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

Please Mister Please CXXII

Thursday 16 June 2011

And, Live at the Curry Family Hotel (1999).
(6’03”, MB, mp3)

Two kinds of craft: Max Eastley v Eliane Radigue

Wednesday 15 June 2011

I’m getting fed up with this persistent fad of holding concerts in churches. Even when the acoustics don’t suck, there’s zilch soundproofing between the “hall” and the outside world. In the first in a series of concerts dedicated to Eliane Radigue at Christ Church Spitalfields last night, any pretentions to the sacred nature of the music were punctured each time a police car went up Commercial Street, and the end of Elemental II was accompanied by a car alarm in the side street.

Before attending church I was at Raven Row, a couple of blocks away, to see Max Eastley perform. It was pretty much what I expected: a new music veteran playing with his amplified monochord and a semi-autonomous sound sculpture. A casual observer would call it ‘tinkering’: small adjustments to the sculpture, waiting to hear the effect, another small adjustment. Similarly with the monochord, small gestures, slightly varied. It’s intriguing to watch the type of craft that goes into making this music, its contemplative and reflective nature. It shows a deep understanding of the instrument and its sound, of the rich variety of sound that the slightest change in gesture can produce.

On the other hand, I worry about the self-conscious quality of this type of music-making. Surely there are improvisers all over the world, in every culture, who feel and know the capabilities of their instrument without the need to pause and consider every twist and turn their music takes.

Later that evening I watched Kasper T. Toeplitz perform Radigue’s Elemental II and saw a similarly careful approach to making music. Rhodri Davies had just premiered Occam I, slowly bowing overtones on his harp, a study in stasis and concentration. The focus on a single string of a harp hinted at the sort of problem both Eastley and Radigue share in harnessing the potential of a new, relatively untested medium. Radigue’s earlier career in electronic music was devoted to the capturing of delicate feedback effects, an activity fraught with the risk of being plunged suddenly into undifferentiated noise. Radigue herself described her work with analog synthesisers as “caressing the potentiometers”. In such static music, a tiny mis-step can destroy the work.

Thus Toeplitz spent the best part of an hour making the smallest gestures possible on his fearsome-looking double-necked electric bass: gently tapping the back of the neck, pressing his finger to the head stock, trembling a metal bar against the strings. His laptop processed the guitar into an unbroken wash of sound that slowly evolved as each new guitar gesture crept into its software. Was the guitar necessary at all? Yes. The same piece had been performed at the start of the concert by a laptop trio, less successfully. It wasn’t just the visual or conceptual experience of watching a musician ‘work’, it was the lack of ease in gliding from one sound to the next. The guitarist may be just a little too loud, a little too soft, a little too rushed, a little too hesitant in introducing each new sound, and so each sound takes on a new life of its own, subject to a host of infinitessimal adjustments. The difference may be barely perceptible, but these are the slight differences on which music, like all art, depends.

The Horror of Irrelevant Music

Friday 3 June 2011

This morning I procrastinated by downloading the Berkshire Record Outlet catalogue in search of cheap CDs I might have wanted to buy if I had any money. After winnowing the list of 18,000 items down to just 20th century composers, I had a T.S.-Eliot-on-London-Bridge moment of revelation. It hit home just how many goddamn composers in the last hundred years I have never heard of, never will hear of, never want to hear of, and wished I’d never heard of.

I’m ashamed of how readily I’ll dismiss so much music out of hand without knowing anything about it or the people who composed it, but just scanning some of the names and titles makes me reflexively recoil. When you realise that there were composers who could still unironically title a piece “Capriccio” after 1945, suddenly the young Pierre Boulez’s posing seems less ridiculous.

The plurality of it seemed to be Christian religious music, conjuring up memories of the 20th-century abominations that lurk in the shadows of the roped-off corridors in the Vatican Museum. Not coincidentally, there’s also a lot of theatrical pieces aimed at children – a similarly captive audience presumed indifferent to quality control. Then there are the memorials: so many tributes, already forgotten, to the Holocaust, 9/11, Bosnia, MLK, JFK, the Pakistan earthquake, that stack up until one cynically assumes a horde of musical McGonagalls latching on to any chance to repeat the triumph of Penderecki’s 8’37”.

And the puns; oh god, the puns. No-one except Milton Babbitt could get away with such dreadful titles. The hatefully naff pun has friends on both sides of the Atlantic: the American professors on one, and on the other the legions of British who swell the ranks of the cut-out pile. The obscure British composer will always be with us – titled, lettered, forgotten, each waiting Buggins’s turn to be “re-evaluated”. Their chief artistic aim was to be clubbable, and all seem sworn to a pact to write something called “Spot Me A Tenor”.

The self-consciously “modern” are hardly any better, like Australian surrealists, dropping the word “fractal” on their sonata for clarinet and tape, racking their brains for another word that ends in “-tion”. All of it, conservative or avant-garde, perfectly acceptable to its intended audience, technically competent, fully compliant, honest, dull, unlistenable.

Once again, I stress that I haven’t heard a note of of the music I condemn. Just the thought of it, out there, depresses me.

Please Mister Please CXXI

Wednesday 1 June 2011

The Sugarcubes, “Pump” (1989).
(4’25”, 8.0 MB, mp3)

“Well thanks for wrecking my evening.” The modern art critic in crisis.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

This was almost going to be one of those “Great Moments In Art Criticism” posts.

“For me the Turner prize is a hit-and-miss affair – there are years when it actually seems important who wins and years when I honestly couldn’t care less. This year, I care because Mark Leckey is on the shortlist.”
Jonathan Jones, “The Turner should go to Mark Leckey”, The Guardian, 13 May 2008.

“Leckey won a Turner prize in 2008, which goes to show you should never take these awards too seriously.”
Jonathan Jones, “Mark Leckey’s art creates noise without meaning”, The Guardian, 23 May 2011.

Jones’ latter review is so vituperously negative (he compares Leckey to Gordon Brown, which is just plain mean) that maybe, just maybe, he should have mentioned his dramatic change of heart. The comments section, usually a desultory place peopled with commentators who don’t seem particularly interested in art, has come alive. Comments both for and against, amongst the usual dross, make some fascinating points on the current state of art and art criticism.

Jones himself responds frequently, steadfastly refusing to admit he made a basic error in interpreting one of Leckey’s works and offering unintentionally hilarious ripostes such as “It was 2008! Why would I refer back to it?” and the Mugatu-like “I have put my views of art across in such contexts as a Turner Prize jury. Have you been a Turner judge? So where do you come off so high and mighty?” Eventually, Mark Leckey himself comments, along with other critics, all of whom predictably end up wallowing in self-pity. Why did all this anger and sorrow suddenly burst forth?

Stephen Potter famously observed that the role of the critic is to convey to the reader what a splendid person the critic is, and that “you must never praise or blame two weeks running.” In his initial praise of Leckey, Jones begins by announcing “I’m a natural fan. I can’t stand indifference.” – and so smartly allows himself intellectual room to praise or blame at will. Regardless of the quality of the art, the critic must alternate praise with blame; their career depends on it.

Car journalist Jack Baruth recently described at some length the necessity of what he calls “the wobble”. Praise every car and you appear a corporate shill; slam every car and you appear apathetic.

A successful automotive journalist doesn’t fall into either of the above traps. He wobbles. He creates what Jimmy Page called “light and shade” in the body of his written work…. Every autowriter with ambitions to be something more than a low-paid PR agent needs the wobble. Credibility, success, a fan base, a recognized name. The wobble giveth, and it taketh away.

The motoring writer’s dilemma is that for the past 20-odd years all cars have been, fundamentally, the same. The car-buying punter no longer has to choose between one model that has disc brakes and no heater, another with a heater and chronic rust problems, or a third with bucket seats and a tendency to flip over and kill you. Baruth’s article explains how a car journalist tries to find or make “the wobble”, and sometimes gets caught out.

Of course, for any of this car talk to be relevant to Jonathan Jones, modern British art would have to be somehow comparable to the car industry. The latter has large financial investments riding on the steady production of homogenised product, largely devoid of any extreme highs or lows of user experience, whereas…

See you all tomorrow!

Friday 20 May 2011

Please Mister Please CXX

Thursday 19 May 2011

Alvin Lucier, “Nothing is Real” (1990). Margaret Leng Tan, piano, cassette recorder & teapot.
(10’49”, 13.8 MB, mp3)

Isn’t that terrific?

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Alvin Lucier, who I had the privilege of seeing a couple of years ago, just turned 80. Daniel Wolf at Renewable Music gives a summary of the many reasons why the world would be a lot worse without him. Lucier’s way of thinking will become even more important as we struggle to understand what music may be, in a world of ever-increasing technological mediation of experience, and of convergence between media.

Nicolas Collins, author of the essential Handmade Electronic Music – The Art of Hardware Hacking, has generously uploaded scans of his notes from taking Lucier’s class, “Introduction to Electronic Music”, along with his reflections on Lucier’s teaching and the musical culture of the early 1970s.

Never Gonna Update

Monday 16 May 2011

I missed Eurovision again on Saturday night. I briefly considered watching it on iPlayer and writing up a review of it like I did until 2009, but then I got online the next day. In my Twitter feed I had not one, but two waves of Eurovision updates: first from my European contacts on Saturday night, followed by the second wave from Australians on Sunday morning, as they watched the delayed telecast.

A paradox has emerged in the world of online media. Just about any show or event that readily comes to mind is available, in perpetuity; but if you want to join in the conversation your experience has to be immediate. As a kid, my school week always started with a breakdown of what happened on Countdown on Friday evening. Today, any attempt to bring up the subject on Monday would be digging up old news. If you wait for that new foreign show to come to TV in your town, your friends will have downloaded it or bought the DVD on Amazon. You can’t phone people overseas and tell them how their old team is going back home – they already know.

My blog is the closest I’ll ever get to keeping a diary. Over the years it’s evolved from spouting off about anything that’s amused or annoyed me at the time, to spouting off about things I’ve personally experienced. The brief or trivial observations, or links to other stuff that has interested me, which used to keep the update rate on the blog ticking over, are now most often published on my Twitter account. These short entries used to be the supposedly preferred remit for blogs, but now blogs seem like they should be the home for longer, more reflective writing. No doubt the form and substance in which these conversations take place will remain in flux for some time yet.

Eurovision 2011: Meet The Losers

Tuesday 10 May 2011

I somehow forgot to do this last year, so with the first semi-final due to start tonight it’s more than time to look at the Eurovision entrants with the longest odds of winning. (Please note that I have never watched a semi-final, preferring instead to watch the finals with no forewarning of what atrocities may be unleashed. This also adds to the fun of the Drinking Game.)

The bookies this year obviously think they’ve got the contest and voting patterns sussed, as they’re offering frankly ridiculous odds from 200:1 to 500:1 for a swathe of countries. The received wisdom, however, is that the entrant with the least hope of succeeding is San Marino, presumably because it’s barely even a real country.

The Sammarinese contestant, a lady called Senit, is (surprise) not actually from San Marino. Her notable achievements include appearing in the German cast of The Lion King, recording with producers who have also worked with luminaries such as “Christina Alguilera” and “Busta Rhimes”, and…

In May 2006 Senit made her debut in the world of Italian discography with the album that took her name SENIT, produced by Panini, historic editing house of footballers stickers, that chose her as the testimonial of their new discographic activity.

Senit’s Eurovision song has the rather hesitant title “Stand By”, with a similarly less-than-forceful refrain of:

So tonight, if you don’t mind, I will stand by!

In the likely event that San Marino will be eliminated in the semi-finals, the longest odds for any country appearing in the final itself are for Spain. Almost as hopeless as San Marino, Spain’s entry will be sung by the lovely Lucía Pérez. She’s big in Galicia, and is “presently finishing her degree in pedagogics”. Her song, “Que Me Quiten Lo Bailao”, translates as “They Can’t Take The Fun Away From Me” and suggests that Spain are still in their not-giving-a-shit mood.

This is backed up by the song lyrics, which seem to me to be about the joys of getting totally fucking hammered on Rioja, complete with a musical parking of the tiger at the end.

I’m feeling so good,
I’m feeling so good
that I will never ever ever think
in a negative way

Although I know well
that storms may come
and I will fall down
after all
I have enjoyed all this so much
and nobody can take the fun I had away from me

Ouo uo uo ouo uo uo
who can take the fun I’ve had away from me?