Friday, October 28, 2011

Music night: free jazz

In an earlier post I mentioned standardisation, the first of the two features which characterise popular music, according to Adorno.  All popular music is written to a stock formula which never varies in its essentials, although individual pieces may differ by various accidents. The second feature, which is a corollary of the first, is what he calls pseudo-individualization. This is a way of imparting a fake individuality to mass produced music, thus imbuing it with a 'halo of free choice'.  Standardisation is a form of mind control that does the listening for the consumer.  Pseudo-individualization makes them forget that what they are listening to is 'pre-digested'. 

Thus the popular interest in popular music is a form of false consciousness.  It makes the masses forget that they are oppressed and exploited by the capitalist-consumerist system. Worse than that, it gives them the illusion of free choice: it makes them the unwitting architects of their own subjugation.

Adorno says that jazz improvisation is the most extreme example of this. 
Even though jazz musicians still improvise in practice, their improvisations have become so "normalized" as to enable a whole terminology to be developed to express the standard devices of individualization: a terminology which in turn is ballyhooed by jazz publicity agents to foster the myth of pioneer artisanship and at the same time flatter the fans by apparently allowing them to peep behind the curtain and get the inside story. This pseudo-individualization is prescribed by the standardization of the framework. The latter is so rigid that the freedom it allows for any sort of improvisation is severely delimited. Improvisations — passages where spontaneous action of individuals is permitted ("Swing it boys") — are confined within the walls of the harmonic and metric scheme. In a great many cases, such as the "break" of pre-swing jazz, the musical function of the improvised detail is determined completely by the scheme: the break can be nothing other than a disguised cadence. Here, very few possibilities for actual improvisation remain, due to the necessity of merely melodically circumscribing the same underlying harmonic functions. Since these possibilities were very quickly exhausted, stereotyping of improvisatory details speedily occurred. Thus, standardization of the norm enhances in a purely technical way standardization of its own deviation — pseudo-individualization.
This is in marked contrast to the view of jazz in the 1940s that Kerouac gives us, through the eyes and ears of his protagonist Dean Moriarty, in his seminal On the Road.
It was a sawdust saloon with a small bandstand on which the fellows huddled with their hats on, blowing over people's heads, a crazy place; crazy floppy women wandered around sometimes in their bathrobes, bottles clanked in alleys. In back of the joint in a dark corridor beyond the splattered toilets scores of men and women stood against the wall drinking wine-spodiodi and spitting at the stars — wine and whisky. The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff that went from "EE-yah!" to a crazier "EE-de-lee-yah!" and blasted along to the rolling crash of butt-scarred drums hammered by a big brutal Negro with a bullneck who didn't give a damn about anything but punishing his busted tubs, crash, rattle-ti-boom, crash. Uproars of music and the tenorman had it and everybody knew he had it. Dean was clutching his head in the crowd, and it was a mad crowd. They were all urging that tenorman to hold it and keep it with cries and wild eyes, and he was raising himself from a crouch and going down again with his horn, looping it up in a clear cry above the furor. A six-foot skinny Negro woman was rolling her bones at the man's hornbell, and he just jabbed it at her, "Ee! ee! ee!"
We don't know exactly what the tenorman was playing, but it was certainly a form of the be-bop idiom that emerged in the 1940s.  For example, in another part, Kerouac mentions 'Congo Blues' which I discuss here. Very little music was actually composed by be-bop artists.  They would take a 'standard' number, written in the standardised form of 1930s jazz that Adorno mentions, and would 'improvise freely' around it.  A favourite subject was "All the things you are", a show tune written by Jerome Kern.  Here is Richard Tauber singing it, and here is Joan Morris.  Both versions appear utterly unlike any form of be-bop.  By contrast, here is the renowned version by Gillespie, Parker, Stewart and Cole.  Somewhat later there is the Sonny Rollins version

The first two are awkward and stilted and old-fashioned, the second two seem progressive and, from the point of view of the 1940s and 50s, modernist.  Or so it seems: but was Moriarty just a victim of the false individualisation that Adorno despises?  Is there any real improvisation, given that the harmonic structure is identical in all versions?  Is the freedom that excited Kerouac, the 'wonderfully free idea', merely an illusion, a melodic circumscription, nothing more than a cadence?

Indeed: is the story of popular music in the 20th and 21st century no more than a form of false consciousness?  Be-bop gave way to completely free jazz, when absolutely nothing remained but the cadence.  Pop music gave way to 'progressive music' in the late1960s and 70s.  In the 1980s there was 'Indie', short for 'independent' music.  The 1990s saw the massive growth in popularity of rap and hip-hop and gangsta music, still dominating the charts. Are all these 'progressive' versions of popular music simply a vehicle for Adorno's standardised forms, painting a halo of free-choice and individualism, but nothing more than a form of mind control that make us the instrument of our own distraction from our oppression and ultimate alienation from the means of production?  A way of forgetting that we are not free?

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