I choose my aural background to match my environment. It’s rare that Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony or anything on the ECM label is in tune with my mood.
Whilst tapping this post out, I’m grooving to Beefheart‘s Magic Band playing the John Peel radio show last July. This review of their history should give you some idea of my mental equilibrium, or lack of one.
A visit to the blog of another blogging Brit abroad, amBLOnGus in Austin, Texas, alerted me to the possibility of adding to my store of more appropriate musical sounds.
Apparently Jandek played his first gig ever at the weekend. For 27 years the man had been a complete mystery, sending albums of desolate, mostly tuneless wailing and guitar strumming into the world from a post office box in Houston, refusing to be interviewed, photographed or give any information away about himself.
No-one knew if Jandek was his real name, if he was the person seen collecting the checks from the Post Office box or how his label, “Corwood Industries,” was funded. A cult naturally developed, and even those who find his music not just unpleasant but genuinely disturbing are fascinated by him and seek out every piece of data available. I don’t know if anyone truly enjoys his work, but there’s something about it that pulls people in, not because it’s ‘so bad it’s good’ but because it manages to be both entirely detached from anything else and at the same time immediate and graspable, a raw feed from some place deep within the human psyche. (Some Jandek MP3s here or here for the newly curious.)
So, I have downloaded several and can only agree with this reviewer: Compared to ‘real’ pop music, Jandek’s songs are terrifyingly ugly; in the context of his decades of persistence, the range and mass of his work, he’s released 37, count ’em, albums, they become intensely beautiful and meaningful. They are absolute, pure self-expression, an unfocused, unlit snapshot of his entire adult life.
This particular musical journey got me to musing about other cacophony I have been fond of. Without forgetting Mrs. Miller, my thoughts turned to the Portsmouth Sinfonia. The idea was to create an orchestra of people with little or no experience on the instrument they were playing. Art student James Lampard was one of a dozen founder members. “I went out in the morning, bought a saxophone and tried to play it at the first rehearsal that afternoon.”
In creating the resulting album, The Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics, the ensemble brought their own philosophy to the recording studio. “There were no second takes,” Lewis explains. “If you hit a wrong note, it was down for perpetuity.” Such joyous errors litter the record.
Listening to it again, one might be forgiven for thinking that Richard Strauss wrote Also Sprach Zarathustra with the Portsmouth Sinfonia in mind. Their interpretation of the William Tell overture is reputed to have changed Leonard Bernstein’s attitude to the piece for ever.
In 1974 they played the Royal Albert Hall. “It was amazing. The press coverage had been incredible. Here we were, about to play one of the greatest music venues in the world. There was a feeling of walking on air. Then we got on stage and thought, ‘What the hell are we doing here?'” A thought probably echoed by a group of unprepared American tourists who left after five minutes.
By the time of the Albert Hall event, the orchestra’s ranks had swelled to 82 with a number of luminaries among them; Gavin Bryars was in the cellos, along with Michael Nyman (euphonium) and Brian Eno (clarinet).
There is one track featuring the Sinfonia on Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), a track which also features the very wonderfully musical yet idiosyncratic Robert Wyatt. Robert’s Rock Bottom featured Ivor Cutler who achieved fame, of a sort, when he appeared in the Beatle’s film Magical Mystery Tour.
When he was fifteen he thought, “I’m going to be a composer. I’m going to make simple but strong melodies like Drove or Schubert.” I’ve got a thing which I call my first Piano Concerto and it’s only in three lines, because I didn’t know what a concerto was. I took it to school and showed it to the music teacher and she was knocked out. It was a load of rubbish. Then I did a serious one called “Funeral Bells”, because being a humorist I’m naturally a lugubrious kind of bloke, and suicide always has a big attraction to guys like me.
When resident in London, I somehow procured Ivor’s second album, released in 1961, Who Tore Your Trousers?
And no-one, including me, was ever able to listen to both sides straight through. (Some downloads are here)