Thursday 21 December 2006
I missed the concerts dedicated to Morton Feldman
, my second-favourite composer, at the Huddersfield Festival last month. I’m not exactly sure where Huddersfield is – I suspect it’s Up North somewhere – and events conspired to keep me confined to London throughout.
published a neat little overview
and discussion of Feldman’s career, including this interesting comment:
There are those who hear in Feldman little more than a sort of high-art easy listening. The music is quiet, it’s quite repetitive, it uses pretty sounds, so how is it different from any of the other ambient soundscapes that help people to chill at the end of a busy day? The Huddersfield retrospective should help to clear up the confusion. For anyone prepared to listen in the attentive way that Feldman expected, his work is full of surprises, the flow of events enigmatically unpredictable and the grain of the music always changing – the antithesis of easy listening.
This description of the mishearing of Feldman’s music is accurate as far as it goes, but the misconception of Feldman as a proto-New Age holy minimalist
can be partly blamed on the way some performers play his music these days. Over the years, as Feldman has become more popular, more performances and recordings have been made and many of them prefer to play his music as if it were, in fact, “high-art easy listening.”
Yes, Feldman’s favourite instruction on his manuscripts was “as slowly and softly as possible”, but too many people are interpreting this as a licence to play pretty and precious, pious and bland; warping his unique style into an imitation of the more homogenous idiom of later, more conspicuously popular composers.
(To a certain extent, this has happened to a lot of post-war avant-garde music: recordings of performances from the 1950s and 60s tended to sound sharp, spiky and “difficult”. The same pieces played today tend to sound softer, serene, and meditative. John Cage
, in particular, seems to get a lot of this treatment in his more austere, contemplative pieces; as though he were a Zen guru first, and composer second.)
Earlier in the year, I went to a concert of Feldman’s music
given as a book launch for a collection of Feldman’s lectures and interviews
. It was an old, small hall in Holborn, used as the headquarters of the London Free Thought Society, so the corridors were posted with flyers advertising forthcoming talks such as “The Middle East Crisis: Education or Barbarism? by Mr Elijah Sittingbourne (B.Div., Cantab.)”. The hall itself bore an inscription across the proscenium, quoting, apprarently without irony, Polonius’ “To thine own self be true.”
One of the musicians in the concert was the pianist John Tilbury, who had first met and worked with Feldman on his first visit to the UK in the 1960s, and on several subsequent occasions. He first played an early work of Feldman’s, Piano Piece 1952, a slow, steady succession of single notes, each identically notated with the duration of exactly one and a half beats. Yet Tilbury made no attempt to disguise that he was giving a very different emphasis to each note: some were dramatically prolonged, others almost rushed, relatively speaking.
A purist would sniff that this was an erratic, indulgent performance; but here was a musician who had known and worked with Feldman. Could we presume he knew first hand what the composer wanted? I have a recording of Roger Woodward playing Feldman’s Triadic Memories: his rhythms are nothing like those Feldman carefully notated. Yet Feldman had dedicated this piece, amongst others, to Woodward, and had previously praised his playing.
Perhaps, as we would expect of interpreters of music from the romantic era, these performers are comfortable taking liberties with the score, understanding the idiom well enough to take license with what is written down to get closer to the music the score represents, instead of retreating from the music’s challenges into a sound-world more familiar and comfortable. Tilbury didn’t take the score literally (every note to be played the same), but grasped at the truth behind it (every note is to be treated as a unique, independent event). In music, there’s a difference between accuracy and authenticity.
Tilbury also played a very late Feldman piece, Palais de Mari
(1986), which I heard Rolf Hind play last year. My notes say
I was surprised at how “overtly beautiful, even romantic” it was. Tilbury’s performance added more drama and expressivity, presumably straining the limits of what was permitted in the score – the hint of restrained climaxes and crescendoes, in a composer who treasured the “flat surface” in his work. It also had a better sense of phrasing and overall shape than Hind’s interpretation: without that, so much later Feldman can sound like just one damn little thing after another.
As far as “wrong” performances go, it’s worth mentioning that at the book launch there were readings from Feldman’s essays and lectures. It was very strange hearing his classic Brooklyn turns of phrase spoken in a plummy English accent, particularly once you’ve heard Feldman’s distinctive Noo Yawk speaking voice. (Note to self: post some soundbites of Feldman talking in 2007. He was good value as a guest, so long as he didn’t take an immediate dislike to you.)
Circa 1.00 am on Monday (local time) Magic
1278, the world’s greatest radio station
, played the following set of songs, keeping shift-workers alert with the mental whiplash-inducing combination of:
- The Everly Brothers: Cathy’s Clown
- Nana Mouskouri: Four and Twenty Hours
- Elmo and Patsy: Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer
- Southern Sons: Hold Me In Your Arms
- Scott McKenzie: San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)
- Deodato: Also Sprach Zarathustra
Someone at Magic has obviously grasped the concepts of henka
(change) and atarashimi
(newness, refraining from stepping back) as practiced by ancient masters of the Japanese renga
To cap this off, they followed with a plug for their traffic reports (generously sponsored by Mobility Aids Australia) which was backed by everybody’s favourite
, “Tijuana Taxi”.
Unfortunately, they later blew it by playing Johnny Farnham’s
“I Saw Mommy [sic]
Kissing Santa Claus”, adding insult to injury by referring to him as an “Aussie Icon
“. And by calling him “John Farnham”.
Hello to TimT
, who guessed that the mystery location
was the White Horse of Uffington, seen here again from a more comprehensible angle. If you plan to visit between September and May, bring wellingtons! Chalk mud is a bastard.
debacle, as promised, keeps rolling along. In the latest news
, Roberto Alagna has been staging a one-tenor picket outside La Scala, singing (badly) and reminding everyone that his last wife died
, and appearing on TV playing up his Sicilian roots by singing a traditional song about a dead donkey, complete with hee-haw noises. No, it’s not about the donkey’s head ending up in a theatre manager’s bed.
Thursday 14 December 2006
There’s a big crossover audience in the fanbases for opera and for giant, train-wreck hissy fits, so there’s something for everyone to enjoy in the ongoing scandal at La Scala after tenor Roberto Alagna walked out of a performance of Aida on Sunday, after just ten minutes on stage. As over-reactions to mild booing go, they don’t get much bigger or better than this.
has the most frequently updated chronicle, as the surprises keep coming thick and fast, as well as the juciest details. Scroll back to 10 December to savour the unfolding mayhem in its chronological glory. YOU WILL SEE:
Video of the walk-off
and switcheroo is, of course, on YouTube. It’s worth watching just to see mezzo soprano Ildiko Komlosi pull a double-take worthy of Margaret Dumont
as she’s suddenly confronted by a pharaoh in shirt and jeans.
Wednesday 8 November 2006
Over at Sarsaparilla there has been a discussion
about whether or not Magic 693 is the haven of awesomeness
I described, or a high-rotation hell of the more obvious chestnuts. In the interests of objectivity I listened for an hour or so and wrote down their playlist, reproduced below. Songs with that ineffable “Magic” quality are marked with an asterisk; two asterisks mean a particularly “Magic” segue.
- Olivia Newton-John: Twist of Fate* (Mis-announced as “Second Time Around”)
- Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass: Tijuana Taxi**
- Charlie Rich: Behind Closed Doors
- The Diamonds: Little Darlin’
- Peter, Paul and Mary: Leaving on a Jet Plane*
- Stevie Wonder: For Once in My Life
- Dr Hook: Sharing the Night Together
- Gene Pitney: Mecca*
- ABBA: SOS
- The Walker Bros: The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine
- Julio Iglesias: Drive (lame Cars cover, not a lame REM cover)
After this low point comes a sustained passage of brilliance which makes Magic so special:
- Normie Rowe: Ooh La La*
- Lobo: Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend*
- Ned Miller: Invisible Tears*
- Herb Ohta: Song for Anna*
- The Bee Gees: World*
- Christopher Cross: Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do) (back announced with the comment “great lyrics!”)
- Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz: The Girl from Ipanema (yes, the announcer remembered to name-drop Stan Getz)
- Tom T. Hall: Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine**
- Simon and Garfunkel: The Sounds of Silence
- Lulu: To Sir With Love
- Foster and Allen: I Will Love You All My Life
- Bruce Channel: Hey! Baby*
- Bobby Goldsboro: Summer (The First Time)**
- Peter and Gordon: I Go To Pieces
- Rod Stewart: That’s All (Sigh. Rod Stewart covers creaky old standards: the aural equivalent of Patterson’s Curse.)
- Mary Hopkin: Those Were The Days
- George Baker Selection: La Paloma Blanca*
- Bobby Vinton: Blue on Blue
- Billie Jo Spears: Blanket on the Ground**
- The Beatles: Michelle
- Dan Hill: Sometimes When We Touch
- Lonnie Lee: Starlight Starbright*
- Kevin Johnson: Rock & Roll (I Gave You the Best Years of My Life)*
And then I switched it off. I think this vindicates my opinion, don’t you? Ads included two
rival Jayco caravan salesman, a shop that sells those self-lifting recliner rockers
, Australian Pensioner Funerals, Ian Reid Vendor Advocacy (“Go on, ring us!”), Bayside Skin Cancer Clinic, Tyabb Packing House Antiques (“Need a new sideboard?”), and Leafbusters. Strangely, nothing from either
National Tiles or OzKnits (“Love your cardigan! Paris?” “No! OzKnits at Ringwood!”)
I know it’s hard to imagine a station that plays “La Paloma Blanca” for serious, but look at their song choices for ONJ, Gene Pitney, and the Bee Gees! All that’s missing is Gary Puckett, and not spinning in either “Goodbye” or “Tema Harbour” for Mary Hopkin, but these are equally likely to happen at any hour of the day.
Also, Lonnie Lee
has recorded a musical tribute to Steve Irwin
, available for download! Lyrics printed for singalong with your kiddies, or anyone else’s kiddies.
The world would be better off if they hailed from someplace like, oh, Chernobyl. There, people recognize tragedy when they see it. I imagine a bunch of concertgoing Chernoblians (sure, why not) in a post-show huddle, wondering just how quickly they could build another reactor and cause that to melt down.
I admire the heroicism of the Ukrainian people….
The guys on stage hopped about like indie clichés with tiny bladders filled with pissed-down Red Bull. There was the guy in the bad hat. The virgin in the ringer-T who desperately wanted to be Richard Reed Parry
. The music-bleeding lead who’s probably never laughed in his life, not at the Three Stooges, not at the government, and definitely not at himself….
It’s empty music from empty people for empty people who can’t bear to think of filling their lives with anything more than emptiness. It’s for people who can’t tell the difference between sincerity and honesty…. It’s an insult to anyone who’s ever been passionate about anything, an insult to the concept of passion itself.
“This is it! This is the new music!”
What do you do when your hard drive gets clogged with “temporary” files that never go away? You play them through a sound editor to hear what they sound like. One day I hope to record some music which takes less time to make than listen to: this piece gets pretty close to that goal.
This unedited file was subjected to four types of randomised filtering through parametric equalisers in Ross Bencina’s fine program AudioMulch
, and then mixed by rapid, randomised crossfading between each of the four outputs.
So what does playing with 21st century technology get me? Maybe it’s the low quality of the sound from the original data file, or maybe it’s because I’m fifty years behind the times, but the piece sounds uncannily like the sort of tape music coming out of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk studios in Köln in the 1950s. In keeping with this sound, the title refers to the human phenomenon of futile longing for a vanished world
A number of people have written in over the past few months to inform me that Magic 693
, the greatest radio station in the world, has suffered a traumatic change. At first it seemed the station had gone for good, but instead it had just been shunted by its owner, without warning, to the more cramped frequency of 1278 KHz.
It’s an oldies station, with a focus on what people would generally describe as “easy listening” – e.g. they’ll play “Something” but not “I Am The Walrus” – but within that ambit they’re about the most eclectic radio station in the world. If they have a playlist, it’s so vast I’ve never been able to learn it. I once heard them segue from “Imagine” to “Baby Elephant Walk”, which is reason enough to love them.
They have a fairly loose, philosophical concept of “easy listening”, in any case. No-one would consider “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back” as a soothing piece of muzak, yet it has turned up without warning, right after Barbra Streisand. Magic’s disc jockeys are fearless, indiscriminately spinning anything that once was popular, without regard for taste, political correctness, or continuity, let alone the selective, sanitised memories of the aesthetic judgements of baby boomers. Their attitude can be heard from their ads for their Fifties show: “the Fifties was more than just rock and roll, and we play all of it!“
Besides the music, there is added appeal in listening to the ads. Magic presents itself to advertisers as “Melbourne’s highest-rating station for over-30s”, which is adspeak for geriatrics. The commercial breaks are invariably filled with spruikers for retirement villages, funerals, cat litter (“Is your home a bit… phew-whiff?”), and those recliner rocker chairs that tilt forward to get you up out of them. Bud Tingwell
tells you about the good works of the Spastic Society and asks you not to give generously now, but to remember them in your will. They can wait a little longer for your donation.
Finally, there is also the mysterious fascination commanded by their announcers. There seem to be only three of them, who alternate in shifts that rotate around the clock, and after listening for years I still can’t distinguish one from another. The same guy is likely to turn up at 9pm on a Tuesday, and then at 3am on a Sunday.
The station’s indiscriminate inclusivity has put them far ahead of the cultural curve in a number of instances. Without realising it, they have perfectly implemented Negativland’s “Moribund Music of the Seventies”
project on a mainstream, commercial station. They are also quite probably the only station which unironically plays records featured in the 365 Days Project
, and always has done. A couple of times each I’ve heard them spin Jesse Lee Turner’s “The Little Space Girl”
(see July 18) and Jack Clement’s rather fine “My Voice Is Changing”
(see August 23) – an obscure B-side, according to the website.
It’s such a pity they’ve been shunted to a frequency with worse reception, and had to ditch their catchy station ID jingles; but on the upside, they’ve just introduced an internet streaming service
! It sounds like someone’s holding a transistor to a styrofoam cup on the end of a taut string 16,000 miles long, but the one thing I have been wishing for since I left Melbourne is a reliable source of Joe South and Vicky Leandros
broadcast into my house at any hour of the day or night. Now you, music lovers around the world, can share in the Magic.
Also, while looking for links for the above article, I discovered Bud Tingwell has a blog! I love the 21st Century.
For those of you with a love of the funerary violin, that obscure genre of music rendered almost extinct after it was condemned by the Catholic church in the 1830s, you will be glad to learn that Rohan Kriwaczek’s brand new book An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin
is now available on sale from Amazon
(UK site only). Fittingly, Kriwaczek’s book is published by Duckworth, purveyors of the poetic oeuvre
of William McGonagall
If you don’t care much about funerary violin music but have a grudge against Pius X for his 1903 motu proprio
on sacred music, this book may also be up your alley.
Has anyone made a comedy map of Britain? I don’t mean a map indicating clubs and the birthplaces of comedians; I mean a map marking the real locations inhabited by fictional comic characters, haunted by absurdist conceits. The more anonymous and duller a place is, the more likely it is to have been infused with significance by generations of comic minds: dormitory suburbs, brownfields, dead ends, postwar nowheres. Balham, Putney, Hendon, Cheam: London and the counties are held together in an invisible network of bathetic, negative landmarks. The enervated traveller crossing these liminal spaces is suddenly seized with a numinous inversion of meaning with which the no-place has become invested. What ley-lines connect these psychogeographical lacunae; do they awkwardly bisect the zones of conscious importance, or sneak behind and between through forgotten territory?
Last Friday night a self-selected cross-section of Londoners and American tourists were sharing a small frisson at finding themselves congregated outside a bingo hall in Cricklewood, reminding each other that The Goodies lived in Cricklewood. This wasn’t the reason we were all there; we had come to see a different British institution, of similar cultish appeal. We had come to see The Fall; or not see The Fall, as the case may be.
The Americans amongst us were hopeful of seeing a real, genuine Fall gig, having been repeatedly exasperated at home by the nominal band’s touring habits: either gracelessly imploding on stage or working a setlist top-heavy with interminable ten-minute dirges about supermarket car parks in Salford. (Mark E. Smith has his own appetite for psychogeographical nullity.) Perhaps they didn’t know that the band’s London gigs tended to be equally perfunctory: it seems anything south of Birmingham is much of a muchness, as far as Smith is concerned.
To get an idea of the venue, take a look at their website
(proletarian visions of prosperity). No really, it’s priceless. A gilt-edged coffin for Punk’s corpse, WMC Blobs laid to boozy rest with Celtic troubadors and cowboys from Carlisle. As a harbinger of the muzzy haze of regression that threatened, the opening act was John Cooper Clarke, preserved like Sharon Osbourne.
Perhaps it was the faded premises on the cultural and subcultural margin that made the band turn up and play. The band, such as it is, all vestigal entity outside of Smith himself having long departed and now routinely replaced with such regularity that even fans can’t keep track of the musos’ names
, has a reputation for only partly turning up, in body or mind; with Smith himself late, drunk, or a no-show. Instead of a vicarious trainwreck thrill we got the embodiment of a Rock Band at Work, of performance as routine.
Smith, famously looking 20 years older than his real age, stumbled round the stage snarling and hollering incoherently as usual, into one or two mics, as usual, dropping one or picking up the other, peripetetically bemused by their technical failings, nonconsensually futzing with his bandmates’ gear, as usual. Performance as routine, stripped of its romance and mythology when seen plain on stage as schtick – in the same way that he refuses to play any songs more than a few years old, Smith’s performance denies his fans the delusion of shamanism, of recollection of an intangible psychic resonance. What is left is form and technique, with no invocation of the past, to impress the punters – not appeals to faith. (My companion for the night, oblivious to The Fall’s history and significance, attested to this.) The conventional becomes experimental.
The band confined themselves to solid riffs, one per song, starting out OK and then locking into a tighter groove that propelled the music and voice into the higher levels, into the lower reaches of the transcendent state a good rock gig can give. After this peak it was in the recoil of the interval, ebbing into a slower, muted rhythm, “Blindness”, its protracted disorientation nudging the punters into a dreamlike semiconsciousness. Smith himself had delayed his entrance onstage, like Elvis in Vegas, but then disappeared early as well, before and after the encore, effacing himself backstage inconspicuously, not to return. It seemed over too soon.
Catching the band in an upswing of collateral cool thanks to John Peel’s untimely death, the crowd was a mixture of disoriented tourists, middle-aged punks in mufti, prematurely-aged anoraks comparing notes on Tuesday night’s gig (and observing that one band member had been sacked
in the interim), curious students, a mosh pit, bright young things their dowdy finest, a pair of them dancing like frenzied muppets on the balcony behind the band, alternately irritating and amusing the more sombrely dedicated punters. And of course, the indifferent regulars up the back getting their pints in all the while.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing in their report that definitively links a love of classical music to the likelihood of being an evil genius, despite extensive anecdotal evidence in movies.
By the way, the first picture and caption in the article is even funnier than the one shown above. Slightly related: Headless Zombie Bunny
Thursday 21 September 2006
Saturday 9 September 2006
As alluded to previously
, I went to see one of Keiji Haino’s gigs this week. I don’t mind a bit of Japanese noise from time to time: besides the visceral fun of the extremes of pitch and loudness it possesses a keen awareness of the subtle intricacies of sound and its effects on the listener. But this performance ended up being extremely tiresome, although not because of the monotony of the sound. The gig began with Haino duetting on drums with Chris Corsano, who kept up his frenetic drumming all through the set while Haino switched to electronic noisemakers, then to electric guitar, then voice, then back to those electronics, then guitar again…
At one point he turned his back to audience and checked his watch, like Micky Dolenz on stage at a shopping mall. He wanted to fill up to the maximum the amount of time he was allotted. The extended guitar and drums duo sputtered through three or four false endings, any of which would have been a perfect conclusion – the shattering climax, the relfective coda – but there was always just one more thing that Haino wanted to add. Twenty more minutes and he was like a teenage boy alone in his garage imagining he’s a guitar hero. It was too much of a… thing.
A friend of mine went to a free improv night a few weeks ago and saw a saxophone guy play a great solo, which went for about fifteen minutes. When he’d finished, the bloke organising the night told him to keep playing, because he had another ten minutes or so in his set. Sax guy relented and played a second solo, which was weaker and anticlimactic. If money was at stake, it would have been an amount too trivial to worry about.
It’s amazing how many musicians have no sense of time, who can make great sounds, put them together beautifully, but have no idea how to construct a framework in which those sounds can best be heard. It’s easy to get lost in the moment while performing, either caught up in the uncanny beauty of your own sounds, or just concentrating on keeping things together from one minute to the next. A lot of people, given an amount of time to play, obsessively fill up every available second.
This is not to say that most musicians play for too long, although this is usually the case. It is to say that not enough musicians question the timeframe in which they play, and demand of themselves or others to play in an appropriate duration outside the expected commercial quantity.
My favourite noise gig was hearing Masonna
play, about ten years ago. It was intense, brutal, anarchic and yet completely focussed, and totally disorientating. I knew it was short, but the immersion in sound (John Cage would call it the “now-moment”
) was sufficient for me not to know if it was 30 minutes or 30 seconds. Someone told me later he played for eight minutes, I think, which seemed substantial given his material, and that if he played much longer someone would likely get hurt.
regrettable comparison used in the publicity for an upcoming gig at The Spitz
(scroll down to 1 September):
The enigmatic Westcountry acoustic duo Show of Hands are formidable operators in the roots arena. Voted “Best Live Act” in the 2004 BBC Radio Folk Awards, they’ve been likened to U2, “Crowded House without the drums” and…
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