A NEW MUSICAL DICTIONARY by Martin Davidson

This has been written over many years of intense involvement with music. It was originally compiled a few years ago and sent to a supposedly radical music magazine who obviously found it too radical to publish. It is continually being updated as new items arise.


ABSTRACT MUSIC: A useless term that gets used to describe certain areas of music - usually ones that the describer does not like. One can argue that all music is essentially abstract, except for the relatively small amount that is onomatopoeic. However, if one accepts the somewhat controversial concept that the substance of music is its emotional content, then a different conclusion is reached. In Jazz and other part-improvised musics, the emotional content is primarily realised by the improvisers. However, this realisation is considerably restricted by the pre-determined structures that confine the improvisations. In totally composed music, composers are able to give free reign to their emotions. Unfortunately, these are normally transferred via a somewhat vague score to interpreters who may or may not feel what the composer intended. The emotional content is thus liable to be seriously filtered and/of distorted. It is only in Free Improvisation that musicians are totally unfettered to be able to completely realise the emotional content, making it less abstract than most other genres. Free Improvisation is also the area of music that sounds least unlike the real world out there, so that if the analogy with the use of the word abstract in the visual arts is pursued, then once again Free Improvisation is just about the least abstract area of music.


ACOUSTIC MUSIC: Literally, music that is heard but not seen? Normally, music not heard through loudspeakers.


APPLAUSE: The normal way for an audience to show its appreciation. Unfortunately, applause in the middle of a piece drowns out the next part of the music, while applause at the end destroys the ensuing silence which is often an integral part of the music. (The most bizarre convention is the American one of applauding when a tune is recognised, which usually goes to show how slow the audience is in recognising tunes!) Preferable alternatives to applause include, clapping silently (possibly with one hand), waving, throwing money (quiet notes rather than noisy coins), not talking and not walking out.


AVANT GARDE: Tomorrow's mainstream.


AWARDS: Recognition awarded by people who think they have the right to award recognition. Not taken seriously, except by sheep.


BACKGROUND CONVERSATION: Conversation that is loud enough to make listening to music well nigh impossible.


BACKGROUND MUSIC: Music that is loud enough to make conversation well nigh impossible.


BEGINNINGS & ENDS: The often vital parts of music that many disc jockeys think should be obliterated with their announcements or other pieces of music.


CATEGORIES: A somewhat useful way of denoting distinctive areas of music (and other art forms), provided one recognises that there are always border line cases regardless of where one draws the border lines.


CHANCE MUSIC: Often lumped together with improvisation even though the two methods are diametrically opposed. One has humans completely in charge, whilst the other makes humans totally subservient to random outside events. John Cage, the leading chance music advocate, was very much against improvisation, saying that improvisers resort to habits. This is often true, but not necessarily a problem if the habits are good.


CLASSICAL MUSIC: An egocentric superiority-complex name for the area of music that stretches from Bach to Bartok and beyond. Since this area of music is, in general, by far the most popular area of music worth listening to, maybe it should be called Popular Music. All the Popular Music not worth listening to (including much of the stuff between Bach and Bartok and beyond) could then be called Popular Muzak (or Money Music since the financial aspect would appear to be its over-riding motive).


CONCERT HALL: A venue designed for the performance of music. Generally too expensive to hire for all but the most popular musics.


CONDUCTOR: Someone who stands in front of an ensemble and waves his or her arms about until the music stops, then turns around and bows to the audience. (Based on a cartoon by Cheney that appeared in an unknown magazine.)


CONSERVATORY: An establishment establishment that defines what is acceptable in music and what is not. Thus the European conservatories founded in the nineteenth century decided that there was only one way to sing and one way to play instruments, and they ruled out such long-standing traditional techniques as improvising, circular breathing, wind instrument and voice multi-phonics, etc. Jazz initially revolted against the limitations of the European conservatory. Many proscribed techniques, some inherited from Africa and some invented, were incorporated into the Jazz language. This caused the keepers of the European conservatories to claim that Jazz musicians could not play their instruments or sing properly. In the last thirty years, Jazz conservatories have become ossified to incorporate just the techniques of what is considered to be the Jazz mainstream. Their keepers are now claiming that Free Improvisers cannot play their instruments or sing properly.


CRITICS: Writers who generally tell you more about themselves than what they are nominally writing about.


EARLY MUSIC: Music before breakfast? Music ahead of the beat? Music that starts before the tape recorder does? In Jazz clubs - music before midnight.


EASY LISTENING: Music that is extremely difficult to listen to for anyone who really listens to music.


EMBARRASSING MUSIC: An all too pervasive non-idiomatic or pan-idiomatic category. (I remember Steve Beresford inventing this useful category, but I cannot remember exactly what he was describing at the time.)


FOLK MUSIC: Music made by folk (whomever they may be).


FREE IMPROVISATION: The most innovative, original, creative and exciting music of the last thirty years. This usually gets treated (if at all) as a bizarre extremity of Jazz, which in turn is usually treated as a bizarre extremity of Popular Music - the non-Classical variety, that is. (One infamous critic even thinks that Free Improvisation, along with everything else, was just a passing phase on the way to Jazz-Rock!) Most Free Improvisation is inherently non-idiomatic or pan-idiomatic, and therefore should not be lumped together with any particular idiom. Of course, Jazz was a major influence on Free Improvisation, and a lot of musicians and listeners came to it from there. However, other musics have also had a major influence, and musicians and listeners have come to it from the worlds of Popular Music (both Classical and Rock) in spite of it being lumped together with Jazz. Surely, by now Free Improvisation has produced a large enough body of distinctive, distinguished music to have its own category.


FREE JAZZ: A somewhat dangerous name for the area of music that straddles the border zone between Jazz and Free Improvisation. When this name was used to promote an Ornette Coleman concert, the audience refused to pay admission, so the promoter refused to pay the musicians, so the musicians refused to play. When it is played, most Free Jazz has tended to degenerate into a sort of disjointed Bebop.


IMPROVISER: A musician who combines the roles of both composer and interpreter, yet usually receives less respect and less remuneration than either.


JAZZ: "Afro-American group instrumental part-improvised music" (Peter Riley), which quickly became a world music in the true sense of that term. The most innovative, original, creative and exciting music of the first two-thirds of this century. A handful of practitioners are still managing to find something distinctive to create in the idiom, in contrast to most contemporary Modern Jazz revivalists who give the impression that they are miming to records of the old masters. (Someone like Wynton Marsalis is living proof that jazz is virtually dead.) The name Jazz is often used to describe many other areas of music that have little, if anything, to do with it - from Joni Mitchell to Erik Satie to Frank Sinatra to Philipp Wachsmann.


JAZZ CLUB: A place where people go to drink, smoke, eat and/or talk. Background music is usually supplied. A testament to the fact that not many people actually want to listen to music. Often open late at night to attract people with too much money, rather than the unemployed (who can afford to stay up late but cannot afford the cost of Jazz clubs) or the overwhelming majority of workers (who can sometimes afford the cost but cannot afford to stay up late during the week as they have to be compus menti the next morning).


JAZZ-ROCK: A rest home for certain retired Jazz musicians.


LEGITIMATE MUSIC: Another egocentric superiority-complex name for the area of music that stretches from Bach to Bartok and beyond. Presumably only (re)produced by married musicians. Long live the bastards!


LIGHT MUSIC: Music that is seen but not heard?


LIVE: Original meaning: not dead. Subsequent meaning: recorded in concert. Current meaning: recorded in real-time without over-dubbing. Probable next meaning: recording of human performers. Probable final meaning: dead.


LOUDSPEAKERS: What one listens to if one stays at home. Alternately, one can go out to a concert and, more often than not, listen to loudspeakers.


MAE WEST'S AXIOM: What makes things fashionable and/or popular? "Goodness has nothing to do with it." (Although she used it in a different context!)


MAINSTREAM: Yesterday's avant garde.


MIDDLE OF THE ROAD: The dead centre of a dead end.


MINIMALISM: Commonly used to describe repetitive music with minimal content and maximal form and repetitive music with minimal content and maximal form and repetitive music with minimal content and maximal form and repetitive music with minimal content and maximal form and repetitive music with minimal content and maximal form and (fade). Maybe this should be called Mechanical Music, so that music with maximal content and minimal form can (re)claim its rightful name.


MODERN JAZZ: Originally the last area of Jazz before Free Jazz. This is now usually known as Bebop, although that was only a part of it, whilst the term Modern Jazz is used to cover such a rag-bag of musics that it has become virtually meaningless.


NEW AGE: Free Improvisation for those who find Easy Listening easy listening. More appropriately known as the New Muzak.


OPERA: A multi-media extravagance in which the drama renders the music formless, and the music renders the drama unintelligible. In other words, the music and drama mutually annihilate each other, leaving a noisy and over-long visual spectacle. Extremely absorbent of funds that could and should be spent on music.
"People are wrong when they say that the opera isn't what it used to be. It is what it used to be. That's what's wrong with it."
Noel Coward (1899 - 1973)


POLLS: If popularity is equated with goodness, then James Last, Elvis Prestley and Elton John must be the best. Fortunately, there are some listeners who are aware enough to treat popularity polls with the contempt they deserve, and not follow the sheep. As with political opinion polls, the main function of musical polls is to influence opinion rather than reflect it.


POPULAR MUSIC: Normally defined to include most of the least popular music.


POST-MODERNISM: New things for people who do not like new things.


PUB: A venue often with a back room not designed for the performance of music. Cheap enough to hire for less popular musics, but generally too noisy and smoky for much listening.


RECORDED SOUND: The most realistic way to preserve music. In the past, improvisers had to resort to the vagaries of notation in an attempt to preserve their creations. The advent of recorded sound has largely made the use of notation redundant. A major reason for the rise of improvised music.


RECORDED VISION: Although music is essentially an aural experience, it can have some visual interest. However, this is not preserved by the absurd gimmicky fashion of moving around randomly between close-ups of individual musicians, or parts thereof, to the exclusion of others who are also performing. It is also common for the vision to have nothing to do with the music and/or musicians. Imagine if sound recordings used the same techniques! The only way to visually record music, is to always keep all the performing musicians in camera. No doubt, this is too much to expect from a medium that has come to be primarily used for people with zero attention span.


REVIVALS: Nostalgia for the dress and music of a bygone era. Thus, evening dress revivalists play composed music, loud striped waistcoat revivalists play Trad Jazz, and lounge suit revivalists play Modern Jazz. Who will revive Free Improvisation?


SERIOUS MUSIC: Yet another egocentric superiority-complex name for the area of music that stretches from Bach to Bartok and beyond. Is Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusic really more SERIOUS than Max Roach's Tears for Johannesburg, for instance?


SHEEP: People who take awards and polls seriously, rather than be insulted by them. How else can one describe someone who only likes something if it is popular?


SILENCE: Something that died when Musak stopped using John Cage's 4' 33". Internal combustion engines and Walkmen do not help either. Neither do disc jockeys who do not leave gaps between records, venues that play recorded music in intermissions, and audiences that applaud at the slightest excuse.


SOLO: Most common meanings: In Free Improvisation, unaccompanied - in Jazz, accompanied by a rhythm section - in Rock, accompanied by a cast of thousands.


STRAIGHT MUSIC: Still yet another egocentric superiority-complex name for the area of music that stretches from Bach to Bartok and beyond. Is everything else supposed to be bent?


STRUCTURED MUSIC: All good music is structured. Some of it, and a lot of other music, is also pre-structured.


STURGEON'S LAW: "Ninety per cent of everything is crud." Applies to all areas of music, except those with a much higher percentage.


WORLD MUSIC: Quasi-traditional music played with a Rock beat. Also a misnomer for the local ethnic musics that are perhaps described as traditional musics (after all, we are all ethnics). This area of music is perhaps the only area that cannot truly be considered to be world music nowadays - in fact it is largely vanishing due to the omnipresence of what have really become world musics. (It is a bit like the hairdressers who indicate that they cater for both sexes by calling themselves unisex, which means the exact opposite. But then, the appropriate term does have other connotations!)


Return to home page