I saw this tweet from UbuWeb last year and took it as a challenge.
John Cage's music will never be used to sell cars.
— UbuWeb (@ubuweb) November 15, 2012
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 2: of related interest.
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.
Yes it’s short notice but I just found out myself. Dear Reader, you are always the first to know about these things, because I care about you.
Still full of myself after the gig at ABJECT BLOC in July, I’ve agreed to play as part of no.w.here and Other Film’s Unconscious archives #2. If you missed the Limehouse gig, this is another chance to hear the Mock Tudor live analogue electronic feedback loops, made from small amplifiers, mixers and modulators. Connected into circuits these gadgets start to oscillate and interact with each other in unpredictable ways.
I’ll be supporting Korean filmmaker and performer Hangjun Lee, with local musician, poet, performer, filmmaker and legend Hugh Metcalfe. Tuesday 13th September, Apiary Studios, 458 Hackney Rd, London, E2 9EG. It’s a £4 donation and you can – nay, must – bring your own booze. Don’t worry, there are plenty of offies in the steret. 8pm onwards.
I’ve taken down the old test recording of Mock Tudor III (variant) and replaced it with a much better recording. This gives you a pretty good idea of what my gig in July at ABJECT BLOC sounded like. Everything you hear is live sound from the output of feedback loops, created by connecting signal processors and mixers into circuits, and which can in turn be fed into each other. There are no edits or overdubs, and the only post-production is a bit of crude mastering.
Because my YouTube account was getting lonely, I even made a video of the performance. Rejoice in the sedentary stage life of the electronic composer!
In 2008, Fiona Macdonald made a flat, white video for my installation at her Redrawing show.
In 2011, my piece This Is All I Need was performed as part of Interior Design: Music For The Bionic Ear, with a video projected against the back wall.
Next year, I expect I shall make a video that is solid black.
When String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta) was exhibited as part of Redrawing in 2008, I added a video component to it, as a structural gesture to the work’s origins, and acknowledgement that it was being exhibited in a show of visual art. Fiona Macdonald kindly made me a video of a blank, white screen, which played on a continuous loop in the room while my cheap Malaysian laptop sat on a shelf and performed the music.
When I was asked to play the Quartet at the Vibe Bar last month I was also asked if I had a copy of the video to go with it. Even though I didn’t, I said yes, figuring that (a) it surely couldn’t be that hard to make a video of flat, solid white and (b) however bad it turned out it couldn’t be worse than having some random VJ doodling crap all over the wall behind you while you’re trying to play some music.
As it turned out, (b) the lovely people at Music Orbit don’t pull that gratuitous VJ shit, and (a) about as time consuming and frustrating as I thought it might be. There’s a video button on my little digital camera, which I’d never switched on before. I balanced the camera on a stool, pointed it at a flat white panel on a door, and let it roll.
You’d think there’d be nothing simpler, but it took a few goes and some playing around with the settings before I got something slightly acceptable. The gloomy English skies of January didn’t help much either, and I got 10 minutes of fairly solid grey. I played this back on my computer and made a handheld video of the screen. After too much time messing about with the movie editor software that came free with the laptop I got the final product, a soft grey that complements the muted monchromaticism of the music.
As the resulting video is a remake of a pre-existing work (originally made for an exhibition about remakes), and is itself a video of a video, the title Rescreening seemed apt. The 10-minute duration of the Vibe Bar performance makes it an ideal fit for YouTube, where you can play it to your heart’s content.
One thing I forgot I wanted to talk about when mentioning Alvin Lucier last month was his starring role in George Manupelli’s Dr. Chicago trilogy*. I first heard about these films only last year, over at Renewable Music, where Daniel Wolf suggests that Lucier is the composer with the most prominent film career.
(Possible runner up, Erik Satie in Entr’acte. John Cage makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in Maya Deren’s At Land, and almost had a part in La Dolce Vita, but didn’t.)
I’ve only seen short excerpts from each film, on YouTube and Manupelli’s website. They look like a mixture of cinéma vérité, awkward improvisation, and flights of deadpan absurdity. A lot of that last element comes from Lucier’s portrayal of the nefarious Dr. Chicago as he flees with his meagre entourage across the United States into Mexico. His Chicago combines the feckless insouciance of Nick Riviera with the calculating amorality of Burroughs’ Dr. Benway deprived of a budget.
* “There was also a fourth film, Dr. Chicago Goes to Sweden, but Manupelli got pissed off at a film festival in Toronto and drove around town with the only copy of the film unreeling out the window of his car.”