Saturday, July 28, 2007

On Improvisation 2: Provoking Judgment

In societies where music is not written down, informed and accurate listening is as important and as much a measure of musical ability as is performance, because it is the only means of ensuring continuity of the musical tradition. Music is a product of the behavior of human groups, whether formal or informal: it is humanly organized sound. And, although different societies tend to have different ideas about what they regard as music, all definitions are based on some consensus of opinion about the principles on which the sounds of music should be organized. No such consensus can exist until there is some common ground of experience, and unless different people are able to hear and recognize patterns in the sounds that reach their ears. —John Blacking

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

—William Butler Yeats, Among School Children

It’s not enough to just play music. It’s not enough to play only other peoples’ music. (Put your Instant Music in your Mr. Coffee and the Java Jive comes out.) It’s also not enough to only write music. Scores, compositions, notations of all kinds, are a visual/literate representation of the sounds intended/created/evoked in performance. No, to get the full experience, you have to do it all. Play, write, reproduce, recreate, create, play. You have to be music.

Musical improvisation can be thought of as spontaneous composition. But: jazz improvisation is not purely constructed: like any coherent musical tradition (structured system), it has rules of thumb, tendencies, and stereotypical behaviors. The soloist relates notes and patterns vertically to the harmonic chords of the tune: the “changes” are actually the things that don’t get changed. Jazz is (traditionally) a highly structured musical system, with its own stylistic idioms, genres, and stereotypical expressive devices. All musical traditions are like this. (Learning these things well gets you “inside” the tradition.)

No musical tradition is inherently superior or inferior to another, no closer or further from some absolute standard of musical/sonic reality. Non are intrinsically based on purely acoustical/physical phenomena. Every human culture seems to articulate an intrinsic human need to make music (humanly organized sound)—but there are so many kinds of music.

We must be careful about how we judge other musical systems than the one(s) we most associate with. We tend to be snobs. Many “jazz musicians” tend to be as precisely elitist and purist as the Western “classical musicians” often put into aesthetic opposition: beat/square, hip/straight, cool/out-of-it, relaxed/uptight. (Freaks/conformists. Do you wear “weird” as a badge of honor?) Well, baby, I’ve got news for you: jazz too can be square, uptight, conformist, and all that, too.

I have a dream.

I have a dream of an improvised music without constraints. Without judgment, without ego, without editing to conform to personal taste. I am searching for a pure form, if you will, of improvised music, freed of cultural inheritances and any judgments about what music is supposed to be. Improvised music existing in a value-free domain. It’s hard work; I may spend my whole life in quest of it, and never achieve it. Why? Because I too am a bearer of learned culture.

I am constantly encountering, recognizing, and identifying assumptions about music that I carry within myself—and then doing my utmost to explode them. Blow ‘em up, leave ‘em behind, discard ‘em like used food wrappers. I keep finding new layers of assumption in myself: raze one, only to encounter another underneath. They appear to recede endlessly.

But: I’ll let you in on a secret: I’m not doing this just in my musical life, but in my life as a whole. It’s a huge, worthwhile challenge, and in the end it will kill me.

Life is an improvisation.

Life is an improvisation where you don’t know the rules, the conductor is too far away to see, half the keys on your ax don’t do what they’re supposed to, the score is illegible, and your hands seem to dissolve and reappear with a will of their own.

Isn’t that wonderful?

Recommended Reading:

John Blacking: How Musical Is Man? University of Washington Press, 1973.
John Cage: Silence, Wesleyan University Press, 1961.
Nikos Kazantzakis: The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, Touchstone, 1960.

Recommended Explosive Listening:

Paul Schütze: New Maps of Hell, Extreme Records, 1992.
John Cage: Indeterminacy, Folkways Records, 1959.
Nicky Skopelitis: Ekstasis, Axiom/Island Records, 1993.

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On Improvisation 1

Improvisation is not “just anything”; it can have the same satisfying sense of structure and wholeness as a planned composition. But there is a case to made for the opposite side. There is a time to do just anything, to experiment without fear of consequences, to have a play space safe from fear of criticism, so that we can bring out our unconscious material without censoring it first. —Stephen Nachmanovitch.

The creative process begins with the inner ear, with the imagination. The process continues with the manifestation of this inner auditory experience in the vibrational spectrum. Voice, instruments and human interaction enter the picture. This inner auditory vision is expressed as a unique human story through the development of musical langauge. Any new musical language must be based on understanding existing musical languages in their uniqueness and through their underlying universal principles. The principles are based on an essence in its dual manifestation: Sound as rhythm and rhythm as sound.

In improvisational music, the human interplay of this manifestation becomes dialgoue. It is the mirror which reflects both group and individual states at the moment of creation, bringing us together in our most human being.
—Adam Rudolph

What is improvisation?

Improvisation is play, instantaneous creation. When I get up to play, I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a lot like life. (Jerzy Kozinki once said in an interview: Novels are rehearsals for life.) We follow the rules we’ve learned, or make up new rules. Rules are a safety net, a sense of security we build for ourselves. The forms we use to structure our music are the forms we use to structure our lives. The creative life is about change, because creation requires change and growth, the search for the ability to see through the structures we invent to the common vacuum field behind the world we imagine to be solid. Every tradition we now hold sacred had, at one time, to be invented. Who did the inventing? People did.

How do we learn to begin to improvise? The real question is: What’s stopping us?

Zen Buddhism talks about beginner’s mind, the mind that is always open, the ability to see things as always fresh and new. The saying goes: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. The trick is not to seek inspiration, but to get out of its way.

Where does improvisation come from?

Head, heart, and hands. In any musical culture, the learned musical tradition shapes the spontaneous musical expressions of the culture-bearer: forms and rules that at the time are accepted as the grammar of the voicings. (Whether you follow them or rebel against them, they are the heritage you learned.) This is the head’s contribution.

The hands’ contribution is in the material products of culture, the physical techniques and instruments we use to make music. (I include voice here, as it is the original instrument.) These are as much products of musical culture as the ideas we have about the music we make, and the evolution of a musical language and the insturments to produce the music often develop together. The history of jazz is deeply intertwined with the history of the saxophone and the drumkit, for example.

What the heart brings to the music is feeling, intuition, and inspiration. For many, playing music is more about expressing feelings than thoughts. Improvisation is the spontaneous expression of inscape. Heart is also the will, the compulsion to create. Many creative people feel they don’t have a choice: they feel required to do what they do, even at great personal cost.

But head, hand, and heart must work together. Balance is essential. If the hands dominate, one can get lost in technique for its own sake. If the head rules the world (so easy a trap, and so common, especially perhaps in poetry), one can think too much before acting. and get lost in games. If the heart swoons romantically, we can be overly self-indulgent, sentimental and shallow, believing every puerile gesture profound. None of these are enough by themselves: balancing all three results in better music.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Saint Coltrane

In San Francisco, there is a church that has dedicated itself to promoting the spiritual teachings of jazz master John Coltrane: St. John Coltrane Church. Their Sunday worship service culminates in a long jam session. I remember seeing a documentary some years ago about this church, and was impressed. The whole time I lived in the Bay Area, though, I never did get there; I'll remedy that on a future visit back to San Francisco.

Do you think it odd to call a musical master a saint? I don't. In A Love Supreme, Coltrane speaks of the unity and necessity of God. Near the end of his life, I remember reading years ago in a biography of Trane, he was asked what he wanted to do next. He replied, I want to become a saint. That's a good ambition for any artist.

Don't get it wrong: Trane wasn't speaking from ego or spiritual ambition; he was speaking from humility, and the desire to transcend ego. His late musical works, including A Love Supreme and Ascension, among others, all speak of that yearning, and that straining towards the Divine. This is what artists who are also mystics do: strain towards Union.

Yes, I think the music is rising, in my estimation, it's rising into something else, and so will have to find this kind of place to be played in. —John Coltrane

One of the interesting points of this is that the Church regards the post-1957 Coltrane as the Risen Trane: post-drug addiction, cleaned up, starting afresh, and beginning to openly seek spiritual experiences through music. (This music from the last part of Trane's life is much of my favorite of his recordings, too.) It was a path of spiritual awakening. He talked about it openly, and statements about it appear in the liner notes to his recordings, in interviews, and in the spoken and sung words on some of the recordings themselves.

What's interesting about the post-addiction, spiritually awakened Trane is that his experience so closely follows the patterns familiar from myths and stories of shamanism, psychology, and the literature on entheogens, which traditionally are defined as natural plants with psychoactive properties used in sacred ceremonial contexts by indigenous peoples throughout history.

My own feeling on entheogens is that they're wholly unnecessary: nothing is more available, and nothing is more of a fundamental human birthright, than unmediated transcendant experience. The argument is often made for the use of entheogens, as mind-altering drugs, that they help the sings of the soul take flight, by opening the doors of perception.

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite. —William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Maybe so. But if so, then entheogens are only meant to open those doors, and after that, you don't need to use them any more, any more than you need to use the training wheels on a bicycle after you've learned to ride. I don't promote the use of entheogens; rather, as I said, I think they're unnecessary. Shamanic practice in many cultures has definitively shown that ecstatic states are attainable without any chemical means, through meditation, trance practices, dance, and music.

So, even in those ceremonial contexts in which entheogens are used, the ultimate goal is to transcend their eusage and access those ecstatic states directly. The psychedelic breakthrough can happen, but then we're intended to move on. Continuing use entheogens after this stage, especially outside of indigenous ceremonial contexts, constitutes nothing other than recreational use, addiction, abuse, and ultimately, misuse of the entheogen itself. I can see no good reason for such recreational usages of sacred plants.

I think the majority of musicians are interested in truth. —John Coltrane

Ecstatic states are obtainable purely through the practice of music.

Coltrane's late works are all about this, and, I believe, prove the point.

Ascension is one of the most ecstatic pieces of music ever recorded. It's a tremendously powerful and uplifting recording. It is often misunderstood by more traditiona-bound jazz players and critics, though. I only came to understand the piece, structurally, after studying African-American sacred music traditions intensively. Ascension's structure is based, I believe, on call-and-response choral singing as in church revival meetings, and in African traditional religions, which were the ancestral musical sources of tent-revival meetings and similar spirit-driven pentecostal practices in the USA since the African slaves were brought here. Ascension contains single phrases of song that are echoed by each of the lead instruments, heterophonically rather than harmonically, in call-and-response simultaneity. This gives us several lead instruments playing the same theme at the same time, but not in unison; slightly out of synchronization, slightly out of form with each other. Several times during the course of the music, such phrases emerge, usually indicating changes in the music, often the mext soloist's section to jam, and the beginnings and endings of long sections. In African music, a lead instrument often gives audible cues within the music. This is a completely internal way of directing the music, and completely different from the way cues are traditionally given in classical European music, where such cues are given by the leader, but are not typically audible cues. (This is why the role of the conductor was solidified, as the orchestra grew larger in size during the nineteenth century.)

This understanding came to me from ethnomusicological and folklore studies. I never got it from music school. This might account for why some jazz musicians, who still don't get it, think that Ascension sounds like an orchestra tuning up. Well, it does: but the same way that a gospel choir in the throes of passion can cross that line into speaking in tongues. And it sounds even more like a group of spiritual seekers all traveling together on the same pilgrimage towards Union.

There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine; new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we've discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror. —John Coltrane

Creativity is a spiritual practice, even a religious one. Mystics such as Meister Eckhart say that when we create, we are participating in the Creation, both the original Creation, and its continuous, ongoing process of growth and change. Music is one of the most authentic forms of worship, I believe.

My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play there's no problem because the music is part of the whole thing. To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being. —John Coltrane

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Art & Materialism 2

Materialism at its root is the belief system that says: Nothing that I cannot perceive with my five physical senses, or measure with a physical instrument, is real. Only things material, tangible, and physical matter. Intangibles either do not exist, or are dismissable and ignorable. Why? Because they cannot be measured with physical instruments; they cannot be assigned a material, quantitative value. All things immaterial are therefore valueless. It is only a short step from assigning material value to material objects, to basing all valuations on materiality: the root of the economic paradigm. Also the root of the paradigm that allows us to use up the earth's resources without offering respect to the earth.

A hardcore materialist has no room for spirituality of any kind. I am not referring to religion—it is an error to assume that spirituality=religion, as formalized established institutional religions are sociocultural codifications of the spiritual experiences of individual persons—but rather any aspect of human experience that is non-physical. This includes mental and emotional processes; it also includes creativity, unless that creativity is applied to the material world for material result (and material gain). It includes psychological health and cultural adaptations to the environment, which may then all be dismissed as irrationalities. (Thus, anthropology is divided into cultural and physical sub-disciplines.) It also includes the perception of beauty. For example, that hillside covered with streams and trees is not beautiful for its own sake; intangible beauty is not real, and therefore ignorable. The same hillside is only important for the ores that can be extracted from within it; its material value, its economic value. Materialists will tell you that they have no ideology, but that is a lie; rather, their ideology is one of economic utility, as opposed to aesthetic appreciation.

150 years ago physics was the ultimately materialist discipline of science. Newtonian physics was deterministic, reductive to simple laws that governed all principles of motion and energy exchange. The search was ongoing for the set of equations that would govern and explain all natural laws; thus began the quest for the unified field theory. Biology, by contrast, was filled with quasi-spiritual theories of the origin of species, Lamarckian theories of generation, and creation myths that were directly descended from Judeo-Christian myths and philosophically equated with moral precepts. Biology 150 years ago contained elements of mysticism.

Ironically, this situation has now completely reversed itself. Physics now, especially theoretical physics, asserts commonly that matter is illusory (it is only slow energy), and that the Universe is composed of numerous vibrational energetic forces and systems that are statistically chaotic and indeterminate. The consciousness of the observer is part of the equation of observation. Modern physics has philosophically moved towards a worldview known for millenia from Eastern sacred texts such as the Upanishads and the Tao Te Ching. (Classical Newtonian macro-physics as practiced by engineers and industrial chemists retains rather more of the old materialistic worldview, but it is a matter of degree only; even engineering takes into account aspects of the human equation when considering such areas as failure analysis.)

Biology, on the other hand, has become hardcore materialist, even ideologically materialist beyond reason. Biology is biography, biology is destiny. Medicine views the organism as a mechanism to be fixed when it fails, and otherwise not examined; forensic pathology (biological failure analysis) is so popular, it's on TV all the time. Neurophysiology seeks a physical cause for every aspect of human consciousness, including, famously, near-death experiences and sexual orientation. Nature over nurture. Brain chemistry is perceived to be the root of every psychological disorder (which is why anti-depressants are currently being overprescribed, but I digress), but also every spiritual experience, every thought, every action. We tend to see the brain as a computer wherein the hardware is more important (more deterministic) than the software. (We also tend to see the human species as the pinnacle and end-point of evolution, when in fact we are continuing to evolve; but I digress.)

So, a modern hardcore materialist would of course agree that music, art and poetry have no value or intrinsic usefulness. They can be lived without, because they are not necessary for biological survival. (Mental health issues notwithstanding; the cures are sought with drugs rather than music therapy, for example.) Ironically, again, the physicists are more likely to disagree with that statement these days than are the biologists.

From one perspective, biology's worldview remains 100 years behind the curve, still playing catch-up to the worldview of the physicists. This is what leads to absurd ideas like love=sex (only), or the wholly deterministic ethos of the sociobiologists of the 1970s and 80s (led by Desmond Morris in The Naked Ape and other works). Konrad Lorenz' work on biological imprinting is taken at face value, with no really new insights having been made since he died.

The problem is, if biology does equal destiny, and social systems are a product of biological programming, then you leave the door wide open for eugenics solutions to little social problems like racism and war. It's only one more small conceptual step to embrace totalitarian solutions to social systems, if indeed those social systems are biological in nature; this led philosophically to the vivisection experiments of Dr. Mengele and his ilk during World War II. It leads directly, nowadays, to right-wing experiments in social engineering by political fiat.

So, the danger of the spiritual worldview, according to the materialists, is that it is not grounded in measurable data, the definition of "fact," it is irrational, it is not scientifically quantifiable and categorizable. It is in no way "real." Thus, the utility of art is nil, except as tangible art objects (strewn in the artist's wake like moose droppings), which are valued only as material products subject to the same economic factors as are refined metals and designer drugs. You can see and touch a van Gogh painting, but you can't see or touch inspiration or intuition. Which is why the art product is more important than the artist, or the artist's process; hence, neglected artists' works generate millions for galleries and dealers, mostly after the artist is dead and can't produce any more: the economics of scarcity.

So, okay: if we accept the argument, for the moment, that music is not necessary for survival, where does that leave us? Maybe there's some solace to be found in art-making, just as slaves sung songs to get themselves through the day. Maybe there's some spiritual or mental connection with music aiding misery. But that is the "art as therapy" argument, and it is a materialist argument: it states the value of music as goal-oriented, as an end-product in a chain of events. This remains a materialist, "practical," ultimately economic justification. That's certainly valid, as far as it goes; the trouble is, it doesn't go very far.

When I find myself hurting in life, I turn to making music. I do not turn to other musicians for sympathy; some of whom might indeed sympathize, but are powerless to do more. I turn to playing, composing, recording, and performing (or making art)—which can be as simple as pulling one of my frame drums off the wall, sitting in the living room, and losing myself in the sound. Or strapping on my Stick and rolling tape. Or booting up Photoshop and making new images. Or strumming on a guitar. Or writing haiku with a calligraphy brush, and making little haiga drawings or paintings to go with them.

The key here is simple: Do the music for the sake of doing the music. No other reason. Not for therapy. Not for solace. Not for relief. That all comes naturally, as soon as you forget about it, and lose one's self in the music. Not for solace, not only for release, or comfort, or therapy—but rather for the same reasons that Zen students sit zazen: to quiet the monkey mind's ceaseless egoistic chatter, to calm the mind and self, to just be silent for awhile. To get a little refreshment that allows one to return to one's problems with a clear mind and renewed strength.

Playing music for myself, on a bad day, doesn't fix any of my financial problems directly, nor does it directly generate income. But it does help me get out of my problems for a few minutes or hours, so that when I come back to them—and they will still be there waiting for when I return—I can better cope with them. This works. It actually does make a difference. It may not pay the rent, but it does keep me wanting to live. If music is truly not necessary to life, then, logically, a lot of us would be dead by now.

(This is the oft-misunderstood existential viewpoint in a nutshell: There is no inherent, innate meaning to life; so whatever meaning you want to have, you have to create for yourself. This does not require one to sit around in a funk of unmeaningful despair; rather, one must get active about deciding what you want to invest meaning in. For examples, I refer you to Albert Camus, Exile and the Kingdom; or Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning.)

All these are completely non-materialistic reasons to make art. There is no materialistic purpose to them. No goal, no practical outcome. But an increased quality of life, that can make life worth otherwise enduring.

Quality of life issues are ultimately emotional, psychological, and spiritual issues. Not rational or physical issues. Materialists are right to point out that quality of life issues are immaterial; yet they are wrong to thereby dismiss them, for that reason alone. Only from within the economic/marketing paradigm is quality of life equated with consumerism, i.e. your ability to Buy Stuff improves your life. This only recycles and repeats the economic paradigm. (For example, I refer you to Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man)

How could it possibly matter to a materialistic non-artist that an artist feels herself necessary to society? Is it that an artist's contribution is less tangible to society than a stockbroker's (which is debatably just as intangible as music) or a bricklayer's? The assumption that an artist has less to give to society than, say, a truck driver or factory worker or economist or soup-kitchen donor, is an assumption that comes from deep within the (economic, materialistic) music-as-a-commodity paradigm. The mindset is that the only things that contribute to society are Things with economic value. Again, this only repeats and recycles the economic model of creativity, wherein only the (tangible) products of creativity (i.e. art-objects) are worth anything, because only they can be sold for cash. A nice tautology.

Speaking to all those materialists who might read this: If you really don't like to hear any of this, or are tempted to dismiss it out-of-hand, I submit that your resistance to these ideas is symptomatic of your own issues around the economics of art, rather than any quality-oriented artist's. The things that most piss us off and push our buttons are usually the things we have most deeply suppressed in ourselves. That's a psychological law, material or no.

So, feel free to dismiss all of this. Feel free to dismiss quality of life issues as meaningless and ignorable.

Yet what a bleak, dull, boring, shallow existence life would be without music, art, poetry, or even that beer you're drinking while you watch the weekend game on TV: bleak and empty. Even if music's necessity to life were only a purely internally-generated delusion, which is an assumption implicit in the arguments made by the most materialistic arms of the economic/marketing paradigm, even if it's value were only as a panacea . . . so what? That makes it no less valuable, for being intangible. It's wise to remember, materialists, that the application of value-judgments to ideas, or to objects, is an intangible, immaterial process: you judge only by your ideology, not by inherent value, because what you judge as valuable is determined by your ideology. Another nice tautology.

And materialism is very much an ideology, make no mistake about that.

Art-making is not opposed to materialism. It just doesn't give materialism the time of day.

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Why Poems Written from the Head Ultimately Fail

It's a common mistake, especially for younger poets: thinking that you control everything about your poem. You don't. If you try to, your poetry will remain stale, shallow, and superficial. You won't find any depth, if your poetry remains entirely produced from your head. Logic-poems and puzzle-box poems are entertaining, but they are signs instead of symbols: they talk about life, but they do not evoke it. (They're also more fun to make than they are to read.) You cannot feel from your head alone. If you insist on only writing poems that you can completely control—writing from your head alone—you will never achieve anything enduring or significant. And you will remain stuck, growing increasingly baffled about why your poetry remains unsatisfying, never quite sure why.

Poet Adrienne Rich, speaking wisely even early in her career, said this very eloquently: Instead of making poems about experiences, one needs to make poems that are experiences.

This is the common mistake: to make poems that are about life, but do not evoke it, or contain it. Most beginning poets fall into this trap; it may be a phase we all need to go through. This is a phase in which we learn our craft, the mechanics of our art, the grammar and syntax and crafty tools that we will use throughout our careening writerly careers. This is the period when we are solving problems: about writing; about poetry; about how to do poetry; even about how to survive while doing it. But this is a student phase. In life, as in art, we are meant to move on. We are meant to grow up, and become more than perpetual students. (In fact, we are meant to become teachers and sages; but that is a story for another time.)

Every time you hear a renowned poet or editor pining for the days when poetry had clear guidelines, clear rules, clear tendencies, and clear subject matters, you are listening to someone who remains stuck in their student days, or in nostalgia about them. Every time you listen to a modern poet complain about free verse, as a loss against rhymed and metered verse, and complain about how free verse signaled the death knell of all good things in poetry, you are listening to a poet stuck in their poetic childhood. Poets can be as puerile and infantile as anyone else. They whine about it more, perhaps, being verbal rather than non-verbal artists—and this whining comes from the truth which they all know in their bones, whether they admit it to themselves or not: the truth that they have been forced to grow up and face the fact that the world is an uncertain, imperfect, indeterminate, sometimes mysterious and frightening place.

When you listen to a poet pining for what is lost, when you are forced to listen to such sentimental nostalgia, you are listening to someone pining for order in the midst of chaos. You are listening to someone who wants a return to the apparent order of the universe of their childhoods, when things seemed to make sense. They are pining for a lost innocence, a paradise lost. At the root of many poets' quest for order within poetry is an unspoken (often unacknowledged) psychological desire for order in their otherwise chaotic lives; they cannot control their lives, they feel out of control in their personal lives, so they seek to impose order wherever they can. No person can be more dictatorial, more autocratic, than one who is afraid of the chaos within themselves. Fascism is a childish impulse given an adult expression. Poetry itself, like all adult things, is meant to be disorderly, contentious, and frequently baffling, and also enlightening and satisfying. The wise poet knows that all things must be in dynamic balance, not static and repressed fixed formalisms. This dynamic balance applies to mindset at least as much as it does to poetic form. Like the sage in the Taoist teachings, only when you have understood and embraced chaos, can you create genuine and enduring order.

So, poems written from the head ultimately fail because they are not mature poems. They are studies—études in the literal sense. They are signs, instead of living symbols. They have activated no energy from the unconscious. They are stale precisely because they do not contain all of life: life teeming in its rich variety and incomprehensible diversity. They contain only ideas, not things.

The poems that a maturing poet makes are not stuck in the head. They include the soma, the heart, the body, the soul, and they also include mystery. They come from places we don't always understand, and cannot always explain. The mark of a maturing and wise poet is to acknowledge that they often don't what they're doing until it's done. Guidance comes from within as well as from without: intuition has just as much place in poetry as do formal rules of construction, rime, grammar, and the other elements of craft. Those are all important and necessary elements: but only the immature poet allows them to dominate their poetry.

Here is the full quote from Adrienne Rich, originally given in 1964 as a statement at a poetry reading:

In the period in which my first two books were written I had a much more absolutist approach to the universe than I now have. I also felt—as many people still feel—that a poem was an arrangement of ideas and feelings, pre-determined, and it said what I had already decided it would say. There were occasional surprises, occasions of happy discovery that an unexpected turn could be taken, but control, technical mastery and intellectual clarity were the real goals, and for many reasons it was satisfying to be able to create this kind of formal order in poems.

Only gradually, within the last five or six years, did I begin to feel that these poems, even the ones I liked best and in which I felt I'd said most, were queerly limited, that in many cases I had suppressed, omitted, falsified even, certain disturbing elements, to gain that perfection of order. . . .

Today, I have to say that what I know I know through making poems. Like the novelist who finds that his characters begin to have a life of their own and to demand certain experiences, I find that I can no longer go to write a poem with a neat handful of materials and express those materials acrrording to a prior plan: the poem itself engenders new sensations, new awareness in me as it progresses. Without for one moment turning my back on conscious choice and selection, I have been increasingly willing to let the unconscious offer its materials, to listen to more than the one voice of a single idea. Perhaps a simple way of putting it would be to say that instead of poems about experiences I am getting poems that are experiences, that contribute to my knowledge and my emotional life even while they reflect and assimilate it. In my earlier poems I told you, as precisely and eloquently as I knew how, about something; in the more recent poems something is happening, something has happened to me and, if I have been a good parent to the poem, something will happen to you who read it.
—from Adrienne Rich's Poetry, the Norton Critical Edition (1975), edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, p. 89

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Four Poems Published This Month

I have four poems published here at Monsters & Critics. The last of the four, Wintermind, is a haibun. Most of these poems have been previously submitted, and rejected, elsewhere. It's nice that they've found a home now.


Monday, July 16, 2007

Art & Materialism 1

My friend and fellow musician John Edmonds once asked the questions:

The devil's advocate says: Who do you artists think you are? Who told you that your products and efforts are worth money? After all, the market says otherwise. Anyone who is trying to sell anything is part of the capitalist machine. This machine is driven by supply, demand and competition. All of these things are in constant flux. What held value yesterday may not hold value today. There is no guarantee. Values change. Furthermore, what is more American than trying to get the best deal? Especially when the best deal is free? The market today says the best music is free music, so why are you artists complaining? Like it or lump it. If you want to make money selling something, sell something that people will pay for.

There is enough truth in this devil's advocate position that it deserves consideration. The truth is this: the above comments stand as a neat summary of the economic model for making art. Art as commodity. Art-object as sellable object (like everything else, including one's soul—although I only rent mine out anymore). Music as having no other personal or social function than as marketable entertainment. Poetry as something that bolsters sales of books. Books that are required to sell. CDs that are supposed to generate a profitable income for the record company and, as an afterthought, the artist.

This position represents the ultimate victory of the capitalist mindset: it's hardly questioned anymore, to the point that a desire to make art is always called into question by one's family and tribe as "no good way to make a living." We need our artists, but we relegate them to career misery by refusing to support them in their careers. We say we love the art they make, but we don't love their art-making as a respectable job or occupation. Somehow, the blue-collar factory-worker, that slave to the Puritan work ethic, always seems more genuine. As if art was always a luxury for leisure time, always a frill, an add-on, not really necessary—despite decades of psychological inquiry supporting the proposition that making art is good for one's overall mental health. When public school funding comes under fire, the arts programs always get cut before the sports programs do. Always.

But music, art, poetry, etc., have always been free. They have always been a birthright. The act of creation is where we touch the Divine spark in ourselves and the Universe. (In creation-centered theology, "imago Dei" means image of God, "made in the likeness of God," in the sense that we all participate in Creation as co-creators.) Some artists and musicians will always give-away everything they produce, because the reason they produce it has nothing to do with economics. You don't have to go to school and pay tuition to learn to become creative. (If you believe you do, then congratulations, you have accepted the social brainwashing that the academy wanted you to accept.) Creativity is your birthright. What you do with it—that is up to you. This involves taking on personal responsibility for our actions, a point often overlooked in the rush to economize our art.

The underlying assumption is that we all make art-objects, be they albums, poems, paintings, dance performances, whatever, in order to make a living from making art. Ignoring the tautological circularity of that argument, and with no disrespect intended towards the "arts professionals" among us—I am one myself, at least sometimes—there are many motivations for making art, or writing a poem, or releasing a recording of one's music, only some of which are economc. A simple motivation common to all of us is, Hey, look what I did!—the semi-altruistic, semi-egoistic desire to share. Having made a CD or a poem, of course one desires to have some control over how it is distributed, marketed; and one also desires to reap the rewards of the hard work of marketing. This tends to make one into a professional, which may or may not be a good thing. A professional artist is someone who makes their living from their art. (John Cage once said, humourously, Of course I am willing to prostitute my art, as long as anyone is willing to pay for it.) Perhaps we all need to remain amateurs, in our minds if not in our wallets, to preserve the mindset of sharing over the mindset of gimme. Even peer-to-peer Internet MP3 file-sharing is not always about greed, as the music industry would have you believe. Assuming it is always about greed is the same thing as assuming that all art is made for a profit: it is to assume that the profit motive is the only motive for making art. This is, as stated above, a purely economic model for creativity. Economic concerns certainly can be part of the creative process, but they have never been all of it, always. Such sweeping generalizations about the average ex-Napster downloader's motivations may serve for legalizing and moralizing rhetoric, but they rarely encompass the complete reality of intent.

Whenever this economic argument cycles around again, I sometimes feel like the fish who discovered water, which everyone else ignores. I think the issue itself has bought into the underlying assumptions about the value of making music that the devil's advocate position above has so aptly stated: namely, that the artist has no place in society except as a saleable "content provider." Perhaps the real reason to make music is simply to make music; the rest of it follows in its wake, but is not its engine.

I urge anyone who is interested in the complexities of artistic motivation to find a copy of Thomas Merton's book Disputed Questions, and read his long essay in that collection The Pasternak Affair. This essay is about the relationship between persons and social organizations. In pithy and often pointed prose, Merton points out the pitfalls of both totalitarianism and late-modern capitalism on the making of art; perhaps we need to resist both.

Perhaps none of what we do as musicians and artists are worth money. Rather than lamenting your inability to make a stable career as an artist, have you considered how freeing that might be? With no economic pressure on one to make income from one's creativity, one's creativity is perhaps free to roam where it will, discover what it does, and be beholden to no one. Any income made from artistic products after they are "fixed" in spacetime via the processes of recording, completion, or simple abandonment, is then gravy. The anxiety of income from one's art creates pressures that can kill the art. Of course I'd like to make income from the sales of my CDs and my visual artwork and writings—but I never expected it to pay my rent, and so far it never has. I've always looked elsewhere for that. Reading Leonardo da Vinci's Notebooks on this topic is illuminating; in more than one place he complains bitterly of the hours wasted on what is essentially fundraising, rather than on the generation of ideas and art. This dilemma obviously still exists, for artists who currently live in a social organization driven by economic considerations. (It's called "the bottom line" for good reason, as it is the foundation assumption that our social organizations are built upon.) Even in Leonardo's time, patronage by a wealthy duke or prince was no certain source of stable income.

Perhaps the truth of the "gimme free music" situation we find ourselves in is not that anyone wants to rip off the musicians (content providers) but that everyone already knows that the established economic model (as embodied in the RIAA-protected music-distribution and sales industry) is already dead and past. Perhaps what we are really seeing is a protest movement against the record companies who rip off both consumer and artist alike; that little fish (indie musicians with their self-made CDs) get caught in this fray is an unfortunate side-effect, as the real target is the Big Five. Perhaps what we are truly witnessing here is the transitional turbulence phase between paradigms, with no clear idea what the new paradigm will become.

The devil's advocate continues: I've often realized this about what I do; music is not necessary for survival. Some might argue it's necessary for a well balanced existence, but it's not needed just to live in the way food and water are. And even if it "is" needed for a pleasant existence, commercial music certainly is not.

Neither is poetry, or any other artistic product. Neither is making art, or music.

On the other hand, I would be one of those who would argue that making art is necessary for life, because quality of life means more than mere survival. But here is that clash of paradigms in a nutshell: the mere statement that "music is not necessary for survival" comes from the economic/consumer/product-oriented paradigm. Which of course is the only one we got, right?

Except, of course, that we, in this extant post-modern post-Judeo-Christian post-scientific-rationalist Euro-Amerian (Western) culture, are the only culture who has ever believed this, or put it into regular practice. (In Bali, for example, everyone is an artist. Everyone makes art, whether that be sculpture, gamelan, or flower-arranging, or whatever. Everyone. In fact, until Western artists, Walter Spies at the forefront, came to live in Bali in the 1930s, there was no common word in the Balinese language for "art"—meaning, art objects, referring to the products of the creative process as we do in the West.) Nor has the West always believed this about the products of art. We have only had this belief since, you guessed it, the Enlightenment era, 300 or so years ago, which coincided with the rise of the economic models of mercantilism and capitalism. Prior to that, even during the Renaissance, even the basest peasant would have said that going to the cathedral to look at the beautiful stained glass, and the stories displayed therein, was an uplifting experience essential to life.

But since we live in this culture that is currently driven by late-modern capitalism, this is the unfortunate reality that we have to deal with. I am reminded of a common tactic undertaken by many teachers of music, art, and poetry, one I have used myself with my own students: the attempt to dissuade the budding musician from choosing this very difficult and often unrewarding career. More than once have I heard in my life, and have repeated it myself: "If you don't have to write, don't. If it isn't as necessary to you as breathing, then don't do it. If you don't lie awake at night thinking about poetry, don't write it." This imparted wisdom usually comes from a place of repeated experience of the frustration of trying to survive as an artist in this culture that does not support the arts. So, if you can live without it, be good to yourself, and take an easier path. To the extent that making art is viewed as a specialized "job" or career, rather than a divine process available to all as a birthright; to the extent that artworks (the products of the creative process) are commodifed: to this extent, it will remain a difficult life-path.

But again, this is thinking from within the consumer/economic paradigm. Such thinking always assumes a lack. Consumerist ad-marketing is designed to appeal to lack, to make the consumer feel like they're missing something, and that the product being offered will fill that void. Of course, you can never fill that void, or there would be no need to buy anything; so, we have to create new lacks (new voids) all the time, in order to push the market.

An example: Look at the disturbing and blatant advertising rhetoric that spilled out from the US car companies after 9/11: be a good American, buy a new SUV. The underlying message was that consumerism is The American Way, and the way to get over our emotional pain over the World Trade Center falling was to spend, spend, spend, and boost our economy. I was astounded at how blatantly this was repeated in the media, even on the local news!, and not one commentator ever questioned its inherent absurdity. It was a stunning display of consensual agitprop. (Of course, the attack on the WTC was a brilliantly Symbolic attack, and an effective one, because it got us where it could us most: in our economy.)

The truth is, though, that the increasing decentralization of the technology of musical recording and production will force a paradigm shift in music sales of some kind, eventually, whether the RIAA wants it or not. The RIAA would be wise to pursue a policy of figuring out how to best use the new means of distribution, rather than keep fighting to preserve their priveleged leverage of the old means of selling music recordings.

In fact, one of the mixed blessings of the new computer technology, with regard to desktop publishing and the Internet, is that it now so easy to put the technology of production into the hands of the masses, that literally anyone can publish a book, or a CD, a website, a poem, a magazine, a photograph, and muc more. This is the root of egalitarian democracy, and is perceived as a blessing by many—and it will, I believe, be the source of whatever music distribution paradigm eventually replaces the RIAA and its ilk. However, it also means that anybody can publish anything—so most of what gets published nowadays is dreck. The plus side of internet website sales is that the artist and buyer have a more direct personal connection, and there's a lot available to fulfill any taste.

For myself, though, It is true: I am not sure what else I can or could do but to make art, make music, write. I'm not sure I'm suited for anything else, struggle as I might. I've worked a lot in the corporate world, but after several years of marginal self-employment, I'm not at all sure I could go back to the corporate realm, should a position magically materialize.

The question is then asked: So why have professional musicians in a society at all if indeed what we do doesn't deserve a price tag? Because generally speaking a professional anything will be better at their craft than a hobbyist will be and anyone who chooses to can enjoy the results of their labors.

Yes, but this does not give the professional any advantage over the amateur. In many instances, the professional musician spends as much time each day doing non-musical activities to promote one's career, such as self-marketing, etc., as does the non-pro-musician spend each day at the office. In some cases, amateurs are just as practiced and well-crafted as any profesional, and invest the same amount of time in their craft.

So for my part, I continue to pursue my creative work as much as I can, and keep hoping the world will continue to support me in my needs and desires.

In the past couple of years, I've given up a great deal of professional certainty, in order to follow my bliss, and then to care for my aging and ailing parents; I even moved back home to be my father's primary caregiver during the last year of his life. One of the most important lessons I have learned from this extended, difficult period in life, is how to live with uncertainty. I have no idea what's going to happen from week to week, or even day to day. I discover I am often okay with that; the "worst" has happened more than once already, and I survived, so it no longer scares me the way it used to. Perseverance has become the art of getting through the day uncrushed by whatever I have had to deal with. I find that hope, as it's traditionally formulated, is not helpful to me, because hope is too bound up with fear. Hopelessness, being detached from desired outcomes, has become a source of liberation. Uncertainty, not having any solid ground to stand on, is the way to learn how to keep your balance throughout any change that comes.

Another musician says: I think it is because musical performance builds community, and community support is what the striking workers need. Live music is egalitarian, or can be; it crosses race and class boundaries, or can.

Community, or its lack, lies somewhere near the root of the original question about whether or not music is necessary to life. (If we don't like the word "necessary," if it seems too absolute, we could substitute "useful.")

One of the things that the economic paradigm promotes, and contains as an underlying assumption that may be hard for some to see past, is the idea that all persons are individuals; further, individuals are assumed to act primarily out of self-interest. Economic theory in capitalism since Adam Smith has been based on that assumption; sidelining such things as altruism as unnecessary to economic health, most of capitalist economic theory has been founded on the ideal of the self-serving individual standing apart from the tribe and competing his way to the top. This has become such a creation myth in Western culture after 300 years that we take it for granted; remember, in the academic field of folklore and mythology, it is a truism that myths are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Our assumptions about the nature of reality become part of our creation myths.

So where is community in all this? Relegated to the sidelines, along with altruism, music, etc. The economic mindset prefers to ignore things such as church-based charities, because they present a viable alternative. Such alternative economic paradigms call the very foundation assumptions of competitive capitalism into question, because they demonstrate that not all persons are self-serving individuals. Thus, since an individual has no responsibility to the community, we get situations like the Enron scandal and all its cousins: self-serving individualism at its extreme.

Thomas Merton, writing in 1960, in the Preface to Disputed Questions, had this to say about community, persons, and individuals:

The problem of the person and the social organization is certainly one of the most important, if not the most important problem of our century. Every ethical problem of our day—especially the problem of war—is to be traced back to this root question. We meet it everywhere, but since we tend to be more and more "organization men" (in the west) or "new-mass-men" (in the east) we are getting so conditioned that we fail to see that it is a problem. . . .

"When I say that I am concerned with the person, I do not mean that I am interested primarily in the individual. There is a great difference. Individualism is nothing but the social atomism that has led to our present inertia, passivism and social decay. Yet it is individualism which has really been the apparent ideal of our western society for the past two or three hundred years. This individualism, primarily an economic concept with a pseudospiritual and moral facade, is in fact mere irresponsibility. It is, and has always been not an affirmation of genuine human values but a flight from the obligations from which these values are inseparable. And first of all a flight from the obligation to love. . . . The individual, in fact, is nothing but a negation: he is "not someone else." He is not everybody, he is not the other individual. He is a unit divided off from the other units. His freedom may not seem like an illusion, when he is surrounded by the social mirage of comfort and ample opportunity. But as soon as the structure of his society begins to collapse, the individual collapses with it and he who seemed to be a person soon becomes nothing but a number. Yet he is still an "individual." Hence it is clear that mass society is constructed out of disconnected individuals—out of empty and alienated human beings who have lost their center and extinguished their own inner light in order to depend in abject passivity upon the mass in which they cohere without affectivity or intelligent purpose.

"The vocation of the person is to construct his own solitude . . . for a valid encounter with other persons, for intelligent cooperation and for communion in love. From this cooperation and communion—which is anything but the ludicrous pantomime called "togetherness"—there grows the structure of a living, fruitful and genuinely human society.
(pp. ix-xi)

Music is a totally "useless" activity that makes us more human—that makes us persons in communion.

Perhaps that's enough of a justification for msuic's existence. As if we must justify it at all.

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