Sophia Hendrickson explores Bassnectar, a free-form experimental electronica project from California
I‘d like to share with you my current musical obsession, an electronic music freeform project entitled Bassnectar. Bassnectar is the creation of Lorin Ashton, aka DJ Lorin of Burning Man fame. What started back in the mid nineties as a tentative exploration of youth culture and social action lives now as an open-source project that is a true exhibition of diversity, passion, creativity and skill. Ashton describes Bassnectar as ‘omni-tempo maximalism’ which roughly translates to music that encompasses all speeds, time signatures, rhythms and that exploits every possible sound source. This is certainly a succinct observation. His use of samples is integral to the intricate tapestry of his work. They range from wind chimes to cash registers to rag-time piano. He also incorporates a multiplicity of samples taken from celebrated figures, notably Martin Luther King, and a political statement from the renowned linguist Noam Chomsky. His music is coloured with political ideologies, but it is still possible to appreciate his compositions without being force-fed explicit opinion.
Constantly booked and in demand, Bassnectar maintains a regular touring schedule, playing to thousands of people every month. From sold out festivals to overcrowded clubs and warehouses to tight and tiny bars and venues; his fan-base continues to grow due to his unique magnetism and an innovative take on electronic music. Reports and reviews of his shows document wide-variety, from one-man DJ sets to performances of around a dozen people onstage; from instrumentalists, to DJs, to rappers, to graffiti artists. Be warned that these shows are not for the stationary; dancing to this music is not a choice, it is a matter of instinct.
So,thealbums. His last release Underground Communication fuses laid back hip hop tempos with the aggressiveness of heavy break beats and the melodic intricacies of experimental electronica. It’s honey toned hip hop infused with ambient breaks and melodic, airy reprises. Featuring a union of assorted MCs and rhythmic poets complemented by diverse beats and, needless to say, some overpowering bass: prepare yourself for an audio journey from the first track. The heart of the album comes with three tracks back to back: “Yo” featuring relentless yet sensual and vocals from Latina Kristinamaria; “Stomp” is dominated by a pulsing bassline, embellished by metered and moody lyrics from Seasunz; and “Kick it Complex” feat. Persia is gritty and tight, with junglist breaks forcing drive and intensity. The end of this track puts up a fight ‘til the very last, where it snaps into the mysterious and mischievous “Carried Away”: this is a true representation of the sensitivity and intuition with which Bassnectar utilizes sound and sample.
That said, I find myself struggling to convey my passion for his double disc debut Mesmerizing the Ultra. It is an untouchable blend of pure genius. The introduction teases attention and heightens expectation with glittering reverb and a mist of electronic nuance. Reaching the second track we are plunged head first into a bassline that is as breathtaking as it is restrained. Bassnectar’s remix of Sound Tribe Sector 9’s “Some Sing” is a true gem: he takes what is already undeniably an incredible piece of funky electronic experimentation, and twists it, adding grime and attitude. “Agent Squish” is another highlight, which features cheeky bass fragments that assault the ears from all angles, complemented by a sly thunderous low freq-rumble that pervades most of this track. The final track of the first CD, a FreQ Nasty remix of “Everybody” (track 6 on CD1) quite simply a raver’s delight. The second CD gestures more towards the ambient, with tracks like “Laughter Crescendo” and “Replenish”, the latter echoing the shimmering Intro of CD1. It still makes provision, however, for more up-tempo gritty sounds: “Simultaneous” and “Pleasure the Bassnymhpo”. The concluding chapter of the work, “Arrival” (originally by Heavyweight Dub Champion), winds up the album with a pre-emptive nod in the direction of the album to follow.
Bassnectar is heading further and further into the murky depths of dubstep. His latest release “Art of Revolution” involves some intense sub-bass throbbing with an energy reinforced by clattering African drums. For dubstep veterans however, this track may leave something wanting. It plays like a naive Music Tech student who has decided to “write some dubstep”. Comparing this track to other recent releases of this genre, (“Rub-a-Dub” by Roommate & The Bassist, Pawn “Fallin in Love“) sees “Art of Revolution” sadly pale in comparison. It is devoid of some Bassnectar magic and ingenuity that is so liberally offered in his other material. It’s not all bad, though. The EP features some excellent remixes of “Art of Revolution” that do incite more exhilaration, including a mix by dubstep heavyweight 6Blocc, and my personal favourite, the Ghislain Poirier Remix.
While the original track is a slight disappointment, it does not mean that Bassnectar cannot cut it in the dubstep department. Check out his smash remix of “Last Night” by Me & You (bassnectar.net) and his twisted circus remodelling of Roots Antique’s “Roustabout”; this track is unequivocal fun. With a little more time and experimentation Bassnectar will undeniably churn out further anthems for the dubstep community, although he has already established himself as an artist of great calibre.
Jerome Josy interviews the lead singers of Cursive and The Pains of being Pure at Heart within one hour
Kip Berman and Tim Kasher are both highly acclaimed singer songwriters. Kip Berman is young, bright-eyed and excitable, and along with his fellow members of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, has just debuted with the best pop album of the year. A self-titled record, it has received widespread critical acclaim and all the buzz it deserves from adored publications (xlr8r, the A.V. Club, Pitchfork etc). Tim Kasher, on the other hand, is a well-established icon in the indie-rock scene. Rising to fame with Cursive, he has been involved in side-projects with artists such as The Good Life and good friend Conor Oberst (aka Bright Eyes). He is well revered for his coarsely tender music and Cursive have just released possibly their most accomplished album yet. I meet both of them within the space of an hour.
I find Kip alone in the back room of The Duchess sorting out merchandise.
Jerome (J): Where are the others?
Kip (K): Checking the town out, shopping too, I think.
J: Shopping not your cup of tea?
K: Sort of, but I really like getting involved with the little parts of this job too, folding up t-shirts, pricing etc.
Already I can tell there’s an aura of humility about him, but that isn’t to suggest he is surprised by how fast his band’s moving. We quickly settle into conversation, exchanging pleasantries and discussing the venue and its enjoyably cavern-like look. Kip has only good things to say about England: everything from the people he’s met here, who have helped put up him and his bandmates, to the wide variety of different cuisine himself, and bandmate Peggy especially, try every night. It soon becomes apparent that Kip’s humility stems from how grateful he is to receive the adoration and attention that his band have been afforded.
We press on discussing their sound and what they were aiming to achieve when writing music.
K: You know, there’s nothing so grandiose about this, I mean, not demeaning what we’ve made but what I think we all singularly and collectively wanted to achieve was to make a good pop record and I think people believe we’ve done that.
I agree earnestly and at the mention of the word influences we dissolve into conversation. There are bursts of laughter at mentions of shoegaze and twee-pop, which leads us to discuss whether they’ve been pigeon-holed unfairly. I mention My Bloody Valentine and The Smiths before he replies with a grin,
K: Man I can’t believe they call us those bands! We sound nothing like them! [Laughs] Yeah, I dunno if it’s all that bad we’ve been compared to all these great bands. I mean, I don’t think we’ve particularly tried to sound like them but I think we all feel slightly honoured to be compared to legendary level bands.
Kip goes on to profess a love for Britpop (Suede) and for having a special place in his heart for Glasgow’s musical exports. Glasgow is the next date on their tour after York.
K: Yeah, we’re all really excited about it actually. I mean, these are bands we all love independently, you know, and to get a chance to experience that scene for ourselves, in a way at least, is very cool.
The other bandmates return, mostly keeping to themselves after saying hello, although Peggy comes in to interject when our conversation strays to song writing itself.
J: What sort of a writer are you? A constant writer of half worked songs or a perfectionist with low productivity?
K: I think I’d say I’m a constant writer.
J: What’s the ratio you’d give yourself of good to bad ideas you come up with then?
Peggy: He’d be lost without my ear helping him!
K: Yeah, I need her outside perspective actually. I mean, we’re all slightly different but at the same time have overlapping musical interests so we find each other quite easily cohesive actually.
J: Where next?
K: We’re off to Holland after we finish this leg but are going to return to England with a great band from Brighton called Shrag if you know them? Before a couple of European Festivals, like Roskilde and Eurokeenness!
Time’s up. If his sincerity hasn’t convinced you, I implore you to check out the album, or, at the very least, stand out songs ‘This Love is Fucking Right’, ‘Come Saturday’ and ‘Stay Alive’. If I had to define The Pains of Being Pure at Heart it would be as blissful pop. Although not quite as cleancut as you might suspect, neither are they as hazy as the shoegaze jumpers would have you believe. Instead, you are left with a more persuasive pop that mixes a vague sense of gloom with sincerely honest and heart-wamingly affable melodies. We shake hands before I leave, preparing to meet Tim Kasher of Cursive, who are one of my favourite bands. At least, I’ve been trying to convince myself that. I’ve avoided listening to most of my favourites from yesteryear so as not to have to deal with them failing to withstand the test of time. But I gave Cursive’s The Ugly Organ another listen recently and found, to my joy, that it blew me away yet again. Tim Kasher is an extraordinary musician and part of the allure is his entrancingly lonely voice, the combination of music and vocals twinging with a beautiful desperation. So it is with great excitement that I go to meet him. This time, it’s Fibbers. We walk in during sound check and wait a while before we get our chance with the man. Cursive guitarist Ted Stevens walks by and introduces himself before their manager introduces us to Tim. There’s already some discomfort when comparing this to initially meeting Kip. Tim’s 34 and I’m 20. I feel like a snotty fan boy, humbled before a legend, whereas Kip and myself were contemporaries and casual straight away. This is not to suggest that this is due to Tim’s stature as a celebrity, but more how personally awed I felt being with him. After all, Tim Kasher is the author of one of my favourite albums of all-time!
Nevertheless, within a couple of minutes we ease off into fluent conversation about a collective passion of ours; music.
J: Are you proud of your new album?
Tim (T): Yeah, of course. I mean, I’m proud of everything we’ve done.
J: Were you aiming for anything new? Obviously this album is again a departure from your last album, Happy Hollow.
T: Well… nothing apart from the usual you know. I think we just try and make sure there’s some sort of evolution in our music every time.
J: The new album seems a lot more refined and tight than anything you’ve done before.
T: Yeah I guess we’ve been maturing as musicians for some time now but I hope that isn’t an insinuation it’s boring.
J: No not at all, I think it’s quite refreshing. But what do you think the general reception has been of it so far?
T: You know I find this actually very interesting. I mean, I think we sort of have various sections of fans now. Separate categories really, because Domestica fans I’ve sort of found are not the same people who like The Ugly Organ, who are also separate from Happy Hollow.
J: I assume The Ugly Organ must be the most popular though?
T: Yeah, it is but that’s the whole attachment to this ‘emo’ tag with lazy journalism. I mean, we turn down tours with bands who are happy with such a tag all the time but it’s tiring being bunched up as ‘emo’ just for being interested in literature and Philip Roth, you know.
J: Do you tire of playing old songs at all then?
T: No no, I am still as proud of them as the new album. I just meant I guess no-one likes being pigeon-holed. I just sing about my experiences and inspirations.
The new album Mama, I’m Swollen is quite the departure from the furious horn-filled, anti-organised religion centric Happy Hollow and The Ugly Organ’s brash yet exiguous take on a relationship. It has as many true gems as you’d want (‘We’re Going to Hell’, ‘Mama, I’m Satan’, ‘From The Hips’) as well as one of the best songs Kasher’s ever written in the subtly powerful ‘We Have To Go’. The new album forgoes the reliance in the previous two releases on exuberant instruments to form a distinctive sound. Instead, they’ve evolved their sound so that it is underpinned with a refined, rock quality that is touched up with ambient electronic eccentricities. Kasher’s lyrics are as puncture-inducing and embracive as ever, cementing his status as one of indie-rock’s best lyricists.
Cursive have reinvented themselves successfully yet again, providing a record that sounds fresh now and that will, with any luck, withstand the tests of time. It is an album borne out of experience and has been fine-tuned to a ruggedly delicate work, personifying the charms and talents of the band’s lead, Tim Kasher. This is in stark contrast to The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, who are a fantastic new pop band. What they lack in experience they make up for with ingenuity. The album is exciting and soothingly catchy, but this once again personifies the band themselves and the rising star that is Kip Berman.
Andrew Lopez explains just why Glastonbury is best festival there is to offer, and who to look out for at this year’s festival.
The daddy. The don. The big cheese. The best. If you have anymore superlatives, add them on and we’re still not close to describing the phenomenon that is the Glastonbury Festival of Performing Arts.
You can expect to see over 700 acts, on more than 80 stages, over 900acres of fields (mud) across 5 days. The setting is the beautiful Worthy Farm, which is to be found near the small town of Pilton in South West England. Glastonbury itself is an area steeped in mythology, spiritual traditions and legends and the festival certainly captures much of this magic. The organiser is the bald but hilariously bearded Michael Eavis and his sadly un-bearded daughter Emily, who donate most of the profits from the festival to a plethora of worthy charities.
So with the formalities over, why is this festival so special then?
Well as we’ve already seen, the size of the place is frankly mind-boggling, and with so many stages, stamina is more likely to be an issue than not knowing what to see. And here lies the key point; because of the sheer magnitude of the place, Glastonbury just has so much more to offer you than the average festival.
The festival plays host to a truly diverse mix of music; the likes of David Bowie, Radiohead, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and even Jay Z have entertained on the iconic Pyramid Stage. Alongside the obligatory mega-massive-selling headliners and supporting casts, Glastonbury offers enough types of music to make up several specialist festivals. This comes in the shape of the party-within-a-party that is the Dance Village, the altogether more debonair and civilised Jazz World, and the similarly tranquil Fields of Avalon where you can find an “eclectic line-up of folk and roots influenced artists.”
Other musical treats on offer include the Pyramid Stage’s younger sibling, the Other Stage, the John Peel Stage which houses bands so achingly cool and happening that the great man himself would have been proud, the Glade which is set in an idyllic woodland area, and the Park Stage, almost akin to an exclusive fête, with live music stages, late night bars and cafés, tipi villages, art installations, stonemasons and craftsmen.
The gems of this year’s festival are by no means exclusively to be found on the Pyramid Stage, but here, there and everywhere (although Blur’s headline slot on Sunday night should be a little bit special). Highlights of the weekend will undoubtedly include the disarmingly charming and lovely Alessi’s Ark who plays the Queen’s Head Stage on Thursday. This 18year old Londoner is best compared to Laura Marling for her haunting, folk-tinged songs and has a voice in the Joanna Newsom shape of enthrallingly different. Her album ‘Notes from the Treehouse’ was released recently and she would certainly be one to catch for some afternoon soothing. Regina Spektor makes her return to the UK with a modestly placed slot on the Pyramid Stage on Friday. Although her move to a major label and consequently more chart friendly output has arguably moved her away from what so appealed in the first place, her simply stunning voice and endearingly nervous stage-chat make her a hit in any festival line-up. You can expect her to be road-testing some songs from her forthcoming record ‘Far’ which hits the shops on June 23rd.
The West Dance Stage sees a headline slot from the much-lauded DJ and producer Erol Alkan. Having recently produced albums for the Mystery Jets, Late of the Pier and now sadly defunct Long Blondes, Mixmag’s 2006 DJ-of-the-year returns to deliver what will be an electro-tastic set. In an entirely different nature, 3 Daft Monkeys are a band that epitomise the Glastonbury spirit. Often playing numerous sets over the course of the weekend, and in strange locations at that, this mash-up of Celtic, Balkan, Latino, Folk and everything else will leave you with the biggest smile on your face that you could possibly imagine. Other notable mentions go to Florence and the Machine who appear on the John Peel Stage on Saturday, Roots Manuva on the World Stage on Sunday and Kasabian warming the crowd up on the Pyramid Stage on Saturday before Bruce Springsteen headlines.
Now this is all well and good. We’ve established that you can see pretty much any genre of music that you should so wish over the course of the weekend. But.
The real magic of the festival lies away from all of this; Glastonbury is a unique chance to embrace your free-spirited, tree-hugging, neighbour-loving side. The soul of the festival can be found amongst the creativity and sheer hippy loving of the Green Fields. This is where Glastonbury’s famous principles, atmosphere and freedom reside and reign supreme, all essentially pointing towards the notion that there is far more to life than consumerism and competition. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no eco-warrior myself, but, there is something strangely captivating, compelling and ultimately comforting in this magical area of the festival. By the time you leave the Green Fields, armed with a stool you’ve made from wood, listened to a didgeridoo/bongo drum improvisation piece, watched a poetry recital in a solar power marquee resembling something from Alice in Wonderland, and eaten an eastern delicacy sat on a giant toadstool with people dressed in hemp all around, you really do feel determined to change your lifestyle. Leeds festival, this certainly isn’t.
Now for the more decadent festival goer and the curious observer alike, the Shangri-La area is, shall we say, an interesting experience. Almost like a festival-within-a-festival, a broad theme is adopted each year and the decorations and attractions are tailored accordingly. This year, festival goers can look forward to ‘Dyscotopia.’ Apparently this involves “a retro-futuristic citadel, a Bladerunner inspired city of pleasures gone wrong: a mono-state of quarantined and enforced utopia.” Nice.
The Shangri-La’s mission statement is to dedicate itself to “the unceasing pursuit of perfect, regime-sanctioned 24hr pleasure.” You can expect to find giant, fire shooting sculptures to dance on, laser shows, an upside down disco, a club with a strict glam dress-code and a “no tattoo, no entry” policy, ride some ‘alternative’ fair ground rides or even get married to really really just name a few.
Glastonbury truly is unique. Whether you want to watch the biggest bands in the world, watch a circus show, watch a play, eat something strange, make something strange, learn to do something strange or find your new best friend, all of this is possible and so much more.
So I say pitch your tent, dress as a Roman, experience the long-drops, learn to samba, watch the next big thing, make friends with some hippies, cry when its time to go back to the real world, and enjoy what will undoubtedly be five of the best days of your life.
Oh, and remember to watch the sunrise over the Stone Circle.
The best place in the whole wide world.
What makes an ‘epic’ song? Guy Rimay-Muranyi examines ten songs that make the grade.
Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ is, objectively, an ‘epic’ poem. In fact, there is an ‘epic’ for almost every medium, apart from music. Whether it be in the instrumentation, lyrics, or the sheer crushing power of the wall of sound created, the following ten songs and artists go some way to discovering what lies behind an ‘epic’ song.
‘Staying Alive’ by Cursive (From The Ugly Organ) Around 2001 something very special happened to Cursive. ‘Burst And Bloom’ marked their first release since cellist Gretta Cohen joined their ranks, and the album that followed constituted one of the most bitter and cerebral records ever to come out of the United States, let alone the small but prolific city of Omaha, Nebraska. ‘Staying Alive’ drips with the earnest longings of front-man Tim Kasher to survive and progress after the ordeal that is The Ugly Organ, and the song slowly builds from his whispered entrance until he is literally screaming over the wall of sound that erupts from the five musicians. The luscious backdrop of strings created by Cohen drifts over the clashing and wailing guitars, and the drums continue ‘kicking and screaming’ for a considerable amount of time until they fade into distortion, washed out by the voices of a choir lamenting that ‘the worst is over’. The song consolidates the turmoil that has spanned the record, even revisiting the vocal patterns of ‘A Gentleman Caller’, and perfectly demonstrates the masterful way in which Cursive deal in dynamics, and as the song nears the ten minute mark the ambient tones of guitars and far off strings calmly bring the album to a close, with shredded nerves and hairs on the backs of necks firmly raised.
‘Man The Ramparts’ by Botch (From We Are The Romans) If you’ve ever wondered what the absolute pinnacle of a genre sounds like, a band so perfectly aware of their style and ability and capability to completely reform a style that many would claim to know, look no further than Botch’s We Are The Romans. The indisputable behemoths of Mathcore, Botch took what could be done in the confines of Metal music and created some of the most crushing and technical sounds ever recorded. We’re talking about a band who took ‘O Fortuna’ and made it into one of the most frightening, heavy three minutes and nineteen seconds you are ever likely to hear. ‘Man The Ramparts’ sees Botch tackle a ten minute plus ‘epic’, and succeed by drawn out, devastating riffs and only five lines of lyrics. The song also contains a three minute choral element which sounds like a hundred monks in the world’s dingiest cathedral, haunting the listener with the simple refrain ‘we are the Romans’. Countless bands have tried to recapture Botch’s style since their split, and some have succeeded, such as The Bled’s debut Pass The Flask, especially on tracks such as ‘Porcelain Hearts And Hammers For Teeth’, which could have a whole article in its own right on the subject of ‘epic’, but Botch will always be the first, and the undoubted best.
‘As The Storm Unfolds’ by Devil Sold His Soul (From A Fragile Hope) Graduating seamlessly from the Botch ‘School Of Bone Crushing Epic Metal’, Devil Sold His Soul represent the brightest hopes on the UK metal scene right now. Hitting like a jackhammer straight off the mark, ‘As The Storm Unfolds’ takes possibly the most simple riff in existence and creates a truly atmospheric experience, with the help a vocalist whose scream transcends the world of the banshee and enters a whole new world of haunting. The use of keyboards and synths in a brilliantly subtle way adds a dark aura to the whole proceedings, and Ed Gibbs’ voice is thankfully as suited to singing as it is screaming, so the song never falters, a true feat of genius as the tempo creates the illusion of a song drawn out over days, rather than its actual six minute runtime.
‘Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And To Be Loved)’ by Bright Eyes (From Lifted, Or, The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground). Such an album title indicates slight delusions of grandeur, and thankfully Conor Oberst, under usual moniker Bright Eyes, delivers wholeheartedly. Yet another song just over the ten minute mark, this alt. country epic starts with a ‘goddamn timpani roll’ and bristles along as Oberst attacks everything from national news stations to the rigid frame of school grades that build a ‘retaining of wall of memory’, which obviously comes into good use here with a song consisting of over 550 words. Oberst set up a ‘drum corps’ for the album rather than using a traditional drum kit, and the song includes wind sections, slide guitars, glockenspiels and horns, building a huge spectrum of sound that remains one of the most passionate and impressive songs in his extensive back catalogue.
‘Thunder Road’ by Bruce Springsteen (from Born To Run) When Bruce Springsteen first set foot in the UK with his E Street Band back in 1975, he opened his show at the Hammersmith Odeon with a version of Born To Run’s opener that consisted solely of himself, his harmonica and a beautiful piano accompaniment, with an understated glockenspiel twinkling in the background. A song called ‘Thunder Road’ could never really be anything other than an expansive epic, and it delivers relentlessly on record, constantly gaining momentum as slowly more and more guitars, horns and percussion are layered on, until a simple drum fill signifies its glorious final minute where everything comes together in a truly uplifting coda. The fact that Springsteen had the confidence to strip it right back and still pull of a staggering performance marks ‘Thunder Road’ as a truly epic piece from an undeniable legend.
‘The Rise And Fall’ by Million Dead (From A Song To Ruin) ‘The Rise And Fall’ is not really fourteen minutes long, it is in fact a two and half minute punk slash post hardcore song that combines intricate guitars and a fast paced vocal delivery, and a healthy dose of drummer Ben Dawson’s screaming to bolster up the track even further. The song fires on all cylinders towards an ascending guitar part that sounds like it won’t stop until it’s pushed through the atmosphere, Frank Turner’s vocals becoming more and more passionate and enraged. And then, suddenly, the song collapses into eleven minutes of a Converge style, reverb laden riff as Turner, dripping with self-awareness, croons ‘Thus immersed in barbarous longing’ , his voice eventually swallowed by the layers of shredding that persist until the album’s close.
‘Indoor Swimming At The Space Station’ by Eluvium (From Copia) Matthew Cooper, better known as Eluvium, blends live, sampled and synthetic instruments to turn a simple, repetitive piano refrain into what is ultimately a grandiose and ethereal piece of ambient music. Instruments drift in and out of the spotlight as the piece grows and swells over the course of the ten minutes, and it is a testament to Cooper’s ability that, as is true for most of his work, something so simple can be moulded into something breathtakingly colossal in scope.
‘3peat’ by Lil Wayne (From Tha Carter III) Epic is a term not very often attached to the world of hip-hop. Public Enemy made songs that were densely filled with samples and beats and hugely verbose thanks to Chuck D; Dälek, through the use of grimy, distortion filled beats create almost the opposite in their ambient style of drawn out hip-hop. But ‘epic’ is still a term that largely defies mainstream hip-hop, a feat that Lil Wayne ably overcomes on the opening track of Tha Carter III. A reworking of ‘I’m Me’ off the earlier EP The Leak, the Maestro-produced track works by layering strings over a beat that Wayne drops some of his most aggressive and boastful verses over, with not so much delusions but objective statements of grandeur serving to consolidate a solid gold track.
‘Life Is A Pigsty’ by Morrissey (From Ringleader Of The Tormentors) The Smiths, although being the pinnacle of British pop and/or rock music, were better known for intricate yet jangly guitar work, miserable yet uplifting lyrics, and a solid drum and bass combination than for being purveyors of the epic pop song. On no less than his eighth solo album, Morrissey proverbial nails the melancholic epic, a song that begins with percussion leaking through the sound of rain outside and switches halfway through to timpani drums and gong crashes as strings and synths sweep through the foreground. ‘Life is a pigsty, and if you don’t know this, then what do you know’ laments Morrissey as Boz Boorers guitars cut through the mix, strangely hopeful over the torrential downpour that continues in the background.
‘Radio Protector’ by 65daysofstatic (From One Time For All Time) Post-rock is a genre that by definition should settle comfortably in a discussion on epic music – it basically consists of using instruments from genres outside of rock, namely classical instruments, and using them to push the boundaries, resulting in the often fifteen minute plus pieces by titans such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai and Explosions In The Sky, alongside newcomers such as Yndi Halda. 65daysofstatic, on the other hand, take the notion of post-rock and force it through glitchy electronic samples, staggering drumming and guitars and pianos that intertwine and deflect off each other with staggering ease. ‘Radio Protector’ show 65dos at their epic best, a fast-paced piano-driven six minutes that shows how effects laden ambient guitars can work seamlessly with insanely technical drumming and the odd spattering of electronic beats. Epic, in some cases, just doesn’t go far enough to describe the musical feats scaled by artists today.
Stones Throw Records have been at the forefront of a recent indie hip-hop renaissance as a response to the ever-present obsession with sales and celebrity. The label was initially founded with the intent of releasing DJ Peanut Butter Wolf’s collaborations with murdered emcee Charizma in San Jose. They had left their previous label before the release of their debut album in 1993 (shortly before Charizma’s death), citing a lack of artistic freedom. In forming his own label as a response to this, Wolf (real name Chris Manak) was following an historical template experienced by several later Stones Throw artists.
Perhaps this alumni is best illustrated by the label’s best known, and certainly best selling LP, the self titled album by Madvillain, known separately as Madlib and MF Doom.
Doom, British-born emcee Daniel Dumile, originally came to fame as Zev Love X, one third of early nineties hip-hop group KMD. They released the semi-conceptual debut album Mr Hood to moderate acclaim, with great rotation on the TV shows such as Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City. Following the death of his brother and fellow KMD member Subroc, the group were dropped from Elektra due to controversy surrounding the name and cover art for their second album Black Bastards. Dumile spent the next few years in a form of self-imposed exile from the music industry as he suffered from depression.
Making a limited return at numerous poetry slams and performing behind a series of symbolic masks influenced by the Marvel Comics character Dr. Doom, Dumile changed his emcee name to MF Doom and started to garner underground recognition by bootlegging the by-now cult Black Bastards album. The combination within his mask of a wish for a hidden identity juxtaposed with Dumile’s love for sci-fi reflects the complexity of many of his lyrical themes. Far from the likes of Snoop Dogg and his Hennessey sponsorship deals, Doom, often with a shrewdly comical eye, observes his fellow Americans with pin-point references ranging from Moby Dick to country singer Glen Campbell.
Following the success of Madvillainy, Dumile recorded several projects on Stones Throw and other labels, including the album DangerDoom with Gnarls Barkley member and super-producer Danger Mouse. For him, like Peanut Butter Wolf, the label represented freedom from the sales-obsessed labels.
Similarly, J Dilla, came to Stones Throw having experienced major-label disappointment with his hip-hop collective Slum Village and a lack of recognition in spite of his unceasing work as a producer for the likes of Janet Jackson, Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, Common and many others. Following a failed record deal with MCA, Dilla started to release on Stones Throw from 2002 onwards, starting with the Champion Sound album, a collaboration between himself and Madlib under the moniker Jaylib. This album showcased his exquisite knack for blending hip-hop with an authentic soul sound: perfect for a label which by now was re-releasing hundreds of discontinued funk and soul LPs to California record stores.
After being diagnosed with the rare blood-disease TTP and contracting Lupus, Dilla started to work through a series of projects, aiming to have them finished before his death. The main work, Donuts, released three days after his death, is a gloriously emotional mix, flowing seamlessly on a nostalgic energy and borrowing from sources as diverse as Kool & The Gang, The Beastie Boys, Frank Zappa and many more. It combines precise, moving hip-hop with a rich backdrop of eclectic sources, and is the perfect introduction to Dilla’s pioneering ‘nu-soul’ sound, lauded by the likes of Kanye West, Flying Lotus and The Roots. Once again Stones Throw offers freedom from the mainstream and innovation to enter a genre which has not changed significantly since Dr Dre’s 1992 landmark album The Chronic.
Also of particular note is Madlib’s 1998 Quasimoto album, The Unseen. Quasimoto as a project uses exclusively jazz samples, borrowing from the likes of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Mixing this template with a series of slow, psychedelic beats, Madlib himself raps over it, as does ‘Quasimoto’, his invented weed-obsessed, ramen-eating alter-ego. The voice of Quasimoto is actually made from Madlib rapping over the beats at half-speed and then speeding it up to a normal tempo, creating a comical yet endearing vocal effect.
Discovered by Peanut Butter Wolf after coming second in a local talent contest, you wonder how Madlib would have managed to make such inventive and enduring hip-hop on any other label. They have been the perfect antidote to the monotonous hip-hop of the last twelve years, both reinventing artists and finding a place for music without any other obvious output.
Noise versus music – Becky Thumpston answers the age-old question of what is music and what is simply noise
As I write, I am developing a blinding headache. I blame this on my choice of listening matter: Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. The question which inevitably arises in relation to this controversial album – is this music or noise? – is answered fairly definitively for me when I am forced to turn off my speakers and end the cacophony of sound that invades my inner being. I sit now in my blissfully silent bedroom, thankful for the end of a listening experience akin to a team of pneumatic drills.
The boundary between noise and music is the subject of much controversy. ‘What constitutes music?’ is a question to which entire books are devoted. As such, I dare not attempt to answer such a huge question in the space of one article. Rather, I intend to ponder this debate afresh, and using Metal Machine Music as a starting point, begin to explore where this boundary lies.
As a contemporary genre, ‘Noise Music’ typically features distortion, randomly produced electronic signals, manipulated sound recordings, static and hiss and hum. Metal Machine Music is a classic example. It was released in 1975 as a double LP consisting of guitar feedback played at different speeds, with the guitars tuned unusually and played with different reverberation levels. The result is four sides (each lasting 16:01 minutes) of seemingly unorganised sound, with the only structure being generated by arguably arbitrary and ironic timings.
Contemporary criticism of Metal Machine Music was very mixed, but one thing fast became clear: like Marmite, people either loved it or hated it. Music critic Billy Altman described it as ‘a two-disc set consisting of nothing more than ear-wrecking electronic sludge, guaranteed to clear any room of humans in record time’, while Victor Bockris hailed it as ‘the ultimate conceptual punk album’. It was assumed by many that the album was either a joke or an attack on Reed’s record label, RCA Records. These ideas led to rock critic Lester Bangs appraisal of the album:
as classical music it adds nothing to a genre that may well be depleted. As rock ‘n’ roll it’s interesting garage electronic rock ‘n’ roll. As a statement it’s great, as a giant FUCK YOU it shows integrity – a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless.
I would argue that two things distinguish this album from noise. On persistent listening, some interesting textures begin to emerge and an appreciation of quirky and unusual guitar techniques is hinted at. But, more importantly, it has ‘musical intent’.
Generating a ‘fantasy’ interview for the Seattle based journal The Stranger with the notoriously interview-avoiding Reed, Hannah Levin asks a fictitious Reed to ‘please explain to all the dorks out there that Metal Machine Music was just a cruel joke’. Drawing upon actual interviews with Reed, Levin imagines the following response:
“You’re wrong. I was very serious. John Cale made me more aware of electronic music and he had worked with [avant-garde musician] La Monte Young. He had introduced me to the idea of drone. And I was involved with the idea of feedback and guitars and playing around with tape recorders, so I decided to make a piece of music that didn’t have lyrics and didn’t have a steady beat and concentrated on feedback and guitar not being in any particular key – playing with the speeds. I was serious about it. I was also really, really stoned.”
But what was the musical precedent for Metal Machine Music? Lou Reed initially set up The Velvet Underground with John Cale. Cale was talent-spotted by Aaron Copland, and subsequently awarded a scholarship to study in the USA. Here he became involved in the contemporary avant-garde music scene, working with John Cage and La Monte Young. Cale’s influence on Reed makes a progression of this sort entirely understandable.
Pondering the meanings of the phrase ‘musical intent’, I realise that my ‘silent’ bedroom is not quite so silent after all. I can hear the sound of workers resurfacing a road nearby, the electronic hum of my computer and the kettle whistling in the kitchen, its whine becoming increasingly urgent. A rhythmic click ends its song. Listening to the ‘silence’ I am aware of a multitude of sounds: the soundtrack to everyday life. But are these sounds music or noise? My instinct would be to say that they are noise, but glancing back upon what I have written, I am forced to acknowledge that I have attributed musical qualities to the kettle, and indeed, as I type, a rhythmic pattern emerges.
This is the premise for John Cage’s infamous piece of silence, 4’33”. The performers, us ing any instrument or combination of instruments, sit in silence in a concert hall for the prescribed duration. The ‘music’ becomes the other sounds of the concert hall: coughing, the whirr of central heating, or a car alarm outside. In this way, each performance is unique. An extremely clever piece of music, 4’33” relies on the musical intent of the performers to generate a ‘piece of music’. If I were to stand at the bus stop for around four and a half minutes in silence, I would not have performed 4’33”, because I would not have done so with musical intent.
So where is the boundary between music and noise? Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music may be music to some: it was generated with musical intent, and I would be contradicting myself if I said it was not music. The same goes for similar artistic endeavours including Merzbow (a noise music project formed in Tokyo in 1979 by the musician Msami Akita) and Glenn Branca and his Guitar Orchestra. However, Metal Machine Music remains for me a painful and confusing listening experience.
Do young bands these days play to cyber-publics? This question sprung up when I was considering my time as a guitarist in a small band formed with my friends. We were called Alnegator and mostly performed and practised in York. Making music with close friends, performing mostly in front of close friends and their close friends allowed us easily to visualise our notion of a public. But how is this done alongside social networking and its requirement that bands localise this relation to their peers on line before the potential audience of the worldwide web?
The sort of people I refer to as musicians here are largely self-taught, writing and sharing song ideas as a hobby, with an emphasis on ad-libbing rather than stringent song structures. This shows that the idea of influence impinges on a band’s activity in a similar way to its predecessors: ‘If they did it like that why can’t we?’. In Alnegator, rather than pay homage to our influences, our self-taught musical approach was informed more by a conflict of different approaches that we had seen in other acts. Forming a band becomes, in part, a way of emulating or showing a set of private passions arising from fandom and record collecting. Whether in thrall to or just taking a lead from another’s approach, the band in question then goes on to produce for its audience its interpretation and representation of those clashing influences.
However, making this music still takes place in reticent way. When practises could be organised, or even just jamming one-on-one in a kitchen, bedroom or back-garden, we’d see each other at our best and worst. Sharing lyrics out loud typified this problem, having to look each other in the eye and speak uncertain-sounding things, rather than intuitively and safely responding to each other with clever fretwork. In other words, we really needed a singer! In less strained sessions, ideas could come out unforced: we would lock rhythmically, become telepathic and anticipate the twists of the song while in progress, only to have a tea break and forget it all. This made me wonder how many bands whose recordings I cherished actually produced their best stuff when no one but them was around to hear?
The aim for musicians like us was to give a live performance with that kind of spontaneity which kept occurring in rehearsals. At our first gig we only had three songs to show. We played through one, facing each other during sound-check, only to find the venue doors had opened half way through: people mistook it for our opener and applauded politely. I always thought of all our gigs as public rehearsals after that. Yet the way we gigged soon changed and with it the way in which we imagined the audience. Sometimes we would pursue a support slot with a touring act we knew and liked, at other times we would share the bill with other friends. In each case the potential success of the gig could partly be gauged by how many of the audience knew us personally and how their reception of us reflected the esteem in which we held the gig. This seemed a little contradictory. Feeling the gaze of those who knew us could sometimes make us want to perform without a hitch, but at other times it allowed us to be more accepting of our flaws. This often depended upon the felt presence of audience members who were anonymous to us. In this way the pressure of securing approval from a public who could be potential fans, contacts and collaborators loomed.
Bands I would add to my personal ‘influential predecessor’ category appeared free of this concern in their early days. Pere Ubu would never accept a gig just for the sake of playing one, refusing to travel outside of their native Boston to be indifferently received by strangers. The Dirty Three wrote their first tunes providing background music in Melbourne bars. Sleater-Kinney began exclusively playing in Olympia to generate a community of musicians who shared their disgust at major label sexism and homophobia (a movement which still thrives today on the Kill Rock Stars imprint). The situation for bands now is augmented by the way that any act, be it established on a major label, a small town group of friends, or even just at the conceptual stage, can claim instant admittance to potential publicity through social networking sites, the most notorious being Myspace music. Many articles have analysed the ways in which these sites change listening habits and accessibility. Yet as a band member, routinely logging in to check for updates, I became aware of how it changes the musician’s idea of publicity.
Friend counts, for example, present the band with an instant marker of popularity to compare with others in their ‘extended network’. Yet how often does a band consult each individual cyber-habit of its 500-odd contacts’ profiles? Songs are tallied for how often they are played, but does this really let a band know anything about how actively or passively a listener listens? The majority of wall posts we received, rather than give us feedback free of sycophancy, just promoted gigs at us. In this set up listener, musician and middle-man promoter tacitly enter into a surrogate form of contact where they are dumb to each other’s attitudes and responses. The fabric of web 2.0 as a promotional tool exposes personal contacts before the worldwide web, making the slogan of a ‘place for friends’ more or less a faceless form of fandom, reflecting that subject’s response to the media itself instead of the band’s output.
The indecision of the private/public character of Alnegator’s music can be related to this form of contact. Musical interest becomes subject to an all-pervasive, dislocated public whose responses are privatised by the very media which allows those interests to be expressed. Meanwhile, a band can claim relative ‘success’ in its own cyber-realm by how happy they feel the software represents them to this public. Rather than allowing a small band like Alnegator to broaden its appeal, the virtual promise of an open and free internet acts instead as a cover for a shrinking public that genuinely listens to their work, whilst Myspace centralises what would otherwise be that band’s diversity on the internet. It allows less for online interaction as an alternative channel to gigging and recording, but makes these habits into a newer, shallower kind of interface.
Can a band be anything other than an exercise in social networking? Economically, the majority of bands wanting to make a record go on tour or even play a one off gig can expect to do so at a loss. Some might say ‘What’s the point?’ This ignores the fact that bands form for fun and remain amateurish in taking the rehearsal space to the stage. In this way Myspace also seems ‘fun’. Its easy to operate low maintenance and endlessly customisable with the added pleasure of seeing your peers having ‘fun’ too. The way it quantifies success can also compensate for the band’s shoestring economics. Their stock cannot be cashed, but a feel good factor circulates in the form of assuring comments and noticeable hits. Bands, promoters and fans engage in a call and response, each appearing to command the other to ‘recognise ME!’
Bands like Alnegator need to defend their self-taught, unprofessional creativity against third-party software promotions, to remain unburdened by the lure of another potential ‘friend’. Hopefully no-one cynically sees gigs and those who attend as collectables which increase popularity stakes. Myspace’s weakness is that it exposes these customs as self-limiting exercises. Yet the purview of a consumer public asking its musicians to closely replicate their media representation still persists. How tiring is the old complaint ‘They didn’t much sound like they do on record’ to any band? An increasing number of middle-managed festivals and over-priced nostalgia concerts for so called ‘respected’ musicians still maintain this attitude as the norm. For this it should be remembered that a band’s best moments should be looked for more carefully, beyond what is staged as most readily available.
Boulez in Birmingham – Pierre Boulez is the dean of living European composers. Neil Smith discusses his recent visit to Birmingham
You may not have heard of him, but Pierre Boulez is probably the most eminent living composer in Europe, so his visit to Birmingham last Month took place with a reverence usually reserved for royalty. After hearing a concert of his music the previous evening the French-born Boulez, also a highly successful conductor, took an open rehearsal of Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks. It was a rare chance to see and hear the octogenarian in action as he took charge of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, despite his confession that this was ‘not his favourite piece’.
When about to observe someone who is billed as a ‘living legend’ it is hard to know what to expect, especially considering Boulez’s reputation for strict adherence to modernist principles, established in his early polemical articles. Most famous among these is ‘Schoenberg is Dead’ (written perhaps a little too soon after the death of the inventor of serialism), w here Boulez pledges his allegiance not to Schoenberg but his pupil, Anton Webern, because of what he saw as a true modernist attitude. A fellow student articulated these thoughts in his description of Boulez as a ‘modernist archangel come to wreak vengeance on the non believers.’ So, how would someone so uncompromising on paper conduct a rehearsal?
As it happened Boulez’s approach would not be unfamiliar to anyone who has sat through a rehearsal in an amateur or youth orchestra. It seems there are few secrets to good music-making, with typical elements such as tempo and dynamics occupying proceedings. Any sense of unease was immediately dispelled by the unassuming manner of his succinct instructions, which were delivered in very good English. There were even one or two mistakes from the conductor, as he admitted he had not had that much time (or indeed, one supposes, much of an inclination) to look at the score.
Short bursts of discussion between Boulez and Paul Griffiths (a notable analyst and writer on contemporary music) broke up this practical demonstration, with Stravinsky in particular in the spot-light. Boulez’s first hand reminiscences of one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century were compelling and more often than not amusing. The first time they met was after a dinner to which Boulez ‘was not invited’, though he was allowed to enter the post-dinner gathering: a set of circumstances that brings to mind a rather surreal ‘great composer’ tea party.
At this first meeting they talked, unsurprisingly, about music. Boulez was familiar with much of the older man’s work, having written a number of articles and analyses, though these were often far from complementary. In particular he vehemently attacked the works from Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, a fact which explains his indifference to Dumbarton Oaks, a piece very much in this mould. The echoes of classical gesture were unlikely to match the tastes of the purist Boulez, whose admiration for Webern rested on how it was ‘something totally unlike what we had heard before’.
Yet what does one do when one becomes the old guard? He holds the same opinions as fifty years ago but in person admits that they are just that: opinions. Would a young Boulez expound so mildly on musical principles he disagrees with so fundamentally? Either the real Boulez was never as virulent as his prose would suggest or he has softened his stance over the years, as a new generation of composers has had to deal with different concerns. Incidentally, Boulez would not comment on young composers of today, it appears he feels he is not as well placed as his younger self to discuss new music. Obviously he disagrees with certain, more recent developments in music, but his refusal to criticise must be seen not as a sign of disdain but of benevolence: he does not want to discourage young composers. Boulez is too shrewd a character to become an embittered mud-slinger.
The event ended with three short pieces, composed by Richard Causton, Vic Hoyland and Richard Baker, written to welcome Boulez to Birmingham. Long applause followed the final work, during which Boulez picked up the scores dedicated to him and strolled off into the distance (at least this is what it felt like, he strolled, in fact, behind the orchestra to his belongings). It was a rather fitting, if slightly bizarre, end to the day which above all showed the warmth of a personality that propped up this definitive facade of modernism. The young firebrand has morphed seamlessly into the grand old man of European music.
Music is always played harmoniously alongside the bleakness of warfare. Whether it is the marching music used to maintain the rigour of the soldiers’ step, regiment bands, patriotic and nationalistic songs sung by soldiers fighting or those left to defend home, there seems to be a definitive framework to categorise warfare songs of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The historian Gerald Brown believed many of the songs written and sung by soldiers of the air force, navy and infantry were the only works worthy to be entitled “war songs”. Though there are limited resources throughout the history of such songs, Brown argues that the censorship and perceived vulgarity of many songs and their anonymous authors meant that laying claim to the original works became an extreme feat. For example, the soldier fighting on the frontline might write for pure enjoyment, his regiment’s morale, or to manifest the destitution and disillusionment of war. This form of warfare song differed greatly from those written by government-commissioned composers for propaganda purposes: composers who, more often than not, would have never experienced warfare. Though those who witness the indirect effects of war on their lives are just as worthy to write a war song, Brown suggests that they cannot convey the same horrors of war experienced upon the frontline.
There is no time, from the American Civil War (1861- 1865) to the Vietnam war (1961-1975), when songs of warfare have not resounded from the battlefield or the airwaves. During the American Civil War various songs arose from the respective Confederate and Union sides. Many of these songs originated from popular hymns and are still sung today. An example of a famed Union song, “John Brown’s Body”, sung to the tune of ‘’Glory Glory Hallelujah”, is believed to have been partially written in 1862. The first line of one of the verses is as follows: “He hath loosed the fateful tightening of his terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on.” Both Thomas Bishop, who served as an infantry solider, and William Steffe, an abolitionist, are disputed authors of the original verses of this song. Later in 1863 writer Julia Ward Howe wrote a new verse to “John Brown’s Body” beginning with “He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave, He is wisdom to the mighty, He is strong for the brave”. Interestingly, the song’s title changed in 1863; when the regiment of Philadelphia published the six-verse song as a broadsheet, bearing the now infamous title “The Battle Hymn of The Republic.” Whether the new title intended to engage the public more so than “John Brown’s Body” is questionable.
There are various other American Civil War songs written by both soldiers and civilians, such as “Dixie”, “The Arkansas Traveller”, “Maryland my Maryland” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom”. These are still sung at war re-enactments in the present day. A personal favourite is the Confederate song “Bonnie Blue Flag”; particularly the line “And when are rights were threaten’d, the cry rose near a far. Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag, that bears a single star”. This song is quintessentially a “war song” in its justification for the purposes of the war, celebrating its protection of “rights” after they have been “threatened”.
There is no doubt that the Great Wars fuelled the transformation of art from something that was merely to be enjoyed into the ultimate machine for nationalistic propaganda and underhand smear tactics. Hence it is hardly surprising that one prefers to sing the jolly “It’s a long way to Tipperary”, which was written before the First World War in 1912, rather than ponder on the haunting poetic works of Wilfred Owen’s “Exposure”.
The Great Wars were a time of fine poets arising from the horrors of trench warfare, not only in protest, but also to present an uncensored view to an oblivious public. The works of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke might not resound musically, however they did provide the same poetic tone of songs by other soldiers and provided a stark alternative to the good-natured songs indulging the public’s airwaves.
The emergence of the medi a propelled both the allies and foe to collaborate with musical composers to produce propaganda, recognising this as a means of entering into the hearts and minds of the public. This was the first sign of the soldiers’ world evolving outside of their own internal experiences on the frontline.
During the Second World War, Adolf Hitler and the Allies alike made decisive use of the airwaves. In 1934, for example, Heman Blume’s “German Home and Songs” was published under the command of Hitler, whilst the 1940s saw the publishing of “Adolf Hitler’s Fanfare Marches” for troops.
The American propaganda in the 1940s is reminiscent of former crusade tactics. The references in the song “When We Set That Rising Sun” refer to the heathen and the religious intolerance of God by the Japanese. Though these are stark examples of songs and music used to encourage morale and support for war efforts, they do set the precedent for the relationship between media and propaganda.
During the Second World War there were still examples of soldiers’ songs to be found in the ballad of the “D-Day Dodgers”, which was a reference to comments Lady Nancy Astor apparently made to the English soldiers serving in Italy. The soldiers responded with a song written by Hamish Henderson in 1944, sung to the tune of Lili Marlene, a German ballad. The first line reads, “We’re the D-Day dodgers all the here in Italy, Drinking all the Vino, always on the spree.” The humorous retort to a potentially serious accusation exemplifies how war songs could often be reactive to politics and were able to console those unable to defend themselves back home.
The protest songs of the Vietnam War were written by a range of diverse artists, from Bob Dylan and the Joe and the Fish (“And it’s 1,2,3 what are we fighting for?”) to soldiers who wrote songs which were then published after the war, such as General Edward Lonsdale (who had written 51 songs during the war) and Chip Dockery (“Sitting in the cab of my truck”). The songs varied from protests at the “Dirty War”, general support for the war, and those songs which aimed to maintain unity between the soldiers. The American Civil War’s abundance of musical instruments is no different to that of the Vietnamese war. The musical instruments enabled a creative solace to evolve in the unforgiving environment of warfare. An interesting alternation in the Vietnamese war is the role of the radio: stations such as Radio Hanoi played Rock and Jazz to both sides throughout the war. The government’s use of songs also changed, with acts being paid to play pro-American songs to those serving in the Vietnam. This era of warfare marked the slackened censorship of artists and soldiers, no doubt the mass opposition and social unrest spurned the songs of warfare into an uncharted realm.
War songs have been placed at the right hand of war throughout history. One cannot help but question why songs are no longer visibly the tool of emotive response for soldiers, opportunities for governments, or a form of protests or support by the public? The place of music within most armies around the world is still a symbol of prowess and conformity. Though many now accept that the techniques of warfare have evolved into an impersonal act, is it the case that soldiers no longer deem songs to be expressive? Even protest songs seem to have waned, although this could be the result of both an increasingly passive audience and the media’s decisive role in using the picture to convey the words that a song fails to. However, the soldier’s songs still evoke great sadness, jesting, and a haunting sense of war’s merciless craft. It is a testimony to those known and anonymous authors, regardless of whether they were soldiers or civilian spectators. Their songs have prevailed and are still accessible to all generations in understanding the enormity of warfare.
Introducing… Sibelius’s Second Symphony – Cathy Rushworth explains her love of Sibelius, particularly his second symphony
My regard for Sibelius as the-greatest-composer-that-ever-lived really only began last summer, following a rousing performance of his Second Symphony in Ripon Cathedral. Usually I find that to be fully captivated by a performance I need already to know the piece inside-out, but with this it was different. It was, in fact, love at first listen. I was spellbound from the first tender murmurings of the string section and, as the piece grew out of its near-timid beginnings, so did my appreciation.
Described poetically by Sibelius as ‘a confession of the soul’, the Second Symphony was written in the first few years of the twentieth century, while Sibelius was wintering in Italy. It is, thus, tempting to interpret the warmth of the piece as the result of his sojourn in a climate warmer than his Nordic home, although the piece as a whole is still unmistakably Finnish. While Sibelius himself rather disliked the appellation, the work was nicknamed the ‘Symphony of Liberation’. It came at a time when Russian authority (from which Finland gained independence in 1917) was being tightened, to the detriment of the Finnish language and identity. Indeed, Sibelius himself grew up speaking Swedish, and had to learn the Finnish language at a later point. One can clearly hear the Finnish intonations in the Second Symphony; Sibelius uses emphatic downbeats extensively just as, in the Finnish language, the first syllable of each word is stressed. This is in direct contrast to a more Western European manner of speaking, reflected in the musical output of Britain, France and Germany, where the second syllable of each word is stressed, and musically-stressed upbeats are more common than downbeats. Indeed, the Finnish language is characterized by trochaic rhythms, in direct contrast to the iambic rhythms of the English language. Perhaps we should be saying Sibelius rather than Sibelius.
Musically, the Second Symphony is almost deceptively simple. The opening rising-and-falling three note pattern (F# – G – A) pervades the first three movements, and is ubiquitous in the fourth; indeed, it forms the basis for the entire work and, in the finale, the triumphant climax is the culmination of this motif. For this reason, the Second Symphony is often described as an organic piece of music, and this three note fragment the musical ‘seed’ which develops, or ‘blossoms’, during the work. This piece really does deserve your undivided attention. I would love to hold your hand and lead you through the piece, note by note, but in lieu of this I can only point you in the right direction, and leave you to interpret the piece yourself. There are abundant recordings, from the historic performances of Robert Kajanus and, later, Sergei Koussevitzky, to the more recent interpretations of Sir Colin Davis and Sir Simon Rattle. Certainly, it is worth finding the recording by Esa-Pekka Salonen on Youtube, an exhilarating and exciting performance. The Finn really does put his whole heart into it, and this is well worth a watch and a listen.
A work of immense power in its own right, the Second Symphony is full of stories, not just of the Finnish struggle for identity, language and independence from Russia. Indeed, the second movement originated as an idea for a symphonic poem based on Don Juan; the descriptions Sibelius left fit the music perfectly. Listen to the opening and picture ‘sitting in the twilight in a castle’, before the entrance of a ‘stranger’, the lugubrious bassoon. What follows is nothing less than a frenetic dialogue between Don Juan, Hope (cue the horns) and Death (the stranger), with the unmistakably minor finish of the second movement and the neatly chopping strings leading one to suppose the triumph of Death.
A clear throwback to the intonation of Finnish chant can be heard in the delicately persistent nine-note melody of the oboe throughout the third movement: an incredibly simple but effective motif. Yet it is the seamless transition between the third and fourth movements which is, in my opinion, the crowning glory of this work and the point of bursting musical climax. It is as if the orchestra, with the strings pushing the horns and woodwind through, has acquired so much momentum that it is impossible for them to break before the finale. The effect is staggering and the listener completely transported by the music. The fourth movement itself is unashamedly romantic; the strings really do soar, con forza. It is a dramatic end to a marvelous work.
As Sibelius explained during an interview in 1919: ‘If I could express the same thing with words as with music, I would, of course, use a verbal expression. Music is something autonomous and much richer. Music begins where the possibilities of language end. That is why I write music.’