The Claytons Composition

Tuesday 8 June 2010

I would like to say I made this by accident, but I very deliberately and painstakingly made this instead of working on the piece I’m supposed to be making.

Quattro versioni originali della tattoonotte di Madrid rovinata da qualcun altro

This is the New Music: Baroque Variations (Hoddle-Fawkner-Batman Mix)

Wednesday 2 June 2010

1. Spring 17’36″ – Variations 10, 7, 11, 16
(Tivoli Arcade, Café L’Incontro, Bond Street, Paramount Centre, Uniacke Court, McDonalds – Collins Street)

2. Summer 7’53″ – Variations 3, 12
(Newsagency – Elizabeth St, Hardware Lane at Little Lonsdale Street)

3. Autumn 14’36″ – Variations 8, 2, 5, 4
(Spenser Square, Flinders St Overpass – King Street, Newsagency – Elizabeth St, The Age – Little Lonsdale Street)

4. Winter 8’14″ – Variations 1, 9
(Bourke St Mall at Swanston St, Lobby – Kino Cinema, 7-Eleven – Bourke St)

5. Epilogue 3’19″
(undisclosed location)

There is a perfectly rational explanation for everything.

Countdown to Eurovision: Like A Train In The Night

Monday 24 May 2010

Keen followers of the drinking game should brace themselves for a tough Eurovision, as the credit crunch cruels struggling nations’ ability, or desire, to win the song contest:

Very few countries actually seem to want to win and spend money they just don’t have. Last year the BBC held a huge selection process with a song by Andrew Lloyd Webber…. This year our entry, Josh, was selected in a 90-minute show on a Friday night when no one was watching. His promotional activity seems to have consisted of the Dutch version of This Morning. Things are no better elsewhere. France, represented in 2009 by the divine Patricia Kaas, has been reduced to using the same song for Eurovision and the World Cup. Selection shows all over Europe have been scaled down or even cancelled, replaced by internal selection.

And that’s where the conspiracy theories really kick in. The Eurovision intelligentsia (what do you mean you didn’t know there was one?) is awash with rumours that several countries are deliberately sending songs that do not stand a chance of winning. Far be it for me to suggest which these may be, but Russia, Romania and Finland should all hang their heads in shame.

In other words, expect the My Lovely Horse rule, and your liver, to take a hammering. Thank god for Azerbaijan.

Mark Knoop plays Morton Feldman’s “For Bunita Marcus”

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Where is that buzzing coming from? It sounds like a small piece of machinery grinding away. I’m sure other people are noticing it too; from time to time they’re looking up and around. I don’t think they’re doing it as a stretching exercise. I’ll tell myself it’s the wind blowing outside, even though we’re in the basement of Kings Place.

Is it a coincidence that there’s a second performance in quick succession at this venue of one of Feldman’s long, late pieces? It’s a pity this gig is in the smaller hall – the seats aren’t so good. After a warm afternoon and a couple of glasses of red I’d felt like indulging myself by dozing off during the concert.

For Bunita Marcus is a piece I find by turns ethralling, boring, infuriating, captivating. Long passages of single notes, usually displacements of semitones, turn with the slightest change of inflection from elusive to banal, from fluid to stiff and then back again. With equally trivial shifts in nuance, sudden changes in the score can sound either revelatory or manipulative. Then, with a few casual arpeggios the music becomes lush, even lyrical compared to the surrounding austerity – but only for a short while. Yet still these fleeting moments seem as indifferent to the listener’s attention as any passage in the piece.

Whenever I hear Feldman being played I wonder if it’s too loud. Is this just because my ears have adjusted to the low level of sound? The fading sound of the piano is just enough to cover that mysterious whirring, until the silences become too long. I’m not sure if this is distracting me from the music or making me concentrate on it. Is this the composer’s problem, the pianist’s, or mine?

The Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game, 2010 Edition

Saturday 15 May 2010

With all the excitement of the UK general election I nearly forgot that it was merely the curtain-raiser for the real deal: Eurovision. With two weeks to the big event and only minor changes from last year, the 2010 rules for the refined but deadly art of drinkmanship that is the Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game fare as follows.

PHASE I: THE SONGS

A. Every instance within a song:

I.A.1 The Dramatic Key Change. Whenever the singers dramatically shift up a key for the final chorus(es).

I.A.2 The Bucks Fizz. Whenever performer(s) sheds a piece of clothing – once only on every instance, whether executed by an individual or as a group. Finish your drink if the clothing loss is obviously unintentional.

B. Once per song only:

I.B.1 Is That English? Whenever someone notices that the singers have switched from their native language into English in an attempt to win more votes. Two drinks if they try to dodge the language issue by intentionally singing gibberish.

I.B.2 The Fine Cotton. Any appearance of mercenary talent flown in to represent a foreign country. Two drinks if they’re Irish.

I.B.3 Las Ketchup and the Waves. A country drags a legitimate, real-life, one-hit wonder out of obscurity in the hope that name recognition can buy them some points. This is additional to I.B.2 the Fine Cotton.

I.B.4 The Cultural Rainbow. Every time an entrant blatantly rips off last year’s winning performance. Finish your drink if last year’s winning country rips itself off.

I.B.5 The Wand’ring Minstrel. Unless it’s a solo guitar or piano, Eurovision insists on backing tapes. It’s in the rules, so don’t accuse some entrants of cheating; but take a drink if performers pretend to play a musical instrument (or simulacrum thereof) in a blatantly fake way, as part of the choreography. A second drink is permitted if a subsequent, different wave of faux-minstrely rises after the first has subsided.

I.B.6 The Greeks (formerly The TaTu). Finish your drink if the audience boos (on the telly, not in your living room.)

I.B.7 Don’t Mention The War. The German entrant sings something about everyone being happy. This is a legacy rule, as in recent years it has largely been  supplanted by…

I.B.7a Don’t Mention The Wall. The Israeli entrant sings something about everyone being happy.

I.B.8 My Lovely Horse. Any obvious indication that a country is deliberately trying to lose, to avoid budgetary/logistical/political problems of hosting the event next year.

PHASE I ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:

I.B.5a The Wand’ring Minstrel (supplemental). Two drinks if the instrument is an accordion.

I.B.9 The San Remo. Any occurence of visible armpits and/or pointing at nothing in particular. Two drinks for a hairy armpit.

I.B.10 The White Suit. You’ll know it when you see it; and you’ll know it again when you see it again, and again…

PHASE II: THE VOTES

II.1 The Wardrobe Change. Each time the female host changes frocks. Two drinks if the male host changes suits.

II.2 The Gimme. When Greece gives twelve points to Cyprus, and when Germany gives twelve points to Turkey.

II.3 The Old Europe. When the UK gets null points from France.

II.4 The Sympathy Vote. When anything sung in French first gets a point, and/or the last country without any points finally gets off the mark. A special toast to any country left with zero points at the end.

II.5 The “Viktor, You Very Unattractive Fellow.” Two drinks if the hosts speak in rhyme and/or pretend to flirt with each other. Finish your drink if the flirting is serious.

PHASE II INTERMEDIATE: You and your friends probably will be too unruly by this stage to catch every occurrence of these, so just try to catch what you can.

II.6 The Hurry-Up. Every time the announcer from each voting country is politely asked by the hosts to shut the fuck up (i.e. “Can we have your votes please?”). Two drinks if the announcer tries to deliver a personal message to a relative watching at home.

II.7 The Sandra Sully. Each time an announcer reads the voting results wrong. Two drinks if they get so confused they have to start over.

II.8 The Sally Field. Each time they show contestants backstage during the voting looking genuinely surprised and pleased with themselves when they get the same politically-motivated votes they get every year.

II.9 The Master of Suspense. It looks like everyone’s figured it out now, so this hasn’t happened for a few years, but just in case: each time an announcer fails to understand that the pause for suspense only works if they announce the twelve points first, then the country that has won them – not the other way around.

PHASE II ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:

II.10 The New Europe. When the Baltic or Balkan states all give each other twelve points, or a former Soviet republic gives Russia twelve points. Do not attempt without medical supervision.

THE WILDCARDS

W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask:
W1.a why Israel is in it;
W1.b why Italy isn’t in it; or
W1.c where the hell is Moldova?

W2 A toast to the first person who expresses dismay when they realise how long the voting is going to take.

W3 A toast to Bosnia and Herzegovina if they change the spelling of their country again from last year (last year’s spelling: ‘Bosnia&Herzegovina’).

W4 A toast to the person who gets so drunk you have to secretly call a cab and persuade them they ordered it when it arrives.

Third City: Walking on Red and Blue

Thursday 13 May 2010

Third City was an installation for photographs, drawings, maps, printed texts and two simultaneous recordings on a loop. Exhibited at Grey Area Art Space, Melbourne, 1998.

There is the absurd tale of a Spaniard who used a map of Barcelona to find his way around Paris; or of an associate of the situationists who traversed the Harz mountains with a map of London for guidance; or of Robinson’s quest for signs of Parisian café culture in the suburbs of London. The UBD street directories used to feature on their covers an aerial photograph of the city in question (Adelaide, Brisbane) overseen by a man on a tightrope, invariably consulting a map of inner Sydney.

From the intersection of the preconceived city found on the map and the experienced city found on the ground, a third city results that can be found only in the mind – a discernible form rising out of the collision of images.

Such a city may be conjectured from the fragments assembled here, according to a plan drawn from a conflation of two cities. On a map of Adelaide (where I grew up) I marked sixty-four points in the city that had some personal significance to me, and mapped out the different psychogeographic ‘zones’ that I felt held sway over my movements about town. These points and lines were then transferred onto a map of Melbourne’s central grid, creating a plan that would determine most aspects of the eventual installation.

Certain points on this plan were selected by chance to be written about (referring to Adelaide), other points were photographed (in their transposed Melbourne locations), and maps were drawn from memory connecting points in different zones of Adelaide. Sounds recorded in central Melbourne were treated electronically, using the plan as a musical score, measuring selected points against the grid to determine the varying attributes to be given each sound.

The plan was then used to assemble these divergent images of cities, measuring corresponding points on the grid to determine the placement of sounds in time, the maps and texts in the space of their pages, and the placement of all the articles on the three available walls.

Walking the City on Red and Blue

In 1997 I walked two circuits around central Melbourne, visiting sites represented on postcards. An audio recording was made of each walk, with distance measured by aurally marking each red object passed on one walk (left channel) and blue objects on the other. This became the material to be electronically treated, according to the score generated using the Third City map. Two tapes were created, which played simultaneously on loops for the duration of the installation. The tapes were of different lengths and interspersed silences with periodic bursts of treated and untreated city sounds, in varying overlapping patterns.

A few years later I made a new mix of the tapes for the Hearing Place Audiotheque, which combined sounds from both the original, untreated tapes and the processed sounds, to make a composite sound portrait of walking the city.

EXPERIMENT?

Saturday 8 May 2010

Sorry for the delay – volcanic ash in the computer.

Before the concert, Frederic Rzewski announced that he was trying to write music that didn’t make sense. He also said that his piano playing was getting worse with age, which was Nature’s way of telling him to start practicing. He played us the latest instalment of his series of Nano Sonatas – exercises in compressing as much musical content and variety into as little time as possible. Despite drawing their inspiration from nanotechnology, the sonatas’ freeform weirdness of apparently disjointed ideas spilling out over each other were reminiscent of Beethoven’s late bagatelles. As the bagatelles have been the boundary marker for the limits of musical meaning for 150 years, it seems that Rzewski’s campaign for nonsense is making progress.

This was all part of the London Sinfonietta’s series of concerts last week of ‘experimental’ music, somewhat inappropriately titled EXPERIMENT! and rather oddly divided up into Americans one night, British the next. The American gig was uniformly excellent, the highlights being Rzewski’s performance, the chance to hear some more of Christian Wolff’s music, and one of Morton Feldman’s lesser-known works. The programme said the Sinfonietta would be playing Feldman’s Four Instruments (1975) but the musicians goofed and played the 1965 piece with the same title by mistake. It’s strange how music which seemed so abstract and remote from emotional expression at the time, is now played with an umistakeable mood, a sense of introspective melancholy.

I’m wondering if a lot of Wolff’s music can only be appreciated live, with the listener there in the presence of the musicians interpreting the score on the spot with a combination of individual decisions and group consensus. The Sinfonietta’s performances made sense to both the head and the heart, with Exercise 16, played on violin and cello, sounding even beguiling. That’s an adjective I’ve never applied to Wolff’s music before.

That first night ended with Rzewski’s old warhorse Coming Together, which still packs a musical and dramatic wallop. My only quibble was that the reciter’s performance was a little ripe for my taste, with some minor but distracting miming of writing activity. Perhaps he was employing histrionics as a test of the reactions of others. I suppose he gave a vivid portrait of an incarcerated thespian.

By contrast, the second concert lived up to the usual stereotypes of the British being more reserved, modest, and using self-deprecating humour to undermine the seriousness of their intent – a trait which can be both good and bad. A more telling contrast, unmentioned by the programme notes, was a greater presence of more recent pieces by the British composers. It’s great to have newer music by living composers, but it revealed the fallacy of the concert’s presumed theme of “the experimental tradition”. The worst example was the choice of a section from Michael Nyman’s 2003 piece Exit No Exit to end the gig. Nyman’s written some interesting – and experimental – music, along with hours and hours of forgettable aural wallpaper like this piece. It was (perhaps inevitably?) a spinoff from an occasional piece, which may explain why it sounded less like music and more like a branding exercise, for composer and commissioner alike.

British self-effacement is all very well when it’s applied thoughtfully (as with Howard Skempton, whose Clarinet Quintet was played) but at other times it produces music which seems compromised, as though the composer didn’t have enough faith in the music’s premise and began pulling punches. The result thus often sounds derivative. John Lely’s All About The Piano had an interesting idea – piano playing recorded in real time then played back over various recording devices – white-anted by a couple of factors.

First, the title, with the sort of naff wordplay that seems strangely endemic amongst composers and real ale brewers, rendering both equally unappealing to normal members of the public. Secondly, the music itself wasn’t distinctive enough to make itself heard above the theatrical business with the various recording media. To be fair, I doubt that anything could upstage the acoustic, hand-cranked cylinder recorder that occupied front centre stage.

The British evening’s highlights were a small-scale production of Gavin Bryars’ classic The Sinking of the Titanic, and Cornelius Cardew’s Autumn ’60. Bryars’ piece is extremely effective in the disarmingly naive way it becomes both a memorial and an evocation of the event it commemorates, through its focus on the musical and sonic aspects of the tragedy. I’d never heard Autumn ’60 before, and this was a grand performance, with John Tilbury conducting the Sinfonietta and Howard Skempton sitting in on accordion. Cardew’s piece showed it’s affinities with the music of Christian Wolff and Earle Brown, but struck its own path in achieving an openness of interpretation that the New York School had advocated but taken years to get the hang of. Autumn ’60 makes its variety of textures, dynamics and colours seem effortless, while guiding the musicians through a coherent structure that still allows great flexibility. If the British concert concentrated on older pieces like these, it may have been as strong as the American programme.

The Slips, with added sound

Monday 3 May 2010

Before the weekend, I went to the somewhat misnamed EXPERIMENT! concerts by the London Sinfonietta. If I sound a bit downbeat about the gigs when I write about them tomorrow, it’s because when I left the second one it was pouring with rain and I got soaked.

In the meantime, I’ve dug up an audio excerpt from The Slips. This isn’t a recording of the actual performance, but a simulation made from overdubbing the backing tapes used in the performance. Not ideal, but it gives you an idea of how the piece sounds when it’s read. Hopefully I can get a better recording made this year.

Ben.Harper – An excerpt from Slips 1
(4’20″, 6.34 MB, mp3)

John Cage’s difficulty, according to Frederic Rzewski

Thursday 29 April 2010

When asked tonight why his description of Cage’s ideas seemed to contradict Cage’s own essays, Rzewski replied: “Cage was not a master of language. He obfuscates. If people have been playing his music badly for decades then it’s his own fault for being so unclear.”

John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet play Morton Feldman

Monday 26 April 2010

Piano and String Quartet, at King’s Place last Thursday. How little you need to make something beautiful, elusive; not just the material, the subject, but how it is articulated. It takes so little from each instrument to keep the music alive.

Timbre and range are the same problem, and both are more important than pitches. When one knows exactly the sound he wants, there are only a few notes in any instrument that will suffice. Choosing actual pitches then becomes almost like editing, filling in detail, finishing things off.”

This isn’t minimalist music – it isn’t making the most of limited means. It’s music composed with the richness of a certain set of timbres and instrumental sounds, for which only certain pitches will suffice.

Playing this softly, this slowly, the sustained chords of the piano seem to chime on forever against the string instruments.

Hearing it live, you notice how the musicians are living within the piece, so large are its dimensions. Two thirds of the way through you can feel them tiring, getting a little faster, a little louder; then someone attacks a note with a little frailty and the mood changes and a sense of quiescence returns. In its small way, a gentle climax has been achieved.

Tilbury’s playing seems more constant in his approach than other times I’ve heard him play Feldman, but on those occasions he was playing solo. Balanced against the quartet, the two forces alternate between sound and silence for the opening section of the piece, each framing the other. By the end the quartet is playing constantly, with the piano disturbing the otherwise still surface of the music.

The fatigue, the compromising of styles to accomodate others: to what extent did Feldman anticipate the frailties of musicians when writing this music?

The Theremin Cello: I want one.

Thursday 22 April 2010


Another great thing about the Varèse 360° gigs was the performance of Ecuatorial with two Theremin cellos in the ensemble. Ecuatorial is the only piece specifically written for this incredibly cool instrument, and up until a few years ago it could only be performed with a pair of ondes Martenots substituting, as the only two existing Theremin cellos are now in museums.

The story of the reverse-engineered and newly rebuilt Theremin cello, and its role in Ecuatorial, can be found here. Some more info and a better photo of the new instrument here.

Varèse 360° Full Blown

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Hearing all of Edgard Varèse’s music in three concerts over two nights was too good an opportunity to pass up. It shouldn’t be such a rare event. “We believe it deserves to be done at least once a year,” conductor Paul Daniel enthused at the end of the final concert. A bit gushy, perhaps, but by that time I could see his point. The experience had confirmed, expanded, and partly confounded my understanding of the composer.

This is exacting music for the performer and the listener. Varèse has a reputation for attempting to blast his audience into submission, but heard in these circumstances the music didn’t make its demands through bullying and bombast. A remarkable manipulation of scale comes into play, by Varèse’s use of stark, densely packed details condensed into brief structures with little room for repose. Each piece forces the listener into a relatively short, but intense, burst of concentration. It’s hard to believe a work as vast as Ameriques is over within 20 minutes. As with Webern, Nancarrow and Ustvolskaya, Varèse’s music is bigger than its durations suggest.

The opening performance of Ionisation by the London Sinfonietta beautifully emphasised the skill with which Varèse shaped the levels of ferocity projected by his percussion ensemble. Musically, the execution throughout the concerts was technically dead-on and interpreted in an intelligent and opinionated way. We got to hear Varèse the composer’s music of the future, not Varèse the polemecist’s manifesto for a music of the future, as it is too often presented.

The only sticking points (besides the programme and the visuals) were a Density 21.5 that came across a bit fusty to me, and Déserts, which my friends found clunky but I really enjoyed. They dug the rough, lo-fi sound of the taped segments but thought the live bits suffered in comparison, as a piece struggling with then-emerging technology whose reach exceeded its grasp. I was fascinated by the way in which Varèse had written for percussion and brass as though they were electronic, able to be stretched, spliced and mixed like so much tape. It was the way Stockhausen and his contemporaries began to write music after they’d worked with tape recorders. Varèse seems to have been working toward that style for years.

For the final concert the massive forces of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain played the equally massive Arcana and Amériques, the latter in its even more over-the-top original orchestration. Their performances were less groomed than others, and slightly feral, which doesn’t hurt this music in the least. They packed a hell of a punch without ever losing control or resorting to untermpered noise.

This concert was neatly bookended by a choreographed version of Varèse’s fragmentary goof Tuning Up as an icebreaker at one end, and an encore of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune at the other. The relative sweetness of this piece didn’t obscure its important role as the instigator of so much 20th century music, not least because, as we were reminded, it was this music that inspired Varèse to dedicate his life to music.

It had been several years since I’d seriously listened to any Varèse and, like all good concerts, the weekend made me want to hear more. Of course, tragically, there isn’t any more than those 16 pieces. Contrary to the thoughts of some late 20th century critics who thought Varèse would be remembered more for his historical role than his music, it is music that invites repeated listening, and explorations of the man’s ideas flow from the curiosity piqued by hearing it. Listening to the crude but self-assured sounds of Poème électronique distributed through the space of the hall, you wonder what other music you’ve missed out on, for want of a few more dollars, a little extra time.

Varèse 360°: but first, a rant.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

On the weekend I was blown away by the Edgard Varèse 360° gigs – yep, three tight little concerts of the complete works of Varèse. Awesome.

I want to write some nice things about it, so I’ll get this out of the way first. Enough with the crappy video projections, already. Nobody likes them. Critics don’t like them, the punters don’t like them, nobody’s bought a ticket to your gig to look at insipid video art, they’re there for the music and your ill-conceived attempts at visual decoration are a distraction at best, an embarrassment at worst. You’ve been trying this crap on for years and it hasn’t gotten any better. Give up. The people coming to your gigs are savvy enough about culture to know that your visuals just don’t cut it for a professional outfit. You may think you’re getting down with Yoof but if The Kids are lured to one of your concerts they’re already switched on to video and recognise crap when they see it. Stop it – you’re only hurting yourselves. It undermines the concert experience for the regulars and it convinces the newcomers that it’s as lame as they feared.

Plus-Minus Ensemble at Kings Place

Thursday 15 April 2010

For an insight to what going to one of these types of concerts is like, you must read the review at Notes From A Defeatist.

They played Xenakis’ Dikhtas and Evryali, two pieces which have been decking audiences for over thirty years and need no further praise from me right now. There was also Vermillion, a trio for clarinet, cello and electric guitar by Rebecca Saunders, a composer whose work I’m just starting to get familiar with. But Vermillion was a disappointment, a tentative and awkward piece made moreso by the clumsy and self-conscious use of the guitar.

I was tempted out to hear this mostly because of the interview with Bryn Harrison at The Rambler – Harrison’s lengthy Repetitions in Extended Time made up the second half of the programme. Harrison’s music gets described as a combination of Morton Feldman and Brian Ferneyhough, a sort of hybrid of the American and the European strains of the refined avant-garde. Repetitions in Extended Time certainly bore a superficial resemblance to late Feldman, with its ambiguously shifting patterns repeated with subtle changes.

For a while the piece was intriguing, in the way that it picked up on one technical aspect of Feldman’s music and made something new from it. (So much music written since Feldman’s death, such as Vermillion, seems so timid, as if overawed by the implications of making any sound at all.) By the latter stages, however, the music’s unvarying surface and mood became familiar, whereas Feldman’s music never loses its strangeness.

I haven’t heard enough of this music to know whether it is in fact an attempt to square the circle, to rationalise Feldman’s musical language with academic theories. Remembering it now, I wonder if the future will be kind to it, and whether what sounds fresh and innovative about it now will be just the things that later strike us as derivative and compromised.

Drinking beer and watching Jon Rose and Chris Cutler

Tuesday 13 April 2010

I’m sitting in Cafe Oto thinking about why I’m too busy thinking to really pay attention to what Jon Rose and Chris Cutler are playing. I’m telling myself it’s good that I can listen without having to worry about paying close attention, and just let it fill the air around me, but I might need some convincing. I like the way there’s plenty of activity, both visually and aurally, but it’s all meshing together in a variegated carpet* of sound, not a pair of competing virtusosic showoffs – Barthes’ “petty digital scramble”*.

Nobody’s trying to impress me with how difficult it is to do whatever it is they’re doing, and even the most raucous sounds are giving room for me to think.