Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Ministry of Nostalgia

Owen Hatherley's got a new book out, The Ministry of Nostalgia: Consuming Austerity

It sounds fascinating - as usual

The blurb at Verso

Why should we have to “Keep Calm and Carry On”?

In this brilliant polemical rampage, Owen Hatherley shows how our past is being resold in order to defend the indefensible. From the marketing of a “make do and mend” aesthetic to the growing nostalgia for a utopian past that never existed, a cultural distraction scam prevents people grasping the truth of their condition.

The Ministry of Nostalgia explodes the creation of a false history: a rewriting of the austerity of the 1940s and 1950s, which saw the development of a welfare state while the nation crawled out of the devastations of war. This period has been recast to explain and offer consolation for the violence of neoliberalism, an ideology dedicated to the privatisation of our common wealth.

In coruscating prose—with subjects ranging from Ken Loach’s documentaries, Turner Prize–shortlisted video art, London vernacular architecture, and Jamie Oliver’s cooking—Hatherley issues a passionate challenge to the injunction to keep calm and carry on.

A wide-ranging interview with Owen  by Karen Shook at the Quietus

On Billy Bragg versus ABC: 

"I think songs like ‘Between The Wars’ probably helped put more people off socialist politics in the 1980s than anything… it just painted it as a weird revival society; a sort of constructed folk culture. The covers of his records in this period were actually one of the first instances, I think, of austerity nostalgia.... Look at the cover of Life’s A Riot, based on that Penguin Books grid. No one would have done that in the Seventies or the Sixties; it would have made no sense. It evokes a whole world of working class self-education, comprehensive schools, the London County Council... Probably because I come from quite a Billy Bragg world, I always found ABC’s way of doing things much more subversive. I find authenticity really uninteresting as a cultural thing. At the same time I find lots of those [Bragg] songs quite moving. They’re songs I grew up with. They speak about things I think are very important. My dad had all those records. And Life’s A Riot was great; it’s mostly love songs. There’s something in it that I really distrust, and at the same time it speaks to me very directly. [Me and my Communist parents]’d go down to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival every year, and it’s like a fucking revivalist society. Everyone tags along, older every year, has their pint from the Workers’ Beer Company and watches Billy Bragg."
On Left nostalgia: 
"I can’t think of any time in which the Left has ever successfully managed to own the past, and made into a successful project. Every time the Left has done well in Britain, whether it was 1945, or 1964 under Harold Wilson, or Tony Blair, it was with modernity. And with an appeal to optimism. Because that’s what socialism is. Lots of stuff in this book comes from reading Patrick Wright’s On Living In An Old Country, which was published in the early 80s. And his target is Tony Benn. Politically he was pretty much on the same side, but there’s a critique of Benn’s mood music. You cannot appeal to a memory of socialism, because we’ve never had it. All you’ll end up appealing to is a memory of failed struggles."
"I think Corbyn is way less retro than the Labour Right. Compared to someone like Jon Cruddas or Tristram Hunt, I think he’s much more forward looking.... The impression I get is that his support mainly comes from people who are over 55 or under 30. People who either remember the welfare state, or have never had anything to do with it whatsoever. All the people in between – the New Labour people sitting on hugely expensive houses in Islington and Edgbaston - that’s the people that don’t get it. So you have this weird alliance of the old-school Labour Left, which had I considered long dead, the Bennites, and these young people for whom I imagine the Durham Miners’ Gala is meaningless. It’ll be difficult for Corbyn, because most of those young people are not yet in a position to be in Parliament. And you can see this factor really majorly with... people who are mostly about my age, who are saying, what the hell is this? They just do not understand it. They see it purely as retro, and I don’t think it is. I think many of Corbyn’s instincts are quite Spirit Of 45, and the Bennism he comes out of was often quite nostalgic. But his support base isn’t."
On hauntology and it being high time to move on:
"Seven or eight years ago, it seemed like a very interesting furrow. The notion that, if you subtract pop from the post-war era, what do you get? And actually lots of the argument of this book is that what you get is – this. It seemed a really interesting thing to do, particularly in the last years of New Labour, the horrible decadence when it felt devoid of the slightest ideas. Ghost Box seemed like a fun way of living your life in a particular kind of bubble. And my life at that point revolved around hanging out in old 50s cafes, going off to look at [Brutalist] buildings like this one before everyone realised that buildings like this one were good."
On the aestheticisation of Brutalism as cult cool fetish missing the point completely - these are places to live
"It was really telling that the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark became a cause celebre, because it was a nadir architecturally. But people were squatting it and trying to save it, saying, we want it to be social housing, leave it alone. Rather than appealing to it on the basis of architecture, it was on the basis of it being useful."

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hauntology Parish Newsletter - January 2016 - Assembled Minds's CREAKING HAZE; Moon Miring Club's Wrap Up Warm Mix

When Assembled Minds's CREAKING HAZE and other rave-ghosts came through the mail around the start of the year, I confess my initial reaction was to feel a little catered to. The coordinates (hauntology + rave nostalgia) felt a wee bit bang-on-the-nose in terms of an appeal to my niche demographic. 

But then I gave it a play...  and it turned out to be great. 


And differently great - nothing like Burial or Caretaker, or all the revenant-jungle I've been posting over at Energy Flash, or anything else in this vein really...

Rippling reverb-misted pianos and a sleepwalk trance of drum machines and pumping bass - the vibe is much more Ultramarine's "British Summertime" than ardkore. And there's this sound that's in most of the tracks:   a high-pitched "peaky"  timbre that is...  ecstatically edging into dissonance, is the best I can do by way of describing it. 

It reminded me of what Trevor Horn once told me: his belief that great albums have the same sound running all the way through - his example was The Blue Nile's Hats - so that every track is a chip off the same lustrous block, refracting slightly different.  

I asked Matt Saunders  - a/k/a Assembled Minds  and who also runs the label Patterned Air Recordings that Creaking Haze is out on -  about the sound, and this is what he said: 

"The sound was an attempt to capture the warmth of tape in the low end, and a kind of 78 vinyl scratchiness in the upper, tapes and records that have become frozen repositories of events passed by. I love the idea that when you play an old record, particularly ones recorded first take, no production, no making alterations to the moment as it actually happened, you’re reanimating that moment, projecting the sound of the room and the sound of the event into the present and into a new room and a new event. Making a portal between distant events. 

"Originally, I’d wanted to write tracks with a very high melody, low bass and not much in between to create a kind of musical skeleton, not much on the bones! It’s something I want to pursue further. 

"Combine that with recording to old tape, analogue synths and creaky effects, and mastered through old valve and analogue gear and you have an album that is threaded with the same DNA and hopefully, sounds like an event that happened somewhere else, sometime else."

I'd say he's succeeded in creating that "elsewhere / elsewhen" effect - you definitely go into a space when you start listening to the album, and nothing jolts you out of it while you're in it - the power of same-but-different c.f. eclecticism / versatility.

Apparently Matt has been working away at Creaking Haze on and off for seven years now, starting off with the idea of "all these old ravers were collectively re-living raves in their daydreams, trying to attain the euphoria their middle-aged lives lack."  (Again with the uncomfortably on-the-nose / close-to-the-bone !). "Almost like yearning for an acid-rapture." He also says that his goal was to make a record that "sounded like it came from a definite but intangible ‘place’, a place it had existed and lived in, and degraded somewhat, gathering a patina in its journey from where it existed to now. The idea of the album existing somewhere, spectrally, in the ghostly collective memory of old ravers was there in essence from the start, and grew stronger as  the album came together."

More Patterned Air patter about Creaking Haze

"Traditional analogue studio rituals, sci-fi dreaming, shimmering ravecore techno and arcane LED-lit magical practices make an odd kind of vintage haze. It is the Assembled Minds’ intention to collide wide-eyed sci-fi ambition with dirty workshop magic./// 'Creaking Haze' is an investigation into how a 70's British horror movie would sound, if a strange kind of proto-rave dance music had been at the director's disposal. We call this 'techno-Morris-horror'. Enter our world, wide eyed..."

and more

"The creaking haze of near forgotten, ages-old Saturday nights out; spectral dance music; flashback drug events; our young wide-eyed ghosts staring into the cardice fogs of synth-storms and heart accelerating drumbeats"

and even more

"Creaking Haze is foggy, hauntological techno; a strange mix of British suspense/horror film tension and euphorically happy-beat-cycling. Listen closely and you’ll hear rust-flakes from the eerier moments of Tubular Bells, broken pistons from a flipped Detroit techno juggernaut, even flickery moon-bell-echoes of Morris jigs and baton clashes. It’s a wyrd electronic album of rural myth and country-fear and it’s flipside, city-rites and night bus anxiety…"

and yet more

"This is an album that almost doesn’t exist.

It’s a cloud of old memories; a collective remembrance-pool of distant Saturday nights out, rave-fields, night-clubs, dancing, getting intimidated, getting high, feeling the love of the tribe but always looking over our shoulders for some dark threat or other. And best not mention the bad trips.

We’re getting lost in daydreams of flickering techno-rituals and the blinding lights of open-til-4am chippies. We’re dancing and belting around in the swirling whiteout haze of decades gone-by, and the highs we’re indulging in from these vaporous remembrances are becoming unbearably addictive. They’re almost too good to ever come back from; they’re so much better than the shit we have to deal with in the real world. So when the whole of the tribe is back in the rave-fields in a simultaneous collective recollection, every one of us dancing in the eerie pulsing fog, perhaps then we’ll choose to stay there in that moment, and fade away happily, if slightly intimidated, into our own memories."

The artwork and packaging is great too (photo nicked off Robin the Fog) although I have already lost the little leather tie thingy with which you seal up the package!

Now somehow I completely missed Matt's previous group Magnétophone  (on 4AD) even though it's up my street seemingly.

This isn't even the first Assembled Minds album, either. There was also the more Radiophonic oriented Tomorrow Curves, "a collection of analogue sci-fi soundtracks and voltage controlled incantations". 


Causing further shivery quivery ripples of delight through the memory-flesh of  this parishioner, a seasonal mix from Moon Wiring Club

"It's (potentially) cold outside! Therefore don your toastiest trouser-suit and smoulder gently to the synth-soaked sounds of forthcoming post-future yesteryear. Frothy favourites make way for calming interludes and a reliably new-vintage selection of sidereal almost-pop selections. All patently patiently ultra-pasted with occasional voices and shonko-fi recordings, sieved from the green recycling bin of atemporality. Contains werewolf break. 'ARE YOU READY FATHER?'"

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

finance capital and culture

"An excessive stock of private capital in the economy, relative to flows of income from production and work, also grinds down the capacity for social and personal transformation. This is partly what theories of ‘financialisation’ point towards: investor interests overwhelm the capacity for productivity enhancements or innovation. Housing becomes treated as an asset to serve the interests of its investor, rather than something with use value. Socially valuable activity (such as education) becomes re-imagined as a source of future earnings so as to capitalise it...  One thing that concerns Piketty is how the growth of private capital means that “the past devours the future.” Previous inequalities dictate present ones, and undermine the capacity for modernisation. Destroying capital, one way or another, is therefore a modernising act..... As Piketty shows, as capitalism develops, it becomes more and more plausible for some to live off inherited assets that one had no responsibility for inventing or building and may have no interest in using"


Saturday, January 23, 2016

space is (still) the place

Mrs Woebot  (Catherine Ingram) on space and art

(via Woebot)

There seems to have been an uptick in the last year or two of interest in outer space... More going on up there, in terms of human activity or projectiles bringing back information...  more discoveries....  more proposed missions and plans and talk of stuff to be done up there, both state driven and private enterprise based.... and there has also been more in terms of popular culture stuff about space - movies.

Like for instance, NASA's publicity department is noticeably more active these days. Not a week seems to go by where they don't flag up some new discovery about space, or images from a probe... Perhaps they simply have an improved publicity relations dept, or they are being strategic - keeping visibly busy in order to hustle continued levels of funding from the US government. 

But certainly they LOOK like they're up to a lot c.f. the dormant public profile of NASA in the 2000s.

Whether this is having any effect on public appetite or interest in outer space is unclear - as I say, does seem like an increase in the number of films set in space in the last two or three years.

It would be lovely to think there's a renaissance of popular excitement about Mankind's next big adventure. But those who say it probably makes more sense to focus all energies and resources on fixing the looming problems facing terrestial existence do have a point.  Need something stable and in good shape to step off from, giantly. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Old Outsells the New - for the first time ever

Antonio Viscido alerts me to this story in Music Business Worldwide: "Even Adele Can't Stop 'Old' Albums Outselling New Artist Releases"

"2015 was a historic moment in the history of the LP in the United States, but not one that will delight many A&R executives. It was the first year in living memory in which catalogue album sales overtook those of ‘current’ releases. According to Nielsen data, catalogue albums – which it defines as any release over 18 months old – shifted 122.8m copies in 2015 in the US, down 2.9% on 2014’s tally of 126.5m. Current album sales, however, dropped by an even more hurtful 9.2%– down from130.5m to 118.5m.
"Interesting to think that Adele’s 25 contributed 7.44m of those 118.5m ‘current’ album sales – 6.3% of the total. Without her, catalogue albums would have been 11.7m sales clear of their modern day counterparts."
indeed - "Quite amazing to think that ten years before, ‘current’ albums outsold classic releases by 150m units."

Another interesting detail:
"The biggest factor in catalogue’s overtaking of new albums in 2015 was physical LP sales."
"in terms of digital album sales, current albums were still slightly out ahead in 2015"
yet still
"in terms of digital track downloads, catalogue was king once again...  Catalogue tracks sold 484.9m in total in the US in 2015, according to Nielsen....  ahead of the tally for tracks released in the previous 18 months... 479.8m"

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

retro-quotes #2288821

retro-quotes: a series of germane remarks, by others, plucked from all over the place, and from all over the time 

RW: A lot of people might say that you and Roxy Music were responsible 
for inventing that sort of self-referential rock, what one might call 

BE: "I think so, too. I suppose my disenchantment with that, and with some of 
what I did, was from the same feeling. In fact I suppose that's a good way 
of making the division between the work I'm doing. There are two separate 
strands going on: sometimes I describe them as 'the slow stuff' and 'the 
stuff with a beat', but actually a more accurate division would be 'the ironic 
stuff' and 'the sincere stuff'. The 'ironic' mode would be about distorting the 
currency of rock music in some way so that it's a very conscious working 
within a tradition, and it relies on people having a good knowledge of that 
tradition to understand it."

RW: Most records that go out these days from new bands don't work at all 
unless you know a great deal about the tradition of rock music.

BE: "Yes, it really is culturally inbred music now. One of the great things about 
rock music has been that what comes out actually is an overall sound for 
the times. I heard 'Da Doo Ron Ron' on the radio today, and I thought, 
'God, that's so identifiably of its period, everything about it has the feeling 
of that time... and if I'd never heard it before, I'd be able to place it in time 
very accurately.' With that placement, you can place a whole lot of... well, 
lifestyle attitudes that go with it. 

But of course we didn't have people saying that the Crystals were the saviours of Western culture at that time. Two aspects of this go hand in 
hand: just as Roxy and Bowie and others produced the metarock thing, so 
the critics were equally responsible... because they all wanted to say, 
'Look, this is more than just a game... there's some Big Deal going on 

RW: It would be interesting to know what would've happened to music if a 
lot of people hadn't felt that way in the early Seventies. But it isn't just 
critics who think like that. A lot or musicians seem to operate as 
critics in a sense. In fact that's virtually what metamusicians are.

BE: "That's right. They're already playing the part of the critic as well when they 
make the work."

RW: And implicit in what they do is a critique of other people's music.

BE: "Yes... each piece of music stands as a re-evaluation of rock music to 
date. It says 'This it is okay, this isn't.' Re-evaluation is an idea that 
interests me a lot. It's normally assumed that the artist is the one who 
innovates... but actually, if you look at what artists do, maybe four per cent 
of their work is innovation, then there are a whole lot of other things.

For instance, they ignore a whole lot of available options. They re-
evaluate a whole lot of other things that already existed from the whole 
history of their medium, and they choose to repeat these ones. They 
definitely condemn other aspects. So 'ignoring', 're-evaluating' and 
'condemning'... three different ways of dealing with your history to date and 
re-using that history. 

And I think what's problematic about criticism is that it 
always wants to concentrate on that little four per cent (of innovation) 
without seeing the whole of the rest of the work.

-  Brian Eno  in dialogue with Richard Williams, Melody Maker January 12 1980 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Star Bores part 2 - John Williams as Jack White

Alex Ross at New Yorker with an in-depth analysis  - and appreciation, with misgivings albeit - of the work of John Williams

In his even-handed New Yorker bow-tie on way, Ross describes the composer at 83 as a figure who  "remains a vital presence"

But surely that can only be in the way that, say, Jack White is "a vital presence" - energetic, prolific, unflagging....    which is to say, vitality applied to prop up a dead art form

Ross reels off the stats - "scored all of the “Star Wars” movies, all of the Indiana Jones movies, several Harry Potters, “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Superman,” “Jurassic Park,” and almost a hundred others.... forty-nine Oscar nominations, with a fiftieth almost certain for 2016."

But then when he says that "perhaps his most crucial contribution is the role he has played in preserving the art of orchestral film music, which, in the early seventies, was losing ground to pop-song soundtracks" , the parallel between Williams and White seems even more unavoidably apt - preservation, conservation, conservatism.

Indeed it could be the case that Williams helped to kill off the electronic s.f. score in the same way that Star Wars killed off - or grieviously marginalised - the non-heroic, serious-minded, speculative kinds of s.f. movie

At any rate, even from Ross's own account, Williams is a recycler - an artful and dashingly inventive one, he says:

"It has long been fashionable to dismiss Williams as a mere pasticheur, who assembles scores from classical spare parts. Some have gone as far as to call him a plagiarist. A widely viewed YouTube video pairs the “Star Wars” main title with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music for “Kings Row,” a 1942 picture starring Ronald Reagan. Indeed, both share a fundamental pattern: a triplet figure, a rising fifth, a stepwise three-note descent. Also Korngoldesque are the glinting dissonances that affirm rather than undermine the diatonic harmony, as if putting floodlights on the chords."

But he argues that "Williams takes material from Korngold and uses it to forge something new."

Then doubles back to concede - "This is not to deny that Williams has a history of drawing heavily on established models. The Tatooine desert in “Star Wars” is a dead ringer for the steppes of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” The “Mars” movement of Holst’s “Planets” frequently lurks behind menacing situations. Jeremy Orosz, in a recent academic paper, describes these gestures as “paraphrases”: rather than quoting outright, Williams “uses pre-existing material as a creative template to compose new music at a remarkable pace.” There’s another reason that “Star Wars” contains so many near-citations. At first, George Lucas had planned to fill the soundtrack with classical recordings, as Stanley Kubrick had done in “2001.” The temp track included Holst and Korngold. Williams, whom Lucas hired at Spielberg’s suggestion, acknowledged the director’s favorites while demonstrating the power of a freshly composed score. He seems to be saying: I can mimic anything you want, but you need a living voice"

Is this really a "living voice"? And where do you draw the line between paraphrase and parasitism, a subsidiary relationship to the prior text?

"Williams invariably achieves a level of craftsmanship that no other living Hollywood composer can match"

Again can't help thinking here of the consummate craftsmanship of a Jack White, or a Costello....

After discussing the score to the Force Awakens  - "an ingenious interplay of beloved motifs" - Ross's even-handedness seems to flag again, and he winds up sounding a Retromania-ish note:

"Deft as the new score is, it mirrors the déjà vu of the entire “Star Wars” experience. When Williams revived the Korngold manner, he was purveying nostalgia for a style that, in its echoes of turn-of-the-century post-Wagnerian opulence, was nostalgic to begin with. In so doing, he was following the filmmaker, who, on the eve of Reaganism, served up old-fashioned good-versus-evil heroics, with a weird whiff of Leni Riefenstahl at the end. Now, as “Star Wars” fever grips the nation once again, the nostalgias are being compounded. If, back in 1977, you had told me and my fellow-nine-year-olds that thirty-eight years hence we would be standing in line for another “Star Wars,” some of us accompanying children that age or older, we would have been baffled, and perhaps a little scared. We might have said, Won’t the future give us something new?"


I did find myself concurring with Ross's thoughts about the vast superiority of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Star Wars....   and it's interesting how forgotten that Spielberg film is, how little legacy its "one-off fusion of blockbuster spectacle with the disheveled realism of nineteen-seventies filmmaking"  has left ... probably because of its lack of straightforward heroics. As Ross notes:

"The Disneyesque fireworks of the finale can’t hide the fact that the hero of the tale is abandoning his family in the grip of a monomaniacal obsession."


In a 2009 essay for the first issue of  Loops on the lost promise of the science fiction soundtrack, I started out by discussing the Cantina scene  in Star Wars the First (now the fourth) (the speakeasy full of alien criminals from a dozen solar systems are grooving to 1930s swing?!?) and also address the inadequacy of the music that the aliens play in Close Encounters's the final delirious jam between the Earth scientists and the interstellar visitors with the mega sound system. Inadequate in so far as it's not impossibly alien but like something from the early 20th Century - in that sense more advanced than Williams's usual efforts:

"After a minute or so of tentative interplay, during which the aliens hit a bottom note so deep it shatters the glass in an observation tower, the "jam" suddenly takes off and the technical crew struggle to keep up:

Chief Technician: Give her six quavers, then pause.

Expert #1: "She sent us four quavers, a group of five quavers, a group of four semi-quavers..."

Keyboard Operator: What are we saying to each other?

Chief Technician: "It seems they're trying to teach us a basic tonal vocabulary."

Expert #2: "It's the first day of school, fellas."

Expert #1: "Take everything from the lady. Follow her pattern note for note."

The ensuing piece--titled "Wild Signals" by Williams--is frantic and dense, the intertwining patterns of Mankind's arpeggios and Alienkind's counterpoint only brushing elliptically against anything you'd call a melody. Yet even someone like myself, a layperson when it comes to the evolution of classical music during the 20th Century, can tell that this "basic tonal vocabulary" is no further advanced than, at most, the 1920s. It's amazing enough that the alien civilisation, who are capable of traversing the light-year distances between galaxies and sundry technological marvels beyond human fathoming (like keeping air pilots they kidnapped in the 1940s from aging), just so happen to use the exact same octaves and intervals favored by the Western classical tradition. But why has their development halted somewhere in the vicinity of Stravinsky and Shostakovich (composers that Williams was partial to as a youth--funny that!), instead of vaulting through the twelve-tone scale and serialism on to the abstract sound-sculpting of post-WW2 electronics, with its total control of timbre, duration, attack, and all other parameters of the sonic event?  It could be that the alien ambassadors are just talking down to us, speaking our lingo. But since it's 1977 and America, why don't they sound like… The Eagles?  "