… in conversation with David Ashworth
Thanks so much for calling into the Café – I’m looking forward to talking about your new book and some of the fascinating issues it raises!
I’d like to begin by thinking about connections and starting points. In the old days, the way the pop music fan process developed was something like this. At some point in your teens, you decided that music was a good thing and so you started listening to the current chart hits, deciding which ones you liked and took it from there. Over the next few years, you would gather a collection of recordings by your favourite artists and, at some point in your twenties, you would essentially stop taking in the new stuff and stick with the ones you like. Your listening preferences have become established and entrenched!
Then a funny thing happened. Some young people, probably out of curiosity, started listening to older recordings from their parents and even grandparents record and tape collections – and adding the ones they liked to their own collections. So working backwards as well as forwards.
Later with downloading/streaming, all music was now up for grabs, so we now have a situation where young fans freely pick and mix their playlists from music made over the last 50 years or more.
So I’m interested in your own connection to the music of David Bowie. Making the assumption that you were not spinning Bowie vinyl back in 1967, what were the first Bowie recordings to grab your attention – and why?
LK: So I discovered Bowie when I was doing my music degree at University of Queensland in the late 90s. Up until that point I had been mostly drawn to virtuosity – players with ‘chops’ – and ‘clever clever’ music, stuff with polymetre, extended structures, intelligent metric changes. I remember the stuff I was into around then – some prog and fusion, Rush and Weather Report, and the pop I liked was stuff like The Police and Dave Matthews Band (I know, I know… but the players in that band are amazing). Anyway there was a lecture at Uni on the history of rock music and they focussed on Bowie quite a bit. I remember they played the video for ‘Life on Mars’… I was just so captivated. It wasn’t only the strange melody and unusually beautiful harmonic movement, it was the drama of it all – the voice being a little imprecise pitch-wise and loaded with communicative nuance. Also the way he looked and carried himself, it went together with everything else – a whole performance. There was a delicious opacity and depth to Bowie that sucked me right in. From there I gradually found my way through the whole catalogue. What a journey! I wish I could live it again!
I love that phrase “delicious opacity and depth” – permission to steal please? My earliest recollection of Bowie’s music becoming significant for me is still a clear memory. A week or so before Ziggy was officially released, John Peel was playing the album on his nightly radio show and I was struck by the astonishing ‘maturity’ of the music. Bowie was still working within the standard pop/rock band conventions, but taking it onto musically higher planes – showing how powerful a musical form this could be, without being drawn into the abyss of overblown prog rock. Of course, a couple of weeks later, when the album was released and the visually arresting and iconic TOTP session hit our TV screens, the Bowie phenomenon exploded. What followed were glorious years of innovative music – built on experiment and taking risks. Of course, this not ‘playing it safe’ approach means that there are occasionally going to be some blind alleys as well as more successful ways forward.
In retrospect and in a nutshell, what do you think have been the hallmarks of his finest contributions to the genre? And as a follow on from this, in what ways has he ‘changed the fabric of music’? Sorry – some big questions here!
LK: Big questions! Bowie’s music sounds Bowie-ish because he has that unique approach to harmony, structure, especially melody – lines that explore the full territory of his range, soaring long over quick-paced busy-ness, lingering around the dissonant notes, leaping to surprising intervals, etc. The way he throws his voice around performing those melodies, how physical the vocal performance is, how variable depending on character, situation, lyrical tone. I feel like these things are consistent across the catalogue, even as the collaborators and style references/technologies have shifted around him.
As for changing the fabric, I think it’s a complex question that requires more space to unpack. But the short answer is the artistry – the ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, the whole work of art that is/was the ‘Bowie’ project. How he stuck with it, returning to the same ideas and questions again and again, approaching them from different angles in his work, how the catalogue serves as evidence of it, its coherence and completeness. Wrapped up in that are all the innovations and transgressions that have changed the culture for the better – challenging gender norms, being openly/visibly bisexual, bringing theatrics and multidisplinary arts to mainstream popular music.
I agree – the way he explores the range of his voice, in the way you describe, is remarkable. Apart from Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell to an extent, I can’t think of many others who work in this way. And I think you make an interesting point about returning to the same ideas and questions over time. Much is made of Bowie’s constant self reinvention, the ‘chameleon’ etc. but, as you suggest, there are consistent threads running throughout the work that he explores from different angles. Perhaps this can be compared to the ways in which painters like Cezanne and Monet would explore the same subject matter? I have a friend in London who takes photographs of Battersea Bridge – always from the same fixed viewpoints but in changing seasons, times of day and weather conditions. It’s a fascinating collection which I’m using as a collaboration for a music/images piece …
Moving on to your own music making, you may recall that when we featured your piece Little Phase as a Spotlight in our Café, I drew some tenuous parallels with Bowie’s music from the Berlin era – but this was pure conjecture on my part. Can you talk about the ways in which Bowie’s music and compositional approach might have influenced the music you make?
LK: I’m influenced by Bowie’s creative approaches and philosophies for sure. His risk-taking, and willingness to try, exploring the potentials of an idea by jumping into the thick of it – that’s something that I try to remember for myself when I’m creating. When Bowie was talking to the press about 1. Outside in 1995 he often mentioned a quote from Brian Eno, that “with art you can crash your plane and just walk away from it”. Like the worst that can happen is you have a bit of egg on your face, it’s not a life and death situation. What if something fantastic and new happens that couldn’t have happened any other way? It’s worth a try! Failure is nothing to be afraid of, not trying is.
So as a follow on from this, have you got any ideas in the pipeline for possible forthcoming music projects?
LK: Yeah, I have a few little pieces coming out in dribs and drabs over the coming months on Bigo & Twigetti – just some one off pieces and reworks. And I’m working right now on a funded project with saxophonist Lara James (who played on Rococochet), Working title for now is ‘Dark Park’, all about female psychogeography and how women feel in historically unsafe urban environments. We went and collected lots of field recordings in Cardiff and London, and Lara played sax in some of those spaces. Loads of great sounds to play with, and a clutch of very specific atmospheres to tap into.
That sounds like such a timely and worthwhile project – I look forward to hearing it. In your book, Blackstar Theory, you draw attention to Bowie’s areas of interest outside of music and how they contributed to his musical works. Regarding your music, are there extra-musical factors which contribute to the compositional process?
LK: Extra-musical concepts and self-set limitations have really helped me focus my work, in a way allowing me to really see it and get a grip on it. Usually for me it’s either a limited timbral palette (Feather Hammer, Machines) or working with specific technological processes (Rococochet, Bird Rib)… I’m always looking for that hook to hang the ideas on, something that gives me a question to explore and a boundary to push against. In terms of process I also enjoy chance and games; I got into that from Bowie and Eno and the Oblique Strategies, which I use constantly.
Yes, the Oblique Strategies are a wonderful tool. Honour thy error as a hidden intention has bailed me out of tight spots on several occasions! When listening to your album Rococohet, I was interested (and envious!) to read about the Visconti Studio. How did the connection with Visconti and the development of the studio come about?
LK: I became friends with Visconti through being a Bowie fan, and being on BowieNet in the late 90s/early millennium. There’d be events that fans would gather for and Tony would sometimes be there too. He has always been so gracious in that way. Then when I got the Kingston job, they had this amazing 300sqm space that seemed perfect for a studio (it once was a studio, but it was also a concert recital space and orchestra rehearsal hall too). At first it was just about asking him what equipment we should get for the studio refit, then that morphed over time into asking him if he’d like to use it sometime, then would he like to have his name on the building, and then what about an occasional teaching gig and visiting professorship? It’s been pretty amazing to be involved with its development, and being able to observe Tony producing in the space has been genuinely illuminating.
In recording Rococohet, you had access to lots of wonderful analogue equipment – and in your next album Bird Rib, you were able to use studio effects and multitracking to build up some beautifully layered pieces. Having access to these facilities makes for some fine recording, but does this process possibly present challenges for live performance? Are you interested in performing your work live and if so, how do you work around the daunting challenges working with all this analogue technology in a performing situation?
LK: To be honest there are so many logistical challenges to performing live that put me off the idea most of the time. I gigged more often in my 20s and 30s, but now … I dunno. The preparation and rehearsal, hiring the players, getting to places with expensive gear in tow, worrying about people spilling their drinks on said expensive gear, also having to promote and hype your own show and stressing about costs and how to ‘break even’ with venues and promoters…. Not sure I have the energy! I realise that’s me speaking from a privileged position – my day job with the uni means that I can be selective and selfish about what musical work I take on.
Such a relief to find someone else who feels the same way! I too have dismissed the idea of ‘equipment heavy’ live performance, so any live work I do is nearly always straightforward and acoustic. Moving on, in an interview with Michael Parkinson, Bowie recalls that as a young boy, he was drawn to those melodies he heard on the radio which had what he refers to as ‘off kilter’ notes. An eclectic list of tracks ranging from Holst Planets to Tommy the Tuba. An early indicator, from the off, that he himself was going to ultimately venture into musically adventurous territory. Was there a point when you realised that Bowie was more than just good time pop music and, as you acknowledge in your book, actually an artform?
LK: For sure going back to that first time I really saw his artistry in that lecture during my undergrad. But on a deeper level since he died, and definitely while I was researching Blackstar Theory, I got a fuller ‘big picture’ appreciation of it. There was a point where it felt like the longer I stared at the catalogue – in particular the late and last works – the better it got. The more I could see, the more it made sense.
This neatly brings me on to my next question. Can we talk about Bowie’s legacy? Obviously the recorded output is the main thing and books like yours help considerably to fill out the picture. I’m thinking here about artists in their own words. For example Bowie’s collaborator, Brian Eno, has written extensively about his approaches to making music and you’ve mentioned Eno’s set of Oblique Strategies – designed to help aspiring musicians develop creative approaches to music making. I’m not aware of Bowie writing much about making music (am I wrong here?), and yet he was most eloquent and forthcoming in recorded interviews. For example, you quote his advice for getting out of your comfort zone by going out into the water to the point where your feet no longer touch the bottom. I’ve often thought there might be some mileage in trawling through the various interviews and pulling out the ‘advice for musicians’ stuff. Do you think there is enough there – a collection of ideas for aspiring composers?
LK: Probably! In interviews he liked to downplay his musicianship, in the same way that Eno did, when speaking to the press he referred to himself as anything (synthesist, collagist, actor, writer) other than what he primarily was: a musician, songwriter, composer. Chris O’Leary once wrote about these tendencies in his 2005 book “He enjoyed admitting to being a fraud. I’m not a real musician, he’d say. I’m not a real singer… he called himself a pastischist… someone happy to throw up things he’d dug out from the ruins”.
Perhaps it was easier to freely make what he wanted without having to explain himself or apologise if he distanced himself from music’s priggish disciplines and tribal traditions. There’s lots of clues in interviews here and there that he approached music as arts practice – coming at it from distinct perspectives, working with gestures and signification, using his performing self as a vector to connect ideas together in the one frame. He talks about these practices a bit in the 90s, around the time of 1. Outside, and there’s also a lot of good stuff in the many interviews from 2003 when he summarises his consistency of approach across his long career.
Can we now move onto your work in education? Are you constrained in your teaching by traditional syllabus requirements or are you able to share and explore with your students some of the more recent and innovative approaches to music making you have identified in the work of Bowie and others?
LK: I’m definitely lucky at Kingston in that I have quite a lot of autonomy. There’s space and flexibility to keep the curriculum up to date with the latest technologies and discourses. I try to be careful not to teach only my prefered ways of being creative, but a wide range of approaches. When it comes to creativity, I’m sure that I learn as much from my students as they do from me. The key is remaining curious and open to the discovery of new knowledge, whatever that might be. Educational spaces are safe spaces for this to happen, there’s no better place to crash your plane, so to speak.
Yes, I’m also pinching that ‘crash your plane’ phrase – such a clear way of making an important point. I expect after all the work that has gone into Blackstar Theory, you are enjoying a well earned rest from writing. But do you have plans for the next book?
LK: If I can find a publisher that wants it, I’m really dying to write about Kate Bush’s 2005 album Aerial. It’s such a rich work, it’s about all I can think about these last few months – Kate and motherhood and middle age and summer and birdsong and the spell that can make you invisible.
What a great idea – I’m sure there would be a lot of interest in such a book. She still has a large and loyal following and that album generated a lot of excitement when it was released. Finally, just a bit of fun! What’s your favourite Bowie song/ favourite album – and why?
LK: Gonna be predictable and reveal my favourite album is Blackstar, because it’s a masterpiece in every regard. And my favourite song on it is ‘Lazarus’ – though that is a hard choice. ‘Lazarus’ because of what it is, what it means, how it was made, and the musical it’s from. And the video. And the sax solo. I just love it, such an elegant finale.
Find out more about Leah’s work at https://leahkardos.com/