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Archive for December, 2011

When the preacher said “Wade do you take Wilma to be your old lady”, Jake was already 6 years old wondering why all the relatives were sittin’ on one side of the Crickle Creek church in Arkansas.
Jake loved Church, not because of any affinity with the Lord, but because he loved music, and was crabbier than a bear with a sore ass if he didn’t get to sit behind the organist on a Sunday.
Music didn’t exactly run in the family and the idea of music to Wade’s ears was his pick up truck, which he said ”you could hear a long time ‘fore you saw it”
There wasn’t a hell of a lot to do once you turned off the paved road in Crickle creek other than puddychuckin’ and fiddlefartin’ and since music made young Jake hornier than a two peckered billy goat, his folks figured they should get him an instrument to keep his hands occupied in a more dignified manner.
An organ was out of the question on account of its size, which Jake was tore up about and finally his parents had eliminated all other instruments on account of their budget.
Jake was devastated and for two weeks he hauled himself around like a snakes ass in a wagon rut.
It was finally Uncle Cletus came up with the idea of giving Jake his jaw harp.
Since he was no longer in Jail and had no further need of it, the jaw harp became the property of Jake who was happier than a nine headed cat in a fish market.
Uncle Cletus never learned to play it officially and he passed the time in jail pretending the jaw harp was his sweetheart Tabitha.
Suffice to say the lessons he gave Jake on how to play it were just plain disturbing.
The upside of Crickle Creek was that in between whitlin’ and fixin to die there was a huge hunk of time left in between to practice, which Jake did.
He applied himself with the tenacity of chewing gum to a boot and soon mastered the tongue action. After a few years he could finally do it without going cross eyed and dribbling too much. He could play the words to the Lord’s Prayer so folks could hear it clearer than when Reverend Wesley was talkin’ it!
As Jake got older though his playing hit a hurdle. His teeth defied gravity until finally he could eat corn through a picket fence. This meant he kept hitting the tongue of the harp with his teeth. As his heart was set on being a bonafide player he hatched a plan to remedy it. He went up to the tavern and got so drunk he couldn’t hit his own ass with a two gallon scoop shovel. He then emptied the family repertoire of cuss words in the direction of Bathtub Billy Baisden who obliged by punching out all the offending teeth with one swing. Jake was lucky to pull it off though as Bathtub Billy was a man noted not just for his short fuse but also for his short attention span. The tricky part was “getting’ him angry ‘fore he forgot why”
Jake was now good enough to win the Ozark Mountain Championships Best Rising Hilly Billy Award despite the nerves getting to him.
When he received the award he said ”My tongue twisted around my eye teeth and I couldn’t see what I was playin’”
From then on Jake was busier than a flea in a ‘coon hat factory, playing festivals and giving master classes from the Appalachians to Alabama.
When asked where people like the jaw harp, Jake used to say “anywhere where folks will shoot each other over a picnic table”
The master classes consisted of him saying “Can y’all see what I’m doin’ inside my mouth? …..well neither can I…? “ Followed by his famous laugh “he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck” He modeled his laugh on “tryin’ to start the tractor on a cold morning”
His left eye would wander ‘round the room in time to the music whilst his right eye stared straight ahead. Asked why, he would say “guess I’m checkin’ for exits ‘case things don’t pan out”
His technique consisted of “hit the tongue of the harp with your gun finger and try stuff that doesn’t make folks wanna leave. If they start leavin’, change what you’re doin’ til folks starts a comin’ back”
Jake played on 500 albums and was famous for “gettin’ on albums without ‘em knowin”. He did this usually with the co-operation of the sound engineers or mixers. He ‘s in the background of some very famous albums if you have the ear.
To name just a few, he played on Miles Davis “kind of Blue”, Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog, “Frank Sinatra’s – Fly me to the moon” and even the Chicago Symphony doing Beethoven’s Fifth, where he hid behind the timpani going “he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck” in time to the music, and didn’t even get to play his Jaw Harp.,
He was in the remake of Deliverance, entitled Fedex, in which he played “Dueling jaw harps” by himself with two jaw harps, about which he said “he was busier than a one legged man at a butt kickin’ contest”
He won a Grammy for his album “Sister, where art thou?…In the kitchen you dang fool”
He released a box set of his albums, simply titled “Y’all”
He lived to a ripe old age and put the secret down to “He ain’t done whitlin’ yet”
His wife of 70 years Martha Mae said he was “too dang busy playin’ the jaw harp to drink hisself to death”
His headstone in the Crickle Creek Cemetery simply says
“He-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck he-yuck”

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I decided to explore this question by traveling to the UK and interviewing a barking mad leading exponent of the musical Avant Garde, but more of that later.

Avant Garde music is generally perceived to be music which is thought to be ahead of its time, and I’m not talking about the drummer’s enthusiasm to beat the band to the end of the piece.

The Avant Garde sprang up after WW2 which was ironic, as they had declared their own war on the traditional music sensibility.

You may have heard of Arnold Schoenberg who was one of the first to explore this area. They called it Serial or 12 Tone music.

Out with traditional harmony and in with the new 12 tone chromatic structure.

Others included Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky.

Many Jazz composers such as Bill Evans also dabbled.

They were the Serial Killers of Harmony and Structure and took no prisoners.

Lets face it if you were German or Russian and had been listening to hundreds of years of Classical Harmony that held you inexorably prisoner to the Playlist and Rules, you too would have become a Serial Killer.

Music is about context. The times create the music and also the reaction to it.

The Zeitgeist was ripe for change in 1945.

These days however, it is getting harder for the Avant Garde to rebel because the internet has provided an unfiltered means to express yourself, while the traditional arbiters of taste, ie the literati, radio stations and record companies etc, no longer control what people listen to.

Dilemma….if the purpose of your music is to shock people and rail against a perceived foe, and there isn’t one anymore…what do you do?

Is this their conundrum? Is it driving them into some barkingly mad places to get a reaction? Is there a place for it? Maybe there is. Maybe they’re not after a reaction and it’s just about the ART.

I have my suspicions but am keeping an open mind until I meet Fuse Fothering- Gay at the Slug and Lettuce Pub in Cornwall, England.
He will help me make up my mind.

He is a vibrant hyphenated fugitive from old money, in his early 30’s dressed in an argument between Tweed and Rap artist.

I ask him what he’s working on and he spits out the story (along with some crisps over an improbable distance) from the Chesterfield lounge that is slowly devouring him.

“I have 12 English Spitfire WW2 aircraft lined up at Farnborough Airport along with 12 German Messerschmitts. I have tuned the engines.
The Spitfires will play Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, the Messerschmitts will play Wagner’s Ride of the Valkeryies.”
I lean forward in my chair. He clearly has my attention.
You simply can’t see an act like that at my local any more.

“I will record the tracks panned hard in Stereo, Spitfires to the Left, Messerschmitts to the right. Over 6 minutes I will slowly pan the music towards the centre where they meet and phase cancel the pain of WW2”

My eyebrows are running out of room in the little pub built for 5 foot Smugglers.

Are you putting it out for commercial release? I stupidly ask, trying to buy time to think of a better question.

He surprises me by saying yes.

“The CD will start with a track of 39 minutes silence. Then the music begins and continues until 45 minutes, where it stops, followed by silence til the end of the CD.”

I think I see…..the War went from 39 to 45? But why the silence?

“I want people to meditate for 39 minutes about what led to it and meditate afterwards on what we learnt. The pain has been symbolically removed by the planes and music icons meeting and phase cancelling, not literally of course.”

I must say that tickles my fancy. Do you consider yourself part of the Avant Garde music movement?

“I’m in the explosives industry!” he says liberating more crisps, which whistle past me this time causing a breast feeding mother to move further away.

“I blow traditions up and my music is the sound of the shrapnel landing”
Is it important to you that your ideas connect with people?

“No, I like the idea of my projects finding their own trajectory even if that means they whizz by under everyone’s radar. Once you start thinking about an audience, you are not expressing yourself, only a thinly veiled need to please them.”

What else are you working on?
“I have just recorded 200 Hedgehogs marching in small jackboots custom made for them.”

This time I was the one liberating quite a large mouthful of Cider out my nose clearing up what had been an intractable sinus problem and simultaneously ensuring we now had the bar to ourselves.

I pressed on past the look on Fuse’s face, which suggested he had explained everything.

What was the thought process behind it?

“I have recorded the Hedgehogs marching in the direction of different countries. Ireland, Germany, France, Spain etc to see how they sound moving in the direction of a place with cultural baggage and expectations.”
What did you find?

“It was fascinating! The Hedgehogs had a cheeky lilt moving towards Ireland,
an insouciant je ne sais qua towards France, a humourless sense of purpose heading off for Berlin and a palpable Who Gives a Fuck mañana loping off towards Madrid”

You could really hear it?
“Don’t take my word, here’s a copy to listen to later”
I will.

Don’t you find joy in any so called mainstream music?
“Only by accident. I never listen to the radio or TV and find mainstream music is like a child desperate for approval…compounded by an obsession with making art pay!!
Isn’t that a bit harsh?
Is there nothing you like?

“I once saw an orchestra play The Flight of the Bumble Bee in a park. Their instruments had been sent to another location and they had to play it with combs and tissue paper. They were joined in performance by a million real bees. You see nature knows the difference. They would never have shown up with the real instruments., but they know the smell of adrenaline when something real is cooking!”

Later that night I lay in bed and listened to the Hedgehogs and to my utter amazement, you could hear the “Who Gives a Fuck mañana loping off towards Madrid” Fuse was banging on about.

I then tried it on shuffle play, seeing if I could still pick them. Sneaking a look at the titles afterwards I found I was wrong!

So it seems the idea behind the piece was as important as the piece, if not more so.

I found myself loving the idea behind it so much that I listened to it all night entering a surreal world that I could never have previously imagined.
It forced the listener to be involved, to be a participant in a strange intellectual process.

I reflected on the idea of the Avant Garde having a foe to rail against in the past.

Perhaps the foe has never gone away, but it is not what I thought it was.
It is not an outside influence stopping us or influencing us.

It is the self-editing, the music made for a perceived audience, the self-conscious art. The “will people buy it” devil on the shoulder. This is the real foe, and it applies to any artform.

In Fuse, I experienced a liberating reminder of where we should reach for Art.
It doesn’t have to sound like spitfires but if we throw out all the baggage when we compose, like the Avant garde are committed to doing, then we have a fighting chance of doing something refreshingly unencumbered.

Yes, there is a place for the Avant Garde in music….200 Hedgehogs can’t possibly be wrong.

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Is the bagpipe a musical instrument? By Tony King 2011

Billy Wallace was distantly related to Sir William Braveheart Wallace and was a professional Scotsman. He was also a pathological Bagpipe player from Glasgow.
He had a necklace that German backpackers often mistook for sharks teeth.
It was in fact made from the teeth of people who over the years had asked him if the Bagpipe was a musical instrument.
He was what you’d call “a bit sensitive” about this.
The Oxford history professor who had contributed the most number of teeth to the necklace, had suggested that the Bagpipe was not actually a musical instrument but was designed to scare the Sassenachs back over Hadrian’s wall and away from Scotland for good. He had punctuated his point by poking his unlit pipe in Billy’s direction through a smug smirk. Confusing Billy’s catatonic rage for a rapt audience, the Oxford Don had just commenced the second part of his history lesson when he was punched so hard he somehow flew out of his tweed jacket leaving it momentarily hanging in mid air. The professor had co-incidentally made a noise disarmingly similar to a bagpipe as he landed in the fountain. He was fished out by a Salvation Army timbrel player who harbored her own doubts about the timbrel being a musical instrument.
Billy had fallen for the Bagpipe at an early age and in fact his first word was “Pipe”. Billy’s father had banned him from eating in the house for 2 days because he thought he had said “Pope”.
Billy joined a pipe band but was released from duties after they discovered he suffered from a rare condition improvaesthesia, where he imagined and played musical score that wasn’t in the score. He added the imagined bits and fitted them in whist trying to catch up to where the rest of the band was, in Amazing Grace for example, often at a funeral.
The bits he added in between sounded a little like a Goose trying to mate with another species much less interested in the deal…….
a sort of musical Tourette syndrome.
He had gone it alone from then on and busked his away around Ireland where his first necklace was quickly finished.
Irishmen, before being restricted to months of soft food by Billy, would often say something along these lines.
“Now da ting is…The Uillean pipe is as close a ting as you can get to the sound of a weeping woman and easily da most expressive musical instrument ever created, whereas the Bagpipe……”
Billy found the pipes broke down all language barriers and were quite the conversation starter around Europe, especially with managers of Hostels at 3am, which he insisted was the most inspirational time of day to practice.
Billy was frustrated by the Macedonian’s insistence that their pipe was older and better. When I say frustrated……by this I mean apoplectic with white hot rage. His anger went straight from asleep…happy….to volcanic spewing of Glaswegian expletives. Nothing in between…not a few seconds…even he had no warning…. Like a tartan Champagne cork exploding.
But what made him angry, as opposed to frustrated, was the inability of his foreign audience to fully appreciate the inspired gift of Glaswegian swearing.
The lager fuelled legacy of the pavement poet…The lilt from the kilt….how bloody clever it was!!!
He learned to say in 20 languages, “Pick a window Jimmy you’re leavin!!!!!” and “Are you talkin’ ta me or chewin’ a brick? Either way yer losin’ ya teeth”
Ironically, Glaswegian cussing was much more musical than the actual pipes the cussing was defending.
The sheer invective generated by Glaswegian fury, if you could harness it, was a no brainer to power some kind of steam driven pipe organ or the Clyde ship yards.
The other thing that nagged at Billy increasingly was that due to the limitations of the pipes you simply couldn’t play lots of notes that were on the score of his improvaesthesia.
He had taken to grimacing in the direction of the missing notes with his eyebrows….accompanied by a slightly apologetic rolling of the eyes…..
Then something miraculous happened in Indonesia. A mud wasp built a series of nests in the chanter of his bagpipes while he was laid up in hospital recovering from being attacked by a village as a result of a successful translation of some of his favourite expressions.
When he unpacked the pipes in New Orleans he discovered, as a result of the mud wasp nests, he could now play sharps and flats. He could play ALL the notes of his improvaesthesia!!!!
Billy stumbled upon a traditional New Orleans funeral and falling in to the second line of mourners, he pulled out his pipes and starting playing.
The mourners slowed to a stop, staring at him and he braced himself for the familiar scuffle, gun shots or bows and arrows. To his shock they started slow clapping and at first he thought they were taking the piss. Realizing they were the first humans to like his playing, his improvaesthesia rose to a new level. He belted out his ambitious composition entitled Dizzy Haggis which, thanks to the mud wasps he was now able to perform in the original imagined key of F#. Previously he had made do in the key of C with a hell of a lot of eye brow grimacing.
But not now…. The audience went nuts!
He felt like he’d come home and was finally among his own people.
Finally the crowd calmed down and the older of the black cats took his dented Selmer out of his old cracked lips and said slowly “Man…..now I finally know what the B in B Bop stand for!
It stand for Bagpipe!”
MAN, it stand for BAGPIPE!!

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