New ELISION videos from King’s Place

Stand by for a post on the obsessive, geeky love affair I’ve been having with ELISION’s new disc of the music of Brian Ferneyhough, entitled Terrain.

In the meantime, ELISION has published a series of videos to Youtube of performances from King’s Place in February:

Liza Lim, Invisibility

Just breathtaking.

Richard Barrett, Aurora

I was a bit hard on this piece when I originally posted on the concert. Perhaps I still don’t like it so much as I like much of Barrett’s other work, but I think it’s definitely a piece that rewards repeated listening. Also, rewatching this, I can’t see/hear the sense of ‘unsettledness’ in performance that I alluded to. These guys eat this piece for breakfast. (Obviously, this has far-reaching implications in terms of the validity of any of the opinionated waffle I post here…).

Timothy McCormack, Disfix

What can I say, I love this piece.


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Computer games and Art

Film critic Roger Ebert has come out again, in response to a TED talk by game designer Kellee Santiago, with a declaration that computer games can never be art. At least, not in the lifetime of any gamer currently alive.

This is the TED talk he was reponding to:

Now, to give Ebert his due, his viewpoint is rational, well-intentioned, and pretty reasonable. He picks apart a number of Santiago’s points that, frankly, don’t hold up to closer scrutiny. But the lack of validity of a particular example does not necessarily indicate the failure of the underlying point.

My difficulty with Ebert’s view is that he appears to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of what a computer game is. He purports to assess the art-worthiness of the three games Santiago uses as examples (Waco, Braid and Flower) without having played them, which seems to me a bit like dismissing Vertigo because you didn’t like the trailer. In this instance, the only game I have played of the three is Braid, which is also the game where Ebert’s dismantling of it makes the least sense. Braid invites its audience to engage with the notion of their own historicity (not history) precisely through the mechanism of game interaction. The story is definitely a little bit pants, but in context serves as little more than a qualifier – a lens, if you will – to inform and add detail to the interaction.

And here’s the thing. What a computer game does that no other supposed ‘artform’ does is interaction. If computer games are capable of being art in their own right (and not purely on their visual or sonic splendour), then it is surely on this basis that they can be so.

Now, the definition of ‘art’ is a problem here. I don’t want to go into it too much, because I’m not entirely sure I believe in some sort of vaguely-definable quality that somehow imbues some objects with an aura of awesome intellectual and/or emotional cred, and others not. But if I were accept at face value that there is such a thing as a distinction between ‘art’ and ‘not’, my feeling is that the difference is one of audience engagement. ‘Art’ invites its audience to think critically about the world around them, themselves, their emotion, etc. ‘Not’, at its worst, is little more than a form of pornography, offering a blend of gross visual and sonic stimulation and faux-sentimentality. (I’m sure Roger Ebert is familiar with this, as I’m sure he was probably professionally required to see Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen, which is pretty much the Worst Film Ever. But I digress). My basic point is that ‘art’ encourages its audience to respond actively (albeit in purely emotional or intellectual way) while ‘not’ compresses its audience into a pus-like ball of passivity.

If audience engagement is a valid criterion for art, then Braid gets across the line in spades. In the same way that poetry can, Braid provokes a subtle and nuanced response from a sympathetic audience. And it does it through the ‘medium’ of interaction. Now, Braid is not Hamlet, by any stretch of the imagination. But maybe it’s… ummm… I dunno – like, maybe it’s one of Aristophanes’ crapper works, y’know?, the ones that Penguin Classics were all, like, “Ummmm… yeah… let’s not reprint these ones…”. (Okay, so my limited knowledge of mediocre-but-still-art theatre really let me down, here…). And like all art, Braid is not going to provoke an ‘artistic’ response from all players. For everybody in my English class whose life was altered by The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock, there were about fifteen who just couldn’t give a fuck.

Ebert also seems to get hung up on the idea that the purpose of playing a game is to win it. Sometimes, perhaps, this is true. But, while a game typically has a trajectory (i.e. a start point leading, sometimes via a user-determined middle, to an end point), this is true of any artform that is limited by the arrow of time (music, dance, theatre, cinema) and, much like in music, dance, theatre and cinema, the point of the game is the experience of which the game consists, not purely its resolution.

Not all games are art. Not even most games are art. I suspect that very few games are art. And those games which are art are perhaps not particularly good art. But I think that it’s naïve to assert – particularly having not actually bothered to come to terms with essential elements of the medium (it’s kind of like assessing Mahler on the basis of a few screenshots of the score) – that a computer game can never be art.

Or maybe this is simply a difference in perspective. Ebert appears to think that there needs to be some kind ‘proof’ that something is art. That nothing is art until it can be proved otherwise. Whereas I like to think that anything that is capable of making us think more about our own place in the world around us is art. And that it’s impossible to prove otherwise.

A more light-hearted take on the subject matter can be found here.

Film, television and new media composers union

It seems that film, television and new media composers are one step closer to unionising.

This particular corner of the industry is something that’s pretty foreign to me, so I can’t even begin to assess or predict what the difficulties, opportunities or implications of such a thing might be, but my gut reaction is that anything that might add pressure to pay composers adequately is a Good Thing.

Having a couple of friends who are involved in the animation and visual effects side of things, I’m often left pondering the differences between our fields. Now, VFX is a comparatively young field, and isn’t unionised yet either, although in the wake of Avatar this open letter to James Cameron led to this podcast which prompted this online ‘Town Hall meeting’ to discuss VFX working conditions and unionisation. Again, I’m not aware of all of the issues here, but I applaud the fact that some form of public dialogue has been instigated on this. (Animators already have their own guild).

Now, the thing is, while working conditions and pay might suck for FX people, it would never occur to film producers – even of  low-budget commercial films – to practically not pay them at all. There appears to be at least some recognition that doing visual effects or animation is an incredibly time- and expertise-intensive job, and needs to be remunerated.

Compare and contrast with film composition, where if this is an industry you’re trying to break into, you pretty much need to work for free for a decade, hoping to get as many prominent credits as possible.

In some senses this comparison is false – beginner directors, screenwriters and actors do their fair share of working for free and self-subsidy, too. And, like with directors, screenwriters and actors, the dire financial prospects for film composers at the start of their careers are motivated by the fact that anybody with a computer and a software sequencer can theoretically produce a film score, while paradoxically there is very little work (one job per film, essentially, compared with the small army of VFX people that might be working on Prince Caspian). The simple economics of supply and demand mean that it’s possible to find people with little experience, wanting to break into the industry, who will work for practically nothing.

Furthermore, the fact that early-career, but moderately-credentialled composers are frequently working for such little financial reward means results in talented, but poorly-credentialled composers finding it even harder to get their foot in the door. Why would a producer take a risk in hiring a talented newcomer when you can get a composer with a far longer credit list to work for ‘beginner’ rates?

So one thing I’ll be really interested to see as the Composers Union story develops is exactly what kind of implications this is expected to have for composers who are earlier in their careers. Will collective bargaining work in a field where non-union composers are willing to undercut their competition in order to get a gig?

Chris Cunningham digs Varèse

Via Opera Chic, here is an interview in the Guardian with Chris Cunningham, perhaps best-known for his music videos for Aphex Twin and Björk.

I’ve always been secretly delighted that the guy who made the breathtaking video for Björk’s All is full of love was the same guy that made the (equally incredible, in a NSFW kinda way) video for Aphex Twin’s Windowlicker. Two of my favourite music videos ever.

I love my CDs

So I’ve been a little bit absent for the last little while. Yes, that’s right. I’m a Bad Blogger. The main reason for this, though, is that all of my stuff arrived from Australia – my entire material universe, magically compressed into five boxes. Quite a bit of that material universe is made up of CDs, and also my stereo (a surprising portion of the rest of it is made up of the predictable scores and reference texts, along with the artefacts of several abortive attempts to learn dead languages). And, as I’ve been spending so much time reacquainting myself with CDs that I’ve been separated from for the last five months, I want to talk about why I think that the ‘Death of the Compact Disc’ is highly exaggerated.

Now, my stereo system is pretty good – not audiophile quality, by any stretch of the imagination – but I have a good CD player, good amplifier, and good speakers (good enough that, had they arrived a week earlier, there is absolutely no way that I would have failed the Pepsi challenge. Which I did. Failed like a dog. It turns out that laptop speakers aren’t very good. Who’d have thought?). The fidelity of sound offered by a CD in this context is far beyond anything even a ‘lossless’ file can produce. After five months without my stereo system, Brahms had me blubbering like a baby (he was saying something about all flesh being like grass, to the consternation of vegans everywhere…), which requires a level of immersion in the recorded sound far beyond what is possible with the fidelity offered by a computer.

Now, I don’t believe for a second that this is due to any shortfall in the quality of the variety of digital formats available (lossless and otherwise). But the fact is that very few people have the hardware available to play files off their computer in anything resembling the quality that even a modestly-priced hifi can offer. The first hurdle is D/A conversion. As far as I understand it, the majority of people connect their computer to either speakers or an amplifier via the computer’s headphone jack, relying on the computer’s built-in A/D converters (less than stellar).

Furthermore, computers simply aren’t precision instruments when it comes to the performance of recorded sound. While I’m no expert on digital minutiae, I’m not convinced that the standard personal computer, using its processing power for the myriad other things that computers do, can even theoretically offer the precision of playback in terms of things like timing that a CD player can.

I suppose it’s theoretically possible that audio playback software will develop to a point which offers similar stability to CD players, and when dedicated, high-quality A/D converters offer a more faithful listening experience. Indeed, with the ever-increasing volume of music sourced from ‘soft’ media such as digital downloads, I imagine it’s only a matter of time until the standard mid-range audio system consists of a computer transmitting digital output wirelessly to a D/A converter, which effectively takes up the cabinet space vacated by the CD player.

But that time is not here yet. In the meantime, I heart my CDs, and I’m so glad they’ve come back to me!

No can has iPad

Cory Doctorow eloquently and intelligently spells out all of the reasons I won’t be buying an iPad.

Is hanging Steve Jobs upside wrong? Does all of the luck fall out, like with a horseshoe?

And also, I can’t afford it.

[EDIT: 5th April 2010] Techdirt weighs in on the iPad, too.