Friday, 3 February 2017

No Accounting For Taste?

I’m fascinated by musical taste and its diversity. Why will certain pieces of music move one person to ecstasy while another may be nonplussed or even irritated by it.

Many years ago a girl friend of mine, I think out of her concern over my new-found Buddhist faith, invited me for tea with her local vicar. He was quite young and a very nice non-judgmental person. After briefly questioning me about the nature of my beliefs, he quickly seemed to conclude that there was nothing sinister about my practice and the conversation moved on to more general topics.

At one point I mentioned how sometimes it can be quite frustrating when one is unable to share an enthusiasm with someone else. As an example I described walking through a forest and being struck by the glorious light of the sun cutting through the foliage. “Imagine,” I said, “that you turn to your friend and say, ‘Hey look at that, isn’t it beautiful?’ but all your friend does is shrug and carry on walking. “Yes,” he said solemnly, “that’s because it’s something you can only share with God. More tea?”

Years later, in the early days of the emerging rave scene, I thought about this again but this time revelling in the joy of the shared experience. Swaying to the music in my favourite East End club Labrynth (not a typo, that’s how they spelled it), the DJ would start a new tune – and as an example I can vividly remember this happened with Crystal Waters track “Gypsy Woman”.  As the first few feeble organ notes sounded, a spontaneous ripple of recognition and joy passed through the club, catapulting everyone onto the dance floor.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this shared musical experience felt like a religious one as each individual became linked, hearts and faces open, to the ecstasy of the moment. It was a very powerful experience and kept drawing me and many others back to dance floors around the country for that buzz of shared recognition.

Later on, when I began to DJ myself, I began to search for and question myself how I might be able to discover tunes that would be enjoyed and shared by many others. Although my love for dance music was passionate and all encompassing, believing that it was fulcrum for the creation of new sounds, I was also not able to unlike the many other genres that I had embraced prior to its arrival. On the one hand my adolescence was informed by the complex intricacies of Soft Machine and Frank Zappa, while on the other I could be equally touched and moved by the minimal and sometime banal. One of the first house tracks I heard was by a band called Technotronic. The lyric to one track was:

This beat is Technotronic
This beat is Technotronic
This beat is Technotronic
There’s the dance floor, let’s get on it.

To me it was as elegant as a haiku poem and I loved it.

The diversity of musical genres is now much more able to satisfy the limitless diversity of individual taste, but it wasn’t always so.

It’s hard to imagine now but contemporary music used to be quite rare. In the early 60’s it wasn’t possible to hear much contemporary music on a UK radio in part due to the fact that the Musicians Union deal with the BBC limited the amount of recorded music that could be played. Radio Luxemburg broadcast from outside the UK and was thus able to sidestep such limits and provided the musical backdrop for much of the 50’s/60’s generation. Pirate radios broke this logjam and eventually the BBC responded with the launch of Radio One.

But even so the music available was largely dictated by the major record companies. Very few people could afford to record their own music and, even if they could, there was no way of getting the records out there if you didn’t have a recording contract. Yes there was an explosion of musical creativity during the late Sixties and Seventies, but the production and distribution was still tightly controlled by the record companies so what you heard on the radio one week would doubtless be in the charts the next. At one point it seemed as though the whole youthful populace was locked in a two-way taste division as people would ask, “Who do you follow — The Beatles or Rolling Stones?”

But rarity in the late Sixties wasn’t just confined to output. My parents didn’t purchase a record player till my teens in the late 60’s and even then it wasn’t because they wanted to hear more music but because they had come to regard a stereogram, similar to a cocktail cabinet, as a “must have” item of furniture for any self-respecting middle-class family. As soon as the stereogram entered our lounge there began a battle of attrition between my mother, who saw it as a platform on which to mount a vase of flowers, and me, who wanted to open it up for its intended function of playing music.

Most Saturday evenings I would cling to the back of my friend’s Lambretta scooter as we headed off to village halls across Cheshire that were holding a “disco”. One evening the disco was particularly disappointing and my friend mentioned that the parents of one of our school friends were away for the weekend and their son was having a party. “We could go there if you want,” before adding what proved to be a clincher, “and he’s got a copy of Abbey Road”.

When we arrived the living room was full of school friends, covering every bit of sofa and floor space smoking cigarettes, snogging and deferentially nodding to the latest Beatles album. I suspect that both sides had already been played several times when we arrived and would be played several more times before anyone could build up the courage to challenge the mood of adulation. My friend’s family had a stereogram similar to my parents and throughout the evening there remained a patient line of people queuing up by it, waiting to take their turn to examine the Abbey Road album cover.

Since the 90’s, thanks to advances in technology, we can now enjoy a universe of music and most people have a number of ways that they can listen to it whether at home, their place of work or on the bus. Popular music has transmogrified into a multiplicity of genres often produced in home studio and distributed via websites to niche audiences.

When I started to DJ I quickly discovered that there was no point in trying to second guess other people’s tastes and the best I could do was to keep digging to find things that truly moved me in the hope that others would share some of my passions. 

What amazes me is how precise our taste can be. Sometimes it will be a minor component that will capture my attention. The buzz of a bass that turns me to jelly. Hearing a piece of minimal techno I begin to fantasize that each note has been hand carved to perfection in the same way that a jeweller might cut and polish a diamond. On other occasions it will be the heart-warming tones of a skilfully played marimba that will fill me with awe or maybe a repetitive electro theme building, layer on layer, to a sun-drenched, anthemic crescendo.

As a Buddhist I don’t believe in the idea of an external God but I think more and more about that young vicar’s explanation of being touched by something. Our taste is a unique expression of our unique lives. However, sometimes we can find within music an eloquence that speaks to our shared experience, like the sun cutting through the trees in a forest. I don’t understand it but I know what I like and hopefully others do to.