At BCMCR, the research centre I’m attached to, we have a Popular Music Writing Group. We meet regularly and are set a writing task by our leader, Prof. Nick Gebhardt. A recent task involved writing our ‘manifesto’. The idea for this task was to consider our writing, our research, what we hoped to achieve with both, and then wrap those thoughts into a call-to-arms. I enjoy these tasks, and I enjoy sharing work written quickly. Write fast, edit fast, move on.
Here is what I came up with.
Colleagues, invited guests, innocent bystanders….
My manifesto is two short lines that I hope can lead us forwards, and also backwards, and to all points in between. They are in equal parts an invitation to pause, a cause to rally behind, and a means rather than an end.
The two lines in my manifesto are:
- Consider the words I have written.
- Listen to the music I have made.
These two lines can be read as polite requests, as instructions, or perhaps even as commands, depending on the tone and context in which they are delivered.
The first line concerns my work, the second my hobby. The common denominator – other than music – is that I approach both with passion and energy, driven to different degrees by necessity: to eat, to provide, to learn, to grow, to create. To always – always – be moving forward.
These lines are about me.
My words and my music, created and finalised, are the stopping points that may allow me to reflect on what I have done during my constant, forward motion. They provide me with the space I never allow myself: a slither of time in which to pause, to enjoy the fruits, to see the product for what it is, to reflect on the process of its creation, and perhaps – perhaps – to revel in the achievement of getting it done. Without these stopping points, my work, my hobby, my life, would be constant, rolling thunder: I’d be a man of constant sorrow, with a garage in constant use.
But enough about me. These lines are also about you.
And this is because my two lines bind us together. Not only because you may share similar feelings about your own work, or hobbies, but rather because my two lines lead almost immediately to questions of why in your mind. They lead you to ask: why should I read this, or why should we listen to that, and – more importantly – why should we read or listen to you, rather than one of the many available others? We have our own forward motion to maintain, you say, so how are these words and music of yours going to contribute to that?
These are reasonable questions, and we are now in conversation. This is where the fun starts. Except I think we have started in the wrong place. And since it was my two lines that started us on this conversation, it should fall to me to explain why that is before we go any further. This is the pause I hoped to provoke with my two lines.
I have spent some time considering my lines in their basic form – stripped of tone and context – and instead have considered them alongside the idea of a manifesto; the public declaration of a policy or aim. The manifesto – like the book or the album – works on one level to describe the intended destination of a group or an individual’s forward motion, but it is also a request for others to hitch their wagons to the same convoy. Listen to the music I have made; consider the words I have written; your forward motion will thank you if you do.
But there are two important and inter-related problems that my lines create, and they seem crucial points to consider before we head off into the sunset together, two like-minded mules in train.
The problems emerge from the inherent finality in those opening lines: Listen to the music I have made; consider the words I have written. Each line presupposes and joins us together in the assumption that words and music are fixed, frozen-in-time things – the 10-track album, the 200-page book. My manifesto, then, is really a question: what are the possibilities if we move beyond those conventions? It becomes, instead, an invitation to ruminate on two things as we pause here on the trail.
1) Words are written, and music is made. Neither fall from the sky.
The musician, washing up, idly hums a tune and an idea forms – but at this point we are a long, long way from an album release date. The writer, meanwhile, observes an event on a train platform, but we are still quite some way from a thesis. We are a long way from reaching those two lines: read my words, listen to my music. We are yet to ask ourselves why.
Remember: when the writer or the musician ask us to devote our time (our forward motion) to their words or their music, we will ask why. As part of this unwritten contract, we – the collective we – established that there will first be drafts, demos, feedback, re-drafts, mixes, remixes, editing, honing and tidying. There will be a process and a product.
Once the album or the book emerges, these various moments along the trail are superseded, relegated, become (or fail to become) memories, get filed away in notebooks, gathering dust. They are no longer imbued with forward motion. The ideas that develop into our books or albums, via negotiated, agreed upon process, become invisible to all but a few, and are thus unable to contribute to the forward motion of anyone or anything. This is a closing off of innumerable possibilities, which leads to my second point…
2) Words and music have a life of their own.
Two strangers in a bar lock eyes and smile when a record plays. A sentence leaps from the pages of a book, crystallising hitherto disconnected thoughts in the mind of a reader. Neither the writer nor the musician will be present at this moment, and the book and the album will remain fixed, frozen-in-time entities, no matter how many times, or in how many ways and places, the epiphanies they help produce may arise.
This, too, is a closing off of possibilities. The book or the album have moved on in the collective imagination, but not in actual fact. They remain fixed.
What would happen if we were to view these two problems – these lost notes, those unrecorded epiphanies – as possibilities?
Picture an hourglass, drawn around the finality of books and records, and imagine that it describes the processes involved with the creation of what they were, able and may become. The book and the record at their elemental levels – as ideas – pass through this hourglass, but only ever materialise at a single focal point in the narrow middle, the pressure point at which the book is ready, or the album is finished. Everything that comes before or after is forever excluded: a closing off of possibilities.
My manifesto, then, is an invitation to myself (and to you) to consider what the possibilities are in relation to RIFFs, to Harkive, to REF, to Independent Country, to what it means to research and write about popular music. What is possible?
For a way to think through this, as usual my thoughts at this point turn to digital, data and online technologies. I wonder if the stopping points of the record, of the book, need necessarily be carried over into these new environments.
These are environments in which nothing needs to fixed, or frozen-in-time. Here, in the new Wild West of new horizons, version control protocols can preserve the integrity of earlier (and later) ideas, no matter how significant, or outlandish. Open Source practices can develop some, any or all of those ideas into innumerable possibilities – in non-linear time – while leaving their previous versions intact. Digital formats enable the storage of, access to, and distribution of the many and varied results of those possibilities. And data capture can enfold – and measure – the myriad of possible encounters within those results.
These are processes that do not necessarily need to repeat, in a linear fashion, or be punctuated by stopping points, but can instead be allowed to pulsate, and to breathe – much like things such as life, love, knowledge, and experience do in both our real world and imagined worlds.
And just like life, love, knowledge, or experience, the words the we write and the music that we make now have the possibility of becoming fluid, living, breathing entities, rather than fixed and frozen things, even as they become manifest in measureable forms. In this way our work can have exponentially more possibilities, at all points in the process of their creation and reception, from the spark of an idea, to the point one of the many versions it produces may (or may not) coalesce with the forward motion of another mind.
Rather than at a given, fixed point in time, I would like to be able to ask – at any point – that you read the words I have written, or listen to the music I have made, so that we may engage in forward motion together.