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

 

 

The Current State of Popular Music

Over the holidays, during a family get-together, two younger relatives mentioned what their favourite pop song was. I did not know the song by title or artist, and until very recently I actually I thought it was an advertising jingle. I now understand that the combination of the song’s novelty factor and its ubiquitous appearance had helped to make it very popular. I can see why it may appeal to kids – but I doubt it will become an evergreen classic….

The song they mentioned incorporates a number of musical tropes very prevalent in many current pop songs, especially as regards the vocal styling and lyrical phrasing. But like much of the music being produced these days, it will likely be forgotten within a couple of years at most. The inherent “novelty” of the vocal could render the song a one-hit wonder, and the artist a one-trick pony.

I have nothing wrong with pop music per se, but if “we are what we eat”, surely we can become what we listen to. An unending and unvarying diet of mainstream pop music (as defined by commercial radio playlists, as measured by self-serving charts compiled by streaming services, and as financed by major record label marketing budgets and promotional tie-ins) is the equivalent of eating nothing but fast food and processed snacks.

So, at the risk of being labelled a grumpy old man, here is a list of things that are mostly wrong with contemporary pop music:

1. Vocals that feature one (or more) of the following:

  • the sound of cutesy chipmunks on helium
  • forced falsettos, cracked breathlessness and over-emoting warbling
  • singing from the back of the throat (as if constipated)
  • singing through the nose (as if congested)
  • whining, strained upper registers  (as made infamous by a certain tantric pop star)
  • auto-tune effects (especially those in search of a melody…)
  • shouting in place of projection
  • turning vowels into consonants, and consonants into vowels
  • adding syllables that don’t exist, and leaving out ones that do
  • over-stressed sibilants

2. Lyrical phrasing, scansion and rhyming schemes courtesy of Dr. Seuss,

3. Slogans, nursery rhymes and shouty phrases in place of lyrics

4. Drum and percussion tracks either programmed by ADHD, or inflicted with St. Vitus’s Dance

5. Boring, boxy and plodding 4/4 rhythms, with no syncopation or variation

6. Same set of production techniques and sound effects as used by every other producer or DJ

7. Samples based on the nastiest ringtones available (or programmed on the cheapest synths around)

8. Never mind a lack of key changes, or an absence of chord progressions, songs that revel in one-note vocal lines

9. An absence of interesting melodic or harmonic structures

10. Sound compressed into the smallest available bandwidth so it is easier to stream, but which ends up sounding flat and claustrophobic, and with exactly the same sound dynamics as every other song

11. No space to let the music breathe – every available beat and bar has to be filled up, especially with vocalese stylings

12. Too many cooks – songs by “X feat. Y with Z” are usually contrived concoctions dreamed up by the record company (“hey, we can flog this song to fans of all three of them!”) that end up as filler tracks on their respective solo albums

13. Kitchen sink productions (as in everything BUT the…) – you can almost imagine the producer in the studio shouting, “cue flamenco guitar, cue rapping, cue 80’s sample, cue metronomic rimshot, cue call and response vocals, cue detuned kick drum….!”

Part of the problem is that with the cheaper costs of recording, and the wider access to the means of production, anyone can make music, and release it direct to the public online. Meaning there is just so much more new music to listen to. However, the major record labels and their media partners still control most of the marketing budgets and distribution costs, that largely decide the songs we tend to hear, and that ultimately determine which songs become “hits”. By default, this process prescribes much of what is deemed “popular taste”. With the increased use of algorithms and other techniques, artists, producers, labels and media platforms can increasingly predict what songs will be successful, in a self-fulfilling prophesy of what will “sell”. it’s like punk never happened….

Next week: Sola.io – changing the way renewable energy is financed