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.