issue 314 - July 1999
The Prayer Cycle
by Jonathan Elias
(Sony Classical SK60569 CD)
Prepare yourselves, for the end is nigh. At least for the next few months, until the big bells strike in the new year and, in the cold light of the morning after, executives everywhere begin to contemplate the piles of unsold millennium mugs and t-shirts and wonder why. If the millennium hadn’t existed – by dint of a particular calendar and an exclusive focus on Christian time-keeping – it might have been necessary to invent it.
In music – and to use the well-intentioned Jonathan Elias as an unfortunate example – things are a little more tasteful. No furry mouse-mats or ‘Millennarians do it for 1,000 years’ baseball caps. Music affords a time for reflection, for spirituality, for embracing the human potential. Or so the sloganeers tell us. The Prayer Cycle – ‘a timely hymn to human unity in the face of oppression and uncertainty’, as the PR guff describes it – is a pleasant enough if schmaltzy offering. There’s an orchestra, chorus and a panoply of soloists including the late qawwali virtuoso Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Yemenite Ofra Haza, Tibetan Yungchen Lhamo and rockers Alanis Morissette – here showing off her Hungarian and French skills – and Perry Farrell, formerly of Jane’s Addiction. They sing modern hymns in a Babel of languages – Latin, Swahili and Mali, plus all the usual suspects. It somehow feels that all bases linguistic and religious included are being covered in an attempt to embrace a blanket spirituality. The effect of Elias’ nine sonorous hymns, each dedicated to a single theme such as mercy, grace and compassion, is frankly numbing.
The test of a millennial record is simple. Ask two questions: would it exist without this accident of date? Is it capable of an independent existence? The answer should be immediately apparent. The Prayer Cycle is, without doubt, a millennial record. But let’s not be too harsh on either its composer or its guests. Its expedience is not necessarily a cynical ploy, for it’s difficult to resist being caught up in great cultural sweeps of emotion. If one such sweep has been the expression of a yearning for a type of spirituality suited for today’s secular age, then music has been at its forefront. It’s arguable that many records of recent years, ranging from the blissed-out trance tunes of dance floors to the huge ‘new age’ market and the ‘holy minimalist’ composers such as Arvo Pärt and Gorecki, fulfil this need. All art is, to use an ugly phrase, a cultural product. And some art is more of a cultural product than others.
Cracking the Gender Code: Who Rules the Wired World?
by Melanie Stewart Millar
Second Story Press, Canada
(ISBN 1 896764 14 2)
Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace
by McKenzie Wark
Pluto Press Australia/Central Books,UK
(ISBN 1 8640 3045 3 / ISBN 1 871204 16 X)
If the fact that Time magazine’s ‘The Century’s Greatest Scientists and Thinkers’ includes only one woman in around 20 profiles does not convince you that men dominate modern technology, then Cracking the Gender Code: Who Rules the Wired World will.
The book’s first chapter makes it clear that women’s technological limits are not set by lack of talent, as it traces female innovations from early agriculture to the first computer language. What does keep women in their place, Melanie Stewart Millar reveals, is a clear line of élite male control that defines the mass of cyberspace we call ‘the web’.
The issue, argues Stewart Millar, is not just that women – especially those who are poor, black or migrant – are underrepresented online. She presses our panic buttons by illustrating how computer corporations help create and uphold a ‘hegemonic culture of backlash that once again seeks to discipline feminine independence’.
The punchline of the book is its insight into the world of Wired magazine – the computer journal of the US. Wired’s élite readership, according to an e-mail of a customer service representative, is ‘mostly well-educated white guys. Surprise!’ The magazine and its corporate sponsors, says Stewart Millar, transform the computer geek into the master of a ‘technology rules’ future. And although the book’s cultural analysis is focused sharply on North America, any web-user will benefit from its feminist critique. Academic but rarely inaccessible, Cracking the Gender Code, will shock you with the power these ‘hypermacho computer geeks’ and their corporate allies have and what they want to do with it. If you care about women’s rights, the Wired world is anything but user-friendly.
Also venturing into cyberspace – and a few other places besides – is media critic McKenzie Wark’s latest offering, Celebrities, Culture & Cyberspace. Wark gives readers not only a sharp analysis of popular culture, but uses this to examine the fate of the labour movement. He shows how popular culture operates at more than one level, neither simply as mirrors nor as scripts. His forays into that very peculiar set of celebrities, culture and cyberspace demonstrate that radical and progressive change is still possible.
He advocates a confident activism, urging that we do something instead of just complaining. And he shows us what can be done within the media itself, creatively and proactively.
This is an excellent introduction to how the media constitutes a common world, within which cultures negotiate by way of images and stories that bear the imprint of famous faces, using their mix of cultural and political celebrities. It is a joint lesson in the culture of politics and the politics of culture.
Wark also gives readers a basis for reading ‘class’ in terms of access to information: the cosmopolitan versus the suburban. Here the power of the group should not be underestimated. According to Wark, today’s suburban info-proletarian will, like Marx’s economic proletariat, resist and the unjust social order. Unless the fruits of the production of information are shared, cyberspace capitalism will itself be resisted, he argues.
directed by Moussa Sene Absa
(distributed by California Newsreel)
A small fishing town on the coast of Senegal suffers from poverty and the indignity of its name – ‘scrap heap’. In the 1990s it also faces the collision of tradition and the modern capitalism of the West. The film opens exuberantly. A young boy, pulling a home-made toy car, runs gracefully along a beautiful beach past boats and nets, then flies headlong into the crowds of the city. The camera in its hand-held excitement races to keep up. It’s a beginning with high expectations and a child’s point of view, introducing viewers to life on the streets.
Flashback to a few years earlier. A young local man, named Daam runs for a Deputy position in the national Government, and wins. As he moves up through the ranks, by ambition and luck, he gains both prestige and two beautiful wives. Daam retains a few principles and he works hard, but he also loves the good life and his ambitions make him callous, especially towards his wives.
When he becomes a government minister the dry rot of corruption sets in and wealth that has come too easily takes its toll. But director Sene Absa does not settle for an easy tale of the country-boy led astray. He prefers a story told on a wide canvas, and as the tragedy unfolds we see that all elements of the society carry flaws. Corruption does not flow solely from power or the big city – its sources lie equally among the small-time operators raised in the town itself.
Neither does the film point a smug finger at modernization alone. The story is told from a woman’s point of view, that of Gagne, Daam’s first wife. Her troubles with the local women’s committees in both the small coastal town and in Dakar, the capital, reveal elements of repressive tradition. The urban culture of modern Dakar gets its share of satire: Daam’s second wife, the ambitious Kine, wants to manage an art gallery. Her latest passion is a painting created by a rising star in the art world. ‘He’s a Zulu,’ she informs Daam.
In the tradition of Senegal’s most famous filmmaker, Ousmane Sembene, Sene Absa finds the corruption and decay within his country unsettling. He also knows that easy answers don’t exist. Yet, for all this satire and social criticism Tableau Ferraille pulls its viewers along with a rather light touch. Nothing gets too heavy and ponderous. Daam comes across as more pathetic and sad than evil. He notes wryly, as trouble and scandal move in: ‘Politicians go down, never business men.’ The film works in a contemporary Western style, creating short scene-fragments with minimal dialogue and exposition, unlike the slower-paced African classics of the 1970s.
There are times, however, when the lightly sketched scenes and loosely tructured plot threaten to unravel into confusion. Sene Absa’s avoidance of easy answers may pull the viewer off on one tangent too many. Still, Tableau Ferraille carries a charge as a sophisticated satire – a lively, very human ‘scrap heap’ on the sea that stays with you long after the film has ended.
Reviewers: Louise Gray, Anouk Ride, George Fisher, Peter Steven
Reviews editor: Vanessa Baird
T H E C L A S S I C
... being the group that revisits the human past by way of the mechanical future.
Music, as with any other art, gets its sense of depth from its counterpoint with its past. So how, one might ask, do artists and their public both respond to art whose history is unforgivably compromised? In the case of Germany, it is a question that might be levelled at all art since 1933 - sometimes expressed in the idea that 'there can be no art after Auschwitz'. A novel way in which a past may be addressed, paradoxically, is by going headlong into the future. This is what Kraftwerk, one of Germany's most extraordinary and beautiful post-war creations, has done. The group began simply: Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter met in 1968, while students at the music Conservatoire in their home town, Dusseldorf. Forming Kraftwerk out of the ruins of a former band, Organisation, the two set to making their own synthesizers and electronic percussion machines. Conventional instruments were quickly dropped and, in keeping with the interest expressed by both psychedelic rock bands and from the developing strand of minimalism within classical music, the duo experimented with simple rhythms and repetitive structures. This in itself was nothing new, even though the idea of electronic music was still radical and often allied to the new breed of classical composers, Stockhausen and John Cage amongst them. Indeed, Kraftwerk arrived at a time when a fluidity between musical genres existed: on many occasions the group shared platforms with Philip Glass and similar artists.
Yet despite its forward-looking technology, there was much about the band that looked backwards. It looked to the German baroque - indeed, Kraftwerk's highly influential 1977 album Trans-Europe Express, is a more subtle exposition of well-tempered synthesizers than Walter Carlos' switched-on records ever were. The band also looked back to romanticism; to a Fritz Lang-inspired modernism; to the bucolic elegies of the German Wandervogel movement and to the melancholy of Stockhausen's lonely radio transmissions. There was passion in its restraint, perhaps the direct result of the Nazi years: 'Our roots were in the culture that was stopped by Hitler; the school of Bauhaus, of German expressionism,' Hütter once said.
To this one could also add constructivism, something that was laid bare during Kraftwerk's robotnik Man Machine phase, when the band commissioned robot replicas of themselves and outraged rock purists with an idea of playing a world tour simultaneously. The third album and first commercial success was Autobahn (1974) - a 20-minute epic describing a barely changing landscape and a similarly immutable lyric, 'Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf die Autobahn' (We're driving, we're driving, we're driving on the motorway). Whatever favourable epithets were applied to Kraftwerk after this success, the band's great strength lay in a combination of music and concept. Both Trans-Europe Express and Man Machine (1978) expounded a crystalline music, as precise in its structure as a fugue by Bach and as moving in the way it contained itself. That the music had a wide provenance was intentional: Kraftwerk members themselves spoke of their homage to the Beach Boys, but illustrated their album covers with sketches from Schubert written out in the manner of Stockhausen as an endless, circular score. There was nothing ever superfluous about these musicians who, ensconced in their Dusseldorf studio, Kling Klang, fostered an image of mysterious seclusion - and continue to do so. It's rumoured that even their record company, EMI, does not have their telephone number. Such is the unique nature of the band's deal, that it's able to record whatever it wants, whenever it wants.
That Kraftwerk has entered the history books as the audible link between high art and pop art is undeniable. Feted as the godfathers of modern dance music, Kraftwerk has an audience which was not even born when the band formed. Whenever it does break its self-imposed unofficial embargo on live performances - at Luton Hoo's Tribal Gathering in 1997 or a Spanish new music festival last year, for example - there is enormous, palpable excitement. Without doubt the band is one of the most significant forces in popular music.
But otherwise Kraftwerk is near-dormant. There was been no new record since The Mix (1991), an album which revisited old tracks with updated technology. A new track was unveiled at Luton Hoo but the band is not interested in releasing it. Has Kraftwerk hit a creative brick wall? We don't know, and are unlikely to. These musicians were never great ones for interviews - it's part of their mystique. But, in post-war Germany, their strategy to revisit the human past by way of a mechanical future is an achievement that demands celebration.
Trans-Europe Express, Man Machine, Autobahn and The Mix are on the EMI label.
by Louise Gray
This article is from
the July 1999 issue
of New Internationalist.
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