an essay regarding jazz, media and the future


It is difficult to say much about any art without at least implying a certain discussion of how the art is related to the end user, be this end user viewer,  listener, or somehow other participant or observer, by way of some type of  medium. The growth and development of an artform is necessarily dependent on  the medium through which the art is transmitted. 

If one simultaneously calls to mind cave drawings, oil paintings, and computer animation, differences in the way the artist expresses itself can be seen which  are in some way related to the different mediums of stone and pigment; canvas,  oil and pigment, lighted pixels, etc. Each can be termed visual art, and yet they differ dramatically. As new mediums are invented and adopted by a tradition, art inevitably changes through the expression of visionary artists,  and whether the new media is a primary medium which an artist uses to  create original art, or a secondary reproductive medium, a certain change is  inevitable. When an artform adopts a new media, a new potential is often  realized; the birth of absolute representation fostered by the medium of oil  paints and canvas and later the photograph, which was not possible in the same  way with cave drawings, is a good example. Likewise, a similar observation  could be made regarding music and the advent of the phonograph, which changed  the role of the notated score and instead offered to the music lover an  absolute representation of a composer’s musical thought. As can be imagined, both of these changes in media provoked changes in their respective artform  which could be viewed as positive or negative. Reading a musical score, for  example, has become an almost anachronous skill for the common man, a  specialized skill, and the “listener” is no longer free to imagine the timbre of an oboe as the reader of a novel can imagine the face of a major character. Instead,  music has become much less interactive. At the same time, however, the sound  of a symphony orchestra can reach places and people never possible before the age of such absolute mechanical reproduction. Scores are still read by individuals in this ere post-phonograph, and the recordingandplayback mechanism has been greatly improved. The reading of a score however has taken over a different role due to the advent of newer media, much like the  role of abstract representation has taken on a much different role in the  realm of visual art.

New Media

Current developments in new media seem to have as their aim not the advancement of new and existing artforms, but ratherthe sale of new products and the acquisition of new capital for corporations. To illustrate this point, I wish to highlight the ‘internet,’ the identity of which seems to be somewhat elusive. It masquerades as a pseudo-telephone, a pseudo-library/archive, bank, mall, sex-shop, etc., but essentially, it is nothing but potential. Its identity is determined primarily by the interface of keyboard and mouse, and its owners - politicians and capitalists. This in itself speaks of the legacy of the computer as a business machine, whose very apparatus is often an impediment to creative people seeking to utilize its potential to realize personal visions. The identity of the net as such is further narrowed by entities like the microsoft network and america online, where content is preselected, presorted and precensored by an editor for profit oriented mass consumption. If all of this is taken away, a much different body is revealed which is not the ‘internet,’ but is, rather, a medium of expression. It is still too early to say what the effects of this new media’s arrival on the scene of current and future (and past, already) art are or will be, for it is largely an unexplored medium, and it is still very much tethered to the gods industry and government. Even now developments in distribution of secondary media over the net, and on-line information about gallery openings, performances, and referral services for artists are proliferating on the current internet, and this is bringing change. Although these things themselves are not new, the new medium which carries them is more comprehensive that that which preceded it. With one technology (albeit a composite of many), it is possible to view a performance, hear a concert, hear about a performance or concert, correspond with artists, and purchase art or art supplies. So what effects will this archive/emporium/medium have on art to come? It is hard to say, but possible answers can be found by following how changes in media have changed art in the past. Music, for example, has been deeply affected by mechanical reproduction. With the advent of mechanical reproduction, music is no longer confined to the concert hall, or such dedicated “listening spaces”, and has become something which surrounds us, through many forms of micro- and macro-broadcasting. Popular music became an almost instantaneous flux because the transmission media, radio and recordings, could keep pace with such growth. More importantly, the listener could now take in much more music with much less effort. This is especially true of radio. One can simply turn on the radio and turn the dial and hear all kinds of music. It is almost difficult not to hear all kinds of music. This has had profound effects on the development of modern, or rather postmodern music. Composers after the advent of mechanical reproduction of music have in their heads innately a multiplicity of styles and phrases heretofore unthought of and available only to the very rich. A good example of this is the phenomenon called jazz, first appearing in post-World War I American popular culture. Disregarding its contemporary manifestation for a moment, its roots lie at least somewhat in the legacy of the arrival of radio and recorded music and their effects on the ears of musicians. The ‘official’ history of jazz, the pedagogical view, is not important to this discussion, but rather the tradition of the music just before bebop (Charlie Parker and Dizzy Galespie most significantly, ca. 1940). Professional musicians who were involved in the dance hall circuit would come together and play music in groups, and significantly, the musical common ground that they shared in common was a repertoire of ‘popular’ music, or rather music that they all were familiar with due to the exploding mass media. They would take these songs, and elaborate on them with clever original phrases, often “quoting” other popular songs within the chords of the first. This tradition still exists today. It has been and still is difficult to trace the origins of phrases played in an improvisational setting like that of early (or modern) jazz. It was and is a common practice for musicians to construct ‘riffs’ which would fit over common chord changes; this accounts for some of the material. Even these preconstructed phrases must necessarily be somewhat influenced by popular music, for musical theory is itself derived from tradition, and the tradition of jazz takes as its influences the sum of all music available to the musician for listening necessarily. Therefore, if the evolving tradition is continually broadcast and made available, it has an effect on the tradition of jazz. This explains why phrases popularized years ago by master musicians can be heard today, restated in a new context. In many ways, jazz was the logical conclusion of the advent of recorded music and radio. It can be looked at as a rebroadcast, the musicians a filter, selecting material from what they hear. Music itself can be looked at this way; the sounds of birds and rain and thunder synthesized and organized in an artistic manner. Jazz however is a special case, because it has its roots in a synthesis of harmonic and melodic fragments of existing music which radio and mass media make possible. As far as the current generation of jazz as we know it, the tradition has been transmitted almost entirely by secondary media. To play jazz is no longer to play popular music with personal flair and interpretation. To do so is to be a jazz radical at best. It is not entirely true to say that to mimic the past masters is to play jazz either. Rather, it is a stylistic emulation of such masters which is typically called ‘traditional jazz.’ This implies that jazz has become music reliant on media. This implication is preposterous because it denies the existence of a living tradition, but is nonetheless valid to a certain degree, for the recording validates the tradition. It is the recording which gives the jazz musician food for thought, which breathes new life into the art by way of interpretation of past masterpieces. The jazz musician looks to the recording to find the essence of the process. The masterpiece, however, owes its creation at least in part to the mass media its creators were imbibed in. With the birth of bebop, the culmination of the combinatory aspect of jazz musician can be clearly seen. Bebop harmony has its roots in the superimposition of harmony of composers like Debussy, Bach and Beethoven over popular songs such as “I Got Rhythm,” and “Softly as in the Morning Sunrise.” Such a juxtaposition over time became its own distinct style, a hybrid of sorts, with added nuances owing to Afro-Caribbean rhythms and new combinations of instruments (i.e. - the appearance of the ‘drum set’ and the jazz orchestra, or the jazz quintet). A new style of music was born. As far as the current proliferation of jazz-ish music, music a.k.a. jazz, light jazz, euro-jazz, acid-jazz, etc. this music is a somewhat different animal. It may have similar elements which make it akin to jazz, but the process is different. It is no longer an artful synthesis of a river of disparate elements but draws only from its own predecessor and implied demographics; no longer on outside sources freely combining in the mind of the artist. It becomes an established institution, and in a way ceases to be jazz, for jazz is inherently a process and a synthesis, not merely a thing itself. When the river dries up, the flux of disparate elements is cogently categorized, (jazz included) and made sense of, the bridge, the creative synthesis, is a moot point, a dispirited exercise rather than a cry of liberation. If jazz itself influences jazz in order to produce jazz, the impetus which first gave birth to the artform no longer gives it life. Jazz becomes a reflection of itself. What then will come of our friend jazz? Indeed, with the advent of digital technology a change has taken place which is analogous to the advent of the photograph, that of digital recording. Infinite numbers of first generation recordings can be produced, and a recording can be almost infinitely manipulated with no loss of signal. Instead of having to physically cut and splice a reel of irreplaceable analog tape (if an analog tape is backed up, the reproduction is necessarily of a poorer quality), the editing process can be done virtually on a computer, and the recorded tracks can be backed up. There is some difference in the sound quality of say, an LP or a CD, but a compact disc is much smaller and more durable. The advent of samplers, ADAT machines, and digital sampling keyboards have changed greatly the nature of the music industry. Live musicians can be replaced by machines and only the discriminating ear will hear a difference - this becomes truer by day. A new music is emerging, across disparate genres and styles, in which it is the selection of elements rather than the selection of melody and harmony, which give identity to music. An ensemble is no longer limited to the timbres of the instruments they play for what they include in their repertoire. An ensemble can just be one person at a computer console, and the instruments can be shattering glass, dolphin-speak, raindrops; literally any sound which can be recorded and therefore reproduced, and thus ‘played.’. The musical palette is infinitely expanded. Nor must music be only music. The new media is a broad enough canvas to allow for visual, mechanical, or other elements to be included into musical art. Also, musical art can now be interactive (in a way different than the interactivity of reading a notated score). Artists, such as Peter Gabriel and Jaron Lanier are already exploring such possibilities. The types of art produced by these and others is, however, far from mainstream, and cannot help but be so due to the cost of a cd-rom, the current transfer medium for such artworks, as well as the necessary technology to even ‘play’ it. Computer games are another way in which the medium has been used. Game manufacturers hire a host of artists from writers to visual artists, to programmers to musicians to produce their brand of art, albeit extremely commercial. So where does jazz fit into this picture? As I said before, jazz is a process, and a synthesis. Even this is an evolution of jazz, since at its inception into the vernacular, it had an altogether different meaning, the above definition is a step towards seeing the process at work. It is in part a function of creating art in an era where prefabricated elements proliferate, and the creative process is in part combinatory and part synthetic, as well as creative. If an opera is transcribed for solo piano, this is a synthesis. If 2 seconds of an opera is sampled and used in a multimedia project, is this then synthesis? It is difficult to say where one can draw the line between synthesis and reproduction. If Charlie Parker plays a phrase of ‘I got rhythm’ over the first four bars of a twelve bar blues, can Gershwin sue for royalties? With the birth of new media, a new river is created, and a new bridge called into being; with a new river of new disparate elements, a new synthesis is possible. New technology speaks of new possibility, and with a new and powerful medium on the rise, a response from the artistic community is inevitable. Maybe it will only be viewable in hindsight. Perhaps a new jazz will be born, and young artists will paint with Picasso and Bartok on a canvas stretched out of James Brown. Of course that’s not jazz, but jazz wasn’t jazz either, when it was jazz. It was too new to be called anything. To the first masters, jazz was a verb not a noun, and if you don’t know what it meant I’m certainly not going to let the cat out of the bag (please excuse my little pun). New media creates a new realm of possibility for a new synthesis and the roots of a new tradition, whose process is reminiscent of that-which-we-call-jazz.

I want my mommy