10 June 2012

When the Music Didn't Matter

I attended the Music Matters Festival at Park Street Mews yesterday. It was atrocious: a musical disaster.

There’s no need to name and shame individual perpetrators. Everybody was bad – not just bad, but lousy, stinking – apart from two exceptions. The first was a young woman who played a DJ set prior to the live musicians, kicking the show off. She knew what she was doing, was completely into her act and produced some pretty impressive sounds. I don’t even like that kind of electronic assembly-line stuff usually, but she did it well enough to have me at least temporarily converted.

The second were a bunch of Northern Europeans playing American roots music, a combination of bluegrass and white gospel stylings. They weren’t exactly good – they sounded like the uptight Scandinavians they were – but at least they were playing good music, and playing it competently. If you suspended disbelief you could imagine they were from Minnesota or something. If you tried really hard, that is.

Nothing as good as that could be said of any of the other acts. I will not name names. I will simply point out that none of the following are marks of musicianship:
  1. Being able to play in unusual time signatures. In fact, if you use unusual time signatures when playing any kind of booty music, it shows you have no musical taste or understanding.
  2. Being able to coax police siren noises, constipated elephant farts, meaningless squalls of feedback and electronic glissandi from your electric guitar or your synthesizer.
  3. Performing complicated jazz percussion figures when you can’t even keep time properly.
  4. Losing your place in the solo in a three-piece band (!) so that your one-beat lands on the accompanist’s three-beat (mind you, if you have a percussionist who lacks a sense of rhythm and thinks of himself as a soloist rather than a drummer, this kind of thing does tend to happen).
  5. Drowning out the vocalist or other soloist whom you are featuring on stage with you in an attempt to show the crowd what a virtuoso instrumentalist you are. That’s not just bad music; that’s filthy bad manners.
And – above all – who was the howling vandal who put the mixing desk (and therefore the ears of the engineer who was mixing the show) indoors?! In a separate room?!?! How the devil did  you expect to get any kind of mix at all when the engineer couldn't hear what's being played? Why in the sacred name of Cardioid Neumann did the supposedly highly qualified musicians who organized this concert agree to such an arrangement? Did they all  temporarily take leave of their senses?

As Sri Lanka descends further and further into barbarism and savagery, we become apes of the culture we once possessed, going through the motions of civilized behaviour without really understanding them any more. We lose our higher intellectual and aesthetic faculties, and charades like this ‘festival’ become increasingly mistaken for the real thing. Seriously, there was precious little music to be heard at the Music Matters Festival; there was a lot of noise, but noise, however virtuosically produced, is not music. There were a few good moments here and there – in five hours of performance, there could hardly not have been – but apart from the two acts mentioned above, nobody else deserves so much as a word of praise. Every other performer on that stage let himself or herself down badly, and let the audience down completely, too.

Worse, it would only have needed the simplest, most basic of musical virtues – serving the music, not one’s own ego, and letting your ears rule your fingers instead of the other way round – to save the evening and give the audience something truly memorable to take home with it. The people performing were neither technically incompetent nor inexperienced. But sadly, the genuine spirit of the goddess Sarasvati was AWOL nearly all night, and what we got was not music, but a pile of auditory sick. There was plenty of talk, drink and pretty people going down, but music seemed to be about the last thing that mattered the Music Matters Festival.