As an introvert who grew up as a classical musician in Texas, I tend to apologetically assume that everyone in the world knows more about pop music and jazz than I do. For instance, I didn’t read Miles Davis’s incredible autobiography until I was in my 40s, while I assume any hip musician would have read it in his 20s if not earlier. (The fact that I was 34 when it was published does not allay my suspicion.) But it appears that not everyone knows the context in which Miles referred to classical music as “robot shit,” and the story – heavily underlined in my own copy of the book because it had so much relevance to my own experiences, and made me feel so good – is worth retelling as often as possible. The occasion was the recording of Davis’s and Gil Evans’s Sketches of Spain, for which they hired some classical brass players to play some of the background parts:
…I just went to Gil and told him, “Gil, you don’t have to write music like that. It’s too close for the musicians to play. You don’t have to make the trumpet players sound like they’re perfect, because these trumpet players are classically trained and they don’t like to miss no notes no how.” So he agreed with that. In the beginning, we had the wrong trumpet players because we had those who were classically trained. But that was a problem. We had to tell them not to play exactly like it was on the score. They started looking at us – at Gil, mostly – like we were crazy. They couldn’t improvise their way out of a paper bag. So they were looking at Gil like, “What the fuck is he talking about? This is a concerto, right?” So they know we must be crazy talking about “play what isn’t there.” We just wanted them to feel it, and read it and play it, but these first ones couldn’t do that, so we had to change trumpet players, and that’s why Gil had to reorchestrate the score. Next we got some trumpet players who were both classical and could feel….
Then we had to have some drummers who could get the sound that I wanted….
…Legit drummers can’t solo because they have no musical imagination to improvise. Like most other classical players, they play only what you put in front of them. That’s what classical music is; the musicians only play what’s there and nothing else. They can remember, and have the ability of robots. In classical music, if one musician isn’t like the other, isn’t all the way a robot, like all the rest, then the other robots make fun of him or her, especially if they’re black. That’s all that is, that’s all the classical music is in terms of the musicians who play it – robot shit. And people celebrate them like they’re great. Now there’s some great classical music by great classical composers – and there’s some great players up in there, but they have to become soloists – but it’s still robot playing and most of them know it deep down, though they wouldn’t admit it in public.
So you have to have a balance on something like Sketches of Spain, between musicians who can read music and play it with no feeling or a little feeling, and some others who could play with real feeling. I think the perfect thing is when some musicians can both read a musical score and feel it…. [pp. 243-244, emphases added]
Just like Downtown music. Just like Downtown music. Do you hear what I’m sayin’? JUST LIKE DOWNTOWN MUSIC. Not that you have to be able to improvise, but that you have to be able to feel a musical score, not just replicate the marks on the page.
And as for you, Mr. Edgard “Feel-sorry-for-me-I’m-a-misunderstood-genius” Varèse, you who insists that every note in a score has to have multiple dynamic and articulation marks on it: Why? To turn it into robot shit, to prevent musicians from deciding how they feel it. Because otherwise [in the most simpering possible French accent] “zey do not know how zay vant zere museek to soooooouuuuund.” Well, fuck you, Varése. Fuck you and your pseudo-scientific approach to music. (And while I’m at it – Octandre: nice piece.)
That felt good.