One of the lads

I’ve just seen a female engineer who is willing to “get stuck in” on a chemical plant described as “one of the lads”.

OK, this was a fictional engineer, although based on a real person. She was part of a worked example in a training course I just went on.

I know and have known several female engineers, many of whom wear overalls and boots and “get stuck in” in chemical plants on a daily basis, in smelly, hazardous and thoroughly antisocial conditions. These are extremely hard working women, shrewd and technically competent, and they work long hours to get a quality job done. On their example, I should aspire to being “one of the girls”.

One of the lads indeed. For fuck’s sake, I thought we were past this kind of thing. It’s the 21st century and we don’t have enough engineers, period.

Sticking your neck out

Last week I saw Harold Budd and The Necks at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford on their Time Being tour.

The Holywell Music Room is owned by my old college, Wadham. I think I’ve been there twice previously – once to see a Brahms recital when I was a student, and once to hear Mike Parker. Each time I go I wonder why I don’t go more often – it’s in the city, and unlike Reading there’s no lost sleep from camping in a field with people shouting “bollocks” all night, people talking during gigs, or crapping into a tin box.

I first heard of Budd in Q Magazine in a list of top ten ambient albums. These included Selected Ambient Works II, Lifeforms, Ultraworld and The White Arcades by Budd. But as great as The White Arcades is Lovely Thunder is an even better work (especially the opening track, The Gunfighter). Both of them hail from his collaborative period with Brian Eno in the 80s and I think represent his best. I’ve not been as taken with Budd’s recent stuff – like his works with Clive Wright such as Little Windows, which I think have a lot less energy, presence, and menace (I’m a big fan of the Dark Ambient genre).

So I was excited to see Budd perform in the flesh (possibly the first ambient music concert I’ve been to), but on the other hand I was a bit apprehensive of the content. Moreover I’d never even heard of The Necks, and experimental jazz could turn out to be forty minutes of dissonant torture.

Part One: Harold Budd with Russell Mills

The first half was Harold Budd being helped out by Russell Mills, a chap with an impressive CV of association with ambient musicians. Budd proceeded to play an extremely sparse set; meanwhile Mills clambered all over the stage (cluttered with both his instruments and The Necks) fiddling with various boxes to produce echo effects, digital loops, and broad spectrum noises along with some improvised sounds generated by abusing a Neck’s double bass.

A projector screen above showed a slowly transitioning colour space that looked alternately like a blurred landscape, outerspace, and an endoscopy.

Mills was (I assume) taking cues from Budd’s passages and applying effects, and there were flashes of real excitement and interest – like the moment when Mills loosened one of the double bass’s strings and played it so it clattered on the fingerboard, or when a chord echoed against a background of white noise. But there were also times when I wanted a bit more from the performance. It all felt terribly restrained. I wanted the white noise to be louder, become overbearing and really challenge Budd’s piano to push through. Blame my renewed interest in Throbbing Gristle.

I was hoping toward the end Budd would slam the piano’s keylid closed and turn around to Mills saying “will you stop dicking about and settle the fuck down, I’m trying to play some serious fucking piano” but he didn’t. Probably because he’s got better manners than me.

I did not shout “Free Bird!”.

Part Two: The Necks

My companions had insisted on a swift half in the Kings Arms nearby, and when we got back the doors were closed. One of them remarked that this was no bad thing. But we got in and took our seats just in time.

The Necks are a trio of percussion (Tony Buck), piano (Chris Abrahams) and the aforementioned double bass (Lloyd Swanton). The set was a single composition about 40 minutes long; whether it was from their most recent album mindset or something else, I have no idea.

Lloyd Swanton took centre stage and looked severely constipated throughout. From my seat I got the best view of Tony Buck and spent most of the time trying to work out what he was doing with his left hand to make this fantastic washing sound, like many small bells. That was how it started – percussion of scraping sounds and a repeated theme on the bass, and some sparse piano.

Then it gradually built up. Buck introduced a small cymbal and began scraping the edge over the top of a side drum. Swanton persisted with a recurrant theme of plucked notes, then switched to a combination of bow and plucking. Abrahams gradually built up the volume and texture of the piano. They made great use of the ambient lighting, with the spots transitioning between blue and red, giving a sensation of a day-night cycle. The sounds became gradually more complex and I had a strong impression of a busy city waking up and going to sleep over a couple of days – pink dawns, blue and amber days full of noise, and deep red dusk and night that instilled a sense of fear.

Overall I really enjoyed this performace, even if it was extremely demanding on the attention. I guess if I’d been tired or irritable I might not have responded so positively.

Aftermath

I think I was in the minority that liked the second half over the first. But I think most people liked The Necks and by liked I mean tolerated. And by tolerated I mean removed their shoes and socks and gnawed their own toes off during the performance to take the edge off.

I’ve since found that The Necks are on emusic, so I’ll be using up some of this month’s credit with an album or two. As for Harold Budd the next aquisition is likely to be earlier stuff like The Pearl or Abandoned Cities.

Comment

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p>One of the chaps I was with had previously seen Gorecki’s Already It Is Dusk. It’s a horrible brooding dissonant piece of music that rewards you at the very end by a lightening tone, an assurance that actually it’s alright, you got through. Except when he saw it, someone forgot to turn off their mobile phone and it went off right at the end. Totally ruined the performance.

I’ve been gradually losing patience with Reading Festival and part of that is people thinking they have licence to behave like pricks, but a bigger part of it is said pricks chanting “owah owah” at every fucking set or otherwise making noises when I’m trying to listen. I’d assume it’s because I’m getting old, but the Festival arseholes tend to be the same age as me. I don’t like being talked to by my neighbour during a film, either. I guess I’m in a minority.

Audiophiles lament the death of good music saying the mp3 and radio has made music ubiquitous and disposable, and therefore people see no reason for high quality music (yet will still shell out for Blu-Ray players). You can blame people for being poor listeners, but critical listening is an aquired skill that few people teach – as an adult, I’ve mainly heard about it in management courses.

As a kid though I remember my music teacher making us put our heads down and listen. I remember him being pretty rude actually – implying that no-one taught us, the MTV generation, to really listen to music – a criticism probably aimed at our parents. But even if my parents had played more music when I was a kid, I don’t think it would have drawn my attention away from the television and ray guns and spaceships and after-school cartoons. Still, better late than never.

Style and Genre

Was music genre a problem before iTunes?  Most certainly a first world problem, although I am not the only one trying to tame their digital music collection.

Daniel Chandler’s An Introduction To Genre Theory

Chandler makes a few interesting points.  Firstly, that genre evolves according to pressure from the media it classifies:

The interaction between genres and media can be seen as one of the forces which contributes to changing genres. Some genres are more powerful than others: they differ in the status which is attributed to them by those who produce texts within them and by their audiences.

Secondly, genre can describe the relationship between audience and performer.

Related redefinitions of genre focus more broadly on the relationship between the makers and audiences of texts (a rhetorical dimension). To varying extents, the formal features of genres establish the relationship between producers and interpreters.

Wikipedia Definition of Music Genre

Wikipedia talks about a differentiation between Art music, Pop music and Traditional music.  This categorisation has a lot wrong with it, and for me it rapidly falls over when any mention of “Art Rock” or similar is made.  A lot of what I listen to is not very commercial – especially by today’s standards – and yet falls into a pop category in the way I consume it.

Genre can also relate to sociological origins – which is a lot more useful if, for instance, you have a lot of music from film and soundtracks.  Even if the originating context is orthogonal to other notions of genre.

Strategies

Daniel Stout reckons you should simplify your collection to 25 genres(!).  He then suggests a whole load of subgenres for each genre, which IMHO makes genre tagging less useful, not more useful – if you care about the distinction between blues rock and bluegrass, the chances are you listen to a fair amount of both.  When I tag my music I want to raise the visibility of all of the stuff I listen to infrequently, rather than sort the music I listen to a lot into smaller and smaller categories.

The Tippapotomous asks whether it’s possible to automatically tag digital music by genre.  What they find is that different online resources already have different classifications.  They do have a nice seperate article about rating songs, which is pretty similar to my own strategy.

Using the classification of Allmusic or Discogs is neat but actually not useful if it includes terms you don’t identify with.  By other definitions I have a lot of New Age music (Vangelis, Robert Rich, Mike Oldfield) but it would never occur to me to use that terminology.  Because I am music lover, not a patchouli scented crystal-waving hippy.

At least, not any more.

A flat list of genres and subgenres can be divisive.  What I want is the opposite, to classify my music in such a way that it takes notice of crossing genres, so when I create a playlist it won’t create dissonance but will create interesting contrast between tracks.  An electronic downtempo playlist could, for example, take elements of minimalist classical music, electronic ambient, vocal downtempo such as trip-hop and so forth – but insert hard rock or gangsta rap and it doesn’t work.

So, an alternative approach is to use the Content Group Description tag as an auxiliary grouping field – for example taking the Allmusic definition of “Genre” and “Styles”.  *Content Group Description* is identified as *Grouping* in iTunes.

From the [ID3v2.4] spec

TIT1   The ‘Content group description’ frame is used if the sound belongs to   a larger category of sounds/music. For example, classical music is   often sorted in different musical sections (e.g. “Piano Concerto”,   “Weather – Hurricane”).

That’s confusing.  Is the Genre or the Content Group the “larger category of sounds”?
Then there’s Apple’s interpretation:

Grouping:    the grouping (piece) of the track. Generally used to denote movements within a classical work.

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p>In other words the pop-loving cretins can keep their filthy hands off the Grouping field.  Still that interpretation only matters to a tiny proportion of listeners, so the Grouping is up for grabs as a wildcard field for any metadata you like.

There’s one very good reason to pick Genre over Grouping, and that’s the way iTunes orders music – genre is a high-visibility field whereas Grouping and Comments aren’t.  Of course some people feel iTunes is the tool of the devil and wouldn’t use it anyway.

Final word

I ended up making an excel file and adding terms to it that could be plugged usefully into the genre or grouping field, trying to decide whether they were useful Genre terms, Grouping terms, of both.  Generally if I have a lot of music in a well-defined genre (e.g. darkwave, industrial) or a small amount of music that I only care to group broadly (e.g. Jazz) then using the genre field is a good idea.  Anything else and the Genre field can get congested and less useful; at this point adding metadata tags in the Grouping is handy.  Metadata I plan to use includes “Ambient”, “Goth” and so forth.

 

 

Bis ans Ende der Welt

I saw Until the End of the World in 1991 at the Penultimate Picture Palace.

I’ve had the extended version sitting on the dvd shelf for a while – viewing was always going to be a bit of an excursion at 279 mins long (over 3 discs).  It’s a german release, so the passages in French near the start don’t have english subtitles – but the plot isn’t exactly complex.

Until The End of the World Wim Wenders

It’s been 20 years since I saw the film.  It may be the first near-future film I felt was “Cyberpunk” in terms of its holistic view on future human society – something that’s conveyed in novels (e.g. NeuromancerSnow Crash) but few films achieve.  Certainly Blade Runner – which I also saw as the Director’s Cut in the PPP around the same time – doesn’t; that’s just a mashup of cultures in a big city where space exploration and colonisation is implied, but very little of the world outside the city is considered (which is the point).  Transmetropolitan is the same.

It’s neither Cyber or Punk, really.  The trailer doesn’t really convey what the film is about, which is the journey.  Of course there is a spy plot and a future technology plot but these are secondary to the heroine’s travels and her struggle with her own sense that everything is coming to an end.  I’ve never been a fan of the transhumanism side of cyberpunk or space exploration, and I think the focus on world cultures coming together is much more interesting.

Naturally a film made in 1991 about 1999 is going to get technology wrong in a few areas.  There are no handheld mobile communication devices, but there are vehicular based ones, as well as vehicular tracking of entry and exit to cities.  There’s GPS as well.  There are handheld cameras which are not far from reality too.  There is videophone of course.  Information stores (music and personal ID) are in the form of credit cards – I assume with magnetic stripes, given the pre- Chip and PIN era.

The cross-genre soundtrack enhances the sense of globalisation and the vehicular anachronism and choice of locations – Venice, a farmhouse, a grassy plain – make the film particularly vivid.  Overall I don’t think the film is dated, or will be – it’s a fantasy set in an alternate future where technology does not dominate lives as much as it does ours.

And at one point the heroine rides a Pedersen Bicycle.

Pedersen

The soundtrack is pretty good with appearences from U2, Talking Heads, Neneh Cherry, Lou Reed… however the film score by Graeme Revell has never been released apart from a few tracks on the soundtrack CD – although one blogger has managed to extract the audio cues from the dvd soundtrack.