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 individual "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 conversation" though music.

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 time.

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 misunderstood.

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 about "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 say "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 EQ;

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

CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 21, 2009