What’s Your Chosen Noise?

People just make noise. We like to think it’s more than that, but it isn’t. My son is fifteen months old and he makes noises. They aren’t specific yet but everything else is there, ready to go. I think a room full of toddlers might be having deep conversations that they understand, perhaps berating the necessity for a language that can be written down and used against them in the parking fines of their future. But in this gibbering soundscape can be heard a kind of phrasing, something that feels like sentences. There’s a kind of urge to speak running through them, with intonation that implies a question or a statement depending on the upward turn at the end. They are imitating us, and mostly they have us down pretty good.

What they don’t do is labour intensively at one word, remaining silent until it is perfected before moving on to the next. Yes, there are occasional words that pop out, words they pick up and repeat, that will eventually become absorbed into the stream of verbal noise and sidle up to our adult language. But there is no struggle for perfection (such as I am currently experiencing with the Italian indefinite article rules): just a kind of river of sound that picks up real words and carries them downstream.

Jazz students and teachers, you probably know where I’m going with this. Get in there and make noises. Eventually, like developing toddlers, you’ll get impatient with them and need to refine things, move the notes around, make cadences and all that. But it can wait. With no sound, with no “urge to speak”, you will be tied to the paper and what it tells you to do, all the pipework and no water. Don’t be like that, it’s no fun. God knows we need some of that right now.

My Week With Madonna

It was not undertaken lightly. Playing Madonna songs solo is toying with people’s memories of teenage snogging at parties and remixing them through an Edwardian parlour instrument. The piano is designed to cope with complex note combinations (as are the fingers), but not such sumptuous layers of production as are found in Madge’s back catalogue, where two notes can be souped up into a cathartic rush of adrenalin.

In the more recent albums this production took on its own life, swallowing up both song and singer in a cloud of generic noises. (I wouldn’t, for instance, go near “MDNA” if I were you). But there are plenty of meaty things to get stuck into in the earlier stuff. “Like A Virgin” slowed down to a kind of Motown/Don Cherry feel, and the later “American Life”, just on the edge of her robotic future, has some nice angles on what is nearly a blues. “Ray Of Light” seems to hit a perfect balance, her voice sounds great, and is sympathetically framed by William Orbit’s lush layered grooves. That’s the key for me, the framing of “the voice”.

I was surprised at how much I liked her singing. She has a great voice. She’s not a great singer. Pop doesn’t care about “chops”, but she delivers everything with a kind of heightened emotion. Its like when you play in a musical pit band, and somehow the sentimentality that is compulsorily sniffed at completely overwhelms you by the closing night. (It was a relief to escape to the less draining world of improvised music, where a moving experience can at least be supplanted by another the next night.)

Madonna is so rich and famous, no one could ever deserve it. Early glee at this situation gives way to self parody later (“Material Girl” to “American Life” is quite a journey). I always felt she was sending up her life in the same way Prince seemed to.

She’s an easy target for mockery, envy, and shrugging ambivalence. I must say I never really bought into the whole bra thing either (a shame, those shares would have got me through the nineties quite nicely). But aside from the wave of nostalgic flashbacks her music triggered for me, it was an edifying experience to dig into the music and find some gold there. And while I don’t really feel like playing jazz just yet, the world of “other music” is as good a place to stick the shovel as any.

Should you listen?


Life is full of ritual and repetition at the moment. Breakfasts, nappies and baths, novelty Italian pop songs and nursery rhymes for comfort, and bedtime stories. “Giraffes Can’t Dance” is intoned nightly, like three junior “Hail Marys”. The unlikely story unfolds at the “Jungle Dance”, where animals normally seen tearing each other to pieces gather instead for a friendly (but lightly competitive) boogie. Gerald the Giraffe, enormous, initially all flailing legs and buckled knees, learns to find his own personal dance music in nature’s own sounds after consulting a cricket with a violin the size of a shirt button. It’s a great story. When you read something every night, if it’s not very good it gets old pretty quick. And though its appeal to a one year old is mostly about the sound of rhyming couplets, I hope something of the message might get through.

Music and nature have always been close, the former often leans on the latter for meaning. There are symphonies of the sea and the mountains, idealised flashes of cod nightingales, “The Planets” (no link, you know at least some of it). All of this is beautiful of course, after seen as some kind of pinnacle of artistic achievement, but for these composers the raw sounds of nature themselves were a step too far. Music was about large scale structures evolving with moving parts that corresponded to rules of combination played on instruments using a man made system of tuning in order that these rules could be flexible enough to sustain the scale of its ambition. It’s not “natural” so much as people trying to formalise nature (and doing it very well let’s not forget).

Nightingales, on the other hand, were like crickets, something to sit about with, a relaxing noise. “Unspoilt”.

Look at “Blackbird” by The Beatles. What a great song about a bird. A bird that wants to be free, that also possesses a song of mind boggling complexity, a litany of obtuse angles and gritty clusters, swoops and bleeps of unimaginable dexterity. There are no familiar phrases, no repetitions (and some would say, therefore “no melody”) and tomorrow when you open your window it will be different again. And The Beatles, well, you have to give them credit,  the actual bird makes it on to the record. Just. And then the song comes crashing back in…but for a moment the two combine, and those avian psychedelic lines start dipping and diving around the earthbound chords. The song wins in the end of course, scales and arpeggios must triumph….nature, we can elevate you to art! The blackbird, “waiting for this moment to be free”, waits still. (It’s reference to the civil rights movement of the time seems even more appropriate over 50 years later).

Olivier Messiaen took the birds themselves a bit more seriously, and his attempts to capture their various songs seems an honest stab at the impossible, which then produces a kind of parallel art of almost equal complexity. Like a high end twitcher, he produced several volumes, catalogues of the stuff. It’s as if he is listening to the birds, taking instruction, a student of nature, acknowledging that in some way these animals are the original composersAs with any form of tribute, the greatest compliment is to come up with something new in response and so the birds inspire, but again are absorbed into a relatively mathematical world of post-war complexity (the “alpine chough” doesn’t actually sound like that) and western structural ambition. Again, this is transcendent music, but you can still only play it with practice and careful rote-style learning.

With John Cage, we start to see the idea that music is what we say it is. We put a frame around it, we listen as opposed to hearing. Cage is unbothered by coincidences, mismatches, accidents…he relinquishes control. He accepts whatever happens, and makes it music by the level of attention given to it. For Gerald the Giraffe, the way into music is to stop searching for soul in Scottish Reels and simply listen to the wind through the trees. (Shakuhachi music from Japan often incorporates this sound as a real musical element, as if nature envelops the notes, or rather that they emerge from it). 

I’ve had to get rid of my fair share of western music thinking just to get to something else (I also kept a bit). When I improvise, I often imagine the way elements of nature appear to interact, grass  waving against immovable mountain, a cat hiding in a bush, Incy Wincy spider making her way up the water spout. This is necessarily the same when listening, as improvising is both playing and listening in the same action. As a player, I am simply a listener who can choose to contribute, and sometimes that is to let the fingers “blow” across the keys like leaves in the wind, the body following a natural impulse, the sounds landing where they will. Perhaps if we allow these sounds to become music, something like this can be seen by more of us as a natural way of making art. Like Gerald The Giraffe, you just need to put a frame around it.

(Thanks to “Giraffes Can’t Dance” by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees for the above quote and photo.)



Cats And The New Normal

Poor thing, I thought, that swelling looks painful. It’s right where you don’t want it, where the sun don’t shine as they say. He’s skinny and ginger, a mouser I reckon (perhaps the occasional lizard when rodents are scarce). Too thin for a domestic cat, although he looks well on it. But that lump….it looks serious.

It’s not. He isn’t ill. He is, in fact, is very well. Very well indeed. He jumps, he positively bounds. He’s full of beans. He has, actually, balls, the balls he was born with, which explains the lump. So yes, he’s very well indeed. What would T.S Eliot have said? Was MaCavity neutered?

This cat’s illness is no worse than that occasional malaise and misfortune that goes with possessing a full set of genitalia, a condition with which those of us thus blessed are more than familiar. Growing up in England, I realise I’d never seen balls on a cat. A cat in my world was usually fat, ate processed food and had nothing to lick but its arse. Cats must have sat in suburban rooms watching all those documentaries on lions, tigers and other “big” cats with David Attenborough and thought, is this where our great heritage has led us? As another huge and majestic animal sinks its claws into a defenceless antelope, Tiddles thinks to himself: this the end of the line?

And yes, I know there are good reasons why cats are neutered. They go at it like rabbits (I’m not sure if this is a reference to favoured positions, elaborate courtship rituals or simply the drive to produce more and more other cats). But the modern domestic cat is a radically sanitised animal, a shadow of its wilder ancestors. It’s not “normal” but is rather a synthesised hybrid. Instead of prowling around for a mate, it eats dried biscuits from a plastic bowl and plays with mice because eating them has become largely superfluous.

Boris Johnson said in July that we’ll be back to “normal” by Christmas. “Normal”. A cat with its balls cut off. I can’t think of that word any other way now.

Solo-tude: Performing in Lockdown.

Ten minutes before I start, there’s the pacing around. I used to think it was the people in the room, the building, the expectant promoters, that made me do that. Instead I have my own living room, the background slightly altered to remove broken pens, piles of shit and other objects of distraction whilst remaining kind of homely. My wife Elena is in documentaries, so she knows how to do all that, to remove the clutter of typical peripheral vision. She set the frame and now I can just about remember where it goes. And still I pace.

My audience are accessed through laptop; I can see their chat in one window, my grimacing bonce looking back at me in the other. The mouth moves, jokes and anecdotes get as far as the glass of the screen. I hope people are listening. Various messages on my screen tell me they are. Twelve gigs in, I can almost feel them there. Human beings are funny like that, we tell stories to ourselves where necessary. I wonder if they are telling themselves something similar?

If doing solo gigs makes you feel naked and exposed, then doing them in your own house on a rented piano (chosen for its ease of transport through narrow doorways over sweetness of tone) adds a new level. Here is my music, here is my living room. Elena and Lorenzo are upstairs, the former watching remotely, the latter distracted by the surrealistic loops of “In The Night Garden”. I bet Horowitz never had to do this.

And yet there’s something I really like about these gigs. Apart from camera I am speaking to, the other is on my hands, and if I had to keep only one I would lose the talking face in the blink of an eye. Whilst YouTube searches serve up a series of views of the back of my head, as if looking for a good barber, now at least my best side is on view. Hands are where it happens for me: the audience sees what I see. That feels more intimate and means I don’t have to project in that operatic, classical way. (9 foot Steinways boom and resonate in big rooms, but in solo settings I like everything in close and dry). It’s almost my ideal setting…a couple of people on the sofa watching would edge it past the “almost” I think. I remind myself constantly that I’m lucky to have this instrument, to be able to play something in this stifling solitude; most instruments need company to function. Yes…I’m lucky.

It’s a kind of lonely intimacy, not quite a gig – something else. As the lockdown has eased, so too has the audience, but I’ve got some loyal followers that will sit for an hour and a half and listen. Often it feels like a radio broadcast, a journalist out in the field at home. A job I gave myself with no compunction to travel, no dealing with rejections, no competition….no other people. 

The choice of music is different too. I don’t feel like a jazz pianist in this context; for me jazz is an ensemble music, you need people, at least that’s where the sweet spot is. There are curveballs and surprises, ebb and flow, the intrusion of other people’s ideas being the best thing. This is different, it’s going back. Back to the piano as social hub, replaced successively by the radio, the television, the computer and the smart phone in successive leaps. As the outside world reverts to its re-wilded self, so I feel the piano regressing, an Edwardian music box straining under the weight of music produced in the studios of the future. 

I’ve slashed and burned my way through Black Sabbath, Prince, Katy Perry and The Eurhythmics, walked on the eggshells of Giles Farnaby and Robert Schumann. Stuff I would only do at home (maybe not even there) just because it’s fun to try, and because I want to offer people something they might know, and something they won’t, or mayn’t. Tying each gig to a theme, with transcribed music rushed out often unpracticed between childcare duties, has given the whole thing a kind of headlong amateur momentum, as if to say “it’s not official, not like a proper concert”. It’s like public practice, but without the endless repetition towards perfection.

It’s stripped back. The piano reduces everything, takes out the polish of production, the colours of orchestration: all that’s left are notes and how they move. There’s always a question of whether it all hangs together, some gigs go better for me than others, but I always have a beer on the go to take the edge off that feeling. It really helps, makes it a social offering rather than a demonstration of some kind of excellence.

I mean, it’s not “going to the pub” but…it’s getting there. 

Nothing To Add But What To Do

To write nothing now feels neglectful, like I don’t care. To write something is to draw pointless scribbles on an already overworked canvas. This virus has funnelled everything into one topic of conversation, punctuated by one walk in the park per day. I have a small baby so nothing much has changed except I can’t spend three quid on a coffee as part of the walk. Now that I’ve got my #LondonTwatFirstWorldProblems out of the way, I can put my mind to finding a vaccine. And I can tell you one thing, you’ve got to stick to what you know because the experts have their thing and all that, but they may not think to look off the beaten track, outside the box.

Sorry. There’s nothing worse than being told to “think outside the box”, a phrase which seems to just place us all firmly within a new, larger box with firmer sides. Think outside the idea of “box”, that’s what I do, like, all the time. Just pure thought, drifting on the air, free and easy. Boxes are out…all that wasteful packaging…

As a free thinker, I started early.

Our sports teacher at school said he would give us a mars bar if we caught him out at softball. He got in to bat, huge and high, all these kids in oversized shorts ran up the field anticipating the long shot. Never had the term “long shot” been so full of meaning…starry eyed kids staring into the sun as a small leather missile hurtled towards them, waiting for the terrible moment of impact, then the fumble, then the weeks of classroom taunting.. I went behind him, on the off chance that if he clipped the ball, I’d be able to hold it because it was only going at the pace of the bowler (the bowler was standard issue oversized shorts guy.) He clipped it, I caught it and, with the hollow victory of my Mars bar melting in my pocket, I thought: this will be in a blog one day, whatever that is.

But I have to go back further, back, back into my early youth. Had you come round to play at my house (particularly on a Sunday) circa 1973, or the houses of any of my friends in the neighbourhood, I would have got my crayons out. From old scrap paper spread across the floor, the masterpieces would start to emerge. But something was missing. If we drew fruit, there were no peaches, oranges or nectarines. If we drew flowers there were no marigolds. And if we drew religious processions, the Hari Krishna movement was nowhere to be seen. In short, there were no orange crayons. Anywhere. Not at my house or anyone else’s. This is what happened.

My friend, who’s anonymity I shall preserve, had a big brother, and this big brother loved crayons. He particularly loved the orange ones, in fact he exclusively loved the orange ones. But he was not particularly interested in art. Not for him the glories of the family fridge door gallery…no, it was a more unnatural love. It was the love that dare not draw and colour in its name.

He ate them. He would burrow like a weevil through the boxes of the neighbourhood, leaving a perfect orange hole, an absence of orange, like a tangerine ghost. The thing was – and this is something I might not be remembering right, but it’s so vivid in my mind, 47 years later – he was never ill. He was remarkably well throughout this period. Kids, you know, they catch colds, flu, measles, chicken pox, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t. His body sensed something in the wax- while we were all wasting it on pictures of fruit, he was building up his immune system. He had a smile that burnt like the sun.

“While crayons are not edible, they won’t make your child sick” says this website. That’s a strange statement; what is edible? That which is not ejected by the stomach back the way it came? And could this strange hinterland between food and poison be the place we need to look for our own protection? The discovery of penicillin was due to an accident, a Petri dish left by an open window. And orange crayons are as much a match for mould as anything else. Start with what you know. It would have been easy to gloss over this strange property of orange crayons at the time, I was five, I was into other stuff. I didn’t join the dots, I didn’t draw the right conclusions. This low hanging orange fruit was just proud of my grasp.

Now is the time. Grasp it. Think outside the box filled with the people thinking outside the box. Crayola, your time is now. When it looks like there’s nothing to add.

Advice For Jazz Students #26: Z is for “Zen”(4th draft)

I’m at the end of the alphabet and if you make the ending good, I was often told, people will forgive the middle and likely forget the beginning. To have “Z” at the end of the alphabet is a warning to those who would lean on its A-Z structure and still hope for a big finish. Well, point taken. I wonder who decided the order of the letters, a think tank maybe, batting ideas across a big desk….”I’m not so sure about “z”…ok, well maybe stick it on the end if we need it later.

I remember when I started reading about Zen as a confused teenager. I felt I was absorbing something, something that passed for knowledge, lapping up the pomposity-busting fables, soaking up the Samurai tales and staring into space contemplating impossible riddles. Distancing myself from everything. It’s been a big old glorious waste of time. It’s been very “Zen”.

All that accumulation. Trying to understand. Mulling over the sound of one hand clapping and nodding sagely (to myself mostly) at the impossibility of an answer. Indeed, all I could get from Zen, which was plenty, was that the word “answer” was some kind of abhorrent offshoot that should never have found its way into any language. Undeterred, and spurred on by North London hipsters in medieval robes and Nike trainers, I tried a meditation group. It was uncomfortable, we faced radiators at close quarters for an hour and a half. I was thrilled by the sheer austerity of it all (although the trainers were a distraction). I watched an itch in my nose sneak up on me, peak in tension, then dissolve. I approached Zen as a study. I tried to find the “stuff” of it. To gain understanding, adding and adding like so many layers of paint over a life drawn in lines. Data. Content. (Bullshit).

It was a mistake to gather information. I think it’s better to lose everything (I can only suspect this is true, since I still travel fully laden with baggage), not accumulate things. Get rid of preconceptions and judgements, or at least see them for what they are. Monks in robes may have the key to contentment, and they may not. The robes indicate nothing. The “Buddha” indicates nothing. In the end, I loved the negation of Zen, the insecurity of it. You could never stop asking questions, you could never find the “theory of everything”, because theory negates the need for thinking in favour of one approach for every situation (a snake crosses your path and you kill it simply because it might be poisonous).  In literature, one Zen Master would insist that  zazen (sitting meditation) puts one in natural accord with the world, another would point out the awkward fact that animals, generally seen as paid up members of the world of “nature”, don’t meditate.

Everyone contradicted each other. I like that fact, and I like it in music. Teachers, musicians and theorists can’t agree on anything (if they are worth the name)…Stravinsky said “I prefer thinking to understanding, for thinking is active and continuous, like composing, while to understand is to bring to an end.” That sums it up. Staying awake, never resting. Be awake for when the details reveal themselves, use attention that is “active and continuous”. Keep your eyes peeled, my dad used to say. 

Attention to detail. For me that’s all it is. Detail takes you beyond “Zen”, it cuts to ribbons the Japanese robes, unplugs the home keyboard shakuhachis and the fake bells that toll and tinkle, but you need to listen hard. It evicts the corporate hippies who hold thumbs and forefingers together on top of their crossed legs as they say “you have to be a bit more zen about it”. “OK, I will” I think, imagining a large sword that needs, unlike clapping, two hands to hold it and only one good cut to finish the job.

But then, having summed up, look also at the opposite…the big picture, as they say. It’s easy to work on two bars of a tune forgetting that the piece as a whole goes nowhere, or to complain about people not self-isolating when your isolation is conducted in a three bedroom house with a garden. I think these two examples are the same thing. Perhaps that’s the closest to Zen I will get.

 It’s hard to stop your brain churning over ideas. When people say “ah, where does all that music come from?” and you say “10,000 hours of practice” or whatever the new theory is, I think, yes, it’s that, but….it’s also endless microseconds between conversations, washing up, nappy changing and paperwork where your eyes get far off and you start listening to the voices in your head, chords, scales, noises…trying to make sense of them. To put that stuff away so you can engage in “real life” takes as much discipline as the practice that got you there.

Writing these blogs has expunged some of that floating debris and “Z” now feels like the only letter that could ever put a stop to it. Maybe I’ll do another series, starting with Z and working back the other way, a reverse arc that ends on the million possibilities of “A is for…” Or I could tidy the living room, a challenge that rises up like an edifice of unknown alphabets. the room is messy. “…when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink” was Bankei’s retort to questions about the miracle of Zen enlightenment.

The room is messy, so I tidy up. Now bow before me as your new guru while I sweep some more crap under the sofa



Advice For Jazz Students #25: Y is for Youth

“…love, like youth, is wasted on the young” : Sammy Can, Jimmy Van Heusen, “The Second Time Around”

Snappy eh? It trips off the tongue like a good lyric should, it has that smug, smart arsed symmetry that sneaks a meaning more pernicious than at first is felt. George Bernard Shaw said something similar, Shaw and doubtless everyone else in the world who gets “older”.

Youth is not wasted on the young, it is theirs, old people don’t get to choose, them with their knowing glance back at a healthy, happy, tough but fair childhood where things would put hairs on your chest whether you wanted them or not. As with most situations, political or otherwise, you simply have to say: “OK, what would you do? Not what would you do in 1965, when everything was “better”but NOW!

It’s a classic “OK Boomer” situation.

I have youths to think about, two big ones and a very small one. It’s a strange time of inertia and fear. The big ones will have come knowingly through this virus, the small one will doubtless have the tag “corona baby”, as war babies did, and grow up wondering what it meant. They will have their arses kicked by this thing, but a kick that propels them up and out, not wearing them down.

We desperately need young people, old people, everyone, to combine their wisdom, drive, ingenuity, experience, naivety, optimism and free time to reconstruct both the music industry and the world into which it fits. But to be young means you are, I hope, viewing all of this as a challenge, maybe even an opportunity for change, and are not defeated by it. I embrace defeat a bit too easily.

We had it good. Or different. A CD, with its huge markup, abhorrent packaging (jewel cases at least) and precarious physical form (once described as “indestructible”) was nevertheless a thing, a product you could sell to people like a table or a haircut. It was, in other words, a “product”, whereas music is essentially an experience, but you can’t live on that. A CD, like a record, was a product that delivers an experience. It was a disguise in which musicians could enter the market place.

So now what happens? Just the knowledge that a pandemic can freeze the hospitality and entertainment industries, as well as all of those who indirectly rely on movement of people, which is ultimately everyone, will change our lives profoundly. How this happens will be decided mostly by young people, at least I hope so, because they have to live for a longer time with the changes. Right now solitude is the new going out, a tendency that has always been creeping up on us and has finally pounced like an angry cat on a gormless mouse. A social gathering will be, for the next few months at least, a kind of “collection of solitudes”, clusters of laptops looking for love and inspiration and cantankerous bitching. It could be ok. We could get used to it, up to a point. And it’s temporary. But it will, I think, leave a lasting impression.

How does jazz and improvised music fit into this landscape? I don’t know. We will carry on, but it may not be enough. We have to find creative outlets in the isolation. Personally, I like the idea of sending around individual sound files that people add to, a web of musical “consequences”; it may have a texture all its own. The pop and session world has long functioned like this, but in a way that disguises the weirdness and smooths it out, like the band were all there, just playing really tight together. I like that too. But the strange and singular emotion of “remoteness” is another thing altogether.

Frank Zappa’s Rubber Shirt, for example, layers a live drum solo with a bass overdub from a completely different studio session three years earlier. And yet, the two musicians seem to be in a strange and beautiful dialogue that could not have happened any other way except through a third person, in this case Zappa himself, hearing some kind of connection across the years. There’s something ghostly about it, a kind of ouija board hook up. It’s also an example of “Xenochrony”, an absolute banger for “X” that I wish I’d found earlier. And what is composition or improvisation if it isn’t this…hearing or sensing connections between things in varying degrees of separation?

In John Cage’s own recording of his piece “Indeterminacy”, he reads stories, each of which has to fit into one minute, whilst David Tudor, in a separate studio and with the two unable to hear each other, plays through a score using electronics. The result sees Cage often blocked out by barrages of noise or seemingly answered with witty asides, but it feels uniquely human. It makes our “apartness”  into something strangely moving, often humorous and always compelling. The concept sounds unlistenable. Don’t take any notice of people that talk about concepts all the time and don’t do anything. Cage had his ear to the ground (one at time I guess) and was, more than anything else, a maker and doer of things.

These maverick works of art may never pave the way for anything commercial, but to me they remind me that new technologies, through accident or necessity, can and should be used in ways that reveal new emotions and atmospheres. People have been saying this for years, centuries; now, in this tiny bit of time where everything has stopped working, we seem to have no choice. I’m trying to be optimistic, but perhaps middle age is also wasted on the….er…people between the ages of…see, it doesn’t work. It just won’t scan.

Advice for Jazz Students #24: X is for other stuff

It seemed like a good idea, the alphabet. Something to build on or around. Bereft of ideas, it’s like a good friend that offers suggestions. However, I’ve reached that cliff edge that I knew was coming. I put off the dealing with it until now. And here I am. X.

I could say “X is for xylophone”, which is how I imagine of the piano if it gets too “singing” and the rhythm starts to suffer. It’s more like the drums,

If you areXanthoriatic”, you will find you are generally smart but lacking that trait in one particular area

“Xeniatrophobia” is to fear seeing a doctor you are not familiar with. I started this blog before the corona thing got really serious, so I’m over that fear (I’ll see anyone who’ll have me). In fact, the “xen” opening seems to refer often to strangers and our relationship to them. I’m not keen, generally speaking.


But what I really want to say is, I know when I’m beaten. If a system fails you, move the pieces, get rid of the dead letters and carry on. Note rows, chord sequences, whatever system you might use in music, know when to ditch it. Even Schoenberg cheated in the interest of a good tune.

There are 400 words in the English dictionary beginning with “x”. All of them would just be there for the sake of it. If “x” stands for anything, it’s that. It marks the spot, the spot where I relax the scheme. I don’t want to like a smart arse. Maybe it’s too late for that, but the “X is for Xerxes” episode would be the final nail in the coffin.

And I still have to do “Z”…..tap tap tap….





Advice For Jazz Students #23: W is for Why.

In 1958, if you were a jazz musician, things were surely on the up. “Milestones” by Miles Davis, “Freedom Suite” by Sonny Rollins, “John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio”, “Ahmad Jamal: Live At The Pershing” and countless other albums came spewing out, a steady stream of inspired, revolutionary and important music. And everyone would have been waiting with bated breath, had they known it was going to happen, for the official “Best Year Of Jazz Music”- 1959! (I’m sure once it arrived, Mingus and Ellington breathed a huge sigh of relief and said “aha, at last! It’s all going well for us now! No more struggle!“)

In the same year, serialist composer Milton Babbit wrote an essay called “Who Cares If You Listen”?, a title that was stuck on by headline hungry editors (it wasn’t his) as if to reduce Babbitt’s whole thesis to a raised middle finger. I’m not interested in dissecting it all here, but he says this at one point:

…the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.”

A retreat, then, to boldly not go where you are not wanted, as Captain Kirk might have said, but to research quietly, in a lab coat, the properties of musical structure understood by others in the same line of work. It’s like he was working on a cure for musical illiteracy, and then keeping it only for people who don’t have any symptoms. His disdain for the “whistling repertory of the man in the street“, the curse of populism, comes across like someone chastising their kids for not washing their hands before dinner. He’s a human making music, but for who? And why?

Public and private performance now overlap somewhat, for better or worse. The bedroom arena route to stardom on the stage was undreamt of in 1958; Babbitt’s bedroom gives the impression of a place full of sharpened pencils and bad dreams. He was, as you can see, on a bit of a downer about the future of “serious music”. I don’t want to argue the toss about whether music should reach out to the public, or draw them in (God forbid it should do both). I’m looking at the dates. Babbitt saw an end to what he regarded as serious music by 1958, but for Coltrane, Brubeck, Cecil Taylor and others it was only just beginning.

There will always be detractors, you will always wonder why you are doing it, you may or may not be dismayed by the apparent lack of appreciation from family, friends, the general public or the media. Don’t let that stop you. It is difficult, much easier with a deadline, especially when such a line has a fee at the end, but an audience of one (you) is enough as a starting point. Stravinsky used to just write all day, then when a commission came in, he’d often have something that fit the brief. We aren’t all Stravinsky, we aren’t even all composers, but improvising is the same, because what you play for yourself goes in somewhere and come out, somewhere else, later.

Babbitt felt he was creating something new that, paradoxically, needed to be preserved, creating a closely guarded method of advancement for music, a weird museum of the future. But, you know, whatever floats your boat. He made stuff, he found a way, an academic on a mission to keep music from those who don’t understand it. I feel as if I’m stuck in the middle of a whirlpool of detritus and debris, and, arms outstretched, I catch whatever is passing and I like the look of, and make something out of it. We come and go, and the storm blows on.

But also, to some extent, I’m with Babbitt. To be ambitious is sometimes merely to get really good. When people say “you’re not very ambitious”, I think, well my ambition is to finish this piece or this album or this sodding blog. And to do it well, so everything adds up and makes sense. When that happens, it’s kind of finished. Then the concerns about being a performer start, and I’ve never been one of them. The piano makes music a kind of desk job, coupled with the concentration of a particularly taxing evacuation of the bowels. Works for me, perhaps not for photographers.

So why then? We all have our reasons, but in the end no amount of news about revivals, revolutions, deaths and rebirths will stop people from wrestling that nagging tune out of their head and on to a laptop or a piano or some manuscript paper. You can even whistle it into your phone. The people that want to tell you it’s over or it’s just starting or it’s in need of a rethink, well, I hope someone is writing something like this for them too, because they also need to survive…

After all this, I went back to the music. Listening to Babbitt’s piano pieces, I feel that the two seemingly unrelated experiences of 1958 collided, became absorbed in each other. Serialism’s sound world eventually found its way into a landscape where Cecil Taylor or Alex Maguire could improvise something every bit as detailed as Babbitt’s painstakingly rendered notations and do a new one the next day.  So I’m not feeling Babbitt because somehow it doesn’t seem good economics. But it’s all over the internet now, so he can’t keep it from me any more. I’m not sure whether he’d like that or not.