Filler by Proxy XXXII: She Holds the Allen Key to My Heart

Sunday 12 March 2006

Some time ago I fessed up to my perfectly understandable obsession with Anna the Ikea chatbot, especially the brunette incarnation. Even then I knew I was not the only one vying for Anna’s affections, but still I felt a pang of jealousy to see that Minor Tweaks has made repeated advances to her for the past year. Luckily, he doesn’t seem to have made much progress:
Anna: I am opening a page now which you can use if you wish to contact Customer Services. Thank you very much!
Me:
Trying to get rid of me, eh?
Anna:
I will. Thank you for the encouragement.

Still the sweetest cold-hearted bitch on the planet; no wonder we just can’t keep away. Just don’t let her talk you into buying a cheap futon base.

“What did you do at Oxford?” “I bought a tie.”

Saturday 11 March 2006

By a strange coincidence, “Opium Den/RAF Whores” is my favourite Fall B-side.

Name your ironic, Pavement-type indie band

Saturday 11 March 2006

  • The Licensed Heroes
  • Sex Yacht Wiki

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

Thursday 9 March 2006

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

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

Tomorrow: Review of the Icebreaker gig at the IF Festival

Wednesday 8 March 2006

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

Advanced East London Infiltration Techniques: Social Engineering

Wednesday 8 March 2006

Scene: The Bunker.
Front door intercom: BLEEEEEEP!!!!!!
Me: GAHH! What the hell was that?
Intercom: BLEEEEEEP!!!!!!
Me: Christ! That door-thingy works after all. Who could be calling at this time of night, I wonder?
(Fumbles with intercom buttons)
Me: Hello?
Master Criminal (on intercom): Uhhh… can I come in?
Me: Who’s this?
Master Criminal (on intercom): Oh, ah… it’s, ahh….
Me: Hello?
Intercom: Click!
Fin.

A brief hiatus

Friday 3 March 2006

I don’t plan on touching a computer until Wednesday. The subject and name indices will be updated for February next week sometime, along with further momentary diversions.

In the back room of a pub in Dalston

Friday 3 March 2006

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

Book corner: Survey says “Duh!”

Thursday 2 March 2006

The literary world (pretty much like the real world only with worse dress sense) is rocked by the shocking findings of a survey of everybody in the whole wide world, even that really old bloke down the road who never leaves his house and you thought was dead: people feel good about books that make them feel good.

Book readers love a happy ending, according to a survey carried out to mark World Book Day.

“That does it!” vowed one author who asked to remain anonymous. “From now on I’m only going to write books people like.”
The other survey findings include: everyone’s favourite book was that one they saw on TV last month. Other favourites include books that shed unsightly flab from you thighs and abdomen while you read, and books that shower you with a delicious assortment of chocolates whenever you open them (soft centres only).
Men liked books about guns, while women preferred novels with bright pastel covers.
More importantly, the survey confirmed that you should never, ever trust a librarian’s taste in books. It looks like they’ve given up on last year’s attempt to pretend they’re sexy and relevant and have gone back to telling everyone to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, at least someone in authority finally had the guts to step up, put their reputation on the line and dare to make approving comments about this book. You VILL enjoy this book! It is Helen Darville’s favourite!
The second most librarian-suggested book is the Bible. I wonder how many of these librarians said that the Bible is the only book they recommend, ever; whether it’s for a punter looking for the rack of Star Trek novels or a kid researching a school project about ants. Where was this survey conducted? Please say Iran.
In unrelated news, TMFTML offers free advice to James Frey on how to revive his career:
May we suggest the concept for your next book? In A Million Supposedly Fun Things I Never Did Before, you go back and actually do all the stuff you said you did in Pieces (i.e., get root canal without novocaine, board a plane covered in puke, drive some girl to suicide, etc.) and then write about it. Trust us, A.J. Jacobs and other purveyors of gimmick lit will have nothing on you. Oprah will once again be eating out of your hand. Assuming you don’t get it cut off in a bar fight.

Also, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, and J.R.R. Tolkein. I’m not sure if they have anything to do with the above but apparently you can’t write a book article these days without mentioning them. Hopefully by xmas everyone – well, people with healthy social lives, anyway – will have forgotten about Tolkein again, which will make all our lives just that little bit easier.

“…Someone looks at something (detail)”

Wednesday 1 March 2006

Like every other visitor to the Tate Modern over the past few months, I took some photographs of Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment in the Turbine Hall. You can see plenty of shots on Flickr, just search for “Whiteread”. So here are my contributions: some photos of people looking at people looking at Embankment.

Whiteread is known for making casts of spaces, making otherwise invisible interiors (literally) concrete. Her most famous work, House, cast the interior of an entire terrace house, a few minutes down the road from the Bunker. Her recent, avowedly Public Artworks, such as her inverted plinth in Trafalgar Square, have taken on more of the characteristics of objects in themselves, rather than denoting the significance of the space the object now fills.
Embankment is made of thousands of casts of several old, cardboard boxes. Because the casts are obviously box-like, hollow, translucent, the boxes themselves were evidently empty. Unlike Whiteread’s previous works, these objects refute the idea of an interior life once contained by the cast’s host.
There was a maddening adequacy about the whole thing. People looking at it comment on how it fills the daunting expanse of the Turbine Hall nicely, and that’s about all it does. There are gestures of accessibility for the punters (was this part of the commissioning brief?) but these and other aspects of the installation kept reducing the work to a disappointing level of domesticity, incommensurate with its ambitious dimensions.

At first it’s nice that you can walk amongst it, but then you realise it’s killing the mystery. It feels like a timid sop to populism, like the way that tourists visiting the Big Pineapple (or Uluru for that matter) are granted the opportunity to climb to the top. Part of House‘s impact was that it was impossible to enter: her earlier works were spaces with no insides.

The numerous punters wandering among the piles became part of the work as much as the boxes; the observation deck in the Turbine Hall overlooking the installation encourages this. The groups of people wandering around, apparently in search of something amongst the stacks and piles, looked for all the world like shoppers, and when I walked through it I felt like a shopper. The installation is at the end of the hall, so there can be no through traffic of pedestrians.
The arrangement of boxes – some in neat stacks, others in vast piles – felt decorative, being neither a random dump nor an obsessively regimented collection, so no mood was particularly evoked. It felt like some aesthetic effect was attempted, which was disappointing compared to the inadvertent, disinterested forms of a potential object created without intention, produced by Whiteread’s previous working methods.
Of course, it is forbidden to climb the boxes. Could you sneak off with one? Has anyone tried? Like any major, sort-of-public exhibit these days, there has been much pi-jaw about all the plastic in the boxes being biodegradeable and recycled; but I would preferred another type of degredation to have occurred, with the stock of boxes steadily depleted during the exhibition by people walking off with them. Rather like House, it could be another one of her works laid low by the people’s will.

Great News in The War on Terror

Tuesday 28 February 2006

Back in July when bombers struck London, the custodians of the building I work in swung into immediate action, and by October had stuck signs in the lifts warning us to be careful.
Today, I came in bright and early as is my usual habit, to find that the Islamic-Chicos-cum-Ghostbusters-logo has now been removed, which I guess means that cheap laminated signs have seen off the Islamofascist threat for now.

Well done, everyone! Together, our vigilance and steadfastness has made our world only slightly less dangerous than it was before.

Continuing intimations of senescence

Monday 27 February 2006

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

Stupid Kids These Days With Their Good Health and Their Robust Immune Systems

Monday 27 February 2006

There’s a burst water main outside, geysering water ten feet into the air. Three teenagers, two girls and a boy, are amusing themselves by jumping through the water. In London. In February.

How to get ahead in London

Thursday 23 February 2006

There’s a shallow dent the size of a pound coin on the front left fender of my girlfriend’s new car. She’s just come inside from another session of squatting in front of the parking bay and glaring at the indentation with furrowed brows, scrutinising the bodywork for any other damage. She swears the dent wasn’t there when she bought it.
(Regular readers may have gathered the accurate impression that she is a woman who takes cars seriously. Personally I am agnostic, fitting the definition of a poet as someone who cannot drive.)
Of course, it is not really a new car – she did not track down the late and mysterious Mucho Maas of the home counties for a shiny new Kia. A friend of hers was leaving the country and needed to dispose of his slightly thrashed Fiat Brava in a hurry. He was doing a postdoctorate in Plymouth, and so had done his fair share of driving at high speed around blind corners on those hedge-lined, one-lane backroads that zigzag across Devon and Cornwall. He was more than happy to demonstrate his skills to us when we went to visit.
Plymouth’s claim to fame rests on the number of illustrious former inhabitants who made a point of leaving it. Apart from Drake sailing out to take on the Armada, and the pilgrims leaving to settle America, much of the civic bric-a-brac erected for public enlightenment proudly reminds you that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle briefly lived there. He hated the place, and moved away as soon as possible, but it seems Plymouth has to take what little celebrity it can get and be grateful.
More recent history has done nothing to increase Plymouth’s allure. The place was bombed flat in World War II by German planes returning from raids on Bristol jettisoning what remained of their payloads. Postwar rebuilding was done with all the style and quality for which modern Britain is famous around the world. Plymouth today is a small, ugly city of bad 1960s architecture, littered with unemployed men with bad haircuts and eating pasties, so for me it was just like coming home to Adelaide and taking a bus out to Elizabeth.
There are two big things in Plymouth’s favour: the excellent gin, and everyone there talks like a pirate. In Cornwall, every day is 19 September. We went around asking older guys for directions all day.
It was in Plymouth that I first experienced that venerable British culinary stalwart, the inedible meal. A harmless-looking Italian-type bistro served me a carbonara consisting of a pile of overcooked spaghetti half-submerged in a milky broth, disrupted by clumps of bright pink spam. I should have been warned off the place by the fact that they had one of those collections of signed and framed celebrity photographs on the wall, except in their case there was only one “celebrity”: Gus Honeybun.
We agreed our friend would drive the car up to London en route to the airport in a few weeks’ time, and drop it off at our place. This was harder to achieve than it seemed at the time we planned it. Everything went fine until he reached the outskirts of London, and then attempted to navigate his way from Slough to Hackney without a map. His success can be gauged from the diagrams below, accompanied by his text messages reporting his progress towards the Bunker. For your convenience, Jeremy Bentham’s location in Bloomsbury is marked as a reference point.


6.30 pm: in hamersmith cu in 1 hr


7.30 pm: wo6ps at heathrow xrong turn c u so6nish

9.00 pm: ic wembley stadiun am i close??
We thought it best to take a tube to meet him at Wembley. The drive back to the bunker started out simply enough along the North Circular Road, but ran into trouble when we made the turn south toward the bunker. One of the amazing things about London is how you can follow the streets, diligently alternating left turns with right turns to keep on some sort of tacking course toward your presumed destination, only to find yourself driving in the opposite direction past the landmark you left behind half an hour earlier.
“This is hopeless!” I yelled. I’m constructive like that.
Our driving friend sighed. “Looks like I’ll have to get the street directory out after all.”

The bastard had a street directory, but preferred to drive in circles around London for five hours rather than admit defeat and reach under the passenger seat for the A-Z. We had no choice to kill him once he got us back to the bunker at last.

Mind you, he could have achieved this without our help. At midnight, about an hour into the journey home, he exclaimed, “Aha! That’s why everybody’s been pointing and waving at me! I just thought all the drivers round here were really aggro.” He pressed a button on the dashboard and switched the headlights on.

Heavy Metal + Curling = HEARTS ON FIRE

Wednesday 22 February 2006

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