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Difficult music


Nate Dorward
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One theme I'd considered (but in the end rejected, for reasons of wanting not to make things too gruelling for listeners) for my upcoming Blindfold Test here was "difficult music": music that for one reason or another I found important or interesting but which required a real leap of faith or understanding from the listener (or at least this listener). Obviously this would have entailed the inclusion of some particularly knotty avant-garde stuff (I had been thinking of Stephane Rives' solo album on Potlatch or Good Morning Good Night on Erstwhile) but also I was thinking of other strains in the current jazz/improv scene--for instance, a Mark Turner album which I'd always found rather intractable, perhaps some Steve Coleman or Vijay Iyer (I found the recent Fieldwork disc Simulated Progress on Pi virtually unlistenable--grindingly machinelike in-your-face stuff with an aggressive, slightly distorted recording style too).

But actually in some ways I thought it'd be more interesting to also move backwards & think about other jazz & improv which for whatever reason remains "difficult". I was wondering if people would have ideas here. I would be particularly interested in thinking about how some earlier jazz (1920s, 1930s, 1940s) can still pose challenges for the listener for a variety of reasons.

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I still find Ornette Coleman rather challanging.

And Lennie Tristano's "Intuition" still sounds pretty "out there."

20's jazz can pose a challange to the listener due to their not being used to it. Either a little listening cures this, or you simply don't like this style.

There's some big-band music that I find hard to listen to due to string-heavy arrangements, but that's a whole different kettle of aesthetic fish.

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I've always had to struggle with Albert Ayler and, um...Bill Evans. I'll skip the reasons why, but I study and learn. I have years of extreme listening under my ears, but there's always another challenge on the horizon.

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Different people find different things challenging...

For instance, I often find it difficult to maintain much focus listening to some Mozart, Haydn, Handel, and Vivaldi -- particularly extended works.

But I've heard Mahler's 7th performed live twice within three years --- an 80-minute work (if I remember correctly) --- and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, both times.

So, for me, it's entirely a question of the harmonic predictability of "Classical" era music just driving me up a wall (or lulling me to sleep). Same thing for me and some kinds of be-bop, or some earlier jazz forms.

True story: I once stayed awake during a live symphony performance (probably of some Haydn symphony) by trying to imagine what Ornette might have played over the top of what I was hearing at the time. My model for even thinking of this was Ornette's soloing over a Bach Prelude on "Tone Dialing".

Edited by Rooster_Ties
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I don't what this means.

I've found a specific performance disturbing

to the point where I was expected to return to witness it played again,

but I refused (and went and had ice cream instead - much better choice methinks).

There's also a composer who's music I find absolutely amazing,

but I'd never want to witness the full event of any of it's performances.

...but finding music "difficult"? I don't know...

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In my world, thre's two things that make for difficult music. The more the emphasis is on "style" over "substance", the more difficult it gets for me. And, the more that somebody tries to convince me that nobody else has ever felt/heard/whatever this way before, the more difficult it gets for me. I guess in both cases it comes down to using music to claim an identity rather than to express one.

Now, if you want to say that that's kind of vague or generic, fine. It probably is. But I can tell you from experience that thre's lots of music that I don't like that I also don't find "difficult". Similarly, there's plenty of music that challenges me, but hey, I welcome that, if that's difficult, then it's a pleasurable difficulty, and I really don't think of it as "difficult". And like Rod, there's music that I like a lot but just don't/can't/won't listen to all that much, simply because once you get it, you've got it. That type of music can range in degree of "difficulty" (as well as what it is that is being "gotten") from The Ramones to Cecil Taylor.

No, what constitutes "difficult" music for me is shit that leaves no other impression than wondering why the hell anybody would do anything like this and jeeeeeezus when is it going to end and are they really so clueless as to think that anybody, especially me, is going to give a shit about what they're doing? And inevitably, 11 times out of 10, that reaction is stirred by my perception of one or both of the two elements mentioned in the opening paragraph.

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But actually in some ways I thought it'd be more interesting to also move backwards & think about other jazz & improv which for whatever reason remains "difficult". I was wondering if people would have ideas here. I would be particularly interested in thinking about how some earlier jazz (1920s, 1930s, 1940s) can still pose challenges for the listener for a variety of reasons.

The problem, though, is that a lot of what, from that era, was once considered "difficult" has been accepted and mainstreamed over the years - such as early be-bop, which must have seemed shocking coming on the heals of the big band/swing era. Even Ornette Colemen, so cutting edge at the time, hardly seems difficult any more. Maybe you could try some Stan Kenton tracks. :D

On my last BFT, i was pretty darn shocked that so many didn't recognize (or even like) the late-50s Mingus track "Tonight at Noon." Some seemed to think that it was too outside or even a.g. I never would consider it "difficult" music now, but I bet at the time it was.

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On my last BFT, i was pretty darn shocked that so many didn't recognize (or even like) the late-50s Mingus track "Tonight at Noon." Some seemed to think that it was too outside or even a.g. I never would consider it "difficult" music now, but I bet at the time it was.

Not to mention that GHF hated the Gene Harris track.

Talk about your difficult music.

:g

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I guess I should clarify that by "difficult" I don't mean stuff that you just don't like or connect with in any way. What I mean is music that even though it is not in the ordinary sense pleasurable (for whatever reason) or that you have serious problems with but which you still can't dismiss.

There's a good piece by Stuart Broomer in Coda where he discusses SME's Face to Face, which is an incredibly stripped-down duo of John Stevens & Trevor Watts, & says something to the effect that he's not sure if he enjoys listening to it at all but he thinks maybe it's a good thing to have music out there that is "good for you". -- If posters here have heard the Rives disc or the Erstwhile album I mentioned perhaps it'll be clearer what I'm getting at. (The Mark Turner I had in mind was the last one, Dharma Days, which seems to me music where, while I can sense its virtues, seems like it's taking place in its own rarefied bubble.)

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(The Mark Turner I had in mind was the last one, Dharma Days, which seems to me music where, while I can sense its virtues, seems like it's taking place in its own rarefied bubble.)

Well, ok, that's just about exactly what it is. You've identified what "it is", as well as your current level of attachment/attraction to it. Nothing really "difficult" about that, eh? More like the act of a mature "listening artist" (apologies to Elder Dahn). What can, and often does, change is how far into that rarefied bubble you want to go/feel comfortable going at any given juncture of your life. And that is a function of your life, which is, as they say, subject to change without warning (and boy howdy is it ever...), not of the music, which by nature of it being a fixed quantity (i.e. - a recorded document/performance of certain specific people doing a certain specific thing at/in a specific time/place) is what it is.

So really, the question you're asking is a fair one, but any insight gleamed from the answers is inevitably going to be about the individual who's responding, not about the music itself. A corollary set of questions that might provide a more provocative range of responses would be to ask to purveyors of generally-perceived "difficult" musics why they do what they do, does it bother them that their music is peceived as difficult, do they feel that they "should" have a larger audience than they do, is their "message" one that can only be delivered in one specific manner, and who, if anybody, do they blame when that message is not successfully conveyed?

I think, based on both perception and experience, that a lot of people who provide us with this "difficult" music don't really, as a matter of principal, give too much of a shit about its "difficulty", and that is how it should be. Why they don't give too much of a shit is where things open up into some pretty interesting and widely diversified territory, not all of it necessarily "healthy", yet some of it being gloriously so.

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People seem to be interpreting this question as what they like or don't like, or what the get or don't get.

There is another dimension to the question. Some art can be appreciated immediately by a lot of people with different backgrounds and no special effort, education, experience, or intimate familiarity with the genre, and other art cannot be. Some proclaim the former to be always superior to the latter. But the rewards of the latter can be just as great for the people who make the investment in tackling it.

Modern popular culture seems to be pushing us farther and farther down the road of excluding anything difficult. People sitting in front of their screens demand instant gratification with little effort.

Difficulty, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. But if we throw it all away, we lose a lot.

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There is another dimension to the question. Some art can be appreciated immediately by a lot of people with different backgrounds and no special effort, education, experience, or intimate familiarity with the genre, and other art cannot be. Some proclaim the former to be always superior to the latter.

And let us not forget that some proclaim the latter to be always superior to the former.

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There is another dimension to the question. Some art can be appreciated immediately by a lot of people with different backgrounds and no special effort, education, experience, or intimate familiarity with the genre, and other art cannot be. Some proclaim the former to be always superior to the latter.

And let us not forget that some proclaim the latter to be always superior to the former.

No, it's just that if I made the investment to appreciate it and you didn't, then I am superior to you.

:g

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I guess I should clarify that by "difficult" I don't mean stuff that you just don't like or connect with in any way. What I mean is music that even though it is not in the ordinary sense pleasurable (for whatever reason) or that you have serious problems with but which you still can't dismiss.

Your question was about jazz and improv, but I'd have to say that what proves difficult for me is most classical music. Not difficult in the sense of finding it obscure or incomprehensible or "over my head," but in the sense that... it just doesn't move me very much. Obviously there are exceptions to this, and there is classical music that I really love. But in general it just doesn't give me whatever it is I want. I can listen to many composers and hear that it is consequential art composed and performed at a very high level, in other words I can't dismiss it by any means. But I just don't care about it. Something comes between me and it and I'm never quite sure what.

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There is another dimension to the question. Some art can be appreciated immediately by a lot of people with different backgrounds and no special effort, education, experience, or intimate familiarity with the genre, and other art cannot be. Some proclaim the former to be always superior to the latter.

And let us not forget that some proclaim the latter to be always superior to the former.

No, it's just that if I made the investment to appreciate it and you didn't, then I am superior to you.

:g

No, no, it's the other way around. That would mean that you're an elitist snob and I'm "authentic."

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There is another dimension to the question. Some art can be appreciated immediately by a lot of people with different backgrounds and no special effort, education, experience, or intimate familiarity with the genre, and other art cannot be. Some proclaim the former to be always superior to the latter.

And let us not forget that some proclaim the latter to be always superior to the former.

No, it's just that if I made the investment to appreciate it and you didn't, then I am superior to you.

:g

No, no, it's the other way around. That would mean that you're an elitist snob and I'm "authentic."

Unless I don't advertise the fact that I made the investment. Then I would be supremely hip and you would be naive. :P

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My take on "difficult" music is really simple:

Music is a basic pleasure of life along with eating sleeping and sex. I cannot imagine a desire to spend any amount of time dealing with music that does not evoke immediate pleasure or requires anything resembling "heavy lifting" to "appreciate".

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