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.

This Is The New Music: The Slips (complete)

Tuesday 8 January 2013

The last post was my fancy way of saying that I’ve finally edited together a complete recording of The Slips, two hour-long pieces I wrote, gosh, ten years ago.

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.

How I make my work

Tuesday 8 January 2013

I was going to say ‘disinterestedly’ but that’s too self-aggrandising. ‘Distractedly’ is probably more apt. Write a sentence, pace around the house. Look up a reference, end up rereading half of Vainglory. As I think I’ve mentioned before, figuring out all the details is OK, but the execution is where I start to lose interest. Once I see it’s going to do what I hoped for, I get sidetracked again and start working on something else.

After that, work progresses in infrequent dribs and drabs. Even trivial pieces can have a longer gestation period than Ulysses. There’s no sense of anticipation when a piece is nearing completion, either to hasten or delay the end. The work continues indifferently, in small increments until, quite unexpectedly, there’s no more to do. Like absent-mindedly munching on crisps until you dip your hand in one more time and realise you’ve finished the bag. You weren’t even all that hungry.

Too late, too soon

Tuesday 1 January 2013

A whole bunch of composer deaths at the end of the year, including Jonathan Harvey (73) and Elliott Carter (not quite 104). I’ve only just started to familiarise myself with and appreciate Harvey’s music in the past year or so, and I’m trying to explain this twinge of regret that I didn’t see any of the concerts dedicated to him earlier in 2012. It’s not as though I would have seen him in person, as he was too ill to attend, but it seems sort of churlish now that I didn’t support him with my presence while he was still alive.

Why is it so galling to come to a person’s work at the end of their career, after ignoring it for so long? Discovering an artist after they’re dead is another matter: by then their art is a given, a received object over which they have no further input. Everything may be dealt with in retrospect. When the artist is still alive and creating, the audience is engaged in a process of learning how to respond to the artist’s work – an understanding that develops with each new piece. Coming in late to this process frustrates you by breaking it off while your own, personal response is unformed an incomplete. I guess my regret is for passing up the chance to have a less mediated response before it’s all in the hands of the critics and historians.

It’s nearly seven years since I happened to see Elliott Carter himself, at a series of concerts. Re-reading what I wrote about it at the time, I’m surprised at how snarky I was. Most of the cynicism is directed at the reputation Carter had accumulated, which makes it all the more surprising as by the time of Carter’s death this received wisdom was already out of date. Nearing a century, Carter’s “late period” of more transparent, freely written works had been in flow for about twenty years, yet critics persisted in portraying his music as some sort of cross between Stephen Hawking and Dostoyevsky. In my snarky blog post I noted his neo-baroque tendencies and predilection for concertos, while deriding writers who wished to big him up as a “Beethoven-like hero”.

Six years later, that received opinion seems as distant and old-fashioned as me using the term “Beethoven-like hero” (of course I should have said “Mahler-like hero”.) In April, The Guardian kicked off its “Guide to contemporary classical music” with Tom Service extolling Carter’s “profoundly joyful, or youthful, music” and summarising him, quite neatly, as “the closest any of us will probably ever experience to new music’s Haydn.” Later, this was also the general tone of eulogies for Carter’s passing. In my snarky little blog post I write that Carter “has the rare privilege of attending his own funeral obsequies.” With the luxury of extending his late period by a further decade, it turns out that he hung around long enough to see the historical revisionists at work, too.

The Richter Variations – II

Saturday 15 December 2012

Morton Feldman’s early piano music at Cafe Oto

Thursday 13 December 2012

I’ve complained about the piano at Cafe Oto before. Just about everybody has, particularly John Tilbury, who refused to come back until it was replaced. The new piano’s been there for a while now; there’s just the question of paying for it.

Tuesday night’s Tilbury concert was intended as a fundraiser for the instrument. Instead of angling for broad, populist appeal, the programme consisted entirely of Tilbury playing Morton Feldman’s early solo music. With the exception of his last piano piece, Palais de Maris, and an arrangement of Madame Press Died Last Week At Ninety, all of the music was from the Fifties. Before playing, Tilbury announced he would be playing the entire programme without a break and requested no applause between pieces. The chairs had all been gathered around closer than usual, in a tight huddle around the piano and away from the bar. This was a Serious Concert.

Amazingly, for a freezing, foggy December night in London, no-one in the audience had a cough. It was like the end of the John Cage Prom all over again.

At the start of the evening Tilbury said something that I’m sure a lot of us were thinking: that Feldman is still an overlooked composer in that attention is focused almost entirely on those long, late works from the last decade of his life. He added that “early” Feldman was where he started with this music and mentioned ruefully that “you can’t make a career out of playing early Feldman.”

Cafe Oto is not the best place for concentration, but everyone knew that they needed to give full attention for this music to be heard properly (even the punter in front of me who fell asleep during Palais de Maris.) The first piece began abruptly – short notes, isolated, no pedal, so that it sounded accidental – inconsequential but obtrusive all the same. Hearing Feldman’s early music is a reminder of the idea in the air at the time, as expressed by Cage, that this music existed in the now-moment alone, where all you can do is suddenly listen.

The sounds are simple in themselves, but the effect they produce is complex – both reasons working against this music as a career vehicle. So much of the music’s affect comes from the placement of the sounds in a given place and time, instead of the usual uninterrupted flow of musical rhetoric that tries to shut out its surroundings.

I’ve heard Tilbury play the last two pieces on this programme before. This night’s performances were very different; more restrained, less variable, less… not less romantic, less demonstrative. Interpretations can change over six years, but it seems likely that this is music to which the performer intuitively responds and allows to emerge differently, as clear as possible in consideration of its surroundings.

MIDI: a Pyrrhic victory for idealism

Tuesday 11 December 2012

When I woke up last week to hear on the radio that it was MIDI’s 30th birthday I couldn’t help but wonder (a) if it really was thirty years to the very day, and (b) if some beardy geek had a free MOTU wall calendar next to his framed photograph of Peter Zinovieff with the date circled and “1 sleep till MIDI’s birthday!” scrawled on it.

The first time I heard about MIDI was on a radio show 20-odd years ago when some guy from Severed Heads or something was complaining about how you couldn’t do dick with it, and for this flimsy reason I’ve always been a bit suspicious of MIDI. I’m sure there’s a whole subculture of MIDI Malcontents out there but I don’t want any contact with them because I’d prefer working with what I have then complaining about what I don’t have. For me, MIDI is a useful way of sending controller messages between different devices. Just don’t ask me what synching means; that whole concept is beyond me.

What I really dislike about MIDI is that it’s too precise, too specific, especially the way so many people use it as a sequencer. Every note comes out the same, same pitch, same intonation, on the same beat at the same time, all the instruments moving in lock step. It’s boring. You have do a whole lot of extra work and fiddling about to vary all these attributes just a little bit, to make it halfway interesting. It is, in effect, the absolute reverse of every other musical technology that preceded it. When you learn any other instrument you start of very uncoordinated and inaccurate and have to put a lot of practice into getting things somewhat precise. My ideal MIDI system would be very vague about what it did and when it did it, requiring plenty of tweaking and coding to rein it in.

When I do use MIDI as a sequencer, it’s to take advantage of the two things it does well: giving precise control over pitch and rhythm. This is a big reason why a lot of my music involves microtonality and impossible rhythms.

The Richter Variations – I

Sunday 4 November 2012

No updates for another week

Sunday 21 October 2012

You’ve probably noticed that there have been no updates for a month. That’s not because of a lack of news; just because I’ve been kind of rootless the last few weeks. In fact, there’s an awful lot I need to post about here. I’ve seen two opposing extremes of what might be opera for the 21st century, and what with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht and Robert Ashley’s Vidas Perfectas there’s a lot to digest.

I have also witnessed another manifestation of Robin Fox’s ingenuity, and a second, very different, performance by the Scratch Orchestra of John Cage’s Song Books. Sadly, I won’t get started on addressing this backlog, and my own work, until next weekend.

I go offline for a while and I get not one, but two very kind and thoughtful comments – here and here. Thanks very much, and I’ll get back to you both as soon as I can.

Last Sunday at Cafe Oto

Wednesday 19 September 2012

This is at the sound check for Robin Fox’s gig at Cafe Oto last Sunday.

I played my set just before Rob came on with his computer rig that plays the sounds his software generates as both audio and as waveforms projected across the room with a laser.

My piece was pretty good, I guess, but then who’s going to remember when it’s immediately followed by this?

My own drab little table of gear just tried to look inconspicuous behind the smoke machine.

Gig this Sunday! Cafe Oto – 16 September

Saturday 15 September 2012

How’s this for short notice? I’m the last minute addition to Cafe Oto’s amazing Robin Fox gig tomorrow night. I’ll be playing a set of live analogue electronic feedback opening for Rob’s laser and synth rampage. Details here.

Australian Cover Versions

Thursday 13 September 2012


This is the fourth version of this painting I’ve made and I’m starting to get the hang of it. The process is more efficient, I’m getting better control of the colour, and doing just enough to completely obscure the original cover art. I always wanted a series, to show up differences created by human fallibility and indiscriminate entropy.

The bottom right image above shows the “finished” painting, although it won’t be complete until it has been sufficiently “matured”. The first one I painted is starting to wear out nicely.

I Am The President Of Capitalists Inc.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

“Would you like to join a society called Capitalists Inc.? (Just so no one would think we were Communists.) Anyone joining automatically becomes president. To join you must show you’ve destroyed at least one hundred records…”

– John Cage, Lecture on Nothing, 1949.

It’s John Cage’s 100th birthday today, and like everyone else I think I’m the only person who gets what Cage was really about and it just happens to align exactly with my own way of thinking.

I can’t remember if it was Cage himself or someone he was quoting who made the Sphinx-like statement that the opposite of every idea is another good idea. For all my infatuation with Cage’s music, I still like to take the kill-the-Buddha approach to his ideas and see what happens when they are deliberately opposed or misinterpreted.

I Am The President Of Capitalists Inc. was a performance and art exhibition I made in 2003. Its premise was to misunderstand Cage’s intellectual teasing quoted above and interpret it as a literal instruction for some sort of expressionist, confrontational, bourgeoisie-titillating aktion – all of which are opposed to Cage’s aesthetics.

To add insult to injury, my performance was conducted with the air of a re-enactment of a once-vital artistic statement which has since been embraced by the regime it once opposed and stripped of all subversive potency.

The golf club was a last minute idea, as I found it in a cupboard in a back room of the gallery. I now understand why golfers wear gloves.

Once all the records were smashed, I handed out business cards commemorating my new status. The room was left in that state for the rest of the exhibition: broken records, beer bottles and sundry detritus. A television was placed in the back corner playing the video of the performance, with the screen angled away so punters had to walk over the pile of rubbish to see what was going on.

During the exhibition some unexpected events took place in that room, but I’ll save that for another time, soon.