Monday, 4 April 2016

Music and Hyperobjects

Timothy Morton's fascinating Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World introduces the term 'hyperobjects' to describe objects that are so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend spatiotemporal specificity, such as global warming, styrofoam, and radioactive plutonium. His thought is grounded in Speculative Realism / Object Oriented Ontology and Hyperobjects provides an approachable and engagingly thorough introduction to these concepts and the implication to art, literature, religion and, of course, ecology.

Morton's understanding of music is particularly engaging and in the final chapter, 'The Age of Assymetry', he examines the transition of eras of Western thought from the Symbolic through to the present alongside the art and music of these times. Here he discusses artists from Mozart through to Schoenberg and Cage, but also looks at the likes of La Monte Young and Francisco Lopez. Here he is on the Classical collapsing into the Romantic period:
In the Classical phase, there is a Goldilocks sweet spot in which there is a pleasant symmetry between Spirit and art materials. A harmony emerges that a later age can only regard as an illusion. Humans and nonhumans meet each other halfway, generating all kinds of beautiful machinery. Mozart and Haydn sound sweetly neoclassical, their music embodying how the nonhuman no longer towers over the human, but the human doesn’t fully comprehend the depths of its own inner space.

So the Classical phase collapses into the Romantic phase. Spirit’s selfunderstanding far outstrips the materials of art at this point. Philosophy takes over the driver’s seat. In this period, humans recognize the infinite depths of their inner space for the first time. It becomes radically impossible to embody this inner space in any nonhuman entity. So Romantic art must talk about the failure to embody the inner space in outer things. Yet by failing this way, art ironically succeeds to talk about the inner space. Isn’t the inner space precisely what can’t be embodied? So the job of art is to fail better, or rather, more sublimely. So, oddly, medieval cathedrals are less Christian than a Beethoven string quartet. From here on, art can only be about the failure of its materials to embody Spirit fully, precisely because Spirit is not reducible to those materials... Art becomes deeply story-shaped, as artists realize that since they can’t directly express Spirit, they must tell the story of the failure to express it. Music develops into the extreme chromaticism of Mahler, who explores every possible relationship between the notes of a tune.

Equal temperament and the invention of the piano are shown to embody the Romantic era and the beginnings of the Anthropocene:

In order to express the nonexpression of the inner life of the human, technologies were invented such as the piano, whose massive resonant interior can be heard when the sustain pedal is depressed. Equal temperament came to dominate modes of tuning, because it enabled music to wander around in a consistent world, no matter how much chromaticism was employed. Now in order to attain equal temperament, you have to detune the piano strings a little bit. The relationships between them are not based on whole number ratios. If they were—a tuning called just intonation—then wild dissonances and interference patterns between sound waves would result: the wolf tones. Equal temperament fudges the ratios a little bit. The endless journey of musical matter in search of Spirit happens in a coherent world of equal temperament fudge, like a sepia painting or photograph. So, ironically, Beethovenian expressions of the rich inner life of Spirit are bought at the price of the enslavement of nonhuman beings—piano strings—to a system that turns them into fudge. Likewise, conductors arose to command the orchestra like a boss commanding workers in a factory. Gone were the genteel classical days when an orchestra conducted itself through the agency of the lead violinist, an arrangement that rather elegantly expresses the Goldilocks harmony between Spirit and materials that exemplifies that earlier era...

The Romantic period is the very advent of the Anthropocene, when a layer of carbon is deposited by human industry throughout Earth’s top layers of crust. It doesn’t seem like a random coincidence, the epochal event of carbon deposits in Earth; the invention of pianos, gigantic slabs
of hollow wood wound with strings tightened with industrially made nuts and bolts; the invention of the factory-like orchestra with its managerial
conductor; and the dominance of equal temperament, spearheaded by the age of the piano. Equal temperament allowed the piano to dominate,
to become a general musical instrument, much like the steam engine.

La Monte Young is held up as among the first to recognise and most successfully explore the features of our current era and fully reject the 'Goldilocks fairytale' of the past:

Then La Monte Young, a student of John Cage, took the next step. He liberated the strings of the piano from equal temperament, reverting to the just intonation that had been abandoned to create the Romantic world of sepia fudge. To return the strings to just intonation was indeed an act of justice, a “doom.” In justly tuned piano wires, we hear the doom of wire and wood. It was Young, first of the New York Minimalists, who used sound to end Romantic storytelling. Serialism had deconstructed the Romantic narrative by feeding what Webern calls the Strukturklang, the ghostly, spectral–material sound of structure as such, back into the music. Cage had gone further and fed household objects into pianos. Instead of coming up with a new tune, Young decided to work directly with tuning. Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano explodes the tradition begun by Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, organizing music not around a journey but around the vibrations of strings tuned to whole number ratios, ratios that allow ears to hear a dizzying height of crystal clear harmonics within any one note.

This is the music of attunement, not of stories. Young’s drone music, accompanied by Marian Zazeela’s light pieces, happen for days at a time, sometimes longer, as human voices try to tune to a sine wave that is as pure as possible. The world of sepia, the consistency that enables the world as such to be, is brought to an end by vibrant colors that clash and interfere with one another, like lines in a painting by Napangati or Riley.

There is much, much more here but worth reading Hypoerobjects in its entirety.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Lee Gamble on Max Headroom

This Thursday 24 March for Max Headroom on I'm joined by ex-junglist and post-rave experimentalist Lee Gamble ahead of his appearance at this weekend's Inner Varnika festival. Listen live (from 7pm) here.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

1980s Japan - Are We 30 Years Behind?

With the contemporary obsession with 1980s Japanese music, epitomised by recent reissues of releases like Mariah and Dip In the Pool and less recent interest in City Pop and corporate new age by the likes of Green Linez and Root Strata, are we simply 30 years behind?

Certainly the Balearic New Age House that's currently popular owes much to 1980s Japan, particularly that from around these down under parts.

I doubt they'd mind the connection, all part of the retro world we're living in, but if we are 30 years behind should we be paying more attention to Japan in the 1990s to see what we're up for next? Shibuya-kei? Might not be so bad.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

DJ Tropical Breeze

I've started DJing under the name DJ Tropical Breeze and have set up up a blog as a repository for all things DJ Tropica Breeze - Here's the blurb:

DJ Tropical Breeze plays laid back, familiar, comfortable island music.

Yacht Rock, Exotica, Lover’s Rock, Disco, and many points in between.

Nice n’ smooth for easy times…

And this is a theme song of sorts:

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Haruomi Hosono

On 29 October 2015 for Max Headroom I presented a special on the early works of Japanese maverick Haruomi “Harry” Hosono. I paid particular attention to his run of tropical albums from the mid-to-late seventies, truly glorious music. Stream it here, and here's what was played:

Apryl Fool - Honkytonk Jam
Happy End - Kaze Wo Atsumete
Haruomi Hosono - Party
Haruomi Hosono - Muji Original BMG (excerpt)
Haruomi Hosono - Peking Duck
Haruomi Hosono - Exotica Lullaby
Haruomi Hosono and The Yellow Magic Band - Japanese Rumba
Haruomi Hosono - Hepatitis
Haruomi Hosono - Coral Reef
Haruomi Hosono - Atlantis
Haruomi Hosono - Cosmic Surfin'
Haruomi Hosono - Philharmony
Haruomi Hosono - Pac Man
F.O.E with James Brown and Maceo Parker - Sex Machine
Miharu Koshi - L'Amour Toujour
Haruomi Hosono - Sportsmen

Monday, 14 September 2015

Flat Champagne: The Last Albums of the Rat Pack

I wrote this for Triple R's The Trip, a subscriber only magazine issued in August.

The Final Albums of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr

Between 1982-84, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr, the core members of the Rat Pack, all released their final solo studio albums. Strange, patchy affairs, with two recorded in Nashville and the other adding electronics, they are incongruous blots at the end of generally esteemed careers. By 1982, they were hardly in their prime (Sinatra 67, Martin 65 and Davis Jr 57), and their boozy crooning and misogynist humour was not in vogue. Even the lounge revival, itself a disrespectful satire of their Vegas showbiz style, was a decade away.

Lured by money, contractual obligations, curiosity or boredom, all three returned to the studio, perhaps regrettably, for a last hurrah. For all their faults, each reflects – in a rather warped way - the history and personality of their star, and collectively they reveal a picture of the entertainment industry’s perception and treatment of faded glory. Let’s revisit these long forgotten (if ever considered) products and see if anything still sparkles.

Frank Sinatra: LA Is My Lady (Qwest, 1984)
Sinatra’s final solo album (not counting Duets of 1993, or indeed 94’s Duets II) is the most respectable of the three, with by far the biggest budget, and corresponding effort, and is consequently the least interesting. Hardly surprising as his career had fewer outright lowlights than Dean or Sammy, and Sinatra, the consummate professional, seemed unable to do anything half hearted, or use irony (his appearance in The Canonball Run 2 excepted – note his body double in scenes with Burt Reynolds). It’s telling too that, of the three, only Sinatra strives to remain relevant and update his sound for the eighties: recruiting Quincy Jones, at his peak in 1984, and a huge cast of crack players, from George Benson to the Brecker Brothers. He also adds synthesizers, and on the title track, disco rhythms. These kitsch moments are amusing, but for the most part it’s just a bigger big band and a tired Frank. This is especially so on “How to Keep the Music Playing”, another disco number, which asks the wrong question and truly drags. The joy of LA Is My Lady however is in watching money and talent squandered, producing something dazzling but flat, smoke and mirrors, more coal than diamond. It was also released on video and featured Frank’s latest pallies, Eddie Van Halen, Donna Summer and David Lee Roth, broadcast on the fledgling MTV Network. As a final insult, LA is my Lady was recorded in New York .

Dean Martin: The Nashville Sessions (Warner Brothers, 1983)
By 1983 Dino hadn’t released an album since 1978’s Once In A While, which was cobbled together from recordings from back in 1974. Like all of his seventies output, Once in a While was an ugly melange of 1930s Tin Pan Alley standards rendered in country-tinged pop-brass, with Dean swanning in at the last moment to overdub his vocal parts. The ultimate menefreghista, as biographer Nick Tosches dubbed him: he didn’t care then and he certainly doesn’t on Nashville . Dino had dabbled in country on a number of albums (Dino “Tex” Martin Rides Again, Country Style, Gentle On My Mind), not to mention dixieland (Way Out Yonder, Dino Goes Dixie, Southern Style); indeed, there was little he didn’t touch (French Style, Cha-Cha-Cha D’Amour, Sings Italian Love Songs, Dino Latino, countless Christmas albums). With The Nashville Sessions however, Dino dips more than a toe in the country pool: Merle Haggard joins him on “Everybody’s Had The Blues”, and Conway Twitty on “My First Country Song”.

At 65, and with a lifetime of booze, fags and indifference behind him, Dean’s voice has a weathered purr comparable to late Johnny Cash (Dino always, bafflingly, had a Southern drawl, despite being an Italian from Ohio), and few seem as comfortable fronting such studio froth (his TV career was sodden with canned laughter). Opener “Old Bones” is a highlight, a loping self-pitying ballad about ageing featuring the line “I love life I’d like to do it again”. This rings particularly hollow given Dino’s addiction to painkillers, suicide attempts and almost violent misanthropy. “Drinking Champagne ” is more accurate: “I’m drinking champagne, and feeling no pain, ‘til early morning”. The pace never quickens from slurred ballad crawl, with “Shoulder to Shoulder” and “In Love Up To My Heart” both particularly narcoleptic, cloaked in anodyne female backing (a Dino trademark). The Nashville Sessions also features Dean’s only music video, produced by his son Ricci, “Since I Met You Baby”: tuxedoed Dino, glassy eyed and lost amidst sequences of swimsuited eighties ladies, palm trees and cheap video effects. Prime fodder for sampling chill wave hypnagogues but, alas, The Nashville Sessions has so far eluded the modern hipster’s retro grasp.

Sammy Davis Jr: The Closest of Friends (Applause, 1982)
Recorded in Nashville, hardly the logical musical resting place of Sammy Davis Jr, The Closest of Friends (also known as Sings Country Classics) is among the most strangely poignant of final albums. With material penned by the city’s country finest (Don Gibson, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Travis), yet cheaply recorded with plastic keyboards and hokey arrangements, it pits Sammy’s still impressive croon (he was the youngest of the three) against cold industry indifference and musical mediocrity. This was a context Dino seemed drawn to, even thrive in, but Sammy comes off second best. “Smoke Smoke Smoke That Cigarette” is pleasingly macabre, opening to Sammy’s wheeze before he boasts “I’ve smoked all my life and I ‘aint dead yet” (he would be, by throat cancer, in 1990). Sammy is on decent form throughout, but it’s a struggle: through ill-fitting flange guitar gospel (“Come Sundown”), wayward Casio runs (“Mention a Mansion) and awkward lyrics ("Hey, Won't You Play (Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song)". The standout however goes to “(We Could Have Been) The Closest of Friends”, which reads like a heartfelt plea to his more famous and accepted white Rat Packers, his musical colleagues in Nashville, and even his audience. As with Martin’s late work, there is something perversely endearing in the loveless product that is The Closest of Friends, but this scrapes a barrel lower than Dean ever did, with Sammy reluctantly forced to eat what he’s served. As testament to the industry’s enduring disrespect for Sammy Davis Jr, The Closest of Friends is among his most frequently reissued albums, generally with misleading album title and artwork.

Sammy was the first to go, aged 64 (damned cigarettes!), with Dean following in 1995 (fittingly on Christmas Day, aged 78) and Frank making it to 82 in 1998. All joined forces, briefly, in 1988 for a railroad-stadium reunion tour, but Martin bailed early, to be replaced by Liza Minelli. Aside from Frank’s stocking filler Duets albums they recorded nothing more. Out with a whimper, like flat champagne, but one with a strange, lingering aftertaste that may just grow on you. 

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Abul Mogard: Circular Forms

Beguiling - if slightly untrustworthy - back story to Abul Mogard: apparently he's a retired Serbian metal worker who now makes industrial tinged electronic music. Nonetheless Circular Forms on Ecstatic Recordings is excellent. Touches of Deathprod and Thomas Koner in the 16 minute final piece 'House on the River', and in the hissing undercurrents of all four works here. Beautiful with hints of dread but never overpowering, remaining more alluring than threatening.