Features

What's Gaelic for 'enough, already'?

For various reasons, I decided to delay watching the Scottish referendum debate, electing instead to catch up with it on media player. It turned out to be pretty much everything I had expected and I’d be surprised if it changed anyone’s mind about how they are going to vote. The most remarkable bit of the show occurred late on in the proceedings (at one hour twenty minutes into the programme, if you’re interested). A young woman in the audience –in the context of a discussion about pensions, during which some folk had raised concerns about how independence might impact on them- put this question to the speakers:

“You’re talking about putting money towards pensions, but what’s being done for the Gaelic language? As a native speaker, I don’t feel that enough of Scotland’s money is being put towards that.”

I stared at the screen in disbelief. Was it really possible that there were people walking the earth who thought that was there was a lack of funding for Gaelic?

In the last few years, the Scottish Government has spent millions throughout the country implementing Gaelic language plans and introducing bilingual signs. I know I’m not alone in believing it absurd to have imposed these policies on the lowlands, where there has been no Gaelic heritage and where Lowland Scots has been the traditional form of speech. In fact, it’s worse than absurd; it’s an insidious form of cultural imperialism. I used to think that the 'Partick /Partaig' sign at Partick train station was the most ridiculous and pretentious use of public money that I could think of. Perhaps, I would joke, before that really useful 'Partick /Partaig' sign was erected, thousands of confused folk were mixing up Partick with Habbies Howe or Ashby-de-la-Zouch. God, it must have been chaos back then! But alas, this pointless signage is par for the course now that the SNP’s Kulturkampf is in full swing.

According to the 2011 census, there were 58,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, with the vast majority gathered in the Western Isles. Our nation has just as many folk who nominated either Polish or one of the South Asian languages as the one they used at home, but those folk don’t get their own signage or their own TV channel. Yes … about that TV channel. A report in the Scottish Review a couple of years ago estimated that the annual running costs of the BBC’s Gaelic language station ‘Alba’ were around £17m. That represented 29% of the total budget for BBC Scotland, yet it catered for only 1.1% of the Scottish population. Some of those figures were disputed, but a percentage point here or there doesn’t alter the narrative; Gaelic culture is already massively subsidised.

The Scottish Government (i.e. the taxpayer) funds the Gaelic Media Service. So keen are they to promote Gaelic that funding to this organisation was increased from £12m in 2010 to £18m in 2012. By any standards, that’s a generous hike. A few years ago, the ‘Scots Language Working Party Report’ concluded that:
"All media organisations, and all agencies in the cultural sector which receive Government funding, should be actively encouraged to develop specific Scots language policies.’"
The message couldn’t have been clearer: If you want to make publicly-funded art in Scotland, learn some Gaelic.

In addition to its regular Gaelic programmes, BBC Alba routinely covers football and rugby in what some might say is a cynical attempt to boost its viewing figures. Fans have to endure the absurd spectacle of games being described in Gaelic, but with all of the pre and post-match interviews being conducted in English, because -guess what- none of the participants speak the lingo. The BBC boast about Alba’s ‘growing’ audience, but the truth is that if a new free-to-air station called 'Nazi Stormtrooper Animal Experimentation Gold' started broadcasting live sport, it would also boost its viewing figures; those improved statistics, in that sense, are meaningless.

Anyway … back to that nice girl in the audience at the referendum debate. As I stared at the screen in bewilderment, I realised that I was experiencing a ‘Colonel Kurtz’ moment. Kurtz is a character in Francis Coppola’s 'Apocalypse Now', which tells the story of an American Army Captain (Willard) who is sent on a secret mission into the Cambodian jungle during the Vietnam war. His task is to assassinate a renegade colonel -Walt Kurtz, played brilliantly by Marlon Brando- who has completely lost the plot and set up his own kingdom in the jungle, lording it brutally over a local tribe. Willard (played by Martin Sheen) is captured by Kurtz and subjected to a number of rambling monologues about war, heroism and the nature of morality. The mad colonel, explaining his conversion to the darkside, relates a story about the US Army’s attempts to win the hearts and minds of the local population. He explains that his platoon had been sent on a mission to a local village to inoculate children against polio. The troops carried out their task but when they returned to the village a few days later, they found a bloody pile of tiny arms. The Vietcong had hacked off the limbs of every child who had been vaccinated by the hated Yankees.

"And then I realized ... like I was shot. Like I was shot with a diamond ... a diamond bullet right through my forehead. I thought, my God... the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure."

This realisation convinces Kurtz that his side are merely playing at war, while the Vietcong actually mean it. From that point, he starts to pursue his own agenda, free from the phoney moralistic constraints of the American chain of command.

“What’s being done for the Gaelic language?" said the young woman, firing that diamond bullet right into my skull. "As a native speaker, I don’t feel that enough of Scotland’s money is being put towards that.”

I saw, in that instant, a perfect, complete, honest, crystalline statement of an absolute truth. I realised, with blinding clarity, that that there is literally no amount of money that will satisfy special interest groups. None. However much money you give them, however much ground you concede, they will always want more. They are so focused on their special interest that they are unable to look at the world in the way that most of the rest of us do. They are incapable of any degree of objectivity, because every aspect of their experience has to go through the filter of that special interest.

I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with that. And I’m not saying there is anything wrong with having a Gaelic TV channel. I’m all for it, although I don’t see why it should have become the BBC’s role to help re-establish a culture through the medium of television.

All I’m saying is that the next time you hear someone from a special interest group claiming that their special interest is under-funded, remember that nice young woman in the audience. In her world, ‘more’ is never going to be ‘enough’.

The day we (nearly) won the World Cup

25 years ago, Scotland hosted the FIFA under-16 World Cup. I attended quite a few of the games with some football-loving friends, having been part of the small minority who appeared to give a damn about the tournament in the early stages. During the group phase, the authorities tried to entice fans by staging ‘double-headers’ in which the paying customers got to see two games for the price of one. Even with that incentive, those early games didn’t attract much support, with attendances at some grounds barely scraping into four figures. We were among a crowd of around 6,000 at Hampden to watch Scotland open the tournament with a dismal draw 0-0 with Ghana, but public interest started to pick up as our campaign gathered momentum. Attendance at the matches had doubled by the time we played our group decider against Bahrain at Fir Park. Bahrain, as it happens, became our second favourite team because of the stylish football they played. They had a cracking wee player (I think his name was Abdulaziz) that we particularly admired. He was ‘old school’ in the sense that he liked to run at defenders, often outwitting bigger, stronger boys with his guile and skill. He reminded us a bit of Pat Nevin, although –to his credit- he didn’t actually wear a Cocteau Twins t-shirt on the field or carry a New Order limited edition white vinyl 12-inch around with him.

As the Scots fought their way to the knock-out stages, public interest grew further still. Indeed, such was the excitement that the kick off in the semi-final at Tynecastle had to be delayed, as 30,000 punters crammed into the ground to watch our boys take on a gifted Portugese side that featured several members of their so-called ‘golden generation’, including Abel Xavier, Miguel Simao and Luis Figo (who, even then, was quite majestic on the ball). That game went as many of us had expected. The technically-gifted Portugese enjoyed most of the possession and created most of the chances, but we just knew that there was something magical in the air. Brian O’Neill scored with a header from a corner and somehow the obdurate young Scots (coached by Craig Brown and Ross Mathie) held out for a nerve-jangling, backs-to-the-wall 1-0 win. The very concept seemed difficult to absorb: a Scottish football team had qualified for the World Cup Final!

So, on the warm afternoon of 24th June 1989, 58,000 folk turned up at decrepit old Hampden to see our lads acclaimed as world champions. We travelled in hope, but also a degree of expectation. As tournament hosts, we had undoubtedly got the rub of the green a couple of times (particularly against the Portugese), but we also had a fantastic young team. This time, surely, it was going to be our turn? Ian Downie gave us an early lead before, midway through the first half, Paul Dickov added a glorious second. I can still visualise –from my standing position on the old North Terracing- his stylish chip over the Saudi goalie. We were playing brilliantly. 'They might as well give us the cup now', we all thought, 'because this is going to end up about 5-0'. Not only were we going to win this thing, but these lads were going to develop and grow and become actual world champions by 1998 or 2002. It was surely only a matter of time.

Alas, there were several things that we had failed to take into account.

There was the fact that the Saudis were dirty big cheating buggers who were all aged about 25 and were over seven feet tall. Did they feed these lads steroids with their breakfast cereal back in Saudi Arabia? There was the fact that they had already come back from two goals down earlier in the tournament and (SPOILER ALERT) had also won a penalty shoot-out.

The main thing we had overlooked, however, was a metaphysical concept that -until that point- had been way beyond our ken. As innocent lovers of the beautiful game, we had not yet come to the crushing realisation that there was an immutable law of the universe stating that Scotland fans can never, ever enjoy a triumph on the world stage. How innocent we were.

After that glorious opening spell, our lads started to wilt in the heat. In spite of the Saudis being reduced to ten men –men being the operative word- we blew that two-goal lead and ended up drawing 2-2. We even missed a penalty during the course of the game. Brian O’Neill was the player who fluffed his lines and, to rub sulphuric acid in that gaping wound, the poor lad also missed the decisive penalty in the shoot-out at the end of extra-time. “Oh, how cruel a mistress is fate!” I remember the guy next to me shouting at the time. Or maybe he shouted: “Jesus fucking Christ!” My memory plays tricks on me these days.

The Saudi lads may have taken ‘our’ cup, but for a couple of weeks, the country was under the spell of a brave, dedicated and talented bunch of young footballers. The Scotland team in that final was: Will, Bain, Beattie, Marshall, McMillan, Bollan, O'Neil, Lindsay, Downie, Dickov and McGoldrick. The used substitutes were McLaren and Murray.

Some of those lads drifted out of the game, but quite a few of them went on to have successful playing careers. But whatever happened to them, whatever jobs they are doing now, I hope they are comforted by the knowledge that, for what they achieved in the summer of 1989, they will always be heroes.

Armchair Electronica Volume 6: Synthesising Music in the 20th Century: It's a Classical Gas Gas Gas

What we are doing now is not important for itself but one day someone might be interested enough to carry things forward and create something wonderful on these foundations.

Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire’s words are revealing and prophetic. Her perspective is peculiarly British; diminishing her role to that of a footnote rather than a chapter in expectation that what comes after will be more important and pleasurable than her own significant contribution. She is like many ‘backstage artists’ in the world of electronica; deferring to the composer, identifying her role more as a technical assistant than as a collaborator. In the history of electronica it has not always been easy to define the contribution of people like Delia Derbyshire; they lack the typical benchmarks of the recording artist that we take for granted today; there is no definitive album, a memorable live performance caught on film or an unmistakable trademark playing technique that young pretenders steal and use in their own playing. When living in a world of constant technical change it is only by extending the passage of time and space that we begin to appreciate how her contribution helped us to get where we are. We also have to look and listen in other ways.

It is through acknowledging her feats of ingenuity, engineering and derring-do that we realise her importance and begin to appreciate what she achieved in arranging and recording that unique theme tune to Doctor Who (composed, lest we forget, by Ron Grainer). Without its inclusion in one of the most popular television programmes of the 20th Century it is quite possible that Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop itself would only be known to a very few; consigned to muted celebration in the halls of academia or via anecdotes from aging sound engineers in dilapidated recording studios. Instead via the marvel of sound, light and images being transmitted along wires into tens of thousands of people's homes, the public were able, as one, to experience sounds (as well as sights) from another dimension and ask the all-important question: "Is that music?"

Long before the advent of the synthesiser and digital recording capabilities, the engineer, like Delia Derbyshire, was often as significant as the composer or the performer in realising the music in terms of sound, arrangement and even performance. John Cage's Imaginary Landscape No.1 would have been premiered in 1939 with two assistants on stage operating 2 turntables at different speeds. How discomforting a sight would that have been for the average concert-goer and how significant did those 2 assistants feel their contribution was to the performance?

Like many operating at the cutting edge of recording and sound engineering both before and after Word War II Delia's significance still remains elusive and unquantifiable. Often the understanding can only come from immersion and open-minded comparison with other music made before and after. It is to her credit that she understood the transient nature of her work, perhaps aware that implicit in the development of technology is the assumption that better tools and techniques coupled with a better understanding of how to use those tools and apply them will always be available tomorrow. In knowing that perhaps she found it easier to both accept and define her role within the process of recording the music rather than by the usual standards that are applied to determining the musical quality of the end product. The importance of the process in support of music rather than the musical quality of the recording is a recurring theme in the history and development of both classical music and electronic music in the last 100 or so years.

Therein lies another recurring theme; in the realm of electronica the accepted definitions of music have been stretched to such an extreme that the term "music" can sometimes seem inadequate to explain just what is going on in the listener’s head when they experience it. What is often heard is so unlike anything that has gone before that the listener finds it impossible to know how to react; the information that their senses are picking up hits a blind spot in the brain where a receptor would normally provide a sign-post for how to respond. For some of the great originators of the past their music continues to sound unlike anything that has subsequently materialised and we continue to ponder its significance or otherwise. What was once considered noise becomes music. Who hasn't reacted to music, when our mood and sensibilities are out of kilter, as "noise"?

Imagine then: what would a folk musician, a rock ‘n’ roller, a big band leader or a renowned cellist have made of the Doctor Who theme when it first aired publicly in 1963 and at what point did its alien sounds become a part of the accepted aural furniture we call music? What type of person – a child, a critic, a composer, a musician, an impresario, an Indonesian tribesman – would have been the most receptive to its strangeness? Do we really understand even today how it was made? And even if we do understand how it was made can we explain in sufficient words why it continues to sound so different, even today? And if words fail us then is it only through the music that comes afterwards and before that we can discover the why?

In 1997 the American composer John Adams made the following statement about music:

There’s a vast synthesis happening now. All genres are beginning to collapse.

The question often posed today is whether or not we have gone too far in breaking down the walls to the point that synthesis is actually creating music that is more predictable, too safe and ultimately too synthetic for sustainable human consumption. The open-ended possibilities of electronic music when combined with a hands-on approach, as personified by Delia Derbyshire, is often why a number of contemporary artists and composers consciously use old technologies and techniques – e.g. something with a valve rather than a microchip - in an effort to pursue a musical path and mode of expression that is untainted or diminished by the homogenisation of digital equipment. They think the human/machine relationship is out of kilter, dominated too much by the latter. It is an understandable reaction but its is as old as the hills. The debate continues; the advent of the affordable synthesiser, computer and digital recording equipment has primarily helped in the proliferation of simplifying the recording process rather than adding value to the compositional and performance process. Their facility as creative tools with which humans experiment and innovate has been blunted by music’s absorption as a bauble of consumerism. By going backwards perhaps these artists hope they can rediscover new paths for going forwards, ones that were missed first time round and which elude us in the omnipresent configuration of modern technology.

If genres today have, as Adams prophesised, collapsed that process started with classical music. Today we can see and hear how advances made in electronic music have cut across all music genres. The more recent history has been more about assimilation (“synthesis”) rather than differentiation through evolution, let alone revolution. One has to go further back into the 20th Century to understand how such mass assimilation of musical genres today became possible. To co-opt Delia’s words, hindsight can help us to see how it was possible to “carry things forward and create something wonderful”.

For the greater part of the 20th Century classical music and the concepts and ideas that spun out from classical music have been more significant in developing electronic music than genres such as rock or pop. Classical music was the first genre to see its potential. Before Word war II key composers like Edgar Varese and John Cage signposted and popularised the idea of utilising electronic equipment in the composition, recording and performance of classical music.

World War II brought great advances in radio and other technologies, helping to establish magnetic tape (which before the war was losing the battle to wire and disc recording until the allies saw the advances German engineers had made) as the primary format for recording. Through the 50s and 60s the race to improve technology generated competition across the globe leading to significant investment by Britain, Germany, France and the USA to build and equip new recording studios that were capable of supporting the musical vision of musical and engineering pioneers. In turn technical improvements in how music could be recorded and played back allowed composers to advance even more radical ideas for music; the process of deconstructing music could be undertaken as much through the application of mathematics as by communication of artistic intent. It’s difficult to see how Minimalism, for example, could ever have come to the fore as the driving force of classical music in the latter half of the 20th Century without the technical advances made in the studio that were able to capture the nuances, spaces and subtleties of that particular music’s acoustics. For example the San Francisco Tape Recording Studio formed in 1962 became the base camp for Terry Riley, Morton Subotnik, Steve Reich and Pauline Oliveros offering them the kind of musical palette and brushes their ideas needed for transfer to a canvas.

Electronica in all its forms - as an instrument, as a recording technique, as a method of performance and as a method of listening - was both influenced by and an influence upon classical music, more so than any other genre. Principally this is because at the start of the 20th Century there was no other genre so well established in the modern world, both nationally and internationally; established not only in terms of public awareness but also in terms of composition, arrangement and performance. Classical music at the start of the 20th Century was highly advanced and evolved; its competition for our attention and appreciation was painting, not other music. It also came with a pre-built set of rules and, more tellingly, with a set of guide notes at each stage about how to interpret those rules; i.e. in the score and in the notes of the sheet music for each musician in the orchestra. It provided the ideal figurehead to fight against in the advancement of new ideas for music. It is often the way that when two opposing parties in a debate understand what is being demanded in the way of change that the party on the receiving end of the demands are more likely to make some kind of concession by virtue of the fact that they are still able to recognise something of themselves in the metamorphosis even if it looks ugly and sounds discordant. Electronica to classical music was The Monster to Frankenstein.

How do we learn to understand and love a monster? Often a perception engendered in the listener upon first exposure to experimental electronic music is that it is an incomplete and unresolved work in progress rather than a fully realised opus. There can be a lingering sense that putting across an idea for music was more important than the musicality of the final product. In turn, as listeners, we attune and condition ourselves to particular sounds and arrangements of sounds where often we place more significance on what we recognise rather than what is alien; the familiar is more comfortable and pleasurable to us than the unknown. All too easily we can dismiss certain sounds, noises and arrangements simply because we don’t understand them and through that lack of understanding we are pre-conditioned to reject them.

Electronica isn’t unique in this respect; many people reject other music genres for similar reasons. Perhaps it is dependent on what music you were and were not exposed to as a child, before acquiring critical faculties, comparative norms and the cognitive ability to filter through an increasingly acute and subjective collection of listening experiences. What is interesting to note is that these tensions and frictions between composer and listener are not as a consequence of electronica or of electronic instrumentation but were themes being played out on the Establishment stage of classical music in the 20th Century, with arguments about what was and wasn’t classical music being made long before any recorded versions of the music were available for the public to make up its own mind about what was and wasn’t ‘proper music’. The orchestra and the concert stage still remained the epicenter of performance and critical evaluation, accessible to the few rather than the many. Into this preexisting volatility electronic equipment and new ideas for it both acted as a trigger and a catalyst for clashes in ideas and ideology. The net result was to drag classical music kicking and screaming into the modern world.

Classical music is the first music I remember hearing as a child. My favourite was Grieg’s Peer Gynt. As a child of four I was both thrilled and terrified by In The Hall of The Mountain King and even at such a young age I can remember being affected by the sadness evoked in The Death of Ase; two vastly contrasting pieces of music in arrangement, tone and emotion but both available as part of a bigger picture that has only amplified over the years with increased familiarity rather than diminished. To this day classical is still the music I turn to if I need to hear something that articulates a strength of feeling when words fall short and that is often because it has left trace elements within me from when I first experienced it. As I’ve grown older and my tastes in music have both expanded and (im)matured I’ve consciously set about mapping connections between music for no other reason than it adds a dimension to the listening experience that helps me to share my enthusiasm with other people, helps me to understand more about what music is doing when I listen to it, those trace elements acting as my receptors. My enjoyment of electronica, particularly at the more experimental end of the spectrum, feels like a natural extension of my love for classical music; I hear sounds and ideas that can make the two genres feel like opposite sides of a split single. Arriving at such opinions is not based on academic study, I’m just a fan who is in a constant state of musical curiosity and exploration.

The history of classical music in the 20th Century is one of constant flux. Established and immutable concepts of what constituted classical music have been subjected to a near continuous process of re-evaluation, resetting and sometimes outright rejection. Up to the end of the 19th Century classical music was, for the most part, an art-form that expressed a narrow and predictable concept of music. The themes and ideas that informed classical music were well-worn and if changes did occur they were evolutionary, not revolutionary. Musical ideas and influences also tended to evolve from interpretations of high art rather than from anything so prosaic as the toil of labourer, a factor worker or a simple stroll along a riverbank. There was a fixed symmetry to classical music most ably defined by the standard chromatic scale of Western music. Against this comparatively staid backdrop much of the story of classical music in the 20th century has been about composers breaking away from “the right notes in the right order” and from the precondition that the orchestra and accomplished soloist in the most elitist of public spaces were the best modes of performance and expression of the composer’s intentions. Modernism made the perspective of the classical world seem narrow and archaic.

Richard Wagner’s “Tristan chord” is widely considered to have pre-empted the 20th Century’s fixation with breaking away from the accepted tonal hierarchies of classical music; previously there was an insistence on there being a continuous harmony to the music supporting compositional experimentation with a defined set of parameters but always progressing naturally and harmoniously to a formal closure at both a musical and a thematic level. Wagner’s famous chord suggested light and dark motifs could occupy the same space and that musical progression could go in more than one direction and not necessarily either maintain or reach a harmonious resolution. Discordance – most notable in the advent of new tones and pitches in music - is a key aesthetic in modern classical music that would eventually materialise in more aggressive forms via the twelve-tone and accompanying theories of serialiasm as advocated by Schoenberg in the 1920s. Unsurprisingly Schoenberg's ideas have been seen as a gauntlet by other composers determined to prove him wrong. To steal from Kurt Vonnegut: And so it goes.

Theories of discordance perpetuated a cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction of the chromatic scale that is still being played out today. It unleashed new compositional contexts and instructions for incorporating far-reaching variations in pitch and tone. In breaking through these barriers the conventions of classical music were loosened so radically that new sounds and ‘noises’ could easily and legitimately occupy the same listening space as those of the traditional orchestra and instrumentation. Silence became a sound, noise became a sound, the ambient environment became a sound. Such new and radical theories became central tenets to modern classical and avant-garde. Both ideologically and practically they paved the way for sounds and noises that were natural and mechanical rather than human to be incorporated into the process, from composition to performance. The problem for many years was often one of finding performers able and willing to translate and perform such radical ideas into sounds and music that properly reflected the composer’s vision. Visionary and highly respect conductors such as Leopold Stokwoski were critical in championing new ideas for classical music, having both the clout and the temperament required to make musicians play as the composer intended and to help audiences learn to appreciate the new sounds ringing in their ears by performing them in familiar surroundings. That said, people still were prepared to riot if the music was considered too offensive.

Initially the challenges to the conventions of classical music came from within. The new generation of composers such as Mahler, Satie, Debussy and Ravel rejected many of the norms and rules about how music should ‘sound’ and what it should represent or reflect. For them the personal space and the cumulative effect of the music on the individual was more important than the public space and the consensus of an audience’s approval; for them our minds and bodies became the internalised bandstand for performing their music in preference to the pomp and spectacle of the concert hall. Satie, for example, who lacked formal training and was therefore unhindered by preconceptions of composition or performance, created a form of classical music that was for the everyday, even the mundane. Debussy and Ravel explored dream states, atmospheres and romantic concepts unbound by the physical or classical world. Composers were increasingly turning away from the traditional high art influences of their predecessors and instead were absorbing the sights and sounds of their imaginations and the ‘shock of the new’.

However human intervention alone was not enough to drive through the changes that discordance and variations in tone and pitch demanded. New and experimental electronic instruments and related technologies were often the key to realising the composer’s vision. The theremin and Ondes Martenot were embraced by modern and radical composers because of their facility to play across and through the standard pitch and tone of traditional instruments. The development of the turntable and then magnetic tape provided a mechanism by which the process of composition and performance would not have to be totally reliant on human interpretation of the original score. Enlightened musicians and orchestras were willing to adapt their skills and craft in the light of these compositional, technical and mechanical developments.

In many ways it was the growing awareness of the musical possibilities of new sounds and noises - those of the urban space and of mechanisation as precipitated by industrialisation - that overturned basic concepts of what constituted music and acceptable tone and pitch. The sound of a radio, a telephone, a lathe or a motor car back firing were considered by agitators as equally legitimate sounds for interpretation as bird-song or the imagined voice of God and his heavenly choir of angels. Modernism and industrialisation also brought with it radical new political and cultural ideas most notably represented in the Italian Futurists and Russolo’s 1913 Art of Noise manifesto in which he expounded a ground-zero for classical music with its future based on modernity and violent progress rather than a continuation of musical dialogues based on a romanticised view of the past and the classic world. As a counter-point, and no less revelatory about signposting new possibilities for classical music, there were composers who sought solace from the increasingly rapid pace of change by celebrating the prosaic, the quiet spaces and a kind of pastoral nostalgia through their interpretation of folk songs, sea shanties and common prayer. Culturally many European nations were beginning to subsume sounds from the colonies of their Empires with Asian and African musical influences influencing many of the first wave of modern 20th Century composers and their aberrations of the chromatic scale. So many new influences were available but the mood of the world was one of discordance; war and confrontation were the norm and for the first half of the 20th century that mood reflected the way changes to classical music were often assessed and represented publicly. Conciliatory ideas such as fusion and synthesis needed a different kind of ideological, political and cultural environment that was not available until the latter decades of the 20th Century.

All of these influences – some violent like the Futurists', some subtle like Satie’s - were causing classical music to be deconstructed and reconstructed in often dramatically contrasting forms. At the heart of these contrasting and sometimes conflicting reactions to Modernism was an increasing acceptance by composers of individual autonomy and personal space as both a ballast against the tides of change and as a tipping-point to agitate and to precipitate change. Composers, like Paul Hindemith, would consciously deconstruct the orchestra, using new musical ideas in new and unusual arrangements of 3 or 4 instruments to accentuate the differences to the traditional musical motifs that had come before. Hindemith famously wove his music in and out of discordance and consonance using the contrast to promote his own compositional ideas. As composers became more malleable to new ideas and sounds classical music could function in ways that had previously been unexplored, as a salve and as a weapon in the prevailing atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty that came with living in an ever more modern and forward-looking world. Its scope and modes of expression were rapidly expanding; it could project doubt, humour, irony and even a conscious and wilful “fuck you”. It could reflect or generate a specific mood or atmosphere no matter how idiosyncratic, elusive or intangible it might be; an impression or a memory without a fixed source or reason for existing could be as captivating to the listener as music designed to reflect a specific event or based on a specific source of influence. However like Wagner’s Tristan chord there was no obvious resolution to what Modernism had unleashed and even today we are still living in that uncertain state as is music.

The concept of individual autonomy became a key theme in defining Modernism. It became a significant factor in shaping classical music both for the composer and the consumer. The invention of and access to affordable recorded music contributed to the changes that at times besieged classical music throughout the century. The evolution of recorded music – how it’s made and the devices that play it , from the turntable to the MP3 player – created a new audience of listeners who could break free of prescribed modes of musical experience and understanding that previously would have been the preserve of a small elite group of composers, performers, critics and devotees. Many composers, such as Aaron Copland, consciously adopted a populist perspective to their music, to take full advantage of the accumulative effect music could have on the masses; his 1942 Fanfare for the Common Man being the most obvious example. In turn a new language and basis for discussing and appreciating music was established that broke the monopoly of classical music as something for the formally trained and the affluent. The net result was that the listening experience became an ever more important influence on how music was made. No longer was it just for the grand setting of a theatre and concert hall, it was also something that could be kept and played over and over again in the comfort of one’s own home and mind. Composers increasingly became aware of the new possibilities for music that this new domestic environment created. It was liberating for many composers that they had alternatives to the concert hall to help them in their efforts to find and engage and audience with their ideas. This revolutionary approach to composition and performance would converge in musique concrète, a style that allowed music to be derived from any source and which incorporated the recording medium as an integral component of its composition and performance.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of considering such radical ideas as the preserve of a young man or woman until one considers that Edgard Varèse’s ground-breaking Poème électronique from 1958 was musically concreted at the ripe old age of 74 and was performed over a period of weeks to some 2 million visitors to the very forward-looking Brussels World Fair; for decades Varèse had worked through his ideas in various orchestral settings, waiting for technology to catch up with him and his ideas. His is a great example of how radicalism in classical music often predated the tools to express and perform those radical ideas to the satisfaction of the composer. It’s also sobering to note that arguably the most radical piece of music ever created by a composer had been consumed by more listeners in one place than any other piece of music performed before. Modernist composers were only too willing to latch onto the new popular public spaces such as World Fairs and exhibitions as a means of promoting their ideas.

The advent of film and popular cinema also created a new medium and audience for which music could be composed and arranged. In turn the genre of ‘soundtrack music’ was established; its growth and development as a musical art-form has been influenced by and an influence upon classical music and perceptions of what classical music ‘is’. Films often had a contemporary setting and therefore they required a contemporary soundtrack to accompany them. Listening to the rhythmic propulsions of a Bernard Herrmann score – 1959’s North by Northwest or even as late as 1978’s Taxi Driver – and it’s impossible not to think back to Stravinski causing a riot in 1913 with his premier of his "demanding attention with menaces" The Rites of Spring. And yes, they did riot at that one.

Movie makers, in addition to commissioning classical composers and borrowing from the existing classical music, also created opportunities for new musical forms – jazz, blues, music hall – to be used to help create the right atmosphere and in turn these genres influenced and cross-fertilised with classical music and with the choice of instruments and technologies used to play the music in the recording studio; one need only think of Anton Karas’ zither in The Third Man, Larry Adler’s harmonica in Genevieve or Samuel Hoffman’s theremin in Spellbound. Placing untypical instruments in a new environment and context helped to break down preconceptions of what classical music should sound like and with what instruments it could or should be played.

One of the most significant soundtracks and conjunction points in the world of classical and electronic music is the 1963 Oskar Sala and Remi Gassman score to Hitchcock’s The Birds. The score was created on the Mixtur-Trautonium, It used wires pressed by the finger to play a sound. Below the wire was a plate which when touched by the wire would close a circuit and send electricity to a neon-tube oscillator, producing a tone.

By the time rock ‘n’ roll and then pop and rock music came along electronica had already established itself; bands like The Beatles were able to behave like kids in a sweetshop when it came to electronic experimentation although by today's standards they were still comparatively labour-intensive. It’s interesting to note that jazz, despite being a genre noted for experimentation, resisted the temptations of electronica until the latter half of the 1960s. Perhaps, as a genre, it had been too preoccupied with breaking down other barriers and, like most other musical genres, had to wait for the technology to become more affordable. Folk seems to have been the last genre to give in to electronica and to line up behind John Adam’s prophecy of ‘no genres’.

The 1960s and 1970s continued classical music’s exploration of electronica but by this stage the computer and synthesiser were leading the way, helping composers further refine and define their ideas. Polyphonic, as opposed to monophonic, playing and arrangements were now easier to achieve; as many notes as desired could be played, as many layers of sound as wanted could be included, the extremities were seemingly boundless, limited only by human senses and imagination rather than by the capabilities of the machine. Interesting then that Minimalism should have become the major force, reflecting once again that the over-riding theme of classical music and electronica in Modernism has been the autonomy of the individual, looking within rather than without; the same can be said for the English novel.

It is also interesting how the progress of classical music and electronica mirrors the great advances of science. As classical music was being deconstructed scientists were breaking down the building blocks of life and splitting the atom. In the same way that electronica promised a new world for music science promised new worlds and places to go in the vastness of space. Today scientists are now looking in places and with techniques we can’t actually see or understand, telling us that the atom is now some kind of super-structure to be sub-divided even more where before we thought it was the smallest part of the universe. Perhaps Minimalism and the collapse of musical genres is the perfect soundtrack to that exploration of the scientifically invisible and indeterminate; mathematics, after all, is the common language of science and music. Scientists also tell us that by breaking things down even further we will be better equipped at building wonderful new things in the future. Perhaps the comparable wonderful things will be made in music; Delia Derbyshire certainly believed it.

The following Spotify list is a primer. It's by no means exhaustive and there are many absentees on Spotify. It’s consciously male-dominated because I intend writing a feature on women and electronica for a later date. There is no logical order to the tracks chosen but they hopefully reflect where classical and electronic have converged and how one has fed off the other to create new sounds and possibilities for either genre over the decades. If we continue to believe in genres that is.

http://open.spotify.com/user/ahh_bisto/playlist/20ReXI0CiOWQd0HSczpmsP

La Monte Young – For Brass
Kirsten Flagstad – Tristan und Isolde (2001 Digital Remaster), Act I: Prelude
Vladimir Ussachevsky – Metamorphosis
Igor Stravinsky – Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring): Auguries of Spring (Dances of the Young Girls)
Bernard Herrmann (conductor), MGM Studio Orchestra – Overture
The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble – Edgard Varese: Ecuatorial (1934)
Aphex Twin – Phlange Phace
Philip Jeck – Demolition
Oskar Sala – ELEKTRONISCHE IMPRESSIONEN - NR. 2
Luigi Russolo – Risveglio di una Citta - Fragment, 1977 Recording
Vlado Perlemuter – Gaspard de la Nuit: Le Gibet
Nils Frahm – Kind
Erik Satie – Gnossiennes: No. 1 - Lent
Harold Budd – Foreshadowed - 2005 Digital Remaster
Otto Luening – Low speed
Edgard Varèse – Poème Électronique
DJ Spooky – Thoughts Like Rain
Karlheinz Stockhausen With Yvar Mykashoff, Rosalind Bevan & Ole Orsted – Mantra 4
Peter Schmalfuss – La Cathédrale Engloutie
Oskar Sala – Langsames Stück Und Rondo Für Trautonium
Paula Robison – The Viola in My Life: III
James Tenney – Ergodos II (for John Cage)
Basic Channel – Quadrant Dub I Edit
Halim El-Dabh – Wire Recorder Piece
György Ligeti – Atmospheres
Charles Ives – The Unanswered Question
Paul Hindemith – Kammermusik No.6, op.46/1, for Viola d'amore & Chamber Orchestra: 1. Mässig schnell, majestätisch -
DJ Shadow – Stem/Long Stem
John Adams – Grand Pianola Music: Part IB
Arnold Schoenberg – String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30: I. Moderato
Autechre – Rotar
Iannis Xenakis – Rebonds "B"
Philip Glass – Knee 1 from Einstein on the Beach
Orbital – I Wish I Had Duck Feet
Max Mathews – The Second Law
Steve Reich – Drumming: Part IV
Terry Riley – A Rainbow In Curved Air - Instrumental
Pink Floyd – On The Run - 2011 - Remaster
Aaron Copland – Fanfare for the Common Man
Michael Nyman – An Eye For Optical Theory - 2004 Digital Remaster
µ-Ziq – Scaling
Pierre Boulez – Anthèmes 2 (1997) pour violon et dispositif électronique: 2. Rapide, dynamique - II/III Libre
Raymond Scott – Nursery Rhyme
Morton Subotnick – Silver Apples Of The Moon - Part A
Leopold Stokowski – Prelude a L'Apres-midi d'un Faune - 2000 Digital Remaster
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra – Gambling Dream / Mad Proprietors Dream / Root-Top Dreams
Jon Appleton – Zoetrope (1974)
Boards of Canada – Zoetrope
John Cage – Williams Mix
Jonathan Harvey – Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco
David Sylvian – A Brief Conversation Ending In Divorce - 2003 Digital Remaster
Heitor Villa-Lobos – Distribuicao de flores
Daphne Oram – Four Aspects
Toru Takemitsu – Star-Isle
Herbert Eimert – Klangstudies II
Arnold Schoenberg – Five Orchestral Pieces Op. 16: III. Farben (Colours) – Summer Morning By A Lake
Olivier Messiaen – Fêtes des belles eaux: 2. L'eau
Kaija Saariaho – Maa (Earth): I. Journey
Kaija Saariaho – Maa (Earth): II. Gates
Oskar Sala – The Birds Endtitles

RabTDog's picture

Trammin'

Yesterday, Edinburgh’s trams finally started running with paying passengers on board. The first tram set off at 5am and was packed with people who wanted to say, ‘I was on the first tram.’ By all accounts, it was quite a party atmosphere.
The background to the trams is all over the internet for those wishing to look – Wikipedia has a decent summary at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edinburgh_Trams – but I’m not going to rehearse all the arguments here except to say that as far as major infrastructure projects go it has been an unmitigated cock-up on the procurement, project management and implementation fronts since work started in 2008. Possibly before.
The question remains however, what’s it like to ride a tram? This morning, I went to find out. Happily for me, the city centre tram terminus at York Place is all of 1.5km from my flat so it takes very little time to walk there, get your head round the ticket machine and jump on.
Apologies if the next bit sounds like a readme file but it might be relevant for Edinburgh Afterworders or city visitors. Our one tram line runs the 14km from York Place all the way to the airport but lately I read that the airport stop wouldn’t be ready by the general start-date of 31 May. This was okay with me since the airport fare is £8 return or £5 single but go anywhere else on the tram and the fare is a flat £1.50 just like Lothian Buses. From the touchscreen machine therefore I selected a £1.50 single fare, planning to do something as wildly exciting as trundle out to a shopping centre on the western edge of the city, get a coffee, reflect on my tram experience, then trundle back again.
Having gone through most of the ticketing process the machine wouldn’t take coins – even though it should – but it did take cards so I paid my £1.50 via debit card. For those who have Lothian Buses Ridacards – like Oyster cards in London, sort of – you just validate the journey by touching the Ridacard to another machine at the tram stop.
Since I boarded before 9am on a Sunday, there were only one or two other passengers on the tram and the ticket inspector was happy to chat. Yes, the airport stop is open. Yes, I could have gone there today. Yes, if you’ve paid £1.50 you can get off anywhere except the airport. Yes, they’re being quite lenient for the first couple of weeks over ticket misunderstandings but pretty soon if you board ticketless, or haven’t validated your Ridacard – because you ran to the stop and got on just before the doors closed for instance – you will be stung for a £10 penalty fare. Then, off we went.
For the first part of the route, from York Place round into St Andrew Square, down to Princes Street, along to Shandwick Place then to Haymarket Station, it feels like you’re on a funky, smooth, spacious bus. Head for the front of the tram and the driver compartment is glass walled so if you stand there you can see the back of the driver’s head, the control panel and directly ahead through the windscreen – at night I think this would make Star Trek fans very happy.
Once the tram gets to Haymarket however, it jigs off the road and goes down beside the railway line at which point it starts to feel a lot more like a train; it gets faster too.
First stop after Haymarket is Murrayfield and there will be a definite wow factor in tramming out to the national rugby stadium on the day of a game. You can imagine the pubs around the east end of Princes Street and along Rose Street emptying of rugby fans, the stops at York Place, St Andrew Square and Princes Street being packed out and busy trams depositing nearly 250 people a time at the stadium stop.
After Murrayfield come the western suburbs, Balgreen and Saughton, then travellers get a lesson in Edinburgh economics. On the western edge of the city, service industry firms and other ventures have occupied extensive business and industrial park accommodation over the last couple of decades and more. For people who don’t actually work there – effete Leith bloggers for example – that side of Edinburgh remains a mystery but its importance jumps out at you as the tram goes past the stop at Bankhead, near the Sighthill Industrial Estate, then through stops like Edinburgh Park, Edinburgh Park Central and the Gyle, the latter with its enormous shopping centre. In that sense the tram line will be good for people commuting from the city centre to workplaces near those stops.
Whatever the administrative boundaries of the city, there are practical boundaries that mark the difference between out and in. If you’re going to the airport by bus, car or taxi for example then negotiating the Gogarburn roundabout, where the bypass meets the A8 Glasgow Road, traditionally feels like leaving Edinburgh behind. This is also the site of the fairly extensive tram depot and the line goes straight through it, allowing some sense of the project’s infrastructural spend – much more so than a train-thing moving slowly through the city centre in isolation.
Once through the depot, the head office complex of RBS has its very own stop, Gogarburn, although it is on the wrong side of the road. Handily, there’s a bridge - built near the height of Sir Fred Goodwin's hubris in 2005 – so bank staff can cross safely.
After all those contrasts – city centre, rugby stadium, suburbs, great deserts of uninspired commercial and retail architecture – you get one more. Instead of following the Glasgow Road, then cutting down the airport access road, the tram line saves distance by going directly across farmland. As it turns north from Gogarburn, crossing the actual Gogar Burn, you’re suddenly in the Hobbit: grass growing between the tracks, no tarmac and surrounded by fields. It’s surreal. Then it heads more directly west again, speeds up and gets to the stop at Ingliston Park and Ride – the last before the airport – which is as far as my ticket would take me today. This is around a 1.5km walk across the big car park, down the access road and across the airport car parking to the terminal building: door to door, my flat to airport mostly on a tram but with an aggregate 3km walk, for £1.50.
The one thing Edinburgh Airport needs right now is a groundside coffee shop with a view of the runways. I had to content myself with a branch of tax-dodgers Caffè Nero that had all the ambience of a galley on a submarine. I didn’t linger. It’s also good to report that given tram-sceptic chatter about the airport tram stop being a taxi ride from the terminal building, it’s not. Even the most hard-hearted anti-trammer wouid have to concede that the stop is indeed at the airport. The ticket machines at this stop accepted coins, I paid £5 for a single back to York Place – the machines don’t accept notes – and just over half an hour later I was back where I started.
As we passed through the stops on the way into the city it was noticeable that kids on the platform, out for the morning with parents or grandparents, were waving at the driver, smiling; shoppers got on at the Gyle; tourists actually got on at the airport and used the tram instead of the airport bus. If I was to stick my neck out, I’d say there was an aura of municipal pride about the whole enterprise, despite all the problems.
One middle-aged couple from the USA who hopped on at the airport were deciding whether to sit facing forward, or not, by a window, or not, and I felt like gabbling at them, wild-eyed, ‘Don’t you know this tram only started running yesterday? Do you know how much grief it has caused in this city in the last six years? No, no you don’t. You just arrive, think it’s really cool and take it for granted!
‘Did you ever experience the airport bus, cramped, slow and stuck in a traffic jam at Corstorphine? Especially after your flight north from Gatwick had been delayed by three hours? No you did not! You. Just. Get. To. Enjoy. It. But I know how much better this is. Oh yes. Mwaah ha ha, I know…’
I resisted the urge to gabble and left them in peace to stare out the window, facing forwards.
Rugby fans will go to Murrayfield, shoppers will go to the Gyle, commuters will go to Edinburgh Park and Gogarburn, travellers will go to the airport. After all the hassle, first impressions – notoriously unreliable – suggest a transport link that might actually work. Now all that has to happen is extend it into an actual city-wide tram system rather than a line than goes from A to B to A again.

Top of the Pops, 24th May 1979: Rise of the Machines

Watching re-runs of old editions of Top of the Pops reminds me that the show could be exciting, tedious, brilliant and stupid, often within the space of forty infuriating minutes. Whichever week of whichever year you’d care to drop into, you’ll find that the charts were pretty mediocre, with sometimes only the occasional gem sparkling among heaps of anodyne rubbish. On a bad week, Top of the Pops could make you feel that the music business existed just to rub your nose in the futility of existence. On other occasions, the stars would align and the tastes of Joe and Josephine Public might roughly coincide with yours. Then you could allow yourself to believe that everything in the world was good and that pop music was a truly wonderful thing.

Once in a lifetime, you might win the lottery and encounter an episode that so faithfully reflects your musical worldview that you’ll be tempted to think that the producer had rifled through your record collection and opted to share your exquisite taste with the nation. This happened to me one evening, late in May 1979. An episode of Top of the Pops (shown recently on BBC4) featured Roxy Music, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Blondie, ELO, The Skids and a ‘new’ act that had already exerted a powerful grip on my musical imagination. I loved all of those named artists, but the new act that night – Tubeway Army, led by Gary Numan- somehow felt like ‘my’ discovery.

I had heard Tubeway Army for the first time a couple of months previously, while listening late one night to John Peel’s show on BBC Radio. Sitting in a corner of our living room with the headphones at ear-damaging volume, I would have been hoping that the show would throw up something interesting. John Peel played stuff you wouldn’t hear anywhere else and -if you could abide the default setting of 'indie bloke' freemasonry- you could usually expect to find some excellent music in among the (often deservedly) obscure flotsam and jetsam. Midway through what had been an average middle-of-the-week show, he played a track called 'Down in the Park' and duly transformed my musical world. It was a menacingly atmospheric, yet hauntingly beautiful slice of electronic pop and I hadn’t heard anything quite like it.

I couldn’t quite grasp all of the detail, but I knew that the song told a story. The lyrics seemed far removed from the bog standard new wave fare, painting a nightmarish scene in which the park was not a place for the local folk to gather and enjoy the scenery; it was, instead, part of a minatory landscape in which killers, government agents and ‘rape machines’ roamed, brutalising a cowed populace. At the end of the track, Peel said something like: "Blimey … that sounds like a Pink Floyd for the 1980s". He was wrong about the Pink Floyd bit, but absolutely right about the ‘blimey’. To a lonely teenager imagining himself at the centre of an alienated and hostile universe, Gary Numan really hit the sweet spot.

That weekend, I hunted down the 'Replicas' album and quickly became absorbed in its dystopian and decadent fantasies. It appeared to be a concept album set ten minutes into a totalitarian future in which population control was maintained by government surveillance agents, people had relationships with synthetic humans and the city was patrolled by thought police and sinister assassins in trench coats. Numan’s musical schtick was part-Bowie (particularly the Low album) part Kraftwerk, part Brian Eno, with maybe a little dollop of early Ultravox thrown into the mix.
Lyrically, it was clear that he was heavily influenced by the paranoid, hallucinatory writings of Philip K Dick, William Burroughs and –to a lesser extent- JG Ballard. For a young reader who was devouring dystopian science fiction by the bucketload, this album seemed like a perfect reflection of my view that the world was on the verge of forming a strange and unsettling relationship with burgeoning technology. Whatever was going to happen, I just knew it would involve synthetic humans, sinister government conspiracies and androgynous young guys in make-up, playing synthesisers.

Utterly mesmerised, it was the first time that I was aware that an artist’s image might be almost as important as the music. Numan had perfected an androgynous robot stormtrooper look (no doubt heavily influenced by Kraftwerk) and it made him stand out a mile in an era when most new wave bands made little concession to ‘image’, beyond wearing drainpipe jeans and perhaps a skinny tie. On that iconic 'Replicas' sleeve, Numan looks fantastic: dyed blond hair, kohl eyeliner, black nail varnish, black shirt, tie and trousers. With respect to the Replicas narrative, the cover shot is ambiguous; it’s not clear whether the guy in the room is a victim or a victimiser. Why is he dressed like that? Is he one of us, or is he one of those 'machmen'? Is he a government agent or maybe one of those synthetic humans working in the sex trade? What’s going on in the park outside his window? How come the ‘reflection’ in the window has his hands clasped together while the person in the room hasn’t?

As a growing army of teenaged Numanoids wrestled with these questions, the prosaic reality gradually emerged over the next couple of years as Gary went on to become a massive pop star. We discovered that he was actually just a shy young man (diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome) who had managed to articulate and brilliantly exploit his melancholic fantasies about alienation and androids. He was just a 21-year old kid from Slough who didn’t know much about anything. Jesus, he even admitted to voting Tory in an interview. If he’d been more worldly wise, he’d have known that that is an unforgivable sin in the right-on world of rock journalism. Needless to say, he was pilloried for years on the back of it and his relationship with the press quickly declined from ‘curious’ to ‘bad’ to ‘catastrophic’.

In spite of the various press maulings, it’s probably fair to say that Numan has had the last laugh. Two decades after it first appeared on Top of the Pops, Are ‘friends’ electric? was brilliantly re-imagined by the Sugababes for their number one hit 'Freak like Me'. He has enjoyed a recent upturn in commercial and critical fortunes and his music has been cited as a powerful influence by the likes of Basement Jaxx, Armand Van Helden, Foo Fighters, Afrika Bambaataa, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.

By the time Are ‘friends’ electric? had made it onto that edition of Top of the Pops in May 1979, I was already boring my friends rigid with my ridiculous zeal for Gary Numan’s music. My ‘discovery’ of this weird and wonderful artist allowed me to feel quite smug as his song made its steady way to the summit of the charts over a six-week period, progress which –by today’s standards- seems positively glacial.

During that time, the synthesiser was transformed from being a 'progressive rock’ instrument played by classically-trained bearded blokes in capes into something quite sexy, sitting right at the epicentre of pop culture. And, without anything resembling a recognisable chorus, a strange song about a robot prostitute topped the charts for four incredible weeks. I’ll always love Gary Numan for that.

In the words of the song: “You see, it meant everything to me.”

Armchair Electronica Volume 5: A Proustian Rush and a Push and The Landscape is Ours

I switch on the animus.

I remember the day Robbie showed me how to time travel though he called it something different. I was in the garden lying on a rug in the hidden place where they could not see me from The House and I, thankfully, could not see them. Back then it was when I was alone that I did not feel lonely. Robbie understood this; only he knew how to be with me and not upset me. He was sensitive to these things as was the way in those days before the growing up.

Even when hidden I could sense The House was very close. I turned over onto my side and looked back up the garden. From my vantage point and prostrate position I could see both under the intervening low hanging branches of the trees and over the tops of the shrubs and flowers, through to the arbour gate; the portal that separated my life from theirs. It remains my favourite perspective even to this day. A sprawling clematis grew around the arch of the wooden frame and was now in full bloom, the tangled wire-frame of its flowers, stems and leaves providing additional cover from unwelcome eyes and ears.

The arbour gate swung open and Robbie appeared. His expression was blank. He stood under the arbour's arch and scanned the garden, then he slowly crouched down and sat on his haunches. He smiled and I knew then that he was pretending not to have spotted me. I was annoyed. I didn't want Robbie to play these types of games with me. I wasn't a little girl anymore. I coughed loudly to alert him that I was aware of his presence and to display my irritation. I turned onto my other side, closed my eyes and waited for him to approach.

"Hello."

I didn't answer him.

"Do you know what memory is?"

I sat up and looked at him. He was still smiling but his eyes were now scanning my face, checking my expression before eventually settling on my own eyes. I understood that he was trying to see into me, to gauge whether I was ready to hear what he had to say.

"That's a stupid question. Of course I do."

He sat down next to me on the rug and looked ahead. He sighed deeply and then whispered:

"Would you like to meet your mother?"

"My mother is dead." I whispered back, feeling slightly queasy.

"But would you like to meet her?" he persisted.

"Yes" I think I said, or maybe I just thought it. 1.761.891.73

Robbie activated his animus and a small keyboard appeared on his lap. A rainbow of lights hovered above the keyboard and the air shimmered around its colours. Sometimes a colour would come into sharp focus but then it would blur and disappear into the background as another colour became prominent in the foreground. At other times the rainbow twitched in the air and morphed into a ridged metallic strip composed of many shades of verdigris and grey monochrome; like a piece of weathered corrugated iron that has been worked one last time by human hand, its ridges repeatedly hammered until crudely flat. At the same moment as the rainbow switched to this long indented metal plate a crackling sound and something like the voice of a broken doll discharged from the keyboard.

"What is that?" I asked Robbie with a voice that I hoped didn't sound either too scared or too naive.

"Some might call it a trompe l'oeil but it is in fact your memory box." He stared at me and his face became serious."Where would you like to meet your mother? Here in the garden, in The House or...?" he asked.

"At The Scarp" I interruped him. I was excited now. I looked at him imploringly, "Please. Can I meet her at The Scarp?"

Robbie smiled again.

"Of course, that is such a beautiful place. I didn't know you had been there."

"I haven't." I answered abruptly and sensed that I should explain myself to him. "I just know it from books I've read in The House; her books and those written by others. I also saw it briefly in a film my uncle showed me last summer. You weren't here. It was the day you crossed the train tracks. Uncle put on the film and from behind the projector he told me what the images meant. He was like a narrator; it was strange the way he spoke, as if his voice was part of the film but at the same time it seemed as if his voice was inside my head and nowhere else. He said that my mother had found The Scarp by accident when she had been on one of her special walks, the ones where she left her animus in The House so no one could find her."

As I spoke the rainbow and keyboard seemed to freeze momentarily and the air around them became even more distorted. Robbie placed his fingers on the keyboard and told me to close my eyes.

I am walking across a moorland towards The Scarp. It is early morning but already I can feel the heat of the sun even as I feel the cooling dampness of the dew around my lower legs. I can see my mother in the distance, motionless but not lifeless. She has her back to me and I know instinctively that she is standing at the very highest and sharpest edge of The Scarp. I will be with her soon. I want to run but looking down I see that the heather around my feet is insistant I walk. I look back up at her and am about to call to her when she turns around. I see her face and stop walking. She is looking at me but there is something wrong with her expression. She starts shouting at me. At first I can't hear what she is saying so I start to walk again. My legs are getting colder and wetter. I look down and see that there is shallow water where the heather used to be. I can run to her now. I am getting nearer. As I approach more swiftly I can hear her voice. She is screaming at me.

"Go back child, go back. Oh my God. Go back."

I stop but realise as soon as I do so that the sudden absence of movement is not voluntary. I cannot move even if I wanted to. My legs are numb from the cold. I look down one last time and see that the shallow water has given way to a muddy pond into which I am sinking. I look up at my mother and cry out: to her, for her. The air shimmers between us and I realise there is no sun, only grey clouds. She has turned away and once again stands motionless on the edge of The Scarp.

http://open.spotify.com/user/ahh_bisto/playlist/00LTCAaKQ9IKSqhWtRo0QP

Hallock Hill – Villages of the Black Earth
Hong Kong In The 60s – Empty House, Lonely Mouse
Anna Meredith – Rhododendron
Björk – Hidden Place
Múm – Green Green Grass Of Tunnel
The House In the Woods – Bucolica
Epic45 – We Grew Up Playing In The Fields Of England
July Skies – Distant Showers Sweep Across Norfolk Schools
Jane Weaver With Demdike Stare – Europium Alluminate
Langham Research Centre/John Cage – 4'33 No. 2
Leyland Kirby – Polaroid
Belbury Poly – Portals and Parallels
Minotaur Shock – The Downs
Ekoplekz – Outercountry
Boards of Canada – In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country
China Crisis – Jean Walks In Fresh Fields
King Of Woolworths – Kite Hill
The Advisory Circle – Here! In The Wychwoods
Kemper Norton – Windwept
William Basinski – Melancholia I
The Lowland Hundred – The Bruised Hill
The Memory Band – Facing the Granite Country
These New Puritans – Field of Reeds
Ariel Pink – Cemetary Suite
Black Mountain Transmitter – Drawn In Silhouette
John Cage – In a Landscape
Harold Budd And Brian Eno – Wind In Lonely Fences
XTC – Chalkhills And Children

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Barclay, Desmond, Lebedev, Murdoch & Rothermere

Passing thought
Our political system is dysfunctional: centralised, unrepresentative, seen as corrupt, not trusted, a means for senior politicians and public servants to attach themselves to major corporations, in thrall to and partially created by the media. It’s also legitimised by our media. Media ownership is therefore important, as are editorial standards and editorial norms. Partisanship, balance. So I was wondering who owned the media these days, how concentrated that ownership is.

Newspapers
Look at the world of print and the latest ABC figures and the ownership situation is grim. The top ten paid-for dailies, in order, are the Sun (2.07m), Daily Mail (1.71m), Mirror (960k), Daily Telegraph (520k), Daily Express (490k), Daily Star (480k), Times (390k), i (290k), FT (230k) and the Guardian (just 190k). The big version of the Independent sells barely 60,000 these days – and I’ve excluded Scottish titles given they have no purchase south of the border. The figures are rounded but they still give you the gist.
As for Sundays: Sun on Sunday (1.67m), Mail on Sunday (1.56m), Sunday Mirror (930k), Sunday Times (840k), Sunday Telegraph (420k), Sunday Express (420k), the People (370k), the Star (290k), Observer (210k), Indie on Sunday (100k).
The precise nature of ownership, or influence, could be spelled out with the procession of publishing companies and subsidiaries but I’ll spare you the details. In essence, there is a tiny group of very influential individuals that owns a significant chunk of the UK press – or they have a controlling interest or influence over the public companies that own the publishing companies that publish the things we buy at the newsagent. This has been known for a long time of course – this post simply updates the facts.
The central players are Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch (Sun, Sun on Sunday, Times, Sunday Times), the 4th Viscount Rothermere (Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, a near quarter share in the London Evening Standard, the Metro free paper), David and Frederick Barclay (Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph), Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev (nearly three-quarter share in the Evening Standard, i, Independent, Independent on Sunday) and Richard Desmond (Daily Express, Sunday Express, Daily Star, Daily Star Sunday) although it was recently reported that Desmond might be selling some titles.
It’s actually easier to ask if there is anyone or any organisation in the top ten who isn’t called Barclay, Desmond, Lebedev, Murdoch or Rothermere – and there is. The Scott Trust owns the Guardian and Observer; Trinity Mirror owns the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, the People, the Daily Record and Sunday Mail north of the border, also a whole host of local papers throughout the UK.

Online
It is important to bring some balance into this description of media ownership. Going by print alone the conservative voice dominates, almost overwhelmingly so. Introduce newspapers’ efforts online and the picture changes a little. Figures I found from the UK Press Gazette from summer 2013 say the real heavyweights online, in order, are: Guardian/Observer, Mail/Mail on Sunday, Telegraph/Sunday Telegraph, Mirror/Sunday Mirror/People, Independent/Independent on Sunday, Sun/Sun on Sunday.
This allowed the UK Press Gazette to come up with a combined figure – print plus online – for the UK’s biggest media organisations of this type. That leaves the Sun/Sun on Sunday on top (the Murdochs), then the Mail/Mail on Sunday (Rothermere), free paper Metro in third (Rothermere again), the Mirror/Sunday Mirror/People (Trinity Mirror), the online figures boosting the Guardian/Observer into fifth (Scott Trust), Telegraph/Sunday Telegraph (Barclays), Times/Sunday Times (Murdochs again), the London Evening Standard (Lebedevs-Rothermere co-ownership), Independent/Independent on Sunday (Lebedevs again) and the Daily Express/Sunday Express (Desmond). So that’s slightly better for the Guardian and Observer, and Trinity Mirror is still a vital player, but the same right-of-centre names keep cropping up and this doesn’t even take into account some key cross-media ownerships for the likes of Desmond or the Murdochs.

The conspiratorial space alien lizard people control what we think
Well, up to a point Lord Copper. If the only source of news in the UK was newspapers, or their online versions, then we’d be in trouble – or at least only ever informed by a process that fits the commercial interests of the Barclays, Desmond, Lebedevs, Murdochs, Rothermere and, fair enough, Trinity Mirror. (The Scott Trust is a special case as it was set up to guarantee the editorial and financial independence of the Guardian.) But where do people actually get their news? Mostly, the television.
I looked at BARB figures from the end of last month – lists of top 30 programmes by channel – and easily the most-watched news programmes were the regular ones on BBC1 usually attracting more than 4 million viewers and sometimes more than 5 million. By comparison, the main ITV news was getting somewhere in the region of 3-4 million viewers, dipping below 3 million sometimes. I did hunt for the Sky News figure but that didn’t even seem to feature in any top 30, not even ‘Others’ which had everything from Liverpool v Chelsea (Sky Sports 1, 2.7 million) to Family Guy (BBC3, 800k). Either I’m making a real error here or Sky News audience figures aren’t that great.
However, the television news figures do make newspaper circulation figures look rather weedy. Yes, the Sun and the Daily Mail sell loads, yes their online versions are important, but nothing quite has the clout of the BBC1 news at 6pm or 10pm, or the ITV news at 6.30pm and 10pm.
Then you have to think about BBC radio, local radio and local newspapers. La Cinque Famiglie may have a big say in what we read, they can set agendas, but there are alternatives. If you venture wider than these islands, you start to realise how important these alternatives are.

Chinatown – yes I got distracted
The BBC online is remarkable and no other media organisation in the UK comes remotely close. When you’re thinking about news in the era of the internet, then simple ownership of UK-specific newspapers and websites is all very well, very important in the UK, but it’s not hard to access foreign television, radio and internet feeds so I was wondering who had global reach. What are the biggest international news websites? Handily Wikipedia has a page with the 100 most popular websites ranked by Alexa Internet which is owned by Amazon and specialises in web traffic and ranking.
The top few sites are much as you would expect with the top three as at February 2014 said to be Google, Facebook and YouTube. Look down the top 100 searching for sites specifically dedicated to news, in a loose sense, and you get Sina Corp at 11, MSN at 31, the BBC at 54, Ifeng News at 66, AOL at 69, CNN at 71, ESPN at 78 with sports news and the Huffington Post at 84.
A brief click through to Shanghai-based Sina Corp suggests it’s currently in trouble with the Chinese government because 20 articles and four videos with “pornographic and lewd content” were found recently somewhere online for which it was deemed responsible. It won’t be closed down though, simply curtailed.
There are fuzzy boundaries when talking about news and media in this environment. YouTube isn’t a news site as such but the BBC publishes content there. Meanwhile Sina Corp is all about infotainment and the Chinese equivalent of Twitter so it’s hardly bold, independent reportage from the land of the free. Generally however, it was salutary to find that the internet’s biggest newsy presence was a Chinese language venture that I’d never heard of, that MSN ranks significantly higher than the BBC, or that the Huffington Post has more global presence online than our own looming, agenda-setting Daily Mail. Told you I got distracted.

It’s about the independence referendum of course
The real reason I was looking into all this was an internal meander about how media ownership, or influence, interplays with the British non-constitution, the dysfunction at Westminster and first past the post. I didn’t get anywhere near working that out, for the moment, because I got so sidetracked by the facts and figures.
If we take my bien-pensantism (hello Lando!) out of the picture and look at where the national debate is reflected back to the people, in terms of news and analysis, then it’s certainly the BBC and ITV – driven by notions of objectivity and balance, in context – but also in print and online publications owned, or directed, by very few people. If it wasn’t for Trinity Mirror and the online success of the Guardian/Observer – honorable mention for the Independent here too – then pretty much everything in print and online that went UK-wide, or the dominant numbers at least, would be actively conservative in thought and deed. Given a gathering disenchantment with politics that’s manifesting itself in simple solutions to complex problems (Scotland, let’s bugger off and sort ourselves out, Westminster’s beyond help; UKIP, expel the foreigns and we’ll all live happily ever after) then a media conservatism that simply wants to see the right people in Number 10 just isn’t helping.
As an aside, it’s interesting that no mainstream paper in Scotland has come out as pro-independence until a few days ago when the Herald declared for Yes. Then again, Scotland’s traditional heavyweight broadsheets (the Herald from Glasgow, the Scotsman from Edinburgh) are shedding readers at such a catastrophic rate that this could be seen as a last, desperate bid to find a readership before it hits the wall. It no longer has anything to lose where La Cinque Famiglie probably do, not least influence and advertising sales. And that’s probably enough for now…

Armchair Electronica Volume 4: The Phantom in The Studio - The Musical Life of Brian Eno in the 1970s

Not long before being subsumed by Record Mirror the weekly music magazine Disc published a glowing review of Quiet Sun's album Mainstream in which it referred to Brian Eno's participation as "the phantom of the studio". Quiet Sun featured Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera but as a going concern had disbanded in '72 when the guitarist made Roxy his main priority. Three years on the original Quiet Sun 4-piece line-up had reconvened but now had an additional member in the form of the "phantom" Brian Eno, once again bringing something to the party, receiving a credit for doing something in the studio but leaving many outside observers at the time unsure of what that something was beyond the obvious: the weird and exotic sounds emanating from his ECM VCS3.

1975 was another busy year for Eno. Alongside numerous collaborative and contributory roles as a producer, musician, writer and "phantom flaneur" that year also saw the release of his third solo album, Another Green World and his first fully conceived ambient album, Discreet Music. The latter was the third release on Obscure Records, the label he'd founded in 1975 as an outlet for music by artists unable to convince major labels that there was an audience for their output, principally because of its hard-to-categorise form. In other words artists and music right up Eno's street: a man at his most content when not being pigeon-holed and with perpetuating music equally enigmatic that stubbornly refused to be bracketed under the reductive labels of pop, rock, classical, jazz or even avant-garde. For the Eno of the 1970s vast swathes of the pop, rock and prog scenes were playing out variations and end games on well worn themes rather than creating new ideas and paths for musical exploration. Eno stubbornly wanted to avoid such cul-de-sacs and create something different that could, in time, be equally rewarding, popular and familiar.

By the time Obscure Records had folded in 1978 only 10 albums had been released; a small drop in the ocean but with original works by Michael Nyman (his debut release, Decay Music), Gavin Bryars, John Cage, Max Eastley, David Toop, Harold Budd and The Penguin Cafe Orchestra as well as Eno himself its ripples continue to permeate and inform music today. With hindsight the cumulative effect of the strange and experimental musical sounds that emanated from Obscure Records' releases has been to make them very familar to our understanding and perception of a modern world constantly in a state of transformation by advances in technology; often making what once seemed alien and futuristic become prosaic and tangible and an integral part of our sensory acclimatisation and sonic furniture. Via his own and commissioned recordings Eno was walking in Satie's footsteps across all our living room floors.

I don't believe it's possible to fully appreciate Eno's role and significance in music if he's judged solely by the quality of his solo output, whatever generic or experimental form it takes. His legacy as a recording artist is assured but his benefaction and significance goes far beyond his own recorded contributions in categories such as rock, electronica and ambient. Familiarising myself over the years with his modus operandi and with his collaborative ventures, particularly those he explored through the 1970s, has heightened my awareness, my understanding and my appreciation for both his music and for music in general. He has shaped an understanding of what constitutes popular music that is less dependent on its commercial value or critical merit but on its ubiquitousness and its cumulative effect on how I listen rather than to what I listen. Via Eno's influence and vicarious instruction I have found ways into music that otherwise would have seemed impenetrable or beyond me.

For some people the idea that you have to "think" about music before you can "feel" it is an anathema. This is a particularly prevalent attitude towards experimental, avant garde and electronic music ("too cold and artificial"). If it doesn't make you dance, elicit a tear or a whoop of joy from the get go then what's the point? If you have to learn it to appreciate it then it's surely missing the point of music, isn't it? My take is simple: it would indeed be a dull and sterile world if all we did was listen to Brian Eno music but it would be an even duller one if we didn't use music - as Eno has popularised for the past 40+ years - as a method of expressing and projecting our intellect as well as our sentiment. Music is a wonderful tool for sharing both emotions and ideas but we risk depreciating its glory and its capacity to enthrall, to invent new sounds and new experiences, both emotional and intellectual, if we insist on it only having a facility to make our heart beat faster, to tap our toes and to create hummable tunes. After all that's where Brian Eno started out: making hit records that people could dance and hum along to.

Brian Eno's '71-'73 stint in Roxy (or simply 'Eno' as he was identfified on their first three albums) propelled him from his chosen career path as an art school teacher and into the homes of millions of Top of the Pops viewers. His appearance and performances allowed the masses to firmly and intractably identify electronica with rock 'n' roll even as his geeky glam look and flamboyant dress sense also allowed certain quarters of the vox populi to take exception to his camp and pretentious demeanour. As one of a collective of misfits he'd managed to set himself apart in an art-rock band that was rapidly creating a schism between the rock 'n' roll of yesteryear and the rock 'n' roll of tomorrow. The individual aesthetic of each Roxy band member's look and vibe was a conscious and deliberate one initiated by Ferry but Eno still stood out like a sore thumb and as a whole different level of different; like Bowie not only was he an alien he was also a time traveller from the future. Despite his outwardly effete and haughty appearance never doubt that Eno was fully fledged rock 'n' roll when he needed to be: just listen to his solo on arguably Roxy's most propulsive, heads down track Editions of You. I'm sure Graham Coxon based all his post Brit Pop Blur guitar solos on Eno's knob twiddling contribution to that song. The phantom of the studio was very much of the flesh during his Roxy tenure and would be again on his early solo albums.

Rock 'n' roller is just one of many modes of expression Eno has tried on for size. His lack of formal instruction in music meant he could participate in a manner that was unbound by convention or conventional expectations of what his musical contribution must be. In fact he actively disliked such formal and rigid notions of roles. A guitar only needs to sound like a guitar if you want people to perceive you simply as a guitarist. Small wonder Eno found such interest in Robert Fripp's as well as Phil Manzanera's facility to make the guitar sound like something else. Eno's own beloved ECM VCS3 - his first substantial piece of electronic equipment - allowed him to freak out to his heart's content, unrestricted by anything so formulaic as 4, 6 and 12 strings or even a keyboard. Just lots of knobs and filters and phasers making weird noises coupled with a teenage boy's desire to show off and be noticed: a new type of archetypal rock 'n' roller who made picking up no instrument whatsoever a legitimate entry pass for any kid from now on who wanted to form or join a band. How punk rock electronica could be in Eno's hands as post-punk re-discovered in the late 70s and early 80s.

More acutely in terms of his wider contribution to music Eno's Roxy 'n' Rolly phase really was just that: a phase. Being in a gang had allowed him to indulge his own teenage bedroom fantasies but his ambitions lay in expressing something either side of that impressionable age bracket: adopting a child-like openmindedness to pursuing an adult-oriented musical agenda. His background and education perpetuated an interest in observing and creating musical experiences with the artist's eye rather than with the musician's and for following artistic intuition rather than compositional rules, rhymes and reasoning. Instruments to him were to be used like brushes; impasto for punchy boldness and urgency with unceasing rhythm and movement (cf. Third Uncle); sfumato to allow light and colour to coexist in a warm haze (cf. Spider and I).

Throughout the 70s Eno's approach and personal musical development came from deriving and refining techniques associated with art and to applying methods from artforms other than music, either in his role as a composer and perfomer in his own right or as a collaborator and studio mentor to other musicians. Eno's growing confidence in the results of his methods meant he could survive being kicked out of Roxy and continue to project his ego in many and varied ways to influence those around him, particularly those he admired for their own virtuosity and willingness to experiment. His lack of competence on an instrument also meant he didn't need the adoration or peer respect for his contributions in the same way other musicians did. For him the process was the reward rather than the outcome.This unique and idiosyncratic approach allowed Eno to be flexible, to operate both within and without defined roles in the studio. In other words he was as comfortable in the guise of official band member or credited producer as he was in the guise of phantom, enossifier or "direct inject anti-jazz ray gun operator" as Robert Wyatt credited him on his album Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard (1975 yet again!).

Wyatt's credit, while jokey in tone, was still illuminating. When Bowie and Eno came together again for 1995's Outside album The Dame gave an insight into what Eno brought to the table by outlining one of his influential and most enduring contributions to the late 70's Berlin Trilogy. At the start of each day's studio session Eno would set daily tasks for Bowie and the band to undertake to help them in the music-making process, partly as formal documentation of Eno's role as the collaborative agitator and contributor but primarily to ensure the band simply didn't just sit around and jam all day in the hope of uncovering a musical nugget. Eno knew instinctively that the group would collectively fall into bad habits and end up playing some kind of Blues riff if left to their own devices. Eno's prescriptive interference ensured the collective musical consciousness didn't gravitate towards the safe and predictable. Eno then and now continues to be the Socrates-like gadfly determined to make musicians think and act differently in the hope and expectation that it will set them on a creative tangent that generates something worth putting on record because in changing the process the resulting situation creates more opportunities to find that creative or compositional nugget.

The clearest indication that his methodology is based in concepts from the art world is evidenced by his close professional working relationship and deep-rooted friendship with the German artist Peter Schmidt. With Schmidt Eno developed the Oblique Strategies card set. The cards are a continuation of concepts developed in George Maciunas' Fluxus movement and the Chinese I Ching. To their mutual surprise both men discovered they had been working independently in the early 70s on developing updated strategies from these influences. In coming togther they realised that there was a high level of convergence in the processes they applied to creating output in their respective worlds of painting and music-making. Eno had studied art in the late 60s but it still surprised him that his artistic eye was informing his music in a much more fundamental way then he had previously realised, that even before he attempted composition or arrangement he was conceptualising his music in a painterly way. As is his nature he went with that conceptual flow and intuitive narrative rather than try and replace it wholesale with a more recognisable musical context.

The Oblique Strategies card set is the stuff of legend and has been revised and reproduced over the years to help bands and musicians catch the elusive creative spark in the studio and with it take the road less traveled or even the one not taken when it came to creating music. The original intention of the cards was for personal use, to help Schmidt and Eno think outside of the box and shift any emotional, mental or intellectual constipation preventing their respective creative juices from flowing. More fundamentally it broke regular modes of working. The cards contained elliptical phrases and commands that were intended to stimulate ideas rather than give specific instruction for how to perform (Fluxus) or behave (I Ching). While co-working on the song Sense of Doubt from 1977's Heroes album Eno and Bowie had each picked a card but didn't tell the other what theirs said. Instead they worked back and forth with the composition, each applying their card's instruction without understanding the other's intent. As it turned out Eno's card had essentially told him to try and keep things similar while Bowie's instruction was to emphasise differences.

Against this backdrop it's tempting to see art and the artist's eye as Eno's main musical influence rather than the music of other artists. Tempting but not ultimately convincing. Eno has stated that his main musical interests are doo wop and the avant garde and that his career in music has been an attempt to merge the emotional (doo wop) and the intellectual (avant garde). The most obvious influence in that regard is Zappa and The Mothers of Invention with whom Eno shares that awkwardness that can often seem mannered and devoid of emotional context. He's also a champion of keeping mistakes in music, of using errors and false starts as bona fide contributions to musical beauty and subtlety that should not be deleted from the final cut. This fascination with musical gremlins as attributes to the music he has traced back to The Velvet Underground but it also explains his involvement in the early 70s in the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra whose manifesto was to perform the classics with a combination of non-musicians who'd never played an instrument and with trained musicians who could only join if they agreed to play an instrument they weren't familiar with. From this set-up they would offer up a performance often rife with errors but still capable of being identifiable as music and therefore still a legitimate interpretation of the composer's original score. Eno loved the idea of building a whole composition and arrangement from embracing a mistake and with the Portsmouth Sinfonia he was able to see the results of that methodology writ large in a group context. As importantly he was able to witness the reaction of the listener to the performance and in doing so take note that often the enjoyment stemmed from the listener trying to apply what they knew of the music to what they were hearing now. Eno was learning that he could create more than one space in the listener's mind for music if he could mess around with their perceptions of it. This would be critical to his own compositional and recorded work as well as his production and collaborative work.

Another member of the Portsmouth Sinfonia was Gavin Bryars, an ex-jazz man now making his way in the world through redefining himself as a composer of the minimalist school. In 1972 he completed arguably his most famous work, The Sinking of The Titanic. The idea for the piece came from an eye-witness account by the Titanic's wireless operator, Harold Bride, who reported that the liner's orchestra continued to play as the ship went down, even as the ocean water engulfed them. Bryars converted this reportage into a musical idea: what would the music they were playing - the hymn Autumn - sound like if they were able to continue playing even as they sank deeper into the water? How would the water and change in depth and pressure affect the sounds emanating from their musicians' instruments? The piece is both haunting and beautiful and the conceit that Bryars introduces to the piece - the imagined effect the water makes on the sound, repetition and deconstruction of the music - suggests Eno must have been taking note. There are parallels between Bryars's inspiration for Titanic and Eno's own revelatory trigger for conceiving ambient music. Eno lay bed-ridden and semi-delirious and, too weak to move from his bed to turn up the volume of some classical harp music he was listening to, became entranced by the idea his perception of the music was changing because of the chage in audibility. He realised that he was hearing a kind of treatment of the music - in the same way that Bryar's imagined water creating a treatment of the hymn Autumn - and in turn that he could generate his own treatments and atmospheres from electronic technologies. Once again Eno had found another way of making music without being competent as a musician and through his understanding of electronica he had the tools to create frequencies, tones, sounds and effects that would both simulate and replicate his original experience but create stand-alone compositions in their own right that defied perceptions of music.

Outside of the influence of minimalism and classically-oriented artists - very much the bed-rock of Obscure Records - Eno was also able to capitalise on his love of the Velvet Underground and the 60s rock 'n' roll avant-gardists through working extensively with John Cale in the early to mid 70s. He also carved out a role for himself with alumni of the Canterbury Scene, most notably Kevin Ayres and Robert Wyatt while still finding time and energy to collaborate with his ex-colleagues from Roxy Music via their extra-curricular musical activities. This period in Eno's career threw him head first into a powerful, volatile and dynamic mix of egos, styles and musical abilities, an arena in which an artist not known for his musical competence could easily drown. Eno was able to navigate his way through these choppy waters relatively unscathed and that is largely down to his own temperament and the quiet confidence he had in his own abilities, precisely because those abilities were neither demonstrable by nor dependent upon musical ability. In their regular correspondence by letter his friend Schmidt had once written to Eno with the words,

In a roomful of shouting people, the one who whispers becomes interesting.

There is no clear evidence for this but what also links John Cale, Robert Wyatt and Frank Zappa is the American producer Tom Wilson who produced The Mothers of Invention and the VU as well as Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel before coming to the UK to take control of The Soft Machine's debut. Like Eno he was known for his quiet yet authoritative presence in the studio, as a man who didn't need to scream and shout to get what he wanted from his charges and knew instinctively and intutively how to work with a roomful of egos and temperamental musicians and to pull them together to craft a different sound and performance that pulled away from the musical norm. In a New York Times Magazine from 1974 entitled A Record Producer is a Psychoanalyst with Rhythm Wilson stated that

producing isn't a profession to build a man's confidence if he doesn't bring it with him

and considered himself

an enlightened fool...it never hurts to be intelligent

But what of Eno's own voice? Chrissie Hynde observed back in a 1974 NME interview that his voice

has absolutely nothing in common with the vocal tracks on Here Come The Warm Jets. His pronunciation is that of a soft-spoken gentleman. His singing is not unlike the shriek of a hare that's just caught an air gun pellet up the ass

There is something operatic about Eno's singing, it is arguably the most "straight" performance-oriented aspect of his music despite its undeniable facility to scare local wildlife. Stylistically it is a sympathetic companion to Nico, another ex-VU member with whom Eno also worked in the early 70s. Play an Eno vocal track in shriek mode back to back with one of Nico's and it's easy to imagine they're swapping gender stereotypes, Eno taking on the role of the damsel in distress and Nico of the stoical hero. Lyrically Eno is, like his music and methods, an experimenter. He's worked with poets throughout his career, most recently with Rick Holland on 2011's Drums Between The Bells. His main influence is, unsurprisingly, from the sound poets particularly the style of Kurt Schwitters (cf Kurt's Rejoinder) whose expansive sound poem Ursonate was constantly a work in progress throughout his life. That in itself is a feature of Eno's approach to music (with or without lyric and voice), everything is understood to be a work in progress: the ideas, the workings out, the errors, the underlinings, the marginalia and the final product itself collectively and individually a part of that ongoing process and progress. Eno strives for perfection realising that he won't reach it but has a greater chance of creating something workwhile only if he attempts perfection. It's to Eno's credit that his perception of perfection is to find beauty in flaws and in the nooks and crannies of minutiae as well as in the bigger picture.

Eno refers to his work in music in terms of systems that he brings together. This is a continuation of ideas he learned from studying Fluxus at art school. Fluxus was an attempt to inject anti-art into the art world by fusing ideas and media that institutionalised and patriarchal art refused to acknowledge or devote space for. By the 60s it had become a radicalised and political movement with its most famous proponent in the UK being one Yoko Ono. Eno adopted and adapted a more passive version: composition is a system, music is a system, artwork is a system, an instrument is a system, the musician is a system, the band is a system, the listener is a system: all of these are factored into his thinking and it is his role to integrate, fuse and codify them. As a consequence lyrics and voice are yet more tools for him to experiment with, something that can also generate textures, sounds and rhythms to help join systems and ideas together.

The British composers John White and Christopher Hobbs - both of whom featured on Obscure Records releases - used systems, computerised and mechanised, to generate music, marrying tenets of minimalism and repetition that have today become most associated with the music of Phillip Glass and Michael Nyman. As always Eno was there to infuse these ideas into his own work and methods, particularly across his ambient pieces where his understanding of Fluxus and its incorporation of non-art based spaces were instrumental in informing and conceptualising albums such as Music for Airports. Eno doesn't slave over meaning or context so Music for Airports is unusual in the explicitness of its form and function, even to the point that the long passages of silence in the music are there to allow interruption from airport tannoy announcements. He is known to work at a fast rate of knots once he's in situ so it's rarely the emotion or meaning of the music, the lyric or poem he's devoting his attention to, it's the cumulative effect of all the components to hand on the listening experience. That's not to say he ignores emotion or meaning it's just that his methods are not consciously striving for emotion and meaning. He may presribe processes in the studio and he may prescribe the space and purpose for the music but unquestionably it is left to the listener to define their own response and their own meaning. Eno does care about what the listener thinks and feels, he is not an artist who ignores his his audience, but it's counter-intuitive to his methods and purpose to make emotion the defining context for his music or to use overtly emotional signals as the route map for listeners into the music. For Eno that is a far more presumptive, contrived and manipulative form of interference in the process than his own "phantom" methods.

Eno is rightly revered for his contribution to electronica and for promoting, popularising and pioneering new musical forms and ideas - often wholly or significantly electronic in arrangement and execution - and finding channels for them into the public consciousness. He is as fundamental as Kraftwerk or Jean Michel Jarre for making electronica part of the everyday soundtrack to popular music. The 70s were an era that allowed him to both indulge himself and develop his skill-sets in equal measure and to pursue artistic ambitions for music beyond the confines of rock 'n' roll, conventional instrumentation and normative standards of what makes music popular or indeed music per se. Electronica (as both technology and technique) helped him to codify his methods and to learn how to perform and to create and arrange sounds and express these as tangible ideas and as a musical language that other musicians could work to and from both literally and figuratively. Without that freedom to explore with like-minded souls who were willing to deploy Eno as a catalyst in their own musical experiments many of his most original and far-reaching ideas, algorhythms and sounds would have lingered permanently in the impenetrable margins of the avant-garde or in the private pressings of an unabashed intellectual who seeks solace in the comparative isolation of a classroom or lecture theatre rather than the public arena of the cultural and artistic zeitgeist. For all his apparent inscrutability and boffin-like tendencies Eno has always managed to produce or champion music that is highly accessible if the listener is prepared to taken even a small step outside of their (dis)comfort zone.

To this listener what is apparent is that the Eno of the 1970s is the version that has the most discernable clues about his function and role as both a musical artist and as an agitator of artistic expression in a musical setting. That is perhaps the quality that the likes of U2 and Coldplay have tried to infuse into their own music when they've called upon his services. If it's more difficult to "hear" what he brought to 21st century albums such as Viva La Vida or No Line On The Horizon that's largely missing the point of what he's doing there in the first place. Then again 21st Century music is battling against an unprecedented level of sonic, commercial and critical homogenisation and commodification where the space for the phantom has been compressed out of the final digital mix.

In a brief but enlightening interview in 2001 on Later with Jools Holland Eno said of his role as a producer:

I suppose I interfere at any point in the music to make it as good as I can imagine...anything from the sound to the song-writing, the construction of a song, the structural arrangement, the working habits of the band.

That tells us much about the intellectual and systematic side of Eno, but not everything about the person. Perhaps Eno isn't too sure how to describe what he does in completist terms that encompasses notions of sentiment and emotion; after all everything he does is a work in progress so nothing can ever be signed off as a definitive statement of either his internal workings or his externalised manifesto. Also Eno always leaves room within his music for the audience to fill with their own "system" of listening. I "feel" Eno's music because I've arrived at a level of understanding of his music that offers space within it for an emotional investment as well as an intellectual one but it's hard to explain how or why. Music is a language that rarely translates well into a verbalised meaning which is why we humans need it in the first place to convey and communicate meaning that words can't express.

Eno's great friend and artistic sounding board Peter Schmidt died in 1980, a year before Eno reinvented the future of music yet again with David Byrne on My Life In The Bush of Ghosts. In a moving and insightful tribute to his friend, An Homage to the Missing Collaborator, Eno said of Schmidt:

As with many good artists, one's admiration for [his] work increases with familiarity. To follow the threads that are woven through his work, to watch the way that they cross and mesh with new threads and with older ones picked up again is to see a graceful and brilliant dance in motion. That this same pace and brilliance characterized his everyday life came, at first, as something of a surprise. He never raised his voice.

That insight, touched by unsentimental sentiment and fulsome praise, could easily be read as a summary of Eno's own contribution to the world of art and music and of my own respect and admiration for him and his work.

http://open.spotify.com/user/ahh_bisto/playlist/6JM4ZdAyZOnpjrVuNcprLh

Quiet Sun – Mummy Was An Asteriod, Daddy Was A Small Non-Stick Kitchen Utensil
Roxy Music – Editions of You
Frank Zappa – The Duke Of Prunes
Eno – Driving Me Backwards
Nico – Innocent And Vain
Brian Eno – Third Uncle
John Cale – Helen Of Troy
The Velvet Underground – Venus In Furs
Phil Manzanera – Miss Shapiro
Penguin Cafe Orchestra – The Sound Of Someone You Love Who's Going Away And It Doesn't Matter
Brian Eno – Kurt's Rejoinder
Robert Calvert – Phase Locked Loop
Lady June – Everythingsnothing
Brian Eno – 2/2
Matching Mole – Gloria Gloom
David Bowie – Sense Of Doubt
Harold Budd – Bismillahi 'Rrahmani 'Rrahim
Robert Wyatt – 5 Black Notes And 1 White Note
Gavin Bryars – The Sinking Of The Titanic
Brian Eno – Spider And I

RabTDog's picture

Rumination – a sketch rather than a post

In 1950, aged 15, my dad sailed out of Aberdeen harbour on a small trawler bound for fishing grounds off Iceland. It was his first job after leaving school.
In 1992, aged 58, he took a deal from his employer that was part health-related, part redundancy and part early retirement. He had been at sea for 42 years and although he was packing it in several years early, he felt he had done enough, earned both his pension and the right to spend more time with my mother.
When he was still in his teens and early twenties, he followed his nose. He started on trawlers, had a spell in the merchant navy as an able seaman, then went back to trawling again. As his mid twenties loomed, he met my mum, decided to make a proper go of the merchant navy and from that point on started his ascent through the ranks. He and mum married in 1959.
For his second spell in the merchant navy, he joined a Scottish shipping company that could trace its history to 1825. In its heyday it ran a fleet of vessels that carried cargo from the UK to the Far East and back; all the ships were registered in Leith. My father’s working environment in the nineteen-sixties was characterised by long spells at sea, travelling to ports like Hong Kong or Yokohama.
Into the nineteen-seventies his company adapted to containerisation and later moved into the oil business with drill ships, jack-ups and semi-submersible rigs. Dad’s career reflected these changes. He moved from the old cargo liners to enormous container ships – that also went on the Far East run – then to drill ships and semi-submersibles that went hunting for oil anywhere and everywhere: the Andaman Islands, British waters, Newfoundland, wherever.
In 1991, he had a health scare and one of his kidneys had to be removed. Plainly people can get by with one kidney – even today he’s still fine – but there were murmurs about his ability to work in the Tropics.
Also by the early nineteen-nineties, the changes in the UK and world economy were finally starting to catch up with him. Anyone familiar with the postwar history of the British merchant marine will know it’s one of precipitous decline and both dad, and his employer, did very well to stay ahead of the game for so long. By 1992, his company was struggling however and circumstances meshed to make early retirement an attractive proposition.
The company still exists, in a different form, as a shipping and logistics provider, predominantly in Asia. These days however, there are no Leith-registered cargo liners heading off via South Africa or Suez to cross the Indian Ocean en route to the Orient.

•• ••• ••

The reason I’ve been thinking about this lately was a blog post I read on another site. Edinburgh-based science fiction author Charles Stross runs an absorbing although geeky blog and one of his recent posts concerns Generation Z and working life. See http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2014/04/generation-z.html
In short, Stross was thinking around the issues of writing a near-future science fiction novel and asking himself what the UK would be like in the period 2030 to 2045 or so. His conclusions are not pretty. You can go and read the blog and its comments (406 and counting) for yourselves of course, but one of the takeaway quotes was, “And the way things are looking now, I expect the 30 year old Brits of 2030, people whose grandparents were buying houses and starting families on a single breadwinner's wages in the 1960s, will be envying the living standards of the average Malaysian citizen.”
Stross also talked about graduate debt, being locked out of the housing market, low-pay jobs, more work being automated, childcare costs and the problem of how the UK taxpayer can fund education, health and pensions in the future at today’s levels.
The comment underneath the blog that I thought was especially interesting, number 207, came from a guy born in 1989 which makes him twenty-four or twenty-five – a demographic largely missing from the Afterword.
He’s currently doing a PhD, if I read him correctly, and he says, “With rising debt, crap employment, few opportunities and increasingly a stripping of services that we're probably going to increasingly need it's hard to feel anything but woefully pessimistic.”
He goes on to berate the out-of-date jobs advice offered by middle-aged and retired people which ranges from “cripplingly patronising” to “downright alien”, adding, “I don't care how you started as a tea boy in a factory then became regional manager, that's not a career path that exists any more.”

•• ••• ••

Talking of career paths, or random events, I actually did some work yesterday which is rare for this underemployed freelance writer and editor. Someone I worked with more than five years ago phoned, out of the blue, and asked if I could write a chief executive’s statement. You know the kind of thing: the equivalent of the boilerplate bullshit that comes directly after the contents in any PLC’s annual report.
I said yes, of course, and just after 10am I was emailed last year’s statement as a style guide, some notes and some figures.
“Can you get it back to me by noon?” my former colleague asked.
“Er, yeah,” I guessed.
I hardly knew the company, didn’t know anything about the chief executive, but that wasn’t relevant. I was hoping it might be a reasonable, accessible piece of work but last year’s version used the kind of stiff, formal and semi-intelligible language that would ace a game of Buzzword Bingo.
I aped that style and got the copy emailed off by 12.41pm. I was particularly happy with the concluding paragraph, a few sentences of wholly creative writing, which included “going forward”, “collective experience”, “consolidate”, “business innovation”, “customer service”, “competitive pricing”, “commitment”, “skills”, “our people”, “working together”, “maximum advantage” and “opportunities”. I felt like Chris Ofili making art out of elephant shit.
Several hours later, it came back in Word-file-format-with-tracked-changes-by-Christ-knows-who with yet more figures “to be weaved in”. I weaved very quickly and version two was emailed off within 40 minutes. Then I went to the pub.
At the moment I’m swithering about charging a full day’s fee, given that I was hanging around for ages waiting to see if anything would come back with amendments to be fixed, or a half-day fee given the actual time I spent on the phone or at the keyboard. (Archie Valparaiso is looking at a screen this very minute shouting, “The full day you moron! The full day!”) Either way, I’ll be lucky to get away with £200 as a day rate which was the kind of money you could earn while freelancing in Edinburgh a decade ago. Wages can go down as well as erode (see Stross & Malaysia statement above).

•• ••• ••

Dad’s career stayed ahead of the curve of decline and left him in his late fifties confident that he had earned his retirement. For what it’s worth, I agree with him while recognising that he wouldn’t have been as lucky had he worked down a coal mine, in a steel mill, in heavy engineering or any of the other industries that limped along for three or more decades after the war then went belly up.
For my generation, whose tertiary education was free and who benefited from the housing boom, things have been less predictable although decades of work experience, family money and property price inflation may just “see us out”. Or maybe won’t. If you were born in 1989, you could be looking forward to a much more unfortunate future.

•• ••• ••

I may be writing this because of the relationship between myself and my father. I sometimes suspect that he looks at me and shakes his head because he simply doesn’t get why an educated, middle-aged man could be sitting around a small flat in Edinburgh not doing much. This extends to the lack of wife and kids too – my life didn’t go along predictable lines like his.
We have a gap in understanding, or I project a gap in understanding, and go scrabbling around in concepts like ‘postwar decline’ or ‘the economy’ or ‘credit crunch’ to explain it. Or I might just be a lazy bugger who should have sorted out an alternative means of earning a living several years ago after corporate copywriting (I did corporate copywriting) went west and travel guides (I wrote travel guides) were supplanted by free content on smartphones.
But Scotland has many unemployed and underemployed people, part-timers, zero-hourers and skint self-employed folk. So does the UK as a whole, so does Europe. There simply aren’t enough jobs out there and this has an effect on PhD students born in 1989 as well as the likes of me.
This brings us back to the Stross blog. We’ve had centuries, millennia actually, of people working on the land. Only the historically recent Industrial Revolution changed that but the patchiness of development across the planet – and the British Empire – afforded the UK a relatively privileged place until quite recently. We live in the aftermath.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when Brits left these islands to seek work elsewhere, it tended to be a case of stick-the-peasant-on-the-boat. In the postwar era, kids from the provinces took advantage of tertiary education and adapted to cities like Edinburgh or London. Now graduates in their twenties are heading off for Lagos, New York or Riyadh because the salariat has become internationalised.
And I suspect I should try and actually reach a point.

•• ••• ••

Before the point, some intellectual goo. Isolating my father’s career from the postwar British economy is impossible. Isolating that economy from its wider, global circumstances is also impossible. Sitting in Edinburgh in 2014 wondering why my father had such a different life touches on everything from social mobility and education to the rise of Asian economies and the effect of orthodox, western neoliberalism. It all happened, it all played a part, but in order to make sense it’s easier to pick out threads of narrative and identify with discrete stories. Family history, economic history, political history, world history, choose your level of abstraction and take your pick. As ever, no one narrative is sufficient although trying to comprehend all of them at once is like trying to translate the white noise generated by a waterfall in real time.

•• ••• ••

Either I’m going to draw this to a close and go and watch Royal Madrid play Bavaria Munich in the Advertising Trophy or this post is going to dissipate like a wave in a salt marsh.

•• ••• ••

Granny-sucking-eggs: jobs aren’t what they used to be and things appear to be getting worse. See my dad. See the mad shit I did yesterday. If you’re in your teens or twenties then your future might lie outside the UK. Some sort of professional job in an economically buoyant part of the planet may be better than 18 hours a week in a coffee shop in some Brit-metropolis, whether you have an engineering degree or not.
Childless, I can be fairly objective about that but how does it make you feel about your kids? I mean, your house, your status, your inheritance from your folks and blah might just mean you can manage if you’re careful but what about that teenager in the kitchen with the bowl of granola? What are they going to be doing in ten or twenty years’ time? Pimping FX rates in Canary Wharf? Having a nervous breakdown after eight years as an inner city teacher? I do wonder. We can’t all be doctors, we can’t all be lawyers and we can’t all work in the City.

•• ••• ••

Bleurgh, fuckit. Plainly this is going nowhere. Ruminative, meandering, conclusionless. But I see a boy on a trawler in 1950, sailing out of Aberdeen harbour into a future that would support him well into his old age. And I don’t see that happening for someone who noodled around in the nineteen-eighties when youth unemployment was through the roof, or now for someone with tens of thousands of pounds of student debt and a job as a barista. Answers on a postcard.

RabTDog's picture

COLD RESPONSE

At the weekend I visited friends who live in an apartment that overlooks the large Western Harbour at Leith Docks. Thanks to redevelopment over the last 15 years or so, the Western Harbour has a number of newbuild apartment complexes, it’s home to the former royal yacht Britannia and it has a large shopping mall called Ocean Terminal, designed by Sir Terence Conran.
Leith Docks aren’t as busy as they used to be – changing patterns of trade, containerisation – but they’re still a place of work, albeit underemployed given the available quay space. Vessels related to the North Sea oil industry come and go, vessels carrying scrap metal, the occasional survey or research ship, grain is shipped in to the adjacent flour mill, the Scottish government’s marine protection vessels – formerly called fisheries protection – appear from time to time and cruise liners in the summer. Now and then, a warship might berth up for a few days, Royal Navy or otherwise. I recall seeing French, Canadian and other navies making brief visits to Leith in the last few years.
This weekend however, there were five warships in the Western Harbour: three frigates, Danish, Norwegian and Turkish, a German corvette and a French patrol boat. I have never seen this concentration of seagoing military hardware in Leith before. The house party I attended was in a second floor apartment and looked out directly on the sudden burst of naval grey. People at the party did remark on the vessels (“Is that a Swiss flag?” “Swiss? Don’t be daft! It’s Danish.” “Oh yeah…”) but conversation soon turned back to the usual Scotland-in-2014 natter: George Galloway, independence, how bad Hibernian have been this season, how the kids were doing at St Andrews or Glasgow.
I’m not going to go into the arcana of how five different navies define the difference between a boat and a ship, so I’ll just use the generic term warship, but I was curious about why these warships had all turned up at once. What were they? How much firepower did they have? Did the Turkish Navy – Türk Deniz Kuvvetleri – often bob about in the North Sea so far from home?
Given that all the warships were sporting national flags and had identification numbers painted on their hulls, feeding that information into Google took seconds and – thanks to Wikipedia and a couple of other sites – the details were easy to access. That’s why I know there were three frigates, a corvette and a patrol boat. Nosing around in the Wikipedia entries for each, you could get lost in the detail of each warship’s construction, date it entered service, its role, armaments, engine, range, class of vessel and more besides.
The Turkish frigate for example, the TCG Gaziantep, is actually quite old. It was built at the end of the seventies for the US Navy, launched in 1980, commissioned in 1981 and was originally called the USS Clifton Sprague. It had a sixteen-year career in those colours then was sold on to the Turks in 1997 who renamed it. According to Wikipedia it has a 76mm gun, two triple-tube torpedo launchers, it carries a couple of helicopters and has more firepower besides. Apparently, the main 76mm gun can lob a shell weighing over 12kg a distance of least 16km, and possibly more depending on which sub-type of the weapon sits on the Gaziantep’s foredeck. That means it could be berthed in the Western Harbour at Leith and shoot the crap out of Edinburgh Airport to the west of the city.
Having established which warships these were and what they could do – which was hardly the apex of investigative journalism – my next question was, “Why are they all here?” I’m no military expert, I’m not even by any stretch a weapons fanboy, but surely it had to be some sort of exercise? Maybe a NATO exercise. So I Googled that.
NATO has a website – well, why not? And there in black and white was news of COLD RESPONSE, a bi-annual, international Arctic gadabout. It’s not just naval – I found a film report on the BBC from 19 March which focused on the land and air elements of the exercise in northern Norway featuring sexy footage of helicopters and tanks in the snow, 400km from the Russian border. I’d guess that part of the reason the BBC sent a reporter to COLD RESPONSE this year was because of the tension over Ukraine and because it was a NATO exercise conducted very close to Russia.
MARCOM, NATO’s maritime command, also has a website and it says COLD RESPONSE featured sixteen countries and 16,000 soldiers overall, “the biggest joint combined exercise in Europe”.
Named warships from the exercise turned up in Leith immediately after so I’m guessing they were either on their way home or popping in for some courtesy or liaison visit.
The reason I write all this is that aside from the BBC film report lasting a few minutes, some footage on YouTube and stories on specialist sites like NATO, MARCOM, the Royal Navy and the Barents Observer, no one in the mainstream media seemed to think it was interesting or important – unless Afterworders can find links I missed. This perhaps reflects the same frame of mind at the house party I attended on Saturday when a posse of people looked out the window at goodness knows how many millions of pounds of military hardware from five countries sitting in a Scottish port and said, “Oh ships. Hmm. These falafels are lovely!”
The moral of the tale? It reminded me how far out of whack our sense of newsworthiness can be – both media professionals and the public. Massive expenditure, armed forces from sixteen countries, ships, aircraft, land forces, 16,000 personnel, all happening in the Arctic just over 90 minutes’ helicopter flight time – at cruising speed – from Russian airspace, while tensions are high over Ukraine. Generally we said, “Meh.”
This is something I’m going to come back to when I post something else about #indyref because think it applies there too.

Picture shows the frigate Thor Heyerdahl of the Kongelig Norske Marine and the corvette Magdeburg of the Deutsche Marine at the Western Harbour, Leith, on Sunday 30 March.

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