Artists in all fields of expression have one basic thing in common: what they are attempting to do. All artists spend their days either looking for the inspiration that will give them the vision for their next project, or desperately trying to actualize that vision so it can be appreciated by others. Where it can get especially tricky is if you're trying to realize a concept that can't just be spelled out.
Abstractions are difficult to communicate, even with a media where you use a language that an audience is familiar with. Yet the difficulties involved in writing about a subject pale in comparison to those faced by those working in the more transitory arts like music. Someone listening to a piece of music doesn't have the luxury of being able to read a sentence over and over again until they comprehend it. Instead a composer's audience is dependent on his or her abilities to communicate via their ability to make their music understood on an emotional level.
Like the abstract painter who uses shapes and colours in an attempt to stimulate a reaction in his or her audience, the composer uses sounds and their arrangement for the same purpose. Compounding their difficulties is the subjective nature of music. Unless you are willing as a composer to be blatantly obvious, most pieces of instrumental music are wide open to interpretation making it very difficult to communicate, even imprecisely, what you were trying to say.
Jazz musicians have been working together in improvisational collectives since the 1960's, and the listening public has grown used to the idea of them creating pieces based on a single phrase of music or an idea. This does not meant the ensemble is necessarily creating a piece of music anew each time them play it, because the basic structure has been developed through rehearsal, but individual solos might change from performance to performance. The same holds true whether a band is in the studio recording, or in front of a live audience.
Bass player/composer Jason Ajemian had been playing improvisational gigs with percussionist Nori Tanaka and saxophonist Tim Haldeman for some time before they decided to enter the studio. It was only when Nori's visa allowing her to stay in the United States was about to expire that they decided to create a record of the work they had been attempting. The Art Of Dying, on Delmark Records, is a distillation of the past four years of their experimentation.
Time is of vital importance in music of course, and according to his liner notes for The Art Of Dying, it's time and the way we use it as a society that Jason and his fellow musicians have been exploring. If timing is everything in comedy, what is it in music? Of course there is the basic notion of keeping time, where in you maintain a steady beat, but maybe even more importantly, there is what you do with the time at your disposal. You can fill it with numerous notes in the hopes of hitting the right one, or you can find the right one to start with and sustain it long enough for people to hear what it is you want to say.
What Ajemian and his fellow musicians have been exploring sounds a lot like meditation in certain ways, as they have been attempting to develop a style of playing which allows them to sustain moments sufficiently that they are able to explore all the emotional possibilities available to them. Whether pain. joy, grief, or love, society, according to Jason, doesn't normally allow us the time to see the beauty in what moves slowly We aren't encouraged to plumb the depths of an emotion and experience them to their fullest.
The expression, being in the moment, which means existing completely in the present; not thinking about what just happened or about what is just about to happen; could well have been coined to help describe what Jason and his band mates are attempting. What they have tried to do with their music is create the circumstances where the listener can appreciate moments to their fullest.
Talk about your abstract concepts that are highly subjective! Obviously I can't speak for others about what emotions the music made them feel, yet I can't help but feel like they are on the right path with what they have created on The Art Of Dying. The first song of the disc "With Or Without The Universalator (Birdie's Dream)" (The Universalator is a machine that creates a drone like effect) was written by Matt Schneider who plays guitar on the disc, in response to being asked if a song should be played, with or without The Universalator.
What he did was write a song that allows a band to emulate the drone sound created by the Universalator with what ever instruments they have at their disposal. The drone like effect made with the full band extends each moment of music far longer then most of us are used to hearing and allows us to go deeper into the moment. What emotional chord that the moment strikes I think has been deliberately left in the listener's hands by the band. It's not important what you feel, what's important is that you feel, seems to be their credo on this attempt.
The next thirteen tracks on the disc are all variations on playing with what can be accomplished with short moments of sound. Tracks range in length from thirteen seconds to five minutes and have titles like "Ludicrous Dreams And Solar Guided Lovehandles", "Miss O" and "The" that don't suggest a particular feeling one way or another. They all take up moments in time, and those moments have been given titles that don't suggest anything in particular, allowing the listener to take from each track what they will.
The final track on the disc, "Smokeless Heat" is a live recording and checks in at nearly twenty-four minutes and is the penultimate attempt by the composer and the performers to create a piece of music that allows the audience to appreciate something that develops slowly and over a period of time. I found that while I didn't feel anything in particular, that it caused my mind to wander down a variety of emotional paths, as various moments stirred reactions within me.
Yet, I wonder at how effectively they would be able to communicate with people who are not used to, or willing to, take the time to listen to something which unfolds this slowly. There is beauty in each moment of the song for those who are willing to spend the time allowing it to affect them, but those used to being spoon fed emotions and told how to think and feel by popular culture are not going to be interested.
The Art Of Dying is an exploration of how time can be used in music to help increase the depth of feeling expressed by the performer and experienced by the listener. While the musicians are most definitely committed to this project and have done some exemplary work, the problem is whether or not there is an audience who is willing to listen beyond those who are already interested in this type of music. If a person would be willing to take the time and put the effort into listening they would get something from it, but how many people are willing to do that anymore?
The Art Of Dying is beautiful and evocative music that challenges our perceptions of time and what is needed to create an emotional response. If you are willing to take the time to listen you will be deeply rewarded.