The John Cage Volkswagen Ad Project

Tuesday 18 June 2013

I saw this tweet from UbuWeb last year and took it as a challenge.

Two things immediately came to mind: John Cage’s anecdote about his own brush with advertising, and the Volkswagen microbus which he bought with his winnings from an Italian TV game show, for the purpose of driving the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from one gig to the next. The choice of host vehicle was obvious, and I found two suitable advertisements fairly quickly on YouTube. The only rules I set for adding music were (a) no editing and (b) post-1951 “chance” music only.

What was the point of this exercise? Now that it’s done, I realise it’s partly a tribute to Cage’s idealistic thinking, and his belief in the necessity of doing things previously considered impossible. More importantly, it’s about maintaining a true, critical measure of Cage’s achievements and assessing him properly as a composer, not as some supposed paragon of virtue.

On Walking Out

Monday 17 June 2013

I don’t know why I was surprised by the amount of chatter over the Rite of Spring centenary. It was the perfect story, as far as Arts Journalism is concerned, combining sterile controversy and What Passed For Entertainment For People Before Television. What I find more interesting, even if they are little more than incidents for gossip, are the times when people walk out of shows these days.

The London Sinfonietta performance of Kagel’s The Pieces of the Compass Rose was a particularly satisfying example, with a small but steady trickle of punters throughout. Even after the interval, some people returned to their seats for a second helping only to walk out again one or two pieces later. If you’re enjoying a concert, there’s something particularly gratifying about seeing that it’s Not For Everyone (see also They Must Be Doing Something Right).

One of the finest nights out I’ve ever had was for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s performance of Ocean some years ago. This piece had a truly remarkable rate of attrition, which remained constant throughout the evening. Ten minutes in, twenty, the amount of exposure had no apparent effect on the less faithful audience members’ resolution to stay or go. At least one couple sat through eighty minutes or more, no interval, before chucking it in a few minutes before the end; even though (or because?) the stage was encircled with digital clocks counting down the seconds until it would all be over.

Last week I saw Akio Suzuki and Aki Onda play a two-hour improvisation at Cafe Oto. Their performance was largely a study of processes within an allocated span of time. You could walk in and out without thinking you’d missed anything, any more than if you’d departed from a landscape.

I walked out of concert, at the interval, a few weeks ago. Nothing wrong with the music; it was one of the very rare balmy summer evenings we’ve had so far this year and I suddenly did not want to be inside a recital hall. One of the rules I’ve always tried to remember when making music: Everyone has a reason not to be at your gig.

Capitalists and Music For Bionic Ears Redux

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Just a quick update to say that I AM THE PRESIDENT OF CAPITALISTS INC. now has a proper page of its own on the website. An update with the thrilling sequel to this historical non-re-enactment will be coming as soon as I get my hands on a decent slide scanner.

Also, you can now hear for yourself This Is All I Need, my contribution to the Interior Design: Music for the Bionic Ear project. This was the concert of new music made especially for listeners with cochlear implants, who can understand speech really well but have a hard time making sense out of music. People without technological augmentation can enjoy it just as much. I’ve gone into some detail about the project and the thinking behind the music.

A Day by the Seaside

Sunday 9 June 2013

Almost forgot to say I had a nice day out last month at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, for the Editions Mego gigs. (As it happened, I was on the same train as that reviewer, but I was proffered disposable coffee cups of prosecco instead of cans of Bloody Mary.) Any cool cred I may have had was lost when I found a hardback of A Suitable Boy for 50p on the way from the train station to the Pavilion and lugged it around for the rest of the night. I was so preoccupied with it I forgot we got a free CD with the entry ticket. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere.

I agree with most of the Quietus review, particularly for Russell Haswell’s set, but for me the Mark Fell set was the most disappointing part of the event. Everyone else seemed to love it. Why?

Fell’s set was unique amongst the acts at the event. While everyone else worked with noise, i.e. treating sound as a fluid, plastic artform which can be stretched, squashed, twisted and moulded, Fell’s piece was nothing but notes and beats. Synthesizer pads and drum machine claps, an assembly of prefabricated parts. There’s nothing wrong with that, but while everyone else enthused over the construction I got bogged down in details. The unvarying sounds felt dead and dull, the cheesiness of them seemed like self-congratulatory irony. It didn’t help that the shuffle play on my ipod that morning had served up some library music with what sounded like the exact same synth patches.

Some people went around saying it was a deconstruction of rave. I guess that’s also part of my problem and why the experience left me feeling flat. Raves suck. Don’t bother arguing with me, because you’re wrong.

As for the other musicians on the day, the whole event strongly reminded me of what should have been a very different gig the week before, when the Arditti and JACK quartets played together at Wigmore Hall. Even though the whole gig was acoustic, the pieces played by these two string quartets showed how pervasive the influence of electronics and computer-manipulated sound has become on modern composition. Each piece placed its emphasis on the same musical concerns as the electronic noisemakers in Bexhill: timbre over pitch, texture over harmony, a sculptural sense of balance. The musicians created densely interwoven glissandi, ground their bows into the strings to create complex tones. The concluding work by Mauro Lanza made this method of working explicit, creating a musical argument that crossfaded back and forth between coherent sound and incoherent noise, instead of the old drama of divergence from a harmonic norm and the inevitable return home.

Authenticity is Overrated

Tuesday 4 June 2013

“Cubism must have developed when the artist considered how much of his sketch must be finished. Finishing involves a stupidity of perception.” – Guy Davenport, Narrative Tone and Form.

“The raw, unexplained dream still has its power; the dream with legible symbols is a spent force. Hence the liveliness of Ernst, the dullness and triviality of Dalí.” – Guy Davenport, Ernst Machs Max Ernst.

True to one of Davenport’s recurring themes, that of the transformation of ideas across time and sensibility, I’d nailed together the above two quotes in my head some years ago. I only realised my mistake this evening, when I tried to look up the composite sentence that had never been written.

For all of its technical skill, there is a barbarity lurking behind so much mimetic art: a fearful reverence for “the real” has supplanted knowledge of the workings by which reality is created. Too many artists have tried to fill up every perceived hole in their work with “research” – pettifogging justifications for the audience’s disbelief, already held in suspense.

On Saturday night I heard the London Sinfonietta play Mauricio Kagel’s The Pieces of the Compass Rose in its entirety. Kagel disarmingly refers to this collection of eight pieces as “salon music”, pre-empting accusations of cultural appropriation or misrepresentation.

The music is playful and beguiling throughout, even at its most raucous. This deferential charm distracts from a second, more insidious game in play. The salon culture of misinterpreting artefacts from the four corners of the world has itself been taken captive and repurposed by Kagel.

Like a true inhabitant of the postmodern era, Kagel’s reference point for his compass keeps shifting to suit his subjectivity: the East is Slavic, the South is Mediterranean and the North-East is Brazilian. He reassures us that the Andean tribe’s procession in North-West is purely imaginary.

No salon band would have access to dozens of percussion instruments and found objects, culminating in the percussionist chopping at a log with an axe. At the end of each section descend into torpor, like a hand-cranked gramophone winding down. Even the artifice is artificial.

Is the joke on the musicians or the audience? Is this like one of Nabokov’s literary snares, where the better you are at decoding such situations, the worse you become entangled in it? While you’re kept guessing you’ll listen to a lot of rich, evocative music on Kagel’s terms, with no time to stop and check his cultural credentials.

This Is The New Music: Tropical Ravine With Blackbird

Sunday 2 June 2013

For the past month most of my activity, such as it is, has been on Twitter. If you follow me then you’ll already know about this new piece I uploaded to SoundCloud, titled Tropical Ravine With Blackbird.

As previously mentioned, I have issues with the concept of soundscapes and field recordings. Tropical Ravine With Blackbird was recorded while I was at Sonorities in Belfast in late April. It is an amended field recording which tries to bring to the foreground the internal contradiction in so many field recordings: the use of technology to preserve authenticity.

Besides the questions of distortion and mediation so often ignored in soundscapes, there are implications in the reception and communication of a field recording to its intended audience; but I’m trying to think of a nice way of saying these things before I make that post.

I saw a few gigs in May – might tell you about them this week if I have time.

Post-Sonorities autopsy, and a confession

Thursday 2 May 2013

I’m back from Belfast and had a great time at Sonorities, even though I’d under-packed for the unexpectedly cold and wet weather. The theme at Sonorities this year was “Beyond Soundscape”, which I shamelessly pandered to by preparing a new mix of Third City: Walking on Red and Blue.

It was only at the soundcheck that it occurred to me, that every other presentation of this piece has been determinedly lo-fi. The original recordings, even though they were made on DAT, were dubbed onto cassette and played through boom-boxes in their original gallery presentation. Other iterations of the piece were highly compressed and played through small headphones in public areas. This mix was put together with only a pair of desktop speakers plugged into my laptop. Now at Queen’s University I suddenly got to play with this:

Forty-odd speakers in multi-level surround sound. Ordinarily I’d expect everything to sound fabulous in such an environment, but because it was my own stuff I was suddenly worried that a vast host of shortcomings would be revealed. Luckily, my piece also sounded (ahem) fabulous which at least meant I didn’t have to cringe so much when keeping tabs on the faders during the performance.

Now, for the confession: I have a real problem with the idea of soundscapes, and field recordings. Even with the new toy, there’s a whole bunch of issues around distortion and mediation which I need to think through before I go any further in working with it in the field. That video I posted starts to address these ideas.

In any case, here’s the mix I presented at Sonorities, now on Soundcloud for your home listening enjoyment.

Another box post, plus new video!

Tuesday 23 April 2013

I’m off for the boat train to Belfast tomorrow for Sonorities 2013 at Queen’s University. I’ve prepared a new mix of Third City: Walking on Red and Blue to present at the Sonic Lab on Thursday, 25 April.

In the meantime, I’ve received a new toy in the mail, delivered in an oversized, passive-aggressive box with a warning label defying me to bend it.

I was so excited with my new mini recorder I left it out on the window while still plugged into the speakers and turned it up a little too loud. Please enjoy this video I made by accident.

This Is The New Music: Sonorities 2013

Sunday 7 April 2013

In a couple of weeks’ time I’ll be in Belfast for Sonorities 2013, presenting a new audiotheque mix of Third City: Walking on Red and Blue.

This is a piece which has been developing for over 15 years now. It started as a pair of field recordings, documenting walks through the city of Melbourne. These recordings were played simultaneously into a third space, Bill Fontana style, as a sound element in my first visual art exhibition. In turn, these sounds were used as raw material to be digitally manipulated, according to a set of instructions obtained from a new interpretation of the maps that determined the route of the original walks. This digitally-transformed version was used in a later exhibition.

I’ve presented later re-interpretations of this material, with subsequent additions and subtractions, but it’s been a number of years since I last worked with field recordings or audio documentation. I’m looking forward to the trip to Belfast as a starting point for resuming this activity.

The theme for Sonorities this year is “beyond soundscape”, so it seems like an appropriate venue for my approach to soundscape work. Third City: Walking on Red and Blue presents two types of artificiality, or synthesis, in its soundscape. The first is through the conflation of two locations into one; the second is through the intermingling of digitally-processed and unaltered sounds. On first hearing, the listener can distinguish certain ‘landmarks’ as belonging to one realm or the other, while other details remain disorientating or misleading.

A bit more about the history of Third City: Walking on Red and Blue is on the main web site. The new remix will be in the Sonic Lab, Queen’s University, Belfast on Thursday 25 April, starting at noon.

The Footnotes

Thursday 4 April 2013

Ever since first hearing about ‘the minimalists’ I’d been intrigued about other, lesser-known composers outside the three or four Big Names*…

In my last post I forgot to add the footnote to that asterisk. That’s okay, because part of my point was going to be that these footnotes should be elevated into the main body, at least from time to time. In fact, that post about Dennis Johnson is just such an example.

I particularly wanted to know about other minimalists, to find out whether such an ostensibly reductive approach to music was a viable artistic means, or just a term that could be applied to what Young, Riley, Reich and Glass were doing at the time. If you only followed the careers of the last three and their “successor” John Adams, you’d conclude that minimalism’s usefulness as a principle was limited. Perversely, the pervasiveness of minimalism as an influence in so many forms of music over four decades have reinforced the perception that this particular little group of composers are a Really Big Deal. In truth, minimalism’s potency is fuelled by a wide variety of musicians who continue to find their own ways of adopting its aesthetic values.

I was lucky that, immediately after first hearing a radio broadcast of the Philip Glass Ensemble, the announcer then put on Jon Gibson playing his own piece, Untitled. Straight away, I got the idea that there was more than one way to do it, and I wanted to find as many of them as I could.

This brings me back to Andy Lee’s two nights at Cafe Oto last month. The big event was his playing of Dennis Johnson’s November, but his first night’s recital of Paul A. Epstein, Jürg Frey and Alvin Curran was almost as significant. This was part of Lee’s “Minimalism in 12 Parts” tour, of which November was one more part of a larger statement about minimalism in music. All three composers on the first night take what they want from minimalism and apply (not dilute) in their own way.

Parts 2 and 8 from Curran’s Inner Cities cycle are long spans of harmonically, rhythmically and dynamically consistent music, written mostly through the 1990s. As Curran himself writes, “in all of these pieces the writing is instinctual, and obsessed with detail: how to use only two triads, then three, then none then one, then turn your back on the whole thing and use all the triads”. The reductive technique is used as a jumping-off point for a stream-of-consciousness flow of digressions, which in turn are reined in from excess by the reductive technique. Frey is best known as part of the Wandelweiser collective, and his Klavierstück 2 is appropriately focused on silence, isolated sounds, and a long stretch of obsessive repetition. I’ve heard only one other piece by Epstein, so it was good to hear some of his Drawings for piano and the premiere of his piano version of Landscape with Triads. These works gave the impression that the tonal and contrapuntal complexity of Milton Babbitt’s piano music had been digitised into a rhythmic and dynamic grid, with evident harmonic processes set to a regular pulse were developed into rich patterns just beyond full comprehension.

All these recent works had readily discernible connections to minimalist music at their heart. None of them relied upon an attachment to popular sentiments in the news or the cinema as a source of expressive power.

Late November

Tuesday 2 April 2013

A lot of good things came together on the night of 9 March. A bit over five years ago I first heard of Dennis Johnson and his piece November, when Kyle Gann described it in some length on his blog: a minimalist piano piece written in 1959, which La Monte Young remembers being about six hours long but survived only as a wonky 2-hour tape from the early Sixties. Gann’s blog post gives a good rundown on what makes this forgotten piece of music so fascinating, particularly in the way it embraced so many neglected musical ideas that soon came to dominate new music over the next fifty years. Ever since first hearing about ‘the minimalists’ I’d been intrigued about other, lesser-known composers outside the three or four Big Names*, and Dennis Johnson’s mammoth piano piece sounded almost too good to be true.

Nearly two years later I heard a recording from a piano recital by R. Andrew Lee, which he’d uploaded, with a superb performance of Tom Johnson’s minimalist puzzlebox An Hour For Piano. I immediately became a fan and soon after started following his Twitter feed, largely in the hope of glomming onto some more mp3s.

Meanwhile, Gann announced that he had almost finished analysing and transcribing November. In 2007 he was trying out various, ultimately unsatisfactory methods of notation, lamenting that “we can’t ask Dennis Johnson about it: he’s disappeared.” By 2009 he’d discovered that November was more than “a kind of crazy, off-beat experiment… instead I’m thinking we’ll be unveiling a whole new formal paradigm that deserved to have more of an after-history than it’s had.” In the meantime, Daniel Wolf had provided a contact for Dennis Johnson, who in turn had sent the score.

Another two years later, I read some exciting news. Andy Lee has a copy of the score to November. I immediately forwarded it to a friend of mine, Mark Harwood at Penultimate Press, knowing that he gets excited about obscure and rediscovered artists, and wonky old piano recordings. We’d both heard and loved the recordings of November made by Kyle Gann and Sarah Cahill when the finished transcription was presented at a conference in 2009, as well as a rip of that old 1961 tape. The prospect of Lee recording November seemed unlikely, but tantalising.

On 9 March this year I finally got myself somewhere regular to live (still without regular internet) but I was more interested in being at Cafe Oto to hear and watch Lee play November in its entirety, as part of its joint release on CD by Penultimate Press and Irritable Hedgehog.

Over five hours, the music works a strange effect on the listener. The intervening decades of minimalist and ambient music have made us familiar with the concepts of long durations, tonal stasis, consistent dynamics, repetitions, but November uses these techniques in an unusual way. The sense of continuity is very strong, but there is no fixed pulse and few strict repetitions. The slowness, spareness and use of silence, with an organic sense of rhythm, make it seem very similar in many respects to Morton Feldman’s late music. The harmonic language, however, is very different. Johnson’s piece uses clear, familiar tonality to play with our expectations of the music’s ultimate direction, whereas Feldman’s chromatic ambiguity seeks to negate any feeling of movement in harmony or time.

The semi-improvised nature of November adds another element to a performance. It was interesting to watch Lee relax as he moved from the fully-notated transcription of the piece’s first 100 minutes, into the more open notation that made up the next three hours of playing. He seemed to go into a serene state of focused timelessness, perfectly matching the music he was playing. The music itself takes on the aspect of a musician feeling their way through the material, venturing into new areas then circling back onto familiar ground, adding new parts along the way to reveal older material in a different light. Lee’s interpretation of the open notation took on a similar character, meditative at times, almost casual at others, building up the strong impression of of a unified whole, gradually revealed. In effect, the music sounded like a inspired burst of improvisation, a fleeting run of chord changes and leading tones, slowed down 100 times to linger over every sensuous detail.

As I said before, it sounds almost too good to be true: a forgotten composer with a very short career (if it could even be called that), who disappears after writing a work of vast scale and great precedence, with said work languishing unknown for fifty years before it is rescued from obscurity, reconstructed and performed to great acclaim. The thing is that November is a truly great work, beautiful and captivating, which holds the listener’s interest more than could be hoped from a novel gimmick stumbled upon by a dilletante, and with far more substance and longevity than a piece of purely historical or musicological interest.

About twenty minutes into the performance Harwood held his phone out towards the piano for a while. He’d dialled Dennis Johnson’s number in California. Earlier that evening he’d told me a bit more he’d learned of Johnson’s career in mathematics: some of his work had gone into the Mars Curiosity rover programme.

The Richter Variations – III

Wednesday 27 March 2013

I’ve spent a couple of rootless months while finding a new permanent home in London, hence the lack of updates to the blog and the website. Some major bits of news will be going up over the Easter break, both about my own work and other people’s stuff I’ve seen. In particular, I need to set down my experiences from a couple of weeks ago, when I had the privilege of meeting R. Andrew Lee and hearing him give a spellbinding performance of Dennis Johnson’s incredible piece November.

In the meantime please enjoy some more blurry photographs of Berlin.

Evidently I will freeze my arse off for Philip Guston

Monday 25 February 2013

I spent Saturday afternoon in an empty art gallery in Camden listening to a live performance of Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston. In a high-ceilinged back room of the gallery, twenty folding chairs were set out in front of the musicians from the Guildhall School: Siwan Rhys playing piano and celesta, Alasdair Garrett and Martha Lloyd tag-teaming on the flute parts, and finally George Barton on the tuned percussion (once he’d finally turned up, wearing an inside-out jumper and clutching a stack of a hundred-odd dog-eared pages of the score.)

The first four notes sound almost too hushed, like one voice heard amongst the hubbub of the crowd in the other rooms of the gallery. Eventually, but quite quickly, all other noises from the rest of the gallery fade away. I’m assuming everyone else has left us alone, musicians and audience, in the back room. The playing is beautiful and I relax, knowing that I’m going to be hearing a piece of music and not a bystander in an Art Stunt. At times the playing is a little rough around the edges. I can only assume that in writing such unforgiving parts, and making the whole piece four hours long, human frailty must be considered as part of the work itself. The piccolo sections – all soft, sustained notes – must be especially Not Fun.

Every time I hear For Philip Guston I hear something else. Last time I noticed how the piece fell into large sections that repeated the same process, of starting in an even flow and then gradually winding down into stasis. This time I hear how Feldman tricks you into hearing individual sounds outside of their continuity. There’s always the suggestion of those opening four notes returning – and they do, but never in quite the same way. As the pattern gets passed from one instrument to another, you find yourself waiting to hear each sound, and then weighing it in your mind.

The two flautists take one-hour shifts, which unfortunately signposts the passing of time. On the other hand, the sky outside is getting steadily darker and the room starts getting cold, so this feeling is inevitable. I start dozing off a little about an hour into the piece, but that feeling passes and for the rest of the piece I’m more attentive than before. The ensemble passages are beautifully written but today I’m less interested in these more complex effects and become transfixed when the music dwindles to nothing. For minutes on end the piece can be silent, articulated at intervals by a single, repeated note. So little needs to be done. Polyphony sucks.

I think John Cage first described Feldman’s music as heroic, and there is something heroic in the way he can break away from such simple silences after lingering on them for so much time. A minimalist could build a career on them. When the sky is dark and the audience is chilly and the music finally ends it’s like a blanket’s been taken away. Everyone hovers uncertainly in the silence, a little apologetic that it’s over, a little embarrassed that we can’t bring ourselves to applaud. Not just yet, just a little bit longer.

It’s always bin day when the Google Street View car’s in town

Sunday 3 February 2013

My very first blog post was about the sale of the house I was renting, and the imminent need to find new accommodation as a matter of urgency. (I’d set up the free blog account about six weeks earlier. Inspiration does not come to me easily.) My post gave an honest account of the deplorable condition the house had fallen into over the decades before I moved in, and pretty much every punter who inspected the place before the auction made no secret of their plans to gut the structure for renovation, if they were legally prevented from razing it entirely.

I’ve just returned from an unexpected trip to Australia, and one afternoon I happened to walk down my old street. I wondered what the old dump looked like now it had been cleaned ip.

Pretty much nothing’s happened to it in the last eight years. In fact, it looks worse. The old doorbell’s been removed, the windows in the front door crudely patched over, and random sections of the front wall have been painted various shades of grey. A new shed’s been erected in the back yard, but other than that there’s no sign of work done.

When Google Street View first came to Australia I looked up this street but it wasn’t covered. I just checked again and it is now, with photos from late 2009. In that photo it looks no different from when I left it, so these tentative changes are even more recent. Looks like the new owners work even more slowly than I do.

Obsolescence and Redundens

Tuesday 22 January 2013

During a five-year slough of depression Conlon Nancarrow occupied himself by doggedly copying out his Studies for player piano in conventional music notation. He did this not only to secure copyright for his compositions, but in the hope that his son would one day grow up to understand that he hadn’t wasted his life.

I don’t have any kids but I am staying with my parents for the first time in years, so maybe this is why I am passing the time in the heat and the damp of the Queensland countryside by writing some of my pieces out as musician-readable scores. This may have not been such a good idea. Luckily I don’t have to prove anything to my parents, but we’ve been looking through old photographs and stuff which is still embarrassing, albeit for slightly different reasons than in the past. So much of what I’m doing now seems so similar to kid’s play way back then.

Anyway, I’ve prepared four pieces from Redundens so far, all for piano. The Redundens web page is still a bit of a mess, but at least it’s now a bit more up to date.

The series of works collectively titled Redundens was begun in 2001. All the pieces take Arnold Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Piano, Op.11 as their starting point: only the top line in Schoenberg’s pieces is retained as an unaccompanied melody. Each set of pieces uses a different method of encoding this melody; by pitch, register, timbre, duration, dynamics, or other means. Redundens 1b keeps each pitch class in the same register and duration throughout the piece, determined by the nature of their initial appearances in the original. Dynamics are unspecified.

Redundens 4 plays the sequence of pitch-classes with durations and rhythms removed, always making the smallest leap possible from one note to the next.

Redundens 7 plays the sequence of pitch-classes with durations and rhythms removed, always making the smallest leap possible from one note to the next. The resulting melody is then split between two voices, alternating from one note to the next. The second voice is then shifted back one beat to produce a series of intervals. Unisons are played as a single note at half duration.

Redundens 11a removes durations and rhythmic articulation but preserves pitch class. Each pitch class is progressively transposed upwards by an octave to produce series of rising intervals, in repeatedly ascending figures of four notes each.