Ken Vandermark : Raw and Refined


The Paradox of Inspiration

AAJ-e: While spiritual searching fueled John Coltrane’s Meditations, Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun drew inspiration from the horrors of war. Yet there’s something of a similarity in each other’s sound and approach. How can such disparate means produce somewhat similar ends?

KV-e: The broadness of this question encompasses the fundamental workings of art. The things that inspired Coltrane have meaning, but I think that their impact can only be understood to a certain point. I believe his act as any artist was to translate experience and idea into sonic expression that has had meaning cross-culturally. The same holds true for Brötzmann. Meditations is much more than what inspired it, so is Machine Gun. Parallels in expressive tools make more sense when the cause isn’t compartmentalized to simple effect.

AAJ-e: Would it be fair to say that despite some similarities, a key difference between the two recordings has to do with extra-musical context? Requiring an understanding of Coltrane’s and Brötzmann’s inspiration and methodology apart from the works themselves? On the other hand, since sources of inspiration and influence are so many, can there be such a thing as “extra-musical?”

KV-e: I’d say the key differences are aesthetic. If you analyze Meditations and Machine Gun from their structural standpoints, it’s clear how different they are musically, even if there are some superficial similarities regarding the use of split tones on the sax, intense percussion, etc. For me, the extra-musical elements may be of interest, and may have had immense impact on the thinking of the musician who created the material, but the most important thing is how it sounds and how it works. There are many, many examples of lousy art that’s been inspired by sincere interest in important events, just as there are examples of incredible art that’s nothing more than a creative act.

AAJ-e: During Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp’s rise to notice (if not fame), it was said that free improvisation took its impetus from anger and was protest against inequality and injustice. Is there a danger that the more abrasive elements in today’s free improvisation might be seen only as an “angry” music separated from its primary relevance?

KV-e: To clarify, Ayler and Shepp’s music was not free improvisation, it contained pre-composed themes and elements that they and the members of the groups used to build their improvised music. The association that some people made with this music being “angry,” seems pretty simplistic to me. There was a lot more going on, from an artistic standpoint, a cultural standpoint, and a political standpoint. Equating dissonance and volume with anger is two-dimensional, and ignores all of the conventional beauty also portrayed by their musical expression. In some ways our society has changed in the last four decades and in cases of equality certainly not nearly enough. The faults in interpreting Ayler and Shepp’s music superficially forty years ago apply to the understanding of today’s music too.

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