Laurence Crane is a contemporary composer who was born in Oxford in 1961. He has said of his music, "I use simple and basic musical objects— common chords and intervals, arpeggios, drones, cadences, fragments of scales and melodies. The materials may seem familiar, perhaps even rather ordinary, but my aim is to find a fresh beauty in these objects by placing them in new structural and formal contexts."
Crane's compositions have frequently been played in concert. Apart from tracks on compilations, it has not been easy to track down recordings featuring his music, the most notable exception being Michael Finnissy's recording Solo Piano Pieces 1985-1999 (Metier, 2008). Consequently, Crane has not become as big a household name as some of his contemporaries. Now, two recent releases seem likely to change that situation in the near future...
Lush Laments for Lazy Mammal is Håkon Stene's debut on Hubro and his first album under his own name, although he has an impressive discography as a percussionist with others. Six of this album's nine tracks are Laurence Crane compositions, with Gavin Bryars, Christian Wallumrød and Stene himself contributing one each. As a result, the Crane pieces are very influential in determining the mood of the album. Played on acoustic instruments, with any use of electricity being subtle and restrained, the music fits Crane's description above, with "beauty" being a key word. His pieces evolve gently at their own pace, never sounding rushed or forced; so each one has a tranquil, meditative quality that draws the listener in and is totally engaging.
Listeners may occasionally have to double check the running time of a track; in a positive way, Crane and Stene have the uncanny knack of creating soundscapes which allow the listener to drift away, making two or three minutes seem far longer. Quite blissful. Crane has resisted the "minimalism" tag being attached to his music, but it is not difficult to hear why it has attracted it; although the music does not have the repetitive quality of much Reich, Glass or Riley, it is stripped back to basics without fat, slack, unnecessary ornamentation or drama. The resulting stark beauty makes it music to be returned to again and again.
Michael Magras: There’s a significant paranormal component to your new novel. What fascinates you about the paranormal? Do you have any favorite examples of that genre that you used as guides or inspirations as you were writing The Bone Clocks?
David Mitchell: I’m interested in mortality because I’m going to die at some point, and I wanted to think about this from the point of view of immortals, whose relationship with death is a lot less final than ours. As far as is widely known, immortals exist only in the realm of the fantastic, so the novel got shunted toward the paranormal by default. Not so much guides or inspirations, but the fact that Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita or Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Robert Louis Stevenson or most of Atwood or chunks of Dostoevsky or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books successfully deploy the paranormal to explore the “real world” we live in reassured me that while it’s not easy to break the laws of physics and still retain literary credibility, it can’t be altogether impossible.
In Cloud Atlas, the composer Robert Frobisher says at one point, "How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false." Now, in The Bone Clocks, we have two groups of quasi-immortals, the Horologists and the Anchorites, vying against one another and using the protagonist, Holly Sykes, as a weapon in their power struggle. Is it vulgar to hanker after immortality? Are the Horologists and Anchorites versions of vulgarians?
No, it’s not vulgar to hanker after immortality — we’re genetically driven toward survival, and we only reach the middle stages of our lifespans because of this drive. The thing is, then what? We evolved during historical periods when there was no “then what?” because our ancestors would have died in their 30s of infections or illness easily curable in the modern age. Nowadays we feel kind of shortchanged if we don’t reach our 80s. In this context, our wish to survive becomes less a practical reflex to do with the maintenance of our species, and more a ball-and-chain: we don’t want to die, but we’re going to, and as we age and age into our fifth, sixth, and seventh decades, we have less and less to do but contemplate the decay of the bodies that used to serve us so much better. Who wouldn’t want to opt out of this, given the chance? The devil, however, is where he and lawyers can reliably be found, in the details. Whereas the Horologists are harmless souls who get reincarnated in new bodies whether they want this or not, the Anchorites’ immortality has to be paid for by other people. The Horologists are vegetarians, the Anchorites carnivores. My novelist character Crispin Hershey hankers after immortality of a literary kind, of course — I would view that as a vulgar aspiration, as well as misguided. Writing for future generations rather than your own is probably the best way of guaranteeing your own eternal oblivion.
The Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez has described color as “not simply the color of things or the color of form [but rather] an evolving situation, a reality which acts on the human being with the same intensity as cold, heat, and sound.” Cruz-Diez presents color as an experience in itself—a pure phenomenon of light that can be perceived without interpretation or preexisting cultural knowledge. By projecting color into space, the artist explores the sensory possibilities of its direct interaction with the viewer. The viewer, instead of merely looking at the work of art, becomes a participant in a phenomenological event.
Cruz-Diez is identified in Venezuela as one of the country’s modernist masters along with the late artists Jesús Rafael Soto and Alejandro Otero. In Europe, Cruz-Diez’s name became synonymous in the 1960s with the exploration of color’s kinetic potential. Born in Caracas in 1923, Cruz-Diez studied at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Aplicadas before working with an international advertising agency from 1946 to 1951. He then worked as an illustrator for a Caracas newspaper while teaching and practicing graphic and industrial design. In 1954, the artist worked on mural projects that could be manipulated; they changed with the sun’s movement, creating shadows and animating the surface plane with radiant reflections of color. Beginning in 1959, Cruz-Diez’s series of Fisicromías actualized the artist’s premise of bringing art as an autonomous chromatic reality into the viewer’s environment. The surfaces of the Fisicromías are made up of colored strips of cardboard, aluminum, or Plexiglas assembled in two interspersed levels: one flat, one raised. The color schemes produce a sensation of vibrating movement that causes the color tones to multiply according to the position and distance of the spectator and the angle at which the light—natural or artificial—of the environment is reflected. These early works were pivotal in defining the artist’s future path. No longer denouncing social injustices through figurative painting, Cruz-Diez deployed a new means of expressing contemporaneity while maintaining a moral commitment to serve a broad public.
By way of experiencing color’s intense immediacy as light rather than pigment, the viewer’s eye is freed from the burden of interpreting representational forms that are preordained by class or political messages. Exploring the infinitely changing effects of additive, reflective, and subtractive color, Cruz-Diez has ever since used color to challenge the traditional relationships between artist, viewer, and the perception of art. In 1969, Cruz-Diez installed 22 electrically lit cabins composed of red, blue, and green Plexiglas walls grouped into four separate maze-like structures at the subway entrance of the Place de l’Odéon in Paris, his adopted home city. These color-infused rooms—called Chromosaturations—are a culmination of the artist’s desire to project color into space as a participatory event; they literally saturate the viewer’s environment.
Cruz-Diez permanently moved to Paris in 1960, though he returns often to Venezuela. Since his first solo exhibition at the Venezuelan-American Institute in Caracas in 1947, he has participated in dozens of exhibitions, including MoMA’s polemical 1965 show of then-new Op work, The Responsive Eye. Cruz-Diez’s 2008 retrospective at the Americas Society in New York was his first major exhibition in a US institution, and the influence of his experimentation with color on contemporary artists became palpable.
Estrellita B. Brodsky Since the last time I saw you, I have done research in Caracas and discovered the complexities of how modernist Venezuelan art and its discourse developed locally as well as in Paris. I am interested in your role in that discourse as well as the roles played by two major Venezuelan figures—the architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva, who integrated avant-garde Venezuelan and international art into his design of Caracas’s Ciudad Universitaria during the early 1950s, and Alfredo Boulton, the Venezuelan art critic, cultural historian, and photographer. They not only encouraged a cultural self-awareness in Venezuela during the 1940s and 1950s, they also encouraged Venezuelan artists living in Paris to take an internationalist perspective in their work. Within this context, could you describe your initial interest in traveling to Europe and why you temporarily returned to Venezuela before ultimately settling in Paris in 1960?
Carlos Cruz-Diez It’s interesting. I came to Europe for the first time in 1955. Before that I was doing many things in Caracas simultaneously. I did set designs for film and theater while earning a living as a graphic designer. When I arrived in Barcelona in 1955 with my wife and two children, my intention was to go on to Paris. But since I didn’t speak French, I thought it’d be reasonable to stay there until I became fluent in French. I traveled to Paris three or four times during that period of almost two years, and I did a lot of research and began projects that integrated art, street life, and architecture. Like many Latin Americans who visit Europe for the first time, I went through a period of thinking: What can I do here in Paris? Nothing. There is history in Europe, but in my own country there is a blank slate; you can do anything there. How could I have missed this before? So I returned to Venezuela in late 1956 full of hope, sketches, and projects. I immediately got in touch with friends and business people so I could start working on the projects that I developed in Barcelona: the group of manipulable sculptures Signs and Dynamic Rhythms, made of metal and wood. Predictably, everyone was enthusiastic: “Great idea, call me on Monday!” Time kept passing and everything was stalled. Our economic situation was precarious and I needed to make money again. At some point I ran into a poet friend of mine who edited the Caracas-based journal Momento; he mentioned that they needed a graphic designer. Given that none of my projects had taken off, I accepted the job, though I continued doing the research I had begun in Caracas in 1953, which proved very valuable the next year, when I did those projects with murals and manipulable objects, such as Project for a Mural.
EB Though Project for a Mural wasn’t part of the Ciudad Universitaria.
CCD No, I didn’t participate in that.
EB For political reasons? I know that many artists felt that despite Villanueva’s commitment to avant-garde artists, they did not want to be associated with anything funded by Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s brutal dictatorship.
CCD The work I was doing in the early 1950s didn’t belong there. I was making figurative paintings that denounced political issues: shantytowns, poverty. There was no room for that in Ciudad Universitaria. The artists invited to participate were Paris-based abstract artists; they were the ones making works for the university. Years later, Villanueva did ask me to make a piece for the university, but I still didn’t think that it was right to join a project that had started in 1950 and which had the coherency of an era to which I didn’t belong. But I had a close friendship with Villanueva; he’d come to Paris a lot and would visit my studio.
Yet the art shown at the Ciudad Universitaria influenced me a great deal. At the time, I thought the paintings I was making were good, since I believed that the painter’s role was to denounce injustices and to make socially committed work. Latin American artists all come from that. For me, to change my discourse required a lot of reflection and time, since I wasn’t sure whether what I was doing had any visual appeal. I tell it as a joke, but it’s true: rich people were the ones buying those little paintings of shantytowns in which I denounced poverty. I was fooling myself. If I had continued making that type of work I’d be a millionaire now. So, in 1954, I started doing very focused investigations on how discourse could change in order for art to become more participatory. Before then, I had made figurative paintings because I felt art had to be integrated into society and contemporary life. They were influenced by Mexican muralism, social realism, and social satire. My first works that no longer had anything to do with so-called realism still had a social intent. Instead of making paintings that depicted poverty and social problems (which I couldn’t solve) for rich people to collect, I addressed social concerns by having people on the street intervene and help complete participatory, shared works, as I called them back then. I didn’t want to have control over the discourse. In Project for a Mural the viewers could manipulate the pieces. What gave me great joy and confirmed my findings was that when I arrived in Paris in 1955 I encountered a friend from school, Jesús Rafael Soto, as well as all the abstract painters—their exhibition Le Mouvement had just closed. I called Soto, who said, “Go to Denise René’s gallery, there’s a show there you must see.”
I met Denise René as she was taking down the works. It was very exciting to see that without having any information—I had no idea what Soto had been doing in Paris—I was already in sync with the new discourse of creating work with which the viewer could directly interact; this broke away from the traditionally passive relationships between viewer, artist, object, and space. I hadn’t seen any photos of Soto’s new work. I hadn’t seen work by Yaacov Agam. I didn’t know of Jean Tinguely’s existence, nor of Pol Bury’s. I did know about Victor Vasarely’s abstract paintings, but not of his works with glass.
Trio Riot formed in Helsinki in 2009, since the they have performed across Europe including dates in Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and England. Stylistically, the band relate their sense of energy to the 1980s British punk scene, their approach to sound is inspired by Ornette Coleman and other free jazz pioneers and in their compositional style the group draws inspiration from 20th century contemporary music. With pure performance energy they manage to pull these disparate influences together into a compact and hard hitting musical concept. Their last two tours were in the UK where they played for a full house at The Forge as part of the London Jazz Festival (Nov 2011) and for which they received highly positive reviews. In January 2012 they joined the established UK free-jazz band gaNNEts on a double tour where, among othr dates, they played Band on the Wall in Manchester and to a full house at The Vortex in London. The band are releasing their debut album with Efpi Records in early 2014.
FATdrop: Tell us a little bit about your label or promotion company.
Third Ear: Third Ear Recordings is an independent record label specialising in ‘music made primarily but not exclusively with computers synthesisers and turntables/controllers as the musical instruments’. Nearly all the music we release is with DJs in mind, but not always.
FD: What social media platforms do you use / recommend, and what are your main rules for using them effectively? TE: We use Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr mainly. Soundcloud and Mixcloud, although not strictly social media, are also important for us. But we always consider any platform that we anticipate becoming a way for us to talk to people who either already know about Third Ear and support us, or who might. The basic structure of social media is the dialogue, so the key to using social media effectively is to maintain the dialogue; to keep a trickle of information and ideas flowing.
FD: The digital revolution has seen a shift in the way feedback is gathered, and success is now measured by the amount of shares and feedback a release receives. How do you feel this has impacted music promotion and how do you stimulate customers to buy new music?
The idea that feedback is some sort of capital which translates into something substantial is a fallacy. Shares and Likes are a metric just like any other; an indicator. It is useful for targeting promotion but not to the exclusion of other sorts of market research, which in our case means getting out to the clubs and talking to DJs, artists, promoters, dancers and music lovers.
Love and respect is fine and it’s good for the soul, but it isn’t a substitute for revenues from sales or streaming. We need to embark on a programme of continuous education so that people understand why they need to pay for music.
Promotion takes time and dedication. This hasn’t been changed by the impact of digital media and social media.
It’s the avant-garde touch that the 1982 trio of Økland, Apeland, and Skarbø applies to their minimalist chamber music that draws the ear in. A variety of strings, keys, and percussion establish a quick foundation of serenity, then immediately goes about chiseling peculiar formations into that peacefulness. Ultimately, they never come close to shattering that penultimate serenity, but they do shape it into something that is vaguely disquieting and supremely compelling.
After a couple trio albums, 1982 added pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole on their self-titled 2012 release. Aside from the intriguing results of an additional element added to the mix, there was the observation at how seamlessly Cole and his pedal steel fit into the odd framework of the 1982 sound… that something as differentiated as 1982 could incorporate an outside element (and, in its own right, the pedal steel on a chamber music album could be considered a little different) and not skip a beat is more than a bit illuminating. It’s a scenario that repeats itself on 1982′s newest release, A/B.
Your album personnel: Nils Økland (Hardanger fiddles, violin), Sigbjørn Apeland (harmonium, piano), Øyvind Skarbø (drums, percussion), and guests: Fredrik Ljungkvist (clarinet), Erik Johannessen (trombone), Sofya Dudaeva (flute), Hanne Liland Rekdal (bassoon), Matthias Wallin (tenor horn), and Stian Omenås (trumpet, composer).
According to conventional wisdom, it’s been over a dozen years since Mark Turner’s last turn as leader on record. The tenorist was among the ill-fated crop of “young lions” courted and signed to major labels in the 1990s and summarily dropped when sales didn’t meet corporate bean counter expectations.
A harrowing accident with a power saw in late 2008 sidelined him for several months, but Turner has kept impressively busy, most recently as a member of quartets led by Billy Hart and Tom Harrell. He’s also co-led the cooperative Fly with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, so the leader claim above becomes a bit of a misnomer.
Lathe of Heaven may be long overdue, but Turner doesn’t appear the least bit hindered by his hiatus from the driver’s seat. He makes the most of it on a program comprised completely of his own compositions. He’s no stranger to ECM either (both of Fly’s albums grace the label), and the imprint’s austere acoustics fit well with the dry, fine-grained tone he favors on tenor. His sidemen are equally suited with trumpeter Avishai Cohen completing the front line and bassist Joe Martin joining drummer Marcus Gilmore as the rhythm section. Gilmore is the grandson of jazz icon Roy Haynes and that enviable lineage comes through in the nuanced complexity he brings to his kit.
Sans piano the ensemble is free to engage in an open and elastic melodicism starting with the opening title piece. A spacious unison theme by the horns gains gradual rhythm support with Gilmore laying down a porous beat that seems to recede and propel simultaneously. Turner’s tone is rich and round, filling the studio surroundings as bass and drums parse a fluid time signature at his flank. Three of the six pieces stretch past ten minutes with two more surpassing eight, and all that temporal space allows for plenty of contrapuntal interplay and multiple seamlessly integrated solos. The ensuing atmosphere, at times dreamlike, but never soporific, directly references the thematic thrust of the science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin from which Turner adopts the album title.
“Year of the Rabbit” expands off a thrumming bass ostinato and an extended tandem statement by the horns, Gilmore adding cymbal and snare accents to the forward trajectory. Cohen’s burnished improvisation is ripe with timbral effects as Martin keeps the tension ratcheted by working over another vamp. Turner’s response glides through his instrument’s registers from bottom to upper as fluttering phrases peel off with disarming alacrity. Drums and bass annex the tail end of the piece for an extended conversation. “The Edenist” pivots on Martin’s steady pulse as well and anchor around which the other band members orbit with lush voicings.
“Ethan’s Line.” dedicated to Turner colleague Ethan Iverson, is outfitted with an ear-worming melody. “Sonnet for Stevie” is slowed down and aerated to a relaxing shuffle quite removed from the versions included on a recent Billy Hart record and a duo project with pianist Baptiste Trotignon. That sort of willingness to revisit and reshape past pieces offers additional evidence of Turner’s quiet confidence in both his own faculties and those of his colleagues.
He set up the telescope on the gravel path and trained it on the north star, explained to the boy that once set the gears in the telescope would turn it precisely along with the rotation of the earth, so they could watch the moons of Jupiter all night and not have to worry about moving the lens, because within the machinery of the telescope was a perfect microcosm of the machinery of the universe. Not a day goes by I don’t think of you. She was a fan of Lolita, kept the movie poster above her bed. The electroshock made her forget me but she remembered Lolita. They watched the moons of Jupiter till morning, also their own moon, and a satellite spinning. As they walked back through a field of dry grasses wet with dew, smelling of dew, he looked down at his feet and saw the body of a luna moth, perfectly dried and dead there caught up in the feet of the grasses. He lifted it gently from where it was tangled so as not to crush it and showed it to the boy, showed him the two white antennae that look like feathers and the black spots on the wings and explained their purpose. Years later I thought of this as I sat with you in the town graveyard while we injected each other with white gardenias. The houses there curved up at sharp angles like a skating ramp, and leaned over dogfighting rings full of broken glass the color of an iris. Her hair started to fall out from the medication, which they purchased from the company her father defended in court. He wore beautiful white suits and had a beautiful daughter with dark eyes that had trouble seeing because really they belonged in the skull of a deer.
The birdbaths froze over some time that night, and he woke early and showed the boy, first the sycamore leaves that had got stuck beneath the ice, their image refracted so the fractal edges extended to the edge of the water, and second how to scrape the ice away and refill the bath with a pot of warm water heated up on the yellow stove, to keep the birds from freezing as they cleaned their feathers. Then they split some wood to add to the ever- burning winter fire and set a black cauldron of pinto beans over the flames. The worst part is, if you ever said you loved me, I would never believe it. You were never there in the graveyard, you were down by the docks with another man. But the idea of you was there in the form of another, as often happens in these kinds of situations.
Later in the day, as they walked down toward the river, they encountered a long rattle snake trying to swallow a mourning dove. The dove was halfway down the throat already, and all its feathers had fallen out. They spread out to form an iridescent halo around the head of the snake. The naked dove struggled. He promptly cut the snake’s head off with an axe and set it along with the rattle in a jar with salt on the bookshelf next to a slim volume on the medicinal uses of the wild herbs of central Idaho. It was too late for the dove. I wonder if herbs would have been enough for you. That is a fallacy. They went to the river and he taught the boy how to swim, the names of the fish and the water birds: kingfisher, mallard, egret, heron. The river was green and the riverbed was made of soft clay. The boy used the clay to fashion small figures that resembled wolves with dragonfly wings. I was upset by the morning light, because it meant you were leaving. I got a job in a microchip factory and saw your reflection in the red sheen of the silicon twelve hours a day.
Her condition improved, which only made it harder for her to identify with her identity as it was comprised of the person she had been some- where between ten years and ten minutes prior. He began to get attacks of vertigo. Walking along a path lined with mockingbird skeletons he had to lean against a tree, and he laughed, wondering if he had somehow become drunk without drinking. Then he realized he was not standing, that he could not stand no matter how hard he tried, and he decided to see a doctor, but there were no doctors there, then, so he died, and explained to the boy the proper method of burial.
I have dirt beneath my fingernails. After we finished with the gardenias it became very difficult to take the intersecting angles of telephone wires, insect wings, and sunlight. They make me want to say that I love you. But you know I love you, so why say it? That is not really the point, anyway. She smelled a bit like orchid soil. Not a day goes by I don’t think of you. He showed the boy how certain plants grow on tree limbs and live off what they can gather from the air. This, he said, is a very good way to live one’s life. Just remember that it can be very difficult to accept only what is given. Just remember that that is all we will ever have.
In the recent days, both Sweden and the United Kingdom parliaments moved ahead to give recognition to a State of Palestine. What sounds like good news is actually not one, regardless of the good or bad intentions of the members of these parliaments. One can actually interpret this decision as a wish from Western countries to ‘wash their hands’ over what they still call the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, precipitating a future that has very little to offer, rather than the profound recognition for the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause. The recognition of a State of Palestine understands the latter as fundamentally separated from the Israeli one. It recognizes the pre-1967 borders as being the ones that bases the territorial separation of both states with the probable admission of a special status for East Jerusalem, which already indicates a fundamental failure in this scenario — one could think that the capital of this new state would rather be displaced to Ramallah. The “two-state solution” is certainly not a solution as it claims to be. Furthermore, as I wrote in the past, we should be fundamentally cautious when encountering the notion of solution: they imply a form of “end of history” and allow the worst to happen providing that it leads to this end — again, this is not innocent that the Nazis’ official denomination of the holocaust was “the solution of the Jewish problem.” What I would like to argue in this short article is that the establishment of a State of Palestine would in fact correspond to an update of the 1993 Oslo Accords that saw a Palestinian bourgeoisie and political elite emerge and take advantage of the occupation, rather than lead the Palestinian struggle to a just situation.
As I wrote as commentary to a map of the region without borders, the scenario of a State of Palestine existing aside a State of Israel, despite its lot of simulacrum of immediate victories (the eviction of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and in the most optimistic scenario, in East Jerusalem too, for example), would crystallize fundamental issues. The first one is the most obvious one: the separation of the population of Gaza with the one of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The high contrast of distance makes the comparison with the two territories under Pakistani sovereignty — one that became Bangladesh in 1971 — at its creation (1947) difficult to be made, yet it is certainly present in historical filigree. Scenarios of a road linking both territories have been elaborated (see past article) but the precariousness of such an infrastructure and the potentiality for absolute control by the State of Israel cannot be possibly ignored. For this reason, the so-called “two-state solution” awfully envisions an actual future three-state situation.
Another obvious issue that such a scenario would definitely crystallize is the impossibility of a “right to return” for the Palestinian diaspora in the world. Evicted in 1948 without having been able to ever come back on their land, some Palestinians and their families have been waiting close to 70 years to go back to their now destroyed villages on Israeli territory. The Palestinian Authority will argue that the refugees will be welcome in the newly established State of Palestine, but the criminal eviction of a million people will find here its unjust conclusion after decades of struggle. This notion of justice is certainly not to be ignored and whether it is achieved through international or national courts, or through the creation of a “truth and reconciliation commission” (justice through the explicitation of crimes) like it has been the case in post-Apartheid South Africa in 1996, no satisfactory scenario could possibly ignore the past war and apartheid crimes that have been committed.
If filth provided European imperialism with a set of legible metaphors about disease and race, then it also gave a newly-forming United States racial principles on which to build a national identity. With institutionalized slavery and a relatively open immigration policy, America, more so than Europe, needed those metaphors to preserve the cultural and moral superiority of particular kind of whiteness (a Teutonic Northern European whiteness). In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries contagious disease was associated with new immigrant groups who were perceived as harbingers of death.
Nativist groups warned the public of disease that would infect the nation's growing urban areas, rationalizing their prejudice with arguments about public health. In the 1830s, poor Irish were said to bring cholera; at the turn of the century, tuberculosis was dubbed the "tailors' disease" and associated with the Jewish population; Italians for decades were seen as bearers of polio.
To protect against immigrant germs, the United States passed the Immigration Act of 1891, an act that excluded those with "criminal records, polygamist, and prostitutes," as well as those with "loathsome or contagious disease." The Immigration Act made clear that the immigrant carried the filth of both moral degradation and disease. The definition of "loathsome and contagious disease" was flexible and ever-changing, including everything from transmissible disease to insanity, senility, varicose veins, and poor eyesight.
The truth, of course, was that immigrants groups were as healthy as acceptably white Americans. According to contemporary legal scholars, less than three percent of the total number of immigrants seeking entry were rejected for medical reasons; the vast majority of those excluded were Chinese who, unlike their white counterparts, could be rejected for ringworm and "the appearance of mongolism." But yet, despite these facts, white Americans still clamored to close the borders entirely. An 1888 federal report calling for even more immigration restriction warned of the "sewage of vice and crime and physical weakness" that washed ashore from Europe and the "nameless abominations" coming from Asia.
La Femme: a French band plying us with jangling West Coast surf pop, undercut with doom-laden kraut coldwave. It’s as unusual as it sounds – Google 'surfpop coldwave' and they’re on their own. Add to that mix a serious dose of wackiness and a general Halloween vibe, and the whole thing should be a disaster.
Their debut album Psycho Tropical Berlin sounds like the Beach Boys jamming with the Velvet Underground and Françoise Hardy, covering ‘Monster Mash’ – and though that sentence has to be up there with “Santa, the Armadillo and I” in terms of implausibility, it’s a style that is astonishingly catchy, natural, and flat-out fun. It’s time to surf the coldwave.
Throughout the album, most tracks have the same broad blueprint. A thudding, ominous intro laden with thwacking bass that blooms into sharp, punchy surf guitars. A spooky ambiance lent by droning organs or synths, and yéyé, aggressively rhymed vocals from one of the group’s many femmes. There’s a constant aura of kooky upbeatness – most of Psycho Tropical Berlin could be featured in a zany advert for French cars, wasted in that context but still prompting you to reach for Shazam.
A standout is former single ‘Sur La Planche’, a pleasingly repetitive romp through the pleasures of surfing, updated here to be faster, tighter and more synth-dominated. Frantic, glorious and lighthearted, it’s all you can ask surf-pop to be. Elsewhere, opener ‘Antitaxi’ pushes the Sixties Californian influence further, flexing razorsharp guitars and a Theremin whilst slightly menacingly extoling the benefits of taking the bus (“Antitaxi! Prends le bus!”).
Good as these tracks are, 16 of them would perhaps be too much. This is where La Femme’s odd genre combination comes into its own, as their surf side can be played down, and their other interests pushed to the fore. The excellent ‘Le Blues de Francoise’ is a case in point, demonstrating a more sombre style with not a jangle in sight. Over a haunting organ and subdued strums, a perfect monotone spoken delivery details Françoise’s blues as she sits alone with her tissues and cigarette ends, “pas un email, pas un coup de fil”. The chorus chimes in, and another Femme jollies things along, insisting “Tu n’es pas belle quand tu pleures”.
Another gentle success comes in ‘It’s Time To Wake Up’, a slow ballad which captures wheezing synths and soothing organs, calling to mind their compatriots M83. Initially a simple lovesong, it quickly unravels into brilliant post-apocalyptica, as we learn they are together forever, the survivors – “Tout le monde se fait tuer / La silly cause / La guerre était finie – Mata Hari!”.
Though La Femme’s music is often irreverent and their female singers anonymously ever-changing, the women of Psycho Tropical Berlin are packing ideas behind their sultry vocals. Whether or not you can be bothered to translate the lyrics, their manic, rollercoaster pop and fierce hooks should be enough of a draw for the most Anglophone listener.
In the book I say that that traditional leftist critique of education was appropriate for what I call the “all hands on deck” phase of capitalism, which coincides with the advent of universal schooling. Sticking with the US for simplicity’s sake, we can say the 19th century extending into the 20th century is this period when everybody’s needed, and we are bringing in immigrants and people from the countryside to set up factory production. It’s no coincidence that universal education really has its seedbed in Massachusetts, the same place where capitalism in the US really started, for example in the mill towns. I see that project of universal education as being very much intertwined with that phase of capitalism because of capitalism being motored by the all hands on deck need for human capital, as per Marx’s surplus labor theory of value. There is this tremendous growth period in terms of population, settlement patterns, consolidating populations into working units in order to generate profits for capitalist firms, etc. Anyway, universal education and literacy becomes this vast, value-added project for workers. While there were many Jeffersonian ideals of citizenship floating around in the 19th century, I think at the end of the day what really motivated the erection of the institutional form, what really brought elites together to erect this institution of schooling and to surround it with this legal apparatus that made it both a right for everyone and compulsory, is this all hands on deck mentality. It works in that double-barreled sense, because it’s stronger than say free speech. You’re not constitutionally obliged to exercise those rights, but you must go to school, so schooling is as wired into the system as anything can be. Due to an intensification of automation, technology, etc., I think that capitalism has advanced beyond that and it’s not the case that quantitatively more and more workers are functional and useful for profit accumulation, for the system. We’ve reached a point where we’ve out-produced ourselves, where productivity has increased so that simply not as many workers are needed. From the cold logic of capitalist accumulation, this increasingly youthful, educated group is kind of just surplus, they are more of a management and political stability problems — which we see inklings of in the Arab spring, or occupy movements, or London, or Greece, where there are huge levels of youth under-employment, or here where people with massive student debt are working for minimum wage at Starbucks. This overshoot that we’ve reached is what I call somewhat hyperbolically “eliminationism.” To me it is a dramatic way to represent what I take to be a general withdrawal of interest from elites in that project of universal education because the needs of capital have changed. The enthusiasm is merely vestigial in some respects. It’s vestigial in the sense that there might be a little bit of thought towards citizenship. But it’s ideological in that its important function is to maintain the idea that we can educate our way out of the economic crisis and mass unemployment among youth. This is a cousin of the neoliberal idea that teachers are to blame for “failing” schools and all of that manufactured crisis rhetoric. It’s like that Robert Reich argument from the 1990s. We just need to upgrade education because everyone is going to be symbolic analysts and creative workers. Instead of working at River Rouge, we’ll work at Google and Facebook. There are a lot of people working at those places, but it’s a miniscule number compared to that all hands on deck period. Almost by definition the productivity gains that high tech, value-added workers bring create a situation in which less of those workers are needed. Both the right and the Keynsian left proceed with this vision that all of these wonderful jobs are there for the taking if only we could educate ourselves “up” to them. An infernal hamster wheel. But what if those productivity gains are not magically going to be recycled and redistributed to the little people once they have become “lifelong learners” who are now worthy of the largesse? What then?