April 22, 2010

Canada Book Day.

April 23 is Canada Book Day, as well as World Book and Copyright Day, devised to raise awareness and interest for books, to promote reading, publishing, and — in the case of the international day — the protection of "intellectual property" (an unfortunate euphemism that leads to all manner of faulty reasoning about knowledge.)

The day is intended to be a celebration of books as a key instrument of knowledge and freedom, as well as an opportunity to consider the contribution of books to humanity's wealth and cultural heritage. Canada Book Day was first organised through the Writers' Trust of Canada, a national, charitable organisation supporting anglophone literature. Which — for the second year in a row — has no plans for any special events this year worth communicating to the general public.

No other organisation or level of government has stepped in to lead celebrations, and the day has been preceded by no promotion whatsoever. In fact, most Canadians are unware the day has supposedly been the focal point of Canada Book Week since 2003.

World Book and Copyright Day on the other hand is organised by UNESCO, which adopted the day at its General Conference in 1995. The date was selected as it had been celebrated since 1923 as el dia del llibre (The Day of the Book) in Spain. There, a thrifty bookseller in Barcelona — the publishing capital of both Catalonia and Spain — had begun to promote April 23, also known as el dia de la rosa (The Day of the Rose) or St. George's Day, with a combination of books and roses.

The idea was ostensibly to honour the nearly simultaneous deaths of Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare; the date also happens to be the date of birth of other prominent authours such as Halldór Laxness and Vladimir Nabokov. It has since become one of the world's largest book swapping events, with half of the the total yearly book sales in Catalonia (estimated at 400.000 titles) taking place on April 23.

This year, UNESCO hopes to highlight "the need to preserve creativity from piracy" during the day, hoping to impress readers worldwide that "there can be no book development without respect for copyright". Yet the agencies' botched website mainly reveals a most casual interest in the issue, perhaps fostered by the assumption (particularly in the so called "developed world") that the business of books is thriving, and reading therefore in no need of special support.

Despite the arrival of e-books and the ascendency of electronic media, printing is still a booming business with more than half a million publishing houses worldwide. Rather than replacing the traditional media the new technologies seem only likely to augment and complement printed reading matter, presenting no more a threat to its existence than elevators do to stairs.

Certainly, in the so called "developed world" books and reading do not appear imperiled. Only 31% of Canadian adults reported not reading a single book for pleasure in 2007, while those who read regularly consumed more than 20 titles during that year. On average Canadians spent 4.5 hours reading per week, though with roughly 50,000 titles published annually in Canada that's barely time to keep abreast. Little wonder the Writer's Trust perceives no need for a day of special events and celebration.

Nevertheless, the glowing numbers in Canada and elsewhere obscure the glaring imbalance and extreme difficulties in accessing books that persist worldwide. Even in Canada access to books could easily be threatened: in 2006, Indigo with 230 stores nationwide accounted for 44 % of domestic book sales — 67% if online, mail-order, and sale at university and college bookstores are excluded. Which potentially means that if Indigo choses not to carry a book the publisher of that title loses access to half of the Canadian retail channel.

Since special events appear to be few and far between this coming Canada Book Day, and World Book and Copyright Day, one suggestion would be to simply read at one's own behest. Another, as the date alludes to the Catalonian tradition of book swapping, would be to gift someone a book. Or to visit a local library — maybe even bring a contribution or two to its collection.

Note: this is a slightly updated version of an article originally published on April 21, 2009.

April 10, 2010

Violently Alive.

Portion Control have gone pop. Not in the sense that thirty years into their career they've suddenly decided to pander to a mainstream palate. But they haven't been this close to producing conventional electronic dance music since the release of Step Forward in 1984: Violently Alive is their most cohesive, coherent, consistent, and most easily consumed recording to date.

As the rapid fire string of releases since the band's unexpected 2003 renaissance has demonstrated, Portion Control mastered the soundscape of an automated world falling apart long before Autechre, Aphex Twin and other contemporary agents of abstract, abrasive ambient music — generally perceived as pioneers — had sorted their gear out.

Yet, save for Blood Loss and the closing You Hold Me Down, the unconventional, free-form pieces are held back on Violently Alive in favour of customarily structured vocal tracks with an average length of three and three-quarters of a minute. Portion Control's hallmark electro punk — complete with samples of film dialogue which, though once ubiquitous in the genre, are now lent a subversive bent by the increasingly fashionable copyright posturing — blends seamlessly with strictly controlled doses of techno and trance.

Despite breaking their methodically monotonous grooves up with a surprising (for Portion Control) number of key changes, their recordings still lend themselves to mixing, remixing, and mashing up in all of its various permutations. Which isn't to say that their intrinsically woven sonic tapestry is unfinished, but rather that the recording isn't necessarily the final artifact. It's meant to be augmented, to evolve; a true cyberpunk product which doesn't attain its full potential until the street finds a use for it.

Thematically, the band continue unravelling the layers of "Onion Jack" Britain, a society enamoured with the idea that constant surveillance, stripping inhabitants and visitors alike of their basic liberties, sacrificing respect in order to "protect", is a panacea for its ills. Dean Piavani's south London snarl gives voice to characters attempting to attain an ever-elusive freedom, while enduring a state of unmitigable control.

With minimal, menacing musical motifs, pithy lyrics exuding paranoid defiance, and packaging with all the charm of surveillance imagery, Portion Control skillfully evoke this technologically saturated, paranoid state, where your movements are tracked, your habits mapped, public transit cards remember where you've been, employee ID cards report when you showed up for work, when you left, and where you went within the compound. Cellphones pinpoint your location, disclose who you call, from where, and how often. Credit card records etch your transactions in time, as do airline tickets — even if you pay cash.

Web browsers constantly add to the significant cache of online data accumulating about you. Cameras are mounted in police cruisers, hang from trees in parks, are fixtures in public places, sports stadiums, shopping malls. Heralds of a new mental ice age, whose defendants claim that if you've nothing to hide you've got nothing to fear, even as you're being habituated to accept heightened levels of scrutiny by unseen eyes for increasingly mundane activities. Like borrowing a book (or Portion Control album) from your local library.

It's a place permeated by threats of violence from an intentionally loosely defined entity, allowing Cold War rhetoric, military symbols and myths to regain prominence. Military heroics, bunker politics, and "us versus them" mentality has been resurrected. It's a scenario reminiscent of contemporary Britain, with its close to 60,000 CCTV cameras operated by local authorities (some 10,500 operated by police in undisclosed locations), and perhaps as many as 4.2 million cameras total when private "security" systems are taken into account — though no one appears to know for sure.

Curiously, Violently Alive contains yet another entry in Portion Control's catalogue entitled Waste, which save for a brief mention of "a reckless soul", has little in common with its namesake track on the band's previous album, 2008's Slug. No doubt providing plenty of opportunity for confusion at Portion Control performances, should the band ever solicit requests.

From the sheer techno workout of Extraction to the bouncy electro punk of Relapse, Portion Control provide a darker, more experimental edge often missing in alternative electronic music produced in Northern Europe — and in contrast to the rock-infused alternative electronic music of North America. Violently Alive is their best album to date, as crucial listening for fans of the genre as 1982's groundbreaking I Staggered Mentally, and the most incisively honed collection of recordings in Portion Control's catalogue thus far.


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