The Lost Karaoke Tapes

I’m impressed. Nicole Lizée has more reason to be pompous & full of herself than any composer or performer I know. But she seems to be totally unpretentious.

Exhibit “A”: the piece we saw & heard tonight is called “Karappo Okesutura Volume 3”. The word “karaoke” is buried in there, but perhaps more important?

Just try to say that first word out loud without laughing.  I dare you.

Tonight we watched a powerful hour of music performed by the composer plus the Australian Art Orchestra presented by Soundstreams, including a remarkable video from the composer accompanying the composition. OR is the music accompanying the video? They were created at the same time, inextricably connected.


Composer Nicole Lizée (photo: Murray Lightburn)

We the audience experienced something deep & powerful. One might not expect profundity from karaoke.

In the talkback Lizée admits she has a fascination with karaoke even though she dodged the obvious question when asked if she likes karaoke.

Did I mention that she’s unpretentious?

Exhibit “B” could be the excerpts of the songs that we encounter suggesting an autobiographical subtext: except that might be taking it too seriously.

  • “You’re the one that I want” from Grease, arguably the most popular film musical of all time and certainly popular when Lizée was young.
  • “I wear my sunglasses at night” by Corey Hart
  • A little bit of Mr Dressup with Casey & Finnegan
  • “Turn me loose” by Loverboy, especially a bit of the bass & the synth from the beginning
  • The theme from St Elmo’s Fire for piano, the distinctive sound of the ‘80s courtesy of David Foster (as I wondered in this tune without a vocal: was this something Lizée played at the piano herself? I recall having had an arrangement of the tune. Or maybe she was just fishing for something evocative and yes, with a Canadian connection).
  • “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette: but only a bit of the loudmouth in the loud green sweater part (in the backseat)

I may have missed a couple..?

In the talk-back afterwards we were told that this, the third installment in the series of pieces exploring Karaoke (something I need to explain more fully), was meant to have a Canadian connection.

But from what I’ve said you’d never guess at the depths, the remarkable music made from the source material. I’m scrambling for reference points, to attempt to properly do justice to what we saw & heard.

In the talkback Lizée used a word I was thrilled to hear namely “foreground”, suggesting at the very least that she’s thinking in terms of visual art or film as she composes &  conceptualizes the music. I’m reminded of minimalists such as Philip Glass or Bernard Herrmann, whose texture might remind you of an accompaniment looking for a melody, with nothing really in the foreground: just endless background.

But we didn’t just get pattern music. There’s so much more. So let’s go back to what one gets in karaoke. Remember first of all that pop songs are designed to be simple,  transparent rather than full in texture. Now imagine that you’ve taken that frail little construct and you removed the chief point of interest, namely the vocal line.

What’s left? When they remove the melody leaving only the backup bass & percussion plus possibly some accompaniment, there’s really not much there.

I love the nerdiness of this ongoing project, that she could make those bare hulks (meaning karoake accompaniments) the basis for her compositions. You have to love the elegance of it, making music from something that’s in a sense anti-musical, a crude commercial product as the basis for something beautiful.  It’s like making a cordon bleu quality meal using Kraft cheese. I haven’t heard the earlier episodes, so I can only imagine. But what we heard and saw was gripping & powerfully absorbing. There’s a word I must use that is regularly misused that applies here. Lizée deconstructs these pieces into their constituent parts: or at least some of them. At times we’re still hearing something sufficiently recognizable to be able to laugh about it.  At least that’s how the first song (the one from Grease) came across, with plenty of Olivia Newton-John & John Travolta smirking & posing, even as the song wasn’t really allowed to play. We were being teased at this point, and it would go much further.

The songs at times resemble covers or adaptations: but we’re in different territory now, as the results aren’t intelligible in the usual ways. There are places where the ensemble, including vocalist Georgie Darvidis, would seem to be impersonating the effect of someone messing with playback as one does when one scratches a turntable or messes with the speed of a tape: but as Lizée admitted in the talkback it’s all scored. Those places where the orchestra and vocalist all seem to shudder in synchronization, adjusting pitch & pace: are all clever effects on the page.

Speaking of visual art, I’m reminded powerfully of Maurice Denis’ admonition, that might irritate Lizée (and I’m not sure she’ll like me bringing this up). Denis said
“Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors.”

When we hear all those fragmentary phrases, while watching all these fractured movements and smeared colours on the video, one might want to go in the direction of Robert Wilson, as in Einstein on the Beach, where the movements suggest pure movement & energy without motivation or subtext random numbers & phrases. We might: until we see one of Lizée preoccupations. She’ll have a video of someone (Alanis or Corey Hart for instance), and we’ll see the face and then a little shovel comes and digs into the surface on the image. Denis could scream with indignation, that Lizée would posit something deep. She said “We go down a rabbit hole and out the other side.” However shallow the images may seem she wants us to know that they have depths and are not just surfaces, and too bad Denis if you think otherwise.

The performance matches that quest for depth, the commitment of the players. As Lizée said in acknowledging her collaborators from down under, the music “needs a special group of players to breathe life into it.” And so it was.

I’ve heard her music before, but this time was different. In all the others, I never actually saw her play, notwithstanding that wonderfully hands-on image of the composer holding a tape-deck.

Here she becomes more of a Liszt or a Gershwin, the composer as virtuoso albeit not in the pianistic way of those two men. We are again in that wonderful threshold between popular and serious that we visited with Scott Walker. But while we are given a whiff of popular culture we are exploring something very deep. If I may invoke Liszt again, I’m reminded, with the music built of semi-recognizable fragments, of his Valses oubliées, that are about memory & forgetting, about cliché and style that at times invoke the whole question of perception & even dementia as we confront the limits of our brains.

Holy cow this is amazing music. Sorry there was only one concert. But she’ll be back, perhaps with this music, certainly with other works.

This entry was posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Popular music & culture, Psychology and perception, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Lost Karaoke Tapes

  1. Peter Knight says:

    Love this review. Thank you! Just discovered it, and it’s a fascinating contemplation of the music!

  2. Pingback: Nicole Lizée Undisrupted: A Guide to The Orchestra | barczablog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s