Like many people in our society, I self-medicate with alcohol as a quick and fairly inexpensive (and – as the luck of history would have it – legal) way to escape the entrapment of my mind, and quieten the relentless chatter of the neocortex, overstimulated as it is by the incessant barrage of media at every turn in our hyperactive culture. That warm, cosy, hugging feeling as the wine, whisky or beer slips down and does its business, shutting off the over-thinking, relaxing the muscles and warming the blood-flow. You can’t beat it.
However, a combination of a very drink-fuelled September, not having had a drink free day in a good few months, and not a drink free week since I was around 16 years old (i.e. 14-odd years), I thought I would jump on the Sober October bandwagon, and encourage myself to find other ways to calm my relentless noggin. I’m not unfamiliar with meditation and tai-chi, and I hope it’ll encourage me to find less damaging ways to peace. People like me need some way to quieten our minds, and so I am your guinea pig. Oink.
What has especially encouraged me is that I find the thought of doing it so unbearable – always a sign of something worth doing. I think those who have said it’s easy perhaps don’t have the same relationship with alcohol that I do, and probably don’t drink alone very often.
There’s been a great deal of debate recently as to whether alcohol and drug addicts are suffering from an illness, or just criminals who have made bad choices and only have themselves to blame. Well I don’t know, but I do know that our crazy, overstimulated society makes finding peace very difficult, and drugs in general are a quick way to change our level of consciousness. And this coming from somebody with a fairly easy upbringing. I can’t imagine how someone from a particularly (or even relatively) difficult upbringing could not seek solace in some drug or other.
Four years ago my brother died of his alcoholism – such was the escape he found from alcohol that in the end it cost him his life. I miss Tom, and there’s nothing I can do to bring him back, but if I can help others with the same plight, well… it still feels like nothing, but I guess it’s something.
Sitting here, I’ve just realized another of my musical unconscious influences. This time it’s Sonic the Hedgehog on the Master System’s influence on my first album, particularly the first song: Intro. This comes hot on the heels (well, a year) since I realized the theme of the album is unconsciously stolen from David Bowie.
Here’s the intro from Life A.E. – skip to 3:27 when the drums kick in and listen for a minute
Then listen to this from Sonic the Hedgehog, Sky Base (you have to ignore the sound of Sonic jumping and collecting his bling)
Beyond its inconvenience (inconveniencing a friend or eating another mushroom risotto at an unimaginative restaurant), it’s the implication that being vegetarian is an inherently bad – or at least unhinged – position which has encouraged me to put down my reasoning in a blog post.
Before I go any further, I want to put in some disclaimers. The purpose of this is not to preach or moralise in any way – just present my point of view with as much balanced coherence as I can. I am not particularly moral (depending on your definition, of course), I’m not a saint (indeed with the sexual abstinence and piety, I don’t want to be one), I’m very frequently a hypocrite and this post may well be full of it. For example, I drink organic milk, and though the companies assure me it’s from cows who are free to roam and well treated, I don’t know. But I haven’t investigated this fully, so I am currently guilty of the same willful ignorance I’m about to point out in others. I will also occasionally eat fish as long as I have good reason to suppose it’s line-caught from sustainable sources. This makes me not even a vegetarian, and therefore an utter hypocrite. I haven’t looked into it properly, and I know that if everyone on earth wanted to be a pescetarian, the fish would disappear. But fish live in the sea (don’t they?). Another confession is that I don’t look too closely into the products I buy – shampoo, toothpaste, bread, HP sauce… who knows what suffering has occurred to make it to my table? Not me, and I can’t say “I’m doing my best” because it would be a lie. I could do so much more. This laptop I’m writing on – do I know what human suffering has gone into it? No. Has any? Probably. Did I check? No. So the message here is not “I’m better than you”, but “here are some things I’ve learned which I can’t both ignore and be honest.”
None of which has anything to do with my reasons
Reasons for being veggie
I understand that there are very good reasons of sustainability to be a vegetarian. I’m reliably informed that the resources needed to keep animals, even in the most barbaric and horrific torturous conditions, out-weigh the nutritional benefits the animal provides to humanity. But this isn’t my reason for not eating animals, although it may be a good one. I might use this reason in a discussion to rationalise the decision I’ve made (which is partly although not entirely emotional and partly but not entirely subjective), but it just so happens not to be a reason that forms the basis of my opinion. I won’t go into that here, because there just isn’t time before you get bored!
Eating animals is right
Now – shock horror – I don’t actually believe that eating animals is wrong. I couldn’t make a case for it or a claim for it beyond my feelings. It happens a lot, animals have more or less always eaten each other. Now as it happens I couldn’t bring myself to slaughter a pig or chicken or cow. I see the life in my fellow creatures and couldn’t take it from them. I’m sure that in the right circumstances I could, but I’m not in those circumstances. I’m in privileged, sheltered, fed, clothed, housed and generally spoiled and pampered circumstance. And in this environment I wouldn’t kill an animal. And to avoid the most basic hypocrisy, I won’t eat what I wouldn’t kill. That’s my baseline. But anyone who wanted to kill and eat an animal in necessary circumstances, I would not stand in your way. It also happens that I don’t enjoy the chewing of flesh (at least, mammal and bird flesh), because in my mind it feels too much like chewing human flesh, by which I mean chewing the flesh of a fellow being who is close enough on the tree of life to warrant such a comparison (more on that later). But this is beside the point, and it doesn’t constitute any argument for vegetarianism. My feelings are neither here nor there.
When someone asks “why are you veggie?”, I hear it as something akin to “why don’t you like to inflicting suffering?” In other words, in my mind it’s asking for justification of an absurd negative. So – assuming that you don’t like inflicting suffering, I’ll ask the opposite question: “why aren’t you vegetarian?” Here are the reasons I generally get from people
Might makes right
Those who say that because we have dominion over the animals, we may do as we wish – we are fitter and better adapted and therefore can do whatever we like (both in the sense of being able to and having the right to). I heard this one recently in France. This is colloquially known as “might makes right” and actually it’s the position I have the least argument with – at least we all know where we stand. It is true that we have the ability to cram animals in horrific conditions, abuse them and – eventually – run an ineffective electrical bolt through their half-animated corpses and then tuck into them around a family dinner. Although of course “might makes right” is the bugle-call of the psychopath, the genocidal dictator and he who is without empathy, or has had it suspended for him.
As an accompaniment to this view I have even heard the statement “but at the end of the day, they’re going to die” (this was in relation to battery hens, but it could relate to any animal in the industrial farming complex). Well, this is a true statement, but then at the end of the day, you’re going to die too. We are all going to die. Life is the important bit – and it’s the bit that matters to a being, even those who claim that they live in bliss after they die.
What an assumption we make. Every day – the assumption of life. Do you realise that you are alive? How often do you feel it? When you remember that you are alive, it becomes very important.
Humans are humans and animals are animals
This runs along the same lines as the above, but slightly watered down.
The same kind of tribalistic tendencies which place arbitrary divisions and say “our country is better than your country”, “our god is better than your god”, etc. results in this view “humans are better than animals” and draws another arbitrary line between humans and everything else. This binary illusion is the zenith of the “us and them” mentality. It claims that we are separate from and unrelated to all other life forms which we now know empirically is – thanks both to biology and particle physics – on every level, entirely untrue. The only position left is an utterly baseless assertion held for subjective purposes.
But this tribalism and drawing of arbitrary “us and them” lines, is precisely the same way of thinking and being that leads you to say: “we can enslave the Africans – they are subhuman”, “we can, indeed, enslave and systematically slaughter the Jews – Sie sind undermenschen – subhuman. Animals. Rats.” It’s the same principle. It’s blindness, willful ignorance that denies the reality that all living things are in fact related, share a common ancestor and – on some level – are all expressions of the same life-force itself which is an ongoing process starting around 4 billion years ago and continuing well beyond our lifetime and perhaps that of our planet, solar system, or even galaxy.
With this drawing of lines – this tendency to categorisation and eventually tribalism, anything goes. We may enslave, abuse, torture, mutilate, degrade and massacre anything that is “not one of us”. These lines are indeed arbitrary.
The foundation of our normal natural tendency to empathy – the basis of the golden rule “do unto others as you would have done unto you”, which I would call the positive and hopeful side of humanity, is the opposite of – and is poisoned by – tribalism. Us and them. Empathy breaks down at “us and them”, and the rise of this mentality destroys empathy.
We create their lives, we own them, so we can do what we want
It may well be that plants suffer. The extremist fruitarians think so. But I have no reason to suppose that. However, I do have reason to suppose that animals in our meat industries suffer immensely, for their entire lives. Now, there are those also who claim that because we breed them, we also have a right to treat them however we see fit. It’s essentially a god claim. We made them, we own them, and we can do what we want with them. Firstly, of course, it’s not true. By breeding animals, we don’t create them; merely provide a situational aid to the natural process. After all, slave owners in America systematically bred their slaves to be strong by pairing the right couples together. So therefore we created these slaves, own them, and have a right to do with them as we wish. It’s precisely the same principle, and it goes nowhere – like many arguments – because the premise is faulty. By breeding animals, we don’t make them or create life, we just expediate the natural process. We don’t do any of the making – the animals, like all self-replicating life, do it for themselves, enabled by us. Now yes, it’s true – if we had not bred pig A, he would not exist. So can we now do with it as we please? Well, if you grant it for this pig, you have to grant it for your pet dog, any slaves you may own (and for whom you paid good money) and – let us not forget – any children you may have created. The last example on this list should hammer home my point – do you own your children and can you abuse them in any way? You created them after all… Did Joseph Fritzl have the right to treat his daughter in the way he did? I mean he created her, which is more than can be said for breeders of animals. Imprisoned. Abused. Tortured. Enclosed. Enslaved. Who am I talking about here?
We are more intelligent and therefore superior
It’s a rationalisation of the more honest position of “might makes right”.
If you do object to lifelong suffering, torture and abuse of – say – a dog, then it seems to me that you must also object to the lifelong suffering, torture and abuse of – say – a pig. Now I use the example of a pig because they are often cited as being intelligent creatures – more so than dogs – able to solve more complex problems and (ironically) display a much higher level of empathy. I find it irritating when animal rights activists use this argument, because personally speaking I couldn’t give a rats arse (ptp) about intelligence, in the same way that I don’t believe it’s correct to be cruel to someone with learning difficulties… although that does seem to be the thick end of the argument being made here. I can’t think why I would rather torture a chicken than a pig, because they are both fellow living breathing creatures related to me who feel suffering and pain and express it in their shrieks. I feel these shrieks with my empathy, and it would compel me to stop in either case.
But humans are only superior to other animals in the sense that we have vastly more evolved brains. It’s another arbitrary line to say we are “superior” to birds, for instance. Birds can fly and we cannot, so in that sense birds are superior to us (note that our ability to build and operate aeroplanes is a reflection on our intelligence, not our ability to fly). This is why it’s both useless (unless you’re justifying cruelty, of course) and incorrect to think of any organism as superior or inferior. There are advantages and disadvantages to being a human. For example, it may be that our unique intelligence ends up being the same aspect of being human which kills us. Or it may not. But physically, humans are fairly poorly evolved – we have all sorts of physical ailments to highlight (as Darwin puts it) “the indelible stamp of our lowly origin”. It’s important to recognise this difference between “superior” and “different” because the former leads to the most abject suffering with apparent justification, and the latter leads to diversity, pluralism and an all-round better existence (if – of course – you think that a better existence is characterised by a reduction of suffering … you may not).
What we do now know from the fossil record is that although our intelligence now seems so far above the “other” animals and primates, it was not always so. Going back some tens of thousands of years there were many other species of the homo genus – loads and loads of them – with different levels of intelligence. No one can know whether they were “like us” but they certainly had elements of ritual – in as much as they buried their dead. But, like 99.9% (at least) of every species that has ever lived, they are no more. Homo-sapiens are the last survivors of the homo hominid class. And we came so very close to utter extinction – only 70 000 years ago the DNA marker evidence suggests that us 7 billion – as we now are – was a piffling few thousand. And we could have disappeared at that point along with our other fellow hominids, who did indeed disappear. But as adaptation and luck would have it (or God, if you prefer to think, who favoured us over the others… ah, we’re returning to “us and them again”!) we survived, multiplied and made it. But it so could easily have been otherwise, and some other hominid could have gone on to write this blog post – or whatever their equivalent was. Before long, we won’t be here anymore. We often feel that we are somehow immortal, and the blindness to the bigger picture of the ultimate brief transience of human life is partly what leads to this idea that our lives are important, whereas all other life is not. Again: us and them, humans and animals.
Nice but duped people
Most people I know – and I believe – most people generally, are basically good. If we weren’t then we wouldn’t have functioning society, law and the like. We wouldn’t have got as far as society if this were not so. This comes from our innate ability to empathise. But nice people can be duped by nice pictures on packets and promises of good treatment. The fact is that people like eating meat, and the images of nice farms on packets can lead people to rationalise away the reality.
Now this was a more understandable position to take before the internet. But now we have quick and easy ways of gathering information, particularly information which makes us feel uncomfortable – “inconvenient truth” as they say.
This leads to unfortunate hypocrisies and double standards, as in the recent hysterical case of the giraffe at Copenhagen zoo. The same people who made comments such as “how can they kill, in cold blood, such a beautiful creature” are the same who – moments later – chomped down on a bacon sandwich which has not only been produced by a beautiful creature, but one that to a high probability lived its entire life in the most barbaric and abjectly torturous conditions.
So – you see – the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall dream – animals living out their lives in their natural habitat with dignity – is utterly impossible. It could indeed (and perhaps was) a reality when there were tens of thousands and even a few hundred million mouths to feed in the world, but if you have 7 billion people wanting to eat meat, there is only one way to do it– brutal, industrial, cruel, capricious, callous, psychopathic insanity. When we’re talking these numbers, it’s the only way. In order to sustain our want of eating animals, we must abandon our humanity, as we already have.
But you’re not going to make any difference
Quite right. I can’t bring down the system. In the same way, a German officer could not make a difference in refusing to slaughter Jews. It’s him or them. And, as shown by the Stanley Milgram experiments (and many others since), otherwise good people will sacrifice their humanity with the permission of authority. The same authority that says: eat the meat, it’s ok, this is Britain, we won’t let anything bad happen. Don’t believe them. But money makes the world go round, so here’s what I can do: I can refuse to put my money into the system, I can not be a part of it.
I have this vision that one day we will look back at these times, as we look back today at slavery, misogyny, sexual discrimination or any other of our lower moments (although don’t think for a second I’m implying these problems are solved) and say
“How was everyone so evil and inhuman? How did it go on with seemingly good people letting it continue? They had the open internet, this was the birth of mass-information… they had all the information they could possibly have needed, and yet somehow good people went on funding industrial cruelty – how could they?”
But I have hopes, and all the hopes come under awareness and knowledge. Slavery, sexual, racial and orientation discrimination are all legislated against, but this was not always so – steadily we progress. We put pictures on cigarette packets of diseased lungs in order to say to people “this is what can happen if you smoke – now it’s your choice.” This is a symptom, rather than the cause, of the steady decline of smoking in the last half century but do you know what has caused this decline? Knowledge, awareness and truth. Smoking is, indeed, bad for you – categorically and objectively. It’s now up to you whether you do it.
One of the most ruthless industries out there is that of battery hens. This holocaust-type industry is the pinnacle of viewing animals as objects. For me, it’s very nearly a no-brainer to ban battery-farming along with pigs in gestation crates. But this is the tip of the iceberg, and it won’t produce change. It’s not possible to produce enough meat to satisfy everyone and not resort to horrific methods. We can only stop the demand. We must choose between meat and compassion – the human race, with its current and growing population, doesn’t have enough room for both.
Just as we moved away from suave-looking people being sexy and smoking on cigarette advertising (i.e. being fed lies), we could also move away from the lies of nice-looking farm sketches on the side of packets of meat. How about a photograph (not an artist’s rendition) of the actual living conditions of the animal?
It sounds crazy now, but as technology marches forwards, I imagine a future where video is streamed live from where that animal lived on the supermarket aisles. When you’re standing at that meat aisle, looking at the misery of the animals, then you are informed. Then buy the meat if you like… and a packet of cigarettes. Like all progress it will be slow… people don’t like change, they don’t like to feel uncomfortable, and they don’t like the truth.
I’ve been meditating on and off for a few years now. Recently it’s become more of my regime.
Now, I don’t suppose I’m the first creator to have noticed this, but I’m starting to see that cool things happen when I take an idea and then meditate – not forcing the idea but just plopping the idea into my awareness, then meditating as usual and forgetting all about the music (at least, on a conscious level).
The first time I experienced something of this way of composing was with the song cycle of Philip Larkin Poetry I wrote many years ago. (I bet I also that the tower of stuff I wrote as a lonely teenager sitting at my paper-round purchased digital piano came from this subconscious realm – except of course as that teenager I was so self-conscious I daren’t have even shown the ideas to myself). In this case I took the Larkin poems I wanted to set and just sat down and stared at them for a while. But that was more of a focused attention and not a meditation, although the music did come surprisingly quickly and easily (putting all the dots down was the hassly bit). I remember my composition teacher at the time – Martyn Harry – saying to me “how did you go about writing it” and I said “actually, it was more like it wrote me.” Martyn thought that was very twee and pretentious of me – it probably was – but it was my best stab at describing the process.
Thereafter most composition came about through necessity – deadlines and promises. But one significant (for me) such occasion was a track called “Give”, which I wrote a year or so ago. The opening riff had come to me years ago, but I while meditating, the rest of the song sort of spewed forth unbidden – especially the lyrcis and sound of the track – which some might describe as abstract (actually their meaning is very specific). Again, the hard part was actually laying it down.
The latest of these meditation pieces came about the other day. I wanted to write a mass for men’s voices – as I know there is a bit of a lack of that stuff out there (contemporary, I mean). So apart from knowing I wanted to write one, I was just meditating as usual one day, and the the Sanctus turned up in my awareness, unbidden but written. It’s pretty simple so I laid down a rough version at home. Excuse the singing quality – I’ve a cold at the moment (i.e. no resonance and strained voices, which makes me sound even more Mr. Bean than normal) – but it gives an idea of things to come.
On the one hand this is quite exciting – for the rest of the mass I can simply engage my intention to set the other words, and what comes will come. On the other hand, I don’t want to get too excited about it, because I’ll just end up assuming meditation will bring the goods, therefore I’ll have the piece in my awareness when I meditate, which is not the trick.
This engagement with the subconscious mind interests me as it seems to pull ideas out of thin air. Of course, I don’t attribute this to anything supernatural (the piece is fairly derivative and it clearly did come from my head, via the influences of others). But the fact that I couldn’t sit down and consciously write it is very interesting.
I saw a fascinating Horizon documentary the other day about consciousness and the conscious mind, and how we can show that being conscious of something is well behind being subconsciously aware of it – especially something like decisions, such as deciding what note to chose. Skip to 51:50 or so to see Chappie McBlokey realise that his decisions actually happen up to 6 seconds before he actually believes he makes them. But what the hell, watch the whole thing, if you are interested in your own mind and self-image (who isn’t?)
In my uneducated opinion, by meditating after having thought about wanting to write music (but not thinking about it during meditation) I can somehow tap into my unconscious mind more readily and access the wealth of influences and information in it.
It’s like when you come up with an idea in the shower, except it’s more reliable and you don’t have to get wet.
It’s the way that the waves go from so gentle and calm to thunderous and crashing. They represent everything in so many ways – the ebb and flow of life itself, maybe even the cycle of universes. Maybe because I used to be a fish, maybe because my mummy’s tummy is full of seawater. Whatever it is, it’s primal.
4. Beethoven String Quartet op. 132 Movement III
If it’s played at half the speed of the above performance and with the right space and understanding of Ludders, this movement (at least the beginning), is om, the sound of the universe. It’s music to die to.
Several composers have had a go at writing this down. Messiaen was a notable one. Nice try Olivier, but no chance. I love the complexity and simplicity of birdsong. I love how you never know what it will do but always know how it will sound.
2. Wind In Trees
“A tree doesn’t judge. It doesn’t criticize your clothes, or bring up poor viewing figures if you politely refuse to sign an autograph for its sister-in-law who’s recovering from an operation; a tree won’t pull a face.” ~ Alan Partridge
I like the sound of wind through trees. It’s like a leafy fugue. Chaos in order. Order in chaos.
Not the hit track by folk duo Simon and Garfunkel, which is not silent at all, but just good old fashion silence. Golden. It’s the sound of being, and lack of thought. The space that allows everything to be, the silence that allows sound. Having mild tinnitus I cannot experience true silence. That’s a shame. But I like my tinnitussy version just fine.
Breaking bad has been excellent – few will deny this. But there are a billion reviews, I’m more interested in how it ended. I think it made an extraordinarily poignant point.
Throughout the whole season, Walter continually justified every action he took with the mantra “I did it for the family” and he kept playing this record over and over to try and convince himself with this affirmation; even in the face of huge suffering to his family. As if causing suffering to his family was somehow moral, as long as he was doing it “for the family”. He wanted that 80 million dollars, and would kill for it “for the family”, as if his family needs 80 million dollars. In the first season he calculated he would need to leave them around 400 000 dollars, but this kept going up – even after he was left 11 million by the men who robbed him of the other 70, he still had to get that 70 million back, no matter what, “for the family”. Moralising ultimately led him to immorality, and the inevitable consequence: limitless hypocrisy. With this “moral” rationalisation, he could kill “for the family”, he was greedy “for the family” and selfish “for the family”. With an external rationalisation for his actions, no action was off limits. It’s this kind of mentality that drives extremists to perform immoral acts “in the name of God” or “for king and country.” External, unchangeable moral systems which attempt to deny reality: the inherant transience of reality and fluid evolution of morality. Morality, like the gene pool is not fixed, and if you attempt to fix it, things start to get ugly.
The series quite rightly only ended when Walt gave up moralising to himself and finally admitted that all he did, he did for himself – not for his family. He – and only he – was responsible, and he did it because he liked it, it made him feel alive. In the end it took losing everything he had ostensibly been fighting for – his money, his freedom, his dignity, his family – to finally wake up, be honest, and finally just be. Ironically (or perhaps not, which is the point) only when he gave up moralising was he in any sense moral. This is shown when he has a gun pointing at Jack’s head, and Jack thinks he’ll stop him from pulling the trigger by offering him his money back.
But Jack doesn’t know that Walt has finally seen himself for what he is, and doesn’t care about the money, because he has seen the moral system he has been placing on himself and he sees the bullshit self-image of the “family man” for what it is, a smokescreen he invented to justify his actions in the face of his imagined moral system. He can do immoral things, and remain moral, as long as it’s done “for the family”. Only after he admits this to himself and his wife is he in any sense at peace, and you can see the same in Skyler’s eyes when he tells her. This is the singularly most powerful scene in the whole series.
This spoke to me particularly because it relates to recent realisations in my life. I have clung to moral systems and judged others for actions that I have taken myself. Moralising allows you to break the externally-imposed moral code you so dearly cling to – why? Because you believe that having a moral code makes you moral, even if you don’t follow it: “yes I did that [you say to yourself] but I know it’s wrong, because I have a moral code – see, I am moral!” This was the same for Walt – anything action goes “for the family”. Only honesty can break the cycle, only honesty can Break Bad – honesty with others, but first and foremost, honesty with ourselves.
Last night I went to the 6Music Prom at the Albert Hall. 6Music, famous for playing “out there” pop, and Radio 3, famous for playing “out there” classical. Radio 3’s Tom Service and 6Music’s Steve “Lammo” Lamacq cavorted around onstage, and with a 6Music audience in tow, things got lively (for a Prom). All credit has to go to Tom for dealing with a heckler in the very first link who yelled “get on with it” responding: “The point I’m getting to is that the thing that connects great music is not what genre it is, not what you’re wearing, or where you’re hearing it – it’s a spirit of adventure that goes straight to your guts, to your body, to your brains and to your soul!” Followed by huge uproar of approval from the crowd. I’m not sure any other Radio 3 presenter could – or would – have answered that heckle with such truth. But Tom has been ingratiating himself with 6Music all last week, appearing on the ever open Lammo show with a daily classical music recommendation. Sadly they had to compress the shit out of everything to make it 6Music friendly, but nevertheless 6Music opened its doors to plenty of classical music on the air – and I don’t mean slathers of made-famous-by-advertising cliché, but proper, challenging, thought and feeling provoking music.
Back to the hall, and the Stranglers kicked –off with No More Heroes, with London Sinfonietta backing with orchestration by Anna Meredith. I’m not sure the Stranglers should be orchestrated. Mostly it was over-complicated, a bit of a mess, with not-quite-in-place quirky flute insanity, lots of drums being hit at different times, and overall the ensemble was about as tight as this simile.
I was sitting next to my brother, who seemed pleased at the stranglers in that way that raising the corners of one’s mouth seems to indicate. Next: Varese and a piece for 13 percussion instruments. Unlike the Stranglers, no regular beat, no strong groove, no riff, but a soundscape – a haunting, almost dystopian sonic forbodation. I absolutely loved this, much better, I thought, than some aging rockers playing out of time with an orchestra. I turned to my brother who didn’t agree: “What was that? It didn’t do anything.”
And this brings me to the title of this post. (Just to quickly say of the rest of the Prom: the arrangement of Golden Brown was a bit better [and more together] and the programme was eclectic and bought out the best of Radio 3 and 6Music: there was no “let them in gently with some Mozart”, but instead a concentration on the less common, challenging, edgy – if not cornery – avant-garde, Welsh medieval folk from Cerys Matthews, jazz-classical Martland and eastern-modality-peppered folk with Laura Marling.)
Now then (poor turn of phrase these days). My brother and I were bought up on more or less the same stuff – the pop/rock canon from the 60s to the 90s, but we are now in a position where I can appreciate Varese, whereas he can’t. Scores of books have been written about “pop – classical” and I had a good old stab at it during university. In the end I decided that they were unhelpful terms and I should just abandon them, but I’ve since come up with another idea. I was always concentrating on looking at the differences from compositional, instrumental and performance viewpoints. But now I’m thinking that maybe it’s to do with how we listen. (From this point on, most of what I write will, of course, be a generalisation and riddled with exceptions, and with that disclaimer in place, game on!)
I had lunch with a friend today and tried to go through analogies with listening to music. They were mostly unsuccessful. I love, for example, this track
in the same way that I love throwing myself off a snow covered hill wearing some skis. It communicates physically, and awakens an uninhibited, playful, and somewhat destructive side – the adrenalin-fuelled AAAAHHHHHHHH! rush, the feeling of being immortal and inconsequential at the same time….
BUT! But, I also like stopping at the top of the mountain, looking at the view and doing… nothing. Existing without thought, in a meditation… doing nothing. I think this is what my brother meant. This is the Varese in this case – the awareness of space, the gaps between the notes, the silences within the music. But in rock, pop, dance, whatever else, there is a different emphasis of movement and noise, and so you listen to it differently. One is not better than the other, they are just different. Some might think that witnessing the infinity and majesty of the sun skimming along snow-covered hill-top is superior to the short-lived thrill of bolting it down a ski slope. Others would say that of course hitting the slopes is better, because standing up at the top and looking at a view is “not doing anything”. In my opinion, they are equally as valid, but are just different. Hurtling down the ski slope is great – love it – but you couldn’t do it for an hour straight (for one you’d need a massive mountain), whereas you could get lost in the eternal moment of a beautiful landscape and not realise where the time has gone.
This may be appropriately analogous with the length of pop and classical pieces. You couldn’t hear an hour of one riff which doesn’t really evolve, but four minutes will do quite nicely. Now of course we’re stepping into prog rock territory – long pieces of music which seem to have this soundscape quality and use of space, as with one of my favourites from Pink Floyd:
But remember, I’m having a go at looking through barriers here, not putting them up!
This thought of how we listen to music made me appreciate that if I can’t get my head (or heart) around a certain genre of music, I can accept that I just don’t get how to listen to it, and move on. Victoriana orchestral and choral music, Armenian folk, country and western… the list of genres I can’t hear is long. Long like a Wagner opera. I used to think (but not say) that these are just bad musics. But I don’t think there is bad music, just different ways of listening. And it’s this shift of emphasis from performer and composer to listener that has struck me the most. For, if a Mahler symphony cycle is performed in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
What I would advise music lovers from either side (if such “sides” exist), is if you spend all the time at the top of the slope, breathing in the mountain air, have a go at pelting it down the slope for a few minutes and going AAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!! If, on the other hand, you keep getting back in the ski-lift yelling “again, again, again!”, the next time you get to the top: stop. Take a look around and witness beauty and space. Then go and listen to a symphony or two.
I love when these musical serendipities come along. Two of my recent favourite discoveries, Gorecki String Quartet no. 1 (“Already it is Dusk”) totally reminded me of a bit of another newbie to me, Of Montreal, specifically Skeletal Lamping, the “difficult” follow-up album.
So compare these two extracts (skip to around 3:10 if it doesn’t do it by itself):
Obsessively driving rhythm, marching along, same chord over and over, not letting up, not giving up, a sort of madness combined with an unstoppable force. Now for Gorecki (around 12:28, if it doesn’t skip automatically!)
I love it when two musics from completely different worlds combine in my brain like this! To be fair this is a bit of a shite recording of Gorecki. A MUCH better one is happening from Radio 3 New Generation Artists the Apollon Musagete Quartet on 16th August 2013, on Radio 3! What a good employee.
It’s Thursday – coming up on the weekend: friend’s housewarming party on Friday, trying to sort out my flat ready for a move on Saturday, depping (singing for money) at Ealing Abbey on Sunday morning, followed by goodbye family BBQ to say adios to my brother and family about to return to their now native Sydney in the antipodes. Then a message from a producer friend: “would you like a couple of guest tickets to Latitude this weekend?” Cancel everything. Phone a friend (with car). Latitude here we come.
It’s sort of a woody, sheepy, rivery affair in the Land of A. Partridge, hipsters, hippies and the downright middle class wondering around, smoking joints and having too much camping equipment, families with bejeweled children, teachers on school holidays resurrecting their candy necklace-like festival beads and dusting off the bong, plus Lucy Jennings and I (not helping the middle class image here, LJ) with a tent each and me without sleeping back or mat. Hardcore.
As ever, festival protocol dictates that you’re fleeced at every opportunity, and the lack of a simple programme testified to this – you had no choice but to buy a novelic brick for £10, which gave you all the information you didn’t need and only a tiny bit you did. Or you can be wily like us, and take pictures of the info board….
We were only there for Friday night to Sunday morning, but with 3 days, over 20 stages and a billion acts, you can’t see everything. Which is a shame! By the time we arrived on Friday night Bloc Party were in full swing. I heard they were amazing live. They were good, for sure, but your front man doesn’t have a great deal of charisma. Playing to that many people (there were a lot) may well be a tricky thing to do and relate to on a human level. But for me, it was a bloc party CD played on massive speakers. The audience made it more than the act. Although the lazer show was pretty stunning:
After Bloc Party I got a call from the very producer who had got me the tickets to say come over to the Radio 3 stage – an intimate set made to look like a living room, complete with flocked wallpaper and sofas – fantastic atmos. After the predictable and uninspiring Bloc Party I was blown away by Melt Yourself Down. Proper energy, a COMPLETELY MENTAL front man and with one of my old colleagues on the New Generation Artists scheme, Shabaka Hutchings. Front man Kushal Gaya was great – a real performer, pulling people in from the crowd (much to the disgruntlement of the security staff!), climbing a pole and generally behaving like an animal. This was a proper band, and a proper performance. But would they have been good replacing Bloc Party on the main stage? No. You can relate to 150 people, but not 15000!
Lucy and I were wondering around and stumbled upon the comedy troupe Pappy’s performing in the Literature tent. A common theme of the tents was that they didn’t do what they said they did do… necessarily. So you got comedy in the lit tent, music in the comedy tent, comedy in the poetry tent. No boundaries – this was confusing, but I liked it. And I also liked Pappy’s and was pleased to accidentally find them – especially the song about gloves.
Waking up in a tent without a sleeping bag or mat is never easy, but it’s a damn sight easier than going to sleep, although I was helped by my two friends Mr. Whiskey and Lady Earplugs CBE.
Gaz Coombes was on strangely early in the 6Music tent -12.40pm. I thought this an odd placing for such a big name, but it turned out that he was off again to another festival that evening. A great mix of new tunes and slightly less new, and he gave a Supergrass nod to the audience with an acoustic performance of Moving (still not sure why the other bandmates didn’t play too – maybe to do with copyright?). He is a great performer and an even better vocalist live than on record – a really bright tenor and very clean up high. There’s no shitting around with falsetto that a lot of band singers these days think they can get away with (Everything Everything, for example). Not with Gaz. Shockingly, the sound guy tried to fade him out during his last track to which Gaz said “what the fuck?” and “let us finish this last chorus”. They keep strict timings at Latitude. But indeed – “what the fuck?” – what’s one minute? Big boos from the audience!
Lucy wanted to go and see Jessie Ware on the main stage. This kind of bland 1990s R&B is totally lost on me, and it’s telling how boring the music is that she has to speak to the crowd between vocal lines “I love you latitude”, [ooo baby yeah] “come on make some noise!” [ooo yeah baby], “you guys are great” [some other bullshit]. Each to their own, but I’d rather eat a Pot Noodle in a Turkish prison than listen to this stuff.
I’d heard a lot about Daughter, who were playing in the 6Music tent, and in the same way that Jessie W was quite generic R&B, I hate to say it, but “generindi” would be the word I would coin to describe Daughter. Live, they didn’t really have anything to them. Perhaps they’ve made it in the download world, but 20 minutes in I was bored and waves of the crowd seemed to agree as we departed…. See for yourself…
After two performances that didn’t float my boat, I agreed to get stuck into The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and get right down the front with LJ. I hadn’t ever got into the YYYs before, but live they were brilliant – this is almost entirely down to frontlady Karen, who dresses ridiculous in contrast to the rest of the band (in all black), and she generally cavorts around the stage with wild vocals. Also there’s nothing like a good old mic smashing session at the end!
I was ready for Kraftwerk, 3D-ready, in fact, as to enhance their show all the display was in 3D. Quite nice to stand there having Matrix numbers, words in Soviet-esque cold-war Russian writing and the odd commodore computer rushing towards my face. These guys are pretty old these days, so good job they stood inert behind desks while it all went down. Electrotastic. Half an hour in, though, Alt-J were about to play in the 6Music tent. A good chunk of the Kraftwerk audience had the same idea as me….
The 6Music tent was rammed for Alt-J, so when I turned up I used the old ambulance tactics of tailgating a bunch of people pushing through the crowd to get a good spot. Unfortunately I flanked too much and ended up at the front side, where I could not see the band but was getting ripped to pieces by the massive speakers with the massive bass. I realised I would have shell shock if I stayed and had to withdraw. They’ve developed quite a following, and their meteoric rise provides hope for all. Alt-J ride that wave nicely between “just another indi band” and being experimental and original enough to avoid being entirely tarnished with this brush.
It was a good set, and front man Joe Newman has a great deal of charisma and presence by not doing much. His expression doesn’t change, he doesn’t talk to the crowd (that’s left to keyboard player Gus) but still he manages to hold the audience, perhaps just by his weird vocal sound (like someone pretending to be a goblin). There was a nice dedication to Sean Keaveny, because of this video.
I wonder how long Alt-J will last… they will need to evolve, that’s for sure, because I think their sounds succeeds in capturing a moment, but this moment won’t last….
Leider, (as Kraftwerk would say), that was about it, because I had to get back to London for Sunday afternoon, so didn’t see anything on Sunday. I was sorry to have missed my old uni friends (and now successful comics) Naz Osmanoglu, Ed Gamble and Nish Kumar, also Shaun Keaveny, Everything Everything, Steve Mason (who I didn’t know was playing and thought it was a CD I was hearing in a distant field!!!!!) and the Foals, who are riding the wave like Alt-J for the moment.
To see some Latitude highlights, 6Music will provide!