Tuesday, July 21, 2015

tidbits from film-philosophy conference 2015

"only a whisker away from risibility"

"patisserie aesthetic"

"a reverse-field cut through a wall"

"not as property, but as labour"

"chromatic expression"

"masking the axis of brilliance"


"musique concrète avant la lettre"

"others are more subtle in their undulations"

"is it possible to find any equivalent in so mongrel a medium as film?"

"the eye is expanded by film"

"depth here is not so much an ontological a priori so much as a postulate post priori"

"fourth wall suspense"

"the structure of the film is a theory about the events in the film"

"a pattern of peculiar pans"

"the long take perhaps announces its intention to continue"

"a gradual dramatization within the dedramatization"

"an anxiety around the loss of the indexical"

"the awful aloneness that one sometimes experiences in company"

"inappropriate clarification"

"ambiguity's threat to criticism should not be overstated"

"no petals are seen falling"

"indeterminate oscillation between the whole and its articulated parts"

"there are artworks beneath interpretation"

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Just links today, but following up from yesterday, a relaxed seminar at Brunel University (fairly basic camerawork, to say the least, but I recognize the voices of both John Croft [my former supervisor] and Christopher Fox [my internal PhD examiner]!) and an audio documentary by the much missed Bob Gilmore are both recommended:

And then today it was a great pleasure to hear a documentary about free improvisation on Radio 4 by Stewart Lee, and a special pleasure that he interviewed a large number of my friends!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

tunes and bounds

Apologies for the break in usual service, among the causes of which were being in London over last weekend to take part in a hugely enjoyable Music We'd Like to Hear concert (which was recorded by the BBC, so with luck parts of it at least will be broadcast before long) as well as a complete performance of Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning at the Union Chapel over the Saturday and Sunday evenings.

Since then I have, as it happens, spent a fair amount of time listening to and reading the work of Frank Denyer, who in a 2009 article entitled "Some Thoughts About Linear Microtonality" makes the fascinating observation (which he has empirically tested) that musicians tune intervals – even octaves – differently if they can sound both pitches simultaneously and if they cannot. He comments that "This appeared to demonstrate two different ways of being 'in tune'. The question is: being in tune with what?"

This seems to me a crucial question. Tuning is relational. Yes, it provides a route to extrapolate from strictly musical questions to those with wider social import. But even before we get to that point it indicates that there might be a continuum between the literal and figurative uses of the term "in tune". Starting from unusual pitch relationships (that which appears out of tune is just an unfamiliar way of being in tune), we could move to the idea that pitch might not even be what one is attempting to be "in tune with" at that particular moment. Can one be "in tune" timbrally, rhythmically or dynamically? We know that the difference between what we hear as a timbral change and a pitch change can be fundamentally a matter of frequency - as, of course, is rhythm. Composers as diverse as John Zorn and James Saunders have produced work whose sounds express the extent to which an ensemble is "in tune" temperamentally. (In the sense of their personalities and behaviours, that is, not their chosen tuning systems, although perhaps this polysemy – originating in the Latin for a "correct mixture" – is not without interest.) From that point, the concentric circles can go ever wider. 
Denyer observes: "While working in Kenya’s Kerio Valley I noticed that lyre players could consider two strings to have an octave relationship and be acceptably in tune even when one of them was more than a hundred cents away from the 2:1 harmonic ratio. This is probably because they employ a gamut of just five notes, somewhat casually spread out between the octave, so the identity of adjacent notes is never compromised, and the essential pitch relationships remain the same, making them indeed in tune."

Also interesting is the sense of boundaries evoked by the term: we can be "in" and "out" of tune. We can also be "in bounds" or "out of bounds" (grammatically cognate constructions), and there are "upper bounds" and "lower bounds". Hence thinking about the co-ordination of pitch and other musical parameters brings us to think about space. A number of the "paragraphs" of Cardew's composition (in particular Paragraph 4, for voices, drumming on cushions, gueros & organ, and Paragraph 7, for voices) made clear to me that the relationship between physical space and pitch space is not purely metaphorical. Different pitches really do have differently sized sound waves, and contrasts of proximity to sound source and of volume seem to help make one aware of this.

There's a lot here that I need to ponder!

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Very glad to have seen Interstellar yesterday, because it's always nice to have your prejudices confirmed. I am very far from being a Christopher Nolan fan but this was just bafflingly awful, to the extent that I really struggle to understand how it came to be so well received. The much-touted scientific accuracy turns out in almost every case not to be; about the only thing I can see that remains is that the wormhole is spherical. (If the computer rendering that it necessitated has led to a couple of scientific papers, then that is of course rather cool, but a $165 dollar feature film is a pretty expensive and eccentric funding model, even by the standards of modern physics.)

But then what would you expect from a director whose commitment to include only accurate physics was such that it took two weeks to dissuade him from including a sequence where a character travels faster than light, or who was completely determined both that nothing would be shown that violated known physical laws, and that the wildest speculations had to originate in scientific thought. Or, well, utterly devoted to these principles as long as they didn't "get in the way of a great movie". Which is basically the same thing, isn't it? And we haven't even got to the actual plot, the perpetual lame and humourless echoes of 2001, the dialogue which is impressive in that it plumbs new lows even for Nolan (apart from the execrable bits about love my favourite exchange was when Matt Damon exclaimed "You've literally raised me from the dead!", to which Matthew McConaughey solemnly replies "Lazarus", just in case the earlier sledgehammer exposition didn't do the trick), or the fact that a film supposedly all about relativity generates its climax through resolutely old-style cross-cutting of supposedly simultaneous events.

And just one more absolutely tiny thing: what the hell is going on with all the lens flare in shots of outer space that are clearly indicated to be not from the perspective of the spaceship? I, for one, would have loved to see a reverse shot of the alien camera operator hanging there in the blackness...

Sunday, July 05, 2015

disagreeing with César

I recently completed César Aira's 3 Novels and thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly the first two books ("Ghosts" and "An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter"). The way he maintains genuine page-turning momentum via digression, unpredictability and linearity (the narrative always chasing ahead, never chasing its tail) has analogues with other things I have read (Bolaño of course, but even – in "An Episode" – Sebald) but isn't quite like anything else. It's exhilarating, and, over the course of the three books, leaves one with the unmistakable impression of having encountered a proper writer.

I'm not so sure, though, what to think of an article entitled "The New Writing" and available online at The White Review. Aira outlines a narrative in which the professionalisation of writing has left the form of the novel "congealed", has "shattered the form-content dialectic which makes art 'artistic'." Hence the novelist is left with "two equally melancholy alternatives: to keep writing the 'old' novels in updated settings; or to heroically attempt to take one or two more steps forward", which is an exhaustingly heroic undertaking producing diminishing returns. The third option is to use the strategy of the avant-garde, which for Aira means to highlight procedure over product. He uses Cage, and specifically the Music of Changes, as his exemplum.

I have sympathy with some of the feelings expressed here – "Who needs another novel, another painting, another symphony? As if there weren't enough already!" – but much of the argument treads ground all-too-familiar from long-exhausted debates in literature and visual art going back, as Aira acknowledges, at least as far as Duchamp. Of course, Aira is too sly to be easily trapped. He is really talking about the context in which one makes work and the means one uses, and so admits at the outset of the essay that the idea of the avant-garde is a myth. What is important, for him, is that the "myth of the avant-garde came about to restore the possibility of making the journey from the origin again". I agree with him when he says that "the healthiest aspect of the avant-garde, of which Cage is the epitome, is its placing action back on centre stage, regardless of whether it appears frenetic, ludic, directionless or indifferent to the results", but not with his following comment that "in order to keep on being action it has to be indifferent to results". Cage was certainly not indifferent to the results of his procedures, his pronouncements to the contrary notwithstanding.

The fact that Music of Changes "sounds intensely like 1951, like the work of a North American disciple of Schoenberg" does, it is true, tell us something about the relationship of psychological processes during composition to our impression of its outcome – but it also tells us that how you set up the roulette wheel is crucial. The piece sounds that way not because Cage removed his personality and tastes but because his personality and tastes are very much involved in the way the procedural machine is set up in the first place, in the types of possibilities it is constructed to allow. It also sounds this way because of the way hierarchy and syntax work in Schoenberg's music and that of those influenced by him: Music of Changes is an analysis, and perhaps even a parody, of integral serialism. It is really not true that Chopin's Nocturnes could have been written using the same method, even with the preparation of tables ad hoc "in order to maintain tonality, or metre". Tonal composition is not merely the creation of a succession of syntactic units, the selection of each of which adjusts the range of possible options for the next unit. Any computer model for tonal composition that did not build in an architecture of structural hierarchies far more complex than Cage's procedure for Music of Changes would be an abject failure.

The elephant in this particular article's room is Aira's own compositional methodology, which I have read described elsewhere as follows: he writes a page each day, improvising his way out of the narrative corners he deliberately paints himself into. We may be sceptical as to whether there is really quite so little forward planning, but the flavour such a strategy feels authentically represented in the novels I have read. For me the freshness and contemporaneity of this method comes about precisely because it does not reduce the work to "a kind of documentary appendix which serves only as a means of deducing the process from which it arose". Knowing something about the process heightens our curiosity as we read, allowing us, if we wish, to project ourselves into an imagined version of the author and to wonder what choices we would have made in his situation. But this is only one way to read and Aira's novels are just as rich if read for their characterisation, their narrative, their imagery, their philosophical ideas – all those old bourgeois notions of reading for the content. In short, I don't think that the old form-content dialectic is shattered quite so easily, and Aira's works – despite his comments in this essay – are powerful arguments that we should be glad that this is the case.