The Completist Syndrome, Part 1 : Official Recordings
Pick your drug. It's really as simple as that. Bird, Tatum, Mingusthey'll
keep you full for a lifetime or more. Coltrane, Monk, Cecil will also
do you well. Or maybe you're one of those masochistic souls,
one of those Anthony Braxton-types, who enjoys the chase as much as
the capture. May I suggest Sun Ra to you as well? Or John Zorn. Perhaps
you're just plain nuts. Has that thought ever crossed your mind?
If so, your kind tends to go for the big gunsMiles or God-forbid,
Ellington. Have fun with those. Or maybe you're more into your
own thing, and have picked the route to an early death, poor and alone:
William Parker (as leader and sideman) will suite you fine. And have
you ever met my friend, Billy Higgins?
Whatever you chose, or whatever chooses you, chances are you'll
wake up some day and dream about the next purchase on your way to
the complete taleor at least your version of it. Its part of
the nature of this music, part of the nature of improvisation that
breeds the completist in us. Ironic as it may seemand indeed,
to paraphrase Eric Dolphy, "once the music's over, it's
gone forever"the very things that draw us toward improvisationspontaneity,
freshness, a certain amount of danger, the impossibility of reproductionare
exactly why we collect. Why that note and not another? Why that statement
and not another? The completist, in a very real way, sets out to try
to understand the context of every moment, of the specific ownership
of time, to try to understand it better. Without the aid of a composed
score to study, the completist fills the role of the musicologist
by amassing all of the recorded material made available. The only
raw data we have. It's a treasure hunt, in a way, the role of
the detective in another.
It's fetishism, certainly, and this cannot be forgotten. Completism
is a perversion. Perverse because it turns the common and everydaya
wax plate, a series of zeros and onesinto a holy grail, a fetishized
object. Anyone who has ever collected can testify to the rush of stumbling
upon that rare item, so long sought for, that intoxication of being.
Anyone who has ever collected can testify to the guilt that sets in
after paying way too much for something which is ultimately more symbolic
than practical. But the completist is an art collector as well. Functionality
is thrown out the door once one enters the realm of the completist.
Music is not necessarily listened to as much as devoured, eaten whole,
savored not only in its aurality but also in its physicality. This
is what the record companies surly understand. The completist will
never settle for a CD-R when the real thing, liner notes, pictures,
and ALL, are readily available. Hell, the completist will buy four
copies of something already owned simply because of new packaging
or the promise of a newly remastered, better sounding version. We've
moved beyond simply notes played by a group of musicians in a recording
studio or on stage thirty years ago.
But not every genre lends itself to completism. There are not too
many pop completists out there. The ephemerality of the music cannot
sustain the interest of the completist syndrome. Even those AOR bands
with astoundingly large bodies of work, say Chicago, do not engender
the same sense of panicky need to collect the all and the everything
that an improvised musician engenders. Certainly there are notable
exceptions: Dylan, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix (whose post-mortem recording
output testifies to the nature of the completist syndrome). But those
artists' work has always had the feeling of (or has very literally
been) improvisation anyway, as if even Dylan didn't know where
he was going when he began recording "Desolation Row". Without
that sense of discovery, the completist has nothing to contextualize.
Without the ownership of moment that can only happen with the embrace
of the possible, the completist has nothing to seek or understand.
Improvisation unfolds in time, throughout time, and as Vijay Iyer
writes, "the story dwells not just in one solo at a time, but
also in a single note, and equally in an entire lifetime of improvisations".
This is what the completist knows and understands.
That the completist naturally extends the search into the unofficial
recording, then, should be of little surprise, but we will look into
that more next month. At hand here is the official, warts and all,
release of the perfect imperfection, the magical moment when a learned
improviser brings all to a performance which is then captured for
posterity, packaged with the words and pictures of other learned artisans,
and commodified by an industry. We all know how contrived this setting
is, that the setting itself very really exerts itself upon the notes
performed and the performance in general. We all know that some musicians
suffocate in this context, even if it is a live performance being
recorded for latter release.
But none of that really matters. We want it, and in the case of some
artists, we need it all. Bring on the The Complete Live at the
Plugged Nickel, The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces, Cecil
Taylor in Berlin '88, The Complete Riverside Recordings of
Thelonious Monk, Beauty is a Rare Thing. Set it out in
one glorious package for us to dip into, for us to savor, for us to
simply look at as it sits on the bookshelf. For in reality, we know
that we will never, truly be able to listen to it all. Even the most
dedicated, with headphones on every waking moment, cannot really deal
with a tome like Monk's Complete Riverside Recordings,
especially because that person also owns The Heavywieght Champion.
And really, on those sets like the latter, how many takes, how much
in-studio banter, do we really listen to, again and again? We know
that's not the point, but bring them on anyway. Do not deny us
the rush of research, for ultimately that's what it is. Do not
deny us the however impossible dream of hearing every note, from first
to last, recorded for posterity. The completist will not stand for
anything other than the complete, even if, towards the end of a career,
there may be only one track worthy of owning. It's a gesture,
though, to the artist who has given us so much that even the sub-par,
or in some cases the awful from anyone else, is worthy of purchase.
This is ultimately the completist syndromeit is homage to the
music like no other. It is a disease, a love affair, a fetish, and
a sacred pact between artist and collector. And there are few relationships
like it in this big, wide world.