Iain Cameron's Diary
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2005-05-07 - 6:47 p.m.

Identity Music

Identity is quite an issue in art these day - you can trace the theme easily in poetry and painting for example. Indeed in painting its pretty easy to date the emergence of identity issues to 1970. There was a particular episode in the NY mag Artforum where an image really wound people up - and all of a sudden the energy that had been building up surrounding Vietnam protest fractured and some of it started to drive gender in art. Adrienne Rich would be a good poet to examine to trace a similar shift around that time.

In simple terms the art is offered and has to be understood as arising from the artist’s conception of what their identity is and the polarities that arise from it. Identity here stands code for gender race ethnicity etc - and rather less for class. What used to be ‘universal’ in the form is now seen as a trick - it was secretly partial while pretending to be universal. The identity art exposes the trick.

You can find these issues emerging in rock too - Simon Reynolds’ and Joy Press’ book The Sex Revolts is a really good detailed discussion of many of the ways in which this has happened over the last thirty years or so. The trick in rock that has been exposed is the very strong gender coding in certain classic works and postures eg the Rolling Stones or Free’s All Right Now. Courtney Love or Tori Amos are artists who clearly address these issues presenting their identities as a polarity to the tricky mainstream position.

We are talking about music where part of the understanding in the offer is that the performer belongs to a certain group. In these general terms identity and style are close. Reggae is a style but in the great songs of Bob Marley the style also codes identity not least because he was the first global music star to come from the Third World. Perhaps BM said something like - look at this subjectivity here - mine - bet you are surprised at the mix of lyricism, tenderness, anger, religiosity that I am carrying in my own terms as an icon of the burden my group shares - this is the new soul - its got more soul than what going on - hasn’t it?

Maybe the Belleville Three said - this may be the rustbelt but we have come up with ideas about the future that you would never get to in a million years and we have got them down in this icy groove which you can’t get out of your head. In the future everyone will feel like we did when we dreamed this up.

Rock music started as teenage music and teenagers have to establish some separate identity. The music is often a tool in this enterprise. The fast changeover of rock music styles means that each new generation may adopt a new style for its identity project.

Rock music goes on and on - and so as an identity resource it is still available as particular elements and particular identity niches. Think of the enormous enthusiasm that greeted Arthur Lee when he performed Forever Changes in England in 2003. Part of that was about identity.

J W N Sullivan
Sullivan was a mathematician who became a science journalist eg on The Observer at a time when people were beginning to realise how interesting 20th century science was going to be - relativity Quantum mechanics sub-atomic particles mass bending space-time etc. He had a wide and interesting circle of friends - Aldous Huxley, Alester Crowley, Einstein etc and he wrote about Beethoven. He thought that Beethoven’s works coded the romantic struggle of an existential hero and he wrote a book explaining how the famous pieces worked against such a narrative.

It is heady stuff and you occasionally come across someone who fell under its spell admiting the fact sheepishly.

If you put your mind to it you see that JWNS is not that far off some of Adorno. The modern composer is able to develop the grand tradition because he is able to recode compositional form so that it expresses the composer’s alienation from society - from late capitalist society. The form of the piece is a reflection of social reality - a true reflection. So the composer’s authentic identity and true perception of his marginal status comes through in the developmental logic of the piece. The more the composer pulls off this realisation the greater the piece is. Berg coded his own dissolution. Its one way to listen to the Violin Concerto for example. This is artistic listening about identity.

Adorno might be the acceptable face of identity theory in serious music and Sullivan the Daily Mail face.
We have to avoid legitimizing the Hitler gang drawing spiritual sustenance for their cosmic project by listening to Wagner to recode the collective solidarity that realized the Final Solution. (German identity tended to feed off an excluded group - we have Bismark to thank for that. Hot breaks were banned by the Nazis because this was the musical expression of degenerate group identity.)

Bob Dylan
When I was about fourteen the guy down the street discovered Freewheeling - and that was ours. You don’t need me to spell out the details.

Somehow in 1965 something happened to BD and he didn’t know what it was. Eventually after various false starts he and we got to grips with Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde and everyone had to recalibrate somehow or other.

In identity terms this was an inflection - a fold. The identity of the solo prophet with the guitar preaching the truth is clear enough. Who was that Mona Lisa with the Highway Blues hinted at in her smile? Hell she’s more elusive - even though it might be pretty clear that she wasn’t quite at one with her situation. Even today theories proliferate.

The song as a medium for identity had reached a point of discontinuity. We now know that Kurt Weill and Private Jenny are implicated.

My Funny Valentine
Kurt Weill started off in the Adorno camp but decided to leave much to the disgust of the other inmates. He through his lot in with the Broadway Song. A lot of his were real crackers. Listen to what Miles and Gil Evans did with My Ship in 1958.

Miles liked to do popular songs - listen to the first great quintet. Many of the most famous tunes come straight from the classic 1950s Frank Sinatra repertoire. On his first 10 inch Long Player Frank did a very restrained version of My Funny Valentine.

By 1964 - having emulated the early Sinatra restraint with his first great quintet - Miles and the 2nd great quintet as it formed were taking Broadway song form apart. It is very easy to hear their deconstruction of MfV as the deconstruction of the lyric identity that underpinned the romantic song - the heartfelt ‘I’ became the fragmented identity that sobbed and swung and rocked and dissolved into impressionism bar by bar.

Not much time elapsed between 1964 and 1965 then. Both miscreants are on the indulgent Columbia label.

The trick?

OK - here’s a songwriting project manifesto:

This is the opportunity to turn theoretical debate and abstract statement into a means of technical experiment in the actual medium of songwriting - to explore formal possibilities while extending the range of material dealt with.

This involves an assimilation not merely of ideas but of musical forms coded from various areas of discourse and even their methods of structuring as organized entities.

Certain songs on this album tentatively explore such possibilities.

It will be seen that this leads to a new stress on the importance of ‘subject’ in songs.- but because it is not the ideas but the actual musical/logical forms that are to be the object of attention - its a new kind of subject that will be one approached and even defined in terms of formal experimentation.

The process is one of smashing and rebuilding forms of musical expression.

There is an affinity with those who see the role of jazz musicians as a subversion of accepted social reality.

The means may be destructive but each particular end - for there are as many ends as songs - is not.

The construction of songs becomes he record of a series of individual thresholds (intensities).- thresholds of the individual experience of being conscious.

They form the definition of affirmation in time and in music of human identity.

Believe it or not I am not making this stuff up - and I’ll reveal the hidden identity very soon…....…………….


The next step is to see if this manifesto can be applied to 5LL.

I am going to segment 5ll into three chunks - side 1 which is for these purposes the really important bit; the three lyrical exercises which open the second side ; and the last two songs.

In one sense the last two songs are the important ones - Fruit Tree because it is a summation and Saturday Sun because it is the reflection/coda. I am not going to explain why FT is the summation - I haven’t really got anything to add to what Andrew K has already said on that subject. I could say quite a bit about Saturday Sun but I won’t partly because I have said half of it somewhere else. And partly because once one starts on the textual/inter-textual aspects and lay that against the structural aspects it just goes on and on.

The three earlier songs on that side represent an exercise in craft and aesthetics - they are attractive songs pure and simple. They are the other polarity from the complexity and density of FT and SS. Songwriting obviously encompasses attributes such as catchiness, lightness, wit, grace etc

So - the songs on side one span a range of formal and structural innovation and experimentation. For example:

THTM has the most extraordinary harmonic progression in the bridge with two tonal centres. These two tonal centres are equidistant from the centre of the A section. In that sense the song presents a complete harmonic universe - very much as Giant Steps does. The way that harmonic pressure is utilized within the harmonic universe of the songs codes the exploration of mutuality and temporal unfolding that the lyric expresses.

To cite one example - if there really is no end to your troubles with things you can say - what hope lies in the future? What is the way forward? The answer is offered in both lyrical and harmonic terms in the bridge in terms of constant forward movement and brief respite. So what the song is ‘about’ is not just the words or the tune or the wit, grace, poise etc Its about the symbolic density of both the lyric and the harmony - and also to some degree how the melody finds its way through.

Now, in line with the manifesto we can source the song in an anterior endeavour - Giant Steps and Coltrane Changes. The especial point of connection is that the trajectory of that anterior endeavour is constant unfulfilled search - which is what THTM is about.

Following Gebhardt in his ‘Going For Jazz’ we can see jazz as a musical endeavour which is inherently disruptive when its really working. When Coltrane played with Monk in 1957 he said it was ‘like stepping out into a lift shaft’ and it is the sense of that disociation which on the recordings that have survived from that encounter. Giant Steps is 2 years later and as the pianist Tommy Flanagan recounts on the magnificent DVD The World According To John Coltrane - that’s what it was like to encounter Giant Steps on the recording date for that masterpiece.

What we see on THTM is both the existential and technical aspects of ‘going for jazz’ and ‘stepping into the liftshaft’ and ‘the endless journey round the harmonic universe’ woven into a song which is about difficult mutuality and uncertainty about the next step.

So - in line with the manifesto - the song sources relatively distant resources and builds them into a new meaningful structure which illuminates subjectivity agency and identity.

And as we work through the songs on side 1 we find repeated examples of this remote sourcing, recoding and structural density.

In Riverman we find an echo harmonically of THTM with a contrast between tonal centres a major third apart. We also have the insane 5-4 rhythm might just have something to do with Time Out and Time Further Out. We have the transformation of Wordsworth - and we have harmonic pressure at plate-tectonic levels especially through the extraordinary 2nd chord.

Three Hours sources Sartre and Hegel through the master-slave cluster and takes the fiveness of RM and transliterates that to another dimension of structure - what in poetic terms would be called lineation. I have yet to find another song which utilizes fiveness in that way - anywhere.

What to say about Way To Blue? Well to vary the register I am going to leave that to the New York poet John Ashberry and his Definition of Blue:

‘The rise of capitalism parallels the advance of romanticism
And the individual is dominant until the close of the nineteenth century.
In our time mass practices have sought to submerge the personality
By ignoring it, which has caused it instead to branch out in all directions
Far from the permanent tug that used to be called ‘home’.
These different impetuses are received from everywhere.
And we are as instantly snapped back, hitting through cold atmosphere
In one steady intense line

(two more verses which I have skipped)

And yet it results in a downward motion, or rather a floating one
In which the blue surroundings drift slowly up and past you.
To realise themselves some day, while you in this nether world which could not be better
Waken each morning to the exact value of what you did and said, which remains.’

You might want to say this is ‘just coincidence’ - but you havent let me finish my trick yet.

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