On discourse and debate

When I was at school, aged 12 I guess, I was in a kind of “sponsored” fight. There was a bully named Dave. He was bigger than everyone else, like a scarecrow in a field of overgrown wheat. He was picky with his friends. He decided he didn’t like me because of the shoes. His way of bullying was not to beat me up, but to force me to beat up another kid, whose name was Geoffrey. Geoffrey was kind of small and wimpy, and a bit annoying, according to a Dave the school bully. I was told if I didn’t fight him I would be beaten up, and then the rest of my year group were told to get to the orchard at break time, where they could watch me beating this guy up. It was a fight, a real bout, and it was sponsored by Dave the school bully, who would have sold tickets if he’d had the brains to organise it.

We are familiar, I’m sure, with the concept of going down and staying down. They hit you, you go down, you don’t get up until everyone leaves. I was planning this in reverse, that I would throw a left hook (gentle, made to look heavy) and this kid would go down, my contractual obligation would be over and I could get on with practising Scott Joplin in my fucking lunch hour.

Anyway, I did it, and he surely caught the strange brand of apologetic panic in my face as I landed the blow. His glasses fell off. I was then required to get on top of him and give him a stagey pasting.

The next day Geoffrey comes in and he’s black and blue down one side of his face. I felt pretty bad. I wished I hadn’t done it. He was simply an annoying kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. The look in his eyes, straining through broken glasses at me. The look. The eyes. If I hadn’t seen these things, I might have forgotten about it, wiped it from the mind and moved on. I couldn’t.

For some reason this is all coming back to me today, and it’s because of Facebook. There are a good few pastings dished out there these days. A few pompous claims and pointed barbs. When was the last time anyone looked into the eyes of a human being whilst sticking the boot in against people and groups, good or bad. That look that reminds us we are all human, the flicker of common humanity, that feeling reminds me I am part of a larger group of things much like myself. When that is gone, we are just a loose fitting sack of opinions, upbringings and fixed term prejudices which we let off from time to time. There’s rarely any change to the status quo. When was your mind last changed online?

Don’t get me wrong, I thought all this was a godsend at first. I am quite a shy person and happy to retreat into a cave and hurl rocks out of its entrance at whoever was passing. Eye contact is a major project at the best of times. But I would rather be reminded of that fact for every second that goes by than get sucked any further in to this blank, blinkered, rabble-rousing trend any further.

Go to the pub and talk it over. We are all doing our best. Whatever you may think. Change your mind, or see a new opinion and keep yours anyway. But see it at least, whoever you are.


Vertigo At The British Museum

So much is free, but you can’t hold it, can’t touch it, you don’t own it. Well, “you can’t take it with you” as they say.  Why hold on to something?  But when you get a digital something, you have the ghost of it, the music, the book, the film; it’s free but it’s gone. You are holding on to air.

I went to the British Museum recently, and there it’s different; old school.  You can walk past things, you can, in theory, touch them (signs saying “please do not touch the exhibits” only encourage it.  I have never seen a sign saying “do not touch the MP3s”, because, well, you can’t).  Egyptian gods stare down the aisles and ages, Greek bodies are held in split-second frozen marble.  And under glass, ancient thoughts written down are too far back in time to find or feel.

This stuff is old.  Really old.  The feeling is strangely vertiginous, as if looking back is like looking down, and the further you look the higher up is the precipice from which that past is viewed.  Looking into the strange, ossified eyes of an Egyptian mask, it seems every smile has behind it a thousand others, and in front of it many more to come.  Years ago, and years yet to live.  It seems impossible that this has happened.  I catch my present day grimace’s reflection and find it lacking.

Recurring dreams of childhood dreams left me with a kind of “fear of infinity”, and a quick google has identified this as apeirophobia.  For a long word, this strikes me as being too short, abrupt almost; it should have within it an impossible cycle of repeats that can never end.  It should be spelt up a kind of Escher staircase, or possibly down a spiral one.  Apeirophobeirophobeirophobeir…o…..ph….

Faces smile back at me, perfect and timeless.  We assume that to create something timeless is a good thing – yes, Hotel California, what a timeless classic etc.  For me, timelessness is a nightmare of arrested activity, a trapped movement, invisible mucus wrapped around me like a coiled snake.  Air into vacuum.  Michelangelo’s David will always be youthful and virile, a snapshot (or sculpture, the only thing they had in those days, terribly time consuming) perhaps taken before his later decline into obesity and alcoholism.  Like Instagram, these are models of ourselves we cannot match.

But then we arrive in the Japanese Galleries, and this is why I came. They have the lights low here, to try and halt the inevitable decay of the treasures within.  It’s never busy.  Silk scrolls curl, woodblock prints fade, everything is fragile, is broken, ceramic pots are wonky and endearing.  It is not timeless, because the effects of time, the aesthetic benefits of time, are seen here everywhere.  It is full of time.

An iPhone 6s, for example, is exterminated well before its natural demise to make way for an upgrade, maybe one of these new ones with a screen that goes past the edge of the handset (to where?).  We don’t get to see it decompose, it’s corners fraying and worn, signs of use making it more beautiful, more personal, lived in, like an old book or wrinkled face.  The Japanese call this wabi sabi, the acceptance of transience and imperfection, where an object only really reaches its full glory as it begins to lose its shine.   Beauty as process.  Dropping your phone on the pavement or down a toilet doesn’t count.  The internet can document the passing of time (it is mainly about the passing of time) and yet nothing ages…..it’s merely information, a shared thought trapped in purgatory between the mind and the world of real things.

Back in the Japanese galleries, my phone’s message notification disturbs the murky light.  Must make some time to get back to them, just need to find my bank details and address and phone number, I don’t like to keep people waiting.

Raw War

Instagram puts our pictures in a box, meaning, a square. When you upload a photo, in a photo-type format, which is usually landscape or portrait, it appears as a square. In a box, a symmetrical box of picture. As if it were simply storing information, “content”, more efficiently, like a cake tin.

No one listens for longer than ten seconds to anything anymore, or will look at something long enough to see the details that the Instagram box leaves out. It puts our pictures in a box. It doesn’t ask us, how about a box for this picture, it would help us a lot of you could make it a box, we like everything to be the same format, despite the fact that a ratio closer to the Golden Section is well known to be more aesthetically pleasing. It does it because it makes no difference. To ask for a large and be handed a small. This is your size.

A box is symmetrical. It’s like a face isn’t. It’s like a painting isn’t. It’s like the dimensions of anything made by nature, prior to the long awaited arrival of the human race, isn’t. We learnt about the Golden Section from nature, and therefore, by implication, from ourselves. Our hidden selves. Our non-symmetrical gut feeling once told us that one long side and one short side is good, look at a tree, look at that animal, the ratio of head to body, look at my head and body for that matter. Animals do not have, broadly speaking, a head at each end.

Numbers are good for symmetry, a human tool for counting things. You can play games with numbers and symmetry comes out. They are not, however, good for the blues, which often is twelve bars long, and at other times is as long as the person singing the thing wants it to be. If you listen for longer than ten seconds to a blues track on YouTube you will hear this in action.

Symmetry reminds me of things that are “technically possible” but perhaps undesirable. In theory it could happen, in nature rare that it does.

On a typical week of train journeys, there are more people than there used to be talking loudly to themselves as if no one else was there.

Dance like nobody’s watching. They will only watch for ten seconds so make it quick.

Instagram puts my pictures in a box.

Perhaps I can change the settings.

Shrink wrap

Some jazz tunes can be strange little things. They are stumpy, seemingly lightly created, they are sometimes written on a napkin or rattled off from memory like a joke. Anyone could do them. Maybe in a year’s time, I might manage one more good one.

Imagine tin foil.  Imagine screwing it up into a ball, tight in the palm of one hand, and throwing it into a bin.  It’s vaguely satisfying if it goes in first time.  There are some people who, if it misses, will walk over and put it it the bin.  This is, of course, eminently practical, and these people have other things to do, and these are “group one” people.  Then there are the people who will sit back down, and try again from the same distance.  After five, ten, a hundred tries, maybe the ball goes in.  The apparent simplicity of a ball being thrown in the bin is thereby masked by the other ninety nine botched attempts.  Already this person is a perfectionist, the fact that they attempted something that they knew could be done better compelled them to do it.  The thing itself, and its usefulness, are irrelevant, the fact that it could be improved upon is like a nagging hammer in the back of the brain.  this is “group two” behaviour.

Now, going back to the tin foil.  How round is that ball?  With one hand, it’s not easy to get a spherical kind of situation happening.  And yet, something tells you that maybe it’s possible, and besides, won’t a rounder ball make a straighter trajectory?  Armed with this somewhat suspect and half-formed aerodynamic assertion, you try again with the rolling.  Again, you could cheat, two hands could make light work, but the one hand thing is the key to this challenge.  If this is you, you are in group number three and I feel your pain.

So, writing a jazz tune, of a certain pithy and epigrammatic type, is like this.  It’s like rolling a ball of foil into a sphere with one hand and casually throwing it into a bin ten feet away.  It takes practice, and it is taking practice.  And sometimes if you try too hard, the thing won’t go in, because despite what appear to be increasingly favourable odds, you somehow get further and further away from the target.  I still come up with ideas that sound like my ideas from twenty years ago.  I had more hair then, but still the same old shit in my head, foil balls scattered over old diaries and photos.

So it was that, after a day of trying to write a tune that would look as if I made it up on the spot, I sat at the piano, dejected, and made one up on the spot.  And like the foil, it’s like, don’t touch it or you’ll ruin it and have to start again.  That thing when you unpick a tightly wrapped piece of foil and it just breaks into chunks, and you think, all that work and its gone in an instant.  Don’t touch it.  And especially don’t start playing it over and over, trying to extend it, to make it into a bigger thing.

Of course, some jazz composers are not like this.  They can write long stuff, never look back, start typing and keep going (this is how I improvise, which seems a lot more successful in terms of hours spent versus notes produced), maybe they have a structure in mind and are filling it out.  The foil and the bin doesn’t work as an analogy here; there is no illusion, it’s long, detailed work and the listener knows it.  I have wanted to be one of these people, like George Russell, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Anthony Braxton, Tim Berne, Mingus…mostly when I sit down and try and write, I tell myself, today is when you get into that arena, the extended work.  I don’t know what makes these people able to do what they do.  I think it’s hard wired, the need to elaborate, as is the need to condense.  And maybe because I enjoy their music so much, it’s best for me to stay clear and stick to the bin stuff.

Because small things, if you look at them long enough, open out into worlds of complexity.  A small jazz tune, well crafted, is like a ZIP file, opening out on your desktop into something that is finally substantial.  Composing is like setting a ball at exactly the right height on a tee, then you pick the band (this is the club, I’m feeling a one wood driver) and, on stage performing, you swing the club.  (If I really wanted to extend this whimsical and flimsy analogy further, perhaps a standing ovation is the ball in the hole, but I have seen too many ovations where neither the right height nor the correct club was anywhere in evidence).

But then the way the foil rolls off your fingertips, maybe a touch of spin on the ball just for shits and giggles, will it still go in?…and that sound of a light projectile hitting its mark, the joy when it just rolls around a bit on its way in (just like a televised putt at Gleneagles), knowing that it’s down to the way you rolled it right at the beginning.  These are the details, this is why I’m doing it, this is why it’s important to me that in one of my tunes, half of a melody is actually the same as the other half played backwards, or that the highest note of a melody is two thirds of the way through its duration, or that it uses the absolute minimum number of notes possible.  It exists, and it exists better for these adjustments, obsessive and time consuming though they are.

And that’s why I’m trying to spend more time listening to less music, to use these sounds in the right way, to be a good consumer.  I know a well rolled tin foil missile when I see one, but you have to look.

Brother Face, The Musical (version 4.0)


So, I’ve already trashed three drafts of this.  It’s easy to apologise for one’s music when writing about it, and I didn’t want to do that.  I’m not sorry; if I’m sorry about anything it’s that my budget won’t stretch to making it into an object like a double cd, or a six vinyl 40kg limited vinyl pressing, or maybe even a scented candle that releases gaseous melodies into the air.  The late, great Bobby Wellins used to say, “jazz recordings aren’t released, they escape“, but now they can be held, digitally, in some form of quarantine. Neither in nor out, a numerical cloud in a departure lounge.  The Grand Opening of my new-ish release, then, is a one-click sharing of zeros and ones, hanging in the digital air waiting for walk ups.

If I am going to write anything then, it will be firstly a note of thanks to the musicians; Chris Batchelor, Shabaka Hutchings, Dave Whitford and Dave Wickins.  Of course I am in this list too but I was the one holding the camera in this photo.  Getting the band together is the first act of composition, determining the possibilities, mapping out the territory. They finished the music; I wrote some tunes, and like little essay plans written on serviettes they fleshed them out, occasionally letting their ideas derail my plans. Sometimes we just started with nothing, but with the intention of arriving at the piece at some point.  It often takes a while.

Which is why I would advise to listen to it all the way through.  It wasn’t built to dip into, things happen only as a result of what went before, and with an inkling of what may come after.  The final piece, “Obscurity”, works for me on it’s own, but really it’s a coda to the rest of the music, a breathing space, that’s the place for it.  It doesn’t go first in the same way that a murderer is not captured in the first chapter of a Sherlock Holmes story. To address this, I had an idea to put an inaudible tone at the beginning of this record, like a dog whistle, that simply lulled people into a charmed paralysis, completely aware of their surroundings and untroubled by their immobility, unable to do anything but listen. This is also good preparation for playing, so maybe I’m projecting here.  And people can do what they want to do, after all.

One more thing; “Brother Face” is a quote from a Robert Creeley poem called “Histoire De Florida”.  Creeley is an American poet who works with everyday words and makes them weird; sentences run into each other, lines lurch and stutter, one meaning becomes another.  I came across him after hearing Steve Swallow’s record “Home”, where he sets Creeley’s fragments of poetry in epigrammatic and lyrical ways.  Both these people have been big influences on me, combining the abstract and the familiar in ways that have opened more doors than they have closed.

In Creeley’s case, I continue to go back to his poetry and figure out what the buggery he is talking about.  I don’t understand it, but there’s something in there that makes me wonder, and that’s enough.


These days I need reading glasses.  I can’t see what’s in front of my face, as they say, and so on they go, the rest of the world receding into a blurry backdrop,   Putting on glasses is a ritual.  It’s like the raising or lowering  of a veil, or the laying of a table, perhaps the other-worldliness of submerging yourself in water (suddenly, baptism makes a lot of sense).  The dropping of the needle, the scratchy moments before the music begins, a marking out of a sacred space.  

Picture a Zen meditation class in Highbury, where some white middle class Englishmen in medieval Japanese robes explained that, within the confines of the space this room, there were no shoes allowed.  More lifestyle enlightenment, I thought, in a lifestylishly smug way, quite pleased with myself.  Tut tut.  The romantic nostalgia of these posh quasi-monks made me feel like an extra in a sixth form staging of “The Seven Samurai”.   On reflection, and after wanting to run them through with a big sword, I appreciated the “otherness”; once fully clothed, now barefoot in Islington.

Before beginning a solo performance, pianist Cecil Taylor danced across the stage towards the piano, pausing, circling like a vulture, raising a talon and sharpening his beak before almost attacking the instrument.  Let’s face it, it’s not much different to the popular pill popping, the purpose being broadly the same, but like a lucid dreamer he can snap out of it if he wants to.  Turn on and off the supply of whatever is taking him under.   I envy him.  That night he basically didn’t give a shit what we thought.  A silent titter seemed to waft around the audience, but the next hour saw them drawn in to that same space, his space, leaving their seats dizzy at the close of  the journey.  So, in that game where you have to choose one, my superpower would be that lack of inhibition.  That willingness to leave the real world.  Whilst everyone else is flying above the clouds and reading minds, I would simply dance myself a little mimed story in a purple tracksuit.

Rituals clear space, stop time, focus the mind and the body.  Religions are useful primarily for this reason, enforcing their strange and arbitrary timetables, sunrise and Sundays, days of rest and of celebration, a dash of incense here and there.  The nearest I get to that is to close my Facebook tab before writing a blog.  And that will be open again pretty soon.  People would get more done, and with better focus, if they had to get up a ladder to post on Facebook.  

It used to be different. In student days, I would break up the routine by watching “Neighbours” at 1.30.  It was hardly a call to prayer, but it did the job, my daily shift of practice and essays divided conveniently in two by the shattered dreams and emotional love stories of future Australian celebrities.  I was the turning over the LP of my otherwise formless day; side 1 and side 2.  A neutral space, a cerebral no-man’s land.  And needless to say, the repeat of “Neighboirs” at 5.30 was strictly off limits., my own personal heresy.

These altered states remind me of  what Margaret Atwood talks about in one of her lectures on writers and writing; the double.  A writer who writes, and a writer who does the dishes, two halves of a single body.   The writer who lives, and the one who lives on after that life.  The hand on the keyboard, or the pen, like the dropping needle, is a sign that he or she is somewhere else,  or someone else.  And perhaps the writing and the reading, playing and listening, are one in the same state.

So there’s me and there’s my musician.  My playing side is bold, carefree, mischievous in a temporarily suspended time, a guest in a hotel where someone else does all the housework.  And when he’s finished, after the applause (let’s be optimistic), the somewhat anxiety-ridden, earth bound chap that lurches and lumbers through life, me, takes over.

Nowadays we have access to these ritualised states very easily, but it’s difficult to go very deeply into them.  I am writing this on a tube train, on a so-called phone.  It’s very rare I call people on it.  But if I want to write something on it, preparation time is almost non-existent.  It’s about five seconds. Open app, click pen and paper shaped icon, begin.  It even suggests words you might consider before writing them.  Without a thought in my head, there is a guarantee that some words will appear.   With one eye on the stations, trying to notice if someone needs my seat, I’m not under yet, still in the real world.  But soon I’ll have my glasses on, and if I want to I can look over the top of them, an action which causes my eyebrows to be involuntarily raised in an apparent gesture of superiority.  I hope the other passengers don’t notice.  But I’ve arrived at the station and, with no time to pack my glasses away in their case (the other end of the ritual), they hang perilously tucked in the neck of my shirt as I pick up my bag , caught walking in the increasingly small space between real and imagined worlds.  Mind the gap and all that.

A is for Aphex Twin : ‘CIRKLON3 [ Колхозная mix ]’ (video directed by Ryan Wyer).

2This music is new to me, and the fact that I am already going to “write about it” is so typical of “what is wrong with today’s world”.  But we all want to fit in, so I will do it anyway.    Don’t be a stick in the mud, be a beachball bouncing on the white water rapids of life, I said to myself, and now to whoever is reading this.  It helps that Aphex Twin, aka Richard D James, is familiar enough, three of his albums from the nineties are frequent companions.  But this track is new, discovered this morning as part of my recent, cautious tip-toeing through Spotify’s sweetshop.  So if you haven’t heard it either, we are in (almost) the same boat, and in the same strained metaphor.

Aphex Twin’s records have something that I admire in music more than anything else.  They are strangely likeable, and the more accessible he gets, the more I like it.  He does have some tricksy stuff up his sleeve, and some devilish rhythmic games, but there are simple tunes and basslines at its heart.  With three or four chords, a handful of notes, some catchy groove or another, he can make something that endures.  Invoked by obvious painstaking programming and editing, like endless rubbing of a lamp to summon a genie, there it is; the sheer likeableness.

His persona as seen in earlier videos by Chris Cunningham, is a kind of children’s doll from a horror film brought to life by vintage synthesisers, his head grafted gruesomely on to bodies of women and children.   The music, though, is pretty and lyrical in the places where it isn’t almost gory (“4” represents the former, “Come To Daddy” the latter), locked in a sort of “good twin, bad twin” oscillation.

This video, however, is directed by Ryan Wyer, discovered by the aforementioned Mr Twin on a gaming YouTube channel.  Mr Wyer, it emerges, is twelve years old.  He does what a lot of twelve year olds do.  He points his phone, equipped with a video camera, out of train windows.  He films his mates dancing and cartwheeling in front of his house; he slows up the film, he puts filters on it.  Nothing fancy.  He wears an Aphex Twin mask.  He likes, apparently, Mr Twin’s “Smojphace” E.P, a mix of this track by Bug ft. Daddy Freddy…in other words, he knows things that grown ups bemoaning his time spent on the internet will never know.   And he captures something.

To access his videos, you have to wade through an expensive looking advertisement for yoghurt.  I like yoghurt, but I’ve forgotten the brand already.  I would have given the yoghurt advertisement more attention, but the thing I am impatient to watch is at the end of it so I don’t.  All that money, that yoghurt money, down the drain.

What used to take patient research, long listening, searching out, I have discovered in ten minutes of daisy-chained clicks, one page directing to another, and then in turn another, like endlessly reproducing cells.  It’s like a gas in my brain, what once were, in a pre-internet world, solid facts as artifacts, now fleeting and floating molecules, fragments of collected sound and vision.  I don’t feel comfortable with it.  I am still in my pyjamas at 11.44.

YouTube is full of this stuff, of homemade videos to music people like.  It’s easy to do, maybe too easy.  And yet, Ryan’s video says more than any amount of hi-tech, focus group-led zeitgeisty flick can ever say, more than a yoghurt commercial and more than a multi million dollar swashbuckling scifi hit.  Kids, dancing around on a street in front of a house, is pure enjoyment without purpose.  It’s a window on the world, and I am going to watch it again.  There’s a certain lightness of touch in the way the sounds meander along to the action.  A woman with a buggy waves as she passes, an event which in no way is reflected in the music.

Aphex Twin’s music turns out to be written on, and about, a synthesiser.  The Cheetah MS800 is a famously awkward instrument to program; it takes a long time to produce the most basic sounds.  The album is called “Cheetah”, in the way that Everest climber Edmund Hilary’s autobiography is called “View From The Summit”.  A thing conquered, just for the sake of it.  Some slowness in a world of speed is OK too.  It’s good to dance, but sometimes it’s good to just sit in one’s pyjamas.