Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Shangri-Las "Myrmidons of Melodrama"

I have for some time now been thinking that I needed to get some Shangri-Las into my life. Finally I stumbled across a compilation that did not look like it had been put out by Honest John's Cheap And Cheerful Records-U-Like. This compilation (on the RPM label) seems to have been put together by people with genuine love for the band. It comes with extensive sleevenotes. It includes well-mastered versions of all the band's key tunes.

You may only know one Shangri-Las tune, with that tune being 'Leader of the Pack (Vroom Vroom)'. It is a great song, laying down the template of the Shangs sound – conversational inserts, sound effects, doomed love, astonishing production, and sudden melodramatic death. Sometimes people do not die in the songs, but every day crises (a boy says he loves you, and then proves untrue) are still presented as the most terrible of events. Hence, I suppose the title of the record.

Doom is never far away in the world of the Shangs – young lovers elope but then die in car crashes, mothers die of grief when their daughters run away, boys prove unfaithful (or worse). One track I found particularly striking is 'Past, Present, and Future', a track mainly comprising Mary Weiss talking over a setting of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. The lyrics are pretty oblique, but they do refer to a love affair that seems to have gone horribly wrong; the sleevenotes' reading that it is a song about date rape is not contradicted by the song, though it is not the only interpretation. The song was not a number one hit.

There are some happy tunes here, of course – 'Give Him A Great Big Kiss' is all about how the singer is in love (or L.U.V.) with another long-haired dodger, but it all seems to be working out fine, perhaps because the young gentlemen in question is "good bad, but not evil". Nevertheless, the track still has its transgressive quality, with the band coming across like junvenile delinquents. Maybe it is all down to lead singer Mary Weiss's voice, both when she sings and when she converses with the others. She does not sound like a good girl.

A lot of the tunes here were written by some fellow called Shadow Morton. It is funny to think of the Shangs not writing them themselves, they seem really to inhabit the tunes. Oh well. They probably made no money whatsoever out of music in the long-run, such is life. I have heard, though, that on the road they were out of control, with concert promoters everywhere relishing the money they would bring in but fearing the chaos they would leave in their wake. Live fast, die young.

If you have only heard the odd Shangri-Las track or two here and there then srsly, seek out this record. No one with ears could fail to enjoy it. As a special treat it comes with some bonus tracks of radio ads the Shangs did at the height of their fame. Hearing Mary Weiss giving us tips on dating courtesy reminds once more what a performance genius that young lady was ("Don't put out on a first date – oral is more than enough to keep him coming back", she does not say). You get the picture?

More Shangs action


Leaders of the pack

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Comics Round-up 27/5/2009

Four Eyes #3, by Joe Kelly, Max Fiumara, and Nestor Pereyra

You remember this one? It is the infrequent Image title set in the Great Depression, only with dragons that people make fight in the ultimate unsavoury bloodsport. The protagonist is Enrico, the very young son of a guy who used to capture wild baby dragons so that they could be used in the cruel sport. In the first episode, the father was killed while stealing a baby dragon from its mother; since then the son has sought to become a dragon hunter, as a way of avenging his father's death. Perhaps down the line he will see that the real villains are not the dragons, wild creatures who seem mostly inclined to leave people alone, but the human monsters who seek to prey upon them. Anyway, in this episode, Enrico joins a team of dragon hunters, basically as dragon-fodder there to distract a mother dragon while the more skilled hunters snatch its eggs. The creeping awfulness of the cave environment is very well evoked, as is the general air of desperation surrounding the Depression-era setting. The strange angularity of the art adds greatly to the atmosphere. I recommend this title highly.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Century: 1910, by Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill

If you have read this far then you are probably sufficiently engaged with the world of comics to be aware of this popular title, in which Moore and O'Neill plunder the work of other writers to combine the characters of various authors into one narrative. My researches on the internet suggest that this Century run is a three-issue story, of which this is the first part. That said, this is sufficiently chunky that it could count as a "graphic novel" in and of itself, and it certainly feels sufficiently self-contained to be such.

Most people love The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I am a bit more ambivalent. It is always nice to see Kevin O'Neill art, but the storylines can tend towards Alan Moore showing off how clever he is, and it does all call to mind his general inability to generate new characters of his own. This seemed like a particular problem with the first League series – it had its moments, but at the end of the day it was all a bit meh. The second series, in which the League (a group led by Mina Harker from Dracula and also including Captain Nemo, H.G. Wells' invisible man, R.L. Stevenson's Mr. Hyde, and Allan Quartermain from King Solomon's Mines) found themselves up against the Martian invaders of The War of the Worlds packed a serious thrill-powered punch. My initial reading of this issue suggests that Century falls more towards the first series in quality, though it has its moments.

This time the fun seems to come from introducing various characters from the Threepenny Opera, which may explain the tendency of characters here to keep breaking into song. Singing in comics may sound strange, but it has been done before – memorably by Alan Moore himself with David Lloyd in the cabaret sections of V for Vendetta. The all time greatest ever musical comics episode is of course the National Song Year storyline in 2000 AD's Robo Hunter; this is not even remotely that good.

I must also confess to a certain uncomfortableness with titles such as this that use gang-rape as a plot device. That is an odd thing about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - all three* series so far feature scenes of sexual violence against women. In the first series it is done for laughs (a bit creepy in retrospect), in the second it is pretty chilling but works well in context, but here it just seems a bit gratuitous.

*I am not counting the Black Dossier for mysterious reasons.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Comics Roundup 21/5/2009

Sgt. Fury & His Howling Commandos #1 (of 1), by Jesse Alexander, John Paul Leon, & John E. Workman

This is a somewhat silly comic set in the Second World War, one of those stories where today's writers get to write old-school stories of start characters of yesteryear, in this case this is, you know, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos. In this story these guys parachute into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia and basically take on and defeat the entire German army (and a Nazi robot panzer storm trooper), capturing a Japanese submarine while they are at it. It is not quite as much fun as that makes it sound, and frankly this is a lot less entertaining than the Sgt. Rock story of a couple of years ago,but it does have nicely kinetic art, even if the artist seems to think that the Messershmidt Bf 110 has three engines.

The Unwritten #1, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

This is a new Vertigo ongoing title. The main character (one Tom Taylor) is this bloke whose father made a fictionalised version of him the lead character in a highly successful series of fantasy novels (kind of like if J.K. Rowling had a son called Harold, an especially apt analogy given how the fantasy novels here are clearly modelled on her books). Then the title starts suggesting that actually the main character is not actually the (vanished) author's son, but the actual fictional character somehow brought into the real world. Or maybe something else. By the end of it, Tom Taylor is somewhat bemused to find himself the centre of a new world religion, albeit one whose core membership is the kind of saddos who take fantasy novels that bit too seriously.

God only knows where they are going with this, but for the moment it seems like one to watch. Carey and Gross have form as the creators of the Lucifer title, one of those comics that I never read but always thought sounded like a good idea.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Golden Eagle Chicks Hatch

A breeding pair of Golden Eagles in Donegal have managed to hatch two chicks, an exciting milestone in the attempt to reintroduce these magnificent birds of prey to Ireland. The chicks parents have done well in managing to successfully incubate their eggs while avoiding poisoned meat left out for them by local cockfarmers.


ERGODOS Day 9: In a large, open space

This was the last event in the Ergodos festival – a performance of a conceptual piece by James Tenney, taking place out in St. Bartholomew's Church out in Ballsbridge (just across from the Embassy of the Great Satan). This was happening under the direction of Bob Gilmore and Elisabeth Smalt of the Trio Scordatura (see last time), and the performance was by the Ergodos All-Stars, basically a selection of the people who had been around during the week – Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, Garrett Sholdice, Jonathan Nangle, and many others. Sadly, they were shy one musician, so they had to perform with less than the twelve minimum the score requires, but we would not have noticed the difference if they had not told us.

In a large, open space is a rather unusual piece of music, challenging the conventions of the form in a most radical manner, both in strictly musicological terms and in how the audience relate to the performers. Usually with musical pieces there is some kind of sonic development, or at least a change in what the musicians play. With this, though, each musician pretty much plays the same note forever. And as I mentioned previously, the norm with classical music (and its heirs) is to make the audience sit as still as possible while the music is playing, but with this the audience are encouraged to walk around the venue while the music is being played. This is because the players are not all concentrated in one place, but scattered around the venue. If you stay in one place you will hear the same thing, more or less, for the entire duration of the piece. As you move around, though, the sounds of different instruments become more salient, and in different parts of the church the manner of the sounds' resonance varies. Basically, by walking around, you create the variance in the piece that normally comes from the musicians themselves.

I should mention the instruments. They were all ones capable of playing a sustained note, so we had violins, violas, guitars, organs, keyboards, clarinet, and so on. One feature of the concert was that you could approach much closer to the musicians than would be normal. This was interesting for a non-musician like myself – great opportunity to see how they actually do stuff, and to look at their sheet music (which seemed, even to my untrained eye, to not have too much written down for them).

So yes, this was incredible stuff, something that anyone with the slightest interest in drone music or forward thinking music generally would enjoy. I might even lean towards describing it as the musical event of the year, though I do that for most concerts I enjoy. It was a bit of a shame, therefore, that the event was so criminally under-attended. No one I knew was present (apart from my beloved, obv.), and there were not even that many people I did not know. I am not sure why this might have been the case. Maybe the market for genuinely forward thinking music in Dublin is actually not that great. I suppose the non-standard venue, located outside the city centre, would also have been a factor here. I suspect, though, that more people would have come to this if they had known about it.

And that's that for the Ergodos Festival. Not everything in the line up was brilliant, obviously, but that is the way of festivals. I hope they have another festival next year, and put on more concerts in the meantime. Maybe see you there.

The Final Panda

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Comics Roundup 16/5/2009

Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye #2, by Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart

Seaguy was being held prisoner in a hospital, but then he was busted out by three duplicates of himself. They created a new identity for him as El Macho, King of the Bulldressers. But they three duplicates seem perhaps to be less friendly than they appear – could they be brainwashing Seaguy? Meanwhile, in Mickey Eye Park, Doc Hero is forcibly made to miss his first go on the roundabout in twenty years. Sinister forces are clearly moving into alignment.

Sherlock Holmes #1 by Leah Moore, John Reppion, & Aaron Campbell

The last Moore-Reppion title was that Albion comic. It was no good, with its reimaging of various lost British comics characters coming across like Alan Moore pastiche. This is more entertaining, being a fairly straight Holmes and Watson story, this issue ending with Holmes arrested and on trial for murder! My God! Can't wait for the second issue.

The London setting reminds me a bit of that Blake & Mortimer comic I read a while back, though it is not written in clear line style.

Superman: World of New Krypton #3, by James Robinson, Greg Rucka, and Pete Woods

Superman is now living on New Krypton with a load of other super people. The internal politics of the superfolk (or Kyptonians, as they like to call themselves) seem a bit suckass, and Superman finds himself facing a near bloodbath when violence erupts over an attempt by lower caste Kryptonians to improve their status.

I am enjoying this a lot, but I reckon it is probably not the kind of thing you would like.

Unknown Soldier #7, by Joshua Dysart & Alberto Ponticelli

So this Ugandan-American doctor was doing aid work in Uganda when he discovered that somehow he has acquired these strange super-soldier like abilities – handy if you find yourself up against the Lord's Resistance Army. I think maybe this is drifting a bit, not really showing any obvious sign of developing where the doctor's strange new nature has come from, but I liked this issue a bit more than previous ones.

I would love to know how realistic the African setting is. Dysart (the writer) does not pretend that he is anything other than a white American, but his interest in Uganda oozes out of this title. The setting certainly feels real, but I have never been to Uganda (and even if I were ever there, I would very much not be going to the part of the country the story is set in).


Photographs of a budgerigar waking up a kitten and making it play have been discovered.

ERGODOS Day 8: Trio Scordatura

Again in the Unitarian Church. Trio Scordatura formed itself to explore the world of unconventional tunings. It comprises Bob Gilmore on keyboards together with Elisabeth Smalt on viola and Alfrun Schmid on voice. Gilmore was giving a talk earlier in the day on microtonality in music. I skipped that on the basis that it would probably just go over my silly non-PhD-in-music head, but I kind of regretted my decision when I heard Gilmore's introductions to the various places his trio played. I am still not sure I would have understood fully what he was saying, but he has such a pleasant speaking voice that it would all have been delightful. He also looked the part.

From the first piece (Conturador, by Flor Hartigan) you could tell this was going to be a bit special. As well as singing in a most unusual manner, Schmid was slowly twirling a pair of shaker devices that looked oddly like an opium poppy. The sound was as odd as the visual effect.

My limited musical vocabulary and lack of any real understanding of what alternate tunings and microtonality amount to in practice mean that I can only say so much about the Trio Scordatura concert. What I can say is that they were for me the find of the festival, playing the kind of music you get when the avant-garde gets it right. What they played sounded like nothing else I have ever heard, but it still sounded like music, albeit of a most unusual kind. One fascinating piece (composed by Horatiu Radulescu, a man sometimes lumped in with composers of "spectral music") featured Smalt playing an oddly tuned viola over a recording of others playing two grand pianos – grand pianos that had been tipped on their side and were being played by having threads rubbed against their inner strings. I would love to go to a concert where someone could do this for real.

I Remember was another piece, by some Alvin Lucifer fellow, saw Trio Scordatura joined by Garret Sholdice and Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, with the whole lot of them intoning wordlessly into jugs and then individually breaking off to say something they remembered. Sadly, no one remembered dancing in stilettos in the snow.

The other pieces were Enclosures by Peter Adriaansz (the trio playing to a programmed accompaniment of computer generated musical tones; spooky), Harmonium #1 by James Tenney (the trio playing over recordings of themselves playing, with the long sustained vocal notes and the ebb and flow of the viola being the most striking features), some Chinese poems set to music by Harry Partch (apparently very hard to sing; they certainly sounded strange enough, and interestingly this was the only vocal piece that featured lyrics) with accompaniment on prepared viola (a strange instrument of Mr Partch's devising), and …hush by Judith Ring (more prepared viola, playing over samples of prepared viola). The last piece was by Al Margolis, who also records and performs as If, Bwana. From Gilmore's description, this Margolis fellow seems to be a bit of a roffler, and this piece was here to present the fun side of progressive approaches to tuning and tonality. The trio played over a really bizarre musical backing.

My one big regret with this concert was that the trio did not have their debut album with them for sale. Apparently it was meant to be ready but certain unfortunate events prevented its appearance.

Panda Scordatura

Friday, May 15, 2009

Comics Roundup 15/5/2009

Madame Xanadu #10, Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder Hadley, & Richard Friend

You know what, this title is not very good. Its pacing is all off. Starting from the dawn of time, it has taken only ten issues to get up to (more or less) the present day – surely it would have been better to either just start in the present day and do the olde stuff in flashback, or else make the stories in the past much more drawn out? I will accept that it has nice art (and nicely drawn art where the main character is a doe-eyed lady magician will always have a certain appeal), but I do not intend to ever buy another issue of this, and may well give away all my back issues. They are also changing the artist from next issue, so feh.

The New Mutants Saga

This is one of those shite free comics that Marvel have been doing to explain the back-story of one of their big titles or characters, in the process drawing attention to just how stupid trying to run all that kind of nonsensical continuity together is.

Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye #1, by Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart

So Seaguy is this guy in a wetsuit who is like the last hero left in the world, only there is no room for heroes any more. Mickey Eye, meanwhile, is this sinister eye shaped fellow who appears in cartoons and has themeparks full of miserable people.

Lots of people find Seaguy incomprehensible. They are fools! I also think that Morrison was only able to get away with the title because Americans do not realise that "mickey" is a slang term for a man's instrument.

ERGODOS Day 7: Expressway to Yr Skull

More Unitarian Church action. Expressway to Yr Skull is what the festival organisers and their pals call themselves when they are playing music with electric guitars. The first piece was written by Brian Ledwidge-Flynn and performed by him with (I think) Benedict Schlepper-Connolly. It was enjoyable enough, but I kind of ruined it for myself by looking at the programme notes before they started. Ledwidge-Flynn said that this piece was meant to sound like a recreation of some of that "shoegazing*" music that was popular in the early 1990s, and was divided up into four movements to recreate one of the four track vinyl EPs you used to get back then. The problem was that I found myself focussing on all the ways the piece deviated from the shoegazing paradigm, as opposed to appreciating the music in and of itself. The crucial missing elements were: ethereal vocals, extreme volume, drums, and the general all-enveloping nature of the shoegazing sound. The last is something that two blokes on guitars cannot really recreate. If anything, the actual music sounded a bit more like Durutti Column (a band of an earlier vintage) than anything from the shoegazers themselves. That said, the third and fourth sub-pieces sounded like they could have been turned into a Ride b-side if given the correct instrumentation.

One funny thing in the programme was that Ledwidge-Flynn mentions that he deliberately made the guitar parts simple enough that a beginning player could play them. I interpreted this as a dig at the musical abilities of the various stars of the scene that used to celebrate itself. I could not but think, though, that even Chapterhouse were able to play live without looking at sheet music. This was a bit of a problem with all of the pieces performed tonight – the combination of electric guitars and sheet music is just wrong. If nothing else, when you are looking at sheet music you are not gazing at your shoes.

The second piece was composed by Brian Bridges and featured some fellows on violin and viola playing with a guitarist. They managed to create an impressively droney sound, though I reckon their performance would have been improved by the addition of capes and dry ice (surely an opportunity missed, given that they were playing in a church).

After that there was a piece composed by Simon O'Connor, performed by Garrett Sholdice and Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, doing a kind of call-response thing on their guitars, and then a piece by Larry Polansky that BSC performed on his own. For that one he did that thing of playing things, sampling himself playing them, and then playing back the samples while he played more things, but he was not doing this to create ever more complex layers of sound (i.e. no wall of hundred guitar lines by the piece's end). Rather, the replayed samples were used partly to cover him retuning his guitar to the funny tunings required for the next bit of the piece. As with a lot of pieces that use live sampling, you would have to wonder whether you could just get the same effect by having several musicians playing the piece. Still, I liked this piece a lot, it was rather enveloping and I could imagine it making great music to, you know, relax to. It also sounded a bit like Sonic Youth (whose work was referenced by the title, a lyric from the song 'Madonna, Sean and Me', which, as you know, appears on the album E.V.O.L.**).

The last piece was composed by Garrett Sholdice. Now, do you know the story about Ravi Shankar and the time he played at George Harrison's Festival for Bangladesh? He came onstage, played away on his sitar for a bit, and then took a breather. Everyone applauded, and then Shankar said to the crowd: "Thanks… well, if you have enjoyed me tuning up so much then I hope you will really like the actual concert"***. This last piece (Electric Guitar Quartet) was a bit like that, and was preceded by all four of said guitarists doing a lot of retuning. No one applauded when they stopped, because we're not stupid, but when the piece actually started it all sounded astonishingly similar to the noises being made while they were tuning up. It did get a bit more involved as it went on, especially once Dennis Cassidy on drums joined in, but it still seemed maybe a bit hampered by its contemporary classical sensibilities. You can do a lot of rocking out if you have four electric guitars on stage, but there was none of that tonight. Of course, you might not want to rock out, but… no, that's crazy talk, why would anyone not want to rock out?

* I understand that in the USA this music was known as "Dream Pop".
**Note deleted.
*** A true story rather than a KFR, as it is apparently included on the live album of the concert. Or so a guy I know once told me.

Dream Pop Pandas

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Comics Roundup 14/5/2009

I am playing comics roundup catch-up.

Buck Rogers #0

This was a free… wait, it has an "only 25c" thing on the cover, meaning I paid money for it! Shite. It seems to be a taster for some new Buck Rogers comic series. Buck Rogers is like this rubbish version of Flash Gordon, a character who started ages ago and then went through all kinds of revamps and reboots. You probably know him from that dreadful TV series ("Hiya Buck!"), but this seems not to be based on that, more on the general idea of a a bloke being blasted 500 years into the future. And it ends with him being blasted even further into the future. Eh, whatever.

Daredevil Noir #1, by Alexander Irvine, Tomm Coker and Daniel Freedman

I bought this a while ago and have kind of forgotten the story, but the basic idea is that it is a reimagining of that Daredevil character. You know the one, Matt Murdoch was blinded but had his other senses amazingly amplified and now he fights crime as Daredevil and stuff. In this version of the story, Daredevil is a serious bad ass who just kills all the criminals (in the more usual version of the story Daredevil would beat the lard out of crims by night and then Matt Murdoch (a lawyer) would defend them by day. I remember liking this when I read it, must read it quickly again and see if the second issue is worth acquiring.

Glamourpuss #6

More of Mad Dave Sim's detournements of fashion magazine advertisements and musings on comics history. Eh, I have not actually read this issue, despite buying it a few weeks back, so maybe it is not that essential.

ERGODOS Day 6: Morla

We were back to the Unitarian Church for this one. Morla are a trio (sax, guitar, drums, plus electronics and televisions) playing music that seems to come form the world of jazz. Like with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, having them play in a church as part of a weirdo contemporary music festival did create odd juxtapositions. That said, their music seemed a bit more experimental than normal jazz, using electronics and stuff like that more than is usual.

I found them a bit slow to get going… their early pieces did not seem to have much to them, but technical problems may be a factor here. I did like the long piece that reminded me in part of Ravel's Bolero. The penultimate piece, a rather drum heavy little number, and the fairly straight down the line closer were also rather enjoyable.

Jazz Pandas

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Film: "Let The Right One In"

I have nothing particularly original to say about this film. It has been out a while, so you have probably seen it or have no intention of doing so (or maybe you are waiting for the English language remake). As you probably know, it is the story of this young adolescent Swedish boy called Oskar who is being bullied at school. Then a girl called Eli moves in next door, and they become friends and stuff, only of course it turns out that the girl is a vampire. It takes him quite a while to register that his new friend is a monster who preys on his fellow humans, leaving the film's primary focus for much of its length on his developing friendship and love for Eli. Ultimately this is a film about adolescence, friendship, and first love, albeit with a generous helping of the sadness and loneliness of being a vampire in a world of humans. In that respect, it could be described as a mash-up between Lukas Moodysson's Fucking Åmal (released in Anglophonia as Show Me Love) or Tilsammans (shown in your local multiplex as Together) and The Hunger*.

One of the many poignant aspects of the film is Eli's ambiguous relationship to the older man she lives with. He knows she is a vampire, and makes various unsuccessful attempts to kill people and drain their blood for her. In one of the scenes where he is with Eli, he asks her not to go out with Oskar that night, and his air of emotional neediness made me think that he is Oskar's future. What kind of relationship can you have with a girl who remains twelve years old while you grow up and grow old?

With vampire stories, the assumption is always there that the relationship of vampires to humans is intrinsically inimical. They typically end with the vampires either being slain, usually with great violence, or with the vampire triumphing over their adversaries and escaping to kill again and again, albeit with a bit of sadface action about the misery of eternal life as an inhuman predator. With this film I found myself wondering whether its being made by the liberal Swedes could have led to a more rational outcome. Perhaps Eli could have eventually been captured by the police. Realising her true nature, they would keep her out of direct sunlight (it never looks good if people spontaneously combust in police custody) and then she would have to face trial for all the people she had killed. Maybe she would be convicted, but maybe she would be able to successfully plead some kind of diminished responsibility. Either way, she would find herself in the famously easy-going penal system of Sweden, but would perhaps be obliged to take part in some kind of psychological therapy programme to break down her tendency to bite people's throats out. Eventually, and under strict supervision, she would be released into the community, to be fed on a liquid diet supplied by the Swedish blood transfusion board.

That is not how the film ends.

*Not that I have actually seen this film about somewhat comedic Goth vampires, but I did the impressive book by Whitley Streiber on which it is based.

image source

ERGODOS Day 5: Liminality

I missed this because I went to see the band EARTH, forgetting that I had already seen them. I did read a review of this concert by the guy who writes classical music reviews in the Irish Times. He thought that two of the pieces were "numbingly dull", so I wish I had been there.

Critical crotch city Pandas

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

ERGODOS Day 4: Judith Ring: Portrait

More back room of the National Concert Hall action. Before I get to any discussion of the music performed here, there are some meta comments to get through, so if you do not like meta then skip through the next couple of paragraphs.

This was a concert of primarily laptop music. I have two real problems with this kind of thing. Firstly, you can never really see what the musician is doing, so I always find myself wondering how actually live any of this is – everything could be pre-programmed, with the musician hitting one key to set it all going. OK, so the musician might still be sitting their behind their laptop, hitting the occasional key or moving the mouse, but the suspicion must always be there that they are just playing Tetris or updating Facebook.

The other problem with laptop music is that it is visually very boring. I know it should be the music that matters (maaaaan), but the mind craves stimuli, and even with the best music in the world a lack of anything visual to engage with makes it easy to drift off into thinking about all kinds of things other than the music in hand.

I think these problems are not insurmountable. In performances of laptop music by people coming from what might broadly be defined as an electronic dance music tradition, there is a tendency to combine the music with projections of visual images. That gives the eye something to engage with. It does not solve the first problem, but it might distract from it. However, the visual images so served, while interesting enough in themselves, often do not really have that much to do with the music. Indeed, they may ultimately serve as a distraction from it. So I have been looking for a better way forward.

I think I might have something. Basically, at laptop concerts they should project whatever is on the musician's screen onto the wall behind them. That way people can watch how the music is being made (or how it is being triggered, or whatever). If the musician is just playing Tetris then the audience can vicariously feel their excitement as they slot the little blocks in place.

The other thing about this concert that got me thinking about how we consume music and so on was the introduction by one of the festival organisers. He made the usual introductory comments, and then said that although the performance would comprise several individual pieces, we were not to applaud between them but to wait until the end. This got me thinking about how classical music (and events like this that come from that tradition) take for granted that audiences are there to be regimented – told when to applaud, made to sit still, and so on. This contrasts with other forms of music, at concerts for which people are allowed to applaud when they wish and can wander off to go to the toilet or get a drink whenever they feel like it. I am sure there must be sound musical reasons why audience control is vital in classical music, but I suspect that factors relating to how high and low cultures are perceived are also important here. Audience control emphasises that classical music is a serious business, one requiring total audience concentration, unlike the frivolous music emanating from other traditions. The different audience requirements must work as an effective barrier to entry into the world of classical music, both old-school and contemporary.

And so, following that long preamble, to the music. Judith Ring was today's guest curator, playing mostly her own music (on a laptop), but handing over to a couple of guest stars for some of the pieces, and having them join her for some of the pieces. Ring's first piece was rather striking, being based on a load of samples of mezzo-soprano Natasha Lohan's voice. From the programme notes I understand that the samples were treated electronically, but Ring layered and combined them to produce an odd overall effect. I was not so gone on the ensuing collaboration by two of her guest stars. It was an improvised piece, with one of them on piano and one on laptop, but it all seemed like the wrong kind of experimentalism – people dicking around on stage, creating a sound that is not going anywhere.

One collaborative and improvised piece was a lot more enjoyable was this avant garde hoe-down that had Judith Ring playing with Linda Buckley, Jonathan Nangle, and David Bremner, the first three of these on laptop and the last on piano. It might be that having a load of people on laptops gets around the visual problems of the instrument, particularly if they are all staring at their screens with the kind of looks normally seen on the faces of worried stock market traders. I have no idea what any of the three laptoppers were doing, but it looked very difficult.

Laptop panda

Monday, May 11, 2009

ERGODOS Day 3: Prism

This was again in a back room at the National Concert Hall, and again featured the Gamelan Sekar Petak orchestra. I think this was billed as Prism because one of the pieces performed (a composition by Francis Heery) had that name. There were a couple of Gamelan pieces today, but most of the pieces either used a very stripped down set of Gamelan instruments or different instruments entirely. The Gamelan pieces enveloped the show, both traditional pieces that used vocals in an evocative manner. One good thing about tonight was that I was sitting near enough to the front to be able to see the stage properly (the non-tiered nature of the seating and the musicians sitting on the floor made the players rather invisible to those seated further back). With live Gamelan, I love the way the musicians look like clockwork automatons as they bang away at their instruments, their movements forming odd visual patterns.

The other pieces included three by Salil Sachdev – two in which the percussion genius performed solo on a miniature metal flying saucer and then a metal mixing bowl. He mentioned that he had discovered the musical properties of the latter after eating popcorn out of it while watching a film at home with his family. I thus found myself wondering what having Mr Sachdev round for dinner would be like – would every inanimate object in your home be tested for conversion into a percussive instrument? Just to show that he is not solely about the percussion, Salil Sachdev also wrote a piece for clarinettist Jonathan Sage to perform at the festival.

The other pieces included some an original and a composed piece (by Johanne Heraty) for the shakuhachi, a flute-like Japanese played tonight by Joe Browning. The instrument's sound reminded me a bit of the pan-pipes from Aguirre, Wrath of God, so when I closed my eyes I almost found myself on an raft with Klaus Kinski and a load of squirrel monkeys. The various pieces for the redux Gamelan orchestra were in and of themselves fine, but godammit, if you have brought a full Gamelan orchestra over to Dublin you would think you would want to get a lot of full Gamelan music out of them.

One final thing deserving of mention: in the foyer area, they had this astonishing looking contraption, which seemed to be emitting a load droning noise. It had bits hanging off it, and if you poked at them they made a noise, something very vaguely like that of a harpsichord. This turned out to be an installation by Jonathan Nangle. As well as making the harpsichord-esque noises, moving the device's appendages also affected the way the central drone sound developed, so as a musical instrument the device's output was dependent on how passers by interacted with it. One day every home will have one of these contraptions.

Prismic Panda

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fame and Fortune beckon

Hey look:

It's a photo I took being used to illustrate the Topographie des Terrors in an online guide to Berlin. I let them use the picture (which is actually just a hotlink to it on my Flickr page) for the fame that this will bring me. I am sure that seeing this picture will make many other people realise what a great photographer I am, and so I will find myself being offered huge sums to have my photographs included in coffee-table photography books.

I have to admire the business model of the Schmap guide people... get people to let you use their pictures for free, then have them publicise the guide for you by telling all their friends about the pictures being used.

I recommend Berlin's Topographie des Terrors exhibit highly. It is one of the few places in the city where the Third Reich and the Cold War periods of the city's history collide, with the exhibition (in what were once cells in the basement of the Gestapo headquarters abutting onto a surviving section of the Berlin Wall. The open-air exhibition deals with the Third Reich's apparatus of repression. When I took the picture, it had been snowing... trudging through snow and slush to look at information on Nazi crimes seemed oddly appropriate.

Sensible Orang-Utan's Zoo Breakout

Adelaide zoo Orang-Utan Karta yesterday escaped from her enclosure by using a stick to short-circuit the electric fence around it. She then used a pile of more sticks to climb out, triggering the evacuation of the zoo.

Karta seems however to have been more interested in the intellectual challenge of escaping, as opposed to actually going anywhere, as she returned back to her enclosure almost immediately and never went into a public area for humans.


ERGODOS Day 2: Gamelan Sekar Petak

As you know, Gamelan is this type of music from Indonesia that involves people banging away at bamboo xylophones and what look suspiciously like upturned pots and pans. The various instruments meld together to create an overall sound that sounds almost electronic, despite being played on acoustic instruments. While we use Gamelan to describe this type of music, and also the type of ensemble that makes it, I have the idea that out in Indonesia the term actually just denotes one of the instruments.

One of Gamelan's special features is that it is the only non-Western music to transmit serious influences into classical music. This might say more about the nature of Western classical music than about the intrinsic worth of Gamelan. Some other non-Western forms of music have the kind of structure and complexity than makes them akin to classical music, but they are heavily based on improvisation by solo performers (I am thinking here of Indian or Arabic music). This makes them unappealing to those weaned on our classical music's traditions of one person composing for others to play. With Gamelan, ensembles play pre-existing pieces of music, with relatively little scope for improvisation, so it is that bit more conceptually familiar.

Tonight Ergodos was giving us Gamelan based music, and had brought over the Gamelan Sekar Petak orchestra from York to play it for us. Unlike the Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh concert, this was in a backroom of the National Concert Hall (something that looked suspiciously like a small UCD lecture room). The programme started with a stroke of genius, a conceptual piece called 'Anyone Can Play', credited to Jody Diamond. One of the festival organisers invited random members of the audience to come onstage and play with the crazy Gamelan instruments in any way they could. This led to a veritable stampede of music students, the survivors of which got to bang away in a manner that evoked the Langley Schools Music Project, until a member of the orchestra came up behind them, tapped them on the shoulder and said "Thank you". Once the impostors had all been disposed of, the orchestra launched into a Javanese Gamelan piece about the joys of fishing.

After that, the orchestra played a number of pieces composed for Gamelan by various composers. These were all enjoyable, but a fundamental problem emerged. Basically, the best music for Gamelan seems to be traditional Indonesian compositions, and the modern compositions tended to be most interesting when they were most closely aping the sound of traditional Gamelan. The Javan pieces sound like nothing else in the world, while crazy modern compositions played by a Gamelan orchestra sound not that different to crazy modern compositions played by the more usual Western ensembles. This led me to think that a concert where a Gamelan orchestra played loads of Javanese tunes (with a couple of Balinese ones thrown in for the weirdos who prefer that school of Gamelan) would be far more enjoyable than one based on new compositions by Whitey.

One of the modern pieces I did especially like, however, was Jody Diamond's 'In the Bright World'. This was partly an arrangement of the American folk tune 'Wayfaring Stranger', and it featured beautiful vocals from local mezzo-soprano Michelle O'Rourke. It also went into a Gamelan workout towards the end that sounded very like one of the pieces from the Nonesuch Explorer series record The Jasmine Isle: Gamelan Music.

Gamelan Panda

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Naughty dog eats fridge magnets

Just after coming home from the vets (where he had been neutered), labrador Jack had to be rushed back into surgery. The greedy puppy had eaten some thirty fridge magnets. These included all 26 letters of the alphabet, and their consumption may have been a misguided attempt by Jack to learn to read and write.

"The letters were well chewed and not easy to identify", commented vet Robert Newcombe.


ERGODOS Day 1: Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh (with Salil Sachdev)

Ergodos is this organisation run by Benedict Schlepper-Connolly and Garrett Sholdice, dedicated to the promotion and performance of strange new music. The title reportedly comes from a term invented by the late James Tenney; he apparently used the term 'ergodic' to describe a "static, homogenous environment, out of which complexity naturally abounds".

The Ergodos Festival (strictly speaking, it was called Ergodos: Off Grid) seems to be a continuation of the old Printing House Festival that the Ergodos guys had previously curated. Sticking with past practice, they took a somewhat minimal approach to publicity. The only advertisement I saw for the event was in the Journal of Music (and on the Journal's website) – highly targeted marketing. But the ad worked for me. They were selling a pass to the whole nine days of the festival at the cost of four individual concerts, so I decided to go to everything, hoping that this festival would fill the gap left by the mysterious disappearance of the Living Music Festival. Did I make a terrible mistake? Read on and see.

The first concert took place in the Unitarian Church on St. Stephen's Green, an unusual venue for a concert by a fiddler. The lighting suggested something out of the ordinary for music of any sort: instead of being bathed in strong, harsh lights, the stage area was faintly illuminated in a spectral blue. Ó Raghallaigh comes from the world of Irish traditional music, but from an interview I read with him he is intent on moving beyond the genre's strictures, with the unusual setting and the laptop onstage throwing down a marker before the concert even started. New ideas and technical progression in traditional musical forms can often go horribly wrong – witness any number of folk and traditional acts who have tried to "fill out their sound" with cheap synthesisers – but Ó Raghallaigh talked a good game in the interview, so I was looking forward to seeing him.

Ó Raghallaigh turned out to be a bit of a roffler, with an easy-going charm that belied his status as a trad iconoclast. To be honest, his music did not seem that beyond the pale of normal Irish traditional music, but there could be subtle transgressions that someone more familiar with the form would be shocked by. He did use technology a bit, doing a bit of sampling himself and then playing over it. He also used some rather odd looking fiddles, but to my untrained ear it all sounded relatively traditional. The non-transgressive nature of the music should not however be taken as indicating any kind of compromise in quality – this was all very enjoyable, with the spooky atmosphere making it seem much more of an Event than it would have been to see Ó Raghallaigh playing in a pub.

Ó Raghallaigh was joined for his last two tunes by Salil Sachdev, this percussionist bloke from India. He proved to be fascinating character, tapping out the most amazing percussive rhythms with his bare hands on two different sets of instruments. The first was a fairly straightforward West African drum (from Mali, I think, or maybe Senegal) – straightforward in appearance, but not in the sounds that Sachdev was able to get out of it. His other instrument, possibly also West African or maybe something he had just made up, was some kind of water drum. He made this with a bowl of water, and held another bowl upside down against the water; by changing the upper bowl's angle he could adjust its sound. Sachdev's playing went well with Ó Raghallaigh – he ended up sounding like a bodhran player, albeit an one of most uncommon ability. And he managed all this without having the kind of demeanour one associates with percussionists, instead coming across like an urbane musicologist (which is, in fairness, what he is).

Ergodic Panda

Friday, May 08, 2009

Happy Pig, Sad Pig

In India, a colony of the world's smallest pigs have been released into the wild. They are reported to be thriving, and may have bred and produced piglets.

In Afghanistan, the country's only pig used to graze in Kabul Zoo with goats and deer. Now he is in quarantine, because of swine flu pandemic fears. The swine flu crisis has also disrupted plans to bring in a lady pig to keep him company.

Happy pigs

Sad pig

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Do You Like A Laugh?

I have long thought of Werner Herzog as a bit of a roffler, albeit one of a wry and ironic nature. Last night I saw his film Encounters at the End of the World, making the astonishing discovery that there are many people out there who find Herzog side-splittingly hilarious. These were, of course, people in the audience, not in the film. A particular offender was some woman who would cackle away maniacally at pretty much everything that Herzog said or showed on screen. She was not the only one. The guffawing and oafish frat boy a little bit to my left was another candidate for instant justice, but it was the cackling witch who most made me regret my decision to see the film. Compared to her, Viz Comic's Fat Slags giggle like virginal schoolgirls, and she subjected us to her deranged laughter at every opportunity. "Here is an English vulcanologist," said Mr Herzog. "HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!" she responded. "This man is an expert on seals." "HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!" "This confused penguin is marching to certain death." "HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!"

I have always thought that there is something of the mentalist about people who shun the cinema, but maybe I am starting to see their point of view. For all that, I still recommend seeing this film. It is worth seeing in the cinema, even though you run the risk of being stuck among amused munters, as it is the kind of picture that really gains from being seen on the big screen.

Image source

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Film: "Blacula"

Later on the same day that I saw Countess Dracula, I found myself back in the IFI to see Blacula. This is an odd attempt from the 1970s to combine a vampire-horror film with the blaxploitation film then in vogue. The film begins with an African prince visiting Count Dracula in Transylvania, as part of an anti-slave trade tour of Europe. Sadly, he angers Dracula (a cheesy bloke with bouffant hair and a beard) such that Dracula drinks his blood and turns him into vampire. "You shall bear my name," he cackles. "You will be known as – BLACULA". Apart from that, no one in the film actually refers to the African vampire as Blacula, though for clarity I will here.

Blacula is accidentally disinterred by two gay antique dealers who have transported the contents of Dracula's castle to Los Angeles. After killing them (and turning them into gay vampires) Blacula embarks on a reign of terror, leading to an ever increasing number of mostly African American people being drained of their blood and transformed into the undead. But he also discovers that his long-lost love has been reincarnated, and he endeavours to win her heart. Apparently Blacula is the first vampire film to go for the whole love-beyond-the-ages angle that climaxed in the horror that was Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula.

There are a couple of things to bear in mind with this film. First of all, it was made for ten pence, so its production values are not very high. Nor is the script of the highest quality, though some of the actors are surprisingly impressive (particularly William Marshall as Blacula himself). The general cheapness of it all means that much of the time the effect is more comic rather than horrific, with the appearance of Dracula's vampire slaves being an early indicator of what kind of schlock we are looking at here. Still, this can be borne, and for all the cheapness of the effects and script, the film has a certain charm. The other odd thing about it, though, is its casual homophobia. The aforementioned antique dealers are very much played as comedic stereotypes, with their homosexuality serving almost to justify their deaths. When the film's hero (a black Van Helsing figure) starts to investigate odd aspects of their murders, he comes up against a brick wall of homophobia. "Who cares about two dead faggots?", he is told. Later, when the cops are looking for one of the undead gays, they think they see him cruising in the gay part of town. "Is that the faggot we're looking for?", they say.

Now, it may be that the film is here satirising the homophobia of the authorities, but it does seem to be buying into it without offering any challenge. For me, of course, as a 100% heterosexual man, it is easy to fall into finding the homophobic language as entertaining as the bad special effects and hokey costumes. I would probably see things different if I batted for the other team myself.

With that caveat, I still recommend the film. It hovers in the weird borderland between things that are so-bad-they're-good and things that have unexpected moments of genius. This kind of shotgun marriage of genres is always fascinating, making Blacula the kind of curiosity that any true film aficionado should love.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Film: "Countess Dracula"

You may be familiar with the One City, One Book thing that Dublin City Libraries have been doing for the last couple of years, trying gamely to get everyone in the city reading the same book during April. I understand that similar things have happened in other cities. This year the book was Bram Stoker's Dracula. I read it years ago, and have started reading it again, but I am a slow reader and it may take me some time to get through it*. As with previous years, the authorities organised a number of events, and as usual I intended to go to loads of them but made it to almost none. The two things I did make it to were both films. The first of these was the Hammer classic Countess Dracula, based on the true story of Erzebet Bathory, the countess who bathed in the blood of virgins.

Hammer films were never famous for their slavish adherence to historical facts, and Countess Dracula is no exception. Taking the basic story, the film-makers concoct a supernatural yarn in which the aged countess (played by Ingrid Pitt**) is able to temporarily rejuvenate herself with the blood of her victims. She then passes herself off as her own daughter to ensnare the square-jawed hero (a dim young hussar). Her other lover (a dangerous and melancholic cynic) has meanwhile disposed of the countess's actual daughter by imprisoning her with a mute and mentally retarded yokel. Other characters include an old scholar (from the funny-old-man school of coarse-acting) and a busty local whore. There are also some dwarfs, gypsies, and pathetic peasants. All in all, this is a classic piece of Hammer film-making, making it all the more bizarre that some fellow in the audience was able to snore his way through it.

One odd thing about Countess Dracula is the way it is both more and less sensational than the real story on which it is based. The supernatural element is plainly made up, but apart from that the film makes Bathory far less of a monster than she really was. The cinematic countess's kill-rate is pretty low, and she might get through no more than five virgins (plus the busty whore) in the course of the film. The real Bathory, though, was one of the greatest mass-murderers in history, killing hundreds of young women. The film's countess also meets a less spectacular end than the real Bathory. The depredations of the historical countess eventually became so notorious that the authorities threatened to take action against her. Rather than go through the scandal of a trial, Bathory's extended family took care of her themselves. Their punishment was to brick her up into a small chamber, with a small orifice through which her food and water would be passed in (and, perhaps, her bodily waste passed out). The film's countess ends her days in a somewhat less gothic manner.

Still, people do not watch Hammer to learn about history.

*bear in mind that I am still "reading" Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds, the 2006 book.

**it is said that Ms Pitt got her big break with Hammer by turning up at the company head's office wearing nothing but a fur coat.