Saturday, July 07, 2007

Anthony Widoff

Ellington nailed it with his criteria for musical quality: “if it sounds good it is good”. Unfortunately, this unassailable formulation does little to resolve the question of what constitutes good music, for there obviously exists little agreement regarding what sounds good.

Musical fanatics are often hardwired to condemn whatever offends their ears, as if the music they worship might perish should the aural infection spread. There may be good reason for such alarm. Sound is an invasive phenomenon. Musical sound waves cannot maintain coherency when modulated by uninvited waveforms. Some musics are as delicate as smoke rings, requiring very particular conditions for their appreciation. Other musics assume the characteristics of a jack hammer so as to override any possible interference. It may be that listeners experience extreme visceral reactions against unwanted sounds in a genuine effort to preserve and protect their musical universe.

In the contemporary public space there is often no way to avoid being exposed to sounds of the most tasteless inane banal and abrasive order. Indeed, if one lives within the clamor of the inner city, there may be no respite as audio pollution regularly invades the private space.

But within the world of so-called “free jazz”, (or this music as Bill Dixon generally refers to it) this is clearly not the case. If you don’t want to hear it, chances are you never will.

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All serious listeners base their standards of musical form & competence upon the work of their musical hero(s). Every musical idiom develops its own standards of brilliance by which its musicians are rated. The desire to have a technical Standard is understandable because it’s useful. Technical specifications simplify the process of coming to agreement regarding what constitutes technical proficiency.

The Standard allows merit to be judged, thus order and coherency is kept within the form.

However, musical standards are utilized not only to establish a hierarchy within a musical scene. They are just as often used to assail and disparage anyone who disregards or challenges the form. Music-scenes are infamous for their dismissal and cruelty towards those (both within the idiom and without) who are perceived as not cutting it - not playing according to The Standard (another way to put it: generating hostile waveforms).

Yet without exception brilliant musical talent will in one way or another break the ephemeral rules of their own idiom. Therefore, The Standard is more an artifact of perspective than any verifiable measure of worth or value.

Unfortunately, there remain some commentators who (while thinking themselves supportive of the sanctity of individual expression) still insist on making determinations regarding the cats who can and “can’t” play. This begs the question: play by whose rules?

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There are doubtless many specific motivations for the making of music. But in general the musician is motivated by a desire to please. If no one (musician included) is pleased by the music making, there is little impetus to continue. The desire to please comes in two forms. There is the desire to please others, and the desire to please oneself. All social beings have natures composed of some mixture of the two.

The musician who appeals to the crowd is “in”. The musician attuned to the inner ear is “out”. Many musicians yearn to play “out”, but few are willing to build their career there. Prudent players may keep a foot in both. But all musicians know that it’s much more difficult “out”-there, therefore respect should be reserved for those who have made the out-side their home.

It makes some sense to judge the “in” crowd based upon The Standard of their chosen music-scene. But it makes no sense to judge the “out” voice by any standard other than Ellington’s. The perspective of the outsider is invariably at odds with the in-scene, and so the standards cannot be fairly applied.

Therefore, any deep and open-minded listener would do well to remain suspicious of any standards for judgment when attempting an appreciation of those not explicitly working within an idiom. When convention is challenged and a new voice arises, some pundit will always claim it’s crap. The only relevant guides are your ears: does it sound good? Yes? Good music. No? Call it what you will.

There has always been a blurry line between the genius, the renegade, and the poser. What’s really legit? Ellington makes it unequivocally clear: it matters only to the individual listener. The standards of musical merit are a matter of perspective. All efforts to enforce an objective standard can only stifle the possibility of the next great music.

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I know what sounds good to my ears, and when I hear something unpleasing it is at times extraordinarily difficult to resist the temptation to bomb the offending noise back to the stone-age. If music were a democracy where majority rules then clearly I am statistically insignificant in my assessment of what constitutes good music, and I imagine this is the case for most anyone considering these words. When it comes to this music, we’re a microdot on the demographic map. If the criticism of obviously insincere commercial music does nothing to change the world for the better, it makes no sense to criticize a sincere artist just because your ears don’t dig the sound.

Those of us with an ear for “out” forms are in a precarious position when we employ standards other than our own ears to judge these sounds. Energy might better be spent trying to imagine what it would take to hear it with fresh ears.

As a student I was not always a fan of Bill Dixon’s music, but I am now. My appreciation of music would be far more narrow had I not reconsidered the sounds I once dismissed as unworthy.

Antony Widoff


The Dixon Society: Tell us about how you came to study with Dixon. What were some of your musical high points before attending Bennington and what attracted you to Bennington college and Dixon in particular.

AW: Those events still within memory’s grasp which might in one way or another be considered Musical High Points (pre-Bennington, semi-chronological): pediatric piano: sheet music pleasures (Bach & Joplin), an eventual epiphany (Derek & the Dominoes “Layla” can be learned without sheet music.) Merrywood Music Camp: Brahms’ Rhapsody in D min., male soprano in compulsory campus-wide chorus, introduction to multi-instrumentalism (timpanist), cardboard box drum along with mid-period Steely Dan phonographs, first composition (co-writer): “Blue Bozina” for 4 part chorus + piano accompaniment). Electron-powered noise-making: Hohner Pianet, CAT SRM duo-phonic synthesizer. High School of Music & Art (M&A): senior jazz band piano humiliations, rock band conscriptions, extracurricular sensory modification & sonic mind expansion via: Art Bears, Captain Beefheart, Henry Cow, The Residents, Frank Zappa, Pere Ubu, Ornette Coleman, Fred Frith, Odeon Pope, Terje Rypdal, etc.

Bennington’s appeal to this then high-school grad: grade-free academics, student-designed curriculum, free-thought allowable, manageable social density, postmodern artistic “standards”/pretensions, lots of dancers, Vermont air & views, an occasional semblance of grit, fresh young naive enthusiasm, post-counter-cultural disaffections, optional dress code, etc.

Bill Dixon:

My first encounter with Bill Dixon was as a high-school senior visiting Bennington College as a potential payer. Prospective students were to be courted that day, so various faculty members were occasionally made available for Q&A. I came upon Bill in the lobby of the Visual and Performing Arts building (VAPA). I had never heard of a “Black Music” department before, and the concept struck me as odd. My high school experience with what is often called “jazz” had not impressed upon me the fact that popular American music (especially of an improvisational nature) was very much the invention and genius of African descendents.

And so from the depths of my ignorance I decided to ask Bill directly what exactly was meant by the term “Black Music”. Anyone who knows Bill Dixon should have no difficulty imagining the response. For the rest, description could not possibly do it justice. Suffice it to say I wasn’t charmed, but the event certainly left an impression on me.

Bill has often delighted in reminding me of this incident.

Consequently I did not initially make much effort to study with Bill Dixon, and this lamentable position seemed at the time to be justified by the testimonials of those who did.

Many students were terrified of Bill. He did not hesitate to excoriate aspirants, many of whom (like me) had been raised a bit too comfortable, and therefore had not developed the thick skin required of a serious player. I heard a number of stories of students reduced to tears, and I saw it a few times too. I didn’t quite get the appeal.

Despite my initial boycott of Dixon classes, I found myself attending just about every Dixon concert I could. At the time I did not understand in the least what he was doing, and consequently was uncertain why I attended - except for the fact that I knew I would be missing something significant if absent. I had no idea what any of it meant to me, although I could see that it meant a lot to others.

It took a while for me to appreciate the radical nature of Bill Dixon’s work. All I really knew at the time was that something unusual was being done, and that there appeared to be a seriousness of purpose.

During my first year (1983-84) I found The Music almost entirely impenetrable. I realized that I didn’t get it, and essentially this pissed me off. I felt inadequate and challenged. I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the questions raised: to what extent is intentionality necessary or desirable in the production of music? When exactly does intention occur, and what is one to do with it when it arises? How malleable are pitch and rhythm? Is it possible to create meaningful music without considering idiomatic musical form as a guiding principal? Does the audience matter? Why should it be necessary to know what is coming next? Is it possible and/or desirable for the performer to fully understand what it is they are doing? What is an ensemble, what does it mean to play in an ensemble, what is the goal of musicianship? Etc, etc, etc.

By the end of every concert I was thinking and hearing differently than when I went in. These concerts were, prior to the precious little time spent at later dates playing and discussing music with Bill, my main learning experience from the man. If I recall correctly, I took only one official class with Bill – an ensemble class. The primary activity in the class was Bill’s scathing critique & ridicule of the assembled, for the reasons mentioned above. I now believe that Bill was completely correct in his assessment and was doing his job by telling the class that they were wasting both their time and his.

I did not realize until much later that Bill’s attitude was probably due to a shift in the quality of player attending the college. In its heyday, the Black Music department had many extremely competent players, allowing for rather sophisticated and nuanced work. For whatever reason (I’ll forego speculation), during the time I matriculated (1983-87) it was rare to find anyone with any significant facility on their instrument. From what I can gather, the caliber of player improved somewhat in the 90s.

Q: Can you describe rehearsing with Dixon? Can you talk about your 'rig', his 'rig' and what you did/what Dixon talked about when rehearsing?

A: I’ll write a bit on what I recall about working with Bill Dixon in general, including how the opportunity came to pass, and some of the technical issues involved.

If memory serves correctly (it may not), Bill Dixon approached me after hearing a quasi-improvisational duet for synthesizer and saxophone that I performed with Jon Bepler (on sax). As I recall, Bill was intrigued by my use of the synthesizer. He invited me to explore the possibility of doing some electronic work with him.

I had gotten involved with a project that was the brainchild of Bennington’s electronic music professor Joel Chadabe. This project eventually became the music software company Intelligent Music (IM). Joel had a vision to create what he called the “intelligent instrument”: an instrument that could create complex musical output from simple performance gestures. Chadabe assembled a student team consisting of myself and John Offenhartz to develop a few software models of the idea on a FM Synclavier in XPL4 (a computer controlled Frequency Modulation synthesizer programmed in a computer language called XPL4). David Zicarelli soon joined and became a driving force behind the company, with many brilliant ideas and a very high level of programming skill (thereby graciously ending my career as a programmer). IM developed some of the first software featuring compositional algorithms and real-time interactivity, making the software usable as an improvisational tool.

In the first set of sessions with Bill Dixon I generally used a Zicarelli program called “Jam Factory”, which utilized Markov chain analysis to achieve a kind of contextualized pitch randomization. Jam Factory also featured a number of powerful real-time interactive capabilities, including the ability to specify, & modify pitch and duration collections, note “density” (how often a player would play), dynamic range, time mapping, tempo, accents, etc. I was thus able to establish non-deterministic probabilistic fields of musical activity, which functioned as a supportive musical environment over which Bill & I could play.

In advance of a session I would prepare an electronic environment within which to operate: a set of synthesized sounds (in the 80s it was mainly Yamaha FM and Oberheim modules), processing patches (I think at that time all I had was a Yamaha SPX90 and an Alesis digital reverb) and software settings and controls. There was no pre-existing musical material. A microphone would be available for Bill, and sometimes that signal would be routed through various devices (I remember one session where I had a primitive sampler that could only grab a few seconds and play back directly (at that time it could not even transpose or change sample playback rate).

I recall being in a constant struggle with the technology – and the results were often very uneven and mixed. The primary difficulty was not to lose the force of immediate intention within the array of interesting technical possibilities (which I hazard to say is the typical result when art meets technology, and is the reason I am now wary of its use in “this” or any other meaningful music).

It came down to an effort to minimize the worst of the technology’s negative effects. In this early work with Bill Dixon I was satisfied to be able to control partially stochastic textures with a reasonable degree of intentionally. I was lucky in a typical performance if the system would not break down more than a few times. Despite these problems, I do believe that some of the work done at that time is perhaps the most essential and intense musical expression I’ve ever been party to.

For our more recent efforts I changed the approach accordingly. I eliminated the use of a computer and determined to have all sound originate from actual performance gestures (as opposed to algorithmic compositional processes). This was accomplished via complex signal routing, allowing me to take any source (including Bill's horn) and feed it into loop, delay and other signal processes. I established real-time control over each of these processes, and over a simple but highly flexible and changeable palette of synthesized sound. While rehearsing I also used an old Fender Rhodes piano as a sound source, but this was never used in performance.

Although I still encountered some of the same kinds of reliability problems with this pared-down technology, I found overall to be a more satisfying approach.

Nevertheless, I have come to the conclusion that technology in general is more of a pain in the ass than it is worth, and I am less and less interested in messing around with it.

While at Bennington, sessions with Bill typically ran as follows: we would convene at the appointed time in my Jennings basement studio. Rarely was much said at all.

Bill would direct the movement of the music entirely from his horn. I applied myself to follow his lead. In general, I tried to treat the electronics as an “orchestral” texture over which Bill & I could work. We would typically play between 40-70 minutes and then take a break. Most of the sessions were recorded on audio cassette, and we would often take a break and listen to what had just transpired – sometimes convening in Bill’s 2nd floor Jennings office for a long listening session.

Bill might make a few comments, or not. Often we’d work for another 30-60 minutes and then wrap.

Our more recent sessions were essentially the same thing with a few minor variations: the location was my 3rd floor studio in Hudson NY, everything was recorded digitally, and we would play for a few hours and then go get something to eat at Earth Foods’ lunch-counter down the block.

Q: Did any of the other music faculty you studied with ever speak about Dixon's music? What did they say if anything?

A: Attending High School in NYC’s Spanish Harlem taught me early the many necessary skills of the artful dodger.

As far as I am aware, I was one of the few Bennington students involved in both the “Music Division” and the “Black Music Division” who was not eventually railroaded into choosing sides. Whenever I got a whiff of the animosity between the two I was (frankly) sickened by all involved. Therefore I adopted the only proper attitude to take towards all human institutions and politics: I keep as far away from the entrenched inanity as feigned ignorance will allow.

Music Faculty meetings were legendary for their drama, and Bill reportedly figured prominently in the action. As I never attended a Music Department meeting (or at least have blocked any memory of having done so), I choose to treat what little I recall of the reportage as apocryphal. I therefore decline the opportunity to lend credence to rumor. As with much of what is presented as news, I have no way to assess whether reportage bears any resemblance to fact.

Lionel Novak, with whom I briefly studied, had nothing but good things to say about Bill Dixon. I remember him singing Bill’s praises quite often. He particularly admired Bill’s unique approach to music-making, and said on a number of occasions that he felt himself incapable of approaching music making in a similar manner. Lionel had very big ears and was not afraid of any music no matter his own predilections.

Other Members of the Music Faculty Who Shall Go Nameless may have had a somewhat different reaction to and opinion of Bill Dixon. Within the Black Music Department itself there was certainly a lot of, shall we say, creative tension.

Q: Do you have a favorite Dixon recording

A: Odyssey solo works. I particularly enjoy the triptych which feature a young William Dixon playing and talking in the background (I See Your Fancy Footwork 1, 2, 3). The whole set is miraculous.

I have always preferred Bill Dixon solo (which I heard for hours every day as my studio was within earshot of his at Bennington). I think of this as being the true unadulterated Dixon. Direct from the source, im-mediate expression with no unnecessary additives or impurities of any kind.

When we performed at the Visions festival last year (or was it the year before?) I was completely awe-struck as Bill performed his sound check. Those were some of the finest few minutes of sound ever to have entered my ears.

Although I have tended to diverge from the path Bill wisely laid before me, he has succeeded in teaching me one thing for which I will always be eternally grateful: the primacy of immediacy in any authentic expression. My sessions with Bill, and the time spent hanging out bullshitting or in serious conversation with him have enriched me to the depths of my white-ass Ashkenazi soul.

Bill’s profound manner of being and unique intellect will remain a profound influence on my life until the day I die.

Q: What is on the musical horizon?

A: If you’re inquiring into my own personal musical horizon, I am pleased to report zero activity now or for the foreseeable future. I find myself less and less inclined to spend my energy on music, in the ordinary sense of the word. If at a later date I discover that music has a healthy place in my life and that I can avoid the bullshit that generally characterizes the musician’s life – I’ll happily return to the fold. Otherwise, I am content to set my gaze on non-musical horizons.

If you’re inviting me to speculate on the horizon of music in general, my forecast is bleak. There is some remarkably urgent music being made these days, but the overall capacity of music as a meaningful social force has, in my opinion, been eroded to near-nil. Audiences have now been pummeled for generations with such a high intensity and vast quantity of aural stimulation - they have become inured to the potential for a transformative experience from even the best of the best.

It is hard to know what meaning can be assigned “art-music” at a time like this. If we are to believe Attali (in his fine book “Noise: the political economy of music”) that human musical expression originates in violence (given voice in the war cry – the original musical utterance: utterly im-mediate), it becomes clear that music utilized for the questionable purposes of “entertainment” is sacrilege. The alternatives are unclear to me, but change is always in the offing.


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