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Showing posts by Derek Walmsley

Listen And Learn

Derek Walmsley

The listening session, where writers are herded into a company office to get the first spin of a new album, is now an everyday – yet still clandestine – event. Big independents and major labels are paranoid about their precious new albums leaking through journalists (anecdotally, most leaks happen before it even goes out to the media) so they operate an odd nannying operation whereby you can come along and hear the album... but there's no chance of getting it into your own hands.

There’s two types of listening session. The first and the most excruciating is where a PR is detailed to sit in with you, giving tedious behind-the-scenes gossip on how the artists got their shit together, all the while trying to keep a sneaky eye on your response to the music. It's like a waiter in a posh restaurant painstakingly explaining all the ingredients to you, constantly checking whether you enjoyed it, and asking if there's anything you need, when all you want to do is tuck in.

But the other type, where the label leaves you alone with the music on a kick-ass stereo and some space to think, can be a privilege. There's still an uncomfortable sense of being temporarily admitted onto foreign terrain – you're ushered into a bustling office, where a label rep politely but firmly asks you to hand over your phone and laptop; they swiftly whip out some legal papers for you to sign to stop you talking about the record online. You're given a room with a stereo and tastefully dimmed lights, the label rep presses play and discretely exits, and you're left to sprawl on a beautiful sofa and soak up the sounds.

The one I went to most recently was loud. You felt the change in the air pressure as the basslines kicked in (so the album quite literally made an impact on writers). Drums become huge, acoustic instruments become monolithic. You get completely lost in the sound, which is fun as hell, but the exact opposite of what you're trying to do when you're critically assessing a new album. The problem is even worse if you've just chugged one of their complimentary beers.

Sitting there, in an empty room with a big pair of speakers facing you, and nothing to do but stare back at them, questions start flying through your mind. Why did they choose this sound rather than that sound? Do they make music with a listener in mind, or just for their personal amusement? No doubt these kind of crises have already been faced by the musicians themselves, day after day in the studio, especially in the case of electronic music. Alone in the room, electronic music starts to sound a little like modern composition, where the arrangement and the detail is amazing, but you're lost for reference points as to what all this stuff is for.

The listening session is a gentle form of mind control. Sat in an office for nearly an hour, you get a touch of Stockholm syndrome: you develop an affection for your jailers, and the music you're stuck listening to. With time on your hands, you rationalise. There must be a reason they've gone in this new direction. Hey, maybe these corny celestial choirs and expensive brass sections make a kind of weird sense! You've already made the long journey down to the label offices on a weekday afternoon, so you don't want the time to feel wasted. The travel, booking your slot, the logistics, already confer a legitimacy on the album. It feels like an event; the album physically exists, and is ready to hear. These are hard facts, and they make you hear the music differently, and more deferentially, than if it were just some MP3 files sent via email. With the whole promotional apparatus in full swing, the question of whether the album is any good or not gets lost in the buzz.

That said, I revel in these occasions, not because you get to hear an album a couple of weeks before everyone else (or because of those complimentary beers) but because it's such a rare opportunity to take an hour to think, to listen, and to ponder music itself. Wouldn't it be better, you wonder, if we didn't all rely on beats so much? What effect does this weird discord have on my nervous system? And as an experience in pure sound it's impressive, unless you happen to have a particularly astonishing stereo at home. The separation between the sounds is vertiginous. The bassline is over here – but the melody is way over there. How the hell do you process that? It’s thrilling but anxiety inducing. This is music with all the reference points gone, a free-float through tonal realms which, like an acid trip, is an experience that’s hard to properly relate to acquaintances afterwards.

As a critical exercise it can be almost useless. You walk away, head swimming with vague sense impressions, but as any good journalist knows, it's the follow-up questions that are the crucial ones, and you can't take a second listen to triangulate the music, the lyrics, the songs titles, and who played what. But for a record company, the propaganda work is already done – the listening session is a marker in the sand, a sign that this album is a serious proposition, and that you better think twice about treating it flippantly.

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The Keith Fullerton Whitman Notebooks

Derek Walmsley

My recent interview in East London with Keith Fullerton Whitman, the starting point for the piece in The Wire 326, meandered down almost as many byways and dead-ends as we found wandering about the canals of East London that morning. In almost all magazine pieces there's interview material which doesn't make the cut, but in this case the extra detail – technical walk-throughs of his projects, reminiscences of eternally unfinished schemes, excited talk of madcap projects in his garage – seemed to present just as compelling a picture of the man as discussing his music, and sometimes a whole lot more fun. It's not just the detail, but the way he tells it – the breathless description of routing options, vocalisations of the sounds, and his engineer's eye for chip numbers and synth esoterica, all give a vivid sense of how the composer/musician connects (and connects with) the elements of his soundworld.

This set of notebooks or appendices can be considered extra technical information for the Keith Fullerton Whitman interview in The Wire 326, a snapshot at an ever-changing constellation of works-in-progress, the love-letters page of a synthesizer fan club magazine, or an intellectual portrait in appropriately fragmentary form. The interview transcript has been edited thematically to present an alternative route through his work. The interview took place in London on 19 October 2011.

The pinball piece (part of a commission for the Kontraste festival, Krems, recorded at GRM, Paris, October 2011)

“The pinball machine thing was a sound that was in the middle of the GRM piece, a crucial bit of that piece where it's all based around these rhythms – lots of field recordings of discrete events where there was a lot of rhythms going at once. So the pinball arcade was a great example. The flipper noises, they're arhythmic, it has to do with a function of the game more than anything musical.

“The sound the game is making is this raw, late 70s, early 80s digital, the TI 76477, the Space Invaders chip. There's this video arcade in New Hampshire where there's like 20 of them all next to each other. And I use this recording, and any time it would cross the threshold of an attack it would go into the synthesizer, it would cut off all the noises between the clicks. It's gating – a comparator – so when it goes over a threshold it turns it on, when it goes below, it turns it off.

“So, I've got an audio editor open in the computer, and all it's doing is playing this mono, 15 minutes, lo-fi phone voice memo recording of the arcade. The phone was taped to the bottom, where the speaker is on this Hyperball video game. It's a pinball machine where you're rapid fire, tsch-tsch tsch-tsch-tsch. It's the noisiest thing I've ever seen in my life, so loud, violent, but weird, 1970s, 80s punk looking, gnarly. It's Bally or Williams, one of those companies.

“That recording, it's coming out of the headphone out of my computer, it's split, even though it's mono, it's going into two, audio input and a comparator in the synth. That's triggering, based on the audio going into the gates, you know the low pass gate. All the synth is really doing is taking the structure of the attacks. It's using the audio, but only over the threshold, so all you're getting is the click of the flipper, and then whatever little bit of the music of the game is going on at that second, so you hear this neoh-neoh-neoh, but all you hear is nip-nip-nip. The attacks are flashing random values from like a sample and hold thing, maybe a series of eight of them coming out of a shift register which is more like a canon generator, so every time there's an attack it pushes the next value down the line. And then those values are controlling, say, the frequency of the filter, it's this quite resonant high pass filter that's ceow-ceow-ceow, moving within that range, there's two of them, one for each channel, hard pan left and right. And then other values are being flashed to control, like, the gain, the placement in the stereo spectrum. So it's really quite an advanced patch that I could never perform that with just two hands.”

Assembling a Tamiya Frog remote control car, 25th anniversary replica edition

“Ah man, I stalled out so heavily on that. Rear tire assembly. The steps are long, there's 16 grand steps but each one is like several maneuvers. That was 15 I think, and 16 is putting the body on. Oh man, so frustrating. It's sitting there, wounded, all but the back two tires. I tested it, the mechanics, the electronics, everything works beautifully, it's oiled. Looks lovely. What a funny, frustrating thing. It's the 25th anniversary of that car, and I'm 38, so I built it when I was 12, 13. You know, it took three months as a pre-teen, and as an adult, it took three days or something like that.

“Just lacking the finger strength to do the penultimate step. Oh my god, so frustrating. And I had everyone who had strong hands come up to the house for like two weeks. OK, just, tire, this thing inside, the hub, put it in there, do it. Ply them with tequila and whiskey, get the internal strength going ... nothing. It's physically and physiologically impossible ... And the other route was ebaying vintage assembled tires from the 80s. I went to three or four hobby shops in the interim to find assembled tires or different tires, slightly more pliable, nothing. The only thing I found were these foam tires, but that's not the original. The idea is it has to be the thing, you know, it has to be this absolute recapturing of this youthful energy in this present thing.

“You know, the thing that I built to go on it was this synthesizer controlled by the servos. Originally I was just going to build a remote controlled synthesizer. It's quite an advanced thing, it's a trigger control that goes both ways, front and back, and then a steering column, but then there's also switches, so it sends, like, six or seven commands over one radio frequency. So the idea was the trigger was going to be LFO, speed, and then this was going to be oscillator speed, frequency, and then the trigger here, so you could actually play 'zing, zong zang' notes, and then have the switches be the shape of the trigger, ramp up, ramp down. So you could sit in the audience and have it go through a computer system, where, boom!, you could trigger a note and have nice quantised gradation, have control of the pitch, and build like a maze of all these individual things to fit into a tape delay.

“And then I thought, I could just have the thing that's controlling the mechanics control the car as well. It's a 9.6v giant battery pack putting on quite a lot of juice, quite a lot of amps, so you could power a speaker with the same battery that you're powering the car with, so why not just put the circuit on there? The same voltage that powers the car, can also power this EXAR 2206 chip, it's like a little digital oscillator chip that's got an FM input built into it and stuff. So it was really great, it was like two chips and a board, a couple of resistors and power.

“So now I have this awful, wounded, like a bird with a broken wing, sitting on my kitchen table, like a constant reminded of failure. It's so sad. And the funny thing is, after I came up with the idea of the speaker, you know what would be hilarious – we paint it like a jamiacan soundsystem, like a truck with the speaker built in? I could do dub sirens, I would have a little Jamaican car that would drive around and make dub sirens.”

“I was aware of those instruments, the Publison (DHM 89 B2 rack unit / KB2000 keyboard), the Coupigny, and I had read quite a bit about them before I got there. The Coupigny - all those analogue sounds in those early Parmegiani, François Bayle pieces, or there's a late Schaeffer piece [Le Triedre Fertile] - having experience with the Buchlas and the Serges, I was like, OK, this is maybe kind of a take on that, but it's coming from more of a scientific thing. It's like a machine shop, a machine you'd see in the dentist or something like that, these giant knobs. I figured out what it was, it was some LFOs and oscillators, it's a pin matrix like a VCS3, you had quite flexible routing options for how everything is talking to each other.

“So the Coupigny, a lot of these low range passes sound just kind of muddy, br-br-br-br, pulse wave. And then I would bring them up to 2 or 3k and that was gorgeous – oscilators that are very closely tuned, moving through ranges where you get this kind of sideband woi-woi-woi-woi kind of stuff happening? That's it, that's your François Bayle sound. That's just a fascinating group of sounds, and that's what this one machine does quite well. It doesn't do basslines, it doesn't do leads, these 1980s constructs of what synthesizers do. It's a scientific machine, it's meant to generate a tone, and then you can control how it's routed. There's a group of capacitors and resitors sitting in a box, you just turn it on and it makes a feedback loop and makes its sound.

“The Publison is an effects box, first and foremost, that's all it is – a digital delay line with a pitchshifter built in. Cheap, early granular, before we really knew what that was. Homemade granular, or boutique granular. So that was like, I bet sustained sounds will sound great. Big, complicated, two octave wide chord of reed sounds, like saw tooth kind of sounds. And I put that in there and of course immediately reducing the bit rate to the range in which it works, 5k, 10k. That sounded great, cut off all the high end. And then as it's jumping around in the buffer, you know, maybe a second worth of audio stored in there, it really accentuates little bits of where the harmonics are meeting each other within it. So it's just this little bit frozen, just this little bit frozen. And then as it starts jumping around and scaling through them, you're really accutely aware of the harmonic strata of this rich recording in there. I was like, this is really useful, because it puts a laser-like focus on individual harmonic components of this one static seeming sound, but in the act of freezing it, it creates this other harmonic on top of it, and you freeze it and the most pronounced thing is this eleventh or twelfth harmonic way up there, its way out of the range of the instrument. Really fun, and like the act of using it is fun, it's like using a toy or something.”

The recording set-up for the Generator and Generators albums

“I found a quick cheap and dirty way to make these neat little canons, little Bach-like motor rhythms, very straight, 16th note, 8th note, pulsing, beautiful sounds. It's a very small part of the patch, it's just like four oscillators, the slow one doing the rate of the melody and the other one doing the clocking of the melody, going through a quantiser. Simple, just a few modules. And then I play with that for a few weeks, and I'm getting good results. Detuning each oscillator so there's static intervals in there, like static third, static fourths, octaves of course. And then I got to a set of rules within the piece the more I played with it.

“It was almost like the exploration itself dictated the piece more than I was as a composer. I was sort of thinking what kind of results can I get from just using this very simple small thing. And then I found a way to have the whole thing be in this loop where the first oscillator the pitch was being analysed, and then was controlling this whole other group of things, so it's taking the seed from this one reciprocal thing, and then feeding it into another patch, and that got really interesting. Sort of like, this is going half the speed of that, so it's kind of accurately tracking this, but not successfully, so you get this ghost in the machine thing, where little bits of that were just off. Or it was maybe making a bad decision guessing what that was doing, feeding like polyphonic material into a monophonic pitch shifter. You play an octave pedal and you start geting those blrlr-blrlr-blrlr kind of things? OK, this is really cool!

“And then very slowly built it from one tiny little case with just eight modules, then one suitacase, then two suitcases, and then it just got ridiculous. In one year it went from the string quartet to like the Vienna Symphonic version of it. It's no better, it's just gets more complicated with the same tonality. And then I had drums, I was having this kick drum every ten beats, and hi-hat every, like, 17.... it was getting like prime number things, it was getting Prog. It was Pentangle turns into Genesis.”

Soundtrack commission for Deepak Chopra’s computer game Leela

“They just asked me, out the blue. We know you're into acoustics and tuning systems and all this stuff, and we like your music. One of the producers, this guy Lewis, had heard maybe the live guitar CD, the Recorded In Lisbon one. And I think he thought that would be a good starting point to talk about music for this one level of the game, which was the crown chakra at the end of the game – the actual, ultimate, you've achieved enlightenment. There's no goals of the game, but there's seven chakras, and you've achieved enlightenment by the seventh.

“I gave them this folder of everything I was working on just as examples. He pointed to this two minute segment of the Lisbon thing. Like squarewave, pulsewidth modulation, there's a little bit of psychoacoustics, and then this guitar overlay, like, sparkling. I spent months like almost trying to deconstruct my own music and redo it, but in a way that would make sense in the tuning scale of the root frequency of this particular chakra. It's neat, because some of the sounds are in Just Intonation, and sound of them are in equal. So when you first hear it it's really disorientating, especially because one sound comes in, and another comes in in a completely different tuning. There's these static notes but the harmonics are so prevalent that it's really constantly buzzing, almost heterodyning. and the frequency of the hereterodyning is the root frequency of the chakra.

“We analysed this harmonic so the beat frequency was the actual root frequency of it. It had to be a lot of Max. A lot of IRCAM high end spectral analysis, we're talking like floating point digits of like five values past zero, and figuring out, charting it out on a blackboard, and then finally, it's going to be exactly right. And I got it and I nailed it. And then on top of that there's a lot of analogue synthesizer, and the frequency of that pulsing is a sub-sub-sub octave, 1/32 below the root. Way down at the point where you're hearing it more as rhythm that an a picth. And then there's a lot of guitar on top playing this sparkling, Playthroughs-like floating bandpass fizzle.“

The Krems commission and Francois Bayle's acousmonium sound diffusion system

“The first six minutes of that sounds very done, I'm very confident that the last day I was in the studio, it like sculpted this six minutes. Everything lines up beautifully, it's great. there's drama in there, there's a narrative, it's very apparent that it's these sounds coming in this order because they're different clases of sounds, different ranges, and then it completes one solid image of all five, low, low-mid, medium, mid-high, high, at once, coming out of different speakers. And then they all every couple of seconds synchronise. But the rest of it's like, yeah, there's a lot of, like, this sounds cool, there's one of a fan, ventilation fan on the top of a building, doing this beautiful, slightly detuned major sixth kind of drone, and that's being gated by another class of sound, fireworks in the distance going off, and it's using the rhythm of that to control this static bah-bah-bah kind of thing. And then it goes into other things, barring the rhythm of this with the sound of this, not vocoding, just doing it, this gating this. I don't think I'll ever finish it. And it's arbitrary, the commission was for a 30 minute piece, and it's 30 minutes two seconds. What you have is akin to an orchestra of speakers.

“It's really all about particular frequency ranges that are best represented by each kind of speaker. The trees, the elements on it are only about two inches in diameter, subs are about 18 inch. So it's all about finding a way to compose that makes sense of each set of frequencies. I thought about the piece from the top down, like, hi-hat sounds are going to be high frequency coming out of small speakers, the bass elements generated by the synthesizer trying to track the pitch of the hi-hat will be this super bassy sound, so that should go to the subs. The whole process was really about categorising each particular sound in the entire piece and thinking about where it was going to take place. I had to do all this assigning of stuff from the get-go, even when I was just recording I was making notes, like, these fireworks sounds, this big bassy brrrggghhhhhh, they're going to come out of the subs. And they can also be doubled coming out of the directional, because they're fireworks, so they have to be in your face. The drum sounds can be different, they can be farther away from you, but stuff that's loud has to be right there. All the Publison and Coupigny sounds are more ethereal and more mid range, so they can kind of go up, the speakers kind of go up at the ceiling. It's really kind of massing in the ceiling of this giant church, with this huge ceiling, 100ft high arches. That stuff can live up there. But anything that's present and punctual and pointillist has to live on the ground.

“It was one of the few times in my life where I had a very strict idea and all this research on the Acousmonium. It was such a great experience, knowing enough about the technical side to be able to prepare the music side of things so that it made sense. Obviously it's something that I lionise, the GRM thing, the sound. The ability to walk into this very high tech space and kind of pull it off, that was also really a big ego boost. They were like, you know what you're doing, just do it. They don't know me, they don't know anything about it, they were just like, I'm a weird heavy metal guy.”

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Paradise Lost And Found

Derek Walmsley

[caption id="attachment_1316" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Larry Levan working the deck at the Paradise Garage"][/caption]

Not many mixes demand to be prefaced by an hour long documentary, but this is an exception. The BBC radio series Legends Of The Dancefloor: A Piece Of Paradise featured a four hour radio broadcast from the Paradise Garage's second birthday, recorded by the young Lenny Fontana and on his dad's reel to reel tape deck back in 1979. Tucked away on the BBC radio schedules in July to run through the night, it almost passed me by, although perhaps I thought that a four hour recording from the Paradise Garage was just too good to be true.

Amazingly, the set is just as good as you might hope, so much so that it begs the question of how the hell it came to light in the first place, and how it remained hidden for so long. The broadcast was accompanied by an hour long chat between Mike Morin and Lenny Fontana, the latter of whom recorded it from local radio as a teenage disco freak before he was even frequenting the club.

The set and the documentary has now been unofficially archived on the web by Belfast disco freaks Iso Disco and also on Soundcloud by DJ Mixes – now the recording is out of the bag it would be a shame if it were to disappear into the mists of time once again.

What's the set like? Well, the sound quality is fairly good, but more importantly it’s the early years of the Paradise Garage, so the relationship between the DJ and the audience was still in the honeymoon stage, and you can hear the crowd responding to the music and the sense of community. Live PAs come from Sylvester and Loletta Holloway, voices that are so familiar frozen on their landmark records that it's genuinely startling to hear them singing in the moment. You can also hear better than ever Levan's style on the decks. He was not a technically dazzling DJ, but he knew his records so well that the verse of one could segue into the chorus of another. The sensitivity to mood and theme makes the experience something like film or theatre.

Perhaps in a way this mix is too good to be true, because when you're at a club you don't tend to listen forensically for four hours non stop – you tune in and out, you socialise and experience the space. But listening to it now, 30 years later in the comfort of your own home, it's like discovering a lost brotherhood, a better, fairer society from times past.

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110% Dynamite

Derek Walmsley

Spin the dial across the AM airwaves in the UK and you could be forgiven for hearing some oddly familiar sounds, at least for readers of The Wire. Work your way past the 1970s golden oldies stations, past BBC Radio 5 Live's incessant burble of "we want your views", and past the hospital radio broadcasters, and in the unlikeliest corner of the AM band you can hear ice-cold electronics, dystopian hiphop, hauntological echoes, and oddball lo-fi rock. They are all cut-up, layered, and moving gently and untroubled through the ether, behind the vein-bulging voices that boom out on meat 'n' potatoes sports/chat station talkSPORT ("for men who like to talk sport", on 1089 and 1053 AM).

Is this perhaps evidence of a radical change of direction at talkSPORT? A station which has, in the past, stirred controversy when shock-jock James Whale told listeners which way they should vote in the London Mayoral elections, or when presenter Adrian Durham hinted Russian football player Andrey Arshavin shouldn't be allowed be allowed back in the country after helping secure Russia the Fifa World Cup for 2018? The station does seem to have been going through something of a renaissance, perhaps an age of enlightenment recently, scooping Station of the Year and Programmer of the Year titles at the annual radio awards. But the chat on talkSPORT is more or less the same as ever: why the English Premier League is the greatest in the world, is Wayne Rooney a good role model for kids, and should a foreign manager be in charge of the England football team. It's the background sounds that has changed.

So, if you'd have tuned into the [Mark] Saggers And [Mickey Quin] Quinny show before the UK/Ukraine Haye versus Klitschko fight last week, behind their competition to win a signed pair of The Hayemaker's gloves was "Nite Flights" by The Walker Brothers (Scott Walker's whose own hopes for the big fight, as an American living in London, were hard to gauge). Listening to George Galloway talking about a possible amnesty for asylum seekers you might have heard the analogue nostalgia of Ghost Box's Advisory Circle between the callers. There's more: a sick El-P beat last heard on Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein behind Hawksbee and Jacobs, Not Not Fun Italo revivalists Umberto, Demdike Stare. Most remarkably, a summer giveaway to win 250 quids' worth of vouchers for UK DIY chain Wickes was soundtracked by Germanic-Detroit Techno fetishists Dopplereffekt. Somehow I'm finding it hard to imagine Gerald Donald of Dopplereffekt, be-sandeled on his brand new decking, flipping the sausages on a gas-powered grill.

It's an odd meeting of worlds – esoteric strains of underground sound culture filling in the gaps between soundbites of "GAME ON! and "The lads are focused and giving 110%". In truth, it's all sewn together so skilfully that you can hardly notice the joins, and the energy of these pieces of music is pretty much dissipated by the reassuring pitter-patter of seasoned sportscasters. The music perhaps just becomes a kind of pacifier – after all, the one thing you should avoid on radio is dead air, and these pieces of music are the padding that keeps things comfortable. But 4/4 techno beats, 70s Italian soundtrack fare and fourth world sampling have more juice and punch to them than drab muzak, even if it's put in the service of pumping you up for the Merseyside derby or backing advertorials for Sky. talkSPORT is a no-nonsense commercial operation, squarely the business of selling sport as pure entertainment. Yet it's also a comparative minnow struggling to defend it's patch on the radio dial, and if this means its producers and backroom staff find ad hoc ways to spice up their broadcasts, then that might be something fresh on the dial after all.

The Walker Brothers on Saggers And Quinny
Cannibal Ox on Hawksbee And Jacobs
Umberto with George Galloway
The Advisory Circle on George Galloway
Dopplereffekt on Saggers And Quinny
Demdike Stare behind George Galloway

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Drowned City

Derek Walmsley

It's not surprising that there's relatively few films made about pirate radio, when being collared with illegal broadcasting equipment or running a station can land you in jail, with an unlimited fine, or, in the infamous case of DJ Slimzee, receiving an ASBO banning you from the upper floors of buildings in London. Drowned City, a documentary by UK filmmaker Faith Millin that's been gestating over the past year or so, is an attempt to rectify that situation. From the title I was expecting some apocalyptic, Ballardian essay film – the name, it turns out, comes from a track by Dark Sky – but viewing a selection of rough cuts suggests the opposite. It's a personal, intimate film dealing with those who risk their livelihoods (and lives) keeping the pirates on air. Some of the stories are familiar from urban myth or recycled anecdotes – driving around for places to put aerials, shinning up pylons – but this is one of the first times the pirates speak for themselves, albeit often with hooded faces and under the cover of darkness.

The narrative of Drowned City is the familiar one of people doing it for the love of the music, but it's no less emotionally engaging for that. One pirate recalls picking up secondhand broadcast equipment and messing around with it with mates in the back garden, culling what he needed to know from YouTube and the net. There's footage of pirates shinning up electricity pylons overlooking London and the surrounding counties and accessing power for transmitters by breaking into electricity substations (surely cast iron proof that they're not doing it for self-interest).

Of more direct political import are accounts of pirates getting placed on lengthy periods of bail after arrest, and having their partners questioned for supposedly supporting their activities. From these anecdotes, the behaviour of Ofcom, the quango that regulates radio and telecommunications in the UK, seems odd – they expend serious money and police resources to keep small pirates off the air, with relatively little in the way of explanation. "They disrupt the vital communications of the safety of life services, particularly air traffic control," runs one rather shaky-sounding argument on the Ofcom website – surely air traffic control doesn't rely on the FM band?

The film is apparently still evolving as more figures from the pirate underworld are drawn into the film; as yet all that exists in the public domain are some relatively brief teasers, essentially just standard trailers for the forthcoming film. But judging by the work in progress, Drowned City could turn out to be an important document. The intimate conversations with the pirates show you some of the toil, the dirt under the fingernails, and the scars of those who struggle to keep pirates on the air. "They take from, rather than contribute to, the communities they claim to serve," states the Ofcom website. Drowned City looks like it could offer a positive counter to that argument.

Drowned City teasers:

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Funky Accordions

Derek Walmsley

"Accordions are banned from the office," comes the judgement as yet another lame East/West dance fusion disc gets abruptly slung out of the CD player. Like any rules, there's exceptions of course, and I'm sure we'll be giving this new Pauline Oliveros album a spin at some point. But It did get me thinking about funky accordions, and in the mid-2000s it seemed you could hardly move for sick beats busting a squeeze box.

Roll Deep "When I'm 'Ere", produced by Danny Weed. This sent the Roll Deep producer spinning like a dervish through a million takes on this style.

Cut-up accordion action!

But not as amazing as this remix, beatless in parts, that surfaced around the same time, just an accordion riff ran backwards and forwards (Eliane Radigue eat your heart out) over a minimal beat. On pirates around this time they would mix two copies of the records so they could just stretch out the beatless intro for minutes at a time (and the MCs could take a breather after a heavy set of bars).

A couple of years after "When I'm 'Ere" first appeared Danny Weed returned to the theme with the amazing "Heat Up". What struck me about these accordion tracks was that a couple of years earlier violins had been all the rage. Somehow the more incongruous the instrument on a grime track the better - synthetic string quartets, fake hoe-downs. Like the use of Eastern melodies on Grime tracks, producers were teleporting themselves out of the ghetto with sampled exotica. A year or two later Wiley was sticking bluegrass fiddle on his tracks.

Of course, around this time, Madlib was rocking an accordion too, and Doom even manages to make a rhyming couplet out of it.

The push-pull nature of the accordion makes it a clumsy beast to play or to sample, and it's hard to make it sing. But like a jazz violinist, when you find player or producers who have the knack, they're rare gems indeed.

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Feeling Listless

Derek Walmsley

The last thing we need is more record lists, right? Well, maybe. No doubt we suffer from a glut of rock-lists. Glossy consumer mags use lists of all types as selling points ("you need these in your life"). When it comes to UK music monthlies, it usually means the same old rock albums, reinforcing the canon with each iteration. Books and websites are now adding to list-fatigue: sites divide lengthy lists-of-the-best-ever into several pages, thus increasing their click thrus but making for fractured reading (the very opposite of what a list should do); meanwhile, those godawful 1010 Records To Hear Before You Expire books conflate musical experience with the dying of the light.

Of course, the idea of a record list is inherently problematic. It immediately raises questions: records of what type, and limited in what way? What and whose criteria are we judging by? The very existence of a historic list presupposes a musical 'record' of some kind, which rules out the vast majority of music experienced by homo sapiens since time began.

Yet lists are worth celebrating, especially now. Lists are rarely about completism. Only a tiny minority of those who read a record list attempt to collect ’em all. Instead, a list provides a rough-and-ready survey of how the land might lay, and what waypoints on the map might be significant at the present time. Like an old style maps with sketchy outlines of countries and continents and uncharted waters beyond, they are open to correction by the user. And like the notion of music genre, the flaws and exceptions of a list are as important, notable and (crucially) useful as the inclusions. The very idea of a list of records is an acknowledgment that we're in a state of constant change.

A select few lists have been crucial in The Wire's world, and several others have been crucial in setting the agenda since the internet expanded the music world. The Nurse With Wound list is still a thing of wonder with over 200 way-out records (Airway, Brainstorm, Come…) that, contrary to rumour, do all genuinely exist. Thurston Moore's Free Jazz list for Grand Royale magazine contained such obscurities – private press releases, European releases by US exiles, loft sessions – that at the time I thought it could be some kind of jazz head’s wet daydream. "Seeing as there’s no “beginning” or “end” to this shit I have to list as many items as possible," Moore wrote, suggesting that free jazz, far from dead, was still resonating in global after shocks. Alan Licht's minimalist top 10 ("I like minimalism because it ROCKS.") was crucial because it posited minimalism as the hidden wiring of whole swathes of underground music. His original list mentions Niblock and Palestine, but in a third instalment for Volcanic Tongue (which goes all the way up to eleven) he knitted in Harry Pussy and Earth to the minimalist pantheon.

Two record lists stood out in the early internet era, and became, if not bibles, then certainly user's guide to the hidden depths of record collecting. Kirk DeGiorgio's Hall Of Fame (which has more or less disappeared from the internet, but can still be just about browsed here) was a list of primarily soul, funk, jazz and disco, but its forensic ear for producers, engineers, session men, arrangers, songwriters and other unsung heroes meant it elevated David Axelrod, Arthur Russell and George Duke to visionary status in their knitting together of black music, white music and everything in between in the 1970s.

Woebot's 100 Greatest Records Ever, is wonderfully playful despite (or because of?) its pompous title. His list makes a mockery of the idea that the album is king, with white label 12"s from Ruff Sqwad, and places Joni Mitchell and Pere Ubu next to Acen and David Lewiston as the true geniuses of modern music. Woebot's list is rough and opinionated, making you alternately snort with derision and wonder where the hell he found such riches.

Consumer guide record lists can weigh you down, but a good list should open things up. The lists above are about sharing the riches. One of my best musical experiences ever was a week-by-week record swapping session with a close friend, working the way through our respective top 50 albums. This is what the best lists do – facilitate an intimate engagement with someone's world. Despite the proliferation of lists, we need good ones more than ever.

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Queered Pitch

Derek Walmsley

"Sound itself is queer." I was struck by this quote from Drew Daniel of Matmos while flicking through a video of a Q&A I did with them at Mutek last year (the Mutek people have kindly just put it online, a series of four interviews from the 2010 edition that they're putting up in the run up to this year's event). Queerness is what exceeds values and structures, he explained. So if sound qua sound exists outside language and and the usual hierarchies of taste, then is sound queer?

While Drew Daniel was riffing on this idea (22 minutes into the interview) I was in the presenter's chair with one half of my brain pre-occupied with thinking of the next question to throw back at him. But nearly a year on it resonated with ideas that have been rattling around my head in the meantime. Right now I happen, oddly enough, to be listening to disco genius Patrick Cowley's "Menergy". Disco was able to evoke desire precisely because it could be so direct and, hey, crude. From pop to metal to rave to noise, music can be so complex, chaotic and endlessly fascinating because in formal terms it is so cognitively simple and sensorially direct compared to other artforms. I'm not well-placed to comment on the idea of queerness in sound – check the clip for Drew's more eloquent thoughts – but this kind of thinking, exploring how way sound escapes objective analysis and exists outside most conceptual frameworks, at least gets us a little closer to why music has such power.

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Resonance FM fundraiser

Derek Walmsley

This weekend, from 12 noon on Saturday 19 March 2011 until midnight on Sunday 20 March, Resonance FM is holding a live, on air fundraiser to raise money to keep the best radio station in the world up and running. A whole slew of unique, collectable and plain beautiful objects and experiences are available for auction. Notable items include a 90 minute bass guitar lesson with Led Zep's John Paul Jones, two weeks in Annapurna Eco-Village, Nepal with all creature comforts provided, one month's entry to London venue and Wire fave hangout Cafe Oto, signed Chris Watson Records, Bob Cobbing posters, red wax from Anish Kapoor’s recent Royal Academy retrospective, a one hour sitar lesson with Baluji Shirvastav, and much more. You can find details of all the lots and how to bid at

As for The Wire's offering this time around – it's a rare, art-edition release of a one-sided LP by The New Blockaders and Nobuo Yamada. It's packaged in a weathered metal box and affixed with heavy duty bolts. A must for any hardcore noise lover. Pics below. Tune in this weekend for all the auction-action.

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Smiley Culture 1963-2011/Lyricmaker Mix

Derek Walmsley

I'm saddened and shocked to hear of the sudden death of original UK mic-man David Emmanuel, aka Smiley Culture, after a police raid at his house. I'm not going to add much to the other tributes elsewhere, but I'll gently point you in the direction of an excellent mix exploring the fast-chat era of the UK reggae deejays, of which Smiley was a crucial part. The Lyric Maker mix by John Eden (of the Uncarved blog) and Paul Meme (Grievous Angel) is a great introduction and, most importantly, a crucial selection of Cockney and JA chatters.

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