Thursday, September 18, 2003

Time-Based Annoyance or Missive in the Key of WHA?! 

If, as Walter Pater suggested, all the arts aspire to the conditions of music, don’t you think it’s a little strange that in the context of the TBA Festival, music finds itself standing at the servants entrance of the arts—looking in on the feast, lucky to get a smattering of crumbs at the day’s end? More specifically, why is there so little emphasis on music as art in the festival— I mean what is more risk-oriented and time-based than music. . .especially jazz and improvisation? The history of art in the 2oth century is girded to the path of jazz—a soundtrack of futurity, dizzying in its syncopated, angular drive. Cultural critics, composers, filmmakers, poets, and visual artists have all borne witness to jazz’s kissing-cousin synergy with the arts. . . but despite its international currency (some say a greater export than either democracy or baseball), the musician is still waiting to fed from above.

The poet Allan Graubaud said, “with the heat of music lies the capacity for an embrace of other arts. There is nothing inconsequential about this.” Its capacity to evoke whiplash emotions, mine memory’s deep well, raise the roofbeams with its sonic power or merely “sustain a flat surface with a minimum of contrast,” gives it a visceral immediacy unparalleled by its neighbors in the performance arena. Considering the architectural qualities of instant composition, a navigational grace traversing the vertical and horizontal, it’s no wonder that music inspires such deep synaptical surrealism and synesthetic tendencies.

When its allowed in the same door as dance or theater at TBA, it’s either been given a polish and a shave or its relegated to functionary status. While I’ve seen so much good work in the festival, the one area that I’m most qualified to write about (music) has been held hostage, almost beyond criticism, because it can’t be talked about on its own terms—and falls prey to specific functions: as support (Vijay Iyer), soundtrack (3 Leg), gimmick (Erin Jorgenson’s five-octave marimba), or as boutique exotica (Dariush Dolat-shahi).

The minute you include music with a text-based work, it subordinates music to narrative—words suffocate music, while music massages points, nodes, and mood—strengthening the primacy of language. Case in point: David Greenberger/3 Leg Torso and Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd. Because it didn’t intrude and played its role well, there was little to be said about both. I can say that 3 Leg were as wonderful as usual (if not a tad more stagey due to circumstances), and that Vijay Iyer’s capable of much more interesting work (and it was a shame to limit his craft to the last 5-minute foray at the end).

Vijay Iyer is an exceptional musician—one of the least tradition-bound of his generation—who’s bridged the innovations of Andrew Hill and 1960s expansion with a vibrant blend of avant-garde jazz and a pan-Asian,rigorous polyrhythmic sense. What was heard during his performance was de rigeur jazz of the post-Coltrane-meets- hip-hop-mold so prevalent with young players in NYC schools. It’s unfortunate. He’s the perfect example—all by himself as simply a musician—of jazz’s next 100 years: divergent cultural influence finding footing in jazz expression (itself a stew of divergent ingredients). Using the diasporic rhythmic displacement of both bebop and Hyderabad bhangra, he counters the narrowly defined conservative protectorate (Lincoln Center/Stanley Crouch) that is mummifying the music in rhetoric and a too-tight dinner jacket.

It could have been so simple to fold into the festival (and really contextualize his artistry) his duo with Rudresh Mahanthappa—which is all about culture, confluence, and creativity—the relentless investigation that is redefining jazz’s course. The influence of so-called American classical music is now just one ingredient among many (Carnatic, hip-hop, African kwela, John Cage/Morton Feldman, alt-rock, European free improv, circus/vaudeville, etc.).

The other hot point that I find disconcerting is the inclusion of a folksy, we-are-the-worldism— offering a hodgepodge of world-ness that lets us honkeys in on the what the Other’s all about. . .or in Tracie Morris’ words, it allows us to “get it” before moving on to the next flavor of the month. A concert by a Dolat-shahi or a Simon Shaheen of traditional Middle Eastern music could do much to enhance our understanding of the relative beauty in a culture largely unknown to us—or point to the vortices that swirl about 21st century innovation. It’s easy to present global forms through a multimedia lens, or by keeping it in a state of exotica. Just what Tracie Morris meant when she said folksifying forms allows you to keep them from a larger discussion of big ideas. Things are made quaint (in Greenberger’s words), and allowed to be patted on the head or used as window dressing.

Otherwise music in TBA is used or dressed up in something fancier or more “contemporary” like identity politics. Daniel Roumain is a very fine musician, “highly contemporary,” according to Kristy Edmunds, but who’s “unlearned just enough.” Which I take to mean despite his conservatoire training and solid grounding in academe, uses street-level realism (samples, hip hop, etc.) to reaffirm his keeping-it-real-ness. So because of his connection to Bill T. Jones and Creative Capital he was let into the big house. If it’s about artistry and edge, why not look at underappreciated, acknowledged violin masters like Billy Bang or Leroy Jenkins (hell even Malcolm Goldstein)—but then again, they just play music.

Performance—or the “expanded arts,” in George Maciunas’ term—purports to be and do many things, but as John Corbett has noted “from the standpoint of a cynical or ironizied audience, any art or performance that seriously professes revolutionary or even milder forms of institutional change is little more than a joke.” The beauty of jazz is that it has always simultaneously occupied the storefronts of both art and entertainment—and short of inspiring and revolutionizing all the other arts, has always been comfortable being itself. . . mostly combing the periphery for scraps. If we’re going to give jazz/new music/improvisation lip service as major art forms, we shouldn’t treat them like second-class citizens. Sainkho Namchylak, Greetje Bijma-Louis Andriessen, Henry Threadgill’s various ensembles, Peter Brötzmann, Willem Breuker, Jon Jang/James Newton, Bob Ostertag, California EAR Unit, and any number of others could have fit into time-based performance slots quite nicely.

Maybe its okay to admit we can’t be all things to all people, but let’s be careful about who we anoint and how we define their place at the table.

Otherwise I’m just left with the notion: "I feel we shouldn't speak, we should just play music, because the minute we open our mouths we tell lies" — Johnny Mbizo Dyani

—Tim DuRoche

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