Thursday, April 18, 2013

SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)

I don't need my music to be intellectual. I'm as much a sucker for melody as the next guy and I have no problem with a catchy tune even if it is about the silliest of topics.

But I also am fascinated by the boundary pushers, by the fringe dwellers, by the writers who will risk alienating the listener with atonal progression or with lyrical subjects that go beyond what is traditionally covered in mainstream pop music.

No one goes further in this direction than Scott Walker. Until 1995's "Tilt" his catalog is bizarre from time to time but there is always a melody to hang your hat on. Lyrically he might be challenging or difficult but his singing and the orchestration could always be counted on to settle into something pleasing at the very least and achingly beautiful at the best moments.

From "Tilt" onwards, Walker has been steadily exploring areas of music that are farther and farther away from traditional song structure and melody.

Atonal music can seem the refuge of the melodically challenged. So when someone with the melodic gifts of Scott Walker goes down that road, it carries more weight for me. It's like Charlize Theron in "Monster". When you consider how she COULD have looked to play the part, how she COULD have portrayed herself, the invisible absence adds power. Scott Walker is simply no longer interested in traditional melody.

Many of his original fan base find this trend to be deliberately off-putting. They long for the killer combo of challenging lyrical content with impossible orchestral beauty.

But Scott Walker has other things in mind.

Take "SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)" from last year's "Bish Bosch". I would post a link but it is almost twenty two minutes long. It opens with Walker's voice alone and then goes places that are so out there that they seem alien, past humanity. The difference between this and a normal song is like the difference between an episode of "Seinfeld" and Matthew Barney's "Cremaster" cycle.

I won't even attempt to describe the sounds. To really grasp what Walker is after, you must know the intellectual underpinnings that keep the song from collapsing in on itself. The SDSS14+13B in the title is actually the name/location of a brown dwarf, the "SDSS" standing for Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Zercon is the name of an actual human dwarf, a jester in the court of Attila the Hun. He is not a fictional character. His name is contained in records kept by Chinese emissaries sent to engage in diplomatic negotiations with Attila.

And "flagpole sitting" was a fad in the early 20th century where someone would make a platform on top of a flagpole and sit up there for as long as they could stand.

How are these three disparate things connected? Walker doesn't leave this to your imagination. In the liner notes to "Bish Bosch", he explains his thinking. Zercon is performing for Attila. The conditions are heinous. In spite of his exalted position, he is still exposing himself to derision and scorn with each performance, his master is one of the more brutal figures in history and any kind of escape to comfort is impossible.

Zercon, while enduring taunts and jeers,through his imagination attempts to raise himself out of the Hell on earth he is trapped in. He projects himself forward in time, searching for a higher position. He manages to locate the early 20th century, becoming a flagpole sitter. But here too he must endure the taunts of onlookers so he projects himself higher and higher. Eventually his despair propels him so high that he is transformed from a human dwarf into a brown dwarf.

But the irony is that brown dwarves are stars that have cooled to the point that they no longer emit light. Or, in other words, they are dead. His attempt at escape, while spectacularly successful in a variety of ways, is ultimately his undoing.

So now that you've been properly warned, here is a link to a youtube video of the whole song in all of its twisted glory.

Scott Walker's "SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)".


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