Bryce Dessner & Sō Percussion: Music for Wood and Strings (pt. 1)

Dessner

Dear Matt,

Let’s have a change of pace. This week, you’ll be listening to something brand new.

Bryce Dessner is the guitarist from The National (the band, not the newscast), a group that I think you and I have about equal experience with — that is, not much. However, Dessner has been on my radar for a while in his other capacity as a composer. He’s written music for the Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can, and even the LA Phil. Nothing I’d heard of his really hit home — until this past May.

Music for Wood and Strings is a 35-minute composition for the New York percussion quartet Sō Percussion. Sō is a group with a similar spirit to our old friends Brooklyn Rider. They fall broadly under that nebulous umbrella of ‘art music’ — they’re a bunch of Yale grads — but they’ve got a sense of adventure and a penchant for working with composers on developing new repertoire. (I’m especially fond of their recording with Canadian composer Nicole Lizée.)

This collaboration with Dessner has the added dimension of being written for entirely new instruments. Dessner and the instrument maker Aaron Sanchez (from the DIY pop duo Buke and Gase) designed a contraption that they’ve creatively named the ‘chord stick.’ It’s kind of like an amplified hammered dulcimer that you’re meant to approach much more as a percussionist would than a guitarist. Sō strikes their four chord sticks with everything from drum brushes to the pink erasers at the ends of lead pencils.

I’m not going to say a whole lot more, because I’m still processing this music myself. I have to say, though: a few listens in, I’m totally sold. This is the best new music I’ve heard all year. You’ll recognize a distinct influence from minimalism, but composers of Dessner’s relatively recent vintage tend to use the innovations of people like Steve Reich and Michael Nyman as one ingredient in a more complex stew.

I think you’re going to like this. I’ve already recommended it to a few people, and I’ve only had positive responses. I wonder how your first impression will compare to mine?

— Matthew

M.I.A.: Kala (pt. 2)

Kala

Dear Matt:

This tweet notwithstanding, I can detect no connection between M.I.A. and Kate Bush. But hey, one’s ears are one’s own. Moving on.

I have never been much for subtlety. You will have gathered that by now. That tendency extends from my taste in rock to my preference of Beethoven string quartets. (Opus 132, please. Keep your 127.) So, M.I.A’s aesthetic is well within the ballpark of ‘stuff I tend to like.’ (Subtle as a landmine, indeed.) Kala’s great.

But, let me be totally honest: after a couple of listens, ‘Paper Planes’ still eclipses everything else on the album. You may find that disappointing, the same way I do when someone informs me that their favourite Jethro Tull song is ‘Aqualung,’ or their favourite Peter Gabriel song is ‘Sledgehammer.’

Why should that be disappointing, though? Once in a while, the slightly-left-of-centre (though not necessarily obscure) artists that thinky music people* listen to make a song that allows the rest of the world to get in on the joy. Isn’t that worth celebrating? Of course it is. That, for me, was a key takeaway of the most tiring ideological debate in pop culture over the last decade.

But, to write that just now, I had to subdue a tremendous amount of pathological geekiness and symphony-goer snobbery. Because, the fact is, the music that speaks most deeply to me speaks to a relatively small number of people. I’m under no illusions that there’s any superiority in that. But, some part of me can’t help thinking that when an artist does manage to conjure the secret sauce for a ‘Paper Planes’ or a ‘Sledgehammer,’ they sacrifice something that makes the bulk of their music so meaningful to the true believers.

And it’s entirely possible that I’m not equipped to be a true believer in this case. You entreated me in your assignment to engage with M.I.A.’s mashup aesthetic, and consider her as one of the first breakout artists of the digital age. And while I love mashups in concept, I suspect that some of the effect was lost on me in this case, since Kala appears to mostly reference stuff I’ve never heard of. The only references I caught were the Clash and the Pixies — the first only because you told me, and the second only because of Fight Club.

But, I’ve just realized that I’m doing that thing again where I make it seem like I enjoyed an album less than I did. I really enjoyed Kala, and I’ll definitely be checking out more M.I.A. One of the structural weaknesses in this project is that it can only ever be about first impressions. Ten listens from now, ‘Paper Planes’ might be my least favourite track on the album.

— Matthew

*These people are the worst. (Mea culpa.)

Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick (pt. 1)

TAAB

Dear Matt,

So far in this project, I’ve endeavoured not to advocate too hard for the albums I’ve assigned you, to give you a bit more room to say your piece. I have mostly failed. This time, though, I’m throwing that whole notion to the wind because there’s no point in even trying.

There was a time in my life when I tried to purge myself of favourites. I’d say I had no favourite movie, no favourite book, no favourite composer, no favourite album. The idea was to embrace the vast and untameable diversity of stuff out there and not reduce it to a select few exemplary works. Or some bullshit like that.

Needless to say, it didn’t take. I was lying to myself the whole time: I have a favourite everything. My favourite movie is Brazil. My favourite book is At Swim-Two-Birds. My favourite composer is Mahler. And, beyond a doubt, my favourite album is Jethro Tull‘s Thick as a Brick.

People are often taken aback when I tell them that, because Tull is widely seen as a bit of a novelty act: that rock band with a flute player. But Ian Anderson’s flute playing doesn’t actually have that much to do with why I love Jethro Tull. Anderson isn’t just the guy who invented rock flute playing. He also has one of the most boundless and versatile imaginations in rock. The rest of the band is fantastic too, but they’re utterly dominated by Anderson — in a way that King Crimson, for instance, has never quite been dominated by Robert Fripp.

That’ll have to do as a primer on what Jethro Tull is, because Thick as a Brick itself requires quite a lot of explanation. The famous backstory goes like this: Tull’s major commercial breakthrough came in 1971 with ‘Aqualung,’ the title song from their fourth album. The album itself got a lot of attention, and some critics called it a concept album, because it had a couple of major lyrical themes running through it.

This was news to Anderson, who saw Aqualung as ‘just a bunch of songs.’ Moreover, concept albums were the province of prog rock, which Anderson regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. He saw Jethro Tull as an unusually adventurous blues-rock band — as different as you can get from the psychedelia-tinged pastoralism of Genesis, Yes, and early King Crimson.

So, when it came time to record the followup to Aqualung, Anderson decided to announce that difference in a characteristically outlandish way. He would produce ‘the mother of all concept albums’: a sprawling parody that would take all of the trends in progressive rock — longer and longer songs, circuitous and cod-philosophical lyrics, elaborate packaging — far beyond their logical conclusions.

The resulting album came with a satirical newspaper that took longer to produce than the actual music. It possessed a sly backstory wherein the album’s lyrics were written by a precocious (and fictional) eight-year-old named Gerald Bostock. And the record itself consisted of only one song, which spanned the entire length of the album. The fact that the technology of the time functionally prohibited this (you have to flip the record over mid-song) only adds to the absurdity of the premise.

It even manages to shoehorn a bit of elitism into the equation. The first line drips with open disdain for the listener: ‘Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.’ It would be offensive if it were serious.

But, the whole affair has ‘satire’ written all over it. Anderson has always claimed that he was basically taking the piss with this album, and that presumably spared him a great deal of vitriol when the early punks came along five years later. You seldom hear Jethro Tull cited as one of the key offenders in discussions of 70s bombast. They were just having a laugh, after all.

But here’s where that narrative falters: Thick as a Brick is the best progressive rock album ever made. It is bursting with energy, it is structurally ingenious (with almost all of the section transitions being based on the opening riff), and the lyrics are just as trenchant in their critique of England’s class system as they are in their parody of Pete Sinfield. And it’s fun. It’s just fun.

I mean, that word ‘best’ is subjective, clearly. But, among prog fans, rock fans, critics and everybody else, the idea that Thick as a Brick is in the top tier of prog masterpieces is completely uncontroversial. This, in spite of the fact that it’s ostensibly a piss-take.

And that is why you are listening to this album at this point in our correspondence. When you described Mr. Oizo as “taking the piss out of [dance music] and its fans — while still producing outstanding examples of it,” my mind immediately jumped to Thick as a Brick.

Your experiences with Van Der Graaf Generator, Magma and King Crimson should be enough to demonstrate what prog is like in sincerity mode. So, what do you think? How much irony is there in Thick as a Brick? And do these trifling matters of authorial intent make any difference at all?

And, most importantly, do you like it?

— Matthew

P.S. I once proved that Ian Anderson is a good singer, using math. You know, just in case you’re not sure how far my loyalties extend.

Mr. Oizo: Lambs Anger (pt. 2)

lambsanger

Dear Matt:

Well, this was an aesthetic experience. What a pity that website is getting torched. Such a loss.

I must congratulate you on your expert guidance into the world of Quentin Dupieux. This could easily have been a disaster — there’s something perverse about recommending an album that parodies French house, when the recommendee’s experience with that genre is basically limited to Daft Punk’s Discovery. But Lambs Anger worked for me. And I think part of the reason why it worked was because because Rubber got me into the right headspace for it.

I actually watched Rubber in its entirety, because how can you not? Metafictions like this are catnip to me. (See also: Mulholland Drive, Holy Motors, Adaptation). I came for the self-reflexive genre critique; I stayed for the unexpected joy of watching a weirdly sympathetic anthropomorphized tire blow shit up.

Still, that opening is the lynchpin of the whole thing, isn’t it? I think it’s especially notable that our self-aware police lieutenant frames the movie as an homage rather than a satire. (I’m sure the two can overlap. In this case, though, they don’t.) Rubber observes that much of what happens in movies happens for the sloganistic “no reason.” But, instead of suggesting that there’s something wrong with that, the movie concludes that it’s the natural order of things and indeed, that it’s the “most powerful element of style.” And then, Rubber proves its point by being incredibly fun to watch.

I’m quite certain that there’s something similar afoot in Lambs Anger. You mentioned in your assignment that there’s an element of piss-taking in what Mr. Oizo does. (And, frankly, if he is just punking the scene, it’s working. Have you read the Pitchfork review of this? Daaaamn.) But, as you well know, that’s not the whole story. Dupieux has mastered a concept that I like to hammer on about: the qualities that make a thing patently ridiculous or flawed can (and in many cases, should) be construed as positive to the overall experience of that thing. (I’m going to link to Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” again, because any opportunity etc. Though I should stress that Dupieux’s self-awareness disqualifies him from inclusion in that category right from the outset.)

That notion of just owning your idols’ ridiculousness is the explicit theme of Rubber. In Lambs Anger, it’s more implicit, but it’s still there. It is also the theme of Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, which is an album I only invoke when I’m in a really good mood.

A final observation: at one point in Rubber, there’s a bedraggled hitchhiker walking along the desert road. Upon investigation, I discovered that he’s the co-composer of the movie’s score, and a member of Justice — who you referenced in your post. He’s also wearing a Yes t-shirt. I am going to allow myself one of my occasional lapses into mysticism and take this as a sign that your next assignment needs to be another prog album.

Guess.

Which.

One.

— Matthew

King Crimson: Red (pt. 1)

red

Dear Matt:

Time for prog rock round three.

King Crimson is for some reason the coolest of the classic prog bands. You seem to have picked up on that yourself, given your opening remarks in your Magma response. I have a few theories as to why that is. Bullet points!

  • It could be because they were first. Their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King is widely regarded as the first proper progressive rock album, which would serve as a model for Yes, Genesis and their ilk.
  • They avoided certain dated genre tropes. They never made a concept album. They didn’t mount over-the-top stage extravaganzas. They generally didn’t dress like this.
  • Robert Fripp wasn’t a hippie. He was, and is, an aloof intellectual who’d rather hang out with Brian Eno and Terre Roche than Rick Wakeman and Greg Lake (who he reportedly once threw out of a limousine).
  • They constantly reinvented themselves. The first eight King Crimson albums all feature different lineups. Fripp had a tendency to dissolve the band and reconvene it with entirely new members and a dramatically different sound.

That last point brings up something important: King Crimson isn’t really a band in any meaningful sense. They’re a series of bands, at best — with a leader in common. Fripp has described King Crimson as ‘a way of doing things,’ which is just one example from his lexicon of strange ways to talk about his band. King Crimson doesn’t break up; they ‘cease to exist.’ And they don’t re-form; they ‘return to active service.’

Picking an album to assign was no small task, given that not many of them have much in common. In the Court is probably their most revered album. But, it’s also the wellspring of a particular kind of prog that I know you don’t enjoy. Discipline, perhaps? Nah, too easy. It’s practically Talking Heads with polyrhythms.

Red, then. This version of King Crimson, my personal favourite, made three albums in ‘73/’74, of which Red is the last. True to form, Fripp couldn’t maintain a steady roster for all three albums: they lost their auxiliary percussionist after the first and their violinist after the second. So, on Red, the band contains three official members: Fripp on guitar, John Wetton on bass and vocals, and Bill Bruford on drums. This is the leanest that King Crimson would ever get, although the album features guest performances by a number of ex-Crimson members on various orchestral instruments.

I won’t get into the music on the album too much: I’ll leave that to you again. I can’t resist a few remarks, though. More bullet points!

  • “Providence” was recorded live. It’s one of the band’s famous free improvisations. Their willingness to just go out onstage and jam is one of the things that sets them apart from many of their prog contemporaries, who tended to stick to the script.
  • “Starless” is, for my money, one of the five or six best tracks of 70s prog. It takes a completely unique and surprising approach to making a 12-minute-long song.
  • Astonishing though it may seem, Fripp is possibly the least technically accomplished member of the band at this point. Bruford is the best jazz drummer who barely ever played jazz (he came to Crimson straight out of Yes), and Wetton is a true bass virtuoso, although he gives a fairly restrained performance here.

Okay, I was going to try to be finished at this point. But, given your response to the prog you’ve encountered so far, I do have just a bit more to say.

People often assume, as you have at times in the course of this blog, that prog fans enjoy this music primarily on an intellectual level because, to quote you back at yourself, ‘it’s very technically impressive that you can play in weird keys and modes and flawlessly stick to bizarre time signatures.’ And, I’m sure there are fans out there for whom that’s the primary appeal. Certainly, complexity and technical proficiency are factors that enter into every defence of prog that I’ve ever read.

But, I’ve always found that defense a bit self-defeating, because for most listeners, complexity and technical proficiency are not values in themselves — nor are they necessarily even discernable. And I don’t actually think that those are really the reasons why prog appeals to most of its fan base. I think that it’s like any other kind of music: some people just respond to it intuitively, and others don’t. If this album doesn’t provoke that kind of intuitive response from you, I’m not sure there’s any prog that will. (Which doesn’t mean that I won’t keep trying, naturally.)

My challenge to you as you listen to Red is the same challenge that the MC offered the audience at the Magma concert we attended: don’t try to intellectualize this music. Contrary to its Apollonian image, that is not what it’s for. There are bits of this album that are in 13/8 time. Do not misconstrue that as being ‘the point.’

I await your response with even more anticipation than usual.

— Matthew

The Micronauts: Bleep to Bleep (pt. 2)

bleeptobleep

Dear Matt:

I’m afraid I am about to fulfil your fear about this response: that I may be entirely indifferent to the Micronauts.

I dunno, man. I’m at a loss. Remember when you didn’t like Godbluff, but you didn’t hate it either, and you kind of wished you had? That’s the situation I’m in with Bleep to Bleep. But, unlike Godbluff, this album doesn’t seem to me like the sort of music that’s even supposed to provoke a strong reaction. It’s the kind of music I tend not to have much to say about. It’s the kind of music that I might forget I’m listening to, and when I remember, I’m slightly annoyed. It’s the kind of music where, if it were playing in a store, I might leave sooner.

Obviously, I’m completely wrong about this: more on which later.

My favourite part of Bleep to Bleep was the track ‘Bleeper_0+2,’ a pretty straightforward noise track, with no beat. And that’s basically what I liked: it offered some respite from the merciless beat that otherwise pervades the entire album. When I started writing this post, I was worried that I would come off as hypocritical for critiquing the album’s sameness — the quality that you see as the source of its fascination — when I’m a fan of Steve Reich. But, there’s a fundamental difference between the Micronauts’ minimalism and Reich’s. Both employ ‘small amounts of musical material animated by obvious patterns,’ as I (inadequately) defined minimalism three posts ago. But Reich’s obvious patterns drive the music towards gradual change. The Micronauts’ patterns do not. Bleep to Bleep changes constantly, sure. But it doesn’t go anywhere. I had a theory teacher once, who pointed out that Reich’s most substantial gift was knowing when a musical idea would outstay its welcome. I would not personally say the same of the Micronauts.

As I’ve said before, I don’t enjoy disliking things. My philosophy is that if I don’t find something to admire in a piece of music, it must say more about my liabilities as a listener than the musicians’ shortcomings as artists. There’s a reason I’ve chosen to think that way: it’s self-evidently better to like more music than less music. Selectivity is for chumps. And if I put the onus on myself to appreciate a piece of music on its own terms, rather than on the musician to produce something that I can approach on mine, I’m more likely to enjoy more music. Plus, I’m inclined to think that it might make me a more empathetic human being, which is a win for everybody around me. (It may also explain my increasing tendency to write about myself instead of the music that you assign. Sorry about that.)

I remain frustrated that I haven’t been able to find a way into Two Fingers or the Micronauts. The fact that these are artists that you love makes it worse because it confirms that they can inspire the kind of nerdy joy that is essentially what I live for.

So, I’d like to make a proposition. If we’re still plugging away at this correspondence in a year or so, maybe we can take a week or two and just look back on a couple of albums that we haven’t liked. Because, how gratifying would it be to find that we’ve become better, more open music listeners over the course of this project?

— Matthew

Michael Nyman & Motion Trio: Acoustic Accordions (pt. 1)

Acoustic Accordions

Dear Matt:

Let’s not bury the lead, here: this week, you’ll be listening to neo-classical minimalism played on accordions.

Alright. Now, let’s take a few steps back. Michael Nyman is an English composer whose career took off in the 70s. I think of him as England’s response to Philip Glass. Both are generally classified as composers of ‘minimalist music,’ though Glass disdains the term. Nyman is thought to have coined it.

Minimalist music, to oversimplify ludicrously, uses small amounts of musical material animated by obvious patterns. It can yield strikingly varied musical results, depending on the bag of tricks possessed by a given composer. Steve Reich does minimalism by way of phasing. Glass does it (in spite of himself) by way of additive and subtractive processes. Nyman tends to do it by swiping bass lines and chord progressions from the likes of Purcell and Mozart and just repeating them over and over again with textural variations. The source material makes it feel more ‘classical’ than any of the other minimalists, but it still has the same directness and drive.

Nyman writes a lot of music for his own band, which has a really distinctive sound that informs the way he composes. A big part of that sound is that they do not play in tune, to such an extent that I can only assume it’s deliberate. Their terrible intonation gives the impression of a troupe of Saturday morning cartoon characters having found themselves in a Victorian novel and trying to act naturally. It’s fascinatingly grotesque.

The esoteric little album I’ve chosen for you this week does not feature the Michael Nyman Band, but I feel that you should know what they sound like, just for context. So, I’m appending a 12-minute prelude to your assignment proper. (After last week’s tripartite Amon Tobin marathon, I feel no guilt whatsoever.) That prelude is the tremendous funeral march, Memorial.

Like most of what you’ll be listening to this week, Memorial appeared in a film by Peter Greenaway, a director that Nyman collaborated with on 11 films. Greenaway’s directorial sensibility is so painterly that in the movie Memorial appears in — The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover — he had his actors wear different costumes in different rooms so that they’d fit the colour scheme. His movies represent a perfect blend of the very modern and the very Baroque, making Nyman the perfect musical counterpart.

(Apparently, Greenaway is at least partially responsible for Nyman’s constant Baroque references. He often requested that Nyman reference very specific pieces by composers like Heinrich Biber.)

Now. On to Acoustic Accordions. The Motion Trio are three Polish accordion players who you’re more likely to find playing Penderecki than polka. This album finds Motion playing Nyman’s music with the composer himself plunking along on the piano (with occasional interjections from Nigel Barr on trombone and euphonium). It mostly consists of music that was originally written for the Nyman Band and featured in Greenaway’s movies.

There are two notable exceptions: Nyman takes a solo piano turn on “The Heart Asks Pleasure First,” which is from the movie The Piano (very much not directed by Greenaway) and is probably his most famous melody. And, the album’s final track, “Silence,” actually has nothing to do with Nyman at all, except in an anxiety-of-influence sort of way. It was written by the Motion Trio’s own Janusz Wojtarowicz, an accomplished composer in his own right. Wojtarowicz is also responsible for the arrangements on this album.

I have lots to say about this music. I could get really analytical. But, it strikes me that this album, obscure as it is, comes completely unencumbered by cultural baggage. So, let’s run with that. I’ve given you the context; I’ll let you supply the opinions.

As always, I do hope you like it.

— Matthew

Amon Tobin: ISAM (pt. 2)

isam

Dear Matt:

God, I also love Amon Tobin. I love him so much that I wrote 1400 words on him. Strap in.

You mustn’t have actually thought there was a chance I wouldn’t like this, right? This provides exactly the same kind of sensory overload that makes me love Mahler and Yes and electric Miles Davis so much. It’s actually amazing how soon I knew I was going to love this. I suspected I would as soon as I saw the art, actually. But I knew this was going to be my kind of album within the first minute.

So, let’s look into that first minute a little more closely.

Journeyman‘ begins with three simultaneous sound qualities: something that sounds like a cymbal roll with mallets, a noise like windswept paper kept down low in the mix, and a series of slow, rhythmic bworps. The bworps set the tempo for the track and act as the first source of tension. (What will the next bworp sound like? And the next?) Eight or nine bworps in, they begin to change more perceptibly, like Tobin is turning up the cutoff frequency on one of his ad-hoc synths (which may be what he’s doing, although I’m not nearly well-versed enough in these matters to know).

But, just as it seems like a pattern is developing (the bworps will keep getting higher in pitch), Tobin pulls back on the reins and keeps them consistent, making way for the incoming percussive noises. Note that I didn’t say ‘beat’ — because ‘beat’ would imply that there’s a pattern in play, and other than the steady tempo, there doesn’t appear to be. A series of Wurlitzer-like tones plays in double time to the bworps, with emphases placed seemingly arbitrarily. Certainly, they have nothing to do with what beat of the measure we’re on.

As the track builds, Tobin introduces new sounds sequentially. He does use some of them more than once, but never with the same melodic fragments. Virtually the entire opening — the entire track; the entire album — is an exercise in constantly generating new material. Something happens, then something else happens, then something else. There is very little recapitulation.

It’s a miracle how Tobin can hold attention with this technique. Patterns, you see, are what makes music make sense. Musicologists and mathematicians agree on that. ISAM works differently; it builds to something, then refuses to follow through, instead choosing to keep going off in new directions. It’s basically the opposite of that kind of music I mentioned in my Belle and Sebastian response — the kind that feels clear and self-evident. This is music where you can always feel a human consciousness pushing and poking at it, ensuring that it never falls into a pattern that feels natural, or straightforward.

Evidently, both extremes can be equally satisfying.

I could really go on about the album, but you’ve assigned me more, and I’m already embarrassingly late on this, so I’d best move on.

isamlive

Pretty much as soon as I started watching ISAM Live, over a bowl of Thai coconut soup at my desk, I realized that the visuals were basically going to be the point. There was altogether too much daylight in my living room for me to properly appreciate this sort of dark psychedelia, so I shut myself in my closet with my laptop. I built a little armchair out of pillows and everything:

Childlike darkness cave

It struck me as I was huddled in my childlike hideaway that if the pest inspector happened by while I was in there with headphones on, they might well conduct their whole search without realizing I was there. That put me in the exact opposite position to the one Amon Tobin was in during his ISAM shows: had the central cube that he was seated in been just a few shades less translucent, he could have been entirely absent and nobody would have known the difference.

But, before you assume that I’m about to launch into a facile and uninformed indictment of live electronic music, let me tell you about a similarly elaborate projection-mapped concert that I’ve been to. Roger Waters’ 2010-13 touring production of Pink Floyd’s The Wall is in every sense the most spectacular live event I’ve experienced. The basic premise of the show is that throughout the first half, a giant wall is built between the band and the audience, for metaphor reasons.

The show was a rejig of Pink Floyd’s original Wall tour from 1980-81, which was inspired in part by Waters’ anxieties about stadium rock shows. At those gigs, most of the audience is so far away from you that you may as well just be miming. So, Waters decided to test his audience’s trust by literally building a wall between him and them on the next tour. The original Wall show even started with a “surrogate band” playing the first song in Pink Floyd rubber masks.

Waters’ recent remount of the show brought these themes into even starker relief, since it’s an open secret that he can’t sing anymore and most of his live vocals are mimed to backing tracks. When I saw The Wall, I found it curiously easy to get past that, considering my classical background, etc. I just accepted that Waters did not serve a musical purpose at that show, but a semiotic one: The Wall is his masterpiece and his story. His presence adds power, whether he’s actually singing or not.

I don’t know enough about the kind of music Amon Tobin makes to be able to tell what’s going on in his little control pod. It seems like the music on ISAM Live is sufficiently different from the studio version (and sufficiently more predictable, suggesting that maybe he has to let certain processes run their course while he focuses on other things) that I’m quite certain he’s driving the show somehow.

But, it kind of doesn’t matter to me. If prog rock god Roger Waters can mount a show where his musical participation is immaterial, then we’re obviously past the point where ‘he might not even be doing anything’ is a sufficient argument against any live performer.

ISAM Live is not a stunt or a high-wire act. It is not a Magma concert. It is an immersive aesthetic experience — the home viewing of which demands a decent pair of Sennheisers and a darkened room (or closet). Tobin could be sitting perfectly still and staring into space in that central cube while his album plays, and his simple presence at the centre of the set — the creator of this beautiful thing — would still be symbolically resonant. The fact that he chooses instead to work for his living each night makes me love him all the more.

Jesus Christ, I still have to write about the DJ set.

Okay. I’ll keep this brief. Because, regrettably, I didn’t get much out of Tobin’s Two Fingers persona. I talked a bit in my Beardyman response about my confusion over not dancing to dance music. There’s a huge gulf between Two Fingers and Beardyman, clearly. And that gulf means the difference between me being able to listen to it and not.

I could listen to Beardyman, because his music strikes me as ‘listening music’ that put on dancing shoes semi-ironically. It’s jokey and deconstructivist, and the thought of anybody dancing to it still seems a little weird to me. Two Fingers, on the other hand, is a skilled peddler of ‘straightup dancefloor devastators,’ in your memorable phrase. Maybe someday I’ll understand why people listen to music that’s intended for the dancefloor. But yesterday was not that day, nor is today. Tomorrow’s not looking promising.

And as you know, I’m not likely to actually dance to it, either. I’m not the audience for this.

Now let me close out this more-discursive-that-usual response with a random thought that doesn’t really connect to anything.

It seems to me that a DJ set is the opposite of a live classical music performance. DJs are basically improvising: they’re spinning out a unique, spontaneous product that is paradoxically produced with pre-existing musical ingredients that are set in stone (or rather, vinyl; or ephemeral digital something-or-other). At the classical concert hall, they’re going for a performance that adheres to the composer’s score, while having no pre-existing sonic building blocks to construct it from.

I know which of these poles I prefer, aesthetically. But, at this juncture in our correspondence, I’m not sure which one can claim more of my respect.

— Matthew

Brian Eno: Another Green World (pt. 1)

Eno

Dear Matt,

This week, you’ll be diving into the definitive album by a figure with whom you have a passing familiarity already: Brian Eno’s Another Green World.

To our generation, Eno’s best-known creation is probably this sound, here. Insofar as his name means anything, it’s probably ‘massively prestigious record producer.’ Eno helped to craft some of the most acclaimed albums by David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2, amongst others.

But, at the time of Another Green World, he was not yet the Eno of legend. This was five years before Remain in Light, and 12 years before The Joshua Tree. In 1975, Eno’s career basically consisted of two albums as a synth player with Roxy Music and a couple of pretty straightforwardly glam rock solo albums — which, by the way, have two of the most fantastic titles ever: Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).

Another Green World was a turning point for Eno in that it was the album where he stopped focussing on writing songs, and started focussing on making rules, instead. Reading about the way this album was made is just maddening: Eno basically hired a bunch of top-flight musicians (John Cale on viola, Robert Fripp on guitar, Phil Collins on drums…) and invited them into the studio without having written any music.

Then, they’d just try stuff. Eno would impose arbitrary rules, like ‘the microphones will hang from the ceiling, today,’ and he’d hope like hell that it wasn’t all a tremendous waste of money.

I have no idea how those methods could have resulted in this album. Another Green World is an astonishing feat of musical craftsmanship. It is unbelievably detailed; even in comparatively minimalistic tracks like ‘Zawinul/Lava,’ there’s so much going on in the background to produce musical tension.

Also, the fact that Eno abandoned all traditional methods of making an album might account for why Another Green World is so weirdly ageless. I’m not sure I’d be able to tell what decade it was made in if I didn’t already know.

This will also conveniently serve as your introduction to a figure you’ll be hearing more from in the near future: King Crimson’s guitarist and leader Robert Fripp. I love King Crimson, but when I just want to hear Fripp playing the stuffing out of his instrument, I’m most likely to put on a Brian Eno album. Because, Robert Fripp’s ability to play the guitar is second only to Brian Eno’s ability to play Robert Fripp.

That’s what makes Eno kind of unique in all of music. He describes himself as a ‘non-musician’ (he even tried to get that listed as his occupation on his passport), but he’s been able to spearhead some of the most staggering albums of the past fifty years, just through the sheer power of lateral thinking and clever leadership.

By the way, the small crisis I seem to have experienced after Belle and Sebastian failed to knock me flat has basically passed. You mentioned to me shortly after I posted my response that Belle and Sebastian isn’t the kind of band that does knock you flat on the first listen; it takes a while to sink in. After a couple more listens, I can feel it happening already, and I have renewed faith in my ability to appreciate new music.

I bring that up mostly because Another Green World is very much the same in that way. It took me years to think of this as anything more than ‘fairly good.’ I don’t know another album that benefits more from living with it for a while. So, listen to it once and tell me what you think. Then maybe ignore it for a bit and whenever it comes to mind unbidden, try again.

Since the beginning of this project, I’ve been looking for an album that will grab you by the throat and start you up on new and unexpected musical journeys. This is not going to be that album. But, I’m pretty confident that, given your other tastes, you’ll eventually love this.

— Matthew

Belle and Sebastian: The Life Pursuit (pt. 2)

belleandsebastian

Dear Matt,

I’m a fan of feelings. I have a whole bunch of them — possibly something close to a complete set. Certainly, more than anybody would suspect from actually talking to me.

But, before I talk about feelings, I want to talk about facts.

One sure way for any band to pull me in is to make references that I understand. Lyrical references, stylistic references, whatever. And as you’ve implied a couple of times already, Belle and Sebastian live comfortably within my cultural sphere — namely, an imagined version of the ’60s that neither I nor Stuart Murdoch can claim to remember.

Actually, the references here span a larger swathe of my knowledge even than that. Did you know, for instance, that Mornington Crescent is a recurring feature on a popular BBC comedy programme, in which panelists take turns naming London tube stations until somebody says ‘Mornington Crescent?’ It’s the British equivalent of Calvinball. No idea what, if anything, that has to do with the song.

But I promise that I didn’t only like The Life Pursuit because it flatters me for my understanding of references that I might actually just be imagining. Ultimately, I am just a sucker for a great melody, and there are plenty of them here. I mean, the shapes of the phrases in ‘The Blues Are Still Blue’ are just irresistible. And that trumpet in ‘Dress Up In You.’ Ahh.

And you’re right that they can sound a lot like the Zombies sometimes. Although, I think that what they have in common is more of a spirit than a sound. Both bands produce a kind of music that I’ve never quite been able to adequately describe: it is natural music. It seems obvious, self-evident, like it could have written itself. There’s no artifice to it. Other artists that come to mind are Paul McCartney and Felix Mendelssohn.

But here’s the thing: I can think of exactly nothing else interesting to say about this. My usual approaches are failing me, here. I don’t feel alienated by The Life Pursuit, nor did it leave me feeling inclined to compose a fawning encomium. It doesn’t suggest a particular part of my musical autobiography that I could riff on. I do not detect any actual magic in it.

Don’t interpret any of this as a vote of no enthusiasm. I can tell I’ll be spinning The Life Pursuit with some frequency in the near future. It’s just… here we are right now with you saying you liked the Zombies, but you’ll never like them as much as Belle and Sebastian. Here I am saying I liked Belle and Sebastian, but I’ll never like them as much as the Zombies. To be fair, a certain amount of intransigence is to be expected with music nerds like us.

But, you’ll recall that when we started this project, I expressed a concern that my musical tastes were calcifying. It’s still a concern. There’s a part of me that despairs to think that at the age of 24, I’ve already reached the point where I’ll never find new music that I like better than my old music.

And, The Life Pursuit somehow really brought that anxiety to the surface. Because I liked it. I really did. I’ve liked nearly everything you’ve assigned so far. Loved some of it. But none of it has knocked me flat like the prog I discovered in high school, or the classical rep that my first degree introduced me to.

Two months into this project, we’ve both got more music that we kind of like. Surely, this is an entirely acceptable outcome. So, why does it feel like an impasse?

— Matthew