Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Eric Morecambe and the Avant-Garde

The Encyclopaedia Britannic describes aleatory music thus:
Aleatory music, also called chance music, (aleatory from Latin alea, “dice”), 20th-century music in which chance or indeterminate elements are left for the performer to realize. The term is a loose one, describing compositions with strictly demarcated areas for improvisation according to specific directions and also unstructured pieces consisting of vague directives, such as “Play for five minutes.”

The indeterminate portion of aleatory music commonly occurs in two areas. The performers may be told to arrange the structure of the piece—e.g., by reordering its sections or by playing sections simultaneously as they wish. The musical score may also indicate points where performers are to improvise or even to include quasi-theatrical gestures. Such requirements may give rise to inventive notation, including brackets enclosing a blacked-out space, suggesting pitch area and duration of the improvisation. Among notable aleatory works are Music of Changes (1951) for piano and Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958), by the American composer John Cage, and Klavierstück 11 (1956; Keyboard Piece XI), by Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Music is as much about what is not present as what is: it is about the gaps between the notes as well as the notes themselves. I once heard a quotation from a famous sculptor (can't remember who it was) in which he said if he's sculpting a lion, his job is to starts with a block of stone and  remove all the bits which aren't the lion. Music is perhaps what you get when you start with some noise and chip away all the bits which aren't music. This is why introducing absolute randomness does not therefore produce something most people credit as music.

Without some form of shape to turn it into music it is simply sound. Noise has in itself become an artform as a kind of anti-music but even the act of producing it involves shaping, selecting sources and deliberately creating some kind of texture. But let's not get into that now, eh? Otherwise we'll end up with that tree in the forest argument.

The most famous example of aleatory composition is the musical dice game attributed to Mozart, published a few months after his death in 1791. It was released by his publisher Nikolaus Simrock apparently based on notes left by the composer though nobody knows for sure if it was actually Mozart's work. It doesn't particularly matter whether it really was was just a clever marketing ploy by Simrock: the idea of the musical dice game had been around for many years and Mozart's is by no means the only example. A roll of dice is used to select small sections of written music which can then be patched together to create a single musical piece. Another version also attributed to Mozart uses letters instead of numbers and invites the “player” to produce the composition derived from the spelling of his or her name. It is therefore theoretically possible to translate the script of an edition of “Homes Under the Hammer” into a composition by Mozart.


So "chance music" is not truly random. To be random is surprisingly difficult: even things which may appear completely random can have a traceable influence. If you think it is possible for a computer to generate randomness, bear in mind the fact that a computer can only operate on the basis of its programming – which means therefore that its randomness is explicable. In the same way the advanced science can appear to be magic, most of what appears random can be explained if only you have enough data and the inclination to go into things in mind-numbing detail and abandon all pretence at having any kind of life whatsoever. In order to generate true randomness, computers need to be linked to some external physical source, for example background noise (but not the noise of a machine as it's too regular).

The dice game does not generate an infinite number of potential compositions. It is rather huge but a fixed number (Cataloguers do not credit each of these as individual compositions so if it was an attempt by Mozart to claim to be more prolific than Bach it didn't work). What is important about aleatory music is that it is not open to infinite possibilities. It's not completely random: there is still a person who can be credited as the composer. Where the apparent randomness comes in is in the fact that the composer surrenders some of the control of the piece either to a random factor or to the performers, above and beyond what is usually brought in by interpretation. This is often achieved by the piece being composed in sections and then allowing the random factor to shape the order in which the sections are performed. In this way the music can still incorporate traditional concepts such as melody and harmony while retaining a degree of unpredictability, albeit a finite one.

A more random example is Terry Riley's “In C” in which the performers are given 53 short sequences in the key of C. All of those playing (and there can be as many players as you wish) can interpret and even repeat a sequence as they wish before proceeding to the next. Each performance is therefore unique although it will still be recognisably derived from the same compositional source. In the piece one power Riley has not chosen to give up to the performer is the order in which the sections are played: each must move sequentially from 1 to 53.

A still more open form such as Stockhausen's Klavierstück 11 allows the sections to be played in any order determined by chance or performer choice.

These are still, however, examples of “closed form” because of the amount of music which is predetermined by the composer. An “open form” piece of music in which not even the sections are fully defined relies further on the performer: by leaving it deliberately incomplete. It is not however completely open to chance. The performer is invited to improvise and this means making choices informed by musical traditions, personal taste, interaction with the other performers and whether the audience is looking bored by the thought of yet another tedious guitar solo. These ideas are by no means unique to Western music nor have they simply grown from the intellectual pursuits of composers. They are if anything, more rooted in the origins of music as a communal activity not exclusive to the trained writer or performer.

You could therefore argue that Eric Morecambe's confrontation with Andre Previn is a perfect summary of the tension between traditional rule-bound classical music and modern experimentalism: "I'm playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order.”

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Dress

I see Polly Harvey has won the Mercury Music award for a second time. I just realised her first single is now 20 years old. That sort of thing happens to me a lot these days.



This doesn't sound 20 years old to me but then music dates in strange ways and only stuff which is steeped in the sound fashions of its time which does. I fell in love with Polly. Like her music, she was clever, strong and uncompromised. One of those moments where someone comes along with something new but you wonder why nobody had done it before. Yes, I knew of and liked Patti Smith but there was some extra quality to Polly's work. Urgency? Englishness? It doesn't matter, one can overanalyse these things and I don't want to do that with something which I love on a purely instinctive level. Maybe it's as simple as she was a girl who played damn good music.

For me, Smells Like Teen Spirit wasn't the record of the moment and Nirvana weren't the definitive band of the era. It was P J Harvey and Sheela-na-Gig:



I sort of fell out with her fourth album To Bring You My Love. I've heard bits and pieces of stuff she's done since but for some silly reason I've avoided investigating further despite having heard snippets of things which sound rather good. I know it's a huge insult to an artist to want them in amber doing only their early stuff but it's also OK if artists and fans go down different paths. What's nagging me is that I may have been missing a lot of wonderful stuff over the last few years just to keep my memories of one particular part of my life intact. I've failed in a little corner of my principles. Maybe it's time I bought her new album. It bloody well better be available on vinyl.

Monday, 1 August 2011

The Total Perspective Vortex

It's another Wednesday night. I've had a glass or two of a rather nice wine after another long and complicated day at work which included amongst other things leading a tricky meeting in the morning (taking my usual refuge by a flipchart) and making an impromptu speech in front of some bigwigs this afternoon. At the time, that all felt terribly important.

Another evening in front of the telly. That's not as bad as it sounds. TV was famously dismissed as "chewing gum for the eyes" and while it's not hard to find examples which support that, I'm a firm believer that TV has the capability of being as intellectually / culturally / emotionally stimulating as any other artform. But that's a debate for another day: the first point I'm straining towards is that I ended up watching a couple of documentaries on BBC2.

One was David Attenborough talking about the extinction of the elephant bird of Madagascar. He'd been there 50 years earlier and found fragments of an egg of one of these birds. I won't digress here into how he's possibly the only person who gives the cliche "national treasure" some genuine meaning. The documentary kept cutting between Attenborough in 1960 and the present as he reflected on his previous visit and what he saw this time and concluded about what he'd learned in the meantime, peppering the mix with the odd annecdote about how his original visit showed how times had changed (using an enormous old reel to reel tape recorder to broadcast the mating calls of lemurs, for example). There was as good an illustration of a personal history as you're ever likely to see. It ended with showing that he's now had his egg fragments carbon dated and found it was about 1300 years old.

The next programme was about the ancient history of Britain and was familiar schoolbook stuff: the building of Stonehenge and Silbury Hill and looking at Bronze Age technology with the usual reverential look at axe-heads, bones of forgotten VIPs and the more recent tradition of including showing someone using the same techniques so far as we can gather them to have been: in this case, forging a bronze sword. The programme went on to look at the Dover Boat, regarded as being the oldest surviving boat in the world. They reckon it's about 3550 years old. It was found in 1992 while the foundations were being dug out to build a subway in Dover. (You can read about it at the museum's site if you care to do so.) Impressively robust considering its age, the boat was made by stitching together planks of wood with thin branches of yew, like a kind of twine. All very stimulating in its own way.

It was having these programmes back-to-back that illustrated how much we cut out in recording history. It's all carefully edited to present a clear narrative, much like the programmes themselves. The contrast was interesting because the Attenborough programme explicitly made a feature of it. Being partly a sequel to a much earlier "text", it allocated him time to tell us stories "around" the original: how the owner of the hotel he was staying in reacted when he brough back specimens which promptly escaped during the night and reviewing his own diaries while criticising his younger self's tendency to anthropomorphise. (From the bits I can remember of my lit crit studies, I think this is "metatext". What I remember mostly is that if you stick "meta" on the front of other words you take on an air of intellectual rigour while actually becoming more enigmatic.)

The documentary about the ancient Britons on the other hand paid no attention whatsoever to individuals. It focused on the remnants of the civilisation and how these gave clues, but little else, to what these people were about. As always, the surviving artefacts tell the stories of the rich and powerful, with barely anything but implication about the lives of the majority of people living at the time.

I know it's an impossible question but every time I see some ancient artefact, I increasingly find myself wondering about the totally forgotten human being who made it. What was he or she thinking while doing the work? Did the guy carving the symbols on the axe handle stop at some point and go for a piss around the back of the shed? Who caught the wood which was burned to melt the copper and tin to make bronze? What was he worrying about? Did his back / teeth / head ache that day? Did he love someone? What was he looking forward to for tea that evening?

This might feel like a futile and absurdly trivial line of reasoning but don't forget that these are the things which rattle around in our heads for most of our waking hours. None of this is remembered. It can't be done: as a dataset it is too big and not useful enough

Douglas Adams wrote about a thing called the Total Perspective Vortex in which a man was put into a chamber which showed him his scale in relation to the entire infinite universe and it drove him insane. But that was only about space and if you were so minded, it wouldn't bother you: at least you're there somewhere. A more sobering thought still is seeing yourself in relation to time - because for most of it you simply don't exist at all.

So far as I can make out and discounting Genesis and other such myths, the earliest named individual human being who can be historically verified as having existed is King Narmer, a Pharoah who lived about 3100BC. Without going into all the questions of evolution, human beings as we currently know them were here around some 150,000 years ago. That's a lot of people we've forgotten.

All that ever survives of an individual is the products of his / her labours and even then for most it's often by mere chance. The Dover Boat lay hidden in mud for thousands of years, far longer that it had ever been in use as a boat: it's had a longer life as an artefact. All those hours put in by nameless individuals to chop down trees, shape the wood, construct it and move it to where it finally ended up... we can only guess. The fact that it has survived at all is impressive, but it's a mere suggestion of a lost time and lives which have been washed out of memory.

I can't even remember the name of the wine I've been drinking this evening let alone stand any chance of finding out who picked the grapes which made it. I just like drinking the stuff. Of all the time which humanity has ever spent thinking, how much of it has been about things like backache, doing the cleaning and unblocking the drains? In the total of human existence, we have collectively spent more time thinking about things like pain and dirt and love than we have about the balance of payments and fitness of football players. So if all the above sounds morbid, it shouldn't. It's actually quite comforting: any effort to be remembered is pointless so why do so many of us worry about it?

Earlier in the day, I was directed to this:



A Duke Ellington number played by two dozen Japanese people using theremins hidden inside Russian dolls. Sheer ephemera. Fun though, isn't it?

I'm off to bed. They did that in the old days too.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

"My God, a Doctor! What here in the hospital? Whatever can we do?"

One of the things I love about the Fawlty Towers episode The Germans has nothing to do with all the clever prejudice-inverting stuff when the actual Germans arrive. Some of the best lines are the scenes in the hospital when Basil is being sarcastic to the staff.

I adore sarcasm. I couldn't care less about all this "lowest form of wit" malarkey. A piece of brilliant sarcasm has the searing edge which can slice through the sheer banality of most of our lives and raise a smile to boot.

Sarcasm is something you have to dish out with unabashed vigour - that is the only way to do it if you’re going about it properly. You can’t go pussyfooting your way around being sensitive and carefully judging to whom you can be sarcastic etc. You have to be ready to strike and it has to be instant.

I think it's generally a very honest form of expression. It may be about saying one thing while clearly thinking another, but the point is that you make explicit that this is what you're doing. Not mere snide remarks, this is robust, withering sarcasm.

It's also extremely versatile: A dismissive remark with added sarcasm can give your contempt that special extra frisson: not only do you not like the subject you are, furthermore, not afraid of it and comfortable enough to make jokes at its expense.

Flip that around and sarcasm can also be very romantic: verbal dexterity at each others' expense is one of the best things about being in love and, to my mind, one of the signs that it's a healthy relationship of equals. (I should in fairness note that I also think rubbish tips and derelict houses are terribly romantic locations so I may on my own with this one.)

The gripe I do have with sarcasm is that it can make you feel terribly insecure if you don’t spot it - or, to be precise, if you don’t spot it in time. There’s a kind of awareness window attached to it.

It has on occasion taken me years to spot sarcasm. My uncle once claimed he’d never heard of North by Northwest and was it about American Indians. Two years later I realised he was probably joking. I like to think he was or I wouldn’t still be speaking to him for being ignorant.

You look can look utterly humourless if you don’t get it in those crucial few seconds. It's like falling over in public: unless you're seriously injured, you have a tiny window of opportunity to realise what's happened and get up laughing at yourself. You fail to do so at your peril. By such threads do our daily lives hang.

So if we should ever meet and I am sarcastic in your presence though we may be little more than strangers, there are two likely causes: either I have a deep seated love for you or I am in a bad mood. It may well be both simultaneously. Either way I hope you will lap it up and allow me the space to practice my art.

Failing that, just tell me to fuck off.

Here's Mary Hopkin singing a song by Paul McCartney.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Mourning Strangers

On the day I'm writing this, I've just heard of the death of Trish Keenan from the band Broadcast. Inevitably, since I didn't know her personally, what follows is more about me than it is about her. Hence, I've left a discreet interval before sharing it.

I liked Broadcast ever since I first heard them in '97. At the moment, I don't have all their stuff and I never actually got round to seeing them live. I'll probably pick up the albums I don't have during the next few weeks.



What I find is that I'm unusually upset by the news.

These things prompt some dark thoughts (or perhaps 'reactions' is a better word) - that it's not fair that xxxx should still be alive rather than someone who was, by all accounts a lovely person in addition to being highly talented, etc. But that's an ethically dubious line to take, at best it's an expression of a desire for fairness and equity though its implications are monstrous.

Instead, I wonder why I should find this news so particularly sad. Like I said, I never even met her.

There are people dying all around us: the news almost feels like some Biblical satire these days with massive floods, stories of corruption and greed in the temples, war, disease, famine and suffering. Death is all around and perhaps one person simply can't take it all in. That's not intended to be mobid - the same is true of happiness, of course. The world is simply too big for one person to understand so we focus on small significant moments and those are inescapably about ourselves as individuals. I often think it's remarkable that anyone manages to stay sane. Think about all the stuff going on inside your head: every tiny thought, doubt, hope, fear, daft question, mad idea. You and only you know all that in detail. But what you have to learn to cope with is the fact that there are 6 billion other people doing exactly the same and your means of communicating with them are bound by all kinds of constraints, physical, emotional and social. Is it any wonder if people end up with a rather lopsided and highly personal view of things? If you want to look at it that way there's a 6 billion to one chance of you being right about anything at all.

Perhaps that's paradoxically exactly why the death of an artist who has somehow connected with you is more affecting. Broadcast produce dreamy, sad, complex music with Trish's lovely, wistful, remote vocals gliding amongst the sound. Their music is an escape, a glimpse of something different. Maybe too the sadness is that she and I were the same generation and her passing touches a nerve not just in my own sense of mortality but a fear that there may be less and less that is both new and beautiful as one grows older.

But being contemporaries can't be all of it. That's mistaking communication for expression. This illusion is a side-effect of mass media. It's not a bad thing as such. I once heard Morecambe and Wise's scriptwriter Eddie Braben say that one of the things he takes most pleasure in is that he can see a group of complete strangers, say standing in a queue for a bus, and know that at some point he has probably made every one of them laugh.

Maybe it's because there was no such connection for me that I remain mystified by the reaction to the deaths of people like Diana, Princess of Wales, Michael Jackson, Tupac and even Kurt Cobain. Elvis was great in his day, but Lennon's death was the one I can't quite believe really happened - like when you watch a movie you've seen before and find yourself almost thinking it might end differently this time.

The loss of John Peel and Douglas Adams really did hit me because what they'd done had shaped who I am, how I think and how I respond to the world. I actually shed a tear at the news that Sir John Gielgud had died but I think that's because it tapped into my early ambitions to be an actor and for some reason his death at that particular time in my life somehow put a seal on accepting that this was not now going to happen someday. One day I shall probably find myself mourning Tom Baker, the hero of my childhood. Yet he's the very man who notes how we're mostly entertained by the dead these days. I still watch Morecambe and Wise and find them funny and a pleasure to spend time with. In that sense they're still as real and alive for me as they ever actually were.

I never met Trish Keenan and probably wouldn't have recognised her if she wasn't standing on a stage singing but this morning the world (or at least the one I live in) seems a lesser place. Soon, however, I'll be able to listen to her work again and enjoy it, grateful for what I've had more than dwelling on the loss. Here's the first piece of their music I ever heard. It's still one of my favourite things ever:



My sadness is ultimately selfish: there'll be no more lovely music to come. There are many of others who will be thinking that too. But at the back of my mind is the thought of all the people who actually knew her. Their loss is greater than mine.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Slabcake - Playlist Four (29/05/2011)

Show 4: A family of shell-bearing creatures
Here are details of the tracks played in the fourth and final edition of Slabcake on 29th May 2011.


Oh Joyous Diner
Chlorophyll is Good for the Imagination
from the single Salad Makes You Feel Good
L
earn to Swim
www.learntoswimrecordings.co.uk


Pierre Henry

Voile d'Orphee taken from the album Adventures in Sound
El
Amazon link

Mix by Lemur Communcations: The Colours
Has lived in Chorlton for over a decade. Is a collector of odd, unusual and confusing things. Currently investigating: the folklore of animals.
  • Phil Lynott - Yellow Pearl (Lemurs on Mogadon remix)
  • Dion - Purple Haze
  • Goblin - Profundo Rosso
  • Delia Derbyshire - Blue Veils and Golden Sands
  • Yellow Magic Orchestra - Rydeen
  • Telltale - Rainbow 

Malcolm Clarke (BBC Radiophonic Workshop)
The Sea Devils from the album Doctor Who: The Music
BBC Enterprises
deleted

Michishige Tomohisa

Musikalisches Wurfelspiel 1 (Mozart) (not yet released)
Learn to Swim
www.learntoswimrecordings.co.uk


Gyorgy Ligeti

Continuum taken from the album Etudes pour Piano/Invention/Musica Ricercata
Col Legno Collage
Amazon link

Terry Riley

Happy Ending (excerpt) from the album Les Yeux Fermés / Lifespan
Elision Fields
Amazon link

Hank

Mountain Wood Collection from the album The Luck of the Singers
Weeping Truckers / Blocks Recording Club
www.weepingtruckers.com/hank/hankrecordings.html 


Slabcake is produced by Learn to Swim Recordings for Chorlton FM
Presented by Nicolas Jameson. Directed by ACP (Lemur). Produced by Acid Wilhelm. 

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Slabcake - Playlist Three (28/05/2011)

Show 3: Good things of day begin to droop and drowse
Here are details of the tracks played in the third edition of Slabcake on 28th May 2011.

E.M.AK.
Filmmuzik from the album A Synthetic History of E.M.A.K 1982-1988: Elektronische Musik Aus: Koeln
Soul Jazz Records
Amazon link

Clara Rockmore
L'oiseau de feu: Berceuse (Stravinsky) from the album The Art of the Theremin
Delos
Amazon link

Acid Wilhelm
Chase Sequences in the Dreams of the Socially Awkward (not yet released)
Learn to Swim
www.learntoswimrecordings.co.uk


Southern Charles
Living With Peacocks and Bones (Chorlton FM mix) (not yet released)
Weeping Truckers
www.weepingtruckers.com

Hair By Roger
Banqueting from the single Lingering
Learn to Swim
www.learntoswimrecordings.co.uk


Tangerine Dream
Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares from the album Phaedra
Virgin
Amazon link

Karlheinz Stockhausen
Gesang der Junglinge taken from the album Adventures in Sound
El
Amazon link

Acid Wilhelm
Neun und Dreißig (not yet released) 
Learn to Swim
www.learntoswimrecordings.co.uk



Slabcake is produced by Learn to Swim Recordings for Chorlton FM
Presented by Nicolas Jameson. Directed by ACP (Lemur). Produced by Acid Wilhelm.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Musical Toys

As we've been saying in our Slabcake broadcasts, it's very easy these days to play around with some quite complicated musical ideas without all that tedious mucking about with notation and musical theory. Everyone (unless you're clinically amusical, which is very rare) has an innate sense of music: we can all speak and listen to the language even if we're not trained in the written form, the grammar and the practice of writing.

As they used to say on ArtAttack!, try it yerself. They're all free to play with.

  • Tonematrix
    Like a basic, online version of the Tenori-on, it's a simply grid full of squares each of which is a note. Click on them to light each one up and watch your patterns turn into music. Although it looks quite random, you don't get to control tempo, time signature, scale or mode but it's fun to play with.
    http://lab.andre-michelle.com/tonematrix
      

  • Pulsate
    Moving on from Tonematrix to something more abstract. Don't want to give away too many clues as half the fun of this is exploring how it works. To get started, just click quickly on two random places in the square and see what happens...
    http://lab.andre-michelle.com/pulsate

  • Musical Dice Game (Musikalisches Wurfelspiel)
    The most famous example of aleatory composition, i.e. music determined by the roll of dice. Attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, although it was actually published a few months after Mozart's death in 1791, by his publisher Nikolaus Simrock apparently based on notes left by the composer. It doesn't particularly matter whether it really Mozart's creation: the idea of the musical dice game had been around for many years and Mozart's wasn't. Perhaps it was merely a clever bit of branding by Simrock. A roll of dice is used to select small sections of written music which can then be patched together to create a single musical piece. Another version also attributed to Mozart uses letters instead of numbers and invites the “player” to produce the composition derived from the spelling of his or her name. It is therefore theoretically possible to translate the script of an edition of “Homes Under the Hammer” into a composition by Mozart.

    http://sunsite.univie.ac.at/Mozart/dice/


    (Note: Cataloguers do not credit each of these as individual compositions so if it was an attempt by Mozart to claim to be more prolific than Bach it didn't work.) 

  • Bhudda Machine Wall
    The Bhudda Machine is a lovely simple idea. It's a little box which plays soothing Chinese music. There's an online version where you can play around with up to 21 boxes all at the same time and produce your own blend of calming ethereal oddness. (And well done to the guys who made it for leaving the sounds under Creative Commons open copyright.)
    http://aux.zendesk.com/wall

      Sunday, 22 May 2011

      Slabcake - Playlist Two (22/05/2011)

      Show 2: the inevitable result of the natural sequence of events
      Here are details of the tracks played in the second edition of Slabcake on 22nd May 2011.


      Acid Wilhelm
      L'Interfaccia della Mente e del Cervello from the single Una Ricerca per la Morte 
      Learn to Swim
      www.learntoswimrecordings.co.uk


      Delia Derbyshire (BBC Radiophonic Workshop)
      The Delian Mode from the album BBC Radiophonic Music
      BBC Music
      Amazon link

      Malcolm Clarke (BBC Radiophonic Workshop)
      The Comet is Coming from the album BBC Radiophonic Workshop – A Retrospective
      BBC Worldwide Ltd
      Amazon link


      Mix by Nick Harris: Excerpts of Pain and Delight
      Nick Harris plays bass with Dead Sea Apes, a three-piece instrumental group based in Manchester. Since mid-2009 they have been developing a hard-hitting, dynamic blend of desert rock, drone, garage rock, krautrock, post-rock, western soundtracks and psychedelia. Their debut single Soy Dios was released in December 2010, a nine-minute instrumental taking its inspiration from the Mexican psycho-Western film El Topo and backed by two equally epic remixes. They are currently working on a new EP.
      • Throbbing Gristle
        Untitled 2
        from the album Heathen Earth
        Mute Records
        Amazon link
      • Godflesh
        Flowers from the In all languages compilation
        Earache Records
        Amazon link
      • Denis Jones
        Rage
        from the album Red + Yellow
        Humble Soul
        Amazon link
      • Damo Suzuki with Dead Sea Apes
        Untitled 2
        from Live at Dulcimer
        Dead Sea Apes
      • Stray Light
        A series of easily forgotten mistakes
        from Waves Broken
        Doubtful sound records
      • Gnod
        Untitled 1 from Gnod

      Mix by Steven Heaton: Turn From the LightSteven Heaton is a local artist whose work work is held in collections in England, America and Sweden. He works at Soaptank Studios in Warrington. The first Saturday of every month is 'Open Studios' to which all visitors and curious people are welcome. www.soaptank.co.uk He is also an associate member of OK Studios click here to view some of his work Steven has just finished an exhibition 'Time Pieces' which was held at 'Peter Scott Gallery' and was funded by Lancaster University. He was selected to appear in the Liverpool Biennial 2010. His photography was exhibited in 'The Hive Gallery' Arkansas, America in April this year & prints are available from the gallery: www.fayettevilleunderground.org
      • D.D.Denham
        Two Teeth Missing
        from the album Electronic Music in the Classroom
        Cafe Kaput
        Amazon link
      • excerpt from The Moomins: The Hobgoblins Hat
      • Crystal Castles
        Fainting Spells from the album Crystal Castles II
        Polydor
        Amazon link
      • Tune Traveler - Clutchy Hopkins Meets Lord Kenjamin; Music is my medicine
      • excerpt from The Signalman (BBCTV, 1976)
      • excerpt from Schalcken the Painter (BBCTV, 1979)
      • Broadcast and The Focus Group
        The Song Before
        from Study Series 04: Familiar Shapes And Noises
        Ghost Box
        Amazon link
         
      • excerpt from Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Soundtrack)
        Finders Keepers Records
        Amazon link
      • Institute du loop
        A Place to Drown
        (Hive Gallery Exhibition USA)
      • Broadcast
        America's Boy from the album Tender Buttons
        Warp Records
        Amazon link
         
      • Mike Vickers
        Mr Milkman
        Protect and Survive (Music for your domestic nuclear shelter)
        Used as background to "Myths in Popular Music":

        Gavin Bryars 
        Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (excerpt) from the album The Sinking of the Titanic / Jesus's Blood Never Failed Me Yet
        Virgin Records
        Amazon link




        Slabcake is produced by Learn to Swim Recordings for Chorlton FM
        Presented by Pete Nitrous. Produced by Acid Wilhelm.

            Saturday, 21 May 2011

            Slabcake - Playlist One (21/05/2011)

            Show 1: the act of breakfast 
            Here are details of the tracks played in the first edition of Slabcake on 21st May 2011.

            Les Structures Sonores
            Manége
            from the album Les Structures Sonores N° 4
            BAM
            (deleted) 

            Michishige Tomohisa
            Archetrave
            from the album Gold Coins for a Cat
            L
            earn to Swim
            www.learntoswimrecordings.co.uk

             
            Terry Riley
            In the Summer
            from the album Les Yeux Fermés and Lifespan
            Elision Fields

            Amazon link


            Mix by Nicholas Jameson: "She brings in the dawning"

            • BBC Radiophonic Workshop
              Good Morning Wales
              from the album BBC Radiophonic Workshop – A Retrospective
              BBC Worldwide Ltd
              Amazon link

            • Richard Burton and cast
              The Town Smells Of Seaweed And Breakfast
              - an excerpt from Under Milk Wood
              BBC Worldwide Ltd
              Amazon link

            • Salah Ragab and the Cairo Jazz Band
              Ramadan In Space Time
              from the album Egyptian Jazz
              Art Yard
              Amazon link

            • Roj
              Morning Break
              from the album The Transactional Dharma of Roj
              Ghost Box
              Ghost Box link
            • Brian Bennett
              Reflections on a Misty Morning
              from the album Aim High
              RPM
              RPM link

            • David Devant and His Spirit Wife
              Cookie The Clown
              Kindness Recordings
            • MC CocOen
              Heyfuckface!
              from the album Zombie Autograph Hunter (radio edit)


            Acid Wilhelm
            Peridot from the single I was promised spacemen and flying cars 
            Learn to Swim
            www.learntoswimrecordings.co.uk

             
            Brian Eno
            Slow Water
            from the album Music for Films 
            Virgin UK
            Amazon link


            Southern Charles
            The Lights Inside (remixed by Acid Wilhelm) not yet released
            Weeping Truckers
            www.weepingtruckers.com/southerncharles.html

             
            Harmonia 
            Sonnenschein from the album Muzik von Harmonia 
            Universal
            Amazon link


            Hank
            The Sun Shines at Your Door from the album The Luck of the Singers
            Weeping Truckers / Blocks Recording Club
            www.weepingtruckers.com/hank/hankrecordings.html 



            Slabcake is produced by Learn to Swim Recordings for Chorlton FM
            Presented by Pete Nitrous. Produced by Acid Wilhelm. 

            Friday, 20 May 2011

            Strange Noises

            “Avant-garde music is sort of research music. You're glad someone's done it but you don't necessarily want to listen to it.”  Brian Eno

            I don't like the term “avant garde”, it's one of those terms which is so elitist that if you've come across it, you've probably already worked out what it means. It's like finding yourself in Blackpool and asking someone to tell you what a hen party is.

            I'm not really willing to go with the term experimental either. It's true that much of this kind of music is driven by an exercise to test a theory. But an experiment is where you learn just as much from being wrong as being right. Eno's right in that sense: some of this stuff is created with the starting point of conducting an interesting technical exercise but that doesn't necessarily mean that the end result is right or wrong as a piece of music. Who's to judge? Music is completely subjective. And being “wrong” in the sense of breaking away from traditions is often the point of much of this kind of music anyway.

            I'd rather stick to more basic words such as “weird”, “odd” or “barking mad”.

            “Strange” isn't a bad one. Strange matter is a substance identified by physicists as being composed of up, down and strange quarks. “Up  down and strange” is as good a description of this kind of music as any I've ever come across.

            What was once only available to small groups of people who were themselves the experimenters, this strange music has now become while not quite a tradition, certainly no longer unfamiliar – in the same way that some of the revolutionary works of art in 20th century still seem strange but are now less shocking than they once were. If you've ever watched a Tom and Jerry cartoon, you'll already have heard some incredibly bizarre music, largely based on­ a kind of free fall jazz. If you've ever seen any kind of modern horror movie, you've probably heard that discordant metallic sound, like some ghastly reverberating spectral gate swinging open. It's the sound of a waterphone, an atonal musical instrument invented in the 1970s and now so frequently used in creating suspense that it's become a cliché. Minimalist electronic music, astonishingly new in its day, is now used to sell us cars and mobile phones.

            It is unsurprising that this stuff has its roots in anti-establishment movements and deliberately challenging Western classical traditions as it allows people who aren't from the elite of trained musicians and composers to play around with sound and musical ideas. I'm not in any way trying to dismiss Beethoven or Debussy as obvious but I could never do what they did.

            Music used to be a more communal activity. In that sense being "experimental", although it may sound "futuristic", takes us back to a time when music was more primitive: before all the rules were invented. Some of the ideas used to create strange music are now easy to play around with thanks to the internet. With technology which was a pipe dream only a few decades ago it's now easy to produce some amazing, if not always beautiful sounds which you might not normally think of as something to listen to.

            You decide whether Eno has a point or not.

            Sunday, 1 May 2011

            Shapes, Samuel Beckett and Randomness

            Samuel Beckett commented that he loved the shape of the line from the New Testament "Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned." There's a pleasing logic to it - metaphorically, you might say it was "hitting the right note" in balancing retribution and redemption.

            When I'm trying to get ideas to come out from my washing machine tumbler of a brain, I'll tend to use a large sheet of paper and a big marker pen. It's about getting the shape right first. The detail comes later. It's also about not necessarily starting at the beginning: shapes don't have a beginning.

            In music, there's a danger that shape becomes synonymous with structure. Structure can become habit and habit, as Beckett observed in Waiting for Godot, is a great deadener. Playing an instrument is a physical habit and I have to avoid my hands falling into habitual shapes of chords, intervals, etc. Likewise in composition it's easy to form familiar paths. Not surprising that this is the way we work since it's the way our brains work: carving out neural pathways to control movement, memory and thought.

            Radomness is surprisingly difficult to achieve. Human beings relate to the universe in terms of patterns. Apparently simple things like recognising faces are actually about recalling stored patterns. Therefore it is quite difficult, no matter how hard you try, to be genuinely random. There are now even companies which have developed algorithms to generate strings of random numbers and text because it has a certain use in science (I'm not quite sure what) and nobody is able to escape the subconscious habit of creating patterns.

            Habit seems to equal predictability and boredom. Attempts to look to randomness are a search for the new - not that whatever you use will stay random, but because there'll hopefully be some new and exciting connections buried in there somewhere. Aleatory music uses chance factors to generate new connections. If you're thinking that sounds like some new revolutionary post-art concept forget it: Mozart was playing around with this centuries ago. It's not certain that it was him but his publisher did release a document called Musikalisches Wurfelspiele which consists of dozens of musical phrases designed to fit together in any random sequence generated by the throw of dice. Except of course dice aren't truly random: they can only generate 36 different combinations which in the grand scheme of things is not very much - and by creating a number of set phrases (effectively samples), Mozart further defined parameters for those 36 possibilities to link together. So the interesting part is not really the seeming randomness but the struggle between randomness and order. Here is a link to a curious little online instrument which is seemingly random:

            http://lab.andre-michelle.com/pulsate

            It's not, of course, because a decision has been made by the designer to relate particular pitches to the size of the circle: and the fact that it doesn't produce anything discordant means he or she must have introduced some kind of scale which negates the possibility of half or quarter tones which would sound horrible to our ears which are conditioned to recognise tones and semi-tones as pleasing musical intervals - and of course all the sounds need to be within the range of human hearing or it would appear to be doing nothing (except perhaps annoying your dog). Still, it's fun because it's trying to defeat the normal habit of constructing a melody / rhythm: because you can't predict how it will work, there's a pleasing illusion of something apparently random generating a pleasant result. There, now I've spoiled it for you haven't I?

            A little randomness can be a revelation. But in an infinite universe true randomness is overwhelming to the point of being meaningless.

            Quite what all this has to do with an Irish playwright quoting from the New Testament is a bit of a mystery to me, but it is clearly not random.

            Friday, 15 April 2011

            Stereolab

            I miss Stereolab. They seemed so...relaxed is the best word I can come up with. I don't know if they really were or not, but they always struck me as a bunch of people I'd want to spend time with.



            Apart from the fact that Laetitia Sadier is utterly beautiful both to look at and to listen to, there's something carefree about their music. It has the playfulness of a child alongside the energy of youth and a little mature wistfulness. When they chose to, they could produce a very powerful sound but, wisely, they used this sparingly. Unashamedly obscure and with a sly dose of surrealism even occasionally throwing in some political comment, they struck me as having found a great balance between doing things which were both intersting and fun.

            I should admit that when I first heard them, I thought them inconsequential and pretentious, but that was just me being afraid of those things in myself and wanting to avoid anything which might contribute to what I thought at the time was self-indulgence rather than self-expression. Perhaps I grew in confidence or just don't care any more about such things - they're judgements other people will make if they wish to do so.



            I saw Stereolab live several times. Like most bands, there was an energy in their performance which never quite made it onto the records. Inevitably wished I was up there on stage with them (preferably quite near Laetitia). That happens quite a lot to me but it was only Stereolab and Tindersticks where I thought I'd actually fit in with what they were doing. The rest of the time it was just my normal frustration of wanting to play in the sandpit with the other musicians. They had little or no stage presence but I rather like that: I don't mean that I dislike bands who give a theatrical performance, but it's good that there are some who are happy to remain anonymous musicians. But then I was a bass player, so you'd expect me to have that kind of attitude.

            When Mary Hansen died in 2002, I was a little surprised at feeling genuine sympathy for this group of people who I don't actually know* but who I'd become quite fond of for having carved out their own way of doing things and inspiring me to relax my attitudes. That's not meant to sound as trite as it probably does, I guess for me it was a particularly horrible intrusion of reality onto what had seemed a pleasant little corner of the world.

            And now, they seem to have called it a day. It had to come eventually, I guess I just hoped it wouldn't be quite yet.
            * I did once eat a burger in a restaurant in Liverpool while Tim Gaine was sitting at the table opposite. But that was as far as any personal interaction ever went. 

            Saturday, 2 April 2011

            Must Try Harder

            Shorlty before he finally saw success, Douglas Adams was in a near miss from what would have been a fatal car crash. He records that as it was occurring he thought "oh well, it's been a good life"... but only after the incident did he think "actually, no it hasn't". A stark contrast to the obituaries when he died so suddenly aged 49.

            Over the years, I have come to realise that many of the people (by which I mean famous people rather than real people I've actually met) I admire are as much known for their perceived "failure" as their successes. My bookshelves have a special section dedicated to three people in particular - see if you can work out what they have in common: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Orson Welles and Peter Cook.















            All three suffered the same fate: an initial spectacular burst of artistic and critical success followed by a long period which is generally regarded as a failure to fulfil early potential culminating in that dreadful school report approach to the obituary columns. Welles was certainly aware of this "They'll love me when I'm dead" he once said which is by way of defining a person, the same as the line about a classic novel being a book everyone wants to have read but nobody actually wants to read (I think it was Mark Twain - these sorts of quotations are usually Twain or Wilde).

            Cook also commented on several occasions that having written the Mr Spiggot sketch when he was eighteen, he had never written anything as good since. Coleridge, likewise, produced the works for which he is primarily known during 1792, although he survived until 1834.

            As to what went "wrong", I'd challenge the entire view. Coleridge hit the opium, Cook the bottle and Welles was seemingly addicted to being Orson Welles. None of this however means that they suddenly stopped producing anything of artistic worth or, more importantly, being interesting people to spend time with. It's only because there weren't obvious "products" for the critics to point at and coo over that their days are dismissed with a disappointed shake of the head.

            Welles continued to try to make films to the end of his days but, as he put it, the "paintbox" was an expensive one (imagine if he'd had access to the kind of technology any child can get hold of nowadays).

            Cook, by all accounts, had an admittedly unhealthy lifestyle, but lots of people enjoyed his company - he performed to a smaller and more select audience.

            Coleridge adopted middle age and the status of "man of letters". He moved in with an accomodating doctor who would look after him and proceeded to receive visitors, deliver the occasional lecture or article and generally settled down for a comfortable (but not unoccupied) boat ride for the rest of his days. It's difficult to find many comparisons for such a person these days: Peter Ustinov springs to mind. He was a famous actor of course, but he was also a playwright, film director and radio comedian. Yet nowadays he's mostly remembered as a wise and witty raconteur. How long will such a reputation last when there are so few "hits" to point to? Our media don't accord the same status to a great after dinner speech or a collection of memorable articles. Douglas Adams at the time he died had probably ceased to be a novelist and was starting to become more interesting as a man of ideas for whom novels had probably ceased to be the most useful vehicle.

            Most of us have a fairly messy life, a washing machine jumble of stuff some of which happened by chance and some by design. Most of us are not a genius, even for a while. The majority of the creatures on this planet spend their time living in fear of starving or being eaten - literally in the case of animals and metaphorically in the case of many humans. The only thing I can claim as any kind of point I wish to make is that being seen as having "potential" is almost impossible to live up to, especially if the terms of judgement of "success" are set by someone else's account of your life and not your own.

            Postscript
            Since I wrote this, I read a much more succinct way of expressing it, courtesy of some campaigners on disability issues although it has a much broader application: "Judge a fish by its ability to ride a bicycle and it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid."

            Thursday, 31 March 2011

            Suprarealism and the Soundmeme

            The following is reproduced with kind permission of
            Professor H. Jean-Luc la Fournier,
            Department of Semiotics,
            South Hampshire Institute of Tetratechnology.

            1. Semioticist discourse, Soundmemes and pretextual construction.

            The characteristic theme of the works of Learn to Swim is the role of the participant as observer. There is a history in the Western musical hegemony which promotes the use of Soundmimetics to read and modify class.
            Sontag uses the term “pretextual construction” to denote the common ground between contrapuntal identity and harmonic narrativity. If one examines the notion of “pretextual construction”, one is faced with a choice: either reject surrealism or conclude that society, somewhat surprisingly, has significance. In a sense, Wilson[1] states that we have to choose between Soundmimetics and postmodernist discourse.
            Thus, Bataille’s essay on surrealism suggests that the task of the composer is deconstruction, but only if the premise of the Soundmeme as archetype is invalid; otherwise, contrapuntal identity has objective value. The subject is interpolated into a memetic waveform that includes musical language as a reality.
            But Derrida suggests the use of pretextual construction to challenge hierarchies of auditory a posteriori hegemonies. Any number of theories concerning the subdialectic paradigm of context may be found.
            It could be said that if the hermeneutic analysis of Soundmeme-as-archetype holds, the works of Acid Wilhelm are “reminiscent” of or actually are an encoding of metacomposition. Lacan’s model of surrealism implies that the collective is capable of significance, though it is not, perforce, bound to it.

            2. Realities of absurdity

            Counterpoint is intrinsically used in the service of modal harmonics,” says Debord; however, according to Finnis[2] , it is not so much counterpoint that is intrinsically used in of modal harmonics, but rather the defining characteristic, and some would say the stasis, of counterpoint. Therefore, the main theme of Humphrey’s[3] analysis of Learn to Swim is the failure, and thus the economy, of the Soundmeme as an wave-expression. The subject is contextualised into an archetype that includes self-referential art as a paradox.
            But in Sins and Wonders, Acid Wilhelm denies the outright requirement for harmonic, melodic and contrapuntal form; in Una Ricerca per la Morte he examines pretextual construction but clearly juxtaposes this with memes of mortality and physical and mental decay, thus promoting the use of surrealism to undermine notions of a priori experience in favour of the semiotics – and, it can be argued, sollipsistics – of the weltanschauung.
            Thus, Werther[4] suggests that we have to choose between pretextual irrationalism and structuralist subcultural theory. Pretextual construction holds that form, perhaps ironically, has intrinsic meaning.
            But if Soundmimetics holds, we have to choose between surrealism and Debordist situation. Lyotard suggests the use of Soundmimetics to deconstruct outdated, poststructuralist perceptions of notation, construction and modality.

            3. Surrealism and textual rationalism

            Culture is part of the absurdity of narrativity,” says Sontag. Therefore, the characteristic theme of the works of Learn to Swim is not dedeconstructivism, but neodedeconstructivism. Several auralnarratives concerning a self-justifying whole exist.
            If one examines Derridaist reading, one is faced with a choice: either accept surrealism or conclude that the purpose of the composer is significant form, given that culture is equal to narrativity. Thus, Sartre’s model of prematerial dematerialism states that truth is capable of deconstruction. The main theme of Hamburger’s[5] critique of surrealism is the difference between counterpoint and harmonic misdirection as a denial of identity.
            Structure is fundamentally a legal fiction,” says Sontag; however, according to Buxton[6] , it is not so much structure that is fundamentally a legal fiction, but rather the collapse, and subsequent defining characteristic, of structure. In a sense, Porter[7] holds that the works of Learn to Swim are modernistic. Soundmimetics suggests that disharmony continues to gain significance.
            If one examines textual rationalism, one is faced with a choice: either reject Soundmimetics or conclude that metaconsciousness serves to disempower minority listener-responder communities. Therefore, the primary theme of the works of Learn to Swim is the collapse, and eventually the rubicon, of modernist language. Foucault promotes the use of surrealism to analyse and read metaidentity.
            But if postmusical theory holds, we have to choose between Soundmimetics and semantic neomusical theory. A number of appropriations concerning a feministic “dea-mime” may be revealed.
            Thus, the premise of surrealism states that context comes from the masses, not from some farcical acquatic ceremony, given that Lacan’s model of Soundmimetics is valid. Several narratives concerning not discourse as such, but prediscourse exist.
            It could be said that the subject is interpolated into an auditory construct that includes an hypothesis of art as a reality. The futility, and therefore the rubicon, of surrealism intrinsic to Loophead’s Lord Edward Bleeds is also evident in Snowmelt’s A Beverley and Dundas Life.
            Therefore, the subject is contextualised into a mimetic paradigm that includes hyperawareness as a paradox. Debord uses the term ’surrealism’ to denote the stasis, and subsequent absurdity, of subaural society.
            But the subject is interpolated into an auditory construct that includes art as a whole, any number of desublimations concerning surrealism may be found.
            In a sense, the premise of cultural postmusic theory holds that the goal of the composer is significant form. The subject is contextualised into a construct that includes narrativity as a totality.
            1. Wilson, I. U. H. ed. (1992) Cultural Desublimations: Bicameral Metasocialism in the works of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Oxford University Press
            2. Finnis, K. H. (1977) Discordant Times: Deconstruction and surrealism in Sound. Yale University Press
            3. Humphrey, P. ed. (1981) The Meaninglessness of Aural Discourse: Surrealism and the Soundmeme. Oxford University Press
            4. Werther, F. Y. E. (1974) Marxist socialism and surrealism. And/Or Press
            5. Hamburger, Q. ed. (1981) Consensuses of Genre: The Surrealism of DisMusic and the Interpretetion of Soundmemes. O’Reilly & Associates
            6. Buxton, U. Z. (1997) Surrealism and The Internal Ear – A Postmimetic Apostasy. Schlangekraft
            7. Porter, K. L. Y. ed. (1976) Subtextual Discourses: Sound Mimetics in the works of Derbyshire. Yale University Press

            Monday, 14 March 2011

            The Gamelan

            Like I said elsewhere recently, it's difficult these days for music to retain an air of mystery. It's not always about complexity, sometimes it's like selective evolution - a relatively simple action iterated so many times in slightly different ways that it produces a result which appears much more complex. I'm tempted to believe that's what consciousness is: the neural equivalent of a piece of film in which a rapid succession of still images gives the illusion of movement. In order to protect the rareness of the enigma, I've deliberately not found out much about it but that's how this kind of thing seems to work:



            I guess there are all kind of structures and "rules" in there but it's from a different culture to the one I grew up in so I don't have an in-built frame of reference. I'm not trying to play the tired old game of "the mysteries of the east" as if it's only the non-western world which is so enigmatic. To people raised in that culture the one I live in must look equally strange. Some days it puzzles me at the moment - but I'm going to stop that thought there as this could descent into a political rant.

            I got into this kind of thing after taking a punt on some gamelan music in a record store. Sometimes it seems the only way to find something new and interesting these days: just pick something up at random or on the basis of a name or an interesting image on the cover. With the way music seems to be codified into innumerable genres these days, leaping randomly across the categories ends up being the only way to avoid the mechanical recommendation process where some algorithm has been compiled on the assumption that people only like music which is the same as everything else they like.

            I've never been anywhere near Indonesia and probably never will. I have no clue about any cultural significance attached to any of this music. My appreciation of it is purely aesthetic.

            In short, it's lovely and I'm happy to say I don't know why.

            Tuesday, 1 March 2011

            Cosmos

            Carl Sagan. I watched him on BBC2 in the early 1980s but it wasn't until I watched the whole series again a couple of years back that I realised how much an effect it must have had on me. Here's the introduction from the first episode:




            First off, I love the Vangelis music. Other people thought it was boring, but it's beautiful. I bought the album, Heaven and Hell, and most of the rest of it is...not as good. (In fact the first track is so silly I involuntarily created a dance move to accompany it).

            Then there's Sagan himself. The slow, studied voice seems almost silly to English ears but it's because he's the archetype: he's what the impressionists used as their source material, so much that we've now forgotten the origin. But listen to what he's saying. He's talking about complex scientific ideas... in poetry. Now Sagan is no mere presenter, once again he's the real thing. He worked at NASA on the Apollo and Voyager missions. This man is genuinely one of the leading thinkers of the last century. And here he is speaking about humans being made of "star stuff". They should include it in poetry books and teach it in schools. If there were more like him with the luminosity which comes from the ability think *and* express so clearly and creatively, progress might have some meaning.

            I'm pretty sure I didn't see all of the series in 1982. I certainly didn't understand everything I saw, at least I didn't understand the full implications. Being brought up in an Irish Catholic household, I knew there was a choice to be made at some point between a God-created universe or the scientific view. I didn't make the connection with evolution, sociology or any of the other things which shaped my thinking in the intervening years. But then I was only ten and there were other things going on.

            Still, I became vaguely aware that the time spent thinking about the cosmos in the company of this wise and gentle Dr. Sagan was more somehow moving me more deeply than all this business with the tedious readings, the odd rituals, the funny clothes and the off-key singing on a Sunday morning.

            Oddly enough, Sagan has the benevolent manner and genial tone of a clergyman but one of the key things is that the more frightening his message, the calmer he becomes. Towards the end of the series, in one of the moments which dates it far more than the early computer graphics and communication technology, he speaks of the fear and insanity of the nuclear arms race in the Cold War climate of the time (though he gives equal status to the issue of damage to the environment, considerably before it became such a well-known issue). What's fascinating is that as he delivers this speech, his tone remains calm but tinged with regret and almost paternal disappointment that humanity can be so wonderful and yet so stupid at the same time. This was a huge contrast with the various religious figures I was seeing whose geniality disappeared the moment they brought out the big guns of eternal fire, damnation, original sin, etc. At the same time as I was being taught to confess to even thinking about the wrong things (especially anything which might be considered pleasurable), Cosmos was encouraging me to think about the fundamental nature of reality...which was something the religious people seemed strangely unwilling to discuss.

            I've oversimplified it. I don't mean to portray my ten year old self as some kind of prepubescent collossus astride the boundary between science and religion. A more apt description would be that I was a kid wandering around in no man's land, starting not to trust the things being told to me by people I knew and loved while gaining more respect for the views of people I only knew through the TV and the force of argument.

            Just watch Cosmos. It won't affect you the way it did me because it's unlikely you're 10 years old and living in the kind of circumstances I was at the time. But watch it all the same: it's an unashamedly personal essay by Sagan, so if nothing else there's pleasure to be had in spending time in the company of someone who knows what he's talking about and is able to do so with clarity, wit and ingenuity.

            Lastly, I can't resist telling possibly my favourite story about Sagan. He was in charge of the committee which put together the time capsule golden discs placed aboard the Voyager I and II space probes in the late 1970s. Legend has it that having agreed on selections of Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky, someone proposed inclusion of Bach. Sagan replied "That would just be showing off."*

            Cosmos on DVD (Amazon link)

            * Apparently he also wanted to include Here Comes the Sun and while the Beatles themselves agreed, EMI refused to give permission. Clearly they think the copyright laws on Alpha Centauri are too lax. I wonder if they put an anti-piracy warning on the disc too?