Category Archives: Culture

The music of the universe? Of humanity? Or just of the West? – here’s the thing:

“The first three notes just happen to be: do-re-mi…”

What do you think of when you think of ‘music’? Bob Dylan? Bach? A piano? A guitar? If you were in the orchestra at school, maybe a stave? Sharps and flats? Minims and crotchets?

I bet you think of one thing pretty quick: the familiar structure of familiar note intervals, what music experts call the diatonic scale – do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti.

But if you’d grown up in Fiji, Japan, Ghana or Guinea, would you still think of these? Or of something else?

We think of ‘music’ as one of the great social, cultural and artistic forces of humanity. But is there really a ‘human’ music? Or is what we think of as human music really just Western music? Is there anything ‘correct,’ or universal, about middle C, the seven-note scale, major and minor chords? Or are these just one way of doing things? Between, say, C and C-sharp there are a million other possible gradations of pitch – why do we use the intervals we do?

Anyone with a subscription to Songlines magazine probably already knows the answers to these questions. But I didn’t, so, in need of some reading for the Christmas period, I resolved to find out. Conveniently, I’d recently borrowed a book – How Musical is Man? (1973) by John Blacking – which looked like it could help me.

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TV review: Nurse Jackie, series 3, episode 3: “Play Me”

Published on TV Pixie, July 2011

In the so-so comedy series Episodes, which starred Stephen Mangan and Tasmin Grieg earlier this year, there was a great scene where Matt Le Blanc, playing a slightly twisted version of himself, explains to Mangan the difference between British and American TV shows. They’re debating whether the female lead in the show, who in the UK version is a lesbian, should be straight in the US version to create sexual tension with Le Blanc’s character.

“How many years you do the show in the UK?” asks Le Blanc. Four, Mangan replies. “That’s how many episodes?” Twenty four, says Mangan.

“That’s one season for us. Friends did 236 episodes. You’ve got to give yourself places for stories to go.”

It’s strange to write these words, but they’re true: Matt Le Blanc was right. The length of American TV series – even high-cost dramas like Mad Men – typically have twelve to fourteen episodes a year. This makes maintaining the quality of a show for more than a couple of series extremely hard. Even HBO’s Deadwood, after its revelatory first two seasons, lost its way in its third and final year.

To prevent the rot setting in, program-makers sometimes carry out a ‘reset,’ adding a few crucial plot points that move the story in a significantly different direction to keep things fresh. One obvious recent example is Mad Men: at the end of series three, the main contexts in which the series’ action had mostly taken place – the Sterling Cooper ad agency and Don Draper’s marriage – were both jettisoned, in favour of a new agency and a new bachelor life for Don. The result was a fourth series that was uneven, but felt fresher and more intense.

Another great American series, Nurse Jackie, is in the middle of its third series – and it’s about to carry out one of the subtlest, smartest resets I’ve seen. With episode three, screened on Sky Atlantic this week, the third series began to move in a direction that will change the tone of the show markedly.

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Two faces of gay theatre

On Thursday I went to see two plays. One was written in the late 1980s, is about AIDS, and is called Elegies, Punks and Raging Queens. The other was written in 2010, is called Queer in the USA, and is about a gay teenager obsessed with Bruce Springsteen.

Which would you guess offered a broader, more sophisticated portrayal of the varieties of modern gay life? You’d be surprised.

I went to see Elegies in part out of a sense of obligation. Much as people watch hard-hitting documentaries about disappearing rainforests or the abuse of women in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, I, like many gay men, feel AIDS is something we ought to face, understand, and be saddened by.

But as the show began and the first song was sung, the reminiscences of a former club singer about the wild sights of the Lower East Side in the 1970s, I must admit my heart began to sink. We were in, I feared, for two hours of the same old worn-out story: gay men came to New York and to San Francisco, and it was dirty and dangerous and sexy and fabulous, and then the hurricane came and everyone died.

This story is the creation myth of the modern gay community in the West. And I’m tired of it. Not because it’s not true, because it is; not because we’ve heard it all before, though we have. I’m tired of it because it leaves so much out: the many gay men who didn’t move to the coastal cities, but shuffled tentatively out of the closet in their small home towns; the many straight victims of AIDS, from drug addicts and prostitutes to those who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion or a medical accident or from an unknowing partner.

I needn’t have worried.

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Always Crashing in the Same Car: The Gagosian’s sprawling tribute to J.G. Ballard

Published on Towards a Magazine, March 2010

Slip through a grey door on Britannia Street, a nondescript road in King’s Cross, and you’re confronted with what appears to be the leg of a giant robot ostrich.

Dominating the small room in which it lies, the giant metal leg – complete with four-wheeled foot – is disorienting by virtue of its sheer size. You quickly breeze past and find yourself at an open doorway. Above it is inscribed, with several letters pointing backwards: “we are all going to die”.

The ostrich leg is, in fact, Scottish artist Adam McEwen’s Honda Teen Facial: the landing gear of a Boeing 747, sheared from its moorings and strewn, apparently at random, across the room. The words above the doorway come courtesy of another Scottish artist, Douglas Gordon. You are in the Gagosian Gallery, one of two in London and of nine in the international network of art houses owned by millionaire collector Larry Gagosian. The exhibition, Crash, is a collection of works inspired by the writer JG Ballard, who died last year aged 78.

Best known for the novel that gave the exhibition its name, Ballard was the author of 19 novels, countless short stories, and the autobiography Miracles of Life. His main mode was dystopian science fiction. Perhaps no other postwar writer has sought so obsessively to explore the place of humanity in modern post-industrial society. In Crash, a gang of bored thrill-seekers plan car crashes for sexual pleasure. In The Drowned World, scientists explore a London left underwater by the melting of the ice caps. In his short story collection Vermillion Sands, the wealthy residents of a resort enjoy high-tech soporifics such as singing plants, sound jewellery, and mood-responsive houses.

The Gagosian’s exhibition makes a respectable job of showcasing works which address similar themes to Ballard. But only a handful of the works share Ballard’s unique instinct for understanding human psychology and sexuality, and their condition under the pressures of modern society.

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I turned my face away, and dreamed about… something else

I have an announcement to make. This is going to shock some of you, but I’ve given it a lot of thought. Before you all rush to judge me, I’d like you to listen carefully to what I have to say.

This Christmas, 2006, I am boycotting “Fairytale of New York.”

I told you you’d be shocked. Allow me to make myself very clear: I take this action not through boredom, sickness or dislike of said heart-of-gold drunken yuletide anthem. Quite the opposite. I’m doing this because I like it far too much to see it meet the fate of every other Christmas song: overplayed, irritating, redolent of tired, forced fun.

I remember when “Fairytale” first came out. The first time I heard it, I hated it. I was eight, for heaven’s sake; I wanted synths, beats, and preferably a little mini-rap for the middle eight. I really wasn’t ready for MacGowan’s lazily anguished snarl, or MacColl’s lilt for that matter. And yet, after my first listen, something stayed with me. By the next day I’d listened to it several times, learned the words, and put it on a tape I was making for a friend (along, if I remember correctly, with “Pump Up The Volume” by M/A/R/R/S, which must imply something).

For a long time, “Fairytale” remained, if not a secret passion, at least a pretty cliquey one. In the oh-so-ironic 90s, unashamed party ‘classics’ like Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody!” went down better than dark old “Fairytale.” I heard that it was kept from video appearances on Christmas Top of the Pops specials by the word “faggot,” but I’ve no idea if that’s true. Certainly, it was a badge of honour to admire the song over the array of Christmas crap out there. This, after all, was the decade when the coveted slot of Christmas number one was competed for almost entirely by novelty acts – from Mr. Blobby to Bob the Builder. I’m not saying that liking “Fairytale” made you some sort of musical guru, but it was a marker of discrimination. Like Radiohead, nobody who was really interested in music would dismiss it, and nobody who was basically more interested in football could really enjoy it.

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