“Now that things are so easy, there’s so much to do.” Nono, Tarkovsky, Facility, Impossibility.

Monday 8 October 2007

It must be nearly ten years ago that I took a friend to the abandoned power station in the middle of Melbourne for performace of Luigi Nono’s epic work for violin and tape, La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura. He came away from it exhilarated, saying that it was like the musical equivalent of a film by Tarkovsky.
The last and greatest piece on last Monday’s concert program was Nono’s ‘No hay caminos, hay que caminar’… Andrej Tarkovskij, for seven instrumental groups distributed around the concert hall. Nono described Tarkovsky as “a soul who enlightened me”; both made art that fought against the way modern life dulls one’s perception of the world.
Alison Croggon at Sarsaparilla has recently written beautifully about Tarkovsky, particularly his film Stalker.

Stalker’s beauty is woven out of its limitations, its finitudes. When I watch a Tarkovsky film, I am always aware of the literalness of his medium; he is never doing anything more than making a film. Out of his refusal to aggrandise his medium he forges a profound poetic.

Croggon writes that Stalker is a film about faith: it articulates faith, but does not attempt to explain its meaning or its purpose. The Stalker is a guide, who offers the hope to others of realising their desires, but he cannot fulfil these hopes for himself.

Meanwhile, Daniel Wolf at Renewable Music has also been writing about Luigi Nono, in particular his late string quartet Fragmente – Stille, An Diotima:
… each attempt to write something meaningful about the quartet has failed, and I’m not sure whether my failure lies in my inability to get closer to a work whose distance to my own musical culture is great, or in a more fundamental doubt about the work as a technical and musical achievement.

Wolf has problems with this piece: it seems hermetic and obscure. Worse still, Nono’s material seems thin, facile; is he using hermeticism as a cloak for a lack of musical substance?
This is something I hadn’t considered before, but if it is an issue then it strikes me as being of a piece with the other distinctive aspects of Nono’s late music. Nono’s music had always been about struggle, most obviously in the many works dealing with political and social struggle. In his late works the struggle becomes internalised, a matter of personal and spiritual wrestling. The quotation “No hay caminos, hay que caminar” is invoked in several of Nono’s titles from this period. It comes from a graffito he found on the wall of a Spanish monastery; loosely translated, it means “There is no way, yet we must go” – a sort of variant of “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
The struggle is not just metaphysical, it is also a testing of Nono’s musical ideas and technique. Morton Feldman (who provided the quote for this post’s title) liked to complain that one of the many problems with composers is that they liked to make everything seem so easy: there is always the compulsion to make the music, even at its most anguished, seem to have emerged unmediated from the abstract, unscarred and unruffled. In other words, glib. It’s an important theme in writing and painting, but music pretends it doesn’t exist.
Nono’s music confronts this smoothing banality of technique with denuded musical material, isolated, halting phrases, inarticulate gestures, made from habit and apparently empty of meaning. In the same way, Tarkovsky in Stalker guides his limpid camera over industrial waste and other detritus. “Out of his refusal to aggrandise his medium he forges a profound poetic.”
This method shows itself most clearly in La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura, with its taped part built up out of sounds produced by violinist Gidon Kremer in the studio. Set adrift by Nono without any music, Kremer was left flailing, confusedly making tentative, awkward, disconnected noises; his mutterings, dropped objects, and extraneous studio sounds intrude on the soundscape. When writing the solo part, Nono kept Kremer waiting until the morning of the premiere for the complete score, semi-legibly scrawled in biro. Composer and musician each stripped of language and technique, forced to make sense of what was left.
It’s a world that offers glimpses of an unsettling beauty that flourishes beyond human desires and yet can provide a home for the unsayable, unattainable longing that reaches beyond the confines of the self.

Repeatedly, in the score for Fragmente – Stille, An Diotima, the musicians are confronted by a fragment from Hölderlin, inscribed above the music, silently chiding them: “…but you cannot know that…”

He’s sick, but he still takes a plastic cup of cheap red wine into a Nono concert

Friday 5 October 2007

I’ve only been to one Proms concert, to hear Berio’s Coro, a piece so overwhelming it couldn’t be swamped by the Albert Hall’s notorious acoustics. I was sat behind a row of BBC employees whose sole remark upon the music was that it wasn’t a bad effort for a commie.
Perhaps this back row brigade of insiders is the target audience for the protracted music festival “Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice“. The lifelong Red has been slowly regaining the attention he deserves since his death in 1989; for a while he was pigeonholed amongst the B-team of post-WWII serialists, distinguished by his explosive temperament and expressive vocal writing, usually for revolutionary texts that had not aged well (“UNCLE SAM WANTS ‘YOU’ NIGGER. Join the best paid army of negro mercenaries in the world! Support White Power, take a trip to Vietnam and win a medal!”*)
There is talk (and there are talks) about Nono’s politics and how it shaped his music in the program, but not too much of the music itself. Apart from a few notable exceptions (particularly a performance of A floresta e jovem e cheja de vida) the series focusses on Nono’s late works, less overtly political and more spiritual in nature.
I don’t know exactly why this is bugging me so much. These late works include many of his greatest pieces, his most haunting and mysterious music. Usually I can’t stand art that tries to sell a message. In part, I think it’s because of the faux-edginess of the program: at Monday’s concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall there were university students “responding live to the music by literally writing on the (foyer) walls”. That last bit was written on the back of a blank postcard us punters were handed as we entered, upon which we were invited to doodle and affix with blu-tac upon approved sectors of the foyer walls. I’ll spare you the five paragraphs of ranting I had written on the triteness of this gesture, “inspired by Nono’s ideas of protest through art.”
Also, I think I’m mildly annoyed at how many avant-garde composers are now gaining prominence under false premise of being some sort of proto-“Holy Minimalist”, like highbrow New Age music, all wafty spirituality and hushed tones of reverence. Besides obvious choices like Part, Gorecki, and Tavener, less tractable composers like Cage and even Webern are now getting gentle, mellow recordings of works that were once rightly considered prickly and demanding. Late Nono, with its pauses, long durations, and sense of ritual, seems to be the latest candidate for being co-opted by this movement.
Luckily, Nono’s spirit and soundworld is combative enough to resist this type of treatment, but I still wish there were some of the earlier, more confronting pieces on the program, like the monstrous, jawdropping Como una ola de fuerza y luz, which I’m sure spooked not one, but two of my housemates into moving out after they came home when day when I was playing it a little too loud.
I’m due down the pub, so no time to write about the concert now. Sorry, maybe next time!

* From Contrappunto dialettico alla mente (1968). The text is taken from a “pamphlet distributed by the Harlem Progressive Social Club”.

What’s on top of the pile?

Thursday 27 September 2007

Brian Eno, The Drop
The sound of someone starting to believe the critics who say his ideas are more interesting than his music.
Dave Graney and the Coral Snakes, The Soft ‘n’ Sexy Sound
I’m compiling a list of albums I love to bits but cannot be bothered going out of my way to find out about anything else by the same artist. So far I’ve got Highway 61 Revisited and this.

(Last time on the pile.)

Filler by Proxy LIV: Actually James, you’d be surprised how often it works if you just tell it to them straight.

Tuesday 25 September 2007

The Guardian is a newspaper which occasionally lapses into worryingly consistent periods of self-parody (like in the opinion pages over the past month or two) but how can you not love a widely circulated, national morning paper which publishes items like this review of James Blunt’s new album:
Elsewhere, songs ruminate about celebrity, among them the deeply peculiar Annie, on which the titular heroine’s failure to achieve fame is bemoaned -“Did it all come tumbling down?” – and Blunt, gallant to the last, offers her the opportunity to fellate him as a kind of consolation prize: “Will you go down on me?” More bizarre still, he offers her the opportunity to fellate him in the kind of voice normally associated with the terminally ill asking a doctor how long they’ve got left: tremulous, replete with pregnant pauses, suggestive of brimming eyes, etc. The overall effect is so bizarre that it overshadows anything Blunt may have to say about the fickle nature of fame. You come away convinced that the song’s underlying message is: give me a blow job or I’ll cry.

Work in progress: Sketch for “A”-16

Monday 24 September 2007

For years now, I’ve been making electronic music which can be performed live, without using computers, synthesisers, samples, or preset sequencers. This generally involves setting up a table full of guitar effects pedals bought at pawn shops or cadged off friends, all connected with a rat’s maze of cables, to produce feedback loops. It’s inconvenient, but it’s fun when it works.
This type of feedback system, made without using anything designed to actually produce sound by itself, is often called the “no-input mixer”. Sketch for “A”-16 is a new piece I’m working on, my first attempt to make a piece for a no-output mixer.
The fundamental premise for the piece is a principle used by David Tudor in some of his compositions: that many electronic audio components have jacks that can be used for either input or output. I’ve used this aspect in my recent live electronic works, but Sketch for “A”-16 is the first piece I’ve made which is entirely based upon this property. It can only work if the inputs for each circuit are simultaneously working as outputs.
I’ve uploaded some examples of how the work’s going so far. They’re more of a proof of concept than a finished composition, but still work quite nicely as music, each with its own mood and sense of form. What you hear in these tracks is the combination of two simple bi-directional feedback loops. Future versions of this piece will use a greater number of components, to produce a greater and more subtle variety of sounds.
1. Sketch for “A”-16, take 1 (part 1) (3’48”, 2.97 MB, mp3)
2. Sketch for “A”-16, take 2 (16’15”, 12.95 MB, mp3)
3. Sketch for “A”-16, take 1 (part 2) (8’05”, 5.73 MB, mp3)
There is no editing, overdubbing, mixing or other post-production of any kind on these three pieces. Each was recorded directly to hard drive, with all sounds produced by analogue electronic feedback loops, created with closed circuits of effects boxes and an 8-input mixer.

(More about Sketch for “A”-16 and other music.)

The New New Magic Online Survey

Thursday 20 September 2007

If you’ve taken the Magic Listener Advisory Group survey as I suggested, you might want to go back and take it again. The preliminary questions are all the same, but they’ve updated the list of songs to give you something completely different. Better still, this time they’ve thoughtfully uploaded audio samples of each song in case you don’t recognise the title.
Once again, its a clever mix of solid gold classics and the unexpected esoteric: highlights include “Chattanooga Choo Choo” by Harpers Bizarre (which I have’t heard Magic play, although they do seem to like band’s cover of “Anything Goes” an awful lot), Vicki Lawrence’s “He Did With Me”, the “wrong” Gibb brother, the non-ironic-quotes-wrong version of “Jolene” (Olivia Newton-John?), some Freddy Fender, Johnny Crawford’s “Petite Chanson”, back-to-back versions of “Puppy Love” for your analysis and comparison (Paul Anka and Little Donnie Osmond*)… and if Magic has to pick a Supremes hit, well, it has to be “The Happening”.
As with the last time, there’s also one song so odious that it must be given the thumbs-down, and it’s not the Kevin Johnson track.

* Yes, that’s how they list him on the survey.

I suppose this is the world’s way of telling me I should buy my own turntable

Wednesday 19 September 2007

This was supposed to be a post recommending you go look at the videos posted to Youtube by a guy or girl called Spoonfedcornbread. SFCB had a strong, clear vision: point the camera at the record player turntable, put on an old single, drop the needle, and watch the record go round while the music played. Eight hundred and fifty times.
If you’ve ever played lots of little pieces of vinyl in succession I don’t need to tell you what a beguiling experience this can be, listening to the music while the record spins and the tone arm gradually draws in towards the centre. In a way it emphasised the little self-contained world the 7-inch single created. SFCB’s virtual recreation of this phenomenon was strikingly vicarious.
The music was good too, being a collection of over 800 singles from the late 50s to the early 70s – all A-sides, from what I could see. There was a Magic-like variety, ranging from R&B to easy listening, from the more obvious Beatles and Stones to people like Keith (a Magic favourite), or Liz Damon’s Orient Express.
Sadly, Spoonfedcornbread’s account has been suspended by the forces sworn to make the world a meaner, sadder place; but not before some 20,000 people got to watch and hear “Some Velvet Morning” whirling round – more than twice the number of viewings of the second-most popular video.
In the meantime, try Office Naps for your old 7-inch fix. Sadly, no streaming video of the records going round. Yet.

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.

Ola-R

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.