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.


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