The Rambler :: blog

Friday, November 28, 2003

This parodoxical life. Isolation and community.

Radiohead, Earl's Court, London, 27 Nov 2003

One moment, after 'The Gloaming', with all-new overlaid vocals: 'just to make it even weirder' said a pop kid to my right. The song was met with near universal bemusement, but was followed by 'Just', to near universal delirium. At least they were mixing things up with some crowd pleasers. It felt flat. In the past I've accused Radiohead of not actually moving on from OK Computer, or even The Bends. The songs on Amnesiac were still about the same things after all, said in pretty much the same way I would argue. But when the plodding, obvious, intro to 'Just' kicked in, I felt so very wrong. They have moved very far indeed.

Radiohead fans - like all fans of big supergroups - are a (reluctant) community. The band have come pretty close, on the evidence of last night, to alienating their fans. Don't get me wrong: everybody still loves them, but no-one seems sure what to do any more*. Indie kids find it hard enough to dance in time as it is (and I know); but over the skittering beats of Kid A or Hail to the Thief they mostly gave up. The first three songs - all from Hail to the Thief - were almost ignored while the opening beats chattered away. No-one seemed to recognise them. Until the guitars kicked in, and it felt comfortable, like something they knew, a priori, people were paralysed. And then - and this is Radiohead's most successful trick - they realised they still couldn't move because of the cross-rhythms, the syncopations, the refusal of the music to sit still and be who you wanted.

There was palpable relief when the crowd had something they could agree upon, latch onto, take part in. When 'Creep' got a rare live outing, people knew they'd got their money's worth. Followed with 'Paranoid Android' it was a mass appeal part of the set. Then when people started handclapping on the wrong beats in 'We Suck Young Blood', 20,000 pairs of teeth could grit together against the insurrection.

There's a code, you see. Rules.

Sit Down. Stand Up. A Punch Up at a Wedding.

I've never come across an ethnomusicologist studying fans at stadium gigs - I feel like one myself writing this - but they should.

And the final moment in the final song of the night, when as the sequencers take over in 'Everything in its Right Place', Yorke steps away from the organ and the mic to no discernible effect and hails the applause for him and his band. The sounds continue regardless, and his presence is erased from the music as he is spotlighted in acclaim.

The two players left crouching on the stage floor twiddled knobs, the reverberating loops twisted and flipped on themselves until no-one had no idea how it was working. The music took charge of its self, the machines talked back. That was special. Radiohead have moved on; not forward, but further and further into the distance. I like it.

*And re-read those NME reviewers getting into an existential tizz over the last three albums.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

London is swarming with Gothie-Indie-kiddies tonight. More dyed locks and black jeans than three-piece suits. I'm guessing they're all heading for Earl's Court and Radiohead. I say this because tomorrow evening I'll be headed that way too, although I'll be dressed more antipopper than t-shirt noir.

Radiohead are a curious beast. Milady and I argue about their merits (or not) more than almost any other single subject, so expect some comments from that quarter by the end of the week... While I couldn't call myself a fan, and I would make a strong case for a different album of the '90s to the Pitchfork choice (readers need only scroll down a few posts to see a strong candidate for my vote), it is also hard to disagree with their reasoning. I particularly like the idea that OK Computer is one of the last albums as albums, which relates to what I want to say.

When it comes down to it, the debate around Radiohead (are they the greatest thing since sausages/are they just a pile of fat and gristle?) follows two paths. 1) They're basically U2, and play for grown-up ex-indie kids who should know better, frankly. Well, this is hardly their fault. The Clash used to have the same problem. And 2) They're not as innovative or clever as they arrogantly suppose they are.

Which is usually the side I come down on. But, tonight, I want to play devil's advocate, so here goes.

The thing is, as I've said before round these parts, the whole idea of Rock is built around musicianly ideas of innovation and expertise. Pop, on the other hand, say the rockists, is hackneyed, cyclical and facile. When in actual fact, a case can be made for exactly the reverse. The guitar/bass/drums/vox line-up is so fixed, and so much of what Rock actually is, that any 'innovation' must necessarily be built upon tradition. Take away too much of that tradition - the guitars, say - and you no longer have rock.* Composers writing string quartets have exactly the same issues: it's impossible to avoid the heritage (and responsibility) that Haydn, Beethoven and Bartók lay upon you. Even when Stockhausen added helicopters and video relays to the mix, it's not difficult to see the grand romanticised tradition he's building on and expanding outwards. (And Stockhausen is nothing if not a grand romanticist, Wagner's truest heir.)

Rock, you see, is conventional. It is made out of conventions.

If Radiohead do anything at all, it is that they recognise this more acutely, I think, than many other Rock acts. They are not, for example, The-bloody-Darkness, whose fans claim they are the Holy Grail of originality and innovation, when they're nothing of the sort. Radiohead, on the other hand, while not really making such claims (these sorts of claims are always made by fans anyway, as far as I can tell), are prepared to - knowingly, even ironically - test the edges of those conventions.

Kid A is, by most standards, not an extraordinary addition to the electronica canon. When Thom Yorke and the boys go into the studio, they do not suddenly become Richard James, Susumu Yokota or Jan Jelinek. But it does pick up the nervy, twitchy, fractured sounds of recent glitch and electronica, recognise its emotive potential, its correspondence with decades of guitar riffs and drum fills, and turn it to very specific, Rockist, song-based (album-based) ends. And this is something. It doesn't sound like the great, radical step forward that it is sometimes believed to be, because actually it sounds remarkably consistent with a lot of what they've done up to that point. Which, again, is something.

I have to admit that when OK Computer came out, it was a wonderful album. My student years were not soundtracked to it, but one summer at least was. And though it has weakened, I think, with time, for a few months at least it said a lot and it said it well. I talk below about Goldie's production on Timeless bursting the seams of his samples so that you can feel the pressure within every sound. From the opening drum track of 'Airbag', that same quality of sound is here too - production pushed just past the edges. Along with its orgiastic, cathartic opposite, the grunge guitar, these two sonic fields were probably the musical signatures of the Nineties. Neuroses and self-indulgence. Looking inward, kicking outward. And between 'Airbag' and 'Lucky' (unarguably a great, great track) you have the spectrum between both. It's all reined in, it's all a little restrained, apologetic, guilty, cowering. But it carries on regardless. And in these terms it has to be, I suppose, if not the best album of the nineties, still the only album of the nineties. From a cool analytical distance, it carries more of the mood of the nineties than pretty much any other record on the Pitchfork list (although, I've not heard them all, so I may be wrong...).

And OK Computer does have a beautiful arc to it. As the nagging, understated, infuriating inoffensiveness of it winds you up and up, three-quarters of the way in, there is 'No Surprises', in context an achingly beautiful song. Its easiness sucks you into the belief that actually a comfortable life with 'no alarms and no surprises' wouldn't be so bad after all. Which is exactly the trick that the whole album's thesis would like you to believe. Because that comfort, that relief is exactly what Radiohead want you to resist, it's what Thom-Yorke-of-Radiohead finds so distasteful. It's an effective ploy, and one that only works because the band push all the appropriate buttons developed within rock's conventions (from the inlay art to the music itself) to create this grand thesis. Radiohead use all the established signifiers (and a few of their own invention) to draw you in, to create this seductive world, only to turn it on its head. It's deliberate and it's knowing, and it is skillfully done.

(A story milady likes to tell: It used to be quite common to see Thom Yorke in pubs around Oxford, drinking on his own, looking miserable as hell. So miserable no one dared go up to him to say hi. So was he miserable because he's Thom Yorke and that's What He Does, or was he miserable because he's Thom Yorke, and he still has to drink alone when he's in his home town?)

Radiohead, for better or for worse, play the game as well as Springsteen, Kylie or Madonna. The biggest problem they all have is that it's hard to get everyone else to play along with you. But that's another story...


* (You have drum and bass, boom boom!)

Monday, November 24, 2003

A really interesting post from Kyle Gann, on the conflict between system and inspiration in modern composition. It's an old chestnut, and Gann has some notable points to make on the way, observing that many (student) composers see the failure of theory to explain what is happening in a piece of Charles Ives, say, as a victory for the composer. I think the composers' argument is a specious one for either side to take up - theory and practice are not opponents: any musical work is an act of composition and reception, and without one or the other it is unfinished. But at the same time, theory can never pretend to tell you everything about a work, it can only mark one way of approaching it, here, now, and by me. Composers really only get upset when theorists try to reduce their compositions to crossword puzzles, shouting Eureka! when they think they've found the solution. Academic musicology has only recently grown-up to this self-evident fact, and a lot of this attitude still persists within certain circles who can't see beyond puzzle-solving.

To be honest, I don't know what Bartók would have made of Lendvai's analyses of his music, had he lived to see them. Probably amusement. Lendvai's work is, after all, a classic, beautifully realised crossword solution. What is interesting, however, in his work is not the question of whether Bartók worked to an all-encompassing system, built around Fibonnacci numbers and Golden Section proportions (according to Lendvai, these series permeate every aspect of Bartók's music, from note-to-note interval selection to large-scale form), but rather the influence this construction of Bartók's music had on others.

In 1955, when the West European musical world was doing backflips over total serial organisation (Boulez's Le marteau sans maître had just been completed, and Stockhausen had begun work on Gruppen), Lendvai's first books on Bartók (An Introduction to the Analysis of Bartók's Works and Bartók's Style) were published in Hungary. As news of musical developments in Western Europe were trickling through to Hungarian composers, coupled with the gradual, and welcome, establishment of Bartók's reputation as one of the century's greatest musicians, it must have been tempting to see within Lendvai's analyses a way of connecting the great Hungarian master with the dominant trends of systemised composition in the West. There is no doubt that Bartók's influence on his successors was immense, but it is intriguing to trace the influence of the Lendvai-mediated Bartók upon those successors. In Hungarian composition since the late 1950s, be it Kurtág, Eötvös or even Germany-based Ligeti, there are traces of a conscious, deliberate employment of the compositional strategies Lendvai claimed to have extracted from Bartók - mirror forms, Golden Sections, key intervals and harmonies built on segments of the Fibonnacci series and so on. Was this an attempt to induct Bartók, and his successors, into the same canon being established amongst Stockhausen and his Darmstadt cronies? It seems to me that this is an interesting - but surely not unique - example of the symbiotic relationship between composition and theory, and an instance in which crossword puzzles could become a powerful inspiration.

Incidentally, if you're interested in reading a lengthy piece by me on Lendvai's relationship to Ligeti's music, you could do worse than click here. There are few examples which need putting up, when I've got them converted to jpegs or such, but all the text is there at least. Cheers.

And ain't that a relief.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Looks like a good thing. (Spotted via beepSNORT.

I have been alerted to a new classical blog, Symphony X, which aims to 'reawaken the classical conversation for the 21st century", which seems to me thoroughly laudable aim. Go and check them out - there's a very nice post there exposing some of the nonsense that gets lazily bandied around in the name of new music journalism, which is worth a read.

Oh, and this (surely deliberate?) bit of editing from the Sunday Times today:

"37m pints of beer were consumed during the day in the 10,000 British pubs that opened early to screen the match. 'It was a huge effort from the entire squad,' said old brick thighs [Martin Johnson] afterwards."

My guess is that Jason Leonard managed 7,000 of those on his own.

Saturday, November 22, 2003


What a bloody relief.

Friday, November 21, 2003

And I love Rothko, y'know. The first time I visited Tate Modern, I was bowled over by the Rothko room there - obviously, I knew what Rothkos were supposed to look like, had the posters, even seen a few in Real Life, but these ones - they were a different shape. Not fuzzy rectangles floating over fields of colour, but fuzzy 'O's, like bits of toast with wholes cut out the middle, but red and the size of a car.

I could talk about Rothko for hours - as a painter he seems to come closest to everything I hold dear in art. I almost can't help coming back to him, somehow. Have you ever heard Feldman's Rothko Chapel? There's a specially built chapel in Texas (I think) full of Rothko paintings, and Feldman wrote this piece for it, for choir, percussion and viola. And it was the most amazing thing he ever did: by his own standards its pretty short (about 15 mins, in several bits), but sounds typically Feldman - drifty choir chords, percussion droplets, that sort of thing. Then at the very end, this beautiful viola melody comes, out of nowhere, and squeezes you until you weep. It's apparently a tune that Feldman wrote as a young boy, and for whatever reason he chose to put it in here. It's a shocking and extraordinary moment, and there's not much else like it.


Thursday, November 20, 2003

Now that, that's really good. If Luka carries on like this, I'm going to end up liking Brian Sewell...

Incidentally, if you want to see a show that is authentically moving, you could do worse than this. The best show I've seen for I don't know how long.

On the other hand, as I continue revisiting my old records on my London travels, Goldie's Timeless is something else, a product of similar times, but it stands up against almost anything else I own.

This was an incredible album. Despite the washes of strings, the (air raid) siren vocals, the phasing, the reverb, this is not a smooth production. It's precisely and skillfully put together, but there's no pretending any of this is actually live, or meant to sound real. It's gloriously, proudly digital. Paradoxically, because of this foregrounded artifice, it sounds more human, more warm than a lot of the other Metalheadz stuff from the time.

You can hear the beginning and end of every sample. You can hear the gaps between the loops, the compressions and timestretches from one snare crack to the next. You can hear exactly how this album was made, and you can trace the work involved. 'Inner city pressure' indeed - the microchips and transistors and meters are working so hard you can feel them pushing out the sides. Like tree roots under tarmac - structurally sound, but for how long? Like Ligeti's Continuum - so much music, so much mechanism that it starts to break down. You can hear the breaks and samples on Timeless splitting, spitting at the seams.

This kind of production aesthetic, from microhouse to Madonna's 'Music' has become commonplace so you don't notice it as much; but given the polished comfort of so much electronica of the time - Orbital, say - Timeless was a stunning record.

I think what Collingwood meant to say was that England will roar back in the next match to score 2 for 1. Which would be a start.

In other sports news:

shrug. Well - not much of a surprise, to be honest.

Oh, and no need to adjust your sets - I've been fiddling with the controls to make the text look a bit neater. You're not going blind, I promise.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Went out the other day and bought myself some huge new headphones for the minidisc player (well, until iPods get a bit cheaper, what are you gonna do?), which are great, because not only do they keep my ears toasty warm, but I look like that kid from ET. Or not. And, of course, it means I can start listening to my MDs with pleasure once more, rather than in pain 'cos my ears are the wrong shape for Sony's silly plastic earpieces.

The upshot of this is that I've been relistening to compilations of my old indie records from the early '90s, back when I were a lad. I'd forgotten how infused so many tracks had become with the frustration and sheer ennui with John Major's dying Tory government. It seems like every single record on that compilation (the fainthearted might want to look away now - I was young, alright?) from PWEI (Dos dedos mes amigos) to Kingmaker ('Ten Years Asleep') to Elastica ('Waking Up'), to Sleeper (Smart) share the same sludge of apathy and despair ('Make a cup of tea/Put a record on'). And then there were S*M*A*S*H who were sodding brilliant frankly and bloody good fun ('Margaret Thatcher/Jeffery Archer/Michael Heseltine/John Major/Virginia Bottomley/And especially/Gill Shepherd's got an appalling unemployment record/I want to kill somebody', hahaha!). And it seems to me that although New Labour were keen to paint Britpop as part of this bright new future, it was really forged in the ashes of a dying government and a country's resentment (it seems a small step to me from 'Waking Up' to Oasis's 'Rock and Roll Star'): when Labour actually came into power, and things were going to get better (ahem), the seeds of Britpop's destruction were already sown. Which I'm sure is not an original thought, but there you go.

Which got me to thinking: was that national frustration a good thing for music? Conventionally, hard times are supposed to invigorate a culture, but on the whole, what I'm left with on my minidiscs is nostalgia and limp retro. Now, Blair is seemingly going to do for Labour precisely what Thatcher did for the Tories - spectacularly salvage an ailing party, hang around for far too long, win the resentment of a nation, and then pass the baton on to some poor second-rater when it's too late, thus leaving the party in tatters and ruining British politics for another two terms. And believe me, Brown is quite ready to be Labour's John Major. When that happens, watch the record stores for the New Wave of New Wave of New Wave. I'm not optimistic, because by then we'll be bored to tears.

K-punk has fun laying into The Matrix: "The fact is, you have personal relationships with people who look exactly as they do in 'reality'".

I've not seen the third one, and have no immediate plans to, but one of the least attractive aspects of escaping the Matrix is the revolting conformity of it. Everybody gets to choose exactly how they want to look - and they all choose exactly the same look. Apart from the one with white hair who gets killed off halfway through No.2, but then if you want to stand out, you've probably got it coming anyway.

OK, the funniest thing I have seen all week - if only I'd had a camera with me: Last night, I was going down the Strand ['ave a banana...] to Charing Cross tube, and there are already 500 or so protesters of various anti-American/anti-capitalist creeds waving their banners around. Just as I get to Pizza Hut, I see another placard in their midst: some chap tempting passing protestors with a 2 for 1 meal deal for all Pizza Hut customers. Brilliant! It's hungry work all this marching, and even anti-capitalists have got to eat, haha.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Nice article on Moondog in yesterday's Guardian. If, like me, you've not heard any before, there are some audio snippets here, and a few more here if you poke around a bit - plus lots of other discog info, etc.

This, as far as I can tell, is a red herring.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Apologies for the lack of posting around here at the moment, but I've spent so much of this week busily avoiding Work that now I'm deluged by the stuff. Still, to keep you happy, have a read of Greg Sandow over at ArtsJournal.com (he's stablemates with Kyle Gann, whose blog PostClassic has just made it to my sidebar), particularly here and here. There's some discussion going on in certain academic channels that has been sparked by this recent article by John Rockwell in the New York Times that classical music is dying, with all the usual comments about commerciality, populism, attention spans etc. being bandied around as excuses.

Pah! I say. Pah! It seems strange to me that it tends to be the academic/'serious' end of the listening spectrum (of which, professionally, I am a member) who get most concerned that classical music might be losing its relevance or importance to people. Speaking for myself, contemporary music in all its forms remains an essential and irreplaceable aspect of life itself. And surely anyone who has dedicated their career to its study must feel the same? Yet these are the very people finding excuses for its apparent demise. If 'classical' music has become less relevant to people, I would humbly suggest that the responsibility for this does not lie with the music creators, as is lazily assumed, but with music's educators, researchers and advocates. Which is why I like Sandow's recent posts - he's not buying into the whole notion that this is an irrelevant, dead artform that no-one cares about because it's too highbrow. Two remarks in the posts linked above are especially telling: 'Mainstream classical music, in fact, doesn't even seem like high art to younger people; it can all too often seem middlebrow and sentimental.' and '"the often overwhelmingly adolescent world of popular music" - serious people just have to stop talking like that. As anyone who knows anything about popular music will tell you, there's a lot of serious work that may well have even more trouble getting on the radio than classical music does. Think about it. Classical radio stations still exist. But how many stations - apart from college radio - play the kind of pop music that doesn't get on any pop charts?'

Anyway, that turned into a much longer post than I intended. Something to think about. Time for some lunch.

Monday, November 10, 2003

I knew there had to be some other New Music bloggy stuff around. Here's a Contemporary American classical blog: aworks; and here's a big new music news site: NetNewMusic. And via the latter, this too. Possibly more later on...

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Tell me about it. What with that and the Lazio result, my fantasy team's season is over...

So, as we watched London become obscured in cordite smoke and explosions last night, milady and I were talking about US TV vs UK TV, prompted by the fact that The Office has been sold to the USA, where it is being remade for a US audience (oh, and apparently Ricky Gervais is due to appear in Alias, which is just weird). And the thing is, why is it that American TV seem, in general, to make better sci-fi/thriller series, and the UK - again in general - make better comedy? Because it's not a budget thing - Buffy, and the X-Files, for example, were pretty low-budget to start with; yet since Doctor Who, British TV just hasn't come close to anything the USA has produced in the genre. The idea we settled on was that the big sci-fi/thrillers have had great big narrative arcs that have sustained them over at least one series - usually several. 24 (pretty soon to be 72, mark my words) [Update: er, it appears it already has, oops...], Buffy, X-Files, Babylon 5, etc. etc. all have giant narrative arcs; whereas comedy is much better suited to episodes (although, actually, the best part of The Office was the development of Tim and Dawn's relationship over the two series). And for some reason British writers/producers tend to think in episodes (see also Doctor Who, in fact), and American ones think on a much grander narrative scale (hey, even some of the comedies, like Friends, have big storylines). So maybe it does come down to budget after all - are British producers and commissioners too scared to produce anything large-scale, that can't be pulled half-way through? Or too scared to commission a series that simply has to run to 10, 12, 24 episodes? It's also notable that even when the big, 'writerly' projects do make it to British screens, they'll be in two feature-length episodes (Henry the Eighth, The Lost Prince), or episodically, to the point of wilfully jettisoning the narrative structure of the original (Canterbury Tales). And this is not a point of criticism - everything mentioned here has, at the least, been pretty good, and most is excellent - but it's an interesting point of national comparison.

Blimey - bonfire night was massive this year, wasn't it?

Worst commentary moment of the year, heard on Five Live last night as Ashley Cole scored for the Arse: 'Remember, remember the Fifth of November, Gunners power, reason and slot.'* A nice idea gone terribly wrong.

*Copyright Jonathan Pearce (who else?), and he's welcome to it...

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Thanks to a heads-up from Sarah @ Devil's Workshop, I've just come across this, which makes me happy.

Cripes and lummie. And a Zip Zap Rap to you too, Devastatin' Dave...

Monday, November 03, 2003

Ashamed to say, but 1998 is the only year I've actually been to the Turner exhibition, which is pretty poor considering that every year I moan about Daily Mail readers who wouldn't know good modern art if it bit them on the nose.

And that was a really strong year. Chris Ofili wouldn't have been my choice as winner - I loved the two video pieces by Tacita Dean and Sam Taylor-Wood - but Ofili's pieces I admired through a strokey beard; although his was the most consistent set of works. Dean's lighthouse film was just gorgeous, and I could have watched it for days. It had that sense of uneasy nostalgia and love of the English industrial coastline (see also Benjamin Britten) that always does it for me (as an inland surburbanite who likes to think there's more to English identity than Cilla Black and the M25...).

But the show that really stayed with me was Cathy de Monchaux's. Once you've seen her works, you can't forget how they made you feel. Unfortunately the picture on the Tate site doesn't give you much of an idea - there are some better ones here which give you an idea of the baroque sexuality of her work. 'Unsettling beauty' is a cliché, but it never meant more than here.

Thanks to Scott for the props. And for bringing the Rambler its 1000th customer. Free shop next time you visit.

But enough self-referential back-slapping for now... Naturally I know about Gramophone (even did some Paid Work related to their site a while back, they've taken it down now...), and I guess that is an exception, but I've never really bothered reading it regularly. Yeah, there's good stuff in there, but I find wading through pages of guff about opera singers or the bizillionth recording of The Four Seasons a real turn-off (OK, that's a liberal use of tar from this here ClassicFM brush, but yeknowwaddamean).

Still, a quick browse just now dug up this piece on the wonderful Meredith Monk, so maybe a second look is in order. I first heard Atlas on Radio 3 years ago. Now, back then I couldn't stand opera (I'm pretty wary of it now, but some bits I don't mind...), but hearing this piece was a revelation: there were hardly any words, I couldn't see the staging, and I was relying on plot summaries from the presenter at the beginning of each act, but I felt I knew exactly what was going on and what the music was about (and, more importantly, for). Magical. ECM have released quite a bit of her work, so it's not hard to track down, and there a couple of audio snippets over at Boosey and Hawkes.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Yes yes yes! How great would that have been?!

Somedisco you have a wicked imagination...

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