Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Audience Is Waiting. On the late music of Scott Walker.

In December 2012 Scott Walker released Bish Bosch, the last record in a trilogy with which he has established a very personal style so far unmatched by any other musician. In 2013, after listening to each record in succession over a period of several months, I wrote the following text for an essay contest, albeit with a different (and, admittedly, really crappy) introduction. The text was prompted by the music, obviously, but also by the many reviews and reactions I had read then, none of which ever matching my experience of listening to the music. I must confess having come very late to the music of Scott Walker, maybe 4 or 5 years ago only, and via his later output, being totally ignorant of his 1960s music.  The text was also written from the point of view of an art writer, a bit as if it was a piece of visual art. It was also intended for a general audience, initially, so I tried as much as possible to write it  in non-artspeak. I had shelved it after a few unsuccessful attempts to pitch it to music magazine,  and thought about maybe posting it later this year when his collaboration with Sunn 0))), Soused, was going to be released on Sept. 22nd, but as today marks FBC! 7th anniversary and that I'm in no real mood to write anything else, here it is for your enjoyment. Or not.

“The audience is waiting
 Its audience is waiting 
Its audience is waiting 
Its audience is waiting”
Scott Walker, “Hand Me Ups”, The Drift, 2006

The Audience Is Waiting. On the late music of Scott Walker.

Looking up  at what established critics have written about Scott Walker's recent output, and being confronted with qualifiers such as “terrifying, harrowing, austere, arcane, inaccessible, difficult, taxing, demanding, dense, austere, impenetrable, dark”, one cannot help but feeling doomed to fail at describing the experience of listening to it. But as the artist himself has said in the 2006 documentary 30th Century Man “I fail lots of times, but at least I’m trying.”
Let’s try.

The Artist, The Audience.
Scott Walker, born Noel Scott Engel in 1943, is nearly as old as rock music and pop music, if you will, having gotten his start as a teenage singer in the 1950s, in the wake of the commotion caused by Elvis Presley’s success. In the United Kingdom, he is mostly known or remembered as the lead singer of 1960s band The Walker Brothers and as an immense Pop star back then, who went solo in 1967 and released in quick succession four albums of delicate and timeless Pop music, backed-up by soaring orchestras that enhanced his famous baritone voice. He’s also credited as introducing Belgian singer Jacques Brel to an English- speaking audience by being the first one to cover his songs, later sung by the likes of David Bowie and Marc Almond.
The story goes that Scott Walker lost himself in the 1970s by recording mediocre albums of middle-of-the-road standards, before resurfacing as an avant-garde musician in 1995 with his record Tilt, following in the footsteps of earlier attempts, his 1984 solo record Climate of Hunter and the four songs he composed for the Walker Brother’s final album Nite Flights, after they had briefly reformed for a failed come-back. This story is of course incomplete, and as such has only served to grow a myth, about a reclusive and mad genius who releases a new masterpiece once every decade, using strange sound-making techniques and devices in the studio.
The reality is probably more complex, his glacial rate of delivery having to do with record companies’ corporate issues and with their need for commercial pragmatism, in addition to Walker’s own self-avowed slow rate of production.
The result of this complicated tale we’ve been fed however is that there seems to exist a split within his audience, between the part that grew up accustomed to his magnificent but still largely conventional music, and a newer one more interested in his recent adventurous 
output. That some people might enjoy both is rarely acknowledged, not least by the artist himself who’s convinced his old 1960s fans cannot abide his newer music. A quick look at comments on video sharing websites or social networks appears to confirm this: “rubbish”, “garbage”, “crap”, “trash”, or the ultimate crime, “pretentious” have been used to describe his recent songs, while some people, seemingly unaware Walker likely doesn’t read their comments, use the same pages to plead or demand he “goes back to his old style, to accommodate his fans”.
Walker’s most recent album, Bish Bosch, was released at the end of 2012, several years after The Drift (2006), completing the trilogy started with Tilt (1995). With this latest record, we are now afforded the possibility to comprehend better what he has been doing for the last two decades or so, to situate it within a larger context. As if to further complicate matters, the Scott Walker actuality has been quite busy recently when a box set of his first five solo records Scott Walker The Collection (Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3, Scott 4 and ‘Til The Band Comes In) was commercialized earlier this year, accentuating the divide between fans of his older music and lovers of his newer output. Though in truth the latter set tends to also enjoy early Scott Walker music, so the musical divide might simply be a generation gap rather than a real, sharp aesthetic division.
The box set also helped to finally attempt a comprehensive examination of the artist’s work, allowing to detect in early songs the roots of his current musicianship, as evidenced in a recent article by John Doran on the specialized music website
The Quietus. Viewed retrospectively, old songs such as Plastic Palace People (1968) with its fragmented lyrics and breaks of rhythm within the same tune help understand the evolution that lead to Walker’s current work. Other songs like The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated To The Neo-Stalinist Regime) or Hero Of The War, both on Scott 4, are just the seeds which Bolivia 95 and Patriot (A Single) on Tilt will grow from several decades later, their lyrics as political and poetical at the end of the 1960s than they will be at the turn of this century.
Outside of the United Kingdom, Walker’s reputation and fame are rather murky. Except maybe in Japan, he’s virtually unknown as a former pop star, which helps with a better reception of the
Tilt, The Drift and Bish Bosch trilogy. For one thing it is the esteem in which these records are held critically that has paved the way for people to rediscover his early work, as in the United States.

What It’s All About Is Not “About”.
When confronted to the Scott Walker of the 21st century, it helps to think about other mediums outside of music, such as literature or visual arts. Most music critics tend to compare Walker to T.S Eliot, Samuel Beckett or James Joyce, understandably enough as his lyrics draw from language tropes most famously pioneered by these modernists, however these comparisons are unhelpful in the sense that they are used by the reviewers to try and explain away what this music “is about”.
That this music is wholly unexplainable and not necessarily “about” something might be a more interesting avenue to explore. That this music is unexplainable and not necessarily “about” something may be what makes it unbearable to anyone attached to simple answers and used to a completely passive reception. That this music is unexplainable and not necessarily “about” something is also why it is so new and fascinating.
If we lose the impulse to try to explain it away we can look at other elementary questions, like the ones an art historian starts with when confronted with an unknown artwork outside of an immediately recognizable context. What does the work do? What does it want? Where does it exist?
Impulsively some quick answers come forth: what the work does is to simply exist, as such it is new, it creates its own style, and as every single artwork that operates as “new”, it doesn’t come from nothing, even when it does seem to appear out of thin air. So let’s look at it, now that we have a body of works within which we can draw comparisons.
In the visual arts field, most enduring artworks are effectively not “about” something, because in the space where they exist they are multi-layered, dealing with complex influences, functioning in a fuzzy cultural and social context, answering to historical and mundane demands alike, interfering or dialoguing with vernacular and elitist tropes. They appear: irritating, dense, scandalous, annoying, puzzling, funny, bleak, scary, strange, encountering resistance and praise, sometimes failing their creators’ original intent but succeeding in changing the then-current rules of the game, or more prosaically the artistic conventions of the context within which they function.
As such, they often meet the incomprehension and the mockery of a general audience, the same general audience whose offspring will flock museums, concert halls and literary commemorations later on: witness the annual
Bloomsday celebrating James Joyce in modern- day Dublin, the success of the many Picasso or Warhol retrospectives, and the reverence accorded to modern recreations of Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s Rite Of Spring. Yet all these works have caused a scandal and met a large resistance when they first appeared.
The late Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley was reviled as a jokester in the 1990s, yet his recent retrospective (December 2012-April 2013) held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam attracted nearly half a million people. Marcel Duchamp, the seminal 20th century artist whose
readymades influenced everything from Pop Art to 1980s Appropriation Art, used to say that the audience accepts unconventional artworks only after a certain delay. It proved certainly true for many influential movements and artists from the end of the 19th century to the Postwar ones, so revered nowadays that it is sometimes difficult to understand the outcry that greeted them when they first appeared. As they’ve been slowly assimilated and even co- opted, at least superficially, by latter-day graphic designers and interior decorators, as attested by the way the radicalism of Minimalism has been absorbed by contemporary corporate office design, the uproar they met when they were first offered on view seems incomprehensible.

Out Of Thin Air
Listening to Scott Walker in the 21st century can sometimes prove a challenge to an audience unaware or unaccustomed to a wide array of musical genres that exist outside of mainstream Pop music, yet there is an ever-growing circle of listeners who latch on his songs without hesitation. For this audience, there is a musical context, which without being directly traceable as an obvious influence on Walker makes it familiar to ease into his music. This context is often ignored or goes unmentioned in reviews of his work, sadly, as they tend to focus on the apparent dichotomy between his 1960s pop music and his recent dissonant one. Dissonance in itself is important if you recall it is a leading principle of modern and contemporary classical music, along with atonality. Modern and contemporary music is roughly contemporary to Modernist art and literature: most milestones like Schoenberg’s “Scandal Concert”, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Kandinsky’s invention of abstract painting, or Duchamp’s readymades were all made or released around 1911-1913.
Abstraction, cerebral art and atonality have been with us for a good century and for the culture at large we’re only getting accustomed to it now. Outside of high culture, in the musical world most of us inhabit, the one that encompasses popular and vernacular music released commercially, we’ve been used to underground, alternative and independent music for many decades as well, music that strives to be experimental, unconventional and innovative.
Some of it was ignored at the time of its making but grew extremely influential, with bands like The Velvet Underground; other acts whose perception of eccentricity has more to do with image like Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart, their music not really sounding unconventional or difficult anymore today, still managed to attract a sizable public.
A bit more foreign to a mainstream audience, some niche genres such as industrial music have existed since at least the mid-1970s, with pioneer band Throbbing Gristle in the UK (1975) or German band Einstürzende Neubauten (1980), later bigger acts such as Nine Inch Nails, acknowledged as an influence by Walker, brought the genre to a larger international audience in the mid-1990s. Outside of industrial music, Walker is known for being a lover of classical music, as well as of modern and contemporary classical music. Composers Turnage, Kurtag, Berio, Ligeti or Lachenmann are often mentioned in interviews or were played at the Meltdown Festival he programmed at the Southbank Center in 2000. He has also often talked about his love of progressive jazz back in the 1960s, and as for current mainstream rock bands, he’s a Radiohead fan. An audience that is accustomed to these types of unconventional music might be naturally drawn to what Walker does nowadays.

The Audience Is Reading
Listening carefully to the Tilt/The Drift/Bish Bosch trilogy in successive order, we can recognize an evolution, with Tilt introducing the brand new style created by Walker, and in retrospect probably the easiest of the three to get into, The Drift being a consolidation and refinement of the same style, while Bish Bosch clearly opens up new possibilities and directions in his development, hinting at a more baroque and diverse future output while signaling a sort of irregular closure of the cycle. Like most groundbreaking works in all mediums, these records are by no means perfect. They offer however a certain methodical construction that even an untrained ear can recognize, when listening attentively. Interviews with the artist can also be illuminating in getting a deeper understanding about his creative process.
In all his interviews Scott Walker explains that he starts all his songs by writing the lyrics, later on molding the sounds and the music to match them. Read separately from the music, the lyrics are poetical with an often lush imagery yet they can appear nonsensical because of the complex puns, metaphors and figurative expressions assembled together in a non-linear way. Nevertheless there is a narrative continuity to them, as well as common themes: violence, decay, anatomy, eroticism, fauna, astronomy, wars, dictators, and childhood. There are even some love songs. Some of his songs are clearly explicit in denouncing the horrors of war but associated with a poetic language that brings them beyond a simplistic political message. Walker has also been insistent that there was humor throughout all his records, though it is the most apparent in
Bish Bosch you can catch glimpses of it on his other albums. Walker himself rarely offers explanations about his lyrics save for some well-known
examples, so we get to know that Jesse (on The Drift) is a song responding to 9/11 – here paraphrasing Walker in the interview he gave in the documentary 30th Century Man – a song visually composed by juxtaposing the images of the vertical twin towers, reflecting “American hubris” but having “no spiritual reflective qualities” in contrast with the horizontal vision of the American prairie where Elvis Presley, in a nightmare, speaks to his stillborn twin brother Jesse Garon whom he cannot see and who is therefore deprived of “a reflective quality” himself.
Pretty much all of Walker’s song lyrics share this jumping from one idea to another via associative pairing or aural puns, which at first listen give a very fragmentary idea of what is going on. It’s only when listening to the music several times over that the structure of the songs become apparent.
Because he uses many words coming from foreign languages, they sometimes come out as nonsensical, though they make sense once you understand the underlying themes. For example a song about the Balkan wars would refer to Bosnian place names, or on the contrary the place name translated in English would open another entire new avenues by using free words associations. Sometimes the listener understands them instinctively, sometimes not at all; depending on their level of obscurity Walker occasionally offers footnotes and references on the album sleeves or the lyrics booklet. These can be helpful sometimes, but in truth they don’t always feel necessary.

The Audience Is Listening.
Now as for the music, it also follows an inner logic that makes lots of sense once Walker unveils the main rule that underlines his creative process: as the lyrics are what come first to him, the music has to match them, sometimes quite literally. In an interview recently published in the magazine The Believer, he explains how the drums in the song See You Don’t Bump His Head on Bish Bosch are there to match the image of the swan in the lyrics, where the bird seems to be gliding majestically over the water while below the surface it is frantically paddling, to keep on moving.
Once that principle of sounds corresponding to the lyrics or trying to give the best possible approximation of them is understood, then the infamous percussive meat-punching for the song Clara on The Drift becomes evident as a signifier for the mob defiling the corpse of Mussolini’s mistress after she’s been executed along the Italian dictator. Aside from the Foley effects used on his records, the songs themselves tend to be built to include many moments of silence, “silence” being defined by Walker as the origin for the lyrics and as an essential part of the music itself.
All the music is constructed according to an internal structure that isn’t made to be obvious to a listener, so the traditional verse-chorus-bridge we’ve been used to with Pop music and rock’n’roll is noticeably absent, though there are repetitions of musical patterns and lyrics in most songs.
When we switch on the radio, go shopping, hear movie soundtracks, go to restaurants and bars, most of the current commercial music that we’re passively subjected to is constructed around drum loops or build with the idea that the beat is the essential component holding the song together as an entity.
Walker’s music is totally opposite: there are breaks and changes within the beat, and sometimes there isn’t any beat at all for very long moments. These shifts in patterns are startling to an audience that isn’t used to them, though they are relatively common in
contemporary classical music. The other changes that tend to shock and surprise the listener are the shifts in registers when Walker sings, which are likely the source of the dismay or even the disgust expressed by some of his [now former] audience, the one that screams “bollocks” in capital letters in YouTube comments under videos from The Drift or Bish Bosch. Journalists invariably mention Walker’s current singing style as “strangled”, “as if his testicles were being squeezed” which immediately signal that they haven’t really listened to the records in their entirety, because you can’t really hear that in songs such as Cossacks even though it is the opening tune on The Drift, or that they somewhat missed the recent video clip for Epizootics! from Bish Bosch, a song where you can clearly hear his baritone though not throughout.
In all the records in the Tilt/The Drift/Bish Bosch trilogy, Walker doesn’t restrict himself to one singing style but rather sings in at least three different registers, his regular baritone as well as some lower and higher range, sometimes shifting from one to the other within the same song. The singer’s magnificent baritone has been lauded everywhere as one of the greatest male voice of the 20th century, consequently the high register he sometime uses in his songs seems to be the one that rankles both his old fans and his current detractors, who regret that he has “abandoned his own voice”. He hasn’t actually done that but rather has added two different registers to his usual one and has been prominently using the tenor-like over the others, something he explains in interviews once again by the need to voice his lyrics according to their internal structure, but also in terms of pitch in relation to the way the rest of the music is laid out.
When listening carefully to Walker’s current singing style and his shifts between registers within the same song, the most strikingly strange thing isn’t his use of the high register, but first and foremost his diction. It is so impeccable it does indeed sound peculiar, the same way opera singers can sometime sound incomprehensible when they sing in English as every single word is so impeccably pronounced.
Walker articulates his singing so clearly and precisely that every single letter and sounds comes out crystal clear: no final “s” is ever forgotten, every single “th” so exact you can almost picture his tongue being placed between his teeth. His phrasing and articulation are so perfect as to manage to convey humor even with onomatopoeia, which he uses sometimes in appropriated lyrics, bringing echoes of Baroque singing with, say, a marked elongation of consonants or an over-artificial way of repeating “la la la la”. But this use of ultra-precise phrasing and diction isn’t new at all, as it can be heard as early as in the Walker Brothers day, in their cover of Land Of Thousand Dances for example.
In his recent music, it is just used as yet another tool to emphasize the prominence of the lyrics, as an additional instrument at the service of the music in its totality rather than a personal mean of self-expression. If you start hearing it as such then it becomes clear that the voice and the singing are the binding element of the music. It’s not the beat that holds a Scott Walker song together, since it is not continuous indeed nor the melody since it also shifts all the time; but the precise articulation of the lyrics by the voice, a voice that Walker wants to see purged of its ego or personality so as to express a universal experience of “another kind of self”. One can only hazard guesses at what this another kind of self is, a sort of collective persona that could sum up the absurdity of human existence with all its travails but also all its redemptive experiences (love, beauty, empathy, humor). In this context, the famous Scott Walker’s baritone ceases to be the trademark of a former Pop star but just another means at the musician’s disposal in the vast array of instruments needed to complete the music. Therefore it can be modified, adulterated or bypassed in favor of another register more apt to convey a particular piece of lyrics, without any concern about whether the voice sounds “natural” or not.
Its volume also reinforces the artificiality of the voice and the diction: Walker can shift from a whisper to a shout to spoken words to a snippet of melody within the same minute. By doing so he has pretty much invented his own style of singing, a style that is so new very few musicians have been able to cover his recent material successfully, a style that can appear unnatural because we’re not yet used to it.

The Voices And Their Audience
For someone coming new to his later work without any knowledge of his 1960s career, the debate doesn’t really exists, but for clarity’s sake the question of natural versus unnatural range and register deserves a quick detour.
Now that we’re living in the 21st century and have been used to so many singers in both pop and classical music singing outside of any “natural” or “conventional” range, from falsetto (Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury, Russell Mael) to counter-tenor (Alfred Deller, Klaus Nomi) you wonder why Walker’s use of a different one from his natural baritone in the music he’s been making for almost twenty years now is so disturbing. Especially at a time when nobody seems to think twice about how artificial and bizarre Autotune sounds when added to the voice of Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga yet their records and songs sell by the millions. Outside of pop music, Schoenberg has come up with
Sprechstimme as early as 1912, and once again we can quote opera or baroque singing as rather unnatural for untrained singers. More recently we’ve been used to the recitative spoken lyrics expressed in hip-hop music, a genre that pretty much radically did away with a lot of the melody and put the beat at the forefront of the music.
Take seemingly niche musical genres such as Death Metal and Black Metal, where singers routinely seem to be vomiting rocks when uttering fairly disturbing lyrics about mayhem and murder, on top of complex distorted musical structures. All the same these types of singing styles are no more conventional than Walker’s yet don’t encounter the same type of indignant resistance. In most cases they’ve been already digested, sometimes via assimilation by more mainstream acts, sometimes because of the powerful effect of dilution and dissemination operated by movie soundtracks. We have yet to see how David Bowie’s homage to Walker’s current singing style in his latest record could help spread it, but just the fact it has been recognized as such in the mainstream media signals a flicker of recognition.

The Audience Is Waiting.
So, what is so new with Walker’s music that makes it difficult to immediately assimilate? Is that the voice, then, considering the various singing styles enumerated above? The only real difference is that with Walker, the breaks in the beat patterns added to the use of different registers within the same song create surprising variations. Where Walker creates his own style is for one thing the musical domain where he operates, because he is neither a contemporary classical musician nor an alternative artist, as he uses instruments and orchestrations that belong to both genres, bridging them in something that doesn’t exist elsewhere yet. Contemporary classical music sometimes make uses of electric instruments associated with rock and roll, while some rock musicians have occasionally used the power of multiple instruments inspired by classical orchestras to create new works, like Glenn Branca’s guitar pieces. What these lack usually is a singer. There are unconventional singers in contemporary classical music, there are rock acts that play with large orchestras, but rarely do these mix together to create a brand new genre.
A striking thing comes up repeatedly when musicians who either worked with Walker or enjoy his music comment on how what he does doesn’t belong to anything known musically: it is not classical, it is not avant-garde, it is not Pop or rock music, it isn’t harmony, it isn’t discord, but something that exists at the frontier between all of these. It escapes any known definition as of now, and because it occupies such an uncertain space it produced discomfort in the listener. That uncertain, undefined space is a space that moves away from known musical conventions.
It is not only the voice that is unconventionally used in Walker’s music, but the whole structure of the music that constantly shifts unto itself, a process that Walker explains as a way to avoid complacency in the listener. In very simple terms, the titles of the last three records are fairly revelatory about what the music somehow does: it tilts, it drifts away from accepted musical tropes, to somewhat unsatisfactorily wrap up with
Bish Bosch: the job is done, sort of, with an atrociously bad pun that also shifts from “bish bash bosh” to “a kind of universal female artist”, according to interviews given by Walker. One doesn’t have to swallow this explanation whole, but listening to the last album you can sense another departure, another shift for Walker. This record is irregularly shaped, like a baroque pearl, it sounds more dynamic, more diverse than the two previous ones, more humorous as well, a bit as if Walker was announcing he was done exploring the sound he had created and was now ready to experiment with new avenues with the next record. It’s also less tight and compact than Tilt and The Drift, and if it contains great up-tempo songs (See You Don’t Bump His Head, Epizootics!) it doesn’t present such magnificent and beautiful highlights like Farmer In The City or Rosary (on Tilt) or Jesse and A Lover Loves (on The Drift).
There’s a certain abandonment of pure obvious beauty, though there are some beautiful moments on Bish Bosch (Dimple comes to mind) for something more playful and exploratory. And yet Bish Bosch is still far ahead of most commercial music that has come up since then and been hailed as new or innovative: David Bowie’s The Next Day still adheres to conventional song structure even when he tries to imitate Walker on Heat, while The Knife’s attempts at Shaking The Habitual sound mostly contrived and laborious, as for Kanye West’s Yeezus, the bloated egomania at work can’t mask the poverty of the lyrics while the music itself is rather bland and unimaginative.
To the simple question asked earlier, “What does the work want?” the simple answer is that Scott Walker’s music demands undivided attention from the listener. This is not wallpaper music that can be used as a backdrop for parties or domestic chores, but something else, something closer to contemporary visual arts. It shares with artists like Mike Kelley the same interest for irritating, grotesque or annoying motifs that are unforgettable and force the audience to pay attention, to look, to listen, to try and think. Like most complex artworks it asks questions and points to avenues of explorations, rather than provide the audience with easy answers, with comfort, with delusions. Because its forms are so new it is easy to mock, ridicule, vilify or crudely parody, like most groundbreaking works of art have been. Because the work is so new despite its nearly two decades of existence, it has only found a limited
public... so far. Because it is so innovative yet existing in a context where all sorts of unconventional genres of music are readily available on the Internet, it is in fact on its way to finding an ever expanding audience, as evidenced in the many personal blog posts written about it.
Meanwhile, the audience is waiting. It is waiting for the time when it will meet the trajectory of Scott Walker’s music and finally surrender to it. It is still blind to the realization that the unthinkable has already happened: the very first music that speaks of the 21st century is here.

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