Saturday, 28 September 2013

The quest for democracy

We all pride ourselves for having 'democracy'. But, in the real sense, are our societies truly democratic? We have moved from feudalistic monarchy, to industrialisation and what we have now is a global market economy. This leads to a society which, whilst claiming to ascribe to enlightened democratic values, really isn't. It claims that it gives individuals personal freedoms - and there you have the core tenets of both conservatism and liberalism. But beyond that, are political decisions shaped by citizens? What we have is an indirect form of democracy which, in the real sense, really isn't democracy at all.

Have we really 'progressed' to a more enlightened kind of society which ascribes to these tolerant, liberal and pluralistic values? Unlike science, there is no such thing as progress in ethics. Enlightened and repressive societies come and go. It is foolish to think that ethics are melioristic, a gradual progress which will lead to an ultra-advanced utopian society. Political systems are interchangeable and it is erroneous to think the liberal democracies in the west are the apex of human progress. (Besides, we are teetering on the brink of destruction. The global economy is fragile whilst we are already experiencing the ravages of climate change. The optimism of the 1990s, led by the neo-liberalism of Clinton and Blair, proved counter-productive.)

The only 'true' democracy would not be from any modern society. The Ancient Greeks, in 500 B.C., had a direct democracy. Citizens actively shaped political decision.

So are the choices made in parliament truly democratic? Do they really represent public opinion? What is public opinion? Sadly, there is no real consensus on what people think because most of us are politically illiterate. Our globalised free market society, implemented by Thatcher, has completely vanquished public interest in politics. The Tory government are legislating policies nobody wants and which are ultimately completely unnecessary. They are motivated by political dogma, rather on the economy. The cutting of welfare is, to put it simply, making things bleak. It is taking us back to a 1930s austerity-mired style of living. The accusations Conservatives are making against Labour is that they are taking us back to the 1970s. I think that Miliband's drive to confront corrupt and shady businesses is noble enough and I would rather live in that kind of society.

Ballot boxes should not be the only constituent of a democracy. The Arab Spring is an interesting example, in that hardly any general election has produced any functioning democracy. Dictators have been largely replaced by autocrats who have meddled with constitutional power. In Egypt, with Morsi, this just resulted in another military coup. (And we are back to square one. The military has the largest share of power whilst Mubarack has been reprimanded.)

An even more arrogant assumption is when liberal democracies assume that democracy is something that can be exported. The optimism of the 1990s led to a consensus that these political systems ought to be transferred to the Middle East. The Bush administration latterly thought that their neo-con economic model could be transplanted into the entire Middle East. (This was one of many strands of thought, another was merely interest in oil.) Another arrogant assumption was that 'democracy' can be forced from without and that it can be successfully installed. The subsequent anarchy that afflicted Iraq discredited this illusion. Democracy should, of course, be an organic and home-grown process. Notwithstanding that the USA is one of the least democratic countries in the world. Their general elections consist of corporations which inflate two identical neo-liberal paries with billions of dollars.

Whilst we have personal freedoms, which I won't deny is an important thing, we should expel the idea that what we have is democracy. We normal citizens do not dictate the outcomes of political legislation. We do not seem to care, either. Future historians will probably examine our present with bewilderment. How could a society on the brink of economic and environmental meltdown live with such apathy?

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Thoughts on Terrence Malick

If one thought that all art had spent itself, that no-one made ambitious statements anymore, one only need take a cursory glance at the films of Terrence Malick. His films are imbued with allusiveness, beauty, ambition and technical mastery. Most of his films are of an emphatically grandiose ambition. He is certainly among my favourite directors and many others would concur that he is one of the very best alive. He has made just six films in the last forty-two years. He is a recluse, never grants interviews and steers clear from the public eye. His background initially was in academia, abandoning an Oxford PHD thesis on Heidegger to pursue a career in film.

There are parallels with Stanley Kubrick. Like Kubrick, Malick has a European technique coupled by an American sensibility and his films deal with deeply American subject matter. The cross-cutting, the dynamic camera work and tracking shots that characterise his films stand alongside far more comfortably with European cinema than American. Thematically, it is purely American and culled directly from its folklore. In many ways, he is the American equivalent to Andrei Tarkovsky or Robert Bresson. He creates films about spiritual transcendence coloured by the American landscape.

His first film, Badlands, was shot on a shoe-string budget and starred Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. It was based on a real event in the 1950s, where two adolescent lovers went on a killing spree after the young male killed his partner's father on a random act of impulse. They are both recalcitrant, almost psychotic youngsters who become embroiled in a murderous trek through the terrains of South Dakota. The simple narrative follows them travailing through these dry terrains, beautiful landscapes and Sheen's eventual death penalty.

The film is ravishing because of two reasons: its beautiful shots of landscapes and minor details, which enrich the film enormously, and the dialogue and relationships between the characters. It had a dramatic arc which would diffuse in Malick's subsequent films. The dialogue is pithy and sometimes becomes incongruously comic. They are both simple people from humble backgrounds and hardly stop to think about the moral implications of their actions. The film is narrated by Spacek's character in flowery, occasionally deadpan, prose. Malick's incredible camera work shines through especially well in a scene where both Sheen and Spacek contemplate the moon in a star-laden horizon. Many of these shots were not scripted and Malick captured them with both intuition and mastery.

Badlands, 1971

Seven years later came Days of Heaven, which was shot over an arduous period of two years. It takes place in American plains and Malick and his crew patiently waited for dusk to shoot astonishing takes of flames and saturated, orange-hued horizons. Malick only shot the film in early morning and early evening and Malick patiently observed the surroundings to capture the right takes. In terms of cinematography, it manages to surpass his debut. There is a startling scene of a herd locusts rising in the sky, shot with meticulous detail and bravura.

The drama, as a whole, is nothing special. Set during the depression, it follows a love triangle between a couple who pretend to be brother and sister to ingratiate themselves with the owner of the ranch. The owner takes a liking to the girl and they marry, resulting in a turbulent relationship between all parties. The narrative is a mere backdrop to the astonishing visuals on display. 

This film once more demonstrates Malick's gift of finding beauty in minutia. Mundane acts, such as eating or brushing one's hair, are shot with such lyricism that they acquire a further layer of beauty. Many things we take for granted in our daily lives - landscapes, routine - are remonstrated as something far more meaningful.

Days of Heaven, 1978

Twenty years would pass until his next feature, which I would consider to be his best, The Thin Red Line. It featured a star studded cast led by Sean Penn. Following this film, Malick's work became more elliptical. Now his films consisted of an unceasing montage of image and sound. It is a second world war film, following the treacherous battle of American troops against the Japanese in the South Pacific. 

It is a very literary film, following multiple perspectives and interior thoughts. It is very dynamic both because of its multiple perspectives and because of the beautiful, swaying camera which veers and rotates around these wrenching battles. The perspective alternates between the soldiers, who see the battles with anxiety; the natives, who feel intruded upon; and the army officers who have an implacable thirst for battle. Like Kubrick's Paths of Glory, Malick sees these kinds of military ventures as immoral and as needless loss of life. The film hardly results in easy viewing, the level of bloodshed being stratospheric, but the dynamic way in which Malick approaches the material transcends the viewer in a way few such war films do. It came out around the same time as Saving Private Ryan and identified itself as its more intelligent art-house cousin.

Now drama and narrative flair became of little importance to Malick. The images were now accompanied by cryptic poetic epigrams. Cinematography and narrative now became dislocated. The montage of visuals stretched for long periods, with apparent disregard for narrative or character development.

The Thin Red Line, 1998

Following The Thin Red Line, certain people thought that Malick had become self-parodical, a cheap imitation of his former glories. This was the criticism some leveled at The New World (which I haven't seen). It was also what some people said about the otherwise acclaimed The Tree of Life. This was his most ambitious film to date, attempting to scale heights few people dare aspire towards. It followed the origins of the cosmos in counterpoint to the family life of a Christian family (drawn from Malick's own childhood). Malick shoots hours and hours of footage and what we see is the cream of it. The epigrams which featured in The Thin Red Line reappear, this time voicing Christian reverence and belief. These can often sound platitudinous at times and I am sure swathes of people dismissed the film as high-minded humorless nonsense. Whatever its failures, its technical brilliance is a true sight to behold.

To the Wonder came only a year or so later. It featured the more cringe-inducing aspects of Tree of Life and, for the first time in Malick's career, its release fell to an indifferent silence. I saw it at a cinema and I was agog by it. (By all means, if you ever get to see a Malick film in a cinema, do so.) The shots of cathedrals, coasts, meadows are sumptuous to see in the big screen. Semantically, the film says pretty trite things about 'love'.

For all these later releases, Malick shoots hours and hours of footage. When it comes to editing, he leaves huge star actors out of the film. (Many have since stated that they will never work with him again.) Although Malick works with star actors, I see him approaching them the same way Bresson approached his 'models.' He does not use them as actors, he uses them as mere bodies to be framed within his visual paintings.

So, is all that he does now is navel-gazing? I think not. Malick is a master, who makes spiritual films that reconfigure the quotidian into great beauty. Let's thank our lucky stars he is around.  

Monday, 16 September 2013

Musical despots

An author imprints his ideas and personality onto the text. These are channeled directly to the final work. Although a copy editor may make minor modifications, the central thrust of his creative vision is entirely his own. A composer, similarly, crafts every detail and nuance of a musical piece. The final score is his, however radically an ensemble may choose to perform it.

Collaborative projects, generally, do not interest me as much. I generally find it more interesting when an individual takes over the collective and shapes it according to his artistic vision.

Many such ventures start democratically. Soon enough, however, the fledgling dictator mounts a coup de etat and becomes the leading musical director. Captain Beefheart & His Magic band started with all members on equal terms. Soon enough, Beefheart fired his band and acquired an impressionable crop of younger musicians who would do whatever he wanted (they would also be less resistant to the idea of playing 'weird' music, instead of the blues standards the first Magic Band were keener to perform).  The Fall also had a similar development. (The young roadies who handled the first group's equipment soon found themselves on stage performing the music.)

The leading despot often tries to manufacture the oddest stage act. One of the most striking examples is that of the avant-jazz titan Sun Ra. Sun Ra claimed he came from Saturn (a gas planet?!). Although this may seem as mere promo talk, he staunchly defended this claim. Once he was put under hypnosis and, lo and behold, he still claimed that he came from Saturn.

Sun Ra

His group was called the 'Sun Ra Arkestra.' Originally it started as an ensemble which would play swing and old-style big band jazz. Soon Sun Ra began to implement unusual rhythms, time signatures, noises, chants, Egyptian melodies and astringent solos in what became a fascinating sound world.

This was a enormous ensemble, comprising way over twenty members. They were all ensnared in a small house, adhered to Sun Ra's cosmic claims and were never allowed to contact family members or friends. Even more strikingly, if Sun Ra was dissatisfied with the performance of a member, on a world tour he would often desert him and leave the member stranded in a foreign country. (The CIA soon told him that he would have to stop this habit.)

Of course, there were Beefheart's antics during the rehearsals of Trout Mask Replica which have been documented in an earlier post. After the coup de etat mounted by The Fall's Mark E. Smith, he has continued to exert his rule for over thirty years. He fires members at will, subjects them to his erratic behaviour and, although most of the band members share song-writing credits, if you don't do as told you are most certainly fired.

Mark E. Smith

Although the music itself may be composed or arranged by the ensemble, it is generally steered by the leash of the leader. It is interesting to note that none of the members who have left Captain Beefheart or The Fall have ever produced any material of worth. John French may have masterminded the arrangements of most of Beefheart's music, but his sporadic solo work is generally bland and hardly ever memorable. The numerous members that have left The Fall disappear and never leave a trace. Hardly any group of an ex-Fall member has made a strong impact.

But it is an interesting symbiosis. Although the leader is the centre of attention, the project can never survive or work without the backing band. Without his herd of acolytes and slaves, the despot is rendered helpless and impotent.

Generally, these projects bear the idiosyncrasy of the maker. It is also an interesting work ethic. Most jazz leaders employ a group of musicians, take them on world tours but they work under the constraints of his regiment. Miles Davis, of course, worked with the greatest luminaries in jazz. All his work bears his own language, in all the eclectic genres and crossovers he worked in. 

So, the advantages of musical despotism are manifold. Their backing groups do bear the brunt of their tempers, so we must all acknowledge their hard work and input (after all, many of these groups are subjected to strenuous rehearsals). Many of these unique individuals do recognise, however, that sometimes creativity does not always work in the name of democracy.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Conversation with Douglas Farrand

Douglas Farrand is a composer who just completed a degree in music composition in the USA. I have kept an online correspondence with him of some sort or another since my mid-teens. You can read his blog here.
A very perceptive guy capable of great insight. I thought it would be nice if we sent each other a series of questions about our creative projects (his music, my writing). I thought it would be great to bring in different voices to my blog, rather than my own monotonous rambling.
My questions.
Are your influences exclusively musical? Are you an additive person? Do the interests you go accumulating over time inform your musical work?
Definitely not exclusively musical- although I listen to an awful lot of music, new and old, and am definitely influenced by what I'm listening to- particularly the music and ideas of close friends. An additive person? I suppose so- interests come and go, many return, are compacted/become folded into other preoccupations.
To what extent is your music a political statement?
Hugely complex issue- I would say- not at all a statement, and rarely political in a sort of explicit sense- but its quite possible to engage with the politics of any action- including the making of music. Thats always an important conversation to be having- and not something I'd ever turn away from.
Do you think music is, to quote Stravinsky, "incapable of expressing anything other than itself"? If music can express grander non-musical ideas, what are they?
This is also a question that becomes uncomfortable quickly- at which point its important not to assign music any agency at all and instead to look at the ways we understand music- which are myriad.
How essential is silence for you in your work?
Its a complex and multifaceted concept relevant to so many experiences- definitely an important part of my listening and composing.
How important are urban city noises in your work? / How important are rural countryside noises in your work?
Important in so far as listening is important to me. I try to be involved with music in a number of ways- writing music, playing music, writing about music, thinking about music, etc. - these activities can all be quite different, but are all centered around a sort of basic practice of listening.
When you start a new piece, do you start with an abstract concept or a more rigid structure? Or both?
Both.. neither... one or the other... pieces start from many directions- sometimes they don't start at all but grow seamlessly out of a previous project. When I was just starting to compose alot of my composing started with both- a concept or an idea, and a formal-structural model (a sort of temporal architecture)- writing music was a very top-down activity. There came a point where working this way consistently proved frustrating and unproductive.
Do you think music can be redemptive? Many music lovers feel this way about music. Do you, as a composer?
It seems perfectly reasonable that a person might feel in some way redeemed when listening to music- but that is much more to do with how that person responds to themselves in that moment than it is an intrinsic quality of music.
Do you think music can be transgressive? Have you ever set out to be deliberately transgressive? Or have you often found yourself trying to appease others?
Transgression is not something I set out to accomplish- neither is appeasement. Writing music is, for me, much less to do with an audience than it is a community that I am a part of and contribute to- it is this commitment to and exchange of ideas and experiences that cultivates a rich, creative discourse. I think it is beneficial to all involved to leave consideration of an abstract audience behind us.
Are you a 'perfectionist' in any sense? Do you demand accurate performances of your work? Or are you happy to settle with performances which may have a few imperfections?
Not a perfectionist- in most instances 'accurate' is a vague and dynamic concept with regards to music, which also means that this idea of 'imperfections' is not really a relevant one. I am more or less content to see what happens- to enjoy what happens. What I care about is more the state of the relationship between me and people playing my music- I hope that relationship- whatever its specifics- can be open and engaged. If that is the case, the music will take care of itself.
Do you think there should be more of a cross-over between the 'serious' music world and the 'popular' music world?
On one hand, there seems to be plenty of 'cross-over'. It seems to me more of a challenge today to NOT be exposed to a huge number of different musics, than it is to have that exposure. This said I do find many of the binaries drawn, terminologies used, and positions forwarded by the idea of 'cross over', 'serious music' and 'pop music' to be problematic.
As examples of music that comes from a perspective on this issue that I find exciting- I'd say 1) improvising ensemble AMM (I remember reading a great statement, I think by Keith Rowe, either in an interview or in the Cornelius Cardew biography, about the notion of influence in AMM's music... too tired to try to paraphrase now but if I find it I'll let you know), and 2) Michael Pisaro's Tombstones pieces (which can be heard/read about here:

Doug's questions.
What are your thoughts on literary curation?

To be perfectly frank, I do not think very much how my writing would be disseminated. The only realistic way to get your first book published now is online, through E-books, or whatever the fuck it's called (I'm out of step with the times). Personally, I prefer print books - I like the tactile experience of holding the book. But that has no bearing how the text interacts with others, it's just a preference as regards presentation.
What I like about literature is that you can inside the consciousness of another person. That magazine I was published in, for example, has a circulation of 1.000-2.500. It might sound very stingy, but I was actually thrilled that quite a range of people accessed my imagination.
I very much like home-grown stuff, too. The books I put together, for example. I never charge for them either - it's more genuine that way! There's something quite quaint about binding a few pages together and giving them out to a handful of friends.
I have no qualms with commercial/corporate publishing - in fact, if it reaches more people, the better. An editor would actually help polish my cluttered writing. If they were to slice substantial sections, then I would start getting worried!
I have no preference as regards demographics. I'm not part of a community of like-minded people. I do not write for a specific readership. Anyone curious and broad-minded enough to make the effort, should read it.
Having said all that, I truly doubt that my writing would ever have broad appeal (not that it's an ideal of any sort anyway!) My writing is too obscure and particular for that. When I produced a more conventional story, it was published! No-one really wants to get their hands near my more eccentric peculiarities. Not that it matters - literature, to me, is expiation.
Where does the drive to write come from, for you? Is it an excitement about language? Narrative? Sound? Reading?
The answer to this is four-fold: 1) I want to create some sort of beauty out of language. My writing is poetic in the sense that the cadences/rhythms in the words have the same kind of metrics as poetry. Yet, at the same time, whilst having these qualities, it is largely descriptive. I rarely use metaphorical language. I want to have the cadences of poetry deployed in prose without metaphor/simile etc. 2) Conceptual ideas. Often stories originate with a need to address a philosophical/political/theoretical/existential etc. etc. ideas. The narrative in this case is buttressed merely to sustain the subtext. The ideas I have explored are myriad: political contingencies and how they affect our private lives, philosophical/intellectual conceptions about the afterlife, partisan/subversive practices in literature and the arts, etc. Fiction is such a malleable/flexible form that you are free to latch on your ideas in this fashion. Of course, it is more suitable to do this in a novel than a story (which is meant to be compact). 3) Narrative. I used to be really into writing non-linear narratives, but of late they have been linear. My recent stories have been shorter and I have paid greater attention to the idea of getting the timing/suspense right and then revealing an unprecedented twist. I love Poe, Borges, Kafka Cortázar etc. because their stories are so unprecedented/surprising. I often try to create the same effect in my writing. 4) Consciousness. I used to see characters as mere devices to carry plot forward. Now I really creating psychological movement. I really like heightened/extreme states of mind that verge on the pathological. As a whole, the people who are interest me the most are those who are fucked up in some way, not normal folk.
Does writing come easily to you? Do you work on or off the page? Do you use any constraints?
I'm quite fussy - I can only write in the library, with no distractions. When I'm there, I usually write without difficulties!
I'm not such a methodical planner. Usually the structure of the story is laid out in a page of A4 - and that usually just details plot summary.
I don't use constraints. Actually, as opposed to music, there aren't swathes of writers who use rigorous constraints. Perec wrote a whole novel without the letter E - which, to me, strikes me as a bit of a daft practice.
Writing is a constrained practice by its very definition. Writing in any given genre is a constraint. Simply trying to adhere to that page of A4 is constraining!
A lot of what surfaces in my writing is done on the page, rather than off. In fact, that what makes writing so darn entertaining.
Do you write to be read or heard? Or both? How do you navigate the experience of reading the written word vs. hearing the spoken word?
Read. I've never written anything with the specific intention of having it spoken out. Though I've since found that my writing adapts well to this medium. (This is because of the way it flows - the rhythms/cadences I likened to poetry.)
There have been a few occasions where I've recorded my stories. I've done in a rather exuberant way. That was just spontaneous. When I read them out to a group of students or whatever at a workshop, I'm usually wimpy. Alas!

Friday, 6 September 2013

How the education system will only get worse

Michael Gove

There are several theories and ideas as regards pedagogy. The more progressive they are, the less likely them being incremented. The more prescriptive the curricula, it will be more likely that it will be taught. The more creative, the less likely. (Possibly because the latter school of thought is more taxing - and more costly - to implement.) The latest education minister, Michael Gove, has garnered a lot of plaudits, even from voices in the left, for his robust stance on education. His assertions include: we must put more focus on a classical education, it should be more rigorous, we must exam students from earliest infancy, modern day education is infantilised, etc.

I will just run through my own experience. (I have ranted and raved about how much I've hated school many times in the past, so I will keep it brief.) I loathed school. I found the material tepid and uninteresting. There was no lee-way for creative or analytic thought anywhere (even creative writing assignments specified that you had to produce the most formulaic type of tosh possible). I always found that my school awarded and prized the most uninteresting and conformist students. Even though I had intellectual interests at the time, I never felt compelled to do any homework nor prepare for exams. After a two-year hiatus I took a tumultuous break from education and returned to college to complete A-levels. I enjoyed that more and I became a far better student. (Gove wants to scrap A-levels.) Though I must say, it was only when I arrived at university when I found a system that suited me more.

Gove epitomises the Tory prerogative. He has created ties with several companies to create a network of private schools. (Thus adhering to the Tory mantra - more private enterprise, less state-funded projects.) The result of this, generally, is that it creates wider segregation. Areas clustered with a mixture of state and private schools create class disparities and, on some occasions, antagonism. Also, the more private schools there are, the better teachers flock there, creating an even bigger chasm between these two schools. (And with the privately-run ones, how do we trust the dubious companies that set them up in the first place?)

The Labour model for education was, as far as I am concerned, flawed. The main beef the Tories seem to have with it, though, is that it was too 'easy.' High grades soared. Gove has quoted all sorts of dubious material, claiming that A-level History students work with erroneous material. (I have spoken to students who took history and they have told me that it was their most rigorous subject.) An 'easy' education system does not please the Tories. But why should the education system be more rigorous and classical? For whom? For what?

The sad truth is that the Conservative party do not believe in the value of education just for its own sake. The idea of having an education system that satiates children's desire for knowledge, that nurtures their critical capacities, that provides them with a broad palette of knowledge, is not considered. The sole value of having a 'rigorous' framework is that it prepares students for the workplace. Preferably, a herd of adroit young men will be ready to venture into private business and sanctify the Tory prerogative. (For example, Gove cited that 'employers want people with good skills' when he made it mandatory to re-sit English on Maths if one recorded a grade lower than a C.)

All I see resulting out of all this is a generation deeply disenchanted with the beauty of learning and thought. Gove wants children to have a full understanding of grammar from an early age. Did you, as a toddler, really care about the colons, commas and full stops in your favourite children's book? The government is about to create mandatory testing for all children aged five. Sorry, but at that age I think children would rather play than be straddled to a chair completing an exam. The only result of all these measure is a deep resentment with learning. (And who knows, a less motivated work force?)