A Bit of a Blog of the Book

Michael Giles Mad Band Music

As children we have a natural curiosity about the world which leads us into learning by having to conform to adult systems of education and expectations of social and financial status. The more worldly, technical and knowledgeable we become, the more likely we are to lose contact with our innate innocence and openness.

Spontaneous music making is an opportunity to experience this innocent creative energy flowing through us, as if we are conduits – a more dynamic example might be like lightning conductors channelling cosmic energy down to ground.

The joyful reality for free spontaneous musicians is that no matter how wild, dangerous and risky their musical expression – no-one gets hurt. Whereas in many other human activities, wild and dangerous behaviour can cause serious harm and might result in a prison sentence or a visit to A and E. When my children were young and going out to play, I often said to them: “safety first – fun second”. But when embarking on 21st Century musical adventures I say: “fun first – safety last”.

Music is a combination of invisible sounds, vibrations and scientifically measurable frequencies which resonate with human thoughts and feelings. There is music that conveys shock, horror, anger, sadness, grief, violence, aggression, melancholy and countless other negative emotions. There is music which is technical, dense, intense, complex, commercial, intellectual, primitive or sophisticated. And there is music which is simply sublime and evokes our sense of beauty, peace, awe and wonder. Worldwide there is music available for all levels of awareness. But there seems to be very little music which includes our human sense of humour, wit and fun, or even mischief and satire – or just happiness.

Why is it that so much music is so serious? For me, this remains an open question which can only be partly addressed by being open to humour, wit and sheer fun to flow freely through Mad Band music as well as other projects including writing a collection of essays on the madness of man.

I’ve always enjoyed music that contains moments which make me smile, chuckle or laugh out loud. A few obvious examples are Frank Zappa, Spike Jones, Harry Partch and the Portsmouth Sinfonia, and also Bob Dylan’s words and the keyboards on the classic ‘Blonde on Blonde’ album. Musicians are known to have a dry acute sense of humour in the bandroom and at the bar, but there is little evidence of it in their music – is there some unspeakable self-censorship going on in the studio and on stage?

One of the best unexpected compliments about a live Mad Band concert came from a woman in the audience who said afterwards, that our performance was like 5 schoolboys having fun with musical instruments and playing with found sounds. To me her comment was spot on in terms of 5 grown men having a healthy relationship with their innocent inner children.

When we allow man-made walls of conditioning to crumble, so much is revealed about our existence. We don’t need brute force to break down these walls – we only need the benign power of awareness to see and be and make music above and beyond conformity, convention and compliance with commercial rules and regulations. It feels good to shed the heavy weight of accumulated knowledge and travel light with no expectations when exploring unknown areas of the musical universe.

We are only human beings, albeit with big brains capable of much internal self-delusion combined with a passive acquiescence to external illusions conjured up by our fellow men. However, I am fascinated by the unlimited possibilities of making music without smoke and mirrors, and without armour plating.

21st Century turbo technology and global economic systems are increasing our separation from innate human instinct, wisdom and a sense of well being. But there is also an increasing minority who want to eat wholesome, healthy, organic food – so I hope there is an equivalent move towards wholesome, healthy, organic music.

Whether such music is pre-meditated or spontaneous doesn’t matter that much. What does matter to me is how many music factory processes the original musical life force is subjected to. There is a strong tendency in live and studio performances, for written music to become highly organised and disciplined which automatically reduces a musician’s freedom to be himself – he must only play his part as written and rehearsed – with the exception of a pre-planned and often overblown solo to relieve some of his frustration and show the audience a small token of his humanness, before being put back in the cage a few bars later.

But with free spontaneous music, including the Mad Band, no-one knows what will happen next. There is no need to take a solo on top of the other musicians churning away on a chord sequence, because all the musicians are instinctively listening and responding to what everyone else is playing – it’s freedom and democracy in action. There is no leader, no front man, no backing group. All the players are equal and sharing. One musician may lead for a while, until another player has an instant idea that moves the music in another direction. It’s as if there’s no beginning and no end – it’s all transient.  But we do start somewhere, possibly where we left off at the last performance which of course was silence. We do also end in silence by some magical mutual telepathy, usually after a complete surprise at arriving somewhere we’ve never been before. 

While extolling the joys and virtues of free music making, I am aware of what could be called ‘flat spots’ where almost nothing is happening – but are these spots really flat?  Maybe they are beauty spots or intriguing pregnant pauses which draw the listener in. They are definitely natural rest periods which allow fresh ideas to emerge. In these valuable voids of stillness we only need to resist the temptation to force something to happen out of embarrassment, anxiety or a feeling of failure.

In nature when a sailing ship is becalmed by no wind, no amount of anxiety will blow the ship along – so why not enjoy the calm, stillness and silence before the next natural burst of energy. We might well do well to go along with nature rather than fight it, force it, change it or try to conquer it.

Silence is the canvas on which music and sound are painted – so all silences, even short spaces between notes and beats provide the context for playing and listening to music. This is why dense continuous loud music with no dynamic range, and no spaces or reference to silence can be so tiring. Music needs time, space and silence in order to breathe. Miles Davis is an excellent example of this awareness in action.

Music making by humans is as natural as all the other sounds that nature makes. However, human intelligence has devised systems and technology for making music as well as industrial mechanical noises which are far removed and separated from what we call the natural world. Humans including musicians are a part of nature, and nature continually begs us to integrate with its immense power.

As only one human musician, I feel happy and free to join in with, go with the flow of, and be guided and inspired by nature’s life force and universal energy. Indeed, who am I to refuse when there are so many joys and wonders available and beyond strictly conventional systems of making music.

Yes, of course we need a few instruments, objects, sound sources, a studio, a stage and a bit of technology and equipment – but these are only the physical means by which we transform and transmit our musical ideas to other people who may have very little access to, or knowledge of those working practices.

Does an audience really want to know about musical training, qualifications, years of practice, technical problems, composition time, rehearsals, travelling arrangements, financial costs, record companies, damager managers, accountants, roadies’ agendas, sound men, lighting rigs, stage sets, bandrooms, hotels, airports and the motives, intentions, ambitions and expectations that go into recording an album and a live stage performance? With the exception of a few genuine enthusiasts for behind the scenes information, I don’t think I’d be wrong in assuming that most audiences want to enjoy hearing musicians who are honestly communicating via their chosen music, whether it’s plugged in, completely acoustic, entirely composed and rehearsed or totally spontaneous.

Part of the excitement of a spontaneous Mad Band performance for us musicians as well as an expectant audience, is not knowing what will happen next – or if the performance will crash and just become self indulgent lack-lustre ‘noodling’.

Composed and rehearsed music provides a strong safety net for musicians, only allowing the tiniest of ‘dropped stitches’ to slip through, hopefully unnoticed. But spontaneous Mad Band music with no computer back up is completely vulnerable, naked and exposed – at the mercy or enhancement of all positive and negative forces. So what happens during a live studio or stage performance is entirely dependent on each musician’s state of awareness and instinctive response to being in the moment with no safety net. Although this is fast moving, there is also an opposite effect of time standing still – as if past memories and future expectations are diminished or disappear under the bright light of the present moment. To enter and make music in this relatively unknown zone of heightened awareness is a rare and valuable experience. It inspires me to do it again and discover more about the heights and depths of human consciousness.

Even though the dubious security of childhood conditioning pushed me towards where I am today, it has paradoxically caused me to become more aware of the restrictions of that conditioning. So it’s a pleasure to take spontaneous music breaks away from it, let go of it, transcend it and feel free to explore the vast unknown musical universe. Whatever the results, they speak for themselves, they are what they are – I’m not exactly responsible – I just happen to be there enjoying being a part of something going on in the moment.

“The void, the unknown, the nothingness, is where all energy begins”

Michael Giles    November 2011