Friday, 23 March 2012

Let's go down which path?

I love browsing round the web in the morning whilst drinking my coffee. The kids are either upstairs playing (if it's a weekend), or at school and it means there's time to read what's being discussed either on the news or just as often on the various music blogs to be found - consult my blog rolls at the side of this page. One of the blogs that I browse from time to time is Ronan Guilfoyle's Mostly Music blog which always has something interesting to say, whether I agree on it or not, and seems to have an avid readership which follows the various discussions and arguments that Ronan throws up. 

One of the good points about Ronan's blog is the possibility to comment on the various articles, something that Ethan Iverson on (Do the Math) seems unprepared to do, probably due to the heavy editing of comments that it may entail? I personally believe that if you write something, and particularly statements, concerning touchy subjects - in these cases music - one should 'face the music and dance' as the saying goes. Anyhow, recently Ronan has written a couple of articles/essays (here and here) on the musicians who cross over the road from jazz, or in real terms jazz musicians that end up playing pop music and having some publicity, or success. It's difficult to come down on one side of the argument or the other, however I was interested to read - in the comments - that there's still much dissension over what is jazz and what isn't. More interestingly it seems that these people are most offended by those musicians who can play jazz yet decide to follow a more commercial direction - a la Esperanza Spalding or Robert Glasper. I should immediately add that Esperanza Spalding and Robert Glasper do plenty of other things (musically) that are definitely risk taking and jazz in the true sense of the word. These two video are simply the videos that seem to have sparked off the original discussion on Mostly Music.

Of course this is an old discussion which harks back a long way, and who's beginnings have disappeared in the mists of time. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wes Montgomery are all names that had mud thrown at them for daring to play music which is more accessible commercially, and of course also financially. Grover Washington is one artist who suffered at the hands of the jazz police, although luckily for him musicians came to recognize his brilliance, if only a while before his death in 1999. There are also legions of musicians and groups who have had their music (and musicianship) downgraded via this discussion - ex: The Crusaders, Ronnie Laws, Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers and George Duke to name a few (see here for more info). Most, if not all, of these musicians believe(d) in their music and fully invested their artistic values into producing it. At the same time some, such as George Duke, played parallel careers working with less commercial ventures in this case Frank Zappa (as an example). There are also musicians that come from 'the other side' of popular dance music culture that have had a great influence on the jazz music world. One that springs to mind is Meshell Ndegeocello. Sadly though Meshell Ndegeocello, great as she is, hasn't really caught the ears of younger listeners at street level, her music, which is deeply personal, danceable, and political (in the true sense of the word), is probably far too sophisticated for the average youth. Those younger (and older) listeners that are attracted to such commercial sounding music tend to be those whose musical palette is already developed or developing (*). But, just because some people can't understand why jazz players head for the funky back beat with few (if any) solos, those same people probably can't understand other extremes either ... after all who is open to all music, what is jazz, is the video below 'jazz', or even music? I suspect that many people reading Mostly Music would not call the performance (or sound) on the video below music at all, in fact they'd probably think it was a joke.

So what is the purpose of jazz if it's not to develop music in all directions? Most jazz oriented listeners today consider that real jazz should be contained within the musical norms (and time period) of the 1940's to the 1960's. In fact all jazz courses today teach improvisation techniques and harmony that take it's base from the aforementioned time period. All young student players are taught that the word of Charlie Parker up until that of John Coltrane are the norm, and what every self respecting jazz musician should (has to) be able to emulate. In recent times players such as Mark Turner have had a great influence on young students and in turn Turner's love of Lennie Tristano and his pupil Warne Marsh have completely turned fashion on it's head making the names of Tristano and Marsh famous again. But what about the other side of the fence (as the video above), where's the real new music coming from, certainly not from conservatories producing Bill Evans, Coltrane and now Turner or Kurt Rosenwinkel clones (**). In fact conservatories do not teach students to push out into the unknown and to work in lesser accepted fields. If you look at the video below of Evan Parker (circa 1985) you can immediately ask yourself, would they teach this in a conservatory? This is no the only example. Players such as guitarist Derek Bailey (1930 - 2005), pianists Cecil Taylor or Alexander Von Schlippenbach , drummers Paul Lytton or Sunny Murray have all worked on their art forms and as yet have little 'public' acceptance. These are just a few of the names that could be mentioned, and even the area that they work in is still fairly accessible, even if only to a limited audience.

Unfortunately it seems that our educational institutions are the ones holding us back. The boundaries or the way forward in improvised instrumental music and jazz are being hidden from students by teachers who are afraid of change. Although the names of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk or Charlie Parker are certainly very important in terms of jazz improvisation, one has to start asking if we should maybe also be prepared to open the doors to other forms of improvised music. The names of the 21st century are probably more like John Butcher, Misha Mengelberg, Derek Bailey, Keith Rowe, Evan Parker, Arve Henriksen, Toshi Nakamura, Ab Baars, Wadada Leo Smith, Bill Dixon or Anthony Braxton. However, to make this a reality I suspect that one of the most important battles to be fought will be in the teachers common rooms where opinions can be be very severe (and stiff) over what is and what isn't jazz!

 However, almost subversively what isn't being noticed is that quietly in the wings, or I should say universities, there are courses springing up teaching students the art of technology. These students also have a love of music and many enjoy the idea that they to can improvise. Newer forms of music are being embraced by musicians and the technically minded. No-input Mixing Boards, computers using Max/MSP or Pure-Data, circuit bending, vocal transformations using pedals, guitars and other instruments being treated out of all recognition are all now part of this movement. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it seems a long way from the rather light discussions (or argument) on whether jazz musicians that crossover to more popular forms of music such as pop and soul are or not jazz. Who cares, let's clear out the cobwebs from the conservatories and start making music that not only challenges our concept of music but also doesn't bow down to the sugar laden diet that is fed to the masses. That side of things I don't think can ever be changed, so I guess we'll just have to live with it.

Some sites to follow up :
Wikipedia's entry on Free Jazz
European Free Improvisers pages - Here

* = Developed or developing? I tend to find that the more music you're open to the further you're able to delve into musical realms. Many students arrive at college/university with the CDs/mp3 of Weather Report and Brad Meldhau and leave with albums and scores of Shostakovitch and Bach. Those that really 'wake up' in music school often advance even further into the world of free jazz, avant garde music and electro-acoustics.  

**= Bill Evans, Coltrane and of course Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel are all excellent musicians. In the case of the last two I should add that these two fine players are pushing the limits of music also. However, they are still connected to the long line of tonal players and so take less risks than avant garde players. Of course once one leaves the path of commercial radio friendly music it's clear that you music will get less airplay. Rosenwinkel and Turner have clearly chosen this path and have at the same time given students of jazz new inspiration in working on fresh directions concerning rhythm, harmony, intervalic playing and a freer conception of time. The bad news is .... everybody wants to sound like them!  

Sunday, 11 March 2012

BABs - Diving Bells (and the art of sound processing)

Part One :

Here's a recent arrival (if only electronically) on my laptop, sent on to me by Olie Brice. BABs stands for Olie Brice (double bass), Jammes Allsopp (bass clarinet) and Alex Bonney (laptop), although not in that particular order ..... as the old saying goes.

Alex Bonney has never popped up on my blog (as yet), although I wrote a review for Splice over on Free Jazz blog late last year. That record mixed sound manipulation techniques by Pierre Alexandre Tremblay someone who's already a respected electro acoustic composer. That record mixed live and processed sound also, although in a melodic direction, using electronic processing as an accompanying instrument rather than a central point of sound control.

On Diving Bells, BABs uses sound manipulation as it's main reference. Bassist Olie Brice and reed-man (this time on bass clarinet only) James Allsopp rise to the challenge of providing extra material for Alex Bonney to work with. Among the looping sounds and clicks there's the cry of bass clarinet, spittled mouthpieces, detuned bass strings, hit bass strings, and didgeridoo like shrieks to name but a few. They manage to keep the whole thing up in the air wonderfully well, finding new angles to add which all end up in the melting pot of sounds. Of course when computers step in it's often difficult to really know who's doing what - a little like Woody Allen's remark in Radio Days about ventriloquists on the radio. But to a certain extent that's not important, the best thing to do is to sit back and just let the sound mixtures wash over you.

Kelp Forest Embraces (Track 3).

It's important to point out that the laptop, and it's prominent role, never means the album becomes totally abstract. The added interplay of acoustic instruments constantly reminds you that this is live communication between musicians, not some abstract sound painting. From the opening 'Fatal Nest Egg' with noises which echo up as if from a dungeon, to the closing 'Becalmed .... finally' with sparse use of bass clarinet and bowed double-bass talking like two ships in the fog, BABs work with all stops pulled out. In fact I often found myself wondering whether this is what Northern European Aboriginal music could sound like?  The album has 5 tracks and is 35 minutes long. The two longest pieces tracks 1 and 5 - both 11 minutes - bookending three short pieces.

In conclusion although this doesn't have any 'tunes' on it that you may wish to dance to, it is another record confirming the influence of noise and electro-acoustics on the world of pop, jazz and improvised music. It is a long way from Bjork's experiments in pop meets Max/MSP, but goes to show that this musical art form is here to stay and becoming more acceptable and so visible on the live music circuit on a daily basis. Laptops were once a thing of a small minority when talking about instruments, whereas within recent years no concert program of any worth would dare to ignore musicians and their groups who use this machine as an instrument. If you enjoy discovering new areas of music, then don't shy away from trying this one ...... just remember to listen with the lights on!

A Gavilan Computer (1983). Considered to be the first 'working' laptop, or was it the Osborne 1 (I'll have to look it up later)? The first laptop was designed by William Moggridge in 1979 called the Grid Compass.
Part Two :

It's difficult (*) to write about this record without adding a few words about the art of 'the Laptop meets live instruments'. I always enjoy hearing music that uses live and processed sound. As a Pure Data nerd I love seeing, or hearing I suppose, what other sound manipulators come up with when trying to combine the live with the processed. It's an area which is still in full evolution, and so open to new possibilities. When thinking of successful projects using the two areas (live and processed sound) it's difficult to make recommendations, much of the music covers such wide areas from very new age style sound to abstract noise. One could site a few contenders such as Supersilent and eventually Food (featuring Thomas Stronen and Iain Ballemy). Both have made major inroads using a combination of improvisation, live instruments and processed sounds, however Supersilent is probably a little more 'noise' orientated. Evan Parker's Electro Acoustic Ensemble is probably a good example and also one of the most interesting and successful projects to have combined the two areas ... at the present time that is. I should also point out one shouldn't confuse Laptop impro with serious Electro Acoustic composition (see below for a few names to look for), which works in a different sphere altogether.

As already mentioned, and less jazz/impro orientated, is Bjork who seems to have embraced this medium to the point of releasing (if I understood correctly) an album with iPad apps on it. The idea being that the person who buys the album can play with the applications used to make the music as they wish. Those responsible for helping Bjork develop her music in this field are Matmos. Matmos, comprised of Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniels have been making experimental music albums for many years which combine electronica, sound manipulation and live instruments. Their music is extremely accessible without making any concessions to their art form. Albums such as Civil War, A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure (which used sound samples of aesthetic plastic surgery tools at work!) combine many genres of music from rock, jazz, folk and dance. A few other artists with a little more improvisational direction to their work are Christian Fennesz, Ikue Mori, DJ Olive and Michael Moser - just a couple of names that come to mind when thinking about the laptop as an improvising instrument. 

For all those interested read this excellent article from The New Music Box which maps out the development of music, the computer (and the laptop), in a much more detailed way than my short article. Of course if you read this article and have some suggestions I'd be most interested to hear/read about them. Much of this musical art form is difficult to find when searching the net. As you can imagine typing the word 'laptop' into Google won't get you very far, and even adding the words music or jazz tend to lead nowhere. Anyhow, if your interested by this little taster of an article ..... get looking as there's a lot of very interesting new sounds to discover out there!

*= Not exactly true, I just enjoy writing a little about the subject. It also helps for those who are starting to discover this area of music. Of course, for those interested to look further there is a whole field of music which ranges from the abstract to the melodic which can be found if you start looking up names such as Pierre Schaeffer, Stockhausen, Dieter Kaufmann (one of my favourites), Babbit, Berio, Varese and the list goes on. There are plenty of modern composers working in this field - Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay, Monty Adkins, Dennis Smalley, Suk Jun Kim (to name but four) - with the easy access to computer programs and audio recording programs such as Logic or Pro-Tools universities have plenty of young students and teachers all now becoming very adept in developing this area. See labels such as audiobulb, electrocd, or empreintes digitales for more ideas!  There's a lot to discover, so be patient and more importantly very curious.
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