I didn’t write about the last time Robert Ashley was in town. Sometimes you have an experience that gives you too much to think about, to write it down coherently and do it justice; not at first, and then you leave it later and later until it seems too late. For much the same reason, I didn’t write about when he died in March this year, either. So many of us have been slow in catching up to the implications of Ashley’s work.
Last night, long-time collaborator Thomas Buckner sang a programme dedicated to Robert Ashley’s music at Cafe Oto, to an audience of as many as twenty people. Much of it was in Ashley’s signature style of speech heightened to the state of music (not to be confused with sprechstimme), but Buckner’s virtuosic shaping of phrase and intonation and even melody from Ashley’s text revealed an aspect I had not fully realised before. The virtuosic speech which is Ashley’s most recognisable stylistic trait is more than patter, an overwhelming flow of information; there are pauses, hesitations, repetition which mould the semantic and emotional content of the words and the voice into complex states of thought and feeling as skilfully as any great aria.
For the record, Buckner performed a version of Ashley’s opera Atalanta (Acts of God), consisting of the “Odalisque” aria from Act I, “Mystery of the River” from Act II, and the Anecdote “The Producer Speaks” from Act III. The first act was accompanied by piano, electric piano and synthesized organ, the third act by piano alone. “Mystery of the River” was a new electronic realisation, made only last year as it had never been performed before then. After the interval, Buckner sang Tract, a wordless melody with electronic accompaniment, and World War III Just the Highlights, for voice and chorus. Tract began as a setting of a Wallace Stevens poem for voice and string quartet until Ashley realised he didn’t want to bend other people’s texts to fit music and as for string quartets, well.
The music conveys a stillness of contemplation, containing an agitation of thought. Connections abound. Ashley rhymes his subjects like Ezra Pound in the Cantos. Like William Carlos Williams, he adopts Pound’s methods to articulate the fraught sense of an emerging cultural awareness in his contemporary U.S.A., wondering whether it will survive and grow, and in what form. “Mystery of the River” repurposes mythology into geography and family history, as any colonial community must if they are to find meaning in their environment. World War III Just the Highlights starts by dissecting the economics of an opera company staging the Ring Cycle before crossing the Atlantic to analyse the romanticisation of El Cid and the Italian condottieri: the subject matter, characters, their juxtaposition and the connections between them are all the stuff of the Cantos.
Every performance of Ashley’s music I’ve witnessed has been a revelation, leading always to bigger and better questions about the content of his work. It pains me how few other people were there to hear it for themselves.
Not much to report lately except for two gigs, both at Cafe Oto, about one week apart.
First night: two solo sets, by Rafael Toral and Anthony Pateras. I’d heard some of Toral’s music for guitar and feedback of different types, so this was relevant to my interests. He played three “pieces”, each using different sets of very simple equipment. After the first set I started to vague-out a bit. The first was the most interesting: holding a small powered speaker in one hand, he “played” it with a microphone/light in the other, moving it to and fro to create controlled bursts of feedback. It was reminiscent of a solo improvisation on a violin, in sound and gesture. Unfortunately, it also went on for too long – I think this was because Toral seemed more interested in extracting every possible type of sound out of his instrument than in shaping a musical experience. He later mentioned that he was thinking about jazz saxophone solos while playing, so perhaps this was the problem too.
I’ve known Anthony Pateras for a long time so it was good to hear him play again. He played solo piano, without preparations to the strings or other extraneous sounds (as is often the case with him). The difference in technique between the two musicians was striking, and not just in the obvious way of comparing Toral’s meticulous gestures with Pateras’ frenzied activity. The trademark hyperactive pummelling of the keyboard is nevertheless rigorously constrained, producing sharply defined contrasts in large harmonic blocks of sound as well as more subtle distinctions in texture. His technical agility keeps focussed on one musical idea, which is then expanded and elaborated upon. He also stopped soon enough for the audience to demand an encore.
A few days later I was back at Oto to see Jürg Frey and friends (or “personal army”, as they were described on the night). He’s a clarinettist and composer, another one who’s associated with Wandelweiser. Quiet, pulseless sounds: unlike my previous experience, the usual feeling of hushed stillness had additional depths. Some of Frey’s music that I’ve heard seems, to some extent, a provocation in its refusal to yield to an implied, wider palette of sounds. (This is particularly after hearing R. Andrew Lee play Frey’s piano music.) On this occasion, there were also some surprisingly rich sounds, with an almost playful (on Frey’s terms) exploration of harmonies and instrument combinations.
Performance technique in Frey’s music becomes a matter of mastering a highly disciplined activity, to achieve the extremes of attenuated sounds demanded in the score. Looking back on the three different sets, it became clear that I was hearing differences of technique that applied equally to composition as they did to performance. The opportunity to hear Frey play his own music made this connection much clearer. A more extreme case of performance dictating composition was also presented at the Frey gig. Anton Lukoszevieze’s performance of part of John Lely’s The Harmonics of Real Strings reveals that the harmonic structure of the piece is entirely produced by the systematic execution of a single, extended gesture by the cellist – conceptually simple, but physically difficult.
The same musicians had spent the weekend recording Frey’s music for another release by Another Timbre. It will be interesting to hear the music apart from the theatre of performance.
I think I’ve ragged on Wandelweiser a few times recently, finding fault with its apparent sense conformity and complacency. It’s not completely true, of course, and as it happens I was just sent a copy of the new Edition Wandelweiser release West Coast Soundings, a double CD which makes an excellent case for the whole Wandelweiser aesthetic and the musical thinking behind it.
This album was crowdfunded last year under the name “Cage’s Grandchildren” (this title still comes up in the CD metadata). It might well have also been called “Tenney’s Children”: James Tenney is the only featured composer from a preceding generation, and his Harmonium #1 dates from 1976 while all the other works are less than 10 years old. Most of the composers here studied with Tenney, or at Cal Arts. Harmonium #1 isn’t the point of origin for all the music here and the album makes no such claim, but the work appears later on Disc 1 as a touchstone for this genre of music.
Like John Cage, Tenney produced a bewilderingly diverse body of work which opened up so many potential new paths of discovery. West Coast Soundings takes Harmonium #1 as a reference point for one particular set of ideas: a focus on the qualities of sound itself as a subject, listening in the present without narrative context, an emphasis on process and structure, but aimed towards elaboration of the sonic content, not teleological development.
Having complained about Wandelweiser’s output getting too samey, this collection is beautifully varied and balanced, presenting different facets of the above mentioned musical concerns while still maintaining an overall mood. I’ve played it in various situations and, for twelve pieces over two hours, surprisingly it’s never felt like an endurance test. More “typical” works – long-held tones blending together, a gentle but implacable aimlessness – are given a distinct identity by being thrown into contrast against music like the sinuous electronic drone of Chris Kallmyer’s Between the Rhine and Los Angeles. Liam Mooney’s 180°, in which performers press triangles against dry ice, recalls Cage’s interest in finding new sounds, Tenney’s percussion music, sound sculpture and Fluxus happenings.
The smaller, slighter works play an important role. Mark So’s brief segue makes a mysterious introduction to the album, with cellist Anton Lukoszevieze acting as the text’s reciter. Casey Anderson’s possible dust can’t add more to Cage’s works for multiple radios, but is sequenced here as a distinctive palate cleanser before Michael Pisaro’s quietly powerful A single charm is doubtful (Gertrude Stein).
After being disappointed with Catherine Lamb’s material/highlight last month, I was very pleased to find her piece Frame for Flute the highlight of the two CDs. Written for (not so fast!) grand bass recorder and cello, the two instruments echo off each other. The sonorous notes played by Lukoszevieze and recordist Lucia Mense merge and diverge, creating rich but subtle differences in tone that often sound as though they were electronically manipulated.
Brian Olewnick’s blog gives a good summary of all the pieces played and who plays them. West Coast Soundings turns out to be one of the best kind of surprises, one that is satisfying instead of sensationalistic, when you were only expecting more of the same.
Just reading about what Fausto Romitelli hoped to achieve with his final work, the “video opera” An Index of Metals, is enough to cause apprehension. The wish to immerse the audience in a solid, all-consuming mass of sound and light was never going to be realised, certainly not with an electroacoustic ensemble and three video screens in a concert hall. The gap between the ambition and the physical reality was always going to be too big to ignore, rather like the dreams of futurists from 100 years ago whose reach exceeded their grasp.
Also like the futurists, Romitelli seems to have been stridently demonstrative about wanting to be modern, but did so in ways utterly beholden to the past. A piece for solo electric guitar titled Trash TV Trance written in 2002 is obsolete before its première. I went to see Hila Plitmann and the London Sinfonietta play An Index of Metals last week and found that like his fellow Italians a century earlier, Romitelli preferred to wax romantically about what modernity could be like than be modern himself. Reviews seem to be divided between what you would like it to be as imagined in your head and what you actually heard and saw on stage.
The music worked hard a creating a persistent mood throughout the evening, which I suspect will make it all sound as quaint as Antheil in a generation or so. The playing on the night seemed to lack both the coherence and the bite that Romitelli had in mind. There were video projections; I’ve seen plenty worse. Romitelli’s sound world is distinct and striking, but it has an exotic decadence about it which sits oddly against the claims to be a bold pioneer.
They sent their sonnets off to a newspaper, which printed both. The honest Smith called his “On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.” Shelley called his “Ozymandias.” Genius may also be knowing how to title a poem.
— Guy Davenport
I am learning to accept that titles are as important as I have always wanted them to be. It seemed like an easy distraction, that one could dream up titles all day for works that would never be started, let alone finished; that a mediocre work could be elevated to the illusion of greatness by a few choice words to flatter the audience’s sensibilities. How many works of art exist as little more than armatures for the finer feelings expressed in the title?
“I thought it would be a waste to condemn it to such anonymity,” said Krzysztof Penderecki of his work originally titled 8’37”. Some works can find a match in subject and surface; others can’t bear the weight of expectations the title imposes upon them. The title finds its purest expression in John Barton Wolgamot’s trilogy: the titles are the Substance which live through the text’s Accident (thus beating Alain Robbe-Grillet by at least 20 years).
For years I laboured under the illusion that disregarding the frippery of the title for the real meat of the work itself was a sign of maturity. It’s a simplistic position. A few years back I heard Helmut Lachenmann praising Morton Feldman’s use of titles and I’ve been reconsidering ever since.
A while ago I finally got to hear Apartment House play Harley Gaber’s masterpiece The Winds Rise in the North live. Afterwards I kept thinking, “what a great title.” The string quintet keens and sighs for two hours, always changing but never deviating from what it first presents itself to be. The title’s a reference to ancient Chinese poetry and Taoism, which invokes a whole other realm of associations, but throughout it all is the evocation of wind, wind as a portent. It may rise to a murmur or a roar, either of which may be imagined at any point in Gaber’s music. A merging of subject and substance, between categories.
I was going to write a blog post tonight but I started thinking about creating graphic representations of 144 Pieces For Organ – in Excel, of course.
Four of them are on YouTube now. Any resemblance to John Cage’s late prints is purely coincidental.
I’ve been getting to know Catherine Lamb’s music. Listening to the CD of her trio three bodies (moving) from Another Timbre has been one of the year’s high points, along with her vocal work Dilations and recent orchestral piece portions transparent/opaque. The immediate point for comparison is Morton Feldman’s music: apart from the obvious preoccupation with a similar soundworld of hushed stillness, there are similar concerns with the contradictory impulses towards feeling and form and the tension in maintaining a balance between the two. She also says, rather reassuringly, “I am open to the bland”. There’s this quality many composers have struggled to define, of impassive beauty in stasis, non-demonstrative; the quality Feldman sought when he “tried not to push the sounds around”, that Cage praised in Satie wanting to make Socrate “white and pure like antiquity”.
Last Thursday Konzert Minimal played Catherine Lamb’s material/highlight at Cafe Oto, so I had to be there to hear it live for myself. They also played Antoine Bueger’s meinong nonets, which I was eager to hear for a different reason. I wrote a bit about hearing Beuger’s en una noche oscura last year and how it left me unimpressed. Sadly the second chance at hearing Beuger live only reinforced my opinion. I described last year’s exposure as “stilted and precious, disappointingly inert” and came away with much the same impression this time.
The Lamb piece didn’t work for me on the night, either. There’s bland and then there’s bland. Worse still, material/highlight, which was played first, sounded pretty much as what I remembered the Beuger sounded like, which the subsequent piece then confirmed. I’m looking at the reviews of three bodies (moving) and I find this: “a feeling of richness and harmonic depth that separates Lamb from most of the music of the Wandelweiser composers.” It’s a pity that distinction is missing from material/highlight.
I’ve got a problem with Wandelweiser (of which Beuger is a co-founder). I’ve got a problem with any art movement really (a sure sign of lots of distracting chaff), but what I’ve heard of Wandelweiser that impresses me the most is the way so many composers have found so many ways to write music that sounds the same. Long, soft tones. Pauses. It’s not just those stilted, precious, inert qualities that in themselves make the music uninteresting; it’s the sense that everyone’s working very deep within a comfort zone, that nothing is open to risk of any sort. It’s like a collective failure of nerve that’s permeated music over the past few decades: holy minimalists, lower case glitch musos, post-Feldmanites, Wandelweiser, all struck dumb in awe of their meagre materials, held in abeyance for fear that a false move is worse than no move at all.
“They’re playing the Lachenmann last. I didn’t want to hear the Carter; I need a life.”
[BBC announcer walks on-stage.] “We’re in for some torture first.”
“So apparently she’s this hugely important and revered cultural figure in Lebanon, but when you present her in the opera she just comes across as Widow Twankey. He doesn’t get it. I tried explaining Widow Twankey to him and he thinks she’s a real person.”
First, I want to thank whoever it was who once perfectly described laptop performers as having the stage presence of “bored men checking their email”. This is one of the more important reasons why I avoided giving live performances with computers for many years.
Of course, with experimental musicians mostly being awkward, poorly-socialised geek boys, your typical underground new music gig wasn’t much livelier before computers became affordable, but at least the equipment available at the time enforced a certain minimum of on-stage activity.
The role and aesthetics of the theatrical (but not dramatic) element of new music performance don’t get discussed much. I was once on a panel talk with several other musicians which drifted onto this topic and stayed there for the rest of the session. Nothing much was agreed, except that there are no real models to work from, and everyone has to pretty much work out their own methods for themselves. And, more importantly, that VJs are a blight upon the earth.
What was most interesting to learn was that so many musicians, even though you wouldn’t think it to watch them, are conscious of the visual aspect of their gigs. They may also, however, be at a loss as to what they can do to help it.
I wrote the above four paragraphs for publication as part of the Collected Collaborations show, as part of a discussion of my use of computers in live performance. I’ve done a few more live laptop gigs since then but instead of talking about that now I’m thinking of an electronic music gig I saw last weekend at the ICA.
I didn’t like it. All the sounds were samples, with no variation from one use of the sound to the next. I’d just seen the Matisse cut-outs show so I knew that even those flat planes of colour had their own life and shading to them. The music was all derivative of electronic dance music, but not transformative. Dance music has lives or dies on its sense of rhythm, balance, structure, so deconstructing it to its constituent components was a signally unrewarding exercise. Worse, the ICA room is typically set up so the musos are up the back, obscured from the audience view.
Mark Fell was advertised as playing on the night, but he didn’t appear in the programme. As it turned out, his set was in fact performed by the cellist Lucy Railton (sadly not with a MIDI cello). Even though no-one could really see it, this was an intriguing idea. Would it have sounded any different if Fell had played it himself? Probably not, but that seemed kind of the point. Think how much the theatre, if not the music, of a laptop gig could be improved by having the piece performed by someone who had no part in making it.
What would happen in each case where someone else stepped in to play with the computer interface? I need to stop thinking about my own performance practice and start thinking about a more general practice. How can I allow for this and still keep it a satisfactory musical experience. It needs to be a piece (not an instrument) but in what ways could it be made so a different performer can interpret it in unforseen ways?
I keep telling everyone that John Cage is the composer with the most pervasive influence on my work, and it is part of this influence which involves the necessity of ignoring or contradicting his ideas as well as accepting them. As far as I’m concerned, Cage is the orthodoxy.
I look at ways my working methods diverge from those of Cage. (This preoccupation with the past is itself an attempt at a Cagean strategy, that of transcending one’s situation through accepting it – the situation here being the apparent cultural impasse in a period of decadence that has followed postmodernism.) I also look at ways I can consciously diverge from Cage in a productive way.
That whole thing about music as process, keeping it “live”, avoiding fixed relationships – when I was a kid I remember reading Brian Eno talking about the same stuff. It always bugged me; it felt dogmatic. Why should music as an open-ended process be considered intrinsically preferable? It seemed like a good reason to make music which is conceived and received as an object. This is of course the natural state of recorded music, and it’s a state I want to fully exploit as both a form and a medium.
144 Pieces For Organ is thoroughly Cagean in its method: chance-determined materials and structure within an arbitrary form. The form, however, was conceived as a series of unique objects, like sculptures or drawings: a complex of fixed relationships. As with static visual art, any open-ended process is left to the audience. It seems as though how they sound depends a lot upon the level of attention given. Eight seconds of silence is given at the end of each piece to enforce its self-contained identity, and to break any sense of an ongoing continuity (i.e. perceptual process) that a sequence of pieces may give.
The generative nature of the pieces is starting to remind me of Allan McCollum’s Shapes Project. Although they are not permutational works, and are computer-generated, my 144 Pieces share some similar attributes. Most clearly, there is the creation of great, diverse abundance from a single determining process. There is also the possibility (explicit in McCollum’s work, implicit in mine) that more works in the same series could be created by other people, given access to the process.
There’s that word ‘process’ again. I want to keep stripping away any romantic connotations that might enhance a work of art, to see what remains; this applies equally to history, artistic biography and mythology as it does to Cage’s ideas about Zen. It takes no time to make these organ pieces: I could churn out millions of them, use each one once then delete it, outsource them, make them open-source, sell or give unique pieces to anyone who asks. This would all fit very well with the new surfeit/abundance (delete as appropriate) of information in which we now live. The problem, however, would then be that I had moved the work from an object to a process, a concept.
Then I start thinking about Morton Feldman’s music. Not just that he was influenced by Cage in the way most people are – find a few key ideas to embrace and reject everything else – but that he wrote music by setting up a hedge of contradictory imperatives and then negotiating a precarious path of compromises through them. (“It’s a sign of maturity.”) If I’m to treat my music as art – music is an art form, right? – then perhaps these organ pieces are not so much drawings as an edition of prints. More pieces could be made, but only as “duplicates” of the original work.
About those organ pieces I wrote…
One night in a pub, many years ago, someone asked me why, if I was writing music for computers to play, was so much of it written for virtual piano. I said that computerised sequencers were really useful only for precise control of rhythm and intonation, not for timbral subtlety; therefore when I wrote music for MIDI files I used the piano as a familiar acoustic model which wouldn’t distract the listener with “new” or “weird” sounds. (This was after several whiskies so I probably used slightly different wording at the time but the sentiment was the same.)
Most sampled acoustic instruments sound horribly fake. Every note has the exact same sound, with none of the natural variation you can’t help but get with instruments that are bowed or blown, for example. The sameness becomes grating. How could I easily get a wide range of tone colours which would still strike the listener as a “natural” acoustic listening experience?
The pipe organ has some striking parallels to the MIDI synthesiser. Both are dead-end technical solutions to musical problems. A wide range of stops (instrument patches) are available, but with little direct control in how these sounds may be used. You press the key, the sound starts, you release the key, the sound stops. In between pressing and releasing the key, there is no change to the sound unless it has a built-in decay which cannot be varied.
The combinations of stops used in 144 Pieces For Organ could not be played on a real organ, but the sound-world is sufficiently familiar for the listener to enjoy the mixture of harmonies and timbres without feeling a need to identify a sound source.
These pieces were created from a simple impulse. I wanted to write some short, self-contained pieces (I’ve done this before, but it’s been a while). The apparently modest scope of this project allowed me to realise another idea which had been in my head for some time: of composing a piece of music entirely within a spreadsheet.
Microsoft Excel has been my most frequently used compositional tool. I’ve used it to generate tuning systems, scales of tempos and durations, distribution and density of different events. This spreadsheet work has then always had to be applied to some other, music-making medium. I wondered if it would be possible to create something entirely in Excel, which could then be read as MIDI instructions for a computer-controlled instrument.
Of course, someone has already thought of this and written a little program called midicsv, which translates MIDI files to humanly intelligible lists of numbers and vice versa. So, nothing could stop me!
As I described in my post about generative systems, each organ piece is 12 measures long (each measure a different tempo), using 12 organ stops, each stop playing 12 notes. 144 notes in each piece. Each measure begins with a note on different organ stop, all other notes can appear at any time in the piece. Moving from one pitch to the next is done by a crude approximation of flocking behaviour (i.e. each note is more likely to stay close in pitch, and less likely to imitate any “outliers”). Within these parameters, all outcomes are determined by chance.
As threatened, I wrote 144 of these little pieces. With some tweaking of the spreadsheet formulas, I was able to make the last 72 in half an hour: enter the piece’s number and the data generates automatically, ready to be copied, pasted and converted to MIDI. I’ve uploaded them all to Soundcloud, so you can pick and choose or click at random. Each piece is 25 to 55 seconds long so they shouldn’t try your patience.
Each piece follows the same set of simple rules. Making and listening to these pieces has raised a number of more general issues about music for me, which I intend to discuss in a later post.
This album came in the nick of time. I’d been listening to a bunch of “new music” lately that left me disillusioned about what so many composers are up to today. They want to get away from all that stuffy, arty concert hall music, but they don’t seem to know how. This would be more palatable if they addressed their predicament honestly but instead they plough on with fixed smiles and serious sincerity, serving up boring, boring music while telling us the scene’s never been in better shape. They repeat the mistakes of the post-minimalist set from the 1980s and sound old before their time. Bland harmonies, four-square rhythms, aspiring to the lofty heights of pop music but ending up like library music, an internationalised corporate-speak that speaks to, and is spoken by, no-one.
It was such a relief to join the crowd in that hot, stuffy, noisy room at Cafe Oto to hear Apartment House play at the launch of their double-CD of Laurence Crane’s music. The uncomfortable conditions were made simultaneously worse, then better, by the sheer number of well-wishers crammed into the place and the celebratory mood they brought with them. The bigger relief came from prolonged exposure to Crane’s solo and chamber pieces.
Mostly short (5 to 10 minutes), seemingly simple and unambitious, each piece has sort-of clear harmonies, almost-regular rhythms, kind of like the habits of those post-minimalists – only completely different. The spareness of the music suggests an ambiguity of things omitted, its transparency allows nuances to emerge in a way that implies greater depths concealed beneath the surface and hints at how they may be revealed. The material may be conventionally seductive, but its presentation is disaffectedly formal. You suspect there’s a formula behind it, but also suspect that learning the formula would neither help nor hinder your enjoyment. Like Satie’s music, it is obstinately beguiling. Like Satie’s music, you could mistake it for aural wallpaper only to discover it is in fact furniture and unexpectedly bark your shins on it.
Listening right now, there seems to be a timeless quality to Crane’s music, inasmuch as its qualities seem to serve no manifesto nor oppose a prevailing fashion. You could play the CD to your non “new music” friends and not think less of it after it turned out they liked it. Like the best pop music, its bright surface can also suggest darker or more sinister moods.
At the launch I bought the CD so I could enjoy it at greater length. It’s put out by Another Timbre, whose discs I have written about before. Apartment House’s playing is appropriately clean, clear and possibly even deadpan. I’m playing it whenever I can to remind myself that there’s more than one way of doing things, that it’s always possible to make things new.
What went right: actually worked, wasn’t boring, people probably didn’t leave (? dark), applause, free whisky.
What went wrong: analogue component needs development, now that I have the two feedback systems interacting in a meaningful way. Too much shrill, high-pitched stuff kept appearing too often. I can now trust the system to work without any necessary intervention; now I need the means to break the system at will, again. Didn’t take enough photos. Need to do more gigs.
I may post an excerpt from the concert recording when I’m less self-critical about it.
I’m preparing for the gig I’m playing at Cafe Oto next Wednesday.
The basic idea is to create two feedback systems, one digital and one analogue, which can feed into each other.
The digital part is a patch created in AudioMulch.
The analogue part is made from circuits of effects boxes. It’ll look neater once I’ve finalised the design.
This is a composition: a patterned integrity through which information is shaped into music. As I mentioned before, if the composition is both elegant and robust then the music will come from its design and any performing gestures I make will be in response to the system, without my having to impose my aesthetic will upon it.