Visible cracks, real and illusory

Sunday 15 November 2015

(Originally posted on 6 February 2008.)

As has been proved many times before, it is foolish to pass judgement on a work of art before seeing it for yourself. I finally saw Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth at the Tate Modern.

There has been plenty of discussion about the artwork since it was first installed – what it means, how it was made, whether or not it’s any good – so much that it is impossible to not be aware of its existence, nor of what the work consists of. (It’s a crack running the length of the floor in the Tate’s Turbine Hall, growing wider and deeper as it descends from one end to the other.) You could picture the entire installation in your head, except for one little detail that I’ve never heard mentioned when people discuss their visits to see it. At close range, the crack is revealed to be an obvious fabrication, with no attempt to conceal the wire forms embedded in the concrete.

For the weekend crowds peering inside its depths, or hopping back and forth over it, Shibboleth may as well be invisible if its success depends on the interpretation given to it by the artist and the museum:

In particular, Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world. ‘The history of racism’, Salcedo writes, ‘runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side’. … In breaking open the floor of the museum, Salcedo is exposing a fracture in modernity itself. Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception.

Even ignoring the fact that the history of racism runs parallel to the history of everything, it’s hard not to read this as a fatuous piece of funding-speak. You don’t have to doubt Salcedo’s personal background and beliefs that support her art to see that her public interpretation of her own art reduces Shibboleth to a one-liner, simplistic and ineffectual. The installation is as much a tourist attraction as the building that houses it. Salcedo may be “keen to remind us” of “the existence of a huge socially excluded underclass”, but Shibboleth, in this context, utterly fails to fulfil her intention.

(Strangely, for all her talk of schisms and exclusions, the only interpretations I’ve seen of the formative mesh in the crack have been either abstractly structural or overly symbolic. I would have thought it made an obvious point that apparently natural divisions in race or religion turn out under closer scrutiny to be artificial, human constructs. Then the art could at least function in its own way as a neat little metaphor, if little more.)

In fact, Salcedo makes out her installation to be less of a work of art than it really is, although its true power may be of a type she did not intend, or even recognise.

The immediate image conveyed by Shibboleth when seen plain, beguilingly forging its path of destruction through the crowds inevitably wandering the Turbine Hall, is not one of division but of entropy. Starting almost undetectable at the high end of the hall, it is allowed to progress, or rather deteriorate, along the floor unchecked until it has opened up into a real tripping hazard for visitors. The image of a cultural institution whose foundations have been permitted to shift, and so decay, is potent; but in the Western World of the early 21st century it speaks to a different dilemma than the artist intended.

The Tate’s claim that the crack “encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves” isn’t exactly true. In truth, its presence embodies our culture’s current readiness to doubt itself, and to question its own origins, validity, and integrity – with little or no outside encouragement. The entropy was built into the system. This self-examination and picking apart of the social assumptions that underpin our culture could lead to renewal, or to disintegration. For a jaded society of sophisticates, the threat of destruction and disaster is extremely seductive. (As one reviewer says, “Salcedo’s cut is always varied and pleasurably violent. I’m not sure the pleasure is intended.”)

Salcedo’s professed aim to expose the dark side of modernity began within modernism itself in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. In 1949, Charles Olson reflected on the inability of modernism to cope with the fragmentary nature of reality – it is no coincidence he had invented the word “post-modern” the year before – and wrote in his poem “The Kingfishers”:

When the attentions change / the jungle
leaps in
               even the stones are split
                                                       they rive

Postscript to John Cage and Counterpoint

Sunday 1 November 2015

I’ve made a small but vital amendment to yesterday’s post. I should have said “John Cage sucked at counterpoint,” not that he “sucks at counterpoint”. It may have been one of his personal weaknesses, but it did not carry over into his music. Thanks to Philip Thomas for pointing out this error, by tweeting to me that “I think almost all the music since 1951 is great counterpoint. Stuff on top of other stuff.”

I pretty much agree, and this actually gets to the point of what I was trying to say. Just going back to the Morton Feldman interview I quoted. Feldman also recites the “no feeling for harmony anecdote” and adds, “but like anybody else who had no interest in harmony, he found that which freed music from harmony. He found his Zen for polyphony” (my emphasis). Peter Gena replies, “The rhythmic structure aspect which allows sounds and silences” (ditto). Soon after, their exchange continues:

GENA: So if Duchamp really did free the mind from the eye, to that extent he moved away from craft and picked on ready-mades.

FELDMAN: Especially if you had two left hands, like Duchamp. I mean he was better with a ruler. Once he took up a ruler, he was fine.

GENA: Yes, he was interested in mechanical drawing. Accordingly, Cage talked about his terrible ear for harmony, and once he took up the ruler, as it were, which was time grids and rhythmic structures, it was wonderful. So Cage freed the sounds because he wanted to put them outside of the harmonic context.

FELDMAN: I didn’t bring up Schoenberg’s remark about John’s lack of interest in harmony to imply what you’re trying to say. I said that Duchamp picked up the ruler, not Cage.

GENA: What did Cage pick up?

FELDMAN: He picked up the eraser! He’s bluffing. He’s a Duchamp in Cagean ears. He’s bluffing. He has impeccable ears.

They continue talking about traditional harmony, but something doesn’t add up. Philip Thomas’ observation is that Cage’s counterpoint improves around the time he allowed fewer of his personal choices to determine the finer details of his music, through impersonal means and then through chance. As Cage commented in one of his lectures, “giving up counterpoint, one gets superimposition and, of course, a little counterpoint comes in of its own accord.”

This is also the time when Cage talked frequently about letting sounds be themselves, i.e. putting sounds “outside of the harmonic context”. By then he had been using his above-mentioned time grids and rhythmic structures for nearly 15 years. His mature works begin in the 1930s with his radical use of rhythm as a structural principle, instead of harmony. By the 1940s he had become known as “the percussion composer” (as he himself reminded us in his anecdotes). It would be a neat deflection, to focus people’s attention on harmony, or rather the lack of it, if you didn’t feel too secure in your ability to organise your sounds and silences in your stated rhythmic structure.

The ruler that Cage picked up, like Duchamp’s, was “giving up” and accepting that the less say they had in the detail of their work, the better it was. The best type of aesthetic decisions are not aesthetic decisions at all.

John Cage and the Big Lie

Saturday 31 October 2015

I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said, “You’ll come to a wall you won’t be able to get through.” I said, “Well then, I’ll beat my head against that wall.”

– John Cage, interview in Observer magazine (1982), repeated on several occasions

He’s bluffing. He has impeccable ears.

– Morton Feldman, in conversation with Peter Gena

I’ve wanted to get this off my chest for a while. People who get interested in John Cage almost immediately find out about him studying harmony with Schoenberg, and the above exchange between the two. It’s up there with the one about the anechoic chamber; he was always telling it…

… And because he was always talking about it, it’s always repeated in books, articles and essays about him; it would get raised as in issue in interviews for him to elaborate the point further. As it happened, Cage spent most of his career largely excluded from the public discourse surrounding “serious” music. Fortunately, his skills as a raconteur enabled him to establish a public persona. He was able to use this situation to his advantage: isolated from wider discussions about his musical context, he became his own leading critic by default. Twenty-three years since his death, he still effectively dictates how we interpret his life and work.

(William Burroughs is another example of this phenomenon, with an even greater emphasis on integrating his autobiography with his literary practice. In Burroughs’ case any critic analysing his writing is faced with the task of disentangling it from Burroughs’ own creation myth. Both Burroughs and Cage have been the subject of unsatisfying biographies, in which the author is constrained by the subject’s own well-established narrative structure. The biography cannot help but reiterate a series of events with which the fan is already familiar, or stray outside these bounds to portray a figure the reader does not recognise.)

I don’t have time to look up which critic noticed Cage’s repeated references to his piece The Perilous Night, written in 1944, the year of his “psychological crisis”. The critic observed that Cage was directing attention towards this piece, and away from more personally revealing works written around the same time, such as Four Walls. (The tangential references to a psychological crisis are another revealing omission.) More than shaping public perception of his biographical details, he influenced critical consideration of his own canon of key works.

Cage’s “no feeling for harmony” story is charmingly self-deprecating and firmly in the mould of the mid-century American caricature, disarmingly plain-spoken and determined. It also cunningly invites anyone who worked with him to point that his sense of harmony was, in fact, superb; and of course that is exactly what happened. Cage’s feeling for harmony is just fine, but it’s a bluff. He’s misdirecting you from his true technical weakness, the one with no anecdotes. I’ve never seen anyone mention this, so I’m going to point it out here:

John Cage sucks sucked at counterpoint. *

Lights Out

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Working on stuff with not much to report right now, so here’s a short video I made for the end of another summer, a few years ago.

Michael Vincent Waller: The South Shore

Tuesday 22 September 2015

I got a shock when I first put on this album. It was kindly sent to me by the composer. I opened the package to see an album from Phill Niblock‘s Experimental Intermedia label, cover art by Niblock, sleeve notes by “Blue” Gene Tyranny. Knowing nothing about Waller, all signs pointed to music that would be right up my alley: minimal (if not ascetic), with an underlying logic readily perceptible (if not rigorous). I hit play on track 1 and got mugged by something unambiguously… pretty.

Two CDs, 21 brief compositions of new chamber music, all with the same shamelessly “romantic textures”, to quote from the sleeve notes. It’s relentless, as if the double-length playing time is meant to reassure you that the sweet, modal harmonies and melodic fragments are truly guileless. The avowed simplicity and directness of intention and execution for each piece would like to be seen as disarming, but it put me on my guard. It’s like one of those cultural games that Nabokov played in his novels: the more you know about the subject, the worse you get entangled in his snares.

Those sleeve notes open by describing Waller’s music as “a welcome and rare alternative to the tempo and noise of modern life…. Waller’s music convinces us by its honest emotion, which avoids any artifice that would dramatically pull us toward some effect.” As I listened to each piece I kept waiting for the angle to emerge, the conceptual scare quotes. It didn’t happen. The initial impulse is to compare the music to Howard Skempton’s, but there’s a tangible difference. Skempton also writes tonal or modal miniatures, but his music is reduced to the barest essentials. Waller’s music is clearly informed by the past few decades of “minimalist composers” and the “new tonality” but even in this restricted scale of composition there’s always a suggestion of something grander, a romantic excessiveness of expression.

It’s a dangerous aesthetic no-man’s-land in which Waller has staked out his musical territory, where artistic merit lives or dies by the sureness of the artist’s grip on prevailing aesthetic tastes. At this time such an enterprise seems so foolhardy that I kept my ears pricked for the slightest lapse of sincerity, some cultural or ironic distancing. Tyranny’s notes for each piece seem to invite a disingenuous reading: “I do feel the almost neo-Baroque sensation taking me back to my own trips across Italy.” “There seems to be a mixed emotion in this piece that hints at a troubled memory arising in the morning.” The word “uplifting” is used to describe at least two pieces. We would appear to have entered a post-postmodern aesthetic, of new sincerity.

Other reviews have described this album as gentle, poetic, lyrically beautiful. I found myself listening to music that teetered on a knife edge, threatening to slip at any moment from sweet clarity to trite sentimentality. The starkest moments are usually the most effective: the concluding “Arbitrage” pieces for solo clarinet and bass clarinet with gongs, for example. The Variations for Quintet with its canons and repetitions are pleasingly reminiscent of some of John Cage’s beguilingly blank music from the mid to late 1940s.

Of course, Cage at that time was struggling with finding his true compositional voice. Much like e. e. cummings, whose poetry Cage occasionally set to music, his attempts at disarming directness could sometimes lapse into fey affectation. This happens in some pieces in this collection, such as the piano solo Pasticcio per meno è più, which sounds a little ingratiating. It will be interesting to hear how Waller’s music develops and whether increased confidence in his craft will make his music more self-effacing or more extroverted.

I keep listening for the angle, trying to trip it up, catch it out. Maybe I want a darker undercurrent to throw the lighter shades into relief. Maybe I’m too cynical, too sophisticated in the pejorative sense.

Control Next Week

Thursday 3 September 2015

Next week I’m presenting a new work as part of a group show, Control, curated by Tom Mudd. It’s a sound installation: one knob, one speaker. The show

attempts to call attention to the role that the musical artefacts play in developing musical ideas. A single dial is connected to a single speaker, but the relationship between the two is not fixed; it flits between a range of possibilities composed by a diverse range of artists.

How do people interact with controls? It depends on the sorts of feedback available to the user – tactile, visual, audible – besides the results or consequences of the controller itself. Computer controls make this problem more obvious: feedback can be nonexistent, apparently independent of action, or present only as a deliberately programmed artefact.

Making digitally-controlled music therefore presents a dilemma. Control is either so direct and precise that all the subtle complexities are eliminated, or obfuscated to introduce uncertainty. Working with an obfuscated system should ideally be a responsive, performative activity; but it can easily become a purely reactive experience.

For my contribution, the knob controls two attributes of a pure sine tone: its pitch and its harmonic treatment. The relationship between the two is simple but it isn’t always clear, thanks to a delay built into the system. Also, there’s a gate which may or may not let each sound come through. A relationship between the knob and the speaker can be intuited, but the nature of the relationship isn’t immediately, or ever, obvious.

This is a microcosm of my dilemma when developing my own system of controls for making live electronic music with computers, but enough about me. Control launches next week at Oto Project Space as part of the gig on Wednesday 9 September 2015, and then is on from 10 to 13 September, from 1 to 9 pm each day. (Free entry.)

Hey nerdboy, you suck! A brief consideration of laptop gigs.

Monday 31 August 2015

(The original version of this text was written for the Collected Collaborations show at Monash University Museum of Art in 2011.)

First, I want to thank whoever it was who once perfectly described laptop performers as having the stage presence of “bored men checking their email”. This is one of the more important reasons why I avoided giving live performances with computers for many years.

Of course, with most experimental musicians being awkward, poorly-socialised geek boys, your typical underground new music gig wasn’t much livelier before computers became affordable, but at least the equipment available at the time enforced a certain minimum of onstage activity.

The role and aesthetics of the theatrical (but not dramatic) element of new music performance don’t get discussed much. I was once on a panel talk with several other experimental musicians, which drifted onto this topic and stayed there for the rest of the session. Nothing much was agreed, except that there are no real models to work from, and everyone has to pretty much work out their own methods for themselves. And, more importantly, that VJs are a blight upon the earth.

What was most interesting to learn was that so many musicians, even though you wouldn’t think it to watch them, are conscious of the visual aspect of their gigs. They may also, however, be at a loss as to what they can do to help it.

Is there a way to be theatrically engaging while using a laptop? I don’t necessarily mean flailing or histrionics, I’m talking about the performer affirming a physical presence in relation to the audience.

String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta) was the first piece I performed live on a laptop computer. My gestures in playing this piece emphasised how little movement or exertion is needed to play on a computer, moving attention instead to concentration and decisiveness. Since then, I’ve treated the computer as a “black box” which performs autonomously. My contribution as a performer is through an analogue component of the performance setup.

I’m now learning to use a MIDI controller to have some input with this autonomous, computerised system. The trick is for me to make it a reactive interface: instead of determining the attributes of the music, I can only respond to situations presented by the computer. The intention is to make the performer’s role closer to that of a listener.

There is also the question of how the performer may interact with the controls. This is a major consideration for Tom Mudd’s Control installation, to which I have contributed a composition and which opens next week. I’ll talk about this issue in my next post.

This Is The New Music: German For Bad Luck (work in progress)

Saturday 22 August 2015

It’s been a while since I posted any new music. The Chain Of Ponds project is in its final stages and I hope will be released soon, in some form or other. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from another work in progress, German For Bad Luck (Variations on a Theme of Arnold Schoenberg).

The piece began as an attempt to reconcile several supposedly incompatible tendencies in 20th century music: serialism, minimal music i.e. drones, and microtonal tuning. German For Bad Luck is built from a scale of 13 notes to the octave instead of the usual twelve, using tuning ratios from just intonation instead of boring old equal temperament. These notes are arranged into a row. Five different drones play the row simultaneously, but with each one starting on a different note.

Each of the first notes played is held for a long time. Each of the long notes has its own specified duration, determined by its pitch. At the end of each long note, the drone quickly cycles through the entire row until it reaches the next note in the sequence, and so holds that note for its specified long duration.

The piece is, in effect, a 13-note series that simply repeats through different rotations. The result is a series of chords which transform by one note at a time. These transitions are relatively brief, leaving the bulk of the music to stable drones. The note row is composed so that each of these stable chords tends to alternate between ‘consonant’ and ‘dissonant’ harmonies.

Confession: I have a problem with drones, at least when I make them. They sound too simple, too neat. Some element is needed to complicate things. The piece is therefore going to be pressed into service as the basis of an opera, on the apposite subject of Schoenberg’s triskaidekaphobia. I’m working on the libretto now.

Below you can hear an excerpt from the drone. This is the point where the first chord goes through its transition to the second.

Apartment House at 20

Wednesday 19 August 2015

The question is not whether or not what Cage is doing is art. I’m convinced that it will be art without even hearing the piece, only because he does it. The question is, and it is because of John we must ask this question: Is music an art form to begin with? Was it always show biz? And by show biz I mean Monteverdi…. What I mean by show biz is fantastic show biz. That a new piece of Boulez, perhaps, presented in a classy hall in Paris is like Sarah Bernhardt doing a monolog. Without the histrionics, of course. That’s what I mean. By holding the moment. By capturing the moment in every sense of the word.

Morton Feldman, in conversation with Peter Gena.

I often say to people I’m not interested in music, I’m interested in art. And I still believe that; I can point to a composer and say, “That’s an artist,” and I can point to someone else and say, “Well, they’re just a composer.”

Anton Lukoszevieze, in conversation with Robert Worby.

It’s probably this commitment to music as art that makes me go to Apartment House gigs whenever I can. I was going to say that it’s their commitment to playing unjustly-neglected composers, but sadly the state of the arty end of the music business often means the two are the same thing. I got to go to their 20th anniversary gig at Cafe Oto last month but never got around to writing about it. Luckily, the whole thing (almost*) is now on the BBC web site for the next month.

What struck me most at the time was how well the programme flowed, presenting diverse types of music with a strong defining character for the whole evening. The playing order is different on the radio but the strength of the music remains. Listening again, you can hear how each piece alternates between two extremes of musical language – the minimal and the seemingly anarchic. There’s a shared way of thinking behind each of these two extremes: the predominant compositional thought given to the organisation of material, the innovative use of structure and the careful handling of sonic materials to present them in a new light. As art, each piece touches the listener through its own intrinsic qualities without relying on a narrative, a mood, a subject, or other high-falutin’ appeals to sentimentality.

There’s a mix of new composers (Luiz Henrique Yudo, Jennifer Walshe), old stuff (John Cage) and revelations: a new chamber ensemble arrangement of Henning Christiansen’s fluxorum organum (different from the one I heard in Huddersfield in 2013) and George Maciunas played at least as well as Mozart. Maciunas, he’s supposed to be essential, right? Every textbook mentions him, but nobody plays him. He might as well be Josquin. (I’m reading that Feldman interview again. “This whole business of accessibility is a lot of baloney.”)

The radio show also plays a couple of pieces from that Apartment House CD of Maciunas’ music I wrote about early this year, so you get to hear that, too. You also get to hear composer Laurence Crane messing around with various found objects and Lore Lixenberg singing John Cage’s Aria together with his Concert for Piano and Orchestra – a particularly fine rendition of each.

* To recreate the full concert experience at home, break for a couple of intervals and play The Fall** while having a few drinks.

** First Brix era mostly, I think.

New thrill! Control – an interactive sound installation

Wednesday 5 August 2015


Next month I’ll be part of Control, a group show of interactive music next month at Cafe Oto’s Project Space.

A single dial is connected to a single speaker, but the relationship between the two is not fixed; it flits between a range of possibilities composed by a diverse range of artists. Visitors are invited to use the dial to make sounds, and to thus explore the links between their actions, the limits of the dial, and the musical ideas embedded in the software by the artists.

It’s on from 10 to 13 September, from 1 to 9 pm each day at Oto Project Space. (Free entry.) Yes, there’s a gig the night before by some of the people in the show. I won’t be playing, but I might be talking. Hope you come and enjoy it!

Jürg Frey: Grizzana and other pieces 2009-2014

Tuesday 4 August 2015

I won’t search for it but a few years ago I made the passing remark that if Morton Feldman’s music can be compared to Rothko (as it often is) then Howard Skempton’s can be compared to Morandi. The use of melody and conventional harmonic patterns creates a beguiling sensation of familiarity. That initial impression is deceptive, precisely in that it doesn’t try to deceive: representation in one and functional harmony in the other are left exposed, revealed as artifice – yet they still convey their effect (or affect).

Late last year I heard Jürg Frey and a small ensemble play a concert of his recent music. At the time I wrote that:

Some of Frey’s music that I’ve heard seems, to some extent, a provocation in its refusal to yield to an implied, wider palette of sounds. (This is particularly after hearing R. Andrew Lee play Frey’s piano music.) On this occasion, there were also some surprisingly rich sounds, with an almost playful (on Frey’s terms) exploration of harmonies and instrument combinations.

The album of Frey’s music that was recorded around the same time as that concert has now been released by Another Timbre as a double CD, titled Grizzana and other pieces 2009-2014. After hearing the concert I said that, “It will be interesting to hear the music apart from the theatre of performance.” It sounds even more tender and yielding than I expected. Is Frey mellowing with age, or am I just getting acclimatised?

I listened again to Lee’s excellent first CD of Frey’s piano music. There’s a striking contrast between those earlier works and the newer pieces on Grizzana. There’s that notorious passage in Klavierstück II where the same perfect fourth is repeated 468 times. When repetitions appear in the newer music they provide a sense of continuity, not of stasis or impasse. The music alters the listener’s perception of the world through its complex sensory effect more than through any aesthetic dialectic. (Morton Feldman distinguished his own music from John Cage’s by highlighting the didactic tendency in Cage: “Most music is metaphor… I am not metaphor. Parable, maybe. Cage is sermon.”)

I’m reading that interview with Frey about the new CD and – what do you know? – he’s talking about Morandi:

Morandi’s painting is figurative painting, but at the same time, he works with aspects of abstract painting. So you can see him also as an abstract painter who works with objects. To make a link to music (and sorry, I have to simplify it now, but in the daily process of my work, this reflection develops the whole richness of complexity), I can understand a melody as like a figurative part of a painting. Similarly to how you can remember melody as a “thing“, as a motif in music, you can see on the canvas a bottle, a house (and some painters speak about “working on the motif”). So on the other hand, in music the sound (just the sound) can be seen as an equivalent to abstract colour.

I could have just read further and quoted that instead of typing all the above.

Frey’s recent music is imbued with a quiet sophistication – the sort that doesn’t need to display its radical nature, its erudition. Where it was once necessary to make statements (like in the six-hour, almost inaudible electroacoustic collage Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit) it is now possible for these values to be affirmed as a given. The piece Ferne Farben, for example, uses field recordings in a way that may not even be noticed on casual listening, giving additional life, space and colour to the otherwise very slow and quiet playing of the acoustic instruments. Or perhaps, listening to it yet again, it’s the other way around.

As might be expected, the performances by Frey himself and his “personal army” are beautifully clear and evocative. Aspects of this album recall last year’s double CD of Laurence Crane’s music, released on the same label: a sustained mood of ambiguous detail, unbroken surfaces over hidden depths. Frey’s music here, however, creates a strange double image in which each sound feels tentative yet inarguable, like a delicate organism. In the trio Area of Three, sustained sounds are inflected with the quietest, briefest notes that pass almost like accidents, silences pass like clouds. Appropriately, another of the pieces is titled Fragile Balance.

A reissued album: Redundens for Piano

Thursday 30 July 2015

I’ve run out of copies of my CD Redundens for Piano, so I’ve put it up on Bandcamp for download in high-quality audio.

You may pay whatever you want, or nothing at all. The main reason I’ve put the free option there is because I always find it a hassle clicking through screens and giving my payment details to download something. It’s a deterrent. Still, I will not be upset if you wish to pay a small sum of money for it.

Redundens for Piano contains seven pieces from the Redundens series. Begun in 2001, all the pieces take Arnold Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 11 as their starting point: only the top line in Schoenberg’s pieces is retained as an unaccompanied melody (or as a list of pitch classes if you’re more technically-minded.) Each set of pieces uses a different method of encoding this melody; by pitch, register, timbre, duration, dynamics, or other means.

More pieces in the Redundens series can be found on the main part of my website.

James Saunders – assigned #15

Tuesday 28 July 2015

This is a weirdly evocative piece. I wrote about James Saunders’s music last year, having heard a CD and attended a live concert of his music. At the time I noted his use of found objects as well as instruments, a focus on process and structure, minimalism, controlled improvisation and group behaviour (cf. The Great Learning). One thing I didn’t discuss at the time was his ability to make pieces from simple gestures using simple domestic objects (coffee cups, sheets of paper) and transcend these materials to make rich, subtle soundscapes far removed from their mundane origins. (I’m trying to remember who made that criticism of musique concrète, that so much of it dwells in the cosy familiarity of the banal.)

Reading Saunders’ own discussion of assigned #15, it all seems straightforward: he had spent the better part of a decade making modular pieces out of combinations of short musical gestures and longer, sustained drones. These modules could be reused, mixed and matched, each piece a one-off. assigned #15 is a new work which combines a selection of these modules into a repeatable piece of music.

The resulting music was completely unexpected. This very rarely happens, but listening to the CD created a very strong sensory impression in my head. The small chamber ensemble, augmented by a small organ, shortwave radio and dictaphones, evoked memories of being on deck for a ferry crossing. The low, constant thrum of the engines, the whistling of a wind that rises and falls, the unsteady rhythms of cables caught in the crosswind, the slow sighing and creaking of the vessel shifting in the water. This is merely my personal affectation but it illustrates the transformative qualities the composition has upon its materials.

The dictaphones distort and blur the other instruments, the radio and organ recede into the wash that simultaneously covers and anchors the other instruments. The strange combination of fleeting gestures and drones means that the music changes from one minute to the next but never loses hold of a unified, enigmatic image. I’ve previously described some of Saunders’ work as verging on technical exercises but this piece goes beyond any technical considerations; it makes a surprisingly bold statement over its unbroken span of 45 minutes.

Much of these qualities are brought out by the excellent playing by Apartment House, assisted by the composer handling the electronic devices. The musicians maintain a relentlessly focussed balance between the heavy and the delicate textures throughout.

Triumph of the Bourgeoisie

Monday 27 July 2015

If you followed my Twitter feed you’d know I’ve been listening to James Saunders’ assigned #15 and I need to go hear it again right now lying down with the lights out. Blog post tomorrow.



The Great Learning at Union Chapel, 2015

Monday 20 July 2015

One of my formative experiences as a youth was hearing a few minutes’ excerpt from that old LP of Paragraph 7 from Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning on AM radio. It has haunted me ever since. Reading around in old journals and books to find out more about it dragged me into the world of The Scratch Orchestra, the British Avant-Garde of a preceding generation and their affiliations (“all true education is unconscious seduction”).

Initially, the most wonderful discovery was that Paragraph 7 wasn’t a fortuitous accident but a sublimely elegant act of composition, ingeniously combining skilled and unskilled musicians, subjective freedom and objective process. Learning more about the other six paragraphs just made me more intrigued to hear the rest.

The chance to see and hear it performed live eluded me until last weekend, when the entire work was played over two nights at Union Chapel. The players were from several generations and backgrounds, including original members of the Scratch Orchestra – many of whom had performed the work in the same venue in 1984. This was not a re-enactment.

The most striking aspect of The Great Learning when heard in total is the sense of space, of unfilled openness. The slow pace and scale of each section (Paragraph 5 takes two hours, the others range from 30 to 60 minutes) bear little relation to anything else composed at the end of the 1960s, with perhaps the exception of La Monte Young’s drones. (“Slowness is beauty,” Lauren Binyon said, as recalled by Ezra Pound, whose translation of Confucius’ Great Learning forms the text and structure of Cardew’s work. “Only sequoias are slow enough,” Pound added, several decades later.)

This wish for slowness appears throughout Cardew’s earlier pieces – Autumn ’60, Material, even the avowedly conservative Bun No. 1 – but never at such relentless extremes as presented here. It’s dispiriting to consider how Cardew ruthlessly purged this element from his later music, crowding out any room for reflection or contemplation, any individual thought, for sake of hammering home a political message on an audience reduced to passive recipient.

I think I’m taking things from The Great Learning that Cardew never intended – that’s what happens when you allow listeners to think for themselves. The Pound connection, in the translated text, in Binyon’s reflection on slowness, and Pound’s own peculiar interest in Confucius: “You read a sentence and it seems nothing. Twenty years later you come back to it to meditate on its significance.” Cardew’s composition is his own meditation on the significance of the words, and what insight he may have is shared through transmitting that meditative process to the performers and the audience.

Then there’s the muddling of the good with the bad, as there is in life. The second half of Paragraph 5 is given over to free expression, a long improvisation that provides license for excess, error and indulgence. Like life, it is as much to be tolerated as enjoyed, which seems to be the point.

Freedom is permitted in varying degrees. At the start of the performance, Paragraphs 1 and 2 display clear formal elements and a ritualistic feel – but this is a superficial description. Paragraph 3 brings a much greater emphasis on sonority, the beauty of harmonies and mixing sound colours between voices and low instruments dispersed throughout the chapel. Paragraph 4 swings other way into ritual, but its simplicity and repetition reasserts the focus on the subtleties of the sounds being produced by various found objects. It’s all music, but with the attributes of theatre incorporated and emphasised as part of music-making.

After Paragraph 5′s compendium of discrete compositions, elegant odes, repeated texts and improvisations, Paragraph 6 removes audible words altogether, subsuming the text into a code of performance gestures. The music shares associations with Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening exercises, and some of John Cage’s later compositions. Paragraph 6 is in some respects another improvisation, but within the same constraints later adopted by Cage, where choice is tempered by self-discipline.

For a piece known by reputation more than direct experience, there was something oddly familiar in watching the entire work unfold over the two nights. So much of what it presents has been absorbed into musical and theatrical practice over four decades. Paragraph 7 is still capable of astonishing and delighting: a mass of voices (over 40 in this instance) in a dense, microtonal cloud that drifts in pitch and in space through the chapel, coalescing into rich harmonies. You hope it will last forever, and at times it seems as though it will.

Each paragraph and their clear, contrasting styles inevitably invite comparison. Pure aesthetic and affective considerations are augmented by the theoretical, compositional ideas put into practice. Scale allows each to be given due consideration, a system of organisation given time to grow and be understood in its ramifications; “rooted in watching with affection the way people grow” as Paragraph 1 states. The scale of the piece would appear to be an important compositional element. On one level it would seem that The Great Learning is about time itself: how things may be organised so that a group of people may freely work together to create something beautiful.

Michael Parsons, Dave Smith, John Lely and many others all worked together to make this a very special event. Special mention should go to Robert Coleridge’s playing of the Union Chapel organ, making the most of Cardew’s requirement that the organist should show a sensitive understanding of the instrument’s idiosyncrasies. “It was better than 1984,” one of the older performers remarked. It was all I could have imagined this strange work could be.