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accumulated, which makes it all the more surprising as by the time of Carter’s death this received wisdom was already out of date.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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
“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.
I had ticket number 193 in the queue for standing room that went round the corner past Imperial College, 90 minutes before the gig started. There were empty seats on the night, but the Royal Albert Hall had sold out. This is the second time this year I’ve had to queue around the block for a John Cage gig. I had tried to get to one of the performances of Europeras 1 and 2 in Germany this summer, but they sold out three months in advance.
Young Cage famously dedicated his life to beating his head against the wall of harmony. Twenty years after his death, he’s still beating his head against the wall of his reputation. Fans and detractors alike still want to make exceptions for him.
The breadth of his musical output is hard to comprehend. I’ve read one review complaining that the Prom didn’t highlight the humour and playfulness in Cage’s music. Cage is slowly shedding layers of mythology: that he’s a charlatan, that he’s a novelty act, that his ideas are more interesting than his music, that he’s a humorist, that he’ll soon be forgotten. Remnants of all of these layers still cling to him. Expecting one 3-and-a-half hour concert to summarise his entire career is an insult, as it would be for any other great composer.
The Prom’s curator credited his audience with the intelligence to appreciate different styles and periods throughout Cage’s career while sustaining a consistent mood throughout.
The tone of the evening was set by beginning with 1O1 – a large orchestra on stage playing without a conductor. It’s a late piece, not so familiar to most of the punters and somewhat unusual even compared to the rest of Cage’s output. The audience settles into the strangeness and get caught up in the almost imperceptible subtleties created by each string player bowing a different note col legno, almost inaudibly. Later, we become aware of the buzz of a bullroarer, somewhere high up in the gallery.
The use of space in the Royal Albert Hall is remarkable. It feels completely natural for so many of the pieces to be played from different parts of the space, and the Hall seems to be the ideal venue for Cage. Once again I’m glad I got the cheap ticket to stand in the arena.
I think everyone was taken by surprise at how beautiful ear for EAR (Antiphonies) is: a brief call and response between Joan La Barbara alone on stage, echoed and transformed by singers from Exaudi hidden away in the balconies. Cage usually kept his melodies modal, but here poignant little chromatic inflections appear from time to time, like an unresolved cadence.
If there’s a statement to be made anywhere in the concert, it’s when David Behrman and Takehisa Kosugi enter the arena to play Cartridge Music. Their selection of materials to amplify seems casual, their playing abrasive and abrupt. Then they move to a mixing console and perform the piece again, surrounded by four pianists playing Winter Music. Amongst the isolated, discordant clusters emanating from the pianos, Behrman and Kosugi use the score of Cartridge Music to selectively amplify and relocate around the hall various instruments in the orchestra on stage, playing Atlas eclipticalis. The effect is both disorientating and immersive, a disjointed multiplicity coalescing into a unified whole. Not on tonight’s programme: In A Landscape, Sonatas and Interludes, or 4’33″.
If Cage had genius, it was for having really great ideas and then hiding them. Christian Marclay’s piece Baggage was premiered, in which a full orchestra play on nothing but their instrument cases. The sounds are fun and it all comes across as an enjoyable wheeze. Compare this to the way Cage uses the radio in the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra, where in a few fleeting instances you’re not sure what you’ve heard. Marclay gave us an idea presented as entertainment; Cage gave us music.
There were no BBC Radio 3 announcers on stage. Good.
I was kind of starstruck by all the performers assembled for this gig, and seeing them all assembled in one place doing their thing was a big part of the thrill for the night. That the programme listed practically all of them as their first appearance at the Proms felt both condescending and damning.
Afterwards, a friend said that she felt the Concerto was almost too “classical” in its gestures and expressivity, in the context of the other pieces played on the night.
Early in the programme, Improvisation III gave us an ambient soundscape that emanated from various hidden recesses of the darkened hall. At the end of the night, Branches presented another improvisational work, with a distinctive but similarly haunting atmosphere. Both pieces are obviously composed, but it was equally evident that the musicians actions producing the sound could not have been notated. It seems that everyone agrees that the actual improvisation between Christian Wolff, Keith Rowe, Behrman and Kosugi felt a bit flat and awkward.
Branches, for amplified plant materials, was performed here by over 20 musicians scattered throughout the hall, high and low. On paper it seemed like a subdued way to end the night. As it turned out, you were surrounded by sounds of all kinds. In this interpretation the piece was somewhere between a composition and an environment, the space wholly transformed by sound alone. The sounds were quiet, transparent, and as your attention moved from one place to another you realised that the musician nearest you was making sounds that would be inaudible to anyone further away. You began to notice the smallest little noise that could travel across the hall. No-one’s attention was being directed, but everyone’s attention was focussed. In that state of attentiveness, you realised something remarkable had happened: no-one was coughing.
Listening back to the radio broadcast, it’s amazing how everything on the night seemed to go on for longer than it actually did. Usually this would be a criticism, but when experiencing it in place I wanted it all to go on longer. Each piece created its own sense of time.
I guess everyone has got a story in their head about how and why they came to hold their present aesthetic and cultural values. When Robert Hughes died last week it reminded me that my own formative experience was when I was a little kid and happened to see an early episode of The Shock of the New. I was sufficiently absorbed by it that my parents let me stay up late once each week to watch the rest of the series.
I’ve never owned a copy of the book or rewatched the series on video; in fact I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen the first episode or two. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the images and ideas from that show were imprinted in my memory, and formed the mould into which all my subsequent thinking about art have been poured.
Up until then, my understanding of art was no deeper than the popular caricature of High Culture. I wondered why every artist seemed to be dead. My folks had a Time-Life book of Great Artists I’d flip through, which had Picasso, Matisse and Chagall in it, but I couldn’t understand why their paintings were weird and kind of ugly. When Robert Hughes talked about Dada, I suddenly found a type of modern art where I “got” what they were saying about the world. It had a point which seemed clear but which couldn’t easily be put into words – and that’s how I learned what art was about.
Similar formative experiences came later in my mid-teens, but then I was on the lookout for equivalent models of modernity in music and literature. My parents had another series of books about artists which ended with Duchamp, so that became my supplement guidebook to what I’d seen on TV. In writing, I read a bit of Pound and Eliot in school and then searched out more for myself, finding Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, which opened up an entire alternative history of twentieth-century culture. Almost by coincidence, I got hold of Guy Davenport’s essays in The Geography of the Imagination, which set out a wider set of orientation points for modern writing and beyond. In one essay he observes that “all true education is unconscious seduction.”
I was looking around for “strange” music and picked up all sorts of odds and ends. The minimalists provided the most apparent style from outside the conventional tradition, but the real educational experience came from a series of radio programmes Edward Cowie made for the ABC, called Towards New Music. Later episodes focused on particular themes or composers, including one dedicated to John Cage and like-minded artists. At that time Cage was a person I’d heard of without really knowing anything about him other than that he seemed guaranteed to be fascinating. He was, and as a bonus Cowie played a few minutes of Paragraph 7 from Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning.
It was the first episodes, however, that got me hooked. Cowie attempted to start from first principles, discussing the nature and purpose of sound-making with an improvising orchestra of kindergarten kids, and critiquing how we are educated and socialised into a culture of music. It probably helped that Cowie is a painter as well as composer, allowing him to see a wider range of issues than the technical debates that clutter up too many histories of music.
However much I may have loved playing music, listening to it, reading or whatever, what truly caught up my imagination was these histories, showing how and why we had come to be doing what we do now, and how much more it is possible to do.
Here’s your chance to hear all the pieces composed for the Interior Design: Music for the Bionic Ear project last year, complete with interviews with the composers. ABC Classic FM has been interviewing each of us over the past few weeks and are now uploading a series of podcasts documenting the project.
If I sound a little vague when talking, it’s because I’d stayed up into the small hours to talk with Stephen over Skype. It was interesting to talk again about the various thought processes that went into making the piece, and I think the interview brought these out rather well.
All the elements were in place for a disaster. Cafe Oto can be hot and stuffy in the best circumstances but after several intense summer days, followed by an evening of clouds and rain, the room became a sweaty, airless torture chamber. The musicians were jet lagged, having flown in from mid-winter Australia the day before. They’d had about 40 minutes of rehearsal since arriving, which is about half the length of the piece of music they were meant to play. Outside, a DJ was entertaining partygoers on the rooftop of the building next door.
On top of all that Patterns In A Chromatic Field is one of Feldman’s most recondite pieces. Added to its length and awkward rhythms, which are to be expected, the texture abruptly switches back and forth from relatively frenetic thickets of notes to prolonged moments of absolute torpor. The cello part demands extended passages of artificial harmonics, written in perverse note spellings that seem to insist on microtonal inflection. Finally, as mentioned before, the piano at Oto is frankly b0rked.
Was it rough around the edges? I suppose it was, in a way. The players themselves certainly thought so. But then the venue’s pretty rough too. This is no concert hall, what with next door’s party leaking through the windows and a bar still serving punters at the back of the room. I don’t think anyone went to the bar during the performance. One or two loo breaks, a couple of people going out for fresh air; apart from that, no-one in the place moved once Golden Fur started playing. As everyone settled in, musos and punters alike hooked into the same concentration, the same determination, and never let go. There’s no need for signs here like at the old Luminaire telling everyone to shut up.
Patterns has always been seen as an anomaly in Feldman’s oeuvre. It seems that Feldman wasn’t entirely happy with it, and this may have been down in part to the wrong-headed performances it received in his lifetime. Whatever the flaws Golden Fur perceived in their performances on the night, they were quite rightly overlooked as trivial by everyone else, in favour of the understanding and interpretation the musicians brought to such a contrary score. If he could forgive the conditions, Feldman would probably not have regretted staying to listen.
So what happened to that painting?
I finally added a (the) second colour. It didn’t go so well. Remedial steps were needed.
A few extra coats and things were about as good as they’d ever be.
Now comes the final step. I’ll just stick this under here.
It’ll have to age for a while down there. I’m not sure how long, but at least a few weeks. In the meantime I’ve started another two paintings, same as before… only better!