Monday, 10 November 2008


I was sorry to miss Owen’s paper at HM the other day, so am unable to tell how it went down. His paper is typically excellent, but we feel compelled however, to if not exactly contradict, at least muddy the waters a little.

I will take Owen’s theses to be thus – that there is currently an architectural moment that can be described as Pseudomodernism, which is identifiable as ‘postmodernism’s incorporation of a Modernist formal language’. This Pseudomodernism is understood to be the architectural manifestation of the current form of neoliberalism. At one extreme of this system is the Iconic building, and Owen states that this has more in common with Googie, a crass American form of architecture than the modernism it would claim to be descended from.

1. Ever decreasing circles.

If we understand Po-mo to be the architectural discourse whose language was found most suitable for expressing neo-liberal messages in the built environment, then it is not too difficult to understand the current form of expression’s turn towards a language drawn from modernism. Owen is right to point out that, just as New Labour Thatcherism speaks a more socially aware public language than the did the original Thatcherites, so the architecture is expressed in less dominating terms. This raises a few questions, however; part of the original reason for the rise of Pomo is the perceived inhumanity of Modernism. An architecture of ‘sign’ was supposed to create a semantic bridge between the public and the institution embodied in the built form, thus lessening the dominating effect. The abstraction of form (despite its self and intra-movement referentiality, Il n'y a pas de hors-texte, after all) was seen as lacking accessibility, and the materialistic expressions were considered inhumane. Never mind that a large part of the reason for Modernism shearing itself of ornament was the complicity with inhumane exploitation that bourgeois, classical architecture represented. Pomo faltered for a few reasons, for example; the hegemonic success of British Hi-Tech, which suited a desire for ‘transparency’ in the world of shady business has been very influential in making a ‘modern’ style appropriate for institutions. As has the reaction to the shoddy quality of a lot of Pomo work. It is not exaggerating to say that most architects are ashamed of that period, and its ‘loadsamoney’ vacuousness. To reinvigorate architecture, a new modernism was sought, shorn of the inhumanity of the monolithic Corbusian legacy (I certainly saw posters in school decrying Corb for ‘crimes against architecture’). For this young architects looked to Aalto, Barragan et al, architects known for their ‘regional’ attempts at the international Modernism, as well as the Team X renegades (at least the more cuddly ones, like Van Eyck and Herzberger). This attitude of Modernism with a human face has coincided perfectly with the ideology of Nu Labour, if perhaps approaching each other along different vectors.

2. the meaninglessness of architecture

Unfortunately, it is not as if all the Pomo architects were born in the mid 70’s and died in 1997. Owen points out Farrell as an example, but the sorry fact is that an ideologically consistent architectural practice is an extreme rarity. Some of the original British Pomo was brought over from the U.S, in the form of one time arch modernists like SOM (Unilever Building?) or KPF. Most architects above a certain age have a few pedimented skeletons in their closet, and if you look a little further back, most of the Brutalism in the UK that Owen might imbue with transformative potential was designed by architects who then happily switched to Pomo, and then more than happily switched to pseudo-modern, decorating the outside of the office blocks with barcode facades and 3m high lettering that they saw in a copy of BD focussing on the latest in Dutch.
Both British Hi-Tech and Decon are both styles that found themselves in vogue, after lean periods. The French gamble on Rogers & Piano led to Lloyds, the most avant-garde building in Britain containing one of the most reactionary typologies. The large success of Gehry has led to more intellectual ‘decon’ architects being accepted, but only after their florid conceptualising is dropped as so much baggage, merely useful for gaining academic promotions and book publishing deals.

3. Googie: the architectural insult.

I am still unconvinced that Googie is the answer to Iconic architecture. Yes, of course it allows us to see just how far Iconic architecture is from having any high-minded or moral quality when it unwittingly shares the logic of outré form=logo with Californian pap, but this is not the whole story. Googie seems to me to be part of the ‘outsider architect’ tradition, from FLW and Bruce Goff in the US, individualists who have a particularly ‘American’ take on praxis, who have affinities with turn of the twentieth century expressionism – Gaudi, Mackintosh, Guimard, etc… Perhaps this works, except the particular thing about the current period is how this individualism can be so very homogenous. Altogether now – “We are all different!!!”

4. Victoriana

If I can make a couple of points regarding the revenge of Victorianism; let us not forget the ideological battles of eclecticism. Look at the Houses of Parliament – a classical building dressed in gothic garb. What about the museums of Albertopolis? The train stations up and down the UK (on which more in a second)? A century and a half ago the same problem existed; architecture was semantically drained. A plethora of approaches could be taken, and none would express a different code (despite what Pugin would say). Perhaps this is a potential that Modernism had - to set up a language of authentic communication, a powerful yet vulnerable idea. It was a project of Thatcherism to make sure that Modernist architecture became coded in the correct way – as cold, brutal, unforgiving, monstrous, carbuncular etc… a project which, it has to be said, was almost entirely successful. Nu-Labour arrives, and instead of changing the paradigm, it merely expresses it with smiles and caring rhetoric. Cameron is soon to arrive, and with him a return of philanthropy and 'giving something back' from what has been cruelly taken.

5. Brunelesque-y

One of the most exciting discoveries in my own work on Victorian architecture was just how much and in what way the iron and glass developments have been coded. Ever since 1851, the Crystal Palace has been understood generally as a remarkable achievement of engineering, and also the origin of the ‘Plan Libre’. These two points are correct, but it is far more complex. This purely material point of view is often accompanied by a qualification about the over-celebration of empire, and how this is BAD, but the cultural consideration usually doesn’t go much further. However, from a viewpoint at the beginning of the 1900’s, the train stations of the previous 50 years would be understood as marvels of science and ingenuity, although requiring a classical disguise to hide their shed-ness, but the Crystal Palace typology would be looked at as glorious follies: for every glasshouse or people’s palace that survives now, there were countless more that opened and closed dejectedly, the optimism of their birth unmatched by the income they generated. As Benjamin said; ‘The light that fell from above, through the panes between the iron supports, was dirty and sad’. This legacy of failure and melancholy, admittedly marginal, has disappeared in favour of an inherited rhetoric of structural progress; Brunel is the figure that most haunts British Hi-Tech, more than any other.

This has been a long way of coming round to the point that one pernicious idea in architecture has been the engineer’s interpretation of Modernism; a new technology must be used, because, well, it’s a new technology. The Decon crowd may have started plying their trade pre-computer, but the advance of computer technology has been one of the main factors in the acceptance of ‘Iconic’ architecture. Eisenman started reading Deleuze when computer-literate students entered his office; the vanguardism of the US scene, developing digital skills and tools led to the short lived late ‘90s ‘Blob’ phase of architecture, where hi-tech digital tools were coupled with nomadic / folded rhetoric to postulate a semi-virtual hybrid form of future information womb-space. The truth of an idea, though, is what happens when idiots start using it. Greg Lynn is not the truth of digital design, Ken Shuttleworth is. Right now we have a great many intelligent people developing ways to remove the architect from the design process. This may seem, in the academic environment, to provide myriad possibilities for opening up the discourse of architecture, reinvigorating the field of potentialities, but if past form is anything to go by, all the parametric revolution will give us are cheaper, quicker buildings that signify even less.
This, I think, is the hauntological problem of architecture.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Trio x 3 - New Jazz Meeting

On the subject of fusion, there's another release we have that is far more successful. The 'New Jazz Meeting', as it is called, represents a fantastic synthesis of disparate elements from a number of fields into a remarkably cohesive artistic statement.

Involved in the project are, as the name suggests, three trios. Representing the field of Improv, there is the late Steve Lacy, Peter Herbert and Wolfgang Reisinger. The second trio are 'New Musicians', Marcus Weiss, Phillipe Racine, and Paulo Alvares, and the third trio are electricians; Philip Jeck the arch-hauntologist, Bernard Lang, and Christof Kurzmann the E.A.I. maestro and member of The Magic I.D.

The foundation of the project is a composition by Lang, entitled Differenz/Wiederholung 1.2, which is performed 'straight' as part of the release. This, as its title suggests, is directly inspired by reading Deleuze. The Deleuzian-generated artwork is something we have had serious problems with, due to our exposure to Architecture's plundering of Capitalism and Schizophrenia over the last few years. Then again, Deleuze and Guattari do describe their work as a toolbox, to be utilised as one sees fit. Of course, this is an issue of fidelity - is it a faithful response to D&G when it is war-mongering, as in the IDF, or right-wing quasi-intellectual capital, as in architecture? Can we even describe Hardt & Negri as being faithful to Deleuze? We would suggest not, but that is a very large question in itself. On the whole, though, we are wary when an artist follows a literal approach to philosophy, the worst case we know of being the architectural response to The Fold. Lang's composition veers towards this approach, although in a far more humble manner than the examples above. Reading Difference and Repetition encouraged Lang "to break out of my former methods and plunge into the investigation of repetition, and the exploration of loops." This is not a statement that his work embodies the concepts, merely that he was suitably inspired by them to work forwards (although his latest works are named 'Monadologie', which suggests his forward motion may not be so forward as one might think). The composition itself is exciting and of course repetitious, properly addressing the issue of looping that 'New Music' often has trouble with. By breaking up fragments of a previous piece, we get to experience, in the context of acoustic performance, the effects that normally we expect from electronic or minimal music, namely patterns, superimpositions and syncopations. This combines with a gestural performance style to create a piece that swiftly shifts in dynamic from near-groove to all out chaos, all the while with a hypnotic phase-patterned quality.

Contra to usual improvisation practice, the musicians were all allowed to prepare extensively for their meeting. The laptop artists were given a previous recording of D/W 1.2 to experiment and perform with, and Jeck had dubplates of the piece made for his old turntables. The New Musicians had to perform the piece at the concerts, and the improvisers were given the opportunity to study it. This serious preparation allows the work as a whole to complete itself, to create a closed space of reference where everything is related inwards to another part of the experiment, without reducing the number of sonic potentialities given by the material. In doing so, deficiencies or restrictions normally experienced by each musical typology are overcome, or at least re-formulated, allowing for a rich and rewarding programme of experimental electroacoustic improvisation.

Over the generous (2+ hour) recording, there are numerous combinations of the artists, ranging from solo efforts from Kurzmann and Jeck, through duos, trios and quartets, and one track featuring all nine of the artists together. As mentioned before, the textures range from subtle overlappings of gesture to high powered blow-outs, without ever descending into macho posturing. Particular highlights are the duet of Jeck and Lacy, a highly stimulating clash of twisted haunto-funk and searching soprano saxophone, another example of that small genre of successful improvised communication between acoustic and electronic musicians. The track where Jeck goes up against the improvisors trio is exceptional, slowly rising into an aggressive crescendo of noise, the unhinged drums working surprisingly well against the turntables' locked grooves. Christoph Kurzmann is also excellent in his solo slot, again managing to be remarkably individual with his delicate palette of high pitched tones and clicking loops, and the nonet is excellent, everyone making adequate space for each other, yet still working powerfully with the source text.

Overall, the best aspects of this recording are the myriad intelligent blurrings that occur throughout. Each musician (at least the ones that we know well) is recognisably themself, yet they are also supple and submissive towards the overall structure of the piece. As an example of complex and structured improvised music, with a definite collective identity and intellectual direction, there is little I know that has surpassed it.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Santana / McLaughlin - Love Devotion Surrender

We recently had occasion to relocate ourselves, and thus also our possessions, which involved taking down and reassembling our music collection. It must be admitted that this includes some rather strange items, some of which we feel are worth opining on.

For some reason or other, we own quite a few early fusion records, most of which feature the guitar, or sometimes plenty of them. This is obviously related to the rise of rock music in the public esteem. Whereas bebop in the forties had evolved as the experimental fringe of the popular music of the time, by the late sixties a gulf had opened up in listening tastes, where even the most obnoxious reactionary jazz was now a minority taste. The democratising influence of Pop music, long before punk, had made of jazz a music conspicuous for its instrumental and intellectual demands. Jazz musicians, most conspicuously Miles Davis, were jealous and wanted in. Electrifying their instruments, and augmenting their groups to be more akin to hard rock they looked to capture some of the energy, kudos and commercial appeal of the new music.

It worked the other way round though; pop musicians with a particular interest in virtuosity or improvisation wanted some of the intellectual capital that jazz music had. They desired the greater freedom of improvisation that jazz promised, they wanted to play more complex and satisfying music, they wanted to be taken seriously. Jimi Hendrix was due to collaborate with Davis around the time that he died, and there are numerous other movements in that particular direction.

The album Love Devotion Surrender is an example of this cross fertilisation, and is also perhaps the most utterly preposterous record I possess. A collaboration between 'Mahavishnu' John McLaughlin, who was there at the accursed birth of the fusion monster, playing on 'In A Silent Way' and with Tony Williams' Lifetime, and 'Devadip' (yes, that's right) Carlos Santana, who has been eating out on just one good record since 1970. At this point they were both under the sway of Guru Sri Chinmoy, one of those charming chaps who earn money out of warm and fuzzy world-peace platitudes. Essentially the album is Santana guesting as part of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the big bad fusion daddies that we mentioned previously, although Larry Young and one or two of Santana's friends are also there.

The album is an early example of a genre that has become bloated and saggy with age and cliche, the John Coltrane tribute album. Even worse, this is a Love Supreme tribute album. Even worse, this goes all the way; from the very moment that the album begins you are assaulted with the sound of six musicians simultaneously practicing their scales at hideous volume, a direct lift from the late '60s collective horn improv method, Meditations or Ascension. Once it calms down somewhat, the rim-shots from the drums and the unmistakeable bassline let one know that this is a cover, a mimicking of the first section of Love Supreme. A little crass, you might say, taking Coltrane's 'It takes six hours of practice and at least as much religious study just to get me through one day without smack' epic confessional and treating it as a standard a la All the Things You Are. but then, subtlety is not this album's strongpoint, especially when the boys start half-heartedly chanting a few minutes into their machine gun guitar jam.

Naima comes next, a much more sedate achievement, but Santana seems so spiritually energised that he displays an interesting and irritating approach to long notes - just spewing them out as demisemiquavers, a habit that always seems to always trouble fusion guitarists when they pick up an acoustic. We've yet to hear somebody sing through a field of rolled 'r's, we don't see why guitarists need to play like that.

Track three; 'The Life Divine' is truly, truly mad. After a shimmering organ introduction Billy Cobham batters the shit out of his drum-kit, setting up a high tempo assault of percussion, onto which is laid a strangely charming descending minor chord sequence. This odd juxtaposition of brutality and prettiness then has the utter life soloed out of it by the two guitarists, all the while accompanied by hilariously unsubtle chanted couplets such as "the life divine... will always shine". Santana serves us with his offering first, which is gently melodic, interspersed with the usual screeching imitations of the cries of saxophones. It is worthwhile noting that Santana never leaves the home key - nearly all of his solo is built from the good old dorian scale, which contrasts with McLaughlin's more scholarly interpretation of the Coltrane ethos, reflecting their respective backgrounds in Rock and Jazz. Long, long lines predominate, no melody needs to be delineated by breaths, and so the solos go on, and on, and on, until eventually the song just fades away, as if they all just soloed on long into the night...

Oh well, we suppose that there was a market for this stuff at the time, and that it is born out of a sincere attempt to communicate some kind of spiritual message about love, yeah? but this genre gives rise to a terribly skewed notion of what virtuosity is and what it is for, one that has had repercussions in popular music to this day, resulting in the truism of 'this is why punk happened'. It is strange; the late '60s produced such fantastic jazz, from the chamber sophistication of the Davis Quintet, to the masterful madness of late Coltrane, to the intellectual and political work of his proteges, like Archie Shepp or Marion Brown, and all the other exciting music, yet it's strange that the intentions of the mainstream of this music could deteriorate so quickly, resulting in such utter pap as was generated over the next decade. And where the '60s had the marvelous record designs of Blue Note, Impulse! and other such labels,in the '70s the aesthetic degenerated, as well as the clothes, beards, sunglasses etc... It seems that these jazz musicians failed to realise that the trousers worn were as much a part of the success of a pop act as the sounds that were made, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Told you so...

How mainstream are our views?

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Last Exit / Sonny Sharrock

Last Exit are the truth of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

I wonder if we get any points for noticing that DJ Shadow sampled Sonny Sharrock's '27th Day', from 'Monkey-Pockie-Boo' on the track 'Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain'?
Thought not.

p.s.- this video seems to get very Christian Marclay-y at the very end.

Ooh, it's like hearing a ghost!

Yet another popular culture reference to 'voices from beyond the grave' here, which we've written about before, specifically;
Last year the BBC broadcast a documentary entitled ‘How The Edwardians Spoke.’ It described how recordings of the speech of British POWs made by the German army during the First World War had recently been uncovered and it featured an expert in accents analysing the recordings and commenting upon the evolution of English dialects from that time till now. The highlight of that programme, much like what we see now, was the tracking down of the families of the men recorded and the playing of the recordings to them. Despite the fact that many of the men were not long dead and despite the families having many photographs of them, even as young men, listening to the recordings invariably left the families in tears, remarking that “It’s like he’s in the room!” The mechanical reason for this over-identification with the voice is, in my view, simple. When we look at a photograph there is a cognitive jump we have to make in order to identify the small two-dimensional image with the flesh and blood that it represents. On the other hand, a sound recording is both temporal and actual; temporal as it moves, it is encountered within the same duration of time as the person who generated it and actual because, disregarding the artefacts of the recording process, the replayed voice is in terms of oscillations in air pressure identical to its original utterance, hence the family’s retort “It’s like hearing a ghost!”.
The immaterial qualities of sound, the disembodied voice, its inherent repetition, its almost perfect reproducibility and its embodiment of the minimal gap between presence and absence, they reveal, accentuate, embody the truth of a certain aspect of being, namely, the not-here in the here.

We've been away a while. More to follow.