Hey nerdboy, you suck! A brief consideration of laptop gigs.

Monday 31 August 2015

(The original version of this text was written for the Collected Collaborations show at Monash University Museum of Art in 2011.)

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 most experimental musicians 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 onstage 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 experimental 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.

Is there a way to be theatrically engaging while using a laptop? I don’t necessarily mean flailing or histrionics, I’m talking about the performer affirming a physical presence in relation to the audience.

String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta) was the first piece I performed live on a laptop computer. My gestures in playing this piece emphasised how little movement or exertion is needed to play on a computer, moving attention instead to concentration and decisiveness. Since then, I’ve treated the computer as a “black box” which performs autonomously. My contribution as a performer is through an analogue component of the performance setup.

I’m now learning to use a MIDI controller to have some input with this autonomous, computerised system. The trick is for me to make it a reactive interface: instead of determining the attributes of the music, I can only respond to situations presented by the computer. The intention is to make the performer’s role closer to that of a listener.

There is also the question of how the performer may interact with the controls. This is a major consideration for Tom Mudd’s Control installation, to which I have contributed a composition and which opens next week. I’ll talk about this issue in my next post.

This Is The New Music: German For Bad Luck (work in progress)

Saturday 22 August 2015

It’s been a while since I posted any new music. The Chain Of Ponds project is in its final stages and I hope will be released soon, in some form or other. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from another work in progress, German For Bad Luck (Variations on a Theme of Arnold Schoenberg).

The piece began as an attempt to reconcile several supposedly incompatible tendencies in 20th century music: serialism, minimal music i.e. drones, and microtonal tuning. German For Bad Luck is built from a scale of 13 notes to the octave instead of the usual twelve, using tuning ratios from just intonation instead of boring old equal temperament. These notes are arranged into a row. Five different drones play the row simultaneously, but with each one starting on a different note.

Each of the first notes played is held for a long time. Each of the long notes has its own specified duration, determined by its pitch. At the end of each long note, the drone quickly cycles through the entire row until it reaches the next note in the sequence, and so holds that note for its specified long duration.

The piece is, in effect, a 13-note series that simply repeats through different rotations. The result is a series of chords which transform by one note at a time. These transitions are relatively brief, leaving the bulk of the music to stable drones. The note row is composed so that each of these stable chords tends to alternate between ‘consonant’ and ‘dissonant’ harmonies.

Confession: I have a problem with drones, at least when I make them. They sound too simple, too neat. Some element is needed to complicate things. The piece is therefore going to be pressed into service as the basis of an opera, on the apposite subject of Schoenberg’s triskaidekaphobia. I’m working on the libretto now.

Below you can hear an excerpt from the drone. This is the point where the first chord goes through its transition to the second.

Apartment House at 20

Wednesday 19 August 2015

The question is not whether or not what Cage is doing is art. I’m convinced that it will be art without even hearing the piece, only because he does it. The question is, and it is because of John we must ask this question: Is music an art form to begin with? Was it always show biz? And by show biz I mean Monteverdi…. What I mean by show biz is fantastic show biz. That a new piece of Boulez, perhaps, presented in a classy hall in Paris is like Sarah Bernhardt doing a monolog. Without the histrionics, of course. That’s what I mean. By holding the moment. By capturing the moment in every sense of the word.

Morton Feldman, in conversation with Peter Gena.

I often say to people I’m not interested in music, I’m interested in art. And I still believe that; I can point to a composer and say, “That’s an artist,” and I can point to someone else and say, “Well, they’re just a composer.”

Anton Lukoszevieze, in conversation with Robert Worby.

It’s probably this commitment to music as art that makes me go to Apartment House gigs whenever I can. I was going to say that it’s their commitment to playing unjustly-neglected composers, but sadly the state of the arty end of the music business often means the two are the same thing. I got to go to their 20th anniversary gig at Cafe Oto last month but never got around to writing about it. Luckily, the whole thing (almost*) is now on the BBC web site for the next month.

What struck me most at the time was how well the programme flowed, presenting diverse types of music with a strong defining character for the whole evening. The playing order is different on the radio but the strength of the music remains. Listening again, you can hear how each piece alternates between two extremes of musical language – the minimal and the seemingly anarchic. There’s a shared way of thinking behind each of these two extremes: the predominant compositional thought given to the organisation of material, the innovative use of structure and the careful handling of sonic materials to present them in a new light. As art, each piece touches the listener through its own intrinsic qualities without relying on a narrative, a mood, a subject, or other high-falutin’ appeals to sentimentality.

There’s a mix of new composers (Luiz Henrique Yudo, Jennifer Walshe), old stuff (John Cage) and revelations: a new chamber ensemble arrangement of Henning Christiansen’s fluxorum organum (different from the one I heard in Huddersfield in 2013) and George Maciunas played at least as well as Mozart. Maciunas, he’s supposed to be essential, right? Every textbook mentions him, but nobody plays him. He might as well be Josquin. (I’m reading that Feldman interview again. “This whole business of accessibility is a lot of baloney.”)

The radio show also plays a couple of pieces from that Apartment House CD of Maciunas’ music I wrote about early this year, so you get to hear that, too. You also get to hear composer Laurence Crane messing around with various found objects and Lore Lixenberg singing John Cage’s Aria together with his Concert for Piano and Orchestra – a particularly fine rendition of each.

* To recreate the full concert experience at home, break for a couple of intervals and play The Fall** while having a few drinks.

** First Brix era mostly, I think.

New thrill! Control – an interactive sound installation

Wednesday 5 August 2015


Next month I’ll be part of Control, a group show of interactive music next month at Cafe Oto’s Project Space.

A single dial is connected to a single speaker, but the relationship between the two is not fixed; it flits between a range of possibilities composed by a diverse range of artists. Visitors are invited to use the dial to make sounds, and to thus explore the links between their actions, the limits of the dial, and the musical ideas embedded in the software by the artists.

It’s on from 10 to 13 September, from 1 to 9 pm each day at Oto Project Space. (Free entry.) Yes, there’s a gig the night before by some of the people in the show. I won’t be playing, but I might be talking. Hope you come and enjoy it!

Jürg Frey: Grizzana and other pieces 2009-2014

Tuesday 4 August 2015

I won’t search for it but a few years ago I made the passing remark that if Morton Feldman’s music can be compared to Rothko (as it often is) then Howard Skempton’s can be compared to Morandi. The use of melody and conventional harmonic patterns creates a beguiling sensation of familiarity. That initial impression is deceptive, precisely in that it doesn’t try to deceive: representation in one and functional harmony in the other are left exposed, revealed as artifice – yet they still convey their effect (or affect).

Late last year I heard Jürg Frey and a small ensemble play a concert of his recent music. At the time I wrote that:

Some of Frey’s music that I’ve heard seems, to some extent, a provocation in its refusal to yield to an implied, wider palette of sounds. (This is particularly after hearing R. Andrew Lee play Frey’s piano music.) On this occasion, there were also some surprisingly rich sounds, with an almost playful (on Frey’s terms) exploration of harmonies and instrument combinations.

The album of Frey’s music that was recorded around the same time as that concert has now been released by Another Timbre as a double CD, titled Grizzana and other pieces 2009-2014. After hearing the concert I said that, “It will be interesting to hear the music apart from the theatre of performance.” It sounds even more tender and yielding than I expected. Is Frey mellowing with age, or am I just getting acclimatised?

I listened again to Lee’s excellent first CD of Frey’s piano music. There’s a striking contrast between those earlier works and the newer pieces on Grizzana. There’s that notorious passage in Klavierstück II where the same perfect fourth is repeated 468 times. When repetitions appear in the newer music they provide a sense of continuity, not of stasis or impasse. The music alters the listener’s perception of the world through its complex sensory effect more than through any aesthetic dialectic. (Morton Feldman distinguished his own music from John Cage’s by highlighting the didactic tendency in Cage: “Most music is metaphor… I am not metaphor. Parable, maybe. Cage is sermon.”)

I’m reading that interview with Frey about the new CD and – what do you know? – he’s talking about Morandi:

Morandi’s painting is figurative painting, but at the same time, he works with aspects of abstract painting. So you can see him also as an abstract painter who works with objects. To make a link to music (and sorry, I have to simplify it now, but in the daily process of my work, this reflection develops the whole richness of complexity), I can understand a melody as like a figurative part of a painting. Similarly to how you can remember melody as a “thing“, as a motif in music, you can see on the canvas a bottle, a house (and some painters speak about “working on the motif”). So on the other hand, in music the sound (just the sound) can be seen as an equivalent to abstract colour.

I could have just read further and quoted that instead of typing all the above.

Frey’s recent music is imbued with a quiet sophistication – the sort that doesn’t need to display its radical nature, its erudition. Where it was once necessary to make statements (like in the six-hour, almost inaudible electroacoustic collage Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit) it is now possible for these values to be affirmed as a given. The piece Ferne Farben, for example, uses field recordings in a way that may not even be noticed on casual listening, giving additional life, space and colour to the otherwise very slow and quiet playing of the acoustic instruments. Or perhaps, listening to it yet again, it’s the other way around.

As might be expected, the performances by Frey himself and his “personal army” are beautifully clear and evocative. Aspects of this album recall last year’s double CD of Laurence Crane’s music, released on the same label: a sustained mood of ambiguous detail, unbroken surfaces over hidden depths. Frey’s music here, however, creates a strange double image in which each sound feels tentative yet inarguable, like a delicate organism. In the trio Area of Three, sustained sounds are inflected with the quietest, briefest notes that pass almost like accidents, silences pass like clouds. Appropriately, another of the pieces is titled Fragile Balance.