Iain Cameron's Diary
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2004-01-17 - 2:25 p.m.
It suddenly has got very busy.
I am managing to keep up my work list – and the four stage structure is adding value. Art-list isn’t really there and indeed I wonder whether its possible. I left a piece in what could be a finished state and started another.
The history seems fine. I bought Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters on historical grounds and I really like it. It makes an excellent comparison with Soft Machine 3. In the 1996 slieve notes, HH explains how having left Miles and run his own group, he really felt the need for something else. Apparently he even recorded a little with Marvin Gaye post WGO – though I am not sure that this stuff has ever been issued.
Post James Brown, George Clinton and Sly, other musicians seem to have been compelled to take a stand on that stuff – to pull it around and see what they could do with it. Miles got Michael Henderson in on bass. Herbie Hancock uses the Clinton idea of synth funk bass on HH and he dedicates one track to Sly. Steve Reich has said that he bought into the idea of static bass figures from the James Jamerson riff on Shotgun.
HH is one of the first examples of a world class improviser using synth as a voice for lines – and fascinating for that reason alone. Maybe my copy is remastered but it sounds incredibly fresh. I listened to it all the time yesterday as I drove down to the technicological university at Cranfield and back.
Keyboard colours are changing very fast at this point. I love the way Ratledge uses outboard effects on electric piano and Hammond esp wah-wah. Some pop organists eg the guy in the Small Faces (Maclagan?) had evolved a way of using Hammond draw bars in real time to add to the song – I stood behind him once in the wings at Hammersmith - probably in the late 70s – and was mesmerised. It’s the same idea as Ratledge ie colouring the chord as it sounds – and of course many synth patches do this. I have used overtone envelopes a great deal myself. Each technology enables a certain kind of subtlety.
The issue is how these keyboard effects and the rhythm and tonality and the balance between composed and improvised are integrated into the piece. That’s what makes SM3 so good – and HH seems to show another inspiring balance of these parameters.
You could say that WGO is another heroic solution at this stage in the game, Papa was a Rolling Stone yet another.
Everyone seems to agree that at some point commercial pressures freeze the form and take the edge right out. A bland formula prevails eventually and some se Hancock as guilty as anyone.
The other great stream of ideas is polytonality and drones. Steve Reich says that this was the great achievement of the Coltrane 4tet – to anchor the harmony and free it at the same time. I read an undergraduate textbook this morning which says the same thing. Trane evolved a way of playing harmonically inflected lines using some kind of stacking theory which gave the line the narrative force of harmony without the backing having to follow that particular harmonic trajectory. HH is indeed an example of this polytonal funk – esp the way Hancock plays. Both his left and right will exploit the polytonal freedom when he solos.
It’s a bit of an admission that 30 years after the event this where I am. I am not a keyboard player – my only excuse. Just this week I found a way of using Hancock thirteenths to create ostinato figures which are harmonically related but also operate as tone rows – ie use all twelve tones without repetition – giving the other tonal parts maximum harmonic freedom.
My other drift is to source WAVS from all over and blend into my own little one or two bar elements – with both rhythmic and harmonic content – and then mutate them. For me this is Belleville inspired techno.
I took a major step in that direction to day by investing in an air synth – a kind of 50 patch theremin with a looping facility – it was in the sales. I feel very good about this – esp the performance possibilities eg with Dhorn. Also the developments eg along the lines of Reich’s Pendulum Music.
I was annoyed by all the commentary surround the Silence premier – it was so limited in focus. To my surprise I found the performance brilliant. I was driving down the M40 just past Oxford – everything did seem to change while the piece was under way. The thought that this might have been happening across the country is inspiring.
The Morton Feldman piece in the next Uncaged programme was very challenging.
I have a lot to write next week and a lot to read – not least a biography of Sun Ra – Space is the Place.