PODCAST: Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky

Featuring : Podcast

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Earlier this week we ruminated on the Glass/Reggio visual poem Koyaanisqatsi.

This podcast is an audio time capsule of what other sounds were being made around the time of that masterpiece:

XXJFG – If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster

Don’t ask for track list! We ain’t gonna give you it. Stick it yourself into that comments box!

Blood and lasers

Featuring : Xunholm

Xunholm

Skrot up deposited a feast of unholy delights on us recently which we’re still trying to process.  No doubt a few more will crop up on the blog over the coming weeks.

But it’s Halloween so not going with a track called Blood in her Mouth just wouldn’t be…right.  Whose blood is in her mouth, remains unresolved.

We’re in full on Giallo territory here.  Propulsive percussion that mirrors the heart, pumping blood, from a wound to the neck, as you run, and the blood-loss causes you to hallucinate impossible geometry.  It’s that horror synth sound that is all adrenaline and terror rather than jump-scare and gore.  If terrified people running through backlit foggy streets  was a sport, this would be its theme.

Xunholm – Blood in her Mouth

Blood in her Mouth is taken from Xunholm’s album, Asleep in the Shattered Mirror.  It’s out now and you can order the tape / digital editions right here.

Side note: Xunholm is Jason Sublette who played in the fantastic Chicago group Ga-an who we’ve covered in these very pages.

If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster

Featuring : Philip Glass + Terry Riley

Koyaanisqatsi

Godfrey Reggio’s crew urged him against using Philip Glass to provide the music for what would become Koyaaniqatsi. “They said, ‘He’s the master of the broken needle,’” the director recounts. “‘Why would you choose someone like this when you could choose Beethoven or Mozart? Vivaldi? And have the great music of the world?’”

Reggio’s response was that, as beautiful as that music is, none of it was written for the elaborate visual poem he was plotting. Having discovered Glass’ music via a piece – North Star – included in a documentary on the sculptor Mark di Suvero, he narrowed his composer options to a list of two: Philip Glass or Terry Riley.

On one level it’s strange that, out of the two, he ended up with Glass. Glass was opposed to the notion of providing music for cinema (somewhat ironic given his later career, where he would score dozens of Hollywood products – the current count is around 50 – from Candyman to The Truman Show), whereas Riley had already composed several soundtracks.

Despite Glass and Riley forming two points of the quintessential minimalist triangle – with Steve Reich – and to many casual observers not hugely different in style or substance, it’s hard to picture Koyaaniqatsi with Riley’s music in the place of Glass’ trademark arpeggio computations.

Try playing the film with the audio muted and a contemporaneous recording of Riley’s – Shri Camel, for instance – playing. Although the beautiful images by Reggio and stellar cinematographer Ron Fricke do not lose any grace in the translation, something doesn’t sit right beyond the obvious issue of the music not being composed specifically for those images.

Terry Riley – Anthem of the Trinity

Sure, those delicate, repeating figures aren’t massively dissimilar to Glass’ one-hand keyboard motifs in content (in the same way that, for instance, there isn’t a massive difference between the sounds of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith), but the numbing, blissed-out meditative aspect is totally at odds with Reggio’s vision. Riley’s music seems deliberately thought-emptying – musical mantras to assist decluttering your consciousness, an aid for achieving maximum transcendentalism.

Koyaaniqatsi is not meditative. If anything, Reggio’s film is angry. It is a piece of work that, though presenting the world operatically, is essentially rooted to the grit and grime of the everyday rather than simply providing an escape from it.

Reggio himself says he elected Glass because Riley’s music was “quintessentially spiritual” wheres Glass’ music “was more structured, and had more form, and that that would be very important to the film.”

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This is important because Glass’ involvement went far deeper than the usual composer-for-hire role that he would later adopt in his Hollywood work. In truth, Koyaaniqatsi – and its sequels, Powaaniqatsi and Naqoyaaqatsi – are the product of an ongoing 30+ year conversation between Reggio, Glass and Fricke, their statuses as director, composer and cinematographer blurred to say the least.

It’s fair to say then, that as co-author of the trilogy, if Glass was replaced by Riley – or any other musician – the films would not only sound different, they would quite likely look different form they do now, move at entirely different speeds and to different rhythms, even be thematically different.

Rather than taking existing footage and interpreting its themes sonically, the collaborations of Glass and Reggio begin with literal conversations that at some point shift into creative conversations, with words replaced by sounds and images.

“He talks and I listen – that’s the conversation,” Glass told Sam Adams of The Dissolve. “Now, he needs a listener—he doesn’t do well talking at a wall – and I often have been the listener, and it has kept me alert and aware to the nuances of his thinking. But he went into ideas about society and technology and nature, which I wasn’t particularly connected to. But he was very actively seeking out writers and people who would help him with his thoughts. I empathized with that. I was not a leader in his thinking, but I benefited from it and participated in it, with full awareness and knowledge of what he was doing.”

Glass says that Reggio provided a strong political, social and ideological foundation for the qatsi trilogy, that came with its own fully-formed visual language and was supplemented with books, articles and lectures to illustrate its ideology.

The film language Reggio communicated to his collaborator was a visual depiction of “life out of balance” – the translation of the Hopi term Koyaaniqatsi. This involved what the director called “different modes of viewing,” expressed through accelerations and decelerations of extreme time-lapse sequences and “greatly accelerated real-time movements.”

Although the film came with its own pre-formed visual language, however, it did not have a defined structure. Glass has conceded that Koyaaniqatsi, as an assemblage of images, “doesn’t have a clear-cut beginning, middle or end,” and that you could rearrange its elements in various ways.

After swapping various elements about, almost randomly, the pair realized that “some kind of order” was required. Interestingly it wasn’t so much Reggio as a filmmaker who provided this order, but Glass’ experience in ballet and opera, “where dramaturgical concerns underlie the structure of the work. So when we applied that concern to a non-verbal film, what we were looking for was some kind of dramatic shaping of the kind one would find in an opera or ballet.”

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Taking the various ‘movements’ of the film devised by Reggio, Glass – before writing any music – scripted the film into a visual opera, drastically reconfiguring the structure of the film with the director.

Beginning quietly, the film endures a series of crescendos – dramatic sequences that provide crucial gear changes in the energy and momentum of the film – before concluding with a long, quiet epilogue.

Each segment of the film was worked on in collaboration by Reggio, Glass and Fricke on a scene by scene basis.

“We did it reel by reel,” Glass explained. “Godfrey would show me an assemblage of images; the editor hadn’t really cut it, but I knew what the subject would be. For example, it might be a whole section of clouds; I didn’t know exactly how it would be cut, but I knew the subject was clouds and it would be seven or eight minutes long.

“Sometimes I was able to go far ahead of the process; I knew Godfrey would be shooting the opening images at the Serra Pelada mine in northern Brazil, and I wrote 10 minutes of music to fit Serra Pelada; then we recorded a demo of that, and then went to Serra Pelada, and the cinematographer was listening to the music when he was filming. I began to understand that the synchronization of music and film can happen in many different ways, not necessarily the way that we normally do it.”

Editing provided another chance for Glass to be influential on the process. Not only did his score often determine the editing choices – timing, sequence of shots, pacing – but his experience in opera and ballet was again crucial in providing creative solutions.

“Well, this kind of process is actually my specialty,” he said. “This is what I am best at, probably because I’ve been working in the theatre for so many years, and also working with visual artists. I’ve learned to develop musical-visual interactions whether the context is balletic or operatic. I’ve even written music for sculpture. So this is one of the situations I’m very experienced with.”

Of particular influence to Glass, in his unspoken role as co-author of the Koyaanisqatsi text, were Julian Beck’s Living Theatre and working on theatre projects with John Cage and Merce Cunningham. He has talked of their dance/music projects having meaning only where it is “inferred” by the viewer, rather than having implicit content of its own.

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“Early on in my work in the theater,” he told Charles Merrell Berg, “I was encouraged to leave what I call a “space” between the image and the music. In fact, it is precisely that space which is required so that members of the audience have the necessary perspective or distance to create their own individual meanings. If you didn’t have that space there, if the music were too close and therefore immediately on top of the image, there wouldn’t be anywhere for the viewer to place himself. In that case, it’s like what you end up with commercials. That’s why television commercials end up looking more like propaganda than art.”

What Glass calls the “placement” of music, he is fetishistic about. In the combination of music and visuals he thinks about their arrangement spatially. For Glass, music can either be “under the image,” “on top of the image,” or “next to the image.”

This dimensional view of sound and picture cues for Glass what information it is that his brain his processing. It’s essentially an expanded view of what some composers and directors might call “going with the image” or “going against the image.”

In Glass’ methodology, the music can sometimes be the subtext of what is on screen. By his definition, here he is talking about musical analogy being “on top of the image.”

A favorite example of this can be four in the “large, slow-moving clusters of brass” that Glass uses to represent the clouds in the central “cloudscape” scene of Koyaaniqatsi.

While the notion of providing an aural counterpart or counterpoint to cinematography is not radical, perhaps where Glass confounds is in the individuality of his sonic decodings of image.

“One artist will say, ‘clouds sound like brass to me,’” he offers. “Another artist will say, ‘they sound like strings to me.’ But, still, that’s an important issue to consider because it involves the ways in which we, as individuals, personalize these things. It’s not really important that clouds sound like brass to me, but rather that I make the use of the brass a convincing artistic decision. That’s what’s important.”

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Perhaps paradoxically, although Glass hints that he selected brass to insinuate the gravity of clouds (“In a way, I regarded the clouds like I regarded the music, as a huge mass of forms which actually have no physical substance. And yet at times, the clouds as well as the music, did have a sense of artistic weight, and… gravity”), he verbalized the film’s near-menacing sequence of a Boeing 747 take-off with voices, because he thought of the plane as being lighter than air and wanted to emphasize that with music that had a quality of “lightness.”

He describes it as a “poetic metaphor,” but is it really just inverted literalism  that he elects “heavy” sounds for clouds – which are light, and float – and “light,” floating sounds for jumbo jets – which are heavy, and can only fly with the aid of jet propulsion?

As Glass himself suggests, it doesn’t really matter. It only matters that his use of sound is convincing. But it is only through precise sequencing of these convincing moments – which in isolation are beautiful, but ambiguous – that some sort of reading of the text is possible. The real quandary with Koyaanisqatsi is that, throughout, narrative – meaning – is something that Reggio and Glass appear to simultaneously lust after and find distasteful.

Generally regarded as being an environmentalist critique of modern society, the deliberate vagueness of its message has seen Koyaanisqatsi lambasted by some as fodder for “unconstructed hippies” and “New Agers, who like blissing out to lulling music and pretty pictures and don’t care about ‘meaning.’”

Even modern classical authority Alex Ross was – initially – biting of the project’s artistic success:

“When I saw “Koyaanisqatsi” in college, I dismissed it as a trippy, slick, MTV-ish thing, to which some well-meaning soul had attached hippie messages about the mechanization of existence and the spoliation of the planet.”

Though, interestingly, when Ross saw a live performance of Koyaaniqatsi – one of the occasional tours Glass and Reggio do of the film and live orchestra – he “understood it as something else altogether – an awesomely dispassionate vision of the human world, beautiful and awful in equal measure… For all the deliberate coldness of some of Glass’s writing, “Koyaanisqatsi” is deeply expressive; its blistering virtuosity is often the only sign of emotional life on display, excepting a few wan smiles on the faces of pedestrians who hurry through Times Square.”

But even that ambivalence can be claimed by Koyaaniqatsi’s authors as some kind of strategy, or at least a useful side effect of the project. It could be argued that Koyaaanisqatsi is a living text – if there is one recurring criticism of it it is precisely that people’s feelings about it tend to change on a viewing-by-viewing basis.

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Not only that, but viewers’ interpretation of Koyaanisqatsi has a tendency to shift on a similar basis, or – as with Alex Ross described – depending on the context in which it is experienced. Others have suggested that its meaning is time-sensitive, and fluctuates according to the times we live in.

Berg put it to Glass himself that a recent viewing of the film had left him with a completely different experience to previous viewings. “Now the film’s critique of modern society is almost secondary. The images of the 747s, the skyscrapers, even the traffic, have a vitality, and a sense of beauty, experiences that are more typical of the experimental film or the more poetic forms of the documentary.”

“Exactly!” enthused Glass “You did notice that. Good. I, too, am very struck by that dimension. Four years ago, for example, we thought Koyaanisqatsi was a very political film. Now, it doesn’t look that way at all to me.”

Philip Glass – Koyaanisqatsi

One point at which Reggio and Glass opinions did diverge was in the translation of the Hopi prophecy at the film’s conclusion, which is the only literal text in the film, and which was converted – in its Hopi form – to music by Glass, who carefully studied the rhythms and syntax of the music to preserve a sense of authenticity to the message.

Glass felt it over-literalised the film, but Reggio felt that – working with film, a relatively accessible artform, despite Koyaanisqatsi’s gnomic overtures – they had a chance to push one message out to a wide spectrum of the population.

“If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.

Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.

A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky which could burn the land and boil the oceans.”

 

 

This is how we scroll

Featuring : Omar S

Strider cover

By the time you read this, 20Jazzfunkgreats will have completed their physical jack across the halls of The Hydra, guided by one Detroit superstar DJ Omar S.

As part of this effort, we expect that we will have had the opportunity to do our Turing machine dance, scrolling down a 16-bit Siberian tapestry, beatin’ up Cossack cyborg dogs and hammer and sickle wielding centipede politburo people, to the merciless crescendo of Strider’s World.*

But this is the anthropomorphic way of thinking about.

Maybe it will be the other way around. Maybe 20jazzfunkgreats will be the tape being processed by a Turing machine whose program is contained within the furious robo-lyrics of Strider’s World.

Each pulse of the joystick, each siren beep, each beat of the relentless drum and each note of the quasi-religious melody instructions being punched into us by a boss intelligence we can fathom but we can’t see.

This is how we will have become nodes in a new emergent construct we energise with our imperfect dancing, and feed with our irrational dreams.

This is how we scroll.

Omar S – Strider’s World

You can buy the record here. And here is a nice fan video.

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*Which is just a fancy way of writing, erasing and modifying symbols in the not-quite-infinite tape where this tapestry is stitched.

20JFG Podcast: Glittering prizes and endless compromises

Featuring : 20jfg + Podcast

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There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound. Everybody look what’s going down.

Once you escape from the homogenized  city center Liverpool is a city where beards, vegan food, ethnic diversity, second hand shops, fairtrade coffee, really nice bikes, second hand records, local produce, comic shops, proper thick denim, artisan bread and real ale are all part of the norm. These signatures of what used to pass as alternative culture have floated into mainstream demand, and like so many of the other aspects of hipsterdom – this is not a bad thing. Hipster may be just another passing trend though youth culture as beatnik, hippy, mod, raver and rockabilly have been in the past but underlying it today is a deep longing for authenticity which transcends its vacuousness self obsessed  origins.

Back when hipster was just a vice/pitchfork thang where your identity was defined by a lack of ideals  and ability to take the piss out of anything anyone else believed in a friend once joked :

The next trend has to be non ironic belief – morals, courses or something.

This has now actually happened to hipster.

Today in Liverpool those scenesters who are just visiting alternative culture during studentdom or youth are still going to to gain takeaway skills – be it a love of reading,  a love of music, a love for dancing, how to repair a bike, cultural awareness,  how to make nice coffee,  a love of role playing games, an appreciation or art or simply voting for socialist principles – values we all would hopefully gain from any youth cultures of the past.

Ahh yes ain’t that fresh. Everybody wants to get down like that.

20jazzfunkgreats – Next

As with all youth cults once they are captured, documented, exposed and the mainstream are aware of it – its dead. Unfortunately identifying as Hipster is now both a paradox and as much of a cliche as being a Punk was in 1977 – which means none of the high hipsters have any idea wtf they are anymore, but as long as no one else notices you can cash in.

Everyone’s got to make a living.

Theme for Grey Cities

Featuring : Vittorio Gelmetti

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We haven’t written enough about Antonioni. Probably because he said this:

“I am personally very reluctant to use music in my films, for the simple
reason that I prefer to work in a dry manner, to say things with the least
means possible,”

At least until he decided to work with Herbie Hancock and then go all Pink Floyd during the ‘English trilogy’.

This post isn’t about the English films though.  This is about the odd one, the epilogue: Il Deserto Rosso.  Coming after the b/w trilogy of L’avventura, L’eclisse and La Notte, but before he came to the UK to skewer the swinging 60s with Blow Up, The Red Desert was his first colour film.  The qualities of this film, the experimental use of colour and focus and time, would totally derail this post so gaze upon the screen grabs and go and watch it.  What I want to talk about is the experimental electronic compositions that provide a chorus for Antonioni’s psycho-industrial enui.

The one that hits the hardest, hits first.   The credits sequence features a procession of defocussed shots of an industrial purgatory, all desaturated greys and browns.   Beneath this, the sound of a million mechanical crickets taunting the very notion of a bucolic landscape.  For this we almost certainly have to thank Italian electronic pioneer Vittorio Gelmetti.  he’s credited with electronic sounds on the soundtrack alongside Antonioni’s regular composer Giovanni Fusco.  It’s Gelmetti’s contributions though that seem finally to have found an aural equivalent to the distrusted modernity of Antonioni’s anti-heroes.

This is unsettling electronic music.  It’s ability to sound alien and challenging over half a century later mirrors how unsettling and alien Antonioni’s beautiful Italians (and Irish) still feel to us.  These are people completely dislocated from their learned morality by the modernity that’s accelerated past them.  They are the aliens trying to cling on to the world and their inability to do so doesn’t seem quaint, it seems prescient.  Their reaction to a smartphone would be no more resigned than to the idea that the air was now poison.  No wonder then that their music is beautiful, modern and alienating.

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Of course, this is 20JFG so to us it appears on a line which passes through TG and on to the ambient/drone/whatever stuff that’s infected the blog’s consciousness for the last few years.

The credits sequence features three components: Gelmetti’s piercing electronic noise, the sounds of machinery (literally Industrial music) and a angelic female voice floating above it all (the embodiment of Vitti perhaps?).  One is sometimes more dominant than the others but it’s their combination, the crashing jarring detuned radio madness that forms the whole.

Il Deserto Rosso – Opening Score

Sadly, this soundtrack doesn’t seem to be available anywhere.  Time to pray to Superior Viaduct.  You can (and should) get this on DVD/Blu-ray from the BFI (who bizarrely seem to think it’s a film about an intern) or the Criterion collection.

Hallucinatory vibes/Sober thoughts

Featuring : AJ Suede + Killer Mike

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Also known as “Nameless Suede”, an “ex knucklehead turned prophet.” Influenced by Stereolab, Cannibal Ox and Massive Attack.

Shout outs to Al Jazeera, Johnny Rotten, Bronies. Hallucinatory vibes. Sober thoughts. BAGPIPES.

Love songs to significant opposites.

“We go together like ice cream and propane
We go together like Pocahontas and John Wayne
We go together like Michael Jackson and Purple Rain.”

AJ Suede feat. Gertie The Goddess – Wicked Witch

Slow-motion Shiffrin-like montages that sound eye-rolling, half-lidded and drugged against the crystal-clear-eyed flow that never, ever falters in pace.

Apocalypse rhymes with El-P-worthy beats and mood-drenched atmospheres.

Fuck the police. Leaving my people deceased.
Fuck the police. Leaving my people deceased.

Buy Gold and Fire from Bandcamp for $6.66

There is nowhere near enough hip-hop on this blog.

From 2012, here’s some more:

Killer Mike – Reagan

(Stoker artwork by Ricardo Bessa)