The Rambler :: blog

Friday, May 28, 2004


Why have I only just realised Alex Ross has a blog? Well, that's certainly one for the sidebar. Good stuff.

As is Jessica Duchen's classical music blog. I will get around to this, soon...

On an utterly unrelated note - I was worried that my feedroll-powered bookmarks had died for good, until aworks spotted that there are some funny shenanigans going on between feedroll and del.icio.us, which hopefully will be resolved before long. And probably means that e-mail I sent to the feedroll people was one of about 40,000 they've received along similar lines. Sorry about that guys!

Why do we do it? 

Only just got round to reading this post at silverdollarcircle. Has anyone ever come across a blog about the act of blogging? It would probably be pretty dull, come to think about it, but it would serve a point. And that is to demonstrate exactly what Simon's talking about. There has been, recently, some sort of crisis in confidence around this corner of the net, and it certainly seems true to say that these things come in waves. Permit me to don my white coat, and I'll explain why I think this is. And if you could just lie on that couch over there. Splendid.

Two things: firstly, if one major/influential/well-regarded blogger starts to express his doubts about what he's doing, that's bound to make a lot of his readers exmine themselves in a similar fashion. That seems self-evident. The second point is that with blogging there seems to be a pretty well-defined pattern of development which, for the almost-one year I've been doing this, I've certainly followed, and plenty of others have more-or-less followed too. It goes a little something like this (if I knew about flow diagrams I would probably introduce one at this point):

1) Start blog. Lots of enthusiasm, some good opening posts. After all, you've been thinking about doing this for a couple of weeks now, so there are some good ideas stored up waiting to get out.

2) Bit of a lull once the initial ideas run out. A few fall by the wayside at this point.

3) Crisis of confidence passes. Decide some sort of coherent agenda might be required, or at least a broad reason for writing the darn thing.

4) Start to build up a decent audience

5) Another minor crisis as responsibility to your readers begins. Referral stats take on a sick fascination. Maybe have to start scheduling blog time.

6) Blog starts to take over life. As someone once observed, "you start to think of every event in your life as a potential post". Some call it a day at this point too.

7) Have a redesign

8) Minor crisis of confidence.

9) Remember why you started in the first place, and what you wanted to achieve, plough on

10) Sitemeter and Technorati become your life

11) Have a redesign

[repeat 8-11, to rhythm of deep breaths ...]

Personally speaking, while it's saddening to see anyone I enjoy reading stop writing, I almost always appreciate the reasons why. I set this thing up so that I had a reason to write something almost every day, to exorcise a whole bunch of thoughts that couldn't usefully be turned anywhere else, to sharpen up my ideas, and maybe - just maybe - do something I'm proud of. Most of those are ongoing projects anyway, so although I frequently think of giving it up, I don't imagine that I actually will any time soon. I am proud of what I've done here (it'll be on my next CV when the time comes for one), but I still have the ideas, and I still have the desire to write them down. I think at some point in that cycle I've described above, there comes a point when you stop being self-conscious about what you're doing, and you're able to break through that wall and have pure confidence in what you write. That, for me, is one of the most useful lessons I've learnt from blogging - the inevitable disposability of writing. You have to let it out there, and let it go, otherwise it's not writing, it's just electric pulses in your head. All the best blogs I read appreciate this, and the really good ones got it very quickly. One day, I hope, so will this one. In the meantime, it remains a very enjoyable and rewarding (for me, anyway) means to an end. Once it stops being so, have no fear I'll be off.


Ever wondered what a medley of Radiohead songs might sound like if played by a bluegrass fiddle band? Of course you haven't, but now that I've brought it up, you probably want to find out anyway.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Ho ho ho

It's not a complete surprise that Nasser Hussain has decided to quit cricket after his match winning performance on Monday. Hitting a century with your favourite shot to win a Test at Lord's must be most players' choice of farewell. And, amazingly, he leaves the team in better with him out of it, which he admits was behind his decision. With the return of Michael Vaughan in the next test or two, and Strauss taking Nasser's place full time, this has to be one of the most exciting young England teams we've had for years.

Cheers Nasser - a great job, right to the end.

That Fire. 

Jonathan Jones makes some very good points on the Saatchi warehouse fire. Including the following:

"British art in the 1990s insisted on the here and now, never caring much about the future and perhaps never destined to exist there. In a way, this might be its best fate - to go up in a blaze of glory, never having to be exhibited in some provincial museum in 30 years' time, as dull as most 1960s pop looks today, to embarrass and bore our children. Now it can be remembered in the same way as James Dean - forever young; forever new. Wasn't that what everyone wanted?"

OK, he acknowledges that this is irresistible exaggeration, but it's always somehow comforting to see the romance and the mythology being built up, right from the start. The ritual of mourning, I guess. And I for one agree. I never saw the Chapman's Hell (in fact I've only seen a few of their pieces), and until yesterday although I knew it was a great piece I never got as far as missing it. Now I do, and it feels like a loss.

New blog alert! Musical Perceptions is written by Scott Spiegelberg, and looks to be specialising in Classical music. Good post on the Rite of Spring riots which is worth a read. He's dead right that the fact was that Parisian audiences of the time just enjoyed a good riot, and it had very little to do with the music. Milhaud makes much the same point in his autobiography (the nauseatingly sweet My Happy Life), as he had to deal with his fair share too.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Cunning. And the record companies seem only too glad to sell their artists' work as 'that bastard phone that ruined the film for half the cinema', rather than 'this stunning track I've just got from Soulseek'. Marketing is everything.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

It seems like I may just have kicked off a mini-meme. Well, after Michael Brooke" spotted my bookmark link to Tim Smith's outstanding site of Well Tempered Clavier analyses,
Crooked Timber have picked up on it - which pretty much makes it a meme, doesn't it?

Anyway, I came across the WTC link a few days ago going through a big Work database of music-related links (most of which, depressingly, are pretty dire, it has to be said), and this one just stood out a mile. For anyone wanting to know anything about counterpoint, Bach, the 48 Preludes and Fugues, or musical analysis in general, this is where to go. Anyone who reckons musicology is the worst of all meaningless, ivory-towered, navel-gazing occupations (which for the most part it is), or who believes passionately that there is no reason why it need be (which for the most part I do) should also pay a visit. This is a joy to behold.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Music since 1960: Riley: In C 

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me.

Index here.

Now here's a tough one. Terry Riley's In C (recording) is, like John Cage's 4' 33", probably one of the most written-about works of the 20th century. What can I add? Fortunately for Riley, his piece hasn't had to stand up to quite as much idiotic criticism as Cage's, but even so it remains one of those pieces that seems easy enough to talk about, even without having heard it.

The catch, of course, is that this is in theory an infinitely varied and complex work, of which no two performances are the same, and they may even be radically different. For those that don't know it, the score looks like this (there's also a pdf available here, which includes performing instructions). Riley's accompanying notes ask that the performers play each musical unit, in order, with as many repetitions of each as they like. Performers may begin and end units when they like, and include gaps in between, so the overall effect is of a tapestry of interlocking mini-canons. Riley's skill in constructing the piece has been in the way this tapestry progresses, and for all the freedom granted to his performers, he retains great control over the linear shape of the piece, and its structures of stasis and activity.

For example, whilst Riley absolves control over the number of performers he would like (although he expressly prefers larger ensembles of 30+ players, but such performances are very rare), there is a very definite shape to the opening bars of the work.

Throughout the piece, Riley advises keeping a steady quaver C pulse going on a keyboard or percussion instrument: this pulse on its own is traditionally how the piece begins, and it remains until the end. From this C, the shape of an upward C major arpeggio is drawn, with a prominent E in the first measure, to prominent Gs in the fourth and fifth measures, to sustained Cs an octave above the starting point in the sixth measure (by now we're four or five minutes into the piece), followed by stammers on the lower, original C. After this, in measure eight, we have more long-sustained notes (the effect of this is to compress movement of the players, since by now the majority will be playing the long notes of this or the sixth measure). The staccato judders of the opening sound more like bell tones; what is more, we are moving to a sort of cadence, as the note F becomes prominent, and rather than a C major chord, a dominant 7th on G is suggested. Similarly to Bach's Prelude in C from the first book of The Well-tempered Clavier, the busier surface activity creates and conceals longer melodic and harmonic shapes.

The Bang on a Can performance I've suggested comes very highly recommended. Seeing them perform In C live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall a couple of years ago was extremely impressive. They're great champions of this sort of music anyway, but they gave it a real strength and depth that can easily be overlooked I think (as is so often the case) when performers get distracted by the 'conceptual' nature of a work. As a piece of iconoclasm, In C is pretty important, but iconoclasm is rarely enough on its own. In C is one of a number of works of the 60s which - while always appreciated for their originality - were tacitly believed by many to lack anything beyond the surface concept. BOAC at least push In C into musical maturity, playing it as more than a proto-minimalist concept piece, making it almost symphonic in its organic development of themes.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Glad to see that as usual the Guardian aren't letting their tired class warfare gibberish get in the way of things.

Right. I'm off on my stag weekend soon, so this may be the last post you ever get from me .... It's been fun!

Now there's an intriguing double bill - Dizzee and the Streets. I'd love to see how that one comes out.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Golly. Just checked my referrals (I'm on a break!), and see that an old colleague and chum (who seems to have been blogging for ages) is here, and has somehow discovered and just started linking to me. Hello! What a lovely surprise. (It's also a very good blog, too, so you should go and read it anyway.)

The internet, eh?

Today, I've been spending a lot of time exploring the Library of Congress's online Dance manuals. They have loads of them, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries which have been scanned and put up online. Now, I have no idea how to read the notational systems for dance manuals, but some of these diagrams are simply beautiful.

"Ill-advised" doesn't come close.

('Thanks' - if that's the right word - to Jand @ k-punk for the link)

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The music industry, in a sentence. (From The Big Picture)

It was supposed to be so easy 

A Grand Don't Come for Free is out this week in the States. Here's The New York Times' review isn't comfortable with the music's rough edges. Matos's review in the New Yorker takes a more sophisticated view.

For me, I'm with what the UK bloggaz were saying a couple of weeks ago - it's not that he's musically naive; the awkward loops, the displacement of music and lyrics are completely deliberate (well, obviously), and they create that distance between narrator and the world around him that encaspulates so much of Skinner's world view. All his stories involve a highly articulate, talented narrator who is losing his grip on simple day-to-day life because he fails to communicate. Skinner's music perfectly mirrors - and manifests - that dislocation. His poetry sees things the world as a beautiful thing. Unfortunately the world seems to contrive against that vision (love that inlay photo of Skinner alone in the pub, staring philosophically into the mid-distance with two Becks in his hand). 'Blinded by the Lights' is the perfect example - have you ever heard a more underwhelming house riff? Matching what you feel, what you think, the stories you want to tell with what actually comes out, what actually happens is so very hard, Skinner is telling us (even when it comes down to betting on football). As both narrator and protagonist Skinner struggles with his beats, his rhymes, his Blockbuster account, his pill supplies. Narrator and protagonist are interchangeable, and neither have control.

If anything, the core of A Grand is communication breakdown. It is a constant riff throughout the album: just listen to the spluttering protagonist of 'Get out of my house', or the number of times his phone breaks down; in 'It was supposed to be so easy' a quick phonecall to his mum is one of the primary tasks - and failures - of his day. The moment when everything finally comes right, the turning point in 'Empty Cans', is when he gets a text from Scott, thinks about his reply, and matches communication with communication - not a knee-jerk reaction. And from this point, the music - for the first time on the album - is comforting, stirring, heart-rending. Skinner opened Original Pirate Material with such a synth-orchestral swell like this. Here he saves it to the end, for that final moment when our articulate narrator finally manages to say, in the story, what he meant to say. Far from being a simple send up, as the NYT would have it, this is a genuinely complex record in its own terms.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Got a bit of a shock looking at my Blogger User Profile the other day, and realising that in the last year I'd written three times as much here as on my thesis. Hence the brief hiatus round here. (I'm now rectifying the situation by writing nothing on either, ha!)

But don't worry, there'll be plenty more to come in due course. Priorities, you know.

In the meantime, go and wish unwitting inspiration to many a blog, including this one, MarK-Punk a belated happy birthday. Cheers, Mark! - Those early Morrisey-based referrals (him again???) were very welcome when i started out!

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Blog Pulse 

Just read about the new Blog Pulse search engine over at DJ Martian's Page. As he points out, a search engine is only as good as the pages it indexes - and at a quick glance most of the music blogosphere isn't listed yet. So take DJ M's advice and follow the link and submit your site.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

I reserve the right to fiddle as much as I want.


Tuesday, May 11, 2004


Just as an addendum to the arts under communism post from the other day, and the subsequent comments running here and at Clap Clap, here's a quotation from the Czech playwright and writer Václav Havel, who as it happens was one of the names referred to in that Guardian piece. This is from 'Six Asides about Culture', written in 1984 and reprinted in Living in Truth (London: Faber, 1986), and gives the lie, I think, to any assumption that we should regard the years under communism as a golden period for the arts in Eastern Europe, and other times as somehow inferior.

"There are no more gifted writers, painters or musicians in Czechoslovakia today than there were at any time in the past. The disappointment that the 'parallel culture' is no better than it is, to be sure, is quite understandable. The more one is repelled by the official culture, the more one expects from the other, and the more one turns towards it. Still, such disappointment is not objectively relevant. By what odd whim of history would there be more of everything, and better, today in our stifled conditions, than ever before? ...

All this, I know, is obvious. Still it seems that even such obvious matters need to be aired from time to time, especially for our exiles whose perspective, often influenced by the random selection of domestic texts that they happen to come across, might at times be distorted."

Someone buy Tanya Headon a drink. Brilliant.

I love the way that, due to a programming quirk, MTV News URLs end with 'headlines=true'. That sort of brash confidence is what marks out real news stories.

Anyway, what got me here was this - headline=true, naturally, so lock up your kiddies, Mr Reznor's back in town.

Monday, May 10, 2004

So Blogger changed their look over the weekend? That could confuse a stupid person, you know...

For those that want to follow up on that art-under-communism thing below, and haven't already, you could do much worse than read clap clap on the subject. And then return here later in the day, when I'm sure I'll have more to add...

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Music since 1960: Howells: Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing 

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me

Index here.

My music teacher, Mr Day, must take some credit for fostering my interest in Howells as well. In fact - and I think this is right - I can make some small claim to being a compositional ancestor of his, since (when I was composing music for my A-levels), Mr Day had been taught by one of Howells' pupils. Unfortunately not much rubbed off, except for a penchant for audacious harmonies which has remained ever since.

My first encounter with Howells' music was a couple of years before this, however, when I would rummage through my dad's collection of radio 3 tape recordings for anything close to 'modern' - hence the teenage Bartók fixation. On one of these tapes was a recording of Howells' Requiem, composed in 1933, which remains one of the single most beautiful pieces of English choral music yet written (and that's up against some pretty stiff competition). I absolutely adored this piece (I still do), and many of my youthful efforts at composition were attempts to emulate its harmonic language of modal inflections and startling shifts, as well as the chant-like simplicity of its melodic lines. I never came close, of course: the sound Howells conjures up is absolutely unique. It's tonal, in a strict sense, and any dissonance is always of the sweetest kind, but his is a harmonic language that pushes tonality further than Mahler or Wagner ever envisaged. It is as though the large-scale harmonic meanderings of a Mahler symphony have been compressed into a short choral motet. Five bars of Howells might contain more harmonic motion than the whole of Tristan and Isolde. Because of this, although the harmonies move pleasingly from one to the next, they very quickly lose any sense of being 'grounded' in a particular key. This makes Howells' music particularly poignant for memorial works, such as the Requiem, as each shift in harmony gives the impression of lifting away from earthly cares and towards the realm of the divine.

Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing (recording) is another of his great memorial works. Composed in 1963 it was - and what better sign of the high esteem Howells was regarded in? - commissioned for the memorial service of JFK.

Here's the text, translated by Helen Waddell, from a 4th-century poem by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius:

Take him, earth, for cherishing,
to thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
noble even in its ruin.

Once was this a spirit's dwelling,
by the breath of God created.
High the heart that here was beating,
Christ the prince of all its living.

Guard him well, the dead I give thee,
not unmindful of his creature
shall he ask it: he who made it
symbol of his mystery.

Comes the hour God hath appointed
to fulfil the hope of men,
then must thou, in very fashion,
what I give, return again.

Not though ancient time decaying
wear away these bones to sand,
ashes that a man might measure
in the hollow of his hand:

Not though wandering winds and idle,
drifting through the empty sky,
scatter dust was nerve and sinew,
is it given to man to die.

Once again the shining road
leads to ample Paradise;
open are the woods again,
that the serpent lost for men

Take, O take him, mighty leader,
take again thy servant's soul.
Grave his name, and pour the fragrant
balm upon the icy stone.

In Howells' setting, the sweep from body to spirit, earthly to divine takes place over the first three stanzas, which move from unison melody to extravagant harmony: 'Guard him well' adds some rich chords to say the least. Harmonic richness is a particular feature of English sacred choral music - Dunstaple and Power were the first to use triadic harmonies - and in Howells it becomes a means for almost literal transportation between the realms of God and men. As Mr Day would emphasise in playing this music to us, some of the chord changes almost physically lift you from your seat. And in Take Him, Earth, Howells builds the dialogue between earth and paradise, heaven and the grave that is suggested in the poem, and reflects it in the music. The transition between third and fourth stanzas is surprising, but so is that between seventh and eighth: as the meditation on 'ample paradise' is juxtaposed against 'Take, O take him, mighty leader', the harmonies and texture briefly clarify, and the restless transcendence grounds once more in familiar chords and simple phrases. As for any man with a deep religious conviction, death is an extremely ambiguous thing to Howells, both sorrow in mourning and joy at passing into heaven; his music is a perfect encapsulation of this, and such a fitting tribute that it was played at Howells' own funeral twenty years later.

I see someone on del.icio.us has described 9 Beet Stretch as 'Evil'. Hmm.

What do we do with sacred cows? We chop 'em up and make 'em into sacred burgers. Yum!

Communism and the Arts 

I'm finding this pretty hard to stomach to be honest, and the Guardian's headline 'The Case for Communism' doesn't help much. Trying to justify decades of tyranny and murder on the basis that at least it helped the arts is pretty sickening, and yes, I know that Orson Welles quote about the Borgias and Switzerland too, but let's not forget that Citizen Kane was hardly created under an oppressive regime.

I think there's a much more logical, and honest reason for why art created out of appalling political conditions is more successful. It's simply that art, in general, is about telling stories, creating myths. And one of the most hackneyed, yet enduring, myths is of the struggling artist fighting the life around him in forging his art. It makes a great story, and gives us, the audience, an easy way in to the work without having to struggle too much with comprehending it on its own terms, grappling with its specific form and content. It's simply a Product of Struggle (with one's government, the system, race, deafness, whatever). It's never, ever, granted the dignity to be a creation in and of itself. And this is why, I believe, that Central European art is considered (by Western commentators, natch, the official bestowers of success) less successful now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. The stories around the works, the logic runs, are not as interesting any more. Look at the Guardian itself - on the same day that Jones' piece appeared in the supplements, the day of 10 countries' new accession to the EU, the paper could barely bring itself to grant a page of coverage in the news section (on page 4 - after a previous page of coverage on the French wine industry); they just didn't feel that this was enough of a story for the front page.

There's plenty of good art, in all fields, produced in all of Central and Eastern Europe; it's just that it tends to be about things other than the difficulty of life under oppression; regrettably, many in the West can't imagine Central Europe any other way.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

The Downward Spiral 

So near, yet so far.

Sadly this (and all this) was too little too late.

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