Category Archives: essays

A return to (long-) form

I love to write. Almost as much as I love to read.

As much as we’re told growing up not to play with our words, I can’t help it. Words are such a delightfully malleable plaything, to stick to the factory settings of language would be such a waste. Like Lego.

So, writing is fun. And I love it. From wanting to write books, or journalism relating to whatever hobby I was obsessed with at the time, for years my mind was focussing on words, words, words. Puns, drama, novels, poetry, the lyrics to every Iron Maiden album.

And given that we tend to communicate a fair bit with words, this sort of pursuit is a much more useful interest than the slightly nerdy-gloss I’m coating it with might first suggest. When I was teaching, the more ways I could express myself made explaining certain complex ideas  easier/possible. Just by trying to write an article explaining, say, metric modulation, I’d have to explain the concept to myself in my head before I could articulate it onto the page. Sometimes I’d discover a whole new way of explaining or viewing theory this way.

As such, I enjoyed writing blog posts, generally the longer the better. Although I was in danger, at times, of churning out theses the length of ‘Dune’ (appendices each the length of the sequels), the act of writing was thoroughly enjoyable and probably pretty therapeutic for me over the years. The mind can be a lonely place to inhabit at times, sometimes it’s nice to let others in to see it. The pieces might have been fairly abstract, or controversial, maybe starkly emotionally naked or just a tad whimsical. And, remarkably, every so often someone would read them (wait, that’s not the remarkable bit) and be interested in what I thought (there it is). You put these words together, after playing with them in your head – this imaginary Lego – and wait. Sometimes communication happens after, some laughter or arguments or bonding or flirting or confusion or righteous befuddlement. All from some words I played with in my head then shared with the world for no real reason other than I wrote them.

It’s struck me that my long-form writing has pretty much stopped. That’s made me rather sad. I suppose I didn’t really notice it ending as I’ve been a constant jabberer on the twitter for years, so short-form writing (read: puns) has been an almost-daily exercise for me (so many puns). And writing -140 characters does provide a whole new set of editorial challenges (I make no apologies for finding this sort of thing interesting). The communication and sharing seems to work much faster, plus the sheer rate of output lowers the critical expectation so barriers to posting are reduced greatly, if that’s the sort of thing that keeps you up at night.

But my impetus to write, to a satisfyingly worthy length, has been diminished by the lack of doing. I’m not thinking of things as potential topics any more. Which is a shame. I’m now curious about what else in my life has slunk away whilst I was busy forgetting it existed. In fact, this blog post came about when I realised I’d stopped writing blogs, and tried to figure out why ON EARTH this could have happened. This should not be the fate of a man who owns more than one Moleskin notebook and several pens.

The only explanation I find satisfying is that I merged my professional website with my blog, and now most things I wanted to write on seemed stupefyingly off-topic for a musician. That’s a shame. Once thinking of things to write about became ‘work’, sticking to something easy and creatively-constrained like the twitter probably became the more enticing prospect. My attempts at songwriting have probably been reduced now that my working day is spent playing music written exclusively by others. My reading/writing seesaw is imbalanced.

So whilst trying to figure it out, I decided to write this post to see if it’d help. And I think it has. I mean, this doesn’t solve any problems and might not even win any blogging awards (it’s all politics, I’m at peace with that), but I’ve enjoyed mucking around with the mental Lego in the small hours. It’s nice to create.

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On Green Grass, Silver Linings, Roundabouts and See-Saws.

I really can pick snappy titles, can’t I?

This latest missive is based around a few observations that keep repeating in my day-to-day existence: the most common being dissatisfaction from friends and colleagues about their professional lot; we all manage to find an example of a schedule that would be perfect if we just had that one thing.

I’m sure we can all relate to this: imagine a schedule completely packed to the rafters with gigs – everyday a new challenge, constantly working with different people all over the place. Idyllic, no?  I’m sure, as wind-swept musicians we’ve all wanted a timetable a bit like that.

But you get stuck in, and after a week, you yearn for the schedule of last month – why, I had so much time to practise! I could really have sorted out that tricky unison passage back then – and you feel encumbered by the workload without any time to yourself to actually get to grips with the material at hand.

So you eke out your time in the gigs, silently cursing the lack of time you have for woodshedding; every fluffed note a sharp nudge in the musical ribs; the tension in the picking hand becoming the twinge of the negative feedback loop engaging just like it did yesterday; that slightly dodgy vibrato whispering that “you really should have warmed up properly before changing into your concert blacks, instead of winging it like you’ve done every night this week…

So the anticipated day arrives – tour over, goodbyes said, farewell drinks imbibed and hastily regretted. A day or two of recuperation allowed to reaclimatise to ‘real life’; then the diary is cleared while the kettle boils, and the excitement is palpable – today is the day! I can finally iron out all the creases in my technique! Sort out my sight-reading! Think of all the transcriptions I can finish – I can master slide guitar now! You change the batteries in your metronome and dig out your music stand.

Idealism is a fragile thing, beautiful when young – and it’s always sad to see reality catch up with it, as reality inevitably does.

Give it a month. A month of  no gigs – of empty calenders; long walks in the park; hours spent practising, preparing for…what?

Soon the urge to be back on the stage – treading the boards, rocking the populace – is overwhelming.

Finally, I can play that 3-note-per-string pentatonic phrase at 180bpm, can solo over ‘All the Things You Are’ and play slide guitar more hauntingly than Derek Trucks. But who can hear me?

And we’re into the long, lonely irregular see-saw period.

We can find examples of the ‘see-saw period’ in everyday life, not just that of a musician. In relationships, in holidays and travel, in sports training – we crave variety. It’s nice to be social, and surrounded by people – but don’t you sometimes wish you could be alone once in a while? And so the folklore saying ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ is trotted out with blithe regularity.

But it’s not idealism of the alternative that should be encouragement – but instead a regular alternation of activities and situations. It may seem obvious, but the grass won’t always be greener. I’m not saying to avoid striving for greater things – but instead to appreciate the linearity of life. Enjoy the illusive, peripheral nature of the perfect state – and carry on doing your thing, striving to muster all your efforts to doing your task to the best of your abilities. Apply the downward thrust with conviction, and the see-saw will move. Once up, don’t fight it – let gravity take over, and repeat. Don’t stay stranded at the bottom of the arc, moping about missed opportunities.

Don’t go searching for the elusive pastures – celebrate the movements of your time on the see-saw.

Embrace the differences – they give meaning to what we’d otherwise call the mundane.

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MemeSpace

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m thoroughly addicted.

MySpace has taken my life, despite [or because of] my caustic remarks recently on ’emo patience-baiting MySpace whores’. Just so you know, I stand by those remarks [well, they’re mine], but I’ve actually got into the music promotion element, rather than the “here’s a list of my favourite Evanescence songs in the order in which they make me want to hurt myself and post pictures of me with my dodgy webcam” sort that seem to spawn in some dark recesses of the Internet.
Er.
Bear with me, ladies and gentlemen – a slight tangent is in progress. We’ll be back to normal shortly. So you might, perhaps, want to put the kettle on, or something. I don’t know. It’s your life, dammit.

Anyway, if I was Steve Wozniak [and not a day goes by when I don’t say that to myself] I’d be hopping onto this whole meme-spreading cult of ‘net denizens. Of course, you couldn’t copy it wholesale. No, you’d have to sterilise the concept, make it all a dull gray with sickening green highlights, and turn it into the ruler of the Internet. A Sultan of Surfers©, if you will.
Yes, it could be paired with iTunes to provide music, and whatever else they deem essential for todays hip go-getting paradigm-shifters.

The name? Surely you’re all ahead of me on this one?!

I present:
iSpace©

Incidentally, if this does get patented by Apple, and I don’t get a cut, I will be severely hacked off.

So, maybe, posting the idea to the entire Internet may have been a bad marketing decision.
Bugger.

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A thought on Improvisation.

Taking part in a Free Improvisation session last night, I did begin to wonder about the validity of the whole practice.
Proponents, including the late Derek Bailey, viewed it as finding meaning – ‘the real’, if you will. And there’s an element of this I agree with. If you’re not concerned with making a mistake, or playing ‘the correct way’, surely what comes out is uninhibited, reactive expression?
Right?
Well, I like melody, harmony and rhythm too much to agree.
I have been involved in some killer free improv sessions with friends. As far as I can tell, none of us are taking it particularly seriously. Much distortion of traditional music ensues – bins thrown at pianos, lard tins lacerated, country & western tapes mangled through a dictaphone, and me trying to break my reverb pedal.
So far so good? Sounds like free improv to you? [read: a bloody racket]
However, this is where I have a problem. Firstly, why?
Allow me to iterate:

WHY?!

Surely there is some meaning here? Somewhere in this jumbled cacophonic fusion of lounge jazz and rebel insurrection lurks a higher meaning?

Haven’t found it yet, but my eyesight’s not very good.

Let us take issue with the man who wrote the book:

“There has to be some degree, not just of unfamiliarity, but incompatibility [with a partner]. Otherwise, what are you improvising for? “
-Derek Bailey, 2002

OK, here is where I disagree with master. My group of peers (some of whom are highly experienced in the idiom) and I get on really well. Indeed, when we started making music, there was no direction, we got frustrated, and it all tailed off rather pathetically. Fruitlessly, we perserved.

But then, over the weeks, as we met up more frequently, not over a prepared piano but over a cup of coffee and a slice of cheesecake (oh, you crazy rock stars), we created a social bond that elevated the artificial constructs of music, and allowed us to relate to each other. THAT’s when the Improv became fun [probably still torture to listen to, though]. We realised that we all have a pretty good sense of humour (I’m faking it. Hopefully they won’t notice), and that we can create ‘good’ music (whatever that it) without po-faced aggrandizing and pseudo-philosophical conjecture. I know many people who’d disagree with that approach. But surely I should be free to derive as much entertainment from this musical dissonance as I like?

And here’s my main criticism of the monolothic beast that is Free Improvisation.
In case you haven’t realised, every time someone mentions it, all assembled go: “Eurgh.” I may be missing out a few vowels, but you get the gist.

Anyway – the problem is that it is a self-contained idiom.
I can play in a Free Improv style. That in itself defies the moniker.

Exponents of Free Improv (the fundamentalist kind who decry other styles as below them, or unreal) would disagree strongly with this.
However, it’s these people that seem to propogate the Free Improv Style, and carry on the tradition of squeaks, shouts and extreme pelvic thrusts.

[Am I exaggerating? Go on, go to a Free Improv concert. I dare you.]

It’s the ideologically-based sense of superiority that comes from thinking you understand the meaning (and the means to find the meaning) of music that really grinds my gears (for any Family Guy fans reading this). I mean, how arrogant can you be?

[IMPORTANT: This is not directed at anyone in particular, including Derek Bailey, and ESPECIALLY not my fellow improvising-cohorts. They’re superb. I’ve been to some really powerful free improv gigs. But, then again, I’ve been to some free improv sessions so bad that by the end I wanted my time, patience and ears back, with 12.5% interest.]

The best advice I was given concerning improv wasn’t concerning style, temperament or ‘idiomatic authenticity’. It was:

“Just listen and react.”

If only more people would do so!

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Too much of a good thing?

Much rumination over a cup of coffee has led me to wonder about the virtues of this technological age.

My entire existence centres around the electric guitar, amplified music, the Internet, and The Simpsons [slight exaggeration, but it makes my point. Just.]. And one cannot doubt the incredible expansion of our awareness of new music, via the proliferation of media and the wonders of mass dissemination.

However, is this a bubble waiting to burst?
While I wait for Mr. Greenspan to catch a flight over to the UK, I’ll offer my thoughts.

We’ve seen the dotcom mania in the late-90s – venture capitalists with blank cheques browsing your business proposal for the trendiest acronyms. In this instance, companies [did someone mention Pets?] entered the public eye [usually] solely for virtue of being on the ‘Net.

(Gross oversimplification, as any economist or pop cultural theorist will doubtless proclaim. I recommend looking it up, thus getting all the facts from a variety of sources, and not just one demented blogger.]

Similarly, the market is being saturated by a vast number of animated films – once Toy Story proved that the medium was profitable, all the film companies wanted a piece of the action. As the idiom develops, we are seeing more and more instances of meta-humour – the self-referential method of mocking the idiom itself. See Chicken Little or Madagascar for this. The quality of the films can be inconsequential for observing the effect – that future films are made with the balance sheets placed first. As the market becomes more crowded, the films soon become faceless, if developed with the sole intention of being ‘an animated film’. Soon…well, what’s the point in going to see ‘an animated film’ instead of ‘that other animated film’?

This cookie-cutter effect [as you’ve doubtless predicted throughout this post] is prevalent in music, as you’re all aware.
And I’m sure many of you have an opinion on the state of the behemothic labels and the subversive nature of the Internet. The common view is that the Internet enables ‘the people’ to be exposed to a much wider range of music than was ever possible before. And with the money largely bypassing huge, faceless labels, there’s an element of rebellion in the act of buying/downloading music.

However, could this ease of availability actually HARM the state of music?
Whatever you think of The Artic Monkeys [for example], and no matter how hard they’ve worked, gigged, promoted and developed their music, let’s face it – for the vast majority of us behind our computers, having never been to a gig of theirs, The Artic Monkeys are famous for being an Internet band.
The promotion they have taken on, the sheer graft they’ve put into their work, is bloody admirable, and I’m not here to offer an opinion on their music. However, can anyone else hazard a guess as to the next ‘bubble’?

What I can see happening, is the new wave of venture capitalists, looking for a trendy ‘Internet band’ – thus maintaining the ‘people’s choice’ quotient so beloved of X Factor, American Idol etc. .
This always occurs when a band/personality becomes big – see the meteoric rise of the Nashville music scene when Shania Twain become commercial [
New-Country, I believe it was called]. The rock-pop fusion created [with the help of Mutt Lange and Dann Huff] can be heard throughout Faith Hill and many others in the wake.
BUT, this is a copy-cat syndrome [not necessarily the fault of the artists, who often are oblivious to any comparisons]. What worries me is the ‘guilty-by-association’ that may plague us in the following chapter of the Internet.

I market myself to a great extent on the Internet. Since I’m not featured in the magazines or papers [EDITORS, please rectify this grievous oversight!], my website becomes my portal for my work, to show the other denizens of the ‘Net.
However, I’m not deliberately focussing on/relying on Internet exposure, and it certainly isn’t a cynically-calculated move on my part [or my ISP, I must add!].
But, there will be a faction who view anyone operating on a (relatively) prominent scale on the ‘Net as the ‘next Arctic Monkeys’ (or whoever you may mention). Implications can’t really be fought, but if the original intention of the artist becomes eclipsed by the media in which they present it, we have a serious problem. As any pop-psychologist can tell you, categorisations and easy-labels are so damn convenient to remember who’s who in this fast-moving world.
And with the exponentially accelerating pace of life, this seems to impact us all, and probably much faster than we can do anything about.

As usual, I welcome your views on this decidedly ambiguous and uncertain topic. Thanks for reading!
John.

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