The Arts

Videogame Nation

Kraftwerk

Way back in May, when I was at Futuresonic, and Kraftwerk were due a few weeks later at the Manchester International Festival, I caught the first day of Videogame Nation at Urbis.

It was a really enjoyable exhibition, a celebration of the British gaming industry with a particularly keen eye for Mancunian and regional contributions. The Guardian posted something about it, and there are a couple of reviews I came across that are informed by a knowledge of games and gaming heritage that I lack (almost completely): National Videogames Archive and Negative Gamer.

There were timelines displayed on the way out. I was hurrying past them with Guy as Urbis shut up shop for the night and I had just a few seconds to snap what I could. From 1948 …

Videogame Nation

… to 2009,

Videogame Nation

It’s the timelines I want to keep in mind just now as I read more about the history and development of games. Other photos (uploaded back in May and then forgotten about) are here, including five more of the timelines — and these wonderful maps of Wonderland Dizzy and Fantastic Dizzy by Philip and Andrew Oliver:

Videogame Nation

Videogame Nation

Most of the images need to be viewed at large size.

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tapTap and Beatbox

A very great pleasure last Thursday lunchtime to welcome Andy Huntington to St Paul's — to talk about his work as an interaction designer and artist. Part of a strand in our talks that seeks to show how computing is now intimately involved with the creative arts as well as the sciences, Andy’s talk both explained the background to his approach and interests and gave plenty of opportunity for hands-on engagement, focusing on tapTap and Beatbox, as the pictures show.

Andy

tapTap and Beatbox

tapTap and Beatbox

tapTap and Beatbox     tapTap and Beatbox     tapTap and Beatbox

Experiencing the shared delight and pleasure in the room when tapTap left the realm of talked-about-concept and leapt into life under Andy’s hands was just great. Toy + game + interaction + music. Play and enthusiasm.

Lots of good feedback about this talk. Thanks, Andy.

We hope to be doing some follow-up, inter-disciplinary work with Andy.


Satire under the Nazis

Via the excellent Smashing Telly, Laughing With Hitler, originally on BBC Four and now on Google Video. It has its weaknesses, but if you're interested in satire you'll surely get a lot out of watching it. Much struck home — some of it amusing, plenty that was simply shocking:

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  • Werner Finck ('The bad times are over, we now have a thousand year Reich to get through'; 'How odd: it's spring, but everything is turning brown') and his club, Die Katakombe — look around the 8 minute mark.
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  • Traubert Petter and his performing chimps (c 28 minutes). The chimps were taught to give the Hitler salute (to the initial, stupid acclaim of party members — 'Even the monkeys greet us'), but then a party decree was issued banning apes from saluting the Führer. Traubert Petter was sent to serve on the Russian front (and survived).
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  • Fritz Muliar (c 32 minutes) who at 21 wrote his last will and testament, thinking he would be sentenced to death for making jokes about Hitler. Instead, he endured five years of hard labour in a penal battalion in Russia: 'I thought I would never laugh again'.

  • Robert Dorsay (c 48 minutes): opponent of the Nazis, he was betrayed by a fellow actor and was executed on 29 October, 1943, for telling jokes and making defeatist remarks.
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  • Dieter Hildebrandt (c 51/52 minutes): 'In those days you took a tiny hammer and hit a small bell and it went [loud, reverberating noise]. Today, you hit a huge bell with a huge hammer and it goes 'ping'.'

  • Fr Joseph Müller (c 52 minutes): parish priest of Groß Düngen, he was arrested (11 May, 1944) by the Gestapo. Appearing in the People's Court before Roland Freisler, he was found guilty, sentenced to the guillotine and was executed on 11 September, 1944 — for preaching Christian values and telling a joke about a dying soldier: 'Show me the people that I'm dying for', says the dying solider. A picture of Hitler and a picture of Göring are placed by him, one on each side. The soldier dies, saying, 'Now I shall die like Jesus Christ, between two criminals'.
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Frank Kermode

John Sutherland interviews Frank Kermode in today's Guardian:

Looking back over the field he has dominated for half a century, Kermode's words are unminced. Universities, he says, "are being driven by madmen". And education in general "is being run by lunatics". The recent A-level and GCSE statistics, I point out, would indicate that at one level, at least, his subject is increasingly popular. "Well," he replies, "I don't know what they call 'English' now. I can understand the attractiveness of it. But I don't hold the view that reading English is a soft option, or at least it shouldn't be. It should be a severe option, restricted to those people who are qualified to do it." … Is he suggesting that English should be re-engineered to be more in line with currently unpopular "hard" subjects - like physics? "Yes. I discovered just today, for example, that it's no longer compulsory at GCSE to take a foreign language. This seems to me to be a monstrous decision." I remind him of a staff meeting at UCL where, gloomily, he acquiesced to the administration's instruction that O-level Latin be dropped as a requisite for incoming students. "We had no choice. Latin has been getting abolished now for two generations."

In one of his recent LRB pieces he recollects a period in the 1950s when studying English literature was not just regarded as important, but as the most valuable intellectual and moral activity a civilised man or woman could pursue. What went wrong? Does he feel any personal responsibility? "I don't suppose I could claim either credit or blame for the collapse of my subject. It's partly the extinction - no, that's too strong a word - the fading of the influence of figures such as FR Leavis [the Cambridge critic]. The notion that the study of English had powerful ethical implications, powerful social implications, has gone. We just don't have it any more.

"Looking back at the study of English in universities over the years the first thing that occurs to me is how very important the subject once seemed. In America the New Criticism - a school led by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren - argued that the close study of poetry was a supremely valuable thing. This was a view that was then accepted generally. And the leading academic literary critics were, in those days, very famous people. Think, for example, of Northrop Frye. Frye's is now a name that you never hear mentioned but which was then everywhere. CS Lewis, who is now famous for fairy stories, was then famous for being a scholar. Tolkien too was famous for being a scholar, not for elves and so on. There is no prestige associated any longer with being a good critic. There are people writing now who seem to me likely to be as good as those critics I've been mentioning but they won't be as famous nor as influential. There's some very good scholarship in the subject still going on. There's also an immense amount of rubbish. …

"[Theory] attracted quite a lot of opprobrium. I never thought it should be taught to undergraduates. In those days teaching graduates what was then essentially French theory was exciting, as long as you were in control of what you were doing. I'm reminded of what Wayne C Booth (another of those once-famous critics) said: 'The really difficult thing is to understand why one has to work so hard to understand something that you do every day without the slightest difficulty' - reading a book, that is.

"I don't at all think that the time we spent on Theory was wasted. One of the great benefits of seriously reading English is you're forced to read a lot of other things. You may not have a very deep acquaintance with Hegel but you need to know something about Hegel. Or Hobbes, or Aristotle, or Roland Barthes. We're all smatterers in a way, I suppose. But a certain amount of civilisation depends on intelligent smattering".

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On Music

Armando Iannuci, speaking at the Royal Philharmonic Society awards last Tuesday, as reported in yesterday's Observer:

We need to wake up to the fact that people are now asking basic questions. Why are we musical? Why did people write symphonies? Why do we have the string quartet? They seem child-like, these questions, but they're there to provide us with the opportunity to enthuse and explain and demonstrate the answers we first stumbled upon in our musical journey and which encouraged us to make that journey in the first place. …

I think we should at all times keep trying to ask and to answer the most basic of questions about music, about the arts. What are they there for?

For me they're not there for any other reason than to remind us that, no matter where we are, whether we're learned, in prison, poor, successful, alone or average, our material circumstances are not all that we have, that we can see beyond ourselves, that we're human and are therefore dignified. That's my answer. I'm sure each of you has a different one. I just wish we all had more opportunities to express them.


Forgetting the elephant

Actually, I failed completely to see it coming. Sigh … I love street theatre and I'd have loved this (London, last weekend) — as covered in today's Observer:

This fantastic spectacle, by the French company, Royal de Luxe, was covered by Lyn Gardner over a week ago in the Guardian:

By rights it shouldn't work because, at first sight, it really isn't very much if you think a vast mechanical elephant the size of a three-storey building trundling around the streets of central London and bringing the traffic to a standstill isn't very much. The elephant is a time-travelling beast that belongs to the sultan who - accompanied by his exotic retinue - has come to our world in search of a little girl. The little girl is a puppet the size of a house. She walks, she bats her eyelashes, she pisses in the street. About the only thing she doesn't do is talk. The elephant makes up for this reticence by trumpeting so noisily that on Friday afternoon sunbathers in St James' Park, oblivious to what was going on, enquired whether there might be a circus in town.

And that, folks, is about it. What narrative there is really doesn't matter a jot. But this is much more than some grand carnival-esque procession, although it has elements of carnival. This is about the giddy pleasure of interaction as girl and elephant communicate with each other and the audience, and the audience communicates with each other. What the Sultan's Elephant represents is nothing less than an artistic occupation of the city and a reclamation of the streets for the people.

And in today's Observer, Susannah Clapp:

It was the sightings that counted: the massive tusks jutting out round the corner of Trafalgar Square; the animal sinking to his knees for a snooze in front of the Wolseley; the close-up view of his amiable wrinkled face; and the Lilliputian crew - in frockcoats and knickerbockers - who hung on cables and pulled on levers.

Flickr comes up trumps again: Royal de Luxe, Sultan's Elephant (both links are for Flickr's 'most interesting').

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Skip James

Mississippi John Hurt & Skip James, Newport Folk Festival, 1964

I'm so glad, and I am glad
I am glad, I am glad
I don't know what to do
Don't know what to do
I don't know what to do
I'm tired of weepin', tired of moanin'
Tired of groanin' for you

And I'm so glad, I am glad
I am glad, I'm glad
I'm tired of weepin', tired of moanin'
Tired of groanin' for you
And I'm so glad and I am glad
I am glad, I'm glad
I'm so tired of moanin', tired of groanin'
Tired of moanin' for you
I'm so glad, I am glad
I am glad, I'm glad
I don't know what to do
Don't know what to do
I don't know what to do
I'm so tired, indeed I am tired
I am tired

And I'm so glad, I am glad
I am glad, I'm glad
I don't know what to do
Don't know what to do
I don't know what to do
I'm tired of weepin', tired of moanin'
Tired of groanin' for you
And I'm so glad, I am glad
I am glad, I'm glad
I'm so tired, I am tired
I'm tired
I'm tired of weepin', tired of moanin'
Tired of groanin' for you
I'm so glad, I am glad
I'm glad, I'm glad
Don't know what to do
Don't know what to do
Don't know what to do

Take away Skip James' guitar playing and his unforgettable voice, and it would be surprising if these lyrics made you pause. Yet hear it … and marvel. No wonder Guy Blakeslee (Entrance) covers it, and no wonder it caught the attention of Cream way back in '66 (on the album, 'Fresh Cream'). In Wim Wenders' film, The Soul of a Man (Wim Wenders' own site has this page about it and there's some further background/detail here), part of the Martin Scorsese series, The Blues, Beck plays a cover version. (I came across coversproject.com in the course of looking up references online to James. What a good idea. I hope it sees the light of day again.)

I've read:

"I'm So Glad" was derived from a 1927 song by Art Sizemore and George A Little entitled "So Tired," which had been recorded by both Gene Austin and, as "I'm Tired of Livin' All Alone," by Lonnie Johnson. But, as James' biographer, Stephen Calt, maintains, the finished product was totally original, "one of the most extraordinary examples of fingerpicking found in guitar music." memorable tv

Memorable tv also has a good, short résumé of Skip James' life: it's not a happy story. (There's a little more detail at roadhouseblues.)  There's a long essay online about Skip James by Matt Lohr at The Blue Highway. It's at The Blue Highway that I found links to many essays about the Blues, and this map:

Matt Lohr writes (and I'll quote this at length as the argument is quite dense at this point; but there's much more to be read at the link above):

As Stephen Calt emphasizes in I'd Rather Be The Devil, James' music deviated from both the formal standards of blues and the idiosyncratic style of his native state in several ways. The most overtly atypical tool utilized by James in the creation of his sound was the "Bentonia tuning". According to Calt, James learned this tuning, which came to bear the name of his hometown, from an itinerant musician named Henry Stuckey, who had himself picked it up from black soldiers, likely from the Bahamas, whom he met while stationed in France during World War I. In "concert pitch tuning" for blues guitar, the strings are tuned in a E-A-D-G-B-E pattern, creating a natural C tonality considered "standard" by most blues musicians. When a guitar is tuned in the open-string "Bentonia" style, the resulting pattern is E-B-E-G-B-E, which, provided the G string is not raised to G sharp, creates an E minor tonality. The result of this "cross-note" tuning (a term coined by James) is an off-center sound with an unmistakably dark undercurrent, a sound that can be heard most vividly in the bottom-scraping bass notes and chilling ascending treble figures of James' "Devil Got My Woman". Though James used this tuning sparingly (only two songs from the 1931 sessions, "Devil" and "Hard Times Killing Floor Blues", were performed in this minor-key tuning), the strikingly ethereal sadness it produced is so unique within the blues repertoire that he has become inextricably associated with it. The "Bentonia tuning" is Skip's, and Skip's alone.

In addition to the E-minor melancholia of the "Bentonia tuning", James created other haunting musical effects through idiosyncratic utilization of the blues musician's more quotidian tools and techniques. In his original compositions, James forsook both the "rapping" (strumming) guitar style popular during his youth and the telltale sound of Mississippi blues, with its strangulated vocals and thumping, heavily rhythmic musical accompaniment. Instead, James developed a finger-picking style similar to that of classical guitarists, plucking the strings with his fingernails instead of thumping them with the fleshy pads of the fingers themselves and thus achieving what Giles Oakley describes as an "icy precision" by prominently isolating individual notes, rather than blending them into the rhythmic melange commonly found in Mississippi blues. This separation of notes had various effects on James' tunes: in his 1960s recording of "Hard Times Killing Floor Blues", the sparse arrangement of notes within the playing imparts a stark quality to the music that reflects the desolate lives of the characters foregrounded by the song's lyrics, while the rapid-fire 1931 recording of "I'm So Glad" achieves its considerable tension primarily because we can hear literally every note that James is whirling through in this display of instrumental virtuosity. Interestingly, there are several songs within the James repertoire, the bulk of them recorded after the rediscovery, which adhere to a more traditional style of playing. The most notable of these is "Drunken Spree", which James learned in his youth from Henry Stuckey and which he played in a style not far removed from the "rapping" fashion in which he had originally heard it performed. Rather than detracting from the power and importance of James' stylistic diversions, these more traditional tunes are in fact crucial to appreciating the singularities of the James oeurve, for they demonstrate that James possessed considerable knowledge of and facility with the more common styles of blues and folk music, and thus illustrate that the bizarre stylistic decisions that informed the creation of James' sound were not the result of blind luck or musical ignorance, but were consciously considered artistic choices …

James' disturbing guitar sound was matched, and at times surpassed, by his distinctive and bizarre style on the piano. His keyboard work is distinguished by its almost avant-garde utilization of irregularly spaced breaks, helping to create within the music a gripping fits-and-starts tension, and his 1931 piano recordings possess a heavily percussive quality thanks to his complex, syncopated foot pounding, which was picked up by the primitive recording equipment … James was also skilled at using runs, fills, crescendo, and diminuendo to create musical power within his piano pieces, whether he was performing elaborate treble-to-bass runs on "Little Cow and Calf Is Gonna Die Blues" or creating the gut-shot effect of thudding rapid-fire bullet hits on "22-20 Blues". Despite the obvious effects of these outre stylistics, James' playing is nonetheless marked by a sense of classicism which lends his pieces a certain formal sophistication. He was one of the few blues multi-instrumentalists regarded as possessing equal technical facility on both of his chosen instruments, and whereas most bluesmen used their vocals primarily as an embellishment for their instrumental work, or vice versa, James' songs, whether performed on guitar or piano, are unmatched in the synergy achieved by the music and vocals. This reinforces the "art music" feel of James' work and allows the songs to achieve a cohesive, concrete power.

James' vocals strengthen the unnerving atmospheric bedrock laid down by his instrumentation. He does not sing in the growling, raw-throated style favored by such Mississippi contemporaries as Charley Patton and Son House. Instead, James' vocals are delivered in either a pure, keening falsetto or a flat, affectless tenor, both tones almost supernatural in their melancholic detachment and both expertly complementing the chillingly pristine tone of his guitar playing. This voice, eerily ethereal even on the 1931 Yazoo sides, had become even more high-pitched and ghostly by the time of the rediscovery-era recordings; the singing on the 1960s tracks conjures nothing so much as the wailing of a tormented Deep Southern banshee. James' vocal and instrumental affectations frequently render it difficult for the listener to become involved in the music on a direct emotional level, as one does when listening to a recording by Son House or Robert Johnson. James once stated that his music should "deaden the minds" of those who heard it, and indeed, the spiky instrumental techniques and frigid, disembodied voice displayed on his recordings create in the listener feelings of disquiet that linger like unsavory thoughts long after the music has come to a close.

And there's this from pbs.org:

James developed a style quite unlike that of the Mississippi Delta near which he lived. … Few styles so efficiently convey a feeling of unease or haunted despair, making many of James' recorded performances, both in the 1920s and 1960s, some of the most harrowing in the blues, and some of the most evocative of the oppressive societal conditions in which he long lived.

PBS offers plenty of resources for the student (and teacher) of the Blues: secondary material in print and on the web; links to Blues compilation albums and films (the Scorsese cycle); links to US Blues societies. I'll be using the two essays, 'What is the Blues' and 'Understanding the 12-Bar Blues' in the classroom, and there's a raft of lesson plans that look as if they might provide some leads. There's even a lesson about Skip James (and Robert Johnson), which evidently builds upon the same material as Lohr used for his extended essay. (Discovering all of which led me to find out more about PBS — quite something — and this led me, in turn, to the European Blues Association.)

The sleeve notes to Document Records' Complete 1931 Paramount Recordings can be found on the old eyeneer site and the album is reviewed briefly here (Rambles). James' discography looks to be pretty well catalogued here. There are some Real Audio clips here. Wikipedia here.

Stephen Calt's I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues (see above) is clearly a contentious work (and a very expensive, hard to find, out of print title). Browse the net and you'll find pro and contrary views about Calt's work. Ken Ficara's review is worth looking up. (These last three links came via the skipjames.info site, which has a number of other useful links as well as further information.) I'm very late in coming to Skip James and I'd really welcome anyone who knows or cares about Skip James chipping in here with their take on him, Calt's book, the Blues …



Guy Blakeslee: influences, friends … and more (much more)

kultureflash for 6 July carried a small, pithy notice about the then-upcoming summertime gig by Entrance that I went to and wrote about here. That short notice and a brief conversation with Guy Blakeslee after the gig led me to discover a raft of new music over the summer.

When we heard him in Bristol, Guy sang a powerful, unaccompanied cover piece, 'No More, My Lord'. He'd heard it first on the Goodbye, Babylon collection — an anthology of Gospel and 'American roots music' that, he told me, has had a big impact on singers. Subsequently, I listened to that collection and now, for me, it sits alongside the Alan Lomax collections, Prison Songs — from where the eponymous Goodbye, Babylon is taken. (I came across the two Lomax CDs following a recommendation by Tom Waits.) This term, I am teaching again Morrison's Beloved and there's material on Goodbye, Babylon which will be as valuable a teaching resource as the material I already use from The Black Book that Morrison edited in 1974 ('a landmark scrapbook of hidden history', Guardian).

Simultaneously, I have been taking on board a lot of new ideas about the Blues and the development of music in the last century. I really wish I knew more about this, though. Something of the voice on the track 'Jesus is getting us ready for the great day', from Goodbye, Babylon, reminds me of Jagger's carefully fabricated transatlantic voice in 'Prodigal Son', Beggars Banquet, 1968. There are numerous other cross-references to be made: eg, 'You've Got to Move' — Goodbye, Babylon, CD 3, track 9, Emma Daniels and Mother Sally Jones — was covered by a number of artists before the Stones recorded it in 1971. (Some day soon I must read Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful and, for slightly different reasons, Evan Eisenberg's The Recording Angel. Neither book is going to throw light on the artists I'm talking about here, but both are clearly important — about music traditions in the last century and how the recording industry has shaped and influenced taste.)

There are further interviews with Guy Blakeslee at In Music We Trust and Sponic, and there's a review of Wandering Stranger in Stylus. The other big discovery of the early summer was Devendra Banhart (interviewed here by soundgenerator). I'm off the Astoria to hear him next month. My friend, Joe, tells me that DB is a mesmeric singer/performer.

To do now: listen to a lot more of Skip James, a key influence on Guy Blakeslee; find out much more about John Fahey and Revenant Records, and the Soledad Brothers (I somehow stumbled over these in the summer, too) …  I have more to post soon about DB, Vashti Bunyan, Animal Collective, Antony …  And, since the mansion is endlessly capacious, I must lay my hands on as much as I can find of Cat Power (on Matador Records) — thanks, Gabby, for the additional shove to get on and do this. And thanks to Jamie McKendrick and Archie (F) for telling me to listen to more Leadbelly (another Lomax link). Now, if it weren't for the day job …


Music like running water

John Naughton, writing in today's Observer, recalls a 2002 NYT article about David Bowie in which the musician speculated on the future of music:

'The absolute transformation of everything we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years,' he wrote, 'and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it's not going to happen. I'm fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing. Music, itself, is going to become like running water or electricity...'

If you want to read the NYT piece, you can go here and pay $3.95 for the pleasure. And it's worth reading. Alternatively, you can go here and read it for free. Or here. I find it … amusing that the NYT carries an article prophesying the end of copyright as we know it, then tries to charge you for the same article — only to find itself defeated by the power of the net.

And that's the point. As Naughton's Observer article explains, what has happened so far (mp3/compression technology, Napster/etc, iPods/etc) to change the music-as-packaged-product model for the broadcasting and entertainment industries is but

… half a revolution, because it's still [my emphasis] based on the music-as-product model. For the record industry, it has been an unqualified disaster, because millions of people aren't paying for their packages. Legal download services like Apple iTunes are beginning to mitigate the disaster, but it's not clear that even iTunes can compete with illicit file-sharing.

So what's to be done? Here's where the water analogy comes in. It's as if we lived in a world where water was only made available in Perrier bottles, so that if you want the stuff you have to buy (or steal) bottles. But in fact water is also available as a public service, piped through mains and available by turning a tap. We pay for this either via a flat tax or a charge based on how much we use, and everyone is (reasonably) happy. We have access to water whenever we need it; and the companies that provide the stuff earn reasonable revenues from providing it.

As broadband internet access becomes ubiquitous - and wireless - this model suddenly becomes feasible for music. At the moment, the only way we can have the stuff we crave is to buy or steal the product. But if we could access whatever we wanted, at any time, on payment of a levy, our need to own the packages would diminish. We could just turn on the tap, as it were, and get Beethoven or So Solid Crew on demand. Not to mention the collected works of David Bowie. And then we could give him a Brit Award for being so far ahead of the game.

Bowie's vision of the future (2012!) is wilder/more radical than Naughton's, of course.