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Bern Nix: A History In Harmolodics

AAJ Staff By

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" It's hard to get gigs in New York. It's not what it used to be. Something sapped the spirit of the city, that whole 9/11 thing. Everything is out of Manhattan. A lot of the major clubs have closed. You've got to have a name, a brand name to get gigs. It's all about the business. You could be the best guitarist in the world, but... That's why Artie Shaw left music. He said there was no place for him in the new music. It's how many people you can bring into the room. It takes precedence over musicality."

The drop in the number of venues has led Nix to become his own boss, whereas he really wanted to be a musician solely. He says, "Before I was forced into becoming a band leader, I had thought that if you could be a good enough professional musician, people would hire you. Maybe I was naive... Because I really like to do this. I thought it would be like a job, if you knew how to play."

Urban gentrification is not all that happened in New York. Another development in the mid '70s hit the making of music itself. With the city's financial problems, public school music lessons diminished. Trumpets and other instruments, previously available for inner city children to learn on, disappeared. With the absence of real instruments to play, many younger would-be musicians took to playing with turntables and discarded LPs—the birth of hip-hop. The extant Jamaican scene of MCs and sound systems, never a sole means of musicmaking in Jamaica, replaced learning an instrument as the first step in the process of creating new music.

As Nix puts it, "Nobody wants to play instruments anymore. Jazz is an instrumental music. [Now] the groove is different. The romance of playing an instrument well has gone. It's not about people anymore, it's about machines. It almost as if that thing that makes music musical, they're trying to get rid of it!" Nix compares the artificial drums of a computer program to a human behind the kit: "[It lacks] the energy of a real drummer. [It] sounds robotic. I'm really frightened, because in a couple of generations, they'll think that's what music really is, that this is the norm. Everything else will be antiquated."

His words may already be coming true, for some people: a recent comment on YouTube about indie rock singer/guitarist Liz Phair praised her '90s rock music uploaded, but added "though her 'beats' are different to now." Actually, her "beats" have existed for thousands of years. The "beats" on the track were also played by a human, the drummer!

It is the computer-generated 'beats' in the head of the YouTube commenter that are out of step with "now," or indeed any time, future or past. The listener in question may have already accepted the artificial beat sound as what "music really is," in Nix's words.

Then there is the generally-accepted view among musicians that LPs sound warmer than the digital CDs, let alone mp3s. In 2007, Bob Dylan was reported as saying that he had not heard a good recording in the previous two decades, and that the records sound "like static." Nix says of the latter word, "That's a good description."

Nix refers to hip-hop and the perfect "on the line" beats: "People don't want to play instruments," he repeats. "Perfection is the art of imperfection—[a reference to a quote from pianist Vladimir Horowitz]. It's part of the paradox. Technique and craft do not necessarily mean a great artist." He admits hip-hop is humorous, and says, "You have to give it to them business-wise. I admire the entrepreneurialism." But he points out the general lack of "real" musicians, and the obvious reliance on computer-generated "beats"—"I'll probably get into trouble for saying this," he laughs. There is no arguing with Russell Simmons' early vision of a hip-hop industry as an industry (for clothes, lifestyles), but there will always usually be something misplaced about computer-generated beats providing the backdrop for a music track.

A relevant example of the contrast is classical guitarist John Williams. Nix says, "I saw him on TV. He sounded like three or four guitarists—a whole other ball game." In the classical field, Nix also has an interesting comment about guitarist Julian Bream. Many listeners admire Bream's excellent feel. Nix says, Bream, "as a kid, was into some kind of expression. He used to play jazz and popular music, and that might have had something to do with it."

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