NGV Triennial

As Melbourne and Victoria continue to emerge from lock-down, it was great to see that the NGV International has re-opened for the summer with the latest edition of its Triennial show. And while we should all be grateful to have the opportunity to visit this exhibition in person (rather than on-line), it’s not without some shortcomings.

Refik Anadol: Quantum Memories (image sourced from NGV website)

First, the good news: no doubt it was a logistical headache to co-ordinate this exhibition while Melbourne was in strict lock-down for much of the past 10 months. Making admission free is also a wonderful public gesture given that the local population was starved of art exhibitions for most of last year – in particular, we missed out on the NGV’s winter blockbuster season.

The curators are also to be commended on assembling a diversity of artists, work and media; and for placing a great number of these new pieces among the NGV’s permanent collections, which forces visitors to assess these contemporary exhibits within the context of historic work.

But that’s probably where the positive ends.

A major drawback of this exhibition is the lack of anything truly ground-breaking, innovative or even challenging. It all felt very safe – but maybe that’s just what we needed after our extended social isolation: work that is comforting, familiar, cozy, cuddly, soothing, and certainly bright (lots of lively colours).

As a result, however, there seemed to be an emphasis of form over substance, technique over content, and scale over context. Much of the three-dimensional work felt flat and one-dimensional. Even the opening centrepiece, Refik Anadol’s “Quantum Memories” that dominates the entrance lobby, is a classic example of the “medium is the message”. Comprising a giant digital screen (incorporating a clever trompe-l’œil 3-D effect) to stream animated, computer-programmed images, ultimately gave the impression that this was all about the technology and the scale of the work. It was difficult to identify any meaning beyond mere decoration.

And unfortunately, “decorative” was a recurring theme, alongside some rather kitsch and lazy imagery – especially the digital and animated wallpaper that featured in several of the permanent galleries. These “displays” reminded me of cheesy son et lumière or pedestrian CGI effects – it may be technically adept, and even stylish to some degree, but that’s as far as it goes. Perhaps “deep” and “complex” are out of favour at the moment, as we make way for “shallow” and “simple”.

While some work might attempt to convey a more profound response, when shorn of its original context, the message is lost and the result is a void. I wasn’t necessarily looking for “deep and meaningful”, but I was hoping to be provoked or inspired. Or at least have my curiosity piqued.

Triennial? Could try harder.

Next week: Expats vs Ingrates?

Version / Aversion

Cover versions are always tricky – for some fans, the thought of another artist messing about with a song by their favourite singer can come across as sacrilege; for many others, a cover version can bring to their attention music that they might never otherwise hear. At their best, cover versions can reveal unfamiliar elements in a familiar song, uncover hidden depths, and add an extra dimension to established work. At their worst, cover versions are simply pedestrian, lazy reworks, or mere replicas (slavish copies). Many renditions veer on karaoke or like those over-hyped performances (which are inflicted on an undeserving public courtesy of “reality” shows such as The Voice, Pop Idol and The X Factor), they seem mainly designed to demonstrate vocal gymnastics, rather than exploring the essence of a song. Far from making an iconic song their “own”, the performer ends up with a Xerox facsimile.

ABC Triple J’s “Like A Version” veers between true inspiration and mere replication….

Our preferences for particular cover versions (even over the originals) are purely subjective. The other night I was at a small social gathering, and the host started playing Frank Sinatra’s version of “Mack The Knife”, a recording from late in Ol’ Blue Eyes’ career. Hearing it for the first time, I recognised the song and the singer, but not this rendition. My own reference for this particular arrangement of the Weill/Brecht standard is probably Bobby Darin – but he was following in the footsteps of Louis Armstrong who first brought the song into the Top 40. Perhaps if I had heard Sinatra’s version first, would that be my reference point?

There are probably lots of songs we all know by way of cover versions, rather than the original. Which is understandable. First, in jazz, country and blues, of course, standards and evergreens are the staples of many a repertoire. Second, in pop music of the 1950s and 60s, multiple versions of the same song (usually written by jobbing song writers, rather then by established performers) would be released, often at the same time, to cater for different markets. But in both these categories, these are not so much cover versions as different interpretations – which is not quite the same thing, in my view.

What draws me to a particular cover version tends to be one or other of the following factors: first, what prompted or inspired the artist to record their own version? second, does the new recording bring an unfamiliar artist to my attention, that I then end up exploring further? third, how does the cover version interpret a well-known number, beyond replicating it?

Here are three examples of cover versions, whose original recordings were unknown to me when I first heard them, and which remain my reference points for these songs – but they have also prompted me to explore the original artists’ back catalogue:

  1. “Song to the Siren”, written by Tim Buckley, as recorded by This Mortal Coil
  2. “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”, written by Sly & The Family Stone, as recorded by Magazine
  3. “My Funny Valentine”, the Rodger & Hart evergreen, as recorded by Elvis Costello (who was referencing Chet Baker’s version)

In contrast, here are three recordings of songs which I love, but I hate these interpretations, because, as happens with many cover versions, they do not add anything, or they are poor replicas, or the vocal interpretations are simply out of kilter:

  1. “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, written by Joy Division, and bludgeoned by Paul Young
  2. “Ziggy Stardust”, written by David Bowie, and made soulless by Bauhaus
  3. “Hallelujah”, written by Leonard Cohen, and rendered overwrought and histrionic by Jeff Buckley (sometimes less is more – as demonstrated by John Cale’s majestic and elegiac interpretation, recorded a few years before Buckley brought out his version)

Of course, a good song will generally shine through, regardless of performer, style or arrangement – revealing itself to be a perennial work of art. A few random examples:

  1. “Computer Love”, originally by Kraftwerk, but turned into a laid back, disco-style torch song that manages to bring warmth and humanity to an electronic classic by Glass Candy
  2. “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”, a classic ballad by The Smiths, yet when rendered as “The Light 3000” by Schneider TM & Kptmichigan, it becomes a mournful song of love, loss and regret that could easily have been performed by HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey”
  3. “She’s Lost Control”, Joy Division’s post-punk anthem, given a reggae makeover by Grace Jones that works because it sounds like Ms Jones could easily be singing about herself in the third person…

But for all my reservations, cover versions do have their place. If it wasn’t for This Mortal Coil, I wouldn’t have heard Big Star’s “Third” album; if not for Nick Cave’s “Kicking Against The Pricks” album (which at the time, set off a trend for tribute and covers albums – with varying results…), I’m not sure I would have encountered much of his own music; and without Robert Wyatt’s series of cover versions in the early 1980s, I probably wouldn’t have been as engaged by or aware of the music of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis or even Chic….

Next week: Startupbootcamp – Melbourne FinTech Demo Day

From Brussels With Love (Revisited)

40 years ago this month, an obscure record label in Belgium released a cassette-only compilation album, which became a reference point for many post-punk projects. “From Brussels With Love”, originally put out by Les Disques du Crepuscule, has just been re-issued, so during the recent lock-down, I thought I would exhume my original copy and remind myself of why this was such a landmark album, and why its influence continues to this day.

To add some context, Sony had launched the Walkman cassette player in 1979, the first truly portable device for pre-recorded music. This led to a renewed interest in the cassette format among independent artists and labels, as it was also a cheaper means of manufacture and distribution than vinyl records (and long before CDs, mp3 and streaming services). And in the wake of the DIY aesthetic promoted by punk, some new music was being released on cassette only, such as Bow Wow Wow’s “Your Cassette Pet” and BEF’s “Music for Stowaways” (the title referencing an early model of the Sony Walkman). Some of these cassette-only releases (especially by independent, lo-fi, DIY electronic artists such as Inertia) are now highly collectable.

What made “From Brussels With Love” so significant was not just the format. It was not even alone in combining music with interviews and fully illustrated booklets. Fast Forward in Melbourne also launched their first audio-magazine in November 1980, and other similar projects followed such as Edinburgh’s “Irrationale”, Manchester’s “Northern Lights”, and London’s “Touch” label which began life releasing a series of curated audio gazettes, including both spoken-word and musical contributions.

The importance of “From Brussels With Love” was the cross-section of artists it managed to bring together: mercurial musicians such as Bill Nelson, John Foxx and Vini Reilly; side projects from members of established post-punk bands from the UK (Wire, Joy Division/New Order, the Skids and Spizzenergi); a cluster of emerging European bands (Der Plan, The Names and Radio Romance); and several leading names in modern classical and ambient music (Harold Budd, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Phil Niblock, Brian Eno and Wim Mertens). Oh, and an interview with actor Jeanne Moreau.

This eclectic mix of contemporary artists (and this deliberate approach to curation) was no doubt highly influential on subsequent projects such as the NME/Rough Trade “C81” or Rorschach Testing’s “Discreet Campaigns” – these were not compilations reflecting a single musical style or even the usual label sampler, nor were they simply collections of what was new or current. Instead, they reveal an aesthetic attitude (curiosity combined with open-mindedness mixed with a high level of quality control and a hint of audience challenge) that is harder to find today. Now we have “recommender engines” and narrow-casting streaming services that would struggle to compile similarly diverse outcomes. And more’s the pity.

I know there are a number of on-line platforms and print publications that try to bring a similar approach to their curation, but for various reasons, and despite their best intentions, they generally suffer from being cliquey, self-referencing/self-identifying, and all driven by a need to capture eyeballs to attract advertising, so they quickly lose any claim to independence or even originality. Which is a shame because there is so much great music out there that we don’t get to hear, simply because it is not mainstream, or it doesn’t conform to a particular style, or it doesn’t meet “playlist criteria”, or it doesn’t have enough marketing dollars behind it.

Next week: Is the Party over?

Bread And Circuses

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, here in Melbourne we are waiting for signs that the State Government is preparing to lift some or any of the restrictions that have kept us in Stage 3 & 4 lock-down for most of the past 7 months.

Photo sourced from Twitter (thanks, Warwick…) https://twitter.com/peely76/status/1309750743331606533?s=21

Data on new cases and community clusters released over the past few days suggest we won’t be “getting on the beers” with our mates any time soon, and certainly not with the Premier’s blessing.

The slow drip feed of information at the Premier’s daily press conferences, and the painful revelations at the recent Board of Inquiry into the failed hotel quarantine program, somehow suggest a Head Teacher who is forever saying, “This hurts me more than it hurts you” before handing out another punishment. Believe me, the audience increasingly feels like it is being tortured for its own good – because even though most of us understand why we had to have the first lock-down, the blatant failures within government, the civil service, certain public agencies and their private sector contractors have made it seem we are paying for their mistakes.

In Roman times, the general populace stayed docile as long as there were “bread and circuses” to feed and entertain them.

Now, apart from some toilet roll shortages early in the piece, and the occasional binge shopping on pasta and tinned tomatoes, by and large, the supply chains have been kept open, and the supermarket shelves replenished. (Some small grocers and independent producers may actually have benefited, as people are forced to shop local, and as restaurants pivoted towards cook-at-home meals – but equally, others may have been forced out of business if the major chains have used their market power to commandeer supply. Hopefully, the ACCC under Rod Sims will be keeping the latter honest.) Plus food delivery services have flourished due to the increased demand. So most of us can’t be said to be going hungry (although food banks have likewise never been busier).

So, in the words of Kurt Cobain, since we are still in lock-down, “Here we are now, entertain us!”

Box set bingeing and non-stop streaming only get us so far (I gave up about 3 weeks into lock-down Part 1). Broadcast sports are patchy given the limits on live crowds. Home-gigs/domestic-busking are not the same as a night at The Corner Hotel in Richmond. The lack of access to cinemas, theatres, galleries and museums means my need for culture is not easily satisfied. And while I have been digging into my library, revisiting classic albums, and trawling the BBC sound archives (as well as creating my own electronic music), the additional stimulus provided by in-person and on-location events is sorely lacking.

It’s clear that many of our artists and performers are also struggling, but their particular plight is not being fully recognised or acknowledged. In the UK, for example, the arts and entertainment community argues that their industry is under-appreciated for the financial contribution it makes to the national economy. This is not to overlook the social, cultural and mental health benefits of a thriving creative sector.

Meanwhile, the tedious cat and mouse game being conducted between the Premier and some sectors of the media (plus the highly divisive commentary generated by the Premier’s fervid supporters and detractors on social media) is no substitute for proper entertainment – and even though a couple of heads have been dispatched thanks to the Board of Inquiry (so, that was a thumbs down from the Emperor?), the lock-down song remains the same. Time to change the (broken) record?

Next week: Golden Years