The Rambler :: blog

Friday, April 30, 2004

Fie! Enough of silly bookmark feeds that I have no control over. Now, just one feed, by me, for me. (Although, for Work reasons, you might find it heavy on the obituaries. Not that I'm morbid, it's just what I Do.) And I've added some sterling chaps and chapesses to the links bar down the left too - all come highly recommended.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

As if Tom Ewing's Popular project didn't put us all in enough shade already, I see Robin Carmody's supplementing it with his own survey of The Other Ones - the British no.1s according to charts not used by British Hit Singles/Guinness. The comprehensive just got more so.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Music since 1960: Messiaen: Sept haïkaï 

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me

Index here.

After Bartók, Olivier Messiaen was the first composer I fell completely in love with. One of my school music teachers was an organist and, such is the way with many organists, was huge fan himself. He joined my school only a few months before Messiaen died in April 1992. One day he brought in a copy of 'Dieu parmi nous' from La nativité du Seigneur which he hammered through on a classroom piano, with a friend and I taking turns trying to keep up with the pedal part. At first sight of pages thick with noteheads and accidentals, 11/13 time signatures, and harmonies so spectacular they could crick your neck I fell in love - not just with Messiaen, but with contemporary music in general. I later realised of course that a piece written in 1935 hardly counted as 'contemporary', but there was no turning back. This, I decided, was really it, and nothing has changed my mind in 12 years since. It is a great regret that I never knew his music while he was alive - I would have travelled a long way to see Messiaen in person, and as far as necessary to hear him play his beloved organ at La Trinité in Paris.

So Messiaen had to be in here somewhere. Although he wrote much larger and more well-known works after 1960 than Sept haïkaï (recording) (Des canyons aux étoiles, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, Eclairs sur l'Au-delà ...), this piece clinched a place for personal reasons. I no longer remember why I settled on it at the time, but Sept haïkaï was the subject of one of the first essays I wrote as an undergraduate, and the first of those on contemporary music. It thus kick-started what has become a career. At the time I wound myself into philosophical knots trying to establish a 'pure' motivation for Messiaen's allusions to Japan and Japanese music in the piece (the conventional explanation, that he'd just returned from a concert tour to Japan, and was simply inspired by what he'd seen and heard, didn't wash with my ultra-rational undergraduate sensibilities). What has stayed with me however is the alternative sense of time and pulse embodied in both Messiaen's music, and the Japanese gagaku music that plays a prominent role in Sept haïkaï.

This was helped in no small part by Paul Griffiths' outstanding book Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time. Griffiths argues that Messiaen's devout Catholicism - an influence on almost all of his music - drew him to attempt a representation of the eternal and the divine in his music. The nearest approximation of the eternal that our earthly minds can imagine is of a present that never stops, an unchanging loop endlessly repeating. Eternal time must have no sense of movement or direction; this would imply movement from or to, a beginning or an end, and eternity is by definition boundless. Johnson argues that Messiaen's musical language methodically expunges all those elements such as teleogical form, metrical rhythm, functional harmony, diatonic melody and so on that give more conventional music its drive and dynamism. Most significantly of these, I think, was the replacement of metrical rhythm (ie consistent bars and time signatures, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 ...) with an 'additive' rhythmic scheme that grows from multiplications of a single pulse unit. So, in theory, Messiaen's rhythms are made from one - endless, unchanging - pulse (1, 1, 1, 1 ...). Think of a waltz, and how the second and third beats of the bar can't help but push you forward onto the first beat of the next bar. In microcosm, that is the changing, moving drive that is contained within the language of traditional classical music. Messiaen's alternative language replaces this with an analogy of an eternally cyclic present. It is, in short, a complete reconception of time's passing, turned into music.

The seven 'haikus' of the piece are arranged symetrically: 1 and 7 are an introduction and coda; 2, 3, 5 and 6 are sound pictures of places Messiaen had visited in Japan: Nara park, Yamanaka, Miyajima and Karuizawa. The central movement is the most striking. It is simply titled 'Gagaku' and is clearly influenced by the gagaku court music he had heard on his tour. Indeed it is almost unique in Messiaen's output for being so closely related to its model (his frequent use of birdsong excepted), and it is clear that this ancient court music greatly struck him. Gagaku music itself is built from loops and cycles, giant, slow drumbeats that act as the scaffolding for long wind melodies. Like Messiaen's music, it is written with a concept of musical time totally foreign to the progressive teleology of Western forms, a pattern of independence and coincidence, as parts move according to their own rhythmic cycles, meeting at regular climaxes every 16 or 32 beats. If Messiaen's rhythmic patterns are built from single pulse units, gagaku is those pulses writ large. The aesthetic is the same, even if the focal length is different, and this was the attraction.

Much of Messiaen's reputation is built on works of grand statement, be they a series of meditations for organ on Christ's birth (La nativité), a contemplation of heaven written inside a POW camp (Quatour pour la fin du temps), or a technicolor divine-erotic extravaganza (Turangalîla-Symphonie), so works like Sept haïkaï, which turn his formidably complete musical technique to such a naïve, picture-postcard subject are unusual. While I would naturally recommend any Messiaen to anyone, Sept haïkaï is maybe the one to impress people with at dinner parties - a small, personal sketch from the master of overstatement.

Choice. Best thing I've read all week.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

This has been doing the rounds a bit recently, and I've just got round to downloading some of the files (they're really big - 50MB+, so fat 'net pipes are required), but the sound is incredible. As you'd expect, you get a huge wall of ambient sound that slowly shifts and moves around, but because the underlying structure is still the same organically balanced Beethoven thang, it retains a sense of movement that you don't get with Eno etc. And your focus is also shifted from the superficial progession of sound after sound in the creation of a classical-romantic melody, to the details of the sounds themselves (the first chord lasts at least 5 minutes here). Beethoven's sonic innovations are sometimes overlooked, but this treatment is something else!

Monday, April 26, 2004

In the meantime, Kyle Gann has posted a list of the great postclassical works for piano. There are some great works on there for anyone looking to expand their listening/peforming repertory: Adams' Phrygian Gates is, I believe, one of the best pieces he's written. A distillation of the history of classical piano music in one epic slab of minimalism. Great stuff.

I've got rid of that damn Daypop feed - bloody people linking to oversized URLs, screws up your templates.

And anyway, since Daypop is a reflection of what people are talking about on the net each day it just gets overwhelmed with tedious and badly argued political rhetoric, so I doubt it will come back. Maybe something else will in its place.

Alex Halavais has begun maintaining a publicly editable list of Scholars Who Blog. If this is you, then add your name to his list.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Alright - I've put recommended recording links for the two Music since 1960 items I've already done, for those that want.

Although, actually - and I know this is probably heresy - I hardly ever pay attention to the performers of a classical work I'm listening too. I'm not sure why this is. It may willful resistance to all the bullshit that surrounds marketing classical performers (see Sandow, passim), but on a more practical level I guess it comes about from the fact that for so much of the music that I like, I'm just glad that a recording exists in the first place (the Atmosphères disc I link to includes the first recording of Apparitions, a crucial work in Ligeti's development, since a long-deleted recording made in the '60s). Really, as long as the performers don't screw it up (and if they do, I want my money back), then I'm happy. The current set-up has this nasty habit of sidelining composers, reducing them to vehicles for the artist's egos in all too many instances. I'm sure this is at least partly responsible for the marginalization of contemporary composition these days in the general consciousness (how many times have I met people who didn't believe that composers even existed any more ...).

Now go outside and enjoy the sunshine.

And if any readers are in Bournemouth and at a loose end tonight, you could do worse than moseying on down to this.

Eyes right 

Just a quick note - this Music since 1960 thing looks like being a keeper, so I'm putting up permalinks to each year as they get written, over on the right there. Also, do people want recording suggestions for each work? Cos I can drop those in if you want, although I reserve the right to cut a deal with Amazon if I do...

Thursday, April 22, 2004


In lieu of actual content today, I thought I'd just post an e-mail press release (press, moi? Ha!) that dropped into my inbox the other day, announcing the launch of WPS1 art radio, which sounds fair enough. At the moment I'm listening to a lecture about cubism, and there can't be many radio stations where you can say that.

the world's First WEB-BASED ART Radio station

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, a MoMA affiliate,
launches WPS1 Internet radio April 19

NEW YORK- (March 19, 2004) P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center announces the launch of WPS1 (, the world's first web-based art radio station. Sponsored by Bloomberg L.P., WPS1 goes live April 19 with an extraordinary lineup of music and talk shows broadcasting 24 hours a day.

The station's programs combine talk and music shows hosted by contemporary writers, artists and musicians with rare historic material that includes the entire audio archive of the Museum of Modern Art.

WPS1 will stream to listeners on the Internet only. Its presence on the Web will make the station's unique digital library available to an international audience at any hour, seven days a week. As such, WPS1 will become a live audio museum in cyberspace, extending the visual art, book, music, film, video and performance programs that P.S.1 and MoMA are known for in ways previously unforeseen. Here, at, is the first all-art, all-the-time radio station, where expression of all kinds remains truly free.

In addition to broadcasting events originally recorded at MoMA and elsewhere, WPS1 offers a broad variety of contemporary music and original talk shows. Programs include:

The Real Estate Show with Heather Cohane - practical advice for artists and art organizations seeking living and working space

Conversations with Writers... Continued with Charles Ruas - interviews with authors of new books (early guests include David Shipler, Walter Abish, Fanny Howe, Edwidge Danticat)

On the Mark with Mark Fletcher - lively discussions of market-generated issues in contemporary art

The Collectors' Forum with Althea Viafora - how to establish and maintain a private collection and advice on making it accessible to the public

Race Stories with Maurice Berger - a unique mini-series created for WPS1 (begins in May)

Live Nude Radio Theater with Edwin Torres - unique live mixes of contemporary poetry and music by a leading figure on the scene

The Yay/Nay Show with Linda Yablonsky and Carey Lovelace - a critical overview of current art, film, music, theater, and books, including interviews with guest curators, artists, playwrights, directors and critics

Writers' Choice with rotating guest hosts - one novelist invites another to read and discuss their work in unique dueling-writer format

FAQs with Ali Subotnick - guest artists answer personal questions; look for Laurie Simmons and Aida Ruilova on the debut show

I’ve Got Your Number with Dezia - live psychic readings and numerological information from a true clairvoyant

Live from the Bowery Poetry Club! - weekly broadcasts of music, theater and poetry performances from the Manhattan performance center

International Correspondents - arts news and music from Beijing, Berlin, London, Miami, Paris, Taiwan and Tokyo

Live Events - one-time-only readings, performances and lectures recorded at the Clocktower or at remote locations in New York City

Historic Recordings: Throughout the broadcast day, WPS1 will present a variety of archived material. MoMA's artist talks include the voices of such luminaries as Edward Steichen (1955), Marcel Duchamp (1962), Spalding Gray (1990), Jasper Johns (1963), W.H. Auden (1953), Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Robert Rauschenberg (1961). WPS1 will also present hundreds of artist talks from the Skowhegan School; readings sponsored by the Poetry Society of America; highlights from Linda Yablonsky's NightLight Readings series, (1991-1999); and an extraordinary series of readings and interviews from WBAI/FM (1975 - 1977) with such writers as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, Joseph Heller, E.L. Doctorow and Jerzy Kosinski.

WPS1's music shows, organized by Elliott Sharp, feature contemporary composers, musicians, and singers such as John Cale, Steve Piccolo, Tracie Morris, Radio Phenomena;, Dave Grubbs, Kim Cascone, William Basinski, Stephen Vitiello, and Yuka Honda and Sean Lennon;. Music/talk shows include "La Caldera," by Laura Andel, broadcasting in Spanish and English; "Shocking Blue" with Delphine Blue; "Love Crazy" with Nora York; and Sharp's own show, "Musica Mathematica."

Lokke Highstein, P.S.1's Warm Up co-curator, has rounded up dailynightly programs of live DJs focusing on current trends in Drum and Bass, Techno, Hip-Hop, and Trance and includes new mixes by:  DJ Q-Zen, Mystic Bill, Forest Green, John Howard, DJ Spun, Jazzy Nice, and Harvey.hosted by Lokke Highstein

WPS1 is located in a studio expressly built for broadcast over the Internet. Designed by architect William Massie in Tribeca's Clocktower Building, it is made of hybrid plastic and laser-cut steel. The vibrant orange studio provides a curvilinear, earlike space for recording and broadcasting programs. The Clocktower has been the site of many historic exhibitions including the inaugural show in 1972 which included work by Joel Shapiro, Richard Tuttle, and James Bishop.

WPS1 was conceived by P.S.1 Founder and Director, Alanna Heiss, who has dreamed of creating an art radio station for more than twenty years. She and Glenn Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art, actually discussed the vision of the radio station during the merger discussions between MoMA and P.S.1 in 2000.

Visitors to may select from a live audio stream or can listen to the archives of past shows. The online stream will be a 28k MP3, making it easy for all Internet users to participate.

WPS1's staff includes Alanna Heiss (P.S.1's founding director), Executive Producer; Linda Yablonsky, Program Director; Brett Littman, Managing Director; Jeannie Hopper, Station Manager; Elliott Sharp and Lokke Highstein, Producers; and Darrell McNeill, Sound Engineer.

WPS1 is sponsored by Bloomberg L.P. Bloomberg L.P., founded in 1981 by Michael R. Bloomberg, is a leading financial information services, news, and media company, serving customers around the world. Headquartered in New York, the company employs 8,000 people globally in 110 offices around the world. Bloomberg leverages its data and news resources through related media products, including television and radio programming, Web sites, books, and publications, to meet the financial information needs of professionals and consumers globally.      

For more information, please contact Rachael Dorsey in the P.S.1 Press Office:
T: (718) 784-2084 ext. *827/ F: (718) 482-9454/ e-mail:

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Thanks to Flux for the pointer, but this is great. 'Toilet Flushing Shelving Unit' is a favourite.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

RIP Norris McWhirter.

First Caron Keating, now McWhirter. Bad week for childhood TV.

Somehow I've only just noticed this. I expect to see national stereotypes reinforced more than questioned over the coming weeks, and even a little piece like this is shot through with uncertainty in its discussion of Poland. Ho hum. Something to do with your nearest neighbours being stranger than those further away and more definitively Other, or something.

Music since 1960: Ligeti: Atmosphères 

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me

Index here.

In the early 1960s music was being composed that should have changed - and may yet - the way in which people thought about music. The total serial achievements of the 1950s left a lot of debris; so much, one might say, that the composers in its midst found it very difficult to find their way out. At the same time, around the turn of the decade, composers based around the fringes of the Western European total serial hegemony - Polish composers such as Penderecki, Górecki, Lutoslawski, Danes such Gudmundsen-Holmgreen and the New Simplicity movement, and the Hungarian Ligeti - began to fill the vacuum that had been left. Able to view serialism from the outside - in the case of composers from the Eastern bloc, given no option in the 1950s but to peep through the Curtain - they were able to make quick sense of the debris, and forge a new path from it.

Total serialism had, despite its obsessively constructivist approach to composition, resulted in a total fragmentation of musical form - at least as far as the listener was concerned. Musical events seemed (even though this was not the case) to proceed in unrelated sequence. Instead of a note forming part of a large whole, they seemed to bear no relation to anything but themselves. Seemingly in recognition of this, and as an extension of Schoenberg's Klangfarbenmelodie concept, composers turned their attention to those tiny fragments of sound, acknowledging the fragmentary nature of post-serial composition, but making those individual fragments the subject of the piece, rather than mere parts of a larger, incomprehensible form.

Atmosphères (recording) is one of the masterpieces of this form of composition. Even more so than Penderecki's Threnody, this is a work composed wholly of clusters. The Klangfarbenmelodie idea has been stretched beyond recognition, so that each point on the 'melody' lasts up to 50 seconds or so. At the same time, the edges of each elongated point are blurred - sounds merge into one another, slowly transform themselves, so that the overall effect is similar to a slowly rotating kaleidoscope. Within the clusters themselves, too, nothing is truly static., even if it is notated so on the page. The simple exigencies of bowing or blowing a single note for such long periods of time mean that there are always very slight fluctations in pitch or dynamic within any cluster; and a cluster itself is such a complex acoustic object that rippling patterns of harmonic 'beats' may be heard, over which the composer has little control.

In dispensing with all pretences of melody, rhythm or harmony in Atmosphères, Ligeti forces attention onto the qualities of sounds themselves - although with very different results from Penderecki's piece. Whereas Penderecki's sounds are more emotionally charged - particularly in cojunction with the dedication to Hiroshima - Ligeti is exploring a more abstract world of sound in itself, at least at this stage in his career. But this is not to say that Ligeti has written a completely empty, formless exercise in abstraction. For what Ligeti does recognise, at least as much as Penderecki, is that musical sounds, just as much as chords, melodies or rhythms, can be carriers of musical meaning, and particularly when placed within a structured set of relationships to other sounds within a piece. For proof of this you need get no further than two minutes into the work, as the string cluster swells, like a slow breath in, and the brass enter for the first time, rising over the top in two glorious clusters of their own. The effect is stunning, and utterly evocative - a sunrise perhaps - but is immediately undercut by more dissonant clusters in the strings, and the meaning of that point in time shifts once more. Penderecki employs his sonic explorations within a recognisably dialectic form, in which events occur within boundaries, and the listener is invited to construct relationships between sections of a work. Ligeti's sounds are much more fluid, and at times it is impossible to hear where one begins and another ends; you are simply aware, once it has begun, of some change. In this way, Ligeti contributed to an entirely new concept of musical form, a close-focus examination of sound built on the foundations of total serialism. His achievements at this time were so radical that forty years later, musicology is still struggling to find the vocabulary to catalogue exactly how music constructed on the relationship of sound to sound works.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Read Short Stories, Rip Schubert Songs, Realise Someone's Suspicions 

Scott, in comments to a couple of posts down, asks the pretty reasonable question 'what the Dickens is RSS'? Well, here, in approximately non-techie language, I will try to explain what it is, and why it's really cool.

First a [sort of] definition. No one actually agrees what RSS stands for, but the easiest definition is 'Really Simple Syndication'. XML, on the other hand, with which - in this context at least - it is pretty interchangable as a term, definitely stands for 'eXtensible Markup Language'. XML is very, very handy for web designers and the like, as it's a much more powerful version of coding text and other stuff than HTML. Crucially, it is much more systematic than HTML - if you code HTML wrong (like forget to close an italics tag, say), your browser can still read the webpage, even if it might look wrong. If you code XML wrong, it simply doesn't work. It is absolutely strict, and as a result, can be reliably read by machines.

If you want to know what XML looks like, click here for the XML version of the Google weblog. It looks horrid, but thankfully producing all this stuff is fully automated if you're on Moveable Type/Typepad, or switch on the Site Feed thing in Blogger. The point is that for every post you publish, a little bit of XML code is published in parallel, building up to a big page like the one for the Google Weblog - and every bit of code for every post for every XML/RSS feed in the world follows exactly the same standard format:

This is the title of the post (if you don't use titles, the first few words of your post end up here)
This is the permalink for that post or article
This is optional, but is usually either a summary, or the complete post text

The tags aren't formatting instructions, like i or b, simply a way of defining what's between them as a certain kind of thing (a link, a title, a piece of descriptive text, or the whole item itself). So, in addition to the nicely formatted blog that people can read, you have a very pure, abstract version that machines can read, and format in any way you can imagine. So, for example, the first two boxes in my left-hand column are automatically generated from XML published by other people - the first is from the Daypop Top 40 most popular links, the second is from the music category of the communal bookmarks page, but they could be generated from any site publishing an XML version of itself. This is why the system is also called RSS - because it is a really simple way of syndicating out your site. Once you know this is what people are doing, you can see it everywhere - most sites with updated news headlines, or 'most popular sites at the moment', or share prices, or whatever, are probably drawing on an RSS feed somewhere. You get free, dynamic (changing) content for your site, but someone else is doing the work for you.

Which is what makes it so useful for webpage owners. What makes it useful for webpage readers is thanks to a whole bunch of services such as the excellent Bloglines. With Bloglines, and other newsreaders, you simply 'subscribe' to any XML feed you can find and like, and when you log on to Bloglines, you get a page listing all the blogs or news sites you subscribe to, with an indication of how many new posts have appeared on each since you last checked. From there you can read the summaries of each post, and if you like the look of it, click through to the blog post itself. (The jpg Matt provides is a really useful way to see what an RSS reader looks like. If you go here you can access a Bloglines screeonshot: the lefthand pane is the blogs you subscribe to, the righthand pane is what a blog post looks like when read in Bloglines.) So instead of spending all morning clicking around every blog you read, only to find that half of them haven't updated, simply keep Bloglines running on your desktop, and it will tell you when they're updated. If - as I do - you have a feed from a newspaper (the Telegraph are by far the most organised of the British papers on this score, it has to be said), you can scan through an entire day's headlines in minutes, and it gets updated regularly throughout the day; so if you're on the ball and want to, you get to read stuff pretty much as it's published. It's a bit like blog radio.

You don't need to understand XML to publish an RSS feed - as I said, the two big blog services provide this automatically, although it's not necessarily switched on for Blogger - but it does help to appreciate the difference between the HTML version of your site (with pretty formatting and all), and the XML version (with its absolutely strict, logical markup code). For those of us who are closet code junkies, it is really satisfying seeing all those tags and attributes working hard.

Haha! - what a brilliant idea. There should be a freestyle version too, rap battle stylee, haha!

[Spotted via Michaelangelo Matos.

Matt brings up the value of a good RSS once more. Just for the record, here's what Blogspot users should do:

Log in to Blogger. Go to Settings, then Site Feed, then set 'Publish Site Feed' to Yes. And that's it. More hits guaranteed, and happier readers. Of the sites I read through my Bloglines account, the following are Blogspot users, whose names I offer up to those wishing to add them to their RSS readers (all links here are to the /atom.xml page):

86400 seconds
The Architectural Dance Society
clap clap blog: we are pentecostal
crumbling loaf
DenseMedia Domain
The Devil Dances In An Empty Pocket
Die Acid House Die
DJ Martian's Page
Fluxblog : Are These Words From The Future?
The Freelance Mentalists
the melancholy of resistance
Michaelangelo Matos
Mischievous Constructions
peking O
worlds of possibility

and honourable mention to Blissblog, which has a Blogstreet feed hosted here.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Here's a thought. If you've got an iPod, and you fill it up with tracks at 99 cents from the iTunes store, or similar, you've got a music collection that has cost you thousands of dollars.

If your iPod gets stolen, the real value is in the data it stores, not the thing itself. Would an insurance company cover the thousands of dollars of MP3s on there, or would they only insure the chip they're stored on, and the hardware? Does an insurance company place the same premium on an MP3 that a record company does? I honestly don't know the answer to this, but I'd be interested to hear from anyone who does.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Yeah, waydago people.

The business. I miss Green Street.

Music since 1960: Penderecki: Threnody 

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me

Index here.

Unexpectedly, my list of great works in modern composition since 1960 became one of my most popular posts here. In it I hinted that each of the works I listed was chosen not just because of their individual qualities, but also because of what they meant personally to me, and suggested that one day I might write all those stories here. Well, beginning with 1960, and Penderecki's Threnody - To the Victims of Hiroshima, that is just what I'm going to do, roughly once a week for around the next 40 weeks. Since this is a blog, and by definition a sequential, chronological piece of writing that made sense - and anyway, as a boy I'm compelled to believe that making and annotating lists is the only valid form of intimate communication…

P.S. I have never read any Nick Hornby. Honest.


Almost since his career began, Penderecki has receieved at least as many brickbats as bouquets, but Threnody, one of his first breakthrough works, remains as stunning, visceral, shocking and thrilling as anything in or out of the repertory. Penderecki's music itself is a key part of my work-in-progress PhD (three other composers on this list are too), and while I therefore felt I had to include some of his music in such a personal list, this piece would have easily made it on merit alone.

Threnody (recording) is composed for 52 strings, very often dividing into 52 seperate parts. It is a classic of the so-called 'sonoristic' style, it is written in a semi-graphic (although precise) notation, and makes great demands on its players - and their instruments - with numerous extended playing techniques. In trying to describe it once upon a time to milady, I said that its beginning at least was like a cat sliding down a blackboard, knocking over a large box of pens and stationery on the way down. This is one of the ultimate examples of 'squeaky door' music, but - accidentally, as it happens - one of the most powerfully moving pieces in the postwar canon.

I say accidentally, because the evocative title - which marries so well to the white noise of screams and sirens evoked in the opening moments - was not Penderecki's initial choice. The piece was originally given the anti-programmatic title 8' 37", but on a recommendation after the first performance, Penderecki changed it. Rumours abound as to why or how this actually happened, but the current consensus leans towards the suggestion coming from either a Polish radio official, or Penderecki's publisher. In any event, the new title proved to be the making of the work - and Penderecki himself - and Threnody was a major success at the 1961 ISCM Festival in Amsterdam.

But while the title obviously gives an accessible entry point into the music, and accounts for a great deals of the work's critical success, there is more to this piece than the program of post-nuclear lament. In fact, I'd argue that in some ways, whilst it served Penderecki well in this case, there is a lazy undercurrent of thought that draws a conclusion from examples such as Threnody, Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score and Stanley Kubrick's use of Ligeti in 2001 that postwar composition is capable of expressing nothing but terror, usually awesome. This does nobody - least of all the works - any favours, and is one view I hope can be challenged in this little survey of mine.

Actually, another way of thinking of Threnody is as a set of variations upon a cluster. A cluster is a 'chord' made up of three or more notes adjacent to one another. It's not a harmony in the conventional sense, but a sound, and Threnody is full of them. The biggest and most dramatic of these occurs at the very end of the work, when each of the 52 instruments sustains a note one quarter-tone different from its neighbour. The effect is shattering and magical - catgut and horsehair become glass bells and iron gongs as the harmonics beat against one another. Of all the clusters in the work, this is the purest - it is held for a full 30 seconds, with the only marking a slow diminuendo from triple fortissimo down to nothing. If Threnody may be read as a set of variations, this white noise totality is its theme.

The preceding sections of the work each explore this totality of noise, the obliteration of melody, harmony and rhythm to the service of sound that this final cluster represents, through a variety of means. Some are sequences of smaller interlocking clusters, others are more kaleidoscopic. The piece as a whole is an attempt to create musical shape in the almost total absence of any traditionally recognised musical elements, and, therefore, in the almost total absence of anything recognisably programmatic or representative. After the relaxation in 1956 of Soviet control over the arts in Poland and elsewhere in the Eastern bloc, programmatic music and musical representation, with their suggestion of Socialist Realism, became anathema to young Polish composers, and musical abstraction became a highly-valued avenue of expression. The development of a musical form, its own internal tensions and coincidences are meaning and expression enough.

Too easily we forget to revel in the qualities of sound for its own sake, in music without 'meaning'.

Everybody told me to 

"John Aubrey reported that 'old wives' tales, spooks and phantoms' vanquished when the wars brought 'liberty of Conscience and of Inquisition'; now 'even children fear no such things'."

Christopher Norris, ed. (1989): Music and the Politics of Culture (London: Lawrence and Wishart)

[1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.]

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The unthinkable: he certainly did it (Bosh!); can we?


More ATP at The New Hip Hop, Political Correctness Trend. And more at Sleeve Notes, who also has pictures, and themed MP3s. Bostin'.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

How many surprises can the Champions League produce?! Blimey.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

All Tomorrow's Parties, Weekend 2: Camber Sands, 2nd-4th April 2004 

Sonic Youth have been my favourite band for almost 15 years now, but for assorted reasons fair and foul, before this weekend I had never seen them live. Many opportunities had been and gone, and it was starting to get to the point that I didn't believe I could ever see them. Almost as though I had held them in such high regard at times that I no longer thought myself worthy of watching them at a mere gig. Daft. Add this expectation to a bill that included Dizzee Rascal, LCD Soundsystem, Le Tigre and Hanged Up, and it became something else again. When milady asked me on Thursday night if I was excited I couldn't say yes - it all seemed too good to be true, and it's hard to be excited about something you can't quite believe.

Off we went though, B, C, D, R, T and I, crammed in the back of a Vauxhall Zafira. Because ATP is held at Pontin's holiday camp, your first impression is that you've turned up at a giant hipster wedding reception. It remains surreal, as cartoon crocodiles, parrots and the evil Captain Blood greet you at every turn, as well as the Orwellian exhortation 'Fun' in six foot letters on the walls.

Nicely cocooned from the real world, in we went. The first band to make an impression were The Fiery Furnaces, purveyors of quirky Wurlitzer indie-rock. The set ran on without gaps, and could conceivably have been one multi-part epic music journey, or a string of odd tales about lost dogs and wife beating. Probably the latter. Special mention should be made of Fiery Furnaces' new drummer who, with a nonchalant cigarette hanging from his lips looked, and sounded, the business. The weekend was off to a fine start. Unfortunately, the next band on my list, who were the first of my expected highlights, Mission of Burma, were really disappointing. Maybe it was the venue, maybe the fact that it was only early Friday evening, I don't know, but they just felt flat. Uninspiring, straight, punk. A shame.

In contrast, Enon picked up on what would be a recurring theme for the weekend - keyboards are cool, and every good band should have them. For some reason I made the note that the current rise of electro might have something to with a post-terrorism desire to tame technology once more; use electricity for fun, not detonators. I don't remember quite why I thought that with respect to Enon (although they are a vaguely electro act), but it may be something. Still, I liked Enon a lot.

Can't say much about Modest Mouse, or Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. Neither really made much impression on me - MM were more rawk than I was expecting, and by the time the Jicks came on I was too knackered to take much in. Sorry about that.

Yes, I'm a lightweight, but after a good kip, and losing a tenner on Bear on Board in the National, I felt refreshed enough to re-enter the fray. OOIOO were up, and were another ATP discovery for me. Japanese modally-inflected vocals spanning guitar harmonics. Biggest talking point was the trumpet, which came from absolutely nowhere, and completed the impression that OOIOO are the missing link between Dots and Loops, Bad Moon Rising and Bitches Brew, and a damn good thing too. Quick break, watched half of The Wicker Man on ATP's dedicated TV station, and back in for Le Tigre, who I was really looking forward to. I wasn't disappointed. "Hello, we're Le Tigre and we're from New York City", and were they ever. After Friday's mostly polite, enjoyable, head-nodding line-up - curated in Malkmus's own image - here was the first real, hard hit of dirt and fun. I loved every second of Le Tigre - do yourself and your housemates a favour if you haven't already, and go out and buy some, now.

Onwards, then, to Sonic Youth themselves. After a certain time, some actors, the truly great ones, are able to impress in whatever they do. A lot of them, with Hamlets behind them, start to take a few easier roles - and who can begrudge them - but the very best still make something of them. And there are few greater pleasures, I think, in cinema than watching a great actor, and knowing that for all that they're giving to their part, they've still got loads left in the tank. Ian McKellan has become a master at this recently, with X-Men and Lord of the Rings; Gielgud in Arthur also comes to mind. It's the difference between 9-carat and 18-carat, or speakers that are enough, or speakers that are twice as powerful as you'll ever need. Both do the job, look the part, but with the latter you can feel the weight behind everything, the ease of it all, the latent power. Sonic Youth, who are still gigging tracks like 'White Cross' after 18 years, have this quality too. Sure, anyone can make a feedback racket between songs, but only a band who've been doing it as long as SY can make it look as unselfconscious as this. The set was about half new material (forthcoming album sounding good), but the band have reached such a plateau (in their rock incarnation at least), that it could have all been Spice Girls covers, and the audience would still have felt it. And I struggle hard to name many bands, after Sonic Youth, and the Fall, who've been playing this long, and are still creating, still on top of their game. Expectations met. However, I also noticed for the first time that Thurston shares the same deadpan delivery as George W. Bush. Odd.

Unlike Simeon, who passed away after circumcising Christ and fulfilling a lifetime's ambition, I made it through the night, and after fish and chips in Rye saw Polmo Polpo and Hanged Up on the downstairs stage. Frankly, PP were very underwhelming. Their poor guitarist looked as thought he'd rather be anywhere but on stage, and the grand crescendos of their recent Domino04 track 'Sky Histoire' were sadly missed. The 45 minute set was split in two, leaving Hanged Up, after some reshuffling, just enough time for two tracks. Which was a real pity, because of all the droney, clanging, swell-and-decay bands of the weekend (and there were many) they were by far the best. I've always thought Hanged Up were the most interesting of all the Godspeed/Constellation offshoots. The ultra-stripped down line-up of violin and drums baulks any indulgence, and frankly both players have to work a lot harder for their soundscapes, which makes them that much more interesting. Stripping down further to just two songs, however, was a bit much, and we could all have benefitted from a bit more from one of the better acts of the weekend.

There followed Explosions in the Sky (guitars, bass, drums do a loud version of the drone-clang-soundscape), and Arab Strap (hugely underwhelming, a pity) before a strategic break and a plunge into the double hipster whammy of LCD Soundsystem, followed by Dizzee Rascal. This was scheduling apparently dreamt up by the Gods of Blog, and I've been cueing up 'Yeah (stupid vers.)' next to 'I Luv U' on mix tapes and playlists for ages now. Something else was for sure, too - I was suddenly one of the least cool people in the room as the glitterati all turned out in their Sunday best for this one. LCD came on late, really late for 60 minute set, thanks to a horrid soundcheck (and they were dogged with mic and bass problems throughout the set), and a hefty dump delay from one member of the band. So a generous crowd were against them, as was the ATP soundsystem, and the schedulers apparently asked that the set was cut short. So disappointingly no 'Yeah'; but a storming outing for 'Losing My Edge' almost made up. James Murphy didn't look impressed, but as he predicted, we moved on. Dizzee was, well, awesome. By the end of his 'warm up' a capella, he was everyone's highlight for the weekend. Every superlative is exhausted by now, so I won't add more, except to say that when he smiles, Dizzee is the best looking man in the world. The set's - and the weekend proper's - close-out track was 'Fix up, look sharp', complete with new verses about Dizzee's recent worldwide touring. When the record started to skip, and the DJ totally lost his beat, everything should have fallen flat, but while the DJ blushed, Dizzee just cracked up. "We'll do that a second time," as good as the first time round. And thus all the navel-gazing guitar histrionics of many of the bands on show that weekend were punctured in one moment of bashful, teenage honesty.

Here's the tracklist for the ATP CD I burnt before we left:

Alone Again Or - Love
Progress - Mission Of Burma
Tongue Tied - Erase Errata
Love Detective - Arab Strap
Cry 4 Help - Har Mar Superstar
Yeah (Stupid version) - LCD Soundsystem
I Luv U - Dizzee Rascal
Dyke March 2000 - Le Tigre
Holy Night Fever - Deerhoof
Worms vs. Birds - Modest Mouse
Craw Song - Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Disconnection Notice - Sonic Youth
ThaRoman - Threnody Ensemble
Winternational - Hangedup
I Don't Blame You - Cat Power
Marbles - Tindersticks

The current Big Issue (London edition only? Not sure) includes an article on Grime by Dorian Lynskey, and features input from the esteemed Simon R.

For Scott 

Herbert Howells

Howells was one of England's greatest church composers, certainly of the 20th century, probably since the Renaissance. There's a Naxos CD of his choral music (£4.99, you won't regret it), which includes 'Take him, Earth, for Cherishing', and the utterly utterly gorgeous Requiem. (If this piece doesn't tear you in two, you might as well give up ;) ) 'Take him, Earth' was written for JFK's memorial service, and is one of the lost masterpieces of British music, I reckon. Because he was a contemporary of the more well-known Vaughan Williams and Britten, and because so much of his music is for the church and not the concert hall, Howells is unjustly overlooked, but ask any organist or cathedral singer in the country, and they will know, and probably love, his music.

Well done, Paul Moravec

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

For anyone who might be looking for more modern comosition recommendations from the last 40-odd years, Robert Gable at aworks has compiled his own list of American favourites.

ATP review on its way ...

Thursday, April 01, 2004

And on that note, herewith a break. I'll be at this all weekend. Anyone else going who wishes to nab me should look out for a lanky blonde wearing cherry red Vans.

Everyone else - expect a phat review some time next week.

Music since 1960 

Sometime classical music blogger Alan Little ponders whether any good music has been written in the last 40 years. Which as regular readers might imagine is something like a red rag to a bull here at Rambler Towers. And, recently, I've been aware that I've not talked about music I know and love dearly that much recently.

So, to answer Alan's question - and maybe by way of a listening list for anyone else pondering the same, or just wondering what gets me up in the morning - I thought I'd create a list of works, one for each year 1960-2000. However, I struggled hard to find works for 1978, 1979, 1990 and 1991 that were both great, and had any sort of personal significance. I should add, also, that this is nowhere near a complete list, or even necessarily a list of the greatest pieces of the last 40 years or so. It's simply some of the ones I treasure most, and that I think everyone who truly loves music should listen to at least once. And some pieces - Górecki's 3rd Symphony for example - seemed so obvious as to need no introduction from me, so I found more interesting substitutions.

Each one of these pieces have stunned, amazed or enlightened me, or just given me great pleasure from the moment I first heard them. Hey, maybe one day I'll even tell you those stories ...

Update (15/04/04): Click the links to read my post for that work

The list

1960 - Krzysztof Penderecki: Threnody - To the Victims of Hiroshima
1961 - György Ligeti: Atmosphères
1962 - Olivier Messiaen: Sept haïkï
1963 - Herbert Howells: Take him, earth, for cherishing
1964 - Terry Riley: In C
1965 - Steve Reich: It's Gonna Rain
1966 - Harry Partch: And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma
1967 - Karlheinz Stockhausen: Hymnen
1968 - Witold Lutoslawski: Livre pour orchestre
1969 - Luciano Berio: Sinfonia
1970 - Brian Ferneyhough: Cassandra's Dream Song
1971 - Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel
1972 - Henryk Górecki: Symphony no.2
1973 - Steve Reich: Six Pianos
1974 - Wojciech Kilar: Krzesany
1975 - Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never be Defeated
1976 - John Cage: Apartment House 1776
1977 - Arvo Pärt: Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten
1980 - György Kurtág: Messages of the Late R.V. Troussova
1981 - Tadeusz Baird: Voices from Afar
1982 - Hans Otte: Das Buch der Klange
1983 - John Adams: Shaker Loops
1984 - Pierre Boulez: Répons
1985 - Brian Ferneyhough: Etudes transcendentales
1986 - Harrison Birtwistle: Earth Dances
1987 - John Zorn: Spillane
1988 - Kaija Saariaho: Grammaire des rêves
1989 - György Kurtág: Ligatura: Message to Frances-Marie (The Answered Unanswered Question)
1992 - Meredith Monk: Atlas
1993 - John Tavener: The Apocalypse
1994 - Michael Finnissy: Folklore II
1995 - Péter Eötvös: Atlantis
1996 - Arvo Pärt: Litany
1997 - Alwynne Pritchard: Craw
1998 - Gérard Grisey: Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil
1999 - Rebecca Saunders: cinnabar
2000 - Ian Wilson: ... wander, darkling

(All dates are of completion)

... And if you can't find something you like in that lot (masterpieces all, but granted, not all to everyone's taste), then it's a fair bet you probably aren't going to enjoy contemporary music at all. On the other hand, if you want recording recommendations for any of these, drop me a line and I'll see what I can do.

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