Traditionally, sound and music have been related only through the agency of those, usually called musicians, who intend to make those sounds, and only those sounds, that will be socially useful and considered as music. Alternately, and from the opposite direction, it has been possible for sound not intended as music, coming from any human or non-human source, to be heard as music or transformed into music. This is non-traditional, largely begun by 20th century modernist composers and expanding now largely through an altered relationship of the human and non-human natural order, a relation that is both ecological and technological. Rather than making sound that is predestined to be music, where the codes of the social order precedes the music-maker, many today are turning sound that lacks coded social recognition into music, such that it is sound that precedes the music-maker as source material. Another way to put it is that the former music-maker is exclusively the producer of music, with a distinct social identity, and the latter is first the listener of sound, and since that could be literally anyone, this development weakens the social identity of the producer.

I will be dealing with this in two parts, first at the macro level, historical and musicological, and secondly I will examine the specific relation of player and the instrument I know best, the saxophone.


The new relation of sound and music is a profound development with many ramifications and a causal web that covers the complex of social and cultural transformation known as modernity. I will focus on exploring sound and music in terms of the distinction, relation, and overlap of expansive sound-oriented musicians, of which David Toop might be representative, and instrument-oriented musicians. This is a major modification of the older division between composer and performer or player.  The instrument-oriented player, who, if the instrument is acoustic is usually traditionally trained or self-trained, intimately engages a specific instrument through practice and exploration. This work on the instrument creates a close bond or partnership that is then part of what is realized in creating music. S/he will make music within the range possible on a particular instrument, a prosthesis-machine that extends, modifies, and depends upon direct control and bodily energy of a specific person. On the other hand Toop is the receptive sensualist of sound, scanning and manipulating sound while eschewing the bond of body and sound production, and thus the long tradition of skilled player-musicians and instrument mastery. He is in line with the [John] Cagean composer, where pleasure and task comes via listening and choosing among all possible sound sources and palettes including the everyday non-musical, rather than personally making the sounds. As Cage said, anyone could play his music, it was not personal to him.

The duality that Western art music has brought together has for the most part been that of composer and player. At the same time it has kept them separate, a relation of dynamic tension and change over time. Jazz and popular entertainment music arrived during the decades surrounding WWI in the the U.S., whose middle class was least tradition-bound and least able to resist popular pressures arising from below. By way of this music the musician with the most direct relation to the populace, the actual player, boldly entered and claimed the space of the composer, the musician who had represented Music as an aesthetic pursuit, and whose model was European and upper class. At the same time a few European composers were diverging from the model, entering the space of sound beyond orchestral instruments, which violated a prime tenet of the supposed spirituality and authority of Music.[1]

Since the late 19th century Western music has been shaped by a contest between a Europe and America symbolized through its art, part of the struggle of colony and imperial “mother” country that began in the early modern period and continues to the present. On the one hand Europe was for the American bourgeois the fount and origin of high art Music, which was exclusively compositional and based on highly disciplined musicians. On the other hand was American music native to its populace, originally rural blacks, whose musicians were self-taught and largely improvised, playing their own pieces and what they heard around them, an aural/oral relationship to music. The irony is that the latter music, at least in its whitened form, seduced large sections of the upper and certainly middle classes. Together with film it became the basis of the American cultural hegemony over Europe and of the “American Century.” American popular music was seized upon in post-WWI Europe and undermined the composer tradition; jazz was a kind of contagion that was celebrated in compositions.[2] A parallel trend that disrupted high art was the expansion of sound employed by European composers, in particular Edgar Varese. He emigrated to the US, where in 1926 his Ameriques brought a siren, wind machine, and boat whistle into the hallowed space of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the bastion of high art music, under the baton of another European expat, Leopold Stokowski. Both moves, the incursion of jazz and everyday sound into art music, could be seen either as “slumming” or “going native,” a crossover into the realm of the popular arts of hands-on music: the composer became something of a player rather than towering above. Soon the move of composers into the direct production of sound was to be enabled by a new field of instrument, electronics. With this development the familiar tension between hand and head, pleasures of the body and of the mind, lower material (American) culture and higher spiritual (European) culture, continued but in altered form.

What is essential to the entry of “extra-musical” sound into music is the shift of player from worker to entrepreneurial composer, part of the economic and social transformation of the 20th century. From the point of view of the larger culture, this shift was a challenging move made by blacks in the very midst of Jim Crow and lynching at its peak. Modern entertainment originates in a resistance that was denied any political outlet. That emancipatory thrust continued as the more successful players became entrepreneurs. This was already a tendency among 19th –early 20th century blacks (“folk,” spirituals, blues, ragtime, and jazz) but was furthered in the 20s by the development of the mass culture industry, which challenged the high culture hierarchical division of player/composer. This was a prelude to the post-WWII shift from the material production of industrial society, with corporate management in command of a labor force, paid well enough to be consumers of its goods, to the post-industrial world of immaterial production, in which precarity and self-employment are the rule.[3] In the former what predominated in music production was the majority of musician-players as workers subordinated to and dependent on the composer and boss/leader or the union. In the latter the vast majority, like the workforce in general, has become categorized as independent entrepreneurs, whose jobs are temporary. Their status appears to have moved up a notch, from skilled laborers looking for a job to contractors. But their relation now is not to a labor market, that would purchase their time and skill for a normalized wage, but to a more mystified market that judges what is now called their “human capital,” which includes social behavior, personality, and promotional skills. Skill is no longer abstract, a product of learning and musical talent: “Can you play this tune in A flat?” And time is not limited to job and rehearsal time but is expanded to self-promotion and all the business work previously done by the boss.

This was all latent in the culture industry and earlier with the development of touring, organized entertainment, and agents in charge of booking. Since the beginning of the 19th century there had been troupes and virtuosi, expert entrepreneurs of their own success in addition to having recognizable skill, and they achieved at the high end of the pay scale. The bulk of players were relatively local musicians anonymous in the national market or at best worker-musicians in orchestras, eventually unionized and receiving a relatively uniform wage. There was a limit to their numbers that coincided roughly with the number of slots available for playing in front of people. To be a musician might be attractive financially if you were poor, but for the middle and upper class it was a choice that risked a step down from one’s high potential to earn a living. If you couldn’t make it you simply turned to something else. As the culture industry was creating consumer need and a national market for home entertainment, enabled by radio, recording, and music reproduction technology, live music declined as a proportion of all music produced. In fact to play music in front of people was becoming an isolated and not an everyday social event. In the 20s it would be no surprise to find a windup phonograph even in homes with no electricity or running water. Along with the consumerization of entertainment came the category of “the best,” substituting a hierarchy of a few better-paid “name” musicians for the anonymous many locally available. The opportunities for making a living as a skilled musician declined and his social role (except for vocalists, an almost exclusively male profession) was ripe for transformation.

Beginning in the 60s this decline was furthered, and compensated for, by the sudden popularity of becoming a folk or rock musician, on-stage and recorded; the musician now was predominantly a competitor with an individualized product and not a worker. Since there was now a mass of competitors and few who succeeded a new situation was created. “Musician” came to mean one who plays music and aspires to earn a living from it but in fact probably does not, and so from a static point of view is on the border between the hobbyist amateur and the professional. To be known as a musician was henceforth to be in the entrepreneurial position, competing by any means at one’s disposal for the very few star positions that pay.[4] Yet the doors to actually playing music past adolescent, parent- and teacher-sponsored discipline, were now wide open to the entire population. To be a musician in the old sense, gaining a living from music alone, became—as it still is today–an unrealizable and even anachronistic dream, while in the new meaning it was an opportunity for personal aesthetic fulfillment never before imagined. That these two are hinged on each other is essential to the nature of capitalist society: every emancipation of the individual (the child released from family control and authority) is weighted on the other end by a new set of problems (the breakdown of the family, increased anomie and need for state intervention to take over family functionality). “Everyone his own artist,” like Luther’s “Every man his own priest,” is a blessing with a hidden curse. In terms of desire and motivation, the fuel of those living in capitalist society is not profit but the carrot of dreams that by their nature cannot be fulfilled, to pursue which one must blind oneself to the reality of “few at the top,” who, like the top 1% income bracket, are not nearly so fulfilled, loved, and at peace with themselves as imagined.

The relation of player-musician and instrument has been strongly challenged by this change, and “sound” has become a musical factor of the player partly as a result. The traditional instrument is essentially the tool of pre-industrial craft labor, increasingly standardized and industrially manufactured for the sake of providing composers and orchestras with predictable sound and effectiveness. Inventors increased the variety of possible sound not for each instrument but through multiple specializations within the totality of the orchestra. Each instrument required its own skills, and so players were oriented and divided according to specialized instrumental training. Only with the arrival of the electronic age was there a need to distinguish this unamplified craft-based instrument as “acoustic” (an unfortunate choice of adjectives, since all instruments produce sound and so are acoustic.) As with all craft tools, the operator aims at subordinating the movements and position of the whole of the body in accord with the requirements of a material medium. To play an instrument is quite similar to athletics, subjecting one to severe, ascetic discipline and possible injury (which is more serious and frequent than non-players realize). It requires a long apprenticeship in specialized technics of physical dexterity, and also commonly involves a personal and caring relationship to tools such as found in the craftsmen of yore. The ideal relation to the instrument is summed up in the concept of mastery.

Mastery of the instrument is still presented as the key to musical excellence but is an archaic notion, kept alive by the idea that Music is the archetypal queen, master and telos of all music played. It is achieved by acquiring skill as recognized by the already skilled, the master craftsman who alone sustains tradition (traditio in Latin literally means a giving-over or instruction). Anyone who thinks hammering a nail into wood is a simple matter will be disabused after a day of work; the developed skill of particularized muscle development, a sense of rhythm and balance, angle of attack, all come into play and must be acquired as knowledge. To master a tool is not to dominate it but to figure out a proper and efficient working relationship to it, for which teaching and example are the reasonable shortcut. With the guidance of traditional standards tools are chosen personally by craftspeople, who might also repair them, or replace them with similar or superior ones.

The achieved master is the skilled craftsperson, and the only one who acts as entrepreneur, who markets the work. The very concept of mastery is medieval, and persists in contradiction to industrial production, which had use for unskilled laborers who could be trained in at most half a day but not for masters, whose training took years and who saw a product all the way through to its completion. Mastery, which is always a hands-on relation to the tool, was dissolved in the factory when production was under the control of the one who merely assembled the factors of production, the industrial bourgeois, whose hands were kept as clean of physical labor as the ancient Greek slave owner. The craft masterpiece is what those make who wish to prove their skill to the master; not unique but unexceptional, showing no flaws, up to standard. The master musician was likewise trained to be unexceptional, a cog in the orchestral machine, a tool skilled to do a specialized job. It was the composer to whom “the work,” now an artistic masterpiece, was assigned, who had an “oeuvre”of completed works offered for sale. The soloist of international fame, beginning perhaps in the late 18th century, was the instrumentalist who went beyond the standard and introduced an individualized personality into masterful playing, which was understood in the terms of the Romantic genius, in short, an Artist.

Like any craftsperson, the art-oriented instrumentalist will choose among the tools of the trade according to the job they want it to do. However, with the shift of post-industrial society sketched out above, the craft-oriented musician has little choice not to become a soloist, an artist working to create an individualized oeuvre, above and beyond what is now “mere” mastery, and for some that means even thumbing one’s nose at mastery. His or her job at the highest level of artistry (the tailor-made rather than off-the-rack player) is at least more individualized than in the traditional craft. It is first of all to create a sound and movement that resonates with an aesthetic that to some degree cannot be experienced apart from where a particular instrument leads that player. The sound (product) is often individualized to the given body of the player, for instance the mouth and embouchure muscles of developed wind players, such that the experienced listener in a blind test can identify precisely what well-known jazz musician is playing, no matter what instrument the player has chosen.[5]

The strong mutuality of craft tool and body was already a holdover and anomaly in the 19th century when industrialization deskilled its workers )creating what Marx called “abstract labor”), separated them from their own tools, standardized production, and began the still on-going process towards automation and reduction of workforce per item produced. A good illustration of this anomaly was blues players in the twenties, who can be located in the middle of the contradiction. Perhaps the original idea for the blues came from New Orleans, but it developed its strength in the rural countryside.[6] With the option of becoming factory “hands” up north, some saw music, particularly the blues, as an escape from the fate of agricultural poverty and a more creative use for their hands. They took a step back into a pre-industrial skill, which appealed to people who were still at least spiritually connected to their rural southern homeland. There were local blues players long before recordings, but became known for their highly individualized styles. Once recording companies discovered the possibility of selling to blacks on a mass advertised level and began to turn this population into consumers (1921), these players took a huge leap ahead into the nascent culture industry, which increasingly depended on creating and exploiting the star over local players. Individualized craft technique fit quite well with the industry.

Craft musicians in general became integrated into the industrial world of union organization and the creation of standardized products and consumer culture (music as a non-staple, luxury item, even for the poor). However the individualized body relation to the instrument was a strong and resistant element that was ever on the side of the new that could only be created by the musician and not by the industry, which could only turn the new into the standard. In complete contrast to the car manufacturing, the most highly valued products of the culture industry bore the identity of the most individualized players, those with a unique, even innovative relation of body and instrument. These were the soloists, even as they practiced a common craft, which was the ability to function according to an accepted code that the whole orchestra, chorus, or body of jazz musicians had to respect. Their livelihood was based on breaching that code, creating new standards for the industry.

A short excursion: I will be using the term “art music,” which I should first delineate.[7] By art music I don’t intend a strict genre label but rather a specialized perspective from which the motivations and choices of musicians and listeners are viewed, which can be applied to any genre of music. All music can be seen as entertaining, but art music is an entertainment enhanced (and often derided), motivated, and defended as beyond indiscriminate pleasure in that it meets certain critical, comparative standards. In fact the tendency of the post-sixties is towards all music being refined upwards when it is critiqued by standards of “art.” What starts out to be considered critically as lowbrow and irrelevant to artistic consideration, a matter of popular taste and need, such as jazz, blues, then rock and punk, have each acquired and then depended upon the critical perspective that sees them as art, a choice that is objective rather than indefensible personal taste. The social-cultural tendency is from lowbrow to highbrow, the immanent to the transcendent. The pattern was set in the 19th century, before the development of the mass culture industry; what came to be highbrow classical art music was originally treated as burlesque entertainment fare for a class-undifferentiated populace.[8]

In a parallel tendency the esoteric and highbrow avantgarde, originally confined to a small elite audience, extends to an upward-mobile, middlebrow audience, lifting and educating itself to what is presented as a higher art. This art, like the social move this category of people would like to make, is perceived as progressive and culturally vital.[9] It yields a moment when elite taste musicians and audience coincide with a consuming public that is thirsting for art to displace “mere” entertainment. The recent centenary that enshrined John Cage would be a good example of this. Cage has long been the preserve of a handful of afficianados, and now we witness huge international publicity and performance of this music, available outside the mass media for at least fifty years. The trial run for this was the resurrection of Cage’s peer, Morton Feldman, a favorite of young experimentalist discoverers in the late 90s; ten years later audiences (and funding) were available for concerts of minimal movement and extensive duration that would have been inconceivable earlier.

Art music has a bizarre relation to the past, in that it validates and is validated by the past but only by being its extension in the present, “the new.” Now labeled Contemporary Art, the new is both ephemeral and on its way to being historical, that is, eternally valid through museumification, the last stage of the trajectory towards art mentioned above, which now seems to extend to absolutely cultural item that is produced. Simultaneously art (including art music) becomes material for the academic institution, designed to tell us “the meaning of things.” This process requires that the things, art, must be stable and invariable works, which is only true of action completed in the past. Entertainment, on the other hand, is not bad art but the mirror opposite of art: ephemeral and lacking validation in the past, and so “meaningless” until it is perceived and critiqued as art, the step up to legitimacy.

To resume: the craft relation of player’s body and the tool, summed up in the concept of mastery, has survived from pre-industrial times to the present as an anomaly in the world of progressive change-for-the-better. To persist these concepts have had to be romanticized, with art validated as essential to any high civilization, which has the past as a supposedly stable reference.[10] The romanticizing of the trained, obedient, masterful player had its origins in the early 19th century, when the art music considered acceptable to bourgeois audiences was dubbed “classical,” and was made exclusively by such players. This canonized music, which still dominates music education and provides the core pieces for instrumentalists, established its position later in the century as part of an anti-modernist reaction against the effects of industrialization.[11] The lament was that the individualized and skilled body is being trampled under the advance of civilization but still lives as the soul of culture, and it is the soul that has the facility of true, spiritual feeling. While civilization has turned everything into goods, culture (with the German meaning of Kultur) will presumably save that archaic body from certain death.

Romantic anti-modernism of this sort attracted the philanthropy and control of the very class that had the major role in industrialization, a perhaps guilt-driven compensatory relation crucial to the stabilization of inherently unstable capitalism. In the factories no craftspeople allowed, in the arts nothing but craft.  If the anti-modernists were unable to halt the present social unrest and disintegration of the modern world at least they could venerate the past. Besides craft, that meant closing the canon of Music, threatened in the early 20th century by artistic forces unleashed in modern society. The threat appeared not only within the tradition, with composers like Debussy and Ravel, but also without in the form of popular entertainment. Anti-moderns could jointly resist both “the new” and “the mob,” as the populace was called at the time (later “the masses”). It was with the arrival of rebellious Modernism that an alternative direction gradually opened up for art music that would undermine classical music conceptions of the proper means of playing music. Largely independently, the other assault on trained mastery would come from the populace in the name of entertainment: minstrelsy, vaudeville, blues and jazz. With only the loose alliance of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the two were in cahoots.

Coming up to the present, the move and claim of legitimacy as art is now possible theoretically for all musics. It is part of the continuing thrust familiar to capitalist society, whether it is tagged democratization (a status upgrade for the previously denigrated mass consumer) or as colonization (the penetration of daily life by the corporate producers of mass entertainment). Since at least the 90s this enhanced legitimacy would include jazz, which had gone through several prior stages of relation to society: first labeled the music of a segregated urban black population, then achieving a mass popular status, then in the late forties it became the preserve of hip afficianados. In in the fifties it spread more widely in the middle class, but still represented an edge of critique or difference to the social order¸ to the extent that free jazz was taken seriously. Today it is most commonly appreciated as “smooth,” without its earlier edge, and has the closed canon of all classicized musics. The leap to classical status in the 90s was accompanied by the rise of jazz education and academic treatment from a postmodern direction. What music schools favor, for obvious reasons, is to teach an established art that has enough intellectual prestige to stimulate critical debate over its proper borders.[12] Its advocates and players tend to see it as a music of feeling, elevated above emotion (as supplied in “mere” entertainment), and acquired by repeated listening to core pieces and/or iconic players.

The other direction for art music today advocates itself as the current avantgarde of experimental composition, electronics, and free improvisation, and defines itself largely against jazz, almost its binary opposition. The two are not even alternate tendencies; the middle ground has great difficulty justifying itself. The avantgarde includes those self-consciously in continuity with the classical tradition as well as much free and “experimental” improvisation. It proclaims itself progressive and unprecedented, not repeating and elaborating the past but breaking new ground, even transgressive. Since it presents itself as open and undetermined it is not comfortable defining itself by what it is, as are historically determined musical forms such as jazz, but by what it might become. The canon of the past is more or less closed but additions are expected to be at work this very moment. The avantgarde (which does not ordinarily use this term, as referring to an earlier period) also sees itself as having the more discriminating audience, one which is small because only the few will or even should tolerate a music that does not satisfy emotional needs, a function it would assign to jazz. This is perceived as a territory one must enter and learn in order to have it, whereas what is already known belongs to the past. This direction would hope to see itself judged as superseding earlier avantgarde music. It thrives on instability, the so-called “open mind”that connotes the liberal personality; once an avantgarde music becomes stabilized and the mind closed, one must move on, or else be stigmatized as conservative. As the canonical John Cage is now positioned to appeal to middlebrow curiosity, as mentioned above, some problems might arise for avant-gardists, who have hitherto considered their advocacy of Cage could only fall on deaf ears. The avantgarde tends to follow the aristocratically-tinged bohemian tradition by which middlebrow interest (the old “petty bourgeois”) is the kiss of death.[13]

A major question dividing the competing notions of art music I outline above has to do with the body relation to the instrument. From the jazz side it is whether art is to be allowed any individualized body-relation and attendant feeling that is meaningful to a collectivity. The same question from the side of free improvisation and experimental composition is whether the craft tradition is capable of anything other than commodified sentimentality. If the body- and personality-infused playing of a Lester Young is boring to the avantgarde it is partly in response to its cultural framing as nostalgic, commodified sentiment and has no capacity to resist standardization and treatment as “a classic.” The charge is that its rise in status comes at the cost of whatever radicality it once had and its legitimacy now stands in the way of “the new.” Indeed, its coded sound is bound up with the craft tradition, just like 19th century classical music. Yet it might be asked, has either the jazz or the avantgarde listener the capacity to hear the sound of Lester Young when it is understood by both as the communication of interior feeling? As with any binary, the question is, what is not totalized and obscured by the opposition.

Whether the traditional body-instrument relation is criticized as sentimental or defended as resistant anti-modernist, there has been a significant shift away from it across a broad spectrum of musics. This has been realized partly through the development of recording and electronic technology. Recording had the first impact, arriving in the era when all instruments were “acoustic,” and can be seen as enhancing the tradition by turning a few players into stars, up in the sky for all to see and hear. Yet soon it became clear that the engineering of sound was at least as significant a factor as the player. The engineer, under the direction of the record company, could make sound appear and disappear, had control over the representation of the acoustic musician, who was ultimately a “sound source” to be worked with. As for electronic instruments, their significance came later, and more clearly participate in the predominance in Western countries of the information economy over the industrial. It is advanced in the sense that all technological change is advanced: barring a cataclysm it is irreversible. Socially it is advanced in that it radically undermines the confinement of music to traditional practitioners, who would claim that only training in the specialized knowledge of instrumental technique can produce recognizable music. It is advanced culturally as well; since its very beginnings electronic music has been considered at the leading and most challenging edge of the avantgarde.

In one important way electronics was unconsciously and paradoxically allied with craft-based instrumentalists arising popularly in blues and jazz. As we have seen, by the 20s the classical composer tradition had to face the threat of the middle class popularity of mostly “whitened” jazz; then along comes electronics. Unlike jazz, electronics could not be patronized as beneath the dignity of high art; it was not “outside” but “out,” an interior threat. It was firmly in the tradition that high art was pressured to recognize, whereby every innovative “advance” that was eventually accepted had always been preceded by opposition.[14] Right here is the central problem for high art as it seeks to defend itself: how to keep the classical music canon closed when the original (bourgeois) audience for that music had overcome its resistance to every new twist thrown at it? How could the class defending classical standards (which included the acoustic tradition of music playing) still think of itself as bourgeois if they couldn’t bow to 20th century innovations, such as Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and then new-fangled electronics? There are those who still today use the word “music” to mean only classical music, and not even a standard; all the rest is noise. They can only do this by plugging their ears to the anthropological reality, of which the classical is a tiny minority. The meaning for the classical tradition of popular music, the avantgarde, and electronics has been that the answer to “what is properly to be called music?” is no longer secure in its hands.

Just as the cultural and media industry, grounded in recording-reproduction technology, was seen as unstoppable in the 20s, so is the shift to advanced electronic technologies today. For the defenders of the 19th century tradition to eschew and ignore the avantgarde of electronic and tape music is to split them off from evolving material civilization and take their music as a kind of secular spirituality, which then becomes nostalgic.[15] Electronics is imagined by most today as progress; not the hypostasized and optimistic Progress that modernity once took for granted, but still an assertion that those living today have views and accomplishments superior to anything achieved in the past. This is an automatic accomplishment of any present, the effortless triumph of the living over the dead. To play/compose through electronic media brings with it (whether its practitioners think it or not) a sense that one is in tune with the world in its actuality, as it is becoming, such that the participant is on the side of change. What is new is “refreshing” to unquestioning participants in a culture perceived as always in danger of being smothered by the oppressive weight of tradition.[16] Advanced electronics, whether smartphones or music, are socially validating for their users, regardless of one’s political view. I would even argue that to the consuming music public, to be progressive through choosing an advanced-technology music makes political and social critique less urgent. One is already on the right side, however vaguely, when culture is a substitute for politics and not conjoined to it. To play an acoustic instrument is accordingly a different affair than before electronics entered the mass consumer market. In the sixties much of what was considered progressive art content was grounded in acoustic instruments (jazz and blues), whereas to play such today is to be however slightly on the defensive, as if indulging in a nostalgic, sentimental attachment. And the common understanding of high art is that it does not honor taste and sentiment but like enlightened thought in general transgresses it.

In every irrevocable advance there is residue and loss, and the question is, what to do with it, how is the loss to be compensated or dealt with. Will it be a matter of nostalgia and resignation, of classicizing and preserving an otherwise dead tradition, of defending it as “the human” against “the technological”?  As a player, I and many of my partners, who fully welcome electronics and technological change, have chosen a different path, taking the advance as an incentive to reconfigure. Electronics has served to push acoustic instrumental sound the direction free improvisation was already going, beyond the stabilized boundaries of jazz and free jazz. To excise the player’s personalized sound from the body-instrument bond is not only to be understood as counteracting the commodification of the musical personality. The sound-sensuality enabled by electronic technology has created a gap between player and instrument; this is reconfigured by the player pushing the instrument to do whatever it can do rather than what it is supposed to do. More importantly, it frees the musician to find musical meaning and feeling outside sentiment, mood, and the individualized “voice.”

Moreover, there is a potential liberation from the model of mastery. This would end the separation of so-called masters from novices, a distinction that has no place when one is open to all possible sound and not just those certified as producing the norm for the instrument.  Mastery is achieved through repression of the full body, the illusion of mind over body that has characterized the relation of player and instrument as subject and worldly object in craft-based musicianship. Mastery leads to an asceticism that is not temporary and necessary to one’s selfhood and concentration but permanent, the frequent cause of injury. It yields a pride in accomplishment that is little more than pleasing an inner Judge, ensuring that the musician, as often remarked, be either stunted as a full adult or remain a rebellious adolescent for life. That model of craft mastery has paralleled the model of composer as master over the player, which has implicated the very idea of music. With the fall of hierarchical mastery there also falls the standard notion of what is music and who gets to define it.[17]

The relation of physical subject and object that still predominates in the conception of how music is made implies resistance, effort, and the will to overcome, all the factors requiring a universalized, objective skill. “Can you play music?” depends on the prior question “Can you play this instrument?” and this is settled according to culturally coded norms. The work to achieve this is to discipline very specific muscles of the body, divided into parts to be controlled and those to be ignored as of no use. The body is to follow orders of the mind conceived as master and perfectionist Judge. “Practice makes perfect,” indeed it does; the question is, what kind of teleology does perfection envisage? There is no advance of the musician in this schema without practice measured by unattainable absolute perfection at the top of the scale. This scale of values is set up to govern the entire domain of players, those who wish to someday call themselves musicians as well as amateurs. Technical control can be satisfied or not depending on the player’s ability and interest to do so. Achievement, which our culture poses as the sole means to raise oneself in one’s own estimation, is governed from outside the player and outside the playing, as a condition that haunts every musical moment.

Unlike visual artists, musicians are said to be “molded,” and in so many details the mold shows its face in the identity of “musician” claimed. The bulk of adult musicians (and dancers) who are confident of what they do as a social role will have submitted to the disciplinary regimen during late childhood, when admiration for and wish to please the parents is still strong. The child wills to be perfect as she imagines the parent to be. This helps account for the tenacity of the tradition of musicianship in players even with an adolescent rebellion (which for some has little effect). One can more easily and rationally discard without regret achievements of a discipline imposed after adolescence, such as programmed education for a skill no longer functional to the economy. One’s hard-won achievement in childhood, however, when body growth parallels instrumental mastery, persists through deep and unconscious roots of attachment.

[1] I am using “Music” to represent selective, traditional high art music, which is associated with the Platonic ideal known as Musike, whereas “music” will denote music anthropologically considered, i.e. all music (though this essay treats only music that predominates in the Western-oriented countries). Ethnomusicology itself is now the discipline to which jazz studies are often assigned. This is in line with postcolonial anthropology, which has challenged the notion that the West can only be the subject investigator and not the object investigated.

[2] In Ishmael Reed’s historically based fabulation, Mumbo Jumbo, jazz was a subversive contagion that “jes grew.”

[3] See Maurizio Lazzarao, “Immaterial Labor” in Radical Thought in Italy, ed. Paulo Virno and Michael Hardt, 1996

[4] Here was the wise admonition from my saxophone teacher in 1958, which communicated his personal bitterness, common to traditional musicians: “There are very few at the top and if you’re not at the top you’re nothing.” When I repeat that story to people today they are horrified that he should have discouraged me instead of feeding my dreams. On the contrary, this was just the realism I needed. I didn’t take “nothing” in the existential sense, or that I should take failure personally, but rather that I would be very unlikely to succeed in earning a living.

[5] As the Philadelphia repairman for Charlie Parker’s saxophones told me, every busted and abused horn he brought in was a different one. Yet Parker is easily identified on recordings by ear; his body was as much the instrument doing the playing as the horn.

[6] The urban origin of the blues is the opinion of Luc Santos, “The Genius of Blues” in the New York Review of Books, August 11, 1994 .

[7] See also the essay

[8] Levine, Lawrence W., Highbrow/lowbrow : the emergence of cultural hierarchy in America, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1988.

[9] Thomas Frank writes of middle American towns that commonly promote “vibrancy,” an environment that art will supposedly provide to revitalize local business and attract the kind of professionals needed for the “immaterial” economy. “Dead End on Shakin’ Street,” The Baffler,

[10] The cultural past is often presented as a stable heritage in which all valid artworks are and will be assigned their appropriate place. This is derived from a core belief in Eternal Art, and like all belief it is held to be true regardless of the evidence. The very cultural authorities who promote this belief provide that contradictory evidence, at least in visual art. In order for Art to maintain its place in the modern social order, the art heritage must be vital, and that means changing. Just as the Renaissance claimed to have rediscovered the classical past and made it “new,” subject to interpretation, so the heritage is continually being challenged. The academic industry perceives itself as “problematizing” rather than taking anything for granted. The “new art history,” now itself passé, introduced post-sixties feminist and post-colonial critiques of iconic artists, and there are always going to be past artists whom earlier contemporaries, presumed to be short-sighted, overlooked and are now journalistically noteworthy. The past is then solid and secure, beyond our touch, yet supple enough to validate its modern inheritors.

This arrangement has worked out more smoothly for visual art than for music, which is more thoroughly divided between a fixed heritage of genius composers (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven) and one accepting and celebrating later developments.

[11] On the domination of the Victorian, classical canon and craft training see Bruno Nettl’s Heartland Excursions, Ethnomusicological Reflections of Schools of Music, which with some modifications could apply to jazz education as well. Written from firsthand involvement this at times satiric book should be read by anyone prior to applying to music school.

[12] Most recent is Jazz/Not Jazz: The Music and Its Boundaries, ed.
David Ake, Charles Hiroshi Garrett, Daniel Goldmark, Univ. of CA press, 2012

[14] For a catalogue of opposition, see Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults onf Composers since Beethoven’s Time, U. of Washington Press, 1953. This book was once the vade mecum of many a hopeful young composer, who could point to the icons of the past who were repudiated in their early years and later vindicated. Now most would limit their dreams; innovation as radical as that of Beethoven would require a rising class as significant as the bourgeoisie to achieve the triumph of classical heroes.

[15] In the 90s I lived in Boulder and was taking care of my aged mother, and to feed her love for classical music I took her to the Boulder Symphony concerts for three years. I was astonished that here, in a community wedded to the most advanced technology, was a musical organization that not once dared to present anything from the 20th century.

[16] That this belief is itself an old tradition, one of modernist origin, needs to be recognized. Harold Rosenberg’s The Tradition of the New was written in 1959.

[17] To play outside the mastery model is to be the “masterless man” (regardless of gender) of 17th century England. These were also called vagabonds, peasants who were distrusted because they had no allegiance to any lord or ties to the land. The category was continued in 19th century Parisian bohemians, who envied the free lifestyle of gypsies, today’s Romani, and included some who are remembered today as that century’s artists. Today the philosopher Gilles Deleuze would call them “nomads,” who might be said to “deterritorialize” music systems they encounter.