Son of
The Tonic Imbroglio

By Beppe Colli
Aug. 26, 2007

Given the conditions of perennial financial instability that go hand-in-hand with any music that can be defined as being "quite difficult to listen to", I was definitely not surprised to know that Tonic - the celebrated New York City venue made famous be John Zorn whose walls had seen some of the best avant-garde players from all over the world - was about to close its doors. Though this was obviously the cause for much personal sadness, Tonic's destiny made it obvious that the chances of survival for a venue as big as that (180 seats) in a town as tiny as that (population: 8.000.000+) were about zero. A fact which speaks volumes about today's "immutability of taste" and about the insurmountable gap existing between (what in certain circles is still conventionally defined as) "the avant-garde" and "the rest of the world". While in the old days the electric Miles Davis played in front of a young audience at the Fillmore East as a brilliant opening act for artists such as Laura Nyro (yes, it really happened: on 17, 18, 19, 20/6/1970). Having put aside my handkerchief, there were still a few pieces to read, written by those who didn't want to accept the fact that all was lost. Hence, a big debate, and very clear analysis and proposals by Marc Ribot (a musician who has clear ideas, and also a good knowledge of the language he uses to illustrate them) and some of his illustrious colleagues. This made me think about writing an editorial: titled The Tonic Imbroglio, it appeared here on April, 24.

Here I'll have to say that my decision to write and publish a piece like that was not an easy one for me, and I really could not manage to sleep for a couple of nights. Why? Well, while the position of Ribot & Friends could be defined, in brief, as "Daddy, I'm out of money again", my conclusions could be defined, in brief, as "Let's close the faucet". It obviously was a paradoxical proposition, with - it goes without saying - absolutely no chance of being put into practice. But an uncomfortable proposition all the same, given the fact that the majority of the avant-garde musicians (some of whom are friends of mine, while others I somewhat know) are usually penniless.

Reading the point of view of some of my colleagues in the press didn't exactly make me happy: though the obvious "anti-capitalistic reflex" was to be expected, given the fact that "our heroes" had been evicted, I was quite puzzled by some "analysis" which considered "gentrification" as though we were still talking about Engel's Manchester from the times of the Industrial Revolution, and not about a city that's quite complex and varied, in ethnic groups, levels of income and sexual mores.

But I strongly believed that this debate - concerning a venue of such notoriety (though not too many people bothered to go there) - could be the right occasion for an ambitious debate of a very high quality, since there were many important things to be discussed. The field of Architecture has seen a big debate - sometimes angry, often fertile and profound - about its function and its destiny during and epoch when "society"'s views about Architecture's current goals have changed quite a bit.

How could critics and musicians still think peacefully about the superiority of "quality music" as having only "the ugly chart music" as its opponent? How could critics and musicians still close their eyes when it came to the deeply distorting effects of a type of public funding which in a way owns their lives? (Mutatis mutandis, Ray Davis wrote a deeply touching masterpiece about this: called Get Back In Line, the song is featured on Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround by the Kinks, released in 1970.) Could we still have those sad, resigned reactions such as "Those people will always steal all the money, but at least we'll have Ornette Coleman playing here, instead of Gigi D'Alessio".

How could critics and musicians still ask for a "certification" system that gives access to money like the one that was common when Cage was the rage, but open to anybody? (OK, we also have the by now famous "more than 1000 European gigs" by Ribot.) How could critics and musicians shut their eyes when confronted with a "credit/point" system like those in operation in other types of occupations - where one has to start working really early to get those points? How could critics and musicians pretend not to see the ugly consequences of commissions such as "A horn for the Alps" (since the funding comes from a town in the Alps which as a horn on its ancient emblem) and "A thousand horns for the Alps" (since one has to involve the people who live in the town which has the horn on its ancient emblem, since "real Art is not elitist, and it takes down the walls")?

Well, they can.

The piece came out, and almost nobody wrote about it.

Of course I perfectly understand the fact that the piece didn't appear in The Guardian or The New Yorker. The topic of "reduced visibility" has not to be underestimated. But some people did read the piece. And when talking privately, informally, more people read it than officially declared. So?

At the time of very low literacy, an official "certification system" with a "semi-closed" organism with very clear rules and regulations had been the answer to the problem. When that system was not appropriate any more the stated belief became "to bring high quality to those who otherwise would not be able to afford culture". But at a time when those seen as "figures of change" are self-taught DJs?

At the time when a big "rock" audience was still a reality, it was still possible to argue in favour of a "contamination from the above" (hence, "Miles at the Fillmore"); but today it's all the "difficult music" that's in danger of disappearing.

Given this situation, music criticism is confronted with two serious dangers, both having the same outcome: its becoming irrelevant. On one hand, industry doesn't need a "filter" to talk to the public, having found different ways to directly address consumers (it's bitterly paradoxical that this condition gets nowadays to be perceived as one of "empowerment": how many times we've all heard the expression "I listen to it and then I make my own mind about it"?); here the critic/journalist, as long as s/he exists, occupies the residual role of "servant" with no real autonomy. On the other hand, those who administrate public money don't really need independent critics; here the critic/journalist is the "weak one": he can automatically position him/herself on the side of the musician, or s/he can be used as a writer of stuff (that nobody will ever read) like the reviews that become a part of the "press book", or those terrible "concert programs" (it's just an analytic distinction; and the famous "critic who wasn't there" can be included in both  categories).

Sure, watching an artist that before starting to play publicly thanks from the stage the person thanks to whom s/he is there (because it's true that artists have their heads in the clouds, but only up to a point: they understand perfectly well that they are paid by the taxpayer's money, but that it's not the taxpayer the one who makes their cell phones ring) is not bound to favourably impress (me). Just like the peaceful indifference of those musicians coming from very far who get a certain amount of money to play in front of about one hundred people who have paid very little to be there. How come they don't notice the conditions of the streets, of the city, they play in?

What's the alternative? The tale that a friend of mine told me offers a possible alternative (which musicians fear like the plague). This happened in London, a few years ago. My friend went to a pub, having read that four improvisers he likes a lot were supposed to play there. And there they were, playing in front of four of five drunk people. After my friend sat, the lady who ran the pub told him: "Mister, if you find these gentlemen's music to be annoying, just say so and I'll tell them to stop". When it was time to go home, the saxophone player told my friend that not only they had played for free, they had to pay for their beer out of their own pockets. Well...

Would I really like to have my heroes play for free, and not only that, but also paying for their beer? The answer's not too difficult, is it? And I obviously know of Festivals which offer music of excellent quality at not great expense to the taxpayer, and of musicians who offer good, difficult music. But I decided not to mention any names for fear of being accused of being partial to some.

The situation would be completely illogical if we accepted the manifest function as being true: making the knowledge of your average Joe/Jane to become better, giving him/her the chance to access "high culture" and expensive goods while paying an affordable price. After decades of "quality concerts", and an incredible amount of public money being spent, the audience is just like it once was; maybe even worse, now that those boomers (so many times the object of harsh ridicule) are about to retire from actively seeking their avant-garde fun. I'll also say that having an avant-garde concert cost as little as a "margarita" is not something that I find to be very educational (it's like with books: in a time of economic crisis, more books are bought as presents). A totally different picture appears if we look for the latent function: to create bureaucratic organisms which self-perpetuate their existence, ad infinitum. I recall one of those, which - after a start in which they "tried to offer the best to the people" - spent billions "producing events"; events of a kind that progressively involved the town. Studying the "variations on a theme" while the source and the motivation of the available funds change is quite interesting: now is the time of the "improvement of territory" (it's the already famous "Alps horn" model).

Finale (for now).

There are some things that really make my stomach turn. Like the guy who takes on stage a Miles-lite imitation - In A Silent Way plus a DJ - like it were a new & daring thing. Then there's the guy who uses a laptop to play a thing that sounds like a jingle for a perfume for old people. There's the guy who understands the game and so writes an opera "which will showcase all those great singers and players of this very fine town". Also the guy who slowly accumulates points that will make it possible for him to have an easy job of the kind that lasts a lifetime (imagine Van Gogh saying: "now give me a teaching job or I'll cut my ear").

I still remember Cecil Taylor driving a cab and washing dishes. Roswell Rudd driving a cab and working as a carpenter. Ornette Coleman being unemployed for years. Sun Ra and his Arkestra having just enough to eat. Anthony Braxton looking for some wood to burn, in the snow. Today it looks like anybody has a legitimate right to anything, for the only reason "of my courageously choosing to be a real musician making difficult music". OK, but what were those guys, then - morons?

Beppe Colli 2007 | Aug. 26, 2007