February 14th, 2008


YouTube as folk music

Electronic composer Midori Hirano is in Berlin just now at the invitation of the Berlinale; she's also playing a show on Friday night at the Electronic Church. I last saw her in June in Kyoto, where we ate a meal consisting entirely of different types of tofu.

Hisae and I invited Midori to dinner last night. After delicious dishes of shepherd's pie and banana cake (no tofu this time!) accompanied by projections of the semi-ambient films of Werner Nekes, I broke out the electric harmonium and Midori treated us to an impromptu version of Silviphobia, the track she made for o.lamm's last album. In fact, it was slightly "promptu"; Midori needed the Silviphobia video itself to remind her of all the song's different sections.

From that, free association on air-powered keyboards (Midori) and selected, projected internet (me) led us somehow to Airships by Metallic Falcons, a band involving CocoRosie's Sierra Casady:

The desert theme and the beautiful dirgelike sound in Airships seemed to be a direct reference to Nico's "Desertshore". Midori had never heard the album, so I cued up the Japanese trailer for La Cicatrice Intérieure, the brilliant film Philippe Garrel made with Nico in 1972, basically a haunting longform video for "Desertshore" featuring Nico and her son Ari:

Garrel seems to have blocked any DVD release of La Cicatrice Intérieure (I watched it -- repeatedly -- in Tokyo in 2001 on an old VHS tape rented from Tsutaya), but there's a torrent of some sort here. I love Nico's "harmonium phase" -- songs where she's accompanied by nothing but her "throne of doom". They strike exactly the right balance between music and noise, avant and trad, and take me somewhere very beautiful, somewhere I feel better for visiting, despite the bleakness of the landscape.

Here's an interview she did with Pop 2, a French rock show, also in 1972, which shows her pumping the "throne of doom" and singing live:

After Midori had disappeared into the night (leaving behind an improv composition she'd played into my sequencer), I got to watching some new YouTube videos using my songs. Well, they were new to me, anyway, and they seemed to express YouTube's typical tics as well as its ceaseless expansion.

There was a video of Spooky Kabuki featuring a rippling electronic skeleton, a version of Mnemorex with someone halfheartedly making a stuffed orange rabbit dance, an anime video of Situation Comedy Blues and a quieter vid of the same song just featuring my head spinning around on the record label.

There was a race-track take on one of my better "lost" songs, The Hippy Analog Portapak Video Revolution, a reading of Summer Holiday 1999 just featuring the static cover of the album, a predictable Johnny Depp-ized Is it because I'm a Pirate? with the description "the song "is it because im a pirate" by the band momus not very good but if the images were better it would be funny" (luckily all the commenters liked the song better than the video), someone's holiday photos set to Rhetoric (it was odd to hear the lines "the lovely owl upon the bough is swooping down for me / the brambles tangle round and round far as the eye can see" and see a family seated around the dinner table) and a real-life reformed drug addict singing the song I wrote with an imaginary reformed drug addict narrator, Saved.

It occurred to me that this is a vital form of folk culture, and that, while folk forms may have followed Nico into the left field or disappeared into ethnographic museums, popular contemporary folk improvisation is more likely to happen on YouTube these days than any barnyard hootenanny, and as likely to use computers and video projectors as pump organs, banjos and harmoniums. I say that based as much on self-observation as mass observation; the way I use YouTube has become a stream-of-consciousness, a train-of-association in which I jump from one "note" to another. Rather like an improvising folk musician, in fact, or an electronic hobo jumping trains.