Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Future… starts this Saturday on Haggerston Radio

Image courtesy Sheroes tumblr

Welcome to The Future. The year is 2359. We are broadcasting from the basement archives of the former State Institute for Futurology. For the next two hours we will be sifting through the ruins of yesterday’s dreams for tomorrow. Everything is in disarray. The filing system is corrupted. But somehow, somewhere amongst the dust and the rubble we will – we will – we – w –


Haggerston Radio. This Saturday, the 21st of June. 18:00 – 20:00.








Still Life (Betamale), Jon Rafman + Oneohtrix Point Never, 2013 from jonrafman on Vimeo.


Piercing Brightness (extract) from The Wire Magazine on Vimeo.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Border Patrol: Eva Fàbregas at Kunstraum


A bright pink t-shaped lump of styrofoam has got stuck. It stutters uselessly, shunting back and forth against the feet of a desk. It’ll need a helping hand to get on its way again. “Some of them are more intelligent than others,” the woman occupying that desk informs me with a sigh as she picks up the plucky wedge and turns it around, setting it merrily scuttling forth across the floor once again.

Untitled (2014), a work by Barcelona-born artist Eva Fàbregas, sees a small hive of mysteriously animated chunks of packing material loosed upon the floor of the Kunstraum in Hoxton. Concealed within each brightly coloured hulk are miniature sensors and ambulating motors, giving each one an uncanny sense of robotic autonomy.

For all their perky, gaily-coloured cuteness, there is something faintly terrifying about Fabregas’s styrobots. We have spent so long disregarding this stuff, packing foam. It’s everywhere. What if it were to rise up and take over, like kipple? “No one can win against kipple,” as Philip K. Dick warned in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around kipple reproduces itself. … Eventually everything within the building would merge, would be faceless and identical, mere pudding-like kipple piled to the ceiling of each apartment. And, after that, the uncared-for building itself would settle into shapelessness, buried under the ubiquity of dust.” 
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

Of course, this stuff, this styrofoam, this kipple, already is moving, and was moving, long before Eva Fàbregas came along. Hardly anything on earth is more mobile. It is the hidden remainder of modern capitalism. Hidden, that is, in plain sight; rendered oblique by sheer ubiquity.

Coupled here with works by British artist Andrew Lacon – which see a photocopy of a photocopy of a photograph of the folds of the skirts of Saint Theresa (from Bernini’s famous Ecstasy of…) re-coloured by the red, blue, and green gels placed over the gallery skylights, their uncertain hues shifting with the time of day – Fàbregas’s autonomous packing bots raise a question of framing, of the surround that shapes the content we perceive and consume.

People sometimes moan about ‘style over content’, but what is content without form? It’s kipple, that’s what. Just kipple.


Saturday, 24 May 2014

Music + Moog = Control


“Because the Buchla and the Moog opened up the possibilities of controlling sound across its entire spectrum in so many diverse ways,” synth pioneer Bernie Krause explained to me via Skype, “– well, for me, it changed the whole idea of music.

“There are a lot of definitions of music. But for Paul [Beaver] and me, when we wrote the Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music, we were asked at that time to define what music was. And it was very clear, with the synthesizer, that music was control of sound and that made the change for us. We then understood what it was. Finally.”

I spoke to Bernie Krause, former west coast dealer to the R.A. Moog Co. and synthesizer consultant to groups such as The Monkees, The Doors, and The Byrds, for this article at The Quietus, The Stradivarius of the Synthesizer: Fifty Years of the Moog. You can also hear me chatting about the Moog on Tom Robinson’s 6Music show this Sunday evening, Now Playing, between 18:00 and 20:00.


Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Pioneer of the Stars: The Bad Angel’s Early Career

 

The above song, a hit for the Ohio-born Wilson in 1968, was written by a then 55 year-old Frank Stanton with a much younger man going by the name of Andy Badale.

At the same time, this Badale was also working with ondioline maestro Jean-Jacques Perrey, co-writing and producing large chunks of Perrey’s two solo albums for Vanguard, The Amazing New Electronic Pop Sound and Moog Indigo. Earlier, Badale was credited as co-composer on two Perrey & Kingsley tracks, ‘Visa to the Stars’ (from The In Sound From Way Out) and ‘Pioneers of the Stars’ (on Kaleidoscopic Vibrations).



After that, however, Badale’s trail starts to go a little cold. He wrote a few songs for Shirley Bassey, and for the Ossie Davis movie Howard’s War, and even wrote all the backing music for this children’s story.



But that was not the end of Badale’s career. Far from it. For you can see Badale playing the piano 7 minutes and 53 seconds into the following clip, having been offered the part by the film’s director after being hired as a vocal coach to the film’s Italian star.


By this time, Badale had started using the name he was born with, Angelo Badalamenti, and with that name, of course, he went on to work on many more films, notably with David Lynch.

Monday, 12 May 2014

None More Black: Andrew Chugg's Radio Documentary on Black Midi


A radio documentary on Black Midi by Andrew Chugg for PRX in which I manage to quote Spinal Tap. Also, I think at the beginning I sound (appropriately perhaps) rather like a robot.

Friday, 9 May 2014

In Praise of Ukip Poster Vandals

“As I strolled along Heath Mill Lane towards Eastside Projects, I was confronted with a billboard that offended me in so many ways … that billboard in Heath Mill Lane that was very cynically trying to pander to us at our most vulnerable and negative and not to our better selves … This billboard not only offended me morally and aesthetically it also went against everything that I feel political discourse should be about.

“Thus there was nothing for it, after my train pulled into Moor Street, I picked up my last remaining tins of Drummond’s International Grey and got to work.”

– Bill Drummond, writing in The Birmingham Post

Before

After
Nor is Drummond alone. As Glaswegian rapper tom dissonance recently posted on Twitter, Ukip are “certainly showing that grassroots art vandalism is alive and well in this country.”

A dedicated Tumblr blog, Destroyed Ukip Billboards, has even sprung up to exhibit the best examples.

I have a soft spot for this Stezaker-esque collage, which seems to transform Farage’s party’s simple-minded far-right populism into an obscure metaphysical enquiry…



Keep up the good work.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Next Level Shits and Giggles: Harmony Korine on Fight Harm



“I was messed up in the head at the time. I thought I was going to make the great American comedy, that I was going to reinvent comedy, and I wanted to pick up from where I saw Buster Keaton or WC Fields. I wanted to isolate this idea of violence and the repetition of violence and how it would become humorous. Y’know,  a guy slips on a banana peel and hits his head, or falls down some stairs, or hangs off of a clock tower, and there was something humorous in this. I was trying to figure it out. 

“So I thought the purest, truest humour would be to just have a series of brutal fights, where I would just lose the fight. But I would fight every single demographic. So, like on wednesday I’d fight a lesbian, on tuesday I’d fight a Greek guy… you know what I’m saying? To just go through the entire demographic of people that constituted New York City at the time. 

“But after maybe five fights I realised that I wasn’t gonna be able to hang on.” 


But with Chaplin and Keaton, part of what makes it funny is that you know they’ll be alright…

“Right, but like I said, I felt like it was the next [level]. I felt like it was the evolution. Where you actually knew that the person was not gonna be alright. 

“I don’t know how funny it is, but at the time it seemed like that was the most obvious place to go.”


What did your friends and family say about this project?

 “They were very concerned.”


– Harmony Korine discussing his abandoned project Fight Harm (from this 2010 interview for The Quietus)

Friday, 2 May 2014

“What’s more irresponsible: calling the stock market rigged or rigging the stock market?”: Michael Lewis speaks at LSE


“Increments of time that it’s hard to imagine being valuable – but they’re very valuable.” This is how Michael Lewis characterises the degree to which Franklin’s old saw that ‘time is money’ has become exacerbated to degrees far beyond the venerable ‘first’ American’s imaginings. 

Lewis talks of 0.25 microseconds, the degree to which the New York Stock Exchange lags behind the high speed exchanges which line the New Jersey turnpike, as “laughably slow”. By way of comparison, the author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short, and now Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, explains that one of his own sneezes takes about 100 microseconds – “and I’m a pretty fast sneezer.”

As a result of this inexcusable tardiness, the New York Stock Exchange is now, Lewis claims, little more than “a backdrop for CNBC TV shows … a stage set,” while all the real action is taking place in “fortress-like places” in the suburbs, heavily guarded, deliberately opaque, and stuffed to the gills with high-octane processing power. Indeed, every aspect of the way actual finance actually works in the new virtual economy is, Lewis claims, kept as deliberately impenetrable as the buildings in which it operates.

Not that he particularly wants to change this admittedly “poisoned” system. “I am inside the system,” the ex-Salomon Brothers broker admits. While Occupy and others hoping for a better world are merely “clamouring inchoately” at the fortress walls with “no plausible ideology to flee to.”

And yet what sticks in my mind from Lewis’s talk on monday at the Peacock Theatre of his old alma mater is what may at first seem a trivial sequence of events in the life of Brad Katsuyama, the “nice guy” from the Royal Bank of Canada who first noticed that between the moment he clicked buy on his computer terminal in Toronto and the actual moment of purchase, someone was intervening; jumping the queue, buying his shares first and selling them back to him at a higher price than he ordered.

First of all, Lewis tells us, Katsuyama thought there was a problem with his computer. He slapped the side of his monitor. Rebooted the system. No dice.

Then, when he called up technical support, they told him it was his fault. In fact, as Lewis tells it, they repeatedly laid down on him all the many different ways that this problem was his own fault.

Finally, having realised what the problem actually was, Katsuyama set about explaining it to other big investors. None of whom knew about it already. But some had noticed there was a problem. One thought he had a leak in his own house, an insider trading ripping him off from his own office.

There’s something familiar about this, a kind of blueprint for capitalism’s habitual response to exposures of its own systemic failures.

Firstly, there’s a technical problem. Just a technicality. It can be fixed by a matter of engineering, more computing power…

Secondly, the problem is yours. You have made a mistake or have some defect in your character. Perhaps you should see a shrink or try these pills…

And Thirdly, there may be a few bad apples. Perhaps one or two corrupt individuals within the system. We’ll weed them out, see them punished, carry on as normal…

But the system itself? Oh, that’s fine…

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Piano Smashing: A Brief History



1. Franz Liszt (1811—1886)

“Beethoven’s piano famously spewed broken strings out of its case in his more ferocious moments, but Liszt apparently broke the cases themselves. After one of his opera paraphrases the heaving, trembling instrument would be at his feet, utterly spent, and a new one would have to be carried out on to the stage from the wings. Those early, wooden-framed pianos simply could not cope with playing which now flowed in energy and force from shoulder and back, rather than merely with the earlier wrist and forearm technique of a Hummel or a Czerny.”

– from Stephen Hough, ‘Liszt: The Man Who Broke Pianos’


2. Alberto Savinio (1891—1952)

“Savinio’s performance techniques included smashing the piano with his fists and dragging a board up and down the keys. The results were predictable but exciting. After one concert André Billy recalls hearing Apollinaire exclaim: ‘He broke the piano! Now that’s what I call a musician!’ In a written review of the same concert, Apollinaire goes further: ‘I believe that within two years he will have broken all the pianos existing in Paris, after which he might leave to traverse the world and break all the pianos existing in the universe. This will perhaps be a good riddance.’”

– from Christopher Schiff, ‘Banging on the Windowpane: Sound in Early Surrealism


3. Jerry Lee Lewis (1935+)

“He had the crowd screaming and rushing the stage, and when it seemed that the screams had grown loudest and the rushing most chaotic, he stood, licked the piano stool away with violence, and broke into ‘Great Balls of Fire’. As the screaming chaos grew suddenly and sublimely greater, he drew from his jacket a Coke bottle full of gasoline, and he doused the piano with one hand as the other banged out the song; and he struck a wooden match and he set the piano aflame, and his hands, like the hands of a madman, did not quit the blazing keys, but kept pounding, until all became unknown tongues and holiness and fire, and the kids went utterly, magically berserk with the frenzy of it all … ”

– from Nick Tosches, Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story


4. Piano Smashing Contests (UK, 1950s–60s)

“It was a strange time to start learning the piano. In the 1950s, when I was a boy, it was the fashion in England to hold piano smashing competitions. Because television had arrived. The piano in the front parlor in most houses became suddenly redundant. And there was little or no demand for secondhand pianos. So all around the country, at school fêtes and country fairs, an orgy of piano smashing broke out. On village greens, on football pitches, teams of men with sledge hammers, axes, hacksaws and crowbars attacked upright pianos and reduced them to debris that had to pass through a hoop about two inches in diameter, to verify that the destruction was whole-hearted and thorough.”

“I witnessed a piano-smashing only once. I was shocked by it. To see two teams of grown men wantonly laying in to two defenceless uprights, to see felted hammers flying everywhere, tangles of springy piano wire, splintered wood and the black and white ivories lying slaughtered on the green grass. Now, years later, I think that it was possibly also a symbolic act, the ritual destruction of repressive Victorian values, embodied in the piano, which deserved to be taken out on to the village green by right-thinking English yeomen and smashed. Decades of primness, prudery and piety in the parlor, of hypocrisy and violence, of empire, wars and colonialism. All this projected on to the piano, around which families prayed and sang hymns and parlor songs of fervent faith and patriotism. But the craft that went into an upright piano! All gone in a twinkling. And a tinkling. How very sad it was.”

– from Anthony Marshall, ‘Still Life with Goanna?


“Some time in the mid 1960s, by which time I’d been doing my head in the piano thing for a few years, I saw a feature on telly about people smashing up a piano with sledgehammers. It not only looked fantastic, it also sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. What I wanted to do was get a sledgehammer and smash up our piano just to hear those sounds at close quarters for myself.”

“At that time the country was full of old pianos that nobody could play anymore. They were all left over from a time before radios and record players, when people had to make their own music. To be able to play the piano was a social skill that many a young man aspired to. Every pub had one. But you know that, you’ve seen enough old films. There was another problem for these old pianos. Central heating. When it came in for the masses in the 1960s. central heating completely fucked these pianos. Buckled their frames, made them impossible to keep in tune.”

“After this one showing of a piano being smashed on telly, piano smashing swept the country. No village fete was complete without a piano smashing contest. Soon all the pianos available for smashing in the country had been smashed. So piano-smashing faded from the place it held for a few years in the public imagination and popular culture. Except I kept dreaming of smashing our piano.”

– from Bill Drummond, The 17


5. ‘Piano Activities’ by Philip Corner (as performed at the Wiesbaden Fluxus Festival, 1962)

“In Philip Corner’s Piano Activities, performed in 1962 at the first Fluxus-titled festival in Wiesbaden, Germany, Dick Higgins, George Maciunas, Alison Knowles, and Emmett Williams engaged in the apparent destruction of an old, unplayable piano belonging to the Kunstverein. They did destroy the instrument, but not haphazardly … the careful rubbing of a brick over the strings, the patient waiting for the right moment to use a hammer.” 

– from Hannah Higgins, Fluxus Experience

“The work was not originally intended to include the destruction of the instrument, although in this performance the activities were interpreted as such and the piano was taken apart violently with crowbars, saws, and hammers. Corner was against any wanton destruction, but when informed that the parts had been turned into sculptures he understood that the piano had been positively transformed by its breakdown.”



6. Annea Lockwood (1939+)

“Set upright piano (not a grand) in an open space with the lid closed.

Spill a little lighter fluid on a twist of paper and place inside, near the pedals.

 Light it.

 Balloons may be stapled to the piano.

 Play whatever pleases you for as long as you can.”

– score to ‘Piano Burning’ (1968)


Monday, 28 April 2014

Everybody Was Doing It And We Didn’t Know What It Was



"You know, when I first started out, I was working as a sculptor with a lot of different kinds of people. This was New York in the 70s. There were like sculptors, painters, musicians… And at one point we were all working on operas.”

“We called them that. They were just big events with lots of stuff. And somehow the voice would be threading through it – and that was it.”

“It was weird. You would be walking down the street and go, how’s your opera? Mine’s fine, how’s yours? Everybody was doing it and we didn’t know what it was.”

“So, I like the word opera. It just means a big kind of thing. Often featuring the voice – maybe not bel canto.”

— Laurie Anderson (from an interview for The Quietus)

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Sounds Are Like People: works by Morton Feldman and Heiner Goebbels at MAC, Lyon


“It’s a funny story, actually – ” A portly, bespectacled New Yorker in his late fifties is addressing a bemused crowd in Frankfurt. It’s 1984. The title of the talk is ‘The Future of Local Music’ but it’s a title the man on stage is barely even paying lip service to. 

“Stockhausen asked for my secret. ‘What’s your secret?’ And I said, ‘I don’t have a secret, but if I do have a point of view, it’s that sounds are very much like people. And if you push them, they push you back. So, if I have a secret: don’t push the sounds around.’ Karlheinz leans over to me and says: ‘Not even a little bit?’” 

“I’m not like Stockhausen,” Morton Feldman insisted that day in Frankfurt, “I’m not creating music, it’s already there … ” Feldman’s not-being-like Stockhausen is one of the perennial themes of the now-famous Frankfurt lecture. “What really makes a composer distinguishable from another composer,” he says later, “is one’s orchestration,” – before adding, “ – except for Stockhausen…” 

This un-Stockhausen-ness of the great Brooklynite composer is illustrated by a diagram sketched on an A4 sheet, one of thirty recently acquired by the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Lyon, in which we find two columns headed up ‘Stockhausen’ and ‘Feldman’. In between the two we read down the parameters ‘Logic’, ‘Continuity’, ‘Climax’, ‘Tension’, and so on. Beside each of these traditional musical values – twelve in all – there’s a little tick in the column marked ‘Stockhausen’ and a little cross in the other.


Feldman’s felt-tipped notes from that Frankfurt lecture, spread across the walls of the MAC for the exhibition Listen Profoundly (which finishes today), show a sprawling and erratic sensibility. Skewed underlinings, crossings out, scarcely legible scribblings and multiple exclamation points abound in a selection of scribblings that resemble the exact opposite of the Powerpoint presentation your colleague gave at the lunchtime meeting the other day. 

We find strange diagrams with an oblong grid here, a few marked pizzicato there, dots, staves, the word ‘JERK’ in block capitals. They resemble impromptu scores as much as lecture notes – and maybe they are. This is a composer, after all, for whom sounds themselves seem just “intuitively to do things” and ideas are like “children … yearning for attention.”

It’s all about orchestration, he insists. That, and listening. “One of the problems about functional harmony is that it hears for us, see,” Feldman says. “We no longer have to hear. We are the found object, you see, where it’s listening for us. Harmony is like going to a public accountant to do certain work.”

“Listen profoundly” Feldman wrote on one of his A4 sheets, with a circle and a square below. The shapes recall the windows of the main hall in the Genko-an temple in Kyoto. “There are two differently shaped windows with views to the same garden,” Heiner Goebbels explains in the notes accompanying the exhibition, “a square window – the ‘window of confusion’ – and a round window – the ‘window of enlightenment’. More than twenty years ago I could encounter these two perspectives on a concert tour through Japan and in 2008 I started a series of installations freely adapting this experience.”


Genko-an 69006 (2014) takes us into a blackened room divided by a pillar. Taking a seat on a bench at the back of the room, we are presented with a choice: sit one side of the pillar and face a large square in neon, sit the other side, and you will face a neon circle. Everything else is blackness and – thanks to the pillar – there isn’t anyway of sitting such that you can see both.

Out of the darkness come voices, some familiar, some strange. Each voice – Alvin Lucier reading the instructions to I Am Sitting in a Room, Gertrude Stein reading from The Making of Americans, Marina Abramovic and Ulay assuring us repeatedly that “everything will be alright”, and a whole host of ethnographic recordings from around the world – comes and goes, scarcely overlapping or crowding each out. None of the sounds are being pushed around here. Feldman, doubtless, would approve.

The bright neon lights of the circle and the square seemed to me to tremble a little or to fluctuate in intensity from time to time but I was never sure whether this was simply an effect of staring at them for so long. I spent some time in this darkened room, watching and staring at these shapes, facing sometimes the circle, sometimes the square, sometimes trying – and failing – to see both at once. But I couldn’t honestly say that I felt more enlightened looking at the one or more confused looking at the other.

I could certainly say that I enjoyed my time in Goebbels’s ‘garden’. Having spent the previous hours, before arriving at the museum, soaking up the botanic gardens next door, I found these acoustic ‘flowers’ as perfectly placed, as harmoniously balanced, as those releasing their perfumes outside.


Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Criticism By Other Means


I have two short pieces (on George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral and Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format) in this new collection from Review 31, coming out soon from Zero Books

The book, which will be published in June, also features writing by Nina Power, Benjamin Noys, Ian Birchall, Gee Williams, Dan Barrow, Hugh Foley, and many other fine people. It is available to pre-order now from The Book Depository or Amazon (10% cheaper at the former).

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Present Fictions


“All these are really great,” she said, shuffling through powerpoint slides depicting babies with gills, oil sheikhs practising terraforming in a luminous sandbox, a teeming rainforest populated by genetically engineered creepy crawlies. “Really interesting.” None of this stuff is real. At least, not quite. They are design fictions, speculative forays upon the product cycles of other worlds: a futurism of things. 

A 99¢ store on Flatbush Avenue in downtown Brooklyn holds a one-off sale on the inexpensive household goods of tomorrow: deuterium filters, personal air cylinders, degrees while you sleep. Giant energy-harvesting mushrooms stolen from a Dutch biotech lab flourish amongst the highrise blocks of a Mumbai slum. Nano-waste like bionic enhancers and optical metamaterials are traded and harvested in the aftermath of a World Expo in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the year 2020. 

But despite these fantastical scenarios, “science fiction,” we are told, “is not as intrinsically embedded in design fiction as some people think.” 

The speaker, wide-eyed and infectiously ebullient, is Cher Potter, resident forecaster at the Victoria and Albert Museum and a former director at fashion industry trend spotters WGSN. Potter is “definitely not interested in utopias”. Nor does she have much time for “trying to create betters in the world.” What she is interested in is ideas – especially ideas of the sort easily expressible in glossy images and a few lines of text. These she breezes through as though absent-mindedly scrolling through Tumblrs. What does it all mean? What are the implications of this stuff? What’s it trying to say about the world? Who cares? Doesn’t matter. No time. Everything is “great”. Everything is “really interesting.” 

But Cher Potter, and the industry she is an exponent of, are on the up. “Forecasting,” she tells us, “is one of the fastest growing industries in the UK at the moment.” A broadly-framed ‘speculative practice’, taking in everyone from radical artists and theorists to corporate trend spotters and government-backed predictive analysts, is here constituted as a single “emergent discipline”. As artist and film-maker Gareth Owen Lloyd, director of Peckham’s Food Face art space, prods from his seat in the audience: Would Potter forecast a coming trend for the forecasting of trends? When she looks ahead in time, does she see more and more people looking further and further ahead? 

Potter demurs at the question; apprehensive, perhaps, of its gordian implications. But the query is indicative of the kind of entanglements that arise when the language of marketing and promotions gets into bed with the respective blue-sky spiels of think tanks and exhibition curators. The future is so hot right now – and even more so, in the future.


Friday, 4 April 2014

The Blue Goo Cometh: Patrick Furness at Food Face, Peckham


Via Facebook

Patrick Furness’s live intervention at the Food Face artspace presents itself like a freeze frame from a science fiction film which the viewer is invited to step into and wander about. A trail of viscous blue goo leads from the loosely-curtained entrance into the gallery space. Following this stream of azure slime through Food Face’s angular confines, we discover the artist himself, lying on his back in a full-body puffa suit, covered from neck to toe in this same sludgy substance. 

From his feet, the goo extends further, ending in a puddle beneath a vertical bank of five TV monitors – like those used by a film director on set. Bar the occasional flicker, each monitor displays a static frame of the same blue monochrome. 

It’s almost as if our protagonist was surprised, while watching Derek Jarman’s Blue, to find the colour leaking out of the screen, overcoming and engulfing him, pinning him down to the floor. But absent are the voices of Jarman and his co-narrators; instead we hear waves of electronic sound flowing from concealed speakers. Resonant synth pads cycle through a loop of a dozen-odd unequally-lengthed chords (a twelve-bar blues?), alternately bright with subdued technological optimism and seething with barely suppressed foreboding. 



It was as a sound artist – albeit of a peculiarly playful sort – that I first encountered Furness. At the Royal Festival Hall in 2010, Furness covered the Clore Ballroom in boards of MDF and laminated them with 7.9km of magnetic audio tape. Visitors were invited to drive remote controlled cars with playback heads under their chassis over the tape race tracks, picking up the electronic sounds recorded thereon as they went. Around the same time, his band Nine Owls in a Baguette performed with extravagant costumes and homemade synthesizers at a little cabaret evening I used to put on at a jazz club in Greenwich.

Several years later, and Furness is now focusing (so Food Face’s press release tells me) on “humour, conspiracy, and his place in the universe.” The present show, R- - -Retrograde reflects his “ongoing research around cosmology” with an oblique look at retrograde motions and inverse evolutions.

There is a pervading sense of excess about the piece – why five screens? Why so much goop? Like the old biotech spook story of grey goo overtaking the planet, we seem to be witnessing someone literally flattened and surrendered by a massive superfluity of information, of mucilaginous media flow, or of aesthetics, even. Think of modern art’s long love affair with the cerulean, from Picasso to Barnett Newman.  He could have been bludgeoned to the floor by art itself, like an Yves Klein happening gone horribly wrong.



But there has been another, rather more practical use of ultramarine gunk recently. Over the last few years hazardous materials crews in Japan have been liberally applying a gelatinous blue goo in and around the exclusion zone surrounding the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Apparently this stuff, called DeconGel, can clean up anything – dirt, toxic contaminants, radiation, you name it – and then just peels off like a latex skin. 

In true comic-book-super-hero-origin-story style, the stuff was only discovered after an accident in a chemistry lab, but with 72 new nuclear reactors currently under construction (according to the IAEA), and weird weather on the rise globally raising the spectre of more uncontrollable and unforeseeable accidents, perhaps this strange blue goo will become an increasingly common sight in cities and rural areas around the world. Patrick Furness’s Retrograde, then, becomes less a step back, more a look ahead.



Monday, 17 March 2014

Enjoy The Silence: Bill Drummond interview from Plan B magazine on The 17, No Music Day, and the end of music


While Bill Drummond punts daffodils beneath Spaghetti Junction, I thought I’d post this interview I conducted with the man for Plan B magazine, November 2006. The photo (above) is from the original copy, taken by Eva Edsjö.

Bill Drummond, formerly one half of arch-pop provocateurs The KLF, has been having fantasies again. Throughout his teenage years, he would dream up fantasy bands. He didn’t need to write the music but he knew what it would sound like; he knew what they would say in interviews; he knew the stage act and where they would perform it. Years later, as a record producer in the Eighties, he would rip off his own fantasies to inform the real bands he was working with.

Over the last few years Bill’s fantasies have taken a darker turn – but also, perhaps, a more profound one. Inspired by Oxford University’s early music Choir Of The Sixteen (“If I’m being flippant I’ll say that I want to go one better”) and a childhood spent singing in Presbyterian church choirs, Bill Drummond has started dreaming of a fantasy choir, led by text-based scores, called The17. And that’s just the beginning. A literal beginning in fact: a Year Zero, a return to first principles. Rip it up and start again.

Imagine if all music had disappeared...


Bill Drummond: “Wouldn’t it be great if we knew music had existed, but the CDs were blank. You’d go to the piano and you can’t do anything, drum kits don’t work, it’s all gone. We’ve still got the emotional need to make music but it cannot be done on any instrument.

“So that’s kind of where thinking about the voice came from. I wrote this score and, the way it’s written, any 17 people could get together and do it. But as soon as I did it as a performance in front of an audience I realised that isn’t the way it works. Having an audience, it suddenly becomes show business. What had worked really well was just the group of 17 people doing it together. So it’s evolved from that, this thing in my head: not just wanting it to be any 17 people that would do it, but – this is the ideal – it should be done with non-musical people.”


So why The17?

“I always knew this fantasy choir was going to be called The17. I remember hearing that Beatles song with the line, “She was just 17/You know what I mean” on the radio when I was about 11, and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know what you mean’ – well, years later, obviously I knew what it meant! From that point something clicked in my head whenever I’d hear ‘17’ in the lyric of a song. And the age of 17 is quite a strange age, this dark era – well, it was for me – when you’re into dark music, whether that’s Shostakovich or Nirvana.

“I remember, five years ago, being on Oxford Street, and I thought I’d pop into HMV. I remember just walking through the door and I felt such a dread. There’s aisle upon aisle of CDs, in every genre possible, and I just thought, I know whatever I get here, it’s not going to open another door in my head. That night, I got home, I did some email, and – it was about the time Napster was at its full fame – I remember feeling incredibly depressed. It was as if every piece of recorded music from the whole history of recorded music was behind that computer screen laughing at me. It was saying, ‘Go on, download us!’ I could have it all now, just download it and listen to it, and this, for some reason, really depressed me.

“So I tried an idea the next day, whereby I’d only listen to new music – music made by people this year and who had never made music before. That’s what I did for nearly a year, and I did it religiously.

“Every weekend I’d look at the music pages of the Sunday paper and pick something new – whatever genre – it didn’t matter, it just had to be new. And my thinking was: if you can’t say it in the first album then you can’t say it.

“And most of the time I’d just say to myself, ‘This is shit, this was done before, 10, 15, 20 or even 40 years ago.’ The music wasn’t opening any new doors in my head. It just wasn’t new enough.”


So tell me about No Music Day – it’s presented on the website as a score like those for The17... 

“I wanted to see if I could go a week without hearing music. At all. And I never even attempted it, because the idea was that if you start on Monday, and then late Tuesday you hear a piece of music, even unintentionally, you had to start the seven days all over again. I realised it was just impossible. I mean, I live with a family. This cannot be done unless I go away and block myself off in the mountains. Then I brought it down to one day and I thought, OK, there’ll be one day and it’s No Music Day.”


One of the things I found interesting about the website were the little personal testimonies by people saying that once they’d stopped listening to records and CDs, they started to find all sorts of other things musical and started to wonder to themselves, ‘Am I breaking the rules by paying attention to the music in the sound of the rain?’ 

Was that ever part of the idea from the beginning, to raise this question of the nature of music and how to define it, where its borders are?

“No. I’m not saying, listen to the sound of the rain. That’s not the score. Mine is: give yourself a day off. See if you can go a day without actually hearing anything musically and actually think for yourself what it is you want from music, instead of just accepting it.”


Something that struck me about The17 is that each piece is in a sense both a score and a manifesto. The Manual that you wrote many years ago [with Jimmy Cauty], How To Have a Number One The Easy Way, is also both a score and a manifesto. They’re both: anyone can do it, go out and get a bunch of people together... 

“Basically, I’ve had one idea, and I’m aware of that now. Christ, I’m 30 years older and I’m still doing the same thing. But the main thing for me, the main message that I’ve wanted to put out, is: don’t wait to be asked. If you want to do something, go and do it. Whatever it is.”

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Voices of the Unborn: Opening Night of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Royal Opera House


To begin a performance of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten with an eye-catching shadowplay cast by the body of the very woman whose lack of a shadow gives the work its title is an act either of extraordinary bravery or extreme folly. Either way, it is characteristic of Claus Guth’s production as a whole: exquisite to look at, but seldom operating in service to the clear elucidation of Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s already somewhat convoluted story. 

Flush from the success of Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss and Hofmannstahl had sought to create a modern fairytale. What they came up with was something far more dark and mysterious than anything that spring from the pen of the Brothers Grimm. An Empress who lacks a shadow has three days in which to find one or her husband, the Emperor, will be turned to stone. 

With her Nurse, she descends to the world of humans in order to persuade the young wife of a poor tanner to forswear childbirth and, in so doing, sell them her shadow in exchange for worldly luxury and sensual pleasure. Though haunted by the voices of her unborn children, the tanner’s wife at first agrees, but the Empress is increasingly gripped by remorse for the husband…

Guth decks the stage in curved mahogany and peoples it with a supporting cast of animal-headed extras. It is as though the archetypes of Jung’s collective unconscious had broken free and invaded the doctor’s own study. As this image of a secessionist drawing room is at first invaded by the world of fairytales only to withdraw back into itself, we are inclined to treat the whole tale as the dream of a Freudian hysteric from the comfort of her psychiatrist’s couch.

With its vast, densely packed orchestra, conductor Semyon Bychkov had to carefully squeeze his way through to the podium at the start of each act (to increasingly rapturous applause on each occasion). With such resources available, the score produces a tremendous dynamic range and a whole swathe of novel timbral combinations, all deftly handled by the Soviet-born conductor (a former student of Ilya Musin). 

As melodic as Der Rosenkavalier, Die Frau ohne Schatten is also, in its own way, as modern as Elektra, and its hard to imagine such a work being composed by anyone who hadn’t previously written both. And if the richly textured orchestration bears its debt to Wagner, there are many more who are indebted in turn. Every scene threw out so many musical ideas, each one the seed of many a Hollywood film score. 

A flop on its first performance, Strauss and Hofmannstahl’s fifth collaboration was for a long time rarely performed for it places enormous demands – particularly on its three female leads. Emily Magee (as the Empress), in particular, sung superbly, handling the role’s many high notes and coloratura passages with seeming ease. At times, however, despite their different tessituras, it was difficult to distinguish one voice from the other. An opera singer’s voice is like an actor’s face, bearer of their emotion, their unique character and identifying signature, and from the upper amphitheatre it wasn’t always clear quite who was singing what. 

There was a tremendous lushness, a kind of aesthetic opulence to every aspect of this production, but it finally did little to reassure the confused voices in the crowd who worried over the plot as they hurried off for ice creams each interval. Still certain moments continue to haunt: the ghostly voices of the unborn children, the Empress’s snarled renunciation: I will not.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

A Huge Growth on the Face of a Beautiful Child: Michael Gira on the New Swans Album


Playing a live solo acoustic set at St. John Church-at-Hackney, last night, Swans mainman, Michael Gira announced plans for a new Swans album to be released this coming May. "Imagine a huge growth on the face of a beautiful child," he said, "and it’s kind of glowing. Then cut that growth off and flush it down the toilet. Well, that’s what it sounds like…"

When I spoke on the phone to Gira last week for this Quietus Essay, we spoke about the rehearsal space he had in Alphabet City, Manhattan in the early ’80s. A windowless shopfront where machine gunfire could be heard at night, I couldn’t help but ask what effect such an environment would have on the music he was making at the time. "Well, I think that exterior kind of describes my insides as well, anyway. So I'm not sure what came first," he replied, laughing down the line. "They’re both equally cataclysmic." 

When pushed, he would finally admit that what he called the "siege mentality" of the place "in retrospect it might have" had some effect on his music. "I would have vehemently denied it at the time. You know, it's not like a painter looking at a landscape and they try to depict what they see. Music is a different thing. It is an experience in itself. I kind of shy away from something that’s trying to depict an emotional state. Rather, I’m more interested in what emotional state the music makes happen by experiencing it."

Friday, 28 February 2014

A Weird Way To Make A Record: George Clinton on Atomic Dog

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When I spoke to George Clinton the other week for this Fact piece, I also asked him which, of all the records he’s been involved, he was most proud of, and it was this one, Atomic Dog, that he pointed to, "just because it was that weird."
"It was just a weird situation how it happened. It couldn’t ever happen again because I was fucked up when I did it. They had the tape on backwards and I came in and tried to sing and I’m fucked, I don't notice that it’s backwards. They got the shit on the other side. They got to turn the tape back over to hear the music. But I had it on backwards, all I can hear is shh-sh-shh-shh. That’s why I'm talking: This is the story of a famous dog… Cos I’m trying to wait to see what key it’s in. But there’s nothing but beats so I did my whole part ad-libbing Why must I feel like that. Gary came back and instead of doing it right, he put the harmony on around what I did and I’m basically talking. Why must I feel like that / Why must I chase the cat / Nothing but the dog in me. And it sounds like a brand new style of shit. So now it sounds like its own arrangement. It was a weird way to make a record. They were gonna turn it back over but by this time they had put the bass on there while it was backwards. So now you got a brand new type of thing. I wouldn't even try to do that again. Don't even think about that. It just happened like that."

Saturday, 8 February 2014

All these different worlds… Holly Herndon and the Future of Music

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The brilliant new single from Holly Herndon, available from RVNG Intl.

Late last year I interviewed Holly Herndon for this Quietus Essay and as we were chatting, she shared with me her predictions for the future of music over the coming year…
"I see 2014 being full of a lot of hard abrupt edges, a lot of fast changes. It’s less about how, back in the day, you would try to put one reverb on everything so it would sound like it’s in the same space. Fuck that! It’s more interesting to have a snare that’s played in outer space with a vocal that’s happening in a tiny wooden cabin. That’s fine. That’s almost like a return to music concrète but with aural architecture. It’s like a collaging of spaces. And that really is in direct reference to browsers and online experience. All these different worlds jammed up right next to each other…"

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Heavyweight History: Christian Jankowski at the Lisson Gallery


What is the weight of history? Can we measure it, raise it up, overcome it? Might some history weigh heavier on us than other? Thanks to Christian Jankowski and the Polish weightlifting team, we may be a little closer to answering some of these questions. In producing his film Heavy Weight History (2013), the German artist enlisted the help of a group of eleven professional strongmen to attempt to lift a series of historical monuments in and around Warsaw, from statues of the nineteenth century socialist activist Ludwik Waryński to Ronald Reagan.

Poland and, indeed, much of the former eastern bloc, may well be feeling the weight of history bearing down rather heavier than most upon its shoulders at the moment. The violent return of the repressed spectres of the far right and far left alike on the streets of the Ukraine and elsewhere has done little to halt the ongoing erasure of historical monuments from the cities of the ex-USSR and where they are not erased altogether they tend to be shunted into out-of-town theme parks (as in Budapest’s Memorial Park and Grutas Park in Lithuania). As Agata Pyzik remarks in her new book Poor But Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West, the more countries aestheticise their past, the greater their political passivity. In Poland, in particular, the idols of communism were quickly replaced by Western icons like McDonalds.



And so it is with Jankowski’s experiment. Narrated breathlessly and relentlessly in the manner of a televised sporting event by a commentator who details the history of each monument like a
team’s track record, “eleven brave men” in shorts and tank tops hunker down together in order to “face history”. But while the team are able to shift the mid-nineteenth century bronze mermaid from the Old Town Market Square, and even lift up the sleeping soldier who lies amongst the Monument of Polish-Soviet Comradeship, nonetheless one statue in particular proved peculiarly resistant. “Ronald Reagan is like a rock,” announces the commentator triumphantly. “This is the heaviest weight history!”

Around the screen upon which this film plays hang seven photographs, each one 140 by 186.8 cm, capturing for posterity these heroic attempts at shouldering the weight of history. In high contrast black and white and printed on baryt paper, the images transform the efforts to shift these old monuments into monuments themselves. But one thing especially highlighted in the photographs is the way a sheet of off-white fabric is hung behind each monument before lifting, in order to create a blank, context-free background for the action. It’s this final detail that suggests perhaps that the way historical events are framed in public discourse has some bearing on how easy their burden is to shift.


Monday, 23 December 2013

End Of Year Top Ten

Like most freelance writers at this time of year, I've spent much of the last few weeks filing lists of end of year reflections and personal favourites. But I have a confession to make: I lied. On all of them. 

It’s not that I don’t like the things I said I like. I do. But they weren’t really the records or the films or the whatever that meant the most to me this year. My real cultural highlights from the year would all have been completely inadmissible in any of the end of year round-ups I was invited to take part in – because none of them, not one of them, were new this year. 

The songs and films that stayed with me this year were not new releases plugged to me by PRs or eagerly awaited before their gala release. They were old songs that someone linked to the YouTube clip of on Facebook or things I got out of the library or just stuff that I happened to stumble across over the last twelve months for whatever mundane reason now mostly forgotten. 

Before this year, I had never seen Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, for instance. So obviously that’s about a hundred times better than anything that was actually released for the first time this year. 

Similarly, I eventually managed to come up with enough new releases to fill up the top tens The Wire asked of me. But a far more accurate picture of my listening habits this year would look like this…

Thursday, 28 November 2013


I have a thing about music and ‘the post-human’ called ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Violins’ in this here volume. You can buy it. Do let me know what the rest is like…

Saturday, 16 November 2013

“Something to hum while thinking about the end of the world”: Hatsune Miku’s Vocaloid Opera


Last night I saw a pop star, an international celebrity with adoring fans who imitate her style and travel miles to see her. A true global phenomenon. Hatsune Miku took the stage of Paris’s 150 year-old Théâtre du Châtelet dressed in a series of outfits drawn exclusively from Marc Jacobs’s forthcoming spring collection for Louis Vuitton. Her voice soared above a torrent of cascading string arpeggios, white noise bursts, and digital glitches, all emanating from one man with a wild hairdo hunched over in a booth towards the back of the stage, albeit dispersed about the room through a 10.2 channel surround sound system. The stage was decked with vast screen walls receiving over 10,000 lumens from seven different projectors. 

So far, par for the course in an age when spectacular concerts are increasingly a major source of revenue for singers worldwide. Except for one thing: Hatsune Miku never stopped off those video screens. Because Hatsune Miku does not exist.

In 1996, William Gibson wrote a novel called Idoru about a rock star named Rez who falls in love with a synthetically generated Japanese Idol singer named Rei Toei. As her handler Kuwayama explains, Rei Toei is “the result of an array of elaborate constructs that we refer to as ‘desiring machines.’ … aggregates of subjective desire … an architecture of articulated longing …” Her only reality, Rez elaborates “is the realm of ongoing serial creation … Entirely process; infinitely more than the combined sum of her various selves. The platforms sink beneath her, one after another, as she grows denser and more complex…” 

By the time Hatsune Miku started playing ‘live’ arena concerts and opening major rock festivals, she was being described in just these terms: as a virtual Idol singer, the endlessly splintered product of a series of ongoing negotiations and collective fantasies on the part of numerous artists, corporate backers, and fans. But she was not designed as an Idoru like Rei Toei. The creation of Hatsune Miku was much closer to the programming of a new guitar plug-in on Garageband than the grooming of a new pop star.

Miku’s developer, the Crypton Future Media corporation, is a joint stock company (Kabushiki gaisha) founded in Sapporo in 1995. Up until just over five years ago, their business revolved around the production and sale of CDs and DVDs of sound effects, production music and background music, as well as software synthesizer applications for music hardware manufacturers like Roland and Yamaha. When Yamaha released its Vocaloid speech synthesis program in 2004, they contracted Crypton to design two of the virtual singers-in-a-box that came with the package, Meiko and Kaito. Users could buy either of these singers, and simply by entering their desired lyrics and melody, have them sing whatever they wanted.

But three years later, Crypton decided to try something different. When Yamaha released their updated Vocaloid 3 engine, once again they asked Crypton to develop a voice library to sell alongside the software editor. Crypton sampled the Japanese actress Saki Fujita uttering the full range of phonemes, just as they had (using different actors) for their previous Vocaloid products. Then they opted to take this one a step further. So Crypton invited manga artist Kei Garou to design an “android” singer in the distinctive turquoise-blue colour of a Yamaha synthesizer. 

With the image complete, Crypton posted online a personal ‘data sheet’ for their creation, listing her age (16 years old), star sign (virgo), height (5 foot 2), weight (42 kg), birthday (31st August), and best vocal range. They named her Hatsune Miku after the Japanese words for “first” (hatsu), “sound” (ne), and “future” (miku). She was to be “the first sound of the future,” according to her creators, “an android diva in the near-future where songs are lost.” 

To begin with, Miku was marketed, like her predecessors, towards professional music producers. But within four days of her release, fan-made videos of her started to appear on the Japanese video-sharing site Nico Nico Douga. Within twelve days, the Hatsune Miku Vocaloid library had sold un unprecedented 3,000 copies – a figure that has since risen to over 70,000. Canadian fan, Scott Fairbairn claims she is not only “the most illustrated character” of all time, but also “the most prolific singer in history”. Today, Amazon.com lists over 2,000 songs for sale attributed to Miku, many of them by amateur producers, and there are many, many more on YouTube and Nico Nico Douga. Crypton claim there exist over 30,000.

This element of collective, user-generated creation has been the key to Miku’s success. As Fairbairn explains, “One fan might generate an idea for a song and post the partially-finished product on the web, only to have another fan carry on with the project, adding to the original composition and perhaps coming up with a finished song. Then an illustrator might create an image to go with the song, leading to another producer creating a video based on the illustration. Others might create a cover of the same song using the voice of a different Vocaloid.” The process then repeats ad infinitum.

“She’s a wiki-celebrity,” claims MIT professor Ian Condry. “Enough people act on her that she takes on a life, but not of her own – everybody else’s.” While for William Gibson, “Miku is more about the fundamentally virtual nature of all celebrity, the way in which celebrity has always existed apart from the individual possessing it. One’s celebrity actually lives in others.” 

If Crypton were initially taken aback by the scale of Miku’s success, they were quick to catch up and eager to capitalise. They now have their own web community, Piapro, for fans to upload their own Miku-based art and music to, as well as their own record company, KarenT (named after Alvin Toffler’s daughter) to release the best of the fan-made songs. Lucrative corporate sponsorship has come in the form of endorsements for Toyota cars, Google Chrome, the Family Mart supermarket, and Sega video games, who have their own line of Miku games called Project DIVA (an extensive range of projects, nonetheless outnumbered by the huge array of fan-made software applications that bear her image).

In 2009, Hatsune Miku played her first ‘live’ concert. A holographic singer with a full live band. The illusion was created by a technique known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ – a 3D-seeming image projected on a forty-five degree-angled glass plane (the same technique was later used to resurrect the dead rapper Tupac Shakur at the Coachella Festival in 2012). And while her first gigs were at Anime Expos, she has since played vast arenas in front of tens of thousands of people and taken the stage at prestigious rock festivals like Summer Sonic. In November 2012 she even sung with the Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra.

And now, this performance at the Théâtre du Châtelet, her first show in Europe. Billed as ‘The End: A Vocaloid Opera’, the piece consisted of a series of distinct numbers united by the running theme of Miku’s reflections upon her own mortality. It makes for a very peculiar experience. Crypton have never specified anything of Miku’s personality and Fairbairn insists this has always been a crucial part of her appeal. She exists as a pure tabula rasa, which according to Fairbain “makes it very easy for each fan to perceive in Miku those qualities which they personally hold in high regard. Each fan’s experience of Hatsune Miku is unique.” 

This poses obvious problems for the development of a music drama with a continuous storyline. As a result, much of the dialogue, written by award-winning playwright Toshiki Okada, sounds like the listless spiel of a Turing Test-failing chatterbot in the midst of an existential crisis. It’s remarkable, in fact, quite how little happens for an hour and a half, beyond Miku’s eventual acceptance that she may die “like humans do” but that’s ok, just so long as she has “something to hum while thinking about the end of the world.”

But beyond the obvious urge to legitimise, through the high cultural cachet of a nineteenth century theatre and the mystical aura of ‘opera’, what is essentially an expensively-branded software instrument; what are we to take from The End?  Principally, perhaps, the experience of an increasingly tenuous line between the real world and its virtual twin. Such doubling is one of the opera’s themes. Right from the beginning, Miku finds herself confronted with someone with the same length and colour hair as her. “What are you doing here?” she asks, “What have you come to say?” A fairly confrontational pair of questions considering the number of audience members who had arrived in full Miku cosplay. 

At the show’s end, Hatsune Miku walks onto the stage and takes a bow next to her composer. In doing so, she steps momentarily into a world in which ‘real’ pop singers are almost universally augmented by digital autotune and plastic surgery, and Tumblr blogs are maintained by ‘otherkin’ who may ‘present’ as human but self-identify as any number of imaginary beasts from comics and computer games. In such a world, it becomes increasingly difficult to think of that line between the actual and fictional as anything else but a highly mobile continuum.





Monday, 11 November 2013

Making Me Blue All The Time: Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine


It’s 1978. The scene is a discotheque in a shopping mall. Flashing lights, bippety-boppety basslines, guys with big sideburns and even bigger shirt collars. Everybody’s dancing and having a good time. Except for one man. Huge, bald, and very angry, the music seems to have sent him into a psychotic rage. He clutches his ears and screams before thrashing out wildly at anyone near him. 

Outside, on the mall’s main concourse, a political rally is in progress. People start streaming out of the disco, past the prospective voters. “There’s a bald man in there and he’s going bat shit!” screams one man as he rushes past. “Disco blue,” goes the vocal refrain in a song by The Humane Society for the Preservation of Good Music, “You're making me blue all the time”.



With its low production values and its rampaging jock, this could almost be a stand-alone short made by DJs Steve Dahl and Gerry Meier as part of their “Disco Sucks” campaign. But in fact it’s a scene from a very odd late 70s horror film called Blue Sunshine, directed by Jeff Lieberman. The story concerns a series of violent murders, each one committed by a different person who, up until that point, had seemed like a perfectly normal, upstanding member of the community – except for their occasional shortness of temper, their inexplicable headaches, and a strange tendency for their hair to fall out. 

It transpires that all the killers were at Stanford together ten years earlier. And all of them had bought some ‘experimental’ strain of LSD called ‘Blue Sunshine’ from a guy called Edward Flemming (played by Mark Goddard) who is now running for congress. One man, a Cornell graduate named Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King), falsely accused of one of the crimes, is out to uncover the whole sordid affair.



Throughout the 70s, another Cornell graduate and former U.S. State Department employee called John D. Marks had been publishing a series of books highly critical of the CIA and its ‘cult of intelligence’. While Lieberman’s film was in production, Marks was turning reams of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act into a best-selling book called The Search for the Manchurian Candidate about the CIA’s experiments using LSD.

Amongst the laboratories Marks exposed as complicit in the CIA’s top secret MKULTRA project, was the psychology lab at Stanford. There it was that a young Ken Kesey, a student at the time, would volunteer and get his first taste of the drug he would later spread across the USA in a multi-coloured bus marked FURTHUR. “No one could enter the world of psychedelics without first passing, unawares,  through doors opened by the Agency," wrote Marks. "It would become a supreme irony that the CIA’s enormous search for weapons among drugs … would wind up helping to create the wandering uncontrollable minds of the counterculture.”



Shooting before the book came out, it’s unlikely that Lieberman was aware of Marks’s revelations and he doesn’t push his story quite that far. In the end, the aspiring congressman Flemming is just another ex-hippie ex-dealer now gone straight and heading for the upper echelons of American society, like so many other baby boomers around that time. Still the film packs the eerie paranoid punch of early Cronenberg and mid-70s Pakula. With its odd mix of political thriller and psychedelic horror, it’s hard for contemporary viewers not to think of MK ULTRA.

And it remains a curious cinematic monument to the death of the hippie dream. All the principal characters are of an age to have left college around ’68. The protagonist, Zipkin, is an outsider precisely because he’s the only one who hasn’t gone straight, cut his hair, and got a respectable job. But it’s hard to know whether, in Lieberman’s eyes, that makes him a hero or anti-hero. As Kim Newman puts it in his Nightmare Movies, “Lieberman sums up the spirit of 1968 when he has one potential freak out confess that the break-up of the Beatles affected her more than the break-up of her marriage. The flower children have become the Living Dead.”



The scene in the disco was apparently frequently used as a projected backdrop when bands like The Ramones played at CBGBs. Steve Severin and Robert Smith named their one-off duo record after the film (Severin, apparently was a fan). But the film has plenty to recommend it to music lovers on its own merits, with a very interesting score – full of Xenakis-y string glissandi and creepy pitched percussion – by Charles Gross.

Gross would later work on some pretty big films (Turner & Hooch, Air America, etc.), but this was one of his first features. Back in the 50s, he had studied under Darius Milhaud at Mills College, at around the same time that Milhaud’s other pupils, Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, were starting their (pre-San Francisco Tape Music Center) ‘Sonics’ concerts series at Mills which would give works by Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros their first performances. Milhaud had also taught Xenakis himself, a few years earlier in France.



Finally, Blue Sunshine can be seen as part of a trilogy of great mall films of the late 1970s. At the beginning of the decade, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock had regarded the rise of shopping centres with wide-eyed optimism for all the ‘choice’ they offered consumers. But by 1978, certain cracks were beginning to appear in the veneer of this utopian gaze. Dawn of the Dead had made literal the trop of zombified mindless consumers. Two years earlier, the dystopian Logan’s Run had suggested that, in the future, everything will look like the Mall of America.

Blue Sunshine spends its final act showdown in a mall. It’s the place where all the film’s themes come together. A shopping mall, the film seems to be saying, is a place uniquely inhospitable to someone in the throes of a really bad acid flashback.