Updates and New Horizons

Hello all,

It’s been a while since my last post. It’s been a busy first year at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. This school year has been great, in every way I feel very supported as a musician and composer, and I’ve had a lot of amazing opportunities to have pieces performed and have had many great playing opportunities. At the end of the semester, I will have a blog post summarizing the past year and what I’ve been doing, but for now here is a few performance dates coming up

April 9-10, I’ll be in Boulder, Colorado for the Exchange of Midwest Collegiate Composers at the  CU-Boulder campus. My piano sonata, What is this Black Magick?, will be performed by my good friend and fellow composer Josiah Sprankle.

April 11th, I’ll be playing at the Green Lady Lounge with the UMKC Jazz Composer’s Collective combo, along with many other student combos

April 13th, my friend Jacob Frisbie and I are curating a concert showcasing electronic music composers at UMKC and others from the Kansas City Area, entitled With the Lights Out. The concert is at Grant Hall on the UMKC campus at 7:30.

May 2nd and 4th, my currently untitled electronic piece for dance will be premiered as part of a collaboration with choreagropher David Calhoun, a fellow student at UMKC. Our piece and other composers and choreographers pieces will be premiered as well. Both shows will be at 7:30 at the student union on the UMKC campus

May 3rd, I will have my piece The Machine premiered at the UMKC Composers GUILD concert at Grant Hall on campus at 7:30

May 6th, the freshman composition class will be holding a recital at Central United Methodist off of the UMKC campus at 7:00. I will be premiering two new pieces, Piano Quartet No.1 and Dances a piece for sax quartet, bass clarinet, and flute.

June 13th, I will be in New York City for the New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival. My electronic piece Crystal Ball will be played at the Experimental Theatre as part of the festival.

July 19th-25th, I will be in Thailand at the Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand for the Thailand International Composition Festival. I’m excited to have been accepted to go and have this opprotunity! Beyond words excited! More details soon!

 

More posts coming soon. Stay Tuned!

 

Seth

 

Jazz Isn’t Dead: Part 1

 

“I don’t know where jazz is going. Maybe it’s going to hell. You can’t make anything go anywhere. It just happens”-Thelonious Monk

 

In 2012, Benjamin Schwartz, former editor of The Atlanitc, wrote an article for the magazine titled “The End of Jazz” where he basically sums up in the header of the article that “America’s most vibrant music” is now a relic, because the music has strayed away from the American songbook and that,

 

“There is no reason to believe that jazz can be a living, evolving art form decades after its major source—and the source that linked it to the main currents of popular culture and sentiment—has dried up.”

 

Since jazz has shifted from the cultural mainstream, articles like this appear every so often. Probably ever since the late 60’s and early 70’s, this has been an assumption made by many cultural critics and musicians alike. This belief that the music is dead or dying comes up ever so often and everyone makes the same arguments to why it is or isn’t dead. In the last year alone, there has definitely been an onslaught of these types of articles; almost likening jazz musicians to Civil War reenactors. Many jazz musicians seem to feel the need to justify him/herself to the culture as a whole. Sure, the music isn’t at the center of American culture anymore, the Record of the Year at the Grammy doesn’t go to a jazz artist, Rolling Stone doesn’t put jazz musicians on the cover, sure some condescend, disregard, and say that Jazz is nonsense and just “noise,” but that doesn’t mean the music isn’t relevant or that jazz musicians don’t have a place in the culture. It’s just that they have to function outside of the mainstream, possibly on the fringe.

 

In an interview with Ben Ratliff, music critic for The New York Times, Pat Metheny said something about in what state jazz should be kept that I think is profound,

 

“Let’s keep jazz as folk music. Let’s not make jazz classical music. Let’s keep it as street music, as people’s everyday-life music. Let’s see jazz musicians continue to use the materials, the tools, and the spirit of the actual time that they’re living in, as what they build their lives as musicians around. It’s a cliché, but it’s such a valuable one: something that is the most personal becomes the most universal.”

 

As an aspiring jazz musician and composer, and obsessive music listener, I believe for jazz to continue to grow and evolve, the music and its musicians must be part of a living and growing tradition. Artists have to use the times they live in. They can’t be solely bound to the past. They can learn from it, but can’t stay within its walls; they have to be true to their own time and place. Part of the problem, in my opinion, is the heightened struggle to define, canonize, and put jazz on a cultural pedestal, in many cultural and academic settings.

 

In the last 30 years, there has been a strong push for this push to fossilize jazz in the broad culture. Ken Burn’s 10-part documentary series, Jazz at Lincoln Center brought together by Wynton Marsalis, as well as other programs and historical explorations have pushed this philosophy forward. While these are important and have been beneficial to shedding light on the historical and cultural importance of jazz, some (not all) have overshadowed innovations in jazz music since 1970. For example, Ken Burn’s documentary series, while it is informative and brings historical context to the music, it is wildly fragmented. It ignores many groundbreaking musicians (Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, Eric Dolphy, Anthony Braxton, etc.) to the point of biased historical revisionism. In the last part of the series, Branford Marsalis basically says after Duke Ellington’s death “Jazz just kinda died. It just kinda went away for awhile”.  The documentary has no coverage of jazz into the 70’s and onward – no free jazz movement, no 70’s New York loft scene, no AACM, no fusion. Much of this is due to the involvement of Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch. Wynton Marsalis is famous for his disregard for jazz after 1965, most notably free jazz and fusion; he served as co-producer and the artistic director of the series. Stanley Crouch, music and cultural critic, has a famous disregard for free jazz and the fusion movement. Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch have been on a mission, to define and canonize jazz for the general public. While this is a noble pursuit, Marsalis is asking the culture to define jazz the way he sees’ it; simply swing and blues. No cross-polinization. He has the loudest voice and the most visible public presence as basically a self-defined world ambassador of jazz. He’s won a Pulitzer Prize; he’s head of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the most successful educational institution for jazz in recent years. In Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense, Marsalis states that he believes the music must be defined, just like The Odyssey or Beethoven’s 5th.

 

Like the quote at the top of this post, maybe we don’t get to define it. Trying to define something as broad and widespread as jazz, and squeeze it into a neatly wrapped cultural box is controlling a language and suffocates a living organism. It stifles evolution, creativity and makes the music a museum piece instead of a moving, living tradition. Canonizing and defining language, in a bias way, is a form of cultural control, and as Matthew Shipp, a jazz musician and composer, says of this movements push to define jazz, “That’s fascism”. In the end, controlling language is fairly absurd.

 

For example, many countries have language “regulators” or academies, which create and edit dictionaries of that countries native language. One that is very conservative in nature is the French Academy. They are very well known for their tight rules and regulations on what words are added to the canon of the language. They believe in keeping the French language pure. Which is kind of unrealistic. Languages over time change radically. Your ability to talk to someone even 50 years ago would be a challenge. The languages we speak today are radically different and have encountered immense forms of cross-polinization over time. The structure of our sentences of simple daily talk would seem fragmented and disjointed to a person a few hundred years ago. These kinds of regulations are actually quite ridiculous because, you can’t fully stop the general public from speaking because of the natural current of change, interaction and movement of people. Deciding how people get to express ideas and themselves, through any form, is wrong. This is how unrealistic it is to define and freeze the language of jazz in time.

 

George Lewis, trombonist, composer and professor of composition at Columbia University, in his essay “Teaching Improvised Music” in the anthology Arcana: Musicians on Music, states the frustration of many educators and musicians on the teaching and learning improvisation. Many jazz musicians in recent years, have gone through many lick, pattern, riff, cliché, and lead sheet books in there time practicing, presented with the idea that this is how one must play the music. Lewis expresses the possible problems with this type of presentation of the idiom:

 

“A complex interaction between notions of literature, orature, tradition, canonization, personality, and innovation is seen by jazz improvisers as being directly linked to the nature of music learning. This interaction, more over, considers the articulation of music meaning, as an integral part of the dissemination of culture. Thus, expressed as an uneasy relationship between “clichés” and “creativity”, what is at stake in this debate is nothing less than the concept of originality itself. Thus, “improvisations” which appear to consist of mainly of unquestioning, rote regurgitation of prepared patterns are viewed by many improvisers as failing to display the kind of independent creative investigation and spontaneous invention that can lead to the discovery of what jazz musicians often call “one’s own sound”, or the original creations of one’s own musical material and lexicon”.

 

In the beginning these things can be tools as which to learn from, but moving forward, one’s own voice must come out and that persons personal vision of what there music is must step forward. Whether that’s the combination of hip-hop and jazz, spectral composition and jazz improv, free-improv bound by no harmonic logic, fusion, etc. it doesn’t make it non-jazz, and that kind of forward thinking creativity and boundary pushing is what keeps the music relevant and alive. Simply because it isn’t filled with turnarounds, ii-V-I’s, 12-bar blues structures, or modal scales doesn’t make it outside of jazz. Just because someone refuses to play standards and wishes to create original material, doesn’t make them a non-jazz player and spitting in the face of tradition, its simply how they wish to express themselves in there chosen idiom.

 

Has jazz in some ways become a museum piece? Of course. Can that be changed? Most definitely. Is it important for academic and educational institutions to exist to continue to educate and foster the next generation of musicians? Of course. But creativity and independent thinking must be encouraged. If we all want the music to continue.

 

 

Thoughts, comments, questions, concerns?

 

Please leave comments below.

 

Part 2 coming soon.

The Beautiful and the Douchebaggery: The Genius and the Insanity of Kanye West

 

Kanye West
Kanye West

In 2013, Lou Reed wrote an article for The Talkhouse Music website about Kanye West’s just recently released album, Yeezus, praising the record and saying Kanye West was breaking new ground.  At the time my initial thought when I saw this was maybe Lou Reed had lost his mind. I don’t think I was alone in that assumption. Many rock fans, as well fans of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, were shocked. Here was Lou Reed, a rock legend, a man with incredible artistic integrity, saying Kanye West, a man who the culture has basically summed up as an arrogant, ego menachial, douchebag, a literal self-parody in the flesh, was basically a genius. Now granted, at the time I hadn’t listened to Yeezus. Really the only thing I had listened to was his song “Gold Digger” and “All of The Lights”, which I thought were pretty good but the veil of his public acts of douchebaggery had made me stay away from his music.

 

Back up a few years: this is a man who was on the cover of Rolling Stone with a thorny crown in the likeness of Jesus, a man who said publicly, “I am standing up and I’m telling you. I. Am. Warhol. I am the number one most impactful artist of our generation, in the flesh. I am Shakespeare, Walt Disney. Nike. Google”. A man who makes a spectacle of himself at every awards show, making it all about him. (We all remember the MTV awards and the incident with Taylor Swift, and then again this year at the Grammy’s with Beck). His public persona is almost summed up as someone who everyone is waiting to hear what’s going to fly out his mouth and will leave us standing with our mouths gaped. Not to mention his marriage to Kim Kardashian. Is it a wonder people are so hesitant to give this guy a chance?

 

After reading the Lou Reed article, I decided I would at least check out some of the tunes off the record. And after listening to “Hold My Liquor”, I can honestly say my mind was truly blown. I loved it. Sincerely. Not ironically. Lou Reed was right. No one was doing this in popular music, especially not in hip-hop. I had to get a copy, so I got one and listened to the album in its entirety. And from track to track it is a cohesive artistic statement. It has minimal architecture translating to maximal listening effect. It’s funny, it’s ridiculous, it’s heartbreaking, it’s angry. I was hooked. I played the album on repeat for about a month and began to dig through his past discography and I have to say, that Kanye West truly is: a hip-hop genius.

 

Let’s take a moment to put this into context before everyone loses his or her mind. Now genius is definitely a word that is thrown out there A LOT, especially in Western culture. Now let me put this in context, the man has his own genius in music. He is clearly himself and taking his own path. He is going where no one is willing to go and is telling everyone about it as he’s going. The man has balls. His production value, his use of sampling, the composition of his songs is like no one else. His reference points for sampling in his songs jumps from lush string sections, Nina Simone, Bon Iver, 70’s Hungarian rock group Omega, Ponderosa Twins Plus One, Aphex Twin, King Crimson and so on. Sometimes in the same song and playing at the same time. On Yeezus, his minimalist and industrial sound is a complete change in direction from his previous album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which had a maximal orchestrated arena sound, and his previous records were mostly inspired by his love of R&B and early hip-hop. Kanye can create different worlds and can jump through them, smoothly and with ease. He is a hip-hop auteur.

 

In my opinion where his music falls a little short is the lyrical content and his rapping. The College Dropout, Graduation, and Late Registration do deal with growing up and moving forward and trying to be successful, sometimes the regular hip-hop clichéd talk of money and booty do somewhat come across as well as the ego-stroke of building himself up. While Kanye does ego-stroke himself in his music and does talk about money and booties the size of the golden arches, he does deal with his own fame and his own self consciousness along with some hints of social commentary, especially on My Beautful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus. While Kanye can rap, and well, he doesn’t have the virtuosic talent of Eminem, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, or the RZA but it still works and he has the chops to pull it off, of course. Where Kanye’s genius comes truly into play is in the production, the big picture, and the composition of his music.

 

His early music was his version of the collage element of hip-hop: sampling, sometimes juxtaposing the samples, jump-cuts, sequencing beats and other background sounds on top of that, and building things up over a track, pop-culture references, same elements of verse-chorus movement and so on. This was part of his music even into My Beauitful Dark Twisted Fantasy and his use of the elements listed above were far beyond what anyone else was doing in hip-hop, except maybe Jay-Z. And then in 2013 with Yeezus, he truly broke new ground.

 

Yeezus is very much like the Kid A of hip-hop, creating new ground in the genre and warping old elements of the genre. His heavy use of synthesizers and drum machines, on top of sampling still retain some of the collage element, but the sound and the use of those factors creates a being that sounds like an entire synthesized orchestra. Some of the tracks don’t even have beats in parts; the other instruments drive the song, sometimes the horn parts or the voices. The songs unfold moment by moment, and sometimes radically change by the end. Sounds sputter and transform and the beginning and end may have nothing to do with each other, but it works effectively and cohesively. Traditional songwriting goes out the window, and it’s refreshing from start to finish.

So I would suggest to many music fans to forget the public displays of douchebaggery, the comparisons of himself to great people of history, the ego stroking, and so on. Just listen to the music. You may be surprised.

 

 

Please leave comments below.

 

Was Beethoven Wrong?

In Alex Ross’s book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, there is a story of a lecture John Cage gave at Black Mountain College. During the lecture, Cage talked about how Ludwig van Beethoven, the predominate idol of western music, had “misled a generation of composers by structuring music in goal-oriented harmonic narratives instead of letting unfold moment by moment” (Ross, 483). In later years, Cage would declare time and time again that Beethoven was wrong.

 

When Cage proclaimed this in the 1940’s and 50’s it was a rather radical claim to make. Experimenters and the avant-garde composers like John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Harry Partch, were alive and well, but the ideas they presented and their style weren’t as widely accepted, and still aren’t, as the technique and style of Beethoven and the other classical era composers. These composers rejected many parts of the European model that were forced on young composers in conservatories around the world. They went in search of a unique sound for the time and place.

 

Now nearly 60 or so years later, Cage and other members of the avant garde have made there mark on music and they created their own canon of work that defined a part of the 20th century and music, and what it was to be avant garde. Most people are fairly used to that level of abstraction in music. Sometimes their methods worked and sometimes they didn’t. But the same can be said of Beethoven and his contemporaries. History paints Beethoven as a man who every time he put a pen a piece of paper, he produced a golden egg. While he created a lot of treasures that changed the way we perceive art and life in general, not everything Beethoven was amazing, and some of his work, following the “structuring harmonic goals”, didn’t always fall perfectly into place.

 

So questions arise. Does music always need to follow some sort of structure where things flow from Point A and end at Point Z? Without harmonic structure, what makes a piece of music fit together? Should composers be willing to change, alter, or abandon tried and true methods depending on the piece? If a structure is put in place, what element of the music, other than harmony, keep the piece flowing and moving? Some of these questions may be redundant and ridiculous, but they are ones well worth considering. As well, was Beethoven wrong?

 

Maybe yes. Maybe no. Listeners enjoy music that has some form of structure to it, and it is mostly harmonically consonant music that draws the most attention. Pop songs and musicals are all written with harmonic-oriented goals brought together in discernable and recognizable form which people and easily hold on to. In essence, it is a tried and true method; to a degree that harmonic goal-oriented music is a way to go. But does it always have to be this way? When a structure becomes so overused, what does it take for new creativity and new ideas to come to life? Can we abandon the old modes of thinking? Deviation from norms, within reason and with sincerity, can be just as effective as the believed old models. Things that were once abstractions and “out there” to some are now the norm. In the case of music, Cage’s chance operations and John Zorn’s game piece are now regarded in many places having just as much coherent logic as many highly regarded famous classical pieces.

 

Thoughts, comments, concerns?

 

Please leave comments below.

 

Starting Point

Seth Andrew Davis
Seth Andrew Davis

Why start a blog? It’s 2015 and the Internet has been around for nearly 20 years. It seems like everyone has a blog or website. At least, everyone has some type of social media account where they post thoughts, photos, and adorable animal videos, which sometimes seems a bit narcissistic and self-interested. At the same time, as someone who wants to share his work and share ideas, there is no better platform in the history of mankind, to connect with people who don’t know about me and what I’m all about.

Why start a blog? As an artist in the 21st century, I can’t just stick to the old modes of communication – television, radio and magazines. Blogs, social media, and websites are the best way to promote and create an image for people to see and judge for themselves. A more personal touch and intimate look at artists and their work is what I believe new media can provide. I suppose for someone who originally looked down on blogging; this is kind of a big step.

What will this site be about? Part will be to post my music, scores, and projects for people to see and explore if they want. I hope to not only share my process, works in progress, and thoughts on art and creativity, but to keep up a running dialogue where readers, musicians, composers, and artists can actively participate and share their own thoughts and ideas.

Hope to see you around!