Curmudgeon, Moi?
By Beppe Colli
Jan. 12, 2014

As it's often the case during the holiday season at the end of the year, I got in touch with musicians and "media people", sometimes just to chat, also to discuss the current state of affairs. The aim, of course, being trying to understand in which direction the boat is heading. Should the destination prove to be not to our liking, well... I suppose one is permitted to abandon ship, right?

As it's customary by now, there were those who once again made gentle fun of my "apocalyptic" attitude (I remind readers that I was once promised a t-shirt bearing the slogan "Dour Power!"). Well, it looks like this year my attitude was considered as deserving the label "curmudgeon" - a word I had to look for in my English dictionary many years ago, when in the course of an interview Frank Zappa said something like (I'm quoting from memory) "I hate to sound like an old curmudgeon, but...". Well, at least I am in good company!

Let's see if I can come up with a few examples that will persuade readers that a bright future awaits us all.

To me, the "success story" title for 2013 goes to "complex instrumental music" trio called The Aristocrats. And though I regarded the group's sophomore album, Culture Clash, as being well below my expectations (here I have to say that my opinion is in the minority), if we listen to said album side-by-side with a lot of contemporary stuff - a factual dimension that every musician who doesn't work in a vacuum has to take into consideration - the music of The Aristocrats sounds a lot more complex and varied than what a cautious attitude would suggest as being the best option.

It goes without saying that just like every overnight success The Aristocrats' path started a long time ago, Bryan Beller, Guthrie Govan, and Marco Minneman appearing as the "cover story" of such magazines as Bass Player, Guitar Player, and Modern Drummer long before the trio exploded. And since we know that a "cover story" is an acknowledgment of one's work, also a way to get readers to buy a magazine, we have to conclude that the members of the trio were already quite popular.

I'll just mention some recent work by the members of the trio. First, the much-lauded album by Steven Wilson titled The Raven That Refused To Sing And Other Stories, and subsequent tour, of which both Govan and Minneman were part. Then, the long world tour by Joe Satriani, whose quartet saw Beller and Minneman acting as the rhythm section.

Right now, the 2014 tour of The Aristocrats is about to start, going up to mid-April. While some dates of a new Joe Satriani summer tour have already been announced.

I had the chance to see the trio playing live, and to witness the hard work it all entails. Coming by plane from a concert that had started very late, after getting just a little sleep, then a car trip, there was a "clinic" for Govan, some jogging ("ten minutes") for Beller, then sound-check, a light dinner, then playing the concert, which features a lot of music necessitating perfect muscular performance.

After the concert was over, came "a moment for our fans", whose length appeared interminable to me, with the usual pictures, autographs, jokes, sale of CDs and DVD-Vs, all in good humour and with much verve, though we all knew that the alarm bell in the morning was supposed to ring quite early (and then a car, and a plane). Then there's the group presence on the Web to attend to, with the ongoing conversation with fans on Facebook, the posting of videos with excerpts from recent concerts, those twitters, and those things that an average fan nowadays regards as being the norm.

Right now readers have all the right elements at their disposal to understand that nowadays the current state of affairs "selects" specific types of human specimen for a given task. One has obviously to take into account one's personal inclination - Scott Chatfield created Mike Keneally's presence on the Internet at a time, 1993, when not a lot of people had ever heard of such a thing called Internet, and it was on that platform that Beller started posting on a blog, The Life Of Bryan, when the word blog had yet to be coined.

But while the existence of those record companies that took care of everything made it possible for "misfits" such as Nick Drake to work and record, the fact of their gradual disappearing has put a great weight on the shoulders of all musicians, making them directly responsible for tasks that once upon a time were not a part of the definition of the profession "musician". Which makes compulsory for them to attend to tasks that nowadays are taken for granted, from one having to show one's possessing a sizable following through a Kickstarter campaign, to one being ready to loose precious sleep, also hours that were once spent mastering one's instrument, in order to cultivate one's dialogue with one's fans.

Then, s/he has to master the craft of recording one's music on a computer, study the best ways to place one's music on the Web, devising the best way to be compensated for one's efforts, how to release those limited-edition LPs that will provide one with much-needed additional income, while also acting as a reward for one's most faithful fans, invent the best ways to fill one's time when one's tour gets unexpectedly cancelled, and so on.

So it was funny, in a way, to read a musician "in opposition" lamenting the absence of public funding for that genre as it's nowadays customary when it comes to both classical music and jazz. Well, what can I say?

Just as it happens with all those beautiful stories that have the solution of a mystery at their core, the story I'm telling has an unexpected guilty party.

If we thing about the current state of health when it comes to music - but it's a framework that can work just as well when it comes to other art forms - one of most insurmountable problems is the enormous mass of items we consume and enjoy. There are a few additional conditions we have to specify, of course, starting with the fact that - in so differently than food - "cultural bulimia" doesn't provoke any sense of satiety or nausea. Of course, we don't have to forget about the changing of those social mores that deal with what was one called "theft", and the ongoing depreciation of what is not a symbol of status. In the background, of course, is the technical progress that has made one's access to enormous quantities of data a "transparent" process.

We know quite well that most media today offer shoddy products - which is the main reason why we don't want to relate to them. But it would be great, once in a while, if we thought about the ways we spend our time, and our attitude when it comes to our spending our time, and effort. In a nutshell, about our attitude when it comes to our choosing one of those two articles as our reading material: one that's about bosons, and one that's about a two-headed cow.

It remains to be seen if the perennial growth of the sphere of leisure (a process that has no "natural" limits) will completely expel all quality items from our current palette without us even noticing the fact. Keeping in mind that, in so differently from the past, today's leisure doesn't present itself as a "light-hearted", but as a kind of "compulsory", occupation. Swimming pool, gym, and dancing lessons for our children, jogging for us, plus acting as drivers for our children en route to the aforementioned occupations, the gradually disappearing borders between cosmetics and surgery, the widening of the palette at our disposal - and the changing sphere of what's culturally and legally permitted - when it comes to all pleasures of the body, the quantity of places one can visit as proof of one's curiosity and cultural vivaciousness, our attention to diets which respect the planet and the environment, while at the same time we increasingly buy larger cars, and so on. All activities for which we are ready to spend "the right amount".

Once in a while, in the past, I've mentioned a blog called ARTicles, which transparently gets its name from the art world. This blog being an emanation of the National Arts Journalism Program, a US organism which features about five hundred journalists as its members. Besides offering special contributions that were especially written for it, the blog offered every week a complete list with links of all those articles written by its members, on newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Village Voice, The L.A. Times, Variety, NPR, and so on. It was a precious source of information, which gave one easy access to a world where architecture, painting, sculpture, music, cinema, theatre, and so on, all lived in harmony.

But if we visit the blog, we can see that the most recent list, as usual introduced by Laura Collins-Hughes, is the one dated December 10, 2012. While the most recent piece - programmatically titled Last Post - is the one written by Wendy Lesser on November 21, 2012, following the piece written by Lesser herself titled A Call to Arms, or a Cry for Help, where on November, 18, Lesser had spoken about a situation where the lack of help on a voluntary basis on the part of one or more of those twenty-eight potential participants would make the blog go belly-up - which is precisely what happened, and which still remains true at the moment of my writing this.

"Why does it matter if this blog lives or dies? Well, I don't think I have to tell any of you about the parlous state of the arts in America these days. The bad economy and the ever-more-consuming digital world have combined to make things very difficult for the live arts - that is, the arts in person, the arts that allows for a direct encounter between the viewer and the artwork itself, whether it be a concert or an opera or a painting or a book. We arts critics or reporters, by paying serious and in some cases knowledgeable attention to those desperate and necessary art forms, are helping to keep them alive. I hope there are also readers out there whose curiosity we feed and whose interest we stimulate, and that too helps the arts."

Curmudgeon, Moi?

Beppe Colli 2014 | Jan. 12, 2014