Calm before the storm

For this month’s Sampler, I’ve used my Guest Editor position to explore a theme that’s been on my mind for some time now. It’s:

music and musicians in a time of crisis.

Ok. Not the most immediately joyful of subjects, perhaps. But it’s something I’ve been reflecting on recently while I’ve been writing and recording my new album We’re Done For (And Other Responses): Is this a time of crisis in our world, and (how) are musicians and music being affected by it?

Again, cheery stuff. More of that later! 🙂

First, a brief delve into the word that underpins my choice of blogs from other composers, and tracks I’ve compiled for this months’ playlist.

Let me set the scene with an etymology – I do love a good etymology! – as found on my favourite website

crisis (n.)

early 15c., from Latinized form of Greek krisis “turning point in a disease” (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen),

literally “judgment, result of a trial, selection,”

from krinein “to separate, decide, judge,”

from PIE root *krei– “to sieve,” thus “discriminate, distinguish.”

Transferred non-medical sense is 1620s in English.

A German term for “mid-life crisis” is Torschlusspanik, literally “shut-door-panic,” fear of being on the wrong side of a closing gate.

A time of crisis. A turning point. A time to reflect and distinguish; to acknowledge and sieve through all the divergent political voices that have arisen. There are many of them, it seems.

“A shut-door-panic?” … Is that anxious air I’m breathing in or breathing out?

Just try to keep calm. And mind your steps.

It’s a ‘cross roads’ kind of moment.

Look left and look right.


The etymology of inhibit points to an ‘inner holding’


Music and politics. Politics in music. Politics in my music.

Yes, it’s in there. Somewhere. Somehow. And yet I feel uneasy raising the subject, here or anywhere at the moment.

But why? What’s going on?

For others, there may be no issue in describing how their or other peoples’ music or musical practices are infused with political agenda, or perhaps reflect or challenge concurrent political thought, mood and activity. I, however, find myself increasingly shying away from speaking about my music in political terms. Perhaps in contradiction to that, though, I also find myself composing, recording and performing more and more from a politically motivated angle!

My latest album as Ok Bertie! is in the last stages of production. I’ve called it We’re Done For (And Other Responses). It’ll be twelve tracks – ten songs and two instrumental pieces – each aiming to represent a very different emotionally-charged reaction to an (imaginary?) apocalyptic event.

( Happy days! )

Significantly, I think, especially in relation to this blog, it’s never quite stated in any of the songs just what this apocalyptic event might be. (It really isn’t Brexit, just to say.

Even though I’m this guy.

And, as a result, this guy.

And then this guy too.)

No, it’s not about any event in particular. Instead, my intention has been to explore a range of human emotions in relation to an undisclosed political, social or personal catastrophe: from pure rage, to clinging onto every last moment of joy, to bleak despair, to curious hope, to blind resignation, to malicious revenge, to regret, to a get-up-and-go optimism for change…

I think it’s one of my most politically-charged pieces. However, I’m not sure if I’m correct in saying that, as it isn’t really directly political at all. It has no political agenda – I think or maybe hope – other than to posit a diverse array of human experiences and characters, from benign to malign. It’s not quite ready yet, but I’m hoping to share it over the course of October through social media, so you can hear for yourselves.

In the meantime, I find myself in an anxious state of reflection about this work. Given my semi-recent semi-forays in the (semi-)political ((semi-))spotlight, I’m left wondering: is it enough? Am I doing the ‘right thing’ in what I’m presenting, which is not so much a protest or direct statement or view, but a set of observations about the human condition under certain (unreal) circumstances? Am I making a proper contribution to the current political debate, even though my work in music is not highlighting any actual political stance (or none that was consciously intended!)? I do think it’s a question I need to ask myself. I do want to make as best a contribution as I can, even if just one other person hears what I’ve been creating.

If we regard politics as the voicing and managing of conflicting perspectives about what to do now and next, then I do think we are living in very political times. No period of history is apolitical of course. At the moment, however, it seems like more cards are on the table than they have been for a long while. Everyone is in the queue for cake, and they all want a good slice of the action. I guess that’s politics for you.

It’s interesting how political thought and debate seems be have become much more infused within everyday discussions and culture in just the last eighteen months. I am, of course, referring to the Brexit effect. The referendum process had a huge impact on our culture and society here in the UK. Even just a few years ago there was more of a separation between politics and ordinary life in this country. There was a tendency to avoid political discussions to quite a large extent when chatting with friends and family or when meeting people for the first time. The major political Parties appeared to be much-of-a-muchness: no significant difference between one or the other in many ways. Politics was something that happened ‘over there’ (in Westminster and by civil servants) and appeared to have much less relevance, certainly in my little life. My friends and family were also not using politics as a starter subject or primary topic of conversation. That’s my experience, certainly.

Well, that has very much changed of late. Today, politics is seemingly everywhere and up for discussion – around the dinner (and breakfast!) table – in a way I haven’t observed previously. I think we’ve all been swept up with the charged emotion brought about by the Brexit debate. I know I have. I was at one point a pink-tied-green-shirted anti-Brexit poster boy in Parliament Square. I have definitely become more politically aware and willing to talk about politics; less embarrassed about raising the subject. In fact it’s become akin to the weather: an easy thing to talk about with many people. You might not like the response, but it’s a good kicker-offerer for dialoguing with people. (Yes, kick off does seem appropriate…).

And yet… somehow, when it comes to music, and my music (for me), I feel uncomfortable talking about it in any definitively political way. I do have my views on Brexit. Not a huge amount has changed for me in that respect. But I have become more enigmatic in my song lyrics and music, even (or maybe especially) since last year’s Brexit referendum. I’m just not pinning my views down in song- or instrumental form. My music is political – politically charged, infused and motivated as I have said. But it’s not in a direct way. For sure, the sentiment is not as direct as my little Parliament Square speech. Nowhere near.

What is this? At once I am both brimming with political thought and emotion day-to-day, and yet apparently so inhibited about expressing it directly in my music!

I’ve been curious to explore this relationship between my day-to-day and musical political voice(s) a bit further. Is this a self-stymieing, a kind of inhibition – an ‘inner holding’ back? Am I being insincere by not putting my political thoughts down in my music? Do I simply need to do some growing up, to be mature enough to say what I actually think through my songs without worrying about what other people will think?

Growth. It really comes from learning. And to learn is to discover: to uncover; to discard the covers. Knowledge and know-how are already ‘out there’ or ‘in there’ somewhere. The lid just needs to be lifted, both externally and internally.

In thinking about this, I’ve wanted to explore how my thoughts and experiences may or may not relate to those of others in a similar situation. So I have shone my torch light out to the new music community in which I find myself. (You may have been one of the people I reached out to. I’m sorry if I didn’t find you. This is still an open discussion). I wanted to talk to other musicians (composers, performers, producers et al.), regarding their views on politically-imbued music-making; to ask if they considered their music to be political, and if so, how; to find out if their music had become more or less political in recent months and years; and to open further to ask my comrades-in-new-musical-action whether they believed music could ever be political in the first instance. Can music be a ‘container’ of ideas, even? It’s a bit of a worn question, perhaps. But maybe it hasn’t been asked too recently, so I can get away with it.

Success! A good number of very broad responses to my emails and messages. Thank you.

I decided to keep the process anonymous. But I think that says something in itself.

This is a time of great change. That is something often said by people living in many eras. But this period especially: it’s very much an ‘up in the air’ moment of history.

Maybe that’s why I feel so awkward about putting forward a more definite political statement in my own music or, in fact, in talking about the political context of my work. And maybe that’s why I feel uneasy about putting a name to other composers’ words on the subject. In this period of change, I think we can end up modifying our thoughts quite dramatically in a short space of time. The seemingly constant day-to-day shifts of the political landscape of now seem to uproot much of what we have known or expected previously. As a result, we find ourselves continually refining or repositioning our political opinions. To put a name to a composers’ thoughts of last Wednesday would, I feel, be unfair if Thursday’s events radically altered their perspective.

So with anonymity firmly in place, I pressed ahead with my little bit of research. And one of the immediate joys of conducting this little piece of fieldwork was to discover – to learn – that I’m not necessarily alone in my current inhibition or lack of vigour about a particular viewpoint for/in my music. Another composer I spoke to described how his music had moved away from any definite political motivation or subject, this having previously been one of the primary intentions of his work. Something had changed in recent months and years, due to shift in political landscape. As he explained:

I think it’s just been since the whole Brexit thing; Trump; Tories getting in… Looking at my social media bubble, it just became obvious to me that… you are in this echo chamber, and that the kind of ‘villains’ of the piece – the people who voted to Leave, and all that kind of stuff – … I know people who live in different parts of the country, and they have a very different outlook. And chatting to them you can see there are reasons they have voted to Leave…

The same can be said of recent things with Trump. There’s part of me that sees that there is a reason why Trump got in. Some people are feeling like they’re not being represented or they’re being left out. Or they’re being blocked out of the argument. And this isn’t to say I agree with what those people say. I just think there is such a grey area that, even when I watch now American satirical programmes… and it is all very one-sided, and I do find there is a danger with that. … And that all effects how I think about writing now. I’m not so eager to do those things. Not that I regret my earlier pieces…

So that shift away from highly political music seems to have arisen as a multiplicity of different voices has shown itself in recent times. He later summarised the situation well when he said: ‘It’s just so complex that making some grand statement is just something I’m not willing to do.’ It’s a view I heard several times from different musicians regarding the current political situation: ‘it’s too complicated’… ‘it’s too complex.’ … ‘It’s a really grey area.’ Perhaps the lack of political conviction in my own work and others is a reflection of this experience.

I had another perspective from a different composer: the notion that politics can never be separate from music. It reignited something in me I hadn’t thought about for some time:

If you’re creating artistic work, it’s all context driven. You can’t create the autonomous artwork because everything is going to be affected by your experiences, your personality, your preferences. So all artwork is at least ‘little p’ political. Even something like new complexity music – very challenging music – it is in itself political because of the people who write it and because of the institutions where they studied; they’re part of the establishment. One could say they are part of an elite force with certain backgrounds. All of this infuses their music. There is no way that this music is not political. … People may say, ‘Oh, I just write the music.’ But there’s no way you can remove yourself from it.

So music, even without any direct political agenda, can still be political; is always connected to the politics of the moment. It is political enough just by existing. I agree. But am I really happy justifying the lack of political decisiveness and direction in my work by allowing it to fall ever-so-neatly into the bracket of ‘art that reflects the current political zeitgeist’?  (I think, to be honest: this maybe partly the case!).

Part of me relaxes if I think along those lines; feels better. So I am doing ‘enough’ after all, I think! I’m shining a light on our current state of affairs, which is as it is: dithering and ‘not yet final’. The hammer is yet to fall. Plus, finally – I belong! To the CULTURAL ZEITGEIST of all things!

That’s me! Zeitgeisty!

Another part of me, however, is still questioning myself, wondering if more could be done by my work. I needed to explore further. Interestingly, I then received a very different response from another composer, and it kind of hit a nail on the head of my inner-holding.

Now, I’m only able to paraphrase what I received (for political reasons!), but it went something like: ‘Political music is [consistently] [very poor quality].’

I don’t know this composer very well, and I will never reveal to anyone who it is. My sense is that the clipped statement I received was said in (half-)jest. But still… something jars deep in my composerly body: a frustration that forms a clamp in my chest; my voice.

I was reminded. There is – and it’s okay; I’m keeping calm – but there is, I feel (I’ve experienced), that axis of the new music community who feel that any music that ‘attempts’ to be a container of ideas is invariably a poor cousin to an abstract ideal. It’s interesting to observe my tensing-up in response to the short message I received. I have no qualms with the concept of (total) abstraction in music. But it gives me insight into why I have held back on revealing or discussing not just any political perspectives but ‘ideas’ in general within my work. It’s that narrative I found in my studies in composition: that there exists a hierarchy of composers in terms of ability that runs in parallel to the level by which they exchanged in extra-musical ideas. Throughout much of my musical education, it was told to me that those composers who tried to infuse social or political concepts in their scores were at the inferior end of the spectrum. Or, at least, that ‘the music’, in order to be appreciated – and in fact appreciable! – needed to be separated from any political motivation of the composer.

And yet, I’ve always been full of ideas and full-of-beans about infusing my music with them!

( … ooops!… )

Images, feelings, emotions, characters, shapes, stories…

That’s me.

So it was a bit of a battle to stand up to such opinions in the conservatoire environment. And I suppose I’ve internalised that battle to a great extent in the years after leaving. For me, it sadly goes to explain my real inhibition about discussing ‘thoughts’ in my sounds.

The End, Or: The bit that usually includes a conclusion

So this is where I am now, left wondering if I… No! …. we in the new music community – because I’m really not the only one who’s experienced this, am I – and please forgive the label if it doesn’t quite work – if we are holding ourselves back through our institutionalised ideas of ‘the good composer’ or, better still, ‘the better composer’ and ‘the Great composer’ in the way I’ve described.

As musicians, the history of ‘Great composers’ and ‘Great performers is on our shoulders.

(Note to self: dust off shoulders.)

I do feel that myself: that weight. But in this period of history – this politically intense moment – is that weight then inhibiting any political and social progress we can make through this art form?

Am I doing enough? Are we doing enough? Why am/are I/we so scared of presenting political thought in music? I think I’ve maybe uncovered a couple of possible answers to this. But is it enough to sit as an observer on the side-lines and watch as politics turns nasty, as society turns nasty, and turn out our observations and half-glimpses through our music?

What if I stepped out of the grey area I seem to work quite comfortably within?

Does society need us to? It might feel vain or arrogant to think that we are needed. But is the alternative that we let our society slip into the future while we sit and watch?

And make notes…