The Impossible Vs. the Unthinkable: A Sequel to ‘Wild Productivity in the Age of Evaporation’

 People underestimate the extent to which music is fundamental to everything. It is fundamental to everything because, if nothing else, it’s a manifestation of the human spirit: no matter what you choose to call it, there is something in us that is not made of physical matter, yet is inseparable from our corporeal state; that not only animates our perishable biology but, through its immateriality is able to flow between our otherwise distinct and separate bodies.[1] This is commonly referred to as the Human Spirit, and how we seek to use its immanence to shape and enrich our experience of ‘life’ is what our ‘world’, including its cultural production, is all about. Music, in its capacity to express and communicate beyond language and to move between souls with what feels like immediacy to our crude biological mechanics (at the speed of sound), is the most powerful conductor of the human spirit. The manner in which such a fundamental and essential power is manipulated, perverted, twisted, subverted and abused makes for a fascinating phenomenon to immerse one’s self in and, for those of us fully immersed long term, to endlessly discuss and share thoughts about. I can accurately say that I have been pathologically preoccupied by music, especially recorded music, since I was 6, when I bought my first 7” single.[2]

That’s a first attempt to state clinically something I’ve never tried to directly articulate before, but which underpins every other attempt I’ve made to formulate ideas about music according to what I’ve felt, known, experienced and learnt over the years. And in years, that’s probably the best part of 50 (my current age) since I’m aware (from an old tape recording) that I was already imitating the sound of electric guitar from the radio, with my voice, before I was 3 (the same cassette contains a recording of me begging to listen, again, the ‘Tell the Boys,’ which was the b-side of Sandy Shaw’s Eurovision-winning ‘Puppet On A String,’ whose pale blue Pye Records centre label I can still picture now

In the past, when I’ve tried in class to embark on a subject like Hip Hop or Jazz with such a conception of what music is as understood, I’ve often used the emergence of the Blues from a human context that was defined by the experience of the most extreme oppression, exploitation and deprivation by a population already, initially, enslaved, then subsequently ‘emancipated’ into socio-economic conditions that were in many ways worse (as they even continue to be today), as proof that, despite how we’re taught in our post-Enlightenment culture to think of music as some kind of luxury-for-later or, as such, something to be put aside when dealing with the ‘serious’ business of day-to-day functions, management and administration, when the human spirit is compromised to the most bitter extremes imaginable short of actual death, music becomes the last essence and hope in which the human spirit invests. In terms of teaching I’ve tended to use this ‘proof’ as a means of laying the ground for conversations about the emergence of phenomena like Hip Hop or the Black Arts Movement (with a specific focus on movements such as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1960s Chicago), suggesting that similarly brutal conditions in the South Bronx in the early 1970s or the South side of Chicago in the mid-1960s, forced communities to use any means necessary to forge their own meaning in the face of socio-economic adversity.

The extent to which music’s power to carry the human spirit between its mortal souls can be twisted and perverted in order for historically dominant powers (in our post-Enlightenment age, so far, white patriarchal imperialists) to continue perpetrating unrelenting oppression and exploitation is no better illustrated than by the manner in which Hip Hop was taken from its origins as the West’s most intense manifestation of ‘the free creativity of the proletariat’[3] to a monstrous cash cow that peddles bullshit which emphatically reinforces the principles of unscrupulous self-interest, sexism, misogyny and homophobia. I still love Hip Hop and Hip Hop has never been more intensely beautiful and exciting than it is now: even in the worst cases there’s still so much greatness in what Hip Hop is and what it represents… I’ll never blame the artist: I’ll always blame the backer. As a way of expanding on the themes I’m alluding to here, I can do no better than recommend Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow[4] as an account of American racism’s successful undermining of the small gains made by the Civil Rights Movement.

In the previous post (to which this is intended as a direct follow-up), I mentioned how, in terms of my academic research profile, although I’m primarily categorized as a ‘creative practitioner’ (which means that, for me, for the time being, to any centralized, state assessments of academic research I submit actual art works for appraisal rather than written articles, chapters or books, which for most people are more recognizably ‘Research’ (with a capital R). While I suggested that I wanted to largely sidestep formal academic infrastructures for presentation and publication of critical musicology, if an opportunity arises (like a conference) to which I feel I could make a contribution, then I’ll go for it. In June I gave a paper at Cambridge for their first official ‘Hip Hop conference’. The paper, ‘Find the Self, Then Kill It,’ discusses the challenges I’ve come up against as a teacher on African American culture in addressing deeply entrenched racial biases that my largely white, European class cohorts inherit and absorb through the twin institutions of schooling and the market. The whole experience was hugely affecting for me: initially overwhelmed by the staggering opulence and presence of historic, old money of Cambridge itself (I’d never really been to the university at all); but then, waking up on the morning of the second day, the day I was scheduled to talk, to the unexpected and stunning EU referendum result. I felt I couldn’t give the paper I planned to (I intend to post it here soon, framed by an account of my experience of the whole conference), due to a combination of my reaction to Cambridge and the new social context that the Brexit vote delivered, and instead hastily prepared a stripped down version that accentuated the core dynamic which was significantly informed by Michelle Alexander’s account of ‘mass incarceration in the age of [American, supposed] colorblindness.’ While it was OK, and I don’t think I made too poor account of myself, I didn’t turn on the style I’d hoped to, coming in from a certain left-field to mainstream academic discourse on African American music. But I did get my key points across. During the ensuing Q&A, an African American PhD student from the United States briefly remarked on some things I’d related about Nathaniel Mackey, before referring directly to my comments about the prevalence of an undefeated institutional racism in the USA today (again, read Alexander now if that formulation seems in anyway over-reaching), essentially affirming my take on it, before asking, with no small urgency, ‘… but what’s it going to take?’ I think I had some kind of answer to offer, but due to the panel’s chair deciding that we’d take all the questions at once (his was the first, there were four more after him) rather than letting me answer them one by one, I never got the chance before we ran out of time.[5]

So – what is it going to take? And what is it that we’re trying to achieve in trying to work out what it will take? What’s what going to take? And what part can musicians, musicologists and music’s pedagogies play in any of it?

Well, one of the underlying implications in my talk, as in the previous post, is that the way we (as Europeans and citizens of Europeanist, post-Enlightenment cultures) are taught to think of, and respond to, music whose mechanisms and the purposes it serves, lie outside the remit or the reach of, respectively, ‘daily life’ and general activity, thus severing for many people a vital connection with the agencies that music can help nurture through the ‘free creativity’ it gives access to. By turning music into a professionalist specialism, on the one hand, and the ultimate in fetishized commodity on the other, we not only strand vast sections of the population outside infrastructures of power and entitlement, by cutting off the their most effective channels to agency and self-determination; we also manage to reinforce people’s sense that they are powerless to overturn the grim conditions they find themselves living in – meaning they’re easy to mobilize by lying to them about both the causes of, and projected solutions to, their ills.

It doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to extend the principle of elitism, expertise, profressionalism and exclusivity so overwhelmingly expounded in both music’s pedagogies and its fantastically over-inflated marketing to all other areas of daily human concern (which people generally attend to with greater attention and ‘seriousness’), such as politics, economics and critical-philosophical discourses. Which prompts two further, only semi-rhetorical, questions: just how low, despite the evidence, do far too many people regard music’s status in the overall human experience? And just how much are ‘they’ prepared to underestimate its power? And I’m using the term very broadly here; for how much longer will we be reading the likes of Slavoj Žižek (who has apparently forged himself an especially tricky perspective on Trump from which to speak) call on the European classical canon (if they call on music at all) to flesh out their theoretical positions, rather than the likes of Curtis Mayfield or Etta James? Or Kate Bush and Nicki Minaj… ?(!) Well, that’s already long overdue if you (they) stop for a moment to consider the place of what is still lamentably delineated as ‘popular music’ (a term that has become as grating as ‘light entertainment’ used to be on BBC Radio 3 in the 80s) in most people’s lives: the extent to which the profressionalist and scholarly hierarchies in music (as Christopher Small so brilliantly illustrated) have continued to condescend and patronize the majority of people (my italics are intended to emphasize a refusal to use adjectives such as ‘ordinary’ and ‘regular’) is directly linked, not just similar to, how our professional, expert and career politicians, administrators and managements (in short, governments; in short the state) have lost touch with people with what could prove to be a devastating consequences.

In the age of evaporation, it’s possible for Donald Trump to stand before the whole world and proclaim that his victory signals a fantastic upturn in the fortunes of millions of poor Americans (‘everyone’) – just like that, at the click of his greedy fingers – and not be laughed voluminously off the podium under a hail of rotten eggs and vegetables. And shoes. And soiled underwear.

So what? I’m blaming music? And musicians? It sounds stupid, right? But, in part, yes, I am. And I reproach myself as much as anyone for having failed, and continuing to fail, to convince, for my own miniscule part. Except when I encounter people (students, fellow musicians, and many who aren’t either) who take life seriously because they really love it and they’ve glimpsed what’s to really love about it, then there’s no convincing required. The convincing is required for all those that are hopelessly tangled up in the endlessly duplicitous, multiple interpellations and connivances of spectacular society.[6]

I definitely feel like I’m getting into much deeper water here than I’d like to, for the purposes of this talk. I need to grapple this back to what the whole exercise is/was meant to be about. Of course, in terms of what I advocated in the original post about daily operation and wild productivity being driven by a need to respond to the turbulently shifting conditions of human experience, then it’s entirely appropriate for me to write this stuff now (for all its flaws) in light of the dramatic US election result.

One thing we can do within music pedagogy and research right now is collectively agree (if far too late) that while the European Classical tradition has produced some of the greatest testaments to the human spirit and, for me as for many others I’m sure, its capacity glimpse the absolute beauty of life and earthly existence, it can no longer be regarded as an orthodoxy of any sort, nor should it any longer be considered as somehow separate from (even superior to, God forbid) all other musical endeavors on the planet, either now or at any point in the past or future . No matter how hard you try to convince yourself otherwise, it’s the world and the majority of the population have long moved on without you.

Now, it wasn’t my intention at all to write or say anything of this sort at my research seminar. But the bitter irony of finding myself once again expected to formally address colleagues and peers about my ideas on the day of another cataclysmic paradigm shift, means I was determined to be as transparently emphatic as I possible can. In other words, for all the theoretical prevarications and nifty turns I might have tried with regard to Bataille’s notions of project and nonknowledge, or Sun Ra’s advocating a quest for the impossible, Trump’s terrifying supporters (the fact that there really are so many of them), have forced my hand. Despite my worst intentions, I’ve had to come out and say what I mean, rather than dancing a fiddly jig loaded with vainly provocative implications.

With music, as with anything else, not least politics, you can’t just tell people what to do. By doing great things in a manner than neither patronizes nor alienates anyone, you might just achieve something worthwhile and meaningful. Else before you know it, all the things you hated have become the world.

One of many chilling chants emanating from the Trump supporters celebrating this morning was ‘Jail Obama!’ If that’s not evidence enough that we’ve finally roused the dragon of fascism to being fully awake and on the move, then what more will it take to convince you? And will I be jailed for this post? I’ve long tried to remind students not to underestimate the extent to which fascism always was deeply encoded in the DNA of bourgeois, post-Enlightenment society and its glorious cultures. Which leads me to the much more starkly simple, yet unfathomably complex to deal with, question: ‘Now what?’ Or as Travis put it in Cambridge on June 24th, 2016, in Cambridge, England: ‘What’s it going to take?’

[1] Unless, of course, you concede, as Sun Ra would, that our sense of ‘empty’ space, filled with air, as something that isn’t actually substance, which case we’re constantly in physical contact with each other, but that concession itself only reinforces the fundamental value of music anyway.

[2] Which was ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ by Lieutenant Pigeon. I bought it because it was number 1 in the charts; which was why I bought my second record, a version of ‘Amazing Grace’ played on bagpipes. I proceeded from there.

[3] To reference once more to (and not for the last time) C L R James’s Notes On Dialectics, whence this term came.

[4] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press; 2011)

[5] As an aside, which reinforces some of what I’m saying in this post, I talked at two conferences this year – the Cambridge one and the Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium. At Cambridge, out of over 100 speakers, there were maybe no more than five or six people from music departments; at Guelph I was literally he only one.

[6] To use Guy Debord’s perhaps overused terminology.

The Impossible Vs. the Unthinkable: A Sequel to ‘Wild Productivity in the Age of Evaporation’

Wild Productivity in the Age of Evaporation: A Brief Outline in Self-Situation


Following on in the spirit of the ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie At Your Peril’ post this is another quickly written piece I’m posting ahead of a research seminar to be given at Newcastle University on 9th November, serving as both a preparation and preview of the talk itself (for anyone who feels inclined to read this beforehand) and a digest wherein the essence of the ideas I want to get across might be distilled at least to a sufficient degree that they can be taken on board, carried forward, disputed or extended. Writing a few days before the talk, I’m trying not to be too aware that my talk will (have) take(n) place the day after the most troubling and perplexing US presidential election in history, sensing that no matter what the outcome there’s trouble ahead. However, the conditions that have led to such a bizarre scenario as the Clinton/Trump race are not unrelated to what I intend to address here. The following is an attempt to articulate some of the complex ideas I’m trying to negotiate with regard to situating what I do within a broad critical framework, not after the fact but part of the fact (of cultural production). I don’t want it to be an account of what I do, as if simply for the record; I want to articulate the central concerns and the various ideas that drive the work in a way that says something to someone else – ‘else’ as in apparently operating in a different area or discipline.

 In terms of the seminar itself, the task at hand is to give an account of my research as primarily a creative practitioner but also as a writer who is trying to negotiate a pathway into publishing a particular, personal brand of critical musicology that seeks to avoid, for the most part, conventional academic avenues of publication and dissemination. Above all I want to be able to present abstracted principles drawn from how I’ve been making music for the past 37 years in a manner that is transparent and provocative enough for those whose interests normally lie far outside my frames of reference to feel impelled to either ask questions about them or, better still, feel compelled to take issue with them. My reasons, by the way, for wanting to sidestep conventional academic avenues of publication are quite simply because I don’t want to contribute to academic discourse as my primary objective per se: if what I write ends up being taken up by other academics at some point along the way, so much the better, but it’s not them I wish to speak to first and foremost; the readership I’m seeking out consists of those whose lasting preoccupation in life is Music with as broad a scope as daily audition allows, but for whom it is never a culture that operates in isolation from, indeed is wholly immersed in and intertwined with, all other human matters; a readership that shares my sense of adventure in trying to feel as connected to, and in touch with, the cultures and politics of now, and wanting to make some kind of sense of, or extract some meaning from, them. As I’ve said so many times in class, music is philosophy, music is politics – not merely reflective of them or related to them. It’s all very well for me to stand up and say that, but managing to articulate how philosophical, political or other discourses are manifest in how music is made and how it sounds is a lot harder to do than one might at first imagine, especially when trying to convince anyone for whom ‘politics’ (or any other kind of commentary) in music can only be conceived in terms of lyrics (‘message’), or, moreover, anyone who has learnt music according to the Western European, notated frameworks of harmony and counterpoint.

[About The Title]

The research seminars at Newcastle tend to follow the same form as those at other HE departments: at least ¾ of the seminars in a given year are presented by invited speakers, usually academics from other departments, in a programme that tries to meet as broad a range of research interests within the department as possible. The rest of the programme tends to be made up of in-house speakers – members of the faculty or (increasingly seldom for some reason) doctoral candidates. I was well overdue to give one of these, so when asked this year, I accepted. However, I was asked quite late in the day (I’m not complaining) and was required to offer a title fairly swiftly. As I’ll explain below, my research is really just about one thing; I had no idea initially how I would talk about that one thing and from what angle to approach it. I came up with the title ‘Wild Productivity in the Age of Evaporation’ for the following reasons, which I will outline by breaking down each component of the title itself:

  • Wild Productivity has to do with an awareness that not only is the proliferation of new music in the digital environment increasing exponentially as the technology for producing it becomes more accessible and easier to use, but that such accessibility and facility mean that emerging artists are increasingly likely to produce new material at an exponential rate. Consider how the producers featured in Tim & Barry’s excellent documentary I’m Tryna Tell Ya, about Chicago’s Footstep scene, talk of making ‘four beats a day’ (‘beats’ here understood to mean, essentially, complete tracks).[1] Or a recent FACTMAG interview with Icelandic producer Bjarki whose headline proclaimed, ‘Icleand’s Bjarki makes 10 tracks a day and has Nina Kraviz on speed dial.’[2]

    – …wild, because accessible digital technologies allow us to make music wholly outside established infrastructures; through resisting commodity and project, while pursuing nonknowledge[3] in performance and expression, music can be produced as if from the wild, as if growing out of the very wastes and structures that the monster of industrial and consumer society leaves in its wake, like buddleia growing out of neglected British brickwork, or feverfew sprouting at the fringes of domestic thoroughfare, and the blackbirds infusing a town’s air with delicately nuanced, pure ontology.[4]

    I also wanted to pitch productivity against creativity as a preferred term for making music spontaneously and quickly.

  • in the Age of Evaporation alludes directly to the conclusion of the film The Mindscape of Alan Moore, in which the comic book author of Watchmen, Swamp Thing and From Hell riffs on what he refers to as the ‘theory of period information doubling,’ which seems to be derived from the mathematical concept of ‘period doubling bifurcation’:

The period speeds up—between 1960 and 1970, human information doubled. As I understand it, at the last count human information was doubling around every 18 months. Further to this, there is a point sometime around 2015 where human information is doubling every thousandth of a second. This means that in each thousandth of a second we will have accumulated more information than we have in the entire previous history of the world. […]History is a heat, it is the heat of accumulated information and accumulated complexity. As our culture progresses, we find that we gather more and more information and that we slowly start to move almost from a fluid to a vaporous state, as we approach the ultimate complexity of a social boiling point. I believe that our culture is turning to steam.[5]

In freely translating ‘vaporous’ and ‘steam’ into ‘evaporation,’ I simply speculated that, a year on from his predicted ‘boiling point,’ we’re now on the other side of Moore’s forecast, beyond saturation – ‘our culture’ has already turned into steam and we’re evaporating – and that the level of socio-political turbulence we seem to be experiencing with the miscalculations surrounding Brexit or the insane rise of Donald Trump in the States might actually be due to that, suggesting there’s worse to come. In the introduction to his recent documentary, Hypernormalisation, Adam Curtis suggests that our time is subject to ‘extraordinary events’ in a manner that implies irrationality and a loss of vision and control:

We live in a strange time. Extraordinary events keep happening that undermine the stability of our world: suicide bombs, waves of refugees, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin… even Brexit.[6]

The idea for me, here, was to propose that, in an age where we’ve supposedly moved beyond the point of evaporation, art can only really function by immersing itself into the very fabric of daily functionality, responding to perpetual shifts instantaneously, moment-to-moment, in order for its voice to bear any relevance or meaning; which is not to say that it has to be disposable or transient, but that it needs to be uncatchable and unexchangeable. Wild productivity can generate commodities in order to leave them behind to reek potential havoc with the mechanisms that would seek to contain their essence and energy; such havoc may never transpire, but that’s no reason not to try. And a paradox lies in the fact that to record music on the fly, then make it available on the web lends it an archival irreducibility that subsequent (re-)discoveries can recontextualize and resuscitate.

Above all, I want to try and show that the time-honoured model of the ‘gifted,’ elite individual working in isolation to produce refined works endowed with a hubris of exclusivity and conclusivity (too frequently attributed the mark of genius), while having always been detrimental to free creativity[7], is simply unworkable in the post-digital, post-networking conditions for cultural production. By extension, the resistance that many academic practitioners choose to exercise in the face of those conditions is directly synonymous with that of old-style party politics which finds itself on the wrong side of social consensus in a precarious 21st century where things are no longer concretely discernible or identifiable.

[My Research: All One Thing]

Having said all that, and in view of all that’s to follow, in terms of research I’m still only trying to do one thing: namely to make sense of what I found myself to be as a musician and artist (productive element) by the time I was paying any real attention to what I was doing (which is to say, in late adolescence, needing to consider a pathway). The formation of what I found myself to be was apparently set in motion and shaped by three hindsight-discernible evental sites[8]:

  • innocently chancing upon Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd at the age of 7;
  • accidentally discovering the joys of recording albums without bothering to write songs at the age of 13;
  • and walking into a Paris cinema in 1989 to watch a matinée screening of Do the Right Thing, totally unprepared for what the film, and Public Enemy’s title track, would do to my perception of, and perspective on, music and politics.

Before trying to formulate all that in the final section of this post, I just want to deal with a couple of dichotomies and talk about where I orient myself between them…

[Productivity vs. Creativity]

I’ve long felt an intuitive antipathy for the term ‘creativity’ in so far as such a thing should ever be thought of as distinct from simply living; although I accept that its common usage is probably necessitated by the fact that so many people today live so uncreatively, which is to say that a significant majority of people in a country like Britain are prone to surrendering individual and collective agency to distraction providers like Sky TV and Netflix while similarly letting what they eat be prepared by monster gloms[9] whose primary concern is maximum profit. I’m not a fucking hippy. So much of what ‘hippy’ is meant to stand for is grounded in stuff that is good; but its legacy seems to have ossified into the image of scruffily attired middle-class drop-outs with long hair indulging in some fantasy of a better world that, due to the extent to which the ideological framework is ultimately predicated on self-interest, manages to ignore the true the fact that their freedom to act as they do depends on being part of an order that mercilessly oppresses and exploits the poor and defenseless communities of the world (both those within bourgeois-imperial countries like Britain and those in the far flung reaches of what we call the Third World). But I believe in the immanence of ‘creativity’ as a principle of self-definition and self-determination, which is why everything I ever eat at home (except for things like cheese, honey or peanut butter) is self-prepared from raw ingredients; and why I usually have at least five or six different sprouted seeds on the go which make up a substantial part of my diet.[10] I’ve never been called a hippy because I don’t look like one and I’ve never preached to people about lifestyle and food. My approach to how I eat and carry myself generally came through music – more specifically through having become what people usually call an improvisor (I’m going to have a go at that word, too, in a moment) and extending the logic of spontaneous musicmaking to a daily, integrated practice.

Someone who springs to mind whenever I equate food with music is James Baldwin, a writer, thinker and activist (and much more besides) whose work remains really important to me. In The Fire Next Time, he equates the grimness of contemporary white, exploitative culture, with the food industry’s synonymous corner-cutting for maximum profit:

The word ‘sensual’ is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the act of breaking bread. It will be a great day, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous tastless foam rubber that we have substituted for it. And I am not being frivolous now, either. Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become.[11]

There’s so much to unpick here, it’s such a loaded passage. The whole book is like that. Even Baldwin’s novels are like that, while being so lucidly written that they’re beautiful and effortless to read. When he suggests that ‘[s]omething very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions,’ it makes me think of where we are now, as a global society preoccupied with the hyper-vanity purveyed by social networking, and how politics has become so totally immersed in doublespeak that any kind of protest or speaking out merely becomes entangled in the same kind of endemically relativist duplicity:[12] you can equally take or leave anything said by Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen as anything by an activist protesting against islamophobia, racism, homophobia and corporate greed – it’s all about consumer preference based on serving one’s self. ‘Thank you for using Sainsburys self-check-out’ as a gracious epitaph for mass suicide.

But, apart from the food reference, its the ‘present in all that one does’ that resonates most closely with what I’m trying to say here: there should be no distinction between creativity and living. And perhaps such an overt commitment to self-prepared nutrition wouldn’t be so necessary were we to manage to live together without screwing each other over for personal gain; in which case the abundance of real bakers would mean I’d be able to use my bread-making time (about 90 minutes on a Saturday morning) for something else. But under the present conditions, the agency afforded through increased self-determination requires me to make art as a means to escape forces of exploitation that are so pervasively ingrained on all levels of our daily experience, extending that to food as part of a recognition that it’s actually the same thing. Although I should say that the bread-making hour is loaded with research value: it’s one of my times to listen properly to new music – I’ve never owned a bread machine and never will; the ritual and the techniques are fundamental to it all.

[Composition Vs. Improvisation]

For some while (since around 2006-2007) I’ve tended to have a problematic relationship with the term ‘improvisation.’ It’s not only that I want to resist association with so much musicmaking that flaccidly indulges aimlessness, formlessness and a residual vagueness in performances bastardized from a misapprehension of music made by the best improvisors – while creating a performance framework whereby indeterminacy becomes an excuse not to make something happen. I have also come to realise that what I have been pursuing in terms of method since the age of 13 has little to do with the intended openness and open-endedness that improvisation, through its many long-established and deeply rooted traditions in diverse cultures and civilizations, represents. What I’ve been doing all along has been composition as distinct from improvisation, in so far as the intent and focus have always been concerned with form and formal structures that are clearly envisaged at the point of departure, and intended to be heard as forms, even though none of it has been written down, either in words or staff notation. Getting a glimpse of Lil Wayne’s methodology in Adam Bhala Lough’s excellent documentary, The Carter, was a revelation to me: here was someone who was recording new music compulsively, every day, but who neither wrote lyrics down, nor improvised.

 I’m slow: I could’ve come much sooner to an understanding of how using spontaneity, lack of prescription and recording was distinct from improvising – after all, I was listening avidly to ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ aged 7. When I started working in Newcastle (initially at Northumbria) and started going to the record shops, I discovered that Ben Jones from Jazzfinger was working at Steel Wheels Records where the Haymarket Wetherspoons now is. I already knew Jazzfinger’s music having read their interview in Bananafish #14, and was a fan. In introducing myself to Ben, I said something about being ‘an improvisor, too’ – Ben reacted very gruffly saying something like, ‘I don’t do improv!’ His tone took me aback, and revealed for the first time a suggestion that not all performers who make it up on the spot see themselves as improvisors.

 While I do enjoy improvising (in the more recognized sense) for myself what I realise I’ve long been practising is an approach to composition that does away with prescription, preparation and rehearsal. Instead, the ‘rehearsal’ is the real thing, there’s no ‘later,’ there’s no time to improve and get something ‘right’: improvement comes through honing the facility to perform in any context, at any time, without preparation. From the very beginning, Radioactive Sparrow (my first ‘proper’ band, though there was never much proper about it) recorded songs without writing or rehearsing them so has to have the recordings; making ‘albums’ was the primary purpose for even picking up the instruments.[13] Because our intention was for those ‘albums’ to sound like rock music, fairly conventional song forms were instinctively followed, although, again, this was never planned or discussed.[14] The point is that, for me, ‘total improvisation’ became a method whereby tracks were recorded with an internalized form, either already envisioned, or capable of mutating at any point during performance. Part of the trick became to carry ourselves like a regular band and never advertise that we were making it up on the spot – most of the time people were none the wiser; we almost exclusively played for audiences who either expected a regular band or assumed we were a regular band. Yeah You do exactly the same, and for the most part people don’t tend to realise. In order to achieve this, especially nowadays, with Yeah You, in a performance environment that has radically diversified since the 1980s, you need to be very focused and tight. In that regard, while I’m making a case for distinguishing what we do from improvisation per se, I’d also say that I’ve never really subscribed to the idea of ‘jamming,’ which to me also suggests a resistance to commitment – really great free improvisation, on the other hand, is always razor sharp, while being wholly committed, but without any preconception of form.

 If one is to accept ‘improvisation’ as a sound principle, then the logic has to extend to all forms of cultural production: in so far as the presentation (publication, performance, exhibition) of new work requires the artist at some point to commit to the work’s completion. The non-improvisor can scarcely ever be less anxious about presenting the work ‘wrong’ or ‘badly’ than anyone making it up on the spot at the very point of public presentation. In short, the ‘composer’ has to commit to finishing and releasing a work to the scrutiny of public display at some time or other (they have to make that leap of faith); traditionally the composer crafts and perfects a single statement over many months (or years) in order to guarantee as far as possible the ‘success’ of the work; the ‘improvisor’ spends just as much time, if not more, crafting and perfecting not the single work but the facility to make something new at the point of performance every time, which means rather than meticulously planning to insure against a failure, the improvisor must commit, regardless of the consequences, every time they play. I’m sure Cornelius Cardew wrote somewhere that performing improvised music was like committing suicide; I thought it was in ‘Towards and Ethics of Improvisation,’ but I can’t find it in there.

 Ultimately, every artist, every composer, anyone who sets out to make or produce something has to make a decision about when it is done – ready to dispatch, to be let go of, to be turned over to consumers and critics. For the non-improvisor that is the point of final commitment; for many it’s a step burdened by insecurity and anxiety. For the improvisor, as for the wild producer, no such trauma taints the threshold of publication and distribution, because the process of making and producing has been woven into the fabric of daily operation – production and productivity become synonymous, the ritual of projecting is always-already in play from the point of departure, not deferred to some privileged future stage.

The advantages are numerous: not only is the trauma of completion never an issue, but the facility to produce new work in response to ever-shifting contexts and settings is instilled and advanced through a practising that never procrastinates: you have to act now, and it has to be for real. While I learned to approach art-making in that way through a set of intuitive and accidental revelations, I gained my trust in it from Hip Hop and Jazz. One thing that defines both those forms, and which they have in common, is commitment. Commitment to the quest, to making the moment mean something, but also commitment to a quest for heightened understanding, for the Absolute, for the spiritual realm beyond the artifice of material and biological realities.

 Perhaps the greatest advantage I have found in performing in this way, while maintaining a commitment to presenting something as if preconceived, is that it has proven to be much less alienating than the conventional expert/virtuoso/gifted-artist model. Over the years, I’ve often been told, ‘when I watch you perform, it makes me feel like anything is possible’ or ‘I could do anything,’ or something of that sort. I couldn’t hope for a greater affirmation or encouragement; because this isn’t about being approachable and ‘down-to-earth’ (a notion I’ve always hated: I posted an early blog circa 1998 in which I said I’d rather be full of shit than down to earth – I remember my mum being somewhat dismayed), or a ‘nice guy.’ Entertainment without alienation establishes a porousness between artist and audience that allows the art work to inhabit and permeate the social context wherein its essence returns to the real-life context it sought to never depart from in the first place. That’s awkwardly put – what I mean is: if one’s approach to music- and art-making is as wholly integrated into daily routines as possible, then its public presentation, rather than inducing reflective contemplation and the affirmation of art’s separateness from ‘life,’ speaks directly to people in the shared moment without intermediary codes and protocols of reverence and deferment – alienation and reverential distance have no place. This is vital, since the result is an identification on the part of the audience with the artist, even though the latter is doing some radical and unhinged stuff – it presents contradiction and heresy with radical candor. Such a context is also ripe for intuitively unselfconscious collaboration.


 The wild producer is naturally collaborative because it’s a simple matter to extend the principle of spontaneous intuitive performance to yielding a porous engagement with parallel elements and elemental forces. Free music disavows the traditional isolationism of the Europeanist composer. In fact the model of the isolationism of specialist practice is not unrelated to the expert-professional framework that, among other things, has led to the chasm that has formed between governments and the people they’re meant to represent. The bourgeois-individualist, lone-genius model of cultural production was never a good thing because of the harm it could do once extended to the institutions markets and pedagogy; but now it’s wholly unfeasible – because for the first time in history everyone can, in principle, talk to each other, which means, on one level, they don’t need to be told what to do, what to like, what to think. Although by and large, the social instinct is to still rather be told, but the sources of didacticism are now, perhaps infinitely, multiple, diverse and even spurious – and, as it happens, if one considers Adam Curtis’s story about Vladislav Surkov’s antics in Putin’s Russia, actually nefarious. I don’t necessarily see this unfolding scenario in either utopian or catastrophic terms; and I’m not being naïve about the extent to which the usual forces of exploitation will generally prevail, even if the oppressors are now of a different species – we’re already well into that stage, anyway.

What am I actually trying to do with this? In trying to advocate the total integration of artistic practice into ‘daily life,’ thus resisting the institutionally endowed notion that art and music are separate from the ‘serious business’ of quotidian affairs, I feel like I’m instituting a ‘right/better’ vs. ‘wrong/worse’ way to compose music or make art. And of course, in one sense I am; but in the context of Higher Education humanities research, I think that anything that smacks of polemic is generally off limits. I don’t want to necessarily be seen to stand before colleagues and say, ‘you’ve got it wrong,’ or ‘you’re overlooking something crucial.’ Yet ‘something crucial,’ or something fundamental, or something deadly serious, is not generally considered a factor of ‘popular music’ studies at university. Which is to say that popular music (nonclassical) studies has, by and large, historically been regarded by established (literally ‘old school’) academia as defined by the kind of trivial pap you’ll encounter in any 1970s rerun edition of Top of the Pops, which in turn creates a context whereby advocates for what nonclassical music cultures really are (including those of non-Western societies) find themselves having to overstate the case for their legitimacy – only to fall on deaf ears, even then.

 When situating a conversation about music in the realm of discussion inhabited by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Adam Curtis and Alan Moore, it seems perfectly natural to talk about stuff like anarchy, magic, Gnosticism, conspiracy or the constancy of imperialism, racism, patriarchalism and institutional misogyny and homophobia. From the perspective of those discussions, it’s clear as day that everything that Tesco and the monovalent high street stand for is ‘evil’ (if that isn’t too bluntly emotive a word), in so far as their duplicity as forces of rapacious, unscrupulous exploitation (of consumers and producers alike) masquerading as altruistic providers of sustenance and satisfaction, is virtually imperceptible. But when you re-enter the world of the ‘normal,’ the ‘everyday,’ the ‘ordinary,’ where most regular folk are just getting on with the bland, if often fraught, routine of survival impervious to concerns about a greater sense of meaning or purpose beyond what Tesco/Sky/BBC/Apple/Facebook[15] can provide, any attempt to revive discussion around, for example, how meat is actually produced, or what it really takes to keep the shelves full of competitively priced nutrients (of often questionable nutritious value), is met with apathy or suspicion, if not derision and offence.


I wanted to make this a ca. 3,000 quick post; I’ve made it quick, written over the weekend before the seminar, but it’s getting out of hand, and will most likely be more like 6,000 words. And while writing it I’ve had major doubts about my sanity in even trying to present this stuff (in the seminar) and summarise it (here), while several times laughing out loud whenever I realise how silly the title is. So I’ll just pause here in order to outline a few other points, then I’ll eject in order to pick up some of these strands elsewhere in different discussions.

Firstly, one of the main reasons for establishing a discursive space for non-improvised, free/spontaneous/immediate/process-defined composition, more than simply forging a paradigm to fit what I do, is to accommodate a wild productivity, largely centred around Ableton Live, that is prevalent within the most progressive and adventurous electronic music emerging from club-oriented scenes around the world. This explosion of free creativity, described in the Norient’s 2015 book Seismographic Sounds, shares both the intuitive, counter-project, nonknowledged approach, along with the proliferation of tracks, with what I’ve described here.[16] Seismographic Sounds seems to be relaying a moment in music’s evolution akin to Hip Hop and the kind of developments in African American music that emerged through Bebop and the AACM. Those musics were born of an engaged and socially integrated daily-operation commitment to reinventing and reconfiguring the conditions of real lives. What we’ve been taught to call ‘Jazz’ was never a style nor was it an aesthetic – that’s a Europeanist misappropriation. Jazz was always a mode of philosophical critique characterised by ontology, epistemology, phenomenology and, above all, dialectics. Jazz is improvisational not due to some arbitrary whim to make it sound freer (and cooler) for the sake of it but because it is discursive, dialogical, dialectical – because it is philosophical debate. Ableton Live, along with other similarly intuitive, accessible technology (like early versions of Fruity Loops which spawned Grime’s distinctive sound), has provided a viable platform for artists working completely outside, and way beyond, Europeanist conventions born out of religious, secular and bourgeois settings that gave us a classical tradition that became a kind of exaggerated orthodoxy, in a manner, and within social contexts, that are conducive to compulsive, quotidian, and wild productivity. Such contexts yield spontaneity as inevitable, shaped by nonprescriptive engagement in the matter of experience and survival. The greatest, most important, most relevant music makes itself out of social necessity: this was the lesson of the Blues, of Jamaican sound system Dancehall, Hip Hop, Disco, House, Techno and the still emerging tradition of the UK Hardcore Continuum, whose own influence is still evolving in electronic musics from around the world.



[Seminal-Consensus vs. Solipsism]

The unviability of individualism when making or writing about art that is relevant: the logic of consumerism, which forges bogus networks of ‘personal taste,’ ‘preference,’ and ‘choice,’ yields a false sense of advocacy whereby people feel entitled to decide whether a cultural product is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ regardless of how many other people disagree. Of course, there may be numerous critical narratives that vindicate any such position, but the problem lies in the fact that once a cultural product (a movie, a novel, above all a song/video or album) seizes hold of a market, its aesthetic and material content become definitively seminal, and its influence and capacity to shape an emerging generation’s perspective on musical and artistic worth are hopelessly beyond your control.

[Cardew Vs. Individualism]

… what Cardew was aiming at in his polemic ‘Stockhausen Serves Imperialism,’ but he replaced individualism with a clumsy deployment of rigid Maoist dogma; in terms of music, the crudeness of this transition was manifest in his shift from the modernist, graphically scored obscurantism of Treatise to the exceedingly patronising and muddled attempts to write ‘music for the people.’ But as Keith Rowe pointed out in the Channel 4 documentary on Cardew that was shown in the early 1990s: he couldn’t tap his foot to a beat…

[Buffalo Jumps]

Picking through entanglements of undergrowth grown strawish and rigid through time and disinterest one might hope to find a tooth, like those bovine teeth you’d have come across occasionally when strolling through pastures. Sharp, jagged molars you’d scarcely believe ever resided in a mouth. But then a cow can decimate the epidermis in licks alone.


[1] Tim & Barry, I’m Tryna Tell Ya (2012) accessed 4th November 2016.

[2] Ben Murphy, ‘Icleand’s Bjarki makes 10 tracks a day and has Nina Kraviz on speed dial,’ (FACTMAG, 26th October 2016)

[3] I’m lifting these terms and their attendant meaning in this context from Bataille’s Inner Experience, (Trans. Stuart Kendall) (Albany: SUNY Press; 2014)

[4] How funny that the word ‘ontology’ is actually in ‘ornithology’…

[5] Alan Moore in DeZ Vylenz, The Mindscape of Alan Moore (Shadowsnake Films; 2005)

[6] Adam Curtis, Hypernormalisation (BBC, 2016) accessed 4th November 2016.


[7] ‘Free creativity’ is a term that remains in my lexicon ever since reading CLR James’s Notes on Dialectics, where he talks of the ‘free creativity of the proletariat.’

[8] To borrow from Badiou.

[9] I wanted to use this word as an abbreviation of ‘conglomerate’ then was surprised that Word didn’t underline it as a spelling mistake, so I looked it up and found that it was an accepted American slang term (verb) meaning to steal or to grabbed. And yes, I realised then that I’d read it somewhere before with that meaning. But I liked the elision of definitions, so I kept it.

[10] It’s incredible that seed sprouting is not far more widespread – like you won’t find a sprouting jar in Tesco or a regular high street shop. I want to write about sprouting but I’ve not worked out how yet.

[11] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (London: Penguin; 1963) p. 43.

[12] Curtis’s Hypernormalisation addresses this condition in a very illuminating way.

[13] The Radioactive Sparrow story can be read through the serialization of their albums posted at – in order to read/follow/listen in the right order, you’ll need to scroll to the bottom of a very long page to work your way back up, backwards so to speak.

[14] Still going today, with a line-up that has remained constant since the late ’80s, it still hasn’t ever been discussed… Sparrow’s only hard and fast rule was that we should never discuss what we would do, although during periods when we were gigging a lot we would sometimes say, ‘let’s do a song about such and such,’ or ‘let’s do a song called this or that’.

[15] This is a random clutch at provider-culprits that could of course be wholly substituted by any of many others; I wanted to have an object that had at least some familiarity rather than using ‘monad’ or ‘monster’ or ‘monolith,’ or any combo of some such, simply because that would defer its identity to something perceptibly ‘other,’ ‘not me.’

[16] Theresa Beyer, Thomas Burkhalter, Hannes Liechti Ed. Seismographic Sounds (Bern: Norient; 2015)


Wild Productivity in the Age of Evaporation: A Brief Outline in Self-Situation