Shoemaker: Coming up playing jazz and improvised music, your impetus is to have your own sound, your own voice, which is distinguishable from past masters many musicians use as models. How is that process altered through the integration of electronics, signal processing and computers?
Linson: I think your question raises more questions than I can answer! Maybe the best place to start is by trying to unpack it a little. It seems to me that most of the past masters in the jazz tradition were already recognized as masters during their lifetimes, at least by their peers. So you had those who we think of as introducing new sounds, new voices, you had those on the same scene who distinguished themselves by developing their own sensibilities, and of course you had those who were content with limited forms of emulation. And this is certainly far too clean of a characterization. Things get murkier when you factor in questions about the relation of individual to group innovation and related problems like historically simultaneous independent innovation, which you hear about quite often in the sciences. Even the historical record can't clear up everything. Some of who we recognize as innovators even in the early documented stages saw themselves as trying to emulate someone else, maybe someone they once heard or a mentor -- in the earliest examples of this, people we will never get to hear. So assessing innovation and contribution is by no means clear-cut and I think this complicates matters when we seek common points of reference. Certain attributions of a sound, a voice, or even an influence are widely agreed upon, others are contested. In my view, a lot of innovation is still going on by the people who opened up the field of integrated electronics and acoustic instruments in live improvisation. At the same time, each generation (or even sub-generation) emerges during what is going on at that moment, so you can always get some sense of a longer, continuing lineage by connecting the dots. But the potential lines we can draw, even the ones that are in fact drawn, are in endless supply, governed to a greater or lesser extent by subjective abstraction, concrete evidence, ideological bias, etc. There are valid arguments that deal with a particular historical strand very narrowly, or ones that deal with, for example, all the music from the time immediately following WWII, even as individuals from narrowly-defined historical strands remained at odds with each other to varying degrees, by their own accounts or otherwise. People might object to certain associations, but there is no escaping our shared social totality. So in my opinion, when you are improvising with acoustic instruments and integrating electronics, you are still dealing with the histories that predate that practice, along with the originators of different components of the practice and anyone who continues to innovate in the field today, as well as with what we could call society at large. In that context, to have your own sound, your own voice, you try to be aware of what's out there and you try to figure out whether or not you have something to contribute. I think that remains constant whether or not electronics are involved in the equation.
Ellis: I don’t believe in this idea of the individual crusading for a “voice.” It does not really matter whether one is developing acoustic, or computer based music or both because finding your “own sound” is not like sending out a search party; it’s not simply a process that can be engaged. Personally, I think the idea is overrated or at least, at its core, there is a misconception. Having an original voice is a given, it comes with the territory, but it is something that each artist alone must recognize in themselves. Over the course of time, one nurtures and accepts it rather than pursues it as an ideal. It is not a belief to be bound to as in a pilgrimage towards some sort of higher truth.
An original sound cannot be manufactured. Jumping on the band wagon of some current trend is not a way to ascertain ones authenticity. Nor can one just dive off the sedan chair of tradition hoping for uniqueness. These kinds of reactionary attitudes lead to being strapped down to the gurney of terrible aberrations. I like deviant art; I like music and musicians that stray off course but when the departure is contrived and affected the results are hardly satisfying.
On the other hand, there was a coterie of musicians from another continent who admittedly quested after a sound that would be “distinguishable from past masters.” More specifically, they had a plan to achieve a uniquely individual and collective sound by divorcing themselves from the power and influence of the prevalent creative music of their time: African-American jazz. By choosing to reject the influence of America and, ultimately, Africa, their arguably self-conscious approach manifested a movement in music. Some find their denouement to be wondrous and others find it to be dubious. Either way, the fact is that this particular enterprise, ironically enough, has in turn become highly influential on a new generation of American musicians interested in improvisation. Curiously, and again ironically, the resultant music of the new cadre purports to be non-genre specific and often totally flouts the idea of genre and has turned what was formerly considered to be a process into style. Thus, we have a new genre: “Improv.”
But that’s what we get when we mess with “mother nature” . . . it’s all fun and games until someone gets their eye poked out with a stick. However, on a global scale, isn’t that what we all seem to be doing and is art not a kind of barometer for how we live our lives and the attitudes we foster on a societal level?
Of course, this is only my opinion and I’d like to think my attitude is a product of hands-on action and informed observation. But what do I really know? The source of my injunction comes from the fact that I’m someone who was never concerned with developing an original voice. In my youth I only wanted to sound like Ray Brown and failed miserably. I used to practice in front of the record player and cry - literally - saying, “Why can’t I get this? It’s only fucking quarter notes, how hard can that be?”
It took me years to realize that each one of those quarter notes implied mountain ranges of thought and deep oceans of experience which were the resultant force of a life lived in a community that I, at that time, knew nothing about. And those sound’s existence reflected encounters with affinities that I would never, at the most profound level, be able to engage. But that didn’t deter me. And that was not because of some special courage I possessed. At 15 and 16 years old I didn’t know any better, so I was insinuating myself into the dressing rooms of the bands of Junior Wells, Albert King, Sam and Dave, and Big Mama Thornton and that was just me being young and dumb, but never disrespectful. I wanted what these people had and I wanted to learn from them.
I was tenaciously persistent and eventually found myself being invited into some of those communities and there I discovered something. There it was revealed to me that one’s “original voice” is considered as inherent as the sound of one’s speaking voice and is not necessarily something one needs to strive for. In fact, here is that precept’s perfect analogue: we have all heard a recording at some point of our speaking voice and without exception we never recognize it has our own. This can be similar to the experience of hearing one’s own authentic voice in music for the first time. We perceive it as foreign, alien, and other than ourselves, as though it could never really be a part of us . . . it couldn’t be our own true voice.
Discovering one’s own voice in music, or for that matter in any form of self expression, is similar to the literal experience of hearing the sound of one’s voice. We always want our sound, our music, our voice, to relate clearly to those sounds - through love and inspiration - in which we have immersed ourselves, those sounds created by our forefathers and mothers whom we cherish and respect so deeply. Some voices do resonate in an obvious way with the meanings of times past, but some voices do not. So, we can either deny or accept our sound; it’s our choice.
It’s been said “if you are lucky you get one good story to tell and you just keep finding new ways to tell it.” Who can say why it is that you may be the one who has a unique narrative to share, the one who brings something new and unknown from out of the shadows to amaze and inspire the rest of us. Maybe it is only fortune’s favor. I don’t ask myself why I’ve been presented with the gifts I have or wonder why they are less than some yet more than others. Pondering life’s inequalities, injustices, and the lack of balance between fair and unfair is an incredible waste of time.
Whether I’m considered to have a singular vision or an original voice is not for me to decide. Whatever form my expression takes, be it music (acoustic and/or electronic), visual art, or writing, all I can do is adhere to my own tenets of artistic endeavor: to work assiduously, to gather and utilize as much knowledge as I can about the art and artists that were here before me, to take chances and risk failure through experimentation . . . to go to the end of myself with my art. Which is to say, to aspire to the same level of greatness that those I love and admire have achieved.
Nonetheless, I cannot control what people’s reaction will be to what I do. Of course, there’s a good chance that an enthusiastic response to one’s work will make life more tolerable with the possibility of it becoming truly enjoyable. A proportionately inverse response can yield an excruciatingly negative experience and has led some artists to actually change their existential status. Everyone has their limits.
Even still, I do find it fascinating to consider the lives of artists that persist in their work undeterred by obscurity. I recently saw a film about a particular musician, someone who is having one of the more successful careers in this particular field of music. It was done in a “camera as witness” style where there was no narration. The film simply documented this person’s day to day activity of procuring work, traveling to realize the work, and the general idiosyncrasies of the way of life. I thought it was very well done. And, in an oddly disturbing way, it made me feel very out of touch with my own community.
I confess to being envious of such success. All the gigs and all the accolades seem quite appealing. Despite the downside of the exhaustion brought on by the grueling travel schedule and a number of other depleting issues, it looked to me to be a compelling lifestyle only imbued with “high class” problems.
In any case, after seeing this film, I began to imagine a similar but much more oblique documentary subject, one portraying the vicissitudes of the “failed” artist - suggested title, “Van Gogh’s Ear,” a film about someone who has endured through many years of being ignored and has somehow remained fully engaged with their art and has self-nourished their confidence and miraculously maintained interest in their own work. Now that would be something to witness!
Yet, it would probably do miserably at the box office. After all, who besides me - a possible testament to my own masochism - would want to see such a thing especially if history has not already caught up to the artist and there are no crowds singing hosannas. We know that usually only happens well after the artist’s demise. However, I think it would be insightful and inspiring to observe such a creator laboring away at some menial job that has nothing to do with their talent and, in defiance of that, each day still find a way to conjure astonishing focus and the strength with which to engage their creative process.
So, I offer that the way to distinguish one’s self from the past is to directly, naturally, and guilelessly, “speak” and then “hear.” Listen with our own ears as that is really all we have, and to take solace in the fact that the ancestors, if no one else, are listening back.
The following statement may be useful only for me. I hypothesize that beyond the idea of seeking originality, uniqueness, and a singular voice, there is another possibility: to focus purely, without admixture, on that which one cannot not do. Accepting and engaging the challenges presented by our limitations in the fullest possible way by acknowledging that music was here before we were and will most certainly be here long after and if the goal is to improvise one cannot really teach anyone anything; one can only be an example. I see my contribution to the art form - particularly electro-acoustic music - in a certain perspective and recognize my own vanishing point: I’m merely creating etudes for the music of the next 3,000 years. It is a small drop in an immense bucket.