Saturday, 18 August 2012

Real Grimsby, Real Black, Real Folk, Real German

A friend recently attended a folk festival. Afterwards he remarked sarcastically on the preambles given by some singers to establish the authenticity of their songs; and about a leftish performer, who presented himself in the mould of a 1980s Red-Wedge-era Billy Bragg. I find the question of authenticity around any musical form interesting. Especially as a musician self-consciously referencing the sounds associated with folk, psychedelic and so-called krautrock music.

The following is from a 1995 exchange between author and music journalist Jon Savage and Deep Soul/Northern Soul impresario Dave Godin:
J.S. Why do people become purist about this [black, soul] music?
D.G. Maybe it[']s aesthetic. I find that when you get into a passion about anything, you get into a refining process. If you were paid to see every film… if you’re exposed to a lot of something, your taste becomes refined. You become conscious of what you prefer, and with soul music, it is so much more than just music. It is also part of black American history. It’s as if some cultural thing had been developed in Grimsby, which totally reflected Grimsby, and lived and thrived in Grimsby for two hundred years before it began to seep out, there would always be a Grimsby authenticity, we would always be able to tell what was just pretend.[1]

An Australian in Alice Springs once told me that Aboriginal painters were becoming wise to the fact that visiting art buyers had absorbed the basics of native Australian culture, and often wanted to know the story, or "dreaming" behind an otherwise purely aesthetic dot painting. It was suggested that, to meet this demand, stories were being mashed up, or just invented. This was partly to encourage sales, but also to conceal from the touristic mind the deeper content of native Australian culture.

Let's say that some of the men and women whose songs were recorded by the great folk song collectors were also giving performances, perhaps tempered for the visitor who was going to record their song.[2] I wonder how the collector, dropping in for a day with notepad or tape recorder, was able to distinguish what today's folk aficionados would like to call "authentic" from that which was deliberately nuanced for the visitor's attention.

I was once a guest in the house of an Irish fiddle player before, during and after the visit of a German fiddler who came to learn some tunes. I can't make a detailed judgement of the music transmitted from musician to musician, but I remember that personas and behaviours were subtly altered during the visit, and that some quite humorous things were said in the house afterwards.

Typically, the process of distinguishing what's authentic from what's not involves setting limits which reflect the rule of an interested group. Dave Godin uses his 'Grimsby' example - in which only the insider can make fully-informed judgements - to illustrate the importance of insider status within musical tribes. A made-for-sale Aboriginal painting can be the authentic work of a painter's mind, hand and eye, without necessarily being an authentic part of what the buyer wants to think of as Aboriginal culture. A fiddler might demonstrate some tunes for a visitor, but reveal little of the life he leads - a life nevertheless said by the aficionado, later, to be intimately linked to the authenticity of the music. If, twenty-five years on, I learn the tunes from the German visitor, will I be acquiring authentic Irish folk music?

Authenticity is questionable even at the founding level of an artistic category. It can't be objectively established, because the preferences and arguments of an authenticating group can be as influential as the defining forms. The category of folk music may depend on the existence of long-established musical and narrative forms, but it's maintained by various individuals and groups, many of whom will set different criteria of inclusion. There can be forms and fans and arguments, but authenticity can't be settled.

[2] Many know of Cecil Sharp (re. U.K.) and Alan Lomax (re. U.S.), but there are many more. Try

Friday, 23 March 2012

Feeling it and Knowing It (Eno, Reich, Nancarrow; Marc and jumping Keef)

A recent blog thread about the use of "glitch" effects in music provoked one poster to suggest that Eno was "deeper" than Moby. Arguments like this often reveal the overlap of feeling and knowing around music.

We can care about music because it affects how we feel, and because it is structurally intriguing and we want to know how things are made. There's no point in arguing with someone who says Moby is better than Eno if their reason for saying this is how Moby makes them feel. It doesn't matter, in those emotional terms, how carefully or knowingly the music in question was made.

'Get It On' by T-Rex, or any track from the first Roxy Music album will probably always be "deeper", for me, than anything by either Eno (solo) or Moby, because of the circumstances in which I first listened to those tracks. I don't even care if Brian Eno tells us that Roxy Music were all about artifice [1]. For me, their early music causes the involuntary recall of adolescent emotions. I can't resist, and unless I want to eradicate my sense of the person I once was, I don't want to.

As well as feeling things, I also want to know how music is made. Here, Eno's solo work was interesting to me once, prompting me to experiment with cassette recorders, homemade instruments and guitar effects instead of doing my homework. By the time Moby came along (decades later) the structural things he could have showed me were quite familiar, and I already had musical markers for most of the feelings his music evoked for me. I had found that Steve Reich's early works or Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano studies (for example) were more structurally intriguing than either T.Rex, Eno or Moby. What's more, the Reich and a few Nancarrow pieces made me feel something, too, so I wanted to listen to them and figure out how they were done. These composers were technically clever but also, apparently, emotionally invested.

Caring about music is inconsistently related to knowing about it, in all the ways we can know about it. Virtuosity and history are both overrated and underrated. To those whose listening is intertwined with their knowledge about music, performance (as interpretion) and lineage (provenance) really matter. To others, they hardly matter at all, as long as the desired emotional hit (upper or downer) is delivered.

Returning to glitch effects. My teenage copy of The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street used to skip a groove or two in the playout of 'Torn and Frayed'. The cassette copy I listened to most often, as a suggestible youth, included just such a skip. That recording made the jump in the record a predictable certainty. Consequently, "my" 'Torn and Frayed' is one that interrupts Keith Richards half a syllable into a word, adding a few loops of unintended (thirty-three-and-a-third r.p.m.) rhythm into the playout. I can't hear that track anywhere now without anticipating the jump, and I'm slightly disappointed, emotionally, if it doesn't happen. I now have a cleaner recording of 'Torn and Frayed' on my iPod, but it lacks the emotional particularity of the version that glitch rewrote for me.

There is a plug-in called Grungelizer, for old versions of the music creation software Cubase VST. It simulates audio reproduction from old records, and I used it on the track 'Sheffield Philharmonic' when trying to evoke a memory my grandfather's suburban music room. He gave me his old record player, probably hoping I'd get into classical music, but I destroyed it listening to T.Rex and the Stones, Eno, Faust, Can and Tangerine Dream. Maybe I listened to Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and Holst's The Planets a few times. In a final twist on the feeling/knowing theme, a correspondent on SoundCloud who seems to me to be an accomplished pianist [2] commented that the tone of my 'Sheffield Philharmonic' piano was 'too clean and prominent'. In this case, then, it doesn't matter how well I thought I knew the music I was making, or how reasoned my approach; my listener just didn't feel it.

[1] e.g. in Simon Frith, Howard Horne, Art Into Pop (London: Methuen, 1987), p. 118. On Google
[2] Tom White:

Monday, 9 January 2012

Letter to a Musician

[Here's an edited copy of an email I sent to someone whose music really fascinated me when I found it...]

Dear Musician X,

I recently discovered your first two albums. I want to pass on my appreciation of them.

I don't know how specifically your music is to do with the area you're associated with in your online bio but, if it is, you have a fascinating take on it. It's also the area where I used to roam as a teenager, and I've often returned to it imaginatively. My own first album probably reveals a darker take than yours on what is the psycho-geography of my childhood. However, it is a delight to find your albums.

I admire the way you've stuck to a particular way of doing things, and a particular combination of elements, even though the result is some quite long tracks in which change accumulates slowly. You have some beautiful, clear sounds (guitar, trumpet?) chiming out there at crucial points – for me that effect is very like an object or a light becoming clear in fog or mist – but you've been brave enough to make the moments of clarity as important as the ambience.

The support text for your second album is interesting. I see your geographical reference point is on the south coast of England. However, there is still something in your sound-world that reminds me of moorland, woods and conifer plantations leading down into valleys: the topography that I will always associate with Greno Woods, Wharncliffe Side and the drop down into the strange hinterland of railway lines, old bomb craters and quarries, around British Tissues in Oughtibridge (in the 1970s). I wonder if we're both interested in re-imagining earlier experience, and representing that process within a topography? The phrase about songs containing characterisations and re-enactments is something I could have written about my own work.

Emotionally, your second album puts me (now) in mind of the west of Ireland, with which I have a more recent association, and in which I have found new creative sources. There's something Van Morrison-like in the structure and build of some of your pieces ('Inarticulate Speech of the Heart' period). One of your tracks reminded me that I have some extended recordings of hundreds of ropes-against-masts in a windy Dun Laoghaire marina that I have yet to use. There are so many models for structure in music...

It would be funny, now, to learn that you live in Vancouver and your music is entirely a work of imagination onto which I have projected all these associations! No matter. Congratulations on two great albums.

[...Musician X did not reply].