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John Law: Deeper into the Music

By Published: November 4, 2009

John LawGoing back to my example of the British pianist criticizing the Neil Cowley Trio, isn't there room in the castle of music we build up, for both artists? There is in mine. I have absolutely no problem assigning them different rooms and I can take something from each one when I visit their room. For me it's no problem. And I really do think this is the sacred duty of someone who aspires to be a great artist: they should learn to rise above concepts of like and dislike. After all, anyone, any Tom Dick or Harriet on the street, can say they like or dislike something. For me it isn't the role of the great artist to merely furnish these likes and dislikes with technical justification. It is our duty to rise above this way of creating opposing camps and find good points in all different music (or Art of Architecture or whatever). Once you make the effort to free yourself from some totally artificial, arbitrary, hierarchical value judgement system it actually feels quite liberating. Try it.

Of course you may say all along that likes and dislikes are not made up standpoints, created artificially, as it were, after the event. They're direct, spontaneous results of a positive or negative experience. Well I suppose they can be... But they're not generally. Usually they're considered opinions made well after the experience—unlike the story about the 19th century pianist pupil of Franz Liszt and conductor Hans von Bulow who, after hearing some contemporary piece of music performed, apparently came out of the concert hall and vomited. He may, of course, have simply had a gastric problem.

Is there anything which can be measured in music? Well maybe technical command of an instrument. This too can be a grey area. Does Monk's music suffer when he plays it because he wasn't a pianist like Keith Jarrett? I don't think so. Technical command of an instrument may, however, be an area where we can sometimes make a few (well-informed) judgments. Technical command of a certain style or genre maybe as well. Like Bebop. Maybe if a musician or group sets themselves up to be compared to a well known work of art; let's say they do a remake of the Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) album, then one might be able to profitably compare the two. But even here comparison is rather invalid. Maybe another version of the same project has its own merits, quite independent of any comparison.

AAJ: Could you tell something about the project Out of the Darkness? How was it working with a large ensemble as opposed to the more intimate constellations of the trio and quartet?

JL: The project Out of the Darkness was really very enjoyable. I had to work a lot to organise it, first applying for Arts Council funding and then virtually sorting every detail of the tour out myself. And of course I wrote and arranged all the music, played piano in the performances and also conducted most of it, when I wasn't playing. Everyone in the ensemble was really encouraging and helpful and it mostly went without any major hitches. The only negative aspect was that it consumed so much of my time that while it was all in preparation and while I was touring it (a process of about a year) I wasn't busy sorting out my next work and touring. With the result that I worked very little for the next year and a bit!

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