"There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture. The most universal article of my own Logic is Distinguo. I always mean to speak well of what is good..."
-Michel de Montaigne, "Of the inconstancy of our actions", tr. M.A. Screech
I turned around to see the thing that made the sound
Tuesday night I went to a local live ambient-music night, The Ambient Ping. I've been on the mailing list forever, but actually been to about two or three shows, one of them being Robert Rich.
The band followed a common setup for electronic music: three guys on stage triggering samples, one guitarist, alleged improvisation. The early samples were very beat-laden, and the guitarist put me in mind a lot of Dave Gilmour or Mike Oldfield, yielding a sort of space-rock filtered through Detroit techno and funk, which is a great conception but really needed better beat science than was being displayed. Later on, the flow got considerably smoother, attaining that continuously-morphing-soundscape feel, but lost some of the funkiness.
While I was trying to form an opinion of it, I got to thinking about how much my appreciation of live music varies with technology, and depends on it. For one thing, how much I anticipate a live show depends on the instruments I see on stage: a standard rock or jazz ensemble will produce a yawn and the feeling of "This better be good", but electronic oddities -- especially old keyboards, theremins, effects boxes -- and unusual acoustic instruments, especially percussion and things made from found objects, immediately give me a tingle of curiosity. The combination of both is rarely seen, but I'm sure if I came to see a band and they had a theremin, a drumkit made of doumbeks, frame-drums, and several bits of chain and sheet-metal, a koto, a Hardanger fiddle, and a nose-flute, I'd probably be buying up the merch table before they even started playing.
All well and good. Much as I'm a fan of electronic music, the trouble with sampling and sequencing in particular, I find, is that it throws off any gauge I might have about:
How much skill is being displayed
How much rapport the musicians have with each other, and
How much rapport they have with the audience (alas, usually none is apparent, with heads bowed over gear shining little penlights into the control panel)
Bruno Degazio commented once that no matter how satisfying an electronic composition might be, if you go to a performance of it you tend to have a desire to hear some craft displayed: some musicianship as well as just composition. If I listen to a recording, I don't care if it was pasted together in Csound by people who couldn't actually play even one part of it in a live setting; but when I see them, I hope for something more than the pressing of the key labelled "Cool spooky flanged bit". And I'm afraid that, cool as Tuesday's music was, I'm not going to find electronic music performances entirely satisfying until they figure out a way to do that.
Actually, having mentioned him earlier, I should point out that Robert Rich did manage to do that in his show; he had a small collection of odd acoustic instruments (mostly flutes and a steel guitar), which would sample live, loop, then improvise over; it was a show -- rather than a tell. Not only that, but he has a Wild Mushroom Cookbook on his home page, and he uses just intonation a lot.
More Heike stuff: not much from Book 3, except that a goddess gives Kiyomori a halberd studded with silver to look like creeping leeches. (Cue Coil's "A Swelling of Leeches" as background music.) If this were an AD&D item, it would probably drain 1 level of experience from a victim unless they save versus death magic, and afflict the wielder with satyriasis. Or psoriasis, or some other embarrassing iasis.
And more stuff from the Heike, namely: two lists of Five Signs of Decay of Celestial Beings.
their robes become dirty
their flowers fade
their bodies begin to smell
their underarms sweat
they take no pleasure in their celestial status
they lose their joyful voices
they lose their aureoles (no, not areolae, hush)
their bodies become wet when they bathe
they lose their freedom from the Objective Realms (whatever these might be)
they blink a lot
I think the last point is a little anticlimactic. Also, I can't tell if the second list is a further sign of decay; if it is, you start to get dirty and smelly long before you can actually wash it off, which would certainly kill my buzz at being a celestial being.
Attributed original source: Abhidharma-kosa, which I take to be some Mahayana Buddhist text.
Recently I read Kara Dalkey's Genpei: A Fantasy, and enjoyed it very much. Twice before, it has caught my eye in the Lillian Smith Library, and I've picked it up; I liked her Blood of the Goddess trilogy, and I thought the title was an alternative transliteration of the Chinese toast kan pei! ("dry cup!"), a perfect title for a Bridge of Birds-like colourful and witty fantasy with a Chinese setting. And that's not what it is, so on those two occasions I put it back down.
What it is is a retelling of the events leading up to the Genpei Wars of 12th-century Japan, resulting in the capital being moved from Heian Kyo to Kamakura, and the displacement of a cultured aristocracy (the one that produced The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon) by a warrior class. The name is a portmanteau of the initial ideograms of the Chinese names of the two clans involved in the power struggle: the Genji or Minamoto, and the Heike or Taira.
In order that I could make some comparisons with the original material, I've started reading a translation of the Tale of the Heike, the principal source. The most immediate thing noticeable, apart from details, is that the feel and the overtones of the story are very different: the Heike conveys a sense of fate, and the evanescence of things. Dalkey sounds these notes, but her interest is more in morality, and in the responsibility of power: more Spider-Man than Buddha. For instance, the confrontation between the Taira clan chief Kiyomori and his son Shigemori over the fate of several courtiers accused of plotting against Kiyomori's rule (the chapter "Shigemori's Lesser Admonition" in the Heike) assumes, in Dalkey's hands, the character of a dialogue about the conflict between loyalty to family and loyalty to society as a whole, rather than between the Confucian duties of obedience to father and Emperor. And early in the book, when Kiyomori is offered supernatural aid, there is a deliberate allusion to the prophecy of the witches in Macbeth.
Then there's pacing. Genpei has the snappy pacing of a novel, which it is, where the much-longer Tale of the Heike rambles and discourses about all sorts of things. Chapters I haven't reached yet (but have surreptitiously flipped forward to) include "Nue, the Terrible Night Creature" and "List of the Emperor's Enemies". Among the great asides discovered so far is this nice commentary on blogdom:
Every person has a mind, and every mind has an obsession. Some say one thing is good, some another. Who then can decide what is right?... It is like a circle, having no end.
-from the constitution of Prince Shotoku, Japan, c. 604 AD
Lots more asides from the Heike to come. Also, eventually I have to write something about how all those little back-and-forth notes in The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon are like e-mail culture.