Musical (un)talent

H. Jon Benjamin. Source: http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2016/01/19/jb_wide-c72b0ed1d2cabcc75fcc50b5b8affd24b8813315-s800-c85.jpg

I’ve previously touched the topic of musical talent in my discussion about the young Jacob Collier. I recently came across a sort of opposite case in terms of musical talent. H. Jon Benjamin is an American voice actor and comedian who’s got into the music world from the “wrong end”, so to say. He has a record deal and brought out his first album before he actually learned to play [Junkee].

As always I’d urge you to listen for yourself before reading on to make up your own mind about Benjamin’s undertaking.

First, let me say that I haven’t heard the whole record, just the clips available online, which I’ve included here as well. Frankly, I’m not sure if I could endure listening to the whole album 😉 But I do think these clips give a pretty good idea of the nature of Benjamin’s project.

Benjamin’s Jazz Daredevil raises many questions and thoughts of the nature of jazz as a musical genre but in a more general level also about what the philosopher Pierre Bourdieu has called “cultural capital”. More specifically, it challenges the notions of skills and talent required to perform music we call jazz and raises questions as to where lies the value of artistic enterprises in general and in jazz in particular.

Music as language

I’d like to here approach these questions through the common comparison between music and language. I’ll leave a more thorough discussion of this comparison for later and pick out a few themes from the music-as-language discourse that apply to the present discussion.

As discussed here before, jazz can – at least be attempted to – be defined by naming some essential characteristics such as specific rhythmic (swing) and melodic (blues) “vocabulary”, if you will. To be able to play jazz, then, would entail a command of these vocabularies in a way that others familiar with this musical language understand “what you’re saying”.

Music as language

The comments in the clip above by some of the musicians involved in Benjamin’s project suggest that they didn’t feel like they were exactly “speaking the same language” musically. In the clip it’s also suggested that Benjamin’s album is what jazz sounds like to the uninitiated. Some online commentators [NPR] also share this view.

Cultural capital

The narrator of the clip has a view in between the above two hearing Benjamin’s efforts as “fresh” approach to jazz. This, in my view, speaks of one of the biggest problems with some avant-garde art, it’s view of artistic novelty as cultural capital; trying to do something “new”, something nobody has done before as the main value of their art.

The underlying ideal of this aspiration to constantly reinvent the western musical tradition comes from one of the backbones of modernism, progressivism; the idea that the human condition is on a linear, constantly improving path (for the history of this line of thinking see here [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]).

In musical avant-garde this first took the forms of expanding the conventional parameters of music, mainly harmony, in musical impressionism and eventually attempting to do away with them entirely in expressionism. The latter also began experimenting with instrumentation such as the Italian musical Futurism of the early 20th century.

The group Performa discussing and performing parts of Luigi Rulloso’s Art of Noises.

While Benjamin undoubtedly was not particularly inspired by the pioneers of “Art of Noises”, the musical programme of the Futurists did include avoiding conventional musical training in favour of auto-didactic learning. However, both share the aim of creating something “new” and unconventional by setting themselves consciously apart from the “mainstream”.

loopool reading Russolo’s manifesto and providing some context to it 100 years after.

Unorthodox musicians are of course not a new phenomenon in jazz. Already in 1950s Ornette Coleman stirred the scene with his plastic saxophone and was told “You can’t play that” (Charlie Haden in the BBC documentary). However, Coleman found other musicians who shared his musical vision – or they found him – such as Charlie Haden and went on to “rewrite the language of jazz” with his playing that was rhythmically and harmonically “out of the box”.

Blues Connotation is one of Coleman’s classics revealing his rootedness in the Black American musical tradition and showing how he springs from it.

A quick listening experiment, however, reveals – even to the uninitiated, I believe – how Coleman is in fact very well at home in the musical language of jazz – or black music in general – and chooses to make his own version of it. Benjamin, on the other hand, seems to have a very rudimentary idea of how to “speak the jazz language”. Some of his rhythms and melodic shapes suggest that he’s not completely at loss in his musical environment, but in absence of any technical command of his instrument of choice or any knowledge of the “grammar” of the language he’s trying to convers in, his playing does sound quite as random as it actually is.

To say that this is how jazz sounds like to people who don’t know it says more about how people listen to music than about anything else. You don’t need to know a language to be able to tell when someone’s faking it. You just need to listen a bit more carefully and compare to something you know to be the “real thing”. In Benjamin’s case it’s actually quite easy if you listen to the exchanges – or dialogue, if you will – between the saxophonist and Benjamin.

In terms of cultural capital, I think the value of Benjamin’s project lies elsewhere than in its musical merits. As one of the online commentators mentioned this could be an “Andy Kauffman/Borat kind of ‘meta-gag’”. Benjamin himself is not admitting it, but then again that would spoil the gag, wouldn’t it?

It’ll be, however, interesting to see what comes of this if Benjamin actually pursues with his musical career as he says in the interview. Although jazz is no longer in the centre of Black American culture like it was in Coleman’s early days – or it’s even considered “dead” by some – high jacking it for such a “meta-gag” could be seen as controversial in perhaps a broader sense than Benjamin thought of. Him actually learning the language and then finding his way to speak it would bridge that gap. But whether that’s his end game with this project we’ll have to wait and see what his “untapped un-talent” brings us.

Music matters

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2ndline February 6th 2011

If, as I hope, you’ve already read some of my posts here, it should be apparent that music means a great deal to me. Obviously, this is true to many others as well and like many others I also sometimes stop to wonder what is it about music – this abstract thing we cannot see, taste or smell – that makes it so important for so many people?

I’m going to approach the topic here first by setting against each other some views about why music matters or doesn’t. After a short discussion of music’s evolutionary and cultural importance I’ll propose that music has an ethical dimension as well and go on to discuss how music can carry ideas, which again enables its use for even ideological purposes. I’ll wrap up with a vision of music – and culture in general – as a positive force in the contemporary world torn by other disruptive and destructive forces.

The title for this post is borrowed from a blog by professor Henkjan Honing from University of Amsterdam. In his blog professor Honing discusses our topic as it pertains to his research interests in the field of cognitive musicology. His angle is therefore a mix of cognitive sciences, psychology, biology and – to some extent – anthropology, with some philosophical considerations as well.

During my studies I had the privilege and pleasure of following a couple of courses of professor Honing and one of the topics we discussed at length was music’s role in human evolution. You can read further about this discussion in professor Honing’s blog, but in a nutshell the argument is between positions of music being an “auditory cheesecake” – irrelevant to human cognitive evolution (Steven Pinker) – and one that views it as a proto-language (Steven Mithen).

The problem – or one of them – professor Honing points at is the lack of a comprehensive definition of music. It’s difficult to say why music matters to us if we can’t quite put our finger on what exactly is this “music” we care so much of. Is it the notes on the paper? Then what about the music that isn’t, nor has never been, written down? Is it the CDs and mp3s in our collections? Then what about the music that has never been recorded? Is the music to be found in the grooves of the CD or the bits and bytes of its digital form? Or is it the sounds we hear? How do we distinguish musical from non-musical sounds?

Henkjan Honing

I will leave most of the above questions for later and provide a definition of music to fit the present purposes. Music, as discussed here, is something Christopher Small has called “musicking”. This term emphasises active engagement with music, whether e.g. through making, listening to or dancing to it. Such a broad definition can, in my view, help us understand why – and in which ways – we may find music to be important, or at least relevant, to our lives.

You’re likely reading this post – and hopefully some others on my blog as well 😉 – because music matters to you. But there are people out there who are rather indifferent about music. Such people may not have any preference for a specific genre of music and they are not the least bothered by the “sonic tapestries” in malls and other public spaces. Around four percent of people even have a neurological condition called amusia; they are not able to recognise sounds as music – let alone sing or dance along.

There’s no folk without music

It’s a sort of ethnomusicological cliché that there’s no folk on earth that doesn’t have their own music. And in all likelihood this has always been so.

Music is used in various ways by people, implying music to be a form of e.g. art and/or entertainment. It’s also part of many – if not most – social rituals; be it ones with a religious nature such as weddings and funerals or profane ones such as sports events.

In some ancient mythologies music has a very concrete existential and/or ontological agency. In Hindu philosophy universe constitutes of sound. Hindu music is organised around the central pitch ōm around which other musical organisations – tālas (rhytmically) and rāgas (melodically) – are performed. In the Finnish Kalevala song has the power to heal – or cause – illnesses and build e.g. ships.

Musical creation of aesthetic spaces

Some more mundane ways of using music include e.g. the above-mentioned “sonic tapestry” usage; as a background for various sorts of activities not directly related to the particular music being played. This has become quite abundant lately with various technologies, such as smartphones and portable media players and online music streaming, affording listening to music practically anywhere and any time.

This is a very interesting phenomenon in itself warranting a separate discussion, but I’ll take up a few points about it here. The increased popularity of listening to music with headphones has socio-cultural as well as commercial repercussions.

In terms of “musicking” as discussed above, this practice of listening to music by ourselves, even in the company of others, is antithetical to the purpose of music in a traditional sense in which it has worked as a “social glue” bringing people together and enabling various kinds of social rituals. Nowadays it’s increasingly popular to create your own “aesthetic space” by plugging in your headphones and turning on your favourite music whether in public transport, gym, office or on the street.

Music in 21st century commercial spaces

In commercial sense, there’s probably more demand for music today than there has ever been. However, it’s another question who reaps the benefits of this. The traditional business model of the music industry has been challenged already for a couple of decades. This model based on the idea of selling copyrights of musical works dates back to the beginnings of commercial book printing in the 18th century England. In the 21st century economy of digital products and streaming services the old model requires serious rethinking. See here for a short history of this rethinking process.

Clubber

While the record companies might still be able to make profits through licensing agreements with the streaming service providers, the new “digital paradigm” is challenging for musicians trying to make a living. However, new generations of musicians – such Jacob Collier, I’ve discussed before – are finding ever new ways of making music and reaching their audiences that are also economically viable.

I’ll stop here for now and continue soon about music’s significance through its ethical dimension and the some of the meanings and association which make it matter.

Music and film – Part II

Story of Floating Weeds at Film Museum EYE, Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s cultural life has once again offered something quite thought provoking and of course I’d like to share the products of my grey cells with you. I’ve discussed music and/in film here already earlier but this latest experience provides yet another angle to the topic.

The Amsterdam film museum Eye presented the Japanese silent film The Story of Floating Weeds (Ukikusa monogatari) from 1934 with introduction and piano accompaniment by Martin de Ruiter and voice acting (benshi) by Ichiro Kataoka.

“Floating weeds, drifting down the leisurely river of our lives,” has long been a favored metaphor in Japanese prose and poetry. Donald Richie

The film tells a story of a man leading a theatre troupe and being torn between his responsibilities as a father and the demands of his nomadic profession. For a more elaborate plot description and analysis, see this blog text on Silent Volume.

Silent film in Japan

In the introduction to the cinema concert Mr de Ruiter told us that in Japan silent films were made considerably longer than in the US and Europe. Whereas in the US the last silent films where made in the end of 1920s and e.g. in the Netherlands Philips was able to equip the Dutch cinemas with sound systems very quickly in the 1930s, in Japan silent films were made until the 1940s.

It is also notable that the Japanese silent film making owed much to the Noh theatre tradition.  The director of the afternoon’s film Yasujiro Ozu bowed to the old tradition by using a rather stationary camera positioning, which according to David Bordwell is Ozu’s stylistic trademark. There were very few scenes where the camera would actually follow a person or close up. I’m not an expert here but seems to me that Ozu’s work belongs to the Pure Film Movement of early Japanese cinema.

Here’s a short clip from the film to give you a better idea what I’m talking about here.

In addition to being stationary and showing mostly the whole set of a scene, Ozu’s style of shooting also viewed the actor from a point of view similar to that of a theatre audience; from slightly below, always showing the full bodies of the actors – including their geta, Japanese version of flip-flops. In the few close-ups at the most dramatic moments the actors didn’t show there emotions so much on there faces as with their hands and other bodily gestures. There was a lot of scratching and touching different body parts as a reaction to e. g. an accusation or embarrassment.

Picture from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/78/Geta.JPG/200px-Geta.JPG
A pair of geta

This, in my view, is in line with the above-mentioned debt to the Noh theatre in which the actors wore masks.

Picture from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/cc/The_Childrens_Museum_of_Indianapolis_-_%22Ko-jo%22_Noh_Theater_mask.jpg/170px-The_Childrens_Museum_of_Indianapolis_-_%22Ko-jo%22_Noh_Theater_mask.jpg
A “Ko-jo” (old man) mask used in Noh theatre; in the collection of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

Dramatising a story

Old films, let alone films from other cultures, tend to use different strategies and methods to dramatise their stories. Most notably there are differences in the amount of time taken and details used to build up the story line and highlight the dramatic climaxes.

In this cinema concert, however, the drama began from the setting you see in the picture on the top: An empty screen and empty piano chair. Outside of the picture on the left there’s also a speakers stand for the voice actor. In other words, the setting was full of potential but provided few cues as to what was to come – which of course is the case in most performances.

Not being at all familiar with Japanese silent film before this experience, I could only expect what I had read in the short description on the EYE website.

Power of silence

I couldn’t find any information about the piano music Mr de Ruiter played that night, but I’m quite sure it wasn’t the same composition heard on the clip above.  Whereas the music of this clip sounds like quite typical late Romantic piano music (not quite my cup of tea so I can’t name the composition), the music Mr de Ruiter played was more serene, even abstract at times, and used a lot of pentatonic scales giving it an “Eastern” flavour.

Although Mr de Ruiter has composed music for silent films and is the programmer for “silent film and live music” at the EYE, I couldn’t find confirmation to whether he had actually composed the music we heard that afternoon.

One of the most dramatic moments in The Story of Floating Weeds was when the troupe was sitting together for the last time and began singing, trying to enjoy this last moment together. The drama of the moment was highlighted – one might even say created –  by the pause in the piano accompaniment. This left us watching the silent singing and hand clapping of the people on the screen – and indeed for one of them it was too much and he broke off crying.

I found that a very strong moment with much more profound effect as in your standard Hollywood build-up with more and more action and louder music/sound effects. It was also a bold move from the composer. The music until then – and after this scene – was indeed more like an accompaniment; moving with the action on the screen, sort of mimicking it.

By dropping the accompaniment out when the people on the screen were singing, music – for a moment – gained agency in the dramatisation of the story. The sudden absence of the music, just when the people were singing and in need of accompaniment, turned our focus on the (absence of) music as well as on the dramatic moment; the the film characters were forcing themselves to sing, although most of them felt like crying. One could also say that music assumed a personage of its own as one of the singers on the screen who – like one of the figures actually did – couldn’t go on singing but had to break off.

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