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Why??? Oh Lord Why?

“So what am I doing? Why do I do this? What is the &%#8@ point??” That question comes up pretty frequently with me these days. I’ve been playing, producing, thinking about, listening to, presenting, and just trying to help, improvised music for years, maybe 20 years, and still the questions pop up. Maybe it's burnout, or unfettered hope, but the questions come.

Why? (so many “whys…”) why struggle so hard for something that is chronically under appreciated? Well, it’s hard, first of all. It’s asking our audience to dig deep with us, be part of an expressive journey, one that’s talking about serious feelings, explorations and/or examinations. It’s not easy to go out, spend some money, and then get asked to contribute more to a performance. That is hard! I get it.

Why? Why practice and think about something that is so, well….unpopular, unappreciated? Well because it is so real. There’s no acting, no showboating in this music. Really there’s very little ego in general in improvised music. Why bother? We are trying to go to very personal places, often very intimate places, trying to create something or explore something. And usually we’re playing for only a few people, so the idea of feeling important is pretty foreign to us. Sigh...

Why? Why ask others to join us? Improvisers and all contemporary artists want to share: they are serial workshop givers. Not just because funders like it, but because we want more people to listen like we listen, to appreciate what we appreciate, to enjoy what we think is important! And that’s a struggle too: “Come on out and expose yourself!” “Come out and we won’t give you any idea of what music to play (in front others)!” I get that too.

Those are a few whys anyway. There are more. But I posed just one of those to my friend, sL guest artist and playing partner Craig Pedersen and he wrote me a very thoughtful and encouraging email, some of which I’d like to share. When reading this we have to remember that Craig is a person who survives on creative music alone, he doesn't have a cushy orchestra job to pad the books! He teaches and he tours and he gets really, really creative! Daily. Here’s what he wrote to me:

If I have any words to give on the “what’s the point of all this” I can say that we’re all ill-equipped creatively, mentally, physically and monetarily to deal with what is put in front of us day after day when we choose to pursue art borne out of love. The question “what’s the point” is fundamental, or as Axel Dorner put it when I asked him - “I think this is a very basic question.” Not basic implying simple or something we should already know the answer to, but basic as in, at the base.

I can only share what it is that I know - I know that I have something to say in my work that is important, an aspect that is fundamental and valuable to the world, that only I am capable of bringing forwards. I don’t know what it is my work says, because the work is abstract, but I am certain something is there. My work revolves around finding and discovering the musical language best suited to this abstraction of expression, and also letting this expression drive my musical language. Further, I am driven to share it with as many people as I can.

I didn’t wake up one day with this idea in my head — it was something that came into place after a long period of prioritizing the things that fundamentally matter to me in both my life and work, a path that led clearly to here. There’s only barely enough precious personal creative time to spend on things we love, excite us, and that we’re passionate about.

As for the business side: art and capitalism sit in fundamental opposition to one another, yet here we are requiring a full and thorough understanding of the way the markets work to make our living as small-business owners or independent organizations, whose business it is to support art. We have limited choices, but since time immemorial, people have been finding ways to support creating their own work, and sharing it with others. Some even find a way to move to supporting themselves through creating their work — but we shouldn’t kid ourselves — that comes from a deep and thorough understanding of business which most of us, myself included don’t yet have.

However, there are ways forward, and you’re not alone if you don’t want to be. The business aspect can be managed and even conquered - and there are ways to engage with it to make progress here and there. Some of it is very practical.

There’s a way through this, and we don’t have to do it all on our own.

Wise words: And inspiring ones. And maybe even encouraging to audience members too.

So we keep trying to solve the puzzles, keep advocating for our work, keep practicing, keep exploring, keep asking for help. If two people show up, give them your best. Lets go.

Nov 3, 2015 at 11:38

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