I had the good fortune to hear Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony live in concert a few months before the famous recording of it was released and quickly became ubiquitous. This made it a musical work I could hear as itself, not as a media phenomenon, but more important was the fact that I, and my friends and family seated beside me, and most of the audience were taken by it completely unexpectedly. Even having heard two or three other Gorecki pieces before, I wasn’t prepared for a piece simultaneously so monumental and so direct. Those two qualities combined can be used equally effectively to praise and to damn, and so a queasy ambivalence has settled in when discussing Gorecki’s hit. Unless you set out to be an iconoclast, any critique of the Symphony starts to lurch between defensive shrugging about the effect it has on listeners, and barbed apologies for its simpleness.
That same ambivalence reared up again after Friday night’s performance by the London Sinfonietta of Georg Friedrich Haas’ in vain. One review after another struggled over whether the piece is really as great as it’s been made out to be. in vain definitely fits the criteria of monumental and direct: an unbroken 70-minute span of music for chamber orchestra, who soon leave off their intricate flurry of notes to become caught up in repeated runs of notes that sometimes rise, sometimes fall. There’s a hook, too: at certain, prolonged moments the hall lights go out, the audience listens and the orchestra plays in pitch darkness.
Possibly coincidentally, I was unprepared when I first heard in vain, as a recording several years ago. It was a Kairos CD so I was expecting something typically spiky and recondite. In that frame of mind, the unexpected emergence of naked harmonics, sliding tones and unmotivated dramatic gestures was entirely disarming. It gave a definite sense of a longstanding consensus being broken, a work turning Caliban-like upon the culture that both created and confined it.
Having now witnessed it performed live it feels like, as with Gorecki’s Third, I no longer need or want to hear it again. Once it’s done, it’s done; and you can argue endlessly over whether that makes it less or more effective as a work of art.
I’ve read very little on the circumstances of how the Gorecki and the Haas were composed and I don’t plan to research it now, but both seem to share a quality of compulsion, a persistent image that had to purge from their systems, as something outside of, and indifferent to, their tastes. (Another parallel: both works contain indelible moments, but on reacquaintance also conceal forgotten longueurs, unfortunate adjuncts to supporting the overall image.)
Taste, both good and bad, has plagued Western art since the late seventeenth century. In his book The Counterfeiters Hugh Kenner describes the strange, sudden emergence of this scourge, as it applied to English poetry when the Metaphysicals gave way to the Augustan era.
Analogies have no inherent decorum, their efficacy is a function of detailed judgement. For poet and reader alike are now men of Judgement, collaborating in that strange attempt to rear a whole civilization upon taste. Fine shades of congruity and incongruity must be distinguished with an instinctive sureness. There is literally nothing that will not help sustain a poem, precisely as a satellite is maintained in orbit by forces whose intent, unbalanced, is to plunge it off into the infinite abyss forever.
The contemporaneous emergence of science as a discipline of knowledge had its own destabilising effect:
Registration, not discourse: the most profound innovation of Royal Society Prose was this, that the relation of subject to predicate was no longer something affirmed, by a speaker, but something verified, by an observer…. In a virtually new language, stylistic principles had to be rediscovered from scratch. It is not surprising that many experiments were unlucky.
in vain, just thirteen years old, seems to have been a beneficiary and then victim of taste. It was elevated so quickly as a masterpiece, but by its British premiere in Huddersfield last month it had already started to cause embarrassment. The novelty of its exterior is wearing through, and any persistent interest in its craft may be quickly exhausted. The audience on Friday night, however, was mostly enraptured, a significant minority moved to stand for their applause. Are they just a little bit behind in their taste, or have they latched onto an element of the work where taste played no part?
I keep thinking of that poetic chestnut “Trees” – more particularly of Guy Davenport’s essay on the poem. “It is, Lord knows, a vulnerable poem,” he writes, conscious of how its many flaws – mixed metaphors, simplistic pieties, infelicities of diction – may be observed by readers of Judgement. It is a poor imitator of the commercialised Art Nouveau aesthetic from which it derives, and yet those errors in imitation have pushed it beyond the pale of the correct tastes of its time, and allowed it so survive on its own terms when hundreds of more technically (tastefully) accomplished poems have been forgotten.
And yet there is a silvery, spare beauty about it that has not dated. Its six couplets have an inexplicable integrity, and a pleasant, old-fashioned music. It soothes, and it seems to speak of verities.
The crudity and inarticulacy that emerges from in vain may be its saving grace. It is too soon to tell what the music’s fate may be. It will probably join the thousands of pieces of the nominal but unplayed repertoire of the past hundred years or so. It may persist, equally adored and derided, or it may even be effaced as a cultural signifier, as inaudible as Orff’s O Fortuna or Barber’s Adagio. Immortality always comes at a price.
Each piece is written for two speaking voices, with an added tape component. The two speakers are given almost identical chance-determined texts to read aloud, with variable time-frames in which each passage may be spoken. Each voice may speak in either English, German, or a mixture of both. For this recording I’ve overdubbed myself, speaking in English only.
I’m not sure if it’s better appreciated lying in the dark with headphones on, or just letting it drone away in the background while getting stuff done. Anyway, full details about the piece, along with mp3s for streaming or downloading are on the main website which definitely needs freshening up soon.
The back of the loyalty card for my friendly local coffee chain is plugging Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition at the Tate, as if London isn’t sufficiently riddled with Hirsts for the well-caffeinated. Earlier this year Hirst’s dealer held simultaneous exhibitions around the world of his spot paintings, with Hirst goosing the punter’s interest in the mundane canvases by dropping suggestions of a hidden message encoded in the grids of coloured spots. Because Damien Hirst totally has a lot to say.
Amateur. A real artist lets the mysteries and conspiracy theories accumulate around him or her, like an inverted pearl. I saw this in all the bookshops in Cologne:
Could someone have actually published a crime novel called The Richter Code, enthusiastically ripping of the title, perhaps even the premise, of The Da Vinci Code, basing their murder plot upon the premise of a secret message hidden in the supposedly-random coloured panes of Gerhard Richter’s window for Cologne Cathedral?
George Rubin, Cologne’s most ambitious journalist, learns in the investigation into a murder case of an encrypted message hidden in Richter’s window of Cologne Cathedral. Will the Cathedral really be destroyed on election day? Rubin does everything possible to decipher the “Richter-code” and prevent the disaster.
I love the idea that an artwork barely five years old is already being put to work in mythmaking. Even more, I love the idea that an author has decided that Gerhard Richter is somehow involved in both a murder and a plot to destroy the cathedral containing one of his most famous artworks. It neatly combines Richter’s 4900 Colours and related works with his habit of destroying paintings as part of his ongoing artistic practise.
Not mention that the book is part of a publisher’s series called “Köln Krimi”. You know your city’s made it when you can boast an entire literary sub-genre about your home town being a hotbed for ingenious serial killers.
In the second-hand bookshop in Stoke Newington Church Street on the weekend. They had a hardback copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Nunquam, a book I’m sure I haven’t seen since the days of the Third World Bookshop in Adelaide, over twenty years ago. Back then and there, a couple dozen fading copies of the thing were stacked up on top of the other stacks of books wedged between the top of the bookshelves and the ceiling on the mezzanine, and they never moved. Perhaps they were holding the ceiling up. No-one ever tried to find out.
My friends called Third World “the bookshop that couldn’t say no”. The saleable stock was slowly and inexorably being crowded out or swallowed up by accumulating substrata of unmoveable stock. Occasionally you got lucky, like when I found a signed first edition of Janette Turner Hospital’s Borderline under half a centimetre of dust. Otherwise you could just take a reassuring tour of the familiar layers of superseded Pelicans, teacher’s handbooks, Nunquams and, in pride of place at the end of the Mezzanine, all 300 volumes of the collected writings of Lenin, a massive, yellowing white elephant.
Back in Stoke Newington, I noticed another vast off-white mass on top of the shelves where Nunquam lurked. It spilled over onto the adjoining bookcase. It was the collected writings of Lenin, in 300 volumes. I’ll have to go back next week to see if they’re both still there, in eternal embrace.
Can you imagine after all these years if you asked John Cage, “Do you really believe in Zen?” and you get the answer, “No.”
– Morton Feldman
I’m interested in John Cage but I’m not interested in Zen, so I don’t want to get too tangled up in origins. When reading the Pan Zen parables in The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium I wondered at first if Mathews was using Cage as a source, or if the two of them had each read the same, common book of Zen stories. After the briefest of research, it was obviously the former case.
Next thought: why Zen? Was Cage consulted as a handy source of Zen parables, or would any thought suitably exotic have fitted Mathews’ purposes and Cage’s anecdotes made good material? Come to think of it, is there anything wrong with Mathews’ versions of these stories? The linguistic joke is a broken-English rendition of Cage’s English, transformed completely, yet still recognisable. What we have is a (fictitious) English translation of a (fictitious) Pan translation of Cage’s English interpretation of and English translation of…. What is the original? Cage’s retelling of Zen stories are impossible to pin down. They drift back and forth between China and Japan, and some of them must originate in India. Cage’s versions must be as alien as Twang Panattapam’s. Where is the Patriarch and where is the poem?
The inevitable cultural distortion produced by imitation is as much a voluntary act of rejection as it is a voluntary, albeit imperfect, embrace. These transformed Zen stories, iteration and iteration, reminded me of the frontispiece of Guy Davenport’s book of essays, Every Force Evolves A Form. He draws a design from a Celtic coin, and observes that it’s creator was
trying to make iconographic sense of others derived from a stater of Philip II of Macedonia, which bore a head of Hermes on one side and a winged horse on the other. Copy after copy, over centuries, provincial mints in Aquitania had already misread the face of Hermes as a lion’s head, as sun and moon, or as so many abstract lines and dots.
A quick google finds plenty of examples of imitation Philip II staters, with a multitude of variations on the single, original design. One blog on Bulgarian Celtic culture charts the various paths by which the designs evolved. The author argues that these designs were “the result of a conscious and deliberate rejection of Greco-Roman art and experimentation with alternative artistic ideas that would not resurface in European art until the modern era”.
Davenport concludes that in his example, the profile of Hermes has been transformed into a horse. Based on the many examples found on Google Images it appears that he goofed and is looking at the reverse of the coin. This misinterpretation, accidental or not, draws its subject to a conclusion (“All art is a dance of meaning from form to form.”) as fruitful as Cage’s study of Zen – however faithful, misguided or superficial it may or may not have been. It is all so much raw material for an active mind to work on.
This bears repeating: I keep coming back to the idea that all creativity is an act of distortion. I’ve just been reading Harry Mathews’ epistolary novel The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium. One of the story’s protagonists – Tro-tsi Twang Panattapam McCaltex, from the former Italian colony of Pan-Nam in Southeast Asia – writes in her imperfect English a Zen story well-known in her native Pan.
In the po test by whiwhich the 6° arch of zen was chose, there were poems. One say, “Dis-like roil dust. The probes remove the dust.” The “head wing” poems are their. It said, “He ‘s the mind. Where, is dust?” Some lat-er Pan masters: a monk who was stak-ing bats, a young-er monk up to his id in the dust – “Are you a-staking-bats?” “No. Why?”
I missed Eurovision again on Saturday night. I briefly considered watching it on iPlayer and writing up a review of it like I did until 2009, but then I got online the next day. In my Twitter feed I had not one, but two waves of Eurovision updates: first from my European contacts on Saturday night, followed by the second wave from Australians on Sunday morning, as they watched the delayed telecast.
A paradox has emerged in the world of online media. Just about any show or event that readily comes to mind is available, in perpetuity; but if you want to join in the conversation your experience has to be immediate. As a kid, my school week always started with a breakdown of what happened on Countdown on Friday evening. Today, any attempt to bring up the subject on Monday would be digging up old news. If you wait for that new foreign show to come to TV in your town, your friends will have downloaded it or bought the DVD on Amazon. You can’t phone people overseas and tell them how their old team is going back home – they already know.
My blog is the closest I’ll ever get to keeping a diary. Over the years it’s evolved from spouting off about anything that’s amused or annoyed me at the time, to spouting off about things I’ve personally experienced. The brief or trivial observations, or links to other stuff that has interested me, which used to keep the update rate on the blog ticking over, are now most often published on my Twitter account. These short entries used to be the supposedly preferred remit for blogs, but now blogs seem like they should be the home for longer, more reflective writing. No doubt the form and substance in which these conversations take place will remain in flux for some time yet.
Everything on Wikipedia is contentious: tomato soup is no exception. Since an entry first appeared in January 2006 – a mere three sentences describing it only as a tinned food, with “the consistency of cream of wheat and… tarty to the taste” – the humble comfort food has been a source of trivial controversy.
This is, of course, to be expected; yet in five years this brief article has been subjected to an unusually high level of arbitrary editing. Beside racist taunts, casual denigration of tomato soup, and mysterious references to the 1998 Swiss Tomato Soup Rebellion, debate has smouldered on the discussion pages over whether the ability to be served both hot and cold is noteworthy, and whether it is necessary to provide a citation demonstrating that tomato soup is, in fact, a soup made of tomatoes. It has also been the blameless target of revisions attributing the soup with the ability to increase sperm count, or of actually being a powdered donut made from llamas.
Despite all this, one element has remained constant for the past four years, surviving every revision and reversion since February 2007:
The American composer Robert Ashley wrote “Empire”, a section of his opera Atalanta (Acts of God), on the origins and proliferation of tomato soup.
Wonderfully, as well as being an excellent opera by one of the past century’s greatest composers, “Empire” deals with tomato soup purely as an industrial commodity, precisely as described in it’s original Wikipedia entry. Even more wonderfully, Ashley has stated that “Empire” is in fact
an allegorical telling of the founding of one of the great multinational corporations. The story was told to me by the scion of the family of that corporation. I have changed the names (and the product) to protect the privacy of the source. And I have deliberately made the metaphor (soup) more casual and humorous than the actuality of corporate America.
For all these years, the one constant in Wikipedia’s quest for authoratitiveness has been an operatic metaphor. Ashley has also stated that Atalanta (Acts of God) is an opera about story-telling, about the persistence of myth through its mutability. Already, Wikipedia has imbued “Empire”‘s origin myth with an obstinate authenticity of the sort that outlasts conventional history.
Short, shameful confession: despite being interested in music, and interested in Ezra Pound, I’ve never heard so much as a single note of Ezra Pound’s music. I’ve read about it, sure, but never heard it. From time to time this troubles me as a significant gap in my knowledge, but then I forget about it.
The latest event to suddenly prick my conscience was a discussion originating on Alex Ross’ blog over what might be the worst recording ever made, a-and up came… Ezra Pound. Not that the performances are bad (sez Marc Geelhoed), it’s Pound’s terrible, terrible music.
Now I’m not expecting Pound’s minor career as a composer to have produced hidden masterpieces, but: worst ever? Worse than Nietzsche? Descriptions I’ve read of Pound’s music typically comment on its rudimentary nature (even the stuff assisted by Agnes Bedford) and unusual rhythms, and then broadly implying that it should be considered as an adjunct to his poetry. Pound himself said that his inital attempts to set Villon to music were spurred by his inability to adequately translate him into English. Yet, even though reading Pound’s poetry often requires you to wilfully misunderstand everything else in the universe, I’ve never seen even his most ardent detractor insist that his music sucks. Even Humphrey Carpenter, a biographer who displays little interest in making sense of Pound’s life or work, singles out the music for surprisingly lavish praise. Mind you, Carpenter’s attempts at interpreting Pound’s poetry are pitifully wrong-headed, so much so that his approving comments were my first suspicion that something might be amiss.
So, I’ve always meant to get around to listening to Pound’s music; but now that Marc Geelhoed has damned it as the definitive worst, I’ve really, really got to hear it bad.
Coincidentally, I’ve also just read another of Alex Ross’ blogposts, looking at depictions of imaginary music by imaginary composers in literature. He concludes with Mann’s Doctor Faustus, and the strange effect Leverkuhn’s fictional music has had on real composers:
The composer’s life may be one long descent into madness, but his music represents a quest to escape the horror, or, failing that, to capture it with all the resources at a composer’s command. I first read Doctor Faustus at the age of eighteen, and I remember feeling both appalled and thrilled by the all-devouring, chaotically conflicted concept of musical expression that it embodied, so different from the prim community of “classical music” that had been presented to me. … More than a few composers of the postwar era responded with perverse enthusiasm to Mann and Adorno’s descriptions, attempting to bring them to life. György Ligeti, in Hungary, first learned about twelve-tone writing through Mann’s eccentric account of it. Hans Werner Henze, Henri Pousseur, Peter Maxwell Davies, Poul Ruders, Bengt Hambraeus, and Alfred Schnittke, among others, alluded to Leverkühn in their music.
It’s a tendency that goes back to Ovid: video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor. There’s something irresistable about art that violates the accepted rules of propriety, that is chaotic and conflicted, even if it doesn’t succeed. The chaos becomes a source of renewal. It’s part of why I was attracted to Pound’s poetry in the first place, and why, after hearing someone say it’s terrible, I suddenly believe I could learn something very interesting from hearing his music.
More details about The Slips can be found here. Audio excerpts and other documents will be available soon, once I’ve cleaned them up a bit.
Slips 1 and Slips 2 were written in March 1999 and revised in November 2002. They are two of several works I have written using musical compositional techniques to produce texts; in particular they are inspired by the formalist poetry of John Cage and Konrad Bayer. Unlike my previous texts (A Walk Around the Lake (1994-95) and An Austrian Automaton (1996- )) Slips 1 and 2 were written particularly with spoken performance in mind.
The matter for both pieces is taken from the slips of paper – Zettel - the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein kept in a box, in no particular order, which was discovered after his death. From this collection of short texts I have taken only the words and phrases written in quotation marks: examples of language, hypothetical speech, “things”, rather than the thoughts that connect or discuss them. A list of some 650 phrases or words was thus obtained.
Both works are one hour long, for two voices. For Slips 1, each minute was allocated a certain number of phrases, between zero and twelve, for each speaker to say. Apart from some specified timings, the speakers are permitted to say their phrases at any time within the designated durations. As well as speaking, the performers are instructed to write out specified passages while they say them. The number of phrases spoken, the selection of phrases from the list, the timings and designated written passages, were all determined by chance using Andrew Culver’s computer program ic, an I Ching simulator. With the exception of a small number of chance-selected phrases, the parts for the two voices in Slips 1 are almost identical, differing only in their timing and passages designated to be written out.
Slips 2 uses the same compositional method as Slips 1, but instead of complete phrases only a restricted number of words are selected from the given phrases. At first these words are extracted from the text for Slips 1, and after this material is exhausted newly-selected phrases from the list were subjected to this process. The parts for the two voices in Slips 2 do not differ at all, apart from their timings and designated written passages.
The two works may be performed separately, or with Slips 2 following Slips 1. Each work may be performed by two live speakers, or one live speaker with a recorded voice. As the text gives the original German and parallel English translation, each piece may be read out in either language, or a mixture of the two.
Two important aspects of The Slips in performance are the prevalence of silence (absence of consciously-produced sound) and the sense of time passing. One final point is the requirement for additional music to play very quietly sometime during the middle third of each piece. Other events may occur simultaneously with the performance.
The first complete performance of The Slips was given by myself at Clubs Project Inc. in April 2003. I performed both works twice, once reading each part, with a recording of myself reading the other part. The performance was entirely in English. To emphasise those two important aspects mentioned above, all the windows in the venue were left open throughout the afternoon of the performance, and the last of the four readings was times to conclude at sunset. During the second performance of Slips 2 the shadows lengthened across the room, and the candle on my table that I had lit at the start of the afternoon finally asserted its prominence as the only light source within the room.
At certain moments during the day, excerpts from my NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT MX (2002) for fourteen virtual, out-of-tune baroque harpsichords would play softly in another part of the venue, its presence more noticeable in its disappearances.
Other, smaller-scale pieces have been made from the same source material as The Slips. The most notable of these is Wandering Split (2002), an audio-only piece that was essentially a condensed version of Slips 1, spoken simultaneously in English and German, with a specially composed musical soundtrack acting as a third voice mediating between the two. Wandering Split was first presented as part of a sound installation in the group multimedia exhibition Gating, curated by Michael Graeve at West Space Art in 2002, and subsequently issued on the exhibition CD. Since then, the piece has enjoyed a few outings at sound art gigs in Austria.
In general, as a matter of principle, and for your own well-being, I urge you to not work on Louis Zukofsky, and prefer that you do not. Working on LZ will be far more trouble than it is worth…. Finally, when all else fails, and you remain hell-bent on quoting LZ, but you really, really REALLY do not want to deal with me…
And that goes for you so-called academics and conniving dissertation students, too!
Unsurprisingly, there are now half-a-dozen scanned copies of LZ’s masterwork “A” circulating teh interwebs. Don’t worry Paul, I’m sure they won’t stoop to reading it!
Funny thing is that Louis Zukofsky was something of a virtuoso in the art of appropriation, as the above quote from PZ, quoted by LZ in “A”-12 (p.214) shows.
In the early days of the internet, I used to get email every now and then from deluded fanboys who had mistaken me for a different Ben Harper. Of course, I always replied. That hasn’t happened for years, but last week I got fan mail from none other than the King of the Delta Blues, Robert Johnson. Apparently the afterlife now has email, but not Google.
Mr Johnson’s remarks were apposite, albeit misdirected:
Who did you have to blow to get to the level of semi-fame you have been handed? In your entire career there has not been one original moment. Your vocals and guitar playing, not to mention your lyrics, are dull, and the worst thing is your deep sense of self-importance. You seem humorless and totally self-involved. And you are just generally so AVERAGE. If it weren’t for your connections,you would be playing in a bar somewhere in the Inland Empire on a Sunday Jam night.
I know that your career was handed to you, so that’s nice for you. Since you have a soapbox on which to stand and pontificate, why not take just a minute and write something catchy? Be a pop star and a star-fucker (you already are), and stop with the fake social consciousness.
PS congratulations on those tattoos. They are about as original as your music.
Rolling over in my grave,
PS please stop playing my music. It’s embarassing.
As I said, I always reply to fan mail, regardless of whether it’s meant for me or not:
Dear Mr Johnson,
Thank you for your email. In reply to your question, I had to blow an old gypsy at the age of 12 to attain my present day success. Funnily enough, it took place at a crossroads. Ain’t that a kick in the pants? Thought you might find it amusing.
I know I got a pretty sweet deal going here so I have no intention of shitting where I eat and showing up my lack of talent by trying and failing to write something fun and tuneful. As for the fake social consciousness, well as you are aware I have next to no mojo so it’s the next best way to get laid. Sure, they’re those liberal arts student chicks who don’t shave in the right places but they’re hella uninhibited and besides when you’re almost drowning in pussy you don’t want to make waves, you get me? Same goes for the tattoos, they’re a real leg-spreader for the sheltered neurotic type that tend to hang out at my gigs.
To be honest, I have been working on some new material, its uploaded on my new website at http://www.cookylamoo.com/music/. I call it Klezska, its like a combination of klezmer, ska, and polka all wrapped up into one. I hardly need to keep typing cos I know you’re already downloading it, who can resist such an amazing blend of rockin styles. It’s pretty fucking awesome, though I say so myself.
Also, Eric Clapton and I have been talking about issuing a sort of customer loyalty/credit account card with your picture on it. You know, as a tribute. Is that cool?
You’re my idol,
The Taxi Driver Looks At The Seine was written in 1993 when I was at a loose end in Brisbane and wishing I was somewhere else. It was published in the first issue of the literary journal pook, the official organ of the Adelaide chapter of The Political Party For Modest Progress Within The Confines Of The Law (Australia). In 1996 the text was performed in a reading at Grey Area Art Space in Melbourne, and has since lain dormant until finding a new home on the web, with added multimedia content (i.e. illustrations).
The illustrative photographs are randomly selected from all public photographs on Flickr tagged with the word ‘Paris’. How they appear on your screen may depend on the type of browser you’re using.