I’m reading a book about Glenn Gould right now. There is a quote in there about the right time to have idols – Gould puts it in the early teens, but something tells me he had a few in his adulthood – that made me feel a little ashamed of myself. I jump from one hero to the next, sucking as much inspiration as I can from them and then moving on.
John Fahey was a hero. I haven’t listened to his music in a year. Anthony Braxton was a hero – it’s been three months since I’ve heard one note he played. Two weeks ago it was Mozart – tomorrow Beethoven.
There are non-musical heroes as well – Shackleton being, of course, the most exemplary:
I was waiting for a friend at the corner of Queen and Palmerston on Friday night. There were two guys outside the Beer Store playing c&w inspired tunes as a duet with accordion and a snare drum. I love accordions, so I was happy to hear the instrument and watch someone play it well. It didn’t happen. The most basic chords and rhythms served as a pretext for twanging away with the voice – singing phony hill-billy bullshit about coffee and horses.
Don’t get me wrong. I love c&w music. I love the accordion. I love simple and beautiful things.
And I know that a person has to have a model.
But as I watched these two guys pack their gear away and walk to their cars (yes, cars), I couldn’t help but wonder: why is the only model for creative young musicians the earnest buffoon?
Are we still yoked to the myth of the noble savage? Are we so post-modern that we cannot enjoy things like refinement, hard-work or counter point?
But we must have models.
Which brings me precisely to the big problem: what do you do when your models outstrip your understanding? When your goals are, simply put, beyond you?
For most of my life I have listened to music that I was able to play (starting from punk and working through to the Carpenters) or music that I could at least imagine being able to play (Louis Armstrong through a phony blues-scale and a lot of faking), but lately I have been enamored with the Bach works for solo instruments: the cello suites, lutes suites, and the sonatas and partitas for solo violin.
What could a regular mortal possibly do with a model like this?
This is a picture of my Chinese Ocarina, also called a xun – or less simply, a Chinese Globular Flute. I first heard the amazing sounds of this instrument on a Yusef Lateef record called Eastern Sounds. I bought the record because I was talking with a guy at a record store about impulsively buying ethnic instruments and never learning to play them. He said one instrument he always wanted was a Chinese Globular Flute that he had heard on the aforementioned Yusef Lateef album. I impulse bought the album, and the next day I was at Musideum impulse buying the flute.
I know. I have a problem.
The flute languished in a corner with the many other ethnic flutes I have impulse bought over the years. But I kept thinking about it. And I kept thinking about hockets.
This weekend, amidst the terror and trouble of the G20 summit in Toronto, Herbie Hancock played a concert at Nathan Philip’s square. Herbie has done everything – he has played out, he has played in, he charted the first turntable sounds on his hit record Rockit – but Herbie also used a hocket in the introduction to his song Watermelon Man. It’s a sound one doesn’t forget, and today I finally made a piece of music using both my Chinese Globular Flute and a hocket:
It isn’t as funky as Herbie’s, but no one is perfect. I wouldn’t feel comfortable playing something funky under it, feeling like I was appropriating music that didn’t belong to me. Yet I have no problem poaching from Chinese, Balinese and pygmy music. Influence is funny that way.
Ethnic music – not including C&W and African-American Vernacular music – has always been an idyll for me. A strange, embarrassing respite best represented by the homoerotic paradise seen below:
My friend Tom sent me some very beautiful music he made. Tom is good at keeping things simple, being direct with his melodies and not overwhelming his music with unnecessary sounds. I felt envy when I heard it.
I’ve been feeling distracted lately. Distracted by the mess of instruments, records, cds and books that I somehow manage to pile around me. It’s as if I’m building fortifications.
About a month ago I decided that it was time to clean, purge and organize. Easily said, agonizingly done. Deciding which records to keep and which to discard is not so easy. It sound stupid, but it feels as if I’m making important life-altering decisions.
I was also ashamed to find many of my consumptive enterprises left to rot, collect dust or forgotten. Of the 104 Haydn symphonies (I bought them all, on an impulse, on sale in a box) I’ve heard ten. Of Mahler’s nine (again: an impulse, a sale, a box) I’ve actually sat through two without wandering away. Chaos without, chaos within.
So I’ve made some rules – all of them broken before the cleaning-gutting-purging was even half-finished – to try to keep myself on track.
1)Don’t put on music unless you want to hear something specific
2) Don’t buy more music – you have enough
3) Don’t wander (mentally or physically) while you listen
It’s helped. The first real fruit of this labour has been Mozart. I know, I know – discovering Mozart is no big shakes. He’s only been top of the pops for 200 years. But actually hearing Mozart, discovering the joy in a perfectly voiced, phrased and placed melody line, has been a revelation. Five years ago I thought he was fluff. (Why then did I impulse-buy the complete piano concertos? On sale, in a box, not heard for years!)
This has led me to some other rules about my own music making:
1) Use a predetermined ensemble of instruments, understand how it works together and write music for the way it sounds.
The ensemble that I have decided on (inspired by Mozart’s wind-band music) consists of:
2 Baritone Euphonium
2 Alto Clarinets
2 Alto Saxophones
I would love to have 2 flutes and 2 trumpets to brighten the sound. My non-western flutes are a little too idiosyncratic and my trumpet playing doesn’t even blow – it sucks.
I’m about to turn 27 and I want everything to be as neat and clean as possible.