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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Staking a Claim - Part 1

Peter Hum in a recent blog juxtaposed the phenomenal video download statistics of Lady Gaga, and the inexorable rise of the manufactured pop star (no talent necessary, only lookers need apply) with the difficulties jazz in which jazz finds itself regarding numbers - Hum mentions that Brad Mehldau’s best selling CD sold only 34000 copies, and I believe Wayne Shorter’s first Quartet CD ‘Footprints’ sold around the same number of units.

This is undoubtedly scary stuff if you believe that jazz is in some kind of competition with music from these other genres, or that jazz even inhabits the same universe. Personally I don’t feel that what I do and what Lady Gaga does has anything in common at all beyond the surface similarity that we are both connected to music in some way. I think a noticeable characteristic of pop music these days is how little the music itself – the actual notes and chords, form and structure – features in terms of its percentage of the whole package. Music plays a tiny part in the success of people such as Gaga or Britney Spears – so much more is concerned with looks, marketing, merchandise tie-ins etc.

Of course popular artists have always needed to cash in on their looks (if any – some people such as Elton John or Rod Stewart wouldn’t have had a chance if they were attempting to break into today’s pop market), and their image was always important. But the importance of the visual image took a quantum leap forward with the appearance of music videos in the 80’s, when the talents of the video directors and camera people could be used to create striking visual images to accompany music that was essentially vapid rubbish. That process has grown exponentially in the intervening years to the point where a Gaga or a Beyoncé is the product of a frighteningly huge machine that ties in visuals with marketing, with merchandising, websites, Facebook, Twitter and all of that. The actual act of music making plays a smaller and smaller part in this behemoth as the multi-nationals drive for ever bigger profits from an ever-widening circle of merchandising opportunities.

Jazz cannot compete in that world

Jazz shouldn’t even try.

There was a time when jazz was of course a popular music, and then when rock and roll took over in the 50s and onwards, jazz was still seen as something that had some relationship to pop music and people like Miles Davis could sell very respectable amounts of recordings and be mentioned in the same breath as pop stars. But I think we have to let that go altogether – popular music – of the huge selling variety – has NOTHING in common with jazz any more. Contemporary pop music has nothing in common with jazz in either the musical or the aesthetic world it inhabits. And I think some kind of over-the-shoulder looking at the behemoth of the pop music industry does us no good at all – not only can we not compete with that world, we’re not even involved in the same industry in my opinion. It’s like being a small boutique winemaker and being concerned about what Coca Cola is doing. The product is different and the market is different.

The market we are in is – I agree – tiny in comparison to that of pop music, but that’s neither here nor there. In fact I would say that the more the two musics diverge in form and approach, the more opportunity there is for jazz to develop and flourish in the marketplace. But we have to accept that our marketplace is both small and specialised. We have to realise that our customer base, though not huge, will be discerning. And like most boutique products, we can grow our customer base by clearly identifying what is different and good about what we do. We have to stop trying to be seen in a market that is just so huge and so different to ours that the quest for recognition is hopeless. We don’t have the tools or the resources to fight such a war – rather than try to snatch territory from such a giant foe, we have to be happy with our own territory, develop it, let it speak for itself, and then inevitably some people who are looking for an alternative place to live other than than the cheap, facile, and crowded musical country they currently inhabit, will want to come to where we are and will want to partake in the quality of musical life that we have to offer.

In taking such an approach we have to accept that the financial rewards of operating in such a relatively small musical country, will be less than the rewards available to those who make it into the upper echelons of the pop music empire. So what can we reasonably expect as jazz musicians operating in our own musical territory? Well I think being able to make a living playing the music isn’t an unreasonable target to aim at – anything beyond that would be a serious bonus. And it IS do-able, despite all the doom and gloom being spread among the online jazz community these days. Despite the outpourings of woe, I personally know literally hundreds of people who make their entire living from jazz – including me. I’m an Irish bassist who started playing in a country with little or no jazz tradition – I still live in Ireland, yet here I am writing this blog in South Africa, where I’m working, and I’ve just been chatting to a bassist from the US, and there’s a guy here from Turkey – all of whom play jazz for a living. So it can be done – we just need to take care of our own business and be as good as we can be and develop what we do. Quality DOES have a market, no matter what the doom-merchants may say. We may see the relative lack of large CD sales for someone like Brad Mehldau as being a barometer of how bad things are, but these days CD sales – even for huge acts in pop music – form a tiny part of the economics of the music business – the real money is in performing. And Brad Mehldau is no different in this regard – Brad’s diary is pretty full, you can be sure that he’s as busy as he’s ever been – CD sales or no CD sales.

So let’s stop worrying about what’s happening in pop music and in the music industry – let’s just make our own music as good as it can be and then find the best way we can to get it out there and get our music to the most amount of people. And how can we best do that? Well that’s a whole other discussion............. TBC

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Developing New Music

Recently I've been playing some new music with two great French musicians, the saxophonist Stéphane Payen and the drummer Christophe Lavergne. At the moment we're trying to develop the music and then we'll look at doing some performances and maybe recording. It's been a luxury to be able to work on music without the pressure of preparing for a particular performance, this is so unusual these days. I wrote some music for the project and Stéphane wrote some also and we worked on the pieces and looked at different ways to develop them.

In February I went to Paris to play with the guys (they have a very cool little practice room which they rent collectively with some colleagues), and in March they came to Dublin, and we had a lot of fun playing and trying things out. We decided to do an informal performance in front of an invited audience in Dublin at the end of our rehearsal period, and I set the video camera up.

I've out some footage of it up on Youtube, here's a clip below

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I read this (admiring) description by Kyle Gann of a piece of contemporary music recently - a string quartet written in 1984 by Ben Johnston, which has never been played due to the almost insurmountable difficulties of performing it - here's a description of it:

If you know much about Ben's Third Quartet, you know it works its way measure by measure through a 53-note microtonal scale. The finale of the Seventh is built on a similar plan, but the structural tone row consists of 176 pitches - all different, 176 pitches within one octave, heard in the viola on each successive downbeat. Many other notes are heard in the other instruments whose harmonies link each note to the next, and Tim tells me that altogether there are more than 1200 discrete pitches in the movement - more than one per cent, five times as many as most people can perceive.

Mr. Gann goes on to describe how one Timothy Ernest Johnson of Roosevelt U. (the Tim referred to in the previous quote), had written his doctoral thesis on this quartet and delivered a paper on the subject to a Microtonal Conference. Here's a description of part of the paper:

Tim demonstrated how the players are supposed to proceed from the opening C to the subsequent D7bv-, a pitch ratio of 896/891. The violist is tasked to move upward from this C and come back down on a pitch 9.7 cents higher - just under one tenth of a half-step - than she started on. At the downbeat of the next measure, the violist lands on Dbb--, pitch ratio 2048/2025 - another ten cents higher. And so on for another 175 measures until the viola ends up traversing the octave and ends at C again. A good half of Tim's paper was spent talking us through the performance challenges of the first two measures.

So, a piece that can't be played, and even if it could be played most people couldn't perceive the pitches. Sounds like a great night out doesn't it? Yet despite the fact that it can't be played and most people can't hear it, guys do doctoral theses on it and deliver papers to others similarly interested. What is the point of this music? It certainly isn't written for the same reason most music is written - to be performed and listened to, by people who don't have a PhD..................

Contemporary composed music has long been accused of this kind of thing - composers writing music for each other and in order to fulfill some kind self-perpetuating composing/academic paper delivering world - for a long time. I'm very wary of this kind of accusation until I've heard the music, but in this case since it's not possible to hear the music I have to ask - WHY!? These guys really are writing for each other and nobody else

Thursday, March 11, 2010

On Tour with Jim Black and Julian Arguelles

I'm on the road with Jim and Julian at the moment - this is a trio that has played together, (and recorded for Auand), for a while - this is our third tour and so far as much or even more fun than the the others. The group has a real free-wheeling way of playing which I love. We have some composed material but the vast majority of the music on the gigs is improvised on the spot. I think the blend of our three personalities - a similar broad outlook and background but with enough differences in the details of how we play to keep it interesting - makes for very creative music making.

I'm keeping a tour diary on my website blog - you can see it here It's an improvised opening from the Dublin gig.

You can here some of the music from the tour here

And here's a clip of the trio in action taken on the last tour