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The Mire: Tangents, threads and opinions from The Wire HQ

You can't get with Mr Smith

Derek Walmsley

Sometimes the development of music technology is quite breathtaking – think of Final Scratch, Ableton Live, all those real-time scratch and processing programmes. Microsoft's Songsmith falls way, way, way, outside this category, to such a degree it's quite astonishing. A programme designed so you can just sing into a microphone, and it'll pick up the melodies and concoct an appropriate backing you.

The results are, without exception, jawdroppingly, side-splittingly appalling. You can pretty much hear the mix of rigid, codified algorithms (switching between simple chord progressions where the voice allows) and random melodic detours (just to keep things moving along). Essentially, they've managed the perfect simulation of a hotel bar band desperately vamping along when they've got no idea where the tune is going.

A reminder that, in these days of fuzzy logic and artificial intelligence, computer software can still sound astonishingly luddite.


Funky on Rinse FM

Derek Walmsley

Like many, I've been warming to Funky, the [rather weirdly named] new thing on London Pirate Radio stations like Rinse FM. Perhaps we'll warm to the name itself after a while; 'funky house', the label which used to be listed on flyers plastered on lamp posts for over-25s raves all over the M25 Orbital area, suggested an attempt to organify house, to give it a certain feng-shui'd, ergonomic ease of use. Funky, though, is significantly different, and it's understandable that the second part of the moniker has been dropped. So 'Funky; will do for now. Of course, 'Grime' sounded weird to start with, but now perfectly captures the cold-concrete intensity of the music.

Listening to Rinse FM sets by Fingerprint and Marcus Nasty, the elements of soca and dancehall are pretty subtle, but are such an essential ingredient. It's often moving against the 4/4 beat, generating that push and pull feel which gives it a feeling of democracy, somehow (ie, you can dance to this how you want). Even when it's not there, it's kind of present in its absence, as that off beat feel comes and goes frequently in the DJ sets I checked out. Although it's understated, there's a certain dubiness in there – it comes and goes, but it makes its presence/absence felt - it's kinda welcome. There's also a certain melodic nostalgia there, which was always a part of two-step garage – it was always garage as filtered into a kind of of future pop form.

But all this is thrown into sharp relief by the intriguing tension between the soca feel – and the democracy, ease of access and general good vibes it engenders – and the more sophisticated NY style garage feel, which implies something more sexually selective, more exclusive. This is the key to the music – it gives it an openness to something more global, more open, rather than an exclusive London-centric locus, but there's still something distinctively urban in there. The dancehall feel is the grit in the oyster somehow, the slight friction which prevents it from drifting into frictionless Euro-style consumer house.

So I'm hopeful. Listening to this music, I feel that slight tingle, that warm mix of familiarity with the general feel combined with fresh, open structures. There's something happening here. I'm intrigued.


Ready for the breakdown

Derek Walmsley

A study reported in The Guardian, suggesting an inverse relationship between complexity in pop and fluctuations in the stock market ("Beyoncé's new single spells economic doom") is the kind of thing that gives studying pop music a bad name. Apparently, Phil Maymin, New York University's professor of finance and risk engineering (the job title is intriguingly vague whether he's pro or anti risk) suggests that the prevalence of singles with "low 'beat variance'" often coincides with the stock market being due for a fall.

The most obvious flaw in this is that Beyonce's new single is actually, in a post-Timbaland style, actually pretty sophisticated. There's a lurking sub-base in there, an offbeat (and atonal) keyboard lick through the verse, and a Joey Beltram style Mentasm stab in the chorus. The dance moves it demands are the kind of elliptical hip swaying of the video, not some kind of skinhead stomp. It almost makes me wonder if R&B; might have some new ideas left after all; compare the track to the lumpen hiphop of 50 Cent and it's almost polyrhythmic. Anyway, who says what actually is the beat? In R&B; of the last decade, the rhythm had long ago started to provide the melodic, textural interest, and the off-beat melodies tend to move the hips as much as the beats.

Some of the references in the article don't quite ring true. How could a-ha have predicted the stock market turbulence of the mid-80s, when the song was made in 1984, and had already held an MTV music award for a year when the stock market crash finally happened in late 1987? The music of the UK recession of the early 90s was rave, then undergoing huge chart success, yet tracks like The Charly’s "Prodigy" or SL2’s "DJs Take Control" are as jagged and complex as anything King Crimson came up with. Well, compared to the disco hangover of 80s dance music, at least. In the UK, the soundtrack to the bleakest times of the late 70s/early 80s was "Ghost Town" by The Specials, surely one of the weirdest singles ever to get to number one.

Maymin argues that "If it's a steady beat, the same beat, no matter if it's fast or slow, that's a low beat variance song,". The majority of pop tracks probably fall into that category. Are plodding stadium ballads 'low variance'? The nervous, repetitive pulse of Joy Division or The Fall? Ragga? All are regular in a sense, but become irregular on an, erm, pretty regular basis. The more regular a track is, the more it has the ability to sound irregular. The regularity is what gives the leverage for a track to really throw your spine out of joint. That's the essential truth which gives pop music its motor. The idea that simplicity somehow reflects things grinding to a halt is one that you'd think we'd got way past by now.

There's probably some truth in the idea that some people yearn for a certain musical simplicity in turbulent economic times, but it's hard to argue there's a systematic dumbing down at work – certainly not on the level of rhythm. Becoming a teenager in the relatively comfortable late 80s, it was the stifling sense of social consensus in 80s pop music that I felt House music kicked against. The faux maturity of music like Phil Collins or Sting gave it a platform to show off a certain virtuosity, but in terms of surprise, it was deathly dull. Unpredictability was always heavily signposted, like a tom drum roll before a hackneyed key or tempo change. Compare it to my current listening, a selection of Jeff Mills DJ mixes as The Wizard from the late 80s, where Acid, House, hiphop and funk are thrown into the mix in breathtakingly inclusive fashion, a mix and match which completely dissolves generic boundaries (although the beats are kinda regular), and you start to realise that rhythmic regularity can be the engine room of pop, it gives it the essential torque necessary to mix cultural references together.

Beyond spotting one or two novelty singles in tough times, surely it's impossible to come up with some aggregate measure of how 'complex' the pop charts are, any more than we can measure if literature or art is currently in a 'regular' phase. Attempts to do so suggest pop can be measured as easily as blood pressure, which does the artform a disservice.

*** UPDATE 20/1/09 ***

Phil Maymin himself pointed out in correspondence that he actually hasn't analysed the Beyonce song – it seems The Guardian have suggested that fits with the theory, which seems rather shoddy journalism to me, although titillating, I guess (though pop music should be so much more...)

Maymin's data on 'beat variance' comes, it seems from a body called, a third party which provides data by this measure. It's not clear what this data is generally provided for – market research reasons, perhaps? In any case, the objectivity of their findings must be a little under question.


Rewind 2008 Addendum: The Office Dissonance

Derek Walmsley

We have a high threshold for sonic extremity at The Wire. At the time of writing, someone behind me is blasting out a Puerto Rican noise group from their computer. At times in the last year or so we have - or at least I have – enjoyed field recordings of creaking bridges in Thailand, longform improvisastions for motorised vibraphones , or recordings of a ventilation propellers. Such strange sonic matter is warmly rendered through our appealingly battered old NAD amp, wired up through some arcane scheme to floorstanding speakers scattered around far-flung corners of our open office. It's rarely less than a pleasure and a privileged to sample such intense music in this environment.

Sometimes, though, someone will be in middle of a phone call when the latest missive from the Michigan noise scene hits the CD deck, or be distracted from an intricate bit of last minute proofing by a 200 word-a-minute Grime MC. Some discs just refuse to be relegated to the status of background music, demanding instead your full and undivided attention, and just can't be effectively worked to here in the office. Inevitably, then, there are times when discs will get abruptly taken off the stereo here, and it's an honour of sorts. So as the year draws to a close, it's only appropriate that The Mire's contribution to the Rewind 2008 feature of our forthcoming January issue – on sale in all good newsagents in a few days – is a round up of the records which caused such Office Dissonance. This list is, of course, in no way mutually exclusive with The Wire's Top 50 Records of the Year. In no particular order, then...

Ryoji Ikeda
Data Pattern
Ikeda’s eighth solo album was based on work for an installation, using electronic data to generate barcode patterns and audio files of 1s and 0s. This is what data overload sounds like - listening is like plugging yourself into the hidden data traffic of the modern age. It's also incredibly powerful, physically – the fast-flicking pulse provide a physical jolt which is, in many ways, pure bionic funk. All your cognitive resources are needed to get to grips with these data-packets, and you can forget trying to work during it.

Florian Hecker
Hecker, Höller, Tracks
This record actually made it into my own top 10 of the year. It's an extraordinary piece of sonic atom-splitting, created by Florian Hecker for a Carsten Höller visual exhibition. Each piece is based around flickering pulses, like bursts from a fluorescent tube, which imperceptibly alter and flit around the stereo spectrum. As Nick Cain's feature on Hecker elucidated, such experiments are designed to work at the edge of human perception. However, an experiment this subtle needs your full attention. In the office the repeated 20 minute spells of minutely shifting pulses just can't be focused on.

Stéphane Rives
Much Remains To Be Heard
Al Maslakh CD
A technically extraordinary disc on the excellent Lebanese based Al Maslakh label. Like Seymour Wright, Stéphane Rives's solo saxophone experiments can make John Butcher sound like Lester Young. The high pitched, sustained, one hour track on Much Remains To Be Heard is right at the upper threshold of hearing. With all the hum and bustle of an office, amid the buzz of printers and computers, locating such precise tones is impossible.

Tetuzi Akiyama
The Ancient Balance To Control Death
Western Vinyl
Only 20 minutes long or so, Akiyama's primitivist blues guitar on The Ancient Balance To Control Death is rough but not especially abrasive. But it’s his singing on this short album, which like Jandek strays in and out of tune with deliberate freedom, which is often too emotionally raw to attune to in the middle of a working day. It's raw, soulful, completely unrefined, the blues rendered as a weeping sore. You either submit to it totally, or you don't listen at all.

Hartmut Geerken
Qbico LP
In the true spirit of Strange Strings, Sun Ra collector/obesssive Hartmut Geerken's Amanita is a double LP of him attempting to play a bandura/'sun harp' which apparently used to belong to Ra himself. He doesn't explore it melodically so much as endlessly explore a single note in blissed-out reverie. It suggests a kind of ritual, and for the full effect would probably be best tuned into late at night, in the dark, maybe.

Paul Flaherty
Aria Nativa
Family Vineyard LP

Fearsome/fearless solo sax improvisations. In the lineage of John Coltrane's "Chasing The Train", Flaherty starts with one melodic idea, and chases it at maximum speed, wherever it seem to lead him, channeling body and soul into his lines. It's thunderous, passionate, declamatory. Such commitment from the performer deserves a similar level of engagement from the listener. It's more or less an ethical issue – when listening to this, it feels wrong to be doing anything other than just listening.

4, 5, 6
snd 3x12"
snd's electronica is always built from a similarly stripped down pallete, with tight percussion and terse, precise melodic touches. It's the beats which caused the ruckus with this triple 12" release, though. Across an hour or so of music, the rhythms are constantly irregular, jumping backwards and forwards with musical jump-cuts. It seems to warp the fabric of time, and it refuses to slip away politely into the background.

Carlos Giffoni
Adult Life
No Fun Productions CD
This was perhaps Carlos Giffoni's warmest (most mature?) albums yet, with steady humming synths drifting in and out of chorus to hypnotic effect. Late at night and loud in the office it sounds fantastic, and just moving around the room creates different acoustic effects. All this compelling world of detail is lost if you're stuck at a desk.

Uwe Schmidt’s first major solo release in quite a while, Liedgut took on several hundred years of German-Austrian romantic musical/philosophical heritage and attempted to render it digitally, with elegant music box melodies and graceful, waltzing structures. Given this grand historical sweep, it's strange that a mobile phone interference sample made it in there. It's impossible to work to it without subconsciously wondering if an important phone call is about to arrive.


Babylon Bypass

Just in. Finnish free jazz, featuring Sami Pekkola amongst others, with repeated crashing waves of free blowing. It starts loud and gets louder. Actually terrific to work to, but impossible to have on while you're conducting a telephone conversation.


The Wire presents The Scope

Derek Walmsley

Still suffering pangs of remorse over the death of Karlheinz Stockhausen earlier in the year? He's certainly still in our hearts here – we even have a framed picture of him in the office, which we keep in a special place where we contemplate his ideas and legacy. So, inspired by the works of the man himself, we're hosting a free, special, multi-media happening at the Southbank tomorrow. Think we're joking? This is Stockhausen – we are, of course, deadly serious. Art collectives are being mobilised. Concepts are being discussed in high-level meetings. Way out sounds will be dropped. In fact all the events will build on the ideas of Stockhausen, and it promises to be a great night:

The Wire presents The Scope
A free, late-night event as part of Klang (see UK Festivals) programmed by The Wire with performance by a crew of laptop technicians led by John Wall plus an Improv session with Pat Thomas, Mark Sanders and John Coxon bookending a rare screening of The Brothers Quay’s In Absentia (which visualises Stockhausen’s music), as well as the sounds of Radio Cologne in the lobby. London Purcell Room, 7 November free

Live art is by Contemporary Art Collective and DJing are Ed Pinsent and Philip Sanderson or Resonance FM. Stage times are roughly as follows – John Wall around 10pm, FURT are playing around 10:20, then after the film screening we'll have John Coxon, Pat Thomas and Mark Sanders doing a piece for two pianos, percussion and electronics.
The Scope


Tales From The Bog

Swamp Thing

Funky may be the new disco, but that's not stopping anybody from jumping on the bandwagon. Seems like all it takes is for Kode9 to publicly announce his approval and every blogger is a convert.

Skream, on the other hand, was recently overheard giving the thumbs down to Rinse's new Funky club night, Beyond. But before we could jump to conclusions about the crown prince of Dubstep disapproving the new old dance permutation, he quickly corrected us. Seems his disdain is just for Beyond and not for Funky. In fact, he tells us that he's got a new project in the works called Funky Junkie, a collaboration with noted Funky-man Geeneus. But Skream, darling, haven't you heard Geeneus's remix of "Night"? It's crap.

Now, before you all start wondering about a possible rift in the Ammunition camp, let's talk about real catfights. Apparently, the minimal techno scene in Berlin isn't quite as cosy as we thought it was. A little bird tells us that Perlon and M-nus may have been having a little tiff for yoinks. It may or may not have had something to do with M-Nus 'licensing' tracks from Perlon without permission. Naughty naughty. Still, Perlon may be having the last laugh as it turns out we weren't the only ones who enjoyed M-Nus's hairball-inducing photoshoot for Contakt. Richie may make some good music, but that doesn't mean he has any taste.

Finally, in a real WTF moment, we've been informed (belatedly, why are we the last to find out about everything?) that Russell Haswell's partner is Amanda Donohoe. She of television fame circa LA Law, etc. Apparently, she also used to go out with Adam Ant, so maybe she just likes moody musicians?

p.s. We love disco.


Braxton Competition

Derek Walmsley

Amongst other goodies in The Wire 297 was a piece on Anthony Braxton's Arista recordings, where some of his wildest projects were bankrolled by a major label hungry for the new thing of the New Thing (it was probably the most complex feature I've ever subbed on the magazine, where Bill Shoemaker patiently unfolds these densely layered constructions).

Mosaic have kindly given us one of these great box sets of the Arista years, and there's a competition on our site to win it:

We'd like you to draw a diagram in the style used by Anthony Braxton to name his compositions graphically. The diagram should be describing a piece of music for any combination of instruments or elements. The main aim is to produce a diagram that looks like it might have been rendered by Anthony Braxton to name one of his compositions. The more imaginative and wild the better. Remember this is the musician who scored pieces for orchestras and puppet theatres, as well as for multiple orchestras located on different planets and in different galaxies.

If Anthony Braxton spent the 70s scoring pieces for celestial orchestras, I think you owe it to him to have a scribble with a pen and paper. More info is here


Doom's Pastoral Palliative

Nathan Budzinski

Re Derek's post yesterday:
As an uplifting balm to soothe the terror of their doom laden Clearspot last night, Resonance FM is broadcasting the work of artist and shaman Marcus Coates. "Pastoral Spirit" will apparently include a choir singing birdsong along with performing a variety of animal calls. Will the concrete hardened city worker find the same solace in Coates' channeling of relaxing ambient nature as the residents of Linosa Close did?

Clearspot: GMT 8pm tonight


prediction of doom

Derek Walmsley

Great sounding show on Resonance FM tonight:

What better time than during the biggest ever economic collapse to explore the strangely comforting tones of Doom Metal? With leading band names like Earth, Om and Sunn, this drone laden branch of heavy metal cultivates an elemental niche where aficionados enjoy artistic creativity predicated on electric guitars and a world rendered absurd.

It's on their Clearspot slot, at 8pm GMT.


refrains of rai

Derek Walmsley

It's hard to resist an album called 1970's Algerian Proto-Rai Underground. You've got the promise of some strange prototype of unheard urban music; the North African connection, only a decade and a bit after Algeria emerged from French rule; plus, the idea of pop operating through underground channels, which sounds a contradiction in terms for Westerners, but is less improbable in the Middle East and North Africa (I'm reminded of the electronica underground in Iran, for instance).

The music is almost as exciting as the title. One refrain on the album is particularly familiar to fans of 90s rave, with one track using a version of the "We are IE" vocal, which found its way, twisted via rave speak, onto Lenny De Ice's proto-jungle classic "We Are E". I'm not sure what the vocal is – it's found across a lot of Rai music, with what sounds like the same lyrics and the same melody. Whatever, the refrain is certainly spine-chilling, and so memorable that the dancehall/urban/mixadelic website weareie, who curate the excellent Blogariddims series, grabbed it for their name (which puns on the Irish connection of the people who do the site).

The audio meme of this vocal secretly linking rai and rave sent me on a frenzy of googling and downloading, trying to figure out other versions of the refrain. I eventually remembered Cheb Mami had done a particularly good track which had it in; a pop song which is like an excerpt from My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, with the kind of eerie vocal that graced "Boat Woman Song" from Holger Czukay's Canaxis.

Maybe it's the one Lenny De Ice sampled, but in any case, the track is mindboggling in its own right. The time signatures are so fluid I can't follow them at all, and yet it's entirely second nature to Cheb Mami himself. Some amazing fusions happened when francophone African musicians had to figure out what they were doing on the fly in Parisian recording studios; Cheb Mami's stuff is some of the best I've heard. It's instantly resonant, but complex and elusive too... much like that vocal refrain itself.

It's well worth checking out - and stands its own next to almost any other tune from anywhere on the planet. Cheb Mami- "Douni El Bladi" [RE-UPPED 24/10/08)