AUTHOR: IVO MARTINS
EDITION: Guimarães Jazz Journal #14 - Câmara Municipal de Guimarães/ Associação Cultural Convívio/ A Oficina DATE: November 2019
Music should be perceived as a document of time, a sound palimpsest that is permanently being written, in an attempt to capture the redeeming meaning to its existence. To redeem human failure has always being the main purpose of art, which tried to understand the causes of so many excessive and cruel manifestations. Using very creative processes, radical both in formal as well as in its diverseness, artists denounced the society of their times.
History seen as a whole forms a unified construction, composed of common points, connections both in time as well as in space, interpretations, narratives, testimonies, opinions, critiques, texts, essays… To fully understand a musical tradition such as jazz only through the audition of the records is impossible. Recorded music, being a historical document, is also a fragmentary testimony, a mediated space of communication, necessarily lacunar and imperfect; any recording conveys deteriorated information: gestures, volitions, desires, intentions, solutions, experiences, failures and errors, lost chances, impossible of being integrally reconstituted. In any jazz theme we always find the remains of an insurmountable space, a sort of fractioned piece of information inscribed in a narrative made of several stories which, being associated to the moment of the recording, are forever lost. That is why we say it is easy to rewrite them; our distance from the facts makes this task easier since it presupposes the randomness of discourses, of subjective interpretations and of personal ways of listening.
The evolution of the word “jazz” is an explicit symptom of the difficulty of understanding its origins, in the sense that it raises several problems, questions, conflicts, ambivalences, clashes, antagonisms, contradictions and irregularities. As time went by, and due to its multiple changes, jazz was also developed through linguistic and semantic processes. Will ever be possible to draw a sound map, one in permanent transformation and reflected in suggestive and overflowing images, a map evoking an infinite process of almost archaeological investigation?
The mutations in the term “jazz” must be perceived as navigation notices, juxtaposed layers of historical epochs interacting with each other within an unrepentant whole. Its instability reflects the many contradictions of the twentieth-century, which was a problematic existential era, formed by several obscure and hard to decode elements. These black holes with no solution of continuity, however, still continue produce divergent narratives that resound in the collective drama of artistic creation.
In the beginning of jazz, the improviser was part of a strong dynamics of group, and collective energy absorbed his talent. Musicians obeyed to a superior form of sound, the collective sound, and, in a sense, abdicated of their creative individuality as a personal and active voice. When this initial phase was surpassed, the improviser gradually became a soloist, a creative entity assuming the forthcoming of his sensibility through gestures of “empathic aesthetic” towards the past; such relation represented the founding element of a style. The musicians discovered and explored a speech which was inherent to them, perceived as an individual trademark that did not exist until that moment. The improviser’s identity is therefore a late dimension that characterizes change, a change suggested and verifiable in more recent musical genres. From a certain point, musicians began to need individual and talent and perceived old masters as role models. In this context, each personal sound discovered represented an unmistakable musical signature.
Joseph Brodsky wrote that “art is not a better existence, but an alternative existence”; it “is not an attempt to escape reality but quite the contrary, an attempt to revive reality.” Jazz musicians clearly represent this idea, since they have always been exceptional adversaries and competitors, always competing for their singularity, in some cases completely withdrawn from the predatory mechanisms of the market, and who did every they could to preserve control over their artistic activities. At the same time, they had to face the ferocious completion of emerging musical styles, of other artists and of commercial managers, but, despite all the difficulties, they found their way of surviving within a very small space of intervention, surrounded by competitions and agents who tried to impose their rules.
When everything in jazz seemed stable and almost exhausted in its local forms, globalization set everything in motion. People nowadays are forced to oblige the paradigm of permanent mobility; the ones who chose to stand still, resisting against an unstoppable torrent of change, will perish.
In present time, people are unable to find any support in reality, because their experiences are monotonous, voluble, deformed, fragmented in several insignificant micro-events of everyday life. They have lost the courage to face the future. These individuals are unlikely to consider the future impenetrable, a powerful and durable safe where we preserve our values; the current state of frailness renders future uncertain, therefore precluding any rational prediction and discouraging the sense of hope necessary to rebellion.
The relativity of truth is also present in the universe of music, through the unfolding and expertise of other musical genres, supported upon more recent and better adapted to the virtual world musical formulas. Images and sound are massively disseminated and easily reconfigured through very different processes of montage, in instantaneous and mechanical sequences.
The art world is now more voluble and uncertain, permanently in motion and in transformation, and this situation benefits the current art system. Hanna Arendt said that the cultural object is dependant of its durability, which means that it depends on its capacity to seduce the spectator’s attention. Nowadays, everything is mixed up: cultural and non-cultural objects are function at the same level, according to utilitarian and functional logics. In everything we do there is a sense of urgency, as if the world is being exhausted by multiple and voracious needs.
The invention of Napster, an innovative and accessible internet program, would cause a major change in the traditional management model practiced by the recording industry. This program was a brilliant discovery (a software that was also a platform of sharing and archiving music in a simple and effective way) and created an immense community of users that was like a musical commune where everyone shared digital files containing music of an acceptable sound quality. This ingenious device, invented in 1999 by Shaw Fanning and Sean Parker, two kids who did not even go to college, changed the internet’s paradigm forever and at the same time revealed the difficulty of protecting authorship rights in the new digital regime.
When we think about a phenomenon such as Napster we must to isolate it from the micro-events that caused it. In fact, any event is only defined retrospectively, through the analysis of its consequences. When there are no antecedents capable of explaining the magnitude and the implications of the phenomenon, it becomes impossible to predict the future. This is precisely what happened with Napster: in this story, we sense the feeling of faithfulness to the idea of someone who, working autonomously, has altered the normal course of events. At the time when the program was invented, all signs pointed towards a more rigid and predictable musical system which, due to its own inertia, was drowned in a lucrative yet monotonous routine, focused on the rituals of business only. The frailty and lack of versatility of the music industry were abruptly exposed by a software that, counter-circuiting official protocols and bureaucratic sensibilities, discovered new and very different legal issues.
The democratization of the use of Internet and the expansion of the digital territory will, in the future, pose serious problems regarding the control of the circulation of music. Napster allowed us to begin understand the potential of the cybernetic universe.
The “Napster effect” became an example of egalitarianism and cooperation that disturbed the system; once its impact was neutralized, when people returned to the normality of daily life after an exhilarating phase of ecstatic energy, suddenly something had happened, having left their marks in reality. Each structural crisis is followed by a hangover, but nothing ever remains the same.
In each attack against the establishment defended by the musical industry, there is also an “act” of counter-power, translated in the fact that somebody did, anonymously and discreetly, what everyone would do if the artificial difficulties imposed by the system’s mechanisms did not exist. The drive for bureaucracy creates obstacles which preclude those who desire to work uninterestedly the access to the system; whoever acts independently and autonomously is apt to suffer a traumatic clash with bureaucracy. Such a clash is followed by an evanescent pleasure, based only on a partially accomplished refusal because, from the moment that its liberation effect is exhausted, everything goes back to normal: to confront the system means also to accept returning to normality.
According to Michel Foucault, the individual becomes a true work of art by reinventing himself, creating new lifestyles in the process. In that sense, the clash between legal users and creators and the ones who are marginal to the system is a more serious problem that it seems. Will culture be capable of surviving decadence, fall and the loss of eternity?
Thomas Metzinger proposes a interesting idea of transparency, defined in opposition to the concept that is normally explored by social mass media; to him, in “any phenomenal state, the degree of transparency is inversely proportional to the introspective degree of attention to the preceding stages of processing”. People claim for transparency and what is true becomes invisible; such vision transforms transparency into a “specific form of darkness”, where people are not capable of seeing because everything is transparent.
On the internet, the logics of such an illusion are stretched to its limits, because the difference between object and subject is blurred, forcing us to the conclusion that nobody exist outside the frame of a fetichist mistake. However, nobody is fully opaque to itself, just as it is impossible for any individual to know himself integrally, in the sense that he is not capable of understanding his own generative mechanism.
Music now survives within a reticular structure, more horizontal than vertical, and devoid of a hierarchy defined by canons, generating ideas that either separate or merge with one another, generating new extensions of taste and sensibility. New configurations of the will are established everywhere, anytime.
Nowadays it is possible to affirm that modernity and culture, like art and religion, failed their main purposes: they neither change anything nor did they built a new man. Historical experience taught us that the origin of evil are the dependencies between individuals, and that our abstract, impersonal or universal laws are not strong enough to put an end to the arbitrary imposition of the will of one man upon everyone else.
Artists are confronted with a reality that distorts, deforms and interferes with their work; to act consciously means to live inside a contingent regime between different dimensions of reality, where objects and lifestyles are incessantly transacted and disseminated. Coherency and incoherency, the disposable, the mutant and the hybrid, are strategic predispositions that denounce the impossibility of being both on the inside and the outside of the system, or even on its margins.
People live in a strange world where order and imposed discourses prevail. Art wanders silently through the interstices of a system that was supposed to be free but shows great difficulties being what it was supposed to be. Each artist invents his own history as a parallel circuit of information; to refuse being a part of a dominant cultural structure that encourages withdrawal requires being committed to new forms of non-canonical beauty.
Music has the ethical obligation of reflecting upon the hatred that caused suffering to several people of different ethnicities. The Afro-Americans of the beginning of the twentieth century, who invented jazz, are a fundamental example of this posture, since they were able to invent a new musical genre out of their own practices and their own ancestral identity. Jazz became a lesson, being the expression of a specific role model composed not by abstract values, but by concrete elements incarnated in a thick web of daily routines.
Education is not enough to change the world; this requires something more radical, a sort of brechtian distancing, based on a difficult, cruel and profound existence in which we may rediscover the stupidity and the randomness of our habits and rituals. The most important thing to do is to recognize the stranger in us, considering jazz as the expression of that exact dimension. We must recognize who we are, a group of eccentric lunatics in urgent need to find a way of coexisting peacefully. However, this knowledge forces us to overcome the isolation of the tribe and to find a new collective commitment based on universal solidarity; or, in other words, the building up of a strong enough cause to be shared by different communities, which is precisely the great civilizational merit of jazz.
“The musicians of silence embody only the narrow door which opens to a place beyond appearances. In China, in the 1930’s, Kazantzaki’s search leads him to a temple in Beijing, where he attends a silent concert. Musicians take their places and tune their instruments. [The old house’s owner attempts a gesture of hand-clapping, but his hands stop before getting in contact with each other. This is the overture of the astonishing mute concert. The violinists raise their arches and the flutists touch their instruments with their lips, while their fingers flow rapidly through its holes. Deep silence… One cannot hear a thing. As if this was a concert happening somewhere very far away, on the other side of shadows, on the other margin of life, but yet we see musicians playing, in undaunted silence].”
This excerpt belongs to the book “Du Mont Sinai à l’ Île de Venus”, by N. Kazantzaki, published in 1958; this is neither poetry, religion or spirituality, nor delirious ideas; these are real dimensions experienced by the soul. Before being culturally and conceptually appropriated by the history of art and music, the listening of the silence of music was for a long time one of the crucial elements of any religious music. Nowadays, due to many factors related to the death of God, to secularization, to modernism and, more recently, to the influence of economy and its utilitarian and pragmatic logics, the spiritual dimension of music was practically forgotten.
Silence is rejected by consumerist societies because it confronts the notion of utility and questions the value of answers which favour weak and superfluous relations; within noise, the sense of belonging becomes impersonal and diffuse. To be silent means abandoning the system and choosing a discrete and intimate existential path on the margins, on slower zones where the torrents of life are less intense.
The reality formed by what is possible to say conveys a false transparency where a zone of secrecy, of silence, is impossible to attain: man is exhibited both from his inside and his outside as if he were made of glass. However, in the litanies of communication, the unsayable remains unreachable, a zone of limited access.
Whoever creates something, knowing that his work will be judged in public, pushes himself to the limits when he decides to present his work. Such a contact should occur in silence; however, if the context is contaminated by noise and if the cultural act presents itself saturated with persuasive discourses pretending to legitimize or to highlight the connection between the cultural gesture and its observer, such ambition becomes impossible to achieve.
Exile is a form of silence, the unknown. Exile means not only to traverse the frontiers between countries, but also to intersect different cultural environments, places which provide the ones in exile new ways of seeing the world with lucidity. There is a strange advantage in suffering from solitude, from abandonment and alienation. Exclusion, an inharmonious existence, sometimes hostile, sometimes pleasant, but always distanced from the individual’s cultural roots, precludes the artist from the feeling at home. The exiled, being separated from the memorized topography of his past territories, holds access to universal meanings and logics.
Nowadays, in a fast-changing world, everyone is a potential exiled, but liberated souls have no need for action.
In a sense, to capture the global world means to be a spectator.
TRANSLATION: MANUEL JOSÉ NETO