Friday, 26 October 2012

Impressive recent reads

The Rest is Noise - Alex Ross

 This book is a history of the twentieth century as seen through its music. It is the kind of book I've longed to read for many years. Modern classical music has lamentably had a veneer of 'difficulty' to it. Many potential listeners of the genre are scared away because it is 'too intellectual.' This is completely annulled by Ross, who writes about the difficult conceptions of these composers in an enthralling, entertaining prose. There is no dichotomy between the 'high' canon or the 'low' canon, either. Composers like Shostakovich and Britten, dismissed as kitsch by some quarters, receive equal treatment as the likes of Stockhausen or Nono. Whilst I would like to have seen more detail on Varese (who is bracketed under the fatuous futurist movement, rather than commended as the singularly great composer he really is), and perhaps less on Britten, one has to take into account that in a book like this a lot has to be left out. This is a page-turning book that brings together music theory, history and politics.

Memories of the Future - Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

This was written in Stalinist Soviet Union and was considered too subversive to even show to a publisher. I guess that the adjective 'Kafkaesque' is totally applicable to this book - it is dark, enigmatic, mysterious and alienating. There is a divide between the higher echelon and powerless nebbish characters who are kept at bay. There is also a Borgesian tinge (the Eiffel Tower runs away from Paris, a man will only join a group as long as it's logical and a man loses his way in a room that keeps expanding into a vast black waste), but it is charged with political commentary. It'd be a little difficult to describe a lot of the pieces as 'stories' since they aren't all that compact and concise; there are a lot of digressions involving haranguing indictments of the Soviet regime. The language can be dense and many ideas are laid really thick. I am glad I picked this up from Daunt Books in London; it turned out to be a real find.

Hijos sin hijos (Sons Without Sons) - Enrique Vila-Matas

This short story collection starts with a small epigraph from Kafka: “Germany has declared war against Russia. In the afternoon, swimming." The stories situate the subjective, personal lives of individuals within the context of broader political realities in 20th century Spain. More importantly, all the protagonists are "loners" who, in their predicament, do not procreate and produce children - they march on as apparitions, the last of a kind. Several biographical elements of Kafka's life are infused into characters, but this is soon overshadowed by the ingenuity and originality of Matas' ideas. Like the Krzhizhanovsky, there are a lot of meta-fictive tropes here which are a pleasure to behold.

Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy

The beauty of this book is the wonderful images it conjures - barren landscapes, empty saloons, ebbing tides - through beautiful, lyrical language. It is at once cinematic yet profoundly literary. Although I think they would be considered as polar opposites by most, this did remind of J. G. Ballard at his best. The subject matter makes The Road seem tame by comparison! The novel follows a group of American men in the 1860s, who trail out to massacre Native Indians and scalp them. They first do this for profit but eventually give in out of sheer compulsion. The novel is unflinching in the repeated use of disturbing images (such as two babies' skulls being crushed). This is an overpowering, atmospheric read!

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The need for satire

Peter Cook

After years of stasis, you could say that times are now a little more turbulent. We are in the throes of a recession, needless wars have been inflicted on the Middle East and China are increasingly becoming the world's largest economy.

What often gets us through tough times is humour. Not just any kind of humour, however. When we are saturated with images of mopey politicians cavorting in front of our television sets, comedy is a useful tool. It can attack and ridicule these figures; it can satirise them.

In the early 1960s, Peter Cook was one of the main exponents of a 'satire boom'. He mimicked then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan in his very presence. Many skits and comedic sketches that satirised various aspects of English society were performed in theatres. This was humour used as a tool to challenge, shock and debase the higher hierarchy.

Whilst we do have a wealth of gifted comedians now (Ricky Gervais, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jack Dee, Johnny Vegas), their work is not really satirical. These comedians aren't really having a stab at the our rulers. Events like the Leveson Inquiry and the Iraq war certainly lend themselves to this type of humour. And whilst the satirical magazine Private Eye does sell in large numbers, it is never really in the public spotlight all that much.

There is a quality to humour that allows you to get away with murder. Whilst a transgressive novel or film may provoke death threats and the like, comedy is sufficiently subtle so as to allow this not to happen. It is frivolous, it provokes laughter but it can still make you think and question. It can be funny in an unsettling, frightful manner.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012


The frustrating thing about most general elections is the intractability. It is often perceived as a farcical illusion - and that is indeed what it often amounts to.

Oppositional parties rarely stand a chance. The public is coerced into voting for two dissimilar choices. Most of the time it is centrist politics, or maybe a little more to the right than that.

Should elections matter, then? To a certain degree, ironically, they do. Even though option A may not seem that different for B, the policies B promotes would actually have a dramatic outcome on the impact of world-affairs.

Take the current elections in the U. S. A. I wouldn't say the Democratic party are to my ideological liking but, by God, I am counting on them to win. Romney has stated that taxing too much is "not the right answer for America" (thus conforming to the Republican mantra - too much government is analogous with Socialism). The monetary policies Obama has made would actually help the world economy get out of its slump. The Republican model always worsens the deficit.

Not to mention foreign affairs. Romney has stated he wants a more "aggressive" foreign policy. The calamitous mess Bush and his neo-con cronies left may convince them that launching a full-frontal assault war on Iran isn't particularly clever, but tensions with China may well escalate.

So, even if one has a radical outlook on the world, however well-calibrated this outlook may be, casting a vote for a centrist neo-liberal candidate is by no means a foolish decision. In the larger scheme of things it results in a better world.

Friday, 12 October 2012

I need the eggs

"You only give me books with the word death in the title!"
"It's a very important issue!"

Annie Hall (1977) by Woody Allen

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Twenty musical artists who are the most important to me

The Fall
Captain Beefheart
Miles Davis
John Coltrane
Ornette Coleman
Igor Stravinsky
Bela Bartok
Ludwig van Beethoven
Franz Schubert

Johann Sebastian Bach
Gyorgy Ligeti
Robert Wyatt
Frank Zappa
Edgard Varese
Claude Debussy
Sun Ra
Napalm Death
Van Morrison
Maurice Ravel
Anton Webern