Friday, June 26, 2009

Worth Seeking (XIII)

Here's a little something for the weekend. One of the comments attached to the following series of videos (an epic performance of 'Dark Star' by the Grateful Dead in 1972), is "I think my head is going to explode." I can't say that I disagree. Turn it way up, smoke 'em if you have 'em (I don't indulge myself, but it's certainly appropriate with this music!), and free your head! Enjoy...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What a Difference a Word Makes...

Recently I was driving to work and listening to the radio, as one does, when I heard a sentence by Mary Coughlan, our gaffe-prone Tanaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, which led me to muse on the way a single word can make such a difference to a sentence, and can reveal a huge amount about the speaker. (The interview is here.) She was waffling on about the problems facing our food and drink industries in light of the economic crisis, and began a comment about supermarket prices by stating, "Any woman in the country who's been out shopping has seen ... a reduction in prices..." The word "woman", of course, stands out like an orangutan in a symphony orchestra, and the immediate question that leapt to my mind was: why not "person"? Or "consumer"? Does Mary Coughlan live in a world where only women do grocery shopping (or, to be more blunt, is she, as a notedly conservative TD from the rural hinterland, appealing to her base by only being interested in social set-ups where women do the shopping except in very unusual circumstances (as in that a man's wife has died or become disabled?)) It's an interesting frame of mind for an ambitious female politician... (and in fairness to her, she does say later in the same interview: "I've spoken to a lot of people in the consumer side, and they still want to have consumer choice and blah blah blah" (It's hard to concentrate when she talks for any length of time, to be honest! But that's a more general, sound-byte style statement, unlike the specific linkage of "women" and "shopping" above.))
One is inevitably reminded of the episode of Father Ted where Ted and Dougal are shown reduced to tears after practically destroying the kitchen in a vain attempt to make a cup of tea, or where Ted cautions a bunch of middle-aged women to return to their husbands before they attempt any kind of domestic task ("Remember the time your Jim tried to make a cup of tea, and burned the house down?" (or something; I'm quoting from memory)). So, in Coughlan's Ireland, where are the men? That's simple: a single man has his food purchased and cooked for him by his mammy (outside of takeaway from either the petrol station (the indigestible breakfast roll) or the chipper, and the occasional visit to a restaurant (either for a wedding or to impress a potential wife)). Said mammy also washes his clothes, cleans his room, and ignores the porn in his wardrobe, until (or if) he gets married, in which case these tasks fall to his adoring new wife. If he doesn't find the right woman, of course (with good, child-bearin' hips) he stays with the mammy until one of them dies. No self-respecting Irish man could be let loose in a supermarket unsupervised: his head might spontaneously combust at the mindbending difficulty of having to find the proper toothpaste or kitchen roll, or he'd just sweep armfuls of products into the trolley in his oh-so-masculine way, then become confused and aggressive when his overloaded trolley costs him E1,000... Obviously, in Coughlan's Ireland where only women do the shoppin', there isn't much of a place for the single man living away from home (or worse, the single father), the gay couple (as she said on the legal status of same-sex parents: "My personal view is that this country is not ready for that, and may never, ever be ready for it." Unlike, of course, Fianna Fail's continued support (I view it as nothing else) for organisations involved in the decades-long cover-up of physical and sexual abuse of children), or a domestic situation where the woman works and the man cares for the children, because who'd do the grocery shopping then? Never mind the fact that whenever I do the week's shopping I'm likely to see as many men as women pushing trollies about.
I should point out here that there is nothing wrong with a man living at home until he get married, or a woman doing the shopping exclusively, and so forth, if that's what they want to do. My objection is when such a set-up is championed to the exclusion of all others, something which has always happened in Ireland. Curiously, it is Coughlan's party which, while by and large championing such traditional values, has caused the massive increase in the cost of living over the last decade that has forced both parents of countless families into work to make ends meet, whether they wanted to or not, thus destroying the happy-family stereotype that Fianna Fail celebrate so fulsomely.
If you think I'm being a bit pedantic by picking out something like this, I'd like to point out that gender-swapping the sentence is not likely. Would the Minister have said: "Any man in the country who's been out shopping has seen ... a reduction in prices..."? I can't see any reason, other than what I've outlined above, as to the use of the word "woman" (instead of the gender-neutral "person") in this particular context, except by someone who believes (or affects to believe) that certain tasks fall naturally to men or women (cutting the grass is a man's job, while washing clothes is a woman's job, and so on). Words have power, and reveal a lot about the speaker and their society. And it's as depressing as it is unsurprising for me to see that the kind of thinking as revealed by such a slip still thrives in our wonderful gombeen country. Anyway, here's a song in keeping with the above:

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Wexford Sights (III)

After seeing the glorious Harry Clarke stained glass windows in Christ Church, Gorey, this morning*, my partner and I walked up Tara Hill in North Wexford to see the view from the summit. Unfortunately, a lot of it is now blocked by trees planted in the last thirty years, but there's still enough visible to make this worth the uphill trek (and the rather confusingly marked forest paths, many of which are somewhat overgrown). Above is a photo of a rather out-of-breath Egg and his faithful hound, while below is part of the view from the summit, looking north into County Wicklow. 

* The church is open for services every Sunday at 8.30 and 11.30, and if you live in the Wexford area I highly recommend a trip to see these wonderful art works - the services usually take about 40 minutes. I took photos, but can't post them without permission, so you'll just have to go yourself!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Keepin' it Quiet with a Goat and a Donkey

Radu Malfatti has been described in The Wire magazine as a hardline Reductionist and one of the more challenging and significant figures in contemporary composed/improvised music (a biography of Malfatti can be found here). "Challenging" is certainly one way of describing Goat vs Donkey, a live collaboration with Taku Unami recorded in A Coruna, Spain, last year and available for download here (along with lots of reviews, nearly all of which are more complimentary than mine). This performance is constructed out of a very limited number of elements: long, low, individual trombone notes (Malfatti's axe of choice, apparently); whirring, sussurating electronic noises; the occasional metal clink (at times like someone closing the lid on a small tin teapot); distant scrapes, rustles, and bangs, some of which may be produced by the audience; and silence (or, to put it another way, the ambience of the hall). All of the above are very quietly spread out over 47 minutes, with only one or two moments when the lads ramp up the wattage (comparatively so; you could probably still hear a fly walk up a window pane in even the noisiest sections) so there's lots and lots of silence. One has to admire the uncompromising determination of the performers here (as well as the fortitude of the audience) and one could discuss for hours the validity of what is being done here and its antecedents (Cage's 4'33" being a reference point, I'd say, and I'm sure there are lots of others that aren't popping to my addled brain), as well as the point at which music stops being music and simply becomes unplanned sound. And, with music this quiet, listening at home means it becomes layered with extra sounds (as Bruce Russell, The Wire reviewer, pointed out in Issue 304); mine was augmented with the following: a noisy bird with occasional chirping; the hound with footsteps on a wooden floor and intermittent attempts to engage my attention by tossing a small rubber ball in the air; and myself on wheezing and the odd explosive sneeze (due to hayfever-induced congestion). But I'm sorry to say that, even approached in the right spirit as far as I was concerned (I wasn't expecting Wolf Eyes!) I found this to be one of the most excruciatingly boring pieces of music I've heard in donkey's years, and I only made it to the end out of a sense of duty rather than out of any expectation that, if I listened for long enough, suddenly the repetitive whirrs and drones and distant thuds would suddenly all make sense. I don't doubt the performers' abilities or vision, but I wonder if this piece would make more sense in a live setting (or on headphones in an utterly dark room) rather than heard in my sunroom. I'm glad that this piece exists, but I can't imagine listening to it again (except, of course, I probably will, just to see if my opinion changes: it has the feeling of being something significant). I think what turns me off this music is the whole reductionist thing: I find it somewhat puritanical to reduce the wide, rambunctious world of exciting sounds that exist all around us down to these ascetic and to my ear rather dull little noises. Not that I'm adverse to the idea, but maybe it's just that for me this music works better as concept than as a 47-minute lived experience. I find that the problem for me with reducing everything to such austere, minimal elements is that the performer must walk a precarious tightrope between removing enough to make his composition work while leaving in enough to actually make it worth listening to, especially over such length. I'm reminded of the old cartoon of a guy looking at a practically blank canvas and saying, "You know, sometimes less is just less..." For me (and I seem to be alone in this one) I'm not sure if they've pulled it off here, and even after reading the other reviews, written by people with more wisdom and seasoned ears than mine, I'm still not convinced...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I Haven't Felt This Way Since "Funky Town"! (VIII)

I don't normally do this, but over dinner my partner informed me that today is the 126th birthday of a certain Igor Stravinsky, and I felt compelled to share this fact. I've been a huge admirer of his work for many years now, but even though there are many pieces in his collected works that leave me silent in awestruck admiration, one in particular stands out for me: Agon, a late work in which Stravinsky began to utilise the twelve-tone method of composing pioneered by the Viennese School in the first half of the 20th Century. Here's a version of it which I'm not familiar with (and which takes the tempo a bit faster than the Stravinsky-approved version I've heard) (and also infuriates by not crediting who's performing). I know a lot of the stuff I recommend might be a little too extreme (or outre) for many listeners, but I cannot recommend Stravinsky's work highly enough; his complete works, including performances either with the man himself conducting or with others under his direct supervision, is available here or, I'm sure, elsewhere if you don't do the whole Amazon thing (and if you've never heard The Rite of Spring, do nothing else (including eating or sleeping) until you've obtained a copy! My partner once saw it performed live by the Berlin Philharmonic, and she said that the sheer force of the sound made her chair rattle...) Anyway, raise a glass to Igor Fedorovitch, and here's Agon. Enjoy!

Support Your Local Composer (IV): Taking the Temperature

Fergus Kelly is an important figure in the world of Irish experimental music, both as a performer (often on the delightfully named 'Cabinet of Curiosities"), and as a sound artist and composer. He also maintains the Room Temperature label as a vehicle for documenting his work, often featuring releases with David Lacey, Dennis McNulty, and Paul Vogel, and proving that Irish artists can more than hold their own among the big boys (and girls) of international improv. (See here for more details.) I recently obtained two CDs from Room Temperature, a live set with the above-mentioned quartet (Trinity College Chapel 8 October 2005) and and a set of what you could describe of sculpted field recordings made in ex-Guinness sites in Dublin, Material Evidence. (Might I comment at this stage that Kelly designs his own releases, and does a fine job of it as well? I particularly like Material Evidence, a 3"CD; both can be seen at the website.) (On a related note, can I point out that I'm starting to develop a great fondness for 3" CDs? I love their dinky size, along with the fact that they provide a quickly digested alternative to the full-length CD and are thus a great way of sampling an artist's work, as well as highlighting excellent short pieces without the necessity for extra filler. I recently received some 3"CDs from the Compost & Height label which, in addition to showcasing fine music (I particularly like Gino Robair's two "Norwich Fragments"; as well as being abrasive yet controlled and powerful percussive music which, although only lasting five minutes each, I could have listened to for hours, they have a wonderfully evocative title that sounds like a lost Lovecraft story) are beautifully packaged: a small wooden block wrapped in plastic, in which sits a bone-white tiny CD.)
But enough rambling. Kelly's Material Evidence is, as stated earlier, made up of sounds recorded "in ex-Guinness sites in Crane Street and Watling Street in Dublin..." and arranged into three tracks, two little vignettes "Ullage" and "Dregs" (the former is only a minute long!) and one lengthy beast: "Grist", which opened the CD and clocks in at over 15 minutes. Now, as a person who has always had a fascination with crumbling, abandoned industrial sites, finding in them a strange melancholy poetry of rust and silence, these tracks were music to my ears in more ways than one! I'm not sure how much alteration has been made to the original recordings made in the sites, but in "Grist" Kelly has constructed a wonderfully varied and imaginative soundworld, transforming from turbulent clangorous mayhem, as a torrent of crashes, scrapes and bangs erupt out of the speakers, to a more subdued, sparse place where individual sounds can be savoured more easily. There is a great feeling of freedom and spontaneity, a liveliness, which such music can sometimes lack if the sounds are overly processed and forced to sound like "music". One thing I must comment on is the sense of space, movement and texture which Kelly creates; one can really sense the damp, cavernous warehouse, cluttered with dented barrels and whatnot, that one could hear these sounds in. Fine stuff indeed (even for those not overly partial to the sound of scraping metal!). "Ullage", a very brief percussive piece, provides a breather after "Grist", and the final piece, "Dregs" is a quieter, almost delicate (comparatively speaking) composition which rounds out the CD nicely. Highly recommended (and reasonably priced, too!). 
Trinity College Chapel 8 October 2005 is a live set recorded in the eponymous venue and consists of one 35-minute track, a group improvisation which ebbs and flows from muted, spectral sounds (very suited to the tradition-soaked environment in which the music was played), to powerful, surging attacks, featuring the kind of control and invention which one would expect from these performers (joined twice by an uncredited police siren at two points in the performance; interesting, it fits rather nicely! There's also a very curious section at the end where we hear what sounds like someone playing a short tune on a ghostly synthesiser, backed by scratchy electronic muttering which, when I first heard it, sounded very like the audience laughing. I say curious because, to my ear, it seems weirdly out-of-place with the rest of the performance). Oddly, though, while I think this performance is very fine, for some reason it doesn't involve me in the way that other music by these and similar performers does. Perhaps "uninvolving" is the wrong word - I think "hermetic" might be a little closer to how this music sounds to me, like watching a remarkable foreign film sans subtitles. I'm not sure why, and I could put this record on in six months and be utterly mesmerised, clutching my hair and wailing, "what! was! I! thinking! when I wrote that this music left me somewhat indifferent!" (Don't laugh: it's happened before, and with records that I initially reacted to with considerably more hostility than this one. And if it does, I'll write an updated review!) I hope the above doesn't put any potential buyers off purchasing the CD, though: I'd love to hear an alternate reaction, and it is, despite my reservations, well worth seeking out. I'm certainly going to be ordering more from Room Temperature, and I hope that others would join me, and support their local composers! 

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Summer and Sneezing...

It's a weekday afternoon in mid-June, and the sun is blaring from a sky so blue it would send Yves Klein in a jealous rage. Birds twitter, insects swarm, sheep boil inside their coats, farmers spread stinking muck on their land to offend the noses of all and sundry, and flowers practically explode with colour. In the sand dunes near where I live, armies of snails emerge to munch on ... well, whatever it is that delights the invertebrate palate; if they ever developed speed and a taste for human flesh there's enough of them to overrun the country (mad scientists on vacation in Wexford, take note: here's a crazed experiment, meddling in that which Man was not meant to understand, to pass the time on your holidays!). At weekends, on the beach beyond the dunes, the stroller is confronted by acres of white and pink peeling and overweight flesh as we Irish, in defiance of skin cancer and aesthetics, expose our flabby bodies to a kind of heat we're just not designed for. The whole scene is just too summery for words; even the lager-swilling oaf whose blindingly white beer-gut, like a billion-watt light bulb, causes passer-bys' heads to explode when the sun hits it directly and sends confusing signals to ships out on the Irish Sea, can't spoil the mood.
Yet not five miles distant I'm hiding in my living room with the doors and windows closed, sneezing, coughing, and wiping my reddened eyes in a vain attempt to relieve the endless itching. Yes indeed: I've been exposed to what is for me Nature's pepper spray, those little particles of pollen that every cursed green thing in the whole country blasts out in clouds and which have the same effect on me as a faceful of chilli powder. I suffer from hayfever, an infuriating nuisance which has me housebound for most of the early summer, knowing full well that if I emerge for even a few minutes, my whole head will start to leak fluids like an overripe cheese as my orifices try desperately to cope with the onslaught of allergens in the air. On really bad days it feels as if my face is trying to crawl off my head like a floppy, stubbly mask and retreat back into the house under its own power. I’ve been subjected to every kind of treatment that there is; I’ve taken tablets, had injections, snorted nasal sprays, rinsed with eye washes, avoided foods known to exacerbate the condition, and nothing really works. The only antihistamines strong enough to alleviate my symptoms would reduce me to a mumbling, semi-catatonic vegetable, making any appreciation of their effect a pointless exercise. Verily, it doth mightily suck, as the Bard would say.
There is no escape. Even avoiding strong daylight like a vampire, residing in a pollen-free coffin until sunset and prowling around throughout the night, is not an option. Firstly, it’s only dark for about six hours in the summer months, when the condition is at its most invasive, and secondly, it is rather difficult to explain to your employer that you can only work from ten at night until four in the morning on account of the mild to severe discomfort caused by your hayfever. Also, there’s nothing open at night outside the cities in Ireland, unless hanging out with shelf stackers in the local 24-hour Tesco’s is your idea of jolly old fun. And, because it’s inevitable that you have to venture forth in daylight hours, nighttime becomes infected with its own little pesky torment. You see, all day I’m sneezing and weeping (occasionally due to the nightmarish gloom and ennui of my miserable existence, but primarily from pollen) so once the sun goes down and the (infernal) plants stop pollinating, my embattled nose takes the much-needed opportunity to heal itself. This requires a cascading torrent of soothing mucus, so I spend the whole night unable to breathe properly due to congestion. This in turn leads to insomnia, watching a lot of really terrible late-night TV (mainly dodgy horror films as well as repeats of cartoons and The Young Ones), and violent mood swings, all the way from furious self-pity to apathetic self-pity. The whole rotten business lasts for about a month and a half, or whenever the vegetable world decides that the seeds are sown and the new generation is sure to sprout (and spare a thought for my poor partner, who has to put up with me (not a person to accept adversity stoically, as friends will readily attest) through-out all this). It's part of the reason why I welcome the rain in summer; plants don't pollinate in a downpour. But I can't go out in the rain either...
So the next time you dance playfully through a field of grass, gambolling hand in hand with your sweetheart and bellowing out the Beatles’ ‘Good Day Sunshine’, take a moment to thank whatever gods you believe in that you’re not one of us lurking in our darkened rooms filled with bile and hatred for the sun, one of The Afflicted. (See what I meant about ridiculous self-pity?) So, here's a song that I really relate to right about now (it's one of my all-time favourites anyway, so this is just an excuse to post it so that I can listen to it again).)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Answering the Question

I’d wager that anyone who has ever delved into the realm of unfamiliar or experimental or difficult music has at some point, been presented with The Question. It may have come from a loved one, a family member, a friend, or just an acquaintance, and may have been phrased in a number of different ways, but the essential meaning was always the same. As you’re sitting grooving to something like Evan Parker or Anthony Braxton or John Cage or whatever (believe me, this list could practically be endless!) someone enters the room, listens for a few seconds (or minutes) and then asks The Question: “Is that music?" (Or "You call that music?”, “What the hell is that you’re listening to?”, “What is that racket?” “How can you listen to that?” or “Jaysus, that sounds like a cat being strangled...” and so forth.) And seeing as I’ve spent a considerable portion of my adult life listening to music that I like to describe as “exploratory”, I’ve been presented with The Question on numerous occasions. So this is my humble attempt to answer The Question for those who may visit this blog and find it upon their lips as they are confronted with vegetable instruments, shrieking electronic noise, strange men boiling kettles and blowing duck whistles, and who may think that my definition of musical pleasure is that of a Cenobite (the monstrous creatures in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser whose idea of pleasure involved torturing the shit out of you for all eternity).
A digression: what was the first piece of music you heard that really confronted you with something utterly unfamiliar and unexpected? As a teenager, it was having my preconceptions blown apart by (among others) the Soft Machine’s Third, the Velvet Underground’s first two albums, John Coltrane’s Meditations, Frank Zappa’s Uncle Meat, and so forth. The last choice there is important; this was at a time before the internet, when finding experimental music in Limerick was akin to finding a lost contact lens in the Atlantic Ocean, and while Zappa gets a lot of (entirely deserved) criticism for being an almost total git, without his influence it probably would not have occurred to me at the time to listen to Stravinsky, Varese, Webern, or Boulez (and others discovered by investigating these composers) and my musical world would have been a lot less interesting for a longer time. But it was around the time that I was absorbing the above that I made a momentous discovery: I was browsing through the classical section in the newly opened HMV in Limerick when I saw an album which stunned me by its very presence there. It was a double CD of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s piano and electroacoustic music, Klavierstuck I-XI & Mikrophone I & II! And it was £15 (or some outrageous sum, the price of an evening’s boozing)! So, with trembling hands and knocking knees I brought this slab of ultra-modern composing up to the cash register, handed over my money, and hurried home on the bus, perusing the insanely detailed liner notes (which tell you the humidity at the time the piano pieces were recorded (approximately 50%), that the left pedal creaked and needed repairing, what the pianist (Aloys Kontarsky) ate and drank, how much he slept, and other minutaie). When I got home, I retired to the sitting room (which contained our brand new CD player, high tech stuff at this juncture), and put on the first CD, which contained the piano pieces. Need I say that I was totally baffled? Or that, in all honesty, I asked of myself The Question?
It was the first time, as I said, that I heard something completely outside my comprehension. While I had heard a certain amount of strange music, most of it could be connected to pre-existing styles with which I was familiar. While free jazz, which I was beginning to discover at this time, was also provoking a certain amount of head-scratching, especially the high-pitched shrieking of Pharaoh Sanders, I could at least grasp (in theory) what he was shrieking about, even if it would take time to become accustomed to the sounds produced. But Stockhausen... On first listen, it sounded totally random, a guy hitting notes all over the piano without any structure or progression. I was confused as to how this music was put together at all – how did anyone sit down and write this? How did they decide how it started, or ended? I had only the vaguest notion of what serial music was at the time, and the liner notes (written by Karlheinz himself) were of little use in trying to figure out just what was going on in these seemingly jerky, random little pieces. Part of the problem, of course, was that I was trying to understand them through the lens of conventionally structured music, which was a worse than useless method, and I angrily turned off the CD player. (I will point out that I quite liked Mikrophone I and (especially) II on the second disc; their fascinating sonic textures made them much more accessible, even if I still wasn’t quite sure what precisely they were.) Now, it seems to me that many people, even if they’d made it this far with Stockhausen, would have dumped the CD in a cupboard and never listened to it again, but I didn’t. I kept putting it on every now and again, trying to figure out what it was about this music that I should like. Eventually, it was sheer familiarity that did it: I stopped trying to work out what the pieces were “about”, as if they were a puzzle in a cryptic crossword and I’d win a bun if I got the right answer, and just listened to them without preconceptions. These days, I think they are very beautiful, crystalline, edgy things, and a genuine (if slightly chilly) pleasure to listen to. But these days there is very little which produces that “what the hell is this?” feeling for me; the closest would be stuff like Vinko Globokar’s Toucher, a really weird collection of solo percussion and vocal music which, though I understand what he’s doing in theory, I do find a bit odd... Or oddly, the work of Derek Bailey: I've listened to quite of few of his records now and simply do not "get" what I am supposed to like about them. I can understand why he is a great artist, but I can't say that listening to his music is anything other than work for me. Here’s samples of Globokar, Bailey, and Stockhausen's Klavierstuck I:

So what would you say is the oddest piece of music that you’ve heard, or the first you heard which made you ask The Question ("Is that music?")? And, to get back to my original Question, how would you define what is (or isn't) music? I'm off on holidays for the weekend, but I'd very much like to continue this as a discussion in the comments section, so I'll respond to any comments after Monday next.