John Cage’s difficulty, according to Frederic Rzewski

Thursday 29 April 2010

When asked tonight why his description of Cage’s ideas seemed to contradict Cage’s own essays, Rzewski replied: “Cage was not a master of language. He obfuscates. If people have been playing his music badly for decades then it’s his own fault for being so unclear.”

John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet play Morton Feldman

Monday 26 April 2010

Piano and String Quartet, at King’s Place last Thursday. How little you need to make something beautiful, elusive; not just the material, the subject, but how it is articulated. It takes so little from each instrument to keep the music alive.

Timbre and range are the same problem, and both are more important than pitches. When one knows exactly the sound he wants, there are only a few notes in any instrument that will suffice. Choosing actual pitches then becomes almost like editing, filling in detail, finishing things off.”

This isn’t minimalist music – it isn’t making the most of limited means. It’s music composed with the richness of a certain set of timbres and instrumental sounds, for which only certain pitches will suffice.

Playing this softly, this slowly, the sustained chords of the piano seem to chime on forever against the string instruments.

Hearing it live, you notice how the musicians are living within the piece, so large are its dimensions. Two thirds of the way through you can feel them tiring, getting a little faster, a little louder; then someone attacks a note with a little frailty and the mood changes and a sense of quiescence returns. In its small way, a gentle climax has been achieved.

Tilbury’s playing seems more constant in his approach than other times I’ve heard him play Feldman, but on those occasions he was playing solo. Balanced against the quartet, the two forces alternate between sound and silence for the opening section of the piece, each framing the other. By the end the quartet is playing constantly, with the piano disturbing the otherwise still surface of the music.

The fatigue, the compromising of styles to accomodate others: to what extent did Feldman anticipate the frailties of musicians when writing this music?

The Theremin Cello: I want one.

Thursday 22 April 2010


Another great thing about the Varèse 360° gigs was the performance of Ecuatorial with two Theremin cellos in the ensemble. Ecuatorial is the only piece specifically written for this incredibly cool instrument, and up until a few years ago it could only be performed with a pair of ondes Martenots substituting, as the only two existing Theremin cellos are now in museums.

The story of the reverse-engineered and newly rebuilt Theremin cello, and its role in Ecuatorial, can be found here. Some more info and a better photo of the new instrument here.

Varèse 360° Full Blown

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Hearing all of Edgard Varèse’s music in three concerts over two nights was too good an opportunity to pass up. It shouldn’t be such a rare event. “We believe it deserves to be done at least once a year,” conductor Paul Daniel enthused at the end of the final concert. A bit gushy, perhaps, but by that time I could see his point. The experience had confirmed, expanded, and partly confounded my understanding of the composer.

This is exacting music for the performer and the listener. Varèse has a reputation for attempting to blast his audience into submission, but heard in these circumstances the music didn’t make its demands through bullying and bombast. A remarkable manipulation of scale comes into play, by Varèse’s use of stark, densely packed details condensed into brief structures with little room for repose. Each piece forces the listener into a relatively short, but intense, burst of concentration. It’s hard to believe a work as vast as Ameriques is over within 20 minutes. As with Webern, Nancarrow and Ustvolskaya, Varèse’s music is bigger than its durations suggest.

The opening performance of Ionisation by the London Sinfonietta beautifully emphasised the skill with which Varèse shaped the levels of ferocity projected by his percussion ensemble. Musically, the execution throughout the concerts was technically dead-on and interpreted in an intelligent and opinionated way. We got to hear Varèse the composer’s music of the future, not Varèse the polemecist’s manifesto for a music of the future, as it is too often presented.

The only sticking points (besides the programme and the visuals) were a Density 21.5 that came across a bit fusty to me, and Déserts, which my friends found clunky but I really enjoyed. They dug the rough, lo-fi sound of the taped segments but thought the live bits suffered in comparison, as a piece struggling with then-emerging technology whose reach exceeded its grasp. I was fascinated by the way in which Varèse had written for percussion and brass as though they were electronic, able to be stretched, spliced and mixed like so much tape. It was the way Stockhausen and his contemporaries began to write music after they’d worked with tape recorders. Varèse seems to have been working toward that style for years.

For the final concert the massive forces of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain played the equally massive Arcana and Amériques, the latter in its even more over-the-top original orchestration. Their performances were less groomed than others, and slightly feral, which doesn’t hurt this music in the least. They packed a hell of a punch without ever losing control or resorting to untermpered noise.

This concert was neatly bookended by a choreographed version of Varèse’s fragmentary goof Tuning Up as an icebreaker at one end, and an encore of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune at the other. The relative sweetness of this piece didn’t obscure its important role as the instigator of so much 20th century music, not least because, as we were reminded, it was this music that inspired Varèse to dedicate his life to music.

It had been several years since I’d seriously listened to any Varèse and, like all good concerts, the weekend made me want to hear more. Of course, tragically, there isn’t any more than those 16 pieces. Contrary to the thoughts of some late 20th century critics who thought Varèse would be remembered more for his historical role than his music, it is music that invites repeated listening, and explorations of the man’s ideas flow from the curiosity piqued by hearing it. Listening to the crude but self-assured sounds of Poème électronique distributed through the space of the hall, you wonder what other music you’ve missed out on, for want of a few more dollars, a little extra time.

Varèse 360°: but first, a rant.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

On the weekend I was blown away by the Edgard Varèse 360° gigs – yep, three tight little concerts of the complete works of Varèse. Awesome.

I want to write some nice things about it, so I’ll get this out of the way first. Enough with the crappy video projections, already. Nobody likes them. Critics don’t like them, the punters don’t like them, nobody’s bought a ticket to your gig to look at insipid video art, they’re there for the music and your ill-conceived attempts at visual decoration are a distraction at best, an embarrassment at worst. You’ve been trying this crap on for years and it hasn’t gotten any better. Give up. The people coming to your gigs are savvy enough about culture to know that your visuals just don’t cut it for a professional outfit. You may think you’re getting down with Yoof but if The Kids are lured to one of your concerts they’re already switched on to video and recognise crap when they see it. Stop it – you’re only hurting yourselves. It undermines the concert experience for the regulars and it convinces the newcomers that it’s as lame as they feared.

Please Mister Please XCVI

Sunday 18 April 2010

Ernie Gallagher, “The Cambridge Whistler” (1989). Version for 2 records.
(1’11″ 1.1 MB, mp3)

My weekend, so far

Sunday 18 April 2010

Plus-Minus Ensemble at Kings Place

Thursday 15 April 2010

For an insight to what going to one of these types of concerts is like, you must read the review at Notes From A Defeatist.

They played Xenakis’ Dikhtas and Evryali, two pieces which have been decking audiences for over thirty years and need no further praise from me right now. There was also Vermillion, a trio for clarinet, cello and electric guitar by Rebecca Saunders, a composer whose work I’m just starting to get familiar with. But Vermillion was a disappointment, a tentative and awkward piece made moreso by the clumsy and self-conscious use of the guitar.

I was tempted out to hear this mostly because of the interview with Bryn Harrison at The Rambler – Harrison’s lengthy Repetitions in Extended Time made up the second half of the programme. Harrison’s music gets described as a combination of Morton Feldman and Brian Ferneyhough, a sort of hybrid of the American and the European strains of the refined avant-garde. Repetitions in Extended Time certainly bore a superficial resemblance to late Feldman, with its ambiguously shifting patterns repeated with subtle changes.

For a while the piece was intriguing, in the way that it picked up on one technical aspect of Feldman’s music and made something new from it. (So much music written since Feldman’s death, such as Vermillion, seems so timid, as if overawed by the implications of making any sound at all.) By the latter stages, however, the music’s unvarying surface and mood became familiar, whereas Feldman’s music never loses its strangeness.

I haven’t heard enough of this music to know whether it is in fact an attempt to square the circle, to rationalise Feldman’s musical language with academic theories. Remembering it now, I wonder if the future will be kind to it, and whether what sounds fresh and innovative about it now will be just the things that later strike us as derivative and compromised.

Drinking beer and watching Jon Rose and Chris Cutler

Tuesday 13 April 2010

I’m sitting in Cafe Oto thinking about why I’m too busy thinking to really pay attention to what Jon Rose and Chris Cutler are playing. I’m telling myself it’s good that I can listen without having to worry about paying close attention, and just let it fill the air around me, but I might need some convincing. I like the way there’s plenty of activity, both visually and aurally, but it’s all meshing together in a variegated carpet* of sound, not a pair of competing virtusosic showoffs – Barthes’ “petty digital scramble”*.

Nobody’s trying to impress me with how difficult it is to do whatever it is they’re doing, and even the most raucous sounds are giving room for me to think.

The Slips

Sunday 11 April 2010

More details about The Slips can be found here. Audio excerpts and other documents will be available soon, once I’ve cleaned them up a bit.

Performance of The Slips at Clubs, 2003. Click for larger view.

Slips 1 and Slips 2 were written in March 1999 and revised in November 2002. They are two of several works I have written using musical compositional techniques to produce texts; in particular they are inspired by the formalist poetry of John Cage and Konrad Bayer. Unlike my previous texts (A Walk Around the Lake (1994-95) and An Austrian Automaton (1996- )) Slips 1 and 2 were written particularly with spoken performance in mind.

The matter for both pieces is taken from the slips of paper – Zettel - the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein kept in a box, in no particular order, which was discovered after his death. From this collection of short texts I have taken only the words and phrases written in quotation marks: examples of language, hypothetical speech, “things”, rather than the thoughts that connect or discuss them. A list of some 650 phrases or words was thus obtained.

Both works are one hour long, for two voices. For Slips 1, each minute was allocated a certain number of phrases, between zero and twelve, for each speaker to say. Apart from some specified timings, the speakers are permitted to say their phrases at any time within the designated durations. As well as speaking, the performers are instructed to write out specified passages while they say them. The number of phrases spoken, the selection of phrases from the list, the timings and designated written passages, were all determined by chance using Andrew Culver’s computer program ic, an I Ching simulator. With the exception of a small number of chance-selected phrases, the parts for the two voices in Slips 1 are almost identical, differing only in their timing and passages designated to be written out.
Excerpt from a page of Slips 1. Click for larger version.

Slips 2 uses the same compositional method as Slips 1, but instead of complete phrases only a restricted number of words are selected from the given phrases. At first these words are extracted from the text for Slips 1, and after this material is exhausted newly-selected phrases from the list were subjected to this process. The parts for the two voices in Slips 2 do not differ at all, apart from their timings and designated written passages.
Excerpt from a page of Slips 2. Click for larger version.

The two works may be performed separately, or with Slips 2 following Slips 1. Each work may be performed by two live speakers, or one live speaker with a recorded voice. As the text gives the original German and parallel English translation, each piece may be read out in either language, or a mixture of the two.

Two important aspects of The Slips in performance are the prevalence of silence (absence of consciously-produced sound) and the sense of time passing. One final point is the requirement for additional music to play very quietly sometime during the middle third of each piece. Other events may occur simultaneously with the performance.
Performance of The Slips at Clubs, 2003. Click for larger view.

The first complete performance of The Slips was given by myself at Clubs Project Inc. in April 2003. I performed both works twice, once reading each part, with a recording of myself reading the other part. The performance was entirely in English. To emphasise those two important aspects mentioned above, all the windows in the venue were left open throughout the afternoon of the performance, and the last of the four readings was times to conclude at sunset. During the second performance of Slips 2 the shadows lengthened across the room, and the candle on my table that I had lit at the start of the afternoon finally asserted its prominence as the only light source within the room.

At certain moments during the day, excerpts from my NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT MX (2002) for fourteen virtual, out-of-tune baroque harpsichords would play softly in another part of the venue, its presence more noticeable in its disappearances.

Other, smaller-scale pieces have been made from the same source material as The Slips. The most notable of these is Wandering Split (2002), an audio-only piece that was essentially a condensed version of Slips 1, spoken simultaneously in English and German, with a specially composed musical soundtrack acting as a third voice mediating between the two. Wandering Split was first presented as part of a sound installation in the group multimedia exhibition Gating, curated by Michael Graeve at West Space Art in 2002, and subsequently issued on the exhibition CD. Since then, the piece has enjoyed a few outings at sound art gigs in Austria.

Please Mister Please XCV

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Ben Johnston, “Casta Bertram” (1969). Bertram Turetzky, contrabass; mix by Ben Johnston and Jaap Spek.
(10’46″ 18.7 MB, mp3)

Scrabble: Everything’s Officially Ruined Again.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

I wasn’t going to bother writing about the lame decision to change the rules of Scrabble to allow proper nouns. As half-arsed publicity stunts go, it’s only slightly more devestating than if the makers of Monopoly grandly announced they were rewriting their rules to allow players to quit when they get bored.

But now I’m thinking they’ve got a point. The makers of Scrabble have twigged that a fundamental aspect of the game has changed. This isn’t about giving Stoopid Kids These Days the edge – it won’t: you play Xzibit, I play Xerxes (and Xzibit).

The thing is that modern-day Scrabble is played by people who can access the OED on their smartphones, not to mention various online anagram tools. Letting in proper names brings back a lost fundamental of Scrabble: arguing. Arguing over who is or is not sufficiently famous to justify the latest mangling of “Brittany”. Convincing people there really is a Greek island called Aeaea. Debating which variant spellings of Mxyzptlk are canon. Like all authentic grassroots games, nothing is certain and it all ends in bickering, resentment and tears.

Hecker at Chisenhale

Monday 5 April 2010

Whether the effect were intentional or not, a single cough belied the purpose of this installation. Florian Hecker had four “sound pieces” installed at Chisenhale Gallery last month. That term “sound pieces” in the accompanying gallery text serves to remind everyone of the problem this type of show always brings up: that sound art is merely failed music.

In the gallery the show looked all very nice and professional, and did enough to fulfil the expected role of a sound art installation, yet not enough to succeed. There were four pieces, each of a specific length and played through a particular set of speakers. The gallery was thoughtful enough to provide a programme to give an idea of what you were getting and when, but this act had the side effect of raising the spectre of Ersatz Art: the special pleading for a piece of music or film displayed in a gallery to be judged on a different set of artistic criteria.

Should you sit (stand, actually) through the entire programme just to hear the first minute of the one you came in on, to say that you honestly “got” that whole piece? If you don’t like that long piece, should you be expected to wait through it to hear if the next one’s any better? These are probably not the questions the artist intended to raise with this show.

Three of the four pieces used directional speakers to create a spatialised distribution of sound through the large, resonant room. This seemed really cool until someone coughed or fidgeted and you realised that the room was so reverberant that any sound at all created the same effect. If that point was the work’s intention, then it was obscured by an apparent need to make composerly, musical gestures in each piece. This was especially the case with the fourth piece, which attempted to project contrasting movements of sound through the space, but was swallowed up by the room’s acoustics and ambiguous sonic material.

The most effective piece pointed a single speaker at a tiled section of wall at one end of the room, creating an impressive array of localised sounds from the echoes it generated. The other pieces lacked the clarity needed for the room.

The question remains, whether it is possible to present sound art purely as sound when its presentation, as here, is so dependent on the sense of time passing.

A Toast to Thomas Angove

Thursday 1 April 2010

I’m breaking my impromptu holiday from blogging to pass on the sad news that Thomas Angove, inventor of the wine cask, has died at the age of 92. Not since the inventor of booze itself has one man advanced the science of getting an entire nation so drunk, so quickly, at so little expense. A large part of the art world will be forever in his debt.