Saturday, February 25, 2006



"Systems Music" is a term which has been used to describe the work of composers who concern themselves with sound continuums which evolve gradually, often over very long periods of time. The most well-known of these composers are Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and La Monte Young. The most striking feature of their work is repetitiveness or stasis. Their works contain little or no variation of pitch, tempo, dynamics or timbre. Certainly, their work exhibits virtually none of the characteristic concerns of traditional Western music, such as harmonic movement, key modulation or thematic development.

The listener is invited, not to follow a complex musical "argument", but to concentrate upon a slowly changing sound and focus with microscopic awareness on different aspects of it. For such listeners such intense concentration has produced pyschological states comparable to drug-induced euphoria or meditative trance. However, Young is probably the only composer for whom such effects are of primary importance. Significantly, he is also the only composer whose music is entirely devoid of rhythmic pulse, consisting mostly of combinations of drones. Reich, by contrast, has explored the different ways in which a rhythmic figure can move out of phase with itself, while Glass has used rhythmic figures which increase or decrease in length as the piece progresses. Common to all three is the fact that their music avoids any sense of climax, development or directionality. Their pieces are either cyclical in form or static. A typical Reich piece will commence with two or more musicians playing a rhythmic pattern in unison. Gradually, they move out of phase with each other - initially by, say, a quarter note - and secondary rhythms are generated by the way in which the off-parallel rhythms intermesh. The process is continued until the players are again in unison - a cyclical rather than a developmental form. Alternatively, a piece may involve a process of expansion which is theoretically limitless, as is the case with Reich's Four Organs where a single chord is gradually stretched out to a duration of several minutes.

Systems composers appear to have worked largely outside the mainstreams of both European and American music, drawing inspiration instead from various ethnic musical forms - Ghanian and Balinese music in Reich's case, Japanese Gagaku in the case of Young. Many other influences can be discerned. Such non-Western musical forms, as Young has observed, involve stasis in contrast to climax or directionality. But systems music also relates to some aspects of contemporary Western music. Young has cited the "unchanging chord" in Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, as well as Webern's technique of repeating the same pitches in different octave placements; equally he acknowledges the influence of Machaut and plainchant. Glass, on the other hand, studied with Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar, and acknowledges the influences of Bach and Indian music.

Of the three it is perhaps Reich whose music most decisively repudiates the Western classical tradition. Works such as Drumming relate more to African tradition than to either Varese or Cage. Nevertheless, Reich's music developed very much as a reaction to European serialism as well as American indeterminacy. In his critique of these systems Reich makes similar observations to those made by composers like Xenakis and Pousseur. Xenakis had observed that in serial music there is a discrepancy between method and auditory result; for while the compositional method is highly mathematical, the outward impression is one of randomness. Pousseur likewise observed that:

"where the most abstract constructions have been employed ... one has the impression of finding oneself in the presence of the consequences of an aleatory free play".

Reich extends this criticism to indeterminate music as well. He argues that in both cases one cannot hear the process by which the music was constructed. In the case of serialism one cannot follow the permutations of the twelve note series - the retrogrades and inversions destroy any recognisable melodic content. Similarly, in Cage's music one cannot hear the chance operations which determine the choice and disposition of notes. He writes:

"The process of using the I Ching or observing the imperfections in manuscript paper cannot be heard when listening to music composed that way. The compositional process and the sounding music have no audible connection."

In Music as a Gradual Process (1968) Reich advocates the use of compositional processes which are clearly audible to the listener. He argues that in order to facilitate closely detailed listening a musical process must happen extremely gradually, like the movement of the minute hand on a watch or the slow trickling of sand through an hour glass. The first type of gradual process which Reich explored was that of moving a rhythmic pattern out of phase with itself. This idea developed out of Reich's experiments with tape music. In 1965 he recorded the voice of a black preacher in San Francisco. Afterwards in the studio, he selected a short phrase and ran two tape loops of it on supposedly identical tape machines. Because of minute differences between the two machines the phrase was heard marginally out of synchronisation with itself. He then began to control this discrepancy by delaying one spool with his thumb, but to such an infinitesimal degree that pitch was not affected. Out of these experiments came two tape pieces: It's Gonna Rain (using the preacher's voice) and Come Out (1966) in which the single phrase "Come out to show them" is recorded on two channels, first in unison, and then with channel two beginning to move ahead. As the phrase begins to shift a gradually increasing reverberation is heard which slowly passes into a sort of canon or round. Eventually the two voices divide into four and then eight. Gradually, the intelligibility of the voices is destroyed - one hears only a constantly changing polyphony of rhythmic elements.

Reich seems to be concerned with transcending his own personal taste to achieve a kind of objectivity. If changes or embellishments are made during rehearsal they are collaborative, involving all the musicians in Reich's ensemble. During the rehearsal of Drumming the three vocalists, including Reich himself, selected certain unintended patterns which resulted from the phase shifting of the basic rhythm and decided collectively on an order in which to vocalise them. For Reich there is no element of self-expression here - the players are merely drawing out the rhythms which are latent in the music.

Reich feels that it is important to distinguish his music from some currently popular modal forms of music, such as Indian classical and drug-oriented rock and roll. These musical forms may make us aware of minute sound details because in being modal (constant key centre, hypnotically droning and repetitious) they naturally focus on these details rather than on key modulation, counterpoint or other peculiarly Western devices. He stresses, however, that these idioms are more or less strict frameworks for improvisation - they are not processes. The distinctive feature of a musical process is that it simultaneously determines the note to note procedure and the overall form. "One can't improvise in a musical process", Reich argues. "The two concepts are mutually exclusive".

Reich's later works, however, are less strictly predetermined and show a greater flexibility of compositional approach. In Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (1973) and Music for Eighteen Musicians (1974-6) he abandons simple phasing processes in favour of the more elaborate techniques of Drumming and the processes of rhythmic augmentation first used in Four Organs. His most recent works are less minimalist in approach, showing a greater variety of rhythmical change than the earlier pieces and a stronger sense of harmonic movement. In Tehillim (1981), which is based on Hebrew psalms, and The Desert Music (1983), based on poems by William Carlos Williams, Reich makes a limited use of key modulation and gives far greater independence and expressiveness to the vocal parts.

While Reich's earlier music involves a decisive rejection of the Western classical tradition, his later work shows an increasing tendency to accomodate aspects of that tradition, often in combination with Eastern and Afro-Asian stylistic elements. In Music for Eighteen Musicians chords lasting initially twenty seconds are expanded for entire five minute section "rather as a single note for the cantus firmus of 12th century organum might be stretched out as a harmonic centre by Perotin". As well as Perotin, Reich feels an increasing affinity with Debussy, whose non-functional harmony seems very close to his own, especially in terms of harmonic ambiguity. He has also likened his use of a chordal suspension technique in Variations for Wind, Strings and Keyboards (1979) to Bartok's Second Piano Concerto. Other later works, such as Tehillim show a strong feeling for tonality. It's last movement "affirms the key of D major as the basic tonal centre of the work after considerable harmonic ambiguity earlier". On the other hand, Sextet (1985) exploits ambiguities of rhythm and metre which are more reminiscent of African music.

One feels, in listening to Reich's more recent work, the sense of a dialectic between Eastern and Western styles and between ancient and modern traditions. In this respect Reich seems to have given an entirely new interpretation to Stockhausen's idealistic vision of "a unified world music", one which combines elements of the music "of all lands and races".

Comment: Forget the theory. Run yourself a bath and soak to Reich's compositions; observe your mind move to successively deeper grooves within. Especially recommended for this fun are "Six Marimbas" and "Music For 18 Musicians".

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

An Original

Stealing Beauty - Japonisme

After Japanese ports reopened to trade with the West in 1854, a tidal wave of foreign imports flooded European shores. On the crest of that wave were woodcut prints by masters of the ukiyo-e school which transformed Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art by demonstrating that simple, transitory, everyday subjects from "the floating world" could be presented in appealingly decorative ways.

Parisians saw their first formal exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts when Japan took a pavilion at the World's Fair of 1867. But already, shiploads of oriental bric-a-brac—including fans, kimonos, lacquers, bronzes, and silks—had begun pouring into England and France.

It is said that James Whistler discovered Japanese prints in a Chinese tearoom near London Bridge and that Claude Monet first came upon them used as wrapping paper in a spice shop in Holland. James Tissot and his friend Edgar Degas were among the earliest collectors of Japanese art in France, but their own art was affected by exotic things in very different ways. Unlike Tissot, and others who came under the spell of Japan, Degas avoided staging japoneries that featured models dressed in kimonos and the conspicuous display of oriental props. Instead, he absorbed qualities of the Japanese aesthetic that he found most sympathetic: elongated pictorial formats, asymmetrical compositions, aerial perspective, spaces emptied of all but abstract elements of color and line, and a focus on singularly decorative motifs. In the process, he redoubled his originality.

Degas' American friend Mary Cassatt, who declared that she "hated conventional art," found in Japanese woodcuts like those of Utamaro a fresh approach to the depiction of common events in women's lives. After visiting a large exhibition of ukiyo-e prints at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the spring of 1890, she produced a set of ten color etchings in open admiration of their subjects, compositions, and technical innovations.

Experimentation with a wide range of pictorial modes, and with printmaking techniques as well, coincided with the growing popularity of Japanese woodcuts during the 1890s. Toulouse-Lautrec adopted the exaggerated colors, contours, and facial expressions found in Kabuki theater prints in order to create his eye-catching posters. Meanwhile, Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, who called themselves "Nabis" or "prophets" of a new style of art, relied upon the piquant, unusual viewpoints of ukiyo-e printmakers for inspiration. Only Paul Gauguin, who was attracted to the native arts of many cultures, sidestepped the then-current practice of lithography and adapted Japanese woodcut techniques to the abstract expression of his forward-looking art.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Iran Oil Bourse

Though the mainstream press will not touch this story, the upcoming Iran Oil Bourse is generating much comment and discussion elsewhere. This bourse will be an alternative to the only two other oil exchanges in the world [New York and London]. Most significantly, it will be non-dollar denominated. According to a learned commentator:

"Throughout history, the arguments offered in favor of the creation and preservation of central banking have varied, but the one characteristic common to all central banking in all of history is that it finances government debt. The function of central banks is, and always has been, to allow governments to spend money without the political inconvenience of taxing people for the money first. The central bank does this in exchange for being granted a government-enforced monopoly on the issuance of bank notes. This allows the banks to lend out – and make interest on – money they don't really have. This used to be called fraud. Nowadays it's called fractional reserve banking, and a vast intellectual smokescreen has been emitted to justify its practice.

The value of a bank note is always initially derived from the commodity the note supposedly represents. Before 1933, a dollar was 1/20th an ounce of gold. A dollar bill was, at least in theory, a receipt for gold deposited at a bank. Obviously, banks and governments are heavily motivated by self-interest to weaken and, if possible, sever this link between bank notes and gold. The U.S. government started this process of money "tokenization" in 1933 and completed it in 1971. Since then, every dollar created by the Federal Reserve and the fractional-reserve system is wealth transferred from the economy as a whole directly to the banks and the government, and the amounts of money created are truly staggering.

There is much to say on this topic, but the relevant question is this: Once a government has succeeded in severing the link between a bank note and the commodity that once backed it, what is it that holds a currency in place? Some would have us believe that nothing more than cultural convention is needed to explain this, but the examples of worthless paper currency littered through history expose this lie. Legal tender laws are a partial explanation, but a better explanation is that one must have dollars to pay taxes, which are, as a rule, unavoidable, making dollars, as a rule, indispensable. This would at least explain how a currency could be made to hold its place as currency within a single country.

The requirement that dollars are needed to pay taxes in the United States, however, is not a satisfactory explanation for how the dollar has become the world's reserve currency. The fact is that beginning in 1973, dollars have been backed not by gold, but by oil. One must acquire dollars if one is to purchase oil. When the Federal Reserve and the fractional-reserve system expand the money supply, they are not appropriating the wealth of the U.S. economy, but the economy of the entire world.

I've never seen anyone publicly address the consequences of this explanation of the Iraq war and the current belligerent attitude of the United States government towards Iran. One is that not only are the evangelical dispensationalists stooges for the neocons, but the neocons themselves are probably to some degree stooges for the even more faceless forces who shepherded them into positions of power. Another consequence of this explanation is that it is irrelevant whether or not Iran has, or plans to have, a nuclear weapons program. The only point of the accusations is to get people arguing about the wrong issue. As Thomas Pynchon said, if they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers. It doesn't matter to those maneuvering for war with Iran whether oil hits $100 a barrel, or whether the war is eventually discredited. All that matters is that Iran's oil bourse be stopped."

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Friday, February 10, 2006

By Tagore

The Unsaid

Rabindranath Tagore took to painting at a late stage in his life. Some manuscripts dating back to his youth show doodles in the margin which suggest a natural flair for drawing. After that there is nothing to show that he had any interest in visual expression until, when he was well over sixty, fantastic forms began to appear in his manuscripts. Where one would normally cross out a word or a sentence, Rabindranath turned them into grotesque creatures. These emendations were strung together until the whole page took on the appearence of a tapestry of words and images. In time paintings and calligraphic drawings began to appear as independent efforts, unrelated to manuscripts.

Blue-black ink gave way to transparent colours, and the subjects became more and more varied. The output clearly suggests that Rabindranath was absorbed in his new pursuit and enjoying the experience. The lack of formal training was compensated by an instinctive feel for rhythm, texture and spacing. There was also the calligraphic virtuousity when he used the pen. But the brush, too, was frequently used. Some of the efforts were purely abstract, while others dealt with subjects which covered a wide field.

Except where human figures were concerned, Rabindranath's work remained rooted in fantasy. He painted flora and fauna which belonged to no known species. The landscapes often have a mood which suggests dusk in rural Bengal, but here too the trees cannot be identified. Flowers, birds, fish and animals in his paintings inhabit a world which belonged uniquely to Rabindranath. Sometimes painting and a poem are combined, the former making a frame for the latter. Examples of this are to be found both in colour and black and white. Sometimes the sheet is filled with a frenzy of convoluted forms painted in iridescent colours. The mood evoked here is of a joyous freedom.

But Rabindranath's special field remained the study of women. These women are recognizably Bengali, portrayed in an infinity of moods and expressions. The lack of anatomical accuracy does not matter since, in the best examples, the total effect is haunting.

Rabindranath's paintings and drawings number well over two thousand. Considering the late start, this makes for an astonishing output of great fecundity. It is important to stress that he was uninfluenced by any painter, eastern or western. His work does not stem from any tradition but is truly original and occupies a place of major importance beside his equally formidable output of novels, short stories, plays, essays, letters and songs.

[Comment: Seems almost like what he couldn't put in words he drew]

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Music Review - Natacha Atlas

Once, during a stressful and exhilarating trip to Israel, Natacha Atlas described herself as "a human Gaza strip". She was referring to the complex melange of influences - both genetic and environmental - that have shaped her both as an individual and as a performer.

Although her father was a Sephardic Jew, Natacha grew up in the Moroccan suburbs of Brussels, becoming fluent in French, Spanish, Arabic and English, immersing herself in Arabic culture, and learning from childhood the raq sharki - belly dance - techniques that she uses to devastating effect on stage today. Even more striking than Natacha's dance moves, though, is her voice, which swoops and soars, blending unfettered talent and the complexities of Arabic musical theory into a burst of sound that is thrilling, immediate and evocative.

It's a melodic weapon which seen service in a variety of musical projects since Natacha moved to England as a teenager and became Northampton's first Arabic rock singer. Later, dividing her time between the UK and Brussels, she sang in a variety of Arabic and Turkish nightclubs, and spent a brief stint in a Belgian salsa band called Mandanga. As she shuttled between Northampton and Brussels, however, she began to attract the attention of musicians in the UK, including the Balearic beat crew ¡Loca!, and Jah Wobble, then assembling his Invaders Of The Heart.

In 1991, both these projects bore fruit. Timbal by ¡Loca! started out as a track on Nation Records' Fuse Two compilation and became a massive club hit, while Wobble's Rising Above Bedlam - five tracks of which Natacha co-wrote - attracted much critical acclaim and a Mercury award nomination. The success of Timbal cemented Natacha's relationship with the ground-breaking Nation label, who introduced her to Trans-Global Underground, at that time enjoying success with the anthemic Templehead.

As chief collaborator, lead singer and belly dancer with Trans-Global, Natacha has performed all over the world - playing at Glastonbury, WOMAD, Reading, Phoenix and The Brixton Academy and many international festivals - and recorded two commercially and critically successful LPs - Dream Of 100 Nations and International Times. In the process, Natacha has helped to introduce many thousands of people to a unique, heady and sensuous fusion of global sounds and trip-hop rhythms.

Despite this hectic schedule, Natacha has still found time to get involved in other projects. Her involvement with WOMAD earned the devotion of Peter Gabriel, and the two have been struggling to find enough time to work together ever since. She lent her arabesque vocals to Apache Indian's Arranged Marriage. Natacha has also maintained her links with Jah Wobble, co-writing and performing three tracks on 1994's Take Me To God; and worked (with David Arnold) on what Time Out described as the "stirring score" for the Kurt Russell film Stargate as well as the Judge Dredd movie.

Quite how Natacha has found time to write and record a solo LP on top of all this activity is something of a mystery. Anyone who experienced the profoundly languid bass thrill of her debut solo single Dub Yalil / Yalla Chant, however, will be delighted that she did. Natacha has worked with Tunisian singer-songwriter Walid Rouissi, Egyptian composer and Oud-master Essam Rashad, a plethora of Arabic musicians, and various members of Trans-Global Underground to create songs of love and yearning which genuinely fuse West and East.

The album, called Diaspora, moves easily between classical Arab inflections and dance/dub rhythms, while the language shifts from Arabic to French to Spanish. The first single Duden, a bewitching, breathy shimmer has been transformed into Spooky's alluring "Daytrip To Sousse" Mix and Talvin Singh's frankly self-explanatory "Indian Jungle Book" Mix.

Some personal favorites: Erzulie, Egyptienne, Guide Me God, Kidda, Agaba, Ali Mullah, Ayeshteni