Margaret Tan and Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep

Last week, I mentioned the number of ageing rock stars having to cancel concerts. In contrast, Margaret Leng Tan, aged 74, performed a 75-minute one-person show as part of the Asia TOPA festival in Melbourne. She made it look effortless, producing an almost choreographic style of piano playing, as she performed the world premiere of “Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep”.

Both autobiographical and a tribute to two of her greatest influences, John Cage and her mother, the show is a mix of live piano, prerecorded audio, digital art, multimedia and spoken word. It is comprised of anecdotes from her life, personal musings on loss, and practical aphorisms, such as “DRC” – the “daily reality check” – a must for all artists and anyone else needing to make sense of the modern world.

Clearly a very focused and determined musician, Margaret Tan has carved out a niche for herself in the modern classical world, with her championing of the toy piano. She has made it an instrument for serious composition and concert performance.

The physicality of her performance ensured that the digital technology neither dominated nor descended into gimmickry (no “tech for tech’s sake” here). Her presence on stage was captivating yet self-contained – despite largely being all about her, it was authentic and self-effacing in equal measure.

Margaret Tan revealed two key aspects of herself that go some way to explaining her success. First, at an early age she realised she had to concentrate on the piano – she couldn’t maintain her other music and dance studies – from which we get the sense of her single-minded purpose. Second, her lifelong obsession with numbers – almost a form of synesthesia; and given the strong relationship between numbers and music, it felt that she has learned to live with, even appreciate, this “affliction” in the pursuit of her art.

If there was one thing missing, it was Margaret Tan’s own music. While she is best-known for her interpretations of John Cage and other modern composers, I was curious about her own work, and whether she has ever explored composition herself.

Next week: My Four Years in Crypto

 

Stereolab at Melbourne Zoo

There was a recent newspaper article about the number of older rock stars having to cancel tour dates due to ill health, injury and just plain old age. The irony is that when most of those performers started out as professional musicians, no-one really expected their careers to last 10 or 15 years, let alone 40 or even 50 years. Now that artists increasingly rely on income from ticket sales (rather than royalties from streaming services), there could be lean times ahead for ageing rockers – and that’s before we take the effects of COVID-19 into account. Thankfully, Stereolab were able to play at Melbourne Zoo last week, before cancelling the rest of their Asia Pacific concerts due to the virus. Of course, by comparison to much of rock’s gnarly royalty, they are mere babes, having “only” formed in 1990. And although they have not released any new material for 10 years, during which time the band has been on hiatus, Stereolab have an extensive back catalogue to draw upon now they have started touring again.

Alongside contemporaries Saint Etienne, Stereolab were part of a reaction against late-80s grunge and acid house, and between them they ushered in a return to more interesting melodic and harmonic structures, vintage/retro sounds and complex textures, all informed by an aesthetic that embraces electronica, exotica, soundtracks, bossa nova and dub effects. In fact, both bands have collaborated with similar post-rock artists on each side of the Atlantic such as Jim O’Rourke, Tortoise, Mouse on Mars and To Rococo Rot, not to mention The High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan. (Both bands also have extensive back catalogues, with frequent non-album, one-off, limited and rare 7″ singles scattered throughout their discographies.)

By going back on the road after such a long break (and with no new material to promote), there was a risk that Stereolab might simply be going through the motions – even coming across as their own tribute act at best, a self-parody at worst. Thankfully, despite the familiarity of the songs, the band managed to keep everything sounding fresh, energetic and full of enthusiasm. And despite maintaining that original aesthetic, Stereolab have enough variety to remain interesting and avoid sounding samey – which has no doubt helped with their own longevity, unlike many contemporary artists who will likely be forgotten quicker than a Crazy Frog ringtone.

Next week: Margaret Tan and Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep

 

 

 

Joy Division and 40+ years of Post-Punk

In the aftermath of its 1976-77 heyday, UK punk rock morphed into five main trends: new wave; goth; new romantics; synth-pop; and post-punk. The latter term was applied to a number of bands that had emerged during the punk era, but were not defined by its limitations. Although they were initially influenced by punk, and shared many of the same attitudes, they had quickly moved beyond the three chord thrash, frenetic pace and nihilism of punk to create music that was more cerebral, complex, challenging and enduring. They were not afraid to reference influences outside punk, such as literature, film and philosophy. Key among these bands were PiL, Gang of Four, The Fall, Wire, Magazine, Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire and Joy Division.

Although Joy Division only released two studio albums (one of which came out just after the band’s singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide), their influence has been long-lasting. Rather like the Velvet Underground in the late 1960s, many people who heard them early on were inspired to form their own bands.

Their first album, “Unknown Pleasures” emerged in June 1979. It was just after Margaret Thatcher had come to power following the strike-ridden “winter of discontent”. The sonic palette created by the band and their producer, Martin Hannett, revealed a post-industrial sound that could only have come from Manchester. At times it sounded nothing like their contemporaries, so strong was their unique musical identity. Reflecting the rugged local landscape surrounding the music’s urban setting, the gritty realism of “Unknown Pleasures” demonstrated that as with British society after Thatcher, music after Joy Division would never be the same again. I first saw them live a few weeks after the album’s release, and already the songs made an indelible impression.

The band was incredibly prolific during the next few months, touring constantly, and releasing a number of non-album tracks and singles. I saw them again in early 1980, by which time they were already playing songs from their next album, as well as their forthcoming single, “Love Will tear Us Apart” – one of the most iconic and frequently covered songs of its era.

The last time I saw Joy Division performing was on the second night of the “Factory By Moonlight” mini-residency at West Hampstead’s Moonlight Club (also artfully referencing Maximilien Luce’s late 19th century painting). I spoke briefly to Ian Curtis before the gig, which turned out to be one of the band’s last concerts. He was polite, and came across as rather shy, but probably he was just exhausted, given the band’s work rate and his own physical and emotional problems. Within a few weeks he was dead.

Soon after, the second and final studio album, “Closer” was released. Inevitably, it was seen as a sort of memorial for Curtis, especially given the sleeve’s funereal design (although the image had been selected months earlier). Apart from a couple of uptempo numbers (I am using the term relatively), the songs are melancholic, majestic, and yes, morbid. Whether intentional or not, side two of “Closer” has always reminded me of the mainly instrumental and proto-ambient songs on side two of David Bowie’s “Low” album. (Given that Joy Division’s previous name, Warsaw, owes something to the “Low” track, “Warszawa“, it seems possible that the similarity is deliberate.)

Much has been written about Joy Division over the past 40 years, and a number of commemorative activities are likely in 2020. The band’s presence has been perpetuated not just by the lasting influence of their slim studio output (since bulked out with compilations and live albums) but by the fact that the remaining band members morphed into New Order – one of the most successful bands of the 80s and early 90s who brought electronica to rock music, and rock music to the dance floor.

The other week, my next door neighbour mentioned he had only recently heard “Unknown Pleasures” for the first time – thanks to a playlist recommendation. He hadn’t realised the album was so old, and thought it was a newish release. Hopefully, by now, he has also heard “Closer”.

Next week: Stereolab at Melbourne Zoo

 

 

Brexit Blues (Part II)

Brexit finally came into effect on January 31, 2020 with a transition period due to end on December 31, 2020. It’s still not clear whether key issues such as the post-Brexit trade agreement between the EU and the UK will be completed by then (a major talking point being imports of American chlorinated chicken….). Nor is it clear which other areas of EU laws and standards will survive post-transition. Both of which continue to cause uncertainty for British businesses and local governments that have to operate within and enforce many of these rules. Add to that the recent UK storms and floods, the post-Brexit air of racism and xenophobia, plus the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting drag on global markets and supply chains, and maybe the UK will run out of more than just pasta, yoghurt and chocolate. Perhaps those promised post-Brexit savings of £350m a week really will need to spent on the National Health Service…..

The “Vote Leave” campaign bus, 2016 (Image sourced from Bloomberg)

The seeds of the Brexit debacle were sown in David Cameron’s speech of January, 23 2013. As I wrote last year, that set in motion a series of flawed processes. Despite the protracted Brexit process, it’s now unlikely that the decision to leave will be reversed, especially as the opposition Labour Party has just been trounced at the polls. Instead, Labour continues to beat itself up over the failure of its outgoing leadership either to make a solid case in support of the Remain vote in the 2016 Referendum, or to establish and maintain a clear and coherent policy on Brexit leading right up to the December 2019 General Election. The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson has a huge Parliamentary majority, a fixed 5-year mandate, and a general disregard for traditional cabinet government and the delineation of roles between political advisors and civil servants. We have already seen that any form of dissent or even an alternative perspective will not be tolerated within government or within the Tory party, let alone from independent and non-partisan quarters.

Since that fateful speech of January, 2013, it’s possible to follow a Brexit-related narrative thread in film, TV and fiction. Not all of these accounts are directly about Brexit itself, but when viewed in a wider context, they touch on associated themes of national identity, democracy, political debate, public discourse, xenophobia, anti-elitism, anti-globalism, and broader popular culture.

The earliest such example I can recall is Brian Aldiss’s final novel, “Comfort Zone”, (published in December 2013), while the first truly “Brexit Novel” is probably Jonathan Coe’s “Middle England” (November 2018). Somewhat to be expected, political thrillers and spy novels have also touched on these themes – Andrew Marr’s “Children of the Master” (September 2015, and probably still essential reading for Labour’s current leadership candidates); John Le Carre’s “A Legacy of Spies” (September 2017); John Simpson’s “Moscow, Midnight” (October 2018); and John Lanchester’s “The Wall” (January, 2019). (For another intriguing and contemporary literary context, I highly recommend William Gibson’s introduction to the May 2013 edition of Kinglsey Amis’s “The Alteration”. Plus there’s an essay on the outgoing Labour leader in Amis junior’s collection of non-fiction, “The Rub of Time” published in October 2017.)*

Elsewhere there have been TV dramatisations to remind us how significant, important and forward-looking it was when the UK joined the EEC in 1973 – most notably the chronicling of the Wilson and Heath governments as portrayed in “The Crown”. Even a film like “The Darkest Hour” reveals the love-hate relationship Britain has had with Europe. More distant historical context can be seen in films like “All is True” and “Peterloo”.

No doubt, Brexit will continue to form a backdrop for many a story-teller and film-maker for years to come. And we will inevitably see recent political events re-told and dramatised in future documentaries and dramas. Hopefully, we will be able to view them objectively and gain some new perspective as a result. Meanwhile, the current reality makes it too depressing to contemplate something like “Boris Johnson – Brexit Belongs to Me!”

*Postcript: hot off the press, of course is “Agency”, Willam Gibson’s own alternative reality (combining elements of the “Time Romance” and “Counterfeit World” referenced in “The Alteration”) – I haven’t read it yet, but looking forward (!) to doing so….

Next week: Joy Division and 40+ years of Post-Punk