I had a dream this afternoon whilst in the process of trying to write a blog.  I deleted the blog, having bored myself to sleep trying to get it to make any sense, and wrote down the dream.

There are two characters, one of whom is me.  I feel as if I am underwater, and it is not clear if I am visible to the second character, who appears to be a cat made entirely from yoghurt.  I think it is Greek yoghurt, the type of yoghurt that wobbles on the spoon, the type which holds its shape, the shape, on this occasion, of a cat.

It becomes clear that I am going to be interviewed.  I start to feel I can’t make any sound, and start settling in wearily for another one of those dreams.  But as the cat speaks, someone else starts to answer from inside me.  It’s not that kind of heart wrenching, something inside me type of “inside me”, more like a separate entity actually inside me and talking.  In my voice.  The cat, on the other hand, speaks in waves that are somehow felt, not heard…..
Q:    Music..it’s not life or death.  Is it?

A:    Yes, it is life or death,  not mine or yours, but the life of the tune, the line.  Improvising means trusting that less thinking about the line will let it live longer, the way a surgeon shouldn’t think too much about the cut.  Let the knife do its work.

Q:    Who cares about music?

A:    Other music.  Music is like a community of tunes, pieces, sketches, symphonies, trashy pop songs.  They hang out together.  They don’t like being called “trashy”.  They are friends, despite their differences.  They care about each other.

Q:    Why do you spend ages on tiny details?  It’s only a tune.

A:    The smaller a tune is, the larger any mistake looks.  A small tune with a chord in the wrong place,  it looks back at you when you sleep at night.  It tuts.  You fucked it up, it’s not finished you lazy piece of shit, it says.  That’s how you know it’s not right yet.  It limps and staggers like a drunken teenager, pukes on its shoes.

No one likes to leave things like that, I add, somewhat perfunctorily.

Q:    Why don’t you get a real job?

(This cat is smiling, but it’s a smile sensed rather than seen, I hear it in the sneer of his words.  Also, the yoghurt obscures the finer details of his expression.)

A:    I have one.  I am part of a musical team dedicated to restructuring all the sounds in the world. It will take a very long time.  There is no deadline.

Q:    How will it look when it’s finished?

A:    Exactly the same as it does now.

Q:    What is the music about?  What does it mean?

A:    It’s about nothing and it means nothing.  Nothing.  Is it still something if it means, or is about, nothing?

The cat doesn’t like it when I ask the questions….

I wake up saying something which already seems long forgotten, far away, out of sight.

Everything looks the same.

 

The Way We Were

It seems to me what we don’t need now is people that come out waving their hands and claiming they know the Right Way.”

Brian Eno

 

Writing is hard.  Somehow what I want to say in this opening sentence, and it’s now my second sentence, escapes me.  I had an idea, but it just won’t sit.

Recently I re-watched “Fame”, Alan Parker’s film about a performing arts school in New York.   It’s a brightly coloured, pacy affair with a lot of muscle and good looks liberally splashed around the edgy New York streets.  There’s a character called Doris who does an audition.  You can tell from the inexplicable change in lighting that it won’t be going well.  She has in tow a very pushy mum and, in case that doesn’t illustrate her subservient squareness enough, she has a blouse done up past her nose almost.  She sings “The Way We Were”, a famous song from a famous film of the same name, she sings it very badly, accompanied by a very bad piano accompaniment recorded on to a cassette by her equally clueless brother.  It is supposed to illustrate bad musicianship, and it is pretty terrible.  She can’t sing, the brother can’t play, it’s all out of tune and out of sync.  It is a disaster.  But I keep thinking about it.  I want to play it.

My idea was that this scene, on a knife edge between comedy and pathos, unknowingly opens up the song in a way that Barbara Streisand, with all her belting bravura, couldn’t.  Where Streisand moves effortlessly through the tune like a hot knife through pink candy floss, Dora’s rendition reminds me of a nature documentary I saw once where a dung beetle keeps trying to push a pile of shit three times its own size, which it has fashioned into a perfect sphere, up a hill, only to watch as it rolls down to the bottom again.  Now that’s a song.

It reminds me of Nancarrow.  “The Way We Were” came out in 1973.  Conlon Nancarrow had, by then, been quietly working on his player piano studies in Mexico for years, beavering away at music that could not be played by humans.  The player piano removes the need for a performer, it is a machine; human beings were not up to playing his music.  His studies are supposed to, in other words, go beyond what a performer could do.  And yet, the effect of them is somehow to sound like three kids playing at once, randomly doodling catchy melodies without a care in the world and without any consideration of what the other is doing.  A nice illusion.

So I go back to it, back to Dora’s audition, I find it on YouTube here .  And it doesn’t really sound like any of these things.  I remembered it like that, not because it has those qualities, but because I do.   In reality, the girl can’t sing, and to find her direction in life she must first (spoiler alert) escape her domineering mother and start taking her clothes off in a nightclub, thus releasing her sexuality and her real calling, which turns out to be acting.

Films, music, art, politics.   They transmit messages, and depending on what we are set to receive, we hear what we want to hear, regardless of what might be called “facts”.  William Carlos Williams once described the idea of a poem as a “machine made of words”; substitute images, sounds, shapes, movement for words, and I think it’s a good description of any other art form.  Politics might even be called a “machine made of statements”.  Statements are often summaries of devilishly complex situations, so it’s good to go back and check the facts before letting your imagination running away with them.  With machines, perhaps watching the whirring of the wheels for the fun of it is the best use of them.

I have been thinking about a new version of “Fame”, set not in a performing arts school but in a chess club.  A somewhat more introverted setting which could preserve the elements of social realism, racism, illiteracy and poverty, sex, neurosis, class and coloured gym wear.  Sexual tensions would simmer in the background, there would be arcs, characters would learn things, hopes and dreams would be dashed and fulfilled in equal measure.  Ups and downs would be described in unflinching detail.  Basically, it would be like the original but with less noise, some peace and quiet.  We all need that.

But even that is not true, not for everyone.  Some people just work and work and get better and better, faster and faster, the noise of progress in their ears.  So around we go again.  With every sentence, an anti-sentence.  Rather than come to a conclusion, I have just had to leave it all lying here in pieces, which Doris I’m sure would understand .  Writing is hard.

Fame.

I’m going to live forever.

I’m going to learn how to fly.

I feel it coming together.

Checkmate.

I Like To Stay Well Informed

 

It starts with good intentions.  Not mine, especially, but those of a guy raising money to clean up the oceans, to clear the gyres of tons of plastic waste that our Evil Capitalist society has generated.  Every pointless piece of Amazon parcel packaging adds another weight tied to the foot of our planet, and it’s ending up somewhere in an ocean that once seemed too big and shapeless to know the end of but now seems to be facing its demise.  And here is this dream guy entrepreneur to steer us away from it.

What a great story.  God I am so fed up of the apocalyptic tales, the Evil Capitalist System is failing us, smash it up.  How great, then, that from the go-getting spirit that so often twists itself into greed comes a plan to undo the mess that greed itself has made.  A great story.  I am feeling so good about myself right now.  There is a video.  The music is tooth grindingly awful, and contrary to his intentions makes me mistrust him completely, but the euphoria is working.  So, post number one, shared with a click.  It’s then that the problems start.

Enter post number two, another article.  It turns out, this guy hasn’t thought some of the obstacles that might frustrate his efforts.  These include the sea, the animals in the sea, the fact that not all plastic floats on the sea, the fact that the sea is deep, sometimes really really deep and you can’t moor things to the sea bed when you’re in a really deep bit.  I start to smell some sour grapes, he thinks this guy wants media attention as much as anything else(I think back to the music, and silently vouch for that opinion) but it seems very well researched.  Contrary to popular belief, by which perhaps we mean hope, it seems this thing won’t work.  And that was posted, one click, as an answer to my original shared post, by one of my friends.

But then I think about the second guy.  Maybe he used to work with the first guy and they fell out.  Maybe they argued on Twitter.  Maybe the first is an Evil Capitalist who wants to make it look like that same Evil Capitalism can become Benevolent, can provide all the tidy up solutions as well as all the money.  It’s self regulating you know.  We can create tidying up jobs as well as messing up jobs, like the maids and the landed gentry.  It’s a Capitalist dream.  So I don’t know whether to believe him either.  You see, in the old days, one had to kind of get in a boat to see what the sea was like.  Better still, get out of the boat and get in the sea.  And someone who has done this, and who comes in after a hard day at the office with barnacles in their hair, I will read their thoughts on this subject, but how do you distinguish that from the writing of someone who has a well meaning interest in ecological issues as it reflects their belief in a fair society?

Then I looked closer.  At the dates.  The first actually predates the second, and addresses most of its concerns in a massive (ok well I think that is big) 523 page feasibility study.  I went too fast.  I was looking for something positive, then found it, then lost it again, etc etc.  I have bruises on my knees from their under-the-table jerkiness.

We move too fast.  You cannot learn to swim by moving arms and legs balanced on a chair.  You cannot learn to play music in a practice room, you cannot change business practices without having been a businessman, and you cannot talk about what poor people need without having experienced poverty (or at least talking at great length with people who have).  These are preperations for learning, the real work comes later.  As a musician, I learnt phrases, memorised solos of the great and the good, I prepared as best I could.  But when I got on stage and no one listened, or I felt the energy sag under the weight of my correctly learned arpeggios, it was then that I started to learn what I needed to do to play music the way I wanted it to sound.  And it’s never too early to put yourself in that position, in my opinion.  I wanted applause.  It was a good lesson.

I write because I enjoy it, I enjoy choosing words, not because I want to change the world.  If the world is going to change, I want to hand that onerous task over to people who know something about it.  I want them to plan it out carefully, sensibly and with an even temper.  I want them to be able to listen to people, both good and evil, and come to some arrangement.  Let’s find the experts.  I wouldn’t hand over the orchestration of one of my tunes to a anyone other than an orchestrator.  The world will not be changed by some hypocrite like me who has a tax free ISA account but objects to Cameron’s tax avoidance and who doesn’t look at the date on articles.  I am, however, an expert on why I think some music is crap and some is great (please note this is not the same as defining said music as one or the other).  Do ask, but sit down first.

The internet is like a massive branch of B and Q with no staff, it has everything but….where?  And how do we know what works?  Facts are unchecked, views unsubstantiated, sentences are unpunctuated.  It is an anxiety dream made real, or virtual at least.  We are constantly being told to get angry (social protest), outgoing and confident (school), ambitious (work).  These are all, as far as I’m concerned, hysterical, short term reactions to a world full of complex problems.  If you love something (music, changing the world, banking), start early and go slow, investigate, have breaks, read a book.  I know, I sound old.  I am old.  If we all took things more slowly, with more patience, with less focussing on an outcome we already want instead of where the facts are leading us; well, that sounds like the death of the internet in its present form, that form being the under-recruited shop type model outlined above.  Oh well never mind.  What we need are experienced shop assistants who….I am going to abandon this metaphor here as my funding fell through at the last minute.

And if you are writing about something, you’d better have the dust of it under your fingernails, it had better be the blood that flows through your veins.  I want to see the plankton, with a microscope obviously, on your flippers.  And I am appealing for your honesty, because we all need to know that in this shiny new world, bullshit and research, it all looks the same.

 

 

Some Acknowledgments : Boyan Slat, , Victor Guitierrez and Matt Nixon, whose book “Pariahs : Hubris, Reputation and Organisational Crises” got me thinking about some things I previously knew nothing about and now know a little.

You’ll Get Over It (obscenity warning).

When I was a kid at school my teacher called me something that no teacher would, or could, ever call a pupil today.  He called me a ****.  I was twelve, and so were the other twenty nine sniggering boys who were in the room at the time.

A bit of background.  Every Monday my clarinet lesson was smack in the middle of the morning, which disrupted my Technical Drawing class, a joyless class where we learnt to draw perfect circles with dangerously sharp compasses and dissect them with straight lines.  To ask permission to leave the lesson, I had to go through this wretched pantomime of putting up my hand, and him saying;

What is it Noble?”

And me saying, or stammering rather;

I’ve got a…a clarinet lesson, sir.” 

And every Monday brought a new insult.  Here’s one.

Off to your banjo lesson again are we?

Despite predating by some thirty years my acute interest in Appalachian music, I nevertheless felt it necessary to correct his use of the first person plural “we”….oh no, that was a dream I had….no I was terrified of him actually.  And the Boomtown Rats had just released “I Don’t Like Mondays”.  People said about Frank Sinatra, they said it felt like he was singing just for you, and Bob Geldof’s piercing whine went similarly to my bobby socked core.

So the **** marked a new development in this man’s reign of terror.  Often, he would grace our drawings with epigrams like “well done, 3/10”, thoroughly deserved when a dissecting line was one or two degrees out of whack.   Evidently it was important to start priming the kids who would go on to push Technical Drawing into the future, the men from the boys as it were, the men who were twelve from the boys who were twelve.  Many a pre-adolescent boy’s dream of a glittering future that was somehow bathed in knowledge of angles and set squares was dashed on the rocks of Mr Wrack’s brutal marking system.

Anyway, the word has fascinated me since.  It inspires such fear and hushed disapproval.  To say this word, you have to be with a social group possessing an almost molecular familiarity with each other, because in any other situation it is a huge risk.  It’s an admission of baseness, a declaration of debauchery, it reveals in its messenger a complete and absolute lack of consideration for the feelings of anyone else.  To say **** is a sacrilegious act.

There are many good hearted people in the world, and some are religious and some are not.  Many of the latter (I suppose I would like to count myself among them) take comfort in the smug knowledge that we do not believe in anything that does not conform to hard science, that is received wisdom masquerading as fact, that takes allegorical stories as historical document, that views as obscene anything that breaks rules originating in the faded and remote histories of places unseen and unknowable.  Finally, the hard won common sense nurtured by our up-to-date knowledge and enlightened democracy has triumphed over old world superstition, mired as it was in the shock and awe of religious splendour and corruption.  We see things from every angle, we refuse to bow to prejudice in any way, and in doing so we walk on brave and strong into a new world of understanding.  It’s really great.

“Erm, did someone just say the c word?  I don’t use that word.”

“Why not?”

“It’s ugly.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, you know, it’s….”

“Shunt, punt, hunt, grunt, runt.”

“It degrades a part of the human body that for some is…”

“Prick.  Cock.”

It’s like arguing for dinosaurs against a Creationist.

Should words have rights?  I am angered and upset by the discrimination against this word on the basis of ugliness (this would not work if **** were a person), inappropriateness (oh come on, what does that mean), sexism (in a world where “dickhead” is so often the only word left to describe such a huge range of people in life).  ****.  Listen to the sound of it, its perfect bluntness, it’s over in a moment but it leaves such a glorious dent in any conversation.  Maybe it’s too good for us?  Maybe we have not yet proven ourselves worthy of its use?  I think we need to show some humility in the face of a word like this.

 

So what does this have to do with music?  Well, sitting at the piano and trying to find the next section for a piece of music I had written, I found the perfect foil in some Elton John-styled chords, which got me thinking of the eighties, then school, and then this very story.  Mr Wrack.  Icon of my school days.  Immortalised forever in my tune of the same title.  Who’s laughing now?

What a cunt.

Paul Bley’s music

In my twenties I used to ask myself this question a lot.  Who, in jazz, is doing the thing I want to do most?  Paul Bley was that person.  He was quietly revolutionary, he did not claim to represent any social group or political movement, he worked a lot, he had played with everyone.  And he was not famous enough.  He was hilariously cantankerous in interviews, appeared to me to be admired rather than adored.  He was my idol.

  I never met him or even saw him play, but I know his music intimately, backwards, what I have heard, which is a mere handful of gold dust in his huge recorded output.  It has the tragieconomy of Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, an occasional Appalacian swing, a lyrical pathos shot through with intervals and edges.  When I hear his music I think of a blackbird on the early morning lawn, head cocked listening for worms.  When I listen to his music I think of what I would like people to think of when they think of me.  He listened hard, to his band mates, to himself; he was never afraid to stop.  I have a CD where he plays a chord, lets it ring, puts the perfect soft note on top like a ghostly cherry on a cake, and let’s it hang so long that it dies, as it were, in his arms, strings reduced to a kaleidoscopic haze of simmering buzziness….and then on with the next idea.

He said don’t practice, practice makes perfect, imperfect is better.  He said don’t listen to my records.  He played with Sonny Rollins and out-weirded him.  He wanted to be “the slowest piano player in the world” at a time when the competition for that title was, as ever with jazz, at an all time low.  He said don’t make a record that is already in the shops, and then proceeded to do exactly that through the eighties and nineties, album upon album, all with moments of greatness sprinkled unpredictably around.  He made fat chords out of thin notes.

He seemed to know about everything, he contradicted himself (see above), but he made you wonder if he was right or not, if he was good or not.  The only real way you could ever tell was to listen.  There was nowhere to hide.  There is nowhere.  RIP Paul Bley.

Jam

I love jam sandwiches in the Summer.  I love them all the time, and mostly on white bread and with lots of butter, but the reason that I mention the Summer is that it always brings the wasps.  I like to eat outside, to eat jam sandwiches outside in the Summer, even though the Summer brings the wasps.  Maybe wasps are hungry too, but these are my sandwiches and wasps represent an attack on my right to eat them (the sandwiches, not the wasps) that I find unacceptable.  

Well, in desperate attempts to chase them away, we all used to try and swat them with tea towels, or wave them away with our bare hands. Waving wasps away with your hands is dangerous, because a waved away wasp is an angry animal and will sting like hell.  The sound of a human stung by a wasp is not easily forgotten, at least not by a human.  A wasp has nothing to gain from its sting apart from some kind of closure or revenge, a kind of knee jerking self defence, but we have a lot to lose, mostly time clutching a wasp sting to try and stop it hurting that could be spent eating more sandwiches with our beloved jam inside.

So a wasp wants jam, and it’s tiny brain cannot tell itself that to want jam is unfair on us humans, and that stinging us in pursuit of this aim is unacceptable.  A brain telling itself to think differently, or not at all, that would be something.  Indeed, even humans with their big, hugely developed brains have trouble with this kind of self diagnosis, and some say only people who shave their heads and chant and wear robes have ever managed it.

A wasp is a small animal, and a sandwich can maybe fit a hundred wasps laid out like sardines across its sticky surface.  One or two of these tiny animals going after one whole sandwich seems a waste of a good sandwich.  To eat a whole sandwich would take a hundred wasps a hundred years, or something like that.

So this was what happened.  A small amount of jam was put on a plate, a small amount that a large human would not miss, but a whole army of wasps could feast on.  Really, it was only a small amount of jam.  Once one wasp spotted it, they all followed like sheep and guzzled on what must have seemed to them an embarrassment of riches, but to a human would be merely a tiny smear, something to be casually wiped off in the washing up.  Hardly any jam at all in human terms.  We ate our sandwiches in relative peace.  

Everyone was happy.  Wasps probably can’t experience true happiness, but they need food and getting it is probably as close to happiness as a wasp gets.  I don’t think stinging people makes them happy.

Of course, we could have gone after the wasps, found their nest, killed them all with a bucket of boiling water.  But the kind of peace one eats one’s sandwiches in after such an action is a fragile peace, because there is always another nest, and the fear of more wasps makes us resentful that our partial victory will be undone, and that perhaps the wasp beats the human when it comes to survival in a world of jam.

I Don’t Care What I Think

Blah blah blah.  We are all broadcasters.  Online, every passing thought quickly caught, laid  endlessly out with the wise words and vapid platitudes of the population .

And here I am, adding to it.

Among the Twitterers I follow are John Cleese, Aristotle and Egg Dog, as well as various economists, comedians and people I have actually met or want to meet.  All of their opinions, proclamations and promotional gubbins are reduced to a tide of epigrams where the late Kurt Vonnegut delivers his wisdom from beyond the grave, comfortably sandwiched in my feed between Belfast City Airport and the Tweet Of God.

And most of it is in the first person.

The Internet is the safe haven of the confessional and the friend of the attention seeker.  Amongst other things, it is full of people voicing precisely that grievance.  I don’t mind saying I sometimes find it bewildering, brainless, stupefyingly dull.  I sort of love it, being something of an attention seeker myself.  But this horror about “The Me Generation”, it doesn’t quite feel right.

Ok, so write about something.  Anything.  What’s the first thing you would choose?  Well, back in school, maybe it was “What I Did On My Summer Holidays”, anything  just to get the kids to put pen to paper.  Later, if ever writing beckoned as a hobby or as a profession, the advice was always, above all…”write about what you know.”  For most people, that means write about onesselves.  As onesself, you are a ready made character that, by definition, must be plausible (it’s something to aim for at least).

Well, I have a new category of weariness that rivals Compassion Fatigue, Metal Fatigue and the rest.  I’m tired of Me.  First Person Fatigue.  I don’t mean I hate myself….it’s more of a….of a stylistic thing.  My opinions, my descriptions of various occurrences and events, my taste in whatever.  I don’t mind them, and don’t feel the need for anyone else to agree with them.  If I did I would get religious, follow the money.   But as a subject, they bore me.  I don’t care what I think.

I started this blog partly as a way of “broadening my audience” (“widening” doesn’t look right somehow) to satisfy the requirements of a touring grant, but I ended up enjoying the words more than the opinions.  The sounds of them, how they go together or don’t, they were something to play with like notes and sounds and gestures in music.  I just think I ran out of steam with Me.

But I do like writing.  It’s still fun, a hobby.  I still find that some ways of saying something sound better to me than others, and trying to find those ways is enough.   The thing doesn’t matter.  And I know I did it again (look how many times “I” and “me” comes up in this blog).  Baby steps though; it’s hard to do this kind of U-turn in one go, like changing your golf grip or your favourite drink.  And really, it’s almost enough to just do this for my own amusement.  But that “share” button is so shiny and attractively coloured, it’s so damn pushable……and….I am hopeful that Sonny Rollins, The Great Gatsby and Egg Dogg might follow me back.