stevelawson.net

Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



Entries Tagged as 'Musing on Music'

“Why Do You Sit Down To Play?” The Long Answer…

October 24th, 2016 · Comments Off on “Why Do You Sit Down To Play?” The Long Answer…

When I get asked why I sit down to play, the short answer is normally ‘because I need two feet to operate all these pedals!’. But it’s a little more complex than that – as you’d expect, given how many people manage to play standing up while also having massive pedal boards…

The problem is not turning regular effects on and off. That you can easily do with one foot. It’s not even turning off more than one at a time – that can be done with a loop-switcher (pedal that allows you to have any number of pedals in a separate ‘loop’ that the sound can either go through or bypass), or by having them as a patch in a multi-FX unit (I do that a lot, obviously).

The issue for me is continuous control – wah, volume, delay feedback, pitch shift, parameters that fade in and out, and the interactions between them… That’s such a huge part of that constantly evolving feel that I aim for in my music – the feel that is absolutely at the heart of what I’ve been trying to develop as a solo artist since my very first album. Have a listen to ‘Drifting’ from my first album – in order to transition from one set of loopy-stuff to another, I had to fade the first loop down to nothing, quickly delete it and start looping again, all within the context of the music… [Read more →]

Tags: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies

The Beauty Of Complexity – Why I Can’t Play Anything Live Off My New Album

September 6th, 2016 · 3 Comments

Right, before the main bit of this post, let’s get some niceness in your ears – my brand new album is here: Hit play while you read this:

…and if you’re in London or Birmingham, come see me play this week – Wednesday (tomorrow!) at the Bulls Head in Barnes, Sunday at Tower Of Song in Birmingham 😉

Now, on with the wordsmithery: 

I’m an improvisor. That much is known, right? But there’s a pretty broad range of approaches to improv and ways of understanding what it means:

  • People who play guitar solos on rock songs are often improvisors.
  • Jazz musicians who play the head then play a solo full of material they’ve culled from the rich recorded history of jazz are improvisors.
  • Classical musicians who can interpret figured bass and play baroque music authentically are improvisors.
  • Free players who actively avoid consonance, western-harmonically-define melodic structure and metric rhythmic combinations are improvisors.

So where does my practice fit? Cos, let’s be honest, a lot of it doesn’t *sound* like improv, right? And the language we have to describe recordings is, quite understandably, about ‘songs’ and ‘compositions’ and ‘arrangements’. And once it’s recorded, it just *is*. The variation in the experience of the music is now all about context and the technology used to turn the digital file into sound… The [lossless] file itself is a fixed entity – if it gets changed, it’s a something else. It ceases to be the thing it was.

But the genesis of the music? That’s all improv. That’s not to say that none of the elements of the tracks on The Surrender Of Time have any precedent – that would be like expecting a conversationalist to invent new words every day to avoid being a script writer.

No, improv forms a distinct set of variables for me in music making, which I’ll attempt to list and explain here.

  1. Vocabulary, not repertoire: If you’re in a band, or planning to play in bands, your greatest asset is a repertoire of songs to call on, in a variety of styles that you’re comfortable with and respectful of. Being a great technician – beyond a fairly basic level of facility – is definitely secondary to your ears, understanding and experience. Your ability to play the songs is everything. The relationship between the songs and the spaces to add your own stuff in is variable depending on the setting, but first of all, you gotta know the songs.

    I know very few songs, comparative to how long I’ve been playing bass. I’m *really* good at learning sets when I need to (this is my job, after all!) but I don’t retain them, and I rarely practice songs between gigs. I don’t sit down and play along with records to practice, and I’ve done hardly any transcription in my life. I got good at it so I could do it when needed, but it ceased to be part of my own creative development when I started putting together the toolkit for making the music I cared about, based on the impact certain practices seemed to have on other players…

    Instead, I spent time – and still spend most of my time – building vocabulary. Working on variations on the building blocks that make up the sound that’s recognisable as me. Expanding the set of harmonic possibilities that follow any chord, building a set of sounds that take that music and give it meaning, working on myriad melodic ideas over all the harmonic areas that I’m finding interesting at the moment. When I hear music that moves me, instead of trying to recreate it, I intently focus on how it makes me feel, and then try to recreate that feeling with my own music. That’s one of the reasons why I can quite unashamedly love my own music – it’s not about an arrogant juxtaposition of what I do alongside what anyone else does, and I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to agree with my enjoyment of it, but if I didn’t love it, it wouldn’t exist.

    So when it comes to making the music, instead of me drawing on a massive catalogue of other people’s songs, or transcriptions of their solos, I’m searching through my own catalogue of sounds and ideas for the right thing to attach to whatever it is that I’m trying to say. It’s soundtracking, in a very unmetaphorical sense. But it also means that I never get to properly ‘re-play’ anything. I don’t do multiple takes of the same ‘piece’. I might spend a day exploring a particular area (similar to the process of working out what a book meant to you by talking to multiple people about it, and refining your own take on it…) but there’s never two ‘takes’ of the same piece. Sometimes multiple versions of that iterative process get released, because they’re always distinct enough to be treated as different works.

  2. Complexity vs Repeatability. So, because I’m not forward-projecting to a time when I need to be able to recreate this music, I can allow it to be WAY more complex that I could ever make a composition. Again, it’s not about relative levels of complexity with other musicians (there are people whose composed work would in many ways be way way harder to remember and recreate than mine…) it’s more about my process – I have very little headspace for spending months learning how to recreate existing work. I don’t operate in a commercial space where that matters… or rather, I’ve consciously constructed an alternate performance space, or slotted into the bits of existing ones where I fit, in ways that mean I don’t have to do that.

    But even then, I do bang up against audience expectation that they’d love to hear a favourite tune…. That’s totally understandable, especially as I spent quite a few years doing just that – playing my own songs, doing a set list… Getting away from that has brought about the single biggest leap forward in my creative process since I first picked up the recorder aged 5. When I listen to my live versions of recorded tunes now, it’s only the deviations from the script that interest me. The start point feels like an unnecessary limiting factor, when that start point could just as easily be a sound as a fixed melody.

    So I stripped back the start point to be vocabulary and emotion based, not ‘skeleton composition’ based. It’s pretty heavily influenced by what Coltrane did in later years, when his compositions got looser and looser and were mostly a vehicle for what came after the bit that anyone was familiar. Or Miles’ 70s work, culled from hours of improvisation. Or Bill Frisell’s live solo excursions.

    The result for me is that I can put things together in a way where the serendipity of how they fall IS the composition.

    The unknown state of just how the loops are going to line up half way through the song, or how that loop is going to interact with the Kaoss Pad I’m going to send it through… it’s not ‘random’, in the way that nothing that’s been looped digitally is ever ‘random’ – as soon as it’s done, the result is inevitable, it’s just that no-one can ever know what that will be. The ratios of loop length, because I don’t sync them, are sufficiently complex as to be unknowable, unlearnable, and thus I get to interact with that complexity like a brilliantly unpredictable creative partner. If I was trying to do things that I could recreate, all that would be lost. And if I did it over fixed ideas that were ‘the song’ (in a more jazz like way) that would feel like an unnecessary limiting factor on just how great things can get when serendipity is your homeboy…

  3. Aesthetic constraint vs ‘industry’ expectation : With all of that process, all of the various inspirations (I’m a VORACIOUS music listener, and treat it like ear-food), I needed to find a way to keep focussed on the musical path that would get me to where I felt I needed to get creatively, not be distracted by the rather narrow expectations the come with the various typical western contexts for music – radio stations that play songs, venues that want to know what you’re playing, audiences who make requests, corporate situations that expect a set list, musician-collaborators who want to play standards, or a set of songs. I needed to break from that. Context-wise, house concerts were that, without a doubt. The strangeness and unfamiliarity of ‘your friend’s house’ as a venue gives me a whole lot of creative latitude to mess with all the other expectations, as well as plenty of time to talk about this stuff between songs without the venue getting annoyed that people aren’t dancing…

    But I also needed a way to do something with all the recordings. Because, the simple set of influences on the actual sound of my work mean that the recordings are experienced as ‘finished works’. I’ve built a live recording set up that is basically a studio. The studio IS my instrument (which Jazzwise VERY perceptively picked up on in their review of The Surrender Of Time) – my musical influences contain a LOT of singer/songwriters, because I’m drawn to storytelling over pyrotechnics, politics over self-aggrandisement, questioning music over music that sees itself as the answer… and singers tend to do that best. The music becomes subservient to what the music is trying to say, whether that’s a death metal band, or a rapper, Joni Mitchell or Cannibal Corpse, Divinity Roxx or The Blue Nile – the music is all about creating the context for the story. I just get to hide my stories a little deeper by leaving out the words 😉

So, the records sound ‘finished’. The language that makes most sense when talking about them is the language of songs, of arranging, or composing. They aren’t ‘jams’ or ‘little grooves I’ve been working on’ or however else people’s unfinished work on YouTube gets described, but they also aren’t things I’ve worked out, learned, done a couple of drop-ins on and chopped the end off to make them work for radio… They are conversation pieces that stem for a pretty highly developed philosophy of what improvising within the limitations of live performance with real-time looping makes possible. We have no real words for that, so I’m perfectly OK with you digging my songs 😉

My process is the result of 20 years of finding out how best to tell the stories I want to tell, to play the music that I hear in my head, and do it in a way that responds to the things I hear missing (for me) in other people’s music. When I hear music that doesn’t work for me, I don’t wish they changed it (telling someone else who hasn’t actually hired you as a teacher how they should play music is some tired lazy shit) I just use that as a nudge to work out what it was that was missing for me emotionally and adjust my musical process to work towards that thing that was missing… The gaps are mine to fill, not theirs. (as an aside, this is the exactly the same point of origin as my response to people who come and tell me what they think I should do, in a ‘you should do a funk record!’ or ‘you should totally do a whole ambient record’ or ‘I wish you’d do more of ****’ – my response is, ‘no, you should! It’s you that wants to hear that! This music is exactly what it’s meant to be – take the inspiration and go make your own music’.)

So anyway, call it a song, choose your favourites and play them over and over, transcribe them if that helps your own practice…just don’t ask me to play any of them at shows… :)

Tags: Music News · Musing on Music · New Music Strategies

It’s 2016 And We’re Looking For Magic In All The Wrong Places

April 25th, 2016 · 8 Comments

“All of the magic in the world is leaving”

– this is a quote from a friend’s blog about the death of Prince. He was quoting what another friend said to him, but it echoes a VERY widely held sentiment that the number of stars/legends/genuises dying is leaving us bereft of talent, of magic.

To which I say ‘bullshit’.

Statistically incomprensible, culturally myopic, yet completely understandable bullshit.

I know why it feels like that. I get it. I succumb to that in the moments after the announcement of the death of a Bowie or a Prince or a Papa Wemba… ‘not another one??’

Another what? Another dead human, another dead musician, another lost piece of the consensus around what made the late 20th Century so special for mass consumer art. That last bit is key. Musicians die all the time, musicians who changed people’s lives, musicians who made music that meant so much to people. Just *not enough people* for it to register on the global radar. Whether or not another 100 million people liked someone isn’t a measure of how important they were to me. The global population is somewhere north of 7.1Billion – that many, many of those will be making music that could change your life is a statistical certainty. That you haven’t found them yet is the product of a whole shit-ton of overlapping choices, cultural phenomena, the outworkings of a capitalist media and a level of inertia that happens to most people in the west when their music consumption switches from being primarily about discovery to being primarily about nostalgia when they are in their early 20s. Life gets busy, and the messaging in music journalism for grown-ups is almost entirely about the importance of the music we loved when we were teenagers. [Read more →]

Tags: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies

Insignificant Thoughts On David Bowie

January 11th, 2016 · 5 Comments

I’ve mostly given up on writing about people who die. The public mix of heartfelt loss and restrospective hagiography does what it does and doesn’t need my words. My words aren’t needed now either (are they ever?) but it feels like an interesting exercise because Bowie’s presence in the music and cultural landscape of my lifetime was unique.

Unlike an awful lot of music listeners, I’m not particularly in love with Bowie’s 70s work. The canonical, adored, oft quoted stuff. I haven’t even listened to the Berlin Trilogy, beyond the singles. It feels like important work within culture, but it also felt so present in the world that to go and investigate it at this point would be less interesting than looking at almost anything else in the world of music. Confirming either the correctness of the popular take on his work, or my hunch that I’d like it but not enough to fall in line with the mountain of praise heaped on it felt both unnecessary and antagonistic. I don’t like listening to music in order to prove a point. His or mine. [After all, I’m a bloke who plays instrumental music on a bass in people’s living rooms. If I was apt to be shaped by consensus, I’d be in a 5 piece guitar band playing songs with a bunch of white dudes. Probably with beards.]

But, of course, like Dark Side Of The Moon and any number of classic bits of the pop canon that I’ve never given a focused listen to, it’s there in the ether. It’s there in its influence, it’s there in shopping centres – at least the singles are.

I did own Ziggy Stardust, I owned Space Oddity, I owned Pin-ups, i borrowed Scary Monsters and The Man Who Sold The World. I even bought Never Let Me Down and REALLY tried to like it. (Time Will Crawl still makes me smile, and somewhere I’ve got him playing it on TOTP on a VHS tape).

But I bought them as research, as a touchstone for what this massive figure, so oft cited, so ever present on the radio and TV, so beloved… for what he meant.

It wasn’t til Tin Machine that his music really connected with me. I know, Tin Machine, the one that everyone hated. I don’t think I was much aware of the hatred before I bought it. I lived in Berwick On Tweed, so there wasn’t much room to be arch about these things. I bought things based on hunches. and I got the 12” single of Tin Machine, with a sprawling insane messy live version of Maggie’s Farm on the b-side. THIS was the shit. Listening to Ziggy felt like being part of a club. Listening to Tin Machine felt like an initiation into something far more troubling. It was the point at which – in my world – Bowie stopped being a cultural monolith and instead became an artist about whom there was debate, on whom shitty writers in the pop music press heaped scorn for willfully rejecting the tropes of late 20th century modernist conceit. Tin Machine sold millions of records. MILLIONS. It was a ginormous success in so many ways, but didn’t play the game. That fascinated me. As did everything he did after that. Black Tie White Noise, Outside, Earthling, Heathen, Reality, The Next Day… that’s where my favourite Bowie music lives.

I LOVE that he carried on innovating, behaving like a cultural magpie, absorbing bits of the underground into his work and making it the zeitgeist. There’s probably an interesting conversation to be had about influence vs cultural appropriation, but that’s for someone smarter than me… I love that he worked with such great musicians – he was like Miles Davis (perhaps the only musician of the century with influence on the same scale and across so many worlds? Beatles fans can argue with that if they like 😉 ) in that he could spot genius, and assembled music like ingredients for a recipe – anyone who had Fripp, Belew, Reeves Gabrels, Nile Rogers, Stevie Ray Vaughan and David Torn on guitar is doing fine. Gerry Leonard is another guitar genius. Gail Anne Dorsey is both an exceptional bassist and singer, and while the vast majority of Bowie’s musicians and collaborators were white dudes, he was arguably more open to diversity than most – Nile Rogers was a surprise choice after the Eno collaboration years, and Gail was one of the longest serving members of his band (and sang Freddie Mercury’s part on Under Pressure live!!) …though it surprises me that according to Wikipedia they never wrote together.

So, for me, the magic of Bowie isn’t in Heroes, or Five Years or Let’s Dance. It’s the frailty of The Loneliest Guy, it’s the introspection layered over David Torn’s burbling gentle guitar glitch. It’s Angry, Messy, Shouty Bowie, playing small clubs while having a huge amount of fun, as Reeves waves a guitar shaped wand over the music of Tin Machine, it’s releasing an album chock full of super-hip and super-deep NYC jazzers the day before his death.

So I’m not listening to Heroes today, or Sound And Vision, or Space Oddity… I’ll be listening to Cactus (a Pixies cover! You’ve no idea how great that was to hear when it came out), You Little Wonder, Slip Away, Where Are They Now… Give me 90s and 00s Bowie, Bowie actively ignoring the bullshit around his own legacy and the bloviating about his 70s so-called ‘peak’ and making music that he seemed to care about.

It’s not that they’re better, or have to mean more to anyone else. It’s that when the world hands you a Bowie-sized set of material – musical, historical, cultural, fashion, media, film, and a dialog with meaning through artifice – everyone gets to tell their own story. David Bowie is Lego – there’s a normalised way to assemble the pieces, a recognised big story to it, but everyone gets to pull it apart and build their models, tell their own story, construct their own launch pad for inspiration.

I have a number of friends who worked with him. All had a deeply complex relationship with him and the machine around him. You can’t engage with something like that as equals. That’s both fucked up and inevitable. That he wrestled with it better than many is of note, but also it’s part of why the notion that we may never see his like again doesn’t sadden me. He was him, we are now, and it’s all good. No-one needs to make hundeds of millions of pounds out of music, no-one needs to be a global megastar. Given that the affordance existed for that to happen, I’m glad that we had David Bowie as part of that absurdity. But the seduction of bigness is the most mundane, meaningless part of what Bowie meant, for me. That was the story before he interested me. Fighting that, making work in spite of it and the pressure it brought is where his vitality lay.

I’m not sad because a legend is gone. His music’s still there, and it’s unlikely I’d ever have met him. I’m sad because in the same week that Pierre Boulez died at the age of 90, we’re robbed of another couple of decades of Bowie fucking with our heads, doing infuriating stuff, making great music and making misunderstood music, disappearing for years and then changing his mind and being a monumentally huge and pervasive influence without being a dead icon. That’s rare. Like, once in history rare.

The temptation is to write some kind of personalised send off, addressed to the departed, but that wouldn’t mean much, because I didn’t feel close to him. I wrestled with his work, I love that it made me think, that at times I wanted to not like it and ended up loving it, and the opposite was also true. I like that music was enough. And I still have that. So for that, I’m deeply grateful.

Tags: Musing on Music · obituaries

“What Is The Work?” Thoughts On Cross Disciplinary Art

June 1st, 2015 · 5 Comments

“What Is The Work?”

It’s not a question we really ponder much as musicians, even though it’s one we would answer quite differently if we delved into the language we use. ‘It’s all about the music, maaan!’… yes, but what is the music?

Live music? That’s the main thing?

Or is it the recordings? Are recordings the thing, and if they are is it making them, or experiencing them? Do we make them to be amazing standalone art, or do we make them to be amazing experiences? Does the theatre of experience (for example, shifts in how and where people listen to music) change the work? What role ‘purist’ thinking in this?

Or is ‘the music’ the songs? Are the songs the thing, and if they are, do we just love recordings and gigs because they bring them into our lives? What of music with no songs?

Is it the experience of playing it? If so, what’s the purpose of an audience? Just money so you can keep playing? [Read more →]

Tags: Musing on Music

We Need To Talk About The Drummers…

May 5th, 2015 · Comments Off on We Need To Talk About The Drummers…

Drummers! Drummers have always played a massively important role in my music. Almost entirely by their absence. The conversation around what I do – perhaps not surprisingly, but still with some level of irritation – almost always gravitates towards ‘I’d love to hear what you do with a drummer!’. It’s kind of the curse of being a bassist. We’re seen as half of the rhythm section. It’s an instrument that was INVENTED for loud rhythm sections. Its voice was deeply integral to the development of rock and roll, pop, hard rock, prog, funk, soul, R’n’B… It is the sound of pop music. Bass and drums, that’s what makes it not-folk or not-chamber-music. As a voice outside of that, it’s still woefully under-explored…

So my decision to mostly avoid drummers, certainly in the context of my solo work (the decision to see all ‘band’ work as collaborative and never ‘my band’ is a huge part of this) is one that puts what I do apart from what most bass players do. It works as a USP, but has also been a very very useful set of limitations for exploring a new vocabulary for the instrument. I’m not the first to do this, by a long shot, though the degree to which it has dominated my work is unusual. [Read more →]

Tags: music reviews · Musing on Music

Creating Spaces Where People Can Respond To Music…

February 27th, 2015 · 4 Comments

[big gig update blog-post coming later, but this was bubbling in my head so needed writing first… 😉 ]

Right, this was inspired by a couple of brilliant thinker-friends. Partly it was this blog post by Corey Mwamba (an exceptional musician, thinker, doer and advocate for music) about The Family Album, and his audience-focussed rethink of jazz/improvised music programming, and partly by the work of a theatre company called Coney, particularly their co-director Annette Mees, whose thinking on pretty much everything has been of immense value to me over the last while… Their amazing work on new ways of experiencing theatre, of devising experiential work for audiences is truly remarkable (their upcoming show, Early Days (Of A Better Nation) is touring in the run-up to the election, and is unmissable)

Anyway, here’s today’s brain-ramble, on which I welcome your thoughts and input…

…disappearing down a wikipedia wormhole of synonyms for outmoded terminology that appears to have no analog in the useful terminology world, I stumbled on Cymatics – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cymatics

cymatics by evan grant.

And I’m now thinking about how it works as a metaphorical space for thinking about visible human/audience responses to music… [Read more →]

Tags: Musing on Music

How to Talk About Music on the Internet

August 1st, 2013 · 5 Comments

The ‘publishing revolution’ of the internets has been overwhelmingly positive. We know that, right?

However, there have been a few – perhaps unintended – consequences to all online words being given equal billing (at least potentially) and all public typed conversations being searchable. So let’s have a think about how we – as musicians – talk about music on the internet:

One of the hardest things for a musician to do online is work out two very distinct ways of describing music positively: [Read more →]

Tags: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies

FingerPainting track by track – Antidote To Everything

May 6th, 2013 · Comments Off on FingerPainting track by track – Antidote To Everything

Antidote To Everything: (hit play)

So, imagine this – it’s a year since we’ve last seen each other, we’ve just released a recording of a show that, to us, sounds impossibly wonderful. Listening back to it elicits a feeling of ‘did we REALLY play that? wow!’ Such is the joy of improvised music.
[Read more →]

Tags: Music News · Musing on Music

New things for International Jazz Day.

April 30th, 2013 · Comments Off on New things for International Jazz Day.

Some new music for you to discover on international jazz day. Cos you’ve got 364 days for listening to Coltrane, Miles and Sinatra…

Tags: Musing on Music