Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Sadder Manchester

I woke up in the early hours of Tuesday morning, and got up to get a glass of water. Checking my phone I saw that some people had declared themselves safe in Manchester - the Facebook application it uses during terror attacks. It couldn't be, could it?

Of course, we now know that a murderer walked into the entrance of the Manchester Arena (still known as "Nynex" or "the M.E.N" depending on your age) and blew himself up in the most crowded area - as parents waited for their children to come out of the Ariane Grande concert, or were leaving quickly themselves. There are 22 dead, including the murderer, and a large number seriously injured. The home made bomb made to inflict the most damage. The youngest dead is an 8-year old girl.

On the Monday morning I had been at a session with the leader of the council and the new chief executive, where the discussion had all been about planning for the future, and - despite all the cuts the public sector has faced since 2010 - a sense of hope and optimism. 24-hours later their agendas will have been upended, as the worst terrorist attack since 7/7 bombing in London, and the worst loss of life in Manchester since the second world war had taken place.

A pop concert is the "softest" of targets of course, but along with football matches and shopping centres, its long been realised that this is the nightmare that we hoped would never happen. Its impossible to find the right words of course. On Tuesday the office was preternaturally quiet, as the need to get on with the mundane daily work was a relief from thinking too much about what had happened. By the evening their had been the announcement of a vigil outside the Town Hall. It was short, inclusive, poignant, with an absolutely on-point poem by my friend Tony Walsh aka Longfella Poet.

There was hardly a space outside the Town Hall on the most gloriously sunny night of the year so far. The crowd though was a young one. The young of Manchester drawn from their daily business - work, school, college - knowing that there's nothing unusual about the rite of passage of a concert at the Arena, that it could have been any one of them there - not just the unlucky few amongst the 21,000 crowd. Afterwards I went for a beer with my friend, and then walking back an hour or so later, the square was still busy, as if people needed somewhere to be. The city hadn't shut down, the people hadn't cowed with fear, rather they had come to show they cared, they had a need to be part of something collective. I suspect part of the youth of the crowd was because older people - those with families - would have wanted to rush back to be with their own, to hug them tighter than before, to be with the ones they loved.

I had tickets to see White Hills, a U.S. psych band, who were playing to less than a hundred people in the Soup Kitchen. A world away from the Arena, but connected as well - and they recognised how important it was that we'd still come out. Not an act of bravery, I think, more an act of confirmation - to our lives, to art. On the tram home there were Simple Minds fans from a gig at the Bridgewater Hall, whilst the Arena had cancelled, inevitably, that night's Take That concert.

Manchester has been here before of course: though in the all the reminiscing about the 1996 I.R.A. bomb it suddenly dawns on us how lucky we were that it was a bomb aiming to destroy property, not to kill people, remarkable that nobody died (though a previous I.R.A. bomb had killed.) Time will tell how different this feels. It does seem a different world, but despite the pessimistic views of the right wing press and politicians in particular, that difference is a world that begins, I think, to look like a new century, not the old. None of us can be unaware of the major human disasters in the civil wars of the Middle East, but it doesn't feel like a clash of civilisations that is taking place here; our Manchester feels - and felt yesterday - like a place of strength and optimism, however depraved certain events such as Monday can appear to be.

Undoubtedly over the next hours and days, the media scrum will give us as many dangerous angles on what has happened, as insight. Whilst the officials look at the risk of further atrocities, we'll all be overwhelmed by the individual tragedies that have happened. The unnecessary election taking place on 8th June seems even less relevant (yet is probably more so) though one hopes that politicians on all sides will be able to resist making political capital. Soldiers on the streets - as we've seen in Paris and Brussels - is not  a sign of confidence, but of fear; let's hope it is only a short term change.

I wanted to write something about this - because its happened here, in the city I've lived in for over 20 years, but  I find myself unable to move beyond the pure facts; my own numbness - today I saw some flowers - and a teddy bear - being moved to St. Ann's Square from Albert Square - and I almost broke up; is an irrelevance compared with that of those who knew the dead and injured.  There is a flower shrine now in St. Anne's Square, and there will be a national minutes silence tomorrow. I'm sure other tributes, as well as collections for the families, will follow. I am grateful at how many people have been in touch from around the world: Manchester is truly loved by those who have visited it, or know people here, and that love seems to be echoed by the love people have for their own city. I've lived here long enough to have some reservations about the "special" nature of the city and its people - in many ways, its friendliness is not universal, like all cities, it can be a lonely, dangerous, even alienating place, particularly with its culture of alcohol, football, and some of the violence that sometimes accompanies it; the new city is as shiny as the beautiful yellow trams, yet the grime under the fingertips of the city has always been as appealing as its bright lights. For a couple of days at least our eyes have had no time for the rough sleepers, and spice addicts, as their difficulties seem a distraction.

For the murderer was also Mancunian borne and bred, even if that hideous ideology of the suicide bomber, comes from conflicts half way across the world, the city will come together and has come together - but just as during the riots a few years ago, the idea that "this" can't happen here of all places, is clearly a chimera. There will no doubt be time for more reflection, more analysis.

Now, it is necessary to remember. To feel sorrow. To feel proud. As the world's media camp on our doorstep, to speak truth to them - that we don't feel hate for the killer and his ideology, but puzzlement, acknowledging it as a warped view of our city's reality that has no truth to it.  I'm going away overnight on Friday, and I'm glad I'd got that booked. Next week is Whitsun week - many of the people who died, were injured, or knew people who were, would have been looking forward to a long weekend, or a week off school or work; just as those attending the concert would have been looking forward to a night watching their favourite singer. Our dreams, our hopes - particularly for the young - seem particularly strong this week; but it is also right that we feel sadness, and yes, anger, that for some those hopes have been taken away.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

In Favour of Artistic Failure

 Rovio published 51 games before it came up with "Angry Birds," Pulp had been going for a dozen years, releasing a stream of singles and albums, before "Common People" was a hit. In the "start up" and entrepreneurship field, the phrase "fail faster" is used to encourage a culture of constant reinvention, and in literature, of course, there is Beckett's ever useful line: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." 

Yet when I think about artistic failure I don't think these really cut the mustard. Those games, those albums, are the finished article. They are perceived failures, but they were created with the idea of becoming a success. This year we've heard about the Swedish "Museum of Failure" with a corporate mis-steps such as Colgate Lasagne. We can learn more from failure, says its founder.

Ah, this is getting closer. The thing about artistic failure is that it is more noble than success. The success is always, paradoxically, a failure in some way - for it is at a point of completion that is good enough to succeed, it is all it will ever be; whilst the artistic failure is still possible...the unwritten or unfinished possible. So we are intrigued by the film that was never completed, the song that has never seen the light of day, the work curtailed by death. "The Pale King" may never be as successful as "Infinite Jest" but it has one advantage over the earlier novel, because Foster Wallace died before it was completed it joins that list of might have beens. We can see the flaws in even a masterpiece like "The Great Gatsby" but in "The Last Tycoon" - unfinished at Fitzgerald's death, and with the completed parts as good as anything he'd written, we have the tantalising hope of what might have come. It's why "Sgt. Pepper" or "Pet Sounds" may never quite satisfy us as much as the unfinished - and belatedly completed "Smile". What might have been? 

In music we are seeing a sense of "completeness" - where we now have access to ALL of the recordings of "Like a Rolling Stone." We know that one we know so well is the work of genius, but seeing the versions that fell short, or may have gone in a slightly different direction is a fascinating stretch of history. Because however "perfect" the final rendition, these are still the works of man. A "live" creation on a particular day, or over a particular week or month, where a myriad choices lead to the finished work. What seems obvious now - when you listen to the mastertapes, was a result of chance, of serendipity - of Al Kooper happening to be in the studio and playing the organ that way... 

If the contemporary boxset reissue fascinates its less about this "versioning" I think - and more about the tantalising sketches that could have become something else. On The Police's last but one album they had a number one hit with "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" a song that had lain unfinished from early in their career. This is not uncommon. We are finding out that Prince's back catalogue was a composite - similar to Neil Young, or even David Bowie at times - finding songs from earlier periods that "fit" and then completing them. Of less interest are the demos without the band of Robert Smith, or Fleetwood Mac. Those versions feel like templates of the more famous versions. 

I've been playing and compiling some old and new music of late, and in both cases, as I try and work out what is "the best" - or what tracks should make it onto my new album, I'm also drawn to the ones that didn't work out. I've got a natural sympathy for the runt of the litter, the song I never quite got right, or the poem that didn't really find its way. I'm fascinated, I think, by the mechanics of that failure: is it because I couldn't qutie get the lyric right or the drum beat or the recording - there's something wrong with it which means the piece got abandoned. I've long ago realised that I should try and get as close to a finished work as possible, and yet sometimes the abandoned piece is far off, but still has a certain magic - a feel to it that might not be replicated in the more stately performances, or the more honed pieces. With about fourteen songs recorded for a new album - and with ten "chosen" - I find myself drawn as much to the songs I'm about to leave off: in their failure, and they are failures, something not quite adding up, there is the germ of something else - of some future success that is less easily recognisable. 

It sometimes seems that some poets in particular only manage "gems" as if they only have to unsheath their metaphorical quill to write with authority and genius. It won't surprise you that I'm usually less interested: it seems the abandoned fragments, or the things that stretch away from the usual style, are the more interesting somehow. Perhaps there's something of Picasso's "to finish (a painting) means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul" in this. The finished work, is it ever finished, or abandoned, let go? Or simply let into the world in its best bib and tucker with a dollar in its pocket and a hope that it will somehow survive?

We see in literature in particular how what once was strange and difficult becomes easier through repetition or replication. So "The Shadow of the Wind" is an enjoyable pastiche of Borges, without the depth; or a consummate writer like David Mitchell, in his apparent ability to do anything, may well be disguising the impossibility at the heart of his endeavour - "Black Swan Green" a scarcely concealed bilgdungsroman that pretends to be a novel but is sort of a collection of stories, and the Russian dolls of "Cloud Atlas" giving us a dazzling display that disguises the fragmentation therein.

I sit there wondering about all of this and thinking that because the next thing you write is - like all the last things you wrote - an attempt to banish the white severity of the paper, it also is the most exciting, for it has not yet failed, and better still, it has not yet succeeded. It's the artistic failure, not the success, that keeps one going - and those "runts" remain as fascinating for their knobbly uncertainty as the things that worked, the alignment of the stars that somehow makes a work "succeed."

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Literary Friends

I'm pleased to say that two of my literary friends, both of whom I'll be performing new stories alongside at Didsbury Arts Festival on 1st July (book tickets here - more info later), have - coincidentally - book launches next week.

I say coincidentally, since whilst David Gaffney's novel "All the Places I've Ever Lived" has been out a few weeks, Nicholas Royle's collection of short stories, "Ornithology", is not officially out till June.

Nonetheless, if you're in Manchester this week, you'll have a chance to hear both authors read, and, yes, to buy copies of their lovely new books.

Nicholas Royle is reading with the other Nicholas Royle (he has a thing about Doppelgangers) at Anthony Burgess Foundation on Tuesday 16th May - free, but book your place here.

David Gaffney is reading at The Wonder Inn, on Shude Hill, on Thursday 18th May - with support from poet Tom Jenks, and the sprightly (and literary-inclined) guitary-pop band Hot Shorts.

 Circle those dates in your diary RIGHT NOW.

Archiving My Music

As some readers will remember, I also write and record music, mostly electronic, usually, though not always, vocal. I began recording in 1982 when I was 15 and just had two tape recorders, one to play in the background whilst the microphone on the other picked this up as backing and I would play and or sing over the top. I recorded pretty much constantly until the late 1990s, first on 4 track cassette and then belatedly to digital - though never directly to the computer - though from 1998-2007 it became very much an occasional hobby. On getting a new 8-track in 2007 I decided to take it seriously again, and have over the last 10 years recorded 8 albums and a wide range of E.P.s and singles mostly available online under the name Bonbon Experiment. My website contains these in order pretty much from "Vertical Integration" through to last year's 3 "Test Pressing"

More recently I've been archiving the period 1985-90, a prolific period, between the age 18 and 23, when I recorded 14 cassette albums and many more side projects under a range of different names. Its a massive amount of material. This was the period when I first got a 4-track cassette recorder, until I started using a reverb unit in 1991 which changed my sound quite considerably. I've managed to squeeze this period into 7 "CDs" which alongside the 2-CD nineties compilation "Nineties Sell Thru" and "Digital-Analogue" which mops up the period up to "Vertical Integration" in 2007, creates a 10-CD archive collection of sorts.

LINKS are as follows -:
The 4-Track Years Vol.1. 1985-6 Part 1
The 4-Track Years Vol.1. 1985-6 Part 2
The 4-Track Years Vol.2. 1987-8 Part 1
The 4-Track Years Vol.2. 1987-8 Part 2
The 4-Track Years Vol.2. 1987-8 Part 3
The 4-Track Years Vol.3. 1989-90 Part 1
The 4-Track Years Vol.3. 1989-90 Part 2
Nineties Sell Thru (1990-8) Vol. 1
Nineties Sell Thru (1990-8) Vol. 2
Digital-Analogue (1998-2007).

Compiling the past is an endless job of course - but hopefully this means that the majority of the music that I'm happy to keep is now online - though of course the original albums all have their own "charm" - for anyone who has at least a passing interest in what I've been doing over the years, or is interested to see my progression - or lack of - as I work within a pretty familiar sonic palate, of synth, drum machine and vocals. The task of "compiling" is never over of course, and I'm sure I'll do a compilation of the last ten years at some point, but its usually good to do it at a "pause" and this year alone I'm expecting to be releasing two new albums in the forthcoming months, so probably now's not a good time.

As someone who continues to make music into his fifties, I can't help but notice that the 4-track years in particular are very much a "young man's music" - there's a yearning, for life, for love, for music itself. My "talent" if I have one in this area is not that of a musician or a singer (though I'm impressed by what I've done with my limited voice over the years) but an interest and an ability to create sounds, and songs from a recording set up that's not that pretty much remained a "bare minimum". There are songs here I wish I'd taken more time over, sloppy lyrics, glitches in recording and performance, but its "outsider" music in some sense. It's also a bit of a time capsule - listening to the 4-track albums in particular I've been taken back to exact time, place and circumstance, not always that happily, and these songs act as some kind of audio diary. That said, the autobiographical can be overdone - sometimes you just get a catchy phrase - "a million days", "swimming for air", "missed by inches" - and somehow make a song from it. Some of these tracks are "personas" as well - versions of myself, making music alone, but kind of imagining it exists in some way in the real world - which of course, as this website proves, it does; but in another way, as so few people ever heard it, was just a simulacrum.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Classical Music Today

Ex-ACE head Alan Davey is now at the steer for Radio 3, the BBC's classical music station. He writes an interesting piece in the Guardian that posits classical music's future as being about having a "counter cultural place in society." There's much to agree with in the article - but I'll comeback to that slightly startling statement later.

Growing up, classical music hardly impinged on my life at all. My dad had the usual Mantovani and other Readers Digest boxsets, but whereas I explored his Beatles albums, I don't think these ever came out of the box. Music in school was staid and horrible; focused on teenage string players, and a mix of light classical and show tunes. When I did start obsessing about music, the idea that pop and rock were anything "worthy" was never ever considered. My sister, a diligent musician, ended up playing in the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra, and the establishment nature of that world - concerts in cathedrals, formal dress, a repetoire of pre-20th century composers - was something that I was aware of, but wilfully ignored.Where "classical music" came into my life it was in some of the more dramatic pieces used in films - particularly Carl Orff's atypical piece that was used in "The Omen."

By the time I was at University, I had an understanding that there was another classical music - the experimental and 20th century repetoire - and Philip Glass soon became a favourite via the film "Koyanisquatsi" and his album "Glass Works". But the big pop cultural hit of the early 80s was the risible "Amadeus" movie, which took Mozart's life and rewrote it at baroque soap opera. When I got a CD player, cheap CDs from Naxos, tempted me to build a small classical collection - "Night on Bare Mountain", "Symphony Fantastique", "The Four Seasons" - but little more.

Aged 50, I'd almost rather go to a classical concert than a rock gig these days. But this hasn't been that traditional mellowing of taste - rather a sense that the "complexity" that Davey talks about is exactly what I'm looking for in the modern classical tradition. Alex Ross's superb "The Rest is Noise" gave me an "in" to 20th century repetoire that I read alongside listening to the downloads of the tracks he talked about. More recently I've been picking up classical vinyl, figuring (correctly), that these old records will have been either well looked after or hardly played at all.

Yet my classical interests are primarily 20th century - and even into a liking for the living composer. I'm very excited to be finally seeing a John Adams piece in Manchester as part of this year's Manchester International Festival  (what took you so long MIF?); had a great night at the Red Room Sessions in Salford a month or so ago, tempted by the BBC Phil performing of Darius Milhaud, and on Saturday I go to Liverpool for a unique performance of Pierre Henry's Liverpool Mass, in the Roman Catholic Cathedral, for which it was written fifty years ago.

Younger classical musicians know that repetoire is critical - and that expanding the repetoire beyond the "crowd pleasers" of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach is important for both their own art, and the artform. Yes, as Davey says, there is classical music in pubs and bars - and there is certainly a thriving experimental music scene whcih is likely to be "classical" in inclination as to incorporate jazz, folk and rock noises. Yet I'm not sure to what extent Radio 3 reflects that in its regular programming. Riskier that Classic FM it maybe, but it does seem that to call classical music "counter cultural" is a bit of a stretch, given how it is the establishment programme - from Edinburgh festival, to Last Night of the Proms, to much of Radio 3's output - that defines much the place of classical music in the UK today. Yet there is change. The interface with visual arts has been highly productive, as has collaborations with pop and rock musicians. It turned out that the "gateway" drug for me getting into classical music was very much on the more experimental end of things, rather than "Hooked on Classics" (or to bring that up to date) "Hacienda Classics." Indeed the trope of the orchestra playing pop (and house tunes) seemed almost hackneyed before it began.

But one has to say that seeing that there does seem to be an audience for Stockhausen and Reich and the like, and modern composer's like the inventive Max Richter (whose 24-hour "Sleep" was a Radio 3 triumph), that would have been surprising a few years ago. I saw a classical recorder ensemble at Bramhall Hall one Sunday last summer performing from one of Cornelius Cardew's visual scores; have heard a pianist perform John Cage's early piano works alongside the Mozart that influenced him; and via the experimental and avant garde scene, find a shared loci that runs from Kurt Schwitters to Bob Cobbing to Stockhausen.

It seems that Davey and others are beginning to realise that the future of classical music is less about the broader audiences that flock to orchestral versions of Elvis, and far more about populating that sector of the Venn diagram where classical meets electronica meets avant garde rock meets free jazz. Interestingly, it is in the live space, rather than the recorded space, where this work really seems to engage, with the late 20th century avant garde composers being hard to find on record or CD.