Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Pre-concert Speech #2

[The following text is an English draft of comments I will make in Polish before a duo concert with my good friend Rafal Mazur on Saturday 22 April at Bunkier Sztuki (the "Art Bunker") in Kraków. This will be the inaugural event of a series that will examine improvised music and art. Some of the text below is borrowed from the comments I made before a solo concert in November 2005.]
I have been asked to talk about the role improvisation plays in my creative output, which might be interesting if we were living in a world at peace, and in a culture of creativity, where the development of the intellect was encouraged. But we are not living at peace, our culture is destructive, and intellectual curiosity is not encouraged, and so talking about the role of improvisation in my music may seem frivolous at best and decadent at worst. As we all know--or should know--our culture invests far more in enriching the wealthy, protecting the powerful, poisoning the planet and refining the instruments of war and the language of deceit than it invests in art (to say nothing of our shamefully small investments in education, in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, healing the sick, sustaining the natural environment and so forth).

Thus, when asked to discuss publicly any of the finer points within my discipline my first thought is to address how the discipline itself might respond to the insanely destructive culture within which it is situated. What is the potential for my music--for anyone’s music--to deal with the very real global crisis? Perhaps I ought to first ask: should individuals engaged in abstract creative endeavors attempt to respond to problems of a political nature? I believe that at some level we must. We are on the brink of a human-instigated global catastrophe. To be an artist is to volunteer oneself to be the eyes, ears, mouths, and hands--the sensory organ--of the culture. Artists, as participants in a dominant culture that is severely destructive, have a strong obligation to address the destruction. Or in the words of Noam Chomsky: the closer a problem is to being our responsibility, the greater our moral obligation is to do something about it.

Bearing this in mind, a large part of my work is concerned with creatively addressing the critical necessity of alleviating the crisis my culture has brought to the world. My preoccupation with global diplomatic and environmental meltdown might at first seem to forge a strange partnership with abstract experimental music. But in fact the problems of the world and the challenges of my discipline emerge from the same source: communication.

Our culture abhors communication. That may be surprising for some to hear, for it is true that we are bombarded nonstop with communiqués from the corporate world and the state. We are surrounded by information. We are cornered by media, trapped by entertainment, and strangled by telephone wires, internet cables, and the invisible lines of satellite networks. Still, our culture hates communication. We live in a world of jealously-guarded borders, of immigration laws, of nationalisms and imperialisms. These form an antithesis to communication. Our governments and our media are virulently xenophobic, and this too is an affront to communication. Here’s a tip: when you’re being told about the wonders of modern communication, wonder about the money changing hands at the other end of it. Think about how one-sided the supposed communication is. It’s not communication if you don’t get to take part, and if you were encouraged or permitted to take part, the powerful would have to give up their power, the wealthy would have to share their wealth, and the very profitable wars--supreme insults to communication--would have to cease.

What real communication that does exist--either perceived by the powerful to be unthreatening or so abstruse as to hover below the radar of officialdom--is something precious that must be constantly defended. And we have to defend our right to communicate by communicating. We have to meet. We have to talk. We have to play. And we have to render obsolete the pervading threats to our continued ability to communicate. When we fear each other, when we scorch the earth, when we poison the food and water, deprive children of education and healthcare, and systematically ignite hostilities (most often for profit), we implicitly reduce the likelihood of being able to engage in the kind of communication that uplifts us all.

To be here to talk about and then perform my music is a privilege for me. I hope that Polish people still remember that to attend or host such a meeting is also a recently won victory. For you and I, at this moment, the horrors are elsewhere. But they are occurring somewhere. The music that I will play this evening, abstract though it may be, exists in the context of these horrors. Recognizing and understanding this is a first and important step. Experimental abstract music ceases to be either decadent, or frivolous, or benign, when one considers that through making it its practitioners are able to meet and communicate with people around the world. I have a choice when I am invited to present my work of whether to remain in the cloistered environment of the arts and limit my exchanges to technical and practical issues of how my work is made, or to open the dialogue to bigger and, I think, more important issues. If I choose the former, I might defend my artistic choices, but not my continued ability to make and share them. If I choose the latter, it is through such meetings, such communication, that we begin to trivialize inane laws and rabid propaganda-fueled xenophobia, and dismantle homicidal, if not suicidal, imperialisms. It then becomes possible to inhabit a space in which we challenge and solve the problems that we face. Or this: we become creative.

But perhaps all music potentially does this. What is it about so-called free improvisation that could be said to address more directly our crisis of communication? What differentiates the value of various methods of composition? (Because that is all improvisation is: a method of composition, as is notation, as is chance, as is memory, as is recording, as is allowing for mistakes, as are algorithms and other systematic ways of organizing audible parameters.) I do not think there is a significant difference in the value of one method over another. In fact I cannot think of a single piece of music that doesn’t use a few methods in combination. I don’t want to advocate free improvisation as some kind of “socially responsible” music to the exclusion of all others, but I do think it has some characteristics that are compelling at the moment. To improvise--to improvise well--is to think on one’s feet, to adapt to a situation, to communicate regardless of the challenges. It is to give the listening of the performer the same importance as the listening of the listener, thereby bringing the observer and the maker closer to each other. By sharing the experience, the act of creation becomes more transparent. The makers--those in control of the creative decisions-- must constantly reevaluate the experience of the listeners, while the listeners are not only invited to take part in appreciating the goal, but the process as well.

Here’s a thought experiment: what if the methodology and goals of business and politics were the same as those of free improvisation? What kinds of positive values would be emphasized and what kinds of negative values would necessarily disappear? If business and political leaders did what free improvisers do, we would first of all have decisions made for the mutual benefit of all, rather than the empowerment of a few. We would have transparency, solidarity, consideration, willingness to change, diversity, pleasure, and participation as both goals and processes. Gone would be unilateralism. Gone would be the profit motive as the prime value. Gone would be the scenario wherein he who says the most, and says it loudest, wins--when improvised music is conducted in this manner, everyone loses. Improvisation encourages tolerance and patience. Modern-day politics encourage intolerance and fast, poor decision making.

And so on and so forth. This is simply a rhetorical exercise, but I hope the point is clear. There are values implicit in the way one makes art as well as the context in which one chooses--or must--make it. And my strong belief, in opposition to that of many other musicians who I respect--great composers like Stravinsky and Lutoslawski among them--is that music is not merely about the organization of sound. Music is about organizing ourselves. To me, to suggest music is about sound would be like suggesting architecture is simply about space, or the health professions are simply about medicine. When music is viewed as a social phenomenon--rather than as a trade, for example, or as a tool for corporate enrichment--its true communicative power may be reasserted. Only in the context of the social value of music, and not merely its artistic value, can the cultural significance of whatever methods one chooses to work with be properly considered.

Before it was taken over, first by the record industry and then by Wynton Marsalis, jazz had social significance. Before youth became a commodity for corporations to market, rock and roll had social significance. Before it was relegated to its current position as a museum curiosity, art music had social significance--think for example of the consequences of Bartók’s ethnographic research, of the political daring of his work in the midst of Europe’s nightmare of nationalisms. And long before that counterfeit 50 Cent traded the color of his skin for the chance to advertise diamonds, hip hop had great social significance.

What kinds of social significance can music have? Can any music save the world? No. Can it be what we listen to--what we perform--while we attempt to dismantle the criminally insane and apocolyptically dangerous grip corporations and governments have on the world? Absolutely. If I am doing any one thing as an artist, I am consciously making and promoting that music.