Political music. No wait, come back!

Tuesday 23 May 2006

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!)
Cornelius Cardew 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.

32.5 drinks and counting: Eurovision wrap 2006 (part 2)

Monday 22 May 2006

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 and 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 [edit]

* huh?

“Craziness is going on!”: Eurovision wrap, 2006 (part 1)

Sunday 21 May 2006

Firstly may I say that, as an Australian, I am happy to longer feel the need to publicly repent over that “rubber kangaroos on bicycles” fiasco at the Atlanta Olympics. Thankyou Greece, for deciding that the best way to class up the Eurovision Song Contest is to stage an opening musical number with dancers dressed in rubber dolphin costumes doing somersaults around the stage. It almost drew my attention away from the women with model ships perched on their heads.
As with last year, quotes in italics are from the competitors at the pre-contest press conference. The figures in brackets refer to damage taken as part of the Eurovision Drinking Game.
Former Yugoslav Republic of Switzerland
“Who was responsible for the costumes?”
A very Swiss, very nondescript performance by a bunch of celebrity impersonators: Cher, Justin Timberlake, Tina Arena, and three other people I’m not “hip” enough to recognise. (1 – DKC)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Moldova
“She was only 15 when I married her. She doesn’t even know about it yet.”
Nobody has heard of Moldova, but then Moldova has a mutually sketchy idea of what happens beyond Romania. Their attempt at reaching out to the world ends up as a reggae number sung in cod Italian, and Moldovan reggae is as wrong as you might imagine. But the Moldovans get everything wrong, even the hallowed concept of the Bucks Fizz: the girl removes her clothing behind a screen, and the guy gets things backwards and puts clothing on (does this mean we have to spit up a drink?) Moldova has much to learn about Eurovision. Plus they have a guy on stage riding one of those razor scooters around like it’s the new thing. (4 – 2BF, E?, SR)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Israel
“These are the costumes we’ll be wearing on Saturday. They’re white…”
One of our house guests watching the show has lived in London all his life and never seen Eurovision, so he was always a shoo-in to ask what Israel is doing in Eurovision. One of the reasons the choreography in Eurovision is so crap is that the backing singers actually have to sing, but this motley assemblage howled like wounded dogs. Whisper it low: Israel has supplanted Germany as the country most likely to sing about everybody being happy and together. White suits and frocks. (3 – FC, DKC, Israel?)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Latvia
“We’ve released four albums in Latvia but none outside of Latvia so far.”
Another of those weird 6-piece boybands (see Serbia and Montenegro last year) who sing falsetto and beatbox while walking around a puppet made from office supplies. You can’t make this up. Sadly, this is the most entertaining thing so far. Oh yes, they wear white suits. (0).
Former Yugoslav Republic of Norway
“The lyrics are quoting from Norwegian mythology, with mentions of elves etc.”
This evil song tries to get us all drunk, while five bored ice queens wander listlessly round the stage, pretending to play fiddles and not even remotely hinting that I might have a chance with any of them. Bah. White frocks. (6 – 5SR, WM)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Spain
“Is Eurovision what we expected?”
It’s Las Bloody Ketchup, which is Spain’s way of saying they don’t want to host Eurovision in 2007. Continuing Latvia’s use of office supplies as stage props, the singers faff around in ergonomic chairs while two dykes roll around on the floor to try to distract from the shiteness of the song and the fact the singers can barely make themselves heard over the music. (2 – DKC, WC)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Malta
“I really enjoyed it and I think we all felt amazing actually.”
A tiny, evil troll with three eyebrows (the third has slipped to below his lower lip) tries to revive 80s disco, albeit with live singing and no post-production pitch correction. The result is predictably disastrous. At least the absence of decent singing allows him to fill the stage with real dancers. (1 – DKC)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Germany
“We just want to say to all the Eurovision workers, keep up the good work – you’re doing an amazing job.”
We learn that German country and western makes more sense than Moldovan reggae, despite (or because of) an Australian singing the lead. We also learn that a German banjo player is much, much scarier than any of the characters in Deliverance. Also, the double bass has a sheriff’s badge on it, so we learn that German basses are empowered to conduct seizures of chattel property to satisfy a legal judgement. And they can carry a gun. (3 – FC, DKC, SR)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Denmark
“We’re definitely getting closer to what we want.”
The Danes sing a “retro” song about twisting, which traces the roots of 50s rock’n’roll all the way back to, oh, Racey. In the Nordic tradition of the Bomfunk MCs’ Freestyler, no actual twisting occurs during the song. Someone does come out to breakdance and fanny about with an unplugged electric guitar. I hate them for all flashing their armpits. (6 – 5SR, WM)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Russia
“With so many beautiful people around me on stage, how could it not go well?”
A young man in a mullet and a Bonds singlet with his entry number ironed onto the front tries to ignore the two ballerinas waay up the back of the stage, and the mime stuck in a piano throwing rose petals around. This is classic Eurovision trainwreck staging, concocted by people who have never actually witnessed any form of entertainment, but had someone describe it to them once. Much debate over whether a mime in a piano constitutes a Wandering Minstrel. (1.5 – SR, 0.5WM)
Macedonia
“I don’t want to sound like a Miss World contestant, though!”
An armpit on display right from the start. She can’t sing, but her Daisy Dukes do all the singing for her as she torments the world’s whitest homeboys. She sits on one for good measure, in lieu of choreography. (1 – SR)
Former Yugoslav Republic of Romania
“I should be a mathematics teacher actually.”
My friends think this could be a Eurodisco hit as big as that Eiffel 65 thing but all I can think of is: what the hell is wrong with that dancing librarian’s capri pants? She appears to have several stenographic pads stuffed down each leg. (2 – DKC, E?)
Half-time break. The hostess has changed her dress and our Eurovision virgin laments that we still have 12 more songs and voting to go (2 more drinks).

Countdown to Eurovision: a clarification

Thursday 18 May 2006

A large part of this week has been spent out working or out somewhere south of the river going to the Frederic Rzewski gigs (trying to find the venues is half the fun!). The few hours at home have been spent reinstalling my computer’s operating system (hint: don’t upgrade Firefox!) Instead of going on about my own shortcomings I will actually finish writing up the Rzewski concerts tomorrow, in between posting stupid crap about Eurovision.
Speaking of which, a clarification of the Eurovision Drinking Game is in order. The Key Change, the Buck’s Fizz and the TaTu are to be honoured at each and every occurence. Is That English? and Don’t Mention The War may be honoured only once per song, at its first appearance (for those of you worried about this year’s Turkish transvestite who yells “Superstar!” 8 or 9 times during a song otherwise in Turkish).
The San Remo applies once per person per song; the Cultural Rainbow and the Wandering Minstrel only applies for each distinct phenomenon per song (e.g. repeated bouts of pretending to strum a stringless zither is only one Wandering Minstrel, whereas strumming a stringless zither in between waving a set of pan pipes around is two Wandering Minstrels).
It’s all a matter of common sense, if you think about it.
To the person who suggested that the World Cup be renamed My Lovely Horse: your submission is being given serious consideration.
Refresh your memories of last year’s debacle with a (ahem) brilliant review. Oh, it’s in two parts.

Frederic Rzewski: a short, stupid confession

Monday 15 May 2006

As I type this Frederic Rzewski is giving a piano recital at Trinity College of Music in Greenwich. He is a fine, distinctive pianist, particularly of his own compositions. Right now he is probably playing Four Pieces for piano, which I like very much. Later in the concert he is performing De Profundis for piano, with the pianist reciting passages from Wilde’s essay of the same name. I havetypically found his “piano with declaiming voice” works heavy going, but I haven’t heard this one so I can’t judge it.
I was meant to hear these pieces tonight, but I stupidly went out to Blackheath Halls, where another Rzewski concert had been given on Friday night, and by the time I realised my mistake it was too late to get back to Greenwich in time to do the concert justice. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I did hear Rzewski play piano on Friday, and I have double checked the details so that tomorrow night I won’t miss the concert where his extraordinarily powerful work Coming Together will be played. A writeup of both events will follow shortly.
If you plan on going somewhere by mistake, Blackheath is a very nice little village in the southeast suburbs of London, complete with a village green and an expensive fish and chips shop.
Below is another foolish Eurovision post.

Countdown to Eurovision (3): The Eurovision Drinking Game

Monday 15 May 2006

Reprinted from last year, with a couple of revisions and additions, it’s the Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game:

Phase One: The Performances

The Key Change. Whenever the singers dramatically change key during the final chorus. Additional drink for every successive key change in the same song.
The Buck’s Fizz. Whenever a performer sheds a piece of clothing. Finish your drink if the clothing loss is obviously unintentional.
Is That English? Whenever someone notices that the singers have switched from their native language into English in an attempt to win more votes. Two drinks if they try to dodge the language issue by intentionally singing gibberish.
The San Remo. Any occurence of visible armpits and/or pointing.
The Fine Cotton. Any appearance by mercenary singers flown in to represent a foreign country. Two drinks if they’re Irish.
The Cultural Rainbow. Every time an entrant blatantly rips off last year’s winning performance (i.e. in 2006 expect lots of half-arsed Busby Berkeley kaleidoscopic choreography and people pulling scarves out of each others’ clothing). Finish your drink if last year’s winning country rips itself off.
The Wandering Minstrel. Eurovision doesn’t allow backing tapes, so take a drink if one of the performers is pretending to play a musical instrument (or simulacrum thereof) as part of the choreography.
The TaTu. Finish your drink if the audience boos (on telly, not in the living room.)
The World Cup. Any obvious indication that a country is deliberately trying to lose, to avoid budgetary/logistical problems of hosting the event next year.
Don’t Mention The War. Each time the German entrant sings something about everyone being happy.
Phase Two: The Voting
The Wardrobe Change. If the female host is wearing a different frock after the songs have finished. Two drinks if the male host has changed his suit.
The Hurry-Up. Every time the hosts have to talk over the announcer from each voting country to ask “Can we have your votes please?” (i.e. shut the fuck up already). Finish your drink if the announcer tries to deliver a personal message to a relative watching at home in Murmansk.
The Gimme. When Greece gives twelve points to Cyprus.
The Old Europe. When the UK gets null points from France.
The New Europe. When the Baltic states all vote for each other.
The Sympathy Vote. When anything sung in French gets a point and/or the last country without any points finally gets off the mark. A special toast to any country left with zero points at the end.
The Sandra Sully. Each time an announcer fucks up the voting results. Finish your drink if they get so confused they have to start over.
The Sally Field. Each time they show contestants backstage during the voting looking genuinely surprised and pleased with themselves when they get the same politically-motivated votes they get every year.
The Master of Suspense. Any time an announcer realises that the pause for suspense only works if they announce the twelve points and then the country that has won them, not the other way around. (This may not happen.)
The “Viktor, You Very Unattractive Fellow.” Two drinks if the hosts speak in rhyme and/or pretend to flirt with each other. Finish your drink if the flirting is serious.
The wildcards
The first person who asks why Israel is in it, or why Italy isn’t, finishes their drink.
The first person who asks why Lebanon or Serbia and Montenegro aren’t in it must finish their drink. Everyone else must drink unless they know the answers.
A toast to the first person who expresses dismay when they realise how long the voting is going to take.
A toast to the person who gets so drunk you have to secretly call a cab and persuade them they ordered it when it arrives.

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