You may already know that I am planning a gig in my home town of Croydon, South London. I’ve been playing with this idea for some time, the number of great musicians and composers who I’ve met through twitter, or just interacted with online, is one of the great pleasures of social media for me, and I wanted to be able to help share some of their music. A month or two ago, I realised that I was now in a position to at least try to do this. The result is a concert on Saturday 3rd of August, which I have called A Whispered Shout. For some years I have had the phrase “sometimes a whisper is louder than a shout” in my head. I am not entirely sure where it comes from. (It’s a quote from something or other, I’m just not sure what!)
The venue is a wonderful cafe and co-working space which is also at the heart of Croydon’s art scene. I’m really excited to be performing there and think it’s exactly the kind of place to present an eclectic selection of contemporary musicking*, which is my aim.
I’ll blog more about what I plan to play myself nearer the time, but here are some details of the fantastic performers who will be there. It’s awesome that they’ve all agreed to play, and I think each brings a passionate engagement with the making of new music and a dedication to their craft which will help create a special event. There’s a deliberate eclecticism in the music which will be presented, I hope to offer a selection which will provide something new for almost any listener!
is a composer who works with electronics and conventional instrumentation. He uses computers to extend the possibilities of composition and create music of haunting beauty.
I hope it’s clear from all I have said that I think this will be a fantastic afternoon, a gig I would like to go to. There is a facebook event page which I’ll be keeping updated, if you’d like to invite people on their that would be especially helpful, the more people know about the event the better!
All the pieces for my RPM2013 album have now been recorded! The album will consist of two suites: ‘The Orton Road Suite’ and ‘Ten Failed Photographs’. The former is a five part exploration of a two-part melody, borrowing ideas from raga and twelve-tone music; the latter consists of ten miniatures inspired by photographs I have taken which ended up with more darkness than picture. This will be my first purely solo acoustic album, and the music represents a real progression in my musical ideas. I am currently wrestling the recordings into a releasable form, which may take a little while due to technological frustrations (and my own limitations).
The album page is already up, though obviously no music yet. Hopefully I’ll have it ready for the official RPM release date of 1st March.
The RPM challenge is about when you record the music rather than when you compose it, so I’ve been working more on the pieces I’ll be playing. Things have moved on from my last post! I have ideas for two separate suites, one based around melodic improvisation, and another around short pieces based on photographs I’ve recently taken.
I’ve been working on the first idea for a while, and it’s coming along pretty well. I could record a perfectly good version of it now, but I think living with the idea for longer will bring more things out of it, and anyway it isn’t even February yet!
The second idea I just started working on today. I have been playing around with analogue photography, and received my first set of prints back. Ten of them immediately struck me as making an interesting set, as they were all in various states of darkness. In some almost nothing is visible, in others some features stand out clearly while others are swallowed by darkness. Given my interest in failure, and imperfection, I knew I wanted to start interpreting these images in sound. I’ve just been scribbling initial notes down this evening, and I’m pretty excited about this idea :)
I’m not yet sure how these suites will interact. The first idea is probably long enough for a short album in itself. If I have composed the photo pieces in time, I will probably also record them and it will be an album of two halves, an idea I’ve always rather liked. If not then I’ll continue writing those pieces, and they can be their own release or become part of another project. If both these suites get recorded for RPM, that would probably be the longest release I’ve ever done!
I’ll be updating this blog with more composing stuff as things progress…
It’s been a while since I made any new music, partly because computer issues mean I don’t currently have access to any recording software I actually know how to use effectively. This makes adding to the One Year project impossible at the moment, though I may return to it, or at least works in a similar vein, in the future. I have been having ideas for a rather different album for some time though, and I will start work on this soon!
For those unfamiliar with the RPM Challenge, it’s a pretty straightforward concept:
This is The Challenge - Record an album in 28 days, just because you can.
Throughout February, all kinds of different musicians take part. I think I first heard of it in 2011, but only became really aware of it in 2013 when several of my twitter friends took part, including Chrissie Caulfield and Stuart Russell. I even played on Caitlin Rowley’s album! I feel like I’ve forgotten some people, but anyway that’s enough to be going on with :)
For a while I have wanted to record an alum of just me and guitar. I spent a long time waiting for my new guitar, which I new would be more suited to solo acoustic work, and since then I have been very busy. Also I lacked any real musical idea of what I wanted to do. I am now beginning to come up with a loose kind of structure, based on two different improvisatory approaches. For a while I have been working on an approach to building melody-based improvisations by starting with a pentatonic scale and progressively adding notes. Half the album will be made up of pieces using this basic idea, the other half will be more free-form improvisations. I may come up with a theme for those, at the moment I am undecided. I am also unsure how the album itself will be structured: I may choose to alternate the two kinds of piece, or have an album with two ‘sides’. Both approaches have their appeal, I probably won’t know until I’ve done the recordings.
As I normally record using a portable Korg recorder, the actual recording of the album presents no challenges. As I mentioned at the start, my computer doesn’t work properly, so the actual production of the album will need to be done on someone else’s machine (unless I suddenly find myself with funds for a new computer!). This doesn’t really worry me, I can borrow from family or friends, but it could lead to a delay in getting the album released. All recordings will definitely be done in February though!
This will be the first album made in my new home of Leicester, and I’ll be working that in to the art work and probably the name as well. I’m really looking forward to it, and enjoying the preparations. Hopefully it will be my best album yet :)
Good morning good morning good morning etc
I have been thinking for a while that I ought to try to play live more, but that I’m not sure my music really fits into conventional pub-gig kind of setups. In fact, I have my doubts about that whole approach to live music anyway. There’s probably a separate blogpost in that, but suffice to say I think they often fail to deliver a fully satisfying musical experience.
I have been thinking about house concerts for some time. They seem to be a pretty well developed phenomenon in the US, but less so over here although there are exceptions to this. I’m attracted to the idea of just being able to turn up with a guitar and play to a group of people ready to listen. There also seems to be a higher possibility of making a bit of money from this approach (notoriously difficult for those starting out in ‘conventional’ gigging).
Another point that appeals to me is that, except in unusually large houses (!), I’d be able to play purely acoustically. Too much of the music we hear comes to us via PA systems, it’d be nice to reconnect with truly acoustic sounds.
All that said, this can only really happen if people invite me to do it! So if you’re reading this thinking that it sounds intriguing, maybe you could host one. I don’t mind playing to small numbers, so you almost certainly do have room! I would like to make some money from this, exactly how we approach this (paying in advance or ‘passing the hat’ for example) I’d be happy to discuss and be flexible on. I’m currently based in South London but plan to move to Leicester in the next couple of months. I will consider going anywhere but I will need to cover my costs! If you’re far away/abroad do still get in touch, in the long run I’m sure we could arrange something. If you’re thinking it could all be a bit scary, check out some of the links below.
As I’ve said, part of the attraction is turning up and playing acoustically. If, however, you’re more interested in some of my electronic music, we could totally talk about that too ;)
Thanks for reading, hoping to hear from you soon
Some house concert links:
Steve Lawson: http://www.stevelawson.net/2009/03/house-concert-hosting-a-beginners-guide/
Emily Baker: http://emilybaker.co.uk/houseconcerts/
Concerts In Your Home guide: http://www.concertsinyourhome.com/CIYH_HouseConcertGuidex.pdf (I’m definitely willing to play to fewer than twenty people btw)
Marian Call: http://mariancall.wordpress.com/2010/03/22/house-concerts-101/
Greetings! I charted a course through stormy ‘net connections on Sunday to bring a new release to your ears. As this is the first new piece I’ve released for a while (other than additions to Improvisations) some words on its creation, and my current musical thinking, may be of interest.
At the start of the year (or maybe it was the end of last year, but the date is unimportant) I decided that I should spend twelve months gathering field-recordings, and perhaps pictures and words too, to form the basis of some kind of release to be constructed at the end of 2012. I had no idea for the form of the final work, but I wanted to try a creative method that would lead to a longer gestation period, to get away from my tendency to create in sudden short bursts of activity. Perhaps the cultural significance of the year itself played a role: London had, after all, been preparing for 2012 for what felt like most of my life. I toyed with the idea of blogging regularly on my progress, but I decided this could easily lead to the project feeling like a chore, and that the important thing was the final product, not the story of its creation. I have gathered many recordings so far, though perhaps not as many as I would have liked.
It was in Birmingham last month that a new idea for a piece marched boldly into my head, as they occasionally do. Many times I have created a soundscape and then improvised over it, but now I thought of recording a long improvisation and treating this as the soundscape, creating a piece by adding snatches of manipulated field-recordings. I sat down that day in my hotel room and recorded myself playing for around 25 minutes. I consciously left more space in my playing, aware that this was the basis for more sound, that I was, at some level, accompanying something I could not yet hear.
The piece was created over the following weeks, using recordings from the same Birmingham trip, and also treated samples from the improvisation. As I often do, I allowed the sounds to guide me: I had no specific aims in terms of expressing ideas or moods. The piece is an experiment in approaching my usual ingredients in a slightly different way: the sound of me playing was treated in the way I generally treat field-recordings. I hope that creating it has helped me develop my sound-manipulation skills further.
I wrote myself a minimal set of instructions for my field-recording project, and titled it One Year. As the end of 2012 approaches, I am beginning to gain a sense of what I shall create from what I have gathered. There will be a series of standalone pieces, all made in somewhat different ways, but all using sounds from 2012 (of course!). Together, they will perhaps express something of what I am musically at this time. Birmingham Impressions is the first, listen out for more over the next few months.
I’ve been a little quiet here of late, as you may or may not have noticed. Compared to the rapid production of pieces during the winter and spring of 2010-11, the last six months has only seen odd individual track and some collaborations. So what have I been up to?
Well, I should perhaps point out that I have a day job now, with I didn’t then. But that’s not really why I’ve released less. I am currently gathering sounds and images for a larger work. Near the end of last year I decided that I should spend this one gathering raw materials, from which to create a work reflecting my experience of 2012. I am not yet sure what form this will take, but I do know it will involve me using a wider range of my abilities, such as they are. Previous releases, especially The Re-Education Of Ned Ludd, were created within particular constraints. Ned Ludd is the one I’m most happy with, but I want to start bringing together the things I have learned from each set of pieces, mixing guitars with the electronic and field-recording sounds that made up that album. This is what I was doing before, of course, but I want to aim for a more thorough integration of the two, and get away from the idea of one being background to the other.
Meanwhile, I have been looking into sound in a broader social context. Some of you may know that I studied history at university, and in the past month or so it has become clear to me that there are ways to combine these two passions. Sound or aural history is still a new field, which is rather appealing to me. I am currently reading as much as I can about the subject, and looking into potential masters courses that might accommodate the study of sound in history.
So that’s what I’ve been up to. Of course, I’ll still be releasing improvisations from time to time. I’ll also have a new guitar later in the year, which might inspire some music. And every now and then I return to trying to make music inspired by Oscar Wilde’s Poems In Prose. But the main projects are the two outlined above, the piece exploring a year and the study of sound in history. I’ll blog more about them from time to time.
I’ve thought for a while that it would probably be useful to have a page clarifying why I use Creative Commons licenses, and how I intend them to be viewed. As users of CC come from a variety of standpoints - from those who feel that ‘piracy’ will save to music to those who simply don’t like branding their listeners criminals for sharing tracks with friends - it seems necessary to clarify where I’m coming from. This post (minus the preamble you’re currently reading) will also be a seperate page on my website.
FIRST: I AM NOT A COPYRIGHT EXPERT, AND THE FOLLOWING IS ONLY INTENDED AS AN IMPRESSIONISTIC GLOSS. I HOPE THAT IT CONTAINS NO GLARING ERRORS, THOUGH THERE ARE ALMOST CERTAINLY MISTAKES IN THE DETAIL. PLEASE FORGIVE MY IGNORANCE.
OK, I guess telling you to read a book just to know why I do something is a bit silly. Especially as I didn’t write it. And it’s not specifically about Creative Commons. At least it’s free.
OK fine, quick run through: culture is about the exchange of ideas. Ensuring that ideas (in the broad sense, encompassing artworks, compositions, novels and so on) reach as many people as possible is good for the general health of our culture. It is also good if people are free to develop and respond to these ideas or creations. Over the last couple of hundred years, the copyright and intelectual property systems were developed to help ensure that creative people could distribute their ideas widely. This was achieved simply by creating a legal framework for people to make money from ideas and creations. Thus industries grew up based on the distribution of these works, allowing the development of culture on an unprecidented global scale. Along the way, distribution seemed to become a more important aim than creatively sharing ideas, as it was through distribution that money could be made. As a result of this, the freedom to creatively build on other people’s work (which had initially not been affected by copyright) was gradually closed off until we reached the current situation where permission is needed to do almost anything. If you open a book published in the UK you will find a copyright warning informing you that if you wish to sell or loan or even give the book to someone it must remain in its current binding/cover.
An example: under eighteenth and early-nineteenth century copyright laws, you could go and make a Star Wars film yourself. You wouldn’t need anyone’s permission. You’d need permission to sell the original, but to make your own version, or a sequel, or (yawn) a prequel, you were entirely free.
My point is not that copyright is somehow evil. It is merely one idea about how we deal with distributing and sharing creative ideas. It has been very useful, and in the industrial age I think it would have been difficult to improve upon as a legal framework for cultural exchange.
HOWEVER, we live in the information age. Publishing new creations to the world via the web is cheap or free, depending on the nature of the creation*. The creation of new work itself involves a cost, but the old copyright laws were really concerned with distributing works. The question of how creators ought best to be renumerated, now that no huge profit can be made through distribution, is a large societal issue which I cannot gapple with here. I think that models will be found in the end. The important thing in the meantime, as far as I am concerned, is to try to contribute to a healthy cultural exchange, which is where Creative Commons comes in.
Briefly, Creative Commons licenses are a subtler alternative to the All Rights Reserved model. The creator preserves SOME rights, and can allow others various grades of freedom in their use of his or her works. Details can be found on the Creative Commons website, what follows is a brief guide to the main licenses I use:
THIS IS MY GLOSS ON HOW THESE LICENSES WORK. FOLLOW THE LINKS FOR FULL DETAILS. IF YOU NEED CLARIFICATION ON ANYTHING, PLEASE ASK ME BEFORE USING MY WORK. IF YOU WANT TO DO SOMETHING WHICH ISN’T COVERED BY THESE LICENSES, AGAIN, GET IN TOUCH AND WE’LL TALK. I’M UNLIKELY TO STOP YOU DOING SOMETHING UNLESS I THINK YOU’RE BEING COMPLETELY OUTRAGEOUS.
I have been working on this piece for a forthcoming audio book version of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet for some time. I knew that I wanted to work with field-recordings and manipulated guitar samples, but a couple of early attempts to turn these ideas into tracks came to nothing. It was only from spending more time turning the ideas in the text over and over in my mind that the ideas of repetition and a cyclical experience of time began to stand out as important. Somewhere along the line the idea to use the hiss and click of the run-in track on an old record came to mind, and this seemed to fit not just with the broad themes of the book but the specific nature of the text I had been given to work with, with its talk of things forgotten or remembered only as dreams. The hiss of a record is like digital music hesitatingly recalling its analogue roots.
Here is the text I was given to work with:
“For some time now - it may be days or months - I haven’t really noticed anything; I don’t think, therefore I don’t exist. I’ve forgotten who I am; I can’t write because I can’t be. Under the influence of some oblique drowsiness I have been someone else. The knowledge that I do not remember myself awakens me. I fainted away a little from my life. I return to myself with no memory of what I have been and the memory of the person I was before suffers from that interruption. I am aware only of a confused notion of some forgotten interlude, of my memory’s futile efforts to find another me. But I cannot retie the knots. If I did live, I’ve forgotten how to know that I did. It isn’t this first real autumn day - the first cold rather than cool day to clothe the dead summer in a lesser light - whose alien transparency leaves me with a sense of dead ambitions or sham intentions. It isn’t the uncertain trace of vain memory contained in this interlude of things lost. It’s something more painful than that, it’s the tedium of trying to remember what cannot be remembered, despair at what my consciousness mislaid amongst the algae and reeds of some unknown shore. Beneath an unequivocal blue sky, a shade lighter than the deepest blue, I recognise that the day is limpid and still. I recognise that the sun, slightly less golden than it was, gilds walls and windows alike with liquid reflections. I recognise that, although there’s no wind, nor any breeze to recall or deny the existence of a wind, a brisk coolness nonetheless hovers about the hazy city. I recognise all of this, unthinkingly, unwillingly, and feel no more desire to sleep, only the memory of that desire, feel no nostalgia, only disquiet. Sterile and remote, I recover from an illness I never had. Alert after walking, I prepare myself for what I dare not do. What kind of sleep was it that brought me no rest? What kind of caress was it that would not speak to me? How good it would be to take one cold draught of heady spring and be someone else! How good, how much better than life, to be able to imagine being that other person, whilst far off, in the remembered image, in the absence of even a breath of wind, the reeds bend blue-green to the shore. Recalling the person I was not, I often imagine myself young again and forget! And were they different those landscapes that I never saw; were they new but non-existent the landscapes I did see? What does it matter? I have spent myself in chance events, in interstices, and now that the cool of the day and the cooling sun are one, the dark reeds by the shore sleep their cold sleep in the sunset I see but do not possess.”
This blog has been rather neglected of late. A winter working long hours in a cold warehouse has allowed time for musicking, but little to spare for writing about it. I hope to be posting here more in the coming months. This is an update of what I have been working on lately.
In the past my music has been driven by me from start to finish, it is a very personal pursuit which has only gradually become something I share with others. Thanks largely to twitter I now have connections with many wonderful musicians and composers who I would not have met otherwise. This led to the two gigs I played at the end of last year (in Colchester and London). I am pleased to report that this year’s musical work has involved more collaboration and thinking about other people’s approaches to music and sound.
Many of my musical friends took part in the RPM2012 Challenge, to write and record an album in one month, February to be precise. I have toyed with the idea of doing this before, and may well in the future, but I don’t feel that output has really been a problem for me, and most of my releases have been done in a month or so. I don’t really feel it’s useful for me at this stage. I have, however, been involved in someone else’s.
UK-based Australian composer Caitlin Rowley issued a call for volunteers to commission and record new pieces for her RPM album. I was one of the people who stepped forward, and so was lucky enough to work with Caitlin on what became ‘I Want It To Kill People’, the seventh track of her album. It was a real pleasure to enter into another person’s approach to making a piece. She took my work with field-recordings as a starting point and created a tape part for me to play over, with a graphic score to guide my playing. This really helped focus my performance, especially as the piece is quite short and I’ve been working with longer forms lately. I’m really pleased with the result, and we hope to work together more in the future.
Meanwhile, I am working on a piece for a project for an audio-book version of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. Again, this is an opportunity that came to me through the wonders of the World Wide Web. SoundFjord, a gallery specialising in sound art, issued a call for musicians and sound artists to express an interest in contributing. Those who did so have all been given some text to work with, selections will be made after they have the submissions. I hadn’t come across the book before, and have enjoyed exploring it’s dark reflections on the emptiness of everyday life in Lisbon in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties. I also view this work as a collaboration, though of a very different nature. Trying to distill the atmosphere of even one section of a complex literary work into ten minutes of sound (and sound that can be spoken over) has proved quite a challenge. I’m not quite there yet, but pretty close. I’ll hopefully have something to post in the next few days.
Last weekend I invited a few friends round to my place and performed a piece for them. As well as (hopefully!) being enjoyable for them, I knew this would be useful for me to keep in practice and experiment with a longer live form. Whereas in my recent live performances I used field-recordings from specific places, for this I simply went through what I had recently done and made a soundscape that seemed interesting. In particular, I was keen to make sure that distinct structures were apparent, in order to create some sense of narrative in the piece and also to help me remember what point I had reached in the performance.
I recorded my performance using a Zoom H1 portable recorder, and was happy enough with the recording to put it on bandcamp yesterday. There have been some lovely responses, it’s always great to learn that people enjoy what you do!
It’s available on a pay-what-you-like basis in a choice of audio formats, or I’ll make a CD-R just for you for £6. Anyway, here it is, if you like it please share it with others. Thanks for listening :)
3rd December 2011 at Slackspace, Colchester. I’m afraid this recording has some rather unpleasant microphone distortion in places, this is my fault for setting the input volume too high. However, it’s the only document of my two recent performances and as such I thought it worth sharing. I’ve left it pretty much as is, apart from reducing the volume of the performance itself. I really enjoyed the conversational atmosphere of this event, so have left in the chat before and after. You can hear the voices of Stuart Russell, Adam Parsons and Chrissie Caulfield (and me). Huge thanks to Stuart for organising the event
(if any of my geeky listeners fancy trying to get the annoying noises out of this recording, give me a shout!)
A name to conjure with. A man embodying his concept of freedom, living his ideals night by night by blowing freedom through his plastic horn. Some listen, some only hear.
At first I heard only a name. Beyond A Love Supreme Coltrane had sailed to further shores, reading Free Jazz in the stars. This Ornette Coleman it was said had made the chart. The man guiding the ‘Trane.
Some said they had gone too far, for pursuing a dream is likely to seem mad. Mad men follow the moon. This was before I knew the moon.
A CD on the racks. £4. Free Jazz. The name is there and conjures.
Home again. I try to listen, but my green ears can only hear. Unjoyful noise, cacophony is all they find. A few sparse oases of calm. But the rest is noise.
An album put to one side. Some men went too far. An experiment gone wrong, a curiousity. Leave it to the moon.
Miles and ‘Trane and Cannonball. Then there was Mingus, Yussef, Milt. These were my ear-guides on the road beyond hearing. The gods of listening I followed.
With larger ears, and time passed, and strength renewed, I played the disc again. And now the freedom is there, the groove is king, but wild and dancing playful, rollicking king of a merry polyphonious people. My body was my ears and my body now could listen.
The Shape Of Jazz To Come slithered down my iTunes path, sinewy and quick, but strong and deep. It had all the bold and angular power that a former future should. A prophecy fulfilled, disproved and buried five-foot deep. For a thought cannot be put to rest.
And here I am, years later. London, The Royal Festival Hall. The Shape now manifest within the cardboard sleeve under my arm. The vinyl solution.
A slender ghost walks out on to the stage. Slowly. He probably cannot move faster. But this is a man who wouldn’t, even if he could. Deep love is slow. And the freedom that is to come is love.
And so the swinging sound of freedom, the shaping of what is to come, begins. I am listening from outside. I recognise the beauty, but I cannot trust it. Is this my future, or the shape of jazz long gone? Listen, listen. They sing from the stage, Ornette and his band of brothers. And I listen.
And I find they sing to me. They sing joy into me, and strength. And Peace. My cynic flies away and it is me and the band and the Shape of all that’s to come and everything under that roof is in tune and all the guardians of my musical soul are listening with me. And my self is eclipsed by the sound. And Jack Rose is listening with us.
As I sit writing this, I am listening to the current version of the recorded part of the piece I shall be performing on Friday 25th. A few weeks ago I took the train up to London and spent a pleasant afternoon recording sounds in the area around the venue. The original score I wrote for this piece is below. Bear in mind that I was writing these essentially for myself, to start ideas flowing and get me working. They are rather like a set of rules, perhaps reflecting my teenage war-gaming days ;)
A text score for a site specific performance piece
The performance shall consist of live sound from one or more performer(s) and recordings made in advance. Length shall be decided first.
These should be made within one mile of the site where the performance is to be held. Whoever makes the recordings has only one hour to do so. Any found sound may be used so long as it is made in that hour and within one mile of the site.
Once these sounds have been gathered, they can be manipulated and combined in any way that seems appropriate in order to produce a soundscape of the required length. Once this has been made, the performer(s) should not hear the soundscape again until the performance.
The soundscape will be played and the performer must respond in whatever way seems natural. The audience should clearly be able to hear the recorded part of the piece, the aim is not to drown it out but to respond to and comment on it.
If yes, when precisely?
The questions at the end probably reflect the influence of Bill Drummond’s work with The17. Certainly I think the soundscape itself should only be used once, I’ll delete that after use. I should say again that although that entry in my notebook is written as if to someone else, it was really intended only for my use. As soon as I started seriously working on the piece, I found my own rules too restrictive. Although I only recorded about half-an-hour of sound, I spent more than an hour doing it. The idea remains in the online descriptions of the gig, because I feel like the idea of a time limit was a meaningful part of the evolution of the piece. However, there is already enough control in the limitation to one mile. I didn’t actually measure out a mile at any point, but simply wandered around the area making sure not to stray too far. I do think limiting the amount of actual sound recorded could be more useful by making one focus more effectively.
When I met Leah Kardos last month, she asked if the recorded part of the piece should make the listener think of the area itself. I think I said yes, but then started saying something about how it might also try to subvert that idea. I think it would be more accurate to say no. The point of using sounds from the area is not to make people think about that place, but to reflect on how there is beauty tied up in the everyday things all around us. We tend to remain blind and deaf to this. I have stretched, distorted and manipulated the sounds so that only some of them will be recognisable, while others will sound like things they are not. If we could listen differently, perhaps the world would always sound like this, just as it would look different if we could see in infra-red or ultra-violet. The piece I have made remains as chaotic as everyday sound, but it has been reshaped so as to be less familiar and thus (hopefully!) draw the ear more.
Over this I shall improvise slide guitar. Against the everyday, we set humanity’s attempts to create our own beauty. Again, I rejected my original rules: I see no real need for the soundscape to be unfamiliar to me when I perform the piece, I think this would only be interesting if the performer had never heard it before. Perhaps someone out there would like to use the piece in that way, but for a solo set it’s clearly impossible.
Yesterday I named the piece At Source. At some point I shall make a more user friendly text score for it, changing the rules as I have outlined and making the whole thing a bit pithier as well. I’m hugely looking forward to the performance!
I’ve been toying with the idea for a while, but have finally decided that my music should be available in a physical form. Rather than go the usual route of paying to produce some CDs and then selling them, I’m offering to make one-off CD-Rs of some of my releases. I’ll create a unique package just for you. This saves on costs for me, of course, but also means you’ll be getting something very special for no great cost as well. I’ve chosen the three releases that I feel best represent my work:
As some of you will know already, I’m performing as part of Leah Kardos's launch show for her new album Feather Hammer. Leah is a wonderful pianist/composer who I met on twitter, and it’s great to see online connections having real world results! Also performing are the Ligeti Quartet, who will be playing a varied selection of contemporary classical music.
I will be opening the night, with a piece using field-recordings taken from the area around the venue. I’ll create a soundscape using these recordings, and improvise over them using slide guitar. My aim is to create a one-off piece of music, never to be performed again. The process involved in creating it, however, could certainly be used again, and I’ll probably be making a text score of the piece too.
I’m really excited about this event, even if I wasn’t performing I’d probably be going as an audience member, so it’s great to be put alongside such talented musicians. It would be wonderful to see as many people there as possible, so please come along if you can, and share this post around.
Chaos Theory are proud to present three fiercely inventive talents premièring their contemporary works during this one-off event. All of the musicians tonight combine various disciplines, technology and defy tradition. In the true spirit of what Chaos Theory wishes to promote, we invite all of you who wish to experience challenging new music and art.
LEAH KARDOS: FEATHER HAMMER
Leah is a multi-talented composer, producer and pianist whose latest work will be showcased tonight. Her breathtaking new album Feather Hammer (released on 19th September) combines tonal and ambient soundscapes which fuse contemporary classical and electronica styles.
The recorded version of Feather Hammer uses the sounds of acoustic pianos, making use of the hammer, strings and wood percussion of the piano as well as playing them conventionally.
Tonight, we will witness a special presentation of the album featuring digital piano, electronics and video art by Matthew Greasley.
A brilliantly innovative quartet who we’ve had the pleasure of hosting at our monthly night Candied Nonsense. Continually looking to promote the music of established and emerging 20th and 21st Century composers, these graduates from the Royal Academy Of Music, Royal College Of Music and Oxford University never shy away from the new and the experimental. Over the past few months they have premièred ten new works.
Featuring Mandhira De Saram and Patrick Dawkins on violin, Valerie Welbanks on cello and Richard Jones on viola, tonight they will present short pieces by contrasting composers including John Cage, Anton Webern and Harry Partch.
Opening the evening will be this gifted soloist, who will be creating extraordinary music using his original music concept.
Gathering field-recordings within one mile of the Wilmington Arms over the course of one hour, Sam will be manipulating the sounds to forge a one-off soundscape purely for this evening, adding no new sounds whatsoever. He will accompany these recordings with his improvised slide guitar.
A unique start to a unique evening.
This is a rare opportunity to see such vast talent together in one evening and we invite you to come and see how limitless music can be.
Loose Strings - another improvisation. When putting on some new strings, I was inspired by the rattling sounds at the headstock to make a new recording before I cut the strings to size. Here it is, hope you enjoy :)
There’s nothing that wastes time quite like pursuing pointless questions. Here is one that musicians/audiophiles/nerds often come out with: if everyone is so keen on HD and 3D movies, why are they still willing to listen to MP3s? It’s not really a pointless question, but the phrasing of it (and it usually is pretty close to the above) indicates that the person asking doesn’t really take it seriously. The assumption is that those listening to lossy audio formats on cheap headphones are fools and philistines, barely to be considered music listeners at all. Of course, not everyone who asks the question thinks in this way, but I do think the tendency is pretty strong among most of them.
I no longer buy MP3s, though most of my digitised music collection is still in that format because I only made the switch fairly recently. I consider myself on the side of the nerds in that I would prefer people to use higher quality formats. But here I want to outline some of the reasons I think people still use MP3s, rather than dwell for too long on what they ‘should’ be using. In particular, I want to show that the analogy with film is silly.
I was born in 1987, and grew up listening to audiobooks on cassette. In fact, there was at least one that was on vinyl. Music was often listened to in the car, which meant tapes, though we also had CDs. Over time, of course, the latter came to be the norm and eventually our cars had an elegant thin slot for a CD rather than the chunky, rectangular opening necessary for a tape. I was, I think, about 18-19 when I first got an extremely basic MP3 Player, shortly superseded by a much more impressive iPod. Now, I carry music around in my phone.
Meanwhile, as a child I watched films on video tape. When I was a teenager, a fairly speedy switch to DVD occurred. My film buff friends find my lack of interest in BluRay rather perplexing, but despite its evident superiority I find myself unimpressed. I don’t miss HD when I don’t have it. The important thing, is that I (and I suspect many others) still watch films mostly on a sofa at home. Or sometimes at someone else’s home. While I have watched films on my PC or on portable players and so on, it’s really not a big part of my viewing. Film remains domestic.
Contrast this with music. I had a Walkman cassette player from the age of (this is a guess) 12, a portable CD player in my teens (I didn’t go the minidisc route), and ultimately the MP3 players I’ve mentioned. For over half my life I have been able to carry sound about with me, to soundtrack my life with however much I could carry. I never thought that an MP3 would sound better than a CD, I embraced them because they could be carried around easily. The reason people will ‘still’ put up with lossy audio files must be at least in part down to the fact that they were never the best sounding things anyway. Whereas DVDs became successful because they were so clearly superior to what came before. In fact, convenience had been driving music technology for years: why else would I have grown up in a world where cassette tapes were ubiquitous but the vinyl record ‘obsolete’? No-one wears cheap in-the-ear headphones for their brilliant sound quality, they’re used because they’re small and unobtrusive. Through those, the differences between an MP3 and a CD start to seem rather small anyway.
So, I’m arguing that easy, instant access to music is key. But, now that music players have larger memory capacity, why hasn’t everyone abandoned lossy formats for true high quality? Again, this goes back to the original reason for the success of MP3 players: quantity. Simply, people fell in with the idea that the purpose of more memory is to allow more music to be carried around. Having more songs available is a tangible benefit far surpassing fine audio quality, especially if one is listening through basic headphones on a busy train.
There are more specific issues here too, of course. The success of the iTunes Store made the 128kbps MP3 the standard, a woefully low quality file. When the store was launched, one might argue that with Internet connections still often pretty poor, it was worth offering an inferior product for speedier downloads. Nowadays, bandcamp (for example) streams files at that rate! So part of the anti-MP3 feeling that’s out there stems from the spread of very low quality files. Amazon’s downloader uses Variable Bitrate to a higher quality. I suspect that high quality MP3s stand a better chance of general success than lossless file-types. Even FLAC files (which are compressed) are way larger than even high quality lossy files.
So, for people whose main desire is to be able to have as much music as possible to hear at the touch of a button, lossless files are, I think, unlikely to supplant lossy types. Of course, many listeners are moving away from owning music at all in favour of streaming models like spotify. The point of getting down these thoughts was to try to show that people are not choosing poor quality files out of some kind of wilful ignorance. They choose them because their need for music is strong but non-specific. They want as much as possible at their finger-tips. I prefer to maintain a collection of music which I love, rather than tapping into supposedly infinite choice, but that’s because my attitude to music listening is different, not better or worse. There are many kinds of listener.
"Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul"
Plato, The Republic, Book III
"All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed."
Richard Adams, Watership Down
A brief visit to Tate Modern in London yesterday got me thinking about the different roles of music and visual art in our culture. Popular music has huge power in its sphere, and television, radio and film would be lost without the communicative strengths of music. On the other hand, music conceived as art, be it sound art intended for gallery spaces or contemporary classical music for the concert hall or experimental music for a specific place or a combination of some or all of all these things, is generally outside mainstream cultural discourse. The world of visual art is relatively quite well covered, being considered a reasonable topic for cultural news items or discussion in review programmes such as Newsnight Review on BBC2 or Saturday Review on BBC Radio Four (I’m afraid this post is deeply anglo-centric, but short of living in another country for a while I can’t really change that. And that seems an extreme step for blog research). So strong is the domination of the visual in the ‘serious art’ world, that in 2009 a book was published titled Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen. I haven’t read the book, but I do have some thoughts on the question and on what this means for musicians, composers, sound-artists and the others involved in this field.
Firstly, I really think that the extent to which ‘ordinary people’ ‘get’ Rothko, or Damien Hirst, or Jackson Pollock, or whoever, is hugely exaggerated sometimes. I know plenty of people, none of whom I would call philistines, who have little or no attachment to modern art, and in some cases a strong dislike for it. Certainly, they are more aware of modern art than of sound art or contemporary classical music, but this is because of the media rather than any particular tendency among members of the public. So, why do I think those who control the media are more inclined to cover visual art than aural art? I’m sure they’d argue that they’re just giving people what they want, but culture is never that simple. Let’s think a bit about who people in the media are.
Nowadays, it must be pretty likely that they have studied media at some point. The dominant media of our age, or at any rate the late twentieth century, are television and film. The growth of ‘new media’ this century is important, no doubt, but it is so new that I think we can assume that those who hold real power in the old media grew up before its development, so their understanding of what culture is comes from the days when TV, film, and to some extent radio and print where the dominant cultural forces. If one views sound from the point of view of a culture primarily based on the visual media of television and film, is it not likely that ones understanding of it would be somewhat skewed? To some extent, those interested in visual media must also be aware, even if only in a general way, of wider developments in visual art. But sound exists, in this model, only as a support for images. It has a whole separate cultural sphere of performance and recordings, but while this may be interesting to television it is not intimately connected to it. Of course, visual art has another great advantage: you can see it. An image can be put on the screen, and a narrator can talk over it, without unnecessary confusion. But playing a piece of music while someone speaks is fraught with annoying technical decisions about their relative positions, and because words communicate specific things, the conclusion is likely to be that the music should be relegated to the background. And then you still have to decide what image to show while this is going on.
In previous eras, people like Stockhausen were featured on the television to some extent, but I suspect my previous argument applies here again, in a slightly different way. Up until the mid-twentieth century, the radio remained a huge cultural force in Britain, so I would argue that this sound medium was making its influence felt over television. Those who had grown up in the age of the radio are likely to have possessed a more acute awareness of aural culture, so it is unsurprising that they brought this approach into television.
There is, I think, one other thing that has contributed to the overtly visual nature of out culture: the camera. The one art which all people have at least tried is photography. Quite possibly all an individual has ever done is take holiday snaps, but nonetheless they now have more understanding of visual art than of aural, all else being equal (all else isn’t equal, of course, but you take my point). If everyone made field-recordings of places they visited, our culture would be much more attuned to aural art.
So: we are generally more visually attuned; our media understands visual art better; and as a result we are exposed to more visual art. Even if we don’t like it, we may well be, at some level, aware of it. Aural art (by which I mean sound-art, contemporary classical, free improvisation, and a whole host of other things too long to list), remains outside the mainstream, and the public are left to seek it out if they wish, without much in the way of cultural guidance. Most commentators on this matter find this a cause for concern, and potentially damaging to the creation of aural art. But I say…
Pause for a moment to think of any great artistic movement you admire. It needn’t necessarily be musical. Consider that stage of its development when it was ignored, shunned, perhaps actively discouraged by those in authority. Was that not also the stage when the legends were created, when the tradition created itself in spite of indifference, disapproval, or worse from ‘normal people’? Isn’t that the time you wish you could be in, just for a moment? Bop grew out of the surplus talents of musicians working in the mainstream but dissatisfied with it. No-one in mainstream culture in 1975 was sitting around waiting for the punks to smash the rules to pieces: they came along and tried to do it anyway. Robert Johnson and Nick Drake were ignored in their own lifetimes but have been rediscovered since. The mainstream killed Socrates.
What I am trying to say, is that being ignored by the mainstream needn’t be an artistic problem at all, quite the reverse. Be subversive and discomforting, undermine the culture which behaves as if you are not needed. Of course, the practical issues with being outside the establishment are huge, but aren’t artists supposed to struggle? If it was easy everyone would be doing it. The mainstream is always dull, bloated, corrupt, in the pocket of government, or big business, or popular taste, or the aristocracy, or some equally non-artistic nonsense. It is not for you. Freedom is for the rebel, the outsider, the artist lying in the gutter gazing at the stars. So next time you’re annoyed to find yourself outside the cultural mainstream, just remember that it could be worse: you could be in it.
In an article welcoming Apple’s new iCloud and iTunes Match services, David Kusek predicts a future where our lives will be soundtracked by a stream of carefully selected music based upon our listening habits and chosen by a ‘Personal Media Minder’. ‘This is the future of music– a future in which music will be like water: ubiquitous and free flowing. In this future, music will be ubiquitous, mobile, shareable, and as pervasive and diverse as the human cultures that create it.’ Now, whatever one’s view on whether this is likely to be the future or not, I for one am of the view that such a future would be dystopian. Unlike Kusek (CEO of Berkleemusic and Vice President at Berklee College of Music) I do not feel that music is best served by ubiquity. I think this stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of music and art originating in a misuse of language.
“Without music, life would be a mistake.” Friedrich Nietzsche
People are fond of saying that they ‘need’ music. What they mean by this, presumably, is that they gain so much pleasure from music that without it there would seem to be little point in life, it might even be called ‘a mistake’. However, I fear that this casual exaggeration of the importance of music, saying ‘need’ when we mean ‘desire intensely’ has now become so common place that it has skewed some people’s idea of the role of music in our lives. We need food, water and shelter, and then there are a whole set of other things such as companionship, art, intellectual stimulation, music, amusement and so on, which are so important in our lives that we can come to treat them as necessities. It is probably even true at some level: I suspect we do need at least a selection of these things in order to stand a chance of fulfillment. Perhaps we even need them all. But what we need them for is a happy or fulfilled life, whereas what we need food or water for is life itself. Music is, therefore, a life enhancer, not an absolute necessity, and this completely changes how we should treat it.
Water, being absolutely necessary to life (in some form), cannot be too available to us. The more convenient access to it is made, the better. So we have have water running to our homes, and once there it is sent to a sink (probably at least two) and however many toilets, baths and showers we have. And this is all to the good, because easy access to necessities is generally a good thing all round. And so, those who dream of music’s future say “Well, you need music too, so why not treat that like water? Have it everywhere and all the time, it will be wonderful.” But, as we have seen, the need for music is not the same as the need for water. It enhances our lives rather than simply fueling them. Music is like wine.
We are never told that we ‘need’ wine. Apart from anything else, advertising standards rules would not allow this as it would be seen as encouraging alcoholism. But wine can be a life enhancer, just as music can. The expert wine-drinker would probably no rather contemplate a world without wine than Nietzsche would one without music. The same goes for the eater of gourmet food, or the collector of rare books. These are rich, complex pleasures, and difficulty is part of them. In musical terms, the careful building and management of a collection of records, CDs, or digital tracks is a complicated, deeply satisfying activity and a wonderful way to learn about music. Indeed, collecting is known to play an important role in human creativity. This cannot be simply bypassed by handing our listening over to a machine and trusting it to choose for us. Taps are for water, not wine.
Now, the already expert musical listener can probably gain much from a streaming or sharing service. All those things you never quite got round to looking into are there at the click of a button, and you still have your existing collection to add to and manage, but you can be more selective about what needs to be purchased. I completely see the value of these services to such listeners, and I suspect they won’t be the ones using automated choice settings much. The danger really is to the casual listener, or the teenager trying to discover music. To be faced, from the outset, with a virtually infinite choice of music listening makes it very difficult to even begin to understand where one’s own tastes lie. In response to this, people tend to withdraw from choice in three ways: seeking familiarity; relying on filters; and becoming increasingly passive. Now, this is all happening to some extent all the time, and has been for a very long time. But to allow the filters to be controlled by automated software, and to create technology which assumes or even encourages passivity, will make it harder to become an expert listener. The internet, which should make it easy to become knowledgeable, is being harnessed to the same attempts to infantilise humanity as the mass broadcast media of the past.
“More and more the channels of production are under the control of bureaucrats, whose aim is to destroy the artist or at least to castrate him.” George Orwell, ‘Poetry and the Microphone’ The New Saxon Pamphlet No.3, March 1945
The thing I find most perplexing about Kusek’s future, is that he seems to imagine not just that we want access to music all the time, but that we in fact want it playing all the time. In his imagined 2015, we are all constantly listening and sharing music. The thing that worries me about this is: where will the new musicians come from? It seems to me highly unlikely that listening to music constantly would make you want to perform it. One’s own attempts would appear fumbling and dull by comparison to the almost infinite stream of near perfection plugged into your ear all day. In Kusek’s future, it seems to me that a musician will be a person who listens to music far less than most people.
“The music - and if possible it should be the same music for everybody - is the most important ingredient. Its function is to prevent thought and conversation, and to shut out any natural sound, such as the songs of birds or the whistling of the wind, that might otherwise intrude.” George Orwell, ‘Pleasure Spots’ Tribune 11th January 1946
Of course, no-one now looks forward to a world where people all listen to the same music, at least not at the same time. But really, the sinister part of this seems to me to still be preserved. The aim is the creation of an entirely artificial environment, matched to the individual. But how is this individual to cope when problems? How can she (or he) attempt personal growth if a whole system setup to define her tastes continually reminds her of who she has been and what she used to love?
“Man needs warmth, society, leisure, comfort and security: he also needs solitude, creative work and the sense of wonder. If he recognised this he could use the products of science and industrialism eclectically, applying always the same test: does this make me more human or less human?” George Orwell, ‘Pleasure Spots’
I am of the view that Kusek’s future would make us less human. Our tastes, delights, pet-peeves and obsessions should not be farmed out to machines for ease of maintenance. To be human is to take on great joys and great sorrows, our lives are not bureaucratic issues in need of streamlined solutions. I want extraordinary music, not ubiquitous music.
I’ve mentioned to a few people that I might be doing a new kind of stream (for me) soon, so I thought I’d outline my intentions. Rather than playing a few pieces, I’m currently creating a longer piece which I’ll perform on ustream once it’s ready. It will involve me improvising over manipulated field-recordings. I’ve done similar things over drone soundscapes before, but this will be a more prepared piece and considerably longer than any of those. Right now, I’m creating the soundscape over which I will play, then I will move on to develop the musical palate I’ll be using.
I have a tendency to say this kind of thing will take longer than it actually does, so suffice to say that there’ll be further news in the next few days and the performance could be any time in the next couple of weeks depending how long my preparations take. But I’ll be sure to give fair warning.
My ustream channel is now embedded on my site, there should be a ‘Live Streams’ page up on the right there…yeah that’s it ;)
Welcome to the new version of samgrinsell.com, thanks for stopping by. For now, there’s not a huge amount of new stuff, but I prefer this layout anyway so thought I’d get on and make the site live. The good news is that it’s easier for me to add things to this new site, so I expect a lot more to be happening at this address from now on than did on the old site.
p.s. I put a couple of previous blogpost on here, the old Musical Improvisation tumblr will stay live, but longer pieces will probably mostly go here ;)
[originally posted on tumblr on Wednesday January 26 th 2011]
Being English, I’m going to open with a joke. It’s a Tommy Cooper one, though I’ve only actually heard it told by others. So if there are any faults in my paraphrase of a paraphrase, they’re down to me, not him.
A man walks into a pub. He buys a pint and drinks it down. Raising his right hand, he declares: “Everyone on this side of the pub is an idiot, and everyone on that side of the pub is a fool.” Then he leaves. He comes into the same pub the next day. Again, he drinks his pint and then says: “Everyone on this side of the pub is an idiot, and everyone on that side of the pub is a fool!” On the third day, just as he’s finishing his pint, a man comes up to him and says: “Now then, look here. I’ve seen you in here yesterday and the day before, and I just want to say that I AM NOT an idiot!” The man finishes off the dregs and says: “Get over there with the fools then!”
The connection between this joke and what I am blogging about will hopefully become clear. I recently read Derek Bailey’s ‘Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music’. I’ve long admired his music, and the book is an excellent survey of the techniques associated with improvisation and the particular problems encountered by improvisers. I want to argue, however, that Bailey’s division of improvisers into two camps is essentially unhelpful. His model of the world of improvisational music contains two kinds of improviser: the idiomatic player, and the non-idiomatic. Although this sheds a great deal of light on his own approach to music, I am not convinced that it has any great use beyond this. But before I raise my criticisms, I will outline the definitions involved.
Improvisation is an aspect of many musical styles across the world, in fact almost all have some improvisational element. That improvisation has been edited out of mainstream western classical music and its history should not blind us to the fact that it is essentially a normal part of music-making. Modern technology has also led to modern rock and pop music becoming increasingly strongly structured. Perhaps the nature of recording music, either in a score or in sound, discourages improvisation in performance. But that’s a question for another time, perhaps.
The nature of improvisation within genres varies widely. In many folk styles the melody and rythm may be largely predetermined but the player may have great freedom to add ornamention. In baroque music the player would be required to do this, and might also introduce cadenzas of his or her own devising, some short and some long and elaborate. Improvised preludes were also common practice, whole pieces built according to a set of harmonic rules. Indian classical music is improvisational in practice, but the aim is to bring out the character of a historic form. A raga may be performed differently every time, but it remains, at some level, consistent in it’s nature and mood. A jazz musician might treat an old standard a similar way, building new music from an established harmonic form. In doing so, however, jazz players often end up a long way from the notes or even (arguably) the character of the original piece. One need only hear John Coltrane’s lengthy improvisations on live performances of ‘Favourite Things’ or Eric Dolphy soloing on ‘Take The A Train’ to know that the aim of jazz is not (necessarily) to express what is there in a piece. It is often to produce something new from old ingredients, by some mysterious alchemy.
All of the various activities described above are covered by Bailey’s term idiomatic. The structure within which players improvise may be highly limiting, as in traditional Irish music, or it may be almost limitless, as in post-bop jazz. But everyone within these systems understands the common aims of the musicians involved, and is seeking to follow more or less defined pathways to specific musical and emotional ends. These are the idiomatic players.
Non-idiomatic improvising is Bailey’s term for a specific musical movement, of which he was a part. AMM, Alterations, Joseph Holbrooke, The Music Improvisation Company (the latter two both bands involving Bailey) and other individuals and groups all seemed determine not to rewrite improvisational rules but to deconstruct them. The aim was not to create a new genre, which would just lead back to creative stagnation, but to create a situation in which anything and everything might be possible. Bailey himself comes to the conclusion that such an atmosphere is usually only possible for short periods of time. He seems to have been almost frightened of comfort or familiarity. To have any concept of what would happen during a performance was anathema to him, and the way he characterises non-idiomatic playing is as a world where doubt is king. Any kind of certainty must be shunned and eluded as leading back to the world of idiomatic music. Bailey does not criticise idiomatic players, acknowledging that they find what they wish to express within their chosen genre. But he cannot conceive of himself finding this, and so must be a musical nomad seeking meaning only in the alien.
I do think that his two categories do reveal a genuine division between the musical world he helped create and that inhabited by other improvising musicians. I am not disputing the use of his categories for describing the origins of his specific musical attitude and those of his colleagues and contemporaries in improvised music. I do not think, however, that these categories are useful beyond this. The examples I use below are largely drawn from jazz, because it is a genre I know well and also has many diverse players within it.
I will argue that the gap between Miles Davis or Ornette Coleman on the one hand, and Derek Bailey on the other, is no larger than the gap between Davis and Johnny Hodges, for example. Within the world of idiomatic playing, there are musicians who master the given form and then move beyond it. Hodges was a master of the jazz of his day, and could express himself beautifully through it. He felt no need to create a new form to express some additional part of himself. Miles Davis, on the other hand, though a wonderful bop player, went on to help develop the sounds of cool jazz and later fusion. Fusion was not within bop just waiting to be released, it was not an inevitable extension of what had gone before. It was a new development. John Coltrane was also a great bop player, and played on Davis’ seminal 1959 album Kind Of Blues, but he went on to develop new sounds afterwards. His sparring partner in the Davis band, alto-saxophonist ‘Cannonball’ Adderley, continued to play music essentially drawn from jazz tradition for the rest of his career. Whereas John Coltrane created A Love Supreme.
My point is that all these players are idiomatic in Bailey’s terms, but I perceive a qualitative difference between them. They too felt that their given idiom could not accommodate all that they had to express, but their response was to create a new one, not shun the concept altogether.
When I pick up a guitar to improvise, I am free to play any note I wish. Yet I am aware of having certain habits and approaches, a style if you will. Some days I feel like Derek Bailey and want to fight what has gone before. Some days I want to travel deep down the established paths to find what new emotions they have to offer. Some days I feel as if I am ‘just improvising’ without reference to the past, though I am doubtful this can be true. I do not tie myself to a genre external to myself, but I do think that I am in some sense idiomatic in my approach. My idiom is myself, my own taste and inclinations, my hands and tones, all the music I have heard. I am a man building an idiom for myself. To idiomatic and non-idiomatic playing I wish to humbly add idiom-creative playing. Doubtless other improvisers out there can see other categories too. The pub contains people other than idiots or fools.
[thanks to twitter users @mikecrain @jennipinnock and @eddjc for encouragement and thoughts on my earlier spoutings on this subject, they all have interesting music you can hear on soundcloud.com]
[first posted on tumblr on 8th September 2010. This version has been slightly edited]
It’s easy to become preoccupied with how the Internet and digital technology have ‘ruined’ music, what with terrible sound quality, file-sharing, the obsolescence of the album/single distinction and so forth. But I want to suggest that as well as problems, the digital age presents important opportunities.
Most genres of music are associated with a particular form which emerges from the technology prevalent at the time of the genre’s invention. The late sixties saw the emergence both of rock music and the idea that the LP offered the possibility of a more interesting musical structure than just a collection of singles. Prog-Rock could not have emerged without this format (some might suggest this would be a good thing, but this is not the time or place!). Since the emergence of the CD albums have tended to expand to fill the c.80mins available per disc, although the fundamental aesthetics of album making have not changed, leaving many to bemoan the exhausting length of modern releases. Meanwhile, other genres tend not to fit so well into the album format: the blues was rather well adapted to the 45” Single, and it takes a strong and imaginative artist to make a good blues LP. Live recordings have often been the most successful. To go even further back, Western Classical Music has been shaped by it’s literary nature: the technology shaping it was the musical score. One could write a book going into all the details of how this was true, but suffice to say that the widespread printing of music gradually shaped what was produced. The very concept of an all powerful composer whose will must be followed to the letter is only possible because of the combination of abstraction and detail possible through the musical score. The emergence of people who can compose entirely in their heads would also have been impossible without it (this again may not be good, it is nevertheless what happened). So it should be clear that the change from CD to digital ought to offer new possibilities.
Many panic that ‘the album is dead’ without really understanding what that should mean. The fear is that there is no replacement, that structuring a collection of songs or pieces is a dead art and in twenty years time people will only ever buy and listen to music one song at a time. Thus far the album has persisted for several reasons: most download stores sell poor or medium quality audio files, so audiophiles still need CDs, and many people like to have them for their physicality anyway; artists and the people running their labels grew up in the CD era at the latest; the potential market for online is not as large as physical sales: children and young teens generally don’t have the means to purchase music online (credit cards) and often don’t have MP3 players anyway, many other people simply don’t like shopping online; legal downloads, though cheaper than CDs, are not cheap enough to force people away from discs; most download sites don’t give anything except music and album art, missing the opportunity to enhance a product through sleeve-notes or other extras. So it is clear that the album is not about to disappear immediately.
But I believe artists should begin expanding the possibilities of longer musical structures, and taking advantage of the fact that one can now release more. Artists who see live performance as their main endeavour should be releasing live recordings regularly, preferably of every show. Put them on a bandcamp store: everyone who was there will want it, and there will probably be others interested too. Improvising musicians can now produce a never ending record of their emerging craft, I myself do this here: http://store.samgrinsell.com/album/improvisations-free-download The point is not that listeners will want to own huge albums, they can listen to it when they want, and download whichever tracks appeal. The ability to allow fans to hear a work before they buy it is one of the great boons of the Internet Age, unfortunately not embraced by all because of the dangers of piracy. Length won’t just increase. Because the traditional album format will no longer dominate, smaller collections of themed songs could be created; concept albums generally benefit from being under 45mins, and now there is no reason for them to be longer. CDs can be released in limited, collectable editions rather like vinyl still is by some. A thousand structures can bloom.
But for all this to appeal to listeners artists and labels must take downloads seriously: there must be choice of audio format, including lossless files; there must be extras: sleeve-notes or whatever; if you offer a free download in exchange for an email address, have it tagged with the artist name and song title, no one wants to play song1rmixbymyband.wav! In fact extras can be more interesting than notes: provide images that could be printed as postcards or posters, give them a voucher for something or a video of the artist (not one you’re going to put on YouTube two weeks after release). In short, the album may well die but new structures will rise, so long as music creators stop being afraid of new technology and music listeners.