The Zappa Re-Reviews…?

What happened to The Zappa Reviews? Same shit that always happens with me: something else came up. In this case it was a kind of assault from all fronts on my ability to continue working on it, at least for a time. Not only did my computer break down, I agreed to join a small team of friends, operating as a writer and a composer, to help create a game. Now, hang on, how did I work on this stuff if I didn’t have a computer? Well, I did, kind of. I had permission to use someone else’s computer for this work until I could get a new computer (mission accomplished on that front), and yes, I could have used it to continue writing The Zappa Reviews as well, but I chose not to because I didn’t feel comfortable hogging someone else’s property to work on what is basically a hobby as opposed to an actual responsibility. I don’t think what I’m doing here is particularly important, but I take the creative stuff I do seriously and I put a lot of time and effort into hopefully making something good out of it, so I hope you’ll forgive the over-seriousness of this opening.

So my computer broke down and I got a job, that’s all fine and well, but I stopped writing the reviews regularly some time before either of those things happened. Why? Well, as the now dropped subtitle of this essay/article/whatever (I’m kind of embarrassed to call my writings essays since that, to me, implies some sort of intellectual rigour definitely not in evidence in my work) says, I “hit the ideological wall.” I went into the project all gung ho about sorting out Zappa’s position in the context of the 20th century and the present day, I talked about “logical lenses” through which I would get at the core of his philosophy and all that kind of stuff. At its inception, it was a project built on lofty goals and ambitious talk, and my desire and determination to live up to those ideals resulted in probably the best writing I’ve ever done. I’m particularly proud of my review of Lumpy Gravy, in which I tried my damnedest to grasp the character of a very complicated album and somewhat succeeded, tying the textual and musical content together on some level with the album’s cultural context, not exactly in a neat fashion, but in a way that seemed to work. The biggest failures so far are probably the reviews of We’re Only In It for the Money and Hot Rats. Both times I gave up talking about the content and settled for something less, a negation of my professed responsibility to document and dissect their contents, I excused myself for that intellectual laziness and just said “hey, what can I do?” In the latter case I feel like I came across particularly bitchy, possibly because I had gotten out of the swing of things and had forced myself to write a new entry even though I wasn’t really “feeling it.” I stooped to lazy attacks against people who despise Frank Zappa yet love that album, because I placed my personal taste on a pedestal above attempting any real analysis of the musical content, and those attacks might have had grains of truth to them, but they served collectively as a piss poor excuse to do anything but properly address the album itself. To be fair, I’m no musicologist, I don’t know shit from sugar when it comes to music theory, and there’s no way I could have provided an insightful critique of what’s actually going on from note to note, chord to chord, in the music, but then I never stated musical analysis to be my goal, and I should have looked instead at the musical climate in which the album was released, how it affected the development of jazz fusion, Zappa’s relationship with jazz etc. Instead I just made cop-out after cop-out, and I find that inexcusable when I look back on it today.

The ideological wall. That’s a concept that hasn’t really fully formed in my head. The phrase appeared there two days ago, when I first had the idea to write this, and it hasn’t really explained itself or opened itself up to much in the way interrogation, or maybe I have once again been lazy and just not really contemplated it. I think the initial appeal of it was that it is a phrase that sounds like something a smart person would write, and you know I really want to look good in the eyes of a bunch of near total strangers who might be feeling generous with their time of an evening. As far as I understand the inner workings of my own mind (which is to say not very well) I think the gist of it is that when confronted with reality, an ideologue is faced with the choice of either tempering their ideology, renouncing ideology, or ramping up confirmation bias to the point that only things that absolutely agree with the ideology are taken into account. The last of these is how you end up with people like Ben “Frank Zappa was a Marxist” Watson, whose work in my view is basically the feminist glaciology of music criticism. But I’m not going to trash Mr Watson, at least not too much, because this piece is all about trashing myself, baby, so let’s carry on with that.

Of the above trichotomy, whether legitimate or false, I eventually chose the second option, the rejection of ideology. Prior to this actually quite recent turn of events, I didn’t feel comfortable with continuing the project. I was in a kind of limbo, not knowing how I wanted to approach future reviews, and I felt it was fairly ridiculous to carry on with it under the false pretence of still believing that it was possible to complete it as it was originally intended to be completed. By that, I mean that I don’t feel, neither as I am writing this nor as I have been thinking about the project over the past year or so, that it is possible to see it through to a conclusion. I can certainly work my way from album to album, eventually arriving at Civilization Phaze III and nominally coming to a conclusion, but I can’t work all that into the ultimate service of a point before the fact. I didn’t even get to the 1970s in my chronological progression through Zappa’s discography and I already realised that was a problem. In fact, if you look back through all the reviews I have so far completed, it’s pretty obvious that this approach was never going to work unless I ignored things that didn’t fit into the view I wanted to hold up. That’s not to say I went into it thinking “I’m going to show it this way,” because I like to think I can be more intellectually honest and nuanced in my work than that. I did intend, as I went on into the mid-70s, when Zappa, continuing to do what he had been doing all through his ’60s career, would begin to run afoul of both the progressive left and the religious right, to debunk some of the myths about him as a person, e.g.: that he was a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, and so on. I still want to go through with that, because I think the level of misinformation out there about him is staggering, and it’s kind of insane to think that there isn’t much in the way of a rational backlash against it. Even with those goals in mind, I wasn’t interested in starting with the conclusion and writing everything around it.

So, where to now? First off, as an extension of my earlier apology for intellectual laziness which I make not only to my readers (if indeed there still are any) but to myself, I would like to re-review both We’re Only In It for the Money and Hot Rats. I really dropped the ball on those two, and I knew this soon after I had written them. At first, regarding WOIIFTM, I had chosen to press on because I felt that it was better to complete a first draft of the entire series, then go back and take stock of what worked and what didn’t. Now, with so much time having passed, I feel like it’s better to just go ahead and make the change now, and start from scratch. I won’t be replacing my failures in some kind of revisionist history of my work, I’ve always been a warts and all kind of guy when it comes to work and to talking about my work, and I think it’s better for my mistakes to be acknowledged and accessible than it is to pretend they never happened. As for the rest of the series, I think the most important thing to bear in mind is that, as I progressed along the initial run, I became entrenched to some degree in starting work on each review worrying about how I was going to tie it in to what had come before it, it got to the point that I didn’t even enjoy listening to the albums any more (granted, later on that’s going to happen from time to time and for entirely different reasons) and the whole thing became a chore rather inadvertently. I’m going to try from now on to treat each review as its own thing, not to angle for this or that, anticipating only when necessary, rather than as if I’m writing a travelogue about my journeys from place to place.

So there you have it, in case you (yes, you!) were wondering what the hell I’ve been doing. That’s it. Really. There’s nothing else to say. I’m done. Go on, go. Please. Stop touching me.

Fuck joke endings.


Your Limitations are Good for You

or The Importance of Doing What You Can with What You’ve Got

Today, after many years of technical ignorance, mishaps, and probably one or two cases of wilfully doing things wrong, I finally have a computer that is truly ready for the big time. With this machine, its solid state drive housing a 64-bit operating system, I can finally make use of more than 4 GB of RAM in my Cubase projects. What does this mean in practice? Essentially it means that where previously I could maybe load up five (at a stretch) high quality instruments for use at any given time, I can now load up ten, twenty, thirty or more such instruments and use them all at once. Compared to the total short span of my life so far, this is something I have wanted for a very long time, but when I look back on myself the best part of ten years ago, when Cazazza Dan was born and I started work on my first album, The Salad, with dreams of being a great and prolific maker of music both on and off the computer, I realise that I have been, up to this point, unready for that kind of responsibility.

Many composers who are just starting out (I should stress that I am focusing solely on people like me, who have not gone to school for music but have instead come to it on their own through self-guided study, as I do not wish to speculate on curricula about which I know next to nothing) whether they write on paper at the piano or use scorewriter software, or, like me, a DAW with piano roll functionality, are coming to music creation with certain expectations. First of all, they expect, perhaps in arrogance, perhaps in hope, to be good from the start. This is explained simply enough, at least in the west, by our culture of instant gratification. Kids have grown or are growing up with smartphones, laptops, the internet, downloads, streaming etc. and are used to getting things however, wherever, and whenever they want. This is just a fact of modern life, modern youth, and it was the same for me. My mother was by no means an early adopter of personal computers and the internet, I don’t think we had a computer until I was six years old, and it wasn’t exactly great for gaming or anything like that, even by the now primitive standards of the era. But that was twenty years ago, I’ve spent twenty years of my life with computer technology, I have embraced it, I am practically, by the standards of 1950s science fiction, a transhuman wired into a global network of information, monitors a second pair of eyes, mice and keyboards and console controllers extensions of my physical limbs into a parallel oceanic world of raw data. A touch poetic, no doubt, but this is, more or less, the situation of the modern child, the modern young adult, hell, in many cases even the modern middle aged person.

Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. The internet and the technology with which we access it have given us unprecedented access to the sum total of human knowledge, and this, ultimately, if we steer a liberal course through the grand and ever present oil spill of propaganda and ideology which seems, alarmingly, to grow exponentially by the day, we will continue to benefit from and prosper by this greatest of resources. No, it is not a bad thing, but what it does is to facilitate entitlement. Entitlement is rampant in modern western society, generally among people who do not wish to put any effort into obtaining the things to which the believe they are entitled, and this is also true for young composers. I remember, some time ago, on a forum, witnessing a young “composer” state quite boldly that he did not wish to study music. Now, this is perhaps a counter intuitive example, for, people who know me will ask, did I not do the same? Well, yes and no. There is studying in the sense of taking piano lessons, taking courses in musicology, or composition, or orchestration, or whatever, and then there is studying in the sense of listening, of seeking out and absorbing as much musical information as possible, of learning by doing, not by reading, of immersion in the physical experience of music and so forth. Neither of these, so far as I can see, is better or worse than the other, they both require a lot of dedication and discipline, their results will vary depending on the characteristics of the student. That much is obvious. My choice was the latter of the two, and despite presenting considerable difficulties to get off the ground for a number of years, it has served me well as far as my own personal approach to composition goes. In the case of the young composer who wished not to study, well, his own work was not very good, as one might expect, but crucially he could not progress beyond his not-very-goodness because any sort of effort or dedication to the craft of composition was pre-emptively shut down in his thinking. He had built a Trumpesque border wall between himself and we (dare I say) more enlightened people, and was quite literally making us pay for it with our ears.

His is perhaps an egregious example, one which, had I not witnessed it for myself, I could scarce believe was not satire. But the desire for instant gratification among young composers manifests itself more pronouncedly in the conflict between scale and scope of composition and the broadness of lack thereof of the composer’s point of view. To use myself as an example, we can return once more to The Salad. It was 2007, I was a bright faced little shit with my copy of Reason 4 and my new computer, far superior to the ailing old thing bought back around the turn of the century. I had saved up from my short-lived career as an IT technician for a new computer which I would use primarily to shoot highly detailed masses of polygons in the face in glorious 1080p, but as I worked that job, my passion for computers waned quite naturally in deference to my indefatigable love of music, and I ended up using the computer in the main for quite different purposes. It took me about six months of what I thought of as “hard work” (in reality I had no true conception of this) to create my first album, and I had decided to be very ambitious with it. First of all, I reasoned, most albums were about an hour long these days, so my album should be an hour long. Then I reasoned that the mark of greatness, the calling card of any truly great composer was the production of a long piece of music, so my album should contain a 30 minute epic. These two things I achieved, but for all the fuss I had made over them, they did not actually contribute anything vital to the album. They were in fact milestones signifying nothing; I had toiled, in a kind of ambling, confused, possibly adorably stupid way, to reach them, only to find that they were achievements of the least meaningful kind. It took me a couple of years to come to that realisation, but it was a valuable one containing lessons which I would, perhaps unfortunately, not actually learn for year another year or two.

We can see similar examples in the admitted ambitions of other beginners. They want to write Requiem Masses in D minor, and lay bare their souls upon the mysteries of life and death, to treat with the greatest solemnity the human condition, and their music shall be heard and it shall speak to the heart of man and unite humanity in brotherhood and love and all this lofty stuff which, let’s be real, they only think about because they’ve heard it way too often whenever some gasbag with a podium occasions a lecture on Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and whoever else, perhaps Mahler or Shostakovich, maybe Tchaikovsky. If this kind of rhetoric was at least tempered by passionate speech in favour of letting music stand on its own, this misguided loftiness might not be so endemic, but it is here and we must deal with it. So, these poor kids, with their copies of MuseScore and their balloon-like egos, get to work writing their big themes and plotting their big schemes and jerking it to their big dreams, and then a week, a month, three months pass and they don’t have much of anything but a ramshackle collection of fragments and no clue of how stitch them together. This is what we call overreaching one’s grasp.

There are plenty of examples of overreaching as a composer that I can give you from my own past. Here’s just one. I once sought to create a “Mass of Music,” a grand humanist equivalent of the great Christian choral works, but where they praised God I would denounce God and praise man in His place, I would set texts on the beauty of human achievement, it would be two hours long and so life affirming as to make everyone cry tears of joy upon hearing it, and I would have a humanist cathedral of sorts erected to play this piece and other pieces like it. Fortunately for me, unlike Scriabin, who sought to do something not too dissimilar with his unfinished Mysterium, I didn’t get much beyond the title. Why? Because it was just too damn big. I tooled around with the concept for a while, but eventually decided it was better to, you know, do what I could with what I had available to me. That turned out to be a burgeoning musical mind and (skipping a couple of years of my sordid musical history) a computer that could handle trios and quartets and the like. These things, limited by different factors, complemented each other at first, but ultimately the former was bound to outgrow the latter. In pieces such as Urgynes, Oat, Frozen Bob’s Estranged Wife etc., I had expanded quite massively my understanding of sequencing and of the extended possibilities of sampled instruments versus their physical counterparts. In some cases I had written music for three instruments that might require seven or more to play in live performance. This expansion of understanding, and in turn transgression and defeat of the then present limitations of my musical thinking, meant that I came to desire a broader canvas, to be able to take the “more with less” approach and apply it on a grand, or at least grander scale. However, had I jumped the gun and gotten what I wanted even a year ago, when I released my most recent composition, Problem Zero, and shortly before my old computer breathed its last, I would not have been ready.

Just now, as I prepared to conclude this essay or article or whatever it might ultimately be, I caught myself typing a paragraph which read eerily like the script for some kind of infomercial for a holistic wellness product. As so often happens with me, I am remedying that embarrassment by moving away from the actual topic and delivering a meta-conclusion in which I attempt to talk about talking about a thing and how difficult it is while simultaneously trying to avoid sounding like I’m having a whinge about being able to sit around writing bullshit for other people to read on the internet. I also start writing run-on sentences, cracking jokes at my own expense, and resorting to that kind of glib, hip, gotcha snark that writers of our time use far, far too much in general. It is a testament to my own abilities, or lack thereof, that my conclusion should consist of this. Yes, in that sense what a fine way this is to end a too-long text on the benefits of discovering and acknowledging one’s limitations.

A Brief Comparison of Two American Composers: Harry Partch & Frank Zappa

Here we have two composers, American eccentrics we might think of as existing at best on the extreme periphery of mainstream public consciousness, fiercely devoted to their own particular conceptions of music, possessed of the belief that something in their immediate musical environments stinks. Such vague statements make the conflict a toss up between two equals — and it should be noted that as far as compositional prowess and quality of work goes I am here treating that equality as a given — but to go beyond the surface is to recognise that the question of Partch versus Zappa is the question of idealism versus realism.

Partch, for all his pragmatism — as shown during his somewhat legendary hobo years — very much exemplifies the idealism, the romanticism of the American maverick, a man who would rather accept odd writing and speaking appointments while riding the rails in poverty than ever commit himself to the mundanity of the daily grind. His life was spent in the service of music, and perhaps more importantly in the service of fighting a perceived conspiracy against just intonation, which he believed was more pure, more vital than the sterile, clinical equal temperament which dominates western music.

Partch goes against the grain, not only of modern music, but of western music as we think of it in general; he is a traditionalist in the extreme, and in many ways the only true primitivist composer of the 20th century. He forsakes the western aesthetics that developed over the course of some millennia anno domini and looks instead to Ancient Greece, conceiving of a “corporeal music” which is a complete work of sound, movement, and drama. In some ways he can be compared to Wagner, who sought the complete synthesis of music and drama, yet Partch strips his music entirely of any romantic conception of drama, returning instead to an erstwhile forgotten past of ritual, invocation, and procession.

In pursuit of his ideals, fuelled by his dedication to this conception of music, Partch created an environment, a culture which would support its continued existence, but his staunch position against the broader musical world — which was content to kowtow to a system of wilful musical ignorance — made that environment a totally insular one. His music is written in a 43-tone scale of his own invention, and performances require the use of his own invented instruments, many of which are unique, fragile, and either very difficult or very costly to reproduce. The physicality of his music is strong, but the same cannot be said when it comes to the means of production, and his refusal to entertain 12TET may ultimately remove his music from the stage for good.

Zappa is in many ways the polar opposite of Partch. While they may both be viewed as outsiders of equal extremity and eccentricity, Zappa was perfectly happy to engage with the systems and cultures which he personally disparaged, and would often delight in doing both simultaneously — to play the game to his advantage at the same time that he was disdainfully mocking it. It could be simplified, though it may be gross to do so, down to this: Zappa is equal parts Stravinsky and Lenny Bruce: a composer, a man of business, able to make his way by composing and performing alone; a satirist, a transgressor, observing from a distance but then engaging directly, often uniquely with the target of his mockery.

Yet his irreverence towards the establishment, both in classical and popular music, did not extend to a general aversion to hundreds of years of western musical development, nor was it total. Zappa, despite his reputation as a hard-edged, acerbic man for whom disdain was the closest thing to praise it was possible to muster, was a lover of all kinds of music. Rather than disliking any one genre or style or tradition, his only professed dislike was that of mediocrity, which he felt was abundant in all areas at all times, and his responses in interviews, as well as his numerous guest DJ appearances on radio, showcase a broad and deep knowledge of and a passion for the music of the world in general.

If Partch is music’s greatest primitivist, it is reasonable to suggest Zappa for the title of its greatest post-modernist. Everything is fair game in Zappa’s music, from unabashedly sappy pop tunes to intensely complicated chromatic figures, from the augmentation of western and eastern music to a search for and investigation of the potential applications of computers and sampling in the creation of entirely new forms and styles. He was able to make of his body of work a microcosm of the musical world, but also to imbue it with his unique perspective. This is mirrored in his choice of musical collaborators over the years, who would come from backgrounds as diverse as pop, rock, jazz, classical music, Romani folk music, Indian classical music, and Tuvan throat singing. What might possibly have been his ultimate goal, the synthesis of all those things into a bold and unique “omnistyle,” he was clearly approaching with his final works.

Unlike Partch, Zappa, by reconciling his own musical vision with the tools and techniques of modern western music, was able to craft a readily translatable and arrangeable body of work, much like Johann Sebastian Bach, which ensured the permeation of his work into many different areas of music in futurity. Today his works are performed by orchestras, chamber ensembles (including HIP ensembles), jazz groups, big bands, solo performers, rock bands, and electronic outfits around the world, and there is no sign of this stopping any time soon, in fact much the opposite appears to be happening. Zappa may not have cared about being remembered, but some twenty-odd years after his death, his work has done nothing but flourish and spread, and this because he chose not to isolate himself from the music of his time.

Simon King Accepts Reality (Finally)

By which provocative title I mean that I finally get around to reading Simon (Saimon A.) King’s second collection of short stories which he calls Accepting Reality: The University Years, after his first collection, which was Confronting Reality: Stories from A Sabbatical Year. Why, you ask ─ and by “you” I mean the author, because he is probably the only person who even occasionally deigns to read things that I write for public consumption ─ are you then writing about the second and not the first? Indeed, have you (that is me ─ go along with it) no sense of chronology? Here I am, working against time, as they say… But no, my reasons, or rather reason, for it is the only one, that I have not and probably will not ever review King’s initial confrontation of reality, is that I never finished it. Bear with me, because this will seem mean, but if anything it should prove that there is no conflict of interest in my reviewing the works of a friend: I couldn’t stand that book. I found it lumpen, turgid, messy, a real literary porridge with a principal flavour of Borges, but without any of the wit or concision of that great teller of stories, but an onanistic and half-cocked bravura which I guess I’m equally as guilty of in any of the garbage I’ve put forth with a view to completing a novel. Who am I kidding? I sucked on a whole other level, very probably, but I knew what I liked, and it wasn’t whatever the hell that was, though excuses are presently made to the bizarrely hilarious “Same Book Same Bus,” the likes of which I had not previously encountered and should probably hope, for the sake of my mental well-being, never to encounter again.

With that in mind, it was with some trepidation that, two years ago (eek!) when the book was first handed to me by the author, and probably with very little hope on his part of it being read in a timely fashion ─ a gambit which time has proved rather prudent ─ I opened the book and skipped ahead to the first story, “Eight PM in Buenos Aires” ─ because really, who reads prefaces? Perhaps owing in part to my familiarity with its central subject and model, the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, I for once felt right at home in the midst of King’s… uh, askew? prose. By way of some ingenious phantasmagoria, spiritual visitation, or mere half-asleep hallucination, who should appear to the author the night after the screening but the blind sage Borges himself, and from there the neat little parody proceeds. Although I have said or at least implied that Borges, in the previous collection of stories, is a kind of touchstone and possibly goal of emulation that isn’t at all reached, in this story, with its cadre of Latin American literary giants and madmen, history of movements and of underlying philosophies, I am reminded in fact of Roberto Bolaño’s epic The Savage Detectives, which presents a similar if much larger in scale and far less humorous sense of that literary world and of its history.

So too his next story, “Francisca Franzen,” which perhaps could be read broadly as a distant Chilean variation upon Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, in which the Tramp is not so much an actor but an observer, his view refracted doubly as if through Iceland Spar, is one reminded to some degree of Bolaño ─ knowing my penchant for misreading influences, however, I would be surprised if the author didn’t get in touch upon reading this in order to let me know how much he hates Bolaño. As King wanders, however, from the comfort of his beloved Argentine, Chilean et. al. environs, he can be found adrift and floundering on the rapids of the western cultural milieu, not exactly at home with its realities, which he will presumably, by the end of this volume, have accepted. His historical tales, wherein we visit with such figures as Gesualdo, Messiaen, and Heraclitus, are seeming attempts to convey a certain seriousness of purpose, as he tries to strike down into the oily depths of the human condition, but they are somehow, perhaps through the kind of nervousness which leads an author to almost leap from the page and apologise for taking up too much of the reader’s time, or merely from the ever present imperfections of judgement which befall we constant learners, not quite capable of hitting their mark. There is of course an endearing quality about this apparent failure, because in its way it speaks more of the human condition than the content of the stories themselves probably ever could, revealing a certain fragility in the author which is belied by the hard-edged and occasionally venomous nature of much of his fiction.

King also, I feel, struggles with both pacing and empathy. In “The Bridge of Time,” a young man is rescued from a near Amish lifestyle, a family which is understood more as a symbol of overbearing and possibly false religiosity than a unit of people, and total illiteracy, by communications from beyond the edge of the known world. Severing the umbilicus he ventures forth, and soon finds himself in the quite literally blinding light of what turns out to be a city. For a moment King plays with tantalising questions of Atheistic self-doubt, for the light could so easily be the light of God or, perhaps even more terrifying, light projected by a deranged Wizard of Oz who desperately wishes he were God, but as soon as this tension has arrived we are delivered from it into what are for us familiar surroundings. And it is the known and the quotidian (yeah, I know, I use that word too often) as given in the first person prose account that ultimately leads the story to fall flat, for the narrator’s sense of wonder is not adequately portrayed. Instead of, for example (‘n’ I ain’t sayin’ this is better or nothin’, y’ hear?) “huge towers of light,” we get “skyscrapers.” Now, it may be presumptuous of me to say, the narrator of course delivering the story in the past tense, but it seems to me that a young man isolated in archaic surroundings, and with not even the Amish horse-and-cart townward venture to give him so much as a clue as to what else exists in the world, would have no idea what he was witnessing in this period of first contact with civilisation. Would he be amazed, frightened, aroused, I don’t know, but I get the impression that I’m being hurried along to the exit, the side show attendant becoming impatient and okay so there’s the man with no nipples and here’s your goddamn Fiji mermaid now hurry it up wudja? Jeez, some people don’t got no respect!

The collection ambles along readably enough through the author’s morbid curiosity about the media junkies of the digital age, his inverted fantasies of success in which the horrors of self-satisfied complacency outweigh the publishing deals and impressive titles, but it’s when we near the end of the book that King finally kicks back and lets loose his lurking Pirandellian side with “My Vinyl Fetish,” a delightfully self-aware and self-mocking meta-theatrical dialogue between the author, his four unambiguously named ciphers, and an easily impressed bimbo more of his libido than of his mind, all of whom are naked. For me this is King at his most raw and unpretentious, he has no interest here in convincing you that he is a writer, he simply writes and lets you see for yourself. Maybe it’s not as bleakly funny as Beckett or as wildly absurd as Ionesco, but I would hardly expect that from someone in their early 20s, and with that fact in mind I’d say this is pretty damn good. While some, especially among those who reach their conclusions before the story reaches it own, may find it to be vulgar, sexist, and masturbatory in the extreme, for me it is the only time in the entire book at which I feel I am witness to an honest delineation of what’s on the author’s mind, and I hope that more of this irreverent self-exploration is to come in his next book, whenever that might happen to be ready.

I’m sure this is where I’m supposed to write a concluding paragraph so that you can just skip to the end and get the gist of what I’m saying without actually having to read too much, but I will not give you the satisfaction. Lazy bums fuck off.


Clouds come over the square I have isolated for myself. The window is specked with rain drops, tiny ones, from the passing cloud. The cloud cover is thin, wispy. Thicker clouds are intermittent, they amplify the sun and the room becomes brighter. But only for a moment. The clouds intensify the blueness of the sky, they are an essential reminder of the density of the atmosphere, otherwise confusion and greyness are in their highest powers. The limitations of the mind confronted only with the account of the eye would be staggering, but I am supine. Planes fly overhead, they are so fast across the square that I can almost believe they are not there, that if I were to blink they would be revealed as skyward phantoms, ephemeral and incorporeal. They are low in the sky, they do not clash with the clouds. Details are visible, the engines hanging from the wings jutting out from the brilliant white body that is lighter than its peripherals because it is round and it catches the sun but the wings are flat and their undersides do not. That’s obvious. You choose a thing to focus on, or I do, in the square, which is not a square from my perspective because the top side of the frame is slightly farther from me than the bottom. It’s the planes all over again. I have no compulsion to move from this spot. I am not tired although I lay on my back. My eyes refuse to close for more than a fraction of a second, if I hold them tight I only begin to ache. I don’t try to do anything, I allow information to come to me rather than to seek it out. If it is not forthcoming I do not panic, I allow it to elude me. I do not follow when it nears the edge of the frame, I do not try to hold it within the square, I let it pass. I am not tense, I am relaxed, I am mindful. I cannot see my reflection in the glass of the window because it is at the wrong angle. If I could see my reflection I might be less calm. With things the way they are I can pretend there is no one here, a perfect zero. I am the disembodied observer of a private, strictly limited piece of the sky, no one can see what I am seeing, not at this exact angle even if in fact the differences between what I am seeing and what anyone else close by is seeing are so imperceptible as to be inconsiderable. But I have advantages. I have the advantage of the feeling of stability, or the lack of the feeling of disruption, the stillness of indoor life, the absence of all that is extra, no current to batter the eyes or whistle against the ears, to cool the skin, to agitate the placid bonework of my joints. I enjoy freedom from distraction through an excess of limitation. I have the advantage of truth over fact, of realtime experience over remembrance and record. I pay no attention to what has come before, I do not contemplate that which is yet to come, I observe what is happening now. I am perpetually present, forever absent from the notion of time, only ever in time. To think about time is to try to place the self outside of time, to see it in totality, to measure its edges and curves, but it is an impossibility, there is only the now, only the immeasurable frame after frame after frame and too fast to think about because they are gone as soon as they have arrived. The self is lost to contemplation, cloistered and caked in intellectual muck and grease, sealed away from truth but searching for it. The self looks for symbols, connections, the alongside and peripheral scanned for a motion of elements that can be brought together in the right way to form the whole that is truth. From outside it looks like a tragedy, from the inside it is noble and just. We are all inside. I think about food. I am hungry now. There are things in my vision, they slide across my view slowly, tauntingly. They are joined by agitated white things, and these are specks or spectres. And maybe I think they are bugs. Tiny insects. Mites. Things that are all over the inner and outer surfaces of my flesh and viscera. They are hungry too. They are eating infinitesimal chunks of my corporeal being, eventually that is how they will kill me. I only see them when I look at the sky. I am still thinking about food. I am still hungry. I want to eat a sandwich. I want to eat a big sandwich. Something that will fill me up for hours. Thick with meats and salad leaves and sauces and encased in thick crusted bread. I can see the sky but I am not looking at it. I am looking inward, towards the sandwich. It is illuminated like in an advert or a cookery book, all impossibly beautiful like a woman created by a fantasy, alien and unattainable, and even if attained impossible to exist within the vicinity of. She is soft and pale, her skin is smooth, delicate, her breasts are emblems of a motherhood that she is too pristine to ever enter into. She is a doll, an ornament, a thing to be kept behind locked doors and to be loved selfishly. She is not real, she cannot exist. She is a fantastic vegetative state born into a body of equally qualitied design. She can be touched and repositioned and her warmth entered into missionarily but she is as water from then on, she flows downward to the pure white foundation of fantasy and through it as if it was not there, her route beyond unknown and unknowable. Attempts to recreate her are vain. She was in the mind for those moments only, she can neither be recaptured nor committed to record. She is an ephemeron glimpsed clumsily through a viewport in the mind’s eye. She moves from place to place, gracing single points in space to create singular moments in time. She will never return, she will never grow old, the snapshot will never fade. The image that exists now comprises multiple frames and she never stopped moving, so the mind must reconstruct on hunch and whim the true static image, that is how she remains alive, but nothing can come so close as even to approximate. She is never forgotten but she is distorted. She is displaced among a phantasmagoria of the mind. The look, the shape, the touch, the taste, the sound, they are all as debris in a wind’s moment to moment entourage swept and scattered across a vast plain of the unfathomable. It gets to be so that it cannot be said, cannot be confirmed that she was there, that reality ever was her domain, but there is a lingering visceral knowledge, immutable no matter how contaminated with the now it becomes, a faint outline, a silhouette eclipsing more a haze than a light that communicates something, the presence of a being or of an avatar to which you bore witness and that witnessed you, the inevitability of its passing, the illumination of a cloud.

The Ledger

He fills it out. The old ledger. Out with the old, in with the new. It’s something he does with enthusiasm, lecherously almost, licking the end of the pencil — for it is always in pencil so that it may be altered at a moment’s notice. He licks the end of the pencil every time he thinks up a new entry for the ledger. There are fifty lines per page divided into six components; he does not remember to whom he commissioned the printing of the custom stationery, everything is direct debit now, automated so he does not have to remember. He does not, cannot conceive of a moment at which he will be required to remember details, that is why he keeps the ledgers, their fifty entries in six dimensional space on the page which he supposes must be a seventh dimension in itself. He does not know anything about mathematics but he likes mathematical analogies no matter how clumsy. He is done with this ledger now; it is old. He remembers the old old ledger, the one before this one that is old now; he remembers the time when the old old ledger was the new ledger, but he does not remember the ledger itself. The details of the old olds and further back into the domain of the uncountably recurring are lost to him, he cannot so much as look them up because he cannot remember where he has put them. He knows at least that they were filled, each of those sextuply divided lines (custom stationery — he is amused and impressed by this), in pencil. He cannot alter them because he does not know where they are, but if this barrier were removed somehow, through some chance and arcane synaptic fulmination or whatever, it would be possible. He takes the old ledger — for now he has filled it out entirely, and places it upon a desk opposite his desk that used to be occupied by someone. He doesn’t remember who it was that occupied the desk, only that the desk was occupied.

The room is a little room dominated by a window overlooking a disuse or collection of disuses. He keeps the blinds shut so he doesn’t have to see, but there is that inevitability of seeing when he walks out of the building and enters his car, as he starts up his car and drives away, or as he brings the car — with feet and hands spurred on by the beat of a song he likes, and maybe he’s singing along — to the parking space outside the building. He has to see it. It cramps his day, the thing of seeing, he does not care to see. There is an alternate route he can take to the building but it is on the other side of the space and he has to come at it from the opposite direction he would normally come at it, that’s a hassle, it bothers him. But the other side, it’s not so much better, there are the gulls that gather overhead in ominous circling, making that car alarm sound like a sad mutant dog, what it sounds like to him, and he doesn’t like that. He doesn’t like the building much either from the outside, it is cold and harsh, the way it looks, inside is okay, but to reach the door it’s an unpleasant walk from the parking spaces, you approach it slowly even if you run and it is that ineluctability of the engulfing of his view during the approach that kills him. He gets this feeling of absorption. He is about to be absorbed into the material body of the building. The building is a whale and he is hapless krill rabbidged (this is his own word, it came to him from nowhere one day when he was younger, he no longer remembers the moment) into its big ugly mouth. Once he is inside, in the room, blinds shut, the light — for it is on a dial that controls the current — at the optimal brightness and not a cent above or below, and the ledger, he is okay.

The old ledger is done. The new ledger is brought out. One of the pages, looks like, was dogeared during some stage in the process by which the ledgers are manufactured, transported, and stored. He does not like it. He can unbend that corner of the page, but it will forever bear the scar, the little channel of depth infinitesimal by the scale of the quotidian eyeball. He can remove the page. There does not seem to be a problem with that. It is a guilty expression that changes the way the light shapes his face, the way he would see himself looking if he allowed a mirror to be placed in the room. He does not like to look in one direction and see in another, it offends him somehow — the feeling he could not articulate if pressed, but it is there anyway. When he removes the page he is careful not to mess up the binding. He takes a magnifying glass and a small pair of scissors that look so thin they might break out of a drawer in his desk, the top drawer of the right hand side column, and gets a good look at the fibre of the paper and the way it attaches to the binding. There is no way he can make it perfect on this level, but anyone taking a cursory glance unaided would have no way of knowing. That’s the pleasure of a good magnifying glass for him, he can enter through the device a world that is secret, obscured from everyday inattentiveness, and find something happy or curious or interesting in wood or in paper or sometimes on them, as in the pleasingly contorted particle of dust, a tiny hair or maybe a carpet fiber or something from a piece of clothing, which he found yesterday and has already forgotten. He remembers at least that such things are there, and so he continues with his excursions into that space. Sometimes he writes notes in small spaces using a very finely sharpened pencil, he thinks of them politically almost, diplomatic outreach to the exotic, but he can’t say it isn’t in the main a thing he does to amuse himself when there’s nothing wants putting in the ledger. Such moments are seldom in the offing, however, ledger filling being a ritual seriousness he would not wish to catch himself mocking no matter how innocuously. But the notes are the product of trance, he can scarcely remember having picked up the magnifying glass and the finely sharpened pencil and marking the page, let alone where or with what letter or letters, if he tried to find them again he could not, so now he never does try.

He stands up. He catches himself. He can see himself for a moment in the body of the room as if a disembodied pair of eyes, but it is just for a moment and he forgets that he has seen himself. Yet now there is the doubt in his mind as to what he was doing, the intent behind the standing up, the ultimate goal that he was to achieve by assuming that stance. He thought of it for a moment, during the seeing, in chess terms, remove the defender of the defender. He does not play chess, he used to play it but he does not play it any more. The idea of being defeated scares him, he prefers this environment, there is no other, there used to be another but there is not one any more. He had caught himself standing up as if to move away from the ledger, then he thought about an opponent, a malevolent figure who would judge him for having stood up and move to attack him, some weakness that he had exposed by standing. But there was no one. Still, he questions himself on the subject: what was meant by standing up, the significance of the act? He concludes, almost as a reflex action, that there is no significance, there was no intent. He had not been thinking when he stood up. He had been drifting along on some current of thought, maybe when he was taken to the mouth he had stood up, some small, awkward, pathetic resistance to the notion of entering a wider body, and now he is here in the room, still standing, looking straight ahead, contending in a way that does not show upon his face with the possibility that he is a moron.

Film Review: The Revenant (dir. Alejandro González Iñarritu)

I’ll say right off the bat that I liked this a lot more than Birdman, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that Birdman felt like I was watching someone tell me how clever they are, whereas this feels less like a virtuosic display of fancy tricks and more like crawling around in the mud with your skin torn off. It’s a very raw and intense film, the camera is scarcely withdrawn, you’re always right there in the thick of the action, which could be a Sioux raid on a trapper camp or it could be a man near freezing to death as he disembowels a horse and prepares to crawl inside to catch what glimpse of sleep he might. The cinematography helps, too, showcasing the harsh beauty of the landscape in beautifully composed shots, and with a decided emphasis on the harsh part, taking the staple vistas of the now classic exemplars of the revisionist western and subverting them into desolate visions that are as much of the mind as they are of the physical world. It feels tactile in a way, textural, where Birdman felt synthetic. I won’t lie, there is still a little of that synthetic feeling here, which for me comes from the soundtrack and, I think, may ultimately be the result of Iñárritu and myself not seeing eye to eye on everything, but the primary mode is of flesh and blood and grit and visceral sensation.

DiCaprio is of course getting all the talk right now, and indeed his performance as Hugh Glass is commendable, as I did really feel like I was watching a man come back from at least very, very near death, if not a full blown resurrection. Being unable to speak and/or having no one to speak to for long stretches of the film gives an added physicality to his performance, his entire body must do the talking more so than any dialogue. Make up effects of course enhance the experience, as wounds are portrayed with what I guess I would call a visceral accuracy ─ like so much in this film, it’s there and it really feels like it is. Even the bear, which is CGI, has a weight to it, and I could believe even as I sat there in the cinema that Hugh Glass was really fighting for his life. Aside from that obvious bravura performance, one of the best performances for me is that of Will Poulter, whose character is young and green and clearly out of his depth amongst the trail-hardened men that predominate both in main and supporting roles; he could have easily been forgotten amongst the intense physicality of DiCaprio and the thickly-accented Tom Hardy, whose accent work has gotten a lot better since Mad Max: Fury Road, but he remains, a symbol of innocence or near-innocence seemingly now just being born into the reality of a violent and cruel world.

The soundtrack is, for me, the major weakness of the film. It is the main source of the synthetic feeling that maybe characterises about 10% of the overall experience for me, certainly not enough to ruin my enjoyment of it, the film is overall too strong for that, but it does take the edge off of some scenes because, as I find typical of Sakamoto, it is simply too soft. There are no hard edges, no angles, the dissonances are soft and resolution is always forthcoming, and it feels like a warm and comfy intrusive blanket made out of almost nothing but triads. There is something to be said for its Spartan harmonic density as a reflection of the nakedness of existence portrayed in the film, but this quality is negated for me by the friendliness of the harmonies that are there. Aside from this, the bizarre choice to include a minor snippet of Messiaen’s Fête des belles eaux in one scene seems to tip a little too far back towards Birdman, as not only does its inclusion seem synthetic, it is no less than a composition for an ensemble of electronic instruments; some people are pointing to this as being, along with the rest of the score, a sonic embodiment of the psychological/spiritual realm which Glass visits throughout his bitter journey, but I just find it unpleasant, and not in an appropriate way. At the moment I can’t decide if I would have preferred a different score or no score at all, but suffice it to say the score that is there does not work for me.

I’ve been using the words “felt,” “feeling,” and “feels” a lot in this review, and I think this is mostly subconscious on my part, I haven’t intended to rely on such limited vocabulary but there simply isn’t another word which I could use so reflexively to talk about this film. Although there were plenty of moments in which I was very much aware that I was watching a film, at other times, and comprising a substantial amount of the film’s duration, I was feeling it more than anything. The cinema was pretty warm, so I didn’t feel the cold that some others have talked about in watching this, but the feeling of snow underfoot, of being swept downstream by rushing waters, of intense uphill climbs with heavy loads to bear, of sleeping on the fallen bark chippings of thousands of dead trees and clad only in a few furs, that was all very much present and there were times when the level of immersion, save for the ineluctable artifice of film, really was enough to take me out of the screening room and into that world.

Thus conclude my thoughts on The Revenant. I didn’t like everything in it, but I was certainly very much into it while I was watching it and, upon collecting my thoughts here in the early morning of the day after watching it, I find that I still I am very much into it. I don’t think it’s the most amazing thing ever, and there are films yet to come this year which I am too hyped for to not be super biased towards, notably Anomalisa and High Rise, but I would be lying if I said I’m not keen to see what Iñárritu does next, because if his progression from Birdman to The Revenant is anything to go by, he’s moving on to something really great in the next ten years or so. It’s a very good film and I recommend seeing it.

Review: Johann Jakob Froberger – Toccatas and Partitas for Harpsichord

Sergio Vartolo, hpschd. / 2005 / 2 CD / Naxos

Listen: Disc 1 / Disc 2

Froberger, aside from having an awesome name, was also a massively important figure in the early-mid Baroque period. He is one of the era’s most prominent composers of “programme” music, which is music intended to depict a story in some way, but differentiated from opera, ballet, song etc. in that the depiction is to be achieved entirely through instrumental means. It was hugely popular in the Romantic period, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major being one of the most frequently cited examples, and it remains popular today──stories, images, characters and other things alleged to exist within rhythmic configurations of abstract sound ─ of course, try figuring out what the story is from listening to the music alone and you’ll be at a loss. I consider programme music a fairly useless term, it is a music distinguished from other musics entirely by non-musical things, much like the short-lived crabcore fad, which was some kind of metalcore off-shoot differentiated from metalcore only by the fact that mobile band members such as guitarists would crab-walk while playing their instruments. It’s clown shoes shit, but in light of the fact that Froberg’ errs on the side of writing incredible music, I’ll give him a free pass on that one.

Froberger’s keyboard suites, or partitas as Baroque suites are often called for reasons which elude me, which we are listening to here, are among his most important contributions to music. He developed and standardised the most recognisable form of the suite, commonly known as the Classical suite, which consists of some combination of the dances allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, and typically in that order, this last owing to the publisher’s whim more so than that of the composer, and this established order may have ─ don’t quote me on this, influenced also the development of the ordering of movements in the Classical era genres of symphony and string quartet, both of which also had four movements. This is also a bit of a stretch considering that suites after Froberger’s time also added things like introductory movements, menuets and sometimes even finales, and the symphony, as observed in the works of C.P.E. Bach, typically had three movements until Haydn developed the four movement form.

Vartolo’s account of these partitas and toccatas is a two disc set on ─ what else? ─ Naxos. Vartolo seems to be their go to guy for the harpsichord repertoire, which is just great for me because Vartolo is probably my favourite harpsichordist after Scott Ross. His playing is precise but also sensitive, and his readings of Froberger capture a sense of spaciousness which befits the composer’s highly idiosyncratic keyboard writing. In Froberger dissonances seem to linger for a small eternity, some never resolved, or done so in bizarre ways; a harsh gesture in the upper registers answered by a single note in the bass consonant only according to the memory of what came before it, that’s Froberger. It is a strange and desolate kind of music, odd things lurk in dark corners of the environment, their being there engendering a two-step pairing of the cocking of the eyebrow and then the widening of the eyes as, revelatory but held back from anything approaching gratuitousness, crystalline facets are gradually revealed not so much by an exegesis in the music itself but by implication and hindsight. Such flowery bullshit is necessary when talking about music, because it’s the only way to talk about it while avoiding the traps of a) boring the reader with technical jargon, and b) admitting you don’t know what you’re talking about. Wait, oh… damn it.

The sound is rich and sumptuous, the playing totally free of pomposity and bombast, and helped in conveying the dark and off-kilter character of the music by Vartolo’s adherence to what is at least an attempt to recreate the kind of tuning that would have been employed in Froberger’s time ─ and I ain’t talkin’ DADGAD here, oh no, this is hardcore shit. Vartolo uses two different harpsichords, one is tuned in meantone temperament at A=415 Hz, the other in Werckmeister III temperament at A=390 Hz, these being alterations of the intervallic width of the pure fifths of just intonation. The fact of some intervals being wider than others with these temperaments led to the predominance of specific keys, as the innate level of dissonance could be reduced by writing in, say C instead of G; this is why Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier was such a big deal, as well temperament, while having irregular intervallic widths, was calculated to avoid impure intervals and make each key much more uniform with each other in terms of their inherent dissonance. The most common temperament in present day western music is 12-tone equal temperament (12-TET or 12-EDO ─ as in “Equal Division of the Octave”), and most of the music you’ve heard in your life will be tuned, with some margin of error, in accordance with it, at the modern “concert pitch” of A=440 Hz. Not so in the good old days, different regions of Europe would have their own tuning systems invented by local musicologists and composers, and a single piece of music could vary wildly in sound from one performance to the next if a composer was also a travelling musician as Froberger was. Vartolo’s tunings, whether or not they approximate the real tunings Froberger used or was forced to use, do reflect the variegated nature of musical standards in the pre-Classical eras, and offer a tantalising glimpse of the true sound of the early Baroque.

This is a really awesome selection of Baroque keyboard music composed by one of its foremost masters, played beautifully by one of the finest harpsichordists and experts on early music of our time. The sound quality is great, with a rich natural reverb sympathetic to the colourful timbres of the instruments that really elevates the whole thing to the next level, making for a quite lovely waste of 100 minutes. Whether you like or dislike, or even think you like or dislike, the sound of a harpsichord, or of Baroque music in general, Froberger deserves your time and attention. Not only is this just plain good, there’s nothing else out there quite like it.

In memoriam Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)

The last of the great Darmstadt composers has died at the age of 90. Pierre Boulez, notoriously divisive as a composer, renowned the world over as a conductor who worked with pretty much every world class orchestra of the 20th century, as well as being the founder of the Ensemble InterContemporain, the pioneering ensemble dedicated to performing and recording new music, and also founding IRCAM, the EIC’s home and a hotbed of development at the bleeding edge of electronic music. Boulez is one of the key figures of post-war music in the 20th century, and one of the most influential musical thinkers for the 21st century. Alongside his rivals and colleagues, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Iannis Xenakis and many others, he changed the face and expanded the possibilities of music in our time.

Boulez first rose to prominence in the 1950s, not only composing radical integral serialist works such as Le marteau sans maître, but also penning notorious articles such as Schoenberg is Dead, and attacking composers of the old guard such as Stravinsky, whom Boulez deemed to have failed to live up to the promise of the famous Le sacre du printemps. His works were sharp and his tongue even sharper, and he courted controversy frequently, his iron fisted leadership of the European avant garde and politicised bullying of composers who did not toe the line being likened to fascism. The famous Darmstadt School (as in school of thought) which he had developed on the back of Messiaen’s developments in the serialisation of musical elements beyond pitch, and alongside Stockhausen, was perhaps the last great flourishing of dogma in music, for it was so extreme in pushing its agenda that ultimately it exploded under its own pressure, and the gaps between the fragments of what had been there before suddenly found themselves filled with a new order of the day: freedom of thought.

The ‘60s and ‘70s were one long cosmic release of tension, as the chain reaction set up, most people think, by Wagner with those first few impossibly tense bars of Tristan und Isolde, through Mahler, Debussy, and Schoenberg, to the constrictions of the absolutely prescriptive integral serialism of Stockhausen’s Kreuzspiel and Boulez’s own Polyphonie X, reached at last its inevitable conclusion. From the ‘60s onwards Boulez embarked on his international career as a conductor, shaking things up at the New York Philharmonic and BBC Symphony orchestras with his difficult programs of music from cutting edge composers, meanwhile tinkering quietly away at new music which itself would escape the strictures of his own formalisms and evolve into something entirely new, eventually again putting him at the forefront of classical music in post-war France, and indeed the world.

His phenomenally prolific career as a conductor has seen him tackle pretty much every important composer from Wagner through to almost the present day, not just the arch progressives but also Brahms, Ravel, and Stravinsky, as well as great eccentrics such as Charles Ives, Edgard Varèse, and even Frank Zappa. His many recordings of the Second Viennese School composers Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg are frequently cited as the best documents of their work on record; his Mahler cycle and live performances are rigorous and full blooded; his Stravinsky witty, lean, and to the point; his Varèse an oft-forgotten alternative to the great yet perhaps unfair target of Varèsian monomania that is Chailly and the Concertgebouw. Not only was he prolific, he was also very popular, a hugely respected figure among musicians and composers, and the winner of almost thirty Grammy awards.

What remains to be seen now, once the mourning period is over, is where classical music goes from here. I’ve thought for many years that Stockhausen made the avant garde obsolete, after all, aside from gimmicky uses of new technology, where else is there to go? Now with Boulez’s death the end of an era is at hand, and there are any number of possibilities as to what happens next. Do we carry on as we are, swimming “out in the ocean,” as John Cage puts it, or are we destined to repeat the cosmic cycle of tension and release, beginning now with Boulez’s death and a sudden near Soviet reactionary response to the music, borderless in geography and style, of our time? Does classical music return to politics as national tensions flare up, and we head into an ideological retread of the nationalist schools of thought which dominated the 19th century? Who knows, but maybe in Boulez there lies the answer, because no matter how improbable it may seem, he has shown us that it is always possible to go one step further.

Recommended Listening
A selection of Boulez favourites, from his integral serial period to his late idiosyncratic works, in recordings conducted by the composer. They are presented in chronological order, but newcomers may be best served by checking out the Notations, a short collection of piano pieces arranged as orchestral showpieces, for a first taste. Boulez may prove challenging at first, but his unique style is highly rewarding and well worth a little time and patience

Le marteau sans maître (1955)
Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna (1975)
Notations pour orchestre (1978, rev. 1999)
Répons (1984) (see also: live version)
Dérive 2 (1988, rev. 2006)

The Zappa Reviews #7 – Hot Rats

Everyone who hates Frank Zappa’s favourite Frank Zappa album came out in 1969. Unintentional double entendres (is that even possible?) aside, it’s true that most people who can’t stand Zappa love Hot Rats despite the mustachioed gentleman who brought it to them. But why? Comedy. That’s right, you heard right, people just hate Zappa when he’s cracking jokes and being bawdy, so when there comes a straight instrumental album with no funny asides and generally serious if light-hearted demeanour from the stable of this much maligned musician, there is rejoicing among people who simply cannot bear the idea of laughing when listening to music. It’s gotta be serious, it’s gotta speak to my soul, it’s gotta be a little unusual but inoffensively so, that way I can say I have good taste while being totally unchallenged by the music and by my friends, because it’s not the normal stuff the plebes are gobbling up, but it’s also not so weird that people can’t get the appeal right away. Right man, I am cool. Yeah, just me and my socially acceptable Frank Zappa record, bopping along, no danger. Let’s suck each others’ dicks because we only like this one Frank Zappa record, oh yeah, we’re awesome. Oh but I am being cruel today, aren’t I? Yes.

Hot Rats comes in three distinct flavours. The first is the straight instrumental composition, exemplified by Peaches en Regalia, Little Umbrellas, and It Must Be a Camel. The second is the jam track, here represented by Willie the Pimp, and The Gumbo Variations. The third is Zappa’s admixture of the two in the form of Son of Mr Green Genes. These flavours are dispersed throughout the album, and no two alike tracks touch each other in the sequence. There isn’t so much a thematic progression as a formal continuity at play here, which in some ways puts it more in line with Zappa’s previous solo effort Lumpy Gravy than any of the Mothers albums, even Uncle Meat, of the same year, and the upcoming Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Although Zappa’s opinion of what was and what was not a Mothers album over the next six or seven years would appear to make little to no sense, for the time being his solo releases were markedly different in style, tone, and form, Zappa eschewing social commentary entirely, taking a purely musical approach to the composition.

Having said that, Hot Rats and Lumpy Gravy differ sharply in terms of composition vs. improvisation. Where Lumpy Gravy is totally composed, a studio construction of material weighed and balanced through careful decision making, Hot Rats is much freer, looser, with Zappa frequently taking centre stage on guitar. This is perhaps the album’s major flaw. Zappa in 1969 was, unfortunately, not at the top of his game as a guitarist, he was competent and his musical ideas were very much his own, yet the flair and mastery he was to exhibit just a few years down the line with the last official Mothers band are nowhere to be seen among his offerings here. That’s not to say the guitar playing on Hot Rats is bad, not at all, rather that for the album to effectively hinge upon it is perhaps not the route Zappa should have taken at this stage in his career. This also could have been aided perhaps by a little whackiness in the manner of Uncle Meat. Consider how great Nine Types of Industrial Pollution sounds, then compare it to the solo on Son of Mr Green Genes, the latter certainly isn’t bad, but the former not only has a lot more going on, it also manages to be just as cohesive as the latter. Now, I know what you’re saying: “that technique just wouldn’t work on this album,” but actually, just take a look at Peaches en Regalia, that technique is in evidence right there on the very first track, instruments speeded up and slowed down, fitting together in all kinds of wild, mechanically cartoonish ways. You’re going to tell me the rest of the album couldn’t have done with a shot of that to help it along?

The entire Zappa back-catalogue was remastered in the late ’80s and early ’90s, some as late as ’93, when Zappa would have been in very ill health. These are the masters put out by Ryko, which you’re probably familiar with if you were listening to Zappa on CD any time before 2012. While most of the albums received little more than a basic ─ some would say detrimental ─ rejigging, the differences between the CD version of Hot Rats and the original LP are staggering. Due to the constraints of the two-side LP format, Zappa ended up cutting down The Gumbo Variations significantly and chopping a few bars off the intro of Willie the Pimp, so the CD remaster on Ryko was not just a re-release with a different mix, it was a restoration of a classic, like the long lost footage from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, discovered on a reel that was, for some reason, in Buenos Aires of all places. So here’s one of Zappa’s most popular records, and it’s now got five minutes of stuff probably no one but the lucky few involved in the original studio sessions has ever heard before. Best of all, it isn’t an hour’s worth of audio excerpts from a fucking movie sandwiched between the original sides!

However, the reality of listening to LP and CD cuts side by side is not one of “oh, that’s cool, I never guessed there was an edit there” but one of “oh, why did they change the mix to cover up half the instruments?” Certainly, the Ryko release sounds a whole lot cleaner, but it also loses vibrancy as a result, and gains in its place a sort of clinical, sterile environment for its musical operations. It’s not terrible ─ and I feel like I’m saying that in one way or another quite frequently in this review ─ it’s actually quite a punchy mix that is perfectly enjoyable in its own right, but as a matter of comparisons, simply too much of the original is lost. I guess somewhere in there lies a compelling analogy for analogue vs. digital in general, and sure, vinyl is fun, there’s something tactile about the whole process of handling the disc, operating the turntable, and the warm crackle is a nostalgic sound that somehow adds value to the listening experience rather than distorting the music; CDs are cleaner, more efficient, they hold more music, they’re easily portable, and the cases are made of solid plastic rather than flimsy sheets of card stuck together with adhesive. This used to be the argument, way back before peer-to-peer and BitTorrent were things, people used to say of CDs: “they’ll never catch on,” and in some ways they were right, as they’ve probably had the shortest lifespan at the top of the audio media chain of any since wax cylinders or shellac. CDs are totally outdated now, there is no real point in having them any more except to have a visible collection with which to amaze visitors to your home, a testament to your amazing taste, except people would rather check out your, your iPod library, whatever, no one gives a fuck about CDs. Vinyl, on the other hand, somehow, has come back, it’s cool to own things on vinyl, it’s cool to listen to things on vinyl, and, for certain roguish types on the internet, vinyl rips of older albums, and even newer albums which were mastered digitally and therefore have no reason to be on vinyl, are where it’s at, not just for fidelity but for cultural cachet. Retro’s the new new, baby, uh… Well, at least with Hot Rats you are getting the better version by adhering to idiotic trends.

“But why aren’t you talking about the music, man?” Well, what do you want me to say, the band is tight? This is one of the reasons I can’t talk about jazz. Describing improvisations, analysing them, seems to me to take all the value out of actually listening to them, because you’re going into the listening process then with someone else’s words in your head, you’ve built up a preconception based on the interpretation of someone who is not you; and I, having to think about it so hard as to even come close to transcribing it into words that amount to more than a mere technical description of technique and theory, I’m even ruining it for myself. Every ounce of spontaneity, invention, surprise, and ─ dare I say it ─ soul is gone, because I boiled the broth so much that I cooked all the flavour out of the ingredients. They were delicious when they went into the pan, now they’re bland and mushy, and it’s my fault for going too far, for not giving due respect to the materials I was working with. Is this a cop out? Yeah, probably, but that’s just how I feel. What one gains from analysis of a composition, one loses in overthinking an improvisation, because the intent is different, the mood, the mode, the technique, the method of exploration, it’s all different, bound up in the immediacy of the act, the spirit of the moment. Even here, with Zappa showcasing his style in what would later be shown to be fledgling, perhaps even embryonic form, that remains true.

Hot Rats, while it is for all the world another unique Zappa album to add to the pile that has so far accumulated, feels like not so much a bold statement in its own right as it does a return to Freak Out! Now hold on, what the fuck? This album is nothing like Freak Out!! (ha ha) You’re right, they are entirely dissimilar, and yet Zappa here seems, like the Mothers on their debut outing, to be showing us potential, proof of concept rather than the real deal. So we have a kind of return to zero, marking the end of one era and the start of another, a watershed record in every sense, and yet this great cleansing of the palate would prove to be half-hearted, as from now until 1976 there comes a weird episode in Zappa’s career in which he can’t quite decide if the Mothers are still a thing or not, and has even more trouble deciding if it’s his name, theirs, or any number of combinations of the two that deserve to be credited for each new release.