What do Philip Glass, Michael Brecker and Charlie Parker have in common? They all became “influential”; their music was therefore admired, dissected for easily digestible nuggets of information, and promptly looted. Music conceived in a long flowing gesture of inspiration can be chopped up like a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces left in a pile to be put back together as people see fit.
Brecker and Parker have, from time to time, become synonymous with a kind of jazz “authenticity”, a level of technical expertise, a badge earned. It is proof of ability, and often impresses, like vaulting over the highest wall at the back of the school playground. But the way these players put ideas together, the storytelling, the artistry, is often all but ignored in favour of attention to the short term logic of flashiness, with a sound like wasps in a jam jar, as saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, master aphorist, once said.
Imagine, as a point of reference, an edit of “The French Connection” featuring only the car chases.
Glass wrote recently about ownership of music in the Internet age. If anyone has fiercely protected their intellectual property whilst allowing his “brand” a free rein it is Philip Glass. His gently undulating chords have acquired a kind of omnipotence, on tv they roll out like wallpaper over any quantity of cinematic dialogue, sweeping landscapes or, well, almost anything. They are everywhere, almost so easy to write that they write themselves. My god , those arpeggios. Save me from those arpeggios. Like Michael Nyman, he looked back to the baroque for inspiration, taking the music’s chordal accompaniments (arpeggios, broken chords, whatever) and promoting them to a lead role by removing, to put it rather crudely, the “tune”. They are, in many ways, nothing more or less than a box of paints looking for an outline.
And yet in his early work, Glass focused almost entirely on the rate of change of these chords, or eventual adding of a single note to a repeating pattern, like a Persian rug design that grows an inch if you look at it hard enough. These alterations were exquisitely paced, dropped like rocks in a sand garden, few and far between for maximum impact. And, for me, it works, a process that is in itself a beautiful thing. Before he eventually followed his own followers into a bland orchestral mush of symphonic turd polishing, largely of his own making, Glass had something. He had something so huge it had to be monetised.
Structure is a long term phenomenon, it happens over time. An effective structure urges you to anticipate and reflect simultaneously, to experience what is to come with the weight of past moments in mind. It’s like a massage, it gets better if you stay with it, and like a massage, this is not always true if it is clumsily handled. As time passes, the skill required in maintaining an atmosphere, telling a story, increases. And whether pre concieved or improvised on the spot, you either stay for the whole thing or you miss its essence.
And yet, in the midst of this strange decline in attentiveness, we have the Box Set. Netflix, Amazon Prime and others enable us to digest long term structures, and some, like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are extraordinary. We can digest them in a single sitting. Or not.
And that’s the key. We choose the pace of our cultural consumption. I watched an episode of the “The Good Wife” in my pants a few mornings ago. If I wanted to I could pause it in my underwear and watch the conclusion in a dinner jacket. You can’t do that with an opera. There is a kind of entitlement to our own leisure time tabling, to have absolute choice over which thing on a phone we look at and when and for how long. Some people in the arts are very creative in addressing this need, feeding it whilst maintaining some kind of artistic integrity. I am envious of them, and would like some pointers, to be honest.
In a recent double bill of Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” and “Symphony Of Psalms”, the director Peter Sellars had Oedipus, blinded and broken, walk across the stage in the middle of the second piece, a double fugue interrupted by a clumsy piece of theatre where Sellars attempted to link the impersonal detachment of Greek mythology with the penance of Christian psalms. And on he came at the end with his stupid trousers, and silly hair to take a bow, Stravinsky spun in his grave. But what are we to do? Keep trotting out the same stuff? We have to keep busy, reinterpret, find new meanings and connections in a world where time and space no longer separate the events of innumerable lives throughout history. It’s my personal sacred space that Peter Sellars invaded, but for others he may have brought that music to life. I can go back to the composer’s recording for my kicks.
Don’t get me wrong, it could be that this is all fascinating, an opportunity for new forms of art. I know I am old, and it is my inevitable fate to look on, befuddled and bemused, as those youngsters devoted to a new utopia, having grown up with the cloud, fashion it’s silver lining.
And as I sink into season 5 of “The Good Wife”, a twisting, turning, long-game playing legal saga, I hear again those fucking arpeggios again, bittersweet, major to minor, signifying nothing. Another missed royalty for Philip Glass, taken by some other composer who hired that music rather than owned it.