John Cage meets Regieoper (part 1)

Monday 21 May 2012

One other effect Einstein on the Beach had on my life was that it made me a sucker for wacky opera. After Einstein, John Cage’s Europeras may be the most notorious wacky operas around, so I had to go to Cologne to see the final three (of five) performed in one night.

First obvious question answered: is it a real opera? Of course it is. Someone in the foyer smelled faintly of wee. QED.

What I found most immediately interesting about the performances on the night was the liberties that had been taken by the director, sometimes to the point of disregarding Cage’s score. From Berg to Glass, any opera composer specifying more than the words and the notes is asking for trouble sooner or later, and Cage’s use of chance-determined collage in the Europeras extends to stage movements, scenery, costumes and lighting.

The “free” interpretation by Oper Köln was most blatantly different in Europera 5. One of Cage’s last compositions, it pares the constituent elements of its predecessors to the barest minimum. In the space of an hour, two singers sing five arias each, unaccompanied. Half a dozen operatic 78s are played on a wind-up gramophone. A pianist occasionally mimics playing transcriptions of scenes from romantic operas, hitting keys only by accident. From time to time, a radio plays, a television (silent) is switched on. A rumbling passes by in the far distance.

In Cage’s score much of the action, such as it is, consists of changes in lighting, with specific instructions for multiple (unspecified) lighting sources to be turned on or off at chance-determined intervals. In Cologne, the lighting was an even mid-grey throughout. The scenario may very well have been drawn from Samuel Beckett; but I’m not convinced that Cage and Beckett are the most agreeable of stage companions.

The production drew a definite interpretation from Cage’s indeterminate collage, depicting a scene of great age, infirmity and decay. This conceit was evidently used to account for the extremely slow movements Cage’s score prescribes for his singers, from one part of the stage to another. The Victrola only added to the air of age and obsolescence. The feeling of openness and quiescence that Cage so often aspired to in his music was here supplanted by a bitter, ironic humour.

Soprano and mezzo-soprano, both entirely grey, walked with stiff, pained movements, finishing each aria with bows and blown kisses to imaginary fans like opera diva Norma Desmonds. The old gent in the bathrobe also stands and bows after each phonograph has finished. Cage instructs each singer to wear an animal mask at a given point, but the mezzo insists on donning her bear’s head each time she acknowledges the invisible audience.

Beckett admitted that he had no real fondness for opera, so he may have enjoyed the bleak comedy in the presentation of these denuded fragments. I’m not sure that Cage had anything so confrontational in mind when he talked of giving opera back to the Europeans, but then Verdi and Rossini couldn’t have anticipated the reconceptualisation of their works in Regieoper, either.

Cage’s music deserves to be played at least as well as Verdi’s – as it was here, although none of the notes were actually written by Cage. I suppose if people are going to accept him as the great composer that he was, it’s only fair that he be interpreted as wilfully as Verdi, too.

Europeras 3 and 4 raised different concerns, about whether or not Cage had succeeded in making a good opera, but that can wait until next time as it’s late and time for my Ovaltine.

Mystery Package

Sunday 20 May 2012

I’ve been writing up my notes from the intense weekend in Cologne for Acht Brücken, but I just got home to find this had arrived:

What could it be?

Hooray! It’s the Redrawing newspapers from the Collected Collaborations show. I wonder if the one I wrote and designed is there?

Yep. Okay, I’ll write about Acht Brücken next, then give an exact rundown of what the deal is with the newspapers.

The Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game, 2012 Edition

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Less than two weeks to go until the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final, so it’s time to wheel this post out again. I’ve missed the last couple of years on the telly but I might make an effort to catch this one, as it’s in Azerbaijan (suck on it, Portugal!) and it’s always fun to watch a little country no-one’s heard of make the most of their fifteen minutes of fame. Besides, I need to see how the Italians are taking to it now they’re back in the game.

Having been honed to something approaching a science over the years, the rules of the Drinking Game now change only when the rules of the Contest change. Only one, topical rule has been added to spice up interest this year (no, it isn’t I.B.6).

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.

I.B.6 The Greeks (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.

THE WILDCARDS

W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask:
W1.a why Israel is in it;
W1.b 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 the current Eurozone crisis. Pay close attention to Greece.

W3 A toast to the first person who expresses dismay when they realise how long the voting is going to take.

W4 A toast to Bosnia and Herzegovina if they change the spelling of their country again from last year (last year’s spelling: ‘Bosnia & Herzegovina’).

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.

Is Philip Glass worth repeating?

Monday 14 May 2012

Einstein on the Beach had its British premiere this month, and I missed it. I did, however, see the staging of it in Melbourne, with Lucinda Childs and everything. That was in 1992. 20 years ago.

At the time, I thought I’d never have the opportunity to see this opera for myself, at least in this form. Seeing it was a dream come true, and one of the best nights of my life. I knew all the music from the LP box set, knew everything that was to happen on stage, hyped it up in my head for months in advance… and it still exceeded my expectations.

Nothing could have torn me from my seat for that four hours and forty-five minutes. The woman next to me was equally transfixed. After it was all over, we enthused to each other about how great it was. “I was at the premiere in Avignon in 1976,” she said, “and tonight was just as wonderful as I remembered it!” Wow, I thought, she was at the premiere. 16 years ago.

Would I have been just as blown away if I’d gone back for another look, after all this time? I would like to think so, but I just couldn’t believe that things would be the same. My first experience of it is still so vivid in my mind, and I was afraid that a second time around would have diluted the memory. Too much time has now passed, for both the work itself and for me personally, for a repeat to carry the same significance.

More half-arsed thoughts about music, art and technique

Sunday 13 May 2012

I forgot, the thing that set me off the other day about music, art and craft was seeing Marco Fusinato play at Cafe Oto. It was impossible to hear his music and watch him play, and not think of it in terms of his painting practice. As he worked with distorted loops of heavily processed electric guitar, it inevitably conjured up images of layers, surfaces being stripped back and laid over with new material.

This in turn reminded me of what was probably going to be my original point: my previous visit to Oto to see Lionel Marchetti & Jérôme Noetinger. Noetinger was not with his usual tape deck setup, instead working with different types of live electronic signals, such as from feedback, RF or D/A interference. The two of them had a beautiful control of their material, guiding and blending stray bits of electronic sound the way that Jackson Pollock controlled the flow of paint across his canvas. We could see and hear the skilful use of craft, in this case to produce an artistically and aesthetically satisfying mix of musical technique and artistic experience.

Please Mister Please CXLIII

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Sir Gibbs, “People Grudgeful” (1968).
(2’20″, 2.1 MB, mp3)

Half-formed thought about music, art and craft

Tuesday 24 April 2012

I’m thinking about music made by visual artists. It’s so interesting, and seems to shed so much light on their artistic thought and methods. Jean Dubuffet, Marcel Duchamp, Martin Creed, those fluxus guys.

I’m thinking about visual art made by composers. It’s a struggle to think of anything really interesting, that extends or adds a new dimension to their body of work. Arnold Schoenberg, Carl Ruggles, it’s hard to see any connection with their music. It seems like the paintings would have happened anyway, with or without a head full of musical thinking attached.

Of course I can think of one exception straight away, but otherwise it looks like art has a lot to say to music, but music doesn’t have a whole lot to say to art. Once again I’m repeating Morton Feldman’s question: is music an artform? Or is it all just showbiz technique?

Please Mister Please CXLII

Monday 16 April 2012

Aldo Clementi, “Otto Variazioni” (2002). Geoffrey Morris, guitar.
(4’57″, 7.4 MB, mp3)

Monochrome Grey-Off!

Friday 13 April 2012

I missed the Gerhard Richter show at Tate this winter, but was lucky enough to catch it on my holiday in Berlin. One of his grey monochromes was in the show, something like (or exactly) this one:

Michelle Vaughan declares Richter’s grey monochrome superior to this grey monochrome by Henry Codax, recently discussed by Greg Allen:

For the sake of competition, I’d like to throw in another contender that I spotted on the way back to my hotel after a long night on the booze taking in the Richter show, on the platform of Hermannplatz U-Bahn station:

The Richter is still a better painting, but I’m not sure how well the Codax would stack up against it when compared in reality.

I only want everything.

Thursday 12 April 2012

I like those artists who can focus on just one thing for the rest of their lives, working this one particular angle without ever running out of things to say (Feldman, Morandi).

I like those artists who refuse to be pinned down to one style or subject, letting their curiosity take them into new creative territories (Tenney, Richter).

Charlemagne Palestine versus Oren Ambarchi

Wednesday 11 April 2012

There’s a bunch of stuff I need to catch up on but first I have to talk about the Charlemagne Palestine and Oren Ambarchi gig at Cafe Oto last week. I really have a problem with this type of “hey let’s take two musicians who have never worked together before and y’know like throw them together and then sit back and like watch the Magic totally happen” gig. It’s too much like there’s a curator in the background hoping to pick up the kudos if it somehow works. Never mind; I fuelled up on Beerlao from the cornershop and went anyway, largely because I had no idea what was going to happen.

Yeah yeah, there were the obligatory stuffed toys and glasses of brandy, but the music had to be different. For starters, the piano at Oto ain’t no Bösendorfer Imperial. The evening began while the punters were filing in, with Palestine playing a steadily-building tidal wave of noise from his laptop. For the concert proper he played with his distinctively animalistic mix of single-mindedness and capriciousness. In between the expected periods of drumming away at sustained harmonic intervals on the piano, there were more laptop collages, occasional extended drones on cognac glasses, and in one or two places some La Monte Young/Terry Riley type singing.

Ambarchi, as he freely admitted afterwards, really had no idea what to expect coming in to this setup. His response to being put in this situation is what made the gig work so well. Both experienced musicians, displaying all the craft they’ve spent years developing, refused to bend too far from what they do best. Ambarchi would build up layers of amplifier hum and electrical crackle under Palestine’s piano, and then seize upon the slightest pause and shift the frequencies and harmonics, forcing Palestine to retreat momentarily, and then start over on a new tonal centre.

Throughout the gig Ambarchi kept provoking Palestine, most entertainingly when the older man at the piano tried to play conductor, barking at Ambarchi “Drums!… Drums!… Drums!” The latter took his sweet time about it, before finally reaching over to gently tap one of his cymbals.

Please Mister Please CXLI

Friday 23 March 2012

Ruby Andrews, “You Made a Believer Out of Me” (1969).
(2’39″, 3.6 MB, mp3)

Old books like old friends etc. (No I didn’t buy them.)

Thursday 22 March 2012

In the second-hand bookshop in Stoke Newington Church Street on the weekend. They had a hardback copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Nunquam, a book I’m sure I haven’t seen since the days of the Third World Bookshop in Adelaide, over twenty years ago. Back then and there, a couple dozen fading copies of the thing were stacked up on top of the other stacks of books wedged between the top of the bookshelves and the ceiling on the mezzanine, and they never moved. Perhaps they were holding the ceiling up. No-one ever tried to find out.

My friends called Third World “the bookshop that couldn’t say no”. The saleable stock was slowly and inexorably being crowded out or swallowed up by accumulating substrata of unmoveable stock. Occasionally you got lucky, like when I found a signed first edition of Janette Turner Hospital’s Borderline under half a centimetre of dust. Otherwise you could just take a reassuring tour of the familiar layers of superseded Pelicans, teacher’s handbooks, Nunquams and, in pride of place at the end of the Mezzanine, all 300 volumes of the collected writings of Lenin, a massive, yellowing white elephant.

Back in Stoke Newington, I noticed another vast off-white mass on top of the shelves where Nunquam lurked. It spilled over onto the adjoining bookcase. It was the collected writings of Lenin, in 300 volumes. I’ll have to go back next week to see if they’re both still there, in eternal embrace.

Controversy schmontroversy, relevance schmelevance

Wednesday 14 March 2012

I saw Nixon in China about – wow, that long ago – and really enjoyed it. I passed up the chance to see The Death of Klinghoffer at the Coloseum last week, and I’m not exactly sure why I was so reluctant to take a punt on it.

Part of it must be just that John Adams is one of those composers I like most of the time but can’t get really fired up about. I’ve heard the recording and had the same general impression most criticisms start with: dramatically inert, awkwardly self-conscious yadda yadda. The main thing that kept me away was fear. Fear of being bored. Fear that the production would seize upon some of the opera’s worst aspects to make some cringingly well-meaning but insulting gesture toward “saying something” about the Middle East or, worse still, “offering support”.

On one level I dislike the opera’s tokenism; the way Adams and Alice Goodman grab the subject matter and then, unsure of what to do with it, revert to making the people and incidents symbolic, loading them down with excess ideological baggage. What should be the conflicted consciousness of the characters in their dilemma, is replaced by the confusion of librettist and composer contemplating the dilemma, and so the characters become aloof, ridiculous and phoney.

On another level I generally can’t stand pieces that are endlessly batted around in the meeja for their “controversial” subject matter, while being artistically inoffensive.

Meanwhile, another new opera is being staged at Covent Garden. When the composer’s own promotional spiel makes it sound like a ghastly Trendy Vicar swing at “relevance”, how can one hope it to be worth a damn?

Song Books Song Books

Monday 12 March 2012

It must be about dead-on a year ago that I first saw a performance of John Cage’s vast, protean Song Books. That time it was Exaudi at King’s Place. Last night I got to experience it again, enacted by a hodge-podge of players including a bunch of old Scratch Orchestra alumni, at Cafe Oto. On the surface the approaches taken by the two groups were broadly similar, but it was through the details that the work can truly live or die.

I almost didn’t get to see it this time. I hadn’t booked a ticket and when I got there a queue was already stretching down the street and round the corner. The place was rammed: the crowded atmosphere emphasised by having punters sitting in amongst the performers in the ‘stage’ area, and other performers scattered in amongst the standing crowd. Exaudi had a similar setup of their singers stationed around the audience, moving from one spot to the next from time to time. The crowd at King’s Place, however, remained seated in the middle throughout. Besides the milling crowd at Oto, there was also the bar and pavement outside luring punters in and out for refreshment.

On both nights, the programme was set up to last an hour, in the space of which each player independently performed a chance-determined programme of solos from the Books. Exaudi played their pieces expertly – I want to say impeccably. It was a faithful, thoughtful interpretation of Cage’s music, but it felt remote and clinical. It was ‘art’, mounted and framed. With the Scratch Orchestra et al things were more chaotic, a little rougher round the edges but no less faithful in interpretation. Some players were a little too enthusiastic, swatting at tables with paper plates or menacing punters with alligator masks. Others were a little too reticent, like the couple who spent most of the time in the centre of the room, singing in unison, apparently more to themselves than to the audience.

It was precisely this diversity that made last night at Oto the more rewarding experience, as we all saw and participated in an enactment of Cage’s aesthetic and social values of the time: of diversity, abundance, coexistence, anarchy, the merging of art and life. For an hour or so everyone in the bar experienced Cage’s vision for the world in microcosm. The crowded room inevitably cramped some of the theatrical elements called for in the score, but compromises were made, punters made room as necessary. In other words, there was true, unselfconscious audience interaction and participation, without coercion.

In this atmosphere, the chance coincidences and juxtapositions took on more than just an aesthetic appeal. At one point a pretty lady in a red dress stood and repeatedly intoned Thoreau’s anarchist maxim “The best form of government is no government.” Behind her, a pianist began playing Cage’s lovely 1949 composition Dream. Soon after this was almost drowned out by insistent hammering. All three carried on unperturbed. When the hour was up, this same woman in red had just been tasked with typing out a phrase of Erik Satie’s, 38 times, on a recalcitrant manual typewriter. The audience stood around intently, and waited patiently in silence until she was finally done.

The Oto performance succeeded as art because so much more of life was able to infiltrate it. Whenever I think I understand Cage a little better, a new complication appears. I keep thinking of Morton Feldman’s challenge, “Is music an artform? Or is it just showbiz?” (For this argument, the Exaudi gig was showbiz.) Cage’s music is definitely art and yet, in this case at least, the closer it comes to life the better it works as art. Put that way, Cage sounds like an old-fashioned mimetic artist, but what he achieves is not mimicry of life, rather he recreates certain principles on which life conducts itself. What bugs me about this is: if interpretation of Cage’s work were to continue to approach ‘real life’ closer and closer, at some point it would cease to be art. If we accept Cage’s conceit that there is no distinction between life and art, life may be permitted to intrude upon a performance of Cage to the extent that it misrepresents Cage’s work. There is some undefined tipping point within Cage’s work whereupon it refutes itself.

Therefore, to be like life, Cage’s music must always remain as art, to some extent. Of course there is a distinction between art, as witnessed at Cafe Oto, and artifice.