Bernhard Gander, One Direction, and ‘Authenticity’

November 13, 2012

It is common knowledge that ‘authenticity’ is perhaps the most important of the mediating discourses through which musicians/music become associated with different types of meaning and value. Although something like genre discourse is as pervasive as authenticity, its impact is a little more restricted and formalistic – attribution or use of genre labels is rarely as heated or as libidinal an exercise as are struggles over authenticity/credibility/realness (to put some contextual meat on the term’s bones).

Authenticity is important, then. But it is also processual and dynamic. Just as particular artists’ authenticity shifts over time, so do the parameters and contexts of authenticity itself. It used to be (I use the past tense here more aspirationally than in any other respect) that in mainstream western classical music, for example, authenticity was measured in terms of ‘originality’ and ‘innovation’ – in short, was measured according to the floating yardstick of ‘genius’. That is not quite the case today. It also used to be the case that conductors and musicians thought that they could most vividly resuscitate older music by locating through performative interpretation the emotional ‘truth’ of their own ages, as signified through recognisable music-emotional tropes of ‘intensity’ and ‘passion’ (=big orchestras and heavy vibrato), in that earlier music. This is also not the case today – the HIP movement of the 1970s put an end to such ‘romanticism’, replacing it with a modernistic version of positivistic romanticism.

In popular music, it used to be the case that ‘authenticity’ was aligned with ‘real’ instruments, authorialism, albums, and masculinity. Men were rock, women pop. Men made and wrote albums, women (and feminised boys) sang singles. This is not quite the case today. The growth of sampladelic hip hop, built on Roland and Akai samplers and drum machines and out of appropriated musical material from the 1960s and 1970s, alongside the emergence of electronic, acousmatic music of acts such as the Chemical Brothers in the 1990s, slowly put paid to myths built around equations like the following: acoustic=intimate=authentic. The ‘contamination anxiety’ (Lethem) that dominated popular and classical music slowly broke down in the face of postmodernist ‘sublimated collaboration’, which in any case had been pre-echoed earlier in the century by Dadaism, musique concrète, and many other important fugitive movements of appropriation.

In recent years, as postmodernism has accelerated into various crisis stages of disillusionment and collapse, even the hoary old rejection of ‘inauthentic’ pop music, built on Adornian and Marxian notions of ‘alienation’ and ‘standardisation’, has spunked its rhetorical load. Residual anxiety remains for some – seen in the comically anachronistic opposition of ‘manufactured’ and ‘authentic’ made by Matt Cardle, of all people, recently – but in the main audiences seem to have embraced pop unironically. At least to the degree that ‘Call me Maybe’, ‘Superbass’, and other songs are taken to the centre of culture, and acts such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Beyonce are given more respect than they would have been twenty years ago. (HOWEVER, that is of course not to deny the sputtering and impotent rage directed at these acts on YouTube comment boards and other discursive nether regions.) Left secessionism of the sort that sees all popular culture as being equally co-opted by destructive forms of ideological and politico-economic capture, and as such endorses complete rejection of and withdrawal from that culture, has thankfully given way to a more internally dynamic, mobile view, where popular culture is not seen as a corrupted monolith, but instead as a terrain to be fought over.

These changes lead me to ask the rather pompously put question; whither authenticity in 2012, 2013, 2014, and beyond? Composers such as Bernhard Gander and Seán Clancy (and, of course, many others) attempt to move beyond the polystylism and quotational practices of earlier figures, by embedding popular culture into the distributed networks (as opposed to centralised hierarchies) of their creative practices. Authenticity, here, becomes a somewhat redundant critical category.

What about boybands? Take That and One Direction provide salutary case studies in this regard. In the 1990s, as the group reached a commercial and critical peak, Robbie Williams absconded from Take That. Many will be familiar with the story. Sick of what he saw as the tackiness and artificiality of boyband music, like George Michael before him, Williams struck out into the much more culturally ‘valuable’ world of getting drunk with Oasis and writing sickly masterpieces such as ‘Angels’ (to be fair, Williams has made some excellent music as a solo artist). This sort of ‘evolution’ became a canonical narrative of the young, ‘manufactured’ pop star. At a certain point in their career, most pop acts have sought credibility of this fetid kind.

My argument here is that, with the changes surveyed above, this ‘escape into authenticity’ is no longer a viable or even useful option for artists. Even Williams ended up getting back with Take That; Kylie went back to her pop roots. With One Direction, it has never really made sense to try to place them into the canonical narrative of manufactured objects-into-creative subjects. Even as a silly recent article discusses the ‘seven ages of boybands’ – not noticing the key internal contradiction that the act that served as organising metaphor, One Direction, already break apart the typology, since members can already be seen to be sporting tattoos and having affairs and getting drunk, even though they are at most in the prime of their ‘imperial stage’ – we must acknowledge that, as with composers of notated music, the mediating discourse and the mythic narratives that have governed these music cultures in the past are being overwritten by new narratives (even notions of good/bad are becoming ever harder to parse), just as Niall Horan’s voice must be getting continually overwritten in American recording studios by mechanised versions of the same.

A Caged Prom.

August 19, 2012

Whatever one might say about the stodginess of Proms programming, it is undeniable that giving over a full evening Prom to a celebration of John Cage in his centenary year was a brave and commendable move from the BBC and Roger Wright.

Even more commendable than this basic fact – which may after all have been accomplished with hedging of bets and fallings between stalls – was the full bore nature of the programme, devised and (where necessary) conducted brilliantly by Ilan Volkov, Principal Guest Conductor of the evening’s orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony.

Volkov’s programme included highlights from across Cage’s long and fruitful composing career, doing a good job of balancing variegated Cageian resources, even if proceedings could have done with being trimmed down by half an hour or so at least.

The programme featured longer pieces, such as the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra and the melange of Cartridge Music with Atlas eclipticalis and Winter Music, alongside various late or shorter pieces (101, Branches, Improvisation III, FOUR2, ear for EAR, But what about the noise of crumpling paper…, Experiences II), and a couple of curios; Christian Marclay’s fun and congruous rough choreography of an orchestra ‘sounding’ their instrument cases, Baggage, and the ill-balanced improv of David Behrman, Christian Wolff, Takehisa Kosugi, and Keith Rowe. (Kosugi clearly wanted to pull the others into steamy and seedy electronic territory, a place, with the possible exception of Rowe, they seemed especially keen not to visit.)

Though the evening gave us the chance to contemplate anew and, in doing this, to celebrate the rich conceptual contributions of John Cage, it would, of course, be remiss not to mention the music.

Although some of the evening’s performances got a little lost in the large space, not least John Tilbury’s otherwise fluent soloistic part in the Concerto, many others utilised the set up of the Royal Albert Hall to great effect.

Exaudi gave gorgeous, crystalline readings of ear for EAR and FOUR2 (the first with an as-ever resplendent Joan la Barbara), spread around four of the entrances to the ground floor stalls, in a similar fashion to the arrangement for Improvisation III.

The many instrumentalists of But what about the noise of crumpling paper… and Branches, meanwhile, were arrayed around the ground floor (as were the soloists and some of the concertante performers for the aforementioned three piece melange), and the balconies, of the hall. Such spatialisation of the performing space both dramatised the processes of each piece, and implicated the audience themselves in some of the decision making, lending each piece a participatory feel that suited them well.

In a purely ‘musical’ sense (whatever that might mean), the highlights for me were 101 and But what about the noise of crumpling paper…. The first, opening the concert, winds out a burning, Central Park in the Dark-like string chord underneath gesticulatory brass interjections, for a narcotic twelve minutes. The latter, coming amidst a slightly less stellar second half of longeurs (the improv, whose slightly troubling programme note from Keith Rowe should probably not go unremarked!) and straightjacketed chance compositions (such as the Concerto), felt like a liberation, where sounds could be the strange attractors they so want to be, and musical discourse could dissemble so gloriously as it did. This piece, with its tiny, tumbling percussion sounds and its obscure physical gestures, felt like a ritual undergoing profanation. A ritual-absented-purpose, beyond the strange purposes of the aesthetic.

With these late pieces Cage the hardliner anti-improvisationalist softens, allowing much more spontaneity and grace into the sounding moments of his music. (I never quite got what the problem was with self-expression anyway.) And they proved the highlights of the concert: sound, even when it is transcending self-expression as best it can, has its own reality, its own set of attractions and repulsions, even if these often need to be mediated to some degree by human hands. Restricting these elective affinities as Cage sought to in some of his mature works only leads to a diminishment of artistic merit.

Besides the delicious pleasure of attending such a sustainedly Cageian Prom in the cavernous Albert Hall, Volkov must really be given credit on two counts for assembling the personnel he did. Generally speaking, the participation of artists such as Christian Wolff, Takehisa Kosugi, and David Behrman (the first of whom gave Cage his first copy of the I Ching), all old associates of Cage, gave the evening some sense of a creative mandate. So too did the presence of Cage specialists such as John Tilbury and Aki Takahashi, and such consummate performers as Exaudi.

More personally, it was a pleasure to witness so many stalwarts of the underground and experimental music scenes performing, from John Butcher to Dylan Nyoukis and Karen Constance, the Bohman Brothers, and more besides. It may not have been quite the celebration Cage would have wanted, but it was a celebration in the spirit of his work, messy, unpredictable, arrogant, misguided, and often beautiful as it was.

Daniel Barenboim, Boulez, Beethoven and Kronos Quartet.

August 2, 2012

Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s Beethoven Proms marathon, in which the composer’s complete symphonies are being performed across five concerts, culminated on 27 July with the ninth. Preceding that performance were four concerts pairing two of the symphonies with a piece by Boulez, a composer whose music, like that of Beethoven, has long been a speciality of Barenboim’s.

The coupling of Beethoven and Boulez feels just right in some respects, both men being musical colossi of their respective ages with a passion for musical ‘innovation’ and an unwillingness to compromise. However, the musical procedures and emotional atmospheres of the music heard in this concert differ to such a degree that their juxtaposition succeeded through contrast rather than correspondence.

The two Beethoven symphonies, the eighth and the seventh, bookended a brave, if a little brusque, solo performance of Boulez’s Anthèmes 2 from Daniel’s son Michael Barenboim, on violin. In the context of such familiar and warmly-welcomed repertory works as these symphonies, particularly amidst a packed and cavernous Royal Albert Hall, the Boulez felt as strange as it possibly could, slightly hackneyed and rudimentary signal processing and all. Although the piece’s clearly delineated architecture and electronic special effects (managed well by IRCAM’s Gilbert Nouno and Jérémie Henrot) were seemingly not enough to impress some in the audience, many seemed rapt by Barenboim’s virtuousic cadenzas and the hypnotic, spectral, glassy chords heard as a refrain throughout.

That the symphonies were well-received was not a surprise. And yet, the sheer range of pliable expressivity and depth of command of argument which Barenboim brought to them was sometimes a wonder to behold. Although there were a handful of shaky ensemble moments, with the brass being culpable on more than one occasion, as for example with the sluggish climaxes in the eighth’s finale, or the exposed trumpets in the fanfares at the start of the seventh, more generally the orchestra’s responsiveness to Barenboim’s demand for slow-burning dynamic swells and ripples was striking. Time and again Barenboim effected waves across the ensemble, pulling out a detail here, gradually unfurling a climax there.

The music was consistently guided into fresh new shapes, even in familiar or commonplace contexts, as with the Allegretto of the seventh, or the ‘slow’ movement of the eighth, both of which sparkled and rolled as if fresh. The orchestra’s tone colours were richly velvet throughout, with the placement of the low strings above the rest of the band lending the sound a depth and warmth well suited to these vivid, intense, and surprising scores, even if the overall string sound was sometimes a little muddy.

The late evening concert featured the Kronos Quartet, who, incredibly, were here making their Proms debut. You would have imagined that the Quartet’s sometimes uncomfortable blend of folk music, minimalism and other contemporary styles should have been grist to the Proms’ middlebrow mill, but somehow they have failed to appear until now.

As it happened, Kronos’ inconsistencies were on stark display in a concert that should have been theirs for the taking. They picked an uninteresting, derivative modernist piece on the one hand, Gubaidulina’s arid String Quartet No. 4, and on the other leaned too heavily on somewhat insubstantial and gimmicky music. The latter was present in the form of a basically bland arrangement of music by the usually electric, grainy and fervent Omar Souleyman; in Nicole Lizée’s occasionally striking but generally unpersuasive tribute to the BBC’s seminal Radiophonic Workshop; and even in Aleksandra Vrebalov’s earnest, robust, richly-dramatic, but sometimes characterless piece which staged the syncretism of Serbian and Albanian cultures, …hold me, neighbour, in this storm….

Though the Quartet’s full bag of tricks was on display, with drums, ethnic instruments, shouts, electronic effects from reel-to-reels, kaoscillators and more featuring, the concert only periodically took off.

The fourth string quartet of Ben Johnston, a composer with whom Kronos have enjoyed a fruitful relationship, came midway through the programme, finally imbuing proceedings with a sense of musical fullness. Idea, execution and expression were here suddenly aligned, the music’s eldritch but effulgent rendering of ‘Amazing Grace’ making the strangest sense, giving us a glimpse into a world subtly beside our own. Although Kronos’ performance could have conveyed the shifting sonic kaleidoscopes of the piece’s three just intonation tuning systems with more clarity, and additionally could have been carried off with a little less slapdash, it nevertheless provided the concert with a richly-heard centre.

Only the short, but gorgeous, Martin Hayes-like arrangement of the Scandinavian song ‘Tusen tankar’ matched the Johnston for vividness of expression. The encore, Clint Mansell’s Death is the Road to Awe from the film The Fountain, was unspeakably bombastic and shallow. Although it works very well as an accompaniment to the film, here it just felt compositionally and dramatically hollow, especially with the horrible intervention of the backing track and lights towards the close. Even this failed to rouse the crowd to the expected pitch, although Kronos received a generous reception nonetheless. Must try harder.

Jennifer Walshe and Roger Doyle

July 5, 2012

Here‘s an interview I did recently with the great composer Jennifer Walshe.

And a review of Roger Doyle’s Chalant – Memento Mori

Traditional pop?

May 20, 2012

Unfortunately still not finding time to update the blog much these days, but am hoping I can get back to doing some original posts during the summer. In any case, here’s an article I wrote about the idea of a ‘trad pop’ form, a la trad jazz and so on. Some nice discussion in the comments, too.

Musicology in Ireland

April 4, 2012

Here’s me writing about why you never (or, rather, that you never) see a musicologist on Richard and Judy, nor a pop song on an Irish music course…

We are like a family

March 5, 2012

Here’s me interviewing Jane O’Leary about 35 years of Concorde, and new music in Ireland.

Composing improvisation

February 27, 2012

Here‘s my interview with composer/improviser Dylan Rynhart.

Minton, Butcher, Weston, Turner and James Joyce

February 11, 2012

Phil Minton is a formidable, and feral, improvising vocalist.

The range of projects in which he engages reflects the emotional and technical range of the voice; from composed pieces (Minton’s performances of Hannes Loeschel’s music come particularly recommended) to sound poetry to fully improvised performance to experiments with choric collaboration for the inspiring Feral Choir project, Minton admits of few limits as a vocalist.

For his latest project Minton joins again with his eponymous quartet, consisting of John Butcher on saxophones, Veryan Weston on piano, and Roger Turner on drums. The second half of their King’s Place concert was given over to a typically probing thirty or so minutes of improvisation, but for the first half Minton and co resurrected their exuberant 1996 album, mouthfull of ecstasy, which is a quasi-composed suite of music with an improvised feel based, or perhaps inspired is a better term, on Joyce’s mongrel novel-poem-litany Finnegan’s Wake.

Deciphering the line between improvisation, narrative, composition, literacy and musicality is very difficult as regards mouthfull of ecstasy. Without a programme note I couldn’t be sure, but it seemed as if the quartet stuck roughly to the sequence of the album; though of course even if that was the case this performance had a vivacity and a contour all of its own, it being to a significant degree improvised.

In any case, what we heard and witnessed were large and small scraps of Joyce’s text, sometimes intoned by the whole ensemble, sometimes sung in a gruff, urban patois or garbled like emetic sonic slurry, by Minton, on one occasion sung rather sweetly by Butcher, and more often than not chewed up by the clattering skronk of the ensemble. The musicians were clearly playing from scores of some order or another, where broad emotional/sonic-lexical grids seemed to be the directions on their mysterious notational antigrams, and as such the performance felt dynamically purposeful.

Of particular note throughout were Weston’s rich, oaky, genteel readings; Butcher’s undimmed facility for slotting sympathetically into the pocket of fellow musicians’ sounds; and, best of all, the glorious four-part speech collage ‘My Diaper has More of Ecstacy’.

I did however sometimes long for more clarity in the narrative. That is probably a strange and possibly incongruous thing to say in this late-Joycean context, but it seems to me that much of the fire and charge of Joyce’s text comes from its playing off of meaning and its elusion, comes from its driving up of polysyllables and polysemy hard against catachreses, metalepses, and other literary tropes. The point is, Finnegan’s Wake is hypertrophic, but it still seems to be signifying something beyond almost complete semantic jumble.

Of course, it is Minton and the group’s prerogative to stage the text, or elements of the text, in this way; perhaps they see the project as exploring more specifically the musicality of Joyce’s text. However, the musicality of text, its so-called ‘second syntax’, is inextricable from what that ‘music’ is signifying. The two seem separate, but in practice the separation between sound and signified is rarely clean. Within the concert those few moments of exposed text seemed to me the most charged; after all, the text is already immensely semantically wobbly, so aggravating that wobbliness perhaps becomes superfluous. There is something to be said conceptually for matching the hypertrophy of the text with musical exaggeration working under the same principles – here the group would be reproducing Butcher’s distinctive simpatico strategy as an improvisor on a larger scale – but in practice I felt the concept to be a little lacking. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the performance a great deal nonetheless.

I enjoyed the improvisation in the second half too. Though the group reverted to type on more than one occasion, there was enough genuine vim and surprise to preserve interest; Turner contained his sometimes excessive gesturing of the first half to achieve a real sympathy with the other three, whilst Butcher and Minton’s close curlicues were a joy. The group found themselves in a bird colony at one point – all of them whistling and chirping in unanticipated imitation of the beautifully balanced order/individual freedom spectrum of actual birdsong – before a grand guignol, low-voiced comedy finale call and response between Weston and Minton.

The latter, throughout, was as invigorating, inviting, inspiring as ever, whether he was sputtering on fast forward like a scared Scatman, lowing like a folk agitator, or wailing with his chest out and head drawn back as if he was the only person in a terrifying world.

Latest bits.

February 9, 2012

I wrote an article called ‘Madonna and the post-Fordist Novelty Complex’.

Here’s a review of Clancy, Barry, Grisey and Weir, ‘Lives Defined-in-Death‘.