I heard news of a psychological experiment on the radio last week. Volunteers were played a recording of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” followed by a tape of some white noise. Listeners were told that at some point the Yuletide favorite would be played underneath the hiss and instructed to press a button when they distinctly heard it; not when they maybe, possibly might have heard der Bingle, but definitively. Of course, “White Christmas” was not played. Nonetheless, around a third of participants pushed the button. While the ostensible purpose of the study was to measure the subjects’ proneness or otherwise to “hallucinatory experiences”, to my mind, it could just have easily been about “suggestibility”.
With this in mind, I set up my own experiment. Back in the ’80s, an Lp featuring a soft-focus photograph on the cover that looked like an image from an inspirational poster, a heavy white border and wistful title set in 36 pt. Century Gothic suggested another infuriatingly relaxing Windham Hill record. I found them simpering, precious and condescending. I was prejudiced, you see. And yet, later, I was keen on John Fahey’s “Primitive Guitar” which, in large part, provided inspiration to the label style. In addition, later still, when Numero Group issued the Guitar Soli record as part of its “Wayfaring Strangers” series of folk albums, I was enamoured.
What gives? Could it be that the imprimatur of Fahey/Numero was enough to suggest to me that some New Age guitar noodlings were acceptable while others were not?
Anyway, for my experiment, I was prepared to listen with a relatively open mind to Passage, a series of guitar pieces by the WH label boss Ackerman, when I found it at British Heart Foundation yesterday. Yes, I may have been prejudiced, but there seems no denying that there is an edge to the early Fahey records, as well as the independent music featured on Guitar Soli, lacking on the Windham Hill stuff, where the precision and in-built delicateness seems to sculpt out any hint of spontaneous performance. It’s as if these gossamer creations were contrived to be the musical equivalent of snowflakes*: perfect pieces of cold, floating symmetry that melt the moment they come into contact with anything warm.
*I have to say this metaphor falls down fairly quickly; snowflakes are actually beautiful and suggest, in their all-too-brief existence, something of life’s impermanence, whereas listening to the fleeting Passage feels simply like a waste of time.