Monday, May 17, 2004

On the count of 3, follow me

Now, some of what I'm going to say might sound like The Case Against Pop & Rocking, but trust me, I enjoy a good bit of the lo-falutin'. Indeed, anyone who doesn't, who subscribes too much to the above-linked screed, strikes me as missing a little chunk of heart.

Last night, watching and listening to afro-fusion-jazz-meeting-of-the-continents group Foofango as well as surveying the crowd in Brussels's Grand'Place, I came back to a thought that has been recurrent for a couple of years now, since I went to some kind of mega house/techno/d'n'b multiplex music extravaganza. The thought, what it has boiled down to over time, is about expression vs. manipulation on the music's part and thought (or perhaps real-time compare'n'contrast) vs. I-don't-know-what on the listener/dancer's part.

Last night, every time there was a percussion solo, the (to me) most interesting syncopated and nuanced stuff was glossed over, while the inevitable hard-fast-loud-regular climaxes whipped the crowd to a shouting frenzy. Over and over. All those years ago (not that many, really) at the dance music event, the DJ (or maybe the record itself, I don't know) would drop the bass, or the drums, or perhaps the melody, maybe have a crescendo of sorts, a build-up of tension, then a release as the dropped element(s) came back in. This release was echoed in the cheering exhale of crowd response. Over and over.

After the umpteenth time, I'm finding this very ponderous. I'm blaming the music for lack of creativity (or at least, diversity and rather coarse and gaudy puppet-strings, which shall be returned to later). I'm more hesitant in castigating the assembled crowd - who have the immense advantage over me of actually going with the music and enjoying it and not standing at a remove, looking on in objective omniscient judgement - for fear of making myself seem (even if only to myself) all hoity-toity, but I guess the ship's already sailed on that one if I'm having these thoughts at all. Still, though, as the cycle loops and loops, I can't help but think of Pavlovian dogs.

Of course, and this is what, I hope, sets me apart from The Case Against Pop & Rocking finery, I turned these thoughts of Pavlovian responses to musical stimuli towards my own listening. The bluesy lick. The poignant turn of phrase or chord change. The minor-key ballad. The self-conciously "As I look back upon my life and accept where I am now" profundity and weepiness of Steve Kuhn's Promises Kept (another recent contribution to the line of thought and trigger to this post). It bothers me to think that I might be reacting to signs that point to something rather than to the thing, the emotion or thought, itself, that I might be listening, waiting for these signs to pop up so I can enact my prepared reaction.

So I think that I hate being manipulated, or being manipulated too obviously. But sometimes I like being manipulated, sometimes I like the big drama, the big weepiness, the obvious excitement. I don't think I like it less when others are cheering it on. More vexingly, how do I know (or think I know) I'm being manipulated? How do I clean out the store of prepared reactions accumulated over time (and perhaps built into the human ear?) that allow me to be manipulated? That's the question posed when the expression vs. manipulation quandry is unfolded.

I wonder how much of the craft of music is about learning how to manipulate the listener into feeling happy (major key!), sad (minor key!), meditative/profound/grave (slow, long notes) and so on. There are more sophisticated occurrences of the same tools, of course. Those I can think of right now are a beat appearing where previously there was none, or a different one. Or the blues coming out of an abstract fog. In other words, contrasts that, even in the smallest doses, create an exacerbated response. Take those pivotal 45 seconds on In a Silent Way or Joe McPhee on "Delta" (from Trinity).

What worries me, even here with what I have called more sophisticated occurrences, is what they show of my attachement to these mere pointers, devices, styles. Why should I take more notice of that smeared gut-bucket lick than of the dissonance surrounding it? How does one get rid of that insatiable curiosity for and receptiveness to the familiar, and the incessant re-heating and re-serving of that familiar? How does one hear past the device, the manipulation, to the expression, or is the device all there is (hmm, this is sounding like the content vs. form debate, and maybe it is).

The final trigger for this post was Mal Waldron's One More Time, which, like the Kuhn album, is a late-in-life assessment, but in my opinion a much more successful one (not to mention one of the finest, the finest of its kind even, album of the current decade, in my estimation) because it casts light on the subject from different angles. There is profundity and solemnity, but there is also the bright, happy, simple "You." Simple, but underneath the nonchalant surface lies, I think, the same feeling that animates the heavy "All Alone," a feel detectable thanks to the context and those innumerable and ever-elusive touches that place music beyond words. After listening to it (the song and the album) I don't feel manipulated into my sadness around Waldron's passing. Kuhn's one-dimensional, too-hard heartstring-pulling (the few instances of different tack-taking show how limited the overall approach is) will make you cry if it catches you at the right time, but Waldron transmits by far the richer and more enriching spectrum.

So, in this instance, the problem is solved, as the manipulations make us see the thing itself in rich 3D rather than stare at the signs; the content flows over and across the forms. Thus, we have expression and we can't respond in Pavlovian fashion to it because that would be to demean not so much ourselves but the late Mal Waldron. It would make our reaction inferior to what he set before us.

I began with the pounding of the drum, the dropping of th ebass and the pulling of the heart-strings. I hope to have said more than "Sometimes it's done well and sometimes not." I do hope to have spoken about constant crassness (occasional crassness is, of course, a device full of merit) and facility on both sides (musician/listener).