Including vs. Excluding the Listener

Including vs. Excluding the Listener

This was a week of little work and lots of errands. Playing an archaic instrument, such as the contrabass, necessitates frequent visits to the village luthier who specializes in large-scale instruments, and this week I’ve been fixing up two of them. (Next week I’ll have to work on another.) While I was sitting in my car, waiting for the legislated time that I could leave it unattended and drop off my bass without acquiring a request for money from the Department of Finance (really), a cellist whom I play with in the group Lyric Fury was walking by. I got her attention and we spoke for a bit about “what’s up?” and “this-and-that” and she handed me a flyer for a concert she was performing in with her husband at Le Poisson Rouge.

They have a group, The Fireworks Ensemble, that I heard a recording of playing the string quintets of Frank Zappa, which I think are fantastic. Their concert was a collaboration with C4, a mixed chorus of composer/conductors. The main piece on the program, Requiem (composed by bassist/singer Brian Coughlin), would be preceded by The Hounds of Spring (Jonathan David), Impermanence (Karen Siegel), and Dia | Logoi (Martha Sullivan). All the works were world premiers and will be performed again tomorrow night (Saturday, 6/2) at The Theater at MMAC at 8 p.m. I was excited to finally hear the music of Coughlin as well as David, whom I’ve known for several years without getting to hear his compositions. I was equally thrilled to hear the music of Siegel and Sullivan. But I think I would have preferred to hear it at MMAC, because Le Poisson Rouge’s seating is extremely uncomfortable for listening to lengthy performances, not to mention there is an air conditioner that randomly blasts wind-tunnel gusts across the room. (Perfect for reading music on-the-fly.) I hope their second concert goes well.

I’m using this as a preface to improvised music, somehow. There was very little improvisation in the Fireworks/C4 concert, most of it done by the drummer and electric guitarist during Requiem. There was one instance of some group improvisation in one of the movements—“Confutatis,” of Coughlin’s opus—but the rest was all written out. I know that the cellist is studying improvisation with Joanne Brackeen, one of the best I can think of, but she was given no solo space. This made me think of my meeting with Monika Herzig, which I wrote about last week, and the issue of studying improvisation.

After I wrote last week’s post, I had another meeting with Herzig that was an interview about my experiences as a house bassist for the jam sessions at the now defunct Ladies Fort, Joyce’s House of Unity, and Barbara’s Jazz Club in the previous century. It was a stimulating interview, possibly because Herzig had just spent a day listening and reading transcripts of oral histories at the Institute of Jazz Studies and had an idea of what not to ask! After my interview, I figured that I’d turn the tables and interview her about why she and Dr. David Baker (Indiana University) are writing a book about jam sessions.

She explained that one of the biggest problems she has with her students is keeping them playing and working on improvisation outside of the classroom. When she asked her students why they weren’t taking advantage of the jam sessions taking place near campus, a frequent response was that they did not know what to do at a jam session. So a large part of the project is geared towards preparing a jazz student for playing at a session. Certain tunes and their chord progressions have to be memorized and should be practiced. One should know when to play and when to stop playing and know the difference between practicing, improvising, and playing on a tune. One should treat the elder improvisers with a degree of respect. I came to realize that many people attending jam sessions look at them primarily as a place to perform, and not a place to listen and learn. It’s the latter attitude that is the key to appreciating, and making the most of, a jam session.

The lone comment from last week’s post posed a very good question and I want to answer it here, because it goes to the previous paragraph. I was asked whether my description of the jam session as “more important than subscription orchestra concerts, new music series, musical theater [etc.]” was meant to be merely “eye-catching”? The answer is: No. The performance situations I listed are all geared to exclude the listener as a participant in the musical act beyond the role of paying for a ticket, a kind of “angel.” It’s a paradigm that Isaac Schankler touches upon in his post this week in his mention and discussion of Cage’s composer-performer-listener dilemma. We all know that these distinctions probably didn’t exist in music’s original incarnation; nearly everyone in the tribe participated in music making as long as it didn’t attract predators or enemies. I can imagine that one could participate if one felt like it or not and that the distinctions were fluid. This is the spirit that the jam session accesses. It comes from the ring shout, a kind of circle dance, which was practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries by African Americans (mostly slaves) and probably Native Americans occupying the same space. The most well-known and documented ring shouts occurred regularly in New Orleans’s Place du Cirque, also known as Congo Square, and which Benjamin Latrobe chronicled in 1819. (This same location, according to Joy Harjo, is an ancient Creek Indian burial ground.) The spirit of the ring shout is that anyone can, at the right time, shift their role from accompanist to soloist, or take a break and observe.

One of the things that Herzig and I talked about was whether or not the culture of the jam session has been compromised by how academic jazz studies programs have replaced the sub-culture of apprenticeship/mentorship that was once the way that jazz was defined. My own feeling is that it did, for a while. I think that now, though, a new playing aesthetic is emerging and that it will have its hearing at jam sessions.

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3 thoughts on “Including vs. Excluding the Listener

  1. Mark N. Grant

    Hi Ratzo, may I comment a little further here on your comment above on my original comment on your previous fine article?

    I’m a composer and a performer myself. And a listener. Though I’m not a jazz player, I have had some little experience piano playing in jams and improvisational situations, both in jazz workshops I attended (long ago) and, more recently, as an organist in a church where accompanying a gospel choir meant freely jamming with them in a ring shout manner.

    Your initial remark puzzled me because it seemed to be singling out the jam performance tradition as superior to all the other traditions you cited (concert music, opera, theater music, etc.). I agree that it is a significant performance tradition. I don’t agree that it is the most significant tradition.

    There is oral tradition and there is literate tradition, and sometimes they cross. There is improvisation and there is composition, and sometimes they intermingle. To posit that oral music tradition is more important ipso facto seems to me misguided. It tends to promote reductio ad absurdum arguments that scored music and repertoire canons are not very important, after all, and let’s stop paying them heed.

    I also think that listening is by its very nature participatory, not passive. So I disagree with your premise there. When people in a concert hall, theater, or opera house tap their feet unconsciously, or smile, or look enraptured, or cough, or laugh, or cry, and certainly when they applaud, they are physically and viscerally participating in the gestalt of the musical experience. One doesn’t have to stand up and shout, or play changes on a tune, to participate in the gut feeling of music.

    1. Ratzo B Harris

      Hi Mark,

      I didn’t posit that the jam session is superior to the cited performance traditions; I wrote that it’s more “valuable” as an American one. The cited traditions used for comparison are European in design and decorum except, possibly, the rock concert (but since rock ‘n’ roll comes from jazz culture, the jam session becomes seminal to its development). I will write more about this in another blog (probably, but not definitely, the next one), rather than here, because the information I would access to bolster my position I believe to be relevant to discussing American music per se .

      I also don’t remember positing that oral tradition is “more important ipso facto” than a literate one. However, in certain instances, an oral tradition can retain information better than a written one. I think I mentioned in a separate blog that one person can better assimilate information verbatim that is taught to them by a group of people over a long period of time, which is how oral traditions are kept, than a person who hears or reads something once or twice and then relays it along to a string of individuals who may, or may not, repeat the information inaccurately. In this way, performance traditions are not handled very well, or for very long, in a literate culture; but, in an illiterate one, performance traditions are supported over generations. Look at Indian music (either kind) and European music and ideas of modernity and primitivism take on subtle shades of meaning and nuance. I whole-heartedly agree that to pay written music no heed is not a good idea, but I whole-heartedly disagree with the notion that to not consider the worth of illiterate traditions and the shortcomings of literate traditions (which are many) is a slippery slope to any reductiones ad absurdum . And, again, even though I am tempted to converse on the converse, that to place emphasis on the literate above oral tradition not only can, but has, led to the absurd—at least in terms of general pedagogy—I think this subject deserves its own forum, another blog, and I sincerely thank you for bringing it to my attention.

      Finally, a word about participation and the various traditions discussed. Certainly, applause is a form of feedback that suggests a degree of participation; one has to be awake while one does it and the assumed intent of applause is to congratulate whomever is being applauded for a job well done. But in theaters and concert halls, this is about the limit of permitted participation and it is not without its own special kind of absurdity: I’ve been to many concerts by reputable organizations in prestigious halls that should not have been applauded, but booed, and still, after sitting for several hours and listening to music that should have been burned after its premier (and possibly because we sat there for several hours listening intently and hopefully for a redeeming cadence or two) rose, as a group, and gave the appearance of a standing ovation to our applause. The applause is as orchestrated as the music! But I would agree with the tacit argument that this kind of participation is part of an oral tradition among Eurocentric concert-goers. I have to disagree, though, that unconscious response to something being heard counts as participation, especially bodily functions like coughing (and even crying). When the term “audience participation” is applied to a performance, I don’t think that unconsciously tapping one’s foot is being referred to. This, audience participation, is yet another aspect of my thesis of the jam session that probably needs to be refined in concept, but not in what I would like to be a brief response to your comment. But I would say that the audience participation in a jam session, while inclusive of the unintentional participatory elements you describe, goes far, far beyond anything allowed in the cited traditions from above. Even at the lowly, yet incredibly popular, rock concert, if a fan jumps up on stage, they are removed, even if all they wanted to do was play a few bars. One exception I can think of, though, is in the realm of musical theater, in Tony and Tina’s Wedding , where the audience is in full participation with the cast and crew.

  2. Andrew Strauss

    Well, I haven’t looked at NewMusicBox in a while, but I think this discussion is of absolutely vital importance to all musical cultures. Mark is right to point out the overlap between written and oral, improvised and composed. For an excellent, thoroughly detailed study of this phenomenon, check out Anna Maria Busse Berger’s “Medieval Music and the Art of Memory.” Ratzo is also correct when he argues that “in certain instances, an oral tradition can retain information better than a written one.” Obviously, a musical culture can flourish without written scores. But can a culture flourish without a living oral tradition? I would argue that this is impossible. To me, the root cause of the current crisis in European art music is precisely a vilification of (performance) tradition, an all-out crusade by pedagogues, musicians, and institutions to replace centuries-old teachings with dubious scholarship and ideology. I know I’m inviting a firestorm of criticism by typing this, but let’s face the inconvenient truth folks, European art music is dead.


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