Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dear 1999 Wayne

This post is part of a group blog event organized by MusicianWages.com. The topic is: “If you could go back to 1999 and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?”

Dear 1999 Wayne,

You won't be expecting to read this and even if you do I know damn well it'll make not a jot of difference, but never mind that. I'm here to tell you what you need to be doing so as not to make 2009 Wayne sad. Yeah, this is a letter from the future. Deal with it. Roll another jazz woodbine and read on. You're an obstinate bastard just like me, so I know you'll ignore every word, but still. This is more for me than for you. Recommended soundtrack: LTJ Bukem, Earth Volume Two. Oh, is that on already? Same here. Heh.

First off, you are allowed to take your music seriously.

In fact, the sooner you do so - and allow yourself to do so - the better everything will be. Forget what your friend's dad told you when you were a kid. You know, that guy. The embittered ex-session guy who mentored his son's semi-pro covers band you joined at 13. The guy who simultaneously encouraged you all and helped you out while constantly warning you not to even bother trying to write original tunes or to try and make a living from music. His encouragement and his practical on-gig advice was his real teaching. You will be forever grateful to him for that. He gave you a leg up like no other music teacher you have ever had. His warnings? Not so much. You always ignored the warning about writing because you are writing for yourself and no-one else and because you have to. The longer you listen to his other warning the harder it will be when you finally grok that you are utterly unemployable in any other field because music will always take over. Block that shit out. Go for it. Allow yourself to go for it. The only one holding yourself back is you.

Secondly, in a month or so, you are going to get a job offer. It's a really good straight non-music job, well paid, with a world-famous organisation that no-one could reasonably object to working for. Don't take it, though I know you will.

You'll even enjoy it for the first few years, while you simultaneously pursue serious music projects. But then you'll stop enjoying it. The music will suffer too. You'll be drained. Then there'll be a girl - it'll end badly and suddenly. At this point you'll have a complete breakdown. You'll lose the job, your flat, everything. Everything except the instruments, pretty much. You're a lucky sod, so your family will be wonderful and will help you pick up the pieces, but it'll be hell for everyone near you for a long while, particularly you. Eventually you'll finally start focussing on doing music full time. Do me and all those close to you a favour. Turn the job down and go for the music now.

Ach, why do I waste my breath.

Remember that band you left when you went to uni back in 1990? Some time around 2008 you'll listen back to those tapes and realise what a mistake that was. You were in a shit-hot arse-kicking band at 18, full of youth and energy and strong original material. You still think you did the right thing then by turning the band down but you so didn't. And what difference does it make, to realise this in 1999? Well, you aren't thirty yet. You can still allow yourself to go for it. Because nothing else will really come right until you do.

Thirdly, I want to talk to you about practice. Sure you have talent and all, and manage somehow to pull shit out of a hat without really working at it, but that just isn't good enough. That shitload of Robert Anton Wilson books you're always reading and rereading? You know how you have a strong sense that there is some seriously deep wisdom in there that you need to learn? Remember that bit about the basic magic formula to everything being 'Do It Every Day'? Yeah you do. 'It Becomes Who You Are'. You haven't got it yet. I know you haven't. But here's a clue.

That is the meaning of practice.

And you can start now. Every day. You're not thick, for all your other faults.You know  you're pretty ok on the bass even without practice, though your piano and guitar skills need serious work along with your singing, to say nothing of your theory. How about you do that work, fill in those gaps, starting now, and see what happens. Do it every day. Start now. The sooner the better. Because Every Day is the most powerful magic formula there is. It really works. Try it. Don't leave it another five years. Try it now.

Fourthly - and I know this will sound insane to you - but start playing the saxophone. I don't care how you do it. Find a way. (There's a clue in your aunt's attic). And start now. As soon as you do, the rest of your music skills will improve. I don't know why. It's just like that. The thing is enchanted or something. Or maybe you really need to learn a monophonic wind instrument in order to help you understand all the other polyphonic ones. I don't know. All I know is, the longer you leave it, the older you'll be when that magic starts to happen. Even if you never get any good at sax, at least you'll have a glimmer of understanding of what the horn players in your band are up to when you tell them to work their magic and they do. Plus it might encourage you to give up smoking sooner. That vow of yours to give up at thirty? You'll need an incentive. Blowing a lot - physically - might be part of that. I'm just saying.

Finally, and I know I've been on your case here for a while, but I want to thank you for something. Even through all the mistakes you have made, are making, and will continue to make, you never gave up and you never allowed yourself to even think about giving up. Irrational though it seemed sometimes. More than anything else, this is what is carrying you through ten years later.

So, yeah. That's all. I now return you to your largely self-inflicted misery.

By the way, that girl who just left you was not the love of your life, so get over it. Write the songs and then forget her. You haven't met the love of your life yet. Again, I'm just saying.

Cheers,

Wayne

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Music in 400 years

David Morgan-Mar asked an interesting question in the notes to his latest Irregular Comic (NSF Duran Duran fans):

http://www.irregularwebcomic.net/2513.html

Do you think 400 years from now people will still be listening to any of today's pop music?

He suspects that people might still listen to the Beatles, but points out that 400 years ago, there was no Beethoven, Mozart or Bach, and suggests that most people would have a hard time naming any music that dates from circa 1600. He goes on to suggest that we have almost no hope of imagining what our society and culture will be like 400 years from now. How can we possibly say what parts of the transient musical legacy of our age will even be remembered then, let alone still listened to by the masses.

What is interesting about the question is that it cuts to the quick of what music is for and how it works.

Music as a cultural artifact is passed from person to person by those with the tools to do so. Four hundred years ago, there was no such thing as recording, so the only way that music could be transmitted was directly, by musicians. Forms of notation existed for those who could read them, but other than that, you could only pass a tune to someone else by singing or playing it. They could then only pass that tune on by singing or playing it themselves.

Morgan-Mar is a scientist and not (so far as I am aware) a musician, so he may be forgiven for leaping from 'pop' in the question to 'classical' in his attempt to make his case. By doing so he hops directly over the genre which destroys it - folk music. Folk music is handed down from musician to musician across generations, and while it is extremely hard to pinpoint just how old some songs are, many well-known folk songs are clearly at least a few hundred years old.

Take Greensleeves - which Morgan-Mar does mention as a sole counter-example. Wikipedia suggests was already a well-known tune in 1603 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greensleeves - though sadly the article points out that there is no evidence for the myth that it was written by Henry VIII.

The version of Whiskey In The Jar popularised by Thin Lizzy has lyrics about a highwayman - making it at least a couple of hundred years old - but since the nature of folk music in the true sense is for individual singers to update lyrics for their own time and place, who is to say that this version is not itself a rewrite of something much older.

Ritchie Valens' 1950s hit La Bamba was already a very old song when he recorded it. No-one knows exactly how old, but this article - http://kathmanduk2.wordpress.com/2009/02/14/black-history-month-la-bamba-and-its-african-roots/ - dates it to 1683 and argues that it was itself at that point a reworking of an earier form.

Scarborough Fair can be no older than 1253, when the original Scarborough Fair began, but Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scarborough_Fair - tells us that there was already dozens of versions by the end of the 18th century. Widdecombe Fair, as we know it, is dated - according to this page - http://www.mysongbook.de/msb/songs/w/widdecom.html - to some time around 1794 - when the historical Uncle Tom Cobleigh died. She Moves Through The Fair is another extremely old song - there is interesting discussion here - http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=869 - which clearly demonstrates the rolling person-to-person nature of folk music, as while the lyrics as we have them are around a century old, the tune itself appears to be much older.

Many nursery rhymes - a sub genre of folk song - are of a similar vintage. Lavender's Blue dates to (at least) the seventeenth century: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavender_Blue . Ring A Ring O Roses may not after all date back to the Great Plague but is at least eighteenth century - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_a_Ring_o%27_Roses . The Grand Old Duke Of York - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Grand_Old_Duke_of_York - can be dated back to 1642.

And so on.

All musicians know there is no such thing as genre in music. Not really. The boundaries blur and change over time, everyone borrows from everyone else, and these ancient folk tunes are widely used in classical and pop music. Yet it is clear that many of the well-known songs we have today are indeed hundreds of years old. And all that is before the advent of recording.

Here as in all other aspects of music, recording changes everything. Folk music history is by nature a bit woolly due to the paucity of evidence and the shifting nature of the material being researched. But the music of today is largely being recorded, and not merely recorded, but recorded in a digital format. It is difficult but possible to transfer older recordings on wax, tape, wire or vinyl to new formats, but with digital formats, the technology to continue to update old file formats to new is as ubiquitous as the computer itself. As long as computers exist in some form, it is hard to see why there is any reason for any digitally recorded music to be lost.

And that also changes everything. In 400 years time, it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that some people may be listening to some of today's music, though as to how many people and which of today's music will survive, no-one can say.

There is of course another, perhaps more pertinent question: is anyone actually listening to today's pop music today? But that would be a different essay.

=end

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Outstanding Online Orrery

I've been waiting for this for ages:

http://www.gunn.co.nz/astrotour/

It's the serious business. Via MeFi, like everything else this good.

Totally does what it says on the tin. Could possibly be improved by addition of a background starmap, or the spaceship to go with it, but we'll have to wait a little longer for tech capable of properly implementing those I think.

Meanwhile, please to enjoy.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Too Many Good Things All At Once

I should probably get into the habit of trying to post eleven little blogettes rather than one big linkdump. I will maybe start doing this at some point in The Future. For now, here's eleven things that have been mainly sitting in a sticky note on my desktop titled 'Blog Ideas' for too long and which I want to tell you about.

Twelve, actually, because the first thing is the sticky note app itself: Xpad: http://mterry.name/xpad/

Xpad is a simple sticky note application for Linux. There are millions of these, for all platforms, and I've been aware of them for ages. But I've only recently started using one, and Xpad is the one I am using. It has changed my life. It is now possible for me to jot down notes usefully on my computer in a way that it hasn't been before. I am definitely being far more productive as a result.

On the face of it, that seems crazy: what's wrong with just firing up a text editor and jotting those notes in a file?

I did this for ages. Doesn't work. You have to name the file. You have to remember the file is there. You have to remember where you put the file and what you called it, and which random note is which. You end up with lots and lots of crap hidden in files you never look at and don't go back to.

Sticky note applications are about the interface, stupid. And I am stupid, for having taken so long to start using one. Different incarnations of these apps have different features, including To Do list stuff, auto-browser-clicky goodness and whathaveyou, but the key feature is none of those things, which xpad doesn't have anyway, and I don't care. The key thing is extreme simplicity of use.

No naming of files. No saving of files. Two click opening of a new or saved note. No click adding to an existing open note. It's all just there, waiting for you to have something to type into it, and it saves it all behind your back.

Being a geek, I have hunted down the location of the directory where the xpad files are stored ($HOME/.config/xpad if you must know) and confirmed that it more or less autosaves everything as you type it. But that is all as irrelevant to you as it is to me. If you don't already use a sticky note thing, find one that works on your system and start using it. If you do, you can stop laughing at me now, thanks. Or, you know, eventually.

Anyway. Herewith the contents of the sticky note marked 'Blog Ideas', slightly expanded from note form:

First, the best game I've played in ages, 'The Company Of Myself', over at http://jayisgames.com/games/the-company-of-myself/

If you've already played Yoshio Ishii's Cursor*10 (see http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2008/04/08/who-on-earth-is-yoshio-ishii/ for that and more) you will be familiar with the idea of a game where you need to die multiple times and collaborate with your own ghosts to complete a level. That's a great idea and Cursor*10 is a great game. But the Company Of Myself takes this idea and adds a story and an emotional component. It's a bit hard as platformers go, and a bit bleak but it is utterly wonderful. First game to actually make me cry in over 30 years of gaming. You should play it.

Next, some music stuff.

I played a gig with Hadar Manor ( http://www.hadar.co.uk/ ) the other week and also on the bill were a superb seven piece live acoustic hiphop outfit called Free Peace.Their music is made of pure joy and pure win: http://www.myspace.com/fre3peace

A friend sent me this YouTube video of Etta James and Dr John's live version of I'd Rather Go Blind:

Almost as amazing: Hendrix fooling around on an acoustic at a party:

(That came, vaguely, via http://www.metafilter.com/86830/Earliest-Known-Footage-of-Jimi-Hendrix-Performing, which links to a quite different Hendrix video from his very early days playing with other people's bands. That one is worth watching too though.)

Also there was this excellent and highly thought-provoking article on Thelonious Monk - http://www.openskyjazz.com/blog/?p=201

If you are gigging in London, there are some promoters you should be aware of and avoid: http://drownedinsound.com/community/boards/music/4184800

Finally, a dose of reality and perspective, via the excellent saxophone forum Sax On The Web ( http://forum.saxontheweb.net/ ). SOTW member and excellent sax player Steve Neff - http://www.neffmusic.com/blog/ - has survived and written about his brain tumor. Start here: http://www.neffmusic.com/blog/2009/08/as-funny-as-a-brain-tumor-part-1/

To end off with, some completely random stuff, which you may or may not have seen before:

Stormtroopers on their day off: http://wildammo.com/2009/08/09/what-stormtroopers-do-on-their-day-off/

Awesome interactive star map: http://server1.wikisky.org/?locale=EN

Tackiest item with smuggest advert: http://community.livejournal.com/vintage_ads/1489225.html

An oldie (in internet years) but goodie - Jon Ronson on the worst swearword in the world: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2007/jul/28/weekend.jonronson

That's probably enough link dumping from me for now.

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