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.

Isn’t that terrific?

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Alvin Lucier, who I had the privilege of seeing a couple of years ago, just turned 80. Daniel Wolf at Renewable Music gives a summary of the many reasons why the world would be a lot worse without him. Lucier’s way of thinking will become even more important as we struggle to understand what music may be, in a world of ever-increasing technological mediation of experience, and of convergence between media.

Nicolas Collins, author of the essential Handmade Electronic Music – The Art of Hardware Hacking, has generously uploaded scans of his notes from taking Lucier’s class, “Introduction to Electronic Music”, along with his reflections on Lucier’s teaching and the musical culture of the early 1970s.

Eurovision 2011: Meet The Losers

Tuesday 10 May 2011

I somehow forgot to do this last year, so with the first semi-final due to start tonight it’s more than time to look at the Eurovision entrants with the longest odds of winning. (Please note that I have never watched a semi-final, preferring instead to watch the finals with no forewarning of what atrocities may be unleashed. This also adds to the fun of the Drinking Game.)

The bookies this year obviously think they’ve got the contest and voting patterns sussed, as they’re offering frankly ridiculous odds from 200:1 to 500:1 for a swathe of countries. The received wisdom, however, is that the entrant with the least hope of succeeding is San Marino, presumably because it’s barely even a real country.

The Sammarinese contestant, a lady called Senit, is (surprise) not actually from San Marino. Her notable achievements include appearing in the German cast of The Lion King, recording with producers who have also worked with luminaries such as “Christina Alguilera” and “Busta Rhimes”, and…

In May 2006 Senit made her debut in the world of Italian discography with the album that took her name SENIT, produced by Panini, historic editing house of footballers stickers, that chose her as the testimonial of their new discographic activity.

Senit’s Eurovision song has the rather hesitant title “Stand By”, with a similarly less-than-forceful refrain of:

So tonight, if you don’t mind, I will stand by!

In the likely event that San Marino will be eliminated in the semi-finals, the longest odds for any country appearing in the final itself are for Spain. Almost as hopeless as San Marino, Spain’s entry will be sung by the lovely Lucía Pérez. She’s big in Galicia, and is “presently finishing her degree in pedagogics”. Her song, “Que Me Quiten Lo Bailao”, translates as “They Can’t Take The Fun Away From Me” and suggests that Spain are still in their not-giving-a-shit mood.

This is backed up by the song lyrics, which seem to me to be about the joys of getting totally fucking hammered on Rioja, complete with a musical parking of the tiger at the end.

I’m feeling so good,
I’m feeling so good
that I will never ever ever think
in a negative way

Although I know well
that storms may come
and I will fall down
after all
I have enjoyed all this so much
and nobody can take the fun I had away from me

Ouo uo uo ouo uo uo
who can take the fun I’ve had away from me?

The Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game, 2011 Edition

Sunday 8 May 2011

Less than a week to go until this year’s Eurovision, and I haven’t even mentioned it yet! Stupid me, didn’t even realise that this year’s event is taking place in Düsseldorf, just up the road from where I went to see SONNTAG aus LICHT. It will be interesting to see which proves to be the more surreal experience.

The potential for Eurovision insanity this year is greatly boosted by the big news that both Italy and Austria are back in the game – after a 14-year absence, in Italy’s case. This means that Drinking Game rule W1.b will not apply this year.

Despite the changing the voting to a 50/50 split between viewers’ votes and national panels of judges, last year’s voting shows no reason to make any change to rules II.3, II.10, and especially not II.2. Therefore the 2011 rules for the refined but deadly art of drinkmanship that is the Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game are as follows.

Yes these have all happened, in case you’re wondering.


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.

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.


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…


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.

II.2a The Gastarbeiter. If Germany still gives twelve points to Turkey.

II.3 The Old Europe. When the UK gets nul 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 at the end to any country which did not receive so much as a single vote.

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 register 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 friend or 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.


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.


W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask:
W1.a why Israel is in it*;
W1.b [deleted]; 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.

* This is why.

The Day Before SONNTAG

Tuesday 3 May 2011

The evening before Easter Sunday I was sitting in a bar, quite unwittingly thinking over what I’d been wanting to write for some time about the various concerts I’d been to lately. Besides getting a little bit drunk I was jotting down notes about gigs I’d been seeing, and thinking over what Robert Ashley meant when he said, “Recitals are a curse.

At first, Ashley’s critique has some superficial similarity to Glenn Gould’s “Let’s Ban Applause!“. So much of Gould’s opinions on live versus recording are rubbish, I thought, scribbling down a few points about what I’d experienced at the Xenakis gig at Southbank a few weeks ago, or at Exaudi’s performance of Cage’s Song Books a week before that. Yes, I have some caveats about live performance; but I’ll get to these points another time.

Ashley, inevitably, pursues the point further, out of my comfort zone.

As a member of the audience you are a consumer and a consumer only…. Whatever it is, you are not part of it. You have been a watcher. The recitalist hopes that you have been entertained. But you have not been included….

The composer does not have the idea of including the people who come while the music is being enacted. We have lost the idea of the rituals that remind the people who come that what is happening is only a small part, a “surfacing” of the continuing musicality of everyday life.

At the time I was considering these problems, it didn’t occur to me that the next day I would witness Stockhausen’s earnest attempts to include the audience in SONNTAG aus LICHT. His approaches were characteristically unsubtle. The opening scene, Lichter-Wasser, specifies that the musicians proceed through and are stationed amongst the audience, with the singers given circuits to follow around and between audience members. The final scene, Hoch-Zeiten, as staged by La Fura dels Baus, threw punters in amidst five groups of dancers and, surrounded by rotating projections of video and music, left everyone to fend for themselves.

In between, at the composer’s behest, we were surrounded by processions of choirs, censers of various fragrances, and illustrative projections (three-dimensional, in this case). As we left the theatre and walked out into the park or loitered around the entrance, Stockhausen’s farewell music played on through loudspeakers outside the building. Walking along the Rhine afterwards, I could still hear occasional faint snatches of it when the breeze blew the right way. Even in his conception of the work, Stockhausen intended SONNTAG to be performed over three nights, compelling audiences to return to a common place of communion.

The LICHT cycle is intended as a ritual of worship, and consistently strives to impress upon the audience the spiritual essence of all creation and the interconnectedness of music and spirituality. Towards the end we even saw Stockhausen’s list of “issues and challenges for Humanity”. There are ten of them: the comparison to commandments is irresistable. “1. Humanity must pray.” “3. Humanity must support cosmic art music.” “7. Humanity must use sleep for contacting the angels.” Stockhausen’s music is dedicated to the task of creating a spiritual context for itself, to validate the meaning it carries.

Beneath all this effort lurks Ashley’s issue and challenge for the audience. If the music is foreign to you, there is no emotional connection for you to recognise it as part of your life. “We should expect that the audience is a part of the music, and this is not true, even if the audience is entirely music students. This is the dilemma of contemporary music. The ritual has disappeared. The event is hollow.” Stockhausen’s grand plan to create a new ritual was perhaps, as I’ve previously suggested, doomed before it could begin.

The Day After SONNTAG

Friday 29 April 2011

So I went to Cologne to see Karlheinz Stockhausen’s opera SONNTAG aus LICHT, the culmination of his epic LICHT cycle of seven operas, one for each day of the week. Only now has this opera been given a complete, fully-staged performance, some eight years after its completion and three years after the composer’s death. So much vague pronouncement and speculation has surrounded the LICHT project, based on what often seems so little direct experience, that I had to see it for myself.

Having said that, it seems impossible to discuss SONNTAG without going into a description of what happens in each of its five lengthy scenes, interpreted in this case by La Fura dels Baus, the same guys who did that version of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre I saw a while back. At the same time, it seems rather pointless to just give a rundown of what each scene contains: this will surely be covered in greater detail elsewhere. Some audience descriptions are online, along with video and photos of the production.

SONNTAG is an opera with no plot, not even any dramatic tension; not does it attempt to work on the audience to extract a catharsis as so much theatre which passes itself off as ‘ritual’. It matches perfectly a description I once read of Stockhausen’s earlier Sirius: “a sci-fi mystery play”. Each scene presents a tableau, depicting the spiritual aspects of all creation, in Stockhausen’s own peculiar vernacular.

I went into SONNTAG at noon on Easter Sunday and left at 9.30 that night. The next morning I went to see the service at the Kölner Dom, which included a performance of Liszt’s Choral Mass, and saw again much of what I had experienced the previous day. The use of word and music in affirmation of belief, the smoke and scent of the incense, the occasional chimes, the processions and movements of the clergy and of the congregation, the different colours of light suffusing the haze above the altar, from the sunlight streaming through Gerhard Richter’s windows, to the conclusion where the congregation turn to embrace each other. All of these aspects were present in Stockhausen’s opera. The connections between the two should not be at all surprising, but it was a powerful reminder that so much of what seems outlandish in Stockhausen’s music theatre has been an established part of life for centuries.

The Enduring Empire (aka Earth vs Soup)

Saturday 16 April 2011

Everything on Wikipedia is contentious: tomato soup is no exception. Since an entry first appeared in January 2006 – a mere three sentences describing it only as a tinned food, with “the consistency of cream of wheat and… tarty to the taste” – the humble comfort food has been a source of trivial controversy.

This is, of course, to be expected; yet in five years this brief article has been subjected to an unusually high level of arbitrary editing. Beside racist taunts, casual denigration of tomato soup, and mysterious references to the 1998 Swiss Tomato Soup Rebellion, debate has smouldered on the discussion pages over whether the ability to be served both hot and cold is noteworthy, and whether it is necessary to provide a citation demonstrating that tomato soup is, in fact, a soup made of tomatoes. It has also been the blameless target of revisions attributing the soup with the ability to increase sperm count, or of actually being a powdered donut made from llamas.

Despite all this, one element has remained constant for the past four years, surviving every revision and reversion since February 2007:

The American composer Robert Ashley wrote “Empire”, a section of his opera Atalanta (Acts of God), on the origins and proliferation of tomato soup.

Wonderfully, as well as being an excellent opera by one of the past century’s greatest composers, “Empire” deals with tomato soup purely as an industrial commodity, precisely as described in it’s original Wikipedia entry. Even more wonderfully, Ashley has stated that “Empire” is in fact

an allegorical telling of the founding of one of the great multinational corporations. The story was told to me by the scion of the family of that corporation. I have changed the names (and the product) to protect the privacy of the source. And I have deliberately made the metaphor (soup) more casual and humorous than the actuality of corporate America.

For all these years, the one constant in Wikipedia’s quest for authoratitiveness has been an operatic metaphor. Ashley has also stated that Atalanta (Acts of God) is an opera about story-telling, about the persistence of myth through its mutability. Already, Wikipedia has imbued “Empire”‘s origin myth with an obstinate authenticity of the sort that outlasts conventional history.

This Was The New Music! Super Dodo 64

Saturday 9 April 2011

Super Dodo 64 is a piece I threw together back in 2000 on a slightly knackered desktop computer (powered by a Cyrix 6×86 processor).

Someone had given me a CD-R filled with dodgy music software, along with several thousand MIDI files from a boatload of various computer games. What on earth are you expected to do with a bunch of video game MIDI files? I used Andrew Culver’s ic program to select certain files by chance, then use chance to extract one instrument track from the file, assign it a new instrument patch, and insert it into a 15-minute composition.

The resulting trainwreck was played through whatever SoundBlaster card was in the computer, using the standard General MIDI set of instrument patches. In the middle of the piece I switched everything over to the percussion channel. The glitches you can hear are down to half a dozen sets of MIDI instructions all sending conflicting demands at once.

The evolution of my video style: a pictorial history

Friday 11 March 2011

In 2008, Fiona Macdonald made a flat, white video for my installation at her Redrawing show.

In 2010, I made my own video for a performance of String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta), and uploaded it to YouTube.

In 2011, my piece This Is All I Need was performed as part of Interior Design: Music For The Bionic Ear, with a video projected against the back wall.

Next year, I expect I shall make a video that is solid black.


Monday 7 March 2011

For an idea of what each piece sounds like, below are mp3s of the first four minutes of each mix.

NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT MX, or ‘Instant Harpsichord Pocket (Packet?) Mix’, was composed in 2002, in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of John Cage’s Death. The premise of the piece is simple: a potted rendition of the musical ideas used in John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s HPSCHD, particularly multiplicity and microtonality, on a single CD.

The source material was John Sankey’s online archive of MIDI renditions of the 500 keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Every one of these sonatas was edited and transformed by removing the notes in each particular sonata’s tonic triad, thus erasing a clear sense of which key the sonata is played in. Before each sonata, the keyboard is retuned at random.

These retuned – or detuned, if you prefer – sonatas are played simultaneously by 14 virtual harpsichords arranged from left to right in the stereo spectrum, so that all 500 sonatas are heard in 75 minutes. With its length, excess of detail and amorphous tonality, the piece is intended to recreate, on a small scale, the immersive sonic experience of Cage and Hiller’s original multimedia extravaganza.

In 2010 I prepared two alternative versions of the piece, in which not all of the harpsichords play simultaneously. These remixes were inspired by the KNOBS program used to generate playback instructions for the original LP released of HPSCHD. In NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT RMX1 anything from a single harpsichord to all fourteen may play at a time; in NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT RMX2 no more than six harpsichords can play at once. The volume level of each harpsichord, when present, also varies. Decisions about which harpsichord plays when, and how loudly, were all made by chance operations.

The frequent changes in tuning throughout NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT MX, as well as the large mass of notes being played in any given moment, creates a cloud of overtones that constantly changes. In early 2011 I experimented with different ways of reducing the amount of finer detail from the music and enhance the presence of the underlying harmonies. Eventually I was able to achieve a version in which the more transient events had been blurred into the more persistent sounds. This mix, titled NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT RDX, finds a balance between the sound and surface complexity of the source material, and the underlying harmonic drone.

More information about these pieces are now on the main website.

This Is The New Music! On Soundcloud

Sunday 6 March 2011

I’ve been playing around a bit with Soundcloud and have uploaded a few tracks. In particular, there are excerpts from the four different versions of NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT MX I have just completed. Fourteen out-of-tune harpsichords never sounded so good – you’ll have to take my word for that. At least having all four versions on the same page allows for some neat comparisons.

More about what’s going on with those pieces will be posted tomorrow. I’m sure you can wait.

More video from Music For The Bionic Ear

Wednesday 2 March 2011

ABC News has a brief report about Interior Design: Music for the Bionic Ear.

A full description of the Music for The Bionic Ear project, and the piece I made for it, is now up on my website with links to more video and mp3s.

Partial Immersion: Brian Ferneyhough

Monday 28 February 2011

Against our better judgement, several hundred of us went to the Barbican to see the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Brian Ferneyhough, as part of their increasingly-misnamed “Total Immersion” series. (One day! Two concerts! Can you handle it?) Like the late Milton Babbitt, Ferneyhough is one of those composers whose music is overshadowed by his forbidding reputation, and so I’d like to thank Ivan Hewett for writing programme that tried to sell the punters on enjoying the music rather than getting them to figure out what a “claustrophobic and marginally chaotic renegotiation of mutual priorities” might sound like.

It’s rare for Ferneyhough to write for a large orchestra, and even rarer for that music to be played. La terre est un homme, written in the mid 1970s, is the most unrelentingly violent piece I’ve heard by Ferneyhough. It is also the greatest. Its impact on the audience was like that of an explosion, sustained for a quarter-hour. Aesthetically, it could be comprehended only as an overwhelming force of nature, simultaneously filled with terror and beauty, carrying a wealth of intricate detail with unremitting ferocity. Luckily, the performers were able to project and contain the force needed to balance both of these contradictory impulses.

This brilliance in playing was also present in the 1986 piece Carceri d’invenzione III, for winds, brass and percussion. For all the refinement in his musical language, it’s in pieces like this that, for me at least, Ferneyhough threatens to live up to his daunting reputation. As all seven Carceri d’invenzione pieces are based upon the eponymous engravings by Piranesi, it’s unsurprising that the music contained within is often claustrophobically dense and obscure. Compared to his other works, I still admire more than enjoy them.

The early Missa Brevis for unaccompanied choir was a piece I didn’t know existed, and while Ferneyhough displays excellent craftsmanship he was unable to transcend certain avant-garde affectations that were fashionable in the 1960s. Similarly, the BBC Singers showed and excellent technical command of the music, without ever really appearing in full command of what they wanted it to say.

The other highlight of the night was the other orchestral piece and most recent on the programme, Plötzlichkeit (2006). Besides having the coolest brass section, Plötzlichkeit embodied most strongly the wishes that Ferneyhough has often expressed for his music, as to how it might be received by the audience. As most recently expressed on the Today programme:

What I want to do is for them to suspend disbelief for a little bit and therefore enter into a sort of Alice in Wonderland world – through the little hole by drinking the potion – and try to even in the most confusing and seemingly chaotic circumstances to try to hold onto something.

Plötzlichkeit combines the full, distinctive voice of the composer with the fragmentary structure of his Sonatas For String Quartet from 40 years earlier; its discontinuities are reminiscent of Varèse’s approach to composition, allowing distinct blocks of sound to run up against each other in a constant balancing act of contrasts. Instead of overwhelming or exhausting, the music invited a dialogue with the listener, inviting (or taunting) them to perceive fleeting details before they disappeared, and to make their own sense of progress from start to finish.

The performance felt as though it could be a little more focussed, although that may be a problem with either me or the orchestra getting some perspective of a piece which seeks to defy any appreciation of structure.

Total Aversion: Brian Ferneyhough

Saturday 26 February 2011

This evening I’m off to see the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Brian Ferneyhough, including the first British performance of his large work Plötzlichkeit, as part of one the Barbican’s Total Immersion days. Unsurprisingly, the BBC has been cross-promoting it through one of their news and current affairs programmes.

What is a surprise, however, is that the time dedicated to interviewing Ferneyhough and discussing his music on the Today programme yesterday seemed to strongly suggest to listeners that this was a concert they should stay away from. The Rambler has an insightful analysis of what happened on the show (followed by a good debate in the comments).

In summary: Ferneyhough’s music is sinister, pointlessly difficult, causes stress and sounds a bit like farts…. this is not responsible arts journalism at any time of day. It’s deliberately and offensively misrepresentative. It doesn’t promote the music, it doesn’t increase understanding, it doesn’t even offer a moment for people to make up their own minds (three minutes of just the music would have at least done that). It simply builds walls, closes ears and reinforces prejudices.

It’s infuriating, but hardly surprising any more, that mainstream media is so hopelessly crap at arts reporting, even on Radio 4 and other outlets that present themselves as more intellectual. If they can’t frame the story as a controversy or scandal (whether it is or not), the journalists are at a loss as to whether they should approach their subject as a case for uncritical boosterism, adversarial inquisition, or quirky human interest. The last case always involves some degree of condescension, and Today’s treatment of Ferneyhough was no exception.

Why does arts reporting so often fall into this charade? The immediate impression is the same one given by politicians and certain business leaders, that they need to be seen as “one of the people,” and in doing so find themselves pandering to a lowest common denominator, becoming a patronising charicature of their supposed inferiors. On further thought, the position of a broadcaster like Radio 4 is closer to that of Hollywood film studio execs and millionaire movie stars, who regularly turn out “heartwarming” films about smalltown folks who come to the Big City to find success and fame, before learning the truth that the true happiness they seek can only be found back home living an ordinary life, free of glamour or wealth. You do not want this, they say. Do not pursue the dreams we have achieved. You’re better off the way you are now.

I doubt the people who make the Today programme live glamourous, millionaire lifestyles, or even that they like Ferneyhough; but I bet they go to the theatre, museums, concerts and art galleries. You won’t see news reports on whatever latest production of Swan Lake, Mozart recital or gallery opening might be. Instead, when the arts are reported at all, it’s a scandal or a freakshow. This is culture. You do not want this. Best to leave it alone.

Music For The Bionic Ear: What Happened

Tuesday 22 February 2011

I can’t very well write an objective review of Interior Design: Music For The Bionic Ear, but here’s an overview of what happened on the night.

For those of you coming in late, Music for the Bionic Ear was an evening of new musical works written specifically for listeners with cochlear implants. Miraculous as they are, cochlear implants have a long way to go if they are ever to an accurate representation of sound. In music, it can be difficult to comprehend pitch, timbres, harmonies, even rhythm in some circumstances. Music for the Bionic Ear is a part of the research into how to develop music perception and appreciation for implant wearers.

Six pieces were presented at the concerts, each taking a different approach to making music that may be particularly suited to the Bionic Ear. All audience members, regardless of whether or not they used implants, were asked to fill out a short survey included with their programmes. Furthermore, after each piece listeners were asked to grade their reactions to the music, based on a set list of questions.

The six pieces were:

Rohan Drape, Another In Another Dark. This piece for clarinet, viola, cello and piano had a very late-Morton Feldman feel to it; not so surprising when the composer refers to Feldman’s Palais de Mari in his programme notes. The instruments play subtly shifting textures in extended, suspended harmonies.

Natasha Anderson, Study for the Bionic Ear #1. For the first half, two percussionists iterate a cycling rhythmic pattern on tuned drums and shaker, before a sampled piano and electronic noises intrude. The second half focuses on constant sounds from a vibraphone, rolled and bowed, mixed with sampled cello drones and electronic tones.

I’ve already described my own piece in some detail on my website, and plan to go into more excruciating detail later.

James Rushford, Tussilage. This piece for viola, cello and tape (playback and electronic sounds) kept steadfastly to the “difficult” language of the avant-garde, with extended playing techniques and a mixture of pitched sounds and noises of varying complexity. The use of these sounds of these sounds was based upon earlier tests and auditions with implant wearers.

Robin Fox, 3 Studies for the Bionic Ear. Electronic sounds were simultaneously played through the surround speaker system and represented graphically on the screen, either as colour bands of pitch frequencies or as waveforms. The sounds alternated between steady drones of electronic tones that accumulated overtones in different patterns, affecting harmony and timbre, and differing articulations of sharply rhythmic, ascending scales.

Eugene Ughetti, Syncretism A. Three percussionists produce an array of timbral and textural effects, largely with untuned instruments, also using amplification and other electronic treatment, as well as speaking voices in one section.

The survey sheets used by the audience concentrated on questions of aesthetic pleasure to be found, or not, in each piece. The results are now being collated and analysed. Audience members were also invited to attend discussion groups immediately after each concert, to give their thoughts and reactions.