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Today I Found the Coolest Thing…

My history with the film, ‘Return to Oz’ is long and complicated. Rather than go into detail here, I’ll direct you to this epic piece I wrote on Mondo Exploito. I was in a rather poor bookshop today. It was fairly ordinary except for this:

AbeBooks have these things available en masse for a buck a piece. Despite the complete lack of value, I still have an urge to frame this devastating memory from my childhood.


Album Review: Uncle Woody Sullender and Kevin Davis – The Tempest Is Over

Uncle Woody Sullender & Kevin Davis - The Tempest is Over (Dead CEO, 2007)

My little tribute to the great, Earl Scruggs earlier this week, may have convinced you of my affection for the banjo. I also expressed disappointment at the cultural cringe the instrument has become slathered with, completely obfuscating the ability to see the inherent beauty of this stringed wonder. I’m always interested in the extended possibilities that any instrument is imbued with when removed from a stereotypical context. One of the reasons experimental improvisation excites me so much is that allows instruments, burdened with historical context, to breathe anew at the hands of exploratory artists interested in extended technique. Earlier this week I stumbled across ‘The Tempest Is Over’, by Uncle Woody Sullender and Kevin Davis, which places the much maligned banjo within an improvisational context. The mere fact that banjoists exist with a drive to expand the dialogue of their instrument is enormously exciting and inspiring for me. I immediately started searching for further information about the album and stumbled across several unsatisfactory reviews. One regrettable reviews dedicated half of its length to chastising the banjo and expressing a certain dismay that the album existed. So although this album is quite old now, I felt a desire to say a few words about it.

Uncle Woody Sullender

As a moniker, ‘Uncle Woody Sullender’ doesn’t exactly sever associations with Appalachian musical traditionalism. Like any great musician, he understands the history of his instrument and doesn’t run away from it. I’ve found references to a fascinating-sounding article written by Sullender, which purportedly theorises about the historical roll of the banjo and how that history has impacted upon the present. Unfortunately the link to the article no longer appears to be active, so I will quote the brief summary from a Tiny Mix Tapes review:

Sullender has serious ideas about the role the banjo has played. His own manifesto gives a downright scholarly analysis of the banjo as a distinctly Southern instrument with socio-cultural and political underpinnings. He argues that the banjo is inextricably tied to the folk tradition of Appalachia and the slave trade. In this context, it becomes not just a product of slavery, but also a product of Northern attitudes that have shaped contemporary attitudes towards the instrument.

In any situation, it’s important to understand that all contemporary attitudes are inescapably affected by the history of that attitude. We are not as free-willed as we like to think we are and it takes a lot of work to change our personal opinions. What excites me about Sullender’s approach to the banjo is his insistence that you hear it as both old and new – that you find comfort in the past and present co-existing. Traditionalist are asked to open their minds when listening to the Derek Bailey-esque shards of improvised note residue, while the self-consciously hip are asked to open their minds when hearing the ghosts of music past.

Sullender and Kevin Davis (cello)

On ‘The Tempest Is Over’, Sullender teams up with cello player, Kevin Davis to dual it out over seven intense tracks. My first thought was Jack Rose’s phenomenal album, ‘Raag Manifestos’, which has a similar overwhelming intensity. Davis’ cello adds a thick swell of bass to the clusters of rolling banjo notes that, at times, can be unrelenting. It freezes you to the spot. When these intense moments abate, they are replaced by spare, bucolic passages of fantastic musical conversation between Sullender and Davis. To me, the banjo truly reveals its beauty when the speed has been taken away. The idiosyncratic resonance of a banjo note left to die is one of the loneliest sounds in the world. It’s in these moments that we are forced to interprut the instrument differently – to remove it from its past.

Jack Rose – Raag Manifestos

The faster, more intense passages have rage behind them, far removed from the bluegrass tradition. In these moments, the musicians are in a fight – two sounds attacking each other, neither capitulating to the other. The very different timbres of the two instruments blend beautifully together, allowing each to be heard clearly, even when both are yelling.

In terms of improvisation, the approach is still quite traditional. At no time does the banjo and cello sound like anything else. It leads to a situation wherein the music in totality isn’t what you’d call cutting edge, but the ingredients are interesting. It’s an opportunity to listen to the banjo speak in a different language. There’s very few instruments as glued to their history as the banjo, and in directly confronting this, Sullender should be commended. Most important of all, ‘The Tempest is Over’ is a real joy to listen to. I recommend everyone does just that.

What makes it even better, ‘The Tempest is Over’ is available to download in its entirety completely free of charge by Sullender himself (who runs the Dead CEO label). Should you wish, you can buy a physical version or donate a little money for the free download here.

Listen to (and/or download) the album for free here.

Matthew Revert

The Polaroid Subversions of Andy Ducett

Andy Ducett is an American mixed media artist whose collages have provided me with a lot of pleasure. The images below are taken from a series whereby Ducett has added to old personal (possibly found) photographs. There’s an uncomfortable voyeurism that accompanies old personal photographs when you have no connection with the subject. Ducett’s illustrated additions add a comedic slant that subverts the voyeurism. More of his collages can be found here. Please enjoy the following selection taken from the artist’s website.

Matthew Revert

Remembering Earl Scruggs

You know you’ve become ubiquitous in the world of music when your music is available on those bargain compilations you can pick up for a few bucks in most music stores. Earl Scruggs was certainly that. Ubiquity often connotes a certain vulgarity, but this ubiquity can also come about because you’ve shaped and defined something important. I sit back and type this post with the bluegrass sound of Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt tickling my ears thanks to a cheap compilation I picked up many years ago. Today Earl Scruggs passed away, leaving a legacy behind that few artists will ever match.

Even if your knowledge of bluegrass music is lacking, it’s likely the following piece of music will be familiar to you:

‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ has become an institution and is acknowledged as a standard in the bluegrass repertoire. If you’ve ever seen a movie that stereotypically depicts the deep south, you’ve probably heard this song. ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ is an amazing instrumental piece, but it’s not the totality of Scruggs. This is a musician who popularised the three-fingered picking style to the point where it is now referred to as ‘Scruggs style’.

In 1945, Scruggs joined the legendary, Bill Munroe’s Bluegrass Boys. It was here that his three-fingered style came to the fore and his star as bluegrass royalty began to rise. It was as one of Munroe’s ‘Bluegrass Boys’ that he met Lester Flatt, and in 1948 the two of them left Munroe’s band to form ‘The Foggy Mountain Boys’, which was eventually distilled to ‘Flatt and Scruggs’. This partnership continued until 1969 and produced what is arguably the best bluegrass music the world has to offer. Throughout my own relationship with the banjo, this is a partnership I have listened to very very closely. I will never come close to being even a barely competent banjo player (mostly because I play the banjo with screwdrivers and stuff), but my affection for the instrument runs deep.

If you were to forget the existence of ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’, it’s safe to say that Scrugg’s biggest influence on popular culture is due to this:

This association with hillbilly simplicity is somewhat problematic. I have always been fond of the Beverly Hillbillies theme – long before I had any idea who Earl Scruggs was. The issue here is that when approaching a relationship with the banjo as an instrument, early associations with this instrument become cognitively embedded. As a result, many people don’t take the banjo seriously because it is merely a signifier of backwood ignorance. Bluegrass music has a deeply rich and beautiful history – a history that extends far beyond lazy cultural associations. I’ve heard enough people deride the banjo to know that it has become a concept rather than something that can be assessed on its own merit. How many people have you heard proudly state “I like all music except for country and rap”? Myopia is a censorship of the self that trades discovery for ease.

Earl Scruggs achieved the epitome of the artistic ideal. Through his innovation, talent and influence, his music will continue to shape the sound of bluegrass to come. His impact extended far beyond the appropriation of his music by popular culture. And it is for this that we will never truly lose him.

For a more in depth tribute, I recommend reading this piece, published today in The Washington Post.

For now, please join me in enjoying what mattered above all else – the music.

This is one of my personal favourite clips, as it pairs Scruggs with one of my musical heroes, Doc Watson.

Another classic number from the Flatt & Scruggs duo.

This magical clip teams Scruggs back up with his early mentor, Bill Munroe. Bluegrass is music that should be performed live.

This beautiful song slows things down a bit.

Thank you for the music, Earl Scruggs.

Matthew Revert

Retro Penguin Paperback Covers #4

If a week went by without me posting old Penguin paperback covers, you’d start to worry about me… admit it! If this is your first taste of Trash Complex retro Penguin love, you can see my past galleries here. As usual, all have been scanned at 300dpi. Enjoy!

A Dutiful Daughter by Thomas Keneally (design by David Wire)

Any Wife or Any Husband: Sexual Problems in Married Life by Joan Malleson (design by Bruce Robertson)

Death of an Old Goat by Robert Barnard (cover design by Neil Stuart/Illustration by Theodore Lloyd Glazer)

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late by Harry Kemelman (design by Ivan Holmes)

Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (cover by Kiky Vices Vinci)

Management Thinkers edited by A. Tillett, T. Kemper and G. Wills (design by Pentagram)

Physical Fitness by The Royal Canadian Airforce (design uncredited)

Pincher Martin by William Golding (illustration by Paul Hogarth)

She Came to Stay by Simone de Beauvoir (illustration by Giannetto Coppola)

Hopjoy Was Here by Colin Watson (design by Brian Haynes/photograph by Dennis Rolfe) As an aside... this is one of the creepiest damn covers I've ever seen.

Matthew Revert

The Microtonality of Alois Hába

Blog time hasn’t been on my side in the last few days, so this post is a bit of a cut and paste job, but I’ve been meaning to share Czechoslovakian composer, Alois Hàba with the world for some time. His microtonal compositions have beguiled me lately. Here’s an excellent mini bio written by Joseph Stevenson and taken from AllMusic.com:

Alois Hába has become one of those composers more often read about for his musical ideas than experience in sound. Hába’s father was a leader of a local folk music and dance band, and Alois and his brother Karel (1898 – 1972) played in it at an early age. His mother was a folksinger who was particularly praised for her authenticity, part of which lay in recognizing and accurately singing intervals of ancient folk music that did not correspond to the standard twelve-note scale system of written music. Alois’ classical training began in 1908 at the Komeriz teachers’ training institute, where he started composing. He rapidly absorbed some of the newer trends in music. When he tested for admission into the Prague Conservtory in 1914, he was immediately placed in the master level classes and graduated in just one year. He principally studied with the important Czech composer Vitezslav Novák. At this point, he was called up for military service (World War I was in progress), but he was posted for a while in Vienna, where he was able to continue his studies, particularly counterpoint and fugue.

Hába read a newspaper account of a speech given in Vienna on the idea of “quarter tone” music, in which the usual half-step would itself be cut in half, yielding a 24-note scale and many new musical intervals and chords. He immediately wrote a Suite for string orchestra (1917), his first quarter-tone composition. He was not the first composer to use these micro-intervals (or microtones); but Hába was the first to make mictrotones a basic element of his style. He also began centering the tonality of his music on an idea of a polarity of tones (a hierarchical relationship of tones to a central tone rather than a scale).

Hába’s brother Karel followed Alois’ example and also wrote music in microtonal systems. Hába also worked in smaller intervals, producing sixth-tone and even twelfth-tone intervals. The great Czech composer Josef Suk backed Hába’s right to explore this new type of scale and harmony, leading to courses and eventually even a department of mictrotonal music at the Prague Conservatory in 1924. Hába helped design and commissioned the manufacture of quarter-tone and sixth-tone instruments, including pianos, guitars, clarinets, and trumpets. His approach established a European tradition in micro-intervals. Hába wrote that his intent was “to permeate the semitone system with more delicate sound nuances, not to abolish it.”

Hába’s masterpiece is The Mother, an emotionally powerful opera beginning with the Mother’s funeral and covering the effect of her life. Hába had to endure two bouts of opposition to his system, both from the Nazi occupiers of 1938 – 1945 and the Stalinist government that closed his quarter-tone Conservatory department in 1951. Hába continued to write string quartets in quarter- and sixth-tone scales. His music tended toward the simplification of harmonies and forms, even the ones in his experimental scales. His music is strongly emotional and affecting, although the dissonant small intervals and the extended chromaticism of his music (standard and mictrotonal) make it necessary to acquire a taste for his music through exposure and attentive listening.

If, like me, you’re not terribly well-versed in musical theory, on a pure emotional level, the work of Haba is a beautiful exploration into disorientation – the warping of the familiar. This sonata for quarter-tone piano is a wonderful example:

The following video shows Hába playing the quarter-tone piano. Unfortunately it’s not in English (he could be abusing my family for all I know), but it’s illustrative of the most important thing – the music:

And to round it off, here’s a stunning recording of quarter-tone piano and clarinet.

My exploration into Hába’s music and technique has only just begun. If I can convince a few of you to join me on my journey, than this blog has been a worthwhile pursuit.

Matthew Revert


Film Review: The War Game (1965)

Last night I subjected myself to pure, unadulterated terror, and I did not enjoy it. Last night, as my week drew to a close, I watched an all-too-real depiction of the world as we know it drawing to a close. It came in the form of Peter Watkins‘ 1965 mockumentary, The War Game. I will never be able to un-see what I saw – nor do I wish to.

Oh where are you coming from, Soldier, gaunt Soldier.
With weapons beyond any reach of my mind,
With weapons so deadly the world must grow older,
And die in its tracks, if it does not turn kind

Commissioned by the BBC as part of their “The Wednesday Play” series, “The War Game” has a history riddled with controversy. Watkins was given the task of making an educational film about the effects of nuclear war – a task he performed far too well. This was a film that reverberated beyond the reach of the BBC, becoming a bona fide enemy of the government. Watkins film, it seemed, was far too informative – particularly in regard to the government’s horrifying lack of preparedness should the worst happen. It was pulled from television with the BBC issuing the following statement: “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting”. And while the results were indisputably horrific, it was nothing compared to the potential reality of the events depicted.

‘The War Game’ wasn’t completely locked away and forgotten. It had some cinematic distribution and even picked up the 1966 Oscar for best documentary. Despite this, it wasn’t broadcast on television until 1985. It’s safe to say that those for whom it was made were not afforded the opportunity to see it. Peter Watkins is an idiosyncratic director worthy of mention. His films all adopt the quasi documentary feel of ‘The War Game’ – a method in which he possesses devastating effectiveness. This was a film that (to the alarm of the government) was made after carefully studying the effects of the bombings of Dresden, Darmstadt, Hamburg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This wasn’t alarmist speculation on the part of attention-hungry filmmakers. ‘The War Game’ studies the events of history and as a result, doesn’t allow for the fantastical notion that, should this fate befall Britain, it would escape without catastrophe.

Here is the synopsis from Wikipedia.

Made in black-and-white with a running time of just under 50 minutes, The War Game depicts the prelude to and the immediate weeks of the aftermath to a Soviet nuclear attack against Britain. AChinese invasion of South Vietnam starts the war; tensions escalate when the U.S. authorises tactical nuclear warfare against the Chinese. Although the Soviet and East German forces threaten to invade West Berlin if the U.S. does not withdraw that decision, the U.S. does not acquiesce to Communist demands and occupies West Berlin; two U.S. Army divisions attempt to fight their way into Berlin, but the Russian and East German forces defeat them in battle. The U.S. President launches a pre-emptive, NATO tactical nuclear attack. A limited nuclear war erupts between the West and the East; missiles strike Britain.

The chaos of the prelude to the attack, as city residents are forcibly evacuated to the country, leads to the story’s centre in Rochester, Kent, which is struck by an off-target missile aimed atGatwick airport. Key targets in Kent are RAF Manston and the Maidstone barracks, which are mentioned in scenes showing immediate effects of the attack. The results of that missile’s explosion are the instant blinding of those who see the explosion, the resultant firestorm caused by the heat wave, and the blast front; later, the collapse of society, because of radiation sickness, psychological damage, and destroyed infrastructure; the British Army burns corpses, while police shoot looters during food riots.

By mimicking the techniques of news reportage, Watkins created a film with the immediacy of television – a shot of fear right to the heart. When this bleak possible reality fades out, one understands how important this fear is. Nuclear fallout isn’t something that can be cushioned by informative brochures or commonsense advice. For those in the radius, it is the end of society – the impossibility of a future. In the midst of a very real crisis, it was a call for sanity in the face of pervasive doom. To pull punches would have been dishonesty on Watkins part – the same dishonesty that made the extremity of the message necessary. One may not wish to see the unfolding horror of ‘The War Game’, but to avoid the importance of the message is to ignore reason.

Nearly 50 years later, ‘The War Game’ is still one of the most chilling films I have ever seen. It is an expertly realised example of the power of cinema, and an unforgettable journey into the possibilities that come with life. I truly believe it to be a film that everyone should see. Should you wish to do so, I have embedded it below. Don’t expect to come out of the experience feeling anything other than shattered.

Matthew Revert



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