Songs That May Have Passed You By in 2016

Songs That May Have Passed You By in 2016

2016 scythed through song-writers with scant regard for the listening public. Bowie, Cohen, Prince. A grim litany indeed. But 2016 was an astonishingly creative year on the indie scene. In John Peel’s absence, I get my music from The Hype Machine which collates the recommendations of hundreds of music blogs around the world. Here are a few of my favourites from the year which deserve a wider public.

Forth Wanderers – Know Better: A Schoenberg cabaret song that updates grunge for 2016.

Swimming Tapes – Tides: Perfect summer pop. In Real Estate’s absence, this will do.

Japanese Breakfast – In Heaven: Love the slightly flat nasally singing on this. Their ‘Everybody Wants To Love You‘ is like Cyndi Lauper in a hurricane.

Big Thief – Paul: ‘So I swallowed all of it / As I realised there was no one who could kiss away my shit.’ Heartbreaking, in manifold ways.

They – Say When: Expect more of this darkly raging US hip-hop in 2017.

Slow Hollows – Softer: The dead-pan delivery reminds me of Bill Callahan and Leonard Cohen – win-win.

Lord Huron – Hurricane: Alt-country before ‘alt’ became something sinister.

Preoccupations – Memory: If  Joy Division were around today, they might sound like this.

Hazel English – Never Going Home: Artist of the Year 2016 Indie Pop that sounds like ‘an old and familiar friend’ (Salinger) after the first play.

Molly Burch – Downhearted: Patsy-Cline inflected vocals and a song destined to become a modern classic.

Frank Ocean – Nights Song of the Year 2016 Its many quirks, circumlocutions, and sidesteps should grate but they never do. Constantly surprising and engaging, Gregg Wallace would say R’n’B doesn’t get any better than this in 2016. He’d be right, too. (You’ll have to click on the name to hear this one.)

Late entry for old friend @thetearooms, Young Scum – If You Say That: jangle pop dreamers.

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Black Seas of Infinity: The Alien Sound-World of Georg Friedrich Haas

Black Seas of Infinity: The Alien Sound-World of Georg Friedrich Haas
https://i1.wp.com/www.musicaustria.at/sites/default/files/bilder/2010/georg-friedrich-haas_c_astrid_ackermann.jpg
Photo © Astrid Ackermann.

Music, always inhospitable to ekphrasis or literary description, seems doubly so when it’s not even typically ‘musical’, which the sound-worlds of the contemporary Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas are not. How to capture the ways this weird sonic world emerges almost organically, ex nihilo, like life itself, mutating, growing, pulsing, speeding up, slowing down, or coming suddenly to a stop. These are soundscapes on a vast scale: gigantic rotating planets, slowly warping architectonics, shimmering stillnesses glowing like the aurora borealis. This microtonal music (also referred to as ‘spectral’) finds its forerunner in the micropolyphonic world of the Hungarian composer György Ligeti, the eerie sonic hovering between tones of Atmosphères which Kubrick memorably heard as harmonia mundi, the Music of the Spheres, in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Perhaps the best ekphrasis would be to quote HP Lovecraft’s vision of the cosmos:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Here are those ‘black seas of infinity’, the ‘terrifying vistas of reality’, depicted in sublime slabs of abstract sonic pulses. The shards of pseudo-melody which occasionally emerge seem even weirder when they do. It puts me in mind of the new philosophical school of the Object-Oriented: perhaps Haas is composing sonic hyperobjects, or preparing us for the post-human world.

Screen-grab from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Screen-grab from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Does the word ‘music’ even apply here? Does it even matter?  This will be noise to most, as it would have been to me but a few months ago, when I was all Bach and Beethoven, Mahler and Shostakovich, and this would have irked me into violent vocal derision. But then something clicked and its almost drone-like emergence, continuation, disappearance, anti-melodic swells of sound, pure, impure, but not noise (whatever that is), and not irksome. It now chimes offering a sort of mental consolation for the fuzzy logic of the world, a counterfoil to modern life’s dissonant overload. To quote Kafka in his Diaries, it bears me out like a friend.

Recommended Listening:

‘Different-Different But Same’: The Will To Homogenisation

‘Different-Different But Same’: The Will To Homogenisation

It’s Saturday night. You head to the new gastropub which has garnered a reputation for offering something different. You order the smoked pigeon. It arrives on some vast alabaster dish that can’t decide if it’s a bowl or a plate. The food is stacked up in the centre, covered in various flowers, crumbs and savoury popcorn, with several blobs of gel and ejaculates of sauce daubed circumferentially around it.

The ‘Mackerel Marsala’ that follows is no different. And it’s the same story down the road at the more traditional boozer: chips are thrice-cooked and served in quaint baskets; burgers come in the mandatory ‘brioche bun’; wooden chopping boards and slate roof tiles act out as plates. Both pubs foreground the locality of the produce on their menus, ‘local’-ness having become just another brand, another way to market your menu as virtuous, ‘ethically-sourced’. Even the seasons aren’t spared: we drown in pre-festival fanfares – Easter, Halloween, Christmas; we are returned to the medieval with seasonal produce, spring greens, early asparagus, what have you. Here, then, is uniform difference: the will to homogenisation on a plate.

Medieval wooden platters are back in demand.

It is tempting to blame MasterChef or one of the many other cookery programmes which cling limpet-like to the TV schedules, to see them as producing a peculiar feedback cycle of demand and supply in terms of proffered dishes and ‘plating up’. The customer has seen those blobs of gel on TV, or had those ‘triple-cooked’ chips somewhere else, and now they want it that way here, too. But I think there is something more fundamental at work here: the will to homogenise isn’t restricted to gastronomy. High Streets, hairstyles, talent shows on TV . . . options narrow down into a blancmange of uniformity. Threatening complexity is reduced to something more easier to categorise and apprehend. The model of neoliberalism and its predatory hyper-capitalism is to assimilate, commodify, monetise until the market is super-saturated, then tweak and repeat. Nothing escapes. Originality, novelty, difference: all becomes subsumed into the homogenising system, fetishised by marketing gurus and media nodes as this season’s must-eat, must-read, must-see, must-do. What begins in one locale eventually becomes ubiquitous, national, transnational: pale baguettes and chewy macaroons on every supermarket shelf.

Anyone who has spent any time in South-East Asia will be familiar with the sales pitch-cum-philosophical mantra, Same Same But Different. The will to homogenisation results in a reversal of this axiom – in seeking to be different-different things become increasingly similar.

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Same form, different colour.

Researching photographs for this essay, I noticed how rare real uniformity is: the windows in those vast housing estates and skyscrapers had a curtain pulled to, a sticker, reflected clouds; the stadium chairs either bore an individuating number or reflected the light differently, turning its aquamarine blue more eggshell; one can imagine up close that each would have unique pattern of scratches, unique fungal knots of hardened chewing gum, graffiti, what have you. Objects seem to resist homogenisation even when mass-production forms them as such. Time and light transfigure them into individuated entities.  The will to homogenisation, borne of capitalism, and thus, borne out of the human condition, is ultimately thwarted, happily so for those who desire difference.  Whereas the complexity of the universe emerged from a singularity, all life on earth from fairly simple building blocks.

Heterogeneity and variation are elemental parts of organic life (evolution through random mutations); the will to homogenise is man-made and finds its purest outlet in the capitalist model, striving for a globalised village of branded stores selling the same branded goods via the same marketing methods. It engenders a dystopian vision of endless rows of sameness on the shelves and on our plates, where the critical room to manoeuvre and think differently enough to critique the system is increasingly diminished. Homogenisation is anti-life, predatory hyper-capitalism a form of hyper-fascism. In the long run, life and difference will win.


Food image by Franek N and stadium chairs by Patrick Mayon. Both used under a Creative Commons license.

Strange Loops: On GIFs

Strange Loops: On GIFs

Eternity is a child at play.

Uncannily, this Heraclitean fragment captures both the form, and often the content, of the short animated image, the GIF.1 Here is a child at play set to repeat every tenth frame ad infinitum. Others show a cat appearing to pull an angry face. A celebrity looking aghast. A funny dance. And so on, looping round strangely long after the novelty and initial amusement has worn off. What happens here is an extreme form of editing, paring back all the inessentials, the great cacophony of life, to hone in on ‘the moment of a moment’.2

Many GIFs provide the same serotonin hit of Schadenfreude as the ostensibly candid displays of accidents on those erstwhile video camera clip-shows likeYou’ve Been Framed. Being often mere seconds long, however, GIFs deal in the ultra-condensed, micro-plots, fragments of mishap, grimace, event, itself a commentary on the reduced attention spans (or expectations) of the viewer. They are also now being used in discourse, as visual short-hand for ‘reactions’, a sort of evolution of the static emoticon. Earlier this week, it was reported that Google responded to criticism in the Wall Street Post with a GIF of a baby laughing.

It is tempting to write them off as the wind-up toys of the digital age, repetitive gimcracks that tire as quickly as they catch the eye, instantly disposable gratification. There is much one could theorise about here: animation and anima; miniaturisation; cartoonification of discourse, all of which link to infantilisation, a theme of modern life I find increasingly prevalent, but I will concentrate on the element of eternity they offer, something between a strange loop and ouroubouros, the snake forever eating its own tail, which itself resembles the modern loading icons, forging an association between itself and the endless falling through links in the infosphere.

Ouroboros

I often return to something the Bach interpreter, Wanda Landowska, said of Bach’s music in relation to eternity:

There is something eternal in Bach’s music, something that makes us wish to hear again what has just been played. This renewal gives us a glimpse of eternity.3

One hears this in the Cello Suites or the keyboard works, and, curiously, the ear never seems to tire of Bach’s harmonic and melodic variations on the notion of unity-in-diversity. It is possible to immerse oneself in Bach for hours, days, weeks, years, and yet such immersion brings not boredom but a constantly renewed interest in the music. Whereas the eternity that GIFs portray has something infernal in its endless repetition – psychotic, demented, unnatural – which disturbs the direct gaze and peripheral vision alike; hence, none are present on this page.

But is there also artistry here in the thought-provoking usage of time? Often GIFs seem to be aesthetic updates of the impossible geometries of MC Escher and Sir Roger Penrose for the moving image:

 A Penrose Triangle

Examples might include the 3D renders of Francoise Gamma, or those uncanny film screengrabs where only one part of the image moves – water shimmers, clouds drift, hair flaps about in the wind in an otherwise static milieu. The conceit is interesting. We are forced to reconsider anew the Heraclitean nature of identity through flux and the notion of panta rhei: everything flows, something so obvious as to be consistently overlooked. Stillness is actually absent from the world.

Whilst ostensibly offering us an escape from our lives, GIFs actually bespeak our reality and return us to the treadmill nature of our days (wake, eat, work, shit, sleep, repeat), the destiny of human existence (Eliot’s biblical chiasmus in Four Quartets, ‘In my beginning is my end […] In my end is my beginning’). In this way, these superficial loops become unconscious depictions of existential despair at finding oneself trapped in the cycle of cycles (news, consumer, seasonal), refresh buttons, and loading icons.

In Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the German critic posited the idea that works of art once possessed an aura through being originals, historical one-offs unique in time and place, usually to a very specific locale: a church, say. With mechanical reproduction, that aura was lost. GIFs, like most digital images, are made to be disseminated, reproduced, go viral, to be non-local and atemporal of the Internet. Such reproduction is a raison d’être – to be everywhere and nowhere, at least as long as the power stays on and the servers remain online. The more they spread, the greater their aura, turning Benjamin’s idea on its head.

If GIFs aspire to art, and others (well, Buzzfeed) have offered this mantle for them, then at some level they have to be able to move you, and, occasionally, these curious amalgams of the Absolute and the absolutely banal do. Take this one of a Chinese street vendor saving a falling infant. Okay, this is film footage, chance reportage, that has been turned into a GIF, but there is drama here, catharsis, humanity, as hope teetering on the edge of tragedy triumphs, foreclosing on Fate and Death for once. It is strangely satisfying and doesn’t diminish with repetition. But is this contingent on its GIFness? Perhaps. The repetition forces us to focus in on its participants: the principle ‘hero’s upwards gaze and outstretched arms, his fixed concentration on the act he has been nudged into performing by chance; the clumsy bumbling shirtless extra trying to help and almost ruining the catch; the suspense generated by the off-screen item which is teetering and about to fall; the woman in the raincoat noticing and screaming; and then, with unexpected suddenness, the successful catch, the panic of it, how its velocity and weight drag the man’s arms down; finally, the reveal: the unidentified falling object is a child.  It startles as all good art should.

But such startling is all too rare in the glowing Technicolor annals of GIFs, where three seconds of celebrity eyebrows being raised, or anthropomorphic cats in beanie hats, constitute the next day-long meme in an increasingly infantilised culture.

  1. Graphics Interchange Format.
  2. Kafka’s Diaries, July 5 1916.
  3. ‘On the Interpretation of JSBach’s Keyboard Music’, Landowska on Music, Stein & Day (1969).