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Wednesday, 21 November 2018

DOCTOR WHO: ‘KERBLAM!’




Even while watching ‘Kerblam!’, I found myself speculating what the commentators on Eruditorum Press might say. And sure enough many (if not so much El Sandifer’s original post) were decrying it for being having a pro-capitalist agenda. Yet if I was to write something to pacify the masses, I doubt I’d mention the labour process at all. I’d probably write a rip-roaring escapist adventure story, to make sure everyone was sated before they went back to work on Monday. More like, you know, all the other stories so far. To even mention how the infrastructure functions, how stuff gets delivered, seems to already be exposing the strings.

Besides, this rather over-emphasises the political agendas jobbing writers are likely to have. A more likely explanation would be headline-chasing. Just like a writer noticed the ubiquity of satnav and tried to wrangle an episode out of that, now it’s the turn of Amazon.

And from there, the script boxes itself in. The enforced “10% organics” quota suggests things started out with a corporate plot to conspicuously hire then quietly bump off the actual human workers, in favour of the more efficient machines. The Doctor originally, and somewhat uncharacteristically, claiming to “love Kerblam” before discovering how it’s managed. The dirty truth is hit on.

But if it’s set in an Amazon workhouse… sorry, workplace… particularly one with soothing-voiced robots in it, there’s nowhere really for it to go. “Amazon = bad employer” isn’t a plot twist, it’s a truism. Okay then, let’s swerve round that wall. Let’s go out to emphasise all that bad stuff and then make the actual villain the caretaker. What, no caretaker? Okay then, the cleaner.

But then those swerve marks show. As other Eruditorum commentators say, there’s orphaned plot lines and multiple other signs of late-on rewrites. Let’s take just one. Even if we’re willing to accept an innocent worker’s death as collateral damage in trying to prevent more, how could the computer system know the cleaner would be there at that precise moment to witness it? Way too many variables lead up to that point.

It’s true this twist swerves the episode away from any criticism of Amazon. But that needn’t be terminal. We already have the multiple bombs in the basement plus the teleport, which reads like a recipe. The humans could beam away while the whole warehouse gets blown. Even if that left just a smoking ruin for the Doctor to shrug and walk away from, the character’s done that before.

Instead the ending walls this off, with a rejigging of that organics quota. Which clearly accepts the Amazon premise, that our choice is between badly-paid, soul-crushing jobs and penury. But the key word there is “accepted”.

At Kerblam orders are issued down at you to stop chatting and work harder. Your every task is determined, your every movement monitored. But try to follow that chain of command up and it goes nowhere. The bullying boss isn’t in charge, he’s having to snoop around on his own system. But the system isn’t in charge either, it’s reduced to cries for help. Kerblam just is.

And more widely there’s a focus on distribution and customer services combined with a complete lack of interest in production. Kerblam packs and delivers stuff. But where do they get the stuff from? It just seems to appear.

In ‘Fires of Pompeii’, finding they can’t change the big event they settle for a small difference. And they do the same thing here, by deciding to hand Den’s pendant over to his daughter. Ultimately, the (likely) fact that this wasn’t written from a neoliberal agenda is precisely what makes it neoliberal. Amazon and its agenda is treated like the volcano, as an inescapable fact of life. Just like the banks were too big to fail, Amazon is too big to be thought beyond. Even in a science fiction setting such as this it can only be tinkered with.

In short its problem doesn’t lie in a failure but in its success. The twist is, on its own terms, effective. This is a way more workable story than Chibnall’s efforts. But it’s true success is to tell a story for our time. Where we already know Amazon are bad, but on the other hand you can order stuff just by one click. It demonstrates how neoliberalism has conquered and stultified our imagination.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

DOCTOR WHO: ‘ROSA’ VERSUS ‘DEMONS OF THE PUNJAB’



If ‘Doctor Who’ isn’t being written to generate material for middle-aged folk to blog about, there’s no reason why it should be. In fact, I can more think of reasons why it shouldn’t
be. If it doesn’t always make much in the way of sense, that’s scarcely something new.

But it does need to entertain the people watching it. And as a writer Chibnall isn’t even good enough to be particularly bad. The word for him would be perfunctory. It’s like he makes lists of the sort of thing which might be expected to happen in a ’Who’ episode, then presses shuffle. If Davies and Moffat could aggravate through bad habits and lazy over-use of tropes, that was partly because we knew they were capable of more. Chibnall is best given up on. I’d rather write about that wall over there, quite frankly.

Yet there’s a twist in the tale. Up till now, in New Who the historicals have been a weak point. With few exceptions, they were dire celebrity cameos set in Theme Park Britain. Like those stagey re-enactments they always insist on sticking in documentaries, only with worse plots. Yet there’s two interesting episodes of this season so far, and strangely both have been historicals.

Both departed from standard ‘Classical’ storylines, with their togas, crowns and cloaks. And while the mixed-race Tardis crew might have looked like tokenism up until now, these involve minority folk penning the dialogue. ’Rosa’, about the Civil Rights campaigner Rosa Parks, was by the black writer Malorie Blackman. (Chibnall had a co-writer credit, but didn’t instigate the story.) While ’Demons of the Punjab’ was by the Asian writer Vinay Patel.

Stranger still, they’re so unlike one another they may as well be bookends.

’Rosa’ is exemplary, but it is alas a bad example. Segregation is surely a cut-and-dried example of racism as a structural phenomenon. But that’s just overridden here and it’s made the usual matter of individualised malevolence. The weight of the law becomes a cartoon Baddie Southern Policeman. The bus driver’s even willing to give up his day off for a chance to be racist. (The actual Parks asked her arresting officer “Why do you push us around?” To which he replied “I don’t know, but the law’s the law.” We got crappy muzak over that bit.)

And by a remarkable coincidence anti-racism turns out to be a matter of individual conscience. Had Rosa Parks happened to have walked home that night, Civil Rights would never have happened. Really? People had refused to move on the bus before her. The significance of her case was that she was connected to the Civil Rights movement, and they used the occasion to launch a city-wide bus boycott. Black folk made up the majority of riders, and their boycott had an estimated 90% participation rate. Despite heavy repression, it won. (Parks was constantly correcting the notion she was “old” and “tired” at the time. “The only tired I was”, she stated, “was tired of giving in.”)

Individual acts of conscience are not, and have never been, enough to challenge corrupt and oppressive systems. That always takes mass action. Yes, Parks was a figurehead of Civil Rights. But it pushed with its body. The irony is that, if not for the boycott, not a single one of us would know Parks’ name today.


It’s also exemplary of how bad a fit this sort of story is for ’Who’. In the one right decision, they realised the Doctor can’t get actively involved in the Civil Rights struggle. (Imagine her giving Parks a motivational speech about opposing racism. Actually, no, don’t.) But then the Doctor needs something to do other than watch. So they concoct a parallel story with the Alien Racist. And they become almost like Good and Bad Angels, one trying to cancel the other’s actions out so the main story can proceed as we know it.

He’s not so much poorly characterised as uncharacterised. As he tries to scupper the bus journey, he’s like Dick Dastardly, setting diversion signs and rolling boulders onto roads - but without the iconic appeal. His motivation is more arbitrary even than the bus driver’s. In fact there’s no motivation for racism, we’re just supposed to take racism as the motivation. Yet you can see the problem. Take him out of the plot, he leaves a hole. But put him back in, he just makes another hole.

This story could, in fact should, be dramatised. But it should be a straight docu-drama. Which could start off with Parks’ refusal to move, then broaden scope to the boycott, the counter-repression, then success.

Though if you were going to do it in ’Who’, the clue’s in the final scene where Parks is arrested. Dispense with the silly alien sub-plot and do the whole episode like that. Time travel becomes something like white privilege. It gives you a power, but one you can’t use for good. The Tardis crew have to ensure something happens which they really, really don’t want to see. Nobody would want to just sit back and watch this. Everybody has to. There’s something inherently conservative about stories which Restore Time’s True Path. It’s not something that can be avoided so it’s best played into.


There’s been relatively wide agreement about ‘Demons of the Punjab’. It’s not just met the faint praise of being the best episode of this season so far, it’s actually a good episode in and of itself. But unfortunately, they’re still sticking in the aliens. I agree with just one of those.

I suspected that this might be an above-par episode as soon as I heard the subject matter. Why would anyone pitch a story about the Partition of India to some ratings-minded BBC Exec unless it was a dream project of theirs?

But once made it has an advantage. The problem with Civil Rights is that people assume they already know the story and where they stand on it. There’s either the uphill task of breaking down all that just to get started, or the plain sailing of confirming prejudices. Partition is so poorly known its dramatic fresh territory, it presents opportunities rather than problems.

You could perhaps fault Patel’s summation of it. The decision to have no British characters bar the time travellers has upsides but also downsides. Despite the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ aspects of the story I’m skeptical there would have been many un-arranged marriages at the time, let alone cross-religion matches. (Though I’ll defer there to anyone more knowledgeable than me.)

But it does get over the key point. The ethnic violence and mob mentality was not some return to primitive savagery, stuff the British had been nobly keeping the lid on through their rule. In fact, till that point people had lived together peacefully for generations.

And Patel not only fills in a knowledge gap, but give it analogues for our times. Borders are arbitrary impositions on the landscape, which merely impose division. They don’t keep you safe, they do the very opposite. And the younger brother, radicalised by “the radio” and “angry men with pamphlets”, is a clear forerunner of today’s alt.right seduced into hatred by rabble-rousing rubbish on the internet. It’s the older brother, the one who saw war, who wants peace.


When the Doctor corrects “demons” to “aliens”, of course we’re with her. Only to find she has it wrong as well. Their early malevolent look is perhaps oversold, which makes the switch something of a trick. (They communicate by pushing their thoughts into people’s heads, then abruptly stopping when it’s time to turn good. And the line “or we will stand over your corpses” is asking to be misunderstood.) But overall it’s effective. In plot terms they turn out to be the very opposite of the Space Racist, they never had any intention of getting involved.

More to the point they’re not a bad example but a good one. In ’Who’, aliens are often demons - negative aspects of our self-image, Daleks the lust for power, Cybermen the drive to conform and so on. Every now and again it flips this to offset us. But this does something extra…

They’re former killers who have now dedicated themselves to mourning the unmourned. (“We are changed. Our past is no more. We are no longer assassins. Now we are witnesses.”) A switch which seems something we white British are yet to accomplish. They’re something we aren’t.

The Doctor gives the death toll as more than a million, it could have been near two. Accounts vary as to British culpability. But at a minimum the colonial authorities stood by and let the massacres happen. We - the white British - are not only unchanged, we are even regressing. It’s become fashionable all over again to see the Empire as something to celebrate, and leave the bodies unwitnessed. And if that keeps up our past will be more.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

JOHNNY MARR/ ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE/ DAMO SUZUKI/ THE SEEN (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

JOHNNY MARR
Brighton Dome, Fri 9th Nov



I first saw the now-legendary Smiths in this very venue. They finished the gig with ’Meat is Murder, the first time I ever heard that track. Naturally enough, it seared itself into my still-young brain. It was not just a great gig, but one of the gigs by which other gigs should be measured.

No matter how often it’s done, it’s still weird to see them used now as a signifier of that era. Because back then they seemed the very antithesis of all about them. As wrote Simon Reynolds in ‘Shock and Awe’: “The Smiths represent the common people, all those marginalised or left behind in the enterprise-culture Eighties.”

In sound and look they represented a a kind of template outsiderhood. You belonged if you were gay, straight but sensitive and unmacho, celibate by design, celibate despite your most strenuous efforts, not necessarily celibate at all and pretty much all the rest of it. The message was - to us, the outside is the inside, uncool is our cool. In the words of the song “You shut your mouth/ How can you say/ I go about things the wrong way?”

But of course a lot has happened since then…

The first thing Marr does on taking the stage, before speaking, is a quick flurry on his guitar. And he is of course not just a great but an exemplary guitarist, with a signature style you recognise in just a few seconds. Tony Curtis’ description of Marilyn Monroe’s walk, “it’s like jello on springs”, pretty much covers it. He studiously avoids show-off displays and cliches. And while he does run into solos these days, they’re always short and sweet.

At which point it occurs to me I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him sing. (Despite this album being his fourth. Sometimes things pass me by.) Whatever you might say about Morrissey these days, and let’s take all that stuff as read, he had one of the great character voices - a classic case of Not a Good Singer, But A Great Singer. Marr’s voice is admittedly less strong. At best there’s a Bernie Sumner purposefully grey quality to it.

And this is most apparent, inevitably enough, with the Smiths songs. ’Bigmouth Strikes Again’ may well need the big mouth behind it. But there’s a powerful version of ’Headmaster Ritual’. ’How Soon is Now’, effectively the Smiths anthem, already quoted up above, concluded the main set. The vocals are perhaps more intonatory. But it’s based around a pulse over which other elements are orchestrated. It’s effectively an extended remix of itself, the ’I Feel Love’ of outsiderhood. Not a recipe for a live number. Yet somehow it becomes little short of heartstopping.

He also manages a storming version of Electronic’s ’Getting Away With It’, which I’d previously dismissed as filler. Though admittedly the other Electronic track was filler.

But the gig’s about, and dominated by songs from, his new album ’Call the Comet’. Not all tracks are memorable, but some shine. There’s the jangly, exuberant post-Sixties sound you’d expect, but elsewhere things are sharper and punchier. One, which in police parlance I now know to be called ’New Dominions’, verges on electrobeat. Marr without Morrissey is revealed to be more Mod than Indie, focused and cool rather than effusive and exuberant.

The gig may be summed up by his warning that i-phones needed to be charged before breaking into ’There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.’ Then, after the obvious finale, seemingly unable to resist, calling out “let’s do one more!” He could have done that a few times over without much disagreement.

I believe I may have mentioned 'How Soon Is Now'...




ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE
Patterns, Brighton, Fri 2nd Nov


Psychedelic warlords Acid Mothers Temple are of course no strangers to Lucid Frenzy’s shores. Because, after all, who could pass up another chance to see them? All you can really be sure of in advance is that psychedelic freak-outs will be involved, and they’ll play some version of ’Pink Lady Lemonade’. (Essentially, their theme number.)

Ever shifting, they have a new vocalist. The most remarkable thing about which is that she’s actually a vocalist. At times the vocals are even given space to dominate the number. (I’m not clear whether Cotton Casino, credited on the new album, is a pseudonym for Jyonson Ysu, credited for the gig. It gets tricky when those line-up shifts combine with their love of wacky pseudonyms. Whichever, the gig seemed to involve more singing than the album.) An early number floats past like a cross between Black Sabbath’s ’Lagunae Sunrise’ (if you don’t know it, Sabbath’s least Sabbath track) and dream pop. At other points she chants and wails like a dervish.

Guest artist Geoff Leigh, of Henry Cow fame, (who’s not on the new album) started off playing more than a little tentatively on flute, as if unsure what his contribution should be. But he became more involved as the gig went on, and fared better when pumping on sax for the more freak-out sections. (His default instrument, so I’m told.)

The gig somehow felt like a completely spontaneous event while also a carefully orchestrated study in contrasts. A stripped-down groove just seemed to getting tighter and tighter, before breaking into ’Pink Lady Lemonade’. (Told you that would come up.) The finale, which I now know to be be ’Cometary Orbital Drive 0011’ started with another of those mesmerising mantra riffs the band seem endlessly possessed of, before building a huge free-form freak-out around it.

It’s something of a cliche to describe psychedelic bands as sonic cosmonauts. But Acid Mothers Temple do genuinely earn the analogy. They’re fast becoming to psychedelic music what Miles Davis was to jazz.

Speaking of ’Cometary Orbital Drive’, from Norwich two nights later…



DAMO SUZUKI
The Con Club, Lewes, Sat 3rd Nov


I’m not sure now which I’ve seen more out of Acid Mothers Temple and ex-Can frontman Damo Suzuki. But I keep coming back to both for the same reason, the utter disregard for predictability. I always say, when you’re tired of trance-out, long-form musical improvisations with shaman-chanted vocals, you’re tired of Damo Suzuki.

This outing features many of the same players from Zoff as previously, though not an exact duplication. And, perhaps for that reason, things kicked in more quickly than at other time.

The previous gig had gone through peaks and valleys, picking up a head of steam, pushing forward, then gliding down the other side. This time, though it had its share of dynamics, it involved more subtle shifts and gradations. As often with improvised music, you’d hear something sublime rise up but have to accept it would shortly be gone again, and contented with the way it would just be replaced with something else.

Then for the finale everything did pick up that head of steam. In his Can days they called those pulverising riffs Godzillas, presumably for the way they’d mightily strike aside all before them.

Alas, what got going quickly was also quickly gone. They played for less than an hour, which with little doubt left the audience wanting more. But perhaps that’s a disadvantage of this type of music. When the players themselves can’t tell what’s about to be unleashed, it’s all but impossible to plan things out like that in advance. You have to take what comes.

This time there is footage from the gig. Of course you really need to hear the thing as a whole, but it might give you a flavour…



That’s two Dictionary Pudding gigs into two successive nights. And two dollops of evidence that the good folks there don’t just put on notable headliners, but endeavour to fill their bills as best they can. (Even if a tardy show-up like me often ends up missing the support acts.)

Supporting AMT, it would be tempting to describe the Hare and The Hoofe as having asked the reality-warping question “what if Prog could be fun?” Which isn’t quite right, for while they tend to perform song cycles they’re beat-driven affairs packed with verve and energy, with few to none Mellotron solos. They’ve coined the term “popepretta” to describe them. They come complete with absurd stage costumes and vocals reminiscent of the theatricality of of Gilbert and Sullivan.



Supporting Damo were Adrena Adrena (as covered a while back) and Chop Chop, with their edgy but catchy off-beat funk, as if insistently repeating only a fragment of a melody behind stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The singer seemed a mixture of wildly agitated and effortlessly cool. Their only merch was a lyric book, with a download code for the music, suggesting he may primarily be a poet.



THE SEEN
Onca Gallery, Brighton, Wed 7th Nov



Part of the Aural Detritus Concert Series

“Three’s a crowd” may well be a maxim invented by and for impro musicians. The genre relies on players listening intently to one another, no-one having any notion what those others will do until they’ve done it. Which makes it easy enough to see why the more manageable duos - okay, sometimes trios - predominate.

Mark Wastell, conversely, has thrown such caution to the wind, and has been convening the large impro ensemble the Seen since 2002. (You have to say ‘convened’ rather than formed, as they never play with the same line-up twice.) Intrigued if this would even prove possible, I watched some clips on-line. And concluded they worked by building up a drone-like wall of sound, which each player thickened rather than added an individual line.

As it turns out, I was quite wrong. Though there were (count ‘em!) eight players the performance started out quietly, and ethereally, a composite of fragmentary sounds. The introductory section seemed to me to be made entirely by contact mikes, though I’m always getting that kind of detail wrong. It creaked, ratted and shook, like the door opening to the spookiest of haunted houses.

From there it sometimes did build up into that wall of sound, but not in any even or schematic way. Moving through various sections like taking the scenic route across itself, it included feedback, full-on ambient sound sources and stuff that might have actually come from some kind of instrument. It was numinous and exploratory – like exploring the rooms of some old mansion, your every sense stimulated and alert.

They played for a little less than an hour. And what wasn’t quite enough for Damo Suzuki would normally be a much longer time for a full-on impro outfit. The large ensemble, rather than turning into too much confusion, kept things both effective and moving. Pretty much every player dropped out at some point, awaiting their moment to come back in. So however much there were highs and lows in terms of dynamics, musical quality was pretty much a constant.

From elsewhere, from last year. Though it was enjoyable, if something to a challenge, to try and match players to sounds at Onca, this shadowy underlit venue does more to match the mood of the music…



Coming soon! More gig-going adventures...

Sunday, 4 November 2018

THE PIXIES/ ROBYN HITCHCOCK/ OTHER WORLDS (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

THE PIXIES
The Roundhouse, London, Thurs 1st Nov


Thirty years after their 1987 debut, to grasp the significance of the Pixies you need to picture the scene prior to them. Because really, there’s much more to it than the “influenced Nirvana” thing. Back then, loud guitar music pretty much meant hardcore punk. Music which had once seemed liberating which now felt confining, which had once seemed righteously wrathful and now felt self-righteous. Perhaps worse it had fractured into a bewildering number of sub-scenes, incomprehensible to outsiders. It often felt like music had been dropped and broken by someone who was now refusing to pay for it.

Then the Pixies came and stuck it all back together again. In the wrong order, or at least in combinations never before tried. Their mission statement combination of Husker Du with Peter, Paul and Mary is described as “jarring pop” by Wikipedia.) Not for nothing does their most famous song start with the line “with your feet in the air and your head on the ground.” Being so against the grain probably suited their natural waywardness.

Joey Santiago’s soaring guitar lines were combined with a gleefully base sensibility, a contradiction they overcame with a gift for catchy melodies and generous servings of surreal black humour. They were hard-hitting but deft and agile, the results simultaneously punchy and delirious.

For this anniversary tour, the good news is that they’re playing several nights at the Roundhouse rather than lose one to an arena. The less good news is they’re playing the first two albums, ’Come On Pilgrim’ and ’Surfer Rosa’ right through. Which aside from everything else, walls off their third release ’Dolittle’. When they were very much a trilogy.

However, though some tracks inevitably draw more applause than others, it does prove how free those albums are of filler. And they don’t stay strictly faithful to the originals, particularly with intros. (Though, with mischievous literalism they insist on reading out the tween-song studio chatter from notes.) And Paz Lenchantin makes a surprisingly good stab at standing in for Kim Deal. A a talent that comes more to the fore as they reach the second album, where Deal contributed more.

They did make the odd decision to insert extra songs between the two albums. This led to the live favourite, Lynch’s ’In Heaven’. But oddly even there they played no ’Doolittle’ numbers. (Only ’Tame’ at the end of the set.) The tracks they did play seemed so different (not bad, but different) that, not knowing their stuff post ’Dolittle’, I assumed they must be from the post-reformation albums. Wrongly, it seems. Whatever, they did break the momentum a little, like switching channels mid-film. It seems previous nights they reserved the extra stuff for the encore, which I’d imagine worked better.

But of course the chief question is - do the guys still have it? The answer to which is yes. In fact it seemed to capture the spirit of the gigs of yore. Our feet were in their air and our heads on the ground, as promised. I spotted even some of the balding pates heading into the mosh pit. And speaking of feet and heads…



ROBYN HITCHCOCK
Rialto, Brighton, Mon 29th Oct


Had you told me at the start of the Eighties, when my young self had just hit upon the Soft Boys, that decades later I’d be watching main man Robyn Hitchcock play an acoustic solo show in a venue normally used as a theatre… I’m not sure what I’d have said.

After all, the point back then was their combination of psychedelic weirdness with punk energy. And psychedelia was itself primarily a sound, a distorting mirror held against the neat verse/chorus structures of regular pop music.

Of course Hitchcock’s music has mellowed over the years, as have we all. But he plays more than a few numbers from the old days. (If nothing earlier than the third and final Soft Boys album.) Some are reworked. ’Heaven, from the slightly later Egyptians, was originally a soaring and euphoric album closer. Here it becomes more delicate and wistful.

But mostly he foregrounds and plays into the more stripped-down format. Not least by giving the sound man a series of ever-more grandiose and impossible directions for each number. (I wondered if he had some Simple-Simon-Says code system for when he actually had to tell him something.)

It works because from the start Hitchcock was such a strong songwriter, in the way Surrealist artists gave impact to their delirious imagery by being masters of composition. A solo acoustic set inevitably throws more of a magnifying glass over the lyrics. Many of which are blatantly a series of surrealist non-sequiturs shackled together by the thinnest of through lines.

Yet each line sparkles like a jewel strung in a necklace. If they’re impossible to make sense of, they’re equally impossible to dismiss. Lines like “I’m a house that burns down every night for you” or “You can’t build a palace without any drains” haunt you with the suggesting that they just might add up to something after all.

Infrequently but persistently, Hitchcock’s peppered his surrealist flights of fancy with politics. Now based in America, he adapts the lyrics of ‘I Wanna Destroy You’ to fit recent events in his adopted home country. (It’s a great number but why he didn’t pick the more pertinent ‘The President’ I’m not sure.)

By coincidence, just before I came out I watched a news video following the Brazilian election, with crowds chanting “the dictatorship is back”. A reasonable reaction, you might think. Except this was the new President’s supporters, cheering on the guns of an army convoy. As there’s no way to respond to that sort of thing with reason, that pretty much leaves us with surrealism. Which is the way it happened last time, where Surrealism’s apex coincided the fascist rise to power, putting one at loggerheads with the other.

Not from Brighton. In fact, not even a track he played in Brighton. Still good…



OTHER WORLDS (GIACINTO SCELSI + JOHN LUTHER ADAMS)
Barbican, London, Wed 31st Oct



The Italian contemporary composer Giacinto Scelsi I always think of as quite transcendental. And indeed, he was highly influenced by Eastern mysticism. ’Uacuctum’, however, doesn’t look East and could not be any more foreboding. Though written in 1966 it was not performed until 1987, and is receiving its UK premiere right now. Though that seems to be as much due to the problems of staging and performing such a work as its unusual nature.

It is, in the best possible way, an assault course for the ears. As percussive thunderclaps crash across the piece, a succession of rises and falls like a musical storm, vales of temples are rent in twain. While the chorus emit the most unearthly wails and tones. It’s this which grants the work its effectiveness, as human tonsils emit not the familiar but the most unearthly sounds. I was reminded of the cosmic awe and dread of Konstantin Youn’s Symbolist painting ‘New Planet’.

Scelsi’s subject was the decline of the Mayan civilisation. Much like his contemporary Stockhausen’s ‘Hymnen’ there now seems something uniquely Sixties about it. Not just its fascination with apocalypse but the way it seems to channel the ancient and the Futuristic simultaneously. But, much like Stockhausen’s ’Hymnen’, this should be seen as a feature of the work rather than a weakness.

Though a short work, its divided into movements. Which marks its only weakness, as they create pauses which do take away some of its momentum.

The title in full is… deep breath… ’Uaxuctum: The Legend of the Maya City, Destroyed by the Maya People Themselves For Religious Reasons’. Which refers to the much-popularised theory that, so deeply rooted was their conception of circular time, they tore down their own cities as a way of resetting their clocks.

The idea that people were so in thrall to their own cultural notions makes them appear thrillingly exotic. It’s such a good story you feel something of a killjoy for pointing out it’s almost certainly not true. I thought more of the Biblical tale of Babel, or at least the popularised version where God smites the Tower and confounds people’s language. The chorus represents the Mayan people, struck wordless by such apocalyptic events, as if along with their world their comprehension has been reduced to rubble.

The American composer John Luther Adams is a different American composer to the American composer John Adams. (Sometimes written of on this blog.) I hope that’s cleared that one up. Though, working against any confusion, their styles are highly different. I’d be tempted to describe this Adams as Neo-Romantic, though I’ve no idea whether he’d like that term or not. For many years he tried to combine composing with environmental activism, before having to accept one had to give.

The two works make for a masterful combination because they’re so distinct. Where Scelsi was jaggedly dynamic and unearthly, Adams’ ’Become Ocean’ (2014) is softly undulating. Above a base layer of harp and glockenspiel the instruments don’t add their own lines so much as combine, into a rich sonic loam. You hear the distinction in timbre between, say, strings and wind. But it doesn’t seem significant in the way it does with other works.

A (refreshingly unobtrusive) film show projects the sea as they play, and the music does evoke the swell and flow of its subject. It’s part of a trilogy, the others referring to the air and earth. Against Scelsi’s mighty conflagrations, Adam’s sea is powerful yet ultimately a gentle giant. The programme quotes Alex Ross, “the loveliest apocalypse in history”.

The one thing it has in common with the Minimalist work of the other John Adams is its disinterest in an over-embracing structure. Listening to it becomes a fully immersive experience. Yet, like Scelsi, it conceives of circular time. It has an overall palindromic structure, with other mini-palindromes nested within it. (Which I confess I don’t think I’d have noticed without the programme.)

Adams wrote, in the score itself: "Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.” This suggests at cyclic time on a wider scale than the turning of tides. However, the link to climate change doesn’t quite ring true, and suggests he was simply loathe to give his other career up after all. This sublime piece is scarcely a warning. And perhaps this sort of music always works better when connected to metaphysical themes than political concerns.

To compare this work to a painting as well, I happened to see Diego Rivera’s ‘Communicating Vessels’ in a Barbican exhibition that afternoon. In Romanticism nature - and particularly the sea - has long stood for the unconscious. Here Rivera compares the relationship of the conscious to the unconscious mind to the flow of water. Adams points out we need to become more ocean.

Which might bring up another question. The work avoids the great pitfall of Romantic music, being merely imitative of nature. But could it be claimed it falls into the other pitfall, where nature is less a thing in itself and more a repository for human thoughts. Adams’ ocean is powerful, but more providing than destructive. Yet that’s why we need to partner the work with Scelsi’s, to give us both halves of the equation.