Buddhism at The British Library

Some time ago, when I was studying at Royal Holloway, I met a man called Howard Skempton, a minimalist composer (and national treasure) who helped me immensely in several ways.  Having listened to me babble about how I was struggling with my composition practice, he gave me some excellent advice – if you have a problem describing or defining something clearly, maybe try defining what it isn’t.  He recommended a read a book called Simplicity and Complexity in Games of the Intellect, by Lawrence Slobodkin.  Professor Slobodkin defines four oppositions:  simple/complex, simplified/complicated, simplistic/obfuscated and minimal/ornate.  The book discusses how human nature takes simple things, makes them more and more complex or ornate, and then feels compelled to strip them back to simplicity again. Some good examples of this can be found in religion – simplifying Catholicism during the Protestant Reformation, for example.  This book quite literally changed how I look at everything in my life. 

But to our mission for today – a beautiful example of that process of building complexity is to be found at the British Library’s excellent Buddhism exhibition. 

 Being the British Library, there are obviously some beautiful books to be admired, but not only books.  The exhibition runs until 23 February, and contains enough material to remind you (if you needed reminding) that it’s possible to leave the constant cacophony of modern life – 24 hour news, career, family, whatever bad habit is getting you through the night – and find a different path.  And even if you’re not likely to achieve enlightenment in a single visit to these red rooms, filled with beautiful objects celebrating Buddhism, soundtracked by birds singing, monks chanting and water moving, I hope, like me, you’ll take a nice deep breath as you leave, in through the nose, out through the mouth, and smile. 

 My only reservation isn’t even about this exhibition – it’s my usual atheistic position, which is why don’t these religions sell all their gold and silver and feed the poor?  And Buddhism is far from the worst at that, but I couldn’t help but notice the transition between writing the Buddha’s teaching on leaves to hammering them into 5.5 kilos of silver.  Oh well, I guess I’m a long way from Nirvana. 

https://www.bl.uk/events/buddhism 

Simplicity and Complexity in Games of the Intellect by Lawrence B. Slobodkin · Harvard University Press · ISBN 0674808266 

Rebel Sounds – Culture Under Attack at IWM

IMG_6447
The Imperial War Museum in London has a season called Culture Under Attack – “a season of exhibitions and events that explore how conflict threatens those things the help make our lives worth living”.  This is in three parts – What Remains, exploring why cultural heritage is attacked during war, Art In Exile, about how art was evacuated during the Second World War, and Rebel Sounds, “an immersive exhibition that uncovers how people have used music to resist, rebel and speak out against war and oppression”.

 

 

Derry
This is a small exhibit, and it was the Rebel Sounds section that I was initially interested in.  I’m not sure I’d call it immersive (unless immersive means putting headphones on) but the four cases are similar inasmuch as the people involved were potentially risking their lives to continue playing, broadcasting, distributing or listening to music.  There are four studies – Jazz and Swing in Nazi Germany, Good Vibrations records in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, Radio B92 in Belgrade in Serbia during the war in the Eighties, and a band formed in Mali in 2012 called Songhoy Blues, when Mali was subject to Sharia law.  I knew about the Nazi ban on Swing (mainly because of the film Swing Kids!) and I knew the Good Vibrations story.

 

IMG_6453Radio B92 and Songhoy Blues were both new to me.  Apart from being constantly shut down by an authoritarian and violent dictatorship, at one point B92 were told they could only broadcast music (no talking) so they just played Public Enemy’s Fight The Power on repeat.  The guitarist from Songhoy Blues (Songhoy describes the bands ethnicity, members of the Songhai people) moved from Timbuktu to Bamako, and describes having to hide his guitar under the seat on the bus in case it got him arrested.  I guess we all believe we’re capable of acts of bravery, but I never really considered carrying my guitar on a bus as brave.  Equally, I never went to a gig where there was a lookout in case the Gestapo and Hitler Youth arrived.

Other highlights were learning about the quarry in Wiltshire where they hid artworks during the Second World War in the Art In Exile part, and a bit of a lesson in the What Remains rooms – basically, a series of pictures of rubble where beautiful buildings used to be, but no less moving for that.
But Culture Under Attack isn’t just these few rooms, it’s also concerts and presentations and live things.  You can find out more here.  (On the general point of the IWM, it’s a really good place.  They have proper, thoughtful exhibits, and it’s all free.  So go, I recommend it).
Like all good exhibits, it didn’t tell me everything I wanted to know, and I’ve since researched more on Songhoy Blues and B92, and the quarry in Wiltshire.  I’m currently busy making Agitprop music, but am I really willing to risk injury or death in order to make a political point, even when I’m clearly morally right?  Not sure, to be honest.  You’d hope so, but let’s also hope I never have to find out.
A final word from B92 – “Don’t trust anyone, not even us”
@ImperialWarMuseums
@songhoyblues
#trustnobody
#agitprop
#plunderphonics

Akram Khan’s Giselle

I don’t go to the ballet.  I haven’t been to a dance show for years, and that wasn’t ballet, it was DV8 (Strange Fish in 1992, and very wonderful it was too) so a long way from Swan Lake.  But I wandered

across Akram Khan’s Giselle on BBC4 one evening earlier this year, and it was the music that caught my attention.  

I don’t have some deep seated thing about dance, I suppose it was always a lower priority than the

music.  And the music from Giselle is by Vincenzo Lamagna, and it’s very, very good. The Observer

called it “ominous, gothic” and it’s certainly those.  I like being in a room with live, real instruments, there’s a snap to it that you don’t get from a recording, even one played very loud. Vincenzo has adapted the original music by Adolphe Adam, but “adapted” in this case means completely reimagined.  Using

themes and motifs from Adam’s score, it’s often very beautiful, often disconcerting, and always

interesting.  

I don’t know much about modern ballet or choreography, but I can say that the dancing was

remarkable.  The Wilis (the ghosts of betrayed maidens), and particularly Myrtha, the Queen of the

Wilis float around the set like malevolent spirits, which is exactly what they’re meant to do.  The duets between Giselle and Albrecht, and Giselle and Hilarion also stood out. But the whole thing moves

along without stopping and there isn’t really a moment when you feel the pace has dropped.

There’s a trailer on Youtube that’ll give you a taste: https://youtu.be/EHPT8IglL0s 

If you can get tickets, you should go, even if you’re not familiar with ballet or Giselle.  It’s a wonderful

thing! Just one small thing – the DVD of the filmed ballet is £25. Ah, I remember why I don’t go to the

ballet!  Still a thing for rich kids…

Akram Khan’s Giselle is on now at Sadlers Wells 

https://www.ballet.org.uk/production/akram-khan-giselle/#cast-section 

Vincenzo Lamagna is at https://www.vincenzolamagna.com

You can find DV8 and Strange Fish at

https://www.dv8.co.uk/projects/archive/strange-fish–film

you can sign up for my regular gibberish here

#akramkhan #vincenzolamanga #sadlerswells

Agi-trip-hop

I’m working on some new music which is a commentary on the last decade.  I went away and researched the major UK news stories for each year from 2010, and found some news footage and wrote some music and added some loops and effects and stuff, as I do.  And it’s coming along, thanks, but I’m not sure how to describe it.

Agitprop is a word with fully justifiable negative connotations, but perhaps Agit-trip hop is as near as I can get. As part of this project, I’ve been researching agitprop and particularly subvertising, where real adverts are subverted – a good example is this one:

Brandalism_By_Night_7

Subvertising can also include basic graffiti, too:

tumblr_no1xo1Kmza1tpg6hmo1_1280

These are both from an interesting article at Films For Action.

I think I’m now working out a means to subvert audio recordings by using effects, or by chopping and cutting, or by both.  My ambition is to produce the audio equivalent of these two posters.  I’m not really one for rioting and marching, although it might come to that, but I do think we should be challenging our “leaders”, particularly when their motives aren’t clear and transparent.  I’d be deluding myself if I expected my cutting up their interview audio and reassembling it would change their minds about anything, but at least it’s a safety valve against me throwing a shoe at the television every time the news come on.

My goal is to be able to bring establishment stupidity to the audience’s attention using pre-recorded audio.  It’s similar to a genre called Audio Agitprop, using clips from speeches, press conferences and news, and manipulating them in the context of a song, which was the subject of an interesting paper by Mark Dery in 1993.  As ever, I’m not exactly on the leading edge of this!   But I think mine is a slightly different approach – the technique is the same as lots of other things I’ve been doing for some time, but the technology enables much more manipulation than it did in 1990!

Most political music uses a lyric to make the point, and Audio Agitprop mainly seems to do that – I guess Paul Hardcastle’s 19 (from 1985!) is a bit of an exception, although I don’t think it was particularly political in the outcome.  The much wider genre would include a raft of people who produce work I really like, from Public Enemy, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Gil Scott-Heron, back to Billy Bragg and further, and of course the current generation of British dance musicians.  The politics of all of these is in the lyrics, and I’m trying not to do that.  I suppose it’s inevitable that the person manipulating the audio brings their own agenda to a finished mashup, but my view is most politicians say enough stupid stuff for me not to need to do very much to make that point.

I’ve done quite a bit of research to find anyone else doing this, and I can’t find anything much – this either means I’ve invented something amazing, or I’ve invented something nobody wants!  Sign up to my newsletter, and you’ll be among the first to hear these things, once I’ve finished them!

#filmsforaction #markdery #audioagitprop #culturejamming

 

The Great Hack

This film is out on Netflix now, and it’s a not a comforting experience.  It’s a detailed look at the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and it’s sweeping up documentary film awards for the directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim.  It gives a detailed account of how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data illegally to help in a whole raft of elections and referenda all around the world.

The Great Hack is a really interesting film, and lays out in detail how the illegal use of data influenced elections.  As whistleblower Christopher Wylie told the Select Committee in the Houses of Parliament, “I think it is completely reasonable to say there could have been a different outcome of the referendum had there not been, in my view, cheating.”  The Great Hack exposes this cheating through Cambridge Analytica, but ultimately there is no happy ending – the people who engaged and briefed and steered Cambridge Analytica are now, literally, running the country. 

But The Great Hack isn’t the only place to find this stuff out.   The journalist Carole Cadwalladr wrote this piece on 2 July 2016, and delivered a Ted talk in April 2019 which you can find here.  Both of these are pretty damning, and we really ought to be doing more about this.  Facebook won’t disclose who bought advertising or even what the adverts were like, and that doesn’t seem to me the actions of someone who knows they’re on the moral high ground.  

It’s surely not a surprise to anyone that Social Media is used to influence people’s opinions – otherwise the Advertising industry wouldn’t be moving all their efforts into Social Media platforms.  Facebook advertising revenue in 2018 was US$55 billion, up from US$40 billion in 2017. If you have any doubt about the power of advertising, then you should only look at that. The corporations who are investing in that level of advertising aren’t doing it because it has no effect.  But it isn’t just advertising in the traditional sense, it’s the constant repetition of images or messages. When my eldest daughter was very small, she watched Sesame Street. We had no problem with that, but one evening we arrived home late and she woke up as I was about to watch something on Channel 4.  When she saw the Channel 4 logo, she thought Sesame Street was coming. So it is with messages from Vote Leave about immigration – you see something often enough, you start to believe it.  

The challenge is that most people who voted in the European Referendum have clear beliefs (on both sides) and voted based on those beliefs.  The “swing” voters that were influenced by the Vote Leave Facebook campaigns aren’t going to be pleased when the people they think of as the Metropolitan Liberal Elite start telling them they were victims of a massive scam.

The Great Hack is an excellent, well made and thoughtful film, and should be required watching for everyone who thinks they’re not being tricked.  It doesn’t answer the question about how the UK rebuilds our reputation and economy, but it does show quite clearly how people who basically stole an election have managed it.  It’s out now on Netflix.

#thegreathack #carolecadwalladr #brexit #cambridgeanalytica

AI: more than human – I mean, you’d hope so…

This week became a bit muddled when almost every timed activity (meetings, telephone conferences, telephone calls) got rearranged or cancelled. I don’t mind really, (I like the feeling of time recovered to be wasted on something else) but one thing that happened was a visit to the @BarbicanCentre to look at the AI exhibition, AI: more than human. I want to use AI to change lighting at Unpleasantville Live, so it was good to see how other people are using this technology. It’s an interesting and entertaining exhibition, linking AI to humanity’s long history of trying to create intelligent life (something we’re a bit short of!). If you remember early Aibos and Rhoombas then it’ll make you slightly nostalgic, but there’s also exhibits about using AI to maximise plant growth to comfort you, and AI driven weapons to disturb you.

There’s a room there built by @teamLab_net Tokyo which basically uses the technology to do everything I want to do with Unpleasantville Live, although their video, graphics and music are all very beautiful and calming, rather than what I have in mind. The movements of the audience change the projections on the walls, but that doesn’t do it any justice, as it’s elegant and fascinating, and I highly recommend it. Visit if you can!

Er, why should I listen to you?

I started learning the violin aged 10 because a music teacher at my school (in the days when Primary Schools had specialist music teachers!) suggested it.  I gave up the violin and took up the guitar 3 years later when being in a band was an act of rebellion – I had three objectives: play like Jimmy Page, get girls, piss my Mum off.  I don’t know if I achieved any of those to my 13-year-old satisfaction.  So I’ve spent most of my life playing music or listening to music or writing music or just whistling, and I’ve made and learnt from an awful lot of mistakes.

In the beginning, I played in bands that played glam rock, hard rock, pub rock, punk rock, ska, psycho-billy, and then, I guess, indie.  I decided that I really couldn’t be bothered with bands just at the moment that technology invented cheap 4-track machines, and then synthesisers, samplers and sequencers and suddenly I was able to have any sound I wanted (subject to sample memory and budget).  Around that time (the early Nineties) I also went to the London International Film School to learn how to write to picture.  The films I scored there were shot on film and edited on Steenbeck machines like this one:

STEENBECK
Oh how we laughed!

In the Outside World, I think the actual film industry was moving quickly to computers, but I learned to score to picture – I would guess I was the last man through that door, like the last chimney sweep or a handwriting consultant. Anyway, I can write music that fits the actual film.

Here are some films that you should know are my favourite scores (and I’ll go into these at some time later):

Film Year Director Composer
Vertigo 1958  Alfred Hitchcock  Bernard Herrmann
Anatomy of a Murder 1959  Otto Preminger  Duke Ellington
The Ipcress File 1965  Sidney J Furie  John Barry
Bullitt 1968  Peter Yates  Lalo Schifrin
Get Carter 1971  Mike Hodges  Roy Budd
Blade Runner 1982  Ridley Scott  Vangelis
The Thing 1982  John Carpenter  Ennio Morricone
Paris, Texas 1984  Wim Wenders  Ry Cooder
Road to Perdition 2002  Sam Mendes  Thomas Newman
Solaris 2002  Steven Soderbergh  Cliff Martinez
Zodiac 2007  David Fincher  David Shire
Moon 2009  Duncan Jones  Clint Mansell
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo 2011  David Fincher  Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Ex Machina 2014  Alex Garland  Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow
Macbeth 2015  Justin Kurzel  Jed Kurzel

These are scores that, in my humble opinion, stand up as musical work with and without the pictures.  They’re on my iPod and I listen to them all regularly as I go about my daily whatever-it-is-I-do.

My elevator pitch before the Millennium was this:  I can write music to the film you’ve shot – when our hero goes bump, the music goes bump.  I’ll write music inspired by those wildebeest migrating across the Serengeti, I’ll do research because I feel the same way about your Stonehenge film that you do.

But the real truth is that the films I want to score are the ones where I can comfort and disturb in equal measure, and that means thriller, psychological drama, horror.

To answer your question, though.  Why should you listen to me?  Because I’ve spent the required 10,000 hours playing music, 10,000 hours listening to music, 10,000 hours watching films (often in the dark in a cinema) and that makes me an expert, apparently.  I’m as surprised as you.