Enough with the Xenakis already!

Saturday 29 October 2005

The final night of the Xenakis gigs, with the London Sinfonietta. The Rambler left some remarks about this night in a comment, either on his blog or mine – I forget. Let’s get through this quick.

Waarg: Way to dampen the crowd’s enthusiam, opening with this stodge – yes, one of those flaky pieces from the mid-1980s I mentioned previously. The Rambler thinks the ensemble may have been off-form, but I assumed their wonky playing was intentional, having heard a recording of Épéi, another of X’s queasy, wheezy ensemble works. Épéi, however, had a particular kind of pig-headed authority, whereas Waarg sounded much flabbier. In fact, I didn’t mind this piece as much when hearing it as I did in retrospect: it had a kind of lyrical, relaxed attitude that made a nice change of pace from the rest of the music heard over the weekend. Still, it was a heavy, thudding kind of lyricism. And it was still flabby.

A L’Île de Gorée: Wow, this was bad! The Rambler liked the harpsichord playing – which was technically admirable and almost thrilling, except it was at the service of a shoddy and inept composition. The idea of Xenakis writing something for harpsichord sounds like some music insider’s idea of a joke, but he wrote at least four substantial pieces featuring the instrument. Unfortunately they all sound pretty much as you might expect, with lots of frantic banging away on the keyboard vindicating Sir Thomas Beecham’s likening of the modern instrument’s sound to that of skeletons copulating on a tin roof.

There was lots of give-and-take between the soloist and the ensemble, as you’d expect when X’s typical dynamics ensure that the harpsichord would be drowned out. The whole thing was so stop-start and felt so poorly constructed that you just wanted it to end. The piece was dedicated “to the black Africans… the heroes and victims of apartheid in South Africa” (Thanks Iannis, just what we wanted!). The motivation behind Nuits substantiated its significance, this dedication sought to create significance. It was the sort of claim to relevance that gives European intellectualism a bad name. Written in the mid 1908s? Absolutely.

Jalons: This was another mid-1980s piece but much better, with a spiky severity that held your attention throughout in a way the preceding pieces did not. It was written for Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain and it’s easy to imagine Boulez hovering over X’s shoulder the whole time he was writing it muttering “act like a professional for once in your life, dammit” – in some respects this piece sounds as close to anything his contemporaries may have written as you could hope for. The program notes use the supremely baffling term “polar centre.”

ST 10-1,080262: Known as just plain ol’ ST/10 to its friends. Written in the late 50s and early 60s, this piece always gets kudos for being one of the first works written with the assistance of a computer. A computer program handled the calculation of dozens of probabilities concerning musical densities, curves, pointilistic textures and structures. The result is a hyperkinetic whirlwind of fragments from what sounds like a dozen or so wild compositions thrown into a blender. The combinations and successions of sounds have a perverse kind of objective logic to them, and yet they are combined in ways that would never have previously occurred to a composer. Not to be confused with ST 4-1,080262, a string quartet written at the same time, and either used the same program results as ST/10, or one is an arrangement of the other. Several passages were awfully similar, but the program notes didn’t elucidate.

Akanthos: It’s harder to write about pieces you don’t mind. A work from the late 1970s for soprano (wordless) and ensemble, I heard a recording of this and found it shrill and overbearing. I liked this performance, even thought it was because the singing wasn’t as strong as it could be ideally and so would get swallowed up by the other musicians from time to time (the soprano must sing without vibrato, which can make projecting the voice a tough ask.)

Eonta: Now this is how you finish a concert! Piano playing of impossible ferocity (again, a computer was used to help determine the torrents of thousands of notes) and a brass quintet playing into the piano’s open soundboard. Except at first they’re lined up along the back wall of the stage, playing first into the floor, then up into the air, then over to the piano, and then wandering (carefully!) around the stage, playing long, dense chords over the piano’s rampage. Finally, they get chair facing off opposite the piano for some diabolically intertwined sliding tones, before a final crossing of the floor and face-off with the resonant insides of the piano. This piece had everything to please the punters: keyboard pyrotechnics, theatre, wacky stunts, a real spatialisation of sound that Alax couldn’t provide, and a dramatic pause right near the end the caused some overexcited punters to start clapping too early. Haven’t heard that happen for ages! Wildly enthusiastic applause from just about everybody, including those who were sheepishly fleeing for the exits; not because they didn’t like it that much, but because years of exposure to British public transport turns you into a twat.

Theatrical highlights: Harpsichordist Elisabeth Chojnacka’s red afro, sequinned vest and facial expression that suggested she was under strict medical instructions not to smile, presumably from a very expensive Swiss doctor at the Ponds Institute with a beard and white laboratory coat. And her habit of dumping each page of the score onto the floor when she was done with it.

Overheard gossip in the foyer: None whatsoever. For the whole weekend.

Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: Someone shouted me so I didn’t get the price, but if you get it in a plastic cup the Royal Festival Hall lets you take it into the auditorium just like it’s the band room at the Corner Hotel, although I doubt this is to minimise harm if you get into a stoush with the band and/or your fellow audience members. Or is it?

Readers’ notes: The previous posts about the Xenakis gigs are here and here. A post that was meant to be about Xenakis but mistakenly ended up about Stockhausen is here: do not read this if you want news only about Xenakis. Also, the link I posted to Rolf Hind’s shirt doesn’t work: apparently James Bond fansites are picky about linking to their pictures and would prefer you to just steal them outright, so here’s a nice photie of Mischka, or Grischka.

Pretty much that but with better hair. Oh, and without the knife, unless the piano recital needs some Keith Emerson keyboard-stabbing action to liven things up.

Xenakis, continued

Wednesday 26 October 2005

I’m afraid this is badly written, but I can’t fiddle about with it forever…

Did I mention that these gigs were almost all sold out? That you can fill a hall with people who want to hear nothing but Xenakis, except maybe for a bit of Feldman and Messiaen* to break things up a little? It’s not often you get to hear live performances of music by composers who wrote stuff which requires musicians to put an effort into getting it right. Most of the time, when a 20th-century composition does get programmed at a concert, it’s something dull that performers and audience alike can safely doze through pretending it’s either Brahms or Gershwin and not caring too much if they get it wrong. Then they fill up the rest of the program with 2nd-rate Brahms, under the assumption that the subscribers will like it (they won’t, but they won’t complain about it either). It seems I’m not the only one who’s been hanging out for a concert where I don’t have to leave early, or arrive late.

Rolf Hind knew how to keep the punters happy at his piano recital, starting and finishing with two of Xenakis’ blockbusters for the solo instrument: Mists and Evryali. Don’t mistake the title of Mists – this is not a soft-focus montage of dewy impressionism, but an implacable study of thousands of motes in a constant roil of Brownian motion. The sheer sonic fireworks of Xenakis’ piano music, coupled with the theatrics of a pianist playing music of such obvious, stupefying virtusoity, makes for superb entertainment. It’s very hard to pretend you’re appreciating the intricacies of Xenakis’ use of arborescences and number sieves in these works when the sound just blows you away.

Evryali is, if anything, even more dazzling – long barrages of rapidly hammered 10-note chords ranging far and wide over the entirety of the keyboard. Given a quick look at the score for the piece, you’d think it was written for four hands; after closer examination you’d still need convincing that one person can be capable of playing it. It’s a great way to finish a concert, especially for an audience who are thinking “This cost me less than half the ticket price of watching Stockhausen operate a tape deck.”

A good way to impress the crowd is to play Evryali immediately after Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari, a work as soft and still as Evryali is loud and frantic. I went to this recital as much to hear the Feldman as the Xenakis – he’s just about my favourite composer, yet I hadn’t heard this piece before. I was surprised at how overtly beautiful, even romantic, this piece was – at least as Hind performs it. It was written right near the end of Feldman’s life (he died in 1987), between compositions of deep, hermetic ambiguity and spareness of almost opressive austerity (but still beautiful, just not in such a showy way).

Of course, it would have been more impressive to bash out the Xenakis and then sustain the delicacy of touch needed to play Feldman right. Roger Woodward actually did this at the British premiere of Mists, using it as the opener for the premiere of Feldman’s 90-minute long Triadic Memories – although this may explain why his interpretation of Feldman is as mad as a two-bob watch. The biggest problem about this part of the concert was that the punters wre so pumped up by the preceding music that they got restless and fidgety – moreso than usual during a Feldman piece, in which the quiet atmosphere really amplifies those squeaky chairs.

Theatrical highlights: Rolf Hind’s shiny red shirt, like he was Mischka (or Grischka) from Octopussy.

(Tomorrow: last instalment, promise! Now I have to post a picture of a cigarette packet.)

* WARNING: Hideous 1996-style website design. Kids, learn how Gorak saw the web!

Sorry, that last post turned out to be about Stockhausen. This is the one about Xenakis.

Tuesday 25 October 2005

In Melbourne I was a regular customer (if you can call hanging around in and listening to stuff rather than actually buying it) at Synaesthesia Records. Apparently their biggest seller was (and possibly still is) a CD of electronic works by Iannis Xenakis: it seemed to be a disc in which the free-improv, Japanese noise, avant-garde, computer-glitch and outsider fans could all find some common ground.

Xenakis’ life and work has been condensed in the public mind into a neat little quasi-mythology even tighter than Stockhausen’s, and without the loony parts: ethnic Greek Romanian, socialist partisan fighter in the war, got half his face shot off, exile in Paris, assistant to Le Corbusier, Philips Pavilion, use of number theory and stochastic calculations, the contrast of theoretical sophistication with the raw visceral impact (make sure you use the word “brutal”) of his music. Throw in the word “polytope” and you can pretty much write your own program notes. The front cover of this concert series’ program uses the phrase “builder of dense and dazzling sonic masses” in large type on the front cover.

There is, however, one dirty little secret about Xenakis that is never directly acknowledged. While the ingenuity and power of his greatest works are indisputable, he also wrote a quite a lot of duds. I think the critical consensus acknowledges that his output from the mid 1980s onwards can get pretty flaky, but we’re only now getting to grips with just how many dead-ordinary pieces he turned out, and it looks like a much higher proportion than other composers of his (deserved) stature. What’s even more perplexing is how utterly superfluous these substandard works appear to be: their failures are not interesting failures, and their successes are better heard elsewhere.

Milling about in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall (non-Londoners, imagine something slightly more ambitious than the assembly hall of a large high school built in the 1960s – a concrete testament to the nation’s postwar self-doubt), it was slightly disappointing to be part of a crowd all of the same mind about Xenakis’ strengths and, apparently, his weaknesses. I missed the sad old man who sat behind me though a stonking take on the piano concerto Keqrops (Roger Woodward/MSO, if you’re interested) and then held me transfixed as he spent the entirety of the intermission bitterly complaining about it; his central thesis being the classic observation that it wasn’t music, it was just a collection of sounds.

I was disturbed – but no longer surprised – to find everyone in the room agreeing with me.

At the first gig (I went to five) I finally got to hear Nuits, a wordless piece for 12-voice choir from 1967. This is everything Xenakis is cracked up to be: gripping, dramatic, and totally uncompromising. Dedicated to “the thousands of unknown political prisoners”, it’s a lament that turns between terror, outrage and defiance. I typically find this kind of mid-20th century vocal exercises precious and faintly ridiculous, so anyone who can make me believe in it gets marked down as some kind of genius in my books.

They (the BBC singers) also performed Sea Nymphs, a setting of the “Full Fathom Five” lyric from The Tempest, the latest work (1994) played for the whole weekend. Cannily, they peformed this piece first, so that it was only retrospect you would realise how derivative it is from its illustrious predecessor.

The other highlight of the first night was Shaar, a work for 60-piece string orchestra that really should have been the crowd-pleaser to close the evening. It has every indulgence you could hope for: big, pulsing clusters of sound, wild sweeps back and forth across the orchestra, eight double-basses, everybody playing something different at the same time.

The other concerts in the series all made a point of finishing with a bang, however for this night the closer was an anticlimactic performance of Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum, a choice which can only be explained by a need to find something else for the BBC Singers to do, having already cruelled their Friday night. I don’t care much for Stravinsky’s music, so it’s become almost fascinating to be exposed to the lesser-known corners of his work and hear music that is surprising, eclectic, and inventive, that I would not care in the least if I never heard again.

Apart from that, some members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra played Alax, the first of Xenakis’ pieces to be heard over the weekend to feature lots of long, plodding unison passages of quasi-baroque honking which was starting to wear very thin with the regular concert-goers by Sunday night. There’s always something satisfyingly excessive about music written for multiple orchestras, even though Alax is written for three relatively small ensembles and only needed one conductor, which feels like cheating. However, the stage they played on was so small that all three groups had to sit right next to each other, which rendered the whole enterprise rather pointless. The best entertainment to be had was from watching the three harpists (a hapless role in any Xenakis composition) struggle to be heard over the three percussionists – drums and all – and nine french horns on stage.

For the sake of completeness, I’ll also mention the remaining piece played at the first concert: Varèse’s Intégrales. It’s very satisfying hearing avant-garde from the early 20th century getting played these days, being sufficiently old that orchestras can now usually do them without getting the notes wrong, playing them as if they actually like them, and knowing their way around them sufficiently well to give some thought to interpretation. And Varèse still has what it takes these days for a sufficiently nerdy high school kid to really piss off their parents.

Theatrical highlights: The singers periodically tapping tuning forks against the backs of their heads (coming in on the right note when singing 12-part atonal harmony is a right bastard).

Conductor Jac van Steen pausing to smooth down his hair during a quiet bit near the end of Alax.

(To be continued tomorrow…)

Another week, another excuse. Oh, and this post is about Xenakis.

Saturday 22 October 2005

Most of the events described below happened a little while ago now, but it shouldn’t matter to you unless you use this site as a news source (hint: don’t). I was trying to get this posting (and other long ones) to break from the main page onto a page of their own, without success. Hey, more photies uploaded, but!
One of the benefits of of taking advantage of a loophole in the UK visa system to escape my Australian creditors would be, I told myself, having greater access to the more esoteric reaches of culture which float my boat. Yet tonight I’m contentedly sitting at home in the bunker when I could be out copping a gawk at Karlheinz Stockhausen.
There are several reasons why I’m shunning a live! appearance by the man responsible for some of the most exciting music of the past 50-odd years (Did you know he was on the cover of Sergeant Pepper?). The main reason is because he’s charging £36 a ticket (Did you know he was on the cover of Sergeant Pepper? Hang on, I think I already said that). The other reasons are less materialistic, but all stem from that basic deal-breaker.
You’ll pay £36 to hear him play tapes. Furthermore, jaded Stockhausen fans report that whatever special Stocky-magic he may purport to imbue to a live mix of his electronic music is, at best, indistinguishable from shelling out about as much for the CDs – yours to keep! Another danger sign: he’s playing one undisputed solid-gold classic (Kontakte) paired with a new work no-one really knows (Oktophonie). I still have a short stack of half-played Steve Reich albums I keep around to remind of that particular lesson I learned the hard way.
Oktophonie may be a great work, but everything he’s done over the last 30 years has been obscured by his public persona of a megalomaniacal loony, inextricably intertwined with an impossibly huge project of a seven-opera cycle called Licht that has occupied his entire working life since (but now, amazingly, seems to have been completed).
To make matters worse, recordings of his music are not readily available. About fifteen years ago he reacquired the rights to most of them and has never licensed them to a record company. Oh sure, you can get pretty much everything he’s written on CD through his mail order company, but throughout the 70s and 80s he was complaining that his record label was restricting access to his music. His solution has exacerbated the problem, which makes it seem that he is more interested in cultivating an uncritical cult of acolytes than reaching a wider audience. Incidentally, his CD prices match his gig prices.
This attitude, the white clothes, his claims to alien ancestry, his ivory-tower pronouncements on the destruction of the World Trade Center and its inhabitants, result in a crowd turning up to Billingsgate tonight (I’d bet my unchanged Euros from the Spanish holiday) will be a motley of said cultists, baby boomers who remember back when Stockhausen seemed to be the one composer who mattered (Did you know he was on the cover of Sergeant Pepper? – sorry), and people who just want to see a great artist make a pork chop of himself.
Anyway, what I was going to write about was the weekend I spent camped in the Royal Festival Hall listening to Xenakis a week or so ago, but that can wait a little longer. Four concerts of live musicians for the price of Stockhausen maybe hitting the right button on a tape deck. I’ve heard enough of Stockhausen’s music to want to hear anything he’s written at least once. A composer I respect immensely has repeatedly praised a Stockhausen piece that I think is the most laughable load of cobblers I’ve ever sat through, outside of performances conceived by teenagers. Any Stockhausen recording you can find is worth paying for, unless it’s a CD of Grüppen (because the performance will probably be sucky) or if it mentions Aus den Sieben Tage (a real 60s you-had-to-be-there “project”).
The Rambler is an excellent blog that has posted on the mutual interdependence of the highs and lows of Stockhausen’s art, particularly as part of his excellent Music Since 1960 series.

You will hate the cheese and pickle: Cousin Norman redux

Wednesday 12 October 2005

WFMU, hosts of much goodness on the redoubtable UbuWeb, have an MP3 of the original version of the classic bad song “I’m Going to Spain” by the enigmatic Steve Bent, for your downloading enjoyment. A song I’d heard about as a wee tot on the grievously-misnamed World’s Worst Records compilation LP, but not actually heard until The Fall recorded their wistful cover version: fine in itself, but nothing can match the queasy charm of the original.
All I can find out about Bent is that he was a contestant on New Faces in Britain in 1974. Assertions on some websites that he is one and the same as the British actor Stephen Bent appear to be fanciful.

Be afraid: Linda Perry is also involved somehow

Wednesday 21 September 2005

I know you look to me as an authority figure but I need your help on this one, particularly from those of you outside the UK. Is the inexplicable resurgence of media interest over here in Juliette Lewis a peculiarly British phenomenon, or some global conspiracy engineered by the Scientologists? She’s been popping up everywhere as some kind of rock chick, which is apparently what she wanted to do all along and so deliberately starred in unwatchable shite like The Other Sister so all those movie executives would finally stop pestering her with wheelbarrows full of drugsmoney.
So is this a PR snow job going on everywhere, or have we suddenly become Germany to her Hasselhoff?
It really is a pity they don’t have genuine A-list celebrities manning the tables outside Scientology centres at least once in a while, so we can see how well-adjusted you can become after paying $100,000 to learn that you have thousands of body thetans trapped inside you who were tricked into watching a 3-D movie by an alien galactic ruler named Xenu.

Take a FREE personality test and learn about the science of mental health (Reg. Trade Mark)! My results are not typical and may vary.
Also, ads for Narconon have suddenly appeared at tube stations lately. Coincidence?

A Public Service

Friday 16 September 2005

Switching hemispheres mid-year has left me throughly disorientated and indifferent as to which season it’s supposed to be where, but I figure summer must be over at last because UbuWeb is back online. For months they’ve had a single page announcing they’d be back after summer, but we all know what that usually means on the interweb.
UbuWeb has a bunch of poetry, essays, arty-type stuff online but the real exciting part is the boatload of free MP3s available to download: hours of brilliant and inexcusably overlooked music.
From the ridiculous
The 365 Days Project. Astonishingly bizarre recordings from garage sales around the world. Sometimes too hip for it’s own good, but when the first half of March can offer such treasures as musical polymath and self-confessed failed wunderkind Nicholas Slonimsky (then aged 96) singing “Children Cry For Castoria”, Van Morrison fulfilling contractual obligations to dead record company owners, Anthony Hopkins most genuinely terrifying performance, Orson Welles facetiously offering blowjobs, and Melbourne’s own Man Who Plays Music On his Fingers, you can hate the sinners and love the sins.
To the sublime
Tapes from the Morton Feldman Archive at SUNY-Buffalo. Dubbed from the archive’s open reel tapes onto cassette, then onto someone’s laptop, and compressed into MP3s, so you can guess the quality of these 1970s recordings aren’t the best. Also, some of the performances sound a bit wonky, but Feldman wrote some of the most beautiful and enduring music of the last 50 years, and some of these pieces have never been released on CD. (Note to Mallrat: if you like Gavin Bryars, Feldman’s the guy he stole all his ideas from.)
When I looked in yesterday, UbuWeb had expanded its collection of experimental films, but today they’ve been taken down after a spate of legal threats from various people – “all lawyers and business people, not the artists themselves.” So you may have to wait a while before really testing your bandwidth out on downloading Samuel Beckett’s Film.

And definitely no “Sometime in New York City”, either

Thursday 15 September 2005

“Instant Karma” permitted on Saturdays before 11pm.

“Dylan & Sleater Kinney & the Beach Boys & Jimmy Cliff & Sam Cooke & Bobby Bland & Joe Strummer; pretty much the whole history of recorded music.”

Sunday 24 July 2005

Are you ready to have your world turned upside-down? Nick Hornby likes Bruce Springsteen. So does Tony Blair. In fact, so do a whole bunch of middle-aged white guys. Don’t say you never learn anything from this blog.

If this exposé isn’t mind-boggling enough, Springsteen has discovered Britpop, so in a few months don’t be surprised if your dad is suddenly only ten years behind the times. Thus spoiling your enjoyment of your favourite bands.

Also of note, Hornby’s taken to citing his own woozy opinions as an authoritative source in footnotes to back up his arguments, such as they are.

>I can’t wait until David Bowie releases another album so Hornby can write a column trying to convince himself it doesn’t suck. Then start arguing over it with his reflection in a bathroom mirror.

Russell Crowe, please get your band back together

Friday 22 July 2005

The Apocalypse approaches. Steven Seagal, renaissance man, has released his first CD, titled (I am not making this up) “Songs From The Crystal Cave”.
The set, which features guest appearances by Stevie Wonder, Lt. Stitchie*, and Lady Saw*, is already available in France and will be sold in Asia come September. The martial-arts master culls from a wide swath of musical influences on “Cave,” including blues, rock, pop, Jamaican dancehall and traditional Indian music.

All you music-lovers out there can curb your cravings until your very expensive imported disc arrives in the post by downloading MP3s from his website. You can also enjoy more photos of him playing a guitar than you can shake your dharma beads at.

You can buy the CD online though his website, along with his “Essential oils and his very own Energy Bar !” What, no pudding?

If you want an unbiased analysis of the Stevemeister’s warblings, head on over to his unofficial fansite, where you can also enjoy debates on “What Do You Think Is Seagal’s Best Direct-to-Video So Far?” and “YOUR selection for Steven Seagal’s best acting performance ( not fighting!)” with nominations such as this:

Seagal displayed pretty decent acting talents, particularly in the scene where he smashed things up in the science lab.

According to the Billboard article, a propos of apparently nothing:
Seagal has pledged $100,000 in order to diffuse a “high risk” Russian nuclear weapon.
I think he means ‘defuse’. Presumably by high risk it means that he has to cut the red wire with a pen knife seconds before it goes off, but not before having to punch out Morris Chestnut.
* No, me neither.

“Death we expect, but all we get is life.”

Monday 18 July 2005

Perhaps finally, after 15 years of bitter argument, Pixies fans around the world can unite in agreement about which album they hate the most.

Harold Faltermeyer must be pissed off, or relieved, or something

Friday 3 June 2005

BBC Breakfast is currently talking about a Crazy Frog going to the top of the charts with what sounds like a remix of Axel F’s old hit…
Jamstar’s reworking of Axel F’s theme to detective show Miami Vice is widely tipped to become the first mobile ringtone to top the charts.
Get mono and polyphonic ringtones by Axel F. You can choose from a selection of Axel F’s greatest songs.
Axel F’s, “Crazy Frog”
I used it to point out that Axel F’s first well known track which was the theme music to Beverly Hills…
please please tell me we are not talking the same Axel F that did the song out of the beverly hills films?

“Today I had earplugs in, and the sound was wonderful!” Eurovision wrap, part 2

Monday 23 May 2005

The rest of Eurovision 2005: click here for part one. Quotes, including the fine example above from the Belgian contestant after rehearsal, are from the performers themselves, taken from the official website. Surprisingly, Belgium didn’t make it to the final.
Serbia & Montenegro
“We have spent the last six months preparing for this. It feels great to be here. Vote for us. We are the best!”

More drums! A boy band! With six boys. Being at war with all their neighbours throughout the nineties made them take their eye off the ball when it comes to churning out identikit pop music. Two sets of drums, big ugly brown tympani which one guy is left pounding away on up the back for most of the song. The surplus boy is evidently the autistic brother of one of the band members, or else the token Montenegran. This is appalling, but I can’t help admire their thriftiness in buying one suit each and then swapping around pants and jackets to look like they have a whole wardrobe of mix’n’match.
Denmark
“Everyone can be a singer. Obviously some people are better than others, but the main thing is to enjoy it – it doesn’t really matter if you make a good sound. It helps if you have a good bathroom though.”

Scarily enthusiastic redhead chap who looks like he’s either joined one of the more disturbing cults or is about to address an Amway convention; he has what can only be described as a shit-sucking smirk plastered over his gob from start to finish. Surprisingly, we’re told he wanted to teach music in a primary school but they wouldn’t let him. The mind boggles. For his backing group he has the world’s oldest boy band dressed like El Lissitsky’s idea of what gay cowboys look like. Hey, more black and red!
Sweden
“How can you sing about a town that you’ve never been to? So I went. But I didn’t see Céline Dion.”

A man dressed like George Michael dressed like Fonzie sings a song I cannot remember but seemed to think wasn’t too bad at the time, considering, while backed by the four surviving Solid Gold Dancers who are all members of the Kill Bill Fan Club. Of course everyone was hoping they’d whip out the samurai swords and do a number on him at the end but instead they handed him a stick, which he then leaned on because he was getting a bit fagged. Or they’d forgotten to bring out the oil drum he was going to hit it with. You may have noticed I’m not saying much about the songs themselves, because by this stage I was very much the worse for drink.
FormerYugoslavRepublicofMacedonia(ExceptinMtGambierCheckLocalGuides)
“Eurovision is very big in the former Yugoslavia. There is competition among the countries but they support each other. It’s not a conspiracy, though.”

Now this I remember. Australian readers: next summer all the bogan girls will be dressed like the chicks dancing around in this one. All the cheapo shops in London are pushing this flouncy peasanty print crap for summer. The other highlight in this one was the blokes in the background, especially the one on the right. Seriously, that was Senator Bob Brown up there. And he was showing all the dynamism and vivacity as we’ve come to expect from him. The guys are dressed like two bogans at Jooce on a Friday night, and dancing like it: chambray shirts and shuffling to and fro. While guy on the left is pumping his fist in the air Senator Bob lets his hand hang limply in mid air: he does so not want to be here! Some half-arsed and apologetic zorba-ing ensues. And of course there’s a guy banging on drums, some big ugly brown tympani they stole off the autistic Montenegran backstage. Seriously, they were exactly the same drums.
Ukraine
“People in Europe who don’t know Ukrainian still enjoying the song because it has a simple rhythm and melody. People enjoy its wholesome energy.”

Mlle Fifi: This is like that song off that Beastie Boys album.
Me: Which one?
Mlle Fifi: The one that sucked.
Everyone’s been betting that Ukraine won’t try to win again because they can’t afford to host the contest two years running. They play up to the home crowd by bunging on the theme song of the Orange Revolution, complete with Attila the Stockbroker rapping over some beats and guitar. You feel slightly ashamed when you say that as nu-metal hip-hop goes it’s not bad for a bunch of Ukranians, but at least you don’t have to sit through it with an embarrassed, fixed grin like Prince William having to spend his birthday listening to the Poet Laureate attempting to freestyle. So, I’m conflicted: was it a worthy gesture combined with a cynical attempt to blow the contest, or did they really think the rest of Europe really does give slightly more than a rat’s arse about what happens in Kiev? Hey, it’s Green Jelly!
Germany
“Although I hurt myself a bit, I’ll keep on jumping around.”

Speaking of not being able to afford hosting next year, it helps to understand Germany’s entry by remembering that they’re already hosting the World Cup finals next year. Take the self-styled ‘rock chick’ from your local breed of Pop Idol, put her in a bikini, have her sing a song almost identical to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up” (which is itself almost identical to “Don’t Worry Be Happy”), then have her denote emotion through tuneless bellowing, and voila: no need to trouble yourself planning a Eurovison in your country until at least 2007!
Croatia
“He’s escaped from a mental hospital. They don’t even know that he’s here. We just keep giving him his medication.”

AAAAAAAAGGHHH RUN FOR THE HILLS, IT’S CHRIS DE BURGH!! He’s working the stage like Denis Walter on the Midday Show hoping to pull some hot granny action when they’re off-air. And because Eurovision is a fever dream from which I shall never wake, there is a mad drummer who does his own choreography: namely, at the end of the song he stands on his head. Because tonight he’s playing wingman to granny-pulling Chris De Burgh. Expect him and that Moldovan crone to be all over New Idea real soon.
Greece
“I think I’m a woman now; not a girl.”

Safe and strong, the sort of thing that steamrolls the competition at Eurovision. At least they actually hired a choreographer so they didn’t shamble around on stage at random like all the others; no Norman Gunston ‘expressive’ hand gestures here! (There were two singers who did the fingers-down-the-cheek move when they sang about crying. I forget who, but I pegging Albania and Israel.) Better still, they zorba like they mean it dammit, and they pull out two of the best Euro-batshit manoeuvres of the night: a Busby Berkeley-style aerial-view number ‘1’, and (in the best appropriation of Turkish entrants yet) the chick standing on a guy’s back while pulling some strings out of his arse and playing them like a cello. Best of all, she makes that last move look almost normal! The singer chick manages to look much hotter than she probably really is, and more or less keeps it together for the whole song, which is more than many of the acts have managed tonight. Winner: all that’s missing is the Bucks Fizz move.
Russia
“‘America’ just rhymes with ‘little Erica’, so it’s just a lyric.”

Complete with cheap wig and plastic mac with nothing underneath, one of Russia’s crackwhores is rescued from working the streets in Rotterdam and given a second chance at life. If she wins Eurovision glory for the mother country she will get back her passport and see the people-smuggler who tricked her into indentured servitude brought to justice. But there are many obstacles in her way: an inability to sing and a tuneless dirge of a song which, despite being one of the few tonight written in english by someone who actually speaks the language, consists mostly of the words “Nobody hurt no-one” droned over and over. If she can just sing a little louder maybe, just maybe she can triumph! Louder still now, and hold your hand up to your ear to make sure your wig doesn’t slip off when you tilt your head back for that high note…
Bosnia & Herzegovina
“My father owns a vineyard, and if we win my father will make a special wine for you all to enjoy when you come to Bosnia & Herzegovina next year!”

Fake Abba, mostly Waterloo (another Eurovision winner, are you starting to see a pattern here?) Everyone picks it as fake Abba. Newborn babies turn their heads towards the telly and sniff, “Hmmph, they’re doing fake Abba.” It’s so blatantly, shamelessly fake Abba soliciting your approval that no-one will want to vote for it; everyone’s just gonna bust out their old Abba records one more time. So no Bosnian plonk for you! I hate Abba. Never liked them. If you liked Abba at my school you were a girl.
Switzerland
‘Cool Vibes’ is a song about a tiger.

The canny Swiss have pulled a Fine Cotton and hired mercenary Estonians Vanilla Ninja in a naked attempt to harvest some votes from the plethora of newly-minted, busted-arse Baltic states. Vanilla Ninja are four hot-enough chicks, brave enough to wear white after last year’s snowblinding fiasco, who rock as hard as their name i.e. slightly. They’re a ‘rock’ act who doubtlessly list Redd Kross and Josie and the Pussycats as their big influences. Despite being a band none of them play drums, which on any other night would seem like a cop-out but tonight is a refreshing twist. So it’s a good thing.
Latvia
“We think some performances can be a bit ridiculous.”

Two blond kids who didn’t get the memo that white suits are so 2004. They sit up on stools strumming their little guitars like that chick in Vanilla Ninja, desperately trying to imitate those two Danish blokes who won in 2000 with their anthem to Australian beach volleyball champs Kerry Pottharst and Natalie Cook, only with added teen appeal and without the tune. Because they’re the only Baltic country left in the comp they know they have a lock on the votes from the myriad of tinpot ex-soviets strewn around their borders, so they get cocky and do a dance routine they choreographed all by themselves. Namely, they stand up and walk towards the crowd, doing Norman Gunston-style hand gestures to go with the lyrics. This is a bad idea, if only because it shows that the Latvian on the left is really, really short. Like, that singing duo from Popstars Live last year, which you probably never watched.
France
“In France, we want every country to be made to sing in its native language. It makes it more interesting. Last year, we had 24 countries in a row singing in English, and so songs in French have no chance.”

A typically French attitude, that competition results can be legislated. This is a wonderfully nutzoid idea, considering that the UK is about the only country which could legitimately enter a song sung in English and they come near-last year after year. Besides, the Latvians could come out with their hands stuck in their armpits and make fart noises for three minutes and still nearly carry it off with 12 points each from every 20-acre backwater east of the Dnieper. If you really want a fighting chance of winning Eurovision, have a civil war so you break up into lots of little countries that all vote for each other, duh!
What the French really meant to say was, “We want every country to suck as hard as we do.” Which is: hard. This was the country that last year entered a midget in a white tuxedo timidly serenading a mime on stilts. I honestly doubt you can pin the failure of that one on language. And this year we had another fiasco: sleeveless chanteuse and backup boys giving us the San Remo moves in spades. The stage is awash with flashing armpits as everyone tries to make up their own dance moves on the spot without breaking up their clusterfuck. The song is atrocious and by the end the singer is going armpit-happy and is visibly struggling. It’s not because you sing in French that no-one ever votes for you, it’s because you make a deal out of refusing to sing in anything else, and want to tell everyone else what language to sing in. And because your music sucks.
The voting
Special mention must go to the Amazing Klitschko Brothers, special celebrity guests who lit up the stage with all the flair, panache, and media savvy of a couple of footballers brought onto the set of Hey Hey It’s Saturday in the 1970s. The sight of Ruslana attempting conversation with a Klitschko by unsuccessfully reading cue-cards spelled phonetically while holding a large golden horseshoe aloft was trainwreck television to live in the memory forever.
Of course everyone votes for their neighbours unless the neighbours are French. The only high points were the Ukranian announcer going the full Sandra Sully and having to start over the voting results twice – she must have been previously employed as a Russian electoral scrutineer or a sporting official – and the observation that the women from Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria etc were all ferociously blonde, while the Swedes and Danes were proudly brunette.
The best thing is seeing the performers getting really excited about it, like Cyprus honestly can’t believe they got 12 points from Greece like they do every year. It’s like they actually think it’s because they were any good. They suffer a strong lack of insight, which I expect is a prerequisite for entering this thing anyway. Can I stop now?

She Bangs the Drums: Eurovision review (part 1)

Sunday 22 May 2005

Thanks to the Eurovision drinking game I was too hung over on Sunday to write anything meaningful about the event until now. Other, more complete analyses can be found here, here, here and here. For what it’s worth, the cloudy impressions of the night from the bunker were as follows. Quotes are from the performers themselves, taken from the official website.
Hungary
“Unfortunately, musical education in Hungary isn’t as important as it should be.”

They wear black and some red: I’m predicting we’ll see lots of dark colours after last year’s Night Of The Long White Suits. Let’s see, it’s a fake Turkish sounding song, with lots of banging on drums like the winning Ukranian song last year. In the middle they zorba around for a while and try to make it look a bit like Riverdance too. Tonight’s theme will be cultural appropriation, specifically of imitating recent winners. Are we seeing the end of the Eurovision we know and love, with batshit-insane ideas coming at us left right and centre? We might be entering an era of bland homogeneity: this song is neither good nor bad, in either a good way or a bad way, and I fear we have seen the future of Eurovision.
UK
“Obviously after ‘Popstars: The Rivals’ I was gutted”

Wow, red outfits and fake Turkish gyrating: there’s thinking outside the box! Three minutes later and Laplanders huddled round their candle-powered TV are thinking “Geez, that Holly Valance thing is so over!”
Malta
“The rehearsal went alright. We tested the stage and we tested the shoes and both were fine.”

The first ballad of the night, sung by the Maltese answer to Casey Donovan; and of course the ballad means we’re in for the first Dramatic Key Change of the night. For the DKC she gets excited enough to throw her arms out and slowly wobble from side to side. My god, she has seriously scary talons! Luckily, the ballad was more of an old-school Jennifer Rush dirge than the Celine Dion psychic torture.
Romania
“I must admit that we are very disappointed.”

A bi-curious lady wearing high heels for the first time in her life totters unsteadily around the shiny glass stage-floor with her Iron Curtain boob job almost falling out of her silver bodice. She is joined by the Carpathian touring production of Stomp banging on oil drums. The song descends into a tuneless mess, not helped by the struggling singer, who spends the last minute or so with her back to the audience pretending to bang on an oil drum. It’s hard to sound convincingly passionate when you’re standing next to a guy with hubcaps strapped to his feet.
Norway
“It’s been five days since we last played a gig. Normally we do two a day. We usually have enough explosive equipment for a couple of armies which we use to blow up the stage.” If they could invite any other country to join the Eurovision Song Contest, it would be Australia. “Then AC/DC could come over.”

Sheer genius: who’d have thought Norwegians had both a dead-on grip of pop culture and a sense of the ridiculous? Every guilty-pleasure rock cliche thrown piled on top of each other, it almost makes up for David Lee Roth leaving Van Halen. The best thing to happen to Eurovision since Alf Poier pogoing around yapping about bunny rabbits and his website in 2003. Should win, but probably won’t because rock never does so well at Eurovision. Much better than The Darkness. Of course there is a DKC, and don’t you want to pump your fist in the air and shout along?
Turkey
“It’s a Turkish drum and it’s my favourite instrument. I love all forms of percussion – it’s like a heartbeat.” She and her band gave a demonstration of their drumming.

We’re told this is the third Turkish Eurovision entry written by this guy and as They Might Be Giants once sang, he’s got two songs in him. Still, let’s have them banging drums too, that’ll make ‘em stand out from the crowd! The performers are left twirling around aimlessly in traditional-looking clothes singing “Rimi Limi Ley” or something over and over again ad nauseam, and by the end it sounds like even they’re getting jack of it. Anyone willing to bet there’ll be a single fake Turkish song next year?
Moldova
“She’s now a big star in Moldova,” said Roman. So what are Grandma Boonika’s favourite memories of Eurovision? “We don’t really watch television in our village,” she said.

More chicks banging drums, dammit! Is Sheila E. a superstar in Eastern Europe and if so, has she just died? For a change, this Eurochick is about 110 years old and spends most of the song happily sitting in a rocking chair to one side of the stage, like Yoko Ono on Top of the Pops. Given all the drumming going on tonight it’s a bit of a disappointment that she actually stands up at the end and pretends to start banging while looking very pleased with herself, like those Bulgarian singers in the 1980s around the time their fifteen minutes were up. Everyone agrees the band looks like the Red Hot Chili Peppers after a night of exquisitely expensive drugs, and for novelty value they will rob votes from Norway’s righteous rock cheese gods, but they will forever be referred to as That Band With The Granny.
Albania
“We thought it was important to sing in English because we want people to understand it.”

More @&*#$ drumming! At least it’s a bloke this time: he hops around in cricles tapping his drum, then every now and then he puts it down, jumps in the air, stops to catch his breath for a bit then picks up the drum and starts over. That’s his big dance routine. Is there a Eurovision rule that everyone has to do their own choreography? Everyone zorbas around unconvincingly for a bit in the middle, then goes back to waving their fake violins. This is the first song of the night to use scarves, which worked so well for Turkey in 2003. Here, they do not. Stretching out and spinning multicoloured scarves around the stage is impressive; wrapping yourself up in one at the end is not.
Cyprus
“I’m sure we’ll surprise a few people.”

First Ricky Martin wannabe of the night. And the first white outfits of the night. At first you think you’re safe, until you notice some oil drums sitting up the back of the set. But you reassure yourself it’s OK because there’s nothing they can hit them with. Then they produce these big white stick things from nowhere and suddenly it’s clobbering time again! No wonder this sounds like “She Bangs” run through Babelfish. And they fake-zorba for a while, just to add an extra layer of varnish to this turd. At least Eurovision can still present wildly uncoordinated backing dancers.
Spain
Son de Sol are three sisters: Lola, Espe and Sole. They think that Lola is the most responsible one.

Three mad chicks from a TV spinoff of an Almodovar movie gyrate around singing their bosoms out. This unshakeably reminds me of the Globos and I keep expecting to see Bob Downe prance onstage shaking maracas. Or banging a drum. Instead their bouncer ambles up and grunts a few lines, then wanders around cluelessly for the rest of the song. It was all OK but not enough oomph to go off the way it should have. The best I can say is that despite wearing sleeveless dresses there was no San Remo moment.
Israel
“I have to admit, I am impressed with the professional behaviour of the director and the crew because they were really straight.”

This is the traditional boring-as-shit song they stick somewhere in the middle so you can go stock up on more booze. Apparently she was the runner up on last year’s Jewish Pop Idol, so no surprise it’s underwhelming. I’ll go out on a limb and guess there was a DKC.
I need another drink…

Le Royaume-Uni: Nul Points

Monday 16 May 2005

One of the things I was looking forward to on the plane to London was that I could finally watch the Eurovision Song Contest the way God intended it: with Terry Wogan snarking over the top and futilely barracking for the UK. More to the point, the show would not be nearly ruined by some idiot at SBS interrupting with lame jokes, fake wogs and drag queens in some ill-starred attempt to add “local content”. It was all more or less worth passing up the chance to hear the MSO play Feldman’s Coptic Light.
Now I hear from The Supermercado Project that SBS has (once again) repented for its affront to European culture and is showing the BBC broadcast straight! I go halfway round the world to avoid that idiot they had blabbing over the top of everything last time – all for nothing!
The Eurovision forum on SBS’s website is mostly taken up with discussion about the TV feed*, with the majority expressing relief that no-one from SBS will be involved.
Supermercado has excellent wraps of the superb 2003 event, and the decidedly average 2004 contest. Let’s hope this year is another corker of international atrociousness.
At short notice I’ve pulled a few people together into the Bunker for Saturday night’s Eurovision 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 Tatu. Finish your drink if the audience boos (on telly, not in the living room.)
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 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.
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.
* UPDATE: SBS has taken the forum down, even though there’s still a link to it on their Eurovision page. They still have last year’s forum, which is almost entirely filled with dozens of posts protesting against SBS adding their own useless talent, amongst hundreds of posts by bickering Greeks and Macedonians. Guys, it’s a web page, not a soccer match.