Letter to The Wire, May 2012

As a resident of Vienna and regular visitor to the Donaufestival, I’d like to comment on Jennifer Lucy Allan’s piece (The Wire 338). Jennifer is spot on regarding the various “madcap art projects” in which the festival specializes, but sadly its music programming has become increasingly uninspired in recent years. Since the high water mark of 2007, which saw an unparalleled gathering of key figures from the industrial underground (Current 93, Nurse With Wound, Throbbing Gristle and many more), each subsequent year’s line-up has led to feelings of bafflement and even stronger ones of déjà vu. Fans of Cocorosie, Antony, Laurie Anderson and Rhys Chatham will no doubt enjoy this year’s performances by those artists just as much as they did when the same people appeared two or three years ago, while fans of Ben Frost will be wondering why he is absent in 2012 having appeared both last year and the year before. I wouldn’t dispute the Donaufestival’s status as a prime showcase for oddball performance art, but when this year’s headlining acts include names like Hercules & Love Affair and Pantha du Prince (who?), it’s clear that director Tomas Zierhofer-Kin’s contacts book is looking rather thin.

Letter to The Wire, December 2011

In The Wire 332 you printed a letter from me, pointing out the existence of a second Peter Brötzmann documentary, Brötzmann, as well as the Soldier of the Road DVD featured in The Wire 331. My observation seems to have fallen on deaf ears, since David Keenan’s review (On Screen, The Wire 333) again fails to mention Brötzmann. More to the point, the review makes a few bizarre sideswipes alongside its acute remarks on Brötzmann’s status as an internationalist figure.

Keenan may not like the Full Blast trio, but the fact remains that since 2004 Peter has toured more regularly with this line-up than any other, so clearly he must see something in it that David doesn’t. For my money, the Full Blast rhythm section of Marino Pliakas and Michael Wertmüller is a thing of awesome power and range, shepherding Brötzmann away from jazz and towards some kind of free-noise take on speed metal. Swing isn’t part of the equation.

Elsewhere in the review, the idea that the Die Like A Dog quartet, which hasn’t played together since 1999, is “the fulcrum of [Brötzmann’s] back catalogue” is as strange as the claim that none of the other configurations included in the film (namely the Chicago Tentet and the all-reeds trio Sonore) is “quintessentially Brötzmann”. Indeed, the notion that there is a quintessential Brötzmann at all seems strangely at odds with Keenan’s spot-on identification of the inscrutability of the man’s art.

Letter to The Wire, October 2011

Thanks for the piece on Bernard Josse’s new Peter Brötzmann documentary Soldier of the Road (Wire 331). What you didn’t mention, however, is that there is also another Brötzmann doc out at the same time. This one, by René Jeuckens, Thomas Mau and Grischa Windus, is called simply Brötzmann and follows the saxophonist to Chicago Tentet gigs in London and his home town of Wuppertal.

Me, I’m waiting for someone to write the guy’s biography. Until that Herculean task is accomplished, these films will have to do.

Austrian Chart

Chart of 15 Austrian records published in the December 2010 issue of The Wire. To be eligible for inclusion in this chart the artist just needed to be Austrian, or be based in Austria, or have at least one Austrian member, or something. They weren’t the most rigorous of criteria.


Letter to The Wire, May 2010

No thanks to David Toop for making me wade through a page of dense verbiage about the new Fenn O’Berg album (Soundcheck, The Wire 313) in search of a steer as to whether or not it’s worth acquiring, only to give me the metaphorical finger with the lofty payoff “I am not about to expend a lot of silly adjectives on a track-by-track description, like some halfwit blogger.” Well, excuse me but I like silly adjectives; why else would I subscribe to The Wire? Plus, I was under the impression that it was the reviewer’s responsibility to make some effort to describe the music under review in terms that might resonate with potentially interested parties. Toop’s abdication of that responsibility on the grounds that “if you want to find out what something sounds like you can do so easily enough” beggars belief. I could buy the album, I guess, but by that logic I would need to buy every album listed in the pages of The Wire each month; isn’t that where reviews come in? Anyway, I look forward to seeing future Toop reviews in the form of empty white space where considered value judgements used to reside, with, of course, his reviewer’s fee returned uncashed.

Letter to The Wire, January 2010

Thanks to Joseph Stannard for his comprehensive King Crimson survey, although he showered a little too much love on the 1981-84 incarnation of the group for my liking. Where Stannard hears “a hive of small sounds in constant motion”, I just hear Adrian Belew needlessly emoting over pallid jackets-with-sleeves-pushed-up funk, all the while playing guitar to sound like an elephant – and not in a good way, either.

Crimson don’t need a second guitarist, as is amply demonstrated by the ProjeKcts albums (on which Belew played V-drums). Stannard could have said more about these releases, which showcase Fripp’s most satisfying and avant-garde work since the 70s. According to Fripp, the ProjeKcts were supposed to serve as “research & development” for Crimson, but given that so few of the resultant approaches made their way into later Crimson albums the validity of this statement must be in doubt. Fripp could easily have gone against the grain of his audience’s expectations by keeping up with the mix of volatile Improv and irresistible electronic dance beats that characterised the ProjeKcts sessions. What irks me is that he chose to play it safe the next time he went out as Crimson – discarding the innovations of the ProjeKcts and retreating instead into a greasy rehash of former glories.

Letter to The Wire, July 2009

Nick Richardson’s mostly excellent review of this year’s Donaufestival in Krems, Austria, made the curious objection that “local artists were conspicuous by their absence”. If “local” were taken to mean from Krems itself, then Nick might have had a point; but the Donaufestival is really a Vienna festival in all but name, with the vast majority of its visitors (a record 13,000 this year) coming from the capital, shuttle buses running between Krems and Vienna, and so on. “Grassroots support” was indeed present, in the form not only of Fennesz but also of Martin Siewert’s appearance with freeform rockers Heaven And, not to mention a new performance piece by Fritz Ostermayer.

A shame, too, that Nick failed to mention the absolute highlight of the festival’s first week, a transcendent appearance by Spiritualized. Where Sonic Youth, as Nick correctly observes, were there strictly to take care of business, Jason Pierce and group delivered a set that frequently threatened to levitate the building, such was its gravity-defying intensity. In an avant rock scene that all too frequently and lazily relies on noise as a signifier of primal modes of expression, Spiritualized’s ecstatic fusion of garage, gospel and systems music feels more like the truth than ever.

Letter to The Wire, January 2009

I’d like to address a couple of the points made by David Keenan in his section of the Unofficial Channels feature in The Wire 297. Firstly, Keenan is way off beam in his assertion that downloading music “gives primacy to the platform through which it is received.” On the contrary, downloading inevitably focuses the listener’s attention on the music itself, rather than the attendant paraphernalia fetishised by Keenan.

Secondly, it’s a bit rich of Keenan to claim that CD-R and cassette culture “keeps music social” when the distribution of these artefacts is so limited and, arguably, elitist. I would have loved to own Christina Carter’s exquisite Masque Femine album, for example, but with a total edition of a mere 80 copies my chances of acquiring one were always going to be slim. How, then, to hear this spectral masterpiece? Nothing else to be done: download the monster, then listen to it in the dark, on headphones, where the fact that it’s coming to me as a sound file on my iPod rather than as a CD-R becomes supremely irrelevant.

Keenan accuses technology of having an “isolating influence,” a frankly absurd contention given that current filesharing protocols allow music to be shared between like-minded individuals more effectively than ever before. One fine example, and a notable omission from your feature, is the Dimeadozen website, a goldmine of commercially unavailable live recordings from every genre and era imaginable. Because the site uses a “share ratio” as part of its technology, its members are incentivised to make their recordings available as much as possible, thereby exerting precisely the kind of communitarian influence that is absent from the “guerrilla media” Keenan advocates.

Letter to The Wire, December 2004

[Just unearthed this old letter to The Wire which I wrote after the death of John Balance.   It was never published, but I feel like putting it up here anyway.]

My enjoyment of Chris Bohn’s account of John Balance’s funeral (The Masthead, The Wire 251) was marred by the rank theorising with which the piece concluded.  I read with disbelief Bohn’s comment that “Balance’s commitment to such exacting creative methods inevitably took its toll.”  Balance was a sick man, an alcoholic, and the alcohol coursing through his body was not a life force but a death force.  It ill behoves The Wire to imply that there is something creatively important about the alcoholism of Balance and other artists that sets them apart from the great mass of people suffering from this addiction.  The suggestion that Balance drank in order to “experiment with [his] own and [his] audience’s senses” is as gratuitous as it is offensive to the thousands who, in their daily struggles with alcoholism, don’t have the benefit of cutting-edge magazine editors giving them the respectability conferred by the notion that it is all heroically being done in the name of Art.

Letter to The Wire, October 2008

As someone who enjoys the music of both Stockhausen and Cecil Taylor, a position which Tony Herrington would presumably find untenable, I’d like to respond to his Masthead in The Wire 295. In one sense, of course, Herrington is right – improvised music provides a feast for the mind, body and soul that the likes of Stockhausen are largely powerless to deliver. But one could, in truth, say the same thing about composed music from any era. Besides which, Stockhausen’s music has its own individual appeal, based on the premise (hammered home in every single pre-concert talk by him that I ever attended) that the most important thing was for the audience to pay attention. If improvisation is about letting yourself be invigorated and carried away by the music, Stockhausen is about alertness and active listening as the gateway to a rich and complex personal cosmology. And whatever the merits of the German’s “feral children” might be, it is more relevant and interesting at this point to mention Anthony Braxton, who draws on influences from both jazz and Stockhausen to form a body of work that is both philosophically coherent and utterly exhilarating.

One other thing. Edwin Pouncey uses the old journalist’s standby “allegedly” in writing about Varg Vikernes’ crimes (Soundcheck, The Wire 295), even though, as he goes on to point out, Vikernes was sent to prison. In other words, Vikernes was found guilty, so in the eyes of the law he committed the crimes; there’s no “allegedly” about it.