Thursday, April 30, 2009

An Interlude

I'm not going to argue that the above photograph, taken this afternoon in the dunes that are (relatively) near my house, is a masterful work of art which demanded to be posted for the world's viewing pleasure, but it captures a moment in what was an extremely enjoyable walk with (believe it or not) warm weather, and that's good enough for me. As is often the case, there wasn't a soul in the dunes, but there were thousands of snails and a briefly glimpsed pair of rabbits, who disappeared down two of the innumerable burrows in the sandy soil before a certain lolloping creature caught sight of them (he was off chasing birds, who chirped mockingly at him as he leapt across ditches and gullies while blissfully ignoring the fact that he can't fly, something that puts him at a distinct disadvantage). After a morning spent travelling to Dublin to pick up two large bags of beeswax for a project I'm doing (and being disgusted on the Luas by the fact that nobody got up to offer a very elderly woman a seat (I was standing, as I had already given my seat to another elderly woman) until a middle-aged woman got up and loudly (especially for the benefit of the twenty-somethings all sitting nearby with their eyes downcast) gave up her seat. Now, this elderly woman could have possessed the fitness and strength of a Premiership footballer, and be capable of running a marathon while carrying a grand piano, but common decency demands that you give up your seat to anyone who may need it more than you), I was very happy to get out to a little oasis of sea-grass, occasional birdsong, and the distant sound of the tide. And, seeing as sometimes it seems that there's ain't a whole lot to celebrate these days, I felt it worth posting for that reason...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Forget all the nonsense about pictures of Brian Cowen's gut; here's something that should scare anyone who places any kind of value on freedom of speech. Especially, as was stated in the article, "the Supreme Court concluded that it was impossible to say of what the offence of blasphemy consists." So who's going to be the arbiters of taste in this regard? Would it be possible for hardcore creationists to argue that the Theory of Evolution is blasphemous, by their standards, and "[causes] outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion"? How many people compromise a "substantial number" in any case? And if the law is passed and actually enforced, is it worth staying in this crooked, bankrupted, perpetually sodden country to find out? 

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Notes from the Fold

On one Thursday from each of the past two months, the historic church of St Audeon’s in Dublin has played host to The Fold, a series of concerts featuring some of Ireland’s contemporary experimental and alternative musicians. More information on the Fold (and upcoming concerts) can be found here.
Fold 1 (on March 26th) featured saxophonist Sean Óg in a solo performance, while Fold 2 (April 21st) had him in the group Morla (essentially a duo with guitarist Simon Jermyn, augmented on this night by drummer Shane O’Donovan). More info on Óg and his many projects here and here (with samples); more info on Jermyn here and here, and on Morla here.
For his solo project Óg played alto and bass clarinet, supplemented with electronic gizmos that repeated what he’d just played back at him as well as creating rhythms and textures. Óg seems to enjoy taking chances live (the mark of a good improviser) and at times it seemed that the electronics weren’t behaving themselves as well as they should, but in the main they worked very well and gave his already focused and thoughtful performance an exciting extra element. Opening with a piece by Hildegard of Bingen (which was wonderfully suited to the chapel we were in, red-lit by the heat lamps fixed high on the old walls) he played a continuous improvisation which was rarely less than gripping, and only occasionally wandering into the wilder extremes of contemporary sax playing (something I would have preferred, which is not to knock his performance here, but I would like to see this guy use his electronics and imagination to really let rip). One bold choice was to throw in Prince’s ‘Ballad of Dorothy Parker’, complete with seriously eighties backing track; I didn’t recognise the song at first, and thought he was doing a weird homage to Miles Davis’s Tutu period. I’m not sure if it worked, to be honest; the contrast with what he was doing before was so great that it seemed incongruous, but it shows his enthusiasm for throwing wild cards into the mix, not a trait to be criticised. He ended with a soft lullaby. All in all, it was a compelling and enjoyable performance, even if, as I’ve said before, I prefer my solo sax a lot more experimental and abrasive.
I’m not fully convinced by Morla’s recordings (at least by what I’ve heard on their MySpace page). While one can’t fault their playing, or their sense of texture or melody, I find that at times their music, which seems more about evoking atmosphere than anything else, a little too smooth and pleasant, almost like avant-garde mood music, and lacks a certain amount of bite. In performance here, with the added element of percussion – O’Donovan’s skittery, restless playing kept a fire burning under the two leads – they were a lot more compelling, and during a continuous performance they created an involving, intense, and textured sound which often had a Eastern tinge and was at times mesmerising, and powerfully atmospheric. There was a sense of underlying turbulence, and a willingness to take risks, that kept it interesting throughout, and all three played with skill and empathy. One of Óg’s habits is to intone wordlessly through his sax, which creates quite an odd, haunting effect that works very well here. If I have a criticism, it’s that I’d like to see them add harsher elements to their sound, as increasing its edge could only improve it more. Still, it was another enjoyable performance, and Óg is definitely a talent to watch (I hope to get to see Trihornophone soon!) Here's some videos:

Fold 1 also featured Karl Him, Fergus Cullen and Gavin Duffy in a guitar-led group improvisation which, considering the calibre of the performers involved, was to my ear a bit of a noisy mess which never quite cohered into a substantial musical vision. A lot of it seemed to be playing around with effects rather than anything else, which is fun to watch, but it never really went anywhere interesting. Fold 2 had Rainfear, a duo comprising long-established Dublin musicians and artists David Donohue (on synth and electronics) and Peter Maybury (on drums and processing); unfortunately, the drums were so loud that they completely dominated the proceedings and destroyed any chance of interplay or subtlety, like watching a version of Waiting for Godot where one character shouts all his lines through a megaphone. At times Maybury seemed to be channeling Kraftwerk, at other times he created walls of electronic sludge, and towards the end he played an improvisation against a picky-pocky background riff which bordered on being exciting, but the volume of the percussion just drowned any pleasure. I couldn’t help being reminded of Thomas Lehn and Paul Lovens at the i-and-e festival recently, who used a similar set-up to produce much more exciting and inventive music (see here). If they had turned the drums down and the synths up, I might have been able to give a more accurate description of what Rainfear are trying to do. Sorry, lads!
One of the problems I had with both of the above groups is that they seemed to be trying to keep their feet in two camps simultaneously: going a bit of the way towards really experimental, yet not going too far and alienating the more conservative elements in the audience. But this kind of compromising bodes ill for the music, as it ends up being neither one thing nor the other, and satisfies nobody. As I said to my companion on the first night, I’d like to give these guys a good feed of strong drink and let them wail on their instruments; they’ve nothing to lose by seriously loosening up, and just making a good old-fashioned racket that has people fleeing the church clutching their ears. I’d definitely stay, and applaud at the end!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

An Amusement (XIV)

My apologies to the reading several (to borrow Stephen Fry's phrase) about my lack of posts this week, but I've been so busy and disorganised (even for me) that I've had neither the time nor the enthusiasm to write anything new. But to make up for all that, here's something I found recently that's really interesting (and sheds light on a source of inspiration for a certain T. Gilliam). Enjoy!

For those of you interested in Irish contemporary music, the Ergodos Festival of New Music started last night in Dublin and runs all week there. There's a whole heap of good stuff being performed, so if, unlike me, you live in Dublin and have a few free nights, do your bit for music and support your local composer! I'm going to try to get to some of the performances later in the week (he said in the spirit of naive optimism). More information here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Some Tangled Webs

Early one morning last September, I went for a walk with the hound in the lane beside our house. It had been raining heavily for what seemed like weeks, and this was the first clear, sunny day that we'd seen in ages. I quickly noticed (it was impossible to avoid noticing!) that the spiders, emboldened by the unaccustomed heat and light, had gone berserk with enthusiasm and had festooned every available shrub and bush with gossamer webs, which were still damp with dew and glistened in the morning sunlight. I half expected to see a huge web strung across the very lane itself, as some over-ambitious spider, sick of eating bugs, was trying for bigger prey (in case the seemingly interminable rain started again). It was quite beautiful, so I took a few pictures, which I dumped in a desktop folder and then forgot about, only stumbling across them recently while looking for something else. I hope you like them.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Quiet Club in the Goethe Institut

Thursday morning of last week saw me pottering about in my usual aimless way, vaguely working on projects I should have tackled ages before (involving beeswax, a soldering iron, and lots of swearing). Thursday afternoon saw me in my car, driving towards the metropolis for an evening of fine music in the Goethe Institut on Merrion Square, a concert by the Quiet Club (the Improv project of Danny McCarthy and Mick O’Shea, both sound artists of long standing based in Cork) in celebration of the launch of a new CD by the Quiet Club and a book on Danny McCarthy. There was, in fact, a whole table of CDs, which left me cursing my poverty as I wasn’t able to buy them all, but I settled for Tesla (the aforementioned QC CD) and Radios Silent by David Stalling and Anthony Kelly, two composers/improvisers who were also performing that evening. (More information on McCarthy and O’Shea here and here, and on Stalling and Kelly here and here).
In the room where the concert was happening, just across from the table of CDs, were tables covered in all kinds of objects: theremins, cables, bits of instruments, and a plastic apple, while on the ground beside was a black mat with more stuff: a boxy Middle-Eastern guitar with grey duct tape stuck to it, a pile of stones, another theremin, and a tiny toy record player next to an angle-grinder disc. It looked like a strange car-boot sale! It think it’s fair to say that this sight filled me with glee, as such an array means that, even if the music’s dreadful, the sight of the performers playing with all their toys will amuse, and they’re guaranteed to pull some interesting noises out of the ether one way or another. Of course, when the performers are of the calibre of these lads, a very compelling musical experience is almost certainly assured.
The first section of this continuous performance was just McCarthy and O’Shea, with the latter seated at one of the tables and the former on the black mat. Utilising the objects above, they created deep bass drones and rumbles, electronic squiggles, bursts of static noise, groans and whooshes, with what sounded at one stage like distant, barely audible voices. Or, as my companion said: “parts of it sounded like something huge lumbering about in a small space...” It was (relatively) quiet, restrained music, yet full of incident and quite compelling, evoking a dark, brooding landscape, like just before an electrical storm. The guy who introduced the concert, Dr Francis Halsall, had advised the small audience to approach it as looking at objects in sound (like sculpture, I think he meant), which was not a bad analogy. When David Stalling and Anthony Kelly, two Dublin-based composers/improvisers joined them, the music initially became more edgy and active, as if the storm was about to break, but then it subsided and continued as before, except thickened slightly by the extra voices. But there was no grandstanding; the four musicians produced a singular sound that was organic in nature, and in continual transformation, like the sky on a troubled day. I became so entranced by the performance that I completely forgot to take notes, and just let the sounds carry me away. It was fun to see live, though, if only to appreciate the odder instruments they use (their choices, such as the toy record player, do indicate a wry sense of humour). All in all, it was a very enjoyable experience (although the couple sitting next to me and my companion didn’t think so, as they left halfway through!), and I’m really enjoying Tesla, the Quiet Club’s above-mentioned CD, available to purchase here with other, equally interesting stuff, if you’re so inclined. Here’s a video of Quiet Club live in Cork, in a considerably noisier performance.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

An Amusement (XIII)

Inspired by the majesty, nay, the magnificence, of Seanhenge, I felt I must reveal to the world The Circle of Doubt, which was constructed by my partner several years ago on the grounds of her parents' house. A spiral path (like a question mark) leads you into a circle of seven granite stones which surround a slab of Portland stone, on which is inscribed the phrase "Only in Shaddowe can There be Light", a quote from architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. The Portland stone (which was used to build Hawksmoor's churches) was originally pale grey, but has discoloured and darkened significantly over the years. When the sun sets, the shadow of the stones crosses the slab (a deliberate feature). If you stand on the slab at this point and make a wish, well, nothing will happen, but the view of the sunset over the distant mountains is spectacular. 

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Put the Needle on the Record (VI)

Presenting John Farrell: The Amazing Auto-Roll Piano Soloist (Halcyon, 1976)
It might be just me, but why is it that the title of this record conjures up the sound of a carnival barker shouting those very words, preceded by the phrase “step right up, ladies and gentlemen”? I suppose it’s the word ‘amazing’ that does it. The front cover of this record, by contrast, shows a very ordinary looking man in an unmistakably 1970s photo: the scruffy hair and beard, the white trousers and polo-neck, the awful wallpaper... So what are auto-roll pianists and why are they ‘amazing’? Well, Farrell has taken original ragtime and early jazz scores by people like Art Tatum, Eubie Blake, Jelly Roll Morton and Teddy Wilson, and then, to let the sleevenotes describe the process:
John, who is an accomplished pianist and could easily play all the selections on this record by the old-fashioned method of applying his ten fingers to the normal piano keyboard, nevertheless prefers to use an indirect and complex method. He cuts his own piano rolls from the original scores; these are then played on the most sophisticated player-piano available and recordings made.
But it’s the next paragraph that’s more interesting, and contentious:
The advantages of this system will be apparent on reflection. However closely a piano soloist may try to follow a score, he is bound to produce some slight personal variation of timings, etc. This applies particularly to popular music of the past. The compositions on these recordings are thus recreated in versions probably closer in authenticity to the original ‘feel’ than would otherwise be possible. And in most cases, these versions have an advantage even over contemporary recordings by the original artiste – they have the benefit of modern recording techniques, including stereo and relative absence of background noise. In other words – hear the music as it was heard at the time of its first performance ... courtesy of John Farrell and his auto-rolls!
“The advantages of this system will be apparent on reflection”. Hmmm... The immediate question that this raises is, of course: can what Mr Farrell does be described as music at all? Or are they just aural scores for people who can’t read music? And would the composers have approved? After all, several of the titles draw attention to the fact that, “at the time of [their] first performance”, human execution of these difficult pieces is integral to their nature: ‘Finger-Buster’, ‘Tricky Fingers’, ‘Troublesome Ivories’, and ‘The Fingerbreaker’, for example. For it is the “slight personal variation of timings”, or, to state it another way, the deeply personal interpretation of a piece of scored music by a musician, that draws people to piano soloists in the first place. It would have been interesting to see the reaction of the classical establishment if the Amazing Auto-Roll Piano Soloist had tackled some of Beethoven’s sonatas! The other question it raises is whether anyone would have noticed if Mr Farrell had released these as simple piano music. It helps that most of the pieces are pretty straightforward emotionally if not technically; they’re light, bouncy and rhythmic. But it seems clear to me that Mr Farrell’s method could only be used with such music; with anything more emotionally complex, the coldness of the machine would show through to easily. It’s like computer-generated faces; even with the level of technology currently available, we are so accustomed to the minutest detail of expression that even the most lifelike rendering still appears ‘wrong’ to us. And I would imagine that to any discerning listener the same would happen with Mr Farrell’s music. What I think would have been interesting if one side of the LP had been John with his Auto-Roll hat on, and on the other he’d played the same pieces in the traditional, fingers-on-ivories, fashion, so the listener could have made up their mind as to which version was “better”. But I don’t want to sound like I’m mocking Mr Farrell here, as he was primarily motivated by a love of this music, and what he’s produced here is at least rendered from some very fine pieces indeed. And it's interesting to note that what he worked hard to accomplish on this record, punching piano rolls by hand, could be done on a computer in a matter of minutes these days. What do you think about his methods?
Farrell was mainly known as a jazz enthusiast and transcriber who copied down hundreds of early jazz works both in manuscript and piano-roll form, and could apparently remember entire tunes by ear alone after one hearing. He was also a really nice guy, by all accounts, and I'm glad to have this record, even if I'm dubious about what it's trying to achieve on an artistic if not an archival level. More information about him can be found here.
One can’t help (well, I can’t help) being reminded of the music of Conlon Nancarrow, who also programmed player-pianos to perform his compositions, except Nancarrow did it in order to create music that was actually impossible for ten fingers to play, to explore the way that new music could be created using machines. Here’s one of his pieces:

Or a CD I have by a guy called Tom Sora (Music for Mechanical and Electronic Instruments, Col Legno, 2006), who uses punched rolls fed through a tiny variation of the music box, about the size of a butter dish, to create delicate little raindrop compositions, and who also uses computer-generated pianos to creat hugely dense walls of sound impossible to play without ten arms and as many fingers as there are teeth in a comb. It's worth a listen if you can track down a copy.