Saturday, February 18, 2006

Cruise Ships and Creative Sandtraps

My friend Darcy, on his page, pointed out an article on a blog called PopMatters about the life and tricky times of saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, and why it matters. It caught my eye for two reasons: one, I knew Rudresh (then Rudy) more than ten years ago, when he was finishing at Berklee and teaching a little at my high school. We became friends, and while we didn't stay close at all, we would bump into each other from time to time in New York; he ran in some of the same circles as a woman I dated. He was, and is, one of the most brilliant, facile saxophonists I've ever met, and one of the most personally and musically relentless. His music is like a hurricane built out of a calculus problem- tremendously heady and physically powerful at the same time, unremitting in its force. I'm not even sure I like his music all the time, but he is always worth hearing, and I still admire Rudy a ton, now at a distance.

Second, and more relevant to me at present, is a quote:

"The summer after my first year at Berklee, I got a cruise ship gig that was a big eye-opener. Almost every musician on the ship had forgotten the reason they started playing," Mahanthappa tells me. "No one cared about music any more. They were just drinking, living the life on the ship. And I thought, if that's what making a living as a musician is about, then I want no part of it."

Which cuts pretty close to home, since I'm writing this from deck two of Cruise Ship X, (again, names withheld to protect the guilty, and my job) working the same job Rudy had ten years ago. And little has changed; those people he's talking about are some of my friends. And, sadly, he's right. This job is a creative black hole, both because the music is usually boring, bland, and easy, and because the lures of the lifestyle are quite strong. If ever been on a cruise, imagine the lifestyle you saw the passengers living- reckless eating, drinking, and skirt/pants-chasing, add five to twelve hours of mindless work every day, and you have the life of a typical crew member. I'm here for a very specific reason- I need to make money and minimize expenses, and this a sure place to do it, especially since I don't have to pay for anything having to do with oil. But, if I'm still doing it in 2007, please hunt me down and shoot me.

That said, I'm not willing to completely throw it under the bus either. There is opportunity here, as there is in any situation, for anyone, to improve myself musically, personally, whatever. And every week I have a completely new audience of as many as a thousand people, most of whom won't hear live music of any stripe, much less improvised music on any level. The fact that others turn into musical (or just flat out) zombies doesn't ever give me an excuse to do so.

And there's a bigger issue. Rudy is the exception and not the rule. His music is surely different, but he's chasing exactly the same grail he was chasing when I met him in 1992, and I reckon the same grail he's been hunting since he heard his musical idols for the first time. Which is as remarkable as it is laudable. How many of us can say the same thing, that we are so able to follow our muse, whatever that muse is. Whether it's because we're either lazy, physically, intellectually, spiritually, or we fall in love, or life happens- disaster, family obligations, injury, depression, whatever. Does that invalidate our journeys?

Okay, I'm now in a completely circular argument; as one of my exes likes to say, enough about me, let's talk about me

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