Music, Curationism and the End of the Avant-Garde event – audio

We co-hosted an event with Pluto Press – Music, Curationism and the End of the Avant-Garde – at Brilliant Corners on 2nd May 2015. Audio is now available to stream via NTS Radio on their Mixcloud

curationism talkThe event marked the launch of David Balzer’s excellent new book, Curationism. The other participants were: Frances Morgan, deputy editor of The Wire; artist, writer and academic Salomé Voegelin; and music critic and musicologist Adam Harper.

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Dark, the Dim Hear – Daniela Cascella

This is an edited extract from the forthcoming F.M.R.L: Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains + Leftovers of Writing Sound, by Daniela Cascella (author of the blog/book En Abime) – TS 
“Ephemeral. F.M.R.L. (frenzy-madness-reverie-love), a fame really, ever merrily, Effie marry Lee: there are words that are mirrors, optical lakes toward which hands stretch out in vain. Prophetic syllables.” – Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant (1926)

Dark, the Dim Hear

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 13 February 2014
Magic and trial by ordeal. A hand. Cast brass amulet, against the evil eye. From Naples.pittrivers

The dim here always struck me. It’s dark, the dim hear as I tentatively tune in voices and whispers from the past. The dim light in the museum, the amulets against the evil eye, the empty drawers under the glass cabinets prompt me to linger in the voids and in the gaps, to imagine and recollect gestures and rituals around them: they set up a scenario and make me step into a past, in the Seventies in Southern Italy, when in dimness of memory I hear, out of the hazy layers of my recollections I hear a grainy persistent breath, a fatigued whistlebreath emitted not as a sign of life, but as the last aural sign of a life about to expire, it is my great-grandmother in her bed, not because she is ill but because she is very old, slow, at the border of life yet clings to life, poisonous and persistent like ivy my grandmother would say, lying, breathing in a dark grey room at the end of a long Sunday afternoon, when dusk comes in, in my recollections I hear the dim, recall a persistent broken sigh in the shape of a breath and then a stop, a convulsive breath and a stop, as if a rusty hook had caught that breath to prevent it from expiring, and she lies in a tall bed, maybe tall because I was little, although I later learned that beds at the time were in fact taller, I hear that convulsive breath as coming from an underworld of hidden whispering galleries, it is my great-grandmother’s but to my hearing it sounds as if it is the whole room breathing, and I’m left there, I can barely see her but I hear my larvae-great-grandmother disappear into her broken sigh, sighing herself into the room.

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Materialistic arseholes and suburban dreamers: Bowie and the 1960s—Chris O’Leary

As a big fan of both Bowie and Chris O’Leary, it was as hard to select an extract from Rebel Rebel as it is to choose a favourite Bowie song; each song is covered in a self-contained entry, and they’re all fascinating. 
In the end I chose a series of 3 posts which make chronological/conceptual sense, and shed entertaining light on Bowie’s complicated relationship with late ‘60s hippy culture. Also contains The Prettiest Star, which is far from his best track but which, for sentimental reasons, remains one of my all-time favourites. 
Rebel Rebel (Zer0, 2015) is out on March 27th, there’s a list of stockists here  – TS 


Cygnet Committee

Recorded: (demo, “Lover to the Dawn,” unreleased) ca. mid-April 1969, 24 Foxgrove Road. Bowie: 12-string acoustic guitar, harmony vocal; Hutchinson: lead vocal, acoustic guitar; (album) ca. late August-early September 1969, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal; Christmas: 12-string acoustic guitar; Wayne: lead guitar; Renwick: rhythm guitar; Wakeman: electric harpsichord; Lodge: bass; Cambridge: drums. Produced: Visconti; engineered: Sheffield, Scott or Toft.

First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity. Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1969-70.

“Cygnet Committee” was, consecutively, a break-up letter to a communal arts center Bowie co-founded, a scattershot attack on the counterculture and a desperate self-affirmation. Deep in this gnomic, nearly ten-minute screed was a struggle to find a workable design for the years ahead, Bowie pledging himself to a life of creative destruction while keeping clear of professional revolutionaries. It was the sound of Bowie willing himself to become a stronger artist, hollowing himself out to let a greater creative force, for good or ill, take hold in him. The possession took. In fleeting moments, you can hear the apocalyptic, utopian voice of “Five Years” and “Sweet Thing,” of “Station to Station” and “‘Heroes.’” The man who was able to write those songs had to go through the crucible of “Cygnet Committee” first. Continue reading Materialistic arseholes and suburban dreamers: Bowie and the 1960s—Chris O’Leary

Monsters, Tricksters, Stranglers: an extract from Phil Knight’s Strangled

Extract from Phil Knight’s brilliant new book, Strangled: Identity, Status, Structure and The Stranglers, out now, investigating “the greatest punk band”, their overlooked mysticism, and their erasure from punk’s history. – TS


Picture for a moment a world in which the most significant practitioners of every particular musical style were written out of the history of that movement. For example, imagine The Beatles being excluded from the story of the Sixties beat boom; or Charlie Parker being mysteriously passed over in retrospectives of bebop; or King Tubby being omitted from narratives on the evolution of dub reggae. Such acts of neglect might seem unthinkable, and yet there is one genre whose self-appointed custodians do ensure the marginalisation of its greatest exponents, and that genre is punk.

For The Stranglers were the greatest punk band, not just in terms of commercial success, but also artistically. Though their peers often affected to shun them, it is remarkable how the group’s bass-heavy sound and gnostic, alienated worldview percolated throughout the genre, until, a couple of years after the initial punk explosion, almost every other band had come to sound like them. The Stranglers were the eye of the hurricane, the black hole at the centre of the punk universe, a present absence without whom much of the history of punk seems inexplicable, yet is chronicled anyway. Continue reading Monsters, Tricksters, Stranglers: an extract from Phil Knight’s Strangled

Ambient House: “This was the sound of that future”

Among other things, including presenting a radio show (The Mystery Lesson) Daniel Spicer will be doing a book on Turkish Psychedelia for Repeater. This is his review of the Ambient House: The Compilation by DFC. — P.J.


How often does a compilation album change your life? It happened to me very early one morning in 1990 when I was a first-year undergraduate living in halls of residence in Manchester. Towards the end of an LSD trip, just as dawn was beginning to grey the sky, an LP I’d never heard before ended up on my friend’s cheap plastic turntable, squatting like an oracle on the carpet of his tiny box-like room. It stayed there for the rest of the trip and, as we played it over and over, it completely and irrevocably rewired everything I thought I understood about the potential form and function of music.

The album was – and remains – an enigma to me: Ambient House, a 10-track collection, compiled and released by a benignly anonymous pan-European body calling itself Dance Floor Corporation. The sleeve notes, in a cheerfully translated English, promised “a revolutionary new form of dance music that mixes moody atmospheric sounds of new age and ambient music with pulsating house beats.” This wasn’t what I was used to at all. I was a white teenager from suburban South East England, brought up on rock and folk, with a nascent interest in jazz. To me, the recent explosion in dance music meant flimsy radio fodder like S-Express and Black Box. It was something you heard in shopping centres and fast food outlets. I’d never even for a moment considered that anything to do with house music might be worthy of attention. But here, as the sleeve notes proclaimed, were audio concoctions designed to live “in your hearts, not the charts.” In the hours that followed, those sounds beamed new information directly into my brain, like the revealing purple light of Philip K. Dick’s toothache delirium.

The KLF’s “Last Train To Trancentral” collages field recordings of rumbling freight trains, clanging bells and bleating sheep with soaring, sci-fi synths; The Orb’s “A Huge Ever-Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules The World From The Centre Of The Ultra-World” swirls together wafting choral vocals, ascending heavenly chords and an impossibly incongruous sample of Minnie Ripperton singing “Loving You”, all somehow oblivious of and unconnected to the tough electro rhythm shoving it on like an unstoppable, intergalactic engine. These two tracks have since become well-known examples of the genre but, to these ears at least, still sound fresh and otherworldly. If some of the other selections have aged less well they were, at the time, equally mysterious. “Transparenza” by Extreme builds a humid exoticism around a circular three-note keyboard riff and repeated samples of a droplet of moisture plopping into a pool and a single, sensuous human exhalation. Sueño Latino’s self-titled track samples Manuel Göttsching’s minimal electro-kosmische prototype, E2-E4, adding rainforest canopy chatter and Balearic piano, as though soundtracking a lost afternoon in some mythical jungle cocktail bar.

But it was the timeless perfection of “NYC Smile On Me” by Aqua Regia that took me furthest away from any psycho-cerebral situation I’d ever encountered before: an endlessly repeating orchestral sample of unfolding sun-burst joy, riding a gentle acid thump and the quintessential, toe-curling 303 wibble. A female voice, squirming in distraught ecstasy, exclaims “Oh, God, please, oh God, I can’t stand it, 24 hours a day.” It felt like a slice of eternity, something that had been happening forever, something that was always happening, never-ending in some untroubled plane of existence, to which we were simply allowed access for a few minutes at a time by dropping the needle on the record. As the dawn strained through a milky, overcast sky back in 1990, my friends and I narrowed the album down to this one track, constantly repeated as we clung on to an inexorably evaporating high. Even now, almost a quarter of a century later, it still sounds like boundless optimism.

For me, this album did something that all great compilations should do: it provided a glimpse of a whole new world of sound and adventure, an alternate reality that was already there, fully-formed, ready to be passionately embraced, given over to, completely immersed in. I’m talking specifically about a special moment in the early 1990s when the counterculture seemed to be experiencing a surge of bright, fresh, optimistic momentum; when the present seemed about to collide with a glorious, inevitable utopian future of designer drugs, smart drinks, cybernetics, neuromancy and virtual reality. It’s absolutely right that the gatefold cover of Ambient House is bursting with lurid Madelbrot Set fractals. Scientific hedonism was going to blow our minds and there was nothing we could do to stop it. For me, this music was the sound of that future beginning to happen, of the great transformation made manifest, right there in that small room in Manchester. It encouraged me, invited me, compelled me to throw myself with utter conviction into the swiftly coalescing vectors of UK rave culture. I didn’t waste any time.

Daniel Spicer