By Beppe Colli
Nov. 26, 2015

And so, against all odds, once again, today is birthday time for Clouds and Clocks: Thirteen!

(Thunderous applause erupts.)

By now, readers probably expect the usual editorial painting an apocalyptic landscape, as per my custom in days like this.

But a funny thing happened to me this time: While trying to make a list of all things disgusting and repulsive, I felt really sick. So I decided to change my approach for once, my new attitude being best summarized by the classic question about the proverbial glass: "Is it half-full, or half-empty?".

As it happens every year, 2015 has brought the usual share of brilliant works, something that never fails to amaze me: all difficulties notwithstanding (readers know perfectly well what I'm talking about), there are still people around who somehow manage to create fantastic music.

Still, a sense of precariousness lingers on the scene. Sure, we have crowd-funding now, and a few fine works have materialized thanks to this new financial formula. But looking at the figures, sometimes I notice that those who generously contributed are often the same people - here meaning: two hundred - who would have bought the finished product. So that, in a way, an album's journey reaches its final destination the very moment it's released.

It's a scenery those who used to subscribe to those albums released by Recommended Records in the 70s and 80s know all too well. But at the time it was still possible to hypothesize that there were other people who could be reached via the usual commercial channels. People who, while lacking in "activism", could still prove to be "permeable" to new, "difficult-sounding" music.

Of course, things are quite different now.

Since I have the annoying habit of asking myself questions that make me uncomfortable, I'll play the devil's advocate, and I'll ask myself this question: Why should the future be just like the past?

We know that most people are inclined to consider the pleasant conditions from the time when they were young as being "perfectly natural". Hence, the question - which inside a different conceptual framework would not even exist - which sounds like this: "Why there are no groups today such as Faust and Henry Cow, or geniuses like Frank Zappa? And if they indeed exist, why are they so unknown?". Questions like these are made even more dramatic by the appearance of unreleased "sonic objects" - the most recent example being the Frank Zappa film titled Roxy - The Movie - that only seem to add salt to the old wounds.

In this respect, Clouds and Clocks has always tried to reach two goals: first, putting the spotlight on music whose quality I regarded as being special, and so noteworthy; but also, trying to understand what conditions work as an impediment to the prosperity of "difficult music", my attitude in this respect being, of course, pragmatic and "partisan".

I remember quite well those times when I found myself puzzled and confused, while listening to music whose logic seemed to defy my understanding.

Readers will maybe be surprised by my first for instance: The Beatles.

Having bought the 45 single featuring the fantastic song called Penny Lane, after many listening sessions I decided to listen to the single flipside. I was surprised to find something quite disturbing, sinister, off-putting - especially that fake ending and the reprise that followed, which reminded me of the scary atmosphere of the TV series The Twilight Zone.

Of course, in time I managed to appreciate the song called Strawberry Fields Forever.

I could talk about other "traumatic experiences", such as my listening to Lizard, an album whose logic for a long time I found impenetrable, while being already a fan of such albums as In The Court Of The Crimson King and In The Wake Of Poseidon, but I'm afraid readers will become bored.

I will not talk about such dubious notions as "natural predisposition". Let's just consider two conditions: silence (meaning: concentration), and interest (which could well prove to be the quality that makes the requirement of silence an imperative).

I know all too well that arguing that listening for a long time to music one finds to be without no sense or logic in the end makes it a source of great pleasure could resemble the condition of doing hard labour in prison. There's one thing we don't have to forget, though: the tiny particle of fascination emanating from that off-putting sonic mass that made our investigation a bitter-sweet imperative.

Sure, those times when Neil Young, passing though Nashville, met record producer Elliot Mazer, who invited him to visit his new recording studio, Young telling him "find me some good musicians, see you tonight at the studio", are long gone. (That's the way that recording sessions for Harvest started, according to Mazer.)

Even simple music from that time - I hope readers won't be upset if I define the music featured on that historical album as simple - can sound rich and complex, thanks to those amplifiers, mics, mixers, the whole science of microphone placing that in the right hands can make sounds bloom.

A few weeks ago, U.S. daily newspaper The New York Times announced that the number of its "digital" subscribers had reached one million, something which came after the number of its "hybrid" subscribers - meaning: both digital and paper - already passed that mark.

I have no recent data for U.K. daily newspaper The Guardian, whose effort to cover the United States by opening many bureau there - an effort that appears not to have any unpleasant consequences on the quality of its reporting due to the paper overextending its resources - I assume to have been rewarded by subscribers old and new.

Here I'll ask myself some questions.

What's the point in reading an Italian correspondent from the U.S. - somebody who acts like a jack of all trades - writing about the new economic crisis when one can read Paul Krugman writing about the same issue? And what about the work of such movie critics as A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, who one can read on The New York Times?

Let's not forget that The Guardian has chosen a different approach when it comes to accessing its content. But this is a kind of access that's free in spite of its content being of a very high quality, not because the quality of the paper is low, and they can't give it away.

Sure, a local paper has something that's still very precious to us: information about people who died, a strike in public transportation, that shooting on the corner last night, and so on.

But the fact of an enterprise surviving in spite of a growing number of free riders - a condition that in the case of the press can hide the dramatic decrease in the quality of its coverage, but only up to a point - is only possible if the number of those who still fork the required sum doesn't fall below a certain point.

By now, astute readers have already understood where this is taking us.

Today's consumers have chosen not to investigate a crucial issue: where those goods that it's nowadays possible to consume for free, or at prices that are at best symbolic, come from, meaning: the issue of the compensation of the factors that are embedded in their production.

Let's forget for a moment about those "common people", and let's only talk about those who as "friends of difficult music" have long lamented its dramatic fate.

For those, I have this question: Do you really think you have properly understood the coordinates of the current situation, and the type of role we are called to play? Provided that the grief for the hard conditions we all know about is not something we fake while sitting in front of a glass of beer.

It's with a lot of effort on the part of a lot of people that the glass will stay half-empty - or half-full - instead of disappearing completely.

It's quite easy to lament the fact that the new album by so and so is mediocre, even more so when compared to those "past masterpieces" we all know and love. But we have to keep separate categories for those albums that are the result of a process of a spent inspiration - as Miles Davis used to say, "When there is no more there is no more" - from those conditions that could benefit from an extra helping hand from the outside.

It's not that - this is a side of Zygmunt Bauman's work that has remained invisible to those who only noticed the "liquidity" factor - we suddenly became egotistic and callous. But it's apparent we have failed to understand the extent of the consequences implied by the ever-increasing pointillism and insularity of our new lives.

Without necessarily getting back to the old notion of "class", one could notice that even the shared experience of a music magazine is nowadays a rarity.

With the disappearance of the old commercial framework that made the previous situation possible, our indifference when it comes to the inevitable consequences of the new situation - an indifference that clearly manifests itself in our refusal to take into consideration the future of the music we said was an indispensable item of our lives - has a part in creating a situation where it's quite easy to declare that "things were better, once".

Sure, things were better, once. What about now?

Beppe Colli 2015 | Nov. 26, 2015