Are analogue electronics really a Good Thing for music?

Thursday 28 July 2011

So, the Mock Tudor gig at Limehouse Town Hall went pretty well. I’d been practicing and tweaking the setup every day right up to the morning of the gig, trying to clear up some of the more obvious deficiencies in the system. Right in the middle of my piece I realised something horrible: I was noodling. I don’t remember ever making that particular mistake before. Luckily, things picked up again pretty quickly and I was able to end the piece well, which is probably the most important thing when entertaining a room full of punters tooled up with smokes and tinnies.

This was the first time in years I’d played with analogue electronic feedback, and my reacquaintance with the technique produced some surprises. When I started making feedback circuits I’d been preoccupied with just getting the thing to work, to produce variable, unstable patterns that would display a life of their own over time. In short, I wanted my setup to “do stuff”. Later I worked toward producing interactive feedback paths that would create changes in timbre, either subtle or not so subtle. In short, to “make new sounds”.

Having more recently used this approach to music making only in the virtual realm (constructing feedback loops in digital audio processing software on my laptop) I’d become aware of the potential and the limitations to using computers in this way. When performing with the computer I’m conscious of the lack of spontaneity and changeability in the pieces I’ve created. However, when I returned to the table of analogue gear I was struck by how difficult it was to push it beyond a limited range of sounds. I had less equipment to work with than on previous occasions, but this reinforced my belief of the computer’s potential to produce timbres of a great variety and complexity, without being attached to lugging around several cases of analogue equipment. There is also the appeal of showing that the music’s quality is not dependent on owning one particular piece of unique or esoteric “gear” unobtainable by others.

Having said all that, analogue performance is a lot more fun and in the right circumstances is probably always worth the trouble of doing it. The adjustments in to moving back to an older mindset and a reduced amount of gear are probably what caused that moment of noodling, caught between the complulsions to “do stuff” and to “make new sounds”. The piece recovered when I regressed to the old way of thinking. Philosophically it was a cheap move, but it sounded good and we can’t all be David Tudor.

My next problem is how to record this music. The life of this music is in the speakers that produce (not reproduce) the sound, and the resonant space it occupies. This is another aspect which could be faked digitally, as opposed to be completely absent in a line-out recording, but it would never sound as good as the excellent PA in that cavernous hall in Limehouse.

[blog post goes here]

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Today I wrote up a thoughtful piece about the gig I played Saturday night, and the differences between analogue electronics and computer software. I thought I’d mailed it to myself to post tonight, but it’s nowhere in my email. I either forgot to hit send, hit print by mistake, or deleted it without sending. The blog post may appear tomorrow, but in the meantime please enjoy this photograph of a pretty swan made from an old car tyre.

Please Mister Please CXXV

Sunday 24 July 2011

Luciano Berio, “Sequenza III” (1965-66). Cathy Berberian, soprano.
(7’04”, 11.0 MB, mp3)

The return of Mock Tudor

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Mock Tudor III (variant) test

Preparations for this Saturday’s gig are going well. The above sound clip is pretty rough but (a) I just recorded it now to test the equipment and feedback system, (b) at least it’s making sounds and (c) it’s more or less behaving itself after sounding about as together as it looks (see below).

Yes, this will be the first live performance I’ve done with analogue feedback oscillators in, oh, six years?

I have problems with drones (part 2)

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Early on, I was suspicious of drones in general: it seemed to easy. That probably wasn’t helped by hearing a lot of inferior drone pieces. If you had a couple of sounds you thought were kind of interesting but didn’t know what to do with them, make a drone.

The first drone pieces I made were sort of an aesthetic exercise. I didn’t expect I’d end up making a number of pieces, each for a different reason, which were in fact heavily reliant upon the drone. I knew that minimalism had become a pervasive influence (you don’t need to do much with whatever material you have) but it seems that the drone – non-timeline music, as Robert Ashley defines it – is equally important.

There’s another thing I disagree with about Ashley’s categorisation of composers who are and are not beholden to the timeline. He says that John Cage and Morton Feldman were “trapped in the timeline way of thinking”; I’m not so sure about that. I think that both of them embraced the timeline in the way they embraced harmony, doing so in a way that neutralised its functional purpose.

Feldman’s late music is the obvious example here – its vast scale rendering any form or structure imperceptible (and on the micro level, the complex manipulations of metre, which again the listener cannot hear). Cage’s music-making in the 1960s actually does seem to largely outside the timeline, but repeatedly throughout his career from his first percussion pieces to the final ‘number pieces’ his compositions were built within a defined time structure. He quickly found that defining the temporal construction – beginning, middle and end – before a note was written made any question of teleology or continuity a moot point.

I’m looking back over my “drone” and “non-drone” pieces to find out what similarities or differences they may have beneath the surface. It appears that the non-drone pieces involve a process or set of processes working themselves out, producing musical events independently of the timeline in which they occur. This would explain a good part of the anxiety I felt when composing for the Music For The Bionic Ear project. That piece was required, for the sake of clarity, to have a linear time structure and a maximum duration. I did feel a bit lost trying to use this as an organising principle.

I have problems with drones (part 1)

Monday 18 July 2011

As an aside, I mentioned before that I have problems with drones. One thing that nagged at me during the Eliane Radigue gigs was the sense of time: this came back to me when I re-read Robert Ashley’s understanding of what a ‘drone’ might be.

It’s true, of course, that “time” passes while music is being played and while it is being listened to. But in non-timeline music (the drone) the time passing is not “attached to” the playing or the hearing. Time passes in the consciousness of the listener according to internal or external markers.

I have called this new idea the “drone,” because there is no better term that is not a neologism – like non-timeline music. I have said that I use the term “drone” to mean any music that seems not to change over time.

Listening to Radigue’s Jetsun Mila at St Stephen Wallbrook, and especially to the acoustic pieces like Occam I and Naldjorlak, I did not had this feeling of timelessness. As a new sound entered, or a persisting one changed, I wondered: why that sound now? Why was that last sound held so long? If the music is timeless, why did this sound have to give way to another? If it is not timeless, why was the sound held for that particular duration? Each change felt like a tiny admission of defeat, a futile attempt to delay the inevitable end. I suspect Radigue’s music, or at least a significant amount of it, doesn’t really fit Ashley’s definition of the drone, despite his inclusion of her in his brief list of drone composers.

Please Mister Please CXXIV

Saturday 16 July 2011

LaVern Baker, “Saved” (1961).
(2’58”, 5.4 MB, mp3)

Two New Shows Coming Up

Thursday 14 July 2011

Not much blogging lately, because I’ve been preparing for two shows coming up in the next few weeks: a live music gig and an art exhibition.

Live gig! ABJECT BLOC. My first analogue electronic gig in… six years? With John Wall, ”              “[sic]™, Anthony Iles, Allon, Lee Gamble (DJs).
Saturday 23 July 2011. 8pm start. £5 donation. Limehouse Town Hall, 646 Commercial Road, London E14 7HA.

Sorry about the short notice but the date had to be juggled a bit. I’m dusting off the old analogue gear to get some live feedback oscillation happening again, with sets from the very fine John Wall, ”              “[sic]™, Lee Gamble and others.


Art show! Collected Collaborations. An exhibition initiated by the Artists’ Book Research Group, featuring propositional projects from the Redrawing Collective (Ben Harper, Fiona Macdonald, Alex Martinis Roe, Thérèse Mastroiacovo and Spiros Panigirakis) and OSW (Terri Bird, Bianca Hester and Scott Mitchell). Guest Curator: Brad Haylock.
Monash University Museum of Art, Caulfield Campus, Melbourne. 4 August – 1 October 2011.

This is the exhibition of art books, including brand new contributions the Redrawing Collective. This project is a further extension of the project that included my sound installation Redrawing: String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta). We have created a two-part book that is both a performative object and a platform for critical engagement.

Please Mister Please CXXIII

Friday 8 July 2011

Ezra Sims, “– and, as i was saying…” (1979). Anne Black, viola.
(5’28”, 7.5 MB, mp3)

It Is Two Weeks Since I Saw Eliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak Trilogy

Thursday 7 July 2011

Still thinking about it.

I’m pretty sure that everyone who’s familiar with Eliane Radigue and heard her recent music has remarked on the surprising change so late in her career. Unlike most late career changes, Radigue’s isn’t marked by a radically different sound. Her method of making music has undergone a radical transformation, abandoning her ARP 2500 synthesiser to write music for live performers on acoustic instruments. Incredibly, the sound-world of these new works is all of a piece with her earlier, purely electronic drones.

When I heard the premiere of Occam I a week earlier, I hoped I wouldn’t relegate it in my mind as warm-up for Naldjorlak. No such luck. The trilogy is going to remain one of the highlights of my year. This time, I was careful to sit in closer, the better to focus both on the performer(s) and the music they made. The intense, sustained quality of the music and the performance helped to shut out Spitalfields.

How much of this 3-hour trilogy is spectacle? The performance is so fraught, with its long, steady drones, that the slightest faltering by the musicians would mar the music’s immaculate surface. As far as I can remember, Charles Curtis on cello, then Carol Robinson and Bruno Martinez on basset horns, finally all three in the third, were flawless. There is also the audacity of the piece’s conception, particularly in the cello part, which ends with Curtis progressively bowing the instrument’s tailpiece, then its endpin, and finally the tailcord. The idea seems like an obvious gimmick from the grab-bag of “extended techniques” and free improvisation, and yet it all sounds perfectly consistent with the remainder of the piece.

The second part, with just two woodwinds, creates subtle but striking aural illusions. Are the two players needed simply to provide an hour’s worth of breath between them, in one unbroken tone? At first the natural overtones of the basset horns provide a direct harmonic contrast with those of the cello, but then things get more complex. New pitches slip into the sound as each player overlaps, either directly or through overtones – or perhaps because the listener’s mind is playing tricks.

At interval, I was a little concerned that the final part would be a let-down, by simply conflating the previous two. I was quickly relieved to find that, instead of being an indulgent melange of all that had gone before, Radigue alternated, combined and contrasted the tones produced by the three instruments. If you have any doubts about drones (I do) then Naldjorlak III is Radigue’s comprehensive refutation, displaying her skill not just in finding sounds, but in combining and sequencing them. This is real composition, to use Morton Feldman’s distinction, not just wallowing in timbre.

Also, it was good to hear basset horns play something besides Stockhausen for once.

Every Goddamn Day

Friday 1 July 2011