Friday, June 16, 2006

Butcher Jazz?

(Explanatory note: this post touches on issues related to contemporary improvised music, a genre that I participate in as a performer and of which I have been a fan for some time. Prepare, therefore, gentle reader, for some hopelessly nerdy insider talk).

Sometimes one stumbles across a piece of criticism so mind-bogglingly off-base that the only logical response is perverse admiration. Such is John Gill's meditation on the butch-ification of jazz at the hands of younger-generation practitioners (which appeared in the November 2005 edition of the online journal Paris Transatlantic). It would be difficult to summarize exactly what Gill is getting at, and it remains a possibility that I am too obtuse to get the irony, if that is what it is, embedded in his writing.

Dwelling on the outrageous wrongness of Gill's thesis would be a waste of energy, I think, and we should take the opportunity to consider whether a different take on the (sometimes very provocative and suggestive) themes that he raises might be more productive. To put it simply-- do current trends in jazz (and perhaps, by extension, free improvised music and experimental music more generally) reflect a narrow preoccupation with "butch" musical and performance tendencies, at the expense of other less macho possiblities? Does this trend stem from a streamlined and selective (as well as phallocentric) historical narrative of jazz(and/or free improv/experimental)music, and has it or could it introduce "butch"-biased distortions in jazz/free/out historiography?

More specifically, have things gotten better or worse, friendlier or chillier for queer musicians and female performers in these milieus over the past few months/years/decades? Finally-- and this is the question Gill avoids formulating explicitly, for the same reasons, no doubt, that pedestrians tend to avoid jumping in snake-infested lakes of quicksand that are also on fire-- can we make any correlations between "hard" and "soft" musical tendencies and the performance of gender and sexuality?

The emergence of a new "butch" jazz/free/out music has been on the radar for a few years. Following the principle that nobody likes a dialectical negation of a negation like a lazy music journalist, we could have guessed that the vogue for quiet/self-effacing/personality-dissolving music over the past 5 years would be declared moribund right around January 2006. The way would thus be cleared for a macho/aggro/butch revival, ensuring new niche markets for signed and numbered limited-edition CD-Rs.

What trend for quiet/self-effacing/personality-dissolving music over the last 5 years, you ask? Well, some time around the year 2000, "blowing" (feverish, often lyrical, expressive improvising, frequently performed by a whole ensemble at the same time) was declared "out," and something else was understood to have replaced it.

What exactly this "something else" was is still a mystery. Many called the new thing "quiet," but the vogue for contact-miking small sounds (often by musicians who were exploring electronics and amplification for the first time, and were thus not used to controlling volumes) and laptop computers (same deal) meant that the music was actually quite a lot louder than the acoustic jazz/improvised/out small-ensemble music it was meant to replace/supplement/critique. Some called it "lower-case," which pointed to the interest in "microscopic" aspects of the audible world, although since many groups in this scene were large assemblages of droning electronicians (notably Keith Rowe's MIMEO), it would not be accurate to use this label indiscriminately, either.

Others chose more focused appellations: "onkyo" for new Japanese improv, which centered around a community of musicians who dramatically restricted their sonic palettes (by using post-fluxus instrumental strategies such as "empty" samplers, no-input mixing boards, etc) and explored silence/non-intentionality/modesty/space in distinctive and exciting ways; "minimalism" and "reductionism" and god knows what other names were tacked onto the music coming out of London, Berlin, Vienna, Boston, Chicago. It was/is an exciting/infuriating/confusing time, especially for folks like me who feel that silence and small sounds are integral parts of the old european impro-jazz tradition, not a new challenge to orthodoxy. The distinctions made regarding old guard vs. new school improv seem in retrospect arbitrary and ahistorical, often articulated most forcefully by musicians trying to carve out a market niche, get on the right festival invite lists, or compensate for the excesses of their bebop-jock youths. No matter. An incredible amount of great music got made. Maybe people will continue to make it.

To tie this little recap to the overall theme of this post, one of the great things about this movement has been its openness to female and non-butch/sensitive-flower male improvisors. The list of important and inspiring female improvisors who have found a home within this scene is amazing and inspiring, especially as a reversal of the "sausage party" tendencies of improv scenes past: Annette Krebs, Kaffe Matthews, Andrea Neumann, Brigitte Uhler, Sachiko M, Ami Yoshida, Sabine Vogel, Angharad Davies, Liz Tonne, Maria Chavez, to name just a few. While I have no data on the friendliness of improv scenes to queer/bi/tg performers, it is true that the new cultural climate has at least encouraged some male improvisors to abandon the warrior/viking/lothario posture favored by some musicians of yesteryear.

Nevertheless, the butch aesthetic has been on the upswing. Gill's bete noire, Mats Gustafsson, has recently been working a lot with a hard-rocking band called The Thing, which plays ecstatic free jazz and covers of tunes by PJ Harvey and the White Stripes. Anthony Braxton (he of the cardigan sweater collection and radical dweeb persona) de-butches with hirsute hardcore boyband Wolf Eyes. Sensitive Japanese guitar manipulator Tetuzi Akiyama embraces blazing ultra-amplified boogie guitar music to great acclaim. Boston quiet trumpetmaster Greg Kelley has been heard in many loud psych/rock bands playing with Shure SM57-in-fist. One-time crackle-and-glitch maven Kevin Drumm releases a slew of mximaliest metallic noise records. Australian small-sound/drone guitarist Oren Ambarchi collaborates with heavy music merchants Sun O))). The list could surely be extended further...

There is nothing wrong with any of this, in my opinion. For one thing, much of this activity appears to be distinctly complementary to traditional improvised music projects, or indicates that the performers involved have shifted from improvised to compositional or rock endeavors. The only real danger that I can see would be a rollback of gains made during the "quiet" music revolution. If musicians are encouraged to show up at gigs with the most obnoxious, aggressive, or antisocial materials they can muster, a great many performers and listeners will feel (rightly, I think) alienated. There are deep links between musical style and the social dynamics/norms of interaction and self-presentation that communities encourage. Inasmuch as quiet/contemplative/listening-oriented improvised music opens space for dialgoue and reflection, so can "macho" practices encourage hierarchy, posturing, and tolerance for the creative legitimacy of stomping all over others' feelings and personal space.

Nevertheless, Gill is dead wrong about the politics of musicians like Mats Gustafsson. Gustafsson has always been very vocal about the signal importance of Peter Brotzmann's Machine Gun in his decision to become an improvisor, and his approach to intense laser-focused saxophony can be heard in sparse settings as often as in hardcore blowfests (can any contemporary improvisor of his generation claim as many fabulous small-sound/small-group recordings-- his duos with Paul Lovens and Gunter Christmann, not to mention the seminal Gush albums, the solo records, up to the extremely life-affirming set of "blues" duets with David Stackenäs from last year?) Surely we can let at least one improv dude be a handsome athletic guy with a bit of charisma and stage presence, no? I will personally guarantee that the rest of us will remain vigilant in maintaining social awkwardness, male pattern baldness, and mismatched socks as the de facto mode of self-presentation in the impro-world.

I don't know about you, but my #1 goal when improvising is to showcase my masculinity.
Not to keep commenting on everything you write, but I find it awfully strange that this guy would deride the free improv world for being too masculine while on the same website praising Jonathan Kane's completely boneheaded white boy blues fest with the Pitchfork-ian apology line, "Who cares what kind of music it is? It rocks."

I guess it's ok for the blues and rock n roll to exclude women and homosexuals. So long as it rocks, dude.
oh, blast... it's by a different writer. dammit.
Nick, thanks for checking in... I would be sad if you ever stopped commenting.

Your machismo always shines through in your music beautifully, although I think it becomes overkill when you bludgeon the kettle drum with raw steaks.
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