Whenever I play music that I’ve written (which is not very often for reasons I’ll go into later) I find myself wondering why I do it. It’s a compulsion. I know what I’m in for when this happens; I question whether it makes sense, whether it is worth anything, whether the musicians and audience will like it or understand it. I’m convinced now that this all translates into a general fear of responsibility. Being a sideman is preferable from the mental health angle; one is allowed to contribute to the music’s success without being ultimately responsible for it. Of course, the amount of room one has to do that varies from band to band, and sometimes having a very confined role can be interesting in that you might just focus on feel and sound, for example. But you are always moving about in a framework that, ultimately, is not your decision, not your responsibility. The “round and round” song structures of jazz, assertive yet flexible, allow an infinite array of variation and yet one is always going round and round, and that is what people have always done. It’s tried and tested. Once you let go of this element of the music, then each piece may need its own rules, based more on the nature of the ideas in the melody, or a rhythmic figure, or just a particular atmosphere or texture. And you always need a way back to the composition itself – in contrast, the great advantage of freely improvised music (and it’s greatest failing for those who are not fans), is that by definition there is nothing specific to find your way back to.
Personally I like both, but music I write has often seemed to flit in and out of these areas. There are certain things in music that I don’t want to leave behind because I like them too much. I like tunes, for example; old fashioned tunes. I also like very abstract textures and lines, but when I close my eyes and see my band on stage about to play, I don’t hear them doing it. Besides, lots of other people do that very well and I don’t want to provide unnecessary competition. But I do like the idea of not going back, of starting a tune that never returns in the same form, and this sometimes involves not writing tunes that are too tuneful otherwise they will sound like they want to come back. And when you don’t bring them back, the tunes get angry with you. Angry tunes don’t sound good, you have to keep them in their proper environment, treat them with respect. They become like people; or cats. I feel the DNA of the structure of a piece is somehow contained in its main tune or phrase, in a particular rhythm; uncovering that structure can take me a long time, and it might only be 5 bars long after all that. And I’m never sure I’ve got it quite right.
So to put all this on the musicians is a pretty tall order. They are all improvising, sometimes with almost nothing to go on, but with a view to arriving at another place where they will suddenly have to read a passage, remember how many times we play it and lead on to the next section. Of course, the sensible thing is to write all these geographical details down, which I did, complete with clearly delineated bullet points and bold title fonts, and which we all forgot halfway through our inaugural gig at Wakefield on Friday. At these points, sometimes the best music happens; an audience likes nothing more than to see a group of musicians communicating, getting in and out of trouble. In some ways the purpose of the music is to stimulate the band into these kinds of situations, so that the improvising then becomes the the “meat” of the piece and the musicians can guide the development of the piece. On the other hand, there are the kinds of mistakes that are just simply wrong; there is a way of underplaying these, which is to play something that “could almost fit anywhere”. This is very much a last resort of course, like breaking the emergency glass with the hammer.
All of which begs the question, why make things awkward for myself and everyone else? And the only answer I have is that when I sit down and write stuff, that’s what comes out. There’s like a feint sound of music in the background of my head, and I’m trying to catch it, and when I don’t catch it it’s like….”nearly”, and I have to try again for as long as I’ve got, and then it’s two weeks til the gigs start and I have to say, OK that’s it, I’ve finished these pieces. There are all these methods of writing, structuring, things we know work, and yet….somehow, when you are writing your own music, all you can do is listen and wait for ideas to come.
It’s easy to tie oneself up in knots about all this, but it’s not a bad job to have and a lot of the time the music goes down pretty well. The audience at Wakefield were, as ever, hugely enthusiastic about the music; perhaps it’s good that they are unaware all the neurotic histrionics that go into it’s preparation.