I’ve been getting to know Catherine Lamb’s music. Listening to the CD of her trio three bodies (moving) from Another Timbre has been one of the year’s high points, along with her vocal work Dilations and recent orchestral piece portions transparent/opaque. The immediate point for comparison is Morton Feldman’s music: apart from the obvious preoccupation with a similar soundworld of hushed stillness, there are similar concerns with the contradictory impulses towards feeling and form and the tension in maintaining a balance between the two. She also says, rather reassuringly, “I am open to the bland”. There’s this quality many composers have struggled to define, of impassive beauty in stasis, non-demonstrative; the quality Feldman sought when he “tried not to push the sounds around”, that Cage praised in Satie wanting to make Socrate “white and pure like antiquity”.
Last Thursday Konzert Minimal played Catherine Lamb’s material/highlight at Cafe Oto, so I had to be there to hear it live for myself. They also played Antoine Bueger’s meinong nonets, which I was eager to hear for a different reason. I wrote a bit about hearing Beuger’s en una noche oscura last year and how it left me unimpressed. Sadly the second chance at hearing Beuger live only reinforced my opinion. I described last year’s exposure as “stilted and precious, disappointingly inert” and came away with much the same impression this time.
The Lamb piece didn’t work for me on the night, either. There’s bland and then there’s bland. Worse still, material/highlight, which was played first, sounded pretty much as what I remembered the Beuger sounded like, which the subsequent piece then confirmed. I’m looking at the reviews of three bodies (moving) and I find this: “a feeling of richness and harmonic depth that separates Lamb from most of the music of the Wandelweiser composers.” It’s a pity that distinction is missing from material/highlight.
I’ve got a problem with Wandelweiser (of which Beuger is a co-founder). I’ve got a problem with any art movement really (a sure sign of lots of distracting chaff), but what I’ve heard of Wandelweiser that impresses me the most is the way so many composers have found so many ways to write music that sounds the same. Long, soft tones. Pauses. It’s not just those stilted, precious, inert qualities that in themselves make the music uninteresting; it’s the sense that everyone’s working very deep within a comfort zone, that nothing is open to risk of any sort. It’s like a collective failure of nerve that’s permeated music over the past few decades: holy minimalists, lower case glitch musos, post-Feldmanites, Wandelweiser, all struck dumb in awe of their meagre materials, held in abeyance for fear that a false move is worse than no move at all.
“They’re playing the Lachenmann last. I didn’t want to hear the Carter; I need a life.”
[BBC announcer walks on-stage.] “We’re in for some torture first.”
“So apparently she’s this hugely important and revered cultural figure in Lebanon, but when you present her in the opera she just comes across as Widow Twankey. He doesn’t get it. I tried explaining Widow Twankey to him and he thinks she’s a real person.”
First, I want to thank whoever it was who once perfectly described laptop performers as having the stage presence of “bored men checking their email”. This is one of the more important reasons why I avoided giving live performances with computers for many years.
Of course, with experimental musicians mostly being awkward, poorly-socialised geek boys, your typical underground new music gig wasn’t much livelier before computers became affordable, but at least the equipment available at the time enforced a certain minimum of on-stage activity.
The role and aesthetics of the theatrical (but not dramatic) element of new music performance don’t get discussed much. I was once on a panel talk with several other musicians which drifted onto this topic and stayed there for the rest of the session. Nothing much was agreed, except that there are no real models to work from, and everyone has to pretty much work out their own methods for themselves. And, more importantly, that VJs are a blight upon the earth.
What was most interesting to learn was that so many musicians, even though you wouldn’t think it to watch them, are conscious of the visual aspect of their gigs. They may also, however, be at a loss as to what they can do to help it.
I wrote the above four paragraphs for publication as part of the Collected Collaborations show, as part of a discussion of my use of computers in live performance. I’ve done a few more live laptop gigs since then but instead of talking about that now I’m thinking of an electronic music gig I saw last weekend at the ICA.
I didn’t like it. All the sounds were samples, with no variation from one use of the sound to the next. I’d just seen the Matisse cut-outs show so I knew that even those flat planes of colour had their own life and shading to them. The music was all derivative of electronic dance music, but not transformative. Dance music has lives or dies on its sense of rhythm, balance, structure, so deconstructing it to its constituent components was a signally unrewarding exercise. Worse, the ICA room is typically set up so the musos are up the back, obscured from the audience view.
Mark Fell was advertised as playing on the night, but he didn’t appear in the programme. As it turned out, his set was in fact performed by the cellist Lucy Railton (sadly not with a MIDI cello). Even though no-one could really see it, this was an intriguing idea. Would it have sounded any different if Fell had played it himself? Probably not, but that seemed kind of the point. Think how much the theatre, if not the music, of a laptop gig could be improved by having the piece performed by someone who had no part in making it.
What would happen in each case where someone else stepped in to play with the computer interface? I need to stop thinking about my own performance practice and start thinking about a more general practice. How can I allow for this and still keep it a satisfactory musical experience. It needs to be a piece (not an instrument) but in what ways could it be made so a different performer can interpret it in unforseen ways?
I keep telling everyone that John Cage is the composer with the most pervasive influence on my work, and it is part of this influence which involves the necessity of ignoring or contradicting his ideas as well as accepting them. As far as I’m concerned, Cage is the orthodoxy.
I look at ways my working methods diverge from those of Cage. (This preoccupation with the past is itself an attempt at a Cagean strategy, that of transcending one’s situation through accepting it – the situation here being the apparent cultural impasse in a period of decadence that has followed postmodernism.) I also look at ways I can consciously diverge from Cage in a productive way.
That whole thing about music as process, keeping it “live”, avoiding fixed relationships – when I was a kid I remember reading Brian Eno talking about the same stuff. It always bugged me; it felt dogmatic. Why should music as an open-ended process be considered intrinsically preferable? It seemed like a good reason to make music which is conceived and received as an object. This is of course the natural state of recorded music, and it’s a state I want to fully exploit as both a form and a medium.
144 Pieces For Organ is thoroughly Cagean in its method: chance-determined materials and structure within an arbitrary form. The form, however, was conceived as a series of unique objects, like sculptures or drawings: a complex of fixed relationships. As with static visual art, any open-ended process is left to the audience. It seems as though how they sound depends a lot upon the level of attention given. Eight seconds of silence is given at the end of each piece to enforce its self-contained identity, and to break any sense of an ongoing continuity (i.e. perceptual process) that a sequence of pieces may give.
The generative nature of the pieces is starting to remind me of Allan McCollum’s Shapes Project. Although they are not permutational works, and are computer-generated, my 144 Pieces share some similar attributes. Most clearly, there is the creation of great, diverse abundance from a single determining process. There is also the possibility (explicit in McCollum’s work, implicit in mine) that more works in the same series could be created by other people, given access to the process.
There’s that word ‘process’ again. I want to keep stripping away any romantic connotations that might enhance a work of art, to see what remains; this applies equally to history, artistic biography and mythology as it does to Cage’s ideas about Zen. It takes no time to make these organ pieces: I could churn out millions of them, use each one once then delete it, outsource them, make them open-source, sell or give unique pieces to anyone who asks. This would all fit very well with the new surfeit/abundance (delete as appropriate) of information in which we now live. The problem, however, would then be that I had moved the work from an object to a process, a concept.
Then I start thinking about Morton Feldman’s music. Not just that he was influenced by Cage in the way most people are – find a few key ideas to embrace and reject everything else – but that he wrote music by setting up a hedge of contradictory imperatives and then negotiating a precarious path of compromises through them. (“It’s a sign of maturity.”) If I’m to treat my music as art – music is an art form, right? – then perhaps these organ pieces are not so much drawings as an edition of prints. More pieces could be made, but only as “duplicates” of the original work.
About those organ pieces I wrote…
One night in a pub, many years ago, someone asked me why, if I was writing music for computers to play, was so much of it written for virtual piano. I said that computerised sequencers were really useful only for precise control of rhythm and intonation, not for timbral subtlety; therefore when I wrote music for MIDI files I used the piano as a familiar acoustic model which wouldn’t distract the listener with “new” or “weird” sounds. (This was after several whiskies so I probably used slightly different wording at the time but the sentiment was the same.)
Most sampled acoustic instruments sound horribly fake. Every note has the exact same sound, with none of the natural variation you can’t help but get with instruments that are bowed or blown, for example. The sameness becomes grating. How could I easily get a wide range of tone colours which would still strike the listener as a “natural” acoustic listening experience?
The pipe organ has some striking parallels to the MIDI synthesiser. Both are dead-end technical solutions to musical problems. A wide range of stops (instrument patches) are available, but with little direct control in how these sounds may be used. You press the key, the sound starts, you release the key, the sound stops. In between pressing and releasing the key, there is no change to the sound unless it has a built-in decay which cannot be varied.
The combinations of stops used in 144 Pieces For Organ could not be played on a real organ, but the sound-world is sufficiently familiar for the listener to enjoy the mixture of harmonies and timbres without feeling a need to identify a sound source.