By Beppe Colli
Feb. 18, 2010
From time to time, once a month or so, I like to pay a visit to what
is by now the only record shop left standing in my town where one can still
buy music that's "beyond the charts", the shop being the last
bastion of an era that one could quite optimistically define as being "in
serious danger of disappearing".
It goes without saying that in this shop
many surprises can be found, though not necessarily of the kind I like
the most. This happened to me about a month ago: I was having a look at
the most recent issues of some music magazines when I noticed that one
of them featured a long, richly-illustrated piece about a smiling young
lady whom I'd never seen, or heard, before. Kind as per his usual, the
shop owner asked me if I'd like to listen to her most recent CD, which
had been released just the previous month. I was stunned to hear music
that was unadorned, decidedly amateurish in both concept and execution:
her voice was shaky, and often out-of-tune, her vocal harmonies quite unsure
of themselves, while the guitar was played with a
"scratchy" touch with almost no skill or expression, steady tempos
often going into rubato; one could almost see her tiny hand hesitate when
the next chord change got a bit "risky".
I was reminded of some embarrassing moments
when - it was the early 70s - a friend of mine or just somebody I happened
to know said something like "I'll introduce you to my sister, she
plays the guitar and sings, she's quite good". It was at this point
that a girl came in, sat on the bed, and performed La canzone di Marinella
(a friend and colleague recently told me that though he experienced similar
things, the song that was performed was always La canzone del sole; I wonder
who suffered the most).
There's a picture I saw recently that portraits
a somewhat similar situation: it's really impossible to describe the astounded
look on Eric Clapton's face when unexpectedly confronted with a still-unknown
Joni Mitchell (whom I imagine to be already quite mature when it came to
her pieces, vocals, and performing technique) while a smiling David Crosby
('cause it was him who had prepared this "surprise event") looks
toward the camera.
But the surprise and wonder I felt while
listening to this unknown lady were quite different indeed, since I would
never have imagined that somebody who was not really so different from
my friend's sister could be featured in a multi-page article in a colour
magazine. (The fact of a client who was there telling me that the magazine
called The Wire had recently run a favourable review of said CD only confirmed
to me that my decision to let my subscription to said magazine expire,
about three or four years earlier, had been the right thing to do.)
At this point, I really had to ask of what
"genre" this young lady was considered to be part, at least according
to such generous media: "freak-folk and psych-folk", was the answer.
It's not that it came to me as totally unexpected, this type of "fake
(But it was not over. There was another CD
to listen to, featuring a singer that was said to resemble Kate Bush. While
the music played I heard my lips muttering the word "Quarterflash!",
so we all had a laugh.)
I have to admit that this (so-called) re-discovery of (so-called) folk
music that took place in the last decade or so totally took me by surprise
(even though it's obvious we're talking about a niche phenomenon where
hype has a large part). It's not that it doesn't have its peculiar kind
of logic, when considered as a piece of merchandise: when even (so-called)
Grunge is by now part of a mythological past; when the omni-pervasiveness
of "high technology" music (from the layered ProTools approach
one encounters practically everywhere in rap, r&b, rock, pop, dance,
and country to the pervasiveness of AutoTune) makes it easy for one to
imagine a past that was as
"innocent" as it was practically devoid of any "high technology" (here "natural" stands
for "sincere") here it comes "the girl (or boy) with guitar".
One has to notice that the element that's regarded as the most important
here is not the type of (music) language one uses, but the (perceived) absence
of overt technological elements. Hence, poor vocal intonation can be regarded
as an item standing for
"authenticity", the myth of the "idiot savant" being
just one step away.
At first, my skepticism was due to my lack
of faith in the possibility that nowadays an appreciation could be developed
that's based on silence and introspection. 'Cause while it's obvious that
silence can still be recreated by a conscious act of the will (though it's
an increasingly difficult thing to do: just think for a minute of the sheer
number of appliances one has to turn off), introspection is something that
a (wo)man who's always connected will fatally loose, and which, once lost,
will be (almost) impossible to get back. I have to admit that observing
real life as it is gave me the right answer, for instance seeing an album
like Pink Moon being used as a "poetry in motion" kind of background
to various activities (the fact of this album's "monotony" being
today vastly preferred to Bryter Layter's multi-style polychromy should
be an alert sign about today's problems when it comes to current perception
of music languages).
Those two base items of my argument - simplicity,
and the girl (boy) with guitar - have a curious consequence: that the current
definition of "folk" increasingly coincides with
"white-western of some kind". In fact, it has seldom happened to
me in the course of the last decade to see the word "folk" being
associated with, say, popular music from Mali (maybe this is filed under
"ethnic"?); or gamelan (maybe filed under "Far Eastern"?);
or funk (for this writer, a good example of "traditional folk" today
are the rhythm guitar parts played by Carlos Alomar on many albums by David
Bowie, songs such as Fame, Stay and Fashion being just three instances coming
to my mind). There's nothing wrong with that, of course, all definitions
being (in a precise sense) "artificial", i.e., born out of convention.
Let's not forget it, though.
I'll leave the money stuff in the background.
Sure it's strange to see "forgotten giants" such as Karen Dalton
and Vashti Bunyan come to the foreground. It goes without saying that some
listeners take great joy when discovering "the true value" of
a name that for a long time went underappreciated (by our fathers, it was
once said; now by our grandfathers, maybe?). I also understand that making
a forgotten name popular can work wonders for a magazine that prizes being
considered as a trendsetter, and which would not benefit at all from talking
in depth about a
"living legend" such as Bob Dylan. I also know that the rights
to re-release albums by forgotten names are not as expensive as those released
by famous names. What I regard as absurd is this: Since most young people,
by necessity, know practically nothing about the past, the "new canon"
will see people like Karen Dalton and Vashti Bunyan placed above Donovan,
Tim Buckley, John Martyn, Bert Jansch, Richard Thompson, and Joni Mitchell,
not to mention Bob Dylan's whole catalogue. While just listening to John
Wesley Harding, maybe starting with the apologue titled The Ballad Of Frankie
Lee And Judas Priest ("My loss will be your gain" - I'm quoting
from memory) will be enough for one to reacquaint the proper sense of proportions.
(This has already happened in the past, a good example being the lack of
understanding of the roots of 60s American garage.)
A little anecdote that will help our little story go forward. It's
the early 70s, and the music a guy I knew really liked (we were about the
same age) was music played by "big impact guitar groups" such
as Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Ten Years After, and Grand Funk Railroad.
Every time he saw new LPs in the racks by artists and groups such as Pentangle,
Fairport Convention, Neil Young, David Crosby, Cat Stevens, and Joni Mitchell,
he asked what kind of music these people played. The answer he always got
was that these people all played
"folk". (There was also semi-folk, for instance, Jethro Tull.)
It goes without saying that the above definition, which was always really
considered as just half-serious, didn't possess any real defining properties.
It was just useful from a pragmatic point of view: it told him that, his
preferences about music being well-known to us, that it was highly unlikely
that he'd like those artists and groups. In fact, they were...
It's quite interesting to note that, in parallel
with those very important social changes we all know about, the role played
by critics has moved from "describing something" to
"helping consumers" (which is not the same as the theory that's
at the basis of Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide). It has to be stressed
that the question number one for today's "consumer" is no longer "what
is this?", but "will I like it?". To simplify a bit, the question
now doesn't deal at all with any issues about truth. Should readers be uncomfortable
with the word "truth" we can substitute the expression
"adequate description" of an object, which for our present discussion
The thing that looks weird to me is that
nowadays those who write (in our present discussion, about music) appear
as having adopted consumer's questions as their own. Like, say, a consumer
plus a pen. This is usually considered as being the outcome from commercial
requirements and pressures, which has always looked as a bit too simple
to me (the logical consequence being that, should these "external" pressure
cease, things would change - a lot). The concept of an "adequate description" of
an object doesn't imply, of course, that all judgments about something
- for instance, Never Mind The Bollocks... by Sex Pistols - have by necessity
be the same. Just that those who regard the actual method of recording
and producing that's embedded in that record as a luminous example of (so-called) " punk
aesthetic" don't appear as being able to properly understand what's
inside that record. Hence, they should abandon this line of work.
The issue, it's easy to see, is a serious
one. It has been totally evaded by substituting the description of one's
reactions to an object to the description of said object. And since it
goes without saying that there are as many opinions as there are subjects...
It has to be noticed, though, that those who act like this, even in good
faith, are just damaging the ground on where they stand.
There's more: That the changing of critical
judgment into the raw terms of "I like it/I don't like it" that's
so typical of all "personal opinions" implies a lack of understanding
of the way critical criteria really work. We never arrived "naked" at
the moment of judgment. Instead, we have a theoretical framework that makes
it possible for us to understand the way artists work. Which is a fallible
procedure, of course, but where a mistake is due to our insufficient information,
which is quite different from saying "I changed my mind". It
has to be stressed that the quality of interpretation is based on the quality
of the critical framework, not on the sheer number of tracks one has listened
to. Were the opposite being true, in the present age of the iPod in shuffle
mode, we could simply decide about competence issues by counting the number
of tracks one "owns".
In truth, every time we talk about "folk" (in the precise,
limited sense we are referring to here) we talk about a work by a
"(song)writer". And I think that no definition is as useful as
the one (by somebody whose name unfortunately totally escapes me) used to
describe the music of Neil Young: "studied primitivism". And it
goes without saying that when we deal with this kind of music - the work
"(song)writer" - we have to formulate an "adequate description".
Richard Thompson is an artist whose name
is quite well-known, thanks to the albums he recorded as a member of the
group Fairport Convention, and to those he shared with his then-wife Linda,
and also as a solo artists. Thompson's music, the topics of his songs,
his vocal style, his approach on the guitar, his relationship with music
of other places and times, be it classical or non-western, especially from
North Africa, his right-hand fingering approach, his (non) use of vibrato
which has its antecedents in popular instruments such as the fiddle and
the bagpipes, his being aware of rock and blues while at the same time
deciding to avoid them as a model... All this, and more, has already been
said, studied, analyzed. Also the barely-there presence of the flavour
Hank Marvin's Stratocaster (does anybody remember The Shadows?), an antecedent
that is decidedly quite distant from... "folk"!
But if we accept that the abovementioned
features (which I've learned about thanks to many articles from music magazines,
the most important for me being those written by Bill Flanagan for Musician
and Joe Gore for Guitar Player) "adequately describe" the object "Richard
Thompson" we accept that it's quite absurd to have him placed alongside,
say, Nick Drake or John Martyn. While we could decide to have an artist
such as Nico, currently filed under "maladjusted and weirdos of all
sorts", placed in the "folk" drawer.
now time for a brief chat. I strongly believe that there's a large, demonstrable,
difference between "an adequate description of an object" and
an enunciation about somebody's opinion about an object. And I strongly
belief this to be true. And I think a lot of damage came from those who,
quite often due to their bad understanding of the whole matter, joined
the ranks of those for whom
"every knowledge is just opinion".
But, even accepting the proposition that
there's no difference between
"knowledge" and "opinion" (something I don't believe
at all), I invite readers to notice that, far from being the end of the argument,
this point signals the start of a different issue: what are the real, foreseeable,
consequence descending from these two beliefs? Which doesn't mean that I'm
arguing that we should decide to believe something that we know is false
for fear of the consequences. It's just that those who argue in favour of
"relativism" by accusing those who state there's a big difference
between "knowledge" and "opinion" of wanting to introduce
a totalitarian regime don't see that's it's exactly their failure to take
the foreseeable consequences of a given behaviour into account that makes
"absolute" of what they see as only being "relative".
This should become a bit more clear if we
look at an assertion of the "if... then..." kind. Let's start
by saying that, if we don't have a criterion of truth, and so any assertion
is considered as being just an opinion beyond any possibility of ever determining
its degree of truth content, it's quite possible that should somebody who
possesses the material means to create and spread information get in a
position of power, he will be able to place him/herself beyond any criticism,
since quality independent information is a resource which costs money and
which the majority of people don't appear to be willing to spend their
time and money to get, especially if one considers all
"information" as "opinion", and some "opinions"
are easily at their disposal, for free.
So we could say this: IF you want to avoid
a situation where those in power will find it easy to silence "different
opinions" by spreading opinions that are not afraid of "facts" (because "facts" as
quoted by others are just "their opinions"), THEN be careful
about being in favour of beliefs that state that there is nothing as facts,
all facts being no more than subjective opinions. You could find yourself
in a cul-de-sac!
Readers are invited to think about this -
quite paradoxical - sense of the expression called "par condicio":
Anybody can say what s/he likes.
so this is the (sad) closing to this piece.
As I've already said above in my for instance,
most of what I know about Richard Thompson I've read in some (quality)
magazine. Namely, US magazines Musician and Guitar Player, of which I was
a subscriber for a very long time, spending a considerable amount of money
(US being quite far from where I live) in advance ('cause that's the way
subscriptions work). It goes without saying that had Flanagan and Gore
been the kind of people who write things such as "a flaming, desperate-sounding
guitar" I world never have spent any money to buy those opinions.
What I wanted in exchange for my money was "an adequate description" of
an object. Obviously, in so differently from
"personal opinions", descriptions are measurable and so, computable.
This, I believe, is the way one decides what magazine one will read: from
the amount of truth it prints. (I've never understood those who buy magazines
"talk about those names I find to be interesting to me": what if
they print bullshit?).
This is not a good moment for the press.
Between decreasing advertising and the diminishing disposition on the part
of readers to pay a sum of money, however minimal, in order to read what
they think the can have for free elsewhere, newspapers and magazines from
all over the world are staring into the abyss. Today the most important
question appears to be whether introducing a pay-wall to the Web content
is really feasible.
I know where I stand: I've been a subscriber
to Web weekly Rock's Backpages starting from day one (a long time ago);
for many years I was a subscriber to US Web-only daily newspaper Salon;
I currently read dailies such as The Guardian and The New York Times, and
I'm ready to pay to read them online.
In a nutshell, this looks like the main point
today: if the newspapers that will lose more money and prestige will be
the ones that will put most of their content behind a pay-wall (this appears
to be exactly what the Editor of The Guardian thinks; here's a link to
the text of a recent conference about this issue: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/jan/25/cudlipp-lecture-alan-rusbridger);
or if the newspapers which will implement a (flexible) pay-wall will have
"the best of both worlds" (which is what the bosses at The New
York Times think; this link leads to an instructive read, readers' opinions
The problem is that many readers, including
those from the readership of quality press, increasingly appear to be indifferent
about the difference between "facts" and
"opinions". They are also becoming increasingly unable to see that
when media talk about facts they are not equipped to talk about, be it for
lack of competence or lack of proper workforce and financial means, these
facts become just... opinions, even if presented (and perceived) as facts.
They also appear to be blind to the fact that lack of readers' financial
support will make it possible to those who have financial means to "create" information.
This is the big question mark that's in front
of us. Our present task being choosing the right solution with every micro-decision
(and micro-payment) we take.
© Beppe Colli 2010
CloudsandClocks.net | Feb. 18, 2010