The Perpetual Now, or “nothing is as nostalgic as the modernity of the past”

Wednesday 19 October 2011

“Contemporary music is not the music of the future nor the music of the past but simply music present with us: this moment, now, this now moment.”
– John Cage, Composition as Process, 1958.

“The mainstream public didn’t really know about them that much. They were a very minor group in that aspect.”
– Doug Yule, interview, 1995.

It’s a truism that the Velvet Underground were really obscure and unpopular when they were a going concern, isn’t it? Later in that Yule interview, he mentions touring the UK in 1972 as The Velvet Underground and no-one noticing or caring that the band had none of the original members from the first two LPs.

The wonderful Other Minds Archive has posted a recording of the world premiere of John Cage’s composition 33 1/3, at the University of California at Davis on 21 November, 1969. The composition is Cage at his most anarchic: the audience was invited to a room with no performers, no seating, 24 record players, several hundred records, and no instructions. The punters soon get the idea, and a 40-minute collage of simultaneous musics and audience noises ensues.

I’m trying to remember where I read that interview with Cage about the piece, the one where he talks about acquiring the records. He contacted a record distributor and asked for a random selection of different titles. The wholesaler, as you might expect, sent several crateloads of their slowest-selling albums. Cage cheerfully recalls that by the end of the gig a number of records had gone missing, having finally found a happy home with someone in the crowd.

In the Other Minds recording, several minutes into the tentative start of 33 1/3, comes the unmistakeable sound of side 2 of The Velvet Underground and Nico. It’s much louder than anything else. After a couple of minutes it suddenly disappears, only to reappear again soon after, from the top. This time it gets all the way through “Heroin” and “There She Goes Again” before it’s suddenly snatched away again, never to return. I wonder what was happening around that record player for those 15 minutes, and whether that album found a new owner that night.

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.

I take back everything mean I said about Pierre Boulez.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

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?

This Is The New Music: Herr Mahler Died Last Night At One Hundred And Fifty

Saturday 1 October 2011

Herr Mahler Died Last Night At One Hundred And Fifty by Ben.Harper

So the other night I saw Jeff Harrington had posted this rather wonderful remix of bits of Mahler’s First Symphony. It was for a “Remix Mahler” contest put on by the Berlin Philharmonic. Unfortunately, these days the term ‘remix’ is approximately synonymous with ‘novelty dubstep’ so of course most of the entries are uniformly dull.

I had some work to do, so naturally I put it off by thinking of doing a contest entry myself. There were only a few hours before the contest closed, which was probably a good thing. I wanted to bring out some of the qualities of the material in the original work, so I took one passage redolent of Morton Feldman’s Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety, and let it emerge quietly out of an empty stretch of Hardware Lane in Melbourne, late one night in Winter, 1999.

Boulez and Believing Your Own Bullshit

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Why do I feel the need to rationalise wanting to go see the Pierre Boulez gigs this weekend? I think it’s partly the fact that, after all these years, he’s still described as an avant-garde figurehead yada yada yada, so help me he even gets billed as a technological pioneer, by people who should know better. People who must have twigged that the composer has spent the past 30-odd years trying to turn into Debussy, yet still peddle the lies that (a) he’s still some kind of firebrand and – perversely peculiar to modern music – (b) his music’s not particularly pleasant to listen to.

All this nonsense would be easier to ignore if Boulez himself didn’t appear to be so complacent. John Cage’s portrayal of the Frenchman puttering around his plush hotel room in a tailored smoking jacket waving his cigarette holder dismissively as he pronounces Charles Ives an amateur lurks behind all his later career. Well, that and his George Lucas-like obsession with tinkering with his legacy, smothering the vital core of his earlier music with revision after revision in the name of technical finesse and an insulated sense of “good taste”.

I’m going to see him conduct Pli selon pli partly out of morbid curiosity to hear what changes he’s wreaked on it over the past quarter-century, having heard no version more recent than the Phyllis Bryn-Julson recording from the mid-80s. I’ve also got a ticket for the evening with Domaines and Rituel, two pieces I think he’s left well alone and won’t be conducting. I’m wary of committing to anything further than that.

Endymion and Exaudi play Morton Feldman, other stuff

Thursday 22 September 2011

I’d never heard Feldman’s Clarinet and String Quartet before, let alone Voices and Cello, so I had to go to Southbank last night to hear Endymion and Exaudi play these two pieces, along with two premieres by British composers. Damn, this stuff’s got to be hard to play. Besides the singing in the first half of the gig, the string players did a particularly remarkable job, particularly in achieving a sustained evenness of tone over the 45 minutes or so of Clarinet and String Quartet. Mark van de Wiel’s clarinet playing would occasionally break free of the undisturbed surface of Feldman’s music, which the composer strove so hard to maintain, but this was when playing his instrument in its higher regions. To keep a clarinet playing high at Feldman’s prescribed volume over more than a few notes would take a superhuman effort. He didn’t write much for the solo clarinet, partly because of this reason and the instrument’s variety of rich tones (“wallowing in timbre”), so it was educational to hear how he limited himself to an alternating sequence of near-octave leaps and slow, microtonal trills.

What really fascinated is the readiness with which dedicated musicians today can make this music sound almost effortless, approaching a platonic ideal of sound suggested, and thwarted, by Feldman’s beguiling notation. Equally fascinating was how the evening became a validation of Feldman’s sidewalk lesson in orchestration from Edgard Varèse. “Don’t forget the time it takes for the sound to reach the audience” sounds like an arty koan, but the two new works in the concert, both for vocal and string quartet, found it hard to speak clearly. It often felt like the voices and instruments were talking over each other, getting in each other’s way, getting lost in awkward rhythms and timbral transitions. The deceptively simple sounds in Feldman’s music would at one moment combine clarinet and cello into a single mysterious instrument, then at the next set each one apart.

This Is The New Music: Lights Out

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Lights Out by Ben.Harper

Working on a sequel to String Quartet No. 2 (Canon In Beta) – this is made from offcuts of the source material I’m preparing.

John Cage: Every Day is a Good Day

Monday 19 September 2011

Sadly, I had to miss the John Cage concert on Southbank last Tuesday (I had a perfect excuse) but I did remember to see the exhibition it accompanied. This was the first opportunity I’d had, after all these years, to see some of Cage’s visual art directly.

I have to admit I felt a twinge of disappointment when I read the promo blurb which promised an exhibition “inspired by Cage’s use of chance-determined scores”, i.e. the artworks were arranged scattered high and low over the walls, their positions determined by chance. In other words, an imitation of Cage’s Rolywholyover A Circus exhibition in 1992. There’s a difference between being inspired by someone and imitating them.

Rolywholyover A Circus presented a changing mix of artworks and objects from a variety of sources. Every Day is a Good Day was supposed to be an exhibition of Cage’s art. The two shows had different aims and purposes. As a survey of Cage’s prints and drawings, the presentation did him a disservice, treating his work as so many props as part of a greater installation. Just because Cage did it once doesn’t mean you have to do the same thing to show that you “get it”. If you think his art is worth exhibiting, display it at least as well as you would any other artist and give the punters a chance to assess it on its merits by giving them a good look at it.

Speaking of which, the lighting: was that chance-determined too? If so, it appeared a bit too uniform to meet the Cageian aesthetic. If not, it was crap. I know Cage admired the idea of a painting that would not be disturbed by the action of shadows on its surface but that didn’t mean that shadows were mandatory, any more than he hoped there’d be one punter in the audience struggling with a bag of crisps at every performance of 4’33″. While I’m complaining, why was just the first part of his String Quartet in Four Parts playing on a loop the whole time I was there? If you’re playing just one piece, could you make it a complete one? Wouldn’t Ryoanji be a much more appropriate choice?

OK, enough whingeing. It was great that someone in the UK brought together a large collection of Cage’s art for display. The catalogue was worth it alone, as it can be tricky to find even reproductions of many of these pieces in one location. To stand in one room surrounded by works made over nearly 20 years was a wonderful immersion into his aesthetic sensibility, and even gave a partial sense of how the sometimes disparate tendencies of his music related to each other. Cage largely made these pieces as objects for contemplation, and no matter how beautiful they may look in reproduction, their lack of any conventional “content” draws attention to the subtleties otherwise barely perceptible when viewed at first hand: the texture of the paper, the impressions of the printing plate left on the surface, a stray trace of smoke.

Given that it’s so overshadowed by his music, the show was a useful start for assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Cage’s art. A few pieces seemed facile, little more than school art-class exercises that present ordinary found objects as “beautiful” or “artistic”. More often, they used the same methods – traced rocks, smoked and scorched paper, washes of colour, lines and accidents – as a means to explore the materials and techniques of printing in unusual but sympathetic ways (Cage was never a confrontational “anti-artist”.) The methods I mentioned above are one and the same as the subject matter, for want of a better term. This unified approach succeeds in meeting Cage’s long-stated aesthetic of imitating nature in its manner of operation, creating beauty which is unintentional, but not accidental.

Next gig: this Tuesday. Unconscious archives #2.

Friday 9 September 2011

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.

Speaking of String Quartets and Phill Niblock…

Wednesday 7 September 2011

String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta)

If I remember to go to Cafe Oto tomorrow night I get to hear Phill Niblock’s Five More String Quartets performed live by Apartment House. This is the piece that started the whole six-year-and-counting journey of my own String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta).

Incidentally, the latest iteration of SQ2(CB) is still on display at Monash University Museum of Art until 1 October.

Wandering Split: a new video

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Way back in 2002 I was asked to be part of a group exhibition of sound and visual art at West Space in Melbourne. The show, called Gating, combined artworks with sounds emanating from different parts of the room from four sets of speakers, overlaying 14 sound compositions, each containing significant sections of silence.

For my piece, I made a 5-minute spin-off of my long, spoken word piece The Slips. Using chance operations, a new, brief selection of slightly different phrases was made and recorded – one in English, the other in German. A musical accompaniment was made from a deliberately ruined cassette tape of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. Neither voice nor music takes up more than half of the total playing length, allowing for silences to appear at various moments. The sound was passed through an electronic gate which would filter out lower frequencies whenever the volume fell below a certain level.

Last week I decided to make an accompanying video for the piece. Using the same principle of chance operations, selections were made from an old educational film available for free in the Internet Archive. Again, short fragments were selected and allowed to appear in the timeline without regard to the soundtrack, or to each other.

Personally, I’m interested in the way the piece creates its own, unhurried pace within such a relatively short frame of time.

The Mystery of Steve Reich

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Why can’t I get excited about tomorrow’s Steve Reich Prom? It’s not his Boring New Stuff, it’s his Cool Old Stuff, and yet I’m not excited. The Man Himself will be there, playing, and yet I’m not excited. I’ve never heard this stuff played live before, and yet I’m not excited. I enjoy listening to his records, and yet I’m not excited. I’ve missed earlier opportunities to hear him live, and yet…

It’s not that I’ve become jaded with his Cool Old Stuff. Over 20 years I’ve had chances to hear his early masterpieces live, and every time I’ve decided not to bother. I’ll jump at the chance to hear – oh, random example – Philip Glass’ old stuff in concert, but for some reason Steve Reich’s music seems to me perfectly adequate as a recording, with nothing additional to be gained from hearing it played live. I have heard live performances of his music, ranging from ordinary to thrilling, yet none of these experiences have changed my opinion in all this time. Why is this?

This is the New Music: Mock Tudor III (for real)

Thursday 4 August 2011

Mock Tudor III (variant)

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!

Not Wanting To Say Anything About John Cage

Monday 1 August 2011

The Collected Collaborations show opens this Thursday, featuring artist books by OSW (Open Spatial Workshop) and the Redrawing Collective. The latter is the group I’ve been involved with since the first Redrawing show back in 2008.

For this new show, I was asked to contribute something related to that first show in the form of a book, emphasising the form over the work over its content. After a little thought I found a good way to represent one significant aspect of my piece, String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta) in visual form, and in a way that recaptured the original impetus of Redrawing.

This latest iteration of String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta), rendered as a 10-minute spectrogram, is being published in a way which simultaneously refers to several aspects of graphic art made by John Cage, another composer who was repeatedly enticed into the visual realm of art. One of these aspects is shown above.

The Redrawing Collective book is being published in a very small edition. In fact, I’m not exactly sure how many are getting printed now.

Are analogue electronics really a Good Thing for music?

Thursday 28 July 2011

So, the Mock Tudor gig at Limehouse Town Hall went pretty well. I’d been practicing and tweaking the setup every day right up to the morning of the gig, trying to clear up some of the more obvious deficiencies in the system. Right in the middle of my piece I realised something horrible: I was noodling. I don’t remember ever making that particular mistake before. Luckily, things picked up again pretty quickly and I was able to end the piece well, which is probably the most important thing when entertaining a room full of punters tooled up with smokes and tinnies.

This was the first time in years I’d played with analogue electronic feedback, and my reacquaintance with the technique produced some surprises. When I started making feedback circuits I’d been preoccupied with just getting the thing to work, to produce variable, unstable patterns that would display a life of their own over time. In short, I wanted my setup to “do stuff”. Later I worked toward producing interactive feedback paths that would create changes in timbre, either subtle or not so subtle. In short, to “make new sounds”.

Having more recently used this approach to music making only in the virtual realm (constructing feedback loops in digital audio processing software on my laptop) I’d become aware of the potential and the limitations to using computers in this way. When performing with the computer I’m conscious of the lack of spontaneity and changeability in the pieces I’ve created. However, when I returned to the table of analogue gear I was struck by how difficult it was to push it beyond a limited range of sounds. I had less equipment to work with than on previous occasions, but this reinforced my belief of the computer’s potential to produce timbres of a great variety and complexity, without being attached to lugging around several cases of analogue equipment. There is also the appeal of showing that the music’s quality is not dependent on owning one particular piece of unique or esoteric “gear” unobtainable by others.

Having said all that, analogue performance is a lot more fun and in the right circumstances is probably always worth the trouble of doing it. The adjustments in to moving back to an older mindset and a reduced amount of gear are probably what caused that moment of noodling, caught between the complulsions to “do stuff” and to “make new sounds”. The piece recovered when I regressed to the old way of thinking. Philosophically it was a cheap move, but it sounded good and we can’t all be David Tudor.

My next problem is how to record this music. The life of this music is in the speakers that produce (not reproduce) the sound, and the resonant space it occupies. This is another aspect which could be faked digitally, as opposed to be completely absent in a line-out recording, but it would never sound as good as the excellent PA in that cavernous hall in Limehouse.