Sunday, September 27, 2020

Spectral Vectors

Chelsea Wharf, August 1986

Rainham Marshes, April 2017

Spectral Vectors was created for Come Hell Or High Water, a monthly series of live events on the Thames foreshore at Poplar, organised by Anne Bean, Hayley Newman, Harriet Latham and others. It takes as its starting point the idea of ghosts of the Thames; river revenants in the form of lost sounds of previous times from the river's busier industrial past, such as ship's horns, tugboat horns, foghorns and other industrial sounds.

Expanding on this theme, the idea of things lost/buried/hidden/removed came to mind. Documentary radio footage relating to sunken unexploded WWII ordnance and tragic drowning was combined with recent field recordings of mine made with contact mics attached to cabling beneath Millenium Bridge at St. Paul's, amplifying sounds hidden to the naked ear, when the bridge is animated by foot traffic, wind coursing through it and sun warming it.

Hydrophone recordings also capture hidden sounds – various vessels passing, sounding thin and insubstantial as wind-up bath toys from a submarine perspective. Delving deeper, recordings made inside Greenwich foot tunnel feature; resonant metallic sounds buried beneath the river itself echo along the tunnel's length.

Municipal greed and acts of resistance also form part of the documentary material with Bob Hoskins enlightening Barry Norman in 1982 about various development scams along the river, Malcolm MacLaren talking about the Sex Pistols' 1977 riverboat gig, and riverboat men going on strike. This footage is animated by the addition of lost ship's horns, populating the river with a lively, boisterous presence.

My first forays into field recording began whilst on summer work in the 1980s, when I bought a secondhand recording walkman, and my first recordings were made on the Thames at Vauxhall, capturing, amongst many things on a busy summer river, the sound of a speedboat whizzing past, dopplering downriver. This can be heard later in the piece, just after Hoskins says, “...regenerating the river.. bringing it back to life..making it a playground for the wealthy.”

The piece ends with recordings I made on a visit to Rainham Marshes in Essex in 2017, as the pace slows down and distant perspectives come into view. Sounds from the far shore can be heard, lending a widescreen feel, with the low hum of industrial barges drifting languidly past. Larks enter the frame, endlessly improvising metres above me as I sit on landfill overlooking the Thames estuary, while pigeons flap busily around the concrete barges, sounding like distant handclaps.

These concrete barges were the site of a particularly memorable TV appearance by Bow Gamelan (on Channel 4's Alter Image in 1986), playing on and in the barges and in advancing tides (up to their necks at one point). Invoking the spirits of Paul Burwell and z'ev, whose ashes are scattered in the Thames, I improvised on a large cylindrical metal item on site near the barges. An extract from this enters low in the mix, panning back and forth across the stereo field, before quietly exiting.

The main intention of my trip to the barges was to record myself improvising inside them. Traveling out from Battersea, I timed my visit at low tide. Despite this however, the exposed ground around the barges was way too treacherous to negotiate; I would've sunk up to my knees in squelchy sand. So near and yet so far...

The piece opens with a pitch-shifted combination of older ship's horns and foghorns, which hove into view, as though summoned from the depths. These reappear to close out the piece, very low in the mix, as though already departing and quite distant; sinking back into the depths.

In memoriam:

Paul Burwell 1949 – 2007

z'ev 1951 – 2017

Many thanks to Ian Rawes for directing me towards freely available and immensely valuable BBC archive recordings.

The piece is freely downloadable for transfer to other listening media.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Shining (1980)

It'd been quite a while since I'd seen The Shining on the big screen, so I went to a show in The Lighthouse last Halloween, and was surprised to find that they were showing the longer version (about a half hour longer than the 'European' version). It's also a restored version, and it does look and sound really fresh.

With one or two exceptions, I'm really not sure what the longer edit brings. It throws the pacing later on when things are really kicking off, the rhythm falters, I found. The scene with Wendy thinking aloud about how to sort getting the Sno-Cat mobilised felt utterly superfluous.

Another scene where she's running down the corridors brandishing the knife and encounters a seated bunch of cobwebbed skeletons just feels like something out of a different film. This is also the scene of one of the more darkly comic moments when a man in dinner attire with colossal head wound declares, "Great party, isn't it ?"

Another scene with Wendy prepping food with a portable TV nearby with a news item about a search for a missing woman, and approaching snow storm really don't add anything, as is also the case with Hallorann's return scenes of asking the air hostess what time they land, and ringing a station mechanic just feel completely superfluous.

There is a scene with Wendy and Danny watching a film on TV (which isn't plugged in - this is a ghost story after all). Of course, being Kubrick, it's not just any old film, but an early 70s film called Summer Of '42, about a seemingly idealised memory of a sexual encounter between a teenager and an older woman, after which his life is irrevocably changed. Hints possibly at inappropriate relationships between one or other parent and Danny ?

Also, we are into Room 237 territory here, and forensic dissections of certain scenes hidden layers - in this case the number 42, which appears elsewhere, though you'd be hard pressed to find it, which apparently relates to 1942 and the Nazi's ant-Jewish pogrom 'Kristallnacht'. The Indian burial grounds on which the Overlook is built have been made pretty clear early on, so the idea of further references to cultural oppression seem perhaps.. a bit overdone ?

I still think 6 year old Danny Lloyd is remarkable. Apparently they were able somehow to film all his scenes without him realising he was in a horror film. He retired from acting at the age of 10 after appearing in TV film. He's now a biology professor.

One scene in the longer version which does work for me is the doctor's visit to Danny early on, and the grim revelation of Jack's dislocation of Danny's shoulder in a drunken rage, which Wendy tries rather pathetically to pass off as "just one of those things". The doctors expression just seems to scream "He what ? He dislocated his shoulder ?? How the fuck did he manage that ?? Just what the fuck is going on here ??". Though perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this scene is the lack of any follow-up check-ups.. but then stranded incommunicado in the Overlook for 6 months is really going to work wonders for the Danny's PTSD, isn't it ? No other kids to play with, taken out of school for a ridiculous length of time..

I really like the early scenes with Scatman Crothers (who plays Hallorann), he just oozes personality. I love the way he pronounces the word 'toast' with that slight ringing sibilance on the s. I also really like the scenes with Joe Turkel ("your money's no good here. Orders from the house"). He's so utterly deadpan and sinister, especially when lit from underneath and with the white bar light directly behind him.

One of my favourite scenes is with Philip Stone after he spills drinks on Jack ("I’m afraid it's Advocaat sir, it tends to stain"). I really enjoy how the conversation evolves in the bathroom as Jack thinks he's sussed him, but Grady turns the tables on him with an unsettling mixture of deference and threat ("I'm sorry to differ with you sir, but you are the caretaker.. you've always been the caretaker.."). The carefully measured way Stone paces and so clearly enunciates his lines is really chilling. Like Turkel's scenes, he's back lit by an oppressive white light. The camera looks slightly up to him, down to Jack.

The big set piece with the tidal waves of blood still thrills, but the big driver for many of the scenes is the incredible music which hums, pulsates, rattles, scratches, roars and screams in an incredibly grim, feral manner that animates the scenes to great effect. The sense of deep unease is all pervasive, like a draught of cold air in a room. Of course Ligeti, Penderecki and Bartok didn't compose horror music, the pieces long pre-exist the film, but they are remarkably apt selections. I wonder how Penderecki and Ligeti felt about how it changed the public's perception of those pieces, which inevitably are saddled with the horror association ?

I was surprised to see no credit at the end for the Ray Noble piece, Midnight, The Stars and You, sung by Al Bowlly at the end (or the music in the Gold Room sequence) - only the classical composers and the score creators, Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind.

A trailer for The Shining 'sequel' (why does it need one ?), Doctor Sleep put me right off any vague notion of going to see it.. way too tediously gothic and long winded. Didn't think much of the book anyway. The name Doctor Sleep makes me think of... Harold Shipman, as referred to in that Fall song, What About Us - "What about us ! Shipman !!"

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

New album

My latest album Plundered Lumber, has just been released. It is available via Bandcamp in digital form and in a very limited physical edition of 25 only with unique on-body artwork.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

The Elephant Man (1980)

I never fail to be very moved by this wonderful film - the casting, performances, production design and cinematography are pitch-perfect. Everyone feels exactly right for their roles.
It was Lynch's first proper mainstream film with someone else's script, and his first after Eraserhead. Lynch speaks glowingly of Mel Brooks' support for the film and relates an incident where his heart sunk when he realised Brooks had gone to a private screening of Eraserhead. He thought he was finished, no hope of landing the job. However, when Brooks emerged from the screening, he hugged Lynch and said how daft he was and he was perfect for The Elephant Man (or words to that effect). 

Much of the Victorian England scenery has pre-echoes of late 20th century industrial decline that Eraserhead is infused with, with belching chimneys and clanking clocktowers. Lynch was very lucky to have filmed this in 1979, when much of the older building stock was undemolished in London. The Long Good Friday was filmed the same year. Both these films feature a very young Dexter Fletcher (around 13, looking about 9), in the latter film merely a blink-and-you'd-miss-it appearance. As well as the strong male leads, there's great female characters, played by Hannah Gordon, Anne Bancroft and Wendy Hiller, who plays the ward sister to such great effect. A woman who seems a bit brusque and dismissive at first in that classically Victorian manner, but is essentially very compassionate.

I had forgotten Freddie Jones, who plays Bytes, Merrick's cruel master, was in it. I had recently watched his son Toby Jones play the poet John Clare in Andrew K├Âtting's By Our Selves (where Jones snr makes a short appearance). And, speaking of appearances, it's well known that Bowie played Merrick in an off-Broadway production in 1980, and I couldn't help noticing that a scene early in the film, where the young nurse, played by Leslie Dunlop, drops Merrick's breakfast when she gasps at her first glimpse of him, made me think of Candy Clark's screaming fit in The Man Who Fell To Earth, when she sees Newton's true appearance.

I was always confused by his apparent suicide at the end, where he wants 'to sleep like normal people' - why would he do that when he was so happy (having returned from the standing ovation for him at the theatre). However, it seems, where the facts were concerned, he was discovered in his clothes on top of the bed, not in it, and at a diagonal across the bed, as though stalled in an attempt to raise himself, whereupon he died of asphyxia at just 28.

John Hurt relates a story about memorabilia he kept from the film, which included the cast of Merrick's cranium. It was left on top of a wardrobe in a small flat he had in Hampstead. During this time he'd bought a house elsewhere, and someone told him there had been a break-in at the flat, but nothing was taken. What became obvious was that as soon as the wardrobe was opened, the cranium (with hair attached) must've fallen out (possibly in the dark) and given the intruder a hell of a fright, whereupon he took flight. The back door was broken down.

Monday, September 07, 2020

I could have been Raskolnikov but mother nature ripped me off

A trio of post punk pearls are turning 40 this year, and each is connected in unexpected ways.

Joy Division's Closer was recorded between 18 – 30 March 1980. Was it 'closer' to something, or was it a closer ? Hooky on the recording process: “It was a good laugh most of the time.. the only sad thing about it was Ian's illness – but he hid that so well.” Their story's conclusion is well known, and Howard Devoto makes reference to Ian Curtis, as well as Kurt Cobain and Elvis Presley in the song, Hello Mr. Curtis (with apologies) from Magazine's 2011 album No Thyself. In a moment of disarming honesty to AU magazine in 2011 he states:

“The idea of suicide has always been important to me. I once had an unfortunate love affair which went wrong and I was in a bad way. I had a moment of revelation where I realised 'Hey ! I could top myself' and then I felt better. But, ever since then, suicide has always been an important idea for me.' I've only ever once in my life made plans and steps to bring about that end. I never got as far as swallowing anything or bringing a blade close to myself but I was starting to make plans in a very serious way. I even owned a gun at one point. And the main reason I had a gun is I might need it for myself at some unspecified point in the future”

The closing track on Talking Heads' Remain In Light, The Overload was their attempt to emulate the sound of Joy Division. The song was made despite no band member having heard the music of Joy Division; rather, it was based on an idea of what that band might sound like based on descriptions in the music press.

Grumman Avengers, used by the US Navy, in which Tina Weymouth's father had served, inspired the initial cover art for Talking Heads' 1980 LP 'Remain In Light' (working title 'Melody Attack'), later used on the back of the LP sleeve after the album name change.

The Appiani family tomb, as seen in the Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno, Italy. Sculpted by Demetrio Paernio in 1910. photo: Bernard Pierre Wolff.

Odilon Redon: A Mask Sounds The Funeral Knell (1882) Image used on the late 70s edition of Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, an inspiration for A Song From Under The Floorboards, from Magazine's 1980 LP The Correct Use Of Soap

The walls close in and I need some noise


French poster for The Idiot, released 18th March 1977.

“Poor Jim, in a way, became a guinea pig for what I wanted to do with sound. I didn't have the material at the time, and I didn't feel like writing at all. I felt much more like laying back and getting behind someone else's work, so that album was opportune, creatively.” - David Bowie

A lot of Stooges fans hated Iggy’s first solo album. I guess it wasn’t rock ’n’ roll enough for them. Far too dark and introspective - which is exactly what I like about it, and why it prefigured post punk so presciently, and became a template for Ian Curtis. It’s well documented as the last record that he listened to before he died.

It really is a Bowie album in all but name as, though he is credited as producer, he wrote most of the music and Iggy wrote the lyrics. It was made before Low, though released after it. It is a fascinating bridge between Station To Station and Low. Engineer and Magma bass player Laurent Thibault said that "David didn't want people to think he'd been inspired by Iggy's album, when in fact it was all the same thing." 

What In The World (working title Isolation) from Low was originally intended for The Idiot - Iggy’s backing vocals can be heard on it. “You’re just a little girl with grey eyes” is consistent with themes in China Girl, Tiny Girls and Baby. Sister Midnight was written by Bowie, Iggy and Carlos Alomar, and performed live on the Station to Station tour in early 1976.

The overall tone of the album is so lugubrious and sepulchral, vampiric and menacing, it feels like it could only have been made at night (which it was), by a zombie crew cattle-prodded into life. I’m reminded of Colin McCabe’s reaction to Derek Jarman’s 1987 film The Last Of England, where “.. he found it extraordinary how a vision so bleak was at the same time so exhilarating”