At the very beginning of this year, the electric blues band that I play bass in had a gig in a village in Leicestershire called Heather (pronounced Heether, for the non Leicesterfarians amongst you). After we had finished and packed up, we discovered that an enormously thick fog had descended in unison with the freezing temperatures which, despite some frankly silly front page headlines, are actually par for the course for this part of the world at this time of year.
Now, we’ve played that venue three or four times a year over the last few years, so I know how to get there and get back. I know the routes very well. However, it is one thing to know the routes but another thing entirely to know the roads themselves, and this became more and more obvious to me as I drove home very slowly through the thick fog that night. Because if you know all the little bends, the bumps and dips, the turns, then you’re not constantly on the edge of your seat. You know what’s coming and when. You may not necessarily drive any faster, but you can drive home in a much more relaxed state of mind. You necessarily must stay alert, but you can actually experience it with less fear; dare I say it, enjoy the ride.
There is, of course, one way, and only one way to get to know the roads, and that is to drive them regularly and with more than a certain amount of awareness of what it is you are doing. It is the same as learning any new skill. It is all about focused practice. Some people may be blessed with seemingly inherent abilities that help learn the new skill faster, but no amount of advantages will be of any use if the activity isn’t practiced. And both the art and the craft of making music is exactly like that, with the possible exception of being a singer but that’s another debate, one on which I’m probably not the best person to present, being a functional singer at best (boy, do I wish I had perfect pitch!)
When embarking on a journey to somewhere you haven’t been before, it is almost certain that you will have to refer to a map at some point. From said map, you will choose a preferred route, and this will in turn be converted into directions, which are basically a sequential list of recommended actions.
But how did the destination make its way on to the map in the first place?
Obviously, someone has to do some exploration. For the purposes of this part of the post, I’m going to assume that the thing we want to make a schematic of (cartographise?!?) is something that pre-exists, rather than a new town that we are going to plan into existence just off this road, next to the dwindling forest, trying not to draw attention to the local landfill.
An explorer is not necessarily going to be drawing a map as they explore, although I suppose it depends on why they’re doing it in the first place – for example, Laurens van der Post did quite some exploration at the request of HM Government. But the initial findings and subsequent representations will necessarily be quite sketchy. Suppose you’ve gone camping somewhere and decided not to follow maps but instead just explore and experience the place you’re in and maybe you find this amazingly beautiful spot, a little stream, maybe, or a hill with a view that is totes amazeballs. Later that night down the pub you may be chatting to someone else who’s doing the same thing as you and you tell them about this place – ‘well, starting from here, you’d go down the crooked path until you reach a really gnarly tree, you’ll know what I mean when you see it – well, there’s like a little path that goes off there to the right, so go that way and…’ You get the idea. Although, there’s also a certain amount of danger doing things this way isn’t there? What if you walk into a swamp just at the same time as a heavy fog descends? Which may be why the vast majority of people carry maps these days when there is a map to hand. Or probably there’s an app for that these days? (I don’t have an app device).
I’m now going to transpose this clumsy metaphor over to the realm of music making, specifically the creation of it.
In my experience, most ideas for music kind of just happen. But they don’t just kind of just happen. You have to be receptive, maybe have an instrument that you’re playing with at the time, although this isn’t a necessary condition (it is also not always a sufficient condition). Most importantly, the mindset must be quite exploratory. Say you’re practising scales, which is uber boring but important if you want to play music a certain way. If all you’re focused on is getting the scale right, then any deviation will just be that, a deviation, must try harder, etc. But if your mindset is more exploratory, then you may say ‘hang on, that sounds quite interesting.’ It could be a jumping off point for a riff, say, and off you go, exploring. Said exploration may then go to a dead end, a well known highway, a dimly lit backstreet, or somewhere you’ve never been before. If you like this place that you’ve never been before, well then, you’ll maybe want to remember it and maybe you’ll want to tell other people about it too – that would be when you start thinking about performance.
But if you want to leave a permanent marker, then you’ll start to consider recording, notation etc. Such a recording can then be thought of as a map for the benefit of others. In the example of written recording, i.e. notation, it is instructions on how to replicate your exploration. An audio recording, however, is often a much more precise representation, because you can get across some of your style of exactly how you got there. The written notation is like directions: turn left, stand on one leg, play the c note and follow it with the f# for an interval and a half, do the hokey cokey etc. The audio recording has all that too – less explicitly but in more detail, so that a listener so inclined can then play along with it more or less exactly, as their desire takes them. Exploring ready made sonic maps in this manner can go (at least) two ways: one, you can get really good at following those directions, you may even be able to play a flawless copy of the original; two, it can start a new exploration.
To my mind, the creative spirit will quite happily explore all available and interesting maps, but will never regard them as fixed. They will be reference points for their own journeys. They may be jumping off points – ‘I love that style, let’s see where I can go if I try it,’ for example. They may also regard them as places to not necessarily go to, but it is enough to know that they are there.
And this is the point where people like me can get quite sniffy about whether or not people really mean it, maaaan. I think what I actually mean is: are they actually exploring? Are they actually telling us about where they’ve been and how they got there? Or are they just cobbling together other peoples maps and slightly rearranging one or two contours without getting their hands truly dirty, taking risks of getting lost in the swamp on a foggy night? Another way of putting it is this: was the destination a conscious decision, the result of reading and following a map? Were they looking for unique stories of the journey, or were they content to send prefabricated postcards?
Of course, sometimes whilst traveling a well known or pre-explored route, something completely unexpected happens, even though the destination was pre-determined. A creative equivalent of a hailstorm, maybe, or getting mugged by some residents who previous explorers didn’t meet. Choosing to go to somewhere that is well known is not in and of itself a bad thing, even for an explorer. Because ultimately, it is the journey itself that is the exploration.
A lot of people don’t care whether they’re listening to sonic postcards, or a unique sonic photo album. For those of us who do, it can be hard to tell, although actual live performance and proximity is a pretty good guide – for example, in my youth I was a fan of Lenny Kravitz; I liked his first album. I went to see him when he toured for his second album, and I stopped liking his music and paid him no further mind.
To my mind, the word ‘art’ can be a synonym for ‘representations of anothers journey.’ I have literally just thought of that. It is so that I can write this: great art is an aid for you to understanding reality, filtered through the perspective of the person whose exploration it is based on. Bad art is made by people who aren’t giving you their perspective or, if they are, it may be incoherent (or both). Obviously it is a sliding scale between the two poles, and I don’t actually treat it as a dichotomy as there are other factors involved. However, it is quite useful for my purposes on this occasion.
So this is where I question the conclusion of the first post: how can it not matter if the artists aren’t giving you their own truth?
I’m paraphrasing Ezra Pound here: Artists are the antennae of their culture. You want to know what’s really going on? Check with the creatives. Their output will prefigure real life experience by varying amounts, but that’s because the truly tuned in types pick up on the undercurrents that eventually swell to the surface, and not every undercurrent will come to the surface. Watching the news is simply getting updates on the waves crashing onto the beach, by which time it’s usually too late to do anything about them, unless you have a surfboard handy.
The very act of putting yourself into the situation of being creative, regardless of motive, is in itself a way of opening the channel. Sure, some people are more receptive and pick things up more clearly, and it may be that the more sincere someone is, the more likely they’ll get a clear reception. On the other hand, you can perhaps care too much. As with everything, striking balance is the key, and will explain why the very best usually don’t take themselves too seriously but are in no way flippant about what they do.
So even a chancer who’s picked up a guitar and joined a neo-psych band ‘cos they’re dead cool, like’ may still contribute something genuinely worthwhile if he happens to be receptive when in the right situation, which in itself is a potential exploration. At the point of starting on these journeys, there is no functional difference between those who are genuine and those who think it makes them look cool – that comes with time on the journey, which they are themselves going to be setting out on using previous maps as guides. It can be very difficult to discern motive amongst people still finding their way, so the best thing to do is simply engage with what they have to say; read the maps or reports that they bring. If it is of no use or interest, discard it. If everyone around you is going nuts over something and it just doesn’t work for you then it doesn’t work for you. Discard it. Go and look for something more interesting.
Yes, there are people out there who have no interest in exploration and are never going to be able to contribute something worthwhile even by accident. Do not let them concern you, even if they are making piles of money and their every move is followed by a fawning press. They may, after all, act as a ‘gateway drug’ for some of their followers who then dive in and go in search of the true currents. And there is nothing to stop a chancer from getting hooked and getting serious – equally, there are far too many serious types who give up too quickly and never really explore.
I’ve thought of a bit of an idea of how to represent what I just wrote, but I’m not sure how to translate it using the limited dimensions of verbal language. Here goes: imagine all previous artistic output (henceforth called pathways – indulge me here) glued together into a giant representation of all artistic exploration, a humungous map. What I think its main features would be are a couple of giant superhighways (maybe more than a couple – maybe as many as some) linked together by many, many pathways of varying levels of ease of travel. There will be openings that don’t quite yet lead anywhere but have the potential to do so with a bit of exploration, and there will be backstreets where you don’t see many visitors, but that’s fine because not everything is for everyone is it? And of course, this is more than 3d. It’s more than 4d. It’s nd.
Now make the map into a maze.
There will also be dead ends, lots of dead ends. If you manage to factor in a way of reading this giant maze which links each pathway to the time it was created, I bet you’ll find that most dead ends would cluster around the time there was a gold rush in the exploration of that area.
And this nd maze doesn’t just work for music, it works for everything – art, literature, science, religion, business, you name it, you can build a similar kind of representation to the one I’ve just tried to describe.
And I think that is the answer to the question of why it bothers me if someone doesn’t mean it, maaan – I think they’re taking me down a dead end, and I’m not a fan of dead ends when there is so much of interest to explore. Especially ones that are not literal in the sense you bump into a wall; instead it takes you in a circle or a spiral or…
…I don’t know. It may also be true that someone of rare insight could probably go into a dead end and pick a way through it which then turns it into a valuable new pathway. Remember, with these explorations, there really are no rules. ‘Thou shalt not’ has no place here.
That’s the trouble with trying to communicate a metaphorical idea using fairly literal tools – this is basically the elephant in the room we’re dealing with here, and this elephant is an ever-changing beast that can at best be felt one limb at a time with a blindfold on, and each snapshot will be from a different perspective. And so on.
Before I kill the metaphor even further I think I’m going to wrap it up here. A future post will be explicitly dedicated to that elephant in the room, but I’m going to swing back over to the stories that accompany artistic exploration in the next one.