Tag: opinion

Make Music For Situations

Make Music For Situations

Today’s post reflects my growing interest in popular music since reading this book. It’s also vague and idealistic, you’ve been warned. I mention economic issues but I won’t claim to have solutions.

Traditionally, musicians playing originals would make money selling records and touring. Nowadays, musicians invest in their recordings and marketing hoopla, and earn it back performing. Very many are stretched to their limit – at a conference recently I heard a PR/tour assistance professional in the trad field describe how bands are now obsessing over sleep, diet and careful living in order to keep their bodies in shape to tour constantly. Yet jazz and pop degree courses implicitly push original music, self-promoted and toured, as the default music career.

My issue is that recordings these days go into a black hole called the Facebook feed. To grow an audience, bands have to become content makers, emphasising regularity and predictability. This is not conducive to quality performances, originality, emotion or depth. It is conducive to box-ticking and nice visuals.

(Feel free to contest my narrative in the comments!) For a while, though, I’ve been thinking about a change of perspective that might illuminate ways forward.

I realised that what I love as much as “music itself” is situations where a groove and call-and-response are happening. (This article details that insight.) My change of perspective is to view ourselves as instigators and participants in these situations – even when at a remove, i.e. via recording, or sampling.

What’s interesting about this is it instantly opens up a wide purview of possible situations to target – ones that you wouldn’t think of when in the mode of “how do I promote my latest album?”

Some examples of grooving situations….

What if I wanted my music to be DJed for dancers? I’d have to investigate what nights and people are active right now, and what they’re spinning. Maybe my music would be remixed so I’d have to investigate the people who can do that. It would have to be released on vinyl of course. I could ask my vinyl DJ mates if they ever play Irish tracks in their sets.

What if I wanted people to rap over my music? Well, if it was to be sampled I’d have to think about the production quality, instrumentation and vibe of the tracks producers have already sampled. And perhaps how ephemerality, mistakes and looseness can be defining qualities of a great sample. I’d probably want to get into some of the sounds coming out right now too. If it was live, I’d have to think about working with very repetitive grooves, maybe using cues. And of course I’d need to call up my beatmaker friends and check hip hop nights and collectives to find the talent.

What if I wanted people to perform my songs at their gigs? A whole other set of challenges – catchiness, emotional power, simplicity, technical interest. Maybe I could get someone to write lyrics for me.

What if I wanted my music playing at a sweet house party? Time to explore what (say) stoners like… shivery timbres, echoes, rugged muffled grooves, vibey vocals, maybe. And just as important, to find what Youtube playlists they put on these days.

More random thoughts… what if I wanted to be blasted at loud volumes from cars? What if I wanted to be played at computer gaming sessions? What if I wanted dance teachers/classes to buy my records?

There’s one situation which is definitely grooving but which doesn’t illustrate my point: it’s musicians playing each other hip new music on car journeys or while hanging out. I love those listening sessions but, unlike my other examples, hip jazzy recorded music is the tiny market that many of us have been aiming for all along.

I used the word market there. Is my so-called “realisation” just about appealing to a market, i.e. selling out? Well, all my examples point out something that may be more important than the bare definition of market as “those who’ll buy x”. It’s community, of course. All these cases involve getting to know what’s going on and who’s who in a scene.

A related objection: aren’t these commercialised scenes of little interest to an art musician? Well, for me, deep groove and the identity-melding of call-and-response are as important as high-art ambition. (My heaven is the unification of both… I was listening to this old pop hit yesterday.) Plus, Paul Gilroy suggests that when black music culture spreads along capitalist lines of distribution, it may transcend and transform that very system. For one thing it educates and elevates its listeners to be more than atomised consumers. If I could get paid to do that kind of work, I’d be happy. (If I thought it was done well.)

This perspective isn’t incompatible with being a pure jazzer either. On-the-ball musicians in Dublin already focus on situations and community by playing regular gigs in nice venues targeted at a core of mainstream jazz fans, using Facebook as a tool not as the main goal.

My main point is that we should think of the situations where we want our music to be listened to, and try make them happen in the real world. Rather than merely force our work into the desolation of tech-corp-controlled social media. The disinterest some musicians might feel in, say, studio production or distribution channels could be alleviated by recognising a goal that these activities have in common with “pure playing” – to make people feel good together from the vibe of our music.

What do you think? Is it all pie-in-the-sky? I’ll be writing a follow-up piece real soon to talk about how the jazz jam session, reggae dance hall and hip hop cipher – all classic examples of grooving situations – specifically used competitiveness and common repertoire to nurture communities and develop styles.

See you then!

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I Was A Teenaged Game Designer

I Was A Teenaged Game Designer

[Content: offensive lyrics]

The historical meaning of a subculture is continually recreated as time goes on. Unfortunately, I believe that the subversiveness and artistic value of some of my favourite game and music scenes are now being claimed by sexist and reactionary forces (associated with what we vaguely call the “alt-right”).

These game scenes now harbour tons of anti-politically-correct provocation and memes. This feed of forum posts repurposed for their humour illustrates the tone. One of the DOOM scene’s most prominent modders is under a cloud for racist jokes.

Here’s a musical example reflecting a narrow-minded take on the essence of 90s hardcore hip hop. Some cool lines in verse 3, but preceded by “You want some faggot shit dancing like a bitch”. Warm nostalgia is mixed with ideas of manhood as violent, and femininity as weak, perhaps corrupt, “America rubs its pussy to dead children”.

(By the way, I want to say that hatred and shocking violence in rap lyrics is not at all a clear-cut issue, as it comes from a long tradition of creative nihilism that has had its moments of brilliance. These lyrics in the video, though, are long on the nihilism and short on the creativity.)

The expressiveness and hard work, the fascination, the rebelliousness, the fellowship, etc. found in underground scenes, should be used for good. I think it’s on us to disentangle the good from the misguided and ignorant in our own relationships with media and cultures we love.

Today I want to see who I was when I first soaked up 90s underground culture in the form of video games. I’ll do this by analysing my creative reaction at the time – making my own games. Of course, I already know that my younger self is going to seem privileged and sheltered. More interesting will be seeing how I incorporated my interest in black music in these designs, because that gives me perspective on my present-day obsession with it. And I’ll think a bit about the worldview behind these game styles.

Into the time machine!!

Doped Quake (2001, Quake mod, Kevin Higgins & Paul Cuffe):

This crude joke mod has some interesting features as well as some super-problematic depictions. Basically, myself and a friend, aged 13-14, broke the the game’s combat in order to replace three monsters with humorously “reskinned” versions. The joke is “drug-taking” (which neither of us had any experience of at the time). The edited monsters represent a stoned ‘Nam vet, a coke-sniffing tracksuited “knacker”, and an alcoholic derelict. The “knacker” embodies my own class hatred of the time – “knacker”, for non-Irish readers, being an offensive term for both members of the Traveller minority group in Ireland, and working-class people. The other two depictions are scarcely better, although the inclusion of the ‘Nam vet shows how detached all of this was from my (Irish suburban) reality.

So, the joke is naive and the representations are horrific. But I kind of like how this was made. It’s a very cheeky appropriation of game technology which was only five years gone from the cutting edge. It throws away the ostensible whole point of the game – defeating monsters – for a joke. The new graphics are made in the most basic way, reminiscent of photoshopping a meme. (The “stoner”‘s bare chest, which represents the only significant effort in the whole enterprise, is a graphic I’d made previously to represent myself in multiplayer gaming sessions). The animations of the three figures are completely recycled from animations in the original game. The massive joint was originally a gun, the puff of smoke was a graphic I originally made to represent a bullet impact.

There’s no representation of black culture in this game but it does show a bourgeois teenager’s naive interest in subculture and subversion which has stayed with me – my MA paper in Amsterdam two years ago was called “Blues Is Subversive”.

THEGAM4.BAS (2004, text adventure, Kevin Higgins):

TheGame.png

The programmers among you can read the terrible, mostly cribbed, code of this game here. It plays out in text with no graphics, accepting commands in the form of “take plank” or “talk to man”. The writing style is copied from Stephen King and Terry Pratchett, with a hint maybe of George Orwell and Roald Dahl. The first interesting thing is the characters:

  • The love interest is a young woman who I imagined as mixed-race, although she’s not described as such.
  • There’s a touch of homophobia and classism in places e.g. this description of being beaten by builders: “you are mercilessly trounced over a period of two hours by grunting men in grubby vests with pipe-wrenches.”
  • There’s a kindly, stoned junkie who speaks in an African-American accent despite not being described as black (he’s maybe a bit of a Magical Negro, beneficent and otherworldly due to his drug use). Again, my kid’s fascination with drugs is evident.
  • Authority figures (state security official, factory owner) are evil. They can be violently killed in one-on-one fights.

I was comfortable with premeditated killings (and in the game), which are described succinctly but graphically. Interestingly, the female character is not present in any violent scenes. I had enough awareness of feminism at the time that I at least avoided a damsel-in-distress story.

There’s a sequence where a busker starts to play funk “manically”, with the music described in technical terms like “dorian mode” which I was only just learning in my bass lessons. A nearby policeman reacts to the music by putting on a black accent, upon which he is rebuked by his colleague. Black music was obviously part of my identity but still seemed offbeat and quirky, not fully compatible with white middle-class dignity.

The world of the game is a grubby dystopia with the state oppressing freedom fighter groups. I think it resonates with Liz Ryerson’s recent description of the world of 90s shooter Duke Nukem: “Because the world is broken, there’s nothing particularly comforting about occupying any of it for very long, or sad about blowing up any of it.” She also says that Duke’s enemies are “just thinly veiled stand-ins for human men. Men with power and authority.” Such men are clearly the villains of my story.

However, my fiction is not about disorienting violence and hyper-masculinity. For most of the game the player can walk in front of, and talk to, his enemies, because he doesn’t draw attention to himself. This derives from Orwell’s 1984 and also from Terry Pratchett’s Johnny series about a 12-year-old in a down-at-heel English commuter town. That is to say, it’s a British thing – and also how I navigated most interactions back then. The grubbiness of my game’s world is from Brit culture also.

Maul Ball (2004, platformer, Kevin Higgins & Stephen Roantree):

Download page

24-42_thumb

When I noticed that I didn’t have this game on my hard drive anymore, I hopped onto Google because it had ended up on freeware game sites when we released it. I was saddened to note only one search result now came up for it and that link didn’t work. Luckily, the programmer of the game, a mate of mine, uploaded it to gamedev.net, and there it still was. Phew! Cultural preservation in the digital age is no joke.

My coder friend made a very slick little game here, I just contributed to the design and made the graphics and music. What’s interesting is the suddenly up-front depiction of black culture. The hero is a black disco fan with an afro, even though this has nothing to do with the gameplay. The soundtrack is ersatz funk I made in Fruity Loops.

However, this (enthusiastic if not knowledgeable) representation of black culture is used problematically. At the time I was leaning more towards the doctrines of the “indie game” scene which, due to a laudable focus on making money, celebrates entertainment value, interesting game mechanics (I think our ball bouncing through a maze was at least a moderately interesting mechanic!) and polish. Compared to my previous subversive efforts, here I’ve washed my face and taken steps towards marketability. Check the description I wrote to entice people to play the game:

“You are disco-loving Leroy! Put on your white flares, comb your afro till it’s bigger than you and smash some zombies!”

Good marketing copy. However, it’s really appropriative, particularly the detail about the afro. Did I at the time (or do I even now) know anything about combing afros? No. Nor did I try ask anyone about it, nor did it occur to me that a black person might play the game!

As I mentioned previously, I think appropriation that attempts to, with little real engagement or study, swipe signs of identity like hairstyles, is perhaps the most egregious.

Still a pretty good game for our first attempt. I should have stuck with it and made some cash. This was a few years before indie games became massive.

Jailbreak (2005, sneak ’em up, Kevin Higgins & Stephen Roantree)

Download page

Jailbreak

This game is a good deal more sophisticated than the previous, mostly because my collaborator had more input and worked on some pretty sophisticated technology like the prison guards’ “view cones” and pathfinding, plus a scripting system to make speech bubbles pop up. The game is also better packaged with a proper installer, and it earned decent reviews for a freebie. Some of my graphics and writing are good too. I like the menu background you can glimpse below because it subverts the action-hero masculinity I was talking about before. The hero is not the big man with the gun but the thoughtful sneaker. (This was influenced by the classic games Commandos, Deus Ex and Thief 2.)

Again, it took a while to find this game online. Thank god for freegame.cz who allowed me to “stáhnout hru” without a hitch. I’m actually gonna back up this and “Maul Ball” right now.

freegame.png
Feckin’ legends

My representation of black music culture comes up a notch in this one. The soundtrack still isn’t great (I remember a schoolmate of mine telling me he had to turn it off to play the game) but it adds to the atmosphere and uses flickers of blues piano put through a dubbish delay.

However, the cool thing is that the loading screens for each level feature a quote from a song about escaping jail. (An idea stolen from Call of Duty 2.) All of the songs are in black genres, although, reflective of my musical knowledge at the time, 7/8 of the artists are white! Counteracting that, and acting as perhaps evidence for the transformative power of black music’s utopian politics, the quotes are (of course) to do with escaping to freedom. The final quote, which I chose for its emotional depth, tackles one of black music’s most powerful and pain-defying themes, clearly related to what Paul Gilroy calls “the slave sublime”:

“Lord I’ve been gone such a long time, I’ll be coming back home someday.”

So, I think that’s pretty cool.

It’s just a pity about the “pick up the soap” throwaway gag in the shower level, but it was 2005 and I was still in my all-boys secondary school (high school).

That was about the peak of my game-making career, after that I got more into music. Hope you enjoyed the trip and it made you think over your own juvenilia.

Chuck Berry, Emancipation & Problematic Art

Chuck Berry, Emancipation & Problematic Art

It’s hard to pin down what I love in Berry’s recordings. They are bluesy, for sure, but in combination with an unsubtle pop sentimentality which generally wouldn’t be my thing. They also undeniably represent a commercialisation of black aesthetics. (Whitewashing, if you like.) But there’s more to it than that.

Today I’ll quickly discuss my three favourite aspects: powerful performances in the bluesman tradition; an incredible gift for songwriting; and his recasting of black church music’s utopian politics as an emancipatory youth culture.

Performance

Check out his entrance in this 1965 TV performance:

Berry casts doubt over even his bare engagement with the situation – exactly the attitude discussed by Questlove in that article on Black Cool I’m always linking. Now check the intro to this song:

Berry’s pompous and mannered crowd talk, “And in fact, a relished memory in my mind was”, his ambiguous attitude (between mockery and reverence) towards Beethoven and indeed to his audience, his switches between impassivity and completely over-the-top moves, all tie in to complex traditions of enactment of black identity for white audiences. As in the Louis Jordan video I discussed, the star opens a space for multiple simultaneous meanings, quite possibly up to and including bitter contempt. Both performers reference racially-stereotyped symbols (Beethoven and chicken), present themselves mock-stupidly (“I love chicken”, “I ask him to forgive us”), and have a manner that is apparently friendly and explanatory yet mystifying.

Berry lengthens “Roll Over Beethoven” with extra solos and choruses. The aesthetic of “doing it”, manifesting energy and rocking the crowd, is prioritised above content or thematic development. I love the risk-taking – he even forgets the proper end line “I wanna hear it again today” in the first verse. That attitude is rare now in pop and rock.

Berry restrains his wildest dancing and guitar work until the end of this, the third song in the set. That’s good showmanship, and also I think demonstrates one of Questlove’s elements of Black Cool: unleashing hidden power – which Berry embodies generally with his switches between grotesquerie and stillness, i.e. 2:16-2:36, and dance moves that take over some limbs while others remain still.

Songwriting

Moving on. Chuck Berry’s incredible lyrics can’t be appreciated without recognising their reliance on myths. Berry connected (among other things):

  • the American dream of hard work, success and consumption,
  • conventional boy-meets-girl romance (with mild objectification of female bodies “tight dresses and lipstick”, “lookin like the cover of a twenty-dollar magazine”)
  • black music’s utopian politics (a phrase from Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic)

… into a rock’n’roll ideology of emancipated youth expressing itself and looking for romance in the countercultural forms of listening to records, going to dances and concerts, and driving fast cars.

Here’s a verse from the late-career hit “You Never Can Tell” (it comes in at 0:52), about a couple who marry real young but find happiness against the odds:

They had a hi-fi phono, boy, did they let it blast
700 little records, all rock and rhythm and jazz
But when the sun went down, the rapid tempo of the music fell
“C’est la vie,” say the old folks, “it goes to show you never can tell”

The theme of the first two lines is individualist freedom to shape a countercultural lifestyle via consumption (“700 records”) of new technology and rhythmic music. The third and fourth lines then frame this as conventionally romantic and part of a cycle of generations.

Notice the deft loading of emotion into evocative words: “hi-fi phono” is slightly mystical jargon conveying the thrill of powerful new technology, and is also a satisfying sound that Berry stylises with a dive on “phono” resembling an exclamation of appreciation like “damn” or a whistle.

“Let it blast” hints at unleashing hidden power, transforming everyday situations, while the pitch dive on “blast” has a timbral effect again imitating appreciation (the onomatopeic slang word “phwoarr” conveys something similar) very much like “reel and rock” here. “Little records” is an affectionate phrase – the affection of obsessive “rock, rhythm and jazz” fans. Groove music’s power is conveyed by those alliterative word sounds and a descending blues melisma on “jazz”.

The third line gets me every time I hear it. It makes great use of cliches, with strong overall feeling of relaxation and cooling. “But” evokes a quietening-down after “they let it blast”. The parallelism of “sun down” and “tempo fell” invite the listener to imagine what else might be lowering or calming – the mood of the party, perhaps? This implication of a more intimate mood, and the images of “night” and “slow tempo”, suggest to me “slow dance”. “Sundown” has the implication of twilit mystery and fading warmth, and it brings us into a specific moment. “Rapid tempo of the music fell”, by starting the line with “rapid”, takes us through the cooling-down, which is also sketched by the unwinding rhythm. These ideas unite for me in an impression of cool-of-the-night sensuality and slightly illicit romance – feeling the “rapid tempo” of a dance partner’s heartbeat, perhaps.

The fourth line, zooms out of the storytelling to contrast this with the old folks’ square perspective. Berry uses this effect in many of his hits, contrasting teenage rebellion with convention: the “teacher” of “School Days“, the “back in class again” and the off-stage parents of “Sweet Sixteen“, the “jubilee” that gets all rocked up in “Rock and Roll Music“. I suspect this is derived from a technique of juxtaposing hip, black-coded viewpoints with square ones that crops up all over black music. The point is, Berry basically remoulds the opposition from “white-black” into “authority-youth”, handing over black hipness to American teenagers.

And the way in for white youth is mass-market consumption. The protagonists of “You Never Can Tell” create a hip lifestyle through their glamourised acquisitions: a nice record player and a huge record collection. This way they access the identity-forming power of black music. In the subsequent verse it’s a car that gets romanticised, a “souped-up jitney, cherry red ’53” – both the car and the record player are liberating, empowering technologies that allow free performance of one’s identity. The car motif taps into an American romance of the road trip which predates World War II and lead to publications like the Automobile Blue Book and the Negro Motorist Green Book.

So, we have consumerism, mass-market technology, black rhythmic music, the open road, boy-meets-girl and the American Dream. Berry’s ability to fluently intermingle these myths, have them resonate, and release their power in expressively-sung key phrases and words, is uncanny.

Utopianism

I believe there’s one factor that keeps these highly conventional myths and emotions from being too sentimental. It comes straight from black music. It is, I would say, a spiritual orientation towards joyful freedom, or as Paul Gilroy puts it, the politics of utopianism.

Gilroy distinguishes two strands of utopianism: the politics of fulfilment, which demands that society lives up to its own promises of equality and justice (Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, spirituals e.g. “Let My People Go”, roots reggae, etc.); and the politics of transfiguration, which, within the music itself and its immediate circumstances of production and distribution, manifests new and fairer modes of friendship, happiness and solidarity between black people, and between blacks and whites – generally on a non-verbal level and in signs whose brokenness (dirty timbres, fragmentary phrasing) maintains a memory of slavery’s unsayable terror. That is, the great-feeling moments in black music invoke a utopia where all of society could feel and interact in such joyful ways.

Gilroy goes on about how these attitudes form an effective critique of capitalism and Western scientific racism, and you should read his incredible book if you’re interested. But let’s look at utopian politics in Chuck Berry’s song “Promised Land”

It’s about the centuries-old American trope of going West, which featured in previous r’n’b songs such as Route 66. Here’s the 8th verse of “Promised Land”:

Swing low sweet chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone
Cut your engines, cool your wings
And let me make it to the telephone

The song title and the first line of this verse are taken from famous spirituals. To simplify (and this is a topic I know little about), both of the original spirituals are about finding redemption in a welcoming heaven that was both the far-off opposite of the socially-unjust, uncaring and prideful world of today; and an ecstasy momentarily attainable in the grooving call-and-response and group connectedness of church music and preaching. I find those emotions incredibly appealing even as a foreign white atheist whose origins are more imperialist than oppressed (seeing as some of my ancestors worked in Dublin Castle for the British administration, and another was a mining engineer in colonies and was briefly in the French Navy).

Berry neatly channels the feeling of an approaching, inevitable freedom into the national myths of going West and making it big. So the song is not just about travelling and getting rich. It’s about finding something you and yours have a birthright to, an emancipation from misery.

The rest of the verse once again shows Berry’s skill: the affectionate addressing of the aeroplane “Cut your engines, cool your wings” conveys strong affection for the empowering new technology. Like the “sun down” line from earlier, it uses the sensation of heat. (I guess all these references to cooling off would appeal to listeners in a heaving dance!) “Let me make it to a telephone” creates a character, a drive, and a scene in seven words.

Later verses also once again use contrasting worldviews, i.e. that of the “poor boy” narrator (reminiscent of Johnny B. Goode) and the citified plane pilot, rich friends and the phone operator.

So, Berry tied together expressive singing, great phrasing, emotion-laden words and images, characterisation, national myths and black spirituality. And, I want to say, all this stuff happens concurrently, within individual syllables and yet permeating not only whole songs but his whole output. Add that to the solos, backbeats and the secret sauce of Johnnie Johnson‘s sophisticatedly rippling and tumbling blues piano lines…. No wonder this music defined America as the land of the free, shaping global youth culture for decades.

Problematic Art

I didn’t have time to research Chuck Berry’s political views on race and how it affected him and his music. So I’ll leave that massive topic. It comes up somewhat though in the last thing I want to talk about: Berry’s criminal record that shows him to have been a misogynist creep.

He went to jail in 1959 for transporting a 14-year-old across state lines and having sex with her. The girl was an Apache Native American who had worked as a prostitute and who testified against Berry. Berry claimed the judge had made racist comments to turn the jury against him, and that he only wanted to give the girl a job at his racially integrated nightclub, Berry’s Club Bandstand. (The conviction was under the Mann Act which was used against both real predators and social dissenters like polygamists and black boxer Jack Johnson.) Both his appeals failed.

Berry also had to pay out to a woman who claimed he punched her, in 1988, and to women whom he secretly videotaped going to the toilet in a restaurant he owned, in 1990. That’s pretty low!

And I heard a story recently about him inviting an underage girl he had spotted in the crowd to come backstage at one of his Irish gigs.

There’s a lot we could look at here, especially about the whole “can the artist be separated from the music” angle. But I’m bringing it up because I found it remarkable, when Berry died a few weeks ago, how hurt I was by people denigrating him on Facebook.

My point is that we identify with art and build some of our self-image on it. That feeling of hurt illuminated for me how sensible people can defend unpleasant causes if their self-image is attacked. In particular, I’m thinking about the gamergate online movement which fed into the rise of the alt-right. It came out of passionate fans feeling hurt when outsiders took the high moral ground to disparage their favourite video games as misogynist and sexist.

If I pick up that someone is saying “I don’t know much about Chuck Berry’s music but he was evil”, I don’t think that would bother me. But if I pick up “You are wrong to like Chuck Berry’s music”, even if that wasn’t the intended message, I get angry and upset.

So what do I think now about the position of those people who leapt to their keyboards after Berry died to dismiss him? Well, firstly that they probably don’t fully get what he gifted to mass culture –  all the stuff I mentioned above, as well as the raw craft and the use of transcendent myths. (His songs were justifiedly ubiquituous for decades, required learning for rock, pop and r’n’b players, especially in England.)

Secondly, that he got so far having started as a black r’n’b musician.

Finally, that I agree Chuck Berry was predatory and venal and that we should keep that in mind as we enjoy his brilliance. That way, we can evaluate his achievements, rather than just throw them away. For example, how much of Berry’s success was due to his celebration of, perhaps surrender to, consumer capitalism as an American value? Does he represent a continuation of a black tradition of subverting capitalist/white commercialised music distribution from within? What about his hewing to standard, sexist depictions of women? (Which gets kind of sinister in “Carol” when he mentions the “little cutie” who takes your hat… hatcheck girl was the job he gave his victim in the trafficking case.) Was his stage demeanour reflective of an inner anger? Etc., etc. Keep at this and you can get pretty deep…. Doesn’t the virulent misogyny of a number of my very favourite artists (say Chuck Berry, Skip James, Miles Davis) demonstrate a problematic link between patriarchy and my favourite genres? What drew me as a teenager towards such hyper-masculinised styles as country blues and funk?

All questions for another day as I’ve been writing this thing for weeks now. Please leave comments, I love that.

The Joyless Medium

The Joyless Medium

Today a non-music post following on from some other posts: Beats, Windows 98-Style, Are Videogames The New Jazz, and an upcoming piece about how listeners interact with groove music e.g. at house parties.

Basically, last night in bed I woke up and started imagining how those communal grooving/listening situations might happen online.

Take the typical social media comments section, and substitute the comments with layered music tracks in a loop… so whereas in Soundcloud you can put a text comment on a precise moment of a song e.g. “sick bass drop yo”, what if you could drop in a clap or bell pattern, precisely in time, to someone else’s music… or maybe some VST– or SFXR-type customisable synth sounds.

Nice stuff to fantasise about. There seem to be a couple of projects hinting at this kind of functionality. But definitely nothing taking off.

That made me think about the expressive channels currently available on my main social network, Facebook. That’s when I made the connection to my 90s throwback article which celebrated the techno-creative possibilities we had in the late 90s. I realised that FB intentionally forbids a spectrum of modes of expression and features that were actually taken for granted two decades ago.

This isn’t a technophobic post. I’ve no problem with people spending hours staring at screens. If I’m criticising anything here, it’s greed, and also blind faith in free markets + engineers’ optimisation to make people happier.

Here are some ways you can’t express yourself on FB:

  • pixel art or high-resolution art (because FB resizes and compresses all images)
  • ACII art (because text layout can’t be controlled and you can’t switch to a monospaced font)
  • decorative backgrounds
  • choosing the colour of elements, choosing a colour palette
  • making buttons or a user interface, trompe d’oeil/mimicking visual elements
  • laying out a page (the only option is, like with long posts on Twitter, to make a screenshot and share as a picture, but that loses the text data)
  • sharing sound snippets
  • italics, bold text, underlining

You are even discouraged from making your own smilies because they won’t register with the system that converts them to a little cartoon.

20 years ago, anyone making a personal webpage had all of these features at their fingertips. Forums and other communities allowed some of them too.

How about more mundane capabilities?

  • proper hyperlinks (FB lets you put links but without changing the text, and encourages one link per post by allowing a single preview pane; linking to other posts is limited/bogey in a number of ways… sponsored posts can’t be linked to, preview panes are generated in comments but not in news posts, and linking to an old post of yours presents the content with the text removed)
  • searchable posts (because FB’s model is based on feeding you algorithmically selected new material or else you stalking people’s profiles… so they can’t give you ways to find old posts)
  • choosing what you see, not just blocking vaguely defined content or blocking people
  • tags (unlike the other features I’ve mentioned, this is modern, from 2007)
  • metrics i.e. how many views you get (obviously, FB want you to pay for this information by buying sponsored posts)
  • publically editable posts a la Wiki

Will this change? I doubt it. Facebook have something that makes money for them. Perhaps the mass market (which is obviously what a social media site aims for) will never care enough to want those features. But if they were there, we’d be spending our time in a space that felt a lot less grim and robotic, and maybe, if we could play with and surprise each other, we’d be less grim and robotic.

Rant over. As usual, I’d love to hear your comments!

Let me anticipate a couple of objections. Yes, there are hundreds or thousands of websites where you can express yourself in these ways. But a lot of them work on the same formulaic, business-like assumptions of Facebook – that we are all just trying to promote and brand ourselves. Anyway, I think it’s fair to criticise a site where we spend a lot of time and which makes every effort to keep us there.

Oh and I should say that I recognise how useful many of Facebook’s features are, i.e. events and band pages. (I think that intersection of personal scale with a small organisation or business’ scale is where the site works best.) I just think we’d be better off if we could pay for those features straight out rather than by participating in the rote “interaction” of sharing itemised, cling-wrapped content.

A Composing Checklist

A Composing Checklist

In my last post about my project to write a sketch a day, I talked about trying to compose purposely unfinished music, to stimulate players into completing it in performance using their improvisational spark and their knowledge of traditions such as jazz (or reggae, funk etc.). No sooner had I posted it than I figured out an obvious further thought:

That idea of provoking improvised reactions could be part of my composing practice. I could use my own music (or write new music, or use a piece from the repertoire) to stimulate further composing.

Absolutely nothing new in that idea as it stands – it’s called “development” or “contrafact”, or “sampling”. However, I realised that, in my practice, this process should take place using the exact dynamics I’ve been studying all along in this blog: the African and African Diaspora mode of improvised call and response within a groove. That is, the seed idea should groove and my spontaneous reactions should groove along with it. And there should be no limitation to the techniques or technology used – as long as there is this mutual grooving.

For example, I could:

  •  sample an old bass solo, loop the sample and improvise a bassline underneath
  • sequence a drum pattern and improvise chords on top
  • improvise a motivic solo over a standard, then take the best chorus as a melody and re-harmonise it
  • mash up a few cliched blues forms/song skeletons into a new form, then sing blues shapes over my form while playing it on bass to come up with a melody
  • dance to a dubstep mix and then subconsciously copy one of the drumlines (this wasn’t on purpose but it happened!)

The grooving stipulation directly combats my tendency to waste time idly fiddling with variations of a passage. Because now I’m forced to keep strict time as much as possible and also forced to make decisions in time (this is the essence of the jazz concept of “spontaneous composition”, I think).

By the way, such techniques as “jamming along to a recording of yourself” might seem trivial or even indulgent, but actually they bring new and worthwhile challenges. E.g. making a grooving and appealing-sounding recording of yourself!

There’s a subtle but very important function performed by all the examples above. I want to discuss it using a point of reference…. Seeing as my strategies are about finding inciting/provocative seed ideas and then reacting to them, the point of reference will be inciting/provocative gestures in groove music. Seeing as my seed ideas are meant to be beginnings for my creative process, I’ll look at beginning gestures.

Reggae drum intros are a great example of filling in to the top of the form; which is one of two basic options for kicking off a groove – the other being to just play a couple of rounds of the groove without the lead or without the full band. (More on that technique of layering here.) Fills are exciting, I feel, because they give a sense of an impending groove without revealing what it will consist of. Often, I’ve noticed they feature great timbre to convey an instant vibe – a notable feature of those reggae fills, but also found in blues, say:

I believe these gestures are comparable to hip hop snare drops, rap introduction cliches, and myriad rock’n’roll gimmicks. What do all of these do? They inject energy for sure, but also the set up the tempo, the feel (subdivision and microtiming), a vibe, the position of beat one and often a tonal centre!

My intuition is that seed ideas should contain all this info. To go even further, for my purposes (and in accordance with all of the traditions I’ve been talking about), the form is something that should be established in the seed idea – or at least, a clear tonal centre and length of cycle. The reason is that the type of interactive improvising – the “response” of call-and-response – that I’ve been discussing, happens when players can feel the underlying ground or form that they’re navigating.

Anyway, here’s a checklist for composing that I came up with two days ago:

  • Have a relaxed and open mind
  • Start with some technical practice on your instrument
  • All recordings must groove so use a metronome or just play with the fattest of feels
  • Try find a grooving coexistence of old (ground) and new (improv), e.g. improvise on a standard, sing over a bassline you wrote, interlock played improvisation with a tapped bell pattern, etc.
  • Look out for cool physical configurations i.e. unusual hand movements, combinations or instrumental approaches (for me this tends to emerge from technical practice which simultaneously warms up my hands, bores my brain and sharpens my awareness until I impatiently come up with something new)
  • Look out for cool timbre
  • Keep the harmony absolutely simple enough to navigate i.e. so you can visualise how melodic paths fit in the harmony in real time while devoting enough attention to treating them lyrically
  • Try ASAP to find the rhythmic cycle, top of form, feel and tonal centre
  • Feel how the harmony should move, and go with it if it turns out to be something familiar (I wrote an eight-bar section the other day without fully realising that it was “Donna Lee” chords)
  • Keep a notepad and recording tools immediately ready

It’s worked so far, although with the proviso that what comes out mightn’t be as hip as I’d wish for!!

I guess I’ll sign off here. I have more things to say but it’s best I write a few more tunes first. Thanks for reading! And please comment with your strategies for writing music.

Being White and Playing Black Music

Being White and Playing Black Music

A tricky one to talk about without seeming ridiculous (a great fear of mine). But since starting this blog 13 months back I’ve come upon too much good stuff not to share. I’ll take a personal approach. Hope you enjoy it!

I was thinking back over some of the most influential gigs I’ve been to in my life:
The Headhunters in the Sugar Club; Killer Joey in Liberty Hall; The Candidates at Cork Jazz; Soweto Kinch in JJ Smyth’s….

I noticed that the most magical memories from those nights were the moments when I’d shouted out in reaction to the music.

Then I noticed a similar feeling surrounding memories of mind-blowing workshops I’d seen in college. One by Frank Gratkowski (about reacting instantaneously in a free jazz context) and one by Chander Sardjoe (about picking up tempo and feel information from a very short musical cue).

And there was a similar magic about musician parties I’d been to where, at drunk o’clock in the morning, we’d end up freestyle rapping in a circle.

Okay, enough nostalgia. But did you notice the common factor in those situations?

Later, I was re-reading Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, which posits a special culture of that name uniting black people in the UK, Americas, Africa and the Caribbean.

Gilroy claims that musical call and response (that was the common factor up there) creates moments of “fleetingly experienced” racial identity; “the imaginary effect of an internal racial core”, which may also be “socially reproduced by… mimesis, gesture, kinesis and costume”. “Lines between self and other are blurred and special pleasures are created as a result of the meetings and conversations that are established between one fractured, incomplete and unfinished racial self and others.”

On reading this, I immediately felt I’d discovered an explanation for my reactions at those gigs, and to recorded music. I always loved the unexpected moments of slickness in blues, hip hop, jazz or funk. Great timbre, time feel, syncopation, phrasing, etc., make the listener feel good, move their body and likely exclaim aloud. In this blog I’ve discussed such moments in the music of Monk, Sonny Boy Williamson II, The Fabulous Thunderbirds (a good example because you can hear band members making those exclamations), Muddy Waters, Big L, and so on.

(I’m being wildly subjective and general here. However a) I’m discussing big ideas in a short article, and b) the ideas themselves encourage subjective reaction because they come from a counterculture that resisted objectivity due to its association with rational scientific racial terror.)

Those moments had in common a mood or depth I found difficult to verbalise. I had to fall back on (black) slang: “bluesy, funky, hip, ill, dope, cool.”

Gilroy provided an explanation for what I’d glimpsed: within the structure of call-and-response, a listener becomes a participant, feeling part of something bigger: a style shared by evoking and tuning into body sensations and movements, spiritually and historically loaded with a consciously black identity.

…And that’s a problem. How can I be part of something black if I’m a white European?
Exploiting the identity of another less-privileged ethnicity or community is something we know to be wrong nowadays: cultural appropriation.

Which I’ve committed myself. Some merely embarrassing examples would be addressing a Nigerian taxi driver as “meng”, or giving some kind of rap hand gesture as a farewell to a girl I liked when leaving the country. (It’s best for us all if you don’t try visualise that.) A party of young white people I attended where, upon the music getting funky, someone called out “Let’s get real black in here” crosses the line to become offensive.

So how the heck can I square this? Isn’t it immoral for me to invite myself into a black communality by imitating these styles?

Let’s turn back to Gilroy’s powerful ideas for a sec.

The black Atlantic – a dispersal of consciously black culture echoing and re-echoing across the Atlantic, and also all over the New World, beginning with the slave ships. Some familiar manifestations are Afro-Cuban music and musicians in bebop, the Jamaican influences on hip hop and the US rhythm’n’blues/Jamaican reggae/UK bass lineage.

Using found objects, that is, black appropriation of white forms and reconfiguring them e.g. the English language. Blues lyrics coming from English poetry/folk music are a favourite example of mine, and tonal harmony in jazz is another basic one. By harsh necessity, black Atlantic culture was not purely African but hybridised.

As soon jazz and blues become at all widely known, they were listened to and performed by whites – more hybridisation. Many whites profited by selling black music as mainstream entertainment, obscuring its origin. This process is justifiably a massive sore point for black commentators, taking place as it did in a context of every kind of cheating of blacks. Cultural theft was committed wholesale.

Some white musicians were distinguished by unusual respect. Alan Wilson’s deep blues knowledge let him teach the aged Son House  his own repertoire from recordings so he could perform again. Wilson’s crowning achievement was a recording session with John Lee Hooker, during which the latter said, “I dig that kid’s harmonica. I don’t know how he follow me, but he do. You musta listened to my records all your life.”Note that it is skill at call and response, “how he follow me”, that Hooker praises.

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Hooker and Wilson

(There are still question marks, though, to be raised about the band’s profiting off traditional black material.)

Jazz provides examples such as Bill Evans and Dave Lambert. These also have their complexities: their performance with black bands promoted an integrationist ideal of anti-racism that by the 60s and 70s looked inadequate. That is, those images of mixed bands seemed to be merely papering over deep, structural injustice that Africentric and African nationalist movements took a harder line on.

Having recognised that, we can examine the technical achievements. Bill Evans caught the attention of the premier black jazz theorist, George Russell, and the most influential black bandleader, Miles Davis, of his time. He could not only hold his own with the best improvisors, but brought new sounds and dynamics to Miles’ band. (Hybridisation.) He achieved this having deeply studied black greats such as Nat King Cole and Bud Powell (who he named as his greatest influence).

Dave Lambert worked in the popular jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, performing with jazz greats such as Basie, Ron Carter and Clark Terry. This film shows him vying with Jon Hendricks in a display of swinging interplay. I see and hear joy, elegance and stylistic mastery here.

Skip to 6:10 to get straight to it – check the other singers’ reactions at 6:15, 6:24, 6:32 and the trades at 6:49.

So perhaps there’s a way forward for a musician like me: a ton of work until the traditional material is mastered and sounds and feels good, leading eventually to acceptance in musical communities, cemented and ritualised by participating in call and response with good time feel. Of course, this resembles the standard narrative of how to make it in jazz. But I have a slightly better grasp now of its racial meanings. Although, as those examples show, there are always moral, political, racial complexities.

One more wrinkle before I sign off. Gilroy talks of “fragmentary racial selves” meeting in the call and response…. How did Bill Evans and Alan Wilson act out their race? (Perhaps unintentionally) they played up stereotypes of whiteness: uptight, withdrawn, unhappy. (David Ake notes something similar about Keith Jarrett.) I think these white codings may not be a negative thing – they are simply an appropriate “fragmentary racial self” for a white boy to bring to the table. So maybe I should freely represent my own nerdy European identity while doing, as skilfully and respectfully as I can, black processes.

Again, we’ve come to a jazz trope: individuality within tradition.

I’ll wrap up now, much as I’d love to delve into some political, spiritual and historical stuff raised by Gilroy’s fantastic book. In particular, I want to talk soon about the emancipatory political power in much of the music. Also how the power of tradition can be nurturing. And I’ll post soon about a composition project for January aiming to put some of this babble into action.

Thanks for reading!

Enough With The Scales

Enough With The Scales

Today’s post is not research but opinion. I’ll keep it short, as I’d like it to be a starting point for discussion. You are invited to comment!

I’m going to argue that chord-scale theory, the conceptual framework used in jazz college courses world-wide, is flawed even as a teaching tool. I swallowed it whole in jazz school, and frankly I think I wasted years trying to make music according to it.

The basic idea, of matching scales to chord symbols, is useful and I’m glad I learned it early. But it can’t be your only guide. I’m with the widespread view that learning bebop is key to navigating changes. Chord-scale theory is bad at explaining what bebop and bebop-influenced players did. (Music made by people who learned chord-scale theory at jazz school, unsurprisingly, fits it better. In fairness, the theory has enabled some great music and great advances in playing.)

Is chord-scale theory a useful simplification for teaching? I believe it loses too much in return for too little understanding.

(By the way, I’m going on my memories of ensembles and courses, and books such as Mark Levine’s The Jazz Theory Book. I may not be completely fair to them. But I’m talking about the overall results of this teaching system.)

The first thing chord-scale theory misses out on is the idea of key. Jazz until the 60s (and most of it after that) was in major or minor keys (with a lot of room to manoeuvre of course). Playing in key, whether diatonically or bluesily, is a basic element of jazz improv and melody. Yet this can’t really be expressed in terms of chord-scale theory. Sure, basic chord progressions like I IV or II V I, when explained with the theory, do yield the 7 notes of a major key. But that’s an unproductive way of restating that chords can belong to a major key.

It’s not that chord-scale advocates were against the traditional view of keys and chords. Rather, they took it as given, and tried to progress from it. Unfortunately, their supplementary ideas are taught as a complete system to beginners or rock-oriented musicians who don’t understand functional harmony.

So, in the theory, chords are reduced to signposting 7-note scales/modes – supposedly a pool of equally “valid” tones. This misses out on a lot. All the inner organisation of chords is de-emphasised. That’s a massive melodic resource thrown away. The crucial functionality of dominant chords via voice-leading resolution of their tritones becomes a vague notion of “avoid notes”. The whole lovely world of functional chord relationships within a key, as well as its developments via blues and alternate paths, is defused and obscured.

To be precise for a moment… it’s valid to try make a new system to deal with e.g. extended, suspended and altered chords. But chord-scale theory fails to look in detail at directionality, acoustic effects, or any other audible aspect of those chords.

For another example, the all-important fact that melodies inescapably suggest chord progressions (which needn’t be the accompanying chord progression), is barely glimpsed in Mark Levine’s famous textbook. I went back and checked just there.

… By the way, check out this funny quote: “Why does the blues scale – with so many “wrong” notes – sound so right when played over a blues? Your guess is as good as mine.” Cheers Mark, I’m only after spending 30 quid on your book.

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His book

Sadly, this lack of specific talk on harmony means that African-American contributions may not get their due. Let me explain that. Going beyond chord-scale theory means recognising the importance of European classical concepts in jazz: tonality, chord- and non-chord tones, etc. But, observing those also forces you to observe when they don’t apply, which is often – so then you have to face African-associated forces like timbralism, pentatonicism, parallelism and alternate paths. Chord-scale theory completely flattens all this cultural/historical stuff out.

More abstractly, it doesn’t invite investigation into the underlying structures of music such as symmetry, the harmonic series and maximally even sets.

If I had to find something genuinely progressive in the theory, it’s the possibility of getting away from relating tones down to the root of a chord, and instead imagining a harmonic space to be freely divided. I like that.

Am I asking too much from a learning aid for students? Well, I think a lot of people, like I did, come to music courses without very clear ideas, searching for meaning which they sense is somewhere in the music. It’s insulting to put anything but the best ideas before anyone sincerely looking for knowledge.

I’m starting to get rather idealistic. Okay, I think chord-scale theory is popular because it is a shortcut allowing students to quickly start playing and interacting rhythmically while avoiding wrong notes, which is cool. The problem is they will probably play bad melodies.

(I did.)

What are your thoughts?