A few bits and bobs of things I’ve been involved with recently:
I wrote a two-page spread about South Asian pop music for the amazing New City Reader, a newspaper on display at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City as part of the current “Last Newspaper” exhibition. You can pick up a physical copy at the New Museum, or you can download a PDF of the whole issue here.
The current issue of the Italian art magazine Kaleidoscope includes excerpts from the panel I was a part of at Frieze Art Fair in London. I haven’t picked it up yet, but it looks good.
Also: I was on WNYC, New York City’s NPR station, to talk about Indian disco records on “Soundcheck.” It originally aired in September and re-aired on Thanksgiving. You can read more about it here, or listen to the full broadcast below.
We’ve reached a critical boiling point, haven’t we? Politics is high drama, in a way it hasn’t been since the 2008 elections. There is, of course, the enormous international maelstrom surrounding WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, and the leaked diplomatic cables. Add in the massive protests in London against a threefold increase in tuition fees, and the face-off between students and police. Add to that the Nobel Peace Prize going to the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was barred by the Chinese government from receiving one of the most prestigious prizes on the planet. Add in the big Smithsonian/National Portrait Gallery censorship debacle involving a contested piece by the artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. The meltdown of the Irish economy. The tremendously flawed tax cut plan going through Congress, and Obama’s support of it — a major disappointment to everyone I know, myself included. I could go on, but let’s stop there for now. Continue reading →
December is generally the time of year when critics put out their Top 100 lists, their Best Albums of 2010 lists, their top singles of the year. I have some ideas on the subject, but I haven’t worked out my own painstakingly ordered list yet. Partly it’s because I’ve been caught up in the seismic shakeups in journalism, politics, technology, and everything that’s happening in the world at large (more on this later). But it’s also because I’ve never much cared for making ranked lists; I’ve voted in Pazz and Jop and various other critics’ polls for almost ten years now, but I never have much fun doing it, to be honest. I’ve argued in the past that the practice of list-making — of ranking items into strict hierarchies, and arguing about said hierarchies — seemed to me to be a strangely male phenomenon. I know plenty about labels, genres, years; I have an absurd knowledge of arcane trivia, as any good critic should. But I just don’t view music in a linear way; my view is more oceanic, omnidirectional. In my head, Cluster’s 1974 album Zuckerzeit, a Ron Hardy DJ mix from 1986, and a mixtape a friend made me were all essential parts of my 2010, too. Continue reading →
I’ve been back home for a week now, but I’m still living out of a suitcase in my own apartment. I have lots of practice; over the past month, I lived out of suitcases in London, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Krakow, Vienna, and Berlin. There is plenty to write about all of these cities — especially London, where I spoke on a panel at the Frieze Art Fair and had a wonderful time. For now, I’ll write about randomly meeting Brian Eno in Poland, a surreal experience that makes for a good story, too.
My little book on Brian Eno, Another Green World, came out about a year ago. I didn’t interview Eno for the book when I started it in 2006; I really wanted to, but it seemed impossible. I know that Eno dislikes talking about the deep past; I probably could have talked to him about his current record, but it seemed dishonest to interview someone about a new project when I was really trying to find answers about something else.
And so I pressed on for the next two years, trying to find clues in the hundreds upon hundreds of pages of archival interviews (I was literally knee-deep in printouts at one point), and from interviews I did with Eno’s friends and collaborators. I read dozens of books; some of them had to do with Eno and many didn’t, or at least not directly. I didn’t write the book to meet Brian Eno; I wrote it to understand.
About six weeks ago, I got an email out of the blue from my old friend Heiko, the editor-in-chief of the German music magazine Groove. Heiko was going to London the next day to interview Eno about his new record, Small Craft on a Milk Sea. Heiko handed him a copy of my book during the interview. Eno said he had never heard of it, or the 33 1/3 series, but that he was interested in reading the book, and took the copy with him.
About three weeks later, I was in Krakow for the Unsound festival. On the final night of the festival, Ben Frost led an orchestral reinterpretation of the classic soundtrack to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and Eno was credited for the slowly morphing visual backdrop. I didn’t think that meant that Eno was actually there. But then, at the end of the performance, Eno materialized on stage to give a brief bow, before disappearing again.
I went backstage after the performance. I’ve met plenty of famous people over the course of my career as a music critic — it just becomes part of the job — but this made me a bit nervous. I opened a door and Eno poured me a glass of red wine. I told him my name was Geeta, and offhandedly mentioned that I’d written a little book about him. He didn’t pay much attention to me at first, and went back to the small crowd of people he was with. Then, a few minutes later, he turned around and said, “Hang on, is your name Geeta Dayal?” I said yes. Eno told me that he had just read my book and loved it so much that he bought four copies. He kept talking about how much he loved it; his enthusiasm for it was palpable and real. We proceeded to have a very nice, and somewhat surreal, conversation. A few minutes later, I bumped into Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid — a band whose music I like very much — and talked to him for a while about Belgium, and ambient music.
About a week later, when I was in Berlin, I got in touch with Eno and thanked him for his nice words. A few days later, when I got back to the United States, I saw a little note from him, which I pinned to a slanted wall in my 200-year-old apartment in Boston:
I was also pleased to meet you: I had intended to get in touch through
your publisher to say how much I’d enjoyed the book. I don’t
habitually look back – in fact I don’t much enjoy it when interviewers
ask me too – but i really enjoyed someone else doing the looking back
for me. There was so much well researched and described detail in the
book – it made that period very real to me again.
I’d forgotten, at a guess, about 80% of what was in the book! So i can
honestly say, in the words of the song: “Thanks for the memories”.
Right now, I’m writing a proposal for a second book about music. When I get frustrated — which is often — I look at the note, and I feel inspired again.
Lots of travel coming up. On Monday, October 11th, I’ll be speaking at Columbia University at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera. I was a participant in the program last year; I’m glad to come back this year as a speaker. I’ll be giving a talk about blogging and online journalism.
On Tuesday I’m flying to London. On Thursday, October 14th, I’ll be speaking on a panel titled “Who Owns Images?” at the Frieze Art Fair, with the brilliant Kazys Varnelis (Columbia University) and the German artist Thomas Demand. Very much looking forward to it, and to being back in London again.
On October 18th I go to Amsterdam.
On October 22nd I head to Poland. I’ll be in Krakow for the Unsound festival.
On October 25th I’ll be in Vienna.
And then on October 27th I’ll be back in Berlin, my second (or perhaps it’s third, or fourth) home. My spiritual home, at any rate.
Here’s a piece I wrote about Sónar Chicago, the first major American iteration of the well-established electronic music festival in Spain.
by Geeta Dayal
Sónar is now an institution in Barcelona, and one of the largest and most well-respected electronic music festivals in the world. Sonar Chicago, the first major attempt to introduce the Sónar brand to the United States, was a much smaller and less party-oriented festival than Sónar in Spain. While the Barcelona festival has featured many major acts over the years, such as Roxy Music, LCD Soundsystem, Plastikman, Orbital, and Goldfrapp, Sónar Chicago placed more of its emphasis on lesser-known, more experimental acts. (Sónar’s partner event in Chicago, the concurrent Adventures in Modern Music festival led by the venerable UK magazine The Wire, ventured even further into experimental territory.) Several of the artists at Sónar Chicago could have easily played at MUTEK in Montreal – some of them did, in fact, such as the Australian (by way of Iceland) musician Ben Frost. With the exception of a daytime talk by Ron Trent, the Chicago legend best known for heading Prescription Records, Chicago artists did not feature on the agenda.
Detroit, another nearby birthplace of electronic music, recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of its enormously successful Detroit Electronic Music Festival (Movement), but Chicago has nothing like it. The sites of former Chicago house music meccas — like the Warehouse, with its resident DJ Frankie Knuckles, and the Music Box, headed by the legendary late DJ Ron Hardy in the 1980s — are long gone; in their place are bright new condominiums and highrises. Many of Detroit’s legendary spots are gone now, too, but Detroit’s emptiness and crumbling ruins lend a certain cinematic quality, a sense of a faded, mysterious past; sites of famous techno parties, like the huge, lumbering Packard Plant, still lay empty and abandoned. Chicago, in contrast, is a much larger and wealthier city than Detroit, with a relentless capacity to build and rebuild. Continue reading →
I’ve been spending a lot of time digging up disco and electro records from India in the early 1980s. I was inspired by Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat— which I wrote about here and here — and figured that there must be a whole hidden cache of these records, a treasure trove of proto-techno sounds. The Charanjit Singh record, I argued, wasn’t a total anomaly; it was part of a zeitgeist. Disco was still a raging concern in India in the ’80s, long after it had peaked in popularity in the US and UK, and the idea of an acid house record coming out of India in ’83 didn’t seem so far out of the question. So I set off trying to find that zeitgeist — a time in India when disco reigned supreme.
I found plenty of examples of rich, symphonic disco tunes from Bollywood in the early ’80s. Here’s one of my favorites in that vein, from a movie I’ve written about before — Disco Dancer (1982), a film that was campy to the extreme, with a plot that was utterly ridiculous even by Bollywood standards. The soundtrack included some sublime slabs of peak-time disco, including the hit song “Yaad Aa Raha Hai,” produced by Bollywood disco/funk legend Bappi Lahiri. A disco anthem for the ages, and one of the best songs Lahiri ever did. Check out how Mithun, the disco dancer, is rocking a blazin’ guitar solo with an electric guitar that isn’t even plugged in!
But I was more interested in finding more examples of minimalist disco, the sort of thing that, like Charanjit, was more on a techno wavelength. While nothing quite approached the techno tempo of Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat –- the tracks on that record clock in somewhere between 120 and 130 bpm — there were plenty of tunes from Bollywood in the early ‘80s that had a very futuristic electro feel to them. Here’s “Dil Lena Khel Hai Dildar Ka” by R.D. Burman, from the movie Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai (1981):
Here’s another song, “Poocho Na Yaar Kya Hua,” from the same movie. This is more of a conventional disco tune (complete with a light-up dancefloor and a Saturday Night Fever-inspired dance number), but there are a lot of interesting close-up shots of people jamming on synthesizers, including a shot of a woman making electronic sounds with a strange-looking synth, with a stack of vinyl and a turntable next to her:
Because of Bollywood’s surreal collision of influences, and preponderance of vocals, songs were rarely as ‘techno’ as they could potentially have been, even if they were pointing in a techno direction. The psychedelic grab-bag mentality of Bollywood film music reminds me of an article I wrote some years ago for the German magazine Groove on Yellow Magic Orchestra. When I interviewed Ryuichi Sakamoto, he told me that YMO was like a “bento box,” with a little bit of everything, while Kraftwerk was “conceptual, kind of theoretical, very focused”:
“Even in the beginning of that time when we were doing YMO, of course we knew Kraftwerk, and we thought their music was so German,” says Sakamoto. “It was conceptual, kind of theoretical, very focused, simple and minimal and strong. And even the timbre, the sound of their sense of sound, is German to us. It’s very strong and kind of heavy and solid. We wanted to make something very Japanese, in contrast. It’s a very good contrast, Kraftwerk and YMO. YMO had a mixture of everything–American music influence, European music influence, classical influence, pop–so many. It’s like a bento box. And we thought that was very Japanese.”
In 1981, Kraftwerk played two back-to-back concerts in one night in Bombay as part of the Computer World tour. The concept of Kraftwerk playing in India fascinated me. What was it like to be at that show? How easy was it to get a Kraftwerk record in India in 1981? In the memoir I Was A Robot, Kraftwerk’s erstwhile percussionist Wolfgang Flür recalls finding Kraftwerk bootleg cassettes in a market in Bombay in ‘81:
We found another shop that sold cassettes, and we even found some by Kraftwerk there. We couldn’t believe it. This was totally illegal, because our record company had no representation in India. There were no official imports at that time, either, so these were either bootlegged recordings or contraband, and apart from that the sound quality was miserable…
Even though it wasn’t so easy to come by Kraftwerk records in India, the two concerts in Bombay were well-attended. The shows took place at Shanmukhananda Hall, a venue best known for hosting marathon Indian classical music performances (Florian Schneider apparently stopped by one of these, and was mesmerized.) Flür remembered that the “audience was exclusively comprised of men…[at] the end of the performance, we walked off to thunderous applause. I hadn’t expected so much energy…” Kraftwerk didn’t play an encore in Bombay–they hopped on a plane back to Europe immediately following the concert–but Ralf Hütter apparently set the sequencer to run continuously during the last song of the set, “It’s More Fun to Compute,” and left it playing as they left the stage, to raucous applause.
1981 was also the year that the chart-topping album Disco Deewane, a collaboration between the late Pakistani pop singer Nazia Hassan and the Indian disco producer Biddu, was released. My favorite Nazia tune, though, which I linked to earlier, is “Boom Boom” (1982), with its sublime rip of the Moroder “I Feel Love” bassline and haunting vocals. Here it is again to refresh your memory:
There was a whole string of disco movies in Bollywood in the 1980s; several of them were directed by Babbar Subhash, the director of Disco Dancer. Here’s another disco movie, also starring Mithun Chakraborty, from 1984 — Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki. The movie includes a heated disco dancing scene that takes place in a joint called “Studio 84.” Here’s the sign from the club in the movie, in case you don’t believe me. “Studio 84” encapsulates the whole idea of disco in India in the ’80s, to me:
This is what it’s like inside of Studio 84:
Here’s the title track from the movie, another Bappi Lahiri production. Another disco anthem, but this one gets bogged down with too many flourishes. At 4:22 there’s a very techno-sounding interlude:
The blog Beat Electric points to a few more Indian disco tunes from the early ’80s worth listening to here. And here’s a Todd Terje re-edit of “Jimmy Jimmy Aja,” another song from 1982’s Disco Dancer which got a recent popularity boost from M.I.A., who did a pretty straight-up cover of the song a few years back.
It’s hard to believe that the summer is almost over.
A piece I wrote for Frieze on the intriguing videos of Oneohtrix Point Never.
In the August issue of The Wire there’s a piece by me on the tenth anniversary of the Detroit electronic music festival.
Writing a lot; thinking a lot. Stay tuned for: A review of the Brion Gysin exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art for The Wire, an essay about a new John Zorn-edited anthology on music and mysticism for Rhizome, some features and reviews for FACT, features on Type Records and the Sonar festival in Chicago for the Spanish magazine Playground, a curated “box” on the history of house music for Sound and Music, a new essay for Loops, book reviews for Bookforum and Current Musicology, and some other stuff I can’t remember off the top of my head.
A review I wrote for Frieze on Carsten Nicolai’s recent Moiré exhibition in New York.
If you’re in the Boston area, I’ll be doing a talk at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum on July 25th, with the sound artist Halsey Burgund. From the DeCordova’s website:
PLATFORM Discussion Series
2 pm, FREE with admission
A PLATFORM-exclusive event—join artist Halsey Burgund and Geeta Dayal, music and arts critic and author of the recent book on Brian Eno, Another Green World, as they engage in a conversation about some of the larger issues in Burgund’s interactive sound piece, Scapes. Topics will include the role of sound and technology in art, issues in alternative music, and the way Burgund’s installation engages with these ideas.