Victimusicology: I Am Modern Flute Technique

I have a number of half-finished posts that were intended to be in contention for the comeback post now that I’m slowly getting a handle on this whole parenting thing. However, earlier today I saw something a little too ridiculous to ignore. It’s not worth spending too much time on, but here are my $0.02. Initially I offered a snarky tweet, then quickly deleted it because it’s my firm belief that with social media less is certainly more. But since I’m writing a blog post, I’ll resurrect that first volley here:

“And the ‘New Music community’ officially joins the ranks of the humorless, terminally offended & victimized PC class. Blech.”

On a recent Tonight Show, host Jimmy Fallon delivered a bit (by his team of writers) about books to avoid, one of them being The Other Flute by Robert Dick. Seems harmless enough, but to read this NewMusicBox article and a series of follow-up tweets (including the hashtag campaign of #InviteRobertDick), you’d think that a real crisis was at hand. If outsiders weren’t convinced of classical musicians being in a bubble, this would make a good final nail in that coffin. I bet a lot of musicians are sleeping deeply tonight having burned so many calories on being so outraged.

That’s not to say that Dick himself doesn’t have a right to be offended. That’s a different story, as it’s about him personally. It’s quite unfortunate that his (likely) introduction to mainstream pop culture was a joke at his expense about his life’s work. That truly sucks. But what puzzles me is why other flautists are so taken aback. Were they also being insulted in such a personal way?

Being offended is big business these days. That’s not to say that bullying, etc. isn’t a problem. But we’re gradually moving away from the right to free expression to the right to not read or hear something disagreeable. And it strikes me as odd that a group of artists – those who supposedly are the biggest proponents of free expression – would themselves get so bent out of shape by a few jokes (Dick himself excluded).

But who am I to talk? I play the saxophone (and a little flute), so I’ve got nothing to complain about. (It’s not like there’s a Sexy Sax Man  or Kenny G to weigh down the instrument’s image or anything.) I’m simply a hegemon – my instrument is part of the dominant paradigm, present in myriad popular styles. I mean, Branford Marsalis was even The Tonight Show’s bandleader for a time. Although, most of my classical music-oriented colleagues don’t or won’t give much of my improvised music the time of day, so perhaps I should start my own aggrieved campaign. (The same goes for this blog being rejected from The Big List of Classical Music Blogs multiple times.)

I do think that it’d be great to have Robert Dick himself appear on the show as a follow-up to the bit, but not so Jimmy Fallon can simply offer a public apology to the music community like some sort of hostage video victim. I think that, with humor, it could offer genuine insight into something that does at first seem funny or odd to the average listener. (After all, extended techniques don’t often travel well when out of context.) Perhaps relate a technique such as simultaneously singing and playing with Ian Anderson’s playing (for pop context) and then go from there. In short: definitely have him on the show, but also have the community take a collective chill pill.

Having said all that, here’s Robert Dick doing his thing, and masterfully so, in his Sliding Life Blues:

Borghi | Teager at Muskegon’s The Block on Saturday 02.21.15

All has been quiet on the blog front this last month due to the wonderful new addition to our family. Regular posting should resume soon, but first a concert announcement:

This Saturday, I’ll be performing what I believe to be my first hometown show as a leader. I’ve played a number of fun (and occasionally featured) gigs in Muskegon over the years, but none of those have included my name in the top billing. This weekend, however, the Borghi | Teager ambient juggernaut will land in and sound throughout Michigan’s City by the Lake. The weather should hold for the evening, so please come out if you’re in the area. And don’t just take my word for it – we’re #1 is this weekend’s Top 5 Things To Do in the Muskegon Chronicle.

We’re performing at The Block, a wonderful, intimate venue opened by the West Michigan Symphony a couple years ago that offers up-close performances in myriad styles. Matt and I have long thought that our music is more akin to a listening space such as a concert hall as opposed to a rock club (even though we’re happy to play the latter!). Generally, for this type of music in that type of an environment, it’s been Philadelphia’s The Gathering or bust for us, and so we’re excited to have such a great opportunity close to home.

From the official press release:

Performance duo Borghi and Teager bring “jambient” music to a February performance at The Block in downtown Muskegon.

Matt Borghi (guitars, effects) and Michael Teager (saxophones, flute) are a recording and live performance duo focusing on improvised ambient, or “jambient,” music. The duo combines guitars, winds and electronics to make each performance a unique experience. The program starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21. Doors and cash bar open at 6:30 p.m.

Matt Borghi is a sound artist, music composer, writer, but he claims that above all he’s a musical improviser, using his guitar in traditional and non-traditional means. His recordings have been featured on NPR, BBC and CBC.

Michael Teager is a Muskegon native and versatile musician, performing frequently throughout the Midwest in a variety of styles. He also serves on the faculties of Spring Arbor University and Michigan State University’s Office of Study Abroad, teaching each summer in Bregenz, Austria.

Saturday evening’s concert is titled “Soundscape. Improvised. Jazz.” When asked what audiences might expect form a Borghi and Teager concert, Michael Teager, who also regularly plays saxophone with the West Michigan Symphony, explained that the concert would be “a unique, contemplative evening of sound. Our music is too active to be considered traditionally ambient, it’s melodic and heavily improvised but doesn’t swing, and there are formal structures that constantly evolve.” Teager continued, “There’s something for everyone. We’ve also put together some visuals to make it a more immersive, sensuous experience.”

Overall, musicians Borghi and Teager are focused on the spontaneity of live performance and on taking the listener on a journey into sound.

Tickets for Borghi and Teager’s concert “Soundscape. Improvised. Jazz.” are $20 and available at the West Michigan Symphony ticket office: 231.726.3231 ext. 223; online at https://itkt.choicecrm.net/templates/WMSO/; or in person at 360 W. Western Ave. in Muskegon. For more information, visit www.westmichigansymphony.org/the-block.

Info:
When: Saturday 02.21 @ 7:30 PM (doors & cash bar at 6:30)
Where: The Block; Muskegon, MI
Tickets: $20, available here

MTH-V: Candy Dulfer & Chance Howard

I mentioned a few posts back that Candy Dulfer may be coming. As promised, here she is. The Dutch queen of smooth jazz saxophone may not be the first one to come to mind for regular readers of this blog, but she has her place. If you don’t recognize her solo work, you may at least recognize her from her work with many big pop acts including a long-running association with Prince and even sharing the stage with Pink Floyd.

Overall, I’m no fan of smooth jazz. However, I do like some folks that walk that line, Marcus Miller being the biggest for me personally. Marcus was one of my first posts in this video series, and he’s received some of the most appearances and mentions (see him in action here, here, and here). For me, I love Marcus as a sideman or a live bandleader (i.e., when he’s playing his bass with a killing band), both his playing and his ideas. The studio is another story if he’s calling the shots. Many of his albums and/or producing credits are so overproduced and overly overdubbed – he plays most instruments himself in the studio – that I have a hard time getting into it. That, and his solo albums trot too far into the smooth jazz territory. Just a tad too much cheese and fluff at times. And even when it’s not, it still lacks something organic. I mean, I appreciate Miles Davis’s Tutu, which Miller produced, but I don’t often listen to it for fun. This is following a thought that deserves its own post, but hopefully you get the idea…

Back to Candy. For me, she’s sort of the bizarro Marcus Miller – overall her playing’s not my thing but sometimes I’m really into it. Though, that’s mostly because of the style. Perhaps my biggest gripe with smooth jazz is that much of it seems to be trying to be something it’s not: vocal music. When you have a good vocalist, the horns should just lay back and let the pop hooks come through. It’s why “Just the Two of Us” is far and away the best part of Grover Washington, Jr.’s Winelight. (Though, I do like the rest of the album.) Similarly, the thing I’ve most liked by Candy’s solo band features voice. This particular voice is that of fellow Prince alumnus Chance Howard. (Prince experts may also recognize drummer Kirk Johnson, another former member.) And what a voice it is. As my wife says, “it’s pure butter.” How he’s not better known is lost on me. Regardless, he delivers a commanding rendition of Bobby Womack‘s “Daylight” in this live performance from Germany. This may be Candy’s band but it’s Chance’s stage. Candy lets the horn fit in well without butting her way in. She lets the song itself shine without trying to make it a sax feature. Other than the shoe-horned hip-hop breakdown towards the end, this is pretty great. I’ll admit that when I got my new stereo, this is one of the first things I listened to to test the surround sound.

To tie Candy in with another post, here’s a clip of Lydia Kaboesj sitting in with her band in Amsterdam for another rendition of “Just Friends (Sunny)”:

“Making It” Up

A running thread through the last few posts (here, here, here), and occasional others throughout this blog (here, here, here, here), is that of the landscape and environment those of my generation(ish) and younger are facing. Gone – or at least fading away – are the “paths” (career or otherwise) that were supposedly ahead of us as we were coming up. It seems so, anyway. (And it was never going to be easy to begin with.) To echo author Bret Easton Ellis, as he put it so well: we’re moving from an age of Empire to Post-Empire. Now, there are certainly pros and cons to each, and I don’t even know if I fully believe that one is better than the other, but it can’t be denied that those big, shiny institutions (i.e., Empire, or, as discussed in my last post, the “real world”) are crumbling and we’re rebuilding a more fragmented cultural environment. Yeah, you can be a college professor (Empire), but you’ll likely be cobbling together adjunct or Visiting-Assistant-Instructor-Fellow-Lacking-Benefits work (Post-Empire). Gone are Mr. Big’s Six Album (and six figure) Deal record contracts given to only a select few (Empire), and everywhere are musicians with GoPros and MacBooks with a worldwide reach (post-Empire). You can ostensibly get your music to everyone right now, but do you actually expect to get compensated? Sure, there’s live performance, but that can also be a financial killer. And if not a killer, you won’t be saving for retirement. Speaking of which, I think we could put retirement in the Empire column…

Matt Borghi, my close friend and musical accomplice, happened to send me this article from The Atlantic on Monday, not knowing I had just posted a somewhat parallel (in parts) screed. Deresiewicz makes some good points, though I must admit that I didn’t walk away from it knowing what the overall thrust of the article was, if there was one. (Though, sometimes all you need is mention of entrepreneurship and declining superpowers.) Some of the thoughts were a bit bizarre – we’re beyond the age of the “great work”? I don’t buy that. Just because we don’t have as many powerful gatekeepers and curators as we once did doesn’t mean that the works aren’t being made. I would argue that it’s more of a problem of not being able to easily sift them out from all the others. Also, the author talks about the devaluing of the 10,000 hours concept. I don’t know about that. While he does have a point – and I’ve seen it firsthand – that connections can help one more than his or her work, most of the cream eventually rises to the top. (Even if eventually = after death.) The deep, substantial works are being made amongst the noise of the novelties surrounding them. And eventually the fluff will die away. And as far as depth vs. breadth, why are they mutually exclusive? As someone who has many disparate musical influences, I would like to think that such breadth is an asset in my hopefully one day making something with depth. Though, related to the 10,000 hours, I did ask on this blog over five years ago: For those with disparate influences (i.e., learning and become proficient in various and/or competing styles), is 15,000 the new 10,000?

Admittedly, this quick post may not have a point, other than to tie recent posts together and point to that Atlantic article. Ellis’s article on The Daily Beast is worth a read also. On a related note, I recommend this piece by Matt.

To close, the end of the first paragraph reminds me of a song by the long-defunct group in which I met Matt, The Elevator Conspiracy. Written shortly after the 2008 economic crash, we wrote and often played a sometimes-wailing-sometimes-spoken-word song in rehearsal titled “Retire the Empire.” We all really enjoyed it but I don’t believe we ever played it live. As much as we dug it, we just couldn’t get it to “click.” I have some scratchy recordings somewhere that I’m sure will never see the light of day beyond the band members. Though it was originally concerned primarily with the economy, it’s funny to think of how broadly accurate it was.

Making Up “Making It”

In most professions, but particularly artistic endeavors, the concept of “making it” looms large. However, what makes “making it” an especially frustrating goal in the arts is that the meaning is so vague and often almost completely subjective. So-called career paths in the arts are extraordinarily varied – there are as many options as there are practitioners. One person’s success is another’s stumbling block. My dear friend and kindred musical spirit Pat Harris writes well on this topic in his 12.20.14 blog post.

“Making it” has, for me, become more mythological than tangible over the last few years, much more of an abstraction than something measurable. Often you’ll hear or read in interviews artists saying something to the effect of, “At least I don’t have to have a[n office] job,” and that’s generally the accepted barometer. But I think it’s far more complicated.

The quick go-to answer, I suppose, is that if you “do music full time” then you’ve made it. But that can be very misleading, and ultimately it’s reserved, in the purest sense, for a fortunate few. On the surface, one can make all of their money from the saxophone, but there’s a wide gulf between making an living from playing your own music (or, rather, music of your preference) and paying your bills by freelancing, teaching lessons and/or classes, arranging, and occasionally performing and recording your own music (the latter at a loss, as you’ll finance it yourself). Add to that an anemic economy overall and a culture that continues to financially devalue music at an exponential rate and you have a recipe for disaster.

Enter academia. If one wants a life in the arts but the stability of income and benefits, then simply get a teaching job. More importantly, teach college. And make sure it’s a tenure-track position. The only problem there is that stable tenure-track positions are, at best, holding steady in the arts and, at worst, becoming an endangered species, a relic of the past much akin to VHS cassettes and rotary dial phones. More concerned with the bottom line, universities have (and continue to) become increasingly reliant on temporary (non-tenure), part-time (adjunct and fixed-term), and/or student (be it graduate or, in some case, undergraduate [!]) workers to fill the space once occupied by full-time faculty. All of this occurs against a backdrop of terminal fundraising campaigns, campus construction and beautification, and increasing entertainment and activities budgets. (And yet, all the while, the university has also transitioned away from a bastion of free speech and free thought and exchange of ideas into a stifling kid-gloves-only safe zone hesitant to push anyone’s buttons or challenge the status quo. But that’s a topic for another day and blog…)

That’s not to say that college positions don’t exist; far from it. I have friends and colleagues who have secured good jobs in the last couple years, but they’re definitely in the minority. And, for some of them, they’re so busy with their teaching, committee, and recruiting duties that they find little (if any) time for their instrument, manuscript paper, or research beyond keeping the rust off. As for the majority of those with advanced and even terminal degrees in the arts, they work in directly- or tangentially-related positions; some of them have gone into completely different fields altogether. Directly related positions would often be cobbling together enough adjunct work and private lessons to amount to a somewhat full-time income (without security or benefits — there’s no such thing as a paid sick day when running a private studio) via myriad part-time jobs. And adjunct work mostly pays a pittance, particularly considering the amount of work that goes into it.

I’ve worked (for separate institutions) both as an adjunct professor since 2009 and as annual fixed-term faculty since 2011. If I purely got paid for the actual hours I’ve put into both jobs over the past several years, then I could probably pay off a great deal of my mortgage lickety-split. Instead what matters is the credit hour, or how often I see the students face-to-face in the classroom. Small details such as lesson plans, continually creating and revising assignments, handling student and department email (with atrocious etiquette, by the way), grading (or, for you European readers, “marking”), and meeting with students outside of class are beyond compensatory concerns. Of course, I probably sound ungrateful in this context. That’s not the case, as I do very much enjoy teaching. At this point, I do it more because I get something worthwhile out of it than just a paycheck.

One possible side effect of teaching as one’s backup profession is that actually teaching can be seen as a hindrance to one’s own artistic endeavors or research. I know a few professors (both full-time and adjunct) who, at best, find teaching to be okay, and at worst despise it. Students can tell when a teacher doesn’t want to be there. It certainly makes a (detrimental) impact. So why make everyone else suffer along in your own personal drama?

Aside from teaching, aforementioned related positions could include those in arts administration, officially or otherwise. I know folks who do and don’t have degrees in Arts Administration, and sometimes it’s hard to tell who has (or hasn’t) which degree and how it’s helped. (No offense to AA-degree holders. Part of it is my own ignorance.) That aside, it could involve the dreaded “office job” related to an arts organization (i.e., concert presenter, symphony, etc.) or college or university arts department. On the one hand, one still has a job “in music.” On the other, they’re likely spending more time in Microsoft Office (Enterprise Edition, of course) than Finale. Having said that, it’s important to note that not everyone wants to actually perform. Many want to just be involved without being on stage, and this is a great way to do so. For what it’s worth, many of the people I know in this field enjoy their jobs.

Then there’s the dreaded nuclear option: selling out and “getting a [non-arts] job.” Welcome to the cubicle farm, please leave your soul at the door. Right? Eh, not really. Some jobs (and careers) definitely fit that description. Others don’t. For some, a 9-5 job (or the modern equivalent, since that notion is almost quaint now) is a way to have a stable income and security, allowing one to focus on their art in their own time. For others, it can be a death sentence. It’s all what you make of it.

Speaking for myself, I’m a bit of a hybrid. I do have a full-time non-arts job with salary and benefits. I’m fortunate that I telecommute and pretty much stick to my own schedule (within reason, of course). On top of that, I also teach (as is obvious throughout this post and the blog as a whole), both university courses and private lessons. And I perform and record regularly, and the music does well. The best part about it artistically, for me, is that I pretty much only accept the gigs that I consider are worth my time (i.e., I either want to do them or the price is right — fortunately both boxes are checked more often than not). I’m very busy, but I’m not the artsy albatross financially weighing down my marriage, as often seems to be the case. I’m artistically active and satisfied, and my wife and I are financially secure. Occasionally I briefly consider taking on substantially more private students, try to teach additional classes, and freelance more to “only do music.” But then I quickly realize that I’d likely be far busier, have much less income, be artistically deprived, and lack any security for me and my family should something happen to me. Other times I consider going back to school for my doctorate, which I may still do when I’m completely ready, but I won’t be doing with the sole purpose of landing a teaching job afterwards. The chances of that working out are quite small, and if it even worked out, it’d likely be at great financial cost. I feel like I know as many people with terminal degrees who have seemingly abandoned their field altogether as those who’ve been “hired in.”

[Even though it’s no secret, I can sense that my explicitly “outing” my work/life balance has caused a couple readers to condescendingly think poor guy, I hope he makes it someday. I hope the weather’s nice up there on Mt. Pious.]

We don’t lead an ascetic life, but my wife and I are far from extravagant. We are happy, have a house in a great neighborhood and community, and are preparing for an imminent addition to the family. These are choices I’ve made and am both happy with and proud of. How selfish would it be of me to take myself out of the income column to “chase my dream” when I’m actually living a version of it right now anyway? How would that be fair to the family? Some are find with a vagabond-like existence, but that’s not for me.

On a related note, I occasionally see colleagues my age or older picking up part-time temp jobs here and there to fill in the gaps when artistic work is light. That’s perfectly fine, but I don’t know how that’s any more noble than having a full-time gig somewhere. Apples and oranges. If anything, they’re equal.

Tangent 1: This is getting into territory that’s fodder for another post entirely, and that’s the concept of work. Artistic types (in my case, musicians) constantly pride themselves on the work ethic involved in studying a craft and the intellectual benefits of the arts. My social media news feeds are a steady stream of that and how today’s artists are so entrepreneurial. And yet, when asked about working a “real job,” one boilerplate answer is, “I could never do that [work an office/desk job]” or “I have no skills other than [art].” Well, which is it? Are you smart and take-charge, or are you incompetent and lack life skills or work ethic? Pick one. And then there are the folks who’ve never actually worked a minimum wage job (even in high school or college)… But I digress. Again: another post for another day.

Tangent 2: Part of my focus on this topic in my own thinking the last several months is that producing art requires MONEY, something that I don’t think really gets adequately addressed. In order to finance your composition, recording, show, painting, sculpture, novel, or film, you need some sort of income. Back to work: where does that money come from? A job? Selling your art? Contributions? A wealthy family or relatives? A sugar-momma/daddy? Yet another topic for another day. (I touch upon it here but hope to dig deeper down the road.)

Before veering too far off course, let’s get back to “making it.” So, on the one hand I’ve raised the soulless white flag of getting jobs and property. However, I’m artistically active both in my own community as well as regionally and nationally, I teach, and my recordings sell some and get airplay. (One feather in my cap is when I heard Jan Garbarek sandwiched between a couple Borghi | Teager tracks on the nationally-syndicated Hearts of Space, the program’s first episode in its over 1,000 dedicated the saxophone…) And, as I wrote here, Matt and I recently embarked on a brief but packed East Coast tour that resulted in a net profit. I don’t write it this way to toot my own horn, but rather to say that I’m “making it” in my own way. Just like those who only wield their instruments or paintbrushes, and those who teach. The question shouldn’t be “Will I make it?” but rather “Am I making it?” It’s of course a long game, and one should never rest on their laurels. But it’s important to realize that success comes in many forms, and to say that there’s only one way is almost like saying there’s no way at all.