Repost: The Fall and the Liminality of Kitten Kong

Wednesday 24 January 2018

(Originially posted 2006. RIP Mark E. Smith, who my girlfriend thought “looked pretty good for sixty-five” at the time.)

Has anyone made a comedy map of Britain? I don’t mean a map indicating clubs and the birthplaces of comedians; I mean a map marking the real locations inhabited by fictional comic characters, haunted by absurdist conceits. The more anonymous and duller a place is, the more likely it is to have been infused with significance by generations of comic minds: dormitory suburbs, brownfields, dead ends, postwar nowheres. Balham, Putney, Hendon, Cheam: London and the counties are held together in an invisible network of bathetic, negative landmarks. The enervated traveller crossing these liminal spaces is suddenly seized with a numinous inversion of meaning with which the no-place has become invested. What ley-lines connect these psychogeographical lacunae; do they awkwardly bisect the zones of conscious importance, or sneak behind and between through forgotten territory?

Last Friday night a self-selected cross-section of Londoners and American tourists were sharing a small frisson at finding themselves congregated outside a bingo hall in Cricklewood, reminding each other that The Goodies lived in Cricklewood. This wasn’t the reason we were all there; we had come to see a different British institution, of similar cultish appeal. We had come to see The Fall; or not see The Fall, as the case may be.

The Americans amongst us were hopeful of seeing a real, genuine Fall gig, having been repeatedly exasperated at home by the nominal band’s touring habits: either gracelessly imploding on stage or working a setlist top-heavy with interminable ten-minute dirges about supermarket car parks in Salford. (Mark E. Smith has his own appetite for psychogeographical nullity.) Perhaps they didn’t know that the band’s London gigs tended to be equally perfunctory: it seems anything south of Birmingham is much of a muchness, as far as Smith is concerned.

To get an idea of the venue, take a look at their website (proletarian visions of prosperity). No really, it’s priceless. A gilt-edged coffin for Punk’s corpse, WMC Blobs laid to boozy rest with Celtic troubadors and cowboys from Carlisle. As a harbinger of the muzzy haze of regression that threatened, the opening act was John Cooper Clarke, preserved like Sharon Osbourne.

Perhaps it was the faded premises on the cultural and subcultural margin that made the band turn up and play. The band, such as it is, all vestigal entity outside of Smith himself having long departed and now routinely replaced with such regularity that even fans can’t keep track of the musos’ names, has a reputation for only partly turning up, in body or mind; with Smith himself late, drunk, or a no-show. Instead of a vicarious trainwreck thrill we got the embodiment of a Rock Band at Work, of performance as routine.

Smith, famously looking 20 years older than his real age, stumbled round the stage snarling and hollering incoherently as usual, into one or two mics, as usual, dropping one or picking up the other, peripetetically bemused by their technical failings, nonconsensually futzing with his bandmates’ gear, as usual. Performance as routine, stripped of its romance and mythology when seen plain on stage as schtick – in the same way that he refuses to play any songs more than a few years old, Smith’s performance denies his fans the delusion of shamanism, of recollection of an intangible psychic resonance. What is left is form and technique, with no invocation of the past, to impress the punters – not appeals to faith. (My companion for the night, oblivious to The Fall’s history and significance, attested to this.) The conventional becomes experimental.

The band confined themselves to solid riffs, one per song, starting out OK and then locking into a tighter groove that propelled the music and voice into the higher levels, into the lower reaches of the transcendent state a good rock gig can give. After this peak it was in the recoil of the interval, ebbing into a slower, muted rhythm, “Blindness”, its protracted disorientation nudging the punters into a dreamlike semiconsciousness. Smith himself had delayed his entrance onstage, like Elvis in Vegas, but then disappeared early as well, before and after the encore, effacing himself backstage inconspicuously, not to return. It seemed over too soon.

Catching the band in an upswing of collateral cool thanks to John Peel’s untimely death, the crowd was a mixture of disoriented tourists, middle-aged punks in mufti, prematurely-aged anoraks comparing notes on Tuesday night’s gig (and observing that one band member had been sacked in the interim), curious students, a mosh pit, bright young things their dowdy finest, a pair of them dancing like frenzied muppets on the balcony behind the band, alternately irritating and amusing the more sombrely dedicated punters. And of course, the indifferent regulars up the back getting their pints in all the while.

Opera as Entropy: Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2

Monday 22 January 2018

Many years ago I experienced a production of John Cage’s last three Europeras in Cologne. Soon after, I blew the chance to see the first two of the set – the “big” ones with greater complexity and more elaborate staging. Don’t know how but somehow noticed that a new production of Europeras 1 & 2 was happening just before Christmas, at Staatstheater Braunschweig. It seemed a little odd that Cage was being presented in what appeared to be a fairly small, regional theatre. “It’s where theatre people in Germany get their first real job” someone explained to me.

The company raided the theatre’s sets and props to an appropriately disorienting effect. The singers and actors seemed enthusiastic enough as they threw themselves into the melange – literally so, in the case of the soprano with the dumpster. Beside the singing, the orchestra parts are particularly strange: a type of collage both fragmentary and unaltered, which is unusual for Cage. The peculiarity came from its success as music in its own right instead of a mere concept, as so often happens in these situations. Like a paticularly unfocused piece by Berio, it persisted without differentiation or structure, distinctively undistinguished Euro-mood music that faltered, wobbled, but never ceased.

There were rough edges – the handling of the Truckera tape collage’s appearances was clumsy – but no obvious horseplay, cutting up or general piss-taking by the musicians. Hopefully those dark days of self-sabotage are behind us. There was occasional mugging or playing up to the audience, which is forgivable to some degree; it’s a comedy, after all. The biggest revelation was in the lighting. In the Cologne productions I saw, Cage’s detailed lighting cues were ignored. In Braunschweig, lighting made all the difference. Onstage antics between singers, dancers and actors were cast in a dim, reflected glow, or with long shadows, while a bright spot was cast on the side of a pillar downstage, or focusing on a discarded watering can. Scenes played out half-hidden in the background, comedy in chiaroscuro. The audience’s attention was effectively decentred, wandering over scenery and actors without overt direction: Cage’s conception of the circus contained within a proscenium arch.

As for the audience, it was small for Europera 1 and, after the interval, noticeably smaller still for Europera 2. It looks like there are more performances scheduled in June, so perhaps summer might be more of an occasion than a cold, wet night in December.

I’ve commented before on how Cage’s music, like other great art, continues to speak to the world in surprising, often disturbing ways. In the thirty years since the Europeras first appeared, the apparent shift in attitudes towards ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture has only accelerated. At the time of its conception, the work would have been viewed by many, whether pro or anti, as an iconoclastic exercise in irreverent anarachy, in the footsteps Chuck Jones and the Marx brothers. It’s hard to get that same feeling, these days (although the defecting audience members in Braunschweig might disagree). Opera, once a signifier of the rich, the powerful and the cultured, is now a signifier of the old and out of touch. The stereotype of the top-hatted toff persists, but as much as an anachronism as of a symbol of privilege. These days, real power prefers the corporate hospitality at the football and backstage access at the U2 gig.

In this time, the opera is an institution more to be pitied than mocked and here Cage’s celebration of the genre was more wake than circus. The persistent image was one of entropy: the disassociated costumes and props seemed like salvaged detritus, fragments which could no longer make a whole. As opera, even as an idea, recedes from popular culture and consciousness, iconoclasm becomes a moot point. Pure indifference has already done Cage’s work for him. At various times, stagehands brought out portraits of opera composers, propped them up and later knocked them down, unless they fell of their own accord, sometimes immediately. As the evening progressed, the empty stage accumulated clutter of cast-off inventory from the theatre’s storage, presented and abandoned. Rather than removing meaning, perfoming Cage’s Europeras now seems like an act of finding new meaning, whatever it may be and wherever it may lay.

I remember how in the programme for Einstein on the Beach, audience members were encouraged to talk quietly amongst themselves, if they so wished. Never noticed it happening, though. In Braunschweig, the group in the row in front of me kept up a quiet conversation throughout, pointing, commenting, debating. I didn’t get the impression they even liked Cage particularly much, but they were engaged with the opera and weren’t noticeably dismissive or disruptive. Nothing they said or did was a distraction; in fact they slightly enhanced the musical and theatrical experience.

Working With Limitations: Olivia Block

Wednesday 10 January 2018

How do you compose through improvisation? Just let go and try not to think about it? Keep it as it is, or go back and revise? If you revise, do you cut back or elaborate? This new release by Olivia Block is an untitled, 35-minute suite of three movements, played on and inside a piano, with additional parts on organ and some electronics. She has stated that this piece was created over several years of rehearsals and performances. Musical material was developed, but in a way which left lots of space for improvisation, an open structure where placement of the composed elements was never entirely fixed.

The scope for improvisation is thus circumscribed. In doing so, the improvisation becomes of a piece with the composed elements, each seeking out a coherent context. At first, the piano sound predominates, with untreated and prepared piano notes combining with harmonic resonances. The central movement introduces contrasting percussive sounds from inside the instrument. The final movement returns to the keyboard but much sparser, with silences becoming more persistent and occasional intrusions of electronic distortion. Each time I listen to this CD, I hear the performance as an act of heightened responsiveness. Aesthetic decisions are made, but always in reaction to what is heard. Sounds are augmented, changed, reduced. It isn’t continuous, the changes are perceptible, the sounds and sections are clearly differentiated – still, the three movements play as an organic whole.

Working With Limitations: Insub Meta Orchestra

Saturday 30 December 2017

13 unissons: thirteen groups of two to three musicians each, playing one note in unison. Each group may play whenever they want but never with more than three or four groups playing together.

27 times: four larger groups each play at three different moments. In each moment, each musician must play a sound three times in sequence on three occasions, the same sound each moment.

Simple enough? The scores for the two pieces that fill this new release on Another Timbre are sufficiently clear and succinct to fit in a tweet. Every musical score could be described as a balance of restrictions against possibilities. The pieces played here by the Insub Meta Orchestra have heavy restrictions placed on them by simplicty, but allow for an unexpected amount of detail to emerge.

A critical factor here is the orchestra itself: 32 musicians, including voice and electronics, provide a wealth of timbral and textural variety, opening up the reductive score to an unexpected amount of complexity. A smaller ensemble could also give a satisfying performance – in a more severe, minimal style – but here the diverse instrumentation is the point. Cyril Bondi & d’incise, who have previously collaborated on projects such as Ryoko Akama’s places and pages, have here coordinated and composed works that provide a rare maximal interpretation of the minimal. To a casual listener, any sense of a single, top-down rule governing each performance would not be evident.

With its overlapping single tones and accidental harmonies, the sound of 13 unissons shares many traits with Cage’s late number pieces. (The absence of potentially short, loud or other punctuating sounds indicates a key difference in the composition.) The longer 27 times presents an even more haunted atmosphere, and is more distinct. Sounds emerge, make their presence felt, and then fade from consciousness, only to reappear later. In the meantime, the instrumentation and the groupings of sounds have changed, so that a succession of moods are established and then transformed. Some musicians choose to play very softly, even compared to their colleagues. This adds a beautifully subtle sense of shading to each relatively louder sound when it is repeated.

It’s unusual to assemble such a large group as this on an ostensibly ‘open’ form of performance; even more so to take all that musical talent and sublimate it into a focus on giving finer nuances to a single, coherent body. This disc elegantly negates the usual paradox of applying limitations to give freedom to the performer. In this case, the removal of overbearing notation or programmatic continuity reveals more of the musicians; not of their ‘personalities’ but of their understanding of how to give music life.

Sophisticated — God, I’m almost sophisticated

Monday 20 November 2017

I’ve been running with the same crowd too long. Like-minded people. It’s all very agreeable, as you slowly encourage each other to become more and more jaded with your circle. Haven’t been to too many gigs lately; I’ve been busy with making my own music, but it’s also easy to claim high standards as a reason not to go. They’re playing Stockhausen at the Barbican tomorrow night: Stimmung and Cosmic Pulses. I’ve already been to three live performances of both – same with Trans at Southbank next month. Before I arrived in London I’d have considered myself lucky to ever hear even one of them live, once.

Saw someone on Twitter last week complaining that no-one blogs about music anymore. I silently agreed, but can’t really remember those who did, or did not. Some of people you used to see around started families, but it’s a surprisingly small number. The public attention shifts.

I went to the Apartment House gig at Cafe Oto last Tuesday, even though I’ve seen them too many times already and been to Oto too often. They were playing composers I hadn’t heard live, or at all. I know they’ll be played well. Oto is easy for me to get to from home. The place was full, or at least the seats were. I drank, which I swore I wasn’t going to do. The new pieces were a string quartet by Georgia Rodgers and a piece for cello and electronics by Antoine Chessex. The main impression the Chessex left on me was that it was definitely, unquestionably a work for cello and electronics. The sounds and the techniques were all front and centre but I get hazy in recalling what purpose they served. I want to hear more of Chessex’s music to get a better handle on it. Rodgers’ Three Pieces for String Quartet presented panels of sound made from overlapping swells of pitched and unpitched string bowing. You could hear elements of various trends in late 20th Century music distilled into a secure but distinct musical language. I want to hear more of Rodgers’ music because I liked this piece. There’ll be some at next month’s 840 gig, which I must attend lest I slip further into complacency.

The second half was dedicated to Old Masters. Kagel, Mosolov and Zimmermann (Bernd Alois), however, don’t get much of an airing these days, at least not in Britain. I’ve heard lazier critics wave away this sort of neglect by saying the artists are “out of fashion”, in a way that would accuse either composer of being a tragic style-chaser and not an indictment of the fickleness of supposedly artistic values. (Just don’t mention Leonard Bernstein.) The musicians’ work here was in equal parts affirmation and refutation. The concluding, computer-enhanced version of Kagel’s Prima Vista was particularly fine, offering up depths, colours and textures beyond at least half of the recent Proms commissions, despite these qualities being supposedly in vogue right now. Tamriko Kordzaia’s rendition of Kagel’s An Tasten acquired new layers of ironic commentary in the somewhat noisy Oto environment, aided by the commercial elevation of neoclassical banality in the forty years since Kagel wrote the work. Generations exposed to Philip Glass will hear this piece as entirely relevant, in a way Kagel or his audience could have not envisaged at the time.

Maybe five years ago I was chatting outside Oto with some musicians wistfully considering getting a performance of Zimmermann’s Intercomunicazione together. In these pessimistic times, you’d think the world would be ready for his increasingly bleak outlook. Sadly, 2017’s fashionable nihilism is still too rooted in certainties, vague spirituality and simplistic answers. Zimmermann is not holy enough, sees that the world is too messy to be true to one’s own principles, and takes grim satisfaction in reminding his listeners that they have become part of the problem. One this night, Intercomunicazione came across dark and brooding, disconnected moments of torpor from which piano and cello would sullenly lash out. I’m sure this was the first time I’ve heard anything by Zimmermann played live.

Magnus Granberg: ‘Nattens skogar’

Monday 30 October 2017

I’m starting to think of Magnus Granberg’s music the way I think of late Morton Feldman: each one is the same yet each one is different. The restrained but taut atmosphere of extreme focus prevails, over an extended span of time. Other than that, I don’t want to make comparisons. That shared attention to the small details living inside sound comes from a different place. Granberg’s scores, described as “rather open”, seem designed to allow more liberty to the performers than Feldman would permit. This approach needs the tradition of free improvisation that has developed over the last half-century, and skilled, sympathetic performers.

His regular ensemble of players, Skogen, has released several discs on Another Timbre, ranging from a ten-piece electroacoustic ensemble to a quintet. On this new release from Insub, his 2015 ensemble piece Nattens skogar is presented in a version reduced to just four musicians. Again, everything’s the same yet it’s all different. As with other recent works, Nattens skogar (it’s the Swedish translation of Nightwood) draws inspiration and material from pre-existing music; in this case, Erik Satie’s nocturnes and Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood”. As before, any resemblance to the source would not be detected by the uninformed listener. The nocturnal theme suits Granberg’s, and his musicians’, palettes of sounds both dark and frail.

In this setting, every sound is set in stark relief. Part of this may be due to the recording, which sounds very close. Background noises, seemingly inadvertent, colour the music, unless it is Cyril Bondi’s percussion. Granberg plays his prepared piano in slow motion, Anna Lindal’s violin merges with harmonicas played by Bondi and d’incise. d’incise adds electronics and ‘tuned objects’ – the buzz and hum of line noise and distortion adds an unnerving edge to the music. Anything that may be construed as a slow, unhurried flow through the fifty minutes or so is upset by subtle but indelible shifts in mood; this may be down to the shadowy presence of Satie. At the beginning, events are punctuated by an ominous knocking; in the latter half of the piece, intrusions such as electric organ or bass drum cast the other instruments in a new light. It strikes me as the clearest expression I’ve yet heard of the aesthetic world Granberg has constructed and might be the best place to start for newcomers. Ensemble Grizzana is premiering a new work by him next month in Huddersfield, which I would like to witness.

One quibble: Insub have released this on vinyl, as so many small, adventurous labels must to make ends meet these days, and as a download. It’s a shame the download version preserves the fadeout and break into two tracks from the vinyl instead of offering an uninterrupted experience. In the pause, you can hear how the ‘silence’ is charged with electrical hum, ambient noise, hiss.

Pianos (II): Epstein Abrahams Pateras

Thursday 19 October 2017

Nobody has made it…. Nobody is accessible*.”

At the last Music We’d Like To Hear concert this summer I heard the first live performance in the UK of John McGuire’s 48 Variations for Two Pianos (completed in 1980). The work could be considered ‘minimal’: a continuous span of some 50 minutes, dynamically and texturally static, with a single, clear principle underlying the cycling of the material through harmonic and rhythmic changes. As a tour de force of compositional engineering, it first sounds like an evolution of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase: a unifying process developed to a point of elaboration where the inner workings of the method remain elusive to the listener, yet the presence of an intelligible principle of operation is intuitively apparent. (Works such as this are sometimes described by critics as ‘postminimalist’, inasmuch as it displays a greater development of Reich’s ideas than Reich himself achieved.)

I started thinking about this when listening again to R. Andrew Lee’s album of piano pieces by Paul A. Epstein. The relatively brief pieces here, all written in the 2010’s, achieve a similar type of complexity as in McGuire’s epic, aimed towards a different end. Epstein writes of “reducing surface repetition while retaining the ‘limited means’ that remains for me a crucial aspect of minimalism and postminimalism.” It’s probably not a coincidence that he has also written a perceptive analysis of Piano Phase. Pieces with intellectually provocative titles such as Drawing No. 4 (triangles, broken horizontal and vertical lines, rectangles, and parallelograms) hint at objective processes at work underneath the shifting mosaic of notes and chords. Rhythms are not steady but appear to conform to an underlying grid; pitches and harmonies are transformed according to rules that remain unknown to a casual listener but clearly follow a coherent order. For something that immediately sounds so straightforward, this music hovers in an ambiguous place. Typically, any music moving away from strict minimalism to greater complexity is perceived as a turn toward subjectivity, but Epstein trips our sensitivity for affective sounds through entirely rational means.

The difference in hearing this type of complexity is a little like distinguishing a knot from a tangle. Complexity, and the designing intellect behind it, can come in many forms. Music In Eight Octaves is a vast, churning ocean, cryptically credited on the front cover to “176”. This reveals itself to be the piano duo of Chris Abrahams (him off The Necks) and Anthony Pateras. I’d heard years ago that these two had recorded an album with them each improvising for an hour at a time on each octave of the keyboard in turn, then superimposing the results. From time to time I wondered what became of it. The sessions, recorded in 2005, have finally been released.

Has there been much editing of the raw material? Am I remembering this correctly? The sleeve notes don’t give anything away, instead dedicating themselves to Pateras interviewing Abrahams about the musical environment in which he developed, ranging from jazz to the avant-garde to pedagogical studies to the Australian alternative rock scene of the 1980s. (Nothing is said of Pateras other than as a reflection, a succeeding generation inheriting Abraham’s legacy.) The music is as overwhelming and ultimately pounding as you might expect, but much of the exhaustion comes from the sheer wealth of differentiated material, more than overbearing volume. The “all-over” nature of the music at first recalls Pollock’s drip canvases, but it progressively becomes clearer that a closer analogy would be to Gerhard Richter’s abstract paintings. Besides the overlaying of material, the aleatory montage of different images, alternately hidden, distorted and revealed, there’s the way the music is treated as a source of further development. In the way that Richter photographs, cuts up and re-photographs some of his abstract canvases, the two pianos here seem to have been cut up, cut away, sculpted into its present form. Certain registers drop away from time to time and I’m still getting to grips with the piece to determine if there is silence or admirable restraint by the two players.

I just replaced ‘improvisers’ with ‘players’ in that last sentence. Even without editing, the act of playing in these circumstances was a compositional strategy, with the awareness that the material would be layered and combined. As a monolithic block of sound, it reveals itself to have a complex, multifaceted shape of many-coloured faces.

Tom Phillips’ ‘Irma’, for real

Wednesday 20 September 2017

Tom Phillips’ opera Irma is nearly fifty years old and at the pre-performance talk on Sunday evening the host, the director and others were still a little squeamish about directly calling it an opera. (It’s anti-opera, it’s a work with operatic elements, the word after all is from the Latin for…) Even after Phillips expanded the work in 2014, adding more overtly musical notation, its allusive fragments remain tantalisingly elusive as an experience. On record, one could hear realisations by Gavin Bryars and AMM, each transforming the work into a pastiche of their own recognisable style and neither fully comfortable with the score’s hedge of limitations against possibilities. Comparing the two recalls the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Over the weekend South London Gallery presented two performances of a new version of the opera, with staging by Netia Jones and music direction by Anton Lukoszevieze, whose ensemble Apartment House played as a string trio with keyboards and percussion. Apartment House have form in making music out of scores better known for their looks than their sounds. In this realisation, with two singers, an actor and chorus, staged with choreography and video projections, the collaged nature of the work, like much of Phillips’ art, came to the fore. In its expanded form, there’s greater liberty to include and omit, but many elements familiar to listeners to either recorded version persist and remain indelible to the work.

Irma has an indulgent quality to it, and this quality is what truly makes it an opera. The romanticism in Phillips’ poetic fragments is overt and spreads from the libretto to musical and stage directions. The Victorian-era source material is redolent with the same atmosphere. This production gratefully accepted the score’s implied invitations to operatic conventions of tragic heroes, idolised heroines, thwarted love, melancholy, intrigue, the ballet. As Grenville, Benjamin O’Mahony was suitably gentlemanly in his anguish, while singers Josephine Stephenson and Elaine Mitchener evoked characters from their contrasting parts as Irma and The Nurse respectively, in roles that might otherwise become ciphers for the expected values of the audience. All coped well with the added demands placed on how they moved in the space during the second half.

The music itself adopted a new guise with each scene, in turn overtly dramatic then austere, ranging across the approaches taken by his contemporaries in the British avant-garde: Scratch Orchestra-like free-form, quietly minimal, affectionately atavistic. Rather like Cage’s operas, the Babel of collage created a type of Ur-Opera more than anti-opera. Elements from outside the score were permitted, with allusions to more pieces by Phillips and other operas. Precisely halfway through, a gunshot rang out and everything so far seen and heard by the audience was repeated, in reverse – a neat reference to another opera’s use of formal constraints to reign in romantic excess.

Casting the opera as a palindrome raises questions about the ephemeral nature of theatrical experience, not to mention the difficulty of getting music like this performed in public. At least the audience will have heard it more than once. It also highlighted the fact that we were only hearing yet one more possible interpretation of Irma and that only a certain amount of material was used. Irma remains elusive, its score suggesting a lost Platonic ideal that cannot be recreated, but at South London Gallery it gained a distinct identity for itself.

Ryoko Akama: places and pages

Tuesday 29 August 2017

This is a vast work, in duration and scope, made from the briefest notations. It shows that there is so much more to be explored in and understood by the term ‘minimal’ in music. Akama states simply that “places and pages is a collection of fifty texts to be performed at random places”. The texts are as gnomic as any score by George Brecht, La Monte Young or Yoko Ono in the high times of Fluxus. There seems to have been a resurgence in text scores lately, or perhaps a rise in people who know how to play them. Akama’s texts are exceptionally brief, in a way that simultaneously risks an interpretive free-for-all yet also seems forbidding in its plain lack of information. They do, however, place an emphasis on procedures, either in performance (one simply states “forty-four: walks”) or structure (“fifty overlaps”). She has published an essay describing the pieces and thinking behind them in more detail.

Another Timbre has released the recordings Akama made in various locations around Switzerland over one week last summer as part of a group with Cristián Alvear, Cyril Bondi, d’incise, Christian Müller and Stefan Thut. Over two and a half hours, forty-five of the fifty are presented. The realisations range from solos to sextets, using musical instruments, found objects, field recordings; the locations range from the recording studio to the streets. From such insubstantial slips of writing comes a sonic landscape big enough to get lost in. The musicians’ ingenious interpretations can sound in turn like a flight of inspiration or a solution to a puzzle. In the mosaic-like arrangement of pieces, this album takes on the semblance of an aural movie in which a band of explorers make a quixotic survey of their surrounds, with only a roughly-sketched map for guidance.

Some patterns seem clear on casual listening while others remain unknowable. Brief vignettes intrude, certain themes and settings reappear, new elements are introduced and these simple little pieces accumulate a history and a complexity not previously considered. There are aspects reminiscent of Cage’s Song Books, Ferrari’s audio travelogues, Fluxus happenings, yet it sounds like none of these. As the joint project of six artists, it allows for a variety of distinct approaches while maintaining an overall coherence. The more overtly musical segments put the less obvious ones in a new light, admitting a broader range of sounds as music. In turn, when the ‘music’ returns it is heard as one of a range of possible activities permitted by the score. Taken as a whole, places and pages shifts back and forth between categories: composition, performance, documentary, collage, field recording. It is a true composite.

The Most Influential Rock Album Of The Last Twenty Years

Monday 21 August 2017

I live in a country where Oasis is still treated as more than a punchline so I can’t help but notice that their album Be Here Now was released twenty years ago on this day. Whatever the relative artistic merits of them or it, Be Here Now still casts a long shadow over all subsequent rock’n’roll to this day. The album, as everyone knows, is an epic of empty bombast and false bravado that tries to simultaneously distract and intimidate the listener from observing the meaningless void it barely covers. There’s nothing wrong in itself with braggadocio in rock; the genre was created as a vehicle for blagging. But Oasis weren’t blagging to get in anymore – they’d made it. Looking down on the world from a small mountain of blow, it was their moment for untouchable self-indulgence. Instead, they flinched and looked over their shoulder. The bombast was purely defensive, the arrogance a deflection from a bad case of impostor syndrome. They were blagging just to stay put.

It was a turning point in rock music. For the first time, a band on the upswing made an album whose primary motivation was not the hunger to conquer the world, but the fear of failure. Fear of losing what you already have has become the dominant mode of rock. Into the new century, hundreds of bands have copied Be Here Now‘s example: cajoling anthems, singalongs fishing for assent from the crowd, hoping the mob doesn’t turn on them. Once, people in the audience wanted to be in the band; now, the band pleads to belong with the audience. Each new act, each new record reeks of focus groups and flop-sweat. This is Be Here Now‘s legacy, held tight like a comfort blanket.

The Presence of Julius Eastman, in full

Monday 14 August 2017

While I was away a new issue of Tempo came out, which includes my review of last December’s London Contemporary Music Festival. This is a much expanded and improved version of the post I made here at the time, discussing the remarkable music of Julius Eastman, Arthur Russell and Frederic Rzewski. More context is given and Gay Guerrilla is misspelled – entirely my oversight. If you have access to journal articles you can read the whole thing on the Tempo website.

Pianos (I): Parkinson Dalibert Pateras

Tuesday 25 July 2017

For reasons economical as much as ideological the piano has become the one-man* laboratory for the composer as autonomous author or auteur using the instrument as a vehicle for musical manifestos. Music and ideas about music have become inseparable to the extent that to try such a separation is a theoretical statement in itself. That could be heard as a less direct demonstration of an aesthetic argument. In a similar way each piece of music may be heard as exemplifying a certain theoretical principle to a greater or lesser degree. When Feldman protested that he abjured systems he created a new means of approach for other composers to follow.

You make music out of sounds and not ideas but composition as a demonstration of a theoretical principle can be very direct and unadorned yet still be aesthetically pleasing or at least interesting even if nobody really wants to play the first part of Boulez’s Structures and skips straight to Book 2. Tom Johnson has created an oeuvre of compositions that rigorously follow even the simplest and most predictable processes yet can charm and delight through a counterintuitive adherence to an obvious pattern. The reason things get unexpectedly complicated is because there is a difference between letting a theory play out in your imagination and experiencing it as a physical acoustic phenomenon. If the idea is evident then it has to operate on musical terms.

I’ve been listening to Philip Thomas play two of Tim Parkinson’s eponymous piano pieces released by Wandelweiser a while back. The two pieces from 2006 and 2007 are discontinuous and ostensibly anonymous. Unconnected gestures and patterns separated by pauses accumulate in an arbitrary sequence. Parkinson describes the earlier piece as a constant state of beginning that is beginning with nothing. An echo of Cage’s dictum of chance starting over from zero at every instance comes to mind but here it is not chance but performance. Patterns of piano playing come to mind and are reflected on when starting over again. The latter piece is described in terms of work. Writing and playing in a given space of time and finding things new whether by playing something new or playing something heard before but hearing it new. In each case a give-and-take between the composer and the instrument reveals something unexpected.

I don’t know much about Melaine Dalibert’s music or his new album Ressac on Another Timbre. His plays two of his own compositions for solo piano. Like on the Parkison album the pieces are written in successive years. The 2014 piece is short and the second from the following year is long. Other than length it is difficult to tell the two apart. Each one is made entirely of single notes spaced widely apart with each note left to fade away. It gets monotonous but as each pitch is different from the next it is never monotonous enough to become interesting. Apparently there is some algorithm behind the sequence of pitches but this conceptual process is not demonstrated in an interesting way. The two pieces demonstrate nothing more than an idea that need not be heard. Letting each note decay so completely unfortunately recalls a previously fashionable style of ‘holy minimalism’ that assigned a superstitious reverence to each note played.

Two more piano pieces again played by the composer on Anthony Pateras’s Immediata release Blood Stretched Out. I’ve just looked and yes again the pieces are from successive years albeit in reverse order. Chronochromatics from 2013 plays like the latter Tim Parkinson piece albeit filtered through Pateras’ more manic sensibility. His programme notes list a set of ideas ideals idle thoughts obsessions and reference points which may well constitute the score for the piece. There may be autobiography in here encoded into the patchwork of allusions exercises and outbursts. As with the Parkinson anything familiar is rendered strange through context. As an idea the piece Blood Stretched Out seems simpler upon hearing it although the act of playing it seems much more arduous. An extended trill that thunders away for nearly 45 minutes would sound on the surface as a single exercise in timbre. The sleeve notes to this work are in the form of a diary compiled over two years collating thoughts on culture and music equally with reflections on society and philosophy. The opening of the piece establishes a parallel with Wagner and then starts to transform itself in a defiant attempt to break through the constraints of multiple traditions to which the most progressive musician may paradoxically find themselves bound. To distance oneself from classical tradition now puts one in debt to the past century of the avant-garde and to renounce both leads into an equally burdened history of improvisation. Pateras has carefully considered the odds and the options before deciding to launch a full-frontal attack in which competing ideas are subsumed entirely by acoustic phenomena.

Christoph Schiller & Morgan Evans-Weiler: spinet and violin

Thursday 20 July 2017

It describes itself as “an extended improvisation” but I don’t believe it. A few years back Another Timbre put out a solo album by Christoph Schiller titled Variations – a strange hybrid of improvisation and composition. Schiller worked inside an amplified spinet and piano with various objects to compose a canon out of improvisations of predetermined length. His working methods were inspired, producing evocative sounds that only occasionally betrayed their origins.

Someone could carelessly say that improvisation is about spontaneity, but that only goes some way towards a satisfying musical experience. When away from the club, the theatre, the sense of community, the bravado, the booze and only the sound remains. As Schiller said, “A recorded improvisation is as fixed (or even more fixed) as a written piece.” Improvisation is about heightened senses of judgement, knowing when and how to act, even if only on a subconscious level.

This new duet by Schiller and violinist Morgan Evans-Weiler, titled simply spinet and violin, exercises such a fine judgement over such a long time that it’s difficult to believe that, as Evans-Weiler confirms in the accompanying interview that the music was completely improvised, or that they haven’t been playing together for years:

It was clear from the second that we started playing what direction it was going to go. I think we have both become increasingly interested in pitch and so the focus was very much on permutations of pitch sets and working through these sets over time.

The focus on pitch yields a fascinating study in timbre and texture. Carefully choosing when to deploy each new note creates a beautifully paced slow arc of sound that builds up ominously before dying away to almost complete silence halfway through. Strangely, this stillness and subsequent stirring into activity again feels like a natural progression than a break or a structural argument. The shifts in dynamics throughout the piece are all the more striking and effective for being confined to a relatively narrow range.

Both musicians hover in a state halfway between definite pitch of ‘proper’ playing and the indeterminate sound of ‘extended’ techniques. The piece begins with Schiller plucking muted spinet strings against Evans-Weiler’s frail violin drones. Any tendency to pursue a particular gesture or sound gets reined in by an emphasis on pitch, yet the pitch itself remains a nebulous ideal which may be approached but never possessed. This ambiguous haze persists throughout, like a familiar image that preys on memory but never quite resolves into recognisable focus. Sustained double-stops float microtonally, the strings from both instruments rasp and buzz, a rare plucked note dropped like a pebble into a pond. The spinet rattles and echoes – at times it seems like there are electronics involved, with lower pitched sounds welling up in the background. It’s all hard to tell. I haven’t heard many pieces this year composed as well as this improvisation.

Late Feldman live and on record

Monday 17 July 2017

Last September Mark Knoop, Aisha Orazbayeva, Bridget Carey and Anton Lukoszevieze played Morton Feldman’s last piece, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello at Cafe Oto. I’ve written before about the playing conditions at Cafe Oto in hot weather, particularly when playing Feldman. Watching the musicians wilt in the airless heat, a sense of solidarity builds between the players and the punters, the understanding of dedication to a common interest.

In these circumstances, rough edges inevitably appear, attention can wander, but the sense of occasion gives an insightful edge. The exposed seams in how a piece is made, how it is played, helps the listener to understand more about what goes into the music. After the September gig, one of the players described it as “a nice run-through” of the Feldman. Another Timbre has now released a recording made by the same musicians in the more sedate climate of Henry Wood Hall in January. The differences are striking.

Yes, it’s more polished. Of course it is. The performance here is different in other ways. The four musicians, superb under pressure, now bring a new coherence and focus to the sound. The polish isn’t a layer of gloss, but a new surface, as simultaneously opaque and transparent as a late Rothko canvas. Compared to my memories of the Oto night, this new version is more sombre but also more settled. Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello seemed to mark an advance from Feldman’s other last pieces, in that it seemed more organic, even relaxed in its unhurried traversal of 74 minutes. In this recording, that more discursive aspect has diminished – presumably the musicians were able to pay more attention to each other. It’s replaced by a unified sound, closer in feeling to the more commercially celebrated Piano and String Quartet.

In playing together more closely, the strings produce a more otherworldly sound. The piano balances this tone beautifully, as though outlining a pattern visible within the surface of the strings. Heard in this way, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello now incorporates and resolves the monadic mysteriousness of preceding works like Coptic Light and For Samuel Beckett, allowing both the stillness of contemplation and an invitation to breathe again.

John Cage’s ‘Concert For Piano and Orchestra’

Monday 10 July 2017

The programme notes for the St John At Hackney gig last Thursday admitted that Cage’s Concert For Piano and Orchestra is a work more often seen than heard. Its spectre haunts all music that aspires to the condition of art as surely and as silently as his more notorious 4’33”. The score for the piano part acts as a signal, here be dragons. It’s a visual manifesto for Cage’s aesthetics of chance and indeterminacy, as forbidding as it is liberating. Critics worry, often without having heard it, that the music is random, meaningless. The meaning of, say, Haydn is a question that has never troubled them.

Live, the first performances I heard of the Concert were sparse and bracing, with that quality of openness that so often distinguished Cage’s music from other atonal composers of the Fifties. Years later, I heard a much more raucous, impetuous performance, with a larger orchestra. The comic qualities of the Concert have come under greater focus in recent years. The score itself conveys its own mischievous humour for the performer, the notation allows scope for an uncommon exuberance, the conductor has their own, independent part which may be safely ignored. For a “random, meaningless” work, it carries a lot of signs that it is a Concert of Misrule.

There’s too much precise working out of details to consider the work as a Dadaist stunt. Critics could, of course, complain that Cage’s anarchism isn’t anarchic enough. Despite all attempts to dismiss it – as a joke, as conceptual art, as a philosophical statement – the Concert persists as a discomfiting presence in music. Describing the music as ‘abstract’ or non-referential is not enough to diminish its power – this should be obvious to anyone who can hear. How, as a piece of music, does the Concert continue to exert such force on the imagination, nearly sixty years after its premiere?

At St John At Hackney last Thursday night, pianist Philip Thomas joined conductor Jack Sheen and ten musicians from Apartment House for a performance of the Concert. The piece has always sounded protean, a mass of competing forces that never find equilibrium, always on the verge of becoming identifiable but never resolving into a fixed state at any time. Cage often talked about observing and imitating nature’s methods of operation and, in this piece, nature seems always on the verge of exceeding its bounds.

Thomas had scrupulously devised a new realisation of the piano part. In this incarnation the solo, often pointillistic in other interpretations, frequently assumed a studied fury, with extended loud phrases in restricted registers, elaborate figures and, every now and then, sudden interruptions of added colouration through extended techniques and objects. The orchestra members, scattered to various points around the church, called out to no-one, expecting no reply. As the sun set and the church darkened, quieter moments felt more like fatigue than rest; silences, always unnervingly unpredictable, opened up in the music like chasms.

Cage expressed the belief that any meaning to found in music comes from within the listener. This is not a renunciation of meaning in art, but a more complex understanding of how meaning may be found. After Cage’s death, a clear trend emerged in performing his work in a heightened state of quiescence, embracing the accidental harmonies found in his late work. This attitude carried over into new realisations of pieces from the Fifties and Sixties, which typically received more abrupt, abrasive performances at the time. The Apartment House performance of Concert opened up a new way of hearing this music. As the discordant voices rose, coalesced, fell apart and were silenced, the piece became an ominous, unreadable symbol for the times, refusing to explain itself but portending dark times ahead. I’ve never heard a more powerful performance of the piece, live or on record.

It’s fitting that the companion work on the night was a new piece by Christian Wolff, titled Resistance. Written for the same forces, it was premiered by Apartment House in Leeds the weekend before. Wolff’s resistance is not obstructionist; the piece synthesises several different approaches he has used to composition over the years. At times fully notated, at others partially or completely open, the conductor gives direction as needed, marks time when required, or stands aside. In contrast to much of Wolff’s recent music, the sense of a shaping force was present, allowing greater contrast and affective shading to emerge while still not compromising the ‘consensual’ working of the musicians. It worked backwards through allusions to Cage’s Music For ______ series, Cardew’s ensemble music of the early Sixties, and Wolff’s own, earliest rule-based works, drawing upon them as principles to be maintained into the next century.