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!!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The comfort of loneliness, and the power of frailty - William Basinski's 'A Red Score in Tile'

One of the many, many wonderful things about music is that, even when it takes a long time to say something, it can seize you in its grip, stare you in the eye, and keep you there, while it says it. It can speak slowly to you, unfold its story in soft, drawn-out whispers, in breaths that brush against you; each whisper, each breath, a soft, tired shadow of the one that went before it, each one almost silent, all of them holding you spellbound.

It is this very special power of music that US avant-garde composer, William Basinski, exploits like no one else can or could in his amazing 1979 composition A Red Score in Tile.

Imagine, if you can, a little stretch of music, a few minimalist notes drawn out of a piano, a vague ghost of a drone cushioning them as they fall downwards and die, the whole thing recorded on an old tape, indistinct, fragile, no more than 20 seconds long. And then imagine the tape looping 136 times, at times the tape, and therefore the notes, stretching, distorting just a little, the tonality and pitch wavering now and then, as if at any moment the tape could disintegrate altogether and forever. It is as if those soft, drawn-out whispers are the breaths of an old and dying person who has just one more thing to say before they leave you.

This is the moment, the eternity, that William Basinski captures so sublimely in this incredible 45 minute composition. The tape itself seems to come to you from far away. It sounds old and tired but incredibly beautiful and at peace. And as it plays over and over and over, its subtle changes wash over you until, slowly, you can feel yourself sinking, drowning in them.

But the beauty of this music lies not so much in its astonishing stillness as in its heartbreaking fragility. You feel that you are listening not really to music, but to the memory of music – and a memory that could fade at any moment. It is music coming from far away, from long ago, from a place and time that hardly anyone knows anymore; and, as you listen to it, to its bare handful of notes, slowly everything else around you seems to die away and you are aware of nothing else – nothing other than this old, worn out tape, playing over and over, embracing you in its unfathomable loneliness.

There must surely be a vast, vast ocean between the ability to create something like this well and creating it badly. It could so easily be something that would bore the bejezzers out of you, or else make you think that all those narcotics you took in your youth have perhaps affected you more than you realised.

But here, in the hands of William Basinski, the effect is staggering. The music is quiet but it fills every corner of your room, your mind; it is slow, but it sweeps you up in itself and you can’t escape its unrelenting flow; it is still and almost unchanging, and yet you feel something within you has been shifted and changed forever after you have heard it.

There is really only one way to listen to William Basinski’s A Red Score in Tile, and, regardless of how you try to listen to it, the music itself will take over and make you listen to it as you should: it will make you shut out everything else, turn out all the lights, turn off all the phones and settle into its frailty – a frailty that somehow has the power to take you as its prisoner, and then to take you with it as, in its final seconds, it fades away into nothingness.

This is music that makes you feel, when it has finished, that if you hit the “PLAY” button again, it might no longer be there.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The chaotic cohesion of improvisation - Slocombe's Pussy Vs The Paul Kidney Experience

Many of us – maybe even most of us – like to think there’s a bit of a plan to things: our day, our grocery shopping, our future, our universe. But the reality is that most of these things happen in their own way and, more often than not, all of them surprise us. Things always seem to happen arbitrarily – the person who drops in for a visit without notice; the extra block of chocolate that we accidentally buy; the new job that comes our way went we’re not looking for it, the old friendship that finishes without us noticing it; the star that darts across the sky when we just happen to casually look up.

But what’s amazing is that, with so many big things and so many little things all happening so randomly, it all somehow holds together and, when we stand back from the chaos, it looks as though it might have all been meant to be that way all along, after all.

That’s how you feel when you listen to the music of the Paul Kidney Experience – a multi-coloured Melbourne band who improvises everything they do but whose efforts build themselves into the kind of chaotic cohesion of which only the very best music, like the very best universes, is made.

I have written about the Paul Kidney Experience previously on this blog, but their new album, where they are joined by members of Slocombe’s Pussy, is quite a different beast. Things are not quite as terrifying here and you get the impression, except perhaps for the final track, that it could be safe to listen to Slocombe’s Pussy Vs The Paul Kidney Experience reasonably close to bedtime without risking nightmares.

The music might be less scary this time, but it’s no less weird, no less daring. Still unidentifiable sounds mix with those that are, or have been, familiar; still instruments and voices push themselves in strange directions; still old worlds and new worlds clash and coalesce. And here, just as on Radio Transmissions, the incredible improvisation skills of these musicians take you everywhere other than the places you expect to go.

Things kick off perfectly with ‘Emulsion’ and its sense of unbridled, unrefined celebration – a bunch of primordial freaks waking up, unkempt, unclothed, and dancing the day to life. Nell Day weaves her half-rustic, half-medieval, violin through the pagan pounding of drums, guitars and Paul Kidney’s vocals-in-tongues.

The mood quietens down, and spookens up, for ‘Albuminurophobia’ – the sounds here are more dense, more drone-like, as dissonance swells and howls: an ocean that heaves to the choir of all the souls that have ever been lost to it.

A more solid, insistent, almost tribal, beat invades the music for ‘Wet Kidney’, and everyone else responds as they should – roused to the dance again, fuelled by blood pumped from the heartbeat of an ancient and angry earth, the vocals now animalistic, the guitars and electronics whirring and whizzing each other on. It is impossible to stay still to this music.

There is a contemplative, almost dreamy, respite with ‘Velocity Addition Formula’. The guitar sings you through a melody that is somehow searching, somehow yearning, and yet somehow at peace too, despite the bed of noise on which it seduces you, and makes love to you.

But it is only a respite. And the screeches and chaos of ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errors’, which closes the album, awaken you from any complacency, from any urge to see, in the old, old roots of civilisation, an opportunity for nostalgia.

In its 40-ish minutes, this album, in its amazing single arc of improvisation, takes you to many places in a universe where everything is happening for the first time and where nothing is every really at rest.

They are places where all the elements of creation are in harmony, but they are not the harmonies of a settled, civilised space – rather they are those harmonies where one bit does something crazy, and all the rest become crazy with it, in perfect, crazy sync.

Outrageously limited to just 100 copies, Slocombe’s Pussy Vs The Paul Kidney Experience is issued through Supercriticality Records.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Post-punk avant-garde Judaism - The Alter Rebbe's Nigun

While religion might have had a lot to answer for over the centuries, the millennia, one thing that it will always be able to put forward in its defence is the music it has inspired. Whether your mind’s centre of gravity is being shifted by the alien sounds of Hindu quarter-tones; whether your innermost self is weeping to a Bach Passion or leaping to some black American gospel; whether the history of everything you are is being wedded to the red earth by the drone of an Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo – whatever it is, the human search for something bigger, something deeper, something universal, has always found, in music, a lush fertile ground in which to sink its roots.

Judaism is no exception. It, too, has found a place for itself in music – not least (as I discovered in a fascinating presentation a couple of months ago at my local music group) in the Eastern European tradition of “klezmer”, with its sense, in its wavering ornamentation, of always searching for a home. It is music that somehow seems to give a voice the tradition of Judaism, and to the culture of the Jewish people, in a way that is instantly identifiable as “Jewish”.

But the voice that Australian avant-garde post-punk Hasidic Jews, Oren Ambrachi and Robbie Avenaim, give to that tradition, and to that culture, is something that surely no one could ever have expected. Their 1999 album, The Alter Rebbe’s Nigun, produced under the unfathomably creative oversight of John Zorn, brings together what feels like a world of irreconcilable musical differences – free jazz, punk rock, Japanese noise and, somewhere in the midst of it all, klezmer.

The Alter Rebbe’s Nigun is in four parts, and is based on the philosophical and ethical compositions of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745 – 1813) who was known amongst his followers as ‘The Alter Rebbe’. The parts correspond to the four main stages in the ‘tzimtzum’ – a sort of Alter Rebbe version of the Big Bang: Atzilut (Emanation), Yetzirah (Formation), Beriah (Creation),  and Asiyah (Action).

With ‘Atzilut’ – the highest, most God-like, stage – the music opens with notes plucked out of timelessness and spacelessness, and yet with a tired, old, vulnerability, as if the music is being played on an ancient, priceless, but dilapidated music box. It gives way to heavy post punk guitars and drums that drench the music, and you, in a dark, imposing density.

It’s an arresting start to this strange, eccentric, cosmic musical journey. From it emerges the chaos of an unformed mass, with ‘Yetzirah'. There is a barren darkness here, but within it, and around it, you can hear light flickering, pulsating, in its birth-throes. The music is minimalist – just electronic notes stretched and throbbing in the middle of nowhere – and yet it has a sense of bigness about it until, right near the end, you could swear that a lullaby is being sung to lull the baby earth to sleep.

'Beriah’ bursts into life with a fanfare of sonic madness – brass-like sounds blustering out as if the whole universe is caught in a traffic jam, blasting a million horns. It’s a rallying cry and, after a few minutes, we hear the empty dark cosmos again, breathing, stirring in its sleep, woken, in spite of itself, by the alarm, as dissonant guitars and drums at last pound it into shape.

In the final and longest part, ‘Asiyah’, we hear, for the first time, the voice of Rabbi Yankel Lieder, narrating some of the Nigun text, underscored and punctuated by rumbling, trembling noise that slowly creeps in on the spoken word, giving it life and strangling it at the same time. The voice gives way to a kind of spectral, choral chant, with drums beating and tolling within it, driving it forwards into the unknown, the unknowable, until everything suddenly stops and is unexpectedly put to bed by an almost unsettlingly gentle, homely, klezmer ditty.

The Alter Rebbe’s Nigun is an extraordinary piece of music – earnest, passionate and daring beyond all boundaries, creating a uniquely Jewish universe: ancient, oppressed, but strong and formidable and, above all, enduring. It leaves you shattered but resolute, and full of all the contradictions that music, and religion, do so well.

The Alter Rebbe’s Nigun is released on Tzadik – one of those recording labels where you can pretty well pick anything, and it’ll be worth listening to.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The creaking sound of rigging on the Mary Celeste - Takehisa Kosugi's 'Catch Wave'

If you could hear  the sound the sea might make, when every living thing has gone from the Earth and nothing remains other than a few stranded ghosts; and grey water laps against abandoned shores under endless grey skies; or if you could hear, as Julian Cope describes this music, the creaking sound of the rigging on the Mary Celeste after all human life had vanished from it; if you could hear the last bird left on Earth, soaring through a measureless and sullen sky, you would find, I am sure, that it would sound just like Takehisa Kosugi’s extraordinary album from 1975, Catch Wave.

Takehisa Kosugi is a Japanese experimental composer and violinist, born in 1938 and and has worked with musicians as diverse as John Cage and Sonic Youth. His music, usually associated with the neo-Dadaist ‘Fluxus’ movement, a word that derives from the Latin word for ‘flow’, is liberated from all the conventional notions of structure and boundaries and instead flows, aimed nowhere but not aimless, in a limitless, timeless space.

Catch Wave is undoubtedly his most famous recording. Its opening piece, ‘Mono Dharma’, is built on a single, barren drone above which hovers a distorted, oscillating solo violin sliding in and out of notes that have no name. It is music that conjures up an unspeakably haunted loneliness, music that speaks of abandonment, emptiness, the end of things. There is a minimalist vastness in its textures, like you are hearing the trapped souls of things that have long gone – the cry of a whale from a hundred thousand years ago, still echoing from the cliffs.

The second of the album's two pieces is ‘Wave Code’. More unsettled than the earlier track, this music, too, is rooted in a long, forlorn drone; but what grows from it here are strange, alien groans and grunts and chants: voices in the dark – perhaps the new bud of grotesquery that grows, slithers, out of the abandoned apocalypse of ‘Mono Dharma’.

It’s that drone – that empty, thin, desolate drone – that brings these two very different pieces together and leaves you feeling that they are perhaps just showing you different sides of the same picture, telling you different versions of the same story.

The simplicity of this music is in some ways what makes it most remarkable, and most haunted. Stripped of every ornamentation, of every convention, of every bit of structure, you are left wondering, horrified, that this godforsaken place might be how things really are.

The whole thing goes for just under 50 minutes, but this music makes you feel that you have been immersed in something much more timeless than that. It is music which, despite its avant-garde experimentation, feels like it could have been dug up from underneath the earth, where it had laid buried – perhaps a secret, perhaps a prophecy – for millions of years.

Catch Wave is music that you feel has been around long before you ever were and will stay around long after you ever will be. Your place in it doesn’t even create a bleep on its endless, empty heaving sea.

Thanks to Paul Kidney at PBS FM's Ear of the Behearer for introducing me to this stunning piece of music.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The loving songs of hate - Boyd Rice's 'Music, Martinis and Misanthropy'.

There is a dark side to everything. We all know that. And most of us are at some stage or another fascinated by it, and at some stage or another we stare into it and take a sort of reassuring relief when we see how horrifying it is. It somehow restores our faith in the established order of things – good is good and bad is bad.

But what is much more unsettling is when we stare into that abyss and find a comfort, a peace, an embrace, in there – a sense, even, of coming home.

This is the side of darkness that Boyd Rice shows us in his classic, and very, very unsettling 1990 album, Music, Martinis and Misanthropy. It is a piece of terrifying musical blackness – the sort that presents you with hate, clothed in soft velvet, its ice-cold arms stretched out to enfold you. Here hell really has frozen over.

The music itself is a richly textured neo-folk, with lush guitars, opulent keyboards, and fertile electronic noise, all blending into a dark and alluring molasses of sound that, like quicksand, absorbs the nihilistic, hate-filled lyrics of Boyd Rice delivered, usually spoken, sometimes sung, without even a neutron of emotion. The effect is shattering, jarring, but irresistible.

This strangely evocative, deeply horrible, stage is set in the album’s opening ‘Invocation’, a grotesquely morbid cover of The Carpenters’ song of the same name. It’s a somehow fitting mirror – The Carpenters’ angst-filled lives clad in sunlight and roses, reflected here in songs of hate clad in a soft, Kashmir black.

Whether it’s the musings on killing all the weak and ugly people, to a gently strumming guitar and rich, comforting chords, as in ‘People’; or the haunted soprano vocals that sing, ethereal and lullaby-like, behind ‘Disney Land Can Wait’, where the fantasy funpark is a distant dream, and shooting all the shuffling soullessness of modern life with AK-47s and B-52s is the immediate mission; or whether it’s the ghostly toe-tapping rhythm of ‘An Eye for an Eye’; or the trippy, druggy, ditty of murder in ‘Down in the Willow Garden’; or the barren, deadpan, invitation to rape in ‘Tripped a Beauteous Maiden’, Music, Martinis and Misanthropy constantly draws us into everything we want to be repelled by.

This is not music you want to be left alone with for too long – and not just because it is so disturbing (and it is certainly that), but also because you just can’t trust it. And that means, when it takes you so totally into its embrace, you can no longer trust yourself either. Is the music trying to lure you into its lair of hate, or is it trying to warn you, arm you, against a world dressed in majesty but drowning in mediocrity?

Ultimately, at the end of its 50 minutes, Music, Martinis and Misanthropy leaves it for you to decide. It has made a big black bed for you, with soft silk sheets, but you’re the one who has to choose whether or not to lie in it. All that the music, in all its dark, lulling richness, has done is show you what a comforting, loving place hate can be.