Archive for July, 2010

What would a modern magick world view look like?

July 30, 2010

I’ve been in London this week, and as ever it has provided a wealth of variegated experience. The Knife’s opera Tomorrow, in a year, an ‘electronic opera’, to use the seemingly designated rubric, clamoured a lot, sometimes impressively, but it never really knew what it was trying to say, nor how it could possibly go about saying it. A New Music Prom provided the familiar sensation of musical dazzlement (mostly) met by (mostly) blank stares, and creaking of chairs.

Alan Moore, narrating his own telling of Steve Moore’s life with always restrained, always apposite soundscape and guitar/piano musical backing from Crook and Fail (the Fog), leaned a little too much on his familiar, routinised world-view, but at its best his oration had me not only believing in magick, but aching for its total enchantment of the everyday. He made a bold case for an institution of language that strives for the uncanny and the occult, and that is antipathetic to the ‘disinfectant’ rhetoric of Tolkien, Rowling, and other faux-Fantasticians. Nothing, Moore said, would be hypothetical anymore. Couldn’t this be the true extinction event, the way to swamp the capitalist horizon with an erotic, trans-spiritual real founded on the deferment of the reality principle?

Chris Watson’s Whispering in the Leaves slightly underwhelmed. Consisting (the Dusk section anyway; I can’t comment on the Dawn as it is only being played in the morning) of a roughly twenty-minute recreation of nightfall in a tropical rainforest channeled through 80 speakers in Kew Gardens’ famous Palm House, the piece is a testament to the sound recordist’s ample sensitivity and skill. Choruses of cicadas turned to hear the stentorian cries of exotic birds, before rumbling, gurgling storm clouds gave way to sheets of rain. An insistent woodpecker towards the close actually suggested the dawn of Mahler’s First Symphony, though the calming gesture of night eventually enveloped all.

The problems I had mainly concerned dissimulation. The things I enjoy most about Watson’s Sound Art is its insistence on the radical insincerity of the listening experience; his albums are filled with faithfully recorded and denoted sound environments, but the affective charge actually comes, for me at least, from tension between that reality, and the reality of the listening experience itself. Surrounded as we were in Palm House by a simulated environment of palm trees and bamboo shoots, the striving towards simulation felt a little hollow. I can’t say the chattering visitors (though, in fairness, it would be a little rich to expect them to be quiet; this was hardly a concert) helped (phonocentrism my bum); indeed, once I had ascended the staircase to the heights of the conservatory, I felt a strange vestigial quickening, and Watson’s immersive and shape-shifting arrangement began to impress all the more.

I Welcome the Catastrophe

July 24, 2010

Classical music is still relevant, it just needs to be intensified, libidinised, delirialised. Defended against its defenders. Worthy tomes such as Lawrence Kramer’s Why Classical Music Still Matters point to both the crisis and to some of the music’s power, but do not speak adequately to the structural, institutional straitjacket that deprive classical music of the exorbitant critical aesthetics that it deserves.

Endless analysis jargon provides a theory rush of a kind, a disarticulation of the music object to the point of the founding of a sublime critical/musicological technologics. Writers like Paul Griffiths, Brian Ferneyhough, even Taruskin, sometimes approach the poetry of confusion. At the opposite terminal to analytical jargon-fetishists, we feel crushed by the weight of a million Gramaphone and Opera magazines, all choked by competency. Clarity is not what is needed; prolepsis can be a trap. Where the writing to set brains on fire, to pump hearts into motion? The music clings onto its life-altering energies, just about, in spite of its straitened circumstance. Somewhere in the middle sit well-meaning writers such as Greg Sandow, desperate for something like a modernisation in the concert life of the canon. But the root of the disease lies in the weave of conservatism palpable in the custiodial institutions of classical music performance, practice and thought. Thoughts of the music’s liberation, even of a targeted insurrection, provide a glimmer in the stuffy darkness.

The web has its ghosts too…

July 24, 2010

The Recognition Epiphany

July 21, 2010

Why has more not been written on the sublime jouissance of unforeseen recognition in music? When we undexpectedly hear a melody, a certain arrangement of timbres, a harmonic twist from some buried past, we disintegrate in the most thrilling of ways. The world is affirmed, time stops. The music steals in before the void, separating me from myself, insisting on a visceral impingement of past and present critical awarenesses. Recognition is ‘a time of fascination’ (Blanchot), a kairos time, the ‘time in which nothing begins, where before affirmation there is already the return of affirmation’. The recognition epiphany, though implicated in circular logics of canonicity, provides music with a bright and surging moment of speedy, ecstatic imagination. It’s the masking of re-presentation as presentation, of semblance as the real.

Uncanny recognition eroticises the possibilities of listening, replacing the everyday with a momentary eternal.

Songs of Innocence

July 12, 2010

Genuine crossover, where genres are placed in a productive alliance that serves primarily artistic concerns, is rare. In Hannes Loeschel’s setting of William Blake’s visionary-pastoral Songs of Innocence we have genuine crossover, in this case between Improv, rock, Noise, and English folk. The result twists and turns along with the imagery and fluent contours of the texts. Phil Minton, known primarily for his improvisational abilities and for his Feral Choir project, does a stunning job of inhabiting these settings with a gruff, grainy vocal persona that has much to say. Exit Eden, yet more musicians accustomed to Improv, fill out the musical textures with various reminiscence of Earth, Bohren und der club of gore, Bellowhead, Wyatt, Radiohead, and many others. My full review is here at Musical Criticism.

Waiting for a Chord to Fall

July 10, 2010

The eighties is the reflection of the sun on the water here, and Shannon Rubicam’s shades. The song, too.

This is one of a number of seemingly rote, clich├ęd pop texts that actually features a fiendishly inventive use of tonality (and, as a result, structure). Without ever straying from the home key (until the middle eight, that is, when we shift in to the parallel minor, and then endure a false modulation up a tone for the final chorus), the song uses its whole range of primary triadic resources with a fluency that plays out in a sense of irresistible insouciance. After the initial burst of sun-kissed verse, we’re pushed through a series of tonal displacements, propelling forward with a sense of questioning and yet buoyant harmonic drive that perfectly matches the ‘waitings’, ‘tryings’, and ‘wishes’ of the lyrics.

The first of those displacements comes with the B section of the verse, on ‘I wish I didn’t feel so strong about you’, where we move to a dominant chord elaborated and stabilised in parallel to the tonic from the beginning. With the shift through ii7 and iii7, we feel as if we’re modulating to the relative minor, but on the bridge we unexpectedly pivot back once again to the dominant, this time in a tricksy, somewhat enigmatic sequence in which harmonic rhythm itself takes over the dramatic progression of the song’s form. For the final, sustained phrase of the bridge, transitioning in to the chorus, a stable ii – V cadence occurs, but yet again we move from there into an unexpected IV as chorus orientation.

The harmonic sequence in ‘Waiting for a Star to Fall’ uses the inherent expectations of tonal hierarchy to promise affirmation, but resolutely, playfully, holds it back in favour of a submerged mirror of the love games of the lyrical surface.

This is one of plethora of pop songs that makes use of traditional, common-practice harmonic and voice-leading practices, but irreverently reconfigures them in a way that echoes the manner in which their composers learn and practice their trade; orally, informally, freely. ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, with its Gospel-derived three chord vamps in the verse (even there we get a cheeky shift up a full step), and its irresistible series of pivots into bIII for the chorus, comes to mind, but there are thousands you could choose from; play through ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ and ask whether it would be anything without those head-spinning, almost grace-giving modulations that continuously come, ramping up tension and atmosphere at each new tonal plane. Much of The Beatles’ output portrays this very process of (sometimes) gauche invention. This attribution of gauchenss is not to suggest, incidentally, that those with classical music educations have any valid claim to expressive authority over popular musicians, it is merely to admit that the two use form, harmony, and texture, in immanently different ways.

And who knew Boy Meets Girl’s Merrill and Rubicam wrote ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’? Yet another song, incidentally, that derives much of its impact from a toying with tonality, in this case an anticipatory, beautifully weighted delayed resolution into the tonic, which only comes finally with the jubilant chorus.

Modern pop may be largely without the sophisticated chord substitutions and added notes of Broadway (or jazz), but its cheekily realised and surely deeply sophisticated tonal designs add as much spark to common practice as anything else currently being offered under that often tired regime.