Upper Styrian Big Band Folk: Exploring Local Identity and Authenticity in Jazz (2013)

Michael Kahr

About this exposition

Upper Styrian Big Band Folk is an arts-based research project which has aimed for the exploration of local identity, authenticity and meaning as manifested in and interrelated with jazz composition and performance. This exposition outlines the project, its underlying aesthetic values and presents a critical reflection of the work. Two videos show the musical scores and audio recordings of two selected compositions for large jazz orchestra which represent a significant aspect of artistic research in this project. A hermeneutic reading of the music offers insight into the work's contextual background and aesthetic matters.
typeresearch exposition
affiliationUniversity of Music and Performing Arts in Graz
published inJournal for Artistic Research

comments: 3 (last entry by Patrick Schenkius - 22/06/2013 at 17:27)
anonymous 18/06/2013 at 23:38

The theoretical framework of this exposition remains problematic, even after earlier revisions. The author states: “The text is not about developing theoretical concepts of philosophy or the social sciences in a community project in jazz and surely not about discussing the seminal conceptions of the notions of identity and authenticity found in the scholarly literature. . . . Imposing scholarly rigidity onto this project would have meant to exclude the majority of the group members from participating in the process of exploring the contextual background and artistic possibilities.” This may very well be the case, but that doesn’t mean the author shouldn’t to provide an alternative discourse. The scholarly literature is looking at constructions of identity and authenticity as it is understood also by non-academic groups. So while the participants need not to be versed in that debate, that doesn’t let the author of the hook to provide a reading of their understanding. If he doesn’t want to engage with the scholarly discourse, he still needs to provide an alternative framework. Furthermore, the suggestion is that the scholarly discourse has validity only for academics among themselves (as if it is a game of sorts), and that too needs to be explained. Remarkably, the author does cite some scholarly texts, which makes one wonder whether he only wishes to engage with the texts that suit him.


Substantiation is another issue. The text speaks of debates and discussions, but nowhere do we get to see what these are. It is not clear either who are represented by “the community.” Is that the 13k inhabitants of the region, or the 30 (?) people (actually musicians—barely representative I would think) involved in the project? Has there been any form of inquiry on how the people in the region felt that the project represented issues of identity and authenticity? This isn’t clear from the text at all.


Substantiation is needed as well for remarks such as “the local jazz scene has become an integral part of Austria's traditionally rich musical life” or “Jazz Big Band Graz [has] achieved international recognition”: how is all that established? The author states that “I had the opportunity to instigate specific definitions by means of circulated email letters and formal project descriptions for funding applications. I introduced some definitions which, in my perception, contributed to the clarification of thoughts raised by the community.” What are these specific definitions? Why aren’t we let in on “the thoughts raised by the community?” I would expect quotes here from debates, or possibly a filmed summary of how these debates evolved—JAR’s website seems to be an excellent platform for such media.


Another example, of such bold announcements: “Here the soloist was given the instruction to think of his cultural background as a native of the rural area. Gradischnig expressed these thoughts spontaneously by employing connotations of folkloristic melodic ideas, without neglecting his jazz background.” It makes one wonder whether the author is aware at all of the deep problematics that surround concepts of “folklorism” and “jazz”, about which ample literature has been published in the last two decades or so—these are concepts that need to be unpacked before it is clear what they mean. A transcription of the solo with an analysis that details how all this works would be needed to evidence such statements.


Similarly, the author states that “USBBF is embedded within these European-wide initiatives regarding identity in jazz as a specific local case-study and it is particularly connected to Jazz & the City in its exploration of a musical expression of the local identity of a distinct community, which is situated close to the city of Graz.” Again, it is simply announced, but it remains unclear how all that works.


That leaves us with a project of which the theoretical framework is deeply problematic, and since the theoretical framework seems to be the rationale behind the project, i.e., to create something that musically expresses local identity and authenticity, the research part of the project is flawed. This is furthered by the self-congratulatory tone: apparently the project is a towering success, in which nothing misfired, everything worked exactly as expected, no major adjustments were called for, and there was no need to rethink the project.


This is an interesting and engaging artistic project, but the research perspective is seriously underdeveloped. The theoretical framework is problematic, there is insufficient substantiation of many of the claims, and there is not enough critical reflection on both the process and its resultant outcomes. Finally, it is not clear to what artistic problem this project provides an answer.

Monica Herzig 18/06/2013 at 23:40

Final Comments to Michael Kahr “Upper Styrian Big Band Folk: Exploring Local Identity and Authenticity in Jazz “


The idea of exploring authenticity by combining aspects of local culture with a style of music that was distinctly local to a very different part of the world and expanded to a global music is compelling. The author provides an interesting analysis of the unique integration of jazz into the musical practices of a community far removed from the original jazz community. The similarities of the Austrian folk traditions and jazz are exemplified in this piece through the traditions of improvising harmonic parts and impromptu jamming in homes and social gatherings. The fusion of the two traditions as an expression of local identity remains questionable though. Several times we get the reference of being “cool”, meaning the younger generations adopted jazz as their expression of a distinct social status in contrast to their peers. The analysis is also quite personal from the perspective of someone who joined the “cool” crowd to the extent of leaving for several years before returning home due to a job opportunity. While the project is a wonderful example of community engagement and bringing together a variety of art forms, the descriptors ‘identity’ and ‘authenticity’ should be used with caution. In Part III, the author himself replaces these concepts with ‘significance’, which seems much more appropriate. In our current global culture, many indigenous art forms are endangered of losing their authenticity through fusion with other art forms. Hence, I perceive the outcome of the project as a significant collaboration between the practitioners of authentic Austrian traditions and the adapters of the “cool” art form of jazz, hence validating the variety of musical engagements and opportunities in the area rather than an expression of authenticity.


The author mentions meaning and enjoyment as outcome but no specific evaluation methods on how that was determined. Of course, there is no objective evaluation method for such subjective feelings, but an attempt to get feedback in terms of surveys, testimonies from the participants, from the community, from support personnel (i.e. recording engineers, concert producers), numbers for CD sales, distribution methods etc would be extremely useful for the process of transfer. I would be intrigued by a follow-up project that collects comments/ reflections from all personnel involved, the audiences at initial performances, buyers of the CD, as well as statistics on ticket and CD sales and promotional efforts for the project.


Overall, this is a most valuable and current topic and the reader is immediately intrigued by the potential of such combination of distinct art forms. The musical piece is unique and deserves acknowledgement, and the pride of the composer in being able to validate his and his region’s diverse musical background is obvious. The work is reminiscent of Vivaldi’s attempts to capture nature in his music, or the work of nationalistic composers as they combine classical with folk traditions. Now that the composer “gave birth” to this offspring of two separate folk traditions, we would like to learn about the reception of the relatives and peers and the investment of the community.

Patrick Schenkius 22/06/2013 at 17:27

The exposition is interesting, both artistically and intellectually. The quality of the composed big band arrangements is high and they are well executed. The musical content is interesting, as well as the harmony, melodic development, instrumentation and form.

The idea of combing/blending a local music style with jazz is more and more common these days, so in that respect a suitable subject for research.

This art-based research is for a great deal describing the process of making in all facets, not only musically, but in general what it takes to get it done on this large scale. As the author states in the end, the research could serve as a kind of model for other musicians/organizers to do a similar project.

The exposition has clear research questions and all of them are worked out very well. The underlying literature about social, philosophical and artistic issues is well chosen. The author’s reflection upon these aspects and the whole process is quite clear and honest. The description of the whole process is profound; every step is described in detail. For the author, the research seems to be a logic step to take as a jazz musician, arranger for big band, publicist and member of this local community.

Part 1 of the submission is very thorough and is a complete story by itself.

The analysis in part 2 is clear concerning the artistic choices during the writing process. The influences of seminal big band arrangers/composers like Bill Hollman, Bob Brookmeyer and Maria Schneider are audible in both arrangements in this exposition. The musical material of the folk music was very well re-worked in the big band arrangements and show the delicacy of the arranger to combine ‘old’ and contemporary music.

The artistic outcomes of this research project are evident. Two thriving big band pieces, which proves, to my opinion, that jazz can incorporate practically every other music style in it because of its flexibility. The way it is done here shows thoroughness in all stages of the process.

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