Pan-Stylism as one option

Posted by: Dave Douglas on October 13, 2008 @ 7:45 am
Filed under: Dave Douglas (Artist Thoughts)

There’ve been quite a few emails (for which Thank You) about The Demands of Style, several beginning with an agreement about pan-stylism as a concept.

To clarify – the article was not proposing that pan-stylism actually rules the day, or is some sort of central focus of today’s music. Rather, that the idea of pan-stylism is one example, among many, of an approach that musicians are finding useful. And as with any method, it has its benefits and its limitations.

It’s an illusion to think that artists can pick and chose resources in a non-linear, unbiased, a-historical way. Music is not a science experiment. Great music — of any variety — is made by musicians with lots of experience with ideas (and beyond ideas), with the sure knowledge of whether their music is working or not. None of the masterworks seem to have been made willy-nilly.

Personal style is built of many elements, physical, environmental, social, economic, and more. It serves in fomenting a musician’s deepest desire for expression. (And of course expression and the very notion of expression come in all varieties, too.) Pan-stylism would be one example of this process playing out. It’s one current option for musicians in finding their own personal style.

But when it comes to making music, it’s not possible to be all things to all people. Sound comes out. It sounds a certain way. That’s what it is.

What’s remarkable is how the examination of musical issues shuts down when it focuses only on The Music I Like. There are innumerable ways in music, and the limitations of personal preference can be deadening. With all respect for individual taste, an overview of musical practice has to take a step away from genre related value judgments. This is much bigger than jazz, classical or any other kind of music.


  1. Style in music and architecture are intimately entwined, and as an architect, the parallels are clear to me. Classicism extends tradition as a slowly evolving language based on a priori harmonies and relationships set from a “golden age”. In music, regardless of the genre, traditionalism is achieved quickly and becomes a complete new genre or new language within the system. As much as I would love to see architecture evoking emotions, this is where music clearly taps deeply into our senses. The information within the timescale of a piece can be melodic or so complex that the transition between each second intends to evoke imagery. Listening to Leo Smith at the FONT kickoff, as well as Dave and John Zorn I could recognize that they were taking music away from the traditional language of story telling, and into sonic vignettes and tonal confrontations. There may be hidden references to traditionalism, but clearly abstract, much like the multiple and simultaneous vantage points of cubism or deconstructivism. This language is self-aware of the music, the player and players, the space it’s in, and the instrument itself. One can make the argument that this is expressed in Beethoven, Hendrix, Parker, Moore and at that special evening at the FONT benefit.
    We will always need to hear the celebration of the genre, but the pursuit of finding oneself transcends traditionalism into groundbreaking thoughts wherein they form the next genre. This may seem obvious, but it is fun to write in and try to express my thought.

    Comment by Frank Visconti — October 13, 2008 @ 9:04 pm

  2. As a younger musician continually working on my own style, this and the “Demands of Style” post were highly interesting to read and consider. As I develop my career and find myself directing and co-directing many projects ranging from traditional to avant-garde jazz, I also find that the initial appeal of embracing pan-stylism as a sort of cure-all is beginning to give way to a desire to solidify elements of my style which can cross genre boundaries. In theory, I would like to hope that I can find a way of playing which can be applicable to many settings and still sound like myself, though in practice it remains to be seen whether or not this is possible. Not to blatantly pander to Mr. Douglas, but I feel that as a bandleader/performer, he has been admirably successful at continuing to sound like himself in all of his myriad groups while still being conscious of the specific demands of each one.

    Incidentally, I have been playing with an American Kora (21-string West African harp) player in Seattle and creating some interesting stylistic fusion. We have had a lot of dialogue about the validity and feasability of such a collaboration. Without both of us understanding each other’s musical context and background, I feel that it would be a failure, and indeed there are a number of West African musicians whose attempts to play alongside American jazz musicians have been only superficially interesting; each party seems to just be doing their own “thing” and not integrating effectively, though they may be playing at the same time. Through careful work, I believe we have been at least somewhat successful at creating some intriguing new music which I would hope is simply more than an exotic combination of instruments on a superficial level. This speaks to the difficulty of such collaborations and, I believe, to the difficulties of the illusion of being able to pick and choose that you discuss above.

    The genre-bending and breaking going on today is, as you point out, a very positive step and a fascinating turn of events to witness and be a part of. I simultaneously enjoy the concept of pan-stylism and embrace it to a certain extent while wholeheartedly agreeing with your assertion that one cannot simply pick and choose at random. However, I am very curious to see what will continue to evolve from experienced and focused musicians who are experimenting with new forms and ideas and not falling prey to the “science experiment” phenomenon…Thanks for the intriguing posts.

    Comment by Andrew Oliver — December 1, 2008 @ 11:18 pm

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