Thursday, 29 August 2013

The age of ephemera

Public discourse has grown diffuse. There are original voices out there with interesting ideas. These people are hardly able to make an impact in the cultural consciousness, however. The contents of discourse are becoming abbreviated - to 140 characters, to be exact. More and more information is available yet, conversely, we know less and less. Arguments do not dominate global discourse - banners and slogans do just that.

Now, let me just clarify something - I love epigrammatic wit. I love aphorisms. Whilst, by their very definition, they lack the sweep and scale of a true work of art, they have their elegance and charm. There is Socrates, who said 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' More recent examples include Woody Allen  ('The brain is my second favourite organ') and Gore Vidal ('Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water').

The elegance of the aphorism lies in its ability to address a big topic in a witty and laconic way. Or, in contrast, it can be frivolous and flippant within a short, circumscribed instant. Channels like Twitter hardly ever showcase this elegance. They generally showcase slogans. People have agendas they want to get across to the world. It becomes partisan. And whilst devolving social commentary to 'the people' might ostensibly seem like a good idea, it reaches the state where the internet is inundated by these hysteric cries.

Clearly, there is so much you can say in 140 characters. How can you develop a fluid, incisive point? And, even with witty aphorisms, they are by their very nature one-dimensional and unambiguous. There is no lee-way for ambiguity or nuance in a single sentence. You state one monolithic idea - and that is it. If public discourse is comprised of a plenitude of such slogans, it will generally be simpler and less interesting.

There are good channels out there. The magazines I am subscribed to are New Statesman and Sight & Sound. The former collates all the voices of the left and showcases nuanced, well-researched and incisive articles. The latter is an analytic survey of world cinema. These publications examine contemporaneous society and are great vehicles to generate discussion and debate. They are not written with the verbosity of academe, either. They are to the point.

Out of all these channels on the internet, I would say that Blogger is the must useful. It is a chance to have your own column. With no constraints, you can develop fluid arguments and can write about a plethora of topics and interests. The sad thing is that it is not used a forum. Fatuous networks like Twitter and Facebook, limited in their dimensions, are where most people engage in conversation and discussion. Blogger is a far better platform for that, because of the reasons stated above.

Now we live in an age of ephemera. Short, inconsequential statements dominate our lives. That is why we should all try to improve it, by trying to create a richer and more fertile platform to exchange our thoughts and ideas.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Impressive recent reads #2

Here is the latest list of books that have struck me of late. I have started to read more non-fiction recently, as this list attests.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

How could I have come to this so late? Possibly because of scarring school memories. Studying Shakespeare in school was a real slog. But once I read it of my own volition, I really regretted not coming to it sooner.

However deft the plotting, what mainly fills me with delight when reading Shakespeare is the elevated language. Each character, three dimensional in scope, has his tropes and set of metaphors. Needless to say, the cadences of the dialogue are sublime. The sounds/rhythms are just as marvelous as the meanings these words connote. (Which is why I should really see a live performance.)

Hamlet is one of the most fascinating literary characters I have come across. He is of a thoughtful predisposition, as his philosophical soliloquies reveal and his premeditate gestures are driven by moral incentives. As he feigns madness, he reveals to the hierarchy and his close relatives just how egregious and cynical their lust for power really is. As the story pans out, Shakespeare reveals the foibles of the human heart and each character succumbs to his guilty conscience.

Of course, the narratives of Shakespeare's plays are deeply ingrained into the DNA of modern storytelling. But, reading through the plays, you are glued to the pages. Although you know the outcome, every single nuance is striking.

History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

This is a history of all western thought and inquiry since time immemorial (well, since the Ancient Greeks!). Russell engages with the ideas of major philosophers to the backdrop of their historical context.

It is the ideal introduction to this myriad subject. Russell writes with verve and wit. I obviously understand that chapters on certain philosopher may be cursory and might tend to generalise (after all, six pages is not long to summarise the work by Kant or Hegel).

Russell was utilitarian in believing in the optimisation of happiness, was a staunch defender of humanist principles and he was interested in mathematics and logical analysis. As such, he tends to favour progressives like Liebnez and Locke over Rosseau and Nietzche and prioritises the importance of empirical observation over subjective bias.

This has been one of the watershed books in my life. It has opened up a lot of avenues for me, has made me more aware of the history of western thought and it has given me a footing in the subject. A must.

United States: Essays 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal was a product of the American Enlightenment. Coming from a political lineage, he was cousin to J. F. Kennedy and twice ran for senator. The American forefathers created a secular republic, put special verity on the democratic process and advocated freedom of thought. All around him, Vidal saw these core tenets abused. His country had become, he wryly remarked, the 'United States of Amnesia.'

In the field of politics, Vidal was sceptical of zealots, the corrupt and the greedy. In the arts, he was sceptical of pretense and bombast. But, above all, he was the USA's foremost iconoclast, attacking and demystifying common-held assumptions and pieties.

Many saw him as nothing more than a fountain of one-liners and aphorisms. Reading this book refutes that. When he takes something he does not like, he systematically tears it to pieces. He sarcastically introduces his subject, runs through their infelicities and finally issues the damning verdict. If one saw him as nothing more than a bitter old crank, he reveals his tender side when writing about someone he admired (Italo Calvino, Anthony Burgess, Orson Welles). Each essay is ingeniously written and argued.

The range of his acerbic wit was prodigious. The book is divided into three sections: 'State of the Art,' where he writes about literary matters; 'State of the Union,' where he writes about politics; and 'State of Being,' where he writes about personal anecdotes. Whatever he dealt with, Vidal was deeply concerned about creating a secular republic, USA's war crimes, empathy and morality. As he duly noted, all these virtues seemed to be sliding down the drain.

Transgressions: The Offences of Art by Anthony Julius

This is a scholarly book examining transgressive visual art. The word 'transgression' is cited more often than it is discussed and Julius looks to rectify that in this book.

Julius, an eminent lawyer, examines the defences promulgated when transgressive art is prosecuted. He proceeds to pinpointing the origins of the transgressive period, which he claims originated in the mid nineteenth century and looks at the ways generic conventions where transgressed. Several types of transgressive art are considered until Julius considers what role transgression plays now, in an age where all limits and morals appear to have been breached.

The main justification for transgressive art is that art is an aesthetic form and less injurious than transgressions in the realm of politics or law (though Julius does consider instances where art has encroached on personal lives). Whilst transgressive art is capable of creating a sense of rapport, it can also fracture and divide needlessly. It can be either of great technical proficiency or badly executed. It can be piquant and insightful or it can be contrived in bad taste. Although certain works have survived the test of time, many seem outmoded and have lost the ability to shock.

As this is an academic book, Julius engages with an enormous range of secondary sources and is judicious in their use. The book is not at all partisan and is nuanced in the arguments it sets forth. All in all, this is a useful text if you want an intelligent and cogent analysis of transgressive art.


Hey! Where y'goin'? Check out Impressive Recent Reads #1!

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Trout Mask Replica

Just like The Fall, Captain Beefheart is another artist who has tremendous sentimental value to me. I even divide my life between two distinct periods: before I heard Captain Beefheart, after I heard Captain Beefheart. Buying Trout Mask Replica at the age of thirteen is what initiated my curiosity and is what made me start looking beyond my comfort zone.

Of course, on first hearing, it is laughable to most. 'They're just goofing off' is most people's immediate reaction. 'They're just running their fingers across the fretboard in any old manner. It's random!' I found it quite baffling on first hearing, but I was always determined to persevere with it.

If you approach the music passively, it will do nothing for you. If you are used to music simply swarming into your head and affecting you emotionally, this music will just be noise. If you actively engage with the music, and try to decode the musical activity, it becomes enormously rewarding. Indeed, if you have been used to hearing generic rock groups all your life, it makes most music sound tame. I have since sold most of the record collection I had before I was thirteen - and I have never regretted it.

For years, the gestation of the music was mired in myth. Don van Vliet, the Captain, was a compulsive liar and exaggerated aspects of his life to gain cachet in the artistic community. He took all the compositional credit of Trout Mask for himself, which is not wholly true. The myth that circulated for years was that Vliet wrote the entire album in eight and a half hours and that it took him six months for him to teach it to the band. (Apparently the group watched Fellini's 8 1/2 whilst rehearsing and this may have made a dent in Don's creative imagination.)

By 1968, Vliet acquired a piano, an instrument he couldn't play, and all his ideas would thence be canalised through this instrument. John French, the drummer, was to be his musical amanuensis and his duty was to transcribe these lapidary fragments and give them to the rest of the group to play. This was a far more grueling process than Don made out to be and took place over a far more protracted length of time. Initially Don was more specific and tried to dictate every nuance. As time wore on, he stopped doing this. French then had the daunting task of assembling all these disparate fragments of music into some sort of structure.

Because this was an instrument that Don could not play, he would strike unfamiliar chords and he would create jagged, discontinuous, angular lines. This made playing them on guitar and bass devilishly difficult, as they were not permeable to the conventions of the instruments. The metre of the songs would vary at unprecedented rates; often each instrument would play in a completely different time signature.

The idea of multiple lines going on at once, and complementing each other at the same time, had been developed in avant-garde serious music. Yet this music was deeply indebted to blues - the entire album is played on slide guitar, there are bluesy riffs and there is, of course, Don's voice which mimics great blues singers. A lot of people have suggested parallels with free jazz, particularly the big band improvisations by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Whilst the group was listening to these artists at the time,  I struggle to see the connection to be honest. Apart from Don's occasional noisy sax solos, I think that the harmonic language is very remote from jazz, even the avant-garde variety.

The whole album was tightly rehearsed over an arduous period of nine months. The group would rehearse sixteen hours every day. By the time it came to laying down the tracks on the studio, they could run through these songs like clockwork. Frank Zappa, a classically trained musician, couldn't distinguish between the different takes. 'It was rehearsed to death' was his summation.

Don tried to create an oppressive, manipulative atmosphere in the cramped dwelling in which they rehearsed. No member of the group was allowed to leave the house. Once every week, one of the guitarists, Bill Harkleroad, was sent off to get groceries. The group's diet was reduced to one tin of soya beans each day. French, on reflection, said 'I felt like on of those Eastern mystics.' Don even attributed each member a pseudonym and they were never addressed by their real names. Don was trying to create a kind of farcical freak show where the band members would have to perform all the time. They were left without a private life. The group lived in poverty and destitution, cut adrift from the rest of the world. They were constantly bullied and mentally coerced. Although Don may have thought this to be an apt way to create the right ambiance for the music, the rest of the group members grew to resent it later in life.

Depending on the time of is construction, each song varies in the degree of its unorthodoxy. The earlier songs were more coherent and holistic whereas the songs composed later on were more arbitrary in origin. 'Moonlight in Vermont' and 'Veteran's Day Poppy' predate the acquisition of the piano, but they already flirt with poly-metrical ornateness and atonal dissonance. 'Sugar 'n' Spikes' (an instrumental version is displayed for your consumption below) is a song with a slightly steadier pulse, but which already firmly adopts its radical new language. The guitars seem to invert one another with angular parts. The bass is similarly intricate and fascinating, played with an even more original and unusual timbre. As French was the musical director, the drum parts hold the coagulating lines together. The drums, irregular in their timing, complement the other parts. Although this may not seem the case at first, further listening elucidates just as crucial part the drums play in the co-ordination of this sundry music.

Other highlights include 'Hobo Chang Ba,' where the guitars seem to play rhythm. Stravinsky was one of the first composers to 'write rhythm' and much modern music put special emphasis on it. After these clashing polyrhythms have been dealt with, the band become more harmonious while Don monolithically croons 'Hobo Chang Baaaa.' The most exhilarating tracks on the album are 'My Human Gets Me Blues' and 'Steal Softly Thru Snow,' mainly because of their frantic and priapic changes. It's truly exhilarating to hear this music, just to hear the quick transitions. The musicians play them with jaw-dropping bravura.

The opening song 'Frownland' is one of the later songs to be composed and it is quite likely the densest. What a opening track! Quite likely the most abrasive and assaulting opener in the history of rock. The instruments clash into one another, appear to dissolve until they reach volatile and hot-headed denoument. There's not much rock music which cramps so much information in such a short space of time (the track lasts less than two minutes.)

Don never rehearsed with the group and, when it came to record the album, he refused to use headphones. The musical material and Don's vocals were never synchronised. At times, this can obfuscate the marvelous arrangements. (I suggest you look out for the Grow Fins box set which has instrumental rehearsals without the vocal parts.)

But the vocals are equally compelling! Don's voice, of course, harks back to the rhythm and blues of Howlin' Wolf and Son House. His lyrics are just as multifarious and dense and merits as much attention as the rest of the music. But, above all, the lyrics are funny! If all the writing above makes this seem like grueling labour, I can assure you that Don's lyrics have a very puckish sense of humour. A lot of the time, like Mark E. Smith, he approaches the material as Dadaist anti-art. He seems, a lot of the time, more interested in the sounds these words produce than in their meaning. The lyrics are also quintessentially American. The guitars seem very tarnished and rusty; they sound like they came out of the desert! Don grew up in the Arizona and this environment is deeply embedded into his world-view. He makes mention of Hobos, sea men who've undergone searing journeys and ample, open American landscapes have an indelible effect on his imagination. Flora and fauna are of special importance to him, as he concocts surreal tales about the 'Carp trout replica,' 'the neon meat dream octafish,' 'the fish in its bowl lay bloating' and how 'I'm gonna find me a cave and talk the bears into taking me in.' A song like 'Steal Softly Thru Snow' reveal his environmental preoccupations. The few times where the vocals don't really work are when he veers away from American folklore. 'Dachau Blues' grieves over the genocide of the Jews, but it doesn't work because one of the aspects of the blues is that is about something very personal and quotidian ('I woke up this morning' and so on).

All these years hence, how does this music stand? For me, it is the best rock music ever made. It completely transcends its formulaic and ephemeral language. Don said at the time 'Forty years on from now, you'll wish you'd gone wow.' And indeed, this is the rock music with the best longevity. It never grows old. To those of us tired with what Don called the 'catatonic state,' and for those of us in search of a more exciting and polymorphous music, Trout Mask Replica is the ideal respite.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The stage presence of Mark E. Smith

It is somewhat contradictory that, despite the bathetic decrease in the quality of their recent output, The Fall continue to be an astonishing live act. Over the last ten years or so, their recorded music has become stodgy - often turgid. Of course, one could never expect their magic alchemy to yield delights for so long. The Fall's manifesto was 'Repetition in the music and we're never gonna lose it.' True to their word, they never have. This formula actually worked extremely well for over two decades: the snarling voice, the gritty repetitive open chords, the undulating bass and the primal drumming. This was always a pared down, austere way of going about things - ratcheted up to full volume! The 80s produced their greatest albums and throughout the 90s they never lost their mojo.

And while their latest releases may seem flat, drab and desiccated, their live performances are anything but. Actually, the songs improve in a live setting. To me, The Fall exemplify what is so great about rock music. Rock isn't really music, it is an effervescent frisson of energy and attitude. This mentality is completely appropriate in a live setting. A bunch of young thugs brandish their instruments - sometimes they play them moderately well, other times they don't know how to operate the thing - in a room teeming with fans. The musicians attack their instruments, the singer snarls. The crowd reacts with indefatigable glee!

Though this has not been the only appeal to The Fall. There is a literary slant to the group. They are named after a novel by Albert Camus and literary references often surface in Mark E.'s lyrics. A lot of the time, though, he obfuscates them. He slurs, so half the time you hardly know what he is on about. Most of the albums don't come with lyric sheets. In a live performance, you are lucky to decipher a single syllable he utters. When you consult a fan site online, further head scratching ensues. His songs are strewn with cryptic utterances, which a lot of the time do not really cohere. 'Jesus Christ in reverse.' 'I cast the runs on your soul.' 'Entrances delivered.' If this is not the case, he writes meandering fantastical narratives, where pillars and buildings suddenly morph into Gothic gargoyles. Nevertheless, once you know what he is saying, you realise how well-conceived these words are. Their greatness comes alive orally. They are meant to be heard, not read, and they are very exciting indeed when the backing band is on full throttle.

Now M.E.S. has acquired even more charisma as an old man. He has grown into his age well because he was born as a grumpy old man. There is a certain cranky, cantankerous wisdom about him. And yet, while you are certainly in awe of him, you fear him as well. There is a dictatorial aura about him. I've always said that seeing Mark E. Smith live as a Fall fan is like seeing Hitler live as a Nazi. You have heard stories about his treatment of band members, you know about his chronic alcoholism and you have heard all sorts of tales about his odd behaviour. He is also very volatile and unpredictable. He might do something rash and impetuous at any moment. He may also make a slip, his whole life may fall in disarray and The Fall may cease to be. That's why you, as a Fall fan, want to go to his concerts and continue to buy his records (even if they may not be very good). You want to support this man and his livelihood, because a life without The Fall is unthinkable.

Yet the greatest thing about these concerts, ironically, is his aloofness. He completely ignores the audience. He trudges through the stage, slurs, messes with the guitarists' FX, has a go on his wife's keyboards. It is almost as if this is a public event of private histrionics. (Is that a tautology?) When you are at a Fall concert, you fix your sight on him. The whole audience comes alive when he stumbles on stage. His stage presence is unparalleled.

But there is a moment when he acknowledges the audience (and what a moment that is!). He throws the mic over to the audience and they usually chant the line 'He is not appreciated.' The audience finally partakes in this private ritual. The aloof dictator recognises how much his adulatory audience loves him. Then he stumbles back on stage and continues to slur.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Ah, humanity!

A conversation with a true kindred spirit.

'Mr. Wilkins Discusses the "Human Condition" with Hunruth' (1977) by Robert Crumb