Sunday, April 20, 2003

Grateful Dawg

Last night I watched most of Grateful Dawg, a documentary about the musical collaboration of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman over the years. They talked a lot about how they would continually bring both new and old music into their playing. There was a part where they talk about listening to a lot of old whaling songs, one of which they play in the movie. Deborah Koons Garcia talks about how this type of music represented a way of bringing 'real life' into Jerry's 'performing life'. It's not the greatest film cinematographically but there's a lot of fine music and it's a pleasure to see these consummate musicians up close and personal.

A few reflections relative to KA from this. One is, as a musician myself, to see how much and how deeply the playing of and listening to music saturates their lives, as much as they get older as in their younger days, made me want more of that. I'm not playing with anyone regularly these days, and just listening is so indirect. Grisman and Garcia would get together and play just for the joy of playing, whether it was hanging around one of their houses, sitting in a recording studio, rehearsing with one of their bands, or performing; all counted equally, what mattered was the playing -- the doing of the art. One of the other musicians talks about Garcia singing the whaling song, how in every performance of any song he would evoke something, bring the people he was with into that evocation. This was constant, like every playing was a return to or revisiting of something that winds through all music and human history -- it is the way to get to that something, it can't be gotten to intellectually or in the abstract, or for that matter without the effort and devotion, or committment, it takes to get there. Watching them play their instruments -- the instruments themselves look almost silly or arbitrary in a way, a mandolin in and of itself doesn't represent anything; it's a vehicle to bring a representation, or a piece of a representation, into being, into presence.

And that made me think about how much of KA has to do with reuse and recurrence, with a commitment to one's instruments so that one is able to -- not *create* a representation so much as revisit one, or bring one back into existence, informed by the exigencies of the present moment. These musicians played mostly old music and compositions by others, and each performance not only seemed to enshrine and respect the original composition and its own roots, but also seem completely in the present moment, completely made by the circle of musicians playing at that moment, completely fresh and authentic, no less so for being drawn from the past and from others' work. These poles -- the past and the present -- are not in opposition, they can be made to be in harmony and synchrony.

This idea seems very foreign in corporate/organizational life -- everything is always talked about and addressed as only in the present. History plays almost no direct, acknowledged role (except in the "we've always done it this way" sense). What is absent is the sense of what has shaped the artifacts and structures at work in the present. And the consequence of this is (paradoxically) so much of the response to present situations seems stale, or at least lacking in inspiration and nuance. We're not sufficiently connected to what is past, not sufficiently connected to a discipline of evoking that past, so therefore we are not able to act fully in the present. One of the thrusts of KA is to provide a means and a discipline of bringing what mattered into the past into the present moment, without losing its original significance, but applying and integrating that significance into the present. We have no shared means for doing this; everything is at the level of the individual and what they do, say, and perhaps remember.

I have experienced, at times, with Compendium this interweaving of present and past, with nuance and fresh expression, done in a communal sense (that is, not the product of one individual). The role of the knowledge artist at those times is not to own or create the interweaving, but rather assist in bringing it into being; without that assistance it's likely to stay mute and unevoked. I've experienced this with music as well -- at the peak moments, what matters is not the artistry and expertise of the original musicians but what they help to bring into being at those moments, that goes way beyond the individual and their personality to some sort of deep multi-faceted connection. And it seems to matter deeply at those moments, as deeply as anything else, so much so that sometimes even the memory of that moment brings one out of the mundane months or years later. We get pushed beyond our usual sense of what is possible and acceptable to something greater and fuller, and we seem to achieve it, if just for a few moments (this makes me think of the Matisse/Picasso exhibit -- what's amazing about some of those paintings is that they are still able to evoke this, at least in some dim sense -- engaging with the painting brings us out of the mundane into something larger and deeper, something that needs to be taken into account. Another connection, which I loved in that exhibit, was similar to Garcia and Grisman -- these artists met when they were young and continued to make their art, separately and together, on through their lives. This is something I don't want to lose).