Friday, 14 January 2011

Penda's Fen

It's almost impossible to say why this works. Made in 1974 for the BBC's Play for Today strand (one of those things the BBC is proud to have done but would run a mile from doing these days), it is equally impossible to describe in terms of either plot or narrative. It's perhaps a series of dreams, images and experiences seen through the eyes of a young boy growing up in rural England. Chuck in homoerotic fantasy, discussions with Elgar, Christian and pagan ritual and a dead bird (...and some other things which I won't even list because you'll find yourself waiting for them to turn up) you start to get the sense that this is something simply to experience rather than describe.

The play has an almost legendary status because of its elusive and layered qualities, raising the concern that, like the last episode of The Prisoner, it may actually be beautifully crafted nonsense and not worth sticking with. But be patient: this was directed by Alan Clarke one of the best TV directors Britain ever produced. While he is reputed to have said he didn't understand the play either, he nevertheless manages to pull out the various themes within the piece and weave them together create a genuine sense of enigma rather than mere confusion or tacky suspense.

By the time you reach the final scenes you may have the feeling of having glimpsed something rather than actually seen it. For that alone, it's an experience worth having.

Also worth having is a "what the fuck was that about?" discussion afterwards in which you attempt to describe what it is you've just watched.

There will be a lot about Play for Today on here. It's inevitable.

    Saturday, 1 January 2011

    Snowflakes Are Dancing

    Like many things which will feature here, it starts somewhere with TV. I was about 15. Having seen the TV series, I was reading a book of the scripts for the original radio series of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The producer had helpfully included notes of music which had been used in the background. This included things I'd heard of such as Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygene but also intruiging names such as A Rainbow in Curved Air by someone called Terry Riley and "The Engulfed Cathedral" from the album Snowflakes Are Dancing by Iso Tomita. Just the titles were captivating.

    It so happened that not that long after, I was at the house of some family friends and inevitably offsetting the boredom by nosing through the record collection. I came across two albums by Tomita: Snowflakes Are Dancing and The Firebird.

    By this time, the idea of electronic music was something I just automatically liked. I don't think I realised that I liked it a lot more than just the electropop which was in the charts around that time but I was aware that the synthpop I liked most was the strangely dry and crisp sounding records which really were all about the synthesizers: Kraftwerk's The Model, Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams and I much preferred The Human League's Open Your Heart to the more familiar Don't You Want Me. Most of the other sythesizer music was just pop music with the catchy bit on a synth... and usually a synth that was actually trying to sound like something else. Not that this mattered unduly becase the only electronic records I actually owned were two 7" singles of different versions of the theme from Doctor Who (which sounded even more wonderful played at 16rpm). I also had a copy of Walter Carlos' Switched on Bach which I'd borrowed from my uncle.

    Tomita appears on the back cover of Snowflakes Are Dancing and was instantly a more curious figure to me than Walter Carlos. Like Tomita, Carlos was depicted on his album in front of huge banks of dials and switches which appealed to the kid who'd been raised on the BBC Visual Effects Department's vision of the future. But Carlos' album was called Switched On Bach which doesn't actually work as a joke and was rendered all the more naff by the front cover showing a guy dressed as Bach but ooh look he's standing rakishly in front of some synthesizers. It smacked entirely of novelty. The rather twee versions of some familiar bits of Bach only confirmed this.

    Tomita's album titles were cool and beautiful. He himself was so much more enigmatic. To a kid raised when and where I was, the fact that this guy was Japanese made him a curiosity to start with. It was the picture: there was no pretension, just a slightly chubby Japanese man in an ordinary shirt with oddly rubbish hair. But for the absence of the thick-lensed steel rimmed glasses, he fitted completely with the stereotypes which were being rammed into me at that age. While Japanese women were beautiful and elegant and all wore kimonos if they didn't happen to be 60s sex kittens, Japanese men were, on the other hand, slightly dull but redeemed by being the only people in the world who could really do Technology. Also of course, they produced child prodigy musicians by training them to play the violin before they'd even got the hang of solid food. Looking back, I'm surprised that I didn't at any point wonder whether he was also good at Karate since that was the other thing which apparently every man from Japan did according to what I'd seen on Monkey! and Kung Fu.

    I wish I could say I was naturally above that sort of stereotypical thinking but actually I was slightly envious of the Japanese - as they were being presented to me, at least. I wished I'd been taught to play the piano and the violin when I was incredibly young before I became aware of the effort of learning. Most of all everything about Japan seemed particularly cool because the of the mixture of the ancient and legendary  alongside all the magical technology which meant The Future. On reflection, it now seems odd that I never really got into animé.

    So, I listened to The Firebird. The opening bars immediately had me thinking of Cybermen emerging from shadows . And then it went very strange and even occasionally slightly silly. I think I was mildly disappointed by this at first because it seemed to break the spell. It was only a long time later I realised what it reminded me of: the music from a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Try listening to the music in one of those cartoons sometime. It's bizarre stuff, all jumbles of strings and rhythms crashing into each other and sliding about all over the place. Never occurred to me that it was actually music in the sense of something you actually listen to... and yet here it was being done by an anonymous Japanese man with a synthesizer. He probably had the reassuringly dull glasses somewhere but left them on top of the Binson echo unit while he was having his photo taken.

    And then Snowflakes Are Dancing. This was utterly different: beautiful, haunting. Occasionally swirling and ethereal like Jean-Michel Jarre, sometimes darkly atmospheric like ...well, like the sort of music for exploring underground corridors in Blake's 7. But there was something else as well, this was delicate, intricate music which never seemed to go quite where you expected it.

    Perhaps it says a lot about me, but I was more concerned about getting these two albums onto tape while I had the chance. I forgot to write down the track listing and completely failed to notice the names Stravinksy and Debussy. Of course, it was later when I heard unadorned Debussy that I realised how much Tomita had orchestrated what were initially purely piano pieces. And I must admit, I do now prefer the (apparent) simplicity of Debussy on the piano. And despite being apparently suited to a futuristic sound, somehow an orchestra playing Stravinsky sounds more astonishing than anything Tomita achieved. Perhaps strangeness is a little too easy on a synthesizer.

    But with Snowflakes Are Dancing, Tomita opened my ears to what you could really do with these machines: it could be beautiful and haunting, not just fast and flashy. And, there were lots of buttons to play with.

    Snowflakes Are Dancing (Amazon link)