Contributing to KDnuggets

Hi all. Beginning this week, I’ll be contributing writing to the data science website KDnuggets, run by Gregory Piatetsky, co-founder of KDD conferences and ACM SIGKDD.

My first post looks at Geoff Hinton’s recent AMA on Reddit. I explore the debate over the importance of biological inspiration and plausibility in machine learning. Hinton is notable for simultaneously building systems that work (Imagenet) and championing biological plausibility, shaking the conventional wisdom that these priorities are irreconcilable.

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“We Don’t Play for Free”

I hope to organize these thoughts at some point and deal with this topic more seriously. But I wanted to write something to document my ruminations regarding remuneration in the performing arts, specifically jazz.

Two summers ago, I left New York. I moved to California with the ambition of returning to academia, but also to distance myself from the New York jazz scene. When people ask me why I left playing music in NY, I  reply with some variation on one of the following phrases.

“I felt like a prostitute.” 

“I felt artistically stifled.”

“Music had ceased to be an intellectual or creative pursuit.”

These responses oversimplify the truth. My need for a change of pace had many causes. Living in a rent stabilized apartment in the Lower East Side, I was tired of cockroaches on my ceiling, mold on my walls, and vomit on my sidewalk.  Besides, school was last the place I had been healthy and happy, and perhaps the place I had grown the most as a musician. I had many reasons for leaving.

That noted, once grad school admissions were squared away and I began playing again, I realized that these misgivings about the economic realities of professional musicianship, especially those exemplified by the New York jazz scene, are sincere.

Since beginning to play again, I have played most nights of the week. And I have made a policy of avoiding the economics of music. If a gig pays, I’m honored to be considered worthy of the bread. But I try not to accept gigs I would not pay for free; often I do not ask what they pay.

I have begun to wonder if indeed it would be such a terrible thing if we altogether parted with the notion of music as a profession. I don’t mean this thought experiment as an assault on the livelihoods of the many talented musicians who commit full time to music. Instead, I intent only to consider seriously that music might live, and even thrive long after it ceases to be a viable occupation.

Often, music’s survival is discussed as contingent upon the economy that supports it. But I think it’s equally possible that it’s music’s reliance on the economy to facilitate its existence that frequently saps it of life.

A few observations:

1) Pursuits don’t have to be “jobs” to persist. Few if any people are professional yoga practitioners. Even most yoga teachers can’t make a full time go of it. Yet yoga studios proliferate across the country and no one questions the “viability” of yoga. There is an economy for yoga gear and videos but no one measures the health of yoga as a practice by it’s economic footprint. I can imagine a world in which many people get good at playing jazz and get together and play, and have plenty of gigs and make no money, and they are also doctors, scientists, waiters, academics, taxi drivers, etc.

2) The meaning of jazz and most musics of the African diaspora is bound up in its participatory nature. The strict and perhaps toxic dichotomy between artist and audience, professional and layperson, inherent in the American music business is intrinsically incompatible with such a participatory community-based art. Perhaps the music would be best served if it again became a thing that many people did, without a worry about how to profit from it. And perhaps it would be best served by a lowering of the perceived barriers to entry.

3) The appropriation of jazz by majority white professional schools and performance majors at universities across the country, and the consequent neglect of the folkloric elements of the music in favor of  “theory” is made possible by the very existence of professional schools. Without the pulpit of a Conservatory, I wonder if anyone would take Jerry Bergonzi’s exhaustive and inane methods for shredding reharmonized standard repertoire seriously.

4) I think many of the musicians I know today were most creative when they were in college, even if not at the peak of their intellectual powers or execution, only because they were more concerned at that time with what they were playing than how to profit from it. Immediately after school, those lucky enough to have any gigs were typically hustling to pay the rent, not to make a specific artistic statement.

5) Many things that we associate with the conduct of a “professional” are contrary to that expected of an artist. Professionals are taciturn, shying away from discussion of the personal or political at their place of work.  But this is in direct violation of everything art ought to embody. The very best in jazz always made a statement.  My point is not that music must always to be so overtly political as John Coltrane’s “Alabama” or Max Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite”, but that people who made the best music were motivated by more than just “getting gigs”. They held strong opinions about aesthetics and their culture, and often their society and weren’t afraid to express them.

6) Perhaps this is why rap is thriving as jazz struggles. No one except for the most famous expects to be paid for their work. People put their message out as an expression of their individuality, with the hope of being disruptive, not of being considered professional. Sure a lot of crap might get produced. But who in jazz has recently created a record as relevant to modern society as Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid Maad City”?

7) Having time to delve deeply into the craft of playing music is important. But equally important to the art is context. Playing music all day every day is great for developing technique, but it makes it easy to be a musician without knowing anything about the world. I was shocked by how few musicians were fully aware of how the public was fleeced to the benefit of the finance industry during the bailouts of 2008. And now almost no musicians seem to be aware of how government surveillance is undermining the basis of our democracy. Some forced time away from music might break the insularity of the jazz world.

So, clubs don’t stop paying the hardworking musicians! But maybe in the absence of everyone quitting there is something instructive in this thought experiment?

If we all accept that nearly everyone has a day-job anyway, be it classroom teaching, private lessons, haranguing club owners, repairing instruments, walking dogs, writing jingles, or something else entirely.. If we part with the notion that music should be a profit-maximizing, or even economically sustaining activity, and then decide to go ahead and play music anyway, how many in New York would be making the same records they are now?

A counterargument:

One would rightly ask why “jazz” musicians shouldn’t profit as others do. Again, I intend this only as a thought experiment so that we may consider the impact that economics has had on music and what might be gained from relaxing our preconceptions regarding the connection between the business and the art.

I certainly have been guilty in the past of holding up degree of “professional” success as an indicator of artistic accomplishment. As a kid, the idea of doing anything but playing for a living, even teaching, seemed anathema. There is an argument to made for the rigor imposed by an attempt to survive as a musician. I’m definitely a better reader and all-around musician for the time I spent trying to grind it out in NY. But perhaps in the long run, this life is at odds with creativity.

[[Originally published in 2013]]

New Website

For roughly one year, I have not had a website. This reflects my ambivalence about self-promotion and specifically the corrosive effect I felt it to have upon creativity in New York City. While I remain equivocal about projecting more noise onto the internet, it seems appropriate given my activity as a machine learning researcher and as a musician playing music in Southern California to support the musicians and institutions good enough to hire me.

Additionally, I intend to be more vocal as a researcher concerned about the organization of our healthcare institutions. Specifically, I’m concerned with the relationship between research and policy, and the responsibility of the research community to speak out on matters where patient interests and corporate economic incentives may be in opposition.

So, this is my second attempt at having a personal website. If you have any comments about how it might be improved, let me know!