Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Tony Bevan                                                                                              ©2012 Sarah MacDonald

Illusions can’t be lost twice. Real epiphanies probably only happen once, or once in each case. It is, as they say, a bummer. My personal epiphany about lost illusions was significantly reinforced by literary critic John W. Aldridge in a book called After the Lost Generation, a masterwork of modern criticism whose basic argument is that post-modernity (which still wasn’t identified as that in 1951) suffers from the very particular malaise of coming second. Famously – and in this Aldridge is of a mind with Paul Fussell and The Great War in Modern Memory - the upcoming young writers of 1939 to 1945 were obliged to work within paradigms and discourses laid down for them in the trenches of the Western Front where every last vestige of Enlightenment certainty, even the certainty of uncertainty, and every sparkle of Victorian confidence, had been ground into the mud. Because Hemingway had already stamped on all the grand old words, there was no point stamping on them again, though that’s exactly what the new generation did.
Norman Mailer considered Aldridge the most perspicacious critic of his generation, not because the man from Sioux City was any more adept than average at unpacking a metaphor but simply because he had a tracker’s instinct for the peculiar dilemmas facing writers of his own generation. Aldridge was born in 1922, the year of Ulysses and The Waste Land, and Reader’s Digest, and the year Louis Armstrong came to Chicago. Strong juju. Norman, who I was privileged to call a friend in later years, was regularly damned for merely writing footnotes to Hemingway. At one level, the daredevil stuff and sensationalism rap on Mailer is a charge too obvious to duck. At a slightly deeper one, when actual literary style comes into focus, it’s absurd. At a deeper still, it’s spot-on true, but only in the sense that all of Mailer is a mighty effort to get over the hurdle Aldridge identified and to inscribe himself on the continuum of American literature: Poe, Melville, Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and beyond …
We meet this in music, too, and conspicuously in jazz; unlike the classical world or all the smaller vernacular worlds that preceded it, all the “strong” voices (this a Harold Bloom term rather than Aldridge’s) are there on record, literally there on a black disc, to show us we have come second. If how to find a way to make your art do more than provide footnotes to Pops, to Ellington, Bird, Miles or Coltrane is a constant spur to practitioners, it’s also a constant issue for listeners. How do you recapture the experience of hearing Armstrong for the first time? And the inevitable (or is it?) diminution of that rapture with each mechanical reproduction of the experience? I was recently talking to Gavin Bryars, prior to a concert marking the centenary of the Titanic’s loss. Inevitably, the question of repetition, of “performance history,” of diminishing impact versus constant regeneration came up. Gavin made a strong case – the strongest I’ve heard from him – for his indeterminate piece The Sinking of the Titanic as a kind of tribute to the heroism of the working musician. If you know the Titanic story – and how could you fail to on this of all years? – you will know what this refers to. If you don’t, it would take too long. Right at the end of our conversation, Gavin reflected that the two pieces of his that have survived from a period of composition he mostly prefers to forget (though one piece written for Derek Bailey has wriggled under the wire and into the repertoire) celebrate in some way the human spirit and its indomitability. The other, of course, is Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, to which Bryars stands both as creator and also as a listener, since the piece is derived from tape actuality of an old London tramp singing a hymn. Gavin reckons that between different versions, many performances and many, many hours in the studio tweaking new recordings of the piece, he has heard the tramp’s voice “millions” (I forget how many – it was a conversation dominated by large numbers: years, tonnage, length, height, depth, the toll of the dead) of times “and yet I always hear something new and different in it.” That is a phrase we’ve all used about cherished music, and some of us no better than hypocritically when what we actually mean is that we often play music precisely because it is too familiar to deliver any surprises. Subconsciously, we probably understand that if such familiar music were to surprise us now, the surprise might be one of disillusionment, so there is a further, protective stake in familiarity.
And still I keep saying how much I envy those who have yet to hear “Potato Head Blues” or “Au Privave” or that whooshing entrance on “Blue Train,” or Miles’s tippy-toe first statement on “It Never Entered My Mind,” because unlike anything else I can think of doing with my clothes on (and most of the things I enjoy these days do sadly seem to require full fig) it’s never going to be as good as the first time. This has all been much in mind of late because of something that happened here a month ago. We had a small concert at the house, and invited neighbors and friends. The occasion was a stop in a filming schedule through Britain by the Luxemburgian director Antoine Prun, who made an excellent doc on Sunny Murray, and who is now working with saxophonist Tony Bevan on a rigorously non-metropolitan portrait of British improvisation in the ‘aughties. They were passing through, though strictly speaking nobody has “passed through” Kintyre since St Columba, and wanted to film a short interview. We have a small oratory at the house, occasionally in use for recordings, rehearsals and retreats, and we suggested that Tony might be willing to give a short recital to an invited audience.

We discovered right up front that the night the crew were with us was about as unpromising for an audience as might be found in the calendar. There was a three-line-whip rehearsal for the local orchestra, an AGM at a nearby music society, and there was some traditional music going down at a venue a few miles up the road. Getting a quorum – or enough bodies on seats not to cause embarrassment – might have been a problem, but in places like this, where frankly the laid-on entertainment is positioned somewhere between The Last Picture Show and pay-per-view amateur boxing (you only need to pay for a pint, then watch the guys slug it out on the street outside the pub), people are always willing to turn out for “something different.”
Which is as cautiously as we were prepared to bill it. It would have seemed patronizing to ask friends to come to a concert and then tell them they probably wouldn’t like it, or to issue an aesthetic health warning in advance. I mentioned to some of the younger people that Tony had done some recording with sci-fi trance band Spiritualized, which rang some bells, and that he played a bass saxophone, which seemed to appeal to those whose main musical exposure is to brass bands and the bagpipes. Apart from that, they had not a clue what they would hear before they turned up, beyond the near certainty that it would be quite unlike anything they had ever heard before.
Inevitably, they rioted. They shouted Tony down and tried to smash his beautiful Conn bass. It was a scandal of Sacre du printemps proportions. No, it wasn’t and, of course, no, they didn’t. The 25 people who turned up sat quietly and listened to more than an hour of powerful free improvised music. The only sweetener or anesthetic was a glass of wine. They sat patiently through a short break while Tony tried to fix a squeak that was cutting through on his bass sax. Sarah and I crouched at the back and recorded, and playing it back we’ve found not much to mar a powerful and concentrated musical evening. What was most striking was what happened at the end. Not applause. We’ve become slavish and undiscriminating enough to applaud car wrecks if we’re encouraged to. What happened was that audience members, younger and older, began to ask Tony questions. How heavy was the saxophone? Did he make up what he was playing on the spur of the moment? Did the first piece include a reference to Gaelic music? Is it tiring? Bevan’s a powerfully built bloke, who works out on a heavy bag, so he doesn’t find the big horn a burden and doesn’t have that alligator-wrestling mannerism some baritone-and-beyond players affect. Yes, he did make it all up on the spur of the moment, and sorry for not preparing any more material! Yes, it feels like a day’s work, however satisfying, and no, there was nothing specifically Scottish about that first piece; it was just intended as a more straightforwardly melodic introduction for an audience who probably didn’t have much previous experience of this kind of music. And more in that gentle and generous vein.

The audience ranged in age from seven to probably nearer seventy. It included a farmer, a haulier, a post-office clerk, a fourteen year old autistic girl, an antique dealer, an up-and-coming young painter who’d just graduated with a college prize, a few partners and significant others, and the chap at the back with the question about Celtic music, who we hadn’t recognized at first but who turned out to be a distinguished composer, currently at work on new music for the Gaelic liturgy; he’d heard about the concert second-hand, and invited himself and a friend. Afterwards, everyone seemed interested, surprised, eager to learn more. Some professed to be slightly baffled. Others claimed to be converted to “saxophone music,” which they’d previously disliked: on the basis of what? “Baker Street”? Kenny G? Porn movies? No one demurred or protested or made what I call the “Marmite face.”
I’m as skeptical as the next man, if the next man happens to be Werner Heisenberg. I did wonder whether the presence of a camera crew, who were filming the audience as well as the musician, might have some impact on behavior. But these are essentially country people, who frankly don’t know or give a bugger what they look like on screen. There was no cachet in being present, and there would have been no embarrassment in giving a firm thumbs-down. Obviously, chief credit for the success of the evening goes to Tony Bevan, but it also proves, I think, how often we find ourselves in niche situations where even though the music is purportedly driven by existential uncertainties, the outcome is pretty much known, since the players are preaching to the choir. Improvised music (in Britain, at least) doesn’t just have its own freemasonry of craft, it also has a tightly restricted audience demographic as well, to the extent that in London days I had a checklist of about a dozen faces, of which at least a majority had to be present for any gig to be considered “happening” at all, and that is in the existential sense.

I sense that the music is in flux at the moment, repositioning, recalibrating, perhaps on the edge of a crisis or of some great breakthrough that might even deliver an epiphany. And I’ve felt strongly that what I need as a listener and writer is a fresh “paradigm” for listening to it. Another book that has meant a great deal down the years is Thomas Kuhn’s freely misquoted 1962 masterpiece The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in which the idea of paradigm shift is advanced as an explanation of how intellectual history works. Kuhn’s model has something in common with catastrophe theory in that it posits a steady accretion of non-dramatic change followed by a huge jump into the unknown, or what the ignorant like to call a “quantum leap.” Is that where we are? In the back-draw before the tsunami? A risky place to be and some of us presumably will be drowned or crushed in the process, but it’s an exciting thought. Perhaps too big a thought to be constructed on an hour’s worth of free music in a small chapel in the West of Scotland, but that’s where it happened. I sense that improvisation has shed most of its doctrinaire elements and more ludicrous pledges of chastity. Even without the stiffness of “outreach” or “educational projects” it seems more and more capable of reaching out past the converted and grabbing the as yet unconverted. That’s an exciting prospect for anyone involved in the music, at whatever level, and it will prove to be an interesting test, for why would anyone not want to break the guild exclusiveness that has often restricted free, improvised and “avant-garde” art in the past, that self-fulfilling and often wishful assumption that this is “not for everyone.” In my book, if it’s not for everyone, then it’s not for anyone at all. We’ll be continuing to put on these occasional evenings, might even try to put out some of them on CD or as downloads. There might be a glimpse in Antoine Prun’s film if that part gets past the cutting and editing. We won’t be imposing a dress code or any kind of shibboleth, though I’m tempted to ask “Toni Braxton or Anthony Braxton?” and make those who plump for the latter stand back behind the velvet rope until we see how full it’s going to be. Because if it was only improv and new-music fans who turned out – well, that would be disillusioning, wouldn’t it? – and you don’t want that to happen twice.

Brian Morton©2012

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