how my honk bands work

October 4, 2021
In a sense, we work backward, either consciously or unconsciously, creating work that fits the venue available to us. That holds true for the other arts as well: pictures are created that fit and look good on white walls in galleries just as music is written that sounds good either in a dance club or a symphony hall (but probably not in both). In a sense, the space, the platform, and the software "makes" the art, the music, or whatever. After something succeeds, more venues of a similar size and shape are built to accommodate more production of the same. After a while the form of the work that predominates in these spaces is taken for granted--*of course* we mainly hear symphonies in symphony halls.
David Byrne, "How Music Works"
I've thought about this passage, or at least this book as the source of similar sentiment, often over the years, and was surprised to see I hadn't placed it in my common place blog before.

Currently I'm using it to bolster a defence of bands I'm in; I'm getting some heat from one of its members that it's not taking the music seriously enough.

But I think the idea that music is shaped by the space is mirrored by how it's also shaped by who shows up. My HONK! music tends towards the motley. Not just activist bands, but open community bands who will try to work with people at all levels and from all backgrounds - and, which might be the sticking point, doesn't necessarily demand a lot of time "woodshedding". (Maybe this reflects my own laziness about practicing. I've always coasted on tuba parts being less technical and my own constantly being in about 4 bands at once, and so I'm maybe too reluctant to tell people they need to hunker down.)

So we have a mix of people who maybe just had music-as-an-elective in high school and college and are getting back to it, or even some people who just started with ear training School of Honk, against, like, lapsed escapees from Berklee. We draw music influence and sometimes charts from lots of places (probably especially other HONK bands...) in the NOLA street tradition and trad jazz and maybe a little klezmer and African and Central/South American and Caribbean - like in a way it reflects a beautiful patchwork society. I mean not as much as we'd like at times- achieving diversity and looking like the less-gentrified parts of neighborhoods we're in is a challenge. Like if you're trying to frame most music as being of a culture, our is more loosely knit than many other traditions that come from a specific community - like, progressive liberals, often white, who live in small atomic families, often are living far from where they grew up, and who dig on bringing in lots of musical influences to their playing.

I've always thought that musical performance is usually leaning either towards connecting with crowds or impressing other musicians. The best can of course do both, but in a world of part-time musicians, I think it's ok to focus on the former more than the latter. "3 chord wonder" punk bands could rock the hell out of their venues! And while that's not who we are or what we do, I think it's a good reminder that even simpler music can be emotionally resonate.

I'm always going to worry that I'm not being harsh enough with the band, that maybe it could benefit from more tough love on demanding practice, more careful tuning, work on intonation, emphasis on dynamic, and thoughtful design of percussion. And my fundamental inability to judge critically (something that's really fundamental to my temperament, but that's a different story) is some of why I usually shy from an official role of "leader" - along my usual preference for consensus over top-down authority. (Also, I used to hold the idea that HONK bands - like my high school marching band - must always shun music stands, but have come to learn to split our repertoire into stuff we can march around with and pieces we will be stationary for, I think a decent compromise)

And we've lost a few of the "escapees from serious musical pursuit" players who get frustrated with the group, see its level as more of a ceiling than a floor. It's a bummer when that happens, because it's usually a loss acoustically and pedagogically , and of course I get filled with second-guessing. But still, I'm pretty happy with what my bands are able to do and the community they bring to my life and the chance to have musical fun for myself and others.