This is a blog devoted to music on the edge - experimental, underground, alternative, subversive, or just plain weird - new music that tries new things, or old music that broke old rules. It's a place to discuss ideas, share discoveries, to think about what makes music interesting and challenging but still good to listen to. Join in and have your say!!

Monday, October 18, 2010

The shattered, shattering tale of D

Probably there's a lot of people who know that experience of hearing a piece of music that grabs you, totally out of the blue, and makes you stop whatever you're doing and listen to it. I remember it happened to me once, driving the car, when I first heard Björk and Antony Hegarty singing 'The Dull Flame of Desire'. And it happened again, just a few days ago, albeit in a very different way, when I was once again driving the car, and Melbourne's 3PBS FM Breakfast Spread program played Melbourne-based indie rock group The Drones' lead, Gareth Liddiard, performing 'The Radicalisation of D', the massive 16 minute closing track from his debut solo album Strange Tourist.

It's hard to think of music that could be more shattered, more shattering, than this. 'The Radicalisation of D' is a long, unadorned story, loosely based on the life of David Hicks, told in music of voice and acoustic guitar, where neither strays hardly more than a few notes here and there from their half sung, half chanted monotone, both always ever so slightly off key, hard, bruised, achingly naked.

The story of a boy who grows from a hard childhood, through a hard adolescence, into an adulthood borne out of a ménage à trois of aggression, bitterness and loneliness, is told in stark poetry where the subtleties of its rhythm and rhyme are masked by the arrant intensity of its story. It's a narrative, starting as a coldly dispassionate chronicle of D's life, but then swelling with almost unbearable passion and anguish as D's hard, meaningless existance is juxtaposed with the glamour and glory of other people's success: success, where even black people, who had once bashed him in the streets of working class Australia, find an American brand of happiness in the credit financed luxury of Brooklyn. You can feel the hate stir and spin out of control in D as the line 'You are living in a nightmare' seems to pound and sound and resound in his head until suddenly all is quiet, and the story is cut short with the words, 'But now we interrupt this broadcast/To bring you breaking news/There is a building in Manhattan/And it's burning'.

And that's where the story, and the song, ends. But it leaves you hanging in the air, aghast, for a long, long time after that. You feel you have been immersed into the darkest of souls, and for a while it's hard to find your way out. And yet it has got there despite breaking so many rules along the way: over a quarter of an hour of music, without a melody; a bare, even ugly, voice; a guitar that sounds at times almost like it is going out of tune; a lyric that is stripped of even the hint of a shadow of sentiment.

It's music that reminds me of the song 'Der Leiermann', the devastating end to Schubert's unrelentingly tragic song cycle Winterreise, where a story of a lonely, decrepid man, grinding his barrel organ in the snow, is told with the fewest of notes against the barest of accompaniments.

And that's what Gareth Liddiard achieves here, too.  Every now and then, the unsettled quiet of the music is interrupted by a few bone-crushingly harsh bursts from the guitar, only for it to subside again into that incessant monotone strum, relentlessly tap, tap, tapping you with its music and its message, deadpan and doleful, until you are smacked in the face by all that raw rage near the end.

There are few times when I have been as affected by a single piece of music as I have been by this. Matt - half of the Matt and Jenny duo who bring us the PBS Breakfast Spread every Monday to Friday - said that this is one piece that really does deserve that now rather hackneyed word, 'epic'. And it does. It's epic not just because of the way it can hold you so totally in its grip for 16 minutes, but also for the way it shakes you so profoundly in the process.

When 'The Radicalisation of D' is over, you are left with a disturbing, different understanding of where the real horror of 9/11 truly lies - not in the rough and rugged sand of the Middle East, but much closer to home, in the carefully cultivated soil of the West, soil so rich and fertile for the growth of hatred, intolerance and terror.

The rest of Strange Tourist is pretty stunning, too, but it's this album closer that really is Gareth Liddiard's tour de force, showing just how powerful music's shattered, shattering bare bones can be.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The intimate beauty of an Antonyiade

In the early 19th century, Franz Schubert - who composed probably more songs, and more beautiful songs, than anyone else anywhere ever - used to occasionally gather with his friends, in his home or in theirs, around a piano, sometimes with another instrument or so, and share music. These wonderful, intimate evenings became known as 'Schubertiades' - a word that even today still conjures up images of music shared, softly, privately, lovingly.

That whole sense of music as community - music as a place where people gather and tell their stories to each other, gently, unadorned and yet infinitely eloquent, music that is spontaneous and personal - is something that we don't often encounter any more. Music is often so big that it feels like it could encompass everything, or else it is so small, so inward looking, that you feel almost voyeuristic listening to it.

But in Antony and the Johnson's latest album, Swanlights, we again have something of that feeling of music as a thing that people share with one another - something that is part private, part public, but always authentic, always growing, like a seedling, from something buried, tentative, from darkness into the light. Here the music wafts from moments that are austerely sad, like the the hesitating sorrow of 'The Spirit was Gone', to others that are playfully joyful, like a child discovering love for the first time in 'I'm in Love'. The music grabs a few fragile threads, a piano, a cello, a harp, the broken, shivering voice of Antony Hegarty, weaves them together, sometimes reinforcing them with the stark power of some brass, as in 'Thank You for Your Love', or underlining them with lush, droning strings, as in the title track, and builds it into a warm, embracing tapestry of beauty, frail and yet somehow strangely enduring too.

Joining that warm, intimate, sanctified community, on 'Flétta', the ninth song of the album, is Björk - she and Antony singing a strange, cold, wandering tale in Icelandic, so foreign and yet so at home on this album where everything feels like it is being improvised, but not just by musicians - by hearts and souls that have smiled and cried, loved and lost, lived and died.

And what they create is both simple and delicate - but not in the pure, perfect way of say, a snow crystal but, rather, in the heartachingly vulnerable way of a child born too soon, weak and defenceless, quivering, gasping for breath even when it is laughing and happy.

The 46 minutes of Swanlights felt like an eternity on the edge to me - music where you feel like you might be standing around that naked, broken, bent little child, silently sharing your hopes and fears for its future, your happiness and sadness for its life, your love, your loss, your wonder at how something this vulnerable could live at all: sharing it all with that special handful of people you love the most.

Swanlights is probably the least immediately accessible album from Antony and the Johnsons so far - but that's because the territory it canvasses is so uniquely personal: an intimate gathering that this album invites you to be part of. Listen to it a few times, and you will feel that same kind of privilege that Schubert's friends must have felt when they, too, gathered around a piano and listened to a great and fractured man tell them about love.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Making mountains out of molehills - minimalism in music

Like a lot of people, I first heard minimalist music long before I knew what it was. In fact, I suspect that minimalist music was composed long before anyone knew what it was, too. That simple phrase, repeated over and over through gently, subtly changing harmonies, in the opening Prelude of the first book of Bach's Wohltemperierte Klavier would surely meet pretty well any definition any modern musicologist might try to give for minimalism.

But, of course, like all musical genres, minimalism is not something you can neatly define because it describes an overall style in an art where the boundaries are never all that tightly guarded, and where little bits of one patch of land are always slipping through and leaving their mark on another.

But, insofar as minimalism involves taking just the barest handful of notes, or of musical ideas, and building them into something big and interesting, by making them multiply and grow, it is something which has featured to striking effect in all kinds of music, from all kinds of places, in all kinds of times.

If you don't find it in Bach, then maybe you might find it in Schubert, like in his creepy, haunting, song Eine Altschottische Ballade, where, against a stark, naked piano, with empty minor chords, cloning and mutating in a steady, horse-trot rhythm, a simple, barren, hollow melody, gathered together from just a few notes, is repeated over and over and over as a son and a mother talk about murder. It sends shivers down your spine - more than anything because the music moves so little, because it is so icy cold as the son tells his mother that the blood on his sword is not from his hawk, not from his horse, but from his father. It's a story which, told in nineteenth century music, you would expect to swell with passion and drama but instead it just repeats its cold, callous handful of notes, again and again, and you are left both horrified and awestruck by its chilled severity.

But, of course, minimalism is really a term that came into its own in second half of the 20th century, largely through the music of people like Steve Reich and Terry Riley - but, for me, I first noticed it, and found myself looking up dictionaries to see what it meant, when I saw a performance of Philip Glass's opera Einstein on the Beach in Melbourne in 1992. It was a staggering work - something like five hours without an interval with little phrases of music, sometimes funereal, sometimes frenetic, that seemed to be being repeated a zillion times and yet you couldn't even tap your feet to it for more than a couple of seconds because the beat was changing so constantly - three beats to a bar, and then four, and then five, and then six, and then seven - music that hypnotised you by the very same breath that it used to keep you awake and alert.

Since that time, I have slowly learned to develop an enormous respect for the ways in which musicians use this concept of minimalism - this concept, that is, of making much out of a little - in so many different and interesting ways. Like the barren austerity of Arvo Pärt's Passio where a single sombre Aeolian chant weaves its way, serious and sullen, through a 75 minute piece of music, building around you its vast landscape of unrelenting sadness and gloom. Or like the way The Beatles, in 'Tomorrow Never Knows', which closes their album Revolver, allow a droning, unshifting tonality to draw everything back to it, like a gas giant. Or the way Krautrock icons like Neu! and Kraftwerk produce music that takes the tiniest fragments of rhythms and notes, repeats them again and again beneath a slowly, smoothly, subtly changing soundscape, until you begin to notice that it is the journey, not the destination, that is fascinating you so much.

Or Terry Riley's iconic In C, where the score consists of 53 little phrases, each anything between one note and 25 notes long, and the performers play them, repeating each as often, or as little, as they wish. They can drop out for a while and come back in later, but everyone has to listen to what everyone else is doing, so that no one is ever more than two or three phrases ahead of, or behind, anyone else. It can be performed at any speed by any number, or any kind, of instruments, although Terry Riley himself suggests that a group of about 35 performers works best. The idea is that a couple of times throughout the performance, which can last anything beteen about 45 and 90 minutes, all the musicians will come together in unison, and then veer off again, as their own individual choices of the number of repeats of each phrase varies. The end result can be absolutely mind-blowing, a fantastic celebration of sound, a great testament to the way minimalism can take such teensy-weensy little bits of music, multiply them, throw them in the air, and allow you to marvel at the kaleidoscopic intersection of melody, harmony and rhythm they produce.

Minimalism has probably had more than its share of bad press over the years, where critics have seen it as lazy music for lazy audiences, music lacking in ideas, the music of the machine age. And yet that somehow belies the enormous influence minimalism has had across music genres, being able to touch on everything from classical to 1990s electronic dance. And it belies the endless variety, the million and one different ways in which minimalist composers and musicians take the tiniest of molehills and, throwing in a mountainload of invention, turn them into things with so many more sides and facets and colours and textures than you would ever have thought possible.

It's amazing how complex simplicity can be sometimes.