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.

The return of Mock Tudor

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Mock Tudor III (variant) test

Preparations for this Saturday’s gig are going well. The above sound clip is pretty rough but (a) I just recorded it now to test the equipment and feedback system, (b) at least it’s making sounds and (c) it’s more or less behaving itself after sounding about as together as it looks (see below).

Yes, this will be the first live performance I’ve done with analogue feedback oscillators in, oh, six years?

I have problems with drones (part 2)

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Early on, I was suspicious of drones in general: it seemed to easy. That probably wasn’t helped by hearing a lot of inferior drone pieces. If you had a couple of sounds you thought were kind of interesting but didn’t know what to do with them, make a drone.

The first drone pieces I made were sort of an aesthetic exercise. I didn’t expect I’d end up making a number of pieces, each for a different reason, which were in fact heavily reliant upon the drone. I knew that minimalism had become a pervasive influence (you don’t need to do much with whatever material you have) but it seems that the drone – non-timeline music, as Robert Ashley defines it – is equally important.

There’s another thing I disagree with about Ashley’s categorisation of composers who are and are not beholden to the timeline. He says that John Cage and Morton Feldman were “trapped in the timeline way of thinking”; I’m not so sure about that. I think that both of them embraced the timeline in the way they embraced harmony, doing so in a way that neutralised its functional purpose.

Feldman’s late music is the obvious example here – its vast scale rendering any form or structure imperceptible (and on the micro level, the complex manipulations of metre, which again the listener cannot hear). Cage’s music-making in the 1960s actually does seem to largely outside the timeline, but repeatedly throughout his career from his first percussion pieces to the final ‘number pieces’ his compositions were built within a defined time structure. He quickly found that defining the temporal construction – beginning, middle and end – before a note was written made any question of teleology or continuity a moot point.

I’m looking back over my “drone” and “non-drone” pieces to find out what similarities or differences they may have beneath the surface. It appears that the non-drone pieces involve a process or set of processes working themselves out, producing musical events independently of the timeline in which they occur. This would explain a good part of the anxiety I felt when composing for the Music For The Bionic Ear project. That piece was required, for the sake of clarity, to have a linear time structure and a maximum duration. I did feel a bit lost trying to use this as an organising principle.

I have problems with drones (part 1)

Monday 18 July 2011

As an aside, I mentioned before that I have problems with drones. One thing that nagged at me during the Eliane Radigue gigs was the sense of time: this came back to me when I re-read Robert Ashley’s understanding of what a ‘drone’ might be.

It’s true, of course, that “time” passes while music is being played and while it is being listened to. But in non-timeline music (the drone) the time passing is not “attached to” the playing or the hearing. Time passes in the consciousness of the listener according to internal or external markers.

I have called this new idea the “drone,” because there is no better term that is not a neologism – like non-timeline music. I have said that I use the term “drone” to mean any music that seems not to change over time.

Listening to Radigue’s Jetsun Mila at St Stephen Wallbrook, and especially to the acoustic pieces like Occam I and Naldjorlak, I did not had this feeling of timelessness. As a new sound entered, or a persisting one changed, I wondered: why that sound now? Why was that last sound held so long? If the music is timeless, why did this sound have to give way to another? If it is not timeless, why was the sound held for that particular duration? Each change felt like a tiny admission of defeat, a futile attempt to delay the inevitable end. I suspect Radigue’s music, or at least a significant amount of it, doesn’t really fit Ashley’s definition of the drone, despite his inclusion of her in his brief list of drone composers.

Two New Shows Coming Up

Thursday 14 July 2011

Not much blogging lately, because I’ve been preparing for two shows coming up in the next few weeks: a live music gig and an art exhibition.

Live gig! ABJECT BLOC. My first analogue electronic gig in… six years? With John Wall, ”              “[sic]™, Anthony Iles, Allon, Lee Gamble (DJs).
Saturday 23 July 2011. 8pm start. £5 donation. Limehouse Town Hall, 646 Commercial Road, London E14 7HA.

Sorry about the short notice but the date had to be juggled a bit. I’m dusting off the old analogue gear to get some live feedback oscillation happening again, with sets from the very fine John Wall, ”              “[sic]™, Lee Gamble and others.

 

Art show! Collected Collaborations. An exhibition initiated by the Artists’ Book Research Group, featuring propositional projects from the Redrawing Collective (Ben Harper, Fiona Macdonald, Alex Martinis Roe, Thérèse Mastroiacovo and Spiros Panigirakis) and OSW (Terri Bird, Bianca Hester and Scott Mitchell). Guest Curator: Brad Haylock.
Monash University Museum of Art, Caulfield Campus, Melbourne. 4 August – 1 October 2011.

This is the exhibition of art books, including brand new contributions the Redrawing Collective. This project is a further extension of the project that included my sound installation Redrawing: String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta). We have created a two-part book that is both a performative object and a platform for critical engagement.

It Is Two Weeks Since I Saw Eliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak Trilogy

Thursday 7 July 2011

Still thinking about it.

I’m pretty sure that everyone who’s familiar with Eliane Radigue and heard her recent music has remarked on the surprising change so late in her career. Unlike most late career changes, Radigue’s isn’t marked by a radically different sound. Her method of making music has undergone a radical transformation, abandoning her ARP 2500 synthesiser to write music for live performers on acoustic instruments. Incredibly, the sound-world of these new works is all of a piece with her earlier, purely electronic drones.

When I heard the premiere of Occam I a week earlier, I hoped I wouldn’t relegate it in my mind as warm-up for Naldjorlak. No such luck. The trilogy is going to remain one of the highlights of my year. This time, I was careful to sit in closer, the better to focus both on the performer(s) and the music they made. The intense, sustained quality of the music and the performance helped to shut out Spitalfields.

How much of this 3-hour trilogy is spectacle? The performance is so fraught, with its long, steady drones, that the slightest faltering by the musicians would mar the music’s immaculate surface. As far as I can remember, Charles Curtis on cello, then Carol Robinson and Bruno Martinez on basset horns, finally all three in the third, were flawless. There is also the audacity of the piece’s conception, particularly in the cello part, which ends with Curtis progressively bowing the instrument’s tailpiece, then its endpin, and finally the tailcord. The idea seems like an obvious gimmick from the grab-bag of “extended techniques” and free improvisation, and yet it all sounds perfectly consistent with the remainder of the piece.

The second part, with just two woodwinds, creates subtle but striking aural illusions. Are the two players needed simply to provide an hour’s worth of breath between them, in one unbroken tone? At first the natural overtones of the basset horns provide a direct harmonic contrast with those of the cello, but then things get more complex. New pitches slip into the sound as each player overlaps, either directly or through overtones – or perhaps because the listener’s mind is playing tricks.

At interval, I was a little concerned that the final part would be a let-down, by simply conflating the previous two. I was quickly relieved to find that, instead of being an indulgent melange of all that had gone before, Radigue alternated, combined and contrasted the tones produced by the three instruments. If you have any doubts about drones (I do) then Naldjorlak III is Radigue’s comprehensive refutation, displaying her skill not just in finding sounds, but in combining and sequencing them. This is real composition, to use Morton Feldman’s distinction, not just wallowing in timbre.

Also, it was good to hear basset horns play something besides Stockhausen for once.

Two kinds of craft: Max Eastley v Eliane Radigue

Wednesday 15 June 2011

I’m getting fed up with this persistent fad of holding concerts in churches. Even when the acoustics don’t suck, there’s zilch soundproofing between the “hall” and the outside world. In the first in a series of concerts dedicated to Eliane Radigue at Christ Church Spitalfields last night, any pretentions to the sacred nature of the music were punctured each time a police car went up Commercial Street, and the end of Elemental II was accompanied by a car alarm in the side street.

Before attending church I was at Raven Row, a couple of blocks away, to see Max Eastley perform. It was pretty much what I expected: a new music veteran playing with his amplified monochord and a semi-autonomous sound sculpture. A casual observer would call it ‘tinkering’: small adjustments to the sculpture, waiting to hear the effect, another small adjustment. Similarly with the monochord, small gestures, slightly varied. It’s intriguing to watch the type of craft that goes into making this music, its contemplative and reflective nature. It shows a deep understanding of the instrument and its sound, of the rich variety of sound that the slightest change in gesture can produce.

On the other hand, I worry about the self-conscious quality of this type of music-making. Surely there are improvisers all over the world, in every culture, who feel and know the capabilities of their instrument without the need to pause and consider every twist and turn their music takes.

Later that evening I watched Kasper T. Toeplitz perform Radigue’s Elemental II and saw a similarly careful approach to making music. Rhodri Davies had just premiered Occam I, slowly bowing overtones on his harp, a study in stasis and concentration. The focus on a single string of a harp hinted at the sort of problem both Eastley and Radigue share in harnessing the potential of a new, relatively untested medium. Radigue’s earlier career in electronic music was devoted to the capturing of delicate feedback effects, an activity fraught with the risk of being plunged suddenly into undifferentiated noise. Radigue herself described her work with analog synthesisers as “caressing the potentiometers”. In such static music, a tiny mis-step can destroy the work.

Thus Toeplitz spent the best part of an hour making the smallest gestures possible on his fearsome-looking double-necked electric bass: gently tapping the back of the neck, pressing his finger to the head stock, trembling a metal bar against the strings. His laptop processed the guitar into an unbroken wash of sound that slowly evolved as each new guitar gesture crept into its software. Was the guitar necessary at all? Yes. The same piece had been performed at the start of the concert by a laptop trio, less successfully. It wasn’t just the visual or conceptual experience of watching a musician ‘work’, it was the lack of ease in gliding from one sound to the next. The guitarist may be just a little too loud, a little too soft, a little too rushed, a little too hesitant in introducing each new sound, and so each sound takes on a new life of its own, subject to a host of infinitessimal adjustments. The difference may be barely perceptible, but these are the slight differences on which music, like all art, depends.

The Horror of Irrelevant Music

Friday 3 June 2011

This morning I procrastinated by downloading the Berkshire Record Outlet catalogue in search of cheap CDs I might have wanted to buy if I had any money. After winnowing the list of 18,000 items down to just 20th century composers, I had a T.S.-Eliot-on-London-Bridge moment of revelation. It hit home just how many goddamn composers in the last hundred years I have never heard of, never will hear of, never want to hear of, and wished I’d never heard of.

I’m ashamed of how readily I’ll dismiss so much music out of hand without knowing anything about it or the people who composed it, but just scanning some of the names and titles makes me reflexively recoil. When you realise that there were composers who could still unironically title a piece “Capriccio” after 1945, suddenly the young Pierre Boulez’s posing seems less ridiculous.

The plurality of it seemed to be Christian religious music, conjuring up memories of the 20th-century abominations that lurk in the shadows of the roped-off corridors in the Vatican Museum. Not coincidentally, there’s also a lot of theatrical pieces aimed at children – a similarly captive audience presumed indifferent to quality control. Then there are the memorials: so many tributes, already forgotten, to the Holocaust, 9/11, Bosnia, MLK, JFK, the Pakistan earthquake, that stack up until one cynically assumes a horde of musical McGonagalls latching on to any chance to repeat the triumph of Penderecki’s 8’37″.

And the puns; oh god, the puns. No-one except Milton Babbitt could get away with such dreadful titles. The hatefully naff pun has friends on both sides of the Atlantic: the American professors on one, and on the other the legions of British who swell the ranks of the cut-out pile. The obscure British composer will always be with us – titled, lettered, forgotten, each waiting Buggins’s turn to be “re-evaluated”. Their chief artistic aim was to be clubbable, and all seem sworn to a pact to write something called “Spot Me A Tenor”.

The self-consciously “modern” are hardly any better, like Australian surrealists, dropping the word “fractal” on their sonata for clarinet and tape, racking their brains for another word that ends in “-tion”. All of it, conservative or avant-garde, perfectly acceptable to its intended audience, technically competent, fully compliant, honest, dull, unlistenable.

Once again, I stress that I haven’t heard a note of of the music I condemn. Just the thought of it, out there, depresses me.