still rely on there being a physical object or they don't seem to know how to track their work. It was confusing to me. Everyone I contacted liked the project and the music in it, but most declined to cover it, and the biggest write up it got came out two months after the project ended!
Jon Raskin: You have three questions going on there and each of them are worthy on their own merit. I would comment the first part of the your question by pointing to William Carlos Williams who was a poet and a physician and was an inspiration for me showing that you can be creative, productive and be engage in other productive work. Consequently, I don’t rely on music for a living. Interestingly, he was also writing in a time up economic upheaval and a restructuring of the world economy and felt that artists be engaged with that process. The “pressure of reality” Wallace Stevens explained: “by the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation”. Good advice, keeping thinking.
The economic realities of global train wreck will be laid bare as the year progresses and arts funding, as always, will be a target for the chopping block. The funding for performance series, commissions, travel money, general administration funds for arts groups, venues and the like which is always in short supply will be further eroded. Art is necessary work and I’m for a new New Deal. Let’s invest in the Gross National Happiness indicator.
The second part of your question, regarding the crossroads of mediums for recorded music and distribution, is tied to changes of intellectual property and technology. Technology has restructured the music business many times in the last 100 years beginning with the recording that allowed a performance to be replayed and sold. The digital age has sped up the process and the value of a recorded track is now well under a dollar.
It also changed the availability and how information was spread, with the printed medium being the gatekeepers so to speak. In the past, periodicals and books where available to help you find out about the music and acted as “gatekeepers” letting you know who was interesting and worthwhile. The trip to the record store, reading the liner notes and then searching for other recordings that they musicians were doing was the order of the day. Now, you want the complete discography of Coltrane? No problem, get a hard drive and go, and maybe you pay for it or not.
This brings us to the structure was developed in the last century regarding rights for a composer, performer, arranger and producer to allow the participants who made recordings share in the profit from the selling a recording. This structure has become outdated and no longer serves most musicians very effectively.
The internet is changing that and even the idea of “product” is being transformed. The cost of producing recordings has dropped and the amount of music being produced has jumped dramatically. The categories of music have jumped from Classical, Jazz and Rock to hundreds of descriptions. Paradoxically, the distribution network for CD’s in local stores has almost ceased to exist except in certain major urban areas. Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buys sell nearly 90% of all CD’s in the US and have a very limited selection of offerings. Producing a CD for art music has become documentation and marketing, something that helps you produce tours and most of my CD sales happen at performances. There is a small and steady sale from websites which is encouraging since there is minimal cost for keeping them available.
Technology now has moved to streaming, downloads, podcasts, websites, blogs, portals, social networks and broadband internet the sense of what a music product has changed as well. We all now are jostling on the “street” of the information age. So much content and how do you find quality? YouTube, NPR, Archive.org, Amie Street, Pandora, and on and on, offer ways of organizing content and a challenge for an artist to use these to find like-minded artists, audience and performing venues.
The “Jazz Critic” is an endangered species as well. For many critics working in the print medium, the CD is still the product that gets reviewed. People over 50 value the music object more than people in their 20s, who value the music device. This over generalization points towards the shift of technology and information in the last 30 years but this is the direction we are heading.
The third part of your question regards how all this informs my work. On the business side I’ve tried to shy away from being a buggy whip maker and engage the new mediums. I have a website, MySpace page, and use CD Baby for digital downloads. I have produced my own CD’s since costs have come down but the question of how and when to release them is a big question and concern along with the fact I don’t like the sound of MP3’s. I like the idea of owning all the rights to my work and the ability of making it available. It is a challenge to find a way to fund it now that labels can’t add value to the process except for creating a stable of artists and longevity.
I think Dave Douglas has developed an interesting website that it is a complete portal that includes selling music, sheet music, includes other artists that he works with, has a blog, calendar, events, and you can do a monthly subscription that entitles you to special content. He has addressed the quality of the music by selling a CD, MP3 or a FLAC file. All of this takes time and capital but is a good model. It is a kind of artist as small business approach.
The quality of the delivery system needs to be tied to the quality of the music much in the same way that a good venue adds to the quality of the performing experience.
In terms of art, there is a fascination with technology but it isn’t the prime motivation for my music. Sometimes it works out however; I created a web based page that is a music score and instrument with Deb King on her website called markszine that was based on a graphic score called Gingko. When you logged onto the site you could play the composition by moving and clicking the mouse on the four parts of the score. I have done performances and project the site on a screen and play a version from the website either as a solo or as an instrument with other musicians. It brought all the elements into play, composition, improvisation, technology, the internet and recorded material with live material. It is one possible contemplation of the “pressure of reality”.
The economic tsunami may change the parameters, however.
A streaming performance series. No need to travel, just set up the mics, pay for some bandwidth and perform for whoever can log on.
Best music site where the medium is the message is Hans Reichel’s: http://www.daxo.de/.
Currently, I’m assembling an electronic setup of small analog synthesizers and effects pedals to experiment with sculpting sound signal and process. It divides my activities between saxophone that by its very nature is periodic and controlled by breath and electronic that is always on and manipulates flow. I explore many of the same concerns but they have very different sonic outcomes.
Jen Baker: Reality. In the context of these questions you’ve asked, reality means having shelter, food, and the basic tools of our modern existence so we can function as artists. It also means the money it costs to produce and distribute music. I handle the “pressure of reality” by planning ahead as much as I can. In this way, I can enjoy the process of making and attaining goals, such as saving the money necessary before making a new album. I guess this means I’m taking a slower approach to creating opportunities to make music, and at the moment, I don’t really see a problem with that.
This question also causes me to wonder what reality I have ever fastened on to, anyway. I think my upbringing and my previous direction as a solely classical musician have afforded me a unique perspective that allows more patience and acceptance of having an upper class education and a lower class salary. I had no “frills” as I was growing up. I paid for my own education. My career choice as a musician was made with a clear understanding that I would not be seeing a stable income that reflected the quality of my ability. And lastly, when I chose to delve more deeply into creative music while my peers were busting their butts to prepare for orchestra auditions, I knew I was taking an even larger step away from the path of normalcy and a steady paycheck. So when I think of how these extraordinary times are informing my work, I must honestly admit that it doesn’t feel any more precarious than when I was 12, 18, or 27. I just take life in smaller chunks, and when I make music, I love it. I revel in it. I am fully dedicated to it because this is what I have chosen, and I am happy with my decision.
I see many musicians getting burned out. I hear orchestral musicians complain about their job (of making music for others to enjoy), and I hear improvising musicians complaining about how little they get paid to play their own music. When I hear of these complaints coming from both sides of the musical spectrum, I am reminded that WHAT they are doing may not be the issue as much as how they ARE in the moment of their music making. From these reminders, I refocus myself to see the beauty in the moment of making something for another person to appreciate and to forget all of these frustrations that we barricade ourselves with. It is ironic that the unfair economic climate indirectly gives me a much-needed perspective on the importance of giving music to the audience.
As for touring, well, this one is tricky for me. It seems like a tour often means a discounted vacation. I honestly do not tour as much as I would like to. When it does happen, it most often associates me with the local community, which I find to be the driving force behind the success or failure of any tour. When the people want the music, details will fall into place.
I think the greatest factor informing my work is the significance that making personal connections and involving myself with music communities, both local and distant has had. The more I tap into the strength of personal connections and existing communities, the more progress I make in distributing my music and creating playing opportunities. I think this is the most positive effect of the pressure of reality-it humanizes and socializes us out of necessity. We need community-and we need a reason for creating one. As the economy tumbles, our collective support can strengthen.
Shoemaker: Referencing William Carlos Williams raises the issue of how someone incorporates making music into their life. Most people who knew Williams as a physician were unaware of his poetry until well after he became famous. Conversely, many who knew him as a peer of Ezra Pound and other shapers of modern poetry were puzzled why he didn’t devote his full-time energies to poetry. Few saw the symbiosis between the two pursuits. Williams’ situation was fundamentally different from someone who holds down a day job while they wait for the big break. It implicitly makes a case for the civilian artist, as distinct from the professional artist. This begs the question: What are the consequences of a growing number of musicians who pursue experimental music on pointedly non-vocational terms; do they accelerate what Roscoe Mitchell calls “a race to the bottom” in terms of fees and working conditions, do they contribute to a new micro economy that will mature with time, or is the impact something different altogether?
Raskin: Charles Ives was another who also had a productive life in life insurance and used that income to subsidize his music. I hope I’m not causing a race to the bottom in terms of fees but choosing to live in the SF Bay area and remain creative meant finding employment outside music. Also, I was fortunate to find a firm that allowed me to travel and tour which essential to push the music to a higher level.
There is a vibrant artistic community in the Bay Area that has always been larger than the audience to support it. It creates a micro market, to be sure, with groups, venues and labels being formed. It really works well as an incubator. If someone has an idea they can work on it and get it performed and ready for the pushing it to wider audience. Rova created a non-profit called Rova: Arts which commissions composers, produces collaborative events that bring in artists to work with local musicians, and present lecture series where improvisers discuss how they work. Sometimes these have legs and we can present them elsewhere. It is also an incubator for projects that would interest festivals and venues and help us get performances outside of the area.
The sense of community is important and vital and it fosters the kind of work that allows artists to develop. If they can use it as a springboard to wide recognition, it is so much the better. How the springboard happens is really the question at hand. It appears that Social Networking on the web has as much impact at getting work. On the grassroots level is has never been easier to hear and find out what is going on other places. Door gigs can be booked and set up and music dispersed rapidly. The question of whether this will grow an audience that will allow more practitioners of this music to go to the larger venues is open to question.
Radding: In my teen years and a little bit into my twenties I imagined the "big break" being my only deliverance from wage slavery and from having to compromise who I was to make a buck. I hoped for the Big Contract from the Big Label and fame and fortune was the game I wanted to play. But life lets you know who you really are, and behind that whole dream was simply the desire for a life spent concerned only with music and magic. That was what was really at my core. A big turning point in my appreciation of this was when a close friend and collaborator became a famous rock star and I got to see up close what that life is really like. I had already moved on from that area of music, but I still had lingering bitterness that fame and fortune hadn't come to me in that way. Watching my friend get picked up in the maelstrom of the big rock and roll machine helped me see that I already was living the life I'd really wanted all along: my days and nights were filled with music that I cared deeply about, collaborating with like minds, with total freedom. I just didn't have the money and fame! Well, there's always a way to get money, and I can usually get mine from being involved with music, though I guess your question is asking whether that ability is threatened by the continual increase in young players coming into the scene with no intent of trying to get paid, working full time day jobs and changing the virtual pay rates for people like me by approaching their own music as if the stakes were the same as the commercial music world. I feel conflicted about this. On the one hand it has definitely affected my income and my ability to negotiate fees for my work and that can be scary. On the other hand it has helped underline for me that for the last 20 years I have not been living sensibly, have not taken proper care of myself. I've depended too much for too long on $50 gigs and occasional big paydays to support myself. Now that $30 is the new $50, and the big paydays, festivals, and such are less common, and even going to Europe means often playing for the door, I have had to face the facts that while there is nothing wrong in my mind with playing for low (or no) bread, there is something insane about depending on it. I want to have a peaceful loving home, and a prosperous existence, and there is no reason I can't have it and still make the music I want. I think I used to see poverty and limitation as the inevitable outcome of being a committed creative musician. I can't think like that anymore, and if things hadn't devolved to this point on the business level I don't know if I would have seen it the same way.
I spent 3 & 1/2 years away from the creative music scene at the end of the 90's, and the fondest memories of the music life I held onto during that time were never the Big Gig or the Great Review. It was sessions and rehearsals and gigs that felt magic even if there were only 5 people listening or nobody listening. It was the community. It was the process. It was finding out how to be my highest self. Leaving the music scene for a while was so valuable in that it taught me what I had needed it for in my life other than money, public attention, or even the music itself. I discovered how much I needed the community aspect, and the continual impetus for growth that being an improviser requests from you. And I am learning more and more to appreciate something Jen was just talking about, being aware of giving music to an audience. Making something for them and not just for me. I remember reading that book of Steve Lacy interviews last year and noticing that at many points from the mid-60's onward Lacy talked about not wanting to be in the underground and that he wanted to reach a wider audience, but it didn't seem to be motivated primarily by the desire for better money. He wanted to reach people with his music! To communicate! Isn't this what we're really here for? I think I used to see audience as something I needed for what they could give me, and I've been learning a lot in the years since I returned to music that it may be more important to think about what I can give them, while still being true to myself and my artistic dreams.
And meanwhile there are worlds beyond this one that our music may be coming from or connecting to, and what does that have to do with money and business? With no money at all we can try to say something healing. Without any marketing we can inspire someone with our creative effort. Without paychecks or contracts we can bridge political and cultural divides. In improvisation I feel like I'm involved in a life where these are the important things, always will be, and money has nothing to do with it. Being an improviser gives me a way, unique to myself, to become a better person and help others. I hope I can keep this more and more in mind, not only during hard times as these, but the better times ahead.
Baker: I think that, for the casual observer, seeing the growing number of experimental musicians has many potential effects. If, for example, the observer was feeling the drain of an artistically sterile environment in their work and life, they might feel refreshed to see musicians pushing boundaries and perhaps even inspired to try it out themselves. When more people live next door to an experimental musician, it adds a level of connection and understanding about these mysterious music-makers, and in many cases adds another head to the audience count. Alongside this, the perseverance with which creative musicians are blanketing the planet with their music is causing a greater need for civilians to open their eyes to what is happening and to acknowledge that we exist. With greater visibility, there comes more awareness and understanding.
As for the non-vocational experimental musician, the pressure is off as to how to make a buck when they play, right? So how much do they care about making money anyway? They are interested in making music that speaks to them, and I think they get the award for doing what gives them satisfaction, period. Since they don’t have great financial expectations, they are going to be flexible with most situations, and they get what they want. I think this is more important than money.
There are, however, quite a few of us who find ourselves in between the need to make money playing music and the need to make music that pleases us. I am one of those, so I’ll speak for myself here. I tend to expect to make money when I perform. However, I know that the experimental music economy is usually not affluent, so I tend to expect less money with the idea that I will enjoy what I’m performing much more so than if I were playing some late-romantic German music, in other words, music that’s been done before…so the trade off is $$$ versus :) :) :).
In terms of how this music might change the economy, I’m dubious about that. I could easily see how a micro-economy is already in place, but as far as maturing with time? I’m not sure that I see it progressing so much that we’ll see significant changes. Grants are still supporting quite a lot of the larger-scale experimental music endeavors (aka, the ones that pay well), so I don’t know if I see the economy shifting toward a greater abundance. The more people involved, the more money, which then gets dispersed over the larger numbers. As far as how many are involved in this micro-economy, I could imagine this increasing over time, but I think the amount of money circulating will likely be similar per capita.
I couldn’t imagine a better world than one in which everyone engages in some form of free music, which could extend to beat-boxing, drum circles, droning/toning, and, of course, our topic-improvised music. There is a certain empathy and understanding that “non-musicians” could develop by dabbling in improvisation, and the more understanding the civilians have, the more likely they are to recognize the value of it in seasoned musicians. I don’t always see success in terms of the financial side of things, so it doesn’t bother me if these civilians never support their local artists. On the other hand, it would mean a great deal to me if I knew that everyone on the planet had experienced improvised, experimental music personally and had an understanding of its worth first-hand.