I saw Nixon in China about – wow, that long ago – and really enjoyed it. I passed up the chance to see The Death of Klinghoffer at the Coloseum last week, and I’m not exactly sure why I was so reluctant to take a punt on it.
Part of it must be just that John Adams is one of those composers I like most of the time but can’t get really fired up about. I’ve heard the recording and had the same general impression most criticisms start with: dramatically inert, awkwardly self-conscious yadda yadda. The main thing that kept me away was fear. Fear of being bored. Fear that the production would seize upon some of the opera’s worst aspects to make some cringingly well-meaning but insulting gesture toward “saying something” about the Middle East or, worse still, “offering support”.
On one level I dislike the opera’s tokenism; the way Adams and Alice Goodman grab the subject matter and then, unsure of what to do with it, revert to making the people and incidents symbolic, loading them down with excess ideological baggage. What should be the conflicted consciousness of the characters in their dilemma, is replaced by the confusion of librettist and composer contemplating the dilemma, and so the characters become aloof, ridiculous and phoney.
On another level I generally can’t stand pieces that are endlessly batted around in the meeja for their “controversial” subject matter, while being artistically inoffensive.
Meanwhile, another new opera is being staged at Covent Garden. When the composer’s own promotional spiel makes it sound like a ghastly Trendy Vicar swing at “relevance”, how can one hope it to be worth a damn?
It must be about dead-on a year ago that I first saw a performance of John Cage’s vast, protean Song Books. That time it was Exaudi at King’s Place. Last night I got to experience it again, enacted by a hodge-podge of players including a bunch of old Scratch Orchestra alumni, at Cafe Oto. On the surface the approaches taken by the two groups were broadly similar, but it was through the details that the work can truly live or die.
I almost didn’t get to see it this time. I hadn’t booked a ticket and when I got there a queue was already stretching down the street and round the corner. The place was rammed: the crowded atmosphere emphasised by having punters sitting in amongst the performers in the ‘stage’ area, and other performers scattered in amongst the standing crowd. Exaudi had a similar setup of their singers stationed around the audience, moving from one spot to the next from time to time. The crowd at King’s Place, however, remained seated in the middle throughout. Besides the milling crowd at Oto, there was also the bar and pavement outside luring punters in and out for refreshment.
On both nights, the programme was set up to last an hour, in the space of which each player independently performed a chance-determined programme of solos from the Books. Exaudi played their pieces expertly – I want to say impeccably. It was a faithful, thoughtful interpretation of Cage’s music, but it felt remote and clinical. It was ‘art’, mounted and framed. With the Scratch Orchestra et al things were more chaotic, a little rougher round the edges but no less faithful in interpretation. Some players were a little too enthusiastic, swatting at tables with paper plates or menacing punters with alligator masks. Others were a little too reticent, like the couple who spent most of the time in the centre of the room, singing in unison, apparently more to themselves than to the audience.
It was precisely this diversity that made last night at Oto the more rewarding experience, as we all saw and participated in an enactment of Cage’s aesthetic and social values of the time: of diversity, abundance, coexistence, anarchy, the merging of art and life. For an hour or so everyone in the bar experienced Cage’s vision for the world in microcosm. The crowded room inevitably cramped some of the theatrical elements called for in the score, but compromises were made, punters made room as necessary. In other words, there was true, unselfconscious audience interaction and participation, without coercion.
In this atmosphere, the chance coincidences and juxtapositions took on more than just an aesthetic appeal. At one point a pretty lady in a red dress stood and repeatedly intoned Thoreau’s anarchist maxim “The best form of government is no government.” Behind her, a pianist began playing Cage’s lovely 1949 composition Dream. Soon after this was almost drowned out by insistent hammering. All three carried on unperturbed. When the hour was up, this same woman in red had just been tasked with typing out a phrase of Erik Satie’s, 38 times, on a recalcitrant manual typewriter. The audience stood around intently, and waited patiently in silence until she was finally done.
The Oto performance succeeded as art because so much more of life was able to infiltrate it. Whenever I think I understand Cage a little better, a new complication appears. I keep thinking of Morton Feldman’s challenge, “Is music an artform? Or is it just showbiz?” (For this argument, the Exaudi gig was showbiz.) Cage’s music is definitely art and yet, in this case at least, the closer it comes to life the better it works as art. Put that way, Cage sounds like an old-fashioned mimetic artist, but what he achieves is not mimicry of life, rather he recreates certain principles on which life conducts itself. What bugs me about this is: if interpretation of Cage’s work were to continue to approach ‘real life’ closer and closer, at some point it would cease to be art. If we accept Cage’s conceit that there is no distinction between life and art, life may be permitted to intrude upon a performance of Cage to the extent that it misrepresents Cage’s work. There is some undefined tipping point within Cage’s work whereupon it refutes itself.
Therefore, to be like life, Cage’s music must always remain as art, to some extent. Of course there is a distinction between art, as witnessed at Cafe Oto, and artifice.
I’d much rather think about things than do them. Or rather, once I’ve thought of something, it seems largely redundant and pointless to go ahead and actually make it. This is why I make music, and why I make the type of music that I do: I don’t know what it will sound like until it’s done.
I’ve been really busy lately so not much time to update the blog. This is just to point out that me and/or my music will be featured on ABJECT BLOC radio onRESONANCE 104.4fm, Tuesday 6 March 2012 at 22.30 GMT. What’s that? Of course you can listen online!
If you haven’t checked Soundcloud or The Listening Room yet, this would be a perfect time to find out what it is I actually do. Please note that I haven’t figured out exactly what it is I’ll be doing yet, so it should be a nice surprise for both of us. There will be something not otherwise available online, even if it’s me yelling about the Greek bailout, drunkenly recalling teenage crushes etc.
Also, I’ve slightly redesigned everything on the website. The text column is now 12 pixels wider. It was agony. I hope you’re grateful.
I need to do a write-up of the Redrawing: Collective Collaborations show at Monash last year. Apart from a sneak preview of my contribution, nothing else of the latest, book-format iteration of String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta) has been posted on my site yet.
The visual form of String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta) was a spectrogram made of the 10-minute version of the piece. This produced a long, striated pattern that tied in neatly with some of the other visual and musical models on which the original(?) piece was based. Now, deciding to produce yet another distorted copy based upon the already distorted copy (itself based on a distorted copy etc.) I ran the spectrogram through the freeware image-to-sound program Coagula Light. The results are surprisingly consistent yet pleasingly different.
I’ve made a small video of the spectrogram, with the accompanying music. For comparison, I’ve included the video for the original(?) String Quartet below. Of course, you can also try playing them simultaneously.
After Saturday’s post, a few more friends have sent in music with evil cackling. From Mark Harwood, Jani Christou’s Epicycle:
Clive Graham sent in a couple: Daphne Oram’s Dr Faustus Suite, and this:
I was just listening to Salvatore Martirano’s Underworld and I realised that there’s just not enough evil cackling in modern music. Underworld is probably the monarch of this petty kingdom, although Frank Zappa was probably the most prolific contributor to the genre, most notably in The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny, in addition to sundry appearances in RDNZL and elsewhere. Karlheinz Stockhausen also gets off a particularly good one in Der Jahreslauf.
Apart from these I’m drawing a blank. I suspect there are further examples lurking amongst the later works of Stockhausen, and possibly in one or two of Kenneth Gaburo’s pieces. This sorry state of contemporary music reflects a general dearth of evil cackling these days. Even the worst of evildoers are so cowed by political correctness that they now feel obliged to pretend their nefarious deeds are committed for the greater good. If only they could show they were getting some enjoyment out of their evil, then the world might start to make sense again.
UPDATE 2: of related interest.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.