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…)

Cock and Bull, or how to talk youself out of leaving the house and paying for a movie ticket.

Monday 24 October 2005

Still juggling several long posts that I can’t be bothered finishing just now, and besides I’ve just found out that someone (Michael Winterbottom) has made a movie based on the greatest novel ever written, Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. (Not to be confused with the blog of the same name.)
That said, I probably won’t go and see it. The last time I went to a cinema of my own volition was to watch Tank Girl and I don’t think I’ve sufficiently recovered to show my face again around a ticket booth just yet. Besides, it’s one of those novels-they-said-could-never-be-filmed; worse, it’s one of those films-about-making-a-film.
A lot of this smart-arsed japery can be sheeted home to Sterne* himself, who all but created the book-within-a-book genre and more stylistic tricks than the combined forces of the postmodernists have deconstructed. But what almost every would-be imitator neglects is that through all of its futile textual acrobatics, Sterne’s book paints the most compassionate, kind-hearted and life-affirming portrait of human imperfection.
It’s hard to imagine how the movie could add up to more than a sequence of unconnected skits, although framing it in a story of the vanity of attempting a film adaptation could help this problem. Alternatively, it could end up like Sally Potter’s film of Orlando, which was only any good in the bits which weren’t based on the book.
Either way, it may be worth watching just for the prospect of Dylan Moran reading the Curse of Ernulphus.
* Not, to my knowledge, on the cover of Sergeant Pepper. He did, however, get namedropped by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Who misspelled his name on the lyric sheet.

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.

“London. Og.”

Tuesday 18 October 2005

I woke up early yesterday afternoon and finally saw some genuine London fog, viz:

However, this was still not enough to end my year-long summer: I can still comfortably sit around in the bunker without heating or a jacket. I am beginning to suspect that British weather is much better than the locals and the Australian Tourism Bureau would admit. Perhaps they exaggerate the bad weather here as part of the self-deprecating humour that defines the British identity, but I thought that it was supposed to have some grain of truth or element of defensive self-aggrandisemment (see also British food, the London Underground, Tim Henman).
From the way they talk about it you can tell they will go into the same collective hokey-pokey that Melburnians do the first day the weather looks the slightest bit wintry (“IT’S UNPRECEDENTEDLY COLD AND WET! THIS HAS NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!”), but I’m not sure if there’s a newspaper in London as gormless as The Age which will deem the change of seasons newsworthy.

It’s a stopcock boxlid. You’re welcome.

Sunday 16 October 2005

Photographed outside the bunker, where they’ve been overhauling the drains up and down the street for the last month. I only know the name of these things because of Tom Phillips‘ project A Walk to the Studio from the 1970s, in which he obsessively catalogued everything found on the half-mile walk from home to studio in his native Peckham, which resulted in, amongst other things, the photocollage 64 Stopcock Boxlids (see also Peckham Heads).
The main problem Phillips encountered in his efforts to document the entirety of his daily walk across a small section of south London was that his observations became so comprehensive that by the time he finally reached his studio, it was time to return home. The project came to a natural end when he moved both residence and studio into his former childhood home, halfway between the two buildings; thus saving him the need to ever leave the house, let alone Peckham.

Faith in humanity restored etc until the next time I board a train

Saturday 15 October 2005

Firstly, I’m On Your Computer is back on your computer. Hard-hitting journalism that hits you like it’s Anthony Mundine and you’re the type of schlub who gets picked to fight him, which you probably are unless you’re good with your hands and somewhat alert.
Secondly, I got a phone call from my bank yesterday, saying that someone had returned a bank statement they’d mailed me so they thought they’d better check if I’d changed my address. This makes me the first person to have had a company pay the slightest bit of attention to their returned mail since the era depicted on British Sunday-night TV serials, when the world was populated entirely by nice white people who all lived in little villages and knew each other by name and the postman would stop by your house for a cup of milky tea. This was back before immigration and the polio vaccine ruined everything forever, when people felt truly comfortable and relaxed – right up until they realised it was time to stock up on sex toys again.
So I was grateful, but I couldn’t help get the impression that they were reproaching me in some way for not caring about them quite as much as they appeared to care about me. This was probably just guilt on my part, having churlishly assumed at first that they were trying to sell me something. Worse still, it happened to be one of the rare occasions where, instead of simply hanging up, I feigned suffering Tourette’s syndrome (“If you hang up I can sue you for discrimination CUNT!”).
On further reflection, it wasn’t so much guilt as resentment. It’s all very nice having them call up for useful stuff but I’d really rather them be a proper faceless consortium and leave me alone.

Jenny Holzer is alive and well and working at Gatwick Airport

Thursday 13 October 2005

The gentleman in the photo above is a trainspotter, the first I’ve seen; at least the first I’ve noticed in flagrante. This was at Clapham Junction, “Britain’s busiest railway station”, so I guess if I couldn’t find one there I may as well have given up. Look closely and you can see his binoculars and notebook.
I’ll let you make the next joke, and when you’re done will counter that it makes you a trainspotterspotterspotter. Happy now?
What I couldn’t get a good photo of was the Flight Information Screens at Gatwick Airport, whose digital displays read PLEASE LOOK AT TELEVISION SCREENS FOR INFORMATION. Thanks for that. Nothing about raising boys and girls the same way, though.
If you’re thinking of making a pilgrimage to Clapham Junction, don’t bother: it’s a shitheap.

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.

The Remise Door. Calais

Tuesday 11 October 2005

“Hey,” I said, “There’s another car salesman sticker in the back window of that car.”
My companion grunted unsympathetically and shifted the red Mégane we’d hired up into sixth. After two hours at the wheel, she’d gotten the hang of driving on the wrong side of the road and felt ready to overtake trucks and schoolbuses just as the dual carriageway ran out.
“You’re supposed to be describing the scenery to me,” she said, reaching over and fumbling around in the glovebox. She’d found that the Mégane felt most comfortable cruising at about 150 and was reluctant to let it drop to too low a speed because “it’s a diesel and they like being revved up.”
We were driving north from Barcelona up into the Pyrenees to be at the wedding of a couple of friends: she’s Australian but has lived in Barcelona and nearby mountains for years, he’s Catalan. Right now they’re living at his parents’ place up in the Cerdanya, a place I’d never heard of before.
I was expecting lots of hillclimbing and general cragginess, but once you’ve got up into the mountains you go through a really long tunnel (you folks at home think it’s a long haul from Southbank to Burnley – ha!) and once you come out the other side find yourself in this pretty green valley with meadows and cows and little villages dotted around. Then someone stops your car and relieves you of 9 Euros for driving through their shiny new tunnel and when you wind down the window realise it’s suddenly 15 degrees cooler outside.
What you can’t see amongst all the picturesque countryside is the French border which runs diagonally across the Cerdanya, and has done for 400 years, just to be difficult. Then, to be even more difficult, once you’re over the border into France you’re suddenly back into Spain again, a tiny little island of it called Llìvia which has also been that way for about 400 years, before heading back into France again. And because we’re dealing with France here, they speak French on one side of the border, then revert to Spanish 100 metres down the road. The family we were staying with was Catalan but lived on the French side – I suspect most of the locals speak Catalan but you’d never get the Francophones to admit to tourists like me.
My companion had just finished a bout of Italian lessons in London and so was pronouncing what little Spanish she knew as thought it were Italian. I suspected I was lapsing into a ropey Catalan accent when attempting to pronounce anything non-Anglophone.
“How do we order coffee again?” she asked, finally finding what she wanted in the glovebox.
Dos tallets, si us plau,” I said as she bit into the large xoriço we’d bought before heading off. We’d grabbed the sausage and a large, strong goat’s cheese from a market before picking up the car in Barcelona and had been taking chunks out of them from time to time along the way. By the time we returned the car it was going to be very stinky.

Not that we cared too much. We had actually reserved a small, cheap 3-door to get us out of town but we got traded up, which was a nice result after arriving at the car hire office to find a hot, grumpy queue spilling out onto the pavement. A tall Australian in front of us was talking into his mobile phone, “typical Spanish fuckup.”
This wasn’t quite fair: progress had been blocked for some time, and would continue for the next hour, by three idiots camped on the front counter. The first was a dense, leathery German girl loudly complaining that they had lost her reservation, despite paying in advance. Funnily enough, she didn’t have a receipt or booking number to show them, either, and the staff were too polite to call shenannigans and throw her out (hint for readers: try hiring a car and see if they’ll take your money up front).
The second was a hapless Frenchman who had managed to prang his VW while trying to get out of the car park. The third was an insane menopausal 4’0″ Spanish woman (FORESHADOWING!) in a denim jacket that had fallen into a Bedazzler who spent a solid 45 minutes complaining about the car she’d ordered, the slightly better car she actually got, the nib of the biro with which she had to fill out the paperwork, the pot plants in the car hire office, her shrivelled-up husk of a husband slouched lifelessly next to her, homogenised milk, and how the country in general had gone to hell in a handbasket since Franco died and the hippies took over.
When my companion reached the counter (sorry! as a non-driver I had to leave all the dirty work up to her) the staff were so relieved to have a customer with real, tangible documentary evidence of a reservation and a valid driver’s license that they immediately traded her up to a better auto, then invited us to cross a nearby eight-lane highway to the car park…
…where the exact same process was repeated as we waited to collect the car. The Frenchman was gingerly backing out his newly-distressed VW – almost ramming a concrete pillar in the process – despite his girlfriend assisting him by dancing in circles around the car and flapping her arms.
Meanwhile, the insane menopausal 4’0″ Spanish woman (FORESHADOWING!) was pacing back and forth, sequins dimly flashing in the subdued light, haranguing the attendant about the colour of the car, the fuel tank lid being on the wrong side, wrong shape of steering wheel, and how the country in general had gone to hell in a handbasket since Franco died and the hippies took over, before finally shoving the dusty remains of what used to be the man she married into the driver’s seat while she settled into the back seat and warmed up to nag him all the way to Thessaloniki.
Just as we were figuring out how to start our shiny new car (hint: big round button labelled START) the dense, leathery German girl rocked up and unsuccessfully tried to push her way to the front of the queue. They people ahead of her were sympathetic but unable to oblige.
“I’ve been stuck back there for two and a half hours,” she whinged.
“Good,” they said.
Sorry about getting a bit distracted there. I had intended to describe my holiday as succinctly as possible, but no matter. Here’s a photo of the Cerdanya.

Another month, another attempt at a relaunch

Monday 3 October 2005

Many years ago, I started this blog with the intention of making it the world’s premier forum for analysis and discussion of speedboats, but along the way I lost focus and the emphasis shifted more into the popular pastimes of admiring mediocre pop divas and mocking the dead.
Now I’m back from a tops trip overseas (no Juliette Lewis!) I’m ready to adopt a new tack: long-winded traveller’s tales and enough badly-compressed holiday snaps to bore you rigid. So get ready. There may even be some pictures of kitties. Rejoice!
The main reason I’m so happy is while I was away, the refurbishment of the bunker was all but completed:

Cousin Norman had a real fine time last year

Wednesday 21 September 2005

So long folks, I’m off to Spain for a week or so. While I’m gone I promise to investigate the whole Juliette Lewis fiasco. In the meantime, enjoy a few new pictures intended to illustrate a longish, serious article about my visit to St-Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, which I haven’t gotten around to finishing yet. See you next weekend. Squeezes!

We’ll always have Jeremy Bentham to kick around

Wednesday 21 September 2005

Apart from the lovely and talented Julie Dawn Kemp, the tireless champion of filler on this website is the Great Utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham. Despite his many achievements, his greatest legacy remains in supplying cheap gags with middlebrow pretensions to erudition to unimaginative pseuds like me.
Now that a new semester has begun, I paid a return visit to his modest abode to convince myself that Wikipedia is wrong and he is in fact on permanent display, and not just wheeled out for special occasions when conferences are held. Because the real journalists have fled the internets I felt I had to step in and put the hard questions to the Big Stiff:
Me: Hello? Coo-ee!
Bentham: Stop tapping on my glass! I’m not a bloody goldfish.
Me: Sorry. I guess you have people coming up and bothering you all the time.
Bentham: (sighs) No.
Me: So, were you affected by the bombs going off down the street back in July?
Bentham: That was a bomb? They told me someone upstairs had dropped a particularly heavy difference engine.
Me: I guess they didn’t want you to panic and…
Bentham: Lose my head. Very fucking funny. First time I’ve heard that gag – today. Security! Evict this jackanape and wheel me over to the Natural History wing!
Me: Doesn’t look like anyone’s coming. I thought you Victorians were more well-spoken than that, you know, “Good DAY Sir!!”
Bentham: I’m not a Victorian! I’m a William…ian… Whatever.
Me: What sort of positive example do you think you have set to the youth of today by sitting in a rosewood portaloo for the last 170 years?
Bentham: I’d like to think I’ve played my small part in keeping the “Great” in Great Britain.
Me: Did you know they’ve named a pub after you around the corner?
Bentham: Yes. I’d love to visit it someday – I could murder a pint.
Me: A common complaint among the enbalmed. You don’t get about much, do you? When was the last time you travelled?
Bentham: Last year. A new cleaning woman started and she wanted to vacuum under me. They haven’t even oiled my casters for years. The squeaking nearly drove me potty.
Me: You know, putting yourself on public display all these years, your invention of the panopticon, do you regard yourself as the inspiration for Big Brother? It’s a TV show where…
Bentham: I’ve seen Big Brother. A repulsive display by depraved lowlife.
Me: I guessed you wouldn’t be impressed.
Bentham: I was over the moon when Makosi got the arse. Girlfriend had no business being horrible to Kemal like that.
Me: Well, I think we’ve trawled all the most obvious jokes now, and I feel a bit dirty having looked up a Big Brother forum to put in that tidbit of gossip, so I’ll finish now and thank you for your time.
Bentham: You still here? Security! etc.

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?

New Gherkin!

Monday 19 September 2005

Pity she never did any self-portraits

Sunday 18 September 2005

Overheard at the Tate Modern bookshop:
“Oh, so that’s what Frida Kahlo looks like!”