Saturday, March 28, 2009

The i-and-e Festival (Part 2)

The second night of the i-and-e festival (see post immediately preceding for information) began with the Irish group Safe (Paul Hegarty and Brian O’Shaughnessy) with guitarist Paul Condon. Safe use live CD mixing, keyboards, electronics and voice, and after a sparse opening created a turbulent, noisy, and at times unsettling atmosphere, sometimes anchored by a pulse and sometimes not, against which the guitarist pitted his spectral, wailing playing (it sounded a lot like Keiji Haino’s playing with Fushitsusha to me). It was certainly entertaining, even if I found the rock-style guitar not entirely to my taste. You can hear a very noisy track by Safe here.
Next up was something completely different, in terms of volume if nothing else. The French trio of Cyril Epinat (on amplified objects and electronics), Mathias Forge (trombone) and Leo Dumont (percussion) gave us a very quiet, sensitive performance which sounded like a field recording being generated by humans. Forge never played a recognisable note on his battered-looking trombone, producing breaths, gurgles, and groans that meshed perfectly with the odd scratches and clinks the other two lads made, sometimes using a cardboard tube as a mute, in keeping with the DIY aesthetic of the group. At one point distant voices could be heard, as if people in the next room were accidentally intruding on the music; only the fact that they were in French let us know they weren’t. I found it absolutely fascinating, like sitting in a field on a windy day with ambient sounds, distant traffic, and voices on the breeze. By contrast, my partner, who came with me on this night, found it tedious beyond belief and couldn’t wait for it to end. I couldn’t find any links or samples on the net, so you’ll have to buy their album from Creative Sources here if you want to get an idea of what their performance was like.
After an interval we had Berlin-based Englishman Robin Hayward on tuba (not an instrument that one associates with the avant-garde!). He sat sideways in the darkened room, so all that was visible was the vast golden bell of the instrument and the top of his head, producing a weird, grating breathsound for a considerable length of time which was quite extraordinary, like a distant Arctic wind heard through static. Towards the middle of the piece he began repeating a single sound over and over, occasionally allowing it to disintegrate before beginning again; I’m sorry to say that I found this section rather dull. I could see what he was trying to do, but it didn’t work for me. The last part of the piece returned to the more abstract and experimental sounds of the beginning, with parts sounding like a maddened short-wave radio expelling spectral bursts of static, like the strange ghostly noises emitted by dying stars (am I getting a bit carried away here? That’s what it evoked to me.) The above reservations aside, it was a very remarkable performance (and, though I don’t think it’s relevant, must have been appalling hard to do; parts of it sounded like he was inhaling through the whole length of the tuba!). His website can be found here.
Last up was Paul Lovens (percussion) and Thomas Lehn (homemade synth) of Germany. Lovens, with a short-sleeved white shirt and tie, looked like a bus driver, but played with a fierceness and invention that belied his respectable appearance, while Lehn at times looked like a mad scientist whose experiment had gone completely out of control, as he flailed and grappled with his synth to produce huge surges of electronic splurts, shrieks, scutters, and gurgles. At one stage he grabbed what looked like a chunk of circuitboard and began jamming it into the console to create a wild skittering noise, at which point my partner started laughing: she said later that it looked like he was either being wildly carried away with inspiration, or being electrocuted. The opening of the performance, I must say, sounded a bit untogether, as if the guys were playing in two different rooms, but once they got going things really took off, with Lovens easily able to stand up to Lehn’s often frenetic eruptions of sounds, playing with both vigour and great control. You can see them in action in 2007 here.

It was a rousing finale to an excellent festival, and once again my hat goes off to organisers Lacey and Vogel. Like any festival, some acts appealed to me more than others, but the standard was consistently high and the music was top-notch stuff. Roll on next year!

The i-and-e Festival (Part 1)

The annual (and wonderful) i-and-e festival, a celebration of contemporary improvised music curated by Paul Vogel and David Lacey, took place last weekend in the Ireland Institute on Pearse Street in Dublin. As usual, the curators had looked deep into the vast jug of Improv talent both at home and abroad, and skimmed off only the choicest cream for this year’s event (and don’t you just love such tortuous metaphors?). A full list of performers can be found here.
We opened on Friday night with a mixed media piece called Pedroneras: The Garlic Harvest, performed by Madrid-based musicians Wade Matthews (field recordings, electronics), Julio Camarena (prepared electro-acoustic guitar), and Adam Lubroth (projected images). The danger with combining music with images is that the sound becomes secondary, a mere soundtrack, but this was not the case here. Lubroth’s images, which were transparent, were layered, distorted, coloured with filters, and at times supplemented by a real head of garlic which entered the picture like a triffid, while the music provided a continually changing and inventive counterpoint, at times a dessicated crackling like a brittle landscape of garlic skins, at times a babble of Spanish voices overlayed with distorted field recordings, electronic noise, and ghostly scratches and scrapes. It was a compelling evocation of its subject matter, and thoroughly enjoyable. But why take my word for it? See an excerpt of the trio in action (at a different venue) below.

Next up was alto saxophonist Seymour Wright. Richard Pinnell has already written a description of Wright’s performance (in Glasgow) here, to which I can only add my affirmation (and we were free of crying children). Wright, whose music can be heard here, was hypnotically fascinating as he explored the outer edges of the saxophone’s capabilities, creating a oblique, delicate soundworld of breaths and whirrs and squeaks. This music really needs to be seen live, as the performance element – watching the actions he executes – is as important as the sounds produced (at one point he played the assembled sax with one hand, raising it back as if drinking from it, and at the end he sat with the instrument on his knees in silence, looking up and down its length as if he’d forgotten what it was). I must point out that when he had, for the first time, assembled the sax fully and was playing a series of loud, flatulent blarts through it, the woman sitting in front of me rocked back and forth in silent laughter (I think Mr Wright of Derby would have approved; this is very human music (something that communicates less well on disc, where it can seem very abstract) and, as John Cage said, laughter is preferable to tears).
The third act (and the last one I saw as, to my regret, I had to leave early) were Irish-based artists Fergus Kelly (on homemade instruments) and Jurgen Simpson (electronics and percussion). More info on Kelly here and on Simpson here. They conjured up a dark, fluctuating, at times percussive but never strident, soundworld which was by turns sinister and beautiful, sounding to my ear a little like the organic group improvisations of Morphogenesis, at other times referencing the Cartridge Music school of Over-Amplified Scratchy Things, but always with an integrity of its own. Like the best Improv, one didn’t hear the individual performers; one only heard the sound. I did feel, however, that it was a bit too long (sorry, lads!), and that its duration mitigated against effectiveness just a little bit. I’d be interested in hearing if anyone else thought that, or whether it was just me (and I like long performances that the listener can get lost in). Here's Kelly in action with festival organiser David Lacey:
After that I had to head away, so I missed Pascal Battus and Christine Sehnaoui, a performance which I was informed the following day was absolutely amazing. Next year I ain’t driving up and down each night; I’m booking a hotel, dammit! Part 2 of the Festival will follow shortly.

Friday, March 27, 2009

An Amusement (XII)

Something for the weekend...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Something About Pomposity

There's a furore going on in the Irish blogosphere over RTE's craven apology for broadcasting a short item on the Nine O'Clock News about a naked portrait of Brian Cowen. More details can be found here. But when I read it, I thought of these words from the late Frank Zappa (not a man I admire, but he had a nice turn of phrase at times). The quote is from a lengthy interview with Don Menn and Matt Groening in Guitar Player magazine, June 1992.

"You want to know what they hate more than anything else in life? They can't stand for people not to take them seriously. If you laugh at them for an instant, it's just like - the devil walks into a room, right? And he goes, "I'm the Devil," and you take a fork and poke him in the belly, and the gas comes out, and he'll go twirling around the room like an unleashed balloon. That's the way these guys are. They hate it, because they're so full of shit, they're so full of themselves that they just can't believe that people don't appreciate them for the grand, highly evolved creatures that they imagine themselves to be. They hate to be laughed at. If they weren't so fucking dangerous, it would be fun to laugh at them all the time, but sometimes you have to take into account how much damage they can do."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Farewell to the Book Stop

I always find it depressing when a good secondhand bookshop closes its doors for the last time, and when the place in question is The Book Stop on the Quay in Waterford, it's an outright shame. (I'm assuming it's closed down; the stock has all been cleared out, and there's no sign that it's moving or being renovated.) This was a very small but excellent shop, with a startling amount of good quality stock crammed into every available space; indeed, piles of books leaned against the counter where the very genial owner used to sit, awaiting their turn to go on to the shelves when space came free. As I work in Waterford every now and again, I'd call in quite regularly and make a beeline for the tiny back room, where the literary hardbacks lived alongside old LPs, football annuals, posters, and (for some reason) old piano rolls. There was always something interesting hidden away on those particular shelves, and the last thing I purchased there before it closed down was a lovely old hardback copy of Boswell's London Journals, which I'm currently reading (the poor lad is laid up with the clap at present). The only advantage is that I'll save a fortune by not squandering my pay on books I'll probably never read (such as a beautiful Victorian Arabian Nights I got there before Christmas), but it's hardly a compensation for losing the pleasure of being able to browse in such a fine shop. Waterford has suddenly become a much less interesting place with its demise.
Last week, on a walk down a country road with the faithful hound (who's broken another lead by biting through it, the brute!), I came across a tumbledown old cottage and took a few pictures. Most were pretty boring and not worth sharing, but the above one, taken as I was climbing across the rubble in the door, turned out to be quite strange and interesting. And as it's in keeping with the tenor of this whole post, I feel I should include it here.
(My apologies to Sean, whose comment accidentally got deleted while I was figuring out how to post the above image so that it could be enlarged.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Support Your Local Composer (III): Diversus in Tinahely

The worst feeling I can have in a concert of new and unfamiliar music is when I start to think: "Is it supposed to sound like that?" Confidence in the performer(s) is absolutely essential in this regard, and I was very surprised to find myself entertaining the query above at the concert I went to on Saturday night last in Tinahely, a concert of Baroque and new music given by the Diversus Guitar Ensemble. The DGE, formed and led by Brendan Walsh, a graduate of NUI Maynooth and a composer and member of the EAR Ensemble, are a well-regarded and accomplished group of up to 15 guitar players who specialise in new Irish music (more info of Diversus here; more info on EAR here and here).
Writing about this concert presents me with a problem of some delicacy. While on the one hand I am eager to be supportive of new music in Ireland, and the groups who promote it, I am also very reluctant to do so at the expense of proper critical standards. After all, I feel that it is far more insulting to a performer to patronisingly praise them for "having a go" (that ould Irish "ah shure, wasn't it grand?" school of criticism) than to point out where I felt their work was lacking. Because, considering their pedigree (and the price of the tickets) I felt that the group's performance on the night was awkward and at times noticeably clumsy, possessing the authority you would expect from such seasoned performers in fits and starts only (and they have been at it for five years now!). The conductor seemed nervous and ill-at-ease, and it seemed that the group (who all seemed very young) weren't always paying him enough attention. The crux of the problem was that the individual players rarely seemed to gel as a unit and truly inhabit the pieces they were playing (they came close in the last Vivaldi piece and in some of the new pieces). I don't know whether they were having a bad night (for whatever reason) or hadn't rehearsed enough, but I'm sorry to say that, based on this performance, I would be very reluctant to pay as much as I did on this occasion to see them again. And lest you think I’m being overly harsh, I must point out that my partner, a veteran concert-goer who was a regular attendee at the Proms when she lived in London, felt the same way I did. At the very sparse and atmospheric beginning of one piece, a guitar loudly fell over with a clonk, and my partner, who’s a lot more familiar with Baroque music than I am, was not terribly impressed with their interpretations. So I feel that, as I can't vouch for the accuracy of the new pieces they played (James McGuiggan's Music for Guitar Orchestra, Abigail Smith's Little Warm House, David Stalling's Three Movements, and John Wolf Brennan's Immram, all of which were commissioned for this group) I would prefer not to comment on them. I must mention, however, the unusual opening to Brennan's piece. Four of the guys sat cross-legged in front of the conductor, their guitars in their laps with the neck facing away from them. They then dragged fishing line back and forth across the strings, creating a wonderful sawing, almost groaning sound (not a million miles from the drone from the uilleann pipes) while the rest of the group played sparsely in the background. I was disappointed when they stopped and rejoined their seats, as the rest of the performance seemed to head into The Brendan Voyage territory of orchestrated traditional music, something that I found less interesting. If only all fifteen of them had been given some fishing line...
I apologise if this sounds unduly harsh, but I’m judging the group by the standards set by their own press releases. If any members of the group do read this, please let me know if this was just a dud evening, because there were moments when the ensemble did seem to click, and really showed what a group like this could achieve (after all, fifteen guitars played together does create a wonderful noise!). But they were not nearly as many as they should have been.
A note on the composers: James McGuiggan is a member of Diversus itself, and not much else is known about him (at least that’s my conclusion from scouring the internet). He also possesses a mighty afro! David Stalling is a composer and member of the EAR Ensemble, and has a MySpace page here. More information about John Wolf Brennan can be found here, and if you scroll down the page you can see a video of the man himself in action on the piano. Abigail Smith is a singer-songwriter (who often plays with Lioba Petrie, a member of the EAR Ensemble (as is the DGE’s director, Brendan Walsh – dear God, they’re everywhere!)) and was described by the Irish Independent (gag, spit!) as “sounding like Kate Bush’s wacky niece”, a claim that I hope irritates her. Her MySpace page is here, and here’s a sample of her work. You may not like it, but try getting the damn thing out of your head once you've heard it!


Sunday, March 15, 2009

This Week's Blinding Thought (VII)

HP Lovecraft described Matthew Lewis’s ribald and scandalous Gothic shocker The Monk (1796) as “too long and too diffuse, and much of its potency is marred by flippancy” even though it contains “many enormously potent strokes”. This is, like most of Lovecraft’s literary criticism, right on the money. I simply lost interest in the story about 300 pages in, and it never even comes close to the power and intensity of Maturin’s awesome Melmoth the Wanderer, or Potocki’s brilliantly complex and multi-layered Manuscript Found In Saragossa. But it does contain, among other things, a hilarious passage in which a nobleman comes upon his servant writing some poetry, and advises him in the following fashion. The odd capitalizations are Lewis’s own. Anyone wishing to venture forth into the public realm with their scribblings (and this includes bloggers such as myself) should take heed of the following!
‘I was going to say, that you cannot employ your time worse than in making verses. An Author, whether good or bad, or between both, is an Animal whom every body is privileged to attack; For though All are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them. A bad composition carries with it its own punishment, contempt and ridicule. A good one excites envy, and entails upon its Author a thousand mortifications. He finds himself assailed by partial and ill-humoured Criticism: One Man finds fault with the plan, Another with the style, a Third with the precept, which it strives to inculcate; and they who cannot succeed in finding fault with the book, employ themselves in stigmatizing the Author. They maliciously rake out from obscurity every little circumstance, which may throw ridicule upon his private character or conduct, and aim at wounding the Man, since They cannot hurt the Writer. In short to enter the lists of literature is wilfully to expose yourself to the arrows of neglect, ridicule, envy, and disappointment. Whether you write well or ill, be assured that you will not escape from blame; Indeed this circumstance contains a young Author’s chief consolation: He remembers that Lope de Vega and Calderona had unjust and envious Critics, and he modestly conceives himself to be exactly in their predicament. But I am conscious, that all these sage observations are thrown away upon you. Authorship is a mania to conquer which no reasons are sufficiently strong; and you might as easily persuade me not to love, as I persuade you not to write. However, if you cannot help being occasionally seized with a poetical paroxysm, take at least the precaution of communicating your verses to none but those whose partiality for you secures their approbation.'
'Then, my Lord, you do not think these lines tolerable?' said Theodore with an humble and dejected air.
'You mistake my meaning. As I said before, they have pleased me much; But my regard for you makes me partial, and Others might judge them less favourably. I must still remark that even my prejudice in your favour does not blind me so much as to prevent my observing several faults. For instance, you make a terrible confusion of metaphors; You are too apt to make the strength of your lines consist more in the words than sense; Some of the verses only seem introduced in order to rhyme with others; and most of the best ideas are borrowed from other Poets, though possibly you are unconscious of the theft yourself. These faults may occasionally be excused in a work of length; But a short Poem must be correct and perfect.'
'All this is true, Segnor; But you should consider that I only write for pleasure.'
'Your defects are the less excusable. Their incorrectness may be forgiven in those who work for money, who are obliged to compleat a given task in a given time, and are paid according to the bulk, not value of their productions. But in those whom no necessity forces to turn Author, who merely write for fame, and have full leisure to polish their compositions, faults are impardonable, and merit the sharpest arrows of criticism.'

Friday, March 13, 2009

Worth Seeking (VIII)

"Noise is incomprehensible yet it is noise that we truly seek since the greatest truth lies behind the greatest resistance." (Morton Feldman)
One of the interesting things about maintaining a wee bloggeen such as mine is that, as time goes on, I feel the need to retune and update features in order to keep it in line with my thinking (if one can describe my strange mental processes with such a word). Anyway, one of the features of my blog has been the segment entitled This Week's Hideous Racket, in which I post links to, or reviews of, music from the more experimental end of the spectrum (and that label was meant entirely in the spirit of irony, seeing as I love the stuff I post links to). But I've become dissatisfied with that particular label, seeing as it could be taken as carrying a negative charge that some people may take offence at. This is both understandable and entirely avoidable, so I've decided to remove the Racket label and replace it with the one above, not just from any subsequent posts, but from my blog at all, which will require a certain amount of retroactive editing. One can compare it to what happened to of King Runazar in a story by Lord Dunsany, of whom "the gods decided must not only cease to be, but cease ever to have been." So if things are a bit odd in the archives for a day or so, please forgive me. And to set my new label out to sea in the proper fashion, here's something interesting from a very exciting Irish composer whose work I'm beginning to explore: 

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Support Your Local Composer (II): A Taste of John Wolf Brennan

I'm off to a concert on Saturday to see some interesting contemporary music, and one of the pieces to be performed is by Irish expat composer John Wolf Brennan, a man whose work doesn't so much move between genres as just ignore them, but which can be roughly labelled as in the spectrum of modern jazz and composition. I'm only discovering his work, which is both well-documented and prolific, and anticipate some musical pleasures ahead. Anyway, here's a snippet of the man himself in action. More information on Brennan can be found here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

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

Have you ever had a song from a band that you don't particular like lodge itself in your head and steadfastly refuse to leave? I never liked the Happy Mondays much (except for 'Step On', which is a great tune), and I don't even like the original version of this track, but this remix oozes such a hazy nocturnal miasma that it perfectly evokes getting the bus around Manchester late at night in the early nineties, which I had to do when my girlfriend was staying in a tower block in a very dodgy area of that city. Turn this one up very loud!

Monday, March 9, 2009

An Amusement (XI)

Some films are immensely improved by the “mute” button on your remote control, as I discovered while watching a few minutes of In Bruges last night. Bruges is a staggeringly beautiful and mysterious place – city of Bruges-la-Morte, William Caxton, and Jan van Eyck – and the continual swearing and obnoxiousness of the central characters (begorrah shure now, that’s the Irish for you! We’re such an irreverent, dodgy, foul-mouthed lot!) irritated me to such a degree that I silenced them so as to appreciate the setting all the more. And with the dialogue removed, one can imagine that the characters were spouting fragments from Pascal’s Pensées:
Colin Farrell: “This f***in’ town is a f***kin s***hole, you f***in’ c**t!”
Brendan Gleeson: “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.”
Colin Farrell: “Yah f***in’ wha’?”
Brendan Gleeson: “The parrot wipes its beak even though it is clean.”
Another film that benefits from this treatment, in my experience, is the woeful Blame It On The Bellboy, a septic pustule of a film, but one which features lengthy chase scenes through that most magnificent of cities, Venice. But if the purpose of a blog (well, of this blog anyway) is to recommend things that you might find interesting, then I beseech you, I implore you, to drop whatever you’re doing and watch the Quay Brothers’ In Absentia immediately. No, I don’t care you just put on a roast! No, the dog can do without its walk! Go now! In any case, the film’s only twenty minutes’ long, so once you’ve found a copy it shouldn’t take too long to sit through; the only danger is that, like me, you will immediately want to watch it again. I’ve been a fan of the Bros. Quay ever since I saw the astonishing Street of Crocodiles years ago; their short films, which are animated and feature doll-like puppets, are quite beautiful, oneiric things, full of half-seen glimpses, enigmatic whispers, strangely organic machines, miniature landscapes, wonderful music, and are thoroughly saturated in a dream of European culture (the Quays grew up in a culture-free suburb of Pennsylvania). In Absentia has all those qualities, being based on a true-life story of an insane woman named Emma Hauck (1878-1928), who wrote “Herzensschatki komm” (or “Sweetheart Come”) thousands of times on sheets of notepaper, obsessive entreaties to an absent husband which have been preserved in the Prinzhorn Collection of the art of the insane (I can't find a decent copy of one of her "letters", but if you buy this film, or the catalogue for the Hayward Gallery's exhibition of the Prinzhorn Collection, Beyond Reason, you'll be able to view them along with the equally remarkable works by other psychotic artists).
This film, made in black and white with snatches of colour, uses strange angles, at times baffling close-ups of everyday objects, sudden cuts and juxtapositions, to evoke a reality that’s profoundly uncertain, unfamiliar, and unsettled, yet is absolutely compelling. Of course, an integral part of the Quays’ films is the music, and here it is provided by the late, great Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose marvellous score, utilizing electronics and voices, helps to create a darkly magical, haunting, private world which mesmerizes from the first second right up until the end. I cannot recommend this film, and other by the Quays, highly enough. If you haven’t already sampled them, a treat lies in store for you.
I might mention that the Quays have directed two feature length movies, Institute Benjamenta and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. Both are, like all the Quays’ work, very remarkable, and they benefit from repeated viewings, but their very slow pace, extremely stylized dialogue and settings, and oblique plots, might not be for everyone. It’s a long time since I’ve seen Benjamenta, but I watched The Piano Tuner recently and can say that while it is brilliant – the Quays create the closest thing to pure cinematic poetry that I’ve seen – some of the dialogue does require a certain amount of excusing, even within the strange, metaphorical world of the film. But as they say themselves in the interview on the DVD:
Timothy Quay: “Something that we noticed in the vast amount of criticism the [the film has] gotten is quite clearly that some people object to the fact that it hasn’t satisfied a certain criteria that they expect from films. Rather than letting the film talk to them and riding with it, they’re continually trying to impose control over it. We’re rather surprised by that … [you have to be] open to the possibilities, the way a film can move…”
Alan Passes (screenwriter): I’m not saying that we succeeded in our aim [with this film]… but I think there’s very much a question of cultural conditioning with Anglo-Saxon ordinances. There’s the great tradition of naturalism, which obviously includes the written word … and for this kind of film, it’s nice if people leave those preconceptions at the door of the cinema and just allow themselves to float with what we’re attempting…”
On a very vaguely related topic, might I also recommend catching an Irish animated film called The Secret of Kells? It’s a children’s film about the production of the Book of Kells, the brainchild of the Cartoon Saloon, a very talented bunch of lads from Kilkenny who’ve moved Heaven and Earth to get this film into the cinemas. The story is a bit weak, and it sails a little close to cliché at times, but the film’s style is very striking and inventive, and if (like me) you are tired of the sheer blandness and mediocrity of so many animated mainstream films, you might find something in it to admire. It ain’t great art, but it’s very promising and definitely worth seeing in a cinema. Support your local filmmaker!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Support Your Local Composer (I): Ear-Plugged!

It occurred to me recently that my blog seems to be only showcasing music produced by foreign composers, something which must no doubt get up the nose of fervent patriots everywhere. They may roar indignantly: “Surely now, Irish music isn’t all Big Tom, U2, and ‘Ripples in the Rockpool’? As a nation, we must be capable of producing the occasional slice of avant-garde amusement?” And indeed there is a healthy, if not very well-publicised or supported, undercurrent of contemporary composition and experimental Improv churning away out there, occasionally surfacing from the depths on Lyric FM, like a coelacanth, before vanishing again. If you think I’m being a little theatrical here, let me ask you this: how many people in Ireland, at a rough estimate, could name five living Irish composers who aren’t Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Bill Whelan (of Riverdance fame) or Shaun Davey (of The Brendan Voyage)? Yet there are dozens of them out there, squirreling away in their garrets with laptops, peculiar wind instruments, metronomes, or whatever, making music which at its best can stand proudly on the international stage. To cite one example, composer Jennifer Walshe has written three experimental operas which have been shown to huge acclaim in Germany, but have never been performed in Ireland (I’ve not seen them, I hasten to add, but know of them through The Journal of Music in Ireland, a stalwart publication which remains the best (in fact, the only) guide to Irish contemporary music. It’s available online here). So my (extremely belated New Year’s) resolution is to write more about the Irish contemporary scene and attend as many concerts as I can throughout the year (provided the country’s economic collapse doesn’t overly impact on me!). Support your local composers!
In that spirit of discovery, I went to the Ear-plugged Festival of New Music held in Dublin recently (due to my own negligence, I only discovered that the festival was on a few days before it started (note to self: check CMC calendar here more frequently!)). [More information on the EAR ensemble, who run this event, can be found here.] However, because of a rather nasty dose of stomach cramps on Saturday, I only got to attend two of the concerts on Friday, and entirely missed Thalassa-Muir-Sea, the multimedia performance that was being premiered on both nights. Heavens to Murgatroyd! More information about the festival can be found here.
First mention should go to a piece of sonic sculpture made by Iain McCurdy just inside the door of The Lab on Foley Street, the very modern building where the festival took place. On the floor was a black mat, about two feet wide and an inch high, with tiny sensors fitted in a circular pattern in its surface. Over them was a magnetized eight-ball (from a pool table) suspended on a string, hanging just over the mat like a pendulum. Each sensor was programmed so that, as the ball passed over it, a musical sound was produced (all sampled from a classical guitar). If you took the ball and swung it gently, so that it passed over several sensors at once, the different samples created a musical phrase which was repeated each time the ball completed an arc. But as the ball slowed down, it would pass over different sensors, so the “composition” being created by the rhythmic swings of the ball would also transform (and as the ball’s swings became slower, the sounds made became softer). It was a very simple idea in one way, but in practice it was absolutely hypnotic both to watch and listen to. The creator, whom I spoke to, told me how difficult it was to get a ball of the right size and weight to get a good swing, and how precisely it had to be placed so that the magnet wouldn’t simply pin the ball to the mat. The black eight-ball was a serendipitous choice as it both fitted the look of the exhibit, and with the eight turned on its side thusly ∞, it evoked as sense of entropy and endlessness, as well as a sense of play and repetition (what is a pool game but an endless series of repetitions?). It was a delightful piece, and well done to its creator. A not-very-good photo of the installation is below.

The first event I attended, after a certain amount of confusion as to where it was actually happening, was Friday afternoon’s electroacoustic concert, featuring works by Eduardo Reck Miranda, Simon Emmerson, Diego Garro, and Trevor Wishart (all UK-based composers of varying nationality, none of whom I was familiar with). There were only a handful of people there, which was a shame. What is an electroacoustic concert in this context, I hear you ask? Simply put, it’s a guy (in this case, Irish-based Brazilian composer Victor Lazzarini) who selects and plays CDs through a set of twelve speakers and a mixing desk, allowing him to control the volume and direction of sounds being fed through the speakers. Being used to my everyday stereo, it was a pleasure to hear experimental compositions being played in such a fashion; the superb quality and multi-directionality of the surround-sound system allowed the compositions to come to life in a way that’s difficult to achieve except on the finest of home systems.
But what of the music? Trevor Wishart’s The Division of Labour (from his ‘virtual oratorio’ Fabulous Paris (sample here)) was by far the most interesting: he took a passage from Adam Smith’s seminal text The Wealth of Nations about the manufacture of a pin in a pin factory and ran it through a series of remarkably inventive distortions, scything it up into unrecognizable fragments, reversing it, layering or burying it under noise to produce a thoughtful, fascinating, and at times rather funny piece of music. Of all the pieces, it’s the only one I’d be really interested in hearing again. The others were stimulating but not wildly exciting experiments. Miranda’s robotapithecus was described as “a choir of virtual singing robots punctuated by cries of mutant chimpanzees, baboons, gorillas, and orang-utans”, in which he seemed to be artificially synthesising natural vocal sounds through computers. It wasn’t quite as interesting as that would have you believe, although it did evoke an at-times otherworldly ambience (and the opening sounded very like Stockhausen’s Kontakte). Garro’s O que a menina ouve (which won first prize at the Bourges 32nd Festival of electronic music) was the evocation of a child’s world through sonic means; much of it was quite funny and inventive, but (like Miranda’s piece) it felt strangely secondhand, utilizing a sonic palette and technique that I felt I’d heard before without being able to pinpoint exactly where. The second half of the piece, with the sound of running water, strange electronic whispers, and animal- and bird-sounds (real or not?) was quite mysterious and atmospheric (in my notes I describe a particular sound as being “like a troll yawning”). Emmerson’s Frictions I found rather dull; based on the four elements and the horrors of conflict, I found his sound-world derivative and programmatic, reminding me a little of Thomas Koner but lacking inventiveness and intensity. Later, however, I heard a woman speaking to Lazzarini who said that Emmerson’s piece had moved her the most. Each to their own, I suppose! But all four pieces were definitely worth hearing, which makes me regret not being able to attend Saturday’s concert, and I’d highly recommend seeking out Wishart’s work (more information here). In the end of the day, like any contemporary art show, some of the pieces will impress more than others, but if one worthwhile discovery is made, the trip isn’t wasted.
Later that evening I made my way back into Dublin’s city centre from my sister’s house (where I’d spent much of the afternoon capering about to keep her two-year-old amused while she got on with household chores) and attended the early evening concert, which featured six short pieces from as many composers. All the pieces bar one were for computer/tape and a single soloist on one of the odder members of the brass or woodwind family (such as the bass flute, the slide trumpet, and the bass clarinet), except for the last piece, Uwe Storch’s Tron, which had three soloists on said instruments. Judith Ring’s Whispering the Turmoil Down for bass clarinet and tape, which can be heard here, is both representative of the type of music played (a soloist playing almost melodic fragments over an ebbing, moody undercurrent of electronic sounds) and the best piece played in my opinion; she evokes a haunting, mournful atmosphere through the exploitation both of tape sounds and the wonderful timbre of the bass clarinet (a fine instrument!). I felt the other pieces, while interesting, were less compelling, although John Lato’s Orographic Meta-Study was more inventive and lively than most, and a mention should be made of the strange technique used in Derek Kelly’s K’ark, in which the computer seemed to be taking phrases played by the clarinet and repeating them, so one had the disconcerting experience of music being produced even when the player has put down her instrument. The long final piece, Storch’s Tron, brought to mind the strange Eastern-tinged music of Giacinto Scelsi, and was described as an attempt by the composer to “capture … a moment and place of near endless time, but of much inner motion.” I’m not sure if he did, to be honest, and like all the music presented here it was merely enjoyable rather than groundbreaking or riveting, but it was definitely worth catching. I was extremely disappointed that my inconstant guts prevented me from travelling to Dublin the following day, as I feel I missed an opportunity to hear some fine music. And if any of the composers read this, is there any chance of sending me some CDs or MP3s (or whatever it is people use these days to exchange music) as I’d love to be able to listen to some of these pieces at my leisure? Or, with their permission of course, post them on my blog for the gratification of my readers?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Five Reasons To Avoid Watchmen

As you may already be aware, the 1980s comic book Watchmen (written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons) has been made into a film, which opens next weekend (I think). I am not going to see it, which would involve paying money to do so, for the following reasons:
1) It's directed by the same guy who was responsible for the loathsome fascist bilgewater tripe 300, a film which I have only seen snippets of (because it was impossible to watch without wanting to hurl heavy objects at the screen). He also stated, in response to Alan Moore's public dismissal of the film adaptation, that: "Worst case scenario - Alan puts the movie on his DVD player on a cold Sunday in London and watches and says, 'Yeah, that doesn't suck too bad.'" Way to set your artistic sights high, dude! This also shows how much research he did, seeing as Alan Moore lives in Northampton, something that anyone with even a basic knowledge of his work would be aware of. (Moore wrote a book entirely about Northampton, Voice of the Fire, the last chapter of which describes him writing it in ... Northampton!) According to Wikipedia: "Moore expressed discontent over the choice of the director, saying that he "had a lot of problems" with the comic book 300 and that, while he had not seen it, he had heard that Snyder's film adaptation was racist, homophobic, and "sublimely stupid"." Which is a pretty accurate summation, in fairness.
2) As mentioned, Alan Moore has publicly stated that he will not be going to see it, and has had his name removed from the project. He said: "I shan't be going to see it. My book is a comic book. Not a movie, not a novel. A comic book. It's been made in a certain way, and designed to be read a certain way: in an armchair, nice and cozy next to a fire, with a steaming cup of coffee." Let me also point out that previous films of Moore's work have been little short of disastrous: both V For Vendetta and From Hell were travesties of their source material, jettisoning everything that made the books interesting in favour of trendy devices and breathtakingly ridiculous narratives. V For Vendetta, in particular, suffered from the problem of transferring a comic written in the eighties to our contemporary age, a task which the filmmakers botched with startling ineptitude. And the less said about From Hell, the better...
3) As Moore states above, Watchmen was conceived of as a comic book. But not only that: Watchmen is a comic book about comic books, a work in which the form is absolutely integral to the content, and from the outset the creators are continuously drawing your attention to this fact, as well as cramming huge amounts of detail into the narrative (much of which has been removed, I've heard). Remove this and you remove what makes it interesting, and it becomes just another superhero story. So why not simply come up with an original idea, one that's more suited to a filmic treatment? Of course, any producer making this statement in Hollywood today is likely to be on welfare shortly afterwards! (An analogy would be with something like At-Swim-Two-Birds, which can only work fully as a book - transpose it into a different medium and it loses much of what makes it special, without gaining anything to compensate. I'm not claiming that Watchmen is as substantial an achievement on a cultural level, by the way; it isn't.)
4) It's a superhero story which, by the looks of the trailer, suffers from Dark Knight Syndrome: a slight, silly, improbable story taking itself way too seriously (and is gratuitously violent). The comic book was flawed by the same problems to a certain degree, but was saved by its astonishingly structural complexity, its remarkably convincing and detailed world, and Moore's intelligence and storytelling ability, as well as the genuine moral ambiguity and depth of the narrative he creates (which, as stated before, is continually drawing attention to itself as a fictional construct based within a comic-book universe). I simply can't imagine how much of the action from the comic will transfer to the screen (which resembles reality much more than a comic does) and not appear preposterous. I don't have much truck with superhero stories at the best of times, and nothing I've heard about this film makes me think that it will change my mind...
5) Life is short. So why bother wasting it watching a film that, at best, will make you say: "Well, that wasn't too bad..."?
[An addition to the above, written some days after] One of the delights of comment moderation is that it allows you to vet those by friends who are commenting while blind drunk (especially if they e-mail you the following day asking you not to publish the comments, as they can't actually remember what they wrote). But in (one of) the comment(s) from said friend, he asked: "How can you pass judgement on something you haven't seen?" It's a fair question, and I'd like to point out that I'm not actually "passing judgement" on Watchmen the movie. It might be brilliant, and I'm depriving myself of a treat by avoiding it. However, I am making an educated guess that it won't be, based on the facts listed above. Like most people, I do this with every film: I look at the source material, the director's track record, the subject matter, the critical responses, and then make up my mind as to whether the film is actually worth paying money to see in the cinema (rather than waiting for it to appear on TV). I did the same thing with The Simpsons Movie, because I knew it would be a worthless turnip of a film and it would depress me to see such a travesty of what made the cartoon series brilliant (all those years ago). And I don't need to sit through films like Disaster Movie or The Hottie and the Nottie to know they'll be terrible.
I'd like to take this opportunity to say that, while I do have the power to block comments, I will never block any comment solely based on the fact that it disagrees with something I've said! I'll only censor comments if they are pointlessly abusive, incoherent, libellous, or contain too much swearing (especially the C-word, which I strongly disapprove of (and I'm in a minority among Irish bloggers on this one)). But intelligent objections to anything I write are more than welcome!