Leo Sayer’s quest for acolytes continues unfulfilled, for now.

Wednesday 17 January 2007

I can’t believe it’s been over a year since I last wrote about Leo Sayer. Someone, equally incredulous, just wrote to me to say, “I can’t believe you haven’t posted about Celebrity Big Brother yet,” as if I’m the sort of person who watches much TV besides darts. I had no idea what the anonymous well-wisher was driving at, until I remembered who one of this year’s contestants was: the former pop star who moved to Australia with the immortal words…

I don’t know how much luck he’s had inspiring the youth of Australia, but he’s been back in the UK trying to engender veneration from the likes of Ken Russell and Face from The A Team. Sadly, it seems Australia is still a more enlightened place than Borehamwood, because he’s already quit the show, “after knocking down a door with a shovel.” And he’d run out of clean underpants. Paul McCartney was right about saints. Happy now, Anonymous?

Filler by Proxy XLIV: Party Like It’s 2003!

Tuesday 9 January 2007

Just when my hard drive is about to die: The 365 Days Project is back for another year. I’ve already plugged this remarkable collection of audio anomalies, first uploaded one file a day throughout 2003. Four years later, WFMU has decided to repeat the exercise, compiling another 365 songs, radio broadcasts, advertisements, and home recordings that struggle to justify their existence in consensus reality.
In fact, this time around there’ll be more than 365 semi-classifiable sounds to enjoy: on some days they’re posting more than just one file. A lot more. So far they’ve given us obscure chocolate jingles, the Leif Garrett Fan Club record, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s The L.S. Bumble Bee, and the jaw-dropping concept that is Play It Safe, Vol.4. Get in early before it overwhelms you.

A Very Feldman Christmas

Thursday 21 December 2006

Having just blabbed on about Morton Feldman below, YouTube has some video of the concert I attended: Debora Petrina performing Three Dances (1951). This is not typical Feldman! An early, unusually sparse work, even by his standards: it was composed with choreography in mind, and Petrina has managed to combine her own choreography with the musical performance. Not the best video quality, and not Feldman at his best, but this is rare stuff.
If you don’t know anything about Feldman’s music and want to throw yourself in at the deep end, Radio Tonkuhle in Germany is playing his String Quartet II on Christmas Day, as performed by the Ives Ensemble. The live stream starts at 23:00 (GMT+1) on 25 December.
If, for some reasons, you have other plans that day and miss the broadcast, Princeton’s WPRB is playing the same piece, performed by the Flux Quartet, on 29 December ( live stream at 11:00 GMT-5).
String Quartet II (1983) is Feldman’s most notorious work: a single movement for quartet, quiet and slow throughout, and long enough to go beyond the standard considerations of structure and form, into an immersion into a sustained, unique soundworld without a past, a future, or a sense of scale. The Flux Quartet play the full six-hour version, while the Ives Ensemble take the “easy” route with the trimmed-down, four-hour version. Have fun justifying this to any relatives you have staying over for the holidays.
This will probably be the last post until new year. Have a good one!

So wrong it’s right: Morton Feldman

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.
The Guardian 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.)

Zen and the art of Magic 693

Sunday 17 December 2006

Circa 1.00 am on Monday (local time) Magic 693 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”.
Gene Pitney Watch: I’m Gonna Be Strong

Index update? What index update? (Equine Remix)

Sunday 17 December 2006

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.
The Scalagna 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.
Also, an expanded version of Contextualising the Contemporary Artist Yadda Yadda Tracey Emin is now posted at Sarsaparilla.

Filler by Proxy XLIII: How long until someone makes an opera out of this?

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.
Opera Chic 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.

Magic 693: The Listening Test

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*
  • 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 Bargain 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.

Filler by Proxy XLI: Don’t you just fucking hate them?

Tuesday 7 November 2006

It’s been a while since we all enjoyed a really hostile review, so please enjoy Heart On A Stick’s reaction to seeing a gig by indie wannabe-darlings Ra Ra Riot:
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.
Stand back, he’s just warming up.

The Night We Burned Down Bimbo Deluxe

Thursday 2 November 2006

“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.
It’s 4 Meg, it’s 4 minutes long. It’s noisy. Please download and enjoy The Night We Burned Down Bimbo Deluxe.
Part of the slightly revamped Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade!

Magic 693: an appreciation

Sunday 22 October 2006

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.

Filler by Proxy XL: An Incomplete History of the Art of the Funerary Violin

Wednesday 4 October 2006

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.
The New York Times gives a little more information about the book and the mysterious Guild of Funerary Violinists (you may need Bugmenot to get past registration).
Strangely, The Rosenberg Archive has been silent about this guild.

The Fall and the Liminality of Kitten Kong

Friday 29 September 2006

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.

Filler by Proxy XXXIX: Slow News Day Lets Nerds Settle Scores

Sunday 24 September 2006

More than a quarter of classical music fans have tried cannabis, says a study from the University of Leicester.

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.

Why we do what we do

Thursday 21 September 2006

“The opportunity to hear lousy music live is greatly underrated.”