Gagaku self-help

The music contained in this clip is some of the strangest I have ever heard.  For most musicians who are trying to compose, improvise or somehow create something, the search for strangeness, or “newness”, whether in the familiar or in the undiscovered, keeps us alive.

And often it’s pretty slim pickings, like this beetle that waits with its bum in the air until the desert fog forms water droplets which then trickle down into its eager mouth.

Almost everything has been done, talked about, blogged about.  Many other forms of music from around the world have penetrated our culture so completely, derailing Western High Art Music’s quest for total atonality and supreme structural unity in favour of a more mixed and multi-cultural palette (I wonder if Schoenberg et al might have abandoned this agenda in the early twentieth century had they encountered the Baka Pygmies)(1).  In our “access to everything” lives, the water that trickles down from our upturned arses has most likely been recycled, rebottled and reused many times, and now, I sense, is the time to bring this strained metaphor to a close.

But to discover the music, and choreography, of Gagaku is like walking into an alien world.    A world made entirely of undiscovered atoms,  atoms that in turn form themselves into unimagined structures, making up a landscape in which everything belongs together but in a way known only to the structures themselves.  Traditional notions of virtuosity, technique, development, groove, melody and, above all, the ‘storytelling” qualities of music, are not even reversed, they are eliminated, and not in the way associated with, for example, many “western’ composers, where there is an invention of something that demands we call them a genius“, but in a way that seems to imply that this is music in its natural form.  It’s music for the beginning, and end, of the world, a ballet that tells the story not of the meeting of lovers or the quarrels of kings, but of one tectonic plate shifting imperceptibly into another.

Some might say that the lack of “human interest” is a problem.

Nevertheless, I can think of no other music that describes the simple passing of time in such “intimate” detail.   I don’t mean psychological time, like, “Oh how time flies when you’re having fun it passes the time of day time marches on the ravages of time I don’t have time for this”…I mean time as a simple, stand-alone thing of beauty.  The framing of a second never sounded so good, this is Blake’s “eternity in an hour” perfectly realised in sound.  When I listen to this music I hear time spun out in layers, almost sculpted like clay, the small kakko drum’s patterns expanding and contracting against the slow, sonorous thud of the gigantic Da-daiko skins, the melody of the hichikiri (a kind of neurotic oboe) in a kind of demented unison with the flute, the two often falling away from each other as one or the other appears to pause for breath.   Such inconsistencies are the nemesis of western Classical Music; here they define the music’s progress, endlessly revolving around a repeating melody that is so slow as to be almost imperceptible, yet is heard with fresh ears each time.  Then there is the sho, the high pitched mouth organ that seems to bind together the whole with slowly evolving chords, an unearthly sound, perhaps with a touch of early Weather Report, that seems to stop time in it’s tracks.  Now watch the biwa (a kind of Japanese lute) players; they are using plectrums the size of dinner plates, maximum thwack with minimum mobility.  That’s fine, they are just waiting patiently for their moment to play, at the most, a couple of notes.  Sometimes they only play one.  The kotos work alongside,  yet are distinct from, the biwa in that they might fill out a whole chord.  Struck strings mirror the steps of the dancers, both musicians and dancers immersed in a slow motion arc leading to a precision attack.

I am struggling to find a sentence that moves slowly enough to describe the huge, seemingly breathing body that is the Gagaku orchestra.  Each of its parts strictly delineated, notated, handed down, the variety coming solely from the way it’s breath might change from bar to bar, the slight holding back as a beat arrives a little late, the gradual tailing off of a flute’s melody against the immovable force of the hichikiri’s line.  A vast moving organism of sound.

Music is seldom so regulated as it is here, yet Gagaku always makes me want to improvise.  It shakes up all the ear worms in my head, all the gremlins, creatures of habit, occasional voices of doom, and says “It’s only music.”  Sound in time, movement in space.  Back in the saddle.


Introverted Snobbery

Who is that person?  He’s on stage, with four other band members, who are a little more familiar to me, and he’s talking to the audience.  He’s a little balder on top than I remember, and also a little more confident.  I’m watching my band Brother Face, filmed at The Verdict in Brighton from a camera attached (presumably) to the venue’s ceiling, and this stranger is me.   If someone had been swinging from the chandeliers, this is how they might have seen the gig, perhaps in a brief and unlikely moment of stillness, whilst doubtless being distracted by whatever else they were doing up there.  We are huddled round the small stage like some kind of puppet show through a fish-eyed lens.  Still, I am also pleasantly surprised by his (my) outgoing and relaxed humour, especially since I recently discovered I am an introvert.  There I said it.  Out and proud.  Here is what to do if you meet one…

Wanting a fuller diagnosis of my terminal condition, I took the Myers Briggs personality test, which revealed that I am INTJ personality type.  I always wanted something after my name, pin that thing down, wear those letters like a BMus or a PhD.  To be an introvert, in this essentially extrovert world of celebrity and self publicity buoyed up with self confidence, is like being a kind of spoilsport, a misery guts, a killjoy, “cheer up, what’s wrong?” sort of person.  And introverts are typically predisposed to dwell on this, often taking personality tests or, on occasion, writing whole books to try and figure out what’s going on, which is what Susan Cain did.

With the recent publication of her study of introversion and its benefits, “Quiet”, this secret world has been laid bare, and it seems to have made the poor woman famous (all those book signings and seminars must have been like hell on earth).  After reading a couple of chapters, it turns out this last assumption is a myth; it’s not the socialising, it’s being accepted by those people you are with, gaining some kind of “permission” to engage with them.  This explains the popularity of social media amongst introverts, happy to blab on about how exciting things are in endless updates whilst retreating to a reassuring solitude in the “real” world.  So why am I happy to play the piano on stage, talk to an audience, but reluctant to ask someone in the street the way to the Post Office?

I think it is something to do with the instruments, the piano and the microphone.  Playing the piano, in comparison with the “out front” horns, is like a desk job.  I am often sat facing the wall (a familiar punishment for those of us who grew up in the olden days), either behind a high wooden box or a six foot table.  These boxes and tables, they make noises; I am mostly in control of the type of sound that comes out, and often not.  I use them to talk to other musicians on stage in a language in which we are all fluent, and conversations unfold in much the same way they do when normal people speak to each other.  There are agreements, fights, crossed wires and moments of telepathic empathy.  But often I am not looking at you, the audience, when this happens.  You are all looking at the back of my head.

This is a source of immense comfort to me.  I once played the clarinet on a gig and, whilst the lack of jazz technique was problematic, the fact I had nothing between myself and the audience was mortifying.  As for the microphone; it takes incoherent, shy, awkward mumbling and blows it up to the size of a public address.  You don’t have to project, to assert your entitlement to be speaking.  Like the piano, it gives you that entitlement, it is a barrier and a portal at the same time.  A bit like blogging really.  Chris Batchelor, the trumpeter in my band, often confuses  sound engineers when he insists on having a microphone in order to play quieter.  Projection has its own limitations; it’s not just “fuller”, it’s more insistent, there’s less grain to it.  Sometimes you have to explore the changes in sound that happen when instruments are quiet, or slow, or inward looking, when music does not project with the force of an orator’s roar but with the whisper of a softly spoken confidence.

Contrast with this the Post Office scenario – who am I to interrupt the day of a total stranger with what extroverts among you may regard as a simple request, possibly even an opportunity to engage in conversation?  He or she is not walking down this street in order that I might ask a question; my presence is an interruption which, as an introvert, I assume is unwelcome on their part.  But you, the audience, have by implication agreed to listen to whatever happens on the stage by being here, you have given us a vote of confidence.  Of course, once off the stage, the deal is off.  I’m back to my usual self, doing my best to be extrovert in a world that seems to demand it most of the time.

I hope this doesn’t sound like whining.

I remember having to transcribe (i.e translate recordings to musical notation) over thirty Bill Evans trio recordings for a book, and because my ear isn’t very accurate (or is it because I doubt my judgement?), I used software to help me out.  By using a computer to divide each track into manageable chunks, I could slowly shunt my way through each small section, listen to it over and over, and move one once I’d got it down.  On one particular track from the Village Vanguard sessions, one of the most listened to jazz albums in history, I looped the first few bars.  As I listened I heard, in addition to the exquisite unfolding of Evans’s music, an eerie howl that seemed to envelop the music.  When I listened to the track all the way through, without the loop, it had vanished.  I went back to looping the opening section; there it was again, like some angry Ghost of Analogue’s Past invading my computer.  The music was quite clearly haunted, even a devout sceptic (albeit an introverted sceptic) such as myself could not refute the evidence.  Clinking of wine glasses in the background, when looped, began as shambolic percussion, but the more I listened the more I could hear notes, and then I almost started to write them down as part of the transcript.  It was hard to tell where notes began and where sound ended.

We are unreliable witnesses to this music, and now that the Brother Face tour has finished, it’s time for me to listen over the live recordings and videos and see if any of it makes sense.  I’m hoping make some kind of album, but before I do that I need to hear it like it’s someone else’s music, not mine – to see it from the chandelier. In the meantime, perhaps I should adopt a more “extrovert” approach just to keep up; it is what we are required to do from time to time.

“Massively looking forward to this exciting new release with some of my favourite musicians bringing these amazing compositions to life.”


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