Sunset or Dawn?
By Beppe Colli
Jan. 21, 2009
The Holiday Season and all those messages wishing for a
"prosperous and productive" New Year are the perfect occasion to
get in touch (again), get some news, learn about stuff, tie some loose ends,
and, more in general, try to determine what's the current situation for both
music and musicians. And given the fact that the New Year already had its
start a few weeks ago, having a look inside the folder bearing the name Happy
2009 it's bound to make one curious to really know what it's all about. Well,
I'm afraid this time it all adds up to a very sad outcome. In a nutshell,
the crux of many arguments can be summarized thus: "I'm working on the
new album, the writing part's done, unfortunately I don't have as much money
as needed to pay the musicians, hope to get some soon".
Which makes me think about those album that,
though potentially very good, will never be released, also about those
that won't be as good as could reasonably be expected, and - more important,
this - quite below the artists' true potential.
Here some would say: but given that
"difficult, avant-garde music" never sold a penny, and since musicians
who play this music have always been for the most part quite poor, how come
this is now seen as a brand-new problem?
Which is a good question, but unfortunately
one that's not so easy to answer in a clear, concise, and convincing manner.
But one can try, as a first try, and do one's best.
The money factor is usually considered in its most banal aspect - as
money - while the time part often gets underestimated.
For instance, if we consider the material
conditions of so many jazz musicians in the Forties and Fifties, one has
to consider that it was their being able to play frequently and regularly
as a group of people that made it possible for them to invent new, shared
music idioms, while at the same time living in quite disadvantaged conditions.
This shared experiences, and the musicians having the same goal, prevailed
over dire material circumstances. The clearest, most widely known example
of this being Sun Ra.
So, saying that in order to record an album
of "improvised music" musicians only need a few hours' time in
a good studio is both true and false. While on one hand this is true (for
obvious reasons), it's at the same time false, because it doesn't take
into account all those years (decades, even) one spent looking for one's
"voice". An identity of the type that can only be found through
playing. The rarefaction of the possibilities to play in public, even in
exchange of compensations too meager to be called a fee, will surely have
terrible consequences in the long run.
It goes without saying that a musician is
a highly motivated human being, one who's very often brilliantly successful
in the art of self-motivation. But nothing can really take the place of
a collective of musicians whose playing together with a certain degree
of regularity makes it possible for them to reach that plane where everybody
reacts "by intuition". Otherwise, written scores and "hoping
for the best, under the given circumstances", will have to do.
By now it's a well-known fact that Paul McCartney saw Sgt. Pepper's
Lonely Hearts Club Band as The Beatles' answer to The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds:
an album that Brian Wilson had intended as an answer to the high-quality
represented by The Beatles' Rubber Soul.
And maybe this is the topic the becomes the
most opaque and difficult to grasp with the passing of time: the way many
artists of the Sixties were constantly engaged in a "long-distance
Maybe even difficult to simply imagine: how
hearing a just-got-in-London Jimi Hendrix stimulated McCartney to play
psychedelic guitar parts; a fresh pressing of A Day In The Life having
many California musicians in admiration (and despair!); traces of The Beatles
finding their way into The Byrds, and then back again, from The Byrds to
The Beatles; also from The Beatles to The Lovin' Spoonful, and from The
Lovin' Spoonful back to The Beatles. Not to mention Frank Zappa, The Rolling
Stones, Donovan and Pink Floyd. Something that went on and on for a very
long time (Phil Collins's former girlfriend revealing to her new partner
John Wetton that Collins had been literally obsessed with the high peaks
reached by King Crimson on Larks' Tongues In Aspic).
The same being true at that time of record
producers, and record engineers, who tried to guess by what means, and
ideas, such and such had gotten those fantastic sounds as heard on record
x (those woven in what for brevity's sake - but nowadays, quite often,
because we are not aware about this side of things anymore - we usually
call "the music by artist x").
One will never stress enough that this was
a perpetual upping the ante in the field of quality. When even giant groups
regarded getting better, and their wish to "better" what had
already been achieved by other artists and groups, as "normal".
Some will try to devalue those efforts by stating, for instance, that "big
as they were, The Beatles knew that they could get away with murder":
not true, as even a quick investigation will prove, with every step in
a new direction by The Fab Four being greeted with shouts of derision,
and deep frowns.
The financial basis to all this activity being some individuals who
(irrationally) believed that to "develop" one's taste though
the betterment of one's understanding was a fantastic way to spend one's
It goes without saying that in such matters
nothing can ever be taken for granted: maybe people will get tired of this,
maybe those who'll come later won't have the same type of attitude when
it comes to this stuff.
Let's think about theatre: during the Sixties,
when compared to the richness and vitality of cinema, theatre still had
classic authors such as Osborne and Beckett (and also, for a little while,
Pinter). Here "classic" doesn't obviously mean "easily understandable" or "for
everybody", just that after those illustrious names not much had gone
to the stage. I clearly remember the furor and controversy provoked by
some plays written by US writer David Mamet. But one author, however brilliant,
is not enough to be a sign of good health for a form of art.
Had I to choose one (just one) feature that I regard as being decisive
for the current state of affairs, I'd choose what is usually defined as "pointillist
time": which is a way, among many, that the individual "chooses" as
a way to relate to duration, memory, and things.
One of the (many) implications of this fact
being the disappearance of the concept of what's "best".
"Best" denotes something that's measurable by an invariant (= one
that stays the same as before) metre, standard, or rule. The crucial point
being that quite often innovations entail a change in the standard. For instance,
Ornette Coleman's "free" jazz, compared to be-bop's "chord
maps". So, while for musicians who play through chords progressions
Coleman is a "noise merchant who plays music devoid of any logic",
for the "free" musician he is "the inventor of a new grammar".
Quite often, this leads to a discussion about
the "foundation" of knowledge, a topic which is quite often severely
But really, what I just said about
"free" (see above) doesn't really matter much (only in a
"pragmatic" sense: "to me, this is not music, so I'll hit
you; or at least, I won't pay to listen to it"). What's important is
the fact of finding a logic in it. Which is not easy, since we are talking
"avant-garde" (and what kind of avant-garde would it be, were it
easy to understand?), but it's nonetheless possible.
Unfortunately, the fact of
"discovering" that no "absolute" meaning exists drives
many in the opposite direction: to argue that no meaning exists save for
one that's purely subjective, "as one pleases". With the coprophagous
as a gourmet of some sort. But things are not so simple: saying of a honker
who can barely play the saxophone that he's a free player in the manner of
Albert Ayler implies saying something that's either true or false. But if
it's false, then it's not true.
Unfortunately, there are two very important reasons that make me believe
that many quality things, regardless of their "genre", will go
the way of the theatre. First, the use of one's time as
"pointillistic" deprives what is "difficult" - that is,
something that necessitates to be experienced repeatedly and with a certain
degree of attention - of its economic basis. It goes without saying that
this is the attitude that mass media prize in their fight to conquer audiences'
eyeballs. It's easy for anybody to see how much the idea of what's considered
"difficult" has changed, in the last few years.
By abandoning critical statements for assertions
of the "I like it" type, the "all is relative"
pattern that's at the basis of "personal taste as the only absolute"
makes it possible for media to employ an unskilled, badly-paid workforce
that will always be allowed to say just about anything, absolutely certain
that no assertion will be challenged. For instance, a re-mixed, mangled Led
Zeppelin track can be defined as something that now sounds "quite vivid
and thrilling". And what about a possible, "correct", original
version of the same being eventually released? Have no fear: one can always
"the fantastic, first-time period Led Zeppelin are here again, in all
their glory", and everything will be OK.
As a kind of "thank you" to readers who've been so kind to
read this far, here's a short list of interesting stuff that can be easily
found on the Net, the only exception being the first item on the list:
a) a good source of information on the importance
of the work of producers and engineers for the success of the artistic
side of any recorded music is a book of interviews by Howard Massey titled
Behind The Glass: Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft The Hits, published
by Miller Freeman Books, 2000 (USA), and Backbeat Books, 2002 (UK);
b) the accumulation of stratified knowledge
that's at the basis of any work with a certain degree of complexity is
well represented by the Jimmy Page interview by Steven Rosen which originally
ran in the issue dated July, 1977 of US magazine Guitar Player;
b1) a different approach to the same topic
is represented in The Power And The Glory: Led Zeppelin And The Making
Of IV, by Barney Hoskins, Rock's Backpages, July 2006;
c) a fine interview with Bruce Botnick about
the album Strange Days by The Doors appeared in the issue dated December,
2003 of the UK monthly Sound On Sound, in the section Classic Tracks;
d) Ken Scott's name is maybe not as widely
known as some of his more illustrious colleagues', but this can't surely
be said of most of his recorded work; two fine interviews with the man:
d1) Shooting To Thrill, by engineer/producer
Joe Chiccarelli, appeared in the issue dated December, 2005 of US monthly
d2) titled Ken Scott Interview, the interview
by mastering engineer Steve Hoffman appeared on Steve Hoffman's own website
in March, 2006.
© Beppe Colli 2009
| Jan. 21, 2009