Weights and Measures

Here I am banging on about my new album again. Well, if I don’t, who will? But anyway, with two weeks to go until its release, it seems like a good time to talk about it.

Those of you who read this are aware that I teach art and a rather impassioned and interesting post on Facebook by Oliver Arditi chimed with me today and just happens to coincide with the theme of my album.

There are several things I wanted to convey, in whatever obscure form, with this collection of tracks. Firstly, I wanted to make something a bit more mellow, sound-wise, than the previous two albums. I’m sometimes described by reviewers and listeners as ‘cinematic’ (well, not me exactly, but rather my music). This makes total sense to me, as some of my strongest influences are Ennio Morricone, Roy Budd, John Barry and Lalo Schifrin. But I also enjoy the soundtracks of John Carpenter and lesser known composers for Hammer/Amicus films. So, this time around, I actively sought to produce something which had a soundtracky feel to it, in both content and how it was structured as an album. I’m a big admirer of Sophia Coppolla’s “Lost In Translation” and particularly its soundtrack, which is basically a playlist of some cool artists, not an ‘original’ OST. Somehow the soundtrack album of this film works, despite the diversity of the music and the lack of images to accompany it.

Then there’s the overall theme. This next bit might get a bit boring for you as I’m bound to go off on a tangent and get a bit ranty…..and this is the subject that Oliver complains about in his Facebook post: Data, numbers, criteria, targets, specifications. He complains about how the specifications of assessment in British schools stifle the arts, or the teaching of the arts and how this has a negative effect on those studying Music and Art.

This question is something that preoccupies me on a daily basis in my job and is something I often take home with me in my thoughts.

It just so happens that this and similar questions were nagging me particularly when I was recording ‘Imperial Decimal’ (that’s the new album). So much so that it started to impinge on the content of the tracks, not in a polemic obvious way, but enough to for me to try to make the tracks sound like transmissions from some antiquated supercomputer operating in a government office somewhere in Whitehall….only set to music.

It’s not just about the education system, you see. Though that’s a good starting point. Basically, my job involves teaching. But, as a middle manager, I also need to attempt to interpret data in order to set targets for students. This data can and does often involve prior attainment. But it also can involve information about ethnicity and family income (FSM, or Free School Meals data). This, I always find, is a tad insidious.

Our targets as teachers are set by this data and we are under a great deal of pressure to meet these targets, which are not always accurate. Apply this system to a creative, imaginative and occasionally amorphous subject such as art….well, lets just say there are a lot of grey areas. Likewise with the ‘assessment’ of such a subject; where the subject is broken down into fixed elements and these then become a requirement of the subject. Young people start to see the subject not as a freely adaptive, expressive activity which can comment on society or subvert or entertain, but as a set of criteria which must be met to ensure success.

As a result, practitioners start to teach the subject as having a set of rigid rules, a prescriptive approach, as they have to meet their targets. And art as a cultural edifice and all of its glorious history is reduced to nothing more than a list; boxes to tick.

This frustrates me and, no doubt, other artists who have taken on the vocation in order to share the wonder of art. My department gets plaudits for the way we teach the subject, but because we do not strictly adhere to the ‘requirements’ we don’t always get the results. The numbers or letters which denote whether you’ve been a success or not.

You could apply this to virtually every sphere of work, life and culture…..not met your targets at work, your quota of customers? Not won X-Factor or The Apprentice, not got the votes? Not sold enough ‘units’ for your record company?

We fill in the census, we vote, we fill in questionnaires, we have Nectar points, we have a Tesco clubcard….we are numbers, broken down into elements and scrutinized and interpreted. The education system is the start of your life, but it helps map your future for the rest of your life.

Not quite end of rant.

On the plus side, most teachers think as I do. And there are those who try to counter all the above through the way they teach their subjects. Not in a gimmicky ‘Hey, lets play a game’ way; or a cheesy Robin Williams ‘Carpe Diem’ way. But just in knowing their subject well and trying to impart the enthusiasm, the history, the skills and the thought-processes that it involves. That’s the bit of my job I love.

End.

In other news, ‘Application of Number’ will get an airing on Tom Robinson’s Introducing show on BBC6Music at some point in the near future. I am ecstatic about that.

‘Imperial Decimal’ is released on 15th July.

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