Some things I will remember about the John Cage Centenary Prom

Thursday 23 August 2012

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.

Origin Myths

Tuesday 14 August 2012

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.

This Is All I Need: The Bionic Ear Podcast

Wednesday 1 August 2012

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.

My piece, This Is All I Need, and my interview with Stephen Adams, are now online for your listening enjoyment. The rest of the series is worth checking out too.

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.

Golden Fur played Morton Feldman’s “Patterns In A Chromatic Field” at Cafe Oto.

Tuesday 31 July 2012

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.

Can you tell what it is yet? Another painting update

Monday 30 July 2012

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!

This is the New Music: Symphony

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Here is my new piece of music. It is called Symphony and there is a video to go with it, if you like that sort of thing. I feel obliged to make a video when I host music on YouTube. It’s in HD so the sound should be OK and you can full-screen the vid for a nice ambient experience until you get bored and want to check Facebook again.

As I was saying, after finishing String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta): that piece began as an attempt to emulate Phill Niblock’s music without having heard it. I had gotten the idea that it generally involved someone playing one note over and over again, overdubbing it lots of times until it created a blur of sound distinct in identity yet ambiguous in character.

Upon closer inspection Niblock’s technique turned out to be a bit more complex than that, which was slightly disappointing. On the upside, it left the way clear for me.

As it turned out, making String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta) entailed some satisficing in its material. Symphony gets closer to the original conception of one aspect of the piece (a single pitch), and yet further away from another (diverse instrumentation). The piece therefore has less harmony (and become closer to my original understanding of Niblock’s music) but greater timbral diversity (unlike Niblock’s pieces for multiples of the same instrument). For me, the interest in making this piece was to discover what is lost and gained in the trade-off between timbre and harmony, and to find out which of these two unfaithful copies is closer to the model they seek to imitate. As a piece of music in its own right, it exists to be a cheap imitation, reminiscent of something else yet unmistakably itself.

The video component of Symphony was made soon after the music was completed. Like the music, it is a monochrome. The screen is filled with a series of shades of blue, each shade created through chance operations. Each blue is subject to several simultaneous processes and transitions, from one shade to the next. Why blue? It’s a cool, receding primary colour. Besides its more obvious references to Derek Jarman and Yves Klein, I was thinking mostly of John Cage’s selection of colours when making Changes and Disappearances, where every tint had to include at least a small amount of blue because he “wanted the colours to look like they had been to grad school.”

Or perhaps I’m just lazy

Tuesday 24 July 2012

I’m obsessed with the idea of making art and music in which 99% of the work is mental conceptualisation and preparation, with the actual execution being the finishing 1%. The idea that the ideal piece is a manifestation of thought, with the most minimal physical intervention. There is no need to rework, or change direction, strive for an effect or tell a story. Everything flows with an elegant logic as a neat series of consequences from a single point of origin, and may be appreciated for its substance and its surface without resort to aesthetic argument.

Basically, I like to sit around thinking about making stuff, but spend as little time as possible actually making it. The artistic challenge is to think up work that can sustain this half-assed method.

Later On

Thursday 5 July 2012

Painting update

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Thanks for asking how the painting’s coming along. The answer is, “not that great” but that’s because I’m not that great at painting. Some thoughts so far:

  • Who’d have thought that painting a flat surface a solid colour would be so hard?
  • More specifically, that so many aesthetic decisions are involved in painting a flat solid colour. What kind of surface finish do I want? How prominent do I want the brush strokes, flaws etc to appear?
  • Contingency plans for surface finish go out the window as soon as I apply paint with the brush.
  • I’m applying thin coats of a mixed colour. How many layers should I apply before it’s no longer worth it?
  • I’m enjoying repainting the same parts the same colour over and over, partly because it keeps me from having to decide how to do the next bit.

Redrawing Old Times, New Times

Monday 25 June 2012

I can’t put it off any longer. I’m going to talk a bit about the Collected Collaborations exhibition at MUMA last year.

My part of the show was an eight-page newspaper, compiled along with similar contributions by the rest of the Redrawing collective. This was the follow-up show to the original Redrawing exhibition back in 2008.

Redrawing included the audio-visual installation version of my String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta). For the Collected Collaborations show I went into greater details discussing aspects of the piece’s creation, and the consequences of making the piece which had arisen from participating in the show.

At the end of my newspaper segment, I wrote a brief article about my future plans for works art and music which build on the lessons I learned from the exhibition. It’s a bit of a blur now, so let’s see what I wrote:

Besides the projected series of visual works based upon the spectrogram of String Quartet No. 2, two more musical compositions are planned in a similar vein. In one, following the principle of technical and conceptual distortion, an attempt will be made to reverse the process used to render the sound as a spectrogram. By producing a computer-synthesised soundfile that reproduces the frequency profile of the spectrogram as closely as possible, it is expected that the resulting music will diverge significantly from the original music on which the spectrogram is based. What this music may sound like is open to speculation.

Speculate no more! Here it is, with accompanying video.

The other composition is one which gets closer to the original conception to some aspects of the piece, and yet further away from others. The work in progress, titled Symphony, is based on a single pitch but uses a large array of different instruments. The sounds used will be subjected to the exact same processes as those used in String Quartet No. 2. This new piece will therefore have less harmony (and become closer to my original understanding of Niblock’s music) but greater timbral diversity (unlike Niblock’s pieces for multiples of the same instrument). For me, the interest in making this piece is to discover what is lost and gained in the trade-off between timbre and harmony, and to find out which of these two unfaithful copies is closer to the model they seek to imitate.

I just finished this piece on the weekend, and I’m pretty excited about it. I think I’m a bit tight on server space but will try to upload some more about this asap.

Both of these works are planned for completion in late 2011.

Close enough.

I intend them to form part of an ongoing series of compositions made with the aim of producing two or more works which are all but indistinguishable from each other, whether in relation to the music of another composer or not. Again, although this is an accepted practice in the visual arts, in music it has been confined to questions of execution and interpretation, and not of composition.

Why I am still not a painter

Sunday 17 June 2012

I first posted this many years ago. I’ve now started a new painting, for the first time since this last effort described below. The new painting will be a copy of the old painting, as I kind of miss it now. Someone in Melbourne has it, I think.

My last attempt to make a painting was not entirely happy. Having promised to paint something for an exhibition due the next day, I found an old box of cheap Chinese foil tubes of oil paints. Most of them had partly or completely dried out, and split open when I tried to squeeze some paint out of them. At least I got blue and yellow, two thirds of the primary colours. Also, I found a brush, which was useful. It was sufficiently frayed at both ends to make me spend a few seconds figuring out which was designed for applying paint. When I started painting I remembered that (a) oil paint needs thinner and (b) I don’t have any thinner. It was a very thickly-textured painting, and may still be drying to this day. The next revelation was that when you need to change colours, the brush has to be rinsed out (cf. points a and b, above). A solution of Sard Wonder Soap does the job nicely, but don’t expect it to improve the consistency of your paint.

This Is The New Media: The Night We Burned Down Bimbo Deluxe

Monday 11 June 2012

I hadn’t made a video for a while, so please enjoy The Night We Burned Down Bimbo Deluxe. The entire thing was made out of cheesy digital video effects on the movie making program on my computer, subjected to multiple chance operations.

Not that it matters right now, but I got the date wrong. The music was actually made in 2006 (seems longer than that.) It was made from one of those “temporary” files that Windows creates and then never, ever deletes. The unedited file was played through a sound editor as though it were audio data, and then subjected to four types of randomised filtering through parametric equalisers in Ross Bencina’s fine program AudioMulch, and then mixed by rapid, randomised crossfading between each of the four outputs. What you hear is take four.

So what does all this playing with 21st century technology get me? Maybe it’s the low quality of the sound from the original data file, or maybe it’s because I’m fifty years behind the times, but the piece sounds uncannily like the sort of tape music coming out of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk studios in Cologne in the 1950s. In keeping with this sound, and the appropriately grey and grainy video, the title refers to the human phenomenon of futile longing for a vanished world.

Surely I’ve told you all about this before.

I Want To Believe (in the Richter Code)

Tuesday 29 May 2012

The back of the loyalty card for my friendly local coffee chain is plugging Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition at the Tate, as if London isn’t sufficiently riddled with Hirsts for the well-caffeinated. Earlier this year Hirst’s dealer held simultaneous exhibitions around the world of his spot paintings, with Hirst goosing the punter’s interest in the mundane canvases by dropping suggestions of a hidden message encoded in the grids of coloured spots. Because Damien Hirst totally has a lot to say.

Amateur. A real artist lets the mysteries and conspiracy theories accumulate around him or her, like an inverted pearl. I saw this in all the bookshops in Cologne:

Could someone have actually published a crime novel called The Richter Code, enthusiastically ripping of the title, perhaps even the premise, of The Da Vinci Code, basing their murder plot upon the premise of a secret message hidden in the supposedly-random coloured panes of Gerhard Richter’s window for Cologne Cathedral?

Yes, yes, yes!

George Rubin, Cologne’s most ambitious journalist, learns in the investigation into a murder case of an encrypted message hidden in Richter’s window of Cologne Cathedral. Will the Cathedral really be destroyed on election day? Rubin does everything possible to decipher the “Richter-code” and prevent the disaster.

I love the idea that an artwork barely five years old is already being put to work in mythmaking. Even more, I love the idea that an author has decided that Gerhard Richter is somehow involved in both a murder and a plot to destroy the cathedral containing one of his most famous artworks. It neatly combines Richter’s 4900 Colours and related works with his habit of destroying paintings as part of his ongoing artistic practise.

Not mention that the book is part of a publisher’s series called “Köln Krimi”. You know your city’s made it when you can boast an entire literary sub-genre about your home town being a hotbed for ingenious serial killers.

John Cage meets Regieoper (part 2)

Thursday 24 May 2012

Really sloppy notes here, sorry. Part 1 is here.

I remember when I first heard Frank Zappa’s songs. The singing felt forced and goofy, with straining falsettos and dopey bass vocals. Then I heard the original doo-wop records which inspired him and realised that his comedy mugging is absolutely faithful to the earnest material it imitates. “No no, we do it straight,” he enjoins his singers shortly into a cover version on one of his live albums. In the next breath, he admits, “It’s hard, I know.”

This was the same feeling I got watching Europera 3 performed. At first it all feels like a colossal joke, and the punter is left wondering at whose expense the supposed fun is made: at us for our pretensions, the singers for their dedication to the ridiculous enterprise, or Cage himself for his impertinence for devising such an absurd collage and expecting it to be taken seriously as an operatic experience. True, each opera is a comedy, although in each a different kind of comedy is in play.

The singers in Europera 3 seemed at first too eager to please, and too pleased with themselves for being in on the wheeze; but then, as with Zappa’s doo-wop homages, I began to realise that this playing to the audience is an essential part of traditional opera. Despite whatever pretensions opera may have to the highest of high culture, it sure ain’t subtle. If anything, Cage’s score seemed to constrain the singers too much.

I’m assuming it’s Cage’s score for Europera 3 that assigns a fixed location for each singer’s aria, as I assume that it was the director’s decision to assign these locations to the front of the stage, which tended to give the production the feel of a procession of entrances, presentations and exits. How ever it is produced, I can’t help feel that Cage fundamentally misread a crucial aspect of opera in Europera 3, in that there is no allowance for interaction between the performers. Europera 3 is one of those occasions when Cage’s idealism gets in the way of his aspirations. In seeking to distil opera to its basic elements of music and theatre, he forgot that opera is an impure, messy, pandering, superficial, gossipy, star-struck and fashion-obsessed artform, and what Cage perceived as flaws are essential to its survival.

Having said all that, what has Cage given us other than music, singing, costumes, theatre – is that not opera? The silliness of the incongruous costumes seen plain, the gesticulations stripped of dramatic context, are subsumed in the richness of talented singers presenting great arias against a backdrop of opera on LP and piano reduction (cultural legacy in portable, domestic form). It sort of resembled an opera, but more an opera rehearsal, or an opera school, with multiple distinct and disciplined activities each directed to an immediate aim, taken as a glorious whole.

What amazes me is that such a simple collage of available elements from the repertory can provoke so many contradictory reactions to Cage’s art and to opera itself. Whatever weaknesses it may have, Europera 3 certainly succeeds in demonstrating Cage’s strength for showing, not telling, when raising questions about music, aesthetics and the nature of art.

After the interval, Europera 4 raised different issues again. Europera 4 was conceived as a pair with Europera 3, and I was surprised by how much it differed. I had thought the resources for both operas were largely the same, but that in Europera 4 Cage had skewed the odds in his chance operations to favour less rather than more. It was actually closer to Europera 5 in scale. Two singers, soprano and baritone, instead of six; one pianist instead of two (sometimes shadow-playing); and the one Victrola instead of the six turntables and crates of LPs.

Some, but not all, of the productions differences were down to direction. No costume changes, and the lighting changed only in intensity. (No sudden dusk eclipsing the Queen of the Night this time around.) Unlike Europera 3, Europera 4 began in quite an affective and haunting way, with the soprano singing a vocalise while the baritone, as yet unseen, sang far away backstage. As with Europera 5, a dramatic interpretation was imposed upon Cage’s score, and maintained a coherent conceit throughout from this initial, accidental duet.

The singers appeared as perpetually doomed lovers, fated never to meet and yet to die in wonderfully operatic fashion after each and every aria, only to rise, sing, and die again. I suppose it could be called a perverse re-imagining of Cage’s opera as it played out like a consciously constructed absurdist drama. I do enjoy it when someone turns Cage against himself and makes it work in is own right, and it doesn’t happen nearly often enough. I don’t know what all those balloons were about, though.

Please Mister Please CXLIV

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Boris Blacher, “Sonata für Klavier” (1951). Gerty Herzog, piano.
(7’55″, 18.1 MB, mp3)