Thursday, January 14, 2016

David Bowie and me

Five Years
When I was small I went around to a friend's house. He put on one of his big brother's records. It began with a strange song about people hearing that the world only has five years left. I thought about how sad I would be if there was only five year left to the world.

Ashes to Ashes
'Ashes to Ashes' was number one in the charts. The video was on continuous rotation, or so it appeared. This was in the early days of music videos, when they seemed to have almost no money spent on them but often communicated a sense of wild artistic abandon. So it was with this one, which perhaps had more spend on it than others. Strange figures walked along in front of a bulldozer, a black sky hung above them, a man in a Pierrot outfit unnerved me. And there was a scene where the lyrics mentioned how the singer's mother told him not to mess with Major Tom, the video showing an older woman talking to the Pierrot. I remember feeling sorry for the old woman in the video as she looked very nice but was having to consort with this clearly depraved character.

Let's Dance
This song and the accompanying album came into the world. The album is a monster success, vastly outselling his previous records. Yet perhaps the cracks are beginning to show or the sharks are beginning to circle. A thing I heard said a lot at the time was that as good as the record may be, Bowie is no longer sounding like an innovator: on this record he is just following the musical ways of others. So it was said by some, but listening back now the song sounds strange and jarring, clearly the product of a unique talent.

Space Oddity
When I was in secondary school whenever there was an occasion where people were playing guitars and singing songs someone would always sing this one. The androgynous guy in my class who was most inclined to sing it acquired the nickname "Ziggy". I knew the words of the song by heart long before I heard it on record.

God Knows I'm Good
The local library had a copy of Space Oddity on cassette. I borrowed it and listened to it a lot. Aside from the title track there was a memorable song about a free festival and a song with the desperate chorus "God knows I'm good / God knows I'm good / surely God won't look the other way".

Never Let Me Down
Another friend at school decided to get really into David Bowie. Like so into him he bought records and stuff like that. This was when Never Let Me Down was the latest record. My friend bought it and listened to it a lot and then started telling me how great it was. "But it's got very bad reviews", I said, as though that meant anything. "The critics have always been against Bowie", my friend replied.

Glass Spiders
I think above-mentioned friend may have gone to Slane to see Bowie on the Glass Spiders tour. Somehow I came across a piece in Hot Press, not a magazine I have ever been accustomed to read. The writer started with the pretty uncontroversial opinion that Bowie's current recorded output is not up to much. But then he went on to assert that actually he had never been much cop. The one interesting assertion, one that had a degree of purchase at that time, was the claim that Bowie's crown as the inventive chameleon of popular music had by that point been well and truly taken over by Prince.

Absolute Beginners
There was a film called Absolute Beginners. It was heavily hyped before it came out but it seemed like at the last minute everyone realised that it was a load of rubbish and it tanked without trace (though I have not seen it myself and so cannot confirm or deny any comments about its cinematic quality). David Bowie appeared in the film, as an advertising executive or something like that. He also wrote and sang the film's theme song, a haunting and evocative tune that in retrospect was the last great Bowie single. The video does a great job of making the film look like it would be worth seeing.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
It is communicated to me that this is the great David Bowie album. I listen to it and cannot but agree.

Hunky Dory
I hear this on any number of occasions but never warm to it.

Tin Machine
I remember seeing a poster for this band made up of these guys in sharp black suits, Reservoir Dogs avant le môt. I thought they looked well cool and thought about investigating their music. Only after some time did I register that one of the band was David Bowie. Then I heard that everyone thought the Tin Machine album was rubbish so I did not bother with it. But I still wonder.

Someone once bought me a book called Letters to a Young Contrarian, from which I inferred that some think I adopt opinions just to be different from other people. I did buy a copy of Low determined to like the largely tune-free material that made up the second side when this was a vinyl album. Sure enough I do just that.

Or maybe it is 1. Outside. This is one of Bowie's 1990s records, in which he is reunited with his old pal Brian Eno. I acquire a copy and have listened to it on and off ever since. It might be one of those records that is at least quite good but entirely lacking in standout good tunes. Having listened to it all again in the last few days I still would struggle to remember any of it, bar the track that is excerpted on the Lost Highway soundtrack. But it has an appealingly claustrophobic atmosphere.

I saw him
At some point in the mid-1990s I see David Bowie play live. He was touring with Morrissey, but while initially the tour was billed as a double-header by the time I saw it Morrissey was very much the support act, which was a shame as he was in the midst of his own second wind. I found the Bowie set a bit dispiriting. He had a great band and was clearly an accomplished stage presence but it was all a bit slick, and not in an ironic way. It was also clear from the stage show and the crowd's reactions that he had become a heritage act. Very few people present had any interest in his current material; they all wanted to hear music from 15 to 25 years previously. It seemed like a sad end to a figure who once was possessed of boundless creativity. In retrospect I might be more forgiving; no one has the muse forever and there may not be anything wrong with giving the paying customers what they want.

David Bowie invents Jungle
There was a record on which Bowie dabbles in drum and bass. Somehow in discourse it gets talked about as the record on which Bowie risibly claims to have invented Jungle, despite him having made no such claim. Bowie going jungle seems like a really bad idea, particularly as this was the time when every dickwad was making a coffee table drum and bass record. I'm not sure I ever heard Bowie's efforts in this regard.

I went to the Glastonbury festival in a year David Bowie was headlining. When I came back someone from work asked me what his set was like and then looked at me like I was insane when I said I hadn't seen it. I try to avoid the Glastonbury main stages.

Oi think Oi moight be of some assistance here
David Bowie appears as himself in Zoolander reminding everyone that he has a strange accent. He is funny.

The Next Day
Bowie abruptly released this album a few years ago after ten years of inactivity. He does not tour the album or appear in the media to promote it. Many said that this and the lyrical themes of the album indicate that he is dying and that this record is his last testament.

But then he releases this album. "All that stuff about him being terminally ill must just be some kind of stupid rumour," I think. "He'll be around for ages." And then he died.

I was surprised how affected I was by Bowie's death.I never thought of myself as much more than a casual fan of his work but it is clear now how much of a one-off he was. We will not see his like again. The only still active figures remotely comparable to him are Kate Bush and Prince.

An edited version of this piece appeared subsequently in Frank's APA.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Dog rescued from armchair

Lyn Kirkwood of Salford was looking for her dog Cagney when she heard a whimper and found the Lhasa Apso stuck head first in a reclining armchair. Cagney was unable to get out and Ms Kirkwood could not extract her herself.

Ms Kirkwood had no option but to contact emergency services and the RSPCA. Firemen were eventually able to free Cagney by dismantling the armchair. A spokesperson for Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue reports that Cagney then "wandered off for a drink".

Cagney has not responded to inquiries as to how she came to be stuck in the armchair in the first place.

more (BBC)

Monday, October 05, 2015

[film] "Containment" [2015]

Do not destroy these markers. These standing stones mark an area used to bury radioactive wastes. Do not drill here. Do not dig here. The rock and water in this area may not look, feel, or smell unusual but may be poisoned by radioactive wastes. When radioactive matter decays, it gives off invisible energy that can destroy or damage people, animals, and plants.

I saw the film Containment in an exhibition in the Project Arts Centre called Riddle of the Burial Grounds. The film is a documentary by Peter Galison & Robb Moss. It is about the containment of nuclear waste, in particular the spent fuel of nuclear reactors. Much of the film is about WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. This was set up as a secure storage site in which nuclear waste could be dumped and forgotten about.

A problem with nuclear waste is that it will remain dangerously radioactive for a very long time, longer in fact than the entire span of human history so far. It was decided by US federal authorities that WIPP would have to be marked in such a way that in the far future people would be deterred from digging there and inadvertently releasing the radiation. This is a bit difficult as the people who must be warned away may have no memory of our culture and have no language in common with us. An interdisciplinary team of scientists, linguists, science fiction writers, and various other types (sadly no First World War bloggers) were recruited to try and come up with something that stood a convincing chance of warning off the people of the future. You get the sense that at the end of their efforts they are not really that convinced that they have anything will definitely or even probably work, but still they feel that they owe it to future generations to try.

The film is not just about WIPP, it also looks at where nuclear waste is currently stored. Typically the highly radioactive spent fuel of nuclear reactors is stored at the nuclear sites themselves, cooled in tanks of water to stop them catching fire and spreading fallout all over their surrounding areas. If a typical one of these sites were to lose its cooling waters then the spent fuel would probably render a vast area around the site uninhabitable. The film looks at one site where this almost happened, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The power plant there was severely damaged in the 2011 tsunami and did release radiation; the film shows a farmer whose irradiated cattle cannot be eaten and also looks at trees whose wood is too contaminated to be used in construction. However, the spent fuel rods in Fukushima did not lose their coolant, though at one stage it looked as though the water would boil off and expose the rods. The prime minister of Japan at the time of the tsunami is interviewed in the film; he says that if the coolant had boiled off and the rods had ignited then they would have released so much radiation that an area of Japan in which some 20 to 40 million people live would have become uninhabitable. He likened that outcome as being akin to losing a major war and said that it would have brought an end to Japan as an independent state.

The film also looks at some nuclear sites in the US, in particular the Savannah River Site, a huge complex of reactors and temporary storage sites in South Carolina. This lies on the Savannah river in an area of fascinating swampy wilderness. There is a lovely scene in the film with a camera panning along the lush tree-lined border of the river before a nuclear plant rears up through the vegetation. It is a fascinating juxtaposition of nature and a human construct of destruction.

The Savannah River Site seems to be a bit leaky. The film has a nice sequence showing a place where they keep wild turtles that have absorbed too much radioactive and so have to be taken away from people who might catch and eat them. There were also a couple of radioactive alligators swimming around. One of the locals interviewed bemoans the fact that the signs on the river tell people not to fish but do not say why, so people just assume it is some kind of proprietorial thing and catch the radioactive fish anyway. A thoughtful local clergyman bemoans the presence of the SRS on his doorstep but is powerless to do anything about it.

At WIPP, on the other hand, the locals appear to be quite excited about the prospect of the nation's nuclear waste stored nearby. Simple economics explains this: there is not really much going on in the area and until WIPP opened the local community was in steep decline. People further afield in New Mexico, through whose areas the waste would have to be transported, are a bit less keen on the project, but you can't make an omelet without setting off a chain reaction.

The problem with trying to communicate the warning to people in the future is a difficult one. Think of something like the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the walls of an Egyptian temple: but for the chance discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 they would be completely incomprehensible to us. It is quite possible that in the future there will be no cultural continuity with our civilisation, so any kind of warning based on writing is potentially unreliable. Warnings based on pictures may also fail as different cultural norms would leave them open to misinterpretation. Another fear is that by marking the site and saying "Do not dig here" they run the risk of creating a gold rush as people rush to find whatever amazing stuff the ancient ones have buried. The suggested marking of the site with structures designed to conjure up unease also looked like they could backfire, as to me they looked like they would be fun places to explore. One proposal in particular may have been modelled on the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Berlin, a structure whose design invites people in for inappropriate games of hide and seek or chasing, so that might not be so good for the land above WIPP.

The project involved some people involved in one of humanity's few other attempts to communicate with those lacking any cultural points of similarity with ourselves: the images and sounds of Earth contained on the Voyager probes. I think the Voyager probes are unlikely ever to be found by alien life, but if they are it will be so far in the future that humanity will in all likelihood no longer exist. The Voyager golden records will be all that is left of our civilisation and culture. It is appropriate therefore that they attempt to present a good face of us to whoever or whatever finds them. As one of the people in the film says, the markers at WIPP are more to do with something shameful and shortsighted of our species: the production of nuclear waste with no thought for the danger it would pose to the future. Yet the project is still a noble one, as the team tries to create something that will protect people living so far in the future that they may no longer be human in the way that we are.

I have talked more of the content of this film than the form. The film features plenty of talking heads but also atmospheric shots of the desert landscape above the WIPP site. We also have the swampy wildness of the Savannah River Site and the irradiated landscape around Fukushima. In the latter we see the abandoned towns and houses of humans but again more fascinating is the countryside, a landscape that is beautiful and peaceful in appearance but so contaminated that people are not allowed stay overnight within the zone.

Although the film covers a serious subject, it has a light tone. I particularly liked the animations illustrating scenarios the futurology people came up with for likely future incursions into WIPP, with a succession of jaunty looking people or robots realising too late that they have released the radioactive death contained at the site. I also liked the animation of a suggested attempt to create cultural awareness of the WIPP site through a proposed cartoon character called Nicky Nuke, who would have an associated theme park (Nukeland or something like that), which reminded me of the Mickey Eye Park in the comic Seaguy, in that it was clearly a deranged rip-off of Disneyland.

All in all the film leaves the viewer with a sense that something will have to be done with nuclear waste and that the waste already produced cannot be expected to remain in water cooled tanks for the hundred thousand or more years it will take it to become harmless. That something is probably burying it somewhere like WIPP, in a remote and geologically stable location. Warning future generations not to excavate the site is difficult or impossible to do effectively, but there is no real option but to attempt it.

I also left the film thinking that if the USA has all that waste and is having problems working out what to do with it and how to store it safely in the meantime, what about more ramshackle countries that have also decided to go down the nuclear road. I'm thinking of Pakistan in particular here, but you would also have to worry about the long term safety of nuclear waste in the likes of Kazakhstan, Russia and Iran. And when you are talking of stuff that takes over a hundred thousand years to become safe you do have to think of the very long term.

Containment Trailer 1 from Robb Moss & Peter Galison on Vimeo.

image sources:

film stills (Containment)

nuclear power plants map (Maps on the Web)

Voyager Golden Disc (Wikipedia)

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Wikipedia)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Two contrasting festivals: Glastonbury 1992, Counterflows 2015

I wrote recently about my first visit in 1992 to the Glastonbury Festival and my recent first visit to the Counterflows festival in Glasgow. The post about Glastonbury has attracted more interest, which is not too surprising as most people have heard of Glastonbury and very few people have heard of Counterflows.

Even in 1992 Glastonbury was a big outdoors festival, albeit one considerably smaller than it is now. Counterflows is a small festival, taking place in a number of indoor venues, mostly featuring experimental artists unlikely to ever appear on prime time television (big exceptions: Noura Mint Seymali, a Mauritanian artist with potential crossover appeal and Sacred Paws, possibly your new favourite band).

Glastonbury 1992

Counterflows: Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday
The Flexibles

Glastonbury image source

Counterflows image source

Friday, June 26, 2015

My First World War blog, one year on

I started my First World War live blog a year ago. The first post described a pleasant visit made by Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the markets in Sarajevo. This was two days before the Habsburg heir's more eventful return to Sarajevo.

I have found the Great War blog much more time-consuming than I expected, which partly explains the lack of activity here; there are a lot of important animal stories that I have not had time to share here. I must confess to often thinking that the First World War blog is something of a pointless time-sink for me and that I should consider giving it up in favour of something more productive. But I soldier on. Posts will keep appearing there for the foreseeable future, barring adverse circumstances.

Birthday Panda (The Virginian Pilot)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Flashback: Glastonbury 1992

In a Facebook discussion on this important topic, Mr Scott Watkins suggested that he would far rather read about my visit to the Glastonbury Festival 23 years ago than whatever current stuff I might otherwise write about. Because I believe in giving the public what they want I will go ahead and do this.

I have previously written about this festival, but unless you are one of the few people in the world with a complete leather-bound collection of Frank's APA mailings you will not be able to read what I had to say on the subject. This I am writing from memory, so Frank's APA collectors will be able to see how my version of history has changed over the years. Because I cannot really remember too much about what I actually saw at the festival I am going to deliver an impressionistic ramble through my memories of this event rather than a ponderous list of all the things I saw in order (if you like ponderous lists of things seen in order, check out my review of Counterflows).

It begins:

Van Morrison - I was not the rich man then that I am now, so when my friend Mark said he was going to Glastonbury I was not at all sure that I would be able to afford to go. I was listening to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks when I did the sums and realised that I somehow had enough cash to make the journey, with the result that Van Morrison for me will forever be associated with the festival. He played at it but I did not go to see him.

Couples of yore - I went in a group of three couples: Mark & Lisa, Sara & Pete, Katharine & myself. To the best of my knowledge, none of these couples still exist.
Trousers - Our departure from London was delayed because Pete had no trousers to wear to the festival and had to go and buy some. I was waiting for the others on my own in a train station and they had to ring the station and have my name called out over the tannoy to report to the information desk for this important message. This is how we did things in the pre-mobile phone era.

Friday - We arrived on the Friday. Rookie's mistake. Always make sure to arrive before the Friday.

Cheroot - A friendly man chatted to us as we arrived with our rucksacks looking bedraggled and unsure as to where we were going to camp. He gave me a cheroot and I thought "OMG this festival is amazing, random strangers just hand you drøgs" before realising that a cheroot is just a type of cigarette.

Midway Still - They were fairly big at the time. We did not see them but as we made our way through the festival site looking for somewhere to camp we heard them playing their cover of 'You Made Me Realise' off in the distance.

Shady Customers - In the campsites shifty looking blokes would walk around saying "Es? Acid? Speed?". I think they may have been vendors of these contraband products.

Crusties - Crusties were big back then. When we saw some we were very excited. I was totally amazed once I spotted an actual dog on a string.

Sun - It was bloody hot that year. No subsequent Glastonbury for me has ever been such an unadulterated scorcher. Even so I think of scorchers as the normal Glastonbury state and the other ones as aberrations.

Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine - Although they were subsequently airbrushed out of musical history they were a big band at the time. They headlined the Friday night on the Pyramid Stage. We went to see them. They were amazing! I think this may have been the first time I ever saw a band putting on a big stadium show with screens and stuff like that. Despite being just two guys on stage I remember them as astonishingly good showmen. See dog rough footage filmed from crowd of this performance here.

Controversy - But not everyone was on the same page. There were some disputed incidents after the previous Glastonbury and this was the first one where New Age Travellers were not admitted to the festival for free. Some of them took umbrage at having to buy tickets or climb over the fence like everyone else. Jim-Bob from Carter took umbrage on their behalf on the Pyramid Stage, saying that it was a facking disgrace that they were not getting in for free. It is nice to know that from my first Glastonbury people were complaining that it had lost what used to be great about it.

Stone Circle - Dude, they had their own stone circle!

"My menstrual egg timer" - It was an artwork.
The NME Stage - Back then the Other Stage was called the NME Stage. And it was in a different place to where it is now.

John Peel - He MCed one or other or both of the Pyramid and NME Stages. At one point he read out a message for some named person who was attending the festival. "Your mother says that if you do not sit the exam on Monday you will fail your Finals".

Curve - It has been said that I saw them. I have no recollection of this, your honour. They do not strike me as being a very outdoor festival band.

Lush - I do remember seeing them. This was around the time of their first album. I remember them being enjoyable but not life-changing. Again, they may not have been a very outdoor festival band.
Blur - I saw them too, playing in the afternoon. They were not the all conquering colossus they would subsequently become and were instead a mid-table faux indie band popular with girls. I do not recall whether my antipathy to Blur had kicked in by this point but I certainly remember them being unremarkable. Memory is a funny old game, as my fellow attendees remember them as being brilliant. Mark reports that Damon Albarn climbed up on some speaker stacks and then fell off and chipped some bones or something; I have no recollection of this incident but its sounds like the kind of twuntish thing he would have done. Someone recorded this important event for posterity; you can watch it here.

P.J. Harvey - I saw her too, playing with the early power trio (herself, Rob Ellis and Steve Vaughan). I think I liked them but I was not that familiar with her work at the time and not much of the detail stuck with me.

Memories, eh? - You may be wondering what exactly I do remember of the performances I saw at the festival.

Television cameras - There were few to none of them. This was in the halcyon days before Glastonbury allowed in the cameras and started selling itself to the people at home. That said, there was a documentary made about that year's festival which produced some footage, and there seems to be several recordings of complete performances on YouTube.

The Shamen - We somehow found ourselves in a field full of speeded up Antos when the Shamen came on. Mr C had just joined them and it seemed like every song was about how they were the Shamen and they keep coming on. It put me off the band for a long time and it was only the success of 'Ebeneezer Goode' that got me interested in them again.

Shit Caberet - There was plenty of good cabaret but I remember being fascinated by this amazingly awful cabaret act. Sadly I just remember that they were awful, not who they were or what was awful about them. But I was so fascinated by their awfulness that my friends thought I actually liked them. Good God no!

Toilets - I was afraid of the toilets.

Ian Moore - Wizard - In the New Age Mystic Healing Field there was a sign for someone called "Ian Moore" who was a wizard. You can see what might be his website here.

Loreena McKennitt - I think we were sitting somewhere when Loreena McKennitt came on and sang a song that was a setting to music of the Yeats poem 'Stolen Child'. It was a stunning moment of great musical beauty. Then my friends were going off somewhere else and I went with them. To this day I have never heard anything else by Ms McKennitt, fearing that it could never live up to my memory of this moment.

Heat - Seriously, it was bloody hot. I think on the Monday as we were making the long walk to where the buses pick up for the train station I really felt what it must have been like for those blokes in the war. Unlike them I was able to buy an over-priced ice pop from an enterprising local, which was nice.

And that was that. Even if my memory is not up to much about the event as a whole it was totally great. I don't know how it took me so long to go back there again.

1992 was the first Glastonbury I attended. The last time I was there was in 2005. If you want to read about that at great length, click here.

image sources:

Attendees' photographs: here & here


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Counterflows 2015: Sunday

I am belatedly posting about my time at the Counterflows festival in Glasgow. You can see all my posts on this here and the previous day's here.

I woke up to the sound of motorbikes. A convoy of motorbikes were heading off somewhere past the flat I was staying in. Many of the bikers were wearing strange costumes. I think it might have been a charity thing. Then a parade of Sikhs went by, headed by a load of blokes carrying swords, followed by some carriages and a great mass of their co-religionists: more indeed than I have ever seen in one place. I was curious as to what would come next along the road. A parade of Orangemen perhaps, or a gathering of the Ancient Order of Scottish Highlander Cliches, but instead the road went back to its normal Sunday usage. Nessa's friend Stewart made us a mushroom breakfast, which was tasty. After that we began a long journey down to the wilds of south Glasgow where Counterflows events were taking place. We visited a park and climbed a big hill and looked off in the distance at mountains. I was also excited to see the remnants of the Red Road flats. The park was fun but eventually we forced ourselves to leave it to head down for some music action in the Glad Café.
Red Road
The first thing I saw here was a performance by Andrea Neumann who was doing something with an Innenklavier: some kind of inside-out piano thing. Once I forced myself to perk up and engage I realised that this performance was one of the best things ever. As it progressed the set became more programmed and involved less physical interaction with the Innenklavier. Programmed music can be dull in the live context but Ms Neumann made things visually interesting by making it look like she was triggering the music by gestures and moves of her body. So you would get her reaching up to grab something out of the air to time with a burst of electronic noise. It was fun. Everyone liked it.

Richard Youngs was on next, playing a solo acoustic set. Apparently he is as well known as a maker of neo-folk music as for avant-garde conceptual stuff, so it was interesting to experience this string to his bow. He had young master Sorley playing with him for some songs and also he revealed that one song (called 'Fireworks' or something) was all about how great it was to have a son. If I had a son who can reliably take part in conceptual art music productions I would probably think that too.

A sudden hunger meant I missed Raymond Boni's set while I ate a tasty Glad Café meal. Then I had a small piece of cake and the nicest macchiato I have ever had outside Ethiopia. I did manage to catch the last performers: a jazz trio comprising Daniel Carter, Fritz Welch and George Lyle. Unfortunately I was stuck over to one side of the venue at the back and so had a restricted line of sight, which led to a certain alienation from proceedings. And anyway, jazz trios are best appreciated in a seated position.
Sacred Paws
That was it for the Glad Café, but there was still more to come from Counterflows. We crossed the road to enter the Langside Halls were two more acts were ready to entertain us. First up were Sacred Paws, who are two women (drummer and guitarist, both doing some vocals). They were only thing on the bill of the entire festival that could be loosely classed as "Glasgow Indie", though they were more unique than that makes them sound (as are all of the Glasgow Indie bands anyone has ever actually heard of). The guitar playing was very jangley, suggesting more Congolese players than Johnny Marr, while the overall thrust of the music was angular. I enjoyed this a lot and think their music would repay further investigation.
Noura Mint Seymali
The last act was Noura Mint Seymali and her band. She is a singer from Mauritania and her musicians were playing desert guitars music broadly reminiscent of the likes of Tinariwen, Group Doueh, Mariem Hassan's band and the like. The combination of striking female vocals and that kind of accompaniment is something I always love listening to, particularly in the live context. This lot seemed to be particularly good exponents of the form, managing to work the crowd up into a dancing frenzy. During Sacred Paws I was thinking that their music was the kind of thing that would be great to dance to but I was too tired to do any grooving. Then during Noura Mint Seymali's set I found myself dancing like a madman to the irresistible rhythms.

Pretty quickly the crowd found themselves joining hands and dancing in a great circle, charging around with frenetic abandon. One funny thing was watching people divesting themselves of drinks, bags, outer clothing and other stuff so that they could dance more freely. It was all complete brilliance, one of the best musical experiences of my life and a great end to the festival.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Counterflows 2015: Saturday

I am belatedly posting about my time at the Counterflows festival in Glasgow. You can see all my posts on this here and the previous day's here.

On Saturday morning my host Nessa made porridge for both me and the other loafer staying with her. Thanks Nessa! Then we went to The 78, which is a café-bar, to see The Flexibles. They were a four-piece. Featured Festival Artist Richard Youngs provided some kind of mysterious electronic percussion. There was another adult playing bass and a young lad on cello, but the real star was Sorley Youngs, Richard Youngs' young son, who played guitar haphazardly and provided vocals. Having a small person on vocals (with lyrics sounding like he might have had some input into them) gave this a certain outsider quality, but only to an extent. Sorley Youngs had a focus to his performance that I think would be lacking in most people of his age. I think he must have performed live a bit because he managed to avoid the twin horrors of being either cute or coming across as some horribly precocious little monster. Instead he just got down to business and delivered us songs with these lyrics:

"Space! Space!
Solar Panal System!"

Pop stardom awaits.
The Flexibles
Back in the CCA we watched a film called Ears Switched On And Off, directed by Chen Singing, which was about Taiwanese sound artists. It particularly focusses on Dino, Wang Fujui and Lin Chiwei. The presentation of the work by these people was interesting, as I think were the artists themselves, but I felt the film could have done with more contextualisation of the arts scene in Taiwan. Alasdair Campbell, the festival director, introduced it and said that there had been an artistic blossoming in Taiwan in the 1980s, following the lifting of martial law, with the state happily throwing money at avant-garde art; then apparently the state had second thoughts once it saw what the avant-garde artists were getting up to. There was no sense of this in the film.

One thing that was interesting was a throwaway comment in the film about how these sound artists find themselves putting on more shows in Beijing than Taiwan. Apparently there is a big arts scene in Beijing. That ran against my association of authoritarian politics with deadened cultural activity. Nevertheless the artists did have problems in Beijing. The film showed Lin Chiwei rehearsing his Tape Music piece (of which more later) with a Beijing choir. At one point we see the choir leader approaching the artists to say that she and the other choir members are concerned that his work might be some kind of covert Falun Gong plot.

I may have enjoyed the film more if I was less tired. I think by the end I was mainly appreciating it as a combination of appealing images and attractive sounds.
Nessa and I then went for lunch to the world's tastiest Lebanese restaurant that is not in Lebanon. It is called California and looks like an American diner. We ate all the food. If you are looking for this place yourself, it is on Sauciehall Street, a little bit east of the CCA.

Glasgow University Chapel
Out in the leafy streets of Kelvinland the Glasgow University Chapel was playing host to a performance by jazz saxophonist Evan Parker and organist Stan Stendell. They were improvising together. As is the way of church organs, Mr Stendell was hidden from view, so it seemed like Mr Parker was playing against a mysterious and all pervasive self generating noise. From my seat I could hear the organ's stops being pulled out and various bits of the huge instruments internal works that make noises separate to the music that emanates from it. This led to a certain atmopshere of deconstruction. Overall I found the event relaxing. I slipped into a pleasant reverie.
A bus brought us back to the supersoaraway CCA, where we went to have a look at an installation by Ying Yong (some kind of artistic group rather than an individual person, though one can never be sure of these things). This involved a lot of standing around waiting for them to get ready, which went on so long that some became convinced that the waiting itself was the art installation. But then we were ushered into a room to sit on the floor and experience what was more like a performance than an installation. They had a set which was kind of like a house or something and they were projecting images and they had masked people doing weird things. It was bizarre and enjoyable and I feel the world needs more things like this.
That was followed by performances from the three Taiwanese artists on whom that film was most focussed. Dino kicked things off with some electronic music that my friend Colin Ferguson described as being like Whitehouse without the misogynist lyrics. I am (thankfully) unfamiliar with Whitehouse save by reputation, but having seen their offshoot Consumer Electronics I know what he means. This was loud analogue sounding electronic music that hovered between drone and brain pulverising dissonance. I liked it.

The second piece was Lin Chiwei's Tape Music. The name suggests tape loops but it was not loops of magnetic tape that this piece involves. Instead there was a long piece of fabric tape with words (or syllables) written on it. Singers from the Glad Community Choir sat in a spiral pattern and passed the tape along. When a person had a word in front of them they sang it. They seemed to have bee drilled so that the tape moved along at a uniform rate, with people all or mostly having a word in front of them simultaneously. I think they were told what note to associate with a word, as recurring words appeared to keep being sung in the same way.

The piece had some false endings where the tape went blank for long sections before words reappeared again. But it did eventually end.

The last piece was Wang Fujui and an unnamed associate doing more analogue synth stuff. Or maybe it was laptoppy. There were visuals too. It was enjoyable enough but it delivered neither the sonic nor conceptual attack of its predecessors.

At that point we bade farewell to the Taiwanese sound artists and crossed the road to see Neil Michael Hagerty in Nice'n'Sleazy. This famously scuzzy venue was well suited to Mr Hagerty's rough and ready music. As you know, he was formerly one half of the famous Royal Trux but now he plays with his own band, a three-piece. He sang and played guitar while a guy in a suit played basic drums. The third guy mostly sat by the side of the stage drawing pictures but occasionally he joined in for backing vocals.

Mr Hagerty had a certain undead look to him, with his pronounced cheekbones and detached demeanour. His between song chat was a weird version of the kind of thing smarmy Vegas perfomers say (you know, "Thank you, you've been a lovely audience" etc.).

An odd feature of this concert was that afterwards several women reported fleeing from some creepy man who kept staring at them. I suppose Mr Hagerty might attract creepy men, as might the venue, but it turned out to be he same man (not me). He was apparently some kind of Glasgow Music Scene Character. I do not know if he stares at women at all gigs or if he was just feeling a bit starey tonight.

I escaped the attentions of this creepy man and so was able to enjoy the concert to the end. The performance had an entertainingly ramshackle quality of pure rock and I am glad I caught it.

This time I managed to stay up for the late night event, which was a disco in the Art School. Some geezer called Rabih Beani was DJing there. It was basically a techno dance set with random elements thrown in: Middle Eastern music, entire jazz albums, that kind of thing. The space was fairly small but it was hard to tell precisely how small because it was so full of dry ice that I could barely see my hand in front of my face. People wandered around for hours trying to find their friends, only to realise they had been sitting on them all the time.

I spent a lot of my time there dancing, partly because the music was great but also because the people I arrived with were turning increasingly Glaswegian as the night wore on (despite not being from Glasgow); coupled with the loud music this made it more or less impossible for me to understand anything they said. But the music was good for dancing. There seemed to be a lot of randomers present who had wandered in off the street without attending any of the other Counterflows events, including many attractive young ladies. At least I think they were attractive young ladies, it was hard to tell with all the dry ice.

And so to bed.

The final episode of my awesome Counterflows review comes your way tomorrow.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Counterflows 2015: Friday

I am belatedly posting about my time at the Counterflows festival in Glasgow. You can see all my posts on this here and a post on the festival's first day here.

Today's proceedings began again at the CCA with something called Experiment for Demolished Structures for 4 Voices by Richard Youngs. Mr Youngs is not someone whose work I was previously familiar with, but he was the featured artist of the festival. This was again in the CCA theatre space and saw the room arranged with four classically trained singer in the corner singing stuff that harmonised with the audience in the middle. The audience was standing rather than seated and encouraged to move around to explore the harmonics, though people maybe did not move as much as intended because the floor was a bit creaky and the performance was relatively low volume. In setup the piece had obvious echoes of James Tenney's In a Large Open Space.

The piece was fascinating butI felt that I missed a whole element by not being able to follow the words being sung. Operatic vocals can be difficult to follow even in a language you know. There were no surtitles or programme with the words and I was not really able to make out the lyrics, so I do not really have any idea what they were singing about. But that made the event all the more mysterious and intriguing, as the imagination had to fill in the gaps.

The crowd dynamics were interesting. People could move right up to and around the performers, but it was noticeable that they tended not to look at whatever singer was closest to them. Because the singers had such an air of concentration and were putting a lot of effort into the performance, people in the audience were wary of distracting them. Also those classically trained singers are famously handy with their fists if angered.

After that piece things got a bit Wanderly Wagon as we decamped form the CCA and made our way to the nearby Garnethill Multicultural Centre, where three different acts performed for our amusement. The venue's walls were lined with Taekwondo banners and Chinese dragon heads, giving some clue as to how multicultural the place was.
The first performance was by Angharad Davies & Sebastian Lexer. Ms Davies stood more or less in the middle of the room playing a violin while people sat on the floor around her. Mr Lexer did some electronic stuff, looping and treating the sounds Ms Davies was making. The whole thing was mesmerising and hypnotic. I liked it.

I like the next performance less so. This was by Hisato Higuchi, a Japanese fellow who sang while playing guitar in a manner that called to mind the Blues. Some of the instrumental bits were interesting but overall the performance was a bit repetitive and unengaging. I might have engaged more if the lyrics had been in English, not because I am some kind of racist who will only listen to anglophone vocals but because it would have served to differentiate the songs.
Daniel Carter and Owen Green
The last performance was a collaboration between jazz saxophonist Daniel Carter (who also plays keyboards) and Owen Green, who does electronic stuff. It worked surprisingly well, even though Mr Green's electronics were a bit laptop based. What he was doing had a live feel to it and lacked the sterility you get from watching someone tick away on a computer. Some of the electronics were triggered or influenced by him blowing into a tube, which lent things a certain physicality, as did his having to fiddle with knobs and stuff for other pieces.

For all the enjoyable jazziness of this last performance, largely driven by Daniel Carter, I think that maybe their set did go on a bit, though that might have been because I was somewhat *tired*.
Florian Hecker
Back in the CCA there was sound installation piece by Florian Hecker. This appeared to be programmed rather than being in any way "live", though it is so hard to tell with these things (and what is "live" anyway? blah blah blah etc.). The piece had a load of speakers arranged around the theatre space from which sound emitted. People could walk around between the speakers or stay in one place or lie on the floor or whatever they wanted to do really. The sound was set up so that it seemed to move around the room from speaker to speaker. I do not remember so much about the sound itself, I think it was of the electronic burst variety. The overall experience was very enjoyable, with the combination of the darkened room, the unusual performance and tiredness working well to accentuate the strangeness.

With that event over we drifted downstairs to the foyer for a small nightcap. There was a band playing, who turned out to be called The Fish Police. The foyer is more conducive to drinking and talking than live music so I did not engage with them much at first, but once I did I realised that they were amazing. They were four smartly dressed young men (unlike some of the scruffs who had been appearing earlier) and they had a fairly standard guitar, bass, drums and vocals line-up. At first listen the music nodded towards pop reggae.
Fish Police close up
The singer's in between song banter made me think that the band might all be stoners, particularly given the lyrics of their songs being about funny mass cultural items or things they like eating. However I read subsequently that the singer is on the Aspergers spectrum so it could be that too. Either way it was an appealing kind of oddness.

Chicken and the eating thereof seemed to be a recurring lyrical theme, particularly in the insanely catchy 'Chicken Nuggets for Me'. The bassist commented that this was all a bit ironic for him, as he was a vegetarian (he may actually have been of the Rastafarian persuasion, or maybe like me he just loves animals). They also had a song about how much they like cocoa butter, another about a Japanese girl who reads so many books that she is always falling asleep, and another again about a girl with blue hair.

I should add that these tunes were all incredibly catchy. To hear the Fish Police is to love them. Everyone went mental for them.

Your favourite blog will have more Counterflows action tomorrow.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Counterflows 2015: Thursday

At last I can reveal the true facts of my experiences at this festival. It took place in various Glasgow venues at the start of April. It is one of those music festivals where loads of varied artists appear, many of whom were people I had never previously heard of though they may be household names for you.

The festival ran over four days, starting on Thursday the 2nd of April. I caught the trail end of the Launch Reception in the CCA, which featured people giving speeches about stuff. Someone said that the way these things work is that the more money you have got from donor organisations the more speeches there will be, but also the higher the likelihood of there being free booze. At this one there were quite a few speakers but there was also free wine… except that the wine was inconveniently placed behind a crowd of people by the time we arrived. Fortunately we had a crack booze ninja on hand to slip in through the crowd and retrieve bottle. Jurassic Park.

The speeches included some stuff about how pleased they were to have a Brazilian strand to the festival this year, with transcontinental links being created with Novas Frequencias, a broadly similar festival in Rio De Janeiro. And then the speeches dissolved into some Brazilian bloke in a mask playing some discordant guitar music at us. It was intriguing and set the mood for the weekend: uncompromising yet playful. My friend and host Nessa described it as deconstructed Brazilian jazz guitar.
Chinese Cookie Poets
That was in the CCA's foyer. From there we moved to one of its theatre spaces for a performance by some more Brazilian people. These were the Chinese Cookie Poets, who were a guitar-bass-drums three piece. Their first piece combined feedback from the guitarist and bassist with rock animal drumming from Renato Godoy, suggesting to me that he might be the star of the outfit. Later pieces taxed the guitarist and bassist more. A most striking feature of this performance was how varied all the pieces were from each other, lending a mini-music-festival vibe to proceedings. There was nevertheless a certain Beefheart-Fall thread running through the concert.
Chinese Cookie Poets & Negro Leo
And then just when it seemed as though things could not get any more varied, they did. The band were joined onstage by Negro Leo, who was kind of a dancer and vocalist. He had a mop of hair and thick glasses and had a somewhat nerdy demeanour, delivering what sounded like stream of consciousness lyrics and dancing in a manner that I think was carefully choreographed faux amateur. I particularly liked the song where he seemed to be delivering both sides of a fraught domestic argument.

All in all the Brazilian combo provided a great opening for the festival. The band were fascinating and Mr Leo made a great temporary frontman. They were followed by a Brazilian DJ set but I was a bit puppy tired and had to crash (me being tired will be a recurring feature of this festival).

Come back tomorrow for more Counterflows action!