Friday, 29 August 2014

Why televisual media is generally a load of crap

There is a lot of great material broadcasted on TV. In fact, I am aware that some of the best dramas right now are on television and that many people consider these to be better than contemporary films. The trouble is not with specific programmes, because there a lot of quality programmes out there, the trouble is the system. Because of this system, it stymies the quality of the programming.

Every medium has its own set of advantages. With television, you can serialise narratives. You can create thematically linked series. What I most like about television - and this is what is missing now - is its potential as a conversational medium. I like programmes of quality discussion. The trouble is that now conversation is truncated to make way for sensationalism, snappy remarks and loud adverts. There is not much articulate discussion of pertinent topics. I think that this is symbolised by the most popular British chat show thirty years ago and the most popular chat show now. Parkinson had long conversations where the guest. The guest was the subject of interest and talked about him or herself or tangential subjects. In The Jonathan Ross Show, the presenter is the most important aspect and any semblance of discussion quickly degenerates into loud banter. The guests in Parkinson were culled from culture and the sciences as well as popular entertainment. They were engaging and fascinating speakers like Orson Welles, Gore Vidal and Richard Buton and Peter Cook. This is why You Tube is the main fountain of televisual material for me.

This should be attributed to the move from a welfare state to free market lines. In post-war Britain, BBC and Channel Four produced quality programming as there was ample investing for such ventures. With a free market system, there is less government funding for culture. Writers and artists are expected to virtually become entrepreneurs and sell their products. Market forces gain dominance and a preponderance of advertising saturates the media. In effect, the quality of the media is degraded. It gets dumbed down. The material becomes ephemeral. There is not much quality discussion and analysis.

Another major malaise contributing to this are media courses. (Shortly after completing GCSEs, I took a media course which I stopped attending after a couple of months.) A lot of people who go into media graduate from such courses. These courses teach you technicalities, but apart from very little else. In my course, they wanted you to make generic advertisements and such like. If you are a technical guy who knows how to operate cameras effectively, how does that presuppose that you will make an interesting programme? You learn to think creatively by studying literature, philosophy, art, history, science, etc. That would equip you with much better knowledge and foresight. All these media graduates know how to handle the hardware competently enough, but they have no original ideas. They have been trained to produce generic products.

Though, as a whole, people who control the reins in the media are Oxford and Cambridge graduates. A small percentage from other institutions break the mould. This means that media outlets as a whole tend to have a very narrow and parochial view. These people have attended the same courses, the same lectures and have read the same books. Whatever their political outlook, it is very insular. If they are conservative, they are jaundiced. If they are lefties, they have ideas which are off kilter with the reality of things. The same tired agendas are set by these people.

And just look what a great potential a channel like BBC4 has. It could be a vehicle for the kind of material I want to watch. There is a demand for it. There a good documentaries made, but on the whole it is a wasted opportunity. It is not the kind of conversational medium that Orson Welles envisaged. They re-run the same tired programmes and material that has very little to do with culture.

Culture is becoming more and more fragmented. There is a lot of sloganeering (stated in 140 characters). The quality on the internet, inevitably, is variable. Since everyone can post whatever they like, there is a lot of good commentary and a lot of crap. There are great publications out there. However, television could set the bar high and produce informative and enlightening material.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Freedom and madness

Freedom is in many ways an impossibility. We are always bound up to a socio-political system. Wherever we find ourselves, we will find ourselves bound to a social contract. If we are born free, any vestige of that freedom is lost once we are conditioned by society. Society prescribes a set of injunctions which we must follow. In liberal democracies, we can choose what oppresses us. Yet wherever we are led, we are still oppressed.

Still, we like to think that, despite this social contract, that we are autonomous agents. We can use our reason to act and think freely. Are we really free or are not in fact driven by a series of desires which pre-determines our behaviour? Are we instead driven by tactile, olfactory, sexual, intellectual etc. desires which predetermine our behaviour? Are we not ultimately figments? Are we not in fact comprised by a series of individual components which ultimately give an impression of consciousness and personality? All universal moral principles turn out to be illusory and moral judgements are merely acts of feeling and compassion.

In this sense, we have no freedom. The social contract is prescribed by political legislature and socio-economic causal factors. This means that we can never extricate ourselves from institutions, which are always repressive. We can't even behave freely in that it is predetermined by a congnitive make-up. If we choose to do certain tasks, we are driven by unconscious desires and mental and bodily needs.

Freedom must surely be subjective. It must be a priori, something that has no relation to the empirical world of cause and effect. It is not until we are in the empirical world that we are forced to act under duty. We can never be free because we are forced to act responsibly. We behave in certain ways because we are aware that, if we are truly free, it will have damaging outcomes. We filter what we can and can't say.  

If freedom is a priori, it must mean that only when we experience our pure essence that we are truly free. When we introspect, we have moments of freedom. When we dream we are not free, but we are apart from the world of phenomena. It is our innermost essence, untarnished by societal indoctrination. Lucid dreams could be seen as ultimate freedom in that we are able to control this 'essence.' It is not completely a priori in that empirical data has shaped our mind. However, we are neither experiencing daily phenomena nor are we required to behave like morally dutiful citizens.

Madness could be seen as freedom. As Michel Foucault has written, madness could be seen as an excessive use of reason which unleashes our inner animal. He sees it as a creative existential choice. Mad behaviour is completely indeterministic. We are not controlled by the processes outlined above because there is no mediator of noumena and phenomena.  We unleash desires which have been repressed by institutions. We do not act under moral duty nor even under any sense of feeling or compassion. In this sense, madness could be seen as the last possible reservoir of freedom.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

My vinyl fetish

I have grown to adore vinyl. I have grown to love its raw, full sound. It especially suits classical music. It feels so compressed when digitised. I inherited about forty or so classical records from my deceased Anglo-Chilean grand-uncle. My collection has grown considerably since. I scour charity shops for bargains.

I wrote a theatrical sketch recently called 'My Vinyl Fetish.' In the sketch, five surrogates of mine, and a woman (named 'Pussy'...) listen to seven of my records and discuss them. One of my fantasies is to stay up til the early hours of the morning, drink wine and listen to records with a group of people.

Below I will select a few corkers and offer brief comments. I didn't select any of the seven vinyls I wrote about in my sketch...

The collection, as seen from a distance...

This is an edition of Captain Beefheart's debut album Safe as Milk. It is retitled 'Dropout Boogie,' apparently because British distributors thought it'd more marketable/user-friendly as such.

Coltrane's Love Supreme. It is not at all controversial to say that this is quite likely the greatest jazz album ever made. It is a reissue. As such, it's digitised and it's not analogue.

Lovely packaging. These are recordings of Jelly Roll Morton at his prime (late 20s). New-Orleans/swing-inflected jazz is such a joy to listen to.

Frank Zappa's Lumpy Gravy. I believe that this edition is from the 60s! Sound-bites of verbal nonsense interspersed with Zappa's orchestra music.

This is a selection of Bach organ music. My lord, it sure is a treat to listen to this. It includes several of Bach's masterful toccatas and fugues.

Bach music for harpsichord, performed by George Malcolm. It includes 'Concerto in F major,' which is a particular favourite. 

Bach's violin concertos. Part of the canon and with good reason, too. I could have the second movement of the first concerto on repeat for hours.

I have all of Bartok's string quartets vinyl, performed by The Fine Arts Quartet. They're the cream of Bartok's music (and the cream of quartet repertoire, too). They're all exhilarating to hear and they chart the development of Bartok's career as a whole. My favourite is the 4th.

Bartok's 2nd and 3rd piano concertos. The piano parts are devilishly intricate. The pianist effectively must grow extra fingers to play them.

Beethoven's chamber music is so rich. Quite likely superior to the symphonies. These are sonatas for cello and piano.

Ach, just realised that I broke my own rules! I wrote about the 15th quartet in the sketch My Vinyl Fetish! This includes the 14th and 15th quartets. The former is one single movement, the latter a brilliantly crafted piece in A minor.

Blood and guts! This vinyl includes music by Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. I must say that I have never taken to much of Schoenberg's stuff - his disciples' music I find more interesting. Webern's concise, muted and atonal miniatures are fascinating stuff. This is classed under 'B,' 'Berg' (generally because I have more vinyls by Berg than the other 2).

These are pieces for orchestra by Elliott Carter and Aaron Copland, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein did much to promote American serious music. I love Carter's piece - a scintillating atonal feast.

These are madrigals by Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo. A composer who anticipated the development of chromaticism by more than two centuries. He was an unpleasant character - I wrote a short story about him called 'Desperate Lives.' This is an issue from the 50s promoted by Aldous Huxley! (He wrote about listening to Gesualdo whilst taking mescalin in The Doors of Perception...) To think that I bought this for 49 p!

These are several works for piano, in different genres, by the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. They are performed by Arthur Rubinstein. These pieces are delightful.

These are two choral pieces for orchestra by the contemporary German composer - Muses of Sicily and Moralities. It comes with Henze's own liner notes. This was a real find.

This is one of Liszt's literary programmatic pieces. It is based on Dante's Inferno. A real innovator as to what a symphony could do. (Like Beethoven in his day, he was regarded as a bit of a noise maker...)

Messiaen's colossal Turangalilla Symphony. There are lovely tone colours here. Messiaen includes several unusual instruments, including a theremin and a keyboard he himself built.

Debussy's and Ravel's string quartets performed by Julliard. I believe that this is an authoritative recording. I much prefer Ravel's chamber music to Debussy's (the converse is true for their orchestral music). 

Scarlatti's music for harpsichord. Baroque music at its best.

Schubert's string quartets are an emotional powerhouse. I have an awful lot of Schubert on vinyl - more than any other composer, I believe - but this is top of the pile. Schubert really broke the mould of the staid classicist forms - he pretty much wrote music just as he saw fit.

Sibelius' 4th symphony. I love the ominous first movement and the resolution of the motifs in the 3rd and 4th movements. It builds up and up and then whittles down.

Ah, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring! If some one you know is convinced that classical music is purple music for blue haired ladies, play him or her this! Classical music is wild and young! It's all the more apparent here.

These are a few pieces by Toru Takemitsu. Wonderful composer. Some of these pieces are more influenced by Oriental music, others draw more Western music.

This vinyl includes some of Edgard Varese's most important pieces. His is a truly exhilarating, oblique soundworld. Just imagine hearing Ionisation in the 20s!

Hugo Wolf was one of the greatest songwriters. Beautiful pieces. This lieder is drawn from Spanish poets - Lorca et. al.

I have quite a few vinyls which are anthologies of early music - Renaissance, early baroque. This is from Spanish medieval times, played in the - highly unusual - original instrumentation.

This is an antology of modern British piano music. I can't remember any of the composers, but certainly none of them are house-hold names. Some of the pieces here are fairly accessible, others are very harsh on the ear. They're all highly exciting, though.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Rock Bottom

Rock Bottom is my favourite record of all time. So, I feel indebted to write about it. I heard it when I was a dreamy 15-year-old. I decided then that it was my favourite record and I still have not rescinded that claim! At the time I was fed up with my formal education and had little motivation to do anything. The only thing I really felt motivated about was listening to music. Wyatt's lugubrious undulating tones, his whiskery voice and his formless structures made an irrevocable impression on me. Wyatt himself is an avowed 'dreamer' and seems to have determined never to have grown out of this state of mind.

At the time Rock Bottom was made, Wyatt's world had turned on its head. He had been the drummer of the prog-rock/jazz fusion group Soft Machine. A very free-spirited character, he was always prone to volatile experiences. He was fired from the group and dabbled in other jazz fusion projects. Around 1974 he started to contemplate recording songs for a solo project. He met 'the love of his life' Alfreda Benge. They were spending a sojourn in Venice when Wyatt, after imbibing a toxic cocktail of alcohol and drugs, jumped out of the third floor of a building. He paralysed himself.

Robert Wyatt and Alfreda Benge

He has since jokingly called this experience 'a good career move.' After being hospitalised, and awakening from a comatose state, he tinkered on the keyboard and wrote lyrics. The songs he wrote were influenced by his partner Alfreda, their experiences with their coterie in Venice and Wyatt resuming his life post-accident. The songs he wrote for this album spelled out the trajectory of his later career. It was a stripped down sound borne out of Wyatt's £40 keyboard. The songs are usually built from basic minor keys. A touch of instrumentalisation from guest musicians is added. There is some tribal drumming. And the most endearing touch of all: Wyatt's whiskery voice and idiosyncratic lyrics. 

The tones from Wyatt's keyboard have a lugubrious quality (in a positive sense) and they have the quality of awakening from a dream. The music was also borne out of his experiences in Venice and there is also a nautical feel to the album. As such, it is somewhat reminiscent of the impressionistic music by Debussy and Ravel. The songs certainly remind me of Debussy's pan-tonal orchestral textures from La Mer. There are also abrasive sounds derived from free jazz. The album was borne out of Wyatt   hitting 'rock bottom' and his later recovery. 

In 'Sea Song' Wyatt reminisces about long nights in venice with Alfreda. He whimsically muses how when she's drunk, she's 'quite all right.' He goes on about 'how your lunacy fits neatly with my own.' He plays lovely sustained tones on his keyboard. When one hears the record, one feels as though one is in a trance, a kind of stupor. There are jazzy major chords at the end of the song and Wyatt scat-sings alongside the music. In 'A Last Straw,' Wyatt sings as to how plunges 'into the water we'll go head over heel' and becomes a sea creature. Water and dreams are synonymous in that both have are a transient and have a sense of profundity. 

'Little Red Riding Hood' is a colossal track, with an overlay of trumpets either played in real time or reverb. Wyatt rambles on with some decidedly non-sensical lyrics. The next two tracks are especially stimulating - Alfib/Alfie. There are the same undulating tones from Wyatt's keys, which pulsate endlessly. There are brash tones added from a bass clarinet. Wyatt sings utter nonsense ('Nit nit not, folly bololey') The song gains some urgency and seagues into 'Alfie.' A saxophone squawks dissonantly. The song ends with menacing clusters from Wyatt's keyboard whilst Alfreda Benge tries to instil some sense of normalcy into the proceedings ('I'm not your dinner, you soppy old custard. (...) I'm not your dinner, you soppy old custard.')

In the final track, 'Little Red Robin Hit the Road,' Wyatt returns to England to lead a peaceful existence with his wife. There is a sense of renewal and rebirth. He talks about 'dead moles lie inside their hole,' a reference to his finished career as a jazz drummer and his defunct group Matching Mole. Fred Frith appears playing some quaint passages on the viola. Ivor Cutler recites some brilliant abstract lyrics. The album ends on a note of wilful lunacy, exaltation and optimism. So, there is some light in the tunnel after emerging from 'rock bottom.'     

I have been thinking about my fondness for this record recently. I just finished my BA at University of Kent. This is where the Canterbury scene took place, where Wyatt and Soft Machine were its members. In my second year I lived in Herne Bay, by the coast. Every Friday I would take the day off to go for fish and chips and coffee at the adjacent town Whistable. In this town, full of quaint little shops, there is a vinyl store named Rock Bottom! Wyatt used to frequent the area to visit the caf├ęs, like me!

Poignantly, in my graduation ceremony, Wyatt was given an honourary doctorate. Sadly, this took place in a ceremony the day after mine when I left Canterbury. (In my ceremony it was Harry Hill that received an honourary docorate...) I felt frustrated by this. Out of all the graduates, there is no doubt that out of I am his biggest fan. It is likely that no-one in the ceremony would have heard of him. I toyed with the idea of staying in Canterbury for another day. If I had stayed, I would have seen a guy in a weelchair and I would have been shy and reluctant to approach him. I would have said one of those platitudes like 'Geesh, I really love your music.' Still, it would have really been nice to let him know just how important his music had been during my difficult formative years in which I had also hit 'rock bottom.' I recovered, graduated with a First Class degree and very nearly met one my musical idols!