Tuesday, July 17, 2007

have you got to be post-modernistic?

TIG continues to ponder the idea of "post-modern jazz". I was fascinated when he first posed the question, but have only now started to chew on it.

I should start by saying that I have a long-held distrust of the term "post-modern" and all that comes with it. I first came across it in a post-1945 music history class, in reference to Berio, Rochberg, the minimalists (I'll spare you the argument- I thought it a stretch) and- wait for it- Zorn's Naked City, among others. We got a good dollop of the signified and signifier, simulacrum, and the other gobelty-gook that comes with the term. The teacher also pointed us to Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyperreality, which I did enjoy thoroughly, and his idea that somehow wax museums are recreated castles were seeking to be "even better than the real thing".

My distrust is partially academic- the professor teaching the class did some things that I found academically, er, questionable in terms of sourcing and the like to justify his arguments, and in at least one case (Rochberg), what the professor opined about a particular piece and what the composer said about the piece were profoundly at odds. None of the (admittedly little) reading I've done in the field improved my opinion of postmodern scholarship. Further, there has always been borrowing and retooling in all the arts, not just music. Are we going to call Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn post-modern? Renaissance recasting of Greek mythic figures? The hundreds of retellings of the Odyssey through western culture?

More importantly, though, my understanding of post-modernism is that it rests on the idea that no art has true intrinsic value, only that which one, person or culture, bestows on it. If you take that argument back far enough, it leads to the idea that no person, no soul, has any intrinsic value. Which can justify any number of heinous crimes against humanity, which I always thought the creation of art was the opposite of. (Maybe I'm too harsh- please chime it) And if you're ironic (one of the hallmarks of "great postmodern work"), you don't have to be honest, which again I always considered one of the hallmarks of art. (Note irony is not the same thing as satire, though the two are obviously connected) I can say for sure that most of the explicitly "post-modern" music I've either played or heard in performance is definitely more fun for the player than the listener, and has always left me ten minutes after it ended.

That's why I could never get into Naked City, which TIG mentions explicitly; it's a tremendous accomplishment, no doubt, but to what end? I've always thought (and what little I've heard from musicians involved backs this up) that the players thought of it as a game, a lot of fun and a very demanding music, but didn't put too much into what it meant. And it's why I've never thought much about Bill Frisell, featured in TIG's post (or many jazz musicians, actually) particularly in a postmodern context, though I don't disagree with TIG, (since he did quote, well, me) Hence my use of the word "authenticity". I don't consider what Frisell's done with language a whole lot different than what Miles did when he (by his own claims, at least) tried to blend the language of bebop, Julliard and Clark Terry with the delivery of Orson Wells.

Is The Bad Plus post-modern jazz? Behind Zorn they'd be the first place I go with that thought- clear mastery of several genres, lots of in jokes, fracturing source material seemingly for the sake of fracuring it? Stanley Crouch, hardly a post-moderninst ponders this in their interview:

"But you (TBP) also don't play anything after the head that that anybody would call pop music. Your first phrase, after the melody, is always totally "out." I find it really interesting how your audience is shocked and exhilarated by the conclusions you come to with a melody they already know.

To me, the conception of The Bad Plus is actually derived from the way Coltrane and his band played "My Favorite Things," which is really far from hearing Julie Andrews sing it. What Coltrane--what everybody in his band--was playing on it is like…[shrugs] "What are they playing?" --"'My Favorite Things.'" --"Where is 'My Favorite Things' here? I don't get it." That's The Bad Plus, too."

Ethan? (In the comments to TIG's post, Mwanji brings up a critic's assessment, very reasonable, I think, of Jason Moran as a high post-modernist as well)

In relation to TIG's comments about Mina Agossi (who I don't know at all), her quote begs the question- what DOES touch her, if Lady Day doesn't? Clearly what she does touches TIG, but does that have to do with what she sings, or what a listener connects to that delivery, or something else? Is that then inherently post-modern?

I used to debate this idea with some heady friends ad nauseum in college, but I grew bored of it- seemed like a fight I didn't need, and didn't have to invite myself to. But the question behind post-modernism always seemed to be, to me at least, is there something in art that is inherently, intrinsically valuable. "Pomo" seems to say no, and that always bothered me. It's the guest at the party that oozes coolness, impresses the herd, says witty but empty things, and ultimately contributes nothing to the event. If that is where art is, or is headed, it's something I want no part of, and want to show up as a clothesless emperor. If not, I need more edjumacation.

To be continued, perhaps- I didn't really answer the question, did I? Feedback encouraged.


Mwanji Ezana said...

Actually, Agossi is saying that she loves Holiday, it's the followers who reproduce the style who don't move her.

Mwanji Ezana said...

I'm probably less well-versed in post-modernism than you are, but I'd never understood the "lack of intrinsic value" to mean that things and people were worthless, but rather that all value was culturally/historically generated, rather than a given.

You can also use a staunch belief in intrinsic value to justify any number of heinous crimes, examples aren't hard to find nowadays...

r said...

Part of what we're running into with the whole Pomo thing is semantics. "Postmodern" was originally, I believe, a term from literature, and basically dealt with the critique of "common sense". In other words, why do we accept one thing as normal, and another thing as abnormal. Postmodernism says, "Well, we only accept something as normal because somewhere along the line, we just all agreed that it was. If we go back to that moment of acceptance and examine why, we'll find that it was basically an arbitrary decision, or it was based on some primitive or unenlightened reason." The classic example of this is of course in gender studies. Why is heterosexuality the norm and not homosexuality? Pomo says, because its an arbitrary construct. We could have decided differently at some point. And you can see where a career can be made augmenting and arguing that point.

So... once a term is applied to one art form, immediately someone wants to apply it to the others. What's postmodern about music, or jazz itself? I can see where you're at odds with pomo in music, because you hold to the romantic construct of music having intrinsic value (please indulge me in being a factitious devil's advocate for a moment). Pomo says, "What does authenticity have to do with music? How can any music be considered authentic, unless it's held to an arbitrary set of standards?" Our common sense might say, but wait, there is good music and bad music, right? No, not necessarily. Whatever criterion you use to judge music by must be deconstructed, to see if there's any real reason why those standards should apply.

Hence, TBP can use Nirvana as surely as Gershwin, because Gershwin's tunes do not have intrinsically more value than Nirvana's. Zorn can make an album out of a collage of short, disparate materials, because a overarching narrative or coherence is not intrinsically better than stream-of-consciousness.

Aaaaand, minimalism, which generally avoids dramatic tension building to a climactic moment, is considered Pomo because (among other reasons) it generally simply unfolds, there one minute and gone the next, because why not? Freed from the need to relentlessly drive toward a momentous goal, minimalism can explore ideas which were once considered less important, or at least subservient (such as rhythm).

(Ironically, John Adams, who seems to be the most comfortable with the term minimalism - more than Glass or Reich - has no problem with exploring rhythm or driving toward an orchestral peak)

Regarding "What touches her" - what does that mean, really? Emotionally moved? Common sense would say so... but we're running into that ol' wall again. Why is having your emotions manipulated by music good thing, anyway? How can you really relate to a stranger singing, or playing music - isn't this simply a construct of our culture? Why not deconstruct "The Man I Love", repeating it for 35 minutes, completely flat and without emotion , in other words, let the song simply be itself, and let the chips fall where they may? Isn't that just as good as the "authentic" way?

OK, factitious mode off. Like in any other -ism, there are some geniuses who can, in fact, make it work beautifully, as well as those who make it a stereotype. It's true that taken to its logical extreme, Pomo is dangerous artistically and socially - but so is modernism, romanticism, classicism, etc. It's the mark of a great artist/musician to understand the implications, and not go to the extreme, but find the balance. It is no accident, I think, that Adams is the most frequently-played composer today. He understands that we are free to study and use from all the -isms, taking the best and leaving the dead ends.

Good discussion.