“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.