Keep Music Young, Keep Music Old

All people seem to talk about at the moment is the audience.  How to get one, how to renew one, how to keep one full of hipsters, moneyed people, people that are our kind of people.  Can we make music a bit easier to digest perhaps?  This seems to be the default position; we (the musicians) need to meet people (the audience) halfway, halfway between abject ignorance (theirs) and lofty enlightenment (ours).  Spurred on by the mentality of a Facebook targeted ad campaign, it is a “one size fits all” mentality, and it takes on the annoying habit of thinking we know what people want, need, demand, consume.

I am sitting here listening to Miles Davis, recorded live in 1969.  He doesn’t announce the tunes, he brazenly assumes that people don’t care what they are or that they already know them because of their unswerving and time consuming dedication to his music over the many years he had been patiently developing it.  All of these characteristics have been used, in his case, to sell his music, his image, to non-jazz fans.  All of these characteristics have also helped me to understand things, both musically and otherwise, about myself as a musician.  About what is possible.  And yet, for a moment, as I listen to the opening notes, I am lost.  I remember sitting with a can of Guinness with musician friends, eyes closed in intense rapture, listening with disbelief as the music coalesced, fell apart, rebuilt itself, returned to its almost non-existent fragile theme from which this had all, impossibly, emerged.  But now, and for the next twenty minutes or so, I am momentarily back in a place often reported on by people new to new music, whether composed or improvised;  It’s chaos, and I don’t care about it.  I am sick of the reverence accorded to it by people like me.  It’s two cats in a bag with a microphone.

Then I make a cup of tea, and return to it, and that feeling passes.  It is speaking to me again.  Like riding a bike, one never forgets, but one can be allowed an awkward few minutes in the saddle after a long period away.  I feel like we as a culture are obsessed with short term profit, and what this means is that people have to like things straight away.  There is no value attached to any long term view about anything.  Some things take a long time.  Some things are even worth getting through a period of hating them, because something good may come of it.

I recently went to my son’s school concert.  He’s nine.  The “orchestra” was a loose assemblage of whatever instruments and people could be matched together.  This is the other end of the spectrum, where music is new, new as a purely physical experience, music just hatching.  The theme from “Eastenders” took on a whole new pathos, a struggle worthy of the triumphant metamorphosis of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony when all the minor stuff turns to major.  Well, not quite, but maybe Beethoven was trying to capture something of what those kids may have felt.  What could be more Herculean than trying to get a trumpet that is the size of your whole upper body to produce a single unwavering note?  There were short bits of improvisation, comfortingly familiar chords forming a reassuring bed above which some truly unearthly noises were emerging.  As a musician, it was fascinating and somehow very moving; there were true moments of beauty, moments the kids may or may not have been aware of, where I was almost certain they would make it to the right note and then something so wrong comes out, and yet the concentration behind it makes it work.  It makes a moment.  It’s interesting how John Coltrane, the poster boy for complex improvisation, gradually worked towards a similarly pure sound and simplicity of utterance in his last years; he maintained, of course, the control and deep understanding that years of work had given him, but there is no denying that some people would say “a six year old can do that”.  John Cage seemed to me to aspire to this in his music, to the time in the human mind’s development before “intention”, the intention to do what one should do.  What this music had, in places, was DRAMA.  The drama of a pint sized kid with a clarinet who blows it and makes you think – not because he is amazing but because he is trying to get to…something – of Sonny Rollins.

 In music, in art, we either need a story, or we need to know pretty early on that one is not coming and accustom ourselves to being in that place.  Great music can exist where nothing really happens (Morton Feldman, Brian Eno, the early minimalism of Reich and Glass); but if music fails to make something happen, that is different.  That is “once upon a time there was…”; then nothing.  A broken agreement.  That is something completely different.  A common example might be “once upon a time I played these notes very proficiently and they all matched the chords and it was fast.  The notes are similar in their construction to the notes of someone a long time ago”.  This is, needless to say, part of any jazz musician’s training.  But Horowitz did not play scales in his recitals, and Usain Bolt does not do sit ups for the crowd.  This is under the bonnet, backstage stuff.

Imagine, as a musician, being able to access that newness, sensation of surprise, the freshness of a well intentioned noise.  And now imagine having the skill and experience to feel it as it happens.  It’s a paradoxical process, we have to go forward and backwards all the time, gain knowledge, return to its source.  It takes time, whether as a listener or as a performer.  Those two cats in a bag might just be in there out of choice.  Maybe they aren’t fighting but mating.

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.