Sakamoto – Coda and Muzak

Contemporary music documentaries tend to fall into one of two categories: the track-by-track “making of” account, in support of a new album; and the “behind the scenes” artifact of a live concert tour (often in support of that new album).* Both can be fine in their own way, but ultimately they are there to plug product. The recent documentary “Coda”, featuring Ryuichi Sakamoto clearly bucks that trend.As a recording artist, Sakamoto is one of the most prolific composers of his era. As a performer, he has maintained a regular schedule of live concerts and collaborations. That is until he was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, and was forced to temporarily abandon his work. Fortunately, he has come through that recent health scare, even completing a major film score for “The Revenant” before he had fully recovered.

“Coda” started out as an account of Sakamoto’s anti-nuclear activism, but ended up providing an insight into his creative process, an examination of the role of sound and music in film, and a discourse on the aesthetics of minimalism.

There are two images in the film which provide a link between the “craft” of the composer and the “art” inherent in any form of creativity. The first is a close-up of Sakamoto’s working tools – the pencils he uses to write out his scores. The second is a shot of some immaculate cooking utensils – arranged in a similar fashion to his perfectly sharpened pencils. This is someone for whom both process and form serve the purpose of creativity, and which combine to determine the artistic outcome of the resulting content.

As a regular soundtrack composer, Sakamoto has been likened to a film-maker, although he is neither director nor cinematographer. He has an acute sense of the use of sound (not just music) in film, and in fact for his most recent album, “Async”, Sakamoto invited film-makers to submit short films to accompanying each of the tracks. An astounding 675 films were considered for the competition.

Ever sensitive to his environment, it was perhaps no surprise that Sakamoto chose to change the music played at one of his favourite restaurants, rather than eat elsewhere. And ever the non-egoist, none of the tracks on his restaurant playlist was his own.

The forthcoming performance by Sakamoto and long-time collaborator Alva Noto at the Melbourne International Arts Festival promises to be something special.

Next week: Revolving Doors At The Lodge

* An honourable exception in recent years was “The Go-Betweens: Right Here”

All that jazz!

I’d be the first to admit I’m a music snob. Not that I think my tastes are better than anyone else, just that they are very particular. I like to think I have an informed opinion about the listening choices I make.

When I went to university, I was asked if I had any preferences about whom I shared student accommodation with. “No heavy metal freaks or jazz buffs”. I’ve still not changed my opinion of heavy metal, but my attitude towards jazz, like my appreciation for red wine, has only improved with age.

Not all, jazz, mind. Two words that strike dread in me are “gypsy jazz” – along with trad, dixieland and rag time, I find it most of it too fiddly, over-ornate, bordering on cheesiness. Similarly, for me, listening to “smooth” artists like Kenny G is akin to wading through treacle. There are certain instruments that I find very difficult to stomach in a jazz context – trombone, soprano saxophone, violin and acoustic guitar. And the big band sound is something I can only endure very selectively. Much of what is labelled fusion also leaves me cold, although I do make an exception for Soft Machine.

I suppose my point of entry is post bop, along with modal and free jazz. And while cool jazz can take itself far too seriously, at least it generally doesn’t fall into the trap of virtuosity for its own sake. (I’m always reminded of the criticism of Mozart attributed to Emperor Joseph II – “too many notes!” – when it comes to the noodly end of the jazz spectrum.)

Like many people, one of my first real engagements with jazz was Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”. As a self-contained statement on “modern” jazz, it still astonishes with each listen. Despite its ubiquity, I never tire of hearing it. (In point of fact, the first Davis album I sought out was “In A Silent Way”, after it was used as a reference point in a review of A Certain Ratio’s debut album. Strange but true.) I’ve since come to appreciate the full canon of Davis’s work, although I have never warmed to his final records, recorded for the Warner Brothers label. His albums are often grouped into specific periods, rather like Picasso’s art, which only adds to his status and legacy.

At various times, my personal journey (and at specific stages in their careers) has encompassed Thelonious Monk, Modern Jazz Quartet, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Nina Simone, Stan Getz, Keith Jarrett, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Ahmad Jamal, Mulatu Astatke, Sun Ra, Chet Baker, Antonio Carlos Jobim, McCoy Tyner, Eric Dolphy, Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson, Cecil Taylor, Marion Brown and Albert Ayler.

In terms of newer and contemporary artists, the only one who has managed to sustain my interest is Brad Mehldau, in particular his live solo performances – where he seems to have picked up from where Keith Jarrett left off in the 1990s.

And as I get older, I find that the only music radio station I can listen to is ABC Jazz….

Next week: Wholesale Investor’s Crypto Convention 

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…