Sunday, 5 July 2015

Why I Play Folk Music

From October 2014. I’m particularly proud of this one.

Manifestos are a bad idea. If you decide you should only make art for certain reasons, or in certain ways, it ends up limiting what you do. So this is not a manifesto. This is not a set of instructions for an ideal way of doing things. This is just an attempt to explain why I make the music that I make.

I'm a classically trained violinist. For a long time, the way I played music was exclusively about discipline, precision and repetition. I learned how to play pieces by staring at the individual notes, learning by rote the minute movements required to generate highly specific sounds. Each bar was a puzzle to be solved.

I got pretty good at this.

When I left for university, and stopped having lessons, my abilities degraded fast. I played in orchestras, but rarely practised more than once a week, and none of them stretched me (or if they did, I didn't work up the energy to do anything other than play badly). My focus and discipline were used up elsewhere. I missed playing the violin, but I knew it would take a huge amount of time and work and effort to get back to where I was.

Which was when I discovered The Bastard English Session*. There's a pub in Oxford called the Isis Tavern, which you can't reach by road. It's a lengthy walk down by a canal, and at night it's mostly lit by candles and fairy-lights. Once a month, the Isis Tavern holds a folk session where (although you're certain to encounter some magnificently skilled musicians) the primary mood is one of raucous, joyous, anarchic silliness, where traditional English tunes and songs are held cheek-by-jowl with fiddle-heavy renditions of Queen, Lady Gaga and AC/DC. It's basically the best thing ever, and I soon as I encountered it, I knew that it was something I desperately wanted to do.

So I brought my violin along, joined in, and then kept going. It took a long time to work out what I was supposed to be doing. Classical training (or at least my classical training), hadn't prepared me for improvisation, or learning music by ear. But after months of irritating, up-against-a-brick-wall struggling, I started to work out how to match the notes people were playing around me. And sitting at the centre of that maelstrom, absolutely nailing a tune, and then playing with it, shifting it about, and warping its sound, was exhilarating.

A brief pause for clarification: I'm emphatically not going to draw an imaginary distinction between precision and discipline in classical music, and an energetic sloppiness in other genres. That would be stupid and offensive and wrong. Bear with me here.

Some people play folk music for political reasons. There's the conservative/nationalistic desire to shore up a nation's songs and stories, to keep a continuity of identity with the past. There's the leftist desire to keep alive a distinct working-class tradition, unmoved by the bourgeois machinations of the marketplace.

Some people play folk music because, like all musical genres, it's an aesthetic to be appropriated. Because beards, banjos and dylan-worship are cultural codes for anti-corporate authenticity, or, at the very least, are a fun set of genre tropes play with.

Some people play folk music because fiddles and tin-whistles and mandolins and melodeons and accordions sound good.

Some people play folk music because of the Beauty and Majesty and Perfection that can be reached when insane levels of skill and talent are brought to bear on the aforementioned fiddles and tin-whistles and mandolins and melodeons and accordions.

Some people play folk music because like, say, jazz, it's a genre that rests in part on a storehouse of known tunes and songs, and there's an intellectual challenge and pleasure in refitting and reworking and reperfoming them.

Some people play folk music because it's really easy to dance to.

These are not the reasons that I play folk music. Some of them might be the reasons that I listen to folk music, but it's not like the raw aesthetic hit that I get from listening to good folk is unique to folk. I've spent most of my life listening obsessively to prog rock, but I've never felt the slightest desire to try and make any. And hey, I don't have a problem with any of these motivations existing, and a lot of these motivations have created stuff that I enjoy the hell out of. But the important thing is that because the motivations for making this stuff are so divergent, the places where it is made are pretty divergent too. And there's nothing wrong with rooms where people insist that you can only play music from certain countries, where you can only sit down and play if you've got a certain level of ability, where only certain styles and techniques of playing are accepted, but it's not the culture I want to hang around in.

I play folk because I've stumbled into a community people who have discovered a perfect way to make public art.

People often enthuse that the greatest benefit of punk rock was its promise that anyone can start a band. You just have to show up and make noise. Worrying about who you are or what you can do will only slow you down and stop you making stuff. Now I never really liked the sound that punk made, but I can get behind its particular show-up-and-make-some-noise philosophy. But with punk you still need to get a band together, find a sufficiently soundproofed place to rehearse, organise gigs...

The folk scene that I discovered, and the parts of the scene that I'm still the happiest in, doesn't have a barrier to entry, for the performers or the spectators. You don't need to know any of the other musicians, and you don't need to know what they're about to play. You just need an instrument and a willingness to learn, and it won't take too long before blasting out excellent noises with strangers becomes possible. I can't think of any other type of music where showing up unprepared can lead to such astonishing results.** It's fulfilling the promises that punk makes. And it sounds much better than punk does.

And I'm not just talking about sessions. I've played folk gigs that went down well in a bookshop and an ice-cream parlour and grotty indie-rock venues and church halls and rowdy student bars and at least one idyllic allotment that looked like 1960s Hobbiton, and I'm still comparatively new to all of this. I get that there are a bunch of ways in which Oxford is a weird town, but it does feel that folk is uniquely agile and mobile, able to show up and be welcomed pretty much anywhere: in places where a metal band would be shunned and an acoustic-guitar strumming singer-songwriter would be ignored.

Folk means different things to different people. I get that my attitude towards making music (mostly: sufficient energy and swaggering will counterbalance any technical errors or deficiencies) isn't going to be welcome everywhere. That's obviously completely fine. It would be weird to rail against subtlety or minimalism or technical perfection in music, especially given the stuff I like to listen to. But when it comes to choosing what I like to make, folk music serves a quite specific function: it offers the chance to shove joyous chaos into the corners of unsuspecting cities, it lets people experience raw sonic thrills without first passing through carefully sign-posted boundaries, it plants old and haunting and complicated things inside previously simple rooms. In the best sessions, even the musicians don't know what is going to happen next.

So where does this bring us?

One of my friends is a really bloody good classical singer, and she once played a free concert in a public library which caused a sudden and unexpected gathering stunned of children and teenagers. There's a gigantic, wonderful statue in Cheltenham town centre of a rusted scrap metal hare on an awkward date with a dead-eyed and naked minotaur, which is usually being viewed by confused and nervously giggling shoppers. The best public art is a disturbance, changing the way people respond to the familiar, startling them with strange things in brightly lit corners.

Folk music does this all the time. And it makes doing it easy.

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