Archive — Culture

Dutch “singing road” silenced after villagers complain: “I’m going nuts”Palko Karasz and Yonette JosephThe New York Times

A car driving over the musical rumble strips

This must be the most spurious “road safety” feature ever conceived.

A Dutch town decided to install rumble strips that are set at certain frequencies so that cars “play” the regional anthem as they drive over them.

This article focuses on the fact that this feature is driving residents crazy as they repeatedly have to hear this raspy version of the same melody all day (and night) long.

But surely the spurious justification is more deserving of ire.

Local officials hoped the strips would encourage drivers to stick to the speed limit.

Because, apparently, the melody would only play when drivers are driving at the right speed. Except, as officials concede later in the article, that’s not even true. If you drive at a different speed, the melody still plays — just at a different speed. Perhaps drivers may even speed up just to end the din more quickly.

What a terrible idea!

This article also contains a brilliant video from Tom Scott demonstrating an even more disastrous version of the same idea, in California.

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Balwearie High School opening (BBC archive)

This video is apparently footage from a 1964 BBC interview from the opening of my old high school, Balwearie in Kirkcaldy. It’s fascinating to see how much of it looked exactly the same when I went to school between 1998 and 2004 — and how much of it was totally different.

For example, it is a revelation to see what the roof was originally like. The attractive and useful rooftop garden and astronomical equipment was gone, replaced with a plain felt roof with a haphazard walkway of paving slabs.

The school was also about twice as big by the time I went there. No-one confused it for a luxury hotel. But then again, that’s what 30 years will do to a building.

I wonder what it’s like now, 20 more years on.

Via Rich Gordon

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Vortrack [Fracture Remix]Squarepusher

Vortrack cover

This tune has disturbed me.

Since I heard it, a distressing sentence has floated around in my head:

“This is the best Squarepusher track in 14 years.”

14 years. Count it up.

I think I was 15 years old when I first discovered Squarepusher. To the young Squarepusher fan I was, it’s been almost a lifetime since he has released music like this.

I was a big fan of 2003’s Ultravisitor, where Squarepusher created an otherworldly environment somewhere between stadium prog-rock concert and IDM basement. It was genre-defying — a unique sound. But it felt perfect. It was a brilliant, successful album.

But it seemed to send Squarepusher down a strange rabbit hole, tenuously exploring the boundaries between live and studio-based music with ever-diminishing returns.

Time to change direction then. An email I received from Warp Records in November said:

‘Be Up A Hello’ sees Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher) return to using a bewildering array of vintage analogue and digital hardware, the same equipment that first helped him develop his sound in the early ’90s.

By the way, the 14-year-old tune I’m referring to is Planetarium:

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Week ending 2 January 2020James MastertonChart Watch UK

How Amazon appear to have had undue influence on the music charts. River by Ellie Goulding is this week’s number one, seemingly because Amazon have added it to their Christmas music playlists. So whenever anyone asked their new Alexa to play Christmas music, this new single got played — propelling it to number one.

This article also contains some interesting details about the pros and cons of different ways of compiling music charts in the streaming era.

If the voices of those clamouring for the charts to discriminate between “lean in” and “lean back” streams — i.e. those which the user has actively chosen to hear rather than simply being served up in a playlist — grow ever louder in the new year, then River will be held up as a shining example of why that needs to happen.

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Love Without SoundWhite Noise

An Electric Storm cover

It’s Delia Derbyshire Day, which this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of An Electric Storm by White Noise.

Delia Derbyshire may be best known for her part in the realisation of the Doctor Who theme tune — and her wider work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. But her involvement with the White Noise project saw her dabbling with a futuristic vision of pop music.

It was both way ahead of its time, and also resolutely of its time. Synthesisers weren’t yet affordable, so these boundary-pushing sounds were made with complex tape manipulation and other engineering techniques. I think this is among her best work.

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Photo — 2019-10-29

We did it. We ordered BrewDog hybrid burgers.

Not bad! Tastier than they look. The vegan cheese is impressively good. The matcha buns don’t taste much like matcha. Wouldn’t get it again, but fun once.

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Spangle (2019 expanded live version)Seefeel

Spangle (2019 expanded live version) cover

A reworking of Seefeel’s classic 1994 track Spangle, promoting the group’s upcoming tour of North America.

It’s great to have Seefeel back in action again. Their music was a little before my time, but I relished discovering it a few years later. It seems cutting-edge for the period — clearly influenced by shoegaze, but with a fizzing techno sensibility. It’s a combination that wouldn’t have been possible before, and wouldn’t have been thought of after.

Also check out Autechre’s (released in 2003, but presumably made in 1994) remix of the original, which gives it a brooding dark ambient vibe that could pass as a lost track from Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume Ⅱ.

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Photo — 2019-09-29

Queen Street Gardens (eastern district)

Since I was a child I’ve been intrigued by what lay behind the mysteriously secretive railings of Queen Street Gardens, one of Edinburgh New Town’s many private gardens.

Normally you need to be a resident of a neighbouring street to obtain a key to the gates. But for one weekend a year, on Doors Open Day, the gates are thrown open to the wider public.

Well, one of the gates is. When we arrived at the south side of Queen Street Gardens’ eastern district, we found it locked as normal. Walking further, we found a sign informing us to enter at the opposite side, at Abercromby Place. You mustn’t make it too easy to enter, after all.

Alex looking at the Nissen hut

Among the interesting things to see are the Nissen hut, originally used as a bomb shelter and now used as a shed.

Temple of Pluto

At the other end is the Temple of Pluto, a 1980s structure designed to disguise a gas pressure regulating station.

Pond in Queen Street Garden centre district

The central garden was also open. Most notable here is the pond and island, which is said to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson (who, as a child, lived on the adjacent Heriot Row) to write Treasure Island.

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Rent ResponsiblyVHS Head

VHS Head logo

Ten years ago today, the first VHS Head EP was released. I remember it seemed to come as a bit of a bolt from the blue. For a while it was my favourite new electronic music.

Video Club is a delightful slice of retro electronic music. Subsequent releases, though relatively scant, have explored a parallel universe consisting entirely of video nasties. VHS Head’s music is constructed from samples taken from VHS cassettes.

Video Club packaging

As is customary for releases on Skam Records, it includes a braille strip. But a novel addition was the golden Video Club membership card.

Be kind and rewind.

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F1 responds to criticism of television broadcastsKeith CollantineRaceFans

The best bit about this is the fact that they are apologising in advance for the inevitably poor quality of coverage in Singapore…

…we have to really convey what the city is like, this amazing skyline and these fantastic buildings.

How about no?

I’m sure it’s in the contract with the Singapore Grand Prix race promoters, that they must allot a certain amount of the broadcast to showing the city, and not the race. The same goes with Abu Dhabi and that ridiculous vibrator-shaped hotel.

And the Russian Grand Prix. Every year, without fail, they have cut away from the live action to broadcast footage of Vladimir Putin arriving by helicopter about a third of the way through the race. Then some laps later they show him gormlessly sitting next to Bernie Ecclestone in a near-empty grandstand, looking about as interested in the race as some lichen would. Every year. Watch it this year and take a drink when it happens.

The sooner F1 becomes less reliant on these ridiculous publicity-hungry governments, and goes back to real racing on proper circuits, the better. But then, it will be harder to excuse the bad TV coverage.

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Ágætis byrjunSigur Rós

Ágætis byrjun cover

Music was one of the jobs I was put in charge of for our wedding. Alex isn’t particularly interested in music. We don’t have any shared musical memories. We don’t have “our song”. So that made some aspects of the wedding planning tricky.

For instance, there were no obvious candidates — or, indeed, any candidates at all — for what Alex would walk down the aisle to. And because I never imagined I would get married until I met Alex, it’s not something that I had my own ideas about either.

Just a few weeks before the big day, I knew we had to make this decision. I mined my record collection for any shared musical memories we might have.

I considered something from Concrete Antenna, a beautiful experimental record that I’d never heard of until Alex bought it as a gift. It’s one of the most perfect gifts she ever got me, because I didn’t know it existed, but I loved it. But Alex decided it sounded too dark for our wedding.

Another candidate was something from the FFS album. We saw FFS when they played as part of the Edinburgh International Festival a few years ago, and we both really enjoyed the concert. But again, it didn’t strike the right tone. (We did end up using Johnny Delusional as the ceremony closer.)

Eventually, I started to just pull out records and CDs that I thought sounded nice. I had to loosen up some of the rules I had imposed on the process. Crucially, the “no Sigur Rós” rule.

Ágætis byrjun is Sigur Rós’s best album. The title track doesn’t always get the most attention, but it is my favourite from the album. Listening to it while thinking about our upcoming wedding gave it a new emotional appeal for me.

I looked up translations of the lyrics, which I hadn’t paid much attention to before because it’s sung in Icelandic. It’s actually about the band listening to the finished mix of their first album, Von, and feeling like it was OK but could be improved. The title translates as “A good beginning”.

But the lyrics are also ambiguous. An alternative interpretation is that the song is about a fledgling relationship.

It seemed particularly apt for us, because we had two “first dates”. The first one was a good start. We did better next time (and never looked back).

I really like the brief, mild moments of dissonance in this song. It’s beautiful, but not quite perfect. Like life. Or like a relationship. The key is to recognise that it’s a good beginning, and we will do better next time.

The album has just been reissued in a 20th anniversary edition with three CDs of additional material. It’s astonishing to think this is 20 years old. At least it’s not as disturbing to me as OK Computer. I only discovered Ágætis byrjun in about 2001 when it became a sleeper cult hit outside of Iceland so I can still think of it as an 18 year old album.

I’m also fond of this live acoustic version from Heim.

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The Thinnest PlaceJustin Hopper & Sharron Kraus with the Belbury Poly

Chanctonbury Rings cover

Chanctonbury Rings combines the folk music of Sharron Kraus and retro electronics of the Belbury Poly with spoken word from Justin Hopper. It’s a perhaps unlikely combination.

This is made all the more unlikely by the fact that, despite Justin Hopper’s American accent, the music is unmistakably English. It immediately reminded me of the Seasons (a cultish, unsettling 1969 BBC LP for use by schools’ drama departments, featuring music by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop).

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this. I picked it up because I’m a Ghost Box completist. But I found myself in a truly immersive listen. Hauntology at its finest.

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JoggingRichard Dawson

2020 cover

A song I heard on the radio this week that made my ears prick up. I wasn’t previously aware of Richard Dawson. But this is a brilliant song — dark, funny, meaningful, relatable, of our time. Once again I’m beginning to think that the most interesting music is actually coming from rock music for a change. Consider the album pre-ordered.

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Why did the UK become a failed state?Simon Wren-Lewismainly macro

This post is about how a policy (crashing out of the EU) that will do nearly everyone harm and some great harm seems to have considerable, albeit still minority, support…

You either have to assume that a third of the population has gone mad, or instead see this as a fundamental failure of information. The UK is a failed state because the producers of information have made it fail.

According to Simon Wren-Lewis, this information problem is being facilitated by the media.

In one sense, the idea that people don’t have enough information to make an informed decision is nothing new. As I’ve written in the past, ignorance is inevitable.

But there does seem to be something particular going on in Britain right now that is causing something even worse than mere ignorance.

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Photo — 2019-08-18

Continuum by Bridget Riley

Continuum — Bridget Riley — on exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery.

It’s Bridget Riley’s only ever 3D work. Entering inside it, I perhaps understood why. It wasn’t quite tall enough to fully immerse me.

I highly recommend you visit this if you can. It is a very comprehensive exhibition of her career, spanning more than 70 years, including paintings from this year.

Bridget Riley study

The room containing her black-and-white works of the 1960s are of course a highlight. I am constantly in awe of how these static paintings can appear to be moving at great speed.

Bridget Riley studies

But I was also fascinated by the room containing her studies, where you can see her working out how to create these incredible mind-bending paintings.

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Photo — 2019-08-13

Bowl of white chocolate Coco Pops, looking just like Rice Krispies

White chocolate Coco Pops are the greatest/worst invention because it looks just like you’re eating Rice Krispies.

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Note — 2019-08-02

My Omnichord normally gathers dust in the corner of a room. So when someone retweeted into my timeline Karine Polwart asking if anyone in Edinburgh had an Omnichord she could borrow for some filming, I was happy to help, and to see the Omnichord out of its case for a change!

It makes its little appearance in this video for her cover of Chance by the Big Country.

This is part of her new album of Scottish covers, Scottish Songbook. It’s out today on lovely red vinyl.

My name on the back sleeve of Scottish Songbook

I had always wondered what it would take to get a ‘thank you’ on the back of an album. Now I know. 🙂

Hopefully one day I’ll get round to playing the Omnichord more often myself…

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RainbowBattles

Mirrored cover

Their single Atlas may have got the most attention, but for me it was Rainbow that was the centrepiece of Battles’ extraordinary 2007 album Mirrored. It mixed cartoonish melodies with prog rock hardness.

I first came across Battles on the release of EP C/B EP, a compilation of their early EPs. Hearing SZ2 for the first time was hugely exciting. It felt like exactly the music I was looking for all along, without ever knowing it.

So even though Mirrored was their first album, it already represented a surprising change in direction. The chin-stroking post-rock had been superseded by Pinky and Perky vocals.

It was confusing. But listening to it for a second time, it felt as vital as their early material. In time, more so.

Their live performances were genuinely mind-boggling. They did things with live loops and sampling in ways that no-one else dared.

At the height of their powers, Battles made music in a way no-one else was making it. Watching them live was like watching four people walking a tightrope simultaneously. It could go wrong at any moment, and watching them push themselves and cope with it or recover from going wrong was a marvel.

Brian Eno counted himself as a fan:

When you see a band you really like, the reason you really like them is because you wish you’d had that idea. And I saw them and thought, “dammit, why didn’t I think of that?”

Have a spare ten minutes? Treat yourself to the slowed down version someone’s uploaded to YouTube.

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Photo — 2019-07-19

Assembly instructions with detail of Thom Yorke's Anima record packaging

I do enjoy the Ikea-style assembly instructions included when you buy a fancy Radiohead / Thom Yorke record.

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VexationsErik Satie

Erik Satie portrait

Erik Satie’s Vexations is shrouded in mystery. It was not published during Satie’s lifetime. It’s thought it was composed in 1893. But it went undiscovered until 1963, when John Cage first performed it publicly.

It is just three lines long, but is accompanied by this ambiguous instruction (translated from French):

In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities

While this is usually interpreted as an instruction to repeat the music 840 times to complete a performance, it’s not clear if this was actually Satie’s intention.

The tempo instruction is “Très lent” — very slow. In the words of Wikipedia, this “could mean anything”.

Cage’s first performance lasted over 18 hours — longer than he had estimated. The CD recording I own lasts only 23 minutes — a tiny fraction of the full experience. The liner notes to that CD flags up the following:

A 70 minute performance (40 repetitions) of Vexations by Alan Marks is available on the CD Vexations (LTMCD 2389)…

Despite the repetitive nature of the music, it never seems to get boring. There is something disturbing yet irresistible about it. I always imagine falling very slowly towards an uncertain destination. It feels like being trapped in an Escher painting.

This piece predates muzak and ambient music by at least 50 years. The CD liner notes say it “provided minimalism with an important historical precedent.” It even predates Dada.

This YouTube video contains a full performance, albeit one performed seemingly too fast.

You don’t hear this on adverts quite as often as Gymnopédie 1

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The RapanthemModeselektor

Hello Mom! cover

In retrospect, this tune (from 2005) sounds a little dated. A little bit too heavy on the post-Boards of Canada glitchy hip-hop influence. Bbbbutttt… it’s still pretty good.

I remember listening to this album a lot when I was studying at the University of Edinburgh, taking lunchtime walks round the Meadows. 14 years on I find myself taking the same lunchtime walks, working for the university. Crazy days.

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I’m 49Prefab Sprout

I Trawl The Megahertz cover

I’ve been aware of Paddy McAloon’s 2003 album I Trawl the Megahertz for a while. While I’d always meant to pick it up, I never got round to it. In a sense it’s just as well, as this year it was re-released, remastered, and repackaged as a Prefab Sprout album.

Suffering with health problems, Paddy McAloon spent his time at home, listening to radio phone-ins. This formed the basis of the material on the album. The stunning 22 minute long title track features a splicing together of fragments of these broadcasts to tell a story in spoken word.

Most of the rest of the album is instrumental, but I’m 49 returns to the radio broadcasts, this time sampling them directly.

As pointed out by Paddy McAloon in this reissue’s liner notes, it’s not the first time the musicality of found voices has been exploited by a musician. He namechecks Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Steve Reich’s Different Trains also springs to mind. Musically, the albums seems to take a clear cue from American minimalist composers.

The story of the making of the album — centred around Paddy McAloon’s ill health — also reminds me of how Brian Eno is said to have pursued ambient music. It is said that Brian Eno was in bed, unable to get up to adjust the volume of his radio, and ended up being inspired by the sparseness of the resulting sound.

I Trawl the Megahertz has a melancholic vibe. “I’m 49, divorced.” What makes ordinary people bare their souls to radio hosts? This seems to be the question asked by the album. But the album also provides an answer — to adversity. Faced with illness, like Brian Eno, Paddy McAloon created some wonderful music.

Now I only wonder why it took me until now to discover it properly.

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