It’s not the best quality because it’s on Last.fm but it’ll do for now. What with it being John Cage’s birthday today I’ve uploaded NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT RMX2, a remix of a piece for 14 differently-tuned harpsichords.
The original NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT MX was composed in 2002 on the 10th anniversary of Cage’s death. This new mix never has more than seven of the harpsichords playing at any one time, and each may be mixed in at any of 3 different volume levels. Entrances, exits, loudness and tunings were all, of course, determined by chance operations.
Short, shameful confession: despite being interested in music, and interested in Ezra Pound, I’ve never heard so much as a single note of Ezra Pound’s music. I’ve read about it, sure, but never heard it. From time to time this troubles me as a significant gap in my knowledge, but then I forget about it.
The latest event to suddenly prick my conscience was a discussion originating on Alex Ross’ blog over what might be the worst recording ever made, a-and up came… Ezra Pound. Not that the performances are bad (sez Marc Geelhoed), it’s Pound’s terrible, terrible music.
Now I’m not expecting Pound’s minor career as a composer to have produced hidden masterpieces, but: worst ever? Worse than Nietzsche? Descriptions I’ve read of Pound’s music typically comment on its rudimentary nature (even the stuff assisted by Agnes Bedford) and unusual rhythms, and then broadly implying that it should be considered as an adjunct to his poetry. Pound himself said that his inital attempts to set Villon to music were spurred by his inability to adequately translate him into English. Yet, even though reading Pound’s poetry often requires you to wilfully misunderstand everything else in the universe, I’ve never seen even his most ardent detractor insist that his music sucks. Even Humphrey Carpenter, a biographer who displays little interest in making sense of Pound’s life or work, singles out the music for surprisingly lavish praise. Mind you, Carpenter’s attempts at interpreting Pound’s poetry are pitifully wrong-headed, so much so that his approving comments were my first suspicion that something might be amiss.
So, I’ve always meant to get around to listening to Pound’s music; but now that Marc Geelhoed has damned it as the definitive worst, I’ve really, really got to hear it bad.
Coincidentally, I’ve also just read another of Alex Ross’ blogposts, looking at depictions of imaginary music by imaginary composers in literature. He concludes with Mann’s Doctor Faustus, and the strange effect Leverkuhn’s fictional music has had on real composers:
The composer’s life may be one long descent into madness, but his music represents a quest to escape the horror, or, failing that, to capture it with all the resources at a composer’s command. I first read Doctor Faustus at the age of eighteen, and I remember feeling both appalled and thrilled by the all-devouring, chaotically conflicted concept of musical expression that it embodied, so different from the prim community of “classical music” that had been presented to me. … More than a few composers of the postwar era responded with perverse enthusiasm to Mann and Adorno’s descriptions, attempting to bring them to life. György Ligeti, in Hungary, first learned about twelve-tone writing through Mann’s eccentric account of it. Hans Werner Henze, Henri Pousseur, Peter Maxwell Davies, Poul Ruders, Bengt Hambraeus, and Alfred Schnittke, among others, alluded to Leverkühn in their music.
It’s a tendency that goes back to Ovid: video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor. There’s something irresistable about art that violates the accepted rules of propriety, that is chaotic and conflicted, even if it doesn’t succeed. The chaos becomes a source of renewal. It’s part of why I was attracted to Pound’s poetry in the first place, and why, after hearing someone say it’s terrible, I suddenly believe I could learn something very interesting from hearing his music.
Finally the British are starting to play Cornelius Cardew. First Autumn ’60 in May, and now Bun No. 1 has received its first performance in London, a mere 45 years after it was written. This was part of an excellent programme, tucked away at the Proms as part of a late-night Friday session.
The impression of Autumn ’60 sounding like Earle Brown’s music played in slow motion was repeated in Bun No. 1, although this later piece was more conventional, both in its fully-determined form and its harmonic material. The language of Darmstatdt, carefully picking its way from one unresolved dissonance to the next, was all too familiar to anyone who has heard a lot of the Fifties’ avant-garde. It’s something of a consolation that the programme notes discuss Cardew’s own reservations about the compromises he made in this piece to meet the expectations of an orchestra and his academic supervisors. Despite these shortcomings, Cardew’s proffered Bun to the institutions uses its ostensible material as a vehicle for contrasting instrumental groupings and timbres, which become particularly effective toward the end of the piece, with the use of long-held chords and silences.
The opening performance of John Cage’s First Construction (In Metal) was played as neatly as you could expect, by the percussionists of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It’s fascinating to hear this piece once in a while and realise what a talented young composer Cage was and how he might have ended up like other American avant-gardists of his generation, regurgitating washed-out folk tunes for movies and orchestras. The First Construction has an ingratiatingly flamboyant character and regular muddles of percussion sounds getting in each other’s way. It wasn’t until the mid-Forties that Cage worked out how to focus his music by jettisoning sensation.
Before the Feldman piece the orchestra played Howard Skempton’s Lento, a piece in danger of becoming a modern chestnut, like a bite-sized morsel of Arvo Pärt or Henryk Górecki. This would be a shame, as Skempton is playing a much more subtle and complex emotional game on the listener than the “holy minimalists”. People frequently liken Feldman’s music to a Rothko; Lento is like a Morandi.
Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, with John Tilbury as the soloist, was the highlight. Whenever I hear this piece I come away thinking it must be his finest work, because it leaves such a vivid impression in my mind without being able to recall any specific part of it. So much of Feldman’s approach to composing seems to have been a process of negotiation between paradoxes, and in this piece he most successfully reconciles the opposing forces he sets in play. The instruments are everything, and yet they are always held in check. The soloist’s part seems negligible: a single, repeated note, two gently alternating chords. The writing seems so fragmentary, like a voice struggling to finish a sentence for an unformed thought; the piano and orchestral groups are so often separated, yet form a coherent whole. The overall effect is both sombre and luminous. I’ve just realised this is the first time I’ve heard his orchestral music live.
A few years ago I wrote about this slow-motion stunt, saying that it reinforced
… Cage’s undeserved reputation as a conceptual artist whose ideas are more interesting than his music. More than any composer Cage wrote music to be heard without recourse to external ideas, whether cultural, literary, or theoretical. His aim was always to make you hear, not make you think. Unlike many artists, he’d trust you to think for yourself.
An 600 year piece, which in practice cannot be heard, is at odds with everything Cage wrote. Worse still, it devalues the true beauty and importance to be found in Cage’s music, instead promoting Cage-the-personality as some blue-sky empty vessel that can hold any wacky idea that happens along.
Jodru walks you through the laborious process of actually getting to see the organ in action, and offers his verdict on whether it’s all worth the effort. Two telling points: first, that the church is kept locked to spare attendants from having to be on-site listening to the music all day. Second:
The organ is quite small, but it is encased in acrylic to dampen the sound.
To quote a noted antipodean oenologist, “This is not a wine for drinking; this is a wine for laying down and avoiding.”
What is the lingering appeal of the vinyl record? Classical music store Harold Moores Records is refurbishing for the next two weeks, and has been making room in the basement by clearing out all the second-hand LPs and dumping them in a skip in Great Marlborough Street. The result:
I was alerted to this feeding frenzy when a friend sent me a frantic text ordering me down to Soho. By the time I arrived the skip was only one-third full. Luckily for me they were still bringing out fresh stock/trash, from some of the more insteresting racks. More importantly I was able to grab an empty box everyone else was ignoring, so I could actually lug the lot home.
There were, of course, people who came up to the skip, poked around a bit, and then left once they had determined that there were only classical records. Despite this, some people were content simply to grab a record or two and then leave. A couple of guys were about to leave when they decided that the records were appealing enough as objects to make it worth their time to make a large and varied selection.
Vinyl records and gramophones are the steam engines of music: impressive and elegant works of engineering, advanced in technical and industrial development yet still obvious enough in its means of operation for the everyday mind to intuitively grasp and appreciate. Subsequent recording technology is too efficient to be impressive, too inscrutable in its technology to admire on an aesthetic level.
I found myself picking up a couple of records which I already have on CD; not for any retro-chic appeal they might possess, but because the old LPs are clearly “newer” than the CD reissues. They are artifacts of the time when the recording was newly-recorded and released, and so still an unknown quantity – far different from the “classics” preserved on CD.
Despite whatever protest Harold Moores’ staff may have made, at least at first, the records had obviously been kept in stock for some perceived monetary value as objects, not as recordings. That album of Henze’s El Cimarrón was priced at £36. You can get the same recording on CD at Amazon for at least 10 quid less, and without the scratches, dust and surface noise. No wonder no-one bought it.
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.
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″
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.”
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?