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Re: Yuppies and Loops

Rev. Doubt-Goat wrote:

> The questions I have are:
> 1. Is it possible to play in a non-club setting
> with a mixture of ambient, illbient and pop and
> have an audience that will understand?

One point I've got to make right off the bat:

Any musician who is performaing music is basically casting themselves in
the role of a guide.  If you're playing music for people, then you're
essentially entering into a situation where the audience is looking for
you to take them *somewhere*.  

But before any listener can be taken somewhere, the musicians themselves
need some sort of clarity in terms of where they're trying to go.  If
you don't know what you're trying to do, or how you're going to try and
go about doing it, you can't be too surprised if you don't wind up going
anywhere, and you certainly can't be disappointed if you don't take
anyone with you.

So if you're worried about the *audience* understanding what you're
doing, you've first got to ask yourself, "Do *I* understand what I'm

This does *not* mean that free-improv, abstract, avante-garde, or
otherwise experimental music is incapable of commanding attention. 
"Knowing what you're doing" in the sense that I'm talking about isn't
about playing carefully-rehearsed compositions, or having a fixed notion
of what the music is supposed to sound like before you play it.  It's
about having an understanding of the way that you're approaching your
music, and an awareness of whatever happens to be transpiring at any
given time in the music, coupled with the ability to *respond* to that
in a musically sensitive manner that can allow you to navigate the
course of whatever path you wind up on.  

I absolutely feel that too often, musicians in non-mainstream or
experimental realms, who are unable to elicit a favorable response from
listeners, automatically assume that whatever they were doing was too
"sophisticated," or "forward-thinking," or just plain "good" for the
"uncultured masses," when in fact they could very well have been asking
their listeners to try and glean meaning from the sonic equivalent of a
train wreck.

This is in *no way* a statement that you were necessarily guilty of this
syndrome.  Not having heard any of your music, or the performance you
describe, I can't make a judgement like that.  But anyone who's making
music for other people to listen to (which in my reasoning includes
anyone who performs in public or releases a recording) needs to remember
that you can't expect people to follow what you're doing if you can't
follow it yourself.  

> 2. Does the music listening public really only
> want to hear remakes of what they are used to?
> I play in a standards jazz band as well, and I
> know we would have had an audience in the same
> setting.

I think you've got to realize that the mainstream segment of any
audience is going to be familiar principally with whatever happens to be
the dominant mainstream music at that time.  A lot of people who have
spent a substantial amount of their lives listening to a certain type of
music have trouble with different styles because they don't necessarily
know how to listen to different sorts of music.  If somebody whose
listening runs the gamut from Barbra Streisand to Yanni to Kenny G is
exposed to Photek or Aphex Twin, they're probably going to have a
problem, because they're being exposed to music that operates along very
different principles.

Also be aware than most people's exposure to music comes via mainstream
channels, i.e. commercial radio and television, Hollywood cinema, chain
retail record stores, and magazines like _Rolling Stone_.  A lot of
people don't have the time, inclination, or resources to educate
themselves about music that falls underneath the mainstream radar.  A
lot of people who *would* like to educate themselves about this music
don't know where to begin.

Thirdly, realize that those of us who *are* attuned to more underground
musics are going to have our own set of expectations and ideas about
where to seek those sorts of musics out.  If I want to buy a
Squarepusher album, I won't go to Sam Goody.  And if I'm looking for
illbient/pop performances in town, I won't likely be skimming the paper
for Starbucks ads.  If you want to try and find an audience that is
willing (and maybe able) to give your music a try, then you should get
an understanding of the best avenues towards making those people aware
of what you do.  Having (or lacking) this understanding is one reason
why major-label pop stars often end up owning their record comapnies
several hundred thousand dollars, while some home-studio producers can
release records on small independent labels and then buy sports cars
with the profits.

This all boils down to the fact that different music operates along
different principles, and needs to be approached and listened to in
different ways.  Getting people to make the transition isn't easy, and
if you're going to try and change the way they're listening, you should
also try and present something that's worth listening to!

Here's a not-at-all brief anecdote which might shed some more light on
what I'm talking about:

At the end of 1997, I did four performances at an LA-based localle.  The
place billed itself largely as an experimental music performance venue,
coupled with an art gallery, rare CD and book resource, and restaurant. 
It quickly became apparent to me, however, that the main thrust of the
venue was towards being a restaurant first and foremost (and, in a
rather ironic twist, one which is prohibitively expensive for the vast
majority of the musicians who are represented there, either as live
performers or as recording artists).  The manager of the club made it
abundantly clear that he wanted the primary appeal of the place to be as
a restaurant, with the music more of a background, atmospheric element,
and that he would definitely prefer to err on the side of having the
music fall by the wayside.  (Strangely enough, the vanue continues to
this day to have itself listed in the music club section of the local
papers, rather than in the restaurant section).

Paradoxically, the musicians, who are designated to being a background
element in the environment, recieve no fixed pay for their role, but
rather are offered two-thirds of the door cover (the other one-third
going to the soundman, itself a highly dubious arrangement).  The
problem here is that people who come to eat dinner there don't pay a
cover charge, yet people who *do* come to hear the music might well find
themselves unable to properly hear the music due to its subserviant

Such was the case during my second-to-last performance there, wherein
the sole person who had come to hear me pay -- who, as it happens, had
not had to pay a door charge -- asked me if he could get a tape of the
show afterwards, as he had been unable to hear much of the music from
his vantage point of approximately eight feet in front of the stage. 
The soundman (who in any event had been deprived of his night's pay of
$1.00 by the door person's failure to collect a cover fee) had spent the
entirety of my performance behind the counter in the kitchen as a cook. 
The only adjustments made to my sound from out front were from the
manager, who turned me down at a point when there were no actual people
dining, and subsequently turned me back up when I went offstage and
mentioned that I couldn't hear what I was playing.

The responses I tended to get from the dining clientelle there (who were
almost uniformly affluent, privileged, and not at all the sort of
audience that would ordinarily frequent an experimental music show)
generally followed a consistent course, starting with amusement and
pleasant surprise at this fellow on stage with a guitar making all these
strange noises, which gradually gave way to visible disdain for the
noises emanating forth from the speakers while they tried to carry on
conversation over their gourmet meals.  A nasty sort of Catch-22 tended
to develop, wherein my already abstract music would set the people on
edge; in response to this, my music got more confrontational and
challenging.  Not a good quality for dinner music.

The last show I did there was as the opening act for a guitar loop-based
artist who I had referred to the club, who was in the middle of a
four-month residency (and who continues to this day to perform there on
a regular basis).  My set at the beginning (which took place before
cover started to be collected) was my "standard" (for that place,
anyway) fare, which met with a predictable response; at one point I saw
an older couple stare at me for a moment before shaking their heads in
bewilderment and disgust, and walking out of the door.

The main set by the headliner was clearly more appropriate to the
situation.  It wasn't as confrontational; it had little if any
dissonance or clash; and the guest Stick player that night, who did a
number of solo pieces, was clearly the audience's favorite.  His own
music was very inviting, soothing stuff (sort of in a New Age/Windham
Hill vein), which blended into the dinner atmosphere quite seamlessly. 
Several of his pieces, both solo and with the main performer, were
greeted by pronouced applause at the end.

Later on in the headliner's set, I was invited back onstage to do some
joint improvisation.  Since there was already a lot of electronic sound
flying around, I decided to play "straight" guitar in a more traditional
manner (i.e. melodies, scales, and other such bits of arcana).  The
music wound up settling into what seemed like a very unassuming,
approachable vein, and the change in the audience was clear.  At one
point I glanced up, and some of the patrons were actually *listening to
the music*, smiling and nodding their heads.  

In spite of the small victory, that gig was the last I ever heard from
the management of the club, which is fine with me.  I don't see what I
do as ambient or background music; I found myself unable and unwilling
to adapt what I do to fit into the environment there, and if that's what
the club needs in order to function, they're better off not booking
someone like myself, and I'm better off seeking alternative outlets for

> 3. To what extent should the setting determine
> the performers actions? i.e. is it appropriate
> to play chamber music in a rock club and
> noise/performance art in the opera house?

This is a bit of an extension of the first question.  I think that any
performance has to take into account the environment that it's happening
in, and then try to figure out what connection, if any, can be made then
and there.  If you basically have one fundamental type of musical
statement that you churn out regardless of the environment, then it's a
bit like have one stock answer that you recite from memory, regardless
of what the question is -- and regardless of how relevant to that
question the answer might be.

So if you're going into a Starbucks in an affluent area to play illbient
music, you've got to think about some things: What sort of situation am
I entering into, and more importantly, what do I hope to accomplish by
bringing my music into this situation?  What is your motivation for
doing this?  What is it about your music that you hope or expect to
translate into this venue?

> 4. To what extent should the audience reactions
> have an impact on what the performer performs?

Again, this has everything to do with the situation you're in, and what
you expect to get out of it.  To carry over from the last question: if
you're performing for an audience that came specifically to hear your
music, that's a vastly different situation than if you're playing music
in the background of an environment filled with people who would be
there regardless of whether or not you were present.  

So if you're in the middle of a coffeehouse, and you find that everybody
is getting driven out by your presence there, you have to ask yourself
if it's more important for you to do your thing, regardless of the
impact that it's having on other people, or if you're going to try and
win your potential audience over by finding a way of making what you do
translate into something they're more receptive to.  

An advocate of the first option would probably justify it in the name of
art for art's sake and the musician sticking to his guns, without
compromise, regardless of the scorn or disdain heaped upon him.  Someone
arguing the second choice might raise the idea that a musician who plops
down in the middle of a mainstream coffe shop and starts playing
experimental or abstract music is potentially creating an intrusion into
the normal workings of that environment, and has to be prepared to
either deal with the consequences of doing so, or else try to see how
far these two otherwise disparate elements might be bent towards one

Think about this: What sort of reception do you think Celine Dion would
get if she performed at New York's Knitting Factory, or if Michael
Bolton did a surprise gig at Spaceland in LA, or if Puff Daddy crashed
Beanbender's in Berkley?

> 5. What are the roles of the performer and
> audience? Should there even *be* roles?

Robert Fripp (everyone's favorite around these parts) has probably spent
more time philosophizing about the audience/performer relationship over
the last decade than he's actually spent being a performer in front of
an audience, and has all manner of things to say on this subject.  I
won't delve into the lengthy and highly philosophical ideas therein, but
I will say this:

If you're a musician, and you're making music in front of people, at
some point you've got to ask yourself *why* you're doing this.  If you
just want to make art for art's sake, and don't give a damn about what
people think about it, then more power to you.  But if you go to the
trouble of actually setting up a performance, booking a time and place,
setting up instrumentation and equipment (particularly the gargantuan
amount of technology that many loopists tend to use on a regular basis)
in a place specifically designated for your performance, and then start
playing in front of people, then you've *got* to at least consider what
it is that you're trying to do by taking your music and presenting it in
front of other people.  

I would offer forth the notion that a musician who's playing in public
is inviting whoever happens to be there to listen to what they're
doing.  This being the case, the musician then has to deal with the same
issue I've been coming back to over and over in this post: What am I
trying to accomplish here, and how can I accomplish it?

> 6. etc. etc. etc.

See above.

--Andre LaFosse