Friday, May 29, 2009

Lt. Columbo, LAPD Ethnography Division

Anyone who has had a conversation with me in the past few months knows that I have been avidly (compulsively) watching the original run of Columbo on Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” feature. Initially, the show was an escape from the doldrums of beginning fieldwork. I would come home during the wee small hours, after having sat in one or more jazz venues, silently looking around at folks, constantly telling myself to walk up and “make contact” (“Make contact, dammit!”), yet too self-conscious to make a move. What could be more therapeutic than sitting down with a cold beer to watch Columbo oafishly poke around until he gradually deciphers the murderer’s motive and method? It was at once a complete escape from my own troubles, and yet an oblique affirmation of my endeavor: here was someone who’s work depended on his roaming around and gathering information from people whom he barely knew.

More and more, I have come to view Lt. Columbo as my model ethnographer. Anthropologist John Jackson discusses his ethnographic alter-ego, “Anthroman” in his nuanced, writerly, and often richly humorous book Real Black. “Anthroman” was a persona Jackson could channel when the field-going got tough; becoming Anthroman was an elaborate self psyche-out he could use to feel less like himself and thus more courageous about doing his fieldwork. Jackson also mentions that he often asked himself the question: WWZNHD (“What would Zora Neale Hurston do?”) to help guide him when he felt at a loss in the field. I can claim with complete seriousness that I have often asked myself WWLCD (“What would Lt. Columbo do?”). Now I’m not saying that I walk around wearing a rumpled raincoat and chewing on a cheap cigar, imitating Peter Falk’s euphonious New York accent. But, when I manage to be courageous enough, when I can achieve the right combination of self-effacing politeness, persistence, and calculated ignorance, the “Columbo effect” sometimes works quite well.

(I am compelled to digress here for a moment to discuss this supposedly well-known “Columbo effect;” the popular notion of Columbo, I feel, does not do complete justice to the character as he existed on 1970s television. The Wikipedia article on the show rehearses these misconceptions:
Police Lieutenant Columbo is a shabbily-dressed, seemingly slow-witted police detective whose fumbling, overly polite manner makes him an unlikely choice to solve any crime, let alone a complex murder. However, his demeanor is revealed to be a complex put-on, designed to lull suspects into a false sense of security…

To me, there is nothing seemingly “slow-witted” about Columbo’s act. He can appear distracted, folksy, and excessively self-deprecating, but in most episodes the murderer has realized at least by the halfway mark that Columbo is no chump; often this realization comes much sooner. Egotistical murderers (always marked as upper-class – I’m sure someone has written about the class politics of the show) often get annoyed at just how pesky that little goofy detective can be, but they don’t quite seem to assume any incompetence on his part. To me the brilliance of Columbo’s approach lies in its winning combination of persistence and sincere courtesy. If you are really polite to people, they will often put up with more questioning and pestering than they would otherwise.

The lead-up to Columbo’s hallmark “Just one more thing…” device is also, I’ve realized, a paradigm of ethnographic inquiry. (For Columbo non-initiates, the detective will often conclude a seemingly meandering interview with a suspect or witness by suddenly remembering “one more question” he wanted to ask, which turns out to be a far more pointed, topical query than any he’s posed during the interview proper.) I’ve found that I have more relaxed and informative conversations, and ultimately get more interesting evidence if I don’t come out and ask the kinds of questions running through my head (e.g., “What do you listen for in this jazz recording you say you love so much?” or “How would you describe why this album means so much to you?”), but instead let the conversation/interview go where it will, often include my own opinions on things (non-jazz related too), and keep the interviewee guessing as to the themes/agenda of my questioning (I like to think of this last aspect as another performative fiction in action, since I myself often haven’t formed an idea about the “theme” of, or what I wish to find out during, said interview; so I just pretend I know what I’m getting at…)

So, am I putting on my informants, and thus engaging in ethical questionable behavior? Well, I guess my honest answer is “Yes and no.” First of all, as one informant and I agreed, “Everybody has a motive.” So why should an ethnographer be any different? Most of our interactions with other humans happen because someone wants something: your boss wants your labor-time, you domestic partner wants your attention, you want his/hers, you want a bus ride, the waiter wants your money, etc. Second of all, I again invoke Columbo. He manages to catch murderers without ever using abusive or coercive tactics (sure, he may sometimes play a trick that ensnares the murderer, but this trick usually relies upon the murderer’s own duplicitous behavior). He is consistently respectful, and dare I say, in his unassuming and clumsy demeanor, achieves a kind of rare dignity and even grace.

But I must define how Columbo serves as a model with greater precision, since I really do not try to trick people into sharing cultural knowledge with me; my hope is that this sharing is voluntary. Yet, even when I try to be as respectful, unassuming, and mild-mannered as possible, I often feel that there’s something confrontational about asking informants direct questions – it just makes me feel nervous and slimy at times. And it’s here that Columbo’s manner comes in handy, because I think it provides an example of how to minimize the confrontation implicit in any kind of questioning (even the ostensibly amicable interactions between the ethnographer and his/her informant). At his best, Columbo’s technique is about what remains unsaid, how he manages to get information and answers to his questions without ever uttering interrogative formations; if, as many have argued, ethnography is an art, then I contend that, had he existed in the “real” world and been an anthropologist, Lt. Columbo would have been one of its great virtuosos.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When Griff Was Great

I received Johnny Griffin's first Blue Note album, Introducing Johnny Griffin, in the mail today. It was recorded way back in 1956, with a great rhythm section: Wynton Kelly, Curly Russell, and Max Roach. Listening to this album has washed out a sonic bad taste that has been lingering for going on two years now. I heard Griffin live at Duke University in the fall of 2007, as part of Duke's "Following Monk" series dedicated to Thelonious Monk. Griffin was featured as a soloist with the Duke University Jazz Ensemble, and the program was heavy on Monk tunes.

Though I knew Griffin was 79 at the time, I did not know what to expect from him. His articulation was sloppy, he was dragging way behind the beat (which was never his style), his lines were short, his musical vocabulary limited. I withheld judgment, thinking that perhaps what I was hearing actually evidenced a reconception of style: a distillation, a paring-down that often occurs with elder jazz musicians. But after a few tunes, I had to admit it to myself: the Little Giant sounded finished. To be sure, on a slow blues (I think it may have been "Misterioso", but I can't be sure) he pulled out a few burly, bluesy lines befitting his beginnings in R&B - perhaps the soul was willing, but the body just not able. The audience at large reacted vociferously to these few, precious, beautiful lines of saxophone: large roars filled the hall. With them the crowd seemed to be saying, "Yes - we knew you still had it in you! That's Johnny Griffin! We remember you."

And that night, and the next day, I thought about what happens when musicians get old, when they lose their stuff. And how often this happens in the jazz world, and often fans get to hear it. Should one wish, one could put on the recordings Lester Young made in the last year of his life: the sound of a man barely able to blow enough air through the saxophone to produce a tone. One could also hear a strung-out, withered Chet Baker in the last years of his tumultous life, blowing ragged, weak trumpet. And such events become embedded in jazz lore in an unfortunately perverse way. The frailty of players and the diminution of their abilities are regarded sometimes with deluded romanticism, sometimes with morbid fascination, but rarely with the understanding that decrepitude can take hold, that these unsightly endings to the lives of such "legends" neither negate the pinnacles of what they've accomplished nor amplify whatever greatness they may possess. It also occurred to me that I have never read, at least within jazz scholarship, a serious discussion of the cultural dynamics around the passing and mourning of musicians.

I had this bad taste, as I call it, from that Johnny Griffin concert. While I'm glad that Introducing has helped wash out the taste, it wasn't that I wanted to forget the concert. It's just that I want to remember the Little Giant all over the changes, hyperactively edging ahead of the beat. Like others in Duke's Baldwin Auditorium, I applauded those few great blues lines Griffin mustered up to pay tribute, to tell him, "I know who you are, what you have accomplished." It was a very poignant moment, and one that made me glad I had attended the concert. Though not an especially satisfying moment musically, it was an eminently human one. For musical and aesthetic satisfaction, and to hear Griffin joyously ripping into a tune, I heartily recommend Introducing Johnny Griffin.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What We Talk About When We Talk About Music

The sophomoric nod to Raymond Carver aside, I do want to revisit this question with some degree of seriousness. It is a matter of not just academic interest for me (although that too), and it is one of the main questions behind my current fieldwork. I’ve recently read two pieces that raise the issue of listening to music and talking about that listening in complementary ways (Steven Feld’s near-classic essay “Communication, Music, and Speech About Music” and a long essay/short book by Peter Szendy titled Listen: A History of Our Ears).

Feld’s approach is very much that of an ethnomusicologist/linguistic anthropologist: he’s thinking about the social factors at play when a person listens to music, and then what's at play when this same person talks about that listening. Rather than seeing a primary meaning as being located within the sound/text of a musical work, he argues, we should understand meaning-making as a process that takes place in the mind of the listener. He discusses what’s happening when, for instance, US citizens listen to a remake of the “Star Spangled Banner” in minor, as opposed to the usual major: “A range of social and personal backgrounds, some shared, some complementary, of stratified knowledge and experience, and of attitudes (about anthems, songs in general, parodies in particular, politics in all cases) enters into the social construction of meaningful listening through interpretive moves, establishing a sense of what the sound object or event is and what one feels, grasps, or knows about it” (Feld, 89). So when people talk to each other about music, Feld claims, even when they stumble for words in these exchanges, they are making their listening experiences social.

Szendy, a philosopher and professor of aesthetics at Universite de Paris X, meditates on the idea of “sharing one’s listening.” For him, a major example of how listeners have made their listenings shareable, or even legible in the first place, is to document them in arrangements of pre-existing musical works. Now, though Szendy’s meditation focuses on the canon of Western art music (unapologetically so, I would say), I find his insights more broadly applicable. He writes about wanting to share his listening with others, because he feels that in the act of sharing his listenings really become his own: “…it is more simply as a listener that I want to sign my listening: I would like to point out, to identify, and to share such-and-such sonorous event that no one besides me, I am certain of it, has ever heard as I have” (Szendy, 3 [italics in orig.]). Please indulge me as I submit one more extended quote, since Szendy’s own prose is more poetic and efficient than any gloss I could attempt:
The listener I am is nothing, does not exist so long as you are not there. There or elsewhere, it doesn’t matter, so long as my listening is addressed to you. The listener I am [que je suis] can happen only when I follow you [je te suis], when I pursue you. I could not listen without you, without this desire to listen to you listening to me, not being able, since I am unable to listen to me listening… (Szendy,142)

Again, the sociality of listening, the desire to externalize interior thoughts and feelings – or is interior/exterior too simple-minded and dichotomous way to think about these things?

These passages from Feld and Szendy (among others in these two pieces) may well become rallying cries for me as I look and listen for evidence of why people listen to jazz and of what they listen for when they do listen. And as I then think about why they might (and often do) want to tell others what they heard, what they thought and felt about what they heard. And as I try to teach myself to hear the interplay of content (what they say) and form (how they say it) in their talk about listening, and how this talk communicates something of the stuff of their listening experiences. These passages have been swirling around in my mind, often bumping up against a concept that two of my informants have invoked, and about which they have had something to say: “the privacy of listening” or “listening as a private experience.” They both believe that deep, intense listening – the kind where you feel excited, moved, transported, stunned, the kind you remember for years afterward because you made sure to construct a narrative form of the experience that enables you to tell it to yourself (and maybe others) – is something that happens between oneself and musical sound, often sound issuing from a recording. They both mention how they’ve had these really amazing, overpowering moments of listening when they have been able to sit alone with themselves and give their attention to a recording by Cecil Taylor/Albert Ayler/Sun Ra/whoever and receive something in return, when they were able to commune if not with the minds/souls/bodies/beings who created the sounds (such a conviction implies a simplistic mysticism that would misrepresent their more complex spiritualistic and humanistic thinking) then at least with the materiality of the parts of these sounds that have been captured and preserved.

And so they’ve both told me that they think there is something deeply private, deeply interior about listening – but they’ve told me about that experience. I guess I want to place my informants’ thoughts and comments next to those of Feld and Szendy. I can’t figure out yet if my informants agree with, argue against, move in parallel or oblique motion to, or do something else to/with the ideas of Feld and Szendy. In telling me that they have had these private listening experiences, are they undermining their own statements? Are they making a claim about the sociality of privacy (e.g., “I want to see if you’ve had these same kind of feelings when listening intensely; I want to see if this ‘private’ feeling is something we all share”)? Are they merely spouting rhetorical manifestations of what amounts to a form of aesthetic false consciousness? [I’m thinking here of Jonathan Sterne’s convincing discussion of how ideas of hearing as a sense allowing for “pure interiority” have their roots in Christian theology (Sterne 2002, 14-19).] Yet how can my informants’ experiences be false? What right have I to discount, denigrate, or moreover deny these experiences? Perhaps they mean to parse the difference between the incommunicability of the experience itself and the communicable statement that “We have all had similar incommunicable listenings.” While they seem to say, “You cannot know my listening, you can never touch it and feel it the way I have,” they also seem to say, “You can touch and feel the knowing that you and I have both had these private experiences of our own.”

So, to reformulate the question implied by the title of this post, “What do we talk about when we talk about the privacy, and possibly the profound unspeakability, of deep listening?”

Monday, May 4, 2009

Getting Back On(Off) the Wagon

Okay, okay. I know, if I'm going to maintain a blog of any respectability, I need to post with some regularity...more than once a year, anyhow. In the interest of achieving that goal, and also as a way to get me to begin to formulate some of my thoughts about my dissertation project, I'm going to begin to share some thoughts about my research (we'll see how long this lasts - hopefully at least 4 weeks).

I've been going to hear jazz performances quite often here in NYC since the middle of January. More and more, I find myself going to performances of - call it what you will - "free jazz" "avant garde jazz" "out jazz" "creative music" "experimental jazz". This has been a large part of my ethnographic fieldwork so far. (If you're thinking, "Wow...what difficult work" with a wry grin on your face, you are not alone.) My most regular hangout has been the Local 269 - a bar on E Houston St, a bit west of Avenue B. They're hosting a weekly Monday-night session organized by RUCMA (Rise Up Creative Music and Arts) that often features stalwart NYC free players (check out the schedule here: ). I'm finding some ethnographic "gold" here - a group of regular audience members (including musicians) who convene here, and who know one another.

I've also been trying to figure, as I go along, what the hell fieldwork is. I try to take notes (in my not-so-slick little maroon-covered notepad, with part of its price sticker still left on, due to my laziness and unwillingness to completely scrub the sticker off), but I constantly wonder if what I'm writing down will help me write up good fieldnotes, and if those fieldnotes will be at all usable when I start trying to write dissertation chapters. I'm also constantly plagued by feelings of self-consciousness about the presence of the notepad itself ("Are people looking at what I'm writing? Did I offend that guy sitting near me by glossing him as 'mid-age, white male - nodding head vigorously'? Are those even worthwhile observations for me, the researcher?" Thankfully, the following book tells me I'm not alone in these feelings:
This is a kind of "chicken soup for the ethnographer's soul." It presents an email correspondence between a grad student "in the field" and one of her committee members back at the university. They talk about things like: feeling awkward when talking to informants, doubting that you're actually finding anything out, feeling stupid when you realize that your original questions and research plans are turning out to be beside the point, etc. I recommend it (as my advisor did for me) to anyone who's about to set out on ethnographic fieldwork.