Pith & Wind - Free Music
‘You've read your last
complimentary article this month. To read the full article, subscribe
That’s The New Yorker speaking and this is me being parsimonious
in return. The regular reader will know that I usually skim The New
Yorker (cartoons mostly) for inspiration before tackling this column
and I suppose I’ve had a charmed and free run till now so I
shouldn’t feel too miffed, but I’m still annoyed. That’s
the Internet for you though. So much stuff for free, the alleged mandate
of the World Wide Web in the first place, then Captain Capitalist
kicks in when you really want to read something and makes you feel
Speaking of free, when the Woodstock Festival happened back in 1969
there was that famous moment when Chip Monck announced, ‘It’s
a free concert from now on!’ which was not so much a response
to the hippie/anarchist-inspired movement that believed that music
belonged to the people and therefore should be free, but more a recognition
that people were walking in to the festival site without being hampered
by security of any sort because the organisers had wildly underestimated
just about everything, including how many people would turn up to
the event with or without their pre-sold tickets.
As a matter of interest I’ll reprint the whole, entirely reasonable
announcement from the unflappable Chip Monck (who was hired as MC
when the organisers realised at the last minute they didn’t
have one), and you’ll see that it plainly has nothing to do
with pressure from the free music movement.
‘I was gonna wait awhile, but,
before we talked about it. But, maybe we'll talk about it now so you
can think about it. It’s a free concert from now on! That doesn't
mean that anything goes. But, what that means is we're gonna put the
music up here for free. What is means is the people who are putting,
backing this thing, who are putting up the money for it are gonna
take a bit of a bath - a big bath. That's no hype, that's truth! They're
gonna get hurt. But, what it means is these people have it in their
heads, that your welfare is a helluva lot more important and the music
is, than a dollar.’
Rikki Farr’s announcement from the stage at the 1970 Isle of
Wight Festival is less well-known and in contrast betrays a great
deal of resentment for the free-loaders who had no intention of buying
tickets and had torn down the fences and crashed the festival. In
any case, Rikki Farr shouted, ‘We put this festival on, you
bastards, with a lot of love! We worked for one year for you pigs!
And you wanna break our walls down and you wanna destroy it? Well,
you go to hell!’
This furious tirade from the stage rather soured the festival for
a while and led to Joni Mitchell famously misreading the crowd’s
mood when she snapped ‘I think you’re acting like fucking
tourists, man.’ after a crowd member, who’d tried to engage
in some discussion about his mates on the hill, was turfed off the
I can vaguely remember the ‘free music for all’ movement
got a run in Australia as well in the early ‘70s and it must’ve
been a consideration when the Sunbury Festival was being planned,
but the Sunbury organisers weren’t having any of that hippie
nonsense here and consequently not a lot of free-loaders made it past
the regularly patrolled perimeter.
Then there was the troubled Festival Express tour in Canada in 1970.
After numerous false starts the tour eventually began in Toronto.
The following extract from the Wikipedia report confirms a confrontational
incident that I remembered from the entertaining movie of the same
‘The tour ultimately began in Toronto at the CNE Grandstand,
which was plagued with about 2500 protestors who objected to what
they viewed as exploitation by price-gouging promoters. The opposition
was organised by the May 4th Movement (M4M), the left-rebel group
that grew out of the May 4, 1970 Kent State shootings. They attempted
to crash the gates and scale the barbed wire fence and clashed with
police, resulting in several injuries. …Subsequently, Jerry
Garcia, in conjunction with Magahay, was instrumental in calming the
unruly crowd by arranging a spontaneous free ‘rehearsal’
concert in nearby Coronation Park upon a flatbed truck, while the
scheduled show continued at the stadium.’
Woodstock and subsequent festivals hired famous acts who became even
more famous as a result. But Woodstock also made some of the lesser
known participants into stars too. Try Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar,
Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe Mcdonald, Santana, Canned Heat, Joe Cocker,
Ten Years After, Johnny Winter – the list goes on.
Joni Mitchell didn’t even go to Woodstock but wrote a song about
it that was recorded by her very close friends, Crosby, Stills, Nash
& Young and she managed to become even famouser as a result.
Despite the early philosophical equivocations by sections of the audience
and reservations from even some of the performers, festivals became
an accepted way for artists to communicate with a very large number
of people at one time (400,000 at Woodstock) in an exotic locale in
company with other famous performers - and with the subsequent interest
in the Woodstock movie a whole new audience could be reached.
Pop music, or more specifically, ‘alternative contemporary music’
as featured in such festivals created/found its audience and record
sales increased exponentially as a result. Once record contracts were
renegotiated to take account of the new reality, recording stars started
to rival the record companies they were signed to in conspicuous wealth.
The excesses associated with rock musicians flourished in the ‘70s
and beyond, but nobody anticipated the technical upheaval that came
with the introduction of the World Wide Web, least of all the record
companies, a lot of whom still carry on as if the Internet hasn’t
rendered impotent the record business as they knew it.
The receipts from record sales in the digital world are a tiny fraction
of what they used to be in those halcyon days and even the most famous
of the current crop of musical celebrities has to look at supplementing
their incomes in a variety of ways.
I think Ariel at Sunbury back in 1975 might’ve anticipated a
new way for bands to make money while having too much fun in front
of a huge audience of festival-goers. I’m pretty sure this was
a last-minute inspiration from one of the cameramen, but Bill was
persuaded to pick up and sample a can of Crest beer while we were
performing. I didn’t notice anything as I must’ve been
transfixed by the girl with her breasts swinging free on the hill.
I’m not sure that Crest beer ever became a ‘thing’
and certainly no money changed hands on the day, but perhaps Bill
and Ariel unwittingly became forerunners in the multi-million dollar
world of celebrity endorsement.
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Toolbox - Opera - why?
know if I mentioned that I went to the opera regularly. Or am I hoping
that all our memories are equally as bad and that I may have written
this all before? And that you have forgotten as well. Well I don’t
actually go to live opera but the filmed versions of performances
by the New York Metropolitan Opera Company o n
what I suspect are their Saturday matinees. I presume that the audience
might get some form of discount for the annoyance of cameras zipping
low along the footlights or trying to surreptitiously angle
a boom from the side of the stage for a close-up of
a hopefully astounding major aria.
There usually are about a dozen operas in the season and we see about
half of them. We are not in the habit of seeing the same opera, which
I suppose means that we will have a declining number of opportunities
as time goes by. There are some which experience has taught us we
will not enjoy, most especially Wagner where, after what
seems like four hours, you look at your watch to find that only fifteen
minutes have elapsed. There are some beautiful moments but they sink
like paper boats in the thunderous barrage that goes on and on, micro
moments absorbed into a wall of blancmange and Teutonic porridge.
In fact, we walked out of one, which was a turgid East German production
which seemed to be taking place in a cutaway tramp steamer with two
dim lights artfully placed so that you saw an occasional leg or the
glint of an eyeball in the gloom. Out of this stygian gloom guttural
sounds would emerge denoting either anguish or poor toilet training.
Anyway Wagner was not a nice man, so I will happily walk out of anything
Opera is an acquired taste and, even though you can
make a case for it being the ultimate artistic vehicle combining drama,
music and dance, it probably isn’t. And there is sometimes livestock
– for example the last production had a couple of horses who
were not in the manure dropping mood. As this was a titanic production
of Aida, which as you know is set in the Egypt of the pharaohs, a
few droppings on the stage might have been an interesting distraction
from at least one hundred people singing away in Italian.
There are many problems that people have with opera; firstly the language,
as very few are in English. This is not a problem as most opera house
now have sur or sub titles so you know what’s going on, though
that does occasionally make you realise that a lot of words and phrases
are endlessly repeated or that the sung conversation that you thought
was deep and meaningful was really about whether the tenor should
pawn his trousers to pay for a plate of spaghetti . When you hear
an opera in English you kind of hope that they would translate it
into Italian as it almost seems unnatural
Secondly the casts are believed in popular literature to be generously
proportioned – this is less true that in the past, but there
are a still a few sopranos, tenors, basses and baritones that you
would not want to have fall on you from any height. Or even lean on
you in an unguarded moment. But this is the exception and there are
more than a few who are quite attractive. This doesn’t mean
that they are always of an appropriate age for the role, but as long
as you can suspend belief to the extent that a fifty year old can
be playing the part of somebody of fifteen you can get by.
The third criticism is that the plots are a little anachronistic and
no longer relevant to our times. Given that operas were the musicals
of their day I would like to say that ‘Les Miserable’s,
‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’
are not exactly current affairs. And ‘West Side Story’
is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with great music and great
dancing and the lead actors having their voices dubbed. Natalie Wood
dubbed by Marni Nixon and by Jimmy Bryant dubbed Richard Beymer whom
I always regarded as a bit of a sop and to whom Natalie Wood apparently
scarcely spoke during the filming. This may explain the lack of chemistry.
George Chakiris, as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks gang was the
star in my teenage eyes and was a deserved Academy Award winner for
best supporting actor. All those clicking fingers when the film finished.
Which brings us to the prime differentiator of opera. These people
can sing. And sing without microphones so that everybody can hear
in a largish theatre. And sing notes of such purity depth and emotions
that can just leave you shaking one’s head in admiration and
awe. Not only that, they are generally acting pretty well at the same
This leads one to the advantage of a filmed performance. You can actually
see the performers being acting singers, singing passionately in a
voice loud enough to be heard several blocks away only a matter of
centimetres from somebody else’s ear. If Isabel Leonard sang
loudly in my ear I wouldn’t mind a bit.
There are great tunes – but not as many as you think. Bizet’s
Pearl Fishers has the great duet and not that much more which is memorable.
But at least in an opera you can applaud in the middle if there is
a great performance, rather like a jazz performance. Aida has a couple
of stunners, the Triumphal March where the horses contained themselves
admirably, being the most famous. More famous than the scenery. With
the exception of Mozart there are not that many tunes you can whistle
as you leave the theatre.
I have actually been to several live operas, even encountering my
brother at one which was the Australian Opera version of Tosca. This
was slightly unsettling initially, in that the male lead was shorter
than the heroine Tosca and Chinese. I think that my brother and I
were there in an attempt to reclaim a childhood moment as our grandparents
had taken us to this opera when we were rather young, but the vast
expense did not quite compensate for the fact that I had my delightful
daughter with me in some strange passing of the musical baton.
The baton seems to have been dropped by the way.
The only other live opera that I can recall was one of those special
events which you do when you go overseas. This was a very, very long
time ago when Eric Frommer’s ‘Europe on $10 a day’
was almost realistic as a concept if not a reality. Anyway, my treat
was to go to Covent Garden and see Mozart’s Magic Flute, which
to my delight and surprise had Kiri Te Kanawa singing. We knew nothing
about the opera and couldn’t afford a programme and so what
was happening on stage was a total mystery as, in those ancient times
there were no sur-titles. Even if you read about the opera, which
apparently has Masonic subtexts, it is still a perplexing mystery
so we had genuinely baffled expressions for nearly all the performance.
But the music was magical and Kiri, even though far away from our
seats in the gods was astounding. And loud
My only concern is that the audience is of a similar vintage to myself
and my friends. A fading sea of silver that will pass away leaving
only faint images dancing in an empty theatre echoing with magnificent
voices that could break your heart.
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Trans-Tasman Tales - An Overstory about Postcapitalism
My tardiness following our editor’s urgent
call for this month’s contribution has allowed me to peruse
his missive, so I have the benefit of his opening remarks to springboard
into mine…the Capitalist enterprise. C is the enterprise that
puts the I in Ideology. When it comes to ‘a system of ideas
and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political
theory and policy’ you can’t really go past Capitalism
as the enduring archetype. Some might say Democracy has a greater
claim, although the USA has been doing a great job of trashing its
rep recently. As one who’s never been that great at dealing
with money, I’ve always found the idea of Capitalism troublesome,
so much so that I’ve had a critical crack at it from time to
time (see article).
Therefore, I’ve always kept an eye out for fellow travellers
with something interesting to add to the critique and a couple of
recent works have caught my eye: ‘The Overstory’, a new
novel from American Richard Powers and ‘99 Theses on the Revaluation
of Value: A Postcapitalist Manifesto’, a more academic text
from Canadian Professor Brian Massumi. Powers’ body of fiction
is informed by science and his latest work follows the pattern set
by previous successes that have tackled topics like AI and genetics.
In ‘The Overstory’ the topic is dendrology – trees.
Powers argues that the most effective way of convincing someone of
the value of an idea is with a story: ‘The best arguments in
the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing
that can do that is a good story’. In this story he advocates
for the idea of ‘unsuicide’: his notion that the path
‘humanity’ (and I so abhor how the kindness connotation
of that word has been utterly corrupted) is on, needs to be reversed.
While there are many aspects of so-called civilisation that are certifiably
suicidal tendencies, its contempt for trees is marked. Like so much
of human ‘enterprise’ that elides the downside of its
‘progress’, the consumption of trees has not only been
masked by the pretence of ‘sustainable’ restoration but
that practice has also been exposed as biologically unsustainable.
Never mind that trees are the ‘lungs of the planet’ and
that they comprise incredibly complex, highly interconnected ecological
communities constituting every organism in existence; to humans they’re
primarily an exploitable ‘resource’ to be capitalised
The extent of this ‘desire’ struck home for me the other
day when I went on a cruise on the nearby Kaipara Harbour; covering
nearly 1000 square kilometres it is one the world’s largest.
Prior to European colonisation the harbour was completely surrounded
by lush native bush including many Kauri trees, which quickly became
highly valued for the large volume of top quality lumber they could
afford – initially masts for sailing ships, the European source
of which had been essentially annihilated. This, aided by ease of
accessibility to shipping – via the Kaipara harbour –
for export made milling the primary target for late 19th century Capitalists.
Within a mere 60 years the bulk of the trees had gone. Today the Kaipara
surrounds are denuded farmlands, with erosion continuing; only tiny
pockets of native bush remain and Aotearoa-New Zealand’s very
few Kauri trees are now a rarity so threatened by disease that access
is closed to most of the centuries-old giants. Even Kaipara’s
farmlands are now under threat with grazing holdings becoming unprofitable
as agri-industry conglomerates its corporates – exit farmers,
enter recreational communities. Now some of the 3000 odd kilometre
coastline harbours expensively elaborate gated lifestyle villages
that most of the time stare blindly out across the water while their
occupiers are city-bound generating the capital to cover the costs.
If you’re thinking I’m headed down an apocalyptic path,
be reassured that Powers’ story takes a concluding redemptory
turn that involves the commingling of learning and communication technology.
Prof Massumi’s text, although not the sort of story easily accessed
by the non-academic reader (set out as traditional numbered theses
each with accompanying lemmas and scholia), never-the-less has a similarly
good story: Thesis 1. ‘It is time to take back value…a
concept so thoroughly compromised, so soaked in normative strictures
and stained with capitalist power, as to be unredeemable…abandoned…to
apologists of economic oppression. Value is too valuable to be left
in those hands.’ In what follows Massumi advances his argument
that the problem with (big C) Capitalism is finance, particularly
money. At the root of the problem lies contemporary Capitalism’s
equation of value as quantity at the expense of quality with money
as the measure of that value quantity. The answer, says Massumi, is
to ‘uncouple value from quantification’. Over the ensuing
99 points a lot of complex and technical territory is covered, but
two of Massumi’s notions have stood out for me: One is that
capitalism is not merely an economic invention, rather it is an ecological
form of energy – ‘Humans do not run capitalism; capitalism
runs through the human.’ Consequently, the other is that capitalism
involves an ‘ecology of powers’ that can be appreciated
to afford the prospect of a ‘postcapitalist’ reality where
the primacy of economic quantity over life quality will be overturned,
‘life will dictate its qualities to the economy’. A clue
as to how this may occur arises in understanding affect, which Massumi
illuminates with the example of temperature and the difference between
n degrees centigrade in autumn and in spring. Although the number
is the same the qualitative affect between the two are vastly different
but also resonant. Affect is a concept that homo sapiens in the arrogant
pursuit of primacy has largely missed, preferring instead to acclaim
Together, these two critical studies also go resonantly some way toward
offering much needed degrees of optimism in what otherwise seem very
pre-apocalyptic times. I think only the most foolhardy of humans still
hang on to the premise that all’s tickety boo with life on Earth
and that as long as we throw money at the problem, we shall overcome.
As one of Powers’ protagonists puts it: ‘It’s not
the world that needs saving, it’s us.’…from ourselves!
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