Magma: live in concert (pt. 1)

Symbole_de_Magma

Dear Matt:

How appropriate that immediately after my confused, vaguely angry response to Die Antwoord, you’re coming with me to see Magma in concert.

Let me explain Magma. Magma is a jazz-fusiony prog band from France, led by virtuoso drummer Christian Vander. They’ve made 11 albums, each of which further expounds the sprawling utopian sci-fi mythos that they’ve developed over the course of their half-century of existence. Magma doesn’t just do concept albums. They’re a concept band.

The actual story that the albums tell is pretty tough to discern, because the bulk of the music is sung in Vander’s constructed language of Kobaïan, which is sort of a blend of French, German and speaking in tongues. Vander even came up with a Kobaïan name for the genre of music Magma plays. It’s called “Zeuhl” (pronounced “tsoil”), and it is characterized by slow-burning repetitive patterns, chanting from the small choir of backup singers that always accompanies the band, and virtuosic free improvisations on the bass, drums and guitar.

Lyric translations are not available because many Kobaïan words don’t have literal meanings. However, we do know that the basic premise of Magma’s mythology is that after an ecological crisis on Earth, a segment of humankind takes to space and colonizes the far-off planet of Kobaïa. Then there is adventure and and there are wars and there is quite a lot of chant-based spirituality.

I’ve never quite been able to figure out whether Vander actually believes that this story will come to pass. Most of his interviews are in French, so I’ve had trouble getting a handle on him. But, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that he thinks himself a prophet.

Look, I obviously disagree with some of what you said about prog back in your Van Der Graaf Generator response. I don’t think that prog is silly by definition. But Magma is fucking ridiculous. Magma is everything that you thought Van Der Graaf Generator was, times an infinity. An entire infinity. They are maybe the silliest band ever, even more so because they are completely sincere, and most of their audience appears to enjoy them without the barest hint of irony, as well.

I find this a completely untenable way of approaching Magma. They’re the sort of band that leaves me reaching for Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” to explain why I enjoy them. But I do enjoy them, very sincerely. It’s just that a significant part of my enjoyment comes from my sincere appreciation for ridiculousness. I’m completely okay with the sort of music where the artist’s reach exceeds their grasp, many times over. I even find it preferable to most of the alternatives.

I’m a bit jealous of you for getting to experience Magma for the first time, live. Their shows are famously impressive and intense, to the point where their live albums almost make their studio output feel superfluous. The lineup has changed constantly since the 70s, but every cohort has been pretty much equally stellar. They’ve made some of their most acclaimed music in the last decade.

I have my doubts about whether this will be for you. But, you’ll at least be able to say that you’ve seen one of the strangest acts in popular music. This is like seeing Beefheart, or Henry Cow, or John Cage blending vegetables in front of an audience.

So, I’ll see you Thursday, for the greatest evening of virtuoso sci-fi jazz you’re ever likely to experience. I’ll expect your response sometime Friday.

I am ludicrously excited.

— Matthew

Die Antwoord: selected videography (pt. 2)

dieantwoord

Dear Matt:

Ehhhhhhhhhhhh.

Alright. So, here’s how I approached this. When I fired up your playlist, I decided to just let it run, and resist the urge to Google everything. I figured, let’s just allow this to be a pure encounter, informed only by a half-remembered read of your assignment four busy days ago. I’ll just hit the fullscreen button, let Die Antwoord flow through me unmediated, and scribble down a few notes as I go.

Those notes look like the hastily scrawled confessions of a hallucinating trainspotter. It is a testament to the alienating weirdness of Die Antwoord that I appear to have descended into a dissociative state about midway through your playlist.

Honestly, I am as baffled by this music now as I was last night when I listened to it, and I’m spinning my wheels here because I don’t know what to say. I feel like I’m missing a huge chunk of the context for this, and I’m pissed off at Die Antwoord because I’m certain this is by design.

I have one potentially interesting thought, and it is about the tiring question of whether or not any of this is real. One of the many questions I posed to my future self in my scribblings on this viewing was “are those real scorpions?” That is, of course, regarding the video for “Fok Julle Naaiers,” on which Ninja raps: “Next time you ask me is it real, I’m gonna punch you in the face.”

Trouble is, with the way that Die Antwoord present themselves, “Is it real?” is a worthwhile question that everybody’s obviously going to be asking, as regards both the scorpions and the band itself. This is a move that’s been pulled before. It’s a classic Glass Onion — you bait your audience with deliberately cryptic art, then you mock them for trying too hard.

There was a time when I would have had the patience for this. Maybe sometime I will again. Don’t get me wrong: there were plenty of moments when I could barely pull myself away from the screen to make notes. But, it’s late and I’m frustrated and right now I kind of feel the same way about this that I do about the Stockhausen I used to listen to in high school: cut the performance art bullshit and make some goddamn music.

I take no pleasure in disliking things. It makes me feel ignorant. This one will require a revisit.

— Matthew

Die Antwoord: selected videography (pt. 1)

dieantwoord

Dear Matthew:

I just watched an insane movie called Chappie, so this week you’re going to listen to some Die Antwoord.

Die Antwoord (‘the answer’) are hard to describe. They’re usually referred to as a ‘rap-rave’ group, but that really only scratches the surface. The principle members, Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser, are two white South African lowlifes who espouse the idea of ‘zef’, a Afrikaans slang term that means something like a white equivalent of ‘ghetto fabulous’. Along with the mysterious (and possibly apocryphal) DJ Hi-Tek, they make over-the-top club rap in a mix of English and Afrikaans that embraces every ridiculous trope of the genre — all accompanied by some of the most insane music videos ever committed to film.

…except that’s not really the whole story either. Digging beyond the initial weirdness yields no answers, only more weirdness. Ninja and Yo-Landi seem to have a Jack and Meg White sort of relationship — they have a daughter, but it’s not really clear if they’re dating, if they ever have dated, or even when they first met. They’ve both been involved in various other hip hop and art projects before Die Antwoord, and the pair seem to have both attended and later dropped out of art school at some point. Zef doesn’t seem to have really even been a thing before Die Antwoord, or at least not as they portray it. When the band was first blowing up, all of this led a lot of music journalists to write a lot of tiring essays about what Die Antwoord actually is. Is it a prank? Is it performance art? Is it insensitive cultural appropriation? Are they even a ‘real band’? What does ‘real band’ even mean? Do any of these questions matter to anyone who isn’t a music journalist?

I have my own thoughts on Die Antwoord — and even more on the absolutely bonkers aforementioned Neill Blomkamp film in which they star as ‘themselves’ — but I’m interested in hearing yours. Of course, if I just had you listen to an album, you’d be missing out on probably the most striking component of the band, which is their videos. So, in lieu of an album, I’ve put together a selected videography for you to peruse. (A viewing of Chappie afterward is optional, but encouraged.)

Sit back. Relax. Set your YouTube window to fullscreen. And hold on tight.

— Matt

Brooklyn Rider: A Walking Fire (pt. 2)

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Dear Matthew:

This was an interesting experience.

First of all, full disclosure: for the most part, my understanding of classical music is what I believe kids these days would refer to as ‘basic’. For me, like most Canadians, classical music is the stuff that comes out of the car stereo speakers if I accidentally tune into Radio Two outside of standard commuting hours — it’s not entirely unpleasant, but I don’t go out of my way to listen to it. I’m not entirely uninformed — I do have my Grade 8 in piano, something I find as hard to believe as you probably do — but I’m not exactly a font of knowledge, either.

Thanks for starting me with a string quartet. It seems like the most accessible way into this sort of thing. The string quartet seems to be the least pretentious of the various classical tropes. It’s not a huge orchestra with dozens of players and it’s not a virtuosic soloist in whose glory you’re supposed to bask. It’s just four dudes. I like that. It’s a familiar setup.

Quartets also seem to be the only ‘hip’ way to be a classical musician to anyone outside of classical circles. Even with my limited knowledge, I still know who the Kronos Quartet are. Quartets seem to be allowed to get away with a lot boundary pushing that more traditional orchestras seem uncomfortable with.

To wit: the first movement of the first piece on this record, ‘The Game’, is one of the more striking bits of music I’ve heard in recent memory. Its lilting rhythm and odd time signature drive it along as it dips its toes into all sorts of genre palettes. At times it almost felt like something you’d here in an old-timey Wild West-type saloon, at other times almost like swing jazz — in fact, it struck me as being not altogether unlike something like ‘Tired of Waiting’ from NoMeansNo’s Wrong, in that sense. At several points in the Culai piece, there’s even something that sounds pretty much exactly like a pick slide. This is cool stuff, I was thinking to myself. I can get into this.

I have to admit, though, that my interest was waning by the time the Bartók came on. Maybe it’s just a result of my listening strategy? If I’d planned a little better in advance, my I could’ve listened to the album in three parts to avoid the fatigue that was setting in? Or I don’t know, maybe my Millennial attention span just can’t handle anything longer than a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-chorus pop song.

(I actually want to talk about how I listen to new music generally speaking at some point, but here I go talking about the actual music I listened to, so I suppose it’ll have to wait for another week.)

All said, this was pretty much exactly what I was hoping for when we started this project: being intrigued by something completely outside my wheelhouse. This is fun. I’m very interested to hear what else you have lined up for me.

— Matt

Brooklyn Rider: A Walking Fire (pt. 1)

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Dear Matt:

Let’s pick up where we left off before last week’s concert excursion. You had me listen to some loud, crazy punk rock because the time had come for me to confront my fears and doubts. Now, likewise, that time has come for you.

This week, you’ll be listening to classical music. (Well, nominally “classical,” anyway. Someday I’ll bore you with a lengthy diatribe about why that label is stupid, but I’ll spare you for now.) And, just as you offered me a deeply unconventional way into punk, I’m going to be shooting you far off into the outer limits of classical — where the canon fears to tread. Well, kind of.

Your assignment is to listen to A Walking Fire, the 2013 release from the string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

You may be shocked, once you’ve listened to this album, by the notion that some classical music listeners would find it difficult. But you’ve got to understand the fundamental difference between the classical side of the music industry and the rest of it: most major classical releases contain no new music. Instead, they feature new interpretations of old (sometimes very old) music that has been recorded before (sometimes hundreds of times).

So, an album like this, where two of the three works presented are premiere recordings by living composers with unfamiliar names, is not entirely conventional. I, for one, wish that it was. Because, recordings like A Walking Fire are way easier to recommend to adventurous non-classical-fans such as yourself than, say, a recording of Mozart’s 40th symphony.

So, what exactly is on this?

The first piece, Culai, is by a Russian-American composer named Ljova, who isn’t enormously well known, in spite of having written for Yo-Yo Ma and the Kronos Quartet. The last piece, Three Miniatures for String Quartet, is by one of Brooklyn Rider’s violinists, Colin Jacobsen. Both of these were written specifically for Brooklyn Rider, and that’s kind of the point of them: they’re custom-made vehicles for the explosive sound of this quartet, which is unlike any other in the world.

The work that’s sandwiched in between them is different in that it’s 100 years old: Béla Bartók’s second string quartet. Ask any string player who the top three quartet composers ever were, and you’ll probably get some permutation of Haydn, Beethoven and Bartók. Mozart and Schubert might enter the conversation soon after. Of those five, Bartók is the most recent by nearly a century.

Part of why I’m giving you this album is because I’m interested in how you’ll react to the Bartók in relation to the newer music. This album demonstrates two different models of classical music: the “futureproof masterpieces” model in the Bartók, and the “music for now” model in the other pieces.

My feeling is always that music need not stand the test of time before it can be dubbed “good.” It’s remarkable how uncommon that opinion is in classical circles, but I suspect I don’t need to justify it to you.

Anyway, the point is: classical music has lots to offer aside from the earnest pursuit of everlasting beauty. It can also be just casually awesome. That’s the kind of classical music that I’m most attracted to these days, and there is plenty of it on A Walking Fire.

I think you’ll find something to like in this. If not, no worries. I’ve got plenty of other potential classical gateway drugs lined up.

— Matthew

Beardyman: live in concert (pt. 2)

beardyman-live

Dear Matt:

What do you mean I couldn’t get anybody else to go see Magma with me? I’ve got tons of friends who like Magma! Scads, even! I wish you could meet them, but they all live in Canada. Wait…

Beardyman was fun. Really, it was a great show and I had a good time. But, dear god I am a walking cadaver today. As you’ll no doubt be acutely aware yourself, the concert ended after 1 AM — on a Wednesday night. I am writing this in stolen moments during coffee/lunch breaks, animated only by a truly monstrous amount of caffeine. Be informed that my present exhaustion, and the fact that I am a young/old man who Just Cannot Handle This Kind of Thing, is probably colouring my recollections of the concert.

Okay.

Let me start by enthusing about the Beardytron 5000. This contraption is every musician’s dream. It’s what Frank Zappa thought he’d found when he discovered the Synclavier. “It’s my nightmare,” said Beardyman last night, “but it’s also set me free.”

That’s a familiar sentiment to anybody who has ever played an instrument. I remember the frustration from my years as a trumpet student: I knew how I wanted the music on the page in front of me to sound, but the tool at my disposal was a difficult, primitive piece of 19th-century technology — basically, a metal tube that you make fart noises into.

The metaphor I use to explain this sometimes is that playing an instrument is like paying rent. Your rent payment is the thing that allows you to continue living in your apartment. But, it can also be the obstacle that prevents you from continuing to live in your apartment. Likewise, instruments are the things that allow you to make music, but they’re simultaneously the thing that comes between your musical vision and the actual sound.

When Beardyman says that the Beardytron has set him free, he means rent-free. In the context of my metaphor. God, I’m tired.

But, let’s focus for a second on the first part of Beardyman’s explanation: “It’s my nightmare.” He said that because for all it’s awesomeness, the Beardytron is still a ludicrous, cobbled-together Rube Goldberg machine (with a name straight out of Calvin and Hobbes) that sometimes does not work.

Last night, there were at least two instances where the Beardytron was misbehaving sufficiently for its maker to comment on it. They may have been my favourite parts of the night, because those moments emphasized the extent to which Beardyman is a musical Doc Brown: undoubtedly a genius, but an incredibly silly one whose unlikely inventions sometimes blow up in his face.

That’s what makes Beardyman fun — not just that he’s a fantastic musician (good lord, can this man beatbox), but that he’s willing to go to ridiculous lengths to get all those beats out of his head and into the world.

All the same, there were moments where this concert got tiresome for me. As you know, my attitude towards dancing is somewhat along the lines of Taber, Alberta. So, I spent the concert standing with the (reassuringly large) contingent of people who’d rather just listen.

Occasionally, I found myself thinking that I was going about this all wrong. Dance music is sometimes of only limited interest to people standing still. But equally often, I would look down at that writhing horde, dancing to a beat constructed from Beardyman’s ramblings about Bryan Adams and Celine Dion killing the Queen, and think: “What are you even doing? What is this music even for?”

And then I stopped thinking, and I felt just fine.

—Matthew

Beardyman: live in concert (pt. 1)

beardyman

Dear Matthew:

I’m pleased to hear that you liked Wrong. It fills me with hope.

But, as discussed in real life, we’ll be doing something a little different this week. I know it’s a little early in this blog’s life for a format change, but you had the idea that we should make each other go to some live shows. Mostly I just think you couldn’t convince anyone else to go see Magma with you later this month, but either way, we’re switching it up this week, and this week, you’re coming with me to see Beardyman.

Daren ‘Beardyman’ Foreman is hard to describe; any one term I think of is inadequate on its own. He’s a beatboxer. He’s a mimic. He’s an improviser. He’s a live looper. He’s a producer. He’s got about a million things going on in his head at any one time, and he keeps getting better and better at turning them into music with ever decreasing latency. To this end, he has created a device he calls the Beardytron 5000, and that’s what he’ll be using when we see him play on Wednesday.

The Beardytron 5000 is, essentially, a device for translating the sounds in Foreman’s head into music in as close to real time as possible. It’s a series of iPads and various control surfaces hooked up to a number of computers, and Foreman uses it to sample his voice, and then loop and tweak it in any boundless number of ways. It may look like he’s using prerecorded noises or preset synthesizers up there, but he’s not — it’s all built on his voice.

He’s also hilarious. I expect that this particular performance will be mostly just him making (comparatively) straightforward music, since he’s touring to promote his new album, but at other times his performances are almost closer to standup comedy. A favourite gag of his is to ask the audience to shout out genres and made-up song titles, which he will create on the spot. (His sense of humour is also pitch black, which I’m beginning to realize is a common feature in things I like.)

I’m not sure how much appreciation you have for electronic dance music, but I know you like talented and unique musicians, and there are few musicians more talented or more unique than Beardyman. I hope you enjoy the show.

— Matt