“Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. And that’s what it is. The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you. When your mind is trapped by the image out there so that you never make the reference to yourself, you have misread the image.”
― Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
So you may or may not have heard that I’ll be leaving my musicology Ph.D program at USC as of this month. Without going too much into details, it turned out that I wasn’t a very good fit for the program, and it was decided that everyone would probably be better off to cut it short. I’m not one to get hung up on things and I don’t really have any beef with anyone there, but our conceptions of how “musicology” should be defined was so far off from each other that I was probably better off leaving before I went deeper down the hole, both intellectually and financially. Feels like I just got out of a bad 2-year relationship, in a lot of ways.
But the experience itself wasn’t a total waste, since it did help to clarify a few things for me, particularly in regard to how my music fits in the bigger picture of things. I realized that my approach to music is heavily influenced by the problem-solving mindset, which largely puts me at odds with what most of the arts/humanities institutions are doing right now. My interest in startup culture emerged largely because I felt like I had a lot in common with entrepreneurs and engineers in this regard — many of whom applied this philosophy directly to their creative output.
Regardless of where my standing is as a musician, I still do believe that problem-solving is still the skill that has been missing in the music world for a long time, and is probably the only thing that has any realistic chance of revitalizing the music industry at this point. If all else fails (and it probably will) most of the big opportunities in music will revolve around the intersections of the artform and improv by a matter of default. Entrepreneurship is largely about solving problems, and improvisers are to music what entrepreneurs are to the business world. The image of improvised musics is essentially a reflection of what’s happening in the rest of society, and it seems almost inevitable at this point that trends will begin to shift towards a favorable view of such activities in the long run.
When most musicians sit down to make some music, they usually have a vague notion of what they’re attempting to do — maybe it’ll reveal something about themselves, about the world, or about an idea that may have been brewing in the back of their minds. Some just want to make beats for people to dance to, others, to tell the world (or someone that they know) that they exist. Or maybe their music might contain a moral message or exemplify a certain way of thinking or a way of life, seeking to connect to those who harbor similar values as them. In each of these cases, artists are out to reflect something about themselves or the world in the way they think is best.
These approaches are popular because they appeal to our sense of identity while simultaneously giving us a framework of understanding how the world works. A love song tells us how we might feel after a heartbreak. Some tell a story about activities that we might have done in the past, helping us to relive those moments again. Others might reinforce a political or social message that we’re in strong agreement with. Once in a while these stories will contain enough nuanced truths in them to warrant critical acclaim, deemed worthy of long-term remembrance.
I say “popular” because these methods are not necessarily the only ways of doing or thinking about music or art — just popular. So popular, in fact, that it’s become extremely difficult to think of music outside of the confines of these forms, which have been in development since beginning of the 20th Century onward and have now become the de-facto ideology of the day. It dominates the approaches taken in both popular and “fine arts” culture, and there’s no way of escaping it’s influence anywhere you go. “It” being — the idea that art is made to be a reflection of something that exists in the world, as means of getting closer to the truth. To most, the previous sentence is a statement that’s largely self-evident, synonymous with what art should be.
From the very beginning, however, there has always been an inherent danger in making any kind of art that merely reflects, because reflections are static, derivative, and devoid of human intention. A mirror, in a literal sense, is only capable of creating a lesser imitation of the real thing — an image that exists outside of reality, with its polarity reversed. The mirror might be a useful tool for learning a few things about ourselves, perhaps, but can the images it produces really count as an act of creativity?
In the digital age, you might use a few filters, distortion effects, editing techniques, and mashup/remix techniques to your “virtual mirror”, but in the end everyone still looks for the original content in its original form. This is the main reason why the creative community now faces a crisis in regard to innovation — with postmodernism in full-swing, there’s a collective sense that there’s no longer “anything new under the sun”, because there’s so little out there (beyond the superficial) that can genuinely be called “new”. A mirror, in it of itself, cannot create anything that amounts to something greater than the sum of its own parts, and will continue to wage a losing battle against its own obsolescence.
When ideas are merely presented for its own sake, self-expression can easily turn into self-indulgence, social commentaries into passive acceptance, critiques into hopelessness, idealism into cynicism, and so on. A musician singing about their troubles doesn’t make those troubles go away, nor does presenting a social or political situation as absurd entice people into changing the way they think. The idea of art being a “reflection of the world” can often trap an artist into an existential state, removing their ability to create meaning and a vision for the longer-term future.
The paragraphs above are pretty good summaries of why Americans tend to be skeptical of (new) art in general, and may explain some of the reasons why many of the art and music programs here tend to be under-funded and under-appreciated as a whole. It’s “baseless and corrupting” at worst, “useless” when it’s not doing anything, “entertaining” and “cute” at best — a kind of a fun thing for people to do when they have free time, but nothing really worth giving serious attention to. Even when musicians try to “modernize” themselves by attaching the latest technological gadgetry to their work (e.g. auto-tuning), in most cases there’s kind of an awkward sense that it’s only there because the artist wants to appear “relevant” in the eyes of the public, not because its use is essential to the craft itself. Musicians today are more likely to use technology as consumers rather than developers, which makes their role in the process of a cultural development a much more passive one.
The result of all of this is that the artist today is more likely to be perceived as being a casual observer of change and progress, rather than the catalyst that many tend to think of themselves as. But this is a reality that has been in development for quite some time now, as the quest for artistic autonomy eventually began to replace the methods and philosophies of developmental and variational forms. In formal training, artists are typically taught to “express” their emotions, problems, and injustices as ideas in themselves, using whatever materials or techniques that may be available to them. But they’re never taught on how to arrive at solutions to these problems that they present to the public, which greatly limits their ability to have an impact on audiences and societies alike.
Being that this country was founded and developed by entrepreneurs, Americans tend to look for something more than music of the ordinary, “pleasing” variety. They believe in hard work, moving up, being resilient, upsets, rooting for the underdog, optimism, and problem-solving through creativity and innovation. The fact that jazz — the medium that popularized the concept of improvisation in the United States — rose in prestige to be on equal grounds with classical music during the 20th century is not something that happened by accident. The style had resonated strongly with the entrepreneurial spirit of the American psyche, gaining appreciation far beyond its Africian-American narrative roots.
If music is to gain the respect and admiration it once had, it would have to tap into this psyche once more.
What Sorts of Problems Does Music Solve?
Now comes the hard part: turning the idea of “problem-solving” into a recognizable aesthetic. It’s something I’ve been working on for probably most of my adult life, consciously or unconsciously, with some small successes here and there throughout. Over the years I was able to meet, play, and talk with many world-class musicians through my improv activities, which I have a lot to be thankful about. But the truth is that improvised musics, even when there’s great players all around, have about the same failure rate as startups do — about 90%-95% of improv sessions could probably be labeled being plain “bad”.
Some sessions become “lost” due to a lack of inspiration, others sound like the players don’t quite “fit” well with each other’s sounds (mostly because they’re not listening to what’s happening around them), while others sound like the players are literally trying to kill each other with their sounds. These are apt metaphors for what actually happens in startup companies, except compressed into a matter of minutes, with all of its essential nuances put on public display.
When things are going well, though, the music is usually so good that it blows anything you’ve ever heard before way out of the water, which what makes people (including myself) keep on coming back for more. The challenge of improvising is figuring out how to sustain those moments, and making them longer and more frequent.
In recent years I’ve realized that I had the same mission as people like Steve Blank and Eric Ries had with the Lean Startup movement, except in my case, I was trying to reduce the failure rate of my improv sessions rather than the failure rate of startup companies. (The two things are very similar in concept, however.) The idea of “Lean” interested me so much so that I went to Santa Monica to help out Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits with their meetups and Lean Entrepreneur book, in order to learn more about the subject. My intuition was telling me to try to get to know these people better, and in a roundabout way, had helped me get closer to my goals.
But being that those books were written largely for tech and software companies, I kept on running into particularities with music that made it hard to do direct comparisons. The main tenant of the Lean Startup approach is that you should gain customer feedback before building anything (which is why I largely avoided investing too much time/money in audio engineering), in order to avoid building something that nobody wants. But it was nearly impossible to get any useful information by asking people directly because most weren’t really trained to talk about music in specific terms. And the truth is — most people can’t articulate what they want, even if they do happen to know.
I didn’t want to replicate the mistakes of some companies of making random listeners fill out surveys of how “emotional” the musics “made them feel” (inaccurate almost as it’s ridiculous) so I had to resort to a more basic approach of observing audience reactions:
– When was there a response of genuine enthusiasm?
– When did people open up and talk about themselves after the performance/listening?
– When they did they get emotionally involved with the music in obvious ways? (e.g. crying, feeling elated)
And the biggest question of all — what exactly was making them behave this way?
Digging deeper into the “whys” of audience reactions eventually lead to an observation: in today’s musical climate, there’s currently a definite lack of sentiments that can be labelled as being hopeful or joyful. There’s resilience, melancholy, conflict, despair, inspiration, dogmatism, and a myriad of other types of expressions — some exciting, others whistful, occasionally meditative, sometimes seductive, others more angry. But very rarely will you hear music about happiness or hope that isn’t deeply buried under layers of bitter sarcasm or irony. When presented with something that existed beyond their daily struggles and toils, people’s reactions tended to be very strong.
The trend of music toward pessimism, given recent trends in politics, economics, and culture as a whole, is natural and surely “reasonable”. But I see it as the role of the artist and the entrepreneur to go against the tide and create something that uplifts the spirit in some way, even if the effects might be temporary. This is not to say that escapism is the answer, but there is currently a need for music that directly opposes the repressive scientism that has now become the norm.
Hope, after all, doesn’t come from the empirical or “realistic” view of the world alone, nor does it emerge from the rational constructions of the logical mind. It comes from the irrational belief that things could somehow — against all odds — be made better in the future to come.
So that’s is the “solution” that music offers, or is at least capable of offering to the world. As the saying goes, “the chef makes food for people to eat, but the artist gives them a reason to get up in the morning”. The same could be said about creative types in general — entrepreneurship is the business of selling people hope, and of a better future. And when it’s done well, it becomes indistinguishable from magic.
In recent years there’s been a lot of talk about the emerging “creative class”, which seems to be poised to become the new face of labor in the 21st century. The new “class” of people are entrepreneurs (in the broadest sense of the word) which includes artists, lifestyle and small business owners, inventors, social entrepreneurs, research divisions within larger institutions, or anyone else tasked with starting or structuring a new project or idea. While Americans may not be able to compete against outsourced labor in terms of cost and efficiency, they have the ability to out-wit and out-innovate them by creating new and novel solutions toward existing problems. And since the number of problems at any given time, anywhere, will always be infinite, so will the opportunities that exist.
Entrepreneurship in today’s age is no longer an act of luxury, only available to those dreaming of scaling their business to the millions or billions. It has become a matter of survival, teaching us the means and methods of how to adapt to the rapidly changing social, cultural and economic environment. And so, there is now an urgent need for a new way of thinking – a new way of making music – that is reflective of the times and confronts the uncertainties of the world with an honest and integral approach. And it’s clear now that improvisation is what will lead music in the direction that it needs to go.