Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: YOU'RE The Musician; YOU Make Some Noise!

15 April 2009

YOU'RE The Musician; YOU Make Some Noise!

(continued from part one)

I have been consumed by thoughts regarding the changing role of the artist in our culture. As I started to mention in my previous essay ("The 3-2-1 of Musical Performance"), there are – even in the narrow and unimaginative relationships between contemporary musicians and their audiences – at least three different depths of intimacy, three different lenses through which the rules of performance can be observed. The performer, in recognizing the audience as Impersonal Other (It), Personal Other (You), or Self (I), projects radically different characteristics on the concert environment.
This can be intentional, but usually artists naturally settle into one of these three perspectives and become known for it. (To give you a taste of what I mean, imagine the distinctions between playing to a room full of uninterested strangers, or friends, or family, or alone, or as worship...now imagine taking each of those various perspectives on the same group of people. It's a fantastic exercise in developing fluid perception.)
This is the kind of thing I rattle on about to whomever I can capture in my word-sphere, trying to coax from them new aspects I haven't recognized. I brought this stuff up with my girlfriend the morning after live painting at a huge rave outside of Phoenix. One of their MCs spent most of his airtime asking how many of us were fucked up, and how many of us were really fucked up, and complaining that we weren't making enough noise, and try again, make some fucking noise!

Never mind that as someone more immersed the jam band scene and its hippie-noveau mentality, I can't imagine actually volunteering to announce that I am on drugs. Never mind that I was questioning the musicality of the entire event when I found out that one of the headlining DJs, apparently by playing the same stuff I'd heard in a dubious Scottsdale nightclub the evening before, had been voted #4 in the US (our desiccated monoculture should be evidence enough for the dangers of democracy).

The real sticking point was this:

As a passionate defender of individual autonomy, someone who bristles up when a DJ's robotic vocal sample insists, "I – control you! I – control you!," I'd rather zip my lips in revolt when some obnoxious dude with a microphone tries to play audio-puppeteer. I believe it is the urgent duty of anyone blessed enough to be amplified before a crowd to at least attempt to express some understanding of our common identity. And this guy clearly didn't get it.
My girlfriend, once a symphonic violist for the Topeka Symphony and thus coming from a much more formal tradition of stage-theatre interaction, put it well:
"YOU'RE the musician; YOU make some noise!"

On the one hand, this is exactly the assumption that I as a songwriter would like to challenge. I don't want us all relinquishing our creative agency to whomever The Machine decides is going to be The Next Big Thing. In an age when we can all produce our own books/video/music/fine art/theater, I think it's time for us to reclaim our inspiration from centralized corporate governance.

At the same time, even as an artist I prefer to let the guy on stage take the reigns for a little while. Yelling at your audience for not giving you enough applause is a tragic misunderstanding of the postmodern argument that the critic co-creates the artwork. It's an abdication of your personal responsibility to melt our fucking faces off. And it's a waste of our time – we came to get down, not to coddle your bravado. Less talk, more rock.

Of course, there are awesome exceptions to these traditional polarities – like John Cage's piece 4'33", for which a blank score is placed on the stand and the pianist (or any other musicians) just sits there while the audience starts to squirm. After a minute or two, people are coughing, shifting in their seats, sighing...and all of these random noises make up the actual performance, by an unwitting orchestra.

Cage, a postmodern philosopher and mystic if there ever was one, was making a point: pulling the audience into the performance, 4'33", is not only an intense defiance of expectations, but points out how those expectations are part of the piece, that the audience is at least half-responsible for any perceived musicality.
Sure enough, some people "get it" and some people don't, depending on who can hear "noise" as "music" and the crowd's restless soundscape as John Cage's actual musical intent. Even as he demonstrates the participatory role of the so-called "observers," he denies their total sovereignty by playing them like instruments. And he manages this without demanding that people do anything, in what is widely considered the first "noise music" composition, blurring will and accident. It's a complex and nuanced deconstruction of classical music's rigid artist-audience dynamics.
I was born thirty-two years after 4'33" debuted. It's a part of my blood, my bearing. I grew up with the fourth wall trampled into dust. Still, I don't bring my guitar to concerts so I can jam along from the crowd. Nor do I try to rape participation out of my audiences when I can't seduce them with the music. After all, learning to see the arbitrariness of our social conventions doesn't make them go away. We still all have to stop at a red light, even if we know it could just as well be blue.

But oh, how I long for the day when I no longer hear people say, "I'm not an artist. I don't have a creative bone in my body." We're all more likely to "make some fucking noise" when we have reclaimed our creative selves and can appreciate what it's like to be up there on stage, when we understand the effort and can applaud from a sense of solidarity, rather than obligation. Until that day, it is all I can do to remind people at every opportunity that we're in this boat together, even as we take turns at the helm.
(Written for Colorado Music Board.)