A Friendly Reminder

Monday 9 June 2008

Tomorrow night: 11 June @ Stutter*

Natasha Anderson / Ben Byrne / Sean Baxter
Contrabass recorder/laptop/junk

James Rushford / Judith Hamann / Sam Dunscombe
Improv laptop and string textures.

Also: myself

Presenting the latest in my series of compositions for unstable feedback systems. My ageing laptop will create a digital simulation of nested analogue feedback loops, synthesising all the sounds live. Unless I can’t get it to work, in which case I’ll just play a CD and pretend it’s the computer doing it.

Horse Bazaar
397 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne
8:30 PM
$5 on the door

Mock Tudor No.2 (Why doesn’t someone get him a Pepsi?)

Saturday 7 June 2008

Now that my work is on display in the Redrawing exhibition (plug!) I’ve started a new page about my art exhibitions on the main website.
I’ve mentioned before that:

Rather than try to be original, I have worked for some time with the idea that each of my works should be consciously modelled on another composer’s works or techniques, and so instead of attempting an original work that unwittingly imitates an older one, I might create an imitative work which, in its divergences from the model, allows some genuine originality to emerge.

This has already happened with String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta), which is on show at Redrawing, where people have been remarking on the differences between my work and the original it seeks to imitate, as much as on the similarities.
I recently discussed how David Tudor was forced by material circumstances to recompose his live electronic work Microphone. In 2002 I made my own homage to Tudor’s work, in an installation at Bus gallery in Melbourne.
I wanted to try to create for myself, using only the sound equipment I had readily to hand, a live sound installation that worked along the same principles as Microphone. The sound would have to be generated live, caused by feedback between two loudspeakers and a microphone. Furthermore, the sound had to continually change, without falling into stasis or obvious, repetitive patterns.

Mock Tudor No.2 (Why doesn’t someone get him a Pepsi?) differed from Tudor’s piece by producing a constant stream of sound, which produced varying patterns by splitting the signal from the microphone into two streams, each of which were treated to a series of interacting processes such as flanging, phasing, modulation. The two different types of rather broken loudspeaker acted as filters, as did the cheap microphone used, which selectively picked up sounds to recombine into the feedback signal. Any sounds made in the room were quickly subsumed into the feedback hum.
Mock Tudor No.2 was another work of radical amateurism, producing distortion away from a pre-existing model by trying to copy it as closely as possible. The piece functioned as a tribute both to Tudor’s compositional thinking, and his general, practical approach to his work.

Stockhausen takes the High Road, Tudor takes the Low Road.

Friday 30 May 2008

Greg.org has been raving about satelloons for the past six months or so. As part of his search for these retro-futuristic structures – giant inflatables, geodesic domes – he has recently discovered the Pepsi Pavilion at the 1970 Osaka World Fair:

An origami rendition of a geodesic dome; obscured in a giant mist cloud produced by an all-encompassing capillary net; surrounded by Robert Breer’s motorized, minimalist pod sculptures; entered through an audio-responsive, 4-color laser show–yes, using actual, frickin’ lasers– and culminating in a 90-foot mirrored mylar dome, which hosted concerts, happenings, and some 2 million slightly disoriented Japanese visitors…

The dome was fitted with an elaborate sound system, incorporating 37 speakers distributed around the space, controlled by an elaborate mixing system designed by Billy Kluver for E.A.T. – Experiments in Art and Technology. One of the composers who worked with E.A.T. was David Tudor, who composed several electronic pieces specially for the dome’s capabilities.
The Tudor composition that has particularly captured my imagination is Microphone, an elegant exploitation of electronic phenomena developed while working in the Pavilion:

One of them dealt with shotgun microphones which are highly directional, using them in conjunction with the modifying equipment in the sound system without any sound input. That is, nothing went into the microphones except the natural feedback…. by simply pointing the microphones in space and then having the sound moving between the loudspeakers at certain speeds, the feedback would occur only for an instance. There were marvelous sounds made that reminded me of being on a lonely beach, listening to birds flying around in the air.

Sadly, the Pepsi Pavilion did not last long. The soft drink company had sponsored the project on the assumption that they would be associated with hip, psychedelic rock concerts, not avant-garde art. When costs went way over budget, Pepsi pulled the plug and attempts to save the Pavilion failed. That, and the structure was already beginning to sag and leak. The Pavilion was demolished, and the chance to hear Microphone, or any of the other pieces created for the space, was lost.
What I find particularly admirable about Microphone is that Tudor decided to see if it was possible to recreate the piece in a studio, using only a pair of conventional speakers.

Mills College gave me the opportunity to work with multi-track recording and they had two echo chambers that were very far away from the studio. So I thought, ‘OK, lets see if I can reproduce Microphone without the original space,’ so I used both echo chambers and the same modifying equipment and lo and behold it worked.

Tudor worked in a way that depended upon the natural principles of electronics and acoustics, not upon the particular qualities of a given piece of equipment. He used a similar method to recompose another Pavilion piece (Pepscillator) into a piece that didn’t rely upon a unique PA system (Pulsers).
It’s interesting to compare Tudor’s approach to that of Stockhausen, who also happened to be performing in another dome at the Osaka fair. Many of Stockhausen’s works cannot be realised without elaborate staging and equipment: Helicopter String Quartet is the most notorious example (not to mention the seven-day opera of which it forms a small part). Stockhausen demands these extreme commitments of time and expense to realise a unique vision. It is up to others to find new ways to make their own interpretations of his ideas – such as the concert-hall reimagining of the String Quartet in Michigan earlier this year.
Tudor, on the other hand, did his own reimaginings, giving his attention as much to the how and why as to the sounds themselves, allowing his music to be heard with equal force, regardless of the circumstances of its production.

Like a Lizard Drinking

Monday 26 May 2008

I’m flat out trying to get everything together for the upcoming shows in Melbourne. Redrawing opens (urk) next week: the website has some images from the participating artists.
On the music page, “The Night We Burned Down Bimbo Deluxe” has finally got its own page, as part of a series made at home on the computer, using free and shareware programs, ping pong tables, line noise, random splotches, leftovers, and pornography. Hentai-Oto-Ma: Last Pieces for Digital Synthesis may be NSFW if you have a sensitive workplace, or work for an Australian politician.

I still can’t believe it took four guys to write this

Monday 26 May 2008

For the full 2008 Eurovision wrapup, see below.
Something seems to have been lost in translation. From the Eurovision website for this year’s Latvian entry:

Wolves of the Sea is a story about the historical endeavours of our ancestors, and tells of their backbreaking lives, rebellious spirit, freedom, masculinity and tenderness while showing their patriotism and love for the planet earth, and an unquenchable thirst for adventure.

[Cue cheesy techno music]

With a hii hii hoo and a hii hii hey!
We‘re hoisting the flag to be free
We will steal the show, Jolly Rogers go
We are wolves of the sea

Don’t try to run it’s all set and done
There’s treasure in sight
We are robbing you blind I hope you don’t mind
We are taking it all tonight

Just walk away we’ll count it all
Pirates will stand and the loser will fall

With a hii hii hoo and a hii hii hey
We’re bound to be close to the sea
Our captain will stand on the bridge and sing
Pirates are all we can be

With a hii hii hoo and a hii hii hey!
We‘re hoisting the flag to be free
We will steal the show, Jolly Rogers go
We are wolves of the sea

Down to the core we’re coming for more
With a sword close at hand
We are scary and bold chest full of gold
We get sealegs when sighting land

The hook of our captain is looking at you
There’s no Peter Pan so what can you do

With a hii hii hoo and a hii hii hey!
We‘re hoisting the flag to be free
We will steal the show, Jolly Rogers go
We are wolves of the sea

Welcome to the Belgrade! Let’s Get Crazy! Eurovision wrapup 2008

Sunday 25 May 2008

It was a quiet Eurovision night at home in the Bunker, what with the girlfriend being ill and trying to cough up her pelvis. The codes in brackets refer to the drinking game tally.
The broadcast itself began with a long, long apology from the BBC; not for last year’s Eurovision, nor the televised competition to pick the UK’s Eurovision entrant, but for last year’s UK Eurovision nomination contest. The apology was a lengthy explanation of what happened to the money viewers were charged to vote by phone, regardless of whether their votes counted or not. No apology was forthcoming for sending Scooch last year.
Thus the evening began with us feeling a little confused and depressed. That Serbian woman who won with that uncannily forgettable song last year came on and immediately caused confusion among the drinkers at home by launching into a number which seemed determined to combine every Eurovision cliche into a single, ungodly monad. Debate raged over whether her BF, DKC and ITE counted for drinking points, given that the competition hadn’t actually begun yet. I’m not sure if the sturdy woman in the suit with the butch haircut surrounded by women dressed half-and-half as bride and groom (split lengthways) was trying to tell us something.
Drinking officially began when the two hosts appeared and immediately pulled a double-Viktor by kissing each other, with a lengthy, stilted explanation about how Serbia is all about Love.
Romania: Again, a slightly confusing and depressing start. Nico and Vlad are not the singer and piano guy, as it first appears. After about a minute of dreary ballading, they suddenly have a rethink and turn into a dreary Wayne-and-Wanda style Andrew Lloyd Webber duet sung flat with a previously hidden woman, who is more likely Nico than Vlad.
United Kingdom: For a British entry I didn’t mind this too much. Of course, I liked it a lot better eighteen years ago when it was sung by Madonna and called “Express Yourself”, but the canny Brits have figured that because most of eastern Europe is still musically trapped in 1989 this inferior imitation will get them some votes (ha!). The woman singing backing vocals seems to be really playing her electric guitar, even though its not plugged in and no guitar can be heard in the music.
Albania: A solo diva surrounded by three acrobatic guys is this year’s White Suit. Accessorise with a fierce headwind and voila! Instant Eurovision act. (DKC)
Germany: Four hard-ridden hookers from Hamburg dress and sing ugly to try to distract punters from their treetrunk legs. (SR)
Armenia: Another wailing woman cribbing from Ukrainian tribal pop. All that’s missing is a couple of fake drummers on stage. (CR, SR)
Bosnia & Herzegovina: I’m sure these two countries were hyphenated last year; don’t tell me they’re going to separate too. This is the Eurovision we come to see: completely batshit insanity. A gurning leprechaun of a man and a mad woman with an afro run around a clothesline bellowing tunelessly at each other while veiled women in wedding dresses stand behind them knitting furiously. They know they’ve got a lock on the Balkan vote, so they must be taking the piss, surely?
Israel: You couldn’t half tell from looking that the Israeli broadcasters have decided that Eurovision entrants must have done time in the Israeli Defense Forces. It was presumably their idea to have it sung in Hebrew too. It may or may not have been their idea to make it as grey and dull as possible.
Finland: Metal is the new pop! It worked for them two years ago, so this is obviously as long as they could wait without seeing if lightning will strike twice. Metal + Eurovision should be a natural combination, when you think about it. The only fake drummers for the night, complete with battle axes. My girlfriend thinks the lead singer is “dead sexy”, but that might just be the wind machine he’s singing into. (2CR, DKC, WM)
Croatia: A mime-woman on a Lazy Susan tries to put off an old man and a really old man called – get this! – 75 Cents. Ha! Later she pretends to play a solo on what appears to be a set of bottles partly filled with blood, which are presumably on hand if Mr 75 needs a transfusion to get through the song. Later the old guy pretends to do some scratching on a wind-up gramophone for no reason whatsoever. (2WM)
Poland: At last, a white piano. And a forgettable power ballad from a diva who looks like a former footballer who decided he wanted to be Agnetha Faltskog, wearing a dress meant to show off her tits but instead makes her look chunky. So linguistically confused she may lapsed into French by the end, we’re not sure. (ITE?, SR)
Iceland: About time there was a Eurotrash House Anthem, so 1990 you could sing along without having heard it.
Turkey: Rather than trying to catch up with the rest of the world, the Turks decided simply to wait until all indie rock sucks as hard as their own bands do. That time has arrived. (ITE)
Portugal: This would be the Toilet Break Song except the singer’s fat, which means you want to stay around and watch what might happen. I don’t know how that works. She has purply hair and looks like a goth chick who’s had to dress up nice for dinner at a restaurant with her family for Mother’s Day. (CR, DKC)
Latvia: They are Pirates of the Sea! Unlike those other types of pirates. Except the biggest pirate, who looks like Geoff from Accounts Payable who was brought in at short notice and had to grab the last pirate suit in the hire shop. Apparently being a pirate consists of jumping around to bad techno while singing “With a hi-hi-ho and a hi-hi-hey, we’ll steal the show, Jolly Rogers go!” I wish I was making this up. Where’s Adam Ant when you need him? (DKC)
Sweden: This was just last year’s song again, only with a scary stick woman instead of a MILF, struggling without the aid of a wind machine. All these 90s disco anthems are going to be back in style soon.
Denmark: Having read one too many Andy Capp comics they think they’re English, in the same cute/grotesque way that dogs sometimes think they’re people. (DKC)
Georgia: Two more mimes on Lazy Susans (no mime should be without one!) It’s grim out east, judging by this dirgey song sung by a tense woman who wears sunglasses and stands rigidly to attention, either because she’s blind or repulsively hung over. They change clothes under a tarpaulin, and generally sweat and strain to little effect. (BF)
Ukraine: Another tanned diva surrounded by acrobatic guys. That little head-jerking thing they do should be the next big thing in discos. Amazingly for Eurovision, the dancers seem to have rehearsed and manage to keep it together for the whole three minutes. (SR)
France: They’re trying very hard to look like they don’t care, with male and female backing singers wearing fake beards and shades, while the bearded and shaded Sebastien Tellier rolls up a little late in his golf cart, dicking around with an inflatable globe of the world. Here we see why genuine, living, breathing pop singers like Tellier don’t do so well in Eurovision. His casual rapport with the audience gets lost amongst the choreographed glitz, and the cameras, used to tightly controlled stage routines, kept getting lost, treating viewers at home to random shots of his feet, a blurry arm, the floor. (ITE, LKW)
Azerbaijan: Operatic emo, complete with castrati angels and goth devil princes! They really throw themselves into it, showing the Georgians what a Caucasian backwater has to do to get noticed around here. (BF, ITE)
Greece: Another would-be diva surrounded by three acrobatic guys, although it sounds like a lot of the vocal work is being covered for her by the singers shoved ignominiously to the back of the stage. It seems a bit unfair.
Spain: OK, Spain has really given up caring about Eurovision and decided that if people are going to keep voting for crap, they’re going to get their faces rubbed in it. Some joker with an Elvis wig and toy guitar presents the Macarena’s retarded brother, with the assistance of four clumsy women wearing what seem to be, from a distance, gumboots. It feels like it goes on for about 10 minutes. You can hear all the atmosphere being sucked out of the room, the crowd get the message and start booing. Job done. (TaTu, ITE)
Serbia: The Toilet Song, two years in a row! (2CR)
Russia: Maybe eastern Europeans are really into dull, anguished ballads right now, because here’s another mopey git with no shoes and a friend pretending to play the violin with a fake emotional intensity rarely seen outside of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Then Randy Quaid appears and starts ice skating and the mopey git unbuttons his shirt. Yes, ice skating. The barefoot git is standing on the skating surface which may or not be real ice, so perhaps this is one of those Slavic toughness contests you hear about every now and then. (WM)
Norway: “Why ain’t anybody loving me?” moans this hyperventilating sad sack. It’s a woman, in case you care.
The voting: Another costume change for both the male and female hosts. (2WC) Rather than stage any elaborate half-time show, the Serbs just plonk a local wedding band onstage to do their thing until the votes are fixedcounted, which is actually a wise decision as they’re pretty enjoyable and no-one’s paying too much attention anyway. When they finish, the hosts reappear. Only the woman has changed her dress again (WC) and she barks a propos of nothing “That’s an unforgettable moment.”
Mr Stockselius peers over the top of his computer screen and announces to the world that “voting is the most exciting part” of Eurovision.
Everybody votes for the same people they vote for every year and the country with the biggest ethnic diaspora and most neighbouring countries dependent on oil and gas supplies wins. The bright spot of the evening was the return, after several years’ absence, of the generally incompetent announcers. They had been much missed.
The woman from Portugal felt compelled to stop and give a shoutout to the friends she made at last year’s Eurovision, and was given the hurry-up by the hosts. (2HU) The Czech announcer made a hash of announcing the votes (they only have to name three countries now, instead of ten like in the old days. How hard can it be?) and started corpsing. (2SS) The Swedish guy was quite obviously pissed.
The woman in Denmark is also a little tipsy and tries to sing the chorus of her country’s song, but even she can’t remember it. The announcer from Montenegro gets booed by the live audience in Belgrade. Russia wins and lots of nothing happens, the camera panning aimlessly around an empty stage while the end credits music for Mario Kart 64 plays on a loop in the background.
Finally the mopey Russian guys and their figure-skating buddy appear. “You have to receive the flowers,” the lady host barks at them. Mopey git takes off his shoes and sings again while the credits roll.

Eurovision 2008: the pre-game warm-up

Friday 23 May 2008

The semi-finals for the Eurovision Song Contest are over, with the final happening in Belgrade tomorrow evening. What I didn’t realise about the newly rejigged semi-finals is that the selection of competing countries isn’t completely random: the Baltic and Balkan states have been deliberately split between the two heats so that they can’t all vote for each other. Even Greece and Cyprus have been kept apart to stop their annual round of mutual gratification.
The most shocking result from the semis was the elimination of Dustin the Turkey, the singing Irish puppet superstar with the self-referential song “Irland, Douze Points”. I guess that’s the penalty for not taking Eurovision seriously. And not being from eastern Europe.
After going to the trouble of pointing out the most likely losers to watch, the odds have now changed. The United Kingdom is running third least likely to win, with Germany now with the longest odds, behind Albania. The German song is “Disappear” by No Angels. Move over Elvis, move over The Beatles:

Their success story to date remains unique in the world of music and impressively illustrates that no one should underestimate girl power…

Previously, in Eurovision news:

Countdown to Eurovision: Meet the Losers

Tuesday 20 May 2008

The betting has, theoretically, been thrown wide open this year, as the top-scoring countries from last year no longer get a free pass into the Eurovision final. This means everyone has to compete in the semi-finals for a place; except of course last year’s winner (Serbia) and the four countries which pay the most fees each year to the EBU (France, Germany, Spain, the UK).
The entrant with the longest odds of winning this year is plucky little Montenegro, with the 150-to-1 toe-tapper “Zauvijek Volim Te (Never Forget I Love You)”, sung by Stefan Filipović:

Stefan Filipović was born in Podgorica, on 18th January 1987. He is a student of the Music Academy in Cetinje, but he is into music industry since the age of seven. He participated in many musical contests as a child, in Montenegro and abroad, and he even won many of these contests and festivals, as the songs he was presenting became instant hits.

Unfortunately, the Eurovision website doesn’t offer a translation of the song lyrics, possibly because the subtleties of Montenegrin poetry are untranslatable:

Ponoć nad gradom kuca
Ja ne znam gdje si ti
Srce od ljubavi puca
U praznoj postelji!

Tuga mi pjesme piše
Dok suze padaju
Jastuk na tebe miriše
A dugo, dugo nisi tu!

If you thought Stefan’s biography was quaintly phrased because it was submitted in English by the Montenegrins themselves, then check out the elegant panegyric for the longest-odds entrant guaranteed a place in the final, the 66-to-1 “Even If” by (surprise!) the United Kingdom’s X-Factor loser Andy Abraham:

Andy is a man of mass musical talent, personal integrity… a family man. Andy is a songwriter. A man who has braved and exceeded all expectations and media obstacles over the last four years. Andy is a man who has dealt with the media spotlight with such personality that he has been dubbed the “man and voice of the people” Andy has sold half a million records in less than two years. Andy Abraham is a man of the people. There are no airs and graces. A man who has nurtured his vocal and writing talent for many years and now, on his own terms is set to move on to the world stage. Andy is the UK’s chosen representative at the 53rd Eurovision Song Contest in Belgrade, Serbia.

Judging by the grasp of language on display, it was probably written by the same people who wrote his lyrics, who – hey! – include the man and voice of the people who is a man of the people, Andy himself:

Your [sic] keeping me fascinated
No I ain’t running all over town
I feel so intoxicated
I’m struggling to keep
My feet on the ground
I’m not playing girl
This ain’t no game at all
And for the first time
I’m not looking for love
So come here baby
Listen to me
I just want cha
To believe me

The Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game, 2008 Edition

Sunday 18 May 2008

People have been googling for it, so here is the 2008 edition of the Eurovision Song Conetst Drinking Game rules. After last year’s success, there aren’t very many changes needed to get this down to a science. Unless they change the voting again.

Phase I: The Performances
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 by mercenary singers 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 the Fine Cotton.
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 Wandering 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 TaTu. Finish your drink if the audience boos (on the telly, not in your living room.) Let’s hope this year’s crowd in Serbia isn’t as surly as the Greek Tragedy of 2006.
I.B.7 Don’t Mention The War. The German entrant sings something about everyone being happy. In the past few years it seems that I.B.7 has been supplanted by I.B.8…
I.B.8 Don’t Mention The Wall. The Israeli entrant sings something about everyone being happy.
I.B.9 My Lovely Horse. Any obvious indication that a country is deliberately trying to lose, to avoid budgetary/logistical problems of hosting the event next year.
I.B.10A The San Remo. Any occurence of visible armpits and/or pointing at nothing in particular. Two drinks for a hairy armpit.
I.B.11A 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 Voting
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.3 The Old Europe. When the UK gets null points from France.
II.4 The New Europe. When the Baltic or Balkan states all give each other twelve points (may be relegated to advanced rules only).
II.5 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 to any country left with zero points at the end.
II.6 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 SOBER PLAYERS ONLY: The voting now moves along too quickly for most people to keep up with the following by this stage of the evening, but you can try.
II.7A The Hurry-Up. Every time the announcer from each voting country is politely asked by the hosts to shut the fuck up (“Can we have your votes please?”). Two drinks if the announcer tries to deliver a personal message to a relative watching at home.
II.8A 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.9A 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.10A 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.

The Wildcards
W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask: (a) why Israel is in it; (b) why Italy isn’t in it; or (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 the person who gets so drunk you have to secretly call a cab and persuade them they ordered it when it arrives.

Prometheus versus The Minotaur, part two

Friday 16 May 2008

I mentioned that the expanse of Harrison Birtwistle’s music in The Minotaur created a space for the mind the reflect upon the themese of the opera’s drama. This effect in Britwistle’s opera becomes the drama and subject itself in Luigi Nono’s Prometeo, which I saw the following weekend.
Nono’s last opera is “a tragedy of listening”, with no acting, so sets, no staging, no props. This performance was the culmination and raison d’etre of the “Fragments of Venice” festival which I attended in October last year. I was amazed just at having the chance to witness it; not only because it was getting its British premiere a mere 24 years after its first performance in Venice, but because I was organised enough to book tickets seven months in advance and then, when the time had come, remember I had done so.
I had heard this work before on CD and knew that it was one of the major works of Nono’s remarkable late period. For nearly two and a half hours the music proceeds through various “islands” and “stasimons” of sound, always slow to the point of stasis, rarely rising above the quietest levels of the assembled orchestras and chorus, the libretto atomised and overlayered with electronic reverberations and echoes to just beyond the limit of comprehension. It was a work I knew I needed to experience live.
The action, for want of a better word, occurs in the movement of sound around the space. That first performance in Venice took place in the deconsecrated church of San Lorenzo. The London performance was in Royal Festival Hall, surely the least atmospheric and most clinical environment in which Prometeo has yet been performed. The location, and absence of extraneous sound, must have had an effect upon the experience.
One orchestra and the two conductors with the chorus on the stage in front of us, two more small orchestras each side of us, the five soloists in the wings house left, another orchestra overhead in the upper circle, various brass instruments in the boxes above either side, and a string trio in the royal box. A row of sound technicians in the centre of the hall. The musicians very rarely played all together at once; different combinations of instruments and voices circulated around the space, immersing the audience in music without overwhelming them with sheer force of sound.
The libretto was reprinted in the program (and emailed out to ticket holders in advance of the performance) but no surtitles were provided. Each new section was identitfied as it began, but the words were left to stand as part of the overall sound, as mysterious as the music, neither imposing a new narrative upon the listener’s imagination nor distracting from the experience of listening.
Sitting there for over two hours in a space physically unaltered but brought alive by Nono’s music, experiencing it in all four dimensions, made me understand that this is not just a major work but Nono’s magnum opus. Like Fragmente – Stille it is a work about timelessness, but is not so reliant upon pauses, silences. Its quietness is not always hovering just above the inaudible; it is continually filled with sound, albeit a fragile, transparent sound. The material making up that sound remains consistent throughout, but its nature changes in tone and atmosphere from one section to the next. The hushed stasis and subsumed, pulverised language render this opera simultaneously empty and full, testing musician and listener by tearing as much as possible away, and finding that coherence can still be found amidst the fragments that remain.

Prometheus versus the Minotaur, part one

Wednesday 14 May 2008

As I was saying: the previous weekend I took the girlfriend to the Royal Opera House to see Harrison Birtwistle’s latest, and supposedly last, opera The Minotaur. In its music, structure, dramatic presentation, and high seriousness, The Minotaur is a direct descendant of Wagner’s musical dramas. The drama tells in stark, bold strokes the myth of the Minotaur Asterios, Ariadne and Theseus; its bluntness focuses the mind on the story’s ancient roots, while the modernity of its interpretation is found through what is omitted from the tale. The most telling moment comes at the end, when Theseus slays the monster. No more of the story is told, of Theseus return or Ariadne’s fate: we are left with the Minotaur dying alone, contemplating his doomed botch of a life.
All that is best in Birtwistle’s music is heard in this opera, as with his massive orchestral movement Earth Dances it has a relentless power to it, like a force of nature that can barely be repressed. In The Minotaur this force comes with greater subtlety and nuance; closer attention to the implacable drive of the score reveals a wealth of small details and shifting instrumental colours. The singers’ securely modernist melodic lines were surprisingly singable and clear despite their evident difficulty. It was hardly necessary to look at the surtitles to follow the libretto.
I wonder for how much longer we can expect new operas like this to be produced: so heavily reliant upon the traditional material support and performance tradition of the opera house, yet demanding from the musicians interpretive abilities from an avantgarde idiom alien to most opera repertory. It is a work that embraces the Western operatic heritage, but rejects the comfortable nostalgia that would allow it to be easily accepted into that heritage.
At times I was conscious of witnessing two historical cultures, the ancient Greek and the grand operatic. There were moments when both cultures strained against each other and the contemporary world, requiring a more conscious suspension of disbelief, but more often they spoke across the years with surprising clarity and directness.
With the exception of the Minotaur’s limited insight, the characters’ actions and motivations remained on the level of myths, unexplored and often curiously impassive. There was no need to burden them with psychological or political baggage; the drama’s measured pacing and unyielding music allowed the audience’s minds to meditate upon their emotional states and form their own responses.

(Tomorrow: part two, Luigi Nono’s Prometeo.)

Countdown to Eurovision: Could be worse, could be Des Mangan

Tuesday 13 May 2008

The Director of the Eurovision Song Contest, Bjorn Erichsen, came this close to catching a clue when he complained to the BBC this week that their choice of host is a “problem” which is undermining the contest’s reputation:

Terry Wogan is a problem because he makes it ridiculous. I know he is very popular, and maybe that is the reason why a lot of people watch… The BBC gets a very large audience but it chooses to represent the Contest in a certain way. They take it far more seriously in Sweden. They have a genuine love and respect for it.

Ah yes, it’s all Wogan’s fault that people think Eurovision is ridiculous. Apparently viewers in Sweden will be taking that singing Irish turkey puppet very seriously this year.
How dare Wogan make Eurovision a popular, high-rating show, and retain a huge viewing audience in Britain while ratings across the rest of western Europe have nosedived? What we really need is sober, introspective chin-stroking over “Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley“.

Otherwise, you can go read Opera Chic

Thursday 8 May 2008

I was going to finish my rave about Harrison Birtwistle‘s new opera The Minotaur, which I took my girlfriend to see at the Royal Opera House last weekend. (Warning: we’ve been together for a few years – this is not a good date opera!) However, I got distracted by finally working out how to make the header on the archive pages clickable to get you back to the front page of the blog. It’s a good day.
The last opera I saw was Satyagraha, over a year ago; and this weekend I’ll be at Southbank for Luigi Nono’s Prometeo. For all the musical and dramatic power of Birtwistle’s opera, thinking of it in retrospect makes it seem almost quaintly conventional compared to these two other works; but that’s hardly a fair assessment.
I’m still trying to figure out what to play for my gig at Horse Bazaar (Wednesday 11 June!), so The Minotaur review may come out before or after I’ve seen Prometeo. If the latter, I’ll try to resist making comparisons.

Countdown to Eurovision: Just when you thought Cliff Richard couldn’t possibly get any sadder…

Wednesday 7 May 2008

His faith may have guaranteed him an eternal reward in heaven, but that hasn’t stopped an unrealised desire from gnawing away at Cliff Richard for the past forty years. He’s still bellyaching over coming second in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest.
But now, the hope of salvation is on the horizon*: the winning song, Spain’s imaginatively titled “La La La”, is accused of having won through vote rigging by Franco himself.

According to Montse Fernandez Vila, the director of the film called 1968: I lived the Spanish May, Franco was determined to claim Eurovision glory for his own country. The investigation, which is due to be broadcast shortly, details how El Generalísimo was so keen to improve Spain’s international image that he sent corrupt TV executives across Europe to buy goodwill in the run-up to the contest.

The two funniest moments in this report come when the 1968 Richard is referred to as a “starlet” (that can’t be right, can it?) , and that reference to “corrupt TV executives”. Apparently, duchessing is corrupt only when it is performed by TV executives, not by other businessmen, politicians, or Olympics officials.
* I know that phrase sounds meaningless, but it’s no worse than Sir Cliff saying, “I’d be quite happy to be able to say I won Eurovision ’68. It’s an impressive date in the calendar these days.” It’s a cheesy song contest Cliff, not one of your cheap, Portuguese wines.

Magnificent Bastards

Saturday 3 May 2008

23 November 2003: I decide to make some music as quickly as possible. I open Scala, a program which generates and analyses musical scales, and ic, an I Ching simulator Andrew Culver wrote for John Cage.
In imitation of Warren Burt’s 39 Dissonant Etudes, I decide to make eight one-minute pieces, each using different microtonal equal temperament scales. Equal temperament scales, including today’s standard Western 12-tone scale, have a sort of left-side-of-the-brain organisational logic to them, but otherwise have no harmonic sense. I like the idea of using the sophisticated algorithms of Scala to make obtuse, inelegant scales.

Scala has an on-screen virtual keyboard, which lets you play directly with the scale you’ve just created. Rather than impose any compositional system, I go against my usual musical tendencies and improvise on the virtual keyboard, using the computer keyboard and mouse. The unfamiliar user interface, tuning, and piano keyboard layouts mitigate any musical facility I may have acquired over the years.
I record 24 improvisations, each one exactly one minute long. Each improvisation is recorded in a single take, without rehearsal or revision. Each improvisation is played in a different scale, ranging from 6 tones per octave to 29 tones per octave.
For my instruments, I use Gort’s Midget, a bank of synthesiser patches which take up a total of just 2 kilobytes of memory. Midget has 12 patches, so I can use each one for two different scales. The choice of which patch to play which sale is decided by ic.
I also use ic to select which improvisations should be overdubbed, to create composite pieces. The result is a suite of eight one-minute pieces for one to six instruments, in various clashing tonalities…

Each mp3 is about half a megabyte of memory.
1. Lento. | 2. Semplice. | 3. Allegro giocoso.| 4. Andante mystico.| 5. Grave, mesto.| 6. Leggiero.| 7. Tranquillo.| 8. Intensivo.