Thursday, October 31, 2013

Leave the laptops at home

I was happy to see Attack Magazine tackle the issue of shifting trends in live techno music, not least because it's a woefully underreported subject.  There have always been plenty of articles about how the music sounds, and the thought processes of the artists, but very little about how the music is made.  I'd wager that the process of recording and performing electronic music is still something of a mystery even for devoted fans and clubgoers.  Any novice can look at a guitar, or watch someone playing a guitar, and connect the dots between the shape and feel of the instrument and the sound that emanate from it.  Almost nobody can understand what to do with hardware sequencer just by looking at it, or intuitively decipher digital waveform synthesis programs on a computer.  The way that the music gets made is still very much in the domain of the artists who actually make it.  

I've long since defended laptop techno as a performance art, or at least defended the idea that a laptop (and the lack of animation from the person clicking the mouse) should never be an obstacle to enjoying the music.On the other hand, using live, physical instruments (including electronic music hardware) does add something tangible to a gig, after all, the music can and should be enough but concerts are also performances and fans love to see musicians in the more physical act of performing.  As I noted in my MUTEK 2010 wrap-up:  "In 2003, nearly all the performances were centred around laptops. Almost every performer in 2010 incorporated a laptop into their setup, but in plenty of cases, the laptop was nowhere near the centre of the spectacle."  

As for why performers are switching from software back to hardware, well, it's very much an open question and the article doesn't offer many answers beyond the fairly obvious "people got bored and tastes changed". A hardware setup certainly creates a more unique visual effect onstage.  No matter what programs you use or how much effort you've put into trying to sound different from everybody else, a guy sitting in a chair in front of a laptop is just a guy sitting in a chair in front of a laptop, every time.  Even after more than 20 years, the idea of "live techno" is still something of a misnomer in the eyes of many people, which has led musicians to become more dynamic performers.  As fans became more conditioned to live sets, it became more acceptable for artists to break with blank-faced stoicism of the past.

Most of all, I'd say that the sound of techno in the '10's deserves most of the credit.  The days of "plip-plop" laptop techno and minimal are long gone, techno is deeper, groovier, and heavier than it was a decade ago.  Unless you were Ricardo Villalobos, you weren't about to get too animated while endlessly flat plains of minimal crept from the speakers, but the newer styles are far more energetic and therefore more conducive to more visually arresting, hardware-based live performances.

It's interesting to see (p. 2 of the article) that classical training is becoming more common in techno.  I think this would be a first -- I can't recall every reading something by techno artists who stress the benefits of having classical music training.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

RIP Lou Reed

Didn't he always seem like he'd be one of the immortal ones who would never die?  As the joke goes, I thought he'd be around until the very end, with Keith Richards and cockroaches once every other sign of life on earth had burned itself out.  Lou Reed was the legendary Velvet Underground frontman in the 60's, a successful solo artist, unpredictable shit disturber, and near drug casualty in the 70's, and a comeback kid by the late 80's and early 90's with some of his most critically acclaimed work.  He solidified his legacy throughout the 90's with the VU reunion and a handful of almost classic albums, and settled into an elder stateman of rock role in the 00's and 10's, collaborating with whoever he damn well pleased, critics be damned (which he did quite frequently, Reed was a notoriously difficult interview subject).  He never compromised right up until the end, always tried to stay ahead of the curve, never went on a comfortable money grabbing greatest hits tour, he was too busy staging "Metal Machine Music" and "Berlin" and acting grumpy in photo shoots with Metallica.

Lou Reed's influence on rock and alternative music was so pervasive, it's practically incalculable.  People who don't know they were influenced by Lou Reed were influenced by Lou Reed.  The fact that labels like "alternative" have grown so large that they are almost meaningless is largely thanks to Lou Reed.  Perhaps only Dylan can rival him in terms of helping to shape so many different genres of music across so many generations of fans and musicians.

The height of my Lou Reed/VU fandom was in 1998, I bought all the VU albums, moped around to "Berlin", devoured the "VU Companion" almost daily.  That was the same year American Masters produced a documentary on his life, and the closing moments of the film contain my favourite Lou Reed lines which remained as clear and sharp in my mind over the past fifteen years as they were on the night I first heard them. At around the 71-minute mark:

Interviewer: How long can you be a rock and roller?
Reed: You see, that problem disappears if we don't call it rock and roll.
Interviewer: How long can you be a musician?
Reed: Right.  What would the answer to that be?
Interviewer: Until you die.
Reed.  There you go.  

The self assured attitude he displays there, the mix of confidence and snideness (even in his more politely mannered moments), has always been my quintessential memory of Lou Reed, and I don't see that changing now that he's fulfilled his prophecy.

And what would this post be without a few more links:

A Night With Lou Reed (1982).  Reed goes all leather jacket supper club, playing hits and songs from "The Blue Mask".  So great to see him and Quine together in their better days.

Dirty Boulevard (1989).  Squeezed among Roxette and Janet Jackson on weekly Much Music countdowns in 1989, needless to say I'd never heard anything remotely like this before.

The Kids (1973).  Still might be the most devastating song ever recorded if you hear it in a certain mood.

Heroin (live 2012).  Imagine still getting to play rock and roll like this when you're 70.

Stephanie Says (1967).  Maybe the prettiest song the VU ever did, a prelude to the softer side he displayed on some of his mid-70's albums, but never bettered.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 15

Six months between mixes is inexcusable!

I was aiming for a midtempo rarities mix, but of course things rarely turn out the way I want.  I was also determined to squeeze some Glenn Branca into a mix, and now I'm not sure whether it really fits.  Judge for yourself.

I ended up with a mix that was more of a 2013 favourites mix, although there is a bit of quality cratedigging too.  And how long had it been since I'd heard that Delerium track?  So don't expect much in the way of a 2013 year-end mix ...

“The OH mix has been observed in interstellar space”

94 minutes

tracklist in the comments ...

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Clubbing in Damascus

This remarkable article about the barely alive and kicking club scene in Damascus was published in the UK Daily Mail about a month ago.  The highlights are the pictures, and in fact I'd probably recommend just looking at the pictures and skipping the text entirely.  The most striking thing about them is how normal everything looks -- people are smoking, dancing, and enjoying themselves in scenes that could be almost be taking place in most Western countries.

As for the text, let's just say there's nothing approaching investigative journalism here.  It's the fluffiest of fluff pieces, and perhaps that was all the author and photographers were aiming for (N.B. it's difficult to tell which ones are stock photos and which ones were places visited by the reporter, the article is very vague about specific names and places for reasons we'll get to later).  But considering the very real horrors of the war that has torn apart most of Syria, and the wealth of misinformation coming out of there, the Daily Mail had an opportunity to dig beneath the surface and tell the story of a truly unique scene, far different from the usual narrative of club owners struggling to keep their doors open despite countless obstacles that we've seen told in a million other cities. Even a one-dimensional depiction of "downtown Damascus is a bubble where people can have fun and remain callously oblivious to the carnage in the rest of the country" would have been a story worth telling, and a lot better than the rather colourless reporting that was actually done.    

The main question that is never asked or even implied is this: how did they find all these clubs?  The club owners don't want their names or locations publicized for fear of "reprisals", so if we take those comments at face value, how does one get into these clubs?  Who was the insider with knowledge of the scene?

The political partisanship of the characters in the piece is hardly subtle.  In the midst of a civil war, where making your friends and supporters known to all is a matter of life and death, we see normal goings on in the centre of Damascus (an Assad stronghold), in venues that display pictures of Assad, and hear about music that's popular with Assad's supporters.  Dancing, drinking, Western-style clothes, and intersex mingling are obviously not popular with the rebel groups, so in that aspect the clubbers would strongly favour Assad.  But there's so much we don't know.  Have the businesses that refused, for whatever reasons, to show their loyalty to the regime been shut down?  Does the regime support or merely tolerate these kinds of establishments?  We can't even assume that the entire photo-op wasn't set up by people with business or personal links to the regime as a way to project a sense of normalcy in the capital.  Judging by many of the comments on the article ("Assad allows clubbing so he can't be all that bad!"), there are plenty of people ready to buy into just about any positive spin about Syria.  

Saturday, October 05, 2013

The Miley Cyrus, Sinead O'Connor, Amanda Palmer spat

We've seen this movie a million times already, haven't we?  I think this is my standard reaction to 99% of music "scandals" these days, so at the risk of adding to the redundance ...

First, it's a bad idea in general to take life advice from Sinead O'Connor.  Brilliant musician, well-meaning person, a wealth of experience worth listening to, hell yes.  The voice of reason in a debate about the "evils" of the music industry?  Pass.

Second, if Miley was really so deeply inspired by Sinead and her iconic song and video, you'd think she'd react more along the lines of "thanks but no thanks for your two cents" rather than treating Sinead like dirt and ridiculing her past behaviour.

Third, what kind of apocalypse is upon us when Amanda Palmer comes across as the most sane person in a Twitter war/war of letters?  Even so, her portrayal of Cyrus as a shrewd personality who carefully manoeuvers herself through the music industry is exaggerated (to be fair, Palmer is hardly the first to make that characterization and claim that Miley is a lot smarter than the average pop star).  To me, it looks like Cyrus thought it would be a good idea to shed a few real tears in her new video (thx Sinead!!) and that's roughly where the inspiration begins and ends, i.e. hardly the work of someone who carefully maps out her every move.

Fourth, although she has every right to be pissed off about Miley's response(s), Sinead is embarassing herself by stooping to Miley's level because there's almost no way for a 47-year old to come out looking good in a flame war with a 20-year old, especially given the subject matter of Sinead's original letter.  Again, see #1.

Fifth, child stars will grow up and rebel and do crazy stuff to get attention and there's really no reason to get upset about it because it's happened over and over in the past sixty years of rock and roll history and will continue to happen from now until approximately forever.  Next!