Ten brilliant things #2: Part One
I’ve less time these days (which is not an excuse so much as a cry for help) so you’ll have to get this in two doses. Sorry.
These are the ten best things that have been a part of my life this autumn. They should probably be a part of your life too if they haven’t been already and here’s why.
For The Widows In Paradise; For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti – Sufjan Stevens
I’ve loved this song for a year now but it wasn’t until wilfully-obscure-band promoter James Melley (il presidente tours and promotions) pointed out that it’s the closest to musical perfection he’s ever heard that I realised just how good it is. Listen closely as the intertwining left/ right panned banjos cushion safety/ before the perfectly understated half-chords of a dusty piano throw a warm blanket of sunlight over your head.
Sufjan makes incredible music at an incredibly prolific rate – the kind of music that takes months to fully reveal its intricacies and depth. I hope I die before he stops making music so that his is a story never fully told to me.
IBM 1401, a User´s Manual – Johann Johannsson
I’m fairly sure this is the first time I’ve mentioned Johann Johannsson on Chewing Pixels which makes me an idiot and, those readers who don’t know him yet a little poorer.
The Icelandic composer’s latest is a concept album featuring five instrumentals thematically tied by an ancient computer. Each is played by a sixty-piece string orchestra. It’s the kind of music I try but fail to make in my head.
Concepts rarely come cuter as Johansson explains: “In 1964, the IBM 1401 Data Processing System arrived in Iceland as one of the very first computers to be imported into the country. The chief maintenance engineer for the machine was Jóhann Gunnarsson, my father. A keen musician, he learned of an obscure method of making music on this computer – a purpose for which the business machine was not at all designed. The method was simple. The computer’s memory emitted strong electromagnetic waves and by programming the memory in a certain way and by placing a radio receiver next to it, melodies could be coaxed out – captured by the receiver as a delicate, melancholy sine-wave tone.
“When the IBM 1401 was taken out of service in 1971, it wasn’t simply thrown away like an old refrigerator, but was given a little farewell ceremony, almost a funeral, when its melodies were played for one last time. This “performance” was documented on tape along with recordings of the sound of the machine in operation.”
It’s these recordings (along with his father’s voice) that are incorporated in this album.
Incelandic musicians have a minor chord spirituality that underpins much of their work that seems otherworldly, fragile, complex and alien to my fast-food hearing. Listen and buy.
Final Fantasy XII
Nearly all of the reviews of the latest Final Fantasy game for PlayStation 2 (released in the US last Monday) have been fawning.
This is because, along with being extremely polished and pretty, the game is surprising. Conventions so deeply furrowed ione imagined the developers could never climb out have been skipped over and new paths uncovered. The ease and fluidity of the changes to the game’s various systems is certainly arresting. But, as well all know by now (right?), surprising and polished doesn’t necessarily mean good or successful.
The one review that has been less enthusiastic so far complains that in spending so much time on getting the macro changes to the format to work the developer has neglected micro details such as character motivations etc. This, and indeed all the other complaints the reviewer levels at the game, I mostly agree with (although not particularly the awkward way he says them). But, nevertheless, 24 hours in and I’m still finding this game compulsive playing.
I can see the flaws but I’m suckered in. Whether I’ll last the distance to the conclusion Im not sure but, at time of writing, I intend to and, that I’m not already disinterested testifies to some considerable success when set against its competitors.
The inevitable backlash against the game will hit hard and hit soon so if you’re intending to play this I urge you not to read anything more about it. In fact, the more time goes on the more I’m convinced that the best way to enjoy videogames is not to read anything about them at all.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
I‘ve drooled on about Mitchell long enough for you all to be bored by now but really, seriously, please: things this good traditionally don’t exist.
Mitchell’s ideas are the kinds of ideas I’d like to think I might have if I chose to write a book but I’m now too scared to find out that I probably couldn’t.
Cloud Atlas is structured like six books opened to their centre pages where the staples sit and slotted inside one another. So you read half of the first one then the first half of the second and so on until you reach the halfway point of the collection and start the second halves in turn. The final section completes the very first section if that makes sense.
I’ve nearly finished and am astonished. As one friend said: ‘I can’t imagine anybody not liking this book: just liking it to varying degrees’. If you like Harry Potter or storylines in videogames then read this. Not because they are at all similar but because you’ll see what Good looks like.
The West Wing Series 1 – Episode 14
So many years late to the West Wing but, as Sorkin’s Studio 60 coughs and splutters to what looks like will be an inevitable and cold pre-Christmas grave, I wanted to see what made so many people I respect testify to the writer/ director’s genius.
The opening few episodes of Series One seem clunky and awkwardly paced – and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t just due to me being unused to the ensemble cast yet.
But, as the series develops, the dialogue, pace and wit settles and shines and it reveals itself to mostly be one of the best things I’ve seen on TV – even if the dialogue is frequently preposterous.
This particulr episode is comfortably the best drama I’ve ever seen with the American death penalty as its theme. As President Bartlet spends the weekend deciding on whether to commute the death sentence of a man convicted of drug-related murders, the narrative darts between points of valid view before unfurling an unexpected and exquisite conclusion. This screenplay should be required reading for anybody trying to find a view on the issue, as well as those who flick the switch/ drain the needle.