Archive for the ‘Music’ Category
A Steely Dan concert is akin to witnessing the passage of a single multiplex vehicle the size of a motorcade or convoy, its various segments comprising limousines, ice-cream wagons, hearses, lunch-carts, ambulances, black marias, and motorcycle outriders, all of it Rolls-grade and lacquered like a tropical beetle. The horns glint, as it rolls majestically past, splendid, a thing of legend, and utterly peculiar unto itself.
William Gibson’s blog
Dock Boggs. From Wikipedia.
When William Gibson released his first novel, Neuromancer, in 1984, he considered opening it with a line from a Velvet Underground song, “Watch out for worlds behind you,” from “Sunday Morning”. In an interview in 1986 he talked about how limiting he found the questions journalists were asking him. They asked only about books that had inspired him, and even more particularly, just science fiction books.
“The trouble with ‘influence’ questions is that they’re usually framed to encourage you to talk about your writing as if you grew up in a world circumscribed by books,” he told Larry McCaffrey. “I’ve been influenced by Lou Reed, for instance, as much as I’ve been by any ‘fiction’ writer.”
William Gibson and Nick Cave have been the two poles of my compass ever since I began reading and hearing their works, from Nick’s first record and Gibson’s first book. What they share is a vision with a level of detail that William Gibson described as ‘superspecificity’ and that he learned from Dashiell Hammett.
“I remember being very excited about how he had pushed all of this ordinary stuff until it was different,” he told Larry McCaffrey. “Like American naturalism but cranked up, very intense, almost surreal. You can see this at the beginning of The Maltese Falcon (1930) where he describes all the things in Spade’s office. Hammett may have been the guy who turned me on to the idea of superspecificity, which is largely lacking in most SF description, SF authors tend to use generics.”
Although Gibson is credited with the invention of what we now recognise as the computer era, because he described it so well, and Nick is generally assumed to be inventing scenarios around Old Testament parables, what draws me to their perspectives is how vividly they describe worlds that that are real, that they see because they’re paying attention. Their artistry comes from combining the observations they’ve made about in unusual ways. Their works resemble nothing we’ve ever seen before, in that way, so it’s assumed they must be inventing comic book futures or transcribing fever dreams.
“I suppose I strive for an argot that seems real, but I don’t invent most of what seems exotic or strange in the dialogue,” William Gibson told Larry McCaffrey, “that’s just more collage. There are so many cultures or subcultures today that if you’re willing to listen, you can pick up different phrases, inflections and metaphors everywhere. I use a lot of phrases that seem exotic to everyone but the people who use them.”
My own interests can be cross-faded with Nick’s and William Gibson’s. I’ve always comprehended that their works lay down on paper (or in music, alive in a stretch of time) the soul’s eternal struggle with itself. It’s the sadness at the heart of what they both create that I’m most drawn to: the sorrow that makes it possible to measure happiness. “We each have a need to create and sorrow is a creative act,” Nick said in a lecture about love songs. “The love song is a sad song, it is the sound of sorrow itself. We all experience within us what the Portugese call Suadade, which translates as an inexplicable sense of longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the Love song is the light of God, deep down, blasting through our wounds.”
Today a list of William Gibson’s ten favourite songs is published on the New York Times book blog. He mentions a song from The Boatman’s Call among his favourites. On his blog, at the time he published Pattern Recognition he expressed admiration for Nick, saying that he’d like to write a novel as good as The Boatman’s Call. Gibson’s description of a song by Dock Boggs, an early twentieth century Appalachian white bluesman, is exactly the feeling I gained from reading William Faulkner’s novels, after they’d been recommended to me by Nick.
“On finally learning to hear this music, you literally become some different, more primal manner of flesh,” writes Gibson. “There is simply nothing else like it. It is an Ur-thing, sere and terrible, yet capable of profound and paradoxical rescue in the very darkest hour. Dock Boggs lived in Wise County, Virginia, not far from where I grew up. I am haunted by the possibility that someone could have listened to this recording in Paris, in 1927, the year it was released.”
U2 at the screening of their 3D movie at Sundance. Photo by MyBono at Flickr.
U23D is William Gibson’s vision of virtual reality completely realised: a layer of synthetic experience that naturally melds with your material existence. The 3D movie was shot on the South American leg of U2′s Vertigo tour. William Gibson wrote about the Seattle and Vancouver concerts of that tour in Wired.
“My wife and I stand in Seattle’s Key Arena, noses level with the lower swoop of what U2 calls the Ellipse, the elevated stage loop the band traverses in performance. We’re here because U2 is the early 21st century’s biggest – and arguably most technologically innovative – touring group, the one that continues to define and redefine the spectacle that is arena rock. For more than a decade, they’ve been driving both the technology and the form of the megatour while providing huge audiences with a powerful yet intricately managed sense of intimacy.”
William Gibson. U2′s City of Blinding Lights: 12,000 daisy-chained LEDs. Spycams controlled bya PlayStation. The Vertigo tour is a monster concert machine – and the ultimate rock-and-roll R&D lab.
The band’s conceptual mastery of the technology and the movie’s polish made the 3D effect seem natural and inevitable.
Gibson asked The Edge about the technological artworks displayed during the concerts and the band’s collaboration with artists. “It’s a co-op,” replied The Edge.
“It’s finding like-minded people who have something to contribute. Ever since ZooTV, we’ve found people who’ve got stuff, and we go delving through their collection of images. But in the end, all of the imagery is there to underscore what the music is already saying. It’s a way to shed light from another angle.”
One form of light they deal with is spiritual, and the Christian symbols in Bono’s lyrics are given a context, in 3D, that makes it apparent that the songs are animated with the same kind of urge to ponder the human relationship with God that underpins religious art.
In the same week I saw excerpts from the video imagery that Bill Viola created for the staging ofWagner’Tristan and Isolde by the L.A. Philharmonic, and I heard him speak at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
He talked about developing as an artist while video technology was also developing, that he studied engineering alongside art in order to have a hand in creating the tools he needed to realize his vision. With high definition video he said he now feels that he has a full palette of tools. He showed an excerpt from his new work, Ocean Without a Shore.
A black and white surveillance video camera from the 1970′s filmed people walking towards an invisible wall of water. As the actors broke through the wall (a laminar flow that takes three days to calibrate) they became ultra-real, shot in the kind of high-definition digital colour video cameras that George Lucas shoots movies with. The work ponders the way that the dead, or how they remain spiritually with us, ebbs and flows.
Bill Viola said of the exquisite, lifelike detail in Northern European Renaissance painting, “that’s HD.”
We can now take technology for granted and see the common spirit in works created in different media, in different ages, and we can concentrate on the experience of the works. Bill Viola’s parents have died in the last few years and he recalled being at a gallery and standing in front of a Renaissance painting of the Virgin Mary and beginning to weep. He wasn’t an artist considering the technique and materials and concept of an artwork but a human being taking his cares and troubles to Mother Mary, he said. U2 are unavoidable but I’ve never really paid close attention to them, and in the few days since I’ve seen the movie I’ve looked up videos of their songs on YouTube. Bono has performed new lyrics he’s written for Ave Maria, alongside Luciano Pavarotti singing the traditional, ancient hymn-version. Bono takes his cares and troubles to Mother Mary. “Where is the justice in this world,” he asks her. “The wicked make so much noise, Mother. The righteous stay oddly still. With no wisdom all the riches in the world leave us poor tonight.”
It’s taken all of these 3D techniques to see U2 at human scale.
Recorded music has always had a dual identity, singles and albums played on radio and music videos are simultaneously artworks and advertisements for the artworks. In William Gibson’s twenty-first century novels, Pattern Recognition and Spook Country, the prime villain is Hubertus Bigend, the Belgian owner of a global advertising agency. He creates an ethically dubious form of viral marketing by having people in bars covertly recommend products during the course of normal conversations. And he tries to find a marketing advantage in he way that most inventive applications of new technologies are created by either artists or the military.
On the ZOO TV tour U2 played in front of television footage pulled in from satellite dishes they brought to the arenas with them.
“We’ve spent a crazy time dissecting TV and adverts to make a parody of the chaos they cause,” Bono said at the time. “The irony is that ZOO TV has now been taken over by the advertising world and at the moment there are three or four international campaigns inspired by what we did.”
U2 seem sincere, close-up in 3D, in a way that minimizes the marketing aspect. They can seem bombastic and cartoonishly oversize in the regular world, but within the infinite vista and scalelessness of the digital realm, in 3D, are just life size. “Saint” Bono’s concerns, that can seem self-aggrandizing and overwrought in their global scope, within the digital world, with its natural tendency to create links and form clusters is heartfelt, inclusive and far-sighted.
The larger than life symbol in the concert is the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. In 2004 King’s widow Coretta Scott King, acknowledged Bono’s humanitarian work.
At the event, Bono became emotional as he discussed the impact Dr. King had on him growing up in Ireland during that country’s civil war, according to the Associated Press.
He said, “We despaired for the lack of vision of the kind Dr. King gave to people in the South,” and added that he wrote the 1984 hit “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” based on King’s teachings. Bono also said, “When Dr. King spoke about having a dream, he wasn’t just talking about an American dream. It can be an African dream, an Irish dream. That’s why I’m excited to be here.”
U2 performs “Pride” in Brazil, on the Vertigo tour.
US Senator Barack Obama, campaigning to become President, uses U2′s song “City of Blinding Lights” in his appearances. It’s not a stirring anthem but a quiet musing about the alienating quality of contemporary urban life. It presents uncertainty. He made a speech at the groundbreaking ceremony for a memorial to Dr King in 2006 that dwelt on triumphing over uncertainty and flaws.
By his own accounts, he was a man frequently racked with doubt, a man not without flaws, a man who, like Moses before him, more than once questioned why he had been chosen for so arduous a task – the task of leading a people to freedom, the task of healing the festering wounds of a nation’s original sin.
And yet lead a nation he did. Through words he gave voice to the voiceless. Through deeds he gave courage to the faint of heart.
By dint of vision, and determination, and most of all faith in the redeeming power of love, he endured the humiliation of arrest, the loneliness of a prison cell, the constant threats to his life, until he finally inspired a nation to transform itself, and begin to live up to the meaning of its creed.
Like Moses before him, he would never live to see the Promised Land. But from the mountain top, he pointed the way for us – a land no longer torn asunder with racial hatred and ethnic strife, a land that measured itself by how it treats the least of these, a land in which strength is defined not simply by the capacity to wage war but by the determination to forge peace – a land in which all of God’s children might come together in a spirit of brotherhood.
We have not yet arrived at this longed for place. For all the progress we have made, there are times when the land of our dreams recedes from us – when we are lost, wandering spirits, content with our suspicions and our angers, our long-held grudges and petty disputes, our frantic diversions and tribal allegiances.
Filming the movie at concerts in Buenos Aires, Santiago, Mexico City and Sao Paulo emphasized the connection U2 feels to those who are struggling, worldwide. The South American countries have fiery and exuberant, warm cultures, Bono said, that he identifies with. And, like Ireland, these countries have experienced the furious passion of religious conflicts, terrorism, war and poverty.
Karen Armstrong describes religions as “spiritual technologies” in The Great Transformation, a study of the age in which the compassionate responses of Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism developed in a savage and violent world.
But in William Gibson’s science fiction novels of the twentieth century, those who pursue the magical new technologies in hope of attaining power, immortality and riches seem limited and lacking in character, while the seemingly less fortunate characters have an inner dimension, unquestioningly linking up older spiritual systems with new technologies.
Christian motifs already intermingled with Cuban voodoo, co-exist with synthetic realities. In Buddhism all is illusory. The wholly digital Japanese Idoru evokes the practical mysticism of Tibetan Buddhists, seeing nothing contradictory in believing in seemingly arcane magic but willingly adapting and giving up beliefs if science proves them untenable. The Latin cultures already have a form of virtual reality that requires no digital equipment, in the magical realism of their literature. In an interview Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that the realism in his novels isn’t “magical” but that all of the fantastic events in One Hundred Years of Solitude are absolutely real.
“It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination….[The tone] was based on the way my Grandmother used to tell her stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness. “
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Paris Review.
Towards the end of the movie the digital effects appear to be suffering from vertigo, slogans, then individual words, then just letters, in English and Spanish, rushing then subsiding until the band is alone onstage.
When I came out of the cinema Keanu Reeves was arriving for the premiere of his new James Ellroy police drama, Street Kings, in the same cinema complex. The actual, flesh-and-blood Keanu Reeves seemed less real than the digital Bono. People pushed and shoved behind the barricade of a shabby red carpet, to take photos of him with their mobile phones. It was a diminished and tacky approximation of the old-fashioned heady glamour that the ritual of a premiere is supposed to invoke. The closeness and warmth of 3D redefines intimacy. We no longer need to parade the actual human beings in front of the film in order to feel a genuine connection to them.
As Neo in The Matrix Keanu Reeves questioned the nature of reality and human life experience. In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik wrote that The Matrix “spoke to an old nightmare. The basic conceit of The Matrix – the notion that the material world is a malevolent delusion, designed by the forces of evil with the purpose of keeping people in a state of slavery, has a history.
It is most famous as the belief for which the medieval Christian sect known as the Cathars fought and died, and in great numbers too. The Cathars were sure that the material world was a phantasm created by Satan, and that Jesus of Nazareth – their Neo – had shown mankind a way beyond that matrix by standing outside it and seeing through it. The Cathars were fighting a losing battle, but the interesting thing was that they were fighting at all. It is not unusual to take up a sword and die for a belief. It is unusual to take up a sword to die for the belief that swords do not exist.”
Lights go down, it’s dark
The jungle in your head
A feeling is so much stronger than a thought
Your eyes are wide
And though your soul
It can’t be bought
Your mind can wander
I’m at a place called Vertigo
It’s everything I wish I didn’t know
Except you give me something I can feel, feel
The night is full of holes
As bullets rip the sky
Of ink with gold
They twinkle as the
Boys play rock and roll
Bill Moyers: What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology?
Joseph Campbell: What we’ve got on our hands. If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read the New York Times.
Bill Moyers: And you’d find?
Joseph Campbell: The news of the day, including destructive and violent acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilised society.
Bill Moyers: Society has provided them no rituals by which they become members of the tribe, of the community. All children need to be twice born, to learn to function rationally in the present world, leaving childhood behind. I think of that passage in the first book of Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spake as child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
The Power of Myth. Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers
Haruki Murakami’s new novel, After Dark, is an existential twist on the story of Sleeping Beauty. Mari sits in a diner near the magic hour of midnight, reading, while her fashion model sister Eri sleeps a deep fairytale temporary-suspension-of-life kind of sleep. Mari is drawn into a strange, violent underworld by a jazz musician, who once dreamed of being the sleeping sister’s handsome prince. He sits with the studious younger sister and orders chicken salad and toast. A unplugged television in the sleeping sister’s room screens an incomprehensibly symbolic image. There’s music, too, much of it jazz. Some of it the “languorous, sensual music of Duke Ellington. Music for the middle of the night.” This is an urban version of the Grimm’s midnight forest.
Beginning in a few days the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne is a version of Sleeping Beauty that operates in a dark dreamworld too. The tagline on the programme is a quote from Elias Canetti: “All the things one has forgotten scream for help in our dreams.” The show has music at its heart, by Nick Cave and Elvis Costello and David Bowie.
Mythology is the device that anchors us in time. The timeless stories of the human condition are brought into our own time by writers and artists and dancers and musicians. These artforms all bleed into one another these days, but it’s particularly rock and roll musicians, a generation of mature performers, who are creating the great symbolic works of our age around their music and presenting them in theatre productions in Australia.
The Sydney Festival has been instrumental, too, this year staging theatrical presentations of Lou Reed’s Berlin album, a story of a troubled couple spiralling down into despair and violence , Rosanne Cash’s Black Cadillac album, a chronicle of her response to the death of both her parents, her stepmother, an aunt and a stepsister within an eighteen month period.
The Malthouse, the Sydney Festival, and St. Ann’ Warehouse in New York (which developed Lou Reed’s and Rosanne Cash’s shows) recognise that a generation of rock musicians, now mature, is engaging the world and the community, and that their music deserves a reflective hearing: something that brings out its symbolism, not treating it as prose or a verb, not treating it as a barely disguised narration of actual events in a performer’s life.
It was the Sydney Festival’s staging of Came So Far For Beauty in 2005, an appreciation of the songs of Leonard Cohen by a generation of singers and songwriters who’d been inspired by him, that set the ball rolling. The show was produced by Hal Willner, whose albums of interpretations of music by Nino Rota, Thelonious Monk, Harold Arlen, Charles Mingus, and classic Disney Themes re-interpret the standards and bring them alive for a new generation. So many rock and roll musicians in such an intelligent setting, within a sharp arts festival was galvanizing, for the musicians and the audience. It’s only the field of criticism that hasn’t caught on and begun appreciating this mature form of rock and roll music.
The sorrow and pain and suffering presented in Lou Reed’s and Rosanne Cash’s performances were received exultantly by the audiences. It became clear that Lou Reed wasn’t being ironic, ten years ago or perhaps more, when in an introduction to a book of his lyrics he described his songs as “compassionate”.
His songs are so devoid of opinion and judgement and sentiment that we can see the whole world, how these people were shaped by their circumstances and we can ’suffer with’ them. The Sydney Festival programme quotes David Bowie saying, “He supplied us with the street and landscape. And we peopled it.”
In Rosanne Cash’s concert the redemptive quality of sadness became evident, that it’s through sadness we appreciate the fleeting beauty of life, and can value it more. “Loss is cumulative,” she writes on her website. “But so is poetry, and art, and faith, and Love. I know now that what survives of my parents, what is truly mine, are their best qualities, which I am free to adopt, and the accumulation of their millions of acts of service to me.”
There’s no simple way to encapsulate what these musicians are doing. Their musical styles are too various, the themes of their music too broad and diverse. The most useful way to group them is by intent: their music is partly the general definition of folk music as being ‘by and for the common people.’ It’s easier to say what this music isn’t.
Although it beats with a similar heart it isn’t the same as the concerts that have grouped musicians together in response to cataclysms: George Harrison’s Bangladesh, Bob Geldof’s Live Aid, Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid, Al Gore’s recently announced Live Earth, a global twenty four hour concert to be staged in July. And it isn’t sympathy for issues, the concerns of the non-musical humanitarian projects of celebrity musicians for debt relief in third world countries or to prevent A.I.D.S. And it isn’t essays of a situation: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, a portrait of the Vietnam War and the state of the world at that time, or the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s re-interpretation of that album in response to Hurricane Katrina’s devestation of New Orleans.
What’s different in the symbolic rock and roll is the scale of the topic — everyday, ordinary moments in life that are the same whether you are a globally famous rock and roll musician or a poor citizen of a besieged nation — and the scale and position of the musicians, who depict themselves standing among people, beside them, with them, not as figures whose celebrity have them looming larger than the population as a focus and a rallying point. Of Black Cadillac Rosanne Cash said, “My hope is that people bring their own lives to it, that they’re not just hung up on the back story”.
Collectively the music of Nick Cave, and Lou Reed, and Rosanne Cash,and those who share their perspective, addresses the spirit and has some of the beauty of the group of voices speaking in the common language of the day that made the King James Edition of the Bible, when spoken aloud, such glorious music. Nick Cave and Lou Reed have both used gospel gospel choirs at recent concerts and this is an especially powerful symbol.
This music of the downtrodden and beleagured, bearing witness, has always been Nick’s reference point. The volumes of his lyrics printed as books have begun with a quote from the Book of Job, “and I alone am escaped to tell thee”, not the words of Job, being tormented and tested by God, but Job’s servants, who were allowed to escape in order to tell Job of the calamities that befell his family and servants and animals.
The song that draws the perspective for this symbolic music is Nick Cave’s As I Sat Sadly By Her Side. It seems like one of those Renaissance perspective judging devices. The co-ordinates given are universal, as though we’re viewing the song from the position that the Apollo 8 astronauts had, looking back at the earth and seeing one world, undivided. The song is a conversation between a man and a woman, God and humanity, Nick and himself, Nick and his audience, as each of these figures sits beside one another, describing what they see out in the world and in their own hearts. The song has the rhythm of a strong heartbeat and advocates not looking and thinking and talking about the world, but moving out into the world, walking among people.
Nick Cave’s album Let Love In in 1994 begins a mythological journey that moves him from youth to maturity. His whole world and all he believes in implodes. In the song Lay Me Low, his young self dies in order to be reborn into a community directed way of living, but what he also lays to rest is the grotesque caricature that had grown up around him that’s made reference to in music profiles and interviews.
The Murder Ballads album has him moving through the dark forest of original experience (depicted as the midnight woods of Grimms Folk Tales), and like Dante moving through his labyrinth, Nick’s guides — in this case Bob Dylan — can only go so far with him. He is about to move into new territory, to remake the role of the singer and songwriter as a mature artist, for his own time. When he re-emerges into the light, on the Boatman’s Call album, he questions the nature of light itself: rejecting the mystical spotlight shone from a God that moves life mysteriously from the Heavens, to the idea of the light within, the sense of personal responsibility and inner divinity represented by the figure of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Thomas, a scripture discovered in 1945.
Rock and roll was born out of youthful rebellion. There are great numbers of bands and individuals who refuse to grow up, who live in a state of arrested development, perpetually in their early twenties, and another set of bands and individuals reforming or relaunching their careers, in their fifties, to reclaim the success and glory they experienced in their twenties.
This has nothing to do with the mature rock and roll artist, whose references have become symbolic and need to be enlivened by the listeners in their own lives, but the music media insists on reading these songs as prose, as literal autobiography rather than as poetry, metaphors. There’s little to be gained, any more, by interviewing musicians and trying to pin autobiographical details onto parts of their songs, by trying to find a thread that links the wildness of youth to the bruised wisdom of the adult.
There’s little wonder Nick Cave, though polite, is cold and impatient in interviews, little wonder that Lou Reed loses his temper. Their stories and symbols aren’t ones they’re inventing, they’re observing or quoting. They’re familiar stories becoming more beloved in their retelling, reflecting our world, in our time, as a mythical realm.
There are no deliberate links between the works of these artists, they just live in the same world, see the same things, question their consciences in ways that line up with one another. A mature artist’s work is inflected to the community and the examination of the community strengthens their work. So the addition of the works of painters, guest musicians, films, in a stage setting, and being part of a theatre’s run or a festival deepens the appreciation of the works in the way that being a lone focus wouldn’t.
The Tiger Lillies have made an entire career of telling mythologically profound stories in a theatrical setting, through music. They’ve staged a version of Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Match Girl. “Andersen’s fairy tales corresponded to the urge to speak out for a writer who did not come from a genteel class, but from the lower ranks of society, deprived and uneducated,” they say. ” Unlike traditional fairy tales, set in distant lands “once upon a time”, Andersen set his tales in the familiar and contemporary world, making fantastic descriptions stem from realistic ones and investing everyday objects with life and magical powers. His imaginative spirit transfigured the real world and opened up another one, wonderful and spiritual.
However, his fairy tales cast a shadow. They are as mournful as they are wonderful: they caught the spirit of dissolution contained in those times, caused by the disappearance of an old world, gradually replaced by the modern one born with the industrial revolution of the 19th century.”