Sunday Jazz revisited

Years ago, I was the host of a weekly Sunday jazz show on radio. For six years in New Zealand, then for another couple in the UK, I picked jazz tunes (or thereabouts) and played them to people over the wireless. Always loved doing that. Later on, I had a regular DJ slot at my local pub – again on Sundays – playing the same kind of music. I recorded those mixes and shared them on Mixcloud. And when Spotify came along, I started making and sharing compilations that way too.

Of course, making personal mixtapes for people is one of life’s great pleasures. Receiving them even more so. Choosing music, putting it in a sequence and sharing it with someone is far and away one of my favourite things to do.

But for one reason or another, for the past couple of years, I’ve had real trouble making playlists. It’s like I fell off the mixtape horse and was too shaken to get back on. I haven’t trusted my choices. I’ve made partial playlists and then deleted them. I just kept choosing the wrong songs – or songs that weren’t really what I meant – and as a result, I sort of lost the urge to compile – even for my own listening. So I took a long sabbatical from making playlists.

On the upside, what this means is that I’ve spent the last couple of years listening to a lot of whole albums, and more recently, to other people’s public playlists on Spotify. I figure it’s like that thing where writers need to stop every now and then and just read an awful lot.

Just lately though, I’ve started wanting to put songs in an order and send them out into the world again. Not sure why the urge returned or where it had been – but it’s back. There are lots of different types of mixtapes I could make (and lots of different things to express that way) – but I’m going to play it a bit safe and just start out doing things I know I can do.

So… Sunday Jazz it is. Two hour Spotify playlists for your laid-back Sunday listening enjoyment, if that’s your sort of thing. Back again – starting here next weekend.

The Birth of Mozo

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For the past couple of months, I’ve been working on some really interesting projects that have sparked some great conversations about the nature of recorded music, their place and affordances as a medium and what can be communicated in that form – and how new technologies and new formats for music can extend or change those possibilities.

One of the recordings that has been central to these conversations has been a song by Peter Gabriel: ‘On The Air’.

It’s not my favourite of his songs, but it is an important one in this context for a number of reasons. There’s a lot going on in and around this song, and the more I research it, the more interesting it gets.

It occurs to me now that Gabriel’s replacement as Genesis frontman, Phil Collins, later had a hit called ‘In The Air’. Not sure whether to read anything into that.

Anyway – I wrote this piece below as a way of thinking through what’s going on with Gabriel – and, in a way, what the boundaries of popular music might be as far as a medium for artistic expression is concerned.

Peter Gabriel’s ‘On The Air': The Birth of Mozo

In the early 1970s, during his time in Genesis, Peter Gabriel led rock music into the realm of the theatrical fantasy. Known for elaborate make-up, costume and set design – as well as complex instrumentation and song structures – the Genesis experience was operatic in scope, ambition and approach. Many of the central narratives of Gabriel’s writing came from his dreams and reflected aspects of himself. The half Puerto Rican juvenile delinquent character of Rael, central to the double ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’ album, searches for his lost brother John in a New York infested with monsters and dangerous obstacles. John, we realise, is a missing part of Rael and, of course, Rael is Gabriel (a play on his name). On the album sleeve, Rael steps out of the frame and looks back at his former context in a moment of self-realisation.

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After touring the album, Gabriel himself steps out of the context of the band and begins a solo career. At around this time, the character of Mozo begins to emerge as part of a master plan to create an ambitious stage or filmed theatrical performance. Partly based on the biblical figure of Moses, Mozo was an enigmatic force who comes from nowhere, disrupts lives, and then disappears. But despite his transformative effect on the world, Mozo feels himself to be powerless. He is in the world, but not of the world. For the most part hidden and invisible, Mozo can only express himself and be heard with the aid of technology – specifically radio technology.

The figure of Mozo lives in a fantasy world created by what he picks up and transmits on short-wave radio. In this way, Mozo’s schizophrenic existence has prescient parallels with the disconnect between our own lives lived online and off. The broadcast is a construction – a projection of an imagined world – and a search for meaning and validation through attention.

“Through his short-wave radio he becomes whoever he wants, but in real life, on the street, he’s totally ignored,” explains Gabriel.

As a fan of the writings of psychologist Carl Jung, Gabriel drew inspiration for the character of Mozo from a medieval alchemical treatise based on The Song of Solomon that Jung believed to be the work of St Thomas Aquinas. The text is full of religious symbolism and apocalyptic imagery. Jung’s interests – as with those of the alchemists – concerned the notion of transformation – not just from base metals into gold (an analogy rather than a genuine ambition), but transformations of the self.

“I have always been interested in transformation of one sort or another,” said Gabriel. “When Mozo came in he upset the status quo and the story is about the struggles after his appearance.”

Mozo makes his first appearance in the second self-titled solo Peter Gabriel album (referred to by collectors as the ‘Scratch’ LP). In ‘On The Air’ we are given our first glimpses into a complex mythological universe that Gabriel develops across a whole series of recordings. Unlike Rael, who lives within the bounds of a single concept album with a single (albeit impressionistic) narrative, Mozo is intertextual and recurring. He is central to Gabriel’s work just as Albion is to William Blake’s – and the parallels are striking. Gabriel’s concern with the splitting of the individual, the search for integration and the realisation of the self echoes Blake’s.

Of course, the lamb that “lies down on Broadway” is also Blake’s lamb, “meek and mild”. The project to extend that poetic tradition had already begun. But the scope and ambition of the Mozo project is, to say the least, unusual in popular music. Although Gabriel has never completed (and perhaps never will) the narrative project that has the character of Mozo at its centre, the complexity and intellectual reach of the narrative deserves serious attention, and situates the rock song alongside the modernist novel, the post-romantic era opera and the English poetic tradition. It is one of rock music’s most ambitious long term art projects – spanning multiple albums and tracks.  The attentive listener will spot the character’s appearance in numerous songs right up to the ‘So’ album.

“Mozo is someone who appears in various places in many disguises. I even sketched a film script around his character. I read Jung and all this alchemy stuff, and they make gold from crap, from the junk, from the stuff people want to get rid of. In my new studio we try to combine hand-made, cheap, disposed-of elements with the best technology available. It is easy to get enthusiastic about this high-tech, reasonable, modern world and losing the gut feeling of being down to earth, the grunt factor, I like to call it, that comes from failures, mistakes, funny incidents and thrown-away elements.”

Mozo was a catalyst for spiritual change. This was the true alchemy. He was at the core of what Gabriel tries to express in music, and he stands in for Gabriel in that quest for self transformation. Mozo is the mercurial stranger able to not only effect change but also uplift people. Gabriel’s idea was to scatter songs about Mozo over several albums, and intended that they would ultimately make a complete story when put together. And while that story lies incomplete, there is perhaps some closure in the realisation that the transformation and integration of the self is a work that is never finished.

“Mozo is set in this fishing village, which is very upmarket, not quite Mediterranean, but something of that ilk,” explained Gabriel in 1987. “There is this volcanic sand which gives the sea a red colour. Everything is focused on the sea, which is very rough, and the great macho fear is to cross the water, which no one had done.”

Built in the belly of junk by the river, my cabin stands;
Made from the trash I dug off the heap with my own bare hands.
Every night I’m back at the shack, I’m sure no one is there,
I’m putting the aerial up, so I can go out on the air…

We first encounter Mozo as a complete outsider – living amongst the trash that the world has discarded, in a house he has built out of scraps. He is different, he is feared and viewed with suspicion – but worse, he is mostly ignored and unnoticed.

Gabriel explains, “I remember in Horsell Common near Chobham, where my parents live, there was this beaten up old caravan, with newspapers in the windows. I used to think there was a witch inside there. And I think it probably fuelled this setting for Mozo.”

In his first appearance, ‘On the Air’, Mozo rebels against his own obscurity. And it comes at a time when Gabriel himself is shaking himself loose from under the shadow of Genesis – the band he left to pursue his grander musical vision. But while Mozo’s first actual appearance is here on the second solo album, the scene has been clearly set for his arrival on ‘Down the Dolce Vita’, from the first. It introduces characters setting out on the intrepid journey across the sea. The sailors Aeron and Gorham, like Mozo, have corrupted biblical names, and they are setting out on an adventure that will take several albums to come to rest.

We see the world through the eyes of Mozo within the songs whose contexts address those central mythic themes that humans have always used as ways to understand themselves and their place in the world. In ‘On The Air’ he finds himself a way to break out of a fantasy world of his own creation – and begin to connect with others. ‘Here Comes the Flood’ is an apocalyptic vision. ‘Down The Dolce Vita’ tells of the ship leaving harbour on an intrepid odyssey. ‘Exposure’ deals with the struggle for salvation. ‘Red Rain’ centres on the denial of one’s own inner feelings. ‘That Voice Again’ is judgment.

The Mozo mythology embedded itself in Gabriel’s head and the character’s world became central to his work, developing into a philosophical enquiry into personal expression, technology and meaning. In Gabriel’s biography, Spencer Bright explains that radio technology provided Gabriel with a compelling metaphor for self expression, and that ‘Here Comes The Flood’ was written at the height of his fascination with short-wave radio: “If radio signals got stronger at night, he reasoned, maybe psychic and telepathic awareness could be similarly increased and made to flood the mass consciousness. Those who were honest and straightforward could take on board their new insights, while those who hid their thought and feelings would be lost.”

Gabriel first sought backing to create a performance of Mozo as early as 1976, just as the Genesis album ‘A Trick of the Tail’ became their biggest success to date. It was bad timing on Gabriel’s part. Publishers and record companies were reluctant to get involved in what promised to be an expensive exercise, and as a result Gabriel was forced to wait until he had proved himself with commercial success as a solo artist.

Bright explains that Gabriel “had discussed his ideas with Bob Ezrin the producer of his first solo album. Ezrin told him about the Czech theatre Lanterna Magica and the pioneering Josef Svoboda. Gabriel visited him twice in Prague in the late seventies. He was interested in Svoboda’s perforated screen combining cinema with theatre. In it a film was complemented by live action using a device that made actors appear to go in and out of the screen. Gabriel was later introduced to Czech animator Raduz Cincera who developed his ‘Kineautomat’. Cincera was working on opera sets for the London Coliseum when he met Gabriel.”

“The Kineautomat has cinema seats with yes/no buttons,” said Gabriel. “There were about a dozen decision points, the plot chosen by vote. So, for example, an actor would come out of the screen and say to the audience, ‘Should I stay with my wife, or go with this woman?’ And the cinema would become as lively as a football match.”

The Mozo project lies unfinished. Perhaps that tells us more about the alchemical endeavour of self-transformation than a completed story might. Or perhaps the artistic vision of Mozo was too ambitious for its popular music expression. Maybe Gabriel was just ahead of his time. Eventually the Mozo idea lost impetus, though in autumn 1985 Gabriel was still considering working on developing the story into an hour-long video. It’s interesting to think, though, that surrounded by junk, assembling new tools and expressing himself unseen into the world, Gabriel’s Mozo would be utterly at home in today’s connected, always-on, experimental and improvised world of the hacker. We interpret mythologies through our own contexts and the meanings they bring to us help us understand our world and our place within it. In that respect, ‘On The Air’ is as potent and urgent today as it was when it first appeared nearly forty years ago.

I got power, I’m proud to be loud; my signal goes out clear
I want everybody to know that Mozo is here
On the air. . .

(On The Air; Gabriel, 1978)

World’s Northernmost hackerspace?

Hackers

“And this is our space programme,” says Tomas Härdin, pointing to a battered old dining table next to a whiteboard. The whiteboard has schematic drawings on it, but otherwise there is nothing to suggest mission control. Codemill developer and radio engineer Tomas and computer scientist Petter Ericson are pointing out the various features of the Umeå hackerspace – ostensibly the world’s northernmost.

“…unless there’s something in Tromsø.”

“Don’t think so.”

The hackerspace, like many dotted in cities around the world, features piles of equipment in various states of repair, a mountain of old computer monitors, a 3D printer that looks like it has seen a lot of action – and another that has been stripped for parts. It has an area where you can lounge around and play videogames, a well-ventilated corner for melting down aluminium, a wall of neatly arranged power tools and implements, and a lot of partially-completed projects arranged, where size permits, on shelves and, where it doesn’t, on the floor.

Your everyday hackerspace, in other words.

“We have a bunch of big, beefy power supplies, loads of components, all the tools you could want to use, a really big, nice frequency standard… basically, resources to use for whatever project comes around.”

The hackerspace doubles as a meeting place for the youth division of the Pirate Party. It also hosts study groups, Free and Open Software projects, rocket enthusiasts, an anime club, the Gentleman Game Association of the North who get together to play board games, and others. 

It has a couple of quirks, of course. The no-shoes rule, for a start. And, of course, the space programme.

“Considering the size of the town, it’s surprisingly big and well-equipped – which is sort of the mark of many things in Umeå. I mean – we’re just 100,000 inhabitants. It’s not a big town. But we do have things like the opera. We have a major university. We have these things that are surprisingly big and surprisingly well-funded. So I think that’s really what’s special about Umeå. Although we’re so small, it’s still the biggest town around. It’s 600km down to Uppsala which is the next town that’s bigger. So we can draw from this massive geographical area.”

“The nearest proper hackerspace to this one is not actually in Sweden,” says Tomas.

With three months to go before the festival, plans for the Music Tech Fest hack camp are already in development. The Umeå hackerspace has spawned a bunch of interesting music hacks in the past and they’re looking forward to getting involved in MTF Scandi. Music-related projects to date have included large Tesla coils and propane gas as well as delicate objects with tiny LEDs.

“There’s a whole bunch of us who are into this. There are the electronics people, of course – they’re definitely going to be into the Music Tech Fest. And of course the fire and the high voltage electricity people will also want to be involved. That will be fun.”

“And dangerous…” smiles Petter.

And the space programme?

“Yeah. We’re cooperating with one of the Google Lunar XPrize teams which are going to the moon next year,” says Tomas. “The team, called Part-Time Scientists, have four probes which are shaped like oversized Toblerone boxes and we’re designing an experiment that goes into one of these boxes. It’s about one kilo worth of gear that gets sent to the moon. We’re going to run a camera during the lunar night. And because it’s so cold, the camera will actually run better. But because there’s no sun, there’s no solar energy – so you have to use batteries.”

“The power supply is really the experiment,” explains Petter. “Keeping the whole thing running through the whole two-week lunar night is going to be the main problem.”

“Yeah – it’s really cold. Minus 170 degrees. There are no batteries that survive those temperatures as far as we know. So we have to figure out a way to heat them so they’re still pretty cold – but not so cold that they freeze to bits. We need them to be Umeå cold – not dark side of the moon cold.”

MTF Scandi runs from the 29th to the 31st of May this year and the 24 hour hackathon runs from Saturday to Sunday. Places are limited, but if you want to get involved, get in touch with MTF hack camp coordinator, Adam John Williams.

And while you’re in town, you’ll also get to spend time in the world’s most northerly hackerspace.

“Oh wait.” says Tomas. “There’s one up in Vännäs. But that’s just one guy in his shed. We should go visit him.”


I wrote this piece for the Music Tech Fest blog today, but thought I’d repost it here… Some really interesting stuff going on here in Umeå.

Spotifying my way through incapacity

I fell down and broke my ribs. Upshot: I’ve got a couple of weeks on the couch ahead of me. This is day five. You’d think I’d use that time to buckle down and get some serious writing done, but morphine had other ideas about that.

So with limited concentration, and while I’m drifting in and out of consciousness every half an hour or so, it’s nice to be listening to some music. And while I’m not enjoying the injury itself (note the understatement), it’s really good to finally have some time to sit down and actually listen to music – not just have it on while I work.

I can’t get up and down and change records, so vinyl’s not much of an option at the moment (plus, things aren’t quite unpacked and in their final resting places just yet) – and my big hard drive of music is at the office. So I thought I’d give Spotify another go. Yes, it’s lacking in transparency and “does not do a good job of explaining its benefits to artists” (or “rips off artists“, depending on who’s telling the story), but from this listener’s perspective, Spotify has been a bit of a godsend recently.

I’m mostly listening to other people’s playlists. It’s one of my favourite things about Spotify.

Normally, sure, I would want to listen to “my” music – which usually means stuff I bought on Bandcamp or own on vinyl. Stuff I’m committed to and have made conscious and deliberate decisions about.

Right now, I want reasonably interesting (though not overly challenging) mixes of music that I didn’t know I wanted to listen to. My favourite playlists seem to be made of around 60% things I’ve never heard before, 20% songs I’d almost completely forgotten, and another 20% songs I know well but haven’t heard for ages.

Joe Muggs made quite a nice Winter Evening With Wine playlist that’s doing the trick right now. There’s someone who’s made an ever-growing playlist of everything Gilles Peterson has played on his BBC 6Music show, which is handy. Even some of the Spotify out-of-the-box playlists are surprisingly good (though some are predictably terrible).

Some interesting phenomena:

1) there are whole playlists that I absolutely love, but it occurs to me that I would not pay for an album by a single one of the artists;

2) there are some people whose taste in music I really like, but whose playlists completely leave me cold – especially when it comes to their “best of the year” lists;

3) I am currently completely incapable of making a mixtape that I would want to listen to myself, or that I would want someone else to listen to. I tried.

It’s nice to have music curated for you. For all their faults, streaming services allow you to listen to lots of music you might really enjoy, but only really ever want to listen to once or twice, in the right context. Nothing else offers that in quite the same way.

So – I’m back on the Spotify bus for a bit, and I’m enjoying the ride. Perhaps once I come off the industrial strength painkillers, I’ll have different opinions about it. For now, it has exactly the right bedside manner.

I’m after playlist recommendations, of course. Feel free to drop links in the comments or tweet them at me (@dubber).

Do please bear in mind, for the sake of context and to guide your recommendations, that there’s about a foot of snow outside and I’m sitting in an old wooden farmhouse with an open fireplace in a forest in the north of Sweden. I’m quite drowsy, I have pile of pillows at my back and several layers of blankets on top – and I’m not in the mood to get up, get down or wave my hands in the air.

Let’s hear what you’ve got.

The trouble with ‘The Trouble with Uber’

I use Uber from time to time. I’m no apologist for the company – but I found it very useful in Boston, where I first encountered it, as well as in a number of other cities around the world. Over the past few days in London – especially during yesterday’s tube strike, it’s come in very handy. It’s also an extremely good customer interface and service.

This morning, thanks to a Facebook friend, I came across an article in Jacobin about the service. They have come in for some pretty bad press recently – but this article is particularly damning.

“Uber takes 20 percent of my earnings, and they treat me like shit — they cut prices whenever they want. They can deactivate me whenever they feel like it, and if I complain, they tell me to fuck off.”

Uber is, of course, far from unproblematic. But when articles appear explaining that it’s basically worse than Ebola and that the so-called ‘sharing economy’ steals jobs and ruins lives, I tend not to have what I imagine to be the desired reaction. Instead of outrage, I experience deep suspicion.

First, and most importantly, a seriously disruptive business model challenges the status quo. And the status quo usually has the best press contacts. Second, the problem is not the sharing economy model, but the fact that in this particular instance, the model is driven by the logic of corporate capital. Third, while it highlights some important and valid points that need discussing, the article misunderstands or misrepresents employment vs entrepreneurialism as binary (perhaps because Uber also make that false claim in the other direction). The fact is that creating a platform that allows people to earn, and taking a percentage of revenues for providing the architecture and technological back end isn’t inherently corrupt (see, for instance, Bandcamp).

Uber is incredibly problematic, and there would seem to be some particularly unpleasant individuals involved in its management – but there are worse business models. In fact, there are worse business models in the taxi industry. The trouble with this kind of journalism is that it contributes to the rather unhelpful cultural project of dividing the world into goodies and baddies. It is, of course, actually more complicated than that. Things always are.

Michela Magas wrote a very good blog post about this very thing just yesterday.

Dialogue between innovators and legislators needs to be ongoing, and focus on the ethical ‘first principles’ from which the laws arise, rather than from the rules themselves. Disruptive innovation will often be transgressive by nature, but it need not be at odds with what is good for society, culture and the economy.

I’d argue that Uber is in large part a very good idea. It’s certainly a very good customer experience and user interface design. It’s probably even fixable on the ethics front, with some major soul-searching, a bit of legislation and some change of management. But journalists running around shouting ‘burn the witch!’ when people do new stuff smacks rather strongly of a protectionist lobbying position. And that makes me suspicious of the author’s intent… and by extension, the article itself.

And that’s the real “trouble with Uber”. If, as the Jacobin article claims, the business is worth $18b, then somewhere, a budget line allocating large sums of money to swaying popular opinion against them is certainly in somebody’s balance sheet. As a public readership, we have no way of telling where the lines are between PR, journalism and lobbying.

I’m from Hicksville too

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I read Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville last night. It’s a comic book about a comic book author from a town of comic book enthusiasts. It’s been described as “a love letter to the medium” – but it felt to me more complex than that.

It’s about someone exploring their culture, their heritage and their inheritance – the thing that has both provided both the context and connecting thread for their whole lives, but with which they have an uncomfortable and uncertain relationship.

It’s a homecoming after some time in the wilderness – but with a sense of inevitability and resignation about it. Your community is not the people you choose, the people who like you – or even the people who are like you. They are the people you have ended up with.

I haven’t read a comic book (or graphic novel, if you prefer) for a long time, but I’m a fan of the medium and its rich possibilities for narratives using image as well as text. I have enough of a passing understanding of them to recognise a few of the references. I also know about some of the exploitation in the industry, as well as the mythologising and hero creation (of the artists themselves – not just of their flying crime fighters) that goes on.

It reminded me of the music industry – and my own uncomfortable relationship with it. It’s different in many ways, of course – but everything is similarly complex, fraught and mythological. The love for music and the conditions of its production, the dedication that people have for it despite its challenges as a way of life, and the idea of a canon of work that transcends time – and from which people draw inspiration, meaning and worth.

In Hicksville, there’s a troubled artist. There’s a naive enthusiast. There’s a person who ran away. There’s a keeper of the archives. There’s an entire nation literally adrift. There’s a cartoon manifestation of a subconscious torn between enthusiasm and fatalism… and there are love affairs that are lost and broken – as well as an unbreakable connection with the people and places who go to make up a life.

Hicksville made me feel a couple of things quite strongly: we do this (whatever ‘this’ might happen to be) because it helps express who we are and how we are. And that the important bit is the people, whoever they might happen to be.

Oh – and one third thing: that I’d love to write something that caused someone to feel, rather than just to think.

I already own an original Dylan Horrocks sketch. I knew that Hicksville would be good. It was better than I anticipated. I’ll be going back to it again to get more from it – and I’ll be buying his new one, Sam Zabel and The Magic Pen next…