Work in progress – do not fill the gaps

It’s very easy to look at things the wrong way.

For example, on the back of this new year and the inevitable lists from people about what they liked last year, and its conjunction with the fact that I’m at my most skint for a decade and will likely be for a while yet, it could be very easy to get depressed about the fact that I’m never going to be able to buy all the albums I’ve put in my Bandcamp wishlist in the last few weeks, let alone anything else that’s not out on the platform.

But of course, there is another way of looking at it, and I’m going to use an analogy, because I like doing that.

This is not an exact figure, but there are roughly 7 billion human beings on this planet of ours. Of those 7 billion, I reckon 99% of them are actually wonderful people – it’s just a shame that the 1% that aren’t seem to feel the need to try and rule the rest of us, openly or otherwise; also it’s a shame that us otherwise wonderful people keep falling for their bullshit time and time again. This, ladies and gentleman, is exactly why I’m interested in magic theory – it explains an awful lot of the world a lot better than the random chaos meets survival of the fittest bollocks that passes for a worldview in mainstream society, although there is more to memeology than I originally gave credence – ironically, one of the most unscientific theories ever to be popularised by a  wannabe preacher supposed scientist!

Now, I am never, ever going to meet all of these wonderful people, which is in many ways a shame, but in the most important way is in fact unimportant. It’s enough to know they are there, and that when we meet we should enjoy each others company.

So let it be with all this tremendous music which is flooding my perception on a daily basis, as well as my continued rediscovery of all the wonderful stuff in my epic library. Because I unashamedly have a world view that is largely at odds with the current paradigm, I’m at one with the idea that I can’t have it all and have it now, but I feel that I get what I need when I need it. And so, I shall continue to add things to wishlists, and because Bandcamp has some good features which includes being able to listen to said album all the way through at least once (depends on how many times the artist/label has set it behind the scenes), I know where it is for the future. Also, I may even get to buy it in said future so that I can support said artist/label.

But there’s gonna be a whole heap of posts coming up…

 

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Passion or Pastiche? The appeal to authority (part 3)

At the beginning of this year, my wife and I bought a new bathroom, one of those things that some people do when the need arises. As tends to be usual with this kind of transaction these days, my email address was surrendered to the vendor even though we were paying by cash and in person (we’d been saving up). So you can probably guess what I’m going to be telling you next – every day subsequent to that for about 13 days I got emails from this retailer who specialise exclusively in bathroom products. It probably would have gone on longer, but I unsubscribed from the list.

Now then, having just bought oneself a bathroom, how long do you think it would take for someone to start thinking about replacing said bathroom? Many years? Some years? Some Months? Some days? One day? And yet, can you blame the autobot for automatically adding an email to a mailing list, and can you blame a salesperson for obtaining said email address? They do it because that is what is done these days. It might make marketing sense for a retailer whose goods traverse something of a range, but let’s be honest, if I need to replace aspects of my newly bought bathroom within days or weeks of buying that one, I’m hardly likely to be looking at the same supplier…

So my beef here is not with email lists in general, although they are one of the many lesser evils to assail us daily (unsubscribe! unsubscribe!) but instead with unthinking application of procedures, aka Lazy Thinking. We have a mailing list because everyone has a mailing list. We send daily updates because everyone sends daily updates. We put that sitar in the recording because everyone is doing it these days. We put that quote about the spirit world in to prove that we’re truly psychedelic and therefore we must be right into all that new age shit, right? I mean, that’s what they do, innit?

And that, ladies and gentleman, is how to cross a bathroom with a Goat.

Briefly going back to the bathroom story, there are probably great precedents surrounding the email marketing technique being applied. Have a look at this article back in 1999 (if you have an ACM subscription), this more recent one (also needs a not at all cheap subscription) or this one which may actually be free. Of course, the man at the counter collecting email addresses is probably not aware of any of this theoretical basis, he’s just doing his job, which is to follow the precedents and apply them to the marketing of bathrooms. Company X started collecting data on their customers and their portfolio has risen by N percent a year since. Luminary Y said in some speech last year that any company not collecting email signatures was doomed to failure. You know the kind of thing; a few examples of success, and a few more ‘authorities’ shouting for the cause, and then simply not doing it becomes unthinkable. And thus a story is written.

But there is very usually a context that doesn’t get taken into account. Company X’s profile may actually have risen N percent a year because of a confluence of coinciding factors, of which the data collection was but a minor one and some snazzy new catchphrase crossed with sleek design crossed with being in the right place at the right time may just have been about 1000 times more important. Equally, Luminary Y may work as a consultant for a company that specialises in exactly that sort of data collection and is basically drumming them up some business. Regardless of the original contexts, though, the end result is that almost every damn vendor you buy anything from these days will then start sending you emails. Have you ever seen the look on a salesman’s face when you say you don’t want to give them your email? Depends on the salesman, I suppose. But these things rarely make the story.

Anywho, on the subject of marketing, there is only one authority you need.

You’d better believe this kind of lazy thinking happens with people writing/making/performing music.

Probably the biggest authority-bubble I would like to see popped in my lifetime is the notion of ‘types of music,’ known to most of us as ‘genre.‘ In some fields, the fragmentation into various sub-genres is frankly mystifying to the people who remember that field starting, especially as what separates one artist from another into separate categories is usually only noticeable to the ‘expert.’ (There is a separate and probably opposite idea here about increasing complexity mirroring evolution in it’s speciation-tree manifestation, and taking it fractal, but I’ll let that gestate for a while).

But that is a pet peeve of mine, and the world is not going to stand or fall on it, no it isn’t. Where I think this need to follow precedent is at its most pernicious, though, is where it tries to place limits on what you can do. I mean, some of my favourite psychedelic music of this century would probably not even be considered as psychedelic by most people who would instead call it jazz or neo-folk or whatever because of the obvious stylistic trappings and completely disregarding the actual effect on the listener. Meanwhile, bands who are basically a revivalist rock band are unquestionably accepted as ‘psych-rock’ because they play the music the way it was done by that great band back in the late ’60s even though the effect on the listener is not noticeably different to listening to a covers band. The same thing happened with ‘stoner-rock’ a while back. Therefore, a young band comes along and they haven’t seen past the bullshit of labels just yet, and start thinking about playing about with what they’re doing. But it isn’t psych-rock! exclaims their guitarist/producer/ manager/hanger-on/bank manager. And thus the idea is discarded, and we get the old maps out and tell the bass player to stop looking down those dirty alleys, they’re not on this map.

Now the label ‘psych-rock,’ or indeed any label for that matter does not matter as much as one may think it does, certainly it matters less than I may appear to be trying to make it matter. I shall fall back into the realm of absurd analogies, a realm I visit often, to illustrate my point.

Let us suppose that all children and immigrants into our society from now on were going to get all of their knowledge from a select group of teachers, and no other members of society may contradict what these teachers may tell our society’s newbies. Let us then suppose that these teachers started telling their charges that the colour we have come to know as ‘yellow’ is, in fact, ‘blue,’ and vice versa. This process, uninterrupted, would result in a population who had completely opposite views on these respective colours in less than a hundred years, albeit there would be some confusion in the meantime. I dare you to write that screenplay.

Now, whether we call ‘yellow’ ‘blue’ or vice versa doesn’t actually matter a damn; the key thing is that we tend to agree with each other that we’re talking about the same thing when we communicate – this is called ‘consensus reality,’ and it has its uses. But although labels are an occasionally necessary evil, particularly if we want to tell someone what colour towel they should be fetching out of the airing cupboard – why do we need to start describing that label? ‘Well, John, Blue is the label we give to vibrations in light frequency between 610-670 THz, you can’t miss it.’

So where to begin with describing the labels given to music? I mean, go on, describe rock music. Describe psychedelic music. Describe noise-rockDescribe slowcore. Describe post-dubstep. And describe all of those terms in such a way that anyone will know exactly what to expect from any artist tarred with that label. I’ll wait.

Where the problem with this is exacerbated is that Valerio Cosi, for example, may only ever get filed under jazz, experimental or improv, and people will think they don’t like jazz or improv, and certainly not that horrible experimental racket, but they do love themselves some Psych, so they go to the psych ghetto and there they are introduced to Foxygen. But, but, Pitchfork said they were good! And our would be seeker would have discovered that the aural atmosphere created by my favourite Italian saxophonist is in fact every bit as good as I said it was if someone had had the temerity to add ‘psychedelic’ to his many facets. In a way, it’s like the way academics have to fill their work with citations of other academics to justify their own work, why they had the temerity to think of doing the investigation in the first place, and look everybody, we followed the correct protocols and jumped through the right hoops. And as academic knowledge gradually indexes more and more of material reality out of this blob of writings and citations, so musical genres also get labelled as soon as they emerge. In most cases, the artists themselves were probably just doing what felt right/sounded good.

It doesn’t help that almost every artist labels themselves. I’ve yet to find an artist whose primary descriptor for their output is simply ‘music,’ yet every artist who I have mentioned or will mention could quite legitimately do that. To counter the ‘but that wouldn’t be very helpful’ argument, I say this: what label or description would guarantee that you would like an artist? Because two artists could very easily be legitimately described as the same thing and you would hate one and love the other. There is no foolproof way of avoiding music you don’t like when investigating new stuff. Which may be why the majority of humans seem to happily let commercial radio be the gatekeepers who decide which new artists are allowed into their mental space. Clearly this post is not aimed at such people.

Imagine the freedom you would have if you only applied the broadest of categories to who you are and what you could do. Instead of saying I make lo-fi indie-psych-rock-punk, I make music. This means I can make music in any format without violating expectations. Now, I can do that anyway. But people have a serious resistance to having their expectations violated, which is one of the reasons I’m suggesting we should do as little to help create them in the first place. Every expectation created is a potential script/straitjacket to follow. Why do we want to behave as people expect us to?

Now, hondootedly mossis thotcher, there are valid reasons for the existence of labels. I mean, how many different artists can you currently choose from if you were to go to t’internet now and try to find a new musical love? I don’t just mean current, either. How many artists could you theoretically listen to? So, if I were to indulge in this exercise now, even I would probably have to put some genres into a search engine for whatever resource I’m exploring, and I think the jury deciding how varied my taste is must have gone to the pub and got pissed, because if it’s still out, they’re having you on. And I’m quite narrow minded compared to some people I know.

It is no sin to create music that falls squarely within the boundaries that groups of people have decided to label as a genre – there’s a good argument to say that a large percentage of music that is made has to, by definition, be quite conventional. If you consider music as another form of communication, another language, then compare it to the way we use our verbal language – we use the same words as each other so that we may be understood, yet language nevertheless evolves without trying to. So I don’t advocate originality for the pure sake of it, it is my belief that it happens when the time is right – putting yourself in the right conditions, from the artist’s perspective. And always, the work is the king. Do it properly, it basically does itself, so trust your instincts.

However, we seem to have evolved a reward system for people who can make music in a way that successfully communicates to people, a mixture of financial reward and ego-stroking, which interferes with the original intention to communicate. Where there’s success, there’s a support system, in this case the music industry at large – the managers, the agents, the record labels yadda yadda. And once entrenched, they naturally prefer to stay entrenched due to the not insubstantial rewards in this support system, which include more power than you’d realise. Thus, the edifice eventually coalesces into a rigid conservatism where formulas are followed based on what made money previously. Repetitive rituals, basically. And thus we get a situation best described by Alan Moore (one of my appeals to authority!) where the majority of people, including many practitioners, think all of this is just something to pass the time whilst waiting to die.

Come on now, is that how you would describe your most transcendental music experiences?

If it wasn’t for all the places on the internet where unknown artists could show their work, we wouldn’t get heard outside of our circles of friends. Yet, it is this that will make the dominant system redundant, almost a separate enterprise in terms of musical innovation, a bit like children’s fiction has its own niche in our cultural superstore. It is here at the bottom of the pond where the new swings in cultural direction originate, the earth in which they germinate. Everything in the mainstream ultimately has its roots with outsiders.

Ah! But why do we need someone to police what is and what is not acceptable as a trap for young bands to fall into? Well, now we’re asking a more intelligent question. Maybe this is all actually part of the game.

In true Trickster style, indulge me in a thought experiment. Suppose you wanted to communicate something to the widest audience possible, and the message would seem more important than how it was communicated. Well, wouldn’t you go for the best vehicle for the ride? There’s a very good reason that cliches are what they are and passing in the air as I write this is one that goes Keep it Simple, Stupid, so I’ll pluck that out.  We’re back to the idea of needing stories to get an underlying message across, only in this case I’m thinking of stories told in a musical language. Popular music equates to popular musical stories, and if you wanted to reach your widest possible audience, you’d surely use a popular vehicle to get you to the biggest stage you could. If people thought you were actually doing something else such as entertaining them, well, so much the better.

Have you ever noticed how universally simple the main themes of our most popular songs are? They very often boil down to self help workshops, songs of love and devotion and, yes, worship; very often there’s a mix of one or more of the preceding. If, like me, you’ve investigated some esoteric/occult explanations for reality, you’ll probably be aware of the idea that life is about performing your true will – being your true self, remembering who you are. Now this message can be summed up very simply as – I want to be free. You can be free. (Y)Our dreams can come true.

Ever heard any songs with that kind of message?

A similar interpretation can be performed on love songs ultimately being about completing yourself. The point is that there are some truly deep meanings underneath these ‘simple’ songs, much in the same way that fairy tales touch on so many fundamental archetypes of deep culture. We are back in the realms of the legominism. Gradually, listeners find themselves being drawn to the more complex communications once they’ve been engaged, and maybe start exploring, creating maps. In a few cases, they really do go out and find something new, because that’s how it works. But the process got started with those pop songs, and disguised itself as ‘mere’ entertainment. In the same way we don’t actually sniff at children’s books because that’s how we teach people to read, so we shouldn’t sniff at manufactured pop music. It’s where the children learn the language.

Staying with the books analogy – there are gradations of adult fiction, from the bestselling ones right down to the niche, cult books, each adding its own layer of story, and all parties on this spectrum have the same mix of motivations as those those on the music one. For example, this bestselling book actually has a very deep but simple story, the message of which will absolutely be scoffed at by many in my culture, but they are not its intended audience. Believe me, the author doesn’t give a stuff for the opinions of those who don’t agree with him, otherwise he wouldn’t have published it. It’s there for those who understand what he’s saying, even if they don’t consciously grok the full depth of it. The same, then, can be applied whenever my spidey-sense goes about a band who I think are putting it on – maybe they are actually genuine, but I am not their intended audience. My opinions can go hang (I’ve been trying to make them do that for the last three years; unsuccessfully, as these posts demonstrate).

Anyway, the point is that in amongst all the chancers and celebrities and smartarses who make up the successful top tiers of the musical pyramid (plus of course, the really genuine ones who are truly following their muse, who are probably the only artists not limiting themselves to appeals to authority), there are some tricksters there, not as they seem. It’s the job of the listener to sort out who’s who, and how much/ if at all it matters. Also, it’s probably the same proportions all the way down. This means there will be tricksters all the way down, concentrating on the audience they can get using the stages their chosen vehicle can take them to. They may be indistinguishable from those who are doing it because its their most preferred way of passing the time until they die, the ones who follow styles as much from lazy thinking as from a particular passion, and they usually do a reasonable job of playing the part that they mean it, maaaan. In fact, they usually mean it just as much, but not as advertised. The more I think about it, the more necessary I actually think they are.

Maybe they are, in fact, a wink from the elephant in the room.

Ah, have I not mentioned the elephant in the room?

As I’ll discuss on the next (probably last) post in this series, this is why YOU do matter.

Passion or Pastiche? The map versus the territory (part 2)

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.

Passion or Pastiche? Actually, does it matter? (part 1)

I’ve been toying whether or not to do a post dedicated to Prince Rupert’s Drops, and it feels oddly appropriate that the title track of their new album should therefore lodge itself in my head for the duration whilst I consider it.

Now, the track in question is something I actually have a love/hate relationship with, in that I only really like the chorus. And this in turn is reflected around the whole of this and their debut album – there are some stunning tracks, but there are also some right clunkers. And I can’t really get out of my head the notion that they might not 100% mean it, maaaaan.

Let me turn to another of the neo-‘psych’ bands doing the rounds, one you may be more familiar with.

Goat bring me a lot of pleasure, especially the track ‘Gathering of the Ancient Tribes.’ And the vocalist? I love how her voice frequently borders derangement (totally a word, but not how I meant it). But again, as I listen to the album, the little nagging voice seems to harp on – passion or pastiche?

Why does it matter?

Why is it that I, and indeed many others, demand that anyone who releases music that I listen to is equal in their passion for music that I am? Do I make the same demands of artists who I don’t listen to? The answer is no. I don’t. Especially with pop bands, because I see that as a genre full of people whose primary motivation is fame and celebrity, and the music as a vehicle by which to accomplish this, but it also tends not to bother me if, say, Slipknot turn out to have been a marketing exercise because I don’t personally like their music or their chosen genre of expression.

Also, I work in a library, and have done for nearly 10 years. It was not an obvious place my ‘career’ was heading prior to, and I won’t be surprised if I move on somewhere else at some point; my life has been somewhat like that. The point is, I do it, I sometimes even enjoy it, but I’m not passionate about it even though I still expect to get paid for it. Should I give it up because of my lack of passion? What about football players? People who flip burgers for a living?

There’s a lot to be unpacked in the above, and to do it properly, we’re going to have to range away from music. And seeing as it’s me (you’ll get used to me), let’s go a bit weird.

Tell me, have you ever read The Trickster and the Paranormal by George P. Hansen? The rest of this post will probably make more sense if you have; if not, try it anyway.

I mention that book principally because it is a master legominism. You know what a legominism is, don’t you?

Mentioned in the above book is the saga of Carlos Castaneda, and the books he wrote about the Yaqui sorceror Don Juan Matus, and how the story Carlos gives about the experience doesn’t seem to match whatever it was he was actually doing at the time, and that there are a lot of people who think he made the whole experience up.

I might controversially say that this sort of thing could be applied to the whole story of Jesus. There are people, not just atheists, who put the theory forward that dude simply didn’t exist, or if he did, he was a man who did some stuff, and then in the centuries after his life, stories got attached to him and eventually built a monolithic legend from which a religion could be built, a religion that had more than some things in common with (at least) one of its rival religions at the time, and also just so happened to be of some use to the dominant social control system of the time. After all, any sizeable society has never lacked for would be preachers. With a little imagination, we could quite easily imagine that in a couple of hundred years, a reasonably sized cult/religion could have sprung up around the Toltec Warrior teachings, though I’m feeling too stupid to give it a flashy name at the moment.

In fact, if you look all around the whole subject, you’ll probably find a certain ambiguity around pretty much all such stories surrounding any new movement, especially where their origin stories interesect with reality, or don’t, as the case may be. The waters from which the contemporary version of the New Age movement emerged, for example, are very murky indeed.

But – does this mean that we should discard absolutely everything associated with a story just because there are some things about it we don’t like because they don’t satisfy some criteria that we apply when judging things, criteria we might be slightly less zealous in applying to our own favourite stories? Or – if we’re going to discard the bathwater, shouldn’t we first check to make sure there isn’t also a baby in there? Particularly if you weren’t the one who ran the bath to begin with.

Just try this viewpoint on and see how it fits: whether Carlos Castaneda actually went to Mexico and studied with someone called Juan Matus is actually unimportant. It is irrelevant to the message. The same is true as to whether or not Jesus was a physical human being. Arguing either for or against the existence of the figures in question is an entirely different argument from whether or not the teachings are useful. So then the real question becomes: how good are the teachings? Are they useful tech? And that is a question you need to answer for yourself, to your own satisfaction.

It seems that, for whatever reason, instead of accepting that there can be some really useful ideas about how to live life, we need to believe that these ideas came from one person and that the accompanying story has to be spectacular. We don’t seem to be able to accept these things from prosaic sources, there has to be fireworks, sacrifice, hardships, and hopefully some sex and drugs too. Therefore, the teachings gather the best story that enable them to reach their widest audience. Whether or not the stories themselves are conscious entities purposely doing these things, or blind constructs simply following strategies that ensure their maximal propagation, or simply tricks of our own perception is again irrelevant, and I would argue unknowable.

So, to bring these entirely non-rational ramblings back to my starting words (even though I admit that the examples are not exactly commensurate), does it matter that some artists who are trying to capture my attention may not actually be quite what they say they are? Are we only able, nay allowed, to enjoy music if the person(s) who made it were living, breathing, sweating the stuff?

Well, let’s re-frame the question. Is the music good? Is it useful tech? And if the answer to either of these questions is a genuine and heartfelt YES (and again, only you can answer that question), then the accompanying story is therefore irrelevant. For those who say no, however, the stories then become a stick to beat the music with, which again misses the point in my view – if you don’t like the music, just say you don’t like the music. No excuses are needed. Nothing more is necessary.

Speaking as a Creator, I can vouch for the fact that when the really good stuff comes there is very little conscious effort involved. It feels more like channelling than going to work or doing an essay or writing a blog post. Assuming that the same is true for other artists, I could posit the following in relation to this argument: the intention of the artist may simply be to make music in order to enhance their chances of becoming famous; the intentions of the music, however, may be somewhat different and are simply using the most useful and/or available channel through which to realise their intentions. (I realise that I have just hypothesised Music as a being with intentions, and you probably shouldn’t take that bit too seriously but do at least entertain the metaphor, offer it a cup of tea and a sit down. The point is possibly elucidated better in the quote from Impro halfway down this post.)

Of course, then comes the graft of realising what was released in this manner, and it is probably then that the story around it gets written. Where I fall down is usually in writing an accompanying story; I simply don’t do it.

I get the impression that audiences don’t want to believe that the music simply happens because the musicians happened to be in the right frame of mind with the right conditions; such a scenario implies that anybody can do it (and indeed, so too with the mystical examples listed above, and I chose them deliberately because that is exactly their point!). For whatever reason, and I have a whole host of ideas as to why this might be but I’m not going into them now, we prefer that anything new has to be accompanied by a genius or a hero, and it should have a compelling story holding its hand. We need to give medals and awards and we need to populate pedestals, so much so that we often do all of this for the benefit of people who don’t even have the grace to give anything in return. But to reiterate, don’t get stuck in the rut of judging the stories – look at the content, the output. If it has the right effect on you, then it needs no further justification, from you or anybody else. If it doesn’t, then ignore it. It probably wasn’t meant for you anyway.

In part 2 of this, I will possibly contradict most of what I said above, but in the true spirit if TTATP, both posts will be useful…

However, the next post will be a resumption of normal service, and a band that I will be amazed if you haven’t heard of before. Which means you may not have heard of them before.