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Mar 19, 2015

Billy Bottle and the Multiple September 2014: Considerations of the Music in Words (by Gary Bayley)


‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’: so wrote L.P.Hartley in The Go-Between. Jazz saxophonist Ben Webster said of 1940s New York: ‘Those were really happy days; everyone was on the streets, everyone was making a buck’. There is something about Billy Bottle’s music, and indeed his whole band, that evokes imagery of a past way-of-life; imagery that meanders between the historical and the romanticised...
Posted by: Tim

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’: so wrote L.P.Hartley in The Go-Between. Jazz saxophonist Ben Webster said of 1940s New York: ‘Those were really happy days; everyone was on the streets, everyone was making a buck’. There is something about Billy Bottle’s music, and indeed his whole band, that evokes imagery of a past way-of-life; imagery that meanders between the historical and the romanticised.


Before the gig I was privy to the prolonged discussion concerning the seating arrangements. This was nothing to do with with the logistically efficient, but a real effort to make the audience comfortable in such a way that they could receive the music openly, as the band intended. A practical upshot from their group decisions regarding audience ‘zones’ was the inclusion of an area of cushions and rugs; this besides the chairs that had tables, or no tables, or were near tables. Not since the 1980s had I seen a band concern itself with room furnishings. The scene was carefully completed with table cloths, candles, and fairy-lights. This event was to be no mere recital (trotted out as per rehearsal regardless of whether the room be full or empty) but a performance with strong overtones of performance art. Looking around, I realised that the ensemble had set-up across the side of the room (rather than at one end) and thus projected meaningfully into the audience.


When the concert(!) started the informality was reinforced by a lone Billy Bottle wandering through the audience. I can’t recall whether he sang or spoke, whether he addressed us or mused to himself with us eaves-dropping: I think it was all of those things. The brightly clad figure of Billy invoked - what! - a hippie, a new-ager: yes, but no. For me he was puppet-like, a jester, a comic figure (without the comedy): yet none of these either. There were though definitely overtones of the mystery-play, something mummery going on here. Considering the band collectively, I was minded of a carnival of speechless gliding gothic figures: nymphs and banshees, as well as circus strong-men and magicians; I am sure I could even smell old books alongside the candle wax and (yes, really) incense. (Make no mistake though, there was no contrived intentionality to disturb or use entertainment hype, just a refreshing naive old fashioned music-hall honesty.) The processional theatre atmosphere was reinforced as the pieces of the first set added the musicians one at a time; each of the troupe successively entered through the audience bearing a piece of wax fruit (or some-such), adding to the melange on a table set before the audience. What did it all mean?


As Brecht said of himself and of Shakespeare (and incidentally this also applies to that most English of jazz musicians, Mike Westbrook), presented are a series of juxtaposed scenes-for-themselves; the audience is not directed in the process of interpretation, this is for each spectator to do alone. This is what makes a Bottle gig an engaging affair, as in this way total immersion is rewarded. When Billy announced: ‘we really don’t know what will happen tonight’, he didn’t mean he had no control or no conception, but meant that until this particular performance unfolded he did not have all the parameters to work with. I can bring this out further by citing jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz saying: ‘I like to turn up for a gig unprepared, but this takes a huge amount of preparation’. The Multiple clearly played from scored parts, their cohesiveness the result of hours of meticulous attention to detail; the ‘trick’ being though was to get beyond this concern with technique, and with accuracy and precision, and move on to make these mechanics a point-of-departure, a substrate, for creating the performance artwork at the time-and-place of delivery. Dialectically, Billy responded in turn to the audience responses to his responses (to ...), in real-time; seemingly improvised segues were disguised cues for the band to execute the pre-prepared pieces.


The role of improvisation as regards the band members was interesting. The scoring appeared jazz-like, where ‘holes’ were left in the arrangement for the soloist to do their thing. But this didn’t make for that tired (if time-honoured) formula of: written tune - improvised solo- written tune. Billy (like Westbrook, and like Duke Ellington) scores the notes he needs to hear, but works through the expressivity, the dynamics and textures, in rehearsal being mindful of the musical personalities of his band members. This again is Brechtian and I can best bring this out further by citing New York composer John Zorn saying:
... I started writing for the people around me, my friends, whatever instruments they happened to play [...] I played on the streets and I’d meet people that way [...] and slowly the pool of people that I could work with grew [...] to write every note down for an improviser is really a mistake, I learned that very early on because people would give me things to play and I would think ‘why am I sitting here playing this when I can improvise better than this!’. I was surrounded by these incredible improvisers and I developed a very idiosyncratic language [...] we then had common ground. The ‘game pieces’ were kind of pieces that would inspire these improvisers, that would get them excited, they could play whatever language they had, but it was put into a certain kind of structural context. It was one that was fun to play, it was one where everybody had a kind of equal say in controlling where the piece went, yet at the same time it created a sound world that I had envisioned [...] you could be playing alone or with ten other people. It almost made the game pieces more improvisationally unpredictable than an actual improvisation. (Beresford 2001) 1

 

You notice of course that I have avoided thus far any description of Billy’s music in terms of familiar musical styles and genres that are not Billy’s music. To me, it is pointless passing over what his music sounds likes in favour of talking about it; ‘you had to be there’ and experience the package on its own terms. I have already said that it is performance art, if you attend as an audience member then you attend as a participant because the band will play with and for you.


What of the individual members of The Multiple that stand alongside Billy also naively looking at worlds in wide-eyed-wonder? To answer this question is to fall knowingly into descriptive journalism I have a problem with: subjectivity as feigned objectivity masquerading as historical recounting. These musicians are real living people. To understand why they play the way they do then simply go to the gigs and ask them; it is not my job to mediate between performer and audience, to deliver the so-called ‘real’ message by interpreting ‘expertly’, especially when Billy and The Multiple have worked so hard to soften that particular conventional barrier. Join them ‘on the street’, collaborate in having a ‘really happy time’, and (of course) help them ‘earn a buck’.