As part of our music-themed month on the blog, we’ve been asking our authors to talk us through four songs that have in some way shaped their writing. Sam Byers’s selections span the outer limits of classical, techno, jazz and R&B.
Beethoven, played by The Lindsays, ‘Grosse Fugue in B Flat, Op 133’ (ASV)
‘Fiendishly complicated and critically vilified from the moment of its first performance (likened, hilariously, to both an apocalypse and the Tower of Babel), Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue feels less like the conclusion to a string quartet and more, at times, like a meticulously plotted fever-dream. Every time I see it performed I feel a sense of thrilling fear. The demands it places on both audience and performers are monstrous, but it’s no mere technical exercise. Through its churning surface, which flirts repeatedly with total chaos, profound and complex emotions emerge. It’s relentless; exhausting, but cathartically so.
Squarepusher, ‘Ultravisitor’ (Warp)
Like all the best dance music, this ageing classic explores and deconstructs the space between the metronymic monotony of the strictly mechanistic and the flowing, unpredictable beauty of the organic. Squarepusher is fascinated by a machine’s mistakes. Through repurposing what might be thought of as error, he introduces instability. At his best, he’s able to do this without sacrificing coherence. Apex Twin once remarked of Squarepusher that he’s the kind of person who wants to know what the holes in a flute sound like without the flute. Quite what the prose equivalent of this might be I’m not entirely sure, but I feel it’s always hanging around in my head, not just as an aesthetic aim, but as a way of thinking in the first place.
Dawn Richard, ‘Adderall/Sold (Outerlude)’ (Our Dawn Entertainment)
For me, Dawn Richard is one of the most exciting artists working today – a thrilling riposte to the lazy critique of R&B as a kind of ultra-commercial anti-art. Her lyrics often centre on adversity, but the real struggle is the one she enacts in her music, in which she often seems to be battling the sonic forces she has amassed around her. Her voice drifts in the mix: bright and clear one minute, lost in a dense landslide of futuristic noise the next. This particular song, a central standout from her triumphant Blackheart album, bursts with ideas, and seems always to be evolving: appropriating, inhabiting, and ultimately inventing genres as it unfolds.
Cecil Taylor, ‘The Willisau Concert, Part 2’ (Intakt Records)
All the artists I’ve listed here are rule-benders, but Taylor goes all the way into what is effectively an alternate dimension, one where all conventions of time and space are dismantled. His music is entirely improvised. It is frequently dissonant: a roiling, heaving swell of notes through which moments of extraordinary beauty penetrate and into which they are again subsumed. But the critical point here is that it is also breathtakingly precise.Taylor’s ability to turn, on a sixpence, from a sustain-soaked roar to a dampened whisper is, I think, mesmerising, as is the way he is able to embrace transience, and, by extension, force his audience to embrace it too. Ideas and feelings in Taylor’s music are glimpsed as they whirl past. The urge is to try and fix them in place, extend them, delay their departure somehow, but you can’t, because the moment you notice them, they’re gone. This solo concert features Taylor at his favourite piano – a Bosendorfer. He followed a support act and was supposed to play after the intermission, but he was both drawn to the piano and uninterested in anyone’s else’s idea of a schedule, and so concert-goers returned to their seats to find him already playing. This is, I think, how we always experience Taylor’s music, and how we ideally experience great art: not waiting for us to find our seats and get comfortable, but already off and racing away, daring us to catch up or be left behind.’
Words by Sam Byers
Idiopathy is out now.
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