Saturday, June 25, 2011

On the Uses and Abuses Of Labels in Art

I have spoken very little about the musical arts in this blog, this in spite of (or because of) that music is one of my main projects and endeavors. I don't intend to speak about the specificity of music in this particular installment except as as means to, in this case, reflect upon the meaning of categories in our lives and art.

Partly due to the good work radio interviewer and archivist Jake Feinberg has done through his own show in Tucson at KJLL, where he has been conducting invaluable oral histories and interviews with jazz greats (with an emphasis on the 1970s), it was brought to my attention that the great saxophonist Gary Bartz has strong objections to the use of the word jazz to describe his own musical career.

To paraphrase Bartz, calling his music jazz acts as a narrow box into which he is imprisoned, and moreover the word jazz itself has a history of derogation and even racism attached to it. Bartz, of course is not the only major figure in jazz history to have problems with the word. Some have suggested the word African-American classical music as an alternative. Even further, greats like Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie have wanted to describe music in terms of whether or not it was good music. Pianist Bill Evans, on the other hand, when asked about the jazz label claimed to be only too proud to use the J word.

One of the best books I have ever read on jazz music is a book called Jazz Styles by Mark Gridley. It doesn't get too hung up on the word jazz, but, in the words of Dizzy Gillespie himself, it "hits the nail on the head" and attempts to make a close reading of how jazz styles actually function, how they work on the audience, and, in the spirit of "reverse engineering" (See David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson on film) show how the music is put together to create those effects. The issue then is not so much whether a form of jazz is a cool West Coast form or fusion form, but deeper issues concerning the very materials of which music is intimately made.

(A brief digression from literature):

It is not just in jazz but in any art form where there is confusion over what matters. For example, in no place in the course of Middlemarch is there actually a real distinct person named Dorothea Brooke. (Yes, I just said that.) The effect, (shall we dare say illusion?) of such a person is created through assertions on the part of a traditional narrator and parts of her internal feelings and thoughts when reported to the reader, and above all, the mixture of those classes of sentences with those that are applied to those with other names. You might laugh and say this is too basic a matter to discuss. Of course the words and sentences create in us a consistent sense that there is a solid person called Dorothea Brooke and we would be fools to not want to let go of the illusion. Clearly there is a person explained to us in the novel is there not?

Well, yes and no.

But actually how that basic of a matter is handled has a great deal to do with why some of us consider George Eliot a genius and not a mere writer of genre.

Nor is there really a Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Rather Darcy is actually a semiotic function of the need to be contrasted and then alternately and eventually paired with the equally unreal Mrs. Bennett. (And he is a semiotic function of her).

This point is what all ideological critics miss. You need to create drama if your aim is for there to be drama present at all, and the notion of positive or negative role models is secondary to the semiotic function of Mr. Darcey and Mrs. Bennett: chiefly, what their presence will do to each other and the book as a whole. By definition what one possesses, the other must lack, and so on. It is a little like roles in family system theory in modern psychology and much less like psychoanalysis with its deep appraisal of a discrete bundle of complexes known as character. But to think of them as having fully individuated psychologies in the modern sense, outside of their relational or semiotic function as tools to create behaviors, events and emotions in the reader, would be to not in some way fully understand Pride And Prejudice.

And to reduce such effects to an abstraction called "the romance" or "historical novel" is also to miss what is unique in how an Austen or an Eliot makes over and expands upon the crudeness of "genre".

More contemporary artists will make as their subject a most conflicted, even convoluted self who at times appears to not need other selves, (Pynchon, Stanley Elkin, Beckett) or even dismantle the realistic illusion of self. But nevertheless the tools will remain the same: stylistic effects (say by having an uninterrupted monologue with little contrast against which to work).

Rather, the use of certain sentences and paragraphs carefully orchestrated by the writer, creates in the reader an impression of such a discreet and distinct category or personhood. But actually it is the syntax and the style that does this. More interesting writers, to my mind, tend to call into question such arrangements, either through defamiliarization techniques, through experiments in tracing consciousness, but that comes much later in literary history. But it is all a kind of trick or effect.

And, even more astonishingly, it is a trick that ends up revealing some of the most natural and authentic truths about the human condition, truths that would be otherwise completely inacessible if the methods were not so artificial. This is why art is often described as a lie that tells the truth.

When people recoil from my statement that a character driven approach to dramatic art is little better than a plot driven one, that both are less important than attention to style, when they insist upon a reality based interpretation, one that argues from plausibility and belief ("is it true to life or not"?) rather than my preferred stylistic model ("HOW does the work itself work upon us and what can it tell us about anything) what they fail to see is that from my viewpoint it is all a structural hall of mirrors. This color interacts with that color. (In painting). This behavior needs to happen for that reaction over there. (Drama). This note for the other note. (In music). I do think all art works this way whatever the mode or style. But debating that is, again, best left for another entry.

back to Jazz and other things:

If anyone would know the dangers of labels and even genres in how music and arts is discussed it surely is Gary Bartz. Bartz, you see, had a major role in the very Miles Davis period that divided jazz purists from the more open minded. To this day there are many, and not always of the oldest generation, who talk of Miles Davis' so-called jazz rock fusion (another terrible label), and his usage of non swinging groove rhythms like funk and rock as if it were one great mistake, as if the greatness of Davis rests in some essentialistic purity that resides somewhere between the late fifties and mid sixties alone. Here is Bartz in a brief excerpt showing him at work with Miles Davis in that revolutionary period in jazz and reflecting upon that time.

Martin Williams, though otherwise a notable prose stylist in jazz writing, helped fuel this anti - rock or funk groove sentiment when he argued in an essay that when jazz improvisors play over even eighth note pulses some special quality is lost in the leading line. This becomes even more ludicrous when one considers the long history of Latin influenced jazz, even predating the growth of rock, and that music , in all of its varieties is not a swung music in the swing or bebop tradition sense.

As Bartz pointed out there is a practical and benign, indeed helpful way to understand labels. Record stores and then later video stores (with their terrible categories like Western, Romance and so on. I'll get to in a minute why I have problems with such taxonomies) help the human brain to organize reality into distinct emotional states, narrations, patterns and moods, to recognize the importance of certain stylistic patterns and effects. Indeed all art is but the organization of stylistic effects. Given my cognitive neo-formalist tendencies (ask me about that at a later blog) and my general aestheticism, surely I would appreciate the basic need for how the old record store was set up.

But this raises the problem of minds, our own and others. If the stylistic effects are as crucial as I say they are, then the use of the label is a kind of crude reductionism that deflects attention away from interest and surprise, and, frankly, the specialness of certain kinds of mental powers.

The most extreme and sublime form of criticism of genre as a way of understanding any art surely comes from Andrei Tarkovsky, in his own way the anti- Northrop Frye. I quote at length from Sculpting In Time:

"The very concept of genre is as cold as the tomb. And is Chaplin comedy? No: he is Chaplin, pure and simple; a unique phenomenon, never to be repeated. He is unadulterated hyperbole; and above all he stuns us at every moment of his screen existence with the truth of the hero's behavior. In the most absurd situation Chaplin is completely natural; and that is why he is funny. His hero seems not to notice the hyperbolized world around him, nor its weird logic. Chaplin is such a classic, so complete in himself, that he might have died three hundred years ago".

In many views Tarkovsky is being hyperbolic himself. After all, there is that need to organize categories in record shops. We need to see how Chaplin is similar to Buster Keaton or the vaudeville that came before them.

Yet we also need to see the specialness of individual souls as well. And it is precisely where the art lies in what happens AFTER the initial structure of a genre has already been established and something new is done with it.

A couple of decades ago when I was in graduate school at the New England Conservatory Of Music, I found myself involved in a class concerning the history of American music or United States musical history. Given my love for the work of Herbie Hancock and his Headhunters ensemble in the 1970s, I decided to engage in a genuine CLOSE READING of his classic Chameleon. That is, I would give it the same attention I would any work of art. At one point in the piece the music radically changes color within the funk context, all by a subtle change in the underlying harmony and beat, to accompany the Fender Rhodes solo. The music grows quiet while not letting up on the funk feeling. I felt this was as important as any moment in, say, classical chamber music. The following example illustrates the moment in performance:
After I was done with my oral presentation my instructor, a fidgety theory bound politico always on the search for ideology everywhere and seemingly without much of an aesthetic sense asked in a tone of irritation:
"But Mr. Hampton is this really GENUINE Jazz? Did he sell out? Is it a sell out? What do you think? You have only talked about the music and its emotional effects on the listener."
"But Mr. Humphreys", I retorted, "if that is not what music or any art is essentially about then I have nothing else to say to you. I leave the question of its popularity or unpopularity or what to call it to sociologist."
"It is rather monotonous and repetitive", Humphreys argued.
"No more so that Ravel's Bolero or Steven Reich. Repetition is as important part of art as surprise, is it not? By having repetition prior to the solo, that change for the piano solo has all the more dramatic meaning, meaning that would be denied had what had come before been filled with variations. And so on."
I received a C that day, I believe. Someone else did their oral on Bob Dylan and received an A, yammering on and on about the fighting between electric and acoustic advocates at Newport folk. Little was said about either Dylan's poetry, (the one quality in Dylan I should think most worthy of our attentions!) nor his crude form of melodic folk. Much was said about the deep cultural meanings of using electronic guitar and the cultures of folk and rock traditions and riots in art history like the response to Stravinsky's Le Sacre.
Maybe more than a little boomeritis was involved.

The mania for labels appears to march on in all of the writing on the arts. But maybe like Tarkosvsky we can someday learn to appreciate the mind, the author (and, of course, in the case of, say, studio filmmaking minds) behind a text. Not as psychology or biography but as individual expressions of a moment in time.

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