Tallinn is a sweet, gentile town on the outskirts of Europe. Far enough removed from the West that is has avoided a great deal of bad architecture. And between the old town and the old Soviet warehouses it has enough to drown out the occasional billboard. When Sunday comes it is perfectly serene.
In a restaurant drinking Georgian wine - no, me neither, but it’s good - a group of bald fat men in puffer jackets walk in. The type you only really see at Europa League matches. Big thick eyebrows, skinheads with little man bag – but instead of football chants its Georgian folk and a male voice choir. So when one sits down next to me I ask if he knows who he’s just performed to. He doesn’t and I point to Peter Jenner Pink Floyd’s manager who’s sitting across the room. That the man has seen every Floyd show and has just applauded my new friend. “Oh, I love Pink Floyd, they’re my favourite band.” The singing continues and Mari Kalkun who’s sat opposite encourages some oratory folk songs. And the men, who are not naturally music-minded, slowly join in. It’s a moment of pure, easy music where the synthetics of a conference are lost in the snowstorm outside.
The highlight of the event was to be found in the classical side with Páll Ragnar Pálsson; the Icelandic composer unveiled a knockout chamber piece of warping progressions and immaculate metre. The work was designed for a similar event in Amsterdam but it never materialised. Left in a drawer, neglected, it was only when Estonian Music Days heard of the piece’s existence did it finally find its performance. The complexity of it was its ability to create rolling emotive sound without falling back on tired symbolism and familiar structure. ‘Undir yfirráðum kyrrðar’ (tr. ‘Supremacy of Peace’) performed by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra.
There is good music to be had and Barry Andrewsin Disko is another favourite. Signed to world beating Tampere label Fonal, this new signing is the lofi set up of Jukka Herva. Balancing between the grit and the glistening he’s making incredibly fluid music and could find cozy shelf space next to Islaja. But all this is really beside the point. A delicate backdrop, much like the April snowfall.
I’m fortunate enough to be invited on export trips, and the reason I keep saying “yes” is because these events are an education. An opportunity to see the world and speak to people I’d never normally be allowed in a room with. At a Music Finland event in collaboration with the Finnish Embassy conversation turns to Eurovision as the guy who judges the Lithuanian entrants is talking about it to a small entourage. Although there’s music on, the real excitement is these conversations. So when people complain about the music industry talking at the bar and not watching the bands it’s because the conversations are, broadly speaking, better than the music.
So the advice is that if you love stories get yourself out. Now on the plane home and as I type this, and I’m not exaggerating for literary effect here, the guy next to me is explaining how under Soviet rule he drank tonnes of cheap champagne. Because it was coming from Odessa. “They’ve got delicious grapes, red and white, sweet semi sweet, dry, you know, they are very, very good…” I’m typing this live.
This effect is becoming lost at festivals because their decreasingly diverse crowds are becoming increasingly reverent to the bands. On these trips it’s possible to learn more about the world than a year in school. And Tallinn Music Week is great because of its grace and tenderness. Qualities that echo out of its organiser Helen Sildna and through all involved.
Most social media spats are storms in teacups and while a few can be blown completely out of proportion, on the whole they are usually over in a couple of days. However, in one particular case a Twitter feud has served as an unlikely source of inspiration. Last June an incident was picked up by various news sources, including the New York Time’s Paul Krugman, who wrote a post that was as short as it was damning. Krugman said the Estonian austerity budgeting has created, “…a terrible — Depression-level — slump, followed by a significant but still incomplete recovery.” Before going on to conclude, “Better than no recovery at all, obviously — but this is what passes for economic triumph?”
Then followed a retort from Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves who was taking his first baby steps onto the social media platform. Taking to the stage the new politician revealed his scorn at the softly dismissive Nobel-winning economist. Culminating in a tweet of striking sarcasm: “Let’s sh*t on East Europeans: their English is bad, won’t respond & actually do what they’ve agreed to & reelect govts that are responsible.” Hardly words befitting a head of state, more the medium.
Then writer Scott Diel is asked by Eugene Birman, a composer and fellow American in Tallinn, to write a libretto. Diel has freedom of topic. Instead of writing about a grand incident such as the rise of neoliberal capitalism in the early Nineties or the dissuasion to join the Euro, the focus is more acute, he picks the spat. At the heart of the libretto is the idea that Estonia is bullied by global forces and instructed on what to do economically by bigger powers.
I spoke to Diel at the premiere and he said “the kernel of the idea came from a mental list I’ve kept in my head over the years of all the times Estonia has rejected advice from the West and done things its own way”.
“I thought this series of big brotherly advice from the West was material for something, but at the time it seemed far too much for 16 minutes.”
“I had one of Krugman’s books open on the nightstand and started to think about that topic – stimulus as another instance of big brotherly advice. When I reviewed Ilves’ tweets they just sort of recommended themselves. So I took those tweets, added a few lines of explanatory text and then constructed a part for Krugman based on what he’d written.”
The libretto premiered Sunday night with the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. It’s a peculiar piece that works asynchronously to the narrative, only occasionally echoing the text. Wonderfully enlivened when vocalist Iris Oja inflexes sh*t. What results is a work of simple command and clean execution.
Diel goes on to say, “What interested me about this was that it seemed to be an incidence of the larger historical debate coming to an emotional head. It interested me that the disagreement between Ilves and Krugman served to some extent as a proxy for the bigger argument.”
But the incident points to a strangeness. Politicians rarely swear in public and lesser so on Twitter. “Surely they swear like plumbers in private,” notes Diel, “so President Ilves’ remarks merely proved to the public that he was human.” But as Ilves tweets like a rather potty-mouthed bird he usurps the traditional and I’d argue proper medium for presidents: to write a letter to the editor. So surely a libretto of the incident would be to highlight and expend the absurdity of the incident?
But no. Diel adopts an intelligent approach to a vibrant issue, and executes it without falling into cliché. And with the music, retains a neutrality. The semantics of the event is hugely relevant, and that writing about a specific political incident is a traditional, folkloric, although potentially forbidden thing to do. Although Diel points me to the broader historical nature of his motivation.
Strangely structured the work finds interest when imagining the chronology of events taking place as the music plays through. In this contemplation there’s the brutality of austerity and empathising with a belittled nation, a President’s frustration and an economist’s arrogance. It’s subtle, but it’s all there.
The performance was part of Estonian Music Days and took place at the House of the Brotherhood of Blackheads.
This is an article from May 2009. Remembered after writing another take down piece on Iggy. Who knew I didn’t like Iggy Pop? Not me.
old man look at my life, i’m not like you
It all happened so fast. One minute I’m listening to The Idiot in a Le Fanfaron, a debauched rocknroll bar, the next I’m sneering at an album cover in an empty record store, and it’s all because of this man, Michel Houellebecq (pictured).
This antagonist, hermit, drunk and womaniser has – through the brilliance of translated texts – become the rockstars’ rockstar (Iggy Pop has written the soundtrack to a documentary on Houellebecq’s attempts to make a movie based on his book La Possibilité d’une île) and I’m beginning to see why. The book in question is written from two perspectives, that of blogger Daniel and Daniel24 (if my memory serves me right) and is consistently scathing towards the internet and its functions. In his earlier novel Extension du domaine de la lutte, Houellebecq, himself a former civil servant and IT manager writes,
I don’t like this world. I definitely do not like it. The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke. My entire work as a computer expert consists of adding to the data, the cross-referencing, the criteria of rational decision-making. It has no meaning.
In an interview for the release of his new album, Préliminaires, an expansion of his soundtrack to the documentary, Iggy Pop explains that when he was recording the songs he had an internet savvy assistant who sent the songs for the Louie Armstrong-esque backing to be recorded. He comes across rather nonchalant when saying this, but you can guess that Mr. Houellebecq and Mr. Pop probable see eye-to-eye on technological matters – and they’re not the only ones. On Neil Young’s latest record, title track Fork in the Road the aging Canadian sings,
I’m a big rock star
My sales have tanked
But I still got you
Sounds like shit
Keep on bloggin’
‘Til the power goes out
Your battery’s dead
Twist and shout
Ouch! I want to agree with the two old rockers, maybe they’re right, maybe this internet malarkey is so impersonal that through endorsing it we are only distancing ourselves from those around us, maybe as Houellebecq argues, ‘It has no meaning’, but I can’t. I find myself deserting these canonised artists because the transcendental qualities of youth – one of the key selling points in their respective oeuvres – is destroyed in the instant they come over all nostalgic on us and start singing about how good it wasin the pre-web era. Young has used the same venom that he had for the establishment in songs like Ohio and directed it at web users. The whole experience is just debasing on their behalf.
It’s not a political qualm I wish to add; it’s not because they they’re all a bunch of Right-wing warmongers, because they’re not even if they do all swing that way. It’s not because they’re all out to make a quick buck and live their paid-up professional lifestyles that grates on me; although that advert is pretty horrendous, and Young is just as bothered about his revenue streams as he is the bloggers in his lyrics. It’s because when I listened to The Idiot back in Paris I believed that it could have been written about me and those around me. It spoke to my neurosis and the end of existence, of war and bombs. However when I hear that Iggy Pop is releasing a concept album around a book that openly attacks the web and only weeks after hearing Neil Young spit vitriol about the digital age, I just think, ‘Fuck ‘em. They’re past it. They don’t know me anymore.’
When they attacked Nixon and gave a voice to those who had been silenced, when they shared the pain and strife of the underdog, that’s when they mattered; nowadays they sing not-so-tongue-in-cheek anecdotes about being King of the Dogs in a world they cannot fathom. They’ve given up, they sit there in their cabins taking pot shots at the world as it is, if anyone has lost touch with reality it’s not the bloggers and web users, it is them.
There’s a lovely moment in Extension du domaine de la lutte (tr. Whatever) where an office worker gets drunk at the Christmas bash, strips and gyrates about. Down to her knickers she realises what she’d done and has to collect her clothes while her colleagues look on. I’d like both Iggy Pop and Neil Young to come to their senses like the female office worker does. To feel a sense of shame and embarrassment that the party’s over and they’re exposing themselves.
Shine on you crazy diamonds: a eulogy for Emeralds
A number of weeks ago Emeralds kicked the bucket. Cherished by their fans, championed by the critics. There was something endearingly straight up and bullshit-free about Emeralds. Their live shows were loud. Real loud. They turned it up to create something you could feel. They existed out of context, beyond relevance. The only thing important about the group was how good they sounded. How soulful their music was.
In 2006 the US cassette scene was peaking. With dusty synths available freely from thrift stores; found between VCRs and plastic table lamps. A generation of fearless dudes took the time to master these instruments. To return to an outmoded sonic dialect.
At the time there was a hell of a lot of emphasis on the crude industrial nature of the music. Broken electrical equipment played by neanderthal virtuosos. From this sonic clutter a strand was emerging and it was very 90210. It was a sunshine state of 8-bit retro. Locally to them in Ohio, acts such as Mike Shiflet and personal favourites Burning Star Core were making power electronics. Emeralds existed in this world but they were out of tune with their peers. They were versed in electronic music composer Klaus Schultze and a revered Brian Eno and Robert Fripp guitar project.
The band are not easy to understand. I have spent a lot of time with their records and made very little progress. While it maybe relatively easy to assess the Komische/Fripptronic education that inspired the music, less clear is where they took it and what it is precisely they were trying to create.
With so many tapes overlapping themselves from recording to release and with the band rhizomic growth, it’s easy to dispute a point of change. There is no linearity in their progress. Gradually emerging from the fuzz of dying machines. There’s no point arguing the precise moment but Emeralds crossed over from cave to sunlight. As each release, each track would dance between these spaces, there was always a momentum, a potency with which their music world became brighter.
There are dozens of moments one could cite to hand. Solar Bridge in 2008 is one of those. Amidst the misty glow of reverb a warmth consumes the listener. A soulful feel. A loving embrace. This is what made Emeralds great. Not their frame of reference, nor their instrumentation, nor industriousness. Emeralds shined because they made beautiful, feelgood music. Reaching to their audience with the passion of Whitney Houston. Theirs is an engaging, dense sound.
Between 2008 and 2010 the group went through purple patch: Solar Bridge, Live, What Happened, self titled, and Does It Look Like I’m Here – with What Happened being the jewel, as the trio turned to improvisation. Meanwhile each of the members – John Elliott, Mark McGuire, Steve Hauschildt – were turning around solo and side projects in frighteningly short intervals.
Emeralds were always a band who entertained dualities. Theirs was always a bringing together of ideas and sounds. They operated best when negotiating markers, tightrope walking between sounds that could have killed them – between gaudy 80s tropes and offish noise. They took serious risks and found an audience through their passion for soulful music.
Their latest record, and now their last, was a conflicted album riddled with potholes and difficult passages, harmonised guitar solos and bright arpeggiations. The record entertained the duality of describing a numbness, and piercing through it. Just To Feel Anything is an honest, warts and all record.
The sound of a group over reaching, desperately seeking progress but arriving at a sound that felt exhausted.
Fader published an interview, with Mark McGuire talking about the record: “I think 95 percent of people in the world are convinced that none of the stuff they ever felt or cared about is real or matters at all or is relevant to today’s world, which is pretty much true. So trying to put your soul into a record today, when basically nothing seems to matter anyway, is kind of tough. It’s just a weird time to be making music. I mean, god, you can’t even fall off your chair without it being on YouTube and eight million people watching it and laughing at you”.
In confirming his departure and the death knell for the group Hauschildt tweeted, “Our legacy is one to be felt, not remembered”. And he’s right. If you haven’t yet experienced your hairs standing on end as a bass rich drone fires along your neurones, I’d recommend checking them out.
Some of the records mentioned here are now available. Other than that it’s the case of digital or digging.
Best of 2012
Actress - R.I.P. (Honest Jons)
Chromatics - Kill For Love (Italians Do It Better)
Ian Drennan - The Wonderful World (Underwater Peoples)
Lee Gamble - Diversions 1994-1996 (PAN)
Hildur Guðnadóttir - Allow The Light (Touch)
Moritz von Oswald Trio - Fetch (Honest Jons)
Motion Sickness of Time Travel - Motion Sickness of Time Travel (Spectrum Spools)
Pallbearer - Sorrow And Extinction (Profound Lore)
Sun Araw & M. Geddes Gengras meet The Congos - Icon Give Thank (RVNG Intl.)
Swans - The Seer (Young God)
Amen Dunes - Ethio Song I (KRAAK/Sacred Bones)
Neneh Cherry & The Thing - Dream Baby Dream [Four Tet remix] (Smalltown Supersound)
Funkineven feat. Fatima - Phoneline (Eglo)
Julia Holter & Jib Kidder - My Baby (n/a)
Miguel - Adorn (RCA)
Pete Swanson - Do You Like Students? (Type)
Taylor Swift - We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together [Hilbert mix] (Big Machine)
Tombs - Ashes (Everything Went Black)
Triad God - Remand (Hippos In Tanks)
Trus’me - Shakea Body [Terence Dixon remix] (Prime Numbers)
Don Cherry - Organic Music Society (Caprice Records)
Uku Kuut - Vision Of Estonia (People’s Potential Unlimited)
Bernard Parmigiani - L’‘uil écoute / Dedans-Dehors (Recollection GRM)
Gareth Williams & Mary Currie - Flaming Tunes (Blackest Ever Black)
V/A - Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984 (Chocolate Industries)
100s - Ice Cold Perm
Juicy J - Blue Dream & Lean
Rick Ross - Rich Forever
FACTmix 356: i:Cube
RyJ - Nicki Minaj Pickle Juice Mix