Monthly Archives: May 2016

Living the dream (terms & conditions apply)

“Hi, my name’s Lee, I make music for a living”

This week, I was able to say the above sentence with more confidence than ever before. I’ve been making music (or equivalent noises) for about 30 years now and have been in bands since I was 17. Making music has taken up a lot of my life, but it’s not been the thing that has primarily paid the bills until now. I’ve always had to have other jobs on the go – this isn’t something I’ve ever had a problem with, in fact I’d say that by doing this, I have built up lots of other additional skills that have been essential for going freelance. Plus it’s handy for my unique mindset, which was once described by a lecturer at college once as ‘intellectually promiscuous’.

So, to many people looking in, it would appear that I am “living the dream”, and I guess I am in many ways – I’m doing a job I love in an area of the arts that’s notoriously fickle about who it allows to profit from working in it. But, as came up in conversation with someone this week, I think a lot of that is because I have enjoyed the widely varied work so much that I have not minded making the sacrifices needed to get to where I am now. This bit is difficult for many developing artists from a psychological position; there’s definitely an unwritten score card that determines how well you are doing in adult life when compared to your peers who may have taken a more conventional route. By now, a little nagging voice of normality tells me I ought to have a fancy car, a mortgage, children, an investment portfolio, and probably be on to my second or third marriage with a nervous disposition to match. I sacrificed all this to live very much in the now, and I genuinely don’t regret it one bit, but I’ve always been more excited by the road less travelled than I am fearful of it.

IcebergNowadays, it’s not uncommon for children to be told from an early age that they can be whatever they want to be, but I’ve heard some folks of my generation commenting disparagingly that this this has resulted in disillusioned and feckless hipsters and Millennials. Firstly, I’d say that whilst it’s not in any way harmful to give children aspirations, I think it’s disingenuous to only tell them one side of the equation – you can be whatever you want to be, providing you are prepared to choose one thing, stick to it, and make sacrifices to achieve it. You want to be an athlete? You’ll be getting up at 4am and won’t be spending time on your XBox. You want to be an astronaut? Suddenly all that maths homework just got a lot more important. You want to be a musician? Throwing some loops together in Garageband might be fun, but go and learn how to do your accounts, or you’ll be paying someone else to do it for you.

Secondly I don’t think it’s wrong to question the expectations that society has for you. I’m hearing stories of people sacrificing all of their youth to live with their parents in order to scrimp and save to buy a house some time in their 30’s. This seems absolutely absurd to me, and I think it can result in people growing up with a very different set of values – I certainly didn’t even begin to develop into the person I am today until I moved away from home to study. Certainly from a musical perspective, it may account in part for how music sounds at the moment; in the 1970’s and 80’s, twentysomethings were living in bedsits and squats and we had a vibrant music scene. I’d argue that making a revolutionary noise is less likely if you’re living with your mum and dad, so from the point of view of music, I’m glad that some young people are starting to question the post-war narrative of school-college-job-car-wife-house-family-retirement-death.

At this point, it’s worth a quick privilege check. Sometimes I’ll discuss my career trajectory with a class, and that whole saying of ‘the past is a foreign country’ couldn’t be more true – my childhood experience is no more realistic to them than an episode of Game of Thrones. Although I’m from a working class background, I didn’t grow up in poverty, I went to 2 good schools and did well in exams, caught the final years when students had grants instead of loans, and set up my record label with support from the government. There were fewer distractions too; just 3 or 4 TV stations that shut down at midnight, computer games took 5 minutes to load if you were lucky, and there was no internet or mobile phones. I’m not sure that someone as intellectually promiscuous as me would’ve been able to concentrate on my studies or hobbies quite so effectively if there were as many distractions as there are now, and the financial commitments of further and higher education would have almost certainly led me to make different choices about what I chose to study.

I worry about music because I love music and want to hear new things that genuinely excite me until the day I die, and it’s been a while since modern music has affected me that way. I want to get old in a world that still thinks punk is an attitude, not something you go to see in a museum. I want music festivals to have bands playing that make me feel old, not a bunch of revivalists, reunions and tribute acts. It’s music’s ability to shock and agitate and energise that fuels my fire. So whilst I make music for a living, I still want to support those who make music because they have to, because it burns in them and has to come out, loudly, into the world. Not just because they are trying to save up to put down the mortgage on a starter home.

 


Forthcoming events:

Saturday 18th June (Afternoon)
The Wilson Art Gallery Takeover
temp0rary performing ‘Suggestion Box’ – a long-form silent disco performance with audience interaction
Wilson Art Gallery, Cheltenham
Free Entry

Saturday 9th July (Time TBC)
The Great Gamelan Experiment
Performing with a gamelan orchestra and live electronics
Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Saturday 16th July, 7.30 – 10.30pm
Sunset Lumiere
temp0rary performing a full A/V set with very special guests TBC
Skillicorne Gardens (next to Imperial Gardens), Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Sunday July 31st, 6pm
Dali Males
Performing improvised electronics as part of Vinestock Festival 2016
The Vine, Cheltenham
Free Entry

mixandmash2016Monday August 8th – Friday August 12th
Mix & Mash summer school
Friendship Café, Gloucester
£55 for 5 days
See The Music Works website for details

 

Failure is always an option

Although I’ve given the long answer to the question ‘how did you end up making music for a living’ in a previous blog, when asked at by someone I’ve not met before how I ended up doing this work, the short answer I often give is because I’m a failed modelmaker. I’ve kind of made a living by doing more than one thing at once, and then somehhow smashing those things together to build a third, unexpected combination, like some kind of occupational alchemy. I like the definition of ‘career’ that describes something barely under control.

I’ve done my fair share of academic education, in part because I am lucky enough to find it relatively easy. Having said that, I’ve never been fond of taking the easy route, preferring instead to follow what was interesting; at school, my grades in English were much higher than those in Art, but I have always preferred making something new to analysing something old, so I took the path of most resistance and went to art college rather than university. In no small part this was also due to the company I kept – I found artists to be much more fun to be around than those studying the classics.

Plan-Do-Review_0I’m a big advocate of action research and action learning, and believe these approaches offer a good structure for running dynamic music sessions and workshops, but there’s a key element that’s important in that cycle of planning, doing, and reviewing – and that is to do with being allowed to fail. I should add that I don’t regularly run sessions that I consider a failure, although to be honest, the reason I’m writing on this subject is because I did recently have a session that went so far off-piste I began to question my life choices. After the dust had settled, I reviewed the process – when I was in a band, we used to refer to the analysis of bad gigs as the post-mortem – and tried to work out where the session had started to go off the rails. After a lot of soul-searching and a few targeted emails to find out more about the young people I was working with, I made some tweaks to the session content, the room it was in and the equipment I was using, and all those involved responded much more positively.

Numerous studies show that we learn much more from failing than succeeding  and that’s certainly been the case in my life. I deliberately take on over-ambitious projects that I know have a chance of failing, because it’s only when my creativity and ingenuity are stretched that I feel like I’m doing work that is exciting and innovative. Experimentation is often fostered in the arts, and some organisations – like the inspirational and ground-breaking Tempting Failure  – actively encourage those they work with to go way beyond their comfort zone. They have helped many artists, including myself, to come up with extremely challenging and ambitious work.

Given this almost universal understanding, it can be incredibly difficult to get the young people I work with to experiment in the music workshops I run. Many are scared of failing, being told that what they are doing is wrong, or being embarrassed in front of their peers. The older the people I work with, the more reluctant they are to participate in anything that might not be a guaranteed success. I suspect (without wishing to get embroiled in politics) that a lot of this has to do with recent changes in education, and the idea that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ answer to every question – not because it makes education more robust, but because it makes it simpler to assess. For some subjects like maths that may be appropriate (up to a point) but in the Arts, most progress is made by people intentionally breaking rules, making mistakes, doing things wrong and failing to conform.

burningmanI think as practitioners of the Arts, it’s extremely important to cultivate safe spaces that give the freedom to experiment, and allow participants to fail without the repercussions of criticism. When I was running Wasp Factory Recordings, we used to refer to these as “temporary autonomous zones” – little pockets of time and space where the usual rules are suspended briefly and people are free to act outside of their normal behaviour. A perfect example of this is Burning Man Festival, the once a year festival that builds a city in the desert and then vanishes again. I’ve never been but it’s definitely on my bucket-list. For a very long time, photography was banned at Burning Man, and before the internet, it had almost mythical status, tales of enormous sculptures, performances and rituals, being passed around like modern folk tales.

We are living at a very peculiar point in history where we have embraced digital culture without really considering how it is changing the way we interact with each other. As ‘selfie culture’ has shown, it is often more important to be seen to be having fun than to actually enjoy yourself, and young people live in fear of doing something daft, only to have it go viral and be made a global laughing stock. Sorry folks, but if you laughed at ‘Star Wars Kid’ and others, you’re part of the problem here. The permanent is often so much less important than those times when you are truly lost in something. I’m researching about ‘flow state’ at the moment, and considering how damaging it is to have mobile devices breaking people’s concentration endlessly, or worse still, ridiculing these fantastic times when we are lost in the wild abandon of creativity, not worried about failing or succeeding, but just being in the moment.

I remember being told a story, I think during my teacher training, that has stayed with me as an example of why we need to be careful of valuing just the end results of a process. A child spends all day playing in the sand pit, building an ellaborate system of roads, waterways, dams, bridges and tunnels. Their carer comes to pick them up, and as they leave, they put their hand in a paint-pot and slap it on a piece of paper. When their carer asks what they did all day, the child hands them the piece of paper, and it gets proudly displayed on the fridge. The city made of sand can be too easily forgotten.

As Einstein said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”


Forthcoming events:

Saturday 18th June (Afternoon)
The Wilson Art Gallery Takeover
temp0rary performing ‘Suggestion Box’ – a long-form silent disco performance with audience interaction
Wilson Art Gallery, Cheltenham
Free Entry

Saturday 9th July (Time TBC)
The Great Gamelan Experiment
Performing with a gamelan orchestra and live electronics
Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Saturday 16th July, 7.30 – 10.30pm
Sunset Lumiere
temp0rary performing a full A/V set with very special guests TBC
Skillicorne Gardens (next to Imperial Gardens), Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Sunday July 31st, 6pm
Dali Males
Performing improvised electronics as part of Vinestock Festival 2016
The Vine, Cheltenham
Free Entry

mixandmash2016Monday August 8th – Friday August 12th
Mix & Mash summer school
Friendship Café, Gloucester
£55 for 5 days
See The Music Works website for details

Memory Tapes

chimps_1This is a blog entry by way of protracted apology – I’m a day late, but my excuses are many and wondrous. Normally I write my blogs over the weekend, starting them based on notes from the week and finishing them on a Sunday, but this week has been busy even by my standards. This weekend was spent with long-time artistic conspirator Adrian Giddings who is the visuals half of the A/V equation for temp0rary. Over a productive 36 hours we’d hammered out the shape of our forthcoming performances, done a site visit (which just happened to be situated behind the beer garden) and marvelled at the stage production of the Eurovision Song Contest.

chimps_2Then, at about the point where I should have been putting my feet up and resting for the week ahead, instead I joined the Cheltenham Improvisors Orchestra for the final event of the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, creating an improvised soundtrack around poetry readings. I’m loving my time with the CIO so far, it’s making me think about music in a completely different way, moving me even further from the already loose structures of the performances I do as part of temp0rary.

I guess I don’t really think very often about how far the music I make and enjoy can stray from what other people consider music – this was driven home on Friday when I popped into a school to do a talk about the music I make and specifically the Great Gamelan Experiment that I’m currently running on a Monday afternoon. It turns out the teacher was in a band with me almost 30 years ago, and reminded me of experiments with tape recorders and broken bottles. I’d entirely forgotten about early forays into music concrete and tape loops until then. The ghosts of the past didn’t stop there – over the weekend, another early collaborator got in touch to tell me he had unearthed previously lost recordings of my first ever band playing live. I listened to them with a mix of awe and embarrassment. I don’t think I’ll be sharing them with the general public any time soon…

gamelan-poster-A4_1It did get me thinking about how much the world has changed in the last 30 years – back then, all music had a financial barrier and electronic music making equipment was still prohibitively expensive whereas nowadays you can get a phone for a few quid a month that’s capable of helping you compose, record, mix and master your tracks, and then upload them to a global platform. Keeping copies of things you made used to involve buying tape stock, developing photographs and trips to the library to use the photocopier. To this day, I’m still pretty bad at remembering to document the work I do, and need reminding of the projects I’ve been involved in. On the plus side, however, it’s easier for me to hide the recordings of synth pop renditions of 1970’s metal songs…


I thought I’d end each blog in future with a list of forthcoming performances – as helpful for me keeping track of deadlines as it is for me to promote the work I’m doing. More info coming as it gets confirmed.

Forthcoming performances:

Saturday 18th June (Afternoon)
The Wilson Art Gallery Takeover
temp0rary performing ‘Suggestion Box’ – a long-form silent disco performance with audience interaction
Wilson Art Gallery, Cheltenham
Free Entry

Saturday 9th July (Time TBC)
The Great Gamelan Experiment
Performing with a gamelan orchestra and live electronics
Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Saturday 16th July, 7.30 – 10.30pm
Sunset Lumiere
temp0rary performing a full A/V set with very special guests TBC
Skillicorne Gardens (next to Imperial Gardens), Cheltenham, as part of Cheltenham Music Festival
Free Entry

Sunday July 31st, 6pm
Dali Males
Performing improvised electronics as part of Vinestock Festival 2016
The Vine, Cheltenham
Free Entry

The map is not the territory

This week I want to start with a confession, and it is this: I can’t read music.

I mention this because a couple of weeks back, I was running a session with adults with learning difficulties where the centre was short-staffed (as, frankly, they almost always are). Some of the clients were being helped by a support worker who had not been in one of my sessions before. He suggested – I’m not sure why – that we should sing the Time Warp. And then proceeded to be shocked three times – firstly at the revelation that I didn’t know it off the top of my head, secondly that I didn’t carry the sheet music with me and thirdly that I didn’t read music. It made me feel like a bit of a fraud, even though this was at a centre I’ve worked at for years and where I know they are very happy with my work.

I’ve tried several times to read music, but music (as traditionally noted on a stave with all those dots, like you see on mugs and teatowels) just doesn’t link to what I hear coming out of the instruments in my brain in any useful way. It’s not that I’m musically illiterate – I can still talk with some confidence using most of the language of music, it’s more that I’m somewhat musically dyslexic, unable to equate the dots with the tunes unless I do mental arithmetic that renders the entire process uselessly slow. I can read the ‘piano roll’ style notation used by sequencers as that’s how I’ve grown up and interpreted music for the last 30 years. I sing and play keyboards, and use a modified guitar (open tuned) in my workshops as it makes it easier for me as I can to some extent play it one handed whilst doing something with the other hand. I use a lot of live sequencing and looping in my workshops using Ableton Live on my laptop, and can get musical results out of a Theremin and Soundbeam.

Not being able to read music isn’t uncommon – a quick bit of research suggests that more than half of the world’s population can’t read music, and only 16% identify as being able to read music well. A lot of people struggle with reading music at school and I suspect for many, because of the conventional way music is taught, that the failure to get over this hurdle results in them feeling like they can’t participate in music beyond a rudimentary level. Quite often this feeling of ‘not being good at music’ can stay with them for the rest of their lives. I see it all the time in my work – younger children are used to singing and playing in groups, but from secondary school onwards, where music (if it is taught at all) becomes formalised, young people start to feel like they can no longer join in with the freedom they had enjoyed previously.

To return to the Time Warp anecdote above, it often feels like being able to read music is somehow what sets you apart as a ‘real’ musician. For this reason, I consider myself to be musical rather than a musician as I use the technology to overcome my own barriers to progress, which is why I am such an advocate for helping others do the same. I also think the term ‘music technician’ is undervalued and think that helping others to make music by providing the right equipment and environment is as important as any teaching since you can’t learn fully without this foundation; you should be working with your instruments, not against them.

Whilst reflecting on the ‘Time Warp Incident’ driving between workshops (and, I’ll admit, somewhat nursing my bruised pride), I started to think about the idea of music notation. It struck me that not only is it often of little use in the sessions I run, but sometimes it can be damaging to the creativity of them. Having notation or a model of what is ‘right’ sets out anything that is not the notated music as ‘wrong’. It means there’s a correct way and an incorrect way to play the song. When working with most of the groups I deliver workshops to, doing something right is less important than enjoying the act of making music. Sure, you can coach people to be better musicians, and this is something I consider myself to be really good at, but I don’t think that process is in any way helped by having a binary notion of what is correct and incorrect.

Furthermore, standard music notation is, in the history of music, a relatively new invention, and was only ever intended as an aide memoire. Playing a piece of sheet music always involves a degree of interpretation and relies on the musician or a conductor to make the performance come alive. So much of what makes a song or performance memorable, engaging or emotional is to do with the humanity of the way a piece is played, not the accuracy of it. We don’t assess what’s important in music, we assess what’s easy to assess. Passion, enjoyment, fun – these are all things that rarely get assessed because they can’t be objectively evaluated and put on a spreadsheet.

Yesterday I was working with group of autistic students who were singing the bits of popular songs they knew, but which I didn’t. I remembered the Time Warp Incident, thought about going online, watching the video on YouTube, Googling for the lyrics, looking for guitar tab and chords… and then I remembered my thoughts from previously. I started improvising instead. We worked out our own tune. The session kept its momentum, and we went on to write another 2 original songs, all in the time it would have taken me to find out if what we were doing was ‘correct’ or not.

I still have no idea what Katy Perry’s ‘California Girls’ is supposed to sound like. And I’m okay with that.

Making it up as I go along

My week got off to a good start on Monday with my third and penultimate training session with Phil Mullen at BPM in Bristol. Although the sessions are based around developing and reflecting as a community musician, one of the best things about the session is that it’s an opportunity to get together and talk with other people doing similar work to me – usually we all work in isolation and don’t get a chance to share good practice. But another thing that’s so great about the sessions is that they are free-wheeling, and follow the interests in the group. Phil makes no secret of the fact that there are things that he’d like to deliver in the group, but that the energy in the room is the most important navigator of the session.

In business it’s called agility. In music it’s called improvisation. In formal education, it’s called bad practice.

Musicians are weird. They are physiologically different from other humans. The brain power it takes to play an instrument and sing at the same time along with a band uses more areas of the brain simultaneously than almost any other activity. Daniel Levitin‘s excellent book ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’ goes into depth about how important music is for all areas of the brain and how to hear it and participate in it lights up and rewires the synapses within it. Music literally reaches the parts of the brain other activities cannot reach.

Maybe that’s why the creative arts in general and music in particular has a hard time fitting into the prescribed rigid structures of formal education – the way that musicians think isn’t necessarily aligned with the often linear check-list approach to education that is often required when dealing with a strict academic syllabus. Most of the time I don’t have a problem with this – if an exam board has a set of criteria by which they judge achievement, most of the time that has been developed with some subject specialists. You can often see the join between what people want to deliver and what is easily quantifiable, but in my experience it is often done with the best intentions.

Unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons, fun and enjoyment are not things we tend to assess.

My difficulties with the above model stem from trying to apply formal education models to anyone out of the mainstream – anyone with a disability, anyone on the autistic spectrum, anyone with behavioural issues, anyone excluded from school, anyone with emotional issues… I mean, we say these people are out of the mainstream, but I’d argue that for certain demographics, such as working in areas of deprivation, they can make up the majority. Many of these people turn to the Arts because they have been given a hard time in the more conventional academic subjects. If the Arts are forced to act within the same ‘One Size Fits All’ structures, then they will fail these people the same as they have been failed before.

This is best illustrated with an example. About 5 years, I started to run a regular session at a day centre for older people with profound long-term disabilities. (Here’s a video of me testing the equipment I planned to use before the first session). In this session, 90% of the group are non-verbal communicators. My remit, from the point of view of the centre staff, was to work with the people in the session and make music with them. That was it, nothing else. Within a couple of weeks, I’d started to learn what each client liked, what they didn’t and started to prepare equipment and repertoire to match their abilities and musical preferences.

Then along came Ofsted, who voiced concerns that it was difficult to show progression of those who were coming to the sessions (not just with me, but across the adult education work in general). The funding body responded by creating enormous booklets that all delivering staff had to fill in. They had to show progression. They had to show how I was embedding English and Maths into my sessions. They had to show how I was preparing the people I was working with for a job, giving them ’employability skills’. I had to show all this in detailed plans, I had to collect evidence that there had been progress from one session to the next, and I was told that if I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t be allowed to run the sessions any more.

Let me be clear – this was for a session where I was singing and playing instruments with people with profound disabilities, some of whom had been in the centre for a number of years. The idea of ‘One Size Fits All’ was the very antithesis of equality and diversity. If I’d have thought for one minute that my sessions would have been even slightly better for doing all this extra work, I would have done it; in actual fact the opposite was true as it took time away from me preparing music for the sessions. I tried so hard to find a compromise, but the funding body refused to budge. So I filled in their paperwork, spending two solid days working through a booklet that the clients would never see or be able to read, only to be told it wasn’t filled in correctly.

And then I quit. That’s not normally a happy ending, but because I had built up a great reputation for my work, I started working directly with the centres, cutting out the not only unnecessary but obstructive level of bureaucracy that prevented me from running the sessions to the best advantage of the centre, the carers and the individual clients. Now the sessions are a joy to run, not a burden. Financially, I think I might be worse off doing the sessions this way but I haven’t even checked because I literally couldn’t care less – for me it’s all about doing the right thing by those I work with, everything else is secondary.

I’m not saying that we don’t need plans, but I am saying that planning needs to be appropriate to the work that we do in the extent and the form that it takes. The analogy I favour in classes is that of the pilot who needs to get to the destination but will need to navigate around bad weather and unforeseen problems; a commercial flight is off-target for 90% of its time, but is always making tiny adjustments to get back on track. This brings me to the second problem I have with planning – it allows people to be absent from the real work.

When you are in a session and responding to the group, it’s very much like surfing a wave, you have to be profoundly present in the room to keep the session moving forward, and that’s what makes the session thrilling for everyone taking part. An overly-planned session is like being on a conveyor-belt, everyone moving forward at the same pace, and it is disengaging for both leader and participant. Stating the aims may be great for Ofsted (and for some participants) but for many it’s like watching a film or football match and being told in advance when to pay attention and which bits you can tune out for.

Let me end with a video – I was reminded of this by an inspiring presentation by Mark De-Lisser at Music Education Expo a couple of months back. In both the presentation I saw and the video below of Bobby McFerrin, the audience are clearly fully engaged. There are no stated aims or objectives, but it quickly becomes clear what is being taught. You can only deliver sessions like this if your focus is entirely on those who you are teaching. And I know that, for me, this is the time when my brain lights up like nothing else on earth, and it’s what keeps me doing this kind of work.