And, Live at the Curry Family Hotel (1999).
(6’03″, MB, mp3)
I’m getting fed up with this persistent fad of holding concerts in churches. Even when the acoustics don’t suck, there’s zilch soundproofing between the “hall” and the outside world. In the first in a series of concerts dedicated to Eliane Radigue at Christ Church Spitalfields last night, any pretentions to the sacred nature of the music were punctured each time a police car went up Commercial Street, and the end of Elemental II was accompanied by a car alarm in the side street.
Before attending church I was at Raven Row, a couple of blocks away, to see Max Eastley perform. It was pretty much what I expected: a new music veteran playing with his amplified monochord and a semi-autonomous sound sculpture. A casual observer would call it ‘tinkering’: small adjustments to the sculpture, waiting to hear the effect, another small adjustment. Similarly with the monochord, small gestures, slightly varied. It’s intriguing to watch the type of craft that goes into making this music, its contemplative and reflective nature. It shows a deep understanding of the instrument and its sound, of the rich variety of sound that the slightest change in gesture can produce.
On the other hand, I worry about the self-conscious quality of this type of music-making. Surely there are improvisers all over the world, in every culture, who feel and know the capabilities of their instrument without the need to pause and consider every twist and turn their music takes.
Later that evening I watched Kasper T. Toeplitz perform Radigue’s Elemental II and saw a similarly careful approach to making music. Rhodri Davies had just premiered Occam I, slowly bowing overtones on his harp, a study in stasis and concentration. The focus on a single string of a harp hinted at the sort of problem both Eastley and Radigue share in harnessing the potential of a new, relatively untested medium. Radigue’s earlier career in electronic music was devoted to the capturing of delicate feedback effects, an activity fraught with the risk of being plunged suddenly into undifferentiated noise. Radigue herself described her work with analog synthesisers as “caressing the potentiometers”. In such static music, a tiny mis-step can destroy the work.
Thus Toeplitz spent the best part of an hour making the smallest gestures possible on his fearsome-looking double-necked electric bass: gently tapping the back of the neck, pressing his finger to the head stock, trembling a metal bar against the strings. His laptop processed the guitar into an unbroken wash of sound that slowly evolved as each new guitar gesture crept into its software. Was the guitar necessary at all? Yes. The same piece had been performed at the start of the concert by a laptop trio, less successfully. It wasn’t just the visual or conceptual experience of watching a musician ‘work’, it was the lack of ease in gliding from one sound to the next. The guitarist may be just a little too loud, a little too soft, a little too rushed, a little too hesitant in introducing each new sound, and so each sound takes on a new life of its own, subject to a host of infinitessimal adjustments. The difference may be barely perceptible, but these are the slight differences on which music, like all art, depends.
This morning I procrastinated by downloading the Berkshire Record Outlet catalogue in search of cheap CDs I might have wanted to buy if I had any money. After winnowing the list of 18,000 items down to just 20th century composers, I had a T.S.-Eliot-on-London-Bridge moment of revelation. It hit home just how many goddamn composers in the last hundred years I have never heard of, never will hear of, never want to hear of, and wished I’d never heard of.
I’m ashamed of how readily I’ll dismiss so much music out of hand without knowing anything about it or the people who composed it, but just scanning some of the names and titles makes me reflexively recoil. When you realise that there were composers who could still unironically title a piece “Capriccio” after 1945, suddenly the young Pierre Boulez’s posing seems less ridiculous.
The plurality of it seemed to be Christian religious music, conjuring up memories of the 20th-century abominations that lurk in the shadows of the roped-off corridors in the Vatican Museum. Not coincidentally, there’s also a lot of theatrical pieces aimed at children – a similarly captive audience presumed indifferent to quality control. Then there are the memorials: so many tributes, already forgotten, to the Holocaust, 9/11, Bosnia, MLK, JFK, the Pakistan earthquake, that stack up until one cynically assumes a horde of musical McGonagalls latching on to any chance to repeat the triumph of Penderecki’s 8’37″.
And the puns; oh god, the puns. No-one except Milton Babbitt could get away with such dreadful titles. The hatefully naff pun has friends on both sides of the Atlantic: the American professors on one, and on the other the legions of British who swell the ranks of the cut-out pile. The obscure British composer will always be with us – titled, lettered, forgotten, each waiting Buggins’s turn to be “re-evaluated”. Their chief artistic aim was to be clubbable, and all seem sworn to a pact to write something called “Spot Me A Tenor”.
The self-consciously “modern” are hardly any better, like Australian surrealists, dropping the word “fractal” on their sonata for clarinet and tape, racking their brains for another word that ends in “-tion”. All of it, conservative or avant-garde, perfectly acceptable to its intended audience, technically competent, fully compliant, honest, dull, unlistenable.
Once again, I stress that I haven’t heard a note of of the music I condemn. Just the thought of it, out there, depresses me.
The Sugarcubes, “Pump” (1989).
(4’25″, 8.0 MB, mp3)
This was almost going to be one of those “Great Moments In Art Criticism” posts.
“For me the Turner prize is a hit-and-miss affair – there are years when it actually seems important who wins and years when I honestly couldn’t care less. This year, I care because Mark Leckey is on the shortlist.”
– Jonathan Jones, “The Turner should go to Mark Leckey”, The Guardian, 13 May 2008.
“Leckey won a Turner prize in 2008, which goes to show you should never take these awards too seriously.”
– Jonathan Jones, “Mark Leckey’s art creates noise without meaning”, The Guardian, 23 May 2011.
Jones’ latter review is so vituperously negative (he compares Leckey to Gordon Brown, which is just plain mean) that maybe, just maybe, he should have mentioned his dramatic change of heart. The comments section, usually a desultory place peopled with commentators who don’t seem particularly interested in art, has come alive. Comments both for and against, amongst the usual dross, make some fascinating points on the current state of art and art criticism.
Jones himself responds frequently, steadfastly refusing to admit he made a basic error in interpreting one of Leckey’s works and offering unintentionally hilarious ripostes such as “It was 2008! Why would I refer back to it?” and the Mugatu-like “I have put my views of art across in such contexts as a Turner Prize jury. Have you been a Turner judge? So where do you come off so high and mighty?” Eventually, Mark Leckey himself comments, along with other critics, all of whom predictably end up wallowing in self-pity. Why did all this anger and sorrow suddenly burst forth?
Stephen Potter famously observed that the role of the critic is to convey to the reader what a splendid person the critic is, and that “you must never praise or blame two weeks running.” In his initial praise of Leckey, Jones begins by announcing “I’m a natural fan. I can’t stand indifference.” – and so smartly allows himself intellectual room to praise or blame at will. Regardless of the quality of the art, the critic must alternate praise with blame; their career depends on it.
Car journalist Jack Baruth recently described at some length the necessity of what he calls “the wobble”. Praise every car and you appear a corporate shill; slam every car and you appear apathetic.
A successful automotive journalist doesn’t fall into either of the above traps. He wobbles. He creates what Jimmy Page called “light and shade” in the body of his written work…. Every autowriter with ambitions to be something more than a low-paid PR agent needs the wobble. Credibility, success, a fan base, a recognized name. The wobble giveth, and it taketh away.
The motoring writer’s dilemma is that for the past 20-odd years all cars have been, fundamentally, the same. The car-buying punter no longer has to choose between one model that has disc brakes and no heater, another with a heater and chronic rust problems, or a third with bucket seats and a tendency to flip over and kill you. Baruth’s article explains how a car journalist tries to find or make “the wobble”, and sometimes gets caught out.
Of course, for any of this car talk to be relevant to Jonathan Jones, modern British art would have to be somehow comparable to the car industry. The latter has large financial investments riding on the steady production of homogenised product, largely devoid of any extreme highs or lows of user experience, whereas…
Alvin Lucier, “Nothing is Real” (1990). Margaret Leng Tan, piano, cassette recorder & teapot.
(10’49″, 13.8 MB, mp3)
Alvin Lucier, who I had the privilege of seeing a couple of years ago, just turned 80. Daniel Wolf at Renewable Music gives a summary of the many reasons why the world would be a lot worse without him. Lucier’s way of thinking will become even more important as we struggle to understand what music may be, in a world of ever-increasing technological mediation of experience, and of convergence between media.
Nicolas Collins, author of the essential Handmade Electronic Music – The Art of Hardware Hacking, has generously uploaded scans of his notes from taking Lucier’s class, “Introduction to Electronic Music”, along with his reflections on Lucier’s teaching and the musical culture of the early 1970s.
I missed Eurovision again on Saturday night. I briefly considered watching it on iPlayer and writing up a review of it like I did until 2009, but then I got online the next day. In my Twitter feed I had not one, but two waves of Eurovision updates: first from my European contacts on Saturday night, followed by the second wave from Australians on Sunday morning, as they watched the delayed telecast.
A paradox has emerged in the world of online media. Just about any show or event that readily comes to mind is available, in perpetuity; but if you want to join in the conversation your experience has to be immediate. As a kid, my school week always started with a breakdown of what happened on Countdown on Friday evening. Today, any attempt to bring up the subject on Monday would be digging up old news. If you wait for that new foreign show to come to TV in your town, your friends will have downloaded it or bought the DVD on Amazon. You can’t phone people overseas and tell them how their old team is going back home – they already know.
My blog is the closest I’ll ever get to keeping a diary. Over the years it’s evolved from spouting off about anything that’s amused or annoyed me at the time, to spouting off about things I’ve personally experienced. The brief or trivial observations, or links to other stuff that has interested me, which used to keep the update rate on the blog ticking over, are now most often published on my Twitter account. These short entries used to be the supposedly preferred remit for blogs, but now blogs seem like they should be the home for longer, more reflective writing. No doubt the form and substance in which these conversations take place will remain in flux for some time yet.
I somehow forgot to do this last year, so with the first semi-final due to start tonight it’s more than time to look at the Eurovision entrants with the longest odds of winning. (Please note that I have never watched a semi-final, preferring instead to watch the finals with no forewarning of what atrocities may be unleashed. This also adds to the fun of the Drinking Game.)
The bookies this year obviously think they’ve got the contest and voting patterns sussed, as they’re offering frankly ridiculous odds from 200:1 to 500:1 for a swathe of countries. The received wisdom, however, is that the entrant with the least hope of succeeding is San Marino, presumably because it’s barely even a real country.
The Sammarinese contestant, a lady called Senit, is (surprise) not actually from San Marino. Her notable achievements include appearing in the German cast of The Lion King, recording with producers who have also worked with luminaries such as “Christina Alguilera” and “Busta Rhimes”, and…
In May 2006 Senit made her debut in the world of Italian discography with the album that took her name SENIT, produced by Panini, historic editing house of footballers stickers, that chose her as the testimonial of their new discographic activity.
Senit’s Eurovision song has the rather hesitant title “Stand By”, with a similarly less-than-forceful refrain of:
So tonight, if you don’t mind, I will stand by!
In the likely event that San Marino will be eliminated in the semi-finals, the longest odds for any country appearing in the final itself are for Spain. Almost as hopeless as San Marino, Spain’s entry will be sung by the lovely Lucía Pérez. She’s big in Galicia, and is “presently finishing her degree in pedagogics”. Her song, “Que Me Quiten Lo Bailao”, translates as “They Can’t Take The Fun Away From Me” and suggests that Spain are still in their not-giving-a-shit mood.
This is backed up by the song lyrics, which seem to me to be about the joys of getting totally fucking hammered on Rioja, complete with a musical parking of the tiger at the end.
I’m feeling so good,
I’m feeling so good
that I will never ever ever think
in a negative way
Although I know well
that storms may come
and I will fall down
I have enjoyed all this so much
and nobody can take the fun I had away from me
Ouo uo uo ouo uo uo
who can take the fun I’ve had away from me?
Lionel Rose, “I Thank You” (1969).
(3’39″, 5.0 MB, mp3)
Less than a week to go until this year’s Eurovision, and I haven’t even mentioned it yet! Stupid me, didn’t even realise that this year’s event is taking place in Düsseldorf, just up the road from where I went to see SONNTAG aus LICHT. It will be interesting to see which proves to be the more surreal experience.
The potential for Eurovision insanity this year is greatly boosted by the big news that both Italy and Austria are back in the game – after a 14-year absence, in Italy’s case. This means that Drinking Game rule W1.b will not apply this year.
Despite the changing the voting to a 50/50 split between viewers’ votes and national panels of judges, last year’s voting shows no reason to make any change to rules II.3, II.10, and especially not II.2. Therefore the 2011 rules for the refined but deadly art of drinkmanship that is the Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game are as follows.
Yes these have all happened, in case you’re wondering.
PHASE I: THE SONGS
A. Every instance within a song:
I.A.1 The Dramatic Key Change. Whenever the singers dramatically shift up a key for the final chorus(es).
I.A.2 The Bucks Fizz. Whenever performer(s) sheds a piece of clothing – once only on every instance, whether executed by an individual or as a group. Finish your drink if the clothing loss is obviously unintentional.
B. Once per song only:
I.B.1 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.
I.B.2 The Fine Cotton. Any appearance of mercenary talent flown in to represent a foreign country. Two drinks if they’re Irish.
I.B.3 Las Ketchup and the Waves. A country drags a legitimate, real-life, one-hit wonder out of obscurity in the hope that name recognition can buy them some points. This is additional to I.B.2.
I.B.4 The Cultural Rainbow. Every time an entrant blatantly rips off last year’s winning performance. Finish your drink if last year’s winning country rips itself off.
I.B.5 The Wand’ring Minstrel. Unless it’s a solo guitar or piano, Eurovision insists on backing tapes. It’s in the rules, so don’t accuse some entrants of cheating; but take a drink if performers pretend to play a musical instrument (or simulacrum thereof) in a blatantly fake way, as part of the choreography. A second drink is permitted if a subsequent, different wave of faux-minstrely rises after the first has subsided.
I.B.6 The Greeks (formerly The TaTu). Finish your drink if the audience boos (on the telly, not in your living room.)
I.B.7 Don’t Mention The War. The German entrant sings something about everyone being happy. This is a legacy rule, as in recent years it has largely been supplanted by…
I.B.7a Don’t Mention The Wall. The Israeli entrant sings something about everyone being happy.
I.B.8 My Lovely Horse. Any obvious indication that a country is deliberately trying to lose, to avoid budgetary/logistical/political problems of hosting the event next year.
PHASE I ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:
I.B.5a The Wand’ring Minstrel (supplemental). Two drinks if the instrument is an accordion.
I.B.9 The San Remo. Any occurence of visible armpits and/or pointing at nothing in particular. Two drinks for a hairy armpit.
I.B.10 The White Suit. You’ll know it when you see it; and you’ll know it again when you see it again, and again…
PHASE II: THE VOTES
II.1 The Wardrobe Change. Each time the female host changes frocks. Two drinks if the male host changes suits.
II.2 The Gimme. When Greece gives twelve points to Cyprus.
II.2a The Gastarbeiter. If Germany still gives twelve points to Turkey.
II.3 The Old Europe. When the UK gets nul points from France.
II.4 The Sympathy Vote. When anything sung in French first gets a point, and/or the last country without any points finally gets off the mark. A special toast at the end to any country which did not receive so much as a single vote.
II.5 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.
PHASE II INTERMEDIATE: You and your friends probably will be too unruly by this stage to register every occurrence of these, so just try to catch what you can.
II.6 The Hurry-Up. Every time the announcer from each voting country is politely asked by the hosts to shut the fuck up (i.e. “Can we have your votes please?”). Two drinks if the announcer tries to deliver a personal message to a friend or relative watching at home.
II.7 The Sandra Sully. Each time an announcer reads the voting results wrong. Two drinks if they get so confused they have to start over.
II.8 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.
II.9 The Master of Suspense. It looks like everyone’s figured it out now, so this hasn’t happened for a few years, but just in case: each time an announcer fails to understand that the pause for suspense only works if they announce the twelve points first, then the country that has won them – not the other way around.
PHASE II ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:
II.10 The New Europe. When the Baltic or Balkan states all give each other twelve points, or a former Soviet republic gives Russia twelve points. Do not attempt without medical supervision.
W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask:
W1.a why Israel is in it*;
W1.b [deleted]; or
W1.c where the hell is Moldova?
W2 A toast to the first person who expresses dismay when they realise how long the voting is going to take.
W3 A toast to Bosnia and Herzegovina if they change the spelling of their country again from last year (last year’s spelling: ‘Bosnia & Herzegovina’).
W4 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.
* This is why.
Google was somewhere around Rancheria, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.
The evening before Easter Sunday I was sitting in a bar, quite unwittingly thinking over what I’d been wanting to write for some time about the various concerts I’d been to lately. Besides getting a little bit drunk I was jotting down notes about gigs I’d been seeing, and thinking over what Robert Ashley meant when he said, “Recitals are a curse.”
At first, Ashley’s critique has some superficial similarity to Glenn Gould’s “Let’s Ban Applause!“. So much of Gould’s opinions on live versus recording are rubbish, I thought, scribbling down a few points about what I’d experienced at the Xenakis gig at Southbank a few weeks ago, or at Exaudi’s performance of Cage’s Song Books a week before that. Yes, I have some caveats about live performance; but I’ll get to these points another time.
Ashley, inevitably, pursues the point further, out of my comfort zone.
As a member of the audience you are a consumer and a consumer only…. Whatever it is, you are not part of it. You have been a watcher. The recitalist hopes that you have been entertained. But you have not been included….
The composer does not have the idea of including the people who come while the music is being enacted. We have lost the idea of the rituals that remind the people who come that what is happening is only a small part, a “surfacing” of the continuing musicality of everyday life.
At the time I was considering these problems, it didn’t occur to me that the next day I would witness Stockhausen’s earnest attempts to include the audience in SONNTAG aus LICHT. His approaches were characteristically unsubtle. The opening scene, Lichter-Wasser, specifies that the musicians proceed through and are stationed amongst the audience, with the singers given circuits to follow around and between audience members. The final scene, Hoch-Zeiten, as staged by La Fura dels Baus, threw punters in amidst five groups of dancers and, surrounded by rotating projections of video and music, left everyone to fend for themselves.
In between, at the composer’s behest, we were surrounded by processions of choirs, censers of various fragrances, and illustrative projections (three-dimensional, in this case). As we left the theatre and walked out into the park or loitered around the entrance, Stockhausen’s farewell music played on through loudspeakers outside the building. Walking along the Rhine afterwards, I could still hear occasional faint snatches of it when the breeze blew the right way. Even in his conception of the work, Stockhausen intended SONNTAG to be performed over three nights, compelling audiences to return to a common place of communion.
The LICHT cycle is intended as a ritual of worship, and consistently strives to impress upon the audience the spiritual essence of all creation and the interconnectedness of music and spirituality. Towards the end we even saw Stockhausen’s list of “issues and challenges for Humanity”. There are ten of them: the comparison to commandments is irresistable. “1. Humanity must pray.” “3. Humanity must support cosmic art music.” “7. Humanity must use sleep for contacting the angels.” Stockhausen’s music is dedicated to the task of creating a spiritual context for itself, to validate the meaning it carries.
Beneath all this effort lurks Ashley’s issue and challenge for the audience. If the music is foreign to you, there is no emotional connection for you to recognise it as part of your life. “We should expect that the audience is a part of the music, and this is not true, even if the audience is entirely music students. This is the dilemma of contemporary music. The ritual has disappeared. The event is hollow.” Stockhausen’s grand plan to create a new ritual was perhaps, as I’ve previously suggested, doomed before it could begin.