The John Cage Volkswagen Ad Project

Tuesday 18 June 2013

I saw this tweet from UbuWeb last year and took it as a challenge.

Two things immediately came to mind: John Cage’s anecdote about his own brush with advertising, and the Volkswagen microbus which he bought with his winnings from an Italian TV game show, for the purpose of driving the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from one gig to the next. The choice of host vehicle was obvious, and I found two suitable advertisements fairly quickly on YouTube. The only rules I set for adding music were (a) no editing and (b) post-1951 “chance” music only.

What was the point of this exercise? Now that it’s done, I realise it’s partly a tribute to Cage’s idealistic thinking, and his belief in the necessity of doing things previously considered impossible. More importantly, it’s about maintaining a true, critical measure of Cage’s achievements and assessing him properly as a composer, not as some supposed paragon of virtue.

On Walking Out

Monday 17 June 2013

I don’t know why I was surprised by the amount of chatter over the Rite of Spring centenary. It was the perfect story, as far as Arts Journalism is concerned, combining sterile controversy and What Passed For Entertainment For People Before Television. What I find more interesting, even if they are little more than incidents for gossip, are the times when people walk out of shows these days.

The London Sinfonietta performance of Kagel’s The Pieces of the Compass Rose was a particularly satisfying example, with a small but steady trickle of punters throughout. Even after the interval, some people returned to their seats for a second helping only to walk out again one or two pieces later. If you’re enjoying a concert, there’s something particularly gratifying about seeing that it’s Not For Everyone (see also They Must Be Doing Something Right).

One of the finest nights out I’ve ever had was for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s performance of Ocean some years ago. This piece had a truly remarkable rate of attrition, which remained constant throughout the evening. Ten minutes in, twenty, the amount of exposure had no apparent effect on the less faithful audience members’ resolution to stay or go. At least one couple sat through eighty minutes or more, no interval, before chucking it in a few minutes before the end; even though (or because?) the stage was encircled with digital clocks counting down the seconds until it would all be over.

Last week I saw Akio Suzuki and Aki Onda play a two-hour improvisation at Cafe Oto. Their performance was largely a study of processes within an allocated span of time. You could walk in and out without thinking you’d missed anything, any more than if you’d departed from a landscape.

I walked out of concert, at the interval, a few weeks ago. Nothing wrong with the music; it was one of the very rare balmy summer evenings we’ve had so far this year and I suddenly did not want to be inside a recital hall. One of the rules I’ve always tried to remember when making music: Everyone has a reason not to be at your gig.

Capitalists and Music For Bionic Ears Redux

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Just a quick update to say that I AM THE PRESIDENT OF CAPITALISTS INC. now has a proper page of its own on the website. An update with the thrilling sequel to this historical non-re-enactment will be coming as soon as I get my hands on a decent slide scanner.

Also, you can now hear for yourself This Is All I Need, my contribution to the Interior Design: Music for the Bionic Ear project. This was the concert of new music made especially for listeners with cochlear implants, who can understand speech really well but have a hard time making sense out of music. People without technological augmentation can enjoy it just as much. I’ve gone into some detail about the project and the thinking behind the music.

A Day by the Seaside

Sunday 9 June 2013

Almost forgot to say I had a nice day out last month at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, for the Editions Mego gigs. (As it happened, I was on the same train as that reviewer, but I was proffered disposable coffee cups of prosecco instead of cans of Bloody Mary.) Any cool cred I may have had was lost when I found a hardback of A Suitable Boy for 50p on the way from the train station to the Pavilion and lugged it around for the rest of the night. I was so preoccupied with it I forgot we got a free CD with the entry ticket. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere.

I agree with most of the Quietus review, particularly for Russell Haswell’s set, but for me the Mark Fell set was the most disappointing part of the event. Everyone else seemed to love it. Why?

Fell’s set was unique amongst the acts at the event. While everyone else worked with noise, i.e. treating sound as a fluid, plastic artform which can be stretched, squashed, twisted and moulded, Fell’s piece was nothing but notes and beats. Synthesizer pads and drum machine claps, an assembly of prefabricated parts. There’s nothing wrong with that, but while everyone else enthused over the construction I got bogged down in details. The unvarying sounds felt dead and dull, the cheesiness of them seemed like self-congratulatory irony. It didn’t help that the shuffle play on my ipod that morning had served up some library music with what sounded like the exact same synth patches.

Some people went around saying it was a deconstruction of rave. I guess that’s also part of my problem and why the experience left me feeling flat. Raves suck. Don’t bother arguing with me, because you’re wrong.

As for the other musicians on the day, the whole event strongly reminded me of what should have been a very different gig the week before, when the Arditti and JACK quartets played together at Wigmore Hall. Even though the whole gig was acoustic, the pieces played by these two string quartets showed how pervasive the influence of electronics and computer-manipulated sound has become on modern composition. Each piece placed its emphasis on the same musical concerns as the electronic noisemakers in Bexhill: timbre over pitch, texture over harmony, a sculptural sense of balance. The musicians created densely interwoven glissandi, ground their bows into the strings to create complex tones. The concluding work by Mauro Lanza made this method of working explicit, creating a musical argument that crossfaded back and forth between coherent sound and incoherent noise, instead of the old drama of divergence from a harmonic norm and the inevitable return home.

Authenticity is Overrated

Tuesday 4 June 2013

“Cubism must have developed when the artist considered how much of his sketch must be finished. Finishing involves a stupidity of perception.” – Guy Davenport, Narrative Tone and Form.

“The raw, unexplained dream still has its power; the dream with legible symbols is a spent force. Hence the liveliness of Ernst, the dullness and triviality of DalĂ­.” – Guy Davenport, Ernst Machs Max Ernst.

True to one of Davenport’s recurring themes, that of the transformation of ideas across time and sensibility, I’d nailed together the above two quotes in my head some years ago. I only realised my mistake this evening, when I tried to look up the composite sentence that had never been written.

For all of its technical skill, there is a barbarity lurking behind so much mimetic art: a fearful reverence for “the real” has supplanted knowledge of the workings by which reality is created. Too many artists have tried to fill up every perceived hole in their work with “research” – pettifogging justifications for the audience’s disbelief, already held in suspense.

On Saturday night I heard the London Sinfonietta play Mauricio Kagel’s The Pieces of the Compass Rose in its entirety. Kagel disarmingly refers to this collection of eight pieces as “salon music”, pre-empting accusations of cultural appropriation or misrepresentation.

The music is playful and beguiling throughout, even at its most raucous. This deferential charm distracts from a second, more insidious game in play. The salon culture of misinterpreting artefacts from the four corners of the world has itself been taken captive and repurposed by Kagel.

Like a true inhabitant of the postmodern era, Kagel’s reference point for his compass keeps shifting to suit his subjectivity: the East is Slavic, the South is Mediterranean and the North-East is Brazilian. He reassures us that the Andean tribe’s procession in North-West is purely imaginary.

No salon band would have access to dozens of percussion instruments and found objects, culminating in the percussionist chopping at a log with an axe. At the end of each section descend into torpor, like a hand-cranked gramophone winding down. Even the artifice is artificial.

Is the joke on the musicians or the audience? Is this like one of Nabokov’s literary snares, where the better you are at decoding such situations, the worse you become entangled in it? While you’re kept guessing you’ll listen to a lot of rich, evocative music on Kagel’s terms, with no time to stop and check his cultural credentials.

This Is The New Music: Tropical Ravine With Blackbird

Sunday 2 June 2013

For the past month most of my activity, such as it is, has been on Twitter. If you follow me then you’ll already know about this new piece I uploaded to SoundCloud, titled Tropical Ravine With Blackbird.

As previously mentioned, I have issues with the concept of soundscapes and field recordings. Tropical Ravine With Blackbird was recorded while I was at Sonorities in Belfast in late April. It is an amended field recording which tries to bring to the foreground the internal contradiction in so many field recordings: the use of technology to preserve authenticity.

Besides the questions of distortion and mediation so often ignored in soundscapes, there are implications in the reception and communication of a field recording to its intended audience; but I’m trying to think of a nice way of saying these things before I make that post.

I saw a few gigs in May – might tell you about them this week if I have time.