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, September 29, 2010

The ancient lure of drone

There is probably something sadly apt about choosing to write here about drone music on the first couple of days of Australia's new Parliament. Just as something primal and at times ugly seems to emerge from Canberra's House on the Hill, and just as our elected representatives turn it into hours of inept, inane, waffle, we can all be thankful that we can still rely on music to show us something great, powerful and eternally alluring in the ancient art of drone.

Drone has, indeed, been an underlying foundation to music for hundreds, for thousands, of years. You only needed to have noticed the awesome rumbles of the didgeridoo during yesterday's Welcome to Country ceremony to have seen that. Or the steady, unwavering purr and whirr, murmuring beneath the modal chants of the geat 12th Century composer Hildegard von Bingen.

It shows us how, even in the earliest music, from opposite ends of the world, drone was much more than just a steadying base - it was a foundation, a cornerstone, a landmark, in its own right. It didn't just help the other musicians stay on the line: rather, it gave the music a primeval core, the earth's very first call to life continuing to reverberate in music centuries, millennia, later.

I wrote about drone a few times in my earlier blog, focussing there especially on bands such as Sunn 0))), Boris, and Grey Daturas. Just those bands alone were enough to bear testimony to the enormous diversity of drone - the different ways in which they shape music upon, or around, those massive, earth tremoring, sustained bass notes, with instruments tuned 97 octaves below their usual pitch.

Then there are others, heaps of them, that I have discovered since then, like the sensational Melbourne-based band Whitehorse, which I heard for the first time only a few nights ago at Geelong's National Hotel, and was staggered by the way they were able to weave energy and urgency into the drone, giving the music a sense of direction and drive, reminding me at times of the grumblings beneath and above Mahler's inert primordial rock at the beginning of his Third Symphony.

Or the music of American noise artist Daniel Menche, like in his 2005 album Sirocco, which grows at first from formless static and then slowly, imperceptibly, takes shape, morphs into huge blasts of electronic drone, covering every level, every frequency, it seems, of the sonic spectrum, before it slips back again into the static, all through an incredible, single, epic arc of sound lasting over 52 minutes.

Then there are the English avant-garde experimentalists, Coil, and their fascinating 3 CD work, ANS, which I have already written about on this blog: music where the drone is not so much in the bowels of the earth as in its ether, eerie and alien.

All of this, of course, only goes to make a bit of a tip of the massive drone iceberg - an iceberg that is as old and as elemental as the earth itself. But it's enough to show that the mesmerising magentism of those long, sustained sounds can manifest itself in a whole lot of ways, producing music that, from the ancient sounds of indigenous Australia, to the avant garde of Japan, resonates with something deep and fundamental in us, and in our connection with music.

I am certainly loving this expedition into the many ways in which drone is used, both old and new, and would very much welcome any of your own stories or discoveries about this ancient, alluring element of music.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Balancing the extremes - noise and silence in music

We all need a bit of balance in our lives. But balance isn't created in the middle of the scales, it's created at the ends, and if ever I needed to learn the truth of that in music, it came for me yesterday when Hijokaidan and Morton Feldman both entered my music collection for the first time.

Hijokaidan is one of the earlier, and still one of the more extreme, Japanese Noise artists. His music is intense, ferocious, uncompromising - music with no gaps in it; music where white noise, black noise, distorted static, screeching guitars and screeching vocals, are hammered and bashed together into an insane cacophony which you would probably still hear, even with the mute button on.

His album Polar Nights Live was recorded over two January nights in Oslo in 2006. It's music that belts you between the eyes, knocks you to the ground, and leaves you winded, before its first minute is up. Yoshiyuki Hiroshige's demented guitar claws its way over the broken glass of ferociously loud hissing, sending out shards of electric light and blood in all directions, while his wife, Junko, shrieks noises that must surely leave my neighbours thinking I am torturing my dogs. It's brutal, like nuclear rain pounding on metal, falling from the black clouds that shut out the sun once the holocaust is over.

Morton Feldman is a 20th century avant-garde American composer, associate of John Cage (whose famous 4'33" changed everything we used to think about silence in music), and writer of some of the most quiet music you will ever hear. His Rothko Chapel, written in 1971 for soprano, choir, viola, celeste and percussion, moves slowly, imperceptibly, between still, static sounds, blending silence into the soft, seamless, fabric of quietness. Rhythm, melody, harmony all step into the background and instead the abstract, bare purity of quietness whispers its way through the music. There's not even the barren modal chants of Arvo Pärt here - just notes, growing unobtrusively from the silence and falling back into it again. It's music that leaves you almost afraid to breathe because you feel you might unsettle the perfect stillness of this music, music that takes you out of space and time and yet, for all its minimalism and silence, is never empty.

We so often forget to notice the power and importance of both noise and silence in music because, for the most part, music blends the two, watering one down with the other. But the music of Hijokaidan and Morton Feldman shows us that each of the elements is worthy of its own place in the limelight, and reminds us that balance is only ever possible because somone is prepared to place themselves on one end of the scales, and someone else on the other.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Does music have a shape?

I hadn't thought much about the shape of music until quite recently when I happened to stumble across an octagonally-shaped CD, with the rather puzzling name of xAj3z by a relatively obscure duo called Soisong. And then, when I played it, it did strike me that there was something oddly octagonal about the music, as much as the CD itself.

Of course, suggestion can be a pretty powerful thing, and maybe if the CD was triangular, or nonagonal, or in 3D, or shaped like a clothesline, that's how the music would have sounded to me too (presuming I could get my CD player to play it, which was challenging enough even with an octagonal CD). But, still, it raises the question about the shape of music - whether there is any and, if there is, how we recognise it.

xAj3z, even without the power of suggestion, seems to abound with straight lines and obtuse angles. Soisong is the collaborative work of Throbbing Gristle's Peter Christopherson and Coil's Ivan Pavlov - two artists who are well used to doing interesting things with music. Which is what they do here, but in a simple, rather beautiful, sort of way. More interesting, say, than a square; more jagged, say, than a circle; but somehow still geometric, balanced, formed. The music is the product a mix of electronic and acoustic sounds, strings and keyboards and percussion, with the occasional slightly alien sounding vocal; angular melodies, squeezed harmonies; all of it soft, pleasant even, and yet more than just a little bit creepy too, like a union between children and devils. Bach on LSD, perhaps.

It's a unique, irresistable sound and, even without seeing the shape of the CD, it's hard not to notice the bare, simple, startling lines that this music draws in the air.

The geometry of music is just one of the million and one things that make it so interesting - the angular music, the rounded music, square music, cubed music, music in symmetry, music that gets its shape and form from its chaos.

The seemingly endless shapes and sizes of music are created by the permutations and combinations of what is actually a relatively small stock-pile of elements: rhythm, melody, harmony, tone. There's only so many notes you can play to make a melody, only so many different ways of dividing and ordering their durations to make a rhythm. But, like the lines and angles and empty spaces that coalesce into shapes, there are so many more sums to music than there are parts. Music seems to be able to take on so many more forms than its rather lean skeleton would ever suggest could be possible.

But does any of this mean that music really does have a shape? Or is the geometry of music just another way that our minds, which always need to put everything in its place and space so as to make sense of it, play tricks on us - tricks that only serve to make people like me feel better about spending that few extra dollars on buying an octagonally shaped CD, because we think it's something profound, rather than just another marketing gimmick?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The art of dissection - Nurse With Wound's debut album

You could be excused for thinking, from reading this blog, that all experimental noise music is dark and creepy. But sometimes noise and sounds are interesting and good to listen to just because they're interesting and good to listen to. The question is, however, just what makes sounds interesting, and just what makes them good to listen to.

That question seems to be somehow crystalised, and maybe even to some degree answered, on what must surely be one of the most fascinating and daring debut albums ever: Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella, released in 1979 by British avant garde-industrial-ambient-drone-noisests, Nurse With Wound.

Everything Nurse With Wound does and did is interesting,  but probably nowhere have they been more prepared to take risks, and to take them confidently and convincingly, than here on Chance Meeting. The title itself conjures up some sort of strange union between Salvidor Dali and Oliver Sacks.

The story behind the album's creation rivals that of the drug-infused Eddie Hazel, being told his mother had just died, playing the guitar on Funkadelic's Maggot Brain, or Mozart writing his Requiem because he thought Death had personally asked him to do it. Nurse With Wound came together because a relatively unknown songwriter, Steven Stapleton, bragged to his recording company that he had his own experimental band, which he didn't, but they thought he did, and so they booked him some recording time. He cornered a couple of friends, told them to grab whatever instruments they could get their hands on and, less than a day later, Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella was committed to tape.

Eddie Hazel's mother hadn't died, nor had Death knocked on Mozart's door, nor did Steven Stapleton have anything vaguely like a band ready to make a record - but sometimes some of the best things are born from lies, and this album is testimony to that.

Dissection really does seem to be much of what this music is about - pulling apart and pulling out sounds from the places where you usually find them, and allowing you to examine them bit by bit. So you hear guitars and pianos and electronic bleeps and blips, and bits of metal scraping against each other, and harmony pitted against discord, and notes against noise, and all of it thrown into some sort of food processor, where the blades are set at the point where all the bits are chopped up, but not beyond recognition - so what you end up with is not an amorphous stew, but a startling, fascinating, if utterly bewildering, degustation.

If you can listen to Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella without expecting it to sound like anything else you've listened to before; if you can let yourself wallow in its strange, strained sounds and without expecting them to make you feel this or that, or to see that or this, but rather to just let yourself listen to them, then you might just find that this album gives you a perspective on music that you hadn't had before - that, while much music is great because it is bigger than the sum of its parts, sometimes the parts themselves are what make it great.

This abum is a great tribute to the deconstruction of traditional music and  each of its three tracks, each more than doubling the duration of the one before it, creates its own sound-world, utterly disrespectful of every convention that has gone before it. So the freaked-out guitar riffs of 'Two Mock Projections' twist and turn, struggling and strangled, amidst weird electronic noise; and the wild spurts of distorted beats lash their way through 'The Six Buttons of Sex Appeal' without any regard for rhythm or order, interspersed with dismebodied, disembowelled vocals; and noises that grate like fingernails on a blackboard grind themselves into noises that haunt you with their emptiness in 'Blank Capsules of Embroidered Cellophane'.

This is surely the most confronting piece of work the Nurse With Wound have produced, even though nothing of their later work could exactly be described as easy either. But Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella goes beyond just being difficult or challenging - it pulls apart everything that once seemed neatly knit and, try as you might, you just know you'll never be able to get it back together again.

So what makes the sounds interesting and good to listen to? Ultimately, Nurse With Wound leave that question hanging in the air but, even so, this music leaves you feeling that it has much more to do with the bits and pieces than with the different ways convention has put them together.

Had it not been for Steven Stapleton's brash brag about his non-existant experimental band, we would never have had Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella.

But sometimes, to get what you need, you just have to bend things a bit.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Australian Krautrock - rediscovering early Hunters & Collectors

It was back in 1981, at a time when I thought myself broad-minded in my music tastes because I liked early Wagner almost as much as I liked late Wagner, that I was dragged along by some friends to an obscure pub in Melbourne for a gig by an obscure local band called Hunters & Collectors. In those days, my ears were closed to anything that didn't have a leitmotif and a few umlauts and yet, despite the fact that there were shadows of both in the early music of this krautrock-influenced pub-rock/art-funk band, the striking originality of their music was lost on me and, even today, I can remember my relief - and my friends' regret - when the gig eventually came to an end.

But now, as I listen again to their music - and especially to their early music - the even bigger regret is now my own: that I didn't give this incredibly interesting band more of a chance when I had all those opportunities, way back then, to walk into a pub and hear them live.

The early music of Hunters & Collectors was undoubtedly much more interesting and groundbreaking - although much less popular - than their later music. With a name that was inspired by a track from an album by German experimental krautrock band Can, Hunters & Collectors started their career with music that was characterised by the most unlikely mix of ingredients: the motorik beat of krautrock, the industrial clatters of metallic percussion, the nihilistic post-punk vocals of Mark Seymour, and the blazing brass of the Horns of Contempt, kicking into the music here and there to give even this sweaty pub music a kind of bold, blistering nobility.

The first two albums - their self-titled debut in 1982 and The Fireman's Curse, under the inspired guidance of German krautrock producer Conny Plank, in 1983 - are, I think, Hunters & Collectors' best. It's there (despite the comparisons my friends made back then, and my nephew makes now, to Talking Heads) that they were at their most original, their sound most distinctive and daring in the way it broke ranks with the more traditional rock that was playing in Australia's pubs and gig venues at the time.

Music like this had not been played very much in Australia at the time and even in other parts of the world it was heard much more on the fringes than in the mainstream. It was music that produced different sorts of sounds because of the instruments and tones it brought together, and because of the role it gave to percussion - not just to drums - and the way it let those unrelenting, ostinato beats drive things along. It was music that belonged, no doubt, to pubs - but to pubs where people came to hear interesting music, not just loud music.

It is, at least for me, a bit of a disappointment, then, that most of the work of Hunters & Collectors after these first two stellar albums, became rather more geared towards the popular market, albeit still with the band's original stamp very much there - rather like a rebellious idiosyncratic child who has grown up to be a quirky, but nevertheless compliant, adult.

I suspect it's the pressures of a commercially driven music industry, rather than any lack of original inspiration, that leads bands like Hunters & Collectors to trade the fascinating chaos of their underground origins to the more predictable safety of their careers in the limelight - and it's a shame, in both senses of the word, that they are commercial interests that so often end up dictating the directions of music.

I would love to be able to go back to that pub, wherever it was, and shout my approval for the fantastic boldness and innovation of Hunters & Collectors that night back in 1981. It wouldn't have made one iota of difference to the direction of their music, obviously - but it would have at least meant that I wasn't inadvertnetly contributing to the collective indifference to originality and innovation, and a love for the fringe, in modern music.