Manufactured Culture vs. Shared Culture

by Paul Klemperer

One of my favorite topics is the idea of cultural renaissance, and one of my favorite rants is the problem of cultural hegemony. Now I know I’m basically a bricolage of beatnik/hippie/counter-cultural attitudes and aspirations, but I always try to see things at least two ways at the same time, if not more. So I can see how one man’s renaissance is another man’s hegemony. Yet I cling to the belief that there are underlying objective cultural realities which distinguish the two, no matter how much we dial back our critical judgment with the buffers of freedom of expression, cultural relativism and just plain old couch potato soporific passivity.

Let’s take music as a for instance. What makes a pop song a national hit, a culturally shared moment? What makes a pop singer a national celebrity, a persona that crosses over from concerts, to recordings, to television, to movies, to product endorsements? A friend of mine summed it up succinctly: MONEY.

But is that the final equation? Corporate hegemonic control over mass culture? It often seems so. Who among us has not turned on the radio and cried, “This talentless cretin has certainly sold their eternal soul to Satan”? How many times has a vacuous pop song become a hit, a doltish movie broke box office records or an irritating Johnny One Note become a celebrity personality? And now all of these examples of celebrity commodification can occur simultaneously through the magic of post-industrial capitalism; coordinated mass marketing has been honed to an exact science in the 21st century.

In fact, what with computer animation, there often doesn’t even need to be an actual celebrity to commodify. You can get your Disneytronic character figurine at Burger King; watch its animated antics on the big screen; rent the video; and buy the soundtrack, comic book and video game all in one afternoon! One could argue that such a cultural milieu qualifies as a renaissance. Certainly for each celebrity/commodity there is a team of talented and hardworking artists behind the scenes: songwriters, musicians, photographers, graphic artists, copy writers, choreographers and possibly every other type of craftsman who has ever surfaced since the Neanderthals started banging rocks together around the campfire.

A period of renaissance connotes not just a rebirth of artistic endeavor but also an interconnection among the arts, a gestalt or zeitgeist, so that one can characterize the period through themes shared by the various arts. We take pride in the zeitgeist of previous periods: the American Revolution, the Harlem Renaissance, the Psychedelic 60’s. But as technology has sped up most aspects of our lives, maybe it has sped up periods of renaissance to months and weeks, rather than years. Can a renaissance actually be built around the marketing of a single commodity? Or is that just a bunch of crap? Maybe we’re just talking about fads and trends and cold-bloodedly calculated massive ad campaigns. That is my left-leaning gut instinct. But maybe post-modern culture is not so easily summed up. It is definitely a gray area in which we live, where the difference between renaissance and hegemony is often not clear. Artistic products may be execrable and mass-produced, but they still may reflect the spirit of our time. Personal taste and aesthetic judgment may be our ultimate measuring sticks, but are these objective enough? Please let me know, and keep those cards and letters coming.

[This essay was originally published in Austin Downtown Arts March, 2002]

Music As Fiction

by Paul Klemperer

Philosophically speaking, all art is fiction. And if fiction can be broadly defined as a creation of the imagination, then art, in all of its forms, can be related, both metaphorically and literally. We often use one art form to explain another, for example. Terms like “phrase,” “articulation,” “theme” and “voice” apply equally to both music and literature. So it is no stretch of the imagination to think of music as fiction.

We create fiction every day in order to construct and understand our lives. We present ourselves to others (and to ourselves) using the tools of socialization (speech, learned facial expressions, body language, fashion, etc.). In fact, there is a whole body of literature in the field of cognitive psychology dealing with the fictive character of the individual in society. (See, for example, Erik Erikson’s The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life). We also edit reality in our minds, a matter of necessity since we can’t perceive and comprehend everything at all times. So fiction can be seen as the process of negotiating one’s individual place in a world teeming with stimulus and information. We select and shape experiences from the past, through memory; the present, through cognitive and sensory reaction; and the future, through our hopes, fears and dreams. We do it unconsciously for survival and sanity, but when we do it of our own volition and on our own terms it becomes art.

Playing and composing music, I feel an affinity with other art forms. The ideas expressed in the visual arts, literature and drama can inspire me or help me to refine my own musical constructions. For example, I often think about periods of social renaissance, in which artists in various media felt and reflected a shared aesthetic, sensibility or community. The fictions we create through our art, if they resonate with others, become part of a cumulative imagined community. In a renaissance period, inspiration becomes infectious. The muses hang out together, trading recipes.

But I also often connect music with fiction in the particular form of written prose. This has more to do with the form of prose construction than with creativity per se. While music has its own realm, its logic can be understood with terms from literature. I explain music to my students using terms like “grammar” and “vocabulary.” In some ways it is just an analogy, because you have to learn the elements of music as they are, within the sonic realm of music. But in other ways, the connections to written and spoken language are very clear. The length of a phrase, its shape, its rhythm, can be analyzed and understood just as we can break down a sentence into its component parts. You can train the ear to listen to a musical phrase critically, just as you can listen to spoken sentences. And one can learn to “hear” the music by reading it on the sheet, just as one learns to read books silently while mentally hearing the words.

One of the clearest connections between language and music is in song. Have you ever read song lyrics without knowing the melody? Usually they sound stilted and dry, if not completely ludicrous and lame. But then you hear them set to the melody, and they suddenly come to life. The best lyrics, of course, work as poetry on their own. But what strikes me is how much the music invests words with emotional impact. There are songs that literally bring tears to your eyes when you hear them. Sometimes this is the residue of sentimental memories, but there is undoubtedly an affective quality emanating from the words and music themselves, regardless of the personal experiences they invoke. This affective quality is a fiction: it is an artistic creation, and yet it has emotional power that is real to us.

And the fact that we know it is fiction, that we can critically examine its construction, makes it no less real.

[This essay was originally published in Austin Downtown Arts Magazine, January, 2002]

Paul creating fiction with his saxophone

Music and the New Year

‘Scuse me if I get introspective in these last days of 2010. It has been a year full of changes for me and many of my friends, gains and losses, dreams coming into focus, dreams out of focus… Through it all the music keeps going. Thanks to all the hardworking and creative people in my life I was able to host and/or participate in a lot of wonderful shows, beautiful music, great parties over this year.  Then I read about Aretha (Bob Herbert’s editorial in the New York Times, 12-26-10).

Aretha has been ill (pancreatic cancer), and is convalescing after surgery.  She’s 68, and has been a constant musical presence in my life since I was maybe 12 years old.  We danced to her music at middle and high school parties.  Then I got to play her music in my early bands, then my college bands, and after I moved to Texas her music followed me from band to band.  Any dance band has to know some Aretha songs: “Respect,” “Chain Of Fools,” “Natural Woman,” just to mention a few.  I have played them in great bands, not-so-great bands, at lavish galas in 4-star hotels, at grimy hole in the wall bars, at surreal music festivals in a field in the middle of nowhere, at late night parties with drunk girls screaming “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” in every key except the one the band played in…. Through the years the music of Aretha has added a kind of constancy and affirmation to the musical ride.  I’m sure there are many musicians, singers and music lovers out there who feel the same way.

So I just wanted to take a moment to think about Aretha Franklin and thank her for all the music.

2010 Wrapup

We’re in the homestretch. Some would say it’s meaningless to measure one’s time in hours, days, weeks, years. Yes, the Julian calendar is an arbitrary yardstick (you could go by the Jewish calendar, or the Zoroastrian for that matter), but still I get a little philosophical and retrospective this time of year. So I look back at all that I have done, seen and shared over this past year, and I want to send a thank you to all the people in my life that have made the days so full. I’m looking forward to more hectic and wonderful times in 2011.

I have a few more shows over the next week. If you’re looking for something fun to do on Xmas Eve (besides watching “It’s A Wonderful Life” while weeping into your beer, join us at Romeo’s for a big ol’ music party.

My Exotic Other has one more show for 2010, this Tuesday at Momo’s. We’ll preview some new compositions of mine and have a CD giveaway!

Here’s a little taste from last week’s New Music Night at Kickbutt Coffee: We tried out some new ideas mixing Indian classical music, funk, and jazz. This video clip features Shiv Naimpally on tabla and drum machine, Amie Maciscewski on sitar, Sean Hopper on bass, and David Spann on guitar.

Saxophone Warmups Tip#1

Paul Klemperer has been playing and teaching woodwinds for over 30 years. His background includes classical, jazz and over 20 years as a touring musician. In addition, he has a background in martial arts. Drawing from all of these experiences, Paul has a unique approach to practicing and performing music. In this video lesson he explores the idea that warming up doesn’t precede music performance, but is really an essential part of making music.

My Exotic Other at Momo’s

Every Tuesday is World Music Night at Momo’s. On December 28, Paul Klemperer adds his saxophone and original compositions with his group My Exotic Other for their final public performance of 2010. Showtime is 7:45pm.  Come on down!
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PK and friends play at New Music Night

The Third Tuesday of each month is New Music Night, a series organized and hosted by Paul Klemperer. It is held at Kickbutt Coffee (5775 Airport) which has a nice intimate atmosphere and good musical acoustics.
This month Paul joins friends for a set exploration of rhythm, mixing live instruments and electronica, followed by a set of Indo-jazz fusion with members of Sangeet Millennium. Join the fun from 8-10pm.
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