Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Days Start Getting Longer Now

If Philip Glass's early minimalism is hectic, kinetic and primary-colored – a Mondrian painting come to life – and Steve Reich's compositions for mallet instruments are like gentle sun-dappled rivers, listening to Phill Niblock's pieces is like standing on a runway waving those colored flashlights as jet planes roar over you. I enter Niblock's Chinatown loft (for his annual winter solstice festival) to the sould of three notes, just above middle C, ever so slightly out of unison so they beat in great seismic sine waves – 20 minutes or so without a pause. This is carried on in similar increments for the next three hours, though occasionally live musicians wander around the large, crumbling loft space, playing along. The intense volume of the music from the speakers renders the live instruments the subtlest possible additional element – one strains (delightedly) to hear exactly where they fit in, though one viola player was good enough to hold her instrument directly over my head for a couple of minutes (as I reclined in a black canvas butterfly chair – by far the best seat in the house, which I recall from prior years), so I had the full electro-acoustic experience.

The music, despite its intensity, does tend to move to the background of awareness and films from Niblock's series The Movement of People Working, projected on two walls and half a dozen TVs become the focus of attention. His wikipedia entry describes them as well as I could - interesting that they (if I'm reading right) date mostly from the 1960s, as it's a bit hard to tell. The predominance of rather fancy wristwatches on the wrists of peasant manual laborers provides an interesting (and welcome) contrast to the somewhat timeless quality of the (in many ways pre-Industrial revolution) rural rhythms on display. The more repetitive actions, coupled with the style of the music, inevitably bring to mind Godfrey Reggio's films with Philip Glass, but Niblock's work is considerably less edited and far less heavy-handed in making any points that might be there to be made. The extended time scale of the work itself, and its presentation (6 hours at a time, every Dec. 21st for years), contributes to the undoctrinaire quality.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ian Anderson (disambiguation)

For several decades it has been confusing enough that one musn't let the prominence of Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson overshadow the fine contributions of Ian A. Anderson to the musical world (his circle of association is too big to summarize here but if you are not familiar with Wizz Jones, Mike Cooper and Maggie Holland, you have many happy hours ahead of you).

More recently, it has become necessary to distinguish a third Ian Anderson, though he conveniently operates under the pseudonym Pip Dylan. Ian is the brother of Kenny Anderson (aka King Creosote) and Gordon Anderson (best-known of the lot as a founder of the Beta Band, currently doing business as Lone Pigeon and as part of The Aliens). Based in the Kingdom of Fife, the three are just the tip of the Fence Collective iceberg.

Pip's adopted surname is no accident as there is a strong early Bob Dylan feel on his CD Of All The Things I Can Eat I'm Always Pleased With A Piece Of Cheese. Considering also Zach Cale's Illuminations (whose very fine new record See-Saw you should hear), it seems the New Dylans of the new century aim to evoke the feel and atmosphere of 60s Dylan without the lyrical specificity.

(Dylan himself, rapidly tiring of being "voice of the generation" found even his most throwaway surrealist lyrics subject to the same earnest exegesis as his earlier work. Unlike logocentric music critics (with their degrees in literature and history, scarcely able to distinguish minor from major chords), I frequently don't concern myself with lyrics as long as they are not so bad as to be distracting - the expressive qualities of the singing style, vocal timbre and melody suffice. Perhaps I should trot this explanation out for my Swedish connections who often ask how I can enjoy the many excellent releases on their Silence record label without understanding the "texts").

So long-winded aside aside, I can't quite tell you what Pip Dylan's songs are "about" but that doesn't detract from my pleasure or, I wouldn't be surprised, yours either. His use of nylon-string guitar instead of steel-string is also a bit of a departure from the Dylan mold - Leonard Cohen is the next easiest comparison in the 60s canon and there are similarities of mood on certain songs. Being a modern release (and a homemade one), there are fragments of drum machine sounds and various tumultuous sonic experiments which entirely displace the singer-songwriter model by the end of the record. These proved to be the perfect soundtrack for my stroll througn an exhibition of the rivetingly beautiful-ugly paintings of Marlene Dumas. My follow-up selection of the Sic Alps' U.S. Ez proved to be equally compelling in context - they are exonerated for not living up to the burden I unfairly placed on them of being the next Times New Viking.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Look Back In Anger

Rock songwriters (especially those with highbrow pretensions), often, magpie-like, appropriate snippets of culture from various media - a catchy phrase brings a bit of prepackaged significance. As a curious young music fan, I frequently found myself being led down all sorts of interesting paths in pursuit of the origins of these references. Sometimes these investigations take longer than others, as a mere 29 years after the 1979 release of David Bowie's song "Look Back In Anger" (on the record Lodger), I got around to reading John Osborne's 1956 play of the same title.

Like me, you have probably been vaguely aware that Osborne and his play exemplified a small literary movement of the late 50s in England whose participants were dubbed the "Angry Young Men", a convenient analog to the Beats in America. As usual with such newspaper-driven genre labels, one wonders how many of those associated with it would willingly claim affiliation. In this case, there is also a big overlap with a set of poets called The Movement, another journalistic coinage but having a bit more dignity. In any event, manifestos and aesthetic statements of purpose were made and published, anthologies issued and the Establishment defied, at least until the group were old enough to become the Establishment themselves.

Look Back In Anger's central character is indeed angry at everyone and everything - England, its monarchy, its class system, women, journalism. Trying to imagine what England (somewhere in the Midlands) was like in the mid-1950s, one does picture a straitened, somewhat bleak place, still oppressed by the tail end of postwar poverty - the contrast with the America described by Jack Kerouac couldn't be much sharper. Sex, as we know from Philip Larkin (usually considered one of the Angry Young Men/Movement figures) was not due to arrive until 1963, and Winston Churchill (in his third term as Prime Minister) had just finished presiding over the dismemberment of the British Empire. As with some other plays of groundbreaking social significance (A Raisin In The Sun comes to mind), it's not that much fun to read, but perhaps reading plays in general isn't the best way to enjoy them.

I did very much like a 1970 book by John Wain (also loosely one of the "angries") called A Winter in the Hills. Set in Wales and accordingly steeped in its culture, the novel is a sort of social realism, but too colorful and varied to get the cliched "grim" prepended to that term. The basic story describes a struggle that's still quite timely - locally owned and independently operated businesses being pushed out of the way by an unsympathetic conglomerate. Wain wrote 13 other novels, but apparently, were he remembered at all, it should be for his poetry.