Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Music: the miraculous instances.

Those of you who know me and have ever discussed music with me will know that — as one friend delightfully put it — I ‘sleep around’. That is, I’m the kind of person who discovers a musician, band or composer and subsequently pursues their creative output with a dogged ardour: days spent out in the world collecting albums in some of the few remaining record shops; the nights spent at home absorbing every drop of sound though headphones; evenings researching clips on YouTube or ordering things online — and all the time reading, reading, reading up on them. Everything in an attempt to grok the subject in fullness, as they no doubt said in the Seventies. I let the music and musicians bewitch me. And then, weeks or even months later —  a considerable while at least — then, well, I move on and find something else to fascinate me. The objects of my melodic obsessions are not callously discarded in my ongoing quest to seek new distractions; rather, they are assimilated warmly into my preexisting musical cognitive framework, elevated to my imagined Pantheon of sonic greatness to join those other ecstatic heartbeats of harmony and invention that have been judged worthy before them.

Pomposity aside, there’s a danger of making this process sound like a fickle, casual process but I assure you if there’s anything I do in my life with devoted dedication, assiduous application and ever-loving loyalty, it is to appreciate music. As Frank Zappa once said, with a laudable lack of needless overstatement: it’s the best. Lovers (and I can barely use the term in plural, let’s face it) have come and gone in my life. My observations on visual arts are plain, unremarkable and hold no revelations for the world at large. I have a weirdly moody, on-off affair with films, television and books with few, highly noteworthy exceptions. However, my relationship with music has and ever holds fast, runs deep, improves with age and is all-consuming.

Truly with music, one can create a kingdom, a realm of sound that reflects, refracts, justifies, challenges and crystallises oneself. To enjoy a piece of music, to really enjoy it, not merely hear or perceive it, but to listen, engage with it, let it take you somewhere until you feel your understanding of it is so close, so deeply personal and heartfelt, that an exchange occurs and it becomes part of you — well, that’s the closest we get to godliness in this mortal existence. It’s love. Conversely, there are few purer, more excoriating sensations of condemnation and abhorrence in normal life than the ones felt when experiencing a piece of music that one despises for whatever reasons; be they down to an ear sensitised to irritable cacophony, compositional laziness or a prosaic triteness of structure — or worse still, powerful and emotive negative memory associations.

I’ve needed music more than ever before lately, not only for its delicious contradiction of calmative yet stimulating effects, but also for either the escape it has afforded, or for its joyous affirmation of the here and now, as circumstances have dictated. Those exponents of the music that has transported me thus this past year have been clasped very firmly to my bosom indeed. Here are three examples:

Nikolai Kapustin’s music for solo piano. A classicist who spent much time in jazz bands, Kapustin’s genius lies in his ability to write music that sounds like pure improvisation, but his questing mind sought to express it as solid, on-paper composition — and so it proves: a deliriously rhythmic, yet almost mathematical jazz-classical fusion, with wit and soul allied to intellect. Pleasingly, Kapustin’s still alive at time of writing, a querulous, bespectacled septagenarian, whose suave, vandyked facial features congregate around the lower portion of his head, the better to accentuate his cranium. More often than not, he’s photographed with a ciggie on the go. Well, of course

Speaking of pianistic wit and soul, I was reacquainted last spring with the artistry of Martha Argerich. As an overconfident and ultimately callow young man in my twenties, working in the classical department of the then all-powerful Virgin empire, I was peripherally appreciative of the popularity of Ms Argerich, her face on a dozen Deutsche Grammophon CD albums, either smiling with warm, glamorous, middle-aged serenity in full colour, or in sultry black and white shots from the Sixties, pouting in moody communion with her Muse; a deeply sexy young woman. Clearly her musical qualities were lost on me at my age then. Now in her early seventies, Martha Argerich is the finest pianist alive on this planet, no question in my mind. She remains a bewitching presence in the concert hall, not least for a devastating technique that combines speed and precision with panache and a profoundly tasteful understanding of the requirements of the music that flows from her ageless fingertips. In a parallel universe without music, Argerich would have been a highly successful brain surgeon — or a prolific sniper. 

Quite frequently, an understanding for certain music creeps up on you, don’t you find? Things you were already aware of — but indifferent to — often take time to come into focus and occupy one’s attention, but once there, they’re inside of you forever. Such was the case this time last year with the ‘cult’ rock band Family. I had owned their 1968 debut Music In A Doll’s House, their 1969 sophomore release Family Entertainment and a compilation album for a couple of years and found them curious, but somewhat chilly and offbeat. Picture me: late January weather, feeling miserable with my lot, my change of circumstances, tooling somewhat aimlessly around my local Tesco for want of anywhere better to shop (so it seemed) when ‘Burlesque’ popped onto the iPod Shuffle. Vocalist Roger Chapman’s voice varies from an acquired-taste tremelo in certain registers (described once and quoted for evermore as like an ‘electric goat’), through to an engaging, alleycat growl which sits fine and dandy on top of the band’s more blokey, meat-and-potatoes-style numbers. There was Chappo — both vocal iterations loud and proud on ‘Burlesque’, perhaps Family’s best-known song — and something snapped inside me in a good way. I ‘got’ Family. They were an amiable arm round my shoulder, a — dare-I-say — soundtrack to my perceived down-at-heel situation…and it worked. For the most part Family are quirky, steeped as much in folk tunings as they are the blues-rock stylings that mark them as a band from the late Sixties. They manage that clever trick of never sounding quite the same from one song to another, while forging an overall identity that is distinctive as their own. It’s an experimental, communal outlook that allies them closely in my mind to British groups such as Traffic and Jethro Tull, and American ones like Spirit and The Band. Not long after my Finchley Road To Damascus moment in Tesco (great sentence, never writing that one ever again) I acquired a second-hand copy of their final studio album, 1973’s It’s Only A Movie, with its striking cover image of a sullen, silent-movie-era actor dressed as a cowboy. The title song, its daft structure and knowing, fourth-wall-breaking lyric just maintained my hangdog mood, but now I had a reason to like it. 

Right, I'm off. Thank you for your indulgence.


Monday, 5 January 2015

Welcome to 2015: K.B.O. — and thanks.

David Coverdale, the leather-trous’d frontman of Whitesnake (and let’s be honest, how often does one get to start an article like that?) is a gentleman who enjoys Twitter and the opportunities it affords a veteran rocker to vouchsafe his whimsical worldview unto the tweeting faithful. The other day, amidst his usual engaging blend of daft photos, jokes, and cheerful innuendo, he sent out this piece of motivation:

No matter how you feel, get up, dress up, show up, never give up.

Not his words of course — it’s been attributed to various people, but dang, I’m taking it as wisdom imparted direct from the man who sang Fool For Your Lovin’ and once made an album with Deep Purple called Come Taste The Band. Thanks, Dave.

Even more succinctly, Winston Churchill, always pretty good value for a quip and a quote (especially when lifted out of context), famously signed off letters and phonecalls during the Second World War with the initials K.B.O.Keep Buggering On. Churchill had a name for depression, specifically his own: the ‘black dog
— but as a confessed depressive, he appreciated the value of engaging with the world, to seize opportunities to create that all-important sense of achievement that makes life worth getting out of bed for of a morning. Outside of — or perhaps slyly, gleefully acknowledging — the term’s sexual connotation, Churchill’s phrase has a certain dynamic, bullish swagger to it. Merely getting by is not enough. You have to get out there and get stuck in, cause trouble, build some bridges, burn some others, make some noise. Keep buggering on.

“K.B.O…. K.B.O…” irrespective of how you may feel about Winston, I’ve found it a powerful mantra this past year. As I bid farewell to 2014, I can honestly say without overstatement that it has been, in many ways, about the worst single year of my life to date. I may sound melodramatic but trust me, there has been more heartbreak, anger, doubt, despair, loneliness, frustration and tiresome intimations of fleshly mortality packed into twelve neatly boxed sections as any I could recall, in relentless procession from January to December.

However, I’m not here to complain, nor do I think it’s my natural disposition to wallow in abject misery. In fact, quite the opposite. Positive change has to take place from the inside first, of course. At the risk of spouting platitudes, here’s another quote, from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Indulge me. Amidst the clunking dialogue of that much-maligned movie comes an unlikely, but undeniably neat precis of positive thinking: ‘your focus determines your reality’. I have spent a considerable amount of time this year, more than ever before in my life, alone — and this has afforded me time to sit and focus on said reality. But the journey has not always been about navel contemplation, reflection on regret and self-recrimination — the most exciting things can sometimes happen inside one’s head, and lately I have been more thankful than usual for the redemptive power of music and other entertainments. I’m certainly not saying anything new or profound here, I know, but one has to find this stuff out for oneself to really appreciate it.

Most importantly, I can see that there was a whole lot to enjoy in 2014, despite myself, between those episodes when I needed to remind myself to K.B.O. — and the vast majority of these things were experienced in the company of splendid, loving people. I shan’t name names as I will embarrass you almost as much as I will embarrass myself in my gushing, unvarnished praise of every one of you; you who have kept me occupied, engaged, amused, distracted and stimulated this past year. Let’s just say, you’ve collectively given me hope for the year to come. Please know that for that, I love you.

Next time, soon, I’ll be back to pop culture chronicling duties and will present to you a list of cultural discoveries and re-acquaintances I made over the last twelve months.

But first, a drink. If I permit myself.

That’s a whole other story.