Category Archives: Earnestness or Artifice?

Earnestness or Artifice? III

I’d like to revisit a topic touched on here and here: artistic intention and production. Below is the first half of a two-parter within this series. Two items tie these posts together:
– how each artist claims to feel about his craft.
– neither seem sincere.

This post, and a portion of the next, deal with practicing and rehearsing. As for rehearsing, I’ve been in groups at both edges of the spectrum: some ensembles rehearse meticulously and incessantly (though the two aren’t mutually exclusive), and others almost never rehearse for various legitimate reasons, instead relying on spontaneity and the excitement of the being in the moment while buoyed by foundation of shared history and skill. Sometimes, though, stating that one wants to forgo rehearsing in order to be “in the moment” isn’t entirely honest. Perhaps one just prefers not losing a Tuesday evening to a rehearsal. The same can be said of solitary practice. We musicians have all been there at one point or another. And I’ve definitely played in groups with people who’ve just said something to the effect of, “Eh, we’ll be good. I’d rather us sound too new than too rehearsed.” Of course, that can be performer-speak for, “I want to go home.” For an example of being disingenuous in this arena, let’s turn to Kelsey Grammer.

Television’s Dr. Frasier Crane, M.D. & Ph.D.? Yes, that one; but specifically the Kelsey Grammer of Frasier‘s tenure, not that of CheersBoss, etc. (And I’m only discussing him as a performer. He’s another in a long line of artists whose work must be assessed separately from their personal lives.) While he’s not a musical figure – at least not as much as Dr. Crane – he’s a performer and offers a particularly illuminating example that translates well to musical rehearsal and attitudes.

Frasier is one of my all-time favorite shows. (If you’re curious, it’s behind Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Ally McBeal, and alongside John From Cincinnati and Fringe.) I’ve long been a fan, having watched the original run after Cheers. This isn’t a post to champion the show, but suffice it to say that it’s funny and features a strong cast. And, for the classical music-inclined, particularly in opera, the various references and allusions are quite entertaining. The characters portrayed by Grammer and David Hyde Pierce, and the relationship between to the two, are one of the program’s crown jewels.

As I’m wont to do when interested in a show or movie, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time in the past reading about the actors behind the characters, especially concerning their other credits, training (if applicable), and performance methods/quirks. I’ve long been fascinated with Grammer’s seemingly unique – in the truest sense of the word – acting method: “requisite disrespect.” He’s discussed it in some interviews (here and here), notably during Frasier‘s run, and in an autobiography. In his own words, “If you know what your lines are and you’re over-rehearsed, you’re not thinking anymore; you’re an automaton…So, I do myself a favor. I raise the stakes by making it real borderline that I know that I’m going to say. So, there’s a slightly wildeyed kind of energy when we tape [an episode].”

My initial reaction when I first read that was “Wow.” For me, it put a number of my favorite scenes and deliveries in an entirely new perspective. And for the most part I was quite impressed. However, moving on to a more objective assessment, I then realized the extent that which that really freed up his schedule. (This is rightly mentioned in the LA Times article.) While the rest of the cast and crew slogs through each week of finalizing, blocking, and rehearsing a new episode, Grammer need only appear on the night of the taping, “learning” each scene’s lines right before filming. On the one hand, it must’ve sucked to have been a guest star or co-star. On the other, more power to him. He acted well and managed to earn an eight-figure salary without rehearsing. While his co-stars somewhat endorse his methodology by talking about the on-set excitement and amazement, it’s worth noting that many of the co-stars seem to have close off-screen relationships with one another that often don’t include Grammer.

So why am I going on and on about this? Well, for starters, it’s my blog and I love Frasier. More importantly, though, the fact that Grammer burns calories actively describing his “method” of requisite disrespect is rather impressive in a sense. Instead of avoiding the topic, fibbing about rehearsing more, or just saying that he’s the star and doesn’t need to rehearse, he instead opts to label and therefore legitimize his tactics. And yet, if you’re to find another star that subscribes to the same approach using the same jargon, good luck. He’s the only one, so far as I can tell. What’s more, his methodology’s glory days coincided perfectly with his starring in his own television show, dominating prime time television for years. He doesn’t seem to reference using it when playing the same character on Cheers. And I don’t think he did it for Boss (another convincing portrayal, if I may say so). In fact, in a 2009 interview on the Adam Carolla Podcast, Dave Koechner glowingly described Grammer’s professionalism and preparedness when shooting a TV pilot (one that would’ve ostensibly put Grammer back on the map after Frasier‘s end). Curious, eh? Look, I’m a fan and I’ll watch anything he’s in, but a little less hot air is welcome.

Earnestness or Excuses? II

I’d like to continue exploring the topic of intention and reception. I ended my previous post on this topic referencing technical ability and execution. This was on my mind quite a bit a few weeks ago as I listened to Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman‘s Song X: Twentieth Anniversary. I really enjoy that album, as I enjoy both Pat and Ornette separately, but I found myself still tuning out through Ornette Coleman’s violin solo in “Mob Job.” For the uninitiated, Coleman famously – infamously? – extended his free jazz (or harmolodic) approach beyond the saxophone, his instrument, and started incorporating trumpet and violin – instruments he couldn’t play. After years of this, he’s now labeled as a saxophonist, trumpeter, and violinist in many articles.

I could listen to Ornette’s sax playing all day long and really dig it, but there’s a part of me that can’t get past his taking up instruments and just making noise without any ability. While most lay listeners would probably just think it all sounds the same, I can’t get past it as a musician. (And no, it certainly does not sound the same.) For reference, here’s some footage of Coleman on violin, later switching to trumpet (it’s entertaining to see him adjust the violin’s fine tuning peg):

Now contrast that with his saxophone playing from the same concert (the first half of this video). I get behind this. It’s not just a sonic wash of ascending and descending passages:

Before going further, I should say that I don’t mean for this article to be an “attack” on Coleman. Far from it. (And what would he care, he’s accomplished far more in his career than I could hope to.) I do genuinely enjoy his music and greatly appreciate what he did for art. But this one aspect sticks in my craw and, more importantly, relates to the larger topic I started exploring here a few weeks back. In fact, many more offensive examples that I’ve seen in person come to mind, but Coleman’s perhaps the most well-known example I can think of for use here. I find myself really agreeing with Miles Davis on this point (from his autobiography):

For him – a sax player – to pick up a trumpet and violin like that and just think he can play them with no kind of training is disrespectful toward all those people who play them well. And then to sit up and pontificate about them when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about is not cool, man. But you know, music’s all just sounds anyway.[1. Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989), p. 250.]

I sympathize with both Miles’s disagreement but also his acknowledging the place of sound. If someone just wants a wash of ascending and descending lines, then who cares if they play the instrument well or not? I easily concede that point, as I get it from an artistic/theoretical perspective. What if a musicians just wants a bunch of squeaks and squawks on the saxophone? One could argue that it may be best for a non-saxophonist to produce such sounds. In fact, we can see this here in a live video of none other than Marilyn Manson in 2005:

Before too many of you raise your eyebrows and say that Mary (as I’ve called him since middle school) is just being obnoxious while Ornette is creating art, briefly consider a few things:
1. Yes, the saxophone was used to create noise. That was the intent.
2. This occurs at the end of the title song of 2003’s The Golden Age of Grotesque. That whole album (and tour and surrounding ethos) was not just about “the grotesque,” which is vague, but rather it drew heavily from German Kabarett, censorship (particularly the Degenerate Art exhibitions under the Third Reich), and minstrelsy. He then connected those themes with post-Columbine and post-9/11 American culture. (Manson’s no intellectual slouch…)[2. If you want to go deeper down this rabbit hole, I suggest this article that I recently came across when assembling some links for this post. Good stuff.]
3. Strictly focusing on saxophone, kudos to him for using a period-appropriate model. Sigurd Rascher would’ve been proud. 🙂
4. Outside of including “saxophone” under his name in the album’s liner notes, Mary isn’t referred to as a “saxophonist” in his articles or titles. He understands the context.
5. FYI: I didn’t go searching for an outrageous example saxophone squawks to be incendiary. The last time I saw Marilyn Manson in concert was on this tour in 2003, and I occasionally go back to that memory when thinking of this particular instrumental conundrum.

Context matters, of course. Because at the end of the day they’re two men making noise on instruments they can’t play.

Now of course there can be an intersection between the above two poles in which someone “makes noise” on his/her primary instrument that seems indiscernible from a novice. Some of Evan Parker‘s music comes to mind. In the below video, if you were to just watch the images without sound, one would think he’s just letting his fingers run wild. However, when you actually listen to his sounds, you hear incredible control of both tonguing, range, and contour. He manages polyphony all by himself. (I can be partial, though, because I’m a Parker fan.):

Also, Parker’s no one-trick pony. His playing on Boustrophedon and Composition/Improvisation No. 1, 2, & 3 is different, for example. As is his playing in the second video of this MTH-V post.

Whew. Well, that’s enough to chew on for now. I’ll definitely be returning to this topic. And, as I said in my last post in this series, these are real rough drafts. I’m just trying to collect my thoughts on this topic.


Earnestness or Excuses?

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about artistic intention and reception. It’s been difficult to get all of my duck-like ideas in a row, and I’ll in no way fully address the issue with one post, but it’s worth planting the seed.

I’ve quietly been focused on this the last couple months, but it really came to the fore when Matt Borghi and I touched on it in conversation during one of our recent lunches (where we wax philosophically about music, comedy, politics, the internet, our neighborhoods, and all things in between). Improvisation is perhaps the cornerstone of our musical relationship, and on this particular day we got to talking about improvisation itself. He mentioned an interesting dialogue he’d recently had with another musician, and – I’m paraphrasing so I could be a little off – that, generally, music that is largely improvised suggests at least a small degree of laziness on the part of the performer(s). In some cases this is true. However, to use that as an overall guiding principle shocked me. Especially since it came from another musician in a somewhat related realm.

As one example, my ambient-based work with Matt, we improvise not out of lack of forethought but because we’re feeding off of one another in the moment. What we each bring to the table continually changes. Yes, we have “rehearsed” many times, but we’re not rehearsing content. Instead we’re rehearsing our engaging one another musically. We’re continually learning and refining how we listen and respond to one another. Conversely, while there’s much room for improvising in our Teag & PK catalogue, we rehearse and adhere to our musical forms and roadmaps, as those songs are based on set content.

[Shameless plug: please check out Convocation if you haven’t yet. We’re quite proud of it. 🙂 ]

In both aforementioned settings – ambient and folkish – the performer’s respect for the content (and how that content is created) is a key factor. Another important element is a respect for the craft of being able to make the music. This could the technical facility/mastery of an instrument and/or the craft of songwriting or improvising. So not only am I concerned with the style of music I’m performing, but how well I may execute it on a given instrument. How can I properly express myself through an instrument I can’t play? Furthermore, how can I express myself on an instrument I can play but through a style I cannot?

Much more to come on this as I start to flesh out some related thoughts…