Stradivarius, James Blake, and the KLF

I want to set the tone a little for this new blog. The plan is for this to mostly be a music blog, but I don’t really want to do reviews and stuff, more to talk about what music means in a wider context. As well as talking about music making technically as well as aesthetically.

So this first post is about ‘authenticity’, and it’s been prompted by two things. The first is the report that professional violin players prefer a cheap modern violin than a priceless antique in double blind tests. The second is one of the threads in ‘How Pleasure Works’ by Paul Bloom, a book which looks at the science behind ‘why we like what we like’.

Two books and a James Blake CDBloom suggests that the reason we have art, music and such, is because of mental systems – such as imagination, i.e. the ability to envisage a hypothetical situation and therefore plan ahead – which gave us an evolutionary advantage. But our brains no more evolved to make music or art, than our legs evolved to run marathons or kick footballs. Both pursuits later made use of things which originally had a different purpose.

He attempts to unpick the innate human belief in ‘essence’, that sense we have that under the surface of an object is a truth which is greater than its empirical properties. So a hat that belonged to Michael Jackson is worth more than the same make and model of hat would be if it belonged to me. This pebble is worth more to you than a chemically identical pebble because you brought it back from a nice day out at the beach. And so forth…

This new study (small and provisional as it is) finds that people, when denied the knowledge of what violin they’re playing, are less impressed by a nice Stradivari than the millions some pay for them suggest they should be. Bloom would presumably believe that this is because when people know they’re playing an authentic antique instrument they perceive this ‘essence’, which gives them pleasure in itself, and that they also come to the instrument loaded with expectations about how it will sound or feel to play. This produces a kind of placebo effect when they do start playing it.

There’s also this comment in the article from a violin maker:

“If you give someone a Stradivari and it doesn’t work for them, they’ll blame themselves and work hard at it until it works. Give them a modern violin, and they’ll dismiss the instrument straight away if it doesn’t work for them.”

So people will make more effort with something if they value its essence and grow to like it. Mark this idea because it’s something I can see me coming back to a fair bit in future. It ties into the way I worry the consumption of music is changing, as are attitudes to owning physical formats, or even paying for music at all. More on that later no doubt…

For now though I want to talk about James Blake and the KLF.

The KLF with some sheep

The KLF with some sheep

At the end of 2010 I did a ‘My albums of the year’ post in which I said that if the three James Blake EP’s that year had been collected that would have been the album of the year. I was well excited for his proper debut LP. As it turned out, ‘James Blake’ the LP is a bit medium – it’s a 7/10 record. I barely listened to it after the first few weeks because basically I couldn’t help but hear it as a songwriter record. Once I stopped listening to the detailed production and his admittedly very nice voice, the basic songs were a bit weak.

I’ve kept on buying the James Blake releases since, and I’ve been particularly keen when he releases something on a dance label, because there’s always the promise that these tracks will hark back a bit more to the instrumental electronic stuff that grabbed me at first.

Artwork for Order / Pan by James BlakeIn July 2011 James Blake released a single called ‘Order/Pan’. ‘Order’ is basically five minutes of very minimal drum programming, and the distant wobble of a sub bass. No peaks or troughs. No vocals or melody to speak of. No-one’s idea of a hit single.

I want to make clear up front that I actually like ‘Order’ as a piece of music – so what follows isn’t a sustained anti-JB rant. Artistically it fits with James Blake’s other work, and whilst it’s very subtle there is a lot going on in it. The b-side is actually even better but similarly sparse. It’s certainly welcome to see a fairly major artist doing something risky, albeit with a fairly big safety net.

A slight detour here via the KLF. Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty followed up their 1988 number one hit ‘Doctorin’ The Tardis’ with a book called ‘The Manual: How To Have A Number One The Easy Way’. This slightly satirical book offered a full refund of the cover price to anyone who followed the instructions to the letter and failed to have a number one.

What ‘The Manual’ fails to mention in its refund policy is that the cost of making said single would easily reach into the tens of thousands of pounds (in 1980’s money). I reckon that, after purchasing all the equipment (which he presumably owned anyway), making ‘Order’ probably cost James Blake roughly £0.00. Not that I’m saying he was aiming for a number one with it.

still from 'The K Foundation Burn A Million Quid' film

The KLF could do stuff like this because they had lots of money. Once they burned a million pounds just for the hell of it.

In ‘The Manual’ one passage touched on the same notion as Paul Bloom does when talking about ‘essence’. The KLF suggested that some musicians just have what we would now call the ‘X Factor’, a personality which shines through in their music. They illustrated it by saying that you could take two people, one of whom had it, and one who didn’t and get them to produce two otherwise identical pieces of music consisting of eight minutes of a single kick-drum playing the fours at 120bpm. The hypothesis was that one piece of music would just be better than the other.

The point is that James Blake has made a track which in conventional terms is not far off from that kick drum solo record. The point is that people are listening to it and giving it the time and space to be hailed as a minimalist classic.

But is this because, as the KLF might suggest, James Blake has some innate personal quality which bleeds through into everything he does? Or is it more along the lines Bloom suggests, that they perceive the essence of James Blake in the track? Or is it the Stradivarius way, are people trying to see something which may not actually be there because they’ve bought into the Brand (and spent £1m on it)?

If they didn’t know it was by James Blake, they might possibly think it was a bit shit. Or at least they might not be willing to take the time to appreciate the subtleties. It would, let’s face it, be quite an easy piece of music to dismiss as ‘boring’.

I had the same experience the other day when JB’s cover of ‘A Case Of You’ by Joni Mitchell came up on shuffle. This is a borderline awful version of a great song. It’s JB at his worst, mawkish awful piano, he mangles the vocal melody. It’s the kind of cover I really hate. If it wasn’t being performed by someone who also does completely different music which I do like then I’d be hurling my iPod down a grid. But I sat through it and concentrated on happy memories of the original, admiring the lyrics and such. Again, the essence of James Blake The Brand was making me give it the time of day – but only just….

Same with those Stradivari violins. When people didn’t know what they had in their hands they either couldn’t appreciate it, or they were more honest about it. Robbed of the opportunity to engage with its ‘essence’ they had to judge it on other qualities. The subtext in the Guardian article is that actually the mad love for Stradivarius violins is a load of old cobblers and people should stop paying millions for the things. I have some sympathy for this point of view, but only some.

Because if we’re talking about ‘authenticity’ then where is that in this equation?

Is it on the side of judging something on some supposedly objective qualities alone? Or is it on the side of judging something as a whole, including the possibly illusory ‘essence’? Is that maybe more human? Is it better to persevere with something because you believe in its essence, or write it off because you don’t?

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7 thoughts on “Stradivarius, James Blake, and the KLF

  1. I liked James Blake’s album because it’s single was a contortion of sounds which are profound. It is a two sided sword though, you either admire his work and see it artistically or dismiss it as a bunch of clicks and noises. That is why it is a mediocre review on most sites, since critics like it they have to give it some good rating, but since it has no mass appeal, that dwindles it overall rating.

    • I thought it had got pretty good reviews. Most specialist sites have it in the top ten end of year lists. I don’t think anyone’s surprised he’s not topping the charts though.

  2. If you have two perfectly serviceable violins to choose from and infinite money, pick the Stradivarius. Any other situation is more nuanced. To a point, the more you pay for something the more you value it, but you might grow to resent an object that cost you very deeply to acquire. Also doesn’t work, Strad or no, if the darn thing won’t even stay in tune.

    This comes back to something you touched on (maybe more in reverse) in “The Ending Makes What Came Before a Story” – we humans love a good narrative and it changes how we see things to have one. Even in scientific papers you are supposed to write a narrative of how you came to your discovery, suggesting a singular journey from A to B to C which is almost never how it really happens. Scientists are people too, apparently. Except when they’re robots.

    When it comes to something as complicated and personal as a musical instrument (or indeed a performer), I don’t think there is objectivity after you get past a certain level of quality. It becomes about personal preference whether about the (real) physical attributes or the (possibly imagined) provenance.

    I can’t comment on James Blake himself but you must be right that how forgiving you are is based on what you already know about a person. In a Bayesian way they kinda *are* more likely to have produced a better track whatever the content because of the a priori knowledge that they can produce other good tracks. An unknown gets a lower weighting. It’s similar to a coin toss – if a fair coin shows 999 heads in a row, what’s next? Chances are it’s not a fair coin – call heads! Worst case, 50/50. With your artist if you had to choose between weird experimental unknown and weird experimental JB, you choose JB. Unknown or Katy Perry? Probably unknown, yeah?

    Maybe there’s a kind of economy at work with straying from expectations being “spending accumulated favour”. You gain favour by doing what everyone wants/expects, and then you spend it on doing what pleases you, until you have to go earn anew the right to piss about with e.g. weird drum tracks again and be at least tolerated for it. Plenty of music can’t be properly appreciated without invested time, and if you ask your fans to join you on a foray into the unfamiliar you should give then something to hold on to first.

    Then again, maybe the very familiarity with the artist is what makes it *appreciable*, rather than simply what makes you want to *try* to appreciate it, if you can get the distinction I’m trying to make there. Maybe you can’t anonymise even the most minimalist of music. Maybe there’s that essence. Could be made of real things, whether it’s experienced that way or not, like the way you know if someone is watching you that comes from little sensory clues on the periphery you’d never notice individually. Or not.

      • I just made it up! If anything it comes from LARP currency called “favour” that’s supposed to represent your standing in the world. Gee, that’s slightly embarrassing. Quotation marks just indicate “here is a new phrase” rather than “this is a quotation”, which might well be improper use. Is there a fine?

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