Archive for January, 2010

Semper Dolens

January 30, 2010

Old music sometimes barely survives the (spectral) reticulation culture exposes it to. John Dowland’s ‘exquisitely dolorous’ lute songs and consort music — absolutely of their time in an Elizabethan/Jacobean England where thoughtful, ponderous melancholia furnished many young men with the weeping flowers of their trade — can’t help but sound for us through many post-factum resonances: romantic transcendence, the existential sublime, folk balladry, even expressionism (in the darkening chromatics of his accompaniments). The Dowland of ‘Sorrow Stay’ and ‘Time Stands Still’ can’t help but foreshadow the wanderer of Schubert, or the sorrowful poet of Schumann.

Yet a more contemporary resonance comes to mind. Mark Fisher has written recently, with reference to Dominic Fox’s Cold World, of militant dysphoria (a productive, finally outwardly-directed despair that searches for the architecture of new Symbolic narratives). Fisher associates the condition with Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, contrasting what he understands as Curtis’ melancholia, a certainty in self-despair that is yet host to ex officio creativity, with the neuroticism of another English singer, Morrissey, which he sees as ultimately camp, a form of glum play-acting, heavily coloured by performativity and PoMo self-consciousness. Morrissey constantly appeals to outside agencies, always unsure of his own status, always looking for affirmation in his abyss (‘I am human and I need to be loved’).

The figure and music of Dowland unites these two conditions. Existentially, if one can indeed separate out this element in the work, Dowland appears shut off, resolute, frozen in his certainty (to paraphrase Fisher again). Hence, ‘In Darkness Let Me Dwell, the ground shall sorrow be…hellish jarring sounds, to banish friendly sleep. Thus wedded to my woes, and bedded to my tomb, O, let me, living, living, die, till death do come’. More: ‘Flow my tears, fall from your springs, Exil’d for ever let me mourn; Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings, There let me live forlorn’. Despairing as these words may seem, it is hard to miss the second-person voice, the dialogic aspect of the rhetoric; ‘Let me, let me, let me’. The music, too, once taken into account, adds a sheen of commentary, adds a sometimes fey, sometimes oppressing function, that makes the competing themes of self-pity (neurotic) and despair (melancholic) slip even further into each other. The performative aspect of the work, although discretely unknowable, is transliterated in our time to a sort of metatheatre of immanent anxiety. The dissolving surface of time glasses each new melancholy with versions of its past.

Elizabethan melancholy turns out to be duplicitous; the codes of its formal schema contain a prolepsis of our modern dysphoria, yet its performing tradition (praxis), its rhetorical ambiguity, its musical semiotics, and its liminality stretching forward and back in time — unstuck in time so full of germs does it seem — all signify the neuroses Fisher identifies in Morrissey.


MJ Echoes – 2

January 29, 2010

All the thoughts of Michael Jackson offered in Resistible Demise have drawn me back to his music, as they should, and I noticed one or two interesting things. ‘Like a Virgin’ — with its 3-3-2 swamp-synth bass against tub-thumping drum machine, its synth-string stabs, its iv-i bridge, and its tonic chorus with decisive switch to 4 (signified by MJ in the 1 -2 -3 -4 spot-leap bridge he always seemed taken over by at this point in performance, a flourish that even if it wasn’t, at least seemed genuine) — is surely a day-glo cousin of ‘Billie Jean’. Madonna’s Virgin strongly echoes Jackson’s Jean in form and cultural impact, if not so much in emotion (or inspiration?).

Second: the gorgeous ‘Stranger in Moscow’, until its unexpected and emotive switch to a warm A-major seventh tonality on the chorus, eerily pre-echoes recent Radiohead. The circling chromatic sequence on guitar and glabrous synth, the spare and cold arrangement, the intricate, allusive lyrics (‘Armageddon of the brain’, ‘Kremlin’s shadow belittlin’ me, Stalin’s tomb won’t let me be’) that are enunciated with murky shadow, as if too personal to be shared (though Yorke makes a business and an art of maculate line), and the general sense of claustrophobia and fizzy thanatopsis – the rhyming is uncanny!

MJ Echoes

January 29, 2010

I’ve been reading the generally excellent The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson (or, as my back cover claims, The Resistible Rise of Michael Jackson), a recent publication from the wonderful Zer0 Books. Great to see his many chimeras being treated with the intelligence they need; patterns of body-mapping, neo-liberalism, metonymic symbolism, and Stalisnism are identified and explained through MJ’s life and career, alongside more straightforward critical and historical-biographical accounts.

A general tendency in the book seems to be to assume a certain canonic consensus which runs roughly as follows: Off the Wall – artistic peak, Thriller – inconsistent but occasionally wonderful, the rest – severely diminishing returns. To my mind, though it is certainly the case that from Bad onwards the volume of confusion that piled up around the music became staggeringly distracting, the number and quality of great songs — many of them autobiographical (particularly on the second disc of HIStory), despite what Paul Lester says — dispels any easy dismissal of late-Jackson (for a late style is certainly what those hiccuping, lacerating, self-regarding but genuinely tense tracks represent). Like Brian Wilson, it seems Jackson will be remembered for his early, zeitgeist-defining music, more than he will be for his later work. (Though it has to be said the ratio of quality for early/late, and in Wilson’s case late would have to be defined as post-Pet Sounds, despite his young age, is much more evenly balanced for the Beach Boy than it is the Jackson).

Still, ‘In the Closet’, ‘Who is it?’, ‘Liberian Girl’, ‘Butterflies’, ‘Remember the Time’, ‘Stranger in Moscow’, all these counterbalance the horrible turgidness of ‘Earth Song’ and the rest with a creative zeal that, in its force, actually serves to chart Jackson’s sad decline much more potently than do those vacant simulations of affect. The book could have done with a little more in the line of the alternative-canoning of Marcello Carlin, or Owen Hatherley, who gives a wonderful cultural/psychoanalytic reading of ‘Stranger…’. In addition, though it seems generally to be a discourse on the cultural impact of Jackson, the collection could have done with much more in the way of actual musical analyses. Too often an album gets dismissed with a word, or a song is interpreted with a series of adjectives and genre-citations. The general standard of the writing is extremely high, but from my point of view a book about a musician (even one whose cultural impact was so peculiar as was Jackson’s), should really have more music in it. Still, when the writing is as perceptive as, for example, Reid Kane’s is, or as downright dazzling as Mark Fisher’s (who totally re-invigorates ‘Don’t Stop…’ and ‘Billie Jean’), it would be silly to grumble too much.

The climax of the book (in every which way) is Ian Penman’s ‘Notes towards a ritual exorcism of the dead king’, which really needs to be read to be believed. There’s as much invention and wit there to charge a novel. Even still, I can’t help but be distracted by Penman’s obvious disinterest in both accuracy (many wild rumours are promoted-by-inclusion, even as they are denounced), and MJ’s music (which, admittedly, is acknowledged from the start, and, indeed, can be seen as a uniquely valid theoretical vantage point from which to be coming). However, the level of the thought developed in the piece is such that any political discomfort has probably been intended by the author; as with the best pieces in the book (Fisher, Clover, Sinker) Penman’s writing is provocative, dense, and never lets you settle into a critical mode that for lesser writing would be its ruin. It seems as much satirical (of the myth of Jackson, and the myth of ourselves that we place around him, and of writing in general) as anything, and it gleamingly crowns a really fantastic collection.

The immediacy of the moment of Jackson’s death suffuses the book, and thus justifies the quicksilver publication. But the pall of the demise, however powerful, cannot obscure recent events that render (just a little) inaccurate many of the authors’ accounts of the singer; the This Is It film — though it should be viewed with a great deal of scepticism — presents a Jackson whose creative and performative abilities were still running high (at least, much higher than expected), certainly higher than the spectre imagined by the book. Still, great, great collection.


January 27, 2010

Compared to other symbolist masterpieces from the modernist canon, Richard Strauss and Hugo Von Hofmannstal’s Elektra seems remarkably taut. It takes about 100 mins for the entanglements caused by Agamemnon’s death, and concluded with Elektra’s ecstatic demise, glorious in the death of her vanquished foes, to finally unspool, but the emotional landscape traversed in that span contains peaks and fault lines Berg and others only rarely touch across their two-and-a-half hours plus.

Admittedly Berg, for one, was writing in a more concealed idiom of form and row compared to Strauss’ transparent motive-harmonic signatures. The latter had open to him all the naked dramatic force that comes from the play of tonal tension and resolution (not to mention a pre-war freedom of expression), but these are always turned inwards in the opera, striving at the nervous systems of its characters, searching for the truth beyond appearances. Little happens in terms of movement or event, it is rather all in the conflicts and barely suppressed hatreds shared by Elektra and Klytämnestra that this opera comes alive. The score is full of sheen and burnished chaos, whilst the dramatic conception — Sophocles’ chorus shorn, contour reduced to unbearable focus of event — is resolved to its terrible destiny.

Despite these compressions, it is still striking that if done well, it is Strauss’ Elektra, not Berg’s Lulu (another heroine sometimes deemed misogynistic), that emerges the fullest. She has come down to us as an emblem of self-hating female rage, but here, particularly through her recognition scene with Orest, she is revealed as a grief-stricken sister and daughter whose anger is more righteous than cruel. How many men have been sainted for that very thing?

Read my full review of Guy Joosten’s wonderful new production from La Monnaie in Brussels here

The Beatles’ Anthology as Cultural Symptom

January 26, 2010

Mark Fisher, channeling Frederic Jameson: ‘On the one hand, this is a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate…on the other hand, it is a culture that is excessively nostalgic, given over to retrospection, incapable of generating any authentic novelty’. With reference to my previous post on the haunted aspects of the ‘new’ (newest?) Anthology songs, I would say the Anthology project on the whole — with its desperate gilding of fragments and moments thought lost to time to appear new and pertinent within the Beatles’ overbearing canon, in addition to the actual hard process of making new additions to that canon — rhymes quite uncannily with Jameson and Fisher’s image of a culture caught in arrested development. We are on the terminal beach, and the ghosts refuse to leave us alone.


January 26, 2010

Alesha Dixon’s single ‘Let’s Get Excited‘ is a mildly effective, up-tempo electro/R&B/reggaeton mash that is fairly typical of sub-mainstream dance music in the last year or two. The attitude and flavour of the production, though redolent in its texture and its timbres of countless urban pop musics from around the world, is given a sheen of authenticity by Dixon’s inimitably hard-edged vocalisations (some of her former band Mis-Teeq’s best tracks benefited from the same).

The reason I find the track oddly compulsive is its peculiar mode of address. It marries hectoring imperatives in the lyrics (Let’s get excited, I’m so excited, I know exactly what I’m gonna do…let’s get excited), with strangely contained melodic and harmonic movement that totally contradicts the lyrical sentiment; the chorus line moves from an anemic tatoo of 3rd degree – 1st degree on the title phrase, to an unconvincing 4th – 3rd on ‘I’m so…’. The harmony stays on the 1, apart from a cadential shift to the dominant in the penultimate bar of the phrase. After this is repeated, with varied lyrics, the expected harmonic and dynamic release does not forthcome. Instead, we circle back again to the same loop, now with a cyborg crowd having taken over the melody: ‘Aaah-aah-aah, aah aah aah ah etc.’.

Though it could be mistaken for a simple melodic deficiency, as is typical in today’s groove-orientated pop, the tension the line and the form produce with the lyrical surface means that the track chills with an ambiguity quite out of proportion to the context. We are being aggressively urged to become excited, but the clashing signifiers will only allow a sort of confused excitement, and an uncanny dread. The big Other responsible for the machine-efficiency of this track has somehow allowed a code to slip in that definitely means something, but what that something is, we the listeners are not supposed to know. Like the brochure of a luxury cruise ship, which promises pampering beyond our wildest dreams, but fails to account for the true, self-multiplying nature of those dreams (viz. the Pleasure Principle), this music tries to excite, but gets lost in ambiguous promise along the way.

Handel’s Eight Great Suites, 1720, and Baroque Invention

January 26, 2010

The fecundity of baroque composers can sometimes be hard to credit today. We have our Princes and our Zizeks producing high quality work at a rate that compares favourably with Scarlatti and the rest, but the norm seems to have shifted considerably from then to now. The mad fertility of baroque musicians, moreover, often produced finely honed, individually distinct compositions of great wit and invention. Note-spinning and idiomatic conventions may appear on the surface to create an environment where quantity could rule over quality, but the best music of the era confidently refutes such a suspicion.

Handel’s Eight Great Suites of 1720 (the only integrated collection of his keyboard works published during Handel’s lifetime) exemplify this fertility; every note just aches with significance. Jory Vinikour, he whose 2001 Goldbergs were so impressive, has just released fine new recordings of the suites on Delos. Vinikour benefits from a glistening, close-miked new harpsichord from John Phillips. He plays with nimble skill, and alacrity, throughout. His attentiveness to form and voicing is particularly striking. Go here to read my full review.

The Beatles as Hauntologists?

January 25, 2010

I’ve always been fascinated by The Beatles’ Anthology songs ‘Free As A Bird’ and ‘Real Love’. The three surviving Beatles constructed these songs in the mid-nineties, as readers may know, using old John Lennon demos as readymades to develop and finesse. The critical reaction usually damns the songs with faint praise, or, occasionally, is dismissive, as shown in Ian Macdonald’s famous study Revolution in the Head: ‘The Beatles’ post-Beatles story is, on the whole, unedifying’. For me, this critical reaction has always seemed totally incongruous to the powerfully mystic, spectral force of the songs. At the most immediate level, the songs (in their recorded form) present a revenant time-space of trembling presences. Lennon’s voice, grainy with technological time (heard as celestial time), sings from a beyond that the living musicians mediate and penetrate with digital technology (heard as profane time). The two songs offer a play of presence, both on the sonic and biographic levels, that seems to flicker between an unknowable cosmic affirmation on the one hand (the messianic-Lennon figure defying death as we all hoped and knew he would), and a more mundane, human negation (which comes in the form of the other Beatles, and which could be felt as positive, or pragmatic, depending on your attitude).

A potent nostalgia, a lusting after a virtuality that has never and can never be, emanates from the records. But is it something more interesting than that? Or, if the affect is one of ‘mere’ nostalgia, is one that derives ‘merely’ from the stupid ingenuity of the Symbolic, why is it so potent here?

The subject of the songs, thematically and technically, is legacy, is the hauntological (the past in the present), and is death. Thus: ‘Whatever happened to, the life that we once knew?’. Thus, the slick attempts to occlude time with technical sophistication in rescuing, repairing, and retrofitting the demos. These subjects of legacy, nostalgia and haunting seem to me, at this distance, to be at the very essence of our relationship as listeners to The Beatles’ music as a whole. Their catalogue, to most western individuals born in the fifties and beyond (and many others besides), exists in (as?) a mythic canon impervious to criticism, at least in the main. We hear their songs in our youth and, without realising it, by the time we are coming into consciousness, have an intimate acquaintance with many of them. By the time of our adolescence and beyond, we hear the music as a postcard from an era just distant enough to evoke longing, but close enough too to feel immediate and accessible. The Beatles music is a jukebox of nostalgia, heavenly coloured by hope and innocence, but made melancholy by death (particularly Lennon’s own, and ours too), and by distance.

‘Free As A Bird’ and ‘Real Love’ present to the listener a streamlined (by age? by expectation?), but still potent form of psychedelic memory-manipulation. They take as their subject and their means the flavour of the relationship audiences have with The Beatles’ music, and they sacralise it in shadowy sound. That is how they achieve their force.