Monday, August 6, 2012

Capital Jazz Project and The Next Gen

Capital Jazz Project and The Next Gen – an afternoon of critical conversations at The Street Theatre and Belconnen Arts Centre, Sunday August 5 at 1.30pm and 3pm respectively.

by Frank McKone

These two events, staged independently, formed an interesting afternoon of thinking about the business of being a critic.

At The Street Theatre, as part of a 10-day program ‘of all things jazz’, Miriam Zolin, managing editor and publisher at extempore publishing ( conducted a seminar discussion with four writers/broadcasters: freelancer Jasmine Crittenden, blogger Eric Pozza, Sydney Morning Herald reviewer John Shand and ABC presenter of The Music Show, Andrew Ford.

At Belconnen Arts Centre, Yolande Norris, independent arts writer, curator and producer, moderated four presentations by local young artists:

Reuben Ingall – musician (acoustic and electronic), composer and contemporary dance collaborator who has worked with Quantum Leap Youth Choreographic Ensemble and currently works with independent dancer Adelina Larsson;

Jamie Winbank – dancer and choreographer, working in interactive theatre, as well as teaching dance;

George Rose – multi-disciplinary graphic artist and designer, coordinator of You Are Here, a curated festival of the best of Canberra’s independent and experimental arts and culture;

Michael Bailey – creative member of Boho Interactive, a theatre company whose aim is to spread understanding of concepts from complex systems science (Game Theory and Network Theory) via interactive theatre projects.

Each discussion had its own key question.  At The Street it was, Is the best music criticism a description or an opinion?  At Belconnen it was, Why would anyone in their right mind be an artist?  For me, the key question became, What is the key question I should ask myself as a critic?

Some of the erudite speakers at The Street had seemed to give me sensible answers, yet my confidence in knowing my role was challenged by these young experimental artists.  How do you judge people’s work when they are testing out new ideas, new combinations of genres, new technologies?

All four at The Street were in agreement on basic principles, but it was John Shand who most clearly articulated two central points: the judgement is about how well the artist has achieved what they intended to do; and the critic must be honest in making that judgement.

On the way to and from these points, there was discussion of how much a review should analyse technical matters, and therefore reach conclusions, or how much it should be about the reviewer’s emotional or intellectual responses to the work.  In music, and improvised jazz in particular, this raised perhaps the most division between the speakers, because the political and social history of jazz could justify focussing on the effect on the audience rather than on the technical skill.

In the end I concluded that the best work must integrate the technical with the emotional, and so create the greatest quality.

But my own rather intellectualised metacognitive approach was rather blown apart when the young artists’ presentations of videos of snatches of their works, and their attempts to explain what they were doing, raised a question about the principle of judging whether the artist has achieved what they intended to do.  In fact, it had been Andrew Ford who had talked about interviewing musicians who were quite inarticulate verbally when asked about their playing, and had put the view that many artists actually don’t know what they are doing while they are doing it.

Ford and others had backed this position by quoting composers, including Ford himself, whose work had come to mean completely different things to other people than the composer had thought he meant.  In other words, as I thought while watching and listening to the young people, how can I know what their intentions are, or were when I see a finished work, and be able to say if they achieved their aims?

Indeed, it had seemed easier to do this for a jazz performance, however improvised, because a tradition has grown up over the last century of what jazz is which has allowed even for the shift from trad jazz to modern jazz.  A language for talking about jazz has grown up alongside the performance of jazz.

But when the young are deliberately challenging previous conventions and experimenting with new forms, am I right to say I found Reuben Ingall’s work less than enthralling, Jamie Winbank rather superficial, Michael Bailey’s concepts intellectually interesting but seemingly a bit too much like Questacon, while, in the range and skills she showed, George Rose seemed the most together and likely to produce the best art in the long term?

What would I have said about jazz in its early years?  That it wasn’t what I understood to be real music?  While in fact, as a youngster in the 1950s I played Pee Wee Hunt’s trad Twelfth Street Rag on my mouth organ, and later became fascinated by the Modern Jazz Quartet, despite my father’s objection that they were just tip-toeing about, instead of playing real jazz. 

The Street Theatre’s speakers also made the point that at times a reviewer can be useful to a composer or performer by criticising their work honestly – sometimes helping the creative to understand what they have created, or sometimes to help them improve a work – and I have had feedback occasionally to support this.  Of course, I have also endured brickbats as well.  But in the end it may be that John Shand has the last word.

He suggested that, when it comes to placing a value on the work of the artist compared with the work of a critic, we critics are essentially parasites on the body of performance.  So there!