Filler By Proxy LXI: New directions in music appreciation

Sunday 30 March 2008

The curious and the adventurous are surprised by the pleasures that await them in Penetrating Wagner’s Ring.

(Found via Why, That’s Delightful!)

World Class Anxiety (part two)

Saturday 29 March 2008

(Continued from part one, which concluded with Lord Goldsmith’s proposal that Britain should establish its own version of Australia Day.)
Like Australia, Britain has lately been questioning the nature of its national identity. Also like Australia, Britain’s leaders have been unsure of their own country, enough to look abroad for ways to bolster its sense of self. The British press and public response – almost completely derisive – to Goldsmith’s report, has been mostly focused on his recommendation that feelings of national pride can be instilled by having school leavers pledge an oath of allegiance to the Queen. (Strangely, even those sort of in favour of a pledge suggested that instead of the crown, allegiance be pledged to the state, using Australian citizenship ceremonies as their model.)
The irony of affirming one’s country’s uniqueness by becoming more like another country was allowed to go largely uncommented, as was the idea of Britain’s national day being modelled upon a day commemorating another country’s annexation to Britain. As an Australian, I suppose I should be thankful that the idea of Britain being expected to emulate one of its imperial outposts was spared the general ridicule with which Goldsmith’s report has been greeted.
This bizarre idea that Britain should establish its own version of Australia Day also overlooks the fact that the holiday is not at all the unifying force the British naively assume it to be – either geographically, socially, or politically. This sticking point has not been noticed at all in the British media, neither in commentary against nor (less commonly) for Lord Goldsmith’s proposal. It would immediately, unavoidably become an issue in the newly-devolved Union.
The proposed British National Day shares another feature with the way Australia’s political leaders have recently sought to redefine their country. Beside the tenuous connection to the monarchy (an institution just as remote from modern British values as it is from Australian), the national day also attempts to make an equally tenuous connection with sport. In an attempt to find a common national ground which avoids any uncomfortable social, cultural, or political debate, Goldsmith and his political cronies have sought guidance from the way Australia has resorted to sporting achievement as a stand-in for patriotism and national identity. This last concept is a relatively new one in Britain, at least in the extent to which it has been pursued in Australia, and the suggested substitution of sporting values for national values has been met with suspicion and revulsion among what Professor David Flint would call “the elites”.
As for the question of pledging allegiance, such oaths are regarded by most as an American import, as alien to modern Britain as they are to Australia. More generally, Britain’s true attitude to national identity is much the same as the one inherited by Australia: “Defining Britishness is rather un-British.”

The idea of a national motto (or “national statement of British values”, as they insist we call it) has already attracted derision on a glorious scale – and there’s nothing more British than the refusal to be defined. Times readers chose as their national motto: No motto please, we’re British.

British national identity is becoming more and more like the weather: everybody talks about it but nobody can do anything about it. And come to think of it, it is especially like British weather: so tepid most of the time that it is difficult to describe.
This is not necessarily a problem…
What is most interesting about these objections to Goldsmith’s ideas, to an Australian at least, is that they come from the right end of the political spectrum; the left or centre-left has generally made a less reactive, more open-minded response to the questions of citizenship and identity raised by the report. While the British right has adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards national identity, the Australian right has been busy for the last decade or so formulating an increasingly prescriptive idea of what “Australian” means, a narrow definition centering on feelgood thoughts of diggers, battlers, bronzed Olympians, cockies and brave pioneers, the flag.
Since the Nineties, the Australian government and its supporting institutions have served up this dumbed-down constructed identity, rejecting the conflicts and complexities that the world has brought to bear upon making Australia what it is today. Britain has built up a rich and nuanced understanding of itself, the legacy of a history of being good at accommodating such complexities. This makes it all the stranger to see Britain’s Labour government entertaining plans to borrow this Australian model and impose a banal hurrah for sport and monarchy as the best means to appreciate its place in the world.
If there is a common impulse between the two nations, it is in the perceived need to further withdraw from the world, to deny the shaping forces of globalisation, immigration, and multiculturalism, and become resolutely inward looking, turning one’s back on the outside world while also loudly asserting one’s mastery over it.
(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)

Three tunes I have heard coworkers unconsciously humming to themselves over the years

Thursday 27 March 2008

Please Mister Please

Tuesday 25 March 2008

Brigitte Bardot, “Moi Je Joue” (1964).
(1’36”, 1.64 MB, mp3)

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

Tuesday 25 March 2008

Pleased to meet you ARF ARF ARF HOCK SPLUT PTOOIE!!!

Sweding Stockhausen

Sunday 23 March 2008

A.O. Scott’s review of Be Kind Rewind in The New York Times (found via Greg Sandow’s blog) praises the movie’s understanding of how people relate to popular culture:

It treats movies as found objects, as material to be messed around with, explored and reimagined.

Sandow cites this review to show that people are not passive recipients of corporate cultural artifacts, but have an active relationship with them. “Classical music lives in a bubble” he writes, meaning that the cultural elite often lives in ignorance of how popular culture works in society, but also raising the question of whether capital-A Art enjoys the same lively, engaged response from its audience as popular movies and songs.
Having just seen some DIY Stockhausen last week, it’s great to see a perfect example of Sweded Stockhausen. Sequenza21 has posted a link to the Digital Music Ensemble, University of Michigan’s wondrous small-stage interpretation of the composer’s most notorious work, Helicopter String Quartet. (An excerpt of the Stockhausen original is on YouTube.)

Helikopter-Streichquartett has been performed only three times in its original form. A full-scale production requires four large helicopters, each with a pilot, a live musician, and a sound technician inside, as well as an elaborate communications and audio-visual transmission apparatus.
Faced with the daunting task of mounting a performance of even one scene of this huge work, the Digital Music Ensemble decided to stage its own interpretation of the piece. Thus we are using model helicopters instead of full-scale ones, a quartet of electric guitarists in place of a string quartet, and we’re adding a live video processing dimension.
Two Quicktime movies (hi-fi and lo-fi) show the reimagined composition in all its glory.

World Class Anxiety (part one)

Saturday 22 March 2008

It’s an unpalatable fact that many of the intrinsic qualities of our cultural identity, which we like to think of as native and so unique to ourselves, are imports; transplants which have flourished in a foreign soil even as they withered at home. I’m not romantic but even I like to pretend that Australian colloquialisms like ‘dinkum’ are entirely our own invention, and that their roots in Lincolnshire or wherever, by reason of their obscurity, somehow don’t count.
I would also like to think, for better or worse, that our desire for a distinct Australian identity has led us to embrace our perceived failings as cultural traits worth defending, such as our nationalist apathy and inferiority complex. For me, the latter is particularly symbolised by the frequent occurrence of the wonderfully meaningless epithet “world class” when describing an education system, an artist, a station wagon, whatever.
Like “recyclable”, the approving invocation of “world class” is an expression of boundlessly optimistic, unmeasurable potential. As with many optimistic statements, it is also freighted with naivete and unconscious irony: the idea that if we strive and excel, we might just achieve enough to belong with the rest of the world. Beneath it lies the anxiety that our best isn’t good enough.
In the Australian context, “world class” has an attendant semantic miracle, being simultaneously more and less hubristic than the boast “best in the Southern Hemisphere.” (Take that, Johannesburg! In your face, Buenos Aires! Eat dirt, Niue!)
I had always thought that “world class”, with its implicit plea to sit at the grown-ups’ table, was a distinctly Australian phenomenon. Imagine my surprise and dismay to arrive in Britain and find the term common currency in the pronouncements of politicians, NGOs, pundits, and critics who should know better. Britain is awash with the same uncertain boast. Where did this phrase really originate from? Is it truly British, or was it adapted from American marketing-speak?
Either way, the British have embraced it as their own, for it really suits them. It suits their national stance of being somehow apart from the world, yet nebulously engaged with it in some discreet, behind-the-scenes manner (their relationship with Europe writ large, in other words). It reflects Britain’s dependence on the USA and neighbouring trading partners, willing but unable to openly call them rivals, yet at the same time tacitly acknowledging that it has been left playing catch-up to both. How Britain sees itself is the mirror of Australia’s own dichotomous self-image: a small country subconsciously aware of its inadequacies while boasting of “punching above its weight.”
It could be expected that a newer country inherits much of its character from its former colonial master, but Britain is now in an unusual situation, where political leaders have started to talk of reversing this relationship. Last week, former Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith published his government-commissioned report on British citizenship, in which he suggested Britain could be more British by being more like Australia.

Lord Goldsmith says a new British national day should be established by 2012 to coincide with the Olympics and what will be the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It could operate in the same way as Australia Day, which is a public holiday on 26 January and is used to celebrate what it means to be an Australian.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla. To be concluded shortly.)

DIY Stockhausen

Monday 17 March 2008

I’ve been back to The Luminaire and can confirm that the signs I mentioned are indeed stencilled on the walls, reading,

QUIET If you’re talking when a band is playing we’ll tell you to shut up.


SHUT UP No-one paid to listen to you talking to your pals. If you want to talk to your pals when the bands are on, please leave the venue.

Last time the crowd ignored the signs; this time they didn’t need them. People were much quieter, more attentive. This was not just because the audience was smaller, but because the music was so different. Last time this was a “noisy gig” room with loud, free-form improvisation by Elliott Sharp and Christian Marclay; this time the punters were quietly focused on pianist Daan Vandewalle as he played the first four of Stockhausen‘s Klavierstücke – brief, meticulous, distilled works that require full attention to be appreciated. The type of music played will change the nature of the audience’s response to the performers, even in the same room with largely the same type of audience.

The gig, planned before Stockhausen’s unexpected death but now turned into a memorial, was intended to place the composer in a living, continuing tradition of radical music. The evening concluded with Robin Rimbaud‘s Opus 2128, an imitation of Stockhausen’s Opus 1970, in which the musicians mimicked a recorded collage of Beethoven’s music, much of it heard only by the performers themselves. Rimbaud’s piece was a reconstructed realisation of Stockhausen’s concept, with Stockhausen’s music now worked into the mix alongside his predecessor, assimilated into history.
The main event of the night was a performance of Kontakte, Stockhausen’s famed 1960 electronic composition, to which he added parts for a live pianist and percussionist. Interestingly, the programme notes claimed that Stockhausen originally tried working with musicians improvising to the prerecorded tape, but was dissatisfied with the results and wrote a fully composed score. Vandewalle and percussionist Chris Cutler attempted to recapture Stockhausen’s original intention with their own improvisation.
I doubt he would have been very happy with the result. There were two main problems. The first was that Cutler played too much. This is the perennial curse of musicians left to their own devices: once they’ve started, they never see any reason to stop. (Vandewalle didn’t have this problem so badly: as a pianist, his instrument was harmonically and timbrally restricted to complementing only some of Stockhausen’s tape. His playing was much closer in style to the written score than Cutler’s.)
Cutler used a wide array of instruments and techniques – interestingly, he used electronic processing on many of his sounds, adding another electronic layer to the vintage electronics on tape. This expansion of the understanding of the sonic diversity found in percussion music was intriguing, but too often it drowned out the original tape part. When it could be heard, the tape was remarkable for how contemporary its vocabulary of pitch shifts, phasing, and modulation sounded.
This was the other problem: the tape – a stereo mixdown of the 4-track original – was too quiet in the mix. Stockhausen always saw himself as at least an equal peformer when controlling the sound projection of his tapes, and would constantly monitor and adjust the mix and balance to allow for the vagaries of the performers and the acoustics of the space. At this gig, the tape was rarely allowed to emerge into the foreground, and so was relegated to a passive backdrop over which the musicians could improvise. They came to bury Stockhausen, not praise him.
To balance these two negatives, two positive things were learned from the experiment. One was that, as romantic era musicians who deviated from a literal interpretation of a written score could move closer to the music rather than abandon the composer’s single intention, so there are now musicians with a live, mutable sense of how to perform music of the 20th century avant-garde. This unique sound-world has a life of its own, not frozen on the page, forever hypothetical. Even knowing nothing about that first, unsatisfactory improvised performance of Kontakte, I would bet that Cutler and Vandewalle were much closer to what Stockhausen had in mind (this is of course in large part due to the example of the composer’s own score).
The other positive is that it is possible for Stockhausen’s music to continue outside of the museum. As much as any conventional orchestral composer, if not moreso, Stockhausen depended upon large, established infrastructures to present his work. In his discussion of performing Kontakte, he describes the technology needed to properly present the 4-channel tape to his requirements, in addition to needing 10 microphones onstage to properly capture the sound of the two performers, to fully realise his artistic intentions. This is music which needs curators, institutions – much the same way that many postwar visual artists are dependent upon controlled, neutral gallery space, constant maintenance, and supervision, to present and preserve their works.
Cutler and Vandewalle showed the way to take a Low Road approach to Stockhausen, presenting one of his most essential pieces in a way which needed relatively little money, logistical support, or bureaucratic cooperation. Is it authentic? I’d like to think it shows there are multiple avenues to Stockhausen’s continued appreciation as a force to be reckoned with. Gigs like these build the demand for larger musical institutions to continue to provide resources to present Stockhausen’s more elaborate works into the future.
Related: Robin Maconie, Morton Subotnick, Björk remember Stockhausen.
ANABlog on Stockhausen’s later years and legacy.

Please Mister Please

Thursday 13 March 2008

Tom Phillips, “Lesbia Waltz” Op.15 (1972). Andrew Ball, piano.
(2’13”, 1.34 MB, mp3)

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

Thursday 13 March 2008


This is probably as good a time as any to lay off the Magic 693 posts for a while

Tuesday 11 March 2008

At last, Magic 6931278 has posted its final tally of the 500 Best Songs of All Time, as voted for by Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2006, You. The complete list can be downloaded in a convenient Microsoft Excel workbook.
Before doing so, take a little test and see if you can correctly rank the following ten songs on the list, from highest to lowest:
  • Bob Lind, “Elusive Butterfly”
  • Sue Thompson, “Norman”
  • Gene Pitney, “Half Heaven – Half Heartache”
  • Pussycat, “Mississippi”
  • Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, “Young Girl”
  • Franciose [sic] Hardy, “Only You Can Do It”
  • Crash Craddock, “Boom Boom Baby”
  • Vicki Lawrence, “He Did With Me”
  • Ferrante & Teicher, “Exodus”
  • Elvis Presley, “Old Shep”

Visualising Music

Sunday 9 March 2008

This was going to be a simple post with a couple of fun links to cool music with groovy visuals to help pass some time, but then I remembered an unanswered question by Jodru on that post about new music concerts I mentioned before:

Okay, picture this:
You are performing “Pictures at an Exhibition” and you project Hartmann’s original drawings while you perform.
You are performing some of Virgil Thomson’s musical portraits and you project an image of the subject above the stage.
You are performing Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Treatise’ and you project the score above the stage.
Are you guys certain that these are not sure-fire ways to increase your audience’s comfort level?

Those first two examples: still pictures, as backdrop? Maybe. Projecting the score to Treatise while it’s played? No. It may increase the audience’s comfort level, but it undermines the purpose of playing the music in the first place.
If you exhibit the score to Treatise while it’s played, why not do this for every piece played? A conventionally-notated score is equally illegible to non-musicians; Treatise‘s score is just cunningly designed to be illegible to musicians as well. Is it because Treatise‘s score is a beautiful object in its own right? Then the score is made to justify the music, when it should be the other way around. George Crumb’s music is equally beautiful on the page, but exhibiting the manuscripts during the concert would distract the audience from the music – surely Cardew’s music should be treated with the same respect.
An audience might feel more comfortable listening to Satie if the funny instructions were read out over the music, but they’ll be reacting more to the witticisms than the music.

So, after all that harrumphing, why am I now linking to these two neat little animations? Because they exist as works of analysis after the fact, not of aesthetic interpretation. Rainer Wehinger drew a “listening score” of György Ligeti’s electronic composition Artikulation nearly 20 years after it was made, using symbols to represent the recorded sounds. The snappily-named d21d34c55 has posted an animation on YouTube that syncs up the tape to the score, to show how music and image correspond.

The Rambler has posted a link to the pianist John Mark Harris’ website, which includes a fantastic page that combines a graphic representation of Iannis Xenakis’ punishing composition Evryali with Harris’ performance of the piece. The graph gives a clear demonstration of how Xenakis used aborescences to compose the piece.
Finally, just to complete the circle, d21d34c55 has another page on YouTube showing Xenakis’ 1978 work Mycenae Alpha, an electronic piece written on UPIC, a computer interface that translates images into sound. This time, the images came first, but were expressly created to produce music.

They Must Be Architects

Thursday 6 March 2008

Update! Alan Dempsey, one of the architects, has written in with a link to his informative team blog, which documents the history and progress of the Pavilion. Check the archives for the background on how the structure is designed and built.

Just around the corner from where I work there’s a strange construction going up in Bedford Square. At the moment, it resembles a temporary albeit stylish stage: the deck on the scaffold helps this impression. There were a few placards on the fencing explaining a little about the project, but not much too helpful. Some of the workers would occasionally stop and chat to curious passersby.
Its location in a square on the edge of a park suggests that it’s a piece of public sculpture, but its structure makes it look like architecture. A bit of googling of the names on the placard yielded this website, and it immediately becomes clear that it’s architecture.

First giveaway: the entire site is done in Flash, so the site is hard to read and navigate, overly fiddly, and impossible to quote whatever information the designers wanted to impart in the first place. Of course, plenty of art websites use too much (i.e. some) Flash, but they usually have some scraps of helpful information on them, or at least have a section in which they try to justify their existences. On this particular site, though, there is a complete lack of interest in explaining itself to the world. This is the second clue that this thing is about architecture.
According to the website, the construction is called either the DRL TEN Pavilion, the DRL.TEN Pavilion, or the AADRL TEN Pavilion, depending on which part of the screen you click. TEN may or may not be capitalised. There is no evident explanation as to what an AADRL is, nor of what if any function the Pavilion has. There seems to be an exhibition connected to the Pavilion, which has already opened, but there’s no information on what it’s about or where it is.

The Pavilion itself is announced as opening on 13 March. Judging from the state of the worksite it’s going to be a close thing.

Please Mister Please

Wednesday 5 March 2008

Kenneth Gaburo, “The Wasting of Lucrecetzia (Exit Music No.1)” (1965).
(3’48”, 3.75 MB, mp3)

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

Wednesday 5 March 2008

HA HA! You're in Bedford.

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