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Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Human Jukebox and the Unfamiliar

I went to a concert that was a first for me last night - a mainstream stadium pop concert. Paul Simon played at the O2 arena in Dublin and my good friend and great percussionist Jamey Haddad was playing in the band and comped me.

I should say at the outset here that I have absolutely no feeling for pop or rock music whatsoever – of almost any type. Somehow (probably because of my childhood, surrounded by jazz and classical), pop music passed me by. In my late teens I had a fleeting interest in Cream, and then progressive rock for a while (King Crimson mostly), but otherwise no interest, and certainly nothing that lasted. Between cassettes, LPs, CDs and Mp3s, I have over 3000 recordings in my home and not one of them is a pop or rock music recording. It does nothing for me and even the guys that a lot of jazz guys like – Sting, Bowie etc etc – leave me cold.

I do like the Beatles and admire their craft and the originality. And, (much to the surprise of many people who know me when they find out), I also like Burt Bacharach, whom I consider to be a real craftsman with a very original and identifiable style. But otherwise pop music does nothing for me. It’s not a value judgement (though sometimes it is – Justin Bieber! Lady GaGa!), it’s just personal. Pop music has no meaning in my life, doesn’t remind me of my youth, doesn’t connect me to people or places or things etc. etc. in the way that it does most people.

So, given my background and lack of empathy with all things pop and rock, it was hardly surpassing that this was my first time at a concert on this scale  - 14,000 people packed into the venue, seat prices starting at €56 rising to over €150 for the seat I was in, close to the front of the stage. And I must say I found the whole thing to be very interesting - I felt dispassionate, (if admiring of the professionalism and skill of the musicians), about the music, but interested in the vibe and general demeanor of everyone.

First of all it has to be said that Simon surrounds himself with very good musicians, most of whom play more than one instrument very well. Secondly it has to be said he does put on a very good show - the pieces go seamlessly between each other and clearly a lot of thought is given to pacing and making sure the show keeps rolling along. And it's a long show too - over two and a half hours without a break, and Simon has great energy and stamina which belies his 70 years. He's also a total pro - never slips up once, sings both in tune and pretty strongly for the whole concert. His only mis-step is when he occasionally breaks out some ill-judged dance moves, reminding one of an embarrassing elderly relative doing some 'hip' dancing at a wedding........

The music itself is a parade of his hits spanning almost 50 years, and of course the audience lapped it up. I was fairly familiar with about half of the pieces, less familiar with others, and totally unfamiliar with  the rest. In the first section of the concert, (before the African contingent arrives for the 'Gracelands' section), I'm struck by the amount of Americana in the music - overtones of country music, Cajun, blues etc. Simon seems to use all of these influences as backdrops to his songs, just as he does with the African music in the latter part of the concert.

Again, though I'm impressed by the professionalism, I'm unmoved by the music, but quite honestly, I was never expecting to get into it, and as someone with no familiarity or empathy for this kind of music, I'm not in any position to say whether this was a good performance by Simon's standards or not. I suspect, that as someone who has spent so much time at the top of his end of the business, he delivers a similar professionally well paced show every night.

But in my lack of response to the music, I was clearly in a minority of one in the auditorium - the audience adored it, cheering the opening bars of every familiar tune, singing along at certain points, and rushing the stage at the end when the opening chords of 'You Can Call Me Al' break out. But it's all quite sedate stage rushing, as the audience age profile is not one that would encourage any kind of physical activity that might create a need for a hip replacement after the gig......

And as I watched the adoration of Simon and the songs, I realized again, (and this is really the point of this blog), that what 99% of people want is something they know, and preferably something they can sing along to. What they don't want is the unfamiliar. The audience may all have loved Paul Simon, but if he had gone out there last night and played a whole evening of new music they probably would have rushed the stage. What most audiences want from a  concert, ultimately, is a human jukebox - someone who will regurgitate the hits, and give everyone a good night out and a sing-along. And there's nothing wrong with that.

But where does that leave those of us whose milieu is improvised music? In a tiny minority, that's where. One thing I realized a while ago, is that most people, as far as music is concerned at least, don't really like improvisation. They like what they know, not what they don't know. In most music performances audiences want a confirmation of what they like, a parade of familiarity - it's comforting and often celebratory, particularly so when (like the Simon concert I was at), it's experienced with a large crowd of others, all of whom are equally enamored of the music on display. But in improvised music, the audience is invited to participate in the unfamiliar, to experience the process of music creation rather than be presented with a comfortingly familiar result.

It should be noted that this love of the familiar is not confined to lovers of pop music, it's part and parcel of classical music too (where not even one note can be changed by the performer), and is not unknown among jazz fans. Jazz fans, and musicians, can also make demands of performers that they conform to some agreed norm that reinforces the audience members understanding of what jazz is. The comfort of the familiar is a requirement of some jazz listeners too -  improvised music doesn't always have the automatic support in the jazz community that one would imagine

Improvised music will never have the support and popularity that non-improvised music attracts, but it has qualities too that non-improvised music will never have. Last night at Paul Simon's gig everything was as carefully choreographed as any classical performance, there was no room for the spontaneous creative input of the musicians - everything was at the service of Paul Simon's songs and the requirement of the audience to hear the familiar. And I missed the creative input of the musicians, the sense that anything could happen at anytime, which is a quality I find tremendously attractive in music. At a pop or classical concert, you will never experience that moment where you know something has happened that never happened before and will never happen again in that precise way. This is the unique quality of improvised music, for both musician and listener, and has tremendous value, even if most of the 14,000 people in the O2 arena last night wouldn't have thanked anyone for it had it happened.

The human jukebox may be a comforting place to be for both performer and listener, but it's a place where you will never experience anything like this........


  1. It's true that a large majority of music consumers are looking for the human jukebox. But we shouldn't underestimate ordinary audiences either. I played in an improvised rock/techno trio for five years and heard again and again from punters how much they enjoyed the feeling of unpredictability.

  2. It's true that there are people who enjoy the unexpected (otherwise we'd be REALLY screwed!), but they'll always be in the minority. There's a great book called 'The Music Instinct' by Phillip Ball that really delves into how humans perceive music and how and why they like certain things and don't like others......

  3. I like the Wayne Shorter clip, but I think that to think that only 'pure jazz' can get so deep is way off. I'm a 'jazz' player and I've seen the public really enjoy free (jazz) music, if it's played with communication. There's also plenty of pop(ular) music out there that is very deep also.

    However, I see your point about the public liking to recognise a tune. I remember using the Bee-Gees 'New York Mine Disaster' tune as a basis for a very open improvisation .... the public loved it. Somehow the familiar (old) chestnut somehow gave them access to what was probably very dense and difficult music.

    Thanks for your blog, always interesting.

  4. Hi Joesh

    Thanks for your comment - in fairness I don't think I ever said only 'pure jazz can get so deep' - I never used the word 'deep' once as far as I can remember. I never made qualitative comparisons between people liking the familiar or the unfamiliar. And I also rarely used the word jazz, I referred mostly to 'improvised music' since I recognize that jazz is not the only improvised music in the world. And I certainly never used the term 'pure jazz' - since I don't think there is such a thing.

    I'm making the point that most people prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar - that's not a qualitative distinction, it's just an observation. I made the point that most (most, not all), people don't like unfamiliar music - because if they did, then musicians such as myself and yourself, and jazz musicians in general, would be much busier and financially rewarded than they are - it would be people like us who would be playing to 14,000 people.

    I then made the point that though it will never be popular in the way that familiar music is, improvised music has qualities that non-improvised music will never have. And I think that's true - it's not a question of being 'deep' or otherwise, it's about the disposition of the listener. Surprise, uniqueness, discovery - these are all qualities which improvised music can deliver night after night, but non-improvised music can't, since once it's heard the first time, it will always be the same ever afterwards.

    The point of the blog is that - a) Most people prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar in music, b) as a result improvised music will always be a minority music, and c) but despite that, because of its unique qualities, improvised music is still worth doing.

    That's it - there are no qualitative comparisons involved. I think in fairness you're ascribing judgments to me that I didn't make.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond

  5. Hi Ronan, sorry if you took the remark personally. Of course the 'pure jazz' was my punctuation as was the rest of the sentence. I wasn't quoting you at all ... I should have maybe used italics instead.

    Sorry for the misunderstanding.

    Thanks - Joe

  6. I didn't take it personally Joe! Just wanted to make sure there no misunderstandings regarding what I was saying. Thanks for writing!

  7. I think you hit a key point in the distinction between audience appreciation of the "familiar" vs "unfamiliar". I've always quantified the distinction as that of "sentimentality", the connection to a specific music through our life experiences and memories. Listening to a song that reminds them of their youth or a past lover; incidentally, the music most grow up with in their youth is typically that which they continue to love and listen to, and I would say rarely do people make major listening changes. My grandparents still love Perry Como and never made the move to Nirvana or Iron Maiden, because it was unfamiliar, lacked any basis in their life experience, and carried no sentimentality for them. As artists, we are more concerned with the process of creativity, as well as what sounds beautiful, appeals to us, energizes us, and so forth that we forget the aspect of sentimentality that I would hold is one of the primary motivations for listening choices in the general populace. I've always had my ears open to any genre, and there some great albums that I love from heavy metal to progressive rock, besides all my typical jazz and classical listening; well constructed albums, thoughtful compositions and orchestrations and more. Nonetheless, when the process of music making is as rigid as the concert you describe, I find the music dull, lifeless, and unenthused. Without risktaking and that element of being on the edge in whatever form, music to me is dead. Any masterful string quartet playing Beethoven still deals with improvisation as they navigate dynamics, voice leading, articulations beyond the written page, the music is alive. Dave Lombardo in Slayer does not play predetermined drum fills, he's improvising on the edge (with some amazing results, to my ears.) Finally, I think it's worth noting, especially for we jazz enthusiasts, that a good portion of the listening audience (players and listeners alike) also base their listening pleasures on that sentimental sense (in no way do I disparage the sentimental love of music), from Sinatra to Miles Davis and more, whether conscious or unconscious. I think the critical aspect for any person is to keep their ears open and unbiased to whatever process they are hearing. My issue is with music where the process is stifled and stiff, whatever the genre (and sometimes, that is jazz as well). I think it's boring when Paul Simon plays the same songs he's been playing for the past 50 years, and I can't imagine that it's that enjoyable either. At the same time, Herbie Hancock is still playing Canteloupe Island and a lot of the same repertoire as well for the past 45 part probably because that's what audiences recognizes and want to hear...but that doesn't dismiss the possibility of risktaking whatsoever in his concerts. I wish people were willing to take more risks in their listening and everything else; this tendency to stay safe in the "familiar" drives me insane, whether it's mass marketed paperbacks with drivel for content, or people reading Glam magazine and watching Friends. I much prefer Henry Miller and those who challenge our conceptions of the world. But regardless of any of the above, if Paul Simon calls me for a tour tomorrow, I'm there

  8. Some very good points here - would have been great if you'd signed your name!

  9. I think there's an underestimation of the general public's ability to understand and be attracted to improvised music. I've seen some audience members at concerts, self proclaimed music illiterates, light up when they are exposed to visual performances of improvised music. Granted this is often with improvised music involving an obvious sense of the spectacular. Visual exposure to something that doesn't make sense when you listen only makes a huge difference to connecting with that unknown. People need something familiar to 'hang on to' in order to transform perception of what they hear, so that they can continue following, embracing and loving it for themselves. Often the 'hang-on-to' factor may be in detail beyond the music (like the person next to me once at a concert who kept telling me how she admired the shape of that 'guitar-thing" - it was cello. Or the instant fan telling my jazz-singer friend that she adores her sound: just like Basia!).

    It should not readily be accepted that people will always like familiarity over the spontaneous and unknown. The first music was improvised. It’s conditioning that has led people away from the acceptance and understanding for spontaneous music.

    Also, when people become participants in music making (active learnership, or tapping along, dancing, keeping the pulse), which is part of the central purpose of music in the first place, it makes it so much easier to understand and like the music. That’s what improvised music affords people.

    Paul Sedres

  10. I wish I could share your optimism Paul! I agree there will always be people who will enjoy the unexpected in music, but I also think they're in the minority. I'm playing improvised music for over 30 years and if I had a Euro for the amount of variations to the 'why don't you play things people know/like?' question I've gotten, then I'd be a lot wealthier than I am now...

    I also think people in general prefer the known to the unknown - not just in music, but in life. The amount of people who go to see the same kinds of films/holiday in the same place every year/read the same kinds of books/eat the same food day in day out etc. far outnumber the people who value new experiences above the comfort of the familiar. I'd love to be proved wrong!

  11. I'm reading a book at the moment about the subject of expectation in relation to music, which goes very deeply into topics such as why people prefer the familiar, based on scientific studies... very interesting, if sometimes difficult, read: Sweet Anticipation by David Huron..