The last of the modernists, Scott Walker has been fighting a lone rearguard action to reverse the twentieth century’s vanishing hold on the popular memory since 1995, when he came out of hiding to release Tilt—his first new record in 11 years. It took him just as long again to follow it up with The Drift in 2006. Now on a roll of sorts, Walker wrote and recorded his latest album, Bish Bosch, in just three years. Its release completes a loose trilogy of late-period Walker works, over the course of which he developed and refined a whole new kind of art song, constructed from a discredited modernist blueprint. OK, I know that describing Walker as a modernist—indeed the very last of the modernists—is only so helpful and not a little problematic. Modernism has so many faces, and it’s near impossible to find a perfect match. It’s difficult to imagine Walker answering Ezra Pound’s 1934 call for modernists to “make it new”, as his mind just doesn’t move that fast. Instead, on the jacket of his 1969 album Scott 4, he quoted Albert Camus: “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” In the four decades since, Walker has journeyed even further back in time to find a meaningful way of addressing the horrors unfolding all around him: specifically, the collapse of communist Eastern Europe, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and still unresolved issues passed down from the Second World War. At last he found in early twentieth century modernism both a philosophical model and an analytical tool for transforming trauma and alienation into song. Walker’s new music is much closer in spirit to James Joyce’s time-stretching stream of consciousness prose, capturing all that unspools before his eyes in everyday life, than Pound’s injunction. As Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses: “‘History’ is a nightmare from which I’m trying to wake.”
Walker has firmly stated that there’s nothing at all intentionally avant-garde in his music. The words always come first, and he shapes the music around them, each song according to its own needs. If the contents of a song require a Mantovani theme, he’ll write one for it. Tilt observes a more formal trade-off between word and sound, with electric chamber arrangements fencing Walker’s single-malted baritone, here ranged slightly higher to strangely discomfiting, haughty effect. On The Drift and Bish Bosch, he underlines his narratives with non-musical sonic mimicry, just to be double sure that the music stays true to his words. Especially on Bish Bosch, the music sometimes gets so literal and bleeding obvious, it’s just plain silly. Yet the very silliness of it all serves to open up this difficult music. Walker is far too uptight and controlling to fully take on Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness methods, but Bish Bosch is positively Joycean in its dirty celebration of the body. On “Corps De Blah”, he sings, “Ah, my old /Scabby Sachem / a sphincter’s tooting our tune” just after a chorus of farts breaks the song’s somber tone. Of course, it sounds horribly juvenile, and quite shocking for nice, well brought up types like myself. And it’s the last thing you’d expect to hear on a record by Scott Walker. But such scatological and absurdist humor ameliorates Bish Bosch’s otherwise bleak panorama of hell, with recurring images of decaying flesh, naked bodies, testicles and sphincters exposed.
Of course, it has its purpose. Bish Bosch reflects on the extent to which the twenty-first century is still so informed by the wars and carnage of the twentieth. The album’s closer, “The Day the ‘Conducator’ Died (An Xmas Song)”, is about the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu on Christmas Day, 1985. Can’t say I was sorry to see them go, but Walker’s evocation of their final moments is immensely poignant. The bare narrative is built up from the multiple-choice answers of a questionnaire and a recurring accusation about the firing squad not waiting for the command to fire. Without endorsing or praising the regime, Walker has stretched the boundaries of empathy, as good art should, taking you inside the minds of great dictators after they have been left looking small, greedy and vain, but also very human.
The album’s standout track is the twenty-one-minute epic “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)”. Here, Walker makes massive leaps across time to interweave overlapping narratives about an astronomical brown dwarf (sub-stellar object which revolves around stars) and Zercon, a historical brown-skinned jester in the court of Attila the Hun. The latter’s embarrassing vaudeville routines are interspersed with mysterious cosmological events in a dream warp of surrealism. Much of the song is given over to the jester’s jokes and one-liners, which are truly terrible, and each is greeted by a deathly silence as they die on the vine. How does Scott Walker make this succession of bad jokes, ugly sonics and baffling narrative leaps all work together? Brilliantly, if you’re prepared to plunge to the depths of his music and find out just how much weight a song can really carry. ~
Chris Bohn is the longtime editor of British avant-garde music magazine The Wire. This recommendation is a preview of the upcoming issue of Electronic Beats Magazine that will be released in mid-December. In the Fall 2012 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, Bohn recommended Project UNDARK’s Radium Girls 2011.
It occurred to me last year when I wrote an article for Spex magazine. I had picked two albums by German free jazz saxophone player and band leader Peter Brötzmann, Ein halber Hund kann nicht pinkeln (1977) and Tschüs (1970), to feature in my reissues column Bessere Zeiten klingt gut. Listening to Brötzmann’s collaboration with improv drummer Han Bennink, I was immediately lost in their powerful vision of sound, and I wanted to know more about them. But well-written articles about Brötzmann (and Bennink) are hard to find. In its November issue, London-based magazine The Wire publishes a 16-page feature by David Keenan. Writing about Ein halber Hund kann nicht pinkeln Keenan states: “In the sparse vulnerability of the duo setting, we can hear him thinking with his breath, through the pipes and valves of his horns. Here, overblowing ceases to be a route to volume and intensity, but becomes a means to generate new textures: in an instant, the bass clarinet can flick from chocolatey-smooth to sandpaper-rough, with a hint of humming, semi-vocalised song.” That’s quite an accurate description of a sound that’s hard to articulate through words. Whoever sees music as an adventure should check out the new November 2012 issue of The Wire. A single copy costs £4 in the UK. However, the cover price varies outside the UK, so why not subscribe?~ Photo: Max Dax
Fast Food is a new, regular feature on EB.net by Thomas Schoenberger and Max Dax. Every Saturday you can read a new piece of a sophisticated ongoing conversation about cooking, traditions and how to read the menu of any given restaurant. It is a discussion about disappearing spaces and why so many chefs listen to Miles Davis’ so-called ‘electric period’ after an exhausting night in the kitchen.
Dax: The semi-legal Hafenstraße backdrop was essential for the restaurant’s founding myth. It is in fact only possible to pin down the story of the Restaurant Schönberger—and I know that this might sound redundant at first glance—because there is a story to tell. As opposed to, say, all those franchises of restaurant chains where no real story can ever to be told or written down. You need a story like this to make an inventory of a restaurant. I believe that you can approach a restaurant with a similar methodology and vocabulary as you classify, document and contextualize a piece of art. By talking about the Restaurant Schönberger we save it from oblivion.
Schoenberger: Let’s face it: We are very much aware of the fact that we conduct this dialogue about cooking not only in a public space . . .
Dax: . . . we are sitting in the Osteria al Bacco opposite the Geto Novo in Venice’s Cannaregio quarter. It is now 10 p.m. and we are recording this conversation with my tape recorder, a digital Olympus Dictaphone. There is five other guests in the osteria.
Schoenberger: Not only that. Even more important is the fact that we are fully aware of the fact we are conducting the dialogue in front of a virtual audience. Everything we discuss will be transcribed and published in this blog—before it will eventually be released as a book. Every mental leap and every cross-reference leads somewhere in this stream of consciousness. We chose the story of the Restaurant Schönberger as a starting point for this narration as we knew that we literally needed a heavily charged location. A space that serves as a proxy for the hundreds or thousands of spaces that we could have mentioned instead. Fast Food reports about the enjoyment that can be found in everyday occurrences such as dining, cooking and drinking. It repeats the idea that certain traditions must not be forgotten. As I said before: Every family-run restaurant with a story that has to close because a quarter becomes gentrified is a real loss. We have to defy perdition in the same cadence as the Hafenstraße squatters who couldn’t accept their street becoming an object of real estate speculation—that would have changed the face of St. Pauli forever.
Dax: I remember: At a certain point I had finished cleaning the string beans. You were still on the phone discussing something with someone I didn’t know. You had put on a record called “Pangaea” by Miles Davis—by the way my first introduction to jazz. I was sitting at my table, enjoying my white wine when the kitchen brigade arrived. I had to go then and we didn’t see each other for some time. Even though we had barely said a word, I associate this dizzy fall afternoon with the beginning of our friendship.
Schoenberger: For sure it was a memorable encounter. I still remember what I thought when you started to clean the beans. I thought: Here we have a guy who had no connection to me whatsoever except that he liked what I was doing. But the appreciation was mutual. I knew quite a bit about you because I had done my research. I knew, for example, that you had quit your work at Alfred Hilsberg’s. And I knew that you’d been Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s personal assistant and that you had—when you were still living in Kiel—suggested a caterer friend of yours in Kiel to order large amounts of Trebbiano from my Vertrieb trockener Weine. You had changed sides and become a journalist. I very clearly recall how I became aware of you and why I eventually did this research about you. One day, my maître d’ approached me and insisted that I read an article about the restaurant that he’d found in a newspaper. As usual, I resisted. I hate food journalism. It didn’t even matter if an article had been written about the Schönberger or about another place. I hated them all. The vast majority of journalistic pieces about restaurants or food are crap. They are written without any consciousness of tradition and knowledge of context. These articles usually, first and foremost, display the ignorance of their authors. It becomes even worse if the writers actually do know a bit about cooking. Most of their articles use language as a deadly weapon. They kill or hail chefs and restaurants with their writing as they are pretty class-conscious in the worst sense of the word.
Dax: The role of the critic has dramatically changed with the triumphal procession of the Internet and the availability of information in general. I totally understand your aversion against journalists whose job it is to professionally criticize. Nothing against that job description. Every now and then I read fantastic reviews. The way The New Yorker’s Richard Brody reviews “Shoah” by Claude Lanzmann, for instance, is just state of the art.
Schoenberger: The same goes for food critics like François Simon of Le Figaro fame or Maurice-Edmond Sailland, better known as “Curnonsky”. I don’t know how to put it: They were different.
Dax: . . . or take music critics such as The Wire’s Chris Bohn or, in Germany, Diedrich Diederichsen who successfully invented a brand new way of saying complex things in the German language. To me, these are real writers in a literal sense. But the profession of the critic is at stake today. Yes, we need people who filter for us—and they have to find ways to filter better and even more accurately than the stunning algorithms that Google or Amazon are using. But no, we don’t need point of view journalism anymore if the human being behind this point of view doesn’t have the time to fundamentally look into the complexity of a given topic. For decades now, I doubt the so-called objectivity of the critic. I always preferred the subjective aggregation of information and context that admits that nobody can know everything. It’s like that famous Socrates quote “I know that I know nothing”. I would never predicate anything else than that. As a consequence, an article about the Schönberger or any other place would have to explain contexts such as the tradition of the working man’s canteen, the tavern and the osteria to rightfully carve out the differences and the unique aspects of any given space. If you don’t integrate this knowledge and if you don’t display these rhizomatic connections, you’d run the risk of comparing a telephone book with a novel. Or, to refocus back onto the field of gastronomy: to compare the typical pizzeria in a German provincial town with a Napoletanian place that only sells two types of pizza vera.
Schoenberger: Well, my maître d’ didn’t allow himself to be put off. He insisted that I read your piece about my place. Your article was headlined “Remembrance of Things Past”, just like the novel by Marcel Proust. When I read that line I wanted to read the rest of the review, too.
From September 5th through the 8th, the second edition of the ICAS Suite is attached to the always-intriguing CTM Festival.
Bringing such fresh soundartists and performers as Mykki Blanco and Nguzunguzu, ICAS Suite plays an important role in Berlin Music Week… but what role is that exactly? And what does ICAS stand for anyway? To find out more, EB Editor-in-Chief Max Dax spoke to CTM organizer Oliver Baurhenn. Photo: Matilde Campodónico
Max Dax: Is the ICAS Suite part of Club Transmediale, or is it a separate entity, a festival in its own right?
Oliver Baurhenn: Actually, I see it more as a co-operation project, or as a small festival of festivals. There are quite a lot of partners from the ICAS Network who are also running their own independent festivals, so we’re all hooking up to make a huge program that’s not based on a single idea of one festival, but consists of approximately 18 ideas from 18 festival organizers.
So basically, it’s an aggregation of ideas?
Exactly. The goal, the ideal situation, is that the sum is greater than the parts. We’re trying to bring our knowledge together, and of course the best of each organization’s local situation and what they like best on an international level.
What I also found remarkable is that the whole thing takes place around Berlin’s Kottbusser Tor, in many bars and spaces close to each other. This is especially interesting for myself, as we had the same idea in 2010 with Spex. We wanted to celebrate the magazine’s 30th birthday in more than one club—in Kottbusser Tor’s West Germany, in La Paloma, the Festsaal and other spaces; we wanted to curate an area rather than a single space. We ended up doing the celebration at Berghain, but originally we wanted to do lectures and concerts and DJ sets and cooking in the Kotbusser Tor area. It’s funny to see how ideas don’t fade away, but are picked up by one individual without knowing about the other.
I think it’s key that these venues are located so closely to each other. It’s a win-win situation for everybody involved, and also for the city. In the ’80s, Kreuzberg was the center of the city, the center of German subculture. Neukölln was supposed to become the next hot spot. Then, with the fall of the Wall Berlin-Mitte suddenly took over that central spot in the middle of the city, and now we are going back to Kreuzberg and small spaces. It’s like a cycle come fully around. Of course, it’s nice to go where the people are, the ones who enjoy the kind of music we are presenting.
London’s The Wire Magazine and Electronic Beats are hosting an evening at Paloma Bar on September 5th, directly after the Pet Shop Boys concert. What’s the idea behind bringing together magazines from different cities?
But you’re one of the DJs spinning records that night! I think it’s an interesting way to meet up on a more joyful level. Electronic Beats is quite important for Germany and abroad, because it’s coming from a perspective that it’s authors and also you have developed out of their history. You also have this Spex background, which means that you’re quite close to the history of German music criticism. The same counts for The Wire, which is of course one of the most amazing magazines about electronic music in the world—or, as they put in the subtitle, adventures in music. I think bringing together two forces that both fancy the style of music that CTM represents is a logical thing to do. This kind of DJing and working together (but not in writing and not in criticism) might pave the way for another level of co-operation and lead to more interesting things than you might expect, on an easier and lower threshold kind of way. Rather than bringing you and, say Chris Bohn together on a stage and delivering a panel discussion. You can present and exchange ideas much better when spinning records.
I agree. It’s more like a sharing thing… you share your interest in music by creating a real club situation.
By providing this good soil, you can put some seeds. Eventually, you have carrots and wonderful white flowers! This is the idea behind the ICAS Suite: presenting sound and music from different corners of the world, curated by different organizations.
… In the bar next door.
We’re also doing a barbecue every day from six pm until nine pm in the backyard of Festsaal Kreuzberg, and this will be a platform to meet and greet artists and other people in a nice environment.
Would you go as far to call it a digital grassroots thing?
Mostly, all of the organizations that are participating are grassroots initiatives. In this sense I think yes, it is a grassroots action.
What does ICAS Suite mean?
It’s the short form for International Cities of Advanced Sound.
I thought it was some form of an abbreviation for Icarus.
Nice one, I’ll have to keep that in mind. Of course we are all trying to fly, and we hope not to burn. You’re quite often hurt and burned with a DIY approach. However, the International Cities of Advanced Sound idea was born out of a project called Networking Tomorrow’s Art For An Unknown Future, as we were searching for a good format where all partners would have an easy opportunity to present themselves in a non-competitive environment, and to foster co-operation. So we started with the ICAS Kitchen. We’re thinking it will grow from the kitchen to the suite… to a city.
How to approach listening to the world’s longest album, clocking in at over thirty hours of music, hundreds of pages of sleeve notes and extensive video footage all packed onto an SD card that has to be plugged in a USB stick and accompanied by a small booklet covered with the picture of a burning church? Ideally all in one sitting. If that’s not possible, try seven approximately four-hour shifts. Certainly you’ll need enough time to get into a contemplative listening space, for however long you’re able to maintain it. As the album title indicates and the copious notes explain in great detail, Soulnessless is not an invitation to share in any kind of religious experience—even if the way its fifth Canto unfolds over twenty-nine-plus hours approximates a form of devotional music. Instead, the album is a journey into the metaphysical depths of the anti-religious experience—the destructive and superstitious nature of all forms of spirituality, approached from a variety of musical and critical perspectives.
The unifying thread here is Thaemlitz’s tightly wound autobiographical and artistic relationship to the disparate themes of gender transitioning, Japanese immigration law and Catholicism. This is the general framework laid out by the first four “Cantos”, incorporating video films that contextualize the music both visually and discursively, with large portions of the sleeve notes displayed on screen and offering their own engaging narrative. Taken together, the first four Cantos function as a kind of deconstruction of gender and religious upbringing in the form of Thaemlitz’s odyssey across Japan, the United States and the Philippines. Field recordings of Filipino nuns interviewed about their convent’s electronic sound system, conversations with workers seeking a better life, legal or otherwise, in Japan, are cut-up and recombined with the sound of clicking rosary beads, vinyl crackle, digital distortion, American religious AM radio, Hank Williams and papal mass. The appropriation of resurrection classic ‘I’ll Have a New Body (I’ll Have a New Life)’ at the end of ‘Canto I’ is a particularly striking example of Thaemlitz’s plunderphonic expertise: played almost in its entirety and panned hard left (and low?) in the stereo field, you have the impression of hearing the song for the first time.
But ‘Cantos I – IV’ make up less than 1/30th of the album’s duration, the bulk of which is the twenty-nine hour ‘Canto V – Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album’. The “meditation” is almost entirely based on a series of slow-moving chord modulations played on a grand piano, with each new chord played only after the previous one has reached the end of its sustain. Its duration alone makes it a unique listening experience. What remains of the abusive Catholic brainwashing I endured in early childhood won’t let me lie that I listened to it in one sitting. It involved long stretches of contemplative listening, interspersed with “lost” periods drifting between sleeping and waking. And just in case I missed some monumental musical shift during one of those drifting moments, I returned at least four times to the last hour of ‘Canto V’, and I also randomly dropped in and out for extended periods elsewhere across the length of the MP3. By now I was coming back for more because I was enjoying it — not because I felt duty-bound to do so.
Certainly, the somber, repetitive nature and literal “hammering” away of the chords on the piano conjure up images of factory labor, and in that sense, ‘Canto V – Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album’ justifies Thaemlitz’s claim for it being an act of resistance to the digital world’s filesharers whose belief that all music should be free has made the musician/composer’s labor worth next to nothing. This brings up an interesting point about the conceptual and political implications of not only this album but also instrumental music in general. In the June 2012 issue of The Wire, Jan Jelinek claimed that the “meaning” of instrumental music should only be understood in the context in which it’s heard, and any conceptual value added by titles or notes accompanying it shouldn’t be conflated with the pure listening experience. Well, nobody can force listeners to take on board the thoughts or feelings shaping the work, even when text may indicate how the artist wants it to be heard. But Soulnessless is more than just music. It was conceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk—one which can only be fully experienced as a complex interplay of autobiographical and activist texts, composed and found music, and still and moving images.
In Soulnessless, like in much of Thaemlitz’s work, there appears to be as much fascination as angry emotion folded and cut into the various spiritual sound sources, even if their critical deconstruction is his ultimate goal.~
Chris Bohn is a longtime editor of British avant-garde music magazine The Wire. For the last issue of Electronic Beats, he recommended Oren Ambarchi and Thomas Brinkmann’s The Mortimer Trap.