What follows is a written counterpoint, somewhat more fully fleshed-out, to my TEDxUTA Talk, “Insistent Music.” You can view the video of the talk on my website here.
I’m a jazz musician. I play and compose music that 99% of the world doesn’t really get, like, or care to understand. Society is often flummoxed by people like me. I do get to have a life where I do what I love ALL THE TIME! I teach music, perform music, compose music, and generally live and breathe music. I also sometimes play crazy solos that might make people leave a concert, write music that might sound like a thousand bees buzzing at once, underwater, and in general challenge my audience.
I’m going to talk about why people like me continue to create “insistent music”. By “Insistent Music” I mean music that is difficult to appreciate, to listen to, or even perform. Musicians like me do this even though creating in that way may not produce popular or financial rewards. I’m here today to convince you that listening to, appreciating, and evangelizing Insistent Music is so vitally important to our culture as human beings.
Where I’m Coming From
I got my start down the road of performing, composing, and generally appreciating “challenging music” when I was very little. My mom, and much of her family, took piano lessons as a child. She continues to play casually now. My dad is an engineer who taught himself guitar in his younger years. When I was 5, I started piano lessons with our neighborhood piano teacher. I studied piano much like any other American child – going through method books with my teachers, learning songs like “Lazy Lion,” “Pat, My Cat,” and others, moving up in the world to such classic pieces as “Für Elise”, “Georgia Porcupine,” and so on and so forth. I had a great teacher in grade school. But then, at the end of 6th grade, we moved to the suburbs, and I had to find a new teacher. Long story short, I ended up with a jazz piano teacher, and I quickly fell down the dark hole of playing a style of music that 99% of the world doesn’t particularly appreciate. For various reasons, I also tend to write challenging music that isn’t always easy to appreciate. I am the artistic director for a big band that specifically seeks to present music by living American jazz composers. As you might well imagine, much of my life is spent dealing with what most people think of as “insistent music.”
I think that many people who don’t produce art or music in a professional capacity wonder why people such as myself insist on doing what they do. The pay grade is nearly always lower, the hours often longer and stranger, and job security is a foreign concept for all but the top sliver of artists or musicians with salaried positions and benefits.
The Grand Insistence
To me, insisting on presenting insistent music (and challenging art in general) is a necessary activity built into the fabric of our identity as human beings. Artists create challenging art because they absolutely have to do it! Musicians perform challenging music because they absolutely have to perform it! I call this fascinating phenomenon the grand insistence. We insist upon putting this art or music out there, regardless of whether or not people will get it, will approve of it, will put money toward supporting it, etc. This insistence seems to be uniquely human, and as such I think it deserves some serious attention.
True musicians are driven by a fundamental need to communicate with their fellow human beings.
Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Igor Stravinsky, Dec. 1920
Music, especially challenging music, serves as an idea catalyst. Music becomes a vehicle for sentiments that may be too powerful or painful to express in words, and can pave the way for actual conversations later. Musicians are often the first class of people to publicly challenge a historical, societal, or political norm by insisting their music be heard. A famous example was once again made apparent in the opening ceremonies of the recent Olympic Winter Games, held in Sochi, Russia. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was played as an example of a famous Russian composer contributing to world culture. Remember, however, when it premiered in Paris in 1913, was so striking in its novelty that a fight broke out in the audience.
Of course, the ideas music communicates are not always political. They often suggest a new way of viewing the world, and our place within it. Often by challenging our perceptions of how music should go, composers and performers invite comparisons to other processes outside music. For example, the great Ornette Coleman, who happens to be a Fort Worth native by the way, was fundamental in challenging the typical structure of how jazz is composed and performed. He realized, and indeed insisted upon, improvising without the typical limitations of things like chord changes and basic formal structures of compositions. There’s a famous story about a concert in Los Angeles in which a young Ornette Coleman was playing with a group of elder jazz all-stars. The other musicians walked off the stage. Mr. Coleman went on to change the face of jazz as we know it.
He began working on his revolutionary approach to music in the mid-1950s. What would have happened if he would have listened to the naysayers and tried to sound like the elder jazz musicians? We would have missed out on a very crucial expansion of our concept of how art fits into human culture. No one would listen right away. So he kept insisting. Insisting that what he had to say deserved thoughtful consideration. His artistic philosophy, and grand insistence that he had something very important to get across, of course came to fruition in a long career in improvised music that continues to this day. More than 50 years after he began composing and improvising HIS way, he was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in music for his recording-length work “Sound Museum.”
So what if musicians create insistent music? I think it’s incumbent upon us as human beings to make a serious effort to appreciate music, and all art, that challenges us. Art doesn’t have to be entertaining, although entertainment may be a component of art. The insistence great musicians make should remind us that they have something very important to say. Typically artists arrive at that insistence only after an incredible amount of pondering, experimentation, and failure. We can often discover a great deal from the amount of time they’ve already spent crafting their concepts into sophisticated idea vehicles that are works of art.
I have here an excerpt of a piece I composed for big band that will likely sound like “challenging music” to many of you. Try to listen with open ears and mind.
[Excerpted from "Black Rattle," recorded by Dan Cavanagh's Jazz Emporium Big Band on Pulse, OA2 Records 22048]
This excerpt is interesting to me in several ways. It uses a “follow the leader” approach, where one musician is appointed leader, and the rest follow along after he or she starts. There’s a freedom in allowing musicians to lead and follow in a non-traditional way. After composing this work, and several other works like it, I certainly began to look at leadership in a much more sophisticated way. As so many of you in this room know so well, leadership encompasses not only giving direction and instruction, but the work of pulling people in your direction, setting great examples, and letting others shine. A small, challenging excerpt can quickly explode into themes of leadership, democracy, and even an exploration of current, fluid practice versus past rigidity.
The Long Wait
It often takes history a relatively long time to recognize that musicians who perform challenging music really have important things to say through their art. It’s ironic that often our culture waits until a particular artist is dead to proclaim him or her relevant to the time in which he or she lived! I think it is so rewarding to find the ideas in challenging art. Oftentimes, the art is challenging to appreciate precisely because the ideas behind them are sophisticated, subtle, and big.
We can find many wonderful examples of the grand insistence throughout history. Mozart insisted he could create his unbelievable art without aristocratic support, something that drove him to poverty and an early death. Arnold Schoenberg insisted that we could free ourselves from the harmonic system that had been developed over the previous 500 years, and reminded us that music didn’t have to be beautiful in the Romantic sense. John Cage showed us that chance, rather than determination, can be an important element in creating music. Duke Ellington, as well as many other early jazz musicians, insisted that popular or dance music could also communicate lofty ideas about equality. These musicians didn’t do what they did for fame, although often fame came for them. They did it because the ideas were so important to get across.
All of these ideas are very human, very big, non-musical ideas that exist outside the scope of their art. The great musicians of our world, and indeed all insistent artists, are not presenting challenging material so that they will be remembered by history, like Ancient Greek heroes going on epic journeys for the reason that they will hopefully remembered forever. Rather, these artists are creating from a strong belief that the ideas behind their work, and the act of considering those ideas, are a fundamental human practice, and a cultural need.
So I challenge you to actively seek out insistent music, and art in general. Find those people who seem to be insisting that what they are presenting to you is of extreme importance. Apply those concepts to your lives, whether or not you create artworks. And insist that others do the same.