Unfinished Business: Ezra Pound’s Music

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Been listening a lot to two new CDs on Another Timbre: a new album of Jürg Frey’s piano music played by Philip Thomas, and a collection of pieces by Joseph Kudirka played by Apartment House. I need to talk about these soon but I’ve got left over business from the London Contemporary Music Festival last month. It was an incredible programme that mixed old and new, familiar and obscure in a way that took risks simply by being such an eclectic jumble of different practices and backgrounds: a true portrait of the state of “contemporary music” at the start of a century that still hasn’t a defined identity.

A long blog post by Lawrence Dunn gives an excellent analysis of many events from the LCMF, as well as the La Monte Young and other gigs at Huddersfield. (Dunn also discusses Philip Thomas playing Frey’s piano music live.) The latter part of his post goes into detail about the LCMF night “To a new definition of opera”, which still strikes me as the stand-out event in the programme. The first half of Tim Parkinson’s Time With People, which I’ve talked about before, re-appeared and its stage detritus persisted amongst the audience throughout the whole programme.

The evening ended with Stockhausen’s Pietà finally getting played in this country – a prime example of his later music being quite mad and quite wonderful. It began by plunging the audience into the verbal and visual assault of Ryan Trecartin’s video Center Jenny. Dunn’s blog links to the video and makes the excellent observation that this work connects to the legacy of Robert Ashley’s operas, in a deep and disturbing way. I can’t really agree with Dunn’s feeling that it’s the work of “the worst sort of antifeminist”. It seemed more to me that the video is about misogyny than of it, or worse, that it dispassionately picks up one unsavoury aspect of current social anxieties which, salvaged as a remnant in a post-apocalyptic future, is arbitrarily selected as the model for a future society. It could have been racism, but that’s too heavy now. The gender and social roles depicted in US sorority life are still presented as cheerfully benign, and exist in a curious cultural vacuum: through movies and TV they are familiar to everyone around the world, but unlike McDonald’s or basketball they remain utterly alien to even the most pro-American Anglophone. The average age of the audience on this night was noticeably older, and they generally seemed to find Center Jenny amusing.

I presume the older people were an equal mix of Stockhausen fans and Pound fans. The night was my chance to hear Ezra Pound’s music played live, with a potted version of his opera Le Testament de Villon played for the first time in the UK in its “un-revised” phrasing. Pound’s music is seldom heard and even when scholars of Pound the poet bring it up there’s much lip service and little critical discussion. It tends to get pigeonholed as a passing phase, one of the less harmful of his many eccentricities. On paper, it has often been dismissed as crude and amateurish: irregular meters and phrasing, no pauses, introductions or conclusions, any polyphony usually an accompanying instrument moving in parallel with the voice. It’s clear he set Villon’s words line by line to melody, determined by the intonation of a speaking voice. Pound himself suggested that the opera was instigated by the impossibility of satisfactorily translating Villon into English.

One critic has sniffed that the opera is “less a foray into modernism and more a half-baked retreat into pre-operatic archaism” and so misses the point. It’s of a piece with much of Pound’s poetry to that time, of reclaiming and revitalising old cultural forms, “making it new”. “Early music” as it is appreciated now was barely known in 1920s and Pound had advocated for it before (going as far as to buy a clavichord from Arnold Dolmetsch in 1915, despite not knowing how to play it) and after (microfilming unpublished Vivaldi manuscripts in the 1930s).

Those strange, meandering vocal lines of irregular length are now familiar to audiences through the resemblance to plainchant, albeit with a minimal accompaniment (often just solo violin) and a strange, not-quite-modal intonation. The baritone Robert Gildon and mezzo Lore Lixenberg sang without the vibrato that would have been hard to expunge in Pound’s lifetime. The piece begins with an overture on solo cornet de dessus (think a valveless trumpet the size of an alphorn), the interludes are brief, spare taps on a kettle drum. When Virgil Thomson heard it he presciently noted that “it bore family resemblances unmistakable to the Socrate of Satie” – another overlooked masterwork by a composer yet to be appreciated. The pared-down simplicity of the opera recalls John Cage’s reduction of Socrate, but his Cheap Imitation was written over 40 years later. The haunting motet at the end of the opera carries the same blurring of familiar and strange, in the same manner of Cage’s arrangements of 18th Century American hymns – achieved, again, by erasing. Cage’s last operas also reduce the elements of opera to the barest essentials. I haven’t read anything that suggests Cage was knowledgeable about Pound as a composer.

The LCMF programme specifically links the Pound and the Stockhausen Pietà as “two neglected masterpieces of modernism”. When Stockhausen died I connected him to Pound in terms of how much their work remains misunderstood and will probably stay that way. The LCMF concert felt like a first step for treating Pound’s music as more than a curiosity.

Pierre Boulez

Wednesday 6 January 2016

[I originally posted this in October 2011, after going to Royal Festival Hall to hear Boulez conduct Pli Selon Pli with Barbara Hannigan, the Ensemble InterContemporain and the ensemble of the Lucerne Festival Academy. Almost didn’t get a ticket, thinking that Boulez’ temperament and taste had changed too much over the intervening decades to do justice to the work’s intransigent ferocity. The concert experience that night made me feel a little ashamed for having doubted.]

I take back everything mean I said about Pierre Boulez.

On Sunday night I sat transfixed through the entirety of Pli selon pli. I’ll let someone else gush over the details for me.

I couldn’t lose focus on the thing for a second. What the music had lost in vehemence was now regained in a controlled, hour-long explosion of energy that could alternately freeze or boil without ever resorting to histrionics or becoming self-absorbed in details. It’s linear, it’s dramatic, it’s big; it fulfils the contradictory wish for a radical gesture that signals a renewal of tradition. This was the future that would look much like the past.

For trying to kill Schoenberg, Boulez’s fate has been to become Schoenberg: an artist trapped by the past, his achievement obscured by his hard-won reputation. In a trait peculiar to French artists, too much of Boulez’s attention seems to have been caught up in pontification and politics. It’s surprisingly hard to hear the music for what it is, and not what it has come to represent. I now suspect that this, in a different way, is a problem that Boulez has had to grapple with too, and that Sunday’s Pli selon pli could be a type of triumph that had eluded him for so many years of revisions and re-recordings.

That second Improvisation is damn lovely. And I’m never taking Stravinsky’s quip seriously again. I wonder which other Boulez works are better than they sound?

Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor.

Monday 4 January 2016

There’s a lot of stuff I need to write about but first I need to get this out of the way. I started re-reading Wyndham Lewis’ last novel, The Red Priest. I think Lewis is one of the great writers of the last century and, even though there are still two I haven’t read, The Red Priest must be the worst of his novels.

So why am I re-reading it, instead of something better? Because I don’t remember it. This in itself isn’t a problem for me: I’m not good at remembering details of books I like, either – especially the endings. The point is that I don’t remember why this particular book is bad, compared to his others.

Good art, music, writing, is too easily found: years, centuries of critical consensus offers them up, presses them upon you. Bad art is a personal discovery. Even when warned of its badness, like a Wet Paint sign, there is always the temptation to test for oneself. Meanwhile, we’ll take others’ word for it that Milton is a great poet and think we never need to hear another note of Mozart again.

Good art can also be a personal discovery, of course, but I always worry that I’m looking for something different, at the expense of finding something good. For years, my record library had large holes in it. Rummaging through second-hand vinyl I’d routinely pass up the chance to get, say, In C because I’d found an obscure album of Curtis Curtis-Smith. It’s all very well to buck the canon, but I found myself lost in marginalia.

Finding the good in the perhaps justly overlooked brings a fresh thrill to the mind, even if the discovery turns out to be grounded in ignorance and vanity. As T.S. Eliot sort-of said of Hamlet, people will claim it’s fascinating because it’s beautiful, when in fact they find it beautiful because it fascinates them. Eliot’s attitude seems the exact inverse of critical approach in this time of new-found abundance of information, when everything is ripe for rediscovery and reassessment.

An up-to-date critic would immediately point out that Eliot himself was an iconoclast, describing Hamlet as an artistic failure. What beauty isn’t flawed in some way? Lewis’ prose style can be grotesque, yet Fitzgerald’s stilted dialogue is given a pass. Fans of Fr. Rolfe will excuse his absurdities, but are those absurdities any worse than those accepted in D.H. Lawrence?

Perhaps the entire history of criticism is less concerned with finding the good than with finding the better than you think.

Dick Without A Hole (Spear & Jackson No. 3 Mix)

Tuesday 29 December 2015

I started making a more serious video over the Christmas break but had to stop when it turned out that some essential material, which I was dead certain was in my desk drawer, was either missing, in storage somewhere, or lost. Instead, I made this.

Dick Without A Hole

“Hello, Yes, Hello” - Brion Gysin
“Did Dick?” - Graham Kennedy
“Dick Did!” - Ugly Dave Gray
“Why are people ringing telling me jokes?” - Bob Byrne

Bob the late-night talkback radio host is taking your calls on the open line about the issues of the day that matter to you, and our next caller is Gene. Gene wants to ask Bob a riddle. Bob doesn’t get it. Moving right along: Peter is next on the line. Peter also wants to ask Bob a riddle. Bob doesn’t know the answer, but Peter won’t tell him! Perplexed, Bob takes Phyllis’ call and asks her Peter’s riddle, but Phyllis just wants to hear Gene’s riddle again…

Dick Without A Hole was inspired by my love for the genteel stupidity of talk radio in Adelaide last century. The hosts craved the urgency and confrontation of shock jocks in other parts of the world but everyone in Adelaide, announcers and callers alike, were just too nice to carry it off. I still have a few cassettes, somewhere, of some of the better sessions, particularly the 9pm to midnight shift when the demographic got drunk and doddery.

This playful little dance of fumbled verbal exchanges and missed punchlines comes from one of those surviving tapes. Set to a cheerful, semi-funky shuffle, our four protagonists juggle the two dud gags back and forth, never grasping them yet never quite letting them drop. I find that their shared confusion in joke-telling gives a satisfying sense of mystery to this simple yet intractable form of social interaction. Their ritual is consecrated by the hallowed incantation of Messrs Kennedy and Gray, the two Magi of mid-seventies Australian comedy.

Dick Without A Hole (Red Detachment Of Women Mix) made its public debut at John Beagles’ and Graham Ramsay’s Museum Magogo in Glasgow, 1999. After that it toured to PB Gallery in Melbourne, and was revived in 2002 for the Piped Music series at The Physics Room in Christchurch – more specifically, in the toilets of The Physics Room.

For Christmas 2015 I’ve made a video version with a new, improved Spear & Jackson No. 3 Mix. Now with the ipad/smartphone/gaming console of your choice, you too can enjoy Dick Without A Hole in the comfort of your own toilet. For best results, leave it playing on a continuous loop.

LCMF 2015, first three days real quick

Monday 14 December 2015

I’ve spent the last three nights at the London Contemporary Music Festival and plan to spend the next four there, too. No time to put any of these thoughts into a coherent form, so this will have to do.

It’s an incredibly ambitious programme, with an eclectic array of big names and obscurities. The venue’s pretty cool and allows for acts to follow each other pretty much immediately without longueurs.

Friday night didn’t come off. Very short sets for live electronic musicians Tom Mudd and John Wall didn’t allow them enough time to get going. Other pieces tended to be awkward, self-conscious exercises in performance art, which was a bit of a downer. Sets by Shelley Parker and Visionist suffered from being dance music freeze-dried as art.

Saturday was great, focusing on composers who are from or passed through California. Pauline Oliveros and Morton Subotnick each got to noodle around and soak up the acclaim they deserve. Some old favourites (Cowell, Cage), a couple of twists (Terry Riley’s Keyboard Study No. 2, Otis O’Solomon reciting poetry). The highlight was the UK premiere of Catherine Lamb’s duo for bassoongrand bass recorder and (microtonally-intoned) cello, Frames.

It was good to hear Maggie Payne getting some exposure, alongside the Carl Stone piece. I’m still not sure exactly what the fuss is about John Luther Adams.

The space is huge, benches and standing room. There is a cash bar in the adjoining room. Not everything played (e.g. Lamb) is amplified. Everyone keeps quiet and pays attention. Ellen Fullman’s long string instrument was set up in advance, stretching diagonally across the floor. Staff and punters do a sterling job of keeping anyone from falling into it.

Wednesday started with Ellen Fullman premiering a new work, The Watch Reprise. Copies of the score are dotted along the floor for reference as she walks back and forth playing the strings. The tuning system gets progressively crazier; in this cavernous room the bass sub-harmonics come out particularly strong.

Bryn Harrison’s Repetitions in Extended Time is another disorientating labyrinth of interweaving patterns. For forty-five minutes the instruments act as if alone, yet always rubbing up against each other in a passive-aggressive state of forced co-existence. Imagine a late Feldman piece, or the opening of Haas’ in vain, boiled down into an absurdist drama.

Tim Etchells repeats pithy phrases, turning them over like Wittgenstein overhearing gossip on a bus, while Aisha Orazbayeva taps and scrapes away at her violin. This is dumb, I think. But it’s an improvisation, of sorts, I remind myself. A weird kind of improvisation, so I kind of like it. The violin sounds nice, even though it’s making the most meagre of gestures. Maybe the words mean more by the sounds than by what they say, too. I try to listen to it differently, put them together. I’ll need to hear it again.

This Is The New Music: Chain Of Ponds

Wednesday 9 December 2015

I’ve got a new album of music up on Bandcamp, titled Chain of Ponds.

It’s the culmination of various experiments I’ve made over the years using digital feedback synthesis, and I’m finally getting results I find fully satisfactory. I like the textural richness that can be brought out of something so conceptually neat. It’s kind of harsh, but kind of pastoral, to my ears.

You can stream it below, buy it cheap, or contact me (email, direct message on Twitter etc.) and I might still have some free download codes to email you.

Three Days in Huddersfield (Part Two of Two)

Friday 4 December 2015

Part One is here. If you want a better of what was actually happening at the HCMF this year, go over to 5:4 for detailed reviews of practically everything.

I arrived in Huddersfield just in time to hear the Quatuor Bozzini play Jürg Frey’s second and third string quartets. Both nearly half-an-hour long, the second quartet was composed over the turn of the century, the third a decade later. The second quartet sustains a constant mood and method – hushed, isolated chords are played in unison, with recurring harmonies partially obscured by the whispering of the bows against the strings. We’re back in the musical world of toying with extremes.

The third quartet reveals a clear and immediate contrast, with Frey’s recent style. It’s almost “classical music”, albeit on its own terms, within a very attenuated space. Isolated chords appear again, but speaking more fully. More prevalent are the passages of harmonic sequences. Some counterpoint emerges, through long-held notes sustained over an accompaniment of alternating chords. There is phrasing and variations in dynamics, from soft to very soft. Every now and then, a long-held chord acts like a cadence by means of its simple consistency, with tiny variations in timbre and balance becoming perceptible. All this variety suggests a teleology, a functional structure, but the start and the end sound arbitrary – as indeed does all of the middle. Like Morton Feldman, Frey has become a master of non-functional harmony.

Frey’s found a path of moderation away from some of the extremes of his earlier music. Moderation is too often seen as a bad thing in itself, a deviation from a pure ideal*. The night after hearing Jakob Ullmann’s solo IV, I was at the premiere of his 90-minute sort-of concerto la segunda canción del ángel desaparecido. Once again, I find myself wondering if I’m listening to this the right way. It’s always disturbing when an artist delivers you something other than what you expect. Hearing Ullman’s Son Imaginaire III at Huddersfield a couple of years ago was a concert-going experience that still looms large in my memory. la segunda canción was a surprising moderation of his usual aesthetic, albeit again within a narrow range. Two percussionists did a superb job of adding detail and texture without disrupting the typically fragile surface of Ullmann’s music. Even more surprising was the distinct layering of different dynamics, with a trio of winds (bassoon, basset horn, flute) sounding out above the string quintet. For Ullmann, it was almost strident. The strings would periodically burst into soft, agitated chatter.

I had problems listening to this. The difference in dynamics seemed to separate out the winds and strings too much, with little interplay between the two groups (which were also physically separated, horizontally and vertically). Too often the strings sounded like accompaniment, and when the winds were silent the material they had to play increasingly sounded repetitive and dull. It may have been just because I was hoping to hear something else, more of what I was used to. Again, I got worried I was listening the wrong way.

* What’s really disturbing is an apparent narrowing of aesthetic parameters, where approaching an extreme seems like the only way out of the current impasse. Moving away from an extreme comes across as a pulled punch, like the more famous minimalist composers who were unable to develop their signature style beyond diluting it. Listening to the more “conventional” compositions at the HCMF, there’s a general sense of being trapped where expansion beyond the new seems to be just like a return to the old. (Might expand on this later.**)

** This paragraph was jotted down after a few quick whiskies between gigs, as fortification against the weather.

Three Days in Huddersfield (Part One of Two)

Wednesday 2 December 2015

First night in Huddersfield for the HCMF I went to the first UK performance of La Monte Young’s The Melodic Version (1984) of The Second Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from The Four Dreams of China (1962), which seems a good place to start as a point of reference; not just for the music prominently featured throughout the festival, but also an overt attempt to create an idealised context for reception of such music. As well as the incense and the specially prepared lighting by Marian Zazeela, there were instructions for audience behaviour (no applause) and a sheaf of briefing notes with extensive descriptions of the music, related pieces of music and the thinking behind such music. There wasn’t time to read all the notes before the music started but luckily we weren’t set a test on it afterwards. You could possibly read the notes while the music played although I expect this would be frowned upon.

Those elements that Young introduced into modern music – stasis, non-linear time, a deep awareness of acoustic and psychoacoustic phenomena – reappeared throughout the festival this year. With it, the need for different ways of listening arise. Young addresses this explicitly, while other composers raise it in less direct, but not necessarily more subtle ways.

The Huddersfield punters encountered musical extremes. The premiere of Jakob Ullmann’s solo IV for double bass was almost inaudible, by design. Almost like an Onkyo performance, a thirty-minute silence with only the lightest of inflections, allowing a sublime subtlety to emerge, of the type that John Cage admired in Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings. All through the trip I wondered if my ears were working right, or if my brain was getting in the way. Can the people up the back hear anything at all? Bassist Dominic Lash ekes out each tiny sound with such care and tenderness, but does the whole thing come across as slightly precious? Of the half-dozen or so works of Ullmann’s music I’ve encountered, this seemed the one closest to relying on a conceptual basis over a musical one.

Later that same day I heard Zbigniew Karkowski’s Fluster for solo electric bass with electronic processing. Earplugs are offered to the punters, signs are posted warning it will be loud. It is. And piercing, or otherwise penetrating. Karkowski’s image seems so much like a caricature, pictured in the programme pointing a handgun, making loud, abrasive noise, railing against “bullshit”. Fluster forces the listener to confront three successive fronts of sound as brute force: a low bass that rattles the speakers, the listener, the building; a relentless blast of white noise; a shrill chatter and screech of high-pitched static. It all goes on for a while, but time has no function here other than to establish the sounds’ physical presence. Virtuoso bassist Kasper Toeplitz becomes increasingly agitated by the demands of executing such precise actions to produce seemingly indifferent noise. The crackle of distorting speaker cones and buzzing of roof beams must be part of the music but who knows for sure? There’s a welter of tiny details within the high-pitched noise, but how much of it is really there and how much of it just the ears struggling to keep up? Extreme loudness guarantees an immediate visceral shock which can soon fade, but Karkowski’s music is not so superficial. The real shock is that people haven’t yet worked out how they are meant to listen to it, or whether in fact they heard it at all, behind all the noise.

This post has already gone on longer than I expected about less than I wanted to say, so I’ll post the rest of it later.

Trailer for December

Monday 30 November 2015

Coming up this week: three days of listening to music of extremes at Huddersfield last week. Also, I’m putting out some new music at last.

Visible cracks, real and illusory

Sunday 15 November 2015

(Originally posted on 6 February 2008.)

As has been proved many times before, it is foolish to pass judgement on a work of art before seeing it for yourself. I finally saw Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth at the Tate Modern.

There has been plenty of discussion about the artwork since it was first installed – what it means, how it was made, whether or not it’s any good – so much that it is impossible to not be aware of its existence, nor of what the work consists of. (It’s a crack running the length of the floor in the Tate’s Turbine Hall, growing wider and deeper as it descends from one end to the other.) You could picture the entire installation in your head, except for one little detail that I’ve never heard mentioned when people discuss their visits to see it. At close range, the crack is revealed to be an obvious fabrication, with no attempt to conceal the wire forms embedded in the concrete.

For the weekend crowds peering inside its depths, or hopping back and forth over it, Shibboleth may as well be invisible if its success depends on the interpretation given to it by the artist and the museum:

In particular, Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world. ‘The history of racism’, Salcedo writes, ‘runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side’. … In breaking open the floor of the museum, Salcedo is exposing a fracture in modernity itself. Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception.

Even ignoring the fact that the history of racism runs parallel to the history of everything, it’s hard not to read this as a fatuous piece of funding-speak. You don’t have to doubt Salcedo’s personal background and beliefs that support her art to see that her public interpretation of her own art reduces Shibboleth to a one-liner, simplistic and ineffectual. The installation is as much a tourist attraction as the building that houses it. Salcedo may be “keen to remind us” of “the existence of a huge socially excluded underclass”, but Shibboleth, in this context, utterly fails to fulfil her intention.

(Strangely, for all her talk of schisms and exclusions, the only interpretations I’ve seen of the formative mesh in the crack have been either abstractly structural or overly symbolic. I would have thought it made an obvious point that apparently natural divisions in race or religion turn out under closer scrutiny to be artificial, human constructs. Then the art could at least function in its own way as a neat little metaphor, if little more.)

In fact, Salcedo makes out her installation to be less of a work of art than it really is, although its true power may be of a type she did not intend, or even recognise.

The immediate image conveyed by Shibboleth when seen plain, beguilingly forging its path of destruction through the crowds inevitably wandering the Turbine Hall, is not one of division but of entropy. Starting almost undetectable at the high end of the hall, it is allowed to progress, or rather deteriorate, along the floor unchecked until it has opened up into a real tripping hazard for visitors. The image of a cultural institution whose foundations have been permitted to shift, and so decay, is potent; but in the Western World of the early 21st century it speaks to a different dilemma than the artist intended.

The Tate’s claim that the crack “encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves” isn’t exactly true. In truth, its presence embodies our culture’s current readiness to doubt itself, and to question its own origins, validity, and integrity – with little or no outside encouragement. The entropy was built into the system. This self-examination and picking apart of the social assumptions that underpin our culture could lead to renewal, or to disintegration. For a jaded society of sophisticates, the threat of destruction and disaster is extremely seductive. (As one reviewer says, “Salcedo’s cut is always varied and pleasurably violent. I’m not sure the pleasure is intended.”)

Salcedo’s professed aim to expose the dark side of modernity began within modernism itself in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. In 1949, Charles Olson reflected on the inability of modernism to cope with the fragmentary nature of reality – it is no coincidence he had invented the word “post-modern” the year before – and wrote in his poem “The Kingfishers”:

When the attentions change / the jungle
leaps in
               even the stones are split
                                                       they rive

Postscript to John Cage and Counterpoint

Sunday 1 November 2015

I’ve made a small but vital amendment to yesterday’s post. I should have said “John Cage sucked at counterpoint,” not that he “sucks at counterpoint”. It may have been one of his personal weaknesses, but it did not carry over into his music. Thanks to Philip Thomas for pointing out this error, by tweeting to me that “I think almost all the music since 1951 is great counterpoint. Stuff on top of other stuff.”

I pretty much agree, and this actually gets to the point of what I was trying to say. Just going back to the Morton Feldman interview I quoted. Feldman also recites the “no feeling for harmony anecdote” and adds, “but like anybody else who had no interest in harmony, he found that which freed music from harmony. He found his Zen for polyphony” (my emphasis). Peter Gena replies, “The rhythmic structure aspect which allows sounds and silences” (ditto). Soon after, their exchange continues:

GENA: So if Duchamp really did free the mind from the eye, to that extent he moved away from craft and picked on ready-mades.

FELDMAN: Especially if you had two left hands, like Duchamp. I mean he was better with a ruler. Once he took up a ruler, he was fine.

GENA: Yes, he was interested in mechanical drawing. Accordingly, Cage talked about his terrible ear for harmony, and once he took up the ruler, as it were, which was time grids and rhythmic structures, it was wonderful. So Cage freed the sounds because he wanted to put them outside of the harmonic context.

FELDMAN: I didn’t bring up Schoenberg’s remark about John’s lack of interest in harmony to imply what you’re trying to say. I said that Duchamp picked up the ruler, not Cage.

GENA: What did Cage pick up?

FELDMAN: He picked up the eraser! He’s bluffing. He’s a Duchamp in Cagean ears. He’s bluffing. He has impeccable ears.

They continue talking about traditional harmony, but something doesn’t add up. Philip Thomas’ observation is that Cage’s counterpoint improves around the time he allowed fewer of his personal choices to determine the finer details of his music, through impersonal means and then through chance. As Cage commented in one of his lectures, “giving up counterpoint, one gets superimposition and, of course, a little counterpoint comes in of its own accord.”

This is also the time when Cage talked frequently about letting sounds be themselves, i.e. putting sounds “outside of the harmonic context”. By then he had been using his above-mentioned time grids and rhythmic structures for nearly 15 years. His mature works begin in the 1930s with his radical use of rhythm as a structural principle, instead of harmony. By the 1940s he had become known as “the percussion composer” (as he himself reminded us in his anecdotes). It would be a neat deflection, to focus people’s attention on harmony, or rather the lack of it, if you didn’t feel too secure in your ability to organise your sounds and silences in your stated rhythmic structure.

The ruler that Cage picked up, like Duchamp’s, was “giving up” and accepting that the less say they had in the detail of their work, the better it was. The best type of aesthetic decisions are not aesthetic decisions at all.

John Cage and the Big Lie

Saturday 31 October 2015

I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said, “You’ll come to a wall you won’t be able to get through.” I said, “Well then, I’ll beat my head against that wall.”

– John Cage, interview in Observer magazine (1982), repeated on several occasions

He’s bluffing. He has impeccable ears.

– Morton Feldman, in conversation with Peter Gena

I’ve wanted to get this off my chest for a while. People who get interested in John Cage almost immediately find out about him studying harmony with Schoenberg, and the above exchange between the two. It’s up there with the one about the anechoic chamber; he was always telling it…

… And because he was always talking about it, it’s always repeated in books, articles and essays about him; it would get raised as in issue in interviews for him to elaborate the point further. As it happened, Cage spent most of his career largely excluded from the public discourse surrounding “serious” music. Fortunately, his skills as a raconteur enabled him to establish a public persona. He was able to use this situation to his advantage: isolated from wider discussions about his musical context, he became his own leading critic by default. Twenty-three years since his death, he still effectively dictates how we interpret his life and work.

(William Burroughs is another example of this phenomenon, with an even greater emphasis on integrating his autobiography with his literary practice. In Burroughs’ case any critic analysing his writing is faced with the task of disentangling it from Burroughs’ own creation myth. Both Burroughs and Cage have been the subject of unsatisfying biographies, in which the author is constrained by the subject’s own well-established narrative structure. The biography cannot help but reiterate a series of events with which the fan is already familiar, or stray outside these bounds to portray a figure the reader does not recognise.)

I don’t have time to look up which critic noticed Cage’s repeated references to his piece The Perilous Night, written in 1944, the year of his “psychological crisis”. The critic observed that Cage was directing attention towards this piece, and away from more personally revealing works written around the same time, such as Four Walls. (The tangential references to a psychological crisis are another revealing omission.) More than shaping public perception of his biographical details, he influenced critical consideration of his own canon of key works.

Cage’s “no feeling for harmony” story is charmingly self-deprecating and firmly in the mould of the mid-century American caricature, disarmingly plain-spoken and determined. It also cunningly invites anyone who worked with him to point that his sense of harmony was, in fact, superb; and of course that is exactly what happened. Cage’s feeling for harmony is just fine, but it’s a bluff. He’s misdirecting you from his true technical weakness, the one with no anecdotes. I’ve never seen anyone mention this, so I’m going to point it out here:

John Cage sucks sucked at counterpoint. *

Lights Out

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Working on stuff with not much to report right now, so here’s a short video I made for the end of another summer, a few years ago.

Michael Vincent Waller: The South Shore

Tuesday 22 September 2015

I got a shock when I first put on this album. It was kindly sent to me by the composer. I opened the package to see an album from Phill Niblock‘s Experimental Intermedia label, cover art by Niblock, sleeve notes by “Blue” Gene Tyranny. Knowing nothing about Waller, all signs pointed to music that would be right up my alley: minimal (if not ascetic), with an underlying logic readily perceptible (if not rigorous). I hit play on track 1 and got mugged by something unambiguously… pretty.

Two CDs, 21 brief compositions of new chamber music, all with the same shamelessly “romantic textures”, to quote from the sleeve notes. It’s relentless, as if the double-length playing time is meant to reassure you that the sweet, modal harmonies and melodic fragments are truly guileless. The avowed simplicity and directness of intention and execution for each piece would like to be seen as disarming, but it put me on my guard. It’s like one of those cultural games that Nabokov played in his novels: the more you know about the subject, the worse you get entangled in his snares.

Those sleeve notes open by describing Waller’s music as “a welcome and rare alternative to the tempo and noise of modern life…. Waller’s music convinces us by its honest emotion, which avoids any artifice that would dramatically pull us toward some effect.” As I listened to each piece I kept waiting for the angle to emerge, the conceptual scare quotes. It didn’t happen. The initial impulse is to compare the music to Howard Skempton’s, but there’s a tangible difference. Skempton also writes tonal or modal miniatures, but his music is reduced to the barest essentials. Waller’s music is clearly informed by the past few decades of “minimalist composers” and the “new tonality” but even in this restricted scale of composition there’s always a suggestion of something grander, a romantic excessiveness of expression.

It’s a dangerous aesthetic no-man’s-land in which Waller has staked out his musical territory, where artistic merit lives or dies by the sureness of the artist’s grip on prevailing aesthetic tastes. At this time such an enterprise seems so foolhardy that I kept my ears pricked for the slightest lapse of sincerity, some cultural or ironic distancing. Tyranny’s notes for each piece seem to invite a disingenuous reading: “I do feel the almost neo-Baroque sensation taking me back to my own trips across Italy.” “There seems to be a mixed emotion in this piece that hints at a troubled memory arising in the morning.” The word “uplifting” is used to describe at least two pieces. We would appear to have entered a post-postmodern aesthetic, of new sincerity.

Other reviews have described this album as gentle, poetic, lyrically beautiful. I found myself listening to music that teetered on a knife edge, threatening to slip at any moment from sweet clarity to trite sentimentality. The starkest moments are usually the most effective: the concluding “Arbitrage” pieces for solo clarinet and bass clarinet with gongs, for example. The Variations for Quintet with its canons and repetitions are pleasingly reminiscent of some of John Cage’s beguilingly blank music from the mid to late 1940s.

Of course, Cage at that time was struggling with finding his true compositional voice. Much like e. e. cummings, whose poetry Cage occasionally set to music, his attempts at disarming directness could sometimes lapse into fey affectation. This happens in some pieces in this collection, such as the piano solo Pasticcio per meno è più, which sounds a little ingratiating. It will be interesting to hear how Waller’s music develops and whether increased confidence in his craft will make his music more self-effacing or more extroverted.

I keep listening for the angle, trying to trip it up, catch it out. Maybe I want a darker undercurrent to throw the lighter shades into relief. Maybe I’m too cynical, too sophisticated in the pejorative sense.

Control Next Week

Thursday 3 September 2015

Next week I’m presenting a new work as part of a group show, Control, curated by Tom Mudd. It’s a sound installation: one knob, one speaker. The show

attempts to call attention to the role that the musical artefacts play in developing musical ideas. A single dial is connected to a single speaker, but the relationship between the two is not fixed; it flits between a range of possibilities composed by a diverse range of artists.

How do people interact with controls? It depends on the sorts of feedback available to the user – tactile, visual, audible – besides the results or consequences of the controller itself. Computer controls make this problem more obvious: feedback can be nonexistent, apparently independent of action, or present only as a deliberately programmed artefact.

Making digitally-controlled music therefore presents a dilemma. Control is either so direct and precise that all the subtle complexities are eliminated, or obfuscated to introduce uncertainty. Working with an obfuscated system should ideally be a responsive, performative activity; but it can easily become a purely reactive experience.

For my contribution, the knob controls two attributes of a pure sine tone: its pitch and its harmonic treatment. The relationship between the two is simple but it isn’t always clear, thanks to a delay built into the system. Also, there’s a gate which may or may not let each sound come through. A relationship between the knob and the speaker can be intuited, but the nature of the relationship isn’t immediately, or ever, obvious.

This is a microcosm of my dilemma when developing my own system of controls for making live electronic music with computers, but enough about me. Control launches next week at Oto Project Space as part of the gig on Wednesday 9 September 2015, and then is on from 10 to 13 September, from 1 to 9 pm each day. (Free entry.)