Filler by Proxy XXXIV: Another Great Italian

Saturday 24 June 2006

In one of the later, more indulgent passages of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker” novels, he describes an out-of-it band’s music (from dim memory) as one muso playing in 3/4, another in 5/8, while a third played in πr². It seemed like a far-out joke to your callow, nerdy self, right up until you heard the music of Conlon Nancarrow.
Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano No. 40 is written entirely in the rhythmic relationship of e/π. How do you play something like that? You can’t, so you get a machine to do it for you. If you’re living in 1948, in an earthquake-proof bunker in Mexico City, in exile from your native United States without a passport because of your socialist beliefs, the machine in question is a battered 1920s player piano, and you punch the notes for its piano rolls by hand, one at a time.
Nancarrow was obsessed with hearing polyrhythms of a complexity the mind could perceive, but not imagine. He resorted to the player piano when musicians couldn’t, or wouldn’t (“they’ll think I’m playing wrong notes!”) play his music, and so expanded the realm of rhythmic and temporal possibilities beyond anyone’s previous expectations.
I’m only bringing this up now because 2 Blowhards (a propos of drugs) has linked to a page of audio samples of Nancarrow’s music at Minnesota Public Radio, including photos and more neat biographical material. Listen up, he’s fun.
Wait: more Nancarrow links.
  • In addition to the Other Minds page linked above, Kyle Gann has written the book about Nancarrow (literally), and annotates his list of works with the increasingly wild tempo ratios used in his music.
  • The Other Minds Archive has a recording of the long-lost Three 2-Part Studies, written back when Nancarrow was still writing for live pianists and was conventially jazzier, only this version has been arranged for two toy pianos (why yes, it is Margaret Leng Tan, how did you guess?)
  • More from Other Minds: Study for Player Piano No. 40b (i.e. the second and final movement of Study No. 40).
  • I get cranky about live musicians playing Nancarrow’s player piano music.

Go outside and take a walk in the sunshine for once

Sunday 18 June 2006

Now you could stroll through Victoria Park, down the Bow Heritage trail, without fear…. Or so I thought – until I penetrated the north-east corner, beyond the obelisk, the rarely visited war memorial, which is sited at the point where an invisible barrier is crossed, and you move out of Tower Hamlets (Old Ford) into South Hackney.

So speaks Iain Sinclair in Lights Out For the Territory, my psychogeographic Baedeker to London. I, however, born and raised in Adelaide, am used to viewing the world from the prospect of a backwater at the arse-end of the Earth, and so habitually enter Victoria Park via this supposedly remote corner, being the gate closest to home, and walk the other way. If you replaced the squirrels with possums fossicking through the rubbish, Victoria Park resembles any other large park in Adelaide.
The memorial to the Great War casualties from Hackney Wick is small and somewhat neglected: the names carved on its base are starting to fade. The obelisk itself is set adrift in the middle of a lawn, far away from any footpath; reflecting the ambivalence of the community’s working-class population to the Great War.

Further down the path are two large stone alcoves, grandiose shelters for benches. These are the two surviving fragments of old London Bridge, relocated to the park in 1860: another item in Sinclair’s catalogue of misalignments of London monuments.
Instead of writing about art or music today I decided to go for another walk through the park. Down at the south gate of the park, beside the Dogs of Alcibiades, I was stopped by an elderly Indian gentleman who was standing around looking somewhat lost. I thought he was going to ask me for directions, but he held a letter in his hand, and asked if I could read the first paragraph for him:
Dear Sir, This is to notify you that your petition for divorce was filed with the court on 22nd May 2006, and that a copy of the papers were delivered to your wife on 6th June 2006.

He smiled, “Thank you, sir,” and walked away. It’s always a heartwarming feeling when you’ve helped a stranger.

About Bloody Time

Saturday 17 June 2006

The name and subject indices have been updated to the present. Yeah, I know…

György Ligeti, RIP

Tuesday 13 June 2006

He was that rarest of treasures, a brilliant European composer who wasn’t a megalomaniacal arsehole. A composer whose music is as sensually rewarding as it is intellectually appealing. A composer who became part of Fluxus to annoy the modernist orthdoxy, only to leave it again when he realised Fluxus wanted to be taken seriously. A man who wrote a symphonic poem for 100 metronomes.
If you’ve seen 2001 you’ve heard his music. Oh alright, and Eyes Wide Shut. No, not that piece!
  • Alex Ross gives a beautiful summary of Ligeti’s life and achievements, written in 2001.
  • The score of Poème Symphonique: note the solicitude with which he addresses the problem of how on earth you can get hold of a hundred metronomes. Unfortunately I can’t find his vivid description of his preparations for the premiere: sweating backstage in an ill-fitting, rented tuxedo, fingers aching after several hours winding up fifty metronomes, and realising he still had another fifty to go.
  • The Rambler has collected some obituaries.
  • Some small downloadable audio samples (and scores) from his list of works. The piano etudes play like Thelonius Monk orchestrating M.C. Escher.
  • YouTube has a film of the Poème Symphonique.

Looking at Looking at Art

Tuesday 13 June 2006

I forgot to mention that the main reason I was in Berlin (apart from the cheap hotels in the longueur before the World Cup) was to visit a friend showing at the Sonambiente festival. As it turned out, the Berlin Biennial had been extended for a week, so we took in some of that, too. A brief writeup of my, uh, issues with the show will appear tomorrow, but in the meantime I’ve posted a few photos from the exhibition in the Flickr group, Looking at Looking at Art. You can also see some other pictures of people gawping at Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment.

Germany is like Australia: Exhibit A

Monday 12 June 2006

I really like Berlin; so much so that when I came back to Australia from visiting there six years ago and people asked me what it was like, I said “It’s a lot like Melbourne.” This did not go down well with my German or otherwise-Europeanny friends.
How!?” they demanded to know. I give you photographic proof.

In Germany, as in Australia, Sport = Ideas.
Honestly, Australians: can’t you just imagine a sign saying “Victoria*: Land of Ideas” in front of a giant, non-functional footy boot? Really though, this should belong in Queensland, spiritual centre for Big Things. “Don’t miss THE BIG SHOE, 2km west of Beaudesert.”
This was outside the new central train station in Berlin, a week before (duh!) the World Cup.

* Or one of the other states. But never “Australia”.

‘Highway 61, revisited’ revisited

Sunday 11 June 2006

Suck it, play it, put it in pocket.

Sunday 11 June 2006

I’ve previously mentioned musicians being tempted by the music-like writing of Samuel Beckett’s plays: not the musicality of the language, but the organisation of his scripting resembling musical scores. Now it turns out that the Analog Arts Ensemble and percussion ensemble Loop 2.4.3 have been working up their interpretations of Breath, “the original microscore”.
The Analog Arts Ensemble has the complete score, er, play, on their blog, complete with another piece of repurposed Beckett: three MP3s of them playing a musical adapttation of the sucking stones game from Molloy. Beckett’s love of permutations also makes him particularly appealing to musicians. Has anyone attempted an entire musical version of Watt?

Highway 61, revisited

Saturday 10 June 2006

We all have unfortunate periods in our lives. For a short while once, I lived in Brisbane. The houses there are made of wood and open in design, so that sounds can travel easily from one house to the next. Across the street from me lived a young man who played trumpet. More specifically, he played “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” on the trumpet. Day after day, without discernible improvement.
One afternoon, while he was playing, a car pulled up to the kerb out front. A woman got out, stomped up the front steps and marched straight into the house. The trumpet stopped, and there was the sound of a newspaper being thrown down onto a table. “There you are, Mr Arsehole,” she yelled, “in black and white – and if you don’t understand now you never fucking will!” The front door slammed again; she stamped back down the stairs to the car and drove away.

Brand New You’re Retro: Elysian Quartet at Cargo

Friday 9 June 2006

One distinctive tic in my psyche is that scenes from the movie Highway 61 keep appearing, unbidden, in my consciousness. At one point the hero (for want of a better word), a rock’n’roll-loving hairdresser, is challenged on his choice of instrument to follow his musical dreams: the trumpet.
“I know,” he says bitterly, “it always ends up sounding like jazz.”
I am now working on a similar theory, that any attempt by a string quartet to play rock ends up sounding like Bartók. Before going offline for a week I went to the premiere of Gabriel Prokofiev’s String Quartet No.2, at Cargo in Shoreditch. It was a pleasant-enough piece, with the regular, propelling rhythms and static harmonies that have become commonplace in much of the music written over the last 20-odd years, since the commercial success of Philip Glass’ earlier musical innovations became too conspicuous for struggling composers to ignore.
Like much so-called ‘post-minimalist’ music written in the wake of Glass and his sometime mates, Prokofiev’s quartet wants to be identified with Glass at his most populist while simultaneously disassociating itself from its stridency – thus the simple, steady beat and harmonies were muddied with variations in mood and sour inflections which came across as, well, Bartók (188-1945).
It was only when I read the press release after the gig that I learned it was supposed to have been inspired by electronic dance music. If so, it was looking for its inspiration in the wrong places; adopting only the most superficial ornaments of techno instead of engaging with its unique substance, focussing instead on its classical foundation of traditional western harmony that, stripped of attitude, renders grime, metal, and pop indistinguishable. Any kid who’s tried playing rock on their school recorder knows this.
The Rambler has given a description of the kind of nights Cargo has been hosting: informal club performances of new music otherwise confined to the concert hall. As he suggests, the crucial element that makes these gigs engaging and enjoyable is the setting, which forces performers to interact with the audience. It is this, more than any slick visuals or appeals to hipness, that hooks in the smart and arts-savvy (or even arts-curious) punters.
“It seems like a simple formula, but it surely can’t be otherwise everyone would have been doing it for years already, right?” he asks. Well, the execution still needs some tweaking before it becomes as second-nature as laying on a rock gig. In particular, musicians and sound technicians are still learning how to properly amplify this type of gig to suit both the music and the audience. GéNIA’s set of electronically-enhanced piano music was diminished by the piano sounding muffled and dull. And the Elysian Quartet’s performance of Max DeWardener’s new work was spoiled by an electrical glitch making line noise and the players’ click tracks audible through the PA.
Despite these problems I hope this type of presentation of new “classical” music is a trend that will continue, as a way of bringing this music to an audience more likely to embrace it than the usual concert-hall subscribers. I can’t help but wonder how a performance of Rzewski’s Coming Together would come across in this context!
I took two musically-literate Rzewski neophytes to the performance at Trinity College the week before, in a carpeted, overlit rehearsal room hidden deep in the College campus. The piece came out strident and threadbare, and afterwards both my friends agreed: “That was so 70s!” Would the change of setting have changed their attitude? Would it have changed the performers’?

Masons in Distress!

Wednesday 31 May 2006

Firstly, I apologise for the dodgy links in the Centre Pompidou post. Apparently the French think it costs them bandwidth for you to keep looking at a page after it’s been downloaded into your cache, so the links to artworks in their online catalogue have all expired. You’ll have to go to the front page and find them yourselves. I bet they didn’t have these problems with Minitel.
Illness and travel are keeping updates sparse this week. In the meantime, here’s a recap of the past month’s reviews:
Tune in again next week to hear me complain about feeling my age.

Google search result #667 for “Dan Brown sucks”.

Saturday 27 May 2006

Lordi knows I don’t go off about Dan Brown nearly often enough, so what with The Da Vinci Code movie being out now so that people who don’t read can now see The Book Read By People Who Don’t Read without having to read it god I’m drunk.
Wait, I didn’t finish that last sentence. If you’re wondering what the fuss is about, Cassette Boy has thoughtfully abridged the audiobook of the novel for your enlightenment (MP3, 1 minute, 1.25 MB download). I think someone lifted it from the album Dead Horse, but that doesn’t explain why this track was on my hard drive.
Hosted by The Boring Like A Drill Hit Parade! Exclamation Mark!

The ever-expanding six-monthly list, May 2006.

Saturday 27 May 2006

Yet another six months have passed, so it’s time to update the list of People Or Things I Have Been Mistaken For, Or Allegedly Physically Resemble, In Increasing Order Of Ridiculousness. Two more entries.

Filler by Proxy XXXIII: The World According to Google (Da Vinci Code Version)

Thursday 25 May 2006

Man is the measure of all things miserable: a visit to the Pompidou

Thursday 25 May 2006

Update: Most of the links below to artists in the Pompidou’s online catalogue no longer work, thanks to their website’s excessively paranoid cookies. You’ll have to go to the front page and find them yourselves.
The Centre Pompidou will kill you. There are two vast floors of exhibition space: one for the permanent collection and one for the visiting shows. Ten Euros gets you one admission to each floor, there are no passouts and the overpriced cafeteria is three floors below. The place will kill you.
Tate Modern has just completely reopened the rehanging of its permanent collection but I don’t expect to see the top floor this weekend, what with it being a bank holiday and the place jammed with punters last time I visited. It’s almost too popular for its own good. When I visited the Pompidou on my Paris trip the permanent collection was also about to be closed and re-hung. I hope the new layout is better than the one I saw.
Like the Tate Modern’s previous incarnation, the Pomp had its art arranged into themed rooms, only with an even more pedagogical and condescending atmosphere. The low points came early; right in the entrance rooms, in fact, with a mini-exhibition dealing with “the face and the human body”. Sticking someone in a room full of Francis Bacon and Bruce Nauman at the start of a long slog through a museum is just plain cruel.
To add insult, the rest of the rooms were filled with juxtapotions of breathtaking crassness, such as plonking a Giacometti sculpture in front of a set of Warhol silkscreens of Jackie Kennedy to show that – wow! – different artists depict people in different ways. (Beaubourg, you’re blowing my mind here!) The entire installation seemed to have been geared towards a class excursion of dimwitted high school kids. I’ve never experienced a more dispiriting or unwelcoming entry to an art museum.
Things didn’t get any better in the next room, despite it containing some prime examples of Pollock (Number 26A, Black and White) and Johns (Figure 5). I love these paintings, but the Pomp did them a disservice by labelling the room they were in “Chaos and Collapse” or something. It suggested the room had been curated by a particularly regressive tabloid editor, until you remembered that entrance room stuffed with bodies in various degrees of distortion and decay and you realised this whole show has been put together by one of those po-faced Germanic intellectuals who write weighty monographs on the existential terror inherent in the cinematic oeuvre of Fred Astaire.
After this unpromising start the subsequent rooms settled into dull and obvious arrangements by style and genre, which was an improvement. A room full of De Stijl – OK; a room full of white things – maybe; one room each for transparent and reflective artworks – what the hell? I can’t believe the Pompidou’s vaults didn’t contain artworks less deserving of exhibition than some of the clear or shiny gewgaws making up the numbers in their respective rooms.
One aspect of the hanging worked: without additional explanation, Picasso kept turning up in room after room throughout the gallery, fitting into whatever context was provided. A wordless demonstration of why Picasso is such a big deal.
There was a pitiless absence of benches throughout the museum. There was no gallery seating whatsoever in the permanent collection until about halfway through, when some stools and tables with catalogues attached appeared (oh boy, a study break!) Several benches are scattered through the latter stages of the exhibition, so this initial absence may have been contrived to stop punters pegging out too early, little realising how much floor space they still had to traverse. At any rate, it was designed to move bodies through the museum rather than allow the (ahem) more seasoned afficionados seek out and fully appreicate the particular artworks they had come to see. If you wanted to properly contemplate a big or difficult painting, or even watch a 15-minute Gordon Matta-Clark film, you had to do it standing up. Ouch.
The first proper bench appears about two thirds of the way into the collection, and it’s parked in front of an Ugly German Painting. At least they were gracious enough to allow benches for us to admire Matisse’s late, great decoupage La Tristesse du Roi. Even these curators couldn’t resist its charms.
* * *
First apparently perennial aspect of Pomp installations: side galleries stuffed with mounted books and magazines relevant to the artistic movements nearby. These exhibits trigger an initial rush of depression (the show comes with a reading list!), quickly followed by a certain perverse satisfaction, because two randomly-opened pages of Les Mots et Les Choses isn’t going to make any more sense to Francophones than to all the visitors who can’t read it.
Second apparently perennial aspect of Pomp installations: the museum still has a pervasive interest in architecture and urban planning – the old French dream of organising everybody (else’s) lives. A lot of architects’ work was on display, from a Louis Kahn maquette, to Constant’s wacky proto-situationist models, to a zillion or so megalomaniacal plans to Pave the Earth.
I tick another Gaudier-Brzeska off my list: Bird Swallowing a Fish.

That Donald Judd stack is really biffed about: did someone drop it, or did the Pomp get it cheap off the back of a truck?
Heh, a curator’s in-joke about an artist’s in-joke. The room of conceptual artists included works by Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth, Art and Language, and Martin Creed. Creed was represented by a recording of his rock band Owada playing softly in the corner. If you waited around long enough you’ll hear the song in which Weiner, Kosuth, and AaL accuse each other of ripping off their ideas. WFMU used to have the whole album available for download, but it’s gone! Here are the lyrics for your limited edification.