Sunday, September 26, 2004

it may be a mess, but it's my mess

The sound on New Orleans Funk is mostly poor: often muddy and cluttered, passable at best. Yet, that quality, or lack thereof, is not only part of the music's charm, but also part of its vibrancy, energy and liveliness.

I'm reminded of K-Punk's recent lambasting of spotlessly empty and streamlined middle-class living-rooms. Consider also the famous description (but by who?) of ECM albums as "the sound of the middle classes falling asleep."

While mess may not necessarily be a nest of creativity (or a defiant response to production polished by the evil forces of big money), it can often be the repose of the uncommon mind.

In Brighton there is (or was) a second hand bookshop in which the books were strewn about in stacks, or on shelves with absolutely no indications or seeming order. Ask the shopkeeper for a book and if he had it he would find it instantly. Obviously, he was the only portal through which the collection could be accessed in a time-efficient manner.

My father likes to describe an ex-colleague whose office was a minor attraction: stacks of precariously perched papers jostled with empty coffee mugs and cigarette butts. Again, ask him for a specific document and he would extract it in short order.

And then there are means of organisation that need to be explained before they can be utilised. I was rather shocked to discover that several people organised their ECM albums by spine colour to form a rainbow pattern, or their overall collection by time of purchase.

We used to have a croque-monsieur (grilled sandwich) machine that we rarely cleaned. Unhygienic, certainly, but the sandwiches tasted great. When we did clean it, the sandwiches lost some taste. Similarily, as The Meters (to take a Big Easy-related example) moved towards a cleaner sound and less incandescent second-line rhythms, hygiene was gained but some flavour was lost.

The level of messiness has to be suited to the context. French Star Academy winner Jenifer's turn to a "more rock" sound on her second album (or at least the single I've heard) is a pitifully transparent ploy. Saturation and dusty snare drums on the New Orleans Funk tracks serve to convey the performers' own energy and spirit.

Clutter of a different kind may make music accessible only to specifically-wired minds, making the usual fishing for known referents too difficult. In music the line is of course far less absolute than in simpler matters like book classification (should I expect flames from legions of librarians?).

Kyle Gann (I think it was) has ranted about High Modernist music comprehensible only through its score. Unable to hear any familiar elements to hang on to, some might find Cecil Taylor totally impenetrable. The music becomes an unproductive mess, like being in the bookshop while the owner is tending to another client.