A Universal Music

by Aakash Mittal: acclaimed saxophonist, composer and improviser.

The full version of this article appeared in New Music Box on October 11, 2016.

“I hear what you are going for,” Hafez said to me. “You have clearly worked on this music and developed these Indian ornamentations within your improvisation.” It was my first week at the Banff International Workshop for Jazz and Creative Music in 2013, and I was fortunate enough to get a lesson from saxophonist, composer, and conceptualist Hafez Modirzadeh. I had just played a solo saxophone piece that I had developed over the previous couple of years and my adrenaline was pumping a little more than usual. Hafez’s recordings were frequently on my playlist, and I was excited by this opportunity to study with him. After a slight pause to think about my solo, he suggested, “But you know the goal is to move beyond ethnic stylizations towards a concept of universal music.”[1] Universal music? No ethnic stylizations? That blew my mind. “That’s not even my idea,” Hafez continued. “John Coltrane said that.”[2]

I felt the thrill of the unknown. Prior to this lesson, I was fervently driven by a personal mission to express the hybridity of my biology and experience as a half-Indian/half-Euro-American person within my music. The search for stylistic confluence manifested itself in numerous trips to study in India and four recordings of original music that explored Indian concepts, environments, and sounds within my jazz quartet. Despite my commitment to an ethnic-identity-driven music, Hafez’s words resonated deeply within me. On an intuitive level, I knew that this was the next step in my journey. I had a deluge of questions. How is universal music possible? Is not music, like language, born of culture and environment? Is not each musical style a unique expression of place and experience? For years, ethnic stylization had been one of my favorite aspects of music. I treasured the diversity of forms music seemed to take across cultures. Could I really abandon an idea so integral to my identity? In a sense, Hafez’s challenge threw into question everything I believed in artistically.

Hafez’s call to action was only the first of many revelatory experiences during that opening week in Banff, Canada. Composer/pianist Vijay Iyer gave me the first building block I would use to develop my ideas surrounding universal music. In a room full of workshop participants, he said something akin to, “Genres don’t exist. They were invented by record companies to sell albums. Genres are an attempt to categorize a community of people who come together and create something.”[3] Once again, I was confronted with a paradigm shift. My musical training, rhetoric, and artistic upbringing had been a world of categories, styles, and genres hinged together. I thought of the countless hours spent trying to play a style correctly and how often I seemed to fail in that goal. At that time, I was already bothered by the mentality that our musical ancestors had somehow received the divine right to invent and that all the rest of us could hope for was to imitate. Yet I was encumbered with the popular notion that I needed to “learn the rules” before I could “break them.” At what point were the rules learned and the breaking could begin? The goal of stylistic execution was perpetually in conflict with my interest as I attempted to occupy both worlds. I embraced Vijay’s comment. He was giving me the words I needed to articulate what I believed and felt all along.

The concept of genre divorces music from the people who create it. In order to define a style, we homogenize seemingly congruent elements across people and time to assemble a grocery list of digestible characteristics. Jazz is reduced to a collection of ride cymbal patterns, walking bass lines, seventh chord voicings, and improvised chromaticism. Hindustani music becomes a modal jam within odd time signatures peppered with exotic ornamentations. Music that was once riding the crest of mutative feedback loops becomes frozen in time. What is left is a shell of compiled theories, historical patterns, and reductive features often devoid of the processes and unquantifiable elements of creativity. The genre now exists abstractly. It looms over us large and menacing as we struggle to determine if this composition is ambient or minimalist and if that improviser is playing hard-bop or post-bop. In our desire to identify the sound, we lose the nuance of each performance that made the music so powerful in the first place.

When examining art through the lens of style, we are immediately bombarded by another problem: what person or which group of people has the privilege of defining a genre and its characteristics? In the history of music, the role of the definer becomes a political conflict. Within North Indian communities, the term classical was often attached to raga music as a way to equalize their own complex and highly structured sounds in the context of colonial rule.[6] Definitions of jazz often illuminate racial polarity and social movements in the United States, while European classical forms often frame class and patronage systems. Who has the power to define music? The critic? The academic? The audience? The artist?

When I started looking at music through the lens of human interaction, what emerged was a world of collaborations. I realized that my favorite works of art were born of very specific relationships that existed within a flowing spectrum of social dynamics. One of my favorite polymaths is J.R.R. Tolkien, whose friendship with C.S. Lewis was pivotal in his work. Tolkien once said of Lewis, “The unpayable debt that I owe to [Lewis] was not ‘influence,’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby.”[8] Similarly, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother Theo acted as patron and critic to the artist in addition to his familial role.[9] We could list creative dyads for the rest of this essay: Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha. Individually these people are certainly hard workers and creative thinkers, but what struck me was the realization that their work was always collaborative. Our society loves the illusion of a lone genius re-inventing genres within a vacuum. When we dig a little further, we uncover the reality that creative work is born of collaboration and community.

In this argument against genre, I am not suggesting that we eliminate the words bebop, minimalism, or dhrupad from our vocabulary; rather, I am advocating that we change the way we think about and use these words. These words represent people who lived in a very real place and time. They navigated the struggles of life while creating, discussing, disagreeing, and influencing each other. Yes, past communities of people shared musical vocabulary, but each person’s use of that vocabulary was ultimately unique. This recognition that traditions and genres are simply people engaging in the exact same creative processes we have today is liberating. We are no longer obliged to contain our creativity within someone else’s box, and we can take the “greats” off of their pedestals and bring them back down to earth.

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