This four-disc box set of film noir from the 1940’s displays a rare kind of diversity and depth. Of course we know that noir sprang from the cynicism and uncertainty post WW2 and these films are not only brimming with double crosses and dames you can’t trust, but also a morality, a sense of family that is rare in the genre.

Henry Hathaway’s The Dark Corner, possibly the most conventional noir here, manages to marry many conventions, a private detective caught in a frame, an innocent dame who loves him and mysterious dapper gentleman possibly behind it all. Interestingly the dame is actually Lucille Ball in a rare dramatic role. “I feel all dead in side. I’m backed up in a dark corner and I don’t know who’s hitting me,” mourns the detective as the police and the criminals close in.

Cry of the City, directed imaginatively by Robert Siodmak is so much more than the sum of its parts. In fact it’s hard not to see parallels with Michael Mann’s Heat in it’s portrayal of the complex of the complex relationship between a cop and a criminal in the dark expressionist streets New York’s lower East Side.

House of Strangers is a flashback tale of an immigrant patriarch Edward G Robinson in a breakout performance, who’s success and a banker and standing in the community blinds him to the anger and greed of his sons, forced to endure their fathers old world habits. It’s the tale of a family at war with itself and previously has been labelled as The Godfather in reverse.

The standout though is Nightmare Alley, a dark tale of the rise and fall of a gifted con man who begins as a low life Carney, using his friends as a stepladder on his rise to the top. This is probably the most mean spirited in the collection, grim and harsh, a world way from stylised expressionistic private detectives and crooked cops. This film is dirty and mean and doesn’t hold back.

Bob Baker Fish

Interview with Rod Cooper (originally appeared in Inpress)

Lots of people make music. But not so many make the instrument that they’re playing. For those who do it’s usually a guitar or some other conventional instrument. Yet Melbourne is host to another type of instrument builder, one who has little interest in convention, and the results are weird and wonderful constructions that defy imagination. Perhaps it’s a reaction to computer music or made in China off the shelf consumerables, however there’s no doubting a renewed interest in unique hand crafted instrumentation. To the extent that some of its most prominent practitioners have organised a festival to celebrate.
“People have actually moved to Melbourne for the music scene and then they make things and we end up meeting and slowly we’re forming a community,” offers instrument builder and Hand Made Musical Festival (HMM) co organiser Rod Cooper.
“I think there’s something that comes out that is uniquely from the area, from Melbourne, from Australia,” he continues. “We gravitate towards certain sounds that we want to use, certain textures.”
Cooper, who has been creating instruments and sound sculptures for over 20 years, has regularly performed at improvised and experimental music festivals alongside all manner of artists and musicians. In fact the genesis of the festival was borne out of The Make It Up Club, a regular improvised music night at Bar Open curated by co HMM curator Ben Koliatis.
“It was about hacking and bending, people using fruit as oscillators and other acoustic instrument builders like myself,” reports Cooper, “and it was really popular. So we thought lets go a bit further.”
Featuring artists as diverse as Toydeath, who use circuit bent toys to create bizarre noisy pop music, to the more experimental video synthesizer and cracked TV of Vijay Thillaimuthu, there’s a feast of musical styles and approaches on display.
“It’s for artists who are building their own original instruments, the DIY electronics stuff, “ offers Cooper. “We had a list of about 20 people and worked from there. The thing was they had to be builders; we didn’t want any traditional instruments or pedals in the show. I mean it still crept in a bit; you can’t be a Nazi about it. We just want to highlight there’s another form of music that is happening in Melbourne.”
Perhaps the most exciting aspect is the diversity of the festival with performances, artist talks, an instrument makers swap meet, and workshops where a few of the artists help a lucky few create their own unique instruments.
“We want to make this inclusive,” offers Cooper. “We look at all the other festivals and why they haven’t lasted and why they tapered off. It’s important to make it inclusive. We’re encouraging people to get into it.”
Cooper suggests that making instruments isn’t a desire. It’s more of a need. The form and the materials may change, yet the need remains. And it’s something he shares with all of the artists involved.
“I’ve got stacks of printers that I’ve been taking apart and building different mechanisms out of. It’s fun too. I just have an urge to build things all the time. That’s one strong element about the festival. The makers are always saying I’m building heaps and heaps, I just want to play some more. They have this urge and that’s one thing you need to consider. It’s one thing to play music but to set up the whole instrument design and interface of your expression that’s another complicated process to go through creatively.”
Cooper raids hard rubbish collections (shh), building sites and is increasingly interested in reusing and recycling materials, rescuing his material from landfill. Ultimately though his interest is about creating an instrument that feels part of him, that makes sense to him.
“As a performer when you’ve made your own instrument you know it in a different way. You’re inside it. That’s a big difference for me. When I’m playing instruments that I haven’t built. They just don’t feel comfortable. They’re not like my shows that I’ve worn into the shape of my feet. “

Bob Baker Fish

Hand Made Music Festival is on until the 28th of August. Check for more details.

Fragmented Frequencies August 2011

At its heart, on some level all art is about other art, suggests author and broadcaster Andrew Ford. All music about other music, and what he refers to as ‘illegal music,’ that which disrupts the prevailing convention, he believes actively refutes the music that came before it.

It’s what punk did to prog rock or how minimalist composers rescued art music from the modernists. They’re provocative words, but what he’s suggesting is that these changes in direction force us to re evaluate our responses to all the music that came before. His book Illegal Harmonies: Music In The Modern Age (Black Inc) is a modernist trawl through the history of 21st century music, a broad sweeping reflection of our musical past.

He touches on John Cage’s notion that in music there is no longer a main stream. Previously music moved informally through a series of changes from baroque to classicism to romanticism and beyond. Cage suggested music has now become a delta, with a series of interlocking tributaries, where influences come and go from all bizarre and unexpected directions. Congolese Rumba anyone?

It’s these kinds of threads, the bizarre interlocking accidents of inspiration that provide the most interest. His focus is classical, or art music and other styles such as jazz and rock are touched but only in their proximity and influence to modern classical. Initially this is off-putting and makes the book a trawl, but for someone who has previously had little interest in classical music beyond noting that Ravel’s Bolero has an extraordinarily long melodic line (listen to it again, it’s amazing), this journey through the past is fascinating.

Who knew of Haydn’s fondness for gypsy music? Mozart’s appreciation of Turkish percussion? Schubert’s love of Hungarian music? Well possibly Mozart, Schubert, and Haydn fans.

Ford’s text flows like the radio documentary that it was. Composers are discussed with little concern for their current popularity, and without a revisionist attitude. A few pertinent points are raised and then we move on. Erik Satie, Albarn Berg, Edgard Varese, Arnold Schoenberg, and Arvo Part, are approached with the same gravity as Bach and Stravinsky. Subjective value judgements are left behind in favour of succinct discussions of approach and in locating the threads that bind or free them.
John Cage’s presence looms large. His ideas and compositions tie the disparate ideas together. ‘Illegal Harmonies’ comes from Cage’s suggestion that everything is music, all you need to do is find or create the order and hear the patterns. Ford suggests with mischievous humour that Cage’s 4’33 is the most important piece ever composed. It’s a piece for solo piano, where the pianist comes out to the piano and proceeds not to play– for 4 minutes 33 seconds. Later Cage revised the piece, allowing people to play for longer or shorter than 4’33 and opening it up to alternate instrumentation. The lesson is there’s no such thing as silence, “by virtue of our attention,” writes Ford, “ sounds become music.” He suggests it works the other way too, when we’re not listening, Beethoven’s fifth becomes noise.
There’s a cacophony of ideas flowing through Illegal Harmonies, however the interest for fragmented frequencies are those areas where Cage’s delta gets muddy. Ford’s interest in the broader context prevents him from discussing the strange bastard sons that dropped from the sky, such as David Fanshawe, or Sun Ra and unfortunately he doesn’t appear to have much interest in over the top symphonic death metal of folks like Dimmu Borgir.

His interest is in the influence of minimalism on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, one of those rare occasions where a classical or new music influence resulted in a pop hit. Or Lou Reeds work with Robert Williams on the opera Time Rocker, which he traces back to the Beatles and the Grateful Dead attending lectures by Stockhausen (who appeared on the cover of Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band).
He suggests Steve Reich’s vocal loops influenced the hip-hop and electronica kids, with DJ Spooky, Coldcut and friends remixing his work. He taps into composer Nico Muhly’s work with Phillip Glass, Bjork, and Antony and the Johnsons. He decries Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, ponders the compositions of Billy Joel, and Miles Davis’ and their attempts to be ‘serious’ musicians. He wonders if Kida A is more serious than Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis symphony based on superman comics. Finally he finishes with an earnest epilogue discussing ipods, mp3’s, and the ubiquity of music, before offering an almost desperate plea that perhaps it will help us to use our ears better.

Seun Kuti – From Africa With Fury: Rise (Cartell)

Since Fela’s passing there have been a great many pretenders to the throne, yet none have appeared as likely as his youngest son Seun. His first album Many Things was a blistering statement of intent. Suddenly afrobeat was topical, challenging and transgressive fire-breathing creature again.
His follow up is equally as intense, a burning slab of Afrobeat funk. The tempo is high, typically insistent and the playing sharp. The songs are not only socially relevant, but also actively antagonistic. Seun takes up his father’s political agitation, though it’s through the eyes of an idealistic young man, less cynical than his father, chastising corruption in the government for betraying their nation.

Whilst there is an element of preachiness that has at times weighed down the music of his brother Femi and his fathers later work, you can’t help but admire his sheer gall, explicitly naming multinational companies like Halliburton, Mosanto and diamond companies as the scourge of Africa. However his concerns don’t overwhelm the music.

No less than Brian Eno is credited as co producer and Kuti talks of him opening up the mixes, giving the music space to breathe, and it certainly feels live, but also full and highly articulate.
It’s an album about African empowerment but it’s also about the development of Kuti’s identity, each successive album is a step further from his fathers shadow. Whilst Fela looms large, Seun has a more collaborative personality, less ego, a more husky vocal timbre, and pursues different vocal lines. This gives the music more power thanks to Seun’s earnestness. It’s a complex album, his music is not as immediate as his fathers it takes time to allow songs to fully form and the messages to penetrate but even now it feels like the tip of the iceberg.

Bob Baker Fish

Trash Humpers (Curious)

It’s fascinating what Trash Humpers does to you. It’s almost plotless, just a crap VHS camera following three aged delinquents on a trail of random destruction and stupidity. They also dry hump rubbish and perform fellatio on branches. It’s totally exploitative, highly manipulative and very very wrong. Yet if it was only kids bashing dolls with hammers or old people drinking wine and destroying TV’s then it would get tired very quickly. Director and actor Harmony Korine (KIds/Gummo) has his faults, his unquenchable desire to shock, his precocious artiness and willingness to exploit his subjects for his own amusement, yet it’s precisely these qualities that make this film so great. And he also imbues Trash Humpers with a certain unexpected gravitas, where in spite of the ridiculousness of its premise, the acts of stupidity take on an almost hypnotic quality, and strangely enough it becomes quite touching.

It’s the worst looking film you’ve ever seen. Things you’ve recorded off your phone look better. It’s definitely a sign of our times, it’s jackass made by people without any conceivable talents, an exercise in seedy suburban wrongness, where Korine picks out some neighbourhood randoms to visit. So we get racist homophobic rednecks, randoms with extra long toenails, nonsensical monologues in maid outfits, firecrackers and whenever Korine runs out of ideas someone roots some rubbish. There’s no music, just the singing over and over by camera operator (Korine in old persons makeup), bastardised folk songs where the humour comes from the oppressive repetition. Much like the rest of the film.

It’s an annoying, painful and difficult film to watch, but it’s also incredibly bold in its refusal to comply with cinemas expectations. Korine is a singular voice; it’s probably the funniest film you will ever see, though to be fair, it’s humour borne from pain. Your pain, because ultimately it’s difficult to shake the notion that it’s not his subject, but the viewer that is the butt of Korine’s joke.
Bob Baker Fish