(Continued from March 9)
While competition has been a unifying, if not always edifying, quality of Western art music since the Pythian Games of Ancient Greece and (as much as it is part of the human condition) dictates what our daily musical experience looks and sounds like, I’m sure that music didn’t start out that way. The earliest music was about defining and strengthening one’s relationship with fellow human beings, the society they formed and the environment(s) they understood themselves to coexist in. But it is now an art, commodity and business in a market-driven globalized milieu that makes competition an essential thread sewn into the weave of our self-worth. The somewhat outmoded belief that, as Native American saxophonist Jim Pepper put it, “good, healthy competition” makes all who participate stronger might be being superseded by an institutionalized ruthlessness where any means are justified by successfully achieving one’s ends.
I was disheartened to find that in a course called “Effective College Teaching,” I had to vote one of my “teammates” as the weakest link as part of my final exam. I refused to participate in that exercise and assume that the rest of the team voted me as the weakest link. It was explained to me that in teamwork (which no improvising musician could possibly understand), there is no such thing as equal participation. Fortunately, the minimally passing grade didn’t hold up my master’s in jazz history, but it reminded me of stories I’d heard where a musician’s audition was compromised by another vying for the same opportunity. Sadly, a little dirty pool can be attractive to the pathologically ambitious. How does this relate to jazz and/or improvised music in general? I believe it goes to the fallacy of the so-called Noble Savage as an expression of social snobbery.
In course of time, an unmusical license set in with the appearance of poets who were men [of] native genius, but ignorant of what is right and legitimate in the realm of the Muses. Possessed by a frantic and unhallowed lust for pleasure, they…actually imitated the strains of the flute on the harp, and created a universal confusion of forms. T[his]…folly led them unintentionally to slander their profession by [assuming] that in music there is no such thing as a right and a wrong, the right standard of judgment being the pleasure given to the hearer, be he high or low. By compositions of such a kind and discourse to the same effect, they naturally inspired the multitude with contempt of musical law, and a conceit of their own competence as judges. Thus our once silent audiences have found a voice, in the persuasion that they understand what is good and bad in art; the old “sovereignty of the best” in that sphere has given way to an evil “sovereignty of the audience.”—Plato, Laws, 700a1
If it hadn’t been written 2,400 years ago, this quote could have been a critique of hip-hop culture (and I’m sure that there are those who would take that idea as an example of how the Ancient Greeks “got it right”), but for 500 years Western music has reflected the concerted efforts of a few groups of powerful Florentine gentlemen to reinvent the music of Ancient Greece by staging “works” emphasizing monodic unfolding of melody instead of Franco-Flemish architectures. That the influence of Vincenzo Galilei (father of astronomer Galileo)—who preferred the use of major and minor keys over church modes in his compositions—is attributed as spearheading the then modern style of composition requires a posture of scientificness applicable to academically-based musicianship. Whether or not this is a valuable, viable, or even valid approach to music making is moot because it is ubiquitous. Monody is how music is popularly expressed today and stands as a testament to what the elder Galilei and his drinking buddies thought about the music of Plato’s republic.
It is important to note that the Florentine Camarati were part of a shift from the study of Greek and Arabic writings to studying Greek and Roman texts as the basis for proper intellectual development. (One could assume that bribing a librarian in Rome was easier than bribing one in Constantinople.) This necessarily included an examination of the work of Roman historian and senator Publius Cornelius Tacitus. Among Tacitus’s writings was a narrative, Germania, that expressed the notion of something problematic about the Roman Empire, what with all of the conquest of surrounding lands and cultures to support the extravagant and decadent lifestyles of Rome’s ultra-wealthy businessmen and politicians. Tacitus saw a time when the police-state Rome had become would be unsupportable and looked to the German tribes of Northern Europe as having social traditions that were, since they apparently resisted Roman occupation so well, possibly better suited to successful civilization. To minimize any popular unrest his liberal insights might inspire, Tacitus was hustled out of Dodge with an appointment as governor of Asia and Anatolia. I can’t say whether or not Rousseau’s theories of natural humanity were directly inspired by Tacitus, but by the end of the Baroque period the inclusion of “noble savages” in French opera had become a great excuse for nudity in polite company and primitivism was part of cutting-edge philosophy and was an important part in the establishment of an independent national entity in the Western Hemisphere. Among the “Founding Fathers” was the inventor of a musical instrument that used tuned glass cylinders that vibrated when moistened. He also wrote an essay, “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America” that suggested that so-called “primitive” cultures weren’t primitive at all; they had just developed from alternate philosophies and traditions.
It is no secret that the Eurocentric American mindset tends to look at modernity as equivalent to superiority vis-à-vis literacy and technological and economic development—an illiterate culture with uncomplicated tools that successfully lives in the same spot for thousands of years without destroying the local resources is the epitome of primitive and savage. This mindset is also dedicated to recreating itself as being independent from (and, therefore, superior to) its European origins and has gone to great pains to mask its Continental characteristics. This effort is inclusive of the arts and can be exemplified by the National Conservatory in New York’s hiring of Antonín Dvořák in 1892 as its director. A staunch advocate of musical nationalism, Dvořák was expected to help identify a course for the creation of distinctly American music. As the reader is well aware, he earned his $15,000 ($368,850 in today’s currency) by pointing to Native and African American music as a source of melodic and harmonic content. The beauty of Dvořák’s insight is that it went far towards establishing a permanent point of inclusivity and mutualism in American sub-and supra-cultural relations, a kind of collusion of cliques that would transcend the model of thematic appropriation demonstrated in his Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”). Matters of non-European intonation not “fixed” on a specific pitch center, diverse and sometimes apparently randomly organized rhythmic schemes, socially informed musical forms, and large tracts of improvised elements—salient to African and Native American musics—were insurmountable to the literate-dominant processes of European American culture.
Looking just at the issue of improvisation, one thing is agreed: it isn’t ubiquitous among the practitioners of Western art music. Certainly there have always been performers who could improvise cadenzas and codas (if merely to cover up a mistake). Liszt, Paderewski, and Horowitz are all documented as having done so. But most “classically” trained performers find the prospect daunting and prefer to think of “interpretation” as synonymous with improvisation. This comes as no surprise since the amount of “dos-and-don’ts” codified in traditional music theory make improvising a convincing modern fugue extremely difficult. And forget about sonata form, that’s impossible. (I’d love to be proved wrong.) Even expert jazz improvisers like Louis Armstrong were known to write out solos before they were recorded or, like Charlie Parker, memorize their own improvisations to play later. Improvisation isn’t easy.
It might seem like a contradiction, but improvisation is nearly ubiquitous throughout the American music scene. In most major orchestras, improvisers can be found, usually among the brass, string bass, and percussion sections, and there are string quartets that include improvisation as a novelty. But non-improvising musicians aren’t necessarily tied down to specific genres or styles because they read music already composed. They can rehearse a new work for a premiere in the morning, record a soundtrack in the afternoon, and play Beethoven at night. Most big bands include musicians who aren’t improvisers. And while improvisers aren’t limited to improvising, when they improvise, a style or genre is usually associated with their improvisations. One of the natural tendencies is for cliques, small and exclusive groups of friends and/or associates, to form of musicians who improvise the same genre and style of music together.
To be continued …