Archive for May, 2011

The Dümmer See, a lake in Germany’s Lower Saxony close to where I was born, suffers from heavy nutrient pollution. During spring and summer, the lake is full of blue-green algae or cyanobacteria and it is frequently forbidden to swim in the waters. This is caused mainly by two factors: to prevent floodings the lake is surrounded by dykes which takes the possibility to filter the shallow waters and results in silting. The second factor is massive cattle farming in the area around the lake, one of the most extensive in Central Europe. The liquid manure accruing from this is distributed on the farming land to grow crops and large amounts of it eventually ends in the Dümmer See. It is estimated that 30 tons of phosphorus every year is spilled into the lake depriving fish and other organisms of oxygen.

Last year I dunked my hydrophone into the green, muddy water of the lake to see if I can hear anything at all. Surprisingly I found a constant chirping that was onmipresent in the lake, I heard it everywhere I put my underwater microphone in the waters, even in ditches around the lake. I have no idea what species this is, I guess it must be a small water bug that seems to find perfect conditions in the polluted lake. This example is a close-up of one bug I recorded from a jetty in Lembruch. The other sounds come from the waves lapping against the jetty.

The New York Times has a new blog called The Score where American composers write about creating “classical” music in the 21st century. Yesterday, David T. Little asked if music should be political and how this could be achieved without compromising the artistic quality of a work.

Hanns Eisler looked at this question in terms of balance, developing a concept of progress and withdrawal (Fortschritt und Zurücknahme), which suggested that a work should not be both politically and musically radical at once; that it should choose one or the other.  For example, if you want to be radical politically, it’s best to embrace a musical convention that will be able to communicate best to the widest number of people.

Little comes to the very interesting conclusion that today we do rarely have revolutionary music like in the political turmoils of the 20s and 30s of last century but mostly critical music that doesn’t try to win — thus distancing it from a particular movement or ideology — which rather tries to observe, illuminate, and to critique a particular aspect of society. His thoughts are accompanied by a video with music by Ted Hearne that addresses the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:

The criticism of society – its consumerism, hypocrisy, superficiality – goes hand in hand with a strong believe in artistic independency and progress in contemporary music or new music, what we in Germany write as “Neue Musik” with a capital N. The paradox goes like this: the more advanced, the more artistically elaborated new music gets, the more it appears impenetrable and unaccessible for a wider audience thus looses every social or political relevance. The breaking of conventions in the communities of contemporary classical music today is something like a prerequisite for a composer, it is the expected norm to break the rules and in doing so it is reduced to absurdity. Another funny aspect of the new music scene is its self-perception as an opposition against the mainstream pop music and the commercialization of the cultural industries: major-minor tonality, repetitive rhythms and catchy melodies have to be avoided at all costs, and again in doing so new music is completely dependent from popular music. Against all rebellious rhetoric, new music can not survive without federal subsidies which, at least in Germany, has led to a sociological biotop that exists removed from everyday life and is therefore not considered an important voice anymore in the social discourse. The German music historian Frank Hentschel wrote about this in “Neue Zeitschrift für Musik”, his German article can be downloaded here.

The new music system and community is, of course, a different one in the US or UK. Guadian’s music critic Tom Service held a brilliant speech last year about the end of musical history that addressed similar terrain particularly relevant in the UK. Here is his description of the sociological biotop of the contemporary classical music scene:

Contemporary classical music is often – a culture – sub-culture is really more accurate – that consists mostly of people who want to criticise more than celebrate, and in which assessments of value and importance are made in exactly the opposite way to that which they are made in the (most of) the rest of the musical world. It’s a topsy-turvy never-never land in which the ugly is the beautiful – and not in a good way – in which musical communication, conceived as the active transmission of sonic-semantic phenomena to as great a number of people as possible, is frowned upon (you can only ‘get’ this music if you’re clever enough, if you’re part of the club), and in which if you enjoy yourself, you ain’t doing it right.

Tom Service comes the the same concluding question as David T. Little in his piece for the New York Times:

Is it enough to write music that ultimately will probably only ever be accessed by a tiny minority of new music nerds, as opposed to even attempting to communicate with a wider public, and having a genuine chance of changing people’s minds or influencing their approach to the world?

His analysis reads exactly like the one of Frank Hentschel for the German new music scene:

The essential problem is that the musical gestures of thousands of ‘modernist’ orchestral or ensemble pieces is that their voice of protest does not carry any expressive power in and of itself. In fact, the idiom of the abrasively dissonant and fractured orchestral instrumentarium has become a cliché. It hasn’t been ‘new’ for about 60 years, in fact. So instead of cutting through or resisting received opinions or modes of production, this kind of approach to orchestral composition actually shores them up. There is nothing more predictable than the angular unpredictability of a modernist orchestral work – either when it’s played at a contemporary music festival in Donaueschingen or Huddersfield, or a London Symphony Orchestra subscription concert.

Tom Service’s solution, if one can talk about a solution to the problem, is that the composers have to overcome their fear of the world: “being unafraid of going it alone, of setting up their own ensembles, finding their own audiences, outside the institutions and the stylistic languages and mannerisms of contemporary music that have ossified around them.” His role model is the minimal music scene of New York in the early 70s, Reich and Glass, their own ensembles and their own audiences building around them far away from the contemporary music scene of that time. I hope such initiatives will thrive, although I doubt that we still have new musical terrains waiting to be discovered as it was the case in the historical situation in New York at that time. The field of music has been fragmented into such little pieces and islands that it is nowadays very hard to find land that is as fresh and full of fruits waiting to be harvested as it was with minimalism at that particular time. Nonetheless, there is still great new music coming from this hermetic scene, be it political or not. Some of my favorites of the recent years would be the superb Streichquartett Nr. 3 of Beat Furrer, or Benedict Mason’s “felt | ebb | thus | brink | here | array | telling“, a concert installation which broke the performance conventions of the contemporary music scene and was one of my all time favorite sonic experiences, or Georg Friedrich Haas’ piece “natures mortes”, which I heard in Donaueschingen once and which catched me after hearing hours of new music mannerism:

PS.: Some more reads about where new music is leading to: Alex Ross wrote a piece for the Guardian “Why do we hate modern classical music?“. David Stubbs book “Fear of Music, Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen” asked some similar questions but mostly failed to come up with a concise answer.

The sound of cicadas can have a tranquilizing effect, the ebb and flow of their sharp high-pitched sounds can sometimes lull the listener into oblivion. According to Socrates, in his dialogue with Phaedrus, cicadas went through a quit interesting reincarnation (in this excerpt they are translated as grasshoppers):

A lover of music like yourself ought surely to have heard the story of the grasshoppers, who are said to have been human beings in an age before the Muses. And when the Muses came and song appeared they were ravished with delight; and singing always, never thought of eating and drinking, until at last in their forgetfulness they died. And now they live again in the grasshoppers; and this is the return which the Muses make to them – they neither hunger, nor thirst, but from the hour of their birth are always singing, and never eating or drinking; and when they die they go and inform the Muses in heaven who honours them on earth.

The migration of souls and the sound of grasshoppers and cicadas also plays an important role in the films of Apichatpong Weerasthakul. His latest film “Uncle Bonmee who can recall his past lives” won last years Palm d’Or at the Cannes film festival. In the film Bonmee travels to the countryside to spend the last days of his life with his family. In the  farmhouse close to the jungle ghosts appear: first his former wife Huay and later his dead son in form of an ape-like red-eyed monster. At the end of the film Uncle Bonmee visits the cave in which he was supposedly born in one of his former lifes. Like the old Greek myth of the transformed cicadas, the film deals with recollection and dying, but it is not only the story of Uncle Bonmee, Thailand as well is in a rapid process of transformation and, as Weerasthakul stated, Cinema itself.

The first time I saw the film I fell asleep from the soft-spoken Thai dialogue and the constant drone of cicadas in the background (check this interview with Sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanmitr about his work on the soundtrack for Uncle Bonmee). This already happened to me during the second half of “Tropical Malady”, an earlier film of Weerasthakul, situated in a rain forest with the constant chirping of insects. I was convinced I was hearing sounds of strange insects I knew from a CD release called “Broken Hearted Dragonflies” by Tucker Martine. Here is an excerpt:″

These recordings are supposedly not processed (I remember David Toop doubting this in his review in The Wire) and are associated with so-called broken-hearted dragonflies, as the producer Alan Bishop explains in the liner notes: “When the male is finishing mating, they make this crazy sound and their chests explode and they drop dead to the ground. The Burmese say that the dragonflies are so heart-broken for their mate, that they explode their chests and die from the crying sound they make.” Ironically the second part of the liner notes is implemented by anarchist thinker Hakim Bey (“temporary autonomous zones”) who, in a twisted philosophical way, puts Beethoven and the dragonfly into the same artistic catagory and ends musing: “The earth is a living being. We’re all talking in her sleep. Or making music.”

The Burmese folk tale might sound poetic but it seems it has lulled the minds of these writers. Think of it: the dragonfly has no apparatus to produce any kind of stridulation sounds like grashoppers and cicadas, the only sounds dragonflies emit are their buzzing wing flaps {UPDATE: cicadas actually don’t use sound-producing stridulation but fast tympal movements causing fast clicks, see Jonathan Benhams comment below}. So what we hear on the CD are in fact cicadas. Where do these strange alien-like sounds come from? My guess from what I have experienced being very close to singing cicadas is that they can get, first, very loud and, second, have two wings to stridulate and to produce simultanous tones, which means that these sounds are what we know as combination tones. Sum or difference tones can impose a third (mostly deeper) tone in the listeners ear when the frequencies of two tones are quiet close to each other. The strange sounds in the recording represent the difference in frequencies between the two wings of the cicada, that is also the reason for the modulation of the tone. I also suspect that those particular cicadas of Burma and North-Thailand produce a certain amount of ultrasounds of which we are only able to perceive the deeper combination tone, in a sense some kind of natural aliasing effect.

But maybe my mundane response to the “broken-hearted” cicadas is only too scientific, maybe I should integrate the culturally loaded perception the people in that region have of those insects. In Weerasthakul’s films, tigers, cows and apes carry the double meaning of also being a migrating soul captured in their body only for this soon ending life. In “Tropical Malady” there is a fire fly passing by the main character which appears to speak like a radio voice:

So is my Western view of those insects the same as the one of Jean-Henri Fabre, who dissected and catagorized animals and put them into a scientific context? There is a legendary conversation between cinéma vérité pioneer  Jean Rouch and African filmmaker Ousmane Sembène in 1965, in which this question also resonates in a certain way. Jean Rouch is famous for his visual anthropology, the documentary style of observing tribal african life in a scientific manner, while Ousmane Sembènes persepective here is the one of Third Cinema, a cinematic movement that tried to disinguish itself from the commercial and escapist Hollywood  film industry as well as the European Second Cinema of the auteur. The passage in this conversation about in which way Africa should be represented goes like this:

Jean Rouch: I would like you to tell me why you don’t like my purely ethnographic films, those in which we show, for instance, traditional life?

Ousmane Sembène: Because you show, you fix a reality without seeing the evolution. What I hold against you and the Africanists is that you look at us as if we were insects.

Jean Rouch: As Fabre would have done. I will defend the Africanists. They are men that can certainly be accused of looking at black men as if they were insects. But there might be Fabres out there who, when examining ants, discover a similar culture, one that is as meaningful as their own.

Ousmane Sembène: Ethnographic films have often done us a disservice.

(alternative translation here)

Could we think of Weerasthakul as a valid successor of Sembènes confident Third Cinema representing a contemporary way of observing local conflicts and social disruptions? Not everybody is convinced about that. In an article a couple of years ago in the German newspaper TAZ, Simon Rothöhler critized the funding system of western film festivals and film funds that have somehow contributed to a world cinema that is shaped by the taste of the artsy-fartsy film avantgarde of the West and has led to the dissappearance of the Third Cinema movement. Thomas Elsaesser compared the international film festival scene as a network of directors, producers, film fund managers and critics that moves from festival to festival like a swarm and builds a power center comparable and antagonistic to the Hollywood system which is able to virtually commission film projects around the world. The results are too often films that exactly reflect the taste of the western film avantgarde but are not able to survive outside of the festival system. Apichatpong Weerasthakul as the momentary darling of the western film auteur scene represents this system in a perfect way, as Rothöhler counts the enlisted film companies from France, UK, Holland and Germany involved in financing Weerasthakul’s former film “Tropical Malady” (the same is true for “Uncle Bonmee…”).

Elsaesser’s comparison of the international film festival scene with swarms of birds or fish reminded me of Jussi Parikka’s book “Insect Media” which I have browsed through recently. For him insects are themself a form of medium (something Socrates already informed us about, remember: they were reporting to the muses), but they are also a metaphor for describing human behaviour, social interaction and technological developments. Are we acting like being insects, or are we already an insect-like phenomenon? I don’t know but thinking like this can lead us to the notion of Weerasthakul’s films being only a chirp in the constant stridulation buzz produced by the arthouse film scene, nevertheless a pretty loud chirp, I suppose. “Uncle Bonmee” might give the art critics everything they are looking for but I think it is also a genuine artistic achievement, if you can handle the slow pace of the film and the lack of drama. I would doubt, though, that it is a political statement in the sense of the long gone Third Cinema movement, for that the esoteric contemplations about ghosts and the formalistic approach are too far removed from a direct address to the audience. As I said, I fell asleep and had to watch the movie a second time, the insects were just too tranquilizing.