Archive: Zen and the art of not sinking

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Swimming pool

Scary, scary water

I have never really been able to swim. I do have a badge declaring my ability to thrash out one width of a very small pool without dying, and even feel some (misplaced) pride in this achievement. But I’ve never really enjoyed it or relaxed into it.

This was never much of an issue growing up. My only swimming options were the school pool, more chlorine than water, and the sludgy brown oh-so-cold sea of Barry beach, which we’d dare each other to wade into. It was when I went travelling and sat on the shore trying not to sulk as others ducked and dived and clowned around in warm, clear blue water… that was when it occurred to me that I might be missing out. When I tried to join in half-heartedly, to splash around in the shallows, I realised that this went beyond incompetence: being in the water scared me.

And so it was that I found myself on the bus home one evening last year, breathing deeply and holding back tears at the thought of the ordeal before me: my first swimming lesson in thirteen years. I still vividly remember what that meant in school: forty girls in one tiny pool, the non-swimmers herded down one end out of harm’s way and dreading the ‘race’ at the end of the lesson, invariably won by the team that didn’t end up with me. Terrified the whole time, I struggled against the water in rigid panic, and went nowhere.

I can see all this now because I’ve seen a little of how it should be. I’m still pretty far from being able to swim, but I can at least see that I am supposed to relax, to float and glide and above all to enjoy, not to kick and thrash and hyperventilate. There are rare moments where I get it, and achieve more by trying less. Who knows, perhaps I’ll discover my hidden, laid-back consciousness? Om…

Just being able to enjoy the water would do, mind.

From here on January 9th 2008.

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Archive: Boredom, thy name is Martin

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A form

An emergency eye-remover

There is a man in work who sits at the desk across from mine. He likes to talk to me. He tells me little stories about his life. These stories are both unbearably snivelling and staggeringly dull, and they make me want to dig my eyes out with a fork in the vain hope that it might, for one precious second, shut him up.

And believe me, he doesn’t stop at telling me them once. I know all about his life. About his thirty years spent scuttling around the corridors of power, jumping into the shadows at the first sign of responsibility. About his evenings spent bending the ears of bored barmaids the city over before going home to his mum. About how hard it is to be him, despite his best efforts to care for no one in life.

Turning away, typing busily or showing a total lack of interest improves matters not a jot: he just comes and hovers too close for me to feign ignorance. What’s worse, he has recently undertaken to give me advice on my life and career, presumably mistaking my slack-jawed incredulity for grateful awe.

I try my best to be nice, but I will crack one of these days. Some days have been touch and go. I keep a fork in my desk drawer.

Help me.

Please, help me.

 

* All names have been thinly disguised to protect the non-identity of the culprits.

From here on December 4th 2007.

Archive: Front Line Assembly & Stromkern

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Front Line Assembly

Front Line Assembly bring the apocalypse

I couldn’t get into support act Stromkern, much as I tried. Fusing hip-hop and industrial is certainly valiant, and there were flashes of something interesting in there, but… I dunno. Just as I thought they’d reeled me in, they’d go insipid again and I’d be back to hating the guitarist’s idiot gurning. They ended on a high with ‘Heretic’ (listen here), a righteous industrial stomper that shook the roof and finally got my ass moving, but on balance they were pretty missable.

But then we weren’t there to see Stromkern. The anticipation levels were pretty high after a ten-year wait since FLA’s last London appearance, but from the moment they launched into opener ‘Buried Alive’ (from new album ‘Artificial Soldier’) it was clear we were in for a treat. Against a video back-drop showing a suitably dark and corrosive vision of the future, the five-piece cooked up a dance-or-die sonic onslaught, underpinned by some highly impressive live drumming.

Next up was ‘Vigilante’, from the guitar-heavy ‘Millennium’ album. The crowd was already more than happy to go crazy, but the hits kept on coming. Although I was disappointed not to hear some of my favourites from ‘Hard Wired’ and ‘Implode’, each song played was so blistering that it has become a firm favourite in the weeks since the gig.

The set finished with ‘Plasticity’, with the guitarist switching to take on second live drummer role. At this point my grin must have been wider than my face – the one thing I love more than live drumming is crazed apocalyptic live drumming played to a room-full of rivetheads. Great stuff.

Naturally we didn’t let them get away without an encore, and they returned to two Tactical Neural Implant tracks, ‘Gun’ and ‘Mindphaser’. And then, triumphant, they were gone. Here’s hoping I don’t have to wait another ten years to see them again.

From here on September 15th 2006.

Archive: Taiko drumming at Rhythmsticks

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Taiko drums

Tools of the trade

Taiko (太鼓) means ‘big drum’ in Japanese. The drums come in a variety of forms, ranging from small, tuneable shime-daiko to the giant o-daiko, which can be as large as six feet in diameter. Taiko drumming has its origins in shrine ritual and ceremonies connected with the natural world, but has developed over the latter half of the twentieth century into a powerful performance art. Perhaps the best-known Taiko drumming ensemble in the West is Kodo.

I played taiko for two years when I lived in rural Japan, joining a local (but quite accomplished) group called Netaro Daiko. Although I didn’t have any background in percussion, I was fascinated by the thunderous, primal sound of the drums, and by the intensity created by the tempering of fierce aggression with serene, assured control. I begged them in my halting Japanese to let me join, and they kindly accepted.

Over the next two years I trained with the group every Wednesday evening, thwacked the hell out of my sofa at home, and performed at numerous local festivals. I wouldn’t say I was very good, but I did master the ancient Japanese art of ‘poker face’ – mistake, what mistake?

My passion for taiko drumming remains undimmed, and I never pass up an opportunity to see it performed live. Last Saturday (July 22nd) the Rhythmsticks Festival turned its attention to Japan, with the Taiko Master Series. This series features three leading lights in Japanese music: Japanese taiko percussionist Joji Hirota, US taiko master Kenny Endo, and US shakuhachi virtuoso John “Kaizan” Neptune.

Having spent several fruitless weeks trying to get even a sound out of a shakuhachi, I can’t help but marvel at John Neptune’s mastery of, and ease with, the instrument. The shakuhachi is a bamboo flute, with a sharp notch cut into the top producing the sound when blown over in a certain way – a certain very particular way. It’s not an instrument for playing tunes, but has a remarkable range of pitch, tone colour and dynamics, which makes it extremely expressive. To me it seems a very human instrument; the sound is liable to escape in unpredictable directions, to falter and to gather strength again. In the hands of a player as skillful as Neptune, these qualities can be harnessed to create a very moving and thought-provoking sound.The taiko drum is similarly raw and natural-sounding, and the larger the drum skin the more open it is to manipulation.

 

Kenny Endo makes full use of this, playing with the drum’s voice by varying the angle and strength of his strikes, controlling the pitch by placing pressure on the skin, utilising every surface, calmly controlling the sound until it’s time to let it thunder out unchecked. Joji Hirota takes a quieter approach in his solo, creating a beautiful and enveloping atmosphere which subtly tugs at the heart-strings.All three are keen explorers of the full spectrum of musical possibilities, fusing thorough mastery of traditional forms to non-traditional influences – “Tradition as a Basis for Innovation”, as Kenny Endo puts it. At no time is this clearer than the trio’s cheeky nod to Dave Brubeck, a jazzy drum groove overlaid with snatches of the famous “Take Five” melody, played by John Neptune on an Indian Jew’s Harp. With some snatches of South Indian singing thrown in for good measure. It shouldn’t work at all, but in these hands it’s clever and undeniably compelling.

 

This piece in particular has me grinning from ear to ear, but it’s only the highlight of a performance which is both inspired and inspiring from start to finish. Thoroughly recommended for anyone with an interest in Japan, percussion, jazz, fusion, performance art, or just a plain old love of damn good music.

 

From here on July 30th 2006.