The following interview took place at John Wyre’s home in Norland, Ontario on August 2, 1996. This is the first time it has ever been published.
Bill: What do you see as the current musical environment? What kinds of things are going on that are likely to influence the course of music?
John: In my perception the big power in the evolution of music now is the development of a world music through the integration of all the traditional musics in the world along with all the traditions of classical, folk music, jazz, pop, rock. All these established traditions are now embracing all the other musics of the world, the musics that heretofore we weren’t aware of but because of our ability to explore, collect and disseminate information so rapidly, I see a world music beginning to evolve through the integration of all these traditions. The variety of musical formats out there is so varied and so inspiring that my mind’s blown every time I hear a new tape. And, we’re just scratching the surface now. I see music students maybe even eventually abandoning the traditional education and just traveling and hanging out with this tradition and then hanging out with that tradition, and maybe when they reach their forties and fifties, coming up with something unique as a result of the variety of experiences that turn them on, rather than the goal-oriented kind of approach to education that we had of playing in an orchestra or doing studio work or playing in a jazz band. I don’t think that young talent is going to be going that route in the future. So I think the evolution of a world music is probably the most powerful change that I feel swept up by.
B. Am I correct in assuming that when you say “world music” you don’t mean a common music to everyone in the world, but rather an openness to accept all of the diversity of music in the world. In other words, in “world music” we’re not talking about a single style of music, we’re talking about an openness that accepts the diversity of styles and embraces them all, and yet still acknowledges the differences. Am I correct in that?
J. You’re correct in assuming that I’m not anticipating or hoping for or witnessing the evolution of one single kind of music that will be called, “earth music” or something like that. But, I see a potpourri of integrations here taking place that eventually will lead to a lot of new musics. You get a musician from Madagascar hanging out with someone from Zimbabwe and someone else from Brazil and someone else from Korea, and all of a sudden you have a quartet putting music out that’s never been heard before. And, maybe that band’s going to hang out with a string trio or some hot jazz trumpet player or a concert cellist who’s letting go.
B. Do you think that the result of that on all the cultures, including Western culture, will be the loss of the identities that now exist. In other words, whenever you have something new emerging, you usually have something else that’s being put to rest. So, where do you see the balance in your mind in what’s going on now as to which kinds of things are likely to be put to rest or will change – they won’t exist the way they exist now?
J. Whether we like it or not everything is changing and everything is always in transformation, and sometimes we can accept it and go with it and sometimes we fight it. There are tons of people out there who are fighting it, who are documenting things, who are historians, who are going to be playing Renaissance music forever. And, that’s fine. There are museum aspects of our ability to document and I don’t see the disappearance of musics, although some will, as much as I am inspired by what comes out of this that’s new and evolving. I don’t see it as a threat to what’s there. I think our ability to hang on to what’s there is just ingrained in us, almost to detriment. We have to fight sometimes to let go of these traditions in order to explore, and I would say that one of the jobs of an artist is to challenge these habit patterns and get us to open up to new horizons. I don’t know if I would even concern myself with balance, in terms of what has been and what’s coming up in the future, to allow my own experience, which grew up in the traditions of the past, to mix with all this new information and new inspiration and hopefully be able to flow with some of the changes and transformations and let it blossom into something and still feel attached to what came before.
B. What challenges – the most significant of which you stated is a cross-cultural influence that’s happening on an accelerated basis – do these changes present for performers, and also what challenges do they present for audiences and how are performers going to be dealing with those issues? You’ve certainly been doing it and you’re right at the forefront of it. Let’s assume that you’re talking to young people coming into the business now and that they want to perform music live rather than in a studio. What are the issues facing the performers in working with audiences in this environment.
J.I don’t know if the challenges for the performer are going to change a lot.The challenges that I face are usually self motivated and come from the limits of my own character, my own abilities, my own laziness, my own workaholic-ness, or my own whatever.That’s something that no matter what kind of music I’d be involved in, no matter what the influences were externally – in terms of a variety of inputs from the new musics and the new cultures that I’m being influenced by – I’m not sure that that’s going to change that a lot, although I’ll certainly have access to a lot more color, a lot more dress, a lot more movement, dance, drama, that seems to be a part of the music of other cultures.We tend in our Western culture to put music on a pedestal on a stage – eliminate the dance, eliminate the drama – and just have notes for notes’ sake.So I think that’s going to loosen up, and it might help us to loosen up as performers.It might be the job of future performers to have more of that together – to feel freer to dance, freer to use the visual in the way they dress and present themselves, to give the audience something that’s stimulating, unique or different.I think along with the new rhythms, the new sounds, the new harmonies, the new freedom from harmony, the new modes, all of these new musical and theoretical approaches comes the movement and visual presentation of that music as well which people are going to get into.The young player’s are going to absorb a lot more than we’ve had to.
B. I’d like to pick up more on this visual thing. I’ve read that one of the biggest things affecting classical concert audiences is the high quality of compact disc and sound systems available today where you can sit in your living room and pick one of over a hundred versions of say, Vivaldi’s The Seasons , and you can have an absolutely flawless performance right there. You don’t even have to get out of your bath robe, and you can sit comfortably with a glass of wine. I’ve heard it said that the challenge for live performers is not in the music but in presenting the music in a way that makes it really distinguishable from sitting in your living room and listening to it. That sort of corroborates what you were saying about having to think about presentation in another way – visually. Do you think maybe audiences in general expect to see something in a performance now, as opposed to the older model which was simply that you just go and listen – you don’t really think a lot about how the performer or the performance looks?
J.I think, for the most part, audiences today want to be entertained, and they want to be entertained, I’msorry to say, in a very strong electronic way.I think this will make the acoustic experience of music very rare and very precious, and personally, that’s where I want to go; one,because the electronic energy in music I don’t view – physically for me – as something that’s very healthy.After forty years in drumming I’m starting to lose my hearing to the point where loud music is starting to bug me.I think that the audience will increasingly want that physical experience and that volume level.
B. They do now.
J.They want it now, and I think increasingly they’ll want it.When the generation of people who grew up with headphones makes their entry into the concert hall experience, if they don’t get a monster sound in their ears and in their total body they’re not going to come to concerts.It might be necessary for some people to even go beyond that and go into some kind of rehab situation where they learn to appreciate acoustic sounds again.It will be a rare experience for them when they come across it and it might blow their minds.It might help them to go on an inner journey that allows them to explore their inner being more, rather than to be kicked around and bathed by this physical rush that’s coming from a hundred-thousand watts worth of speakers on-stage – plus the visual excitement, the lights, the smoke pots, the fireworks, and everything else that can come.That spectacle kind of energy that’s a part of every major production these days I’ve become bored with now.One of the reasons that I live in such a quiet kind of environment is that it balances my work.
B. You mentioned that audiences want a certain spectacle aspect. Let me give you another quote that was made over 10 years ago by the actor John Houseman who spoke at the National Press Club in 1987: “audiences want hits.” Was he right?
J. The way I would interpret that statement it implies sound bites, quick doses of entertainment, it involves a lot of change, fashion. It involves something that’s popular, that the mass of society identifies with, so when you sit down at work you can say, “have you heard such-and-such” and if you haven’t heard “such-and-such” you’re not with it. That’s a part of this.
B. Is he right? Is that what audiences want?
J. I think there are a lot of people who want that. The industry people want that as well. There is an awful lot of what we hear that’s been shaped by ‘product’, by the media, by the TV remote control as our attention span gets shorter and shorter. People enjoy fast changes and short tunes, so that if they don’t like one, they don’t get too bored with it, and something else comes along. Something eventually will come along that will tickle their fancy and they’ll be happy. So, it’s possible that the future will be so indeterminate, because of the magic box that someone has in their hands, that if you don’t nail within the first ten seconds, you’re gone; you’re history, and something else is in their dream department. But, I’ve got ultimate faith in the diversity of humanity to the point where I think there will always be a place for the great variety of musics that will evolve. It’s just a part of human nature to need a variety of stimulation.
B. One thing that occurs to me is that there will be audiences for music that’s not ‘hits’. There will always be ears for whatever is created. The issue for the person who wants to be a professional performer is whether there will be enough of those people to make a living from it, or whether you will have to subsidize it through other things that you do. I think that’s always been the issue for the artist anyway. It’s finding a balance between serving your own soul and being true to yourself and at the same time trying to serve those with whom you’re communicating by giving them a communication that’s not only honest, but comprehensible to them – in other words, taking care of your own needs while at the same time being sensitive to the needs of other people out there.
J. As we get older we see the need for balance, but I don’t know many musicians that are very balanced people. Most of us approach things with an obsession and are so seduced by the art form that we go with it.
B. Is that healthy?
J. I think it’s realistic to see that that’s the way artists function. If you’re into something that’s very esoteric, then your audience is going to be small, whether it’s the music of NEXUS, whether it’s jazz, whether it’s Renaissance music. All of these have small audiences. But, there are people who love this music and create it, and there’s an audience. No matter what the music is, if you believe in it and play it from the heart, you’ll find an audience. I don’t think that I would consider pursuing something because I knew the audience would like it, particularly in making creative decisions about what I want to do, but I would be realistic enough as I get older to throw in the need to consider how one presents music and to consider the audience certainly.
B. I’d like to read this quotation, “In our culture the idea of art in service to anything is anathema. Service has been totally deleted from our view of art.” Should art and music serve any purpose in society?
J. Personally I feel an affinity with the ancient Chinese saying: “the bird does not sing because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song.” In a very abstract way I can say that I feel close to that statement. But, I also see myself motivated by life experiences in a way that’s explicit enough to render protesting and injustice in a song, or declaring my love in a song, or taking a real life experience and sharing it with someone else.
B. How do you reconcile these differences?
J.I’m happy when something inspires me or motivates me to work, and that motivates me to express myself, and to reach out and touch somebody, and communicate with somebody.I don’t really consider all that other stuff.It’s just not in my mind.If I sit here and intellectually consider the question, I would say I have more of an affinity with the Chinese quote, that art is not a sermon.I feel like we’re coming through an era where a lot of people have believed and taught and promoted that art has a very strong social, political or religious message.As you mentioned, traditionally art has been used in many ways to extraordinary, glorious, and uglyends.Look at all the amazing requiems that are phenomenal pieces of music.Look at the art that has been done in the name of God – amazing creations that have unfolded through the human spirit in its search for meaning or in its search for some explanation of this experience we call life.
B. Speaking of God, this leads me to a question about so-called “modernism” in art. If modernism is defined as the art of the Twentieth Century, from the turn of the century into the 1970s and 1980s, in which artists created “art for art’s sake” – not for God’s sake, or some patron’s sake or some emperor’s sake, then, ‘modernist’ artists were basically creating for themselves and for each other, and not really caring so much about anyone else. The job of the people who were supporting the ‘modernist’ arts was to try to appreciate what artists were saying, and then sort of tag along. One criticism of modernism (as just defined) in the visual arts, is that artists have painted themselves into a corner, where they have talked amongst themselves so much that they’ve stopped communicating with other people. They became so isolated that the public doesn’t understand what they are doing and doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. There are parallels to this situation in music too, not only with the people who create so-called “contemporary (classical) music” – that is to say, composers – but also with the people who perform music, having maybe lost touch with something – I don’t know if I can say exactly what. If this is true, maybe this relates to the quote, “In our culture, the notion of art being of service to anything is anathema.” Maybe this means that art simply became something that served the artist’s own needs, and no one else’s.
J.I’ve never been inspired or seduced by the concept that creative work needs to be something that’s never ever been done or said or heard before – if that’s even possible.I’m happy when I’m working.I’m happy when I’ve done something, and I’m happy when something that I’ve done reaches out to people and I get feedback that says, “yes!”
B. I think the issue might be the feedback issue. What I read into the concept that artists may have painted themselves into a corner, is that they’ve stopped listening to general feedback, and listen only to feedback from people with the same special interest as their own. If you look at doctors, lawyers, people in the sciences and in other specialized professions – through what is published in their magazines – many of them are saying the same thing has happened to them – that they became so enamored of what they were doing amongst themselves that they isolated themselves from the larger context. That’s the issue – that the feedback comes from a smaller and smaller group of people until you’re in a corner.
J. This is what happens when we attach too much importance to what we think and what we believe. We go through cycles of feeling that we’ve found an answer, or that we find people we share an idea with – particularly when we’re younger.
B. You don’t see that as a fundamental consideration with the state of (art) music today – that creators are isolated and can’t communicate?
J. There will always be artists that are isolated. There will always be artists that are into things so esoteric that we will wonder what the hell they are doing. There are times when anyone involved in the creative process is going to find that what they are doing is a little too introspective, or a little too abstract. I don’t think that it’s something I spend time thinking about, although I do know that as soon as I make a commitment to a thought or idea or plan, I immediately have some experience in my life that just crushes it.
B. That makes you rethink?
J. Yeah. Nothing’s ever turned out the way I planned, so I stopped planning. If I say “this is what truth is”, I immediately discover something that blows that away. The concept of attaching too much importance to what you think is an interesting one to consider, but not for too long. I remember Karel Ancerl in rehearsal one day in orchestra responding to some musician who made a snide remark, by saying “Don’t believe everything you think.” I thought it was a beautiful thought, so I wrote it in the part so I’d be reminded of it the next time we played that piece.
B. I’d like to pick up on quote by Thomas Moore, a writer with a background in music and psychology, who wrote a book called “Care of the Soul “. This relates to my own perception that people who are winning auditions in orchestras and also people going into other fields – younger people – tend to be very highly technical in their outlook. Rather than from a soulful or heart-felt love of the music, there seems to be more of an enamored attachment to the technique of playing the instrument. Maybe the focus on technical matters is a way of thinking about one’s self, rather than focusing on the music, which is a way of getting outside of yourself. The quote goes, “As the poets and painters of centuries have tried to tell us, art is not about the expression of talent or about the making of pretty things. It’s about the preservation and containment of soul.”
J. There are people who are more technically oriented or gifted that way than others, and there are people who are more intuitive, motivated by feelings, and more capable of communicating those feelings than people who are technically proficient or inspired to be perfect.
B. Do you sense a trend one way or the other, or is it about the same as it’s always been?
J. I don’t sense that that’s changing. There are artists who come along that seduce us completely because of what they feel. They reach out and touch us with a meaningfulness in every note that they play, whether it’s a right note or a wrong note. Then there are artists that come along and play perfectly and dazzle us, like a wizard with the instrument, but might come across occasionally with a bit of lacking warmth or feeling, and there might be something to that. But, to get to this quote at one level, I wouldn’t agree with it because it’s simply trying to communicate something that’s not communicable. It’s attaching too much importance to a concept. If I buy into that concept I’m going to be stuck there. It’s like digging a hole and putting your head in it. It just doesn’t move me. One would have to define soul. One would have to figure out and agree on what that meant, for one thing, in order to deal with that statement, and I’m not sure I want to touch that. Again, it brings up a concept that I don’t think is worth exploring.
B. That’s interesting to me, because if there’s anyone whose playing is an expression of soul, I would say it’s your playing. I generally think of soul as being true to one’s self without pretense of any kind and without extraneous influences.