Rituals

These days I need reading glasses.  I can’t see what’s in front of my face, as they say, and so on they go, the rest of the world receding into a blurry backdrop,   Putting on glasses is a ritual.  It’s like the raising or lowering  of a veil, or the laying of a table, perhaps the other-worldliness of submerging yourself in water (suddenly, baptism makes a lot of sense).  The dropping of the needle, the scratchy moments before the music begins, a marking out of a sacred space.  

Picture a Zen meditation class in Highbury, where some white middle class Englishmen in medieval Japanese robes explained that, within the confines of the space this room, there were no shoes allowed.  More lifestyle enlightenment, I thought, in a lifestylishly smug way, quite pleased with myself.  Tut tut.  The romantic nostalgia of these posh quasi-monks made me feel like an extra in a sixth form staging of “The Seven Samurai”.   On reflection, and after wanting to run them through with a big sword, I appreciated the “otherness”; once fully clothed, now barefoot in Islington.

Before beginning a solo performance, pianist Cecil Taylor danced across the stage towards the piano, pausing, circling like a vulture, raising a talon and sharpening his beak before almost attacking the instrument.  Let’s face it, it’s not much different to the popular pill popping, the purpose being broadly the same, but like a lucid dreamer he can snap out of it if he wants to.  Turn on and off the supply of whatever is taking him under.   I envy him.  That night he basically didn’t give a shit what we thought.  A silent titter seemed to waft around the audience, but the next hour saw them drawn in to that same space, his space, leaving their seats dizzy at the close of  the journey.  So, in that game where you have to choose one, my superpower would be that lack of inhibition.  That willingness to leave the real world.  Whilst everyone else is flying above the clouds and reading minds, I would simply dance myself a little mimed story in a purple tracksuit.

Rituals clear space, stop time, focus the mind and the body.  Religions are useful primarily for this reason, enforcing their strange and arbitrary timetables, sunrise and Sundays, days of rest and of celebration, a dash of incense here and there.  The nearest I get to that is to close my Facebook tab before writing a blog.  And that will be open again pretty soon.  People would get more done, and with better focus, if they had to get up a ladder to post on Facebook.  

It used to be different. In student days, I would break up the routine by watching “Neighbours” at 1.30.  It was hardly a call to prayer, but it did the job, my daily shift of practice and essays divided conveniently in two by the shattered dreams and emotional love stories of future Australian celebrities.  I was the turning over the LP of my otherwise formless day; side 1 and side 2.  A neutral space, a cerebral no-man’s land.  And needless to say, the repeat of “Neighboirs” at 5.30 was strictly off limits., my own personal heresy.

These altered states remind me of  what Margaret Atwood talks about in one of her lectures on writers and writing; the double.  A writer who writes, and a writer who does the dishes, two halves of a single body.   The writer who lives, and the one who lives on after that life.  The hand on the keyboard, or the pen, like the dropping needle, is a sign that he or she is somewhere else,  or someone else.  And perhaps the writing and the reading, playing and listening, are one in the same state.

So there’s me and there’s my musician.  My playing side is bold, carefree, mischievous in a temporarily suspended time, a guest in a hotel where someone else does all the housework.  And when he’s finished, after the applause (let’s be optimistic), the somewhat anxiety-ridden, earth bound chap that lurches and lumbers through life, me, takes over.

Nowadays we have access to these ritualised states very easily, but it’s difficult to go very deeply into them.  I am writing this on a tube train, on a so-called phone.  It’s very rare I call people on it.  But if I want to write something on it, preparation time is almost non-existent.  It’s about five seconds. Open app, click pen and paper shaped icon, begin.  It even suggests words you might consider before writing them.  Without a thought in my head, there is a guarantee that some words will appear.   With one eye on the stations, trying to notice if someone needs my seat, I’m not under yet, still in the real world.  But soon I’ll have my glasses on, and if I want to I can look over the top of them, an action which causes my eyebrows to be involuntarily raised in an apparent gesture of superiority.  I hope the other passengers don’t notice.  But I’ve arrived at the station and, with no time to pack my glasses away in their case (the other end of the ritual), they hang perilously tucked in the neck of my shirt as I pick up my bag , caught walking in the increasingly small space between real and imagined worlds.  Mind the gap and all that.

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“Q” is for…

“Q Samba” : Arto Lindsay, from “Mundo Civilizado”

https://youtu.be/JkEMwcm4vbM

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Arto Lindsay.  The geeky, skinny kid at school, scribbling in his notebook when he thinks no one’s looking, or when he thinks that people think he thinks no one’s looking.  Probably just schoolboy crush scribbles, arrows through hearts, epigrams.  Eyes almost upstaged by his owl-like lenses, which are looking straight at you, and it’s a hard stare to look back at.  People don’t.  Prom Queens, though, might take him home in one of those High School movies, people would learn to look beyond appearances, towards new experiences, everyone would learn things and nothing would change.  Music, credits, thank yous, etcetera.

But he’s an eccentric.  A real one, not a muscle boy they put in glasses to indicate intelligence, reticence and hostility to games lessons.  He is thin, thin like he lives on some unknown energy, some ambiguous pulse.  He plays guitar, but no real notes, just a noise, and only when it’s called for. Mostly it just hangs around his neck, as it does on this song.  The weight of it might kill him.

Through the gate, now the path winds to the door, you pass sculptures, perpendicular pagan gods staring down suburban sidewalks, old amplifiers, guitar strings wound around slow growing creepers. Carnival melting into darkness and out again.   It’s taking forever to get to the door.

Shall we listen to some music?  He reaches for a cd, the cover a photo of a woman’s face, or maybe a girl’s, her expression masked by the blood red smear of a rose.  Smiling eyes though; maybe.  A strange, disjointed guitar, Brazilian, lurches into a kind of beat that doesn’t belong where it is, as a voice, half-spoken, half sung, asks:

How do you do that?  

Did you just make it up?  

Is there a special need for that?

Now don’t just make it up”

Not exactly poetry, this is like a kid asking questions at school.  But he grows up fast;

“How do you shake just that and not shake all the rest

Breaking all those beats apart you careless hypnotist”

A careless hypnotist, still thinking about what that implies.  The lyrics feel like they are meaning something, but they sometimes fold in on themselves, like…

You dance like you’re not alone

You dance like I’m not here

Often they seem like a study in a single sound…

Your supple cheekiness

Supreme funkiness

Your sure footedness

And you pelvic finesse.”

But that last line,”pelvic finesse”, what the hell is that?  Animal sexuality crossed with featherlight delicacy?  The music echoes the words, mismatched but familiar sounds, somehow stitched together, a brash and buzzy keyboard flooding the light and sunny samba like chilli sauce in Angel Delight, its line left jagged and raw like the edges of an awkward conversation.  Samba school drums sucked into a lop-sided sample, another piece in the jigsaw of disorder, of musical and verbal memories, those memories that for each person are their own.

Except for the Prom Queen. Tradition dictates that her head must be empty, as she trots home to recount, perhaps reluctantly, some other version of these few short minutes.

 

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You’ll Get Over It (obscenity warning).

When I was a kid at school my teacher called me something that no teacher would, or could, ever call a pupil today.  He called me a ****.  I was twelve, and so were the other twenty nine sniggering boys who were in the room at the time.

A bit of background.  Every Monday my clarinet lesson was smack in the middle of the morning, which disrupted my Technical Drawing class, a joyless class where we learnt to draw perfect circles with dangerously sharp compasses and dissect them with straight lines.  To ask permission to leave the lesson, I had to go through this wretched pantomime of putting up my hand, and him saying;

What is it Noble?”

And me saying, or stammering rather;

I’ve got a…a clarinet lesson, sir.” 

And every Monday brought a new insult.  Here’s one.

Off to your banjo lesson again are we?

Despite predating by some thirty years my acute interest in Appalachian music, I nevertheless felt it necessary to correct his use of the first person plural “we”….oh no, that was a dream I had….no I was terrified of him actually.  And the Boomtown Rats had just released “I Don’t Like Mondays”.  People said about Frank Sinatra, they said it felt like he was singing just for you, and Bob Geldof’s piercing whine went similarly to my bobby socked core.

So the **** marked a new development in this man’s reign of terror.  Often, he would grace our drawings with epigrams like “well done, 3/10”, thoroughly deserved when a dissecting line was one or two degrees out of whack.   Evidently it was important to start priming the kids who would go on to push Technical Drawing into the future, the men from the boys as it were, the men who were twelve from the boys who were twelve.  Many a pre-adolescent boy’s dream of a glittering future that was somehow bathed in knowledge of angles and set squares was dashed on the rocks of Mr Wrack’s brutal marking system.

Anyway, the word has fascinated me since.  It inspires such fear and hushed disapproval.  To say this word, you have to be with a social group possessing an almost molecular familiarity with each other, because in any other situation it is a huge risk.  It’s an admission of baseness, a declaration of debauchery, it reveals in its messenger a complete and absolute lack of consideration for the feelings of anyone else.  To say **** is a sacrilegious act.

There are many good hearted people in the world, and some are religious and some are not.  Many of the latter (I suppose I would like to count myself among them) take comfort in the smug knowledge that we do not believe in anything that does not conform to hard science, that is received wisdom masquerading as fact, that takes allegorical stories as historical document, that views as obscene anything that breaks rules originating in the faded and remote histories of places unseen and unknowable.  Finally, the hard won common sense nurtured by our up-to-date knowledge and enlightened democracy has triumphed over old world superstition, mired as it was in the shock and awe of religious splendour and corruption.  We see things from every angle, we refuse to bow to prejudice in any way, and in doing so we walk on brave and strong into a new world of understanding.  It’s really great.

“Erm, did someone just say the c word?  I don’t use that word.”

“Why not?”

“It’s ugly.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, you know, it’s….”

“Shunt, punt, hunt, grunt, runt.”

“It degrades a part of the human body that for some is…”

“Prick.  Cock.”

It’s like arguing for dinosaurs against a Creationist.

Should words have rights?  I am angered and upset by the discrimination against this word on the basis of ugliness (this would not work if **** were a person), inappropriateness (oh come on, what does that mean), sexism (in a world where “dickhead” is so often the only word left to describe such a huge range of people in life).  ****.  Listen to the sound of it, its perfect bluntness, it’s over in a moment but it leaves such a glorious dent in any conversation.  Maybe it’s too good for us?  Maybe we have not yet proven ourselves worthy of its use?  I think we need to show some humility in the face of a word like this.

 

So what does this have to do with music?  Well, sitting at the piano and trying to find the next section for a piece of music I had written, I found the perfect foil in some Elton John-styled chords, which got me thinking of the eighties, then school, and then this very story.  Mr Wrack.  Icon of my school days.  Immortalised forever in my tune of the same title.  Who’s laughing now?

What a cunt.

Victorian Jukebox

There’s a pub in Soho where they still have a piano player.  This guy is not there to colour the silence and chit chat in the way a pianist does in a restaurant.  He plays Beatles songs, and show tunes, and things even people under thirty might recognise.  And people listen and sing along.  When his list runs out, there’s no music, but it never runs out.  And most of it is stored in his head.  He has fingers that play a real instrument, and every song he plays has to work on a piano or it doesn’t work at all.   And he has a head for a hard drive.

There was a time when all music in the home was like this.  If you were lucky enough to be in the rising middle class of Victorian England, you might have had a piano in the house.  And that was the source of all music.  A Victorian Jukebox.  All music was live.  And if no one played the piano, there was no music.

Just silence and conversation.

And we all know how awkward that can be.

Having no pianist would be like having no wifi, or 3G, or 4G, E4 or Dave.  People inevitably understood something of how music was made, because everyone who had a piano knew a pianist, and saw at close hand what was involved.

I remember a few years ago, I went into my son’s pre-school to play for their Christmas sing song.  They had no piano, so I brought a keyboard.  Children gathered around as I hauled the case down flat on the floor, flipping the catches as an assassin might before removing and demonically cleaning his weaponry du jour.  As I prized open the lid the kids, far from experiencing some kind of recognition, “oh he’s a musician, cool, music, wow it must be great to just sit down and play an instrument” kind of reaction, they were perplexed.  And it was tinged with that slight anger of not understanding, of feeling stupid, left out. They had no idea what this object was.  As I set it up, plugged in and sat behind the keys, they looked on in wonder.  It wasn’t the kind of wonder that Spielberg might have filmed, that kind of bathed angelic luminosity kind of light with its warmth and its fuzziness.  It was more like, I wonder why the hell we are here light.  It was more like Dogme-style, natural light, cold stares.  “Festen” for juniors.  Icy silence and tumbleweed in one uncomfortable mixed metaphor.  I was not at that point believing, contrary to the opinion of George Benson, that the children were our future.

So I played my first chord.  Resisting the jazz urge to hit them with all my musical neurosis of chromaticism and darkness, I went for C major.   A safe option, I thought, the universal language of music I thought, a vibration that reaches out to all without discrimination.  Almost instantaneously the entire group burst into uncontrollable laughter.  That weird, nervous laughter like when you and your mates got caught stealing useless crap from a supermarket.  An entire social history of music making, from the royal courts to the Victorian sitting room and the East End pub, friends who could sing and play, daughters who were encouraged to play the piano because their legs were tucked safely away from prying eyes, it all ended here.  It all ended on a cheap carpet with the worst audience I have ever had.

Well they were only four years old but, you know, once they’re over five there’s no changing them.

I’m quite fond of the piano as a music making machine, as an instrument of reproduction, reduction, representation.  Music used to work on the piano, most things were reducible to two hands, ten fingers and some sleight of hand stuff…aided, of course, by the imagination of the audience.  Pianos were often required to conjure the sound of an orchestra at full tilt, much as Turner’s paintings of water might almost make you feel the shock of the spray against your face.

So how would a piano cope with the incredible breadth of musical styles, genres as sounds today?  There is nothing to be gained by an accurate reproduction, but the sound of the attempt is what interests me.  Jazz for me sometimes involves hearing something you like, whether it’s more jazz or a Ugandan singer with a balaphon, and trying to use it for the purposes of improvisation.  Using a piano to do this is like playing playstation with a real tennis racket.  In other words, it’s perversely enjoyable.  It’s the best kind of enjoyable there is.  When I hear Bud Powell, or Duke Ellington, or Monk, or John Taylor, it’s partly a fight to prize something out of that instrument that was once a symbol of polite, middle class society.  It’s such a forgiving instrument, sometimes you have to really give it something to get upset about.  It’s that or it’s back to the kindergarten.

A review. Sort of.

I can’t help it, I read reviews.  I’m mad for them, reviews of stuff I’ve done, of things I’m into, of CDs I don’t want or don’t like, of things I’ve never heard of.  And because the distance between a drunken rant and a published article has decreased somewhat, there are loads of them.  And despite warnings of the “End Of Music“, a veritable torrent of recordings continue to pour out, provoking a kind of secondary flow of online comment in which everyone from the scholarly to the brainless, the outraged to the starstruck, gets their respective oars in.  Speed is of the essence; reviews come out before the recordings are released.  We all need to know if it is any good, and we need to know now.

There used to be this programme on the telly.  “The Generation Game”.  Objects would go past on a conveyor belt.  The “cuddly toy” and the “fondue set” stick in the memory for some reason (and if I ever had one, I would have to buy the conveyor belt to go with it) .    The contestant then had to recall as much as possible of what they’d seen in order to win it, victoriously trundling happily home with an armful of mismatched crap.  A simple game of recognition and recall.  Often reviewers will only get a chance to listen to something once, and in a sense they will find themselves in a similar situation.  What are the first impressions?  Can you hear the Pygmy rhythms, the Beatles references, the eighties pop attitude?  The cuddly toy?

I pulled this out from my CD shelf the other day having not listened to it for about 15 years.  As it happens, I chose it by picking two random numbers which, like “battleships”, involve vertical and horizontal coordinates (shelf number and count from the left respectively).   However, had I been actually looking for it, I could have seen it from down the street…

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Look at those colours!  Pretty garish.  This is what this recording is about; the clash of unmatchable colours, genres, sounds, eras, harmonies.  But rather than lay it all out like a collage where the different materials retain their sense of place and history, Frisell somehow combines these things into a single, identifiable style, a language even, where the guiding principle seems to be a kind of directness.  The way a song sung to a sleepy child is direct, or a three chord power ballad, a wonky riff.  Often elements of these things appear in the same tune, sometimes even at the same time.

I should go back a bit.

John Zorn started all this.  Naked City, his thrash metal/punk/classical covers/surf/60s cinema/S and M/improvised/heavily composed group, came bulldozering over the jazz and improvised scene in the early nineties.

And they could play; they alternated mind-melting virtuosity with an incredible sensitivity to colour, mood and texture.  It was as if Zorn had sat down and thought “How do I make music that is as different to Wagner as is humanely possible?”  Where the former values purity of language, development, unity of themes both musical and philosophical, Zorn…well….he just crams stuff together, impossible jump cuts through history, country and western, Webern-esque pointillism, thrash metal, film noir, lopsided riffs, jazz, but in a wine bar, not to be listened to but to be “sensed”, music that put you in a series of familiar places, only to whisk you off seconds later.  High and low brow stuffed together in a way that took out the high and the low.  His skill is in the way he varies the pace, manipulates the shock of the listener, who is frequently left feeling like he or she has run at top speed into a quaker meeting, or fluttered down like a feather into the path the Grand National.  It felt very new; a view of music that refused to linger long enough in any one place to look around.

Frisell, along with others like Tim Berne, Bobby Previte, Wayne Horvitz and Elliot Sharp came later for me.  And they were like the second wave.  Zorn went and smashed everything up, Frisell surveyed the wreckage and started to build things from it that remind us of how things were before it was all knocked down.  What sounds like fragments of old Viennese waltzes are put together into epigrammatic melodies, only to be trampled on by a Hendrix-styled guitar solo…except, listening again, there’s no trampling – not really.  Like two friends who appear to be arguing when in actual fact they are engaged in their own form of good natured banter, Frisell’s disparate materials seem to find some kind of common ground.  Melodies can be explored again, elaborated upon, a banjo can be louder than the distorted guitar which shadows its lines.  In “The Way Home”, a constant reiterating chord is at once familiar, almost naive, and yet the spaces it opens up allows the almost vocal inflections of his lead guitar to morph into noise and effects.

Simple and complex.  It’s full of these opposites that are forced to cooperate and get on, to occupy the same space. Nostalgia and chaos, delicate melody and frantic mayhem, it feels like a record that challenges our prejudices about what things could go together.  And it sounds so good.  It’s not a snapshot, it’s not “what happened on the day” (these records can sound good too of course); it’s a lovingly crafted piece of affectionate avant-garde, a complex construction of bits and bobs through which Frisell and his array of guitars weave with the delicacy of a calligrapher.  Even the “Chain Of Fools” cover, the one track that never got me…years later, on better headphones, I can hear how the familiarity of the tune allows the sheer detail of his sound to come through.

This CD came out a long time ago.  I listened to it obsessively for a year or so, at least until his next album came out.  I stole from him as carefully as I could in my own music, I tried to cover my tracks as best I could.  My main alibi was that his music is so guitarish.  And I’m a pianist, and I had a band with two saxophones in it.  Finally, I had to leave it alone for fear of losing myself in it, and I forced myself to be curious about other things.

Now, years later, it feels like a good time to hear it afresh;  things change over time.  This is a different record now to what it was back then.  More music has come after it, and what goes before now seems less immediate.  Frisell himself has now found a space in a kind of revitalised bluegrass style, where he can explore his fondness for texture and simplicity without too much gear.  His twists and turns are quieter, more modest somehow, but they are there.  “Half A Million”, the penultimate track on “Is That You?”, seems almost to be taken from one of his most recent recordings.  That changes the way you hear it.  At the time, it was just one of a number of directions he was hinting at.  You have to wait fifteen years before these things can reveal themselves.  And you can listen again.

Who Do I Listen To?

“Nature then, is just nature. I admit I am very impressed with it. The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can do for is to put some order in ourselves.”

Willem de Kooning


The cloud comes down, but too fast and too heavy, more like a blanket, or like jelly just before it sets. It always happens like this. I’m in a room with someone, and I’m teaching them. And they say something, and the room fills slowly up with an imaginary, cloying, sticky liquid. This person is aged between 18 and 21. They say :

“Who should I be listening to?”

I have been trying to think of what to say in reply to this for as many years as I’ve been teaching. It’s the key to everything. When a person says this, and eagerly awaits an answer, they are unwittingly telling you that they think they will never be a jazz musician, pure and simple. They have made this choice. Obviously I can’t tell them that. They want answers. Their parents have just forked out twenty seven grand in used notes in exchange for little nuggets of information such as the one I am about to impart. The great spirit of rebellion that spawned this music, the anger and joy coexisting in Bud Powell’s recordings, the machismo and feminine battling it out in the mind of Miles Davis, the sheer don’t-give-a-fuck fire running through Sonny Rollins’s titanic improvisations, Geri Allen’s fragile spider-like lines underpinned with the swagger of a New Orleans marching band, has it all ended up here in this room? I am starting to feel a bit claustrophobic.

Look, I’m no writer. The opening paragraph of this blog has, compared to my others, a lot of short sentences. This is because I’ve just finished James Ellroy’s brilliantly nasty, disparaging and fictionalised account of the years leading up to Kennedy’s assassination, “American Tabloid”. The anger and disgust of the unseen narrator jumps off the page at every turn. And it has lots of short sentences in it. My ear started to like the sound of them. And how they look. And that reminded me of the anger in Bud Powell’s music, anger that in his case was transformed into a kind of ecstatic energy. I imagine a lot of jazz musicians had this experience; there was plenty to be angry about, and in some kind of chicken and egg coincidence the way music was made was undergoing an explosive revolution.

With this in mind, I get on the tube; Jesus everyone looks fucking angry. Bill Evans comes on my headphones, even he sounds angry today, a taunted bull rampaging through a room full of rose petals. Ellroy, Powell, Evans, their energy is being let out in order that they can get up in the morning, write a new book, make a new record, they are making things ok.

Then something else happens; I go and see some very close friends of mine for a couple of days. The anger, the idea of anger, drifts away. The energy of friendship, of common ground both musical and personal, the way time passes and we are still here years later, the same and different. Bill Evans sounds different today, like he’s reading me a bedtime story. Monk’s angles are child-like, sincere, playful, but not quite as belligerent.

At a band reunion, a band in which I played an instrument I no longer even have, there are faces from even further back, the same but different. I remember sitting in the third clarinets playing Vaughan Williams’s “Folk Song Suite”, medleys of Broadway shows, newly commissioned overtures, “The Rockford Files”. From my vantage point, along with five other clarinets playing the same line, I could feel the air move, we were all somehow engulfed in it, embraced by the sound, so different to sitting at a piano, where one somehow hovers above it. (Watching Bill Evans play is, to me, watching someone trying to actually “climb inside” the chords, ear cocked to the keyboard with bird-like attentiveness, anxious to catch anything that passes.)

I remember the impossibility of looking demure whilst playing the bassoon, the irresistible urge to show off that frequently befell the lead trumpet or the percussionists, the way the conductor would lean inexplicably back in his seat for the “jazzy” numbers and then tense up like a cat eying its prey for the Gordon Jacob suite. I remember how, when we played “What I Did For Love” in the Marvin Hamlisch medley, I would feel waves of emotion that were almost physical and in the room, coupled with a teenage, slightly manufactured distaste for such sentimentality (anyone who’s ever listened to Keith Jarrett will know what I’m talking about). In particular, I learnt how to play with other people, and from that how to be with other people. I discovered that I wasn’t the only freak in Bromley in the 1980s. This is all valuable information that I still think about; well, maybe not the bassoon bit.

Look, I’m no psychologist. But when someone who wants to be a jazz musician asks me what to listen to, I imagine them asking me how to choose their friends. They are almost asking me how and what to feel. And it’s not entirely their fault. They are the customers now, and like all customers they are always right. Time is money, they don’t have a limitless apprenticeship to figure this out at their leisure, there’s no time for accidents, wrong turnings, red herrings. And the amount of energy needed to resist the increasingly conformist, consensual nature of modern culture is enormous. Jazz musicians are not, on the whole, still being beaten up by the police and given electric shock therapy in hospitals. But we are in a bit of a state over this whole role of music in contemporary life thing. Maybe this could, in some way, be our source of anger, our disgust, the unseen enemy that we kick against whilst all the time only putting “some order in ourselves”?

I Haven’t Written Anything Here For A While

I haven’t written anything here for a while.  I think one reason for that is that I am not a writerIf I can’t think of anything to write about, nothing happens.  I think a writer is someone who has to write, either for money or for sanity, or both.  Under those conditions, there is always something to write about, and a writer needs to be good enough at his or her craft to make that possible.  For instance, I wanted to write “her or his craft” in that last sentence, I thought it might shake things up a bit, thought I might discover a whole new way of saying that thing.  But it just doesn’t work, it reads like a kind of backwards sneeze.  To leave it there for some kind of politically correct reason would be like going out with one shoelace undone.    “His and hers” it is then.  And that certainly beats “one’s”.  I don’t want to sound like Prince Charles, whether it’s grammatically right or not.  I think writers probably experience a kind of permanent irritation at the “wrongness” of a word, a plot device, a tense, and to constantly put this right and therefore quieten their mind is what writing is.  Notes evoke that reaction in me; to be a musician is to experience a constant irritation about notes being in the wrong place, a phrase badly ended, or poorly harmonised, a sound that is obtuse where it is and that could be perfect elsewhere.  A stream of babbling voices, in other words, in one’s head.  In his or her head.

Luckily there are rules, which differ according to what kind of music you want to make, and principles, which it seems to me are the same whatever you do.  Rules are made by humans, and can be ingenious and flexible, or they can be simplistic and stifling.  The three chord pop song, there’s a good example of a rule that was once the former (see Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”) and has become the latter (most of the singles chart).  I am constantly thinking “somebody please put one more chord in that song…or move one of them…or phone someone who can.”  This is not a “pop music is rubbish” rant, its a plea for people to take a bit more time over where they put things.  For instance, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” by Kylie Minogue has all the chords and notes in the right place in my opinion, as does “Hey Ya” by Outkast, and that Clean Bandit song with the woman on the moped.  Katy Perry’s “Roar” seems like a well put together piece of pop, but the lack of any tension and release in “Dark Horse” just makes me uncomfortable.  In other words, the “keep it simple” rules of pop are always in place, but sometimes there are no principles at work.  It would be scraping a third simply because it was handed in.

A product; three minutes to get your hooks lodged in someone’s head.  Assuming, as pop does, that the pinnacle of human attention span was arrived at with the 78 gramaphone record, anything over three minutes is starting to look a little indulgent.  There is an economy in the pop song that is somehow closer to the technique of a sprinter than a novelist; efficiency is key, there is simply no time to be lost.  “Once In A Lifetime” by Talking Heads, for instance, is my favourite pop song, but it’s simply too long; and my favourite version, the live one from “Stop Making Sense”, sees David Byrne’s vocal performance intensifying the feeling of the song in a way that is closer to jazz than pop.  He explores the song at leisure, rolls around in it, he has a seemingly infinite amount of time.  

Maxïmo Park’s album “A Certain Trigger”, in contrast, gets right to the point, and does it over and over again.  One after the other in breathless succession, these songs take the three chord, three minute pop song and hack it to bits, arranging the splinters in a series of dazzlingly complex structures and wrong-foot which there is a sense of the walls closing in, the urgency of making music before time runs out, before it strays over that line into something more reflective.  Even the sound feels like it’s being pushed through a tiny hole that wont quite take it, the ideas pour out in an uncontrollable torrent of the familiar and the unfamiliar,  there’s a point the groove from “You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes seems to trample over some Philip Glass type patterns into a typically angular chord sequence – somehow every new verse, fractured chorus and rambling interlude, is an affront to that which went before, yet draws you inextricably back to the beginning.  Its exhilarating, and it’s totally unlike anything else; but it’s probably not perfect pop.  Too much stuff in there, you can’t get it in one listen.  But its a perfect marriage of angsty, lost love lyrics with something that sounds to me like The Jam in a centrifuge.  It’s one of a kind.  People are generally puzzled at my deification of this album, and part of me hopes that if you, gentle reader, check it out, you will be puzzled too – like the unspoiled beach, or some new café that weighs out the coffee beans for you, we all want these things for ourselves.

For me every piece of music has its boundaries, its territory, and sounds move around in that space accordingly, like fish in a tank.  The implied infinity of space in free improvisation often yields focus on the tiniest fragment of sound, whilst the same rotation of chords in a jazz standard can open up like a view of the dunes on a Summer holiday.  Pop is like the 110 metre hurdles; all over very quickly, some people do it with style, but inevitably the finish line is where it’s at.  Not much room for movement, but what there is can be fascinating in its own right.  And I feel like I can learn from its sense of brevity and efficiency.

In conclusion….well, like I said, I’m not a writer so I don’t have one, but in music it works quite well just to bring back whatever happened at the beginning.

I haven’t written anything here for a while.