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John Law: Deeper into the Music

By Published: November 4, 2009

John LawA really important point here: I find it totally natural and acceptable to maintain, simultaneously, very different, even opposing, points of view. Some people say that sitting on the fence is a cop-out. It is not. For a start, for a man, sitting on a fence can be quite painful. But seriously, it's actually much harder to see different points of view, especially in relationship problems. But it's the only way, for me.

Another thing: I remember reading, with real anger, something that the British pop music DJ and writer John Peel said: "There are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music." What complete rubbish. It's the sort of statement that makes the uninitiated feel very smug, makes them feel they are party to some special insight and wisdom. And it's complete nonsense.

There's no such absolute thing as good music or bad music. It just can't be measured in those terms. Some music sounds great only after repeated listening. Most music (all music?) eventually grows stale after much repeated listening. Music sounds different at different times of the day; I can only really take, in the morning, Baroque or, even better, Renaissance music [for example]. It depends on your own mood, on your own needs and expectations. It depends, for effect, on what sound system you listen to it and on how you're listening/concentrating.

Many, many factors. Going back to the point about repeated listening, there's a lovely story about the Russian composer Glazunov. When he heard Wagner's Valkyrie for the first time he understood absolutely nothing and didn't like it at all. So he went a second time. Nothing again. And a third time—the same result. He kept on going till finally, the tenth time, he understood it all and loved it.

Going back to the idea that music is only good or bad and thinking of the problem of maintaining opposing opinions at the same time, I often think of something a Viennese cousin of mine once said to me (he's a mathematician and philosopher). He said to me, "You know, John, people say there are only two states for a switch, on or off. [This is supposed to lie at the heart of binary systems and of computer chip technology, isn't it?]. But it's not true," he said. There's the situation of the machine being in standby mode, when it's neither on nor off. This he called in German not Ja or Nein but Jein! So both yes and no and neither really. I found this fascinating and it's informed a lot of my thinking since. It means that you can step back and out of a situation and then see different points of view and different camps of thought.

Basically, when someone says that a piece of music is not good, or doesn't succeed, from this or that point of view, they're pitching their tent somewhere. But there's no absolute need to pitch it there. And often they've pitched it in demonstrably the wrong place. Like someone, let's say, who goes to a concert by the Tord Gustavsen trio and complains that they don't do what the Bad Plus do. Of course they don't. They're not trying to. Or like a very well known young pianist in the UK who complained that the Neil Cowley

Neil Cowley
Neil Cowley
Trio plays very simple music. Yes, that is actually what they're trying to do. It is simple compared to this other guy's playing and compositions. But does that make it bad? Should one compare the two?

John Law Out of the Darkness: John Law with the Cornucopia Ensemble

Another memory of mine that's informed my thinking about aesthetics and judgement-making. I remember, when I was a piano student, my mother, who was a classical concert pianist, saying to me that one should never program Brahms straight after Liszt, because then Brahms always sounds boring and stodgy in comparison which, she said, he's not. Wise advice. But does Brahms' music possess an inherent, measurable stodginess? Or is this some quality that just arises out of a direct comparison with the music of someone like Liszt? People who like to think there are qualities we can measure, in an absolute way, believe the former. I believe the latter.

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