How to Create a Music Scene

I like this list from From David Byrne’s “How Music Works”. It gives me something to think about, and reflects how I’ve always thought the process of living, organic music ought to work.

1. There must be a venue that is of appropriate size and location in which to present new material.
2. The artists should be allowed to play their own material.
3. Performing musicians must get in for free on their nights off (and maybe get free beer, too).
4. There must be a sense of alienation from the prevailing music scene.
5. Rent must be low – and it must stay low.
6. Bands must be paid fairly.
7. Social transparency must be encouraged.
8. It must be possible to ignore the band when necessary.

How Music Works

How Music Works is David Byrne’s buoyant celebration of a subject he has spent a lifetime thinking about. Drawing on his work over the years with Talking Heads, Brian Eno, and myriad collaborators—along with journeys to Wagnerian opera houses, African villages, and anywhere music exists—Byrne shows how music emerges from cultural circumstance as much as individual creativity. It is his magnum opus, and an impassioned argument about music’s liberating, life-affirming power.

I suppose you can guess why I picked up this book by just reading the last sentence of that blurb “an impassioned argument about music’s liberating, life-affirming power.” Certainly, my own life is full-page advertisement for that.

I picked up this book quite accidentally about a year ago while browsing for something music-related at a bookstore. I had recently started reading Victor Wooten’s The Music Lesson and was looking for something else to broaden my field of vision, so to speak. I’d just started playing jazz (on a new electric upright) a month or so before, so I was looking for something that side-stepped genres and focused on music as a whole, holistic and balanced component of life.

I’d always liked The Talking Heads, and appreciated Byrne’s guitar work (seeing it related to both African juju music like King Sunny Ade and the more “angular”, noise- and switchblade-oriented sounds of bands like Wire, Television, Gang of Four and Bauhaus). I also had read some of his writing on music and interviews that showed an intellectual, thoughtful and compassionate man behind (or inside) the big suit and the art of pop.

Part biography, part history of the Talking Heads, and part primer on both the mechanics of sound AND the business of music, and on top of that, a very conversational book that reads more like a dialogue about possibilities than a monologue or lecture on what could be.

Highly recommended.

Not Just a Musician

To call me a musician is to miss an important point. There’s a certain convenience to the label, sure. But labels have a way of limiting their objects, of glossing over the inconvenient details in an attempt to simplify the classification of the whole. There’s a laziness about that kind of thinking. A desperation, almost, that stems from needing to explain something bigger than yourself in a way that doesn’t make you work too hard, or make you feel so damned small.

I AM a musician. Like Einstein was a scientist, or Yeats was a poet. You might argue about the company, but the point remains – the label seems just a little too small.

You could argue that Einstein approached everything in his life scientifically, or that Yeats lived poetically. Likewise, there is a certain musicality about my life and work. But to label us respectively as scientist, poet or musician on that basis alone, and have that label work, requires a different understanding of science, poetry or music. Different, that is, from what you might acquire in a textbook, or from a PBS special.

I had a friend once who said they could understand me as a poet so long as they did not also have to understand me as a musician, an artist, a philosopher. I understand the need to separate reality, to subdivide the infinite into manageable segments. One of the chief tenets of successful project management is to separate the work into small, concrete and achievable chunks in order to reinforce ongoing decision-making and ensure delivery of meaningful, and measurable, milestones.

But there are few projects that fall under the watchful eye of a manager whose span is an entire lifetime.

And what does it mean, anyway, to be called a musician? Is the title applied to amateur as well as professional? Does it mean someone who has spent a lifetime mastering a single instrument, as well as someone who has learned just enough, combined with other entertaining skills, to impress an audience? Is a person with expertise in only a single genre the same kind of musician as one who is versatile in many?

Originally published as The Label of Musician, October, 2007.

Ornette Coleman (1930-2015)

Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman (March 9, 1930 – June 11, 2015) was an American jazz saxophonist, violinist, trumpeter and composer. He was one of the major innovators of the free jazz movement of the 1960s, having also invented the term “free jazz” by naming his album so. Coleman’s timbre is easily recognized: his keening, crying sound draws heavily on blues music. His album Sound Grammar received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for music. Source: Ornette Coleman – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

When in doubt of where to go musically, when questioning one’s ability to hear harmonic structures, to find the “in” groove or chord, or if just in need of a general aural cleansing, there is nothing that will substitute for Ornette Coleman.

I first experienced Ornette’s harmolodics at Berklee, where often friends and I would spend late nights “with the double quartet of Coleman’s Free Jazz: A Improvisation by the Double Quartet barreling forth from the speakers like the Mongol horde” (a quote from my journals at the time). Now, when you want to learn about phrasing, you turn to Miles’ Sketches of Spain; when you want close-knit harmony that weaves in and out around the beat, I always like to put on The Gerry Mulligan Songbook; and when needing to hear just how much you can do in just two choruses (and how anything more than that is simply unnecessary, if you do it right), there’s nothing like Charlie Parker. Doesn’t matter what your instrument is, or what style you think you play. If you want to focus on these aspects of Music, here’s where the clues are.

But if you want to know the secret of space, to stretch your ears, to cut to the bare bones, there’s no substitute for Ornette Coleman. Just like James Brown can teach you, particularly on Love Power Peace (live in Paris, 1971) that there is nothing outside of a groove, Ornette can help you understand just how melodic the entire world is.

Ah…but I digress…did I mention that it makes great headphone Music?

Soundtrack for a New Age

Each historical age is determined by the predominant societal position given to the individuals, groups, nations or empires that can produce or have the resources to acquire whatever substance that age equates to its varied definitions of power. The Bronze Age – whoever could make the most bronze weapons and tools was the predominant culture; The Iron Age – same scenario, different metal. Once societies ran out of harder or more workable metals, they had to pause and re-evaluate their priorities. As a result, we had the Dark Ages – whoever could keep the most people in the dark about their own potential and thereby utilize the brawn of the world without the cumbersome benefit of its brain; the Industrial Age – the period during which those who appeared to be the most industrious were valued, when how much you had really first became more important that what it was you had so much of; the Computer Age – that period of time after we figured out we could get someone else to do the thinking for us, and ending just before the period of time when we began to realize we couldn’t tell the difference; and finally, we are in the midst of what some are calling the Information Age. Of course, because there are so many of us in this world now, and each of us more or less autonomously by consensus creates, borrows, buys, steals, inherits, creates, is allowed, is deluded into, or avoids their own separate, unique and individual opinion on the subject, whether we are at the beginning, in the middle, or nearing the definite conclusion of the information age is highly subjective.

My belief is that we are near the end of the Information Age; and that means that a new age is on the imminent horizon. I will outline my reasons for this belief, both in its ceasing to exist and clearly waiting to exist aspects, in a while. For now, let me just skip forward to my conclusion: The next age we are about to enter is the Wisdom Age, and unless we start thinking about gathering some of it together now, you and I and a lot of people on this planet are going to be on the bottom of the food chain, socially speaking.

The first question I would put forward to anyone I encountered in this new age would not be, “Do you speak MY language, stranger,” but rather, “Can you sing in your OWN (language)?”

At the conclusion of my initial interrogative statement I would commence to demonstrate a song of my own devising, in my own language. If there was no reply in kind, then that person would be required to locate someone of his own kind who could in fact sing a few bars. If that individual was willing to teach the first “stranger” something of the way of singing, then improvement of that culture could continue. Of course, there would be attempts, in the beginning of the age, where some would try to get others to sing on their behalf (which would of course give credibility to the singer and only by association improve the standing of the employer in some respects, and lower their believability in other respects), or would learn, by rote, someone else’s songs and try to bluff their way through (of course, a true singer would know that the song was not of the singer’s creation, and would know something was false in the communication). But this would rapidly prove the exception.

After the first exchange of songs in each of the singer’s native languages, translation of ideas and other information could ensue. Without a meeting of equals, an individual or group, no matter how extensive or impressive or overwhelming their other assets, had no basis for transacting communication and no wise way of achieving that objective. Unless two individuals can understand, through that shared experience of each other’s inner being that singing your own song weaves into reality, what really is important to the other person, there is no fair, equitable, honest, open, profitable or moral grounds for business, trade, marriage, treaty, alliance, division, disagreement, censorship, condemnation, ridicule, friendship, religion or warfare – in short, none of these partnership activities can occur. If you want any of those things but can not get your songs in order, you just have to wait. You’re obviously not ready for whatever it is you think you want. So you have time to work on your song and get it together.

Maybe this will help put things into a bit of perspective:

Imagine walking down the sidewalk on an early spring morning, a light mist still hanging in the air in the coolness of the day. You could be in a metropolitan area, or out in the middle of the desert (of course, the construction and very nature of your sidewalk will vary depending on that first choice). There could be thousands of other people involved in this selfsame activity, or you could be the only one. For the sake of this illustration, imagine yourself and at least one other person who will become aware of your presence at about the same time you gain awareness of them.

Now imagine that instead of having a set of headphones on your head that is fed from Sony Walkman, you are accompanied in the open air by a group of between two and six musicians, all accompanying themselves using whatever acoustic (that is, non-electrically powered) instruments, devices, accessories, tools best describe and reproduce the music that describes you. This may take a while to imagine, and of course, at different times, the group may be composed of different and perhaps interchangeable individuals and/or attachments. Chances are you’ll have several varying groups, but at least one or two. Now imagine the body of work that they might perform. It might be songs from the radio, ambient sounds, religious hymns, classical works, etc., etc. At least one of the songs must be an original work (exactly how original is always going to be a problem, it always has been, but I think the nature of the problem will probably change in the future), the performance of which you take an active part whenever it comes into rotation, or by request, whichever comes first. Since this discourse will get confusing unless we somehow divide its parts into recognizable segments, let’s call this first imaginary product in the course of this analogy “The Soundtrack of Your Life.” Don’t worry if you think you might have left something out – there’s going to be ample opportunity in the future to expand your repertoire.

25 OCT 2005