The One Who Was Neither Or Nor (live in Melbourne and/or Brisbane)

Saturday 22 December 2007

I’ve finally gotten around to uploading the recordings from the two live gigs I played in Australia (Melbourne and Brisbane). For the sake of comparison and contrast, they are both available from the one page, along with a description of the piece, laden with tantalising sentences such as:
The three loops are nested, so that the output of the two outer loops may be fed back into the first. The output of the first loop is always heard mixed with and modulated by at least one of the other two loops, the subsequent loops may either be modulated by the others or heard plain.

There are also thumbnail portraits of the experience of playing in a Fitzroy bar late on a Tuesday night:
I began to imagine people checking their watches and, one by one, slinking away in the dark to catch the last tram home.

and of playing in the living room of someone’s house in Brisbane:
It felt very civilised to be able to play a gig while sitting on a couch with my girlfriend…. The amp was a small, battery operated unit which gave the music a slightly muzzy, mellow sound.

The recording quality is OK, but the performances may not be ideally suited to home listening; unless you play it through a small amp while drinking beer and chatting with your mates. Enjoy?

We connect Karlheinz Stockhausen with Ezra Pound

Tuesday 18 December 2007

In 1990, three years after the death of Morton Feldman, I heard on the radio a live broadcast of Roger Woodward playing Feldman’s 90-minute piano piece, Triadic Memories. The performance was preceded by a half-hour discussion between two music critics about whether or not the music to follow was even worth playing.
It seemed that Feldman’s fate had been cast since the 1960s: a footnote, however indelible, to the history of postwar music. He had been the first composer to write in non-conventional, graphic notation, back in the early fifties, and then faded away into apparent neglect, unheard. Towards the end of his life he wrote only pieces of unmanageable length, unbroken spans of music lasting at least an hour, anything up to five hours. It looked like a rejection of the audience, of musical society. (“Unforgivably indulgent” was the main thrust of the critic for the negative on radio that night.)
We all know how foolish it is to try to second-guess posterity: the obituaries for Herman Melville describing him as “a formerly well-known author” who will be best remembered as the writer of Typee is just one of the more famous examples. Today, at least ten different performances of Triadic Memories have been issued on CD. Seven of these are listed on Amazon, among the 120-odd Feldman titles in stock. The available discs are overwhelmingly biased towards those long, long pieces from the last eight years of his life, overshadowing his previous work.
* * *
Posthumous recountings of Stockhausen’s life have invariably treated his 29-hour, seven-opera cycle Licht, a work he concentrated on exclusively from 1978 until its completion in 2002, as little more than a postscript to a long, productive career. Descriptions of the opera cycle range from cursory to derisive (“egomaniacal“, “grandiose”). Given that two of the operas have not yet been fully performed, that live performances even of excerpts have been rare, and that the CDs of it are expensive and tricky to order, it would be interesting to learn just how much, if any, of Licht‘s 29 hours has been heard by each of its critics.
I haven’t heard anything from Licht either, so the last thing I need is a load of hot air about it from a bunch of hacks arguing from ignorance. This situation is starting to look less like a case of critics attacking the work despite not having heard it, and more like a case of attacking the work because they haven’t heard it.
Just a few days ago I was describing to someone Stockhausen’s strange decision to devote 25 years of his life to a single, all-encompassing work, a work misunderstood by its audience (or at least not received in the way expected by the composer), when an earlier example of an artist who took a similar turn in his career path came to mind. No, not Wagner. Ezra Pound.
After 1920, Pound’s poetic output, as far as the literary public were concerned, came to a halt. For a while he gave up poetry to compose, but soon returned to writing. However, in doing so he rededicated himself to his long poem The Cantos, falteringly started some years earlier, deciding to apply himself solely to this one magnum opus, to the exclusion of all other original poetry. Besides translations and a handful of occasional poems, The Cantos was Pound’s only poetry until he abandoned it, unfinished, in the 1960s. With it, he abandoned writing.
Licht and The Cantos are both immensely ambitious works, epic both in both scale and subject matter. In fact, the wide scope of both works allowed their creators to accommodate any of their creative impulses into the structure of their ongoing, all-encompassing projects. Similarly, subsections of each large work may be presented individually (although this is less true for the published instalments of Pound’s Cantos, which are frequently dependent on context, than for the free-standing compositions spun off from Licht).
It is fatuous to compare too closely the material and biographical circumstances of both works, but a general parallel can be drawn. Stockhausen’s dogged commitment to Licht came to be seen by many as yet another manifestation of his increasing eccentricity, of a piece with his Messianic self-image, his polygamy, his claims to interstellar heritage. By the time the wider reading public became aware of The Cantos (more about this later), its subject and style was impossible to separate from Pound’s notoriety as a fascist, an anti-Semite, an incarcerated mental patient with an unanswered treason charge hanging over his head. Pound’s later poetry was analysed less for its literary merit than for signs of his descent into madness. As with Stockhausen, the large, late work was treated as an unfortunate aberration, the anticlimax to a career whose successes all came relatively early.
* * *
Over the past 40 years most Pound scholars have come to accept The Cantos as his masterwork, the centrepiece of his artistic achievement, and treat the earlier poetry as though it were a prelude to his most important writing. Most advocates for Pound’s poetry admit The Cantos is a deeply flawed piece, with many dull passages, inconsistencies, gratuitous obscurantism, and lapses in judgement that are risible or offensive. (The same criticisms have been made of Licht.) Even so, generations of writers and scholars have argued that The Cantos is essential not only to the understanding of Pound, but to 20th century poetry.
The same fate may or may not be true of Licht, but if it is in fact a work of genius, flawed or not, then its future recognition as such will have been greatly hampered, largely by Stockhausen himself – and this is the most important comparison I want to make with Pound. As said before, even interested listeners have found it impossible to hear more than a few, isolated fragments of the whole cycle. Stockhausen withdrew from the conventional musical institutions that had supported him, pursuing his goal of ultimate autonomy, which he achieved at the expense of his accessibility. Pound (who also withdrew from literary society, relocating to the small Italian town of Rapallo) ensured that readers could not easily access his work-in-progress until 16 years after its commencement, preferring to publish instalments in small editions of expensive, hand-printed volumes.
Serious critical attention was not given to The Cantos until the early 1950s, and only then because of the intense controversy that surrounded its author. Since that time, readers and critics have been playing catch-up, forced to argue first for the poem’s importance before its complexities can even be discussed. Debate still simmers over to what extent the poet must be excused or denounced before his poem can be appreciated. Obscurities that may have been explained away by contemporary familiarity have been allowed to languish.
There is no substitute for critical tradition: a continuum of understanding, early commenced. … Precisely because William Blake’s contemporaries did not know what to make of him, we do not know either, though critic after critic appeases our sense of obligation to his genius by reinventing him. … [O]n the other hand, something was immediately made of Ulysses and The Waste Land, and our comfort with both works after 50 years, including our ease at allowing for their age, seems derivable from the fact that they have never been ignored. …
Hence the paradox that an intensely topical poem has become archaic without ever having been contemporary.
— Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, p.415
Licht now faces the same predicament, compounded by the logistical demands of its staging. Thirty years after it was started and five years after its completion, we are still none the wiser as to what it actually is. Without its creator around, we may find ourselves reinventing what the operas actually mean. Perhaps the complete staging of the cycle planned for 2010 will be the true moment that Licht makes it debut in our consciousness.
One final comparison with Pound. Regardless of whatever appreciation, enthusiasm, and goodwill with which Licht may be received in the future, it is unlikely to ever be understood in the way Stockhausen intended.

The New Magic Online Survey 5: Not really number 5 because I missed one or two, but still.

Sunday 16 December 2007

I know I missed at least one survey while I was in Australia, so this was the last update.
For the first sixteen songs it looked like this was shaping up into a perfect list, with no duds at all. It starts masterfully with an unexpected opener in “The Three Bells” (a song, bizarrely, once covered by Tina Arena) before building up to a thrilling climax with the unforgettable Liv Maesson.
Then everything just goes to hell. Hell being an unwelcome appearance on the Magic surveys by the unspeakable B—- J—, followed by the playlist from a British pub on karaoke night. In desperation the surveymakers try to save the ending by raunching things up with “The Stripper” and some Elvis, which is fine with everybody.
So this month’s low point is that hideous Joel/Stewart/Richard/Blues clusterfuck, and thus the high point must be the whiplash transition to “The Stripper”, with honourable mentions to Ms Maesson, The Browns, and the repeat appearance by Burl Ives, caught in the provided audio sample at his most demented.

The Three Bells – The Browns*
Pipeline – The Chantays
My Friend The Sea – Petula Clark*
Stayin‘ In – Bobby Vee*
Cast Your Fate To The Wind – Mel Torme*
Kisses Sweeter Than Wine – Jimmie Rodgers
Softly As I Leave You – Matt Monro*
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight – Burl Ives*
Walkin‘ In The Sunshine – Roger Miller*
Hold Me Tight – Johnny Nash*
Woman – Peter & Gordon*
Baby I Need Your Lovin‘ – Johnny Rivers*
I’m Not In Love – 10cc
Ben – Michael Jackson
If You Could Read My Mind – Gordon Lightfoot
Knock Knock Who’s There – Liv Maesson*
I Still Call Australia Home – Peter Allen
Leave A Tender Moment Alone – Billy Joel
Begin The Beguine – Limelighters
Have I Told You Lately That I Love You – Rod Stewart
Some People – Cliff Richard
Nights In White Satin – Moody Blues
The Stripper – David Rose*
Little Egypt – Elvis Presley
Put Your Head On My Shoulder – Paul Anka

Filler by Proxy LVI: Carlos Santana Shreds!

Friday 14 December 2007

Also, Paco de Lucia plays Eugene Chadbourne.
Found via Why, That’s Delightful!

The Other Film Festival, part 2

Tuesday 11 December 2007

(Part 1 is here.)
Where was I? Yeah, genre confusion. Some of the film-makers (what the hell, I’m going to call them that) were happily working in ways totally removed from the idea that cinema must be in some way dependent on theatre and narrative. Their art worked in a more purely compositional sense.
Nigel Bunn showed off his inventions, including a newly-built painting machine he had brought over from Dunedin. It was a sweet little device, consisting of a large box covered with various buttons and flip switches. When activated, it would semi-autonomously add abstract splotches of colour to a reel of blank film that was threaded through it. The abstractions were projected onto a screen covered with an array of photosensitive electronic cells, which controlled a simple sound synthesiser. In this way the painting machine manipulated both the image and the music.
Intriguingly, Bunn described his work as ‘cine-sculpture’, playing at the edges of both cinema and sculpture. The latter definition can be understood to contain a description of the entire work – objects, image, and sound, activated in a space. There’s always a pleasure in seeing a new, homemade invention working in ways that you’ve never seen before. On a deeper level than content or a message, it functions in the primary way of art, telling you things you didn’t already know, opening up new possibilities for the imagination.
A much more fiercely reductionist example of this type of work was shown by Bruce McClure, who showed a 45-minute “film” which didn’t actually use film at all. His three movie projectors were set up to screen flashes of white light at regular intervals, each at a slightly different speed, focused on the same spot to produce a flashing, pulsing white circle, first on a black screen, then on a white. He gave us a small warning that the piece is “difficult to look at”, and he wasn’t wrong. The starkness of the image, undifferentiated white light in the darkness, made the image produce optical effects, halos, patterns, and headaches. The soundtrack was a similarly minimal cross-rhythm of clicks that mimicked the pulsing of the three light sources.
In fact, flashing and flickering seems to be the style du jour among a lot of experimental film makers: both Bunn’s and Kerry Laitala’s films often flickered like an early home movie, as did a number of other films shown. After two nights straight of watching one set of flickery images after another in the dark, it all got a bit much and I had to leave before the audience participation all-together audiovisual jam session that ended the Festival.

Brisbane is a place where the arts have traditionally been treated with such suspicion that the lines between “high” and “low” art have blurred, with tenured academic finding themselves as much of a societal outcast as the underground guerrilla artist. This gives a refreshing informality to events such as the Other Film Festival. OFF is three years old now, is supported by government and institutional funding, has guests and visitors from overseas, and was this year presented in the old Brisbane Museum building. Despite all that, the atmosphere was little different from a “secret location” rock gig, with people happily drifting around in the dark, chatting or looking for the stations of free finger-food set up around the lobby.
Announcements of upcoming events were made by people wandering around wielding a small, portable amplifier, often with the reverb turned up so far that the voices were rendered unintelligble. There was no fixed, formal seating in either of the two large rooms used for most of the shows, and punters were free to come and go as they pleased. The artists used whatever wall or part of each room was most suitable for their work. Most striking of all, there was no backstage (let alone a VIP area), so that organisers and artists milled about amongst the audience, happily conversing and answering questions from anyone who happened to approach them.

Theatrical highlights: Kerry Laitala dressing up for the part when manning the projectors for her occult films.
Overheard gossip in the foyer: Howard’s out!
Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: Stubbies of Coopers Pale for $3!
Admission: Free!

The Other Film Festival, part 1

Sunday 9 December 2007

It was the only election night broadcast I’ve ever missed, and what a corker of a night to miss! I gave it all up to be at the last two nights of the Other Film Festival in Brisbane. Was it worth it? Yes.
Firstly, I got to see Helmet-Head at last: the collaborative project by Rod Cooper and Anthony Magen (remember when reading my comments that I’ve worked with these guys on different projects). Magen is the only VJ on the world I can stand. The usual animations and video samples are there, but only a supplement to the main action. Magen uses the bed of an overhead projector as his workspace, building up, manipulating, and then tearing down again a series of tableaux constructed from an ecelectic array of objects. The effect is simultaneously painterly and theatrical. All of this was projected onto a screen attached to a helmet worn by Rod Cooper, who stood some five metres away.
Cooper held a nifty little device in his hands, which he clutched and poked at in different ways to produce a soundtrack of sufficiently bewildering variety to match the visuals, combining electronic noises, music, quotation, field recordings. The overall effect was a type of omnium gatherum collage that revelled in the richness of its materials.
Upon later examination and questioning, Cooper’s mysterious device turned out to be a handheld cassette player: a low-tech apporach to producing a more complex and sophisticated soundscape than most laptop artists can achieve. The technical limitations of Cooper and Magen’s methods gave a clear, but undectable, structure to their performance, holding their diverse materials together.

As you’ve figured out from the above description, OFF is not your standard evening of sitting around watching movies. There were live performances – theatrical, musical, or both – incorporating film, in addition to light shows, installations, and other less easily categorisable phenomena. Most of these works involved film projectors, old-school film projectors (but hoepfully not old, school projectors), 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm – but not always in the standard ways.
Dirk de Bruyn presented his 1982 piece Experiments, ostensibly a film for two screens, but in fact a live multimedia performance in which he added his own noises and vocalisations to the soundtracks, and frequently adjusted the positions of his two projectors to differently mix and overlap the images from his collage of homemade movies against a large, blank wall. Again, this performance used film as a means to present an amalgam of the plastic and dramatic arts, reversing the old cinematic dictum, making all arts meet beyond the camera frame.
In a similar manner, Kerry Laitala concluded a retrospective of her films with a live performance, Hocus Pocus… Abracadabra…!!!, projecting slideshow images that moved back and forth over a series of superimposed film loops. Laitala’s material typically drew upon images and paraphernalia from the turn of the last century, sharing in that era’s particular fascination with the occult, manifesting itself in seances, theosophy, mesmerism, ectoplasm, table-tapping. It’s no coincidence these images are melded with glimpses from the earliest days of cinema, that time’s other great conflation of art and science, summoning visions from the beyond, bringing inert matter to life.
Tomorrow in part 2: more genre confusion, and the general atmosphere at the Other Film Festival, especially on that fateful election night.

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Friday 7 December 2007

We weren’t expecting this: Stockhausen died on Wednesday. Having completed his brobdingnagian opera cycle Licht (but not having heard the last two of the seven operas performed in entirety), he had commenced Klang, a cycle of 24 works, one for each hour of the day. He figured he had another five years of work in him at least, and time to finish it. A friend of mine has either just finished another study course with him, or else was booked in for one next year.
Pierre Boulez and Stockhausen were the two most prominent figures in Europe’s post-war musical avant-garde, but while Boulez and others settled into the musical establishment, Stockhausen passed through with his sights set on a bigger, cosmic prize. He built up his own private empire to realise goals that seemed impossibly ambitious, intimidatingly grandiose, childishly impractical. Since he started work on Licht, we probably can’t yet fully assess the achievement of the last 30 years of his career.
I first read the news at Sequenza21, which has reader comments and some prime Stockhausen video. The Rest Is Noise has more links, including to audio of his landmark 1956 electronic composition, Gesang der Jünglinge.
Update: Greg Sandow expands on the idea I touched on above, that for such a central figure, Stockhausen was strangely isolated from the music world he had so strongly influenced. ANABlog has full audio of Gesang der Jünglinge, with a brief discussion of the piece.

What’s on top of the pile? (Housesitter edition)

Thursday 6 December 2007

  • Funkadelic, One Nation Under A Groove
  • Beastie Boys, Hello Nasty
  • The Sugarcubes, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!
  • Kid 606, Down With The Scene
  • The Fall, Grotesque (After The Gramme)
  • The Fall, This Nation’s Saving Grace
  • The Fall, Perverted By Language
  • The Fall, I Am Kurious Oranj
  • The Fall, Code: Selfish
  • The Fall, The Light User Syndrome
  • The Fall, The Infotainment Scan
  • Jane Siberry, Maria

(Previously on top of the pile…)

Winter 2

Wednesday 5 December 2007

Yes, it is a little weird flying direct from the resorts of Coolum and Coolangatta back to a leafless London where the sun sets a little before 4 pm. This is not procrastination, this is a warm-up post after arriving home and trying to write coherent, self-contained posts about the antipodean trip.
Before I left, I finally got around to putting some music on my dad’s old iPod so I’d have something to listen to on the plane. This means I can follow up Little Miss Bossy’s meme (as have Deceptively Simple, The Concert, and Soho the Dog.)

1. If someone says ‘Is this OK?’ you say?
“Yesterday When I Was Young” (Buddy Greco)
It’s OK, but it used to be better.

2. What would best describe your personality?
“Tu Es La Soleil De Ma Vie” (Brigitte Bardot and Sacha Distel)
I am the sunshine of your lives, but in a language you might not understand.

3. What do you like in a girl?
Cybersonic Cantilevers” (Gordon Mumma)
Yeah, well who doesn’t like a nice set of cybersonic cantilevers?

4. How do you feel today?
“Study for Player Piano No.7” (Conlon Nancarrow)
According to Kyle Gann, I am feeling something like a sonata.

5. What is your life’s purpose?
“Magnetizing” (Handsome Boy Modelling School with Del Tha Funkee Homosapien)
All my life, I have stroked myself in one direction to attract ferrous materials.

6. What is your motto?
“Greenfield Morning I Pushed An Empty Baby Carriage All Over The City” (Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band)
“Greenfield Oriens Ego Pulsus An Cassus Infantia Gero Totus Super Urbs” looks better on my family coat of arms.

7. What do your friends think of you?
Nicolas Slonimsky at the Berkeley Piano Club, 1971
They think I’m witty, talented, erudite, charming, and older than god.

8. What do you think of your parents?
“Elemental Procedures” (Morton Feldman)
It seems I have a rather Beckettian attitude toward my conception.

9. What do you think about very often?
Konx-Om-Pax” (Giacinto Scelsi)
I am closer to Richard Gere and Bono than I realised.

10. What is 2+2=
“Post-PraeLudium Per Donau” (Luigi Nono)
[tuba solo]

11. What do you think of your best friend?
“Theme from Swan Lake” (Takeshi Terauchi and The Bunnys)
A Japanese surf group covering a classical chestnut. Make of that what you will.

12. What do you think of the person you like?
“Half A Canyon” (Pavement)
American indie slackers pretending to be Stereolab. Make of that what you will.

13. What is your life story?
“Winter (Hostel-Maxi)” (The Fall)
Going somewhere cold, bleak, and British. Yep. I’ll take both of you on! I’ll take both of you on!

14. What do you want to be when you grow up?
“Identity” (The Gordons)
Noisy, obscure, and from New Zealand.

15. What do you think when you see the person you like?
“Symphony No.4 (Chiaroscuro), 2nd Movement: Mystical Plosives” (Gloria Coates)
No, I mean it in a good way, don’t you see?

16. What do your parents think of you?
Computer World (for repeat 1 play)” (Kettle)
We don’t understand, but you seem to know what you’re doing.

17. What will you dance to at your wedding?
“The Projects (PJays)” (Handsome Boy Modelling School with Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and Dave from De La Soul)
Hell, everyone’s gonna dance to this at my wedding!

18. What will they play at your funeral?
Kissing Jesus in the Dark” (Mystery Labs (John Oswald))
They will want everyone to leave my funeral before it’s over. How very like them.

19. What is your hobby/interest?
“Study for Player Piano No. 25” (Conlon Nancarrow)
Time consuming, obsessive, nerdy music stuff no-one was expected to listen to. A little close to home, this one.

20. What is your biggest secret?
John Cage interviewed by Jonathan Cott, 1963
I am secretly antagonistic toward John Cage, and secretly take Norman Mailer’s gibberish seriously.

21. What do you think of your friends?
“AT&T” (Pavement)
Enjoy them without analysing them.

22. What should you post this as?
“Winter 2” (The Fall)

Me, direct from New Zealand! (new gig)

Saturday 24 November 2007

Alas, Bowerbird is no more. These were the kind people who offered to let me play at their next gig, but they’ve had problems with their venue. Instead, at the very last minute, they’ve arranged an unofficial Other Film Festival after-party:
Sunday 25 November, 7pm.
116 LaTrobe Terrace, Paddington, Brisbane.
Thee Ideal Gus (Pumice + Armpit, NZ)
The Deadnotes
Brutal Hate Mosh
and Ben.Harper, the famous New Zealand musician (it sez here)

Ben.Harper live in Melbourne

Monday 5 November 2007

Tuesday 13 November at The Make It Up Club
Bar Open, 317 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.
With Dur-e Dara and Ren Walters, Blow, and boy Brightbulb and Robert Curgenven – looks like a night of electronics, percussion, guitar and winds. Something for everyone!
$7/$5, 8.30pm.
I’ll be playing a new piece for digitally simulated feedback, The One Who Was Neither Or Nor. It’s a more sophisticated development of the principles used in St Paul’s Pianos With Real Nightingales. More details soon.

The New Magic Online Survey 4: Citizens on Patrol

Friday 2 November 2007

If you don’t know the drill by now, check what’s happened before. As always, a solitary dud bobs in an ocean of brilliance. A little more mainstream this time, but not much worse for it.

A Little Bitty Tear – Burl Ives
Born A Woman – Sandy Posey*
Dream A Little Dream Of Me – Mama Cass
Good Vibrations – Beach Boys
Hitch Hiker – Bobby & Laurie**
I’ll Have To say I Love You In A Song – Jim Croce
It Never Rains In Southern California – Albert Hammond
Let The Heartaches Begin – Long John Baldry
More Than I Can Say – Leo Sayer
Not Responsible – Helen Shapiro
Please Don’t Ask Me – Johnny Farnham*
Quando Quando Quando – Engelbert Humperdinck
Sad Movies (Make Me Cry) – Sue Thompson
Somewhere My Love – Ray Conniff Singers*
Stand Tall – Burton Cummings*
Take It Easy – Eagles
The Tips Of My Fingers – Roy Clark*
Time To Say Goodbye – Sarah Brightman & Andrea Bocelli
Volare – Bobby Rydell
What In The World’s Come Over You – Jack Scott*
What Will My Mary Say – Johnny Mathis*
Wind Beneath My Wings – Colleen Hewett
Woman – John Lennon
You’re My World – Cilla Black
Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife – Glen Campbell*

That last one really should be by Wayne Newton, but it’s a minor quibble.

Toot toot! I forgive Richard Taruskin. Toot!

Saturday 27 October 2007

I’m packing my bags for Australia, so I don’t have time to weigh in on Richard Taruskin’s latest essay in The New Republic, “The Musical Mystique“, the latest in the ongoing Sick Man Dialogue classical music has been having with itself for years (“How do I look? Do I look alright? I think I’m feeling a bit better today, how do I look?” etc etc). Others are already wrestling the 12,000 word behemoth to the ground.
In fact, I haven’t read past the first page, and I only got that far beacuse The Rambler was kind of enough to notify me that Taruskin quotes a witty, intelligent, perceptive “netizen” called Ben.H.
I have only one problem with this. Actually I have two problems, but anyone who quotes me approvingly is OK with me, even if they call me a “netizen”. The main problem is that I don’t remember writing it, and couldn’t find it anywhere on my blog. It took a bit of googling to find it was a jokey, throwaway comment I apparently made on a Sequenza21 post six months ago. According to the website, I wrote it at 9.10 am, which can’t be right. Most likely that’s USA time, which meant I wrote it very late at night, and was quite possibly tired and emotional.
Mind you, Taruskin follows up my quote by saying Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall “contains the smartest and most constructive take” on the classical music industry, so maybe he was in a similarly, uh, frivolous mood when he started writing his little review.
Actually, it’s more of an honour to find myself quoted (via Taruskin’s quote) in the Something Awful forums. Even though they say “poo poo” too much and can’t discuss any type of music without someone instantly mentioning Frank Zappa.

Enough Nono for Now

Friday 26 October 2007

Two uncanny audience experiences in one week: after hearing concertgoers on Sunday coming away from a Philip Glass gig humming a 12-tone row, on Tuesday I was at Queen Elizabeth Hall to hear the Arditti Quartet play Nono’s Fragmente – Stille, An Diotima. I’ve previously explained what I think of this piece, but hearing the Arditti’s performance of it brought another dimension I hadn’t noticed before.

Just as its title suggests, Nono’s quartet is an extended series of silences, or near-silences of sustained faint chords, at times barely audible, from which brief fragments of muted activity occasionally surface. The Arditti played these long, soft notes with almost inhuman accuracy, the intonation almost never wavering. The sound was immaculate, remote.

Fragmente – Stille is music in which time is suspended, unlike Nono’s later, last works, such as the ‘No hay caminos, hay que caminar’ pieces, in which one is made always conscious of the sense of time passing. Again, the titles of these last pieces are apt, evoking journeys (La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura) instead of silent contemplation: the music is less rarefied, more grounded in human activity than derived from an abstract ideal.

The emphasis on action and motion, within a similar hushed, fragmentary sound-world, is present to such an extent in Nono’s last works that some of them demand the musicians move from place to place during the performance. His last piece, “Hay que caminar” soñando for two violinists, was played at the Royal Academy of Music on Monday evening: the two players gradually circle each other round the audience before finally meeting on stage. The musicians must feel their way through disconnected gestures hovering between silence and noise: faltering harmonics, rushed arpeggios, the sound of wood on strings, more the shadows of sounds than the sounds themselves. Most remarkable is the way Nono writes for the pair of instruments, each echoing the other to reproduce similar effects to those he had previously obtained though using electronics.

Nono’s use of electronics was heard at an earlier Royal Academy concert, which The Rambler has described so I don’t have to. It is followed by a brief discussion of what happened in the second half, which was disrupted by boozers like me enjoying the subsidised beer in the attached student bar, blithely oblivious to the concert having started again without anyone informing us. It’s small comfort that the people responsible for the house lights were also in the bar, and so completely missed their cue as well.

I forgot to mention what that other weird audience experience was: during a forty-minute string quartet comprised almost entirely of the quietest sounds and long silences, played in a full concert hall in autumn in London, not a single person coughed.

He takes his girlfriend to a Philip Glass gig but forgets to mention that it will be five hours long.

Tuesday 23 October 2007

I had told her Music in 12 Parts is a big piece, but she thought that meant it went for two hours or so. When he completed the work in 1974, Glass’ ensemble of electric keyboards, amplified winds and voice would typically play the whole thing over a series of three evenings, not in a single, marathon event like last Sunday at the Barbican. Besides two 15-minute intervals, there was an hour-long break halfway through, so that musicians and audience alike could recuperate, and I could mollify my partner with a large glass or two of house red.
Of the three main concerts staged by the Barbican as part of their Philip Glass 70th birthday events, this was the one I was interested in. It was also the one which still had tickets available on the day. The other two concerts were new works, both collaborations: one with Patti Smith, the other with Leonard Cohen. Glass has a strangely duplicitous career and reputation. Today he is best known for the numerous orchestral pieces, film scores, and collaborations he has made over the past twenty-odd years, yet most of this music is his least interesting and (I’m predicting) least enduring work.
By contrast, Music in 12 Parts is Glass’ essential composition, the full flowering of the radical techniques he developed in the late 60s and the source for all of his subsequent music. Unfortunately, since the 1980s Glass has done little to develop these innovations, preferring instead to add derivative embellishments to his earlier stylistic breakthrough. Consequently, the distinctive body of music Glass wrote for his own ensemble in the 1970s now seems even more unusual and further from the mainstream now than when it was written, when set in context against his later movie music and large orchestra commissions.
I was going to refer to Glass collaborations with Smith, Cohen, Ravi Shankar et al as crossover music, but really, most of Glass’ later output has been a crossover collaboration with the capital-C Classical music world, with all the attendant weaknesses all too typical in such hybrid genres. Returning to early Glass now always seems like a revelation of a true composer buried beneath the comparatively conservative accretions of his more familiar music.
Music in 12 Parts enthralls and exasperates in turn, its sheer length and single-mindedness acts first as an obstacle, then as a means of transmitting the sense of discovery and excitement that sustains its newly-formed musical language. There’s an appealing candour in its obstinacy and roughness, right down to the inevitable lapses in the musicians’ technique as they play a score which demands superhuman consistency and stamina, and the heedless way each new part butts up against the preceding one.
Sadly, the sound mix on the night was a little too rough, and for most of the first half of the concert the flutes and saxophones were drowned out by the voice and keyboards. Also, the whole thing could have, should have been louder. Maybe I’ve become jaded, maybe Glass has mellowed too much with age, but even in the 1980s his concerts were deafeningly loud, and it served to immerse the listener in the music, shutting out any other distractions.
After the show, the strangest thing happened. As we all left the theatre we could hear members of the audience drifting through the streets, humming the tune. Specifically, they were trying to recapture the peculiar 12-tone melody that emerges during the final part.