On Friday evening he stood around on the bank of the Thames for an hour. Then he went to the pub.

Sunday 16 September 2007

I went to see/hear Alvin Curran’s Maritime Rites on the river out front of Tate Modern, expecting to be slightly underwhelmed. I was either a real enthusiast or a slow learner, so it took me at least five years of regularly going to to events like this which combine:
  • public, outdoor locations
  • spatialised performances
  • amateur scratch orchestras
  • composition mixed with improvisation, and
  • acoustic instruments and electronics
are more likely than not to be pretty bad. After it had finished I wondered if it was my lowered expectations that made me like it so much.
The piece made use of the brass section of the London Symphony Orchestra on a stage on the bank, Curran himself on piano with a group of improvisers on a barge in the middle of the Thames, and an orchestra of volunteers assembled along the Millennium Bridge. These first two ensembles were heavily amplified to carry across the water, also effectively drowning out the musicians on the bridge and any surrounding ambient sounds, which was supposed to be one of the features of the music. Mind you, any distinctive sounds made by the Thames around Waterloo get lost in the regular city noise.
Yes, the music tended to ramble, but it did so in a nicely discursive way, apparently getting caught up in one piece of shtick after another, from freeform antiphonal honking back and forth across the river, to passages of Handel pastiche, to long sax solos by Evan Parker out on the barge, disrupted by confusing outbursts of digital DJing.
More than the arrangement of musicians around the river, the most interesting spatial aspect of the music was the way the sound would echo, with only some sounds and frequencies travelling along the water, bouncing off the distant buildings in unpredictable ways. All the way through the live music was ghosted by transformed shadows of sound hovering in different parts of the air amongst the evening commuters, joggers, tourists, and drinkers on the riverbank while the sun set.

The two halves of my brain are at war with each other!

Sunday 2 September 2007

Not so long ago I described the sight of the reopened Millennium Dome at night from my house. Very unexpectedly, I have now been inside the Dome. Even less expectedly, it was to see one of those Prince gigs I mentioned. Yet even less expectedly again, I got in for free. Most unexpectedly of all, I was in one of the corporate boxes.
My lovely girlfriend had scammed two tickets from her work, which holds a corporate box at the Dome to shmooze valued clients. “That all sounds perfectly awesome,” you’re thinking, and you would be right if it weren’t for one little thing. I like Prince enough to enjoy listening to his stuff, but not enough to lift a finger to hear any more of it, and the whole thing happened at short notice, just when I was in a fairly severe bout of depression. This made me probably the only person in the crowd heading out to the Dome with a sense of nameless dread.
This emotional disconnect between feeling pointlessly terrible and being at an exciting concert was compounded by another contradiction. I’m prejudiced against big arena shows in the first place, but there’s nothing quite so un-rock’n’roll as being at a rock gig seated in a beige lounge suite with a champagne flute in one hand and a plate of spicy chicken wings in the other. Please don’t think I’m complaining about being waited on at a free concert, it’s just that it’s a little weird. Like in those sci-fi movies where the astronauts land on a strange planet and the aliens are a little too nice to them, it puts you on your guard.
Each corporate suite holds about a dozen people, so the girl and I didn’t have the place to ourselves. Luckily there were only a couple of valued clients in the room – most of the others were co-workers who had also scammed tickets – but that was enough to deter me from trying to gee myself up by getting quickly hammered and screaming “Hello peasants!” or “Play Sexy Motherfucker!” over the balcony. Worse still, I couldn’t get lost in a crowd and indulgently mope somewhere without being conspicuous.
At least I could agree with everyone else in the room about something (most of whom were enthusiastic young things who weren’t even born when Prince was having his first hits): in a classic “playing with the box the toy came in” moment, we all thought the coolest part of the night was the way the lighting crew had to spend the entire evening hanging ten metres above the stage, suspended by cables from the roof, to operate the spotlights.

Keeping the Magic Alive

Wednesday 29 August 2007

Last year I wrote in praise of Magic 693 (now Magic 1278), the Melbourne oldies station with a playlist so vast and eclectic it barely qualifies as a playlist at all. This little known treasure is a cheery beacon of eclecticism in a dreary sea of conformity. Or, to arbitrarily switch metaphors, it is a precious resource which needs careful tending from the ravages of witless business practices.
Now Magic is offering YOU the chance to help keep the station on side with the forces of good, by joining the Listener Advisory Board (no permanent link – check the lower right hand corner). Remember, now that they have a somewhat improved internet service, anyone around the world can be a Magic listener. First of all, they will ask you to complete a listener survey. I have taken the survey, and would strongly suggest that other music lovers submit similar feedback to the effect that: we love you just the way you are.
Firstly, after a rather endearing question about your age group (the youngest category is “44 or under”), you will be asked some general questions about the station’s music mix and presenters. To keep the Magic magic, I made a point of saying I liked or loved pretty much everything they do, even including stuff that’s pretty damn evil (M-ch–l B-bl-), figuring that we need a balance of joy and misery in the world to make us appreciate truth and beauty all the more. Hope you keep that need in mind if you contribute.
The real meat of the survey comes when you are asked to rate a selection of songs. I’ve written before about the sometimes jawdropping sequences of songs that can crop up on Magic, but here we get an insight into how Magic sees itself, and what it considers to be a typical cross-section of its music library:
  • Len Barry, “1-2-3”
  • Fats Domino, “Ain’t That A Shame”
  • Merrilee Rush, “Angel Of The Morning”
  • Johnny Burnette, “Big Big World”
  • Eydie Gorme, “Blame It On The Bossa Nova”
  • Bobby Vinton, “Blue Velvet”
  • Marcie Blane, “Bobby’s Girl”
  • Bryan Adams, “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)”
  • David Cassidy, “Cherish”
  • Frank Sinatra, “Chicago (My Kind Of Town)”
  • Vic Dana, “Crystal Chandalier” [sic]
  • Elton John, “Daniel”
  • Air Supply, “Every Woman In The World”
  • Julie London, “Fly Me To The Moon”
  • Janis Ian, “Fly Too High”
  • Sue Thompson & Bob Luman, “I Like Your Kind Of Love”
  • Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton, “Islands In The Stream”
  • John [sic] Farnham, “Rose Coloured Glasses”
  • Dion, “Runaround Sue”
  • New World, “Sister Jane”
  • Linda Ronstadt & James Ingram, “Somewhere Out There”
  • Hollies, “The Air That I Breathe”
  • Sounds Incorporated, “The Spartans”
  • Jigsaw, “Yellow River”
  • Crispian St Peters, “You Were On My Mind”
That’s a big list! And not the most obvious list of recognisable hits. I told them I liked, loved, or was at least neutral on all of these – except for one, and you can probably guess which.
Once that’s over, you get invited to sign up for their Music Advisory Board:
Not only do you get a say in the music that’s played, but from time to time we give away exclusive stuff to our Music Advisory Board members that you’ll never hear about on air such as CDs, DVDs, movie tickets etc.!

I registered my email with them nearly two weeks ago, and haven’t been spammed with anything yet. I’m assuming that no news is good news.

(Crossposted with discussion at Sarsaparilla.)

What’s on top of the pile?

Tuesday 21 August 2007

Bongwater, Double Bummer (w/ Breaking No New Ground)
Never mind Ann Magnuson, I got this just because they sampled The Fatal Glass of Beer on the opening track. Once that’s over I usually wander off to do something else and leave it playing. I think there are some other good bits later on in the following two hours. One day I might check which tracks those are on.
James Tenney, Bridge and Flocking (Thomas Bächli, Erika Radermacher, Gertrud Schneider, Manfred Werder)
Warren Burt, 39 Dissonant Etudes
Yeah, I’m a sucker for retuned pianos, be they endearingly dinky simulations on obsolete home computers (Burt) or the real deal carefully adjusted to a full complement of major and minor harmonies (Tenney). The Tenney has a resounding majesty to it, that from time to time weirdly melts from one set of sonorities to another; the Burt, well, rollicks.

(Previously on top of the pile.)

More Stained Melodies and Gratuitous Noise

Friday 17 August 2007

I was going to put up some new music I’ve been working on, but I’m at that awkward stage where everything’s so close to being finished that it all sounds ghastly. In the meantime, here are mp3s of a few old pieces I still don’t entirely dislike.

Stained Melodies Nos. 3, 11, & 17.

Three more from the series of 24 short piano pieces written a few years back. Each one of these pieces was written using the same method, so they share a similar overall sound and feel, but the method allows each piece to develop its own distinctive character. Number 11 is the emptiest, and most contemplative in the set; whereas Number 17 is the most crowded and frenetic. Number 3 manages to be almost a blues number.


I mentioned before that the flipside to the semi-listenable cassette Disposable Guitar Play Once Throw Away was a guitar piece that did away with guitars altogether. The music on the B-side was created by a crude feedback oscillator made from a chain of borrowed guitar effects pedals. Instead of plugging a guitar into the setup I decided it would be simpler to plug in the last pedal’s output jack, thus making a closed circuit and initiating an continuing quest to systematically rip off every idea David Tudor ever had.
Shortly after recording the cassette (direct to tape in a single, half-hour improvisation) I made a digital copy, divided the track into four sections of equal length and plonked them on top of each other. The resulting arbitrary mashup, with some minor tweaks, became the piece Ola-R, which I think got played once at the old Musicians’ Club in St Kilda, and a few copies popped up in a slightly different form on CD-Rs. Since that time I have been working toward making more sophisticated use of the principles of feedback oscillation, that I first learned when making this crude tape.
This mp3 file keeps the original’s dynamic range and stereo separation, so it may not come across well if you’re listening through built-in computer speakers.

30 years on, Leo Sayer is still alive

Wednesday 15 August 2007

Perhaps it’s the steady rain outside that’s making me more melancholy than usual and thinking about Melbourne, but I kind of wish I was around the Melbourne Cemetery to see what odd little ceremonies the faithful are up to around the Elvis Memorial right about now.
I remember where I was when I heard that Elvis had died. I was at home and my mum mentioned it. I’d never heard of Elvis before so I just mentally substituted the name of the first pop star I could think of.

Placard Condensed

Wednesday 1 August 2007

(Tangentially related, maybe not safe for work: Headphone Phetish.)
As you can see, my Paris gig really knocked people out. This was the first time I’d been able to observe the effect a long version of String Quartet No.2 has on listeners, held more or less captive by their headphones. There’s enough in the piece to hold people’s attention for a long time, and several listeners reported some nice 60s-style hallucinatory effects which, being too close to the source material, I am unable to enjoy. Fortunately, I had access to the tone controls on the mixing desk, which I used to enhance some of the overtones generated during the piece.
My girlfriend said it was nice, but she didn’t understand it.
I’ve made a recording of the long version, which I might upload if there’s enough interest and the file compression doesn’t cruel the details in the sound too much. The short, differently-performed version is here. I think some kind of archive of most of the weekend event is here.
Notes for future reference: if you’re playing a headphone gig, make sure you have access to a pair of the audience’s phones so you know they’re hearing the same thing you’re hearing (several performers over the weekend listening directly to their own kit didn’t realise the broadcast signal was too loud and distorting). Also, if you habitually use a mouse on your laptop and then don’t bother to connect it for a gig, make sure you’ve figured out how to disable the default “tap = click” setting on the keyboard touchpad so you don’t keep clicking random stuff by mistake – unless you happen to like that setting (nobody likes that setting).

Post Placard (one-hour jet lag)

Tuesday 31 July 2007

Frankly, I Would Have Preferred The Sword has a few photos from the Placard gigs on Sunday, including one of me looking fit and active while playing my piece. No time to write up the event right now, so here’s a peformance view of Katharine Neil’s rather awesome Viderunt Omnes 3D.

And, in case you’re wondering what I had to look at on the screen, here’s a screenshot taken during my gig. It’s a very zen-like use of AudioMulch‘s metasurface feature – the fewer knobs and buttons for me to fidget with, the more I can pay attention to the music.

Look here, we’ll draw you a chicken.

Friday 27 July 2007

No more posts for a few days, so in the meantime check out ANABlog, which has been posting even more incredible music lately than they usually do. Two of my favourite pieces, Pauline Oliveros’ I of IV and John Cage’s Indeterminacy are currently available, so hear them while you can. Both are pretty much a perfect union of conceptual cleverness with stunning musical results.
They’ve also just posted some music by the still-underrated Lucia Dlugoszewski, and if you don’t like that, well, they have some Roxette too.
For the past three months I’ve posted nothing to Flickr except Trellick Tower and vans, so here’s a boxing Paul Keating puppet taking on all comers around my former local in Hackney.

Take that Mahathir!

Live from the Rockin’ Air-Laptop World Championship!

Thursday 26 July 2007

First, I want to thank whoever it was who once perfectly described laptop performers as having the stage presence of “bored men checking their email”. This is one of the more important reasons why I have avoided giving live performances with computers – up until now.
Of course, experimental musicians mostly being awkward, poorly-socialised geek boys, your typical undergorund new music gig wasn’t much livelier before computers became affordable, but at least the equipment available at the time enforced a certain minimum of onstage activity.
The role and aesthetics of the theatrical* element of new music performance don’t get discussed much. I was on a panel talk with several other musicians a few years ago, which drifted onto this topic and stayed there for the rest of the session. Nothing much was agreed, except that there are no real models to work off, and everyone has to pretty much work out their own methods for themselves. And, more importantly, that VJs are a blight upon the earth.
What was most interesting to learn was that so many musicians, even though you wouldn’t think it to watch them, are conscious of the visual aspect of their gigs. They may also, however, be at a loss as to what they can do to help it.
Is there a way to be theatrically engaging while using a laptop? I don’t necessarily mean dramatic gestures or histrionics, I’m talking about the performer affirming a physical presence in relation to the audience. This weekend I’m going to make my first attempt at a live, public performance on laptop. Without using any additional equipment, I’m working with a simple interface designed to focus both mine and the audience’s attention away from the screen, onto what performance gestures I might make.
My gestures emphasise how little movement or exertion is needed to play on a computer. My role in the piece is cast more as a listener than as a performer, so my interface setup needs only very small, infrequent actions (any more spoils the music), and has been intentionally saddled with a very slow response time, so that any action I take has to be very deliberate and carefully considered. If I have to sit still for half an hour, I want to imbue that stillness with concentration, not passivity.

* Theatre, not drama.

Explaining all about String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta)

Monday 23 July 2007

(A live performance of String Quartet No.2 (Yada Yada Yada) coming up at Le Placard in Paris this weekend. Streaming audio of the whole event at Radio WNE, it seems.)
In a discussion of his theory of radical amateurism, the composer Warren Burt describes his practice of studied incompetence as part of “the tradition of taking objects from the past and putting them through the distorting lens of our technique and producing new objects”. I’ve previously touched on the subject of how technology can be used as an extension of – or a poor substitute for – an idea, so it’s interesting to see Burt quote his sometime collaborator Ron Nagorcka: “the very essence of electronic media is distortion.” I would go further and argue that all creativity is in fact a distortion of a pre-existing model, whether intentional or not. There are small, obvious examples of such distortion through raw incompetence (the sea-coast in Shakespeare’s Bohemia) and a knowing, studied incompetence (the sword held aloft by Kafka’s Statue of Liberty), as there are artworks whose large-scale form is patterned upon those of previous works (your Shakespeare or Austen updated as a high-school comedy, for instance).
Rather than try to be original, I have worked for some time with the idea that each of my works should be consciously modelled on another composer’s works or techniques, and so instead of attempting an original work that unwittingly imitates an older one, I might create an imitative work which, in its divergences from the model, allows some genuine originality to emerge.
The technique of conscious copying of a work seems much rarer in music composition than in the visual arts. This may be because the limited range of compositional methods available in traditional western music has forced a self-conscious emphasis on the need for the unique, for subjective individuality. I can immediately pick from the top of my head more than one artist who works by creatively copying the work of other artists (Sherrie Levine and Imants Tillers, there’s two) or by copying their own work (Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, there’s another two), but I don’t know any composers who work in these ways. Why have so many ideas about art over the past century bypassed music completely? I can hear the ghost of Morton Feldman muttering, “Is music an artform at all? Or is it just a type of showbiz?”
Although String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta) was consciously written as an imitation of Phill Niblock‘s music – based on a description of his music without having heard it – its compositional concerns are completely different. A score for a Niblock composition, Five More String Quartets for example, carefully specifies exact frequencies to be played by the instruments, to produce definite harmonic results. My piece is not designed in this way, or with these specific musical intentions: it is composed purely to adhere as closely as possible to an incomplete understanding of Niblock’s techniques, without regard for harmonic complexity (or lack of it). It exists to be a cheap imitation, reminiscent of something else yet unmistakably itself.

Gig Action! Placard Festival

Sunday 22 July 2007

I’ve had my arm twisted into doing my first public gig in over two years, at the Placard Festival in Paris. So far, I have only a hazy idea of what the festival is about: apparently it involves people sitting round a room listening to headphones or something. I can do that.
Anyway, it runs non-stop for 72 hours starting from Friday 27 July. I’m in the coveted Sunday 2.30 pm slot. There’s probably some streaming of the gigs over the web, but I need someone to explain it to me before I post about it here.
The piece I’m most likely going to play is an extended, live-performance version of String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta): this version will be closer to the earlier incarnations of the piece mentioned in the blog post, than the version available for download. In the next day or two I’ll post some more about what’s really going on in this music.

What’s on top of the pile?

Friday 20 July 2007

The Triffids, In The Pines
I’ve just played this for the first time in years and it’s not as worthless as I remember it. Superfluous, yes, but music needs superfluousness. Maybe I’m just homesick.
Pierre Boulez: Répons, Dialogue de l’Ombre Double (Ensemble InterContemporain, Pierre Boulez, Alain Damiens)
Musical institutions are like the military, inasmuch as their use of technology is obsolete by the time it is implemented. Imagine trying to get excited about Herbie Hancock using synths if he released Rockit in 1998, and you pretty much have a shorthand experience of listening to Répons’ interactive electronics. At least its gaucherie makes Boulez seem almost charmingly human for once.
There’s a coupon attached to the cover you could send off for a free CD containing a special headphone mix of the same disc. Any of those left?

(More from the pile)

Disposable Guitar Play Once Throw Away

Wednesday 18 July 2007

I found a digitised copy of that old cassette recording of the plank guitar I previously mentioned. The cassette Disposable Guitar Play Once Throw Away was made in a limited edition of half a dozen or so, as part of a fund-raising group exhibition for a small art space in Melbourne, back in 1999. Each copy was made on a very cheap cassette, with a unique handmade letraset cover (at the time I had a theory that, as it faded into obsolescence, the cassette would replace vinyl as the romanticised fetish medium of choice).
Each side was 30 minutes long. An improvisation on the plank guitar filled up the A side, recorded directly onto cassette through a pair of cheap plastic microphones awkwardly placed on the floor (one mike lead was very short) of a living room in a terrace house in Carlton. The two excerpts given below beautifully capture the sonic limitations of both the recording means and the battery-powered 0.2 watt speaker built into the hollowed-out end of the plank.
I couldn’t find any photos of the guitar, so instead I’ve put up part of a flyer for an in-store gig which featured the guitar, shortly before this recording was made. The B side of the cassette was another half-hour improvisation, but on a different instrument: this was a guitar performance that didn’t use a guitar at all.

Filler By Proxy LIII: New Noise Makers (and more goddamn nostalgia)

Monday 16 July 2007

Of Sound Mind has been making musical instruments: customising toy music boxes, jacking old ferrite bars from radios, and building “self-prepared” electric guitars from a plank of wood. There are audio samples of each instrument.
Why should a guitar be anything but a couple of pickups and some resonating metal, if it is to be used in this form of abstract improvisation? These questions began to form in my mind a “guitar” whose only purpose was to suspend metal “string objects” and amplify them.

Combined, the plank guitar and ferrite bar reminded me of an instrument I played many years ago. The sculptor Andrew Gangoiti also built electric guitars. Once, as an exercise in speed and simplicity, he made a four-string guitar from a plank, no real way of tuning the strings, pickups made from some found magnets wound with however much copper wire he had lying around, connected to a 0.5 watt speaker built into the hollowed-out end of the plank, powered by a 9 volt battery. The moment you turned it on it started to feed back. Pressing your finger against the circuit board for the speaker would short out connections and alter the pitch and tone of the feedback. It was impossible. It was magnificent.

Thanks to a mutual friend, I had a loan of this guitar for several months and gave a few performances with it. There’s a cassette lying around somewhere of this guitar recorded on a cheap plastic mike. At the end of the tape you can hear the circuit board finally go on the fritz. Andrew took the guitar away for repair and I never saw it again.