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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening tO

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

December 2016: Sublime and Ridiculous

This month marks the 3-year anniversary of WILT. God knows how much longer I can keep this up, but meanwhile, I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has anything to say about it. For instance, is it yet – or will it ever be – the basis for a book? Is it any good? Is there anyone out there?
[feel free to write to: JoeJacksonWILT@gmail.com]

Anyway, being interested in all kinds of music means that if I'm going to honestly tell you What I'm Listening To in any given month, it will sometimes be extremely diverse. This month it's extremely extreme – to the point where it might seem like I'm just trying to be clever or something. I swear that's not the case. This is actually what I've been listening to.

DIE ANTWOORD:  Mt. Ninji and Da Nice Time Kid

A musician friend of mine is surprised, and I think a bit dismayed, that I like Die Antwoord. This reminds me of conversations I had way back in the heyday of British Punk, which went something like: these guys can barely tune a guitar, let alone play it! They're destroying music, not creating it! How can you, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, even give them the time of day?!

The assumption seems to be that because I can appreciate much more complex and sophisticated music, I must therefore want music to be complex and sophisticated before I'll appreciate it. No, no, no.

Die Antwoord are often described as 'Rave-Rap', a genre which seems to have been pretty much created either by or for them. Fine by me, though I can't quite let go of my Punk reference. In the late 70s, they would have been Punks. I can picture the loutish Ninja with a Mohawk, thrashing a guitar, and the surreally squeaky Yolandi pogo-ing in a tartan mini-skirt, torn fishnets, and safety pins. 

Of course I know what year it is, but I still say they're more of a punk band than, say, Green Day. Nothing against Green Day (I quite liked American Idiot) but they are earnest and professional, whereas Die Antwoord are rude, crude, amateurish, irreverent, and hilarious. If anything, they're more like The Damned or The Dead Boys than The Clash.

There are times when Die Antwoord walk a fine line between coming across as a bona fide musical act, and an anarchic stunt by a bunch of foul-mouthed brats who've stolen some cheap synths and drum machines. Somehow, though, it's exciting, and while they can be sophomoric, they can also be provocative, funny, and at times, quite clever – whether they mean to be or not. There's certainly no one else like them out there. Yolandi gives the impression that not only her voice, but her whole persona, has been recorded on tape and speeded up. Ninja, on the other hand, sometimes sounds almost comatose, like someone put a microphone in front of him while he was sleeping off a drug-induced stupor, and rapping in his dreams, or nightmares. This album is a sprawling mess, really, but every time I start to wonder why I'm bothering, they come up with something that surprises me, or makes me oddly nervous, or just makes me laugh. Whatever this is, I reckon we could probably use a bit more of it.

SHOSTAKOVICH: The String Quartets

I've always preferred orchestral to chamber music, but I am intrigued by the String Quartet, a perfect medium: two violins, viola and cello is as perfect as two guitars, bass and drums. And the only composer to approach the monumental heights of Beethoven's sixteen Quartets was Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), who wrote fifteen. They're thought by many to be a kind of diary of his inner life, more honest and meaningful than his more public (and incredibly powerful) Symphonies.

I was at one time quite smitten with Shostakovich, and spent a lot of time studying his scores. I've gotten interested again while reading Wendy Lesser's Music For Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets, and digging out the recordings I have of most of them, as performed by two Russian ensembles, the Beethoven Quartet and the later Borodin Quartet, both of whom worked with the composer himself. The book is fascinating, though like the many other books on Shostakovich, it struggles with the problem of often not being able to know his true thoughts and intentions. He was a complex character living in a complex place and time, in an uneasy relationship with the Soviet regime and with Stalin himself, who alternately honoured and tormented him. Shostakovich lived with a packed suitcase always by his door, while one colleague after another was imprisoned, exiled, or murdered. I recommend some reading about his life to any of my musical peers who consider themselves badly done-by on account of a tough touring schedule or an unsympathetic record company.

I wrote about Shostakovich a bit in my book, in the contexts of my visit to Russia in 1997, and the intractable question of whether pure music – unaccompanied by words or pictures – can really express meaning. I think there's no doubt that it can and does, at least in broad strokes (happy vs. sad). But beyond that, it can become a very slippery animal. And Shostakovich is one of the slipperiest examples you can find.

He was not an avant-gardist, though he was certainly very original. He never wrote Atonal or Serial music; everything is grounded in a definite key, though it's quite often hard to tell. Classical structures (Sonata Form, Passacaglia, Theme and Variations) are twisted into strange new shapes. Melodiousness is transformed into frightening dissonance. He's always pulling the rug out from under our feet, and creating psychological dramas: not just happy or sad, but anxious, sardonic, despairing, spooky, playful, ironic, angry. 

His music is full of coded messages, lessons and parables. Take the second movement of Quartet No. 2, where the second violin, viola and cello play the kind of sustained chords you typically find in an Oratorio – a vocal/orchestral form (like Handel's Messiah) based on Christian themes – while above them, an impassioned first violin solo is explicitly based on Jewish scales and riffs. And the movement ends with a positively Lutheran 'Amen' cadence. Shostakovich was not Jewish, but many of his friends were, and he was deeply saddened and angered by Russian Anti-Semitism. So what exactly is he telling us in this movement (or the last movement of one of my favourites, No. 4, which at times sounds almost like a Klezmer band having a nervous breakdown)? 

Or in his best-known Quartet, No. 8, in which every movement is based on a theme built on a musical transcription of the letters of his own name, often juxtaposed with quotations from other works, including his own? There's clearly a drama going on, maybe even a story, but as was so often the case, he either wouldn't, or couldn't, tell us what it was. Oddly enough, this enigmatic quality, rather then being unsatisfying, keeps some of us coming back for more and more. 

Some years ago I saw the aging Borodin Quartet at New York's Carnegie Hall. The program finished with the eerie, otherworldly Quartet No. 15, which, in an oddly affecting theatrical touch, the Borodins played by candlelight. As the tragic final notes faded away into nothingness, there was a stunned silence, finally broken by a tragic 'Oy!' from an elderly Jewish gentleman in front of me. 

Amen to that.