In defence of journalism…

The first trick is to lure people in with a headline.

I’ve had my fair share of rants about journalists, public and private, as if they were all peas out of the same pod, and I’ve since regretted it. Writing blogs, rolling around in that vanity publishing utopia, has made me realise a few things.

And one thing’s for sure. I’m not a Writer. Not because I can’t do it, but because I often can’t think of anything to write about. It’s not easy. I wish I could simply shunt sounding things together, end to end, without it needing to be about something. This seems to work with music, but words need to hang on something, they must describe. We can’t all be EE Cummings.

Journalists, it seems to me, are in the trickiest position of all. They are obliged to write about the world as it is, or as it seems to them. The priority is to get copy out. Then they get censored (sorry, “edited”), squashed, collated, chopped. What’s left might be an opinion that is no longer quite their own, flapping like a dying fish on the deck of a sailing boat.

I’ve tried writing about music I like, and every time I try and describe what I think goes on, I often feel like I am just adding needless bumf to what is already there, like draping tinsel over a Ming vase.

It’s not easy. Dead heroes and heroines are easier to write about, because you miss them, so you write about that loss. The strange jolt of death that catapults an artist from forgotten to iconic for a few days. That’s readable. But it all reminds me of that film of Jackson Pollock painting with his turkey baister, crouching over a huge canvas. The action is all in his head, the spatial and textural sense, you are witnessing creation but not seeing it. Stravinsky sits at his desk with a pen and glasses, and out come the masterpieces.

So I’ve come to terms with the necessity of writing about the stuff “around” the music, the people writing and performing it, the people they in turn are seen to represent and reflect. Maybe music itself doesn’t quite fit on the page? Maybe audiences have to come out and get it themselves. Perhaps a tasty headline or a well doctored picture helps a bit, but in the end the horse and the water are still locked in timeless battle.

So, men and women of journalism everywhere, I hereby endorse the frankly worrisome task of writing about my upcoming album. My dad would have said “cheque’s in the post”. “I’ll BACS you” doesn’t really cut it, but thats all there is. I’m no poet, that’s for sure.

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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.

Vinyl

After checking the size of Hokusai’s print “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” against the size of a large shoe box I can confirm that one will not go inside the other. It’s completely buggered my analogy. I wanted to say that this image, which has been plastered all over the world in posters, murals, fridge magnets and billboards, was originally small enough to go in a shoe box. I’ve seen the print at its original size. You have to lean in towards it, squint a bit, shrink yourself down to the size of the people in the boat beneath that frozen wave. Seemingly dwarfed by a flattened perspective and camouflaged by colour, the eye then zooms in to Mount Fuji in the background, miles away yet vivid in its presence. Scale seems a huge part of the experience of art in general, from huge, immersive installations to miniatures that force us  to reduce ourselves to a tiny, critical mass.

This is how it feels to me to listen to vinyl, memories frozen in an unwieldy, outdated format that now thaw on to my new turntable with a slow drip-drip of recognition. This is not, by the way, a treatise on the sound quality of vinyl versus that of digital music. I’m supremely unqualified to comment on that.

I’m thinking about Hokusai again. There is the wave, the mountain, the boat, then there is the artist, and finally, the painting, each represents a kind of mental jump, a process.  The bumps as the needle finds its groove act as a ritual clearing of space, everything after that is announced as a representation of sound, a mirroring of tiny motions of air made at some other time in some other place. As a listener it puts you in a different place, imagining the wires that can carry vibrations through time and space, back to the source.

If you are lucky, there’s no real noise on the record itself, but if you are luckier still, there’s a just a little, like textured notepaper, a skin even, a glimpse of the moon through clouds.  The covering is a kind of invitation.

I used hurl myself off diving boards at my local swimming pool, and the hardest thing was that the boards got higher, you started to see not the surface of the water but the bottom of the pool, which added a cool 20 feet to the apparent distance. I would stand on that edge until someone made a splash, reminding me of the point at which I would be hitting, slightly out of whack, the water. Those were the days.

Records have that crackle that tells me it’s not real time, it’s a record of the time. To hear the music is to peer beyond that skin, through it, to make oneself the size of the fishermen and feel a wave you could fit in the palm of your hand threaten to upend your boat. Digital music is like a gas, it’s like tightrope walking in space, where there is no real difference between your feet on the rope or off. There are no edges to it, a borderless noise that appears in the air, a swimming pool with no discernible bottom. It’s sort of creepy. You can’t fall off.  It’s like swimming by lying on a table and moving arms and legs, hoping that one day you’ll get over your aversion to water.  It’s far away, distant somehow, a hologram of Frank Sinatra in your living room. It’s a kind of pre-listening….it says, I’ll listen to see if I want to listen later on. I listen to a lot of digital music, and I’ve realised that it’s me that has to lean in to it, it won’t come to me.

It seems the most remarkable thing about the recent surge in vinyl popularity (and I realise I am, true to form, thinking about it some ten years after it started) is that life can go backwards. The niggling thought that all human beings are condemned to a kind of pathological progress ending in disaster has eased off a bit. All is not lost, all is not forgotten. Will we all sit around the piano on an Edwardian Sunday again, singing songs we all know whilst our shopping is bought, delivered, cooked and quite possibly digested by some kind of automated cyber drones? Will music ever be injected in a liquid form, bypassing the cumbersome necessity for moving air and eardrums whilst outside people discover the pleasure of travel by stagecoach? Can we combine forward and retrograde motion? Is this the future? 

Maybe the “newest” thing we can do as a species, is to stick the car in reverse occasionally? To take back some of the stuff we bought, wear our clothes more than once, to listen to a scratched copy of “Bad Manners'” first album again.  Perhaps going forwards and backwards at the same time is the greatest leap forward, and always has been. One thing’s for sure, shoes won’t come in a box in the future, so enjoy that while it lasts.

 

 

 

 

Notes

 

The Way We Were

It seems to me what we don’t need now is people that come out waving their hands and claiming they know the Right Way.”

Brian Eno

 

Writing is hard.  Somehow what I want to say in this opening sentence, and it’s now my second sentence, escapes me.  I had an idea, but it just won’t sit.

Recently I re-watched “Fame”, Alan Parker’s film about a performing arts school in New York.   It’s a brightly coloured, pacy affair with a lot of muscle and good looks liberally splashed around the edgy New York streets.  There’s a character called Doris who does an audition.  You can tell from the inexplicable change in lighting that it won’t be going well.  She has in tow a very pushy mum and, in case that doesn’t illustrate her subservient squareness enough, she has a blouse done up past her nose almost.  She sings “The Way We Were”, a famous song from a famous film of the same name, she sings it very badly, accompanied by a very bad piano accompaniment recorded on to a cassette by her equally clueless brother.  It is supposed to illustrate bad musicianship, and it is pretty terrible.  She can’t sing, the brother can’t play, it’s all out of tune and out of sync.  It is a disaster.  But I keep thinking about it.  I want to play it.

My idea was that this scene, on a knife edge between comedy and pathos, unknowingly opens up the song in a way that Barbara Streisand, with all her belting bravura, couldn’t.  Where Streisand moves effortlessly through the tune like a hot knife through pink candy floss, Dora’s rendition reminds me of a nature documentary I saw once where a dung beetle keeps trying to push a pile of shit three times its own size, which it has fashioned into a perfect sphere, up a hill, only to watch as it rolls down to the bottom again.  Now that’s a song.

It reminds me of Nancarrow.  “The Way We Were” came out in 1973.  Conlon Nancarrow had, by then, been quietly working on his player piano studies in Mexico for years, beavering away at music that could not be played by humans.  The player piano removes the need for a performer, it is a machine; human beings were not up to playing his music.  His studies are supposed to, in other words, go beyond what a performer could do.  And yet, the effect of them is somehow to sound like three kids playing at once, randomly doodling catchy melodies without a care in the world and without any consideration of what the other is doing.  A nice illusion.

So I go back to it, back to Dora’s audition, I find it on YouTube here .  And it doesn’t really sound like any of these things.  I remembered it like that, not because it has those qualities, but because I do.   In reality, the girl can’t sing, and to find her direction in life she must first (spoiler alert) escape her domineering mother and start taking her clothes off in a nightclub, thus releasing her sexuality and her real calling, which turns out to be acting.

Films, music, art, politics.   They transmit messages, and depending on what we are set to receive, we hear what we want to hear, regardless of what might be called “facts”.  William Carlos Williams once described the idea of a poem as a “machine made of words”; substitute images, sounds, shapes, movement for words, and I think it’s a good description of any other art form.  Politics might even be called a “machine made of statements”.  Statements are often summaries of devilishly complex situations, so it’s good to go back and check the facts before letting your imagination running away with them.  With machines, perhaps watching the whirring of the wheels for the fun of it is the best use of them.

I have been thinking about a new version of “Fame”, set not in a performing arts school but in a chess club.  A somewhat more introverted setting which could preserve the elements of social realism, racism, illiteracy and poverty, sex, neurosis, class and coloured gym wear.  Sexual tensions would simmer in the background, there would be arcs, characters would learn things, hopes and dreams would be dashed and fulfilled in equal measure.  Ups and downs would be described in unflinching detail.  Basically, it would be like the original but with less noise, some peace and quiet.  We all need that.

But even that is not true, not for everyone.  Some people just work and work and get better and better, faster and faster, the noise of progress in their ears.  So around we go again.  With every sentence, an anti-sentence.  Rather than come to a conclusion, I have just had to leave it all lying here in pieces, which Doris I’m sure would understand .  Writing is hard.

Fame.

I’m going to live forever.

I’m going to learn how to fly.

I feel it coming together.

Checkmate.