Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

The British musician and broadcaster Steve Race used to say that something terrible happens to popular music when you passed the age of 30. This hasn’t been my experience at all. For me, something terrible happened to popular music when the British people elected a female Conservative Prime Minister and then, four years later, elected her again, just in time for my 30th birthday. Something terrible happened to just about everything around that time, so it doesn’t entirely count.

Steve died a couple of years ago, so I won’t have a chance to say to him that something rather wonderful happens to your perception of music as you approach double that age. At 60, I’ve almost completely lost my ability to distinguish between current musical styles and genres. And it has been refreshing and alarming by turns. I struggle to separate dubstep and hardstep, between ecstatic jazz and Fire Music, and as to the distinction between Black Metal and Death Metal, do I pass through the lobbies with the guys in leather overcoats and black nail polish or with the guys in leather overcoats with black lipstick? I find myself approaching record store clerks (we still have a few record stores in the UK, though we don’t usually talk about “clerks”) and saying “Excuse me, young man, is this Grime?” and then, like one of those High Court judges who haven’t heard the Beatles formed, let alone split, and who still refer to “motor cars” as if Gottlieb Daimler was still alive, I murmur “I’m obliged.”

Age brings many inconveniences, but it also helps to shed a few. Without wishing to flaunt Scottish healthcare in front of either English readers (who have to deal with queues and waiting lists) or American readers (some of whom seem to regard a national health service as creeping Bolshevism), I am now required to attend a surgery every week or so for monitoring purposes. With absolute regularity, a very lovely lady called Fiona says “Your blood pressure is a little up this morning, Brian. Why do you think that is?” Because you’re wearing Crystal Noir again, damn you! The good news, though, is that I don’t suffer from hardening of the categories any more.

Perhaps the essence of post-modernism, or of post-post-modernism lay in the collapse between genres, and indeed between art forms, turning all creative activity into a huge synaesthetic blur. Viewed closer, though, what was actually happening was a vast acceleration in the creation, dominance, obsolescence and decline of generic descriptions. Devotees of dance music are able to point to styles that prevailed between May and October of a given year and in a given city. It used to be possible to listen to a jazz track blindfold and say, without a connoisseur’s flounce, “Sounds like a Memphis pianist, from around 1956 or ‘57, and if it’s not Phineas Newborn Jr., then it’s someone who knew him.” I can’t quite imagine that happening now. To some degree, the specificity of musical memory is an illusion. We recognize certain kinds and examples of music because they are intimately connected to moment in our younger lives, an associative reflex that definitely starts to recede around the age of 30. But that disappearance has a diachronic axis as well. It’s becoming harder to recognize and provenance music because we are currently barbecuing in the heat-death of genre. Look how often in the various musical blindfold tests there are around someone says “I don’t know who it is, but it sounds like early Japanese psych ... or New Thing jazz from New York, maybe 1964?” only to be told that the record in question is actually new music posing as old music, even to the extent of mimicking its technical shortcomings. I received five CDs over the last 36 hours any one of which might have been recorded at any time in the last 25 years, none of which – apart from one which contains the autobiographical flag of a local folk song – offers any reliable indication of provenance.

To some degree, I find this positive and even reassuring. The British – Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and otherwise – have long been obsessed with lineage and with position. Doubtless other cultures have similar obsessions. But it is a measure of our current superficial classlessness that there are almost no reliable indicators of origin and status. Clothes and accent don’t do it. Level of education isn’t a sure guide. Aristocratic chins and peasant brows have been bred out of the stock. In the same way, the hierarchies and horizontal demarcations of music have been dispensed with to an almost reckless degree. I rather admired the Early Church loyalties of clubbers whose sense of their own scene was narrowed to a few dozen nameable individuals and one DJ, and I somewhat hanker after the schismatic squabbles over musical styles that characterized the jazz and later the pop scene in Britain. The best known and most tempestuous example of this is, of course, the carefully spun war between the moldy figs (traditionalists) and the dirty beboppers, but dig deeper and you found there were sectarian divides even in the conservative wing of jazz, with revivalists, “trad” fans and New Orleans strict constructionists all in a ruck together. The jazz scholar Duncan Heining has recently written about this in Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz, 1960-1975 (Equinox Publishing).

Of course, at one level this issue only applies to those of us who either promote, sell or write about music. How you describe music doesn’t necessarily matter to the listener, who will happily listen to a bebop album followed by an Ambient album followed by some Arvo Pärt and without the self-consciousness and risk of social exclusion that kind of “eclecticism” once entailed. When The Wire magazine began publishing – it was around the time Mrs. Thatcher was dismantling the UK – the masthead read “Jazz, improvised music and ... .” the most exciting ellipsis in publishing history because much of its current content now lies in those undefined and debatable lands beyond the “and.” In the same way, Point of Departure nods in the direction of jazz but does not specify it. I was determined that my own BBC Radio 3 program would not specify jazz in the title. On the basis that the name hinted at recording (pressing) and was vague enough to cover anything from Barry Guy to Mal Waldron to Moondog to B. J. Cole (as indeed we did) it became Impressions, with a European big-band version of the Coltrane theme as its signature. Readers regularly wrote in to say “But that wasn’t jazz.” Derek Bailey once wrote in to say “You played X and then Y. You can’t possibly like them both,” which I thought was an odd thing for Derek Bailey to say, given that he listened to everything from Teddy Bunn and the Spirits of Rhythm to men in pubs singing shanties. The BBC in those days had begun to move away from the “playlist” model, and from a canon of accepted composers. The acceptance of Duke Ellington as a composer brought on coronaries in the shires, but it also tentatively opened the sluices to a more expansive consensus about great music.

There is a form of neurological damage which causes the sufferer to stop recognizing faces. I think it’s called prosopagnosia. I knew a man in Norfolk who had it. Every morning, he shaved the face of a stranger. The woman who gave birth to him had to say “It’s your mother, dear” when she came to visit. When we (flatmates but strangers) watched the regional news together he would reliably yelp “Wow!” when the stunning Judi Lines came on with the headlines, because he had never seen her before. We always called out to him before entering the room. Voices were his faces. He had the best and most acute hearing I’ve ever encountered, a near-genius at recognizing regional and national accents. Ironically, his life abruptly ended when, wearing one of the first generation Walkmans, he stepped in front of a taxi he hadn’t heard approaching. The parallel is only slightly strained. The labeling of music is obviously less important than its aesthetic impact. Forgetting labels – like not recognizing faces – is a kind of liberation, but like every drastic democratization of experience, it also entails a narrowing, a more insidious sclerosis of judgment.

I spoke to Ahmad Jamal recently, a man who has solved the single greatest problem facing the artist: how to grow old creatively. He spoke with absolute specificity about the music of his youth, about the difference in style between a Memphis pianist and a Pittsburgh pianist, and how elements of those styles were absorbed or ran dry in New York or on the West Coast. Jamal believes that these characteristics are innate and environmental (I hesitate to say God-given) and defy analysis. But what that misses is the sense that style, genre, approach, all the elements that make music music or art art or poetry poetry are a matter of highly localized mediations and encounters, social and economic factors, chance and happenstance, and not at all the ineluctable working-out of a style-book or ideology.

I grew up in austere circumstances and among austere people. My local and national culture is unrecognizable now, not least in being local and national no more. A swamping quantity of recorded music, plus the everywhere-at-the-center ethos of the internet, has delivered a plenitude of sound that is almost unbearably gratifying, but also unmapped, undifferentiated and divorced from personal association. Our cognitive mix tapes are lost in the surrounding buzz. Sound, as in space, comes from every direction simultaneously, echoes of the cybernetic big bang. With download culture on the rise, music increasingly approaches the ideal condition of the “acousmatic” – if ever there were a more overrated idea, I’ve still to hear it – coming at us unannounced, without provenance, as much invasive as – the second most overrated – “immersive.” It’s blissful, but also boring and disorientating.

For years, I took a perverse pride in pursuing unfashionable music. As a student, I collected records of walking songs from the Hebrides, the whole run of Haydn symphonies (mostly on Soviet Bloc vinyl that was softer than cheese), music hall singers, pygmy chants, Native American drumming (which made chatting to Moondog on air much easier), Shostakovich and Scriabin, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and (because it’s possible to like all these things simultaneously) Derek Bailey. Anything, in short, that would break the monotony of a culture bent on channeling Pink Floyd and Tubular Bells. So rugged a non-juror was I as a young man that I used to insist on playing Medicine Head’s Dark Side of the Moon and pretending that I didn’t know Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (with its egregious definite article) even existed. But these were days when you were expected to take sides, join a club, sign up to a cult or accept “prog” or “fusion” as your personal savior. I quite miss being able to kick against that level of conformity, but then there’s no rebel sadder than an old rebel.

Brian Morton©2013

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