Eternal Return Calls

Wednesday 25 January 2012

“Wacky” classical music stories are almost as tedious as golfing jokes, and this year we’ve already endured two uproarious stories about classical gigs disrupted by mobile phones. O tempora! O mores!

Last night I was listening to a concert recorded in Phill Niblock’s loft in SoHo in 1979. Tom Johnson was performing his piece Nine Bells, for suspended fire alarm gongs. Right at the very end of the piece, a telephone in the room starts to ring. I’m talking one of those old-school Universal Telephone style BRRRRINGGGs. Nobody is outraged and Johnson doesn’t imitate the phone, even though he is ideally equipped to do so.

Quickly now, 2011

Friday 30 December 2011

Off the top of my head, these are my cultural highlights of the year. Well, almost off the top, because the best moments were of getting my own music out in public again. In particular, seeing the Bionic Ear project finally come to fruition with the two concerts in Melbourne was the biggest moment – hearing everyone else’s pieces and seeing the effect their music and mine had on the audiences. There was also the opportunity to play live with analogue electronics for the first time in years, with gigs at Abject Bloc in Limehouse Town Hall and Unconscious Archives at the Apiary that everyone seemed to enjoy.

I’m thinking mostly about music gigs I went to this year, because they are physical experiences of time and place. Of course, this means that the one that stands out the most is SONNTAG aus LICHT – seeing at first hand a part of Stockhausen’s mad, overwhelming vision enter the world and attempt to make itself understood. The other three that made the biggest impressions: Boulez conducting Pli Selon Pli and packing a bigger punch than I ever thought possible, Eliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak trilogy banishing the outside world through the slenderest of means, and Ferneyhough’s La terre est un homme blowing a hole in the received history of recent music – a lost landmark hidden in plain sight.

So where’s the New new stuff on my list? I suppose that should be my new year resolution for 2012.

Other standouts that I didn’t blog about: a superbly performed but unimaginatively conceived version of John Cage’s Song Books by Exaudi at King’s Place, Anna Zaradny’s and John Wall’s sets at Sotto Voce for showing me that there’s still potential for laptop gigs, and hearing Apartment House play my old bête noir, Phill Niblock’s Five More String Quartets in person. This last piece was the inspiration, years ago, for my String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta), which received a new outing in printed form at Monash University this year.

Mistaken memories of mediocre music

Tuesday 29 November 2011

My memories of the AMM gig at Conway Hall are a lot more positive than my thoughts on it at the time, or so it seems. Reading that blog entry again was a small shock. Even now that I’m puzzling over it, my bemusement is not over what caused my memories of it to change, but what caused me to write about it that way in the first place.

It may well be that the music really didn’t make much of an impact on me, and what has really stuck in my head was the experience of being at the concert, which I am inclined to remember more fondly. (Incidentally there’s a photo of it on Wikipedia, but I didn’t know that until today.)

At the same time I am certain that my opinion on Sunday’s concert won’t change.

A Celebration of Cornelius Cardew, of sorts

Monday 28 November 2011

“Celebration” was in the title of the concert, but as celebrations go it was a muted and introspective affair. Perhaps this was to be expected. For the past 30 years Cardew has remained unfinished business. His last years were consumed by his dedication to a wrongheaded political project that squandered his talent and energy, and his early, unexpected death left the new music world a strangely inconsistent, unresolved body of work. British musicians have chosen, largely, to ignore him while a rump of the avant-garde treated him as a semi-legendary figure and unsuccessfully tried to reconcile the conflicting tendencies that pulled his music in such contradictory directions.

Sunday’s concert in the Purcell Room got us no closer to perceiving a distinct outline of Cardew’s oeuvre, although it presented one piece of the puzzle. In the first half John Tilbury played several of Cardew’s piano pieces, from the Sixties and early Seventies. The three February Pieces and Material felt like an early historical attempt to both accommodate and escape from the prevailing avant-garde dogmas of the Fifties. A sonic delicacy reminiscent of Webern would alternate with passages of stasis, spiky contrapuntal discord and isolated tones, sometimes romantic, otherwise remote, disrupted by a wilful discontinuity, tempered by a reliance on the performer’s instinct to find a form in the score’s aleatory structure. (At times you could see Tilbury flipping both forwards and backwards through the pages.) Overall, the mood was elegiac.

The brief Unintended Piano Music from either 1970 or 1971 was a strange, brooding piece; a series of chords articulated by a repeated triad ascending in the bass. Its lulling, nagging repetitions and pensive mood illustrated why Morton Feldman felt so at home amongst the British avant-garde of the time. The Croppy Boy was the sole acknowledgement in the programme of Cardew’s later dedication to founding a new People’s Music for the Marxist-Leninist revolution that never came. In this context, it came across as overly sentimental and slightly insincere.

After the interval, Tilbury was joined by percussionist Eddie Prévost. Together they performed as the improvisation group AMM, of which Cardew was an early, key member. Prévost’s programme note takes some pains to detail the numerous personnel changes over the years. “One suspects AMM will somehow continue after those who first thought of it have long since departed,” he concludes, yet the preceding history feels more rueful than triumphant. It can’t help but echo the unending splits and factions amongst the various communist parties with which Cardew was involved in the Seventies.

I saw an expanded version of AMM play two years ago. Tonight, the duo’s sound is understandably sparser, with long pauses, and culminating in a lingering uncertainty between them over when exactly they’ve finished. Prévost is preoccupied with a technique, as if he’s rehearsing alone. He spends most of his time bowing a cymbal, a tam-tam, some small gongs, shifting his equipment about casually, almost sloppy. Tilbury slips between foreground and background, but much of the time can add little more to this monomania than slow, chromatic scales, sometimes ascending, sometimes… It’s less a celebration, more resignation, exhaustion.

The Romance of Composition (continued)

Monday 21 November 2011

The Colour Out Of Space

Thursday 17 November 2011

Wandelweiser play Christian Wolff. Theoretically.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Yes, another week-old gig. Last Thursday at the ICA, watching the Wandelweiser collective perform Christian Wolff’s 1971 text composition Stones:

Make sounds with stones, draw sounds out of stones, using a number of sizes and kinds (and colours); for the most part discretely; sometimes in rapid sequences. For the most part striking stones with stones, but also stones on other surfaces (inside the open head of a drum, for instance) or other than struck (bowed, for instance, or amplified). Do not break anything.

Wandelweiser’s approach to this piece is to determine in advance that the performance will last an hour, and that each of their seven performers will devise 10 to 20 “events” of a type, duration and timing of their own choosing. This seemed like an intriguing idea. How did it manage to come across so wrong?

The room didn’t help. The performance was supposed to be very quiet, with long silences allowed to emerge between sounds. Unfortunately, in the ICA theatre everything sounded muffled and dull, with the silences drawing attention to the hum of the airconditioner. For some unexplained reason, a recording of some sort of faint rustling (pebbles? water?) played intermittently. This sound was curiously uninteresting, and its recurrence became something of a nuisance.

The performers played with a deliberation which drew attention away from the sounds they made, and the sounds produced were insufficiently rewarding to make the act of listening anything more than I chore. I really expected to like this more than I did. On the surface, the interpretation was very similar to John Cage’s Number Pieces, which I love.

A friend in the audience afterwards remarked that it had provided a good opportunity to observe the psychological profiles of the performers. He also made an important point. So much of Wolff’s musical career has been spent in the shadow of Cage; and when Wandelweiser devoted a concert to Wolff, all they did was shove him back under Cage’s shadow again. Wandelweiser’s interpretation could easily be mistaken for a realisation of Cage’s Four4 or Four6. Worse still, they emulated the wrong idea of John Cage – a conceptualist, a philosopher – and not John Cage the musician. Christian Wolff the musician was not present.

Tony Conrad at Cafe Oto last week

Wednesday 2 November 2011

I’ve seen him play twice before. The last time was an improvised duet with Jennifer Walshe which turned out to be a bit of a mess, like they were trying out lots of ideas without ever getting settled. The first time was him just sawing away on his violin over a tape, or a drone, I forget. It was that kind of capital-M Musicianship that I can admire without really getting into, sort of like Terry Riley at the keyboard. It’s great that they know how to spiel like that, but I wish I knew in advance which bits were going to be worth paying attention to.

This time, however, it all came together. Playing violin in his typical harsh, strident tone over looped samples of himself that he could cue in an out as needed, or a low drone created by striking a monochord with a piano hammer, he traversed the set of harmonies that resonated above the drone’s bass frequency. Occasionally, he would cut away the drone and break the comfortable sense of continuity. The tone changed and a new structural point in the piece would emerged – this was aided by his ability to select passages of his own playing to be looped as a base on which to build a new section. As he progressed he moved towards the smaller, more discordant intervals in the upper reaches of the harmonic series and the music’s tension built accordingly.

After another shift in attitude, bowing pedal tones on loose strings hanging off his instrument’s bridge, he returned to bowing in a different intonation. His tuning became more esoteric, playing unfamiliar scales further away from conventional harmony. By the end of his piece he had moved us away into a strange, bittersweet territory of tones that required us to readjust our hearing to a new order of harmonic relationships above the recurring drone. This is what I want to hear when I hear someone who can spiel: not just an unerring sense of what sounds good, but a sense of structure, of a meaning that goes beyond its own craft.

Precious insights into how I write my music

Monday 24 October 2011

Start composing a piece of music.

Feel irresistible urge to procrastinate.

Dig out old piece which I hadn’t quite finished.

Look at old piece. Decide it needs revision.

Discover that making satisfactory revisions to old piece will require it to be remade from scratch.

Restart old piece from scratch. Discover completely different method of composing it from first time.

Stop. This approach needs to be thought through.

Make new set of calculations to rewrite old piece.

Fix errors in calculations.

Trial and error. Finally get correct effect sought for.

Formalise process for completing one element of revised old composition.

Look for ways of automating this process.

Discover there is no way of usefully automating the process.

Repeat process manually to complete another element. Success!

Realise you’ll have to repeat this process another 548 times.

Surf Failblog for video clips of skateboarding accidents.

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.