Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Album of the Year
Jon HassellLast night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street (ECM Records)

Jon Hassell's  dreamy, meditative “Fourth World“ music has long been admired by discriminating listeners.

Understated and ethereal, his art may be on a par with that of Miles Davis. Indeed, experimental/ambient icons like Brian Eno, Arve Henriksen, and David Sylvian acknowledge the huge debt they owe to his innovations in musical theory, live sampling and soundscaping.

Last night the moon came dropping its clothes In the street is Hassell's first recording for ECM since 1985, and is merely the latest in a long series of jaw-dropping experiments - including the astounding Power Spot and the sublime acoustic masterpiece Fascinoma.

Seamlessly blending theory with practice, Hassell celebrates all music, all cultures and all worlds as he fuses the beauty and sophistication of Indian, Arabic, African and Asian forms with the cool strivings of post-modern jazz and the possibilities of new musical technology. Cerebral yet sensual, the universe he creates is lush and profound.

As he disdains fear, judgement or prejudice, Hassell presents a stunning cultural credo. He reminds us that if there are boundaries to musical, philosophical or emotional expression, they exist only in our minds, demanding to be burst open by our most gifted pioneers - among whom Hassell himself is surely pre-eminent.

VIDEO: Jon Hassell: Last Night the Moon Came Dropping its Clothes in the Stree

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ancient Ways

Music and Nationalism
Part Two: Uyoku Dantai

If you live in Japan you soon become aware of the ominous black trucks ["gaisensha (街宣車)"] which prowl the streets blaring propaganda slogans, outdated military marches and the national anthem Kimigayo.

These are the Uyoku Dantai (右翼団体; lit. "right wing groups"), reactionaries who seek to - ho-hum - return Japan to the ancient ways. They remind me of loony Christian fundamentalists who crave a return to the old time religion, never wanting to move humanity on to a more enlightened future.

It's hard to say exactly how many Uyoku Dantai there are in Japan, although in 1996 it was estimated the country was home to more than 1000 right wing groups comprising about 100,000 members. But that only works out to a piddly 1.2% of the population.

Political beliefs differ between groups of Uyoku Dantai but generally they espouse a flatulent philosophy of anti-leftism and hostility toward the Japan Teachers Union. Since I'm a liberal-leaning university teacher you can imagine I don't exactly see eye to eye with these baka.

Most are revisionists who endeavor to justify Japan's calamitous role in the Second World War, denying war crimes such as the Nanjing massacre and attempting to rewrite history in school textbooks.

Strangely Uyoku Dantai often contain many foreign members, especially those dominated by Yakuza groups - Japanese 'mafia' - which include Zainichi Koreans. Thus many Yakuza groups use Uyoku Dantai as cover for their nefarious activities.

Although the extremists maintain a high public presence throughout the country, I doubt they obtain many converts. And not only because they insist on forcing stuffy military matches down the collective throat of a public which would rather listen to SMAP.

The vast majority of Japanese seem indifferent to politics and sensiby ignore the tedious anthems which irritate their earholes. I saw this on a recent visit to Tokyo, where Sunday shoppers hardly noticed the hysterical ranting of a right-winger who screamed at them as they scampered from one designer store to another.

One opinion poll after another confirms that the Japanese are politically apathetic. In fact among Asian nations nihonjin are the least willing to die for their country.

So just because people wave the Hinamaru flag and warble Kimigayo, there's probably no reason to fear a return to 1930's-style nationalism. Japanese may not be as individualistic as westerners, but their jones for J-Pop and craving for consumption is of more concern to them than any hankering for a nationalist revival.

Watch. "You're a loony."
Japanese fascists display impeccable musical taste


Music and Nationalism
Part One: Cultural/Liberal/Triumphal


Is having lousy musical taste a necessary precondition for being a nationalist? Maybe it depends on what kind of nationalism you are referring to.

Historically speaking, the development of nationalist-flavored music has tended to follow the same lines in different countries. Generally a "cultural nationalism" gives way to a more politicised "liberal nationalism," before leading in many cases to an exclusivist "triumphal nationalism."

Some of the greatest music of the Romantic period grew out of romantic exaltations of national "feeling" and "identity" and the liberal notion that statehood be based on "the people" rather than religion or imperialism. This nationalism was the most successful political force of the 19th century.

Since early nationalists shared the assumption that their nation existed in some "natural" sense, composers understandably created a national identity through the evocation of landscape. Sibelius' Finlandia suite or Smetana's Ma Vlast (My Fatherland) are beautiful examples.

My favorite piece in this vein is probably Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia. It evokes the quiet majesty of landscape in the most moving musical language you can imagine.

I can easily appreciate that kind of cultural nationalism. But things start to get dodgy when the politicisation of nationalism leads to a triumphalist tone. Oftentimes such musical reaction becomes formalized or state-sanctioned. The Nazis' Reichsmusikkammer promoted music approved by Hitler's regime, while suppressing any music which conflicted with it, including jazz and anything else with a modernist flavour. Japan's militarist leaders also outlawed western music and dance in the 1930s.

We British certainly haven't been immune to such reactionary impulses, as shown in works like Elgar's Land of Hope and Glory or Thomas Arne's Rule Britannia – both still wheeled out every year at The Proms concert series for an audience singalong.

Context is everything, and Elgar and Arne made more sense in the days of empire than in these politically correct days of multicultural awareness. Though undeniably rousing, their militaristic flavor sounds hokey to me and reignites my distrust of patriotism and dogma.

Don't get me wrong; to a large degree I am proud to be British. After all, we gave the world Shakespeare, The Sex Pistols and Yorkshire Pudding. But were I ever to attend The Proms, I'd need to be completely off my trolley to join in with clunkers like Rule Britannia.

Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia: