The ‘Cost’ of Academic Books. Part Two.

I have had occasion to discuss, both in my own books and within these blogs, the issue of 'academicisation’, 'historicisation’ and 'intellectualisation’ in both jazz and free improvisation. Excessive use of these approaches can make the music appear unapproachably 'niche’ and/or inward-looking. The costing of books by some publishers, more than a few with their own connections to institutions of 'higher learning’, serves to reinforce the notion of exclusivity, the hefty price tags removing some books from the purview of the 'mildly curious and potentially interested’ enquirer, and ring-fencing them for an academic freemasonry and/or well-heeled fanatics.

I was directed to two blogs about this subject, by Thomas Kidd (March 2017) and Katie Beswick (June 2018). Both were titled, in effect, “Why is this book so expensive?” Andy Hamilton has merely reinforced their observations in his e-mail, sent to me today, which also serves to back up Louise Gray’s comments in her review of his Steve Beresford book (cited in the last blog). It appears that the 'business model’ could be summed up as:

“Expect low demand for this book, sell to academic libraries at a high price, and recoup our costs, thereby at least 'breaking even’. Sell in paperback format at a future date, if sufficient demand appears to be there”.

I would have thought that there would be a relatively healthy demand for a book about Beresford, one of our most highly profiled improvisers over the past 45 years? I can’t quite grasp why such a book should be marketed in such a reductive way - is it because Steve is seen as an 'intellectual poseur’ himself, having taught at university level? (David Toop also runs a similar risk.) Anyone spending 5 minutes with the man would be disabused of such a notion: 'down to earth’ and 'approachable’ just about nails Steve Beresford.

Katie Beswick observes that these sorts of books “are very niche, and publishers don’t expect to sell more than a few hundred copies…purchased by mostly university libraries”. She suggests that the author “typically makes minimal returns on any sales” but that the process can give him/her both “kudos” and “career progression”. Thomas Kidd, in turn, notes that:

“Normally, only books that are regarded as having 'trade potential’ - meaning popular sales - will be priced at 30 dollars or less…if the press does not regard it as a trade book, it will not be marketed or sold as such”.

There are interesting correspondences here with 18th and 19th century tropes about the inferior status of 'trade’ (“he is 'in trade’ ” being a snobbish insult, in the literature of the time) as opposed to the 'intrinsic value’ of being from an aristocratic, landowning background. 'Merely mercantile interests’ were always held in lower esteem, at least in the ruling class mindset, than the latter’s 'essential worthiness’. Although “trade potential” without doubt brings home the bacon in the overall narrative of a publisher, the high price of 'academic books’ ensures that they at least 'break even’ with their more 'aristocratic’ products. The 'profit motive’, in this particular scenario appears, rather suspiciously, to have been subsumed under a larger aesthetically 'high minded’ motive? Certainly, an RRP of £130 indicates a Harrods level of commitment to 'quality over quantity’.

Hmm. Discuss?

The above is probably a rather fanciful 'false equivalence’ but, just as economically trammelled aristocrats found it necessary to marry 'beneath them’ to survive and thrive 'in the market place’, it might behove publishers to take a punt on making their more challenging product more accessible to the 'lower orders’. The ordinary punter is perfectly able to appreciate an aesthetic object, or a demanding narrative. If I can sell a few hundred copies of my self-published books on a perceived 'very niche’ topic, look at the potential for an large printing institution to attract an considerable audience for beautifully bound editions selling at a high, but not completely barmy, price. After all, look how many want a vinyl edition of The Beatles (at over £30, ffs!) or Electric Ladyland (ditto), as opposed to 'soulless’ compact disc editions, never mind a copy that is up, up and away on a cloud. (Albums that I need not remind the listener, were released well over fifty years ago.)

News Just In

And the news just announced (22.00 hrs on Wednesday 9th June 2021), is that Oxford University Press is closing down its printing arm, with a job loss of 20 people. I am reminded that whilst, in the late 1990s, there were maybe seven record shops in Camden Town, there is now only one. (As far as I can ascertain, but I may be wrong.) Bookshops face a similar fate (as do libraries). Let’s not insult the audience by pricing out challenging, but potentially rewarding, books, because of the default option of “no-one will be interested in this stuff”.

“Why Are ‘Academic’ Books So Darned Expensive?” Part One.

I asked myself this question when I discovered that The Aesthetics of Imperfection in Music and the Arts, a collection of essays and interviews published by Bloomsbury Press, that I was asked to contribute to by its co-editor, the Wire-linked author and philosophy lecturer, Andy Hamilton, had a whopping RRP of £130 attached to it. I immediately, and narcissistically, thought to myself, “there goes the general public’s opportunity to read your modest contribution to the book, entitled, not especially originally, 'The Aesthetics of Improvisation in Jazz and Free Improvisation’ ”. Like most books that bear an 'academic’ imprimatur, it will probably be available at some point in the future in paperback form, but, even in that format, is very likely to retail at about £30. a price that will put off most people apart from the die hard fan.

Another recent Bloomsbury publication, coincidently a biographical piece by Andy Hamilton, is Pianos, Toys, Music and Noise: Conversations with Steve Beresford, weighing in at 313 pages (a relative flyweight in comparison to Aesthetics…) and priced at a mere £81. Reviewer Louise Gray (Wire #466) opined that it is “aimed at academic libraries…The price hurts. A much more affordable paperback is on its way next year”. This is such a great shame. (I have read sections of the book, and it looks like a great read for the 'non-academic’, but there is absolutely no chance of this particular non-academic stumping up that sort of a sum.) The Aesthetics… volume is self-descriptive, in that it a lovely product in hard copy. Any reader who loves the latter format will appreciate the gloss and heft of this professionally bound book, which, if looked after, should last its owner(s) a lifetime. Unlike my copy of The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records (Granta Books) that literally fell apart after a single reading, basically due to crap bonding glue. My treasured copy of John Wicks’s Innovations in British Jazz: 1960-1980, long out of print, suffered the same disintegrative fate, so a big cross next to Trevor Taylor’s late Soundworld Books, I’m afraid (the use of ineffective glue again). Two other great books on jazz that I own, are also beautifully and robustly presented, but have remained resolutely intact: Jazz in the 1970s: Diverging Streams by Bill Shoemaker, and Duncan Heining’s Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz, 1960-1975.

From what I remember, the Shoemaker and the Heining came in at around £25 and £30 respectively, so the price of decently bound books doesn’t have to be either toe-curling or eye-watering (pick your own chosen body-discomfort metaphor!) So I decided to do a small amount of research to find out why the likes of Bloomsbury Press were asking such ridiculous prices, and what their business model might be. (Presumably does it involves selling books to interested parties?)

To Be Continued...

Dominic Lash: A ‘Distinct’ and 'Discerning’ Artist

Having just put N.O.Moore’s two introductory recordings for his new label, DX/DY, to bed (see recent blog), I’ve been assimilating three more, this time from bassist/composer Dominic Lash’s slightly older venture, the neatly named Spoonhunt label. They are released on the first of this month (June 2021) and although the label has actually been in existence since 2015, these represent its first compact discs. Mr. Lash thought I might be interested in listening to them, the reason for this largesse being, I assume, that I blogged enthusiastically about his 40th birthday bash at Cafe Oto, (way) back in January 2020, one of the last gigs that I attended before the big shutdown came into full effect in March last year.

Imagine my pleasure in finding out that two of these CDs contained the first and second sets of the 13th January concert: the first by an untitled (and co-credited) quartet-to-die-for, consisting of Lash himself, the late John Russell (one of his last live performances?), John Butcher and Mark Sanders. Lash was in august company here, the others having been stalwarts of the free improvisation scene over the last few decades, being very much the 'new boy’, despite writing and playing since the mid-2000s. The disc is called Discernment, and is, as one would expect, top-notch 'group music’, in the sense that one of the scene’s founding fathers, drummer John Stevens, meant, in describing the (relatively) ego-free interactive music that involves active listening (from both players and audience), and the eschewing of gestural grandstanding and set-piece 'routines’ (such as extended solos, or other prominent forms of individualism and self-promotion). The set lasted for 40 minutes, an appropriate length for a birthday conceit, and an ideal time for this most demanding, for group and audience, type of live performance?

Distinctions is the real meat of this three-courser, however, a big band (20 members) named 'Consort’ by Lash (as in English court music of the 16th and 17th century), formed in 2013 to combine “sustained tone music, improvisation (both guided and free) and the relationship between acoustic and amplified sound”, according to its leader. Lash is an extremely intelligent and thoughtful composer, but basically this can be described more simply as “ 'Noise’ with an initially friendly face”. Think of the first disc of AMM’s immortal The Crypt - 12th June 1968 (if you can do this without shuddering), and you’ll have some idea of the delights and terrors in store. Starting off, and continuing for a considerable period, with pointillistic free improv, as classically practiced by the late- sixties Spontaneous Music Ensemble, the piece moves inexorably onto the 'laminar’ extremes of LaMonte Young, Glenn Branca and even My Bloody Valentine and The Bomb Squad, i,e, “…indicating both the density of simultaneous material…and the layering of contributions one upon another”, as jazz critic Kenneth Ansell described the 'laminar’ methodology as far back as 1985. The resulting album is excoriating, exhilarating, exhausting and ultimately gloriously cleansing. Unfortunately, some of the multiple overtones, frequencies and other fortuitous sonic byproducts of such a large ensemble in such a small space are lost on a domestic sound system. Having 'been there’, I can attest to a diminution of effect in the home setting, but this will in no way detract from the enjoyment for those that 'weren’t there’, just as not having been in Notting Hill’s Crypt chapel hasn’t in the least prevented me from complete immersion in that singular performance of so many moons ago.

The final album is called Limulus (apparently a species of sea crab), by another quartet, with Lash joined on this occasion by Alex Ward (playing solely electric guitar here), and two Spanish improvisers, knotty alto saxophonist Ricardo Tejero and melodic drummer Javier Carmona, both previously unknown to me, and acquitting themselves very well here, in this most testing of environments. Made more 'rock-y’ by Ward’s guitar, this group is named The Dominic Lash Quartet, and feels more part-composed than the entirely 'free’ Discernment (all writing credits go to Lash). It forms some kind of a mid-point between Discernment and Distinctions perhaps, and is , in very relative terms, more of a 'straight ahead jazz’ record. That is if you consider the Anthony Braxton quartets of the 70s and 80s to be 'straight’: 'Electric bebop’, as Paul Motion once described it.

That’s all that space really allows me, in a limited format such as this, but there is much more that could be said, and I consider these three recordings to be an ideal 'primer’ for anyone interested in exploring the shores and shoals of free improv. Or providing confirmation, for more seasoned sea salts, that the ship remains in the safe hands of younger crew members.

‘Metal Machine Music’ continued

My apologies for the brevity of the previous entry. My laptop ceased rendering the letter 'e’, for some reason.

'My Ears! My Ears’, as the Blast First label had it, to describe relative lightweights like Big Black and Sonic Youth in the late 80s. Back in 1975, Lou Reed produced a real 'art statement’ for the ears, with clear links to the the 60s New York avant garde of the Velvet Underground and LaMonte Young. Zeitkratze’s reinterpretation is more an 'art restatement’ to Reed’s 'art statement’, 'post punk’ to Reed’s 'punk’. Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham to Reed/Cale. It’s incredible to me, to see how much Metal Machine Music (MMM) prefigured the likes of Merzbow and Keiji Heino, and 'Japanese Noise’ generally. And how the analogue abrasiveness of MMM is so much more brutal than subsequent Far Eastern digital technology. Reed is closer to a Link Wray-on-Chrystal Meth methodology than the white lab coat seriousness of his Japanese descendants.

I have always thought that Reed was an incredible guitarist. Just listen to his fractured screed on 'Run, Run, Run’, 'European Son’, I Heard Her Call My Name’ and 'Sister Ray’. (All credit here to Sterling Morrison!) No-one else was doing doing anything remotely like this in 1966-8. So MMM should have come as no surprise to anyone. The surprise was Reed’s sheer punky brattishness in his desire to piss off both his label and his fans. He also donated The Jesus and Mary Chain a whole career (Never Understand, being a principle exhibit).

The Zeitkratze project, admirable as it is, sounds mannered, despite the enviable skills that the ensemble utilised to transcribe the piece (just as some have transcribed Derek Bailey, for some reason best known to themselves). The use of string instruments surely defeats Reed’s original purpose, to deconstruct the electric guitar’s sheer milquetoast mediocrity in rock music? I don’t know if it’s intentional. however, but the Germans do manage to isolate and exploit the 'Cale element’ of the VU, such as All Tomorrows Parties, Venus in Furs, Heroin and The Black Angel’s Death Song with their trained/tainted strings. (The fact that John Cale was classically trained, as opposed to Reed’s background in Pop and Tin Pan Alley, should always be remembered.)

In the end, Zeitkratze’s impressive revisiting will always ultimately fall short of Lou Reed’s transgressive masterpiece, if only for the latter’s genuinely shocking effects and after-effects. Reed invented 'noise’, at least as it is understood in rock music. And it remains 'unlistenable’, just to add to its avant gloss. I can give it maybe 15 minutes before I thought “my ears! my ears!”. Maybe only truly gonzo listeners like Lester Bangs can go the whole course, but it will inevitably remain an 'endurance course’ for the macho listener?

‘Metal Machine Music’: Two Sides of the Coin

I have to humbly admit to have never heard Lou Reed’s two-disc blast of aggressive guitar noise, Metal Machine Music, until only two days ago. The album was always hard to get, after its release in 1975, and NO-ONE I knew had it, which is unsurprising, given how unpleasant it is, making the like of Throbbing Gristle sound like The Carpenters in comparison. A friend sent me a burn of Zeitkratzer’s transcription of the 'piece’ (if we can call it that), in which I found a much more mollified sound, brutal as it is, but the sheer audacity of Reed’s original has sent me to the keyboard to try to make sense of Reed’s achievement here.

Reed’s Metal Machine Music and its demonic overtones produce in me that disturbingly queasy auditory state that I can only compare to some of La Monte Young’s sine wave compositions, or perhaps experiencing My Bloody Valentine’s live stuff, i.e. a shrieking nausea, where you start to 'hear things’, and just want to remove yourself from these events. Such material would be a sublime torture method, I would think. Of course, it can all be explained by acoustical and phenomenal theory, but, by Christ, it is so disturbing to experience this, unless you are some sort of a 'head in the bass bin’ nut job (and there are such people!). ’ The recent film, ’ The Sound of Metal’, gives full credence to this notion.

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.