Can you imagine after all these years if you asked John Cage, “Do you really believe in Zen?” and you get the answer, “No.”
– Morton Feldman
I’m interested in John Cage but I’m not interested in Zen, so I don’t want to get too tangled up in origins. When reading the Pan Zen parables in The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium I wondered at first if Mathews was using Cage as a source, or if the two of them had each read the same, common book of Zen stories. After the briefest of research, it was obviously the former case.
Next thought: why Zen? Was Cage consulted as a handy source of Zen parables, or would any thought suitably exotic have fitted Mathews’ purposes and Cage’s anecdotes made good material? Come to think of it, is there anything wrong with Mathews’ versions of these stories? The linguistic joke is a broken-English rendition of Cage’s English, transformed completely, yet still recognisable. What we have is a (fictitious) English translation of a (fictitious) Pan translation of Cage’s English interpretation of and English translation of…. What is the original? Cage’s retelling of Zen stories are impossible to pin down. They drift back and forth between China and Japan, and some of them must originate in India. Cage’s versions must be as alien as Twang Panattapam’s. Where is the Patriarch and where is the poem?
The inevitable cultural distortion produced by imitation is as much a voluntary act of rejection as it is a voluntary, albeit imperfect, embrace. These transformed Zen stories, iteration and iteration, reminded me of the frontispiece of Guy Davenport’s book of essays, Every Force Evolves A Form. He draws a design from a Celtic coin, and observes that it’s creator was
trying to make iconographic sense of others derived from a stater of Philip II of Macedonia, which bore a head of Hermes on one side and a winged horse on the other. Copy after copy, over centuries, provincial mints in Aquitania had already misread the face of Hermes as a lion’s head, as sun and moon, or as so many abstract lines and dots.
A quick google finds plenty of examples of imitation Philip II staters, with a multitude of variations on the single, original design. One blog on Bulgarian Celtic culture charts the various paths by which the designs evolved. The author argues that these designs were “the result of a conscious and deliberate rejection of Greco-Roman art and experimentation with alternative artistic ideas that would not resurface in European art until the modern era”.
Davenport concludes that in his example, the profile of Hermes has been transformed into a horse. Based on the many examples found on Google Images it appears that he goofed and is looking at the reverse of the coin. This misinterpretation, accidental or not, draws its subject to a conclusion (“All art is a dance of meaning from form to form.”) as fruitful as Cage’s study of Zen – however faithful, misguided or superficial it may or may not have been. It is all so much raw material for an active mind to work on.
This bears repeating: I keep coming back to the idea that all creativity is an act of distortion. I’ve just been reading Harry Mathews’ epistolary novel The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium. One of the story’s protagonists – Tro-tsi Twang Panattapam McCaltex, from the former Italian colony of Pan-Nam in Southeast Asia – writes in her imperfect English a Zen story well-known in her native Pan.
In the po test by whiwhich the 6° arch of zen was chose, there were poems. One say, “Dis-like roil dust. The probes remove the dust.” The “head wing” poems are their. It said, “He ‘s the mind. Where, is dust?” Some lat-er Pan masters: a monk who was stak-ing bats, a young-er monk up to his id in the dust – “Are you a-staking-bats?” “No. Why?”
Hello. How’s your new year shaping up? One thing’s for certain, I’m never drinking again.
A blog post or something will appear here shortly. In the meantime, please join me in entertaining these positive thoughts.
Off the top of my head, these are my cultural highlights of the year. Well, almost off the top, because the best moments were of getting my own music out in public again. In particular, seeing the Bionic Ear project finally come to fruition with the two concerts in Melbourne was the biggest moment – hearing everyone else’s pieces and seeing the effect their music and mine had on the audiences. There was also the opportunity to play live with analogue electronics for the first time in years, with gigs at Abject Bloc in Limehouse Town Hall and Unconscious Archives at the Apiary that everyone seemed to enjoy.
I’m thinking mostly about music gigs I went to this year, because they are physical experiences of time and place. Of course, this means that the one that stands out the most is SONNTAG aus LICHT – seeing at first hand a part of Stockhausen’s mad, overwhelming vision enter the world and attempt to make itself understood. The other three that made the biggest impressions: Boulez conducting Pli Selon Pli and packing a bigger punch than I ever thought possible, Eliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak trilogy banishing the outside world through the slenderest of means, and Ferneyhough’s La terre est un homme blowing a hole in the received history of recent music – a lost landmark hidden in plain sight.
So where’s the New new stuff on my list? I suppose that should be my new year resolution for 2012.
Other standouts that I didn’t blog about: a superbly performed but unimaginatively conceived version of John Cage’s Song Books by Exaudi at King’s Place, Anna Zaradny’s and John Wall’s sets at Sotto Voce for showing me that there’s still potential for laptop gigs, and hearing Apartment House play my old bête noir, Phill Niblock’s Five More String Quartets in person. This last piece was the inspiration, years ago, for my String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta), which received a new outing in printed form at Monash University this year.
Jürg Frey, “Louange de l’eau, louange de la lumière” (2011). basel sinfonietta /Manuel Nawri.
(7’57″, 12.5 MB, mp3)
I’ve been doing boring music stuff the last few weeks but on the weekend I did make it to the concert of Cornelius Cardew’s late music at Conway Hall. This was the music he composed while an active member of the Progressive Cultural Alliance and the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). I was going to write a little something about the concert tonight so I looked up the RCPB(ML)’s website, which had a link to the flyer promoting the gig.
Instead of the flyer, I found this:
The front page article links through to a statement by Chris Coleman, the National Spokesperson of RCPB(ML). It contains such shameless statements as:
Comrade Kim Jong Il has led the Korean party and people in continuing to build the socialist society of their choice, in the most trying circumstances, and defending the sovereignty and independence of the DPRK, while ceaselessly striving for the peaceful reunification of the Korean people by their own efforts.
In my last Cardew article I linked to the party’s website with the phrase “wrongheaded political project”. As I feared, I was being too kind.
The statement is then followed by the official DPRK statement, reprinted in full without qualification or comment. It is accompanied by pictures which make it look like a copy of the Kim Jong-Il Looking At Things blog, without any sense of irony, humour or self-awareness. It is full of sentences such as “Kim Jong Il possessed of personality and qualifications as a great man on the highest and perfect level was an outstanding thinker and theoretician who led the revolution and construction along the path of steady victories with his profound ideologies and theories and remarkable leadership.”
It was this that reinforced the tragedy of Cardew’s life. Regardless of the qualities of his later music, he made himself into a humourless, clueless, brainless agitator utterly lacking in awareness of both the evil he promoted, and how transparently ridiculous his efforts appeared to the people he most wished to save.
Dane Rudhyar, “Granites” (1929). Sarah Cahill, piano.
(9’18″, 11.7 MB, mp3)
My memories of the AMM gig at Conway Hall are a lot more positive than my thoughts on it at the time, or so it seems. Reading that blog entry again was a small shock. Even now that I’m puzzling over it, my bemusement is not over what caused my memories of it to change, but what caused me to write about it that way in the first place.
It may well be that the music really didn’t make much of an impact on me, and what has really stuck in my head was the experience of being at the concert, which I am inclined to remember more fondly. (Incidentally there’s a photo of it on Wikipedia, but I didn’t know that until today.)
At the same time I am certain that my opinion on Sunday’s concert won’t change.
“Celebration” was in the title of the concert, but as celebrations go it was a muted and introspective affair. Perhaps this was to be expected. For the past 30 years Cardew has remained unfinished business. His last years were consumed by his dedication to a wrongheaded political project that squandered his talent and energy, and his early, unexpected death left the new music world a strangely inconsistent, unresolved body of work. British musicians have chosen, largely, to ignore him while a rump of the avant-garde treated him as a semi-legendary figure and unsuccessfully tried to reconcile the conflicting tendencies that pulled his music in such contradictory directions.
Sunday’s concert in the Purcell Room got us no closer to perceiving a distinct outline of Cardew’s oeuvre, although it presented one piece of the puzzle. In the first half John Tilbury played several of Cardew’s piano pieces, from the Sixties and early Seventies. The three February Pieces and Material felt like an early historical attempt to both accommodate and escape from the prevailing avant-garde dogmas of the Fifties. A sonic delicacy reminiscent of Webern would alternate with passages of stasis, spiky contrapuntal discord and isolated tones, sometimes romantic, otherwise remote, disrupted by a wilful discontinuity, tempered by a reliance on the performer’s instinct to find a form in the score’s aleatory structure. (At times you could see Tilbury flipping both forwards and backwards through the pages.) Overall, the mood was elegiac.
The brief Unintended Piano Music from either 1970 or 1971 was a strange, brooding piece; a series of chords articulated by a repeated triad ascending in the bass. Its lulling, nagging repetitions and pensive mood illustrated why Morton Feldman felt so at home amongst the British avant-garde of the time. The Croppy Boy was the sole acknowledgement in the programme of Cardew’s later dedication to founding a new People’s Music for the Marxist-Leninist revolution that never came. In this context, it came across as overly sentimental and slightly insincere.
After the interval, Tilbury was joined by percussionist Eddie Prévost. Together they performed as the improvisation group AMM, of which Cardew was an early, key member. Prévost’s programme note takes some pains to detail the numerous personnel changes over the years. “One suspects AMM will somehow continue after those who first thought of it have long since departed,” he concludes, yet the preceding history feels more rueful than triumphant. It can’t help but echo the unending splits and factions amongst the various communist parties with which Cardew was involved in the Seventies.
I saw an expanded version of AMM play two years ago. Tonight, the duo’s sound is understandably sparser, with long pauses, and culminating in a lingering uncertainty between them over when exactly they’ve finished. Prévost is preoccupied with a technique, as if he’s rehearsing alone. He spends most of his time bowing a cymbal, a tam-tam, some small gongs, shifting his equipment about casually, almost sloppy. Tilbury slips between foreground and background, but much of the time can add little more to this monomania than slow, chromatic scales, sometimes ascending, sometimes… It’s less a celebration, more resignation, exhaustion.
Richard Berry, “Oh Oh, Get Out Of The Car“ (1955).
(3’01″, 2.1 MB, mp3)
Make sounds with stones, draw sounds out of stones, using a number of sizes and kinds (and colours); for the most part discretely; sometimes in rapid sequences. For the most part striking stones with stones, but also stones on other surfaces (inside the open head of a drum, for instance) or other than struck (bowed, for instance, or amplified). Do not break anything.
Wandelweiser’s approach to this piece is to determine in advance that the performance will last an hour, and that each of their seven performers will devise 10 to 20 “events” of a type, duration and timing of their own choosing. This seemed like an intriguing idea. How did it manage to come across so wrong?
The room didn’t help. The performance was supposed to be very quiet, with long silences allowed to emerge between sounds. Unfortunately, in the ICA theatre everything sounded muffled and dull, with the silences drawing attention to the hum of the airconditioner. For some unexplained reason, a recording of some sort of faint rustling (pebbles? water?) played intermittently. This sound was curiously uninteresting, and its recurrence became something of a nuisance.
The performers played with a deliberation which drew attention away from the sounds they made, and the sounds produced were insufficiently rewarding to make the act of listening anything more than I chore. I really expected to like this more than I did. On the surface, the interpretation was very similar to John Cage’s Number Pieces, which I love.
A friend in the audience afterwards remarked that it had provided a good opportunity to observe the psychological profiles of the performers. He also made an important point. So much of Wolff’s musical career has been spent in the shadow of Cage; and when Wandelweiser devoted a concert to Wolff, all they did was shove him back under Cage’s shadow again. Wandelweiser’s interpretation could easily be mistaken for a realisation of Cage’s Four4 or Four6. Worse still, they emulated the wrong idea of John Cage – a conceptualist, a philosopher – and not John Cage the musician. Christian Wolff the musician was not present.
Charles Hamm, “Canto” (1963). Helen Hamm, soprano; Elizabeth Hiller, speaker; The Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Illinois /Jack McKenzie.
(6’13″, 6.8 MB, mp3)
I’ve seen him play twice before. The last time was an improvised duet with Jennifer Walshe which turned out to be a bit of a mess, like they were trying out lots of ideas without ever getting settled. The first time was him just sawing away on his violin over a tape, or a drone, I forget. It was that kind of capital-M Musicianship that I can admire without really getting into, sort of like Terry Riley at the keyboard. It’s great that they know how to spiel like that, but I wish I knew in advance which bits were going to be worth paying attention to.
This time, however, it all came together. Playing violin in his typical harsh, strident tone over looped samples of himself that he could cue in an out as needed, or a low drone created by striking a monochord with a piano hammer, he traversed the set of harmonies that resonated above the drone’s bass frequency. Occasionally, he would cut away the drone and break the comfortable sense of continuity. The tone changed and a new structural point in the piece would emerged – this was aided by his ability to select passages of his own playing to be looped as a base on which to build a new section. As he progressed he moved towards the smaller, more discordant intervals in the upper reaches of the harmonic series and the music’s tension built accordingly.
After another shift in attitude, bowing pedal tones on loose strings hanging off his instrument’s bridge, he returned to bowing in a different intonation. His tuning became more esoteric, playing unfamiliar scales further away from conventional harmony. By the end of his piece he had moved us away into a strange, bittersweet territory of tones that required us to readjust our hearing to a new order of harmonic relationships above the recurring drone. This is what I want to hear when I hear someone who can spiel: not just an unerring sense of what sounds good, but a sense of structure, of a meaning that goes beyond its own craft.