There is a problem with live music as an idea in the minds of those who come to see it, as well as those who dismiss it altogether.
The problem, as I see it, is one of expectation. When humans see a musician play live, they find themselves attempting to shoehorn the experience into their regular consumer-capitalist schema. “What is it that I’m supposed to take away from this?” they ask. “What’s the product? What am I supposed to get?” Entertainment, in as much as it has supplanted leisure, is almost always assumed to have some moral purpose. Music is meant to make you dance, or think, or feel a particular way. If live music doesn’t immediately fulfil one of these functions, the mind of the cynical audience member turns to the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Humans then react in one of two ways: they either dismiss the music as pretentious and unworthy, or – and this is the reaction that interests me most – they pretend to “get it” so as not to lose face, or feel ripped off by the effort and expense of seeing it in the first place. “Well, I’m here now. May as well hurt-dance through the boredom, or else remember to bitch about it on Monday.”
What people miss is the fact that music – any art, for that matter – doesn’t have to bring anything at all. It amuses me to think about humans paying ten bucks just to stand there, beer in hand, secretly wondering what it is they’re missing about the ponderous humming sounds that have supplanted their childhood idea of a “live band”. The trick is realising that there is no trick – you don’t need any secret knowledge of music history or the intricacies of post modern genre. Best of all, you don’t need some dubious gift for swaying awkwardly to an atonal, rhythmless mush like some fart-sucking flower child. Those smug idiots at the front of the crowd at the Damo Suzuki show, with their forced dancing and their earnest, eyes-closed expressions – if you think about it, they’re the ones buying into the capitalist ideal of consumer entertainment more than anyone else in the room.
The real value of live music lies in the fact that it provides space. At the pub, amid the flirting and smoking and drinking and talking about romance and work and politics and all the human dross that we talk about at the pub, isn’t it nice just to have that twenty-minute interval in which to avoid the other humans, or simply stare at a corner of the ceiling while some nerd applies a vibrating dildo to a guitar string? No matter how pretentious the music seems, at the very least it forces an audience to stand still, shut up and listen to their own thoughts. After all, without regular access to some pretty excellent drugs, you’re not going to keep up a conversation with a dozen or so acquaintances for four hours straight. Clearing your head – strange as that might sound in the context of a live music show – is one of the most important things about the Third Place.
Unfortunately, few people accept this about live performance. They find themselves bored or upset when there isn’t some immediate meaning upon which they can hang their five dollar cover charge. “It’s out of tune,” “I can’t even hear what they’re singing,” “They only know three chords,” “Nobody was even paying attention.” When you accept the ridiculousness of this kind of criticism, your understanding of live music – and music generally – will rapidly expand. You’ll also start having a lot more fun.
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A friend of mine by the name of Wolfpanther curated a experimental show at Format recently. Obviously an adjective like “experimental” is hopeless, but there needs to be a word for the kind of music that baffles the vast majority of society. Improvised, atonal, arhythmic, “pretentious”, “difficult” …avant-garde might be close, but it’s something of a misnomer, given that a great deal of this stuff represents a ponderous tradition that stretches back to New York in the fifties and sixties. (I could be very wrong about this – my avant-garde music history is weaker than it should be. I’m a Party Technician, not a music critic. My job is more or less to book the music, monitor the attendant party vibe (such as it might be), then tell the critics (such as they are) whether or not they’re doing a good job.)
For a Thursday night in Adelaide, Wolfpanther Presents was a great success. A near perfect show, surprisingly well-attended in a town where few above ground venues are willing to take the risk.
My old friend Dan V (he of vibrating dildo / guitar infamy, as well as Headdress of Neon Flames, Like Leaves, Interzone Express) opened the show with some throbbing, mathy noise pop. He started his set about an hour and a half late. We all assumed he was looking for a park – turns out he was out back the whole time getting high with Dane Hirsinger. If Dan V wasn’t so damn good I would never book him again.
Next, Sandy Cenin (FKN TUTTS, Terrence Dicks, Avant Gardeners, you name it) recited a cut-up poem by Sophie Calabretto and Hayden Tronnolone, punctuated by some rather shameless free jazz. The crowd seemed amused by the beatnik deadpan, although more than a couple were sitting cross-legged, seemingly riveted by Cenin’s Ginsberg impression. I’m not sure whether this phenomenon bothers me or not – whether these people are wasting their time trying to gather some meaning from a nonsense cut-up poem, or if they’re entitled to read as much as they like into the proceedings, no matter how futile the exercise. (Astrology, alchemy, palmistry or any other seemingly mystical but wholly arbitrary pseudoscience springs to mind.)
A small, irrational part of me is paranoid that there is something profound that I’m missing; some heavy Truth, hidden between the free verse and the searing, atonal saxophone. Maybe that bum note was a coded message from the cosmos. Maybe Sun Ra is, in some sense, a true native of Saturn. Maybe the tiny lines in the webbing between my thumb and forefinger do represent the number of children I will have. Does that mean the folks at the back of the room laughing and talking over the music and sneaking back out to the bar really occupy the same order of blasphemy as, say, someone playing Angry Birds during the Shostakovich performance?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: only if they’re making fun of proceedings, and even then it’s tricky. The question of how to behave in a dank basement when confronted with free jazz is something with which most humans grapple at some point. My solution has a lot to do with the function of the music, and whether most people in the room are in some sort of tacit agreement about how the music is to be – for want of a better word – consumed. In the main, an audience needs to escape the capitalist notion that there is something to “get”. By the same token, any performance, no matter how esoteric, has a social function, if only for the fact that it’s being performed in public.
As much as I hate to admit it, live music is inescapably functional. In an era of home entertainment, any form of art that is performed or exhibited in public necessarily has a leisure function – something that distinguishes it from playing records or watching TV in your living room. Where a couple of generations ago live music and theatre were the only games in town, live entertainment now has to have some social component – some reason for you not to stay at home and listen the same thing on a pair of hi-fidelity German headphones. Live music, therefore, only makes sense when it’s considered through a prism of leisure, rather than one of mere entertainment. Live “entertainment” – and this, admittedly, is a tall call that I’m sure a lot of theatre folks will dispute – is redundant, at best an ostensible excuse for a return to a culture of leisure that has been on the wane since the advent of hi fidelity mass media.
Now pay attention: if amongst a given crowd, a given piece of music doesn’t inspire mediation, laughter, fear, euphoria, righteous anger, romance, fraternity, confidence, contemplation, mono no aware, lust, dance, or any number of human behaviours and mental states by virtue of it being performed live, then it may as well have stayed in the studio, and whoever is running the venue may as well plug in an mp3 player and be done with it.
If I was brutally honest, I would suggest that the leisure function provided by the musicians at Wolfpanther Presents was of a largely intellectual variety, something in the order of aural decor, programmed to make a self-consciously literate audience feel surrounded by anti-pop esoterica. That sounds like a condemnation, but the truth is that I don’t love many things more than arriving at a venue to the sound of freaky misfits improvising weird noises. It’s a signal that the place I’m in is friendly to the kind of artists and thinkers and party technicians who demand slightly more than beer and schnitzels.
In the same way that Hip-Hop makes you feel tough and cool, most free jazz makes you feel smart, cosmic, bohemian. It makes some feel pretentious – or surrounded by pretension – which is fair enough too. All art is, to some degree, an exercise in pretension. Dan V is fond of describing it as “audacity”.
Wolfpanther, in his wisdom (he’s been to an average of three local shows a week for the last decade), draws a near perfect analogy with test cricket. Nobody expects anybody but the most tragic anorak to scrutinise every ball of a test match, and nobody in the crowd is genuinely paying attention the entire time. That isn’t to say that test cricket crowds are pretending, or somehow faking their interest in what is one of the most nuanced and sophisticated forms of leisure yet devised by humans. It’s just that if you pay attention all day long, you’re probably missing an equally valuable dimension of the game – the attendant atmosphere of civil camaraderie. Watching test cricket is often ostensible – something that goes on in the background of some other social gathering. Sometimes an understanding of the game is altogether unnecessary, as with my friend Dr Ianto Ware, whose ignorance of the game extends to his referring to it as “the cricket races”, but who nevertheless enjoys “watching” cricket surrounded by his favourite sort of people (in Dr Ware’s case, literate white men from money who know their way around politics and hegemony).
A ponderous night of free jazz is no different. You don’t have to be properly into it – in fact, I struggle to believe that anyone is genuinely garnering everything there is to be garnered from every improvised warble and hum – but the very fact that it’s there, and that cheerful, like minded folks are gathered around it, makes it a success. The fact that a large portion of them aren’t paying attention is minor, if of any significance at all. While I wouldn’t go as far as to reduce live music to a means to an end, I would suggest that this end – the party end – is overlooked, and a real appreciation of the music suffers as a result. (Wolfpanther, in his genius, has an idea for an “endurance” noise show, to which the crowd isn’t necessarily obliged to pay attention. It would just drone on and on in the corner of a venue, local musicians and sound artists tagging in and out, while the crowd wanders in and out of the performance space, only “consuming” the entertainment in the same way that most people watch cricket, or switch on a lava lamp when they have friends over.)
David Byrne prefaced his live show at the recent MONA FOMA festival by suggesting that the performance we were about to see was more or less an approximation of the album he had just recorded with indie pop singer St Vincent. To paraphrase: “This show… this show is kinda what the album sounds like… in a way, more or less.” There was a reticence to the caveat, as if Byrne was wary of people comparing live shows with studio recordings – entertainment with leisure. Byrne – an art school graduate and a first hand witness to everything from Punk to New Wave to No Wave to the beginnings of “World Music” – understands that a live show is more than a demonstration of an album. A live show is a party – a social convention based on shared sensation, spectacle and taste. If you want the album, drop a needle on it. If you want a live show, prepare for all the human elements of an imperfect spectacle, played out before (or amid) a crowd of people with a certain kind of taste in common. The show doesn’t have to resemble the recorded music in any way other than theme. In fact, live shows that differ from their recorded equivalent help justify the existence of live music in the first place. There’s something to be said about the sense of goodwill that prevails in a thousand-strong crowd of Talking Heads nerds, especially when Byrne and St Vincent are backed by a million dollar sound rig, cinematic lighting, some painfully cute choreography and, just for chuckles, an eight-piece brass band.
Talking Heads’ work with Brian Eno is a kind of microcosm of this idea. Their famous trilogy of albums were the result of Eno and Byrne – who were adorably addicted to Funkadelic at the time – isolating various ideas and bouncing them around the studio until the end results bore little or no resemblance to the original. Aside from annoying the members of Talking Heads who weren’t David Byrne, these songs would have been a bastard to replicate in a live setting. But replicate them they did, and the results, although often diverging from the recorded material, bordered on the ecstatic.
While the MONA FOMA show was actually very similar to the studio album, I did enjoy hearing Byrne’s halting, half-hearted disclaimer. His tone of voice said something to the effect of “Okay, the show does sound lot like the record, but it shouldn’t matter either way, and I find the whole comparison tedious and irrelevant.”
Good Job David Byrne, and Good Job Wolfpanther. Audacity isn’t quite the right word, but it’s close.