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Edwin Prévost
Minute Particulars

A few years back, AMM, the venerable English improvising ensemble of Keith Rowe, John Tilbury, and Eddie Prévost, played a concert in Krakow, Poland. At drinks after the gig, a colleague of Tilbury's son Jasper told the trio how moved she had been by their performance. But when this woman learned that, contrary to her belief, the group hadn't memorized a score, but had improvised the entire piece out of whole cloth, the value of the music was destroyed for her. According to Prévost, "She not only doubted our artistic and intellectual integrity, but she had been forced to question her own powers of discrimination. How had it been possible for her to enjoy and admire such work when its practice had been so… primitive?" Had AMM "perpetrated some kind of artistic fraud"? Not at all, says the author/musician. The "abiding impression upon us (that is AMM) was that this person could not trust her own sensibilities and that she had chosen a wholly inappropriate paradigm of cultural confirmation to help guide her tastes and aesthetic... disposition."

Unfortunately, either this "abiding impression" occasionally faded as Prévost worked out the thought-provoking series of essays that constitute the main body of Minute Particulars, or else he failed to understand its most important implications. It would seem that if the music that AMM performed that night was indeed good, it could not have been made less so by having been improvised. But Prévost expresses the apparently conflicting contention throughout his book that, although the performance had most certainly produced excellent music, this creation could have been made distinctly worse by having been previously composed… or, for that matter, by having been put together by a collagist, produced with the aid of pre-recorded samples, or even informed to any degree by the tossing of the I Ching. This apparent asymmetry results from Prévost's conception of music's most important role: To reflect and foster communitarianism.

While disdainful of religion, Prévost often sounds like nothing so much as a country sermonizer in this book. Music that is louder than he likes it is derided as "oppressive", "dehumanizing", even "pornographic". Music that is too quiet is "reductionist", "facile", and "doomy". Through-composed music betrays tendencies toward "possessive individualism" and/or autocracy; use of electronics reflects consumerism; both traditional jazz and klezmer music are "tribalistic" parts of the "cultural marketplace"; new age music is a soothing palliative for the "psychologically threatened or enfeebled". All, it seems, except Prévost's own favored style of free improvisation are impolitic, immoral, sinful, wrong. While Minute Particulars also includes a handful of previously disseminated occasional writings (liner notes, reviews, etc.), its main interest undoubtedly resides in the opening 110-page manifesto wherein the author's politico-religious principles are set forth and defended. The main tenet of Prévost's unified—if not entirely self-consistent—faith is that what makes any contribution to art worthwhile is its positive effect on society at large.

As might be surmised, there are a number of human, as well as ideological, targets of Prévost's ire: Cage, Marsalis, Zorn, Stockhausen, members of the Ganelin Trio (particularly Chekasin, who takes a pounding for being too demonstrative on stage), the producers of the Hands of Caravaggio project, even certain incarnations of Cardew. All draw the percussionist's fire. But no one is so frequently skewered as Prévost's longtime collaborator, Keith Rowe. The table-top guitarist is chided for being "reductionist", for offering vicarious (if actually unpleasant) experiences of real, non-symbolic suffering, for not listening to others during performances while "paying close attention to what [he himself] is doing", for emulating an object on a shelf rather than an intelligent conversationalist, and, perhaps worst of all, for having declared Prévost's favored style of "dialogic" improvisation to be a species of "visceral chic". When in his quite favorable review of the Tilbury-Rowe recording Duos for Doris, Prévost even goes so far as to seem to suggest that that the disc's value is largely attributable to the work of Tilbury and occurs despite Rowe's contributions rather than because of them, one can hardly fail to wonder whether there's something of a personal nature lurking behind the barrage of what are superficially theoretical complaints.

Before we get too lost in the bullets of Prévost's arsenal, however, it will be well to step back and have a more panoramic look at the ideology behind his massive build-up of WMDs. Is his battle cry a just one? And, if not, where did he go off the rails? These, of course, are difficult, even threshold, questions, but let us see what we can do to answer them without attempting a book-length analysis. I take it that these are his two most important premises:

(1) The community (village, rural pub) is preferable both to the individual (crass capitalist, autocrat) and the city (large-scale consumer culture, multi-national mega-brewery). The ascendancy of this principle in the political sphere is called "communitarianism".

(2) Unconstrained (as well as truth-seeking and dialogic) improv made with acoustic instruments both reflects and moves us toward communitarianism more predictably and effectively than other music. In fact, all other musics either reflect or move us toward something worse (or both).

With these in hand, Prévost is ready to infer that the best music is free, acoustic improv. The fact that he takes such music to be ennobling, empowering, anti-hierarchic, liberty-enhancing, and, in general, morally and politically superior in every way to all other types of music is, he asserts, sufficient reason to conclude that everyone ought both to hear it and play it. Before turning to the question of whether this conclusion actually follows from Prévost's premises, let's take a brief look at these supports themselves and the reasons provided for them.

That communitarianism is an unalloyed good, at least in this book (and I've read nothing else by the author) exists as a sort of article of faith. Like Ayn Rand's individualism, it is trumpeted as the cure to many evils, from consumerism (which has allegedly turned local pubs into chain fern bars and intimate football clubs into impersonal stadia), to the hostile imperialism of world superpowers. These leanings often seem merely to reflect a rampant Luddism on Prévost's part, however. Acoustic instruments are better than electronic ones, he claims, because they must be practiced—worked with in ways that give musicians calluses and sore lips. Like the spinning wheel and handloom, they keep us connected to our natural environment, and our mastery of such tools changes us for the better. Members of a small, freely improvising ensemble are seen to have something like the advantages of a town meeting over a countrywide referendum. And just as a massive conglomerate is inferior to a family-owned neighborhood restaurant, so too must a G3 be embarrassed by a bamboo flute.

I admit that I share many of Prévost's preferences, but I understand that it is quite difficult to defend them on utilitarian, natural-rights, or, really, any other sort of rational grounds, without at least mentioning some of the obvious virtues of the encroaching evils. Prévost is considerably less diffident, but provides almost nothing in the way of proof. One must just see. Perhaps he is right to yearn for numerous cooperative village utopias. But his many pronouncements to the effect that a human activity is good just in case it is conducive to communitarianism are little more than liturgical chants to which parishioners will nod and non-believers will smile.

The second premise, which claims that certain types of music are more productive of communitarianism, is purely empirical, but again, though it is repeated numerous times, not much actual support is provided for it. It is easy to see how an unconstrained improvising ensemble might be taken to be more reflective of a town meeting or the ancient Greek democratic ideal than a symphony orchestra can ever be. After all, an orchestra would seem to consist of hapless, voteless mannequins ordered around not only by an autocratic conductor, but also by an absentee composer/puppeteer. But even if such an observation were valid, what would follow from it? Does like always flow from like? Isn't it possible that we could learn that communitarianism has sprung up in response to autocratic or "possessive-individualistic" art all over the globe, or that in those pockets where free improv has flourished, it is Randian individualism that has been the norm?

Prévost often slides from the fact that a certain piece of art is aleatoric or too loud or insufficiently free to the claim that it must "support" various cultural evils. But is mirroring (or depicting) always a form of support? And even if it were, can it really be seriously supposed that there is a positive correlation between the number of people who enjoy a harsh, assaultive piece of music and the number of voters that will support a harsh, assaultive government? Has the "alienation from self" allegedly engendered by either using or listening to a no-input mixing board on a concert stage actually encouraged a single person's fascist tendencies, or is this merely an unsupported Prévostian nightmare? If someone from a slightly earlier era were to claim that use of machine-made or mass-produced instruments is a sign of submission to crass consumerism, or that the striking of a defenseless drumhead with a wooden stick is hostile, desensitizing, and supportive of colonialism, wouldn't the younger Prévost have just smiled and shook his head? Wouldn't he ask, as I do now, "Where's the evidence for any of this?"

But let's suppose for a moment that Prévost is completely correct in both of his premises. Let's assume, that is, that additional music of precisely that type that Prévost himself has long created (with great distinction) is just the sort of thing to bring about the flourishing of a million communitarian points of light. Would it follow that this music was "best"? It would seem that one could ask of a particular piece, in spite of these conceded virtues, "Is it beautiful?"—and that the answer to this question might be relevant here. But in Prévost's world, this would simply be a reductivist error. He writes, "I think that it is difficult to support the idea that somehow art and politics are separate areas of discourse… The ethical, and thence political, priority surely should have an all-embracing dynamic… Economic and cultural values are not separate things." He supports Cardew's contention that one "would never want to" divorce any object's aesthetic qualities from "what it stands for". Admittedly, it is often hard to deny the relatedness of these matters: Think of Nazi propaganda movies or Soviet structuralist art. But is it true that they're entirely inseparable? Remember, if they are, the members of AMM must have been mistaken in their "abiding impression" that one ought to trust one's own "sensibilities" when hearing music and not confuse such reactions with "inappropriate paradigms of cultural confirmation".

It is of paramount importance when thinking about philosophical issues to remember that "everything is what it is and not another thing". This may seem obvious, but the repetitive confounding of "this is beautiful" with "this is virtuous" in works such as Prévost's shows how easy it is to forget it. I agree that music (or any art or technology) may be evaluated from a number of standpoints. Consider a pair of sneakers. (I thank saxophonist and occasional Prévost collaborator Nat Catchpole for this example, though he likely won't agree with the use I make of it.) We may wonder of these items: Will they hold up? Are they comfortable? Are they cheap? Were children exploited in their production? Etc. Each of these questions may be quite important to us, but each is also clearly distinguishable from all the others. And each needs to be approached and resolved separately if our answers are not to devolve into gibberish. If, at the end of the day, Prévost concludes that the determination should be made that sneakers are "good" if and only if they get at least a B- on all, say, fifteen criteria, I will have no quarrel with the basic operative theory, though I may, of course, disagree with his conclusions.

What must not be forgotten, however, is that we can also focus on just one of these fifteen criteria (e.g., "Are they nice looking?") and consider it alone, in isolation from all the others. It doesn't matter either that the sneakers were produced by such and such culture or that I was. Though both of those claims are certainly true, neither one prevents me from pondering this aesthetic question in isolation from all the other considerations, and, what's more, I very often do. That is, I, with all my history, linguistic limitations, background, education, conceptual scheme, economic precursors, etc., have a concept of what I call "beauty" (which has been molded, of course, by all that history), and I am capable of ascribing it or withholding it to this or that piece of music (with all its own various and sundry history). No doubt, the fact that I decide to ascribe or withhold this characteristic in a particular instance is, in large part, a function of my background, education, the prevailing economic system, etc. That may be undeniable, but it is also irrelevant to the point at issue here. What is important is that I can make this attribution in isolation from any consideration of (not "history involving") economics, politics or the like. In fact, to think about economics or politics or consumer culture is to think about things that are fundamentally different from "aesthetic" issues. And each branch of discourse has its own language, its own appropriate style of argumentation/support. We could call each a different "evaluative category".

Now, it's not that I believe that these politico-moral categories should never enter into any discussion of music, it's that I disagree with the view that they cannot or may not ever be excluded. When Prévost says these distinct items are inseparable, he's either wrong, or he means not that they are conceptually inseparable but something quite different, like that we're all a product of our histories, or that our social class has profound effects on our aesthetic judgments. Those sorts of claims aren't terribly controversial these days, and, at any rate, seem fairly obvious to me. But, involved or not as causes, politico-economic considerations are far from being part of any indivisible conceptual whole. In fact, they are usually not weighed at all in discussions of artistic merit. This is so whether or not it's the case that a vast amount of history must in some sense be "assumed" regarding the reader, writer and musicians in order for communication to occur.

Of course, Prévost might concede this point as an unimportant sophism and simply reply, "Well, even if you're right that what you're calling ‘aesthetic judgments' may be made without strict reference to economics or politics, they ought not to be. In fact, that's much of the point of my book: To clearly show that such divorcement is immoral and ought not to be continued." This, of course, is an explicitly moral claim, and should be adjudged accordingly. If he were to take this tack, Prévost's theory might be formulated to rest upon something like: Isolated considerations of "beauty" are bourgeois relics of an earlier, more naïve era. Such considerations ought to be strictly excluded from any determinations regarding what art is and is not "good". But is this right? (And does Prévost himself consistently adhere to it?) I think the answer to both of these questions is no.

That Prévost is not unambiguously behind the assertion that attributions of beauty don't matter can be seen from the purely aesthetic attacks he scatters around his book. According to the above manifesto, if some music is conducive of communitarianism, nothing else should really matter. Morality is all. But he can't seem to stick to that precept. In discussing a certain type of "presence" or "is-ness", he points out, "An attempt to make an unmediated connection with the world—presentness or is-ness—is very powerful in the best of [modern abstract expressionist] works. But it is not there in all of them." In fact, damningly, "it is often not present in the avant-garde musics of the electro kind". Again, Cagean music is derided as "dull" or "tediously similar"; other music is panned as "harsh", "assaultive", or otherwise unpleasant. On the other hand, Duos for Doris is described in turn as "fragile", "optimistic", "sinister", "compelling", "sublime".

But why should anybody care about these bourgeois considerations if the music in question is or is not a spur to communitarianism? In the passage that is, perhaps, the most symptomatic of Prévost's ambivalence on this matter of what counts as success in music-making we are given this: "An authentic improvisational setting is... a place where a real sense of creative cooperation and interaction can occur, with all its inherent frustrations and potential for failure. Yet despite whatever sounds and complexities of sounds emerge, it can never be a failure if musicians seek to use this medium openly and with creativity." But what is this "potential for failure" in an activity that "can never be a failure"? Haven't we already agreed that, in Prévost's favored settings, even if what is produced may fail as music, it will always succeed as reflection or spur. As Prévost says, "Whatever else, it becomes a chosen symbol of communitarianism." Presumably, this must be so even if the music is tedious, amateurish, puerile, or even unlistenable.

The thing is, whether preachers, political reformers, or parents like it or not, what listeners generally care most about (and what critics mostly write about) is, precisely, the first sort of success or failure mentioned above. That is, the focus of listeners usually stays largely on whether the music is dull, sad, harsh, sinister, touching, or sublime. And this, in my view, must also be the telos for creators of art—or their work will likely be discarded quite quickly. It is beauty that listeners are interested in and that has made AMM (as well as Keith Rowe's recent non-AMM collaborations) succeed where so many other ensembles have not. Very few purchasers of recordings or tickets should ever be expected to care too much about whether what they've bought is conduciveness to any particular political utopia. But should they care? It is my view that they need not: Partly because there's so little agreement on just what constitutes utopia, and partly because there's almost no evidence at all that styles of music-making have changed a damn thing on the heaven-on-earth front since the fall of Jericho. Musical methods have been much more affected by political power than effective in changing it. Finally, the enjoyment of beauty, like most types of enjoyment, is itself a good, so the burden remains on the school marms to prove why it must be bad for both listeners and the world at large when it occurs, e.g., at a big, loud concert hall.

If Prévost is correct, and I think he may well be, that a certain type of heuristic/conversational improvisation produces more rewarding, deeper and more likely to be repeated aesthetic responses than other types of music, he's on to something profound and important. That the best collaborative creations must have an intentional dimension—be more like dialogue than birdsong—is a controversial, and, I think, fascinating contention. And his argument that heuristic, conversational spontaneity in music, like the use of language in conversation, is "non-specific", is extremely significant. It implies not only that musical conversation need not be limited to call-and-response, but also that this approach need never be dispensed with over time—the apparent fate of several other methods of music-making. Free improv as an aesthetic methodology would be, in an important sense, timeless.

If Prévost can thus show that intelligent discourse among its creators in the process of making music (rather than at other times) is essential to a certain sort of consummate beauty, he will have achieved a great deal more than the vast majority of theorists in this arena. His insights and discussion of such topics are valuable and, alone, make this book worth buying. One can only wish he'd spent more time elucidating and supporting these illuminating assertions. Because much of the rest of Minute Particulars is, like so many country sermons, muddled, platitudinous, and wrongheaded.