The three ‘R’s

Here’s a brief anecdote that comes up a lot.

Robert Schumann sat at the piano to play a new composition to a friend. When Schumann had finished playing, the friend asked, ‘what does it mean?’ Schumann replied, ‘it means this’, and played the piece again.

I can’t remember where I first heard or read this. It’s been used in all sorts of treatises on aesthetics and whatnot. For me, it’s a superb example of what music has in common with myth: they are tautegorical. Tautegory is distinct from allegory. If allegory is a way of talking about something else — the meaning is to be unpacked or decoded — in tautegory, the meaning is what it relates. If there was another way of saying it, it would say it. With music, as with myth, we can talk about and around the piece — sometimes endlessly — but a description cannot replace the experience of the piece itself.

Clara & Robert Schumann, Daguerreotype (1850)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) introduced the term to modern aesthetics, when he defined the Symbol in Christian scripture as aei tautēgorikon: always tautegorical. Following Coleridge, F. W. J. von Schelling (1775-1854) linked this explicitly to myth.

I don’t know if Schumann (1810-56) was familiar with Schelling’s argument (he was au fait with Romantic and Idealist literature, so it’s not impossible). And, of course, it may well be apocryphal anyway. (The story has also been attributed to Beethoven (1770-1827) and Schubert (1797-1828).) Nevertheless, it’s apt to associate it with the time of the discrete Romantic movements in poetry, music, and philosophy, and their investigations of the ineffable, or the transcendental.


The earliest published reference I can find to the anecdote is in Donald Whittle, Christianity and the Arts (1966, p. 52). This is cited in Leland Ryken, Culture in Christian Perspective: A Door to Understanding and Enjoying the Arts (1986, republished as The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts, 1989, p. 129), where the alternative attribution to Beethoven is also claimed (p. 159, n. 6). The Schubert version, which is identical except that we are told that Schubert said nothing at all, but just returned to the piano, is told in Paul Cobley and Litza Jansz, Introducing Semiotics (1997, p. 27).

Coleridge writes about the ‘Symbol’ in Biblical texts as ὁ ἔστιν ἄει ταυτηγόρικον in The Statesman’s Manual (1816; page 40 in the edition here). This passing comment is helpfully glossed by Jon Whitman as ‘always saying something identical with itself’. Schelling acknowledges Coleridge in his discussion of myth and the tautegorical in Philosophie der Mythologie (1842). NB, the full title of Coleridge’s work is The Statesman’s Manual; or, The Bible, the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight: A Lay Sermon, Addressed to the Higher Classes of Society. It speaks for itself.


ancient music, Seikilos Epitaph

We’ve come to the ‘Louie Louie’ of ancient music: a song that exists in uncountable versions.

W. M. Ramsay, a Scottish archaeologist, discovered a marble stele during an excavation at Aydin, western Turkey, in 1883. The stele has inscribed on it a complete song, with words and musical notation, in ancient Greek. It has been dated to around the second century AD, making it the oldest complete song on record. (The music I’ve covered hitherto has been fragmentary, or been widely open to different interpretations.) The stele is now in Copenhagen, in the National Museum of Denmark.


A stele (or stela) is an inscribed upright stone serving as a monument, usually a tombstone. This particular stele is dedicated by a man named Seikilos, and the words of the song are an exhortation to enjoy life and not to grieve, for time will soon demand that all things end.

You could spend hours online listening to the various interpretations of this piece of music, but, unlike the Hurrian Hymns, or the chorus from Orestes, the music is instantly recognisable as the Seikilos Epitaph in every version: the notation is not disputed. There are, however, disagreements about pronunciation. In my last post, I threatened to completely solve the problem of The English. I’ll deal with this in short order. I’m English, and when I hear English singers singing in ancient Greek, it’s pretty obvious to me that they are English. It’s especially obvious if they are affiliated with Oxford university or something like that, because they sound like they’re doing a Received Pronunciation version of Ancient Greek. It’s also worth remembering that modern Greek has a very different pronunciation to ancient Greek. So, to modern Greek ears, I can imagine that the English accent combined with the academic insistence on trying to cleave close to ancient pronunciation, sounds horribly cacophonous. Now, when Greek listeners, whose ears are offended, get behind their keyboards to complain online, the English interpreters, justifiably – with the weight of academic research behind them – get narked. And the whole thing gets ugly, and no-one comes out of it well. Basically, posh English people do sound silly when they put on foreign accents, but THAT’S FINE. Everyone sounds silly when they put on foreign accents. For those offended by any accents, dialects or pronunciation in these versions, may I recommend a clarifying dose of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ by the Swedish Elvis Presley, Eilert Pilarm

Good. That’s settled. Back to Seikilos.

The earliest modern reappearance of this piece of music of which I’m aware is surprising. The 1951 film Quo Vadis, with Peter Ustinov as Emperor Nero, includes a scene with Nero extemporising a song which happens to have a melody almost identical to that of the Seikilos epitaph (though the words are not the same). Thanks to my pal Tony for spotting this.

From the 1950s, recorded versions begin to proliferate, albeit slowly at first. Now the Internet gives us access to scores, possibly hundreds of recordings. I’m going to highlight three versions.

The Gardzienice Centre of Theatre Practices was founded in Poland in 1977, and, among its varied projects, hosted the Metamorfozy performance piece in the 1990s, and the Ancient Orchestra project from 2001 to 2004. The intention behind these projects was to recover the Dionysian elements in a music which had — they felt — been too politely Apollonian in its reception. (It’s worth exploring their Bacchic interpretation of ancient music at length.)

For the Metamorfozy album (2000), the Seikilos Epitaph was retitled after its initial words, rendered in Greek and Polish:  ‘Hoson Zes / Dopóki żyjesz’

In 80 short seconds, it creates an atmosphere of remoteness and disquietude through a drone, some off-mic vocalisations, and a dissonant flute. The soft, breathy vocal enters the sound-picture like some sexy ghost, disturbing the air just enough to hit the right notes, before the whole thing fades out again.

The music lives, and Athenian ensemble Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody have taken the material of the Seikilos Epitaph as a starting point for a longer variation (titled ‘Oson Zeis’, also on their album Awakening the Muse, 2013).

It’s pleasing to hear this sung by Athenians with modern Greek pronunciation, merging the ancient with a modern pop and folk tradition. Consequently, the rendition possibly involves over-emoting to an extent that may jar with my revoltingly hip Londoner tastes, but I can’t blame them for exploiting the full melodic potential of their interpretation.

Finally, it’s those English musicians with the weight of Oxford academia behind them that I mentioned earlier. This version is distinguished by the musicianship of master aulos player Barnaby Brown, and practised interpreter of ancient songs, Stef Conner, singing and playing lyre. This performance is extracted from the Radio 3 Early Music Show (listen here at 50’38”).

This interpretation doesn’t waste any time. The rhythm of Brown’s double aulos gives the song such lift at the start, before unobtrusively fading to an accompanying drone for Conner’s voice. When the aulos it repeats the melody line after the singing, it provokes a strong rush of joy before promptly ending, well under a minute. Too short, like the life described by the inscription on the stele.

ancient music: Hurrian Hymns

We played music, we wrote down stories, it’s inevitable that we would start trying to preserve music in a written form too. Once the novice starts digging, there is a surprising amount of ancient evidence to be found, even if scholars can’t agree on the interpretation.

The Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal is the oldest surviving near-complete notated music we have. The Hurrians lived in Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia (i.e. modern Turkey, Syria, and Iraq) during the bronze age (in evidence very roughly between middle of third millennium, and the thirteenth century BC). The hymn, along with other song fragments carved on clay tablets in cuneiform script, was discovered in the 1950s during excavations of the ancient city of Ugarit, in modern-day Syria.

Hurrian 6 tablet. (Image credit)

The Hurrian language is not completely understood, and the Akkadian notation is open to interpretation. Consequently, there are many different approaches taken to this piece of music. It is a hymn to the goddess Nikkal who is associated with the orchard, and is wife of the Moon god Yarikh.

Numerous responses to the song can be heard online. Martin L. West, a prolific classical scholar, published a version in 1993, which has been performed by Ensemble De Organographia:

This version, like several others, is marked by a staccato stateliness which effectively evokes the ritual clichés of the twentieth-century pop-cultural attitude to ancient civilisations. I don’t mean that as a criticism by any means — only that it perfectly recreates my imagined (and historically-uninformed) atmosphere of bronze-age court music. But it is beautifully performed, and I recommend the album it appears on. You can find more interpretations along the same lines (one, two, three, four).

It’s no surprise to find that the Hymn to Nikkal has inspired modern variations: among them, a project in New York and a modern orchestral setting by Syrian composer and pianist Malek Jandali. Jandali’s piece owes its melodic inspiration to the recent interpretation by archaeomusicologist Richard Dumbrill — an interpretation which has also been set to an ancient lyre by Michael Levy. In addition to his scholarly publications, Dumbrill has argued for his interpretation across a number of You Tube videos (one of the most recent of which is here). Here, he concludes that the hymn is a song without instrumental accompaniment: ‘an instrumental accompaniment to this song — prayer, as far we understand it — would be incongruous with the private nature of this young woman’s prayer: asking the goddess Nikkal to make her fertile’. He makes a convincing case, and the resulting recording is freed from the staccato style of the other versions. In comparison, these other versions sound tentative and restrained — almost mechanical — as if afraid to allow emotions and feelings to obscure the text. Instead, we hear the song as something far more arresting and human.




ancient music, new lyres

We shared our stories; retold them generation after generation. They lived in the cultural memory. It was the accountants who were writing things down. The book-keepers of Mesopotamia used cuneiform script to keep records (from about 3200 BC). And many such records survive on clay tablets, but, eventually, they were joined by writings which told stories: heroic tales, exploits of the gods, cultural histories — myths. It is the earliest surviving literature we can read today, reconstructed and translated from excavated clay.

Evidence of musical culture has also been recovered: instruments and images of musicians. But we have no music.


12 clay tablets containing the Epic of Gilgamesh, from Nineveh, 7th century BC.
Now in the British Museum. Photo: Ben Pestell

The recent Ashurbanipal exhibition at the British Museum, as you might expect from an exhibition on the life of the king of the world, no less, focused on the great man, war, grand spectacle, and so on. Aspects of social history, however, were evident in the many examples of tablets from the library of Ashurbanipal. Moreover, the lions and hybrid human-animal figures depicted on reliefs and giant sculptures gave a sense of a life lived closer to nature: where the ontological boundaries between all things are permeable. This is the world of myth. King Ashurbanipal, reigning from 669 to around 631 BC, governed a society still negotiating one of the problems of Gilgamesh and Enkidu: the transactions between our human and animal natures which result in profound loss of each side.

Court musicians playing horizontal harps. Nineveh, seventh century BC.
Now in the British Museum. Photo: Ben Pestell

I was particularly interested in the occasional images of musicians. Though we don’t have a reliable means of reconstructing the music of ancient Mesopotamia, we do at least have the means of reconstructing some instruments. The most famous instruments are the Lyres of Ur: the Gold Lyre, with its gold bull’s head, and the Silver Lyre, completely covered in silver.

There are at least three replicas of the Silver Lyre in use today. One is by Richard Dumbrill, co-founder of the International Council of Near Eastern Archaeomusicology (ICONEA), and one of the curators of the Ashurbanipal exhibition. His improvisation on the lyre (which he claims would not have sounded incongruous to third-millennium-BC Sumerians) can he heard at the start of this video. Another is by Canadian musician Peter Pringle who has information, and his own improvisation, on his website.

An especially ambitious project is by The Lyre Ensemble (using lyres built by Jonathan Letcher). The Lyre Ensemble sets ancient texts (in Babylonian and Assyrian, and in English translation) to the music of three replica lyres (Gold, Silver, and the smaller Pharaonic Lyre). The ensemble’s CD, The Flood is an album of evocative new music by modern Europeans, but with reconstructions of ancient instruments and with ancient texts.

At times, The Flood cannot help sounding distractingly English, perhaps a little mannered, and with much of the music minimal and repetitive, the voice carries the lion’s (or the bull’s) share of each song’s emotive weight. The overall impression of the album is of a solemn and pared-back folk music.

The Flood brings out some shades of social history in the settings of brief proverbs, a lullaby, a love song, and a song to a mother, while also singing on mythological themes of the great flood, the civilising of Enkidu, the descent of Ishtar to the underworld.

Among the highlights are ‘Enkidu Curses the Harlot’ and ‘Ištar’s Descent’. The former takes advantage of the natural resonance of the lyre’s body to create a creaking-bed-spring metallic bass line.

The Descent transmits a tense forward momentum from the lyre’s taut strings, which creates a compelling backdrop for Stef Conner’s voicing of the katabasis: Conner’s usually clear and light voice is augmented by an assortment of growls and screams to accompany the eschatological moment — of a goddess at the very limits of existence. Although the lyres (played by Andy Lowings, recorded and assisted by Mark Harmer) may be the stars of this disc, it is Conner’s voice which brings them to life, whether in English or in Sumerian or Babylonian. If her phrasing sometimes sounds very familiarly English (she has sung with The Unthanks, steeped in English song), it is no bad thing to be reminded of the temporal and cultural distance between the tools (texts and lyres) and the players.

The great success of The Flood is in bringing these sounds and stories into the digital present, even as — by necessity — it avows its distance from the world it evokes. As such, it feels like the essential and compelling first step in expanding our understanding of what can be done with these ancient tools.

ancient music, archaeoacoustics

It began as a cry… ‘a cry expressing an urge and appeasing it at the same time.’ The first song: a performance of contradictions. So Ernst Bloch decided. Bloch looked far back into the past to discover the first instance of ‘musical differences’. He distinguishes between the ritual drum which accompanied these primal songs, and the pan pipe. The function of the pipe, Bloch argues, was not ‘to induce a stupor or to work magic like the wooden clapper, the cymbal or the magically painted and in itself magically venerated drum. Rather it was confined — pure entertainment apart — to amorous longing and the enchantment of love, the latter being a survival of magic’ (Bloch, Essays on the Philosophy of Music [1974], p. 196). For Bloch, the invention of the pan-pipe is of great consequence for its ability to make a ‘well-organised series of notes’, thus marking ‘the invention of music as human expression‘ (197).

Ernst Bloch (rarely photographed sans pipe)

Since Bloch wrote, many more prehistoric flutes have been discovered, some arguably also associated with Neanderthals. The oldest bone flute yet discovered is thought to date back more than 43,000 years (the ‘Divje Babe Flute‘, discovered in modern-day Slovenia).  To put that in context, it’s roughly contemporaneous (give or take a few thousand years) with the earliest known figurative rock paintings. Despite the efforts of archaeoacoustic researchers to recreate the prehistoric sound-world, it’s a long, long wait until we get to a point where we can confidently interpret a complete piece of musical notation (the Hellenistic Seikilos epitaph, dated to c. AD 100), and then just a short hop to the invention of sound recording in the second half of the nineteenth century. (On which see the First Sounds website for recoveries of the earliest sound recordings.)

Divje Babe Flute (thought to be the bone flute played by Neanderthals)

There are some fascinating archaeoacoustic projects out there which try to give a sense of the experience of palaeolithic, or other ancient musics. Here is an article accompanying the 2015 CTM Festival (Festival for Adventurous Music and Art) on recent work in archaeoacoustics. One of the participants of the 2015 festival was Rupert Till, who does a lot of work in ancient music. Dr Till is one of the people behind the Songs of the Caves website, where you can explore the sounds and prehistoric paintings of the caves of northern Spain. You can also hear audio and see a video on the EMAP (European Music Archaeology Project) website.

Who knows what sort of stories or rituals accompanied the paintings of hunted animals, or the music of the flute? Bloch recalls Ovid’s retelling of the myth of Pan and Syrinx the nymph (in Metamorphoses I). Syrinx is transformed into reeds to escape Pan’s desire, but Pan is then enchanted by the sound of the wind through these reeds. Sealing reeds of unequal length together with wax to form his pipe, Pan thus communes with the vanished Syrinx. In this tale, Bloch sees ‘something contradictory and utopian …. The vanished nymph has remained as sound … and sings in the face of want’ (197). This same want for the vanished people in the cave is the same that is expressed, and speculatively calmed in the archaeoacoustic performance. The vanished prehistory returns, only to insist upon its impossible distance from us.

Gerard Hoet, Pan and Syrinx (c. 1700) (Dulwich Picture Gallery)



I wrote a little thing about John Peel for ‘We Happy Few’. That website pokes into some curiously dilapidated corners of the culture.

Edit, November 2017: ‘We Happy Few’ has sadly left the World Wide Web, so I reproduce my piece here:

Loath as I am to extol another dead white male, it’s difficult to talk about the past without them. As patriarchal voices go, John Peel rises above the taint of 1970s BBC broadcasters, principally by the reputation for humaneness and inclusivity that accrued around him since the 1990s. Last year Faber published a fat book on the man and his radio shows, David Cavanagh’s Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life. The distinction of this book lies in Cavanagh’s method of listening to a vast selection of surviving complete radio shows from Peel’s first broadcasts on the pirate Radio London in 1967 (which followed some stints on radio in the USA) until his penultimate year, 2003. The book proceeds through the years, Cavanagh describing a chosen show, with the musical selection and a brief current-affairs snippet providing a unique portrait of the times, as pop music struggles with its inevitable maturity, rebellions, and banalities. The news extracts that Cavanagh provides for each show often emphasise the Troubles, which is an illuminating reminder of the fragile condition of peace in the UK, especially now that the mass media’s terror focus has shifted geographically.

Cavanagh’s introduction makes the case that the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics was testament to the broad-minded spirit that Peel – effectively single-handedly – fostered in the national culture. But over its 600-plus pages, Cavanagh weaves no thread of connecting argument  to make the assertion compelling, instead allowing the accumulated descriptions of daily brilliance (or folly) to tell its own story. It is not entirely uncritical, but Cavanagh is, by necessity, a fan. I remember him for a review of Elastica in 1993 in Select magazine in which he explained their 20-minute set as being over in the time it takes to eat four apples. It’s an image which hasn’t left my mind, mainly because I can’t imagine ever eating four apples in quick succession. Cavanagh also wrote a career-spanning piece on The Fall in that peculiarly nineties phenomenon, the magazine-and-CD series Volume. He is an erudite writer, and can be very funny, though there’s a sense he’s on his best behaviour for this project, and his mischievous character does not shine through in the text enough for my liking.

The book was subject of a curious review in The Wire (381, November 2015). In it, Derek Walmsley was perturbed by this valorization of a patrician voice – a voice uncomfortably associated with the climates of the pop industry and the BBC which facilitated the abuse of the young and vulnerable, and with the pre-internet world of individual, Reithian authority. The Wire’s review does raise some pertinent points, but the charge of Peel’s irrelevance in the age of internet radio is positively bizarre. The Wire itself used to provide radio listings for open-minded shows, in which Peel’s show was an eternal fixture in a minuscule list for national radio. It’s easy to forget how difficult it was to find out about, for example, The Pendulum Floors. It is odd to think that, while we may celebrate the abundance of free access to information afforded by the internet, we shouldn’t also lament the loss of prescribed spaces within a state power apparatus such as the BBC. If recondite information is too easily available, why should a state broadcaster waste valuable resources delivering it to an indifferent audience. Much better to have another series of ‘Imagine’ with Alan ‘Oh No Not Alan Yentob Again’ Yentob. Structure is unfashionable, but surely the adherents of freedom and chaos still like a lock on their toilet.

There is an emotional component to Cavanagh’s book which will be entirely different for every reader – at least for those who devoted too much of their youth being informed by the inimitable sounds of Peel’s broadcasts. For me, as someone who began listening regularly in the early nineties, the book took on more personal significance as I recognized individual programmes that I had heard live. Combined with this is the mounting sense of sadness as the text accelerates (covering two years rather than one in the final four chapters) towards its inescapable terminus. The epochal cultural moment isn’t the rise of the internet but the loss of a public figure who had a vast knowledge – through first-hand experience – of global pop music from the 1940s to the present.

David Bowie was still alive when I read Cavanagh’s book; he crops up a few times. The entry for 30 June 1968 ends with a description of a Tyrannosaurus Rex concert at the Royal Festival Hall: ‘Bottom of the bill was David Bowie from Bromley, performing a mime inspired by China’s invasion of Tibet.’ A handful of pages later, the entry for 16 February 1969 ends with a description of a Tyrannosaurus Rex concert at Birmingham Town Hall: ‘Bottom of the bill was David Bowie, once again performing his mime inspired by China’s invasion of Tibet.’ There’s a parallel universe in which that sentence is repeated again throughout the 1970s. I choose to believe that, somewhere, David from Bromley is still performing his mime inspired by China’s invasion of Tibet.

Live noise: Nøught & Dead Days Beyond Help

Nøught and Dead Days Beyond Help with Alan Wilkinson, at Café Oto, London, 13 March 2016

I have mixed feelings about Café Oto. The venue cultivates a squat-party vibe with an artisan-loaf aesthetic. It is simultaneously hip and square. It hosts late night noise rock on a Sunday night so that people with 9-5 jobs, childcare, or homes outside Hackney will struggle to negotiate the restricted public transport services, while charging £3.60 for two-thirds of a pint of their cheapest beer (i.e. £5.40 per pint). The constituency which is able both to attend regular events and afford the drinks must be infinitesimally small, unless the cliché of the Hackney-incomer living off a limitless trust fund is more true than I have hoped. But where else could we go to hear music like this, while browsing a small book stall hosting, for example, the recent book on Bob Cobbing? What’s more, as signifiers of cool go, the crowd tonight includes former members of Sonic Youth and This Heat. But this righteous cachet may soon be jeopardized by the same new money that has contributed to Hackney’s modishness over the past decade or so. The new development of flats that is being built within earshot is an ominous portent of the likely struggles that Oto’s proprietors may soon face given the total lack of noise protection.

Dead Days Beyond Help (Alex Ward on electric guitar and voice, and Jem Doulton on drums) are augmented tonight by saxophonist Alan Wilkinson (playing baritone, then alto), and they forego singing to play a raucous set of improvised noise. This was just what I needed: thoroughly refreshing. The rockist temptation to compare the sound to The Stooges’ ‘L. A. Blues’ should be restrained by the clarification that, if so, it is ‘L. A. Blues’ as played by uptight Englanders. (I don’t know if all the players are English, but they play with the repressed tension of the English.) The physical efforts of these three musicians is a pleasure to watch, but equally satisfying is to shut your eyes and ignore the smell of craft beer. I did this, and forgot that the music was being played by technological Europeans. The ideological debates around freedom and idiom in improvised music evaporated. Instead I heard music from the dawn of time: the archaic spirit of humanity was given full voice in the uproarious blending of the three instruments. Yet still that archaic voice was mediated by a specific English anxiety – a tension without release – which kept the music controlled and separated from any claims of transcendence. We are grounded by the interplay between three humans. In a wonderful moment of unified playing, Ward’s guitar and Wilkinson’s saxophone each emitted answering growls while Doulton trapped a drumstick between the cymbals of his hi-hat, tugging at it as if pulling his arm from the percussive bronze jaws of a metamorphosed dog. The drummer won this battle. Of course he did: the musicians played in total command of their noise.

I had to go outside to protect my ears from the horrible simulation of tinnitus offered by the second group. I’m old enough and square enough to know when my ears have suffered enough, and I hate listening through earplugs. I returned for Nought, or, for fans of 1980s computer displays, Nøught (led by guitarist James Sedwards, with Luke Barlow on keys, Santiago Horro on bass, and new drummer Bo Mapper). Nought have a reputation for punishingly heavy sets of thrillingly intricate noise, but the new set this evening was less brutal, more playfully sinister. The first of two tunes lasted about half an hour (true punk rockers are not remotely frightened by this). Unfolding through interconnected movements, the music continually opened up new spaces for the mind to move around in. The syncopated drop-outs in the first minutes were reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s psychedelic soundtracks (as handily collected on Ipecac’s Crime and Dissonance). In short, Nought sound less English, more continental. Both fiery and relaxed, and with a sense of sprezzatura. Their new piece intelligently avoided the potential trap of a predictable escalation towards a crescendo by deploying a lot of dynamic space throughout. The effect was of being carried through a prismatic and protean structure that exists beyond time and space. The vision persists until clock time re-imposes the gentrified realities of the London Overground bus replacement service.

Organizing emotions in time

Deep in my hard drive was a podcast featuring an interview with the pianist Krystian Zimerman, in which he makes some thoughtful remarks on the nature of music and modern techniques of recording. It springs from his apparently counter-intuitive claim:

I’m realizing more and more that music is not an audio experience […] It’s something more than audio, and the digital [recording] technique actually showed me this. […] It so clearly transmits the sounds that you can’t hear the music anymore.

Asked to explain the paradox, he continues,

From the very beginning of the digital technique I had a problem in the studio because I had too many informations concerning the sound; and music is not sound. We are using the sound for creating music, but music is actually more organizing people’s emotions in time. And it’s more the time-flow, it’s more the story you’re telling using the sound. Going by more and more perfect sound you’re not necessarily achieving a better story or are able better to tell the story because there will be a lot of factors which will start to disturb the listener – the perfection of sound, which is kind of over-exposing itself. And, on top of this, I would say there is a very interesting function of the distortion in all this. We always have some kind of distortion – in the concert hall there is a tremendous distortion. There is never a total silence in the concert hall, so there is a kind of basic hum, basic level of distortion which is something we can lean at, we can play with. And if you look at old recordings – for example, I had a beautiful recording of Chopin’s Preludes by [Alfred] Cortot. The man is really playing with these distortions, he’s really diving under it: sometimes doesn’t play half of the notes, and that I only realized after someone gave me a cleaned version of this recording. It’s awful, absolutely awful, and this man gave it with a great satisfaction, saying “look how he’s cheating in the left hand: he doesn’t play most of the notes.” I said, “well, this is terrible because for this media he recorded it for, it didn’t matter, so this man had an intelligence of playing that what was important, and hitting exactly that region in which he could transmit his art to the listener. Not bothering about all the other things with were unimportant. And now cleaning this recording is like you would go to the Louvre and undress the Mona Lisa and realise she doesn’t have very clean pants this day. This is unfair because the picture is about her smile and not about her underwear. And that’s exactly what digital technique did to us.

Krystian Zimerman, interviewed by Tom Service, Music Matters, Radio 3, 10 May 2008, 6’57”-9’47”

Two points interest me: (♮) that music is not to do with sounds or ears, but rather emotions and time; (♭) that digital recording works against music. The former claim is one I hope to explore implicitly over the next few months on this blog; the latter claim is a familiar one. I expect that I’ll keep coming back to these two oppositions of music as either audio vibrations or temporal emotions, and recording as working with distortion or seeking perfection. I’m interested in testing the objectivity of the numerous claims against the musicality of digital recording. Digital recording is encased in silence: the smallest distortion may be isolated and removed. The minute level of artifice allowed by the digital technique – where notes and beats can easily be moved, repeated, deleted, replaced – means that the end-result is not a record of an event that occurred in the studio, but a computer simulation of it. This is of little import to many: artifice is part of art, and I certainly can’t distinguish confidently between analogue and digital recordings. But the implication is that digital recording relies less on the intelligence of the player, and instead conforms to a measurable standard of apparent mathematical perfection.


Petomane: Poor Homme

Petomane, Poor Homme
CD, 2015


1960s beat group The Beatles recorded a song called “This Boy”. If I remember right, it was the b-side to one of their early 45s, “I’d Like to Shake Your Hand” – a brittle response to East-West tensions in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Anyway, at one point during “This Boy”, one of the singing Beatles cries a keening refrain, his voice filled with the charged adolescent emotion that drives almost all love songs in pop music. His voice rises to a desperate pitch, but the song demands that the tone is instantly brought back to the close harmony of the final verse. On the recording there is an audible cut at this point – not a sound, but the absence of sound: a tell-tale splice in the control room. The singer could not unleash the emotion, and then directly switch to the precise harmony of the verse. Is it a flaw? Of course not, but it lays the process bare. On Petomane’s Poor Homme, the recording process is similarly audible – nakedly revealing the limitations of the equipment.

Poor Homme’s title is recuperated (unknowingly?) from a 1990s advert for legendary wife-beater’s tipple, Stella Artois. As Interbrew’s (as was) most polarising drink, their adverts have ever-tried hopelessly to salvage the perception of the lager. Petomane, as ever, are drawn to such misdirection. This is the first album since the full integration of ancillary member M. K. Smith on guitar and backing vocals, and this augmentation introduced a new collaborative writing process. The resultant stylistic cohesion and rockist moments on the album were initially confounding, but the logic of the piece fell into place during the long coda of the opening song, “Big Guns”. The song galumphs like Dusty Springfield reinterpreted by Barry Adamson, circa 1995. Here the group links concerns old and new: quipping Aux armes et cætera, which harks back to perennial reference point Serge Gainsbourg, and combining it with the tooled-up, working-out of the lamentable man evoked by the album title. All this is done with their customary swell of musical and vocal tenderness. The political resonance is implicit throughout, but the timeless core of songwriting erupts as wildly as a sheela na gig in a council meeting. They have not lost the conceptual purity of a synth duo: they are augmented, the scope broadened – the spirit of Wendy Carlos Alomar.

The listener is confronted with a great profusion of fat arses and colourful jokes in the most compassionate songs. The puns are delivered entirely straight: jokes are not clumsily dropped in or played up, but are an integral part of the black humour used to discover our bearings in life’s profane comedy. The coexistence of comedy and tragedy is clearest in “Never Enough”, where we hear of the various metaphorical deaths of a comedian. “Live Long and Proper” is the most successful adoption of the rock form: Smith’s electric guitar strides in like The Clash in 1978 given slick FM Radio production, over a wistful tale of lost lust. As usual, Chris Kasch’s production favours a lot of space in the arrangements, and here the overdriven guitars provide a powerful counterpoint to the spare piano, synth, and drums of the verses. The words, written and sung by John P. Higgins, are not afraid of spirituality, divinity and archetypes. “The Savage Gob” ponders the sanctity of silence and the solemnity of flagstone. The final song, “Eskimo Nelson”, concludes with a beautiful evocation, rich in potent imagery, of the mysteries of inspiration. Poor Homme is a fascinating postcard from people out of place and out of time, made possible as the stars align, letting a little light down Petomane’s dilating passageway into this world of dim, austere foreclosure of passion and imagination.

Baldr’s dead

Frames from ‘Get My Own Groceries’ by John Bagnall, in Off The Road (Vesuvius Records, 1996)

The Attic tragedian Euripides died in 406 BC, and soon after, at the Theatre of Dionysus, Sophocles entered the theatre with his chorus, all dressed as mourners. At the sight of this, the audience spontaneously burst into tears. Public, communal expressions of emotion in the aftermath of the death of a culture hero are nothing new.