That Special Something

Even though I don’t hold down a day job, I’m a big fan of holidays, and very soon what is considered in America to be the holiday season—with all of its attention-grabbing (and sometimes mind-numbing) decorative marketing displays and acts of inebriated good cheer—will be upon us. The official kick-off is Thanksgiving, a day that (until 1971, when the Uniform Holidays Act of 1968 took effect) was part of what could be considered a chorus of C-clefs of American holidays; a corps d’elite of four of the eleven American holidays that include: Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Memorial Day. Their similarity to the last of the moveable clefs is drawn not from their being originally tied to a numbered calendar day, but rather to specific days of the week: the first Monday in September (Labor Day); the second Monday in October (Columbus Day); the last Monday in May (Memorial Day); and the fourth Thursday in November (Thanksgiving). Martin Luther King Day is left out of this group because it was enacted in 1983, long after the Uniform Holidays Act. It’s probably worth mentioning that Easter Sunday and its attendant Good Friday and Ash Wednesday are not part of the eleven official federal holidays, which I assume is a First Amendment issue. (I know, what about Christmas …)

I ponder this while spiking my glucose with leftovers on All Saints’ Day. Because of the inclement weather New York experienced earlier this week, there was a low turnout of trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood, which means that my kitchen is now stocked with an assortment of empty-calorie carbohydrates packaged in handy bite-size servings that compliment the morning coffee in strange and delicious ways. I know that they’re not supposed to be particularly healthy to eat in large quantities, but I do have a moral obligation to consume them. After all, if I’m willing to give them to your children, then I should also be willing to eat them myself, right? Besides, I find the effect of caffeine and high-fructose corn sweetener similar to what I imagine sapho juice is for the Mentats in Frank Herbert’s Dune (“It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of sapho that thoughts acquire speed …”). One of the things that my now elevated consciousness has come to realize is that the impending holiday season actually began two weeks ago during the run-up to Halloween. During the weeks before this “unholy” event we practice setting up the decorations that will grace the facades of our abodes during Christmas and we begin to nuclearize our families by dressing up the kids in what is, hopefully, a costume of their choice and feeding them enough candy that they experience a similar state of consciousness achieved by their parents at the office parties and holiday get-togethers that are right around the corner.

Inducing creativity through altered states of consciousness is a subject that has been examined before at NewMusicBox and one I’ve had first and second-hand experience with. Although I limit my intake of drugs and alcohol to zero now (for reasons too complicated to go into), I still drink coffee and have deserts. I think it’s obvious that ingesting mood- and mind-altering substances has an immediate and noticeable impact on a person’s creative output. The saxophonist Joe Henderson told me that part of his understanding of his own creative process included making tape recordings of himself on every kind of drug and alcoholic beverage he liked to use so that he could optimize his performance. He said that tobacco, marijuana, and Johnny Walker Red Label scotch were the best combination for him. (I never was quite as studious about this and discovered about 17 years ago that my best strategy is to keep it to coffee or tea; even too much sugar has a negative impact on my playing!) One of my idols on the bass, Sam Jones, found that smoking a little marijuana and sipping a beer kept his creative impetus going. One musician (who I won’t mention because he is still alive and performing) prefers Angostura bitters and seltzer, while pianist Jimmy Rowles just kept the vodka going all day long. The idea, I think, is that one has to acknowledge that creativity, like eating, is a connection between oneself and the world. Creativity isn’t just to solve problems, it is a constant in our lives, I’ll call it a “state of doing,” and we pick and choose what it is we do all the time.

One of the things that we, the writers and readers of NewMusicBox, do as a group is relate to music—all kinds of music, but principally American music; more specifically new American music. I’m pretty sure that we all agree that music is a kind of glue that holds humanity together and keeps us working together, if for no other purpose than to perform it. I wish, though, that I could say that it keeps us at peace with one another, but there are far too many examples of music employed as a device of division, to amplify intolerance and bigotry. Fortunately music, on its own, conveys no meaning and music without any semantic content, such as lyrics or titles that go beyond formal description, have little chance of projecting any sociological messaging to its audience. However, most people don’t relate to music this way; they tend to get into the messaging more than the notes; so, in a sense, music is really part of communication. But music, in and of itself, has an impact on us. Loud music can make people move faster, if for no other reason than to get away from it, something that restaurateurs sometimes take advantage of to accelerate customer turnover, albeit at the risk of losing repeat business. And there are enough people who actually like or possibly prefer music without words over music with them to allow the existence of an industry that supports the people who create that. In fact, it is my experience that most musicians fall into the category of makers of music without words. It seems to me that there are more instrumentalists than vocalists in the world (well, in my world, anyway), which makes sense, since it takes much more effort to consistently sing well than to play an instrument well. So I would not at all be surprised if an inverse proportionality exists between the number of people who prefer to listen to music with words and the number of musicians who prefer to play music without them!

Still the most expressive musical instrument is the human voice. The range of timbre and subtlety it is capable of is matched by no other instrument I’m aware of. I believe that one of the challenges that every instrumentalist faces is how to incorporate a “singing” quality into their performances. One of the approaches to taking up this challenge is to employ what are mislabeled “extended techniques.” I was thrilled to read Isaac Schankler’s “In Defense of Extended Techniques” in this week’s NewMusicBox, especially since it addresses the problem of their general acceptance in mainstream musical milieus. He sees those who fall into the anti-extended technique camp as believing that the techniques “distract from other, more important musical parameters like melody and harmony” lies at the core of the problem. I say problem because American music, as understood by the scholars of Dvořák’s definition of it as rooted in African and Native American cultures, is based on extended techniques. If the majority of American composers are distracted from the crossword puzzle of ecclesiastic melody and harmony, maybe it’s because they’re more engaged in limiting what they consider the human capacity for pure musical expression than understanding it. Really, though, the problem is that the relationship between composer and performer in our culture is largely considered to be at its best when the composer is dead and can no longer directly influence the performer. The complexity of the relationship between the two was approached last week in Kevin Baldwin’s excellent article, “Schizophrenic Composer/Performer,” which includes a discussion of extended techniques as well.

I will posit that the problem is not limited to the composer-side of the relationship, but rather that the performer-side makes its own contribution to it. The idea that Freddie Keppard turned down an offer to record what would have been the first recording of a jazz band in 1917 because people might copy him is an example of this. It’s no secret that the artist who is engaged as a performer/composer, one who performs music they have composed for themselves, are best suited to develop their vocabulary of extended techniques, especially among those who improvise extensively. This model has been the norm for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But the modern music industry, with its fascination for taking as much advantage of the artist as possible, makes potential adversaries out of those who participate in it. It becomes very difficult to remain non-high-intensity-mercenary about playing when the artists’ best efforts are constantly exploited for someone else’s gain. Indeed, many artists find themselves best off by participating in behavior that is widely considered unethical. But I believe that there will be an understanding of how improvisation, extended techniques, non-equal metered rhythms, and non-tempered pitch conglomerates make not only good music, but authentic American music that challenges the viability, or even the validity, of traditional Western art-music concepts of melody and, especially, harmony while simultaneously embracing them. I sensed this while I was listening to some of the examples of new music posted by Alexandra Gardner in “NewMusicBox Mix 3: Tracks and Treats.” I find the bold way that these artists combine extended techniques, continuously morphing temperaments, acoustic and electronic technologies, and groove/ambience in their work is an inspiration. I am composing music for a concert I’ll be performing in San Francisco on December 9. I predict that for the next two days I’ll be working on bebop inspired melodies that can be performed over the shimmering ostinati I’m hearing in my head after consuming the empty carbs from last night, which could be a problem!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.