The Soundtracks of My Life…

This week’s musical interlude (#2 of 3) takes its cue from the world of film soundtracks. The first soundtrack album that made an impression on me was “Chariots of the Gods”, from 1972. It revealed that music can be mysterious, melodic and moody. It comprised elements of exotica, jazz, music concrete, electronic, muzak. It also started my life-long interest in this particular art form.

Image sourced from Discogs

The following list represents a selection of my favourite soundtracks (in no particular order):

Chariots of the Gods (Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra)

A Clockwork Orange (Wendy Carlos)

Morvern Callar (Various)

Get Carter (Roy Budd)

Le Samourai (François De Roubaix)

Le Mepris (Georges Delerue)

Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud (Miles Davis)

Heat (Various)

The Insider (Various)

Somersault (Decoder Ring)

Mysterious Skin (Harold Budd & Robin Guthrie)

Virgin Suicides (Various)

Lost in Translation (Various)

The Piano (Michael Nyman)

The End of the Affair (Michael Nyman)

The Draughtsman’s Contract (Michael Nyman)

In The Mood For Love (Various)

Code 46 (The Free Association)

2046 (Various)

Death in Venice (Various)

Broken Flowers (Various)

The Limits of Control (Various)

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jozef Van Wissem /  SQÜRL)

Inner Space (Sven Libaek)

Next week: Singles Going Steady

 

The first of three musical interludes….The Album Trilogy

Content in Context is on the road again, so over the next three weeks, instead of the usual stuff, please enjoy a series of musical interludes. And in keeping with that trio theme, the first addresses the the notion of “the album trilogy”.

Images sources from various public websites

I don’t mean triple albums (i.e., no bloated live collections, or multi-disc greatest hits…) but three individual studio albums, released sequentially, by a single artist or band. They weren’t necessarily conceived as a trilogy, but somehow they have come to form a self-contained, mini-canon. Either they reflect a key period in the artist’s career, and/or they represent a significant shift in style and content.

Few artists are capable of sustaining seismic shifts in their output. Sure, plenty of artists can turn out reasonable runs of “consist” albums (read: same again, or “why mess with a winning formula?), but few have created a truly unique and memorable sequence of three albums, that can also each individually hold their own in lists of all-time great records.

Even a band like the Beatles failed to create such a trilogy: yes, Sergeant Pepper and Abbey Road are both great albums, but however you cut it, the albums either side of those releases were either patchy (inside the double White Album lies an amazing single album…), compilations (Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine), or released out of sequence (Let It Be). And their contemporaries and friendly rivals, the Beach Boys, could not match the genius of Pet Sounds – neither Wild Honey nor Smiley Smile (as good as they may be in parts) managed to sustain that level of quality, especially in light of the subsequent reworked/reissued “lost” albums that lurked within their 1967-1968 recording sessions.

So, with no other criteria, here is a list of my favourite album trilogies (and like any other music list, the selections are highly subjective):

David Bowie: Low, “Heroes”, Lodger (The Berlin Trilogy) – A pivotal time in Bowie’s career, reflecting his European exile (following his US meltdown), helped by Brian Eno, and largely inspired by the city it references (where much of the material was produced). Plus, after his folk, glam and plastic soul periods, these albums include some of his most enduring songs. Aside from 1980’s Scary Monsters (something of a related coda to the Berlin albums), Bowie would never quite reach the same critical success until his final two albums, The Next Day and Black Star.

Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, Remain in Light – also helped by Eno, these albums showed the band shift in style, sentiment and subject matter. The albums that followed featured a few great songs, but nothing of the sustained output of the trilogy.

Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde – Dylan goes electric, finds his groove, and writes some of his best material, before going “country”…. He could have had a further trilogy incorporating Blood on the Tracks and Desire, but the previous album, Planet Waves is a poor effort, and after Desire, Dylan found sanctimony, religion and reggae.

Wire: Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, 154 – Rather like the punk era they emerged from, Wire’s first three albums are a 1,2,3 assault on your musical senses. Despite being closely identified with punk, taken together these albums totally outclassed most of their contemporaries.

Magazine: Real Life, Secondhand Daylight, The Correct Use of Soap – Like Wire, Magazine emerged from the ashes of punk, and like Wire, with their first three albums, they defined much of what has become to be known as post-punk (and also transcended most of their contemporaries). Plus, they came from Manchester.

Bjork: Debut, Post, Homogenic – Across her first three solo releases, Bjork established and defined a musical individuality that continues to this day: choosing to work with interesting combinations of producers and musicians, exploring different song-writing and composition styles, and developing a distinct narrative arc across each album.

Madonna: Bedtime Stories, Ray of Light, Music – This sequence of albums probably represents Madonna’s critical peak (not necessarily the height of her commercial success). Certainly they present a more mature and sophisticated sound, and draw on Madonna’s knack for choosing songwriters and producers that are in tune with (and even define) the zeitgeist – a trait she shares with Bjork.

Dusty Springfield: Where Am I Going, Dusty … Definitely, Dusty in Memphis – I’m not sure if this classifies as a guilty pleasure, but this sequence of late ’60s releases saw Dusty Springfield transition from her previous albums of pop, standards and show-tunes to more focused, classic soul and r’n’b – but still including her choice of key ballads by Bacharach & David (a constant factor in her repertoire).

Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express, Man Machine, Computer World – The albums that defined electronica and modern dance music. Sure, Autobahn was a breakthrough album, but compared to that huge success, Radioactivity was something of a curious follow-up (although it seems to have gotten better with time). And afterwards, it largely seems that Kraftwerk have been content to keep re-cycling/re-working/re-visiting their earlier work.

Massive Attack: Blue Lines, Protection, Mezzanine – The “Sound of Bristol”, that helped trigger the genre known as trip-hop (now something of blighted category). OK, purists may argue that No Protection came between Protection and Mezzanine, but I see it as a remix album (albeit a very good one). Each album is also built around key female guest vocalists, that unlike many other “featuring” collaborations do not feel like gimmicks or marketing ploys.

Nick Drake: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Later, Pink Moon – By sad fate, this is the entire output of Nick Drake’s short recording career. Not much more I can say, other than he achieved far more with these three albums than most singer-songwriters have managed with much larger output. Less is definitely more.

Close calls: Other artists that nearly made the cult of the trilogy include: Elvis Costello, Flaming Lips, OMD, John Cale, Radiohead, Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, New Order, Beck, Cocteau Twins, Sonic Youth, Echo & the Bunnymen…

Next week: The Soundtracks of My Life…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Box Set Culture

I was first introduced to the box set phenomenon in 1974, when I received a collection of novels by J G Ballard for my birthday. This led to an on-off interest in sci-fi (Asimov, Aldis, Bradbury, Dick, Spinrad, Crichton et al). It also made me aware that curators (like librarians) have an enormous influence on the cultural content we consume, and the way we consume it. Even more so nowadays with streaming and on-demand services. Welcome to the binge society.

Welcome to box set culture (Image sourced from Unsubscriber)

With network TV being so rubbish (who needs more “reality” shows, formulaic sit-coms or re-hashed police procedurals?) I am slowly being drawn back into the Siren-like charms of Netflix. More on that in a  moment.

Box set culture has been especially prevalent in the music industry, despite or even because of downloading and streaming services. It’s possible to buy the complete works of particular artists, or curated compilations of entire record labels, music genres or defining eras of music. It’s a niche, but growing, business. In recent times, I have been lured into buying extensive box set retrospectives of major artists (notably Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Fall, Kraftwerk), as well as extended editions of classic albums (Beatles, Beach Boys), and first time releases of exhumed and near-mythical “lost” albums (Big Star, Brian Eno, Beach Boys again). I like to justify these acquisitions on the basis that they are significant works in the canon of contemporary music. But only die-hard fans would attempt to embrace the monumental box set put out recently by King Crimson – comprising a 27-disc compilation of just TWO(!) years in the band’s history.

Death (and/or lapsed copyright) has become a fertile ground for box set curators and re-issue compilers, whether in literature, film or TV, as well as music. I’m sure there are publishers and editors maintaining lists of their dream compilations, waiting for the right moment to release them (a bit like the TV stations and newspapers who keep their updated obituaries of the Queen on standby). Sadly, in the case of Mark E Smith of The Fall, his death was immediately preceded by a significant box set release (tempting fate?). And as for Bowie, he had no doubt planned his legacy (and now posthumous) retrospectives prior to his own demise.

On the other hand, streaming services create the false impression we are in control of what we listen to or watch. Unless we meticulously search, select and curate our own individual playlists, we are at the mercy of algorithms that are based on crowd-sourced behaviours that are imposed upon our own personal preferences. These algorithms are based on what is merely popular, or what the service providers are being paid to promote. And while it is possible to be pleasantly surprised by these semi-autonomous choices, too often they result in the lowest common denominator of what constitutes popular taste.

And so to Netflix, and the recent resurgence in pay TV drama. Binge watching (and box set culture in general) has apparently heralded a golden age of television (warning: plug for Sky TV). But depending on your viewpoint, binge watching is either a boon to shared culture (the normally stoical New Statesman) or results in half-baked content(the usually culturally progressive Guardian). Typically, the Independent is on the fence, acknowledging that binge viewing has changed the way TV is made (and watched) but at what price? Not to be left out, even Readers Digest has published some handy health tips for binge-TV addicts. Meanwhile, Netflix itself has released some research on how binge-watching informs our viewing habits (and presumably, our related consumer behaviours). And not everyone thinks this obsession with binge watching is healthy, or even good for business – presumably because it is not sustainable, as consumers will continue to expect/demand more and more at lower and lower subscription fees.

Meanwhile, for a totally different pace of binge-watching, SBS recently tested audience interest in “slow TV”. The free-to-air network screened a 3 hour, non-stop and ad-free documentary (with neither a voice-over narrative nor a musical soundtrack) featuring a journey on Australia’s Ghan railway. So successful was the experiment, not only did the train company’s website crash as viewers tried to find out about tickets, but SBS broadcast a 17 hour version just days later.

Next week: Infrastructure – too precious to be left to the pollies…

MoMA vs SFMOMA

As regular readers of this blog may have come to realise, any opportunity I have during my overseas travels, for business or pleasure, I always like to visit the local public art galleries. Apart from providing a cultural fix, these institutions can reveal a lot about current fashions, curatorial trends and even technology adoption in the elite world of marquee museums. Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to visit MoMA in New York, and SFMOMA in San Francisco.

Mario Bellini – Olivetti TCV 250 Video Display Terminal (1966) – MoMA New York (Gift of the manufacturer) – Photo by Rory Manchee

Both museums are housed in contemporary buildings which, in keeping with a noticeable trend among modern galleries and museums, emphasise their vertical structure. Compared to say, the 18th/19th century museums of London, Paris and Berlin (with their long, languid and hall-like galleries), these 21st century constructs force us to look upwards – both physically, and perhaps metaphorically, as they aspire to represent “high” art in a modern context?

Although I have been to MoMA many times before, there is always something new to discover among the touring exhibitions and permanent collections. On this latest visit, there were four standout displays: Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age (see illustration above); Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait; Max Ernst: Beyond Painting; and Stephen Shore.

Apart from the latter, there is clearly a statement being made within the format of “Title/Name – colon – concept/context/subtext”. Stephen Shore is obviously an exception to this curatorial technique. Here is a photographer, whose name I was not familiar with, but whose work seemed both familiar (everyday images and popular icons) and exotic (otherworldly, outsider, alien); yet also pedestrian (repetitive, mundane) and alienating (elements of the macabre and voyeuristic).

The Thinking Machines display threw up some interesting juxtapositions: most of the devices and the works they produced were artisanal in approach – one-off pieces, requiring detailed and skilled programming, and not the mass-produced, easily replicated works we associate with most digital processes these days. Plus, even when the outputs were generated by a computational approach, the vagaries of the hardware and software meant the works were more likely to produce chance results, given the large role that analog processes still played in these systems-defined creations.

Louise Bourgeois’ work can still challenge our sensibilities, especially when conveyed through her lesser-known works on paper, even though many of the images are familiar to us from her sculptures and installation pieces (the latter represented here in the form of one of her giant spiders).

The exhibition of works on paper by Max Ernst also reveal another aspect of the artist’s oeuvre, although unlike Bourgeois, I feel there is greater affinity with his more formal paintings because, despite the different media in which he worked, there is a consistency to his image making and his visual language.

Across the country in San Francisco, this was the first time I had been to SFMOMA, so in the available time, I tried to see EVERYTHING, on all 6 levels. But I still manged to miss one entire floor, housing the late 19th century/early 20th century permanent collection.

The main exhibitions were Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing The Rules; SoundtracksWalker Evans; Approaching American Abstraction; and Louis Bourgeois Spiders.

So, less of the colon-delineated concepts compared to MoMA, and more literal titles – and you have to think that photographers, like Shore and Evans, don’t merit these sub-textual descriptions, because with photographers, what you see is what you get?  On the other hand, with Bourgeois’ Spiders, it contains what it says on the tin – giant spider sculptures.

I’d seen the Rauschenberg exhibition earlier this year at the Tate Modern in London, as it’s actually a touring show curated by MoMA itself. Seeing these (now familiar) works in another setting revealed aspects that I hadn’t appreciated before – such as the similarities between Rauschenberg’s collages and combines, and the mixed media works of Max Ernst and other Surrealists, for example.

The Evans exhibition was an exhaustive (and at times exhausting) career retrospective. In addition to many of his iconic images of crop farmers during the Great Depression, there were more urbane/mundane images of shop window displays, merchandising and branding – not too dissimilar to some of Shore’s serial photo essays.

Wandering through (or approaching…) the American Abstraction display was like immersing oneself in a who’s who of modern US art: Brice Marden, Sol Le Wit, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Cy Twombly, Adolph Gottlieb, Morris Louis, Sam Francis, Ellsworth Kelly, Lee Krasner, Agnes Martin, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Joan Mitchell…. It struck me that despite the differences among these artists, and their individual mark making and contrasting visual languages, the collection was very much of a whole – the familiarity of many of these works, in close proximity, felt very comforting, even though the original intent was potentially to shock, challenge or disrupt. That’s not to say the works no longer have any impact, it’s just that our tastes and experiences have led us to adapt to and accommodate these once abrasive images.

Finally Soundtracks was probably the weakest of all the exhibitions I saw, pulling together a mish-mash of mostly sculptural and installation works embodying some form of audio element. My interest in this vein of work probably started when I saw the exhibition, “Ecouter Par Les Yeux” many years ago in Paris.

Despite a few banal pieces (too literal or pedestrian in their execution) this current incarnation had some individually engaging and landmark pieces: namely, Celeste Boursier-Mougenot’s “Clinamen”, a version of which has been on display at Melbourne’s NGV in recent times; and Brian Eno’s “Compact Forest Proposal”, which I only know of through its audio component – so here was a chance to walk through the fully realised, and dream-like installation.

As 2017 draws to a close, Content in Context will be taking a (much-needed) break for the holidays. Having made 8 overseas trips in the past 12 months, the author is looking forward to spending some down-time closer to home. Many thanks to all the people who have made 2017 such a truly memorable year for me – for all sorts of personal and professional reasons. You know who you are. Normal service will resume in January, and have a safe, peaceful and uplifting festive season.