Tuesday, 27 November 2007

CINECITY 2007 - THE FIRST HALF


A few comments on the films I managed to catch during the first half of Brighton’s annual CineCity festival. Expect more to follow in due course…

LUST, CAUTION (Ang Lee, 2007)
NB Mild spoilers
Ang Lee’s latest starts out impressively as an espionage set in Japanese-occupied China, with an added theme about the impetuousness of youth. Then, just when all is looking well, it gives all that up for a kinky S&M story in the mould of 91/2 Weeks. And, as Ben Grimm was wont to say – “what a revoltin’ development that is!” What is it with art movie audiences and S&M? They way they find it simultaneously so titillatory yet so self-congratulatory audacious? It’s like having your bodice-ripping cake and eating it. But more to the point, when are they going to shut up about it?

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (William Dieterle, 1948)
It’s not giving too much away to say this has the plot of Girl in the Fireplace minus the clockwork robots. In fact, one of its weaknesses is the time it takes the protagonist to figure out the premise – clearly he doesn’t go to see many movies. With themes of impoverished artists, otherworldly muses and impossible love, it unsurprisingly became a favourite of the Surrealists. It’s perhaps not the classic that endorsement might suggest, but presents an endless array of colourful characters portrayed in exquisite black and white photography.

SACCO AND VANZETTI (Peter Miller, 2007)
A well-made documentary on the notoriously rigged trial and murd… sorry, execution of two Italian-American anarchists hauled in during 1927. While ostensibly charged with a robbery, they were clearly on trial for their politics; harangued about it during cross-questioning, and even the real culprit owning up doing nothing to stem the prosecution! However this seems to expose the chief weakness of the film – a focus on the minutiae of the case against them at the expense of any real examination of the political milieu they were part of. For one example, we’re told solidarity actions occurred for them as far away as China – yet we never stray outside the courtroom long enough to look at these in any depth. At its worst it could be accused of counterposing ‘good’ anarchists (noble innocents given to taking in stray animals) against ‘bad’ ones who post letter bombs. Maybe there are other options…

SILENT LIGHT (Reygadas, 2007)
NB Fair to middling spoilers
You couldn’t ask for a film more beautifully composed than this, but I couldn’t help feeling there was something of the emperor’s new clothes about it. A man from a conservative religious community pondering leaving his family for another woman – we naturally expect him to “follow his bliss”, right? Okay, here he doesn’t. But is there anything more here that that straightforward, almost schematic reversal of expectation? We never learn how the experience transforms their relationship, any more than we learn what was wrong with it in the first place. Ultimately the characters stay like their silent prayers – outside and beyond us.

(Expert opinion was also divided over the single magic realist movement, a pivotal turn that ain’t for spoiling here. A friend was insistent one such moment alone in a film can only ever be considered a cheat. I found myself going with it, perhaps because the whole film portrays events in such a numinous way it didn’t feel so much of a wrench.)

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS (Mungiu, 2007)
“Enjoy the film” finished the guy doing the introductions, then caught himself. “Well, that’s maybe not the term…” Indeed this bleak naturalist drama about the perils of backstreet abortions in Soviet-era Romania isn’t exactly ideal first-date material - but it is compelling viewing. Filmed in (near-on) real time and often deliberately scuppering your expectations of film narrative, it so neatly captures a sense of verite it often becomes hard to work out just where its strong style is coming from.

During post-show questioning, the introducer (a Romanian critic whose name I now embarrassingly forget) seemed to dislike comparisons to fellow Romanian Puiu’s 2005 film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, emphasising one was set during dictatorship and the other after. Nevertheless, the counterposition of the sick and fragile human against the remorseless weight of bureaucracy does seem similar to our foreigners’ eyes. In some ways what’s so horrific isn’t the travails the girls must endure but the stoic way in which they accept them – as if such is but the way of life. Let’s hope Romania can become a home to a realist cinema that’s vital rather than just worthy.

(The festival also showed Mungiu’s earlier Occident, made in 2002. Conversely this was a farce-like comedy, albeit a pretty heavily black farce. This played well with interweaving and overlapping its characters, but couldn’t really compare against its successor.)

QUINTET (Altman, 1979)
NB Proper spoilers!

Every now and again an unfairly overlooked gem is rediscovered and restored. But with increasing frequency the corpse of a turkey is dug up for another flogging. Of course Robert Altman made some great movies, but I defy anyone to spot his handiwork on this klunker. It’s most reminiscent of Zardoz (Boorman, 1974), presenting a human race laid low not by external disaster but its own feeling of ennui. It’s a film about people who have lost the will to live… and the rest of the review almost writes itself from that point.

The premise is the jaded ensemble have had nothing to do but play games for so long they have resorted to playing a killer game. Which is actually a reasonable premise, except you get neither any sense of the game’s strategy nor any reason to care much who lives or dies. In fact you end up waiting hopefully for the next bumping off, just because each one brings the end of the film closer.

Throughout I kept wondering just what the new ice age setting had to do with anything. (Admittedly it does provide the sole saving grace – some cool sets, filmed on location at Montreal’s crumbling Expo site.) The general consensus seems to be this is a Cold War metaphor. Except this ‘metaphor’ (everything’s gone cold and no-one likes each other) is absolutely unilluminating on its subject. It’s more like a pun than a metaphor, except puns are supposed to be funny.

While Zardoz is often the subject of ridicule, I must admit to a sneaky soft spot for it. It’s absurd, incoherent, gimmicky and pretentious, but with all that ceaselessly inventive. Quintet shares all its failings but develops none of its saving graces. It was best left out in the cold.

http://www.cine-city.co.uk/2007/
(Yes it’s CineCity everywhere else but Cine-city on the website… what would Super-man and Spiderman have to say?)

Saturday, 24 November 2007

HERE COME THE DALEKS!

NB In a futile bid to keep things timely, I’m posting this precisely one day after the anniversary of Doctor Who’s first transmission but more importantly two days after the unfortunate death of producer Verity Lambert. I’m also writing a companion piece on early Doctor Who in general, though I wouldn’t like to promise when that might appear.
Tributes to Verity Lambert here


(Plot Spoilers: C’mon, you must know the plot of this one by now!)

Pedantic Preamble: If you’re about my age you’re probably used to this series being called 'The Dead Planet'. They didn’t give the stories titles then, Dead Planet came from the first episode. But somewhere along the way it came to be called 'The Daleks', a generic title used in precisely none of the episodes, but a convention the BBC have followed with this DVD reissue. Now we all know what a Dalek is, that’s probably come to be the more saleable title. Personally I prefer 'The Dead Planet' as it captures more of the series’ mood. But onwards…

…whatever you call it, the key is almost casually thrown away. First the Daleks tell the Doctor the Thals are post-war mutations. We immediately assume their little green fingers are crossed inside their metal casings, and what they’re telling us is porkies. But he’s later shown Thal records and it turns out they are mutations. War mutated them from aggressive brutes into blonde, noble pacifists.

The Daleks are mutated by war too, but differently - literal personifications of the bunker mentality, trapped inside metal shells which are themselves trapped inside a metal city. (In this first story, they can’t leave the city which powers them.) They spend their time spying through long range scanners, or peering paranoid at people through their eyestalks. Driven quite mad, they throw away their chance of peace and reconciliation with the Thals. (Personally I’d have tweaked the plot to have the Daleks assuming the Thals are out to betray them, and deciding to get their retaliation in first. As things stand, the Daleks have physically mutated too far, cures just poison them and so events almost drive them to confrontation.)

It’s surely no coincidence the most popular Dalek story, 'Genesis of the Daleks', returns to their wartime origins and yields an even greater literalisation of the bunker mentality. But overall this sense of the Daleks trapped in their own folly gets steadily lost. Here we not only have the famous rubber-gloved glimpse of the ‘thing’ inside the box, but Ian ‘drives’ a Dalek canister like it’s just a vehicle and they’re even compared to dodgem cars! Yet as time went on the Daleks would become their metal casings, and with it the embodiment of unadulterated evil. And absolute expressions of evil tend to the absolutely uninteresting.

But the Thals are a different kind of trapped; scarred by war they’ve retreated into a pacifist ideology. This dead planet is of course a liberal Englishmen’s metaphor for ravaged post-war Germany; the remnants of Nazism locked inside their fanaticism but the good, blonde Germans driven too good – demilitarised, reluctant to take up their role in contemporary conflicts. The Thals even have their own Neville Chamberlain, who reads peace into a piece of paper and gets exterminated for his efforts. They were even originally intended to have more Germanic sounding names such as Stohl, Vahn and Kurt but before transmission these became Temmosus, Alydon and Ganatus. (See www.shannonsullivan.com/drwho/serials/b.html) Admittedly, the change to these ‘classical’ names was probably more aimed at engendering audience sympathy than disguising this metaphor.

But there’s enough nuances to stop it getting too schematic. Despite the somewhat underwhelming ‘final battle’, the last line is a nice touch. No-one slaps Ian on the back for being right; instead they look round at the pile of corpses and lament “if there had only been some other way”. We’re reminded what the Thals have not forgotten, that it was such conflict which ravaged their planet to begin with. The series has commendably kept this insistence that victory rarely comes without a price, and a refusal to accept easy resolutions. But it’s not a note you’ll hear played often in other modern dramas. There’s a post-war bleakness to everything, which makes it bizarre to think that Terry Nation was previously known as a comedy writer. (Turning the story into a comedic matinee adventure, as the 1965 film does, is somewhat like a Shostakovich concerto being covered by a popular beat combo.)

The Daleks doesn’t just live up to its rebranded title and deliver the Doctor’s most popular foe, it’s the start of ‘proper’ Doctor Who. The opposition of bad, city-based overlords to noble simple peasants (the Thals are farmers) will recur again and again. Previously distrustful of each other, the TARDIS crew stage a mock argument, but then work together to disable their Dalek guard. Though it achieves it by Maguffins, the script doesn’t allow them to leave until they’ve healed their environment - something which would become a fundamental rule of the show.

The one exception is the Doctor himself. He’s suitably outraged at the Dalek’s amorality, even offering up the TARDIS as a bargaining counter to slow up their plans. But its still Ian who saves the day, not only teaching the Thals to fight but rescuing the Doctor and Susan. If less self-serving than previously, the Doctor is still remote and irascible. At one point his insistence on facts and logic leads him into a big argument with Susan, only reconciled by Barbara’s intervention. His curiousity drives him to trick the others into visiting the Dalek city, and his fascination with its gizmos gets him and Susan captured. (A moment played not for drama but as a fait accompli.)


Of course with deadlines then so hasty, what we see on the screen is simultaneously launch and dummy run. The Daleks had originally been intended to have grabber hand next to their exterminator, but time and budget restraints left them stuck with the now-familiar sink plunger. Somewhat hilariously, the script was obviously left unamended and we see these plungers employed for all sorts of unlikely tasks, passing bits of paper between them and – perhaps best of all – carrying trays of food. (While the film version gave them grabber hands, the series stuck with the sink plungers. The daft objects now seem so lodged in popular perception, even the souped-up Daleks in the souped-up relaunch didn’t get grabber hands – just souped-up sink plungers!)

The downside of watching this 1963 show today isn’t its cheapness, though the production values are often so shoddy as to make you laugh about loud. (Its hilarious to consider the BBC all but cancelled it at this stage because it was getting too expensive!) Perhaps this is partly down to my generation, but in my youth an appreciation of science fiction involved accepting out of necessity the hairdryer spaceships and plywood sets - as signifiers rather than the signified, triggers for your imagination. The petrified forest on the screen is just a peg to hang the petrified forest of my mind; which looks something more like Ernst’s famous surrealist painting Europe After the Rain (below), a bizarre mix of the barren with the mutated. And the Dalek city of my mind looks more like… um… a city. Similarly the science fiction I would read required a similar effort, as it tended to grand, mighty ideas delivered in the most leaden prose. It was like reading an art book which was actually full of rough sketches. (But please note this is not to entertain the notion that special effects somehow stunt the imagination. This oft-heard but absurd argument is merely a repositioning of the old saw that reading comics or watching films somehow stunt the imagination – an argument which has been defeated but regrouped many times. If anyone wants to argue that '2001' stunts the viewers’ imagination while Doc Smith’s novels enhance it, please let them go ahead.)


No, the real obstacle is in the slowness. An important plot point is told you two or sometimes three times over, and there’s so much padding that at times you feel you could watch it on fast forward and miss nothing. (The cave episode, tellingly titled The Ordeal, seems particularly endless.) Though completely different in tone (not to mention hugely inferior), the 1965 film manages to cover every major plot point here and come in at 83 minutes.

But even here it can feel like a necessary counterbalance. If these seven episodes should have been three or four, today they’d be one or (if we were really lucky) two. Of course as soon as we clap eyes on the Dalek city we know we’re going to end up there. But here there’s sufficient space where that doesn’t happen straight away, and we have time to wonder what might be in there. When Ian is punishment exterminated, he can’t walk for some time afterwards. Today he’d be either alive or dead. Somewhere between William Hartnell and David Tennant, there lies a happy medium.

That aside, this story not only kicked Doctor Who into gear. Production history tells us it was nearly shown much later in the season or not made at all… concepts which now suggest an alternate universe. It not only established much of the furniture it also enabled a series willing to tackle challenging issues, and unafraid to pretend they had easy resolutions. More importantly than inventing the pepperpot, this story set a high bar. Whenever things started to go wrong, this would tend to be the template people would look back to.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

THE IMAGINED VILLAGE

Brighton Dome, Sat 17th Nov


“It’s not about authenticity, it’s about identity. I’m not interested in people listening to this record searching for authenticity. But there’s a lot of identity there… This is what I am. I’m rooted and I’m English.”
- Simon Emmerson

Now a Singing Revolution might sound the sort of thing that only the more earnest folkie would dream of, with nothing ever coming of it bar dribble in his beard. Except one actually happened less than two decades ago – in Estonia during 1988. On (I kid you not) September 11th of that year, the crowd at a big music festival collectively launched into songs banned by the Soviet rulers. The event led to street demonstrations where participants continued their songs, until (to cut a long story short) independence was won four years later.

It would be charmingly romantic to imagine that we could have so personal a relationship to English Folk, as if its tunes were woven into the fibre of our beings. But, despite Emmerson’s quote above, we can’t. Perhaps for us it feels too close to celebrating nationhood, fine if you’re Estonian but not quite the thing for one of history’s great reformed bullies. Perhaps we’ve had to contend with too much faux-rustic claptrap and TV-advert Harvest festivals. (Though of course there’s been no shortage of awful Celtic ‘music’ either.) More likely there’s been some deathly combination of the two.

Nevertheless I cling to my contention that folk’s one of those either/ or types of music (alongside soul or country) - if it works well it works very very well, it’s only when it doesn’t work its horrid. So, despite not particularly expecting the evening to lead to any revolutions, I journeyed down to Brighton Dome to see Simon Emmerson and a big gang of his mates perform tracks from The Imagined Village.

There’s been talk lately of a folk revival, in which context it’s interesting to see so cross-generational a stage ensemble - from Sixties folk stalwart Martin Carthy through Eighties figures like Emmerson and Billy Bragg even down to some young ‘uns. But Carthy’s presence raises a question I can only speculate over. When there was so much great English folk about in the late Sixties (of which he was such a crucial part), how come there has been so little since? Where were the English music equivalents of the Pogues or REM? Perhaps the classic example are the Mekons, who in embracing rootsy music also decided to decamp to America. The Men They Couldn’t Hang are perhaps the exception that proves the rule. (NB If anyone is thinking “The Levellers” here, please could you leave the room quietly?)

Like today the Sixties felt a futuristic era, as if the future was bursting in all around you, and this doubtless proved part of the appeal in looking back. But then the future was something to be embraced not feared, so perhaps a rooting in the past did not automatically imply an escape into nostalgism so much as an emphasis on continuity. (Then again, against any notions of era-localism, it should be noticed Carthy’s daughter Eliza was also on stage and accounting for herself splendidly – perhaps folk does lie in the blood after all!)

But also, now popular music is less about claiming generational identity than it has been for fifty years, could a great barrier to folk’s cry for tradition and continuity be down? Of course some might argue this merely exposes a bigger still barrier to folk – its whiteness. Even if whiteness isn’t actually politically suspect surely it’s unsexy. After all no-one ever offers to put on some badass white music at a party, do they? Bragg seizes this elephant in the living room at one point, saluting “that much maligned of groups – the white working class.” And he has a point. As the Pete Poselthwaite character puts it in the film Brassed Off, on the pit colliery band forced to close with their mine, “if this lot were seals or whales, you'd all be up in bloody arms. But they’re just ordinary human beings!”

However Bragg (who can frankly be something of a plonker) then has to throw patriotism into the mix, even going so far as to have written a book called The Progressive Patriot. This seems absurd. As fellow stage-hog Chris Wood puts it on the band’s own website, “traditional music has never adhered to the constructed boundaries of a governing class. Nor should our sense of ourselves.” As another old beardy guy put it, the working class has no country. Moreover, it’s specifically in the context of folk music where this makes not more but less sense. Beyond the simply geographical ‘English folk’ is actually something of an oxymoron. Its original pre-industrial participants would have only held the haziest sense of themselves as English, like their music their identities would have been much more localised. Some folk traditions slip these boundaries altogether, such as the Cornish whose music more resembled the Bretons of North France. Yet, if taken geographically alone, we can talk of ‘English folk’. ‘Progressive patriot’ is the oxymoron.

Moreover, despite Bragg’s battlecry, the performance ultimately tries a little too hard to lose the whiteness tag and with it sometimes embraces a debased, multiplexy form of multiculturalism. Bragg’s introductory song, England Half English, is clearly intended lightheartedly but its insistence on equality through eating curry the one night then bubble and squeak the next feels irritatingly tokenistic. Buying a curry is merely consuming a culture, not interacting with it. Moreover, while the band were clearly chosen for their musical chops not their skin tones there was something of the ‘photo-op multiculturalism’ about the look of them and their mixture of ethic instruments – something slightly too reminiscent of Father Ted’s Anti Racist Slide Show.

Similarly, as seems to happen often at folk gigs, I found there to be far too much talking. This is something I normally find, but it’s normally confined to the audience. Of course you want folk gigs to be chatty and informal, but all the blather here puts you in mind of a nervous suitor on his first date. (Perhaps significantly, the Carthys talked the least and also played the most.) And the banner title, The Imagined Village was an ungainly mouthful which sounded suspiciously and unappealingly like a project. All of this seemed to dispel the very feeling they were trying to conjure. If this really was the music of our roots, our misplaced identity, why would we need an introductory essay to explain all that to us?

Something else I sometimes found cringey was the attempt to ‘update’ some of the old songs. This often reminded me of the more desperate devices by which schoolteachers would try to ‘reach’ their classes; “Hamlet was a Prince, which was like a Pop Star, only in the past” etc etc. Of course we don’t want folk music reverentially preserved, a task better given to embalmers than musicians. And apparently similar approaches can (and did) work well. Writing about contemporary subjects in the folk idiom can create an interesting frisson. For example, there’s Chris Woods’ song about a yuppie buying up a Cotswold’s cottage because it’s “quaint”, his 4x4 intruding into the folk idiom as his Gucci shoes do on the cottage floor. And adapting the essence of an old song into a new idiom can bring surprises to both, as Benjamin Zephaniah proves with Tam Lyn. But Bragg’s version of Hard Times of Old England ‘updates’ it by dropping contemporary references (Tescos, closing post offices) into an otherwise intact old folk number, and loses – in quite a literal sense – its integrity. It creates a disorienting kind of verbal collage best played for surreal or comic effect, like Pete Kennard cartoonishly sticking cruise missiles in Constable’s Haywain. (Oddly the only time this approach is attempted is for the CD cover/ gig poster image - see above.)

But all of that is to look at the flagon of ale as half-empty when it was equally half-full. Perhaps any gig with Martin Carthy aboard will have high points, but for every song that stumbled there was another which cut a rug. And as each new Starbucks opens it comes to feel more and more important to remind ourselves of a diverse landscape beneath such corporate uniformity. True, too many times that tradition has come to feel like faerie gold from one of the old tales, disappearing as soon as grasped. But I would contend it’s more like an irregular seam of gold - buried deep then shunted by subsequent events into an inaccessible seam, but real gold you can bite into.

The two opening songs demonstrated all we wanted with aplomb. For the first track, against spectral drones a recording of the old folkie John Copper lamented the “ ’ouses, ‘ouses, ‘ouses” which now cover so much of the Sussex Downs. The band immediately then launched into an inspired version of John Barleycorn Must Die. The effect was enhanced upon your host who had previously been so gormless as to fail to get this song! Indeed on the surface it is another‘ rebel martyr’ song, akin to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down or the like. Repeatedly “they hired men” to assault Barleycorn in a myriad of ways, until you start to feel half of Sussex must be enlisted - but he mystifyingly seems to survive it all.

The point to John Barleycorn Must Die is that he cannot die, for he represents the barley in the fields – and ultimately nature itself. Whenever he appears dead he merely regrows a line or two later. Man may be predatory upon nature, but this very relationship paradoxically makes him dependant upon nature. The song has been played as a drinking song (the assaults he suffers mirror the stages in making beer, something contemporary audiences would doubtless have known), a rebel song (with him standing for the agricultural worker against the sent “hired men”), or for that matter as a rebel drinking song.

But today the song can have a meaning beyond those originally intended, with the beset-upon Barleycorn standing for the folk tradition itself. It’s a tradition they’ve tried to “bury beneath the ground” underneath those “ ’ouses, ‘ouses, ‘ouses”, and one “served most barbarously” by its own supposed adherents - sapping the thing they loved through their perverse desire to ‘preserve’ it. But, like the song says, “no man’s been born that could best John Barleycorn, for he’s suffered many pains.”

I’m agnostic over talk of revivals, suspicious of notions of identity and frequently frustrated by how hard it can be to access the essence of folk. But I don’t think it’s dying off anytime soon.

http://imaginedvillage.com/

Sunday, 18 November 2007

THE ANTITHESIS OF MASS PRODUCTION?

Is Impro the primal musical mode?

“This music is always inherently political, because it’s about absolute freedom at all costs.”
- David Keenan

David Keenan is a name that’s been reverberating of late. I first heard him interviewed about his free folk outfit Scatter on Radio Three’s late lamented Mixing It. Later he sprung up last September to give a talk about the spirit of impro at the Colour Out of Space festival of “exploratory sound”. Then there he was again, in a recent Guardian feature on how hardcore punk was colliding with free jazz.

In the Guardian he continues: “once you go beyond the avant-garde, you’re back to being absolutely primitive…The first time music was ever made, it was improvised – yet to me, a lot of the improv that came out of free jazz became impossibly cerebral. What we want to do is return improvisation to its role as the primal musical gesture.” In other words, while the Guardian was writing about punk and jazz Keenan’s heart was more in folk. He’s even written a piece on this for the Wire entitled ‘The New Weird America’, and no I can’t claim to have read it so please bear in mind what follows is my interpetation! (Bizarrely, whilst writing up this piece I went to see the ‘Imagined Village’ folk night, in which programme Shelia Chandra comments “I like the way old singers never sing a verse in the same way, a tradition I feel I belong to.”)

In a more fulsome mode when given mike-time at the festival, he started from the assumption that rock music appears to offer freedom – but as soon as you start playing it, it becomes like going to work. ‘Popular’ music to Keenan becomes a ceaseless tug of war between the musicians and the marketing men. The spirit of the music comes from freedom, the escape from the drudgery of repetition, but in order to be sold it must become regularized, commodified, bottled. New developments in music ceaselessly reassert their free nature only for their proponents to sacrifice it for music biz careers- starting with folk but also blues, continuing through acid rock, hip hop etc. How can you sell someone a gig ticket if you’re simultaneously telling them you can’t be sure what they’re going to get? Isn’t that like a supermarket telling you there might be milk in that bottle, and it might not be off? Keenan waxed particularly lyrical on the question of time. To him keeping to the beat was factory time while improvisation was the antithesis of mass production.

Even the act of recording becomes problematic. In rock music the recording is the primary thing, fans dutifully buy gig tickets on the understanding they’ll get to sing along to what’s on the record. But for free music the primary thing is the live event, recordings are like snapshots you take of a holiday, triggers to remember what being there was really like. Moreover, music critics tend to side with the moneymen. Largely students of cultural studies disguised as music fans (tracing Hendrix’s guitar lines to napalm bombs in Vietnam etc), they’re always trying to frame music - take it out of the moment to pin it to some overall trend. (Amusingly, Keenan singled out Simon Reynolds as an example.)

Such theories perhaps have a particular resonance for me. I got into music later than other things, clinging to Marvel comics and science fiction paperbacks long after my classmates had succumbed to buying pop singles. And as a writer I inevitably got into it through the words – words were the hook that led me into song structures. I quickly warmed to things like the first Velvet Underground album, where the music’s main job is to illustrate the words like a sound artist. (Just as Reed sings of taking a hit of heroin, so the music speeds up and careers into simulating the effect.) But the all-engulfing soundscapes of their second album, frequently erupting to drown out the words, left me headscratching. Which of course meant that when I finally got absolute music, when I grasped that music didn’t need labels or literal functions any more than a painting needed to be representational, I got into it with a vengeance. I had the zeal of the converted.

But for all that, and even allowing for the fact that Keenan’s such an impassioned polemicist, it seems to me there’s much to commend itself in what he’s saying. It’s interesting to note that improvisation presents such a phobia for so many people. It’s understood how someone can learn the guitar, by sitting down and practicing chords. But if the same guy gets up to play those chords in an un-predetermined order everybody is astonished he could do it. Yet unlike guitar playing improvisation is something we are all doing in our daily lives, on a petty level pretty much all the time. We simply don’t notice we’re doing it.

Several members of Keenan’s panel compared predetermined music to going to work. (Perhaps partly influenced by the fact that impro musicians don’t get to give up the day job very often!) And work is of course a classic example of somewhere where we’re expected to behave like the appendage of machines. For example, call centre staff are often given lists of answers to likely questions, which they’re expected to regurgitate without deviating from. But call centre staff often do deviate, not just to relieve the monotony but because the script of standard answers never turns out to be as universal and all-embracing as it was trailed. In general at work, we quite routinely reassure our boss all is going to plan, while extemporising madly. Improvisation is not a bizarre mystery indulged in by artistic types, nor the last resort of the desperate. Improvisation is quite simply a contingent part of being alive.

“We’ve faced emergencies before! We can improvise, adapt, in the shortest possible time!”
- Quatermass Experiment

There’s an old jazz adage “improvisation is just composition speeded up”, but it’s not the saving time which interests me. It’s the way improvisation forces us to make choices before our conscious minds have had time to even absorb them, making us live by our instincts for a bit. Improvisation can be a way by which we tell ourselves something we already know, but are unaware we know.

On the other end of the scale to a call centre job, the time I saw Terry Riley’s In C performed live it did strike me as (pseud’s corner entry coming up) a model for a perfect society. By not constraining the players through time but uniting them by key, Riley devised a means where each person could be themselves yet simultaneously add to the overall group. The result was a fluid amorphous thing, not necessarily tidy but always far more than the sum of its parts. It was a thousand miles from many free jazz nights I’ve endured, where every band member seemed clamouring to be the front man in a momentous clash of egos.

Moreover, now might seem a good time to start improvising. Krautrock stalwarts Faust always insisted their records should look like bootlegs, to enhance the idea they were works in progress not final statements or definitive editions. Yet the economics of the time meant those ‘bootlegs’ had to be released on major labels. Nowadays a combination of CD-Rs, internet-ready sound files and much more have made musical micro-publishing (in essence becoming your own bootlegger) far easier. Some such as Damo Suzuki (another Krautrock stalwart) have given up studio recordings entirely in favour of bootlegging their own gigs. Others have gone so far as to suggest that micro-production will become the default distribution method for all music, whether improvised or otherwise. Moreover, all this is happening inside a culture where we can communicate more quickly (if not always instantly), where waiting for the definitive composition to be finally released is coming to feel more and more antiquated.

“He’s making it up as he goes along!”
- Heckler in Life of Brian

But if there’s much to commend in Keenan’s stance, if you take it to the max his ‘total freedom’ shtick will turn out not to be a skeleton key but a blind alley. Perhaps it’s just my natural moreishness, but I can’t see improvisation vs. composition as an either/or choice. It’s more of a balance which needs to be realigned. Take Terry Riley’s afore-mentioned In C, which gave its players much space in which to improvise but did so within the framework of game rules and guidelines. Or take Can, who would improvise wildly for hours but then play the tapes back and reduce them down to what seemed to be working the best. In a similar way we all live by the rule of gravity, which leaves us unfree to bound tall buildings. Yet the dancer or acrobat can use gravity in his performance, turning its forces to his own ends. Constraints can enable too.

A similar rule applies to words or song structures. During the whole three-day festival, out of a raft of performers, few used words as anything other than a sound source. Yet if the urge to innovate is innate in us, then so is the desire for stories. Folk music, the very wellspring of Keenan’s argument, is awash with stories. The idea that stories have or must take a single definitive form dates only from print, just as the same idea in music does from recording. David Thomas’ antics with the 2 Pale Boys are a case in point, a classic example of freeform storytelling married to improvised music.

Keenan’s argument also rests upon some more philosophical underpinnings, which again might appeal but taken in their most absolute form turn out to crumble. Firstly the suggestion that improvisation could be a talisman which could keep the money-men out of our temple sounds a little na├»ve in this day and age. If it moves they’ll try to make money from it, and if it stops moving they’ll try to sell it. But more widely, like the Surrealists, Keenan seemed to conceive of a ‘true self’ - locked away inside us from years of social conditioning but re-accessible through a series of ritual steps. It’s a charmingly romantic notion, but there’s no reason whatsoever to believe it. The Surrealists merely replaced the bourgeois fetish for consciousness and reason with their own for the unconscious. But the point is to combine the two.

Similarly the idea that free music can take the cultural studies away is reminiscent of the modernist mirage that art can somehow be purged of culture to be left pure and universal. Sounds are prized over chords, and chords over words for this very reason. But art is made by people so it will always be a form of social engagement, whether we choose to admit it or not. Denying this will not dispel it.

In short, Keenan was saying much that was worth saying. Improvisation is contingent to creativity, and we should embrace it not shut the door on it as soon as we can while fossilising what it sent us. His voice is necessary but a necessary corrective, by which we might realign ourselves. But at the end of the day he was serving up a malt when what we really need right now is a blend.

PS I absolutely adored Scatter’s version of She Moves Through the Fair played during his interview on Mixing It, which I (whisper it) taped off the radio and have replayed frequently since. But I found his performance in The Tight Meat Duo a pointless meander through the most tedious of free jazz byways. You pays your money and you takes yer choice!

Handy weblinks:
http://arts.guardian.co.uk/filmandmusic/story/0,,2207301,00.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Keenan
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Weird_America
http://www.colouroutofspace.org/