Tag Archives: improvisation

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!

Singing in the Car

Wonderful drive home – I was listening to You Know Faust and decided to start singing along. Half an hour of comical improvised noises and nonsense poetry bellowed over the shifting music. I’ve got quite a nice voice really. But then, we all think that, don’t we? A lot deeper than I remember it being – I could pass for an opera singer. Hmmm…. why have I been wasting my time trying to improvise on instruments all this time. Vocal noises & nonsense poetry from now on.

After that the Blur album came on and I sang along with the few words I know from Beetlebum and a couple of others, still having a whale of a time.

Got bored with that after a bit, so I forwarded to the next CD – Student Studies by Cecil Taylor, a series of improvisations around a theme. I had forgotten how much I liked this CD. Awesome stuff. The intellectual beauty and symmetry of classical music combined with the driving power and passion of jazz. In my (usually quite humble) opinion the most flawless piece of improvisation I have ever heard. Must dig out my other Cecil Taylor CDs.

Strange feeling, searching for info on the CD from Google, and finding one of my own pages (albeit a meaningless one) so near the top of the list. Especially after finding the top ranking for the Faust CD going to one of philz’s sites.