Maerzmusik pt. 2-3: Jetsons musik und primal screams

Two more concerts for the Maerzmusik festival:

The first was a piece by local composer Moritz Gagern, written for a chamber ensemble specifically playing in the rotating cafe at the top of the Fernsehturm here, the huge Soviet-era TV tower in the center of Alexanderplatz. I had never been up in the tower itself, save once during my first trip to Berlin in ’92, from which I recall largely seeing a spectactular but hazy view, and having an annoying fellow American tourist tag along with me despite my best attempts to ditch him. The turm is very DDR-jetsons, kind of lounge-chic with space age retro lines. The cafe itself rotates strikingly fast (three times an hour), enough to cause a wobble and a mild sense of disorientation stepping onto the moving disc.

The cafe is shaped like a donut, spinning around the central core of the tower. Gagern’s composition spaced musicians evenly around the inner, non-rotating circumference, alternating wind-brass-string-percussion, so that the two halves were effectively mirror images of each other. The music then played with this spacial relationship, letting fragments of melody, phrase and rhythm ripple around this ring, as the audience itself, on the spinning section of the floor, moved past each musician in turn. Dubbed “Babylonian Loop,” the piece ultimately finished as it started. Utimately a striking piece of music, always interesting, but as much for the puzzle of its structure than for intrinsic musical qualities.

Last night was our final foray, watching a semi-musical theater piece about the Weathermen, written more or less by Raymond Pettibon, visual artist and brother of Black Flag founder Greg Ginn, accompanied by the entirely insane Japanese noise guitarist Keiji Haino. The text itself was impossible to understand, some in German, some English, all read off pieces of paper by Pettibon and several collaborators. Haino fragmented, rather than linked, the pieces with stunning performances: hurricane guitar, a shaman-like, utterly spastic dance with two tambourines, solo primal screaming sampled and looped. He alone was worth watching, entranced with exploring his own sound worlds, even if it had little to do with the performance as a whole.

A moral here somewhere

A few days ago, like many days, I went to a cafe with my computer to write. Afterwards, I went to the bookstore, bought several books, including Pynchon’s latest six-ton opus. I carried this all around in my backpack for several hours, having a lovely drink on the rubble slopes of Friedrichshain Volkspark with Aimee. By the time I arrived home, the twinge in my back had turned to actual pain, and for the last few days I have been groaning like an old man, sleeping poorly as I turn over and wake up, popping Advil like skittles.

I think the key there is “old man.” Sigh… Pynchon better be worth it.

Maerzmusik pt. 1: The trouble with texture

The Berlin Maerzmusik festival, a two-week series of contemporary music of various avant persuasions, is ongoing. We’re seeing several, ranging from noise theater to (relatively conventional) orchestra. The latter may be the biggest disappointment.

Saturday was a Konzerthaus concert featuring the work of an Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin, preceded by a beautifully textured Ligeti piece and several by the Swiss/Viennese Beat Furrer. Furrer and Czernowin are exploring much the same musical space, focusing on unconventional sound textures and short, non-melodic (and I think non-harmonic in the conventional sense) phrases. Much stretching of instrumental limits: sucking sounds through wind instruments, blowing without playing notes, rubbing strings, rain sticks, crinkled plastic bottles, etc. They both use silences between these little phrases widely, creating the impression of a series of discrete, short statements, or breaths between each outburst. Czernowin has talked about the bursts as equivalent to words, which are rearranged to make different sentences; she apparently re-uses the little bits (more words than phrases, certainly) in different order throughout a piece.

Furrer’s second featured two sopranos on different sides of the stage, creating an almost phasing effect as they sung slightly different, utterly pure notes. Weird, haunting beauty. But the rest left me cold. Both his and the Czernowin verged into exploration of texture at the expense of continuity. I fear I sound old fashioned here. They offered a difficult listen, in the sense that the brain naturally filters out random noise in order to focus on patterns. With this music, much more than the noisy, or glitchy, or any of the sound-art that I tend to explore, I found myself drifting off, unable to piece together the composition into something beyond an experiment in an orchestra’s range of expression.

The audience itself, much younger than any Konzerthaus group I’ve seen, seemed similarly unmoved. I’ve never seen so many heads propped on hands, or heard such unenthusiastic applause afterwards. It felt academic, not like living music. I may be putting myself in the camp of those who rioted after Rite of Spring here; but at least that work caused a riot. This one just inspired indifference.

Live music, up one flight

I’ve been to concerts in halls no bigger than a living room. Last night was the first that was actually in one. We met another Berkeley/Bay Area expat a few nights ago, who’s in town turning a thesis on German music writing into a book. He’s also a guitar player, playing with a jangly band called Sorry Gilberto, and invited us to come to a tiny little club last night to see them play.

Tiny is right. It’s a three- or four-room apartment, on the first floor of a fairly ordinary apartment building on Schönhauser Allee. The stage is in the biggest room, room for about thirty people standing packed together, and the band. The second room had been laid with tables, where they serve dinner beforehand, and the third, of course, is the bar.

Crammed into an apartment, the concert has the feeling of a party, or something so underground that it can’t possibly find a legal outlet. Subversive, or radically avant-garde. But SG’s music turns out to be sweet, jangly pop; led by a wild-haired, frizzy-bearded singer who smiles beatifically as he brings out a ukulele, with a bass player who channels Liv Tyler as she sings. Following them is a cover band that whips between Wham and Rod Taylor, shaking the windows with tight, hard-plucked bass as we leave.

Sadly, Slomo is closing in a few weeks. The neighbors don’t like it. I can understand; it must be hard having live music next to your bedroom.

Halliburton moving to Dubai

Halliburton, Cheney’s baby, winner of all those no-bid contracts in Iraq, is moving its corporate headquarters from Houston to Dubai. Why, when it’s received such largess from the American government? It wants to improve relations with local state-owned oil companies, it says. Oh, and incidentally, they’ll be paying practically no corporate taxes there.

Market types are worried about the signals this sends to investors already worried about US stocks and the dollar (ouch, says the expatriate dollar-earner). But think broader. Why, fundamentally, is the US in Iraq? Certainly commercial concerns, access to oil, etc., play a dominant role. And yet now the most emblematic of those same commercial interests finds it more attractive to site itself elsewhere. Interesting dilemma for an ideologically driven administration, now finding its own economic ideology strangling its national goals. Oops.
Must be some et tu, Dick moments going on in the White House this week.