Book Reviews – Issue 5

RICHARD WILLIAMS – THE BLUE MOMENT: MILES DAVIS’ KIND OF BLUE AND THE REMAKING OF MODERN MUSIC

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Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publication Date: 2009
Number of Pages: 309 (incl. index)
Contents: Introduction; Into the Blue; The Sound of Blue; Blue Moods; Blue Dawn; Six Colours (Blue); Interlude: Outside in Blue; The Blue Moment; Blue Waves; Blue Horizon; Dark Blue; So Blue; Blue Bells; Code Blue; Blue on Blue; Coda: Permanent Blue; References; Acknowledgments; Index

 

So here we have yet another book on Miles Davis, and one which deals, furthermore, with the album forced to bear the weight of the history of an entire music (and, by association, all of its dependent and shaping contexts) – a task for which no one album is suited. But Richard Williams promises something different: an attempt to analyse just what it was about ‘Kind of Blue’ that made such an impact, and how this was impact was felt among listeners and among other musicians, rather than simply another case of reinforcing its mystique as a ‘great’ art object, as a fifty-year old talisman overshadowing all which comes after.

 

That said, about half the book is a history of Davis’ career in the years leading up to and including ‘Blue’; something Ashley Kahn’s book of a few years ago had already done, as Williams acknowledges in his introduction. Once we get past the description of the actual album itself, and the recording circumstances surrounding it, Williams seems to feel liberated into the more broadly contextual element which is, at least partly, the book’s raison d’etre, and proceeds to digress into a more sweeping survey of 1960s drone-influenced music (the minimalism of Young, Riley, Reich and its incursion into the rock music world via the Velvet Underground). This would seem to relate more to Davis’ similarly Indian-influenced late 60s and early 70s work (‘In a Silent Way’, ‘Orange Lady’ and ‘He Loved Him Madly’) rather than to ‘Blue’ – though of course Davis had had at least some influence in terms of the modal music freedom and the impressionist atmosphere of the introduction to ‘So What’.

 

The problem here is making any one album a template, a talismanic object, when actually, for the players, it was just another recording session. This is part of a tendency to make the music static, to make it live on in a series of marketable artefacts rather than to develop and grow in a live, organic context, and is particularly ironic given Davis’ refusal ever to stand still in his career, and given the fact that Williams is trying to chart a series of changes and developments sparked by the initial album. Perhaps, though, Williams is simply writing the way that many listeners actually do and did experience music such as Davis’; those who have missed catching the live act through a combination of money and circumstance. Indeed, he notes that “creative musicians are often justifiably suspicious of the way their listeners invest emotional capital in specific recordings…From such an instinctive affection can come the urge to force an artist to stop, to freeze his or her work at a certain time, the time best suited to our own needs. The artist, moving on, does not necessarily see it that way.” But if, then, this book is an attempt to capture something of the actual listening experience, rather than existing simply as an ‘objective’, detached chronicle or history of what happened in 1959 and after, it falls short on topics which could easily have been discussed, surrounding the commercial aspects of modern musical production and consumption and the economic and political circumstances so vitally a part of the ‘jazz music’ of which ‘Kind of Blue’ is taken to be the supreme representative.

 

A chapter, tellingly described as ‘Interlude’, in which Williams briefly treats of the existentialist/cool outsider milieu of the 1950s (Camus, Moravia, Mastroianni and Strand cigarettes), is on the right track, but seems rather unfocussed, a journalist’s collection of quotations and generalising statements. Which is why the book is best when Williams simply describes the music – he’s a critic with a fine prose style, even if his use of the buzz-words ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ too often goes unchecked – or collects revealing quotations from, in particular, Brian Eno and Terry Riley.

 

I think perhaps the problem is that, too often, he seems uncomfortable with thematic or theoretical analysis (by the latter, I don’t mean a narrowly musicological approach, but one which is willing to address the ‘wider issues’ relating to the music with more than token or sweeping gestures). Thus, we are presented with tantalising hints at areas which almost open up into more extended investigation, but which then sink back again as chronology takes over. For instance, the opposition between the expression of ‘innerness’ and of a more collective spirit: here, Williams turns in a nice description of Coltrane’s soloing as the “public expression of an inner quest,” but goes no further. Or, another opposition, between ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ approaches to jazz (though in some ways this was falsely set up: Davis, so often taken as the supreme ‘cool’, mid-register trumpeter, began to increasingly utilise a fierce, brash upper-register approach as the 60s wore on; ‘introspective’ Bill Evans turns in a particularly energetic performance on George Russell’s ‘Concerto for the Billy the Kid’; and even Stan Getz could be more than mellow.) And, perhaps connected to this, the opposition between African and European approaches (the legacy of which becomes increasingly apparent in the ideological debates over the ‘New Thing’, or one’s critic injunction to Anthony Braxton: “stop Messiaen around”). Witness Coltrane’s presence on ‘Kind of Blue’: one solo was described as “angry”’ in a Down Beat review (which Williams quotes in full), and this perhaps because it did not conform to a notion of western ‘elegance’, of ‘fine craftsmanship’ and clear structure (whereas Davis’ pithiness and strong melodicism leant itself much more obviously to that model). Indeed, as Coltrane’s playing developed, non-western influences became increasingly apparent, whether these be African (the rhythmic propulsion and emotive, non-standard instrumental cries on ‘Africa,’ from the ‘Africa-Brass’ sessions), or Indian (both in terms of timbre, instrumental colour, and raga-like length). And we musn’t forget Davis’ later, more formally adventurous and ‘aggressive’-sounding 1970s work, where James Brown (Africa, via the USA) met India (sitars, tables), drum choirs (see Ian Carr’s analysis in his Miles biography), and Stockhausen (whose own ‘western art-music’ was profoundly influenced by the music and philosophy of non-western cultures; witness ‘Stimmung’ or ‘Ceylon/Bird of Passage’). Such experimentation suggests some kind of synthesis between the oppositions sketched above – or, rather, a world where oppositions between different musical cultures are not erased, but remain in some sense sublimated, cultural elements mixing together while the remaining traces of opposition between them generate a creative tension that contributes enormously to the music’s dark and disturbing quality.

 

But Williams does not really raise the issue at all; all we get are the usual anecdotes about Davis being impressed by a performance of African dance and the assertions that Bill Evan’s playing demonstrated the influence of Ravel, Debussy, et al. At times, this sort of thing feels like a kind of avoidance; as if Williams holds himself back when he thinks he might be digging too deep. Thus, one could even see ‘Kind of Blue’ as leading to free jazz or improv, given its expansion of tonality, form and time (most explicitly in the Evans/Chambers introduction to ‘So What’), and its move as a whole away from be-bop constrictions and emphasis on technical virtuosity, to laying stress on an overall sound, a collective construction. Yet, if anything, Williams contrasts it with free jazz, making instead the much easier connection to ECM atmospherics and to minimalism’s return to simple tonality – though he conveniently forgets that Davis himself was less interested in endlessly rehashing melancholy ballads than in adopting an approach which fore-grounded powerful rhythms, overlain with dissonant, aggressive, effects-laden guitars and keyboards. Indeed, Williams does little to counter the usual criticism of ECM when he argues that Manfred Eicher did not create “a bloodless Europeanisation of jazz” because the label’s catalogue contained work by Don Cherry, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Wadada Leo Smith and Charles Lloyd alongside the usual suspects: Garbarek, Jarrett, et al. Which simply makes it sound as if most of the music is bloodless, but that that’s OK, because there’s a bit of free jazz there too – which doesn’t address the accusation of a generalised bloodlessness, exceptions granted. (Indeed, Lloyd’s work on ECM often conforms to the stereotype – ‘Lift Every Voice’, despite its claims to be a response to 9/11 (or perhaps because of them) remains muted to the point of ennui-inducement.)

The book ends on a description of a visit to La Monte Young’s Dream House, which is fine in itself (reading like a well-written newspaper report), but which has nothing to do with Davis or ‘Kind of Blue’; and Williams does not even attempt to make the connection. It’s typical of the way the book comes increasingly to feel like several Guardian articles stitched together, with maybe a few sentences on Davis or ‘Kind of Blue’ to keep the thread going: they’re decent articles in themselves, but the real work – the task of drawing together thematic areas and expanding beyond the usual chronological histories of what are, after all, pretty well-discussed topics – is left undone. Consequently, ‘The Blue Moment’ is not as incisive as it could have been. (DG)

 

STUART BAKER/ GILLES PETERSON – FREEDOM, RHYTHM & SOUND: REVOLUTIONARY JAZZ COVER ART 1965-83

Publisher: SJR (Soul Jazz Records) Publishing
Publication Date: 2009
Number of Pages: 179

 

While coffee-table jazz books are common, coffee-table free jazz books are understandably less so; come to think of it, ‘Freedom, Rhythm and Sound,’ published by Soul Jazz Records (who have a good eye for design themselves), is probably the first of its kind. In terms of layout and appearance, the book is impeccable: a large hard-back, with a striking cover of stark black letters on a bright yellow background; glossy pages; unobtrusive text nestling next to and underneath carefully-arranged pictures; and image upon image, page after page – a wide and eclectic selection of the cover art to better and lesser-known albums. For those whose shelves are crammed with original LPs, or those who have become almost unconsciously familiar with these sorts of designs through trawling out-of-print music blogs, many of the images will be recognizable. But seeing them all together in one place, as one can with this book, crystallizes a sense of continuity and thematic unity which can only enhance one’s appreciation for these record covers as works of art in their own right, not simply pretty or arresting wrapping for the aural treasures within the record sleeve.

That said, such a glossy work does reflect the way in which any image can become assimilated into a process of production and consumption – which embraces free jazz and its radical socio-political/ religious roots as simply a lifestyle choice, radical chic to hang up on the wall. Aware of this, Stuart Baker’s text provides context through a brief introduction outlining the history of free jazz, and potted biographies of various key figures, scattered throughout the book. Unfortunately, this tends to be information which could be gleaned from a quick internet search and which is basic at best, touching on ideological and political issues rather fleetingly (a one-sentence quotation from the Black Panthers, mention of Amiri Baraka and John Coltrane) and preferring to concentrate on the safer factual approach – ‘in 1971, so-and-so moved to Paris’ – which is the jazz critic’s preferred domain. The text therefore comes across as a rather cursory run-through of all the relevant sources and pieces of information; it reads like something put together competently, but not very enthusiastically, for an exhibition catalogue.

Furthermore, considering the fact that this is a book about the cover art of these records, it might have been nice to have some writing about the art itself. While Baker’s introduction does hint at the DIY ethos that was so vital to much of this music in the third paragraph to his introduction, he doesn’t return to the theme. Furthermore, what he does say in this section contains a number of assumptions which could have done with being addressed. Take this sentence: “For reasons of economy, the artwork is often strikingly raw – many were starkly black and white, with hand-drawn graphics and simple typesetting – a million miles away from the slick presentation of jazz by the mainstream music industry.”. What of the artwork that isn’t ‘raw’? What of the careful design of Mtume’s ‘Alkebu-Lan’: black-and-white and hand-drawn, but by no means crude? What of the use of photography? For instance, we often see shots of artists, alone or in groups, in urban and natural wastelands, striking a keen balance between careful, posed composition (Joe McPhee’s ‘Nation Time’) and off-the-cuff, spontaneous document (on Noah Howard’s Judson Hall recording, some of the artists are looking towards the camera, while others continue their conversation in the background, apparently oblivious to the photographer’s presence). There might be something to consider in the contrast between posed, studio shots and quick location set-ups – although this was a contrast already blurred by classic jazz photography, where the illusion of a smoky glamour, originating as a record of what jazz clubs looked like, was steadily manipulated into a commercial and conventional image: saxophonists shown playing their instruments with cigarettes between their fingers, or, later, blowing hard with their eyes closed in passion (Braxton’s ‘sweating brow’ syndrome, perhaps). Given this, the sharp distinction Baker draws between ‘raw, DIY, handmade’ free jazz art and “the slick presentation of jazz by the mainstream music industry” feels too simple (even if he does attempt to cover himself with the qualifying words “often” and “many”). The analogy between free and spontaneous music and free and spontaneous art elides the fact that the music didn’t just happen, ‘just like that’: it was the process of long searches, long periods of study, long processes of thought, and the product of particular historical developments and struggles which should not be reduced to simplified clichés. There has been debate in free improv circles recently about the role played by the physical object, by the aesthetic appeal of having a record which one can hold in one’s hand and look at, as well as listen to. One might argue that to have something which looks appealing in this way is not ideologically suspect, is not collusion with commercialism or with the mainstream music industry. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: placed against a world of endlessly-exchangeable commodities, here is evidence that something is worthy of the time and effort required to produce a beautiful, individual object, something that has been crafted and shaped with close attention to its material and ideological qualities.

If we accept that such objects are worthy of respect and study – as the publishers of this anthology must do, to have produced a book devoted to these album covers – we must also accept that their creators should also be accorded with more than a name-check. Sure, we see names in the credits below the images– painters, photographers, designers – but they remain simply names. Each of these people had their own story, their own involvement, their own ideology, their own contribution. For a book that honours their work, would it not have made sense to honour those that made it?

It’s hard, then, not to feel that an opportunity or several have been missed here. Visual art is, after all, an element of the free jazz movement which never receives much attention, yet it is undoubtedly a part of the aesthetic appeal of the music. Like it or not, a record sleeve is identified in the listener’s mind with the music it contains – and this arguably still the case, even in the age of multiple downloads nestling on a hard drive as cover-less MP3s. (Hence devoting an entire book to album covers.)

Baker, Gilles Peterson (his fellow compiler) and the publishers have clearly put a lot of work into gathering together information for the book, and a lot of work in putting it together in an aesthetically pleasing way; furthermore, as the list of acknowledgements shows, they have sought out permission from a number of artists and labels to use the images included. It would surely not have been hard for them also to have commissioned an essay by an art historian or some other writer with some knowledge of the time period – or to have contacted some of the cover artists themselves, interviewing them, gleaning some information about the processes which went into creating the covers. This writer, or these writers, could have analyzed differences and similarities between designs, could have analyzed the role of the musicians themselves in putting things together (many artists have a design credit to their name). For instance, we are not told that the covers of the various Don Cherry records are tapestries by his wife Moki, their use of tapestry with motifs from non-western cultures, simplified forms, and unusual colour schemes all making a conscious break from the black-and-white, smoky aesthetic of Blue Note or Birdland.

And then we might ask: what about the role of ‘wacky’ psychedelic images – inverted colours, distorted photographs, Bridget Riley-esque swirls and abstract patterns? How does that fit into the current of the times? Is it merely superficial decoration, or does it have something more to offer? What about the use of group photographs as a statement of collective identity (as opposed to the fetishisation of one particular musician as the ‘star’ of the band, whose image alone adorns the records)? What about comparisons with more mainstream jazz covers? – for instance, Miles Davis’ placing of black faces (his and Cicely Tyson’s) on ‘Sorcerer’ and ‘Nefertiti,’ having objected so strongly to the photo of a yacht-bound white woman slapped onto the front of ‘Miles Ahead’, and moving away from the cover of ‘Porgy and Bess’, where a female hand stroking a trumpet reinforces the black sexual stereotypes associated with jazz. Or the gorgeous super-imposed face effect on ‘Filles de Kilimanjaro’; the psychedelic colour-shape of ‘Miles in the Sky’; and the Mati Klarwein cover art to ‘Bitches’ Brew’ and ‘Live-Evil’, Klarwein’s use of African figures and transforming, liquid landscapes reflected in the painting on the front of Sun Ra’s ‘The Nubians of Plutonia’ (the Impulse re-issue). The 60s and 70s may have been a time when a sense of the ‘spiritual’ often spilled over into incoherent babble and superficial bullshit – everyone was peppering their work with symbols and allusions – but there are clear ideological messages at work in the free jazz designs which mark them out as more purposeful than mere hippie paraphernalia (though there may be an element of that as well). Explanations of the significance behind the symbols and objects that appear again and again – idols, pyramids, third eyes – would at least indicate that they were being taken seriously, rather than as mere fancy decoration.

The lack of any such analysis perhaps stems from the fact that ‘Freedom Rhythm and Sound’ has been put together in the manner of a CD compilation, gathering together rare material from various dusty corners in true record-collector fashion (Gilles Peterson is, after all, a true record-collector). Unfortunately, where the music on a compilation can be allowed to speak for itself – or has been spoken about in numerous books and articles which can be separately tracked down – the same cannot be said of this cover art. ‘Freedom Rhythm and Sound’ is, to my knowledge, the first book to pay attention to the visual aspects of free jazz records, and, while its regrettable that it didn’t delve as far into things as it could have, its images do provide ample proof that this is very fertile territory for future explorers. (DG)

MATTIN & ANTHONY ILES (ed.) – NOISE & CAPITALISM

 

Publisher: Arteleku Audiolab (Kritika series), Donostia-San Sebastián (Gipuzkoa)
Publishing Date: September 2009
Number of Pages: 191
Contents: Anthony Iles – Introduction; Mattin – Going Fragile; Csaba Toth – Noise Theory; Edwin Prévost – Free Improvisation In Music and Capitalism: Resisting Authority and the Cults of Scientism and Celebrity; Ray Brassier – Genre is Obsolete; Bruce Russell – Towards a Social Ontology of Improvised Sound Work; Nina Power – Woman Machines: The Future of Female Noise; Ben Watson – Noise as Permanent Revolution or, Why Culture Is a Sow Which Devours its Own Farrow; Matthew Ryland – Company Work vs. Patrician Radiers; Matthieu Saladin – Points of Resistance & Criticism in Free Improvisation: Remarks on a Musical Practice and Some Economic Transformations; Howard Slater – Prisoners of the Earth Come Out! Notes towards ‘War at the Membrane’; Mattin – Anti-Copyright: Why Improvisation & Noise Runs Against the Idea of Intellectual Property
Further Information: As well as the published edition, which can be obtained from Mattin’s website (http://mattin.org) in exchange for live tapes, etc, the book can be downloaded as a free PDF from http://www.arteleku.net/audiolab/noise_capitalism.pdf

This is fantastic stuff. Of course, there is a smallish swarm of intellectual activity surrounding the sort of issues discovered here, but more often than not it centres on jazz and American practices. Consequently, discussions tend to get sidelined into the race issue – an issue which is crucial for the development of that music, but which can impose a narrowing of focus when one considers that much noise and free improvisation is created by non-African Americans who are not living in the particular historical context of a racially-oppressive society (though of course one with its own deep networks of imperialism, alienation, &c.). Serious intellectual examination of music, as practiced by some of the journalists from Wire magazine, may also find itself restricted by the necessity of providing a review of a product (whether a live performance or an album) which evaluates that product on aesthetic grounds first and foremost – and whose audience may resist the presence of critical theory: too much politics for them to swallow, an ‘irrelevance’, intruding on their desire for a generalised ‘underground’ freedom to enjoy their niche of generalised musical resistance to the ‘mainstream’ (represented by such easy-target bogeymen as George Bush and…um, Britney Spears).

Not that these are the only intellectual examinations available: fine writing has emerged in recent years from David Borgo, whose book ‘Sync or Swarm’ approaches free improvisation from a primarily scientific perspective (applying fractal and swarm theory to the mental processes involved in making music in this manner), and in the e-pages of the online journal Critical Studies in Improvisation, whose numerous writers approach their topics from any number of different disciplines or models – feminism, queer theory, race, &c.

But this book is different from all that. (NB: refer to footnote before reading further.)1 Yes, this book is different (in a really useful way), because its aim is to make politics just as much as its subject as music, and to see the two as fundamentally linked (hence the equal weighting – noise and capitalism).

As well being a fine performer, one of the few who really takes the notion of praxis seriously and attempts to apply it in everything he does, Mattin is a fine writer of manifestos, or manifesto-like pieces, one of which, ‘Going Fragile,’ follows the Introduction (and was previously – and is currently – available on his website). Here, he advocates an approach of risk-taking in free improvisation, resisting the trade-marking of one area of sonic activity or mode of approach and being open to those moments when failure seems most likely, when crisis prompts the human to be most resourceful. This idea of risk is a crucial one in the book as a whole – perhaps unsurprising given Mattin’s involvement. For instance, the cover consists of a transcript of a conversation between the three designers (one of whom is Mattin himself) as to how the binding might reflect ideological biases relating to the words within. Such a concern with the tiniest material details of production and their relation to socio-political issues might seem, to some, like overkill, but it is surely evidence of a very deep commitment and a rigorous refusal of easy realities and comforts, in the pursuit of a deeper and more complete sense of what it means to be human and to live in the modern world.

The collection’s different authors have – healthily – different views on issues musical and political, even though they might be put broadly into the camp of leftist advocates of musical experimentation as a form of praxis: frequent reference points are Guy Debord and, perhaps more surprisingly, Karl Marx (whose popularity has slipped with the growing trend of politically-minded music critics to draw on post-modernist theory (witness the big hoo-hah over the music of Tricky, Burial, etc being a form of ‘hauntology’)).2

Eddie Prévost’s essay treads lines familiar to those who have read his two full-length books, ‘No Sound Is Innocent’ and ‘Minute Particulars’, but remains a deft and succinct history lesson/ negotiation of positions. Prévost posits free improvisation as a practice which contains the possibility for a genuine social interaction (through music) which might evade the otherwise ever-present clutches of capitalist relations; an alternative system, something with the inkling of an alternative social reality (on which, see also George Lewis’ ‘A Power Stronger Than Itself’, Mike Heffley’s ‘A Composed Theory of Free Improvisation’, and Anthony Braxton’s ongoing large-group projects in the field of Ghost Trance Music and Diamond Curtain Wall Music). Prévost is not arguing that free improvisation is some sort of utopian realm in which that alternative social reality can actually exist as a totality, for, as he admits: “[Free improvisation’s] practitioners are not immune from the basic requirements of existence (within capitalism) which enables them to continue living. Certain material conditions have to be met before any music can be made.” (p.41) Nonetheless, free improvisation remains a form (or, perhaps more accurately, process) in which unmediated, direct dialogue can take place, and in which specialisation and elitism can be reduced: for, while many free players are intensely dedicated musicians with rigorous practice regimes, free improvisation is nonetheless an activity open to anyone. This may break down the traditional barriers between a passive, non-specialist audience and a separated, elevated performer (think the People Band handing out percussion instruments at gigs, or even Roland Kirk’s distribution of whistles to the audience at Ronnie Scott’s).

Free improvisation, in Prévost’s argument, is also made to steer a course between the other major avant-garde alternatives in twentieth-century (classical) music. The first of these is the rigorously scientific approach of the Darmstadt School, wherein results fairly similar to those which could be achieved in free improvisation were solely the province of the composer, conceived as a specialist with utterly rigorous and time-consuming methods. But, as Prévost points out with regard to Stockhausen’s ‘Mikrophonie I’ (a detailed exploration of the myriad complex and unusual sonorities to be coaxed out of a tam-tam), such arguments frequently went against what actually happened in the realisation of these compositions as sound, as music, rather than as theoretical exercises on paper (scores): “Reading Karlheinz Stockhausen talking about the development of this ‘composition’ it becomes very clear that his own explorations with the tam-tam proved to be difficult to notate or even to repeat with any hope of accuracy. The question one has to ask is, why not let the musicians themselves make theses sonic enquiries?, Why do Stockhausen’s supporters maintain the idea that unpredictable sounds emerging this way, i.e. by the performers, constitute his ‘composition’? As a long-standing tam-tam player myself, I know and rejoice in the uncertainties of the instrument. I am always amazed that different people using the same kind of instrument seem to manage to produce such a diversity of sounds. All this, to me, seems to be a signifier and a celebration of humanity and not at all scientific, even though a playful sense of enquiry is at the heart of the exercise. The interface between materials and the person has a special individual imprint. Such a free and spontaneous approach, which is the general modus vivendi of an improviser, is an unmediated and an unfettered response to the world. It is not, thankfully, subject to some scientific calculation. It is not repeatable. And there is no good reason why it should be repeated: except to capture and exclusively enslave the sounds – and maybe exploit them financially.” (pp.54-5)

Perhaps the veneration of the composer has something to do with the cult of celebrity (tying back to the much older tradition of ‘heroism’ – and, of course, heroes are predominantly male, just as composers are), and of marketing opportunity. Thus, the infamous Helicopter Quartet, in which the musicians’ performances in different helicopters are radioed back to the concert hall and mixed live by the composer, is an enormous spectacle, serving to propagate the myth of Stockhausen as a larger-than-life mystical genius, a composer whose works demand and involve an excess justified solely due to the part they play in the building up of this legend; an overpowering by scale and (apparent) audacity with the mystifying effect of a religious ritual, but without even the content of that ritual – truly, a Debordian spectacle.

The second approach to come under Prévost’s scrutiny is the apparently more affable Cageian school, here criticised for the removal of social relation and human intention from the process of music-making, the adoption of ‘chance’ and ‘random’ elements, the attempt to remove personality and to simply ‘let the sounds be sounds’. The prime target here is Cage’s long-term collaborator David Tudor – who was hauled up on precisely the same grounds by Cecil Taylor in A.B. Spellman’s ‘Four Lives in the Bebop Business.’ Tudor once remarked: “I had to learn how to cancel my consciousness of any previous moment in order to produce the next one, bringing about the freedom to do anything.” The problem with this, as Prévost notes, is that “any so-called ‘freedom’ is totally dislocated from any human objective – except the perverse satisfaction of carrying out an irrelevant instruction. Perhaps Tudor, in the above quotation, was explaining some of his own strategies for trying to escape ‘the anticipated’ in performance. But there is something self-deceiving in the idea of trying: ‘to cancel one’s consciousness of any previous moment’. This practice is nigh impossible as well as being perhaps of no particular consequence.” (p.50) The freedom thus achieved is thus a very different one from that of free improvisation, which always carries with it some notion of responsibility (to oneself, to the audience, to the other musicians, to the flow of the music); it is a pointless freedom, a freedom which exists for no real purpose and to no real end, sacrificing both the self and the social to some idealized concept of nothingness.

This is all well argued, with a minimum of fuss and academic name or jargon-dropping, considering political theories and realities while remaining closely focussed on how these might and have related to actual practice, to actual music-making. But its presence in this anthology leaves a number of unanswered (or perhaps one might even say un-raised) questions: for instance, we might safely say that Prévost’s subject is acoustic free improvisation, given the reiteration of his dislike for “abuses occurring in music (e.g. the oppressive use of electronically induced volume and the indiscriminate, often careless and uninspired usurpation of material by means of sampling)” (p.57). Of course, ‘Noise’ could fit with Prévost’s ideal concepts of free improvisation if it is taken as a term signifying the opening up of spaces within and against the system of modern-day capitalism. Thus, in the following essay, by Ray Brassier: “ ‘Noise’ has become the expedient moniker for a motley array of sonic practices – academic, artistic, counter-cultural – with little in common besides their perceived recalcitrance with respect to the conventions governing classical and popular musics. ‘Noise’ not only designates the no-man’s-land between electro-acoustic investigation, free improvisation, avant-garde experiment, and sound art; more interestingly, it refers to anomalous zones of interference between genres: between post-punk and free jazz; between musique concrète and folk; between stochastic composition and art brut.” (p.62)

However, ‘Noise’ has also become – to quote Brassier once more – “a specific sub-genre of musical vanguardism,” a term which has come to designate precisely that loud, oppressive, harsh electronically-induced volume and playful/subversive use of sampling to challenge notions of genre and the origin of material, of which Prévost so disapproves. With regards to this, issues arise such as the relation between loud electronics and quieter acoustic instruments, and, more broadly, the relation of free improvisation to noise (or free noise), and the role of theatre and performance in both (something I’ve come to feel increasingly neglected in the rather staid performance context of much free improv – of which more later). Mattin, for example, performs in both very quiet contexts with Radu Malfatti and extremely noisy and disrespectful contexts in which he constantly challenges expectations, in a quite aggressive way: for instance, ‘Proletarian of Noise’, which includes a half-hour track consisting of the reading of a text punctuated by extremely long silences, and a shorter piece consisting solely of the sounds of typing on a computer keyboard, and ‘Pink Noise’, where he lays down 30 minutes of ear-bending feed-back over which Junko simply screams – hardly a model of social (or socialist) interaction, as Prévost might desire.

I’ll come back to such questions in a short while. But now, we might move on to look in more detail at some specific essays. Ben Watson – as usual – combines rabble-rousing quasi-manifesto gestures and sharp analysis of the lapses made by his various targets (in this case, Wire magazine, and their uncritical treatment of the whole ‘Noise Music’ scene), with the valorisation of a chosen few (Lendormin, Ascension, John Coltrane). In this particular piece, he also insists vociferously on a kind of cult of amateurism and the unlearning of technique which seems to me to ignore what actually goes on in the musics he so loves. I quote: “Modern art is an eruption of immediacy…rubbishing all previous cultural standards, achievements, techniques and skills: Asger Jorn’s childish scribbles, Derek Bailey’s ‘can’t play’ guitar, J.H. Prynne’s ‘incomprehensible’ poetry. Extrinsic formal structure (whether song or composition or training) prevents us seeing what’s right under our noses: instruments, fingers, people, ears, amplifiers, attention, inattention.” (pp.114-15) These are the things Watson values, as he’s made clear in his critical work throughout his career – and he’s entitled to such preferences. But, as he implicitly acknowledges by putting ‘can’t play’ in scare quotes, Bailey’s approach to the guitar was very different to what such a tag would suggest (see, for example, Dominic Lash’s description, available on the Incus website, of Bailey’s notes towards a planned, but never written book on guitar technique).3 Prynne, meanwhile, is ‘incomprehensible’ not because he’s a surrealist ranter or a primitivist sound-poet, but because of the sheer crammed range of intellection, reference, allusion and suggestion that bursts from virtually every word of his work. What Watson is doing here is taking accusations commonly leveled against ‘avant-garde’ artists, and then running with them as if they were true, and a good thing!

To take another example, his use of Coltrane as an exemplary figure for a raggedy collection of free jazzers, free improvisers, rock musicians and figures somewhere in between (such as the Italian group Lendormin) may in some ways be entirely accurate – but it does a disservice to Coltrane to implicitly construe him as some kind of primitive, unlearning technique for new pastures of uncharted freedom. For me, that’s a dangerously simplistic explanation – the same sort of thinking you get when rock critics name-check ‘Ornette Coleman’s free jazz playing’ and believe that this somehow ‘explains’ Don Van Vliet’s vastly different approach to the saxophone. OK then: contra Watson, Coltrane’s music is not an abdication of technique, but technique taken to the nth degree, in the service of expression and of noise (if we understand noise as overburdening of information density, as something we can’t yet understand, rather than just as regression to primitive yawling). Indeed, it’s far more helpful to construe any movement as generating its own techniques, its own formal codes and practices. This is just simply unavoidable – even if these codes do need sharp kicks up the backside every few years and even if something else may come along very soon. New codes are prompted into being through creative experimentation and the process of learning. That’s why a healthy respect for tradition by no means precludes an ability to play with, or even apparently to scorn it – as, in the eyes of its most rigidly conservative adherents, did Coltrane’s music. Such apparent scorn is actually a development of the original spirit in which it was first created. It’s precisely this attitude which has kept African-American forms of music so vital: as Archie Shepp puts it, “Negro music and culture are inherently existential, improvisational. Nothing is sacred.”

Watson’s quite right to slam down the notion of rock bands who play noise “because Avant is in vogue”, but his valorisation of aggression, of rock and roll energy and gesture, ignores the fact that the opposite of such Noise-as-Volume may be just as noisy as ‘Noise’ (volume and harshness on their own aren’t inherently subversive; such a concept of noise is very much prone to the marketisation that Watson so despises). To illustrate this, we need turn no further than to the anecdote which prefaces the essay under discussion: that of Eugene Chadbourne playing country music to free improv audiences, who treated it as the kind of noise others would perceive free improv to be. I’m not, of course, suggesting that everyone should start playing country music to shake up the staid ‘weird modern music’ hierarchy, but what I am suggesting is that ‘Noise’ might be, at times, the opposite of what is normally considered ‘noisy’ – extremely quiet and apparently ‘un-energetic’ music may deny the visceral thrill of Noise (the thrill endorsed in Watson’s emphasis on the physical), may deny that kind of macho aggression.1 Mattin, I think, realizes the dangers of a too-narrow definition of Noise, through his highly self-critical quest to avoid falling into set patterns (both behavioural and musical): his ‘reductionist’ work with Radu Malfatti is, according to this argument, just as ‘noisy’ as his more ‘power-electronics’ flavoured laptop work or the ‘Pink Noise’ collaboration with Japanese singer/screamer Junko.

I used the word ‘macho’ just now, and I’m not intending that to be merely a throwaway remark. If Noise, and a particular kind of ‘visceral’, ‘energetic’ form of sound-making does have a kind of macho thrust behind it, we might consider an alternative via the essay preceding Watson’s, wherein Nina Power thoughtfully considers the work of female noise artist Jessica Rylan. For Power, Rylan’s work challenges noise stereotypes, her performances engaging in a more elegant (though by no means twee) consideration of the relation between voice and synthesizer, human and machine, audience and artist. Indeed, gender is an issue which might profitably have been more discussed in this anthology as a whole: Power’s (very good) essay feels like a token female inclusion, and is more an exploration of a particular artist’s work than a wide-ranging survey of gendered noise – which is not in itself a problem, but which does mean that it can’t bear the weight that’s been forced on it, to fully fill the ‘woman component’ of the book. (That said, I’m sure Mattin would have been mindful of this and would have wanted to avoid the usual male-dominated circles in which so much of this music’s production and reception seems to be conducted).

So: why are so many of the artists mentioned men, playing at gigs attended by men? Is there perhaps something – dare I use the word? – phallocentric about noise, about the whole rock and roll myth of the singer with his phallic guitar or saxophone? They don’t use the term ‘cock rock’ for nothing, and they might as well invent a similar term for less mainstream manifestations of ‘aggression’ and ‘energy’ in music. Of course, there are exceptions: the female performers in the heyday of No Wave (one of the few avant-garde musical movements in which women played a role equal to, and perhaps even more prominent than that of men), someone like Suzi Quatro, or Virginia Genta2 (the saxophonist in the Jooklo Duo) – but these are very much exceptions (see what a wide range of different musics I’ve had to traverse to compile even that miniscule list), and hence do not trouble the general balance of things. Thus, for instance, it’s OK for Alice Coltrane to play ‘harp-like’ arpeggios on piano or even on an actual harp (because a harp is a rather womanly instrument and Alice Coltrane’s music displays that ‘feminine touch’), but it probably wouldn’t be OK if she was the one doing calisthentics and blasting on saxophone for an hour at the front of the stage, rather than fitting into the background behind her husband.

We might well bear this gender imbalance in mind when we read Bruce Russell’s optimistic statement that, “Being outside of the so-called ‘music industry’ which purveys alienated entertainment products that ‘joyously express their slave sentiments’, sound work can create, for brief periods of time ‘constructed situations’ where ‘unitary ambiences’ of sound, mise en scène, and selected audiences of initiated enfants perdus can briefly combine to ‘foreshadow’ ‘a few aspects of a provisional microsociety.’ ” (p.89) The practitioners of Noise and Free Improv, for all their claims to be engaged in a field of activity which is inherently more self-critical than perhaps any other, seem to have a blind spot about still-ingrained gender imbalances and hierarchies, just as much Black Nationalism of the 1960s tarnished its emphasis on racial liberation with slurs on ‘faggots’, ‘Jews’ and women who did not fulfill the roles they were supposed to fulfil.

Even without considering gender, Matthew Hyland is able to take a less optimistic view than Russell, Prévost or Watson; in his words, “improvisation (as Derek Bailey intends it) resists comnodification almost successfully. ‘Almost’ remains an upper limit as long as capital goes on being strengthened by what hasn’t killed it yet.” (p.130) Mathieu Saladin expands on this, pointing out that the very virtues which make free improvisation, to its more politically-motivated advocates like Prévost, a model form of interaction resistant to that of capitalist society, have been absorbed into the adapting forms of modern capitalism (what one might call ‘post-modern capitalism’, I suppose). Thus (in the words of Pierre-Michel Menger, quoted by Saladin): “the irony is that the arts, which have cultivated a fierce opposition against the domination of the market, appear as forerunners in the experimentation with flexibility, indeed hyper-flexibility” (p.145). Or, Eve Chiapello: “Planning and rationality are not any more, according to the management teachers and consultants, the only ways to make a success. Conversely, it must be ‘run by chaos,’ continuously innovate, be flexible, intuitive, have a strong ‘emotional quotient.’ Companies are too bureaucratic, too hierarchical, they alienate the workforce; they have to ‘learn how to dance.’ ” (p.146) This sounds none too dissimilar to free improvisation, to which one could easily apply a checklist derived from the description above: chaos, innovation, flexibility, intuition, emotion. In terms of concrete examples (or merely anecdotal ‘verification’), this passage particularly struck me given that, when spinning out some paragraphs for a CV, I discovered how easy it was to spin aspects of my experience of freely improvising and organising a free improvising collective into ‘work-place skills’ that would enable me to slot nicely into a wholly capitalist job, to be a cog in the alienation machine.

Perhaps, in the end, one has to take this as a caveat rather than as a stumbling block which invalidates the whole free improv project; or, if not as a caveat, as the beginnings of an ongoing critical discussion and self-examination which will remain (as free improv itself remains) process rather than product, continued exploration rather than arrival or conclusion. Anthony Iles puts it best in the final sentence of his Introduction: “Since we cannot accept that noise or improvisation is by default anticapitalist music, then we need to look more closely at those resistances and tensions this music carries within itself – where it provides potential tools for capitalism and where it supplies means for getting out of it.” (p.17) (For his part, Saladin concludes by arguing that, as process, free improvisation remains ‘noisy’ by its focus on dissensus rather than consensus – it is “a creation which does not seek reconciliation or the profit of any a priori success” (p.149)).

***

 

What the more idealistically-tinged essays in this collection tend to do is, via citing a whole range of Marxist scholars, to uphold the unique possibilities in free improvisation. Yet, while asserting that it may not be a perfectly resistant alternative to capitalism, they do not really delve into the specifics of sound practice – the production and consumption contexts of the free improv ‘scene’. For instance, Bruce Russell argues that, “As a developing practice, and because of its improvisational method, this sound work is inherently self-critical. It is this which ensures its sharpness as a tool for exposing reification in other forms of culture.” (p.77) I’d agree that the methods which one has developed and which one might be expected to espouse – especially if one has become associated with them in the minds and words of critics and audiences – may need to be rejected, questioned, criticised, so that they do not simply harden into marketable, reified activities, separable from the very human process of their making (though of course the risk of that happening is always far less great than in other forms of making music/sound). Yet the list of methods and possibilities which Russell comes up with hardly sounds very different to the sort of thing that might have been written when the music was in its infancy in the 1960s – it’s generalisable enough to resist further scrutiny: “experimentation with alternative performance-experiences, and the radical rejection of the cult of the composer, the ‘rules’ of music and the hierarchical models of composition, score-reading and conduction.” (p.87)

Yet, in practice, “experimentation with alternative performance-experiences” tends to mean an ‘underground’ network of spaces which, while they are certainly different to the concert hall, the rock arena, or the nightclub, have perhaps become environments which are too settled, too safe, too comfortable: middle-aged men with beards gathering in the back-rooms of pubs suffused with the smell of real ale and the sound of free improvisation (or, younger, long-haired, angry men gathering in dingy basement rooms suffused with the sound of feedback and the sight of flaring light shows erupting out of the darkness). The overtly theatrical and playful aspects brought into the music by Steve Beresford, Han Bennink, Tristan Hontsinger and Misha Mengelberg have always been rather disapproved of by a number of free improv aficionados, as if these performers had somehow over-stepped invisible rules, invisible guidelines which govern how you ‘should do’ free improv. By contrast, Derek Bailey would simply sit down, no-nonsense, and play, just as Merzbow, Sachiko M and Axel Dorner adopt a certain bodily stillness in their performances (though, of course, there are exceptions: Thomas Lehn’s very physical approach to his analogue synthesizer, Cecil Taylor’s pelvis-oriented movement on the piano stool). Conventional rules are very easy to fall into – people mill around, then the performers go up on stage and perform, then everyone claps and has a drink and mills around again – and challenges to this are particular notable, when they happen, because of their rarity; thus, Mattin’s in-concert behaviour has gained him the reputation of an enfant terrible and, frankly, a bit of a nuisance, when, if we are to believe Russell, such behaviour should be the norm in free improvisation.

And, while “alternative performance-experiences” might be a goal desirable but rarely strived for in actuality, Russell’s other criteria seem, frankly, a little old-hat: the usual sweeping dismissals of the entire system of composition and the score is a hoary old chestnut if ever there was one. On these grounds, I suppose Russell would dismiss as ‘not free enough’, or as ‘not posing a challenge to reified practice’, most of the music of Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor (whose music is, as many of his collaborators have stressed, and as is obvious if you’ve listened to enough recordings, based very much around compositional material). In any case, I won’t go into the issue in detail here; suffice to say that I agree with Dominic Lash’s assertion that “free improvisation and the writing down of notes on paper are not mutually exclusive activities.”3

Russell might usefully have paid more attention to the final essay in the collection, Mattin’s piece on the way that Noise and Improvisation could/ should resist the notion of Intellectual Property. Developing Cardew’s famous assertion of the inadequacy of recordings in ‘Towards an Ethics of Free Improvisation’, Mattin delves into the way in which such ideological statements so frequently contradict the way in which free improvisation is actually distributed: Incus, Emanem, and Matchless all being established record labels devoted to selling recordings of in-the-moment, one-off performances, as reproducible and repeatable artefacts. For all the claims to abandonment of ‘go-getter’ individualism and the cult of the ‘inspired’ genius, free improvisers nonetheless continually reinforce certain notions of authorship, of a hierarchy of performer and audience, in which certain people create and certain people consume (though, to be fair, the proportion of actual free improvisers among the listening cachet for free improv records must be fairly high). Of course, this is by no means conscious: hence Eddie Prévost’s astonishment that anyone could want to make a ‘career’ out of free improv (p.146). In addition, it often arises out of a material necessity: the struggle to actually earn enough money to make even a rather poorly-paid living from being a free-improvising musician. When it comes to the choice between actively resisting existing notions of authorship and putting bread on the table, there are few who would take the option of starvation.

In relation to this, we might consider the concluding point of Matthew Hyland’s essay: that the dedicated part-timer may have more time and commitment to spend on thinking deeply about their music than the professional in the pay of record companies or reliant on state funding. This is a more nuanced addition to Ben Watson’s championing of the amateur – the professionalisation and individualisation and specialisation resulting from the pragmatics of ‘making a living’ may be inherently un-noisy, however much the ensuing product is ‘difficult’ art which pushes up the decibels.

I’m not – necessarily – arguing that all free improvisers and noise-makers should be amateurs, spending their days washing dishes or driving taxis (as Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner did), and their nights creating sound. In itself that relegates improvisation to a subordinate role, a secret and illicit activity which one does ‘after-hours’, part of one’s ‘leisure-time’, a ‘hobby’ rather than a main activity. It also runs the risk of valorising poverty, thus neatly dovetailing with the notion of the starving, misunderstood artist (Chatterton dead in his garret, Van Gogh crazed and earless, Sonny Simmons and Charles Gayle living on the streets). According to that viewpoint, the more crummy the job, the better – you are suffering for what you believe in, you are a martyr at the hands of an unjust system, you can view yourself and be viewed as a hero.

These are dangers. But that does not mean we should ignore the way in which the much-cited ‘DIY ethos’ characterising free improv and noise scenes has become an easy accolade, a back-slapping means of ignoring the way in which performing practices can slip into established patterns, or even into cliques and hierarchies. Despite this, DIY does still remain important, and Mattin is right to point out the way in which it could, if pursued to a sufficiently rigorous and self-critical extent, challenge notions of authorship and intellectual property/control.4 This is part of a wider discourse – the work of Michel Foucault, and, especially, Roland Barthes, tends to be applied more to literature than to music, but is particularly illuminating in this context due to the way it challenges what can easily seem the accepted and ‘natural’ way of things (‘I create my music as an individual, it is my intellectual property, and I have a right to this ownership’), the way it reveals how the actual production and distribution of ideas is always a social phenomenon. “Once written, the author stops having control over the text. The text has its own discourse and power and we should not limit it to an authoritarian voice. Language itself has is own potential and to make it solely the property of the author might dilute its power.” (p.179)5 That’s not to say that musicians are not responsible for what they play, and for ‘putting it out’ (whether in the form of public performances or records), but is to say that the freedom involved in creating the music could and should extended to the way that music is received.

Idealism? Perhaps there is a touch, but at least Mattin can succeed in getting people to think about the fundamental, basic contexts of what they do, rather than simply re-iterating the statements of the ’60s. It’s not enough simply to state that free improv and Noise are resistant to capitalism, and then to treat this as a given, without questioning this relation, without using one’s assertions as a basis to develop and change one’s own practices. Thus, if Eddie Prévost argues that “certain material conditions have to be met before any music can be made,” Mattin takes things further: “the radical and exploratory character of improvisation should be directed not only to the making of music but in changing the conditions in which the music is produced.” (p.191) And perhaps – dare we hope? – changing conditions on this ‘micro’ level might provide the conditions of possibility for change on a wider scale. (DG)

Notes
1 Yes, the old reviewer’s tactic: lay out the product’s uniqueness and everyone will rush to get hold of it to satisfy some new thrill, just another object in the production line manufacturing desires and wants.
2 http://www.artandpopularculture.com/Hauntology
3 Dominic Lash, ‘Derek Bailey’s Guitar Notes: A Glimpse of the Incus Archive’, available at http://www.incusrecords.force9.co.uk/pdf/Incus-DB-guitar-notes.pdf
1 See also the concluding paragraph of Howard Slater’s essay. “We can fear silence as if it were the most ear-splitting noise.” (p.163)
2 http://virginiagenta.altervista.org/
3 Lash, ibid.
4 “People have been self-organising themselves by organising concerts wherever possible and more. This self-organisation, which constantly makes people change roles; from player to organiser, from critic, to distributor, helps people understand each others roles… Both in the improvised and noise scene the question of authorship is completely interrelated to that of the producer.” (p.173)
5 Consider alongside this: “What unfolds and becomes visible in the works, the source of their authority, is none other than the truth manifested objectively in them, the truth that consumes the subjective intention and leaves it behind as irrelevant.” (Theodor Adorno (trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen), ‘Parataxis: on Holderlin’s late Poetry’, in Notes to Literature, Vol. 2 (New York; Columbia Univ. Press, 1992), p.110)

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