Friday 30 November 2012


After running yet another sad-but-true obit the other day, I'm happy to announce an anniversary! If asked to name someone still living out the Lucid Frenzy ethos in musical form, in defiance of today's play-safe world of taste dilution and corporate sponsorship, I'd be hard pressed to come up with a better contender than The Ex. Who as it happens will shortly be celebrating 33 1/3 years of existence at London's Cafe Oto.

Alas this is just another event I have neither time or cash reserves to attend! But my spirit shall be there in my stead, and my hat doffed to their consistent refusal to accept the confines of 'punk' or any other genre, their persistent ability to survive outside the workings of the music industry and their absolute non-acknowledgement of anything resembling fashion and trend. One day all bands will work that way.

I'd prattle on further, but I'd just be repeating what I said the last time... Instead, here's some of what I'm on about, live from Moscow last year. Hoping both they make it to 45, and I that I get to go along to that one!

Sunday 25 November 2012


Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London, Sunday 14th October
For previous instalments click here and here

Given my previous Julia Wolfe reviewreaders may not be too surprised to hear that composer Michael Gordon was another founder of new music ensemble Bang On a Can. But the genesis of this film soundtrack project lay not with him, but when Bill Morrison visited a film library and came across the scene of a boxer battling an amorphous blur (see image above) - and sought out more such decaying footage. In an interesting reversal, Gordon composed the music and Morrison then edited the assembled footage to fit.

One immediate reading of that boxer image might be that it illustrates disease. When we fall ill we are attacked by ever-morphing shapeless microbes which we have to fight off. This image just evens up the scale between the two. Alternately the decaying film of earlier eras could be seen as part of post-modern condition. We've become removed from the past and it's simpler, more linear world of derring-do. That title, after all, sounds a portmanteau of 'decades' and 'decay'. By it's nature much of the footage hails from that oxymoronically titled era of classic modernism - where technology was thought to be on the point of liberating us all. Both of those views have some traction. But it's ultimately saying something more universal and more double-edged than both of them.

Perhaps ironically given Gordon's past associations with Wolfe, this work is more similar to Christian Marclay. Both not only plunder the past for collage material, but incorporate it's 'foreign country' status into their aesthetic. Yet with Marclay that aesthetic is vinyl fetishism seen through hindsight, whereas here the distressed nature of the footage is important in itself. But of things previously mentioned in these parts, it probably has a closer-still association with 'Koyaaniqatsi' or even 'The Sinking of the Titanic'.

Yet, as ever, the differences become a better guide than the similarities. While 'Titanic' was about the transience of memory, this is more concerned with the inevitability of entropy. (Or, to give it its colloquial name, decay.) However, even that's not quite it...

From Lovecraft's many-angled ones to cheesy monster flicks such as 'The Blob', (above) formlessness is forever defined as a foe while heroes are square-jawed and clean-cut. But slowly, as proceedings unfurled, I found myself leaving the boxer's side and taking more to the blur. It came to seem less representing disorder than the return of some sort of primal order on which we've superimposed ourselves - like the Wyrd-world of shamanism that follows its own rules. And of course in shamanism sickness was often a means of spiritual insight. (In my typically lowbrow fashion, it also reminded me of the time vortex during the credits of 'Doctor Who'.)

In his pre-show chat, Morrison commented that in his search for footage he homed in on figures on the brink of revelation or triumph. (He noted sagely that indexing systems don't tend to have a category for that.) If the boxer was the starting point, the film opens and closes with images of a whirling dervish. Contrast this with the sequence which concludes 'Koyaaniqatsi' - a space rocket falling back to earth. These epitomise the difference between the films. 'Koyaaniqatsi' is concerned with the modern condition, which it sees as a life thrown out of balance. 'Decasia's concerns are less contemporary, more universal and more double-edged. Our struggle is to embrace that primordial world as much as escape it.

The importance in using found footage to achieve this end couldn't be overstated. The screen isn't displaying the summation of an artist's will, a thought brought fully formed to fruition, but an interaction with the chance processes of the wider world. Seeing those glitches and mis-shapes blown up on a giant screen, like the universe of microbes revealed by a microscope, and knowing they'd evolved by pure chance just makes them more beautiful. (Disclaimer: some of the 'decay' was artificially enhanced, though none of it was faked.)

Gordon's music is similarly double-edged. At times it's tremulous to the point of being blurry - as if the scores had been left out in the rain until the notes all ran together. At other times it was as stirring and strident as anything by Tchaikovsky. Sometimes it's both at the same time, the balance between them overlaid and ceaselessly shifting.

In one sense it pulls off the seemingly irreconcilable task that post-minimalism set itself. It combines the immediacy of minimalism with the power and epic sweep of classical music - the sheer thumping force of a full orchestra in full swing. True, it abandons the meditative serenity of minimalism, its language is much more volatile. But it retains minimalism's comparative sense of scale, it's refusal to hold the big above the small. (Perhaps not too much should be made that Gordon composed this piece rather than Wolfe. Wolfe's programme jumped from minimalism to post-minimalism and back, but was composed of shorter pieces.)

Yet of course it does something better and more important than any of that - it works as the perfect accompaniment to the film! It was as if those blurry strings were symbiotically linked to the flecks and marks upon the screen, one rising and falling with the other, not the product of two separate minds at all.

This festival had a fantastic-looking programme, from which alas I could only attend these three events. But even without seeing the rest, surely with 'Decasia' I caught the highlight of the whole shebang. The thing was a triumph!

And so to sum up...

Overall, I'd emphasise that while the three pieces I saw were unconventional and adventurous, they never fell into the inaccessible. It wasn't some great challenge to get your reward, like chewing raw wholegrain. It doesn't rely on in-depth knowledge of music theory. (Of which I have scarcely any.) It's just great music, waiting to be heard by anyone whose mind is open enough to give something a try...

In one of my few complaints Queen Elizabeth Hall's conventional venue layout worked against some of the more unconventional styles of presentation these pieces have used in the past. It was only Marclay that tried anything like this. But even given those limits perhaps more could have been done to take things in that direction. Perhaps if there's another year...

I would have loved to have taken in more events from this Festival but not enough money, not enough time! Here's just a couple of random YouTube snippets...

Coming soon! Back to visual art...

Sunday 18 November 2012


Brighton Dome, Thurs 13th Nov

The fame of this bunch precedes them. Wikipedia comments the band “is particularly renowned for its energetic live performances”, while their own website claims them as “the greatest live act in Britain.” I've attempted to see them live twice before.

There's eleven of them in total, all singing, all dancing. (Well, most of them singing.) They sport fancy waistcoats. Though they come out of the folk world, they at times feel more like a big band (with brass aplenty) and at others as Brechtian cabaret. (Albeit that kind of via-Tom-Waits Brecht.) Arrangements can be intricate, tracks crammed with breaks, episodes and joined-up segments. They're like a cross between folk's answer to the Mothers of Invention and folk's answer to Madness.

The curtain pulls back to an elaborate nautically-themed stage set, which the audience applaud like a night at the theatre. At one point, someone shouts “very good”. Which seems to sum the whole thing up. It would be hard indeed to deny they're very good. But they're equally hard to love. They feel like a show with a band attached. Bellows can give vital oomph to something. But this feels not Bellowhead but All Bellows, the oomph without anything particular to be oomphed, lungs without heart.

Inevitably for me, I enjoyed the more Brechtian moments the best. While the sound and fury let loose elsewhere seemed to signify little, these had a slither of darkness to them. Lurching rhythms set to cynical lyrics, acidly disparaging everything with which they came into contact. Life as a leaky boat and then we drown.

But for the rest of it... well, marks for effort.

Not from Brighton, from Dartford earlier this year.

The Haunt, Brighton, Fri 16th Nov

"All we need is for something to give,
The dam bursts open, we suddenly live"

The most arresting thing about this Canadian hardcore punk outfit isn't that in-your-face expletive-undeleted monicker, but their unlikely frontman – who trades under the equally unlikely stage name of Pink Eyes. He's not in the first flush of youth, balding and overweight enough that when he tries crowd surfing he just plummets to the floor. When he swings the mike around his head, his expression is less of effortless cool and more a schoolboy with a sum to do. He's like an all-in wrestler crossed with a clown, somehow misbooked a singer slot but eager to make a go of it. He's not a great singer, even by punk's broader definitions of the term. He's not even that good at shouting, he's kind of hoarse. It's hard to work out what he can do.

But whatever it is, he's great at it. There's quite possibly more chaos here than I've seen at a gig since the classic hardcore days of yore. He spends half his time in the audience. Half of whom spend half their time on the stage. (By the end the stage is so crowded the band retreat to the drum riser.) But he ceaselessly welcomes stage invaders without ever surrendering to them. He holds our attention throughout, and never misses a beat.

Better still, perhaps there's something about his cheery clownishness, his sheer apparent wrongness for the stage, something in the music or a blend of all the above. But the set channels all of hardcore's energy and drive, while letting in none of the nihilism. It's a euphoric set to watch. Now I like negativity as much as the next man. But for those of us who finally despaired of hardcore, as it fell further and further into macho posturing and crowd violence, this is a welcome change. It's like the shot of spirits without the hangover.

The band behind him look so different, I wondered if that might be deliberate. Rather than punk attitude, they exude a kind of preppiness. Bass player Mustard Gas in particular seems to be modelling that look from old films, where the Secretary is seconds away from taking off her specs and letting down her hair. The music they're pumping out is impressively tight and surprisingly melodic, with some tuneful backing vocals. Behind that clown mask there's a sharp and focused outfit.

The word which keeps coming to mind is 'faux.' A term we often use to mean 'fake', but in a positive sense. Pink Eyes seems such an everyman it's impossible not to be engaged. His persona, as much as the music, may be the invitation for so many punters to jump on stage. But at the same time they're an invitation, the band are also giving us a watermark to live up to. As John Lydon said himself “Do it yourself. But properly.”

Ultimately, what could be more punk? A wall of muscle, blubber and attitude, veins popping, screaming in our faces - “Let's be together, let's fall in love.”

And we did.

I couldn't find any clips from the Brighton gig, so this is from London earlier this year.

(Also check out this clip for audience-interaction antics in Sydney.)

Given the way I've written about this gig, you'd be forgiven for thinking the band are a live-only affair. Which is often true of hardcore bands – but not in this case! To prove my point, I'm also linking to the video from recent single 'Queen of Hearts'. The track's from a hardcore concept album about a worker in a lightbulb factory in Thatcherite Britain, who discovers love, radical politics and metafiction in more-or-less that order. But the video's in the style of Haneke's 'White Ribbon' and instead of the singer's vocals features a chorus of children. (I am not making this up. In fact I'm impressed anyone could have made that up.)

Coming Soon! The final part of my write-ups from the Ether festival. It's underway, honest! Just knew I wouldn't be finishing it today...

Sunday 11 November 2012


Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London, Sat 13th October

Christian Marclay is a Swiss American prankster, cut-up and plunderphonics artist, chiefly famous for the video work 'The Clock.' His concept for this performance was a 'video score'. He provided a video collage, culled from a thousand films, for both us the audience and the musicians – who found in the screen images a set of instructions.

Which is of course a great concept. Why have music based on notation in a post-literate age, when music was always about going beyond what could be written down? But great concepts can sometimes turn out to be too great, and end up lacking in realisation. The actuality becomes simply illustrational, mere demonstrative busywork. The concept sometimes just works better as a concept, a suggestion implanted in your mind - leaving you free to think up your own score. (Which of course is the basis of conceptual art.) Overall, I've noticed a growing tendency to stop seeing conceptual pieces, because I'd rather read of them and imagine them.

Furthermore, I wonder if we now fixate upon mixing media to the point where we blithely expect it to come true of its own volition. Different media have different properties, and getting them to blend together can be like getting Pandas to mate in a zoo – don't expect it to just happen, even if it's going to work at all. Anyone who read my thoughts on Bang On a Can's similar field recordings night might recall my doubts over such things. (“Concept-driven nights can... become like art projects, casting rigid parameters across everything while music is surely somewhere you want to traverse with instinct as your guide.”)

As is common with Marclay the clips are banded into thematic group, such as doors being knocked. And, as is equally common with Marclay, one such sequence is based around the iconography of playing records. As Julia Wolfe did over the bagpipes in an earlier night, Marclay celebrates their imperfection - homing in on the snap, crackle and pop. The clips also play with the retro nature of vinyl fetishism, taking us back to an era when putting on an LP was this as a swish and sophisticated thing to do, as filmable as driving a car or making a phone call had been to an earlier generation.

But perhaps there's a more philosophical point. We tend to assume we are artistically freer than previous eras, able to play pick'n'mix with the past in a way not possible before. But that hand-placed stylus made records manipulable and editable, whereas the files we listen to nowadays (whether CDs or MP3s) have to be taken as sealed units, black boxes we purchase and resort, but without prising them open.

The film clips seemed to work best when at their most anonymous. As soon as you think 'Point Blank' or 'Barton Fink' you're taken out of the moment, and find yourself accessing a memory of the film itself. In fact this may be true of any image too visually striking, whether we've previously seen it or not. The film clips are an ingredient here, not a meal in themselves. The more mundane and (to coin a phrase) everyday they are, the more open they are – the more scope there is for the musicians to respond to them, the easier it is to transform them into something new.

(Interestingly, samples don't seem to have the same problem. This may be because they don't involve marrying one medium to another in the same way, or just that we have a sight-based culture in which images naturally dominate.)

Despite Marclay's promises of no-score-but-film and the presence of arch-improvisers such as Steve Beresford and John Butcher, I couldn't help but suspect some structure - or at least the musicians having some prior knowledge of the film. At one point one player strikes up just as the screen throws a light over him, like a celluloid spotlight. But that's a minor quibble at most.

Mostly the musicians were confident enough to let film be dominant. Instruments drop out, at points all lapse into silence, like natural pauses in a conversation. The film clips sometimes came with their own sound, or provided obvious sound cues, but unlike with Bang on a Can the musicians didn't duplicate or replicate those sounds but responded to them.

Even irregular readers will be familiar with my resorting to the cliché of scored music being like reciting a speech, and improvised music more a conversation. But, in response to those staccato clips, this music was more like pre-speech, embryonic lines and proto-phrases. These were described by Aqnb as “a run of splenetic, stuttering outbursts.”

My enduring image of the night will be the brass band, who marched without cue or warning through one audience door then out the next, playing the whole while, as if en route to some other gig. Though a complete band, they can't have been there for as long as five minutes, an absurdly over-the-top gesture. That spirit of deranged invention summed up the piece as a whole. Rather than attempting to bring a grand concept home to earth, the free improvisation was like free association, a garment woven from stray thoughts. Wikipedia quotes Thom Jurek on Marclay “these sound collages of his are charming, very human, and quite often intentionally hilarious.”

Overall, in what is perhaps the best compliment you can play such a piece, one element would simply not have worked so well without the other. It's like asking how well a work for string quartet would function without the viola. If it would, then what is the viola doing there? You stop seeing it as music to a film, or as illustrated music, and just go with what's happening.

On the other hand, the night's biggest weakness was running a single piece at most fifty minutes in length. However good it was in itself, at today's ticket prices it definitely needed a support act!

I couldn't find any of this gig on YouTube so instead here's something else to show the spirit of Marclay. An excerpt from 'Video Quartet', in which a soundtrack is produced by running four video screens simultaneously.

Coming soon! The last word on the Ether festival. (Well for this year, anyway.)

Monday 5 November 2012


Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London, 11th October

Regular readers, should such a thing exist, will know that Julia Wolfe was a founder member of the new music ensemble Bang on a Can, whose solo compositions finally reached my ears via Steve Reich's birthday celebrations at the Barbican in May last year.

Should you want map references as to where Wolfe stems from, such pointers are probably helpful. Certainly her work's a world away from the punk music simultaneously celebrated in the 'Someday All the Adults Will Die' exhibition, elsewhere in the South Bank complex. And yet it's in what seems a very hackneyed exhibition's nadir, that a strange point of congruence is hit on.

In a diatribe by John Holmstrom of 'Punk' magazine he claims punk was originally a celebration of American culture - until it was corrupted by the feckless and workshy Brits, which has left the States more open to the threat of communism. Which, if you're British, a communist and a punk fan, is a pretty amusing thing to come across. It's like one of those shock jock fulminations which you can only wish was right.

But there is actually a grain of truth to be found there, for in a sense punk really was a celebration of American culture. As David Thomas of Pere Ubu commented, “our ambitions were to move it forward… create something worthy of Faulkner or Melville.”

It's perhaps too easy to flip the flag, to take up a narrow anti-Americanism and overlook the amount of American art that's positively influenced you. But there's an irony and a deeper point. What we tend to hope for is dissident art which critiques America, but it's often the least mainstream aspects of American culture which tend to epitomise what's best about it.

Which Wolfe does in spades. Even when high culture does embrace the low, it too often feels like some kind of self-congratulatory eclecticism, or some philanthropic condescension - like donating money to charity while ignoring that it's those people you're feeding off. Whereas her music never starts with such separations between popular and higbrow, but seizes instead on whatever seems to her the most enticing- a bottom-line refusal to be fenced in. Wolfe will feed your head and grab you by the gut simultaneously. She writes in the programme of her desire “to bring something earthy and visceral to the orchestra – to break with formality and get down and dirty.”

As we'll see, such outside-the-box thinking leads to off-the-wall performances sporting the most unorthodox instrumentation. But it's not through any circus-act gimmickiness that this is music you just have to see live. There's a visceral force to it that you've simply got to be there for. (And I should know. A creative juxtaposition between the timetables and when the trains were actually running meant I missed the whole first half of the concert, and only heard it via the live Radio 3 broadcast on the iPlayer.)

Porceedings opened with 'Tell Me Everything' - and she's not kidding with that title. For a composer rooted in minimalism this was pretty maximalist stuff! Rather than serenely harmonious it was positively cacophonous, like the whole history of music happening at once, overlaying itself as if composed on sheets of acetate paper.

Which is of course the history of music. Whatever the books tell you, music did not develop through some neat notion of linear progress, with one formal innovation supplanting another. It was chaotic and convulsive, a flow diagram where lines fly everywhere, cross and feed back on themselves.

Or if not music the piece could be about the way the history of America is chaotic, different groups and traditions slamming head-on into each other and throwing up something new and completely unpredictable. What if you had Superman hearing and were taking in the different neighbourhoods of New York all at once? - different strains emanating from every window, adding to the same patchwork symphony played in the key of life. Rather than the 'melting pot' of homogenous white-bread America, this was an alphabet soup of new words and phrases. It felt reminiscent, in feel more than sound, of Terry Riley's innovative 'In C', in which everyone simultaneously plays what they feel like and together.

Yet if cachophonous it's also cheerily freewheeling, like a party to which no-one is turned away. It was like George Gershwin thrown tipsy by a cocktail of drugs and post-modernity, it was like discombobulated dance music. It's the very opposite of the austere 'challenging' label that new music gets tagged with. Wolfe commented “there were so many times while writing this piece that I broke into laughter.”

Let's skip 'Cruel Sister,' which I didn't make it in time to hear and anyway wrote about last time.

Remember that old Carol where you get sent for Christmas “eleven pipers piping”? Well it wasn't Christmas and it involved a mere nine pipers, but 'LAD' still seemed in that spirit.

It was performed by the bagpipe ensemble (I am not making this up) the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, previous winners of 'When Will I Be Famous' (I am still not making this up) who have been described as “bagrock”, and include Who and AC/DC numbers in their repertoire (it's all true, honest). Though it was written with this instrumentation in mind, this is only the second-ever performance to feature all nine pipers. (Most versions have utilised the labour-saving minimalist standby of playing along to pre-recorded tapes.)

One cool thing about the piece is that much of the score is based around the incidental sounds the bagpipe makes when being prepared to play (as the bag is inflated), so ends up exploring the uniqueness of their timbre much more deeply. In this way, rather than trying to overcome the limits of the instrument it focuses in on them. Then times it by nine. If 'Tell Me Everything' made music out of pluralism, this was music which ganged up on you.

The resultant sound achieves the 'Modernist double' of sounding ancient and futuristic at the same time. It was simultaneously like being present at the dawn of time and standing before a UFO gearing up to defy gravity. The sound was simultaneously fulsome and indescribable.

This was the most classically Minimalist piece in the concert, and should put paid once and for all to the dumb prejudice that the style is about twee little twinkly sounds, the musical equivalent of Christmas lights. Wolfe herself has said “being in the same room with a bagpipe (or nine) is sonically completely overwhelming”. When those pipers get a pipin' they virtually inflated the room!It really wasn't so far away from the heavy riffing of hard rock bands. This is music not to stroke your chin but shake your tonsils.

Then for the finale came 'rISE and fLY.' (Yes, that's hOW iT'S wRITTEN, perhaps to get bloggers annoyed with their auto-correct functions.) There was only one non-wind instrument in the whole of 'LAD', one player striking the floor with his foot. This next piece built on that one element. It involved an orchestra the size of a swarm, but backing a soloist playing his own body. Before moving on to a mix of mostly extemporised percussion, including plastic buckets and – as he proudly told us - the oven tray from his flat.

...which of course immediately breaks one of Minimalism's most cardinal rules, in allowing one player to be dominant. But... you know... in a good way. In the Seventies era of uber-radicalism, leftist composers were always arguing a hierarchy between instruments represented a hierarchical society, with the second flautist and the triangle player representing a divided proletariat under the autocracy of the oboe. Like most such theories, they pushed it to a somewhat obsessive extent but (despite my jesting) there is most likely some nugget of truth at the root of it. After all, the main aim of amplification is to ensure that the very bottom of this hierarchy is you. You can tap your foot or pat your leg at a gig, and it's normally so loud you can't hear yourself. You are outmanned and outgunned.

But amplification here is used to invert the normal acoustic hierarchy, less megaphone diplomacy and more a democratising device. Some strategically placed mikes, some slider action on the mixing desk and rubbing your hands together is suddenly on a level with a kettle drum. Film can overcome the laws of scale, with 'Battleship Potemkin' at one point framing the entirety of the ship and the next blowing up some maggots to the full size of the screen. Amplification means music can do the same.

Wolfe was inspired into this piece by the old Hambone tradition of folk music played on human body, and by “New York City street beats... banging out grooves on plastic tubs and pots and pans.” She saw the piece as “its own short history”, the 'body' and 'percussion' sections compressing this shift between the two eras. (It reminds me of the segue at the end of 'How The West Was Won', as the mountain trail becomes the multi-laned highway.)

The piece worked least well when the orchestra echoed and underlined the soloist, like a kind of musical exoskeleton, and most when it treated him like any other soloist and played around him. Even a football know-nothing like me knows the team players don't run straight after the guy with the ball, but arrange themselves around him. Moreover, when playing as a team, the instruments underlined the uniqueness of the 'human sounds', the hollow slappiness of striking your chest, the sharpness of finger snaps.

But best of all, however exhilarating a sight is a grown man battering his own thighs and chest, was the way you got used to it so quickly. It went past being a clever gimmick, and soon became another way of producing music. The oven tray in your flat? An instrument, waiting to happen.

The piece was written specially for the soloist, Colin Currie, and perhaps its chief weakness was that it at times felt like that - tipping over into an excuse for virtuoso playing. (Particularly in it's second half.) Which was perhaps a step too far from Minimalism for me. However much I enjoyed it, it was my least favourite piece of the night. But then, given the inspirational audacity of the programme as a whole, perhaps that's to praise with faint damning. Four pieces, each striking off on it's own, but sharing the same underlying ethos – the future of music lies in it's roots.

Next time someone claims the Americans do nothing but steal foreign folk traditions and sell it back as packaged blandness, tell the know-nothings to listen to some Julia Wolfe.

Coming soon! More from the Ether Festival. (Yeah I know, a bit late in the day! Are you not used to that yet?)