Friday, 11 January 2008
Listening to Bailey: An Experiment
Thought I’d try something different – a little exercise, see how it goes. I’m going to put on Derek Bailey’s solo guitar album (recorded in 1981, but not released until the 90s), ‘Aida’, and type up any thoughts that come to mind as the music unfolds around me. Obviously it’s going to be a bit disjointed, fragmented, but hopefully something of value will come through…‘Stream-of-consciousness’ criticism…Or maybe not.
The first track, ‘Paris’ – after listening for a few minutes, I’m struck by how he seems to be on the edge of melody, something very simple, ancient, a dulcimer, struck-plucked, mixed with the ostensible vocabulary of twentieth-century modernism. At once close, physical, sound, connected with the act of being, and yet distanced, cold, far, remote, mysterious (Bailey’s personality?).
Like poetry, it’s music that you have to feel (and I don’t necessarily mean in an emotional way, as you might feel ‘moved’, sad, by a sentimental melody, melancholy from a Miles Davis’ ballad-lament), to absorb…You have to concentrate on it – free improv involves intense concentration, more so than any other music if you are to get something out of it, perhaps - but at the same time you have to absorb it, to let it be something not quite understood – see Evan Parker on shift from left to right side of brain.
‘Paris’ – a lot of the focus on the rhythmic here (an echo of rhythm, almost - jazz, music heard on radios at the back of your mind, where only traces of it are sensed, remain), on repeated figures stretched out and intermingled with others and evolving into others and juxtaposed with others like a spiders’ web. Clear yet cloudy like the way the sun strikes a spiders’ web in the early morning light, picking out the sharp lines of it and the dew, at once a shape and something vague and transparent. Sometimes his rhythmic stuff is very simple and ‘primitive’, like the way a child would obsessively bash at something he’d learned to do (dissonant chords 15 mins in). Like Picasso, going back to a child-like attitude –but paradoxically this happens often through extended techniques – through extending your knowledge of the machinery of the instrument so you can play as if for the first time. Miles Davis to John McLaughlin during the 'In a Silent Way' sessions: “play like you don’t know how to play guitar.”
The way it finishes with someone’s watch (?) beeping, breaking the spell – he plays the phrase one more time before cutting off. “Well that’s the fist number.” A typically English down-to-earth mysticism (though he’d hate it to be described as such, and I don’t really mean mysticism in the conventional sense. What do I mean? – hard to explain – ideally, I’d say listen to the music, but I’m aware that most (like me at first) just hear cold, hard, horror. A man who “devoted his life to making horrible music that no-one wanted to listen to,” as a friend remarked ironically to me.
Like speech half-heard, imagined in the head (a half-conscious thought, maybe), Bailey’s music unfolds over time, not quite understood. Who knows what happened in his head when he played? Did he hear voices, translate them into notes? Did he hear a musical phrase, in its entirety, not quite understanding it, knowing where it came from exactly, like the way a line of poetry comes to a poet (William Empson’s ‘taste in the head’). Did he hear sSunds in advance? Sounds in remembrance? The way phrases echo, are developed for minutes a time, their shades and nuances stretched out, moving on - like Evan Parker’s "music under the microscope" (Ian Carr's description) saxophone solos. Yet neither Bailey nor Parker as as distanced as that phrase suggests – it’s not as if they say ‘I choose to examine this sound objectively, now what can I do with it,’ as that wouldn’t work – you have to be fully involved in the sound, in creating, you become the sound, as Stockhausen instructs in his improvised pieces
Two minutes into ‘An Echo in Another’s Mind' – splintering, scraping sounds. 4 minutes - maybe an oriental tinge? The 'ancient' sense, closeness to some sort of melody, that I thought about when listening to 'Paris', maybe the strangeness of it is because it's a recall of a different type of melody, a different type of music to the usual western stuff - maybe he was more in tune with an eastern sensibility? Not that he'd explicitly acknowledge this as anything other than a possibility, in a music of possibilites...The chapter in 'Improvisation' where he comments on how some improvisers employment of ethnic instruments "is about as near to the dignity of ethnic music as a nuclear explosion is to a fart"! Still, Jamie Muir employs gongs and various eastern percussion instrument on 'Dart Drug'...There's a video of Bailey playing with a Japanese dancer on youtube - have to dig it up and see if those ideas are confirmed.
In any case, he abruptly breaks of this more exploratory ruminative strain for some hard, hard, hammer-blows - Beethoven's fifth filtered through fifty layers to become Derek Bailey striking his guitar, jangling it, brutal, exploiting that percussive side of the acoustic guitar (fret noise, the sound of the fingers striking the strings) that hardly anyone else seems to.
Again, a few minutes later, that oriental sound (koto? shamisen?), in the lower register of the instrument, before ending, suddenly, like an unfinished sentence, leaving unspoken thoughts to be picked up on (or forgotten about) for his next improvisation...