I thought it might do to clarify what exactly a "jam session" is and is not, given recent overuse of the term, in the context of which it has perhaps lost its original usefulness.
Basic definition: a jam session is an informal gathering of musicians, or better yet of people playing music, who are not being paid to do so and are not required to do so for any external reason. They are playing for fun. Validation and status-seeking are not involved. Accruing of musical knowledge/experience is perhaps resultant but is not a primary goal of the proceedings, which occur entirely for the purpose of enjoyment.
Important distinction: a jam session is not a performance. Our concept of "performance" implies a strict separation between performers and spectators. In a jam session atmosphere there are ideally neither. Everyone is a participant, but none could be said to be "performers" since they aren't performing for anyone, not even really for each other. Frequently additional people are there listening and not making any music themselves; that's fine, but if these people are there in large part TO listen, you're dealing with a performance, not a jam session.
1) If it is scheduled in advance for some public location and advertised, regardless of what they call it, it is probably not a jam session.
2) If you care in any way whether you sound good, it is probably a performance, not a jam session.
3) If you are worried about people thinking you aren't good enough to be playing, it is not a jam session.
4) If the word "enough" crosses your mind at all, it is probably not a jam session. (Occurrence following the word "drunk" is acceptable.)
4) If some of the musicians involved are strangers, this is fine; if you care that they are strangers, it is probably not a jam session.
It was a normal dinner conversation between musicians. I casually mentioned my abhorrence of the Banff Centre's muzak policies; a reasonable complaint given the contiguity, say, at the coffee shop, of Kenny G Christmas with Madonna's "Like a Prayer."
One building on campus even has music piped into the restrooms, set to activate with the lights when someone enters. The other day they were playing Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto in there.
I think we can all agree that that is outrageous.
One of the composers at the table, following my comment, described a bathroom concert a teacher of his had been involved with. Another musician has a colleague staging a swimming pool concert, complete with synchronized swimmers. I mentioned a friend who has played on a coat-room music series.
We have all of this, and yet when I went on long runs in Austin I was pleasantly surprised to see dudes unceremoniously playing guitars in their front yards.
We tried to be revolutionary by removing music from the concert hall, and yet now it's more provocative and unusual to have live music on one's own porch. Taking music to unexpected spaces has not altered contemporary attitudes about music-making and where it belongs.
Spectating is no longer radical, no matter where you place it. It's genuine participation in music that has become rare, "experimental" when it occurs.
We've got music everywhere these days and music-making nowhere. Everyone has music piped into their "living" room, but when was the last time you had "live" music there?
Not so long ago all music was live music, just like all music was new music until around the time Mendelssohn revived Bach's St Matthew Passion. The opposite of "new" music should be "old" music, but now benchmark experimental works from decades ago are still referred to as "new music." The opposite of live music, I suppose, is recorded music -- but when I hear disembodied background sounds, even if they're unfortunately situated works by a great like Beethoven, that's not just recorded music. That's really the opposite of live music. That's dead music.
For the record, I already knew Han Bennink was one of my newest heroes before I saw this clip of him playing a drum solo on a kit made of fine Dutch cheeses.
This morning I was going through some of my normal practice routines: lately I've been working on unusual scales from Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, an incredible book that systematically lists a couple thousand ways to find your way up and down the keyboard, categorized using home-cooked terms like "sesquiquadritone progression." I keep a log of the exercises I do each day. Each listing indicates the scale being practiced, the rhythmic value I use to play it in my right hand, the tempo (and note value) at which my metronome is clicking, what beat(s) the click falls on, the voicing of the comping chord I use in my left hand to accompany the scale, and the interval I use to move through the twelve keys sequentially -- major seconds or perfect fifths up or down, or major or minor third cycles in which four interlocking augmented triads or three interlocking diminished seventh chords, respectively, yield all twelve keys.
In my application essay for Banff, I described a plan to "forge my relationship with my instrument into higher relief."
So I'm practicing, and halfway through the exercise I found myself thinking about Robert Johnson.
Legend has it that the young blues guitarist became great by selling his soul to the devil. He was instructed to take his instrument to the crossroads late at night. There he met a mysterious man who took his guitar, tuned it, and handed it back. Johnson became a brilliant musician overnight.
Maybe it wasn't the Satan we commonly think of; some suggest that the "devil" in the story could be interpreted as the African trickster god Legba. This figure, known also in the syncretic tradition of Haitian voodoo, stands at the spiritual crossroads, speaks all human languages, and regulates communication between humanity and the spirits.
Regardless, Robert Johnson was not the first musician to attain greatness thusly in the popular imagination. Back across the pond in 19th-century Europe, Niccolo Paganini's skills on the violin were so spectacular that it was widely rumored he'd received them from the devil. The man's gaunt and sickly appearance didn't likely help matters, and nor did his instrument of choice. The violin has been long associated with the devil in numerous cultures -- I found an intriguing mention online (unsubstantiated) that the fiddle player in traditional Norwegian weddings plays only outside the church doors. The most popular American contribution to this mythical connection is of course the Charlie Daniels Band's "Devil Went Down to Georgia," in which the devil plays a fiddling contest with a young man named Johnny -- and loses.
The question arises: why is it always Satan? I suppose, Christianity being monotheistic, our culture has few nonhuman spiritual figures to offer as potential musicians or musical inspirations. Greek myth, by contrast, is packed with stories involving music. One tells of a contest like Charlie Daniels' between Apollo and the satyr Marsyas; in some tellings Apollo wins and in some he loses, but in none does he fail to have Marsyas flayed alive. The most famous musician in Greek myth is Orpheus, who played the lyre so masterfully that he charmed Hades, ruler of the underworld, into allowing him his dead wife back. (It didn't work out for Orpheus in the end, but that's irrelevant to the present discussion.)
But these stories feature mortals who are already supremely gifted musicians, not anyone like Robert Johnson, or the rest of us, who looks on perfection from the outside. So musicians in these old stories are divided into two camps: those who already possess divine musical ability, and those who are seeking it. The seekers are represented as desperate enough that they'll go to any end, face the greatest evil, sacrifice their very souls to become great musicians.
Composers, it seems, are not similarly chthonically afflicted. No, the guiding spirits composers seek are high and benign: the Greeks' muses, most famously, of which at least one was dedicated to musical expression. And even in Catholic tradition there is St. Cecilia, who depending on the story died a martyr's death while singing to God, and/or invented the organ to amplify her prayerful music. Many composers have written odes to Cecilia, asking for continued inspiration for themselves and other writers of music.
But one thing binds the players and composers of music together in these stories: they all seek something they lack. The Robert Johnsons among us see the Orpheuses and think we'd give our lives, or sell our souls, to be like them.
"Giving our lives" is perhaps what we do by dedicating ourselves to study and practice; "selling our souls" is more vague to analogize, though musicians are occasionally accused of it.
And who wouldn't prefer an overnight conversion to genius if the alternative is years of hard work, a proper "education" of the type that now occupies many of our musicians for the first three decades of their lives and beyond? We seek in our education someone or some place to bestow on us that elusive quality that others seem to effortlessly exhibit. And yet the word "education" itself comes from a Latin root meaning "led out" -- for some reason we never use the related verb "educe," which means drawing out something that is latent.
We are hesitant to acknowledge the elements that are already there, were there all along.
Somewhere along the line, a long time ago, musicians began to feel they were missing something. They weren't good enough. They needed something only someone else could give them, and they would go anywhere or do anything to get it.
Reading the lives of musicians over the years and witnessing them today, we can see that this has not changed.
But of course, we all know Robert Johnson didn't actually meet the devil. He just had music in him from the beginning, and he played it. Right?
Back to my scales.
I used to fetishize the personal and idiosyncratic in musical composition. I still maintain that cult and outsider artists collectively represent a beautiful art form that America has perfected, and reading the history of American music you encounter a parade of bizarre and wonderful individuals who pushed things along and in unexpected directions by sheer force of personality.
But is this our task today? Any project we undertake is colored by the immense surplus of content compared to demand for it. We have the most creators in the history of humans, and people's cultural consumption meanwhile is coming from a narrower set of channels. There is almost nowhere a sense of prioritizing the local, and fewer and fewer generators of content are necessary to fill people's time and level of interest.
So I guess we have a choice. We can get weirder and weirder as individuals, sink our creative practice further into the depths of idiosyncrasy in hopes of catching a bit of attention. Or we can approach the task with some hope of leveling, of reaching the people directly around us and building something from there.
I used to think the highest end I could achieve in composing was creating something so unique that no one else could have done it. Given the aforementioned pervasive issues of surplus, it makes sense to arrive at this conclusion. But what about creating something so simply and straightforwardly communicative, something so retroactively obvious, that it seems anyone could've come up with it?
Or at least maybe anyone else in your town could've come up with it? Because, on some level explicit or implicit, it reflects something of an experience that is not unique to just you?
Maybe it's time to make something that comes from looking across the room rather than at one's own navel.
Among the most common critiques of abstract expressionist painting, or of the giant monochromes of Rothko or Klein, is the age-old "I could have done that." A teacher of mine used to reply, "of course, but you didn't."
Similarly, John Cage was once told by a non-musician critic, "if this is what music is, I could write it as well as you." And Cage said, "Have I said anything that would lead you to think I thought you were stupid?"
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues