Sunday, May 28, 2017

Jack Wright - The Free Musics (Spring Garden Music Editions, 2017)

Jack Wright's The Free Musics has really fired up the collective! Today we have two differing opinions from Rick Joines and Martin Schray ...

On Jack Wright’s The Free Musics 

By Rick Joines

The thesis of Jack Wright’s The Free Musics could be summarized in the immortal words of Groucho Marx: “Whatever it is, I’m against it. . . . And even when you've changed it or condensed it, I'm against it!” But Groucho is not the Marxist who is the presiding spirit informing Wright’s free improvisatory meditation on the problem of “free” jazz; that is Theodor Adorno.

Like Adorno writing about Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, Wright analyzes the social function of music, the financial predicament of the artist, and the dominant musical ideology that only rewards conformity. Both the “new music” of the Second Viennese School and “free” jazz confront an audience that believes itself sophisticated and open to “the new” but who cannot, or will not, recognize what they were hearing as “music.” Such audiences grow hostile when the artist refuses to bow to the dogma that “the customer is always right.” They expect musicians to abjure their identities as artists and be, instead, “entertainers,” “content providers” who supply what the audience demands.

Jazz, Wright argues, is a rule-bound social and economic activity encompassed within a genre that patrols the borders and decides who’s in or out. As a marketable commodity, jazz is capable of infinite reproduction and is a skill a tradesman can learn to replicate with assembly-line, machine-like accuracy. The jazz performer subjects himself to and obeys the rules of playing the changes and improvising on the theme for a prescribed number of bars. The audience obeys the rules of the consumer or concert-goer and expects to be served a dish they have liked before. Audiences, the music industry, and the teaching of jazz in schools and universities police jazz, making sure it will never turn outlaw. But if it does, it wouldn’t matter because there would be no one to hear it, buy it, purchase a ticket for it, or publish a textbook to promulgate it.

Improvisatory free playing, however, refuses to play nicely with what is hegemonic. Though it, too, can be congealed as a commodity one can purchase, collect, or download, it will never be background music at the Waffle House or at a bourgie cocktail party. Neither will it be a luxury item for display at the Lincoln Center. Free music attempts, persistently, to break rules, even if those violations could eventually become a generic commodity—even if this task turns out absurdly Sisyphean. Rebellion gets sold as just another commodity, a lifestyle choice, personal style. In postmodernity, Wright notes, “the individual is freed from the need to put together a self that can sustain itself in the midst of change.” We are set to “random shuffle.” We pull on our Che Guavara T-shirt, pop in our earbuds, and fashion ourselves after the image of your own personally-chosen brand-name commodities. As Adorno says, enjoy your “prescribed fun.”

An oversimplification of Wright’s (and Adorno’s) argument, might be: if people like it, it cannot be any good: it cannot be “art” because “art” offends the many. Art is difficult, and the ruling ideology cannot account for it. But what happens to jazz-as-art in a tolerant postmodern capitalist democracy—where all things are permitted? when everyone has a right to his or her own taste? when the notion of hierarchy or greatness is rejected matter-of-factly at the cash register, or the ticket booth? How do you offend an audience with no values, who is, therefore, incapable of being offended? And how entice it?

Even if we are all trapped within the horizon of late capitalism, Wright believes some freedom was and is still possible in an almost alternate reality of free music, but only for those willing to sacrifice the recognition culture can give (money, prizes, fame, fortune, to be sampled by Kanye).

Who are you playing for, Wright asks?
Hardly anyone.
Why do it?
I must.

Like Schoenberg’s short-lived Society for the Private Performance of Music (1918-1922), free music, Wright argues, exists as a “virtually private music,” with few financial rewards. The artists play before small audiences or perhaps only to a community of other players. There has always been something spiritual in free jazz—a substitute sacredness, a transcendence visible in the distance, a liturgical expansion of time and compression of space, an almost-forgotten sense of utopian hope. There may be moments when the ruling tradition and its audience-as-police-force can be forgotten, but perhaps only for the artist and his auditor during the time of playing freely.

For me, Wright places a little too much emphasis on the romance of free playing, comparing it to the imaginative play of children who compose pleasure out of what presents itself. “Free playing,” he writes, “is the pursuit of pleasure through making sound that is as truly one’s own making in that moment as possible. This makes it distinct from audience interest and from structures culturally known or self-prepared.” The pleasure—the jouissance—of this art is for him “a way of knowing through our sensuous activity, which resists conclusive understanding and is unending.” But is this the idea held by all artists who play freely, or by the audience who recognizes the beauty of their art? For some, free jazz is more intellectual than emotional, more about transcending technique than emotional enthusiasm.

At other points, however, Wright seems right on the nose: “This ‘outside music’ requires a psyche outside that built for sophisticated adaptation, outside of consumer behavior and the contract with culture suppliers.” For this psyche, the music is not a matter of taste. It calls to them, and through it they see who they are. A Marxist Wright does not name, Louis Althusser, calls this process “interpellation.” The audience Wright and Adorno scorns is interpellated by—hailed by—the ideology of easily commodified forms of mass entertainment, and even “high” art if it has a forbidding price tag. It allows them to conform to what is acceptable to the bourgeoisie yet believe their choice of mass-produced commodities really is a “choice,” and their “unique” combos make them “individuals.” They are “subjects” who cannot conceive of any alternatives to the reality they dream in as consumers. They have what they call “good taste.”

Maybe free jazz is just another commodity, and those who love it are as deluded consumers as everyone else. Yet what is “obvious” or “natural” to the many seems ridiculous or tawdry to the devotees of free music. The free jazz musician and the adherent of the music may never fully escape the repressive quality of the dominant culture’s consumerist ideology, but they respond to a different call to which many are deaf or hostile. Maybe everything is, in the end, a swallowed up in the maw of culture, but their values are the values of the Other, which can never be incorporated into the hegemonic body. They love that which never existed until this moment. They love what disappears the next. They love what could never be repeated. Whatever it is, they’re against it.


Colin Green said...

I’ve not read Wrighjt’s book but I’m afraid that I didn’t understand much of the above, which is the kind of thing which after a few minutes makes my eyes glaze over, and I lose the will to live.

What does trouble me however, is the apparent need to portray the world as consisting of nothing more than sets of opposing forces – goodies against baddies – as if it’s some kind of Star Wars movie. I’m not sure the actual music really features in any of this, other than in caricature – the triumph of theory over experience.

Then again, since I don’t understand it, I’m probably not able to say.

Stef said...

I think that this is the paradox of this kind of music: you cannot on the one hand say that the music is very personal to the extent that the audience becomes irrelevant: "the pursuit of pleasure through making sound that is as truly one’s own making in that moment as possible. This makes it distinct from audience interest and from structures culturally known or self-prepared", and then blame society and the establishment for not being open to your music. If you want to change form, accept that you are somewhere in the vanguard, an adventurer who risks to get lost in the jungle and never return. Accept that you cannot change the rules and be appreciated by the society that lives by the rules. Accept that you will not get formal recognition from the very establishment whose rules you want to change. That's the choice from the start. If it's good, audiences will pick it up, even if they're small. Over time, these audiences may grow ... or not. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. It may take time for society to catch up with the real artistic visionaries. At the same time, for every Van Gogh, there are thousands of artists of his generation whom everybody has forgotten, mainstream or avant-garde.

Colin Green said...

Agreed. For musicians, it must be disappointing and frustrating on occasions, but I'm not sure there's anyone or anything to blame, however desirable that might be. It's just that most people don't like it, and I can't see that changing anytime soon. I don't imagine that anyone takes up playing this kind of music without realising that.

RJ said...

"Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent."

jack wright said...

Generally, the spirit of the book is not against anything but for the vast majority of musicians, whom I ask to look realistically at our common situation. To become one of the respected few is not only futile, but deadens our best musical impulses. Those I'm associated with are not motivated by cultural marginalization or rage against the machine, as found commonly on the cultural left, but by the pleasure found in playing, making sounds and interacting with others'.
More specifically, what I would insert into this review is the historical point, that it is jazz played TODAY by contemporaries, sometimes called Classic Jazz, that is "capable of infinite reproduction." What is honored by the schools and jazz world is the very music that was so vibrant in the past, but by presenting it as the infallible set of models, that music has been made boring and sentimental. I am by no means anti-jazz.
Secondly, I would correct the impression that I want or expect free playing to offend people. It's rather that we don't know if what gives us the greatest pleasure will also please others. We are joined with listeners in that sensual excursion into not-knowing. At present, what I and my partners do seems to please those few exposed to it. That exposure is limited not by distaste but by the configuration of music world institutions, which have an interest only in those who have signed up for a music career and accept its limitations. It's true that audiences tend to follow these institutions--prominent venues, the media, the hierarchy of leading figures, etc.--but those listeners are not the police. I have no scorn for those who don't show up; it's no skin off my nose. I'm happy with and not saddened or angered by the small audience, in fact I prefer it over what the major venues usually provide. Free playing is a collective practice, a matter of interactions, and the way things work now favors "interesting" individuals, the owners of their differentiated musical personas. I see no other way for this to change than for listeners to listen with their ears and assert their interest.
Third, free playing is an approach, not an identity. There are players committed to what I outline, but none can be said to accomplish or represent it. There are no signs of what is and is not true "free playing," or reasons to debate what it would include, as there might be of a music genre. So it is no problem that people who say they play freely--a wide range, which would include jazz musicians--would not agree with this approach.
If you want the book please write directly to me:

Stef said...

Hi Jack, thanks for your reaction. As said before, the very reason for the existence of this blog is to give wider exposure to free jazz and free improvisation and other more adventurous types of music. Just like musicians who want to expand their musical language, there are also a lot of listeners who consciously looking for these new listening experiences. We hope to have our contribution to that. I also think that it is worthwhile to have this kind of debate on the music itself, even if not everybody has the same opinion, which is by itself enriching.

Anonymous said...

I see no mention of an index in this book's table of contents.

RJ said...

Hey Jack,

I associated Adorno's negative feelings for the hoi polloi (and my own, frankly) too much to you. Sorry about that: you're a critical thinker, for sure, but more of an American Transcendentalist, I think, than a Frankfurt Schooler in the end.

And the Groucho was meant more to say that "free playing" has a tendency to stand against generic conformity to market expectations--that it continually evades congealing into stereotypical patterns.

As for the "historical perspective" in your note, that is exactly what my review says, it seems to me, and names the same culprit/s.

And I don't so much claim that you claim free playing offends the many; instead, I claim "art" offends postmodern consumers in late capitalism who do not see themselves reflected in its mirror -- or who are deaf to its interpellation.

And I think my claims about the audience for free playing and the pleasures of it for both musician and audience chimes with yours in the book and in your note.

And I believe I note that you, indeed, say free playing is not an identity. I say to play freely is to renounce an identity that "fans" of "jazz" might easily recognize -- that the position of free music and musician is that of an Other.

I truly enjoyed interacting with your ideas in the book and collaborating here with the mind that formed them. I love digressive thinking, writing, and playing.

I'm looking forward to catching up with you on your summer tour. Perhaps we can hash out the rest over a meal or a cocktail.

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