The ‘Death’ of ‘Classical Music’

There’s a lot to say about the supposed ‘Death’ of ‘Classical Music’ (scare-quotes and scare-capitalisation added for additional scarification). Most of it’s been said by other people, but largely in response to other other-people who have said other things, about which they’re mostly wrong. I’m sure at some stage I’ll not be able to resist a lengthy rant about this, but now is (thankfully) not that time.

But I did really enjoy Proper Discord’s list of 30 things that won’t save classical music. I also very much enjoyed the ensuing celebrity-deathmatch-style pundit smackdown. Perhaps Highlander-style bloodsports will save classical music?



A locally-renowned Melbourne classical music critic once said that the difference between classical and popular music criticism is that popular music criticism always relies on describing things viscerally (e.g. “Beyoncé’s latest spine-chilling release brutalises you in the skull like a bowl of porridge”), whereas classical music criticism relies on more objective/descriptive means (e.g. “This performance of Schubert’s Trio in Bb major was adequately-named, featuring three instruments which often played together, although sometimes splitting into smaller configurations. The work took place after the interval, an analysis with which I’m sure the audience would have concurred”). I think he was meaning to imply that popular music criticism is somehow vaguely fraudulent. Which is funny, because that’s the way I feel about most music criticism regardless of genre.

I like the idea that criticism might actually be able to subjectively discuss the sorts of questions a performance raises, and provide a space in which to echo and amplify the provocations of the music, rather than simply providing an account of what happened. Either way, the above generalisation doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that SoundisGrammar can feasibly leave uninterrogated.

So today I’m making a brief foray into the beer-soaked, drug-fueled, tragi-glamorous world of rock journalism by telling you about how, last week, I went to see Berlin-based Parisian duo Tracy’O.

The first thing one notices about Tracy’O is their attractiveness the limited sonic materials at play. Comprising Dell (voice) and Bert (guitar), this is no simple voice-with-guitar-accompaniment walk in the musical park. The sense of material limitation is made potently present by the music’s constant desire to transcend those limitations.

This leads to some fascinating solutions: Bert’s guitar riffs are looped and overlaid on top of each other, resulting in intricate walls of textured sound. At the same time, though, the necessity of building up such a texture bit-by-bit, or at the very least out of previously-used material, forcibly breaks the architecture out of a more normal verse-hook-verse-hook-bridge-hook-whatever type song structure. Rather, the music resembles a continuous musical strand, the self-similarity of which produces structural cohesion.

The loop-based strategies employed in the musical materials are mirrored in Dell’s lyrical materials. Featuring frequent, although irregular, repetitions, the lyrics are at times hypnotic, neurotic, pathological. The irregularity of the repetitive structures, frequently divorced from changes in musical texture, convey a ‘sense’ of a hook, or a hook-like structural unit, without providing the security or formal definitiveness that a textbook hook would provide. The lyrics consist of highly direct statements, with each song seeming to limit its own vocabulary – there is never a sense of getting to know or understand the narrator. The narrative voice is curiously guarded, only permitting us highly restricted glimpses into the psychology (pathology?) behind the words. Given that lyrics are so often expected to provide a sense of emotional or psychological ‘truth’, the lack of context with which we’re able to gauge the veracity of the narrator is starkly terrifying.

The music of Tracy’O, then, despite it’s apparently simple means, is about ambiguity. It asks far more questions than it answers. The music of Tracy’O is also about multiple forms of constraint. The construction of the songs naturally reflects certain constraints (some voluntary, some not), while the lyrics similarly demonstrate strategies of extreme limitation – a violence enacted upon the potentiality of the text. The music of Tracy’O, despite it’s sense of volume and catharsis, is somehow caged, bristling at its confines. Implicit in this music is the question of what the object would look like if it were freed from these constraints.

Tracy’O’s MySpace page can be found here. However, this really is a band to be experienced live: the sounds on MySpace sadly have a very different quality from the sounds produced live and is, to my ears, significantly less provocative (the best thing there is probably this handheld live video in gloriously distorted sound). Something remarkable happens on stage. And I promise it’s not just the beer-soaked, drug-fueled tragi-glamour talking.

“Terrain” – ELISION ensemble at King’s Place

ELISION’s second concert of 2010 takes place at King’s Place as part of their Out Hear series next Monday. Entitled Terrain, this programme features Ferneyhough’s remarkable work for solo violin + ensemble as a kind of centrepiece, tying in nicely with the release of ELISION’s long-awaited disc of Ferneyhough ensemble works on Viennese label KAIROS.

The concert also features Bryn Harrison’s Surface forms (repeating), heard first at last year’s hcmf, Transference – a new work by Mary Bellamy for solo cello, James Dillon’s Once upon a time and Liza Lim’s stunning Songs found in a dream (performed at hcmf by MusikFabrik).

A big highlight of this concert for me, though, is the première of Aaron Cassidy’s And the scream, Bacon’s scream, is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth (or, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion). Those familiar with the prior three Studies… (solos and a duo extracted from the larger ensemble piece) will be aware that this is some of the most provocative music around at the moment and I, for one, can’t wait to hear the whole ensemble piece.

Here, irritatingly in two parts, is Being itself a catastrophe, the diagram must not create a catastrophe (or, Third Study for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion)

SiG kind of hearts Lawrence Lessig

Posted on Boing Boing, this excellent 20min video in which Lawrence Lessig talks about conservatives, Wikipedia, libertarians, Disney, remix culture and, of course, copyright.

R.I.P. Philip Langridge

Sadly, British tenor Philip Langridge passed away last night at the age of seventy.

Today’s papers don’t seem to have published any obituaries, but I’ll link to some when they become available. For myself, suffice it to say that the epiphanic moment of understanding, when the qualities of the operatic works of Benjamin Britten suddenly became luminously clear, was solely due to the artistry of Philip Langridge.

I’m listening now to his remarkable recording, with the late Richard Hickox, of Britten’s Death inVenice.


Get some filament in your childhood: a heads up

This Thursday, 11 March, Golden Fur presents the first of three concerts as part of their 2010 subscription series at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Entitled Filament, the concert features Morton Feldman’s stunning For Frank O’Hara, Liza Lim’s Veil, Robert Ashley’s Waiting room, and première performances of works by Cat Hope and myself. Full details, along with downloadable programme notes, can be found here.

That's right, I've finally worked out how to upload images!

The day before that, the Freshwater Trio with special guest violist Caroline Henbest performs a program featuring Schumann’s Piano Quartet in Eb, Op. 47, and the Fauré Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 15. These works are paired with arrangements of Chopin and Schumann by regular collaborator Adam Starr. Go for the Schumannian introspection, stay for the Starrian whackiness. More infos here.

Ridiculously awesome

That’s right. A LEGO sequencer!

More details here.

Thanks to Scott McLaughlin, for passing on this as well as the subject of the previous post.


Techdirt reports on a fairly disturbing new development in the world of patent lawsuits.

Would I be right in thinking the possibility of doing something like this is a relatively recent development? Or is this simply the result of an exponential curve that started over a hundred years ago? Certainly, the emergence of Big Content as a powerful lobby group in the US over the last thirty years or so (RIAA, MIAA, etc), combined with a vast increase in the amount of IP-related litigation (250% increase in the US Federal Courts between 2000-2006) and the exceptional length of copyright terms has turned IP law from something that feasibly (although arguably) protected creators into a giant stick used to beat a cash cow.

I’m not meaning to gloss over the difference between patent-based IP and copyright-based IP, but this is a social trend which shifts the focus of the intellectual property away from its intended purpose of “promoting innovation” which is “for the benefit of society”. The fact that nobody can now touch anything made since 1915 with any certainty that it is in the public domain is a travesty. This issue is pretty exhaustively documented/ranted about elsewhere on the interwebz.

This is almost certainly not what Thomas Jefferson had in mind. He even says so in his blog post of 13 August, 1813.

But then, I guess this is nothing new. Businesses have been using lawyers to screw each other for a long time now. One of the terrible things about late capitalism is the paradox introduced by the following:

1. making money is good, by any legal means necessary.
2. in an effort to minimise collateral damage from (1.), governments introduce regulations or protections.
3. any given regulation can be used as a weapon to attack somebody else. In accordance with (1.), above, any given regulation almost certainly will be used as a weapon in litigation.

The paradox being, of course, that increasing regulation actually increases collateral damage, by providing the tools. It’s like trying to stop gang violence by giving everybody guns. I often wonder if there’s any way out of this other than a court standing up and saying “Actually, no, you’re being a moron”. And then, perhaps it’s much too late for that, insofar as courts are bound by precedent.

Regardless, Intellectual Property needs a shake-up. Preferably sometime before we lose a century of science and culture. Y’know, like, twenty years ago.

Incidentally, anybody who hasn’t read Lawrence Lessig’s book Free culture should do so. It can be downloaded for free under a creative commons license from here.