Lowkey on defending Muslim communities

Posted in Uncategorized on February 25, 2010 by Jack

Just found a speech by the rapper Lowkey, who’s also a political activist on top of being a great MC. After a weekend spent chasing after the racist, anti-Muslim “Scottish” Defence League in Edinburgh, seems a good time to post it.

Lowkey has to be one of the greatest rappers consistently talking about important political issues in the UK, if not in hip hop generally. You can get his 2009 album ‘Dear Listener,’ here, it’s definitely one of my top listens of last year.

To give you an idea of some of the stuff he’s got to say, here’s a couple of tunes:

Frozen sounds

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 24, 2010 by Jack

On my old blog I wrote a longish article looking at how climate change was changing the Arctic, and the new strategic importance of the newly uncovered fossil fuels and shipping lanes in places once covered with ice to the countries surrounding the North Pole.

Now two different sound art/music projects have caught my attention for highlighting the ways that the role of the Arctic and the Antarctic are changing in our collective imaginations. The polar regions have always held a strong fascination, especially in Britain. Many writers have highlighted the ways that they provided a “white space” on which countless explorers, artists and writers could project their own ideas about masculine heroism and nation building. The races to the poles embody the idea of the national importance of conquering this environment, which for nineteenth century British imperialism provided one of the few limits on the reach of their global power.

Indeed, near where I grew up a whole city has attempted to brand itself in reference to a proud Arctic past. Dundee dubs itself “The City of Discovery” after the ship used in a pioneering Antarctic exploration mission led by the ill-fated Captain Scott, and the ship itself forms the basis for one of the city’s main tourist attractions, in whose visitor centre I briefly worked. The ship was built in Dundee, with the expertise that came from building ships capable of penetrating ever further North, the better to slaughter whales.

The desire to tame the Arctic, to make it useful and part of the imperial world system can perhaps be demonstrated by the centuries long quest for the North West Passage. Ironically, this legendary path may in the near future become a major shipping lane, as climate change opens up a faster route between Chinese near-slaves and Atlantic consumers through the once-frozen North.

The massive impact of human activity represented by the melting ice was not always so evident. In the face of one of the few remaining environments that resisted human control, many responded with horror. From Frankenstein to H. P. Lovecraft to The Thing, the ice has often been the hidden home of monsters and horrors.

But now the Arctic and the Antarctic demonstrate a very real horror, a palpable threat that many can’t bear to face. Ice which represents millenia long eras of freezing is disappearing at an unbelievable rate, melting which is worse than many climate change predictions had warned. One of the greatest causes of polar exploration in recent decades has in fact been the drilling of ice cores, cross sections of ice that are the hidden history of the world’s climate over huge stretches of time. The process of fossilisation that gave us the fuel to do i

t took millions of years, and now we have burnt a significant proportion of that accumulated time in about 200. Looking at the expanses of time recorded in the ice gives us an insight into just how rapidly we’re unmaking the conditions on Earth that allowed the evolution of civilisation.

As has been pointed out by the Arctic’s indigenous inhabitants, the first place we can see the changes which are going to affect all of our lives is in the Arctic. The immense quantities of water, if not locked up in ice, are going somewhere else. Contemplating the destruction we’ve brought to the ice and its consequences for any length of time is pretty terrifying, and it’s something that many people, including apparently the heads of government of the world’s powerful countries, would really rather not confront.

Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica is a new work by turntablist, artist and academic DJ Spooky. He travelled to Antarctica and set up a mobile studio to make sound recordings of the changing ice-forms, put under stress by global changes. These sounds were then incorporated into a seventy minute multimedia performance featuring the sampled sounds coupled with a special score, alongside visual information conveying scientific and geographical information about the frozen continent. Below is a pretty amazing short film showing some of the sounds and sights presented in the performance:

From DJ Spooky’s site:

“In 1949 the British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams created a metaphorical portrait of Antarctica entitled Sinfonia Antarctica that he began with a poem adapted from the poet Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound:

To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite.
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night,
To defy power which seems omnipotent,
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent:
This… is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free,
This is alone life, joy, empire and victory.

As the only uninhabited continent, Antarctica has no government and belongs to no country. Various countries claim areas of the landmass, but essentially, the area between 90°W and 150°W is the only part of Antarctica, indeed the only solid land on Earth, not claimed by any country. In the era of satellites, wireless networks, and fiber optic cables, its ever harder to see the vision that Vaughn described for his orchestral work. What DJ Spooky’s Antarctic Suite: Ice Loops portrays is a land made of complex ecological interactions. Instead of a metaphor, the composition aims to go to Antarctica and record the sound of the continent. More than 170 million years ago, Antarctica was part of the supercontinent Gondwanaland. Over time Godwin broke apart and Antarctica as we know it today was formed around 25 million years ago. Using digital media, video, and high tech recording equipment, DJ Spooky will go to Antarctica and paint an acoustic portrait of this rapidly transforming environment. . .He aims to bring Antarctica to the contemporary imagination by digitally reconstructing it: historical maps, travelers journals over the last several centuries, crystalline ice’s resonant frequencies, and the Earth’s magnet poles – will all be paints for the audio palette he will work with. Essentially, he will go to the continent and create a recording studio that will be portable enough to move all over the territory. Think of it as sampling the environment with sound – something that Vaughn could only do with metaphor in 1949. The difference Is that Miller approaches the task with a technological background that fosters a direct interaction with the territory that inspires the composition. . .

For most people, thoughts of exploration in Antarctica typically center on dogs, skis, snowshoes, and people in fur, not paintbrushes or sketch pads. Actually, art has always had a prominent place in the exploration of Antarctica. Photography began in the 1830’s and only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was it possible to take photographs in cold environments. Therefore, it was common for explorers of polar regions to be accompanied by artists to visually record the sights and phenomena for research and for popular distribution in books and articles. In the modern era, artists continue to venture to Antarctica. Their intent is not simply to record but to provide visual interpretations of the continent, based on direct observations combined with artistic talent. . .

Miller creates a separate scenario from those envisioned by these artists by focusing on the acoustic qualities of ice and its relationship to geography.

In another film showing the project, DJ Spooky emphasises the idea of music as information, implying that his Sinfonia Antarctica communicates essential, but hidden, knowledge about the processes at work on our planet:

On the project’s page on DJ Spooky’s site there’s also a lot of Antarctic images, including posters he made to represent an imaginary Antarctic revolution.

But another project, by artist Katie Peterson, puts an even stronger focus on the melting ice. In 2007 she laid a microphone in the ever-expanding Jokulsarlon lagoon, which has been created by meltwater from Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland, and one of the largest in the Northern Hemisphere. During the time it was there the sound input from it went through to a telephone line, so that people could call a number and literally listen to the sound of the Arctic melting.

But after this process of recording she then took the process a step further. The sounds made from recordings at three other Icelandic glaciers were pressed into records that were made from frozen water from the lagoons. These records were then played continuously on a trio of turntables, creating a new sound, combined from the original recordings of a melting glacier and the actual sound of those recordings melting. The result is a powerful recreation and re-enactment of the hidden destruction created by humans in the northern part of the world. The sound itself is, especially in context, really menacing:

Sound of ice melting, on a record melting

The records that were made no longer exist, but they are preserved in the form of three DVDs, and there are clips from the original sounds on her site.

What these projects highlight for me is the changing role of the polar regions are coming to play in our culture, as they morph from the arenas for displays of heroic human achievement, to a testament to our unwitting destruction of the Earth. The fact that these two artists have used sound to allow the environments to speak for themselves, as opposed to the stock wind sound effects that once would have stood in countless Arctic-based films, is really interesting, and tries to make our intellectual engagement with what’s going on there that bit more real. The fact that at least some people, culturally, artistically and politically, are willing to engage with the scientific facts of what is happening to the Arctic and Antarctic is a source of hope in the face of the new terror: the destruction of what was once endless white.

Spot The Difference

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 19, 2010 by Ewan


Music for Our Future

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 18, 2010 by Jack

The music magazine XLR8R, in a fit of some kind of cross-promotion that suits me, have put together a mixtape of electronic music inspired by the upcoming sci-fi show Caprica, the prequel to the essential Battlestar Galactica.

It features great tracks from The Field and White Rainbow, as well as the ubiqitous FUSE by Glasgow’s own Hudson Mohawke. Great to see Scotland holding it’s own in the field of music inspired by cutting edge science fiction.

You can get the whole thing for free here:


Sounds of the Planets

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 11, 2010 by Jack

Here’s something pretty cool I was shown over the holidays. Youtube has several different clips of sounds that have been recorded by NASA probes in proximity to several different planets of the Solar System. These aren’t sounds that you would hear by sticking a microphone out in orbit, but rather are the electromagnetic “sounds” given off by the planet, recorded and then translated into a frequency audible to humans.

Here’s the Earth first of all:

But if you’d like to compare how we sound, a small rocky world covered with oceans of liquid water, to Jupiter, a gigantic world of gas with no solid surface, where hydrogen is eventually compressed into liquid then plasma, where winds traveling at thousands of miles per hour are part of centuries old storms which are bigger than Earth, then here’s 10 minutes of its full creepy glory:

Interestingly, these sounds all seem to originate on the site of a sound therapy guy, Dr Jeffrey Thompson, who claims to be able to use them to improve people’s health. He’s got a big archive on what I suspect is an old site of his here.

Happy New Year!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on January 11, 2010 by Jack

A Happy New Year to any readers who still around after the lack of posts in the last wee while. I’ve been busy with other things, and as you can see from the image above, the weather hasn’t exactly encouraged doing much aside from huddling to keep warm.

However, the next few weeks should see a rash of new content coming, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, I think it’s important to bear in mind that, despite the cold in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s still quite likely that 2010 will be one of the hottest years on record. If you’ve encountered folk in everyday life who are as daft as John Redwood, then be sure to point them in the direction of this Monbiot article on the Guardian site.

In fact, one of the important points to remember about climate change is that it makes the future highly unpredictable. One of the possible consequences, disruption of ocean currents like the Gulf Stream, could actually lead to the removal of a factor that helps keep the British Isles temperate. An unusual set of circumstances that has led to exactly that appears to be the cause of our current cold snap. The current situation is just an unusual freak event, but in fact global warming in the tropics actually pushes water north that by the time it reaches us is pretty cold. The Gulf Stream is thought to have slowed 30% in the last 12 years. The past couple of weeks for those of us in Scotland could really be a taste of how winters might get in years to come.

Alan Lomax in Haiti

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 15, 2009 by Jack

I’m sure many readers will be already aware of the work of the pioneering folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.

He’s famous for having travelled around the globe from the 30’s onwards collecting songs and musics from many different peoples. He played a key role in documenting the blues in the US, recording important interviews with the likes of Lead Belly and Muddy Waters. Through radio shows and other media work he introduced many different kinds of music from around the world, such as gamelan, to a large US audience for the first time. In Scotland he’s known for collaborating with Hamish Henderson to record singers such as Jeannie Robertson. He famously advocated for rock n roll as a music that combined the black and white cultures in America to create something new. And he was also the subject of multiple FBI investigations during the McCarthy era.

But an aspect of his work that hasn’t come to light until recently is a 1936 expedition he made to Haiti on behalf of the US Library of Congress. His aim was to record the sounds and images of the island as part of a much larger project of tracing the history of African folk culture in the Americas. Such a mission was a very different proposition than it might be today with easily portable digital recording technology-he dragged 155 pounds of luggage around Haiti for months, in the face of lack of money, bureaucratic obstruction, technological limitations and bouts of malaria.

Haiti in 1936 was just emerging from 15 years of occupation by US troops, who had recently left leaving a fragile government in control. The occupation dismantled the previous constitution, and treated workers on projects like building roads as virtual slaves. Following the removal of foreign forces, the country was in a period of transition, reflected culturally in a renewed interested in its African cultural origins, which were traditionally frowned upon by the island’s elites.

The recordings that resulted from the exhibition add up to 50 hours of sound, along with six films and Lomax’s own extensive diaries of the trip. All of this material lay largely forgotten in the Library of Congress for 60-odd years, until a massive effort to digitise it all was undertaken and it was recently released as a 10-CD boxset, accompanied by two books of the diaries.

All kinds of music for many different contexts can be heard on the recordings, including work songs, romances, carnival music, sacred music of the Vodou religion and even children’s songs. The music reflects the roots of Haitian culture in Africa, but also the strong influence of French music from colonial times as well as the spread of Spanish and Latin American styles from neighbouring islands.

The archive is especially valuable within Haiti itself, where many of the musical forms of the 30’s have been forgotten and evolved without recording facilities to preserve them. The Association for Cultural Equity, the foundation which continues Lomax’s work and legacy, is working to make the full archive available for use in Haiti, allowing people a window on their own cultural past that helps illuminate the many kinds of popular music made in Haiti today. For example one of the recordings contains a medieval form hymn singing that came to Haiti via the colonial power France, and that was thought long since lost.

Although such a big set is probably a pretty major investment for most readers, there are a couple of places online where you can hear a lot of the material. Check out the blog The Haiti Box, as well as the video clips and other material on the Association for Cultural Equity site.