I take back everything mean I said about Pierre Boulez.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

On Sunday night I sat transfixed through the entirety of Pli selon pli. I’ll let someone else gush over the details for me.

I couldn’t lose focus on the thing for a second. What the music had lost in vehemence was now regained in a controlled, hour-long explosion of energy that could alternately freeze or boil without ever resorting to histrionics or becoming self-absorbed in details. It’s linear, it’s dramatic, it’s big; it fulfils the contradictory wish for a radical gesture that signals a renewal of tradition. This was the future that would look much like the past.

For trying to kill Schoenberg, Boulez’s fate has been to become Schoenberg: an artist trapped by the past, his achievement obscured by his hard-won reputation. In a trait peculiar to French artists, too much of Boulez’s attention seems to have been caught up in pontification and politics. It’s surprisingly hard to hear the music for what it is, and not what it has come to represent. I now suspect that this, in a different way, is a problem that Boulez has had to grapple with too, and that Sunday’s Pli selon pli could be a type of triumph that had eluded him for so many years of revisions and re-recordings.

That second Improvisation is damn lovely. And I’m never taking Stravinsky’s quip seriously again. I wonder which other Boulez works are better than they sound?

This Is The New Music: Herr Mahler Died Last Night At One Hundred And Fifty

Saturday 1 October 2011

Herr Mahler Died Last Night At One Hundred And Fifty by Ben.Harper

So the other night I saw Jeff Harrington had posted this rather wonderful remix of bits of Mahler’s First Symphony. It was for a “Remix Mahler” contest put on by the Berlin Philharmonic. Unfortunately, these days the term ‘remix’ is approximately synonymous with ‘novelty dubstep’ so of course most of the entries are uniformly dull.

I had some work to do, so naturally I put it off by thinking of doing a contest entry myself. There were only a few hours before the contest closed, which was probably a good thing. I wanted to bring out some of the qualities of the material in the original work, so I took one passage redolent of Morton Feldman’s Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety, and let it emerge quietly out of an empty stretch of Hardware Lane in Melbourne, late one night in Winter, 1999.

Boulez and Believing Your Own Bullshit

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Why do I feel the need to rationalise wanting to go see the Pierre Boulez gigs this weekend? I think it’s partly the fact that, after all these years, he’s still described as an avant-garde figurehead yada yada yada, so help me he even gets billed as a technological pioneer, by people who should know better. People who must have twigged that the composer has spent the past 30-odd years trying to turn into Debussy, yet still peddle the lies that (a) he’s still some kind of firebrand and – perversely peculiar to modern music – (b) his music’s not particularly pleasant to listen to.

All this nonsense would be easier to ignore if Boulez himself didn’t appear to be so complacent. John Cage’s portrayal of the Frenchman puttering around his plush hotel room in a tailored smoking jacket waving his cigarette holder dismissively as he pronounces Charles Ives an amateur lurks behind all his later career. Well, that and his George Lucas-like obsession with tinkering with his legacy, smothering the vital core of his earlier music with revision after revision in the name of technical finesse and an insulated sense of “good taste”.

I’m going to see him conduct Pli selon pli partly out of morbid curiosity to hear what changes he’s wreaked on it over the past quarter-century, having heard no version more recent than the Phyllis Bryn-Julson recording from the mid-80s. I’ve also got a ticket for the evening with Domaines and Rituel, two pieces I think he’s left well alone and won’t be conducting. I’m wary of committing to anything further than that.

Please Mister Please CXXX

Friday 23 September 2011

Bo Diddley, “Power House” (1970).
(2’50″, 3.9 MB, mp3)

Endymion and Exaudi play Morton Feldman, other stuff

Thursday 22 September 2011

I’d never heard Feldman’s Clarinet and String Quartet before, let alone Voices and Cello, so I had to go to Southbank last night to hear Endymion and Exaudi play these two pieces, along with two premieres by British composers. Damn, this stuff’s got to be hard to play. Besides the singing in the first half of the gig, the string players did a particularly remarkable job, particularly in achieving a sustained evenness of tone over the 45 minutes or so of Clarinet and String Quartet. Mark van de Wiel’s clarinet playing would occasionally break free of the undisturbed surface of Feldman’s music, which the composer strove so hard to maintain, but this was when playing his instrument in its higher regions. To keep a clarinet playing high at Feldman’s prescribed volume over more than a few notes would take a superhuman effort. He didn’t write much for the solo clarinet, partly because of this reason and the instrument’s variety of rich tones (“wallowing in timbre”), so it was educational to hear how he limited himself to an alternating sequence of near-octave leaps and slow, microtonal trills.

What really fascinated is the readiness with which dedicated musicians today can make this music sound almost effortless, approaching a platonic ideal of sound suggested, and thwarted, by Feldman’s beguiling notation. Equally fascinating was how the evening became a validation of Feldman’s sidewalk lesson in orchestration from Edgard Varèse. “Don’t forget the time it takes for the sound to reach the audience” sounds like an arty koan, but the two new works in the concert, both for vocal and string quartet, found it hard to speak clearly. It often felt like the voices and instruments were talking over each other, getting in each other’s way, getting lost in awkward rhythms and timbral transitions. The deceptively simple sounds in Feldman’s music would at one moment combine clarinet and cello into a single mysterious instrument, then at the next set each one apart.

This Is The New Music: Lights Out

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Lights Out by Ben.Harper

Working on a sequel to String Quartet No. 2 (Canon In Beta) – this is made from offcuts of the source material I’m preparing.

John Cage: Every Day is a Good Day

Monday 19 September 2011

Sadly, I had to miss the John Cage concert on Southbank last Tuesday (I had a perfect excuse) but I did remember to see the exhibition it accompanied. This was the first opportunity I’d had, after all these years, to see some of Cage’s visual art directly.

I have to admit I felt a twinge of disappointment when I read the promo blurb which promised an exhibition “inspired by Cage’s use of chance-determined scores”, i.e. the artworks were arranged scattered high and low over the walls, their positions determined by chance. In other words, an imitation of Cage’s Rolywholyover A Circus exhibition in 1992. There’s a difference between being inspired by someone and imitating them.

Rolywholyover A Circus presented a changing mix of artworks and objects from a variety of sources. Every Day is a Good Day was supposed to be an exhibition of Cage’s art. The two shows had different aims and purposes. As a survey of Cage’s prints and drawings, the presentation did him a disservice, treating his work as so many props as part of a greater installation. Just because Cage did it once doesn’t mean you have to do the same thing to show that you “get it”. If you think his art is worth exhibiting, display it at least as well as you would any other artist and give the punters a chance to assess it on its merits by giving them a good look at it.

Speaking of which, the lighting: was that chance-determined too? If so, it appeared a bit too uniform to meet the Cageian aesthetic. If not, it was crap. I know Cage admired the idea of a painting that would not be disturbed by the action of shadows on its surface but that didn’t mean that shadows were mandatory, any more than he hoped there’d be one punter in the audience struggling with a bag of crisps at every performance of 4’33″. While I’m complaining, why was just the first part of his String Quartet in Four Parts playing on a loop the whole time I was there? If you’re playing just one piece, could you make it a complete one? Wouldn’t Ryoanji be a much more appropriate choice?

OK, enough whingeing. It was great that someone in the UK brought together a large collection of Cage’s art for display. The catalogue was worth it alone, as it can be tricky to find even reproductions of many of these pieces in one location. To stand in one room surrounded by works made over nearly 20 years was a wonderful immersion into his aesthetic sensibility, and even gave a partial sense of how the sometimes disparate tendencies of his music related to each other. Cage largely made these pieces as objects for contemplation, and no matter how beautiful they may look in reproduction, their lack of any conventional “content” draws attention to the subtleties otherwise barely perceptible when viewed at first hand: the texture of the paper, the impressions of the printing plate left on the surface, a stray trace of smoke.

Given that it’s so overshadowed by his music, the show was a useful start for assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Cage’s art. A few pieces seemed facile, little more than school art-class exercises that present ordinary found objects as “beautiful” or “artistic”. More often, they used the same methods – traced rocks, smoked and scorched paper, washes of colour, lines and accidents – as a means to explore the materials and techniques of printing in unusual but sympathetic ways (Cage was never a confrontational “anti-artist”.) The methods I mentioned above are one and the same as the subject matter, for want of a better term. This unified approach succeeds in meeting Cage’s long-stated aesthetic of imitating nature in its manner of operation, creating beauty which is unintentional, but not accidental.

Please Mister Please CXXIX

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Dieter Schnebel, “Poem für 4 Köpfe” (1987-89). Other Minds Ensemble.
(9’17″, 11.0 MB, mp3)

Next gig: this Tuesday. Unconscious archives #2.

Friday 9 September 2011

Yes it’s short notice but I just found out myself. Dear Reader, you are always the first to know about these things, because I care about you.

Still full of myself after the gig at ABJECT BLOC in July, I’ve agreed to play as part of no.w.here and Other Film’s Unconscious archives #2. If you missed the Limehouse gig, this is another chance to hear the Mock Tudor live analogue electronic feedback loops, made from small amplifiers, mixers and modulators. Connected into circuits these gadgets start to oscillate and interact with each other in unpredictable ways.

I’ll be supporting Korean filmmaker and performer Hangjun Lee, with local musician, poet, performer, filmmaker and legend Hugh Metcalfe. Tuesday 13th September, Apiary Studios, 458 Hackney Rd, London, E2 9EG. It’s a £4 donation and you can – nay, must – bring your own booze. Don’t worry, there are plenty of offies in the steret. 8pm onwards.

Speaking of String Quartets and Phill Niblock…

Wednesday 7 September 2011

String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta)

If I remember to go to Cafe Oto tomorrow night I get to hear Phill Niblock’s Five More String Quartets performed live by Apartment House. This is the piece that started the whole six-year-and-counting journey of my own String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta).

Incidentally, the latest iteration of SQ2(CB) is still on display at Monash University Museum of Art until 1 October.

The Vorticists at the Tate: The Losers of History

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Like the movement itself, Tate Britain’s exhibition “The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World” comes front-loaded with its biggest hits, then quickly trails off and is over soon after. The dominant figure, rightly, is Wyndham Lewis, who later defined Vorticism as whatever it was he was thinking and doing at the time. As the last couple of rooms drift into derivative works by fellow-travellers, Lewis’ drawings remain the one consistently strong current amongst increasingly insipid art; and yet it is clear that Lewis himself is already beginning to exhaust the material of his art and looking to develop his ideas further.

Despite the objections of fellow Vorticists who felt they were written out of history by Lewis’s later pronouncements, everyone involved in the movement quickly moved on and either succeeded or failed as artists independent of theorising from before The War. One of several large failings of this exhibition is that it does little to address the question of how much the Vorticists were a movement of like-minded artists, or whether they were little more than Wyndham Lewis’ gang.

Not much actual Vorticist art remains, so as with many stunted art movements we find ourselves judging Vorticism by its words more than its deeds. This inevitably pulls us back to Lewis, editor and main polemicist of the Vorticist magazine BLAST. It has become too tempting in retrospect to judge the entire movement from reading BLAST, picking out the names that appear in it and judging how well their art fits with the magazine’s contents, particularly those written by Lewis. This mistake seems to have been repeated in the Tate show.

In reality, three towering figures form the central pivot on which Vorticism turned: Lewis, Ezra Pound and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. It was Pound who named the movement, and indeed seems to have been the driving force behind forming a movement at all. He had form: a year earlier he had started the Imagist movement in poetry, and had a long-term liking of starting organisations of artists. This was done partly because Pound liked the idea of having a posse, but also to attract and support like-minded talents. So many of Vorticism’s central ideas are an expansion of Pound’s basic concepts of Imagism, and for the rest of his life Pound’s poetry and essays on culture refined, developed and elaborated upon the principles formulated crudely in BLAST. Lewis was the more effective polemicist, but his manifestos for BLAST contain idealistic imperatives and revolutionary zeal closer to Pound’s temperament. That may have been Pound’s influence, or perhaps Lewis’ idealism was knocked out of him by The War.

Gaudier-Brzeska, the youngest of the lot, produced the first physical and most tangible manifestations of Vorticism. His Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound not only unites the two artists: the bust exemplifies their common understanding of culture, history and creativity. They saw Modernism as a new Renaissance, in the sense that as their forbears had rediscovered the Classical world and remade it in their image, they were re-finding the forms of civilisations across the world, throughout history, and the impulses that drove them. It is a thread that runs through all modernism and postmodernism for the past hundred years, from the poetry of Pound, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, down to its most debased forms of International Style and Po-Mo Playfulness.

Gaudier-Brzeska was the first to die, killed in the trenches at Neuville-St.-Vaast four months short of his twenty-fourth birthday. His absence defines Vorticism as much as his presence did. After The War, Lewis turned his talents for Blasting and Blessing to satire and grotesques, casting himself as The Enemy, the perpetual outsider. For Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska’s death encapsulated all that was futile and destructive in war, so he devoted his life to trying to understand the political and economic circumstances that allow such outrages to happen, and to making others understand. His efforts led him into obsessions over social credit, fascism and Jews, and into a mental hospital with an indictment for treason hanging over him.

The War killed Vorticism as surely as it spawned Dada, and yet in the Tate show it appears as little more than a timeline that leads you from the first room to the last. The exhibition gives no wider context to show how Vorticism was born or how it was snuffed out, or how it related to other art movements at the time. Jacob Epstein is included (because he’s in BLAST, natch) but more to bulk up the show than to demonstrate what is and is not Vorticism. There is not even a clear explication of the crucial distinctions between Vorticism and the superficially similar Cubism and Futurism. Pound pops up here and there like a special guest star, with nothing beyond assertion that he was an important figure in the movement. There is, indeed, no context at all to show how Vorticism did or did not shape the subsequent careers of its participants (not just Lewis, but other artists like David Bomberg, Jessica Dismorr, Christopher Nevinson, William Roberts, Helen Saunders and Edward Wadsworth.)

Worst of all, there’s no sense conveyed of why Vorticism matters. Nothing is presented in a way that shows how Vorticism spoke to the world, and how it made its presence felt throughout the century: through Pound and his many disciples, Henry Moore’s bronzes, T. S. Eliot’s “One takes from history what one needs,” Mark E. Smith’s contrarian denunciations. All the Tate can give us is a funny little English art movement that came and went. They met in Soho but for all we understand of them, they may as well have lived in Petrograd.

Please Mister Please CXXVIII

Wednesday 24 August 2011

The Coasters, “Down Home Girl” (1966).
(3’03″, 4.2 MB, mp3)

Wandering Split: a new video

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Way back in 2002 I was asked to be part of a group exhibition of sound and visual art at West Space in Melbourne. The show, called Gating, combined artworks with sounds emanating from different parts of the room from four sets of speakers, overlaying 14 sound compositions, each containing significant sections of silence.

For my piece, I made a 5-minute spin-off of my long, spoken word piece The Slips. Using chance operations, a new, brief selection of slightly different phrases was made and recorded – one in English, the other in German. A musical accompaniment was made from a deliberately ruined cassette tape of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. Neither voice nor music takes up more than half of the total playing length, allowing for silences to appear at various moments. The sound was passed through an electronic gate which would filter out lower frequencies whenever the volume fell below a certain level.

Last week I decided to make an accompanying video for the piece. Using the same principle of chance operations, selections were made from an old educational film available for free in the Internet Archive. Again, short fragments were selected and allowed to appear in the timeline without regard to the soundtrack, or to each other.

Personally, I’m interested in the way the piece creates its own, unhurried pace within such a relatively short frame of time.

Please Mister Please CXXVII

Sunday 14 August 2011

Christian Wolff, “Tilbury 3” (1969). Dimitrios Polisoidis, violin; Hildegard Kleeb, piano.
(5’34″, 10.1 MB, mp3)

The Mystery of Steve Reich

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Why can’t I get excited about tomorrow’s Steve Reich Prom? It’s not his Boring New Stuff, it’s his Cool Old Stuff, and yet I’m not excited. The Man Himself will be there, playing, and yet I’m not excited. I’ve never heard this stuff played live before, and yet I’m not excited. I enjoy listening to his records, and yet I’m not excited. I’ve missed earlier opportunities to hear him live, and yet…

It’s not that I’ve become jaded with his Cool Old Stuff. Over 20 years I’ve had chances to hear his early masterpieces live, and every time I’ve decided not to bother. I’ll jump at the chance to hear – oh, random example – Philip Glass’ old stuff in concert, but for some reason Steve Reich’s music seems to me perfectly adequate as a recording, with nothing additional to be gained from hearing it played live. I have heard live performances of his music, ranging from ordinary to thrilling, yet none of these experiences have changed my opinion in all this time. Why is this?