I had an urgent barbecue to attend in the Cotswolds, so unfortunately I had to cancel plans to see Mattin and some other new-musicy dudes play at Alma Enterprises last weekend. I forget who else was playing; I wanted to see Mattin again, having previously seen him give one of the best live laptop performances I’ve experienced outside of a strip club.
The stage presence of most live computer sound-crunching musos has been definitively described elsewhere as that of “bored young men checking their email”. Usually, the music isn’t much more engaging. But several years ago, in the Iwaki Auditorium
, Mattin conscientiously set up his Powerbook, covered his ears, winced in anticipation, and waited.
Then, tentatively, he uncovered his ears and relaxed. Then he hunched forward and braced himself again, before relaxing once more. In between the occasional small adjustment to his inert computer, he and an accomplice crept from one corner of the auditorium to another, finding a place to freeze, cover over, and wait with increasing bemusement. There was never so much as a peep from the computer or the PA.
The necessity of artists compromising their aesthetic or political beliefs to conform to such a high-concept curatorial brief is evident immediately upon entering the gallery. You wouldn’t know the show was about sound art: four of the six artists have presented video installations. Apparently, sound doesn’t have much potential as a weapon unless it is circumscribed with image.
Of these, two were video documentations of events involving sound and/or music. In November 2005 Thomas Altheimer attempted to sail toGuantanamo Bay to play Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony within earshot of the camp. There may be an interesting documentary in his tribulations to make the project succeed, but not in this muddled, artsy-fartsy installation.
Rod Dickinson’s video footage of his reenactment of the sound barrage used by the FBI at the seige of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco is similarly dull and unenlightening, elucidating neither the reenactment nor the siege itself. The most psychologically disturbing aspect of this piece was its expectation that you would sit wearing headphones while watching a video of unspecified length.
There was also a music video, little more than an advertisement for the metaphor of sound as virus without any further exploration of how this may work as an idea. The final video was an incompetently shot video of someone’s backyard accompanied by non-English speakers reading an English language primer, a cheap bit of grant-bait that fits the curatorial brief only if the intended audience is poor Professor Henry Higgins.
The sad part of this show is that underneath it all lies the tired old idea that art still has some social subversiveness to it, a political relevance it can no longer even pretend to claim. And yet the proposed transgressions are so vague and unambitious. If you want some real mayhem, try getting hold of William Burroughs’ Revised Boy Scout Manual
1) The song must feature an Important Life Lesson. This lesson can usually be summed up on a single sentence, and often ends in an exclamation point.
2) Billy and/or his band (also known as The Black Hole of Rockin’) must in some way remind the viewer of another band/another celebrity/some irrelevant piece of pop culture history. You’ll be surprised how often this happens.
3) There must be celebrity guest stars. Not every video features a guest star, but when they do, you can almost count of them being 80′s specific.
4) Perhaps most important in determining how essential a video is, is where it falls on the BJ Jew Fro Scale.
. . .Oh, and it always helps if a video has hilariously out-of-place black people.
Convincing scientific analysis of a dozen or so case studies follows. I think it was The Standing Room’s
overzealous del.icio.us feed that brought this important information to my attention.
new music magazine in Australia, publishing about one issue a year from 1982 to 1992. The featured composers and performers were resolutely of what New Yorkers call a “downtown”
musical orientation, revolving around free improvisation, home-made instruments and homebrew electronics, multimedia extravaganzas, lo-fi sampling, bizarro forays into rock and dance music, and general eclecticism and mockery of the dogma emanating from the self-anointed cultural centres in Europe and the USA.
Each issue came with a cassette tape of pieces by musicians who appeared in the mag. Most (all?) of it has never been reissued commerically: for decades this music has circulated by samizdat, dubbed and redubbed from library copies and occasional radio broadcasts, passed between music geeks who knew there was more to life than horrible pub rock and tribute bands. The music is wild, unique, and utterly essential to anyone interested in the less offensive developments in music over the last 25 years.
Shame File is halfway through uploading the complete series of ten cassettes. NMA’s website has published the complete text of the 1988 book 22 Contemporary Australian Composers
, which describes the careers of many of the composers on the tapes.
Experience the Ferocity of a Pyroclastic Flow!, by Translators from the Ukraine.
The irrepressible Dr David Thorpe of Your Band Sucks
volleys back a few Dorothy Dixers about modern popular music. Now you too can be as well informed about the latest trends in youth culture as someone who honestly gives a shit.
Dr Thorpe answers mail from readers who want to know whether Nirvana or Nine Inch Nails killed more teenagers, what is the current balance of T versus A in pop, as well as resolving the perennial questions about the Corrs and Tegan and Sara. In between, he also gives a few critical life lessons.
Will rap music ever receive the same level of critical acclaim as mainstream guitar-based radio friendly songs?
Hey buddy, next time you go back in time to 1989, bring me back a sports almanac like Biff in Back to the Future II so I can get rich.
Much too dark exposure and not sharp. I suppose you may say that you tried to make it unsharp but what the hell’s the point in that. I like things sharp. Maybe you should study some other peoples’ photographs here on this forum and get an idea of what a good photograph should look like.
There’s a heap more like this, in the same post and subsequent entries
on the Online Photographer’s blog, culminating in some navel-gazing about how everyone feels compelled to point out “mistakes” photographers such as Cartier-Bresson have made by not following “rules” of exposure, framing and focus. Oh, and not using a Nikon. No, a Canon. No! A Nikon!
Taking a photograph in complete ignorance of the “rules” hurts no one, costs nothing, and might even be more fun.
You can read those posts and laugh at the silly nerdboys (there may be a girl or two in there) with their techincal hairsplitting, valuing process over results. But as you do, please spare a thought for those of us who tried to learn music composition at university. I doubt there is any other artform taken so seriously, which is so dependent on the same type of pointless nitpicking as which these internet kibitzers thrive on.
At about the same time as the Online Photographer was making his point, Kyle Gann at PostClassic had finished teaching another semester:
I’ve been becoming aware that, even among the Downtowners, there is a standard academic position regarding electronic music, and am learning how to articulate it. I’ve long known that, though much of my music emanates from computers and loudspeakers, I am not considered an electronic composer by the “real electronic composers.” Why not? I use MIDI and commercial synthesizers and samplers, which are disallowed, and relegate my music to an ontological no-man’s genre. But more and more students have been telling me lately that their music is disallowed by their professors, and some fantastic composers outside academia have been explaining why academia will have nothing to do with them.
Two generations ago, composition professors would promote the careers of unlistenably dull, academic composers who would say approvingly, in all seriousness, that a piece of music was “better than it sounds.” Today, those same fossils are still taking up space in most music schools, but now a whole new exciting branch of electronic music has opened up, so that a fresh batch of careerists can stifle it all over again; and refuse to state whether or not a piece of music they have heard is any good, until they know what technical equipment was used to make it.
In one of the later, more indulgent passages of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker” novels, he describes an out-of-it band’s music (from dim memory) as one muso playing in 3/4, another in 5/8, while a third played in πr
². It seemed like a far-out joke to your callow, nerdy self, right up until you heard the music of Conlon Nancarrow
Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano No. 40
is written entirely in the rhythmic relationship of e
/π. How do you play something like that? You can’t, so you get a machine to do it for you. If you’re living in 1948, in an earthquake-proof bunker in Mexico City, in exile from your native United States without a passport because of your socialist beliefs, the machine in question is a battered 1920s player piano, and you punch the notes for its piano rolls by hand, one at a time.
Nancarrow was obsessed with hearing polyrhythms of a complexity the mind could perceive, but not imagine. He resorted to the player piano when musicians couldn’t, or wouldn’t (“they’ll think I’m playing wrong notes!”) play his music, and so expanded the realm of rhythmic and temporal possibilities beyond anyone’s previous expectations.
Wait: more Nancarrow links.
- In addition to the Other Minds page linked above, Kyle Gann has written the book about Nancarrow (literally), and annotates his list of works with the increasingly wild tempo ratios used in his music.
- The Other Minds Archive has a recording of the long-lost Three 2-Part Studies, written back when Nancarrow was still writing for live pianists and was conventially jazzier, only this version has been arranged for two toy pianos (why yes, it is Margaret Leng Tan, how did you guess?)
- More from Other Minds: Study for Player Piano No. 40b (i.e. the second and final movement of Study No. 40).
- I get cranky about live musicians playing Nancarrow’s player piano music.
He was that rarest of treasures, a brilliant European composer who wasn’t a megalomaniacal arsehole. A composer whose music is as sensually rewarding as it is intellectually appealing. A composer who became part of Fluxus
to annoy the modernist orthdoxy, only to leave it again when he realised Fluxus wanted to be taken seriously. A man who wrote a symphonic poem for 100 metronomes.
If you’ve seen 2001 you’ve heard his music. Oh alright, and Eyes Wide Shut. No, not that piece!
- Alex Ross gives a beautiful summary of Ligeti’s life and achievements, written in 2001.
- The score of Poème Symphonique: note the solicitude with which he addresses the problem of how on earth you can get hold of a hundred metronomes. Unfortunately I can’t find his vivid description of his preparations for the premiere: sweating backstage in an ill-fitting, rented tuxedo, fingers aching after several hours winding up fifty metronomes, and realising he still had another fifty to go.
- The Rambler has collected some obituaries.
- Some small downloadable audio samples (and scores) from his list of works. The piano etudes play like Thelonius Monk orchestrating M.C. Escher.
- YouTube has a film of the Poème Symphonique.
The Analog Arts Ensemble has the complete score, er, play, on their blog
, complete with another piece of repurposed Beckett: three MP3s of them playing a musical adapttation of the sucking stones game from Molloy
. Beckett’s love of permutations also makes him particularly appealing to musicians. Has anyone attempted an entire musical version of Watt
We all have unfortunate periods in our lives. For a short while once, I lived in Brisbane. The houses there are made of wood and open in design, so that sounds can travel easily from one house to the next. Across the street from me lived a young man who played trumpet
. More specifically, he played “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
on the trumpet. Day after day, without discernible improvement.
One afternoon, while he was playing, a car pulled up to the kerb out front. A woman got out, stomped up the front steps and marched straight into the house. The trumpet stopped, and there was the sound of a newspaper being thrown down onto a table. “There you are, Mr Arsehole,” she yelled, “in black and white – and if you don’t understand now you never fucking will!” The front door slammed again; she stamped back down the stairs to the car and drove away.
One distinctive tic in my psyche is that scenes from the movie Highway 61
keep appearing, unbidden, in my consciousness. At one point the hero (for want of a better word), a rock’n’roll-loving hairdresser, is challenged on his choice of instrument to follow his musical dreams: the trumpet.
“I know,” he says bitterly, “it always ends up sounding like jazz.”
I am now working on a similar theory, that any attempt by a string quartet to play rock ends up sounding like Bartók. Before going offline for a week I went to the premiere of Gabriel Prokofiev’s String Quartet No.2, at Cargo
in Shoreditch. It was a pleasant-enough piece, with the regular, propelling rhythms and static harmonies that have become commonplace in much of the music written over the last 20-odd years, since the commercial success of Philip Glass’
earlier musical innovations became too conspicuous for struggling composers to ignore.
Like much so-called ‘post-minimalist’ music written in the wake of Glass and his sometime mates, Prokofiev’s quartet wants to be identified with Glass at his most populist while simultaneously disassociating itself from its stridency – thus the simple, steady beat and harmonies were muddied with variations in mood and sour inflections which came across as, well, Bartók (188-1945).
It was only when I read the press release after the gig that I learned it was supposed to have been inspired by electronic dance music. If so, it was looking for its inspiration in the wrong places; adopting only the most superficial ornaments of techno instead of engaging with its unique substance, focussing instead on its classical foundation of traditional western harmony that, stripped of attitude, renders grime, metal, and pop indistinguishable. Any kid who’s tried playing rock on their school recorder knows this.
The Rambler has given a description
of the kind of nights Cargo has been hosting: informal club performances of new music otherwise confined to the concert hall. As he suggests, the crucial element that makes these gigs engaging and enjoyable is the setting, which forces performers to interact with the audience. It is this, more than any slick visuals or appeals to hipness, that hooks in the smart and arts-savvy (or even arts-curious) punters.
“It seems like a simple formula, but it surely can’t be otherwise everyone would have been doing it for years already, right?” he asks. Well, the execution still needs some tweaking before it becomes as second-nature as laying on a rock gig. In particular, musicians and sound technicians are still learning how to properly amplify this type of gig to suit both the music and the audience. GéNIA’s set of electronically-enhanced piano music was diminished by the piano sounding muffled and dull. And the Elysian Quartet’s performance of Max DeWardener’s new work was spoiled by an electrical glitch making line noise and the players’ click tracks audible through the PA.
Despite these problems I hope this type of presentation of new “classical” music is a trend that will continue, as a way of bringing this music to an audience more likely to embrace it than the usual concert-hall subscribers. I can’t help but wonder how a performance of Rzewski’s Coming Together
would come across in this context!
I took two musically-literate Rzewski neophytes to the performance at Trinity College the week before, in a carpeted, overlit rehearsal room hidden deep in the College campus. The piece came out strident and threadbare, and afterwards both my friends agreed: “That was so 70s!” Would the change of setting have changed their attitude? Would it have changed the performers’?
Lordi knows I don’t go off about Dan Brown
nearly often enough, so what with The Da Vinci Code
movie being out now so that people who don’t read can now see The Book Read By People Who Don’t Read without having to read it god I’m drunk.
Wait, I didn’t finish that last sentence. If you’re wondering what the fuss is about, Cassette Boy
has thoughtfully abridged the audiobook of the novel
for your enlightenment (MP3, 1 minute, 1.25 MB download). I think someone lifted it from the album Dead Horse
, but that doesn’t explain why this track was on my hard drive.
Percussionists have a rough time of it: they get lumped with all the musical odd jobs nobody else wants, or is allowed, to do. This can include appearing before a small audience wearing nothing but a pair of briefs and banging your head against a table. You can’t fake it: each thump on the table, or slap or scratch to your thighs and stomach, has to be sufficiently loud to carry through the hall at the loudness specified by the composer. It can’t help matters if you can hear someone in the third row nervously stifling giggles.
This was the task for percussionist Chris Brannick playing Frederic Rzewski’s Lost and Found
at a concert in Rzewski’s honour at Blackheath Halls last Friday. Rzewski has often set spoken texts to music, but in Lost and Found
the music has been stripped away, the performer stripped down, sitting alone at a table, tentatively recounting a story from military service in Vietnam. (The text is from a letter by Lieutenant Marion Kempner: I couldn’t find the letter online, but this one
gives you a good idea of his scathing, cynical tone.)
The deliberate pacing, awkward pauses, his physical isolation at the far end the table, and his often violent movements created a sense of alienation matched by the bitter irony of the text. The music produced – voice, skin, table, chair – arose from the theatricality of the performance; and the theatre focused attention on the sounds produced by the performer.
This technique is analagous to Rzewski’s ability to unify the expression of his political beliefs with his musical talents, without one occluding the other. The term “political art” is usually applied as a derogatory term by all cultured people, and I avoided a performance of John Cage’s Song Books the following Monday precisely because the program promised the inclusion of “political compositions by students” (brrrrr!)
is often held up as the example of the composer led astray by politics: radicalised in the 1960s, became a Maoist in the 1970s, renounced his bourgeois “avant-garde” compositions and dedicated himself to writing ersatz folk settings of Marxist-Leninist diatribes until his tragic death in 1981.
Cardew’s Mountains for bass clarinet was played before Lost and Found, a late work from 1977. It does have a poem by Mao appended to the score, but thankfully it is not read out for our edification. What politics may be found is worked into the music itself, the aspirational difficulties in the leaps and bounds of the melody, and its basis in Bach.
At the time, Cardew was working on studies of classical music with the People’s Cultural Association, and believed the best way to reach the working classes was through the more familiar forms of classicism, rather than “decadent” innovation and experiment. (On the other hand, Rzewski has said he unrepentantly aims much of his music at the concert-going middle and upper classes, who are in more need of radicalisation.) Mountains is an enjoyable and technically satisfying piece but, politically and musically, it falls far short of Cardew’s most ambitious work, The Great Learning, which involved large numbers of non-musicians performing in self-organising groups.
Cardew’s ideas about music in the 1960s grew to some extent out of Christian Wolff’s
. Wolff understood that musicians playing together constitutes a form of social activity, and began writing pieces that took the social and political implications of this situation into account, allowing musicians a great deal of autonomy in deciding what to play and when to play it. Wolff’s music still tends to be discussed more than it is played, so it was good to hear one of his early works, Serenade
for flute, clarinet and violin.
This is one of the pieces that first established Wolff’s reputation, before his more indeterminate works, being fully notated but restricting itself to just three notes*. The clever use of this restricted harmonic range showed how music can be beautiful and expressive by relying on the qualities of sounds for their own sakes, rather than in the context of grand melodies, dramatic key changes, etc. These days such ideas are taken for granted (except in music schools) and it sounds inoffensive enough, but it’s still a good effort considering he wrote it when he was 16. Smartarse.
On the up side for percussionists, they also get to do some of the most fun things in music, like hitting stuff (other than themselves). Black n’ Blues by Stephen Montague – who was in the audience along with Rzewski – was a shameless show-stealer, being that rarest of concert pieces, a “fun” piece that actually was fun. A pianist and Brannick alternated playing a fast, spasmodic blues riff with rhythmic assaults on several percussion instruments, various parts of the piano itself, and a large pillow filled with chalk dust.
When it was all over Rzewski leaned over to Montague and stage-whispered, “You should run for Congress, at least.”
Theatrical highlights: Chris Bannick braining himself, duh! Also, the members of the Continuum Ensemble playing Rzewski’s Pocket Symphony (a jolly nice piece of what Frank Zappa called “music music”) peering at each other through a thick cloud of dust created during the prior performance of Black ‘n Blues.
Overheard gossip in the foyer:
Apparently Rzewski had never encountered a bass recorder
before, and needed an explanation from the recorder player talking to him. Don’t get recorder players started on the lesser-known aspects of their noble but underappreciated profession!
Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: £2.80 for a plastic pint of Becks – yes, you could take it into the auditorium. Watch out for the bar staff, who sometimes had trouble keeping a grip on those cups when serving.
A writeup of the whole Rzewskifest is here.
* E, B, and F# if you’re curious.
The second half of Eurovision gets hazy, before petering out completely into drunken ranting. I tried taking notes from the observations of the assembled home audience but the next day all I could decipher from them was a poorly-spelled mash note to Clare Grogan.
Part one of this wrap is available
, along with superior analyses here
. The following has been edited for coherence and my diminished attention span.
Former Yugoslav Republic of Bosnia and Former Yugoslav Republic of Herzegovina
“They just told me to stay calm and to enjoy myself.”
At first their miming looked too serious to count as Wandering Minstrels, but then they dropped thier instruments while the music kept playing, so we all drank anyway. It was slow, they wore white. (3 – 3WM)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Lithuania“We’re not really into competing with other countries.”
They’re making a mockery of Eurovision! And we don’t care! Except the Greek audience, who turn out to be a bunch of bad sports all night. I’m sure these guys have a regular gig on the Lithuanian equivalent of The Footy Show. Unlike Bosnia, at least they give us genuinely phony violin playing, and yell at people through a gold-plated megaphone. Somewhere in Manchester Mark E. Smith
is trashing a pub. (3 – WC, WM, TT)
Former Yugoslav Republic of the United Kingdom
“The rehearsal was fabulous. It was better than sex.”
This is what happens when someone tries too hard to please everyone, when he’s already too pleased with himself. British rapping comes across as slightly less natural than Moldovan reggae. The slappers in schoogirl uniforms manage the impossible, and make themselves so sexually unappealing they may well be real schoolgirls. Our home audience thinks its a wholesale ripoff of some Black Eyed Peas hit. Serves them right. (1 – WM)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Greece
“It’s almost masochistic.”
The Great Greek Diva don’t need no steenking backup singers or dancers getting up in her grill when it’s her time to shine*, just a wind machine to help her through her long, dark, total eclipse of the heart. Our home audience judged the microphone more of a prop than a necessary sound amplifier and drank accordingly. (2 – DKC, WM)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Finland“The Finnish people liked us – or 42% of them did.”Fat Orcs in Party Hats!
I want to see these guys duetting with Alf Poier
. I love these guys, if only because I bet a round a drinks on them winning. (0)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Ukraine“I just want to make the world so, so happy… I’m a singer for the Ukrainian military orchestra.”
Ruslana must have been preoccupied with the Joint Committee on the Consolidation of Wireless Telegraphy
, so they sent another babe, who looks like Pia Zadora and is about as talented. I must be getting old because she’s doing it for me, although I can’t help thinking she’s about to be tackled by Leslie Nielsen at any moment. I bet they were surprised when that dress they ordered for her over the internet turned out to be a nightie! Inspired Eurovision choreography: cossacks skipping rope – couldn’t they get their sabres onto the plane? (1 – SR)
Former Yugoslav Republic of France
“What does that mean? That Europeans have no taste?”
Phew! The bathroom break song came a little late this year. It’s slow, it’s boring, it’s sung flat, it’s sung in French. And then it’s over. White frock. (0)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Croatia
“Why did I choose to sing about my shoes?”
Because you’re a slightly drug-fucked man who dared to live his dream of being surgically transformed into Fran Drescher, and almost made it. Every year we get one bunch of people running around and yelling like they’re having way too much fun on stage. We don’t want to vote for you, we just want to score your evil 160 proof rakija you’ve obviously been sucking on backstage. (2 – BF, SR)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Ireland“He wore this white suit like John Travolta but was Irish.”
An unctuous offcut of Chris de Burgh croons “Every Song is a Cry for Love”, which will please TISM
fans. Even the backing singers can’t stomach this and, suddenly remembering they forgot to go for a piss before coming onstage, wobble uncomfortably from side to side. Some drunk bastard in the home audience suggests the kneeling Westlife-y git looks like me, and is swiftly ejected from the premises. I was going to give this a World Cup
, but everyone’s saying Ireland really does want to win again. Pity they forgot how. (0)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Sweden
“I’ve become more straight.”
In the blue corner, Greece’s rival in the Battle of the Wind Machines. I was going to call her a MILF until her lower jaw started wobbling in an extremely offputting manner, and it just didn’t stop. (1 – BF)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Turkey“Do I feel like a superstar? A bit too much at the moment!”
A heroically proportioned blonde, more man than the four metrosexuals cavorting around her put together. Scary, but after this many drinks, strangely compelling. The Greeks, mindful of the pan-European attention, boo. I honestly didn’t think the TaTu rule
would get so much use in a single night. (2 – E?, TT)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Armenia
“I’ve been most influenced by my time at the Armenian State Music Theatre. It’s one of the best music schools, not just in Armenia, but internationally.”
Finally, someone blatantly rips off last year’s winner with all the straps/ropes nonsense. By this stage noone’s paying much attention and waiting for… (1 – CR)
More drinks! Three shots at once, as the male host has changed into a hideous gold lamé suit and his female companion has changed frocks so quickly she forgets her breast tape and spends the next five minutes standing as still as possible while glancing down anxiously as she almost falls out. Nana Mouskouri is called on to start the voting, a task it has previously taken a pair of Olympic athletes and the Klitschko brothers to accomplish, so unsurprisingly she makes a hash of it and trainwreck television reigns for a minute or so. What happens next is…
Bitter disappointment! They’ve shortened the voting process, so it’s merely agonising instead of excruciating. It all moves too fast for us to follow. Most importantly, you never get to savour just how pissweak are the votes coming in for the U.K. At least the hostess has changed into her fourth frock for the night (drink!) and looks much happier now that her boobs won’t pop out without warning. Dear Clare, I saw you on telly again the other night and