On the Passage of a Lot of People through a Rather Brief Moment in Time
Even a Festival Audience Craves Improvisation
There were a reported 200,000 people at Glastonbury this weekend. I wasn’t among them, but enjoyed the Guardian music writers amusing running commentary, and Alexis Petridis’s summary review. I’m sure the thrill of the field is being swept up in the crowd – if that’s your thing. “Get over yourself, go with it. Once you can do that you can have the best time ever. It’s magical,” Jarvis Cocker explained to Laura Barton, after telling her that his first experience of the festival in 1984 made him swear never to return. (I had a similar reaction my one and only time there, in 1990 with Galaxie 500.)
A crowd that size has its particular demands for performers. Noel Gallagher – no stranger to massive audiences – announced, mid-set: “I’m going to play a few more tunes that you don’t give a shit about. They’re for me. But if you stick around, after that there’s going to be a lot of very happy people in bucket hats.” And there were, as soon as he started playing Oasis tunes.
Even Paul McCartney – 80 years old! – made a similar observation: “When we do a Beatles song, all your phones light up and it’s like a galaxy of stars. When we do a new song, it’s like staring into a black hole.”
These remarks were widely reported – as were ad libs by many of the performers, especially about political events. In fact, that was mostly what I saw posted on social media from the festival – the surprising things performers said on stage. Unexpected music… not so much. “A black hole,” as Sir Paul remarked. You can’t sing along to a song you don’t know. As for the ones you do know – well they better play them the way you expect, or how are you going to sing along to those either?
Still, people do remember the remarks - they talk about them, parse them, debate them. And that, I believe, is because they represent the closest a festival can come to an experience of improvisation.
200,000 festival goers demand expected music but are delighted by unexpected talk. It’s not that they don’t want to see these famous artists react to the moment. It’s that they don’t want them to do it in their music.
Contrast this with a show I saw last week, in a crowd about 1/10,000th the size. A trio – Greg Kelley on trumpet, Liz Tonne on voice, and Vic Rawlings on prepared cello and electronics – played nothing planned, for an unplanned amount of time. They listened intently to one another, as that was the only way their collective music could unfold. I was focused on every moment. And I don’t remember them saying anything except through their instruments.
The music these improvisers play is “difficult,” in the sense that it is not familiar. Indeed, each works with extended technique, stretching our idea of the sounds their instrument are intended to make. As they defamiliarize their instruments, they defamiliarize the listener from our preconceptions. Not only can we not sing along, we might not even be able to conceive how to imitate such sounds. All we can do is listen.
That may seem passive to a festival audience. But listening can be very active – especially if you don’t know what you are about to hear. The Glastonbury audience hanging on Olivia Rodrigo’s words as she makes a statement regarding abortion rights is actively listening. When she starts singing “drivers license” – and they drown her out singing along – they are certainly still active, but not through their listening.
Improvisation is no mystery to any audience. It can’t be, because it’s so much a part of our daily lives. The unexpected happens – constantly. And if we go with it, as Jarvis Cocker says, that can make a moment magical. A surprising connection between people in a given place, at a given time, can happen anywhere and everywhere.
At Glastonbury, I imagine it happens a lot – off the stage. That’s what’s going on in that massive crowd of individuals responding to the surprising demands of the day: the weather, the misadventures, the delightful coincidences, the unexpected encounters.
All of those contingent events can also happen in music. It may sum to disaster, like Jarvis’s first visit to Glastonbury in 1984. Or it may be magical, like the show I saw last week. Get over yourself and listen.
Listening to: Universal Beings, by Makaya McCraven
Cooking: Sweet peas, eaten raw out of the pod