Saturday, April 01, 2006

Radio Show on Contemporary Avantgarde music: is the world of arts and creativity coming to an end?

“I have a kind of cultural map in my head, where I find similarities between different cultures. For example, domestic Japanese pop music sounds like Arabic music to me - the vocal intonation and vibrato, and in my mind Bali is next to New York. Maybe everyone has these geographies in their heads; this is the way I've been working.”
Ryuichi Sakamoto

“Tutte le machine al potere, gli uomini a pane ed acqua”
Franco Battiato

The following is an adapted version of script for the radio show "Who Do You Think You Are?" dedicated to contemporary avantgarde music. It includes a playlist and it is followed by some comments on the show itself.

Click here to listen to this show in MP3 format.

THEME: Post-modernism in music and beyond

QUESTION OF THE DAY: Is the world of arts and creativity coming to an end?

Has everything already being done? Is there hope that something radically new in music and in other artistic fields will come up, something as revolutionary as let’s say the rock experiments of the 60s and 70s? Does post-modernity mean that originality will never be achieved again? It’s a time of crisis. Deep crisis. Whether as social scientists or writers or musicians, we have lost our reference points, we don’t know why we are doing what we are doing anymore, we lack a sense of direction, a sense of purpose that could channel our creative energies.

This overwhelming sense of nothingness, of the ‘already done’ is growing to a level that does not seem to leave many options open: we either get stuck forever into this broken disc feeling of the ‘already heard and actually, it was better in the 70s’ (i.e. just keep on watching MTV crap) or we move towards something new, a new beginning. But maybe this is just an optimistic take. Maybe what is happening will keep on happening. Maybe something new will eventually grow from this mess, but only at the expenses of man and sociality, of life itself.

I look at Sakamoto, Eno, Battiato and many other contemporary musicians, writers, performers, intellectuals and what I see is implosion: atomised, lonely individuals locking themselves in their golden prisons to create, at the expenses of their own humanity.

This is how I see myself and my contemporaries at times: I pass my days in front of computer screens, writing, listening to music, browsing the internet, getting millions of information in one day, something that was never possible even just 20 years ago, and as the amount of information gets bigger and bigger, the degree of impersonality grows exponentially. What was once information about something, becomes now information for the sake of information, I have lost the external referent, I have flushed human reality down the toilet.

It is hard to maintain a sense of agency. I sit back and observe my own mind and consciousness grow beyond my control and my will. When I stop asking myself “why?”, I start wondering “who am I?”, “who is doing all this?”, “what is reality?”. This deep exploration into cosmology, however, is not driven by a sense of interconnectedness, a sense of sharing some important features with other beings, as it might have once been. It is caused by the very opposite condition: loneliness, estrangement, alienation, apathy, loss of self-and-other dimension. If the self is nothing but a web of connections, then these connections do not need to be ‘human beings’ anymore. In my own intricate post-modern kosmos, humans are replaced by machines, objects, abstract concepts, artificial images, internet pages, movies, books and CDs.


The music I have selected does not hide strong overtones of anguish for a world that seems to be approaching its end: in this particular instance, the end of music. Getting a taste of what these musical gurus are up to in the late 90s through the beginning of the millennium gives you an idea of the state of the art. Some critics would be ready to label this as lack of inspiration. I think there is a more complex story to be told. The fragmentation, the loss of ambition, the anaesthetic dreamy synth sound textures alternated with the paranoid distorted cacophonies, are the most sincere expression of what all that these artists are feeling at this time in history, and the music can only reflect this condition.

Post-modernity is then exemplified by the act of waiting. I look back, see how great all that was, I feel I have missed something, something might have changed irreparably within and outside myself. But I have not lost hope, not yet, maybe; and even if I did, it is only too rational to think that chaos evolves and as I sunk into chaos, I should be able to work my way up through it.

I can’t believe people will continue to accept this limbo of ideas, emotions and meanings. The emptiness that invades newspapers, tv broadcasts, academic publications, fiction books, concert halls, this lack of content, cannot be going on for very long. On the other hand, the emotional and intellectual desert I have discovered where I had least expected it does not make me hope for the best. But it could be that for some perverse effect taking place on the macro-structural level, something that only the so-called ‘post-modern theorists’ seem to understand, it is from the peripheries that new stuff will come up. Digging into less prestigious university communities, ghetto movements and third world city alleys, will produce better results in this search for art, for new art and new ideas. Or, maybe, just more despair. In either case, it is still worth leaving that laptop screen by itself sometime, forget about emails, BBC news and Wikipedia for a while, and go check out there, in the real world, what’s left of reality.

MUSIC: Contemporary Avantgarde Music – David Sylvian, David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Brian Eno, Franco Battiato


Album: “Dead Bees on a Cake” (1999)

“Dead Bees on a Cake” is a pleasant exploration of different musical genres, from the 80s Sylvian-style dark ballads, to light jazz, new age and world music. Nothing of the calibre of his vocal landmark “Secrets of the Beehive”, but surely gives us an idea of contemporary musical evolutions. David Sylvian’s voice remains a rather distinctive mark in the post-modern hyperreality: it evokes those endless and ever mutating landscapes of city life; also it renders well that feeling of suspension and resignation to the impenetrable complexity of the outside world.


Pollen Path – 3’25”

The post-punk reminiscences and the electro-percussions tones seem to anticipate the latest Nick Cave experimentation by a few years. David Sylvian lacks however the coherence and persistence of Nick Cave. This is just one of the examples of the uncultivated eclecticism of David Sylvian.

The Shining of Things – 3’10”

A classic ‘Sylvian-style’ ballad, reminiscent of the tracks in “Secrets of the Beehive” (1987). Beautiful sound arrangements by the friend Ryuichi Sakamoto.


David Sylvian from

David Sylvian on the Wikipedia


Album: “Earthlings” (1997)

The album was recorded right after the tour with Nine Inch Nails and the electro influences are evident. David Bowie, like a child never tired of new adventures, throws himself carelessly into the 90s mass phenomenon, rave music. Drum&bass, techno, jungle, mixed together with electric guitars, contemporary rock riffs, and a touch of the old Bowie-style new wave. I must say a rather successful mix and sure one that is appealing to the millions of people who would have never cared to check out “Space Oddity” (1969) or “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust” (1972).

A true chameleon, David Bowie’s avantgarde consists in nothing but masking himself under the fashion of the moment. Among the musicians in this selection, he is the one less troubled by the commoditisation of music; sometimes I think of David Bowie as the arty mirror of another ‘chameleon’ phenomenon, that of commercial change-your-clothes-as-the-money-flows Madonna. His ability to shift from one mask to another, from one character to the next, makes Bowie a post-modern artist: I wouldn’t be surprised if we will see him one day playing Bach or Beethoven with a huge motherflipping grand piano. Anything is possible, anything goes, life goes on, and David Bowie will keep on top of things, his latest video always there on MTV.


Little Wonder – 6’02”

Drum&bass, hints of electric rock, minimalist piano notes and dreamy vocals successfully blend together into a rather innovative electro-Bowie.

Telling Lies – 4’49”

The vocals here more markedly reminisce the 70s Bowie style. However, the similarities are counteracted by the radical move towards electric rock in the refrains. The minimalist techno background makes this a rather ‘soft’ track. Oblivion and suspension are the dominant feelings: this is Bowie’s ‘full immersion’ into the 90s music culture.


David Bowie on the Wikipedia

Interesting essay on the occult symbolism in David Bowie’s work; even if you are not so interested by the theme of the occult in itself, it is a very good analysis about David Bowie’s own philosophy and the way this is transposed in the music.


Album: “Chasm” (2004)

‘Chasm’ has been criticised by some as a rather incoherent album; critics have noted how it explores too many different themes without really delving in depth on any. I argue that this is exactly the point that Sakamoto is trying to make. Japanese composer Sakamoto is evidently abandoning any pretence to completeness. A broken self is what Sakamoto is trying to render here. And yet, it is not simply ‘chaos’: something more troubling is taking place, a continuous explosion and clash of sounds and experiences, the failure of producing coherence, resignation to schizophrenia and fragmentation. Sakamoto has put the basis for the future of music. Or for the end of it.


World Citizen – 6’03”

The vocals are performed by David Sylvian. The song is not just the nth softly spoken dark Sylvian-style ballad. The instrumental accompaniment is made of fragmented electronic tunes, with numerous breaks and reverbs as to capture and represent the chaotic nature of reality. It is as if in the background we hear the infinite possibilities that any piece of music offers to its composer. This is a truly post-modern song: “World Citizen” is not a thoughtless superficial hymn to globalisation, but rather the acknowledgement of an existential condition where concepts such as tradition, roots, locality have all lost meaning.


Biography, chronology, discography, filmography, links

Check out Chain Music, Sakamoto’s original musical project on the theme of the Iraq War.


Album: “Another Day on Earth” (2005)

After 20 years of silence (or better, of entirely instrumental ambient productions), Brian Eno is back with a vocal album. And yet, what the tracks in “Another Day on Earth” really mark is the break down of the classic dichotomy ambient Eno vs vocal Eno. “Another Day on Earth” is a journey through reminiscences of a past now gone that will never be recovered. As the vocals become gradually more functional to and absorbed by the synth sounds, the listener sinks into a deep black hole without end, slowly mutating his initial feeling of nostalgia into despair.


And Then So Clear – 5’49”

Brian eno’s voice is pitched an octave higher than the original. This produces an effect in between tragedy and grotesque.

This – 3’33”

In the song ‘This’, the fusion between ambient and pop vocals is achieved with brilliance and grace. It is a rather sad song. There is something in the voice that recalls the old Eno; this jump into the past is further reinforced by the dreamy synth sounds and the basic lyrical structure.


A website dedicated to the life and works of Brian Eno; check out the section ‘Contacting Eno’ for some interesting thoughts about audiences and music production from the master himself.

Brian Eno on the Wikipedia


Album: “Dieci Stratagemmi” (2004)

“Ten Stratagems” is the most apocalyptic album in this music selection. The loss of self, the existentialist incapacity of making sense of one’s own world, are complemented by political paranoias about dystopic world orders and global warfare. Battiato releases his own fears and frustrations by pushing the musical experimentation in to the extreme. He successfully manages to put together the classic Italian song tradition with electronica, contemporary classic music, traditional rock structures and world music. In this respect, he is the Italian avantgarde artist par excellence. The feeling of global ‘musical’ convergence is very strong, the feeling that he too could have been sitting anywhere writing these songs. And this is the reason why we can pass from Brian Eno, to Battiato, to David Sylvian without much cacophony or a sense of disconnect.


I’m That – 3’33”

Entirely in English, this song is a statement about Battiato’s reflections on the role and the nature of art. The basic message is well summarised by the following lyrics: “I’m neither Muslim nor Hindu nor Christian nor Buddhist, I am neither for the hammer neither for the sickle and even less for the tricolour flame, because I am a musician”.

Ermeneutica – 3’34”

In “Hermeneutics”, the essence of the late Battiato is distilled. On the one hand we have the philosophy, the spiritual search for order, a man, an artist who desperately seeks to understand a world turned schizoid. Political commentary (surrealist lyrics that refer to a president whose wish is to take over the world and ‘invent’ democracy everywhere) alternates itself with the existentialist search for truth and peace of mind (“and what is kosmos? What is the meaning of the word? History is bunk” sings Battiato in his own peculiar English). The fragmentation and the difficulty of making sense is reflected in a form that becomes ever more experimental.


Franco Battiato on the Wikipedia (in English)

Franco Battiato’s official website


In this radio show I have managed to talk about some of my most pressing concerns. The music fitted perfectly with the theme, and this contributed to the overall positive effect.

However, I have experienced in a very direct way what it means to go on air live and with a strict timetable. Towards the end, I have miscalculated how much time I had left and I got confused while reading the last link. Overall, it sounded fine when I re-listened to it, but I had to jump a few sentences which were rather important for the general message I wanted to convey. Considering that my final link is always the most important (it summarises the whole journey), I should really be careful with times in the next shows.

I have had some feedback from Florian. He did like the show and the music. However, he did notice that I could read more ‘freely’, with more intonation. I think that’s going to come with time and practice; also, given the limited time I can dedicate to the show weekly, it does take lots of effort to write the script and I cannot take too much care of the reciting bit. I am thinking about just rehearsing the script a few hours before I go on air from next time. I don’t know if I will always manage to do that. Many times, the hours before the show I am still in the process of writing the script.


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