Sunday, April 5, 2009

Music To My Eyes – Soundtracks of Art

“I think it's really tragic when people get serious about stuff. It's such an absurdity to take anything really serious ... I make an honest attempt not to take anything seriously: I worked that attitude out about the time I was eighteen, I mean, what does it all mean when you get right down to it, what's the story here? Being alive is so weird.” – Frank Zappa

So my tastes in art pretty much run parallel to what sort of tunage is playing at any given time; eclectic, traditional, cultural, popular, obscure etc. Bluegrass, folk, classical, world, jam-band, metal, rap, rock – it all goes through the rotations. In fact, I’d venture to say my knowledge of music is far more extensive than in the visual arts, an irony being I can dredge up more vast and useless trivia about bands than I can cite important movements and dates, or name-drop famous/influential artists. Hell, even one look at my walls will tell you more about where my priorities lie (besides the books): something well in excess of a thousand cd’s, countless hundreds of antique tapes, and who knows how many albums lurk in storage.

It’s an inseparable, supportive element to my creative process; I rely on music for inspiration, influence, reinforcement, visualization and grounding, to name a few. Though one key thing is that I’ve noticed is that the older I get the more silence is becoming an absolute necessity in the initial “idea” phase – that along with waking up early and working alone probably is the foundation I need to build anything upon. After that though, crank it up (Altec Lansing off the Mac + Yamaha/Bose system across the room). Relegating it to the status of “background” music is on par with becoming aesthetically anesthetized to works of art hanging in your home; for me it becomes an accompaniment and partner. There’s usually a moment of introspective contemplation, like perusing the offerings at a salad bar, as to what soundtrack accompaniment best meshes with what ever new panel, page or project I’m about to launch.

Probably the #1 most-listened-to album (and artist) by me over the past ten years has consistently been from Peter Gabriel – his soundtrack to “The Last Temptation of Christ” tops the list, followed closely by orchestral versions of Wagnerian operas, trance/goa and live jams (slightly more detailed list in profile). But nowadays it’s rather hard to tell anymore, what with the advent of mp3s, There’s literally thousands of tracks at my fingertips while I’m working, and switching between genres and songs is about as effortless as picking up another drawing utensil to achieve the whatever mark works best.

So experiencing new kinds of art and different artists – it’s like listening to the radio station (something I rarely do these days) and hearing for the upteenth time “Stairway to Heaven” – for christ’s sake people, ever think about maybe checking out either the song before or after that one? (“The Battle of Evermore” and “Misty Mountain Hop” btw – though I’m more partial to “Physical Graffiti”). No filters and no limits on input, staying open to the possibilities – but at the same time I’ve eaten the same damn thing at a local diner for years sometimes. So what I’m really sayin’ is balance then, I guess.

Speaking of Led Zeppelin, and an earlier series of posts related to the “appropriation” and remix vignette assignment, I came across this little item of interest regarding the similar theme of plagiarism:
Dave Headlam, in an article entitled "Does the song remain the same? Questions of authenticity and identification in the music of Led Zeppelin", suggests that " the course of studies on the music of Led Zeppelin, it has become apparent that many songs are compilations of pre-existent material from multiple sources, both acknowledged and unacknowledged." He contends that "...songs like 'Whole Lotta Love' and 'Dazed and Confused' are on the one hand not "authored" by Led Zeppelin, but [rather are] traditional lyrics..." However, noted blues author and producer Robert Palmer states "It is the custom, in blues music, for a singer to borrow verses from contemporary sources, both oral and recorded, add his own tune and/or arrangement, and call the song his own". Folklorist Carl Lindahl, refers to these recycling of lyrics in songs as "floating lyrics*". He defines it within the folk-music tradition as "lines that have circulated so long in folk communities that tradition-steeped singers call them instantly to mind and rearrange them constantly, and often unconsciously, to suit their personal and community aesthetics".
In an interview he gave to Guitar World magazine in 1993, Page commented on the band's use of classic blues songs:
“[A]s far as my end of it goes, I always tried to bring something fresh to anything that I used. I always made sure to come up with some variation. In fact, I think in most cases, you would never know what the original source could be. Maybe not in every case -- but in most cases.“
*As a side-note, I’m intrigued at the concept of “floating lyrics” and how this might correspond with visual clichés, which is the source of endless allegations within cartooning circles.

Been a recurrent theme in my musings about the relationship between musicians and artists and their respective mediums. I’ve maintained a creative relationship with a handful of long-time friends in the music community, and aside from the freelance gigs that occasionally result (tshirts, poster, cd art etc.) I have a personal, vested interest in seeing a few of my favorite bands survive and prosper. This is ostensibly because I see local groups or individual performers as sort of canaries in the coal-mine. That is to say, one can gauge the viability of choosing a career in the arts based in no small degree on how healthy the correlating music scene is.
Case in point, here in Fairbanks I could probably tick off the number of successful musicians earning a living through their music on one hand, sad to say. Now there are all sorts of qualifications, as there just isn’t the base here to support enough gigs to do so, and it consequently, just like visual art, means the artist has to diversify their talents. Teaching, either private lessons or through a formal school environment, is the obvious fallback position, and supplementing oneself through grants and for-hire performances (parties, weddings etc.) is another option. Self-marketing efforts is crucial as well; much of the same strategies employed by artists with an on-line presence can be applied. Aside from that, the only other conceivable alternative is through the independently wealthy, ie trust-fund babies, working hard most of your life at a more lucrative and stable career until you can afford to retire, hopefully in time to explore some artsy-fartsy, or, perhaps the biggest patronage system of all, be supported by a significant other.

That’s pretty much it, and one of the ulterior motives behind this whole damn blog has been to present an honest appraisal of what it’s like and what it means to try and make it as an artist. Funny how every single textbook I’ve ever read about art somehow manages to studiously avoid that topic and concentrate instead on the craft and high-falutin’ theory. Lotta good that’ll do ya if nobody points up the disconcerting fact/overriding observation that this is basically an idle pursuit of the leisured upper-class, a plaything for the endowed or essentially a hobby for the vast majority. One can glaze over this reality by promoting the whole naive “importance of self-expression/elevating the spirit/ultimate gesture of humanity” etc. etc. fulfillment thing, and there’s no denying that’s an important motivation, or the be-all-end-all for many artists. But I strongly feel it’s an ethical and moral responsibility to openly discuss the rather grim odds at being able to support yourself through your talents, and to investigate all the options at hand.

There’s another interesting parallel in how one of my main bands, Donna the Buffalo, openly encourages taping bootlegs at all their concerts (I’ve long since lost count after 500 cd’s of downloaded shows in my own collection) so as to feed the Deadhead-trader/word-of-mouth publicity angle. They, along with countless other bands, realize the enormous potential behind self-perpetuating self-promotional tactics like this, and I think there’s an analogous point to be made in applying this strategy to art. Over the years through ceaseless touring they’ve created a profitable fan-base, supplementing ticket sales with merchandise, so in the end “giving stuff away” comes back and rewards them with some impressive and obsessive dedication. This has direct bearing with the ongoing issue on giving stuff away for free on the internet and how a visual artist can be compensated for their work – I have another long mulling/rant in the works on exactly this subject.

Support the arts, support local musicians!

“The Ultimate Rule ought to be: 'If it sounds GOOD to you, it's bitchen; if it sounds BAD to YOU, it's shitty' The more your musical experience, the easier it is to define for yourself what you like and what you don't like.” – Frank Zappa

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