Jump or Die!

(This was originally posted at emusician.com on November 25th, 2009.)

“Jump or Die!” — a phrase composer/saxophonist Anthony Braxton uses when he talks about going onstage and sight-reading his highly complex charts. Like a paratrooper dropping behind enemy lines, you have no choice but to play in a take-no-prisoners way. The band and the audience experience the music for the very first time together. There are no second chances in that environment.

Artists of the caliber of Braxton, Cecil Taylor, and Tom Waits know that exciting music is made when you take musicians out of their comfort zone. For example, it’s common for Waits to roll tape while his players are figuring out their parts, and then keep the sound check rather than have them do a “real” performance. It’s the first-take rule, where the energy and vibe that comes from not quite knowing what you’re doing lends the performance a vitality that you can’t get through comping or multiple takes. It can be messy, but it’s musical.

I bring this up in light of Douglas Wolk’s commentary “The Death Of Mistakes Means The Death Of Rock” on NPR.org. The article is about a topic that many of us have thought about for years: that technology can be used to suck the life out of music if it’s overused. It’s a complaint that is as old as technology itself, and there is some validity to it. However, it’s not something that we can suddenly blame on Pro Tools or Auto-Tune.

But does a tool such as Beat Detective lead to the death of rock?

Decades ago, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was chastised by the classical-music community for editing together perfect renditions of his performances of Bach. These days, of course, comping (short for “compositing”) an instrumental or vocal part (essentially, creating a perfect take out of bits and pieces of previous takes by editing the good sections together) is a regular part of the recording process, even in the classical world. Gould used the technology of his time the right way and for the right reasons: he was a virtuoso who had a vision of perfection. That’s quite a bit different than some multi-national corporation’s vision of pulling the wool over our eyes by making a pop band out of supermodels (another trend that goes back decades).

But Wolk is definitely onto something about the big-league rock productions of today: anything that’s off-the-grid—whether it be pitch or timing—is going to be fixed or removed. You won’t hear an accidental 6/4 bar (like the one in The Beatles’ “Rain”) happen these days by a major band, because the producers and managers, not to mention the musicians themselves, won’t let it fly. It’s embarrassing. Today’s listeners can hear “mistakes,” because they’re used to hearing pitch- and time-perfect performances. Flub a drum fill today, and you’ll be pulling espressos at Starbucks tomorrow.

Consequently, that sense of danger that happens when musicians play at the edge of their abilities—like nearly all the bands of the ’60s and early ’70s did when recording—is missing in today’s overly quantized productions. (I highly recommend Geoff Emerick’s tell-all autobiography Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, where he notes that, at times, the Fab Four were playing well beyond their capabilities.)

If you want to hear an egregious example of bad playing by a major recording artist, check out Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts on “Sway” from Sticky Fingers. In particular, listen to the drum fills. As the song progresses, they get more and more tortured, the triplets scrambling to find the downbeat. When I first heard the song, I was convinced that a non-drummer in the band (Mick, for example) was playing the kit. It’s probably the first take, but the drumming is as awkward as a first date. And yet … it is just as exciting. Thankfully, one of the biggest bands in rock history released that performance. They wouldn’t do that now. Does that mean rock is dead?

Cheaters never prosper?
If by cheating you mean that big-name acts are playing live to a click (and with dozens of pre-recorded backing tracks) while having their vocals automatically tuned, yeah, the cheaters are prospering. So what? Why should we be angered or feel let down when we find out that a singer we love is using pitch correction? Even a parody artist like “Weird Al” Yankovic, who himself has made fun of Auto-Tune, admits to using it on his own records.

When we watch Jurassic Park, we don’t honestly believe that those are real dinosaurs, do we? We don’t really believe that a star cruiser makes a low hum in the soundless vacuum of space? So why do we feel duped when we find out that that the pop star doing cartwheels on stage while singing uses a backing track? Big deal, the vocals are canned. That’s show biz.

When Wolk suggests that rock is dead, and Bob Lefsetz bemoans a world that takes Taylor Swift seriously, I suggest they follow the lead of the rest of us and look elsewhere for our entertainment. The people complaining that “no one makes music like that, anymore” are as clueless as the major labels. There are thousands of bands out there, with real musicians and honest lyrics, who perform without trickery.

And get this: they sometimes make mistakes and keep them. Because they’re going for it—pushing the boundaries and playing without a safety net. If you judge rock by its mistakes, the genre is alive and kicking once you look beyond the mass media.

Mind you, these are the bands that the Gate Keepers would completely miss, because they’re not writing songs that everyone will like. Does a band have to sell 100,000 units before you’ll take them seriously? If so, you’re missing out.

The most vital music being made these days is not going to be found on an arena stage or on Saturday Night Live. It’ll be found almost every night of the week in a club, bar, pub, or warehouse near you. It’s a gig you might only learn about from an alternative music site, because the local music rags don’t cover local scenes anymore. But the bands and the shows are out there, in every major city.

So to the curmudgeons I say: Get off your lazy asses and find the lesser known bands in your area. Support them. Go to the dives where they play. Buy their merch. Give them the attention they deserve. Take advantage of the Internet to find up-and-coming artists.

Put plainly: stop whining about how technology has supposedly killed music, and support the music that is really out there. If you can’t find it, ask a college student…

This week’s assignment
No, you don’t get to stay home because it’s a holiday. Take that $250 you’d spend to sit a mile away from Bono’s image on a giant screen and use it to see 10 local shows, where you can meet the bands (and maybe go home with a cool t-shirt). Jump or die! That’s an order, soldier.

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Related Topics: Robair Report

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