Monthly Archives: September 2017

Disturbing music

The Quietus published a piece yesterday in which contributors wrote about the pieces of music they find most disturbing. There’s some good choices in there, some interesting discussions, and some properly creepy stuff.

Inevitably, there’s lots of black metal – not my thing, but as long as neither the fans nor the bands are killing anyone or burning any churches I bear it no ill will. There’s lots of avant stuff: Nurse With Wound and Residents and Diamanda Galas. Unfamiliar with the latter’s oeuvre, I listened to all 11.44 of This is the Law of the Plague from her Plague Mass live album. It’s hard work, but it is undeniably powerful in its intense sincerity. Her brother died of Aids and Galas’s fury at the moralising of the Catholic church (and its recourse to Old Testament authority to justify its callous disregard for the suffering of Aids victims), is evident in her every word and ululation.

There are some idiosyncratic choices, too. I mean, I get finding What’s New Pussycat distasteful. I get finding it annoying. But disturbing seems a bit of a stretch to me.

Lists like these are often pointless clickbait, and contain little insight or depth. This one’s good, though, because the subject is interesting, because the contributors bring mostly interesting insight to their nominations, and because its something many music fans will have spent time thinking about themselves.

Like many people, I have strong emotional reactions to music, and I can definitely think of music that has disturbed me. That moment where the Mellotron voices come in at the end of Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me still sends a shiver up my spine. It’s the way their inhuman blankness and mechanical vibrato supplant all the warmth and humanity of Gaye’s preceding performance, ending the song on an ambiguous, doom-laden note. Some of the more extreme moments on Radiohead’s OK Computer unnerved me when I first came into contact with them: the brutally distorted and compressed bass guitar that gatecrashes Exit Music; the eerie noises of Climbing Up the Walls, and Thom Yorke’s feral screams that bring the song to an end. When I first heard Nirvana’s In Utero at, what, 12 years old, it was all too much for me: I could put no name to the emotions the songs expressed. I put it away in a drawer for about a week before coming tentatively back to it and slowly coming to understand it, as best someone who’s never shared those experiences ever could, anyways.

But if asked what music I find most disturbing now, I’d have to, like Bob Cluness in the Quietus article, plump for György Ligeti’s Requiem.

Like many, I was first exposed to Ligeti’s music when watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much about the film disturbed me. I find the idea of space oppressive, bordering on terrifying. The idea of nothing – of nothing on a cosmic scale – is close to unimaginable, and whenever I come close to imagining it, it scares me all the more. The idea of so much nothing is more than I get my head around. Perhaps it’d help if I were a scientist and could understand these things on a theoretical or molecular level. As it is, moments like that shot of Frank Poole drifting off into nothingness without end, cut adrift by HAL and his oxygen supply severed, are just horrifying.

And to add to the dread, Kubrick chose to set some of the heaviest, tensest moments in the film (the encounters with the monoliths on the moon and near Jupiter, and the stargate sequence) to Ligeti’s music: Lux Aeterna, Requiem and Atmosphères.

These pieces are exercises in micropolyphony. Polyphony (“many voices”) is the simultaneous use of two or more independent lines of melody (as opposed to a melody with supporting harmonies, whether vocal or from accompanying instruments). Micropoyphony (a technique developed by Ligeti) is the use of many independent lines, each moving at a different speed or in a different rhythm, so that individual melodic lines themselves become hard, or impossible, to discern, instead creating a kind of cloud of sound, resembling a cluster chord except for the fact that it constantly moves. Ligeti’s music is disturbing on a second-by-second basis because it’s amorphous, because its shape is impossible to discern, because we can never get a handle on it: try to follow one voice and you’ll be defeated as others swarm around it, merge with it, transform it.

Technically speaking I have always approached musical texture through part-writing. Both Atmosphères and Lontano have a dense canonic structure. But you cannot actually hear the polyphony, the canon. You hear a kind of impenetrable texture, something like a very densely woven cobweb. I have retained melodic lines in the process of composition, they are governed by rules as strict as Palestrina’s or those of the Flemish school, but the rules of this polyphony are worked out by me. The polyphonic structure does not come through, you cannot hear it; it remains hidden in a microscopic, underwater world, to us inaudible. I call it micropolyphony (such a beautiful word!)

György Ligeti, quoted in Jonathan W Bernard’s article Voice Leading as a Spatial Function in the Music of Ligeti

I am in awe of Ligeti’s ability to create this music. It’s is the closest music has come, maybe the closest any artform has come, to grasping and properly invoking the infinite, or God, or whatever you want to call it. I wonder if listening back to his creations unnerved even him.

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Grant Hart RIP

It’s not just that Turn on the News deserves to have been heard by a bigger audience than it has by virtue of its sheer quality. It’s that it, like other songs I can think of, doesn’t make sense as a cult song. It’s just bigger than that.

If it had been written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen for Born in the USA rather than by Hüsker Dü for Zen Arcade, it would now be a rock ‘n’ roll standard. If it had been recorded by the Clash, it’d be up there in the band’s catalogue with London Calling. It’s Rockin’ in the Free World, five years early, and Neil Young would have been mighty happy to have written that riff and that chorus. It has the melody, the power, the drama and the timelessness of any classic rock warhorse you care to name.

Turn on the News was written by Hüsker Dü’s drummer, Grant Hart, who died yesterday of cancer. Hart wrote a huge number of the band’s greatest songs (Pink Turns to Blue, Keep Hanging On, Green Eyes, Sorry Somehow and Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely – just to name the first five that come to mind), and his songs are just as treasured by the band’s fans as those by Bob Mould, even if Grant never got the mainstream exposure in the years since Hüsker Dü broke up that Bob enjoyed with Sugar.

He recorded less prolifically than Mould and his records tended to only turn up on little indies without any promotional budget, but from the EP version of 2541 (a song covered by Marshall Crenshaw and Robert Forster, who both know a thing or two about writing good alterna-pop) to the rather bonkers but occasionally inspired The Argument from 2013, an album based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, he never lost his way with a melody.

Ultimately though, it’s his time in Hüsker Dü that he’ll be remembered for, and that’s only natural; to say that rock music wouldn’t be the same today without Hüsker Dü is such a commonplace observation as to be a cliche. But if you want proof, just take a look at social media today and see your favourite musicians talking about what the band’s music, and Grant Hart, meant to them.

Walter Becker RIP

I was away last week and read about Walter Becker’s passing in the New York Times. They gave him a full-page obituary – indicative, I thought at first, of the band’s  higher profile in the US compared to here, until I opened up the BBC News app on my phone and saw that his death was a top story there, too.

I’m no different from any other pop fan, and can’t keep the music and the artist entirely separate. It requires a particular cast of mind to do that, and I don’t have it. My thoughts about the character of the musicians whose work I admire (none of whom I know) feed into my understanding of that work.

But with Walter Becker, I had to make an attempt to consider the music as separate from the man, as he was always something of an enigma. His partner Donald Fagen made a somewhat autobiographical solo album (The Nightfly) in the 1980s, and published a book a few years ago detailing his teenage art-cultural obsessions. Moreover, he was the singer, and it’s hard not to hear the words being sung as a reflection of the singer, even when you know that he didn’t write all of them.

Reticent though Fagen is next to his rock’n’roll peers, Becker was even less forthcoming. Photographs of him suggest a stern character, or perhaps a supercilious one (his friend Rickie Lee Jones said in her tribute to Becker that he hated to be photographed, which may explain why he could look off-putting in photos). His work suggests a bottomless sarcasm and cynicism. In the Classic Albums documentary on Aja, he’s gimlet-eyed and brutally dismissive about the faults he hears in recordings and performances that appear faultless to we ordinary mortals. Yet those who knew him speak of a gentle, patient man, generous with his time, but shy and affected by a difficult childhood and some troubled adult relationships.

What we know for sure is what we know from his work. Like Fagen, he was a studio perfectionist. He was egoless in pursuit of the best record possible, handing over tracks to trusted players whenever he thought someone else would do a better job than he could – despite being a crackerjack guitarist himself. For years, I didn’t know that he played one of my favourite ever guitar solos (the one on Aja‘s Home at Last), simply because he so rarely allowed himself the luxury of taking a solo when Denny Dias, Larry Carlton, Jay Graydon, Elliott Randall, Rick Derringer and Mark Knopfler were a phone call away. Think about that: a guitarist working in rock music who was self-effacing to the point where he was willing to not play on songs off the last two albums at all (songs that he wrote) in pursuit of the best possible records.

That kind of musical humility deserves applause. But really, everything he did as part of Steely Dan deserves applause.

Beast Epic – Iron & Wine

This will probably be my last post for a couple of weeks. I’m off to New York and Boston on Sunday, and will be away from home for nine days. See you soon!

For years I avoided Iron & Wine. Plenty of people told me I’d like Sam Beam’s music, but I’m a stubborn little so and so, and so the more I was told I’d like him – the more I was told my own music sounded like his – the more determined I became not to give him a fair shake.

I listened to a couple of songs long enough to confirm that he sounded exactly like I thought he would (hushed, almost whispered vocals; delicately picked acoustic guitar; brushed drums), and then put him in a box where I didn’t have to revise my preconceptions. Derivative. A revivalist. Fine, but not necessary in a world where I could listen to the originators of this stuff. Who needs another bearded singer-songwriter? Not me, and I’m a bearded singer-songwriter myself.

To be fair to pig-headed 25-year-old me, there was more than mere stubbornness to this. I’ve always been concerned with not being tediously derivative in my own songs. When you’re a guitar-playing singer-songwriter, you have to do everything you can to cultivate your own voice, or what the hell is the point of you? I felt I should widen my listening as much as possible, inviting influences to seep in from everywhere else, to stop me becoming a pale facsimile of the music I love most. This didn’t preclude listening to singer-songwriters, but it did mean not actively studying them, and it made me especially fearful of artists who wore their own 1960s and ’70s influences too obviously, lest I just become a copy of a copy.*

And so, 10 years or so after first hearing of him, I actually sit down and listen to the new Iron & Wine album all the way only to find it’s absolutely lovely and I’ve been missing out on a guy who does great work. Sure, Beast Epic owes a heavy debt to Nick Drake – Song in Stone sounds like a Pink Moon outtake being played by the band Drake had for Bryter Layter – but the songs are strong enough that Beam gets away with evoking his heroes.

The songs, in fact, are great. They’re built on mostly simple, comfortingly familiar chord progressions, are played with delicate assurance by Beam and his excellent band, and are full of solid, subtly hooky melodies. Helpfully, his soft voice has acquired depth and warmth in the last 10 years. He’s a proper singer now, not a hushed, Elliott Smith-style whisperer. Even better, the record sounds good too: warm, earthy and woody. I can’t overstate how important this is to doing this kind of music well.

My favourites so far include Call It Dreaming, which has a glorious change to the relative minor in the chorus that induces an instant rush of nostalgic warmth in me (I’m not able to place what it’s nostalgia for, yet), the aforementioned Song in Stone, and Right for Sky, in which Beam’s melody winds its way through the well-chosen chords of the chorus, observing the piquant change to the parallel minor. Only Last Night, with its pizzicato strings and plinky percussion (like a much gentler, much more rustic Tom Waits) differs markedly from the album’s sonic template, and it’s initially a bit of a surprise, but the clever arrangement works as it takes the textures that are present in the other songs anyway, and just uses them a bit differently.

That said, it’s very early days for me with this album, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I ended up preferring other songs to the ones I’m most drawn to now. Anyhow, I love it when that happens; it shows an album has depth. I think I’m going to be listening to it a lot in the weeks and months ahead.

beast epic
*25-year-old me was also scarred by 20-year-old me’s brief Ryan Adams fixation. I heard his stuff before I really properly listened to Dylan, Gram Parsons, Neil Young and Van Morrison, and once I knew the originals, it was hard to be impressed by Adams as anything other than a talented mimic. A very talented mimic, to be sure, but self-evidently not as talented as the people he was mimicking.