Dystonic Dystopia

Apologies for the choppiness of the following post. It has sat in the Drafts folder for too many months, and just needs to be out there in the cyber world gathering a different type of pixellated dust than nagging me every time I log on.


At the pre-concert lecture for the third installation of the Concrete Frequency series, I was very amused to hear an anecdote of how in the early days of film, because of the way copyright worked then, photos were printed of individual stills. And these photographs survived while the nitrate-based film rotted away. And animation technology then had to be used to reanimate the individual stills. Amazing! Retro-tech…

The Concrete Frequency series was the brainchild of David Robertson, whose aim was to create a visual and aural impression of urban life. Very appropriately, my friend (who kindly chummed a P-less me) and I had a short walking tour (visual: check! aural: check! nasal: check!) of the neighbourhood before the concert, having misjudged how quickly the 10 moves on a Sunday afternoon (yes, I attended a Sunday matinée concert; I am officially OLD). Having only been in Downtown LA a handful of times in the day, it finally occurred to me how ridiculous the Angels Flight railway looks from above. I’d only seen it from near the Central Market before, and always thought it continued beyond my viewpoint from below. Something else faintly surreal was the complete lack of people outside of the WDCH, Music Centre and MOCA complex. This part of Downtown LA is completely dead outside of working hours, just like Canary Wharf and possibly every other business district in the world. It’s kind of sad when you think of the hustle and bustle around, say, the Jewelry [sic] District or even Little Tokyo. The demographic segregation is more apparent to me here than, say, Westwood, where it’s just students vs everyone else. LA is a funny little city…

The whole point of dragging myself eastwards on a Sunday afternoon was to see Concrete Frequency I, which opened with a pre-WWII urban planning film about how life in America was changing as more people moved to the cities, and when suburban living was put forth as a utopia where village life could continue in the presence of the concrete jungle. It was, to current eyes, a rather naïve view of the future, but ultimately optimistic. The film was scored by Aaron Copland, who paired busy strings and woodwinds with the speed of walking and eating in the city, and contrasted that with an idyllic soundscape to sell the idea of boys cycling to school in the country-like suburbs. I really liked what Copland did, even if it was a bit fantastical. However much of a realist I am, I still love how others can dream of a Utopia even if they know deep down that it is unattainable. There was, despite the frustration that modern life was too furious, an underlying feeling of hope in the music. Perhaps this motif is also present in other very modern works but I have been too negative to hear it.

An eclectic program, including a composition by Frank Zappa, followed. I have to confess to zoning out on Dupree’s Paradise. My attention span is somewhat like an OAP’s on a Sunday afternoon – in desperate need of a nap. Crumb’s Haunted Landscape was, unsurprisingly, an eerie piece, evoking for me the feel of a Chinese cemetery at night: not scary, but other-worldly. Nothing insightful to say about that piece either. As with Varèse’s Amérique, I was too captivated by the enormous range of percussion to pay any attention to the big picture. I noticed it was noisy, but was way too taken with the sleigh bells to care about anything else.You may despair of my phillistine nature. I don’t care; sleigh bells are my next instrument to get.

Fast forward to the end of the week, missing out the weekday pop interludes, for Concrete Frequency III, the world premiere of a music and video collaboration between Michael Gordon and Bill Morrison – Dystopia.

Dystopia opens as its name suggests, a mess of noise flying at you no time to stop for a breather all instruments are go but no one tune reigns supreme and alongside it runs a frenetic movie of the rubble from demolished buildings being sorted into piles of categorised crap by a team of face-masked workers who spend all day picking out their responsible material from the conveyor belt of rubbish. But slowly, as the piece moves on, motifs from each section of the orchestra can be discerned. The percussion plays the theme of build-up and pause of traffic flow – the typical scene on an over-crowded freeway. Archival footage showed that even as far back as the 60s, traffic jams were the norm. Not much has changed then. There was even footage of the Angels Flight railway in its heyday: ferrying people (through buildings!) to the top of Bunker Hill.

Footage of traffic coming and going on Bunker Hill, where WDCH is located in Downtown LA, was at times accompanied by a wash of flowing music. But as P pointed out, when percussion joined in, the eyes would then pick out individual cars and trucks. And instead of a constant stream, one could see punctuations. For me, this was true of Dystopia. Every now and again your senses were allowed to recover from the loudness, and you could pick out the motifs, the punctuation, the punctate bursts of chord changes more reminiscent of rock music than classical. The basses were joined by an electric bass, tying in to their role as the chord holders for the orchestra in that rock sense. This may be the first contemporary composition that I feel capable of understanding and enjoying.

…explosante-fixe… by Boulez before did not make nearly as great an impression on me, but it was, in a sense, a precursor to the start-big-end-small structure of Dystopia. It was nothing but noise to begin with, which gradually petered down to understandable snippets of memories? emotions? Glimpses of the goings on of a dimly-lit room through the flash of a camera. Or some random crap like that.

Although I am not the most enthusiastic person when it comes to modern compositions, these two concerts helped me realise that the noisy soundscapes that are more or less expected of modern composers can be enjoyable too. Critically, a glass of wine prior to listening should be consumed. Furthermore, one should derive much enjoyment and amusement from the flowery and overly intellectual description of the music in the program notes. But most importantly, one should attend the pre-concert talks, where someone knowledgable, and hopefully also possessing a sense of humour, will explain what the crap you’re about to hear is really all about.

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2 thoughts on “Dystonic Dystopia

  1. But most importantly, one should attend the pre-concert talks, where someone knowledgable, and hopefully also possessing a sense of humour, will explain what the crap you’re about to hear is really all about.

    Hell, that’s serious! Where I come from we just listen – if the music makes you happy, sad or shake your arse, it’s good.

  2. Hello Gorilla Bananas,
    You make an excellent point! I’d say that’s true for all music, but sometimes, you just want to know why it was written so. Or maybe not; depends on my mood.
    Sadly, the music did not make me want to shake my booty and even lulled me to sleep on occasion.

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