Two famous bass players Duet Across the Ocean

Even more amazing and progressive than making music through the medium of technology is the concept of being, playing, and listening in the same room at the same time. Only a few have stumbled on this astounding new theory and have begun to experiment with it. With mediating devices such as smart phones, recorders, and cameras left at the door (as guns were in ages past), all tests show that the attention, emotive and physical reactions of those present were tremendously heightened. The dogmatic pseudo-scientific faith in mediated communication has led to an absurd and inefficient cul de sac, such as two people communicating with each other on smart phones while walking next to each other. Or the notion that without physical presence musicians could be said to be “playing together.” What is called progress today has actually been regression from the high point of communication reached in the earliest days of human existence, when not only two but a large number of people could communicate within arms length of each other, with no prostheses to interfere. Not only could they talk, but they could actually reach out and physically touch each other; like other animals they could even know the other through smell. Communication was only at the speed of sound, but the distance covered was negligible.

The bold investigators, arousing stunned and horrified opposition, have been arguing that the mediation developed over the past two hundred years has only increased the blockage of sound wave and other physical communication between persons. That earlier form, increasingly out of favor, was rich in sensuality compared to the very reduced, flattened-out form obtained through mediation, called “information.” The attempt of innovative technologists had been to come as close as possible to the actual presence of the other while at the same time preventing it. The notion that unmediated communication is inadequate has been found to be a myth, just one more “received opinion” that facts are disproving. Investigators have been painstakingly breaking this down in order to release the energy of what they are calling “direct communication.”

For obvious reasons of control and pacification the social and political authorities prefer technological mediation, arguing that this reduction is the only efficient means of managing human relationships. Yet blinded by their faith, during the Occupy Movement they thought they would hamper communication  between persons by banning amplification. Much to their dismay they found that the movement, forced to restore and invent new techniques of direct communication, expanded enormously. In fact what was re-invented in Zuccotti Park became a world-wide model, through the very mediating technology that was expected to wall people off from each other.

The gramophone was the origin of all sound communication beyond the physical movement of molecules. Now spread to the entire planet, it is thought to increase the mutual presence of subjects to each other. Now study after study has proven that this actually decreased that presence. People have become more abstract to each other, virtual rather than concrete existences, and have lost the capability to speak in each other’s presence beyond a few banalities, called “everyday life.”

With that abstraction has come paranoia, leading to a society where every other is a threat one must guard against, realizing the Hobbesian fantasy of the war of all against all. Given the lack of training and experience in facing one another without the wall of a device to protect them, there is good reason to pull out one’s gun, the best substitute for mediated communication. Hence the open carry laws: when out in the jungle of other people (even one’s family) one must have the protection of both mediating devices, a gun and a phone. The new still-experimental concept, however, offers a solution far cheaper and more efficient: eliminate both the phone and the gun. It’s an improvisational situation, but those who have tried it have found it to reduce paranoia and violence, and the management of relationships has actually benefited enormously.

Subjects of one experiment were told to walk down the street with no protection but clothing, and were found to have a profoundly different experience. At first they felt awkward, since they were the only ones without their eyes glued to devices or ears filled with virtual sounds. Soon however they reported things previously obscured, made eye contact and even spoke with strangers and, in real time, observed faces, trees, the shape of objects in space, sounds previously heard only on field recordings. They found their visual perspective of the scenery changed constantly, indeed following the movement of their bodies (turning their heads, for example, instantly provided a new vista). Moreover, after only an hour or so they could make judgments about all these things without reporting and checking them first with anyone else.

These subjects, stripped of their usual protective mediating devices, were directed to enter a room where musicians were making odd sounds. The sounds seemed unreal since they had never  before heard them on their devices, the only known means of determining reality. At first this caused the subjects great fear, but suddenly, trapped in immediate sensuality they  burst into joy. A number exclaimed: This is actually happening right in front of me! There is no one to experience this but myself and these others! I don’t have to record it in order to experience it; I’ll never hear these exact sounds again. I have nothing to compare this with, and no reason to make a comparison. This is what life could be!

A Chicago artist even older than me wrote me this as his take on yesterday’s essay, Globalization and the Avant-garde: “Everything I do (have done) that falls into a general category of experimental stuff–music, video, self-made instruments, one-of-a-kind books, performance and writing–only amounts to stuff isolated from the world of supply and demand. Being self-produced my output has no return on investment in a capitalistic way of thinking. And further, most everything I have done is nothing really new, in fact, most of what others call new avant-garde or post-avant-garde art is in my eyes some form of rehash. At least, that is how I experience the “new,” nevertheless there are works by current artists that move me at a deep level and from out of the old avant-garde comes alternate and genuine ways that satisfy my soul. Wows me, inspires me, etc.” (Incidentally, here’s one of his videos:

My response: You elaborate what I say in my essay. It is how an “ordinary” artist today like you and myself  and myriad others would fit the wider conception I offer.

“Avant-garde” is a word still thrown around as an adjective, largely applied promotionally. As a noun it once referred to a group of self-constituted artists who were extremely unpopular. What they did that was new was disturbing, their experimental work was considered useless and foolish, a failure in the eyes of those few who heard of them. They were a joke, as Jackson Pollack was presented in Life Magazine in 1949. In fact they had a strong suspicion of success, and hesitated to approve those who achieved it.  For society to start approving of them would threaten their hard-won authenticity, for “new” to them meant “rejected.”  What we call the history of 20th Century art could be traced according to that rule: include nothing that did not face ridicule.

In the period we’ve been living in, since the sixties perhaps, all that has changed. The old play-by-the-rules corporation is dead; capital embraces the new and invests in it. As for art, we can’t have people getting impressed by artists who aren’t on the team. So what will be valued as new, and who are the geniuses? With the door to art-making and innovation open, that problem comes up.

The most obvious solution is, those acceptable as innovators will be among those needing most to be accepted, will apply for the job, bring their credentials and tooth-pick bridges and look honestly eager. They will be emblems of The American Dream, faces beamed upwards. They are exactly those the older avant-garde scorned as phonies, and would never let into their club. It doesn’t mean they don’t make anything of interest, only that in the vast smorgasbord of art, the tons of cds out there, these folks so willing to serve–the kids who always did their homework, jumped up in class “Me! Call on Me!” and got decent grades–are the only ones rewarded with the media spotlight. In the attention-deficit society this is all that counts. What happens when you have a tenured, permanent avant-garde, as it’s been called, on the conveyor belt to manufactured iconic status, is the assumption that whatever they do is automatically and guaranteed to be of interest.

I have no interest to deny them their prize; “More power to you” is my blessing, not scorn. What you and I do is not in that category because we haven’t cared enough to be go for the gold, or maybe we lack that kind of personality, or maybe we just don’t want to exchange play time for attention-getting time. Unlike the old avant-garde we don’t have the camaraderie of the elite few, who cover each other’s back, who trust that the lack of attention to our work will transform into posthumous glory (revenge). We just do what we do and keep our nose in our work. Our inventions are not “new” on the market, in fact we don’t need to claim them as new. But the experience we have, through frustration and boredom, is one of newness, which means nothing special, as the Buddhists say–experiencing something that opens the door to something else. Anyone who wants to join us down here in the cellar, the door’s open. That is a life choice that has consequences. Some will say, so what? We say, this is the real deal.

With the 19th Century creation of the art avant-garde on the model of the military, art was fully enlisted in the Age of Discovery, building on the opening shots of the Renaissance–perspective painting and realistic anatomy . While the early terrestrial explorers were motivated by investment and debt, and only later idealized their achievements, the avant-garde was endowed from the outset with the mission to bring the unknown and threatening outside within the realm of the human.

The outside was not, as it was for the Greeks and subsequent medieval thinking, the stable perfection of heavenly spheres looking down on us imperfect earthlings, the model of form one retreated to through both reason and spirituality. The outside was rather the unknown space imagined as ultimately homogeneous and harmonious with us, but required our intervention in order to dispel fear that it wasn’t. Until proven otherwise it contained the irrational of monsters and the imperfection of the empirical and everyday, and it threatened existence with the fatality of exceeding the horizon. By the 19th Century, the only artists significant to the human adventure were viewed as this avant-garde, such as the “cursed poets,” who had their own telescopes and spaceships to go beyond and return, making the beyond safe and habitable even for the bourgeois. It did this with a trace of the old vision, for to bring order to chaos, to see form in the formless, was to round off the irregular, just as scientific investigation of the empirical discovered the (circular) rationality of the natural order.

To do this art could not stand alone, starkly facing the ordinary human subject.  Parallel to science, expert discourse was needed to interpret, promote, and persuade ordinary folk that this weirdness is indeed, if you look at it a certain way, really an expansion of the human and no threat to it. The musical avant-garde played and made things from outdoor materials, exotic (Stravinsky, Picasso) as well as internal (Schoenberg), then they and others brought them indoors, explained and repeated them, and conquered a small patch of the symbolic order known as Art, the well-kept secret. Edgar Varese’s “music is organized sound” was frightening and radical for a moment, then as “music” became an extension of technology decades later—the familiar and useful extension of the human body and mind—sound was only alien to those insufficiently socialized. Anathema in the 20s, this concept provokes no more than a yawn as it is taught in music schools today.

This shift, towards the socialization and familiarization of the former exterior, is the essence of globalization. That which began with Columbus’ voyage has now achieved its purpose: we’ve apparently arrived. The subduing of the earthly sphere is fully as complete, in its own way, as the heavenly perfection once was imagined. Lacunae are filled in with knowledge known as information, which moves ahead at its bureaucraticly predictable pace. We are living in the once-beyond. As Communism imploded so did all other resistance, utopias, and other dreams. It is the image of resistance that dominates the imagination, not a horizon that adventure was repeatedly able to prove to be real. Capital envisions no outside to itself.

With the world now unified under the logic of capitalism there is no dangerous alien existence for the avant-garde to espy and conquer for mankind, no exotic fruits to bring back in its ships. To argue that what looks like chaos is actually form is merely a mopping-up educational operation; the teachers already know, and know how to learn what they don’t yet know. The succession of technology holds no mystery, we know how that works. The world finally has caught up with the adventurers, such that the social order can claim to be itself the avant-garde, no longer needing inscrutable artists to peer ahead and advance our limited consciousness.

The visual sector (Contemporary Art, the endless biennials) is deprived of its former function, evident from how it is more honored officially than mainstream art, in fact endowed by capital with a permanent non-voting seat at the table (“kicked upstairs,” in older managerial lingo). Its job is ideological in a different way. While earlier it showed there was more out there to be tamed, the perceived threat of radical disruption to home-bound tradition, now it celebrates the global triumph. Those whose task is concrete imagery are assigned the responsibility to point out the remaining imperfections of the social order with which it is congruent, for if the image includes the imperfections they are presumed already in process of being healed. At least someone has spoken up. When visual art scorns the earlier avant-garde formalist aestheticism, it does so as the conscience of the social order, confirming its role as interior to capital and not an external threat.

Unfortunately for the avant-garde assigned to music, there are only two minor functions, closely related. One is to cast its lot with technological innovation, which is by definition already domesticated. It continues the experimental tradition begun by John Cage and others towards the merger of sound (nature) and music (the human), the colonization of sound by human agency (Yeah, team!). The discovery of form is now internal, expanding or at least defending the field that was earlier rounded-off. This avant-garde elaborates and repeats the adventures of the earlier avant-gardes as simulations of their motions, imagining it is working on outside material and bringing it to an unenlightened world when it is more realistically preaching to the choir, and its funding sources. The other avant-garde function seems even to reverse the original, to maintain the avant-garde as a tradition with no claim to be innovative. Any aberration that seems to depart the norm would go over the edge of the horizon and be lost. This one, jazz and avant-jazz, like mainstream jazz itself, at least has the honesty to deny any intention to actually innovate, despite the obligatory promotional claim of individuals to do so.

These two together form the true avant-garde. The hope to find a “really true” one outside, knocking on the door, is merely the attempt to resurrect a concept so comprehensible that it can no longer function. Avant-garde art “worked” socially because it was incomprehensible; with globalization that infinite game is over. It obviously does work promotionally to claim that one is bringing adventure to the world. Yet once enlightened, once all the strange fruits of musical adventure past and present are available at the touch of one’s finger of private censorship, once all the risk of displeasurable experience is gone, curiosity becomes a mere temporary state. “There is no there, there,” the poetic insight that was once exciting, has become, “There is no beyond to which the avant-garde is assigned.”

There is vast alien experience still, terra incognita that the serious, globalized avant-garde has abandoned, untheorized aberrations beyond the pale of media discourse. However, those who explore it feel no responsibility to put their shoulder to the wheel to advance Music and themselves in the world’s esteem. And those who pay attention to it do not endow it with the aura of saving the world from its troubles, in fact they must ignore its political, spiritual, and artistic insignificance in order to experience it. In our age of no alternatives, this is an adventure of social non-conformity worthy of its name.

The original impulse of this writing is the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital (2013), better know for his Critique of Cynical Reason (1983)

Notes to the audience for  an imagined event by  Spring Garden Music

This will be the making of sounds out of an imagination of free playing that is not grounded in musical ability, concepts, compositions, or styles of playing. It extends our experience with our bodies and the objects you see on the stage in order to create experience we ourselves have not had, and in its specifics neither have you. Doing this reveals to us and possibly to you what we collectively expect music to do and its function in our lives, in a way that affects us personally. It is as difficult for those who think themselves musicians as it is for those known as “audience.” Authentic experience however necessitates a certain amount of confusion for oneself, and that is the direction in which we are pointed.

Those you see on the stage form a company of initiators who most often play in private sessions. Our assigned role has been music providers and performers, but only to the extent that there is no other social category we fit in. The musician ego, which each of us has constructed over time to a greater or lesser extent, is unfortunately what defends us against experience and self-knowledge. We find it both deceiving and a burden on our desire to enter a state of playing freely. Anyone who performs develops this ego and can decide to base their sense of themselves and their activity on it or not. While the musician ego aims at getting a positive response from the audience, our aim is to see what happens when we don’t know where things will go.

You came to a performance but we will not be performing for you.  If you are affected by what is going on it will be in the course of things and is not our intent. Whatever effect this event has on you belongs strictly to you, something you can talk about later or just think about. Discussion will follow the playing, which could take more than an hour. You probably won’t notice the length, for in the presence of those who themselves don’t know what will come next, completely vulnerable to the moment, there is no way to avoid paying attention.

Ordinarily our audience is other players and partners who are simply not playing at that time, but we are even more excited to see non-players. The audience normally observes and judges whether their pleasure equals what they expected. They are blocked from participating when they see others in a defined role as musicians, and all the traditional ritual in place, like a church service.  If the playing is loose and open they often sense the limitations of their passive role. As happens often with young children, when they see others in spontaneous play they commonly want to join in. To be relieved of responsibility, the role of spectator, is today the recipe for boredom. If you feel moved to do something active, that’s fine, but do it behind the others silently, and leave them to absorb the event undisturbed. We will probably see you back there and may be inspired by you as we are by each other.

We will  play no sets or pieces of music, so no solos, duos or what have you. We play only when and if others arouse us to action. We are not under contract to make music or even to play freely, we play as we are stimulated to play. Those who feel they should play cannot play freely. Whatever you might think you want, we will imagine you want us to take steps beyond whatever we have done before.

Sound that is the result of free play evokes feelings that are often not known to us; to call it music might be only lazy and not wanting to offend. To make sounds that are not music is a huge challenge, for in today’s rush to bland tolerance “music” can be anything one intends to be music. The better challenge is to follow the feeling of where things are going without prescribing that feeling in advance. It will probably get called music retrospectively, but we’re already on to the next thing. It might enable what you don’t know is possible for you. That is our bond in common.


I don’t preface my writing with “As a musician”; rather, I’m very often in situations where I’m assumed to be one, and it carries over to the rest of my image. We all “have” an image, how others see and type us, the question is to what extent the image has us. Every bio is meant to deceive, and in making it one can easily deceive oneself; both deceptions are what the social order wants from us. Musician is a role claiming to be the essence of a person, an image of what one wants others to take most seriously, and it “owns” those who work for the title. If the title is merely ascribed to you then you don’t have to live up to it. You can try for an egalitarian upgrade (“everyone who plays an instrument”) but then there will be a separate category for the “real” musician, the recognized achiever, the virtuoso. Essence always excludes, causing suffering one brings on oneself. It is the disavowal of adventure for the sake of respect from others, on which self-respect is based. To be an adventurer, to love what you do rather than what you appear to be, is not a role, for it is universally possible…or should I say more realistically, not entirely impossible.

I write out of my own lived experience, just as fiction writers and actors are asked to do, and I observe myself and those I’m most in contact with as phenomena. These people play instruments, so I prefer to think of us as players, not necessarily musicians. All playing begins with those who want to play and admit it; that’s a hard step to take in a society where work that is self-sacrificing is the ultimate value. “Player” is not a cloak one wears to gain respect that requires social assent and credentials. We usually call ourselves musicians but are not terribly invested in it, for we have little to lose; we play equally on and off stage, with or without social approval. Though we don’t resist the musician title, it involves a certain fudging of the evidence, especially for Americans, since it implies that we earn a living from performing, similar to what “doctor” presumes. This is the case for only a minuscule number of those who call themselves musicians, the one percent–if that much. “Musician” doesn’t bring up an image of someone who, in the total accounting of one’s finances ends up paying to play. That is the case of myself and those I play with, along with the vast majority of American musicians. Since we don’t get paid more than our costs, our true economic function is consumers—amateurs, maybe hobbyists.

“Player” escapes the hypocrisy of “musician,” but also means we can do other things besides animating instruments—dancing (moving), speaking gibberish, yelling for the hell of it, building sand castles of ideas (such as I’m doing here), walking down the street funny, interrupting our lives, writing poetry for no one but ourselves—all these things are play we take seriously as play. We don’t have to take our expertise or lack of it too seriously, don’t have to prove that we have the recognized skills of the “real deal” musician. Our skill is to keep the play going, follow Eros wherever it goes. There is no tenure or tenure track for that; play only begins and lasts so long as we are playful.

The more music sounds like music the more it is fraudulent and deceptive but nonetheless tempting to accept. This might sound slanderous to music lovers, but what “sounds most like music” comes with the tag telling us the world unquestionably accepts and identifies it as signifying that word. It bears the stamp of authenticity, yet no one can pinpoint the source of authority for that judgment. If music comes with that image of broad agreement our feeling of boredom with it stands against the world, creating an alienation easily taken for granted. “I’m not part of the mainstream” is even a matter of pride.

Music with a clearly defined melody, simple harmony, obvious feeling, conventional instrumental sound is like comfort food prepared by the world and brought to our table, a free gift, yet we let these sounds pass through us or settle into the background. The weight of authority and the free gift however doesn’t mean that a huge number of people really enjoy it. For instance 19th century classical music is at the pinnacle of “real music” yet the audience for it continues to diminish without it losing its position of authority. Like so much common political opinion, few give much thought to whether they really want to listen to it or not. It is assumed that other people do, and so that is that, it’s just there, and will always be there.

The flip side of the most authentic music is “difficult” music (experimental music; modern classical composition, free jazz), supposedly intended to challenge people, however mildly. Like classical music it too does not have many regular listeners, but it comes with a tag that says it is unpopular, and so those thought to listen to it are people who choose to be outside the mainstream, or at least feel obligated to test the water. The latter are the ones who say, “I like all kinds of music” (like “I’m not prejudiced”) until confronted directly with something they really can’t stand. That would be an experience they would hope to avoid, for their educated musical taste requires not inquiring too closely what is out there.

When we as young children were taught how to make music that sounds like music, we were flattered with “good job,” for we achieved something that would be recognized as the real deal. Since we could never get enough recognition we kept trying to do a better job, get more reward, and so on up the never-ending ladder. But an anxiety can creep in with the reward, prompting a suspicion that all this could be a game of which we are the fools and victims. We’ve made music that people only pretend to like and listen to, without really making a decision about it. The question then is, how do we make music that is authentically our own, that has no imaginary authority to validate it?

Mystery is what holds people in thrall to music, as if enslaved by something they cannot resist. Analogous to religion of an earlier age the mystery of music for the audience (society) is in but not of the sound, it is beyond consumer taste, beyond entertainment, beyond words to explain it. To love music is to love its mystery, a kind of essence, the thing-in-itself beyond the surface phenomenon. To paraphrase Louis Armstrong in speaking of jazz, “If you have to ask if it’s music you’ll never know.” The two musics most considered capable of this effect are the high and low art musics, classical European and classic jazz, neither universally popular but each has its devotees and wide respect from others. For most listeners, what sounds most like music is these two genres; to identify what is truly music is to be drawn to its mystery.

The musician is the social figure with the job of regularly reproducing this mystery that binds people and its effects. In our society those most sanctioned to play such music are expected to be professionals formally trained in their respective codes. These codes are based on musical forms that have come down to us from a hallowed past, examples of the kind of work to be achieved. In order to be effective, unlike traditional religion, an element or appearance of spontaneity must be present in reproducing the code, something coming from a present person that goes beyond mechanical imitation, but only so long as the code itself is referred to and maintained. Like the priest in Catholic religion, the mystery passes through the musician to reach the people; unlike the priest, the functionary of music is rewarded by elevation and respect to the extent that he or she is seen as the bearer of that mystery.

The composer was once thought to be the sole creator of music, in the form of a score that the player-musicians were trained to faithfully execute. In the traditional orchestra the conductor was the one expected to provide the creative spontaneity of the moment. When in the sixties some composers called on musicians to create their own music by improvising they resisted; they were being asked to violate their strong sense of role. However, given the slow rising tide of democratization, some jazz musicians asserted this. That was the origin of Free Jazz in the early sixties, and then free improvisation a little later in Britain. It was primarily those who were jazz entertainers who were attracted, for departing from the code was already part of their job, as well as their off-stage playing. As they got farther from the code that produced what “sounded like” music to the audience, they were accused of not fulfilling their proper role. For the bulk of the audience mystery and freeform playing did not mix. “The thrill is gone” they said, just as classical European audiences had decried Arnold Schoenberg when he abandoned his earlier romantic expressionism. The musicians however felt they were right at the heart of the mystery.

The musicians and the audience historically diverged on where the mystery of music is located. And so today. Musicians who play freely in sessions with no pressure from that audience could be said to have the most direct, hands-on access possible to it, but that is quite different from what sounds most like music. They are no longer in the role of learning and reproducing a code; they are making it all up as they go along. One might say they have usurped the composer’s role and so are illegitimate in terms of the culture. For them, the mystery behind the ritual codes is exposed; they are created by human hands, and the players have no need or wish to solidify a new code for the audience. In a sense it is their democratic right not to do so. For instance, there are certain kinds of endings for each genre that are appropriate for confirming the piece, in fact to play pieces of music at all is the confirmation that it is music that has been performed and not sounds thrown together on the spot. For free playing the ending is simply when they stop playing; they are in charge. Music is in the hands of creators who will not relinquish it.

Compared to what the audience seems to need, players are comfortable dispensing with the substantiality of what they do, its reality as “music.” Free playing is an implicit denial that they are producing music because the flip side is to assert that it is music, and that can only be determined by conforming to what sounds most like music. For the world outside the free session, mystery is a circular question that answers itself, an essence that manifests through specific instances that music lovers feel they can identify but can’t explain how. Free playing happens where there is no distance from which a question might arise, circular or otherwise. What is beyond question is the mystery, just as Louis Armstrong said about jazz. If it doesn’t sound like music it is because the attempt to make it so is in contradiction to the making of it, with no one to judge otherwise.


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