Thursday, May 22, 2008

I got a most peculiar sensation reading the Epiphany column at the back of the latest (June) issue of The Wire--an account of a life-changing gig written by improvising cellist Mark Wastell--which was I went to this show, didn't I? In fact it's a gig the whereabouts and whenabouts of which I've been trying to remember for a while now. Now I know precisely: March 12th, 1989, the Royalty Theatre, Holborn, London; Evan Parker as support act to the headlining trio of Anthony Braxton, Adelhard Roidinger, and Tony Oxley.

Reading the column, the mirroring effect was quite uncanny: Wastell's reactions to the performances correlated bizarrely with my own (but how he reacted to those reactions ultimately being totally different). An unusual venue, never been to before, never been to since? CHECK! Slightly aghast at the audience, an all-male miasma of thick sweaters, brown cardigans, bad hair, face foliage? CHECK! Bemused bothered and bored witless as Parker's fingers run rapidly up and down, up and down his soprano saxophone for approx 40 minutes, the resulting shrill, gratingly sibilant patterns repetitious in the extreme yet never falling into anything that resembles groove or melody? CHECK! Very very slightly more taken by the abstrusities of the headliners (at least there's three levels of incomprehensibility going on at once) but literally pained by Oxley's compulsion to swipe his drumstick against his cowbell every few minutes, producing a really nasty metallic scraping sound? CHECK!

20 years old in 1989, Wastell was already a jazz fan, albeit the kind more likely to go down Ronnie Scott's; his objections to the improv performers were as much sartorial (where's the suits?) as sonic. But his response to his own feelings of befuddled incomprehension was to work through them ("Think, stupid boy!"). It was literally a Turning Point in his life: he eventually became an improviser himself, is now in a band with Evan Parker, even--he notes wryly--owns a woolly cardigan of his own. Where Wastell rose to the challenge, I sank from it, shrank from it. The show was an anti-Epiphany, a Turning-Off Point. Well, not quite as dramatic as that, but certainly it helped to cap and confirm a mounting feeling of being not-attracted/not-convinced by that whole area of music (which I'd dutifully checked out, as you do--a Company recording here, an Incus release there--because some smart people with otherwise sharp taste are really into this shit). The gig at the Royalty Theatre contributed to the turn-off partly for sociological reasons (having had a good up-close sniff of the audience, would I really want to be the kind of person into this thing? Or even stand in the same room as them on a regular basis?), but mostly for musical ones: I honestly could not hear the music in it.

There were also probably embryonic inklings of a philosophical scepticism about the aesthetico-political ideas underpinning the entire project of non-idiomatic improvisation, questionable shibboleths of freedom, authenticity, purity, integrity, finding a space outside the commercial. One argument runs that music made purely in the moment, composed as it is played, never documented, unrepeatable, ephemeral as experience itself, escapes being trapped by commodification/reification/alienation; is in fact the only really "live music" that there is. But if you're actually selling tickets, surely you are in fact commodifying the Unrepeatable Moment? (Also it strikes me that improv musicians--and experimentalists generally--put out way more recordings than almost anybody else in music, they churn out releases--including live recordings--to milk their micro-niche market, presumably mainly to have any hope of making a livelihood, but still a recording sold for money is a commodity, there's no getting around that.)

A few years later I came across a passage in Deleuze & Guattari's A Thousand Plateaux, where they warned of a kind of aesthetic fascism that avant-garde and "free" music of all kinds can often approach in its haste to break all barriers ASAP, a fixation on "the child, the mad, noise" that results in "a scribble effacing all lines", and I thought, "YEAH, too right. Spot on, chaps". Translating that into political terms, you could see free music as an aural dramatization of some of the problems with anarchism, at least of the no-rules-at-all, Sovereign Ego kind, which is that what is supreme freedom for the individual (the musician) can translate to tyranny for everybody else (the listeners). (I think a good deal of ideological projection is required by the pre-disposed listener to identify with that spectacle of freedom-in-musicking, which seems somewhat contrived to me, and also hard work for not much gain). (I know there is a counter-argument, which would view the free improv ensemble as working out through sound the same ideals and issues that co-operatives and communes grapple with in terms of social organisation, the workplace, the politics of everyday life, cohabitation... but, well, the history of those movements, while noble, is also fraught and marked by a fairly high rate of failure and dysfunction. Besides that model doesn't explain what role the audience has, beyond paying (to) witness a spectacle of non-hierarchic collaboration in action. [Also: a version of that spectacle is surely offered by most rock bands anyway; discipline voluntarily embraced; united we groove, divided we get booed offstage; the Groop Played Neu!Topian Motorik Musik...] [Or indeed more conventional jazz outfits that swing and groove, while allotting spaces for individual expression, etc]

(Why was I even at the concert? It must have been curiosity about Braxton. Plus 1989 was a bit of a disparate, slack year, with some casting around for stuff to write about--I'd be reviewing all kinds of odd things, ECM albums, Zorn concerts at Queen Elizabeth Hall. So I must have gone with the intention of reviewing the gig, but came home with an empty notebook--almost unheard of, that, and in a sense an achievement on the part of the musicians).

I must say, though, having raised all those objections and rationales, I have been thinking of giving that whole area another "go". Giving Derek Bailey's oeuvre a proper once-over, or select highlights thereof (given how bleedin' vast it is -- suggestions and hints for good entry points welcomed) See if the apparent random-ness finally resolves itself (in the past, I confess, his guitar playing has sounded to me a bit like someone who's just unwrapped a parcel marked "damaged in transit" by the Post Office, lifted up the carriage clock inside, only for all these cogs and spindles to tumble tinklingly on the floor). And all the other big guys in the field too. My interest was actually piqued by a piece in another issue of The Wire, a few months back, the March cover story on John Butcher. I really warmed to the opening quote from Butcher:

"This music is here in opposition to other music. It doesn't all co-exist together nicely. The fact that I have chosen to do this implies that I don't value what you're doing over there. My activity calls into questions the value of your activity. This is what informs our musical thinking and decision making."

This bracingly stern stance struck me as in line with nu-rockist principles, or K-punk's talk of "nihilation" as a motor force in UK pop culture. Fighting talk, literally; wedded to the idea of "opposition", in both senses of the word. I was further intrigued by discussion in the interview (which was conducted by Philip Clark) of Butcher's use of electronics, effects and studio technology (overdubbing, multitracking) to expand his spectrum of timbres (and also, judging by Clark's account, to expand the spectrality of his sound, its ghost-swarm disembodiment). All this being especially the case on the album Invisible Ear, "a solo saxophone record that doesn't want to sound like a solo saxophone record." (If only they were all like that, eh?).

And whaddyaknow, it's a fantastic record, as are The Geometry of Sentiment and Requests and AntiSongs (the latter done with electronics manipulator Phil Durrant). Butcher's music has an attractive combination of textural voluptuousness and severity; it is demanding, but also generous.