Sunday, 28 February 2010

Feeling the Music

I mentioned in my review of Locked Out from the Inside and Only Revolutions at the start of the year, that I had been doing some thinking about what I think makes music good. This is linked with my distinct apathy towards the Arcade Fire, which I talked about a bit last June. That apathy has since extended (to varying extents) to Broken Social Scene and Pavement. You would think that, as big fan of indie music who even likes Neutral Milk Hotel, I would love these bands and any more like them that I’ve not discovered yet. I alluded to the reason why in June and I wanted expand on that a little more having given it a bit more thought. Today seemed as good a day as any given that nothing else has happened of note that I want to blog about this week.

The first thing that I feel I need to make clear is that I don’t dislike any of the bands I am going to talk about, or indeed any bands similar to them, in fact I do find their music quite pleasant. I just don’t love them in the same way that people think I should. When I first started listening to the Arcade Fire I thought I was missing something because they simply didn’t stand out in the same way I thought they should. The music didn’t grab me like music from Porcupine Tree or the Flaming Lips does. It took me a while to realise why the music was little more than quite pleasant but nothing special, in fact it took until I listened to You Forget it in People by Broken Social Scene.

One song on that album stood out for me; Anthems for a Seventeen Year-old Girl, the rest was ok, but nothing special. I soon realised that the reason it stood out was because it was packed full of emotion. Perhaps it was technically less interesting than the rest of the album, the lyrics are fairly simplistic and the overall message is pretty obvious, but that didn’t matter. For the first and only time the album made an emotional connection with me. I could feel the sense of loss and of regret, it was heart wrenching and I realised what had been missing from the rest of the album and from most of what I’d listened to from the Arcade Fire. It was what had been there in the Flaming Lips and Porcupine Tree. It’s what made bands like Nine Black Alps and Biffy Clyro stand out to me. Emotion.

Art is all about creating an emotional connection between the audience and the artist through the art. Good art is deeply moving because the emotions that the artist is pouring into the art are effectively expressed. Ultimately this is more important than creating complex, intellectually interesting art; complexity has to be aimed at creating deeper, more complex emotions, it is not an end in itself. A simple painting of a sunset which inspires awe is more effective than a complicated, technically brilliant painting which loses any emotion in the complexity.

This inevitably applies to music; a good song is one which invokes strong feeling in the listener. The purpose of a piece of music is to establish that same link between the artist and the listener through the music, so when I listen to the Arcade Fire and simply shrug apathetically I know that the music has failed. There is no emotional connection, there is no passion, and there is no reason to keep listening. By contrast I can listen to the Decembrists (a band that I have not mentioned yet, but rank alongside Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd and the Flaming Lips as one of my favourite bands) and feeling the emotions that are surging through the songs. I can listen to the Flaming Lips and get feel buoyed by the sheer joy of their music. The more I listen and the more I pay attention to the complexities of the song, the stronger the emotional connection.

When I listen to a new band I look for this emotional connection. I try to experience the emotions of the artists through the music. I don’t look for the technical quality or the lyrical complexity because that’s meaningless without the emotional connection being established. The kind of indie music which the Arcade Fire exemplifies is simply trying too hard. They over-think the music and end up sounding aloof and disconnected. The music might be technically brilliant, but it’s all for nothing because I simply could not care less. No emotional connection has been established, so all the technical brilliance is all for nothing.

Of course some of the song from the Arcade Fire and other such bands do have emotion and I can connect to them, it’s just that for the most part this is severely lacking. I am making very general statements and there are exceptions. It would also be a mistake to say that this lack of emotion makes these bands bad. I don’t dislike them; I just think they slightly miss the point.

Art is an expression of emotion, once you let technicalities get in the way of that expression; you have missed the point of what you are doing. In trying to be all clever and artsy, this particular brand of indie music has forgotten what art is. It doesn’t necessarily make for bad music, but it does make for bad art.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Making everything better

I was going to do a photo based entry based on my recent skiing holiday, but I lost the thing that connects my camera to my laptop so I can’t upload any photos. This is also the reason for the lack of project 365 for the last week. Don’t worry when I get a replacement I will update it.

Anyway, I have no idea what to do this week and I’m pretty tired, so I’m going to cop out slightly. Over the last week I have had a good look at some of the fiction I’ve written recently, most notably this and this and done some pretty major editing. I’ve had quite a bit of time to go through them in the last week when I should have been working, so I’ve made a lot of changes, especially to the first one, some of which has changed beyond recognition. The plot and the dialogue has remained pretty much the same although there are some subtle changes to the dialogue and I’m still not entirely happy with it.

Anyway, here is the first one, the original can be found here.

She sat in the corner of the coffee shop, the novel she’d picked up on her way out of the door this morning sat open on her lap. The tattered, well fingered pages were not her work; she had read the first page and a half, and then thrown it across the room in disgust. Her coffee was cold on the table where she’d left it after buying it for far more than it was worth. Bland, characterless sound blared far too loudly into her ears from cheap earphones. The sound of the music, if you could call it that, was audible from anywhere in the empty room.

Her hair was mostly black with streaks of red and blue scattered like emotions dancing motionlessly in her head. The black was as natural as the blue and red; blond had never suited her. It lay unkempt over her ears and her forehead, obscuring her emerald green eyes. It had once fallen down past her shoulders and rolled part of the way down her back.

She didn’t see him trying too hard to look absent minded as he walked too casually to her table, coffee in hand.

“Excuse me, do I know you?” He did not ask permission to sit down.

Not looking up, she murmured a barely audible “I hope not.”

“You look like you could use some company?”

“Can’t you seem I’m reading?”

“You’ve been on that page for twenty minutes now.”

She looked up. The boy’s hair mirrored hers, except that his was sandy blond and styled to achieve the same unkempt look that she achieved naturally. “So how long have you been watching me?” her voice was even, but betraying hostility that he either did not pick up or chose to ignore.

Half a smile crept across his face. “About twenty minutes. How long have you been sitting here pretending to be busy?”

She did not answer, returning her gaze to her book. There was a silence penetrated only by the sound of the power ballad inserted arbitrarily into the middle of the album she was pretending to listening to. He supped his coffee and looked around; studying without interest the drab, meaningless splatters of emotion they called art and hung on the walls.

“What are you listening to?” It was asked apathetically, forced out by the pressure of silence.

She looked at him through her eyebrows and the hair falling over her eyes like a drawn curtain. “Music”.

“Just sounds like noise from here.”

The curtain was blown aside briefly as she snorted air through her nose in what could be interpreted as a laugh and allowed half a smile to flirt onto her face. She wiped it off and looked back to her book, redoubling her efforts not to care.

The silence resumed as though the fleeting bond of solidarity between them had never existed. He sat and watched the emotions dancing in her hair, not on the wall this time, leaving the coffee to get cold.

She looked up, half out of boredom, half out of the uncomfortable feeling that his grey-blue eyes were fixated on her. “Any reason why you’re staring at me?”

“Because you’re pretty.”

She raised her eyebrows and peered through the curtains. “I know” she returned again to her book.

“So why do you object to me looking at you?”

“Because it’s unsettling.”

“Being ignored is pretty unsettling too you know?” For the first time his relaxed, conversational tone was cut with frustration.

“No one invited you to sit down.” Her voice carried a chill that invited no excuse.

“You looked like you could do with some company.”

“And what made you think that?”

He shrugged. “You looked lonely.”

“I’m not.”

“Then why are you sitting in the corner of a coffee shop all alone, pretending to look busy?” the agitation rose in his voice.

“Because I wanted to be alone.” There was a icy coldness to her voice that should have ended the conversation.

“Why?” he asked anyway.

“If you must know, apparently you must because you consistently fail to take a hint,” the ice had melted away to anger. “My parents died in a car crash a week ago.”

Silence descended like a pall, he just stared at her, unable to force words that had come so easily to him before. The colours in her hair danced.

Eventually he choked out noises that sounded like words. “I’m sorry, I had no–”

“Just go.” Her whispered voice pierced through his bumbling apology.

“I honestly didn’t know. I’m so sorry. Please, I… if I’d known…” he left, his unfinished sentence hanging in the air.

She sighed and slumped back into her chair, ripping the earphones from her ears, and throwing them to the floor. She sat and stared through drawn curtains at the drab, meaningless splatters of colour they called art and hung on the walls. The colours in her hair were still.

She didn’t like lying.

You see, it now has metaphors and deeper meanings. I realised that I could still do clever things with descriptions and imagery while keeping my narrator as a fly on the wall, rather than in the head of one of my characters. Anyway, I think this is much more interesting and poignant now, although I may still change it a bit.

The here is the second one, the original can be found here.

“Will he ever wake up, doctor?” It was a man’s voice. His confidence barely masking creeping exhaustion. I recognised it, but could not place it.

“I sincerely doubt it.” The voice was youthful, but its formality was grinding. I assumed he was the doctor. “I’m sorry.” His tone was professional; he could think of nothing else to say.

There was a pause. I thought I heard the sound of weeping and gentle comforting over the whirr of the medical equipment, buzzing and clicking, carrying out its own conversation with itself, without a care for the flesh and blood and tears.

“How long, doctor, until…” the man choked as he spoke, trying not to cry, “Until he passes away?”

“His position is stable.” The words came in a clipped, over formal, unsympathetic tone; I wondered how long ago the doctor had been a mere student in med school. “There is no reason not to say that his life may go on… indefinitely.”

“So he could remain like this… forever?” there was an incredulousness in his tone, with undercurrents of anger. I wondered exactly who this man was, and why I recognised his voice.

“As long as we continue to sustain him, in theory, yes.”

“And if we don’t ‘continue to sustain him’?”

“Then he will die.”

“So he is to spend the rest of his life attached to a machine, with tubes stuck down his throat to feed him?” The anger dominated is voice now. “You see, Penelope, what kind of existence is that?” I wondered if it was Penelope I though I’d hear crying.

“How can you talk like that John?” I guessed that this was Penelope speaking. I could not blot out the feeling that I knew this voice too. “He’s your brother for god’s sake!” If my eyes had been working, I would have blinked. How could I not even identify my own brother’s voice? And if my own brother was but a familiar stranger, who the hell was Penelope?

“I’m just saying that it’s not much of an existence. That body, that empty, functionless shell is not the man you once loved.” My world shattered. Anger and shock battled through my motionless, un-sensing body.

“I can’t believe you could say that! How do you know that he’s not still alive in there? How do you know he can’t hear us?” her voice was tight with anger and barely disguised tears.

“Doctor, can he hear us?” I screamed that I could, but my mouth refused to listen.

“As far as we are aware his mind has all but closed down completely, I doubt if he can even think, let alone hear anything.” I redoubled my efforts, hopping that will power would miraculously mend my broken body.

“You see Penelope; he’s nothing but a body. He’s an empty shell, a body, nothing more. Not the man you married anymore.” His words made my mind spiral in despair. The madness of not knowing and not seeing consumed me.

I heard a door slam.

“I think we should consider turning off the life support machines. There’s no sense prolonging a life so devoid of meaning.”

I screamed. And no one heard.

The changes here are more subtle. The wording is less awkward now I think and the whole thing flows a bit better. Some of the dialogue is changed a bit too. Again there are metaphors, but this one is less steeped in imagery than the other; I was still trying to keep to roughly 500 words.

You might be asking the reason for all this editing. Well before half term I went to a creative writing even organised by a group at my school which it occurred to me that I should join. Unfortunately I have a chronic fear of humiliation, so I wanted to edit them until I was happy enough with them to present. I have a couple of other pieces that I’m not entirely happy with yet and a few poems that you don’t get to see (you might in the future if I run out of other things to do).

Saturday, 13 February 2010

To all your lovers out there (lessons from History 4, valentine's day edition)

A cursory look at your calendar (and most shops) will inform you that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. You might have noticed that last year I completely ignored this holiday, because back then I was bitter and alone. This year I’m bitter but slightly less alone so 14th February means something to me. Fortunately I have managed to suppress my awful soppiness about the holiday and actually done some research into the origins of this celebration of love and all things red (which basically means I googled it).

Anyway, 14th February is Saint Valentine’s Day, the patron saint of, inevitably, marriages, love, lovers, affianced couples, engaged couples and young people. However he is, rather bizarrely, also Patron Saint of bee keepers, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, plagues and travellers. Don’t ask me why. Saint Valentine, like all good saints, was a Roman Christian who was martyred for some crime or other. The problem is that there are at least three that know of. The one we know most about was imprisoned by Emperor Claudius II in the third Century AD for marrying young people. This seems like an innocuous enough offence, but it came after the Emperor had banned young people from marrying because he noticed that unmarried soldiers fought better (maybe they spent less time moping and more time raping and pillaging). He needed all the soldiers he could get because the Roman Empire was, as always, fighting almost everyone who bordered their territory and some who didn’t. Valentine soon realised that this was unjust and so went around marrying young Christians. Although he was imprisoned, he managed to make a good enough impression on Claudius that he was not executed, until he tried to convert him to Christianity, at which point he was promptly beaten with clubs, stoned and then beheaded.

It is reported, but not certain, that he, or one of the saints of that name, sent the first ‘Valentine’. Apparently he fell in love with the jailor’s daughters and sent her a note signed ‘From your Valentine’. Combined with the marrying of younger couples there is some ground for having the Saint be the patron of lovers, but it still seems pretty tenuous. The marrying (you’ll excuse metaphor) of Saint Valentine with a festival dedicated to love may have more to do with the date than anything else. February was seen, in the roman world at least, as the start of spring and hence fertility. The Roman festival Lupercalia happened on the Ides of February (the 15th) and was a celebration of fertility, a time for purification and an occasion for matchmaking, in a slightly more random way than that used today. It would be perhaps justifiably cynical to accuse the early church is simply hijacking a festival which already existed and repurpose it as a Christian festival; they did much the same for Christmas after all. Saint Valentine died in February, or at least one of them did, probably, so it made sense to make Saint Valentine the patron of love and make his Saint’s Day a celebration of love, marriage, couples and plague… no I still don’t know why that last one is even there.

So where does that leave us? A little more educated about the slightly haphazard and pretty incoherent history of what has become a painfully commercialised celebration of love, which millions of couples worldwide indulge in and have indulged in throughout history because they wanted an excuse to celebrate their relationship, and who can blame them.

Shame I wont be able to do the same because I leave for France in the morning for a very poorly timed family ski holiday, which is why this is uncharacteristically early and why next week will probably be a collection of holiday photos. I may change this slightly cop-out tradition because you get a photo from my life every day here anyway. I won’t be updating that at all next week for lack of internet (I expect) so I will do a massive update next Saturday.

Well I’m rambling now, so I hope all those couples out there have a wonderful Lupercalia and I hope all those singles out there can impress members of the opposite sex enough with knowledge of the origins of Valentine’s Day that they find someone to celebrate it with by next year.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Random Encounter

As part of my continuing mission to learn to write stories that actually end, I wrote this interesting little encounter a while back. I've tried to write in a slightly more implicit tone than I usually do. I wanted to take the mantra of 'show, don't tell' to a level that I am not really used to. Normally my narration is fairly explicit as to what emotions the characters feel and what is going though their minds generally. I've tried to cut that out as much as possible here and just describe what happens in a fair amount of detail, leaving the atmosphere and emotions of the characters up for interpretation. I quite like it, but I think my style leaves something to be desired at times. Read it and tell me what you think.

She sat in the corner of the empty coffee shop, pretending to read the bullshit fantasy novel she’d picked up on her way out of the door this morning. She had bought it from charity shop months ago because the front cover had some cool artwork. She’d read the first page and a half, then thrown it across the room in disgust. She reckoned that she could write something better. The book was open in the middle somewhere, but it didn’t matter because she’d not read a word in the hour that she had been sitting there. Her coffee had turned cold by now. She hadn’t even touched it since buying it for far more than it was worth. The bland, characterless music blared far too loudly into her ears from the cheap headphones. She knew that, were anyone else in the shop with her, they would hear every painfully generic riff, although they would, perhaps be spared the meaningless lyrics screamed tonelessly out as though they were worth hearing.

Her hair was mostly black with streaks of red and blue. She wore it short, so that it came down past her ears but not much further. For the brief period that she had worn it long she had found that looking after it was more effort than it was worth. Her natural colour was blond, but she had long ago gone off the idea of looking like every other platinum blond clone she had gone to school with for years. The only makeup she ever wore was black eyeliner.

She was so engrossed in staring blankly at the page in front of her; the same page that she had been staring at for the past hour without reading a word, that she didn’t see him approach, coffee in hand.

“Excuse me, do I know you?” he asked, sitting down without waiting for the permission he assumed he’d get.

“I hope not.” She did not look up from her book.

His pause was barely noticeable. “You look like you could use some company?”

“Can’t you seem I’m reading?”

“You’ve been on that page for twenty minutes now.”

She looked up. The boy had sandy blond hair that fell about his face, half covering his pale blue eyes. “So how long have you been watching me?”

Half a smile crept across his face. “About twenty minutes. How long have you been sitting here pretending to be busy?”

“Long enough.” Her gaze returned to that page in her book. Suddenly the tribulations of the generically young and charismatic protagonist in his cliché battle against the inexplicably evil Dark Lord and his hoards of unquestioning minions became interesting.

There was a silence penetrated only by the sound of the arbitrary power ballad inserted at random into the middle of the album she was listening to. He supped his coffee and looked around, more for something to do than anything else.

“What are you listening to?” he asked finally.

She looked at him through her eyebrows, only tilting her head up slightly. “Music”.

“Really? Just sounds like noise from here.”

She snorted air through her nose in what could be interpreted as a laugh and allowed half a smile to briefly paint her face before remembering herself and looking back to her book.

The silence again resumed after the brief interlude of fleeting contact between the two. He sat and looked at her this time, leaving the coffee to get cold alongside hers.

She looked up after a while, half out of boredom, half out of the uncomfortable feeling that his grey-blue eyes were fixated on her. “Any reason why you’re staring at me?”

“Because you’re pretty.”

She raised her eyebrows. “I know” she returned again to her book.

“So why do you object to me staring at you?”

“Because it’s unsettling.”

“You ignoring me is pretty unsettling too you know?”

“No one invited you to sit down.”

“You looked like you could do with some company.”

She looked up at him again, indignation barely visible in her features. “and what made you think that?”

He shrugged. “You looked lonely.”

“I’m not.”

“Then why are you sitting in the corner of a coffee shop all alone, pretending to look busy?”

“Because I was trying to avoid human contact.” Her stare was icy now and her voice had a hint of anger.

“Any reason or are you just being a loner?” his voice was cut with frustration.

“If you must know my parents tied in a car crash a week ago.” There was a hint of a challenge in her voice.

There was silence.

“I’m sorry, I had no–”

“Just go.” She whispered.

He sighed and got up, snatching his coffee. “I honestly didn’t know. I’m so sorry. Please, I… if I’d known…”

She watched him as he walked out of the dooe, cursing to himself. She sighed and slumped back into her chair. She ripped the earphones from her ears and threw them to the floor. She didn’t like lying.