What you need to know is that after this CD was recorded,
apparently unproblematically, an almighty e-mail brouhaha erupted over what it should be called, what the cover should be, who should write the notes and so on. That nine people couldnâ€™t decide on some post-production details wouldnâ€™t be worth mentioning if the discussion hadnâ€™t raised difficult questions about the music making itself: specifically, about the different meanings that musicians claim for their musical activity, and about their different attitudes towards the marketplace.
Since money, there hasnâ€™t been a form of music that has existed outside of economic concerns. Even a musician-run label concerned with commercially marginal music must produce things that look like tokens of big business, things which have those same signs of commerce concentrated into a little box and booklet: group names, album titles (and the accompanying liner notes) are essentially an index of a musicâ€™s display-rack existence (and the display-rackâ€™s promotional corollary). These purely practical
considerations can be transparent if you want them to be, symbols of musicâ€™s de-ephemeralisation before its dissemination; but if you worry about it enough, ephemerality, musicâ€™s existence outside linguistic, commercial or any other sort of representation becomes the very reason for its being. Put that way, it may be that discursive representation of music is redundant; maybe even the best music critics can only trade in tautology, while the worst will surreptitiously seek some kind of legitimacy for their ideological and material interests. Itâ€™s always struck me that the liner notes Leonard Feather wrote for the great Blue Note albums were pretty good examples of the attempt to construct critical meanings by reference to
commercial realities. â€œSo-and-soâ€™s playing hereâ€, he might have suggested, one hand leafing through the pages of jazzâ€™s history and the other through the Blue Note catalogue, â€œowes a lot less to the Gillespie model than on his previous outing (BLP 1538)â€. In this way, criticism produces canons like chickens lay eggs (and with the same teleological imponderability); further, on the Venn diagram of chicken and critic, the intersection of economic interest is pretty big, if you get me.
The critical texts that Eddie Prévost has often provided for his own companyâ€™s recordings arenâ€™t outside that intersection. Not because his discussions of improvisation ever have an ulterior commercial motive â€“ as if such a thing is really imaginable, even to troublemakers, of whom more later â€“ but because in Prévostâ€™s formulation, that relationship is often represented in its negation and absence. Meta-linernotes: in the booklet accompanying MRCD 42, Prévost speculates whether John Cage stripped his music of determinate identity â€œto prevent his work from becoming fodder for a propagandist consumer societyâ€, an attitude that Prévost implies is similar to that of improvised music. Meanwhile on MRCD 39, Prévost contrasts what he calls the economic â€œno otherwayism of the Reagan/Thatcherite impoverishing legacyâ€ with the â€œheroicâ€
counterposition of the artists featured therein. Of course, as a
musician and label owner, Prévost is well aware that there is always a bottom line of some sort; but when he acknowledged that artists must constantly examine â€œthe complex matrix of promotion and commercial exploitation with which they must inevitably have some interface if they are to present their work to the publicâ€ (MRCD 42) he can hardly have imagined that some of the musicians on this CD would take him at his word, really take him at his word, to the extent that the examination would still be constant if several of the group hadnâ€™t put their collective foot down.
Itâ€™s not true that everybody in the band was really at each otherâ€™s throats; remember that e-mail is to textual etiquette what white vans are to highway conduct. But there was inevitably some tension in a discourse in which musicians who are commercially more-or-less invisible attempted to establish various and alternative sorts of artistic legitimation for themselves and their work. First, the groupâ€™s name. â€œNonetâ€ was suggested early on. One musician thought it had a â€œdry and dustyâ€ feel to it, perhaps aligning it with some sort of Classical officialdom. Funnily enough, that was probably the alignment that the Miles Davis/Lee Konitz â€œBirth of the Cool Bandâ€ was seeking when it used the same word: the coolness of its musical â€œclassicismâ€ reinforced semiotically. It was no coincidence that another of the musicians rejected the title because it reminded him of said Davis band. But it was an act of extreme disingenuousness for the same musician to go on to propose the group name â€œ9!â€, a title so hard bop that even the Incredible Jimmy Smith might have dismissed it as a little overstated. That was the point, though: to align the music with hot rather than cool, emotional rather than intellectual. Those arenâ€™t always the semiotic parameters that improvised music is given; but by implying through language sympathy for one set of historical musical concerns, this musician created legitimacy for his own.
Spin-offs of the word Nonet were the anagrammatical titles
eventually given to each of the tracks. The music-making process, and the groupâ€™s splitting into various combinations for each performance, is represented within the play and re-ordering of each title. But the cod-maths of the minuses and parentheses led one participant to ruminate on what he saw as an unconscious invocation of the legitimacy of the â€œineffableâ€ nature of mathematical purity. To align music with mathematics is to align it with an entire cultural tradition of rational and intellectual endeavour. (At this point, another mooted title, â€œThe Nine Livesâ€, was finally rejected on the grounds that it reminded one musician of a line from the rubbish 1980s robot film Short Circuit).
Competing musical and intellectual identities (semiotic, historical and scientific) were now in play, and enough was at stake for the more mischievous to question the relationship between such a verbal negotiation and the music making itself: â€œI wonder why it took a recording to provoke a 'publicâ€™ discussion about what it is exactly we think we're doing,â€ he wrote, before invoking Lacan and several leftist others, thereby opening up a right old can of worms. The invocation of critical theory is almost always about winning a competition for legitimacy, a competition of the sort that the theorist Pierre Bourdieu has described. (You can tell this is true because such a practice always takes place in public forums, like the review pages of fashionable music magazines, or the toilet walls of media studies departments). This competitive appeal to theory signalled another, more obviously political form of self-legitimation in the group, one which notionally questioned the implications of a â€˜merelyâ€™democratic compromise regarding the details of the CDâ€™s production, yet also cut to the quick of the improvising ethic.
The idea of improvisation as heurism and dialogue is one of Prévostâ€™s favourites (see, for example, the notes to MRCD 42). But this other musician suggested that dialogue, in language or improvised music, can only be â€œbought at the cost of the proper dialectical tensionâ€. The question for meâ€ he concluded, dramatically, â€is â€“ what has to be repressed in order that what we do appears to us as â€˜dialogueâ€™?â€ Aside from any practical implications, this musician was simply
continuing his musical practice â€“ and his right to self-representation, albeit one of a decidedly disruptive nature â€“ in the text. His interruption of what he called the â€œsmooth functioningâ€ of the CDâ€™s production seemed calculated to fulfil no function other than to cause trouble; that lead one participant to liken him to a â€œright-wing anarchistâ€, and to suggest a complicity with the kind of central, institutional cultural power that improvisation is often envisaged as opposing, and that all the musician in question had to do now was to â€œget [his] feet comfortably under the tableâ€.
But I think it was the intention of this cantankerous player to show that in negotiating commercial terms for a supposedly radical music, all involved already had their feet under the table, and that their position was no more tenable just because they hadnâ€™t ordered a dessert. The utilitarian decisions necessitated by the apparatus of the musicâ€™s commercial afterlife were not present during its living, he seemed to be saying, and that constituted a real undermining of the dialogic ethic and its position towards the world of markets and money. â€œIf I am looking for anythingâ€, he admitted, â€œit is to provoke a liberating fracture in the smooth process of our little capitalist adventure.â€ With regard to the group and Matchless Recordings, this was a wholly unreasonable and eventually untenable position, and he knew it. Yet the interrogation of the dialogue principle â€“ made in the context of a commercial negotiation but articulating critical
meaning for the music, just like the other musiciansâ€™ bids for
representation and validation â€“ points towards an enrichment of musical strategy and understanding: an acknowledgment of the mischief and refusal that lurks behind the essential charity of heurism and dialogue.
Tom Perchard Â© 2003