The Twisted Bell

Less is More

Date: Wed Nov 20 11:18:50 1996
Subject: Re: Amarok: Why doesn't Mike make more music?

Does the man lack the imagination and inspiration to put out more and more and better music or is he just plain lazy?

I find something amusingly paradoxical in the fact that I (a) think Amarok is about the best piece of music ever written, and (b) want Mike to write more and more and more music like that, every time.

The fact is that no artist, genius or not, hits the jackpot every time; all sorts of factors in their lives affect the quality and frequency of their output. Even Beethoven's nine symphonies contain a few that are less memorable than the rest (I love 1, 6, 7 and 9, but the rest don't do much for me).

So, it might be just a teensy bit over-demanding to expect a masterpiece with every album. That puts artists under ridiculous pressure, and the result can be that their standards become so high that they never release anything. (Look at Sibelius: for the last 30 years of his life, people were asking when they'd get to hear Symphony No. 8; his standards were so high that he wasn't satisfied with anything that didn't top the 7th, and scrapped all of his attempts. Personally, I find that a shame; I love all 7 of his symphonies and would be happy with another that was the equal of any one of them.)

Also, think of the paradox in demanding 'more and more' music but also 'better' music. It just doesn't work that way. In the case of extra releases, more is probably less. Look at the Beatles anthologies: a stunning collection for fans like myself, a rare insight into their creative processes, full of beautiful musical moments - but I can think of only one or two tracks on the whole 7-odd hours that I prefer to the versions they released in the first place.

Mike releases what in his judgement is his best work. The unreleased remainder is, by definition, not going to be his best. There will be exceptions (where our judgement as fans would differ from his), but not too many of them. I can think of gems from various bootlegs that I absolutely adore, but they're usually music which was released but is now hard to get hold of.

So, let us call for more rarities, re-releases, etc., by all means. But we shouldn't complain when they're not all A-grade Oldfield.

To turn to Gareth's point:

many artists are very precious about their output and don't like the idea of demo or experimental work being heard by the public at large. It doesn't matter how much the fans may want to hear it; as far as the artist is concerned the work isn't up to their own personal standard, so they don't allow it to be released.

This is not just true of musicians, of course; it's as true of painters, writers, and any other artist. To wax personal for a moment, I'm a bit of a writer myself, and a cartoonist, and there's all sorts of stuff in my bottom drawer that I'd be horrified to see published right now. If I thought every sketch and doodle would be seen by thousands, I'd either hardly ever commit anything to paper, or I'd destroy the duds as I went.

Because I know it's only to be seen by me, though, I keep practically everything, and sometimes I go over my old work in order to find new inspiration, reassess something that didn't appeal to me at first, reuse a good idea that was part of a less satisfactory larger work, and so on. Many artists do the same, I'm sure.

I'm even open to the idea that if my novel gets published, if it leads to another, and if it leads to some kind of long-term success as an author (those are big ifs!), then maybe some time down the track there'd be the possibility of a retrospective collection of various bits and pieces, either chosen by me or by someone else after I'm gone. Mike has said that he's open to that sort of possibility where his own work is concerned. But timing is everything here. I don't want a sketch I drew yesterday published now, because it might be taken as some kind of indication of what my standard is now; and I'm doing lots of better things than that. That doesn't mean that some day I won't say 'Well, it may not have been the best I was doing, but it's still good', and publish it - just as the Beatles have done with the anthologies. One's standards can change over time; and besides, when it's the work of a much younger you, in some sense it's no longer 'your' work (meaning you now) and so it can't be misinterpreted as being what you're doing now. But for that to be possible, you need some distance on the work - which is why such anthologies tend to come out many years after the work was done.

Anthologies can also be taken as a sign that an artist has dried up, which is another reason to postpone doing them (ditto 'greatest hits' collections). Mike's only 43, as someone mentioned, and he probably figures he's got a lot of life in him yet.

Okay, I'm nearly done, but one last point, on the question of laziness.

There's no way I'd call Mike 'lazy'. Sure, he's had a couple of quiet periods, both of which coincided with major non-musical events in his life, and both of which were followed by substantial releases (Incantations, a double album; and Islands plus a companion video full of computer graphics, which would have taken a lot of time to create).

Yes, he now releases one album every couple of years, instead of one a year as in the early days. So do many artists - because albums these days are half as long again as they were then, thanks to the switch from LPs to CDs. (And don't forget singles, which now tend to have a lot more than the one b-side track of the old 7" records.) And don't underestimate the time it would take to create one of Mike's albums! All those instruments and overdubs are being done by him, remember, and there's only so much time in the day and so many days in the year (and isn't he allowed weekends off, and the occasional holiday to spend some of his riches travelling the world?).

The only two albums that Mike has 'cranked out' in recent years are 'HO' and 'Voyager', and we all know the mixed reception they've had on this list. I'd much rather he took a bit longer and was a bit more demanding of himself, and saved the quickies for b-sides (or for the retrospective 6 DVD set when he's sixty).


Oh no, another encyclopedic posting. Never mind, in twenty years' time I can extract the best bits and publish an anthology of Mike criticism (potentially a huge seller, I'm sure! ;)

The Twisted Bell

©2001 Rory Ewins