Saturday, September 14, 2013

Lead da Band

The bandleader, composer, and guitarist Frank Zappa (1940-93), one of the great touchstones of my own artistic consciousness, once write “A composer is somebody who organizes things—maybe sounds, maybe objects, maybe other stuff. Gimme some shit and I’ll organize it for you. That’s what a composer does.” As so often with Frank’s insights, it’s pithy and pungent and right down the line accurate. The job of the composer is to organize shit.

That’s also the job of the bandleader: to organize the shit that musicians do in a fashion that is unique, new, powerful, and expressive. The craft of the bandleader, particularly in the American musical traditions—in fact, the potential genius of that role, one that is largely ignored or neglected in the study of musicology because it involves organizing musical consciousnesses rather than musical objects—is putting people together. My friend & brother in music Roger Landes taught me that, with his remarkable festival-of-the-tribes called “Zoukfest”; he once said, “the whole point of having the festival is make it possible to put certain people in a room together at the same time, because you’re convinced that unique and beautiful things will happen.” Sometimes, as in the case of a festival or workshop or artists’ colony, you go to a lot of time, hassle, and expense in order to put those certain people (teachers and students, musicians and dancers, performers and audience) in a room together at the same time.

Because the craft and art of making musical, and musical events, is a time-bound phenomenon—unlike a sculpture or video or painting or installation, a music-dance-theatre event has to happen in the same chronological moment and (at least in the vernacular forms I work in) the same geographical space for both performers and audience. Yes, you can stream such events over the web, or live-cast on radio, and that at least permits audiences elsewhere to experience the event at the same time as those physically present: in Singapore, a highly secularized and regulated multi-ethnic city that also has a devout Muslim population, the Call to Prayer is broadcast over a certain radio frequency five times daily, so that the Faithful can at least hear the Call simultaneously as other others, even if in isolated physical environments; I had a Buddhist meditation teacher who said “all I need to know is that someone somewhere is sitting zazen at the same time as myself; if I know that, I know that I have a sangha, I know I’m not sitting “alone”.

But even the radio simul-cast or the web stream is imperfect and, in the case of the intimate communities of traditional music, it almost makes us sadder to know that our friends are out there somewhere in the world but can’t be here. Because vernacular/traditional events are about using music-and-dance to create community, sometimes in environments, locations, or circumstances that are far distant from the ideal, original, or remembered contexts in which the art forms began. The great gift of these forms is that they are so portable, resilient, and memorable that it is actually possible to engage in such re-creation.

But the best things happen when you arrange certain objects in relation to one another with a vision of those patterns’ expressive power, when you arrange for certain people to be together in a room because you have enough insight, experience, and sensitivity to recognize that simply arranging for that meeting will make good things happen. That’s why Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters, Art Blakey, Carla Bley, Buck Owens, Arthur Ailey, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Frank Zappa, David Baker, Kim Pineda and so many others would be artists of genius even they themselves had never played, dance, or even composed a note or motion themselves: because they had the insight, experience, sensitivity and—let’s face it—sheer bullheaded stubborn insistence upon the validity of their vision to put certain people together in a room. And then to trust that the artistic potential of that meeting, the sheer unchained creative energy that emerges when artists find new companions and new challenges. Two dancers from Louisiana. A handful of crazy hippie Baroque (and “broke”) musicians in Indiana. A mandolin player from New Zealand and another from Ireland. A bouzouki player from Alabama and another from Kansas City.

And this lot.

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