Some Thoughts On Variety In Style and Scale




Maybe it has something to do with variety shows. Back in the stone age of my youth, there were these things called variety shows. The idea probably goes straight back to vaudeville: if you don't like this act, stick around, because in five minutes there'll be something totally different you may like. Something for everybody. There were lots of these shows on TV, day and night. The concept was commonly accepted, and seemed to imply that there was a certain level of validity across the board from pop singing to plate spinning. Almost nobody I know liked everything offered, but the people in charge never seemed to put across the idea that the trained dog act and the guy with the talking hand shouldn't have been on the same show with Robert Goulet and the Doors.


Maybe it has to do with the general eclecticism of the era in which I had my formative years, in which the hybridization of music and culture, and the discovery of things outside one's own frame of reference was touted as a good thing. (Within certain unspoken limits). This was the view that thoroughly infected my environment (and certainly not only mine), between, say, '65 and '75.


Maybe it has to do with the Beatles. They went from (deceptively) simple songs, to "world music", then to full-on avant-garde musical experimentation and finally back again; and in their time they were viewed by many as the center and barometer of the musical world. This provided a strange sort of validation- if they did it, then it must be OK. (I'm well aware that not everyone felt this way, and I don't say that this kind of "following" is necessarily a good thing. But for many, it kicked open a lot of doors they might otherwise have passed without ever looking into. Which, in my opinion, is a good thing.) For most of my childhood, the Beatles were an ever-present, ever-respected, unchallenged icon. And they grew and took chances, with everyone watching.


Maybe it has to do with, of all things, AM "Boss" radio. Tom Jones and the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Who and Glen Campbell and the Amboy Dukes and Bobbi Gentry and Steppenwolf and Jimi Hendrix and Paul Mauriat and his orchestra and Otis Redding and the Supremes. All in the space of an hour, with lots of artists left out of that list. Of course there were records being brought into the home too- but this was the the musical wallpaper of an era, and a very wildly diverse wallpaper it was.


Maybe it has to do with the import bins, used records and the last great days of vinyl. When I started really exploring music and began collecting it, I could have had no better help than the used bins, where for very little money (important to a teenager), I could sample a very wide variety of music, with little risk. If I didn't like it, I could always sell it back and lose very little (and I would consider this a "rental fee"). Imports were a riskier proposition, being the most expensive of vinyl; but some stores were very patient, and I would spend hours just looking at the records, reading the covers, learning new things, all the while keeping a checklist of what I really wanted to find out about. Sometimes the clerks would even have copies of some of these on hand and put on a side or two so I could check them out. And if it was really spectacular, the used records went back and the whole wad went to one import album. Some days I managed to do both. I did this as often as I could and discovered there seemed to be no end to things to discover, musically.


Maybe it has to do with soundtracks that had a mix of conventional score and pop songs, maybe it was getting exposed to classical music, blues and big band at the same time as everything else and being told it was all good, maybe these and a million other possibilities.


Whatever the reason, by many accounts I am warped. I just can't be satisfied with one way of listening, or one type of thing to listen to. Subsequently my musical output is as varied as my taste.


Perhaps I'm overstating the case; few people are entirely happy with one way or one style. Most people need at least two.


But for me, polymorphous enjoyment applies also to my taste in reading, film, food, art...etc. This has been the case for most of my life, for most things in my life, with some significant learning experiences along the way making my range of interest wider, and my openness to different perspectives greater. Which may sound very admirable when you read it, but in practice it confuses people. So I'd like to share a few thoughts about where I see people draw the line, and what I think of that; and in the process perhaps explain a bit about how I see things. Then maybe what I do will make more sense to those puzzled. (If she were reading over my shoulder, my friend Emily, who is a writer and editor, would be giving me a hard time right about now: "Don't apologize! Stop explaining yourself! Let them figure it out!" I would have to reply: While it's about me, it also isn't about me- which is the only reason anything public is ever worth doing.)


Let's start with style; and let's start with the analogy of food. Would you eat one or two types of food only? Some would, I guess; I wouldn't. But few people think it's odd if you eat a very wide variety of food. The reverse may actually be true: if all you ever ate was Mexican or Chinese, that would seem unusual. (Unless you lived in Mexico or China!) This is probably the most common place for people to have a wide taste range, and for it to be considered normal.


A little further down the line is viewing material- TV and movies. Here you can start to see tastes narrow. But it's still not that unusual for someone to enjoy comedy, drama, possibly documentary, and at least one or two "genre" type things: science fiction, horror, westerns, action films, and so on. Most people have a wider taste range here than they even realize. And it's really not considered that strange to watch a pretty wide variety of things.


Still further down is reading, since not as many people do it. Everyone eats and most people watch some kind viewing of material, whether movies or television. Reading isn't essential to survival and takes more effort than watching something, so it necessarily will have fewer people doing it. What you find by this point is that a lot of people will find it commendable that you're even making the effort to read, regardless of what it is; that fact alone amazes some people. But if they then look at your shelves and see a really wide range of topics, or see you with a Stephen King book one day and a book about physics and holographic paradigm research the next, they don't really know what to make of that. At this level, the mystery starts to creep in.


Last is art. Many people don't even like the word. I'll clarify: for this, let's just say visual, musuem-type art. This area, all by itself, is taboo or forbidding to some. This may have to do with its caretakers and the cultural aura surrounding it. (Large segments of the public aren't alone in being put off by this; lots of artists have disliked it too. In somewhat recent history you can start with the Impressionists and move on from there. The ironic thing is, the mystique and enshrinment is self-perpetuating and assimilates every successful revolution, so that the rebels become the role models, and their art becomes advertisement for the very type of people and behaviors it was produced in rebellion against. Then comes the third wave: the frightening place where rebellion and enshrinement have kissed, made up and are hot in bed together- the chic rebellion, planned that way from the start. Much commercial culture- ESPECIALLY music- has embraced this; has been operating on this level for years; and is surrounded with a series of logically contradictory protective traps against its critics. These traps are as pernicious and ugly as any knee-jerk political or social taboo. Fertile essay ground but I'm already way off track here- this is a topic for later.) For people who are comfortable with art, comfortable enough with the concept to say at very least that they know what they like, the enjoyment of variety seems a bit less odd. So art is only last here because it's the least frequented place on the scale. In terms of accpetance, it's a step back in a more varied direction. It's very common for people to enjoy realism and hate abstraction, or vice-versa. Even so, it's still not all that unusual for people to like some of both, and even for them to see some value or beauty in the aesthetics of other cultures. So for the sake of our metaphor, it's already so unusual for someone to be actively interested in art that very few people would be surprised by a wide taste range. And yet some will be. Even me; when I first saw portions of Vincent Price's collection (in a book- never got to meet him), I was amazed by how much territory it covered. Amazed, a little awestruck, not entirely sharing that range or comprehending what it took to really feel it- but admiring. And what a huge range it was: he had totem poles and African masks, tiny rennaissance etchings of amazing realism, and huge modern abstracts far too messy even for my liking. Years later, down a road filled with discovery and a widening acceptance, I took a look at that book again and the range of his collection made more sense to me, as I had grown into an acceptance and appreciation of many more styles. Familiarity didn't change the fact that I still admired it. I always will.


I had a similar experience when the place I worked at as a janitor during my teens received a donation of thousands of books from a guy named William Festa. It was his dying wish they be donated to this place, which was supposed to be a center for teens, but now the only ones who frequented it were sent there by the court for mandatory counseling or community service. The small library they had there was way too small to house all the books, so I was asked to help the librarian sort through them all. She decided what made the cut, and she told me that since the rest were getting thrown out, I could take as many of those as I wanted to. Looking through the books, I found it difficult to believe these could all be the property of one man, that he was interested in so many subjects. I made some flip remark about it being really weird that this guy liked so many things. The librarian, a nice grandmotherly woman named Betty, suddenly looked at me very sternly and put me straight. "Not weird", she said- "brilliant. Cultured. He was a man who always wanted to know more, who was open to to new ideas." Then, with emphasis, possibly because I seemed unsure of what to say: "He enjoyed a lot of things. That's good. That's not weird. We should all be more like Mr. Festa." I swallowed hard and felt both shame at my comment and amazement at the door she, and the bygone Mr. Festa, had just opened for me. It was as though someone had just given me an unrestricted license to explore, to reach out into the world and fear no preconceived boundaries. It's something I knew was worthwhile from experience, knew it on a very deep level, but wasn't always supported in. I didn't see much of that in the world- there was always something that supposedly wasn't cool to check out. I'd always suspected that was bullshit but lacked the courage to charge ahead anyway; so I crawled ahead tentatively when no one was looking. Now suddenly there was fresh wind through this newly opened door and I could smell it in full contrast to the rancid air of my little conceptual box. Beyond being a concept important to culture, what a wonderful gift: a validation of the right to enjoy more in more things. The right to move in the direction of a life without conceptual limits. (No one ever gets there but the journey's like breathing- essential once you start.) That's what it's really all about. I think it's worth the effort, and would be for anyone.




In addition to getting weirded out by stylistic variety, many people are really bothered by variety of scale. Feelings tend to run very strong here, and nowhere as bitterly as with music. It's the rabid progheads vs. the Dave Marshes: 3 minute pop song good, sidelong ode to pretention bad! Sidelong masterpiece good, 3 minute shallow moron music bad! I seriously want to take a stick to the heads of both parties here and tell them to wake the fuck up. (The perceptive among you have no doubt noticed my slip in this paragraph from "refined written Greg" into "everyday speech Greg". Can you see the real me? Yep!) This argument may be about a lot of things for a lot of people, but honestly, to me it makes very little sense from either direction. Are miniatures more valid than giant canvases, or vice-versa? Are haiku or sonnets more valid than epic poems, epic novels than short stories, epic films than shorts, or vice-versa? Maybe some people could say yes to any of those. I can only say no. A piece may be good or bad on its individual merits but the scale has nothing to do with it. Complaints that are strictly about scale, with no positive reference to any work on that scale, really only tell us about commentator, not subject. That statement may seem snotty or elitist, but surely no more than gripes from people who haven't done their homework. To those of you who feel that way and read this: you don't have to like any particular extreme on my or anyone else's account, but at least show some respect. Take some responsibility and admit that it's a matter of what you can't get into or don't know, not that your least favorite extreme is somehow the product of people lesser than you and worthy only of contempt. There's all this sniping at "the enemy" from both sides, meanwhile I'm in the crossfire and your stubborn ignorance is pissing me off.


("Fearing not I become my enemy in the instant that I preach". Oops.)


All right, enough bitching, let's try something a little more positive. Let's actually look at a few different scales. To me, there's a different art to each, both in creating them and enjoying them.


We'll start in the middle, and leave quickly, since these are the kinds of things most people can relate to: the three to four minute song, the average length movie or book, a poster-sized painting. Is there anything to say about these? In terms of scale, probably not. I think most people can relate to these, provided the content is sufficiently interesting. There's nothing particularly foreign about the size. Still, the very familiarity of such things puts some people off. I can only say that there is a real art to making things work- and work well- on this level. Complaints about formula are complaints about content, not scale, and so for another essay, perhaps; but I will say there is something to be said for a catchy tune that provides a soundtrack for your life, a marker in time for your memories. There is a value in finding an emotional connection to such things. It can be private, your business alone. I personally have found little of value on the radio in close to three decades- but there has almost always been SOMETHING. For the outsider and explorer, popular formats are easy targets. I'm of the opinion that passive-aggressive worship of unorthodox formats does little good to the championed causes. I'm afraid the point of view represented by Paul McCartney's Beatle-era interest in avante-garde music has more validity to me personally than that represented by a bitter comment made to me by one underground musician, who told me he detested melody. When you can see value in both- each on their own, and together, mixed to whatever degree- then come back, and we'll have something to discuss.


Next, big things: The only really problematic thing here is probably long pieces of music. There is simply a different mindset necessary for approaching large pieces. This varies with the piece, depending on its nature. You could be on a journey, and the music is telling you a story (concept piece: with lyrics, or instrumental with libretto); or it is painting pictures in your head, and you are creating images or your own story to it (instrumental, possibly with repeating themes); or you are following the process and enjoying the craft in putting such a large-scale piece together, like you'd enjoy a large piece of architecture (this could apply to almost any type); or you've got it in the background and are using it like the musical equivalent of incense or mood lighting (ambient music); or you're enjoying the moves of players as though you're watching a sport (improvisation). If you approach a long piece like you would a pop tune, don't blame the music if you don't get anything out of it. In most cases, you just can't do that and expect a good result. If you can't let go of your attachment to a shorter format, don't come here. Leave it alone. And have the guts and the integrity not to badmouth something you are incapable of approaching.


A momentary digression here: one of the best examples of skillful use of small scale is the original half hour Twilight Zone. Think about how full most of those stories were; then remember that it was actually less than a half hour, it was actually around 24 minutes.


Last, how about really small things? As I discovered recently (to my surprise, honestly), this is a strange one for a lot of people. In some cases I can see why; but there are some very common examples. There's the short but powerful poem, which gives you a compact dose of symbolic imagery- sometimes saying much more than the few words on the page (more on that below). And a stretched, but I think valid analogy is a photograph, which captures an instant but tells an extended story if you examine it and think about it. What about other things? Haiku; short pieces of music; short films; short-short stories; miniatures. Miniature paintings often fare best of these, in terms of people getting it; if the painting is sufficiently detailed, people can immediately see the difficulty in working on such a small scale, and at very least admire the craft. Short films and short-short stories usually fare OK in terms of people "getting" them, although it's very common for people to be dismissive of their overall value, because of their length. And that's pretty much true for the other things on the list- something to do with "more is better"- just as long as it's not too much! Short pieces of music- I think this depends on the type of music. Punk bands have really pioneered the territory of the short song. How you feel about that may have a lot to do with how you feel about punk (or different bands, if you haven't ruled punk out of your vocabulary). I have found a lot of great music, pieces that manage to make a complete statement in less than two minutes, sometimes in less than one. Whether many punks would even care to admit it or not, that's an art form, and a good one. Short abstract pieces- few people know what to make of these, which I think is a shame. They buck the trend of the extended trance piece, the extended improvisational solo, or the jam. They may require elements of a couple of mindsets to get into: abstract/compact. Quite a challenge for many people, who may have trouble even adjusting to one of those. (I refer the novice to Brian Eno's "Music For Films" as a great starting point.) This brings us, last, and appropriately, to haiku. Haiku is of course a longstanding and important art form in Japan, but here it's an often referenced, fairly respected oddity which few people, if they are honest, will claim they connect with on a deep level. It takes a real step outside our preconceptions, into a whole other set of viewpoints, to even consider haiku at all, to find an approach to it. There are underlying cultural and aesthetic concepts that really aid in "getting it". I enjoy it, but it takes work, and I can't really imagine that most of what I've read moves me on the same level that it would a Japanese person trained in the classics of his culture- and that's despite my studying Taoism, Zen, and Japanese and Chinese art for many years. This to me is the real indicator, and the best example, of how different some small-scale work can seem to people. My reaction- or better yet, the reaction of someone who doesn't connect with it at all- is irrelevent to the standing of the art form. People here seem to know this and generally don't knock haiku as bad in and of itself. They understand there's a cultural and conceptual divide. What needs to be more commonly realized is that there are similar barriers to understanding things originating in our own culture- preconceptions which need to be examined, underlying concepts that should be known. People don't think they have to work at it, but what's really going in is that they're saddled with preconceptions that they don't even know are there. It needs to be spread around that challenging those preconceptions is really worthwhile and really enjoyable, and that discovering they're even there in the first place can change your life, and the world, for the better.