The Rambler :: blog

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Death and the underground 

Most of the newspapers have the same front page story. Metro has even gone for the full Princess Di all-black effect. Every second post in my news feeds this morning - from the BBC to the Telegraph to us little scribblers is the same. The eulogies are multiplying by the hour, it's been years since one individual seemingly so dominated the thoughts of everyone in the country. And I think to myself - this is it. This is the validation that all us underground weirdo music geeks have longed for: everyone you see today has a story of listening to Extreme Noise Terror late on a school night, how it was these forbidden fruits amidst the dross of 4 decades of broadcast music that changed all our lives. This morning everyone agrees that difficult, curious, flawed, unheard-of new music is the most important thing in the world; and in that moment of clarity we each one of us realise we have lost its greatest champion and that those moments are denied once more.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

John Peel 

The world has lost a legend. For anyone who never had the pleasure of listening to John Peel, it is impossible to underestimate his value to the world of music, or what he represented. For years, Peel was the only thing worth listening to on Radio 1, the only DJ who consistently strove to play the newest, most exciting music available, and who in many respects was the only thing that elevated the premiere national broadcaster of new pop and rock music above the level of cheap local radio dross. For all that is debatable about the BBC, BBC Radio and the license fee system, John Peel was a unique argument in its favour. For 40 years he played music to the whole country that no one else would give a second look to, and after 40 years there is still no one to replace him. The world has lost one of its genuine, life-affirming, sod-what-you-think-I-love-it champions, and this makes me very sad.

RIP John.

Upcoming Webcasts of Modern Classical Music 

Now here's a neat little resource.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Tate Ensemble, Elysian Quartet etc. next week 

An e-mail from Gabriel Prokofiev alerts me to the fact that he and the Elysian Quartet are once again appearing at Cargo, on the 1st November. the last gig back in March was good fun, and there are far worse ways to spend £4 and a Monday night than this. Other acts this time around include the Tate Ensemble, Tom Relleen, and, improbably, Edward the Confessor. And if that's not enough draw, I'll be there too.

Crooked Timber's Ted Barlow on fantasy band substitutions. Favourite suggestion? 'Replace Ian Curtis with Julie Andrews'.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Music since 1960: Berio: Sinfonia  

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

Index here.

Some of the works on this list are a little more off the beaten track than others. Berio's Sinfonia is not, however, one of these. It is that rare thing - a genuine, indisputable postwar masterwork. I quite accept that many people might find early Penderecki too abrasive, Cage too disorientating, or Reich too featureless; but if you can listen to the whole of Sinfonia (recommended recording, and .ram sound samples, here) and not fall in love at least once, then you might wish to take a deep and long look into your soul.

The third movement is the famous one, the notorious one, the number one hit. But there are four other movements here, and they're not just filler. In fact, the whole work is a tightly woven web of allusion and self-reference - which explodes in the central movement's loosely hurled-together galaxy of quotation. The first movement opens with the 8 singers (originally the Swingle Singers) to the very forefront. Beginning with minimal instrumental support they begin to piece together fragments taken from Claude Lévi-Strauss's The Raw and the Cooked. In relating these tales, concerning fire, water and rivers and drawn from Brazilian mythology, the singers' music of swelling chords and metronomic pulses leaches into the orchestra, causing it to swell into greater and greater activity, until the voices are overwhelmed and all but disappear. The piano takes over the role of directing the music's direction, earning a solo at the end of the movement, only to be brought to a halt itself; the movement ends as it begins with the same sustained vocal chord.

Now, instead of instigating the momentum that swamped it the first time around, this chord cadences naturally into the second movement, a lament for Martin Luther King. This was also published as a separate work, O King. The singers change ring on the syllables of King's name with bell-like tones - supported closely by the orchestra. No actual bells are used though, and the effect is much sharper, more resistant, than simple funeral chimes. One can hear ethereal ascents in some of the string glissandi, or prayer in the softer incantations of King's name, but the sharp accents from horns, piano, clarinet and vibraphone never allow this music to subside into peaceful meditation (although it remains glisteningly beautiful), it forces attention. In the last minute of the movement, the steady - if lopsided - pulse of the music quickly frays and all disintegrates into another hushed vocal cluster as for the first time 'Martin Luther King' is heard in full statement.

The stories of Lévi-Strauss's study often concern the trials and ultimate deaths of heroic figures, and the relationship between the texts of the first and second movements seems clear, in addition to the fairly common musical ground they occupy. Within seconds this picture of coherency is destroyed. An ascending trumpet blast, some muttering voices, and a ghostly waltz emerging from the strings throws open the door to Stephen King territory. The waltz is taken from Mahler's 'Resurrection' Symphony, and in greater or lesser form runs throughout the entire Berio movement. The unease is sustained throughout by a running text from Beckett's The Unnamable, the only other reliable constant from beginning to end. Overlaid are dozens of quotations from Beethoven to Stravinsky, as well as many written texts. It is in one sense a composed-out version of Cage's works for multiple radios, a melée of sound, one of the earliest and greatest musical expressions of fractured postmodernity. But while it continually threatens to blow itself apart from sheer exuberance, it is also a masterclass in tugging heartstrings. If it isn't already, the third movement of Sinfonia should be on every young film composer's primary listening list. For all its multilayering, meta-music structure, the movement is also a carefully considered emotional tug. My old composition teacher, who was never a man to really get swept away in musical sentimentality, loved to declare that the moment 8 or so minutes in with one singer yelling 'Can't stop the wars ...' over an orchestral swell probably lifted from Strauss always brought a tear to his eye. For me, there's a soprano swoop upwards into the stratosphere at about 5 minutes, with a lilting brass chorale, that always does it for me. The whole 12 minutes are indisputable proof of the powerful identity a few musical notes can retain in the midst of all chaos, and the considerable emotion such phrases can evoke. Any film composer worth the bucks can piece together chunks of pseudo-Strauss, sub-Wagner, neo-Górecki to support a film's emotional narrative; what Sinfonia demonstrates is the surprising complexity and consistency such patchworks can sustain.

The fourth movement returns us, mirror-like to the soundworld of 'O King', transforming Mahler's text 'O Röschen rot' into 'Rose de sang', which itself echoes the 'eau de sang' mentioned in the text of the first movement. Where the third movement bulged, and threatened to burst out of the closely self-referential world of the opening two movements, the fourth brings the circle around once more, reconsidering the third movement as an elaborate keystone and not the door into foreign lands.

Continuing the arch-structure, the fifth movement continues where the first left off, with the piano apparently continuing its aborted solo. The text once again is from Lévi-Strauss, but is even more fragmented than before, although the music is considerably more energised and self-assured. Once again though, at the very end all activity collapses into a hushed resonance, and the complete work ends in precisely the same way as its first movement. Meta-music has become meta-meta-music.

There are books to be written on Sinfonia - in fact, here's one by the excellent David Osmond-Smith. It's a stunning, beautiful, important piece of music. If, if, I were to recommend just one piece of late 20th-century music to someone who had heard none before, this would be it. It has moments that are achingly gorgeous, but not for a moment does it hide behind a veneer of saccharine religiosity, or pop-pandering as so many works can be accused of. It never pulls its punches, it's a complex, challenging piece, but it rewards every single second that you listen. This is the real deal.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Lyric of the moment?

"Give me a contract / Give me a sign ... I am oozing emotion"

Track of the moment?

The Chap: 'I am Oozing Emotion' - see Fluxblog for more.


Tuesday, October 19, 2004

I note from my referrals this morning that I am Yahoo's top result for "Love Rambler".

That's Love Rambler Smoove to you, pal.

Monday, October 18, 2004

I heard an odd piece of news yesterday: Norman Cook is upset that the Labour party are using 'Right Here Right Now' as their party election theme. It's not odd that a publicly anti-Iraq war figure should resent his music being used this way, but more that he feels powerless to stop it. I always believed that while you might sign over copyright to your record company - and therefore have no say on how your work is licensed from that point of view - you still retain moral rights as the creator of that work. If Cook's lost his moral rights here he's been very stupid, and has no right to complain at all. But if he hasn't (which he probably hasn't) he needs to seek some better legal advice: while the question is not one of copyright, which he has probably signed over in full, he is still legally entitled to bring the Labour party to book for using his work in a manner which he feels is misrepresentative. (At least, that's roughly how I understand the law.) According to the story on Musicmen
Fatboy and Skint [Records] are powerless to stop Tony Blair from using this track despite their annoyance as political parties are free to use any music they like as long as they pay their PPL and PRS, they are not required to obtain any special permission from the artist.
But is this true? I thought half the point of asserting moral rights was to stop work being used for political ends that the artist finds unacceptable.

Although I heard this story on BBC 6 Music news yesterday, the BBC's site seems to carry no mention of the story at the moment, so maybe this is a storm in teacup that has now blown over - maybe the parties involved have got some legal advice before mouthing off - but I'll be keeping an eye on this one because it does look to set an odd precedent.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

A request 

In the name of research, milady is looking for visual arts bloggers. Does anyone know of any? More particularly, visual artists - especially painters - who blog themselves. All replies, in the comments or to the e-mail address top right, gratefully received. Thank you!

New blog discovery 

because they are dead has been run by LA composer Paul Bailey since June, but has only just appeared on my radar. One to keep reading and add to the links bar.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Looks essential.

Music Since 1960: Lutosławski: Livre pour orchestre 

Music since 1960. Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me.

Index here.

It's been a little while since I wrote one of these. I've found this one quite tricky to get started on for two reasons – one, I have a lot on at the moment which keeps getting in my way; and two, it's one of a few imposters in the list that doesn't actually have a big personal story attached to it. Which is not to say that I don't enjoy or recommend the piece – I do, and like Steve Hicken think it one of Lutosławski's best. It's just that, well, I only bought a copy of it a year or so ago as part of a Naxos CD deal that came through the door – through which I plugged a number of gaps in my Polish coverage for about 3 GBP a disc. There's a bit of my mind for which Lutosławski is the elephant in the corner. I'm doing at least half a PhD in postwar Polish music, but I don't expect him to feature beyond the most passing of references. Part of this is simply because Lutosłwaski is a very different composer from the Poles who really fire my blood, and never really got embroiled in the whole devil-may-care noise explosion of the early 60s that sent Penderecki and Górecki on their ways. He's always been a little more refined than that. The other part that keeps me off tackling Lutoslawski in any great depth is that have a friend writing his own PhD on the guy – in fact this very piece – so I would only spoil the territory. For whatever reasons, I've always stayed at a curious distance from his music.

But here we go. Lutosławski is best known for his technique of 'controlled aleatory, or to put it another way, improvising within rules. In the 1960s, composers from all over the spectrum were introducing elements of uncontrol into their music, but Lutoslawski was one of the most consistent devotees of the idea. How one goes about introducing chance, or unpredictability, or improvisation into a piece can vary enormously. Lutosławski's favoured method was to give performers short sections of music, which they would play, and repeat, to a more or less free tempo, until given an instruction to stop by the conductor. This meant that although the general harmonic field could be defined at any point, the note-to-note counterpoint couldn't. Individual parts would be operating in an unpredictable synchrony.

This might give the impression that Lutosławski represented a sort of East European outpost of downtown New York experimentalism. Morton Feldman's Polish cousin. But this isn't really true, as his music is also, in at least equal measure, precisely scored and orchestrated. There are areas throughout Lutosławski's music of greater and lesser control, and, to put it most simply, this simply gave him another parameter, along with harmony, or rhythm, or density or whatever to play with. In Livre - a teasingly abstract, teasingly literary title – the ad libitum sections form interludes between three controlled Chapters. The chapters form a more or less continuous musical argument, but the freer sections interrupt this – they are often described as areas of 'relaxation' but this designation assumes that the single musical narrative of the chapters should be taken at face value.

While theorists might debate long and hard about the nature or even possibility of musical narrative, for me it is a valid concept. Music obviously cannot tell stories in the way that literature can. Without a stable vocabulary it cannot even name things, or characters, or isolate moods or motivations. However, music can, within the recognised or self-defining language of a work, body of works, genre, or musical epoch, establish a language of sorts. This language is basically structuralist and relies on opposites and the shades between them. From this you can develop patterns of tension and release; you can also establish movement and development from, towards, and between. If music is 'programmatic' - ie it tells a story - it only does so by analogy. It is narrative stripped of all specifics: all that are left are the bare structural bones of a story.* One level of tension and release is between the strictly composed and aleatoric sections in Livre - relegating them to areas of relaxation strips away one layer of narrative potential. What can be argued to be the case with this work - or at least one reading of it - is that the two layers act as disrupting narratives working against one another to create one overarching meta-narrative. It's reminiscent of the structure of Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller in which the story of an individual entering a bookshop to buy a book is continually interrupted by the opening chapters of other books, until the two stories inevitably merge at the end.

Lutosławski's piece can be read something like this, as the interplay of competing narratives. It does also contain some of the composer’s most memorable moments. The very opening glissando is - coincidentally I'm sure - almost identical to the very opening of Morrissey's The Teachers are Afraid of the Pupils; and the piece ends in an unmistakably aleatoric clatter of honking brass, over ethereally dissonant string chords. A passage such as this, or the one for clarinets a few minutes in, show the effectiveness and versatility of Lutosławski's controlled aleatory technique. There is no doubt, when listening to these passages that they are not fully composed out - but they are never for a moment at risk of losing their musical identity. Lutosławski had a gift for entrusting a certain number of decisions to his performers, without ever losing control over precisely what he wanted. Maybe that's why, for the loveliness of the writing, and the tremendous skill of the composer, I don't think there's any Lutosławski piece that I unreservedly love: paradoxically, for all the freedoms that Lutosławski introduces, the conclusion that they always reach is the ultimately controlling hand of the composer himself, reigning everything in at last to his will.

* Admittedly this is only part of the matter. By various means - quotation, allusion, textual reference, etc. - it is possible to introduce specific elements into a work. But the way these elements function within a piece remains at one remove from literary narrative: quoting Chopin is not the same as having him appear as a character in a novel.

An auspicious event 

... well, not really. But in today's post I received a copy of my first ever published review, which I guess is a landmark of a small sort. It appears in the current issue of Tempo and is for the new Ian Wilson CD of his violin and piano music. It also has the distinction of being my last publication with the old single-barreled surname, so when I'm like dead famous and that in 30 years time I bet it'll be well collectible.

More on that recent sampling ruling in an article at LA CityBEAT / Valley BEAT.

[Hat tip to danceblogga]

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Hat tip 

A large hat tip must go today to the marketing department at the Festival Hall, who I shamefully disparaged in a comment some time ago over at Mischievous Constructions: they've come up trumps and e-mailed me in person to follow up, which I call particularly diligent. So, in return, here's a plug for the Birtwistle shenanigans going on there later this month. I myself will certainly be attending this one, and the combination of Panic and big band jazz (see here, at the bottom of the page) is so inspired as to be impossible to miss.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

That new Bruce Nauman installation at the Tate sounds really good. By which I mean, the piece in today's Telegraph makes it sound really good - I haven't seen/heard the installation itself yet ... oh, you know what I mean.

I defy anyone to walk straight down the ramp in the Turbine Hall to the ticket desk without stopping every few feet to listen. Watch how people zigzag across the gallery, or stand stock still, enveloped by one of Nauman's poetic texts, conundrums or word games.
Using noise to force people to act, react, think. It's a novel idea - and it might just work. Anyway, if I get a spare moment this weekend I might trundle down to Bankside and tell you what it's like for myself.


Check it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004


Morning spent making words, hundreds of them. In the afternoon I had to find more, and read Iain Sinclair on 7 different trains en route to Senate House. The words come in packets and I have another sheaf of them in my backpack.

Evening: Wyborowa vodka and more words yet.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Boozy lunch 

One of the oddest advertising campaigns currently running here in the UK is for Threshers, the off license chain. Recently, this high street booze emporium decided to branch out and start selling food as well. the curious thing about these ads is that they run on the tagline, "Threshers - the new way to do lunch", missing the obvious but sad point that for many people a visit to the off license is an all-too-familiar way to do lunch already. Maybe, in their defence, they're trying to reach out to the booze + food market, rather than their core booze = food consumer base. Who knows - certainly one or two of the models in the ads look as though they've seen the bottom of a few glasses recently, and are munching through a coronation chicken sandwich as though it's 11.30pm on a Friday and they've just been ejected onto the cold streets of Swindon.

The incongruity of the whole thing hit home yesterday when milady and I were in our local shop buying some wine. "You get some free food with that," said the checkout girl. "You're buying some wine" - well, yes, this is a wine shop - "so choose something from the fridge. Anything you want." A knock yourself out, before you, er, knock yourself out, kind of promotion. Now, it may only be Sunday afternoon, and I may be eyeing up some heavy Rioja, but I can feed myself you know - and whilst I applaud Thresher's charitable approach, I don't need their help. Anyway, I picked up some microwave noodles, thought they might be good for lunch today. I'm here to tell you that they're not - they ming.

So, back to that Rioja it is ...

Sunday, October 10, 2004

RIP Jacques Derrida.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Joanna Newsom 

Seems like everyone is talking about Joanna Newsom, and everybody's line is that you'll either love her or hate her. Hell, she even got two pages in the Sunday Times last weekend. Well, let me first say that I love 'Sprout and the Bean', the forthcoming single, trailed a week or so ago on monkeySARS. How, actually, could you hate it? I mean, if you're a death metal fan, it's not your thing, but songwriting this subtle and sophisticated, the sound itself, coupled to a really interesting voice - what's not to like, you heartless so-and-sos? There are too few harps in pop anyway (although Zeena Parkins just got a piece in The Wire, so maybe there's some resurgence going on? Cowbells and analogue keyboards are out - harps are in. You heard it here first). Newsom's label website Drag City has a downloadable video of the song (I'm not so sure about the video - it kind of kills the mystery of that voice if you can actually see her lips moving), so have a listen. It's gorgeous. No idea what it's about, but that's half the fun. MonkeySARS suggested that she sounded like Björk going through puberty - which is a very apt description - but there's something about those consonants, which seem to come from her cheeks, that reminds me of someone else and it's been bugging me for days. Any ideas?

Friday, October 08, 2004

Warsaw Part V 

Part I here
Part II here
Part III here
Part IV here
[Now with pictures]

St Trinity Lutheran Church
Plac Malachowskiego

In the predictable hurry from the last concert to here, a church tucked away behind Pilsudski Square, I was waylaid by a Critical Mass/Reclaim the Streets kind of protest involving several hundred (a thousand? I have know idea how to estimate these things - lots, anyway) cyclists riding en masse down Marszalkowska.

The concert is another full house. The church is circular, with a high dome, and the walls are all white marble or stone. It is lit with hundreds of candles (fewer than the cyclists though), and blue and pink spotlights. A fan at the entrance is blowing dry ice into the space, and everything is glowing. We're going to be treated to a light show, for which I'm relieved since two pieces on the programme are tape works, and there's nothing more awkward than sitting in a concert staring at a pair of speakers on stage.

First piece up though isn't electro-acoustic at all, but is very happy in such a religious performing space. John Taverner's The Bridegroom is written for four female singers and a string quartet, with the two groups ideally placed at opposite ends of the stage, or even further apart. Typically for Tavener the symbolic roles of the performers are theological - the voices represent the people of the world longing for the love of Christ, the strings represent Christ the Bridegroom; the argument of the piece is a straightforward call and response throughout. While not presenting the most sophisticated musical argument, it is a lovely work - like most Tavener - and acoustically it was very successful in this space. Visually, however, it was a different story. For not only did we get the moody lighting as expected, but we also had visual projections on a sheet draped at the back of the stage, and these really did not work.

I have nothing against projected visuals with live concert music. I've seen it work very well several times, and I wish there was more of it - but not like this.

Actually, it wasn't that bad for the Tavener, although it was a little crude on occasion - we had swirling roses, a chalice, a key, praying hands, two fish ... if you didn't realise this was a piece with a certain reliance on Christian symbolism, you did now. The thing is, Tavener's piece is a self-contained contemplative object in its own right, it doesn't need all this other stuff overlaid. Things got much worse with the next piece, Jonathan Harvey's Mortuos plango, vivos voco. The first of the tape pieces for the night, it is a work inspired by Harvey listening to his son singing as a chorister in Winchester, and is constructed entirely from his son's singing, and the tones of the large bell in Winchester Cathedral. Once again, it is a simple premise - although it categorically does not embody any of Tavener's strict ritual - and is an expert study on the evocative sounds of English cathedral music. Harvey hints at many associations without ever being prescriptive about them. Sadly, this point was overlooked by the projectionists, and we were shown a similar sequence of obvious symbols (slowly spinning into and from the distance as before). There was an obvious problem at first that the surround sound effects carefully engineered by Harvey ("The walls of the concert hall are conceived as the sides of the bell inside which is the audience" he writes in his programme note) clashed with the two-dimensional projections, but it was the wide shots of what looked like wartime children that really angered. These were superimposed with a series of crosses, and against these the sepia-toned photograph looked rather too manipulative: it was impossible not to see this as some sort of memorial gesture, which is not at all what the piece is about. Abstract imagery is one thing, but attempting to impose such a narrative sat really uncomfortably with me.

Anna Zawadzka-Golosz's Concerto for Eight-string Guitar and Strings with Piano was next, but it didn't really make any impact on me; I made no notes, and can't recall much about the piece, or even the lighting. One thing that was extremely apparent by this stage however was the amount of documentation that was going on. The concert was being broadcast on Polish TV (hence the fancy lighting I guess) - and 10 cameras, including one very restless steadicam, did their best to distract. It was also being recorded for Polish Radio 2, and there were two stills photographers who clicked busily throughout. Sorry, Zawadzka-Golosz, but if your piece wasn't really distinctive it just couldn't compete.

I paid more attention to Vytautas Jurgutis's Sound Masks - mainly because this was another world première. Thankfully the projections had given up by now, and we just got some moody blue lighting. Jurgutis's piece is composed entirely with 'old-fashioned' electronic sounds. Not samples, but the very abstract bleeps and tones familiar from 1950s electronica. All digital now of course, and the sound was fuller than any work of Stockhausen - Jurgutis also made more fluent use of an 8 track sound system than most Stockhausen - but it still had an antiquated air about it. With an infinite palette at hia disposal, I wasn't sure why Jurgutis elected to use such flat, cold colours.

Sofia Gubaidulina's Seven Words finished the concert. There's stuff written about this great piece elsewhere, so I shan't worry too much about filling in here. But, although I feared they would return, the visuals remained thankfully absent, and contrary to Tavener's contemplative work at the start of the concert, here you could have felt a pin drop. It's a tremendously sparce work actually - although there is a full string orchestra on stage, it is very rarely called into action, and most of the work is done by the two instrumental soloists on bayan (accordion) and cello. The attention this draws from the audience is almost ferocious - like listening to a very long, but very powerful prayer. You daren't move a muscle, but the power grows inside nonetheless.

For the first time in the concert, the interior lights went right down, and their place was taken by the floodlights outside the building. These shone through the stained glass of the church - unnoticed until now - creating that inner space so missed in the presentation of the Harvey. The effect was magical, and at the end the piece received the warmest reception I saw all week.


The final performance of a long day was Michael van der Aa's chamber opera One, staged in the smaller theatre in the Palace of Culture and Science.Palace of Culture and Science The building is so ubiquitous something had to be in there.

Aa's opera is for one soprano, accompanied by video and an electronic soundtrack. And, at the very beginning and end, a hand-powered torch. It is characteristic of Aa to dislocate sound and performer from one another, and the simple device of using the torch - which provided both lighting and rhythm track for the first minutes of the opera - was perfect. Gradually, from the flickers and rachet scratches, the singer intoned a single note, growing to more, until a chair and stool were lit from above, and the opera really began.

The whole set-up of Aa's piece is of a woman (on stage) trying to piece together parts of her memory and inner consciousness (on video), interspersed with the recollections of five elderly women who each tell of an identical, bizarre event in their lives. Gradually we piece together what is happening, and their relationship with the woman on stage. The entire work is very effectively done, but the most powerful passages are when the woman is playing out an internal quickfire dialogue between her confused self and her inner demon on the video - the live and recorded voices intercut at a virtuoso rate, and both actor on stage and on screen (made up to look like one another) follow each other's movements precisely. Keeping this up for more than an hour demands something very special from its performer: on this occasion it is Barbara Hannigan who deserves every credit.

By quite a distance this was the best work I saw in my time in Warsaw, probably the only one really worth the journey on its own. If you ever get a chance to see it, do.


Final post or two (I promise!) to follow.


I've just got my Warsaw pictures back, and I'm in the process of illustrating the posts - so now at least when my words fail, you've got something to look at.

Confessions of a New Music Blogger 

Robert Gable, the man behind the always interesting aworks, has just written an article for NewMusicBox, the web magazine of the American Music Center outlining the reasons he blogs, and giving an overview of the classical(ish) music blogging scene. As with all aworks posts, it's thoroughly annotated with a wealth of links, many of which I hadn't seen before - so do go and read it.

[He's also kind enough to give me a little plug, so thank you!]

In the meantime, I think I may have got that display problem with Firefox sorted.

I'm so crap at HTML...

I'm doing some fiddling, trying to get a home/main page link into my template, so things may look a little screwy for a bit.

National poetry day 

So, it appears that yesterday was National poetry day. Oops. Well, I wouldn't want to let the small matter of 24 hours come between us, so here's a favourite:

Delight in Disorder
by Robert Herrick

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness :
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction :
An erring lace which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher :
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbons to flow confusedly :
A winning wave (deserving note)
In the tempestuous petticoat :
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility :
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

And, for milady:

As I Walked Out One Evening
by W. H. Auden

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
'Love has no ending.

'I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

'I'll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

'The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.'

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
'O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

'In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

'In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

'Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver's brilliant bow.

'O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.

'The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

'Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

'O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

'O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.'

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Blogger I-Spy 

At last. Someone comes up with a use for those dumb 'Next blog' buttons. On my first go (well, fourth go - the first three hit blogs that wouldn't load properly), I scored a pathetic 10 pts, for spying a wacky profile picture. There may have been more, but the candidate was in Spanish and I didn't understand word.

Monday, October 04, 2004


I had a sort through the remaining Amnesty items yesterday and set aside a pile of CDs which are, frankly, total no-hopers on eBay. So I'm not going to sell them on eBay. I'm going to sell them here.

The pile consists of a wide-ranging selection of CD singles, dodgy album promos, freebies, curiosities, Pokemon tie-ins, condom maker giveaways, and other tat. There are about fifteen of them, I didn't count. Probably there are a few good laughs in there somewhere, or at least a blog post or two.
(All-too-true emphasis mine)


Three good things to come out of my weekend:

1) Suddenly nailed my Ph.D. plan. I mean, I had various plans and alternatives drifting around in my head, but now it's absolutely fixed. And the beauty of this plan is that I can actually see it happening within the next 2/3 years, which is a wholly new, and very pleasant feeling.

2) Uploaded the new webpages for British Postgraduate Musicology, the online journal I recently became editor of. I'm especially pleased with these - they're not the flashiest pages on the net by any means, but they do the job - and they're fully W3C standards compliant, which gives me a tremendous feeling of having done A Good Thing. And for anyone reading who is a British postgraduate in musicology, we're currently accepting submissions for articles for the next Volume, due out early next year. So if you have an article idea that deserves to be read, knock it into shape and send it to me, either at the address top right, or to editor@bpmonline.org.uk. Cheers! (Further details for submission may be found here)

3) Shaun of the Dead on DVD. Splendid film, very funny, but even more so, probably the best fitted out DVD I've come across since the Simpsons. BBC, are you paying attention? Stop fobbing us off with archive boxsets whose 'special features' comprise of 'scene selection and interactive menu' - ie, the basic things a DVD doesn't come without. You should be paying more attention to Simon Pegg.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Warsaw Part IV 

Part I here
Part II here
Part III here

Mazovian Center of Culture and Art
22 Elektoralna

There are no world premières in this afternoon's concert, so it won't get featured in any reviews, but it looks a good one nonetheless, and particularly looking forward to the last work, Carola Bauckholt's Treibstoff. Before heading over here I had a pretty good slab of chocolate torta in the coffee shop next door to the Europejski. This is supposed to be one of Warsaw's best coffee and cake shops, but while good it wasn't as tasty as its equivalent in Budapest, say. And the decor was nowhere near gaudy enough to compete with most Central European cafes: not enough gilt and marble. Still, the cake had the obligatory hit of brandy-soaked cherries, and plenty of them, so pretty good nevertheless.

Formal beds in the Saxon GardensWalking to Elektoralna through the Saxon Gardens it strikes me that these are some of the most beautiful public city gardens I know. The layout is grandiose, the planting unusually varied, and there's the sheer number of trees to top it all. It's laid out according to formal lines, with a long central vista with symmetrical flower beds. This monumental, neo-classical design situates it smoothly into its surrounding Soviet street plan (the unbroken axis through the centre of the gardens takes you past the tomb of the unknown soldier, across Pilsudski square and down to Krakowskie Przedmiescie and the presidential palace - it's the symbolic heart of Warsaw, and is a regular marching route for the military honour guard), as well as providing an ironic commentary upon it.Pilsudski Square

There are six pieces in this concert, but apart from Hanna Kulenty (who is half-Dutch anyway), there are no Poles. Almost certainly as a result, the audience is much smaller than this time yesterday. The performers, the Thürmchen Ensemble, are here from Germany. I recognise their violinist as the woman who walked off with all the coffee this morning at hotel breakfast.

The opening work, U-mul [The Well] by Younghi Pagh-Paan leaves little impression on me. It's fragmented, gestural, and relies on a soundworld at least influenced by Pagh-Paan's Korean home. The programme notes talk of the work's political aspects, using the notion of water and its fair distribution as a precondition for peace. I could see how equality was represented in the opening exchanges in which all the performers shared the role of the percussion, but this sort of 'bolt-on' approach to music and philosophy/politics has never really grabbed me - especially when the politics are inserted as part of the compositional process. A work can take on a political/philosophical life of its own, certainly, but if nothing else it seems a very unattractive sort of politics that insists on an absolute meaning for a work of art. That's a loop the world has gone round once before, and it didn't yield great results then. Not that I would want to accuse Pagh-Paan of any kind of crude Socialist-Realist-like approach to compostion - I don't believe that's the case at all; but attempting to dictate something so subjective as politics through a medium so subjective as music seems to be doomed to failure.

Erik Oña's Alles Nahe werde fern ... was next. I quite liked this - I wouldn't say I was completely swept along by it, but it showed a lot of compositional control and was imaginatively, but coherently, phrased, which could not be said about too much of the chamber music I'd seen thus far. The work was built around a busy central line of deadened piano notes (grand and upright pianos), and the rest of the ensemble writing spun off this with fragments of melody. The title is from Goethe, via Borges who describes it as Goethe's apocryphal description of the world as we see it changing when we grow old - the feeling that 'everything that is close moves away' described Borges' own feeling of alienation resulting from his progressive blindness. The work, with its two interacting layers of piano core and fragmentary ensemble, captured some of the dislocation between self and environment suggested by the title; its nervous, agitated momentum was similarly evocative.

Oña is the Thürmchen's conductor, and another of their number, cellist Caspar Johannes Walter is the composer of the next piece, Fünf Ohren. His programme notes for the piece give the audience nothing to go on, apart from a text in German, but his biography confesses an interest in music theatre. In this work the theatre, such as it is, is limited to the soprano soloist ringing a wine glass, and her vocal production. In the end, Walter's work, for me, falls amongst those two-a-penny vocal works these days based on a Beckettian idea of the inherent difficulty in articulation. It's an old idea now, and few people have pulled it off with any great wit or verve.

No doubts about Kulenty's work, though. This simply wasn't very good. It's scored for piano and two wind instruments - today these were flute and bass clarinet - so it is very curious to see in the programme notes that the piece was built on the first 16 harmonics of the A string. But at least it had the promise of spectralism. Except that the whole point of spectral music, and composing using precise harmonics (and when you're trying to reach the 16th harmonic you have to be pretty precise), is that you are working outside the boundaries of the usual 12-note chromatic scale. With a proud equally-tempered instrument like a piano at the certain of your work, you might as well throw away any idea of working with the harmonic series - pianos simply aren't built like that. Thus, although the work is built around clangerous resonances, the equal temperament robs them of all interest and surprise. They just become straightforward chords that we can all make for ourselves. What's more, I fear that Kulenty herself lacks the compositional skill to make her moves anything but clumsy and predictable. This was not a good piece.

Salvatore Sciarrino's Due smarrimenti had the best/worst programme note of the lot, and ditched talking about the piece altogether in favour of a story about Rilke losing some letters in the Italian postal service. The piece itself, like Walter's, followed well-trodden themes of existential angst, but did so with far greater daring - in the second movement the soprano was limited, Feldman-like, to recycling the same three or four notes. Overall Sciarrino's strategy worked, and I will be listening to this piece again to try to make some sense of it.

Not for the first, or last time, the final piece in the concert was the best. I had been looking forward to this anyway - the notes foretold an intricate gothic-horror nightmare - and it largely lived up to them. To quote:

The listener enters the piece as though a door is suddenly flung open and he finds himself surrounded by a swarm of sentient acoustical beings, each moving forward at greater or lesser speed depending on the length of its legs. Pandemonium reigns supreme. Each instrument has its own gait, and the sum total of these 'sounds in forward motion' is an impenetrably dense rhythmic mass of reiterative figures.
The score includes organic instructions - whinnying horses and galloping dogs - and towards the end we are told that "the ear ... discovers that the beings are busily communicating with each other". This is a paranoid horror fantasy of the sort that has motivated so much of Ligeti's career to date (as a child he had a recurring dream of a room full of cobwebs, in which were trapped insects and other objects. When one part moved, the whole mass of webs shifted and shook in sympathy), and is a wonderfully evocative image to bring to the piece (the note's writer Frank Hilberg has to take a great deal of credit at this point), summarising both soundworld and compositional method in language that is informative but approachable. In the end, I was disappointed that the soundworld wasn't as dry and scuttling as I had expected, but it was still a very fine piece.

To come in Part V: a dodgy light show, a mass protest, some excellent video, and Tavener, Harvey, Zawadzka-Golosz, Jurgutis, Gubaidulina, and van der Aa.

National Archives Funding 

A couple of weeks ago I posted an e-mail I'd received about plans in the States to cut finding for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Well, in some good news, it seems that the rapid action of activists writing in protest to their Senate representatives helped reverse some of the the cuts, according to another e-mail that I have just got round to reading:

by John Hammer and Jessica Jones Irons of the National Humanities Alliance

o Senate Marks Up FY 2005 Spending Bills

The Senate Appropriations Committee marked up several FY 2005 spending
bills this week. In the Interior bill the committee recommended flat
funding levels of $135.3 million for the National Endowment for the
Humanities and $121 million for the National Endowment for the Arts. If
this bill passes, the Senate may be willing to agree to higher funding
levels for both agencies in a House/Senate conference. The House passed
its FY 2005 Interior bill in June with a funding level of $141.8 million
for the NEH (a $6.5 million increase) and $131 million for the NEA (a $10
million increase).

Thanks to the activism of historians and archivists who contacted Senate
appropriators in recent days, the National Historical Publications and
Records Commission (NHPRC) received a $2 million increase from the full
Appropriations Committee over the mark provided by the
Transportation/Treasury subcommittee. The Senate recommendation for NHPRC
now stands at $5 million. This still only represents half of the
Commission's current budget of $10 million, but it is a critical increase

Spending bills must go to the floor for a vote by the full Senate, and
while individual bills may move to conference this year, they are not
likely to do so prior to the November elections. At this point,
appropriations staff anticipate a series of continuing resolutions funding
agencies at current levels for the 2005 fiscal year beginning October 1.

A more detailed report will be provided later on these bills, as well as
humanities programs funded under the Labor/HHS/Education bill.

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