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.

Eyes and ears and, I suppose, arse.

The modern day Travelodge shower has two things that of potential comfort; warmth and wetness, like the womb.  A return to that time before we had to deal with things other than ourselves.  Against the bare, nearly-white walls of the bathroom, a rush of hot water transports me to such an interior world, blocking out the concerns outside this place, leaving me alone with my thoughts.  It then transports me, feet up and arse first, on to the floor of the bath.  That noise – the sound of hitting the bath arse first – it’s a new sound to me.

Two things occur to me at this point (oh ok, sometime later); I am a bit over sensitive to sounds of all descriptions, and I am frequently unaware of the position of my body in relation to its surroundings.  I find this when I am looking at visual art.  I go to galleries from time to time.  I have no idea what I’m looking at or, more precisely, if I am actually looking at it.  I am here, it is there, somehow something goes awry in the space between us, me and it, and I wonder if it is my lack of awareness of spatial relationships.  You have to know where you stand, and to take an interest in that place, and the places of all the things around you, and to see potential beauty in those relationships.  An object in space is an object in space, and I sometimes struggle to see how it is better than or worse than another object in another space.  This is all highly embarrassing.  Sorry everyone.  At least I don’t say it is rubbish, I trust people that know better.  So I just keep looking through the things that pass for my eyes, eyes that probably miss a huge amount of whatever is in front of them.  In meditation, certain schools of Zen Buddhism say enlightenment is not something to wait for, or something that descends on you; enlightenment is the fact that you are sitting.  I keep looking and try not to expect to understand anything.

For me the experiencing of art is not about the brain, it’s about the senses.  It’s not intellectual, not in essence.  Art comes in through the eyes; yes, the brain then gets to work on experiencing the music’s structures, whether explicit or hidden,  making judgements about it, or finding “connections”, common themes, relationships to other arts, what it might be saying about something else.  Of course, structure in music can be a profoundly moving experience, whether planned or improvised, simple or complex, but without the sounds it is merely a description of itself.  Writing, for instance, was another art form that eluded me somehow.  I understood it was good, I understood people were saying important things, life changing ideas were being expressed.  But that side of it is more like philosophy, politics, sociology, other things I have no real grasp of.  Writing as an art became clear to me when a friend of mine advised me to read Shakespeare aloud.  Writing is sound, it comes in through the imaginary ears that can hear the equally imaginary voice that reads inside your head; that voice has no sound, and yet it never changes.  But to read aloud makes it tangible, makes the air move.  I like the air to move, and things to vibrate, which is why digital pianos are so horrible to play – no buzz through your fingers.  Just blind trust, trust that the places you learnt to put your fingers will send out some disembodied data that might, at some later stage when you are not wrestling with the sheer impersonality of the experience,  be reminiscent of the vibrations a piano can create in the air.  It’s all about quality of vibration.  Once that physical, tangible excitement gets across, then the brain can join in and explore the finer details.

I therefore fail to understand why some musicians are aghast when people don’t like their music.  Perhaps I go too far the other way when this happens to me, offering condolences and support where possible, apologising for the inconvenience, giving out biscuits and handing out warm coats.  This is not to be misinterpreted as thinking one’s own music is no good.  It’s just acknowledging that, between me standing here and you standing there is a lot of air, and it’s buzzing, and that is exciting for me (hopefully, and more often than not) and might not be for you.  I like sound.  Crickets on a Summer evening, conversations, chords, running water, it’s all soothing to me somehow.  Maybe you like other things.  Money.  Or sport.  Or going to gigs, endlessly waiting for them to make sense…

And so, lying in the bath, musing on what might have happened if my head were at the other end by the taps, two thoughts arise.  The first, suddenly grateful for my own life, the second wondering what the bath, a potentially huge and resonant instrument, might sound like.  And I began to drum, the rhythms between my thumb and fingers transporting me again, this time to my habitual place of comfort, back home.