How Do I Look? Image in the Digital Era

Forget Twitter’s 140 character limit and just post a photo, or 15 second video – and you’ve got the new digital craze, Instagram (16 million active users per day). It’s responsible for the widespread ‘selfie’ (taking a picture of yourself and posting it) and along with Facebook, YouTube and camera/video devices within our smartphones, tablets and consoles has blown the importance of our own image into a monstrous size. This is impacting society and culture, and that includes jazz.

“You can take a stand and decide what emphasis you will apply to your image”  Elina Duni

Elina1(1)There is resounding evidence that Dr Catherine Hakim was bang on the money when she wrote a book asserting that those who use beauty, physical fitness, charm and sexiness will find success (Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital) and it’s especially true in the music industry. “I am so sad about what I see today, what are the role models for young girls? Mostly women stars who don’t represent the feminist way of thinking, but represent the sexual object,” says vocalist Elina Duni when I ask her about women’s image in music, “but you can take a stand and decide what emphasis you will apply to your image, if any, or what it says about you.”

Duni instinctively realized the importance of engaging visuals from the start of her career, but it was when she found a kindred spirit in the Albanian photographer Blerta Kambo that she could realize her ideas. “Some things can be sensual or sublime without being cheap or sexual,” comments Duni, “she represents me very well.” Trombonist Samuel Blaser didn’t have the same issues to face but admitted he’d changed his thoughts on his image, “Now I’ve hired a fashion consultant. We went shopping for a day together. I spent way too much money, but I think it’s important to present yourself well.

“In some parts of Europe music is more connected to hipness than to good music”  Florian Arbenz

In my own career I witnessed how having a strong visual identity helps people remember you (I had dreadlocks for many years), but as pianist Rusconi notes, it has to be genuine, “If it comes from you and who you are as a band then great, but there’s no need to force it.” Some people have a natural visual intelligence, such as Tobias Preisig. He plays violin and in a subtle way, plays upon the look of a free and fiery but very modern gypsy. He forges a clear identity, very useful tobias1when establishing a ‘brand’. If any artists out there are flinching as I use the word ‘brand’, consider the creative accomplishments of Björk, one of the most magical musicians of my generation whilst being one of the strongest brands. Brands enable people to get who you are and, if it’s strong or unique, remember it. You may not say Eric Vloeimans’ indulgence in colourful clothes and ‘funky’ shoes launched his career, but you could see how his image, along with his playing has set him apart.

Florian Arbenz of Vein commented that not everywhere was infected by “fashion”, “In some parts of Europe music is more connected to hipness than to good music. In Eastern parts [of Europe] you are still judged very hard when you play and I like that.” He found that his band’s classical training and passion for vintage jazz, not their choice of clothes, had given Vein a strong profile in those regions.

Image in music isn’t just about personal appearance

Bebop and modernist jazz was helped by the daring graphics of Reid Miles at Blue Note in the 50s and 60s, whilst Manfred Eicher’s audio vision for ECM was perfectly interpreted by designers Barbara Wojirsch in the ’70s and Dieter Rehm who nurtured the photographic style of windswept trees and monochrome landscapes. On the other hand you could argue that GRP Records sold a lot of albums despite some of the ugliest record sleeves ever (though they were operating in the ‘style-free’ era of the 1980s). As digital downloads and streams find their feet there’s less attention paid to album covers, but a few of the Swiss artists I interviewed confirmed their audiences were still buying CDs. In the wider picture of music, however, the music video, once the marketing tool of pop alone, has taken on increasing weight. Use of YouTube as a device for discovering music is mostly responsible.

“We did it like a piece of art”, Samuel Blaser

samuel1(1)Samuel Blaser has found himself experimenting more with visuals such as photos and videos and, like Duni, recognizes their importance as publicity. They also have both relished these added dimensions to their creativity. Blaser met Polish video maker, Ewa Kozanecka in New York and asked her to shoot something for a shorter version of Pieces of Old Sky. “I don’t know if it was totally useful because we did it like a piece of art.” From a listener’s point of view that video held the music more firmly in my memory. And that’s where videos and photos can really assist musicians – by etching their sound into the consciousness of the public. Rusconi are a band that have also naturally partnered with video to explore ways to extend their expression.

“The video thing opened up our music to a totally different crowd” Stefan Rusconi

They have forged a successful pairing with the film collective,  Zweihund, producing engaging and professional work for comparably small budgets. Stefan Rusconi told me, “The video thing opened up our music to a totally different crowd. What we’re interested in as an audience is people that are interested in different fields of culture. Doing the video got people interested that would never have come to a Rusconi jazz gig,” and it enabled them to crossover to contemporary music festivals outside of the ‘jazz’ genre.

“You need good clothes…” Marc Perrenoud

This has proved useful as a piano trio, because as Marc Perrenoud, the leader of another piano trio, noted, “You have to find something different form other trios, find another visual identity.” Some of the artists I interviewed were also filming their gigs, tours and recording sessions as ‘documentaries’ in order to extend their ‘visual presence’. The digital world is forcing the hands of musicians, “You have to be very connected on the web, you have to have very good presentation and have very good pictures [and] you need good clothes,” noted Marc Perrenoud.

A few months ago I went to a jazz festival. One of the bands I came away very firmly etched in my mind were Snarky Puppy – they had great stage presence (helped by the fact there were so many of them) but also their fans were wearing well-branded T-shirts, with a print of a dog’s head wearing headphones. Jazz musicians may not feel the pressure to look like George Clooney, yet, but the world is changing rapidly and visual intelligence or ‘erotic capital’ if you like, won’t be diminishing their influence in the near future.

Made in Switzerland (the pros and cons of being a Swiss jazz artist)

Swiss Vibes 2013_01_Mix 4“You can tap into resources and support and it’s there”  Leo Tardin

The Swiss jazz scene is evolving and has been for some time. Music education at institutions such as the Bern University of the Arts, professional support for artists and an expansion of the term jazz, have helped the emergence of new and award-winning talent. I asked musicians who’ve had help from Pro Helvetia, how being Swiss has impacted their music and careers and if any changes could be made for the better.

They unanimously acknowledged the funding system that exists. Drummer Florian Arbenz said financial help was a huge advantage, “Because of the spare time we have for our heads to create something…(and) work on our own concepts.” Leo Tardin, who spent a significant time building his reputation whilst living in New York, said that being abroad gave him perspective on being Swiss, “You can tap into resources and support and it’s there. It’s shrinking just like everywhere else but we’re still very privileged and that’s a fact.”

It will always be diverse, musically”  Stefan Rusconi

Several artists did refer to the Nordic scene as an example to follow, with its huge investment in jazz and organic creation of an almost tangible ‘brand’, encompassing artists from Jan Garbarek to E.S.T. However, the journalist Arnaud Robert said recently, “Switzerland creates individuals, not schools or movements of music,” and musician Stefan Rusconi agrees, “It will always be diverse, musically, I don’t think it will be like the Nordic sound, I think it will be an approach, an attitude that could come out of Switzerland.”

I would agree; as a DJ visiting Switzerland, I was drawn to the open-minded spirit of people less concerned with being cool, than being free (whilst getting things done, of course!). Humour and a spattering of crankiness are somewhere in the mix and as the Zurich-born violinist, Tobias Preisig, says, “I’m pretty amazed how small this country is but how rich it is music and cultural-wise.” Maybe this is entangled with the make up of Switzerland as noted in Wikipedia, it’s not, ‘a nation in the sense of a common ethnic or linguistic identity’ and over one fifth of the population are immigrants.

“Switzerland, for me, is a big chance”  Elina Duni

Vocalist Elina Duni says of her quartet, “This music wouldn’t exist without Switzerland because it is the fruit of bringing together my Albanian roots and my Swiss culture.” Having moved to Geneva when she was ten, Duni sees her music as building bridges between people and acknowledges the support she’s had with that, “Switzerland, for me, is a big chance.”

Andreas Schaerer also feels that being Swiss has informed his compositions and vocal work in an interesting way. He refers to the Swiss obsession with detail, “We work so long to make things better and better until every last corner of the product is perfect…What is good is if you can be brave and destroy it…so that you see these pieces of complexity (and detail) but the environment is complete chaos.”

Schaerer also observed that the Swiss are good at technology and high quality products that take the spotlight, as it allows ‘their creator’ to stay in the shadows. Elina Duni also commented on this Swiss characteristic of humility, “It allows people to learn further and go further,” but too much of it prevents the Swiss from exporting itself with pride. Rusconi pointed to the same issue, that it’s not ‘Swiss’, “to stand there and say we’re proud of ourselves, we want to get out there, we’re great.” Self-promotion is a pre-requisite in the music world today and Schaerer has had to confront his discomfort with that, “You need to get rid of it without becoming arrogant or losing respect for others.”

“It’s hard to cross borders in music and life”  Tobias Preisig

Several of the artists have lived or are living abroad. Samuel Blaser now resides in Berlin but spent time in New York. Although none of them felt that ‘being Swiss’ made them particularly exotic, Blaser felt, “It’s stronger if you live in New York because you can then ‘export’ your music back into the EU market (from the US).” Being an ‘export’ is vital to these musicians because as they pointed out Switzerland is not a big enough market for them to survive there alone. “It’s hard to cross borders in music and life,” reflected Preisig, and it’s why support to tour is key. Pianist Marc Perrenoud saw this as a positive, “I use the obligation to export yourself as a way to travel, meet people and experience other cultures.”

Being a Swiss musician is packed with advantages, not least because being brought up in a culture of excellence, passion and professionalism has impacted the standard of playing. Being a jazz musician anywhere is not an easy choice but that can’t be changed, neither can the size of Switzerland. However the discomfort with ‘blowing your own trumpet’ can be discarded along with the Swiss milkmaid. These musicians are cultivating a confidence in their own unique ‘voices’ and this needs to be reflected in the way they are promoted. I’m certain cheese and chocolate will always sell but now there’s a chance to add a new and more emotionally expressive export to the table.

Take 5: Switzerland

Take 5_Swiss team

(Left to Right) Andreas Schaerer, Elina Duni, Florian Arbenz, Marc PerrenoudStefan Rusconi, Tobias Preisig. Leo Tardin, Samuel Blaser. ©Emile Holba

The heated kitchen for innovative artists

Take Five is a “heated kitchen” for innovative, young jazz artists, with five concentrated days of coaching, learning, sharing and networking (along with some fun and seriously good food). Created by the UK’s foremost jazz producer, Serious, and funded by Pro Helvetia, Take Five:Switzerland was designed to isolate eight Swiss musicians in the lush setting of Bore Place in Kent – think bluebell woods, gardens bursting with wisteria and mock orange, slouchy sofas and log fires – and lead them through sessions with a performance coach (Mary McCusker), music promoters from across Europe, as well as, digital, legal and industry experts including Wulf Muller of Sony.

“It’s been a rich experience,” said Tobias Preisig, as a comment on the variety of “inside information” they could garner, even when that meant facing tedious home truths. Musicians, such as Florian Arbenz, were aware they could improve their social networking and online presence, and some learnt the value of visual presentation, possibly helped by the photo shoot with experienced portraitist, Emile Holba. Scott Cohen of The Orchard gave a blistering session on aggressive digital distribution and ways to make money from music in an era of sporadic CD sales, with pianist Leo Tardin commenting, “He was the one to shake our ground the most, not someone to pat us on the head, but kick us in the butt, and he did that very well.”

“We need some space for our dreams” Andreas Schaerrer

Sometimes the message from promoters was dour, “We’re learning about the business, but there is no business”, said Marc Perrenoud noting that, “You have to build your audience because, apparently, no audience is interested in jazz.” However, as the vocalist Andreas Schaerer explained, “We need some space for our dreams,” and without exception they were resilient to negative messages. They have to be.

Jazz will need to go on beyond the passing of the classic “greats” and continue sculpting its own relevant identity whilst earning a living. Schaerer felt supported by some promoters learning that, “It’s not only our job to build up our career but it’s also that everybody is interested in having a future generation of active people.”

“We are a community, we are coming from the same place” Stefan Rusconi

What became achingly clear was the wall of work that faces these artists on a daily basis and that as they’d been given this break away from emails, calls, rehearsals, travelling, organising, etc, they were keen to squeeze every drop of tangible use out of the time with little patience for anything deemed irrelevant. Although Take Five is an extremely organised and detailed affair, thanks in part to the sterling work of Martel Ollerenshaw, it also tried to be flexible. So when the Swiss crew stood up to say they wanted time to simply hang out to share concepts, contacts and knowledge with each other, they were given it.

Something I was most struck by was the honesty with which the artists spoke to me about issues they were facing. Somehow the bombardment of information along with the intimate environment and maybe the odd glass of wine had enabled them to face up to their personal challenges: do they follow their business head or artistic heart, how can they deal with the amount they should be doing whilst having focused rehearsal/practise days, or time for their family, what step should they take next?

A Tribe Called Swiss

On the last day there was an extraordinary jam session led by one of the UK’s most exquisite saxophonists, John Surman. And there was an impromptu game of “football-piggy-in-the-middle”. It was actually in the kick about that I most clearly saw a key triumph of Take Five: the founding of a connected, bonded and inspired group. Let’s call it, A Tribe Called Swiss. Without exception each artist echoed Stefan Rusconi’s sentiment, “I knew all of them at least by name, but it’s been great to meet the other musicians. Also, to see we are a community, we are coming from the same place.”

Take Five can shake things up and it will take a while for the musicians to digest it all. I agreed with Rusconi when he said, “We need to be proud of what we’re doing. Swiss music is the new thing – chaotic, strange but rooted too.” Now all they need to do is buck the Swiss trend and force the spotlight onto themselves. As John Surman noted after their music session together, “I won’t forget you guys in a hurry,”  and if they utilise their newly found esprit de corps, they stand a chance of the music world saying the same thing.

Take 5 Switzerland website

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