Countdown to Eurovision (2): Meet the losers

Thursday 11 May 2006

Although the website gives you full sound and video of each of the competing songs, I prefer to take my Eurovision without warning or expectation, and advise virgin viewers to do the same. It is useful, however, to identify the country with the longest odds of winning: it serves as a focal point for the evening, and as a yardstick of consensus badness by which the other entrants may be appreciated. If you’re lucky, it may also set the scene for an Alf Poier-like boilover in the voting to help get you through the long, dark, latter half of the event.
This year’s bottom rung (100-1) is occupied by Moldova, who lucked their way into the final with last year’s drumming granny stunt. This year they’ve retreated into Wayne and Wanda territory with a song written by a concussed 4-year-old trying to recite a Ricky Martin number:


Every night I need my Loca
Every night I need her boca
Every night I need my Loco
Need him crazy just un poco

There are several countries with worse odds, but which may not qualify for the final. Absolute bottom (150-1) is Portugal, with a girl group singing a song composed by a Nigerian email scammer: they are GONNA MAKE YOU SMILE IN ALL CAPS:

I’LL MAKE YOU STOP THINKING SAD THINGS FOR A WHILE
AND EVERYTHING WAITS WHEN YOU’RE DANCING IN STYLE
I’M GONNA MAKE YOU DANCE
MAKE IT WITH STYLE

Judging from the typography they’re going to yell the entire song, presumably concluding with a cry of “this are perfectly 100% legal”.

See America! Go to Paris.

Wednesday 10 May 2006

Old news, thanks to my being offline for most of last month. Today: the Bang On A Can All-Stars from New York, who were playing in Paris when I visited. Later this week: LA artists at the Centre Pompidou. My next visit to Paris: to see the Rauschenberg retrospective. Is there anything French worth seeing in Paris?
Like Parson Yorick, I spent several days wandering around Paris in a state of blithe obliviousness, with the consequences just as negligible. Every service I needed just happened to be one not affected by the general strike; and whichever part of the city I visited, the protesters had either moved on or not yet arrived.
I did see some very cheerful students with banners and facepaint walk into a bar in Montmartre for a well-earned drink after a busy day rioting, and was almost approached by a heavily armoured policeman when I was photographing the nice big wall they’d put up around the Sorbonne. That’s pretty much it. If you spend all your time in the centre of the city you’ll mostly meet Americans and other tourists like you, anyway.
By a fluke, I managed to get into the Chatelet to see the Bang On A Can All-Stars, who restored my faith in a couple of things. Firstly, they played Philip Glass’ Music in Fifths, one of his most relentlessly single-minded scores. After suffering Icebreaker’s travesty of Music With Changing Parts I began to wonder if Glass’ earlier music, which rarely specified instruments, could ever be as effective in arrangements other than the composer’s own ensemble of amplified winds and electric keyboards. The All-Stars’ performance was on non-traditional grand piano, clarinet, cello, marimba and electric guitar. It was fast, it was tight, it’s meagre musical material needed no further embellishment to make it compelling listening from start to finish.
(It was only during a talk by one of the musicians to the audience between pieces that I learned there was a strike on. Either my French had really sharpened up after a couple of days in town or he was speaking in English, I forget. If it was the latter then Parisians certainly understand English very well when the speaker is saying nice things about their city. Either that or the audience was full of Americans.)
After the interval, they made me take back a lot of what I’ve said about crossover*. The second half of the gig featured the Czech singer and violinist Iva Bittová, who at first came on stage alone, playing with apparent urgency, impatiently slipping and sliding from Slavic folk music to louche cabaret to cod avant-garde histrionics, violin melody turning to noise, turning to ecstatic vocal gibberish. She’s an exhilarating musician, but the cynical part of my brain kept worrying at what would happen when she was joined by the All-Stars, for a suite of peices she had written for them and herself.
Great, I thought sarcastically, the soloist is either going to have to tone down her natural exuberance, or else look out of place amongst the other musicians. Her music will become stuffy and mannered as she tries to write something with gravitas appropriate to the occasion. The musos will miss the shifts in musical styles and not understand their playing attitude needs to change with them. Stand by for 45 minutes or so of dreary cabaret defanged by the concert-hall atmosphere.
Amazingly, none of this happened. The set of songs and instrumental passages held together: they were fun, and they were moving. Bittová’s performance, part chameleon-like chanteuse, part concertmaster and part ringleader, had the whole audience entranced (although you could tell by their reaction there were a number of converts and diva-worshippers in the hall); her adopted band could both follow and lead her abrupt changes in mood. The sense of the music kept taking unexpected turns, whipping up tumultuous noise before just as suddenly burning out into sullen melancholy; the performers knowing how to shade the slow, unravelling melody to make it bite and not meander in muzak.
It was one of the best gigs I’ve been to for a long time, something I haven’t experienced for a long time, partly because I’ve been jaded and reluctant to expose myself to it: a happy and completely unexpected surprise.

* Not on this blog, just incoherent ranting after one vodka too many after disappointing genre-crossover gigs.

Countdown to Eurovision: “Oh my god, keep the voting!”

Monday 8 May 2006

If you’re anything like me, then you know the biggest music event of the year is drawing near: The Eurovision Song Contest!
The official site has full previews of the competing songs, the singers, and the multitalented hosts, but I prefer to take my Eurovision as a surprise. Even so, over the next week or so in the lead-up to the final, there’ll be a small preview of some of the least-promising entrants, a review of last year’s big night in the Ukraine, and most importantly, a revised version of the Eurovision Drinking Game. This last is essential to enduring an entire evening of the finest entertainment Europe has to offer.
Speaking of Ukraine: why didn’t anyone tell me that 2004 winner and upskirt champion (link not safe for work) Ruslana is now a member of parliament? It doesn’t seem that sparkling Ukrainian co-hosts the Klitschko brothers, or best-ever Eurovision loser Alf Poier have run for public office. Yet.

Name your Japanese hip hop posse

Thursday 4 May 2006

Urgent Ditsy Casual Pack

Beckett and Gaburo: Let’s Dance The Screw

Wednesday 3 May 2006

Speaking of the influence of Samuel Beckett’s antiphonal dialogues on Kenneth Gaburo’s music, UbuWeb has a complete recording, with sleeve notes, of Gaburo’s Maledetto, a 40-minute disquisition on the word screw “for seven virtuoso speakers”. If you’re unsure about downloading the whole thing, here’s a 2-minute excerpt (MP3, 3.5 MB). Hosted through the Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade.
Bonus Beckett links: Filming Play. Dunno if this could be any good (screenshots, Anthony Minghella, etc.)
Video clips of John Hurt doing a Krapp.

Repeat Play

Monday 1 May 2006

The best-known line in Samuel Beckett’s Play is one that is never heard spoken on stage, but its consequences are heard throughout the second half of the play, and define the drama. Out of all the plays being put on at the Barbican for the Beckett centenary, this is the one I was most eager to see: reading it, even with the most conscientious imagination, can in no way substitute for experiencing it in live performance.
Luckily, I managed to get to see it. (In an indication of my artistic seriousness of late, I missed most of the Beckett centenary events because I was in Italy doing pretty close to sweet bugger all. I had planned on going to see Krapp’s Last Tape when I got back but some fool cast John Hurt in it so it’s been booked out for months.)
In terms of drama, Play gives you everything and nothing. The plot is a received idea: a love triangle, the most hackneyed of cliches but an inexhaustible source of dramatic machinations. If in Waiting for Godot nothing happens twice, then in Play something happened, once. The three protagonists – man, wife, mistress, all long dead – pick over the details of the affair, interrogated in turn by an inquisitory light. What remains of the story when there is nothing more to it than memory?
The three, being dead – cremated, in fact – are ash confined to urns: the “action”, such as it is, consists of their voices and the light. Performing the play hinges on questions of timing and execution – musical questions – as much as of dramaturgy.
The connections between Beckett and music have always been obvious. Music appears as a character in its own right in several of his radio plays, and his stage scripts took on musical directions to varying degrees; from the mysterious Quad, a wordless choreography apparently more suited to dancers than actors, to Krapp’s Last Tape, a monologue with deft use of tape recording and playback that has been, or should be, the envy of composers who have attempted combining live performers with tape. (Morton Feldman, a composer who collaborated with Beckett on several occasions, was astonished to learn that Beckett didn’t own a tape recorder.)
Play is the text that most entices musicians: it’s closing direction “repeat play” caps off a text that resembles a musical score as much as a drama, with its dependence on vocal dexterity and precise timing between the three actors. Kenneth Gaburo conducted a performance of Play by his Mew Music Choral Ensemble (NMCE), interpreting the script as they would a piece of music.
Back when he was interesting, Philip Glass was hired to write music for a number of Beckett stage productions, including Play. What impressed him was that at every performance the emotional climax came at a different point in the play, proving that the substance of the play was not in its text, but in the relationship of the text between the actors and the audience. Play makes clear the audience’s complicty in theatre.
In this performance, the great emotive moment came early in the second half, as we realised we were hearing the same story all over again. The lighting, already wan, dimmed to near total darkness; the voices, already soft, retreated to a murmur that would have been unintelligible to anyone entering the theatre. This knowing use of sound, of how little of the voice was needed to carry through the small theatre, was the most successful part of the production. The audience silent, craned forward slightly to hear a tale they had heard before.
At first we laughed (the new received opinion: Beckett is funny) at the seemingly irrelevant details of their story, which seemed then to define the triviality of their minds. The second time around these little digressions became uncannily poignant, the enduring memories of a life irretrievably lost, clung to as dearly as their self-inflicted hurts and humiliations.
If you really want to see John Hurt perform Krapp’s Last Tape, he made a film of it in 2000, the same year he narrated The Tigger Movie.

The Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade

Tuesday 21 March 2006

Attempts to get a website happening have come to naught. Because there’s some server space lying around it seemed like a good idea to set up a permanent home for some of the music that has been featured here. If you missed them last time, here’s your chance to download at your leisure the lovely and multitalented Julie Dawn’s Austrian Flame (the BLAD corporate anthem), Buddy Greco’s superlative take on Like a Rolling Stone, and (ahem) my own modest contribution.
The Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade!
Also includes a FREE bonus track, i.e. a fusty old piano piece I wrote several years ago and can’t be bothered talking about right now. It’s nice, really!
The Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade!
There are also links to music hosted elsewhere which has benefitted from my free publicity, by such disparate talents as Morton Feldman, Steve Bent, and the Evolutionary Control Committee.
The Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade!
Sorry, no music by Jeremy Bentham.

Have my ears gone insane?

Monday 13 March 2006

No, apparently. I found a review in the paper about that Icebreaker gig last week – remember, the one that screwed up Philip Glass’ Music with Changing Parts in just about every possible way? The Guardian‘s review is more succinct than mine, but neglects to call Icebreaker an incestuous clique. Apart from that, we say pretty much exactly the same things.
One thing about the amplification used at the performance: Glass’ early music is meant to be LOUD, louder than it was at the Icebreaker gig. The problem wasn’t that Icebreaker were amplifying their instruments, but that the amplification was muddy, compounded by sloppy playing and a poor sound mix.
Zappa’s piece, pace Andrew Clements, sounded fine; possibly because Zappa was writing for a rock group and Icebreaker had hired a sound guy used to rock gigs? Just because it’s loud and you think it’s cool, doesn’t mean that a rock dude is the right choice for every type of music.

Name your ironic, Pavement-type indie band

Saturday 11 March 2006

  • The Licensed Heroes
  • Sex Yacht Wiki

A rare musical event: a bad Philip Glass performance that isn’t Glass’ fault

Thursday 9 March 2006

Icebreaker is a new music ensemble that lacks one of the most basic skills required by musicans in any genre: they can’t count. They listed seven pieces before the interval on their program at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night, but played only six of them. For some reason the first piece got dropped from the concert.
We don’t know why the piece was dropped because noone, in either of the two awkward announcements to the audience, bothered to even acknowledge there was a change in the program. So, if you don’t usually go to concert halls gigs because you suspect that they’re a private party for incestuous cliques where you don’t belong, Icebreaker are here to prove you right.
The first piece they actually played was an ensemble arrangement of Conlon Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano No.2b. Not many people applauded it, probably because they’d read the program and were expecting a piece 11 minutes long, and so wondered what had gone wrong when the musicians suddenly broke off after a couple of minutes. Of course, something had gone wrong: it was a bad arrangement, played badly.
I have never understood why people would want to arrange Nancarrow’s player piano music for ensemble, other than to allow musicians to show off at the expense of the music they purport to serve. The result is usually the aural equivalent of a watercolourist attempting to ‘enhance’ an Escher drawing. Nancarrow hand-punched music rolls for the player piano to play dazzlingly quick, complex rhythms with pinpoint accuracy. This wheezy arrangement for clumsily amplified winds and strings reduced all the detail and shape to a flat, muddy mess.
The remaining selection was a forgettable collection of condescending gestures toward accessibility, with all the ambition, depth, and canny grasp of cultural zeitgeist of an advertising jingle. There were two student pieces that sounded studenty: shapeless, limpdick prog-rock academically divested of any vitality.
The band pretty much admitted they were playing this stuff because it flattered them, so I hope at least they had fun playing it while boring the pants off anyone who had to listen to it. Honestly, there were more cheap thrills and a better rapport between musicians and punters at the supposedly egghead Elliott Carter gigs in January.
The second part of the concert was the main reason I went: Icebreaker were playing Philip Glass’ big 1970 opus, Music With Changing Parts. The concert hall was noticeably emptier after the interval: most of the absentees likely students who had dutifully turned out to see their colleagues/teachers in the first half, and felt no need stay a moment longer once their obligation was fulfilled.
Quite possibly, they were also superstitious types and wanted to avoid the curse of exposure to a piece by the ridiculously successful Glass written at a stage of his career when he still had to unblock toilets and drive a cab to make a living.
The derivative bombast which has fuelled the more financially rewarding phase of Glass’ career now obscures the fact that his music from the 1970s remains some of the most exciting and challenging music around. The early stuff doesn’t get played much: Glass restricts circulation of his scores, particularly ensemble pieces like this, written for his own group of dedicated musicians.
Unfortunately, it seemed like Icebreaker didn’t want to play this piece tonight. In the first place, fatigue was visibly setting in amongst the musos during the latter stages of the gig. In the second place, their interpretation of Glass’ piece was trying its damndest to make it sound as much like Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as possible.
Thirteen musicians (Glass typically made do with 6 to 8), some of them doubling on different instruments, were needed for this performance. Perhaps Glass would have liked to work with a broader instrumental palette when playing this piece in the 1970s, but I doubt he would have done it at the expense of keeping his ensemble tight, or together.
These days, maybe, he might simply hire a couple more mbira players to cover the bald spots, but he would not say to himself, “I’m sure the audience won’t notice when that really loud bass part drops out for two bars every now and then because the keyboard player has to turn pages.” (Pssst, Icebreaker. Rehearsals. Page turners.)
The unvarying pulse essential to Glass’ music was marred by sloppy changes from one figure to the next, poor and irregular intonation of some figures, and just plain disagreement between musicians about what the basic speed should be. Too often, when some kind of momentum was building up, another muso would take over after sitting out for a while and kill the pace. No more than three of the four keyboard players were active at any one time, but this relay-team approach failed to maintain any consistency across the piece.
The sound mixer spent much of his time working on damage control, trying to sort out the imbalance of instrumental sounds that the performers were incapable of resolving. Based on the first half of the concert, I’d say this particular Glass piece appealed to Icebreaker as one of the very few that allows some form of limited improvisation, but their excessive indulgence in these opportunities led to the musical material occasionally being swamped, and frequently chopped and changed so rapidly that the point of the piece was lost.
Pretty much everything Glass has written over the last 20 years has left me cold, so here’s one positive thing I took away from this gig. Given the crummy work he’s turned out over the last decade or so, I often start to doubt that he was ever any good. I still like this piece a lot despite the tone-deaf mangling it got from Icebreaker that night, so he must have been some kind of genius once upon a time.
I almost forgot: the one thing the band got right on the night was their early run-through of Frank Zappa’s brief Möggio, which I attribute to Zappa knowing his instruments and, more importantly, knowing his musicians: “Yes, you are all individuals – now do exactly what I tell you.”
Theatrical highlights: Electronic recorder guy almost getting garrotted when he went for a walk and forgot the lead on his instrument was only so long. One of the excessive number of keyboard dudes manically pattering out Glass’ repeating figures on his thighs when he wasn’t playing. Pity it didn’t help when he was actually touching the keyboard.
Overheard gossip in the foyer: The usual “music student going to see their lecturer get a performance” glad-handing.

Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: See the Xenakis reviews.

Tomorrow: Review of the Icebreaker gig at the IF Festival

Wednesday 8 March 2006

I still haven’t fully recovered from my trip to Riga over the weekend, so the review of the gig I went to last night isn’t finished yet. When it’s posted tomorrow, it will hold this blog’s record for the shortest turnaround from an event actually happening to me getting around to writing about it.
If you can’t wait that long, here’s the summary: it sucked. But how badly did it suck? The juicy details tomorrow.

In the back room of a pub in Dalston

Friday 3 March 2006

Ben Watson, a middle-aged adolescent in an op-shop jacket complete with a few stray badges on the lapels, his uncut hair swaying gently from his receding hariline, lightly crept from table to table, reciting glossolalic poetry written earlier in the day. In pauses between verses, his 18 month old daughter stood in her mother’s lap and applauded theatrically. Beside the bar, someone else’s kid wandered up to the piano in the back corner, and gently draped himself across the keyboard in affectations of ennui, accompanying the poetry with dense, plangent chords at irregular intervals.

Continuing intimations of senescence

Monday 27 February 2006

I am old enough to belong to the generation that can remember Herbie Hancock’s Rockit and Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F, which means that we are too old to remember clearly which is which. But what the hell, some journalists these days can’t even tell the difference between Faltermeyer and Eddie Murphy.
Just to keep you confused, the Evolution Control Committee have constructed their own version of Axel F, comprised entirely of chopped-up and reassembled bits of Rockit. Now you can prove to yourself, your friends and long-suffering family that it is, indeed, the same song. Pretty much.
The Evolution Control Committee – Fock It. (MP3, 5 MB)
I probably found this while looking through WFMU’s Beware of the Blog, so I’ll link to that too.

Heavy Metal + Curling = HEARTS ON FIRE

Wednesday 22 February 2006

Curling r0XX0r d00d!!!!!! Hammerfall and the Swedish Women’s Curling Team rock the rinks. Genius.

Filler By Proxy XXXI: The Infamous London Records Chat Archive

Tuesday 21 February 2006

The masons have learned that different browsers treat alt tags and title tags differently when displaying images.

(Yes, the Masons are in distress again.) This is an old one and not pleasant reading, but it isn’t well represented on the web any more. Back in 1997 when corporations were pretty much clueless about the web, London Records (the American counterpart to Decca) launched their spiffy new classical music website, complete with a chat page:
We’ve included this area in the new site in response to the many requests for an on-line discussion forum. We hope that you will submit your comments and thoughts through the miracle of technology for others to absorb. Check back frequently as we’ll be refreshing this area with new topics.

Things started slowly in July and August, when most of the readers’ comments were about how lousy the London Records website was:

I have always held Decca/London in the highest regards for their recording quality, but the utter nonsense of this website greatly diminishes that reputation. This was truly a waste of my time.

By the end of August visitors were losing patience with the lack of updates and responses from anyone connected to the record label:

SO LONDON RECORDS THIS SITE IS SHIT AND MEANINGLESS. WAKE UP YOU BORING OLD FART OF A RECORD COMPANY… DO YOU HEAR ME!!!!!!!!@#@#$@#$$#@%

This message stayed up on the webpage for everyone to see. Finally, in September, Sir Georg Solti, one of the label’s greatest recording stars, died. Not a word from the London Records website, who contendly continued to list his forthcoming tour dates. And the floodgates opened. A message signed by Albert Imperato, head of London’s parent company Polygram, appeared on the chat page:

Hi there, this is Al, head of Polygram USA. Do you losers really think we care about your complaints? Shit, all of the money you chuckleheads spend on this classical crap would hardly buy me a noseful of decent blow. We’ll update this site if and when we fucking well feel like it, and I can tell you right now that it won’t be soon enough for you little crybabies. Why don’t you just stroke your little cocks if that’s all you want. As for Sholti, big fucking deal! I met him once and he blew me off, the arrogant bastard. Who cares about him now that he’s dead? Nobody at the New York office, that’s who!

For the next two months the page became a gratuitously offensive haven where, as Al himself put it, “potential customers have been asking their innocent questions for weeks, while persons sporting the names of top Polygram USA officers have been answering them with foul language, racial and sexual abuse, bad spelling and bad grammar! And that this has been happening on a server owned by Polygram itself.”

Eventually, the entire London Records website was taken down… except for the chat page.
Of COURSE it’s for real, you drop of piss from an old queen’s underpants. Look at the fucking URL if you don’t believe me. This is actually the server owned by Polygram Records, and this is all that’s left of the official London Records page. I am Albert Imperato, and while my title is Vice President of Deutsche Grammophon in the U.S. I am the guy in charge of marketing. I was given this job by my godfather (don’t laugh or I’ll have your eyes in a shotglass) after my cousin Cenzo screwed me out of some of the more lucrative family business out west… If I don’t start getting some RESPETTO I’m going to wipe some Clifford Curzon master tapes, and I mean wipe them on my ass after a prolonged shit. So enough of the stupid questions, and if you don’t like it you can fuck a donkey for all I care!

The almost-complete page has been archived, which, as I said, is not pretty reading but a good way to kill time if you like your trainwrecks long, slow, and laden with filth and invective.

London Records’ classical branch was closed down soon afterward. Polygram’s old web addresses now point to Universal Music Group; their classical site, iClassics, has a link to Sir Georg Solti on its front page.