I’d spent the past few days sick at home, watching the foxes in the back yard and reminding myself that they’re meant to be there, when someone asked what I planned to do for Eurovision
this year. I’d forgotten that it’s on next Saturday, so it looks like it’ll be a quiet one at home. Originally I had planned to be at the event in person this year, but then Finland went and won the thing so that Eurovision 2007 is being hosted in one of the few cities even more cripplingly expensive than London.
Before the contest even begins, Portugal can celebrate being the country with the longest odds on winning for two years running. (Is this a case of My Lovely Horse
?) After threatening that they WERE GONNA MAKE US SMILE last year, this year their singer, distinctively named Sabrina, is offering more of a soft sell:
Come dance with me
Through the waves of adventure
And I promise I’ll give you
Oceans of tenderness
The wind told me
You will always be my partner
Portugal probably won’t make the final, where the lowest-rated country with guaranteed entry is Lithuania. These were the guys who turned up last year with an act consisting of six blokes in suits yelling “We are the winners of Eurovision so vote for us” for three minutes, and blow me down it almost worked. Unfortunately success has gone to their heads and they’re now going for an earnest, mopey, Ireland style of what I presume is a ballad.
Words lose their sense
when I feel you near
when I touch your hands
I’m trying not to think
that at break of dawn
You’ll be gone and I’ll be lost, numb and all alone
According to the Eurovision website the band’s named 4FUN, which I think is a typo of 4MUM.
The UK has an excellent chance of nul points this year, thanks to the voters of Britain selecting a Stock, Aitken and Waterman reject act that is basically (hello Australian readers) the airline stewards sketch from Fast Forward, only even gayer. Also, they wave Union Jacks around at the end, because the rest of Europe finds the British so endearing. It’s like the French having a song with a second verse about correcting the hosts’ pronunciation, and then complaining afterward that it didn’t get many votes. In fact, that may have happened sometime in the 1980s.
Coming later this week: the Eurovision Drinking Game, substantially revised to take into account the new vote-counting method and last year’s near-hospitalisation for alcohol poisoning.
Although the books are pretty much sorted out
, all my CDs are still sitting around the house in unsorted piles and boxes. Even when I did have shelf space for the discs there was always a certain amount of overspill, which accumulated in a small stack near the CD player. Anything that got played would linger on this pile for a week or so, as its place on the shelf had been taken up by another CD previously on the pile, and so would have to wait before it could be returned from pile to shelf until another vacancy opened up, when a third CD was transferred from shelf to pile. A similar pile has established itself beside the CD player
on my desk.
Glenn Branca, The World Upside Down (New York Chamber Sinfonia, Glen Cortese)
Found years ago in the ten bucks or less bin at Gaslight Music, which I just googled and found out it went bust
a few months after I left Melbourne. Much in the same way that you can’t play rock on a trumpet
, if you take away the dozens of retuned electric guitars from Branca
‘s music and replace them with a string orchestra, it sounds much less like Sonic Youth and much more like John Adams
Ed Kuepper, Honey Steel’s Gold
Half price off mid price at JB
. Apparently, if you overhear this album from the next room it sounds like Talking Heads: whether it’s Remain in Light
Talking Heads or True Stories
Talking Heads is yet to be clarified by my girlfriend.
First, a piece of self-generated filler: I was testing for dead links and discovered that Haiku Review
has finally published the Richard Tipping
review they asked me for about three years ago, and which I submitted to them
about two years ago:
Les techniques sont semblables à ceux employées par des «pirates de l’air de médias» et autre activistes, qui ont puisqu’alternativement coopté et reassimilated par industrie de publicité. Quant à la bureaucratie, travaux tels que retentir le silence être maladroit dans leur monumentality et leur contenu didactique, définissant un message édifiant que n’importe quel bureaucrate ou conseil à l’âme noble pourrait approuver.
It’s also available in Dutch, Korean, Portugese, and English, among other languages.
All Kinds of Stuff
regularly updates his blog with lots of strongly held opinions about cartoons: in particular, the aspects of art, design, writing and acting that go into them, and the way that corporate economics can screw them up. His last posts have been observing the decline of cereal box artwork, and the difference between acting and dialogue performed by a real person
, and performed by a cartoon:
I had just read the script for “Disco Droopy” and someone tipped me off on where the scriptwriter was hiding out…. I chased him down and began to deliver God’s justice upon him… reality sunk in slowly; it produced a last rebellious and futile spasmic outcry. This is what artists face every day of their lives in the terrible icy world of animation scripts.
The real surprise in this post is his brief reference at the end to the extensive restoration work recently done on Ren and Stimpy, salvaging scenes from an old VHS tape. They had to restore Ren and Stimpy. What has the world come to?
Composer Daniel Wolf has been posting frequently on Renewable Music
about the ways that music seeps into other parts of life, including a recent series on Music Landmarks (see the sidebar), a bit like The Rambler’s Music Since 1960
Finally, WFMU has video of John Cage performing his Water Walk
, complete with bathtub, pressure cooker, blender and watering can (but not working radios) on the American TV game show I’ve Got A Secret
, in 1960. The previous year, Cage had performed his music on the Italian quiz show Lascia o Raddoppia
, where as a contestant he won enough money to buy a minivan for Merce Cunningham’s dance company. Has any composer beaten Cage’s record for TV game show appearances?
In case you hadn’t guessed from the description, the video is a great bit of fun.
Value judgements are not in the nature of this work as regards either composition, performance, or listening…. A “mistake” is beside the point, for once anything happens it authentically is.
John Cage, “Composition” (1952), Silence, p.59.
John Cage, cover page for manuscript of 27’10.554″ for a Percussionist (1956).
In the foyer of the Coliseum at the intervals of Philip Glass’ opera Satyagraha
, I heard people making the same Glass jokes that I heard at the first ever Glass concert I went to – good god! – twenty-one years ago. And people complain that his music’s repetitive.
Everyone who discusses Satyagraha mentions how long it is, as though a three-act, three-hour opera is somehow unusual.
When Satyagraha was new (to me and to the world) it revealed a dramatic and emotional depth to Glass’ musical language that had previously been implicit, or repressed. Today it is heard in retrospect, after his decades of movie soundtracks and symphonies, and people find it curiously empty, flat, and static.
Or else they find it infuriating. “Works like these can have much the same effect as mind-numbing drugs, which is no doubt why they proved so popular at the time.” The same criticism was made when Satyagraha was new, by 80s yuppies looking back at the flower-power era with disdain. The major works by first-generation minimalists have long been derided as out-of-date, irrelevant. Strangely, this just makes these pieces seem even more radical to music audiences today.
The more action there was on stage, the less interesting the music became. The stage directors were smart enough to make the stage less busy as the opera progressed. If you didn’t know already, you should have learned during the evening that the music didn’t need visual distractions to work as a theatrical experience.
What was that crocodile doing on stage? If it was just to get a few chuckles from the audience, then it was a success.
Were the texts projected on the stage successful in providing just enough context to better appreciate the opera, or were they treating us like high school kids in need of a crib sheet? I think the literalness of some of the texts (numbering off the scenes, for example) demystified the opera, and so worked against it.
Why did the wind players enter the orchestra pit gradually, as needed, during the third act? Is the audience meant to notice this?
It was wonderful to hear a live performance of one of Glass’ relatively few orchestral works worth hearing. As always there were advantages (Alan Oke’s singing in the lead role, the chorus’ performance after the first scene, watching how well the orchestra kept up such an unfamiliar musical style) and disadvantages (a couple of weak singers, the conductor’s occasional habit of broadening the tempo at dramatic moments, which kills the momentum of Glass’ music) to hearing it live versus a recording.
Some of the time it felt like the singers were all a little too polite in keeping out of each other’s way. Would a full-on La Scala type display of bravura give us a richer operatic experience of the work, or would it pull this type of music to shreds?
Is a recording of a modern opera an idealised performance? Glass certainly intended his recording of Satyagraha to be a distinctive, “perfectly” performed musical experience in its own right. Instead of documenting an ensemble performance, it was a studio creation: the singers and orchestral sections recorded part by part, overdubbed, edited and mixed. No-one had tried to record an opera this way before; presumably very few, if any, have tried this method since.
Satyagraha was recorded in the mid-1980s. Most people discussing the album these days say the sound, like that of many other products of then-new recording technology, is dreadful. I loved this LP, but haven’t listened it to years for fear that hearing it with 21st century ears will ruin it for me. The memories of the album kept coming back throughout the performance at the Coliseum: the two will coexist in my head until someone tries to make a new, more conventional recording.
The day after seeing Satyagraha I didn’t think about it at all; but since then bits of it, from every scene, having been popping into my head. Mostly the music, with the staging as a semi-subliminal accompaniment.
After going to gigs like this for years I realise it’s all the same. The same shiny crunchy timbre of over-processed sound, the same repeating regularity in the loops, the same reverb in the mix, the same mystification of the source material, the same ethrallment at reproducing a surface effect for its own sake, with no thought or mood to support it, the same lack of compositional shape, the same self-contained complacency in its aesthetic goals. It’s all déjà-entendu, without the spark of individuality present in any composer’s work to distinguish one example of the genre from another.
The technology reached a level of sophistication and accessibility in the 1990s that almost nobody has been able to transcend. Everyone is so beholden to the great, potential capabilities of the software that no-one working with it for long can resist altering their creative processes in a way that better accommodates that technological potential, at the expense of their true creativity.
(A visual example: try to find a scene of CGI landscape in a film that doesn’t have some birds flying over and through it.)
This is partly a problem of composers conceiving the music as being defined by its technical apparatus. There’s good contemporary, christian music out there, but it doesn’t describe itself as Contemporary Christian. Now that electroacoustic music is ten-a-penny, spatialisation is the new incursion of ossified academicism: there’s infrastructure and funding needed to support that, with the attendant accumulation of material resources to legitimise cultural authority that the music cannot substantiate on its own.
I’ve finally gotten around to uploading some more mp3s of my music
. Everything I’ve been working on lately is pretty long, so here are some shorter pieces written over the past few years that I can still stand to listen to.
The two new additions are from a series of 24 piano pieces called Stained Melodies
. The material for Stained Melodies
was selected through the use of chance operations on a large array of MIDI keyboard works freely available on the internet. Rather than make a conventional collage, these pieces take only one kind of pitch from each selected work, all of which are then played back simultaneously. In effect, each melody is a collaboration between numerous ghost pianists, none of whom can hear each other; the majority of their music erased. A more detailed explanation is on the download page
This set of pieces is quite likely impossible for a human pianist to play. To put it beyond any doubt, several additional adjustments were made to take advantage of a computer realization. Dynamics change abruptly from one note to the next, and the sustain pedal only works for the least occurring notes in each piece. Finally, the tuning was modified so that the piano retunes itself in each piece to suit the harmonic qualities of the most frequently occurring note.
At the moment, only Nos. 2, 12, and 18 are available for download: they’re about 3MB each. Two other, later works are available on the main music page
. Comments are welcome and may be concise as, but not necessarily limited to:
Mark Greif in the London Review of Books sums up the inadequacy
of most popular music criticism when it comes to addressing the genre’s unique qualities, and its unique illusions:
This sort of writing fails the reality of pop: its special alchemy of lyrics that look like junk on the page, and music that seems underdeveloped when transcribed to a musical staff. Then there is the curse of arid musicology; and of Rolling Stone-ism, the gonzo rock journalist who thinks he is a rock star. Perhaps worst of all, there is the curse of the rhetoric of social action and ‘revolution’, a faith-based illusion that pop songs clearly manifest social history, or an exaggerated sense of what pop achieves in the world. In truth, most critics aren’t verbally equipped to describe any band’s vivid effects on its main audience: the listener at home, alone in his room.
You could argue against that last point, but the reality of recording as pop music’s medium (and rock’s, if you are particular about these distinctions) is inescapable in Grief’s review of Richard Witts’ book on The Velvet Underground. Combined, the two writers reveal the band as something quite different from the quasi-mythical beast it has become in popular imagination, and discover the band’s secret twin on the other side of the continent…
When finishing up the previous post
(which had sat around unfinished for weeks, poor thing) I got to the bit about where artists’ ideas come from and remembered an anecdote I think
I heard on the radio about 20 years ago, but have never encountered since.
Igor Stravinsky, when asked what he was thinking of while composing The Rite of Spring
, once replied* “Fresh air and cheese, plus a lot of electricity.”
Incidentally, googling stravinsky +air +cheese +electricity will take you to a bunch of Frank Zappa sites.
* Allegedly! i.e. according to me.
It’s the highfalutin’ equivalent of a fight breaking out on a football pitch: the premiere of Stockhausen’s Trans staggers to a halt amidst a chorus of hoots and hisses from the audience. Some incensed concertgoers jump the gun and unwittingly start booing before the end, quickly subdued by insistent shushing and the last, unexpected sounds of the orchestra. Once everyone’s certain it’s finally over, the crowd, impatient but still disorientated by the stop-start finish, rises in partisan crosstides of cheers and catcalls. For several minutes the two sides battle for supremacy, the boos and hisses drowned out by cheers, the cheers drowned out by boos and hisses – all of it preserved on the CD release, as though it were part of the music.
Edward Winkelman recently posted on his blog
about the importance of self-belief in the arts, and whether all art is to some extent a game of confidence.
Reportedly, an influential Chelsea art dealer was asked once what characteristic she felt separated the artists who would feature prominently in the history books and those who would be lucky to be footnotes. Representing several who’ve already entered the history books, she responded that the ones who make it, wake up everyday, look themselves in the mirror, and say “I’m the best fucking artist in the world” before heading off to their studios.
Mind you, the heading off to their studios is no small part of their success, but the belief in the importance of their work is something I’m beginning to believe might be crucial to that level of success as well….
If not arrogance, then at least wholesale delusion seems to be an asset. Stockhausen
, a composer confident enough to instruct musicians when they were playing correctly in the rhythm of the universe, was asked sometime in the early seventies that chestnut dear to clueless journalists, “Where do you get your ideas?” Unexpectedly, he answered in all seriousness that all his music was dictated to him by his ancestral supreme beings from a planet in the Sirius star system. He then spent the next thirty years of his life writing a seven-day opera detailing his cosmological revelations.
Trans, however, is a piece so unusual that even Stockhausen himself is incapable of explaining it, saying merely that it came to him in a dream he could transcribe but not interpret. It doesn’t get played very often, so I made a point of going to see it at Blackheath Halls last month, where students from Trinity College were staging it as part of a new(ish) music festival.
The orchestra is directed to play from behind a scrim, bathed in dim purple light – Blackheath Halls doesn’t have a proscenium on its stage, so instead of the scrim they filled the room with fog. Three tiers of string players faced the audience; in the violet gloom behind them, rows of other musicians could vaguely be seen, following a conductor hidden behind a screen. The string players created a dense veil of sustained tones that masks the sounds that emerged from the stage behind them. Occasional, mysterious solos erupted from the orchestra, for no explicable reason. A loud, shuttling sound thundered across the room at unexpected intervals, as a random punctuation.
Audience and orchestra, equally lost in the purple fog, partook of the event in a state not unlike the suspension of disbelief required to embrace the enactment of a myth. Its alien weirdness and denial of rational meaning suspended judgement, the music and its theatre an unquestionable, unalterable fact to be experienced. We all deferred to the indomitable arrogance of Stockhausen, an arrogance that was necessary to trust that he could put across a work he could not understand, without a safety net of explanation or justification.
As a piece of theatrical irony, the student orchestra looked nervous and uncertain of their place on stage, as though overwhelmed by the audacity of the work and plagued by doubts that they could successfully pull it off. At the end of the piece many of them had a stunned expression of disbelief at their success. The music itself had been powerful enough to transcend their lack of self-possession, treating them as vessels, receiving dictation from higher beings.
After posting a lengthy piece of filler
about the contents of someone else’s iPod, my dad has written in to supply the missing information about the mystery orchestras.
The Beethoven is Nikolas Harnoncourt conducting The Chamber Orchestra Of Europe – this is part of a boxed set of the 9 symphonies and was released by Teldec in 1991. The 4th was recorded live 29/06/1990.
The Villa Lobos is the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française, conducted by Villa Lobos himself! The soprano is Victoria de los Angeles (Nos. 1 & 2), the original recording is from 1957, digitally remastered in 1987 by EMI France.
He adds that he is relying on the Gracenote database for some of this information, and if Gracenote was good enough to out Joyce Hatto
as a fraud then it’s good enough for me.
My dad also confirms that, sadly, he no longer has the John Betjeman LPs and so had to source these tracks from, uh, “elsewhere”. However, he remains silent on the whole Rammstein/Lavigne/Farnham business, preferring instead to opine, erroneously, that “Undecided” is inferior to “Turn Up Your Radio
“, and to gratuitously diss Tom T. Hall
for no apparent reason before signing off. Clever smokescreen, there.
It had to happen by accident if it was going to happen at all. Every year I receive a shoebox containing several relatively high-end consumer knick-knacks from my dad, as he casts off his superseded technology and upgrades to the next generation of electronic gadgets. The box always arrives unexpectedly, the contents are always a surprise, and have a large degree of difference in usefulness. If you have unwanted battery-operated items lying around your house and cannot be bothered firing up eBay, I am considering expanding this service beyond members of my immediate family.
This year’s shoebox contained an iPod Nano so Dad, I hope you’re enjoying that new 80GB video iPod you’ve got yourself. I’ve never used a personal music player before, figuring that I’d always be switching it off every few minutes to hear something going on in the outside world. (The ancient Discman in the photo is patched into an amplifier, and in any case doesn’t like being moved. It’s another paternal cast-off.)
My Dad sent me his iPod with all his music still loaded on it, so before I do anything else with it I’m going to hit shuffle and report on the first ten tracks it plays. This experiment enables me to do simultaneously two things I’ve never done before: use an iPod, and take up a meme
that has appeared
on other blogs
. Please note that I am using the latest definition of “meme”, which has now been extended to include “copying the Random Rules column
in The Onion’s AV Club”.
Unlike other participants, who have prefaced their reports with disclaimers as to how the music on their iPod may not necessarily be representative of their actual tastes, I won’t resort to such a cop-out, and will boldly affirm that whatever tracks come up on this device are an unequivocal indicator of my dad’s personality.
1. “Ich Will (radio edit)” by Rammstein
OK, I wasn’t expecting that. Perhaps he’s given me my little sister’s iPod instead.
2. Symphony No.4, 3rd movement, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Nikolas Harnoncourt conducting somebody or other
Sorry, I don’t know who the orchestra is because I haven’t figured out yet how to get all the track details to display properly. That’s one problem with MP3 players: they’re overengineered in the way they present music. CDs, tapes, records: they don’t much care whether you fill them with symphonies, Buddhist rituals, lectures, or radio broadcasts. It’s all the same to them: stick a label on it somewhere and everyone can work it out for themselves. But iPods expect every track to be one complete unique song by a unique singer and get all grudging with the information when the real world doesn’t work out that way. Also, the little headphones keep falling out of my ears.
3. “Too Much To Ask” by Avril Lavigne
Uh, Dad, that picture is too small to be of any use to anyone.
4. “Now’s the Time” by Charlie Parker
I have a great big deaf spot when it comes to jazz. And I was too preoccupied with trying out different ways, none of them successful, of sticking the headphones in my ears without them falling out, to concentrate on the music.
5. “Longfellow’s Visit to Venice” by Sir John Betjeman
Now this is the stuff. For the sake of full disclosure, it should be noted that up until now I have been doing what I imagine everyone does when undertaking this exercise and skipping through each track instead of listening to it. I’m sorry if I sound terrible slow in coming to the party on this point, but I’ve truly just realised that the great benefit of iPods is that they enhance your ability to identify with your selection of music, without subjecting you to the inconvenience of having to hear it.
I was just reminded about the existence of these records last year (via The Rambler): eccentric hybrid recordings combining the then Poet Laureate reciting his verse over charmingly sympathetic musical accompaniments, specially composed by Jim Parker. I remember enjoying the LPs my parents had of this stuff when I was a kid, and apparently I wasn’t alone. “There’s this comic gravity that I’ve certainly found inspiring regarding my own work,” enthuses fellow fuddy-duddy Nick Cave in an article about the history of Betjeman’s records in The Guardian. Further investigation is required before I can verify the Guardian’s claim that there is indeed “dope bass action” and “fat, funky basslines” for DJs to dig on in these tracks. It’s better than Gerrard Kennedy’s efforts, at any rate.
Did my dad dub this from his vinyl, find it on CD, or is it for sale at iTunes? Or are the l33t w@r3z kids sharing Sir John B on teh bittorrentzz?
6. Bachianas Brasileiras No.9, 1st movement, by Heitor Villa Lobos. Orchestre National de la R..
One of these was bound to turn up. There are nine works in this series, each broken up into movements, so the odds are heavily stacked towards some fragment of them appearing near the front end of any shuffle. Again, the machine will not tell me the full name of who’s playing this, making the orchestra name look like that of a licentious marquess from a saucy 19th-century novel.
7. “Thrice Told Tale (Take 1)” by, uh, me.
Suddenly I’m listening to something I composed five years ago. I suspect he whacked this on just before shoving it in the jiffy bag just to impress me. Still, he would have ripped it from the audio CD I gave him, so there’s been some effort put into it, which is nice. Even though it’s unquestionably brilliant I’m skipping through it anyway, because it’s half an hour long.
8. “Horny” by Mousse T vs Hot’n’Juicy
Daddy, we hardly knew you.
9. “Undecided” by The Masters Apprentices
At last, something else I don’t want to skip through. Amazingly, this little garage nugget just keeps growing in stature over the decades: what began as a quickie bit of filler is now teaching us all an important lesson in how much Jet sucks. I suddenly feel very old. Not because I know this song, I mean because I remember Jet.
10. “You’re The Voice” by Johnny Farnham
This whole exercise – right from the invention of the iPod, down to the act of deciding to write this post – has been a cruel, elaborate trick played by fate at my expense.
Next five: “I’m the Lonesomest Gal in Town” by Ella Fitzgerald; “Yesterday When I Was Mad” by The Pet Shop Boys; “Kometenmelodie 1″ by Kraftwerk; “Tiger Feet” by Mud; and something by my ex-girlfriend – hang on! We split up before there were iPods, which means…. (throws iPod out window only for it to bounce back when headphones remain stuck in ears).
From the sublime to the ridiculous: the previous post came out of my researching this one.
National pride is all well and good, but British classical music buffs are notoriously partisan. No praise is too fulsome for a doughty wind band from Bournemouth or church organist in Beccles, all of whom are favourably compared to their foreign counterparts and their somewhat suspect techniques. No wonder so many music critics were beside themselves when they discovered the late-blossoming career of the Cambridge-based pianist Joyce Hatto
Over the past year the British Gramophone magazine has been one of the most ardent champions of the 100-odd CDs recorded in the last 15 years of her life, after illness had forced her to abandon her concert career; alternately praising her and denouncing her critics in its quaint house style.
Hatto takes her place among the greats. Joyce Hatto’s CD legacy may be mired in controversy (“the forgeries of jealousy”?) but there is nothing controversial about recordings which surely place her among an elite of women pianists (only six artists of comparable stature spring to mind).
Doubting Thomases, of which there are apparently many, may well wonder how Joyce Hatto achieved such unalloyed mastery and musicianship when tragically beset with ill-health. But others will surely celebrate an awe-inspiring triumph of mind over matter, of the indomitable nature of the human spirit.
It would take many weeks of intensive work to examine all of the Hatto recordings, but it seems clear that at least some of these great performances are identical to other performances available from other recording companies.
According to Andrew Rose, who investigated the hoax
for Gramophone, the list of CDs by other pianists plagiarised by Hatto (or plagiarised in her name by her record-producer husband) is growing every day, as enthusiasts track down the matching source material.
The cranky old men who populate rec.music.classical.recordings
on Usenet have descended into even wilder name-calling than usual, with hilarious use of quotations of previous Hatto praise to deflate some of the more obnoxious resident egos.
More cogent discussions are being tracked at Iron Tongue of Midnight.
Opera Chic offers her typically pertinent observation on the scandal, being the first to call out
Hatto’s “Jetsons-style” bouffant.
For some reason I didn’t mention Tenney’s passing last year: he was one of the sharpest musical thinkers and composers of the latter part of the 20th century. He’s often pigeonholed as a musical version of a conceptual artist, but his music beautifully embodies his understanding of the nature and perception of sound and, in turn, his theoretical writings illuminate the ways in which we do and don’t “get” contemporary music, in ways that conventional talk of harmony and structure fails.
In one of the nerdiest seductions ever, I once turned a girlfriend on to the avant-garde
by taking her to a performance of Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion. (That piece is usually more of a knockout than the Sonic Youth performance in the link, but I like the way they take an idea and run with it.)