Saucers of Mud

July 7, 2008

Accessibility, Exclusivity, and Improvised Music

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 12:42 pm

Darcy James Argue discusses a post by Simon Reynolds about how he was put off improvised music* at a gig with Evan Parker and the Anthony Braxton/Adelhard Roidinger/Tony Oxley trio, the same gig that Mark Wastell describes as setting him on the course to becoming an improviser (in a Wire piece that isn’t online). Darcy says that Reynolds’s piece “Reynolds’s post will make a lot of readers of this blog furious,” and hey! it worked for me. Or not really furious — Reynolds is entitled to his tastes, and a lot of people aren’t going to like this music — but confused about what the complaints are.

Long response below the fold.

Wastell was mystified and put off by the music, and decided to work through his feelings of incomprehension until he figured out what the music was about. Reynolds was similarly put off, and decided that he was done with this style; “I honestly could not hear the music in it.” Argue connects this to comics that are meant exclusively for their fans (the term he uses, “fanservice,” more commonly means something else):

the barrage of needlessly insular and obscure references that make it impossible for the average reader to pick up an issue of a big-label comic book and have the slightest fucking clue what is going on. This kind of incomprehensibility isn’t just a side-effect of long-form serial storytelling. It is deliberate — a conscious strategy to reward hardcore comics readers who come to the table with an encyclopedic knowledge of the last 20 years of comics continuity, and to drive away everyone else.

and continues:

Well, nobody except the most hopeless, pathetic mouth-breather actually thinks the preponderance of fanservice in superhero comics is respectable or defensible. But when the exact same variety of insular, exclusionary, pointless pandering to the the in-crowd goes on in our favorite music (jazz, improv, new music, indie rock, hiphop, whatever), the people being pandered to — that would be you know, us — tend to get their backs up whenever anyone suggests that there might be something unsavory about circling the aesthetic wagons, or wondering whether practices that are deliberately designed to alienate intelligent, sophisticated, open-minded listeners from outside your little scene are really such a good idea.

Later in comments he says:

Instead, fanservice is a “signifier” that serves no legitimate aesthetic purpose (or, at its worst, actually undermines the aesthetic purpose) but is put in there purely so that the hardcore fans can congratulate themselves on having caught the reference.

(See also.)
What confuses me here is how this is supposed to apply to improvised music at all. Surely Argue doesn’t mean to say that any art that’s inaccessible at first is performing fanservice. It would be a dull, dull world otherwise. For instance, the first time I heard Combat Rock, I found “Know Your Rights” to be too loud and unmusical; and it took me longer to get used to The Clash’s debut album. Of course I was a kid at the time and had listened to about nothing but the Beatles until then. But still, I had to learn to hear the music.

Here’s another example: Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus is a great, great novel, which I’ve been known to evangelize about. And it requires devotion. If you haven’t been paying close attention, when you get to the end of the novel, you will not understand what just happened — I mean at the most basic level. Is that a problem? I don’t think so. In fact, the novel is designed to force just this kind of reading; if you haven’t been prepared to at least flip back and try to catch previous references, you probably didn’t make it to the end. And I think this sort of devotion is different from the kind of devotion that Medrawt discusses here, where comics demand that you have read the entire back archive; because there’s a real aesthetic purpose to what Hazzard is doing. (Something about showing how actions reverberate on a wider canvas, and the forces that shape our lives can be unseen to us, maybe.)

Bringing it back to improvised music: What’s the fanservice component supposed to have been? I think it may be something like this passage from Reynolds of himself as “literally pained by Oxley’s compulsion to swipe his drumstick against his cowbell every few minutes, producing a really nasty metallic scraping sound.” But, if you listen to Oxley’s work much at all (particularly his work on identifiably jazz ECM projects like John Surman’s Adventure Playground and Tomasz Stanko’s Leosia), you’ll find that this isn’t a compulsion, and that it’s not just one scraping sound he makes; the scraping sounds have musical value, they’re an essential part of his idiom. (It’s like saying that Miles Davis felt compelled to play the trumpet with a mute.)

Now, here I’ve said that you actually have to (may have to) listen to a some of Oxley’s music to understand what’s going on here. Is this circling the aesthetic wagons, encouraging practices that are deliberately designed (strong claim) to alienate everyone from outside the improvised music scene? I don’t think so. It’s a question of getting used to new sounds or a new sound-world. And some people may not be interested in it. But if we were to dismiss every sound-world that took some acclimation as fan-service, we would be left with a dull musical world. (I mean, you can say the same thing about rap, too; for people who weren’t on the inside it might have taken a while to hear it as music at all.)

Reynolds mentions Deleuze & Guattari “warning of a kind of aesthetic fascism that avant-garde and ‘free’ music of all kinds can often approach in its haste to break all barriers ASAP, a fixation on ‘the child, the mad, noise’ that results in ‘a scribble effacing all lines.'” To some extent I think this represents a misunderstanding of what’s going on in improvised music. Improvised music often involves strange non-tempered sounds. But they usually aren’t there just to be non-tempered; the point is to exploit their individual qualities in the service of the music. (And that’s part of the reason the music has to be improvised, because these qualities can’t be notated.) Eddie Prevost in the liner notes to Supersession (which unfortunately I don’t have anymore) says something about how improvised music is supposed to get beyond the alienation effects found in the classical avant-garde. In a John Cage piece a noise of a turntable needle may be inserted for its non-musical qualities; the specificity of exactly which noise it makes is not important. In improvised music the same sound might be exploited for its specific qualities. Simply effacing all lines isn’t enough for improvised music.

This isn’t to deny that improvised music often (but not always) makes a fetish of subverting anything like a melody or a groove; but on the other hand at its best this is not done for its own sake, not as a signifier of the genre, but to see what kinds of new organization and group interaction can arise outside the existing limits. No doubt sometimes it does degenerate into exclusivity for its own sake — a negative reaction against idiom without a positive purpose. But I don’t know that this happens more than in other genres.

I’ll close by quoting a paragraph from Prevost’s liner notes to the reissue of AMMusic 1966:

There is an ironic mischievousness in calling an electronic squawk or a banging door a note. And there is even more mischievousness in referring to a series of such sounds as a melody. But given the way AMM has manipulated conventional and unconventional sound sources — having established its own music universe — such an idea is by no means strange to its listening public. Naturally it takes a leap of perception and imagination to acknowledge, as well as to create, such an aesthetic. It is a tribute to our early supportive audiences that they could respond to our work and reinforce the validity of our activity; these were immensely valuable responses given the newness and uncertainties which accompanied the music.

This may sound like fan service and exclusivity; Prevost speaks of AMM’s listening public and the leap of perception and imagination it takes to join it. But I think it’s clear that this is not about excluding others from the listening public; it’s about creating a new music universe, which may require a little work to enter, but which opens up possibilities that are not available to an audience that won’t make that leap. And all this to say is that it’s OK for art to demand an initial commitment.

*Sort of; the Braxton/Roidiger/Oxley trio almost certainly was playing from compositions, as they did on their album, “Seven Compositions (Trio) 1989.”



  1. Reynolds’s post makes more sense than Argue’s. Reynolds journeys through several not necessarily reconcilable responses, including “It’s too noisy and I don’t like it,” “Once everything is free and allowed, from what principle do you derive structure?” and the related “Don’t you need structure for more than one person to collaborate in an improvisation ?” All of these are legitimate questions, though you might answer them differently than Reynolds and I might answer them differently again. And at the end he says he’s taking another go at it, via John Butcher (who I have not heard).

    Argue, on the other hand, makes a very odd analogy between referentiality in superhero comics and referentiality in music, which I think is totally overblown – I mean, you can listen to Charlie Parker quite well the first time without knowing that “Koko” is based on the chord changes to “Cherokee” (I even got the song names backward the first time I typed this sentence). But the best part of Argue’s argument is that it’s all based on a notion and vocabulary of in-crowd-ism that is sufficiently obscure that he has to explain it for those who aren’t in enough to understand.

    Exclusivity is not the same as referentiality, either. There’s an apocryphal story that somebody complained of bebop, “You can’t dance to it,” and a bebopper (Dizzy?) said, “No, you can’t dance to it.” It’s perfectly reasonable to interpret that Dizzy was not excluding the listener, the listener was excluding himself. Honestly, I’m far more likely to listen to Os Mutantes or Johnny Cash than to Derek Bailey, but I don’t go around moaning about how Derek Bailey is oppressing me.

    Comment by Ben — July 8, 2008 @ 5:45 am

  2. John Butcher (who I have not heard).

    I was going to make a joke about the Jon Butcher Axis, but looking at the Wikipedia entry, I can’t remember any of their songs, and I’m not sure anybody but me actually remembers their names. So never mind. The John Butcher under discussion did a PhD in physics, and is I would think one of the less accessible improvisers; though obviously he touched a chord with Reynolds. It may be something about the electronic manipulation that’s more in line with what Reynolds usually likes.

    I do think Argue is kind of confused — as I said, I just don’t see where the notion of deliberate exclusivity gets a purchase on improvised music at all. More or less what you said about the listener excluding himself. I guess there’s that quote from Butcher at the end (I haven’t seen the context). But I don’t think it’s so bad that he has to explain his vocabulary of in-crowd-sim; after all he does explain it, and I got his explanation.

    But it does seem to me that if you’re talking about in-jokes in jazz, you may want to pick on things like quotes in bebop solos; but those don’t become a problem until they overwhelm everything else. I have a Steve Turre album (the self-titled one) whose liner notes are full of things like “dig the hip quote” in the solo — which annoys me, but I enjoy the solos when I listen to them.

    Honestly, I’m far more likely to listen to Os Mutantes or Johnny Cash than to Derek Bailey, but I don’t go around moaning about how Derek Bailey is oppressing me.

    I do think it’s silly to talk about “tyranny for the listeners” when this is the kind of music that’s about the least likely to be shoved in your face. If you’ve gone to the trouble to seek it out, is it tyranny? But then I’m more likely to listen to Bailey than Os Mutantes or Cash.

    Comment by matt w — July 8, 2008 @ 9:07 am

  3. In fact in specific defense of Argue’s analogy, Reynolds’s line about “the Groop Played Neu!Topian Motorik Musik” is more exclusive than anything he writes — it’s an allusion to Stereolab and Neu! but I wouldn’t know that if I didn’t have their albums — and I have no idea what he means by “This bracingly stern stance struck me as in line with nu-rockist principles.”

    Comment by matt w — July 8, 2008 @ 9:09 am

  4. I went to Darcy Argue’s website. I note that it’s called “The Secret Society.” Hm.

    I take it that he likes improv, jazz, etc., but feels he’s being inconsistent because they may deliberately exclude some listeners. (Like there isn’t enough to feel guilty about.) I wonder if he is aware of the famous article by composer Milton Babbitt (at least the title is famous): “Who Cares If You Listen?”

    As for jazz of the 1950s and before, generally the musicians were excluded in so many ways that using their own language and winking at those who were “hip” seems really appropriate. Compare gay culture before Stonewall. One of the strategies for coping with being treated as inferiors was to defeat expectations, switch codes, mix it up. I think of a title like “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.”

    Anyway, whether or not there are self-references or obscure references, I think if the listener gets pleasure (or, I suppose enlightenment; or an improved arrangement of synapses) then the references are tolerable; if not, don’t buy another comic book by that author! (Or download, or poetry book.)

    Comment by Matt's mom — July 9, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

  5. On YouTube “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is described as “Fran Landesman’s and Tommy Wolf’s great song from a forgotten musical about beatniks.” So probably not a great example of in-group signaling.

    Comment by Matt's mom — July 9, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

  6. I just left a comment on a recent post of Argue’s quoting David Byrne on Die Soldaten, an enormous twelve-tone opera (by the teacher of some of the legendary figures of German free jazz). Anyway, he mentions Babbitt’s essay here. I never got Babbitt, and I think that article really expresses an unhealthy attitude toward the listener (and the last said about the last sentence, the better).

    [But I haven’t listened to Babbitt much since I started listening to more modernistic music, and I vaguely remember liking the Babbitt piece from Modern Jazz Concert; maybe just because the other piece from a “classical” composer seemed so condescending to the jazz idiom. Incidentally I think Parts two and three of Mingus’s “Revelation” wound up being “Diane” and “Far Wells, Mill Valley” on Mingus Dynasty.]

    I can’t find any trace of the musical that SCRHYUTM came from — I think the YouTuber may have been wrong. Or maybe it really is forgotten. Anyway that song isn’t so exclusive, I can understand it a lot better than I can understand some other things.

    Comment by matt w — July 11, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

  7. Oh, and “Secret Society” is the name of Argue’s (very cool-sounding) big band.

    Comment by matt w — July 12, 2008 @ 12:14 pm

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