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Posts tagged ‘Music’

The Curse

Much as I love some of the tracks on it I’m not sure Josh Ritter’s most recent album, So Runs The World Away, is my favourite (that honour probably goes to his 2007 album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter) but this video for ‘The Curse’ featuring the work of Royal City Band puppeteer Liam Hurley is a thing of beauty. There’s some info about the making of the video at NPR, otherwise just watch it.

The perils of ubiquity

FT004BpreviewThe 10 August issue of The New Yorker has a piece by Alex Ross about the growing number of online retailers offering high-definition music downloads. It’s worth checking out, not least because he mentions David Lang’s hauntingly beautiful Little Match Girl Passion, and Stile Antico’s equally magnificent recording of Palestrina, Gombert, Lassus and others, Song of Songs (I have to confess the harpsichord pieces by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck he mentions all sound a bit hard to me, but I’m very interested to hear Ann Southam’s “immense, glacial, hypnotic piano work”, Simple Lines Of Enquiry).

Although much of the piece is occupied with the manner in which recording technology is altering what we hear when we listen to music, Ross is also worrying away at another, deeper question, about how we as a culture and as individuals accommodate a situation where the availability of music radically outstrips our capacity to absorb and understand it. As he puts it:

“For a century or so, the life of a home listener was simple: you had your disks, whether in the form of cylinders, 78s, LPs, or CDs, and, no matter how many of them piled up, there was a clear demarcation between the music that you had and the music that you didn’t. The Internet has removed that distinction. Near-infinity awaits on the other side of the magic rectangle. Video and audio stream in from around the world. The other day, I watched Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger, in an interestingly horrible new production from the Paris Opéra (courtesy of the European arts channel Arte); took in Mahler’s Ninth at the Proms (courtesy of BBC 3); and then bought a virtual seat in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, which had an HD video of Simon Rattle conducting Robert Schumann and Bernd Alois Zimmermann, the agility of the camerawork outdoing the robotic Great Performances standard. (Berlin’s harp-cam is especially cool.)

“But these meandering journeys across the Internet soundscape can be taxing. The medium too easily generates anxiety in place of fulfillment, an addictive cycle of craving and malaise. No sooner has one experience begun than the thought of what else is out there intrudes.”

It’s an interesting question (and one I’ve asked myself before). What does the sheer ubiquity of music and content do to our capacity to engage meaningfully with individual works? Nor is it a concern confined to music: only a few weeks ago Jeff Sparrow was asking, not entirely facetiously, whether the internet was destroying his capacity to read books.

As I remarked when I posted on this subject last time, I’m painfully aware these words are inescapably the articulation of a very particular sort of cultural anxiety, and that it’s difficult to ask these sorts of questions without sounding as if you’re engaged in a lament for what we’re losing. But I do think it’s a serious question. Isn’t the intensity of our reaction to a piece of music or writing a function of a deep and powerful engagement with that piece of music or writing? I know the pieces of music that have mattered to me over the years (Glass’ Metamorphoses, Bach’s Mass in B Minor and St John and St Matthew Passions, Brahms’ German Requiem, Strauss’ Last Songs for instance) are all pieces I’ve listened to repeatedly and often obsessively, sometimes over the space of months or years, and that my relationship to them is inextricably wound up in that process of listening and relistening.

But I also know exactly the feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction Ross describes. usually it’s worst in the car, where I’ll find myself flicking songs over and over again, often before the last one has finished, looking for the next song I want, the song that will be just right. Like being jacked up on caffeine or speed, it’s a state of nervous dissatisfaction which by it very nature denies you the ability to engage with what’s you’re listening to.

Ross suggests, not implausibly, that the resurgence in interest in vinyl over the last decade might be a reaction against the sheer ubiquity of music in the modern world, a way of controlling its impossible profusion and universal availability. I suspect we all have techniques of our own as well, personal systems and listening habits designed to control our burgeoning digital music collections. Nor is it difficult to see something of the same impulse in the creation of systems like iTunes’ Genius function, or music communities such as Mog, both of which are, in very different ways, technologies designed to filter and control what we listen to by offering recommendations. But these systems are also, inescapably, expressions of a need to preserve our ability to engage with music in a meaningful way, and of the cultural equivalent of the oldest rule of economics, that scarcity and value are inextricably connected.

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Artistic tendencies linked to ‘schizophrenia gene’

PET scans of a schizophrenia sufferer's brain (left) and normal brain (right).

PET scans of a schizophrenia sufferer's brain (left) and normal brain (right).

New Scientist is reporting a fascinating study suggesting a statistical correlation between a gene linked to schizophrenia and creativity. The study, conducted by Szabolcs Kéri, a researcher at Semmelweis University in Budapest, Hungary:

“examined a gene involved in brain development called neuregulin 1, which previous studies have linked to a slightly increased risk of schizophrenia. Moreover, a single DNA letter mutation that affects how much of the neuregulin 1 protein is made in the brain has been linked to psychosis, poor memory and sensitivity to criticism . . .

“To determine how these variations affect creativity, Kéri genotyped 200 adults who responded to adverts seeking creative and accomplished volunteers. He also gave the volunteers two tests of creative thinking, and devised an objective score of their creative achievements, such as filing a patent or writing a book.

“People with two copies of the neuregulin 1 mutation – about 12 per cent of the study participants – tended to score notably higher on these measures of creativity, compared with other volunteers with one or no copy of the mutation. Those with one copy were also judged to be more creative, on average, than volunteers without the mutation. All told, the mutation explained between 3 and 8 per cent of the differences in creativity”.

I’m always a little sceptical of such studies, not least because of the reductive assumptions inherent in their methodology. But this research fits neatly with a number of other studies suggesting a link between mood disorders and creativity (some of which I’ve mentioned before).

You can read more at New Scientist. And while you’re there, take a minute or two to read this story about researchers turning brain scans into sound, a process which not only reveals patterns and rhythms not always visible to the eye, but also allows the “unsteady rhythms and cadences” (a lovely expression) of dysfunctions such as schizophrenia to emerge. Stranger still is the fact the music of the (hemi)spheres sounds just like early Philip Glass.
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Dress sexy for my funeral

I was reminded today of a story a friend once told me about a funeral he attended several years ago. The deceased was only in her twenties, and had died after a long and painful battle with cancer. Despite the difficulty of her last weeks, she’d asked her family to ensure her funeral was a celebration, and more specifically, that there be singing and dancing. And so, after various bands and singers had performed, music began to play and the MC asked people to push back the seats and dance. Row by row they began to comply, uneasily at first, but gradually with more vigour. And then, without warning, her father and brothers and the other pallbearers lifted the coffin onto their shoulders and began sway through the congregation towards the door in a sort of shuffling dance, pausing now and then to dance with one person or another as they went.

For my friend, who’d known the deceased since she was a child, the experience was completely overwhelming; joyous, heartbreaking and unlike anything he’d ever felt before, so much so that even 48 hours later he was still barely able to speak about it without weeping.

Anyway, the story got me thinking. If I were to die, what would I want played at my funeral? Setting aside the many classical pieces I’d choose, what songs would sum up the way I wanted people to remember me? Would it be obvious things like Bob Dylan’s ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’? Or less obvious things like ‘Somewhere’, from West Side Story or ‘Our Time’ from Merrily We Roll Along? Would it be ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ or ‘Mrs Robinson’? Otis Redding doing ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ or The Flaming Lips doing ‘Do You Realize?’ Nick Cave’s ‘Into My Arms’? The Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’? The possibilities are almost endless.

And so, as an exercise, I tried compiling a list of five songs:

The Rolling Stones, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’
Elton John, ‘Rocket Man’
Louis Armstrong ‘What a Wonderful World’
Lou Reed, ‘Satellite of Love’
Perry Como, ‘Moon River’

It’s not definitive, but it’s not a bad start. So I was wondering: do other people have playlists prepared for their own demise? And if they do, what are they?

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(Apologies for the crappo video but it was the best I could find).

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Radio, Radio?

This-Years-ModelI was listening to Bruce Springsteen belt out ‘Radio Nowhere’, the opening track to his 2007 album, Magic, the other day, and as I did I was struck by how archaic it felt. Not in terms of its energy – as anyone who heard him perform ‘The Rising’ at the concert to celebrate Obama’s inauguration a few weeks ago knows, Bruce can still crank out the tunes like nobody’s business – but in terms of its invocation of the radio as a vehicle of connection.

When I was a teenager growing up in Adelaide in the 1980s, the radio – and music more generally – was a lifeline, a connection to a larger, more vivid world. Listening to it was a way of believing, however briefly, that there were other people, out there in the dark, just like you. And whether rightly or not, we invested the music we listened to, the music we loved, with all that longing and desire and need to escape.

No doubt that’s why the radio is such a powerful trope in the music of the period. I can think of a half a dozen songs without even trying – Elvis Costello’s ‘Radio, Radio’, Meatloaf’s ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’, The Sports’ ‘Who Listens to the Radio’, to take three examples, which bounce off the idea of the radio as a vehicle for connection (albeit a corrupted one, in the case of Elvis Costello’s ‘Radio, Radio’). All of them depend upon an idea of music as something almost talismanic, something which defines and liberates, and the radio as a medium for communion with that power.

But listening to Bruce Springsteen the other day, I found myself wondering whether that’s still the case. There’s no doubt the importance of radio to teenagers must have diminished. They can access music from anywhere, any time they want, and they’re constantly connected to friends, both real and virtual, by social networking. But more deeply, I found myself wondering, isn’t it possible the sheer ubiquity of contemporary media, the immediate accessibility of any song, anywhere, pretty much at the flick of a switch, is eroding the intensity of people’s connection to the music they love?

I know I’m articulating a very particular sort of cultural anxiety, but that doesn’t mean my question is an entirely frivolous one. Certainly at least part of the reason music mattered to us in the 1980s was because it was scarce. Albums were expensive, tapes were unreliable, the radio played things as and when it felt like it. But that’s no longer the case. And there’s little doubt that the endless feed of information from the net has changed the way people read, driving modes of interaction wth text which are about skimming, and sampling, and only very occasionally about reading carefully, or deeply. So mightn’t the contemporary world’s immediate access to music be doing something similar to our relationship with music, and more particularly the relationship of teenagers to music? 

For what it’s worth, in 2001 Triple J’s Richard Kingsmill compiled this list of songs about the radio.

Update: I’ve just discovered this piece by Mark Mordue, which speaks much more eloquently than I have about the power of music for those growing up away from the bright lights of the big city.

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Don Walker’s Shots

shots-cover1On Wednesday 11 March I’m hosting a conversation with Don Walker at Gleebooks in Sydney. Don’s name may be unfamiliar to anyone from outside Australia, but to almost any Australian under the age of 50 his name will be immediately recognizable as one of the creative forces behind Cold Chisel.

The event is to promote Don’s first book, a memoir called Shots. In recent years there’s been a spate of memoirs by members of the iconic Australian bands of the 1980s – Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil published Willie’s Bar and Grill a few years ago, Mark Seymour’s take on his career with Hunters and Collectors, Thirteen Tonne Theory, was published last year, and Paul Kelly has a book coming out with Penguin later this year. Yet all of them are essentially accounts of the lives and times of the bands with which their authors are associated.

Shots is a quite different and much more ambitious proposition. Written in a free-flowing, impressionistic stream of consciousness, it deliberately downplays Don’s time with Cold Chisel. They – the band – are never mentioned by name, and even Jimmy Barnes is only ever identified as Jimmy.

Don Walker

Don Walker

This decision allows not only allows Shots to break free of the expectations usually associated with memoirs by musicians, but has the effect of emphasizing the fact that Don’s time with Cold Chisel, and in particular the period of their greatest success, was relatively brief. Reading the book I was struck by the realization that despite dominating the Australian music scene in a way no other band ever has, in fact there is only about three years between the release of their first really big album, East, in 1980, and the band’s breakup in 1983.

In place of lengthy reminiscences about life with the band, Don tries to give a portrait of the textures of a life as it is lived, spanning from his childhood in North Queensland and Grafton to his reunion with his daughter several years ago (indeed in many ways the book reads as a sort of gift of his life to his daughter, a process of documenting and recording the steps which brought him to his life with her, and his love for her), and taking in his failed career as a physicist, his many years as a struggling musician, and the sprawling disaster of Cold Chisel’s fame and the years that followed.

It’s a fascinating document, and not least because it’s so beautifully written. Don has managed to graft the spareness and vernacular rhythms of his songwriting to the larger narrative frame of the book with startling success, and there’s a swing and a tensile strength to the seemingly plainspoken prose it’s difficult not to admire. But it’s also fascinating as a kind of psychogeography, a mapping of places, and people.This is immediately apparent in the early sections, about growing up in Ayr and Grafton. But it’s in the chapters set in Adelaide, and later Sydney, where it really comes to life. Again and again the book very clearly captures the textures of life in Kings Cross in the 1970s, and of the spaces and secret worlds that moved within the Sydney of that time.

In a way this shouldn’t be surprising. Although I suspect their intelligence and precision has been somewhat obscured by years of FM radio play, the songs Don wrote for Cold Chisel are best seen as little word-pictures, depictions of people and places. Many – ‘Breakfast at Sweetheart’s’, or ‘Cheap Wine’, to name just two – are rooted in the demi-monde Don depicts so well in Shots, others, such as ‘Flame Trees’ are about the landscape of regional Australia. But at their best, all are remarkably successful, not just as songs, but as evocations of particular moments and lived realities which owe more than a little to Carver or Tobias Wolff. They’re not narrative in form, more impressionistic, prose poems of a sort, but they’re very effective nonetheless. Indeed for all that it is usually Paul Kelly who comes to mind when Australians talk about storytelling songwriters, Don does it just as well, if not better, precisely because he eschews the narrative devices that people celebrate in Kelly’s songs.

The interesting thing is that this sort of writing is not, as a rule, something Australians do well. With the not inconsiderable exception of Tim Winton’s recent work, our fiction, and in particular our short fiction, is not particualrly good at the sort of pared-back, realist writing which draws its integrity from its observation of regional lives that is seldom far away in American writing. This is partly because the economics of our industry militate against the short story as a form, and partly, presumably, because our population is essentially urban, but it is also at least in part a function of our sense that stories of ordinary Australian life are somehow lacking in ambition. Not for nothing have the most celebrated Australian writers of the last few decades been those who produce foundational narratives about the imaginary origins of Australia, whether in the highly-coloured vein of Peter Carey or in the more conventional vein of Kate Grenville. As the taste for this sort of capital “N” national literarure has dissipated in recent years this has begun to change, and writers as various as Malcolm Knox, Christos Tsiolkas and Steven Carroll have begin to write fiction which more deliberately situates itself in the lives of the city and the suburbs, but I suspect many still have trouble placing their work in a larger critical framework, precisely because it isn’t national literature in any meaningful sense.

But I digress. I’m embarassingly excited to be involved in this event, not least because Don’s songs have been such an important part of my life. I’m old enough to have seen Cold Chisel play live as a teenager. I picked a drunken Jimmy Barnes up off the floor at a gig at the Apollo Stadium in Adelaide in 1983 or 1984, which was the height of glamour to me then (I also remember a very different Jimmy roaming the dancefloors of Mardi Gras and Sleaze back in the 1990s, though that’s another story) and I still love many of their songs. But I’m also excited to be able to help Don promote the book, which is a genuinely impressive achievement.

More information about the Gleebooks event is available on the Gleebooks website. For information about events in Melbourne and elsewhere contact Readings or visit the Black Inc website.

Shots can be purchased from Gleebooks, Readings or bricks and mortar bookstores anywhere.

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The Rest is Noise

I mentioned Alex Ross’ wonderful study of 20th century music, The Rest is Noise, in my post the other day about Philip Glass. I’ve now discovered Ross – who is also music critic for The New Yorker – has a website, The Rest is Noise, which incorporates a blog, articles and information about the book. If you’re interested in classical and contemporary classical music it’s well worth checking out.


Philip Glass

Composer Philip Glass, Florence 1993.
Image via Wikipedia

Having just watched Scott Hicks’ biographical documentary, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, I’m reminded that one of the things I’ve always found intriguing about Glass is the curious way his work blurs the line between the popular and the cerebral. He seems as home writing film scores and occasional music such as the Sesame Street piece below, as he is writing symphonies and operas.

I’d always assumed this was partly to do with his relatively unconventional career trajectory – until well after Einstein on the Beach was a hit he was still working as a taxi driver, for a time before they fell out, he and Steve Reich ran a moving business together, and I’m sure everyone has heard the anecdote about him installing a dishwasher in the apartment of a suitably appalled Robert Hughes during his time working as a plumber (in Hicks’ film they reproduce a comic strip in which Hughes is identified as “art critic John Hughes” which might be a deliberate slight but is probably just a fortuitous mistake). A career which so deliberately eschewed the conventional path for a composer and performer must, I’d always assumed, bring not only its own financial pressures but a preparedness to step outside the traditional parameters of high and low art. But interestingly, in The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’ history of twentieth century music, he suggests it is as easily understood in historical terms:

“Riley, Reich and Glass came to be called minimalists, although they are better understood as the continuation of a circuitous, difficult-to-name development in American music that dated back tot he early years of the century, and more often than not took root on the West Coast. This alternative canon includes Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison, who drew on non-Western traditions and built up a hypnotic atmosphere through insistent repetition; Morton Feldman, who distributed minimal parcels of sound over long durations; and La Monte Young, who made music from long, buzzing drones. All of them in one way or another set aside a premise that had governed classical composition for centuries – the conception of music as a self-contained linguistic activity that develops relationships among discrete thematic characters over a well-marked period of time. This music was, by contrast, open-ended, potentially limitless.

“It was a purely American art, free of modernist angst and inflected with pop optimism . . . Reich and his colleagues borrowed from popular music, especially from bebop and modern jazz, and they affected pop music in turn”.

It seems curious to me that even now Glass is so routinely derided. How anyone could engage with the beauty and intelligence and rigour of his work and not be affected is difficult to understand, not least because it isn’t really necessary to take on the major works to appreciate him: the sheer profusion of his work means that often the details and the seemingly throwaway moments are – ironically, given that his music is so much about the construction of soundscapes – themselves things of extraordinary beauty.

But – and I think this is what I wanted to say to begin with – it was particularly fascinating to hear Glass speak about his process in Hicks’ film, and the sense that he often doesn’t know what a piece – even, or especially a major piece – is about until quite a long way into the process, a feeling I’m sure any writer knows very well (as indeed they know the worry Glass jokes about, that you may not realize what it’s about until it’s being performed). But I was particularly touched by his remark immediately afterwards, that for all that he is used to working with this uncertainty, sometimes for younger artists it can be terrifying.

Oddly, given all this, Glass has more than intellectual interest for me. When I was writing The Resurrectionist I listened to Glass a lot, not just for the hypnotic effect of the music, but because there was something in the way the pieces worked as larger cycles I wanted to understand, and use. And it must have worked. When I met my French translators (brothers, who work together, and lovely guys, both of them) in 2007, they asked me whether I’d listened to much music when I was writing the book. Yes, I said, Radiohead’s Kid A when I was writing the sections in the centre in which Gabriel loses his mind, but mostly Philip Glass. And at this last they began to laugh. ‘We knew it,’ they said. ‘We’ve been doing the translation listening to Philip Glass and we knew you’d been doing the same’.

Glass must be 71 now, but in 2007, when he turned 70, The Guardian ran this piece which is well worth reading.

Here, in one of the odder cross-pollinations, is a segment from Sesame Street which used Glass’ music.

And for good measure, here’s Branka Parlic playing one of my favourite pieces of Glass’ music, Metamorphosis One.

And here, out of interest, is the trailer for Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts.


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