Who do musicians make music for? Some answers

I have a note I made to myself some months ago concerning a thought I had had after listening to a rather forbidding, inaccessible (well, to me anyway) jazz album (no names, let’s keep this polite). Just before wrestling with this audio closed door, I had been listening to something really fun and funky, music with its portal well-trodden and its gates thrown wide (no names, no bias).

The note reads:

Jazz that thinks about the listener and jazz that doesn’t.

I remembered it when reading a tweet on the recent John Cage anniversary. It was a quote from Cage:

“As a young man I harbored the populist idea of writing for the public. I learned that the public didn’t care…” 

Dan Nicholls

Dan Nicholls

I remembered it again while preparing an email interview with another young man: Staffordshire-born, Birmingham Conservatoire and Copenhagen Rhythmic Music Conservatory graduate, Loop Collective member, Jazzlines Fellow, pianist, composer, band leader and now creator of an album on the Loop Collective label, called Ruins, Dan Nicholls.

So I asked:

Do you make music for yourself or for other people?

And this is what Dan replied:

This is one of the most important issues to me as an artist. It’s very easy to become wrapped up in your own world – especially seeing as such personal and individual music as jazz runs the risk of being very egocentric and inward looking – and to forget that there is an audience who are giving you their time and energy and paying for the experience.

Too many jazz concerts feature something that is either totally disconnected from the audience, gratuitously complex and alienating or presented in an apologetic nature, none of which interests me or the majority of people.

Since I started trying to see the music more objectively and listening to the views of less experienced audience members, I began to see it, as well as hear it, differently.

I now  feel strongly that my music is primarily for the audience and, whilst keeping my artistic integrity and being uncompromising with my material, I hope to be able to communicate my ideas and present my music in a way which invites people in.”

Now there’s a good reason to go out and buy Ruins immediately!

For more equally valuable answers to other daft questions, read a full interview with Dan Nicholl’s here

Finally – do you make music? Who do you make it for? Add a comment to this post. It would make me very happy.



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3 replies

  1. I don’t make music for anyone. I don’t make music for money or to be lauded or applauded or to be hip or loved or to be controversial or ‘challenging’ etc etc.
    I make music because it’s one of the most joyous experiences of my life and I feel honoured that it let me into its big fat house. I have to do it. Whatever is happening in my life, or the lives of others, becomes a melody or a rhythm or another distilled delusion of desire. When someone tells me that music has to be this or do that or slap itself into the toothless jaws of a trend to be sucked to death or boiled in the loins of those ‘in the know’ i start to reach for expletives.
    I have laughed myself silly and gone to bed happy having been ensconced in music for days on end….. audienceless.
    Purely personal of course. But I do exactly what happens in me, to me, through me and that is what is presented to an audience to take on or dismiss. Their opinion of it is never the point for me. I don’t understand really, why they would want it to be. And I have a sneaking suspicion, that music has never been concerned with such things either.

  2. Well Peter, I think you’re stepping on thin ice here. The debate (a pointless one) could stretch far into the distance. If you take the stance that music should entertain then I think you have to accept that X-Factor and Co is artistically ‘okay’, after all it really entertains people. If we take a Jonathan Harvey String Quartet (just an example) then we may have the opposite reaction from the public. Is one more important than the other – I’ll let you (or whoever decide).
    Our society has changed so much in the past 50 years, the public is more media orientated, it listens in that way. We no longer sit for 2 hours to listen properly, iPods and other social media have changed our perception and listening skills.
    Haydn composed what he did because he was paid to do it, that was his job, and his employer paid him for those compositions. He clearly stated that the music was (for him) a compromise, one has to wonder what he would have written if he’d been financially stable. One of my teachers once remarked, “what did Bach play when he was alone?”.
    Lastly, the sad thing is that music is at the mercy of its public. If the public decided what is and isn’t good much of the most beautiful music in the world would have been either lost, or just filed under ‘obscure’ – Ives, Derek Bailey, Harry Partch, Beethoven’s later work, Cecil Taylor, Beefheart, Elliot Carter.
    Thanks for your article, certainly a thought provoking idea.

  3. In response to Peter’s concerns, I feel the need to pose, and provide a singular answer to, the following question:

    “Why make / listen to music?”

    Since each musician is singular in their identity as musician, individual answers to the question posed will vary, some in slight detail, others in distinct variance. To be singular, however, does not mean to be in isolation, and this difference is important to our understanding of the role and function of musicians in music as an ongoing artistic and socio-cultural activity in the world. To be recognised as a musician (by audiences, critics, promoters, peers, colleagues) is to be part of the field of music practice. To be more specific: to be qualified as a jazz musician is to be considered by members of the field of jazz practice (audiences, critics, promoters, et al) to be a practising jazz musician. To make music in that disciplinary field is to add to the discipline, in however small a manner, since all disciplines are open systems in constant evolution, undergoing change on macro and micro levels as the field elaborates, expands, diversifies. These continual evolutions are effected by members of the field in every one of their many activities as members of that field. Some are more immediately effective than others (Miles Davis’ career-long influence over the way jazz was practised from the cool school to 1970s/1980s electrification, for instance), others’ contributions take longer to affect the discipline (the way Ornette Coleman’s work has gradually been accepted by many as not so much re-volutionary as e-volutionary). Even a performance in an upstairs room at a local pub to a handful of enthusiasts is contributory to the ongoing elaboration of the discipline of jazz. Jazz is not a closed system; it is open, and radically so.

    Since it is an open system in the world at large, the discipline of jazz practice is susceptible to influence from other disciplinary fields, and vice versa. Interrelating with other systems of practice is vitally important to a field’s continued existence. After all, the only result emergent from closure / closed-mindedness is stagnation. Charlie Parker insisted, in a 1949 interview for Downbeat magazine, that bebop was “anti-jazz”. That bebop is these days taught as a core jazz practice in the university is testament to the changing identity of jazz as the music has evolved in the six decades since Parker’s comments. Parker, for his part, famously listened to the classical music of his day (Stravinsky, Varese), and incorporated elements of this in his own playing. And, at the same time he was plugging in and listening to Sly and the Family Stone, Miles Davis was filling his ears with Stockhausen.

    The identity of jazz has transformed so radically since its emergence in the late-19th and early-20th centuries that the very concept of the music as having an ‘identity’ is a complex, nuanced matter. This is not the place for a detailed critique of identity (see Gilles Deleuze’s 1968 “Difference and Repetition” for a rigorous destruction of the myth of the identical), but it can be stated that an open, ongoing, ‘live’ disciplinary field is identifiable more by its continuing difference to itself, to what it was or is considered to be, in any given moment, than by its similarity to its past or momentary instantiations. A pinned butterfly in a collection is simply that: a momentary instantiation of a member of a species frozen forever in a particular attitude. It is dead, unmoving; available for detailed analysis after-the-event (of its life), but dissimilar in the extreme to a living, moving butterfly in its singular existence in the world. An audio document of a given jazz performance is a pinned butterfly: pour over its contents, dissect it, transcribe lines from it, compare it to other recorded documents, add it to the ever-accumulating store of knowledge of the discipline of jazz, but never forget that while you are doing that, jazz musicians are out there making more music. They evolve, it evolves. It evolves, they evolve.

    Which leads me to the role of the jazz musician in 21st-century jazz practice. There is a dominant model in our understanding of the hierarchy of performance experience. At its most basic, it is as follows: A composer writes music, a performer performs it, listeners receive it. This model privileges the composer as creator, casts the performer as interpreter (at best) or messenger, and the listener as passive recipient of culture (have some culture – that’ll be a fiver, please). A good performance would, on this view, be one where the performer realises the wishes of the composer as accurately as possible so the listener gets their fiver’s worth of the creative spirit of the composer. Performer as vanishing mediator: John Coltrane as inconsequent deliverer of the creative message of Rodgers and Hammerstein via “My Favourite Things” to an audience gathered at the Olatunji Centre of African Culture in New York, April 1967? It is not in any way contestable that the audience members present were there for Trane and his band, and not to hear a popular song from “The Sound of Music” given an accurate rendition, true to the original intentions of its composers. So the model is inadequate – at least for such instances of jazz practice.

    In a complex open system, each element has its place, its position. But these positions have a dynamic attribute. In other words, each element has an active role in the ongoing evolution of the system as a whole. Take one element out and you have a different system. Ignore one element (or several) in a potential modelling of that system and you have an inadequate model, useless in research terms. This is not to say that each element is equal in a disciplinary system. I wouldn’t pay any kind of money to be sit in a concert venue and look at Keith Jarrett’s latest composition in its printed, paper form, but I would pay to watch the man himself give a performance with it. And, as interesting as audiences can be to look at during a performance, I wouldn’t necessarily fork out to sit and watch them for two 45-minute sets, but I would (and do) fork out to do that very thing for the musicians whose gigs I check out on the Birmingham scene and beyond. Each element has its place; each is vital to the working of the whole.

    The reasons musicians make music, and audiences gather to take their part in that process of making in performance, are manifold. But regardless of reasons and foci of interest, the ongoing elaboration of the disciplinary field is paramount. Without that elaboration, the music will die. Without the agonistics, the ups and downs, the critical successes and failures, the great gigs, the disappointments, the missed opportunities, the lucky breaks, there would be no creative elaboration. What is elaborate?: that which is produced by labour (from Latin “elaboratus”, past participle of “elaborare”: to exert oneself). It is the work of elaboration we are each involved in as musicians and music enthusiasts. We exert ourselves in that labour, and, on happy occasions, feel the reward of that hard work paid back to us through the complex interrelated dynamics of the system. What goes around comes around, and the warmth of a good audience on a good night in company of good musicians playing good music for the collective, socio-cultural and disciplinary good, is as good as it gets. I’ll settle for that. Now, about getting another gig…

    Steve Tromans

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