A daring vision of reality: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia

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SPOILER ALERT: The following article discusses details of the plot of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia; anyone yet to see the film may wish to postpone reading further until afterwards.

Early in 2010, i devoted the first of my very occasional podcasts to the soundtrack of Lars von Trier’s film Antichrist. Von Trier is an artist whose work deeply fascinates me, and his latest film, Melancholia—which i saw for the second time last night—has made an even deeper impression than its predecessor; in fact, i struggle to think of a film that’s left me in such a profoundly moved state. Having read a number of reviews, it’s been interesting and surprising to see such widespread agreement as to the merits and achievement of Melancholia. Antichrist, with its body-clenching, excruciatingly graphic brutality, sharply polarised audiences; by contrast, Melancholia is calm and understated—but nonetheless, i believe it to be an even more challenging and potentially alienating work. The title says it all and says it plain: this movie is an unabashed exploration of depression as experienced, and as such first impressions might suggest that, for anyone unacquainted with that predicament, finding a way into the film could be difficult. Read more

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Mixtape #21 : Noise

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With noise is born disorder […] In noise can be read the codes of life, the relations among men. Clamor, Melody, Dissonance, Harmony […] when it becomes sound, noise is the source of purpose and power, of the dream—Music.

Stirring words from the opening chapter of Jacques Attali’s marvellous book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, and noise is the focus of the new 5:4 mixtape. As such, i suppose it could be deemed the least accessible of these mixes, although my interpretation of noise here extends beyond fortissimo walls of abrasion; there’s a lot more to noise than just that.

Three of Alva Noto‘s miniature renderings of computer files pepper the mix, blurring the distinction between active and passive compositional intent. To some extent, the same could be said of Richard James’ AFX track ‘Ktpa2’, one of a pair of ferocious static blasts that remain his most brutal music to date. Most of the tracks included here, though, are less single-minded than these, and drag a variety of æsthetic manners into their obstreperous orbits. Three Trapped Tigers (whose first album is one of this year’s most outstanding releases) explore a complex amalgam of math rock and glitch, while Ukranian soundscapists First Human Ferro put noise at the core of their paradoxically radiant dark ambient. Japanese experimentalist Lethe takes hard metallic field recordings in abandoned resonant spaces as his starting point, while Nine Inch Nails do what they do best tucked away deep in the bowels of a studio. Noise is a sine qua non of all music with a hauntological aspect, heard here in the hissy nostalgia of Black Swan and the searing, gritty glitter of The Stranger (in my view, Leyland Kirby’s most riveting persona). My own work the Ceiling stared at me but i beheld only the Stars is a large-scale conflict between noise and pitched material; the excerpt included here is from the centre of the piece, where bell-like pitches first emerge. One could hardly have a noise mixtape without Merzbow; i’ve included part of the opening track from one of his latest albums, a typically kaleidoscopic feast of electronic mayhem. At the end comes a fittingly curt signing-off by Thomas Bangalter, from his soundtrack to Gaspar Noé’s film Irréversible. Read more

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 9. Oceanos

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If I want a water of Europe, it is the black
Cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight
A squatting child full of sadness releases
A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

The penultimate stanza from Rimbaud’s La Bateau ivre, one of the inspirations behind James Dillon’s Oceanos, the climactic work that brings his Nine Rivers epic to an end. Having explored eight different kinds of ensemble, Dillon finally unites them; it’s not explicitly described as such, but with nine woodwind, seven brass, six percussion, piano, harp and 11 strings, plus live electronics and a choir of 16 voices, Oceanos is undeniably a work for choir and orchestra—not a large one, to be sure, but an orchestra nonetheless. As such, captured in that evocative title, it has a breadth of scope far beyond that of its predecessors, a broadness that also results in some of the slowest, most weighty material in the entire cycle.

But that’s not how things begin, with an initial rush of energy from voices and percussion, the latter dominating in a splashy metallic display involving triangles, cymbals, metal sheets, gongs and tam-tams. These gradually become gentler, allowing the voices to be heard more clearly, although the specifics of the text (about which i’ve been unable to find any information; the score clearly shows phrases in Latin, French and Scots Gaelic) remain indistinct. After a few minutes both the percussion and the voices—having turned to hushed whispers—stop, exposing the underlying electronics which, enhanced by a static string chord, sound like an wall of electricity, crackling with energy, wind billowing around it. Read more

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 8. Introitus

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As éileadh sguaibe reaches its conclusion, the electronics seem to catch hold of the percussion; however, a glance at the score of Nine Rivers‘ eighth piece, Introitus, reveals that it is, in fact, its own tape part overlapping the final minute of éileadh. Having been more-or-less dormant for the last 20 minutes of the cycle, electronics now start to return to the importance they had in La coupure. At this stage, the penultimate work brings with it a palpable sense of the end being in sight, although i suspect this is a natural concomitant of Nine Rivers‘ epic scale rather than anything (yet) in the music explicitly heralding or even implicitly hinting at its conclusion. Introitus is scored for 12 strings (to some extent timbrally mirroring the second work, L’ECRAN parfum) plus both live electronics and also tape. In his very lengthy programme note, Dillon characterises the relationship of those components as “a palimpsest of three superposed layers […] interdependent strata [that] function not simply to perform a coherent unity [or] a symbiosis but cite their own deconstruction. Introitus within the context of Nine Rivers may be viewed as an estuary (L. æstuare, to surge, foam as the tide), a tidal delirium opened up by the employment of computer technology”. Completed in 1990, Introitus was composed for the 65th birthday of Pierre Boulez, and was premièred in May of that year by the Ensemble Intercontemperain conducted by Peter Eötvös, at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The tape and electronic parts were realised next door at IRCAM, who also commissioned the work. This time, the relevant stanza from Rimbaud’s La Bateau ivre is this one:

I have seen sidereal archipelagos! and islands
Whose delirious skies are open to the sea-wanderer:
–Is it in these bottomless nights that you sleep and exile yourself,
Million golden birds, O future Vigor?
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 7. éileadh sguaibe

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Having kept the electronics on a very tight leash in L’œuvre au noir, James Dillon reins them in almost completely in the seventh work of the Nine Rivers cycle, éileadh sguaibe. Like its predecessor, the work was also commissioned for the Paragon Ensemble, who gave the first performance in January 1991. The title, in Scots Gaelic, approximates to “gathered up in pleated folds”, referencing the kilt and serving as a descriptor for Dillon’s manipulation of material, which he has described as “folding sound”. The electronics, as i’ve said, are negligible, so the piece is simply heard as one for brass septet and percussion. Despite éileadh sguaibe‘s brief duration (about which more later), Dillon establishes a fascinating relationship between these two groups, which in many ways feels like a continuation from L’œuvre au noir (and almost sounds like a larger incarnation of Richard Barrett’s superb piece for trombone and percussion, EARTH); in part, it’s inspired by this stanza from Rimbaud’s La Bateau ivre:

I, who trembled, hearing at fifty leagues off
The moaning of the Behemoths in heat and the thick Maelstroms,
I, eternal spinner of the blue immobility,
Miss Europe with its ancient parapets!
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 6. L’œuvre au noir

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The third and final part of James Dillon’s Nine Rivers bears the subtitle ‘Melanosis’, another reference to alchemy, this time ‘blackening’. This is, in fact, the first of the three stages of the alchemical process; Dillon began with the middle stage (leukosis), followed by the final stage (iosis), so the connection he’s making is not a straightforward one. The connotations of ‘melanosis’ (also known as nigredo) are rich and thought-provoking, implying a cleansing kind of disintegration which has a psychological/spiritual parallel in the ‘dark night of the soul’. This is overwhelmingly emphasised in the sixth work of Nine Rivers, L’œuvre au noir. That title—usually translated as ‘The abyss’—comes from a 1968 novel by the Belgian writer Marguerite Yourcenar, in which she sought to allude to “what is said to be the most difficult phase of the alchemist’s process, the separation and dissolution of substance” (from the book’s introduction). This is intense, rather daunting stuff, and a quick glance at the instrumentation of Dillon’s piece makes it clear that this abyss is one into which he intends to dive headlong. L’œuvre au noir is scored for bass flute, bassoon/contrabassoon, tenor-bass and bass trombones, harp, 2 cellos and a double bass—notwithstanding some higher pitched doublings and percussion (plus a live electronic component), this is an utmost dark, bass-heavy ensemble; ‘noir’ is right. Read more

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 5. La coupure

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To describe the fifth work in James Dillon’s Nine Rivers, La coupure, as being ‘pivotal’ perhaps seems like a truism; it sits, after all, at the epicentre of the cycle. Yet it marks a timbral transition that will be felt on all the remaining pieces, namely the inclusion of electronics. Dillon’s relationship with electronics is not new (he attended IRCAM in the mid-1980s) but is evidently problematic, insofar as his feelings about the general state of electronic music are concerned. In an interview prior to last year’s world première, Dillon summarised that “…the problem with electronics is that it sounds like shit”, which is a refreshingly candid reaction to the bland, generic fare churned out by too many for too long. It’s also a useful caveat when approaching La coupure, a 50-minute work for percussion and electronics, suggesting we’re going to hear something a little different from the norm. The title means ‘the cut’, a reference to, among other things, the way rivers divide, and aspects of division preoccupy the piece throughout. The relevant stanza from Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre is particularly vivid:

I know the skies bursting with lighting, and the waterspouts
And the surf and the currents; I know the evening,
And dawn as exhalted as a flock of doves,
And at times I have seen what man thought he saw!
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

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