Friday, July 04, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 100 (Independence Day edition)

Coffeehouse "listening" session last night; old buddy Coop on flute and myself on bouzouki. I really like that duet Irish situation, where I'm the only accompanist, because it provides an absolutely huge palette of choices: I can play a lot or a little, play soft or loud, thick or sparse, reharmonize at will, and so on. I like the way I wind up playing in those situations.

But I fucking hate the contemporary audience's inability to grok that live music ought to elicit a different response than canned music. It's not that they are inherently less-considerate people, but rather that they simply don't grasp that there are live bodies up there making those sounds, and that they might want to tear themselves away from the text-messaging and gossiping and incessant narcissistic self-photography and so on. My buddy Roger Landes, very wisely, has a precept that says he won't take a "listening" gig in any space where they typically play recorded music: he believes that people who regularly come to a space with canned music will have learned a bunch of oblivion-behaviors that make it impossible for them to grasp that, on this particular night, something different is happening--and is called for. I, on the other hand, still take gigs in such spaces, and then (absurdly) get pissed when people behave in an entirely normative way.

So with last night: roomful of posing high-school kids (I have to struggle to remember that, for most people, high school is precisely where they have to figure out who they are going to be as adults, and as a result, many spend most of their high-school time trying out personae, and assessing the external reactions to those variants); large table-ful of kids being led in some kind of Bible study session by a coach-type (as Coop says, "St Matthew says you should pray in privacy, in a closet inside your house with the shutters drawn, and he knew Jesus; why the fuck do these people think they 'supposed' to pray in public?"). We play here because, as with our session pub, though the clientele can be clueless, management is incredibly supportive, appreciative, and respectful. It would be nicer if the clientele was too, but it's hard to blow off management who are this nice. But the posing and the chattering and the just-plain flat obliviousness to their surroundings really get to me.

I have a very short fuse when I'm leading a gig. 25 years ago, I would get snotty with band-mates (Dharmonia can attest to the fact that I was hell-on-wheels as a bandleader in the 1980s). With the advent of many years and just the slightest bit more maturity, I've learned not to take it out on people, and, in fact, to be reasonably charming and easy-going in manner on the gig. This is not however because I actually am "charming and easy-going," but because I've learned to project that in preference to the dismissive short-fused behavior of three decades ago.

But I still have a very short fuse, and very small incidents of what I perceive to be inconsiderate behavior from audience members can evoke absolutely towering rage (see my recollections of policing the room at the old Idler in Harvard Square during Dean Magraw's gigs). I've tried to figure out why this is, and I think I actually know why. Realistically or not, enittled or not, I have a tendency to perceive those spaces in which music occurs as sacred spaces; at least for the duration of the performance, when it's working right, the music actually creates the possibility of an alternate, better mode of consciousness. Many musics know this: African-American gospel, Bach's Masses, Pakistani Qawwali, and thousands of other music idioms were created and are maintained because they make an alternate universe of experience possible, at least for the duration of the performance. Certainly some of my own most transformative experiences have happened to me during, and because of, a musical performance.

That's also what I try to create when I play music: at least the possibility, for whichever members of the audience might understand or intuit same, of a transformative experience: something that will take you right out of your body and show you the possibility of an entirely different way to experience the world and other people. I go way the fuck out of my way to try to do that: in terms of sequencing tunes, in terms of involving other players and the audience, in terms of what's said or done, how people speak or move, how we respond to feedback from the audience and so on. When it's a formal setting (concert hall or theatre) you have a lot more control: lights and sets and start-time and so on: in fact, I'd argue that this is one of the great afflictions of 19th/20th century concert music: composers (only slightly down the hierarchy of creation from God, and substantially higher up the scale from the conductors whose existence composers reluctantly acknowledge) were so obsessive about control, critics were so dependent upon an odor of superhuman Greatness, that they conspired to take everything away from the audience.

But I'm a jazz and roots musician and I was raised up to make things happen for an audience, with the audience's participation. The problem is that, to make such things happen, the audience has to get it, if not to the same extent then at least in the same experiential universe and values-system that the musicians are occupying. When you're dealing with an audience who don't know this and are barely conscious that it might exist, then you're already fighting an uphill battle.

Which is why so many of our gigs demand audience education--teaching people (usually by demonstration and example) about what the music can provide, if they engage and respond. Mostly you have to do it implicitly. At the Celtic Christmas, almost all of the staging directions, lighting, programming, pacing, and so on, are set up to create a sense of the circle around the croft fire at the show's opening, and the experience, for the audience over the whole course of the show, of that same circle getting bigger and bigger and bigger, until it encompasses everyone present. Mostly it works. But it's a hell of a lot harder to accomplish when you control almost none of the parameters.

I have a standing joke with my students that, in "my parallel universe, musicians drink for free." That sounds like an aphorism, but I'm deadly serious: we don't set up gigs where we, or any of the participating musicians, have to pay for their booze. Drinking or eating for free, even absent any cash changing hands, in exchange for playing music, takes us back way before Romanticism, out of the modern world, back before the Industrial Revolution, to the places where the music began: the fireplace, the campfire, and the sacred circle. And when people in an audience don't get that, it really chaps my ass. And when the Bible-study leader decides to stand up and fake his way through a couple of faux-Riverdance steps, I have deeply unholy reactions.

So here's my parallel Universe, and the real Independence Day celebration, and the real American heroes, in that universe:

Where the marching band is Jim Reese Europe's 369th Hellfighters Band, sashaying down the streets of Harlem, playing charts by Charles Ives, with Charley's beloved-but-died-too-young father George, the youngest bandleader in the Civil War, trades off the baton with Lt. Europe, with James Brown as the drum-major, with banners heralding Peace and Freedom and Justice flying at the head; and marching in the van are all the boys who didn't have to die in America's contemptible elective imperial wars;

with a picnic on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, where Buddy Bolden, healed from the "madness" that was the only possible to the insanity of Jim Crow, trades trumpet licks with Clifford Brown, who walked away from the car wreck miraculously unscathed, and Janis, with a man who loves her and a church family that supports her, kisses Jimi and congratulates him on a fair record deal, and Bessie Smith, the Queen of the Blues, donates her royalties to a charity hospital for poor people;

and Blind Willie Johnson asks the blessing, and Gary Davis sight-reads the hymns, and Duane Allman and Charlie Christian trade choruses on the offertory while their grand-babies pass the paper plates, and Bird and Trane and Dolphy and Ayler man the horn section, and Fela and Miles swap licks and each agrees that the other is the greatest player;

and Zappa gives the patriotic address, and Bo and Mr Jelly Roll and Mongo and Lemon and Robert Johnson compare their versions of the hambone and argue good-naturedly (while the beer never runs out) about whose is better;

and there's corn and slaw and pickles and peach pie and mashed spuds and sweet tea and pulled pork and barbecue and Hebrew National hotdogs and fried chicken, but no animals ever had to die to provide them, and Tom Binkley approves the hummus and dandles his grandkids on his knee,

and my father is there, sober and happy, sketching the scene,

and saying "just lemonade, thanks."

I will work until I die to help make this nation more what it could be.


Roger Landes said...

Damn! Happy Independence Day! Great post!

sunshine said...

wow, that's a hell of a party.
you could make it happen if anyone could.

GD Armstrong said...

That's a real FourthaJuly! I got all teary. Thanks!

CJS said...

Aw, shucks, fellers (*blushes*).

It's like that Rainbow Bridge story, about how when you die all the pets you ever loved meet you.

If I believed in an afterlife, I'd pray that all those magnificent musicians I ever loved got the rewards they earned but never received.