Friday, 31 December 2010

Without spectacles

I have posted a photograph of myself in the past wearing spectales... Here I am not wearing spectacles.

I am a self-obsessed little cunt.

Changes will be made to this seldom-read blog this upcoming year. Watch out...

Happy new year.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Unorthodoxy in music

My music habits are rather different to most; my notions of music aren't similar to those of the average person. Most 4/4 music tires me and I am equally exhilarated by harmonious melodies as I am by dissonance and atonality.

Yet it seems that I am alone in having these preferences. But then I look at other art fields - cinema, literature and painting - and I find that in these fields unorthodoxy is prevalent and popular.

Mainstream cinema, largely due to the popularity of Tarantino in the mid '90s, has increasingly used different narrative techniques which dispel linearity and embrace time ellipsis. In painting there has always been an abundance of unorthodoxy since the start of the twentieth century, which has frequently crossed over to the public spotlight, and realism has been downplayed in favour of surrealism and expressionism. Avant-garde writing frequently becomes best-selling material, and academic institutions put as much emphasis on modernism of the early 20th century as they do to more traditional literature from preceding centuries.

And what about music? As far as I see it, both 'serious' and 'popular' music circles always put far more emphasis on the conventional and banal, to the extent that unorthodox music is non-existent. Many music lovers are unaware of these musical genres.

The niggling question is: is it marketable? Most people instantly reach the conclusion that, no, it isn't. To some extent, they may be right. I had a conversation with my father on this topic and he said that, when hearing music, you are constantly assaulted and you can't really 'look away'. When looking at a painting, you are seeing it from a certain distance and you have time to think it over and appreciate it in a different way than when you hear a record.

Often, when people have heard my music playing in the background they'll laugh and ask me: "Why do you like this?" They don't seem to be picking up on the musical activity I hear and they find it baffling how anyone would want to hear such a 'racket'.

But then, there is a select few who are ravished by these sounds. The problem is that people who may like this music have no access to it because they simply haven't heard it. I was lucky to discover unconventional music at the age of thirteen, but before then I was listening to music that, when I hear it now, makes me sick.

I do feel that, a viable step to a solution for this, is that stores like HMV and Virgin actually had a section of 'Avant-Garde' music. People who may like this stuff may discover music that is both challenging and fresh in fields ranging from jazz, pop, classical, jazz, rock and more.

Some musical circles and cliques decry how figures like Albert Ayler and Charles Ives were misunderstood and neglected in their time. But wouldn't it be good if music followers, who haven't heard them and may like them, agreed with these people on a larger scale?

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Book by book: J. G. Ballard's bibliography

I'm only covering his novels here, even though I do think his shorter fiction is the greater achievement, especially the earliest ones from the late 50s/early 60s and Vermillion Sands.

Ballard is the British writer of greatest significance to me. He played a dominant role in my episode and was an idol at the time. He is the author whose books are of greatest quantity on my shelf. Now I will go through all the novels of the greatest literary prophet of the 20th century.


The Drowned World (1962)

Ballard's prescient first novel envisions a 22nd century London inundated and ridden by primeval swamps, decades before 'Global Warming' was a common fact. It is a science fiction novel in the post-apocalyptic genre, although the characters aren't depressed nor negatively affected by their surroundings but enraptured and ravished by them. Ballard plays homage to surrealist painting, with the morass of plantation and trees representing the chaotic world those works envision. There is a scene that is an homage to a stunt Dali pulled off; the character Kerans plunges into the deep water in a water garment, which is what Dali did in the 20th century, claiming that he was "exploring the deepest recesses of the mind". Like these paintings, the surroundings have an effect on the unconscious mind; the characters are addled by dreams of their former ancestors. Indeed, the characters regress to a more primordial mind state and Ballard's setting prompts them to have recurring thoughts of people several centuries their senior. Ballard says that, with the more the world is in tatters, the more primitive and dehumanised we are. The characters are comprised of doctors who are recording data and statistics from the zone. The character, Kerans, instead of returning north to salvation, eventually sets off to the south and into self-annihilation.

The Drought (1964)

The second in Ballard's catastrophe trilogy. This is the The Drowned World in reverse; now the shortage, and the cause of distress for the characters, is water; and, to head to salvation, the central character heads south. This novel features all the hallmarks and quintessential aspects which are associated with Ballard: drained swimming pools, loose lions, quixotic characters, strangely attractive women. An underrated novel but not essential; recommended reading once you've read at least five or six of his other books.

The Crystal World (1966)

Haven't read this one yet.

The Atrocity Exhibition (1969)

A change of tack for Ballard and a book that confirmed him as an avant-garde voice. This is Ballard's attempt at trying to make sense out of a world that has become increasingly psychotic; indeed, the character is a doctor in a mental hospital suffering a mental breakdown. Its validity as a novel is disputable (Ballard called the miniatures a "condensed novels"); it is a collection of disparate miniatures with little or no narrative thread interconnecting them. This fragmentary approach was inspired by William Burroughs, a writer Ballard greatly admired. At the time of its conception, Ballard felt like capturing a transfiguration of reality he felt was undergoing at the time. With the mass media landscape, we live in a world of fiction and, conversely, the 'space inside our own heads' is false. The character's breakdown is ignited by several celebrities and events from the late sixties, from Kennedy's assassination to Marilyn Monroe's suicide. The protagonist name, in addition to other character's, changes in the course of the chapters and this is one of many aspects of the book that confounds and confuses many readers. Ballard didn't recommend reading the book linearly, but to simply read snippets here and there from different parts of the book until some sort of cohesion is formed. Martin Amis noted that it was unusual at the time to have chapters with names of like 'Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan' and 'Princess Margaret's Facelift' but concluded "That would be unusual at any time, perhaps." The current edition comes with footnotes from the author that elucidate any difficulties the reader may encounter.

Crash (1973)

The first in a trilogy of novels where Ballard centres catastrophe, not in a futuristic environmental disaster, but in the heralding of motorways and high-rise apartments. This work lavishly depicts a character (called 'Ballard') who, after crashing into a car and being in a state of shock, becomes aroused and pursues a peculiar form of fetishism in gaining sexual pleasure from car crashes. He finds that he is not alone and soon discovers an underworld of like-minded individuals, all led by the insatiably gruelling Vaughn. Vaughn is also obsessed with a sexual death with celebrity culture and the book culminates with him dying with actress Elizabeth Taylor. Like many Ballard novels, there is a coldness and the characters pursue the most gruesome sexual activities - like penetrating a woman's wound - with little regard to morality and affection. The book caused a minor stir upon publication, but when David Cronenberg chose to adapt the novel to film in 1996 it caused a frisson of scandal of unimagined proportions. Indeed, Ballard was aiming to shock the reader, to make the reader come to the realisation that many people enjoy pain and danger. A psychiatrist's wife read a manuscript of the novel and stated "This author is beyond psychiatric help: do not publish," which Ballard said "Is the greatest compliment one can be paid."

Concrete Island (1974)

A Robinson Crusoe for modern times, an architect crashes into an converging motorway and maroons himself in a small island lying beneath it. He rations food out for himself, finds ways of healing his wounds and, eventually, as you would expect from Ballard, ends up living in his own mind. The character finds two other people in the island: a woman, with whom he fornicates, and a simple-minded tramp. Although he is initially very keen in the idea of escaping the island, he decides against it and stays.

High-Rise (1975)

Although it is not my favourite, I can confidently say that this is Ballard's best novel. Its setting, although the novel takes place in present day, looks to the future: an ultra-modern, state-of-the-art luxury building housing thousands and of people and even has its own supermarket, pool and school. This enables Ballard to deconstruct social codes and do what he does best: present humanity at a slant and depict human degenerance, where people act in a primal state. As soon as the building electricity power fails and many petty worries have been escalating progressively over a few weeks, the inhabitants separate themselves in three distinct groups, attacking one another and eventually resorting to cannibalism. Like his two previous novels, which along with this work form a trilogy, Ballard uses modern advances in technology as a way of putting forth a cautionary warning about humanity. Reading this, it comes as no surprise that Ballard was a literary favourite amongst underground anarchist groups and publications in the late 70s.

The Unlimited Dream Company (1979)

Although this is not his best novel, I can confidently say it is my favourite. Ballard's three previous novels, despite depicting strange occurrences and unravelling a world of perverted sexuality and violence, were firmly rooted in realism. Here he abandons it completely and undertakes a full-frontal assault of surrealism. In naming the protagonist of Crash after himself, Ballard has said in the past that that book was an effort at an 'internal autobiography', but this book bears features and recurring obsessions that make it abundantly clear that this is his 'internal autobiography'. The unsubtly named 'Blake' steals an aircraft (Ballard flew airplanes with the RAF) and crashes it into the thames of Shepperton (the small town Ballard settled in from the late 1950s until his death). The story is narrated in first person by a narrator who is not at all reliable, which suggests that the entire novel could be merely be delusions of a person in a constant psychotic state. Or it could be interpreted that, when he crashes the plane into the thames, he actually dies and that this is his afterlife. Blake has unusual superhuman powers: he can heal sick people, fly and, most notoriously, grow a variety of exotic plantation by spreading his semen around. Once more, Ballard grounds the novel on a common theme whose germination would soon become clear in Empire of the Sun: Blake is incapable of leaving the small suburb and, despite feeling an overwhelming urge to break free, stays. Although his plans are initially malevolent - he wants to absorb all the citizens of Shepperton that will give him power to fly away - he changes after another character, an owner of the zoo who frees vultures out of cages and they are prevailing presence in the novel, shoots him. The wound of the shot enables him to fly away from Shepperton with all its inhabitants and resurrect his deceased and enigmatic lover. Highly recommended reading.

Hello America (1981)

Haven't read this one yet.

Empire of the Sun (1984)

After been published, this novel surpassed the sales of all his other books combined within a few weeks. And after Steven Spielberg made a glossy, though impressive, Hollywood adaptation of it it catapulted Ballard into a fame that had, for the most part, previously evaded him. Ballard was raised in China and after Pearl Harbour and the second world war he was placed in an internment camp. This makes the origin of all the previous novels very clear and all his previous works could be seen as a reconstruction of the experiences described in this powerfully moving novel. The death of a Japanese soldier is described with a deadpan matter-of-fact style and the carnage described relentlessly is searing. Ballard, in essence, has been writing and rewriting these scenes time and time again. Jim moves from one escapade to another, all in the pursuit of going through "the university of life". At once a stunning departure and a recapitulation of all his former themes.

The Day of Creation (1987)

Haven't read this one yet.

Running Wild (1988)

This novella is something new for Ballard: a detective story. The parents of a whole street of middle-class children are murdered and they are missing, presumed to be kidnapped. Again, through this very readable and entertaining story, Ballard poses one of his most recurring themes: are we really as civilised as we think we are? All plotted out very well, with a revealing twist...

The Kindness of Women (1991)

The sequel to Empire of the Sun. We follow Jim into adult life, although now it is narrated in first person. Ballard chronicles his studies as a medical student, flying for the RAF in Canada, the discovery of Science Fiction in the 50s, the premature death of his wife, raising his children and the frantic 1960s where he describes his experiments with LSD. Like Empire, it is not all entirely true and many moments are fictionalised. It starts off in the Lunghua camp, surprisingly, it doesn't follow straight on from the end of Empire. The most poignant moments are from the women he meets and some of his sexual encounters, hence the title.

Rushing to Paradise (1994)

Haven't read this one yet.

Cocaine Nights (1996)

Ballard now writes detective fiction in novel form with Cocaine Nights, the first of a quadrology. Ballard's fiction, it seems, has darkened even more here; the sex scenes here are almost as lurid as those in Crash. The protagonist goes to a British resort in Spain called Estrella del Mar and the character's brother claims the guilt for setting a family's house on fire. Like much crime fiction, there are many twists and turns but they are far more depraved and darker. Riveting stuff, although it lacks a bit of the bite of the earlier work.

Super-Cannes (2000)

Haven't read this one yet.

Millennium People (2003)

Haven't read this one yet.

Kingdom Come (2006)

The opening paragraph is magnificent! The rest... Well, Ballard's strength had never been characterisation or dialogue and I've got no problem with that - I'm woeful with it in my own fiction. The problem is that it is just an entanglement of loose ideas with no interconnecting thread and it becomes quite jarring to read. This was his first most overtly political novel and tackled the topic of consumerism, and Ballard depicts it transforming it into fascism. Interesting ideas and concepts, but it doesn't come together as a novel.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Ipod shuffle #6

1. Impressions - Napalm Death

A rollicking start to the shuffle, but From Enslavement to Obliteration is weaker than Scum in that there is even less variety and the tracks are more 'samey'. Open chords are repeated, the drums (Mick Harris, or was he one of the many who of the original members who left in droves?), the most impressive aspect of Napalm's intensive cacophony, play at a ridiculous speed. Additionally, the angry rants. Every time I write about a smidgen of N. D. on this monthly regular, the description is bound to be the same...

2. Systematic Abuse - The Fall

I'm not at all fond of this album, but this track ain't that bad. Reformation TLC is a mere footnote in The Fall's rich and vast catalogue. This track in one of their stronger albums would seem rather tame, but here it stands out. The bass plays this simple line, which the rest of the band hammer out until the whole thing, four minutes into the track, smacks of tedium. I fucking love M. E. Smith's delivery, though: "I got a potato out, it is the same-uh. I got the paper out, it is the same-uh". When you think he has ran out of things to say, he surprises you by saying even less. No matter what the heck he rambles on about, it is fucking amazing and you are in awe of him.

3. Zion Hill [Alternate Take] - Albert Ayler

Even in the the vast world of hectic, dissonant and inharmonious world of free jazz Alber Ayler stands out as being rather difficult. That was earlier on, later his music became far more approachable. This is his later music. I fucking love this album, Love Cry, even though it was inspired by flower power and psychedelic drugs. He is actually playing a melody here and he resists the temptation of making hideous noises, which is most admirable. The fact that this is an alternate take acts as testament of the richness and power of the music, this is fucking amazing!

4. The Blessing - Ornette Coleman

Ayler could be seen as Coleman's musical progeny and it's doubtful that his initial career could have been accepted by the jazz cognoscenti had it been for the avenues Coleman opened up by records like these. It's quite hard to fathom that Coleman's music, especially this album Something Else!!!!, was considered so outré at the time. This is straightforward free-bob, but it really is 'something else'. This album is quite rare in his catalogue in that includes piano playing (is it from the master Paul Bley?). The classic Coleman line-up is sax, trumpet, bass and drums. Coleman's melodies are fucking luxurious and wonderful, and the soloing is by masters of their instruments.

5. Extinct - Nile

Nile incorporate Egyptian melodies and mythology into their brutally good death metal. This synth melody opens up for an incredible groove. Then chords are repeated below some malevolent howling (it just wouldn't be death metal if this were absent, would it?) Five minutes into the track it gets faster and it approximates grind. In the proliferation of predictable and dull death metal bands, Nile stand out. Nothing is more exhilarating than death metal that is well-crafted.

Monday, 20 December 2010

The comics of my youth #6

Mampato and Ogú fighting for Chilean independence 200 years ago...

Click to enlarge.

Goodbye, Don Van Vliet.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Review #17

Obras de Violeta Parra - Los Jaivas

Los Jaivas are a Chilean progressive rock band who took from many aspects of Chilean culture and music and transfigured them into extensive and complicated rock songs. Their most acclaimed album is Alturas de Machu Picchu, which sets to music Pablo Neruda's famous ode to the Peruvian mountains. In this album, Obras de Violeta Parra, they radically rework eleven songs from revered Chilean folklorist Violeta Parra and the result is what I consider to be their best album.

Though by no means is this an ordinary 'tribute album'. Los Jaivas take Parra's raw melodies as a vehicle to head onto complex compositions that are as much indebted to early 20th century classical music as Latin-American folk music. Six of the ten tracks in the album clock in at over eight minutes in length.

In contrast to their previous work from the late seventies, here the band downplay the folk elements in favour of almost symphonic constructions. In the opener 'Arauco tiene una pena' there is use of the indigenous native instrument 'trutuka', but it is interspersed with an ominous moog sound and Claudio Parra's splendorous piano playing. The whole band come into the picture, with each member playing spectacularly well, Gabriel Parra's drumming being of note. It is only seven minutes into the song that they return to a folksy style and perform music wherein Violeta Parra's original song is more discernible.

The next few songs, 'El guillatún', 'Manana me boy p'al norte' mediate between the band's folklorist and classical influences, but it is in tracks 'Y arriba quemando el sol' and 'El Gavilan' that Los Jaivas reach new ground. The latter track builds up on a crescendo furiously; by the time the track ends, it is difficult to remember that you are hearing what should be, in essence, a folk record.

That is not to say there is no room for the light-hearted or the simpler folk Los Jaivas have pursued elsewhere. 'Violeta ausente', for instance, is a fairly faithful rendition to the Parra original.

The album, like their Neruda tribute Alturas, does a remarkable job of interconnecting the original text with suitable music. Parra's original lyrics are complemented by arrangements where both prog-rock complexity and Latin-American folklore abound.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The remote edges #16

As promised, here is the landscape that follows on from the path I posted last week.

When I photographed this area, I had an encounter with an aged man and we both agreed how truly incredible it is how scarcely visited this beautiful place is...

Friday, 3 December 2010

My state of mind #19

I seem to be far more moderate these days, and I'm unsure whether that's a bad thing or not. Back in '07 I'd read books for excessive durations of time, stayed up all night and wrote extensive short stories in a single sitting. Now, whenever I pursue these activities, I halt and tell myself "That's enough". I guess that, in the long run, this is beneficial to my mental health, but at the same time there is a lack of intensity and vitality, resulting in overlong moments of tediousness.

But then was this really what I foresaw myself as in my year of 'unmitigated freedom'? Certainly, I wanted things to be intense, vivacious and exciting... At least I'm writing good fiction - for a change - and I guess that is more important.

Against my avowal that I wouldn't do any academic work this year, I am now retaking my A2 English Literature exam and completing Spanish A2. This means that I'm steadily revising for this exam independently and attending evening classes for the Spanish. If it all turns out as I want it to, this will leave me with a total of 3 As, albeit completed in three years. I'm doing this because I think it really would be better to attend a more respectable university in that, not only will the academic work be of a better standard, but there would be a wider range of people. Currently, in my UCAS application, I have Kent and Hull as my university choices in addition to East Anglia and King's College. Although Kent is my foremost choice because the modules for this Comparative Literature course sound so exciting, I am totally open to the two other 'prestigious' possibilities in that they would be a more intellectually enriching and stimulating experience.

I have postponed reading Sartre's Nausea until this exam is over and done with. I really don't want to dig my teeth into something as a heavy-going as that in the midst of revision. Otherwise, I've been overwhelmingly content with Kafka. I finished The Castle much earlier on in the past month and, despite the fact that many moments are overlong and that K. can become excessively irritating, I enjoyed it. I've steadily kept reading his diary entries recently, and I can't help but thinking - for all the setbacks, hitches and grief - that this is the kind of life I'd like to pursue later on. Looking at my own 2007 entries, there are some similarities in that he also becomes maddened with himself for not writing enough.

I don't think I can cope with reading four books at the same time simultaneously... That's what I've been doing this year and I find that a book is never enjoyed to its fullest potential this way. A couple of weeks ago I was reading, in tandem, The Castle, Stuart Mill's On Liberty, Milton's Paradise Lost and Kafka's Diaries. That's just too much! I think I'll revert to one, or at least two, books at a time again...

Almost two weeks ago I finished, without a shadow of doubt, my best story to date: 'The Painting on the Wall'. Not only is it my best but it is also my most extensive: 24 Word pages. Definitely a return to form to what I was writing just before becoming ill. I realised that I write better by typing directly onto a document in that you can think longer and you can refine and edit with greater ease. This story is an examination of art and representation of the world... I won't publish these stories online, but if any one wants to read them, you can always email me. The story will be collected in a collection called Confronting Reality: Stories from a Sabbatical Year.

Sadly, after completing this story I haven't been able to get anything off the ground successfully. I tried beginning one called 'Same Book, Same Bus', but everything came out sounding so corny and tacky... I really hope this dilemma is amended soon.

I have reached the realisation long ago that my fascination with literature is not academic. At college there were students who were more proficient at it academically than me, but they would never consider reading in their spare time... My necessity to read and write is innate, and I only relent in doing it academically to secure my financial life in the future and to enter university.