It’s probably one of the best quotes in the history of music criticism: “I’ve heard that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” The man who said it was a 19th Century American humorist Bill Nye. No, not the Science Guy, the other Bill Nye.
The Nye on the right summed up challenging music in a sentence.
Nye’s great one-liner points out that unfamiliar music may gather approval of those who appreciate its novel approach while leaving a puzzlement as to what pleasure may be derived from it. In the late 19th Century, Richard Wagner’s music was radical. It was heard by many as having stretched the harmonic bonds of symphonic music past enjoyable boundaries. Nowadays Wagner is more in danger of seeming preposterously old-fashioned. He’s just the thing to let you know that Elmer Fudd is a fuddy-duddy when he breaks out into re-purposed Wagner and sings “I Shooot a Waaabittt!” in cartoons. Wagner’s music hasn’t changed, but fashions, expectations and experience have changed.
Back around 1970 a band from Atlanta Georgia called “Hampton’s Grease Band” released their only album. The story is told that it sold the second fewest copies ever in the history of their record label, who dropped them right after its release. There are reasons for that. Most cuts were over 10 minutes long. The music was eclectic and the beats eccentric—but what really unsold the record to many audiences were the vocals and lyrics by Bruce Hampton, who rasped like a southern Captain Beefheart with an outlook that mixed Dixie and Dada in quantities you didn’t want to get near enough to the caldron to measure.
This stuff still sounds avant-garde, but Hampton kept evolving after this band’s failure. He self-applied the conventional southern honorific “Col.” to his name, but he always kept a big streak of weird in his music, and by the 90’s another musical movement he helped form made odd music with obscure lyrics and long improvised instrumental passages commercially viable. The usual label for the groups who played this music was “jam bands.”
I could write more about jam bands, but since I need to move on, I’ll say that they were an attempt to invent jazz as if jazz had never existed before. By this I don’t mean to say they were wholly ignorant of jazz or prejudiced against it; what I mean to say is that they created as if they were starting the idea of jazz all over, more or less from scratch. Just as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood thought they could start medieval religious paining all over again or William Morris’ Art and Crafts movement sought to start an artisan practical crafts industry out of nothing, they didn’t seek to learn from and extend the existing practices so much as to do a complete reboot.
Everything but the kitchen sink—ah, maybe we need to include that too.
Now we’re back in the hipster territory that I’ve been discussing in the last few posts. Depending on which generation and which sub-cultural alignment you have, jam bands can be an example of an ignorable genre of music that can only be endured for extra-musical reasons, or an organic expression of music that refuses to be contained and regimented by the formulas of other commercial music. It’s that double-edged nature of the hipster label people throw around as if a label was an analysis. Are they “hip” to something novel that has unconventional value, or are they bogus “-sters” consumed by useless difference for its own sake? And if you’ve read the other posts this month, you’ll realize I’m not just talking about one generation or one sub-culture here.
My guess is that’s it’s always some of both, and the exact proportions cannot be discovered while it’s happening. Perhaps, like improvised music itself, it has to happen for sober judgements to be made later.
And how can one tell who’s the poser and who’s the sculptor of something new? Persistence is one test. Remember William Blake’s great proverb on persistence: “If a fool would persist in their folly, they would become wise?” Here’s Bruce Hampton on patience and persistence:
I’ve gotten everything I’ve ever wanted – 20 years after I wanted it. And that’s been perfect for me to not get things when I want them because I’m not ready for them when I want them.
Today’s audio post, “The Death of Col. Bruce Hampton” presents an sincere account of the unusual death of Bruce Hampton earlier this month: on stage, performing at a tribute to his 50 years of making adventurous music, surrounded by scores of other musicians who learned from him. You may still find his music better than it sounds. He played and sang a lot notes over a lot of time. Some of them were right, and some of them were wrong for the right reasons.
Col. Bruce Hampton at his last concert says keep playing
To hear my audio piece “The Death of Col. Bruce Hampton” use the player below.