Having some years ago decided that the best way to cope with existence is to embrace my flaws as though they were endearing character traits, it follows that it is a point of pride for this blog to be always behind the times to a greater or lesser extent. I don’t think it matters being a few weeks late getting the news in this case, that the a new chord in the performance of John Cage’s Organ²/ASLSP
in St Buchardi church in Halberstadt began on 5 January
The piece began on 5 September 2001, but the first note wasn’t heard until 18 months later – the piece begins with a pause. The chord now playing now will end on 5 July 2012. Book tickets now.
Typically, a performance of Organ²/ASLSP as Cage wrote it would last only 20 minutes or so, but someone’s gotten the idea of taking the performance instruction “as slowly and softly as possible” very literally and come up with a rendition that will take 639 years. It beats me why this amount of time represents the ultimate in slowness and that someone couldn’t milk an extra fortnight or so out of the ending shows up the fatuousness of the enterprise.
At least they’ve beaten the Long Now people into actually starting a project designed to make people consider extra-human dimensions of time. The most tanglible products of their Millennium Clock project
so far have been $100 pine cones and commemorative bottles of wine – presumably good for cellaring, but not quite enough to lift minds above everyday, material concerns.
What I don’t like is that they’ve attached John Cage’s
name to it, enforcing Cage’s undeserved reputation as a conceptual artist whose ideas are more interesting than his music. Specifically, it is highly unlikely that Cage (who died in 1992) wrote the piece for anything other than a human performer, with an audience throughout. Generally, contrary to the claims of his detractors and some of his supporters, he was the least conceptual of composers, whose compositional ideas were always subservient to, and philosophically detached from, the resulting music. His later music was carefully written to avoid the need to be “understood”. More than any composer he wrote music to be heard without recourse to external ideas, whether cultural, literary, or theoretical. No “idea of America”
here. His aim was always to make you hear, not make you think. Unlike many artists, he’d trust you to think for yourself.
An 600 year piece, which in practice cannot be heard, is at odds with everything Cage wrote. Worse still, it devalues the true beauty and importance to be found in Cage’s music, instead promoting Cage-the-personality as some blue-sky empty vessel that can hold any wacky idea that happens along. They may as well use that church organ for the next 600 years to perform a piece of Bach, who was pretty loose himself with tempo markings on his manuscripts. It would be a travesty of Bach’s music, but no less than this performance of Cage’s. But then, these supposed followers of Cage are OK with turning out a poor, wrong-headed misrepresentation of his music for the sake of their own clever thoughts.
In case you were wondering, the keys are held down with weights; they don’t have a relay team of organists pressing the things round the clock, which is a pity. I would have preferred a guy (possibly Rolf Hind
) in a Keith Emerson cape storm into the church every few years and jam a knife into the keyboard, but I guess that’s why I don’t get grant money for this sort of thing.
Elliott Carter is one of the few composers to have reached the exalted status of being widely and generally respected amongst a cognoscenti who nonetheless have few qualms about ripping into him whenever the opportunity arises.
Contrary to his forbidding reputation, his success can be attributed to the ease with which anyone can summarise his life and work: he is very old, and his music is very complex. Fortunately for his career, his long life has not resulted in an unmanageably large oeuvre, thanks to a slow work rate and to being a relatively late bloomer – all his music written before he turned 40 being largely, and deservedly, forgotten. Still working at a steady pace despite being in his 98th year, he has the rare privilege of attending his own funeral obsequies. You too may be apprieciated in your lifetime if you stick it out for a century or so.
Every American article I’ve read about about Carter observes that he is much more popular in Europe than at home, an idea reinforced by the festival thrown for his benefit at the Barbican, featuring a series of concerts the promoters titled Get Carter (ha! English humour.) Sadly, Michael Caine (or even Sylvester Stallone) was not on hand to punch on with the nonagerian composer in the car park afterward. I can’t wait until they stage a series dedicated to Luciano Berio called The Italian Job (“Sinfonia: It’ll blow the bloody doors off!”)
The complexity of Carter’s music (assigning each instrument unique musical characteristics, so that you hear a collection of individuals each with their own, distinct melodies, rhythms and harmonic traits) has earned him a reputation for weighty intellectualism; a reputation assisted by the music’s obscurantism. You can be complex and lucid, but in Carter you won’t hear any readily definable cross-rhythms or harmonic interplay – his string quartets come closest to achieving this. It’s hard to come away from any Carter performance remembering anything about the music in particular, other than the sense of an overwhelming rush of details.
Many of his fans (like me, to a certain extent) doubtless keep coming back to his music to get lost in its intricacy, but many critics and academics have seized upon the obvious difficulty of the music – writing, playing, and listening to it – as grounds to build him up into a Beethoven-like hero to whom all must defer. It’s a very old-fashioned, romantic idea that has paralysed the art-music establishment for decades, that there must always be a central authority figure to which musicians of all persuasions must aspire, or else be cast into darkness. Carter fits the role far too well, logistically and aesthetically dependent upon the classical music infrastructure to produce work that in turn supports stolid careers in academia. To many in music circles less obsessed with dead white men, Carter is a figure to be ignored or scorned.
For all the profundity attributed to this complexity, I can’t think of a magnum opus of sufficient depth to satisfy the reputation his supporters have saddled him with. Most of Carter’s major compositions seek equal status, to a greater or lesser degree, as works of entertainment, of compositional and musical virtuosity: qualities traditionally found as ends in themselves in the form of the concerto. Carter has shown a clear preference for writing concertos (I can think of 9 off the top of my head) but has avoided the charge of superficiality that critics habitually ascribe to the form. Claims of greater philosophical import in Carter’s work are invariably external to the music itself, and tend to age badly: their awkward appeals to intellectual concerns of the day come across in retrospect as calculated assertions of seriousness. The program notes to the Double Concerto for Piano, Harpsichord and Two Chamber Orchestras (1961) burdened the piece with ponderous musings on quantum physics and nuclear proliferation. One review described the piece as “a tempestuous, multifaceted dialogue” – an expression which applies equally to everything Carter has written. It’s an exemplary display of his style, a constantly shifting scene of roiling activity between the soloists and their orchestral counterparts, complete with several BBC Symphony Orchestra musicians almost losing their way at several critical points to add interest.
Stripped of its pseudopolitical baggage it’s a heavy slab of neo-baroque, in its steady flow of dense ornamentation and the curiously static way in which it spins its wheels for 20-odd minutes to no greater effect. The inclusion of a harpsichord telegraphs this intention all too well; even though, for the sake of the idea against musical realities, the discreet instrument has to be amplified to be heard above the piano and orchestra. It was miked up in a way that made it sound flat and ugly, but I’d rather hear this concerto than A L’Île de Gorée.
The Symphony for Three Orchestras (1976) again relies on a putatively philosophical theme, portraying “the idea of America” – note the year of composition and envision how artists must ingratiate themselves to their patrons. It also claims inspiration from another literary figure safely considered OK for the time, Hart Crane (try announcing your creative debt to William Burroughs and see how far you get with an orchestra).
It’s an enjoyably teeming and expansive work , evidently drawing from Charles Ives’ visions of America as a boundless horizon of rough-hewn wildness, right down to the searching trumpet solo at the opening. However, in Carter’s hands this style becomes most more restrained, particularly in this performance, flattening everything with a modesty and self-conscious tastefulness many Australian composers seek to emulate. The same review I quoted before reckons the brass sections in this piece “suggested discomfort and anxiety“, which is an achievement for modernist art music on a par with alt-rockers making teenagers depressed. Again, staging considerations kept the multiplicty of orchestras conceptual more than spatial.
The later works, 1989′s Oboe Concerto and 1996′s Clarinet Concerto, presented Carter at a point in his career where he no longer has to justify himself and can write music without burying it under a welter of complications and portentous earnestness, knowing that critics will handle the intellectual content for him. In both pieces Carter allows his more natural showbiz tendencies to the foreground, with the music more yielding and persuasive to the listener. Both works sounded better in these performances than I’d previously heard them, possibly because the BBCSO was happy to let the percussionists go crazy and dominate procedings, making Carter sound more out-there than his defenders normally allow.
The Clarinet Conerto in particular, with the soloist wandering around the stage to ally himself with one instrumental group, was much more fun than both Carter’s apologists and detractors would admit. The Oboe Concerto, which in recordings sounded a typically worthy, brow-furrowing piece, came across as a much more endearing work in this performance, sustaining a plaintive mood throughout its restive changes. It’s interesting how the punters for both works knew immeidately when each piece had finished and confidently burst into applause as soon as the final note was sounded.
One thing that’s sunk in about audience behaviour in London: the Brits love their musicians. No matter how strong or weak their applause for a piece, they’ll always give a bit extra for the soloists who play them. I suppose it’s the same rule pavement artists live by, knowing that their reward comes from graft seen to be done, rather than the result of their efforts.
Carter himself, in attendance at the concerts, got a standing ovation as you would hope, having dragged his 97-year old frame across the Atlantic for the event. The applause was prolonged, warm, appreciative, and notably lacking in the excitement and enthusiasm generated by the best performances at the Xenakis concerts last year. This may have been due in part to the audience being older on average, and more sedate, with the younger people seeming mostly to be music students – the foyer had a very academic air. It may have also been due to Xenakis being the type of composer who, unlike Carter, will never make you think twice about staying home after all to watch darts on the telly.
Theatrical highlights: Enter Carter, stage right, a factotum for support. During the Double Concerto: Oliver Knussen simultaneously conducting a different metre with each hand for the two orchestras, with as much delicacy and decorum as possible. Ian Brown* getting visibly lost in his piano part during the same concerto, briefly flicking the pages back and forth before figuring out where the hell the orchestra were.
Overheard gossip in the foyer: Sitting by the toilets after the concert, a Chinese-American composition graduate lining up a commission from a London orchestra. The orchestra guy asks him what he thought of the concert. “Uh… exhilarating,” he answers carefully. This is why so many composers resent Carter: he’s such a blue-chip authority figure in academia that if you let slip to the wrong person that you’re not so keen on his work, you can wave your career bye-bye. It’s almost as certain a kiss of death as admitting to liking John Cage.
Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: Stubbies only. Kronenbourg, San Miguel or Stella (“the wife beater’s beer” – take note, Australians with pretensions) Artois – £3.10 a pop.
* No, not that bloke from The Stone Roses, I mean someone you wouldn’t expect to get lost.
The bunker has recently suffered the addition of a television to the drawing room. The most immediate cultural ramification of this development is that on Sunday evening I was extremely reluctant to leave the house to see the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Elliott Carter at the Barbican
, because I had become engrossed in the World Darts Championship final on BBC2.
In my defense, I will say that I was watching it wearing my anthropologist’s hat
. When you’ve become blasé about walking past St Paul’s each day to get to work – and complaining about the tourists getting in your way, besides – it takes a darts match shown on prime time terrestrial tv to remind you that you are in a foreign country. Once that novelty wore off, another type of fascination took over. The more I watched, the more it dawned on me that I was watching one of the great endangered species of popular culture, a type of television that the next generation of children will never know: the professionally-produced, relatively major television event that is completely unphotogenic.
I cannot imagine that in ten years’ time a large, Western television network will be making any shows where fat, balding men in polo shirts and soveriegn rings are watched by a clubhouse full of attentive smokers. The show commanded respect simply for having survived until now. Between sets, expert commentary was offered by two men who looked and sounded like they had walked off the set for Minder
, prison tattoos and all. In fact they hadn’t walked off the set, they were still on it: seated in a corner of the club foyer lined with framed publicity photos of stars of the vintage and calibre of Marty Wilde
To cap off the experience, I’d been playing with the new telly’s buttons and had switched on the subtitles. To add subtitles to the live broadcast, the BBC had opted for the cheapest possible option and so had either hired an ESL student in a call centre in Chittagong with a hunt-and-peck typing technique to listen in to the commentary over a party line while a typhoon raged outside, or had downloaded a trial version of a particularly unreliable voice recognition program (that would be all of them). A slow, unsteady stream of Engrish
sputtered across the top of the screen, usually followed by corrections hastily typed in after the more egregious errors.
The most impressive example came when an announcer remarked upon “how many Dutch fans are here tonight”. MANY DRUG BARONS HERE TONIGHT tentatively ventured Sanjay or ViaVoice, clearly unimpressed by Amsterdam’s coffee houses.
Elliott Carter is a composer. He is very old.
More details as they come to hand.
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Against this backdrop, my suggestion to you is that I would like you as a foreigner to stand as the next of kin to our client so that you will be able to receive his funds. I want you to know that I have had everything planned out so that we can come out successful. I have contacted an attorney that will prepare the necessary document that will back you up as the next of kin to my client.
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Your urgent response is highly anticipated so please email me for more details on this transaction as soon as possible. This should be kept very secret and confidential. I believe you know.
Heh. Just two days ago in my little rant about publishers no longer caring about literary quality
, so long as they can lure readers with promises of vicariously indulging in the more exotic aspects of the author’s purportedly exciting life, I mentioned Exile
writer John Dolan calling bullshit
on James Frey’s drug-addiction “memoir” A Million Pieces
when it was published in 2003. Dolan had recently appealed to Exile readers
to help dig up the dirt, or rather the lack of it, in Frey’s past.
Not surprisingly, Dolan is not the only reviewer who suspected that Frey was, at least, embellishing his history of drugs and prison time. Nor is it surprising that others have been more successful in finding out the truth about Frey, what with Dolan living in Moscow.
Stupid me, I didn’t search around on the web to find that on the same day I posted that item, The Smoking Gun published a lengthy examination
of Frey’s self-claimed history of criminality and mayhem, and found it all to be either highly exaggerated, or completely fabricated.
The New York Times
to get around registration) is now covering the story of Frey’s fakery, which has so far scored him millions in book sales and movie deals, largely thanks to the golden endorsement of Oprah’s Book Club (“a gut-wrenching memoir that is raw and it’s so real”). The book is the perfect vehicle for Oprah’s club: a melodramatic confection of squalid thrills, the terrible drugs (inevitably addictive), all topped off with a smug little redemption fable. A lucrative redemption fable.
Of particular interest in the Times story are the following quotes:
Mr. Frey said that he had provided extensive documentation of his account of events in “A Million Little Pieces” to lawyers at Random House Inc., the parent of Doubleday and Anchor Books, which published the paperback edition, and to lawyers at Harpo, the production company owned by Ms. Winfrey.
What? You have to have your credentials checked by a roomful of lawyers before Oprah will publicly admit to liking your book?
And, I wish I could have quoted this on Sunday to save me the trouble:
The discrepancies and Mr. Frey’s reported admissions of falsifying details of his life raise questions about the publishing industry’s increasing reliance on nonfiction memoirs as a fast track to the best-seller list.
My biggest regret over my time in London so far has been blowing two opportunities to see the Fall
play live. Apart from being pretty much my favourite band, I’ve missed the chance to watch a gig descend spectacularly into chaos, complete with equipment sabotage, onstage punch-ups and walk-offs by various band members. If you’re lucky, you might see someone get sacked from the group on the spot, or quit in disgust.
This all happens quite a lot, as the 43 former band members can testify. Recently, Dave Simpson attempted to track down every last one of them
– from the keyboard player who lasted one day, to the drummer who has been sacked nine times – to see what they’ve been up to since they fell foul of band leader (and only constant member) Mark E. Smith’s desire to “freshen up” the band from time to time.
One is dead, one’s been sent to prison: not bad going for a relatively large sampling of rock musos. Former bandmates have ranged from teenagers who happened to drink at Smith’s local, to the manager of the Chemical Brothers, who was recruited as a last-minute replacement when the Smith threw the drummer off the tour bus at a service station en route to their gig at the Reading Festival.
Dewey was led to a darkened tour bus to meet Smith, “passed out with his shirt off. The guitarist had to punch him in the face to wake him up. Then they began fighting over whether or not they should teach me the songs. Mark said no!”
Since this article was published in The Guardian
, Smith has vowed never to speak to anyone at that paper again. You can also look at a PDF scan of the original article
, complete with photies and more survivors’ tales of being abandoned in a foreign bar for eating a salad: best of all is the concluding plea “If you have been in the Fall and we failed to contact you, email email@example.com”.
As one of the current guitarists says, “I have nightmares, but it’s never boring. It’s not Coldplay.”
As its name suggests, it is close to the British Museum: right opposite the entrance gates, in fact. This is a strange corner of town where mass tourism meets high culture, where hotdog stands and souvenir shitshacks rub shoulders with antiquarian booksellers (and the London Review of Books bookshop, monthly mecca for sesquipedalian swingers
). Surprisingly for its location, the Museum Tavern has not been turned into a horrid family-friendly tourist trap, and remains a pleasantly shabby and subdued pub that serves a nice pint of Young’s Bitter
As you might expect, this is one of those parts of London where most people you see are foreigners – mostly, the place seems to be a refuge for unnervingly quiet and knowledgeable Americans (no, not Canadians!) that you knew must have existed somewhere but could never seem to find abroad.
This is the place where Karl Marx would frequently spell himself between sessions across the street at the Museum’s reading room researching his Grundrisse
, but you won’t find any memorabilia lining the walls, nor any slot machines, t-shirts or mugs for sale. More of that sort of thing can be found at a smaller pub further down the block that foists draught pints of XXXX
on hapless newcomers.
Typically, the toilets have been dug into the basement. The condom machine has been vandalised in a strangely religious fervour (visiting catholics from across the channel, or do those quiet Americans have a dark side?) Best of all is the strategically-placed sign for slightly confused men weaving their way out of the gents, “Why not impress her with a…. BOTTLE OF CHAMPAGNE.” A canny example of consumer capitalism at work.