I imagine that a lot of people have seen at least one episode of The Iron Chef. I was discussing this with a customer the other day and we decided that we liked the old Japanese version with dubbed English over the new American version (apologies to American moderator Alton Brown, who is great). The Japanese version seems more like a true food fight. All that is missing is Samurai Swords. If you haven’t seen the show, two world class chiefs face off in competition. One is a regular on the show (one of the Iron Chefs) and one is an upstart who wants to knock the resident chef off his or her throne. A panel of bona fide foodies get to enjoy the two meals and determine the winner. The show can be fun because the two contestants have to use a secret ingredient that they do not know about until the start of the show in every dish. If you are patient I will show you how I think this pertains to playing music without too much of a stretch.
It seems to me that we are in a society that feels like every single human endeavor has to be quantified against everything similar and almost every individual believes that they have the heaven endowed right to arbitrate the pecking order of all those who sweat and practice at being good at something. Call it art wars. Just look at the comments underneath your typical YouTube video. You may watch the video of a performance of such incredible artistry that it leaves you amazed and enraptured but then scroll down into the comments section and someone will say, “Not very impressive. I think that I could probably master this piece without to much effort. I thought that she got off on the tempo at 1:26 and the whole thing could have been faster. Mediocre! Jimmy J Johnson III did it way better when I saw him in spring of 2007.” We give prizes in every realm of the arts. Participation in the arts becomes a trophy hunt. And we are a list happy society: greatest blues guitarist, greatest impressionist painter, greatest historical fiction novelist, etc. The list of lists is endless and people spend endless time arguing about whose list is authoritative. “This list is, like, so totally bogus man. John Coltrane was a much better sax player than Cannonball Adderley. Unbelievable! These guys are idiots.” I rest my case.
I am not trying to squash debate in the public square and I am not trying to say that there is never a place for competition but I think that sometimes we give too much weight to it. The arts are not sports. People don’t wear t-shirts of their favorite poets at poetry slams and wear “We’re number one” big foam gloves. Tastes vary. I think that the greatest danger is the possible negative effect on the novice or the advancing musician or artist. It is the idea that we are constantly being judged and weighed against others. It is the presumption that art for art’s sake is not enough and if we do not measure up then we should give up. It is all about stature and ability. And then there is the belief that if we try something completely new or unique, or even a different interpretation of a familiar piece, that we have violated the sanctity of the blessed orthodoxy. In other words, we have broken the rules of the game. The pundits complain that it is not the way that Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein or Dave Brubeck would have played it.
Some people love being in competitions. Some people love performing for peers and having their skills weighed against others and that is okay but some people just want to play and enjoy the ride and the journey without being constantly compared to someone else and I think that is okay also. I believe that the expression of art for art’s sake is a good thing and that even coloring outside the lines can sometimes be permissible. I liked the ironic way comedian Carl Reiner put it. I saw him on some sort of legacy award show and I remember him saying something like: I thought that this was a small inconsequential award until I won one and then I realized that it was actually a big important award. Achievements only have the importance that we place on them. Accolades or winning a competition can be fulfilling but the joy we receive and the joy we give with our music is, perhaps, reward enough in itself.