Scanner / Zombie Zombie / Roy Book Binder – various venues, Jersey

It’s been two weeks since I posted but I’ve not been totally idle. I returned yesterday from a week in Jersey – a welcome break from distinctly autumnal Glasgow.

My visit coincided with the third annual Branchage Film Festival, a three day bash that encompasses not only cinema but also other visual and sound media events. On Saturday, Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner played three short afternoon shows accompanying Magic Lantern slides of the island, mainly dating from the late Victorian and Edwardian era. These slides are 10x10cm photographic plates printed on glass and often hand-tinted. Rather having their showing accompanied by a commentary, Scanner provided a mainly ambient soundtrack. The result was a bit like seeing your great grandparents’ holiday snaps whilst listening to some cool electronica on the stereo – ie not really in synch, but interesting all the same. With an audience that was definitely not a collection of Wire readers and electronica geeks, Rimbaud shied away from his more esoteric and experimental ouevre (no intercepted phone calls here) but still managed to do something that was far more interesting than bland background tinkling without doing anything to frighten the horses.

The festival closer was a screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic Soviet agitprop piece Battleship Potemkin shown on the back of a tug in the harbour and accompanied by a live soundtrack by Paris’s Zombie Zombie duo (best known for their interpretations of John Carpenter’s fim music). The idea of showing a film about a ship on the back of a boat was genius in its simplicity and it worked really well, with maybe a couple of hundred souls gathered around the harbour’s edge to watch. Like The Man With a Movie Camera and Metropolis, Potemkin is one of a handful of classic silents that seems to have a real pull for musicians. The Pet Shop Boys did a fairly spectacular rendition a few years back. That was more like Socialist Realism meets disco. Zombie Zombie opted for a much more organic and subtle accompaniment that encompassed acoustic, electronic and musique concrète elements. They were especially good with the climactic final reel when the tension ratchets up as the battleship under its crew of mutinous revolutionaries encounters the Imperial Navy.

Roy Book Binder is a veteran blues guitarist and singer who continues to fly the flag for the pre-electric country bluesmen. Although he’s hardly a household name, his CV is mightily impressive. He was among the second wave of singer/guitarists who arrived in Greenwich Village after the initial brouhaha had died down and the likes of Dylan had moved on, but where Dave Van Ronk and others continued the tradition of old time American folk and blues. He played extensively with legends such as the Rev. Gary Davis and Pink Anderson, and continues to this day as a proselytizer for the music of folk such as Blind Blake, Mississippi John Hurt and many others of that era, some of whom are largely forgotten now. His show in an old church hall in St Helier was an informal affair of songs and stories both fascinating and funny, with a mix of original tunes in the old style and dusty classics both familiar and forgotten. His singing is functional and his playing a little rough round the edges, but this was a hugely entertaining portal into a forgotten world. He made the telling comment that him and guys like John Hammond Jr and Jorma Kaukonen are older now than most of the grizzled old country-blues veterans were when they were rediscovered in the sixties. It was a privilege and a pleasure to see this link to a long lost world.

TV: Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany

After last week’s generally fascinating, if slightly flawed, Synth Britannia (no mention at all of Suicide, and some of the chronology seemed a bit iffy to me), BBC Four’s music documentary series moved on to look at some of the biggest influences on both the synth-pop movement, and indeed all post-punk and electronica music that’s happened since, from Acid Mothers Temple to Alva Noto and all points in between.

Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany is rather a grand title, and it immediately apologised for the term. Krautrock was coined by anglocentric British journalists and has unfortunately stuck ever since to the various amusement / irritation of the musicians themselves. But at least their music was accepted here – in their homeland they remained, by and large, obscure. I remember when I first met my German friend Olly in the early nineties, I breathlessly waxed lyrical about all the German bands that I was a big fan of, and was astonished that he’d never heard of half of them. I’d simply assumed that acts like Cluster, Faust, Neu! etc would all be household names in Germany, something that turned out to be far from the truth.

The programme offered 1968 as year zero for the movement, suggesting that everything before then was Schlager and classical music. Although that’s certainly true for the electronic and experimental bands that followed, surely things weren’t that simple. After all, many British bands cut their musical teeth in Hamburg at the start of the sixties, and other ex-pat acts like the Monks were pretty successful in their adopted land. There must have been some indigenous equivalent, surely.

That question aside, this was an hour stuffed with great anecdotes and superb archive footage. Those interviewed were a great bunch of characters with intelligent, dry humour and none of the rock star pomposity of their Anglo-American prog-rock equivalents. The central theme was that this wasn’t a scene as such, but a bunch of disparate groups from all over the country whose music was equally eclectic, but whose philosophy was strikingly similar – to create a new art music for Germany untainted by the past and yet specifically German rather than a poor facsimile of the dominant Anglo-American forms. And to challenge the West German establishment, something still riddled with relics of the Nazi era. They succeeded, and collectively became a massive influence on much of the interesting music made in the last thirty years. Indeed, most are probably far more widely known today than they ever were in their heyday.

Nearly all of the big players were present and correct – Amon Düül, Popol Vuh, Cluster, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Neu!, Harmonia, Can, Faust and, of course, Kraftwerk. The only serious omission was Ash Ra Tempel. There were some great stories – Amon Düül’s uncomfortable association with Andreas Baader and Ulriche Meinhof; Faust being sold to Polydor as the German Beatles (?!); Damo Suzuki’s bizarrely spontaneous induction into Can; Klaus Schulze’s admission that he still had no idea how to properly work his first synth that he’s had for nearly forty years. And also some superb archive footage, including the pre-electronic Kraftwerk. Implied, but not explicitly said, was the contention that Eno was little more than a thieving magpie, appropriating ideas from his collaborations with Cluster and using them in his work with Bowie, that archetypal chameleon.

Cramming all this into an hour inevitably felt a bit rushed. But it was great that somebody had the foresight to step outside the usual Anglo-American axis and tell the stories of the makers of some of the twentieth century’s most forward-looking and influential music.

For UK residents, it’s on the iPlayer.

TV: Folk America

BBC4 has run some excellent music documentary series in the last couple of years in the ‘Britannia’ string. There was Folk Britannia, Jazz Britannia, Pop Britannia, Dance Britannia and, most recently, the frequently hilarious stand-alone doc Prog Rock Britannia. All have followed a straight forward formula of telling a particular genre history through archive footage and relevant talking heads. No gimmicks, no flash – just letting the reminiscences and film tell the story.

The focus shifts across the pond for this latest three part series that tells the story of American folk from its recorded beginnings at the dawn of the twenties through to the boom of the early sixties. The first episode of Folk America looked at the extraordinary period between around 1925 and 1929 when the whole blueprint of twentieth century American music was established. A booming economy meant money in people’s pockets, and that led to the huge rise in demand for consumer goods including phonographs and records.

The record industry was transformed. Prior to the twenties, most recorded music was either classical (Caruso et al), from music hall and vaudeville, or ethnic music designed to appeal to European immigrants (polkas, Yiddish music, Irish sentimental ballads and the like). The American South was an unexplored and unexploited terrain. That changed in the twenties when all the major companies went on a signing frenzy. It was like lifting up a paving slab on a hot day, uncovering a myriad of bustling life.

The film looked at the stories of many of the major artists of the era – Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Dock Boggs, Uncle Dave Macon, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family among many others. These were fascinating stories of cotton pickers, mill workers, hobos and miners who struck lucky and managed to break away from the grind through their extraordinary talent.

The interviewees were an impressive mix of big names (Pete and Mike Seeger, Tom Paxton, Steve Earle), family members of some of the old legends, respected historians like Tony Russell and a few of the remaining old timers. David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards and Slim Bryant are both active and in their nineties. Banjoist Wade Mainer is 101, and can still pluck a mean tune out of his instrument.

The boom didn’t last. The Depression came, and the record industry was virtually wiped out. The lucky musicians returned to their former jobs. Some ended up as street performers. Many died young in extreme poverty.

This was an exemplary documentary. It was hard to believe they managed to cram so much into an hour, and yet still give the music and the artists due attention. The next episode airs on Friday 30th, and covers the Depression era politicised folk music of the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Josh White and others. In the meantime, those of you in the UK can see episode one on the BBC iPlayer for the next week. If you can, you really should.

Review of the Year Part 4 – Films

Just a top five – I didn’t see as many films as I wanted to this year. On the plus side, I managed to avoid any real stinkers, although Quantum of Solace was a pretty hollow experience.

5. Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman)
The animation was a strange mixture of realism and almost comic book framing, and the narrative was part interviews, part flashbacks. It was a unique way of presenting a documentary about the film maker’s attempts to establish what really went on during the Lebanese Civil War of 1982 – a conflict that he was present at, but had little recollection of. In particular, it deals with a brutal massacre of Palestinians carried out by Lebanese Christians while the Israeli Army stood back and watched – either in complicity or in ignorance. Sometimes funny, but more often horrifying, it was a truly original piece of film making.

4. Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone)
The world of Neapolitan organised crime shown from the point of view of the foot soldiers and small timers caught up with it, Gomorrah was in fact a portmanteau of four inter-weaved stories rather than a single narrative arc. There were no heroes on show, just people caught up in a stinking system they had little control over. Those who tried, either by embarking on an unsanctioned life of crime, or trying to escape the tentacles of corruption and retribution, were cut down or reined in. Only one character walks away unscathed. An unglamorous, brutal movie.

3. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton)
Possibly Pixar’s greatest work, yet, and certainly their most daring. The first half hour of wordless, visual comedy is stunning to look at, and quite sad, too, as the eponymous robot goes about his business – the last of his kind still functioning. The rest of the film is a more traditional tale of love and redemption as the humans finally return to earth, but is still done with a great deal of wit and invention.

2. No Country For Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen)
Burn After Reading was amusing, well-acted, but pretty lightweight. The Coen’s first movie of the year was much more interesting. With the brothers’ usual cast of oddballs, understated dark humour and brutal violence, the plot felt somehow secondary to the characters, who were about as far from the one dimensional black hat / white hat ciphers as it’s possible to get.

1. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
A Citizen Kane for the 21st Century? There are a lot of parallels – self-made millionaires ending up tortured and isolated, and bravura central performances among them. Daniel Day-Lewis got a lot of plaudits for his performance as Daniel Plainview (and rightly so), but I think Paul Dano’s creepy, self-righteous and corrupt preacher was just as great a turn. A true modern classic

I also enjoyed the Orphanage, Jar City, In the Valley of Elah and the Baader-Meinhof Complex, whilst somehow managing to miss Hunger and In Bruges, whilst Bela Tarr’s The Man from London hasn’t come to Scotland yet.

Kill Your Timid Notion (CCA, Glasgow, 7/12/08)

Kill Your Timid Notion is an audio-visual festival combining experimental film with performance that combines sound and vision. Normally it only takes place at the DCA in Dundee, but this year it’s been out on the road as well, taking in London, Bristol and Glasgow. As with all Arika events (they’re behind the annual Instal shindig at the Arches in Glasgow), it’s not easy stuff. I went along knowing that there would probably be some stuff I’d hate, but hoping that there’d be some I’d love. Both expectations were met. I’d originally intended to go to both Saturday and Sunday’s events, but in the end plumped for Sunday only.

The first of the afternoon’s two film programmes was entitled “About Face”. It was, by and large, horrible. The shortest pieces were OK. Akustyczne Jabiko’s Acoustic Apple had the film maker eating an apple with an embedded microphone in it. Wojciech Bruszewski’s Yyaa was a three minute long shout spliced together with different lighting, and different modulation. That was quite amusing. I had a problem with Epilieptic Seizure Comparison. Two epileptics having fits (in a controlled environment) were filmed and looped, then the film cut up with strobe flashes of colour and white noise. It was a headache-inducing half an hour, which also had a dubious morality – making art or entertainment out of illness and suffering. The filtered, processed footage of a Charlemagne Palestine concert in Paris was as dull and one-dimensional as the performance, whilst the final film by Arnulf Rainer , consisting entirely of alternating black and white frames, was just pointless.

The second programme was much better. “Out of Sight, Out of Synch” took as its theme, sound and pictures out of kilter. The first film, (nostalgia), consisted of artist Hollis Frampton burning photos on a hot plate whilst providing a commentary on the next one ahead – so you don’t see what he is talking about until after he has finished, when you are listening to something else entirely unrelated. It was interesting and funny, ending with a sense of dread about some ghostly apparition that appeared in the last photo – which, of course, you don’t see. Tease! Ryszard Wasko’s 30 Sound Situations was also interesting. It was a series of short scenes where the film-maker stood facing the camera, clapping once and returning to his original stance. Each was filmed in a different locale – from empty room, to busy street. The timbre of the clap varied according to environment. What was more fun, though, was seeing the different shots of seventies Poland and the sometimes bemused reactions of passers by to this strange man. The Girl Chewing Gum was a street scene of 1970s Dalston, with a commentary appearing to direct each movement of people, traffic and even pigeons. It was a neat idea, although it got a bit surreal towards the end which somehow diluted the simplicity and impact of the piece.

The evening’s three music performances were also something of a mixed bag. Kjell Bjørgeengen, Keith Rowe and Philipp Wacshmann were sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by TVs. The minimalistic, low-key music that they made using a violin and various electronics were fed into video amps that translated the sound into vision. The concept was more interesting than the results. Generally the visual images were little more than flickering snow, like you’d get on an untuned set. Sure there were splashes of colour, but it was hardly an audio-visual feast for the eyes.

Bruce McClure’s set was the highlight. In fact it was phenomenal. Using three bastardised 16mm projectors, the visuals gradually morphed from flickering, flashing stripes to globes and grids – each pulse accompanied by searing electronic noise. It was brutal – a fortyfive minute aural battering that sounded like Merzbow with jackhammer beats, but all perfectly synchronized with the throbbing images on the screen. In a room that was otherwise pitch black, this was an exercise in sensory deprivation and sensory overload at the same time. It was physically punishing, but awe-inspiring.

It was some act to follow, and inevitably La Cellule d’intervention Metamkine fell short. Christopher Auger and Xavier Quérel sat in front of the audience projecting towards us on to two mirrors which reflected the images on to the wall behind them. Sound was provided by Jérôme Noetinger who sat between the mirrors with a mixing console, radio, tape player and a couple of battered analogue synths. The idea was to provide an improvised soundtrack to the improvised visuals which consisted of loops of film, some destroyed during the performance, and other effects. It was patchy. Some of the visuals were superb, but some were a bit kitsch – making shadow puppets, for instance. The soundtrack sometimes fitted, sometimes seemed to be completely alien to what was going on. To be fair, it’s the nature of improvised art that it’s not always going to work satisfactorily. And I was still reeling from Bruce McClure’s set.

Expectations fulfilled, then. Some things were dreadful, some things were excellent, and some were interesting but not really quite there. A typical day in the company of Arika.

Classic Britannia

Meant to mention this before but forgot. It’s a three part documentary series tracing the post-war classical music scene in the UK. Part one which aired last week concerned itself mainly with the established figures of Britten, Walton, Vaughan Williams, but also with the adventures of a number of misfits at the RNCM in Manchester including Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell-Davies.

Part two was a breakneck ride through the avant-garde, minimalism, modernism and the like with everyone from Cornelius Cardew and Michael Tippett to Eric Morecambe and Doctor Who involved. One thing that struck me, Birtwistle and Gavin Bryars excepted, was how frightfully well-spoken everyone was – be it Delia Derbyshire’s school hockey captain enthusiasm, or John Taveners’ extremely punchable upper class fop persona.

An absolutely fascinating programme, though, with some marvellous footage of the likes of Maxwell-Davies, Daphne Oram, Jacqueline Du Pre, Pierre Boulez, the Portsmouth Sinfonia and Cardew’s acolytes pretending to be pigeons in Trafalgar Square. It’s on the BBC iPlayer for UK readers. It deserves a DVD release, and I assume it wil get one.

TV Review – The Passions Of Vaughan Williams (BBC4)

This August sees the fiftieth anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ death, and this has given rise to two films about the composer already this year. After Tony Palmer’s magnificent three hour film O Thou Transcendent shown on Channel Five on New Year’s Day, we get the BBC’s offering, The Passions Of Vaughan Williams. It was a frustrating film. It didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be – a serious discourse on England’s greatest twentieth century composer, or a tabloid style piece of tittle-tattle about his love life. On the one hand, there was some serious and illuminating points made about works like, for example, the Pastoral Symphony, and how it was more inspired by the devastation of the Western Front than English meadows. Then later we have a debate about whether Ralph and Ursula shagged on their first date. The flimsy linkage being that RVW wrote passionate music because he was a passionate man. Next week, BBC4 reveals the crapping habits of bears.

There is a place for an exploration of Vaughan Williams’ relationships within a musical biography, but it was altogether overdone. Palmer’s film was more balanced on the subject. Writer / director / narrator John Bridcut, to his credit, seemed to find more interviewees than Palmer, and the musical sequences were superbly performed and staged. But overall it was an uneasily balanced film.

While I’m on the subject, a major disappointment of Alex Ross’s otherwise excellent book The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century, is the almost complete absence of Vaughan Williams (and Elgar, Holst, Walton and Delius for that matter). OK, his international reputation is nothing like his reputation at home, unlike true world figures like Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Shostakovitch. But to have a whole chapter on Benjamin Britten? That’s just barking.