I recently attended a performance by the quartet known as Montreux, a group which, as you may know, records for Windham Hill. I had first seen Montreux perform a couple years back during Detroit’s international jazz festival that’s called, coincidentally enough, Montreux/Detroit. Those whose sensibilities were shaped by rock and roll may know Montreux-the-city only through the reference to it in Deep Purple’s perennial favorite, “Smoke on the Water.” The city, however, is more widely thought of in terms of jazz.
Windham Hill automatically tunes our thinking to “New Age” music, a term—an epithet, really—associated with whale sounds, white noise, channeling, Novocain, organic food, and other neural depressants. It’s music that people listen to in order to tune out. At the same time, it’s said to be yuppie music, which seems somewhat contradictory, for all of the yuppies in my acquaintance tend to worry about things like the “GRQ factor,” which, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the sublingo of the BMW set, means “get rich quick.” There’s little time to be laid back when you’re on a roll—cocaine, not quaaludes, is the drug of choice.
When I went to the local computer network to buy the tickets for Montreux, the young lady behind the counter was puzzled. She’d never heard of the band. Had I inquired about Anthrax, the Junk Monkies, or Common Ailments of Maturity (and I swear that I’m not making these names up), things would have gone more smoothly. When communications were more firmly established, she showed me that my seats could be front row center. As a veteran of concerts by the Rolling Stones, The Who, Rod Stewart, Derek and the Dominoes (yes, that’s Clapton for you latecomers), Peter Frampton (when he was as big as Michael Jackson, not a nobody sideman for an aging David Bowie), and several others, the notion of getting front row center seats strikes me as a bizarre fluke, a wrinkle in the fabric of the universe. Those seats are for the anointed few: girlfriends of the band members, record company guests, and ticket winners from radio stations. The girl behind the counter was similariy mystified: a group she’d never heard of and choice seats available without having to camp out in a parking lot waiting for them. It goes without saying that I snatched them.
One thing that struck me about seeing the members of Montreux up close is that they are my contemporaries: late 20’s to early 30’s. A few weeks earlier I happened to walk into the Omni International Hotel in Detroit with the band Heart and rode in an elevator with an unguarded Nancy Wilson. Then, also, it occurred to me that those people, too, are baby boomers. Heart can still do relics like “Crazy on You” during its performances and get rave reviews. Montreux goes on stage of a theater that’s much smaller than any of the Heart outlets and sees more empty seats than people. And the music it performs, an acoustic jazz with roots in the music of Django Reinhardt in the 1920’s, tends to be derided as up-to-date Muzak. The differences between the two are a function of ill will, marketing, and technology.
Some so-called New Age music is elevator music—of elevators in opium dens or places where the harmonic convergence has occurred. Listen to the electric harp of Andreas Vollenweider or the piano of Scott Cossu for too long, and you’ll be able to stick needles into your fingers without reaction. It’s movie music to the nth degree.
But listen to guitarist Michael Hedges—better yet, listen and see him—and you’ll come to realize that acoustic guitars can make sounds that no microprocessor-based instrument will ever be able to simulate. Hedges’ sonic picking/strumming/fingering/ plucking/rapping/twanging is anything but staid. He has been referred to as “the guitarist from another planet,” and it isn’t simply because of his dreadlocks.
One source of the blanket indictment against New Age music is simple jealousy. These musicians (even the boring ones) know how to play their instruments. There’s no place to run or hide where you’re doing a solo that isn’t obscured by a wah-wah pedal. It’s easy to imagine these musicians practicing, practicing, practicing, perfecting their skills day after day, while the other kids were out doing something or nothing. Even those other students who attempted to be poets fared better, for they could be easily derided. (Now they are pulling down $70K per year as copywriters.) Members of the high school business club had a built-in support group. The thespians had to be gutsy, anyway. But those who worked hard at playing musical instruments simply didn’t register.
There were, of course, other musicians in high school, those who had their Gibsons and Marshalls and Pearl sets. They played dances, parties, benefits, eventually bars, and possibly concert halls at some point. As theirs was a popular, public form (i.e., mimicking what was being played on radios), they received greater recognition and acceptance.
But what is to be made of a band like Montreux? Forget them. Ignore them. Identify them with a group of people that no one wants to be identified with. Mediocrity cannot abide talent and skill.
That’s the jealousy part. Another aspect is commercial and technical.
In 1984, compact disc (CD) players arrived. They were expensive. At about $800, they were in the domain of the audiophiles. Check a newspaper ad for a discount appliance outlet today, and you’ll see that some players can be obtained for about a tenth of the original price. In 1987, shipments of CD’s increased 131 percent over the 1986 level. Prices for the discs are going down, too, from $15 to $10 and below. With these downward trends, the number of units will continue to rise.
As is well-known and documented, record companies (will they become known as tape and disc companies?) have an obvious financial interest in pushing the acts that will sell the greatest number of units. Marginal acts are simply too expensive to support in a market where even a Bruce Springsteen can sag. The additional expenses related to CD’s—for example, it costs about $1.50 to manufacture one, as compared with 50 cents for a vinyl record—means that there will always be a need to price them higher, which means that consumers wOl have to want them more in order to part with additional cash. So the mega-acts are pushed harder and harder. And because of the costs associated with promotion—commercial sponsorship for tours and background music for beer commercials notwithstanding—there are fewer and fewer acts that can be promoted.
There is a second source for big CD sales, which is the catalog of existing music. The oldies. It is virtually impossible to listen to a rock station anywhere in the country and not hear an Eagles “classic” or “prime cuts” from the Beatles. When I replace my 18-year-old copy of the first Led Zeppelin album, you can be sure that it will be in the acceptable form for my tiny little Sony disc player. No more snap, crackle, and pop obscuring “Communication Breakdown” for me.
So where does Montreux fit into all this? In nearly empty concert halls. Classical musicians are getting a boost from CD’s because their audience has always cared about sound quality. Hot rock groups of today are getting the air play and other support needed for fame and sales. Aging rock stars are suddenly finding new royalty checks as nostalgic fans review their past. And New Age musicians suffer the purgatory of being used for transitions and filler on “All Things Considered.”
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