Between a Rock and an Experimental Place

Between a Rock and an Experimental Place

by Jason Gross

copyright © 2003 Jason Gross

for EMP, Seattle

In the 1950's, rock and roll, free jazz, and avant-classical music turned their respective worlds inside out but would eventually have long-term impact on each other. Though at first they seemed realms apart, the end of the same century would see a gradual convergence of rock with these other genres manifested in the work of boundary-crossing practitioners who, for noble or perhaps ignoble reasons, reached out to formally polarized audiences thanks to an evolving network that was gradually able to supporting itself. There were traps and rewards available to all sides of these junctions, which led to forward-thinking experiments as well as purist backlashes. In examining these convergences, I will explore the benefits and pitfalls of these practices, examine why these events have happened, their possible worth or lack thereof and what the ramifications might be for the artists involved now and in the future.

The roots of this convergence began in the 60's as Bob Dylan led the way in making rock lyrics more literary while pop art foreshadowed such conceptual touchstones as the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out!, the Grateful Dead's Anthem of the Sun, the Who's Tommy and Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland. The rock underground and proto-punk bands, particularly Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground, were brimming with avant influences, and the beginning of the 70's saw the advent of jazz/rock fusion (usually with watered-down results) as well as adventurous art-rock bands like Can, Faust, Soft Machine, Magma, Henry Cow, and the Residents and less adventurous but more profitable groups like Yes and ELP.

During the CBGB generation, guitarists like Tom Veraline of Television, Robert Quine of the Voidoids and Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group played with jazz in mind while Brian Eno and John Cale (each with classical backgrounds and their own solo careers in rock and avant music) produced crucial bands. Soon, there was also a Downtown New York scene that embraced not only No Wave bands with art backgrounds but also outre jazz artists like James Blood Ulmer and avant-identified composers like Laurie Anderson. In the 1980's, multi-genre bandleaders and arrangers pulled together musicians from a variety of rock, jazz and classical backgrounds: Bill Laswell's Material, Kip Hanrahan's big bands, Anton Fier's Golden Palominos, Hal Wilner's tribute albums and David Sandborn's Night Music TV program.

The missing element was a strong support system for these experiments. This would change in the '90s, providing a base for these excursions and pointing towards new possibilities and genres. With their avant-classical origins and long-standing love of free jazz, Sonic Youth provided a rallying point and impetus for many of the confluences of the post-Nirvana era. SY's history goes back to the early-'80s New York art-punk scene and an apprenticeship with composer Glenn Branca (himself once in the art-noise band Theoretical Girls). As they outlasted many of their contemporaries, Sonic Youth's unusual tunings, symphonic grandeur and noise excursions were heard to a rock beat and sophisticated songwriting in such pre-Nirvana signposts as Evol, Sister, and Daydream Nation.

Though their influences were always there--interviews mentioned jazz and avant artists they liked, invariably setting writers and fans off in search of more information--it was during the 90's, after the success signaled by their major-label deal enabled them to start their own label, that they began to put their studio time and concert bills where their lip service had always been with a myriad of collaborations, studio projects, and tours. A partial list of these include noise ensemble Borbetomagus, drummer William Hooker, turntablist/artist Christian Marclay, drum programmer Ikue Mori, composer Pauline Oliveros, saxophonist Evan Parker, harpist Zeena Parkins, and composer Christian Wolff, many of whom themselves gloriously confound categories with their own music and projects. Multi-instrumentalist Jim O'Rourke similarly skipped through musical styles with his work in his solo projects, Gastr Del Sol and many collaborations. It's no surprise that he found Sonic Youth such kindred souls that he recently joined the group.

It wasn't long before other rock artists reached out to the ultra jazz and modern classical world for their own cross-genre projects. Yo La Tengo in particular have logged studio time with jazz luminaries such as sax players Daniel Carter and Sabir Mateen, bassist William Parker and trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr. DJ Spooky worked with many of the same jazz performers on his 2002 Optometry album as well as reaching out to everyone from Iannis Xenakis's STX Ensemble to Metallica. Guitarist/author Alan Licht has run the gamut from Tom Verlaine and Arthur Lee to composer Phill Niblock, onetime Coltrane drummer Rashied Ali, and avant-guitarist Loren Mazzacane Connors. Vernon Reid played guitar in harmolodic drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society before forming the Black Rock Coalition and the best-selling Living Colour. In addition, remix projects for composers Steve Reich (1999), Pierre Henry (1997) and Iannis Xenakis (2000) brought recognition outside the classical world. Terry Riley's minimalist classic "In C" proved a durable cover for Japan's Acid Mothers Temple, the Styrenes, and an all-star group (including Pauline Oliveros and turntable crew X-Ecutioners) assembled as part of Lincoln Center's Electronic Music Festival (2000). In the most commercially notable example, Radiohead sampled composer Paul Lansky on their number one album Kid A, which itself turned heads with its avant intimations.

The rest of the independent music industry evolved to accommodate these changes. Records stores that stock rock albums in close proximity to jazz and classical releases let the consumer explore; Josh Mandell at Other Music in New York notes that customers usually never browse only one genre in his store. The same is no doubt true at Aquarius in San Francisco, Waterloo in Austin, Let It Be in Minneapolis, Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis, Rough Trade in London, Dense in Berlin, and many others. Radio stations, many streaming through Net-connected phone lines from hundreds of miles away, venues in countless cities, and multi-day festivals all over the world also proliferated, and independent labels seemed uncountable. A handful of print magazines such as the Wire also spread the gospel of this breaking down of genre barriers.

Mike Patton of Faith No More and Mac (McCaughan) of Superchunk started Ipecac and Wobbly Rail for experimental art-rock and underground jazz respectively. Pianist Matthew Shipp curated an album series at Thirsty Ear, indie rock legend Homestead put out William Parker and David S. Ware. Other labels such as Mute, Touch & Go, Thrill Jockey, Asphodel, Mille Plateaux, Jim O'Rourke's Mokai, Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace, Gastr Del Sol's Dexter's Cigars, David Grubbs's Blue Chopsticks all featured rosters with rock and avant artists. Also, Eremeite and Aum Fidelity documented new jazz while New Albion, New World, and CRI documented avant-classical. Perhaps encouraged by such developments, artists themselves also took new initiatives to produce their own labels: John Zorn (Tzadik), Terry Riley (Sri Moonshine), saxist Tim Berne (Screwgun), Anthony Braxton (Braxton House) and Karlheinz Stockhausen's self-named company.

One more vital component in keeping the conversation flowing has been the vast web of the Internet. Not only does it access the aforementioned radio stations, it provides a previously unimaginable reference library and endless communication possibilities. Supplementing print magazines, online zines such as Hyperreal, Clicks and Klangs, Aural Innovations, State 51, Blastitude, and I dare say my own Perfect Sound Forever provide a wealth of information unavailable to the offline world. Chat groups, mailing lists, and newsgroups provide forums for fans, artists, and interest seekers to share obsessions, ideas, and musings about these musics also: some forums include the Zorn List, Drone On, Hyperreal and the IDM (Intelligent Dance Music).

So, why did all this happen and what does it portend? Every musical style is born of other styles. But that process is sped along and amplified because, as author/radio-host Bart Plantenga notes, we live in an age of endless sampling and homages. It's also true that almost every kind of musical activity has increased. But a lot of the developments already described here have an incremental effect-- they build on themselves. Modern software has also helped to push along any adventurous rock musician to incorporate tape and electronic material into their work--writer David Mandl notes that computer-based composing tools especially help in this regard.

Media support and distribution systems far beyond the scope of pioneers like Option, Forced Exposure, and the New Music Distribution Service insure that audiences know what's going on. They also stimulate interest in reissues of out-of-print material, which feed back into curiosity about new developments. This cyclic feeding also has had an effect on radio. As WFMU music director Brian Turner notes: "Bands like Sonic Youth turned more kids onto out-there music, and that became more reflected by those same kids doing college radio." Also, decades of avant precedents soften the blow when these concepts are presented to rock audiences. Author/radio DJ Kenny Goldsmith notes: "Odd tunings and noise are now de rigueur for rock bands."

Needless to say, while the rock instigators in all of these crossovers were name artists in previous decades, today most of them thrive in the indie realm. As documented in Michael Azzerad's book Our Band Could Be Your Life, the 1980's was when this scene nurtured and consolidated itself. Once it had created its own network that could sustain it, many of its practitioners found that they could expand their audiences' (and their own) horizons a little more.

Boredom and feelings of constriction also motivated rock musicians who didn't want to be pigeonholed into a formal box, which is par for the course in these postmodern times. After all, from Bob Dylan to David Bowie to Madonna, great pop artists often jump around from style to style and sound to sound. For an indie rock band, avant-jazz and modern classical are the perfect way to push the envelope. As writer Byron Coley explains: "Rock is not necessarily a dead horse, but neither is it something that's in and of itself a challenging endgame." Less charitably, one might note that such genre-hopping also adds status to their work. Brian Turner notes that a lot of press kits he sees name-drop Xenakis and Cage. Since collaborating with avant-garde artists gains artists no commercial advantage, some no doubt prefer to gain a publicity advantage the easy way.

For avant practitioners themselves, there is at least the hope that these collaborations will gain recognition for themselves and their work. Although there's always the danger that some avant fans will turn away from their heroes when they compromise their purity, it hasn't been common, and there's reason to believe that the support of those who do isn't worth having. After all, growing up in a changing time for rock and popular music certainly had a real influence on the outlook of many of these artists. As composer Paul Lansky recalls: "The generation of composers between 45 and 60 (years old)... were at a very formative age in the 1960's when rock became something much more than merely `popular' music."

More troublesome though is the possibility collaborations and other convergences might corrupt the work of the avant artists, perhaps even inspiring them to compromise beyond their natural inclination to make their work somewhat accessible to perhaps a larger audience. In fact, most crossover projects have favored the avant in sound and, unfortunately, in sales also.

Except for Yo La Tengo's recent albums and what amount to cameo appearances--David Bowie with trumpeter Lester Bowie, Bjork with harpist Zeena Parkins, Suzanne Vega with Phillip Glass, Gavin Bryars with Tom Waits, Joe Henry with Ornette Coleman--these projects (especially Sonic Youth's) tend to sound as if they involve rock musicians only if you know it beforehand. Steve Reich insists that although the Reich Remixed project (as well as being sampled by the Orb and Tortoise) gained him access to some previously unavailable media outlets, saleswise the remix record didn't do nearly as well as most of his earlier work. Similarly, Steve Joerg of Aum Fidelity and Michael Ehlers of Eremite report no sales spikes in the wake of these outside collaborations. In electronica, the other pop-related genre that launches many such projects--Spring HeelJack, Aphex Twin, DJ Olive--audiences have also been rather limited from the beginning.

Race is also an important consideration. While indie-rock and avant-classical are almost exclusively white genres, the same is obviously not true for jazz. Ehlers notes that many of the older avant-jazz musicians he works with experience the same concerns about audiences that they have for decades: how can they appeal to African-American fans? While they don't dismiss interest from mostly white indie-rock audiences, it's simply not as important to them, especially since they know that the music they were playing decades ago is still considered "avant" if sales and airplay mean anything. To make matters worse, choreographer and festival organizer Patricia Nicholson notes that there is little or no sponsorship of so-called "serious black music," as there is with its white counterparts.

As much as you might admire musical cross-breeding for the way it expands audiences and swaps ideas and experiences, you also can't fail to notice that for all of these artists, their best known and regarded work remains what they have accomplished within their own genre. Indeed, I believe that this will also remain true as time goes on: Terry Riley's original version of "In C" will be the one that people will remember through the ages. None of the remixes or samples of Xenakis, Henry, and Reich will challenge the place in history of these composers' original pieces, though they may enhance the standing of the originals. Author Simon Reynolds goes so far as to argue that the result of these convergences "tend to reek of sterility," judging by rock/pop shows performed at museums and galleries and 'curated' rock festivals as opposed to "pop music on its own terms and through its own path [which] starts resembling avant-garde music."

Perhaps a promising trend is the behind-the-scenes support of avant musicians where they can present their music on their own terms: Henry Rollins recently producing saxist Charles Gayle, Pulp's Mark Webber presenting a tribute to La Monte Young featuring the minimalist master himself, and artist-owner labels such as Ecstatic Peace and Dexter's Cigars reissuing long-last classics.

Indeed, there is some evidence of retrenchment. The Vision Festival, often a bellwether of free jazz, had previously featured Thurston Moore, Yo La Tengo and the X-Ecutioners, but last year's and this year's schedules had no room for genre-crossing. Michael Ehlers also sees the bloom fading: "It isn't like it was in the early 90's where rock musicians were first becoming away of the free jazz tradition and there was a lot of curiosity. For a lot of people in the rock audience, it's been demystified now." New York Times writer Ben Ratliff remains similarly skeptical: "I think the fact that one set of bohemians likes music made by another set of bohemians isn't a good enough reason for this to happen. As far as a real meaningful crossover that's going to have a life of it's own, I don't totally believe in it from what I've seen so far."

As I myself look over numerous examples of recent appropriations and convergences of rock and avant music, I come to one inescapable conclusion- with the exception of avant ideas/themes applied to rock music (and not vice versa), the idea of the convergence itself seems much more aesthetically pleasing than the actual execution of it. The previously cited examples of Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and Radiohead (as well as the cameo appearances noted with David Bowie, Bjork, Joe Henry and Suzanne Vega) all apply avant touches and collaborations on their own albums, which have been by far the most successful of these recent experiments. In my eyes, these have worked the best because in each case, you have rock/pop artists who are predisposed to some avant aesthetics already and are now taking the further step of manifesting this.

Conversely, avant music infused with rock/pop aesthetics (i.e. the remix albums) have not recently produced any music that matches what artists involved from all sides have created on their own. The past does provide us with ultra-music cross-genre visionaries like Terry Riley, Miles Davis, Jon Hassell, John Zorn, Sonny Sharrock, Arthur Russell, Robert Ashley and La Monte Young though we still await brave and reckless souls to fill their shoes now.

All of which is not to say that these recent projects are all doomed or failed for the musicians involved. Even putting forth these most pessimistic projections, the fact remains that in the wake of many precedents, an enormous number of rock/avant collaborations have now taken place. The key to the future will likely not be in these forms themselves but what they lead to--who can honestly predict what "rock" or "jazz" or "classical" will actually sound like 100 years from now? Musician/author/label-honcho Chris Cutler believes that the forms they will take and the make-up of new genres will be informed by these experiments, just as music cross-pollinations have sustained the longevity of other musical styles.

And just as recent rock, jazz and classical musicians grew up in a world where each of the other styles was not necessarily looked upon with fear and disdain, the same will certainly happen to a greater and greater extent when our posterity hears this music being produced now. The task of adventurous musicians in the future will be to not just collaborate across genres but also to create music that has lasting resonance through numerous successes and failures. My only regret is that we won't be able to hear how these fascinating and frustrating ventures pan out.

Jason Gross is editor of He was commissioned to write and present this paper at Experimental Music Project, "the Jimi Hendrix museum," in Seattle.

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