Flatpack furniture, unbearable dissonances

“Many critics disparage a writer because they don’t like what he is trying to do, or because he is not trying to do something else”.

William Burroughs, “Creative Reading”

There it is, in a nutshell.  I am almost at a loss for words.  What I really want to do is just re-read and re-write that sentence, again and again.  How many pub rants, angry blogs, bilious tweets and sloppy articles come spewing forth from those who are, essentially, disappointed that the world is wider than they might have wanted it to be, and that their opinions are now being challenged.

Well, OK, not all of them.  There’s plenty of bad music out there, and by “bad” I mean music where its creator doesn’t understand the working principles of the material he or she uses.  But often, the belief that music should be written or improvised according to irrefutable “laws” leads to the kind of evangelical divisions that hold back music’s natural progress.  To some people, music is a religion, and for some of those people it is also important to exclude those who do not believe.  The difference is, a chord progression in a Cole Porter tune does not negate the existence of a chord based on the creases in a piece of paper, there is room for both, and this is because they do different things.

And it’s important not to assume you know exactly how your music is being received.  After a particularly raucous and, I suppose one might say “abstract” set with Sleepthief in Brooklyn, I spoke to a guy in the audience.  He’s a regular on the improv scene there, completely dedicated to music that is still seen as “difficult” by the general public.   He said to me, referring not specifically to our performance but to the improv scene as a whole; “This music saved my life.”  To go on stage and make things up,  I have to believe in its power to provoke that reaction, to be part of that world of sound that helps people out in some way or another, and that I am not in control of anything that happens after the music’s been played.  On person’s Fire In A Pet Shop is another person’s Desert Island Disc.  Robin Thicke’s single, Blurred Lines, cast in the usual mould with bikinis and beats, makes me want to cover my ears and puke in the same way some people might feel about conceptual art.  But it’s not because it’s “basic” or “undemanding”; it’s because he nicked it from Marvin Gaye, and it sounds like it.  That is the kind of dissonance my ears and gut can’t cope with.

Music can seem like flat pack furniture, doors, panels, hinges are handed to you the listener, sometimes at great speed, or with worrying silences in between, but there is no picture to tell you what it should look like when it’s finished.  Some people like to figure it out piece by piece, painstakingly and precisely, others just leave everything in a big heap, step back and see if a mental image emerges from the debris.  Star Trek’s Mr Spock leaves the “Enterprise” intact, only to emerge on some remote planet with his legs on backwards.  Or fastened securely to the doors of a flat pack wardrobe.  We are, in the words of someone who’s name is now lost in the mists of time, pissing in the wind.

I was thinking at this point of putting up a live recording of the band, and then writing about it, what goes on in it, what you might listen for, I thought it might be informative or interesting, maybe something about what I intended to happen, and then what actually did happen, and whether that’s a good thing or not (I think maybe sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t), and then I thought, no, it’s not ready, we haven’t finished it yet, maybe it will be more “representative” on a later gig,  but on the other hand maybe if I tell people what I’m doing they can’t criticise me for not doing it unless I’m really not doing what I said I’d do in which case I deserve it….

In the end, I decided not to.  Better, I thought, to let an audience decide for themselves, they’re the ones in charge.

Episode 7

I don’t know why, or how, but some days you just sit at the piano and it happens.  You know something is waiting to come out, and you just have to not get in the way of it.  There is only one other place where one experiences this sitting down; in both cases it’s best to lock the door to avoid interruptions.

So, there I was, I could barely write the tune out fast enough, the unconscious memories of motifs, lines, harmonies, for once emerging as one single idea, finely wrought, catchy but contemporary, eminently playable, natural and swinging, it wrote itself, I was trying just to watch it happen, treading a line between improvisation and composition, seeing the whole piece and yet somehow hanging on every emerging phrase.

And so it was that I came to write, almost note for note, Thelonious Monk’s “Locomotive” (1954).

I think some people get to this point, and are unlucky enough not to realise their creative spark was merely the result of some kind of bizarre dictation from the celestial jazz boardroom, in this case the eccentric piano genius Thelonious Monk.  It’s easily done.  Of course there were some discrepancies.  I managed to spoil the flow of Monk’s line in places with some of my own inventions, which under the circumstances could be viewed simply as mistakes, notes that he didn’t think of and so didn’t fit.  I was mishearing someone else’s voice as my own, and for about ten minutes afterwards was convinced that a masterpiece of construction conceived fifty years before had just come into existence at my piano.

The line between listening (reading) and creating (writing or improvising) is a fine one.  The author William Burroughs, in his essay “Creative Reading” from “The Adding Machine”  said;

“I have come to doubt whether creative writing can be taught.  It is like trying to teach someone to dream.  So now I teach creative reading.”

Composing is, I find, no more reliable than dreaming – we have no idea of the origin of things that pop into out heads, and if it feels right and comes to us in the form of inspiration we’ll take it as ours.  Of course, pretty much all music has a shared language, and in jazz that is positively encouraged, but mostly this is on the more microscopic level of a phrase, a “lick”, an old favourite woven gracefully into the fabric of an improvisation.  To be reminded of something familiar and yet still be surprised by it; for me, thats’s the Holy Grail of the jazz solo.

But composing is different, it’s set in stone.  It’s like the difference between a pub conversation and a Facebook post, and it is similarly important to know the difference.  Playing two bars of “Locomotive” in the course of an improvisation on “Monk’s Dream” is ingenious, it’s creative, but to put it in print is straightforward plagiarism.  Or is it?

These “rules” that I am trying to write about are set by me, for me.  It comes down to what you can put up with.  I sat down about two years ago, and in a moment not unlike the “Locomotive Debacle” (as I have decided to call it), played four lop sided, funky, fully formed bars of music.  But this time, they survived, and I hear them every time “Brother Face” does a gig.  I’ve heard them played by ensembles at The Royal Academy and Trinity Laban, and I’m happy with them.  I’ve made my peace with these bars; it wasn’t easy because, as soon as I’d played them at the piano, Geri Allen’s music came into my head.

The thing is, she’s not quite as famous as Monk; and these bars are reminiscent of, rather than stolen from, a particular way she used to write.  I reckon I could have gotten away with it, but every time I hear that piece, I’m glad that I called it “Geri”.  I suppose it’s part disclaimer, part tribute, but I’m happy that it moves into other areas that are characteristic of the band rather than the composition.  I’m hoping people will go back and listen to her early albums like “Twilight”, “Maroons” and “Open On All Sides”, and maybe they’ll see the connection, but be impressed with how the band moves the music in new directions.  Or in old directions.   Either way, an acknowledgement that I admit the theft, let’s say the borrowing, and I do it in print, sort of, means that I can look at myself in the mirror in the morning.

Rules are made for bending.

Bees, wasps, famous people and Atheists

This morning I was lulled out of sleep by a news item on the Today Program on Radio 4 concerning a Church for Atheists, the assertion that Atheism is a kind of belief system analogous to religion, but without the acknowledgement of the existence of God.

Several days before, I stumbled online into some enthusiastic online rants about pianist Vijay Iyer, recent recipient of the prestigious $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship, from some very high profile musicians who should know better.  

Putting out the rubbish, I recalled reading another pianist, Paul Bley, talking about how important it was “not to make a  record that is already in the shops”.  

I am trying to figure out why these isolated occurrences are all in my head today.  I think I have been, as usual, worrying about how to make music in a way that doesn’t make me in some way feel guilty doing it.  And the more I believe in it, which is not always a lot, the harder it is.

Trying to make music that is not “already in the shops” – yes, I know that is a hopeless and, some would say, arrogant ambition – involves a certain sense of isolation, and also by definition a voyage into the unknown in that it lacks the strong role models of structure and language that mark out established genres of music.  An extreme example of this happened in a lesson years ago, where a musician wanted to “invent a new language” for improvisation, but applied to hard bop tunes.  For the non-jazz aficionados reading this, and I hope there are some, this could be likened to translating Roll Out The Barrel into Esperanto.  The definition of language is to do with shared understanding; in a new language, who do you talk to?  Language, as with music, evolves in baby steps, but after walking for some time you can still find yourself some way from the kindergarten.  You can also bump into people that have themselves strayed from some other place, perhaps some classical chamber musicians who strayed into improvised music via Cage’s experiments with isolated sound”moments” or some rock musicians who got bored with the same chords and decided that even three was too many.

The point is, wherever one ends up, there’s always that feeling of it being a statement.  “This is what I believe music should be”.  Even if the statement is “I don’t believe there should be any statements”, you are at odds with the people that believe that there should statements.  When a very famous guitarist trashes, then apologises for trashing, Vijay Iyer, publicly, in print, it all feels to me like a waste of energy.  Although a hasty public apology was issued, there is going to be that awkward moment at the North Sea Festival, or Montreux, or Nice, where they are backstage together, trying to ignore the buried hatchet’s still visible glinting blade.  But they need each other, the animosity fuels the art.

Those readers who know me will be tutting under their breath at my hypocrisy right now; I am, I admit, mostly for comic or tragic effect, the biggest slagger-off of things I have ever met.  Many of the things I don’t like are my own or of my own making.  However, I would like to suggest (mostly to myself I suppose) a new model of tolerance…stop laughing, hear me out.

I am starting to think of the music world, business, whatever it is, as an eco system.  We need the bees, we need the wasps, the venomous snakes and the cuddly polar bears (or at least our cuddly idea of polar bears).  We need the indulgence (expressiveness) of free improvisation, the rigour (expressiveness) of hard bop, the cynical manipulations (cynical manipulations) of Kenny G.  If I find something I don’t like in music, it helps me clarify what I want to do.  Similarly, I might find something I really like but still not do it.  Maybe, as Paul Bley says, it’s “already in the shops”, or maybe, there is more need for something else.  We need the things we don’t like.  I am eternally grateful for music I don’t like, and if there were ever a time where you could publicly thank someone for not liking their music I think we would be on the way to a better world.  It would be like cutting a piece of cake.
“I see you’ve taken the bit with all the smarties on, well that leaves me the sponge, which I happen to like more, so thanks.  Really.”
“You can pollenate the flowers, I’ll get on with annoying people on camp sites, stinging unsuspecting children, and prompting discussions amongst their parents about why I exist at all.”

There’s no way of telling whether I’m going in the right direction with my music, but in the end it seems to come down to having faith and belief.  Maybe some of the trappings of religion are useful after all.