I have long argued that for many of us oldsters the decline in contemporary musical interest is related in part, at least, to radical changes in recording technologies in the multi-(and multi-multi) track era. In other words, the problem isn’t digital or the talent or even musical/intellectual intentions – but, rather, basically technical, in our response to the sound created by the isolation of instruments in contemporary recording situations, to, whether we understand it technically or not, the use of “tracking,” as they like to call it these days (in which musicians basically construct a performance through overdubbing; eg, first the rhythm then vocals, then solos, etc etc). From the ashes of this new world, constructed primarily for the convenience of recording engineers and record labels (after all, how else would we assemble a media-perfect performance?) has risen the phenomena of the airless recording, in which the assembled instruments create only the illusion of performing together – and a poorly-maintained illusion it is, because it is so easy to hear how badly the parts relate to each other. No longer the result of musicians, in real time, reacting and responding to each other, such recordings are not only airless but soulless, at least to my ears, lacking as they do any true exhibition of musical reflexes or complex interactions.
And it’s not the same thing as, for example, Brian Wilson’s artful studio constructions, or the work of various audio and musical artists past and present, whose intentions in studio manipulation were and are artistic and aesthetic, through the use of layering, pure noise, and sonic interaction. In those instances, the studio art was and is transformed by vision and design. In the other instances that I am talking about (and which seem endemic in the new folkie movement; try listening to the folk music shows on Maine Public Radio – where I live – or on NPR, or on any number of NPR music blog sites) it is primarily a function of convenience and sonic expectation (though, of course, the problem is not exclusive to folk music or rock and roll; even the jazz world has allowed itself to be denatured by the use of these techniques). This is not to say that there will never be exceptions, examples of good and satisfying recordings which employ these techniques. It is only to complain that the national decline in musical feeling is, I believe, directly related to a sonic decline of our own making. (Not to mention the existence of too many audio and recording magazines, too much emphasis on technique and manipulation, too much power wielded by a hardware and software industry which works too hard to constantly reinvent itself by selling new ways of doing the same thing ).
I say this by way of introducing both myself and the first recorded examples on my blog, Everything Else is Post Modernism, which take us back to a time in which life was neither simpler nor easier, but really just the opposite: more sonically complex, at least the way I hear it. As Peter Stampfel (of the old Holy Modal Rounders) pointed out to me in a conversation last year, the thing that has been lost, sonically, in the isolation of musicians referred to above, is that which formerly occurred naturally in the studio: upper and lower harmonics, those things produced in sound waves by the clashing of tones, timbres, shadings, vocalisms and other such sound events. So I tend, in my own listening, to go back to those things which satisfy my own aural desires, which give me that familiar yet uncertain feeling, a feeling which harkens back to my earliest musical experiences of hearing musicians (both live and on records) relate to other in both consonant and dissonant ways. It’s like a good boxing match – an artful battle in which there is lots of dissonant interaction but in which no one is permanently harmed (well, almost like a good boxing match, though maybe I was spoiled by growing up in the era of Mohammed Ali).
If, as Henry Miller has claimed, all pleasure is based on the way in which the pleasurable experience reminds one of one’s earliest parallel encounter, then consider my own tastes as some sort of philosophical and sensual confirmation of Miller’s decree. My earliest musical exposure was not only to recorded music – I was lucky enough to hear Thad Jones and Mel Lewis’ estimable band around 1967 or 1968, Michael Bloomfield around 1969 or 1970, Mingus, Miles, Monk, Ornette at various places around New York City in those years; most significantly Muddy Waters at Newport in 1969 and Buddy Guy and Paul Butterfield in Central Park at around the same time; and the Mothers of Invention at Columbia University in 1968, plus even a John Cage concert, probably at Carnegie Hall. And it is true, I believe, that not only did musicians sound different in those days both live and on record – because of different mouthpieces, different reeds, different horns, different dominant methods of amplification and re-enforcement of sound; different sized venues, different approaches to technique, different prior experiences but also, and probably most significantly, because modernism was then at the end of its initial and perhaps most enlightening rewarding arc of the dissembling and then (sometimes) reconstruction of form .
Everything else may just be post-modernism, though please don’t mistake me for an artistic Luddite. I still crave newness and novelty for its own sake, I just tend to look at such things as essentially (with many happy exceptions) reformations. Paul Bley has said that he believes the most interesting “free” playing has come from musicians who have a grasp of older forms. I tend to agree; look at not only “outside” players but those who have worked at the edge of form and tonality: Jaki Byard, Bley, Lennie Tristano, Warne Marsh, Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy, Bud Powell, Julius Hemphill, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles (well, a little out of place in this list, but I love that White album), a thousand crazy early gospel singers like Arizona Dranes and Bessie Johnson, or even Charlie Parker and Lester Young in their later days. All were wrestling with form, and feeling not only the restrictions of such but the liberating qualities of harmony (as in chords) and chromatics and, of course, pure sound (listen to Bird, on some of his later live shots, possibly high as a kite, try to break the sonic barrier, to obliterate notes as he seeks out uncharted – altissimo – territory). Though of course, let me add here that I am very likely completely wrong in all of this, prisoner that I am to a hopelessly bourgeoisie conception of art and its practice, a slave of very outmoded concepts of form and meaning. These days, feeling overwhelmed as I do, and, yes, strangely victimized, by the gargantuan shadow of human activity, I just do not know.
However, let me digress to make a little editorial point, about certain precepts and concepts of newness and modernism and the avant garde. If we complain that the use of chord changes, as part of standard form, restricts us, than why don’t we say the same thing about the use of modes, or the open yet paradoxically finite range of free jazz playing or the strictures of montuno or the repetitions of ethnic musics? It does not matter if you are Harry Partch or Albert Ayler; at some point in your musical life you will hit a tonal and creative wall. You will (think you have) run out of ideas, you will become blocked, you will feel helpless and hopeless – until you chance upon that sound, that series of sounds, those notes, that scale, the gravitational pull of a certain melody, or that chord, or those chords that suddenly take you in a direction you’ve never been before. That, essentially, is music to me. Plus that thing that Phillip Larkin, poet and jazz critic (and definite cultural Luddite) said: “the past refuses to be over.” Larkin, who disliked almost everything that came out of the modernist era of jazz (meaning: after 1945), at least knew not only why he disliked it but why it was, like it or not, inevitable. In this way, I,too, have learned that the things I dislike are also inevitable, as is my own growing irrelevance and anonymity and inability, to my deep and great regret, to keep up with the increasingly voluminous shavings of American culture .
But old as I am I still recognize that years of intellectual demand still stretch out in front of me, hanging in view like a nagging and (at least to me) frightening reminder of the need for change and growth; though there are many different ways to get to the future, to the next thing, or that thing which, as Richard Gilman has told us, predicts the next thing you and I will be thinking and saying and doing, that tells us, in advance of the event, what the event will mean. Think Beckett and Waiting for Godot, or Bird in Kansas City circa 1942; both of these geniuses knew, probably without even knowing they knew, what we would be thinking and saying (and playing and feeling) next. Same thing with the great Wizard Lennie Tristano in 1945, or Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s. These artists are, to me, the very definition of modernity: prophetic, shocking, yet inevitable.
Let me also try to explain how I got here, to this particular page at this particular time. My personal history is outlined on my web site, www.allenlowe.com; I play music and I write music and I write about music. I prefer, as the poet Frederick Seidel has said, to take form and then dismantle it, though with varying degrees of destructive glee. I like finding musicians who hear things similarly to the way in which I hear things, but not necessarily in the way in which other musicians hear them, and then putting them together into little units and resolving, through composition, arrangement, organization, direction, and solo form, these conflicts in musically satisfying ways. I am a person of limited natural technique with some significant, if masked, learning disabilities, and I have struggled, musically, all my life to find alternative ways with which to illustrate and then execute the ideas I find hidden away in my own psyche. I have compensated for my deficits by not only hiring musicians of superior technique but also working, ceaselessly, to develop my own cultural taste buds in what I, after the fact, consider to be unusual and cultivated ways. Such is the path, for me, to survival in what I consider to be something of a hostile, if occasionally accommodating, world. The resulting isolation, which sometimes (but not always) feels completely and utterly permanent, is, I have concluded, a price that has had to be paid.
My way to that future I mentioned above is through the past, but not necessarily in the conventional sense; I have tried to make a virtue of my own technical deficits, to turn the second hand way in which I am able to reproduce certain older ideas into a virtue of vision and originality. Living, as I have, for the past 15 years, in a place in which I have been somewhat abused psychologically (by insults, blacklists, nasty little rumors, and, yes, I kid you not, threats of legal action) has put me at the mercy of my own somewhat limited and distorted resources. Which I now sense is a good thing. For better or for worse, I simply do, by chance or necessity, what I do differently than other people do what they do.
Which brings us back to this blog, in which I hope to illuminate for you some of the things I have discovered in my personal wanderings, during the last 40 years or so, among the (usually but not always older) sounds of American music. And which also reminds me that, initially in this essay, I was trying to make a point about how those sounds developed, why they have a visceral appeal, and why they seem, in many ways, more “real” than a lot of which passes for sound and music these days. And why they seem – and yes, I will use that loaded word – “authentic.” Though I may have a much different idea of authenticity than some others do.
In the common image, the Americana/Roots Music world of collectors and teachers and writers and artists and students is obsessed with authenticity, with a definition of such based on sociological determinism and little else. But my own experience with people in this world reflects a much more complex reality, much less of a tendency to self-delusion than is commonly assumed. In other words, from my own experience and from my association with many others who like older music, I have come to the overwhelming conclusion that such people tend not to like something because they think it is authentic – but to think something is authentic because they like it. Which is a crucial and world-view-changing distinction, and one that must be made.
Such authenticity has to be earned, and is found, perhaps, in a realization of the performer’s deepest and most honest sense of self, real or imagined, as expressed in the music. This can be the work of a deep blues musician, a gospel shouter, a teen garage band, an alt. folkie, or a sound artist working in a third sonic dimension. And though it begs the question of quality, that question is easily answered – for something to be authentic it has to be good, and not merely socially correct or “relevant.”
Beyond those stipulations I will remain intentionally vague here, because there are many sides to this argument, many straw men and woman to be held up as examples, good and bad.