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.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Memories of my Father In the 1970s

This past month of May, 2011 has been the month my father died at the age of 76. In keeping with the theme of my memoirs from the 1970s - that is, on those rare occasions when I do turn to personal matters - this particular post will be most peculiar. It will in no way be a conventional tribute to my father. It will form a portrait in keeping with my perceptual, rather than conceptual nature. It will be a brief, episodic and aphoristic inquiry into the nature not of death or of parenthood and fatherhood, but of immediate and raw sensation and feeling- the very stuff from which memories are created.

My father was a celebrity, in certain respects he was like a rock star in certain quarters, in part because he was one of the originators or creators of the natural foods and/or products industry. He developed what became a family business, based on organic and preservative free and cruelty free ingredients.

These are the facts in the external world, yet my mind constantly is drawn backwards to earlier times when my father made me into a child magician.

I hated doing the magic but it taught me something about the nature of performance and art. Suzuki Roshi once lectured that you cannot play magic tricks in this world. "The world is its own magic". Thankfully I learned that firsthand through living out my father's obsessions with the world of professional predistinators.

My father suffered with psoriasis all of his life; he later devoted part of of his life to making other's skins beautiful or at least presentable. The hygiene and presentability that had often eluded him in life, he devoted part of his life to insuring it in others.

I am drawn back to the earliest days when he made substances - liquids and thick gruel - out of exotic and lovely smelling, intoxicating herbs and plants with names I could hardly pronounce like eucalyptus and quilla bark. Often these were made near my crib, from what I am to understand. I am sure I got a good and real natural high from these substances and that they staved off most childhood diseases and gave me pleasant dreams at night.

Speaking of dreaming at night, my father would improvise stories for me at bedtime. They were based on the work of Franz Kafka, but they were altered to accomodate the mind of a child. Thus, there were the usual bureaucratic frustrations and annoyances in, say, The Trial or The Castle, and there were the anthropomorphic transformations of The Metamorphosis, except that the anti-hero was me and the challenges were from imaginary creatures and villages. All his invented stories concerned little people of about my size. And the the scale of the environments were miniature as well.

My father read Coleridge to me before bed: both The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. I believe he recited from memory.

There is no area of human life and endeavor so suffused with outright nonsense as that concerning the family. Because it is the most common and universal of themes, by definition both the best and worst of our art and thought concerns this insane institution we call family. Oh there are charts and systems but its enormity escapes, thankfully, our grasp.

Ours is an age of hyperbole. We no longer respect the distinction between like and love. Say you like something or that you don't love something and people will misunderstand and think you hate or dislike it. We have lost the value for that which is serviceable as the English used to say. We don't comprehend "good enough", our excessive use of the word awesome, once applied to items worthy of its use shows that we don't love or cherish enough that which we merely like. And our hates, oh our hates, burn with ever greater intensity.

People open up like cheap suitcases, a fetish is made of intimacy. They are suspicious of tact and reserve. I never had a wish for my father to talk more or tell me he loved me. His was the old way for he was, as the the youth are want, to say old schooled. Much of what passes for wisdom today is but knowledge of bits of statistical facts out of which are spun ideological tales of a false holism at best - and at worst are as was said nonsense. I would take my father's "I Like Ike" sensibility (so beautifully defended in George W S Trowe's work, especial My Pilgrim's Progress) any day over what passes for relevant humanity today. My father worked in an often hippie milieu but was pre-Boomer to the core. The values of those days were not all better than the improvements that have followed in the wake of the sixties, but some of them are more virtuous than those of today.

This has nothing to do with, say, politics or the status of men and women but all to do with the virtue of obliquity, opacity, indirection, put more plainly, mystery. Our current epoch is one of explanations and understanding. His was a way of example. I say leave the transparency to the federal government and reserve.

My father expressed his feelings through example. He took me to see the original production of Chicago in the 1970s - the one with Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and a young Jerry Orbach. He took me to Broadway shows, from Neil Simon and Harold Pinter, and taught me a class in Shakespeare.

My father had so many problems and flaws such that, were a list of them offered here, it would have us reading it all day. But my father was interesting. Alas and alack we live in an age that has replaced interesting with awesome and craves a clean antiseptic perfection and prefers the company of cats and dogs to people. (As did my father too come to think of it, ever the animal rights advocate). In short, we have traded the interesting, in the name of security, for the boring.

In my youth he took me to two of the greatest jazz concerts I will ever hope to hear: the great Freddie Hubbard, who, upon discovering that my dad was a fellow "hoosier" allowed me to hold his trumpet and sign my CTI golden, earthen yellow recording. He also took me to hear Herbie Hancock and the original Headhunters in the 1970s, after which I played Hancock the first piano piece I had ever learned which was not minuet or a nice Bach knockoff but a rural and earthy BLUES. Herbie Hancock wrote on my two record set, "Mitch you play great piano."  I pity the youth of today who are raised by parents who, as Trowe pointed out, formed their views of life from Howdy Doody on television. Howdy Doody was pathetic and cheap.

My father formed his views of life from Lorenz Hart lyrics. I defy anybody to try and tell me we aren't living in an age of decline. I don't give a shit how many wondrous technical improvements we have made or how nicer we are to each other. Howdy Doody and Barney or even Wicked don't cut it. I'm very sorry to say that but it needs to be said. Better to read Wind In The Willows or Coleridge anyday.

My father taught me what performance was and taught me to enjoy life as a stage.

My father educated me in the arts and consequently in what it means to be human. Not, mind you, what was necessarily right or wrong for humans in conduct but what humans are like and how we got that way. One of my father's favorite movies was a depiction of seedy and rank desperation: the criminal lives in the 1970s movie Straight Time. He gave me a taste for the perverse, which in reality was a lesson in compassion. Nothing human should ever be alien What is it like to write something like Macbeth? How can we permit ourselves to not marvel in that, that a human made that, to quote Mark Edmundson.

I have this marvelous photograph of my dad as a youth, as a teenager in New York City in the fifties. He is standing next to an attractive girlfriend, whose identity we can't figure out. And they are standing posing in front of this rich cultural milieu of the grand MIDDLEBROW (when middlebrow was really really good) joys of New York at that time. Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella and Damn Yankees. He is beaming with joy and this perky girl, probably a budding acting student with Sandy Meisner or even Lee Strasberg, in an A line skirt is so happy to be among these cultural treasures.

At the very moment that photo was taken of my father John Cassavetes was shooting Shadows around the corner. (The shot of the Frank Loesser marquee is visible and the year matches up) - Cassavetes who also extolled the virtues of action over talk, who famously complained that most movies didn't have enough "behavior" in them by which he meant not too much talking and too little "action" - his own films were practically all talk. But rather, like my father, he didn't want everything spelled out, on the nose. Cassavetes was of the old school too. I miss the old school.

I guess when I think of my father's loss I think of how we can't help what or who we love. I will always love old fashioned things. I am not made for the present times. It is like my work furlough, purgatory.

What if everything we think we know about grief or memory and loss is wrong? What if it is just a new fashion, bolstered by some very truthful cognitive neuroscience but still a kind of fashion. What if it is up to us how we are to go about things.

There is no progress in human affairs. Improvements yes. Little reforms yes. But Progress no. The losses sustained by overthrowing the old world - the world of Ike or Jack Kennedy, say, are not compensated for by the gains of our current world. There is no measure from which to judge. We don't lynch people and women can achieve the status of Oprah, but our world is collapsing from automobiles and overcrowding and new health problems. All things collapse and die. Oh they may renew and come back, but it is an ever eternal cycle, never a linear onwards and upwards march to Utopia.

How I wish my father were here to read what I just write. He would smile, have a twinkle in his eye and say, as he always did, "most people have certain beliefs. I have uncertain beliefs." That is the wisdom of Socrates there. I don't think I could have had much better than that expressed to me as I was growing up, long ago in a world poised between old and new.