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Dec 22, 2010


If I had fiction fatigue this year, (see book mulchings) I also suffered from melody fatigue. My favourite new CDs featured kinds of rap; there was also a bunch of old stuff which is definitionally classic.

And there’s all the other sonic offerings too, given away free, made by people who love to do it. What an extraordinary thing is the podcast. (I heard my first in 2006 when the Slate politics Gabfest began.)

My year’s very short list of sonic standouts:

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Homeland by Laurie Anderson

Ah Laurie. Her stunning Big Science from 1982 opened up a whole other channel with a sonic poetry augmented by bespoke audio tech. The tape-bow violin. The voice filter that provides her “audio drag.” Drumming on her miked-up torso.

Her conceptual panache: ‘… you don’t always realize it, but you’re always falling. With each step, you fall forward slightly. And then catch yourself falling. Over and over you’re falling …’

anderson2Her latest is Homeland. Nearly thirty years on, her work no longer sounds audacious. But she can still generate a frisson, is still capable of the oblique perception unobtainable in conventional song.

She began writing the set on the road, she says, ‘making [a] … series of stories, songs and songs about America.’ The first track is Transitory Life, which begins with great shuddering wails, like the muezzin call to prayer … ‘It’s a good time for bankers and winners and sailors / With their stories of jackpots and islands of pleasure.

And the pleasure of the wailing reminds us that it’s become a world music cliche: Islamic, middle-eastern ornamentation — and then you remember the CD is titled Homeland, as in American security … and by then you’re already in Laurieland. This track includes one of my favourie lines: ‘It takes a long time for a mouse to realize he’s in a trap / But once he does something inside him never stops trembling.

The centrepiece is an 11.5 minute epic micro-story collection, Another Day in America, where Anderson in “audio drag” intones with Olympian weariness over ominous ambient music, laced with the middle-eastern leitmotif, on a slow wash of low, noodling organ notes. She recites the chorus: ‘What are days for? To wake us up. / To put between the endless night.’  Unexpectedly, she is riffing on Philip Larkin, a long way from USA2010.
Larkin: ‘What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.’

‘I like to keep moving,’ she writes in the liner notes. Anderson is not standing still. She’s a good person to journey with — fluidly undogmatic, and frankly sardonic when it counts. The sonics are understated on Homeland, but all the better to play over and again, to catch the acid drops:

‘In America we like solutions to problems … [and] only an expert can see there’s a problem. / … And other experts say: Just because all your friends were fired / And your family’s broke and we didn’t see it coming / Doesn’t mean we were wrong.’

But I like it best when she is gnomic: ‘And you, you who can be silent in four languages.’

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I’m New Here by Gil Scott-Heron

Godfather of Rap. Scott-Heron of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. (Embedded in the Mulcher’s first post, pointing to Iran’s failed revolution.) It came out in 1970 when Scott-Heron was only 21; hoisted by his own hard act to follow. Since 2001 he has been sentenced to 1–3 and 2–4 years jail for cocaine possession. He played live in between stir, and was arrested again for possession in 2007. Which is why his new CD I’m New Here is so remarkable.

The sixty-year-old Scott-Heron’s voice is rubbled and pitted and grooved with the tracks of tears, no longer the smooth, taut instrument of his youth. But the rare conviction of his speaking style is profoundly rooted. Scott-Heron doesn’t sing anything he doesn’t believe, so he alters the lyrics on Robert Johnson’s Me and the Devil to suit. (Though, evidently he may not live as ethically as he sings.) The sonics of the album are the work of a British hiphop producer, Richard Russell, who initiated the project. Scott-Heron says, ‘…why not? All the dreams you show up in are not your own.’ It’s a brilliant pairing, Russell’s relevant-to-the-minute percussive moves and aural stylings designed to showcase that voice.

The longest track, Me and the Devil, is 3:34. Spoken interludes might slip in for 17 seconds. There are fifteen tracks — at just under 30 minutes, this is a brief outing, but it feels as inevitable as the sound of a train rumbling and then screaming into a tunnel. Poet though he is, I found I didn’t need to know or read Scott-Heron’s lyrics (there’s no lyric sheet) — the vocalmusicscape presents a perfectly satisfying, intimate, sonic poem about a life in New York. I’m New Here is a trip, and I’m riding that subway again.

The music videos are excellent, in fact, wonderful integrations of movie-music-voice. The track remix, bottom, is by the video genius Chris Cunningham (though I think the video above is even better). Scott-Heron has earned himself a bunch of fine collaborators.

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J.S. Bach cello suites by Piere Fournier

Bought Fournier instead of the Casals. Rich, deep, penetrating warmth. Perhaps longer-lasting than a shot of single-malt or Dencorub. (A friend says, what about the Rostropovich?)

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Beethoven piano sonatas Opp. 109, 110 and 111 by Mitsuko Uchida

uchida2The late, later, last piano sonatas seem inexhaustible, if exhausting for the pianist — they’re the ones which can seem gimcrack to a passing ear, the ones which seem to break into honky tonk jazz fingerings. They are past quirky, nearer strange, zeroing in on a place only Ludwig’s deaf ears could locate. Mitsuko Uchida’s reading is impassioned, but with a light, tender touch. There is a, how to say, lightfooted dancer’s quality about the playing, always ready to lift. Plus, I love that cover — she’s wearing signature Issey Miyake pleats but the face! the hair! that Munchian Scream clutching of the head! What could she have been thinking?

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Beethoven, The Complete Quartets by The Lindsays

Bought this set, The Complete String Quartets, maybe three years ago and I’m still picking my way through the eight CDs. It takes in String Quartet No. 1 in F, Op. 18 No. 1–3 (1798/1880) to SQ No. 16 in F, Op. 135 (1826). For me the highlight was always going to be No. 13 in B flat, Op. 130 (1825-26), which I was turned on to by Alex Ross in the New Yorker. Say, if No. 10 and 12 have charm, and the long No. 14 puts the me and elan and holy into melancholy (Ludwig’s own choice as his greatest), then No. 13 is ferocious. Implacable. Unassuageable.

I’ve heard No. 13 live and they just don’t play it loud enough. Try it volume up, esp. the Gross Fugue segment, barrelling down a long straight road through the countryside.

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This is Happening by LCD Soundsystem

I’m a fan of James Murphy though I can’t love this album. But All I Want is my favourite pop song this year. A friend of mine describes it as Bowie sung by Stephin Merritt; it sounds like that with its Heroes intro but the feeling is a romantic lament by J Murphy. ‘Yeah all I want is your pity, or at least all I want are your bitter tears.’ He crosshairs that tricky juncture between desire and sorrow, longing and dancing. As far as pop goes, twinned with his earlier All My Friends, it’s a perfect type of a perfect pleasure. As Oscar Wilde said of cigarettes: It is exquisite and it leaves you unsatisfied. What more could you want?

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tgrossFresh Air — an NPR podcast hosted by Terry Gross

Terry Gross is simply one of the best interviewers. She has received the super-prestigious Peabody Award, the Gracie Award and the Edward R. Murrow Award. But you wouldn’t know, she’s right down to earth, her voice crisp and dry as toast. She’s interviewed famous and obscure, Philip Roth, Dolly Parton, war correspondents on Afghanistan, professors on toxic assets et al, and has the happy knack of asking the very question you want to hear answered, and manages to ask the hard ones without sounding pushy. Fresh Air downloads daily, though not always with a Gross segment, but what a perfect way to keep discovering America.

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Philosopher’s Zone — an ABC podcast by Alan Saunders

A beautiful mind. Saunders often seems as au fait on the subject as the expert he is interviewing. PZone is a splendid source of talk about ideas: unforced, and nearly always comprehensible, Saunder’s mellow tones guides us through metaphysics ancient and cutting edge, and struggles with Hegel on our behalf.

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The Indicast Show — an Indicast podcast by Aditya Mhatre and Abhishek Kumar

Indicast_artworkThe Indicast Show is proudly India’s longest running podcast — currently in its 130+ weekly episode. Aditya Mhatre and Abhishek Kumar are talkers and their English is perfectly fluent; whether their powerful accents charm or distract depends on how spicy you like your ear candy. I’m mostly enjoying it; all the subject matter and angles are truly foreign, and it does feel like you’re in another place. It’s a little disconcerting to tune back into the comparatively flat tones of the ABC.

Their spiel: ‘Whenever friends ask us what Indicast is all about? In just one sentence, we say, it’s everything from Sonia to Sania.’

All you have to know is that Sonia is Rajiv Gansdhi’s widow, and that Sania is Sania Mirza, India’s 25-year-old tennis sweetheart. And if you don’t know, a few episodes will get you into an Indian state of mind. If some of the chatter is as esoteric as the Philosopher’s Zone, some of it is delightfully exotic. ‘How do you measure spicy food — is there a unit?’ asks one (can’t tell which is who). Replies the other, ‘I think it’s the amount of time you have to hold the water spray on your backside.’ Aunty’s switchboard would be melting.

They’ve name-checked Oz too: ‘30,000 Indian students have left Australia. Apparent reasons are spates of attacks … and denial of permanent residency.’ ‘Oh boy! We can ask Kritika, she is in Melbourne at the moment.’ ‘The bad thing about all these things is that the UN Development Program has ranked Australia second best place to live in the world after Norway.’ ‘Oh, ho!’ ‘That’s right! That’s why these 30,000 students are shattered to come back to India.’

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World Book Club — a BBC podcast by Harriett Gilbert

Harriett Gilbert has sexy headmistress voice. And every month she records her talk with a global-profile author in front of a live audience and also asks questions sent in from around the world. She’s recently done David Mitchell (modest), Barbara Kingsolver (lively), Carlos Ruiz Zafon (cuddly), 2008 Nobel Laureate JMG LeClezio (earnest). It’s a swell job and Gilbert is expert, prodding gently and sincerely.

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my-son1When David Heard by Eric Whitacre, sung by Gloriana choir

My favourite live performance this year. (See Mulcher report.) Choir director Andrew Raiskums writes in the program that ‘it’s the only piece I’ve ever conducted where a chorister has been so overcome with emotion as to be unable to sing.’

Thrillingly modern in conception, it aims straight for the heart. When the choir comes to ‘over the gate, and wept,’ they repeat ‘my son’ as an escalating phrase — an angelic grieving. It is sublime, simultaneously heart-rending and hair-raising. And they sing it loud.


A steel point and rivulets of black: I took sticky pleasure yesterday in making a series of small ink drawings. They were made without thought; or more exactly, the thoughts were so slow to arrive it was a day before they revealed their shapes.

One of them (above) acknowledged the Queen’s birthday weekend. The text is from Shakespeare’s Richard II — his grandly self-referencing, self-pitying rant: “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings… / for within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king / Keeps Death his court…” How comprehensive must have been the shiver that coursed through Will as he jabbed that speech with his nib.

Surveying the other pictures — more abstract but including type, quoting Richard II and also Saul Bellow and Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton — suggests that the themes were loss and futility. Lost time, time wasting (“I wasted time, and now time doth waste me”). The futility of making pictures and telling tales. Perhaps, then, another theme is irony. No metaphor can control or comfort: Every grain of sand in the hourglass. How the singular ink drop’s intensity is diluted in the vast ocean.

These thoughts have a season: winter solstice. The soundtrack: Bach’s cello suites — the raw, hollow voice of wood — it is lamentation. But these thoughts have no why; no more than resides in the neurochemical moments that we join hesitantly, dot to dot to dot, as if inking life’s brief design.


Shakespeare, Richard II, Act III

DUKE OF AUMERLE: Where is the duke my father with his power?

KING RICHARD II: No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court
and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?