Thursday, 4 January 2018

Bill Frisell - Big Sur (...with a few thoughts about John Adams)

Listening to Bill Frisell properly for the first time recently, I could only conclude: How on earth did his work pass me by for so long? An incredibly versatile guitarist and composer equally at home in jazz, blues, avant-pop and alt-country, Frisell’s work evinces a sense of humour and playfulness which strongly suggests that he is one of that rare breed who has never lost site of music’s phenomenal capacity for surprise. ‘Surprise’ is numero uno of my requirements of any new music and yet – apart from being vaguely aware of him through contributions to other artists’ albums or sole tracks on compilations – I had somehow never listened to an entire Frisell album until last September.

My entry-point to his solo recordings was unusual, and I am not sure that the album I have selected for this blog, Big Sur, is representative of his catalogue – but then given the diversity of his work, it might not even be possible to identify such an all-bases-covered single Frisell release. But at the very least, it does contain some magnificently inventive compositions as well as hinting at the remarkable amount of ground that the Baltimore-born musician has covered in his 40-plus years as a professional player.

I was led to Big Sur by a geographical/musical association, specifically The Dharma at Big Sur, a composition for solo electric violin and orchestra by US minimalist composer John Adams. Inspired by what Adams described as “the so-called ‘shock of recognition’” when one reaches the Californian coast that he has long called home, The Dharma at Big Sur is a cumulatively powerful piece with a substantial emotional pull. Encountering the composition for the first time during an excellent BBC documentary about Adams five or six years ago, it engendered an abiding fascination with his work, which to me is frequently more varied and emotionally resonant than that of the other leading US minimalist composers, notably Steve Reich and Philip Glass, to whom he is so often compared. But even after wading through his many operas and other standalone compositions, The Dharma at Big Sur remains my favourite, and the Nonesuch Records CD on which it appears – paired with the appealingly fractured and disconcerting My Father Knew Charles Ives, composed in honour of another great of contemporary American music – is highly recommended.

But listening to Adams led to a general immersion in literature and music relating to Big Sur, and it was through this process that I stumbled upon Frisell’s album, released by the OKeh label in 2013. The title is no mere moniker as its 18 tracks were composed during the time Frisell spent in a cabin at a remote ranch on the Big Sur coastline, having been asked by the Monterey Jazz Festival to compose his reactions to the landscape. The resulting album – spanning surf-pop, country twang, atmospheric blues, hushed near-chamber music and more – attests to that landscape’s drama and variety, but in so doing also tells us much about Frisell’s slant on American music per se. It can and should ‘encompass multitudes’ (to paraphrase Walt Whitman), and more to the point you can have a hell of a lot of fun if you don’t hold fast to genre lines.

If Big Sur whets your appetite, then there is a whole lotta Frisell waiting for you to explore. As of January 2018 I would estimate that I have listened to about a third of his official recorded output, hence it would be unfair to select overriding favourites at this stage. But from those I have heard, 2014’s Guitar in the Space Age! – which features often dazzling interpretations of songs and instrumentals from the 1960s – is utterly joyful, whilst 1997’s Angel Song – which is credited to trumpeter Kenny Wheeler but features Frisell throughout as part of a fine quartet completed by bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Lee Konitz – is a modern jazz album of gorgeously unusual arrangements.

However much I listen to Frisell – and it’s been a great deal these past few months – I don’t feel I am much closer to being able to define him as a musician or composer. But that’s all to the good as it keeps me keen to explore other pieces, and eager to hear what he will come up with next – and one suspects that that’s exactly how Frisell likes it.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Introducing The Uneasy Listener

In spring 2017 I suddenly found myself unable to listen to music. In part this was attributable to a very specific health issue: a troubling – but fortunately temporary – bout of tinnitus that occurred as the result of an ear infection. But several common but unhappy life events also played a part; for the first time in my life, music had lost its vibrancy and variety. 

For someone who had been an obsessive music fan and collector since the age of seven (or thereabouts) – and then subsequently a part-time music journalist for much of the Noughties – this was a concerning development. As Adam Buxton has remarked in one of his excellent podcasts, music can feel to many of us like it’s “the only thing between [oneself] and the abyss”. When all other art-forms had failed, music had never done so – until now. To have this safety-net seemingly snatched away was to be forced at once to contemplate a distinctly inhospitable future.

Speech seemed like a more bearable distraction, and for several months my listening consisted almost exclusively of downloads from Radio 4’s Front Row, Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, the alternately enthralling/infuriating WTF with Marc Maron Podcast, Kermode & Mayo's Film Review, the aforementioned Adam Buxton Podcast and – for those lighter moments – In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg. These became particularly important when I began to suffer seriously from insomnia for the first time since my early ‘20s.

It was with some relief that the desire to listen to music slowly returned as spring transitioned to summer – but there was still an obstacle to be overcome. Most of my musical mainstays – Miles Davis, Stravinsky, Neil Young, Pink Floyd et al – continued to hold little appeal. Instead, I found myself drawn to explore new musical tributaries – a journey that is simultaneously simpler and infinitely more complex than ever since the advent of streaming services.

Fast-stream to oblivion?

It is almost impossible not to have mixed feelings about the replacement of physical and even file-based music by streaming. In general, the attitude taken by the then-new streaming services in the early phases of their development towards the acknowledgement and renumeration of artists (please note that I refuse to use the term ‘content creators’ – the day music became ‘content’ was another milestone on the long road into the abyss) was at best patchy and idiosyncratic, and at worst morally bankrupt. Rather than seek to reassure artists that they wished to work with them as partners to ensure their music reached audiences and that they would also be properly paid for it, these services all too often appeared to want to tell artists that without them they were now nothing. Accept our appalling terms, they seemed to suggest, or face oblivion.

Some landmark deals announced in recent months (as well as the best year for the recorded music industry in a long while) suggest that the tide may finally be turning, and that a more equitable relationship between musicians, labels and streaming services could now be in prospect. But it is hard to be too optimistic when the platforms that support our listening continue to evolve in new and highly unpredictable ways. And in truth it is only one aspect of the challenge presented by streaming; also worthy of scrutiny is the effect it is having on listening patterns and an appreciation of music that goes beyond surface level.

It is to admit to the highest level of fustiness to state that your preferred mechanism for enjoying music remains the album; ideally, 40-45 minutes of concentrated creativity that underlines the benefits of a format that – at least in the heyday of the vinyl LP – necessarily entailed a refinement of structure and a shedding of the uncompelling or incomplete. The advent of CD, with its 80-minute playing time capacity, soon began to seriously erode this concept as the obligation to self-edit declined. 15- or 16-track albums started to become commonplace, to the benefit of absolutely no one whatsoever – especially the listener.

Downloads and streaming do at least allow make it easier to siphon off the shoddy, and in the last few years there has been a welcome shift in many genres back towards the 10 or 11 track album. There has even been a modest revival of that delightful and long-dormant format, the EP, as artists start to rediscover the beauty of brevity.

‘Binge listening’

Of course, viewed in the context of streaming, such formats could hardly be said to matter less. We are now adrift in an infinite ocean of music, in which everything from the dawn of recorded sound is suddenly within reach. I can only speak for my own experience, but I would suggest that this ease of availability tends to result in over-exploration of particular artists or genres that – taken to an extreme – can distort one’s entire perception of, and perspective on, music.

My own listening tends to soundtrack my working day, which is frequently 10 or 11 hours long. A streaming subscription has allowed me to explore complete canons of work – to, in effect, indulge in ‘binge listening’. A few recent examples should illustrate my point. An interest in contemporary classical music has led me to listen to some of the early to mid 20th century pioneers for the first time. Suffice to say that a whole day listening to György Sándor Ligeti’s experiments in micropolyphony and chromaticism won’t necessarily leave you in the sunniest of places. The same goes for the work of Evan Parker, Sonny Rollins or countless other ‘contemporary leaders’ of modern jazz – a genre that I adore, but which even I would confess is best experienced in relatively small doses.

Over time my streaming-based listening has settled down into a more regular rhythm of a few hours of this and a few hours of that. In recent months I have assembled two primary lists of artists – one of favourite artists, whose work has, mercifully, regained its appeal; and the second of artists whose work I have always intended to explore.

These days broadcast and AV technology are the core of my working life as a writer, editor and conference producer, but up until 2010 I also wrote regularly about music for a wide variety of publications, notably Q and Record Collector. But the lustre of this began to diminish when commissions for feature work started to decline in favour of album reviewing. It might be a tenet of the music journalist’s life, but dissing poor albums or writing about genres (metal, grunge, emo, hip-hop) with which I felt little or no affinity held zero appeal. I only really wanted to write about music I either loved or at least found structurally or thematically interesting. Writing month after month about bad music is a miserable task, and as the Noughties drew to a close it felt to me that the sub-par albums were now outweighing the sublime ones. So it was a very easy decision to simply stop writing about music altogether.

The one happy and unexpected by-product of my recent brush with being a non-listener is that the desire to write about music has returned – hence The Uneasy Listener. Launching a blog in 2017 is a curious decision as content (there's no escaping that word!) becomes evermore condensed and ‘bite-sized’, but I’ve never been one to take the obvious route and – in any case – I have no expectations for this site beyond the simple joy of writing about music again, and hopefully introducing a few people to artists or albums they might not otherwise have encountered along the way.

As the name suggests, the emphasis of this blog will be on the previously unfamiliar – the artists and albums that populate my second list. Not all of these are destined to stand among my favourites, but they all have at least one or two significant elements that have piqued my interest – if only for a day or two. Interspersing these will be some thoughts on music whose appeal to me has endured – and often strengthened – through years, even decades.

At the very least, I hope this blog will underline the continued breadth and variety of modern music in an era when the auto-tuned, highly compressed, essentially soulless pop that dominates the mainstream is increasingly reminiscent of the blandly airbrushed croon-fests that predeced the arrival of The Beatles as a recording entity in 1962. Music should be surprising, challenging, confounding, shocking even; what it should never be is predictable, and yet we are in the midst of an era where certain compositional tropes and production techniques are so pervasive that it is literally possible for many committee-written chart hits to pass from one ear to the other without leaving even the faintest of impressions.

Entries will appear once or twice a week until such a time as either other commitments intervene or we are all engulfed in a nuclear firestorm (to be fair, the latter does look quite likely at the time of writing). Please let me know if you have any suggestions to make about artists or albums to include in future postings, either via the comments section or by tweeting me @DDaviesScribe10. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy exploring some new sonic avenues – although you might be advised to strap on the headphones for the occasional detours into free jazz or avant-garde classical lest you unsettle your neighbours or loved ones…!