Supersense – Festival of the Ecstatic

Taking a break from startups, FinTech and digital disruption, I spent the past weekend at this year’s Supersense at the Melbourne Arts Centre. This underground festival (both literally and culturally) is back after 2015’s launch event, with an even more ambitious yet also more coherent line-up. It was still an endurance test, and while there were several absorbing performances, in the end it felt like there was nothing that was totally outstanding.

Part of the problem is we are so overloaded with aural stimulation that it takes something truly special to capture our imagination. First, we have access to an endless supply of music (thanks to Apple, Spotify, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, BitTorrent, Vimeo, Resonate, Napster, Vevo, Gnutella, YouTube…). Second, what was once deemed subversive or cutting edge, has now been appropriated by the mainstream and co-opted into the mass media. Third, and as a result of which, when it comes to the avant-garde, there is a sense of “been there, seen that”.

Alternatively, perhaps after more than 40 years of watching live music my palette has become jaded. But I’m also aware that theses days, some of the really interesting and engaging “live” audio experiences are to be found in art gallery installations, site-specific works and interactive pieces. For much of the festival, there was the traditional boundary between performer and audience – even though the idea was to wander between the different performance areas, we were still very much spectators.

A large part of the programme was given over to genre-pushing performances.  But even here I realize that, whether it’s free jazz, improvisation or experimental sounds, there is an orthodoxy at work. Many of these performers are playing a pre-defined musical role, whether it’s torch singer, axe hero, R&B diva, stonking saxophonist, glitch supremo, string scraper, drone aficionado or ur-vocalist.

Some performers played the venue as much as their instruments (stretching the acoustic limits of the building). Some even ended up “playing” the audience (in the sense of stretching their patience and tolerance). And in the many collaborative pieces, the musicians were mainly playing for or against each other, somewhat oblivious to the audience. In such circumstances, the creative tension did provide for some interesting results; but as so often with virtuoso performances, the players that relied only on speed, noise, volume or however many (or few) notes they produced were probably the least interesting.

Overall, few performers offered much variety within their allotted time slots. For all the colour, range and styles on display, many of the individual sets were extremely monochromatic, with little in the way of transition or shade. The volume, tones and textures were always full on. Pieces lacked development, and did not reveal or explore the aural equivalent of negative space. I understand and appreciate the importance of minimalism, repetition and compressed tonality in contemporary composition, but I was also hoping for a more layered approach to these live performances, and even some juxtaposition or contrast.

The subtitle of Supersense is “Festival of the Ecstatic”, with the implication that the audience will be swept away on a (sound) wave of transcendence. When it came to being enraptured, as with so many things these days, less is more. So the key sessions for me included: Oliver Coates who mesmerized with his solo cello performance; Jannah Quill and Fujui Wang whose laptop glitches sounded like a version of Philip Jeck’s “Vinyl Requiem” using only the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen; Zeena Parkins‘ sublime piano drone harmonics; JG Thirwell‘s minimalist sound poem; and Stephen O’Malley’s plaster-shredding guitar feedback oscillation. Whether or not it was the intended effect, during a number of performances I actually found myself drifting into a soporific state of semi-consciousness – but maybe it was just fatigue setting in?

Of course, I am extremely grateful that this type of event exists – it’s essential to have these showcases, for all their limitations and challenges. But it’s a bit like being a tourist: there are lots of destinations we may like to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there – and there are some places where it’s enough just to know they are there.

Next week: FinTech and the Regulators

David Bowie Was – “It’s a god-awful small affair…”

The music of David Bowie was the soundtrack to my teenage years, coinciding with the extraordinary run of albums he released in the 1970s, the like of which we will never see again. He was the first (and probably last) 20th century mega pop star, with a prescient knack for reinvention and innovation. He will be remembered as one of the few truly original musicians of his era, a legacy that he has confirmed with his final studio album, released on his 69th birthday, just two days before he died. Talk about timing…. Even his long-time collaborator, Tony Visconti was moved to say “His death was a work of art.”

Sleeve of 1976 compilation album released by RCA Records. Portrait by Tom Kelley. (Image sourced from Discogs.com)

Sleeve of 1976 compilation album released by RCA Records. Portrait by Tom Kelley. (Image sourced from Discogs.com)

Overture

My own journey with Bowie began with “Life on Mars?” (from “Hunky Dory”), which was released as a single in June of 1973. I was 12 years old, and my family had just returned to suburban London after three years living in Australia. The re-entry was bewildering.

The UK of my childhood had disappeared in my absence: there was decimal currency, membership of the EEC, a Tory government, colour TV, and the Three-Day Week. And then there was glam rock, with Bowie at the forefront. The kids at school were all wearing platform shoes, outrageously wide shirt collars, flared trousers, and Bowie haircuts. If they’d been allowed, they’d probably be wearing glitter and makeup as well. There certainly hadn’t been anything like this in staid, suburban Adelaide, which felt like it was firmly stuck in the 1950s.

Prologue

Although I had probably heard “Space Oddity” (and even “The Laughing Gnome”) on the radio as a child, “Life on Mars?” is the first Bowie song I connected with. I couldn’t fathom the lyrics, but their sense of alienation (along with the song’s outsider perspective) must have resonated with me. It also suggested a loss of innocence, time and place. It was hard to avoid or ignore Bowie during this period. There was a constant stream of hit singles released to an eager market that was happy to keep him in the charts week in, week out.

Act I

At the time, I was more in tune with Top 40 radio than album releases, so for me Bowie was “just” a singles artist. I was mostly oblivious to the stage and album personas of “Ziggy Stardust”, “Aladdin Sane” and “Diamond Dogs”. It took me a while to backtrack through those albums, especially “The Man Who Sold The World”, which was only known to me through Lulu’s cover version of the title song. As for “Pin Ups”, although it was not his strongest effort at the time, it was a significant portal into 60s psychedelic, progressive and underground rock music for those of us too young to have been there.

The first Bowie album I actually bought was “ChangesOneBowie” because it was an excellent primer, and it contained two of my favourite tracks of the mid-70s, “Fame” (from the pivotal “Young Americans”) and “Golden Years” (from the even more significant “Station to Station”, which Kraftwerk name-checked on their contemporaneous album, “Trans-Europe Express”). “ChangesOneBowie” was not a typical greatest hits collection, but stood as an album in its own right.

From there, it was headlong into the Berlin trilogy of “Low” (still an astonishing collection of post-modern rock songs, electronic and ambient music), “Heroes” (confirming Bowie as one of the few pre-punk musicians it was still OK to like) and “Lodger” (tackling issues of cold war politics, gender identity and domestic violence against a backdrop of Eastern, Reggae and Krautrock influences – “world music” before the term had even been coined).

In 1980, Bowie said farewell to the 70s with “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)”, which thanks to the video for “Ashes to Ashes”, helped usher in the MTV era. It remained his strongest work for more than 30 years (apart from “Heathen”, and maybe “Let’s Dance”) until “The Next Day” in 2013 (which acted as both a coda to and summation of his musical career), and the valedictory released early last month.

Act II

For much of the 80s and 90s, Bowie seemed to flounder. In the 70s, he had been the instigator of change and the artist to follow; witness the legion of artists who cite him as a key influence. But after “Let’s Dance” he became more of a follower as he tried to catch up with the latest trends rather than setting them, and much of the material on the resulting albums sounds outdated, stodgy and formulaic, lacking the deft touches of his earlier work. While I can even understand why he formed the Tin Machine, I have no time for their music. To my ears their albums are no better than much of the vapid, soulless and synthetic rock that polluted mainstream radio and TV as the major record companies tried to re-corporatise pop and rock music following the disruption of punk, new wave, post-punk, electronic and independent artists and labels.

Act III

I’m sure history will treat the “third act” of Bowie’s career (from “1. Outside” to “Reality”) more kindly than when some of those late albums were first released. Overall, it’s a reasonably solid body of work, and still a lot better than what most of his contemporaries were churning out at the time. It feels as if Bowie was treading water, biding his time, waiting for new inspiration while he explored other interests – whether securitising his back catalogue via Bowie Bonds, or launching his own ISP, BowieNet.

Then came the growing silence: no new material, no live tours, and gradual withdrawal from the spotlight. Only the odd glimpse, and the occasional rumours about his health. Maybe the curtain had finally fallen on Bowie’s recording career.

Epilogue

Suddenly out of nowhere, after an 11-year hiatus, in January 2013 came a startling new single, “Where Are We Now?”, which caught most of us by surprise. It was both new and comfortably familiar – the sonic palette had been updated (without trying to sound “trendy”), but the lyrical themes were the same. Bowie himself sounded wiser but world-weary, and there was an abiding sense of loss, regret and redemption.

The accompanying album, “The Next Day” did not herald any great musical surprises, yet it was good to have him back with such a solid album. The songs avoid being Bowie pastiches (which is a trap many comeback albums fall into), but each track could have appeared on one or more of his classic 70s albums. At one point, too, his vocals sound reminiscent of Scott Walker‘s recent work (surely not mere coincidence?). Despite the lingering thought that this really was the last Bowie album, “The Next Day” was soon followed by new material, various remixes, the “David Bowie Is” touring exhibition, a stage show based on “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, and yet more Bowie compilations, box-sets and re-issues.

All this renewed activity now seems like a diversion, designed to catch us off our guard. Because we were hardly prepared for what happened next: the huge anticipation, when yet another new album was scheduled for release on January 8, 2016; and deep sorrow, when Bowie’s death was announced just two days later.

I haven’t managed to listen to “” more than a couple of times. The lyrics are loaded with poignant references to death, resurrection and final endings. It feels like we are listening in on someone predicting and meditating upon their own imminent demise, contemplating their life with quiet reflection. While the accompanying music is not exactly funereal, nor it as avant-garde or as cutting-edge as some reviews might suggest; but it’s still quite experimental for a mainstream artist. Inevitably, the album will be regarded as Bowie’s final artistic act, a grand gesture, signing off on his own terms. Not many of us will get to do that…

Postscript

When I heard the news that Bowie had died, I was walking home through the park. The city was bathed in a golden glow of a rain lit sunset, and there was a huge rainbow across the sky…. Starman indeed.

Without the benefit of Bowie, I probably wouldn’t have explored or appreciated loads of other music: the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Iggy & the Stooges, John Cale, Brian Eno, Neu!, Roxy Music, Robert Fripp, Can, Wire, Faust, Buzzcocks, The Cure, Nico, Devo, TV on The Radio, Arcade Fire, Blur, The Associates, Nick Cave, Au Pairs, The Doors, Tindersticks, Air, Magazine, Kraftwerk, Gang of Four, Sonic Youth, Joy Division, Pixies, Talking Heads, Television, A Certain Ratio, Echo & The Bunnymen, and many more.

If I had to choose one song that best epitomizes Bowie’s personal perspective on stardom (and notoriety), along with a sense of his own mortality and place in the world, it would be “It’s No Game”, from 1980’s “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”. Bowie was neither politician nor philosopher (and he certainly wasn’t a saint), but this existentialist anthem is a perfect statement on the human condition that is still valid today, which is why I for one will miss his presence.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to my fellow presenters David Whiting and Steve Groves at North West FM Community Radio for the great times we had with our special Bowie programs over the past few years.

Next Week: Tech vs The Human Factor

Japan – renewing my long-standing relationship

I’ve just spent three weeks in Japan, travelling around by train, staying in Airbnb accommodation, and soaking up the art, architecture, design, food, beer and general culture. It was the longest time I have spent in Japan, and several years since my last trip in 2010. But given I have been to Japan more than 25 times in the past 20 years, it was like renewing an old friendship.

Image © Rory Manchee - all rights reserved

Akashi Castle – Photo © Rory Manchee – all rights reserved

My earliest visit to Tokyo, back in 1995, was to spend a few days with a friend from London who was managing a now-forgotten Britpop band on their debut tour of Japan. After attending a couple of their concerts, being entertained by their Japanese record company, visiting a few tourist spots and hanging out in a number of Tokyo nightclubs, it was a very limited/skewed introduction to the country.

My next visit the following year was even shorter, and even more skewed. Another friend from London (now a well-known writer and broadcaster) was supposed to be covering yet another Britpop band on their Japanese tour, on behalf of a British magazine. Instead, we scored some free tickets to see the Sex Pistols at Budokan (it was their infamous Filthy Lucre tour), and my one night in Tokyo was spent drinking with the band after the gig, in a bizarre subterranean bar. But that’s another story.

Most of my trips to Japan have been for business, and only to Tokyo. So this latest visit was an ideal opportunity to stretch out and explore in more depth. Over the next few posts, I’ll be commenting on my experiences, across such topics as coffee, AirBnB, art & architecture, crate digging and some navigational issues.

First, here are just a few of the reasons why I appreciate Japan:

  • The love of good design
  • Hardly any graffiti, virtually no petty vandalism, and scarcely any litter
  • The food
  • People rarely talk on their mobile phones on the train or in public places
  • The service culture and overall politeness
  • Trains run on time
  • The convenience stores
  • IC cards (take note, Myki…)

Of course, nothing’s perfect: Japanese TV is mostly awful; good espresso coffee is in short supply; everything comes over-packaged; and in many situations, it’s still a cash-only economy. I also appreciate that it’s a complicated society, often seen as repressed, and difficult for outsiders to understand.

But for all its challenges, Japan must be doing something right, as in-bound tourism numbers (especially from Greater China) are at record-breaking levels.

Next week: Seeing Japan with #Airbnb