Thursday, 9 October 2014

So, what do you like?

When you meet new people and you try to identify things that you might have in common at some stage the question of musical preferences crops up. Forty years ago it seemed an easier question to answer: “What music do you like?” Now, of course, in answering any such question you are much more aware of what the answer might reveal and so we perhaps seek a more nuanced answer. Some will still confidently answer, “Oh, I was really lucky I got tickets for the last [name your own legend] tour.” But this is attending an event. What has it got to do with music and conscious musical choices?

As it happens the last live music I heard was a production of Bizet’s Carmen. As it turns out it was the second production I’d heard in three years. If I tell you this you might suppose I was pretty keen on opera. The fact is I have heard maybe 20 opera in a lifetime and I have recordings of maybe half a dozen (mostly Benjamin Britten) that I seldom listen to. By and large I don’t ‘get’ opera – the only experience of opera that I really treasure was the singing of an aria in Handel’s Jephta by tenor James Gilchrist. But if I don’t ‘get’ opera how do I explain what I do ‘get’?

There is much music from the western classical tradition that I listen to repeatedly – usually chamber works rather than orchestral pieces. I prefer the intimacy of a Beethoven string quartet to the power of his symphonies for example. But when it comes to ‘chamber’ music I’m as likely to choose a Miles Davis Quintet or something from Manfred Eicher’s ECM catalogue.

There is something about music-making on such a scale that is both accessible but so often surprising on repeat listenings. Maybe, at first, we sort out rhythms, melodies, patterns and structure in a piece. Once we have a sense of purpose that guides us through the music we can then pay more attention to the distinct voices and the conversations that are going on – secure in the knowledge that this all ties up and makes sense. Like any other conversation you start to hear how someone takes the phrase of another to create a different idea – perhaps supporting the first voice, perhaps disputing it. No doubt a formal musical training or education can help us to be listeners but it might be (I don’t know this) that schooling can narrow our hearing options because we may have expectations based on what we have been taught or know.

This distinction – if that is what it is – between scholarliness and musical instinct is an interesting one to me as a listener (because I’m not a musician). I know that both routes can lead to creative breakthroughs and challenges for musicians and audiences alike. Some of the most ‘difficult’ music I ever heard was played by jazz improvisers such as JohnStevens and Trevor Watts (circa 1972) but in other settings they also played some of the most direct and accessible music I ever heard. I think their approach to music-making relied largely on instinct and that seemed important to me as a listener.

When 'old' becomes 'new'.

Once I had the means to choose the music that I wanted to listen to then the amount of music that I actively shared with my parents became less and less. [Though until I had a record player of my own they sometimes had to share – perhaps ‘endure’ would be a better word – some prog rock and jazz stuff. Mum did once draw the line at the Mothers of Invention “Billy the Mountain” and I wouldn’t say that she was wrong there.] There were a handful of things that we were all able to enjoy.

Sometime in the early 1970s we went to the Royal Albert Hall together to hear Pentangle. Mum loved Jacqui McShee’s voice and was impressed by her hair. I enjoyed the slightly gruff and dishevelled contribution of Bert Jansch. I don’t remember if Dad had any preferences when it came to Pentangle but I know he enjoyed seeing the Spinners – a folk trio who did a lot to bring traditional songs and tales to wider audiences. Mum and Dad accumulated quire a collection of Spinners’ albums – if we could think of nothing else come birthdays or Christmas they were a dependable standby.

One of the last things I can remember doing with Mum was going to a party where Tom Robinson’s “2, 4, 6, 8 Motorway” was played and we did our best to dance and sing along.

I now listen, from time to time, to Ella Fitzgerald’s classic Great American Songbook albums. I think Mum and Dad liked many of the songs – even if there might be versions other than Ella’s that they would choose. They died far too soon for this shared pleasure to be an option. When they were alive I did, of course, think that I knew better and that all this ‘old music’ was so much tosh. Now I don’t listen to much ‘new music’. Whatever I hear that is ‘new’ doesn’t strike me as fresh at all – simply a watered down version of something that went before. I must suppose that this happens to many of us at a certain age – we hear music in terms of what we know already, almost as though our memories are full and these new files simply match ones that we have saved already.

Every now and then something breaks through – but it is little and rare. Talking Heads and The Smiths – from 30 odd years ago made a difference to my listening habits. The Tallis Scholars (and other early music ensemble) affected how I heard things maybe 20 years ago. In general terms what is marketed as World Music seemed refreshing in the early years of this century but since then most of my listening has revolved around what I have known about for 40 years or so. And, for me – as a listener, it wouldn’t matter if no new music was ever made again – there is so much that has been laying around that I haven’t heard yet. The ‘newness’ is not the most important quality any more.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

From the Wind Up to the Beatles

Just as I have no musical talent neither of my parents played an instrument or sang. They came from working-class backgrounds and grew up in the years just before and beyond the Second World War. There would have been no money for luxuries such as music. [Though my Dad's parents had a piano but it was seldom played]. I don't remember either of them singing much. But they did listen to music. They married in 1949 and must, I think, have got a machine to play 78rpm singles early in their married life. It was a wind-up machine with a fearfully heavy arm that was placed onto the fragile disc. The needles got blunt pretty quickly and had to be replaced after a few plays. There was no volume control. If it was too loud - and it seemed pretty loud - a bit of cloth, probably a duster, was jammed into the space where the sound came from.

Mum and Dad had a pile of 78s. Mostly bought in the early 1950s I guess. I was born in 1953 and money would have been tight from then on. Also we had a TV pretty early (the result of a pools win according to family legend) and that was the focus of home entertainment. The 78s were mostly of popular songs by well-known American singers of the day: Frankie Laine, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day. As children we became aware of this pile of treasure about 10 years later I think. Jimmy Boyd's recording of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and his duet with Frankie Laine, Tell Me A Story, got plenty of plays.

Sometime around 1966 or 1967 so far as I can work out Dad bought Mum a new portable record player. It would play at 45rpm and 33rpm and had an automatic mechanism for playing singles and LPs. The first record played on it was the soundtrack of South Pacific. It took us a while to build up any sort of a record collection between us and so we became word perfect on I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair and Bali Hai. The love ballads such as This Nearly Was Mine required a depth and richness of voice that none of us had (and probably it would have been embarrassing trying to sing songs like that).

Once the family had a modern record player, however, it opened up the possibilities for all of us to inflict our choices on the rest of the family. Not that any of us had - at first - extreme tastes (or at least they don't seem all that extreme now). I doubt if Dad cared much for Pictures Of Matchstick Men (an early bit of Status Quo psychedelia) and neither he nor Mum were very enthusiastic about buying me Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as a birthday present (my first LP!) I think the drug associations worried them more than the music - it isn't an album I've listened to in over thirty years I would think but When I'm 64 (not far off now) and She's Leaving Home wouldn't have upset anyone much. Though the Lennon stuff was not, I concede, so listenable. So far as I can recall though there were two main reasons for wanting this Beatles' LP (and I bought nothing else by the Fab Four): everyone had it and you would look odd not having it - and that mattered to 14-year-olds; it wasn't just about the music - it was all the other stuff that went with it - the cover artwork, the cut-out inserts (which sadly I've lost over the years) and the fact that people talked about the music as well as listened to it. This intellectual aspect of music listening became important to me pretty much from the beginning of my music collecting.