Toot toot! I forgive Richard Taruskin. Toot!

Saturday 27 October 2007

I’m packing my bags for Australia, so I don’t have time to weigh in on Richard Taruskin’s latest essay in The New Republic, “The Musical Mystique“, the latest in the ongoing Sick Man Dialogue classical music has been having with itself for years (“How do I look? Do I look alright? I think I’m feeling a bit better today, how do I look?” etc etc). Others are already wrestling the 12,000 word behemoth to the ground.
In fact, I haven’t read past the first page, and I only got that far beacuse The Rambler was kind of enough to notify me that Taruskin quotes a witty, intelligent, perceptive “netizen” called Ben.H.
I have only one problem with this. Actually I have two problems, but anyone who quotes me approvingly is OK with me, even if they call me a “netizen”. The main problem is that I don’t remember writing it, and couldn’t find it anywhere on my blog. It took a bit of googling to find it was a jokey, throwaway comment I apparently made on a Sequenza21 post six months ago. According to the website, I wrote it at 9.10 am, which can’t be right. Most likely that’s USA time, which meant I wrote it very late at night, and was quite possibly tired and emotional.
Mind you, Taruskin follows up my quote by saying Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall “contains the smartest and most constructive take” on the classical music industry, so maybe he was in a similarly, uh, frivolous mood when he started writing his little review.
Actually, it’s more of an honour to find myself quoted (via Taruskin’s quote) in the Something Awful forums. Even though they say “poo poo” too much and can’t discuss any type of music without someone instantly mentioning Frank Zappa.

Enough Nono for Now

Friday 26 October 2007

Two uncanny audience experiences in one week: after hearing concertgoers on Sunday coming away from a Philip Glass gig humming a 12-tone row, on Tuesday I was at Queen Elizabeth Hall to hear the Arditti Quartet play Nono’s Fragmente – Stille, An Diotima. I’ve previously explained what I think of this piece, but hearing the Arditti’s performance of it brought another dimension I hadn’t noticed before.
Just as its title suggests, Nono’s quartet is an extended series of silences, or near-silences of sustained faint chords, at times barely audible, from which brief fragments of muted activity occasionally surface. The Arditti played these long, soft notes with almost inhuman accuracy, the intonation almost never wavering. The sound was immaculate, remote.
Fragmente – Stille is music in which time is suspended, unlike Nono’s later, last works, such as the ‘No hay caminos, hay que caminar’ pieces, in which one is made always conscious of the sense of time passing. Again, the titles of these last pieces are apt, evoking journeys (La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura) instead of silent contemplation: the music is less rarefied, more grounded in human activity than derived from an abstract ideal.
The emphasis on action and motion, within a similar hushed, fragmentary sound-world, is present to such an extent in Nono’s last works that some of them demand the musicians move from place to place during the performance. His last piece, “Hay que caminar” soñando for two violinists, was played at the Royal Academy of Music on Monday evening: the two players gradually circle each other round the audience before finally meeting on stage. The musicians must feel their way through disconnected gestures hovering between silence and noise: faltering harmonics, rushed arpeggios, the sound of wood on strings, more the shadows of sounds than the sounds themselves. Most remarkable is the way Nono writes for the pair of instruments, each echoing the other to reproduce similar effects to those he had previously obtained though using electronics.
Nono’s use of electronics was heard at an earlier Royal Academy concert, which The Rambler has described so I don’t have to. It is followed by a brief discussion of what happened in the second half, which was disrupted by boozers like me enjoying the subsidised beer in the attached student bar, blithely oblivious to the concert having started again without anyone informing us. It’s small comfort that the people responsible for the house lights were also in the bar, and so completely missed their cue as well.
I forgot to mention what that other weird audience experience was: during a forty-minute string quartet comprised almost entirely of the quietest sounds and long silences, played in a full concert hall in autumn in London, not a single person coughed.

Please Mister Please

Wednesday 24 October 2007

George Faith, “Guide Line” (1978).
(4’24″, 4.01 MB, mp3)

He takes his girlfriend to a Philip Glass gig but forgets to mention that it will be five hours long.

Tuesday 23 October 2007

I had told her Music in 12 Parts is a big piece, but she thought that meant it went for two hours or so. When he completed the work in 1974, Glass’ ensemble of electric keyboards, amplified winds and voice would typically play the whole thing over a series of three evenings, not in a single, marathon event like last Sunday at the Barbican. Besides two 15-minute intervals, there was an hour-long break halfway through, so that musicians and audience alike could recuperate, and I could mollify my partner with a large glass or two of house red.
Of the three main concerts staged by the Barbican as part of their Philip Glass 70th birthday events, this was the one I was interested in. It was also the one which still had tickets available on the day. The other two concerts were new works, both collaborations: one with Patti Smith, the other with Leonard Cohen. Glass has a strangely duplicitous career and reputation. Today he is best known for the numerous orchestral pieces, film scores, and collaborations he has made over the past twenty-odd years, yet most of this music is his least interesting and (I’m predicting) least enduring work.
By contrast, Music in 12 Parts is Glass’ essential composition, the full flowering of the radical techniques he developed in the late 60s and the source for all of his subsequent music. Unfortunately, since the 1980s Glass has done little to develop these innovations, preferring instead to add derivative embellishments to his earlier stylistic breakthrough. Consequently, the distinctive body of music Glass wrote for his own ensemble in the 1970s now seems even more unusual and further from the mainstream now than when it was written, when set in context against his later movie music and large orchestra commissions.
I was going to refer to Glass collaborations with Smith, Cohen, Ravi Shankar et al as crossover music, but really, most of Glass’ later output has been a crossover collaboration with the capital-C Classical music world, with all the attendant weaknesses all too typical in such hybrid genres. Returning to early Glass now always seems like a revelation of a true composer buried beneath the comparatively conservative accretions of his more familiar music.
Music in 12 Parts enthralls and exasperates in turn, its sheer length and single-mindedness acts first as an obstacle, then as a means of transmitting the sense of discovery and excitement that sustains its newly-formed musical language. There’s an appealing candour in its obstinacy and roughness, right down to the inevitable lapses in the musicians’ technique as they play a score which demands superhuman consistency and stamina, and the heedless way each new part butts up against the preceding one.
Sadly, the sound mix on the night was a little too rough, and for most of the first half of the concert the flutes and saxophones were drowned out by the voice and keyboards. Also, the whole thing could have, should have been louder. Maybe I’ve become jaded, maybe Glass has mellowed too much with age, but even in the 1980s his concerts were deafeningly loud, and it served to immerse the listener in the music, shutting out any other distractions.
After the show, the strangest thing happened. As we all left the theatre we could hear members of the audience drifting through the streets, humming the tune. Specifically, they were trying to recapture the peculiar 12-tone melody that emerges during the final part.

St Paul’s Pianos With Real Nightingales

Sunday 21 October 2007

For piano, digitally simulated feedback, and two nightingale stops. Section: MP3, 6.54MB. It’s about a man who made the scene, with a half-arsed twittering machine, in a disused shop in Willesden Green. Read the whole sad story.

Looks like someone left the brown M&Ms in the bowl

Friday 19 October 2007

No sooner had I invoked the name of Eddie Van Halen in a comment on my last post about Glenn Branca’s microtonal guitar symphonies, than Sequenza21 posts a YouTube video of Van Halen’s trainwreck rendition of “Jump” at a concert last month:
The backstage sound guy accidentally plays the synth opening at 48K rather than 44.1 causing a 1.5 semitone tonal conflict to occur. Eddie and the crew attempt to roll with the microtonal noise but no… it is not meant to be.

To answer another commenter here, this is what a rock’n’roll Portsmouth Sinfonia sounds like.

Attitude Problem 2: Glenn Branca at the Roundhouse

Thursday 18 October 2007

“Given the laws of probability,” a friend of mine said afterward, “I suppose it was inevitable that any selection of a hundred guitarists would contain at least one wanker. But that guy up in the back row, he was one in a million.”
Glenn Branca was in London making the usual noises he makes, both on-stage and off. First there were his usual interviews where he says “kick ass” a lot and tells you how totally freakin’ loud his music is. The Rambler found links to a couple of them:
“I am the most pretentious person on the face of the Earth,” he declares, “but I’ve always tried to make powerful artistic statements, confronting the audience in what I thought of as a Brechtian way – that idea of the alienation effect.
“My music isn’t for everybody; it’s not pop music by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve always done things that I would like to go and see. I like things that are going to challenge me, things that are going to f*** [sic] with my perception. As it turned out, in New York and elsewhere, I’ve met a hell of a lot more people who are like me.”

It’s Branca’s “Barnum thing”, as one commenter on The Rambler’s site said, adding “the real show is watching people who show up to see if anything is going to happen.”
I showed up at the Roundhouse in Camden, slightly woozy after a few too many Chimay Rouges at the Belgian bar down the road, to see what would happen when Branca presented a performance of his notorious Symphony No.13: Hallucination City for 100 electric guitars. I had two good reasons for doing this (going to the concert, I mean – I don’t need a reason to drink Chimay): despite his macho posturing, I quite enjoy Branca’s music. Sure, it has a few too many flat spots, and the drumming is usually a bit Spinal Tappish but, as I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for microtonal music.
The real appeal of Branca’s music, outside of the visceral thrill of dozens of loud electric guitars hammering away, is his use of the harmonic series. All the guitars are carefully retuned to overtones of a common base frequency. At first, the guitars sound exotically out of tune, until the combination of sonorities causes beautifully pure harmonies to float up over the crashing din, and then the small shifts in pitch create aural hallucinations of one harmony melting into another.
The other good reason I went is for comparison. About fifteen years ago I went to a performance of Rhys Chatham’s piece for 100 electric guitars, An Angel Moves Too Fast To See. (Branca and Chatham seem to have been in a pissing contest over who can get the most microtonally-tuned guitars into one piece: Chatham has since written a piece for 400 guitarists.) It’s the only piece of Chatham’s I’ve heard, and I found it underwhelming: I remember lots of steady-rocking chords that quickly got tedious, interspersed with some interesting passages of glissandi that swept back and forth across the orchestra. There was also the distraction of some of the more extroverted guitarists roped in for the concert – this is where the anecdote at the start comes from. All in all, it felt like the music existed solely for the sake of the idea of having so many guitarists on stage. Other people have told me I should give Chatham another chance.
The first encouraging sign at the Branca gig was that there were only about 80 guitarists on stage, and not 100 as promised. This was good, it suggested the Symphony was about the music, not the logistics. The music was typical of Branca’s work, but thankfully typical of his better work: insistent, pounding rhythms of dense chords that moved from one eerie tonal region to the next, balancing the harmonic complexity with the overall noise and sensation just about enough to keep anything from getting too dull.
The drums were as big and dumb as usual, but the interplay between the conductor and the drummer (who plays without a score) in setting the tempo for the pickup orchestra gave them a purpose not usually obvious on record. All four movements were pretty much fast. Added theatrical interest, besides observing the different guitarists’ behaviours, was provided by Branca himself skulking around backstage, occasionally wandering amongst the instruments to check how things were progressing.
Special mention goes to the guitarist who needed to rush off for a toilet break between movements. Many of us in the audience were feeling for you. This Symphony goes for over an hour and, after those Chimays and a £3.50 pint of Kronenbourg I’d brought into the theatre for succor, as soon as the applause died down I was racing for the nearest toilets. As were half the crowd, who were queuing down the corridor for both the ladies and the mens. Never seen that before.
During that final movement, there was no sight as gladdening as the conductor turning to the final page of the score, nor a sight as heartbreaking as when he then turned back a few pages for a dal segno.
Tom Hughes in The Guardian has written about his experience as one of the volunteer guitarists appearing in the piece (and quickly learning to read music along the way).

Attitude Problem 1: Haswell and Hecker at Conway Hall

Wednesday 17 October 2007

Last week I saw Pansonic play at Conway Hall, along with Haswell and Hecker performing with a UPIC computer music interface. I’ve been to Conway Hall before and described that strange little venue last year: I hope the all the noise didn’t distract the seminar on “Mindfulness” being held down the hall.
It was the wrong sort of place to hear a Pansonic gig. (I remember someone saying later that there had been a last-minute change of venue after a double-booking elsewhere.) I enjoyed the last time I saw them, but that was at the end of a long night in an overcrowded, smoky, noisy club. This time, everything felt a bit too flat and distant to get a connection with the music. Besides, the main reason I was there was for UPIC, and Haswell and Hecker had played first.
UPIC is among computer music nerds as the revolutionary musical instrument developed by Iannis Xenakis in the 1970s, but opportunities to actually hear music created on it are relatively rare. Haswell and Hecker’s set, with its harsh electronic sounds clashing against each other, accompanied by strobe lights and hyperactive laser beams, forcefully summoned up flashbacks from The Ipcress File. I’m not sure if that was the intention. The way they exploited UPIC’s features was impressive: for all the brutality of the noise they generated, there was a richness of detail in the sound so often lacking in computer music. Even at its most abrasive, the music was kept alive with nuanced shifts in tone.
The light show was a distraction. It had all the bluster of the music, minus all of the charm. The use of laser was reminiscent of Robin Fox’s gigs, but where Fox’s light displays complemented the music, here it quickly became irritating. It felt like H&H lacked confidence in the ability of their music to hold the listener’s attention for extended periods of time, and used the lighting as a diversion. The overall effect was the reverse, making enduring the complete set a chore.
The lighting was one part of what seemed like an attempt at imposing a type of rock attitude to the set. Despite some wonderfully intricate quiet sounds which punctuated the early stages, most of the music fell back onto a deadening reliance on a uniform goes-to-11 volume level. Meanwhile, Haswell kept pulling mildly ridiculous rockstar moves at his console. No amount of heavy-metal posturing can fool anyone into not thinking you’re some nerd hunched over a computer.

Please Mister Please

Tuesday 16 October 2007

Kenneth Gaburo, “Fat Millie’s Lament (Exit Music No.2)” (1965).
(4’45″, 4.65 MB, mp3)

The mummified corpse of Jeremy Bentham reads inter-office emails.

Sunday 14 October 2007

Get a bass drum up ya! BOOM BOOM OW MY BASS

Filler by Proxy LV: All together now! “If they can send one Eurodisco group to a war zone, why can’t they send all of them?”

Saturday 13 October 2007

From The St. Petersburg Times, 9 October:
“Ra-Ra-Rasputin! Russia’s greatest love machine!” These are not exactly the kind of lyrics you might expect the Georgian government to consider appropriate as part of its struggle to win back control of the tiny pro-Russian separatist region of South Ossetia. Nevertheless, informed sources insist that those flamboyant disco-era swingers, Boney M, are on their way to the Georgian-controlled sector of the conflict zone this month.
Boney M will perform in a rural village in volatile South Ossetia. Not a sentence I thought I would ever write, even amid the everyday surrealism of life in the Caucasus. But maybe someone here thought that a sweet blast of “Sunny,” not to mention the deathless “Daddy Cool,” would help convince the separatists that Georgia has the best tunes.
The BBC confirmed today that, as suggested above, Boney M were big in the USSR, and are still popular in the former Soviet nations, and that “Marcia Barrett played a concert in a small frontline village not far from the rebel capital Tskhinvali.”
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili told the BBC he hoped the music would persuade people to lay down their arms.

The other band members didn’t come because they’re all touring the world in separate groups, each one claiming to be the real Boney M. Presumably, the other Boney M bands are not in Iraq and Darfur right now.

Hopefully, the success of this concert will lead to a touring production of the stage musical visiting rebel-held regions of Georgia.

The New Magic Online Survey: Gene McDaniels vs Susanna Hoffs

Friday 12 October 2007

Click on “Listener Advisory Board” and take the survey yourself! The new survey starts off blah enough (Bangles?) but then builds up to an astonishing climax.
Is Gene McDaniels the most ubiquitous unknown pop star? I’m guessing that 9 out of 10 people you ask won’t know who he is, yet every nostalgia show in the world feels obliged to play at least one of “Tower of Strength”, “Chip Chip”, or “Point of No Return” every day. I’ve only just learned his name now by copying and pasting it from the survey website.
Also, I’d never heard of Toni Arden’s “Padre” before, and the excerpt provided in the survey gives a very misleading impression of what the song is really about. I only know this because I just tuned in to Magic again last night, and – hey! – they played “Padre”.
As on previous occasions, songs with that special ‘Magic’ quality are marked with an asterisk: pick of the bunch here has to be the Ronnie Burns. Once again, all survey songs were marked with at least “like” or better, with one exception (no, not the Bangles).

Living A Lie – Al Martino
Eternal Flame – Bangles
Eleanor Rigby – Beatles
If I Said You Had A Beautiful Body – Bellamy Brothers
From A Window – Billy J Kramer *
The Night Has A Thousand Eyes – Bobby Vee
Jambalaya (On The Bayou) – Carpenters
As Long As I Can See The Light – Creedence Clearwater Revival
The Legend Of Xanadu – Dave Dee, Dozy Beaky Mick & Titch *
Six Days On The Road – Dave Dudley
Mission Bell – Donnie Brooks *
You Make Lovin’ Fun – Fleetwood Mac
Strangers In The Night – Frank Sinatra
Chip Chip – Gene McDaniels
Home Of The Brave – Jody Miller *
China Blue – Julie Anthony *
Since I Fell For You – Kate Ceberano
Rose Garden – Lynn Anderson
It’s Hard To Be Humble – Mac Davis *
And I Love You So – Perry Como *
Somewhere – PJ Proby *
The Last Farewell – Roger Whittaker *
Age Of Consent – Ronnie Burns **
Padre – Toni Arden *
The End – Earl Grant *

Dormoblies of Brockley (Slight Return)

Thursday 11 October 2007

The number of Volkswagen campers lurking between my house and my local café has cracked double figures, now that this specimen has parked down the street.
Also, the name and subject indices are gradually being updated, having now got as far as mid-August.

Please Mister Please

Tuesday 9 October 2007

Mary Gauthier, “I Drink” (1999).

(3’49″, 3.02 MB, mp3)

“Now that things are so easy, there’s so much to do.” Nono, Tarkovsky, Facility, Impossibility.

Monday 8 October 2007

It must be nearly ten years ago that I took a friend to the abandoned power station in the middle of Melbourne for performace of Luigi Nono’s epic work for violin and tape, La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura. He came away from it exhilarated, saying that it was like the musical equivalent of a film by Tarkovsky.
The last and greatest piece on last Monday’s concert program was Nono’s ‘No hay caminos, hay que caminar’… Andrej Tarkovskij, for seven instrumental groups distributed around the concert hall. Nono described Tarkovsky as “a soul who enlightened me”; both made art that fought against the way modern life dulls one’s perception of the world.
Alison Croggon at Sarsaparilla has recently written beautifully about Tarkovsky, particularly his film Stalker.

Stalker’s beauty is woven out of its limitations, its finitudes. When I watch a Tarkovsky film, I am always aware of the literalness of his medium; he is never doing anything more than making a film. Out of his refusal to aggrandise his medium he forges a profound poetic.

Croggon writes that Stalker is a film about faith: it articulates faith, but does not attempt to explain its meaning or its purpose. The Stalker is a guide, who offers the hope to others of realising their desires, but he cannot fulfil these hopes for himself.

Meanwhile, Daniel Wolf at Renewable Music has also been writing about Luigi Nono, in particular his late string quartet Fragmente – Stille, An Diotima:
… each attempt to write something meaningful about the quartet has failed, and I’m not sure whether my failure lies in my inability to get closer to a work whose distance to my own musical culture is great, or in a more fundamental doubt about the work as a technical and musical achievement.

Wolf has problems with this piece: it seems hermetic and obscure. Worse still, Nono’s material seems thin, facile; is he using hermeticism as a cloak for a lack of musical substance?
This is something I hadn’t considered before, but if it is an issue then it strikes me as being of a piece with the other distinctive aspects of Nono’s late music. Nono’s music had always been about struggle, most obviously in the many works dealing with political and social struggle. In his late works the struggle becomes internalised, a matter of personal and spiritual wrestling. The quotation “No hay caminos, hay que caminar” is invoked in several of Nono’s titles from this period. It comes from a graffito he found on the wall of a Spanish monastery; loosely translated, it means “There is no way, yet we must go” – a sort of variant of “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
The struggle is not just metaphysical, it is also a testing of Nono’s musical ideas and technique. Morton Feldman (who provided the quote for this post’s title) liked to complain that one of the many problems with composers is that they liked to make everything seem so easy: there is always the compulsion to make the music, even at its most anguished, seem to have emerged unmediated from the abstract, unscarred and unruffled. In other words, glib. It’s an important theme in writing and painting, but music pretends it doesn’t exist.
Nono’s music confronts this smoothing banality of technique with denuded musical material, isolated, halting phrases, inarticulate gestures, made from habit and apparently empty of meaning. In the same way, Tarkovsky in Stalker guides his limpid camera over industrial waste and other detritus. “Out of his refusal to aggrandise his medium he forges a profound poetic.”
This method shows itself most clearly in La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura, with its taped part built up out of sounds produced by violinist Gidon Kremer in the studio. Set adrift by Nono without any music, Kremer was left flailing, confusedly making tentative, awkward, disconnected noises; his mutterings, dropped objects, and extraneous studio sounds intrude on the soundscape. When writing the solo part, Nono kept Kremer waiting until the morning of the premiere for the complete score, semi-legibly scrawled in biro. Composer and musician each stripped of language and technique, forced to make sense of what was left.
It’s a world that offers glimpses of an unsettling beauty that flourishes beyond human desires and yet can provide a home for the unsayable, unattainable longing that reaches beyond the confines of the self.

Repeatedly, in the score for Fragmente – Stille, An Diotima, the musicians are confronted by a fragment from Hölderlin, inscribed above the music, silently chiding them: “…but you cannot know that…”

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