Thursday, December 29, 2005

We All Aint Ready; K-Fed and Derek Bailey, RIP

SB here, completing a post from a few weeks ago. When I started this post, I was taking a break from the inane carnival of outward self-promotion and inward self-loathing that is Ph.D. applicationeering. Blech. The exigencies of that odious process kept me from finishing this post, so I am finishing it now at the folks' haus in Toronto. Apologies if this puppy runs long!

I will cut directly to the chase: I nominate Kevin Federline's "Y'all Aint Ready" as 2005's song of the year. Not just the best song of the year-- the only song of the year! Deal with it, haterz!

Recently we had bloglisted and in-n-outraged over for pizza and cocotinis (FF's powerful yet smooth signature cocktail), and conversation turned, as it always does, to the topic of K-Fed. Now, don't get me wrong--- we all hate K-Fed a lot. But when FF fired up the 0:43 second snippet of K-Fed's "Y'all Aint Ready" that had migrated a few months ago to the internets I had a surprising aesthetic reverie. All of a sudden I really, really liked "Y'all Aint Ready." Then I reflected on Britney's purported reaction to "Y'all Aint Ready" when Kev demoed it for her: "maybe a hundred people would want to buy this." Harsh tokes, indeed. But most of the music I like (and indeed, that which I create myself) falls into the "maybe a hundred people would want to buy this" category, and I can only imagine that Britney would take a dim view of it.

What is there to like about K-Fed's rap masterpiece? Well, to start with, K-Fed fulfills the promise inherent in the vanity musical projects of all wealthy dilletantes: that the lack of restrictions on creative output engendered by insane affluence and the company of sycophantic yes-men will lead to the kind of unfettered oddness that characterizes the "outsider" music of society's most marginalized. We would then have concrete evidence of a kind of "natural" utopian solidarity in "difference" rather than uniformity, eccentricity rather than conformity, Desire rather than the Law. To put it another way, it seems to me that hope for a better future lies in the propensity of humans to wander off in unpredictable directions oddly.

When Kevin Federline raps, he ignores every rule of metric regularity and rhythmic consistency. Like the glorious Shaggs, every new phrase intoned by K-Fed begins a new rhythmic unit, even if the last one wan't quite finished. Like the serpentine lines of music found in the medieval Chantilly Codex, K-Fed's rapping bends the brain over, under and sideways. Like hobo mystic Harry Partch's 'US Highball," K-Fed's lines start when they start and end when they end, and the sheer power of the delivery convinces us that this is how music must necessarily be.

For those readers who didn't spend any semesters in music school, here is a way to think about this idiosyncratic rule-breaking: imagine a metronome ticking, and a musician tapping his or her foot along with it. Most pop music will have a strong downbeat (an extra-firm stomp on the floor) on the first and third beats, but just about any emphasis can work, as long as it is consistently repeated. Within this pattern, melodies are usually constructed so the notes land on a down or up beat, or some sub-division of the beat. Tension can be created by dragging or rushing this note or that phrase, or superimposing an odd pattern, like a group of 3 beats, over an even one, like a group of 4 (this is the secret at the core of "funky" musics like funk and hip-hop and Scottish pibroch and many many others).

It is hard not to sometimes see this framework as a cage, and the expectations of audiences that good music will have a "good beat and you can dance to it" as a limiting kind of ideological dogma. Some see this aforementioned rhythmic regularity as "natural," and therefore regard its hegemonic status as justified, but that is a hard point of view to support. Every non-Western musical culture has a sense of "time" that is dramatically at odds with the ticking metronomes of the conservatory practice room, the "click track" of the modern recording studio, and the baton of the conductor. Lydia Goehr's groundbreaking work on the rise of notation-based, conductor-driven music helps us understand how recent a phenomenon this really is. In Bach's time, a performance of notated music was a wild, noisy, and sloppy mess... and I am sure it was unbelievably awesome, especially compared to the icky bourgeois seriousness of the symphony hall.

I learned to appreciate the power of resistance to ossified, codified, and calcified habits of making and listening to music from a British guitar player named Derek Bailey. In the early 1960s, Bailey, a gifted jazz guitarist from Sheffield, England, quit playing with dance bands and orchestras. Already in his 30s, he was pulled to challenge himself to create a non-idiomatic style of music, one that could be played without notation, without rules, and without leaders and followers. In this endeavor, he was part of a general community of composers and musicians questioning every vestige of authoritarianism in musical culture-- folks like John Cage, Christian Wolff, Cornelius Cardew, and the composers of the Scratch Orchestra.

Even though Bailey was technically capable of producing the kind of crowd-pleasing acrobatics of a Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen, he never indulged in the easy gimmickry of virtuosity. Following the lead of Anton Webern, Bailey mapped out pockets of atonal and dissonant notes on his guitar (an intrument that is made to make pleasant music) so that his improvisation would not be compromised by the subliminal suggestions of the instrument itself. Bailey pursued every possible permutation of collaborative improvisation, from solo concerts to working with huge ensembles, from groups that stayed together for many years with the same membership, to the Company Week festivals that brought together musicians from all over the globe to stimulate new parterships. I have a cherished bootleg of a concert from 1980 in Toronto, where he starts to pitch the records available for sale in the lobby in his appealingly unassuming Sheffield accent while banging out his signature frail and spiky clusters and squeaking harmonics.

I was assigned Bailey's book on improvisation in my first formal class in improvisation at school, and I guess it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that it changed my life. For the past 10 years I have made music in the style pioneered by Derek Bailey, and have had to put up with the comment, for some reason a slur in much of the experimental music world, that my playing sounds too much like that of Derek Bailey. It's not true, but if it was, there would be no greater compliment.

Thanks to the efforts of folks like John Zorn and Jim O'Rourke, the 1990s saw a series of wonderful CD reissues of Bailey's classic recordings and a slew of exciting new releases. I met him once and he was sweet and generous and funny and even sent me some kind words about a CD of my own music I had sent him.

Derek Bailey died this week. If you ever have a chance, reserve an hour and listen to "Aida" or "Domestic and Public Pieces" or "Takes Fakes and Dead She Dances" or any of the hundreds of other beautiful records of glorious utopian radical music that Derek Bailey gave to the world. It will make you happy.

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1 comment:

Jon Marc Smith said...

I didn't know Bailey died. Really cool post. I've often thought it strange that many people, even "cultured" people, dismiss Bailey's kind of music as somehow not-right. He and his fellow travellers have made such a deep--and emotional--impact on me that I simply can't believe that the majority of our fellow citizens often consider them noisemakers.