I started making a more serious video over the Christmas break but had to stop when it turned out that some essential material, which I was dead certain was in my desk drawer, was either missing, in storage somewhere, or lost. Instead, I made this.
Dick Without A Hole
“Hello, Yes, Hello” – Brion Gysin
“Did Dick?” – Graham Kennedy
“Dick Did!” – Ugly Dave Gray
“Why are people ringing telling me jokes?” – Bob Byrne
Bob the late-night talkback radio host is taking your calls on the open line about the issues of the day that matter to you, and our next caller is Gene. Gene wants to ask Bob a riddle. Bob doesn’t get it. Moving right along: Peter is next on the line. Peter also wants to ask Bob a riddle. Bob doesn’t know the answer, but Peter won’t tell him! Perplexed, Bob takes Phyllis’ call and asks her Peter’s riddle, but Phyllis just wants to hear Gene’s riddle again…
Dick Without A Hole was inspired by my love for the genteel stupidity of talk radio in Adelaide last century. The hosts craved the urgency and confrontation of shock jocks in other parts of the world but everyone in Adelaide, announcers and callers alike, were just too nice to carry it off. I still have a few cassettes, somewhere, of some of the better sessions, particularly the 9pm to midnight shift when the demographic got drunk and doddery.
This playful little dance of fumbled verbal exchanges and missed punchlines comes from one of those surviving tapes. Set to a cheerful, semi-funky shuffle, our four protagonists juggle the two dud gags back and forth, never grasping them yet never quite letting them drop. I find that their shared confusion in joke-telling gives a satisfying sense of mystery to this simple yet intractable form of social interaction. Their ritual is consecrated by the hallowed incantation of Messrs Kennedy and Gray, the two Magi of mid-seventies Australian comedy.
Dick Without A Hole (Red Detachment Of Women Mix) made its public debut at John Beagles’ and Graham Ramsay’s Museum Magogo in Glasgow, 1999. After that it toured to PB Gallery in Melbourne, and was revived in 2002 for the Piped Music series at The Physics Room in Christchurch – more specifically, in the toilets of The Physics Room.
For Christmas 2015 I’ve made a video version with a new, improved Spear & Jackson No. 3 Mix. Now with the ipad/smartphone/gaming console of your choice, you too can enjoy Dick Without A Hole in the comfort of your own toilet. For best results, leave it playing on a continuous loop.
I’ve spent the last three nights at the London Contemporary Music Festival and plan to spend the next four there, too. No time to put any of these thoughts into a coherent form, so this will have to do.
It’s an incredibly ambitious programme, with an eclectic array of big names and obscurities. The venue’s pretty cool and allows for acts to follow each other pretty much immediately without longueurs.
Friday night didn’t come off. Very short sets for live electronic musicians Tom Mudd and John Wall didn’t allow them enough time to get going. Other pieces tended to be awkward, self-conscious exercises in performance art, which was a bit of a downer. Sets by Shelley Parker and Visionist suffered from being dance music freeze-dried as art.
Saturday was great, focusing on composers who are from or passed through California. Pauline Oliveros and Morton Subotnick each got to noodle around and soak up the acclaim they deserve. Some old favourites (Cowell, Cage), a couple of twists (Terry Riley’s Keyboard Study No. 2, Otis O’Solomon reciting poetry). The highlight was the UK premiere of Catherine Lamb’s duo for
bassoongrand bass recorder and (microtonally-intoned) cello, Frames.
It was good to hear Maggie Payne getting some exposure, alongside the Carl Stone piece. I’m still not sure exactly what the fuss is about John Luther Adams.
The space is huge, benches and standing room. There is a cash bar in the adjoining room. Not everything played (e.g. Lamb) is amplified. Everyone keeps quiet and pays attention. Ellen Fullman’s long string instrument was set up in advance, stretching diagonally across the floor. Staff and punters do a sterling job of keeping anyone from falling into it.
Wednesday started with Ellen Fullman premiering a new work, The Watch Reprise. Copies of the score are dotted along the floor for reference as she walks back and forth playing the strings. The tuning system gets progressively crazier; in this cavernous room the bass sub-harmonics come out particularly strong.
Bryn Harrison’s Repetitions in Extended Time is another disorientating labyrinth of interweaving patterns. For forty-five minutes the instruments act as if alone, yet always rubbing up against each other in a passive-aggressive state of forced co-existence. Imagine a late Feldman piece, or the opening of Haas’ in vain, boiled down into an absurdist drama.
Tim Etchells repeats pithy phrases, turning them over like Wittgenstein overhearing gossip on a bus, while Aisha Orazbayeva taps and scrapes away at her violin. This is dumb, I think. But it’s an improvisation, of sorts, I remind myself. A weird kind of improvisation, so I kind of like it. The violin sounds nice, even though it’s making the most meagre of gestures. Maybe the words mean more by the sounds than by what they say, too. I try to listen to it differently, put them together. I’ll need to hear it again.
I’ve got a new album of music up on Bandcamp, titled Chain of Ponds.
It’s the culmination of various experiments I’ve made over the years using digital feedback synthesis, and I’m finally getting results I find fully satisfactory. I like the textural richness that can be brought out of something so conceptually neat. It’s kind of harsh, but kind of pastoral, to my ears.
You can stream it below, buy it cheap, or contact me (email, direct message on Twitter etc.) and I might still have some free download codes to email you.
Part One is here. If you want a better of what was actually happening at the HCMF this year, go over to 5:4 for detailed reviews of practically everything.
I arrived in Huddersfield just in time to hear the Quatuor Bozzini play Jürg Frey’s second and third string quartets. Both nearly half-an-hour long, the second quartet was composed over the turn of the century, the third a decade later. The second quartet sustains a constant mood and method – hushed, isolated chords are played in unison, with recurring harmonies partially obscured by the whispering of the bows against the strings. We’re back in the musical world of toying with extremes.
The third quartet reveals a clear and immediate contrast, with Frey’s recent style. It’s almost “classical music”, albeit on its own terms, within a very attenuated space. Isolated chords appear again, but speaking more fully. More prevalent are the passages of harmonic sequences. Some counterpoint emerges, through long-held notes sustained over an accompaniment of alternating chords. There is phrasing and variations in dynamics, from soft to very soft. Every now and then, a long-held chord acts like a cadence by means of its simple consistency, with tiny variations in timbre and balance becoming perceptible. All this variety suggests a teleology, a functional structure, but the start and the end sound arbitrary – as indeed does all of the middle. Like Morton Feldman, Frey has become a master of non-functional harmony.
Frey’s found a path of moderation away from some of the extremes of his earlier music. Moderation is too often seen as a bad thing in itself, a deviation from a pure ideal*. The night after hearing Jakob Ullmann’s solo IV, I was at the premiere of his 90-minute sort-of concerto la segunda canción del ángel desaparecido. Once again, I find myself wondering if I’m listening to this the right way. It’s always disturbing when an artist delivers you something other than what you expect. Hearing Ullman’s Son Imaginaire III at Huddersfield a couple of years ago was a concert-going experience that still looms large in my memory. la segunda canción was a surprising moderation of his usual aesthetic, albeit again within a narrow range. Two percussionists did a superb job of adding detail and texture without disrupting the typically fragile surface of Ullmann’s music. Even more surprising was the distinct layering of different dynamics, with a trio of winds (bassoon, basset horn, flute) sounding out above the string quintet. For Ullmann, it was almost strident. The strings would periodically burst into soft, agitated chatter.
I had problems listening to this. The difference in dynamics seemed to separate out the winds and strings too much, with little interplay between the two groups (which were also physically separated, horizontally and vertically). Too often the strings sounded like accompaniment, and when the winds were silent the material they had to play increasingly sounded repetitive and dull. It may have been just because I was hoping to hear something else, more of what I was used to. Again, I got worried I was listening the wrong way.
* What’s really disturbing is an apparent narrowing of aesthetic parameters, where approaching an extreme seems like the only way out of the current impasse. Moving away from an extreme comes across as a pulled punch, like the more famous minimalist composers who were unable to develop their signature style beyond diluting it. Listening to the more “conventional” compositions at the HCMF, there’s a general sense of being trapped where expansion beyond the new seems to be just like a return to the old. (Might expand on this later.**)
** This paragraph was jotted down after a few quick whiskies between gigs, as fortification against the weather.
First night in Huddersfield for the HCMF I went to the first UK performance of La Monte Young’s The Melodic Version (1984) of The Second Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from The Four Dreams of China (1962), which seems a good place to start as a point of reference; not just for the music prominently featured throughout the festival, but also an overt attempt to create an idealised context for reception of such music. As well as the incense and the specially prepared lighting by Marian Zazeela, there were instructions for audience behaviour (no applause) and a sheaf of briefing notes with extensive descriptions of the music, related pieces of music and the thinking behind such music. There wasn’t time to read all the notes before the music started but luckily we weren’t set a test on it afterwards. You could possibly read the notes while the music played although I expect this would be frowned upon.
Those elements that Young introduced into modern music – stasis, non-linear time, a deep awareness of acoustic and psychoacoustic phenomena – reappeared throughout the festival this year. With it, the need for different ways of listening arise. Young addresses this explicitly, while other composers raise it in less direct, but not necessarily more subtle ways.
The Huddersfield punters encountered musical extremes. The premiere of Jakob Ullmann’s solo IV for double bass was almost inaudible, by design. Almost like an Onkyo performance, a thirty-minute silence with only the lightest of inflections, allowing a sublime subtlety to emerge, of the type that John Cage admired in Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings. All through the trip I wondered if my ears were working right, or if my brain was getting in the way. Can the people up the back hear anything at all? Bassist Dominic Lash ekes out each tiny sound with such care and tenderness, but does the whole thing come across as slightly precious? Of the half-dozen or so works of Ullmann’s music I’ve encountered, this seemed the one closest to relying on a conceptual basis over a musical one.
Later that same day I heard Zbigniew Karkowski’s Fluster for solo electric bass with electronic processing. Earplugs are offered to the punters, signs are posted warning it will be loud. It is. And piercing, or otherwise penetrating. Karkowski’s image seems so much like a caricature, pictured in the programme pointing a handgun, making loud, abrasive noise, railing against “bullshit”. Fluster forces the listener to confront three successive fronts of sound as brute force: a low bass that rattles the speakers, the listener, the building; a relentless blast of white noise; a shrill chatter and screech of high-pitched static. It all goes on for a while, but time has no function here other than to establish the sounds’ physical presence. Virtuoso bassist Kasper Toeplitz becomes increasingly agitated by the demands of executing such precise actions to produce seemingly indifferent noise. The crackle of distorting speaker cones and buzzing of roof beams must be part of the music but who knows for sure? There’s a welter of tiny details within the high-pitched noise, but how much of it is really there and how much of it just the ears struggling to keep up? Extreme loudness guarantees an immediate visceral shock which can soon fade, but Karkowski’s music is not so superficial. The real shock is that people haven’t yet worked out how they are meant to listen to it, or whether in fact they heard it at all, behind all the noise.
This post has already gone on longer than I expected about less than I wanted to say, so I’ll post the rest of it later.