I Have Trouble With History

“I didn’t really buy any of Sun Ra’s records because I could just go and hang out when they were performing, or go to one of their rehearsals, so I didn’t need the record!

Lonnie Liston Smith interviewed by Anton Spice .

Well, that’s cool Lonnie. The thing is, I’ve got everything in my little sardine box music screen machine here, so I don’t need to go out. Musically, I am staring blankly at the pasta section in a supermarket that stretches as far as the eye can see, marvelling at what I could eat. I’m not eating it, but I’m marvelling at my marvellous “eating future”. I’m going to check that out. The trolley’s still empty but think of what could fill it. No-Wave, post-punk, fettuccini, stuff my kids listen to, all things I’m going to check out. Really soon. It’s a really exciting time. Or it will be. The future’s bright.

Not all music, however, is designed for solitary listening, and we know that because people keep going out for it. It’s so cheap to have it sent straight into your ears, yet people spend a lot of money to be around other people listening to live music in a field where the wind may all but blow the sound out of earshot, and most of what you can hear is other people singing along to each other as the band do something somewhere out of sight. People do listen, even if it’s often with their eyes. Social media has propped up a kind of military takeover of the other four senses by the one that now reigns unchallenged; seeing. Seeing is believing.

As you get away from the festival experience, an event defined by numbers in many ways, immersion in music is more an act of will. Sometimes you have to do that yourself, make a conscious decision, lower yourself into the bath of it rather than wait for an attendant with a big bucket to pour it over you. Jazz has always been like that for me; and this goes for its history too.

My knowledge of jazz came from record covers laid out on the floor like a soap opera storyboard, this follows that, swing-bebop-cool-hardbop etc etc. I knew the accepted story, but my knowledge was not a bodily thing, it wasn’t in me, wasn’t backed up by any kind of experience. Jazz history played out like the Battle Of Waterloo with toy soldiers, and you just kind of put them in whatever position you felt most likely. The music’s past, and the past I would like to have experienced but didn’t, was for me a construct, pieced together from the musical fragments available at the time.

It all started around 1983, or thereabouts, The Churchill Library, Bromley, an exploded sonic star where the slowly falling fragments were catalogued alphabetically. Records I took home because they were there. Sun Ra’s “Mystery Of The Two”. Stravinsky’s “Requiem Canticles”. One casualty of the move from analogue to digital was the Duke Ellington with Jimmy Blanton album, which now sounds wrong because the scratch that made it jump a beat in 1984 is missing. Nothing was in any kind of order. Earl Hines, for example, he was an early favourite, but nobody had informed me that learning to play jazz required starting with later players, where it’s less about playing the piano and more about “information”, “content”. It was too late for me. Hines, Stravinsky, Ellington, Cecil Taylor – I started a file under “piano sonorities” and staggered on. For me they were connected by sound, as if the sounds themselves lived, went to school, met other sounds and reproduced.

But if I’d seen Hines bump into a young Cecil Taylor at the florist, I might have made that other connection, might have seen those worlds joined for myself. A kind of social bond that ensures the passage of the tradition, where it finds its own winding path, through accident and circumstance, seemingly disparate worlds coming together in a shared taste for daffodils. I had no history, no tradition, no reason to be doing what I did aside from a general dissatisfaction with life as it was presented to me and so, lacking a social connection, I made my history up, a fake news repository of unchecked facts and suppositions, and I surveyed it as I imagine the owner of a train set would, congratulating myself on the detail whilst knowing real engines don’t run on tables.

History was never my subject, I just couldn’t hold facts or remember names, couldn’t visualise the things happening. I never understood how, considering our impressive roster of cruel mistakes when we get together in big groups, we never learnt from them. It’s unlikely that lessons in jazz history would have helped me, but I would have liked to have seen where Duke Ellington bought his vegetables, I think I’d have learnt a lot from that.

Advertisements

Small things

“The guy who lived downstairs didn’t have a nasty bone in his body. This made getting around difficult.”

(Unpublished, unfinished short story).

I’ve been reading “Sing To It“, a new collection of short stories by Amy Hempel, her first in over a decade. She doesn’t write many, but when she does they are extremely good. They don’t take long. There is no time for an arc as such, not easy to say for sure what happens to her characters either side of the text. If there’s a moral to these stories, it’s ambiguous. Some stories are only a page long (and the font is obligingly large).

Chuck Palahaniuk, who, if I knew him, would presumably hate me to refer to him as the author of “Fight Club”, said this about her:

“Every sentence isn’t just crafted, it’s tortured over.”

So I got into Amy Hempel simply because someone who I think is a great writer recommended her, and sometimes you want a doctor’s opinion about who should take your kidneys out.

I also like that quote about torture, I can believe it.

Short stories are the shrugged shoulder to the raised pointy finger of the giant literary work of genius. There is not much to look at except the sentences, their melody, little observations shaped into something more than simply what is being said. More than the person saying it and more than what they stand for. Something outside the visible, something you could look at and not see the writer.

I wish performing was a bit more like that but it isn’t always, and it especially isn’t always now. We all want to know who made everything and how, and why, perhaps so we are tempted to think we could do it ourselves. We want to see the evidence, check with our eyes that what we are experiencing is authentic, that we are justified in feeling something.

My opening sentence remains, the vertical blinking cursor daring me to add to it. Perhaps I won’t. This blog is already too long, and by the time you read it I probably will have shortened it still further.

One thing shorter than an Amy Hempel short story is a tweet, originally the sole preserve of anthropomorphised songbirds, now a popular vessel of communication amongst humans that customarily lacks the musical quality of the feathered variety.

Reading short stories helps me recover from time spent on Twitter. So it’s not just the brevity then.

(Sorry that was a bit of a moralising ending. Writing well is hard. Baby steps……)

Sonny Rollins is here…

I found my way into improvisation via ragtime, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet, essentially dance music without Ecstasy. Or, in my case, dancing. Learning about this music, and how to play it, you immerse yourself in a world that is, from the first time you cross its borders, essentially alienating for many people. Anyone who’s seen Woody Allen’s films can get along with early jazz and swing, but after that, it gets knotty. The dancing got left behind and bebop asserted a more highbrow approach, and this is where jazz as repellent starts. But at some point in my mid teens, this became the sound I had in my head, it was what I wanted to come out every time I thought about playing the piano. (Thinking is all very well, I’m still working on it now.)

Still, it’s the boiling lobster principle. After twenty, thirty years, you take a sound for granted that most people hear as a kind of indulgent white noise. Growing into it, I was around others who felt the same draw, we nodded our heads together to music which appears to have no beat, no tune and no purpose. This was in some way mirrored in our own lives of monastic practice by day, and Guinness by night. The music was and is offensive, actively disliked by those who don’t understand it, and nothing is more powerful than seeming to tell someone they are stupid. It was “everyone playing at the same time.”

Occasionally the “j” word gets popular again, and other streams of music appear; the advantage of jazz as an influencing genre is that you can often take half of what’s already in it and make something more digestible. This stuff is essential for the growth of the ecosystem of the music, but there are some musicians who manage to steer a path in and out of these currents, they are “likeable”, but they are “heavy” too. You stay with them and they with you. For me, it’s Sonny Rollins.

Rollins has always cut through the noise. Charlie Parker’s records in the forties still shock today, bursting with an energy that shoots out at all angles. He seemed to stream through the sky like a comet, died young and broke and looking old. Rollins survived.

He took Parker’s language and sound and expanded in all directions. The first good sign is that you cannot teach anyone how to play like Rollins, nor can you even pretend to. He appears to pluck sounds out of the air. He can weave around chord changes with impossible elegance and groove one minute, then hack away at one note like a lumberjack at a redwood the next. He moves sound around like a voice. Language becomes secondary. It’s not a “style”; it’s simply being good, being fast…..not playing fast, being fast. The only way to mimic Rollins is to be as witty, as imaginative, and as quick as the man himself. It’s impossible and it’s inspiring. The music is dancing again.

When I think of the archetypal improviser, someone who shuts their eyes and listens and simply plays what they hear, it’s him.

I am saying this because he is still alive. I want him to know. There are too many obituaries.

West Side Story

I recently came back to playing this music with Paul Clarvis, twenty years after we first tried it.  The same feelings returned, the physical buzz of diving into something so full of musical opportunity.  Physicists tell us that time doesn’t exist, that their quantum equations don’t add up unless you take the bit out, and I can verify that. Coming back to this music, it feels as if time stands still whilst our bodies simply age around it. I am 29 again, in so far as I ever was.

Somehow the plot of West Side Story, of true love scuppered by the squabbling of rival gangs, is in the music itself.  He somehow builds it into the sound, shooting through the popular musical with darkness and uncertainty, a kind of instability.  A chord in music has what’s called a root note, it identifies the “key” and is the main thing that defines its relationship to other chords.  If you put this note at the bottom, you get a “strong and stable” sound.  An Ed Sheeran song like “Perfect”, for instance, has all its root notes on the bottom.  It’s unambiguous, it gets to the point.  This is great.  Plenty of good songs like that, but….this is the fossil fuel of music, fresh ways of doing it are running out.  Chords seem to be the last thing that anyone thinks of tinkering with (jazz, on the other hand, often has the opposite problem).  In songs like “One Hand, One Heart” and “Tonight”, Bernstein takes this “fist in the air” sincerity and undermines it.

“One Hand” is a hymn to devotional love. Hymns are celebrated for their logical beauty, parts moving impeccably yet beautifully between well chosen chords that are easily recognised by a congregation. Bernstein sticks to this idea, the melody moves one step at a time for most of the time…but underneath, he chooses to jump from one unstable bass note to another.  The chords are solid, secure, but the bass movement has an “unresolved” quality.  (I once saw Jack Dee doing stand up, years ago, and in the middle of it he put his glass of water down on a stool, but right on the edge of it.  He carried on with the next joke, then, a few minutes later said…”you’re all worried about the water aren’t you?”)  It’s like that, both comforting and disorientating. Like building a statue on a plinth that is slightly too small.

“Tonight” takes the lyrics and sprinkles not fairy dust, but seeds of doubt, all over them.  Tony says:

Today, all day I had the feeling/ a miracle would happen”

On that word “to-DAY”, what should be a solid, life-affirming chord is instead a slightly hollow sound, the fifth in the bass shocks us not with a horrifying dissonance, but with the most boring note of the chord that “fits” but sounds wrong.  It’s the grey suit, the fake “thank you” face after an unwanted Christmas present. A half sneeze.

We know it’s ending badly for these characters, but they don’t, and so their swooping melodies are somehow “unaware” of the shifting sands in the bass.  Of course, Bernstein didn’t invent any of this.  He used his knowledge and applied it.  Brahms did this kind of thing a lot, and so did many composers before him.  And Keith Jarrett does it too.  I like a band called “Blonde Redhead”; they do it.  Sometimes music has no fixed bass, but a moving line, another melody that means simple chords can be heard more than one way as the bass line moves.  “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five is a good example. Come on Ed Sheeran, have a go.

I can’t quite decide what comes first here, the knowledge or the feeling.  My gut tells me that the knowledge points you, as a composer or as a listener, to the source of the feeling A fifth, or a third, in the bass when you are expecting a root has always produced this effect, like time it stands still.  We do not invent it, we reveal its long term whereabouts, put its timelessness in a new context.

Music theory, or knowledge, is not lacking in emotion, vibe, or feeling.  It is like a summation of all the gut instincts of every composer, songwriter, improviser and performer which, being too big to keep in its original form, is condensed into a “boring” compressed file of lists, notes, principles.  You don’t follow it, you unwrap it. It’s like complaining that the ingredients of a cake, having not been put in the oven, taste flat and cold.

Chord sequences stand up like a table, and if you want to build one with three legs you’d better know where to put them.  Of course, there are still many beautiful four legged tables waiting to be built, but there might be a reason why no one has ever put legs in the middle.  To do so is not a “new discovery”, or a “revolution”. It is a pile of broken planks on the floor and nowhere to put your dinner.

Pass the salt.

National Student Survey, 1263

(…George Benson believed that the children are our future, and I guess only time will tell on that one. It’s great students can voice their opinion these days, but this is nothing new. Going through the bins in the library, I found this ancient manuscript of what appears to be a partially completed National Student Survey originating in a Medieval Kyoto monastery.  Cautiously unfolding the parchment,  I transcribed what I could, as it was written mostly in Chinese characters of which I have no knowledge at all; anyway I did my best.  Known for its rigorous enforcement of a strict master/student protocol, medieval Japanese monasteries nevertheless enthusiastically encouraged student feedback in questionnaires eerily similar to those today.  I have updated this account a bit in order to try and make it more relevant so now young people can understand it too…)

Date : April 4th, 1263

Subject : Enlightenment Foundation Module

National Student Survey

Questions:

The teaching on my course1. Staff are good at explaining things.

2. Staff have made the subject interesting.

3. The course is intellectually stimulating.

4. My course has challenged me to achieve my best work.

I don’t like the way staff explain things at all actually.  First of all, it seems we have to do all the work, it’s all questions and no answers. He asked us what the sound of one hand clapping was. I did it, I clapped one hand and the teacher was like, but there’s no sound and I was like, I know but isn’t that just your opinion (which the teacher seems to think is important by the way). I tried it again. I watched a girl on YouTube try it, and her results were the same despite having fifty thousand likes on a video sharing platform that doesn’t exist yet. Not a whisper. Try it. Clap one hand, nothing comes out. It’s just lame.  Two hands clapping is apparently cheating, breaking the “***rules***“.  Rules are just a way of limiting our self expression, in my opinion.

Learning opportunities5. My course has provided me with opportunities to explore ideas or concepts in depth.

6. My course has provided me with opportunities to bring information and ideas together from different topics.

7. My course has provided me with opportunities to apply what I have learnt.

Look, I have a lot of ideas, and especially a lot of concepts, which are like ideas in that you don’t have to do anything.  My teacher said, that’s great, you should explore them, but this lesson isn’t the place.  I said isn’t that just your opinion.  He hit me with a large stick.

Assessment and feedback8. The criteria used in marking have been clear in advance.

9. Marking and assessment has been fair.

10. Feedback on my work has been timely.

11. I have received helpful comments on my work.

Marking is rubbish here.  I definitely don’t like being assessed.  Apparently there’s no guarantee that I will get a good mark although I paid a fortune to come to this place.  I get feedback but some of it is critical and that makes me sad, representing bad value for money.  My teacher said some of the best lessons he had made him sad, and the sadness enabled him to seek out what he needed in order to improve.  He also said that you wouldn’t feel like that if you didn’t have to pay for your education.  I said exactly, that’s why you should give me good marks. This time I saw the stick coming and got out of the way in time.  The teacher smiled.  He said I had at last learnt something.

Academic support12. I have been able to contact staff when I needed to.

13. I have received sufficient advice and guidance in relation to my course.

14. Good advice was available when I needed to make study choices on my course.

15. The course is well organised and running smoothly.

16. The timetable works efficiently for me.

17. Any changes in the course or teaching have been communicated effectively.

I must say things are pretty efficient here, there are lots of emails about doors working, then not working and then working again.  I know every detail of the well being of every entrance mechanism in the building.  This makes me feel empowered.  The timetable of getting up at 4am, eating rice and then meditating for twelve hours every day (until enlightenment comes) is quite simple to follow, except one day I missed it because it wasn’t in my calendar, so on that day it didn’t “work efficiently for me” as I wasn’t there. There is definitely room for improvement here.

Learning resources18. The IT resources and facilities provided have supported my learning well.

19. The library resources (e.g. books, online services and learning spaces) have supported my learning well.

20. I have been able to access course-specific resources (e.g. equipment, facilities, software, collections) when I needed to.

Libraries are so uncool, scrolls and all that shit are just not edgy enough for the way I like to do things.  I prefer my own vibe.  Other people have already done things, now it’s my turn.

Learning community21. I feel part of a community of staff and students.

22. I have had the right opportunities to work with other students as part of my course.

This is true, I get to sit in silence for twelve hours next to people I like who, like me, are silent.  Some days, we all get together and try, again, to clap with one hand, which is like silence but with aching arms.

Student voice23. I have had the right opportunities to provide feedback on my course.

24. Staff value students’ views and opinions about the course.

25. It is clear how students’ feedback on the course has been acted on.

26. The students’ union (association or guild) effectively represents students’ academic interests.

True feedback is found in the clear mirror of your quiet self, they tell me.  This is the kind of shit we have to put up with.  I tried to complain about the clapping thing. Apparently it’s kind of a riddle, and there’s no definitive answer, which means the mark is totally random.  I said, how long will it take me to work it out.  My teacher said, ten years.  And if I try really hard?  Twenty years, he said.  If I was allowed my stick in class, I calculate I could just about break his nose from here.

Overall satisfaction

27. Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the course.

The course is a journey, life is a journey, life is suffering.  Satisfaction is superficial, coming only to those who do not embrace true and constant change.  Quality is an illusion, all is vanity.  I don’t know what is left of this question, or how to answer it.  Instead I sit, and I think what now.