Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Provisional Notes Towards A Physics Of The Heart; Or, Harmonia, 'Live 1974'

Things aren’t exactly boring around here, just… settled. I fear this is what adult life will consist of – a day’s partly-good work (vocation being “the spine of life” (Nietzsche) but very fucking thankless as well) and then listening to records at home, trying to force my way through my reading list for next year’s uni course, worrying about minor arrangements for things… One ends up being thrown back on the small things in life, its microscopic rhythms, the little rituals I need to keep up to maintain my (currently good) mental health, the flow of traffic in the mornings, the growth of plants and drift of water, morning walks and the spinning of CDs…


As winter plateaus into grey days and cold wind, we need new listening (not just material, but ways of listening)… In her review of Harmonia’s Live 1974 for Plan B, Frances Morgan called it as “organic and ego-less as a Fibonnaci spiral… evoking the transient random joy of a landscape passing by at the speed of machinery”. Of Giorgio Moroder – who took inspiration partly from Kraftwerk, of whom Harmonia’s Michael Rother was briefly a member, during their early years with Stockhausen in Dusseldorf – and Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, Mark Fisher has written “[it] is anti-climactic and anorgasmic, since its bliss is dilated, potentially forever in Moroder's mix which is virtually infinite: the record may terminate, but that is purely a question of physical limitations, which the track implicitly surpasses by flattening the beginning-middle-end of rock narrative sequentiality into the eternal Now of the discontinuum.” Where is the bridge between these two?


I’ve spent a lot of time recently walking through the few green spaces in my hometown – in particular, from my house, through the local (King’s) park, past the ailing football team’s awful (and I mean that in the bad sense) stadium, and the yuppie-fied local leisure centre; two oversized ponds connected by a glorified stream are surrounded by football pitches (inevitably filled with thick-witted youths). The last time I walked down there, it was a cold, dry morning, when the earth was springy and birds were just coming away from the trees; Live 1974 made the best walking music I’ve ever had – each song an ever-flowing snake of rhythm provided by Dieter Mobius’ rudimentary drum programming, little percussive clusters endlessly repeating, around which Rother’s spiralling, processed guitar and Hans-Joachim Roedelius’ heavily-tweaked synths pulse, flash, burn and shimmer. The opening ‘Schaumburg’ appears as if out of nowhere, its progress made slightly ghostly by the ravages of time on the tape, and draws you down into its moment-by-moment movement, as into Kafka’s “train of wagons and tumult”. You’re invited – no, compelled – to inspect its evolution, and, more importantly, to give yourself up to its flow. It isn’t music to passively absorb, nor to actively scrutinise, but to simply work with: you can feel its rhythms synchronise with yours, and vice versa. The pound of feet becomes drum machine chug. Early morning birdsong, leaking through headphones, becomes indistinguishable from twittering synths. (One is reminded of my favourite pre-sleep listening, Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon, which features real birdsong among the synth piano keys reverberating like ripples on the pond of infinity(!) Note also Eno’s collaboration with Roedelius and Moebius on the unfortunately lacklustre Cluster & Eno.) Distant gusts and traffic beyond the high grass and trees are rendered as dull bass frequencies. The voices of any humans who happen to be around are negligible, the faintest whisper delivered through wide-open mouths, the speakers looking like ridiculous dummies. All become part of one rhythm, the benign stutter of an ever-present God…


“Towards the end of his life, Marconi became convinced that sounds, once generated never die, they simply become fainter and fainter until we can no longer perceive them. Marconi’s hope was to develop sufficiently sensitive equipment, extraordinarily powerful and sensitive filters, I suppose, to pick and hear these past, faint sounds. Ultimately he hoped to be able to hear Christ delivering the Sermon On The Mount.”
--Gavin Bryars, from linernotes to The Sinking Of The Titanic (Touch)


In Lester Bangs’ review of the Stooges’ Fun House, he writes that, having “fell in one night, well-stoked with ozone”, he listened to ‘LA Blues’, “and it seemed like some vast network of golden metal pulleys rising infinitely into the sky”. Walking through the fields beyond the football stadium one evening, just as it was beginning to get dark, and listening to Live 1974, I looked back at the trees and thought, for a second, that they were perfect. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea – the pre-eminent text of post-war ‘existentialist’ (*shudders*) cant – the protagonist’s disgust at the physical world is summarised by a tree whose roots and branches grow in all different directions: nature is characterised as blind, clumsy, chaotic, random; the protagonist’s pet project and ‘saving grace’, a novel, is valourised precisely because it is a shaped work of intention, the literal manifestation of human choice and will. Walking past the football stadium again the next morning – Live 1974 again – I looked up among the elaborate structure of supports that juts out from the top, all around – hanging out in the air, held only by the positioning of the bars one against another. I was weirdly transfixed – the pattern was just perfect, the same as the trees, the same as the ammonite spirals I’d stared at on Jurassic Coast beaches as a kid. There’s an interesting notion in Zen that, since subject and object are one and the same, anything in nature can be considered art – complete and perfect in its concreteness – and human art should replicate the unforced beauty of nature – hence the ‘sand gardens’ found in Japanese Zen temples. Which is the effect Harmonia has on the brain – its perfectly balanced mantra-pulses don’t seem to emerge from any human agency, the grubby little hands of ‘musicians’, but just occur naturally. They confound the organic/inorganic split that’s run like a silent narrative through pop music since the invention, well, of recording technology, actually. Techno was the first music to really disavow – and disprove – any notion of solely organic agency – the programmer might pick the sounds, but it’s the machines that make them (many of the ‘creators’ accordingly hid under pseudonyms, and – in the case of Detroit’s Underground Resistance – refused to allow their real identities to be associated with the product. (Note: if all this sounds like terribly wooly thinking - "invocations of Zen? I've seen less offensive things in the 'Spiritualism' department at Borders!" - it should be mentioned that similar ideas were come upon, and extrapolated, in more intellectually acceptable form, by Lyotard, Deleuze/Guattari, Baudrillard and so on. I don't like to pretend to have read these gentlemen's works (I'm working on it!), and so the thinking covered in Alan W. Watts' charming volume The Way Of Zen will have to do for now.) Simultaneously sensual and distant, weirdly beautiful and beautifully weird (like, indeed, the shapes generated by mathematics, or Brutalist architecture, or the shapes of naturally-eroded rock formations), this would be the record I would pick, to be one of the two poles, if I were writing my own Words And Music: what Alvin Lucier exposed so rawly and poignantly on I Am Sitting In A Room (the words recorded, played and recorded until disintegrating into the ghosts of sound, or the sound of ghosts - the acoustics of the room shaping literal EVP) - the harmony, or discord, between man and machine, is here taken up by Harmonia, polished and explored. Only when that same pulse turns up, almost 30 years later, in Kylie Minogue's 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head', does it become apparent how universally beautiful it is - that it would bury itself in our hearts this long, that we would still be carrying out this dance with inhuman electricity today...


Blogger Robert said...

wonderful writing, Dan

i always enjoy reading you

January 17, 2008 at 6:23 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Cheers Rob - personally I thought this was horribly half-baked, but there you go.

January 17, 2008 at 1:15 PM  
Blogger zontar said...

Great write up.
I love the citations you've made.

And jeez, Dan, "horribly half-baked"?
It was 35 yeas ago.
It was recorded live.

What could you honestly expect from:
the state of music technology used?
the state of live recording technology used?
[and in both cases, for what was a very obscure group playing... 'non pop' music?]

The mere fact this recording is available is astounding - I am more than happy to forgive some noise, some less-than-perfect performances. I find, and have always found, a certain naive charm to almost everything that these three performers have released.

March 14, 2008 at 8:48 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

By 'horribly half-baked' I was referring to my own writing - the genesis of this piece stretched on far too long, and I felt I had to send it out into the world in this state, or be damned. It has nothing to do with the quality of the recording, which is admittedly slightly rough ('twas live, after all), but not at all to its detriment.

March 19, 2008 at 1:34 PM  

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