A Troublesome Noise

I’ve just experienced a most wonderful, most unlikely coincidence.

My mind is on fire at the moment. These last couple of nights, I’ve only managed to grab a couple of hours sleep, not – for once – because I’ve been out partying & photographing, but because my brain has been so active that after an initial hour or two’s deep sleep I find myself jolted awake, not tired in the slightest, and unable to sleep again.

So, I just walked Gizmo, and as I did so my brain was awash with ideas, plans, debates, internal conversations. One of these internal debates concerned free-improv music. During the debate, I was thinking of the Last Exit album, The Noise of Trouble. I thought how much I would like to listen to it today, but realised that would be impossible as it’s “one of those albums” which Gill would hate to listen to, and it really demands to be listened to loud through the stereo in the living room.

I thought no more of it, but when I got home, unexpectedly, Gill told me she was going out for a couple of hours. I sat down to breakfast and thought I would stick some music on. I fired up my Squeezebox and put it on “Random album” mode, as I usually do when I’m not sure what I want to listen to. Blow me down, of all the 5000+ albums in my collection, which one do you think it plumped for? That’s right, The Noise of Trouble. Suddenly my whole train of thought came back to me like a blast from Peter Brötzmann’s saxophone as I luxuriated in the joyful noise.

So… what was the train of thought that led me to think of this album? It grew out of thoughts about a comment I posted on Flickr last night. I love free-improv music (when in the right frame of mind), but I’m well aware that most people don’t share this love. Most people are either baffled by it or incredulous that anyone might want to submit themselves to the torture of listening to such rot. And, of course, most people will claim that “that’s not music!” And for this reason, I’m sometimes wary of even telling people about my band, The Tajalli Vortex, because at heart I’m a coward, afraid of the negative reactions, and I can’t even be bothered to engage in a bit of debate about something I love.

So why do I love it? And why should anyone love it? Well, it’s probably most instructive to explain how I discovered this music and grew to love it myself.

In my early 20s, I was a huge fan of the bassist Bill Laswell. It came about because I was a fan of Gong in my teens: Laswell played on the 1979 album New York Gong / About Time, and I was instantly hooked on his unique but incredibly funky style. I started buying every Laswell record I could lay my hands on (and there are a hell of a lot of them!)

Then one day I came home with a new Laswell acquisition, The Noise of Trouble. I put it on the record player… and wondered what had hit me. It was half-an-hour of meaningless noise, no discernable funky basslines, just… noise, ugly, horrible, headache-inducing noise. I was really disappointed, but also really, really puzzled. I knew this guy was an incredible musician, I had a huge amount of respect for everything else I’d heard from him… so why did he feel it necessary to put out a whole record of useless crap? Fascinated, I put the record on again. Over the next few weeks, I would listen to it intently, but without any pleasure, almost every day, sometimes two or three times in a row, trying to discern some nugget of redeeming music within its harsh melée of sound.

Then one day, something strange happened. I guess I was onto about my 20th or 25th listen, and suddenly it just clicked! And it was more beautiful, more complex, more rewarding than anything I’d ever heard before. And I’ve never looked back.

That experience taught me a very valuable lesson – that which is worthwhile is not necessarily easy. To paraphrase a famous advertising slogan, good things come to those who put some effort in. Many people believe that the most important redeeming quality for a piece of music is that it be “catchy”: if it doesn’t have an instant hook to pull you in and make you love it, then it’s somehow second-rate. Although there is an element of this prejudice in all branches of the arts, it seems to be strongest in music: few people would expect you to fall in love with a James Joyce novel or a Jackson Pollock painting without putting in a little effort, and many people recognise that the rewards that come from considering Joyce or Pollock are greater than those that come from considering Barbara Taylor Bradford or Jack Vettriano.

Free-improv is challenging music, it is music that demands your full attention in order to be appreciated, but again I think that this is a good thing. We live in an age when music is increasingly expected to serve as a backdrop to all aspects of life. Whether you’re shopping, having a bath, doing the washing up, reading a book, operating heavy machinery… people increasingly feel a need to have a stream of music babbling in the background, somewhere on the borders of consciousness. I admit to being as guilty as anyone on this charge, but I also strongly believe that it devalues music and makes us less capable of appreciating both complex music and, just as importantly, silence. Free-improv bucks the trend. Free-improv is not elevator music! It demands the devotion of 100% of your mind, and if you are able to give that (and it’s not always easy – there are still many times when I don’t have the mental strength to cope with such demanding music) then the results are incredibly beneficial for the soul.

I’ll just recount here one other fruitful experience I once had defending free-improv and noise music. The guitarist Pat Metheny is generally thought of as a purveyor of rather middle-of-the-road, easy-listening jazz guitar music. However, underneath that cuddly exterior he has an affinity for the wilder side of jazz, in particular the music of Ornette Coleman. As well as some fairly out-there collaborations with the likes of Coleman and Sheffield-born free-improv prime mover Derek Bailey, in 1994 Metheny released an album called Zero Tolerance for Silence which polarised (read: with very few exceptions, disgusted) his fans. At the time, I had recently got online and, although yet to hook up to the Internet, I was very active on CompuServe, in particular on their jazz forum. On the forum, there was an outpouring of outrage that Metheny had the temerity to insult his many fans by releasing an album of such unlistenable dross. I was one of, I think, only two people willing to defend the album, and as a result suffered ridicule and flaming from other members. But I did get probably the best imaginable reward for my forthright comments: a beautifully sweet email from Pat Metheny’s mum, thanking me for standing up for her son!

6 thoughts on “A Troublesome Noise

  1. Beatiful synchronising there! 5000 albums?! Wow.

    Yeah enjoyed reading this Dan, totally true about improvising requiring 100% attention. Almost seems ironic doesn’t it? Your blogentry seems to end short, leaving me desperate to know more about human endeavours in free music creating and listening. I listened to my first Stockhausen the other day – Wow!!

    I also think ‘free’ visual artists are utilising the same parts of the brain (or not using it!) as ‘free-musicians’ (ergo viewers and listeners) and I had a great conversation with painter Brian Jackson yesterday about the really revolutionary (anarchic?) act of improvising. It becomes an intense personal experience which bypasses preconditioned ideas and concepts. It is always a pleasure to play with you (more synchronicity). Other local free-musicians like Mick Beck, Charlie Collins and Martin Archer are, I believe, moving into very interesting new realms of instant improv-creation. Collins in particular is a good example of someone who earlier in his career (with Clock DVA) was seemingly breaking new ground by ‘fighting’ mainstream music but has since matured and succesfully concentrates his efforts on tapping into purer and more positive creative energy. Archer’s Discus releases (on which the large Sheffield improv community feature a lot) are regularly featured and reviewed in Wire mag. Many of their gigs at the Red Deer and the Nether Edge Club are a joy and a truly contemplative and engaging (definitely not instantly accessible or ‘catchy’!) experience. We are also extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to meet in an improvising group (TTV) and I have had these odd feelings that we are doing something really *right*…

    We have a large problem with mainstream music and the industry. I wish you success with getting this published in Sandman, you may save one or two young, bright people from the usual brainwashing ‘music trends’.

  2. The 5,000 is, I admit, a total guess, and in some ways an overestimate as many are not complete albums. All that I know for sure is that I have a little over 20,000 tracks, obviously most albums will have about 10-15 tracks on them which would mean more like 1500 albums, but I know that a lot of those tracks are individual tracks from albums, which to Slimserver will seem like lots of little entire albums, and others are CD singles, which will appear as albums of 3 or 4 songs.

    So, on reconsidering, I would say it’s more likely that I have around 3,000 albums.

    I have no problem with mainstream music, I really do embrace pretty much everything and am equally happy (sort of) listening to AMM, Blur or Christina Aguilera. I do, as you would expect, have a big problem with the industry though.

    One thing which my experience with Noise of Trouble taught me is that there is something to be found in every piece of music if you apply yourself to it, and I try to apply this learning as much when listening to pop music as when listening to noise music. Free music does stand apart from most other music for me, in the amount of effort it takes for me to properly appreciate it, and for that reason (and because of the hectic nature of my life) I listen to a lot less of it than I’d like to.

    I don’t think I’ll have a problem getting something into Sandman, although as yet I’m not quite sure what (or when). As Mark says in the editorial to the current issue “Sandman doesn’t have a house opinion, it’s the many varied and diverse writers that have the opinions. Sandman is just a forum for them”. The main reason why there’s not a lot of noise stuff going into Sandman is that there are not a lot of people writing noise stuff for Sandman (although I suspect that if a dozen people were all to try and get reviews of noise gigs into the mag, they might find a smaller percentage getting published than if they were reviewing more mainstream musics).

    Also, if I do make this into a bigger article bringing in the local scene, I will definitely be picking your brains for information, as most of my experience of live improv gigs still relates to London 15 years ago rather than Sheffield today.

  3. Well, yes, although I struggle to think of any at the moment. But it’s not generally the music that annoys me as much as the intention behind it (and in front of it). Well, yeah, the music does sometimes annoy me too – I think you can always detect when there is a lack of passion in music, a lack of belief in the music for its own sake. When people put out records solely for the purpose of making money, this is usually pretty easily spotted and pretty risible. But there are also plenty of instances of artists who are passionate about their own music, but who are similarly pigeonholed just because that music is mainstream, popular and lucrative.

    I guess it’s similar in a way to the current culture of celebrity – so many people want to be famous just because they want to be famous. In the same way, I think increasing numbers of people make music because they want to be rich and famous, without a real concern for the integrity of the music, and that does get my back up.

  4. … great post… as for the jazz fans – they should get ears and investigate the history of the music – if not: fuck ’em… what I like about the current noise/improv scene is the boundary-crossing – too many on the old free jazz/improv scene were a humourless bunch who would exclude on the grounds of ideology etc just as much as the the old school moldy fygges and keep the circle tight… when Anthony Braxton plays with Wolf Eyes – or old Derek playing with anyone who came along – all of these are/were victories in expanding perception and expanding the field… and fun, damn it!

    er… and a liquid afternoon brings this to a close!

  5. “I read a pop bio about Harry Houdini, and it inspired me to make it seem like I was breaking out of manacles and a straight jacket. So I played the drums like that ” and I still do. It’s an escapist reality, in a way!”

    Sun City Girls’ drummer Charles Gocher (1952 – 2007).

    Just had a really great bash on the skins seemingly taking Gocher’s quote and the positive creative energy from this web discussion with me into the practice! The key part of your original entry is in the first few lines; the energetic changes and mental / spiritual power you are experiencing, which I consequently absorbed and transfered with me into my practice… thanks! Creativity is a real substance and there are methods of increasing it… in the 80’s I learned the particular Buddhist mantra for artistic creativity…

    Hey, just noticed the pdf designs attached to that email – very nice.

    ..where’s that can of beer gone….?

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