Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Sometimes a phrase simply drops like an apple, ready made, ripe and shiny, and precisely apposite to something felt for years but never articulated. Looking through an old copy of Modern Painters – a glossy, thoughtful British magazine founded by the late Peter Fuller and devoted to the Ruskinian perspective on visual art: no conceptualism, jeans or trainers! – I found a piece by the novelist Howard Jacobson, who recently overturned the barricade of prejudice and negative criticism (too sexist, too aggressive, too Jewish!) and won the Man Booker Prize for fiction. In the opening paragraph, Jacobson drops a perfect pippin when he diagnoses the current art lover’s malaise as a feeling of “aesthetic inconsequence.” Yes, yes, and yes, again.
Jacobson’s specific point is that, as art consumers, we go from contemplating the concrete-cast interior of a modest dwelling house (he’s referring to Rachel Whiteread’s once controversial, but long since dismantled exploration of domestic inner-space) to looking at the Christ Child nuzzling the Virgin’s paps in the work of some Sienese master, and experiencing a certain equivalence of aesthetic charge in the two experiences. Art says Jacobson that is divorced from faith and place is, says Davidson, always in danger of this. The age of mechanical reproduction brought it on. The internet clinched it. Modern Painters illustrates it in every issue.
So does the average record collection. Just as we experience, side by side, examples of rock art from the Australian outback and the hyper-refined work of admired contemporaries, with Old Masters and Modernists indifferently collaged or juxtaposed in pursuit of historical meaning, so, too, a serious holding of CDs might well have anything from Johnny Dodds to the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and most points in between. Frankly, I distrust any collection that doesn’t, unless it has some specialist rationale that excludes styles or periods from consideration. The question of place and faith is a tricky one. In an electronic culture, we know longer need to rely on local and vernacular music, or the art of our natal region. We tap the vast, Alexandrian library available to us. In a supposedly “secular” culture, we do not regard art or music as primarily sacral in function. I say “supposedly” and use defensive quotes because “secular” has the same standing in critical discourse as “atonal”, a word that’s frequently used when “polytonal” would be more accurate. By the same token, our consensual “secularism” is actually just an eclectic bundle of belief systems, given democratic weight and not dominated by a single, official church or sect. And that’s the tricky bit. We dip into Tuvan throat singing or Georgian church music or raga, and we dip out again, reassured that we’ve had some kind of brush with the numinous but feeling fairly ok about the experience, neither proselytised nor brainwashed, but with, surely,  just a whiff of that “aesthetic inconsequence” Jacobson describes.
My priorities have shifted steadily over the last few years, dramatically in the twelve months just past. I spend as much time considering what it means to listen and how one listens, as I do simply flipping CDs into the machine at the speed of a Vegas dealer. It has, I’m prepared to admit, become a mild obsession. Twenty five years of heavy duty (and duty was often the operative word) listening have had a marked impact. I like to think that I can discern good from bad with some authority, winnow out chaff, identify strong new voices and innovative procedures and quietly decline the indifferent or merely generic. I interrogate every negative listening experience with the possibility that here, at last, is the point past which I cannot or will not go. We have ample shibboleths for this, anything from John Cage’s “4’33”” to John Coltrane’s fractal explorations of popular song harmony. And we find that even extremity is very easily naturalised. It’s even the case that Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, once angrily or smilingly identified as a contract buster or a Ruskinian chamberpot of noise flung in the industry’s face, is now the paradigm for a certain kind of electronic noise. It has, indeed, become repertory. That may be the ultimate example of aesthetic inconsequence and the phenomenon may, after all, be new and not just one of human culture’s evolutionary wiles. After all, Post-Impressionism, which Virginia Woolf believed had changed human character “on or around December 1910” (a whole century ago, and the jazz century at that!), is still shocking and discombobulating in a way analytical Cubism never was. Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, which once gave Frenchman an excuse to riot (as if they needed persuasion), seems ever more shocking with the passing years and hasn’t lost any of its subversive wallop. But we find it increasingly hard, in a culture of surplus and consolation, to retain any of that impact when we can simply follow it up with some soothing “sacred minimalism” or some pink-noise electronica and when the shelves are laden with music much more self-consciously bent on attention and shock.
I appreciate that those of us who write about music for what is laughingly called a living have a particular take on this. It’s similar to the reaction restaurant critics get when they say they wish they could stay at home some night and boil an egg. Eating salt-marsh lamb cooked sous-vide with turned vegetables, a port reduction and cappuccino of girolles? Yes, it must be tough. Receiving a hundred new CDs every week? Poor you. No, and yes. It is the luckiest of curses or the most mixed of blessings. It’s what it does to the recipient that concerns me.
I have taken no Dogme-like vow of chastity. I have imposed no rules on listening, like not reading when there’s a record on, or only listening in a certain chair, blindfolded against any ocular distraction, or listening to everything a certain number of times. Nor have I reached the point of saturation or ossification where nothing new appeals and like Monty Python’s Mr Creosote I can only grate out ‘Fuck off, I’m full’ before exploding bloodily over my hi-fi. I have dabbled with the “acousmatic” potential of I-Tunes, loading in a lot of new stuff and hearing it decontextualized, randomized and relentlessly, but that isn’t entirely for me though it has taken me on a step.
What works is a version of what I long ago learned to do outdoors and which has become relevant again since returning to the country; “sticks” is too sophisticated a description of where I currently live, and where I’ll see out my days. What works is a kind of active hearing (not quite the same as listening, which sounds active but is notably passive) in which the music both is what it is and also has a very precise and traceable relation with the environment and with the listener. I was taught as a boy how to pick out the elements in the most minimal natural soundscape – like this afternoon, when a merlin called in the wood below us – and it involves what I always recommend to music students, a state of evenly suspended attention that allows the music to engage with and interact with whatever one knows of the artist, or the style, or the instrument, or even the notional “program” of the work, but which doesn’t at any moment intervene with a conclusion as to meaning. The short thrust is that that the best way to listen is not really to listen at all, but the keep the ears open. So, it turns out there’s a maggot and a mouldy spot in Jacobson’s perfect apple. What we need isn’t “consequence.” Consequence is the enemy, the premature conclusion and artificial shape. “Aesthetic” work, but only in its proper sense of somehow pertaining to the senses, rather than according to some abstract notion of beauty of propriety of form. I’m getting through this minor existential crisis, I promise. The tsunami of contemporary recording hasn’t receded, but it has swept me sufficiently far inland that I can now contemplate it with some equanimity. I listened to as many new CDs yesterday as I did the day before, but somehow I’m enjoying the experience more for letting go the need to mine every one of them for consequence. If it’s there, it comes across. If it doesn’t come across. it quite probably isn’t there. A cheerful solipsist speaks!

Brian Morton©2010

Michael Wilderman Jazz Visions Photography

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