The Rambler :: blog

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Just a heads up to all my lovely readers to say that the Rambler will be on holiday for a week or two.

No best of year lists, other than this:

1. Snickers Cruncher. Best food of the year. Please bring them back!

So, Season's Greetings and all that. See you in the New Year for more of the same, plus big specials on Arvo Pärt, Polish music, time, space, sound, and Words and Music...

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Hold on - that Radian track on the Wire freebie disc this month was on the Domino03 disc they gave away earlier in the year.


Still, it's pretty damn fine, so maybe no foul after all.


[from today's Telegraph: apologies if you can't read it/need to register, but you can get the gist if you mouse over the link.]

Ahhh ... the Rewind edition of The Wire pops through the door. A wonderful read every year. But also chastening, and this year especially so - I can only find one record (one!) in all the best-of lists that I actually own. This is even worse than last year, when I think I had two.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Oh, and you have already got this, haven't you?

Lordy that's good!

Good point, well made.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Talking today with someone over a Work Christmas lunch. Turkey. Roast taters. The smallest chipolata I have ever seen.

"So, do you like John Adams, then?"

I've always thought that Adams' best work has been his instrumental pieces. It will be the operas, especially Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer that will carry him through posterity, but his best, most subtle work has been done without words. For all its impact on stage, Nixon just doesn't work as an opera, no matter how much I would like it to. It's too thin for one thing. I can't say whether Klinghoffer works operatically - although musically it is the better piece - since these things are almost never, ever, staged here in dear old London*, but having at least seen Nixon in full glory, I just don't think it's very good - and not a patch on works like Shaker Loops, Phrygian Gates or the Chamber Symphony.

And, as you do, I've been thinking through my responses to the lunchtime question. The big sell of Nixon in China - like The Death of Klinghoffer - is that it is an opera about recent historical events. More than this, it actually sets recent history. The intention is to recast Nixon, Mao, Kissinger and the rest of them as heroes as operatic as Tristan, Gawain or Don Juan. Adams has said as much himself. These major historical figures are operatic subjects as legitimate as anyone from myth or legend.

Fine. Except that the others are mythological figures. So you can bend their story how you like in order to serve your libretto and your music. Adams, on the other hand, has decided to play his music down in order to allow his characters to speak, and for the realism of the situation to come through. Indeed, a good deal of the libretto - written by Alice Goodman - is based on the documented speeches of those present. This she has put into rhyming couplets throughout; the idea is to achieve the mythologising, distancing effect Adams hopes to achieve himself. An old trick, but an effective one; Adams seems not to have found an equivalent for his music, so in actual fact the opera plays out like a stylised newsreel, and not the stuff of mythological fantasy.

Which is a genuine shame. Because, undoubtedly Nixon's visit to China in 1972 at the height of Cold War tensions was a tremendous political act, a key moment in 20th-century history. The meeting of two extraordinary men. But, because of Adams' - and Goodman's - adherence to the factual details the opera is, it seems, trapped in that historical moment. Adams himself has expressed the wish that those watching it should be able to see the images of Nixon's visit, remember the newpaper and TV reports. But most people in the audience haven't. Certainly very few people who weren't alive at the time will know the images and reports Adams wants us to see. We are watching these events unfold on the stage, and we want the stage to tell us why they were important. Wagner's Ring makes sense to people who haven't read the appropriate Norse mythology because it raises itself into a self-contained mythological world. Nixon in China doesn't do this - it is intended to lie as a partial commentary, partial retelling, over the events themselves.

Maybe a certain amount of mythologising is necessary, and unavoidable if art is to successfully retell historical events for an audience beyond their own timespan. Maybe this is part of the reason for the relative lack of post-11th September art. The temptation is still to be too documentary.

Is it possible to mythologise these things so quickly? I don't know about only two or three years after the event, but it seems to me that you should never underestimate how fast things can pass into the kind of mythology that art can use. How quickly events can be reduced to a 'neutral level' set of symbols, images, stories, sounds. The film Good Bye, Lenin! dealt with exactly this question. The crossroads between nostalgia and truth, fiction and fact, myth and document. The whole film was overloaded with archival footage of events around, on, through, the Berlin Wall in 1989-90, as well as accompanying footage of Germany winning World Cup 1990, Chris-bloody-Waddle, etc. etc. We were supposed to connect intimately, emotionally with this footage, just as Adams wants his audience to see Nixon on stage; and yet at the same time, we were being shown the unreality of such things, the manner in which stories and lives are put together (and what a setting is East Berlin for this!), the implication that such a detail as the right jar of pickles has for constructing that story - and the ease with which unwanted elements (Coke adverts, TV, your neighbours) can be subverted to, or erased from, the desired myth.

And the film's final message? We're all looking for that myth. It's all any of us want in the end.

*Although I read recently that the revamped ENO are putting Nixon on some time next year, so let's see.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Loving Woebot's Delia and Daphne piece. I'm not sure that Oram is the one in danger of being forgotten - if that's what's being suggested towards the end of Matt's post. For one thing, she currently has an article in the New Grove dictionary of music, while Delia doesn't - written by the leading musicologist Sophie Fuller, who also includes Oram in her Pandora Guide to Women Composers (Derbyshire may well be in here too - I haven't checked. She's not in the Grove Dictionary of Women Composers though). If anything, I've had the sense recently that Derbyshire is the one being rediscovered, since as a founder of the Radiophonic Workshop Oram's place in history was secured. But that's how academia works. Either way, more exposure is always good!

On another point, it's interesting Matt refers to the femininity of Derbyshire's music. There's surely some amazing work to be done on the role of these women in the creation of Britain's answer to Stockhausen's testosterone-fuelled Cologne studio. (Anyone looking for a groovy PhD thesis? Don't say I don't ever give you anything...) See this wonderful quotation from Oram, taken from a 1994 article she wrote for Contemporary Music Review ('Looking Back ... to See Ahead', CMR,xi (1994), 225-8):

"How exciting for women to be present at [the home computer's] birth pangs, ready to help it evolve to maturity in the world of arts. To evolve as a true and practical instrument for conveying women's inner thoughts, just as the novel did nearly two centuries ago."

Great stuff.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

No comment required.

This review of Charles Rosen's Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist, which I've just come across, gives some indication of what I'm talking about, although for my money, Rosen hasn't gone far enough in his analysis of the situation:

"Rosen's overall objection to the cult of authenticity is deeper, and has more to do with his conception of what music and music interpretation has to be, if it is to remain as a living art. He attacks this issue from more than one direction. Consider recording. Rosen argues, 'When recordings replaced concerts as the dominant mode of hearing music, our conception of the nature of performance and of music itself was altered.' His view is that the works of the classical tradition were, pre-phonograph records, vehicles for artistic performance - the piece of music was something only experienced on an ephemeral occasion. Once works could be recorded, they became 'historic monuments or objects in a museum.'"

Yes, recordings changed everything to with our our concept of music and performance; but the issue is more than just the archiving of musical performance - it is to do with a profound epistemological difference between two modes of musical creation. Rosen's reviewer here (Denis Dutton) also avoids the issue, though to be fair, the issue is actually performance authenticity and not the aesthetics of recording.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Inspired by comments from my new favourite blogger, Crawford @ God Bless Mr Lunch (they're buried in the Radiohead gubbins down below) I've been thinking about the whole live vs studio thang. It's a favourite topic/pub pundit rant of mine, so I'm sure I've brought it up in these pages before, but here's the full deal, as I see it.

Music writing may be divided into a number of broad camps: one of these is dividing things up into broad camps, genres, styles, periods, lists. (ahem) Traditionally, over the last 60 years or so, the big line has been between 'Popular' and 'Classical'. It's how record shops are divided up, it's how critics describe themselves and the framework they work in; it's how website listings work. All music guide (www.allmusic.com) uses a different URL for its Classical section (www.allclassical.com). Amazon runs two shops for its music. Rolling Stone's 500 greatest albums of all time includes at least nods towards jazz (Bitches Brew is in there, for example), but almost by definition, the list doesn't include any classical artists (although the Arvo Pärt recordings by the Hilliard Ensemble, say, surely count, conceptually, as albums, given the attention given to track selection, production ethics and so on).

And yet despite this, it is becoming an increasingly useless and meaningless distinction. Everybody knows this, but we all still persist with it. Because deep down we know there is something very different between a Mozart string quartet and a Beyoncé single, and this pop-classical line is the best axiom we have for articulating this.

But, however much validity this distinction may have had in the past (however it has been defined), it no longer means what it did now - if it means anything at all. A more relevant, quantifiable distinction, I believe, can be made between music written for the stage, for performance, and music written for the recording studio and the home stereo.

Look at it this way: no matter how good your hi-fi, no CD of Ligeti's Piano Etudes is going to compare to actually having Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing them in your living room. And that's got nothing to do with sound quality (or even star quality): it's simply because these are pieces written to be performed live, in front of a live audience. You have to see what's going on, or you're missing something. You have to have that sensation of risk that a note may be missed, you have to feel the player breathing the beats, moulding time with his wrists and fingertips. (In this instance, you have to watch the pianist's hands fly off the end of the keyboard, watch him hammering away at silent keys, that sort of thing.)

On the other hand, what would be the point of watching a live performance of Plastikman's remix of System 7's 'Alpha Wave'? You're not dancing - just watching him on stage, performing. You'd gain nothing, except a sense of unease, possibly boredom; and just as with a recording of the Ligeti Etudes, you'd feel a bit cheated.

The wrong situation damages the music. The difference is not 'classical' or 'pop' - analytically, there would be little qualitative to choose between a score of one of the Ligeti Etudes and the Plastikman remix. But then, a score to the Plastikman remix would be nonsense - it wasn't written for pen and paper, to be given to someone else to perform. It was written with voltages and bit-streams, to be cut to vinyl and bought by me in a record shop in Rickmansworth High Street after school one day.

Keep working the distinction, and it holds up: the awkwardness of the Warp Records/London Sinfonietta gig had little to do with pop/classical divides, more to do with the live/studio divide. This is music that wasn't written for live performers on a stage. Take Phil Glass's arrangement of Aphex's 'ICCT Hedral' - faced with the task of arranging studio music for live performers, Glass could only manage a straight, bland transcription. There was nothing creative he could add in the transfer. While Steve Reich may have had some influence on the electronica scene, that influence is all too easily overplayed (Reich: Remixed, for example): most of Reich's music is for live musicians, with all the imprecision that entails (and the technological pieces - Come Out, Pendulum Music etc. are composed through highlighting mechanical imprecision). It is not for the precisely-determined procedures of the studio. When he uses samplers (as in City Life), they're as live sound sources, not digital processors. He's a good source for samples himself, but when it comes down to it there's not much in common between Susumu Yokota's 'Gekkoh' and Reich's Music for 18 Musicians.

And, to return to where this post started, when it comes to a group like Radiohead, you just feel that they're trying - and failing - to cross that divide. Rock is a performative medium (to a varying extent); you get live albums, most of the money is to be found in touring, etc. etc. Live performance is essential to the aesthetic needs of the rock audience (authenticity, classicism, virtuosity, so-called 'humanity', etc.). In part I think this explains how certain electronica groups have managed to cross the divide into NME respectability (everyone still talks about the Aphex gig with sandpaper discs, the Orb played stadium-style concerts - and released a live album, natch - Orbital created a stage presence for Glastonbury, Underworld have a recognisable, pogoing frontman who shouts into a mic, etc. etc.). The Radiohead Syndrome TM is to have become so hampered with the performative, live baggage of rock, that you can't move from one to the other. And bless them, they've tried. But the simple fact is, they are no longer a rock group: they mean less on stage now than they do on record. In fact, as Crawford suggests, elements of their stage persona (the mythologising of 'Creep', eg) may be morphing into a protest against this very baggage.

Enough Radiohead. But more on the live/studio dichotomy later.

Essential viewing round Rambler Towers this year has been the Twin Peaks Series 1 DVD-box-set-extravaganza-thingy. However, the powers that be have decided not to release Series 2 (see here, second story down), which is a bit of an arse. So be a star and put your name to this, otherwise I won't have anything to watch next year. Apart from Alias, perhaps.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Gah! No Woebot radio shout-out. Might as well go to bed then. ;-)

Well I'll tuning in. And so should you be (live stream available to online non-Londoners - see link, right >>>) - that is if Blogger gets its arse fixed in time for you all to read this...

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License. All non-proprietary code is valid XHTML.