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It's noise. I read Stewart Lee How I Escaped My Certain Fate in which he mentioned two names that, when combined with Spotify, got me excited about music as a powerful non-populist art form (which is a whim I indulge in periodically). Those names are Derek Bailey, a free improvising guitarist, and Evan Parker, a similarly free saxophonist. Find both on Spotify (Bailey and Parker, links open Spotify). I know next to nothing about both of these guys, but Stewart Lee won his episode of Celebrity Mastermind with Derek Bailey as his specialist subject.
Speaking of seeing Bailey performing at the Royal Festival Hall in 1997, Stewart Lee writes:
I seem to recall a moment where the septuagenarian genius, lost in concentration, actually bumped into the back wall of the stage, his guitar making a resonating clang. Looking down, he appeared to consider what had happened, and then playfully bashed the instrument into the wall a second time. I laughed and despite the wealth of different responses Bailey's music had already offered me, I never thought it would provoke laughter. But something great music shares with great comedy is the capacity to surprise, to take us out of ourselves and engender a joyous, and not necessarily mean-spirited or cynical, laughter.
Great art, whether it's laboriously crafted or spontaneously generated, tends towards the surprise factor that [George] Carlin describes [in the documentary The Aristocrats], and Bailey embodies. Derek Bailey is bold enough to refuse to gloss his work with emotional signifiers, just as George Carlin doesn't tell jokes as though they are supposed to be funny. Both make us do the work, and we get the reward of appearing to surprise ourselves. But the breakthrough moment, for me, of seeing Bailey bash his guitar into the back wall of the RFH, was realising that I could be made to laugh, against my will, in an atmosphere of high seriousness, in the temple of culture, by the simple childlike joy of surprise.
In 1999 I was a teenager doing a music technology Btec at college, recently opened up to huge vistas of hitherto unexplored music. From the previous few years listening almost entirely to various types of heavy metal I was, all of a sudden, exposed to hip hop, techno, classical, and modern. I became fascinated by Zappa which lead me to Varese and then to Cage, and my favourite Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was music like nothing I had never heard before, completely free from the predictable RAMTIFT (Rhythm, hArmony, Melody, Timbre, Intonation, Form, Timing). Unfortunately as part of my course we were required to write songs exactly matching the dictates of traditional pop. This meant that in order for a hip hop track to be eligible for a pass mark there needed to be a melody slapped on the chorus.
Mildly rebellious, pseudo-intellectual, pretentious little oik that I was (I mean "am" obviously) I responded with a song I called Spoken Like Tricky but now prefer just to call it Music is an Art (With No Place for Rules) (click to listen). Yeah, right on! I have zero music ability so the music was written and played, and the lyrics spoken, by my highly talented friend Robbie Greer (aka Stoopid Ill, aka Derogatory, aka Bobby Esmond). I bashed away expressively on the piano in accompaniment to my lyrics:
I've got a new religion called pop music
It has been forced on me and it's making me sick
[unintelligible mumbling, can't remember the words I wrote for this bit]
I don't come from the school of the Beatles or the Stones
Yeah, I hate Oasis, Steps and the Stereophones [sic]
Music is an art with no place for rules
No chords, no structure
With dissonance , with difference
Without the use of a scientific formula for creating a single,
A nice pop hit
For little boys, little girls
The biggest disease of the Western civilisation is pop music
Four minutes and thirty three seconds
Music completely to chance occurrence
The creative function of non-control
Solid bands of sound
A variety of articulations and special effects
As it turned out the song had a pretty formulaic structure, otherwise I would have failed the unit, and in order to be eligible for a mark we had to put some singing on it. So whatever my point was I might not have successfully got it across. My lecturer came in the control booth while I was bashing away at the piano and, I was later told, sarcastically referred to me as "The Professor". Gradually, and retrospectively sadly, I slowly became more conventional. Now I've even got to the point where I can tolerate some of the tunes in the popular hit parade!
I've just come across a book on Amazon called Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don't Get Stockhausen by David Stubbs, the product description I think is worth quoting in full:
Modern art is a mass phenomenon. The Tate Modern is the most popular tourist attraction in Europe. Conceptual artists like Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst enjoy celebrity status. Works by 20th century abstract artists like Mark Rothko are selling for record breaking sums at auction, while the millions commanded by works by Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon make headline news.
However, while the general public has no trouble embracing avant garde and experimental art, there is, by contrast, mass resistance to avant garde and experimental music, although both were born at the same time under similar circumstances - and despite the fact that from Schoenberg and Kandinsky onwards, musicians and artists have made repeated efforts to establish a 'synaesthesia' between their two media.
This book examines the parallel histories of modern art and modern music and examines why one is embraced and understood and the other ignored, derided or regarded with bewilderment, as noisy, random nonsense perpetrated by, and listened to by the inexplicably crazed. It draws on interviews and often highly amusing anecdotal evidence in order to find answers to the question: Why do people get Rothko and not Stockhausen?
It's so true. But a question arises – where does art music, the avant garde, fit in peoples lives? It can exist as incidental music in strange and sinister movies and TV shows, but is that enough? I don't think so. Many people visit art galleries to view Modern and Contemporary Art, but few people buy art and live with it. I suggest the Tate Modern (and indeed other art galleries) should have a permanent music room with regular live performances from small ensembles, soloists, sound installations, tape loops, which can be listened to comfortably for long periods of time. They could offer residencies to people like Derek Bailey. It's the best idea ever.
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