Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Men hating women

I was already thinking of posting a link to a recent piece on the BBC news website about people (mainly women) who are murdered by their male partners when recent unfortunate events in the United States of America set me thinking more on the subject of male violence, in particular male violence against women. The following three articles are I think worth looking at.

Domestic violence: One month's death toll (BBC)

In the UK, an average of seven women and two men are killed by their current or former partner each month. To look behind the bald figures, the BBC has examined the cases of the various people so killed in September 2011. The month was picked because the relevant judicial cases are mostly completed.

I am curious as to whether the average of two men killed each month by former or current partners are killed by men or women. I am also curious as to what the comparable figures for Ireland are.

5 Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women (Cracked)

Cracked has a strange history. My understanding is that its origins lie in the print magazine of that name, which was Marvel’s knock-off of Mad. As time went on it escaped from Stan Lee’s clutches and made it to the web, where it mutated into a website with interesting and sometimes humorous articles about stuff. This piece on how mass culture teaches men to hate women by giving them unrealistic expectations is written in the jocular Cracked house style, which some may find off-putting, but it raises interesting points.

Joining the dots: From fairy tales to Elliot Rodger (Glosswatch)

[edit: The Glosswatch blog has since been marked as private, so you'll have to take my word for what the linked-to post says about fairytales]

Glosswatch is the blog of VJD Smith, who also posts on Twitter as @Glosswitch. In this post, written just after the Isla Vista shootings, she talks about reading fairy tales to her son (the same fairy tales she read when she was small), but seeing now a disturbing subtext of rapey creepiness in the old tales. Her overall argument is persuasive, though I am not so convinced that the story of The Princess And The Pea is about virginity. With this one, class seems more significant. The story seeks to convince the common folk that the nobility are magically sensitive and so are naturally fitted to rule. However, Ms Smith is bang on the money with the Princess and the Frog. Because I like animals, I always sympathised with the frog (and indeed was disappointed when he turned into a handsome man; see also the ending to Beauty and the Beast), but when the story is read again with the eyes of an adult, the frog comes across as disturbingly similar to a persistent date-rapist, albeit a tiny amphibian one.

She also mentions Rumpelstiltskin, focussing on the crazy king locking up and threatening to kill the heroine if she does not deliver on her father's outlandish claim that she can spin straw into gold (with the king eventually marrying the girl, presented as a positive outcome for her). Some fairytales have more resonance than others. The Princess and the Pea always struck me as ridiculous, even when I was small, but Rumpelstiltskin has always struck a chord. I think what makes it a great story is how for all there are horrendous characters in it (the King and the heroine's idiot father) there are two with whom it is hard not to sympathise. Anyone who has ever been in a seemingly hopeless situation will sympathise with the heroine when she faces death if she cannot spin straw into gold.

And then there is Rumpelstiltskin himself, the initially nameless sprite who helps the girl but at the promise of her first-born child, a promise she can only escape if she guesses his true name. I have never heard a version of the story that makes clear what the sprite wants with the child - does he plan to eat it, or enslave it? Or does he intend to adopt it or make it his apprentice, teaching it his secrets? Given that the heroine is married to a psychopath, it is easy to think that being brought up by a magical imp would make for a better start in the world than life with the child's natural parents. But of course, Rumpelstiltskin's secret is revealed and he departs empty-handed, leaving the child in the palace. Yet throughout the story he is a fair dealer, honouring his bargains and never promising something he cannot deliver.

image source (a gallery of covers of Ladybird Well-Loved Tales, which reminds me of the dubious sexual politics of so many fairytales, but also of ones like the Little Red Hen, a hymn to female self-reliance).

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Important Panda News

Gao Gao the Panda lives in San Diego Zoo. He has had a long and eventful life since he was born in the wild in 1992 or thereabouts. After suffering an ear industry, he was taken to Fengtongzhai Nature Reserve in 1993. He was reintroduced into the wild but local villagers reportedly found him disruptive, so he was taken to the Wolong Panda Conservation Centre and then in 2003 he came to live in San Diego Zoo.

Pandas have a reputation for not really being onboard with the perpetuation of their species, but Gao Gao has done his bit, fathering five cubs with the panda Bai Yun. He now has three grandchildren. If anything, Gao Gao's life shows that the real threat to pandas is not their slow rate of reproduction but human encroachment into their habitat.

Gao Gao has had some health problems. Digestive system problems have led to adjustments to his diet and he also has a heart condition. But a more serious issue manifested recently, when a tumour was discovered on one of his testicles. Surgeons operated to remove the testicle earlier this month. He is reported to be recovering well and is getting back to his favourite activity - eating. There are reports that he has also been getting his keepers to scratch the back of his neck.

At this stage it is not known whether the operation will prevent Gao Gao fathering any more offspring. Because of limited exposure to panda cancers, veterinarians are not certain that the operation will have taken him out of the danger zone, but everyone has their fingers crossed.


Surgery for Gao Gao (San Diego Zoo)

Pathologist's Report on Gao Gao's tumour (San Diego Zoo)

Gao Gao (Wikipedia) (image source)

Saturday, May 24, 2014

My most recent literary endeavours

Farewell Parthenon
I took part in that NaNoWriMo thing last November, having a crack at writing a novel over the length of the month. I made it up as I went along but gave it a kind of structure by largely having the characters follow the route I took in September when I travelled to and around Greece. That meant that I could incorporate some local colour and add into the narrative things I saw or that happened to me (as well as things I just made up, obviously).

If you have ever wondered what a novel made up as it was written quickly would be like, you can see chapter 1 here. There is a link from that on to chapter 2 and so on, and links to all of the chapters below. I will not leave them up on my writing blog website indefinitely, so if you think you will want to read them, do so while you can.

I would like to devote myself more seriously to literary endeavours, but I fear that my Important Project will be consuming my free time for the foreseeable future.

Chapter 1 - The Alps. From a Train.

Chapter 2 - Playing Games

Chapter 3 - Milanese Dreams

Chapter 4 - New Friends

Chapter 5 - Divine Intervention

Chapter 6 - Strangers on a Train

Chapter 7 - Friend or Foe?

Chapter 8 - Temptation

Chapter 9 - Continuing Journey

Chapter 10 - Choices

Chapter 11 - Endings and Beginnings

Chapter 12 - Getting to Know You

Chapter 13 - Into Danger

Chapter 14 - Embracing the Evening

Chapter 15 - Et in Argolis Ego

Chapter 16 - Crystallisation

Chapter 17 - On the Road

Chapter 18 - Preparation

Chapter 19 - The Eve of Destruction

Chapter 20 - Strange Journey

Chapter 21 - Not Long Left

Chapter 22 - It Is Time

Chapter 23 - In Conclusion

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Gothic Book Club?

I have been thinking for a while that what I really want to do is read more gothic novels. Two things have convinced me that I really must approach this more seriously. Firstly, there was the engaging piece in the Guardian, How to tell you're reading a gothic novel – in pictures. And then, just the other day, I was at the launch of issue 3 of The Green Book, an Irish journal on the gothic and macabre.

What I am thinking of doing is picking books and setting myself two months to read each one (two months being a long time, but I am a slow reader and I also have other reading commitments). Some other people have expressed interest in this project so if there are the numbers I will try and turn it into some kind of book club. I may not be able to start this until the autumn, as the immediate future sees me consumed by the horrors of having to find a new place to live and also my Important Project, plus July is a busy time in work and I am going away for some of August etc. etc.

I have put some thought into compiling a list of books to read. There are a lot of gothic novels, but some of them are more key than others. I think the 12 books below constitute a reasonable enough A-list of the gothic over a period of more than a hundred years, presenting the work of authors from a reasonably wide spread of countries.

Horace Walpole The Castle of Otranto (1764) - This is usually credited with being the first gothic novel, though there are of course some earlier candidates. The book caused a sensation on its first appearance.

Ann Radcliffe The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) - Mrs Radcliffe was a highly successful imitator of Mr Walpole's work.

Matthew Lewis The Monk (1796) - Behind the pious face of the eponymous monk lurks the soul of a man who has given himself over to every kind of depraved vice.

Jan Potocki The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (AKA The Saragossa Manuscript) (1815) - The Polish Count Potocki's narrative presents a series of nested and interlinked stories supposedly told to the main narrator or read by him as he travels through the Sierra Morena mountains en route to Madrid.

E.T.A. Hoffman The Devil’s Elixirs (1815) - I do not know too much about this but Hoffman is an important figure in the development of the gothic (or so I have read). The novel apparently bears some similarities to The Monk.

Mary Shelley Frankenstein (1818) - This was the product of the famous night in the Villa Diodati where Shelley, Lord Byron, her future husband and others competed to produce the most original and terrifying horror story.

Charles Maturin Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) - Melmoth has sold his soul to the Devil in return for an unnaturally long life, but he can save himself from damnation if he finds someone to take on the bargain. He travels the world on an increasingly desperate quest for someone who will trade life for salvation.

James Hogg The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) - This strange novel of madness and demonic possession concerns a Scottish gentleman convinced that as one of the Elect he is predestined for salvation, regardless of whatever acts of depravity he might commit.

Edgar Allan Poe [an anthology of short stories] (1832- 1849) - There are lots of anthologies of Poe stories and it would probably be difficult to get everyone in a book club reading the same one, but anything featuring the likes of "Ligeia", "William Wilson", "The Masque of the Red Death", "A Cask of Amontillado", "The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Premature Burial" etc. would do the job.

Emily Bronte Wuthering Heights (1847) - The demonic yet charismatic Heathcliff and the terrible revenge he works on those he feels have wronged him make for one of the greatest of gothic narratives.

J. Sheridan Le Fanu In A Glass Darkly (1872) - This short story collection is most famous for the endlessly fascinating vampire story "Carmilla", but it also includes other noteworthy tales of the macabre, including one that would be of particular interest to anyone familiar with the city of Dublin. [An alternative to this would be Le Fanu's novel Uncle Silas (1864), the dark tale of a teenage heiress on whose fortune various sinister figures have nefarious designs]

Robert Louis Stevenson Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1886) - There is probably no one in the world who does not know what is going on here, but try reading it while imagining yourself a late Victorian picking up the book for the first time, aghast at the thought of what could link the apparently saintly Dr Jekyll with the sinister and bestial Mr Hyde.

H. Rider Haggard She (1887) - In a remote and unexplored corner of Africa, a beautiful and immortal but indescribably cruel sorceress rules over the ruins of a lost civilisation and waits.

In picking the above I have been guided by my own sense of what would constitute a representative tour through the gothic canon. I am open to suggestions as to books that could be added or subtracted from the list, but in the mode of a truly obsessive gothic antihero I must insist on making the final decision myself.

The one truly key gothic novel I have left off the above list is Vathek (1786), by William Beckford. Beckford is a fascinating figure and the book was influential and important in the history of the form, but it is also a not particularly impressive work to modern readers.

I suspect that many people with a passing interest in the gothic or in English literature will have read some of the above books already. I have read several, some of them quite recently. But I think for a proper exploration of the gothic we should be willing to read them again, or at least skim the plot summary on their Wikipedia page.

Those 12 books would keep me (and anyone joining me) going for two years. Perhaps by then we would be sick of the fetid swamp of the gothic, or perhaps we would be desperate for more. One possibility would be to read (or re-read) Jane Austen's gothic parody Northanger Abbey and then approach the Seven Horrid Novels mentioned by name in it, before moving on to later gothic or gothic-tinged novels like Great Expectations, Dracula, À Rebours, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Titus Groan, and so on. But these would be questions for the future.


The Nightmare

The Sleep of Reason brings produces monsters

The Green Book

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Cat brings home special present

Cats often bring home little presents for their owners - usually dead rodents or birds. An unnamed cat in Dunedin in New Zealand went for something a bit more useful, bringing its owner a bag containing 5 grammes of cannabis. However, instead of sparking the hooter, the cat's owner showed a marked lack of gratitude and instead reported the find to the local police.

Sgt Reece Munro is investigating the case and trying to find out where the bag of cannabis came from. His efforts are being hampered by the cat, who is taking the Fifth on this and refusing to cooperate with the investigation or name its dealer. Sgt Munro will reportedly be letting the cat off with a caution.

IMPORTANT NOTE: photographs of the dope dealing cat have not been released, so the above image is stock image of a completely different cat.

More (BBC)

Even more (Otago Daily Times)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Tsunami Cat's Big Adventure

In March 2011 the terrible tsunami devastated much of Japan. Most of the town of Ofunato, in the Iwate Prefecture was destroyed. Kazuko Yamagishi and Takeo Yamagishi were lucky in that their home escaped destruction, though they had to endure the horror of living in a town that had been laid waste and whose neighbours were now homeless. They were also separated from Suika, their cat. In the three months after the tsunami the Yamagishis searched for Suika but then came to the conclusion that they would probably never see their cat again.

However in April this year another couple spotted a cat curled up in a nearby forest - a friendly cat wearing a collar. They brought it to the Ofunato Health Centre, which placed an ad in the local paper when no one came forward to claim it. But then one of the employees in the health centre notice the Yamagishis' name and number written in faded letters on his collar, and was able to reunite him with his owners.

The Yamagishis are overjoyed to have Suika back after all these years. Suika is being more guarded with his opinions.
More (BBC)

Even more (Asahi Shimbun)

An inuit panda production

Friday, May 09, 2014

Are you reading a gothic novel?

A bolt of lightening briefly illumined the chamber more brightly than anything achievable by the dim candle's faint glow, followed by the terrible crash of thunder that momentarily drowned out the persistent and depressing sounds of the rain battering against the window, causing Carlotta to avert her eyes from the book she was reading, from which they fell on the open page of an article in a news periodical that purported to reveal whether the book she was reading - the terrible, forbidden tome that she could not abandon for all that she longed to cast aside its ghastly leaves - was that most ghastly and obscene of literary works: a gothic novel.

How to tell you're reading a gothic novel – in pictures (Guardian)

image source

[record review] Bob Dylan "Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue" (1975)

My friend Mad King Ken has long recommended this record. It is one of that bootleg series of Dylan live albums. The other one of those I have is the so called Albert Hall concert in 1966, where some twunt shouts "Judas!" at Dylan for the folkcrime of playing with electric instruments. From nearly 10 years later, Live 75 sees Dylan unproblematically embracing a big electric sound and band format without any obvious sign of disgruntlement from the audience. If there are still folk purists out there who reckon Dylan should be sticking to acoustic instruments they have given up going to his live shows.

And while the audience are less hostile, Dylan himself seems less confrontational. On the 1966 record, Dylan is playing at the audience on the electric tracks, giving them amped up music whether the fuckers want it or not. On this one he seems almost like a showman. These recordings sound like they come from shows that would have been actively fun to have attended. A lot of that must come from the army of extra musicians playing on this (including T-Bone Burnett and Joan Baez and many others), giving the record the feel almost of a live jam party (dude).

But there is still an edge to this collection, the spectral presence of the protest singer of yore. One of the most striking tracks on this for me is 'Hurricane', a song about a man languishing in jail for a crime he did not commit. But instead of being a mournful solo acoustic dirge, the song zips along with en effortless verve and the kind of instrumentation that would have people dancing in the aisles at concerts.The way the lyrics manage to advance the (true) story without falling into ponderous plodding is to me one of the greatest illustrations of Dylan's famous poetic skills.

image source (Dave's Music Database)

An inuit panda production

Thursday, May 08, 2014

[record review] Alasdair Roberts & Friends "Too Long In This Condition" (2010)

This is another folkie record... what is happening to me, readers? On this one we have song performed by the popular Scottish singer and guitarist Alasdair Roberts. These songs are mostly trad. arrs arranged by Roberts. None of the songs are new Roberts compositions, though there is one by his dad.

Several things make this record. There is Roberts's vocal delivery and his guitar playing. There is also his ability with storytelling tunes. The overall production and the well judged interventions by his collaborators are also important. What I find so attractive about the tunes is the jaunty rolling character of the arrangements. Having tried singing one of his tunes at the Unthanks weekend I know that he favours rhythms other than the straight four-four beat, so his songs roll rather than plod along. This means that even when performing a grim tune like 'Long Lankin' (about child murder and then the harsh retribution for that terrible crime) it still manages to come across as an upbeat toe-tapper.

I also find that there is a cumulative effect to Alasdair Roberts' music. The first song or two by him I heard did not impress me that much, but once I had heard a few I was programmed into his aesthetic. I went back anew to the first song of his I heard ('You Muses Assist', from the brilliant Rough Trade compilation Psych Folk 10) and found myself far more receptive to its charms. But for all that wariness of approaching Roberts on a single song basis, I now present a performance of 'Long Lankin'.

image source

An inuit panda production

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

[record review] A Hawk and a Hacksaw "Délivrance" (2009)

This is another one of those gypsy-Balkan-folkie records by the popular man and woman band from the USA. Although there is just the two of them they manage to create a big sound, though on record they may use session musicians or overdubs. This is an entertaining record to listen to, but none of the individual tracks really leap out at me like ones do from Darkness At Noon, the other one of their records I have. I do not know if this is because it is not as good or because A Hawk And A Hacksaw are one of those bands where you get the idea on the first record.

Darkness at Noon

An inuit panda production

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Foster and Allen on Top of the Pops, 25/3/1982

Oh look, I have saved you the trouble of having to look it up yourselves.

[record review] Two records by Anne Briggs

Anne Briggs A Collection
Anne Briggs The Time Has Come (1971)

So Anne Briggs - she is this English folkie. These are records my beloved received as payment for services rendered. The first is the one I have listened to the most. It contains a load of songs recorded from the early 1960s to 1971. The second is an actual studio album. As far as I can see, there is no overlap between the two, making me wonder if there is some funny record company contract stuff going on here. As A Collection is the one I have listened to the most, so I will largely just talk about it.

The first run of songs on the compilation album are all sung unaccompanied by Ms Briggs. These are not really to my taste. Her voice is not unappealing, but I am not really a big fan of solo unaccompanied singing, as to me the results are a bit thin. So even though in this case she is singing classic songs like 'She Moves Through The Fair' there is a certain meh quality to it all (for me).

I should mention one slightly odd song choice here, the song 'Let No Man Steal Your Thyme', a tune lyrically very similar to a song called 'A Bunch of Thyme' that was a big hit for strange country and Irish act Foster & Allen in the early 1980s (they appeared on Top of the Pops dressed more or less as leprechauns; see for yourself on YouTube). This song warns women to be careful of their thyme, as there are apparently lots of men out there who are keen to steal thyme from young ladies. Maybe things were different in the past, but I do not think thyme was ever that much in demand, so there might be some kind of metaphor business going on here.

The one song I do really like here though is one called 'Willie O Winsbury'. It is not the first song on the record with instrumental accompaniment, but it still leaps out at me more than anything gone before. The song tells the story of a king who returns from imprisonment abroad to discover that his daughter Janet is up the duff thanks to the attentions of one Willie O Winsbury. The King has this rogue brought in bound with the intention of having him hanged for his impudence, but on seeing him he is blown over by Willie O Winsbury's handsome features. The King blesses the marriage of his daughter and this mysterious character and they all seem to then live happily ever after. I am not sure what is so appealing about the song. Partly it might just be that it ends on a surprisingly positive not for a folk tune, for all that there is an air of dramatic tension all the way through it. But it is also a great tune and one that suits Briggs' voice. Her own playing on the bouzouki is also part of what makes this song so attractive, so much so that for me it is a pity she did not play that instrument on the a cappella tracks.

Even if you have never heard Anne Briggs singing this song you have probably heard the tune. An instrumental version played by a brass band features in The Wicker Man, during the procession.

I like 'Willie O Winsbury so much that it alone justifies these two Anne Briggs records.

Before moving along, I should mention two non-musical things about Anne Briggs, though they do bring me dangerously close to the Van Morrison School of Music Journalism. The first of these is that from old photographs of Anne Briggs it is clear that back in the day she was stunningly beautiful. I know it is wrong to judge artists on the basis of their looks, but with Anne Briggs her sultry looks are so striking that it would be almost surreal to ignore them. The other fact-tastic fact about her is that back in the day she was famously a bit of a hellraiser; in a notoriously boozy scene she was known for a terrifying level of alcohol consumption, for being drunk all the time and a tendency to engage in bizarre behaviour (jumping off a cliff into the Atlantic to swim with dolphins being the one people most talk about). I think I read somewhere that Richard Thompson cannot recall ever meeting her when she was not in a drunken stupor. It has been suggested that it was a shared fondness for terrifying levels of alcohol consumption that may have facilitated her relationship with the allegedly "difficult" Irish performer Johnny Moynihan (that and a shared interest in bouzoukis and Moynihan being a bit of a roffler).
[meta: I am now worried that Anne Briggs will google herself, find this, and leave an irate comment saying "Do you mind, I was never more than a social drinker! Those stories are just the idle tittle tattle of jealous liars!"]

I saw some relatively recent footage of Anne Briggs on YouTube, I think a clip from a Folk Britannia documentary. It was interesting what good shape she was in for her age, both physically and mentally. Unlike John Martyn and others she seems to have managed to not let alcohol destroy her body and mind. I don't know if she has given up alcohol completely or merely cut back to a more modest level of intake, but it is nice to see that there is more than one way these kind of stories can end.

image source (Tumblr)

Foster and Allen

An inuit panda production

Monday, May 05, 2014

[record review] The Knife "Shaking the Habitual" (2013)

I am a member of Frank's APA, an amateur press association for people who like music. I sometimes worry that my APA colleagues and I are maybe a bit too isolated in our own musical tastes, that we enjoy yapping away about our own stuff but do not really engage with what other people like. As a way of countering that, I decided that I would start buying an album every two months that had been written about in the APA and made to sound interesting. And I started with this record. I got the two CD version, which seems to differ from the more expensive one disc edition by the inclusion of a long track at the end of disc one. That long track is mostly silent and barely musical. If the two disc version was more expensive I would feel a bit ripped off. But it is not, so hey.

I am one of those people who has a theoretical fondness for the Knife but before acquiring this record had heard next to nothing by them. I have heard the Fever Ray record by Mrs The Knife, but I accept that that is a bit different. For one thing it seems a bit more dance-floor oriented, apart from the quiet ambient tracks.

OK, I will come clean, I have not really listened to this record enough to say anything detailed about it. I like it, certainly, but I think it needs closer listening over time to tease out its secrets. I am interested by the slight nods towards Whitey's idea of what music from the Global Southern sounds like. The record certainly has a looseness that I would not normally expect from electronic music.

Although there are tracks called 'Oryx' and 'Crake', there do not seem to be any songs that just laboriously recount the plot of Margaret Atwood SF novels.

Fever Ray

Shaking the Panda

An inuit panda production

Sunday, May 04, 2014

[Live] New Music Dublin

Wow, someone has managed to get the funding together for another modern composition festival in the National Concert Hall, truly the Celtic Tiger is back. But they are still not selling any kind of season ticket to this so going to more than a coupe of events is unaffordably expensive if like me you are attempting to live within your means. Thus I made it to just three events this year. The handy combination of my bad memory and time constraints means that I will not say too much about them.

The first event was a concert in the John Field room by the Arditti Quartet. These are the string quartet of Mr Arditti and they play the modern composition. I have no memory of the composers of the pieces they played on this occasion, but I do remember quite a few of them being of the scratchy scrapey variety. As a person of forward thinking tastes this was right up my alley, but when one movement of one piece suddenly went all melodic (I think representing snowfall or rainfall or something) I found myself thinking that maybe melody is a bit underrated in the world of modern composition, which made me wonder if I was turning into Geir Hongro (Mr Hongro is this fellow I remember from the I Love Music message-board, who used to post about how melody is the only important thing in music and that music without melody is not worth listening to, always advancing this extreme opinion in a very polite and courteous manner regardless of the critical brickbats that would be thrown his way).

Then on Friday I went to a concert by the Crash Ensemble who were playing in what used to be the Engineering Library of UCD in Earlsfort Terrace and has now been annexed to the National Concert Hall. I was amused by the idea that the musicians were sitting where once bound volumes of the International Journal of Sludge Disposal once were shelved. The pieces played were by Michael Gordon and Gyorgy Ligeti and were enjoyable. I think maybe the chamber concerto of Ligeti was the most enjoyable piece as it made the fullest use of the ensemble.

After that in a mysterious room (but not the old Medical Library as claimed by the programme) we were treated to a "performance" of Karlheinz Stockhausen's 'Oktphonie'. I put performance in scare-quotes because this was one of those electro-acoustic events where it is all pre-recorded and you could basically be sitting at home listening to it if you had good enough sound system. This was played in room with four speakers (not 8, unless there was an extra four I failed to notice) and the music did proper quadrophonic stuff, moving around the corners and all that. As this was on quite late and I had had a little drink I did get a bit puppy tired and nearly nodded off once or twice, which was most enjoyable.

One final interesting thing about the Friday concerts was that I recognised a lot of faces I am used to seeing at the kind of avant-garde musical events I associate with the Skinny Wolves-Joinery-Hunters Moon axis. I tend not to see that kind of people at events associated with the Crash Ensemble, Ergodos or Kaleidoscope. Could it be that the musical barriers are breaking down and the separate worlds of weirdo music are merging into one unstoppable force?

image source (Wikipedia)

New Music Dublin website (check out all the things I did not go to)

An inuit panda production

Saturday, May 03, 2014

[film] "The Swimmer" [1968]

This was the only non-music film I saw in the recent Dublin film festival. It is an old film (from 1968) that I had never seen before but which had somehow come up in conversation a couple of weeks before the festival programme came out. The basic premise of the film is simple enough. Burt Lancaster plays a man who arrives out of the blue in the enormous back garden of some friends. He is wearing only swimming trunks and he takes a dip in their pool to call off. He chats to his friends, who offer him a lift home, but he then decides that instead he will swim home through all the swimming pools in the gardens on the way. As he heads off on this strange journey, he at first meets more old friends (all of whom seem to be resting after parties to which he was not invited) who are invariably pleased to see him.

As the journey goes on, people become less pleased to see him, with the first inkling of this being a nudist couple who worry that he is going to try and palm money off him, implying that he is in some financial difficulties. We get an increasing sense that all is not right in the world of the Burt Lancaster character - are his wife and daughters really waiting eagerly for his return? Why is he so evasive when his wife is mentioned? Has something gone very wrong with his financial affairs? And his behaviour seems increasingly odd the more you see of it (beyond deciding to swim home through neighbour's swimming pools). He meets the daughter of a friend who when younger used to babysit his now grown-up daughters. He talks to her about coming over to babysit them again, which she takes as a joke but it starts looking like he is a bit confused. He persuades her to come with him, but his behaviour to her becomes increasingly inappropriate. She runs away, but he swims on, meeting people who are increasingly hostile to him. It would not be a spoiler to reveal that things do not end well for him.

So by now you get the idea of what we have here - a film about a crisis of masculinity in middle class middle aged white America, the sense that something has gone wrong with the lives of the parents of the baby boomers. The sexual politics are fascinating, both in terms of the swimmer's relationships with the women he meets on the way (especially the friend's daughter and another character, an actress with whom he had had an affair that ended badly) and with his wife and daughters at home. And race gets thrown into the mix too, when he meets the black servant of one house he visits, he mixes him up for the servant they used to have and talks about how wonderfully musical he had been, whereupon the actual servant says something like "I bet he had a great sense of rhythm?"

I have seen Burt Lancaster in relatively few films, but in this he is perfect, conveying the kind of ambiguous confidence that the role requires. He projects this awesome virility but also the sense that it is a mask hiding some terrible failure.

So this is a film I recommend whole-heartedly to people who like films.

image source (Wikipedia)

An inuit panda production

Friday, May 02, 2014

[film]"Bad Brains: a Band in DC" (2012)

And this was the last of the Allison and Tiffany Anders programmed music documentaries in the 2014 Jameson International Dublin Film Festival. It tells the story of the well known DC hardcore band. They emerged in the late 1970s and had two notable features separate to their music. First of all, they were African American, which made them extremely unusual in the white-tastic world of punk. Secondly, they were weird. Now, lots of musicians are weird, but Bad Brains' weirdness, in their early days, came from an espousal of Positive Mental Attitude, a kind of cargo cult psychological approach they had acquired from a self-help book with the title Think And Grow Rich. Part of this Positive Mental Attitude thing was an avoidance of alcohol and drøgs, which means that Bad Brains arguably brought straight edge into the world (this is not necessarily a good thing, and I should know, for right now I am enjoying a relaxing time with some fine Yamazaki whisky).

There is some very grainy early footage of Bad Brains playing live, and this gives the sense that the band really had something. They come across as really intense, playing very heavy punk music with the winning feature being their extremely driven frontman. But I think they might be one of these bands who rather outstayed their welcome. Several things went wrong for them and I do not think they really ever recovered from them. For one thing, the music seems to have nose-dived in quality after their period of initial promise. Part of their slide into shite was an embrace of the kind of turgid metal that eventually gave us second division grunge bands. The other musical wrong turn was their embrace of reggae after seeing Bob Marley play live. I may be wrong, but I fear that no non-Jamaican act has ever improved their musical output by going reggae. Bad Brains efforts in this area do not suggest to me that they were bringing anything particularly new to the reggae table, in contrast to the rather exciting sounds of their early punk music. The other thing that went wrong for them was that their lead singer developed pretty serious mental health issues and became rather erratic in his live performances (and not in a good way).

Overall this was an interesting documentary about a band who were important in a scene I am ultimately not that bothered about. While the human story was engaging enough, the music was definitely the least interesting of the music films shown in the film festival. What also made it a disappointing experience was that the two Anders were not present at the screening, which was a shame as it would have been nice to have them close off their strand of the festival.

I should also mention that I was sorry I did not make it to Deconstructing Dad, another of the films in the music documentary sub-festival. This one was made by Stan Warnow about his father Raymond Scott, who apparently made all kinds of bizarre music for films and TV.

Bad Pandas

The Anders' JDIFF music programme

An inuit panda production

Thursday, May 01, 2014

[film] "Family Band: the Cowsills Story" (2011)

This is another of the music documentaries Allison and Tiffany Anders programmed in the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. It tells the story of the Cowsills, a band I only know of because one of my correspondents wrote a fascinating piece about them for that august publication Frank's APA. In case this is all new to you, the Cowsills were a band of brothers, their little daughter and their mother who had a couple of hits in the late 1960s. Their music has a sunshine pop quality to it, characterised by lots of vocal harmonies and stuff like that. They laid down the template for the Partridge Family. I am unclear as to what extent they played their own instruments or if any of the band wrote their songs. My sense is that their moment of fame was relatively short in the United States and they never troubled the charts over here.

This film was directed by Louise Palanker and is narrated by one of the surviving Cowsill brothers (Barry? Brian? Bill? Boris? Bohemond? There are so many of them and I struggled to get a fixed sense of which was which, though it turns out the narrator was Bob Cowsill). There is a lot of fascinating archive footage and interviews now with the surviving members of the band. And the film looks behind the sunny exterior at the darkness lurking within the Cowsills. That darkness emanated from their father, Bud Cowsill, who seems to have been a thuggish bully. As well as running the family band with a rod of iron, being quite handy with his fists whenever anyone stepped out of line, he reportedly was also sexually abusive to his daughter Susan. His management of the Cowsills seems to have been a bit erratic; his bullish personality opened doors for him, but his ability to piss people meant that these doors tended to quickly close, which may explain the band's short period of success. And he made the bizarre decision to sack the most musically creative of his sons from the band. At the time the story was that whichever one of them he sacked had been caught smoking a joint, but the film argues that it was actually because he stood up to his dad (which in this case means he refused a beating).

Bud Cowsill is no longer alive and so cannot answer these accusations on camera. Barbara Cowsill, mother of the others, also died some time ago, so Bud is only dealt with by interviews with his children and his sister and Barbara's sisters. The picture painted of him is not a pleasant one but it is one-sided, even if confirmed by so many different voices.

What I was struck by, though, was the contrast between the adult Cowsills accounts of their miserable past and the archive footage of them playing on TV shows. In the old footage they look so carefree, so effortlessly happy that it is hard to imagine the tenterhooks they lived on at home. I thought maybe that was something the film could have explored more. Was their scary dad explicitly telling them to go out there and look happy or they would get it at home? Or were they able to escape their father's reign of terror when they were performing? They do seem to have genuinely liked playing music, so the latter is perhaps more likely.

The film brings the story up to something approximating to the present day. Things went better for some of the Cowsills than others, with some of them battling substance abuse issues and that kind of thing. Many of them seemed to have retained some kind of engagement with music, and there is an interesting sequence where they are invited to sing the national anthem before a baseball game in Fenway Park. They decided initially that all of them would sing it, even Dick Cowsill, who years previously had been blocked from joining the band by their father (Bud claimed Dick failed a drumming audition but it seems more that the father just hated him). This leads to an awkward scene where the siblings are practicing in a hotel room, and Dick just cannot do the harmonies as he does not have the singing experience, leading to some terrible inter-sibling sulkiness. In the end he show up at Fenway and mimes and the whole thing goes off very well (what a great national anthem America has, tears even came to the eye of freedom-hating me). The only downside to that incident was one of the more freewheelin' Cowsills passing out in the Red Sox hall of fame after having a bit too much of the hospitality.

The film rolls on, presenting the sad deaths of two of the more wayward siblings and showing the others as they continue on in music (to at least some extent) and with life generally. For all the sadness that these people went through the film ends up being quite uplifting in its portrayal of people who really do seem to love music and love that they are continuing to make it, even if they know that their fame was a fleeting period in the past and one that will not return.


MusicFilmWeb interview with Louise Palanker and Bob Cowsill (image source)

The Anders' JDIFF music programme

An inuit panda production