I love and hate the guitar. It’s the only instrument I more-or-less know how to play, and I’ve always wanted to write music for it. However, years of playing it left me jaded with its possibilities and feeling constrained by the limitations of my technique.
Attempts to apply other compositional techniques I’ve used on the instrument produced results I found too dull to pursue. Trying out my extended free improvisation chops seemed futile, given the plethora of far more talented and imaginative guitarists out there. For a while I gave up on the instrument, but found that the need to compose for guitar wouldn’t go away.
2000 Guitar Solos is an extensive series of compositions in progress, that aims to map comprehensively one section of the guitar fretboard: a kind of ‘Return To Zero’ before approaching the instrument once again with any creative intention. In writing these pieces I am learning to embrace the guitar’s inherent qualities while at the same time crushing its accumulated rhetoric and mystique.
The pieces’ conscious antecedents are the exhaustive permutational compositions of Tom Johnson, Tom Phillips‘ paintings of paint companies’ colour catalogues, and John Cage‘s act of making a detailed drawing of a tape recorder he was about to work with for the first time.
The series acquired the name 2000 Guitar Solos because it was begun in that portentous year, 2000, but as the compositional process became more systematised I decided to aim for a total of 2,000 pieces. In fact, I have now sketched 2,556 solos, and from time to time return to the series to write out another batch of neat, final versions.
The beginning of the series, some 120 solos, was exhibited at TCB Art Inc. in Melbourne in 2003. Their simple, linear, obsessive nature makes them as suitable for display as ‘visual music’ as they are unprepossessing for public performance.
In addition to the multiple sheets of music, two other elements made the exhibition. On the wall facing the solos was a large poster printed with The Obsolete Guitar manifesto. Also in the exhibition space was a chair and a guitar, ready for use.
To help promote the show I made up hundreds of small, photocopied flyers, which took advantage of some other joker called Ben Harper who happened to be touring through town at about the same time.
Whenever 2000 Guitar Solos, or any part from it, is exhibited there should always be a guitar and a chair present with the sheet music to reassure punters that these pieces can, nay, should be played.
Whenever possible, I would come into the gallery for an hour or so, pull the chair up to a random section of wall and start to play, as an adjunct to and extension of the visual display. These appearences were never announced in advance, so that it was a matter of chance whether or not visiting punters could hear as well as see the work.
Like I said, the music is unprepossessing, and these somewhat furtive performances reflected the internalised nature of the musical results.
I’ve just joined NetNewMusic, the networking site for “the world of non-pop, contemporary classical/indy/avant-whatever musics”. My profile page is a bit daggy right now but give me a few quiet days at work and I’ll start getting amongst it. At least there’s a few streaming mp3s up there for now.
The slightly-revamped main website now has a page dedicated to writing, including a few of my articles available online.
Name and subject indices have been updated to 12 August 2008. About time too.
It is time to question whether a bipedal, breathing musician with binocular vision and a 1400cc brain is an adequate biological form. Musicians’ survival parameters are very slim: they can survive only weeks without food, days without alcohol and minutes without nicotine. Technologies are better life-support systems for our image than for our guitars: IMAGES ARE IMMORTAL, GUITARS ARE EPHEMERAL. The guitar finds it increasingly difficult to match the expectations of its images. In the realm of images, the physical guitar’s impotence is apparent. THE GUITAR NOW PERFORMS BEST AS ITS IMAGE. The guitar becomes situated beyond its lacquer. The guitar is neither a very efficient nor very durable structure. It malfunctions often and fatigues quickly; its performance is determined by its age. It is susceptible to muzak and is doomed to a certain and early death. Musicians mostly operate with Absent Guitars: what it means to become-guitar is no longer the state of being immersed in musical memory but rather in being reconfigured IN THE REALM OF THE IMAGE. The musician’s absence is augmented by the fact that the guitar functions habitually and automatically. AWARENESS IS OFTEN THAT WHICH OCCURS WHEN THE GUITAR MALFUNCTIONS. It is only when the guitar becomes aware of its present position that it can map its post-evolutionary strategies. AS SUPPOSED FREE AGENTS, THE CAPABILITIES OF BEING A GUITAR ARE CONSTRAINED BY HAVING A GUITAR. THE GUITAR IS OBSOLETE.
Having just remarked that Australia doesn’t get much attention in the British press, a few articles have just surfaced in the papers about Starbucks closing most of its Australian stores. I don’t know if anyone has bothered to point out that Australian Starbucks was at least one of the lesser failures to be associated with Natasha Stott Despoja’s political career, which coincidentally ended about the same time as the coffee chain’s attempt to dominate the Antipodean market.
There has been some tentative speculation about whether this business decision has more to do with the credit crunch, heroic localised resistance to encroaching globalisation, or just the realisation that Starbucks coffee isn’t very good. British chin-stroking on the subject has been clouded by the difficulty most Brits have in distinguishing a macchiato from Marmite.
It is a truism that the British don’t know how to make coffee – a defining cultural trait, centuries in the making, which still holds sway even in modern-day London. The symptom of this deficiency most immediately visible to the London visitor is the large number of Starbucks, all full to capacity, with queues to the counter sometimes stretching to 20 people. It is an eye-opening contrast to the typical Australian Starbucks experience of a faintly caffeinated morgue, empty save for a small scattering of listless tourists.
Worse still, the majority of British, virtually alone among the Europeans, think it’s what good coffee is supposed to taste like:
Like every other UK coffee geek I’ve conveniently airbrushed from my memory the debt I owe Starbucks; how, before they arrived, coffee was a throat-rasping, lip-puckering laxative tar dispensed in caffs that couldn’t give a toss; how we delighted in our first taste of a cafe culture and how we sucked down the enticing new mixtures.
Sadly, Starbucks was probably a true advancement for the British appreciation of coffee. For coffee lovers, London is a Bizarro city where the small, independent café will generally serve an inferior coffee to that offered by the multinational chains. On my way to work each morning I stop off at the nearby branch of a coffee franchise (not Starbucks) for my long black. Just up the street is a stylish independent café where the bright young things congregate. It has excellent pastries, and weak, milky coffee that costs half as much again, which is all too typical. The swill served at the (overrated) traditional “caffs” doesn’t bear thinking about.
If the girl behind the counter warns you it might be too strong, the coffee will be almost acceptable. After two years in London, my girlfriend made the mistake of ordering a “strong latte” out of habit on her first visit back home to Melbourne, and had the jitters for an hour afterwards.
The trouble in London is that Starbucks has set a standard of burnt, watery mediocrity to which many have risen, but so few aspire to exceed. We probably get the evil multinational conglomerates we deserve. Starbucks coffee may be bad, but badness hasn’t stopped other franchises from spreading around the world – look at McDonald’s. But then again, look at the local variations McDonald’s has made to its menu in Australia, and in other countries all around the world (British Maccas even serve porridge for breakfast). It seems that, when confronted with a particular café culture in Australia, Starbucks could not or would not adapt to survive in it.
Of course, our former colonial masters scoff good-naturedly at the idea of Australians being “too sophisticated” for Starbucks – this light-hearted derision coming from a country where packets of pasta are printed with recommended cooking times giving a minute or two leeway, and the baristas ask if you want ice in your long black. A country in blissful ignorance of an entire continent of excellent coffee that lies just across the Channel.
Apologies for this post, which I don’t have time to revise or edit right now.
I went back to the Albert Hall for the Proms for the first time in years, because on Saturday night they promised damn near 4 hours of Karlheinz Stockhausen. This would have been the 80th birthday celebration bash, if not for the composer’s unexpected death in December.
Earlier this year I saw an improvised sort-of performance of Kontakte, Stockhausen’s 1960 electronic composition for tape, with optional parts for live pianist and percussionist. The Proms performance was the real deal – with the 4-track tape spatially projected around the hall, the full complement of microphones prescribed by Stockhausen to fully capture the sound of the live musicians – and to compare this high road performance favourably with the gig I heard in March would be fatuous.
As I said at the time, “This is music which needs curators, institutions – much the same way that many postwar visual artists are dependent upon controlled, neutral gallery space, constant maintenance, and supervision, to present and preserve their works.” In the Albert Hall the tape, nearly 50 years old, gained from having its details revealed, rather than having any flaws exposed. The abundant variety of sounds produced with such a small array of crude equipment was particularly striking. The percussionist and pianist (who is also given percussion parts to play at certain points) acted both as less and more than soloists over a backing tape; they amplified and drew into relief the sonic world and dramatic tension of the original tape part.
You wouldn’t think it possible to find a piece of music suited to the Royal Albert Hall, with its infamous echo and cavernous space that swallows up sounds. Even Stockhausen’s fearsome work Gruppen for three orchestras was tamed by the space. This landmark composition was played twice – to begin and end the first concert – the better for us to grasp its wealth of details and complex interplays between orchestras. However, the visceral impact of Gruppen was dulled by the architecture. As well as the wishy-washy acoustics, the floorplan of the hall forced two of the orchestras into close proximity at the centre of the space, meaning that the players were more surrounded by the punters, not the other, intended way around. To make matters worse, the punters holding standing room tickets were squashed into the reduced isthmus of space between the two orchestras, while the third was up and away on the stage.
The second performance of Gruppen benefited particularly from hearing Kontakte immediately before it, to better realise just how strongly Stockhausen’s writing for musicians had been influenced by his pioneering work with tape and electronics during the 1950s.
Amazingly, the Royal Albert felt like it had been constructed specially for the playing of Stockhausen’s very late (2007) electronic work Cosmic Pulses. Like much later Stockhausen, the piece’s material feels much simpler and less forbidding than the dense abstraction of his music from the 50s. Bell-like sounds, as might be heard on an old synthesiser, tolled and slowly rotated around the circular hall. For the next half-hour, these bells circled the space in ever higher registers at ever faster speeds, building up into a whirling mass of sound that was simultaneously rapturous and intimidating, beguiling and maddening.
You could intuit that there was a process behind the sound, of each strand of sounds obeying certain cyclical speeds and patterns, but that knowledge did nothing the music’s power or mystery. It had the sublime indifference of a natural phenomenon. Looking up into the hall’s dome, pinpricks of light from the evening sky could be seen through gaps in the roof, like a night sky strewn with the stars that figured so prominently in Stockhausen’s music.
The second concert of the night was given entirely to a performance of Stimmung, Stockhausen’s long work for six voices singing harmonic overtones of a low B-flat for over an hour. Early last year I heard a quasi-amateur performance of Stimmung, so again it would be fatuous to say that Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices performance for the Proms was superior. However, they shared a difference from the recording I’ve heard of the piece by Singcircle: a greater sense of drama and physicality than Singcircle’s uniform serenity.
In addition to the strongest overtone singing I’ve heard in a performance of the piece (some punters afterward believed they were electronic effects), Theatre of Voices invested their performance with the solemn informality of a true ritual, unifying the spiritual and corporeal aspects of Stockhausen’s vision as embodied in the text’s inclusion of the names of gods and self-penned erotic poetry (which, in true British fashion, were printed in the programme but not translated).
Stimmung is both so direct and so elusive – another punter has described Stockhausen’s staging instructions, observing that part of his appeal is his disarming sincerity and the “home-made feel” of much of his music and theatre – it seems impossible to define. It is often described as “meditative” but it has an equally stimulating effect, as observed amongst the standing room punters. Many of them were sitting on the floor for the performance, and more and more began lying down as the piece progressed. Then, about three-quarters of the way through, a number of them suddenly felt compelled to stand and take a step or to forward, actively attentive for the rest of the piece.