“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.
At The Forge, LRAO will feature duets by cellist Lucy Railton and violinist Aisha Orazbayeva, followed by James Hullick’s post-apocalyptic chamber opera Bruchlandung. Performers on the night include acclaimed German baritone Guillermo Anzorena, Australia’s eclectic pianist Michael Kieran Harvey and supernatural cellist Judith Hamann.
At Cafe Oto Jolt is presenting The Nis, combining sound artist collective Amplified Elephants, the BOLT Ensemble and, of course, robots. On the same night will be live electronic sets by the legendary John Wall and myself.
I’ll be giving the first live performance of the new, augmented version of this feedback piece I’ve been working on. Hope you can all come along!
On Saturday I got to see and hear the Scratch Orchestra play selections from Nature Study Notes. I saw these guys performing Cage’s Song Books a couple of years ago, and again there was a blurring between art and life. Performers would come and go, participate when they felt most at home with the material, occasionally opting out to sit in the stalls with the audience or stand on the stairs outside. The door to the fire escape stayed open, letting in sounds from the surrounding streets and houses.
Much of the material in the Notes is open to interpretation and speculation. Reading over them after the event, it’s fun to spot how many you can recognise.
I learned later that there had been some general discussion of ideas beforehand, but no group rehearsal. The nature of the Scratch Orchestra music, as alluded to in the notes themselves, had little of the focused intensity of activity found in Cage’s music. An atmosphere of informality and naturalism was sustained throughout – this was achieved largely through the sensitivity and dedication of the performers to the spirit in which the Notes were made. As when observing a street scene, everything that happened in front of the audience fell together into its own sense of order.
There are photos and a complete recording of the performance online.
Hope you like the holiday snap. Back at last, with a quick update to say that the complete series of Real Characters and False Analogues videos is now online. Big announcements next week.
I’ve been thinking about generative systems a lot lately. Like, how can I make a series of videos to accompany these microtonal piano pieces I wrote years ago? I want combinations of intersecting colours relating to the harmonic relationships in each piece…
Or I want to make a series of short pieces for organ, written in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet…
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. Within these parameters, all outcomes are determined by chance.
What you need is a system. To keep you going, to avoid artist’s block, to keep the pipeline filled.
I’ve never thought about artist’s block. That’s not an ego thing, it’s just that I hate inspiration. If I have to insert an aesthetic element into a piece then I consider it a failure. I’m thinking of that idea in mathematics of the elegant proof: that great richness of detail can be drawn from a relatively simple interaction of underlying principles. If the system’s good, there should be no need to fudge or tweak to keep things interesting.
Like that paragraph above describing the organ pieces. A brief set of instructions: the sentences are easily understood, the results produced are not easily imaginable. It would seem appropriate to write 144 of them, but I could break off the series at any time.
Last Monday, on the way back from the Tectonics festival in Glasgow, Christian Wolff gave a talk in London about his music. After his talk, members of Apartment House played a selection of his recent music (recent as in from the last 25 years, out of a 60+ year career).
I’ve discussed performances of Wolff’s music a couple of times before, one with Wolff’s participation and one without. A few of my thoughts about Wolff have persisted over the past five years. There is still a lot of lip service paid to the knowledge that Wolff is an important composer, much as there was to John Cage in his lifetime (and still, to a lesser extent, today). Even on the rare occasions that Wolff’s music is played, it seems to be presented so often as an historical or theoretical specimen. The Wandelweiser performance I saw repeated the received idea of Wolff as a conceptualist working in Cage’s shadow. After the talk, a punter asked Wolff about the effectiveness of different interpretations of his music. Wolff replied that he hadn’t heard enough repeat performances to find out.
When previously describing Wolff’s music I wrote that “the material is so “poor” and undistinguished it directs attention away from itself”, and noted how well it embodied Cage’s wish for sounds to be heard just as themselves, for themselves. Listening again now, this redirection toward the intrinsic qualities of unadorned sounds is also reminiscent of Morton Feldman’s music. Wolff’s music seems to achieve the aesthetic ideals his New York School colleagues aspired to but could never quite meet.
The music appears deceptively easy to play but requires both concentration and attentiveness to the other musicians, which must nevertheless be worn lightly, to play successfully. The Apartment House musicians made the discontinuities sound playful, even beguiling, rather than haphazard – particularly in the trio Emma, with its occasional echoes of popular tunes.
Wolff spoke mostly in a general, autobiographical way about his work. Of particular interest was his recollection of studying music with Cage, an education which consisted mostly of analysing Webern’s Symphony, writing pieces with as few notes as possible, and studying lots of counterpoint. The main point was to learn discipline and when Cage decided that Wolff had it, the lessons ended.
I didn’t even notice that the Eurovision Song Contest is this week, and I’ll miss the Grand Final on Saturday. That’s a shame, because it’s been a while and I’d like to see it again.
The rules of the Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game were more or less perfected years ago and stay largely unchanged. The latest edition makes minor amendments for this particular year’s contest, mostly in Phase II and the wildcards.
The voting process (now a 50/50 split between phone voting and a jury) and the announcement of results have both changed since the original rules were established, but they still broadly apply and by Phase II nobody’s really paying much attention anyway.
Yes these things have all happened, in case you’re wondering.
PHASE I: THE SONGS
A. Every instance within a song:
I.A.1 The Dramatic Key Change. Whenever the singers dramatically shift up a key for the final chorus(es).
I.A.2 The Bucks Fizz. Whenever performer(s) sheds a piece of clothing – once only on every instance, whether executed by an individual or as a group. Finish your drink if the clothing loss is obviously unintentional.
B. Once per song only:
I.B.1 Is That English? Whenever someone notices that the singers have switched from their native language into English in an attempt to win more votes. Two drinks if they try to dodge the language issue by intentionally singing gibberish.
I.B.2 The Fine Cotton. Any appearance of mercenary talent flown in to represent a foreign country. Two drinks if they’re Irish.
I.B.3 Las Ketchup and the Waves. A country drags a legitimate, real-life, one-hit wonder out of obscurity in the hope that name recognition can buy them some points. This is additional to I.B.2.
I.B.4 The Cultural Rainbow. Every time an entrant blatantly rips off last year’s winning performance. Finish your drink if last year’s winning country rips itself off.
I.B.5 The Wand’ring Minstrel. Unless it’s a solo guitar or piano, Eurovision insists on backing tapes. It’s in the rules, so don’t accuse some entrants of cheating; but take a drink if performers pretend to play a musical instrument (or simulacrum thereof) in a blatantly fake way, as part of the choreography. A second drink is permitted if a subsequent, different wave of faux-minstrely rises after the first has subsided.
GreeksRussians (formerly The TaTu). Finish your drink if the audience boos (on the telly, not in your living room.)
I.B.7 Don’t Mention The War. The German entrant sings something about everyone being happy. This is a legacy rule, as in recent years it has largely been supplanted by…
I.B.7a Don’t Mention The Wall. The Israeli entrant sings something about everyone being happy.
I.B.8 My Lovely Horse. Any obvious indication that a country is deliberately trying to lose, to avoid budgetary/logistical/political problems of hosting the event next year.
PHASE I ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:
I.B.5a The Wand’ring Minstrel (supplemental). Two drinks if the instrument is an accordion.
I.B.9 The San Remo. Any occurence of visible armpits and/or pointing at nothing in particular. Two drinks for a hairy armpit.
I.B.10 The White Suit. You’ll know it when you see it; and you’ll know it again when you see it again, and again…
PHASE II: THE VOTES
II.1 The Wardrobe Change. Each time the female host changes frocks. Two drinks if the male host changes suits.
II.2 The Gimme. When Greece gives twelve points to Cyprus.
II.2a The Gastarbeiter. If Germany still gives twelve points to Turkey.
II.3 The Old Europe. When the UK gets nul points from France.
II.4 The Sympathy Vote. When anything sung in French first gets a point, and/or the last country without any points finally gets off the mark. A special toast at the end to any country which did not receive so much as a single vote.
II.5 The “Viktor, You Very Unattractive Fellow.” Two drinks if the hosts speak in rhyme and/or pretend to flirt with each other. Finish your drink if the flirting is serious.
PHASE II INTERMEDIATE: You and your friends probably will be too unruly by this stage to register every occurrence of these, so just try to catch what you can.
II.6 The Hurry-Up. Every time the announcer from each voting country is politely asked by the hosts to shut the fuck up (i.e. “Can we have your votes please?”). Two drinks if the announcer tries to deliver a personal message to a friend or relative watching at home.
II.7 The Sandra Sully. Each time an announcer reads the voting results wrong. Two drinks if they get so confused they have to start over.
II.8 The Sally Field. Each time they show contestants backstage during the voting looking genuinely surprised and pleased with themselves when they get the same politically-motivated votes they get every year.
II.9 The Master of Suspense. It looks like everyone’s figured it out now, so this hasn’t happened for a few years, but just in case: each time an announcer fails to understand that the pause for suspense only works if they announce the twelve points first, then the country that has won them – not the other way around.
PHASE II ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:
II.10 The New Europe. When the Baltic or Balkan states all give each other twelve points, or a former Soviet republic gives Russia twelve points. Do not attempt without medical supervision.
W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask:
W1.a why Israel is in it;
why Italy isn’t in it; or
W1.c where the hell is Moldova?
W2 Drink to any display of national resentment or self-pity related to current events. Pay close attention to Greece/Germany, Ukraine/Russia, Armenia/Azerbaijan.
W3 A toast to the first person who expresses dismay when they realise how long the voting is going to take.
A toast to Bosnia and Herzegovina if they change the spelling of their country again from last year.
W5 A toast to the person who gets so drunk you have to secretly call a cab and persuade them they ordered it when it arrives.
Last night I got to see Philip Thomas play Bryn Harrison’s Vessels live, at Cafe Oto. As implied last time, I hadn’t re-listened to the piece on CD prior to the gig. I now need to make some additional comments.
The first surprise, before the piece started, was that the piece is more thoroughly notated than I thought: a dense hedge of changing meters, irregular rhythms and tuplets, all on a single treble stave throughout. No wonder the pianist finds it disorientating. As in Feldman’s later scores, Vessels uses precise notation to produce ambiguous results, so that events seems to drift by without any sense of a rhythmic pulse underneath. The comparisons to Feldman’s music keep coming up, so here are some more important differences. Feldman used irregular rhythms to set his sounds in surrounding silence; his music is episodic, switching arbitrarily between contrasting sets of sounds. Harrison’s piece allows for no breathing space and never deviates from its initial palette of sounds and texture, which seems even more exhausting than a Feldman work of comparable scale. (The very late works for orchestra are a significant exception.) The entire work barely covers more than three octaves of the piano’s range.
The scale of the piece has an insidious effect on the listener. After a while you get used to it, become immersed in it, like an aural bath, but through sheer persistence it unnerves and captures your attention again, as you try to figure out if it has changed.
It’s remarkable how short many of the repeated passages are. The piece frequently loops on itself for a while, but the harmonic ambiguity and unfocused rhythms make it very difficult to detect where each loop begins and ends, if in fact it is repeating at all. With further analysis the ingenious construction would become more intelligible, but by that time the indelible impression of its first hearing has already been made.
Witnessing Thomas perform the piece in person, as beautifully and seemingly effortless as on record, impressed on me further what an achievement it is. Strangely, it seemed to be over too soon.