The Music Of JC Harris

positively the most intelligent progressive rock on this here planet

positively the most intelligent progressive rock on this here planet

JCHRants

Is This Any Way To Write Music?

If you’re here once in a while, you can see some changes going on in preparation for the release of Progress. So we’re gettin’ close. As I write this, it’s election day in America and Rog is taking the week off. So coincidentally I want to talk about some (cough) ‘polarisation’ he and I routinely have going on.

If you read this regularly, you know how Rog has encouraged me over the years to market better. That’s his job and I am forever grateful for his advice and support. I’ll go even further and say that if not for him, ninety percent of the ‘content’ on this site simply would not exist. That said, I think that he thinks of what I do as you probably do and that creates some ‘friction’. He literally cannot wrap his mind around the idea of not generating ‘product’ according to a schedule. Everyone works on a schedule, right? That kitchen remodel? You know how long it will take. The term paper? It’s due on Friday. Hell, even babies almost always pop out within a day or two of their ETA. Now that’s predictability! Hell, I feel that way. The daily self-flagellation I go through is often something like: “Get it together you weak-minded, mincy little cocksucker. CREATE SOMETHING or yer goin’ over the side!” Apparently my inner monologue still works in the Merchant Marine.

To recap, Roger’s advice has been to do something of a ‘reality show’… have me post ‘snippets’ of pieces in process and to describe how I ‘feel’ as I work–the thought being that this would help keep fans engaged during the long stretches where it looks like nothing is going on and that would lead to more sales. Great idea!

The problem is that I just don’t work on deadline. It’s the main reason I do so little commercial work. So he generously meets with me almost weekly on Skype but then it often turns into the, “Why I didn’t finish my homework, Ma” discussion. Followed by another fascinating excursion into ‘Fun With Music History!’ A great example is this very post: I don’t have a ‘snippet’ ready to go, but I feel just guilty enough to post something. So once again I’m tap dancing. But frankly, with or without Roger it’s largely the same deal: Either I do it with Rog or I do it with myself. Now there’s an attractive visual.

And here’s another: Back to the reproduction metaphor. When people describe writing music as like giving birth, they ain’t just whistlin’ ‘Dixie’. Now the stork may show up like clockwork, but ‘the muse’ sure don’t. No amount of pleading makes good ideas happen for me. But when they do happen? That’s when labour begins. Drop yer undies, spread yer legs and even though it already hurts? PUSHHHHHHHHHHHH! And keep repeating that self-harming effort until: Ta da! Marvin Jr. plops onto the floor. That’s the only way I’ve found to end up with a decent piece. If you generally like what I do, but listen to a piece that kinda sucks? It was probably one of the ones where I had a good time doing it (or avoided pain as much as possible.) Conversely, if you particularly like something I’ve done? I’ve got a special set of stretch marks just for that piece.

The other metaphor for my relationship with composition is drunken sex. Getting a great idea down on paper is like having eight drinks and then the girl gets naked in front of you. You realise immediately that this is going to be a LOT of work. But hey, it’s SEX we’re talking about, right? How often does this happen? So you plow ahead. But since you have had eight drinks, you’re constantly on the edge of losing ‘it’. The slightest disturbance of concentration and……….. fuck…. lost it. Totally exhausting. And if you do ‘climax’? It’s more like, “Whew, battles over. Who won?” It takes a lot of time and distance to recall such a night with much fondness.

I guess I can stretch these already taut metaphors one more turn of the wheel by saying that I console myself in both cases with the fact that I did end up with Marvin, Jr. But the point is that the ‘creation event’ is something we don’t often ponder.

The problem in talking about what I do is that I actually take this shit seriously. There’s no Spinal Tap. Not even a little bit. I get all the ironies, of course. But the music? As the kids say, “One hundred percent.” I went to school during the last gasp of an era where studying to be a musician was considered a ‘worthy’ deal. We (OK, I) really thought that the world valued musical craft. And one could still make a living as a trained musician. My first paid gig was a (gasp) UNION gig. So I have a certain professional ‘arrogance’ about things. But it’s no more or less the arrogance of surgeon or a lawyer or any other skilled professional. No MD has to convince anyone of the rigor of their craft–or why they deserve the fees they charge. What changed in my lifetime is that there is no longer any connection between training, money and artistic appreciation.

There’s this great movie, “Other People’s Money” where Danny De Vito makes a speech about the transition from buggies to cars:

And my training came right at that intersection. I was trained to make buggy whips just as a new paradigm was taking over. Unfortunately, making buggy whips is kinda what I still do. The analogy breaks down in that the last buggy whip makers knew how to deliver on schedule. 😀

All I ever wanted to do was this: write serious music within the context of a rock band. That’s what I decided to do in 1976 and the difference between me and ten thousand other guys is that they went on to teach school or sell insurance and I never got the memo.

Now just because I take the wonder that is ‘me’ seriously, I don’t take 99% of my fellow ‘proggers’ seriously. Because they don’t do what I do. They’re almost never well trained and thus their stuff is not particularly well-crafted. All the mellotrons and choruses and tapping guitars do not a (cough) ‘symphonic’ piece make. But look, if you enjoy it? Cool breeze. The reason I’m telling you of my taste is because the main reason it takes me ages and ages to get something ‘done’ is not because it’s more enjoyable than some other audio tapestry, but because I slave over this shit using the same methods of pain and suffering that any ‘classical’ composer does. My stuff may use the same instruments as ‘The Siberian Rockestra!’ but under the hood it’s got more in common with the tedious processes of Stravinsky and childbirth. Which is to say that it’s a real pain in the vagina.

Many fans compare what I do with Frank Zappa, but I disagree. In addition to the obvious success differential, he also seemed to have two very different personas: rock/comic impresario and serious composer. Frankly, I think the guy was about 10,000% more listenable in the former than the latter. Because for all its quirkiness, his popular stuff was simple rock and roll. Very little of his radio-friendly stuff was any more complicated than a lot of other pop music. He saved all his ‘art’ for the classical junk. Good strategy! He was able to make a good living giving people what they wanted in order to fund his deeper, less commercial pursuits. But fundamentally that’s no different than Charles Ives–a guy who sells insurance by day so he can write arcane classical music at night. Unlike yers truly, Frank wasn’t trying to ram art music down the throats of people who just wanna rawk.

Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Prize. The idea that someone without years of formal training in his craft would be feted for achievements in ‘high art’ would have been laughed at a hundred years ago. Self-taught artists could be enjoyed for sure, but not taken seriously as high art. Certainly not on the level of Shakespeare or Dante or Goethe, etc. Great artists like Brahms or Picasso might utilise folk materials but folk art per sé was just not in the same league of human achievement. It would be like comparing yer ma’s pork chops and apple pie to a meal created by Ferran Adria at El Bulli. No matter how tasty the pie (Great job, ma!), no serious person would compare the two. Just as no fan would seriously compare a high school football game to the NFL. Equally enjoyable for some? Sure. But on the same level? No way. And no intelligent person would take seriously the statement, “It’s art if I say it is.” Art had to be appreciated. That was the milieu in which I learned art and it’s what I not only believe but feel down deep. There’s simply more ‘there’ there in a song by Schubert than Blowin’ In The Wind.

However, learning to really appreciate art takes time and effort. And we live in a world where time is now at a premium. So apparently, it was decided that all art needs to do is touch people viscerally to be considered truly great. So Dylan is great. But for me? Momentary enjoyment, or whether or not a work brings a tear to the eye? Got nuthin’ to do with it, mate.

OK, so the question really comes down to this: If it’s that ‘tortured’, why do this? Surely there are easier ways to make a living, right? The answer, and again Rog would not quite understand, is that if yer wired like me? There really isn’t a choice. And that’s no metaphor. At this point, there’s simply no going back, Ma. But going back to the metaphors, after all the crap of childbirth, when yer done? You do get Marvin, Jr. to cherish, right? But that’s where that metaphor breaks down. I don’t ‘get’ anything for all the trouble. And it’s not a ‘building’ metaphor either because there’s no house or table you get to actually live with when yer done. All I can tell ya is that when I’m done–and if the thing turns out OK–it’s like nothing else. The feeling of having created something I think is worthwhile stays with me, even if I don’t hear that piece (literally) for years after. Is that worth all this bellyaching? I guess so! 😀

By the way, lest you think I have all day to wax rhapsodic about my theories of art and commerce, what I’m really doing is listening to all the fucked up bits of Progress I still need to pull together in the next week in order to fulfill pre-orders. Hang on a sec…. #312…. redo gtr #3 bar 179….. OK, where was I?

Oh yeah. Break’s over.

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