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V/A - Childish Music

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Artist: V/A

Album: Childish Music

Label: Staubgold

Review date: Aug. 4, 2005

A few years ago, musician-cum-critic Momus unveiled his ‘theory’ of ‘Cute Formalism.’ He used the example of Japanese culture, which he claimed is all about form, concluding therefore that in Japan, ‘god is in the details… [and therefore] Form itself is god.’ From there it is a simple conceptual leap to ‘god is tiny’, and ‘tiny is cute’, and on, to ‘cute is a child.’ (To be fair, Momus’s analysis is far more nuanced than this simplistic summary.) Cute Formalism is the squaring of a circle, the combination of supposedly dissonant aesthetics (formalism is, traditionally, rigorous, tough and adult, whereas cute is flippant, kitschy, and childish). Cute Formalism frees the artist from the need to make-serious their creativity.

Momus has heralded Staubgold’s Childish Music compilation, overseen by Ekkehard Ehlers, as a manifestation of Cute Formalism. It is true that the best songs on Childish Music share a similar sense of the strange and naïve as previous Cute Formalist works by Nobukazu Takemura and Aki Tsuyuko. Nonetheless, Childish Music struggles with a simple problem: one person’s charming naïveté is another’s sopping-wet twee. There are beautiful songs here, such as the meandering acoustic guitars and sidereal buzzes of RdL’s “mn2,” the jangling folk of Arrow Tour’s “Humidity of Mountains,” or Maher Shalal Hash Baz’s charming “Good Morning.” And while someone may occasionally upset the idyll, as with the ghostly back-masked voices spooling through Oren Ambarchi’s “Creepy Crawl,” too many contributions on the album tend toward the mushy.

Childish Music rests on some questionable assumptions. Do children only want to hear music-box motifs and light-hearted and -headed refrains? Childish Music implies that children live in a bucolic otherworld where they engage in endless play. There is little sense here of the steep learning curve of childhood, of the sense of perpetual engagement and wonder of children’s discoveries, of their encounters with both plenitude and lack. Childish Music tends too often toward the asinine, resting on adult assumptions of childhood. This music is conceptualised as childish by adults working through their nostalgia. What we need is a child-like music, which re-encounters the surprise and wonder of one’s early years without rejecting one’s learning and experiences – something much closer to the pleasures of Cute Formalism, where knowing aids the creation of extraordinary, eldritch pop music.

By Jon Dale

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