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.


Richard Aberdeen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
michael the tubthumper said...

fabulous keir.

again, i am going to have to use the orwell quote...

"the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is in itslef a political opinion"

michael the tubthumper said...

oops, i quoted it slightly is exact...

"The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude."

its from the essay "why i write" and i recommend it. here is a link and a bit more...

When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, "I am going to produce a work of art." I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.

Keir said...

Michael: thanks for the Orwell. I'll post results of the post-concert talk if there's anything good to report. The situation is such in Poland at the moment that many in the audience are likely to have adopted the T.I.N.A. ("there is no alternative") mode of thinking. But we'll see what we can provoke. Rafal Mazur, with whom I'll be playing, is not only an amazing bass player but also a student of philosophy and a first-rate haver-of-ideas. Zalujcie, wy anglo-jezyczni, ze nie mowi ani pisze po angielsku!

Maurits Fennis said...

Keir, i love your spirit.
I am, however, not sure if i agree with you. The "great social significance" you speak of is a by-product of music as a carrier of messages, of social conditioning. In this context, it functions as a carrier of information other than what it inherently has to offer. Any other medium would equally suffice at bringing messages across. In this way, it's a FORMAT, nothing more. You also said; "To me, to suggest music is about sound would be like suggesting architecture is simply about space". This is assuming that there is no inherent value hidden in space, or sound, apart from social conditioning. To bombard sound, or space for that matter, with meaning, with value, you ignore the unspoken qualities hidden inside of it.

For art to truly be valuable, it has to remain vulnerable. Useless, perhaps. As soon as it is utilized for a specific purpose, as soon as it addresses a sense of meaning which is part of what we are MADE to agree on being meaningful, to also think in a speed wherein we are allowed or even forced to structure our thinking, we lose it.

Mortan Feldman said it best:

"Art in it's relation to life is nothing more than a glove turned inside out. It seems to have the same shapes and contours, but it can never be used for the same purpose. Art teaches nothing about life, just as life teaches us nothing about art".

I have the impression you have a hard time justifying your activities as an artist. Maybe if you let it be meaningless (and with meaning i mean an appointed subject), you'll descover it's intrinsic qualities. Isn't that the importance we really need to defend? To uncompromisingly volunteer oneself to be the eyes, ears, mouths, and hands of the culture? I'm not saying that art does not have any "social significance", it does. I just don't believe in the way you're going about to obtain it.

I do like your music, however, and wish you a lot of luck at your concert in Krakow.

Keir said...

Morton Feldman was wrong.

As for the "unspoken qualities" (quality = value, don't it?) of certain parameters of art, here's Shakespeare: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." There is no "inherent hidden value" in space (for example) because space (or sound, or whatever) are constructs of the mind. Hamlet again: "I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I had bad dreams."

Maurits, please read what I wrote. I have no trouble justifying myself as an artist. But if I was into the whole justifying thing--and considering your attitudes in the context of the severity of the crisis--I might have trouble justifying you as an artist.

Owen said...

go on the Keir. Despite I love to read Vonnegut, it used to stick in my craw he grumped a lot about the uselessness of art, said something like it helped the world as much as an icecream sundae would a dose of the clap. I´m not going to make any claims on how it can help "the" world because I don´t believe in the existence of one world, just an infinite number of our respective worlds, and I when I express myself through writing or painting or singing/playing, I feel healed.

Mickey Z. said...

Great stuff, Keir. Thanks for sharing.

Elvis Powett said...

"art must be vulnerable".. to be protected by a priviliged few?

Art is vulnerable in the way that counts - that is, economically. A situation like that of the Netherlands, where state subsidy is usually expressly denied to works which have an outspoken political (or religious) character, gives the artist only three options: sell objects with your artwork (advertising), sell organizational image through your artwork (public relations), or sell idea-constructs with perceived market value through your artwork (aesthetics).

A project may, for example, celebrate Indonesian culture, but it will never investigate the history of state intervention on the Indonesian archipelago. Texts by Mayakovsky may be read, but our ruling elite will never be seriously compared to the Soviets'.

Funding (private and public) is available for projects which have officially sanctioned political supervision. And these projects are chosen primarily for their ORGANIZATIONAL quality - the degree to which they conform to a successful organizational precedent. (If you're a producer checking out a project, you look for productional aspects that ensure success).

Does it make sense to you to consider infiltrating and subverting these organizations?

Great blog, by the way.

Vladimir Schmeyel said...

Absolutely right.

Art is already vulnerable in the way that counts - economically. To attract public funding, an artwork must not be expressly political or religious - in the Netherlands, anyway. (A quick view of the major public funding bodies' websites will confirm this). Private foundations have no such restrictions, of course..

Western artistic culture is intensely politicized. Projects which are chosen for (real) funding are generally chosen on their organizational merit. A producer (political officer of the media) looks at projects and chooses those which fit productional (political) strategies which have a successful precedent.

We are under occupation by the media. Art is not "culture", it is "culture and media". To make the artists the "eyes, ears and hands of the culture" is to make them media organs.