Tuesday, July 27, 2010

One Day - David Nicholls

One Day by David Nicholls is a novel based on the familiar theme of a group of friends growing up (see also Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club/The Closed Circle or even Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway), with shifting relationships and values. In this case the premise is to check in on the main characters on a single day a year over a twenty year period from Edinburgh University life in 1988 to.... well, I don't want to spoil the ending.

The day in question, July 15th, is St Swithin's Day, with the author acknowledging that Billy Bragg's song of that title was one influence on the plot ('The polaroids that hold us together / Will surely fade away / Like the love that we spoke of forever/ On St Swithin's day').

Inevitably there's a 1990s ecstasy/clubbing section, with a nice description of the last moments of a night out at a railway arch in Brixton. Let's just say we've all been there:

'Tara is saying let's go and dance before it wears off, so they all go and stand in the railway arches in a loose group facing the DJ and the lights, and they dance for a while in the dry ice, grinning and nodding and exchanging that strange puckered frown, eyebrows knitted, but the nodding and grinning are less frrom elation now, more from a need for reassurance that they're still having fun, that it isn't all about to end. Dexter wondered if he should take his shirt off, that sometimes helps, but the moment has passed. Someone nearby shouts 'tune' half-heartedly, but no-one's convinced, there are no tunes. The enemy, self-consciousness, is creeping up on them and Gibbsy or Biggsy is first to crack, declaring tht the music is shit and everyone stops dancing immediately as if a spell has been broken' (1993).

Monday, July 26, 2010

Homo Sentimentalis & Music

In Milan Kundera's novel Immortality (1991), one of the narrators critiques the notion of what he terms 'Homo Sentimentalis... the man who has raised feelings to a category of value'. For him, this notion leads to a romantic conception of the self, the wish of people to distinguish themselves, to make their mark on the world, to imagine that what they feel, and are seen to feel, is supremely important. In turn this leads them 'on to the great stage of history' with often terrible consequences: 'What makes people raise their fists in the air, puts rifles in their hands, drives them to join struggles for just and unjust causes, is not reason but a hypertrophied soul. It is the fuel without which the motor of history would stop turning and Europe would lie down in the grass and placidly watch clouds sail across the sky'.

The origins of all this go back to music: 'The transformation of feelings into value had already occurred in Europe some time around the twelfth century: the troubadors who sang with such great passion to their beloved, the unattainable princess, seemed so admirable and beautiful to all who heard them that everyone wished to follow their example by falling prey to some wild upheaval of the heart'.

This became further embedded as music developed: 'Music taught the European not only a richness of feeling, but also the worship of his feelings and his feeling self... Music: a pump for inflating the soul. Hypertrophic souls turned into huge balloons rise to the ceiling of the concert hall and jostle each other in unbelievable congestion'.

Maybe there's something in this, but is the 'feeling self' always such a bad thing? The self-romanticising hero may have their share of crimes, but the unfeeling cold subject is at least as responsible for the disasters of history.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Her first ball

'Her first ball! She was only at the beginning of everything. It seemed to her that she had never known what the night was like before. Up until now it had been dark, silent, beautiful very often - oh yes - but mournful somehow. Solemn. And now it would never be like that again - it had opened dazzling bright... in one minute, in one turn, her feet glided, glided. The lights, the azaleas, the dresses, the pink faces, the velvet chairs, all became one beautiful flying wheel' (Katherine Mansfield, Her First Ball, 1922).

(Photo of early 20th century ballroom dancers Irene & Vernon Castle sourced from Sharon Davis - Swing Dancer)

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Big Dance in London

Big Dance 2010 (3 -11 July) was a week of live dance performance in the open air across London. I caught some Latin dance at the Scoop by Tower Bridge on the south bank of the Thames. First up there was an Afto Cuban dance dedicated to Ogun, Orisha of war.

Then there was some New York/Puerto Rican salsa.

In an around City Hall there was an exhibition of photographs of people dancing in various parts of London.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The State and Clothes: from the Statues of Apparel to the Burqa Ban

The day before the national celebration of the storming of the Bastille in pursuit of liberty, the French government today passed a law banning the wearing of the full veil. It states that "no one can wear a garment in public which is aimed at hiding their face"; women wearing a niqab or burqa will faces fines.

Of course there is a well-founded feminist critique of women being pressured to cover their faces, but it is undeniable that some women do choose to wear such clothes for their own religious reasons. The law does not seem to distinguish between women who freely choose to wear the full veil and those who may be made to do so by others. In the latter case, it is patently absurd to prosecute somebody for something they did not choose, in the former case a fundamental principle is at stake - why should the state be able to dictate what people wear? The notion that the police will be able to arrest women on the basis of their clothing is absurd.

French interior minister Michèle Alliot-Mariez is clear that what is being imposed is not simply a dress code, but a definition of the self and its interaction with others. The simple piece of cloth is a threat to the very notion of citizenship: "We are an old country anchored in a certain idea of how to live together. A full veil which completely hides the face is an attack on those values, which for us are so fundamental. Citizenship has to be lived with an uncovered face. There can therefore be absolutely no solution other than a ban in all public places."

The notion that clothes define the social order, and therefore that the state should regulate clothing to uphold that order, is an old one. A classic example was the Statutes of Apparel issued by Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1574, which tightly defined exactly what fabrics could be worn at different levels of the feudal hierarchy. So for instance only members of the royal family could wear purple silk; 'Velvet in gowns, coats, or other uttermost garments' could only be worn by 'barons' sons, knights and gentlemen in ordinary office attendant upon her majesty's person, and such as have been employed in embassages to foreign princes' (or those above them). For women the rules decreed, among other things, that 'None shall wear any velvet, tufted taffeta, satin, or any gold or silver in their petticoats: except wives of barons, knights of the order, or councilors' ladies, and gentlewomen of the privy chamber and bed chamber, and the maids of honor'.

Today these rules look ridiculous; no doubt future historians will take a similar view of those politicians who spent time in the midst of a global economic crisis and impending environmental problems decreeing what part of a woman's face has to be visible for all to see.

Prince - 20Ten

Since Prince fell out with with Warner Brothers in the 1990s he has pursued various unconventional strategies for distributing his prolific output of music, including giving away albums for free with newspapers. 2007's Mother Earth was distributed in the UK with The Mail on Sunday, putting me in in the shameful position of having to buy a copy of this notorious right wing rag. His new album, 20Ten, was given away last weekend with the slightly less objectionable Daily Mirror - at least I didn't have to worry about anybody seeing me.

While I am all for free distribution, I can't help thinking that being given away with dubious tabloids somehow devalues the music. And with the rate he churns songs out, quality control does sometimes seem to go out of the window. But 20Ten is actually his best album for years. Musically it's still pretty much the same template as he developed in the 1980s, a mixture of pop, electro-funk and soulful ballads (with Future Soul Song the standout of the latter). Some of these tracks would be widely acclaimed if they had been on one of his albums from that period, I guess now people do tend to take his songwriting/singing/guitar playing talents for granted - or have stopped listening.

This is an album of real songs, with Prince reining in some of his tendency to self-indulgent funk workouts and fillers. There's some space references on Beginning Endlessly, always a hit with me: 'Why should you be satisfied with just heaven and earth? When you look around there's so much more to the Universe'. Best of all, Act of God is a Sign o' the Times style summation of the state of the world, encompassing war and economic crisis:

Dirty fat banker sold a house today.
Sold at auction, wants the family out the way
Kicked them on the street cause they couldn't pay the tax
Call it an act of God...

But, I got news for you, freedom ain't free
They lock you in a cell if you try to be
But the ones who say no make history
Call it an act of God.

Tax dollars build a plane , drop a bomb
Supposedly to keep us all safe from Saddam
Bringing bad news to another woman
Call it an act of God.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Remembering Live8, July 2005

Five years ago this month world leaders at the G8 summit were promising to 'Make Povery History', something seemingly forgotten today as the demand to 'Make Poverty Compulsory' to pay for the global crisis takes precedence.

On 2 July 2005, there were big Live8 concerts in various parts of the world in support of the anti-poverty campaign. I went to the London one where, among others, Madonna, REM, Elton John, U2 and The Killers played. To say I saw any of these would be an exaggeration, more accurate to say I caught a glimpse in what was one of the most alienating musical spectacles I have ever got caught up in.

It was a free concert, but the site was completely enclosed by a massive fence. This was frustrating on the way in, when people had to queue for at least an hour to get through one entrance in a huge boundary, but was even more annoying on the way out. We left early, but were refused exit from most of the marked exits having been told that these would only open at the end. We had to go all the way back to where we came in (in the north of Hyde Park, quite a walk) to get out. It felt very claustrophobic. As I discussed in relation to a similar experience at another festival, this kind of crowd control for free events is a relatively new development. Up until at least the mid-1990s, big free festivals in parks were invariably open access and attracted huge crowds. If things got too crowded, people regulated themselves by spreading out over a larger area or going home.

Inside Hyde Park, it felt very much like the crowd were there to be extras for the TV show. The volume was low for a gig/festival, which destroyed any musical atmosphere, and the screens were out of sync with the sound. Bizarrely people only seemed to get animated when there was a camera pointing at them, perhaps because they felt so remote from the event. Every time the camera swept over the crowd people went mad and started cheering.

A gathering of 250,000 people demanding the abolition of poverty would be pretty amazing, even if the politics of the organisers were dubious. But it didn't feel like that - rather it was an assembly of atomised individuals self-consciously taking part (participating is too strong a word) in a media event. We'd only been there half an hour when we heard the couple next to us say - 'we've done it now - lets take some photos to show people we were here, and go home. We can get a t-shirt on the way out'. That summed up the event, along with having one of the richest people in the world, Bill Gates, talking about abolishing poverty from the stage. He got a cheer as a celebrity, with my lone boo seemingly unheard. Nothing surprizing, but depressing nevertheless.

Five years later, making poverty history remains as remote as ever.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

UK Teknival in Wales: Drop the Charges against the 'Dale Rave Six'

This from Schnews (18 June 2010):

'Around 2,500 partygoers descended on Dale Aerodrome in Wales last May bank holiday for the 2010 UK Teknival, only to be met with a massive police response. Police broke up the party on the first day, arresting 17 people in the process. Four remain on police bail and six have been charged. Automatic number plate recognition, a police photographer, hand-held camcorders, helicopters and even a plane were used by police in a sophisticated surveillance operation which resulted in hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of equipment and vehicles being seized (not to mention a similar amount spent on the police operation no doubt)...

This year as hundreds of vehicles congregated near the small village of Dale on the coast of southwest Wales, four policemen attempted to block the road leading to the disused aerodrome site, causing a massive tailback which brought traffic to a standstill for three hours. One witness reports they were stuck at least five miles behind the front of the jam. Eventually, after someone brought out a 12 volt rig and people started dancing in the road, the policemen moved aside and actually directed everyone onto to the site, negotiating with a landowner to get a gate opened.

As a result of the blockade, soundsystems didn’t begin setting up until the early hours of Sunday morning. By about midday the next day, police, the local council and the BBC were all on the scene. Fairly positively-slanted BBC interviews with partygoers were broadcast nationally and posted online, although the second has since been removed from the BBC website. Mid-afternoon Sunday a helicopter flew overhead, broadcasting something that might have been the words of Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 over a loudspeaker. The message was inaudible due to loud music being played on the ground; even those straining their ears to hear only caught snatches of it, and witness accounts vary. It was apparently a warning to leave within between one, four, or twenty-four hours.

Whichever it was, at this stage the majority of soundsystems started packing their rigs into their vehicles as ordered by the police. It became clear then that the three day mega-rave everyone was expecting had been thwarted. The atmosphere of unease and fear generated by the authorities caused a mass exodus of ravers who would otherwise have stayed to help to clean up the site after the party. Most people left the site in a hurry, although some efforts were made to clear rubbish. As each soundsystem drove off site their driver was stopped and arrested, their equipment was seized and their vehicles were impounded. Only the luckiest got away. Confiscated items include work tools, vinyl collections, several vehicles without sound equipment in them, a hire van, and hired and borrowed music equipment. Police deliberately kept the hire van for two weeks, making the total cost £950.

Along with one other soundsystem that left early on Monday morning, a well-known deep house music soundsystem stayed behind and continued playing music and partying until mid-afternoon on Monday, when more than twenty police, including the Chief of Dyfed-Powys Constabulary, came over and physically handed out a Section 63 notice, telling people to leave within one hour. They explained that they had drunk too much to drive and asked if they could stay until the next morning. The officers agreed that they could stay on site and drive home in the morning on condition that they packed their equipment into the van immediately.

Whilst negotiations were taking place, a disabled traveller started to play punk music on his car stereo, which police then confiscated from his live-in vehicle. “He wasn’t even playing repetitive beats,” recalls one partygoer, “he was a disabled man playing music in his own home and the police seemed to illegally enter his home and steal his stereo.”

Police then left the site, but an hour later, a low-loader recovery vehicle arrived to tow the van containing the soundsystem, followed by four riot vans and about fifteen police cars. There were less than fifty people left on site at this point. A woman whose partner was detained overnight was forced to sleep outside the police station as she awaited his release because their van had been impounded leaving her nowhere to sleep and no way of returning home. Despite this, the police refused to let her stay inside.

Four people were released on police bail pending further investigation and the ‘Rave Six’, as the mainstream media has dubbed them, have been charged under Section 136 of the Licensing Act 2003 for carrying out unlicensed licensable activity. The six have now been released on unconditional bail and are due to return to Haverfordwest Magistrates Court on 24th June. Four of the six arrested were merely friends from the last soundsystem to leave the party and had nothing to do with the overall organisation of the event. (It’s highly probable that the other two didn’t either). Offenders under Section 136 are liable for up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to £20,000'.

More information: Drop the Charges Over UKTek (Facebook group)

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Wind from Nowhere

'The dust came first. Donald Maitland noticed it as he rode back in the taxi from London Airport, after waiting a fruitless forty-eight hours for his Pan-America flight to Montreal. For three days not a single aircraft had got off the ground... The great passenger terminus building and the clutter of steel huts behind it were clogged with thousands of prospective passengers, slumped on their baggage in long straggling queues, trying to make sense of the continuous crossfire of announcements and counter-announcements' .

The opening passage of JG Ballard' s The Wind from Nowhere put me in my mind of the recent grounding of aircraft as a result of the dust cloud from a volcano in Iceland. In this novel, the problem is a terrible, accelerating wind that sweeps across the whole world, ultimately levelling most of the built environment while the survivors cower underground.
This was Ballard's first novel, published in 1962 (I have been reading the Penguin edition, pictured, first published in 1967). He later disowned it as 'hack work', but there are some familiar Ballardian themes - chiefly his evident pleasure in describing the collapse of civilisation. For instance, in the chapter 'Vortex over London': 'Nelson's Column was down. Two weeks earlier, when the wind had reached ninety-five mph, a crack which had passed unnoticed for seventy-five years suddenly revealed itself a third of the way up the shaft. The next day the upper section had toppled, the shattered cylindrical segments still lying where they had fallen among the four bronze lions... As they turned into Charing Cross Road Marshall noted that the Garrick Theatre had collapsed' etc.etc.

New York gets it too: 'Apparently New York is a total write-off. Manhattan's under hundred-foot waves, most of the big skyscrapers and office blocks are down. Empire State Building toppled like a falling chimney stack. Same story everywhere else. Casualty lists in the millions. Paris, Berlin, Rome - nothing but rubble, people hanging on in cellars'.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Of Cattle and Music

How much do the origins of music owe to cattle? I was prompted to think about this when reading 'The Storr: unfolding landscape' (edited by Angus Farquhar) a book documenting an ambitious 2005 public art project staged on the Storr mountain on the Isle of Skye by nva (a group with their origins in Test Department).

The event seems to have involved a nightwalk around the mountain with various light and sound happenings - seemingly including the sounds of ancient horns. Hence the book includes an essay by ancient musical instrument expert John Purser, Paths of our Ancestors, which discusses their significance:

'there were much older instruments belonging to the peoples who herded cattle in Ireland and Scotland - the beautiful curved bronze horns from the Bronze Age itself, of which many still survive. The orginals - some still playable - are derived in form from the horns of cattle and can reproduce the sounds of cattle among other things. They date from three millennia ago and, with their accompanying rattles shaped like a bull's scrotum, they carry with them a fertile memory of a great herding culture...

Besides being able to imitate the sounds of cattle, bronze horns can also convey a sense of fear or of magic - sounds which relate to the mythology of the cattle, in to which much that is magical is woven. That deeper sound world which is shared by all living things, in which the sounds of warning, or enticement and allure, have some strange commonality beyond analysis, will carry to you the sounds of our ancestors, human and animal, from deep in their throats. Listen in silence and you too may, in imagination, follow those paths where human and animal, reality and myth, meet without embarrassment in natural companionship'.

The notions of the horn section remains at the heart of soul and jazz, even if the instruments no longer resemble their animal ancestors. But the name itself is a reminder that some of the earliest musical instruments were made from cattle (from actual horns, and in the case of drums from the skin of cattle), partly in imitation of the sounds of these creatures. Later bagpipes too were made from animal skin, as well as the belly of some stringed instruments.

I was reminded of some of the primeval power of music last week, and indeed of Test Department, when I came across this lot in Glasgow's Buchanan Street. Clanadonia are self-styled 'Tribal Pipes and Drums band', and they do make a fearsome sound.