NMEvolution

Music has been called by some the greatest thing the human race has ever done, and at its best it is undoubtedly a profound expression of emotion more poetic than anything Shakespeare ever wrote. True, done badly it can sound like a trapped cat in a box of staplers falling down a staircase, but let’s not get hung up on details here- music is awesome.

However, music as we know it has only really existed for around a century or so, and many of the developments in music’s  history that have shaped it into the tour de force that it is in modern culture are in direct parallel to human history. As such, the history of our development as a race and the development of music run closely alongside one another, so I thought I might attempt a set of edited highlights of the former (well, western history at least) by way of an exploration of the latter.

Exactly how and when the various instruments as we know them were invented and developed into what they currently are is largely irrelevant (mostly since I don’t actually know and don’t have the time to research all of them), but historically they fell into one of two classes. The first could be loosely dubbed ‘noble’ instruments- stuff like the piano, clarinet or cello, which were (and are) hugely expensive to make, required a significant level of skill to do so, and were generally played for and by the rich upper classes in vast orchestras, playing centuries-old music written by the very few men with the both the riches, social status and talent to compose them. On the other hand, we have the less historically significant, but just as important, ‘common’ instruments, such as the recorder and the ancestors of the acoustic guitar. These were a lot cheaper to make and thus more available to (although certainly far from widespread among) the poorer echelons of society, and it was on these instruments that tunes were passed down from generation to generation, accompanying traditional folk dances and the like; the kind of people who played such instruments very rarely had the time to spare to really write anything new for them, and certainly stood no chance of making a living out of them. And, for many centuries, that was it- what you played and what you listened to, if you did so at all, depended on who you were born as.

However, during the great socioeconomic upheaval and levelling that accompanied the 19th century industrial revolution, music began to penetrate society in new ways. The growing middle and upper-middle classes quickly adopted the piano as a respectable ‘front room’ instrument for their daughters to learn, and sheet music was rapidly becoming both available and cheap for the masses. As such, music began to become an accessible activity for far larger swathes of the population and concert attendances swelled. This was the Romantic era of music composition, with the likes of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Brahms rising to prominence, and the size of an orchestra grew considerably to its modern size of four thousand violinists, two oboes and a bored drummer (I may be a little out in my numbers here) as they sought to add some new experimentation to their music. This experimentation with classical orchestral forms was continued through the turn of the century by a succession of orchestral composers, but this period also saw music head in a new and violently different direction; jazz.

Jazz was the quintessential product of the United States’ famous motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (From Many, One), being as it was the result of a mixing of immigrant US cultures. Jazz originated amongst America’s black community, many of whom were descendants of imported slaves or even former slaves themselves, and was the result of traditional African music blending with that of their forcibly-adopted land. Whilst many black people were heavily discriminated against when it came to finding work, they found they could forge a living in the entertainment industry, in seedier venues like bars and brothels. First finding its feet in the irregular, flowing rhythms of ragtime music, the music of the deep south moved onto the more discordant patterns of blues in the early 20th century before finally incorporating a swinging, syncopated rhythm and an innovative sentiment of improvisation to invent jazz proper.

Jazz quickly spread like wildfire across the underground performing circuit, but it wouldn’t force its way into popular culture until the introduction of prohibition in the USA. From 1920 all the way up until the Presidency of Franklin D Roosevelt (whose dropping of the bill is a story in and of itself) the US government banned the consumption of alcohol, which (as was to be expected, in all honesty) simply forced the practice underground. Dozens of illegal speakeasies (venues of drinking, entertainment and prostitution usually run by the mob) sprung up in every district of every major American city, and they were frequented by everyone from the poorest street sweeper to the police officers who were supposed to be closing them down. And in these venues, jazz flourished. Suddenly, everyone knew about jazz- it was a fresh, new sound to everyone’s ears, something that stuck in the head and, because of its ‘common’, underground connotations, quickly became the music of the people. Jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong (a true pioneer of the genre) became the first celebrity musicians, and the way the music’s feel resonated with the happy, prosperous feeling surrounding the economic good times of the 1920s lead that decade to be dubbed ‘the Jazz Age’.

Countless things allowed jazz and other, successive generations to spread around the world- the invention of the gramophone further enhanced the public access to music, as did the new cultural phenomenon of the cinema and even the Second World War, which allowed for truly international spread. By the end of the war, jazz, soul, blues, R&B and all other derivatives had spread from their mainly deep south origins across the globe, blazing a trail for all other forms of popular music to follow in its wake. And, come the 50s, they did so in truly spectacular style… but I think that’ll have to wait until next time.

Socially Acceptable Druggies

Alcohol is, without a shadow of a doubt, our society’s commonly acceptable drug of choice; no matter that one third of people admit to smoking cannabis at some point in their lives, or that smoking kills tens of thousands more people every year, neither can touch alcohol for its prevalence and importance within western civilisation. It’s everywhere; for most polite social gatherings it is fundamentally necessary as an icebreaker, every settlement from the biggest city to the tiniest hamlet will have a bar, pub or other drinking venue and many people will collect veritable hoards of the stuff, sometimes even in purpose-built rooms.

Which, on the face of it, might seem odd given how much it screws around with you. Even before the damage it causes to one’s liver and internal organs was discovered, it had been known for centuries that alcohol was dangerously habit-forming stuff, and it was generally acknowledged that prolonged use ‘pickled’ the brain. It also leaves those who imbibe it severely confused and lacking in coordination, which has proved hideously dangerous in countless scenarios over the years (even contributing to several assassinations), and can be almost guaranteed to result in personal embarrassment and other decisions you’re really going to regret when sober. If it wasn’t for booze’s noted enhancing of promiscuity, it might be surprising that drinking hadn’t been bred out of us simply thanks to natural selection, so much does it generally screw around with our ability to function as proper human beings

Like many drugs, alcohol has its roots in the dim and distant past when it felt quite nice and we didn’t know any better; a natural product when sugar (usually in the form of fruit) comes into contact with yeast (a common, naturally occurring fungus), it was quickly discovered how to make this process happen efficiently and controlledly by putting both sugar and yeast under water (or in some other anaerobic atmosphere). All raw materials were easy to come by and the process didn’t require any special skill, so it was only natural that it should catch on. Especially when we consider that alcohol is generally considered to be the single best way of making the world feel like a less crappy place than it often appears.

However, the real secret to alcohol’s success in worming its way into our society is less linked to booze itself, and has more to do with water. From our earliest infancy as a species, water has been readily available in the world around us, whether it be from lakes, rivers, wells or wherever. Unfortunately, this means it is also available for lots of other things to use and make their homes in, including a vast array of nasty bacteria. As can be seen with the situation across swathes of Africa and the Third World (although this problem has been reduced quite significantly over the last decade or so), access to water that is not fetid, disgusting and dangerous can be nigh-on impossible for many, forcing them to settle for water containing diseases ranging from cholera to dysentery. And that’s where alcohol came in.

The great advantage of alcohol is that its production can be very carefully controlled; even if the majority of an alcoholic drink is water, this is generally a product of the fruit or other sugary substance used in the brewing process. This means it is a lot purer than most ‘fresh’ water, and in any case the alcohol present in the fluid kills off a lot of bacteria. Even for those that can survive that, alcoholic beverages are far more likely to be bottled (or at least they were, before someone discovered the sheer quantity of suckers willing to buy what you can get out of the tap) than water, keeping any more invading bacteria, parasites, insects and other crap out. All of this was, of course, not known before Louis Pasteur first came along with his Germ Theory, but the facts stayed the same; historically, you were far less likely to die from drinking alcohol than drinking water.

Still, come the 20th century most of our sanitation problems in the developed world were sorted, so we didn’t need to worry about all that any more did we? Surely, we would have been fine to get rid of booze from our culture, throw out a feature of our lives that ruins many a night out, body or family? Surely, we’d all be far better off without alcohol in our culture? Wouldn’t we?

In many cases, this kind of question would prove a purely theoretical one, to be discussed by leading thinkers; however, much to the delight of all champions of evidence over opinion, the USA were kind enough to give banning alcohol a go way back in the early days of the 20th century. A hundred years ago, campaigns from the likes of the church and the Anti Saloon Bar League painted alcohol as a decidedly destructive influence, so successfully that from 1920 to 1933 the sale, production and consumption of alcohol within the United States became illegal.

At the time, many people thought this was a brilliant idea that would yield great social change. They were right; society as a collective decided that the law was more like a guideline anyway, and through their lot in with the mob. This was the golden age of organised crime, the era of Al Capone and others making fortunes in dealing bootleg alcohol, either dangerous home-brewed ‘moonshine’ liquor or stuff smuggled across the Canadian border. Hundreds of illegal speakeasies, clubs whose drab outsides hid their gaudy interiors, and in which were housed illegal gambling nests, dancers, prostitutes and a hell of a lot of booze, sprung up in every major American city, and while the data is inconsistent some figures suggest alcohol consumption actually rose during the Prohibition era (as it was known). Next to nobody was ever imprisoned or even charged with their crimes however, because the now-wealthy mob could afford to bribe almost anyone, and in any case most police officers and legal officials were illicit drinkers themselves; even Al Capone wasn’t taken down until after he was suspected of ordering some rival gangsters gunned down in what became known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. Eventually a group of supremely dedicated policement known unofficially as ‘The Untouchables’ managed to pin tax evasion charges on him, and even had to switch a bribed jury to ensure he went down (a film, The Untouchables, was made about the story- give it a watch if you ever get the charge). By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt repealed prohibition upon coming to power in 1933, the message was clear: America loved alcohol too much, and it wasn’t about to let it go.

Alcohol is, in its effect at least, not a special drug; many others can be used to forget the bad times, enjoy the good times and make the world feel like a better place. But there’s something about, something about its cultural imagery, that makes it timeless, and makes it an immovable feature of our world. It could be that it’s probably the cheapest recreational drug, or maybe that it’s the oldest, but to me the real secret to its success is its weakness, combined with the way it is almost always served very dilute. Most illegal drugs give an instant hit, a huge rush followed by crashing downer, and this makes any use of it a brief, wild experience. Alcohol is more mellow; something you can spend an entire night slowly drowning your sorrows in, or casually imbibe whilst chatting and generally functioning like a normal human being. It’s slow, it’s casual, a feature of an evening that does not necessarily have to define it- that is the cultural secret to alcohol’s success.

Isn’t legalised violence wonderful?

OK, back I am after unscheduled break, and since I have some time, I thought I would try to spread the word of something very close to my heart- the sport of rugby.

In Europe (or Britain, anyway), rugby is subject to a lot of misconceptions due to lack of knowledge- across the rest of the world, Australasia and South Africa excepted, it is hardly known. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, rugby is an ancestor of American Football, and shares several of the same broad features- big meaty players, an oval-shaped ball (although rounder than an American football to make it easier to pass and kick), physicality and the idea of touching the ball down in the end-area. However, below the surface, the similarities end. For one thing, rugby players do not wear full body armour, and for another they do not run around for 3 seconds at a time interrupted by a 2 minute break. I would try and explain the rules differences, but rugby is recognised as having some of the most complicated laws (when gone into in detail) of any major sport. A few basic rules include- there are two groups of players, big, strong forwards who win possession and be physical, and light, fast backs who score most of the points. Points are scored either by touching the ball down over the end line for 5 points (not just by running over it or throwing it down), or kicking the ball through the posts at either end- this can either be done either after a try (touchdown) has been scored (worth an extra two points), when a penalty is awarded (3 points), or from a drop kick in general play (also 3 points). You can only pass backwards & sideways (but can kick or run forwards in open play), you can only tackle a player with the ball, and once a player has been tackled to the ground the forwards (or whoever happens to be nearby), all pile in to try and push each other off the ball in what’s called a ruck, in order to win possession. If the ball is ‘knocked on’ (spilled forwards), a scrum is formed (both sets of forwards pushing against each other to win the ball), and if it is kicked out of the field on either side, a lineout is formed (the ball is thrown in and both sets of forwards jump and lift one another in order to try and catch it).
Considering I probably could have summarised football in a sentence, this gives you some idea of just how complicated the game can get. If you want to learn more, I suggest you try to watch some- the Six Nations tournament is starting in February and will be on TV, while one of the American networks (I think it may be NBC) has recently started broadcasting rugby 7’s (7 players on each side rather than 15, and only 7 minutes each way rather than 40- this leads to very fast, high-scoring games).
I should probably also take this point to clear up a couple of misconceptions about the game. 1) Rugby is not a ‘posh man’s sport’. Yes, it is named after an English public school and yes, most of the current England squad will have got sport scholarships at private schools, but rugby is an inclusive game, and anyone can join without fear of class boundaries- I have been in a squad where one guy with a dad earning upward of 100 grand  has been struggling for his place while our first choice centre’s dad has been struggling for work. 2) You are not guaranteed to break eery bone in your body. I have played rugby for numerous years now and have yet to receive a serious injury, and while it is true the injury toll in rugby is far greater than in football, it is far less than sports like American Football, and the rugby community is very good at looking after its members.
However, I didn’t post this just to be a laws description or a whinge against those who don’t understand the game, because rugby is so much more than a complicated set of rules. To my mind, there are 4 reasons why rugby is the best game on the planet. One is that it is a game for everyone, regardless of shape, size or skills. The big chunky ones who may not be the most intelligent or skilful but like to push each other around can go up front in the forwards (probably the front row, who are an entity unto themselves), the big tall ones can be really good in the lineout, the fast ones can go on the wing, the skilful and aware ones at flyhalf (the rugby equivalent of a quarterback), and the tiny, annoying little gob*****s who like to annoy the referee are born scrum-halves. Two is that rugby can, at its best, be superlatively spectacular and beautiful in a myriad of different forms. This: http://www.rugbydump.com/2011/12/2271/biarritz-score-a-sensational-team-try-against-montpellier, is just a teamwork spectacular showing a ‘backs try’, but just as beautiful to a rugby aficionado could be a 60-metre maul (like a loose scrum), pushed all the way up the pitch. And then you’ve got this which, well… it was the world cup final, England v Australia (the old rivals), England had never won the world cup before, it was 17-17 well into extra time, there were less than 30 seconds left and- this:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuKHtcIdD4M&feature=related. It was a hell of a lot better than the video and commentary makes it look.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, rugby is a social sport. It’s a friendly game, and getting drunk in the bar with your opposite number is a celebrated post-match ritual, even if he’s sporting a broken nose you gave him in the match earlier. On the pitch, you may be worst of enemies- on it, everyone has a laugh. Rugby fans are allowed to drink at matches, unlike football fans, because the authorities can trust them to basically behave. Rugby abhors violent play, and abuse of the referee is especially frowned upon. It is a game founded on trust and friendliness, on camaraderie, on team spirit, to an extent that no other sport can match, and it is a thing more beautiful than even the greatest of tries.
And fourth (watch all the replays of these) and finally there is… well this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuKHtcIdD4M&feature=related
and this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuKHtcIdD4M&feature=related
and this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPMZrPjW5cs
… and also this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wq_PL-GDTI&feature=related
Yeah…