Compromise or Quit

The stupid circus of US politics has made “compromise” a dirty word in the last decade or so.  I think that’s asinine poppycock.  The recent government shut down was a great example of what happens when people refuse to compromise… or, as we learned on Sesame Street, to cooperate.

We’re all compromising all the time.  Nearly every human interaction is a negotiation.  Even simple things – I want to see this movie, you want to see that one.  Which one do we go to?

A lot of people think that compromising their art ruins it.  I understand that.  Often, the creator has a big picture vision of how all the elements work together and wants to execute it as such

That’s a nice ideal, but it’s simply not realistic.

With music and performing arts, the introduction of other performers will almost ALWAYS color the work with their flavors, strengths and limitations.

(of course, hundreds of years of pedagogy and strict training in the classical music realm has had the amazing effect of making a lot of really good players that all sound essentially the same.  How else can we get 40 violins synced up to sound like one HUGE sound?  It’s really quite an amazing feat of human achievement!)

Even the creator’s weaknesses/strengths will require compromise.  He/she may not know that his/her amazing guitar-violin duo piece is so hard that only Paco de Lucia and Joshua Bell could even attempt to read through it and they’re not available until 2027 and want a million dollars each.  Dang.  Now what?

Frank Zappa knew that his music was compromised by the human element and he made some of the most sterile, boring recordings I’ve ever heard using only computers.  He didn’t want to compromise any more with the great musicians who made his albums interesting so he didn’t work with any at all!

Zappa and his… band?

I’ve met only one person who liked Zappa’s robot material and even that person didn’t like it all that much.  He may have gained a perfect performance but he lost the thing that made his fans care about his music – the human element.

We compromise in bands all the time – especially when the material has been more meticulously orchestrated by a single person.  Often the composer/arranger doesn’t play all the instruments and has no idea that something is difficult/impossible until someone who DOES play that instrument makes them aware.

Even the great composers of yore worked in this way.  They didn’t just show up and give the horn players parts with no pauses to breathe and then insist that it be played as written.  They didn’t expect a single violinist to be audible while the percussionist was pounding on the timpani.

The photo shoot for this record was probably not the first time that Dmitri Shotstakovich met with an overweight Richard Nixon and surprisingly blonde Roy Orbison to look over the score before the piece was performed and recorded.

In fact, they tried to make stuff as easy to execute as possible by working with the players to make the necessary compromises serve the piece rather than sounding stumbled-through!  When I broke down 1812 Overture for The Invincible Czars, I dropped the whole piece down a half step.  That made it easier to read and play….. for guitar, bass and keys!  It made a lot of the fast runs for violin and flute HARDER.  I should’ve left it alone.  (sorry, Leila and Phil!)

I want to spend a few paragraphs on this because it’s something I’ve experienced a lot with the Invincible Czars and other bands — if a player in your band can’t play a part or make a certain sound, something’s got to give.  You can only work with what you’ve got and you must compromise.   Give the part to another instrument, change the part to be playable but still effective…. or hire someone who CAN play it.  That sounds harsh but those are your options.   What would be so bad about hiring someone who CAN execute it for the recording and then re-arranging the part for live shows later?  What if you just never play it live?

These are all compromises that, to me, are better than the alternative I see play out all too often in the studio:

Someone can’t play the difficult part but insists on getting it AS WRITTEN.  He/she will feel humiliated if they are replaced for this sections or if they must “dumb down” the music.  So the whole project comes to a screeching halt while this person sits in the studio doing useless take after useless take – or worse, they choose to come back at a later time, do nothing in the interim and return to the studio doing useless take after useless take… again.

This can happen on stage, too.  How often do you play something on stage you know you only nail 10% of the time?   Why not make it playable so you sound amazing every time instead of once every 10 times?

(I’ve been this person before and it has resulted in some very good recordings of me sounding like shit for all posterity.  When you wonder why no one listens to your recordings, consider that it might be because you didn’t compromise in a way that served the overall song.  No one wants a recording of you almost getting it right – least of all you.)

Even if you manage not to make ANY compromises all the way to the end product, the end user/beholder of your work can always do this:

What’s that doing for your pristine highs and ball rattling subs?

Regardless of how loudly you play live, most people are listening to your music on stereos and computers right at or somewhat above the level at which they’d have a conversation.  They can listen to High on Fire at a whisper’s level or Iron and Wine cranked up to 11. They can put in ear plugs.  They can listen in mono.  They can remix your whole album in 5 seconds.  They can rip it to mp3s and lose a lot of quality.  They skip to the next track before they get to your cool bridge at a minute into the song.

These compromises of your work aren’t even in your control.

Indie recording trailblazer Steve Albini wishes for all of us to listen to his (and all) music on vinyl but… he knows most people won’t and his music is available in digital forms in spite of his annoyance with them.

“Meant to be heard on vinyl.” I’ve only ever heard it digitally… or live… one time.

Sometimes we’re even unwilling to compromise with each other – that’s when bands break up citing “creative differences.”   I compared your band to a bus ride in a much earlier post.  Compromising is like changing your oil.  It’s routine and if you don’t do it, you will eventually burn out your bus (your band) – probably just as your about to reach your greatest milestone yet.

ALL art is compromised in some way.  I’ve found more satisfaction in making my compromises serve the art than in holding steadfast to principles don’t.  That’s not to say you shouldn’t stick to your vision.  Know when to compromise and don’t let ego prevent it from happening when it’s needed.

Of course, all this goes out the window if you’re rich/famous in which case I ask again – why are you reading my blog?

even Li’l Wayne’s got to have made some artistic compromises. Surely going to jail for a while delayed some of his work and life.