Unfinished Business: Ezra Pound’s Music

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Been listening a lot to two new CDs on Another Timbre: a new album of Jürg Frey’s piano music played by Philip Thomas, and a collection of pieces by Joseph Kudirka played by Apartment House. I need to talk about these soon but I’ve got left over business from the London Contemporary Music Festival last month. It was an incredible programme that mixed old and new, familiar and obscure in a way that took risks simply by being such an eclectic jumble of different practices and backgrounds: a true portrait of the state of “contemporary music” at the start of a century that still hasn’t a defined identity.

A long blog post by Lawrence Dunn gives an excellent analysis of many events from the LCMF, as well as the La Monte Young and other gigs at Huddersfield. (Dunn also discusses Philip Thomas playing Frey’s piano music live.) The latter part of his post goes into detail about the LCMF night “To a new definition of opera”, which still strikes me as the stand-out event in the programme. The first half of Tim Parkinson’s Time With People, which I’ve talked about before, re-appeared and its stage detritus persisted amongst the audience throughout the whole programme.

The evening ended with Stockhausen’s Pietà finally getting played in this country – a prime example of his later music being quite mad and quite wonderful. It began by plunging the audience into the verbal and visual assault of Ryan Trecartin’s video Center Jenny. Dunn’s blog links to the video and makes the excellent observation that this work connects to the legacy of Robert Ashley’s operas, in a deep and disturbing way. I can’t really agree with Dunn’s feeling that it’s the work of “the worst sort of antifeminist”. It seemed more to me that the video is about misogyny than of it, or worse, that it dispassionately picks up one unsavoury aspect of current social anxieties which, salvaged as a remnant in a post-apocalyptic future, is arbitrarily selected as the model for a future society. It could have been racism, but that’s too heavy now. The gender and social roles depicted in US sorority life are still presented as cheerfully benign, and exist in a curious cultural vacuum: through movies and TV they are familiar to everyone around the world, but unlike McDonald’s or basketball they remain utterly alien to even the most pro-American Anglophone. The average age of the audience on this night was noticeably older, and they generally seemed to find Center Jenny amusing.

I presume the older people were an equal mix of Stockhausen fans and Pound fans. The night was my chance to hear Ezra Pound’s music played live, with a potted version of his opera Le Testament de Villon played for the first time in the UK in its “un-revised” phrasing. Pound’s music is seldom heard and even when scholars of Pound the poet bring it up there’s much lip service and little critical discussion. It tends to get pigeonholed as a passing phase, one of the less harmful of his many eccentricities. On paper, it has often been dismissed as crude and amateurish: irregular meters and phrasing, no pauses, introductions or conclusions, any polyphony usually an accompanying instrument moving in parallel with the voice. It’s clear he set Villon’s words line by line to melody, determined by the intonation of a speaking voice. Pound himself suggested that the opera was instigated by the impossibility of satisfactorily translating Villon into English.

One critic has sniffed that the opera is “less a foray into modernism and more a half-baked retreat into pre-operatic archaism” and so misses the point. It’s of a piece with much of Pound’s poetry to that time, of reclaiming and revitalising old cultural forms, “making it new”. “Early music” as it is appreciated now was barely known in 1920s and Pound had advocated for it before (going as far as to buy a clavichord from Arnold Dolmetsch in 1915, despite not knowing how to play it) and after (microfilming unpublished Vivaldi manuscripts in the 1930s).

Those strange, meandering vocal lines of irregular length are now familiar to audiences through the resemblance to plainchant, albeit with a minimal accompaniment (often just solo violin) and a strange, not-quite-modal intonation. The baritone Robert Gildon and mezzo Lore Lixenberg sang without the vibrato that would have been hard to expunge in Pound’s lifetime. The piece begins with an overture on solo cornet de dessus (think a valveless trumpet the size of an alphorn), the interludes are brief, spare taps on a kettle drum. When Virgil Thomson heard it he presciently noted that “it bore family resemblances unmistakable to the Socrate of Satie” – another overlooked masterwork by a composer yet to be appreciated. The pared-down simplicity of the opera recalls John Cage’s reduction of Socrate, but his Cheap Imitation was written over 40 years later. The haunting motet at the end of the opera carries the same blurring of familiar and strange, in the same manner of Cage’s arrangements of 18th Century American hymns – achieved, again, by erasing. Cage’s last operas also reduce the elements of opera to the barest essentials. I haven’t read anything that suggests Cage was knowledgeable about Pound as a composer.

The LCMF programme specifically links the Pound and the Stockhausen Pietà as “two neglected masterpieces of modernism”. When Stockhausen died I connected him to Pound in terms of how much their work remains misunderstood and will probably stay that way. The LCMF concert felt like a first step for treating Pound’s music as more than a curiosity.

Dick Without A Hole (Spear & Jackson No. 3 Mix)

Tuesday 29 December 2015

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.

Lights Out

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Working on stuff with not much to report right now, so here’s a short video I made for the end of another summer, a few years ago.

144 Pieces For Organ: The Movie

Wednesday 1 October 2014

I was going to write a blog post tonight but I started thinking about creating graphic representations of 144 Pieces For Organ – in Excel, of course.

Four of them are on YouTube now. Any resemblance to John Cage’s late prints is purely coincidental.

End of the Summer Break

Saturday 28 June 2014

Hope you like the holiday snap. Back at last, with a quick update to say that the complete series of Real Characters and False Analogues videos is now online. Big announcements next week.

Systems (1)

Thursday 5 June 2014

144_imga

I’ve been thinking about generative systems a lot lately. Like, how can I make a series of videos to accompany these microtonal piano pieces I wrote years ago? I want combinations of intersecting colours relating to the harmonic relationships in each piece…

Or I want to make a series of short pieces for organ, written in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet…

Each organ piece is 12 measures long (each measure a different tempo), using 12 organ stops, each stop playing 12 notes. 144 notes in each piece. Each measure begins with a note on different organ stop, all other notes can appear at any time in the piece. Moving from one pitch to the next is done by a crude approximation of flocking behaviour. Within these parameters, all outcomes are determined by chance.

I saw the Webdriver Torso videos last week and thought, “Damn, I wish I thought of that.” Then I read Greg Allen’s blog post about them and…

What you need is a system. To keep you going, to avoid artist’s block, to keep the pipeline filled.

I’ve never thought about artist’s block. That’s not an ego thing, it’s just that I hate inspiration. If I have to insert an aesthetic element into a piece then I consider it a failure. I’m thinking of that idea in mathematics of the elegant proof: that great richness of detail can be drawn from a relatively simple interaction of underlying principles. If the system’s good, there should be no need to fudge or tweak to keep things interesting.

Like that paragraph above describing the organ pieces. A brief set of instructions: the sentences are easily understood, the results produced are not easily imaginable. It would seem appropriate to write 144 of them, but I could break off the series at any time.

NC10_all_ss

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.

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.

I Am The President Of Capitalists Inc.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

“Would you like to join a society called Capitalists Inc.? (Just so no one would think we were Communists.) Anyone joining automatically becomes president. To join you must show you’ve destroyed at least one hundred records…”

– John Cage, Lecture on Nothing, 1949.

It’s John Cage’s 100th birthday today, and like everyone else I think I’m the only person who gets what Cage was really about and it just happens to align exactly with my own way of thinking.

I can’t remember if it was Cage himself or someone he was quoting who made the Sphinx-like statement that the opposite of every idea is another good idea. For all my infatuation with Cage’s music, I still like to take the kill-the-Buddha approach to his ideas and see what happens when they are deliberately opposed or misinterpreted.

I Am The President Of Capitalists Inc. was a performance and art exhibition I made in 2003. Its premise was to misunderstand Cage’s intellectual teasing quoted above and interpret it as a literal instruction for some sort of expressionist, confrontational, bourgeoisie-titillating aktion – all of which are opposed to Cage’s aesthetics.

To add insult to injury, my performance was conducted with the air of a re-enactment of a once-vital artistic statement which has since been embraced by the regime it once opposed and stripped of all subversive potency.

The golf club was a last minute idea, as I found it in a cupboard in a back room of the gallery. I now understand why golfers wear gloves.

Once all the records were smashed, I handed out business cards commemorating my new status. The room was left in that state for the rest of the exhibition: broken records, beer bottles and sundry detritus. A television was placed in the back corner playing the video of the performance, with the screen angled away so punters had to walk over the pile of rubbish to see what was going on.

During the exhibition some unexpected events took place in that room, but I’ll save that for another time, soon.

This is the New Music: Symphony

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Here is my new piece of music. It is called Symphony and there is a video to go with it, if you like that sort of thing. I feel obliged to make a video when I host music on YouTube. It’s in HD so the sound should be OK and you can full-screen the vid for a nice ambient experience until you get bored and want to check Facebook again.

As I was saying, after finishing String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta): that piece began as an attempt to emulate Phill Niblock’s music without having heard it. I had gotten the idea that it generally involved someone playing one note over and over again, overdubbing it lots of times until it created a blur of sound distinct in identity yet ambiguous in character.

Upon closer inspection Niblock’s technique turned out to be a bit more complex than that, which was slightly disappointing. On the upside, it left the way clear for me.

As it turned out, making String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta) entailed some satisficing in its material. Symphony gets closer to the original conception of one aspect of the piece (a single pitch), and yet further away from another (diverse instrumentation). The piece therefore has less harmony (and become closer to my original understanding of Niblock’s music) but greater timbral diversity (unlike Niblock’s pieces for multiples of the same instrument). For me, the interest in making this piece was to discover what is lost and gained in the trade-off between timbre and harmony, and to find out which of these two unfaithful copies is closer to the model they seek to imitate. As a piece of music in its own right, it exists to be a cheap imitation, reminiscent of something else yet unmistakably itself.

The video component of Symphony was made soon after the music was completed. Like the music, it is a monochrome. The screen is filled with a series of shades of blue, each shade created through chance operations. Each blue is subject to several simultaneous processes and transitions, from one shade to the next. Why blue? It’s a cool, receding primary colour. Besides its more obvious references to Derek Jarman and Yves Klein, I was thinking mostly of John Cage’s selection of colours when making Changes and Disappearances, where every tint had to include at least a small amount of blue because he “wanted the colours to look like they had been to grad school.”

This Is The New Media: The Night We Burned Down Bimbo Deluxe

Monday 11 June 2012

I hadn’t made a video for a while, so please enjoy The Night We Burned Down Bimbo Deluxe. The entire thing was made out of cheesy digital video effects on the movie making program on my computer, subjected to multiple chance operations.

Not that it matters right now, but I got the date wrong. The music was actually made in 2006 (seems longer than that.) It was made from one of those “temporary” files that Windows creates and then never, ever deletes. The unedited file was played through a sound editor as though it were audio data, and then subjected to four types of randomised filtering through parametric equalisers in Ross Bencina’s fine program AudioMulch, and then mixed by rapid, randomised crossfading between each of the four outputs. What you hear is take four.

So what does all this playing with 21st century technology get me? Maybe it’s the low quality of the sound from the original data file, or maybe it’s because I’m fifty years behind the times, but the piece sounds uncannily like the sort of tape music coming out of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk studios in Cologne in the 1950s. In keeping with this sound, and the appropriately grey and grainy video, the title refers to the human phenomenon of futile longing for a vanished world.

Surely I’ve told you all about this before.

This Is The New Music (and video): Spectral Shadow of String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta)

Wednesday 15 February 2012

I need to do a write-up of the Redrawing: Collective Collaborations show at Monash last year. Apart from a sneak preview of my contribution, nothing else of the latest, book-format iteration of String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta) has been posted on my site yet.

The visual form of String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta) was a spectrogram made of the 10-minute version of the piece. This produced a long, striated pattern that tied in neatly with some of the other visual and musical models on which the original(?) piece was based. Now, deciding to produce yet another distorted copy based upon the already distorted copy (itself based on a distorted copy etc.) I ran the spectrogram through the freeware image-to-sound program Coagula Light. The results are surprisingly consistent yet pleasingly different.

I’ve made a small video of the spectrogram, with the accompanying music. For comparison, I’ve included the video for the original(?) String Quartet below. Of course, you can also try playing them simultaneously.

What the world needs now is evil cackling.

Saturday 28 January 2012

I was just listening to Salvatore Martirano’s Underworld and I realised that there’s just not enough evil cackling in modern music. Underworld is probably the monarch of this petty kingdom, although Frank Zappa was probably the most prolific contributor to the genre, most notably in The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny, in addition to sundry appearances in RDNZL and elsewhere. Karlheinz Stockhausen also gets off a particularly good one in Der Jahreslauf.

Apart from these I’m drawing a blank. I suspect there are further examples lurking amongst the later works of Stockhausen, and possibly in one or two of Kenneth Gaburo’s pieces. This sorry state of contemporary music reflects a general dearth of evil cackling these days. Even the worst of evildoers are so cowed by political correctness that they now feel obliged to pretend their nefarious deeds are committed for the greater good. If only they could show they were getting some enjoyment out of their evil, then the world might start to make sense again.

UPDATE: Carl Rosman has reminded me of the superb cackling in Mauricio Kagel’s MM 51.

UPDATE 2: of related interest.

The Colour Out Of Space

Thursday 17 November 2011

Lights Out: The Movie

Sunday 9 October 2011

The late burst of summer is definitely over, and everything’s turning dark and grey. Holed up at home late last night and feeling the cold for the first time I hunkered down over a pot of Russian Caravan and a bottle of Laphroaig and made this little video to go with Lights Out. You know, for the kids. They’re all about the Youtubes these days.