Tag Archives: music

“For me, music has no leader”

In 1997, Ornette Coleman was in Paris to play at La Villette, and sat down for an interview with French philosopher Jacques Derrida.  The interview was the subject of a thoughtful piece by Richard Brody in the New Yorker a few years ago, but I came across it only this morning. This part of the exchange especially resonates with me, as it has to do with conversations without a leader (an idea I’ve been exploring in some of my posts on the power of asking).

On the one hand, Coleman has throughout his career had to dispel the notion that in playing free jazz, “I just picked up my saxophone and played whatever was going through my head, without following any rule, but that wasn’t true.”  He struggled, on the other hand, with the hierarchical, bureaucratic rigidity of the New York Philharmonic, where he had to submit a composition “to the person in charge of scores…to be sure the Philharmonic wouldn’t be disturbed.”  He works according to another model — a conversation in which no one is “in charge,” but in which the participants can rely on  a “framework” (usually, but not always, provided by the piano).

Here is Timothy S. Murphy’s translation:

OC: For the Philharmonic I had to write out parts for each instrument, photocopy them, then go see the person in charge of scores. But with jazz groups, I compose and I give the parts to the musicians in rehearsal. What’s really shocking in improvised music is that despite its name, most musicians use a framework [trame] as a basis for improvising. I’ve just a recorded a CD with a European musician, Joachim Kuhn, and the music I wrote to play with him, that we recorded in August 1996, has two characteristics: it’s totally improvised, but at the same time it follows the laws and rules of European structure. And yet, when you hear it, it has a completely improvised feel [air].

JD: First the musician reads the framework, then brings his own touch to it.

OC: Yes, the idea is that two or three people can have a conversation with sounds, without trying to dominate it or lead it. What I mean is that you have to be…intelligent, I suppose that’s the word. In improvised music, I think the musicians are trying to reassemble an emotional or intellectual puzzle, in any case a puzzle in which the instruments give the tone. It’s primarily the piano that has served at all times as the framework in music, but it’s no longer indispensable and, in fact, the commercial aspect of music is very uncertain. Commercial music is not necessarily more accessible, but it is limited.

JD: When you begin to rehearse, is everything ready, written, or do you leave space for the unforeseen?

OC: Let’s suppose that we’re in the process of playing and you hear something that you think could be improved: you could tell me, “You should try this.” For me, music has no leader.

JD: What do you think of the relationship between the precise event that constitutes the concert and pre-written music or improvised music? Do you think that pre-written music prevents the event from taking place?

OC: No, I don’t know if it’s true for language, but in jazz you can take a very old piece and do another version of it. What’s exciting is the memory that you bring to the present. What you’re talking about, the form that metamorphoses into other forms, I think it’s something healthy, but very rare.

JD: Perhaps you will agree with me on the fact that the very concept of improvisation verges upon reading, since what we understand by improvisation is the creation of something new, yet something which doesn’t exclude the pre-written framework that makes it possible.

OC: That’s true.


Asking Isn’t An Art

I’ve never been a big fan of human statues. They make a spectacle of themselves and everyone else who happens to come into their orbit. The human statue doesn’t just try to charm you into her silent, frozen circle; she obliges you to deal with the invitation. That’s why I avoid human statues as assiduously as I avoid mimes (who doesn’t find mimes annoying?) and balloon-tying clowns: I make a detour around them all.

Amanda Palmer used to be a human statue, and she opens her much-hyped TED talk on “The Art of Asking” with a story about how she used to work sidewalk crowds. To demonstrate, she stands on an overturned milk crate (clever props and staging are quickly becoming an essential element of TED talks, as noted in this brilliant infographic); she asks us to believe that everything she learned about asking “on the street” accounts for her success as a musician cum crowdsourcing entrepreneur.

In case you haven’t yet heard, Palmer recently raised 1.2 million dollars on Kickstarter for a music project, an achievement her TED audience could not help but wildly applaud and greet with gasps of admiration. For Palmer, fundraising on Kickstarter is simply an extension of what she did when she worked crowds as a human statue or in the period after that when she toured with her band. She made “an art out of asking people to help us and join us”; asking was her MO, how she got around: couch-surfing, getting musicians to play with her, finding venues – simply by asking. Asking, she came to understand, “makes you vulnerable”; but it can also pay off with favors, places to stay, new collaborators, and something less tangible – new relationships and enduring connections: “in the very act of asking people,” Palmer says, “I connected to them.”

If you wonder why that needs saying, then you don’t appreciate the magical hold the word “connect” seems to have on TED audiences: they’ve invested it with emotion because, I suppose, it’s about the internet and the children and all that stuff. Still, Palmer’s point is valid: working the streets, traveling about as a musician, she learned that asking can create new relationships, or that asking puts the asker and the person asked, the petitioner and the respondent, in new relationship with one another. Like all speech acts, asking establishes and coordinates human relationships as well as human actions; the real question is what is special and distinctive about what gets established and what how things get coordinated when one person asks another.

One answer lies, in part, in what Palmer has to say about vulnerability and making others visible, seeing each other, and all that could serve as an interesting starting point for a conversation about the ethics of asking. On the other hand, what Palmer actually has to say about the music industry – the part of her talk that apparently has everyone’s heart aflutter – is hardly new: the old model of making people pay for music doesn’t work, or won’t work much longer; instead, Palmer suggests, “let” people pay. “I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, ‘How do we make people pay for music?’ What if we started asking, ‘How do we let people pay for music?’” To her credit, Palmer has already admitted that this is an oversimplification, but in her clever and very TED-like “what if?”, there’s a business scenario the music industry might consider, or at least try to consider, after they run the numbers and consult with the Office of the General Counsel.

In other words, the real insight here, the thing to appreciate in Palmer’s talk, doesn’t have much to do with revenue models or licensing or selling. It’s much more basic than all that. Palmer’s distinction of making from letting and forcing from asking tells me that she’s keyed into the simple fact that asking – genuinely asking — involves the exercise of non-coercive power.

But there’s the rub. The trouble is that when you make an “art” of asking, as Amanda Palmer has, you start to coerce. You start to weave an illusion. You turn a non-coercive relationship into a spectacle. I’m not denying that there is a theatrical or performative aspect to all speech acts, or even to the simplest conversation between two human beings, or that sometimes we ask in order to persuade. Let’s put those questions aside for the moment. At present, I simply want to suggest that talking about asking as an “art” misses the mark, or at least that in resisting that notion, we can learn more about how asking works, or really could work, if given a chance. We can learn something about the ethics of asking and the way non-coercive power works.

Palmer has made asking into theater, part of an ongoing performance.

For her part, Palmer has made asking into theater, part of an ongoing performance, a traveling circus in which her fans and admirers can participate. In treating asking as an art, as performance, as an extension of her act as a human statue, Palmer may not really be asking at all: she’s trying to charm, and she’s apparently very good at that. The trouble with relying on charm is that — eventually — the spell will be broken. This is one reason why, I think, some musicians were so miffed when Amanda Palmer kept asking for freebies and favors even after she’d raised over a million dollars.

Woody Guthrie and the Cambodian Thanksgiving Massacre

I did a double take when I first read about the victims of the Cambodian stampede being taken to Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh. For the past several years I’ve been working on a documentary film about another human stampede, which took place in 1913, in a town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula called Calumet. This weird echo — Calmette, Calumet — wasn’t the only thing that made the grim news out of Cambodia resonate eerily with a tragic event from our own past.

Both stampedes took place during holiday celebrations: in Cambodia, it was during Bon Om Tuk, an annual water festival; in Calumet, it was Christmas Eve. There are all sorts of parallels in the accounts of eyewitnesses and all sorts of ways in which the pictures out of Cambodia and Calumet illuminate one another. The photograph the New York Times ran on its front page yesterday offers a horrifying glimpse into what it must have been like for those who died in the chaos in Calumet. A photograph of the bridge the day after the stampede, with its shoes and holiday favors, reminds me of the pictures I’ve seen of the day after the 1913 stampede. And then there are the pictures of the dead. We have all seen photographs of mass executions, bodies thrown into ditches and body parts strewn around battlefields; but only this kind of panic – people trampling and crushing the very people with whom they were just celebrating, a whole tangle of limbs and bodies, twisting and writhing, people suffocating and having the life squeezed out of them — produces a gruesome stack of corpses. Stacked “like cordwood” is how they put it in Calumet.

And as powerful as these images are, they still don’t tell us much about what really happened. It’s up to us to put together a story. And that is where things start to get a little more complicated.

We know the trouble in Calumet took place during a strike that virtually shut down Michigan’s copper range from the summer of 1913 through the winter of 1914. On December 24th, the striking miners had gathered with their wives and children for a holiday party in a building called the Italian Hall.

The party was on the second floor, in a big room the Ladies Auxiliary had decorated for the occasion. There were about 500 people in the Hall. As the children were lining up to get their presents from Santa, someone – to this day, nobody knows who – yelled fire! Panic took hold of the crowd, and in the ensuing chaos, 74 people were crushed to death on the stairway of the Italian Hall. 59 of the dead were children.

Woody Guthrie, whose song about the trouble in the Italian Hall inspired our film, has it that the mining company hired “thugs” and “scabs” to enter the hall, raise the cry of fire, and then hold the doors of the Italian Hall shut. Most historians and many people in Calumet nowadays take issue with his account of the “massacre” at the Hall, especially with that last detail about the doors; and the provenance of the story reveals its undeniable bias: Woody learned the story from labor organizer Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor, who was in Calumet during the strike, working with the Western Federation of Miners.

But the power of Woody Guthrie’s song doesn’t lie in its historical accuracy. It’s a heartbreaking story, simply told; and it situates the trouble at the Italian Hall in the strike, in the deep social and political divisions that ran through Calumet in 1913 and still, to a certain extent, have a claim on the telling of Calumet’s story today. Those very divisions – and misguided ideas about how to heal them or erase them – may, in fact, have been behind the town’s razing of the Italian Hall in 1984.

What social and political tensions may have precipitated the disaster in Cambodia, or may now be playing a role in the recounting and representation of that disaster, is not so easily discerned from reports in the Western news media. But they are no doubt there, just beneath the surface. Take the holiday of Bon Om Tuk itself, the occasion of the disaster. It is an agrarian festival, celebrating the reversal of currents from the Tonle Sap to the Mekong at the time of the full moon; but it is also a celebration of padi state power, with demonstrations of naval prowess held in front of the Royal Palace, and official histories dating the festival back to the 12th century and the martial exploits of King Jayavarman VII. On the one hand, farmers are celebrating the harvest and fertility of the land; it is a kind of Thanksgiving. On the other, the state is demonstrating its power and hearkening back to a time when it dominated the Mekong.

The official story of this Bon Om Tuk has not yet been written, but it is already beginning to eclipse other accounts and put an end to dangerous and possibly subversive speculation. For instance, what caused all those people to panic? A Times report simply answered with “unclear.” A day later, the BBC went a little further than that, saying “the cause of the panic was not immediately apparent. Electric shocks from the lights, fights among young people and fears that the structure was about to collapse have all been put forward.” In a CNN report, “the municipal police chief” offers his own “likely” explanation — “a suspension bridge packed with people began to sway, creating panic” – but that same report goes on to quote Steve Finch, a journalist with the Phnom Penh Post:

Finch said police began firing water cannon onto a bridge to an island in the center of a river in an effort to get them to continue moving across the bridge.
“That just caused complete and utter panic,” he told CNN in a telephone interview. He said a number of people lost consciousness and fell into the water; some may have been electrocuted, he said. Finch cited witnesses as saying that the bridge was festooned with electric lights, which may have played a role in the electrocutions.

Finch’s own paper today says that the cause of the panic “remains unclear,” and reports that the government — which now deniesthat anyone was electrocuted — has “established a special ‘investigation subcommittee’ made up of police and officials from the Ministry of Justice to probe the causes of the tragedy.” This is in response to criticisms leveled at the government by the Asian Human Rights Commission. Whether this subcommittee will get any closer to the truth is hard to say. A Congressional inquiry into the Italian Hall disaster in 1914 certainly did not.