New Sound Work: Speeding and Breaking

Sunday 1 May 2016

This month, I’m pretty excited about giving a public airing to the biggest piece of music I’ve made. A section of my 18-hour piano piece Antisonata will be playing as one of the sound works at the Speeding and Braking exhibition.

Speeding and Braking: Navigating Acceleration is a conference with exhibitions and performances at Goldsmiths College, London, from 12 to 15 May 2016. You can hear Antisonata and other sound works on Saturday 14 May, from 10am to 5pm at G05, St James Hatcham Church on the Goldsmiths campus. Free entry.

Antisonata is the piece that plays all 555 of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas at the same time but very, very slowly; so slowly that they take as long to perform as if played one at a time.

Kammer Klang: John Wall and Michael Finnissy

Saturday 23 April 2016

Managed to make it to the latest Kammer Klang gig at Cafe Oto (it’s available in streaming audio for the next few weeks). For years they’ve been putting on regular nights featuring a clash of eclectic genres, mixing High Art Modern Music with improvisation, live electronic performance, pop etc. It’s a neat combination which manages to avoid labouring a theoretical point or trying to force one genre to somehow validate another. The big events this evening were the performance of Michael Finnissy’s chamber violin concerto “above earth’s shadow…” and a live electronic set by John Wall.

I just read a statement by Peter Rehberg that “laptop music stopped being interesting when the computers stopped crashing”. It’s a stupid, sentimental thing to say, up there with saying Hendrix wasn’t so great because he used effects pedals. I’ve been to a number of Wall’s gigs now, all improvised sets with his laptop and superb examples of what a devastating sonic and compositional tool the small computer can be when in the right hands. I’ve always been impressed by the way he holds in suspense the conflicting demands his music makes: the free-ranging spontaneity of sounds, an intense technical focus on details and a constant awareness of an overall compositional shape.

The Kammer Klang night was unusual in that Wall started with one of his ‘fixed’ compositions, Cphon from 2005, followed immediately by an improvisation. (The two are played separately in the radio broadcast.) In Cphon the sounds leak out as though under some pressurised constraint, with isolated sounds in narrow frequency ranges – often very high – and occasional brief activity slipping through thin, sustained pitches. This sound-world steadily mutates over time, revealing more depth and detail but still with everything kept on a short leash throughout, allowing the sounds to be intimately revealed without ever being fully released to let rip in a sensory outburst.

The following improvisation was immediately noticeable for the change in sonic materials but with no easily noticeable enlargement of possibilities permitted by the intervening decade of technological advances. The sounds became wider in range, producing an inexhaustible variety of tones and colours throughout the piece. Seemingly influenced by Cphon, a similar attitude of restraint was applied, extending and elaborating on the previous work instead of drawing an obvious contrast.

Making music live is always very different from working with a recording, whether on paper or on tape. There’s a theatrical element, and a social element which must always be addressed to be sure that the music has gotten over with the punters. Wall perhaps minimises this by typically sitting behind the audience and focusing on the music coming from the PA. In any case, listening back to the radio broadcast I’m surprised at how well it works as a recording, with its own musical internal logic and free of the unspoken dictates of entertaining a room full of people with booze.

Earlier in the night, violinist Oscar Perks with an ensemble conducted by Mark Knoop did justice to Michael Finnissy’s “above earth’s shadow…”. Finnissy is one of Britain’s foremost living composers; he turns 70 this year so the performance was a fitting tribute. Although the piece is now over 30 years old, this seems to have been only the third time it has been played in the UK, so it may as well be new to us. In 2012 the Proms held a matinee concert in Cadogan Hall which included the British premiere of his 2nd Piano Concerto, written some 35 years earlier. I think Finnissy has had one piece played at the Proms since then. For this year, the usually anniversary-happy Proms have programmed sweet F. A.

Australia Now and Then

Monday 18 April 2016

I’ve been listening to a lot of music which I should talk about, both live and on CD. The CDs will come up later; for starters I’ve been thinking about this concert at the BBC Studios in Maida Vale a couple of weeks ago.

Brett Dean was conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra on a programme of modern Australian composers. It’s the type of programme I’d normally shy away from – because of, not despite, being Australian and having heard concerts organised on the same premise back home. When a large institution is involved – an orchestra, a national broadcaster – things usually attempt to be overly safe and overly “representative”. The latter principle manifests itself in trying to cram in a number of slighter, lesser works by a broad variety of composers which don’t really gel together. Like new music in the UK, Australian music in Australia still needs to defend its own small space.

Regardless of any national slant, Dean’s programme of works was beautifully focussed, illuminating a particular thread of musical thought found in a group of diverse Australian composers working today. The introduction to the programme notes made this intent clear, to look beyond the customary identification of Australian art with the unique nature and landscape it inhabits. More importantly, the concert portrayed Australian music as being distinguished by an engagement with the rest of the world, building an increasingly complex dialogue with other cultures.

For a long time, the question of identity in Australian art was often framed as a debate between two sides, pro- and anti-. On one side, “internationalists” would deride parochialism (and imitate any new avant-garde trends in Europe and America) while “nationalists” would chauvinistically promote a local vernacular (and imitate one particular trend in Europe and America). It’s a mindset that’s hard to shake off, particularly if you make decisions for a funding body.

The concert opened with one older work, Richard Meale’s Clouds Now and Then from 1969. It’s a significant work, with its musical language derived from Messiaen and its static, contemplative form inspired by Basho’s poetry. Incorporating ideas from Europe and Japan, it floats between worlds rather than seeking dependence on one or the other. This give-and-take continued through the concert, both musically and biographically. Some of the composers – Thomas Meadowcroft, Anthony Pateras, Lisa Ilean – now live in London or Germany, while Georges Lentz was born in Luxembourg and moved to Australia in his twenties.

Ilean’s Land’s End drew upon a similar sound-world to Meale, enhanced with microtones. Meadowcroft’s Peacemaker Tattoo and Dean’s own Engelsflügel confronted European composers directly, Mahler and Brahms respectively. With Dean, it was a passionate exploration of musical ideas; with Meadowcroft, a modest, somewhat deflating side-step, equal parts deference and aversion. Lentz’s Caeli enarrant… III is an eclectic procession of disparate elements unified by the composer’s personal spiritual vision, combining Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, astronomy, serialism, chance and silence.

Both Meadowcroft and Pateras in his violin concerto Immediata appeared as performers, using an open-reel tape deck to record, play back and manipulate sounds in real time. (I’m an old friend of Pateras so I’ll try not to get too enthusiastic.) Immediata was built out of an eclectic, disruptive improvisation, elaborated by divergent combinations of instruments. Pateras recorded soloist Thomas Gould’s amplified violin and proceeded to speed, slow, warp and distort the sounds, at times going off into cadenzas of his own, in a manner reminiscent of the electronic interpolations of Varèse’s Déserts. There’s a tension between the music that’s fixed and that’s ephemeral, between the notated and improvised both in origin and performance, and of preservation and loss where, perversely, the tape recording is discarded and the piece must persist through performance of the written score.

I think BBC Radio 3 expects to broadcast this concert in August this year.

Tony Conrad

Sunday 10 April 2016

Tony Conrad died yesterday. It’s hard to disentangle his importance as an inspiration, a personal example to other musicians and artists, from his music so I’ll start by quoting something I wrote about his musicianship, when at its best. “Not just an unerring sense of what sounds good, but a sense of structure, of a meaning that goes beyond its own craft.”

I saw him play live on four occasions and was once accidentally invited to dinner with him at the Supper Inn in Melbourne. You couldn’t help but be aware that you were in the presence of a living figure from history and it was hard not to consider him an accessible ambassador from a particular mythology. Conrad’s real importance and influence on those mourning him today comes from what came after. In the last 20 years so many musicians have taken on ideas they learned from him.

That there’s always another side to the story, waiting to be revealed. That the “minimal” in music can have its rough edges and expressiveness. That there’s more than one way to learn from the past. That persistence pays. That received wisdom can be challenged. That constant work and honing your craft is essential. That it’s not too late.

This Is The New (Old) Music: Hentai-Oto-Ma

Thursday 31 March 2016

I feel bad about not posting anything all month, so I’m reissuing an old, out-of-print CD as a download. Hentai-Oto-Ma: last pieces for digital synthesis 2001–2006 is pretty much what it says it is. A collection of pieces made using various inexpensive and freeware granular synthesis programs on both audio and visual samples. There was a limited run of CDs made for this album but I think they’re all gone now, so I’ve made it available again as a download on Bandcamp. I’ve written more about each of the pieces elsewhere on this site.

For this new release I’ve made a few minor tweaks to the sound. Really wide dynamic ranges are annoying me at the moment and I never liked the “brick wall” limiting the generating software imposed on a couple of pieces. That’s fixed now.

Apartment House at Wigmore Hall

Monday 29 February 2016

You get a funny crowd at Wigmore Hall on a Saturday night. Some punters come just because it’s am awfully nice venue and they fancy an evening of refined entertainment. There was a slight but steady rate of attrition throughout Apartment House’s programme. The visiting American and her English hosts in my row were bemused at first but in the end seemed to enjoy it enough.

At least they didn’t have to deal with any stereotypical “ugly modern music”; nor did they have to appreciate any efforts by “accessible” contemporary composers which they could say were nice enough but not as good as the real 19th century thing. The gig started in a puzzling enough fashion, with the première of Luiz Henrique Yudo’s 2007 piece A QUARTET FOR CLAUDE MOLLET. Like the Yudo piece I heard at the last Apartment House gig, it’s a grid of not-quite-exactly-repeating figures. This time, a string-quartet see-sawed back and forth between notes, gently but obstinately. The patterns seemed to change a bit between pauses. Probably. Later in the evening, another Yudo piece, A QUARTET FOR FRANÇOIS MORELLET from 2012, apparently made use of chance and presented a smoothly shifting web of overlapping chords.

This is why I keep writing about these guys; they play stuff I’m interested in hearing for myself. There’s the emphasis on music as an artform, in which technique (both in composition and performance) is not an end in itself but a means to eliciting a profound response in the listener without appeals to literature or drama. There is the element of discovery and of rediscovery. Apart from giving first hearings to the two Yudo pieces, each several years old, the programme included three other world premières and a couple of older, obscure works. The older pieces, by Henning Christiansen and John White, were redolent of the cultural context in which they were created, Fluxus and the Scratch Orchestra, respectively. Both represent schools of composition too often dismissed today as historical relics, fit for discussion but not to be experienced.

Christiansen’s Modeller were written in the mid-1960s but not performed in Britain until now. They seem strangely ahead of their time: short fragments, provocatively simple. Mostly performed by a solo pianist, with occasional interruptions from the strings, harmonium and percussion near the end. One part, of unadorned oscillating thirds, effectively anticipated Philip Glass’ piano music by 20 years. The familiarity was an odd sensation, but that didn’t last long. The Modeller never stayed around long enough for the listener to get fully comfortable. At the end, the ensemble repeated an ascending arpeggio in unison, whether by accident or design imitating the beginning of the Blue Danube Waltz without ever progressing, with an increasing sense of finality.

White’s Newspaper Reading Machine (circa 1971) amused my neighbours, being pretty much what the title implies. Any sense of the piece being a dadaist stunt was tempered by a musical system clearly underpinning the performance. They also liked Egidija Medekšaitė’s Pratiksha. The new works all suggested a common heritage of assimilating the more vital musical philosophies from the last century and synthesising them into something different. The use of systems, of chance, awareness of visual arts, of music as a social activity, the rejection of dogmatic allegiance to a particular system of organising pitch and harmony, all appeared in various guises.

I’d never heard anything by Martin Arnold before. The way people were talking about him before the gig suggested that I’d been missing out. They were right. His new piece Stain Ballad is incredible; striking in its mysterious ambiguity, fragile but indelible. The music shared an aesthetic that Morton Feldman aspired to, of “having mood” without being “in a mood”. As I typed this, Philip Thomas, the pianist that night just tweeted he was listening back to the piece and is “in tears… fresh, complex, meandering, intricate, lovely.” Looking back, I’ll still remember this piece as one of the highlights of the year.

Bryan Eubanks: The Bornholmer Suite

Monday 22 February 2016

Looking very Goth, something else I received in the swag from Nueni Records. I’ve only heard a couple of pieces by Bryan Eubanks before, both at last year’s Cut And Splice festival. Both were kind of reminiscent of Alvin Lucier. This is not.

The Bornholmer Suite is a set of 50 pieces, each one minute long. The music is made from electronic feedback on a circuit board. According to Eubanks, each configuration of the circuit is left alone to sound for one minute, with “slight changes” made between each piece. As a composer who has worked a lot with feedback circuits of different types over the years, the types of sound were immediately familiar. I’m too close to this type of music so I can’t review it dispassionately; it just flags up all sorts of problems I have when working with this medium.

Feedback can produce a wealth of detailed sounds, but it’s hard to figure out what to do with them. It gets too easy to turn out sound and become too absorbed in the process of making it, or just get caught up in a bunch of different timbres without considering them as part of a coherent musical experience for the listener. With The Bornholmer Suite Eubanks seems to be attempting a way out of this dilemma by presenting the set of pieces as an objective, experimental process. Each configuration gets one minute, with no privileging of material. Each piece is presumably a modification of the preceding circuit. It carries a type of logic, but it does feel a bit like Eubanks is dodging the whole question of how the Suite may be considered as music.

Most of the feedback circuits produce a sound that remains fairly constant, with little sense that they would show any greater variation, instability or mutability if left for a longer period of time. This kills any feeling of momentum as the number of pieces rack up. My personal prejudices kicked in a few times when certain sounds cropped up that I’d produced in the past and instinctively rejected. I’d like to know more about how simple the circuit is. The CD really presents a dilemma. Do you hear it as a disconnected catalogue of technical exercises, or as a suite of etudes elaborating on a common theme?

Manfred Werder: 2015/3

Thursday 11 February 2016

More text scores and more original Wandelweiser, from Manfred Werder. For the past ten years Werder has been composing music in which the score consists of a found text object, a quote from a poem or from philosophy. Nueni Records from Bilbao has just released a first recording of one of the most recent in the series, 2015/3. The music is actualized by Regler, the duo of Mattin and Anders Bryngelsson. It seems that Werder composed the piece for them.

The text is from Walter Benjamin’s essay “One-way Street, Halt For Not More Than Three Cabs”:

through excessive fatigue i had thrown myself on my bed in my clothes in the brightly-lit room, and had at once, for a few seconds, fallen asleep

The CD comes with no sleeve notes, but the quote (and thus the score) is printed on the front cover. We get as much information as the musicians did, with no post-facto explanation. Already, we’re dealing with appropriation as art: a common enough practice in visual art but still unfamiliar to music. (Sampling and quotation are forms of collage and a different matter.) We’ve all heard music inspired by philosophy but Werder’s piece is philosophy, even though it might be through some strange, cannibalistic understanding of the concept.

I’ve heard a couple of other pieces from Werder’s series, as part of the cryptic Rosetta Stone Wandelweiser und so weiter released by Another Timbre. There’s an excerpt from 2011/4 on Youtube. There’s the foregrounding of silence and ambient sound, with the musicians adding light and shade.

Apparently art is supposed to make us perceive things differently, but then there is art where we have to change our ways of perception before we can recognise it for what it is. This situation isn’t the exclusive preserve of the avant-garde. We can’t look at, for example, mediaeval woodcuts and see what their creators and intended audience saw in them, except through intellectual exertion. Regler’s actualisation of 2015/3 is something we almost cannot hear, even if we listen, even if we register the sounds.

The two photos inside the CD cover, once again, reveal everything and explain nothing. They reinforce the unmistakeable impression you get when you first play the CD. Mattin and Bryngelsson take a nakedly literal approach to the score: they set up their equipment in their studio then fall, or try to fall, asleep. Any unintentional sounds that can be heard sound truly accidental. The musicians may be engaging with the score but they are evidently, resolutely refusing to engage with the listener.

The CD is ostensibly silent, in the way that a performance of Cage’s 4’33″ is. But there are disruptions (the dynamic range on this recording is very wide) and any musical silence here is obviously the result of necessary activity in actualising the score. The extreme quiet in this performance is harsh, and a provocation. Are we listening to it the right way if we feel provoked?

Mattin, at least, has a reputation for provocation. In 2004 I witnessed him give one of the best silent concerts I’ve heard.

I thought I’d heard the piece after playing it once. Then I played it again and realised I’d been listening to something else. The distant, muffled sound of sawing wasn’t there. It must have been a neighbour doing some repairs. The very faint sound of stacking dishes is, I think, on the disc but I’d rather play the disc again another time than rewind to find out.

This piece can’t be listened to as a field recording or a version of 4’33″. It’s a performance with an uncompromising objectivity, much in the way that recordings of avant-garde music from the 1950s and 60s sound forcefully radical today when compared to more polished recent performances, which can often seem too aestheticised in comparison.

Jürg Frey: Circles and Landscapes

Tuesday 26 January 2016

A few months ago I noticed the change in Jürg Frey’s music in recent years, when discussing two contrasting but very fine albums of his earlier and later music. A similar impression was made by the concert of his 2nd and 3rd string quartets by the Quatuor Bozzini in Huddersfield last November: that Frey is moving away from ideas and towards music. Frey has long been associated with the Wandelweiser collective, but his recent music has been compromising the “purity” Wandelweiser’s reverence for silence. With this supposed loss of aesthetic purity, Frey has embraced a purity of sound.

After releasing the quietly beautiful Grizzana album, Another Timbre released a CD of Philip Thomas playing Frey’s recent piano music at the end of last year. I previously wrote of his third string quartet that Frey was joining Morton Feldman as a fellow master of non-functional harmony, adapting some of the more rhetorical elements of classical and romantic music, but piecemeal, on his own terms and his own ends. In this piano music, most of it composed between 2010 and 2014, there is a similar sense of exploration, without any perceived goal, to that found in Feldman’s “middle period” before he discovered the tenuous equilibrium found in repeating patterns.

At that time, Feldman was also moving away from abstraction and responding to the need to create melodies (“big Puccini-like melodies”). An interview on the Another Timbre website shows Frey seeking a common solace in a material understanding of music, and in negotiating the paradoxes that arise when wanting to compose without disturbing the music’s material.

When composing for the piano, the notion of harmony is more prominent – although we know all the (lovely) extended techniques that have been developed for the piano, to make it sound unlike a piano. But yes, the piano remains the instrument to represent harmony…. When I write for piano, I shouldn’t rely on the piano itself, but on the composition. The piano gives single notes, dyads and chords too easily. Also, if I write consonant dyads, it could suddenly sound wrong, ironic, like a quotation rather than the real sound. In this context to compose means to build a basic confidence in the clear and restricted material that you are working with.

The shorter pieces have a meditative quality, alternating between pedal tones and chords. The longer pieces take on a resemblance to a journey through a succession of musical terrains. Sometimes progress is slow, tentative, with long periods stranded in one particular harmony or register, before unexpectedly moving on. It becomes clear that the journey is its own destination. If there is a structure underneath it all, Frey does his best to conceal or disrupt it or render it irrelevant to the listener.

The album begins with a much older piece, the brief In Memoriam Cornelius Cardew from 1993, with a tonal palette that anticipates the later works. Has Frey allowed a space for emotional expression in his new music, however abstracted? It’s interesting that when philosophy is raised in the interview, he demurs but admits that he feels “a closeness” to Deleuze and Spinoza, two Western thinkers who tried to reason without a dichotomy between mind and body.

The piano is close-miked on this CD, focussing on the grain of the instrument’s sounds. Thomas’ playing is softly-spoken but full-voiced – well suited to the quiet but indomitable character marking out a trail through an empty expanse, as in the longest piece on the album. It’s titled Pianist, Alone (2); a title which seems nakedly descriptive at first but takes on a narrative aspect after hearing it. This time, the protagonist is a little more experienced.

Joseph Kudirka: Beauty and Industry

Thursday 21 January 2016


Other than hearing a performance of his piece wyoming snow on the radio last year, I really knew nothing about Joseph Kudirka before receiving this new CD in the mail.

That performance of wyoming snow was for multitracked cello, played by Anton Lukoszevieze. The same piece appears twice again on the Beauty and Industry CD, but played by different ensembles. Lukoszevieze is the founder of the ensemble Apartment House, which has done so much lately to present new and neglected music. This disc dedicated to Kudirka’s music is probably the latest.

As previously implied, Kudirka writes pieces open to interpretation and several of them are played two or three times during the course of the disc. An informative interview on the Another Timbre site reveals that, although his scores are typically “open”, Kudirka is leery of the term “text score” and his musical education was grounded in playing and instrument before composition became a major concern. (“I’m great at playing music that I hate.”) He’s another one of the generation of composers taught by James Tenney and Michael Pisaro at CalArts, although he did not appear on the rather wonderful and surprising West Coast Soundings album I reviewed in 2014.

The scores for the pieces played here range from introspective variations on George Brecht’s terse Fluxus scores, to general instructions determining the form, structure and materials for the piece, to music notation that leaves unspoken questions of interpretation, instrumentation and intonation. They can also be seen on the Another Timbre web site, with audio excerpts.

The music reflects Kudirka’s background as a performer. The text scores allow a music structure and character to emerge through the musicians’ choices. In that respect they ingeniously operate in a manner similar to early Feldman or late Cage, but in a looser and more generalised way. It can’t be entirely a coincidence that this music shares a similarly slow and soft atmosphere.

When I think of other text scores (good ones) they seem to concentrate on setting into motion an overall process governed by a set of conditions, either internal like Aus den sieben Tagen or external, like Cardew’s Paragraph 7 or pieces by James Saunders. Kudirka’s seem unusual in that they focus on defining and arranging details. There’s an elegance to their simplicity, and the music emerges fully defined and subtle. The repeated takes on this disc shows that each piece has depth beyond an interest in compositional technique.

Repeated listenings reveal an unexpected variety. It’s a nicely-balanced selection of works: 14 tracks in a little over 50 minutes. Enough to be absorbed by without getting entirely lost. Some pieces are barely 30 seconds; the longest reaches beyond 8 minutes. The small scale allows attention to details and gestures. Pieces like Grey and an orchestral fantasy have a sombre formality compared to the sustained tones of Beauty and Industry or the more polychromatic wyoming snow.

A large part of this is down to Apartment House musicians, who play with great sensitivity and fidelity to the score. On each track they present interpretations which are distinctive without needing to resort to extremes, setting a consistent mood that still shifts in shading from one piece to the next.

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.

Pierre Boulez

Wednesday 6 January 2016

[I originally posted this in October 2011, after going to Royal Festival Hall to hear Boulez conduct Pli Selon Pli with Barbara Hannigan, the Ensemble InterContemporain and the ensemble of the Lucerne Festival Academy. Almost didn’t get a ticket, thinking that Boulez’ temperament and taste had changed too much over the intervening decades to do justice to the work’s intransigent ferocity. The concert experience that night made me feel a little ashamed for having doubted.]

I take back everything mean I said about Pierre Boulez.

On Sunday night I sat transfixed through the entirety of Pli selon pli. I’ll let someone else gush over the details for me.

I couldn’t lose focus on the thing for a second. What the music had lost in vehemence was now regained in a controlled, hour-long explosion of energy that could alternately freeze or boil without ever resorting to histrionics or becoming self-absorbed in details. It’s linear, it’s dramatic, it’s big; it fulfils the contradictory wish for a radical gesture that signals a renewal of tradition. This was the future that would look much like the past.

For trying to kill Schoenberg, Boulez’s fate has been to become Schoenberg: an artist trapped by the past, his achievement obscured by his hard-won reputation. In a trait peculiar to French artists, too much of Boulez’s attention seems to have been caught up in pontification and politics. It’s surprisingly hard to hear the music for what it is, and not what it has come to represent. I now suspect that this, in a different way, is a problem that Boulez has had to grapple with too, and that Sunday’s Pli selon pli could be a type of triumph that had eluded him for so many years of revisions and re-recordings.

That second Improvisation is damn lovely. And I’m never taking Stravinsky’s quip seriously again. I wonder which other Boulez works are better than they sound?

Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor.

Monday 4 January 2016

There’s a lot of stuff I need to write about but first I need to get this out of the way. I started re-reading Wyndham Lewis’ last novel, The Red Priest. I think Lewis is one of the great writers of the last century and, even though there are still two I haven’t read, The Red Priest must be the worst of his novels.

So why am I re-reading it, instead of something better? Because I don’t remember it. This in itself isn’t a problem for me: I’m not good at remembering details of books I like, either – especially the endings. The point is that I don’t remember why this particular book is bad, compared to his others.

Good art, music, writing, is too easily found: years, centuries of critical consensus offers them up, presses them upon you. Bad art is a personal discovery. Even when warned of its badness, like a Wet Paint sign, there is always the temptation to test for oneself. Meanwhile, we’ll take others’ word for it that Milton is a great poet and think we never need to hear another note of Mozart again.

Good art can also be a personal discovery, of course, but I always worry that I’m looking for something different, at the expense of finding something good. For years, my record library had large holes in it. Rummaging through second-hand vinyl I’d routinely pass up the chance to get, say, In C because I’d found an obscure album of Curtis Curtis-Smith. It’s all very well to buck the canon, but I found myself lost in marginalia.

Finding the good in the perhaps justly overlooked brings a fresh thrill to the mind, even if the discovery turns out to be grounded in ignorance and vanity. As T.S. Eliot sort-of said of Hamlet, people will claim it’s fascinating because it’s beautiful, when in fact they find it beautiful because it fascinates them. Eliot’s attitude seems the exact inverse of critical approach in this time of new-found abundance of information, when everything is ripe for rediscovery and reassessment.

An up-to-date critic would immediately point out that Eliot himself was an iconoclast, describing Hamlet as an artistic failure. What beauty isn’t flawed in some way? Lewis’ prose style can be grotesque, yet Fitzgerald’s stilted dialogue is given a pass. Fans of Fr. Rolfe will excuse his absurdities, but are those absurdities any worse than those accepted in D.H. Lawrence?

Perhaps the entire history of criticism is less concerned with finding the good than with finding the better than you think.

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.

LCMF 2015, first three days real quick

Monday 14 December 2015

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.