Preparations for this Saturday’s gig are going well. The above sound clip is pretty rough but (a) I just recorded it now to test the equipment and feedback system, (b) at least it’s making sounds and (c) it’s more or less behaving itself after sounding about as together as it looks (see below).
Yes, this will be the first live performance I’ve done with analogue feedback oscillators in, oh, six years?
Early on, I was suspicious of drones in general: it seemed to easy. That probably wasn’t helped by hearing a lot of inferior drone pieces. If you had a couple of sounds you thought were kind of interesting but didn’t know what to do with them, make a drone.
The first drone pieces I made were sort of an aesthetic exercise. I didn’t expect I’d end up making a number of pieces, each for a different reason, which were in fact heavily reliant upon the drone. I knew that minimalism had become a pervasive influence (you don’t need to do much with whatever material you have) but it seems that the drone – non-timeline music, as Robert Ashley defines it – is equally important.
There’s another thing I disagree with about Ashley’s categorisation of composers who are and are not beholden to the timeline. He says that John Cage and Morton Feldman were “trapped in the timeline way of thinking”; I’m not so sure about that. I think that both of them embraced the timeline in the way they embraced harmony, doing so in a way that neutralised its functional purpose.
Feldman’s late music is the obvious example here – its vast scale rendering any form or structure imperceptible (and on the micro level, the complex manipulations of metre, which again the listener cannot hear). Cage’s music-making in the 1960s actually does seem to largely outside the timeline, but repeatedly throughout his career from his first percussion pieces to the final ‘number pieces’ his compositions were built within a defined time structure. He quickly found that defining the temporal construction – beginning, middle and end – before a note was written made any question of teleology or continuity a moot point.
I’m looking back over my “drone” and “non-drone” pieces to find out what similarities or differences they may have beneath the surface. It appears that the non-drone pieces involve a process or set of processes working themselves out, producing musical events independently of the timeline in which they occur. This would explain a good part of the anxiety I felt when composing for the Music For The Bionic Ear project. That piece was required, for the sake of clarity, to have a linear time structure and a maximum duration. I did feel a bit lost trying to use this as an organising principle.
As an aside, I mentioned before that I have problems with drones. One thing that nagged at me during the Eliane Radigue gigs was the sense of time: this came back to me when I re-read Robert Ashley’s understanding of what a ‘drone’ might be.
It’s true, of course, that “time” passes while music is being played and while it is being listened to. But in non-timeline music (the drone) the time passing is not “attached to” the playing or the hearing. Time passes in the consciousness of the listener according to internal or external markers.
I have called this new idea the “drone,” because there is no better term that is not a neologism – like non-timeline music. I have said that I use the term “drone” to mean any music that seems not to change over time.
Listening to Radigue’s Jetsun Mila at St Stephen Wallbrook, and especially to the acoustic pieces like Occam I and Naldjorlak, I did not had this feeling of timelessness. As a new sound entered, or a persisting one changed, I wondered: why that sound now? Why was that last sound held so long? If the music is timeless, why did this sound have to give way to another? If it is not timeless, why was the sound held for that particular duration? Each change felt like a tiny admission of defeat, a futile attempt to delay the inevitable end. I suspect Radigue’s music, or at least a significant amount of it, doesn’t really fit Ashley’s definition of the drone, despite his inclusion of her in his brief list of drone composers.
LaVern Baker, “Saved” (1961).
(2’58″, 5.4 MB, mp3)
Not much blogging lately, because I’ve been preparing for two shows coming up in the next few weeks: a live music gig and an art exhibition.
Live gig! ABJECT BLOC. My first analogue electronic gig in… six years? With John Wall, “ ”[sic]™, Anthony Iles, Allon, Lee Gamble (DJs).
Saturday 23 July 2011. 8pm start. £5 donation. Limehouse Town Hall, 646 Commercial Road, London E14 7HA.
Sorry about the short notice but the date had to be juggled a bit. I’m dusting off the old analogue gear to get some live feedback oscillation happening again, with sets from the very fine John Wall, “ ”[sic]™, Lee Gamble and others.
Art show! Collected Collaborations. An exhibition initiated by the Artists’ Book Research Group, featuring propositional projects from the Redrawing Collective (Ben Harper, Fiona Macdonald, Alex Martinis Roe, Thérèse Mastroiacovo and Spiros Panigirakis) and OSW (Terri Bird, Bianca Hester and Scott Mitchell). Guest Curator: Brad Haylock.
Monash University Museum of Art, Caulfield Campus, Melbourne. 4 August – 1 October 2011.
This is the exhibition of art books, including brand new contributions the Redrawing Collective. This project is a further extension of the project that included my sound installation Redrawing: String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta). We have created a two-part book that is both a performative object and a platform for critical engagement.
Ezra Sims, “- and, as i was saying…” (1979). Anne Black, viola.
(5’28″, 7.5 MB, mp3)
Still thinking about it.
I’m pretty sure that everyone who’s familiar with Eliane Radigue and heard her recent music has remarked on the surprising change so late in her career. Unlike most late career changes, Radigue’s isn’t marked by a radically different sound. Her method of making music has undergone a radical transformation, abandoning her ARP 2500 synthesiser to write music for live performers on acoustic instruments. Incredibly, the sound-world of these new works is all of a piece with her earlier, purely electronic drones.
When I heard the premiere of Occam I a week earlier, I hoped I wouldn’t relegate it in my mind as warm-up for Naldjorlak. No such luck. The trilogy is going to remain one of the highlights of my year. This time, I was careful to sit in closer, the better to focus both on the performer(s) and the music they made. The intense, sustained quality of the music and the performance helped to shut out Spitalfields.
How much of this 3-hour trilogy is spectacle? The performance is so fraught, with its long, steady drones, that the slightest faltering by the musicians would mar the music’s immaculate surface. As far as I can remember, Charles Curtis on cello, then Carol Robinson and Bruno Martinez on basset horns, finally all three in the third, were flawless. There is also the audacity of the piece’s conception, particularly in the cello part, which ends with Curtis progressively bowing the instrument’s tailpiece, then its endpin, and finally the tailcord. The idea seems like an obvious gimmick from the grab-bag of “extended techniques” and free improvisation, and yet it all sounds perfectly consistent with the remainder of the piece.
The second part, with just two woodwinds, creates subtle but striking aural illusions. Are the two players needed simply to provide an hour’s worth of breath between them, in one unbroken tone? At first the natural overtones of the basset horns provide a direct harmonic contrast with those of the cello, but then things get more complex. New pitches slip into the sound as each player overlaps, either directly or through overtones – or perhaps because the listener’s mind is playing tricks.
At interval, I was a little concerned that the final part would be a let-down, by simply conflating the previous two. I was quickly relieved to find that, instead of being an indulgent melange of all that had gone before, Radigue alternated, combined and contrasted the tones produced by the three instruments. If you have any doubts about drones (I do) then Naldjorlak III is Radigue’s comprehensive refutation, displaying her skill not just in finding sounds, but in combining and sequencing them. This is real composition, to use Morton Feldman’s distinction, not just wallowing in timbre.
Also, it was good to hear basset horns play something besides Stockhausen for once.
And, Live at the Curry Family Hotel (1999).
(6’03″, MB, mp3)
I’m getting fed up with this persistent fad of holding concerts in churches. Even when the acoustics don’t suck, there’s zilch soundproofing between the “hall” and the outside world. In the first in a series of concerts dedicated to Eliane Radigue at Christ Church Spitalfields last night, any pretentions to the sacred nature of the music were punctured each time a police car went up Commercial Street, and the end of Elemental II was accompanied by a car alarm in the side street.
Before attending church I was at Raven Row, a couple of blocks away, to see Max Eastley perform. It was pretty much what I expected: a new music veteran playing with his amplified monochord and a semi-autonomous sound sculpture. A casual observer would call it ‘tinkering’: small adjustments to the sculpture, waiting to hear the effect, another small adjustment. Similarly with the monochord, small gestures, slightly varied. It’s intriguing to watch the type of craft that goes into making this music, its contemplative and reflective nature. It shows a deep understanding of the instrument and its sound, of the rich variety of sound that the slightest change in gesture can produce.
On the other hand, I worry about the self-conscious quality of this type of music-making. Surely there are improvisers all over the world, in every culture, who feel and know the capabilities of their instrument without the need to pause and consider every twist and turn their music takes.
Later that evening I watched Kasper T. Toeplitz perform Radigue’s Elemental II and saw a similarly careful approach to making music. Rhodri Davies had just premiered Occam I, slowly bowing overtones on his harp, a study in stasis and concentration. The focus on a single string of a harp hinted at the sort of problem both Eastley and Radigue share in harnessing the potential of a new, relatively untested medium. Radigue’s earlier career in electronic music was devoted to the capturing of delicate feedback effects, an activity fraught with the risk of being plunged suddenly into undifferentiated noise. Radigue herself described her work with analog synthesisers as “caressing the potentiometers”. In such static music, a tiny mis-step can destroy the work.
Thus Toeplitz spent the best part of an hour making the smallest gestures possible on his fearsome-looking double-necked electric bass: gently tapping the back of the neck, pressing his finger to the head stock, trembling a metal bar against the strings. His laptop processed the guitar into an unbroken wash of sound that slowly evolved as each new guitar gesture crept into its software. Was the guitar necessary at all? Yes. The same piece had been performed at the start of the concert by a laptop trio, less successfully. It wasn’t just the visual or conceptual experience of watching a musician ‘work’, it was the lack of ease in gliding from one sound to the next. The guitarist may be just a little too loud, a little too soft, a little too rushed, a little too hesitant in introducing each new sound, and so each sound takes on a new life of its own, subject to a host of infinitessimal adjustments. The difference may be barely perceptible, but these are the slight differences on which music, like all art, depends.
This morning I procrastinated by downloading the Berkshire Record Outlet catalogue in search of cheap CDs I might have wanted to buy if I had any money. After winnowing the list of 18,000 items down to just 20th century composers, I had a T.S.-Eliot-on-London-Bridge moment of revelation. It hit home just how many goddamn composers in the last hundred years I have never heard of, never will hear of, never want to hear of, and wished I’d never heard of.
I’m ashamed of how readily I’ll dismiss so much music out of hand without knowing anything about it or the people who composed it, but just scanning some of the names and titles makes me reflexively recoil. When you realise that there were composers who could still unironically title a piece “Capriccio” after 1945, suddenly the young Pierre Boulez’s posing seems less ridiculous.
The plurality of it seemed to be Christian religious music, conjuring up memories of the 20th-century abominations that lurk in the shadows of the roped-off corridors in the Vatican Museum. Not coincidentally, there’s also a lot of theatrical pieces aimed at children – a similarly captive audience presumed indifferent to quality control. Then there are the memorials: so many tributes, already forgotten, to the Holocaust, 9/11, Bosnia, MLK, JFK, the Pakistan earthquake, that stack up until one cynically assumes a horde of musical McGonagalls latching on to any chance to repeat the triumph of Penderecki’s 8’37″.
And the puns; oh god, the puns. No-one except Milton Babbitt could get away with such dreadful titles. The hatefully naff pun has friends on both sides of the Atlantic: the American professors on one, and on the other the legions of British who swell the ranks of the cut-out pile. The obscure British composer will always be with us – titled, lettered, forgotten, each waiting Buggins’s turn to be “re-evaluated”. Their chief artistic aim was to be clubbable, and all seem sworn to a pact to write something called “Spot Me A Tenor”.
The self-consciously “modern” are hardly any better, like Australian surrealists, dropping the word “fractal” on their sonata for clarinet and tape, racking their brains for another word that ends in “-tion”. All of it, conservative or avant-garde, perfectly acceptable to its intended audience, technically competent, fully compliant, honest, dull, unlistenable.
Once again, I stress that I haven’t heard a note of of the music I condemn. Just the thought of it, out there, depresses me.
The Sugarcubes, “Pump” (1989).
(4’25″, 8.0 MB, mp3)
This was almost going to be one of those “Great Moments In Art Criticism” posts.
“For me the Turner prize is a hit-and-miss affair – there are years when it actually seems important who wins and years when I honestly couldn’t care less. This year, I care because Mark Leckey is on the shortlist.”
– Jonathan Jones, “The Turner should go to Mark Leckey”, The Guardian, 13 May 2008.
“Leckey won a Turner prize in 2008, which goes to show you should never take these awards too seriously.”
– Jonathan Jones, “Mark Leckey’s art creates noise without meaning”, The Guardian, 23 May 2011.
Jones’ latter review is so vituperously negative (he compares Leckey to Gordon Brown, which is just plain mean) that maybe, just maybe, he should have mentioned his dramatic change of heart. The comments section, usually a desultory place peopled with commentators who don’t seem particularly interested in art, has come alive. Comments both for and against, amongst the usual dross, make some fascinating points on the current state of art and art criticism.
Jones himself responds frequently, steadfastly refusing to admit he made a basic error in interpreting one of Leckey’s works and offering unintentionally hilarious ripostes such as “It was 2008! Why would I refer back to it?” and the Mugatu-like “I have put my views of art across in such contexts as a Turner Prize jury. Have you been a Turner judge? So where do you come off so high and mighty?” Eventually, Mark Leckey himself comments, along with other critics, all of whom predictably end up wallowing in self-pity. Why did all this anger and sorrow suddenly burst forth?
Stephen Potter famously observed that the role of the critic is to convey to the reader what a splendid person the critic is, and that “you must never praise or blame two weeks running.” In his initial praise of Leckey, Jones begins by announcing “I’m a natural fan. I can’t stand indifference.” – and so smartly allows himself intellectual room to praise or blame at will. Regardless of the quality of the art, the critic must alternate praise with blame; their career depends on it.
Car journalist Jack Baruth recently described at some length the necessity of what he calls “the wobble”. Praise every car and you appear a corporate shill; slam every car and you appear apathetic.
A successful automotive journalist doesn’t fall into either of the above traps. He wobbles. He creates what Jimmy Page called “light and shade” in the body of his written work…. Every autowriter with ambitions to be something more than a low-paid PR agent needs the wobble. Credibility, success, a fan base, a recognized name. The wobble giveth, and it taketh away.
The motoring writer’s dilemma is that for the past 20-odd years all cars have been, fundamentally, the same. The car-buying punter no longer has to choose between one model that has disc brakes and no heater, another with a heater and chronic rust problems, or a third with bucket seats and a tendency to flip over and kill you. Baruth’s article explains how a car journalist tries to find or make “the wobble”, and sometimes gets caught out.
Of course, for any of this car talk to be relevant to Jonathan Jones, modern British art would have to be somehow comparable to the car industry. The latter has large financial investments riding on the steady production of homogenised product, largely devoid of any extreme highs or lows of user experience, whereas…
Alvin Lucier, “Nothing is Real” (1990). Margaret Leng Tan, piano, cassette recorder & teapot.
(10’49″, 13.8 MB, mp3)