Thursday, November 24, 2011

Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong

Sports Illustrated recently ran a portion of Jerry West's biography and it revealed that the NBA's iconic figure (literally) led a miserable life of depression and self-loathing. The NBA's logo is an artistic rendition of West on the move. Nobody moved quicker, with more determination, or with better accuracy. West played before the 3-point era, but that didn't stop him from shooting from that territory or beyond (even beyond the half-court line). Reading this biography reminded me of a day when elite athletes played for something other than giant bags of money.

That, in turn, reminded me of the real and practical reason ordinary people pay attention to elite athletes, musicians, and artists of all stripes; they remind us that humans can be incredibly special and near-godlike (by a believable definition of "godlike"). Money removes that reminder and replaces it with something more crass and less admirable. Jerry West played like a demon to quiet the demons in his head and from his past. The best musicians have something to prove, too. Songs to express, heart to expose, words to ventilate and enlighten, and sounds in their heads that need to find air to move and ears to respond. When those moments are preserved in a recording, music takes on history and it's a rare kind of history that can be repeated in the privacy of our homes or even all but inside our heads with in-ear monitors and a mobile player. To clear out the Thanksgiving dust, here's a little inspiration:

Nothing like a little Jeff to brighten up a winter's day. My kind of Xmas music.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Serving Music?

In my manufacturing career as a quality and manufacturing engineering manager, I was always asking my employees and managers, “Who does this serve?” whenever they wanted to implement a procedure, change a process, or add paperwork to our workload. One of the late-great Quality Management concepts was that everyone in an organization "serves" someone. From the CEO to the shipping clerk, all of those jobs exist to provide service to someone in the customer or organizational chain. When that system fails, we end up with a society like the one the 1% have created today and, historically, that never lasts long.

Last week, I took some friends to the local jazz club, the Artist Quarter, to listen to a well-known local jazz saxophonist and that question popped into my head for the first time in a few years. In my opinion, the best music is created by musicians who are “serving” the assembly of sounds the whole group creates and that the rest of us call “Music.” In the classical world, I think this goal is commonly accepted principle. In an orchestra, everyone, including the featured soloists, is focused on the whole they are creating. They all obey the conductor who is the conduit to the audience for the musical environment being created. There is no shortage of oversized egos, varying talents, or personality conflicts in classical performances, but they are mostly sublimated in the service of the music printed on the page in front of every player. Even solo classical performances are still directed by the directions on that page that describe how to best service the composer’s aural vision. On average, I would argue that classical music performed in groups is more closely directed toward the service of the music.

In the pop world, this ideal is rarely reached because the service goal for popular music is profit, not music. The engineer, producer, and record label drones all serve as focus groups who analyze the gross aspects of a recorded performance for the possible financial return. “Will it sell?” is infinitely more important than “is it beautiful?” There are obviously violations of this generalization, but those only occur when the “music industry” is in disarray and the financial interests have lost control of where the music is going. That may never happen again in our constantly-connected, followed, friended, and information-manipulated world. Pop music is so thoroughly commercialized that musicians call it that, “commercial music.” That’s a term that used to apply to music made as background for advertisements. Today, a prime goal of popular musicians is to have a song end up in a commercial or as background in a television series. The service of music as an ideal entity is becoming a vanishing cause in the pop world.

Jazz pretends to be a different animal than either pop or classical music. Since jazz presents practically no possibility for financial reward, jazz musicians can imagine themselves to be in a similar boat as classical musicians. Since improvisation is valued over sheet music regurgitation, jazz musicians tell themselves they are more purely serving music, following the muse, as it pops into their heads.

In application, jazz often fails to live up to the best goals of either pop or classical music. The performance I took my friends to was a case-in-point. As if there were some rule that stated each of the four musicians would be allowed a moment in every song to show off, every tune followed the same sax-melody-sax-solo-piano-solo-bass-solo-drum-solo, rinse, and repeat routine.

To be upfront, I have to say that 99.9% of every bass and drum solo I have ever heard has been a miserable exercise in gymnastics. Bass players insist on showing off how fast they can play “pittoon-pitoon-thump-thump-pitow.” Drummers piddily-piddle, paradiddle, and whack the crap out of their percussion paraphernalia until the audience is looking for any excuse to drink more or take up smoking outside in the rain. There is nothing musical about listening to the rhythm section be non-rhythmic. On a commercial basis, selling a drum solo (outside of the Safari’s 1963 fluke hit Wipeout or the few seconds of Steve Gadd’s work in Steely Dan’s Aja) or a bass solo (I have no examples of that.) is ludicrous. Can’t happen. Outside of nihilistic minimalist modern weirdness, classical music is without any examples of extended bass or drum solos. Only jazz musicians imagine that an audience wants to listen to that silliness.

Music is not what is being served in traditional combo jazz, at least in the live performance venue. Musicians’ egos are the one and only focus. Everyone gets a place to show off and disrupt the music for a moment of self-proclaimed glory.
I believe, that’s why modern jazz musicians like Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, Stanley Clarke, Keith Jarrett, Gary Burton, Larry Carlton, Chick Corea, Larry Coryell, Al Di Meola, Mark Egan, Béla Fleck, Jeff Lorber, and hundreds of other pop-influenced, jazz oriented musicians have found an audience. They waste minimal time stroking their egos and maximum time serving their vision of Music. Sometimes, that veers toward commercial music, for the same reason pop music was perverted by hard cash, but just as often modern jazz musicians reflect the attitudes and dedication of the players who created jazz. While many of the players in Duke Ellington’s bands received solo opportunities, they didn’t expect ten minutes of attention in every tune. Most of the acknowledged classic jazz albums featured incredibly brief moments of rhythm section solo time, if any at all; Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Dizzy Gillespie’s An Electrifying Evening, and Charles Mingus Mingus Ah Um, Dave Brubeck Time Out, and an almost infinitely long list of great performances that created a genre and audience.

Live jazz, however, still appears to be working at repelling all but the most tolerant audience more interested in X-games performance and less absorbed in Music.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Then and Now

While suffering a 21st Century moderately high-tech DJ/VJ presentation last week, I was reminded of a similar experience from 25 years ago. Friends of my wife did a regular AV show in a small performance area in a restaurant in southern California. This was in the early days of semi-affordable video processing and one of the artists was a laser tech who did work for Disney and lots of rock bands.

For that particular show, these guys wanted to include a blast from AV's psychedelic past along with their high tech gear. So, they brought in an old fashioned overhead projector and my wife added an oil-paint-on-water component to the one large screen where all three visual artists combined their output.

The other aspect of this performance was aural. For that the "musicians" were two electronic music performers and a percussionist. The link between the three musicians was a click/sync signal provided by one of the performer's sequencer-synths that electronically tied the two synth performers together and provided the percussionist with an audible beat. In the mid-80's, SMPTE could have been used to tie it all together but the visual artists chose to make most of their component respond to the audio. The laser artist used a lot of Lissajous figures generated by some or all of the audio. By today's tech standards, this sounds pretty benign but all of the artists were pioneers in computer art technology and they all went on to be a big part of that world in the next 20 years. It was, in retrospect, a big deal. It was, in fact, a a pretty amazing event. Visually and musically it was one of the best live events I've participated in (I provided the sound for the show.).

The point of this article is that, at the end of the night, the audience was overwhelmingly interested in the sounds and sights that came from . . . the percussionist and my wife's oil-on-water work. $300k worth of lasers and $100k in cameras were grossly overshadowed by a 2nd hand public school overhead projector (slightly modified for higher output by the laser guy). A dozen synthesizers and a couple of 1980's Apple computers were put into the background by "that little Indian drum" or an ordinary drum kit. I don't mean mostly, I mean entirely. At the wrap-up party all of the tech artists complained about being relegated to being background for "prehistoric" instruments and a lady who dripped oil colors into a glass pan and swirled them with a stick.

The more recent version of this combination of visual and aural art was missing the percussionist and the old-school hippy artist and it was boring as death. What does that tell you?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How to Tell when You Are too Late to the Party

Recently, the NY Times did an article on law student debt and the lack of jobs in that once profitable field. Who would have thought that the country would ever have too many lawyers. What will John Grisham write about now?

The interesting part of the NY Times article was that law schools are ignoring reality out of the usual profit motive and encouraging gullible students to dive into a quarter million dollars in debt. Regardless of the bleak prospects their students face after college, law schools are promoting a future that doesn't exist because they can get away with it. Berklee College of Music published the results of a survey on ProSound News a while back that stank of the same phony statistics.

It's a tough world out there, especially for the "lost generation" that was sacrificed by the pseudo-conservative movement starting in Reagan's administration and continuing through Bush I and Clinton and really going into overdrive during the Bush II "no child's behind left alone" programs. No only have they had their self-esteem hyped by the K-12 education system's touchy-feely psycho-babble, but they've been dumped into the most vicious economic depression (it's only a "recession" to the 75% who still have jobs) but they're being suckered by a desperate corporate education system that could care less about their future opportunities.

There is a plethora of education money-sinks advertised on late night television. Everything from chef schools to motorcycle mechanic schools to recording and live sound engineering. How does the modern student find a real career among the imaginary prospects? I have to think back to my electrical engineering education in the 1970s for my answer. When I was a young (yes, I was young once), all of my professors were of two types: old or part-time. The old guys were mostly teaching basic electronics, math, and theory classes. They had once been real engineers, many working in power electricity or tube electronics, but were now relegated to education because their skills were obsolete. The younger guys (and none were younger than 40-something) were working engineers who had some weird compulsion to teach the technology they were working with. As a student, you would work your way through the legion of old professors, getting basic concepts and mathematics under your belt, chomping at the bit to take the few classes offered with the adjunct instructors.

I realize now that I under-appreciated the old guys because I couldn't identify with their work history. I over-appreciated the adjunct instructors because they often tried to skip the messy steps to understanding and just talked about the cool stuff they were working on. Their tips-and-tricks were often really useful, but many students weren't even close to ready to design guidelines. While the classes were often fun, they weren't often valuable or useful for the work many of us would be doing. The basic classes taught by the old guys were the core of what many of us (definitely me) would use as engineers all through our careers.

So, with that background, this is my suggestion for picking a career field: If the instructors at your prospective school are young, talented, and in the prime of their careers, run-don't-walk away from formal training in that career path as fast as you can. 

At best and if you really want to do that kind of work, just go do it. You won't need a degree if the best people in the business aren't able to make a good living doing the work. The education system is all about security, not opportunity. Instructor salaries are low. Choosing a career in education instead of the field being taught is an admission that you are either not good enough to work in that field or that the field is economically bereft. If the best people in a field choose to teach a field instead of work in it, you know something is wrong.

What this situation tells us is that the best years of that particular career are in the past; or they never existed, but the glamor attached to that business is still hanging on. Going for that glamor isn't an insane move, unless you attach a few tens of thousands in student loans or a few hundreds of thousands in the case of the law students. The education system is slow, inbred, and self-referential, so it is rarely able to see a trend before the trend is in the dust and the rear view mirror. If you think about the history of popular music, for example, it's obvious how slow academia is. When pop music was in its prime, electric instruments were about as welcome in colleges as venereal diseases. When there were staff recording engineering jobs, there were no programs (outside of the major record labels) to train engineers. The only booming part of the music industry is in the live sound area and that is only life-like in the "house of worship" business. There are substantial differences between live sound for a rock band and sound reinforcement in a modern church. By the time this becomes common knowledge, academia will have waited until the next Enlightenment to get with that program.

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.