Monday, 30 March 2015

Matters of Taste

There is a piece of wisdom from avant garde composer, John Cage, which goes something like this: if something is done for 2 minutes and it seems boring, try it for 4 minutes. If 4 is boring then try 8. If 8 is boring, then 16, etc. Eventually it will become interesting. This is an intriguing strategy from one of the 20th century's primary music thinkers. Often it is thought in many circles that less is more. But, sometimes, more is more and less is just, well, less. As a thinker myself, who also happens to be musical, ideas are an important currency. Recently, I've become very stagnated. I long to try other musical directions that I am simply unable to follow - primarily for financial reasons. I also feel that I've become stuck and am no longer content to repeat myself. In the last three months I have developed mostly longer pieces of 15-20 minutes in length. This has been rewarding and useful to me. They will forever be known as my "Berlin School" months. But there is only so many times you can repeat the trick. A thinker must always be moving on. Ideas get past their sell by date.

One constant thorn in the side when making music is the thorny subject of genre. I have never really set out to make music to fit a pre-existing genre. Or, at least, when I have it has always been the worst thing possible that has been produced. I mean total disaster. I understand that people have a need to categorise and classify things. Order of this kind seems to be a basic human need. But it can become lazy. Such a kind of order is also an open invitation to the iconoclastic or contrarian to refuse to fit in and to disappear somewhere between the cracks of classification. But, you will be saying, your most recent music is "Berlin School" and that is a genre. Yes, it is. But I didn't set out "to make some Berlin School". I'd been listening to it and kind of fell into it. The problem then is, of course, that you read the music is Berlin School and, since you don't like music you regard as Berlin School, you decide to totally ignore that music of mine. The classification has become a reason to exclude whole swathes of music (or art, or literature, or films, or whatever).

Matters of taste like this occur to us all every day. And, I must say, I don't like it. But I might as well sit on the shore and command the sea not to come in because no one can do anything about it. Taste is a given in life. Everyone has it and no one is in control of it. You do not sit there and decide your tastes by some deliberate process of reasoning. It just occurs to you that you like something or you don't. At no point is this a process you control. Its almost mystical. It follows that, since none of this is deliberate, you can neither take credit for, or be blamed for, your tastes. You like what you like and there is nothing more to say about it. I'm sure we all get caught up in scenarios where someone we know likes something we hate. I know just how annoying that can feel. You get caught up in it. But its really irrational and stupid to do so. No one deliberately chose their tastes. Of course, you can cultivate and explore certain tastes. But, more often than not, that just leads you on to other tastes and, sometimes, you even surprise yourself in the things you come to like and dislike.

My model human being in this respect, my ideal, is the "taste explorer". This is a person who is prepared to put their tastes to the test and try out new things, someone who is not prepared to be spoon fed whatever comes off the mainstream conveyor belt today. This is the opposite of a grazer. This is a person who not only goes outside and looks around but he, or she, actually turns over some rocks to see what is hiding underneath. Now, as we all know, nasty creepy crawlies lurk under rocks. But sometimes that can be interesting too. And, as I have grown older, I've learnt that life is not about clinging to the things you like and avoiding at all costs the things you don't. In fact (this is an open secret) you can often learn more from the things you don't like than from the things that you do. Tastes can serve a purpose and it is good to explore them and test them.

I come to this subject by way of the English comedian Stewart Lee. Lee is a comedian who openly embraces political correctness and is concerned to cultivate a certain image of disdain for the mainstream. (I should add that I'm a relatively recent fan of his act but would question a number of his personal beliefs.) He seems to glory in his love of obscure art of different kinds (including music). This quite often annoys his critics who berate and insult him for this obscurantist snobbishness. I was reading an interview with Lee from earlier in the year online and in it he referred to many musical acts I had never heard of and referred, as well, to what he regarded as his favourite album of all time, Hex Enduction Hour, a 1982 album by the British Art Punk band, The Fall. Unfortunately, in the same interview, he offhandedly referred to British Metal band, Iron Maiden, as "awful". Now I like Iron Maiden. I didn't like them at first but through exposure to them, thanks to a brother with a bedroom next door to mine, I grew to like them and still do to this day 30 years later. In contrast, until about 5 hours ago I had never once heard anything by The Fall (although I had heard lead singer, Mark E Smith, on a single by Inspiral Carpets).

Reading Lee's casual dismissal of Iron Maiden, a band beloved by not a small number of people worldwide and one with a legendary dedication to giving their fans value for money, I felt sad. I wondered why people have to dismiss things in such a way and mused that more often than not this is indicative of a casual judgment thrown out without any deep knowledge of the subject. I went for a walk and thought about it some more. Now, in the light of what I've already said, its very likely that Lee does not control whether he likes Iron Maiden or not. Do I control the fact I like them anymore than the fact he doesn't? No. So all this is silly. Its just matters of taste. We all have taste and none of us really control what we like. Stop being silly. But I did determine to do one thing to dignify the process a little of liking something or not. I determined that I would listen to Hex Enduction Hour by The Fall and come to some conclusion about it. And so I did. Now in my brain there was lodged some horrifically brief judgment on The Fall as "tuneless noise". I have no idea on what this notional judgment was based but I suspect it was based on my appraisal of the kinds of people who seem to like The Fall. (I have similar intuitions about people who like The Smiths or U2 whilst being more familiar with their work.) Whatever. That is now lost in the mists of time. But I listened. And it wasn't bad at all. Indeed, some of it I liked. I read that Mark E Smith, who is really all The Fall is, was a fan of Can, the German Krautrock band. The album I listened to was really an arty, punky Manchester, England version of that. So I challenged my tastes and my preconceptions and the sky didn't fall (!) in.

This all just makes me muse even more on the question of taste. I think that the question of what anyone's tastes are really ends up being an irrelevant one. The more pertinent focus is whether those tastes are static or movable, whether someone is open to new things or closed-minded. I have an online contact who makes music and he goes under the moniker of "Iceman Bob". I want to finish this article by saying a bit about his latest album "Magic City" in this regard.

I've been listening to Bob's music for a while. It isn't mainstream. It often isn't pretty. I'd even go as far as saying that sometimes I really don't like what I'm listening to. But, nevertheless, I persevere with it because there is something about Bob's music that is more important than petty questions of like and dislike. So often, as I hinted above, we like or dislike something based on the pigeon hole we think it fits in. Based on that judgment, we classify it as of interest or as something to forget about. The thing is, with Bob there really is no pigeon hole to fit his music into. Not only do I not know much about him but, from listening to the music itself, its really hard to tell what, if any, influences are behind it. Magic City is a prime example of this. It seems somehow sui generis, in a class of its own. It demands to be listened to not as an example of some genre but on its own terms. And I really like things like that. Such things demand to be listened to because here we have something new, something different. Its fair to say that if this album was easily classified as this or that I'd just ignore it. But it isn't and so I didn't.

Magic City, like all of Bob's albums, makes use of drums, synths and guitars. Often Bob seems happy to lay down some backing track and then play his various guitars over the top at random, performing a sort of crazy jazz-rock wandering. This is often uplifting to my ears. (His track "Garuda" from the album "New Directions" is one of my all time favourites in this respect.) That said, his lead electric guitar tone really does annoy me and I wish he would do more to vary it. Maybe this is an area he might concentrate on in the future, who knows? Or maybe he likes the sound he makes now? Its his choice at the end of the day. Anyway, this is a matter of personal taste and we have already covered that in this article. For the most part, Magic City uses a larger array of sounds than his previous albums and I welcome this. This album seems more experimental and imbued with a spirit of adventure and interest which kept me listening from start to finish without ever once having the urge to bail.

Overall, I was astounded listening to this album which, like most of Bob's work, isn't short. Here we have 11 tracks that are on average each 11 or 12 minutes long. So its close on 2 hours of music here. On Magic City Bob has shaken things up a little. He's not content to stick to a formula and churn out 11 variations of the same thing and I was happy to hear that (filtering my own issues of stagnation into my thinking, of course). "Consecration of the Ordinary", the first track, was especially different, making use of speech, amongst other things. The album was at times a very difficult listen but I regard that as no bad thing. More and more I am drawn to music that requires you be challenged to listen to it and asks you to measure yourself against it. I'm not sure this is Bob's intention. I think he is just doing what comes naturally and having fun. Fair enough. But I would say the music he produces is challenging and requires listeners that are up to the task of listening to it. If you want to go back to the lazy classifications I think Magic City would fit comfortably alongside a number of the German "Space Rock" or Kosmische albums of the early 1970s. That's the content of the music as well as the title, by the way. Being that I have recently been studying this body of work quite heavily, it was edifying to find similar music being made in Montana by an American in 2015.

In the end, I wouldn't recommend Magic City to everyone. Its far from mainstream and is really the musical explorations of a very interesting man. If you like German rock of the early 1970s you may be more inclined to like it but that is no guide. But, then again, as I've already said, its not so much about whether you might like this album or not but whether you are prepared to challenge your tastes and be opened up to new experiences. If so, Magic City would be a great challenge indeed.

You can hear Magic City by Iceman Bob HERE!

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