Friday, 31 December 2010

Books of the Year

I finished (at last) Neal Stephenson’s Anathemata, which had the weight (both physically and in terms of its content) of a philosophical encylopaedia. It was hugely involving on the level of ideas, but rather petered out into standard, old-fashioned space-operatics in terms of its plot. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is a supernatural satire which gleefully visits anarchy upon the streets, apartments and theatres of Moscow in the form of a worldly (and bipedal) cat and various other cohorts of the devil. Knights of the Cornerstone saw James Blaylock return to his tales of mythology and magic disrupting the mundane reality of everyday places and people, this time relocating to the Californian desert from his usual Northern Californian locales. The Physiognomy by Jeffrey Ford is an imaginatively twisted example of the ‘new weird’, with a thoroughly loathsome and self-absorbed narrator and protagonist guiding us through the novel’s fantastic dystopian wonders. The Book of Dead Days by Marcus Sedgwick was a good winter’s tale for the end of the year, the days in question being those between Christmas and New Year. Another fantastic, labyrinthine city, dark and richly imagined. China Mieville’s Iron Council is another of his novels set in the teeming world of New Crobuzon. This one features a revolutionary train whose inhabitants build and take up the track as they move across the world. Good, but the action was unrelentingly violent and the invention at times too profligate, leading to a definite sense of overload, an excess of grotesquerie. I’m half way through Mieville’s The City and the City at the moment, and have as yet found its central premise of overlaid cities unconvincing and a little sketchily conveyed. Perhaps it will become clearer as I progress. Kim Newman’s The Bloody Red Baron is the second in his ‘Anno Dracula’ alternate history series, this one set during the First World War. He manages to fit in a massive range of cultural references from the time, ranging from DH Lawrence to Biggles, whilst also saying something about the period.

A Handbook of American Prayer was the first book by Lucius Shepard that I had read for a long time. It was a lean fable about the nature of faith and prayer in modern America, and the expectations which people have of it. I read and immensely enjoyed Glenn David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil, which was full of optimism and faith in human nature. His follow-up, Sunnyside, was its penumbral shadow, full of sour experience and bitter ironies, centring around the First World War and the emotional and creative crises of Charlie Chaplin. It’s multi-stranded narrative tried to cram too much in, attempting an all-encompassing summary of the birth of the modern age. The warmest relationship in the book is between a man and his dog.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream was a biographical fantasy centring around the Renaissance astronomer’s discoveries and trials. It also allowed him to travel to the end point of the scientific world to which he had given birth, witnessing a ‘men like gods’ utopia of the far future, replete with human problems of its own. Robinson’s Sixty Days and Counting concluded his Washington politics and climate change trilogy. The interest in the New England transcendentalists (Emerson and Thoreau) and Tibetan religion alongside rigorous science and geological description made this feel like the kind of balanced and inquisitive novel Carl Sagan might have written had he been alive today. William Heaney’s (aka Graham Joyce’s) Memoirs of a Master Forger was a wonderfully warm story of fakery and self-deceit, filled with the spirit (revolutionary and visionary) of William Blake. The same could be said of David Almond’s Skellig, with its cantankerous, arthritic angel in a shed. Almond was a great discovery this year. I also read and enjoyed Kit’s Wilderness and Secret Heart. They are books whose surface simplicity of language and storytelling disguise profound depths. Alasdair Gray loomed large this year, too. I read Rodge Glass’ A Secretary’s Biography, an intimate and close up portrait of the Glaswegian author. Also the novels Old Men In Love and 1982 Janine. A Life in Pictures was my Christmas present, so I’ve not got around to reading that yet, but the pictures themselves are wonderful.

Delving back in time, Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter was a beautifully elucidated dream, reading like a prose poem as much as a novel. William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki: The Ghost Finder collected his tales of the Edwardian supernatural detective, following on the heels of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence. Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem was a dream of pre-war Prague, full of mystery and menace, the promise of transcendence and the threat of spiritual damnation. JK Huysmans’ A Rebours (Against Nature) was essentially a ‘how to’ of 19th century Decadance, as expressed through the highly particular tastes of its passive and studiously aesthetic protagonist Des Esseintes. Mark Gattiss’ The Volcano Club finds one of Des Esseintes’ decadant disciples playing a rather more active role in an enjoyable fin de siecle detective romp with distinct gothic undertones. I read two books for the club which I’ve just joined, both of which I’d read before but which were definitely worth rediscovering: David Mitchell’s Number 9 Dream and Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes. Both featured youthful dreamers, one conjuring a neon dream of a modern, ultra-technologised Tokyo, the other dreaming the way back to a rural England nearing the end of the First World War. Both youthful protagonists are faced with the awareness of mortality.

Two books of essays, Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist and Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, contained fascinating material. Lethem’s essays on Philip K Dick and John Cassavetes were good, as were Chabon’s on MR James, Arthur Conan Doyle and the ‘borderlands’ of literary and genre fictions. Harlan Ellison’s Watching contained some engaged and engaging film reviews with plentiful autobiographical asides and the occasional morally-fuelled rant (as you’d both expect and require from Ellison). Mark Radcliffe’s Thank You For The Days and Stuart Maconie’s Adventures on the High Teas (his journey through middle England) transferred their affable and self-effacing radio personae onto the page, and provided some genuine insight and wry observations along the way. It was nice to see Stuart giving mention to Ghost Box in complementary terms, too.

England in the Age of Hogarth by Derek Jarrett sketched in some of the social and historical detail of the world which the artist depicted, and indicated how well Val Lewton had done his research for Bedlam. Moving forward in time, I read Dominic Sandbrook’s excellent, comprehensive two volume history of sixties Britain, Never Had It So Good (covering the Macmillan years) and White Heat (Wilson). These embraced history, politics and culture in equal measure to provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of the age. Moving on to the seventies, I followed these up with Andy Beckett’s When The Lights Went Out, which concentrated more on the political side of things (well, there was a lot of it about in the seventies). It did give space to the politics of the free festival culture, however. This also cropped up in Rob Young’s Electric Eden, an expansive history of a particular stream of English music which has drawn on ‘traditional’ sources from the beginning of the 20th century and into the 21st. It was a book with drew together so much which I have listened to over the years, plotting connections between Holst, Sandy Denny, Talk Talk and Belbury Poly, and revealing so much more that I didn’t know. I particularly liked his Rocket Cottage fantasia, which indicated a desire to uncover the spirit behind the music, rather than just to relate biographical detail and cite album release dates. I also read biographies of Lee Miller by Carolyn Burke, and Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto (The Dark Side of Genius). Ingrid Pitt’s Life’s A Scream was a great record of an indomitable spirit. Me Cheetah by James Lever satirised the clichés of the Hollywood autobiography. It also acted as a clandestine love song to Johnny Weismuller, and was, in the end, rather a touching homage to the transformative power of Hollywood dreaming.

Films of the Year

I started off the year with The Devil’s Eye, Ingmar Bergman’s bawdily humorous farce of deviltry and innocence. Palm Beach Story and Hail the Conquering Hero were Preston Sturges comedies in which the director conjured and controlled comic chaos with his repertory cast. There were also several Barbara Stanwyck films: early outings with Frank Capra (The Bitter Tea of General Yen and the excellent The Miracle Woman) and Douglas Sirk (All I Desire) and her delirious western with Samuel Fuller Forty Guns. Recent Christmas treats included Born Yesterday, with Judy Holliday both hilariously funny and touching; and Farewell My Lovely, with Dick Powell a perfect Philip Marlowe, Edward Dmytryk opening up those deep, black pools into which he plunges at regular intervals.

Winstanley, Kevin Brownlow’s 1975 film about the 17th century digger’s commune, featured some beautifully stark black and white photography of British nature in winter, which pointed to the physical as well as psychological limits of idealism. In Petulia, Richard Lester showed his sensitive side, revealing human distance and exploitation on both sides of the divide in late 60s San Francisco. The Grateful Dead appear, and portray themselves in a particularly insensitive light. This is no golden-glow paean to the beautiful people. One of Jerry Garcia’s favourite movies, The Saragossa Manuscript, was a bewildering labyrinth of unfolding stories within stories, all of which remained somehow entwined, and may have had something to do with death. Stephen Weeks’ 1974 film Ghost Story was something of a disappointment, despite the presence of Murray Melvin, Marianne Faithfull and Withnail himself, Vivian Mackerall. It was a rather unconvincing piece of amateur dramatics which remained stubbornly unchilling throughout. The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty and Kings of the Road provided the acme of Wim Wenders’ 70s blend of landscape and anomie, exuding weltscmerz from every frame. The latter in particular looked absolutely wonderful, and was oddly affecting. Agnes Varda’s L’Une Chante, L’Autre Pas was an enjoyable tale of women’s lives in the 60s and 70s, although the songs in what amounted to a musical were a little of their time. Varda’s recent The Beaches of Agnes was wonderful, a personal essay film full of wry humour, reflection and considered opinion.

Lindsay Anderson and Patricia Healey on the set of The White Bus
I went back to the films of Jean Vigo, watching his short, poetic documentary A Propos de Nice for the first time, and rediscovering the wonders of L’Atalante and Zero de Conduite. I also managed to dig up Lindsay Anderson’s The White Bus, his 1967 short from an abandoned anthology film. Seen after Zero de Conduite, it gave an insight into the roots of If… Lindsay Anderson’s work was also central to the Free Cinema box set, which I worked my way through, particularly enjoying Lorenza Mazzetti’s Together and Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys. Intimate Lightning was Ivan Passer’s low key Czech film from 1965 about two musicians killing time in a small rural town. It was beautifully shot by Miroslav Ondricek, who worked with Lindsay Anderson on The White Bus and If… Sunday Bloody Sunday was John Schlesinger’s 1971 tale of middle-aged angst in Blackheath, featuring performances from Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson, whose characters’ weariness suggested that the glitter of the sixties was becoming well and truly tarnished. Lukas Moodysson’s Together remains a hugely enjoyable evocation of communal politics and childhood tribulations in 70s Sweden. Funny, pointed and sweet, and all capped off with a snowbound football kick around played to the strains of Abba’s SOS.

I caught up with some more Hammer films, including The Revenge of Frankenstein, the first of many sequels. This one managed to generate considerable pathos around its experimental subject, largely due to the performance of Michael Gwynn. There was also The Gorgon, Terence Fisher’s gorgeous 1964 fairy tale, which gave Barbara Shelley the chance to give a performance of great subtlety and restrained sadness in the central role. Needless to say, Peter Cushing was excellent in both. A gorgon also turned up in Harry Kumel’s delirious 1971 fantasy Malpertuis, which was utterly spellbinding. The 1973 Amicus compilation From Beyond the Grave was always a favourite, and I enjoyed seeing it again after all these years. The Pinteresque tale featuring Donald Pleasance’s down at heel war veteran and his strange daughter (played by Angela Pleasance) playing host to Ian Bannen’s repressed office worker had a real, clammy creepiness to it, and embodied the seedier side of the post-war period, which 60s modernism passed by. The story with the old antique door, installed by Ian Ogilvy in his new home, but which has a tendency to open not onto his stationery cupboard but a 17th century necromancer’s chamber, flooded in blue light, was well done. I also confess to immensely enjoying, after all these years, Hawk the Slayer and At the Earth’s Core, and I don’t care who knows it. The 60s films Dr Who and the Daleks and Dalek Invasion of Earth 2150 were also bright and gaudy Saturday morning picture show fun, although hardly Who in the proper sense. Watching Lionel Jeffries’ The Railway Children and his Edwardian/Victorian ghost story The Amazing Mr Blunden payed fitting tribute to the actor and director, who died earlier this year. Supernatural fare of a different kind was provided by three 70s tv series and plays which I was particularly excited to be able to see again: Penda’s Fen (Alan Clarke’s direction of David Rudkin’s complex script), Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray’s follow up to Children of the Stones, Raven, and The Changes, with its England turned violently against any form of technology.

70s futures - Fassbinder's World on a Wire
There were some great anime films, such as: Paprika (great theme tune) with its endless festive parade; The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, blending SF and high school drama; Ocean Waves, a Studio Ghibli film about high school reminiscences; Miyazaki’s Ponyo, a charming story of a mer-creature willing herself to become a very lively young girl; and Tales from Earthsea’s uneasy translation of some of the later books in Ursula le Guin’s sequence. I revisited some classic 50s SF, watching Forbidden Planet (those scenes in the Krell city are still amazing), Howard Hawks’ The Thing (which manages to generate considerable tension without ever fully exposing its monster for more than a few seconds), and When Worlds Collide. The latter is 50s SF at its most blandly wholesome, with concluding biblical quote offered up as heavenly choirs swell in the background. Rainer Werner Fassbinder provided a more jaundiced view of the future with his tv series World on a Wire, his contribution to 70s concrete dystopias.

Having read Donald Spoto’s Alfred Hitchcock biography, I watched a good many of the master of suspense’s movies. I started with the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, then moved on through The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, Stage Fright, Spellbound, Marnie, Torn Curtain and Frenzy. Hitch himself appeared in Johan Grimonprez’ ingenious work of collage and impersonation, Double Take, which used many of his appearances from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show.

Of the relatively few films I saw at the cinema, The Kids Are Alright and Mike Leigh’s Another Year were both good dramas centred around family homes. Leigh’s film was surprisingly bleak, despite the warmth of the central couple played by Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent, with its portrayal of non-communication and human isolation. The Illusionist was Sylvain Chomet’s animated adaptation of Jacques Tati’s bitter sweet script about a failing stage conjurer, who tries to maintain an illusion of success for the benefit of a naïve young island girl who travels with him to Edinburgh. The city is beautifully realised by Chomet. It’s another comedy with a melancholy heart. Gainsbourg was an eccentric and dissolute biopic worthy of its subject, centred around the women in his life (Greco, Bardot, Birkin and Bambou), with Serge’s wayward alter-egos represented by gangly puppet grotesques. Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff was an immensely likeable portrait of the veteran filmmaker, and was followed by Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, which offered the chance to see his luminous photography and expressive Technicolor palette up on the big screen.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Music of the Year

Trembling Bells’ Abandoned Love, which featured the sublime Pagan hymn September is the Month of Death. I also discovered their Caledonian compatriot Alasdair Roberts this year, via his album of traditional songs Too Long in this Condition and previous releases Amber Gatherers and Spoils, in which he demonstrates that he shares their love of romantic language and poetic diction. Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me was a beautiful collection of chamber-orchestrated songs, and Serafina Steer’s Change is Good, Change is Good was also fine, with subtle touches of electronica added to the harp sounds. Steer is always and unavoidably compared to Newsom (particularly when they both have a record out in the same year) on account of their singular choice of accompanying instrument. That aside, there’s little real similarity, however. Josephine Foster was another distinctive vocalist who I enjoyed listening to this year, discovering her 2005 LP Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You and the recent interpretations of Emily Dickinson, Graphic as a Star. James Blackshaw’s move towards minimalist chamber music (although still underpinned by his scintillating twelve-string guitar) was signalled on The Glass Bead Game (from which the opening piece Cross, with the wordless accompanying vocals of Trembling Bells’ Lavinia Blackwell, was particularly lovely) and All is Falling. I continued to enjoy the varied and always engaging music of Richard Youngs, and particularly Airs of An Ear, on which his invocations were trailed by skirls of incandescent feedback. The Owl Service’s View From A Hill, with its MR James referencing title, added to their Alan Garner-derived name, suggesting a fondness for English supernatural fiction, was a fine bit of 70s influenced folk rock, a good follow up to their debut A Garland of Song.

Coco Rosie’s Grey Oceans was an imaginative mix of childhood rhymes, street corner singing and operatic outbursts. Sufjan Stevens’ lengthy EP All Delighted People and subsequent LP Age of Adz were puzzling, with moments of the old beauty seemingly deliberately undermined by jarring and ugly electronica and absurd, repetitive length. Laetitia Sadier’s solo LP The Trip was a touchingly personal affair, and included a good cover of Un Soir, Un Chien by French pop group Les Rita Mitsuoko as well as Wendy and Bonnie’s By the Sea. Stereolab’s Not Music was a good swansong of extras from the sessions of their last album, and ended with a great remix of Neon Beanbag by Atlas Sound. I caught up with some Ghost Box releases, including the expanded edition of The Advisory Circle’s Mind How You Go, alongside their earlier release Other Channels (which includes the wonderful bucolic bliss of Hocusing for Beginners and the genuinely terrifying horror of Eyes Which are Swelling), and The Transactional Dharma of (ex-Broadcast keyboard player) Roj, which sounds pleasingly like a hall full of automata let loose. I picked up some of the Saint Etienne special editions, including my favourite of their albums, Finisterre and Tiger Bay, along with Continental and Sound of Water.

Drones continued to be supplied by Eliane Radigue, whose Adnos and Trilogie de la Mort pulsed beneath the year. Also, Raphael Toral’s Wave fluctuated and hummed, Yoshi Wada’s Lament for the Rise and Fall of Elephantine Crocodile provided bagpipe drones through mechanical means whilst Keiji Haino’s 21st Century Hard-Y-Guide-Y Man tested the hurdy gurdy to destruction. I discovered the work of People Like Us this year (a little late in the day, I know), via their (her) performance at the Arnolfini during the Bristol Harbourside Festival, and love her wittily assembled sound and visual collages, so many of which can be found over at ubuweb. I also came across the AGP series, which made old recordings of modern classical music (including much early electronica) available. It's a great shame that it is now no more. I enjoyed Morton Subotnick’s Ghost music, in which acoustic instrumentation is given an electronic shadow. The same could be said of Edward Williams’ music for Life on Earth, released on Trunk Records, on which some of his pieces are processed through a synthesiser. Mostly, though, it’s beautiful chamber music evoking the endless variety of life, and including the odd breathy expostulation from Attenborough.

Ullakkopola by Kemialliset Ystavatt was an unearthly and utterly unpredictable collision of sounds and styles from Finland. I enjoyed Pit er Pat’s The Flexible Entertainer, with its stripped-down duo sounds providing a rattling percussion and rhythm guitar whirligig of jagged mechanical dance music. Crystal Castles’ second LP provided melancholy electronica of a distressed variety, with occasionally blasts of head-clearing noise. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s IRM was fine, but didn’t quite live up to 5.55, her collaboration with Jarvis Cocker and Air, for me. There was a similar slight sense of disappointment with School of Seven Bells Disconnect from Desire, which failed to reach the sublime heights of their debut Alpinisms. Looking backwards, I caught up with the 60s psych obscurity Cauldron, by Fifty Foot Hose, a sort of cousin to the United States of America album, with a similar use of early electronics within the West Coast rock sound of the time. Hidden by These New Puritans was excellent, with a wide variety of textures, from post punk through electronica to modern chamber and choral arrangements. It also led me to go back and discover their debut LP Beat Pyramid.

The local Fopp provided temptations, with a selection of Blue Note offers including some Bobby Hutcherson, Andrew Hill and Eric Dolphy. Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue, in particular, was wonderful, with the title track drifting off into diffuse and completely natural free territory. There was also the sublime, low key interplay of Jim Hall and Bill Evans on Undercurrents. The library seemed to be selling off large swathes of its most interesting stock at one point, which allowed me to get hold of Morton Feldman’s For Frank O’Hara and De Kooning, and Georges Auric’s music for Orphee amongst other things. Rob Young’s Electric Eden also led me back to the English music of the first half of the twentieth century. John Ireland, Arnold Bax, Holst and Vaughan Williams. Some things will always remain.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Christmas Films for the Disaffected

Father Frost

Here are some alternative seasonal suggestions for those who want to avoid the increasingly standardised staples of Christmas filmic fare.

Father Frost aka Morozko (1964) – A cat riding a literally pig-headed sled, a hero who checks his blue eyeshadow in a hand mirror, a very Pythonesque Baba Yaga crone who lives in her chicken-legged hut, and Father Frost himself, who possesses a magical staff which turns the landscape into a glittering white wonderland. A madcap Russian fairytale from director Aleksandr Rou, complete with balalaika propelled songs.

Dead of Night (1945) – The original British portmanteau horror film, this features a story in which a group of children have a Christmas party in an old dark house. A young girl finds the perfect place of concealment in a game of hide and seek: a ghost room with a long dead boy for company. You can hide here forever and ever…Michael Redgrave’s ventriloquist act would be a memorable booking for any children’s Christmas party, too.

Black Christmas – Bob Clark’s 1974 proto-slasher film, which is shot through with chill atmosphere and expertly-paced tension. Time is allowed for the development of rounded characters, so that you actually care about their fate. A good cast includes Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey, and, returning from beyond the infinite and seemingly a little affected by the experience, Keir Dullea.

Ikiru (1952) – Tired of It’s A Wonderful Life? Then try Kurosawa’s Ikiru (Living) instead. Takashi Shimura’s loyal bureaucrat is a kind of anti-James Stewart, coming to the realisation, when faced with death, that his life has meant nothing at all, and made no impact on his surrounding environment. He decides to use the time remaining to him to change all that. The concluding scenes in which he sits alone on the child’s swing in the snowbound playground which he has single-handedly brought into existence, softly singing to himself, is the most quietly heartbreaking in all cinema.

Kwaidan (1964) – This beautiful collection of 4 Japanese ghost stories (or kwaidan) includes Yukionna, or the Woman of the Snow, a tale of a deathly spirit who visits two woodcutters in a hut as they shelter from a blizzard. Some gorgeous stage sets and Toru Takemitsu’s incredible score create a mesmerising atmosphere. A ghost story for Christmas Kabuki-style.

Christmas in July (1940) – An unseasonal burst of big-hearted consumer frenzy based on false credit as Dick Powell gives up the crooning for this affecting portrait of an ordinary Joe who believes he’s hit the jackpot with one of his lame entries to advertising slogan competitions. Preston Sturges orchestrates the ensuing chaos with a characteristically deft and occasionally pointed touch.

Quintet (1979) – Robert Altman goes all Euro existentialist, borrowing Bibi Andersson and Fernando Rey from Bergman and Bunuel for this bleak, snowbound post-apocalyptic tale. Paul Newman makes his way to a makeshift sheltered community huddled inside against the new ice age. They pass the time by playing a deadly game called quintet which echoes, on a smaller scale, the conflicts which have laid civilisation to waste in the first place. It may put that excruciatingly unending family game of Monopoly into perspective.

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) – A complete bill of Christmas fare, with sleigh-rides, snowmen, warm inns with roaring fires, fairytale castles, pantomime blundering, elegant costumed balls, snow-capped vistas…oh, and vampires.

The Singing Ringing Tree (1957) – As wonderful as it is, the prospect of an enforced viewing of The Wizard of Oz at Christmas can induce groans. So why not watch The Singing Ringing Tree instead. It’s a colourful European fairy tale, in which an insufferable princess learns the value of hard work and humility, and her princely suitor learns how not to be an idiot, having spent some time transformed into a bear. The magic valley in which they find themselves stuck is presided over by a dwarf trickster, a Munchkin gone bad. When his spell is finally lifted, the valley becomes an oddly dull place, drained of its vivid colours. This suggests that the dwarf wasn’t such a bad sort after all, and really just wanted to be appreciated for his consummate artistry. I felt much the same about Alberich in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The brattish and self-absorbed Siegfried showed no gratitude for his efforts, and deserved all that was coming to him. The princess should have stuck with the green hair, too. It was a much better look than that same old Aryan golden-haired coiffure that princesses unfailingly go for.

Don't let Santa into the house
Tales From The Crypt (1972) – An Amicus anthology film based on EC comics stories. In the first tale, ‘And All Through the House’, Joan Collins is menaced on Christmas Eve by a psycho in a Santa suit who lurks outside her home seeking ingress. Perhaps he’s a shopping centre Father Christmas who has cracked after one too many insistent requests for overpriced franchise tie-in tat from sulking consumer moppets. It’s a situation which is complicated by the fact that Joanie has just cracked her husband’s skull open with a fireside poker, spilling bright red, haemoglobin rich blood on the nice white carpets. Meanwhile, her daughter waits upstairs for Santa to arrive. She so much wants him to deliver her presents, so when she sees him outside, of course she lets him in…

Have a great Christmas, everybody.

Birdsong, Playschool Folk and Monster Music

Some interesting records have come into the Oxfam music shop in Exeter in recent weeks, and a few have made their way online. There are a couple of records of bird song, one recorded by Victor C Lewis and featuring a rather nice stained glass window on the cover, and the other by Ludwig Koch. Koch is an interesting figure. A genuine pioneer in the field of natural sound recording, he captured the calls of exotic creatures on primitive equipment in the late nineteenth century. Koch made what is thought to be the first ever recording of bird song at Frankfurt zoo in 1889, when he was only 8 years old. The bird in question was the Indian shama, a type of thrush. Koch was fascinated by the new Edison phonograph which his father bought him as a birthday present, and soon became familiar with its use. Sound recording remained a hobby during his youth. He turned his finely tuned ear to pursuing a musical path, first learning to play the violin, and then becoming an accomplished concert singer, specialising in German lieder. He certainly encountered some elevated musical figures, meeting the likes of Clara Schumann, Brahms and Liszt. He had to give up music for health reasons and found employment at EMI, where he was able to bring his interest in recording natural sounds to bear. Throughout his youth, he had also collected what he referred to as ‘sound autographs’. One of these was a recording of Bismarck’s voice. He remembered this as being a high pitched falsetto, with Bismarck bursting into laughter when asked to say something, and advising the young Koch not to drink as much as he had. Unfortunately, the cylinder was lost in the chaos of war. It’s one of history’s little ironies that the unique record of the man renowned for uniting the German people should be forever lost as a result of the rise of a new reich.

Koch had built up a considerable reputation as a sound recordist by the 30s. Goebbels took an interest in his work, as he was a keen naturalist. He procured a return air ticket for him to attend a lecture in Switzerland in January 1936. There, Koch met Wilhelm Gustloff, who told him he admired his work. The next day Koch heard that Gustloff, who had returned to Berlin, had been assassinated by a young Jewish man called David Frankfurter. Frankfurter was incensed at Gustloff’s active role in the distribution of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a demonstrably fraudulent but tenacious piece of anti-semitic fear-mongering. Gustloff was turned into a Nazi martyr, with a funeral bedecked with the full state pomp, and his death was used as a pretext for increased persecution of Jews, culminating in the infamous Kristallnacht of 1938. Koch was himself Jewish, and foresaw the likelihood of such a reaction. It was clearly time to leave. He didn’t return to Germany from his Swiss trip, and fled instead to Britain.

Ludwig Koch (on the left) inspecting a copy of his soundbook
Here he met up with members of the scientific community, amongst them Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous) and Max Nicholson. Huxley encouraged him to develop the idea of his sound books. These were volumes which combined words and pictures with accompanying records which linked in with them. It was effectively and early example of multi-media. Koch worked with Nicholson on producing a sound book of British bird song, travelling around the country in a large van which carried their bulky recording equipment. Copies with records intact and in good condition are now exceedingly rare, so if you happen to have one, consider yourself privileged. Koch went to work for the BBC, and during and after the war, he became an instantly recognisable voice on the radio, establishing himself as a widely recognised authority on the sounds of the natural world. His thick German accent, which never became in the slightest bit diluted, was highly distinctive, and was directly parodied by Peter Sellers in his skit about a field recording of a Scottish singer on Sauciehall Street. Sellers probably drew on Koch’s accent and speech patterns for his series of comic Teutonic creations (usually psychiatrists). There seems to be more than a little of Koch in Dr Strangelove, which is grimly ironic, given that he had been forced to flee his home country by the Nazis. He continued to record until well into his 70s (he made a special trip to Iceland when he was 71), keeping up with the latest technologies and exploring their potential. The pieces on this record span the years from 1929 to 1961, when he made his last recording for the BBC, a nest of swallows in Somerset. It wasn’t just birdcalls that he captured either. There are recordings of the rare and endangered natterjack toad, of bumble bees and grasshoppers (a summer chorus). He also recorded street sounds of Paris, which were edited together to form a sonic impression of the city. Koch is such a fascinating person. He really can be said to have invented the field of natural sound recording. He is the progenitor of such modern sound recordists as Bernie Krause, Dan Gibson and Chris Watson (who featured on the cover of The Wire magazine a couple of months ago, marking the elevation of such recordings to the status of sound art). You can find an interesting BBC documentary on him here, and listen to that inimitable (although Sellers’ imitation is included) voice.

Messiaen notes down another bird
Another person who went out and recorded birdsong was the French composer Olivier Messiaen. He wasn’t hauling out mechanical recording apparatus, though, equipping himself only with pencil and paper. He transcribed the songs of the birds into musical notation. These song collections were incorporated into many of his pieces in the latter half of the twentieth century, but they found their purest expression in the 7 ‘books’ of his Catalogue D’Oiseaux, found here in a recording by Robert Sherlaw Johnson. These pieces are not just transcriptions of the individual bird song, however. He also tries to capture the nature of the habitat in which the bird is found, evoking sounds of water or the sense of mountainous terrain. The other birds who inhabit the environment are also heard, and the prevailing climatic conditions and time of day are atmospherically conjured. There is also a boxed set of Debussy’s piano works, as performed by Walter Gieseking. Debussy is a hugely influential figure in twentieth century music, both within and outside the classical world. His use of scales and harmonies derived from non-western musics anticipates the dissolution of the classical forms, the dwindling of symphonies and concertos. Jazz composers and pianists such as Bill Evans have cited him as an inspiration. Even pop producer Trevor Horn, renowned for his unrestrained and lushly romantic arrangements, is a fan, smuggling his interpretation of a fragment from the Trois Chansons de Bilitis onto Marc Almond’s Tenement Symphony album. I’m sure Marc approved, given the pieces origins in the 1894 set of poems by the decadant writer Pierre Louys. Amongst the poetically titled pieces of the first book of Preludes is Des Pas Sur le Neige (Footsteps in the Snow), which evokes the stillness and sense of suspended time of a snowbound landscape, and is perfect for anyone seeking to put together a Christmas compilation.

There’s a rare recording of Heinrich Marschner’s opera Der Vampyr, based on John Polidori’s short story of 1819. This was one of the horror stories dreamt up by Lord Byron and his guests at the Villa Diodati in Geneva during a period of stormy weather in June 1816. The only other one of these tales which emerged from these days and nights of creative confinement was Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Der Vampyr was adapted as a tv series in the early 90s. It was an attempt at making opera more approachable, with an updated libretto and a serialised format whose intentions were made clear by the punning subtitle: A Soap Opera. The currently popularity of live opera broadcasts in Picture House cinemas across the country suggests that people are quite capable of digesting their opera whole, however.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra possessed much of the overwhelming grandiosity of opera. Birds of Fire was their 2nd LP, coming after The Inner Mounting Flame, a groundbreaking record which defined the heady possibilities of the newly emergent jazz-rock hybrid genre. John McLauglin picks fiercely progressive triadic riffs on his mighty twin-necked guitar, which expand and ascend over Billy Cobham’s roiling drum thunder. Together and separately the band bludgeon a pathway towards transcendence. The faults of 70s jazz-rock are evident here. Each and everyone demands solo space, and plenty of it. The musicians strive to outdo one another with muscular and demonstrative solos which all too often descend into empty displays of musically directionless and wearyingly pointless virtuosity. Jan Hammer’s keyboard solos aspire to the condition of guitar heroics, complete with pitch shifts which emulate string bends, presumably accompanied by the appropriate gurning postures. They now sound very dated. There are undeniably moment when the whole unwieldy edifice attains heights of blinding intensity, though. And things never stretch to the excessive and aimless lengths of their live LP Between Nothingness and Eternity (a space which is filled with much noise and incessant frantic activity). There’s room on Birds of Fire for some of John McLaughlin’s more sensitive acoustic guitar, which featured extensively on his excellent group and solo LP My Goal’s Beyond, a long-standing favourite of mine.

There are two Play School records here, Bang on a Drum (which also includes Play Away songs) and Sing a Song of Playschool. These provide an instant hit of 70s childhood nostalgia, with their cover shots of Hamble, Humpty, Jemima and the Teds, Bit and Little, lounging about in the studio or getting back to nature in the countryside, and the back cover portraits of the presenters. Playschool presenters wher always a talented bunch. Floella Benjamin, who was on the show at a later period than these LPs, is a Chancellor of Exeter University down here, and was recently made a life peer of the House of Lords, with the pleasingly alliterative title of Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham. 70s presenters generally had some sort of performing background, often were often of a folkie bent. Toni Arthur is particularly fondly remembered as lively, cheerful and personable presence. In the late 60s and early 70s she released an excellent series of three traditional folk albums with her then husband Dave Arthur. Rob Young writes about them in his book Electric Eden, and cheekily questions whether ‘parents (would) have been so keen on exposing their little ones to the acoustic guitar-wielding wrangler of Big Ted, Humpty and their stuffed chums had they known that Toni had recently attended naked pagan ceremonies conducted by Britain’s self-styled ‘King of the Witches’?’ Of course, the reality turns out to be rather more prosaic. Dave and Toni briefly visited the coven of Alex Sanders, the above-named king, in his Notting Hill pad. His was a very sixties Wiccan interpretation of witchcraft, with the emphasis on the free love aspect. The Arthurs, who knew a great deal about English folk traditions, soon realised that it was a load of nonsense and moved on. Their second LP, Hearken to the Witches Rune, is full of dark songs, however, and was a recent featured album on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone on Radio 6.

Dave and Toni Arthur's first LP from 1967 - the light before the dark
Other presenters to be found on these records also have interesting connections. Julie Stevens is an actress and singer who had been a regular sidekick of Steed in an early season of The Avengers. She played Venus Smith, a night club singer who often got to sing a number in the course of the show. In 1962-3, she alternated episodes with Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale, but was gradually edged out by that character. Rick Jones was a singer and guitarist who is well known as the voice (and hand) of the crude, you-can-make-these-at-home puppets in Fingerbobs. He also wrote the theme song for the enjoyable 1980 science fiction Play for Today The Flipside of Dominick Hyde. It has to be said that the song, entitled ‘You’d Better Believe it Babe’, is far from a classic. Lionel Morton had considerable success in his previous incarnation as the singer and guitarist of the band The Four Pennies, who had a number one hit in 1964 with their song Juliet. Johnny Ball is a major figure in the history of British children’s tv broadcasting, not least because he succeeded in making maths exciting in his series Think of a Number. Ball’s science shows were a breathless tumble of ideas and amazements, and he did much to illuminate young minds and encourage the idea that learning was in fact stimulating fun. Chloe Ashcroft can be seen in a late period Peter Davison Doctor Who story, Resurrection of the Daleks, alongside Rodney Bewes and Rula Lenska. Her character, Professor Laird, is killed, along with pretty much every other member of the supporting cast. Johnny Silvo is a singer who was active on the 60s folk scene and made a shared LP with Sandy Denny, on which they appeared on alternating tracks. Do the presenters of today’s children’s shows have such an eclectic array of experience and talent, I wonder.

There’s a soundtrack LP of the 1974 Ray Harryhausen picture The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Miklos Rosza takes over the compositional reins from Bernard Herrmann for this belated follow up to the 1958 The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. As with Herrmann’s score for that film, Rosza draws on the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade orientalism. As the action moves to an island dotted with Hindu sculptures, he also incorporates elements of Indian music. This is particularly apparent in the scene in which Tom Baker’s evil wizard brings the six-armed statue of Kali to life, a magical animation accompanied by tabla and droning tamboura and a melodic flurry of sitar notes. Rosza was no stranger to Hollywood orientalism, having produced scores for The Thief of Bagdhad (including Sabu’s I Want to be a Sailor song) and The Jungle Book. Elsewhere, he soundtracks the monster action (griffon on centaur!) in a suitably strident fashion. He gets to produce his own variant on Wagner’s magic fire music, too, with the emergence of a devilish oracle from a showy billow of flame. Rosza was famous for introducing the theremin into his scores for The Lost Weekend and Spellbound, and a fantasy film such as The Golden Voyage of Sinbad would have seemed to be a perfect context in which to use it or some other form of electronic instrumentation. Rosza had set the theremin aside after Spellbound, however, not wanting to be associated with it and lumbered with a reputation as a novelty composer. He conjures magic enough from the colours of the orchestra, anyway, and this score proves a worthy successor to Bernard Herrmann in conjuring the colourful atmospheres of the fabled lands of an Arabia that never was.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Honouring the Elders: Samuel Delany and Harlan Ellison at Eaton Science Fiction Conference

Samuel Delany

What an absorbing and exciting conference this promises to be. Honour is to be given to two writers who have been literary heroes of mine since I was in my early teens, Samuel Delany and Harlan Ellison. They will receive the 2010 and 2011 Eaton Awards for Lifetime Achievement in Science Fiction respectively, and Harlan should hopefully be there to enjoy the attendant encomium and throw in a few words of his own to prevent the ceremony from becoming too decorous. Both authors have been garlanded with awards over their careers, with enough Hugos and Nebulas to handsomely line a shelf or fill a cabinet. But it’s always good to let people know that they’re appreciated now, in the present. There’s nothing more dispiriting than dust gathering on a statuette to remind you that your glory days are in the past. And that’s very much not the case with these two widely disparate figures, who nevertheless share a certain outsider viewpoint which has never brooked any compromise or call for self-censorship. Such integrity and persistence of vision has resulted in them both becoming wise elders of the genre, and indeed beyond (a wisdom embodied in Delany’s impressively rabbinical beard). Such elevated status, and increasing renown outside the genre walls, were enshrined in the release of two recent films portraying the authors: Dreams With Sharp Teeth, about Ellison, and The Polymath, or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman.

I remember being dazzled by Ellison’s story “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman in a science fiction anthology I read when I was still in primary school (at the age of 10 or 11). I recall particularly enjoying the passage in which the childlike gadfly of a rebellious anti-hero, written with an obvious element of self-portraiture by the author, lets loose a multi-hued shower of jelly beans from his flying boat, disrupting the dull, clockwork routine of a time-obsessed future world by creating distracting wonder and amusement, and by clogging up the workings of the moving walkways (a very post-war SF device). Not really having much of a clue about what jelly beans might look like, I contented myself with imagining them as Smarties. “Repent, Harlequin!” is a story which cries out for a reading to really bring it to life. How, after all, do you pronounce the word or mumbled sound mrmee? Ellison himself does a fine job on a 1985 Warner Brothers audio release in which it was doubled with the longer story A Boy and His Dog (filmed fairly faithfully in 1975, but lacking the necessary sardonic authorial voice). Harlan plays Harlequin as a rather pitiful character, appropriately enough for someone whose real name, beneath the heroic persona, is Everett C. Marm. The emphasis is on the second syllable of mrmee, by the way. I reckon Harlan could write a really good children’s book. His nomination for a Grammy award this year in the Best Spoken Word for Children category for his reading of Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There shows that he still feels an affinity with the untrammelled imaginative worlds of childhood.

I discovered Samuel Delany at a relatively early age, too, firstly in anthologies and then through his collection of short stories Driftglass. I always enjoyed his language, which was both poetic and painstakingly analytical, couched in discursive, winding sentences entangled with multiple parenthetical asides. Delany’s proliferating brackets often enfold further brackets themselves. From the short stories I progressed to the early novels, The Fall of the Towers trilogy being the first I read, a good introduction in that it was still relatively conventional in terms of its content. Other short novels such as Nova and Babel-17 were bold and colourful works of SF mythologising, whose futures were diverse and multiform, and whose heroines and heroes were poets, criminals, romantic outsiders and misfits. A sense of separate identity, of a self-created persona was always important in Delany’s novels and stories, making them ideal fodder for the emphasis on ‘identity politics’ in the academic circles of the 70s and 80s. Having firmly established himself as an author whose every work I sought out and read, I finally graduated to Dhalgren, a monumental and dauntingly experimental work which marked a new phase in his writing. It’s a sprawling, impressionistic tale of life in a pre-apocalyptic city, lit by the baleful glare of a distended, end of time sun. It’s clearly a reflection, refraction and diffraction of the New York in which Delany lived and worked in the 70s, an imaginative recasting of observation and experience through the mirrors, prisms and lenses which are symbolically present throughout the book. I remember finding this in Forever People, a SF bookshop which used to be found halfway up the steeply ascending slope of Park Street in Bristol, a road which also boasted a great selection of record shops. All gone now, of course. It was a novel which needed hunting down since, to my knowledge, it had not at the time been published in England. In fact, I believe it was not until 1992 that it saw print in this country. It’s now been graced with a reprint in the official canon of the Gollancz SF Masterworks collection (unfortunately with a truly awful cover). What had previously been implied became explicit in Dhalgren, as Delany focussed increasingly on the varied expressions of desire and the ways in which they are contained and given form within the social body. His interest in the structure of language was taken to new levels of complexity. The writing and even the printed text are formally inventive, at times dispensing with normal punctuation and spelling, including words and sentences which are crossed through, and occasionally splitting off into parallel columns, across which the eye is encouraged to wander, taking in two narrative lines at once. It was a formative reading experience for me, both in terms of its style and its content, and remains a favourite to this day. My paperback copy has taken on something of the air of a sacred artefact, a very particular physical reminder recalling in its every crease and smudge a strong and abiding artistic experience from my youth.

Delany’s books tend to be few and far between these days, as he has become further entrenched amongst the ranks of academia (although a new novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, is due next year). He is now a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Temple University, Philadelphia. You can hear some of his readings at the University of Pennsylvania’s PennSound site. He gives a talk on the poet Hart Crane, whose epic poem The Bridge, a hymn of praise which uses the Brooklyn Bridge as a launching ramp for visionary flights of the imagination, influenced Delany’s own Brooklyn Bridge story, the 1995 novella Atlantis: Model 1924 (which can be found in the Atlantis: Three Tales collection). The readings from his own work, found here (if you scroll down to May 17 2008), include passages from Escape to Neveryon, in which he combines scenes from the primitive society of his own fantasy world with others set in contemporary New York, in which the AIDS epidemic is just starting to become evident. You can also find the 1967 radio play of his short story The Star Pit there, a production which is mentioned in Escape to Neveryon, and in which Delany himself plays the role of the narrator and observing protagonist. It’s strange to finally hear a writer with whose words you have long been familiar. Sometimes the speaking voice can be at odds with the tone of the writing. Delany’s speaks in a relaxed and pleasantly light tone which is entirely appropriate for the open and generous, inquisitive nature of his stories. Hearing it prompted an instant sense of recognition. Voice and word matched perfectly.

The range of the conference is impressive and reflects the global reach of SF and of the fantastic in the arts in general. There are many names here with which I am unfamiliar, some of which may not have made it into English translation. Wuxian Lu is a Chinese writer active since the 70s who has been in and out of favour with the government, but put himself beyond the pail through his support of the Tiananmen Square protestors in 1989; Valerio Evangelisti is a very popular SF writer in Italy; Albert Robida was a French contemporary of Jules Verne, an illustrator and writer who produced three books outlining a future history; Ted Chiang has written a number of award-winning short stories, which have been collected in Stories of Your Life and Others, which looks well worth seeking out; Hagio Moto is a female Japanese manga artist; Karen Tei Yamashita is an American writer of novels which exist along the borderlines of the fantastic (probably thus falling into the category of ‘magic realism’, a term which the literary world uses to avoid the use of the word ‘fantasy’); Ping Lu is a Taiwanese writer; Nalo Hopkinson is a Jamaican born Canadian writer of SF and fantasy; and Hiromi Goto is a Japanese born Canadian writer, author of the novel Chorus of Mushrooms and winner of the 2001 James Tiptree, Jr Award for The Kappa Child. The preponderance of Asian names here is perhaps unsurprising for a conference set in a university on the Pacific West Coast, with its face turned across the ocean to the East. It also reflects the way in which the rapid expansion of economies and technologies leads naturally on to speculations about possible futures and, where politically permissible, present alternatives.

The boundaries of genre are also widened to include examples which might fall outside the general idea of what constitutes SF. Readers of David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, Margaret Attwood’s The Year of the Flood, or viewers of the film adaptation of PD James’ The Children of Men, all to be discussed here, might be horrified to discover that what they’ve been enjoying is SF. Mitchell, who displays a keen appreciation of genre and is deft in the use of its forms and devices, would no doubt be happy to be included. Atwood and James have both volubly objected to any such identification, reacting with distaste at the idea that their work should be thought of in any terms other than literature with a capital L. Attwood’s position does seem to have become a little less doctrinaire, as her participation in a recent debate with Ursula le Guin indicates. Le Guin’s Guardian review of The Year of the Flood outlines her position vis a vis Attwood’s genre denial, pointing out that it makes locating relevant critical reference points all the more difficult, since the most useful would be found in the body of SF criticism.

China Mieville
It’s interesting to see which writers and what films are currently in vogue in academic circles. Back in the 70s and 80s, when SF first began to be taken seriously in universities and colleges, the likes of Ursula le Guin and Philip K Dick were prominent, although a great deal of criticism tended to look back at the past, at progenitors and literary proponents of the genre such as HG Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Here, China Mieville and Neal Stephenson both get sessions devoted to their work (and Mieville is himself a participant in the conference). This is understandable, since their novels are rich in philosophical speculation and ideologically-driven fantasy. Stephenson’s last book, Anathem, was itself cast in the form of an interrogative debate on the history of philosophy and scientific thought, with an invented society in which a complex monastic system has grown up to shelter intellectuals and scientists rather than the observers of any religion from the distractions of the world. There are also several papers on Battlestar Galactica, which has attracted a great deal of admiring critical attention, opening itself up as it does to interpretations drawing on aspects of modern global politics and conflict.

The tendency (or requirement?) for academic writing to conform to standardised patterns and vocabulary can be seen in the way that nearly all the titles of papers have an attention-grabbing headline followed, after a connecting colon, by a more prosaically explanatory précis of its themes. These sometimes display the fussy inelegance of much academic language, straining out phrases such as ‘waylaying cultural transactions’, ‘critical witnessing’, and ‘deflationary transhumanism’. There is, of course, plenty of ‘discourse’, ‘dialogue’ and ‘critique’ but, disappointingly, no ‘dialectic’. The need for academic credentials to be prominently displayed is also in evidence, as poor old Jake Casella’s institutional affiliation is questioned, possibly invalidating anything he has to say on The New Fantastic Urban. Which would be a shame, since sounds like one of the most interesting papers. It’s included in the second (he certainly is popular) session on China Mieville, so his work will presumably be the primary focus, but he might also touch on the work of Jeff Vandermeer, with his novels and stories set in the city of Ambergis (the latest of which, Finch, was published earlier this year); M.John Harrison’s Viriconium stories, or his SF novels Light and Nova Swing; Jeffrey Ford’s Well-Built City trilogy, beginning with The Physiognomy; KJ Bishop’s The Etched City; or Simon Ings’ City of the Iron Fish, an unjustly neglected novel.

There seems a greater willingness to examine contemporary work, with Mieville clearly already accumulating a considerable accretion of critical matter. Perhaps the old subjects of academic attention have now built up such a dense mass of commentary and analysis that they have finally become silted up, and the search for significance has flowed on into different channels. There’s only so much that you can say about feminist utopias or virtual cyberpunk subworlds. There is a paper here which offers an instant academic reflection on Vincent Natali’s Splice, released earlier this year. This suggests a recognition of his emergence as one of the most interesting of modern directors in the SF genre, following on from his previous films Cube and Cypher. There is a session entitled Fantastic Architectures: Theme Parks, World’s Fairs, and the Mission Inn, which includes the intriguing papers ‘Globalisation 1.0: World’s Fairs, Paris 1867 to London 1899’, and ‘Future’s Past: The Erosion of Possibility in Disney Theme Park Science Fiction Discourse’ (oh dear). Greg Stone’s ‘The Cinematic Misinterpretation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris’ (where’s the pre-title?) sounds as if he might be arguing for fidelity to filmic source material, a somewhat unrealistic standpoint given the history of the medium. Tarkovsky’s rhapsodically beautiful film is far superior to Lem’s dry, intellectual novel in my opinion, anyway.

‘Rise of the Hippie Christs: Inner Space, Psychedelia, and 1960s Counterculture in Brian Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head’ refers to the novel which was originally serialised in New Worlds magazine. Aldiss imagined a world in which LSD has saturated English society in the aftermath of the ‘acid head wars’, and consensus reality has effectively broken down. This allowed for experimentation with language and narrative form, both preoccupations of New Worlds writers. Aldiss was the ideal person to cast a wry eye over the psychedelic sixties, having the necessary distance from the centre to maintain an objective perspective. He was a little older than the generation of writers who formed the revolutionary vanguard of the New Worlds cadre, and who were wholly committed to the experimental and radical spirit of the times. Aldiss was happily ensconced in the literary establishment and had no real desire to tear anything down. He loved traditional SF in a way that the younger New Worlds crowd most avowedly (and vocally) did not. He wrote that ‘I feel I am no part of the New Wave; I was here before ‘em, and by God I mean to be here after they’ve gone (still writing bloody science fiction)!’ Happily, he is still here, and still writing the damn stuff. Indeed, he even has a story in this year’s Brilliant Book of Doctor Who. Despite his ambiguous feelings, he did write two of the key New Wave English SF novels: the above mentioned Barefoot in the Head, and his attempt at an English version of the French Nouveau Roman (exemplified by the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet) Report on Probability A. Some of the short stories in the collections The Moment of Eclipse and Last Orders also display an experimental bent which demonstrates the invigorating effect of his dip into the waters of the new wave. His literary connections also allowed him to play an instrumental part in securing an Arts Council grant for New Worlds, enabling it to emerge from its pulp format and incorporate a more striking graphic style. This is no doubt touched upon in Mark Young’s paper ‘Inner Visions: Aesthetic Shifts in New Wave Visual Culture’ , which hopefully includes an appreciation of the work of Mal Dean, who did so much to bring the characters of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories to life.

Infiltrating Global Chemicals
David Layton’s paper ‘Doctor Who and the Critique of Capitalism’ sounds great. I have an academic book of Who criticism with the marvellously pompous title of Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, which includes such riveting chapters as Mystery: Television Discourse and Institution and Regeneration: Narrative Similarity and Difference. Nothing can beat the winningly self-mocking title of a more recent volume of Who criticism, however: Time and Relative Dissertations in Space. So academics can have a sense of humour, after all. The above critique will no doubt feature The Green Death fairly prominently. In this Pertwee adventure, the Doctor teams up with Welsh miners and eco-hippies to fight the power, in the form of Global Chemicals, a company controlled by a megalomaniacal computer brain. Even the Brigadier throws in his flat cap with the anti-establishment forces, deciding that the polluting, impersonal power of the global energy corporation is simply a damn poor show. The producer and script editor from this period, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, have both been entirely open in dvd commentaries and extras about their own left-leaning politics, and their viewpoint seems by and large to have been shared by other writers for the series at the time. Terry Nation, who had created the Daleks back in 1963, tended to depict totalitarian societies in which resistance fighters struggle for freedom. The generally high death rate in his stories give them a harsh and surprisingly grim feel. Malcolm Hulke, who had for a time considered himself a communist, wrote stories such as Colony in Space, The Silurians and The Sea Devils which emphasised political subject matter and played up the Doctor’s anti-militarism and preference for diplomatic negotiation over violence and the resort to brute force. My favourite radical Who quote comes from the Tom Baker story Terror of the Zygons, however. The Doctor responds tersely to the Brigadier’s worries about a crisis brought on by oil shortages (in brief, a remote controlled Loch Ness Monster has been destroying North Sea rigs) by asserting that ‘it’s about time the people who run this planet of yours realised that to be dependent on a mineral slime just doesn’t make sense’. Right on!

Broadcast and Sound Poetry

This is a lovely version of In Here The Universe Begins from Broadcast’s recent show on 7th December at the HiFi Bar in Melbourne, Australia. Singer Trish Keenan paces lightly back and forth, casting expanding and retracting shadows over the coruscating patterns projected onto the screen. The whole show sounds magical, warm and relaxed, with an experimental and improvisatory flow which sounds natural and unforced. You can hear it thanks to someone who has generously put their recording up online. James Cargill’s analogue synth lines are burnished and glowing, as if his equipment has absorbed some of the Antipodean sunshine and released it in radiant melodic scales. Valerie, Lunch Hour Pops and In Here The Universe Begins have become languorous electronic lullabies, soothing the way to golden slumbers. Valerie in particular sounds gorgeous set against a gently humming and droning bed of sound. Even the as-yet unreleased song, with its chorus refrain of ‘what you want is not what you get’, which has become a standard performance finale, is slowed down to a mesmeric chant rather than the pounding one-chord kosmische drone thrashed out on what looks like some sort of two-stringed Mongolian lute which is its usual form. The crowd is effusive in its appreciation, and Keenan returns to sing a round with her own echo on You and Me in Time, a short and hauntingly poetic song from the Tender Buttons LP.

Earlier, Keenan had prefaced Black Cat with a babel of voices which suggested speaking in tongues before Cargill’s circular riff locked in. The song ended in a long looping fade-out over which those voices found articulation in her intoned lines of verse. This is indicative of a long-standing interest in the written word (she has had pieces published in a literary paper called High Horse) and the manipulation of language. This is entirely in keeping with their love of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which had a close involvement with the marriage of word and sound throughout its history.

The Workshop partly had its origins in a piece written for the radio by Samuel Beckett in 1957, All That Fall. Beckett had a particular interest in the sound environment for the play, and Desmond Briscoe was called in to provide the required atmospheres and effects. Later that year, he went on to work with Daphne Oram on Private Dreams and Public Nightmares, written by Frederick Bradnum and subtitled ‘A Radiophonic Poem’. This was the first use of the word ‘radiophonic’. Producer Donald McWhinnie explained that ‘by radiophonic effects, we mean something very near to what the French have labelled musique concrete – concrete music. Not music at all, really. It doesn’t necessarily come out of musical instruments and it can’t be written down. It’s simply sound, or patterns of sound, which are manufactured by technical processes’. A rather denigrating technician’s description which seems keen to downplay the considerable artistic potential unleashed by such new processes. The Private Dreams piece was written with accompanying sounds specifically outlined as an aural adjunct to the words. McWhinnie described it as being ‘an inextricable conception of word and special sound and an exploratory flight into a new territory of sound’, and warned engineers not to ‘attempt to alter anything that sounds strange – it’s deliberately meant to sound that way’.

Desmond and Daphne in the Workshop
The Radiophonic Workshop officially came into being shortly thereafter, with both Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram present as key founding members. It was situated in an old art nouveau building in Maida Vale which had previously seen service as a roller skating palace. The Workshop moved its equipment into room 13 and opened, appropriately enough, on the 1st April 1958. It continued to produce the combinations of word and sound, concrete poetry and atmospheric meditation from which it had originated. There was a collaboration with Brian Gysin in 1960, Minutes To Go, which featured his cut-ups (a technique which William Burroughs adopted in books such as Nova Express) and ‘permutated poems’ I Am That I Am, Rub Out the Word and Junk Isn’t Good Baby, which, with the help of the Workshop, subjected language to random realignments. Gysin declared his intention to ‘let the machines speak – even if they’re going wrong, they are still saying something’. Poet Lily Greenham created the piece Relativity with the Workshop in 1975, based around Einstein’s equation and the visible spectrum of colours. She talked about ‘how a sentence can be given shape and driven in a musical sense beyond its meaning’. Philip Oxman’s 1974 piece The Origins of Capital and the Descent of Power sounds like a rather grim slice of Marxist analysis centring on the story of a poor circus family who end up having to butcher their own performing animals. Malcolm Clarke (who wrested remarkable alien sounds from the ‘Delaware’ synthesiser for the Doctor Who story The Sea Devils) worked on this piece, and was described by a reviewer as having created ‘voices and sounds that loomed, struck, tottered out of darkness…one was less in a precise story than in a circle of images in words and electronic sound, very deliberately plotted, the relationship between sound and space designed to be as informative as the explicit dialogue’.

Barry Bermange's sketch for a Gothic altarpiece in sound
Perhaps the best known of the Radiophonic Workshop’s combinations of word and sound are Delia Derbyshire and Barry Bermange’s Inventions for Radio, and David Cain, Ronald Duncan and Derek Bowskill’s The Seasons. The Inventions for Radio were 4 programmes broadcast in 1964, mixing Delia Derbyshire’s atmospheric clouds of sound (which were effectively a precursor of ambient music) with recorded voices. For Amor Dei, Burmange sketched out a modest request that she create ‘the sound of a Gothic altar piece’, something which she duly built using the human voice as source material. Sadly, the only one of the Inventions which seems to be still extant is Dreams (although who knows what the Delia Derbyshire archive at Manchester University might turn up). Delia provides the rather ominous sonic medium within which people’s recalled dreams are embedded.

David Cain’s The Seasons was a BBC Drama Workshop LP from 1969, in which the poems of Ronald Duncan and Derek Bowskill, which evoke the moods of the months, progressing through the seasons of the year, are set to his electronic music. These moods could be ‘expressed’ by the schoolchildren who were the record’s intended audience. It’s been featured on a regular basis on Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service, his Radio 6 show, although he’s now completed a year’s cycle of seasons. Perhaps he could start up again next year with the astrological cycle of Mort Garson’s Zodiac Cosmic Sounds, although, given that it’s an afternoon show, this would make it rather difficult to comply with the LP cover’s instruction that it ‘must be played in the dark’.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Music of The Book

I listened recently to the original radio series of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I always regarded as the best realisation of Douglas Adams’ creation. Having not heard if for many a year, I was surprised to hear what a wealth and range of interesting music was used in the background, mainly to accompany Peter Jones’ inimitable readings from The Book. The fact that I now recognised many of the pieces used suggests that my youthful self, listening repeatedly to the cheap cassettes on which I’d recorded the series off the radio, was having his ears attuned to sounds which would spark an unconscious thrill of recognition when I came across them later in life. Alongside Doctor Who, it certainly seeded a fascination for electronic music which lasts to this day.

After Tim Souster’s sonically enhanced arrangement of Journey of the Sorceror by The Eagles which gives the programme its memorable space banjo theme music, we are plunged straight into the dizzying world of 20th century Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti as Peter Jones puts the story into its cosmic context. I think the piece is Atmospheres, famous for its inclusion in Stanley Kubrick’s religiose SF survey of the aeons, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The use of music associated with that imposing film serves as an immediate indication of Adams’ intention to puncture the grandiosity of such high-minded science fiction with bathos at every possible turn and corner, although he also manages to retain the genre’s starry-eyed sense of wonder. Ligeti is used on various occasions throughout the series. His diffuse, tonally indeterminate ‘clouds’ of orchestral and choral sound are perfect for conveying a sense of terrified awe and disorientation in the face of the immense infinity of the universe and the bewilderingly alien experiences to be found within it. Indeed, it was his music which did much to lend 2001 its air of slightly frightening, transcendent mystery. The hovering, shifting swarm of melismatic voices in the Requiem, used in the moon monument sequence in 2001, here provide the heavenly choir which accompanies Arthur and Ford’s comedown from their first experience of the Infinite Improbability Drive which powers the spaceship Heart of Gold. It’s incongruously mixed with an organ on Southend Pier chirping out ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’.

Ligeti in Klaus Kinski mode
A crashing, rumbling explosion of a chord from Ligeti’s astonishing organ piece Volumina provides an over-the-top prelude to cliff-hanging pronouncements, as when the captain of the Vogon constructor fleet pauses before offering to Ford and Arthur his alternative to certain death in the vacuum of space. This is a good lead-in to a typical bit of Adams bathos; The implicitly horrific nature of an experience in the stead of which summary death seems an option open to serious consideration turns out to be an unpleasant but non-lethal subjection to a reading of excruciatingly bad poetry. Ligeti’s harpsichord piece Continuum, which requires the player’s hands to scurry unceasingly across the keyboard like a particularly workaholic cadre of ants, accompanies an entry from The Book on the rise and fall of the Galactic economy and the part which the luxury planet-building business of Magrathea plays in its fluctuating fortunes. Appropriately enough, it’s a piece of music which is scarcely credible to picture as the product of any human agency.

Such could also be said of the electronic sounds which comprise the bulk of the rest of the background musical radiation of the Hitchhiker’s universe. Electronic music has long been associated with science fiction and space, going back to its use in Bernard Herrmann’s theremin and electric guitar driven score for The Day The Earth Stood Still (recently heard in the BBC Concert Orchestra’s Electronica concert, broadcast on Radio 3 a couple of weeks ago), and Louis and Bebe Barron’s ‘electronic modulations’ for Forbidden Planet. Perhaps the technological element of electronic soundmaking creates an association with the advanced technologies required to reach space in the first place. Or perhaps it’s just that these strange, alien sounds, which no longer have their origins in any familiar musical objects, are an effective aural analogue to the psychological experience of exploring entirely new worlds of the imagination. They’re equally adept at portraying states of mental disequilibrium, after all, as the theremin featured prominently in Miklos Rozsa’s scores for The Lost Weekend and Spellbound (also featured in the Electronica concert) demonstrates.

Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air is the most frequently used piece of electronic music here. His echo-delayed loops of burbling and cascading organ notes provide the sound of the selections from The Book’s teeming streams of digital information. There’s also a single use of an extract from the more sombre and stately Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band, the second side of the Rainbow LP, with Riley’s sax snaking out shehnai-like lines into intertwining coils. The opening of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno’s Wind on Water from the Evening Star LP breathes its shimmering breezes behind The Book’s ruminations on several occasions. It accompanies the description of the planet to which lost biros make their pilgrimage, there to join the wide variety of biroid lifeforms which inhabit it. The tentative opening triads of Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene are used a couple of times, giving a poignant emphasis to Peter Jones’ summation of the fates of the newly created whale and instantly world (or universe?) weary bowl of petunias. Tomita’s synthesised arrangement of Debussy’s La Cathedrale Engloutie (The Drowned Cathedral) plays during the description of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. John Carpenter also wrote a synthesiser version of this piece, in collaboration with Alan Howarth, to add atmosphere to the scene in Escape From New York in which Kurt Russell’s grizzled adventurer negotiates the air corridors between the futuristic Manhattan’s deserted skyscrapers in his one-man glider.

Digging the Floyd
I distinctly remember that when I first heard the programme on the radio, Pink Floyd’s pacific held-chord meditation Shine On You Crazy Diamond heralded the spaceship Heart of Gold’s arrival on the planet of Magrathea, Arthur’s first sight of an alien world. It turns out to be the depressive robot Marvin humming. A comment on the Floyd’s less than joyful ‘concept’ of the world, perhaps. This scene has disappeared from the show in subsequently released recordings, the issue (or expense) of rights evidently having become a problem. Strange, since that Roger Waters always comes across as such a reasonable and accommodating chap. It’s funny that a radio programme from the year’s of punk’s ascendancy (it was first broadcast on 8th March 1978), which was supposed to have cleared away the dead weight of the 60’s increasingly bloated legacy, should feature Pink Floyd and the music of synth players with varying degrees of Prog-association. Apparently there’s even a track from one-record x Yes keyboard player Patrick Moraz’ solo LP in there somewhere, although I can’t claim to be familiar with it. His album with Yes was Relayer, by the way, and it's quite a good one, with a nice Roger Dean cover (gatefold, of course). Perhaps such musical choices are not so surprising, given that Ford and Zaphod are, essentially, a couple of interstellar hippies.

The Radiophonic Workshop played its part in the production, of course. Dick Mills created the ubiquitous sound-effects essential for evoking a space-based SF universe. Amongst these is a short piece which rivals his earlier magnum opus Major Bloodnok’s Stomach (created in 1959), a nine second eruption found on the 1975 Radiophonic Workshop LP, for complex creation put to the service of absurd humour. The apocalyptic roar of the universe’s destruction diminishes to a gurgle as it drains down some sort of cosmic plughole. Its can be heard in its full 30 second splendour on the BBC LP Science Fiction Sound Effects (no. 26). There’s also a brilliant piece of Radiophonic music resurrected from the archive to be used as the fanfare for the Magratheans’ automated non-welcoming message from the distant past. This is Delia Derbyshire’s Tutankhamun’s Egypt, in which the echoes of ancient trumpets seems to rise like sonic phantoms from the half-buried and sand-eroded ruins of empires long since faded into legend. You can hear it here. The Radiophonic Workshop would take over the music for the second series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide, using the latest generations of synthesisers. Paddy Kingsland composed pleasantly melodic synth backgrounds, with prominent use of the whistling, flute-like sounds which also characterised the late Tom Baker and early Peter Davidson Doctor Who soundtracks to stories like The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis and Castrovalva. He switched on his arpeggiator to provide the auditory sensation of the tickling of the brain’s pleasure centres (a reward from a teaching machine in a technologised schoolroom). Synth arpeggiators have always had a similar effect on my brain, so I’m very glad that they’ve recently featured to a significant extent on Oneohtrix Point Never’s sprawling collection of analogue electronic music, Rifts, a gorgeous paean to futures past.

The Magrathean story is also accompanied by some rhythmically enhanced Gregorian-style chant overlaid with Eastern-tinged sax. There is some similar music (minus the chant) playing during the pointless meeting of hairdressers, TV documentary producers and telephone sanitisation engineers (obviously bugbears of Adams’) to discuss their plans for life on the prehistoric Earth upon which they, along with Ford and Arthur, are stranded. This has the sound of a sprightly medieval dance. I thought it might be The Third Ear Band’s music for Roman Polanski’s film of Macbeth, or perhaps even a 70s early music troupe along the lines of David Munrow’s consort. But no, it is in fact a group who were called Gruppe Between, one of the more organic (ie acoustic) of the ‘krautrock’ bands of the period. Both of these pieces were taken from their 1971 LP Einstieg, which you can read about over at Julian Cope’s Head Heritage site. It’s appropriate that this record was released on the German WERGO label, better known for its recordings of modern classical music by the likes of Ligeti.

The radio show, like the TV series, goes out on a bittersweet note with Louis Armstrong singing What A Wonderful World. It’s a song which has, it seems, become synonymous with a wistful observation of what a wonderful world it isn’t, Armstrong’s warm tones becoming an insistent invocation of beauty in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Its fading out here unveils the melancholy at the heart of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and perhaps of Adams himself. In the end, there is no meaning behind it all, no answer to the great question of life, the universe and everything. It’s all just a cruel and hollow farce. Still, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you.