Monday, June 13, 2011

Response: Bread and Circuses

This has been moved from the comments page of the first post. More responses are welcome and can be mailed to

Panem et Circenses

Thank you for your very interesting analysis and contents that have always been among my personal concerns and constant topic of action and reflection. I won’t leave a long comment here, as I would be repeating myself again and again. I will link to a few texts below which will offer a few (hopefully) pertinent comments to some of the concerns you expressed, for whoever will wish to spend time reading more. I want to point out though that in my opinion the main focus of this discussion should be a political one.

The exclusiveness of the “avant-garde”
Its fragmentation
Its indifference to the real situation in the world today
Its individualistic outlook and not least its class character

Collective creative work and experience stands against what is being promoted on all fronts as the "me" culture, where the issue, for example, becomes that art has importance because it expresses "my" life, "I" did this first, or it gratifies "me" and yes this is happening all over the spectrum and genres of creative music itself. This can only contribute to the general crisis of society. The question then arises, as it does in an acute form at the moment, as to what is the role of art, music and other forms of culture and creative thinking in a strongly needed political renewal. Generally speaking, that question has to embody those emotions and aspirations consistent with this renewal.

The very notion that there is a society, that people exist as human beings within this society and as collectives with their own existence, is being taken away, is being negated. To demand that society shoulder its responsibility is being even portrayed as extremism and that we should be “moderate”. When once I dared suggesting that Provincial and Federal funding to Canadian orchestras should be strongly reduced in favour of younger, fresher energies I was told I was “subversive” (sic). We need art orientated towards the people's concerns, not to the concerns of those who look for geniuses and stars. The social forms where the people on a mass scale are drawn into art making, with professionals serving and working with amateurs, will take shape if we are able to redefine functions. How there can be mass participation, direct participation, in the art making. What is the art of the future?  This is one of the most exciting questions, this vision of the music/art of the future. To envision the art of the future, one needs to begin to envision also the society of the future and begin to push for that now. Meanwhile, everybody gets on with making the art they feel passionate about, with this perspective. And BTW why so much need for “free form” “free improvisation”, aren’t we already free? Can we become freer? Freer than Jazz…??

What are the conditions of performance, of social form, that will ensure creativity has a future?
The question "For whom?" now, when an acute problem is posed about the political renewal of society, and the role of culture in this, has to be answered in a nutshell by saying that the modern culture has to be based on humanity and on inviolable rights; a culture serving modern political requirements and serving the development of the productive forces. We need to foster a trusting environment versus a fearful one. Dialogue versus monologue in spite of the current trend (and possibly one we are going to face for a few years according to this recent exemplary specimen of propaganda:

As you, I know that Vancouver is full of amazing creative energy and resources whose potential is still greatly unexplored. The inability of the local creative community to coagulate around a common “political” program though clearly reveals the inadequacy of our communications and dialogues. Still, I have hopes and visions. This is the reason why I would support and vigorously encourage any opportunity for a local movement, which would allow a better and consistent discourse around these issues; this is the reason why I instigated and will continue to instigate creativity through the initiation of community ensembles such as the Vancouver Electronic Ensemble (VEE), and through workshops and activities to foster the energy that we all know but that not too many are yet willing to acknowledge or fully embrace. Too young, not established, not too many prizes or CDs yet?...

Art and creativity are a behavior and a vehicle for group meaning. While they both seem often irrelevant to most people lives they are actually a fundamental need because they involve making things special, taking care, making community. Reality is that in this city (and not only here) we don't have many spaces for people to exercise creative powers. Our models of art and creativity are not about participation in a social order: our models seem instead a way to escape from it.

 [ panem et circenses, (…again) - the Canucks versus the power of imagination,

too bad we realize that when we don’t sell enough tickets to our circenses ]

Too close, self-centered, distant.

We have become so individualized and conditioned to experience ourselves as separate, we have an actual fear of community, unless our beloved team wins, no matter what.

Real beauty (beyond any aesthetic meaning or demagogic definition) is an activity rather than an entity. We need to foster dialogue/collaborative works/interconnectedness to make possible the creation of renewed creative/artistic knowledge.  I believe that artistic intellect and knowledge live and grow inside artistic practices.  They are in fact more inside the process of making art than in a final object or artifact, and these autonomous zones already exist. This knowledge embodies the attempt to articulate the different ways in which creative process unveil itself: composing, writing, interpreting, playing, listening and interacting. We all know we could find a common ground for that to happen, but whenever I found myself around a table I hardly found anyone ready to finally agree on even a few common goals which could foster a real action. If we want to see real change it seems to me we are left with radical options, either a common ground and a real movement, or Hakim Bey’s autonomous zones.

Giorgio Magnanensi


il sole non aspetta il fuoco per essere caldo
     nè il vento la luna per essere fresco

noise, as music, is to be lived, no longer stockpiled

Radicalizing: listening is attention, not apprehension; 
to listen is evidence of what happens as sound, 
not knowledge of what happens with sound. 
So: sound is the presence of an absolute, 
his annunciation is its own revelation, 
listening then it certainly is not the act by which 
you come to a discursive apprehension, 
but the moment at which perception mediates 
and joins the multiplicity in the unity of formal knowledge. 
Listening is immediate experience in which knowledge 
coincides with the action: listening is ascesis.
(Franco Donatoni)


Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
  (Ludwig Wittgenstein)


What interests us in the image is not its function 
as a representation of reality, but its dynamic potential, 
its capacity to elicit and construct projections, interactions, 
narrative frames . . . . devices for constructing reality.
 (Franco Berardi “Bifo" L’immagine dispositivo)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Festival in Crisis: an open letter to Vancouver's creative music community

How do you respond to a crisis? What does your response to crisis say about your values and philosophy?

The arts in British Columbia are in a state of crisis. Provincial government budgets have devastated funding for the arts in the last two years, cutting the budget of the BC Arts Council by over 50 per cent and eliminating $20M in grants from the BC Lottery Corporation. British Columbia currently has the lowest level of arts funding per capita in Canada: $6.50 to the national average of $26.

The Vancouver International Jazz Festival’s Artistic Director, Ken Pickering, writes:

We’re not exempt from the many economic pressures that arts groups are collectively facing in BC and specifically in Vancouver. In fact I’m hearing similar stories from colleagues in various locales around the world, but here in BC the pressures remain acute with decreasing government support at every level … and serious issues with BC Lotteries funding. (

Pickering describes the festival’s response to these financial pressures as follows:

The upcoming 2011 festival will look a little different from previous editions (and will continue to showcase the creative music scene – a focus that has become a large part [of] our tradition), more streamlined for sure, but our heart and soul remain intact. Any changes to the festival model are being executed with thoughtfulness and sensitivity; a reverence for the music remains uppermost in our decision making process … As we begin to roll out the various series from now through the spring, it will become clear that the festival is more accessible to more people at an incredible price point. (

This letter will describe some areas of concern with the programming and artistic direction of the 2011 Vancouver International Jazz Festival, focusing on ‘the creative music scene:’ experimental music, free jazz, free improvisation, the avant-garde.

The festival’s consistent promotion of these non-commercial styles of music is treasured by musicians and audiences, and is a daring, principled, and unique feature of Vancouver’s programming compared to other major Canadian jazz festivals.

However, if the concerns described here are not addressed, the festival may lose some of its relevance to these musicians and their target audience.

Of course, there is a global economic crisis going on that affects much more than the arts, and some readers may feel that it’s unfair to raise critical questions of an organization which does a great deal of good and is obviously financially struggling.

This is not the case. The world seems less stable than ever before, and Canadians have just returned a majority Conservative government. The budget cuts and financial constraints of the last several years may become ‘the new normal.’ The response of the jazz festival and other arts organizations to the current crisis may become normalized in years to come, setting a pattern that determines how programming decisions are made. This may be the most crucial time to provide constructive dialogue.

As creative musicians and listeners, if we value the contribution that the festival makes to our community – and if we want to prevent the erosion of the programming that’s most meaningful to us – then we should feel free to speak plainly about our concerns, perhaps now more than ever.

The primary concern with the 2011 festival’s ‘creative music’ programming is this: the festival’s ‘creative music’ lineup does not represent the diversity existing in the music.

A Google spreadsheet linked here lists all the performances in the 'alt/indie/noise' and 'avant/free/improv/experimental' style categories listed on the 2011 festival website, as accessed on June 8 and 9, 2011. This writing is based on this music as categorized by the festival; why the festival’s stylistic categories are important will be discussed at the conclusion.

The 'alt/indie/noise' and 'avant/free/improv/experimental' categories on the festival website list 97 appearances by 54 individual performers in 70 different groups. The individual performers are tallied below by the locations they are based from:

Denmark - 1
Germany - 1
Japan - 8
Montreal - 1
Norway - 7
Sweden - 3
Switzerland - 2
UK - 4
USA - 4
Vancouver - 23

Toronto's experimental music scene is completely absent. Montreal's well-established Musique Actuelle community is completely absent. Calgary's emerging, DIY-oriented improvising community is completely absent. Seattle’s improvised music community – which has run its own festival for the past 25 years, often featuring critically acclaimed European improvisers – is completely absent.

Musicians from all the areas mentioned above have a history of performing in Vancouver and regular practices of collaborating with Vancouver creative musicians. These artist-driven collaborations are much more accessible, pragmatic, and community-based than an annual international meeting. Should the artistic direction of a festival work from the ground up or the top down? Should the festival reflect, and support the practices that are already happening with little or no existing institutional support? Or should the festival use its resources to create new collaborations? Which of these models yields a greater benefit for listeners and players?

New York's free jazz scene is represented by four musicians in the 'avant/free/improv/experimental' category; Chicago's AACM, a legendary hub of innovation, is completely absent from this grouping. In spite of a greater representation of female instrumentalists in experimental music than mainstream jazz (see Anthony Braxton's 12tet for an example) the list contains only four women. Of the 58 musicians in the alt- and avant- series, only two are African-American (legendary drummer Andrew Cyrille and emerging legend Tyshawn Sorey).

It would be extremely problematic to claim that curatorship should somehow be done statistically or through a quota system. It's an artistic director's prerogative to exercise curatorial direction. However, there's a strong argument here that what is being represented as 'creative music' in this festival is simply not representative of the communities producing the music.

What can we read into these curatorial decisions? Artists in every discipline outside North America enjoy greater levels of funding than their Canadian, and certainly their American counterparts. According to the festival website, with the exception of the British artists, all of the European performers acknowledge between one and three funding bodies in their programme information. This may make it more pragmatic to book artists from Scandinavia than from New York City.

At what point does financial pressure force a festival to combine curatorial decisions with what is economically expedient? What role does this leave for curatorial intention? Vancouver's festival is supported by the BC and national arts councils, as well as corporate sponsors including Rogers, Concord Pacific, Anthem Properties, the Pattison Group, BC Honda, and, of course, TD Canada Trust. If we consider non-commercial North American artists to be economically disadvantaged relative to their European peers, why can't a festival with corporate sponsorship be a place to at least begin to equalize that difference? If this is not considered possible, does the festival risk becoming a site for perpetuating economic discrimination?

There are other issues with these two series': this year, the separating of each set of nighttime shows at the Roundhouse Performance Centre and Ironworks into separate tickets doubles the price of each performance relative to previous years. This is actually quite understandable given the festival's financial situation.

One aspect of programming which has almost disappeared in the 2011 festival is the improvising collaborations between musicians from different groups. These concerts, generally held at Ironworks, have yielded some of the most surprising and rewarding experiences of previous festivals. The only such creative music concert in 2011 appears to be the collaboration between Vancouver’s JP Carter and Peggy Lee and Ingrid Laubrock (London) and Tyshawn Sorey (NYC).  This is also perhaps understandable given the logistics and economics of this year’s festival.

More problematic - and not new to this year's programming - is the booking of concerts during weekday afternoons, including some unique appearances by international musicians.  The target audience for avant-garde programming may be specialized and loyal, but festival organizers should recognize that weekday afternoon programming makes it simply impossible for some listeners who cannot leave their jobs to attend. It begs the question - if an international artist as beautifully complex as John Butcher performs on a Wednesday at 2pm, who is the intended audience?

The underrepresentation of African-American experimental artists is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the 2011 festival's creative music programming. The groups featured in the festival's Innovation series, such as Atomic and Peter Brotzmann's trio, are undeniably leaders in the field. At the same time, the festival's headlining marquee concert features Wynton Marsalis and the JALC Orchestra. Wynton, of course, is a problematic figure, widely loved and reviled, but his mastery is as indisputable as his conservatism.

This disparity runs the risk of reinforcing an ahistorical myth about the history of jazz: that African Americans carry the source of the tradition, but that Europeans are innovators. This perception is as old as 'Rhapsody in Blue,' or the well-intentioned dead end of the 'third stream' in the 1950s. It also runs the risk of erasing the contributions of generations of African-American innovators, from Ornette through the AACM to New York's Vision community. 

Creative music audiences are generally sophisticated listeners and well-versed in the history of experimental jazz. Many audience members will recognize the roots of 'Nordic Jazz' in Ornette, Albert Ayler, or Anthony Braxton's music, as well as the great respect with which those sources are treated. But this recognition should not be taken for granted; it does not excuse the omission of current African-American creators; and, to use the festival’s language, the prominent and almost exclusive branding of a group of overwhelmingly European artists with ‘innovation’ should be problematic at any jazz festival.

It also opens the question: who is the intended audience for creative music in Vancouver? Is the festival counting on loyal, longtime audiences? 'Nordic Jazz' and other European jazz has been the primary focus of the festival's creative music programming for several years. Repeating very similar programming for several years running runs the risk of losing audiences, regardless of the economic situation. In the current climate - where audiences are obviously just as strapped as artists and promoters – isn’t it worth the risk to embrace greater diversity?

Vancouver has a wealth of young, emerging musicians, educated in experimental practices by world-class musicians such as Francois Houle, Giorgio Magnanensi, John Korsrud, Coat Cooke, and many others. These young players would be highly motivated to contribute to the festival if greater opportunities were given to them. Vancouver also has a noise and improvised music community that performs and records prolifically and has been featured in no less a publication than The Wire. If the festival is creating an 'alt/indie/noise' category for its programming, is it necessary to commit to bringing a Norwegian band to the festival when there is such a wealth of music already here? The emerging talents present in Vancouver are a tremendous wealth of cultural capital that, if used to their fullest, could help offset the financial constraints of the festival.

The Vancouver Jazz Festival is a power structure that plays a role in determining the working conditions of many local and international musicians. It delivers a product to consumers in the form of live performance. It is the dominant structure in Western Canada that mediates and delivers this transaction, and this makes their representation of jazz, or of creative music, incredibly important. Both musicians and audiences are stakeholders in the festival's artistic direction. The festival has the power to determine what is desirable work for musicians and desirable leisure for audiences: for local musicians and audiences, it has the power to define what 'jazz' or 'creative music' is.  This power should be exercised more responsibly than it is at the present for the festival to enjoy a secure future.

This is absolutely NOT a call to avoid the 2011 festival: rather, we should in good faith participate and support the festival to the best that we're able. At the same time, consider this a call for dialogue, for feedback, for praise, for rants, for artist submissions in the form of guerilla performances, for audience participation, for joyous and riotous music making and listening, for shutting up and playing, for not shutting up and playing, and for as much community participation as possible: this is how we will, collectively, move beyond crisis.