Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Scott Walker on The Freak Zone and Bish Bosch

There was a wealth of great Scott on Radio 6 this weekend to mark both his recently released album Bish Bosch and his 70th birthday. Stuart Maconie’s Freakier Zone on Friday night had Rob Young, author of Electric Eden and editor of the collection of Scott essays and interviews No Regrets, on the phone from the chill climes of Oslo choosing some music which threw light on the sonic and lyrical aspects of the current work (which could be said to encompass the last three records – Tilt, Drift and Bish Bosch). Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto for 13 instruments is one of this ‘clocks and clouds’ pieces, in which nebulous miasmas of indeterminate pitches swirl around complex layers of metronomic rhythm. The scuttling harpsichord certainly resembles some of the more kinetic moments in the new album, suggestive of swarming insects seen close up in some scientific film. Jonny Greenwood’s music from the recent film The Master further demonstrates the influence of post-war modernist composition on the Scott’s current soundworld, with its debt to Penderecki’s early music evident in the swooping glissandos, tracing rocketing ascents and plummeting descents (perhaps alluded to in Scott’s line about ‘dropkick coloraturas fouling my ears’ in the lengthy piece SDSS 1416+13B on the new album, sung whilst similar warning siren string sounds arc woozily behind him). The remarkable opening scenes of Simon Pummell’s 2003 film Bodysong (a dizzying, overwhelming collage of births) are scored by Greenwood with a Messiaen-like sequence of unresolved floating chords which are also characteristic of Scott in his more transcendental moments, going right back to the days of Boy Child, Angels of Ashes and Big Louise (‘didn’t time sound sweet yesterday’).

Diamanda Galas’ Todesfuge from her LP Defixiones Will and Testament shares with recent Scott a fearless facing of the darkness, both out in the universe and down in more interior worlds. Galas’ articulate anger at the abuses perpetrated by the powerful is far more explicitly expressed, both in her music and in interviews, than tends to be the case with Scott. He tends to be more indirect, working through implication and suggestion, viewing the world through the subjective lens of the characters he creates. The tone of his recent records has tended to be either passive or distraught in terms of the vocals, the scenarios established from a certain distanced remove, as if observed by an indifferent deity, or seen from an internal, helpless perspective. The chaos and violence of the world has been found in the industrial clattering of its instrumental noise, its silences and tense moments of calm in the finer grain of detailed sound. Bish Bosch exhibits a new level of forecefulness, however, both in its more guitar-centric instrumental palette and in the vocals. Scott spits out scatological phrases with a mixture of relish and disgust, and snarls put downs in the guise of the dwarf entertainer Zercon. It’s a real shock when he suddenly screams the lines “what kind of unnatural son would do that to his own mother?”, the conclusion of a Freudian howl apparently quoted from the wisdom of Louis B Mayer.

Diamanda Galas manages both to inhabit the psyches of the victims of historical and political violence and oppression and to voice almost supernatural maledictions against the oppressors with her remarkably versatile voice. Schrei X is certainly one of the most disturbing records I’ve ever listened to, a portrayal of solitary incarceration and political torture which vocalises the sound of a mind coming apart. It relates directly to Scott’s work from the Walker Brothers track The Electrician onwards, which deals with similar themes of political torture from a subjective point of view. The lack of context could almost be said to render such claustrophobic vignettes as absurdist abstractions of the fundamentals of human psychology and power relations in extremis rather than pieces of specific political comment. They’re certainly very far from traditional protest songs. The title of Galas’ book The Shit of God also forms a link with Bish Bosch’s abiding concern with the gross matter of physical existence, with aging, decay, deformity and bodily ejecta (including the farting sound of escaping gas on Corps de Blah). This preoccupation with the physical extends outwards from the body into the universe. The protagonist of Phrasing is situated ‘neath a protein moon in a protein sky’ with a ‘protein song howling through the meat’. The grossly, intimately physical and the cold, interstellar spaces of astrophysics and cosmological distance are contrasted, but all are found to be subject to the same forces. On the microscopic scale, phrases such as ‘eukaryotic gobbler of gavotte’ and guanine restraint’ use the language of genetic science to place the individual within the pre-ordained dance of DNA’s spiral cage. In Corps de Blah, the summer stars of ‘Altair, Vega, Drogba and Deneb’ (three of which form the so-called Summer Triangle, as any viewer of The Sky At Night will know) ‘doff to Dentist’s stoop of moon above the haunches’. This is a wonderful imagistic depiction of the crooked crescent moon, which also serves to link the stellar (or sub-stellar) with the delicate and vulnerable body of the earth. Zercon (a very scientific name, homophonous with the mineral zircon, part of the metallic element zirconium), the desperate, scabrous dwarf jester of SDSS 1416+13B, tries to raise himself from the Earth and ascend to the heavens by sitting on a flagpole, greasing it behind him as he climbs to prevent anyone from following, and so that there’s no possibility of descent. He resembles the pillar squatting desert saints of the first millennium, and Scott may have drawn on Luis Bunuel’s surreal and satirical depiction of one such in his 1965 film Simon of the Desert. Bunuel’s film also In the end, however, entropy exerts its negative force with a vengeance, and coldness, darkness and silence begin to dull Zercon’s furious energy, born of rage at his deformity and the mockery which it engenders. His eventual heavenly transcendence is of a piece with his existence. Rather than being transformed into an element of some dazzling, eternal constellation, taking his place amongst the company of gods and heroes in the night sky, he becomes a brown dwarf star, imploding into shrivelled anti-radiance (the SDSS 1416+13B of the title, small, decaying and shit-coloured – an interstellar ball of dung).

The tragicomic play between spiritual aspiration and physical decrepitude is locked into Zercon’s very nature, his defining name which determines his inescapable fate. The definition of the mineral zircon in the Oxford English Dictionary has it ‘occurring as prismatic crystals, typically brown but sometimes in translucent form of gem quality’. Zercon can’t maintain his translucent form, but at least he shouts his defiance at the void, mocking its silence and asserting his own temporary physical being. The heavens, for all their glittering celestial promise, turn out, funnily enough, to be as much of a toilet as Earth and the material body he dragged around there. In his interview with Stuart Maconie on the Freak Zone, Scott describes the Roman numerals which punctuate the song as being like graffiti on toilet walls; phone numbers predating the invention of the technology necessary to give them meaning. He reads them out as if they were letters, holding out the promise of some codified numerical language which will reveal an underlying order and purpose to the universe. Again, the rift between spiritual aspiration or intellectual pretension and the reality of base physical matter produces a bathetic (and funny!) outcome. Or perhaps the secrets of the universe really are to be found scrawled on the walls of ancient toilets.

Another piece of music which Rob Young chose was the song Wakin’ on the Sky from the soundtrack to David Lynch’s film Inland Empire. Essentially a mumbled dream monologue propelled by a steady swing beat, it links in with the semi-recitative passages of Bish Bosch. Scott talks in his interviews both with Stuart Maconie and Jarvis Cocker (on Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service show broadcast on the 2nd December 2012) about how the lyrics are the starting point of his compositions. The sounds or ‘arrangements’ (a word he hesitates to use) are wholly suggested by them. At times, indeed, the various sounds (and they are particularly varied on this record) seem like colour or shading for a kind of sound poetry, the words taking precedence over any conventional musical form and guiding the overall structure. The film Inland Empire in itself presents structural analogies with Scott’s new music, through its folding together of disparate and seemingly disconnected elements linked through a loosely associative patterning. Small or incidental details in one scene become central in another. Lynch, like Scott, has often been labelled pretentious or accused of deliberate obscurantism, his work easily or lazily dismissed as nothing more than weirdness for its own sake. Both Lynch’s films and Scott’s albums require a certain adjustment in expectations, in the ways of seeing or hearing, and above all a little patience in allowing sense to settle slowly (and possibly intuitively), without being forced.

It’s interesting that so many of the pieces of music which Rob Young has chosen to reflect aspects of Scott’s new work have cinematic connections. Ligeti’s work is well known from its use in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Extracts from his choral piece Lux Aeterna accompany a glide over the lunar surface, and the amazing Atmospheres carries astronaut Dave Bowman to Jupiter and beyond the infinite with suitably disorientating shifts between extremities of pitch, wavering and unstable drones, pointillistic scuttling and nervy stridulation. Scott’s interest in film is a longstanding one. He translated Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal into a narrative ballad, which introduced listeners into the world of his fourth solo LP. His Walker Brothers song Mrs Murphy (initially on a 1966 EP prophetically entitled Solo Scott, Solo John) was a kitchen sink movie in song form, its switching between multiple viewpoints making a connection between these early pop years and the similarly cinematic perspectives of Bish Bosch. Farmer In the City on his 1995 LP Tilt was dedicated to Pasolini, and his 2000 Meltdown Festival on the South Bank included a rich programme of cinema, including films by the likes of Carl Dreyer (Gertrud), Ingmar Bergman (Persona), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Chinese Roulette), Josef von Sternberg (The Shanghai Gesture), and Aki Kaurismaki (Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana and Drifting Clouds). The latter’s mordant sense of humour perhaps hints at a hidden comical side to Scott’s recent work. There was also an appearance by the great German actress Hannah Schygulla, star of many Fassbinder films, in her chanteuse guise. A performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot points to the centrality of his influence on Scott’s latterday work. He also talks about Robert Bresson in his interview with Jarvis (Bresson’s A Man Escaped was included in his festival programme), highlighting his spare style, focussing in on the small and relevant detail, and paring away of all he considered extraneous, leaving only some essential undramatised core of humanity. He also mentions the sculptor Giacometti in this context, with his fragile, skeletal bronze figures.

With these kinds of references, it becomes clear that he is in a sense still working a 60s vein. Not the one that many who still insist on seeing him as the pop idol or Euro-existentialist crooner which he has long put behind him would have him return to; rather a kind of resolutely experimental modernism whose fundamentally serious approach has long made it unfashionable, and which demands the undivided attention of the listener. It’s the kind of music which used to be quite prevalent, used in television programmes and even the odd children’s drama (Children of the Stones springs immediately to mind). It could be nostalgic for futurisms past were it not for the digital clarity and cold, glinting surfaces of the music, which locates its sound very much in the present day. As Rob Young comments, Scott is clearly a musician who has kept up to date with developments in musical and recording technology (if there is now any difference between the two). David Sylvian, whose song The Rabbit Skinner from his 2009 LP Manofon is Young’s last choice, made a similar transition from pop stardom to a more fractured, experimental music, and has also looked back to experimental music from the 60s and 70s for inspiration whilst still keeping abreast of modern trends. Rabbit Skinner involves the participation of free jazz saxophonist Evan Parker (who’s also played with Scott, and performed at his 2000 Meltdown Festival), who emerged from (and helped to create) the sixties free improvisation scene, playing in John Stevens’ pivotal Spontaneous Music Ensemble; John Tilbury, pianist in free improv group AMM in the 60s and interpreter of modern piano music by the likes of John Cage and Morton Feldman; and ‘glitch’ musician Christian Fennesz, very much a part of the modern digital musical world. Unlike Scott, however, Sylvian’s voice seems less integrated into the resultant sound world. Whereas Scott builds the sounds around his words in the studio, Sylvian’s voice seems tentatively grafted on here (as was noted in Ian Penman’s review of the record in the October 2009 issue of The Wire, in which he observes that it ‘sounds as if it was made in two very discrete spaces’). The song is still compelling in its own way, however, perhaps because of this inherent tension and the slightly awkward nature of the encounter. Sylvian’s voice has also remained fairly constant in its crooning softness (and there’s certainly more than a touch of 60s solo Scott in there) whatever context it’s fitting into. Scott, on the other hand, has adjusted his vocals to the material recently, as he discussed with Stuart Maconie. The lyrical content has brought out a more anxious, higher pitched register, which sounds more fragile and vulnerable. He talks about wanting to get away from the soothing, ‘tranquilising’ quality of his luxuriant baritone. But the voice of old is still there, and can be brought out for use when needed, particularly, as he points out, for the more conventionally songlike melodic phrases. An extract from the track Epizootics which Maconie plays perfectly illustrates this. It also has a passage which has a contemporary jazz sound, like something by Acoustic Ladyland or Polar Bear (or anything else with Seb Rochford in), which rather seems to belie Scott’s claim that he doesn’t listen to jazz anymore because it’s not doing anything that wasn’t already well-established in the sixties (again, harking back to 60s sounds).

Scott has always guarded his privacy, taking the view that we have neither the right nor the need to have any insight into his personal life. This has led to the establishment, whether cultivated or accidental, of an enigmatic persona, which spans the downward looking figure swathed in a veiling scarf and retreating behind the protective visor of dark glasses on the cover of his first solo LP to the one who appears today beneath the shade of his ubiquitous cap’s peak. He can be evasive in interviews particularly, as often seems to be the case, they are show more interest in his pop past than his current work. He seemed thoroughly at ease in the company of Jarvis Cocker and Stuart Maconie, however. Jarvis he knows of old, having produced the final Pulp album and invited him to perform at his Meltdown Festival. Both tend to be referred to by their first names, implying a certain familiarity. In Scott’s case, this probably arises from the intimacy of his 60s songs, as well as from the fact that his first four solo LPs were enumerations of the title Scott. Jarvis’s self-titling of his first solo LP may have been a small act of homage to his musical hero. The Freak Zone interview is particularly interesting, and Scott is audibly pleased at Stuart Maconie’s evident appreciation of and insight into the kind of music he’s now making. As they say their goodbyes and the recording fades down, we hear him saying that it’s the ‘best interview I’ve had so far’, which must be hugely gratifying for Maconie. Prior to the Freak Zone, there was also an hour long Scott mix chosen by listeners on the Now Playing show presented by Tom Robinson, which focussed on the 60s music and songs by admirers like Jarvis, Julian Cope and Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy. Perhaps the song which best reflected Scott’s current work was played before this mix, however: X-TG (Throbbing Gristle without Genesis P-Orridge) and Antony Hegarty performing Nico’s Janitor of Lunacy, from the recent Desert Shore project covering that LP with a variety of vocalists. Antony’s voice transforms the Gothic chill of Nico’s harmonium dirge into an eerie heavenly hymn, its reverberant echo seeming to come from someplace else – an asylum located beyond the range of normal, sane perception, and not necessarily a dark place, either. Bowie’s atmospheric new single/song Where Are We Now?, played near the start of the show, also bears the imprint of 60s Scott. His influence is still pervasive, and perhaps in years to come we’ll hear more pop musicians mining the deep inner territories which Scott is now exploring – out on his own again.

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