Festival Data Hack#1

Last Friday and Saturday CHIME and BCMCR presented the first in a new series of 24-hour Music Data Hacks. The aim of these events is to bring together BCU researchers and students with data practitioners from the Birmingham area, to work collaboratively on the development of online data visualisation tools, product prototypes, and experimental analytical methods.

Using data collected from a small group of volunteers at the 2016 Cheltenham Jazz Festival through a pilot version of a mobile application BCMCR and CHIME are developing, along with social media data gathered rom other festivalgoers during the festival, this hack explored ways in which the data collected could be visualised online in ways that are useful to researchers, festival organisers and music fans.

The participants came up with lots of exciting ideas and new ways of developing prototypes of a visualisation interface. Researchers and representatives from a number of international music festivals were in attendance at the hack to provide advice, support and guidance. They were William Soovik from GMLSTN, Annemiek van der Meijden from JazzBikeTour and Ian Francis from Flatpack) and Craig Hamilton, Nick Gebhardt, Tony Whyton and Loes Rusch.

‘Festivalling’: are jazz festivals utopian?

Jazz Utopia conference logo[Blog by Dr Emma Webster, University of East Anglia, postdoctoral researcher on AHRC-funded The Impact of Festivals project, where this was first posted]


I have just returned from the Rhythm Changes ‘Jazz Utopia’ conference in Birmingham (14-17 April 2016). The majority of the one hundred plus speakers really engaged with the theme of the conference and grappled with jazz’s potential for exploring and achieving utopia from a wide variety of perspectives: historical, musicological, sociological and interdisciplinary.

My paper gave a brief overview of a literature review currently in review with Jazz Research Journal about the impact of jazz festivals; based on the final part of my paper, this blog post will consider briefly the ways in which jazz festivals have been or could be considered to be utopian.

To begin, how jazz festivals have been considered in utopian terms in the literature. In his introduction to a collection of essays on pop festivals, for example, George McKay writes that festival, at its most utopian, can be ‘a pragmatic and fantastic space in which to dream and to try another world into being’ (2015: 5). As another example, in a paper on the Montreal Jazz Festival, Michael Darroch describes a ‘utopian inner city music village’ into which the festival organisers have imported various forms of music to the city, as well as tropes from New Orleans such as trad jazz and second line parades (2003: 133).

Helen Regis and Shana Walton, in work on the New Orleans Jazz Festival, argue that the festival ‘was and is a utopian project’ whilst recognising that, in its practical realities, its utopian aspirations are somewhat problematic. They argue that whilst the jazz festival seeks to transform existing social structures, particularly around race and gender, instead it reinforces them. In addition, whilst making large amounts of money for the organisers, the festival does not necessarily enhance either the economic or social prospects of those who provide the music and entertainment (2008: 428). Instead, as the authors say,

Rather than helping New Orleans avoid poverty and inequality, the city’s role as playground to the world continuously reproduces unequal social structure. Even as it offers opportunities for a national audience to experience our culture, the festive state of the city has muted the voices of those who try to focus attention on urban issues (2008: 432).

As Regis and Walton suggest, the New Orleans Jazz Festival maintains its power because of the fact that its many festival-goers return year after year in search of moments of transcendence; indeed, in a separate paper, Walton reveals how for some participants, the festival has had such an impact that they have even upped sticks and moved across the country to be closer to it (2012).

Photo by Robin Capper, via Flickr CC BY-NA 2.0
Photo by Robin Capper, via Flickr CC BY-NA 2.0

The anticipation of the festival throughout the year means that festivals exist as both a real and an imagined – idealised – event. The ways in which audiences perceive such ‘ideal’ jazz events is highlighted in the work of Karen Burland and Stephanie Pitts on jazz festivals and jazz clubs, in which they conclude that audiences have in mind an ‘ideal’ jazz gig which they aim to replicate when deciding where and when they would decide to go; such ideals relate to instrumentation, the atmosphere and venue, the performers and the other audience members (2012: 537). Work by Gail Brand et al into the performer–audience relationship at a jazz club highlights the importance of the venue to how much audiences enjoy the gig, who in general tend to prefer smaller, more intimate venues, although interestingly their research also highlights that this is not necessarily what is wanted by the musicians who don’t necessarily want such intimacy with the audience (2012: 643).

Finally, Anne Dvinge uses Christopher Small’s concept of ‘musicking’ to show how the Detroit Jazz Festival transforms Detroit once a year via the interactions of the musicians and the people, which reflect the ideas of ‘ought-to-be-relationships in the world’ for its participants (2015: 195) and becomes a time in which ‘joy takes root annually’ in the city (ibid.: 185). Borrowing from Small’s ‘musicking’, then, it could be said that ‘festivalling’ becomes a particular type of activity or process in a particular type of space in which festival-goers’ ideal forms of society are imagined and explored.

When considering whether jazz festivals are or can be utopian, then, the larger question is whether we mean the festival itself or the wider society in which the festival exists. Jazz festivals, by their very nature, are transient, albeit often cyclical, therefore any utopia they offer is rather fleeting. Jazz festivals, can perhaps be utopian for jazz fans in the sense of providing an actual and imagined ideal place dedicated to the enjoyment of jazz; as acts of ‘musicking’ they form part of the pilgrimages and rituals of jazz.

A perfect festival is certainly easier to achieve than a perfect society, perhaps, although whether the social structure, rules and politics of a jazz festival or gig can ever be ‘perfect’ is debatable, especially the larger the event becomes and, perhaps, the more diverse the audience and the more broad the understanding of an ‘ideal’ gig. As the New Orleans Jazz Festival example I gave earlier shows, even a festival with utopian ideals can end up inadvertently recreating the inequalities of the society in which it exists, particularly around issues of race and gender. In this way, perhaps without a perfect society to start with, there can be no perfect festival.

To conclude, then, a jazz festival is most likely not a site of utopia for wider social transformation, or even for a perfect jazz experience, but it has a number of significant impacts which mean that, for a short time, for some, ‘festivalling’ may be a glimpse of a jazz utopia.

Bibliography

Brand, Gail, John Sloboda, Ben Saul, and Martin Hathaway. 2012. ‘The reciprocal relationship between jazz musicians and audiences in live performances’. Psychology of Music 40/5: 634-651

Burland, Karen and Stephanie E. Pitts. 2010. ‘Understanding jazz audiences: listening and learning at the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival’. Journal of New Music Research 39/2: 125-134

Darroch, Michael. 2003. ‘New Orleans in Montréal: the cradle of jazz in the city of festivals’. Géocarrefour 78/2: 129-137.

Dvinge, Anne. 2015. ‘Musicking in motor city: Reconfiguring urban space at the Detroit Jazz Festival’. In The Pop Festival, ed George McKay. London: Bloomsbury: 183-197.

McKay, George. 2015. ‘Introduction’. In The Pop Festival, ed George McKay. London: Bloomsbury: 1-12.

Regis, Helen A. and Shana Walton. 2008. ‘Producing the folk at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’. Journal of American Folklore 121/ 482: 400-440.

Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

Walton, Shana. 2012. ‘“I only go to church once a year”: transformation and transcendence in jazz fest narratives’. Southern Journal of Linguistics 36/1: 104-126.

Reporting on the CHIME inception event

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 12.45.33A group of international scholars and festival organisers and music producers gathered at the Royal Festival Hall in London during the EFG London Jazz Festival to launch the project. I took some notes, both for the record and to help us shape 2016 meeting agendas and work.

Project leader Prof Tony Whyton (Birmingham City University) introduced the day, reminding us of the project’s key questions around heritage sites, jazz festivals—ranging from jazz as a heritage music from itself today to urban regeneration to difficult questions of the intangible impact of festivals on festival-goers.

Prof Helene Brembeck and Merja Liimatainen (University of Gothenburg) talked of the place of consumption at festival as a core experience for festival-goers, in particular in the context of the presentation and consumption of heritage, memory, the past, at jazz festivals. How does music re-sound the architecture of the city at festival? The Swedish team will be looking at contrasting jazz festivals in Gothenburg, Gamlestaden Festival and the Classic Jazz Festival, a process of embedded research within the organisations and ethnography and cultural history, critical interrogation of festival imagery, publicity and events and venues.

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