Please Mister Please

Thursday 7 August 2008

Jon Rose, “Golf, Golf, Golf: Fuck, Fuck, Fuck” (1992). Gillian Jones, voice.
(2’22”, 2.97 MB, mp3)

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

Thursday 7 August 2008

I do have a halogen bulb in my pocket.

“We stopped at the IKEA café, where the coffee was cheap and the service friendly, but we didn’t see anyone writing poetry”

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Having just remarked that Australia doesn’t get much attention in the British press, a few articles have just surfaced in the papers about Starbucks closing most of its Australian stores. I don’t know if anyone has bothered to point out that Australian Starbucks was at least one of the lesser failures to be associated with Natasha Stott Despoja’s political career, which coincidentally ended about the same time as the coffee chain’s attempt to dominate the Antipodean market.
There has been some tentative speculation about whether this business decision has more to do with the credit crunch, heroic localised resistance to encroaching globalisation, or just the realisation that Starbucks coffee isn’t very good. British chin-stroking on the subject has been clouded by the difficulty most Brits have in distinguishing a macchiato from Marmite.
It is a truism that the British don’t know how to make coffee – a defining cultural trait, centuries in the making, which still holds sway even in modern-day London. The symptom of this deficiency most immediately visible to the London visitor is the large number of Starbucks, all full to capacity, with queues to the counter sometimes stretching to 20 people. It is an eye-opening contrast to the typical Australian Starbucks experience of a faintly caffeinated morgue, empty save for a small scattering of listless tourists.
Worse still, the majority of British, virtually alone among the Europeans, think it’s what good coffee is supposed to taste like:

Like every other UK coffee geek I’ve conveniently airbrushed from my memory the debt I owe Starbucks; how, before they arrived, coffee was a throat-rasping, lip-puckering laxative tar dispensed in caffs that couldn’t give a toss; how we delighted in our first taste of a cafe culture and how we sucked down the enticing new mixtures.

Sadly, Starbucks was probably a true advancement for the British appreciation of coffee. For coffee lovers, London is a Bizarro city where the small, independent café will generally serve an inferior coffee to that offered by the multinational chains. On my way to work each morning I stop off at the nearby branch of a coffee franchise (not Starbucks) for my long black. Just up the street is a stylish independent café where the bright young things congregate. It has excellent pastries, and weak, milky coffee that costs half as much again, which is all too typical. The swill served at the (overrated) traditional “caffs” doesn’t bear thinking about.
If the girl behind the counter warns you it might be too strong, the coffee will be almost acceptable. After two years in London, my girlfriend made the mistake of ordering a “strong latte” out of habit on her first visit back home to Melbourne, and had the jitters for an hour afterwards.
The trouble in London is that Starbucks has set a standard of burnt, watery mediocrity to which many have risen, but so few aspire to exceed. We probably get the evil multinational conglomerates we deserve. Starbucks coffee may be bad, but badness hasn’t stopped other franchises from spreading around the world – look at McDonald’s. But then again, look at the local variations McDonald’s has made to its menu in Australia, and in other countries all around the world (British Maccas even serve porridge for breakfast). It seems that, when confronted with a particular café culture in Australia, Starbucks could not or would not adapt to survive in it.
Of course, our former colonial masters scoff good-naturedly at the idea of Australians being “too sophisticated” for Starbucks – this light-hearted derision coming from a country where packets of pasta are printed with recommended cooking times giving a minute or two leeway, and the baristas ask if you want ice in your long black. A country in blissful ignorance of an entire continent of excellent coffee that lies just across the Channel.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)

Stockhausen: The High Road

Monday 4 August 2008

Apologies for this post, which I don’t have time to revise or edit right now.
I went back to the Albert Hall for the Proms for the first time in years, because on Saturday night they promised damn near 4 hours of Karlheinz Stockhausen. This would have been the 80th birthday celebration bash, if not for the composer’s unexpected death in December.
Earlier this year I saw an improvised sort-of performance of Kontakte, Stockhausen’s 1960 electronic composition for tape, with optional parts for live pianist and percussionist. The Proms performance was the real deal – with the 4-track tape spatially projected around the hall, the full complement of microphones prescribed by Stockhausen to fully capture the sound of the live musicians – and to compare this high road performance favourably with the gig I heard in March would be fatuous.
As I said at the time, “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.” In the Albert Hall the tape, nearly 50 years old, gained from having its details revealed, rather than having any flaws exposed. The abundant variety of sounds produced with such a small array of crude equipment was particularly striking. The percussionist and pianist (who is also given percussion parts to play at certain points) acted both as less and more than soloists over a backing tape; they amplified and drew into relief the sonic world and dramatic tension of the original tape part.
You wouldn’t think it possible to find a piece of music suited to the Royal Albert Hall, with its infamous echo and cavernous space that swallows up sounds. Even Stockhausen’s fearsome work Gruppen for three orchestras was tamed by the space. This landmark composition was played twice – to begin and end the first concert – the better for us to grasp its wealth of details and complex interplays between orchestras. However, the visceral impact of Gruppen was dulled by the architecture. As well as the wishy-washy acoustics, the floorplan of the hall forced two of the orchestras into close proximity at the centre of the space, meaning that the players were more surrounded by the punters, not the other, intended way around. To make matters worse, the punters holding standing room tickets were squashed into the reduced isthmus of space between the two orchestras, while the third was up and away on the stage.
The second performance of Gruppen benefited particularly from hearing Kontakte immediately before it, to better realise just how strongly Stockhausen’s writing for musicians had been influenced by his pioneering work with tape and electronics during the 1950s.
Amazingly, the Royal Albert felt like it had been constructed specially for the playing of Stockhausen’s very late (2007) electronic work Cosmic Pulses. Like much later Stockhausen, the piece’s material feels much simpler and less forbidding than the dense abstraction of his music from the 50s. Bell-like sounds, as might be heard on an old synthesiser, tolled and slowly rotated around the circular hall. For the next half-hour, these bells circled the space in ever higher registers at ever faster speeds, building up into a whirling mass of sound that was simultaneously rapturous and intimidating, beguiling and maddening.
You could intuit that there was a process behind the sound, of each strand of sounds obeying certain cyclical speeds and patterns, but that knowledge did nothing the music’s power or mystery. It had the sublime indifference of a natural phenomenon. Looking up into the hall’s dome, pinpricks of light from the evening sky could be seen through gaps in the roof, like a night sky strewn with the stars that figured so prominently in Stockhausen’s music.
The second concert of the night was given entirely to a performance of Stimmung, Stockhausen’s long work for six voices singing harmonic overtones of a low B-flat for over an hour. Early last year I heard a quasi-amateur performance of Stimmung, so again it would be fatuous to say that Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices performance for the Proms was superior. However, they shared a difference from the recording I’ve heard of the piece by Singcircle: a greater sense of drama and physicality than Singcircle’s uniform serenity.
In addition to the strongest overtone singing I’ve heard in a performance of the piece (some punters afterward believed they were electronic effects), Theatre of Voices invested their performance with the solemn informality of a true ritual, unifying the spiritual and corporeal aspects of Stockhausen’s vision as embodied in the text’s inclusion of the names of gods and self-penned erotic poetry (which, in true British fashion, were printed in the programme but not translated).
Stimmung is both so direct and so elusive – another punter has described Stockhausen’s staging instructions, observing that part of his appeal is his disarming sincerity and the “home-made feel” of much of his music and theatre – it seems impossible to define. It is often described as “meditative” but it has an equally stimulating effect, as observed amongst the standing room punters. Many of them were sitting on the floor for the performance, and more and more began lying down as the piece progressed. Then, about three-quarters of the way through, a number of them suddenly felt compelled to stand and take a step or to forward, actively attentive for the rest of the piece.

May as well punch Jamie Oliver

Sunday 3 August 2008

(A supermarket in London. The checkout kid is concentrating on an item of produce with furrowed brow and bemused demeanour. Eventually…)

What’s this?

That’s garlic.


(Without much further struggle he locates the right price code and proceeds. Two tins of tomatoes, one packet of spaghetti and a cheap hunk of parmesan later…)

(brow furrowed)
What’s this?

That’s also garlic.


Please Mister Please

Wednesday 30 July 2008

John Cage, “59½” for a string player” (1953). Joëlle Léandre, double bass.
(1’11”, 0.89 MB, mp3)

Beautiful Waste

Wednesday 30 July 2008

In a splendid act of procrastination, I’ve been flipping through the photos I took while in Melbourne I found that I spent a lot of time taking pictures of old cars around the place. You don’t see many interesting heaps around Britain, what with the annual testing and British cars having all pretty much rusted away or otherwise fallen to bits. Anyway, I went slightly OCD and uploaded them all to Flickr.

One Short Black

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Like many people, I didn’t know whether to feel sorrow or amusement when Starbucks came to Australia 5 or 6 years ago and opened a store in Lygon Street, of all places. Every afternoon I would stroll down the pavement past the bustling tables outside all the cafés, and then pass through the dead, sucking void where Starbucks had set up shop.
It seemed like it never had more than three punters in it: a middle-aged American couple, and a Japanese tourist wearing hip-hop gear. Was I deluding myself into thinking that the international chain of overpriced crap coffee was doomed to failure in Melbourne? Was I overestimating the ability to resist the millions of dollars’ worth of pressure the corporation could use to grind down the competition and the public, year after year?
Starbucks will close 70% of its Australian stores and slash more than half of its workforce…
Across the country, the company’s 84 cafes closed yesterday at 2pm…. Although the list of the stores to be closed has not been released, it is believed the controversial Starbucks shop in Lygon Street, Carlton, is among them….
Starbucks president Howard Schultz ruled out closing other stores internationally and cited “challenges unique to the Australian market”. Retail analyst Barry Urquhart said Starbucks failed in Australia in part “because they didn’t understand and respect the unique and differing characteristics of the Australian coffee consumer”.

Stained Melodies: Expanded Special Edition Director’s Cut Redux 3D

Monday 28 July 2008

Stained Melodies, a set of 24 short piano pieces I wrote back in 2000, has been hanging around on the website for a while now. I just noticed that I don’t have any copies of the CD left, so I’ve uploaded the lot of them as mp3s.
If you’ve listened to them before, you might be interested to know that I’ve replaced the old files with better quality versions.
Each melody is, in structure and in effect, a collaboration between numerous ghost pianists, none of whom can hear each other, all playing different music in different keys and tempos. However, most of the music is then erased, so that only a small fragment of each pianist can be heard simultaneously.
Also, the piano has been retuned into just intonation. To keep things interesting.

Now with its own web page

Saturday 26 July 2008

Kwik Komputer Klinik

Thursday 24 July 2008

Do you use a wireless mouse? Have you found lately that your mouse is inaccurate, erratic, sluggish and unresponsive? Try these three simple steps to troubleshoot the problem.

  1. Check that the mouse batteries are fully charged.
  2. Make sure you are using a clean mousepad or other work surface for your mouse.
  3. Move the wall of empty beer cans away from the edge of your mousepad to another corner of your desk.

Please Mister Please

Tuesday 22 July 2008

Moab Stringband with Not Drowning Waving, “Abebe” (1988).
(2’54”, 5.60 MB, mp3)

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

Tuesday 22 July 2008

I think I've spent the last hour staring blankly into space and no-one's noticed.

The Old School Is Built On The Ruins Of The New School

Monday 21 July 2008

MP3s for download:
1. The Old School Is Built On The Ruins Of The New School
(take 1, 21 July 2008. 7’53”, 13.53 MB)
2. The Old School Is Built On The Ruins Of The New School
(take 2, 21 July 2008. 8’21”, 13.93 MB)
My old laptop is dying, but I managed to coax another performance out of it while I was in Melbourne. I was asked to play at Stutter, which happens every Wednesday night at the fine Horse Bazaar.
I decided to make a new piece for digitally-emulated feedback, a bit like last year’s The One Who Was Neither Or Nor, but with some refinements. Again, The Old School Is Built On The Ruins Of The New School was made using AudioMulch, with nested loops of sound processing contraptions which generate self-modulating feedback signals that can either be sent to the speakers, fed back into themselves, or into one of the other loops.
This time around, the new piece was designed to have a more elegant performance interface. Instead of furrowing my brow glaring at a computer screen, fussing with a mouse making adjustments and changing connections, I constructed a simple set of control points which had distinctive, but indirect, effects on the sounds produced. These control points could then be manipulated through AudioMulch’s Metasurface interface.

The resulting sounds were more complex than Neither/Nor: with greater variety in timbres and in phrasing. I particularly liked the way the loops would cancel each other out from time to time, suddenly introducing silences of unpredictable lengths. It’s not really relaxing listening, but it keeps you guessing.
Unfortunately I couldn’t make a recording of the gig. My computer was already being taken to its limits by this piece, and attempting to capture the sound data to hard drive at the same time would send the laptop into seizures. The two mp3 files above were recorded at home earlier today, each take lasting until the computer overloaded and I lost the thread of what was happening.
A new page for this piece, with more info, will be up on the music page shortly. Hopefully, I might have a few pics of the gig, too. In the meantime, here’s a woozy snap of the fine trio that played after me: Natasha Anderson, Ben Byrne, and Sean Baxter, making a scrupulously detailed racket with improvised analog electronics, percussion, computer manipulation and the world’s biggest recorder. Sorry the pic’s so bad: blame it on the bar’s subdued lighting and too much Cooper’s Pale.

Frontier: Coburg

Saturday 19 July 2008

A few years ago, my girlfriend went to her first medical checkup in London and found herself explaining to the British-born doctor that Australian houses have bedrooms, thus correcting her assumption that verandahs were primarily designed for sleeping. When the only news story from Australia that has impinged upon British consciousness this year is the one about the bloke with the seatbelt on his slab, it can be hard explaining to Brits that Australia is a modern, largely urbanised society, with a complex and sophisticated culture.
Then you come back to Melbourne for a visit, sit out on the verandah of your friend’s house in leafy Coburg, and flip through the Personal Services classifieds at the back of the local paper.

“Yee-haw! There’s a passel o’ fine fillies up from South Yarra ways on that thar stagecoach, pardner!”
“Shucks, Jed, I ain’t seen me a gin-u-wine South Yarra lady up the Sydney Road in a month o’ Sundays!”
And then there’s this inspired promotional campaign that’s guaranteed to drum up trade. It’s enough to make any bargain-hunting man grab his hod and head out west. Also note the somewhat excessive zeal and efficiency that Amy brings to her job.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)