Sunday, May 23, 2010

Enforced Hiatus 

If blogging here is slow for a while, it's not because this new-found blogging energy has run out, just that I have 2 dead computers. Both were archaic and due to be replaced anyway, but things will be quiet until his'n'hers laptops have arrived. Such is life.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Whither art? 

It’s not that I actively enjoy suburban railway journeys – certainly not when encumbered by a heavy and unwieldy bass guitar – but I do appreciate the few minutes of guilt-free idleness. Absolutely no reason to do anything other than gaze out of the railway carriage window, following or abandoning whatever thought-paths are opened up by the ever-changing view. Today’s journey was a crossing from one side of London to the other for a bass guitar lesson with Steve Lawson.

Much of suburban London – especially those parts seen alongside a railway line – are frankly rather ugly. I was tired on this particular journey, unable for the moment to balance the ugliness with a rational acceptance of its context, and so the ugliness rather got to me. Instead of being immersed in this noise and dirt and decay, this unkempt rubbish-tip of a city whose back yard seems to mount a violent assault on the soul, how much more pleasant to be away from all this to live somewhere surrounded by green, by tranquillity, by space. A nice safe little island of a make-believe reality we create for ourselves, shutting out the nasty bits, the bits we don’t want to see, the bits that upset or disturb us. Islands of leafy suburbia amidst urban blight; islands of national (illusory?) well-being amidst a world heading for the brink – and perhaps art itself is another form of island, created as an escape mechanism from the harsh brutality of reality.

Does it actually matter that we act as if these islands are real? Or do we need the security they provide so that we can deal with the bigger reality that faces us when we go outside?

If we go outside, that is.

I sometimes worry about trying to justify art, since it sometimes seems to belong only to that artificial reality. Or more to the point, I worry about my art. My music. With working hours written off as worthless, shouldn’t I be doing something of some value with the hours that remain? I over-simplify the question, of course. I can present all manner of excellent reasons why art is valuable, essential even to the advancement of civilisation. How art mirrors the depths as well as the heights of human experience. I don’t have a problem with that, either intellectually or, if you like to put it that way, spiritually. And yet I’m still left with a nagging doubt when it comes to my art. It still feels as though art – my art - is a luxury, to be indulged in only when the real work has been done.

And this is why I miss those railway journeys: the idle thoughts and scribblings in my notebook, stimulated by nothing more than the view from the window, led me to this conclusion: the best way to deal with that question – if I accept that the ‘best’ art is not a luxury at all but an essential catalyst to the expansion of the soul – is to make sure that my art can be counted amongst that which can be such a catalyst. A mighty tall order, one that sounds almost arrogant in its presumption, but nonetheless not one to be shied away from.

In other words, to be the best musician I can be.

It sounds a simple enough concept, and one wonders why it should take such a tortuous mental process to reach this point. However, the ramifications are only just beginning to dawn on me. Some of them are rather scary.

I can be a creature of extremes; holding a tremendous, debilitating lack of self-confidence yet at the same time a deep and sure belief in a potential only just beginning to be tapped. I guess that’s not all bad; at least the lack of confidence prevents what self-belief there is from turning into arrogance.

Ye gods; is the old blogger, not seen here for many a year, at last resurrected?

Friday, May 21, 2010

30 Days of Music: Day 6 - a song that reminds me of somewhere 

Wind the clock back 28 years to 1982. (Good grief, is really that long? Half a lifetime?) It’s lunch time and I’m sitting in a pub in Sutton Coldfield, just outside Birmingham, along with a few work colleagues. We’re working on installing new VHF radio transmitters at the BBC transmitting station nearby. It’s a long job, running well over a year, and many weeks will find a number of us up here for much of the week, back home again for the weekend. It’s not that we’re hardened lunch-time drinkers (honest…) but with long working days up here it’s nice to get away from site for a while, just for a change of scenery. The pub doesn’t have a huge lunch-time trade, but every day we see another similar group here – tradesmen of some kind, I can’t remember what; electricians maybe – obviously in a similar position to us, taking a break from a long ongoing job. And every day, without fail, they select the same song on the video jukebox. I suppose they may have liked the music, but somehow I suspect that may not have been the over-riding reason for their choice…

(The YouTube version has embedding disabled, but the above link seems to work okay)

Anyway, their job finished before ours, and for a couple of days the pub was a lot quieter at lunch time. But something was missing; it just didn’t seem the same without that video playing, so, rather sheepishly, we carried on the tradition, secretly hoping no-one else was paying close attention to our apparent tastes in music and… ahem… visual entertainment. Hence that song, for better or for worse, is inextricably linked in my mind with jumbled visions of exotic yachts, bikini-clad girls, and a very English saloon bar of a pub tucked away in a sleepy corner of the midlands.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

30 Days of Music: Day 5 - a song that reminds you of someone. 

I think the 90's was the decade in which I rediscovered the music of my youth; I remember commuting up and down the M1 with the likes of Led Zeppelin blasting full volume out of the car stereo. A circumstance which of course was completely disconnected with the fact that I also turned 40 half way through that decade... There was so much good old stuff to listen to that somehow I managed to miss much of the great new music that was around. So although I'd just about heard of the Crash Test Dummies, I hadn't a clue what kind of sound they made; I think the name made me think vaguely of post-punk rock. (Worth clicking that link, by the way, because you get a free play of their new album).

Enter Andrea. We discovered each other's blogs, as you do, swapped stories etc, and somewhere along the line, for a reason that now escapes me, she put together a tape of various Canadian artists - which incidentally was where I first heard day 1's contribution to this series. Included on that tape was this song. I'd never heard it before - or indeed anything quite like it - and it grew and grew on me. It appeals to the slightly off-the-wall side of my sense of humour, and I think there's probably something about it which reflects a side of Andrea too. Which is why this song always reminds me of her. (And I hope it's okay to say so, Andrea, but I figured I could always seek forgiveness if I had to ;)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

30 Days of Music: Day 4 - A song that makes you sad 

When she first recorded this song in 1992, Eva Cassidy wouldn't have known that she was going to die of cancer just four years later. All of which renders that last line of the song all the more poignant.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

30 Days of Music: Day 3 - a song that makes you happy 

In spite of [insert list of gripes here] it is still a wonderful world - for the moment. Unless we fuck it up irretrievably. On which day this song will instead make me very sad indeed.

Monday, May 17, 2010

30 Days of Music: Day 2 – Your Least Favourite Song 

I thought at first this one was going to be difficult; then I remembered disco… the enemy of all things musical.

It must be the enemy, because it induces a fight-or-flight response – smash the TV and beat the remnants into a pile of dust, or stick my fingers in my ears and run, screaming, from the room. Not being the owner of the TV at the time, I chose the latter option. Inwardly, if not actually.

But what have I done? I actually listened to a few moments of this video, and that sickening tune has insinuated itself into my brain; I even found myself involuntarily humming it in the shower this morning. Perhaps the men in white coats will come for me soon…

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Thirty Days of Music 

There’s a meme doing the rounds; thirty days of music. Thirty simple prompts for songs you like/dislike/make you feel happy/sad etc – you get the picture. It’s curious that music is such a big part of my life yet I rarely write about it. Since these days I rarely write about anything at all (a situation worth exploring, perhaps, but not right now), I thought it might be worth using this as a means of getting back into the habit of communicating here. Heaven knows, I don’t communicate much anywhere else.

Day 1 – Your Favourite Song

Even though the very concept of a single favourite song, amongst so much great music of such variety, is one against which I instinctively rebel, nevertheless this was an easy choice. A song I loved instantly on first hearing it, and of which I never tire; a song I return to time and again when my soul needs something beautiful, something heartfelt, something deeply human.

These words, from the description of the album, from which this song is taken, give some background to the composition:

“The album closes with perhaps the most deeply felt of the self-composed titles. "Departure Bay" contains vivid and touching images of her hometown of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island but also a wrenching description of her family's first Christmas without her mother and a final verse that welcomes new love and hope for the future.

“Musically composed by Krall alone, these songs mark a lyrical collaboration with her new husband, Elvis Costello. Explaining how they worked, Krall said: "I wrote the music and then Elvis and I talked about what we wanted to say. I told him stories and wrote pages and pages of reminiscences, descriptions and images, and he put them into tighter lyrical form. For "Departure Bay," I wrote down a list of things that I love about home, things I realized were different, even exotic, now that I've been away".”

This song has personal associations too - I have Andrea to thank for introducing me to Diana Krall’s music, and her paintings of the corner of Canada which form the setting for this song help especially to bring the words alive.

Sometimes we just appreciate a nice tune, or a beautiful voice, but, like all art perhaps, music has most effect when it touches something personal within ourselves, when the art is the bridge by which an experience can cross from one to another. This doesn’t have to be some great epiphany, some moment of immense joy or sorrow; just an empathic experience when the music puts you into the shoes of the singer or the songwriter and your world is enriched because of it.

That, I guess, is why I call this a favourite. Yes, the tune is good; yes the harmonies are pleasing; yes, the band – jazz trio plus guitar – is as near-perfect as you could possibly hope for; ultimately though, even though the song takes its inspiration in the circumstance surrounding a death, it manages to communicate a wholeness of experience that places acceptance and hope as equal partners with sadness.

As such, it reminds me a bit of those famous words of the 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich:
"…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well"

Does that seem a lot to read into a simple song? Perhaps; but then this is a personal favourite because it elicits a personal response. Your response will be different – and that’s fine. Life would be very dull if we all saw everything the same way.

Here’s the full list of 30 days’ themes if you fancy giving it a go:

day 01 - your favorite song
day 02 - your least favorite song
day 03 - a song that makes you happy
day 04 - a song that makes you sad
day 05 - a song that reminds you of someone
day 06 - a song that reminds of you of somewhere
day 07 - a song that reminds you of a certain event
day 08 - a song that you know all the words to
day 09 - a song that you can dance to
day 10 - a song that makes you fall asleep
day 11 - a song from your favorite band
day 12 - a song from a band you hate
day 13 - a song that is a guilty pleasure
day 14 - a song that no one would expect you to love
day 15 - a song that describes you
day 16 - a song that you used to love but now hate
day 17 - a song that you hear often on the radio
day 18 - a song that you wish you heard on the radio
day 19 - a song from your favorite album
day 20 - a song that you listen to when you’re angry
day 21 - a song that you listen to when you’re happy
day 22 - a song that you listen to when you’re sad
day 23 - a song that you want to play at your wedding
day 24 - a song that you want to play at your funeral
day 25 - a song that makes you laugh
day 26 - a song that you can play on an instrument
day 27 - a song that you wish you could play
day 28 - a song that makes you feel guilty
day 29 - a song from your childhood
day 30 - your favorite song at this time last year

Hat tip to Steve Lawson (from whom, incidentally, I’m now taking bass guitar lessons) for passing on the idea.