School of Knocks
BBC Four's How To Be A Composer raised some odd thoughts. The premise was that Paul Morley was taken on for a year at the Royal Academy of Music, to learn composition; the only hitch being that he could not read music, play any instrument, or tell a note or chord from hearing it. So far, so rote reality-tv (more specifically, Play It Again). But it was surprisingly sympathetically (and tastefully, but not in a bad way) filmed, with the minimum of grating voiceovers; the lingering shots of Morley's greying countenance, the palatial interior of the Royal Academy, form a counterpoint to almost ever-present music.
And although Morley was not, in any proper sense, the 'presenter' - the central organising intelligence, as he's been in other TV documentaries - the most curious thing was always him. The central crux posited was the fact that Morley, though having written about music for more than 30 years, had never generated any music himself, aside from his time in The Art of Noise (in which his role was more than a little mysterious, being mostly a concept-engineer and propagandist). He had no knowledge of the technical side of music-making; he hadn't, in a sense, paid his dues in the proper and expected manner. But then again, that's very much part of his existence as a writer: the history outlined in Nothing - working-class/lower middle-class background in Stockport, the bleak North (and not even the metropolitan but the provincial North), the crippling shyness and academic ineptitude (except in English), the father suicided whilst in his teens, the dead friends ("I have only seen one dead body in my life"), the redemption through pop music, the democratic media of records, involvement in punk/fanzine/DIY culture, the linguistic arrogance and ambition of the autodidact upstart (and fucking proud of it). And here we have the self-made outcast being finally admitted to the halls of the Establishment, being encouraged to play their game. ("Really intimidating" was how he described it; "it's the Royal Academy".)
And, indeed, that's how it seemed: he had to be led by the hand by his theory teacher through the nature of keys, chords, time signatures, notation (there were several excruciating scenes where he had to identify whether piano chords were major or minor, getting it wrong almost every time); subdued, like the thick boy in the corner aware of his status, he tried to articulate, as stumblingly as imaginable, some idea of what he wanted to compose, and it seemed as if he were merely picking a particular style or mood (one among many possible) just in order to please his teachers, to have some route to travel down - namely, that of slow, intricate drones (in fact, the first piece of his played reminded me of Stars of the Lid). And that's part of the problem: as Words and Music made clear, Morley's instinctual tastes as a music-writer are as widespread as can be, but after all it's impossible to incorporate all these things he loves into the music that is created; music-writers can do this because they are, in a sense, irresponsible - they don't have to make the stuff, they don't have to narrow their playing-field and find their own niche and/or furrow. (Thus, one of the problems of poptimism-as-cultural-condition: its democratisation and lack of negatory pressure in fact paralyses the creative faculty: if everything is as good as everything else, how does one choose a path?) There's a marvellous moment when he asks a young tuba player whether he knows Fripp & Eno's No Pussyfooting, and he declares that he hasn't; through a bit of cajoling though, he gets him to conjure a lovely, slow, rich drone that kind of vaguely resembles it. It was a perfect exemplification of the high art/low art political debate running through the programme: Fripp & Eno's album, using techniques stolen from the then classical avant-garde (Pauline Oliveros' and Steve Reich's feedback and phased tape-loops) in at least a semi-popular context (well, who hadn't heard of Roxy and King Crimson then?) Morley's own writing, which has always relentlessly scrambled such high/low polarities, makes his sensibilities seem bizarre in such a gate-kept high-art establishment as the Royal Academy (correct me if I'm wrong, but I get the feeling New Music doesn't get much of a look-in round those parts, much less pop music...)
(What was also transfixing was the whole presence of Morley: the greying hair, spreading stubble, face made craggy, the omnipresent black clothing; it's almost like seeing a photo of the older Augustus John, when he knew both that his talent had waned and death was slowly coming on. He's a different man even from the writer on the jacket of Words and Music, still cool behind the shades, in raptures over Missy Elliott and Kylie. The last thing I remember reading by him was the article on Monkey in the Observer Music Monthly last year; it was pretty clear, even in comparison to W&M, that he had lost his touch (although some friends consider him to have been boring and pretentious from the beginning) He mentioned, always, in discussion of the kind of elements he wanted running through his music, his "melancholic temperament"; the sad, withdrawn young boy hiding behind the monstrously confident pop seer and huckster).
The punk background I spoke of above, of course, isn't solid; punk's cult of the amateur has a very chequered history, and Morley effectively ceded from it when he became involved in ZTT - Trevor Horn, the consummate professional, confined to the studio for 12-hour shifts, making productions slick as wet soap. His involvement in New Pop was at least in part a reaction to the shrinkage of post-punk's ambitious parameters into Messthetic that'll-do-ism. So there is a tension between the impulse to self-improvement and the wish not to play to the Establishment's rules; as he says in this article about the experience, he didn't want to play at the rebellious scholarship boy refusing to learn the rules, staying in the comfort zone of 'Eno thinking', the non-musician's experimental space: "it didn't really seem in the spirit of what I had set out to do: learn something new about how music works that would challenge, even threaten, the familiar way I listened to and wrote about music." I myself had the same problem with writing: growing into it; accepting it as a kind of craft, with its own specialist knowledge, rather than the Romantic conception of it as a means of spontaneous outpouring; cooling down, and just getting on with the work (well, sometimes). And I had the same problem with classical music, to which my reaction is very often one of puzzlement: after hearing Beethoven's 'Pathetique' sonata, I was rather like, So what exactly am I meant to think of this? Any attempt to describe, or even think about it, is hilariously off-the-mark. I get the feeling this is a subject area I should know about, and that there's something I'm missing out on; indeed, listening to a performance recently of Chopin's 'Ballad No. 1' (by a Royal Academy student, no less!), I knew exactly what was going on, emotionally.
It begs the question again: whose response is more valuable, more interesting - that of the vivid amateur, or that of the boring technical expert? Is it necessary, possible or even desirable to break down the last barriers to democratisation of music?