We risk los­ing some­thing fun­da­men­tally hu­man and in­fin­itely valu­able if we al­low the vi­tal con­nec­tion be­tween musicians and au­di­ence to pass into his­tory

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE -

In de­fence of the live mu­sic ex­pe­ri­ence

In these heady days of in­stant mu­si­cal grat­i­fi­ca­tion, when the en­tire works of Mozart, Coltrane, Len­non and McCart­ney can be sum­moned mag­i­cally to our pock­ets for lit­tle or noth­ing, it’s worth paus­ing to re­mem­ber where mu­sic ac­tu­ally comes from. Recorded mu­sic is so per­va­sive in the mod­ern ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment – from restau­rants feed­ing us muzak to re-worded pop clas­sics urg­ing us to buy cars and clean­ing prod­ucts – it’s easy to for­get that this mar­vel­lous art form, surely the old­est and most emo­tion­ally di­rect of our species’ artis­tic ac­com­plish­ments, starts with, you know, musicians.

Un­til rel­a­tively re­cently in hu­man evo­lu­tion, the only way to hear the eye-wa­ter­ingly beau­ti­ful sounds these musicians make was to be in the same room as them. Now, af­ter lit­tle more than 100 years of record­ing tech­nol­ogy, mu­sic is in dan­ger of be­com­ing a soli­tary, onanis­tic in­dul­gence, a dis­em­bod­ied ef­fu­sion of pleas­ing noise squeezed out through head­phones and de­ployed as the sound­track to our daily com­mute, de­liv­er­ing what Barthes called “a tran­sient moist­en­ing of the soul” be­tween break­fast and work.

Don’t get me wrong. I love records, and I have the groan­ing shelves and the bulging hard-drives to prove it. But recorded mu­sic, how­ever good it is, just doesn’t en­ter the body in the same way that live mu­sic does, and we risk los­ing some­thing fun­da­men­tally hu­man and in­fin­itely valu­able if we al­low this vi­tal con­nec­tion be­tween musicians and au­di­ence to pass into his­tory. Yes, it’s that se­ri­ous.

I can still re­mem­ber the mo­ment when the penny re­ally dropped for me. It was late one night in the sum­mer of 1986, in what was then called the Pink Ele­phant, which had been trans­formed for the week­end into the af­ter-hours club of the Dublin Jazz Fes­ti­val. With their of­fi­cial con­certs over, a group of musicians – a mix of lo­cals and vis­it­ing Amer­i­cans – were crowded onto a small, makeshift stage on the ground floor, jam­ming for the fun of it on stan­dards they all knew. When sax­o­phon­ist Sonny For­tune got up and started to play, the hun­dred or so of us in the room knew we were wit­ness­ing some­thing spe­cial. Here was this Philly-born dis­ci­ple of Coltrane reel­ing off cho­rus af­ter cho­rus of as­ton­ish­ing, never-be­fore-heard mu­sic, and the power of it, the gen­eros­ity of his ef­fort, the sheer swag­ger of a great mu­si­cian in full flight, was elec­tri­fy­ing. I was close enough to see the sweat on his brow and feel the blast of air from his horn, and I be­came aware of a col­lec­tive en­ergy in the room around me, an en­ergy that drove For­tune to ever more furious, glo­ri­ous flur­ries of melody. For that mo­ment, we were all in it to­gether, musicians and au­di­ence locked in a mu­si­cal em­brace. It was noth­ing less than the sound of love, con­jured in one un­re­peat­able mo­ment in a small, gaudily dec­o­rated room in cen­tral Dublin, and I never for­got it.


Since then, I have been seek­ing out that ex­pe­ri­ence wher­ever and when­ever pos­si­ble. Sure, I have learnt a lot, and de­rived a lot of plea­sure, from the records I’ve bought, but no recorded mu­sic – even that of the great John Coltrane him­self – can com­pare to the sen­sa­tion of be­ing in the room when that col­umn of air is vi­brat­ing in a bent brass tube, when that cym­bal is split­ting the air like light­ning, when that piano is con­jur­ing lay­ers of heart-rend­ing har­mony from felt and wood and steel.

Now, this isn’t a polemic in praise of jazz – not this time – but if you’ll for­give the di­ver­sion for a mo­ment, the rea­son I and oth­ers have been drawn to im­pro­vised mu­sic is be­cause to at­tend a good jazz con­cert is to wit­ness this mo­ment of cre­ation. Hear­ing Keith Jar­rett play a solo (as a lucky few did last year at the Na­tional Con­cert Hall) is like be­ing in the room when McCart­ney wrote the first lines of Yes­ter­day, or with Beethoven when the open­ing ca­dence of the Fifth Sym­phony popped into his head. Jazz is the art mu­sic of our times, the suc­ces­sor to so-called clas­si­cal mu­sic be­cause, at its best, it’s a con­ver­sa­tion amongst equals, al­low­ing each per­former the free­dom to ex­press him- or her­self, rather than obey­ing the dic­tats of some hid­den com­poser. Okay, di­ver­sion over.

The point is, we need to re­think the way we con­sume mu­sic or risk los­ing it to the forces of cul­tural gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. And I’m not talk­ing about the an­nual ex­cur­sion to a muddy field to hear the lat­est pop acts go through the mo­tions, or part­ing with ex­trav­a­gant sums to stand with thou­sands of oth­ers in a ware­house venue lis­ten­ing to re­viv­i­fied her­itage acts do­ing it “just like the record”. I’m talk­ing about get­ting out there on the front lines, check­ing out what the musicians in our own com­mu­ni­ties are up to. Whether its punk or trad or avant-folk, there are, I guar­an­tee it, great musicians liv­ing near you who are turn­ing up ev­ery week to per­form in some makeshift venue, putting their hearts and souls into mu­sic with lit­tle hope of a re­turn. And they’ll be only too de­lighted to see you.

It’s a per­ver­sity of the 21st cen­tury mu­sic in­dus­try that, though our lives are sat­u­rated with recorded mu­sic, musicians are mak­ing less and less ev­ery year from record­ing it. Chris Thile, the ac­claimed Amer­i­can man­dolin­ist, told me wearily last year how he and other work­ing musicians like him are spend­ing more and more time on the road be­cause that’s the only way they can earn a liv­ing. With recorded mu­sic be­ing given away (it’s not free, you un­der­stand, but given to us in re­turn for our at­ten­tion to the com­mer­cial mes­sages that lit­ter its de­liv­ery plat­forms), the life of a mu­si­cian, par­tic­u­larly out­side the gilded ranks of the su­per­star pop acts, is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly pre­car­i­ous.

Spo­tify plays

To earn the av­er­age in­dus­trial wage, which in Ire­land in 2016 was ¤36,919, a mu­si­cian would need to sell around 7,000 CDs at ¤15 a pop (as­sum­ing they make about ¤5 per CD, sell­ing them di­rectly at gigs). But no one is buy­ing CDs any­more. To make the same amount from plays on Spo­tify, es­ti­mates vary and are hotly con­tested, but, ac­cord­ing to David McCand­less’s ex­cel­lent data vi­su­al­i­sa­tion on the In­for­ma­tion is Beau­ti­ful web­site, it’s some­where north of 39,000,000 plays.

In con­trast, an or­di­nary de­cent mu­si­cian could earn the same if they played three or four gigs a week that paid an or­di­nary, de­cent fee – say ¤200. In fact, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­tral Statis­tics Of­fice, the av­er­age earn­ings in arts and en­ter­tain­ment are a good deal lower than the av­er­age in­dus­trial wage, but you get the point. If we spent more time go­ing to gigs, and less time pas­sively con­sum­ing the recorded mu­sic be­ing pushed at us by multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions, our cul­tural lives would be richer, and or­di­nary, de­cent musicians – the ul­ti­mate source of all this mu­sic – would make a liv­ing wage.

Stay­ing at home, of course, has got a lot more in­ter­est­ing in the last 30 years. When I first started go­ing to gigs in the mid-1980s, home wasn’t half as ex­cit­ing. There were four or five chan­nels on the small cath­ode ray tube in the cor­ner of the sit­tin­groom, and a ro­tary dial phone on the hall ta­ble, so we were driven out­doors in search of en­ter­tain­ment. Mu­sic was the grav­i­ta­tional force that brought us all to­gether, and most of the friend­ships we made then were forged at the back of some sweaty, dis­rep­utable venue, with a pint in one hand and a flyer for the next gig in the other.

Nowa­days, it takes a lit­tle more ef­fort to over­come the mys­te­ri­ous force that ad­heres the cor­duroys to the sofa, but if we don’t get out there and sup­port the musicians in our own com­mu­ni­ties, we will have no one but our­selves to blame when we turn around and find them gone.

The IMRO Live Mu­sic Venue of the Year Awards will take place on Fe­bru­ary 20th. To vote go to sur­vey­mon­­rov­enueawards

‘‘ There are great musicians liv­ing near you who are turn­ing up ev­ery week to per­form in some makeshift venue, putting their hearts and souls into mu­sic with lit­tle hope of a re­turn. And they’ll be only too de­lighted to see you

What a blast: Sonny For­tune per­form­ing in 2005. PHO­TO­GRAPH: HIROYUKI ITO/GETTY IM­AGES

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