Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Retromania With Roger Roger - Industrial Sounds & The Debussy Connection

It’s been an industrial afternoon sonically, but not an industrious one when it comes to doing anything constructive, ie, creative.
   So the hours flew by whilst I sat transfixed by this screen, which sometimes offered interesting reading, or images, or sounds, but now I say to myself ‘That’s three hours I’ll never get back’, the way you do. But you cannot be too precious about time. It is, after all, a trick of the mind, as Neneh Cherry once sang.
   I spend a lot of time in the past, musically, which makes me a dedicated retronaut. ‘Retromania’ has long taken hold here in the bunker, with intermittent forays into the audio Present. ‘Keeping up’, as I said to someone the other day, is so last century. It’s a game we 30-40-somethings used to play, casually competing to see who looked least likely to calcify in their musical taste. For a while, nobody wanted to be the kind of retronaut who could not find his way back to The Present. It would smack of fogeyism, and the musical equivalent of a pipe and slipper in the retirement home for once active seekers of the New and Interesting.
   No longer part of a DJ collective that played what later became known as ‘Intelligent Dance Music’ (which I was always suspicious of, to a degree, since it could not compete with a tough Jungle tune pure and simple) I can now let all that pass me by. Yes, the days of regular visits to record distributors with whom I’d struck up a friendship solely to get those white labels are truly over. I sometimes wonder if interesting ‘dance’ music is still being made. But it soon passes. That field of contemporary music may be vast (or tiny), but for the retronaut there is a universe to be explored Back There, and as any time traveller will testify, connections with The Present become irrelevant. Sonic time travel is akin to leaving an urban wasteland in favour of Shangri-La (or if you like, The Shangri-Las), where the horizon of sound is not lost, but rather ceases to exist.
   Meanwhile LJ is in her own time warp, learning a Debussy piece on the piano. There is a link between that and my industrial music experience today. Debussy said: ‘Art is the most beautiful deception of all. And although people try to incorporate the everyday events of life in it, we must hope that it will remain a deception lest it become a utilitarian thing, sad as a factory.’ I wonder what he would make of music made by the son of a fellow student at the Paris Conservatoire, Edmund Roger. Edmund’s son, who he named Roger, was a prodigious talent, but he fell under the spell of popular music by the likes of Gershwin and Porter (who wouldn’t?), and formed a dance band. Stranger than that, he went on in later life to make some fascinating library records using the synthesizer. Today I’ve been listening to one, ‘Sounds Industrial’, a library recording for L'Illustration Musicale.
   What would Debussy have made of the ultimate in utilitarian sound, library music, I wonder? Yet as you know, many an adventurous sound has been made in that category. It’s as if the freedom from pressure to succeed commercially inspired some artists to explore as much as they wished, in the appropriate mood. This lead to many more insignificant mood pieces than masterpieces, naturally, but this is a very good album. It’s filled with delightful percussive invention, and offers various reflections on the man-machine interaction, from light work to heavy industry. Listening to it is certainly not hard work.

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