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Must we skewer the twee? - click opera
February 2010
 
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Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 05:55 am
Must we skewer the twee?

The theme of childishness, friendliness and naivete is in the air just now here in Berlin. This playful, non-threatening, child-influenced sensibility has not only defined the texture of my forthcoming (well, not even composed!) Friendly Album, it's also the hidden structuring principle behind my network of musical alliances, my friendships, even my love life (and no, I'm not yet on trial for that. I'm talking about childlike adults here, not actual children).



On Thursday night I mp3jed a Japanese pop set at Take Me To Tokyo, a Prenzlauer Berg loft party organised by Julia Guther, who hoped to sell enough of her child-depicting T shirts at 16 euros a pop to raise the money for a flight to Tokyo, where she promises to "promote Berlin style in Tokyo with an exhibition and two concerts in an alternative space". Anne Laplantine's new band (with Alex Holmes) The Massive Crew also played: think African high life, dub, Daisy Age rap, mandolins, triangles and a warm, playful, friendly vibe. Julia's band Guther is signed to Morr Music, who released her album of "sweet city folk music", I Know You Know back in 2003. Pitchfork skewered the record, condemning it for being twee, childish, consumer-friendly, coy, passive, and boring. "Their timid vulnerability and doe-eyed sensitivity positively beg for a Louisville Slugger to the jaw," the review concludes, rather unkindly. I do know where that attitude is coming from, though. The "Twee phenomenon" is one that's haunted my whole indie-schmindie career. Many Creation Records fans were also Sarah Records fans, and Sarah was the home of Twee. We Creation artists (notably the Primals) were desperately keen to shake that element off. So Bobby would talk in interviews about a music which would "lift people out of their skins", and I'd say stuff like "I just wish I could get rid of all these graphic designers from Islington... people who deliberately preserve their innocence should be killed." Of course, the twee didn't die in some huge Stalinist purge. They became Belle and Sebastian fans. Instead of getting sent to Siberia, they rallied on internet boards like Tweenet and Sinister. Many made an annual pilgrimage to Bowlie. They're a surprisingly hardy breed.

So will my Friendly Album see me coming full circle, back to the dreaded "twee" values I so roundly condemned in the 80s? In my case, it's Japan-love that's re-instilled respect for naivete. Around 2001, when I started living in Tokyo, Nobukazu Takemura's label Childisc became my favourite source of what I dubbed Cute Formalism. Later, Paris labels Active Suspension and Clapping Music were added. Women dominated the movement: on Childisc Aki Tsuyuko and Hirono Nishiyama, on Active Kumi Okamoto of Konki Duet. In Berlin I found a parallel in Anne Laplantine (she even had the requisite Japanese connection in her alter ego Michiko Kusaki). The thing to remember about Cute Formalism, though, is that the "formalism" part is as important as the "cute" part: there has to be friendliness and experimentation in equal measure for the formula to work. Anne Laplantine introduced me to "difficult" formalists like Ekkehard Ehlers as well as children's records, and her DJ sets mixed Bernard Parmaggiani with out-of-tune school recorder recordings. The connection works fine: when the environment is friendly, you can experiment. When someone thinks you're cute, you can make a big mess and it doesn't matter. And when you make a big mess, you can come up with new stuff.



Well, kiddy-flavoured indietronica, in league with visual art, computer games, Japan, and folk music, continues to march forward. On April 19th Berlin-based label Staubgold will release Childish Music, a compilation by Ekkehard Ehlers which "attempts to define a new genre". The compilation includes tracks by a shocking number of my recent favourite artists: Fan Club Orchestra, Devendra Banhart, Nobukazu Takemura, Orem Ambarchi, Sketch Show, Lawrence (who contributes a track called, splendidly, Falling Down a Dam of Mashed Potatoes), Maher Shalal Hash Baz, F.S. Blumm, Anne Laplantine, Asao Kikuchi, and Lullatone. Yes, almost the entire kidult indietronica avant garde, from Childisc to Daisyworld, from Scratch Pet Land to hippie wizard Devendra (whose mysterious, tentative records were hanging in the air last night at Kokoro Ramen, as delicious as the food).

Although I disagree that this movement is new, and I wish they'd given more credit to participants like Nobukazu Takemura who, it seems to me, not only pioneered the genre but gave it an unbeatable peak in the form of his 2001 album Songbook (never released in the West), I liked the extensive and interesting discussion of the "childish music" theme in the CD brochure: a round-table talk between Ehlers, Harold "Sack" Zeigler and Michael Krebber. Ehlers says "I'm really interested in the idea of naivety, and I have high expectations of it for the future. When listening to New Music and dealing with complex art -- as all four of us do to an extent -- I occasionally find myself yearning for something completely naive, such as Japanese cartoons. That initial naivete that small children have, sometimes you simply crave that because everything seems a lot simpler and the world is much more colourful and beautiful." To which Krebber adds his amen: "Even though I'm no pedophile I think that this is definitely most fun."



The visual artist closest to Cute Formalist Kidult Indietronica is David Shrigley. He's made T shirts for one of the movement's best labels (Tomlab), and the Active Suspension site is currently looking very Shrigleyesque. (The North American equivalent to David Shrigley is Marcel Dzama, who's done the new Beck sleeve.) I highly recommend these David Shrigley Flash animations hosted by the BBC. Sure, there's something twee about Shrigley's work, but it never quite gets comfortable or predictable or reductive. There's always death, grotesquerie... and lovely forms. Check out the drawings that get winched past on his Conveyor Belt, or the fluid way he renders the vases (and penises) in Ornamental. This is the kind of difficult naivete Picasso (the ultimate kidult) referred to when he said "at 15 I painted like Velazquez; it took me 80 years to paint like a child."

Addendum: Mehdi Hercberg wrote to me from Paris to say "I did the Active Suspension site, and also the Clapping Music site. There's plenty in between Velasquez and David Shrigley. Personally, I'm more inspired by someone like Henry Darger or people like Utamaro, Sharaku, Toshi Saeki, or more recently Yuuichi Yokoyama. You can see my drawings on Shobo Shobo, in the "drawings" section."

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jimyojimbo
jimyojimbo
Dr Jim
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 02:40 pm (UTC)

Argh. I need to find a tracklist for the Childish Music compilation you mention, see how much I have got already.

Sometimes, don't you find Songbook to be a bit, er, too much in one sitting?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 02:46 pm (UTC)

I like long albums, especially when the tone palette is all-of-a-piece. Songbook has something tendentious about it, but the twists and turns are always within a certain register. It keeps up the ostranenie, yet it's also static in a good sense. It's like hearing a child singing to herself or telling herself stories that go on and on...

BTW, I've now listened to clips from the Guther album and it does sound terribly boring. It completely lacks the "formalism" element, the idea of experimentation. Sorry, Julia! Enjoy your trip to Tokyo, anyway! I did like your T-shirts!


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ex_sonjaaa
sonjaaa
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 03:02 pm (UTC)

Nick, you should briefly expand the Wikipedia article about cute formalism. :) :)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 03:38 pm (UTC)

I just tried to, and now there's a notice saying the page is a "candidate for speedy deletion" because "strictly a neologism and a self-advertisement for Nick Currie"! I didn't make the entry, i was just trying to flesh out the definition. Anyway, I'll put my "self-advertisement" here instead.

Cute formalism is a term coined by musician and blogger Nick Currie, aka Momus. In an essay written in Japan in 2001, Currie described how formalism in the Modernist West had always been austere, macho, serious, one of the "high arts", but that a new variety of "cute formalism" was developing in Postmodern Japan. No less experimental, this new formalism managed to be playful, populist, childish or feminine in accent, and "superflat" (the term is borrowed from Japanese artist Takashi Murakami). According to Currie, Cute Formalism is what happens when ostranenie and onanie play themselves out in a social context of low anomie and bonhomie. Ostranenie is Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky's term for the artistic technique of making things strange, onanie is a term for a masturbatory playfulness related, perhaps, to Freud's "polymorphous perversity", anomie is the high levels of crime and social disintegration seen more in the West than in Asia, and bonhomie a pervading atmosphere of unthreatening friendliness and politeness. These necessary pre-conditions explain why Cute Formalism had its genesis in Japan.


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insearch
insearch
Brian
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 03:12 pm (UTC)
Just for fun...

...here's the tail end of something I wrote recently about David Shrigley:

"Shrigley’s preoccupations neatly intertwine to create suggest an impression of him cast as a social misfit--'isolated in his idiosyncrasy, unable to blend in with society,' in the words of one critic--updating the 'solitary artist' Romantic ideal for a slacker generation. The seemingly unedited tide of drawings makes plain his interest in art-as-communication, or even art-as-therapy. Our projection of the drawings’ calculated frailty onto Shrigley’s own identity creates a feedback loop wherein empathy is spread all around. Our laughter is slightly self-conscious because we know our lives could easily play out like a scene he might render."

I think, for Shrigley, the "formalism" you describe is never far from his mind--he thinks about his work more than the naïvete of his style would imply. He is quick sever the link we naturally make between his life and his drawings.


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ensenchiridion
ensenchiridion
an accordion of dos and cants
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 03:19 pm (UTC)

dzama is canadian.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 03:43 pm (UTC)

You're right.


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klasensjo
klasensjo
klasensjo
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 03:44 pm (UTC)

How can one summarize this naive-neo-twee, without mentioning gutevolk. Neglected by most, she has pioneered her own brand of "organ grinder pop" inspired by Mother Goose. Work your way to the video section and enjoy "Strange Dream".
...and I'd really like to hear the Massive Crew.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 03:56 pm (UTC)

I did mention Gutevolk! Hirono Nishiyama (who I've known personally since 1996) = Gutevolk!


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klasensjo
klasensjo
klasensjo
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 04:32 pm (UTC)

joann sfar might qualify. lots of fun to be had and there's an english page, too.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 05:29 pm (UTC)

May I say, apropos nothing at all, that the new Gorillaz single is better than the new Beck single? Thank you.


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charleshatcher
charleshatcher
charleshatcher
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 08:05 pm (UTC)

Its only flaw being the similarity of its chorus to the verses of U2's Staring At The Sun.

*Dashes off to watch Buffy*


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panarchist
panarchist
Designated Sleeper
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 05:49 pm (UTC)

To set the record straight, "Songbook" WAS released in the West, by Bubblecore in 2003. However, I find Takemura's "Child and Magic" (1997?)a better candidate for the poster album of Childish Movement.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 06:13 pm (UTC)

Was it? Oh well, better late than never!


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wrong_posture
Påvêl
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 07:09 pm (UTC)

has anyone seen the video by D. Shrigley for Blur's 'good song'?

http://www.shynola.com/movies/goodsong/goodsong_download.htm


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 07:22 pm (UTC)

Yes, I was going to mention that too. It's touching and disturbing at the same time. It actually re-uses some of the imagery from Folk Music on the BBC site.


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wintercamp
wintercamp
springcamp.
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 08:48 pm (UTC)
Um.

Do you happen to know Asao Kikuchi personally? I do not, but there is this photograph of him on the Childisc page, I think? I can't read Japanese, so perhaps it could be the interviewer, but I always believed it to be him...

THIS IS NOT A WOMAN.

Wow, I am really sorry, I don't know how to make this smaller...forgive me.
Here is where i found it: http://www.childisc.com/pages/asaokikuiinter.htm !

*also, if anyone is reading this and is suddenly curious as to what Asao Kikuchi's music sounds like, PLEASE TAKE IT UPON YOURSELF TO FIND OUT!! S/he is REALLY WONDERFUL.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 09:52 pm (UTC)
Re: Um.

I just realised I said Asao Kikuchi when I meant Aki Tsuyuko! Asao is a guy, Aki a girl. I have some Asao records too, but I prefer Aki's work, it's more purely Cute Formalist (Messaien meets mess).


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kineticfactory
kineticfactory
this is not your sawtooth wave
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 09:49 pm (UTC)

Wouldn't a playful, child-like album play with harmonic tensions (and, indeed, dissonance)? The twee kids (at least the ones on Sarah Records, and the American indie bands who followed this tradition) did this, with their use of skronky lo-fi guitar distortion and such. (Witness Tallulah Gosh/Heavenly, for example.) I imagine something childlike would be at times playfully dissonant and angular in places where more "grown-up" music would be well-behaved.

From what I gathered from your previous posts, you seemed to say that The Friendly Album would have no harmonic tension, and strive for a music of timeless, blissful stasis. This sounds not so much like childhood but as maturity or old age. In fact, another Japanophilic musician, Jeremy Dower (formerly of Melbourne, Australia, but since moved to Tokyo) did an electronic album on a similar concept, titling it "Music For Retirement Villages Circa 2050".


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 09:55 pm (UTC)

Thing about those twee kids is that you never know whether they're being dissonant because they want to be or because they just can't tune their guitars!

The Friendly Album will probably sound exactly like all my other albums in the end... vaudeville songs, General MIDI sounds!


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alexdecampi
alexdecampi
alexdecampi
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 10:06 pm (UTC)

If you're interested in Devendra Banhardt you may also quite like some of the other British Twisted Folk crowd, like The Earlies or The Broken Family Band. And for mad vaudeville/demented seaside carnival music, you really can't beat Flipron.

A bit closer to home for you, in divine Berlin, is the composer/musician Ulrike Haage, who has been going through a bit of a cute-formalist stage herself with her recent work - but with less Japanese influence. Ulrike's a lovely person, she's the girlfriend of a very close friend of mine.


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(Anonymous)
Sat, Mar. 26th, 2005 11:39 pm (UTC)
Miyako Kobayashi?

My favorite J-pop disc ever was/is by Miyako Kobayashi called" Lullabye". A friend gave me a copy (which unfortunately is worn out and scratched at the moment) and I know very little about her. (Though I imagine she would fit in nicely with "cute formalism.) Can someone fill me in?

Justin Lincoln
http://www.iamelliptical.com


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viktorsjoberg
viktorsjoberg
Sun, Mar. 27th, 2005 12:00 am (UTC)

I know that you've brought up Alejandra & Aeron in the past and I think their "The Children's Record" (released as Alejandra & Underwood) deserve to be mentioned.

http://www.luckykitchen.com/lkeditions.html

http://www1.ocn.ne.jp/~jn15/webphoto/jnfm3.jpg


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intergalactim
intergalactim
intergalactim
Sun, Mar. 27th, 2005 01:10 am (UTC)

A&A are also on this Music for Babies cd, on the "lovely experimental music label" Amorfon, which I've been meaning to get for a while.

The Childish Music compilation certainly sounds like a goodie. Just out of curiosity, how many new cd's a week/month/whatever can fit into a "low-calorie lifestyle" (excluding freebies) ?

Also, do you know an english-text mail-order distributor anywhere for the childisc records?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 27th, 2005 07:36 am (UTC)

Anne Laplantine gave me my copy of the Ehlers / Staubgold compilation free because she's on it! The only records I've bought this month have been secondhand vinyl (Walter Carlos "Clockwork Orange" OST, and tons of children's records, folk records, records of Lenin readings etc for one euro each from flea markets) and the Mu album on CD.


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